Music

Various Artists: This Ain't Chicago

A Guy Called Gerald, 1989

Veteran DJ Richard Sen selects gems from the dawn of house music in the UK. If it ain't Chicago, what exactly is it, then?


Various Artists
Label: K7
Title: This Ain't Chicago: The Underground Sound of UK House & Acid 1987-1991
US Release Date: 2012-07-10
UK Release Date: 2012-06-25
Label website

During the 1990s, the American music press was bracing for the electronic dance music invasion that never came. Magazines and websites were full of breakdowns of the various genres and subgenres of "techno" music, often created by British producers and DJs. But, except for some notable big hits from Chemical Brothers, the Prodigy, and Fatboy Slim, "techno" remained for the most part an underground concern. Artists were snapped up by major labels, hyped, and then dumped when their records didn't sell.

Thirty years earlier, British artists had taken uniquely American musical forms, blues and rock'n'roll, turned them into something sharper, edgier, and cutting-edge, and then sold them back to America by the millions of units. But history did not repeat with techno. House music, the forbearer of techno, was invented in Chicago and refined in places like Detroit and New York. But in England, it made forays into the mainstream much more readily than in the States, starting with Chicagoan Steve "Silk" Hurley's Number One hit "Jack Your Body" in 1987. While none of the two dozen tracks gathered here were big hits in the UK, they helped lay the groundwork for breakthroughs by 808 State, LFO, and others.

The title of This Ain't Chicago is telling. It begs listeners to compare and contrast its contents with the Chicago and American standards. It also reveals the fact that, while American house music was very much centered on notions of place, in the UK it was relatively rootless. Based on the evidence there, that made for more diversity, but it also made for a lack of true identity. What is the classic "UK House Sound"? Well, it ain't Chicago, or Detroit, and that's about as close to an answer as you'll get.

What you will get with This Ain't Chicago, though, is a fairly broad sampling of the house sounds that were making inroads in various clubs throughout the UK between 1987 and 1991. And, while there are some very good tracks here, in general they lack the charisma and the soul of the best house that was coming out of the America during the same time. There are no exhortations to "jack your body" or "get up" here. This is dance music first, party music a distant second. Though house has always been more about rhythm than melody, only Julie Stapleton's smoothly percussive "Where's the Love Gone" offers a genuine vocal hook. The robotic, Kraftwerk-inspired chill of Playtime Toons' "Shaker Sound" provides the maximum degree of detachment. Most of This Ain't Chicago falls somewhere in between.

It's clear that what American and English house music have most in common is the Japanese machines used to make it. Like their American counterparts, these tracks are full of the chattering hi-hats and coughing snares of vintage Roland drum machines. As always, the "acid" tracks are defined by the squelchy, squishy tones of the Roland 303 bass machine. They are in the minority, here, though, perhaps because acid house in general has aged relatively poorly. The "Acid Mix" of S.L.F.'s "Show Me What You Got" does provide a highlight, working in a bit of piano house for good measure.

Perhaps not surprisingly, many of the most effective tracks on This Ain't Chicago are the ones that most closely mimic the Chicago and Detroit sounds. Bang the Party's "Bang Bang You're Mine" and Julian Jonah's "Jealousy and Lies", and Rohan Delano's "Inflight", with their trolling basslines and moody synths, nail the pouty sexual tension of the best vintage house.

Some permutations are less successful than others. Colm III's "Take Me High" is Chicago house as interpreted by Disney, while Ability II's "Pressure Dub" is bleepy and abstract. The tracks that employ metallic elements of industrial music don't fare so well. Witness what sounds like dying cows on Static's "Iron Orbit".

Despite the absence of big hits, This Ain't Chicago does feature some names you might recognize. Bizarre Inc, whose "I'm Gonna Get You" would later bump hips with the mainstream, here deliver the shimmering if cold "Technological". Andrew Weatherall of Screamadelica and Boy's Own fame, mixes the surprisingly thumping "The World According to Sly & Lovechild". Maybe the highlight of the entire set, though, comes from a supergroup of sorts. A Guy Called Gerald ("Voodoo Ray"), poet/musician Edward Barton ("It's A Fine Day"), and hip hop group Chapter and Verse combine forces as Us for the sharp, catchy "Born in the North". Full of the regional pride that has always been a big part of UK music and featuring Barton's sassy, nasal, half-barked declarations that "I am / We are / They're not born in the North", the track has the passion and focus that many of its contemporaries lack.

You can almost look at This Ain't Chicago as you might look at English reggae. It's not exactly from the source, it does not have all the unpolished grit of the original music, but it nonetheless is evidence of a musical culture that is open-minded, and it yields some very good, if not definitive, stuff in its own right. In the years to come, Aphex Twin, Roni Size, and others would blaze new trails in electronic dance music. That could not have happened without the music on This Ain't Chicago.

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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