Various Artists: Only 4 U - The Sound of Cajmere & Cajual Records 1992-2012
Best known for "Perculator", Curtis "Cajmere" Jones and his Cajual label helped formulate the sound of Chicago house music... and beyond.
Curtis Jones is one of the architects of the Chicago house music sound. Under his most well-known guises, Cajmere and Green Velvet, he has been making stark, minimalistic, yet groovy electronic dance music for over two decades. Most of it has been released on the labels which he founded, Cajual and Relief. Only 4 U celebrates this rich history. Cajmere and the music his labels released are due for rediscovery, and this twenty-plus-song collection is a great example of why.
Cajmere is still best-known for his first dancefloor hit, "Percolator" from 1992. It's a classic track. It starts with a tick-tocking clock, which gives way to the titular bubbling drum pattern and Cajmere's nearly robotic voice repeating "It's time for the Percolator". Then the famous rubber-band synth line, wood-block percussion, and imposing Roland drum machine kick in. And then…that's about it. The track's brevity is its strength. At a time when most house music was emphatically telling people to "get up", "get down", and "get busy", "Percolator" looked to the cold aesthetics of Kraftwerk and the regimented rhythms of European Electronic Body Music. Yet it somehow managed to groove. Maybe it was that goofy, squishy synth.
This push-and-pull between early house music's built-in party atmosphere and the cold calculation of machines plays out across Only 4 U's best tracks. Of course, there are added elements and ripples. One of these is the seductive, stream-of-consciousness monologue. Isaac Hayes, Barry White, Bootsy Collins, and many others perfected this device, and it became key to the atmospheric appeal of house music. "Chit Chat" and "Dream States" take slinky beats, simple three-note basslines that lodge in your head, and not much else, and drop these reverb-laden monologues on top. It's really a bit of a lost art.
Warmth and melody make their way in to Cajual's repertoire, as well, in the form of music that presaged the UK Garage/"Two-step" phenomenon of the mid-1990s. Throaty diva Dajae's soulful vocals play off Cajmere's no-nonsense electronic pulses on "Brighter Days" and the genuinely funky, Prince-like "Say U Will". Dajae's solo "Day By Day" adds gospel backing vocalists. The jazzy keyboards on Deep Sensation's "Get Together" and the warm synth pads of Johnny Fiasco's standout "Taurus" could almost qualify as pop.
Yet it all comes back to Jones' brilliant ability to do more with less, and make it sound mean enough to make you feel like you have to dance, even if you don't want to. The Green Velvet moniker was Jones' way to branch out into funk and acid house. And, while "LaLaLaLaLa" features some funky vocals, it is still the laser surgery of those percolating synths that makes you move. Jones did not change his methods that much, after all. While this approach may have kept him out of the mainstream, it did pay long-term dividends. Released under the Cajmere name, "Midnight", from 2004, is as brilliant and innervating as anything here.
As for an overall highlight, it is not "Percolator", but rather the previously-unreleased "Let's Dance", featuring Russoul. It has the seductive, hooky bassline, the twitchy synths, the minimal beat, and chanted vocals; in other words, everything Cajmere does best. The lyrics could serve as Cajual's mission statement: "Dance with my baby / Keep the party hot / All you gotta do is dance". Only 4 U is not without its missteps. Witness the ugly, belching synth on "Get Up Off Me", and Gemini's disjointed Cuban / Jazz mixup "Le Fusion".
Far more often, though, Only 4 U showcases what kept Chicago's momentum going as the '80s gave way to the '90s. Appearances by fellow Chicago legends Derrick Carter and Johnny Fiasco, as well as major Detroit player Terence FM, only add to the compilation's stature. While its sounds were huge influences on garage, two-step, and minimal house, Only 4 U exhibits a purity and essence those later styles just can't match.