On the Down Low

Disco never died in continental Europe. Especially Italy, where from 1983 to 1988, mustachioed DJs and producers churned out some of the strangest dance records on earth, dubbed the deceptively nondescript Italo-disco. The fact that you haven't been dancing to it since you turned 21 is almost criminal.

Locally based Down Low Music is one of the very first (and very few) record labels in America to get behind the Italo-disco aesthetic. The 5-year-old outfit, run by DJ/producers Minto George in Dallas and JT Stewart in North Carolina, has made only blue-chip investments with its dozen or so vinyl releases. One look at their catalog and you realize that, despite what the music mags say, dance music isn't in a lull--it's settled into adulthood, sophisticated and eager to broaden its horizons.

Italo-disco is like the soundtrack for an anonymous gay sex club in the back alley of some Buck Rogers space station. Built around a perverse, throbbing synthesizer bass line and drenched in robotic moans about nonsense like snorting coke with aliens, Italo has more ingenuity and sleazy wit in its pinky finger than house music has mustered in 20 years and 200 tons of vinyl.

In 2000, Down Low released "Mischa," a single produced by George, under the name Phrenic, with a stellar Italo remix on the flip side by Stewart, working as $tinkworx. The galloping bass line and delicate synth shimmers could have been snatched out of Giorgio Moroder's music for From Here to Eternity, an Italo masterpiece. Also ahead of the curve was a dark, breezy 12-inch by Macho Cat Garage called "The Muffler Strut," which took the messy Italo blueprint and made it crisp and contemporary. (All tracks can be heard at www.downlowmusic.org.)

Down Low has also nurtured the tragically overlooked electro genre, a herky-jerky hybrid of machine sounds and hip-hop beats. Message From Machines, by Dallas producer Plastic Sleeves, is a sinister old-school electro EP. Like many of the Down Low artists, Plastic Sleeves was a relative unknown at the time, with limited musical outlets. Now that he's found one, he is crafting music that is bizarre and indulgently anachronistic.

"Plastic Sleeves got into electronic music early on in the '80s," George says. "He was listening to [electro pioneers] Kraftwerk and Cybotron, and he didn't keep up with all the stuff that's been going on since. It's almost like he got trapped in a time bubble and that's all he knows about."

When I ask if either Plastic Sleeves or a label producer, who works under the moniker Convextion, would be available for interviews, George exhales. "Oh, gosh, I don't know," he says. "Those guys are hard to get ahold of. They're pretty low-key. I don't think I could make that happen."

Anonymity is a hallmark of Down Low, reflected in its name and the distance it keeps from the media. "We don't send music out to magazines, and we're not looking for a lot of press," George says. "We haven't done many interviews, and we're probably going to stop doing interviews in the future. It's just so people listen to the music more and not focus on the face." He pauses. "I appreciate you calling, though."

Fittingly, George and Stewart met in the most anonymous of forums, an Internet chat group, V-Raves, in 1995. They shared a love of classic Detroit techno and began trading music and keeping in touch via phone and e-mail, hatching a plot to start a label that released only the highest-quality electronic music. They were dismayed at the deluge of mediocrity drowning out the truly good music. They founded Down Low and released their first record, a $tinkworx seven-inch, in 1999. They had never met in person.

"Our feeling from the beginning was that the best music always spoke for itself," George says, "that we didn't have to hype it up or promote it on the radio to be a viable contribution to the electronic music scene."

Down Low modeled itself on the early Detroit techno labels like Underground Resistance and Metrople, which took pains to maintain a detached, almost nonhuman image while releasing understated but timeless dance tracks. Besides Down Low's Italo and electro offerings, the rest of the label's music is sturdy four-four techno numbers, as smooth and tidy as a well-made bed. The aesthetic is highbrow but accessible, like the tongue-in-cheek title of its most recent release: "The Acceptable Face of Elitist Techno."

"We are a very diverse label," George says. "We don't want to be pigeonholed as 'Down Low, the Detroit techno label' or 'the Italo-disco electro label.' A lot of people early on started saying, 'You guys are one of the very few labels in America putting out cool Italo or electro-inspired stuff.' But that's not what our idea was. We want people to have no idea what to expect with each release."

With labels like Down Low refusing to craft a signature sound and taking a find-us-if-you-can stance with the press, it's no wonder the media continue to bet on the wrong horses when it comes to dance music. (And when they pick a winner, as they did with electro, they end up latching onto a bastardized, ready-for-the-camera version--in that case, the fast-up, fast-down scud called electroclash.) But it's how Down Low has survived in the independent dance-label market--not trumpeting genre tags or making any claims to grandeur. Just keeping things, well, on the down low.

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Darren Keast