Various Artists

Off-Centre: A Riot on Old Street (BBE), Beats & Pieces Volume Two (BBE), Funk Rock (BBE)

In the last few golden weeks of Napster's doomed existence, I was file-sharing like, um, it was going out of business. I couldn't get enough, mostly of dance remixes of Top 40 tunes I had no interest in paying import prices for: the Neptunes' urbane reading of Sade's "By Your Side," an overhauled Macy Gray joint by Jay Dee, Chicago house master Maurice Joshua's ebullient disco spin through "Say My Name," Timbaland's practically unrecognizable take on the same. My CD burner was working overtime, and the flow continued unabated, the crudely spelled titles on the other end of my searches hinting at treasures I'd only dreamed of hearing. A white-label marriage of Beck's "Mixed Bizness" and AC/DC's "Highway to Hell"? Get thee to a DSL. Then the screen went black, of course, as all marginally illegal enterprises must. (Ask me sometime about my college-years calling-card venture. Or just ask Big Music about price fixing.) There was a B-side-shaped hole in my heart, and the glut of mixed-by-a-big-name-DJ compilations clogging the dance section of my favorite record store offered no respite: Napster let me make my own mixes, free of Fatboy Slim or Paul Oakenfold or whoever slobbering all over perfectly great funk gems or the best of BT (haha).

But all was not lost. BBE, a London label dedicated to assembling stellar (and, at least as important, unmixed) compilations of all types of hard-to-find funk, soul, dance and hip-hop stuff, was in tip-top shape, working out from under the specter of the RIAA's legal team and satisfying my need for comps of said grooves. Off-Centre: A Riot on Old Street may be the best example of the label's aesthetic: Built around the twice-monthly London club night that gives it its name, its purported goal is to avoid easy classification. That's why it segues from astral funkateer Shuggie Otis' "Strawberry Letter 23" to a cut-up "Spinning Wheel" by brassy ol' Shirley Bassey, and throws in tasty tracks from drowsy L.A. hip-hoppers the People Under the Stairs and Japanese trad-jazz quartet Sleep Walker. Truly something for everyone, no matter your bandwidth.

Beats & Pieces is on the same anything-goes tip, just in double-disc form. There's a lot more house here, with Masters at Work doing their thing a couple of times, best on the smoking remix of guitarist George Benson's "El Barrio" that sets the set off. New Jersey staple Romanthony (the voice on Daft Punk's "One More Time," incidentally) shows up, too, as does a slinky Slum Village Carl Craig remix and straight(er) selections from Tito Puente and saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. There's two hours of music here, and it's sequenced extraordinarily well--just let the shit play.

And for those erstwhile Napster-ers fond of the thematic mix, there's Funk Rock, which is exactly what it says it is: deep stuff by Sly and Head Hunters, sass from first-gen alt-soul divas Betty Davis and Ruth Copeland and Cymande's 11-minute "Dove," which is the boggiest thing this side of Jerry Cantrell. Is it random? Maybe on the surface, if you've got problems with Steve Winwood sharing space with Can. But in the post-Napster world, context is in the eye of the beholder.

 
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