Tuesday, July 01, 2008
STRICTLY VIBES: UK Funky House Essentials

Reviving the blog to talk about my most urgent musical obsession these past few months. The article I wrote for Idolator on funky house was meant to be a bit of a broad, general intro to the genre, and as you’d expect was rather brief, at least for me. It covered my general thoughts about the scene and the music, but left no room for me to say much about individual tracks. This is my chance to remedy that somewhat. Please note that this doesn’t represent by half all of the great tracks in funky house – there are many amazing tracks, some of them my favourites, that I’ve yet to ID (like that amazing one with the Jagged Edge vocal sample – “Rolling down the lonely highway/asking God to please forgive me…”). And I’d be astonished if the amount of great tracks I haven’t heard doesn’t exceed the number of those I have.

If you haven’t read the Idolator piece, go there first, then come back here for tunage ideas. And if you haven’t downloaded Marcus Nasty’s mixes from his myspace page, what on earth are you doing?

Kyla – Do You Mind (Crazi Cousinz Remix)
Probably the biggest anthem on the scene, “Do You Mind” is easy to underrate, though not because it’s initially underwhelming. More insidiously, “Do You Mind” sounds great on the first few listens, but only great – you feel like you have its measure pretty quickly. The full extent of its charm is partially concealed: it lies in a certain air of inevitability to its progression, the irresistibility of its sensual allure. The key is in the higher-level science of the covalent relationship between vocal and groove, with the song rising and falling spectacularly through verses, choruses, cut-up vocals, build-ups and breakdowns – none of which would work without the relative subtlety of those gorgeous underage sex vocals. Also, Crazi Cousinz have found a great, relatively subtle production signature in those little orchestral “woooh!” they use, mostly a mark that a momentary pause for breath is just that, and the tune is about to kick into a devastating new gear; the whooshes before each chorus in particular are totally grin-inducing.

Crazi Cousinz – Bongo Jam
Impossible to overstate the greatness of this track, though less as a peerless example of funky house than as a superlative pop song – perhaps it’s the “Sweet Like Chocolate” of funky house? Yes, the groove is killer: the supple bongo percussion, those marvellous “woooh!” sounds, the maracas, the cheesy menace of those moaning backing vocals. But really, this is all about that vocal: “Sometimes I wake up early in the morning, to play my con-con-congo.” One of the songs of the year.

DJ Naughty – Quicktime (VIP Mix)
“Quicktime (VIP Mix)”, like a lot of Naughty tunes, is relatively straightforward, just a rolling loop of mesmerising latin piano and sprightly bongos – of all the big producers, Naughty’s the one who pitches funky house furthest along the most reductive interpretation of its point-of-difference (those bouncy, latin-infused grooves). What distinguishes Naughty’s production (and this applies to his streamlined remix of Crazi Cousinz’ “Bongo Jam”) is the massive flushes of dub bass that shake the entire bottom end of the track. Some people will probably mention dubstep here, but the uptempo agility of the tunes puts me more in mind of those system-failure dub basslines you’d hear in 93-94 jungle (think Back 2 Basics’ “Horns 4 ‘94”) – entropising yr waist line while the rest of your body keeps dancing.

As with Perempay (see below), a lot of Naughty’s new productions suggest he’s set to get deeper and more lustrous rather than, er, naughtier – stark, synth driven, syncopated deep house grooves not too far from Ame or the Liebe*Detail label.

Apple – Appletizer; Segalizer; Mr Bean; Bean Get Well Soon; Chill Out Pls
Apple has a seemingly endless supply of these totally insane grooves that have absolutely nothing to do with house. Of all the funky house producers Apple is the one most obviously pushing the genre at the margins, and he’s gotten a lot of props as a result. “Segalizer” is pretty typical: a simple but hyper synth-horn melody rising and falling over tough super-syncopated beats whose like haven’t been since the Bump & Flex Dancehall Dub of Cleptomaniacs’ “All I Do”. Like Wiley’s early production work, Apple makes quite a few variations on his basic grooves – “Appletizer” is pretty much an alternate take on “Segalizer”, while there are many variations on “Mr Bean”, of which the totally perverse metallic beats of “Bean Get Well Soon” comprise my personal pic. Don’t sniff at this practice though: as DJ tools all these variations are brutally effective. Meanwhile “Chill Out Pls” features an utterly compelling but ah, shall we say challenging tribal groove giving way to slamming house beats. Although Apple rarely sounds like house, he always sounds like Masters At Work. Not quite sure how that works.

