Reflection and Refraction
Written by: Cameron Purse
Where the legendary Paradise Garage edits challenged expectations on the dancefloor, a new generation of “editors” are reconfiguring the music of their formative years with more introverted results.
When the Paradise Garage closed in 1987 after a paradigm shifting ten year run, Larry Levan, Frankie Knuckles and Nicky Siano had all carved out immortal positions in the pantheon of great DJs. Although in the club’s infancy, DJing was not the recognised craft it would become in the years that followed, thanks largely to their trailblazing efforts. Operating at the vanguard of dance and club culture, the Garage redefined what a club could be – culturally, spatially and musically. It was a club in the traditional sense of the word: invite-only, hidden from the casual punter. Inside, commercial interests were similarly eschewed. There was no bar and certainly no food menu. The Garage was a church for music; a haven for serious listeners and serious dancers, and it was the considered cultivation of a devout following that made the sounds that boomed within the walls of the King Street loft possible.
The eclecticism of the selections defied easy pigeonholing. Levan and Co. played anything that moved them, trusting that the crowd would follow suit – even if they initially reacted with bemusement. Their egalitarian approach saw them spin records by a huge array of artists: Gwen Guthrie, Arthur Russell, Sister Sledge, Duran Duran, Wham!, The Clash. The guiding philosophy of “danceable” was an important means of illustrating that all music could be dance music, that is to say, that pop music could resonate in the underground and vice-versa. The edits began as a functional means for revellers to dance to a pop song for up to fifteen minutes rather than the typical three or four, but they soon grew more complex and became a form of artistic expression for the editor. Levan’s interest in Jamaican dub and the transatlantic sounds of new wave and synthpop pushed him to become more creative, more personal. This progression is evident between the following two tracks, produced in 1979 and 1984 respectively:
Taana Gardner - Work That Body
Smokey Robinson - And I Don't Love You (Instrumental Dub)
While the former arguably tows the utilitarian line, Levan inserts himself into the latter – dramatically altering the rhythm and vocals, playing with space and texture, placing emphasis on the most intriguing elements of the mix and disregarding others entirely. Robinson’s conventional funk-soul becomes something much less concrete in the process.
Levan was a consummate innovator but never an elitist. By trade, he was champion of the collective moment. He wanted to bring people in, but he also wanted to bring people along and make them see as he saw and to hear as he
heard. His work as an editor was a process of refraction. Nowadays, while edit culture is thriving thanks largely to the disco revival of the late 00s, its very nature is an obstacle to real innovation (see: revival). The spirit of Levan’s “musical refraction” seems more evident in the efforts of electronic artists like James Blake and Nicolas Jaar. Whilst both have found international success with their original productions (Blake particularly so), it is their uncommissioned edits which often prove the most compelling, with each channelling the music of their teens into playful, wholly original tracks that manage to rack up hundreds of thousands of views and demonstrate the ties between their past and present. The following two tracks are some of the strongest examples of Blake and Jaar’s “refraction” in practice:
Nicolas Jaar- Work it (Nico's Bluewave edits)
Drop it like it's not - Harmonimix
Using the a capella of the tracks as something akin to musical scaffolding, the artists allow themselves to explore the range of their influences while paying respect to the canon of 90s and 00s R&B and hip-hop that forms the foundation of their artistic identity. The edits are somewhat frivolous, but arguably this is intentional. Blake himself deadpanned that under his Harmonimix moniker he takes his favourite songs and, “makes them quite possibly worse”, but their freewheeling, leftfield mixes speak to bolder ideas about the changing habits of music consumption among young people.
It is no secret that for years now, nightclubs have been closing in droves across the UK – dropping from three thousand one hundred to one thousand seven hundred in just over a decade. And while the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers (ALMR), the organisation that represents nightclubs in the UK, has naturally been quick to proclaim that this is a cultural and economic crisis, it is important to understand the ways that millennial behaviour has heralded this shift. A number of surveys and thinkpieces published in the past year have signalled a broad exhaustion with going out, particularly when the options are so expensive and underwhelming. For Blake, Jaar and their fans (who are predominantly the same age), the claims of the ALMR ring hollow. While the Paradise Garage may have set the template for modern clubbing, they are smart enough to see that the thousands of staid nightclubs that followed in their wake were built primarily for profit. Music and high quality sound was, in most cases, an inconvenient afterthought.
Far from a cultural crisis, the weeding out of lacklustre nightclubs is seeing the value of creativity and thoughtful reflection take centre-stage. It is in fact heartening to consider that greater numbers of young people are listening more intently now than they were ten or fifteen years ago. In the same way that the Paradise Garage resolutely opposed capital incentives in the pursuit of honesty and integrity, a new generation is once again drawing on the best parts of their formative years and eschewing quick financial gain in favour of artistic ambition. For the stay-in generation, a YouTube rip is often as significant as a dubplate.