It was with those uplifting words, delivered in a booming, sermon-style voice, that Chicago's Larry Heard opened his classic single "Can You Feel It," laying down not just the template for house music, but also insisting that house was nothing less than secular gospel. Released in 1986, "Can You Feel It" had an anthemic message and genre-defining groove that made explicit the belief that if you first free your ass on the dance floor, then your mind -- and salvation -- will surely follow. In the decade since, however, as electronica travels further and further from its black, gay roots, the prospect of meaningful transcendence through that music seems ever more remote. A return to roots was foremost in the mind of Felix Burton -- half of the British duo Basement Jaxx along with Simon Ratcliffe -- when he first began making music in 1994.
"Fingers Inc. and all the classic American deep house have subtlety and soul all at the same time," explains Burton, from his London apartment. "The English house music [in 1994] just seemed to be very drug-based." He laughs. "I'm sure there were probably plenty of drugs in America then as well, but to me it just sounded more soulful. It was sophisticated, it had a futuristic sense. They were taking old vibes, giving it a twist, and making it sound completely new: future jazz."
Basement Jaxx proceeded to release a string of singles that did such a good job of aping those classic deep-house tracks and the sprightly Latin-flavor rhythms of producers such as "Little" Louie Vega, many people, having only their graphic-less records to go by, simply assumed the duo was American. To Burton that is perhaps the ultimate compliment, but on Remedy, Basement Jaxx's recently released debut album, the group firmly establishes its own identity. A record with an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach, it somehow coheres. "Rendez-Vu" features an infectious flamenco guitar strum, with Burton giving Cher a run for her money in the vocodor-processed singing department, all laid atop a churning beat. "Jump N' Shout" is one of the few songs in recent memory to employ a thick ragga feel, complete with a hyperventilating, toasting MC, yet it features no breakbeats, no nods to jungle. Call it "ragga house," and if such a thing doesn't already exist, then Basement Jaxx may have invented a new musical category.
Felix Burton's Top 5 Records to Move a Crowd
1) DJ Spen -- "Disco Dreams"
"I still love Sister Sledge, but I'm not a disco 'head.' There are a lot of terrible camp songs from that era to avoid. But I love where disco evolved to in the early '80s, and this song really captures that feel."
2) Beaumotplage -- "Isolée"
"It's very dreamy. All the sounds are clicks and noises rather than drum machines and synthesizers. It's more of a swayer than a stomper. I always bring it with me to the club, but sometimes I don't play it until I get home that night."
3) Missy Elliott -- "Why Are You in My Grill?"
"Timbaland's production here is just wonderful. There's a lot of R&B that's too sugary, too much candy floss. But Timbaland throws away the rule book. He has a techno approach: He builds up from pure sound, not instrumentation."
4) Bob Azzam & His Orchestra -- title unknown
"This is a Brazilian batucada track from the '60s. It's refreshing to play because there's no house 'kick,' just loads of drums. People go crazy to it! I bought it from this record dealer who supplies all the records for the Chemical Brothers. They must spend a fortune on him, because this one record cost me 125 quid [$200]. That's just too much money; I made a dubplate of it and sold it back to him!"
5) Basement Jaxx -- "My Name Is Start"
"This is a bootleg we've done. It's got Eminem over the bass line from the Jam's 'Start.' It's punk garage: garage rhythms and punk attitudes. We haven't gotten the rights for the samples, so if you see this in a store, we don't know how it got there."
Elsewhere the duo takes in sultry divas, churning garage tempos, vintage Salsoul percussive rhythms, and the same unabashed love for disco that fired up Stardust's "Music Sounds Better With You." Best of all Remedy is an album that has already become as much a staple in chart-oriented dance clubs as on any hipster's short-list; this is a record aimed squarely at the heart of pop, even as it expands pop's parameters. And yet, as Ratcliffe and Burton prepare to conquer U.S. dance floors, their American heroes remain woefully obscure, absent from the same playlists the pair now dominate.
"We went to Chicago and Cajmere took us around," recalls Burton, referring to that city's legendary house producer. "We told him we wanted to hear deep house, so he took us to this place, and there were only a couple of people there. Two guys playing pool, and a few people dancing. That was it! It was just a run-down bar! And we were so surprised: 'Oh, so this is all that's happening in Chicago?' And he said, 'Well, there is another club that's really happening.' But we went there and all they were playing was Euro-techno stuff. It was just so disappointing. We wanted to see the home of house where everybody was jacking their bodies and sweating until the morning light, but unfortunately, that's not going on anymore."
Chicago wasn't the only mythology-busting journey Basement Jaxx embarked on during their last visit to the States. In an interview in the British magazine Face, Ratcliffe declared that actually meeting many of the pair's inspirations in the flesh "completely shattered" any respect he had for them. "Their egos and their slickness and their DJ-ness -- it's a load of old nonsense," he said.
Burton says his eyes were opened in Florida. "In England we hear all about the Winter Music Conference in Miami," he says. "There are pictures of it plastered across all the magazines, and it seems like this fantasyland of DJ culture. But once we actually meet these people, well, they're not that cool after all. In fact they've got quite a lot of hang-ups. There's still this machismo, 'I'm the man!' It's so old-fashioned. In other areas of art, people have moved on." Accordingly, for their second visit to the conference this past March, the duo spent the bulk of their free time far from the South Beach schmoozefest, choosing instead to explore Little Havana. "Frankly, DJs standing around talking to other DJs is pretty boring," says Burton.
Recalling another sobering night out in South Beach, Burton says, "I really wanted to see 'Little' Louie Vega at Penrod's. So we went to the club and there was this doorman really enjoying his authority, being very all-American, a total twat. 'Little' Louie Vega himself invited me, and they wouldn't let me in. The attitude!" He trails off, his voice bristling with disgust at the memory, and then continues forcefully: "A few of these club-queen types walked right through with their heads pushed back. So outside were all the people who really wanted to hear this music, who'd been supporting it for years, but unless you were somebody, you're not coming in.
"The club scene has become the establishment, it's a corporate enterprise now. It's become staid. You wear the club uniform -- shiny silver miniskirts and club makeup, you go out and wait for hours to get into the club, you get treated like shit by the bouncers, then you pay for overpriced drinks. It's all about money, hype, and egos. Well going out isn't about that. It's about letting go. And that's what we're about. We make anti-corporate club music."
Basement Jaxx perform Saturday, Oct. 2, at 9:30 p.m. at "Release," Ten 15 Folsom, 1015 Folsom (at Sixth Street), S.F. Tickets are $15; call 281-0823.