Tuesday, May 21, 2013

"Red Alert/Yo Yo"
"Rendez-Vu/Jump 'N Shout"
director's cut, Village Voice, February 23rd, 1999

by Simon Reynolds

Nobody exemplifies the promiscuous impurism of late-'90s house music better than Basement Jaxx, the South London duo of Felix Buxton and Simon Ratcliffe. On their two recent singles (four A sides + dub versions = an album's worth of stuff), virtually every track creates a new subgenre. "Red Alert" is P-Funk house: Bootsy slap-bass, g-funk synth, a chorus of psychedelic dwarves. Flipside "Yo Yo" has been hailed as "punk garage," for the Nirvana/Pixies heft of its fuzzed-out bass riff. But the chorus reminds me of Jamie Principle's eroto-mystic house classic "Baby Wants To Ride." If Prince-wannabe Principle had ever got to make his own Sign of The Times, it might have sounded like Basement Jaxx.

On the most recent single, "Jump 'n Shout" is ragga-house driven by a flagrant, in-yer-face thug of a bassline and hectic patois patter; "Rendez-Vu" could be either "flamenco-house" or "The Genre Formerly Known as House," meshing Castilian guitar flurries, Zapp-style vocoder ditties, and a lush Prince-like decadence. Where most dance producers make a virtue of creative thrift, Buxton and Ratcliffe are maximalists: instead of interminable loops, you get new patterns every couple bars, sonic singularities, an insanity of detail, and a mix riddled with dub-wise wormholes. Yet the Basement boys' sonic largesse never degenerates into eclectic whimsy or that multilayered-but-not- integrated form of additive composition that undoes so much computer-based music.

The duo's debut album, due for April release, reveals even wilder twists to the contours of house as hitherto known— like "Don't Give Up," a quiet Sturm und Drang ballad of billowing acid-bass and Scott Walker strings. Remedy looks set to do for house what Reprazent's New Forms did for jungle in '97— explode the genre's parameters, and grab the ear of the wider world beyond.

BASEMENT JAXX, interview
The Wire, summer 1999

by Simon Reynolds
Without fanfare, house has crept forward to become the leading edge of dance culture again, like it was over a decade ago. It's managed to sidestep the grimly purist rut that's ensnared minimal techno and drum and bass ; rather than getting paranoid about stylistic contamination and bastardy, late Nineties house is pragmatically open to outside influence. Slyly, it assimilates rhythmatic and texturological tricks from overtly experimental forms of electronica, then resituates them in a juicier pleasure-principled context. As a result, late Nineties house encompasses a huge range of flavas: Stardust/Roule/Daft Punk-style disco cut-ups, Herbert's voluptuously textured future-jazz, Green Velvet's tripped-out story-songs over harsh machinic grid-grooves. And then there's Basement Jaxx--Felix Buxton and Simon Ratcliffe--whose music is so promiscuously impurist it should really be dubbed The Genre Formerly Known As House.

The Jaxx boys' first three EPs were lumped in with the mid-Nineties wave of "Nu-House," British outfits such as Faze Action and Idjut Boys. But Buxton & Ratcliffe soon got fed up with that scene's snobbery and authenticity fetish--the obsession with reproducing the sound of "Loft classics" (disco productions by Larry Levan and Francois Kevorkian popular at New York underground clubs in the 1970s and early Eighties).

"Nu House was good at first," says Ratcliffe, "but it quickly became dull and smug--'we know what the cool records are, we're replicating them, and isn't it groovy?'" Having rapidly achieved their initial goal--mastering the skills of contemporary US house auteurs they admired like Masters At Work and Mood II Swing--Basement Jaxx were hungry for new challenges. "In the beginning, we were just trying to be house producers," says Ratcliffe. "Now we're trying *not* to be house producers."

The Genre Formerly Known As House tag fits because Prince and his balancing act of identity-through-constant-flux is an aesthetic model for Basement Jaxx. Their debut album Remedy recalls Sign O' The Times in its insanely detailed production, compulsive stylistic hybridity, and warped vocal multitrackings. Above all, it's Prince-ly in its maximalist-not-minimalist extravagance--ideas that other producers might spin out for entire tracks occur as sonic singularities, gratuitous one-offs. "We want you to hear something different each time you listen," says Ratcliffe. "Hopefully we don't over-confuse people by putting too many things in. Then again, you want to be slightly baffled by music, don't you?"

