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.

Review: Willie Burns and DJ Overdose – Sonny and Ricardo Give Good Advice (Unknown To The Unknown)

Willie Burns and DJ Overdose – Sonny and Ricardo Give Good Advice (Unknown To The Unknown)

A decade ago, even five years back, a record like this would probably have had the sneery and overly serious sections of the peanut gallery getting all preachy and whining about ‘ramifications’ and ‘responsibility’ and all sorts of shit which seems really important to the sort of slick and professional meedya sorts who want to make Our Thing Their Thing. Now, given the flood of high weirdness which is engulfing the world, and the way in which an ultra-orthdodox conservatism seems to have got it together with the genuinely, weaponized, bat-shit crazy, any tune that can lift a vocal snippet from (I’m assuming) Miami Vice and lash it to a proper old-school jack track like this ends the day sounding like a victory anthem.

Anyways, that’s kind of setting a high bar I guess, but the beauty of this is that the music comes up to snuff. The B-side, firstly, is packed with about a million locked grooves – something which seldom makes good on the promise but works pretty darn brilliantly here. Veering between squirts of acid and rumbling toms they’re light years away from the smear of hi-hat samples so beloved of the ‘I don’t DJ – I remix on the fly’ gang in their Hitler Youth haircuts. Almost worth the price of admission on their own so numerous and excellent are they.

The main attractions though are the two slammers on the A-side, dirty ripped-up throwbacks to the dingiest of club nights. Sonically they evoke the messy chaos of the sort of house music which remained resolutely under-the-radar during the genre’s original hey-day, taking the basic formula and swirling in a dose of gleeful nihilism to the mix, creating something which was the flip-side to the Second Summer of Love’s bright and shining accession. The first one up rolls straight in with that fecund ‘Take Drugs’ sample leading the way before unleashing the demonic toms which rule over everything. The unfolding darkness is held off with a belt of acidic bass and its chirpier top-ended buddy, lending the tune not only a demented smile, but a mean dose of slanted funk.

The following beat mix is exactly what you both expect and need. Shorn of the original’s acid accoutrements, it gets back to basics – or, to be precise, back to even more basic basics. It simply sinks it rhythmic fangs into your feet and shakes you around, letting the toms and rimshots take turns in banging your brains to mush.

It’s in this absolute disregard for anything beyond the simple, scuzzy nature of the tunes that the music finds it’s soul. The soundtrack to a crusty infested squat somewhere on the edge of the early nineties it may well be, but that’s just layers on the vibe. Tunes trying to hark back to a more honest, less slick time may well be ten a penny nowadays, but very few wear their hearts on their sleeves like this. Huge, filthy tunes that stick two fingers up to an increasingly homogenized scene. The antithesis. And the antidote. Turn it up on election day and make a point.

Review: Jerome Hill – Toybox Part 1 (Don’t)

Jerome Hill – Toybox Part 1 (Don’t)

Glasgow’s spring time weather is notoriously fickle, and the last few weeks have been no different as it veers between blue skies and torrential rain. This was unexpected though.

I sat down a few days ago to listen to Toy Box Part 1 and take notes. As I did it was still dry, and motes of dust fluttered in the beams of sunlight. It didn’t last. Almost as soon as the needle touched the first grooves of the record, things began to change. Suddenly, as Egg Roll’s moody beats lashed the office, the light beyond my window began to fade. No, that’s not right; it didn’t fade, it was like the light was being sucked out of the day as a cloud as black as a Tory front bencher’s soul billowed and loomed above the flats on the other side of the lane, blotting out the sky and throwing everything into terrifyingly sharp relief.

The temperature plummeted but the humidity grew oppressive, matching the tune’s wicked jack; as perfectly in sync as any laptop DJ hero. Egg Roll ended and Skez Princess’s razor-sharp breaks crackled through the room, scattering outward and hacking at the growing storm. Down came the rain. Jesus, down came the rain; thick, almost metallic sheets built from drops as fat and heavy as rivets, smacking into the tired, hot, earth and reaching back up as Skez Princess’s beats and dark matter bass filled what little room was left within the claustrophobic atmosphere.

It didn’t let up with the B-side. I know slowed the raucous energy but replaced it with a seedy intent which curled around the sound of the raindrops exploding against the roof and the glass of the window, the music and the elements conjoining, building a snarling symphony which hummed and shimmered in the thick, dead air. Mono Skank, I prayed, might slacken the damaging thirst of whatever malicious and forgotten demon had been let loose on heaven’s decks but it wasn’t to be. The tune’s proto-industrial bass line thrummed and buckled this way and that, prowling at the edge of my increasingly questionable reality. For a moment, as the beats peeled back, as the music quieted itself in preparation for the final stomp I thought I glimpsed mean old faces in the rain, laughing and gurning. And then the grooves were alive again, pumping in competition with the busy sky.

