I revisited the brilliant 'Rounds' by Four Tet, which was reissued this month to mark 10 years of its awesomeness. Read my appraisal of it over at Drowned in Sound or below.
The cult of the legendary dance music producer is gathering pace. As electronic music continues to pound the mainstream with the force of Thor’s hammer, legendary DJs are infiltrating clubs at an alarming rate. They’re trotting out to the decks after 40 years and one big Chicago house hit to play ‘old-school’ sets, or they’re 21 with a number one single and playing their first club. Had over 1,000 hits on Soundcloud? You’re a legend. Ran a club night once? Guess what, mate, you’re a legend!
‘Legend’ is not to be confused with ‘cult’, though – there is loads of that about, too. Cult producers are the ones playing difficult records to half-a-dozen people at peak time, dismissing conventional gurn-curling beats and never stepping into the spotlight long enough to get a decent press photo taken. They’re too old for Radio 1’s playlists and too youthful to be considered an electronic elder, but they’re everywhere, being all cultish.
While we breezily drop these descriptors so much that they start to lose their meaning, few producers possess the rare, indefinable quality that allows them to straddle the best of both. Electronic artist Kieran Hebden, better know as Four Tet, is one of that small number. The parties he curates with Eat Your Own Ears sell out months in advance and his singles are inhaled from the shop floor in half an hour. He’s also worked with some of the most exciting leftfield names in music, including Thom Yorke and Burial, remixed pop names like Justin Timberlake and, at the other end of the spectrum, collaborated with American jazz drummer Steve Reid and Syrian electro artist Omar Souleyman. Consequently, you’re as likely to hear Jamie Cullum play his productions, as you are Joy Orbison.
Yet Four Tet doesn’t come to you, not really: you have to seek him out. You can’t listen to his back catalogue on Spotify, he rarely does interviews and the singles he puts out on his label, Text, are vinyl-only. Similarly DIY – and inspired by a Fugazi show he went to at Brixton Academy when he was younger – he keeps tickets to his coveted all-nighters under a fiver (or, more recently in New York, $5). He’s not the most underground DJ, not by some way, but he encourages his huge and rapidly expanding fanbase to help keep that dance music culture alive.
In recent years, respect for Four Tet has swelled to such epic proportions that his seminal 2003 album, Rounds, is being rereleased. Two albums came before it, Dialogue in 1999 and 2001’sPause, the latter of which was credited with inventing ‘folktronica’, Rounds is considered his masterstroke. Instead of being a love letter to folk or jazz music in the way his previous albums had been interpreted, Rounds takes Dialogue and Pause’s essential threads – angel-soft ambience and minimalist melodic slivers of unconventional sounds, like banjos, gamelan and harpsichords – and spins them into glinting soundscapes that are distinctly ‘Four Tet’. His productions feel improvisational, as if they are free-falling through the air and creating shapes instead of sounds. The patterns dart across a few dainty musical motifs, on tracks like ‘Hands’ and ‘Spirit Fingers’, with all the unpredictability of a moth fluttering around a flame. You’re never sure whether it will eventually singe its wings or flit off into the night.
Take flight it does: Rounds is determined to escape chillout’s beige-carpeted lounge and instead illuminate how sound sculptures can be groovesome and complex. A muscular breakbeat drives ‘She Moves She’, for example, cutting through its geisha-graceful melody, while the grainy, echo-y clatters of ‘My Angel Rocks Back and Forth’ recall very early dubstep. The drums sound as live as any jazz band’s, too: ‘Unspoken’s cymbals gush like breaking waves and the chunky breaks of ‘As Serious as Your Life’ are, presumably, what made hip hop producer J-Dilla want to remix the track. It’s remarkable, considering Rounds wasn’t made in a hi-tech studio but in Hebden’s London flat, using, as one interviewer put it, 'a motley selection of software, much of it lagging behind the cutting edge.' To anyone who mocks the possibilities for bedroom production, give them a hefty spin of Rounds in return.
If you haven’t already introduced Rounds to your record collection, the special anniversary version makes it even more worthwhile. It comes with a bonus disc of a live set in Copenhagen, originally a limited-edition live album released by Domino in 2004 on CD-R only, in which fragmented versions of Rounds tracks like ‘She Moves She’ and ‘Spirit Fingers’ sandwich Pause classics ‘Everything Is Alright’ and ‘Glue Of The World’. For the vinyl purists, the 12-inch edition also comes with download codes – a Four Tet first, it says here.
But, though you’ll be rewarded with rare recordings, Rounds 2.0 is also a reminder of how beautiful electronic music is timeless and tirelessly challenging. That, after all, is the hallmark of any cult and truly legendary artist. And if we all succumbed to Four Tet’s way of thinking, dance music's world would be a much lovelier place to exist in.
