Donnerstag, 29. Oktober 2009

Electro Soul Satisfaction

You might remember this little clip I posted a while back of Brenda Starr performing "Vicious Beat" in the 1984 movie Beat Street. It was taken from the audition scene where Brenda is entering the stage right after this band:

Singer Mic Murphy and keyboardist David Frank were known as "The System" and played ... well, not really electro, more like synth-based soul. But it was the 80s when boundaries were still a lot more permeable and it was possible to score a couple of major r&b hits and still appear in a movie about hip hop.

Fast forward to the year 2009 and we are witnessing not only a comeback of Mic Murphy but also a collaboration with none other than legendary rapper Melle Mel. All that can largely be credited to the efforts of UK based DJ and electro head Lloyd Harvey who got in contact with Murphy and convinced him to sing on a tune that fellow UK producer Diplomat had created. This tune is now released in a beautiful package with 5 incredible (re-)mixes.

The original mix by Lloyd Da Zoid and Diplomat could have been an unreleased System track, ca. 1985. This is pure electro soul bliss: The straight beat and driving bass create a reduced frame that gives the track a lot of room to breathe - which is perfectly complemented by Murphy's soulful vocals and some unobtrusive yet haunting synth tapestries:

EDMX keeps it old school as well, so does Funkmaster Ozone who is delivering his trademark West Coast influenced bounce. Sbassship's perfectly crafted piece of German engineering turns the song into a freestyle tune (with more than a hint of that 90s Euro sound). Every note, every sound and every detail is in place. The production is nothing less than flawless - lush and polished, modern and New School sounding (not in that dark & technoid New School way though):

Finally I have to give it up to Dutch funkateer Seymour Bits who might be the biggest surprise on this record. This is what The System might sound like if they were still releasing records in 2009: cutting-edge, but with a lot of mainstream crossover potential. The remix is huge in a literal way: a wall of sound, compressed and pumping and quite reminiscent of the contemporary French style (think Daft Punk, Justice, DJ Mehdi). With its 4-to-the-floor bass drum it might even pass for house, albeit a mean and funky version of it. Equipped with a dirty bass and at a slow pace, it is irresistibly crawling - or better yet steamrolling towards you:

Get the limited edition 12" vinyl directly from the electro avenue homepage:

A digital release is set to follow later this month.

Montag, 26. Oktober 2009

Untold Stories: The Message

Much has been said & written about how Afrika Bambaataa's Planet Rock came into being as an amalgamation of European electronic music and American funk traditions. In fact, you will find quite a few Planet Rock genealogies on this very blog. But how about that other seminal 1982 classic, Grandmaster Flash's "The Message"? With its origins far less documented, you could think this was a truly independent and self-contained creation on Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five's part.

Not really - here's some fun facts.

Common knowledge:
- Grandmaster Flash didn't like the concept of The Message's gritty street realism. Neither did the Furious Five, except for Melle Mel. That's why he ended up doing most of the raps and being the only member of the group who appeared on the credits. And although it is Flash's first and most important record, Flash himself wasn't even part of it.

Untold story:
- Duke Bootee and Doug Wimbish of the Sugarhill house band wrote the music and part of the raps. Most of the experimental edge - the sampled and electronic noises and sounds - can be traced to the influence of Brian Eno's collage masterpiece "My life in the bush of ghosts".

Even lesser told story:
- Most of the music can be traced to the influence of another contemporary record: One Way's "Cutie Pie".

So although The Message has a completely different aesthetic - the slow pace, the street/social topics -, it's actually quite similar to Planet Rock: not only as an appropriation of other existing music, but more specifically as a clash of funk and experimental electronics.

Further reading/viewing:
- youtube clip on Duke Bootee's role in composing The Message
- interview with Doug Wimbish, co-composer of The Message

Dienstag, 20. Oktober 2009

Link of the day: Hip Hop is dead (again)

Hip Hop: alive & kicking in 2009

In a remarkable article for The New Yorker, Sasha Frere Jones talks about how much the new Jay-Z album sucks, how the new Raekwon album is actually pretty good and how Freddie Gibbs might be the best thing in hip hop right now. The article is spot on; he could have mentioned Lil B or Z-Ro instead of Freddie Gibbs, but I agree that the latter has the most commercial potential.

Jones' version of the much heard "hip hop = dead" lamentation rests on the assumption that hip hop is losing its paradigmadic status for pop music by accepting influences from other genres - most of all by adapting to 4-to-the-floor-beats of contemporary club music:
The tempos and sonics of disco’s various children — techno, rave, whatever your particular neighborhood made of a four-on-the-floor thump — are slowly replacing hip-hop’s blues-based swing. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about the rudimentary digital sound of New Orleans bounce or the crusty samples of New York hip-hop: this music wants to swing and syncopate. On major commercial releases, this impulse is giving way to a European pulse, simpler and faster and more explicitly designed for clubs.

Two minor corrections:

1. Some of the earliest rap music was disco-based and had straight beats. Also, a lot of the P-Funk and Synth-Funk that influenced West Coast hip hop had a palpable touch of disco 4-to-the-floor beats. As of lately, there is a whole new wave of incredibly funky and modern sounding hip hop with a distinct 4-to-the-floor feel (and I am NOT talking about Baltimore) that is feeding on those old school funk influences instead of the techno/club music of today. I will be covering some of that in the near future.

2. You could also turn the argument around. It is a misconception that club music has to have a 4-to-the-floor thump. In 1982 the world was introduced to a form of syncopated dance music that has continued to be relevant and vibrant to this day: electro.

