Labels That Changed My World: Djax-Up-Beats

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Let’s start with a confession: I didn’t always love Djax-Up-Beats, and even now there are more than a few of the records carrying their logo which simply make me want to turn the record player off and go do something else with my spare time. This isn’t actually that unusual a situation for me – there are tonnes of labels, then and now, I would cross the street to avoid. But what makes Djax different, the reason they are stuck there in my brain even after all these long years, is that when they were on form there simply wasn’t another European label that could touch them.

The original Djax label was formed in 1989 by an Eindhoven record store employee, Saskia Slegers AKA Miss Djax, in an attempt to champion the producers she knew who she felt were being unfairly overlooked by an overly conservative record industry which had no interest in anything but the bottom line. True to her uncompromising vision, the first release was an album, No Enemies, by an underground rap act, 24K.

While Djax would go on to support the Dutch Nederhop scene, it’s the house and techno that made them famous. Djax-Up-Beats was really a sub label to start with, but quickly came to eclipse the parent to the extent that for most people it’s a difference that simply didn’t matter. Those early records, releases largely by local Dutch acts such as Terrace (who would become a label staple), or Boards Of Wisdom, were thick with a sound that was a European distillation of acid house and rave. But even then there were leanings, nascent influences, towards the music filtering through from Chicago and Detroit in increasing amounts.

In the early 90’s Miss Djax spent time in the States, visiting some of the legendary clubs and meeting many of the producers who would grace the label during its most fertile period. There were plenty of labels in Europe which had taken the US sounds to heart and furthered the links between the artists of the two big cities and a scene which took it all onboard. But where outfits like Tresor, for instance, really pushed a far more purist techno sound, Djax brought something new, something that felt like a hybrid of Chicago’s fluid acid and a much, much harder vibe. Several of these early crossovers were licenses of fairly well-known tracks, often remixed by Dutch stalwarts like Speedy J or Terrace, who warped them to their own tastes, altering the basic structures until they gained a surliness that the originals seldom had. In their own way, many of these records pre-empted what Chicago labels such as Relief would later do: Stripped down, machine rhythms; often light on the tunefulness but heavy on the grooves. Beyond the music, the artwork by Detroit illustrator and musician Alan Oldham (best known for his work as DJ T-1000) provided an instantly recognizable visual style with the producers re-imagined as fantastic sci-fi comic book heroes.

The mid nineties, with the US contingent well onboard, and the lessons and information flowing between the Netherlands and the States, was when Djax-Up-Beats moved into a diferent gear. For a period of about five years, there was barely a label on the planet that could touch them for the both the quantity or quality of their releases, and when I say quantity I mean it. For almost that entire period it felt like there was a new record hitting the shelves almost every week, and more often than not they featured the cream of the Detroit and Chicago talent – well, largely Chicago in fact. Claude Young, Robert Armani, DJ Skull, Armando, Steve Poindexter, Mike Dearborn, Mike Dunn, Felix Da Housecat – their release schedule still reads like a who’s who of the electronic underground. What’s more, Djax-Up-Beats came to define what I thought of as Chicago house for a long time to come. Even today I still favour the meaner and dirtier end of the spectrum.

It wasn’t just the American acts who gave their all to Djax though, or the Dutch producers who contributed so much over the years to the label’s sound and soul. Luke Slater’s Clementine project (still his finest work) found a natural home on Djax-Up_Beats, with something in his melding of furious rhythms and ear for a fine Detroit-esque funk sharing a real affinity for what the label was doing. The earliest work of Scottish producer Stephen Brown – who would go on to release some stunners on DJ Bone’s Subject: Detroit – was to be found on Djax, and remain impossibly potent, particularity his very first release, A Function Of Aberration.

Everything changes, though. As the years passed the grooves seemed to disappear from the records and they grew ever heavier, favouring a brutal acid techno style in which the BPM increasingly shot upwards, and left little room for anything but crunching, distorted beats and howling 303s. The more recent records inched into sub-gabber territory that felt alien to anything from the label’s glory period.

