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Dâm-Funk's Time Machine Boogie

By Andy Beta | NPR
Tuesday, June 14, 2016

DJs can be a cagey bunch, protective of their knowledge, reluctant to reveal favorite digging spots to even their closest friends or, in the case of Afrika Bambaataa, peeling center labels off in the shower so that only he knew the groove, all so as to keep their secret weapons, well, a secret. But not Damon Riddick. If you've ever caught a set by the man better known as Dâm-Funk, either at his Funkmosphere residency at The Virgil in Silver Lake every Thursday night or else DJing for the likes of Animal Collective or Egyptian Lover, Dâm readily shares his deep knowledge, often hopping on the mic to ID an otherwise un-Shazamable artist, label and year of release, a personal Discogs entry for the dance floor.

"I'm sure it can be disruptive to be on the dance floor when I'm on the microphone shouting out an artist and year," Riddick said with a buttery drawl from his home in L.A., hours before he was to hop on a plane and DJ in Europe. "Let the other DJs be Mr. Quiet Guy and mix seamlessly, I don't do that. I have a different approach." That slant defines Dâm-Funk's latest entry in the long-running DJ-Kicks series, which has featured the likes of Kruder & Dorfmeister to Nina Kraviz in its twenty-year history. Each entry stakes out a DJ's particular style and eclectic taste. On his mix, Dâm digs deep into a vintage style of music now classified as "boogie" or "modern funk," and segues into modern ambient and Chicago deep house.

Arriving somewhere between the collapse of disco in 1979 and the rise of hip-hop, house and techno by 1986, boogie (separate from the 1920s piano style and not quite aligned with disco songs that utilized the word) had roots in those genres and originated in urban centers like New York, D.C., Chicago and Los Angeles without quite fitting in with those cities' scenes. "It was an acquired taste for listeners and DJs within those communities and it was always tongue-in-cheek," said Dâm.

Boogie primarily featured singers and producers without access to live bands and instrumentation, who perhaps couldn't afford use of a professional studio, making music in makeshift set-ups in their own bedrooms, utilizing the cheap and affordable technology provided by Japanese-manufactured synthesizers and Roland TR-808 drum machines to be their own band. "What makes boogie sound current is it's a natural progression from a lot of the eras we've been through in dance music," Dâm said. Throughout his mix, you can hear the telltale tic of the 808, the canned handclaps that echo through early hip-hop and house, the rubbery bass lines that carried over from disco and catchy keyboard melodies that could have made them hits in a parallel dimension.

"Those musicians who did boogie were incredibly skilled multi-instrumentalists, but they were not being produced at this high level," said Nite Jewel's Ramona Gonzalez. She cites the influence of this era of music on her own new album, Liquid Cool, and collaborated with Riddick on the mix with "Can U Read Me?," a track that conjures late-'90s Janet Jackson. "Either they weren't discovered or people from certain backgrounds weren't given those kinds of opportunities, so they had to do it on their own. But the skill level and prowess is high level. It's not just home-recorded and amateur, it's really dynamic music." Dâm alights on hopelessly obscure artists from this era like Crystal Winds, Take Three and True Design as well as a new generation of musicians who also take inspiration from this time period, be they Bulgaria's L 33, Kansas City's Reggie B or fellow Angeleno producers like Moon B and the aforementioned Nite Jewel. As a whole, it's a heady mix of gauzy, gravity-free melodies and sticky g-funk bass.

Dâm-Funk isn't just pulling out some deep-digger selections that fall between the cracks of better-known genres, but also correcting a historical oversight in the mix. "Sometimes history is altered; it's not deliberate, it's just nature," Dâm said. "You can ask someone in techno who Underground Resistance is and they won't be able to tell you, but they'll know all about Richie Hawtin. As time goes on, people forget who the actual person was who did this, the guy that's a school teacher now because he had to pawn his keyboards and drum machine is forgotten about. It's just unfair."

One of the mix's highlights is "Theme From Beach Boy," a wobbly atmospheric rarity originally released in 1982 by Verticle Lines, an artist with but one release to its name. But read the credits and you'll realize that it's an alias of Barry Michael Cooper, who is better known for what he did after music. He wrote for the Village Voice (his profile of producer Teddy Riley coined the phrase "new jack swing") and went on to pen the screenplay for New Jack City.

For the most part, these artists did not have access to the equipment and infrastructure to make music videos or even properly document their own scene. "I wish we had cameras and video of the events, but no one had that kind of money," said Greg Broussard, also known as West Coast hip-hop/electro figurehead The Egyptian Lover. "Recording devices were expensive and of course there were no cell phones yet." In 1983, Broussard and another young MC, Tracy "Ice T" Marrow, were members of early West Coast crew Uncle Jamm's Army. "They were bigger than Prince and Rick James out in L.A. They were packing places like the L.A. Sports Arena with 10,000 people, with them just playing records," Dâm said, but little of that time period made it to the public record. "It was an undocumented era. Nobody had cameras back then and you had to have a company to film s***."

"It's very important to keep this history alive so people know the true story [of] how L.A. became what it is," Broussard said about his "Dial-A-Freak" being included in the DJ-Kicks mix. That song has all the seeds for the subsequent California electro/hip-hop scene within its 808 ticks, synth chirps and Ma Bell moans. (The track also appears on L.A. hip-hop imprint Stones Throw's massive 4xLP bass sarcophagus, Egyptian Lover 1983-1988.) "All I had was an 808 drum machine so I programmed a beat and went into the studio," Broussard said about the track's genesis. "We also had a Roland SH-101, Jupiter-8 and rented the rest."

While Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream and the like deployed this new, often pricey electronic technology to make music that philosophized about the future, notions of utopia and outer space, as the components became more affordable in the early '80s and reached the likes of Broussard and these other producers, the music became decidedly more earthly as well as profane. Prince was an obvious precursor to this new, leaner electro sound. "At the parties, I saw so many freaks on the floor and the first song I decided to write was about this," Broussard said. "It was so great to get a phone number back in the day and you couldn't wait till the next day, putting on that sexy voice and talking all night long on the phone." Kraftwerk perhaps foresaw that computer world, but the Egyptian Lover knew that people would ultimately use that technology to get their freak on.

Dâm-Funk's DJ-Kicks mix doubles as both a laid back mix as well as a secret history of personal empowerment through music. "A lot of music nowadays has no interest in looking backwards, it's just worshiping of pop and new stuff," Gonzalez said. "It's inherently political to not consider that stuff when making your own music and consider music from the past instead."

"It's about the heart and soul, that's the politics about this particular entry in the series," Dâm said. "Funk's not just ass-shaking and getting on the good foot, it's a smile with a tear. That's what funk is to me." Dâm called it "a push and pull with nostalgia and progressiveness"; it's also a bittersweet compound between the past and future, between the despondency of normal life and partying on the weekends. That's part of why the mix is so evocative, in that Dâm is not overly concerned with maintaining a high-octane BPM or party atmosphere, but carefully eliciting an emotional reaction to the music. And what DJ wouldn't want to share that with his audience?

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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