Deep Thoughts

DANCE MUSIC BUZZWORDS tend to be confusing to the outsider's ear. But beginners, take heart: The meanings of individual terms tend to shift around so much over time that sooner or later when you're fumbling around for the right context, you're bound to use the lingo correctly. Take, for instance, the word deep in the context of house music: House historian Gerald Rose suggests that it denotes "the classic R&B dance/underground disco tracks of the Seventies and early Eighties [in which] house has its roots."

Although Rose's definition is probably the most accurate and certainly the oldest, two other meanings are also frequently used in dance-music circles. Music hounds of all breeds have long used deep as a synonym for obscure. Because DJ culture tends to obsess over the freshest new sounds as well as the rarest old ones, this usage applies regardless of a record's age. Still others have used the term to describe an underground house record's aural qualities: dark, dubby, minimal, cavernous.

All of these definitions amount to one thing: If you call yourself DJ Deep--as Parisian Cyril Etienne does--people will be expecting certain things of you the way they might of a band called Bludgeoning Death Metal or a hip hopper named MC Gangsta Rap. They will expect you to be historically aware, to play records in the style of pre-house remix legend Larry Levan, but not to play too many of the records that Levan played--that would make you into the DJ equivalent of an oldies act. Audiences would also expect your record choices to be unusual, if not completely obscure, and for you to chase DJ bonus points by dipping into dubby, cavernous minimalism.

Still, what deep-house fans might not expect is that even though Etienne is rumored to own more than 10,000 records, his American CD debut Respect Is Burning Presents Respect to DJ Deep (Astralwerks) mines limited terrain. As with most deep-house DJ sets, Deep covers the subgenre's bases neatly but goes no further than that. This is less a criticism than an acknowledgment of the music's inherently conservative parameters: You don't look to deep house for earth-shattering developments, because it is based in large part upon working with older sounds. Chances are, though, that innovation would just get in the way of DJ Deep's carefully wrought organic approach. When this CD's mission statement--KCYC's "I'm Not Dreaming (Media Mix)"--begins with a shouting female gospel vocal, syncopated handclaps, and stentorian church organ, it becomes the dance-music equivalent of roots rockers covering the Stones, or the Counting Crows referencing Dylan's "Mr. Jones."

At his best, Deep manages to keep the tried and true from getting tired. Logic's "The Warning," a Roger Sanchez co-production from 1990, still sounds fresh, enveloping spare synth-string arpeggios and fluid organ riffs in its outer-space swing. The pumping, hi-hat-heavy drums and buoyant bass activity of Kimra Lovelace's "Misery" shift the set's relaxed groove into full gear. But even if you love Afro-Latin percussion and jazzy piano runs as much as Deep does, their superabundance here isn't offset imaginatively enough to remain compelling for 79 minutes. A languid tone might be Deep's aim, but too often his musical simmering ends up lukewarm.

Like Rose's deep definition, Respect Is Burning Presents Respect to DJ Deep roots itself in the Seventies and Eighties underground and borrows from R&B influences. But ideally, these styles should be the minimum qualifications upon which DJs can build an eclectic peak-and-valley flow for their music. Which is to say, buzzword-wise, DJ Deep lives up to his name just fine. That doesn't mean he isn't occasionally lacking in depth.

 
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