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-
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.
Despite the international flava of the set, though, all the songs have a similar organic-percussion vibe, one more stoned and fusion based than some others in the series; Thievery Corp.'s most closely resembles the Kruder & Dorfmeister Kicks that came out last year, though the latter's set has more edge. And despite the seemingly wide array of artists represented, the Thievery Corp.'s mix ends up as a sort of DJ Kicks Lite. For one, the set lacks movement and surprise -- there are few adventuresome segues, few gender-bending revelations (the two seem to appreciate a single tone that, while crossing genres and cultures, exudes the same vibe), and, from a practical point of view, their mixing skills are often clumsy and their pitch manipulation (matching rhythms by using the pitch control bar on a Technics turntable) obvious, at least when compared with the other artists involved with the DJ series. But if you're a fan of spliff-induced chill-out jams and aren't too picky about eye-opening skills, the Thievery Corporation will fit the bill.
If, however, you want to be blown away by a DJ's mixing skills, broad-based musical knowledge and appreciation, and overall mixed nirvana, you've gotta check out Andrea Parker's DJ Kicks, one of the most impressive and bouncy sets on the market. A celebration of the synthetic subgenre electro in all its glory (think Newcleus' "Jam on It" updated and explored), Parker starts with a sample from sonic guerillas Negativland ("Do you know how many time zones there are in Russia?") and moves to her deep, heavy remix of Depeche Mode. From there, she (yes, Andrea's a she, a rarity in the testosterone-charged world of beats) jumps around insightfully and imaginatively, connecting dots that needed connecting; those represented are, among others, San Francisco hip-hop genius Dr. Octagon; Gescom (a side project of Brit bleepers Autechre); Detroit techno legend Juan Atkins' Model 500; Afrika Bambaata; Renegade Soundwave; Andrea Parker's old alias, Two Sandwiches Short of a Lunchbox; and, the true revelation of the mix, her new composition "Unconnected."
The set is relentless and nearly seamless; often it's hard to tell where one cut ends and another begins -- though watching the CD display helps if you want to be duly impressed. Parker will begin a composition halfway into the previous one, so that when one ends, the next one already has the momentum to keep the rhythm flowing. Warning: Her tone throughout is unapologetically synthetic; she prefers fake hand claps to the real ones and loves the sound of old-school analog synths. If you're not down with the vibe, you'll hate this -- and you'll probably love the Thievery Corporation set.
But that's the beauty of DJ Kicks. Like the mix tape your buddy makes for you every Christmas, you either love the tape or hate it, depending on the compatibility of your tastes. At this point, according to the label, the series can pick any DJ anywhere in the world to do a set for them -- they're lined up. Future releases include sets by Kid Loco and the Stereo MCs, with tentative plans for both DJ Shadow and Nightmares on Wax mixes.
Welcome to harvest time. Now start picking.