Roska – Feeline; The Climate Change EP
Alongside Apple, Roska is probably the most avant producer on the scene: his tracks have little if anything do with house, and are more like madcap contraptions assembled from bits of broken machinery. The shuddering tribal pounce of “Feeline” is at least funky (in the normal sense of the word), but The Climate Change EP takes his counter-intuitive rhythmic sensibility to new levels. One track staggers forward on quick kicks, metallic snares and massively hype-inducing rave whistles like a Frankenstein’s monster; another’s perverse lurching, block synth-string riffs, metallic snares and use of space (with kicks only on the first and fourth beat) reminding me of early Skepta riddims like “Meridian” and “DTI”. What’s hard to explain is how these tunes still manage to work as house music: you can follow the groove even when there’s no concession to even an imaginary 4X4 beat. These tunes sound particularly great when the DJ mixes them in following a more straightforward vocal number: the sound of their whirling beats ravaging another, more polite track can have a satisfying air of brutality.

Che’Nelle – Hurry Up (Footloose Remix); Ear Dis – I Feel (Footloose Remix); Babyface Jay – Tribal Zone
As hard as Apple or Roska, Footloose is rather more straightforward: why bother with trickily programmed rhythms when you can just plump for blunt soca beats and hard-as-nails basslines? His remix of Che’Nelle’s “Hurry Up” has that deliciously sickly vibe you sometimes end up with when the R&B vocals get crushed by the wheels of the groove – like the original tune pumped up with a dangerous level of steroids and amphetamines (the rap from Tinchy Strider is a nice touch, too). “I Feel” is kinda ridiculous but ace, with squealing electro-funk hooks and a sighing male R&B vocal unceremoniously swept aside by a murderous bass-driven groove.

Like those Footloose productions, “Tribal Zone” is pretty no-nonsense, just slamming soca beats, hyper synths, enormous bass and this totally compelling metallic hook that sounds like robots tearing eachother apart. Except that when you listen more closely, it’s got these awesomely ominous male choral vocals intoning wordlessly in the background. That weird short-section between unconcerned simplicity and “what the fuck” randomness is one of the strongest pieces of evidence for the case that funky house is running things right now – the scene isn’t concerned with artistry, but it creates artistry as a matter of course.

Fuzzy Logick – Leader
It’s almost impossible to explain the irresistible appeal of “Leader”: is it the squiggly descending synth hook, the almost giggly levity of its syncopated snares, the gorgeously naff organ interludes, the riot of bubbly detail (literally bubbly at times: some parts sound like jetstreams of bubbles rising through champagne, but I also love those inaudible shouts of “hey!”), or just the insatiability of the groove as a whole? “Leader” reminds me a bit of New Horizons’ “Find The Path” in that on paper it looks conservative but in reality its sounds utterly unique, a blast of reggaematic party music from the future.

“Leader” is one of those tunes that makes more sense in the mix with MCs, like so many funky house tunes, but in fact there’s a more specific appea here: few things sound as amazing as the groove of “Leader” creeping into the mix while the MC continues his rapping as if unaware. Traditionally not much attention has been paid to the relationships of change and continuity in MC-based dance music – perhaps because MCs rapping over tunes properly in the mix usually transforms into the emergence of full-fledged rap tracks, freestyles etc. Funky house, much like that moment when garage transformed into grime via 8-bar, allows the MC to act much like a DJ, using his vocals to stitch tracks with disparate grooves into single, cohesive track.

Seany B – Stompa; TNT – Rumba
The excitement of funky house isn’t exclusively defined by a move away from the straightjacket of the 4X4 kickdrum – in fact a lot of the best funky house maintains a rigid 4X4 pulse but finds otherwise to bring that wriggly, wired feeling so crucial to almost all the best tracks. “Stompa”, produced by former More Fire Crew member Seany B (not the BBC 1xtra dancehall DJ of the same name), bluntly pivots around a resounding, booming steady kick, but its two note piano vamps, rippling bongos and ratatat snares make it as perverse-feeling and intoxicating as anything else in the genre. Like “Stompa”, “Rumba” gets a lot of mileage out of its hypnotic 4X4 clomp, around which TNT hangs a slithering latin groove and twinkling synth hooks to give it an almost tidal sway back and forth. The way the beat cuts out and then doggedly resumes is an obvious but devastatingly effective trick, creating a mindless slave to the rhythm vibe that is blatantly sexual.

