Various Artists: Om 100

[10 September 2002]

By Maurice Bottomley

One hundred releases and it’s time to celebrate. One third of San Francisco’s mighty triumvirate (Ubiquity and Naked Music being the other two) show that when it comes to depth, melody, soulfulness, and style—the West Coast is now America’s home of discerning dance music. Being the forward looking company they are, Om have chosen to mark the occasion with a set of previously unissued tracks—some new, some re-mixes of recent winners. The result is two CDs of characteristically cool but stylistically diverse tunes which will keep the converted happy and, if there is any justice, will open the ears of those who, bizarrely, refuse to accept that Om and their fellow Californians are making 21st century soul of the highest order.

A quick glance at the cast (and caliber) of performers should suffice. King Kooba, Afro-Mystic, Johnny Fiasco, Pimp Rekker, Mark Grant, Kaskade, Rithma,Soulstice, Andy Caldwell, J Boogie, Ming and FS, People Under the Stairs, Scuba (King Britt), Mark Farina, John Howard, Fred Everything, West Magnetic, Landslide, and Juan Atkins. From living legends to newcomers, from innovators to the hideously under-rated—here they are, all doing what they do best.

You want hip-hop that restores your faith in hip-hop? People Under the Stairs lead the way. In fact, hip-hop beats underpin many of the album’s finer moments, for instance Ming and FS’ quirky and exotic “Misdirected”. Fancy some house that is deep yet immediately engaging? Try Kaskade’s “I Can’t Wait” or Johnny Fiasco’s “Take 5”. Or how about DJ/producers who still know that emotional power doesn’t involve just banging it in hard? Marques Wyatt and Mark Farina are on hand. Most of all, if you want to hear this year’s best soul record (that probably won’t get classed as a soul record), then have a listen to Soulstice’s “All Right”.

That particular track will find a ready audience with UK modern soul types but should make its mark in the wider waters of urban styles. Afro-Mystic, Soulstice, and a number of other acts are making “neo-soul” that is more convincing and less retro-dependent than much of the more touted “neo” fare. A bit too fragile for R&B floors perhaps, but more substantial than the wispy imagery attached to much of this product might indicate. “All Right” is a well-written, positive song that boasts a mid-tempo groove and gorgeous female vocals. Any soul fan should immediately add it to his or her collection. That you get Afro-Mystic’s Omega Brown delivering “Natural” with real attack and conviction or Pimp Rekker’s conscious-funk masterpiece “In Time” on the same set should be regarded as something akin to a multiple lottery win.

As to the generic mix, one gets tired of recounting the variants of hyphenated soul, jazz, house etc. combinations that make up the music Om produce. Suffice it to say that CD one is more house-based and CD two more breakbeat-influenced. Apart from that, the whole marvelous mélange is a pluracial take on the best black music forms of recent years, all given a digital twist and a lot of care and attention. What it isn’t is snoozy lounge or college-boy trip-hop. Om’s reputation for blunted stupor-muzak is undeserved and their recent output has actually been decidedly lively. The most chilled-out cut is Scuba’s “Beauty and Truth” which is so seductive you could stand about forty minutes in its relaxing company.

Each outing is almost similarly polished and classy. If that is a criticism in some quarters, then so be it. High production values, mellow grooves, and solid musicality still have a place in many people’s hearts. Om knows this and can easily ride the slurs. Within their general remit there is a place for Juan Atkins’ Techno experiments, J Boogie’s cinematic dubbiness and People Under the Stairs revamped-old schoolery. Depending on your own background, you will probably be drawn either to the more soul/dance side or to the hip-hop/downtempo elements, but if you have any leanings at all to the less obvious aspects of contemporary club culture, you should be able to negotiate all 22 (unmixed) tracks without much use of the skip button.

Seven years have passed since Om’s first release and this landmark. My betting is that it will be a much shorter expanse of time before we enjoy Om 200. In between, we can look forward to plentiful amounts of cool grooves and much future-facing funkiness. For now, just enjoy the wide range of aural delights impeccably served up on this very enticing menu.

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