Remedy's most jaw-droppingly disconcerting moment might be the point in "Same Old Show" where the listener realises the tune pivots around a sample from "On My Radio" by ska group The Selector--a short phrase of eerie vocal counterpoint brilliantly isolated from its perky Two-Tone context and looped to monstrously mantric effect. A protest against the formulaic homogeneity of dance music, "Same Old Show" gets it message across as much through its sound as the "it's just the same old show" sample. "There's a kind of ugliness to it," decides Ratcliffle. "A lot of the original Chicago house music was done by people who really weren't that musical, in the traditional sense. But the wrongness gave it a real excitement . It's good not to be too safe about being in tune or having correct timing. 'Same Old Show' isn't about musical cohesion, really-- it's about energy, and oddness."

Waxing lyrical about the scuzz appeal of Camberwell (where the duo's studio is based) compared with chic neighbour Brixton, Ratcliffe says the Jaxx are "anti-style... Our music's saying 'fuck off' to things everyone thinks are cool." In this Camberwell spirit, the Jaxx put a deliberate record-skipping effect into "Yo Yo," another Remedy stand-out. Combined with a simultaneous bassline change, the skip, says Buxton "makes you feel like everything's slipped. It's great because it's like a *new sensation*. And that's a bit of our jazz attitude--like Coltrane pushing his instrument, doing things that initially sounded totally wrong, and it's only later you realise 'that was music all along''.

Also citing jazz as an influence, Ratcliffe describes the Jaxx methodology as "freestyling-- we freestyle in our programming". The duo jam with their machines to create things like the strobing, wobbly-fingers-in-your-earhole effect in "Razo-Caine" (a fantastic bonus track on the recently re-released "Red Alert" single). "With that, I was playing the samples live on the keyboard and pitchbending them," explains Buxton, "Simultaneously Simon's EQing what I'm doing on the desk, effecting them, and placing them within the track."

Where Buxton's musical trajectory (digging Gilles Peterson's jazz-dance scene in the late Eighties, organising his own underground house parties in Brixton in the early Nineties) is oriented around club culture, Ratcliffe's background has oscillated wildly--from playing guitar in jazz-funk bands to making hardcore rave tunes under the name Tic Tac Toe. Fondly recalling the days when his breakbeat anthem "Ephemeral" got remixed by Fabio, Grooverider and Mickey Finn, Ratcliffe describes 'ardkore as a positive example of "the technology taking over. And it was so English--unsophisticated, full of attitude and energy. They used illegal samples, made vocals so high they sounded ridiculous--but it worked. It's that same punk spirit that we're trying to incorporate into our music."

Indeed, Basement Jaxx call what they do "punk garage". This nicely punning inversion suggests a spiritual kinship with speed garage--like Jaxx trax, a smooth and sexy New York sound ruffed up with English attitude. In the awesome "Jump 'N Shout", Buxton & Ratcliffe managed to create a bolshy, boisterous ragga-house hybrid that parellels but sounds nothing like speed garage, while the gorgeous hypersyncopated ballad "You Can't Stop Me" echoes 2step's infatuation with Timbaland-style beat-science. And the re-released "Red Alert" comes with a remix from two-step auteur Steve Gurley.

Like London's underground garage crews, Basement Jaxx brilliantly combine songful musicality and trackhead FX-mania, human fluency and machinic angularity, high production values and digital dirt, jazz and punk. In the past, they've swung back and forth on a song by song basis--from the sultry Latin house of "Samba Magic" and "Fly Life" to the evil drug-noise of "Raw Sh*t" and "Set Yo Body Free". But now they're meshing those extremes inside the same track. Take "Don't Give Up", simultaneously Remedy's most accomplished and most deranged track--a quiet Sturm und Drang ballad reeling between Scott Walker strings and nauseously roiling billows of acid-bass. The song's about how you can dig yourself a deep hole by thinking too deeply: the chorus beseeches "don't pull the cracks in your mind apart." And it reflects the trepidation Jaxx felt as they started recording Remedy.

"We were on this precipice, looking down," recalls Ratcliffe. " We'd talk a lot about what should we be doing. That song is like us saying 'let's just get on with it'. So instead of working our way up to it, we did did the most experimental track first. It was us forgetting about dance music altogether." 

Spin, summer 2001

by Simon Reynolds

When Basement Jaxx's debut album Remedy materialized in 1999, dance music had arrived at something of an impasse. All the outer limits of post-rave music had been reached a few years earlier. It was hard to see how drum'n'bass could convolute rhythm any morer without tying dancers limbs in knots; hardcore gabba had taken concussive beats, distorted noise, and sheer velocity to life-threatening extremes; minimal techno had anorexically paring itself down to the brink of non-existence. In the absence of some new drug-technology synergy, the only way forward appeared to involve systematic cultivation of undeveloped terrain within these frontiers. Hence the spate of inbetween-sounds like tech-house, speed garage, progressive trance, nu-skool breaks, and other hybrids, which convulse committed clubbers into pro- and anti- factions, but understandably leave outsiders scratching their heads and wondering what the fuss is all about.