The label is still going, although the releases have become far more occasional that they once did. That’s not saying much, mind you. the output of LIES or Lobster Theremin seems occasional compared to Djax in their prime. Brilliantly though, and one more reason to love them if you needed one, is that they remain one of the biggest labels of their era to have got down with digital. You can certainly spend all you cash on Discogs hunting down playable copies of stuff by Acid Junkies or DJ Rush, but almost every release that mattered is available digitally. I could never afford to keep up with the label back then, I would still be paying the debts off even now, but if you have a few hours to spare, go see what’s there and treat yourself to music from a label who really did change our world.

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Review: Beau Wanzer – Beau Wanzer 12″ (Beau Wanzer)

Beau Wanzer is one of those artists who might just pop up in the place you’re least expecting it, screwing brains with variations of his trademark gutter funk under a number of names and across a slew of different labels. He’s probably best known, though for his releases on L.I.E.S and Russian Torrents, and his work as half of Mutant Beat Dance with Nation Records founder Traxx.

Recently he’s moved off into pastures of his own creation, kicking out a well-regarded d├ębut album of weird-stepping electro tinged techno that moved from jazzy, understated mood music to crunching noise with gleeful abandon. While there were more than just trace elements of the sound with which he’s made his name (it’s difficult to hide too many of those body music leanings) they seemed applied to a wider aural world that were ever so slightly mired by the briefness of many of the tracks. Regardless, it was an exciting burst of ideas that deserved more than the limited praise it seemed to get.

This EP, put out on what appears to be his own label, is maybe best described as a hybrid of the album’s sounds and those of his L.I.E.S/RTV days. It’s a dirty, angry record; unwelcoming but strangely appealing, it’s strands of loose energy hypnotic in their intensity even when they occasionally hit an off note in feeling. I’ll be honest, Never being a huge EBM fan I’ve often been at my happiest with Wanzer’s music when it’s been cracking away at straighter material and there is plenty here that does the job and then some, whether it’s the filthy breakbeat sleaze-a-thon of Beefhearts with its slam dancing, off-kilter grooves and charred bleeps, or the epic nightdrive of Seedless Grins, a paean of bad-assery which builds slowly in bleakness, flexing it’s muscles and scaring you with machine chirps and driving drums.

A-side closer Drew Is A Dog Eater, a skittish electro-ish number, revels in its dissonance, the porpoising, out of tune riff playing against itself across a more perfunctory set of beats. It’s never quite in the game, the drums never kicking it into liveliness and stuck with the brute discordance up top. Such ideas are fine, but here they descend too close to a self-indulgence which is rare for Wanzer, and are on the edge of beginning to grate as the tune winds to a finish. Beaches of Leeches is a great ending, though, spooling up some proper street funk that weaves some nasty magic. It’s a shame, though, that it’s only just getting properly dangerous when it comes to an end. It’ll have you searching in the sleeve to see whether the last couple of minutes have fallen off the wax.

A bit of a mixed bag, then, but not by much. Not as furiously inventive as the album but not too far off, and a release that serves as an important reminder that there is more to Chicago’s music than acid and jackers.

Review: Steve Poindexter – Street Fighter EP (LA Club Resource)

Delroy Edward’s LA Club Resources label has been one of house and techno’s most interesting musical projects since its inception in 2013. Although a substantial amount of the releases so far have leaned towards the rougher, noisier end of the spectrum, the rest of it has been pretty defined by the sort of raw, jacking house music that seems to have become a bit of an endangered species elsewhere.

The ‘Street Fighter EP’ falls entirely in that second collection, and is a continuation of Edwards’ desire to put out unreleased music by some of the people who have obviously been an influence on his own raucous and Ghetto-y style. Last year we had two records by acid house master Gene Hunt, both of which were the sort of proper banging house that scares the derp fans silly, and now it’s the turn of Steve Poindexter, another Chicago master and a man who has been responsible for more than a few moments of honest-to-God classic house in his time.

