Labels That Changed My Life: Relief Records

Of all the labels which formed the cornerstone of my love of electronic music, Relief records is one of the most cherished, and the most infuriating. Cherished because without it not only would my understanding of house music be substantially worse off, but also the chances are that I would have more than likely never have immersed myself quite as fully in the genre as I did. Infuriating because, well, of all the labels which were special to me, Relief most often seemed to fail to deliver on their promise.

Beginning life as an offshoot of Cajmere’s seminal Cajual Records, Relief quickly developed a life and a character all of its own. My own early brushes with them probably came not from house, but from mix tapes by DJs such as Derrick May, Detroit techno people who had long been throwing every style into the mix. Back then I was not quite as sure about house music as other genres. Detroit techno, electro, and the harder variants which certain Chicago producers were beginning to release on European labels offered me something I was looking for. House music didn’t, not really. Not at first.

But there was something in Relief’s sound which set it apart from everything else. The first tune I heard, – and I imagine it was the same for many of us – Green Velvet’s Preacher Man, was quite possibly one of the finest tracks ever created. It wasn’t just that remarkable sample, the ranting, half-crazed sermon by Aretha Franklin’s father C.L that made the tune so great (although, yep, it certainly added to it). The tune itself, a stomping, wonky, building chunk of madness, of searing noise and bar structures not quite getting it together, felt utterly alien to almost anything else which was going around back then. Not only that, but it seemed as if it had transcended Chicago usual style. This wasn’t really house, it was Chicago techno, a sweltering, loose and heavy assault on the senses which had virtually nothing in common with the likes of Marshal Jefferson or Jackmaster Funk.

From the start there was a mix between the more traditional sounds and the harder edged. But even the records which leaned closer to what had come before felt subtly different, blending house tropes with a stripped down functionality where elements such as the basslines or the samples gained a prominence which moved them away from what I guess you could describe as a song structure towards something closer to techno’s machine music movement. Where Cajmere’s Green Velvet continued to kick out dark, almost twisted takes on his own earlier It’s Time For the Percolator sound, others on the roster where beginning to explore further, bringing it all together with an ear for the most contemporary dance floor funk.

And what a roster that was. Paul Johnson, Boo Williams, Tim Harper, DJ Sneak, Gemini and many others – virtually the cream of Chicago’s second wave, and each of them releasing at least one record which has stood the test of time to become regarded as bona-fide classics. With Williams and Johnson in particular creating a house sound which stripped back the genre’s more humanizing elements and replacing it with soulful machines, layering the tunes with beats culled from the deepest and heaviest of the Chicago underground, and with the likes of Harper creating an epic, spiralling take on the same thing, it felt as if house music was launching itself into the future.

This was music which worked best blaring from a stack of speakers across a packed dancefloor in the late hours. While dance music is exactly that, it’s rare to find much of it which is simply not the same beast when removed from its natural habitat. But this was at the heart of what made Relief so special: It was music first and foremost for dancers. You want entertained at home on a Sunday afternoon? I’m sure there’s some worthy IDM instead. Relief is for the club.

While there was a similar, almost kindred, energy, with what Djax was getting out of it’s Chicago contributors half a world away, where the two differed was just how far they shied away from house. Djax’s take on house was fuelled by a much harder European market, Relief’s take, while belting, took greater pleasure in the grooves, in the funk, and in a delicious twisting of what was expected. It was a similar sonic decadence to what Chicago had been doing for a long time, but it was more direct, dressed to sweat, but with a kink in the programming which kept it ahead of the game.

Unfortunately, it didn’t seem to keep them ahead for long. Chicago labels always seemed to have a habit of indulging in release schedules that would terrify even the most hardy and insane of completests, and Relief was no different. The truly great period for the label lay across 95 and 96; a vanishingly small window for such a hugely influential label to have made its mark. While there were great records from the label before this time, and a handful after, these two years were the real home of the label’s classics. The problem was, and the thing that even I eventually grew weary of, was that for every record which sailed close to genius, there seemed a bunch which didn’t even try. There may have been a lot of great records, but the rest pointed to a label which seemed increasingly content with throwing everything against a wall and seeing what stuck.

The special magic which Johnson, Williams, Gemini and others had brought to the label dissipated under the weight of records which simply offered little more than one note disco samples, or straight-to-video rehashes of the percolator style which aped Cajmere’s original sound but without any of the humour or funk. By ’97 there were still occasional blast of special music coming out from artists like Mystic Bill, but they were bittersweet, emphasising the ways in which a label had lost its way, and buried under rafts of older material released as CD compilations for various markets. It all but vanished for a couple of years, and on its return at the start of the millennium it seemed more interested in releasing endlessly repackaged Green Velvet material.

It has relaunched again in the last couple of years, almost entirely in a digital format, and maybe it will get back to where it was before. Maybe. Things have changed, and house is yet again a different beast from what it once was. Perhaps the simple fact was that Relief was a product of a particular period of time, one where everything was up for grabs and new ways of doing things were coming along at an insane rate.

