Steady breakin'

Jeff K and Kelly Reverb put the needle on the record and dance, dance, dance

Kelly Reverb lives, quite literally, in his studio. The front room of his apartment, just off the Dallas North Tollway and Spring Valley, contains no furniture, no sign that someone actually calls the space home. It's a dimly lit jumble of keyboards and wires, computers and vinyl, video monitors and mixing boards. It's not a studio in the rock sense of the word; there are, for instance, no guitars and drums and amps lying about. But there are instruments nonetheless, this compendium of technology literally at Reverb's fingertips. His bedroom is almost no different: He goes to a wall-length closet, opens the sliding door, and reveals dozens of cardboard boxes piled from floor to ceiling, running the entire length of the room. In this closet lies the history of recorded music--and its future.

These records, thousands and thousands of them, are the templates for the albums Reverb has been making for the past few years. They provide the sounds that make up the 12-inch singles Reverb releases under the nom de funk Southside Reverb and his brand-new full-length disc, Breakneck, released on the New York-based ESP-SUN label. But you would never recognize the bits of music that fly by like Chuck Yeager. Reverb's records are not a game of name-that-sample. Unlike hip-pop producers, whose idea of sampling is wholesale lifting an existing song and reselling it to the sucker audience with a slightly mutated drum beat or a different lyric, DJs such as Reverb--not to mention his better-known brothers of the vinyl, including the likes of Norman "Fatboy Slim" Cook, the Chemical Brothers, and the Propellerheads--distort the samples till they are all but unrecognizable.

They tweak, twist, and mutate until the sample--a guitar, perhaps, or a drum beat--would be unrecognizable even to its creator. They layer beat upon beat upon beat, creating a mile-high wall of sound; theirs is what the revered DJ Spooky refers to as a "theater of found sounds...sonic war games in the culture of amnesia." Not only is this a practical matter--hey, it saves money on securing clearance rights--it also turns the resulting music into the DJ's creation; it ain't cut-and-paste art, it's search-and-destroy. Reverb guesses there are "thousands" of samples on the disc, and who could tell? He has distorted the past to create his own present.

Reverb is an example of the progressive artist British critic Simon Reynolds celebrates in his just-published book Generation Ecstasy. Reverb and his compadres in Southside Reverb, men with names like Chad Littlepage and Scotty Marz, are what Reynolds describes as "chronic consumerists and collectors, who nonetheless use their stockpiling expertise as the basis for composition in its most literal etymological sense, 'putting together.' They create a metamusical flow by juxtaposition and segue. As an extension of DJ cut'n'mix, sample-based music at its best is fully fledged composition: the creation of new music out of shards of reified sound, an alchemical liberation of the magic trapped inside dead commodities."

Which is a rather breathless way of saying DJs like Reverb funk shit up: Breakneck is a damned thrill ride, 10 tracks of funky-break dance-floor get-down-get-down. Featuring such tracks as "Go Get it On," "Steady Breakin'," and "I Can't S.T.O.P.," it's a disc you don't just listen to, but hang on to, like a palm tree in a hurricane. It's the play-at-home version of a night-turns-into-morning spent at a rave; the only thing missing are an open field, 13-year-old girls sucking on pacifiers, and a ride home.

The album is the culmination of four years' worth of work for Reverb, who began producing in 1994 as a way of enhancing his reputation as a club DJ. Reverb (not his real name, though no one refers to him by his given moniker anymore) has been a DJ for the past decade. When he was 18, he began spinning top-of-the-pops detritus at the Hard Rock Cafe and working what he calls "high-roller joints" and hotel bars. Four years ago, he moved to the Lizard Lounge and has held a Friday-night residency there ever since. "Then I got into producing to perpetuate my DJ career," Reverb says. "To me, doing records is the best form of advertisement, because not only do you get paid, but it gets your name out there. And I've always loved music."

He has released a handful of 12-inches on his own label, Lone Star, including the impossibly cool "Music! (You Want My)" and "That's What I'm Used to Hearin'," and he's received a decent amount of press--everywhere but in Dallas. In fact, Reverb is a guest critic in the latest issue of Urb magazine, and over the past two years he has appeared at such events as the Zen Festival in Zephyrhillis, Florida (appearing with Josh Wink, Rabbit in the Moon, BT, Crystal Method), and Magnetic in Boston. Reverb has also recently remixed Stone Roses' "She Bangs a Drum" for a forthcoming Jive Records compilation.

Breakneck is actually one of two DJ mix CDs released in recent weeks by local DJs. The other is Killerbeats by longtime local mainstay Jeff K, who, having been spinning electronic music on Dallas radio since 1987, is perhaps the father of the local dance scene (such as it is). But unlike Breakneck, Jeff K's disc features 12 tracks by an assortment of artists--including such luminaries as Cirrus, Gus Gus, and Way Out West, in addition to such lesser-knowns as Vertigo Deluxe and Flammable--merged into a seamless whole. Three of the tracks, including Cirrus' "Break In" and Track Bums' "Computer Dreams," were remixed by Jeff K; the others were licensed from other labels and included on the disc because they're among his favorites.

