Trevor Jackson has been buzzing the periphery of funky music since the late ’80s, when he kick-started his feckless career by designing record sleeves for Eric B. & Rakim and the Jungle Brothers. Since then he’s dabbled in hip-hop word-slinging (the Brotherhood), mysterioso remixing (as the Underdog) and music entrepreneurship (via his aptly named label Output). After years of slumming, spinning, wheeling, and dealing, he finally shot himself into the musical troposphere with last year’s self-titled Playgroup album. The disc was all post-ironic disco, new wave, and punk but with liberal chunks of politics and enthusiasm (evidenced by guests Shinehead, Kathleen Hannah, and Edwyn Collins) dosing the mix.
Now Playgroup has returned to contribute Trevor Jackson’s funky musical world view to !K7 Records’ DJ Kicks series. Trevor churns up a mix that’s both weird and feverish, an odd dinky-eighties beat-happy new-wave aesthetic which makes you wonder whether George Clinton ever existed. But hell, if God can make waves in backyard pools, then Trevor can roll out some new-wave riffs to blow the cobwebs out your bedroom at dusk. Only the most well-heeled cognoscenti will recognize most of the artists here (exceptions: Human League, Flying Lizards, KC Flightt, Material, and maybe Metro Area), but the (presumably) rare grooves he digs up sound uniformly like they’ve got the jowly ghosts of Reagan and Thatcher frowning over them. This is new wave clawing itself out the retro grave, and for Numan’s sake some of this stuff apparently first hit the clubs during the late ’90s!
“We” is the opening track, a communal title and a percolating choral butter-churn by Baltimore spinner (and former Whodini collaborator) Maurice Fulton. You get some dinky synthesizers, some odd medieval-sounding vocal samples (“we” is what they sing), and even a bit of funky flute that sounds like it wandered out of an old Gil Scott-Heron record to nestle itself in this digital company. Well, from that curious beginning Trevor spins a variety of moog-and-syndrum tunes that are punctuated occasionally by deadpan vocals or rhyming divas. The I:Cube Remix of Ana Rago’s “You’re God”, for example, will hook you in with the retro mystery of its sound, but you’ll get spooked by the alienating vocals which proclaim (rather unconvincingly) that “you’re god”. Then you get trapped into Material’s “Ciquri”, which drones politely like HAL and prickles your ears until some funky sisters add a smokescreen of lust to the Harlequin Fours’ “Set It Off”. At this point, you’re either dancing or bobbing your big head to the earphone groove rippling your tympanic membrane.
The highlights of the mix include a deadpan recitation of “Tainted Love” by Impedance (twice removed from the soulful original by Gloria Jones), a chilly nuevo-new-wave groove by Random Factor called “Broken Mirror”, Wanda Dee’s righteous rap “Gonna Make You Sweat”, the Rapture’s plaintive and chaotic “House of Jealous Lovers”, and an odd peeled-and-eaten mix of the Flying Lizards cover of “Money”. Along the way you’ll also discover some fascinating groovy stuff like Smith’n’Hack’s give-us-a-hug paleo-beat “To Our Disco Friends” and the so-bad-it’s-good Human League dub remix of “Do Or Die”.
Most of these beats have that odd ’80s metronomic feel — all synthesizers, bleeps, and wee drones. But every now and then a polyrhythm creeps up like James Brown’s nurse tapping him on the temple. And you’ll dig it. I especially recommend Zongamin’s “Tunnel Music”, Metro Area’s “Caught Up” (a Millie Jackson tribute?) and Ralphi Rosario’s “Get Up Get Out” for this effect.
Trevor Jackson has an oddball aesthetic to sell us, and it’s pretty easy to take him up on it. He’s not interested in the usual ghetto-America funky-rare-groove stuff that all those other UK DJs nursed themselves on. He’s looking down at the island dirt under his own feet, rather than the grungy record bins across the pond, and he also digs the way Europeans frost the pared-down beats with their own little Moogs and moods. It’s hard for me to tell what subculture Playgroup is playing to now, but if the jittery subtle synth explorations of 1983 really pump your nads, you’ll dig this frigid’n’fun mix all the way down to its utopian-android core. Once again, form triumphs over content.