[6 December 2013]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
Back in 1977, there was a nightclub in Chicago that was affectionately known as “The Warehouse.” It was there that DJ Frankie Knuckles began playing a lot of sounds there a bit divergent from the then-peaking disco era: Italio disco and electro funk tracks that broke from the increasingly-polished sound of the disco era. If you believe the rumors that tend to swirl around about the origins of such places, people, used to describe the music that emerged from the scene as “house music” ‘cos those types of songs were songs that you heard “played at The Warehouse.” Thus, the legend was born.
Of course, the Warehouse shut down in 1983, but the scene’s influential sound continued to grow, and artists like Carl Cox eventually became the keepers of that Chi-town house flame well into the late 1990s. Yet several other labels still managed to release great hits and fun, off-beat releases, which leads us, of course, to three guys: Matt Warren, Miguel Garcia, and Ralphi Rosario. Their love of all things Depeche Mode and The Cure soon lead to the creation of their own label, and that’s where Kill Yourself Dancing: The Story of Sunset Records, Inc. comes into play: this compilation of stray tracks from the trio’s first label, released through Jerome Derradji’s own Still Music imprint, is a truly fascinating, compelling, and downright vital look at a very specific subgenre in the dance music world, but one that, even when listening today, holds a remarkably strong amount of staying power.
While the liner notes do a great job of detailing the scene and the context for the label, the truth of the matter is that there is no better way to get the feel of the scene than diving in to the epic two-disc compilation wholesale. Mood and atmosphere were prized over immediate hooks, although make no mistake: this compilation is downright funky. Just take the nine-minute groove that is Ben Mays’ “Jailbait” from the first disc: an absolutely minimal key groove is given a spritely, consistent digital snare drum sound, various canned clapping effects giving the track a late-night dancing vibe, the cooing vocals and occasional synth flourishes giving the whole thing a soul, even if the slightly sped-up vocals in the last minute prove a bit distracting.
Elsewhere, groups like gloriously strange White Knight and upbeat Razz are given full exposure on the album (the former with three songs, the latter with four, including the compilation’s title track—one of the first jams that Rosario and Warren ever produced), but perhaps the most alluring aspect of Kill Yourself Dancing is just how strange the whole affair is. Just listen to “I Want You Suite” by Hex Complexx, which features spooky, whispered-to-the-beat incantations which sound creepier than they do endearing, but given the club-ready nature the song, may actually be one of the stronger selling points.
In that same vein is White Knight’s “Demons (A Mix 4U)”, which sounds like it got its horror movie spoken-word intro and synth horn sections straight out of a worship for all things Michael Jackson, but given a much more street-level, “real” vibe. As is the case with the genre at the time, there are very little deviations from any given song’s main melodic through-line: just slight additions to the elements played over it. While this might make for a very same-sounding, monochromatic listening experience, this expertly-sorted compilation largely works because the grooves that are uncovered have very strong hooks of which to build from. “Face the Music” by Boom Boom & Master Plan doesn’t derive from much from its intro, but when the Robert Smith-like vocals kick in, the whole thing is given a depth and uniqueness that is unlike a great majority of what was coming out at the time.
Yet despite the appealing and sometimes downright-bizarre lyrical nature of the songs provided here, the grooves featured are still intended to do one thing and one thing only: get you to dance. Whether it be the lovedrunk, walking-home-through-the-city-at-2AM soundtrack that is Warren’s own “The Way to My Heart” or the spritely (and very dated) synth work of Michaelanglo’s “You Can Do It”, the amount of moods provided here, despite all being very dated by the equipment from which each note was generated and everything still holding to a very strict 4/4 holding pattern, has a charm, personality, and appeal that transcends such simple bindings as “era.”
Sure, the 49 seconds of Modern Mechanical Music’s “Doo Doo Da” could’ve been axed (as well as the additional Dub Mix of Boom Boom & Master Plan’s contribution), but the devil, in this case, isn’t in the details. It’s in the unique vibe that has been conjured from such a historically precise re-release, proving that no matter which generation the song comes from, funkiness is something that can never truly age or will ever truly die.