Killerbeats, which was released on the Los Angeles-based V-Wax label, is the second mix disc Jeff K has done in recent years. The first was the third volume of Full Frequency Range Records' prestigious Platinum on Black series, released in 1996 and featuring the likes of Goldie and Rabbit in the Moon. The disc sold almost 30,000 copies, an astonishingly large number for a DJ mix disc.

"For myself, I've always been challenged by new music," says Jeff K, "and the thing you find with true electronic DJs is, they feed off new sounds and new styles. Ultimately, they will tell you their goal is to educate the masses about their wonderful revolution that's been happening for the last decade. But 99 percent of the guys have to make money and play stuff that keeps the dance floor dancing. For me, it's about truly believing in the music as the most cutting-edge sound there is."

That two local DJs have released albums within a few weeks' time is rather astonishing. Just a few years ago, mix CDs were released sporadically, perhaps a handful a month. Now, they're available by the record-store rackful, compilations cut-and-pasted together by DJs revered and obscure. In recent weeks, the Chemical Brothers released Brothers Gonna Work It Out, Portishead's DJ Andy Smith unveiled The Document, and Fatboy Slim released On the Floor at the Boutique. They're the post-modern version of the K-Tel compilation album, full of tracks sewn together by turntablists with the care of Betsy Ross. "They're calling-cards with DJs," says Jeff K. "If you don't have one, you haven't arrived."

Jeff K has only recently returned to Dallas after a two-year stay in Los Angeles. He has come back to start his own electronic-music label, tentatively named Rumi, and help foster a dance scene that, all these years later, remains more underground than oil. To that end, he has begun hosting parties at local dance clubs, bringing Global Underground DJ Paul Oakenfold to spin a few sets at Seven on Pacific Avenue. And he and local DJs Shawn Slaughter and N-Train have been spinning at the Spy Club on Greenville and Lovers and at various raves around town.

"I think Dallas is seeing a resurgence of quality parties again," Jeff insists. "I think there was a time when promoters were in it for the fast buck, and the cops set up the rave task force. But I think it's on an upswing. Nobody has harnessed all the talent in this scene; nobody has put it on the map. You never hear about Dallas. Miami gets more press. Kelly Reverb is getting some national juice, but nobody has harnessed the talent here. I want that to be changed. I don't want to say I'm back in Dallas to change the scene, but it would be nice."

"There's no outlet for electronic music" in Dallas, Reverb adds. "There's a lot of talent in Dallas, but there are people not getting stuff done creating a scene for electronica. Paradigm Shift are great, but they don't understand the marketing of it."

Paradigm who?
"Exactly," Reverb says. "I understand the hype of it and how to generate hype and how to keep it going."

From 1987 till '89, Jeff K was host of Thud-Slap on KNON-FM (89.3), spinning electronic music because, as he explains, "that's where my head was at." Then from 1991 till he moved to Los Angeles in the summer of '96, Jeff turned KDGE-FM's Saturday-night airwaves into his own private rave. With his Edgeclub show, Jeff offered the latest and greatest in imported grooves, turning a whole generation onto jungle and house and big-beat the same way George Gimarc ushered in the local rock-and-roll alternative a decade earlier. "In 1991, rave and club culture was blowing up, and with Edgeclub, we mirrored what was happening Saturday nights on the radio."

Two years ago, he moved to Los Angeles to work for Groove Radio, which was, for a short time, the first and only all-dance radio station in the country; 24 hours a day it offered up the likes of Prodigy and Fatboy Slim and even more obscure artists, such as Subphonic and Cirrus. But the station did not last long; it is currently being reformatted into adult-contemporary. Now, Jeff K is back in town, starting the label and working clubs--and, whenever he can, spinning that so-called "quality rock and true variety" at the Zone.

The reasons Groove Radio failed are myriad--for one, it was marketed so poorly, you would have thought the owners intended it to remain a secret--but likely its collapse had something to do with the success of a handful of dance-floor artists at mainstream radio. (Irony shakes its funky ass.) In recent years, the Chemical Brothers and Prodigy and Fatboy Slim have managed to transcend the electronic-music ghetto; they're legit rock stars now, faces to go along with names, magazine covers instead of shadows standing behind turntables. But there are hardly enough of them to go around, to build a station on. Radio audiences don't like new music of any kind, especially by faceless producers; they want rock stars, not revolutionaries.

The success of the Chemicals and their ilk "may have not achieved what we hoped it would," says Jeff K, "but the impact is undeniable when you can hear it in the music of Madonna and U2. Let's take two summers ago, when Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers were supposed to be the saviors of rock and roll. This was the new subculture radio programmers were looking to. I moved to L.A. because I thought I would ride this wave to California. But once you get through the Prodigy and Chemical Brothers and Crystal Method, there's not enough rock stars for people to latch on to. There was not enough to influence radio programmers as a whole to change their philosophy.

