As with Detroit the history of Chicago dance music is littered with as many great labels as producers. Recent years have seen much love sent in the direction of imprints like Trax and DJ International – the two big boys who did probably more than anyone else to foster the acceptance of house music as a true art form – and Dance Mania, a label which put out some great material but only found everlasting acclaim when they revolutionized music with their weaponized snarling ghetto house. For me one of the best was Relief, an offshoot of Cajual which soon outgrew its beginnings and helped to put an entire generation of now legendary producers on to the world stage.
There was always something different about the music Relief championed. It never sounded quite like anything else that came from Chicago. Part of this was probably down to Cajual himself. His own releases on the label, almost always under his Green Velvet guise, were amongst the most twisted and unforgettable records to ever be classed as house. They showed just how far you could push the music; claustrophobic, dirty and absolutely banging, Green Velvet pushed the genre into new directions where the original framework and music – increasingly locked into its own conservatism and conventions after a decade or so of existence – was year zeroed by an unspoken need to knock it down and start again. Tunes like Preacher Man, Flash, The Stalker or Stormy Weather redefined house as something harder, and blurred the lines between itself and techno (particularly the sort that was being championed by European labels like Djax) to the point that there was no longer any functional difference.
The rise of Relief was the true age of the jack track: moody stripped down music that relied less on house’s traditional structure and more on looped segments, storming beats and weird noises which played with the dancer like a cat plays with a mouse. It also borrowed liberally from the lessons that had been taught by seminal acid house legends like Armando, Poindexter and Bam Bam, themselves masters of a stripped down, dirty funk that sounded as if it had come from nowhere and owed no allegiance to anything or anyone that had come before them. What separated the bulk of Relief from those earlier masters was that there seemed to be a deliberate attempt to understand their energy, rather than shamelessly ape their sounds. As a result the number of Relief records featuring the ubiquitous 303 are tiny, almost non-existent.
So many of those artists who were such a major part of Relief’s golden age became household names within Our Thing. Paul Johnson, DJ Sneak, Gemini, Lester Fitzgerald, Boo Williams and a host of others did some of the best work of their careers here. Sure, not all of them got their big break on Relief; a handful like Gene Farris were already big draws on the international stage before hand. But for the rest, this label was where they made their bones under Cajual’s tutelage.
Midnight Express by Boo Williams is an early stand out track for the label. It’s a huge tune and one that encapsulates Relief’s aesthetics. Massive beats that drill into you, making space in your head for the foundations to support the railroad tracks that’ll carry the music to terminus. It’s beyond house, even as it recalls the likes of L’il Louis. It’s more muscular, a strident, shamanistic blood ritual of a tune that aims for the burning stars of inner space as much as it works its heavy magic on the dancefloor.
In an era where every third-rate minimal track under the sun seems assured of a re-release there is something sad that such an important label as Relief has not been afforded the opportunity to shine its light over a new generation. Actually, this isn’t strictly true, for German label Rawax has repressed some of the important records (along with a handful of Dance Mania and others) as part of its Chi-Wax Classics series. But these new releases feel like facsimiles. Removed from their original art and lacking any attempt to remaster them for 2015 they have the miserable feel of archive pieces fit only for research. If anyone out there reading this can sort this out, please, get on it now. It’s about time this most jacking of labels made a proper return.