In Chicago, the birthplace of house music, to establish your joint as one of the city’s best house clubs is no small feat. But to do it for six years running, and on a Monday night, is downright unbelievable. That’s what Mark Grant has achieved with his Red Dog club — it’s the place in the Windy City for househeads to lose themselves in a sweaty dancefloor reverie, and Grant, as resident, has established himself as Chicago’s main man for marathon sets of booty-shaking, hands-in-the-air groovaliciousness.
How does all this translate to CD? Well, a double disc probably would have allowed Grant a little more room to flash his full sonic palette, but overall, Sound Design Vol. 2, his debut on San Francisco’s excellent Om Records, is a pretty impressive achievement. Over the course of 16 tracks and 74 minutes, Grant takes his listeners on a journey through an amazing array of house styles — old-school soulful, jazzy, funky, Latin and tribal. The conflicting styles occasionally clash, and not every track is a winner, but for most of the way Grant holds it all together with great energy and some truly kick-ass mixing skills.
Grant starts things off hard with the aggressive four-on-the-floor beat of Kaskade’s “What I Say”, a jazzy but classically soulful piece of Chicago-style house with great vocals courtesy of Rob Wannamaker. It’s a smart opening track, smooth but irresistibly danceable, but Grant then makes the mistake of layering in too many intrusive spoken vocals early on — a soul-shoutin’ preacher on top of Le Grande Boofant’s “Bacon Mohican”, some identity politics blather on Mood II Swing’s “Do It Your Way”. C’mon, Mark, it’s only track two — we’re still getting’ into our groove here! Save the politics for later in the set.
Things start looking up on track four, a combination of Inland Knight’s jazzy “Feel This Way” and the wonderful funky soul harmonies of Artist formerly known as Technique’s “Clear”. For the next few tracks Grant hopscotches around various styles, not really taking us anywhere but displaying more of his impeccable mixing skills. Grant habitually spins on three turntables, and it shows on Sound Design — sounds that you thought had long since left the mix creep back in again, beats collide and layer in unexpected ways, long segues build and build and finally release into sparse breakdowns, before a new beat kicks in and propels your feet into another set of dance steps. It’s rare in the world of vocal-based house to hear mixing this creative — hopefully a lot of fledgling house DJs will take inspiration from Sound Design and learn to do more than just match their beats.
Sound Design really takes off with track seven, a layering of the horn lines from A Man Called Adam’s “Qué Tal America” and the hard-driving congas and drums of Atmosfear’s “Dancing in Outer Space”. From this mostly acoustic launching pad, Grant goes on an inspired tear through one great track after another, mixing them flawlessly into an irresistibly ass-shaking segment. Milton Jackson’s Latin-tinged “Can’t Give You Up” dissolves into the more full-blown Brazilian vibe of “Deconstructed House (Phase 1)”, a giddy Jerome Sydenham and Kerri Chandler track carried by the breezy guitar and vocals of Jania and some goofy monkey/talking drum sounds courtesy of Dennis Ferrer. Agora’s “Jam Beneath the Groove” keeps the vibe alive with more Latin percussion folded into a juicy deep house groove, and from there Grant segues seamlessly into the jazzier terrain of M Trax’s “Trip Chick”. Together, these five tracks make for a fantastic ride.
If Grant’s track selection were this strong throughout, Sound Design would be a masterpiece. Unfortunately, most of the latter part of Sound Design bogs down in songs that not even Grant’s skills can stitch together in any sensible fashion. “Carajillo” is a typically interesting experiment in Afro-Caribbean-jazz-house fusion from Germany’s brilliant Truby Trio, but it’s out of place here, especially when it’s followed up by the cheesy sax-and-diva R&B of Eddy and Dus’ “Starlite”. Chichi Peralta’s “Un Día Más” and Osunlade’s “Tree of Life” don’t really belong here either — they’re unremarkable Latin and Afro-pop tunes, respectively, that tack on a house beat as a substitute for any real energy. Grant’s closing track, the Pasadenas’ “Round and Round”, is more like it, a shamelessly disco-tinged, soulful number that ends things on a silly but grin-inducing note. Ultimately, I can forgive Grant his occasionally dubious track selection — any DJ this talented is inevitably going to push the envelope, and for most of Sound Design that adventurous spirit pays off. No wonder Red Dog still packs them in on Monday nights.