When Major Lazer bounded onto the party circuit with 2009’s Guns Don’t Kill People, Lazers Do, it was, in two words, dancefloor dynamite. London house music veteran Switch and Philadelphian global bass ambassador Diplo’s collaborative debut was a hyperactive, gymnastic concept album that flipped dancehall on its head and gave it a jolt of electro. Its Spandex-tight beats, blooping 808s, spaghetti western guitar, badman lyrics and rhythms made you want to oil your buns, slide into a neon thongkini and grind. Even Beyoncé saw its vag-wiggling potential and sampled 'Pon De Floor’s zippy siren in her superwoman anthem, 'Run The World (Girls)'.
One spin of Major Lazer’s second album, Free The Universe, and it’s clear that it’s of a very different bun entirely, the kind that hangs hairily out of low-slung jeans and threatens to meet your face as it pogos into the air at dance festivals. You can hazard a guess at why Switch left, citing 'creative differences': these days electronic music fills stadiums quicker than you can whisper ‘EDM’ and Diplo is a step closer to becoming the younger, blonder David Guetta.
Free The Universe is still, at its very core, a dancehall record, with plenty of guest appearances from Jamaican veterans like Elephant Man, Shaggy and Vybz Kartel. But it obscures the connection ever further with lacerations of Dutch house and brutalising bass and appearances from friends-in-high-places like Bruno Mars and Wyclef Jean. The abysmal 'Mashup The Dance' features Dutch DJ duo The Partysquad, whose only purpose seems to be to puncture Diplo’s tiresome carnival drums with a few lazer-blazing build-ups to make frat boys holler. 'Sweat', meanwhile, with Dutchman Laidback Luke, shoehorns sledgehammer-subtle pwew-pwews in around a Ms Dynamite rap. Heavier still, 'No Partial’s promising old-school reggae vibe flops like a gnarled troll’s belly – thanks to Brit wobblesteppa Flux Pavilion – into an ugly WAMP WAMP.
Despite that, there are some great moments. 'Scare Me' suggests Tiga producing Le Tigre and electroclash legend herself, Peaches, delivers a few predictably fruity verses. Songs from Amber Coffman of Dirty Projectors ('Get Free') and Ezra Koenig from Vampire Weekend ('Jessica') are lovely sun-bleached slabs of wonky reggae that sound like they’re bubbling underwater. Yet they are as if from another record entirely. Surprisingly, Bruno Mars isn’t even the worst thing on the album. He sings the lead on 'Bubble Butt', a swaggering song about sexing big booties. Its minimal hip-hop bounce is a deceivingly intricate jungle of trilling, squawking samples, and a reminder that Diplo can be one of the most talented producers of his generation.
In a parallel universe Diplo could have been the next Timbaland. His obsession with scouring the globe for unearthed beats was established on M.I.A.’s debut album, Arular, and he has since worked similar magic for major artists like Usher, Snoop Dogg, No Doubt and Shakira. But Free The Universe reeks of chasing the success of Baauer’s 'Harlem Shake' – which, incidentally, came out on Diplo’s Mad Decent label – like a rabid dog. As such, it’s just another notch on macho rave’s bedpost.
This review originally appeared on BBC Music on May 5 2012.
BBC Music reviewSoul Clap - Efunk
If you believe the blogosphere-fuelled hyperbole, the future of dance music lies in the hands of Brooklyn label collective Wolf + Lamb and its slow burning seam of deep house. It launched the career of American-Chilean minimalist Nicolas Jaar and has made international party boys out of its DJs, Seth Troxler, No Regular Play and Art Department.
The jesters of this court are Boston-bred duo Soul Clap. They’ve been fizzing away on the underground club circuit since 2007, steadily gathering acclaim for their bootlegs of RnB classics and house remixes. Their debut album, EFUNK, however, has more in common with similarly fun-poking duo Chromeo. They share the same penchant for electro-funk, but Soul Clap sling classic 90s RnB, house, disco and New Jack Swing into the frat party punch.
Unfortunately, they spike it with cartoonish bro-rap bravado too. Their cover of 80s cult electro producer the Egyptian Lover’s The Alzeby Inn, with its homophobic undertones, is an outright clanger (though, we suspect, considering the title’s acronym spells out “everybody’s freaky under nature’s kingdom,” it is meant ironically).
The lyrics aren’t the only thing holding EFUNK back: Soul Clap’s chugging pace drags on the heels of their most anthemic numbers. Even one of EFUNK’s strongest tracks, Let’s Groove On, which references club classics like Snap!’s The Power and C+C Music Factory’s Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now), fails to reach the euphoric heights those inspirations might suggest.
The 90s thread continues on tracks Ecstasy and Need Your Lovin with Mel Blatt, who was in one of the era’s biggest girl bands, All Saints. Sadly, her vocals are wispy-thin and uncoil faster than a bad perm. Better is standout Take it Slow, which could have as easily come from Janet Jackson’s 1986 album Control with its slinky-sweet vocal from Franceska.
Still, the Soul Clap sound isn’t all stuck in the past. They may wear 80s and 90s influences on their sequinned sleeves, but they blend neon-splattered nostalgia with a crisp futurism thanks to their experimental production techniques. If the future of dance music does lie with Soul Clap, you can at least count on it being downright freaky.