Crossfade Into You

Are DJs mix masters or mess makers? Sometimes, it's hard to tell

Superstar DJs, there they go--thataway, into the dustbin of history. Well, we wish. The truth is that superjocks like John Digweed or Paul Oakenfold aren't going any further away than, oh, Berklee School of Music-bred doctors of guitarology. Fact is, they're bigger than ever. But as the relationship between good ideas and popularity in dance culture continues to invert, and as the recession just begins to show its teeth, the idea of megaschmucks earning megabucks by playing blanded-out versions of what used to excite their audiences is about as thrilling a proposition as a box set of Yngwie Malmsteen outtakes. Oh well, at least we can still dance to their stuff. (Wait, no we can't: See "Generation Ecstasy Comes Down" August 21, 2002.)

Yet when it comes to DJ mix CDs, the big names have tended to belong not to the schlubs on the cover, but to the logos above them. Corporate mythmakers were right: Branding really is everything. Which is what allows series like the long-running Journeys by DJ and DJ Kicks to keep going. Dance buffs speak of these titles the way movie aficionados talk about Criterion Collection DVDs. But series like these are just as suspect as the superstar syndrome itself, as I found out the hard way: In 1995 I paid $25 for the new volume of Journeys--mixed by pioneering British sampling duo Coldcut, a.k.a. Matt Black and Jonathan More--and sold it back for a fifth as much two weeks later. Subtitled 70 Minutes of Madness--which is both a pun on their legendary 1988 "Seven Minutes of Madness" remix of Eric B. & Rakim's "Paid in Full" and a promise of severe sonic discombobulation--the disc was out of print until its reissue this summer by JDJ. Since the likes of Spin and the Wire have taken to anointing it the greatest mix CD ever made, I approached the reissue with open ears: After all, I only owned the thing 14 days. I must have been missing something.

And I still am--my $25, mostly. Seven years later, Coldcut's mix is just as puzzlingly dull. Surely in the London of 1995, with drum 'n' bass in the middle of its riotous peak, they could have picked some more interesting jungle than the tracks that start things off here. The spoken-word snippets threaded into the mix seem infuriatingly smug--a breathy female insists, "I open myself to extreme possibilities"; a BBC announcer intones, "This is a journey into sound"; Jello Biafra declares that America is under martial law. The mix itself feels just as self-congratulatory as the vocal samples, as if the mere act of having Boogie Down Productions, Masters at Work, and Junior Reid on one disc is the same as making something new from that combination.

Playgroup's installment of the DJ Kicks series (Studio !K7) doesn't call on names nearly that large. The biggest it gets is Material, Bill Laswell's early-Eighties band, or Brooklyn's the Rapture, whose "House of Jealous Lovers" is being hailed by many, including me, as one of 2002's best singles. But Trevor Jackson (he who is Playgroup) casts his net as widely as Black and More, though his DJ methods are far more straightforward, with an emphasis on neat, end-to-end programming rather than whiplash juxtaposition. Jackson's DJ Kicks is stark, with an early-Eighties-as-now feel similar to Playgroup's self-titled album, only without the gloss. Even cuts like Smith 'N Hack's "To Our Disco Friends"--a simple snare-and-acoustic-bass groove that sounds like someone looped the loosest two and a half seconds of acid jazz ever recorded--or the gospel-uplift recitation of Charles Schillings's "No Communication, No Love (Salt City Orchestra Mix)," play into the disc's tense, self-aware euphoria.

As a result, a lot of folks prefer DJ Kicks to Playgroup's self-titled album, which was released earlier this year. I'm not so convinced, if only because much of that judgment seems to stem from a very DJ-like obsession with the obscure records Jackson uses on Kicks. Sure, I'm impressed that the dude owns the Harlequin Fours' girl-sung remake of Strafe's boy-sung club classic "Set It Off," and the dub of Human League's early "Do or Die," and the Flying Lizards flip side "Money B." And that Jackson is old enough to have bought these nuggets when they came out, not off eBay. (Eat your heart out, aspiring superjocks!) But dedicating yourself to obscurity for its own sake is as big a pitfall as moving from the idiosyncratic to the overstated.

Then there are folks like Edinburgh, Scotland's Dave Tarrida, whose commitment to a certain style is still playful after all these years. On the surface of the latest entry in Berlin techno label Tresor's Globus Mix series (the most consistent of all DJ series), Tarrida's approach is straightforward: electro- infused techno, with enough of a house feel to give him cross-boundary appeal. What Globus Mix Vol. 6: Dave Tarrida Plays Records proves, however, is that his heart is still owned by good old-fashioned rave stab-riffs like Black Ops's "Untitled" and Subhead's "In the Blue Corner." Vol. 6 differs from earlier editions like Daniel Bell's Vol. 4 and Matthew Herbert's Vol. 5 by focusing less on textures than on weirdo hooks like Digital Princezz's "Out of Focus," which is the record you might expect to hear after reading a sheaf of New York Electroclash press clips.

DJ /rupture is quickly garnering nearly as much hype as Brooklyn's cheap-drum-machine enthusiasts, but he's more substance than style. Last year's Gold Teeth Thief was recently reissued in a limited edition by Violent Turd, the New Zealand-based offshoot of Kid606's Tigerbeat6 label. (My guess is that copyright lawyers wield less power in Auckland than in San Francisco.) And like its predecessor, DJ /rupture's new Minesweeper Suite (Tigerbeat6) plays like a soundclash between the African Diaspora and the Motherland itself.

Minesweeper is both noisier and more ambitious than Gold Teeth Thief: When the jazz-funk keyboards of J-Boogie's "Gemini Dub" suddenly crinkle into origami shapes underneath Mahmoud Fadi's "Jibal Al Nuba" at the disc's beginning, it's a warning that nothing is going to remain settled for very long. So when the DJ floats Missing Linx's a cappella rap "In Front of You" over a combination of tracks by Mentol Nomad, DAT Politics, and Cul de Sac, it's every bit as grimy and cinematic as a DJ Premier track. The only difference is that the back alley that /rupture evokes is in Cairo, not Brooklyn. In one sequence, he switches from the gorgeous, hypersyncopated Timbaland-spawned funk of Foxy Brown/Baby Cham's "Tables Will Turn (Bubba Mix)" to So Takashi's tinkling midtempo hip-hop "Untitled A1 From 'Nubus'" without breaking a sweat. When the vocal snatch underneath intones "Gimme bits and pieces," it's less a statement of purpose than a call to arms. None of which will necessarily make DJ /rupture a superstar. Guess he'll just have to settle for being a great DJ.

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