Unseen Beats

Unseen Buds

Unseen buds, infinite, hidden well,
Under the snow and ice, under the darkness, in every square or cubic inch,
Germinal, exquisite, in delicate lace, microscopic, unborn,
Like babes in wombs, latent, folded, com-
pact, sleeping;
Billions of billions, and trillions of trillions of them waiting,
(On earth and in the sea -- the universe -- the stars there in the heavens,)
Urging slowly, surely forward, forming end-less,
And waiting ever more, forever more behind.
-- Walt Whitman

If a warning bell just sounded -- uh-oh, a music critic is trying to get all fancy on us by kicking off with, God forbid, poetry -- rest assured that the prose that follows is as superficial as you've come to expect.

But one glimpse at all the nature exploding outside is enough to confirm Mr. Whitman's proposal, and one gander inside your favorite electronic-music record store or Web site is enough to confirm that it's springtime in the world of beats. Both buds and beats just keep on comin', sneaking through the surface from every direction without concern for quantity or, it seems, the potential that anyone will ever even experience them -- let alone actually be touched by them. But still they poke through. In fact, 1998 and '99 are virtual first bursts in the world of electronic beats. They're sprouting everywhere, exploding so quickly, and so willy-nilly, that one couldn't possibly keep up. They're lined up, "billions of billions, and trillions of trillions of them waiting"; even the obsessives among us feel overwhelmed. More beats are being born into the marketplace right now, the result of cheap technology and wild inspiration, than at any other time in history, and given the relative ease in creating beat based music that's at least passable, if rarely inspired, we're only at the tip.

Every day, more! more! more! A nonstop loop of music coming at you on LP, CD, MP3, 12-inch, CD5, CDR and in Volkswagen commercials. Still they push, "Urging slowly, surely forward, forming endless, and waiting ever more, forever more behind."

Thankfully, keepers are marching in to tend to them all, plucking the best and brightest. These keepers -- or, to leap to another metaphor in the digital domain, human search engines -- are scanning the world of electronic beats (electronica, drum & bass, big beat, down-tempo and the ridiculously named "intelligent dance music") and compiling the inspired of the lot onto mix tapes and CDs ready-made for consumption. Like the fanatic friends who occasionally toss you a Maxell mix culled from their collection -- in one fell swoop you've got a record-store shopping list -- these CD mixes point you toward the germinal, the exquisite, the delicate lace of beat-based music exploding all over the world.

The past six months have seen two big names in the beat world, the Chemical Brothers and Liam Howlett of the Prodigy, release-mix CDs of their favorite music, helping fans direct their enthusiasm toward other, lesser known artists.

The best of these CDs in the past few years, though, have been those in the DJ Kicks series put out by the fantastic Studio K7 label. They've revolutionized the art of the mix, a medium that couples the joy of music fandom with the inspired center-of-attention feeling of being a DJ at a hopping warehouse party. And given the accessibility of CD burners, the inexpensive cost of CD reproduction and the future of online music delivery, these mixes foreshadow a new form of listening experience, one that's less album oriented and more single-cut based. At the risk of sounding like a dreadlocked futurist, the way we listen to music may be changing.

Given that the radio dial is hermetically sealed against all things electronic, save for those who most closely resemble rock (Fatboy Slim, Chemical Brothers and the Prodigy), the only way to be exposed to this music is on these CDs or in clubs. In clubs, though, the listener doesn't get a setlist. Past DJ Kicks sets have been commissioned for Detroit DJ Carl Craig, Austrian masters of the down-tempo Kruder & Dorfmeister, Frenchman DJ Cam, drum & bass trailblazers Kemistry & Storm (sadly, Kemistry was recently killed in a car accident), and Bristol dubmasters Rockers Hi-Fi.

What separates these mixes from the abundant mix releases of pure techno and house is their musical range. Where others have leaned toward one particular subgenre -- techno, ambient, house, jungle -- the best DJ Kicks comps are broad and open, reflecting the tastes of the compilers, but stretching the boundaries/tolerance level of the dance-music audience. Take two of the most recent releases in the series: sets by Andrea Parker and Thievery Corporation. Both draw from a vast library of music, one that's not limited to the narrow vision of the typical techno and house audiences.

The Thievery Corporation consists of two men from D.C. who, seemingly overnight, have burst into the hipster remix world, though they've been around since '96 and have two releases on 4AD. They've remixed for David Byrne, Stereolab, Baaba Maal, Black Uhuru, Pizzicato 5 and others, all collected on their new Abductions and Reconstructions CD, and share a love for Brazilian conga beats, deep, bass-y dub, acid jazz and lounge. They start their set with quintessential '50s soft lounge composer Les Baxter and roam to encompass the smooth groove of the French mixer DJ Cam; Bristol genre-benders Up, Bustle and Out; Afro-Cuban percussionist Bobby Matos; and the Rockers Hi-Fi.

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