Samstag, 17. Oktober 2009

Street Sounds Nu Electro 2: A Sneak Peek

Doesn't it look beautiful? I think I even prefer the cover art to that of SSNE1. All in all it's a bit more reduced and purist than the first installment. The "electro" logo has its 80s flatness back - and isn't it incredible how bright and blinding a simple white shape can be? Light certainly is a leitmotif here, and the colour scheme goes well with the airy, minimal aesthetic. The appearance of the large figure steadily changes between sign/number and abstract shape - it's like looking at a drawing and seeing through the illusion, seeing that at a fundamental level there is nothing but a line dividing a plane and defining space ... only this time, the line is even more immaterial as it is made of "neon light, shimmering neon light".

Donnerstag, 15. Oktober 2009

Cosmic Rockers - Ondoka II (The Wandering of Humanity)

"The Wandering of Humanity" is part 2 of the Ondoka trilogy which explores the metaphor of nomadism as a material and psychological state of existence. Part 1 introduced the aspects of leaving and taking off, now part 2 is focused on the alienation and loneliness of being in transit.

I am really wearing my influences on my sleeve for this one:
- Newcleus: Why
- Newcleus: Programmed for Love
- Cybotron - Techno City
- DJ Quik (for the percussion)

Dienstag, 6. Oktober 2009

"Street Art"

Breaking news: graffiti now called "street art" ...

Donnerstag, 1. Oktober 2009

Street Sounds Nu Electro 1 - Cover Art

A while back I stumbled upon a Flickr page that featured some preliminary concepts and sketches for the SSNE1 cover art. I was immediately stunned by a piece labelled "first draft" which not only looked truly beautiful but also seemed to capture the essence of what made the old Street Sounds artwork such a forceful piece of design (or may I even say "art"?): The flatness. The pastel colors. A clean and organized composition, but never too strict or sterile.

(First draft - click on the picture for a larger image)

So I dug out SSNE1 again and all of a sudden noticed a lot of details and subtle references that I had missed at my first and cursory look (I know, shame on me). As I realized the amount of consideration and work behind it, I thought it might be enlightening to get some first-hand information by the man in charge. So here's a little conversation with Andy of Plus2 Studio about the genesis and evolution of the Street Sounds Nu Electro 1 cover artwork.

C.R.: It was really interesting to see all the different concepts that didn't make it - I wouldn't have expected them to be so diverse. So I'd first like to talk about the way from the first drafts to the final version. How did you get involved in the project?

Andy: I first got in touch with Morgan when the press release announcing the release of the Nu Electro series was circulated. I am a massive fan of the music, and I’m slightly obsessive about the original packaging. It was the definitive piece of graphic design in the 80s that inspired me to become a designer. I rebuilt the original cover designs as a self initiated project some years ago. Many hours were spent researching, to find a perfect font match for the heavily elongated and condensed text. I eventually purchased it from a small font foundry in France.

(The famous condensed typeface of the Electro series)

C.R.: What guidelines did you get from Morgan for the first concepts? Did he want a specific look, or did he leave it up to you to surprise him?

Andy: He was pretty open to interpretation. For the first draft, I kept some of the original elements to make the link to the original releases: the background colour, the condensed electro typeface and the flat colour treatments. I liked the minimalist approach. The new elements I added were the use of a metallic gold and some quite contemporary looking numerals. Morgan had seen enough to indicate that I was the man for the job even though this initial design was not quite what he wanted. It was a bit too "warp" / "electronic" (see above for a picture of the first draft).

C.R. So what were your own guidelines when you worked on what became the final version? What were you trying to express and achieve?

Andy: I was trying to keep one foot in the past but also represent the futuristic sci-fi elements heavily linked with the music. I thought I really shouldn’t be trying reinvent the wheel here, so I went back to the original Electro 1.

My influences for creating the 3D number one were two things: The original number one from Electro 1 and an excellent website with loads of CGI spacecraft. There’s one in particular I drew inspiration from:

The body text typeface is from an excellent type typographer ( This had just the the feel I was looking for. After a little bit of tinkering - there you have it. The spirit of the 80’s original and the sci-fi futurism of the now.

C.R.: That's interesting cause to me the 3D number and the typeface also have a slight retro feeling to them. The black background coupled with the sci-fi details give it a martial, muscular appearance that I alway tend to connect with early 90s American corporate design.The same probably goes for the typeface which looks like a 90s new school variant of the crude monospace pixel type seen on old computer screens. It seems that the current design paradigm is a return to reduced modernist aesthetics, so maybe the appeal to 3D phatness and computer symbolism can already be seen as old school in a way?

Andy: The number one was built using the exact outline of the "1" from the 80s original. It is I guess, retro/future. The type does echo the monospace type used on early VDUs but I think there is a definite futuristic feel to the type.

(The text typeface of Nu Electro 1)

C.R.: "Retro-futurist" describes it perfectly, thanks for the hint! One final question: Are there any artists, designers, schools or traditions that have influenced your work?

Andy: Loads ... I was particularly influenced by Neville Brody in the late 90's and also the work of Thirst, who I did a work placement with, before I started my studio. They did the design and art direction of i-D magazine. It was all PMT cameras and paste up, the traditional old school and very skilled way. Swifty is another influence, loved his work for Talkin Loud in the 90s.

(1988 Nike ad by Neville Brody)

I also like the work of Wim Crouwel, and Swiss minimalist typography. I love grids and structure and the use of space — anything that is considered and that has real craft. In terms of Electro AS1 Projects is doing some real good quality stuff stateside, with Monotone etc.

(Classic Wim Crouwel design from 1954)

Check out Andy's diverse portfolio at