The remarkable drop off the label suffered from shouldn’t be forgotten, but neither should it be its memorial for the fact is that even though it shone for such a short period of time, some labels – hell, even some entire genres – couldn’t claim such a run of truly, stunningly, brilliant records as Relief managed across a handful of months in the mid nineties. They were a label that touched genius and changed the way house sounded forever, no matter how flawed they were towards the end. Big Old C.L Franklin had Relief’s number right from the start: ‘You got to watch out when folks are playing house.” That should be their memorial. Amen to that.

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Best Of The Represses – May 2017

Almost half way through the year already. Not much more you can add to that really is there? As far as recent represses are concerned the quality is in the eye of the beholder, and my eye IS pure quality so I’m pretty sure, once again, there are only the slimmest of pickings.

It isn’t always going to be like this though. A rumour, floating on the breeze like the lightest feather of hope, says that several represses of classic Aux 88 material are on the way. How real this is, God only knows, and whether any more Direct Beat material will later be available is unknown. Regardless, it’s a start. And long overdue. Elsewhere Metroplex’s current policy of releasing their own records continues, even if it has gone a little strange. Represses of Rob Hood’s seminal The Vision project, and Juan Atkins’ own Jazz Is The Teacher are inbound from Metroplex itself, and DJ Bone’s phenomenal Riding The Thin Line EP will also be out again in July. Except not on Metroplex….the repress will be handled by UK label Another Day. No, we don’t know why. Neither does DJ Bone for that matter. The important thing is that we’ll be able to buy it again, but the geek in me would rather still have the Metroplex artwork in place. Oh well. There’s also a bunch of Theo Parrish stuff kicking about, so there’s that.

Right, here are some quick picks for your ears to get all excited about.

Photek – T’Raenon (Applied Rhythmic Technology)

Of all the electronic genres which have come and gone over the last 30 years only Drum and Bass still feels unwilling to swap its rare promise to shock for the comfort of middle-aged musical life. Listening back now to some of those older records you can still be struck by their fierceness, and the fact that they still sound like little else. Even so, represses of classic D&B has yet to reach the same heights as house and techno. I think that’s a shame.

Still, we’ve had the occasional little blast, and ART deliver a pretty special addition here in the shape of Photek’s T’Raenon. Released originally in 1996, the record came in the middle of a phenomenal run which is book-ended by Natural Born Killa (itself repressed last year) and Modus Operandi. While T’Raenon maybe isn’t quite as strong when it comes to the insane, cinematic darkness and twisting beats that Rupert Parkes is known for, it still carries a gorgeous and haunting potency which time has done little to diminish, and is some of the deepest, most liquid funk to come out of the genre. Kanei on the flip kicks it down a notch with a tune best played at sunrise on Mars. Get more of the back catalogue out, lads. Please.

Mystic Bill – Track From The Vault Vol 1 (Mint Condition)

William Torres, AKA Mystic Bill, seems to be going through a little bit of a renaissance at the moments as this record is, by my count, the fourth or fifth to appear in the last couple of years after a long time when his name would draw recognition from only the oldest of heads. It’s a good thing too; this is house music done right, with no quarters given, and fuelled by a deep and abiding love of jacking machine music. Released way back in 1997 on Relief Records (as Classics From The Vault) it’s actually a pretty primo primer for the better sounds which came out of that most capricious of labels. Funnelling in almost ghetto style rhythms, tight silicon soul, bursts of spacey jazz, and touches of acid, it jumps across the gap of the last twenty years to end up sounding every bit as vital and modern as that record you bought yesterday. In fact, it’s probably better because it carries within its DNA enough attitude to floor a dancefloor full of elephants. Worth buying for the shuffling, grimy, acid-tinged funk of Late Night At The Music Box alone. Shout out to the Trax Mystic Bill sampler which is just out as well – some damn fne music there too.

Orinoco – Stolen Moments (Flash Forward)

Although this was actually repressed a year ago as a sort of limited edition deal, there seems to be some new copies of it floating around, which is good because this is a very special record. Out way, way, WAY back in 1991, Orinoco hails from Italy, and was picked up by pretty much every one of those DJs you’ve heard me banging on about, including Derrick May. And if that isn’t a seal of quality I don’t know what is.

It’s one of those rare records which you can describe as being ‘of it’s time’ without being cruel. It’s a wide-eyed affair which draws on acid, tribal techno and something Orbital-like to create some warm, twisting music which just seems to float there in your head. While Stolen Moments and Echo are a pair of wobbling belters, replete with the sort of dripping chord progressions, dreamy synths and bleepy leads that’ll have you rethinking whether dungarees and bandanas were as shite an idea as they now seem (hint: They ARE as shite as they now seem) they both sound like nothing else around just now. The other two tracks, Orinoco itself and the quite frankly brilliant Tribal Echo will just do a number of you and leave you doing one of those embarrassing shuffle dances around the house. Buy it and rejoice as reality turns into a rubbish and wonderfully compelling day-glo, early 90s dance music video featuring fractals. Lots and lots of fractals. Lots of fractals.