[10 October 2004]
Like punk, house music is very closely tied to the geographic identity of certain distinctive “scenes”. Just as the American punk world can be easily differentiated into Washington, DC, Los Angeles, Bay Area and New York branches (with many more subsets besides those), America house can also be easily demarcated into New York, Detroit, Philadelphia and Chicago flavors.
As you have probably guessed from the title of this record, Roy Davis, Jr. marks his affiliation with the latter. Although the exact origins or house are shrouded in controversy and regional chauvinism (in a similar fashion to punk), Chicago has as strong a claim to the history of house as any other city, with the sole exception of New York. While most agree that house was incubated in the cultural stew of early ‘80s New York, many maintain that its first steps were taken in Chicago. The music was even supposedly named for the famous Warehouse club where Frankie Knuckles started spinning the music exclusively in the mid-‘80s.
If there is one defining characteristic of Chicago house, it could be described as an adherence to the music’s most orthodox roots. The origins of house stretch far back into many different genres, primarily the strains of underground disco in addition to funk, Latin, and rock. Chicago house producers have always prided themselves on their obeisance to the music’s history, and this reflects strongly in the Chicago sound’s deep connection to the worlds of vintage funk and soul. Although the most famous faces in dance music may be white, it must also be remembered that house music began as a multiracial phenomenon. Chicago house is especially steeped in the African-American musical tradition, a tradition that has been superceded in the black mindset by the rise and domination of hip-hop.
Roy Davis, Jr. spoke to these concerns in a recent interview (which I have excerpted from the artist’s homepage at Ubiquityrecords.com):
“The soulless dance music that most people have access to is so commercialized and sugar coated. The best tunes are so often underground now—it’s time to take this black music from the hoods of Chicago, Detroit, LA, etc, back over the top. My approach is to merge aspects of more popular genres like soul and hip hop into my sound because there’s a younger generation that may not have grown up on dance music like I did. And it’s important to have better songs at varied tempos so the tracks are not always at 127 or 125 bpm.”
As you could imagine, Chicago Forever is hardly an exercise in genre-bending futurism. The album is designed to evoke the golden age of modern dance music, a multi-ethnic and progressive time when old-fashioned songwriting was a more important virtue than mere production acumen. It succeeds admirably at this task.
The album’s first track, “If You Wanna”, is an almost perfect distillation of that early disco spirit which was so important to the development of house music. There are sparse funk guitar riffs, punctuated orchestral flourishes and gorgeously sensuous female vocals. The one thing “If You Wanna” has that the golden age of disco did not is the irresistible deep house beat lining the track’s undercarriage. As with most of Chicago Forever, the retro elements are kept in check by a distinctively contemporary production style.
“I Know What You’re Thinking” is a flawless exercise in old-school fusion, featuring a vigorous horn-and-Hammond-organ workout over a sultry Latin house beat. If I have one complaint about this track, it’s the fact that between Greyboy’s recent Soul Mosaic, Amp Fiddler’s Waltz of a Ghetto Fly and a half-dozen other recent projects, the constant tribute to the venerable Hammond sound is getting a bit old. There were other instruments involved in the history of funk, you know. But, that’s essentially a nit-pick.
The ‘70s vibe is again on display with “Wonderland”, a vigorous vocal house workout built atop a pleasingly frenetic breakbeat that is subtly redolent of the harsher percussive patterns native to New York garage. “Nu Roots” brings the proceedings back to a very basic African polyrhythm, serving as a reminder to the modern listener that ‘70s Afrobeat, with its precisely syncopated beat patterns, was another very important ingredient in the primal cauldron of house. This track is slightly reminiscent of another recent Ubiquity record, Theo Parrish’s re-released masterwork Parallel Dimensions.
“Heavenly Father” is an old-fashioned gospel-house workout. For the younger cats in the audience who might otherwise exclusively associate house music with the historically bacchanal strains of its European offshoots, it is interesting to remember that gospel music played a crucial role in the development of Chicago house. This was primarily through the influence of Ür-DJ Walter Gibbons, a white disco DJ who played a crucial role in the creation of the modern dance scene during the heyday of disco in the late ‘70s. He dropped out of the scene in the late ‘70s but returned to disco in the mid-‘80s, after disco had become house, and as a born-again Christian. Gibbons’ 1984 classic “Set It Off” (released on Gibbons’ cheekily-titled Jus’ Born label) is rightly regarded as one of the most important house records of all time.
“U Give U Take” is the album’s funkiest track, with a loping samba-influenced backbeat accented by a lusty piano line. The album’s final track, “Slow It Down (For The Steppers)” is a techno-infused salute to contemporary R&B by way of Chicago’s “step” craze, a regional dance style popularized by R. Kelly in his recent single “Step in the Name of Love”. (For the record, I didn’t know anything about “stepping” myself before researching this review, but it is apparently a couple’s dance that approximates a slow-motion jitterbug. It’s primarily popular among over-30 African-Americans, although the R. Kelly song has done quite a bit towards broadening its appeal beyond the Chicago region and outside of the older crowd.)
Chicago Forever is a good album, and a veritable history lesson for anyone interested in the development of dance music in America, and in particular the massive contributions of African-American musical culture to modern house music. If the album occasionally errs, it slides a bit too close to comfortable retro for my tastes—despite the blink-and-you-miss-it cameo from fellow Chicago native and granola-hop mainstay Common, there is very little lip-service paid to the advancement of modern hip-hop as the primary musical language of black youth culture. There is a recurring resentment among the black forefathers of dance music against hip-hop, a sense which is occasionally—and angrily—articulated by figures such as Juan Atkins, that the hip-hop revolution “stole” the spotlight away from house music in the hearts and minds of black youth. The fact that electronic music has become a primarily white genre is, to these unheralded giants, a painfully ironic development. Chicago Forever will ultimately do little to change these impressions in the uninitiated, as the album’s considerable pleasures are wrapped in a warm sense of historical entitlement that will alienate anyone not already familiar with the genre.
Davis is not a luminary on par with Atkins or Frankie Knuckles or Walter Gibbons, but he deftly traces his roots back to Trax, the premiere Chicago house label, where he began in the basement as a humble shrink-wrapper. Chicago Forever is a love letter to the institution of house music, and a polemic against the constantly changing world of modern pop. It will please anyone who possesses the ability to be delighted by a crisply attenuated drum snare, and will certainly reaffirm Davis’ prominent placement among the vanguard of traditionalist house producers.