Kenny Dixon, Jr. has been recording as Moodymann for about 15 years now, but on the new Det.riot '67 EP, you can just call him Moody. It's particularly curious that he's gone gender neutral on this one, considering that the tracks on this record are the horniest he's ever laid to wax. The lyrics of opener "Freeki Mutha F cker" (a version of which has been circulating for a while in a live video with a much simpler spelling), though tamer than what we are used to in ghettotech and booty house, sound even filthier over a slower, subtler groove. Its frantic, hypnotic bass line and austere harmonies evoke some kind of nervous, impatient arousal; the track isn't as much "sexy" (a way overused adjective in house music), as it is somewhat unsettling.
That track and the haunting "Heaven" feature catchy, rapped hooks from KDJ, and they sound dope, but "Hello 2morrow" is a straight up late 60's/early 70's style soul jam--complete with amusing astrological lyrics. It's weird, but way iller if you ask me than Theo Parrish's similarly vibed effort from last month ("Chemistry") or KDJ's own recent remix of Sascha Dive's "Deepest America." The EP as a whole is appealingly lo-fi, and includes a characteristic array of samples from blaxploitation movies (though it is one of the few Moodymann records with no crowd noise). The closing title track, a pretty atypical one for KDJ, layers voice-of-god white guy narration over a fucked-up electro groove, explaining the title of the EP. In July 1967 Detroit was home to one of the major riots of the late civil rights movement, when racism, urban depopulation, and unemployment made a lot of people feel like they had nothing to lose. The enigmatic Kenneth Dixon hasn't done many interviews, but he's always made sure to emphasize the African-American origins of his music, and its capacity for addressing African-American life.
It's interesting to see KDJ writing socially themed songs here with such clarity (and vocalizing them in his engaging mumble), considering that many of his greatest tracks were (de)constructed by snipping away at soul, funk, jazz, and disco songs, stripping them of narrative excess or direct signification. "4 One Night" on the Det.riot EP hearkens back to this style, reducing source material to a stark framework put through sneaky insinuations and revisions over its duration.
A better-known example: consider how the blunt romantic melodrama of Chic's "I Want Your Love" withers away in Moodymann's classic edit "I Can't Kick This Feeling When It Hits." Of the Chic song's original lyrics, KDJ preserves only the ambivalent title phrase, in an emotionally ambiguous descending melodic line, and a languid, conversational "what am I gonna do?" The result isn't really "about" any one particular thing. It could be about a lover, but it's equally about listening, about dancing, about experience, about memory, about itself as a piece of music and its reception. KDJ encounters "this" feeling, when "it" hits, and wonders how to respond. The track is pure affect, intensity; it produces the same "it" that Larry Heard did in Mr. Fingers's "Can You Feel It," which Kodwo Eshun has identified as "emotion without an object, pointless, careless, directionless feeling for its own sake." The feeling is melancholy, exuberant, and weary all at once; it simply is. Moodymann extractions of "Shades of Jae" from Bob James's "Spunky," "Music People" from Mass Production's "Welcome to Our World," and "Black Mahogany" from Walter Murphy's "Afternoon of a Faun," just to skim the surface, are no less remarkable.
This is one approach to dance music, an effective and influential one, but this new EP of thoroughly enjoyable, danceable songs makes the dominant pattern worth questioning. What happened to songs in dance music? Techno is today so commonly equated with the m-word ("minimal," if I really had to say it), it's easy to forget that Juan Atkins's earliest techno tracks were straight up verse-chorus-verse pop songs ("No U.F.O.'s," "Future," and so on). This should really come as no surprise, considering that European synth pop, which always had something of a Tin Pan Alley aspect to it, was one of the main antecedents to Detroit Techno.
But in spite of occasional exceptions (the Villalobos remix of Depeche Mode's "The Sinner in Me" is an obvious example, Kompakt has produced many others, Tin Man's "Wasteland" is an interesting recent one), techno has largely abandoned this aspect of its history. House has historically been more prone to song, with a stronger influence of disco, but the current "deep" trend goes in the other direction. Indie/dance cross pollination has resulted in a growing number of songwriters; a few are often compelling (LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy, Hercules and Love Affair's Andy Butler, The Junior Boys' Jeremy Greenspan, M.I.A.), most are hardly even worth considering. It's no mistake, however, that these acts, good and bad, stick to the rock-based model of albums and concerts. It seems as though for a long time, there have been few producers (and DJ's) in the tradition of techno and house who take an active, consistent interest in the synthesis of words and music.
Certainly the contemporary mode of dance music emphasizes its ambient roots. I mean the word not in the sense of blending into the background, but in adopting the position of Erik Satie's "furniture music": a sound that is more like a setting than a scene, a landscape to explore rather than an event to interpret. This is, of course, one of the most interesting and appealing things about this music, but how would a different approach sound? What if dance producers came with as much Bryan Ferry as Brian Eno, as much Motown Corporation as Roland Corporation?
Perhaps most people don't go to a club expecting words as well as beats, but I think we could manage to follow along. As Kenny Dixon shows with Det.riot '67, dance music as a medium is broad enough to handle it. Right now, it may even need it.