There was another alternative: frolicing through dance music's own back pages. And so Daft Punk's brand of "filter disco" simultaneously harked back to and renovated house's Seventies roots; big beat slammed Sixties surf music, ska, and garage punk into old skool hip hop and acid house; others, from Les Rhythmes Digitales to i/F, rediscovered Eighties electro and synthpop. And it was all great fun, while not exactly delivering the future-rush and shock-of-the-now that, say, jungle transmitted in its prime. And then there was Basement Jaxx with their house-not-house cornucopia that pick'n'mixed freely across all these options and more. What's great about Simon Ratcliffe and Felix Buxton's sound is the way they go from cartoon disco like Deelite at their groovalicious peak to sick drug-noise perfect for humid murky catacombs; from tunes that resemble Prince's Sign of the Times if he'd come from Chicago rather than Minneapolis, to samba-house beamed in from that Brazil-as-utopia that haunts the imagination of many British dance producers. And yet every track has that special Jaxx signature.

Like Prince's Paisley Park fantasy, Jaxx-music conjures the sense of a freakadelic demi-monde you'd just love to inhabit full-time for real. In that spirit, the queerly titled Rooty is named in homage to Buxton & Ratcliffe's most recent South London club. Album opener "Romeo" is so Sheila E you just have to smile, and "Breakaway" makes me flash on "Baby Wants To Ride" by Jamie Principle, a long-lost house pioneer with an unhealthy Prince obsession. With its broken beats and dirty bass, "S.F.M. (Sexy Feline Machine)" is one of the few tracks here that substantiates a rumored 2step garage direction, and it's nowhere near as full-on foray into that London R&B-meets-house style as Remedy's "U Can't Stop Me." So far, so groovy. But there's a side to Basement Jaxx that's a bit too ditzy-ditty and quirky-verging-on-twee, and "Jus 1 Kiss", I'm afraid to say, just makes me think of Wings: intricately ornamented, but as sickly and unsatisfying as a meringue. "Broken Dreams" also has McCartneyesque shades of clever-clever craft, but for some reason its confection of Spanish horns and jaunty bassline makes for a lovely slice of happy-sad. It's also one of several tracks where a weird effect on the vocal makes it sound glossy and faded at the same time--sort of like, if plastic could rust.

Midway through, Rooty takes a timely turn from silly love songs to dark dirty lust. "I Want U" has the awkward, angular almost-ugliness of Jaxx's most compelling music, e.g. Remedy's "Same Old Show". Singer Mandy's exaggerated London accent ("I've bin finking") recalls UK punkettes like Honey Bane and Hazel O'Connor. "Get Me Off" is a hot 'n' horny pummel, all panting breath and brooding oozy bass swelling and ebbing like oily surf after a tanker spill. "Where's Your Head At" rocks harder still, with a bombastic synth-riff that recalls Never Mind the Bollocks (but is actually sampled from Gary Numan's "M.E.") and a jeering thug-chorus that's pure Oi! These three brutal blasts of headbanger house make for a neat parallel with Daft Punk's inspired merger of disco and FM soft-rock (ELO, Supertramp, Frampton, Buggles) on Discovery.

After the monsterfart electro of "Crazy Girl", though, Rooty rather peters out, with the ill-advised juke-joint Dixieland flavor of "Do Your Thing", all piano comping and diva scat, and "All I Know"--winsome, wistful, slight. Despite its many delights, there is a feeling emanating from Rooty that Basement Jaxx didn't really know how to top Remedy. When you've made your reputation through impurism and hyphenated hybrids, you can't really scale back, the only way forward is further into ever more spectacular and farfetched fusion. And the risk is that you'll throw so many things into the pot you end up with the sonic equivalent of that poly-ethnic fusion cuisine so trendy nowadays. Buxton & Ratcliffe have such impeccable taste that they've mostly avoided that calamity. But Rooty's sheer brevity, at 43 minutes, suggests loss of confidence, or even that a number of tracks were pulled at the last minute owing to last-minute jitters.

If they're looking for tips, I'd say jettison any remaining Latin influences or notions of "jazzy" and instead build on the lumpen thump of "I Want U"/'Get Me Off"/"Where's Your Head At". That glorious sequence adds weight to the theory that dance music, in the absence of strong influences from or secret affinities with rock, tends to the pale and uninteresting. Acid house, after all, got its name because it reminded co-creator and Sabbath-fan Marshall Jefferson of acid rock. Indeed whenever purists get worried about dance music going awry they always raise the specter of "heavy metal house". But everybody knows clubland cognoscenti got shit for brains.

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