As with the Hunt releases, these new Poindexter tunes are actually picks of mid 90s material from his own archives. There is a cynical line of thought that suggests that if they had been good enough in the first place, we would have had them released many years ago. In the case of some of these archive jobs this is probably a handy thing to bear in mind. The difference here though, as with the Gene Hunt stuff, is that ‘Street Fighter’ sounds nothing like a bunch of old and forgotten tunes that couldn’t pass muster the first time around. If anything, considering the era of increasingly mannered and ever-so-very boring underground house we seem to be going through, they feel like a much needed intervention, and an injection of the rawest funk into a scene that seems more and more devoid of it.

let’s get this out of the way first. It might be music from Poindexter’s glory days, but there isn’t anything here quite as deadly as tunes like Work That Motherfucker or Computer Madness, but what there is still heavy-set with his trade mark bite and twist. The four of them are definitely cut from the same Poindexter cloth: Rough hewn bangers riding claustrophobic grooves and cut up with percussion that sounds as if it has been made from broken bits of scissors. The best of it is each of them still burn with a vitality that belittles their age.

In fact, you could drop Street Fighter, the opener, into any modern-day set and it would do some real damage with the sloppy, rising and falling riff that runs it’s length. It’s a lively banger; stripped down to a lithe bareness, it’s a testimony to what house music can do when you get rid of all the fat, reduce it down to a few functional parts and build it back up with grooves instead of empty sounds. Cats is a similar creature. Stark and bruising, it’s essentially nothing but an electrifying machine jam that gets right up in your face. It’s music to sweat too.

Sadaam’s Bush and Blazing Saddles stick to the formula but add in riffs full of squashed, warped melody and subtly acidic textures. In Sadaam’s Bush’s case it gives it a playful tone and exchanges the strident urgency for something more whimsical and chilled. Blazing Saddles, actually a collaboration between Poindexter, Johnny Key and Trackmaster Scott, is probably the highlight of the record. Loose, jacking and so very, deeply, stupidly funky, it’s the perfect late night warehouse corker. All it needs are a few strobes and it’ll be right at home. This is house music, the real thing; raw underground jams that are hard-wired to move the feet and the heart. It’s funny that a quartet of twenty year old jams is exactly what we all need, right now.

Review: DJ Deeon – Deeon Doez Deeon (Numbers)

Numbers have had a fine few months on the release front with the cracking ‘Everything You Did Has Already Been Done’ by Unspecified Enemies and the third volume of Lory D’s acidic ‘Strange Days’ odyssey leading the way forward. And although on the face of it neither record seems to have much in common with the other, both are actually pretty good examples of Numbers’ ethos of providing the world with pretty bang up party music that’ll melt your face whilst getting you dancing.

This unhinged series continues into threesome territory with ‘Deeon Doez Deeon’, a record pitched somewhere between a repress and a greatest hits compilation for which the Numbers boys have selected some of their favourite tracks from ghetto-house master and Chicago legend DJ Deeon, and remastered them from the ancient DATs. It’s a timely release too; interest in Dance Mania and ghetto-house is in the ascension again, perhaps as part of dance music’s current fascination with its own past, but more hopefully because people are seeking some sort of antidote to the increasingly tepid tide of ultra dull deep house and techno that is flooding the nation’s ears at the moment.

And what an antidote it is. Even though at times a little ghetto-house can go a long way, there is no doubt that the stripped down snarl of the genre is as much of a shock to the system now as it was back then in the mid nineties. Although these four selections are largely short of the triple X vocal content that was a hallmark of much of the genre, they remain stark, bruising reminders of what you can do when you cut out the bullshit and get back to basics.

Whether or not ‘Deeon Doez Deeon’ represents the best of the best from Deeon’s long and influential career is a question for others to ponder. Deliberately or otherwise the four tracks comprise a pretty tasty cross-section of his work, and it’s interesting to note the ways in which his particular sounds not only had a major effect on the scene back then, but continue to shape various strands of house music nowadays.

