Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.
Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.

John Digweed: Choice: A Collection of Classics

John Digweed
Choice: a Collection of Classics

The Choice series represents one of the most vital links to fading electronic dance music history. For the majority of the ’80s and ’90s, the vast majority of music produced for club play was made by artists who recorded under a myriad of assumed names and aliases, and mostly for the 12″ vinyl format. CD compilations were produced only for the most popular artists and tracks, and even then they quickly fell out of print. Much as with early hip-hop, the modern music industry didn’t know what to do with early house and techno. It was a grass-roots, underground phenomenon — and while that may be a beautiful thing, grass-roots underground phenomenon leave sketchy paper trails for later generations.

Of course, the ’90s saw the advent of any number of dance artists who could and did produce music for the far more commercially viable LP format. But an entire generation of artists and songs had already passed by the time landmarks like Orbital 2 and Leftfield’s Leftism began to pave the way for electronic music’s tentative acceptance into the hallways of mainstream music publishing. Unless you happen to know someone who’s been collecting vinyl for at least 20 years (or have such an awesome collection yourself), you could search a long time before gaining any sort of perspective on the long history of dance music that passed between the fall of disco in the late ’70s and the mainstream resurgence of the early ’90s.

The period has, as yet, been only sketchily anthologized. One day someone is going to hit upon the idea of compiling an archive set similar in execution to the Nuggets series, only for early house, techno and rave instead of late ’60s psychedelic garage rock. It will undoubtedly be a chore, with all the anonymous, semi-legal and fly-by-night recording outfits that produced the bulk of memorable music during the time period. Until then, we are left with wonderfully well-intentioned collections like these.

John Digweed has been on something of a roll lately. After laying low for a couple years, he has returned in 2005 with an intimidating series of quality recordings — the 10th anniversary reissue of his legendary Renaissance collection (recorded with Sasha), a compelling entry into the esteemed Fabric series, and now this quality compilation of tracks from his formative years. If the Renaissance collection captured a unique snapshot of a vital point in the history of electronic music — the mid-’90s, when the British dance scene sat on the cusp of massive mainstream success — then Choice offers an interesting look at what they were listening to in the years immediately leading up to the advent of mega-clubs and superstar DJs. This is the music that Digweed heard back when he was just another aspiring DJ, in the fertile period of the late ’80s and early ’90s when electronic music, buoyed by the American imports of house and techno and quickly evolving into strange new hybrids such as acid, bubbled across the British underground.

This newest edition — and indeed, all the editions to date in the series — are absolutely essentialy for anyone wanting to learn about this remarkably fertile period in the history of modern pop. Digweed’s selection is superb, marred only by the small idiosynchrocies that mark any project of this type — this should not be taken as an exhaustive tour of the period, merely a personal tour. As such, slightly atypical tracks like The Cure’s “A Forest” can be seen less as any great consensus than merely a sample of one fan’s particular favorites. (This is not to imply that The Cure weren’t influential in the field of dance music, but their influence was mostly secondary.)

The collection’s suffers from the fact that it is less a cohesive mix set than merely a compilation. On the plus side, this allows Digweed to focus on a larger variety of tracks, but shorn of the singular thread that makes the best DJ mixes come alive the two discs can occasionally drag. Most of the tracks are also quite rare. There are only a few here that are still in print in any capacity whatsoever. The Jamscraper mix of Underworld’s fantastic “Mmm Skyscraper I Love You” appears, as well as the abrasive Underworld mix of Saint Etienne’s “Cool Kids of Death”. Both of these, in addition to the aforementioned Cure track, are still in print.

But most of these tracks aren’t — good luck finding rarities like the Morales’ Mix of INXS’ “Disappear” anytime soon. There’s a Smith & Mighty house track (“Dark House”) that only slightly resembles their distinctive Bristolian trip-hop sound. There are any number of tracks over the course of this 28-song compilation that you might just fall in love with: I was especially delighted by Voices of Africa’s haunting “Hoomba Hoomba”, as well as the irresistable acid of the Scott Hardkiss Psychic Masturbation mix of One Dove’s “White Love”. The Larry Levan mix of DJ H’s “Come on Boy” is a treat as well. (Anyone who felt like doing the dance music world a big favor could do a lot worse than producing a proper anthology of Levan’s groundbreaking remixes.)

There’s a lot of great stuff packed onto these two discs, and this will surely reward repeated listenings for anyone wanting to learn more about the not-so-distant history of the genre. Dance music may be ignored by a large segment of the critical community, but slowly and surely we are beginning to come to grips with the monumental task of recording our history, setting it into posterity for future generations. With his entry into the Choice series, John Digweed has contributed an important landmark to this movement.

RATING 7 / 10