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.