Six months ago we were drowning in Chill Out compilations. Now the record stores are groaning under the weight of innumerable History of House collections. This epidemic of retrospective nostalgia follows in the wake of some good TV documentaries and coincides with the post-1988 dance generation hitting the thirtysomething category. The resultant desire to recapture both their mis-spent youth and the mythical originating moments of house and techno seems to have suddenly reached obsession level. More cynical folk than me might also suggest that it is the aridity of much that passes itself off as the legacy of that cultural explosion that has seen the launch of so many “Back to the Old School” nights and a renewed enthusiasm for Frankie Knuckles, Ron Hardy and other dance pioneers.
Whatever the reason, the time is ripe for a set such as this. It masquerades as a historical survey, but is really a pick of some of the best-selling and best-loved cuts sold by the influential New York record store, Dance Tracks. What it absolutely lacks in representative survey qualities, it more than makes up for in sheer quality. This for house-heads old and new and is an essential purchase. None of these tunes crossed over into the mainstream, all of them are good and one or two are the best examples of their sub-generic type that exist. All have the decided advantage of sounding nearly as good at home as they did (and still do) in a club.
They are all house tracks. Some are more soulful or garagey, some a little on the techno side of things, but mainly they are 4/4 grooves firmly within the tradition. To a large extent they are the tradition. Larry Heard, Kerri Chandler, Joey Negro, Juan Atkins, Paul Simpson, Norma Jean Bell are just some of the key figures who are featured. Melody and mood, human emotions and digital beats, that is what this is all about. If this album doesn’t alert you to the genre’s strengths, then this music is not for you.
Those hoping for the rave anthems of their teenage years will be disappointed, this is subtler fare. Nonetheless the opening two tracks will evoke the early 1990s as well as many better known pieces. Pacha’s “One Kiss” and Gypsy’s “Funk De Fino” have that spacey, ecstasy-friendly texture that conjures up illegal parties and early Ibizan hedonism. The “prog rock” opening to “One Kiss” sounds a little alarming now and was perhaps a warning of Progressive horrors to come but the Loft-championed Gypsy cut has lost none of its blissed-out charm.
From then on it is house as disco that wouldn’t die — but in it’s more experimental guise. Doubts that this is a black musical form should rapidly evaporate by the time you reach Norma Jean Bell’s classy “Nobody’s Gonna Love You” or Simphonia’s New Jersey favourite “Can’t Get Over Your Love”. This is uptempo soul music of the very best. The former is just five years old and the latter 10, but their hearts are both in the late 1970s (probably at the Paradise Garage).
Before we get to those delights we have to deal with the maverick inventiveness of Chicago’s Larry Heard and Detroit’s Juan Atkins. Heard’s “Manhasset” is a perfect example of his singular ability to make dance tracks that are full of melancholy and pathos. Uplifting in its aims, it still manages to evoke loneliness and is uncomfortably poignant. Heard was so important to early house being seen as capable of artistic possibilities and records like this show him to have been years ahead of anyone else in understanding the range of feelings the minimalist form could capture. Atkins, as Model 500 (so 1980s, so Kraftwerk-inspired), gives us “Starlight”, which we would have called techno back in the day (the credits say 1995 but it sounds older). Now it would be termed tech-house. Either way it is stark, dark and deep.
There are a couple of big-voiced Garage belters of the male vocal variety, which never seem quite as successful as the female ones although they have their supporters. Kerri Chandler/Arnold Jarvis deliver the definitive take on this full-on, gospel-based style with “Inspiration”, whereas Alexis Suter’s re-launched “Stop” is a bit sub-Mass Order for my liking. This East Coast sound is the least changed in all of dance culture and it is no surprise that it is making inroads currently into UK Northern and Modern Soul circles. Something of the stomping 1960s beats that blew up at legendary clubs like the Wigan Casino cling to these high-octane performances.
Afro-beats and acid jazz are touched on by Bob Holroyd and A Man Called Adam — both stalwarts of any number of scenes and always reliable. Leslie Joy is an odd but adequate delegate from the Canadian club scene, which leaves DJ Rasoul and the outstanding tune on this and almost any house set you could compile. Only two years old, “Let Me Love You” is already in a lot of people’s all time top 10 and has all the jazzier, cooler ingredients that Rasoul, Miguel Migs, Jay Denes and other Californian producers have delighted audiences with over the last three years. Smooth vocals, but with enough ache and edge to them, and a sinuous rhythm straight from the top drawer, it epitomises the West Coast’s current lead in all things discreet but deliciously danceable.
This album is a tribute to a discerning shop and the music that inspires it. It is also as relevant to current trends as it is nostalgic (most of the tracks are not that old anyway). It will be seized upon eagerly in the UK and in Europe, where some of these performers have a following that is close to idolatry. It is minority fare, even within the dance world, but there are signs of a revival of interest in the “blacker” elements of house and techno. This is an excellent sample of some of those elements, although the best thing about Do You Know House is tucked away in small print beneath the title. It says “Volume ONE”.