Tadow – Rising Sun
“Rising Sun” is maybe the most hyper funky house track for MCs to strut their stuff over, and it’s not hard to see why: basically Tadow has resurrected wholesale the grime 8-bar, that back and forth switch between two motifs that gives tracks a palsied hopping feel, with each switch driving the temperature up a notch. The other style that’s always done something like this is dancehall, the similarity perhaps most obvious in the latter’s hyper-electronic, maximalist phase circa 2002/2003 – think the Famine, Wanted or Mudslide riddims, which would switch between motifs, usually one melodic and one spare and booming. “Rising Sun” feels a lot like that era of dancehall, only souped up for faster, ravier dancefloors, with the Eastern sparkle of its first motif descending into the urgent bass throb of its second. On a Marcus Nasty set I have, MC Shantie trades lines over this track with Rankin’, who reprises (modifying slightly) his rap from The Dreem Teem’s remix of Amar’s “Sometimes It Snows In April” (this time: “There’s no question of a doubt/I’ve checked all the DJs out/Marcus Nasty’s the best that I’ve heard/spread the gospel, gotta spread the word!”) – it’s just about the best thing I’ve ever heard.

There’s another track that does this perfectly too, though I can’t ID it – possibly a Marcus Nasty dub, given its Nasty Crew-like feel – that alternates between dramatic, scene-setting gypsy strings and sudden explosions of bass and scalpel-like synth riffs, digging at the groove with delirious intensity. There’s possibly no better exploitation of tension and release in dance music – at least since the VIP mix of The Endz’ “Are You Really From The Endz” (a tune that this, like many funky house tracks, eerily resembles).

Diamond – Champagne Dance (Dub); “Love At First Sight (Dub)”
Some of the more songful but harder funky house tunes sound a lot like that shortlived phase of female vocal grime – “R&G” – like Davinche and KT Pearl’s brilliant “Mr DJ”, but also the equivalent period of female vox soca-beat garage from circa 2002, like TJ Cases’ peerless stunner “One By One”. The dub of “Champagne Dance” is impossibly large, there’s just too much going on to keep the whole tune in focus at once. An impossibly morose descending synth melody (somewhat like Rapid’s slower, more histrionic productions for Ruff Sqwad throughout 2003) fights for your ears with raucous MCs and typically svelte vocals – “we’re in the club/getting down/shake that bottle/spray it round round round.” Not quite sure why this relatively straightforward celebration of a good night out is matched up with a groove so filled with existential angst, but it works a treat.

The Dub of “Love At First Sight” is less essential, but its weird mixture of sighing high-pitched vocals and aquatic riot is even further out, somewhere between Terra Danjah, Polow Da Don and Basement Jaxx’s “Always Be There”. Along similar lines to these tunes is an awesome number even more like “One By One” that I haven’t been able to ID yet – the lyric goes “Oh! I want you oh so close! I wanted you to know that you are taking over, over me…” If you know it, hit me up.

Sticky – How Very Dare You
Like a lot of former 2-step producers who branched out after the scene’s switch to grime, Sticky is making a tentative return to the fold: although he’s still persisting with his “dirty pop” productions (rather unnecessarily), “How Very Dare You” is a brilliant funky house vocal anthem that essentially picks up where Sticky’s 2002-2004 era tunes left off: riding an absolutely lethal breakbeat groove, featuring massive bass drops and gorgeous duelling trumpet solos, not to mention a pissed off diva vocal quite out of keeping with funky house’s usually agreeable, swayable divas. I was disappointed, though that what sounded like a bunch of baby gremlins shouting “Game on!” was actually Sticky’s production signature, “Dirty Pop!” But this tune is all about the bass drop, which really does have to be heard to be believed.

Geeneus – Yellow Tail, Make Me; Benga & Coki – Night (Geeneus Refix)
Geeneus impresses with how far he can push just a few key ideas. On “Yellow Tail”, a galloping soca-house groove is rudely interrupted by an unforgettable high-pitched vocal sample (everybody says it goes “Ai ai ai ai ai ai!” but I hear “Fight fight fight fight fight fight!”) and then a blast of icy discordant synths. “Make Me” is tribal in a way quite unlike other funky house tracks – it’s closer to something you might expect from German producer Samim, all fractured and springloaded micro-percussion, evocative pulsing bass and eerie single note synth hooks, while a woman whispers seductively “Make me dance… all night long…” “This one is deep”, Rankin warns on one set, and then one the bass comes in, demands “See what I mean???”

I grew to quite dislike Benga & Coki’s anaemic dubstep-house anthem “Night”, which is like a party tune for a scene that doesn’t know how to party (this is not strictly fair perhaps – check Quest’s “The Seafront” for a much a better version of the same idea). Geeneus does very little to it, but the simple addition of a rumpshaking tribal house groove suddenly turns that bleepy descending riff into the instant-party starter so many claim it to be. Still, it was mildly distressing to see Target come out with a tune so clearly modelled on “Night” – no, Target, no!