"They embraced it to make them look hip and cutting-edge, but they discarded it for swing and the new Marilyn Manson album...But it all boils down to what the music gives you as a feeling. Will electronic music change the world? Some of it. But most of it's for entertaining. You either like it or you don't. I would like Dallas to be regarded as a premier electronic subculture, and that's why I moved back and started the label. I am not trying to be a savior. I'm just doing what I can within my own reach."

Monkey see, monkey do
So when's the Four Reasons Unknown reunion? In this town, you're in a new band consisting of members of beloved old bands, you're in an old band that keeps getting back together every few years for "reunion" shows, or you were in a band that just broke up, like, last week. (And, no doubt, you will be playing country music soon enough.) Pretty soon, local bands will begin instituting free-agency restrictions, with ex-New Bohemians guitarist Kenny Withrow acting as the Curt Flood of Dallas rock--for a guy who moved to Seattle, he's in more bands than electric guitars.

Withrow is now a full-time member in the reformed Cosmic Chimp, which broke up a lifetime ago (OK, in 1993), got back together to play Barleypalooza earlier this summer, and has decided to keep on loving you. The band busted up in June 1993, after bassist-lead singer Scott Johnson moved to Seattle, where he and Withrow played together in The Slip with Edie Brickell. But both have since moved back to Dallas and hooked up with ex-Chimp drummer Carl Hamm and add-on second guitarist Carter Albrecht; both Hamm and Albrecht had been in the Dead Thing for several years, but quit in 1996 to play in Minglewood.

"We're playing 75 percent new material," Hamm says, "and bringing back some of the better songs from the old days. While it's a new group, I think that we still have that reckless abandon we were known for in the old days." The band is scheduled to begin recording demos at Withrow's Deep Ellum studio this month (with David Castell producing--fancy!), and will perform October 5 at Club Dada. Which is only appropriate, Hamm explains, as the Chimp had a standing Monday-night residency at Dada when the band broke up in 1993.

Back and ... better than ever?
The voice on the other end of the line introduces himself this way: "Hi, it's your favorite whipping boy." Could it be...? Why, yes, it's Cary Pierce, former co-frontman for the now-defunct (yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus) Jackopierce. Actually, picking on Pierce isn't such a fun pastime anymore, at least not while the members of Pimpadelic and Deep Blue Something draw breath. (Either that, or I've just run out of jokes.) By comparison, Pierce is actually rather harmless, just another earnest, ambitious pop-folkie out there strumming his guitar and singing his little songs and proving he's still the most sensitive boy in all the land. To wit: On the new Aware 6 disc, a collection of songs by bands that want to sound like either England Dan or Steely Dan, Pierce debuts his first solo track without longtime partner Jack O'Neill, and it's one Charmin-soft ditty. Titled "Tower," it's a strumalong piece of burning, yearning (and gut-churning) pop about a guy so in-touch with his emotions, he's "ready to love, ready to breathe...ready to give more than I receive." Quick, somebody gimme a hankie.

But what the hell do I know? Jackopierce did pretty well for themselves--selling thousands of records on their own label, releasing two discs on A&M, and conning a whole bunch of pretty college girls to buy into their shtick. And Pierce--who is currently writing lyrics with Vanilla Ice's former choreographer, and that is not a joke--always took the barbs pretty well, probably because he made some nice coin, toured the country, got on TV (played Rosie O'Donnell even, which must have made him a smash in trailer parks throughout the land), and grew his hair nice and purdy. So when he says that he's proud of the new record, that the breakup of Jackopierce was "the best thing that's ever happened to me," and that he has turned down several "big-money" offers to play solo shows till now, well, good for him. Seriously. Clearly, people are willing to pay for Pierce's product. Probably the same people who voted in last week's Observer best-of issue for McDonald's as the best burger in town. But still.

"'Tower' is just kind of the first installment toward my record," Pierce says of the Aware contribution. "It's like back to the old-fashioned way of making music, one song at a time. It's something you forget when you're on a major label. But it will be nice to do it old-school again, making my record one song at a time and finding a home for it. It's just one song of many. I read an article in Musician with Tom Petty and Beck where Petty said, 'I like writing music I like listening back to,' and that's where I'm at now. I fall asleep with my mini-recorder listening to stuff I did on the back of the bus a year ago. It's sonic Darwinisim, what keeps coming back to me. It's whatever rises to the top." He does make a great straight man.

Cary Pierce performs October 3 at the Gypsy Tea Room. Webster Saltman and Jenifer Baldwin open. The first 200 to arrive receive a free Aware 6 CD. You luckies.

Send your funky shit to rwilonsky@dallasobserver.com.

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