Freak Like Me, for example, is the template that so many modern day producers have attempted to make their own. The chugging romp of the bass and the tender, soulful vocals might pre-date the likes of Delroy Edwards by a couple of decade but it still sounds like it was made today. Its functionality is a real virtue; lean, and dangerous, there isn’t a note out-of-place, or a hand clap that doesn’t need to be there. The vocals adding a powerful touch of humanity to the pounding beats, drawing it all together into a proper anthem.

The other side of the coin are the two full on machine jams, House-o-matic and The 604. Both tunes furious assaults on the senses and the dancefloor, they shift around on the backs of avalanching toms and lithe, rubbery bass lines that guide you into the fast lane. They give no quarter – this is about as explosive as house music gets; they make some hard techno tracks I could mention look like Barry Manilow.

The crowning moment of the record though is 2 B Free. Not only one of Deeon’s finest moments, or even of ghetto-house, but one of the best tunes to ever come out of Chicago. Originally released on the ‘Deeon Doez Disco’ EP way back in ’96, it is a wild, crazed psychedelic disco tune built around a killer Loose Joints sample that takes hold and just will not quit.

This is what ghetto house sounds like in the hands of the master. If this doesn’t get you moving, well, probably nothing much will. Magic tracks from way back when that’ll keep casting their spells today. Christ yes.

Friday Night Tune: G Strings – The Land Of Dreams

Nowadays, when you can have virtually every little detail about a record or its producer dragged in front of you at the touch of a button, it’s almost possible to forget that away from the big names and the big labels, and the coverage they were getting in the handful of major dance music magazines (or in NME if you were the Aphex Twin), it was not quite so easy to find out where the music was coming from. Word of mouth; the bloke in the record shop; annoying a DJ at a club – these were pretty much all the methods available.

Originally, back in The Day, we weren’t really supposed to care who the music was by. There was an idea that the anonymity afforded by the underground was important to how the scene would exist and flourish, that we should leave the fame and trappings to rock and pop because house and techno was all about a consensual group experience soundtracked by a faceless DJ who we wouldn’t even see because he was in another room or hiding in a box or something! Cool! As an idea it was pretty cool and deliberately eschewing the personality also fitted in the aesthetic of hard machine music; you could strip the scene of all the extraneous flesh, reduce it down to sound and abandonment of the super ego.

The problem was that it wasn’t actually possible to do this, humans being human after all. All the talk of ‘it’s not about the person’ was often blurted by the DJs or producers themselves from the pages of those glossy mags, irony being easily quelled by good publicity. Even at ground level, with the local DJs in the local clubs it was never as true as it could have been.

Often it was the records alone that retained the sense of mystery and distance. It’s easier now to go through the piles of old records and match them up on Discogs. Even those white labels you found in a bargain bin in your local record shop probably have something – an etching on the run-out for instance – that allows you to identify them. Occasionally, though, even the internet is helpless. Sometimes the secrets are lost.

‘The Land Of Dreams’ was put out originally in 1990, one of only two release by G Strings, a short-lived Chicago label set up by Gregory Sims and Jennifer Hampton, and re-released a few years ago by Scottish label Seventh Sign Recordings. A classic release, with four storming cuts, it remains a testament to the old belief that it is the music that actually counts – even more so because the producer remains a mystery.

I like that. What I like even more is the fact I’ve searched through the net without much success to find out what was known about it, which turns out to be pretty much what I wrote above. It just is; existing on its own merits. There is a suggestion that it might be Ron Trent; It might be but it doesn’t matter.

What does matter is this track itself. Woozy, deep and achingly beautiful it stretches endlessly out. Pastel shade fading into darkness, it’s like someone recorded a sunset to wax. The drums too, proper machine rhythms thickened with the interplay of the percussion, sometimes running slightly ahead of the deep throb of the bass, sometimes falling back as if catching its breath. What brings it together is the wonkines, like its been mastered from a crappy and worn cassette bestowing it with a life and flavour of compression that no expensive plug-in for Ableton would be able to give you.

Should you know something about this record and this track, do me a favour and keep it to yourself. I know everything I need from these five odd minutes of rolling beauty. Everything else it just noise.