By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
It used to be so easy for DJs. Refine a set over a couple of years, license the necessary tracks, mix them all together and voilà! Genres were born, scenes were codified and superstar DJs were crowned. Lately, though, the mix-CD landscape has shifted radically. It's harder than ever to encapsulate a genre: By the time you think you've got a handle on bloghouse, Simian-Justice-KRFT has uploaded a new Digital Data Noize remix. And mixing these days? Forget it. Every 14-year-old with BitTorrent can grab Ableton and begin to make mash-ups in minutes. Still, the mix CD endures. And that's because, to be frank, DJs are professionals. It's their job.
Er, well...for Booka Shade (Walter Merziger and Arno Kammermeier), it isn't, actually. They're producers, not DJs. Good thing, then, that the !K7 label doesn't discriminate. It's been asking artists of dubious DJ provenance to contribute to its DJ Kicks series for a number of years now (among the most recent: Four Tet, Annie, Erlend Øye, Hot Chip). Luckily, Booka have a trick up their sleeve—something that separates the duo from teenage torrenters. In mixing their wide-ranging set, Booka have decided to use their own rhythm tracks to connect some of the dots. (How else do you think the Tubes flow so easily into Brigitte Bardot, or they're able to find their way unharmed out of two John Carpenter tracks?)
Of course, when Booka get too cute—stopping mid-mix for a five-and-a-half-minute detour into Aphex Twin's "Alberto Balsam," for instance—it doesn't quite work. But they somehow come out by mix's end successfully having traversed '70s Eurodisco (Cerrone), '80s new pop (Heaven 17), '90s techno (Carl Craig) and '00s U.K. garage (the Streets) pretty much unscathed. Pretty good for a couple of beginners.
Fellow German Henrik Schwarz takes a slightly different approach on his newest mix CD. Live, despite its name, is a painstakingly constructed album, culled from gigs in 16 cities and edited together in his studio in Berlin. Unlike many electronic musicians who DJ for club audiences, Schwarz primarily plays live sets of his own productions. As such, the album is composed almost solely of (mostly previously released) original tunes and remixes, aside from the progressive funk of Mandrill's "Mango Meat" and Sun Ra's lockstep "Lullaby for Realville."
Those two tracks aren't accidents, by the way. Schwarz's deep house is just as much a direct descendant of Louis Armstrong as it is of Little Louis Vega; his productions here more often than not feature a jazzy Rhodes piano, chiming marimbas and soulful vocals. What allows Schwarz to improvise so successfully? That ever-present four-four beat. When asked recently in an interview whether he might ever be interested in making non-dance music, Schwarz answered, "Well, I was planning to do that, but it seems to be very hard for me to get rid of the straight bass drum. I'm trying hard...to make music that's rooted in dance music but is not dance music."
That quote is probably the most apt description for Ricardo Villalobos' dance-music creations these days. Villalobos started his career as a rather average house producer in the mid-'90s, but since 2000's "Que Belle Epoque" 12-inch, he's incorporated the Latin-American syncopations of his birth country (Chile) with the minimal techno of his country of residence (Germany). It's a formula that's worked well: Villalobos currently sounds like no one else working in electronic music—and he's one of its most popular personalities because of it. Well, that and his reputation for closing out after-after-after-parties 36 hours after the original one started.
Fabric 36, Villalobos' newest mix, takes Booka Shade's and Schwarz's ideas one step further: It's solely composed of his own never-before-released original compositions. It is, in a sense, his new album and his new mix. (Villalobos seems no longer interested in traditional releases; his latest single was the 38-minute-long Balkan cumbia techno masterpiece "Fizheuer Zieheuer.") Early on, Fabric 36 works the same hypnotic effect that the slow-moving "Fizheuer" did—it doesn't seem to be interested in much more than its intricate sound design.
Midway through, however, he introduces vocalist Jorge Gonzáles and the positively Proustian "4 Wheel Drive," in which I think the refrain goes, "The sound of kissing/The smell of grease [Greece? Grapes? Crepes?!?]/(No idea)/A shiny bit of skin." It's soon followed up by an out-of-nowhere Japanese drum solo and, later on, what sounds like a Chilean football chant—all of which is filtered through his peculiar sensibility. That's a good thing and ultimately what could help save the DJ mix CD from complete irrelevance. When people continue to twist the confines of what a mix CD can be, it's gonna get weird—and awesome. Because "confusion," as Gonzáles puts it, "is next to happiness."