Mono Skank ended and, almost as soon as the last burst of bass had scraped itself into silence, the elemental percussion of the rain stopped. Stopped dead, as if the clouds no longer had any interest in flooding the world. I sat there for a moment, shaky and uncertain, before hoisting myself from the chair and walking over to the window. Above the smeared glass there were already patches of blue widening in the bruised evening sky. The light was returning, soft and forgiving, brightening the colours of the springtime with warmth. And I thought “if this is what it does to the weather, just imagine what it would do to you in the depths of a Friday night”. Primordial hardcore fuelled burners, fully recommended by the rain-gods themselves.

A Bunch Of Reviews Starring Libertine, DABJ and More!

V/A – Libertine 005 (Libertine Records)

Libertine’s slim catalogue of releases has been a little hit and miss so far, I think, although they certainly have their hearts in the right place. With a little bit more certainty when it comes to knowing exactly what sort of thing they want to be doing they could be a very strong label indeed. Already they have my undying admiration for bringing back the mighty Spesimen for their first outing since God knows when, and if they can move a bit away from some of the relatively nondescript minimal techno we might have something special going on.

Their 6th release goes down the now time-honoured route of getting a bunch of electro artists together for a sampler, and it’s certainly a boost away from the label’s more techno focussed material, even if it does swing wildly from one extreme to the other. Mind you, samplers like this wouldn’t be quite the same if they all sang from the same hymn sheet. Where Gosub keeps it focused with the light hearted, moonlit electro of Black Sequence II, Corp and Octogen bring in the Detroit feels with both Cosmic Velocity and Scionide revelling in strong, early, Model 500 influences. Both are great tunes, with Octogen’s Scionide in particular really invoking Juan Atkins’ machine soul. Space Travel’s From The Sea locks everything into a compressed 4/4 trip of dense, bleepy, and regimented mayhem to close things off. A nice sampler from a label who seem to know what it’s about even if it hasn’t entirely come together yet.

Nothus and Deliwke – RedWalls (XCPT)

Perhaps it has something to do with both the recognition that the UK’s strand of wide-influenced music is getting just now, and the current vogue for – again largely UK based – hardcore, but there is a definite trend emerging in-house and techno that brings a little of that gleefull, breakbeat based mayhem to the floor, even if a lot of the tunes don’t quite get what made that stuff so good originally. XCPT label heads Nothus and Deliwke haven’t entirely gone whole hog for some full on bass madness here, but have attempted to coax something of the attitude into the music.

Does it work? Yes, to an extent, although neither of the two original tracks here – Redwalls and Requiem – really allow themselves to fly off towards some manky, early nineties warehouse, both are capable bangers, suggesting more than a passing kinship with what’s been coming out of Bristol over the last few years. Redwalls itself feels a little harsh, and leans more towards what you could describe as a Semantica style translation of the vibe. The shuffling breaks are hard, and most of what should be the soul of this style, the crazy perc, is stiffly sampled instead of destructively wild. Even so, it’s a nice tune – and deeper than it probably has any right to be. It unfolds nicely, getting in there with some blissfull, bleeped out melodies and squirts of 303. Requiem is even better, jacking into a strongly IDM-ish mood and allowing itself a little more leeway with getting its head down.

It’s left to Mgun and DJ Plant Texture to bring some much needed craziness to the proceedings. Mgun’s take on Redwalls smashes the original apart and uses the pieces to build a trippy, oddly haunting rocker which glimmers with a strong Detroit light. Plant Texture just goes proper mental on his take, rendering Requiem into a snarling, multi-limbed hardcore monster which terrifies and consoles in equal measure.

M.A.P Vs DJ Haus – X-Mod EP (Dixon Avenue Basement Jams)

Dixon Avenue are now one of a vanishingly small band of labels who are still willing to bring a form of house to the floor that has little truck with the deeper varieties currently clogging up the nations ears. And while there is still space in their release schedules for family members like Jared Wilson, the last year or so has seen them expanding outwards towards an even messier, warped and rave fuelled take on the genre.

It’s entirely fitting that they should have brought Unknown To The Unknown head DJ Haus onboard. Haus’ own projects have long had more than a passing similarity with DABJ’s, and this EP, alongside Mak and Pasteman, seals those shared interests nicely. X-Mod is an EP rich with sonic mayhen, drawing heavily on a rough bumping take on Dance Mania and ghetto-house’s weaponized stomp. Both Drive MF and Bang It – the second one in particular – Bring a bruising, jacking energy to the tunes, reminiscent of DJ Funk but with a surly, day-glo charm replacing Funk’s fecund lyricism. Both are straight to the feet and straight to the point, with Drive MF especially bright with its high-speed, shuffling grooves.

