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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Friday Night Tune: Boo Williams – Midnight Express

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.

Friday Night Tune: Gemini – X

Discogs is a dangerous place for the unchaperoned record obsessive, no matter what their poison. Its bland, functional front end is nothing but a doorway to a realm of scarcely imagined temptation and once you’re in there is no real escape. Sure, you can avoid it, sometimes for weeks, sometimes for months, but sooner or later the hunger will reawaken inside you and you’d better get your wallet ready, and your prayers, because your on your way to a poorhouse made of wax.

I’ve been good around Discogs, allowing myself only scant purchases over the years. But the pull is always there – that junky feeling, and the whispers…oh Lord, the aching seductive tones….

Like most people, I try to use it as an online archive of what I own and what I would like to own. Discogs is great for that. That and checking prices. I came across this EP, On The North Star by Chicago legend Gemini in my stack at home a few weeks ago. I hadn’t listened to it in years. It’s in not bad condition and I went onto Discogs to stick it in my archive. As I did so I checked the price – £100.

Is it that good? No idea. I used to love it, though. across its four tracks it builds on what would probably now – wrongly – be called Deep House. Blue Night, for example, is pure Detroit Techno pushed and pulled by Chicago nous. Day Dreaming is a glorious, Bass led mind rush of spiralling and effervescent tweets and chirps and Snow Drop a gorgeous, dreamy trip through the latest of late night moments.

X was always my favourite, though. Opening with a simple beat courtesy of some of the finest overdriven and crunching kicks you will ever hear, it builds so subtly over its 9 minute length that it comes at you like a soft padded mugger. It exists at the interchange between House and Funk. The grimy, sampled bass fluctuating in harshness as Gemini works the filters over and over, constantly bringing to boiling point before he brings in another Wonderful element. And when the snares come to life a couple of minutes in the whole thing transforms in a loose limbed jacking monster. Even in its more tender moments it never quite leaves you: a snarling guitar snaps out at you, demanding you keep your eyes and ears focussed.

Gemini -AKA Spencer Kincy – all but disappeared before the high tide of the nineties crashed against the new millennium. But he left one hell of a body of work in the few years he was active. I don’t know why he chose to vanish – I’ve heard rumours and stories – but it remains a shame. He was one of the originators, one of that second generation of Chi-town producers alongside the likes of Cajmere, Paul Johnson and Boo Williams who had such a profound effect on the direction of House. Kincy’s influence is still strong today whether or not that truth is conceded – listen to X and tell me you can’t here a generation of modern House and Techno in its sounds and grooves, tell me you don’t hear this record when you listen to Kyle Hall or Jay Daniels.

Some of his work has been re-released in recent years on a couple of different labels, all of it more reasonably priced than this one is on Discogs. Would I sell it? Nope. Some things are more precious than money no matter what the profiteers of the internet might think. This one is a keeper.