There is a distinct and knowing difference between those who know music and those who understand it. Those in the former tend to embrace the trivial minutiae surrounding styles, artists and eras, always quick to display their seemingly endless knowledge and often voluminous music collections. In the case of the former, these individuals possess both the former’s subject matter knowledge, but also an inherent understanding of music’s potential affecting the whole of the mind, body and soul. While knowledge can be accumulated and taught, understanding can only be felt and experienced.
Because of this, the DJ-curated mixtape is always somewhat of a dicey proposition. In their element, these artists are masters of assembling floor-filling beats built either from the ground up or from generally recognizable source material. When granted free reign to create their own mixtape, however, it often proves little more than a showcase for their obscure tastes and depth of their sprawling, often wildly esoteric record collections. In this they are doing little more than flaunting the rarity of their finds, records that fetch absurd sums on the collector’s market then driven all the higher due to their use and exposure to a wider audience, and accumulated knowledge.
While this option certainly holds a certain level of appeal to crate diggers and rare groove lovers, it often presents something of a disservice to listeners in that it lacks the necessary emotional cohesion to truly be effective on any sort of deeper level. These are superficial mixes that, while enjoyable ultimately leave little in the way of lasting impact. They are designed to appeal to the physical more than the cerebral or holistic response of the listeners. With his installment of the long running DJ-Kicks series, Detroit icon and highly revered techno pioneer Moodymann delivers a master class in understanding music.
Rather than deploying a series of obvious bangers and floor-fillers from the start, Moodymann (nee Kenny Dixon, Jr.) instead builds organically, placing the emphasis on tone and, for lack of a better term, mood. Over the set’s first half, the tempos creep exponentially along, rarely spending much if any time in the triple digit bpms. Beginning with Yaw’s somber “Where Will You Be”, Moodymann almost imperceptibly builds each track on the next, deftly easing the listener in with a series of slowly simmering, soulful tracks both familiar and ever so slightly obscure. But rather than simply relying on the depths of his collection (knowledge) to create a mix full of impossibly rare sides mashed together, Moodymann here places the focus more on musicality and the establishment of mood to create a set that is more affecting than ass-shaking (understanding).
Where most would allow little time to pass before allowing the beats to take over, Moodymann instead embarks on a musical ebb and floor built on soulful, jazz-tinged R&B and hip-hop tracks that serve the overall aesthetic of the set rather than the ego of the DJ. In this, the set builds from a slow simmer to a gentle boil without ever truly erupting, making for a series of tracks that prove as thought-provoking as they are head-nodding. Rather than the night’s main attraction, this set is designed as a heady after-hours or pre-party collection of tracks grounded in reality rather than some hedonistic bacchanal.
It isn’t until nearly a third of the way through, when Julien Dyne’s “Stained Glass Fresh Frozen” drops in with anything even remotely resembling a typical four-on-the-floor beat. And even this is slightly skewed and abstracted, gradually dissolving into a series of more beat-centric tracks that continue to build on the previously established mood, however with the emphasis moved to the rhythm of each. Never allowing it to go too far, he then returns to center with the slightly left field of indie singer-songwriter Jose Gonzales’ “Remain”. But it’s this type of duality and musical esotericism that help make his set one of the more compelling installments in the series, one built on the understanding of music’s impact on the whole of the listener and delivered completely in the service of and to the listener.
By set’s end, he’s allowed the tempos to creep up, the beats to become a bit more pronounced and the urge to move all but irresistible. It’s the euphoric payoff to which he’s been building throughout the set’s nearly 90-minute run time, finally allowing the physical to supplant the cerebral in terms of priority without sacrificing one for the other. And with the presence of so many just-off-the-map yet accessible tracks, this set serves as an entry point to a host of artists all sharing a similar aesthetic operating at different levels drawn together by an overarching understanding of how music works on multiple levels. In this, Moodymann’s installment of DJ-Kicks may well become the unimpeachably perfect bar against which all subsequent sets will be measured.