It may not quite grab the headlines in the way it once did in the Gamble-Huff heydays, but there is no denying that Philadelphia is currently laying claims to be considered as soul's capital city in the new millennium. Heavyweight talent like Jill Scott, Bilal, The Roots and King Britt are all making music that is diverse and open-minded, but still very much "in the tradition". Obsessive sleeve-note scanners will have noticed the name Vikter Duplaix cropping up on a number of those productions. In the absence of a full album of his own, this remarkable and very eclectic mix session by the 29-year-old DJ/producer will only further confirm that city's reputation for quality, soulful music with a quirky, leftfield slant.
Not that the material on this CD is especially Philadelphia-based, in fact it is drawn from a dizzying variety of sources -- geographically and musically. All of it however is filtered through an aesthetic that should be familiar to anyone who has listened to the recent Scott/4 Hero collaboration or any of Britt's Sylk 130 work. Jazzy, hip-hoppy, rather Gilles Petersonish in texture (Duplaix has close links with the London DJ.), it is that rare thing indeed -- a selection of across-the-board sounds that manages to retain coherence and exude a distinctive personality of its own.
None of the names involved, nor many of the tunes, will surprise any English clubber. Many are in fact UK acts. 4 Hero, Herbert, New Sector Movements, Mr. Hermano and Spacek, who all feature to good effect, are disparate parts of the various broken beat, deep house and nu-jazz threads that grew from the old rare groove/acid jazz scene. 4 Hero's "Hold It Down" has a very early '90s London feel and is the track that really gets this set into gear. That the Brit cuts fit perfectly into the Duplaix vibe is something to ponder about and, from my perspective, a matter for some pride. Most are hardly obscure choices. Mr. Hermano's Latin jazz-funker "Free as the Morning Sun" has been on so many compilations that I have lost count. That it has never sounded better than in this context is tribute to Duplaix' ability to put together a well thought-out sequence of sounds.
The "English" feel extends to Osunlade's "Tree of Life", from New York, but sounding like classic Incognito/Brand New Heavies. Shawn Lee's "Happiness" and even Duplaix' own "Sensuality" are also favourites on the nu-jazz, "keep it unreal" circuit from Manchester to the Jazz Cafe. Americans can take comfort in the inclusion of De La Soul, Bahamadia, P'Taah and the recently out-of-favour Erykah Badu. The hip-hop element that shows itself to best effect in these inclusions is actually stronger than the balance of artists might suggest though. The mix is more akin to early '90s hip-hop mixes than the seamless house mixes we have become accustomed to. This is one of the most positive features of DJ Kicks. Creative, rather than technically adept but bland mixing, turns this into something more than simply a compilation of the trendier wing of black club culture.
Ambient, acid jazz, street soul, Latin, hip-hop and nu beats -- all tumble from the speakers in a loose but logical fashion. An easy way to catch up on some great leftfield acts is the smaller part of this album's appeal. Everything somehow makes more sense and is more fun than usual. Contemporary black-based music with spirituality, soul and plenty of inventiveness -- the solemnity all that sometimes implies is refreshingly absent. Duplaix brings out the funkiness and the connectedness in the rhythmic underpinnings of each artist. Nobody is allowed prime position -- Waidud, Mandrake and Philip Charles stand shoulder to shoulder with the better known names. Duplaix has an uncanny sense of finding the unexpected in the well-worn. "Badu's "Bag Lady" is re-invigorated by its positioning, Herbert's "You Saw It All" is more muscular than you remember it for the same a reason. And so on and so forth. The parts are impressive enough, the whole is undeniably and unusually greater.
Only one quibble about a thoroughly enjoyable set. Duplaix' should have included "Messages" his MAW masterpiece. None of his three Critical Point productions, nice as they are, comes close. Apart from that -- if it's varied beats and imaginative DJing you're after, this will take some beating. This is the friendly side of experimental dance music. It also showcases styles that have the sense not to abandon their "blackness". Here you will encounter roots aplenty , as well as many branching-out branches.
The technoid voice that recurrently reminds the listener that this is Vikter Duplaix' Universal Sound is redundant (and might irritate some). The selections and Duplaix are above such cheap self-promotional tricks. When people next say to you that all club music sounds the same stick this on. From the strange chanting that opens the session to the neurotic, edgy beats of New Sector Movement, who expertly wrap things up, this is 70-plus minutes of diasporic magic.