Even better is X-Mod itself. Even though it draws from the same well as the other two, it injects the music with a slobberingly dirty blast of late night rave which tightens the tune and dims the light until you just don’t feel safe. We’ve waited a long time for house to start bruising ankles again. Long may it continue.

Best Of The Represses – April 2017

Bring me your represses, your…actually, that’s all. Just bring me your represses. And don’t be bringing me rubbish ones neither. We only want the good stuff here.

The Other People Place – Saturday Night At The Laptop Cafe (Clone Aqualung)

With all the predictability of night following day, Clone follow Warp’s recent repress of the legendary Lifestyles Of The Laptop Cafe with a re-release of this companion 12″ from 2002. To be honest, I suspect part of its fame has come from a combination of James Stinson’s untimely passing, and its relative unavailability over the years. Sorrow & A Cup Of Joe is a pleasant, downbeat slice of electro tinged deep house that many people have hailed as a classic. While I’m not sure it’s quite as good as its reputation suggests it’s impossible to fault it too much, particularly since it pulls of a rare trick in sounding even more contemporary than many of the tunes being released right now. Beyond that, any electronic tune which manages to sound so utterly downbeat yet hopeful deserves a couple of minutes of your time, and everything I said a month ago about the album is just as relevant to this release.

Mystica Tribe’s Telepathic Seduction on the flip is the more vital of the pair, with Stingray bringing some seriously low slung swing and dappled evening sunlight to a tune which wobbles nicely through some almost R&B-ish movement until it falls asleep under the stars. It’s really pretty nice, and worth a look if deep house in disguise isn’t really your thing (I raise my hand here). If you’re a sad-case completest ( I raise my other hand here), a tightly bearded hipster, or simply curious about what all the fuss is about consider this the opportunity to fill your boots.

Gemini – Le Fusion (Another Day)

Spencer Kincy’s Gemini project was one of the truly great sources of house music to emerge from Chicago in the mid nineties as the city’s second wave began to get into its groove. Originally released on Cajmere’s Cajual Records, Le Fusion was one of the corner stones of Gemini’s enduring fame and even today it still carries with it a sense of being both well out on a tangent as well as being ahead of its time. Soundwise it rolls between bumptious, tweaked, Relief styles jackers, and trippy, oddball, thickly rhythmic workouts which are far more experimental examples of house than you tend to find in today’s rigorously codified climate. The opening track is perhaps one of the finest distillations of this grooving madness ever committed to vinyl, with its woozy fairground organ and malicious, descending double bass brewing up the warped and nervous energy as our host holds court in French. While it sound absolutely demented – and it actually is demented – that never detracts from the fact it’s a stone cold killer. And for those of us who like shit to be done right, this release has apparently been licensed from the reclusive Kincy himself meaning that – unlike with a lot of releases bearing his name – he’ll see royalties for it.

Cybonix – Make This Party Live (Frustrated Funk)

Frustrated Funk brilliant series of classic electro represses is really getting into gear now, and if you have any money left following their recent re-releases of E.R.P, Plant 43, Ovatow, Duplex and others you’d best throw your last pennies at this slice of genuine old school Detroit electro.

In comparison with the other names I just listed, this is a thicker sound, but although it shares a lot of common ground with its home city’s sweaty techno-bass there is something even more swaggering at its heart. I’ve never been exactly sure what that is. Perhaps it has something to do with the way it sounds as if the techno influences came second to old school electro and hip hop, or the way Cybonix throw down a more humanized emotional element which gives the music a messier, less precise and far more chaotic sense of fun than is found in other, more Kraftwerkian strands of the genre. It doesn’t matter. All you really need to know is that Make This Party Live is a bonafide classic and it’s good to have it back.

Strengthening the original three tracks of the original release further is Let’s Bang from the band’s debut Cybonix In Effect. It’s a very nice little bonus, adding both a little history and context to the rest of the material. Every tune is a banger, but the standout is the rude grooving, Shake Your Body with its pumping bass and moody piano riffs. A very nice and welcome addition to a growing roster of old electro making its presence felt once again.

Various – V-Max Records (Warehouse Finds)

Finally a special shout out here to Glasgow’s Rubadub who apparently stumbled across a bunch of 12-inchers in their warehouse from the brilliant V-Max label and got them back into circulation. I’m not sure which ones they found, but I got my hands on a bunch of Heath Brunner material under both his Silicon and H&S guises.

This is some world-class electro, but numbers are pretty limited I would imagine, so if you want some, better start hunting before it’s too late. My pick of the bunch is Silicon’s Static EP – You’re unlikely to hear anything as good as this masterclass in stark, warp speed electro for a long while. What Brunner does it astounding – so few elements so much groove. There is almost nothing there but magic. Get on it now or cry like a wean for ever onwards.