Tawiah - Every Step (Arms Remix)
A good example of how far funky house can deviate from “funky house” while still approximating the same appealing qualities: the original “Every Step” is a mournful rock-R&B hybrid, like a better take on Jamelia’s “Something About You”. Arms’ remix turns it into a funky house equivalent of R&G, contrasting slamming syncopated beats and tearful trancey descending chords aping Booka Shade’s “Mandarine Girl” (or maybe he got the idea from Madonna’s “Get Together”). Tawiah’s performance has an unvarnished quality that is deeply appealing, and there’s a damaged, bittersweet quality to the song that contrasts nicely with the more straightforward concerns of most vocal house. But no matter how good Tawiah is, it’s the massive, bass-driven breakdown that is the real star here.

Donaeo – Devil in a Blue Dress; African Warrior
I was initially underwhelmed by “Devil In A Blue Dress”, or at least it seemed good but unremarkable. How wrong I was: like Kyla’s “The Whole Night”, this is a song that you expect to have a short lifespan but grows more evocative with each spin. The groove is fantastic, squeezing seven rapid kicks into a singler bar over doom-laden descending bass riffs and under typically frantic soca percussion. How Donaeo manages to fit such a seductive R&B vocal over the top and make it sound so natureal is beyond me.

As you might expect from the title, “African Warrior” shifts things up several notches, moving into quite aggressive territory. Donaeo apes R Kelly a bit here in several ways, from the double entendre lyrics (“I’m an African warrior, rolling with my stick in my hand” – needless to say I misheard this the first time through) to the hoarse vocals for the chorus to the lilting singjay quasi-rap interludes. The groove is absolutely cavernous, a surround-sound explosion of spiralling tribal drums reminiscent of Lenky’s Dreamweaver riddim, and an evil speaker-tearing bassline straight from Sticky’s “Booo”.

DJ Spen – Gabryelle (Marcus Nasty Dub?)
I’m going on guess work here: the original “Gabryelle” is a big, brash US house track with slashing strings. Someone (I’m guessing Marcus, since he loops a “Marcus… Nasty… Dub… Plate” vocal over the top) has resurrected those brutal strings and set to work within a stripped back, evil but bouncey house groove. The end result sounds like Nasty Crew’s “Take ‘Em Out” being remixed by, um, maybe Derrick Carter? Or even Claude Von Stroke (whose “The Whistler” is quite popular among funky house DJs). As you’d expect from a former member of Nasty Crew, this one’s an absolute killer for MCs. In related territory, I’ve heard a funky house track whose fractured tribal groove could almost belong to a record put out on Luciano’s Cadenza label, except that no Cadenza record to date has included Bounty Killer samples.

Perempay – Hypnotic
A lot of the great funky house tracks aren’t obviously rulebreaking, staying rather close to the rulebook the genre inherited from producers like Dennis Ferrer and Quentin Harris. But these are great producers, and some of the UK versions are pretty fabulous – especially in the mix with a good MC on top. These tracks are minimal rollers, mostly just little piano licks and string pads, perhaps some organ and a resonant house beat to round things out. Perempay is the former grime DJ Bossman, but “Hypnotic” is totally classier than thou, the groove shimmying ever so gracefully around bell chimes and sparse string flares, while the delicate addition and subtraction of hi-hats wrecks devastating consequences.

TNT – Take It Low; Skepta – The Rolex Sweep (Fingerprint Remix)
“Take It Low” is an MC track but is totally an uptempo party track – after the success of “Wearing My Rolex” this might become quite a popular manoeuvre for MCs, on tracks both inside and outside of funky house. Not to much to say it about except that I love its rickety good times vibes, kinda half-arsed sweet R&B bridge, and the killer verse hook “Up/down/roundanowanow!”). “The Rolex Sweep” is surely a response to “Wearing My Rolex”, and nice enough, although kinda silly in parts. Fingerprint smashes the remix, with a hard as nails snare work-out that, as with Roska productions, takes this far away from the house template (in fact like “Climate Change” the idea seems to be trying to imply house while actually have an in-time kick as little as possible). So muscular it makes the original track sound a bit underfed. Crucially, these tracks are deeply sexy. Expect a lot more MC tracks like them in the next few months.

DJ NG – Tell Me; MA1 – I’m Right Here; Seany B – Make Your Move; Crazi Cousinz – I See You; Crazi Cousinz – High Heels; Geeneus – I Tried; Seany B – Dirty Thoughts; Delio D’Cruz ft. K Cat – Get Off The Floor
Gotta big up my ladies on these ones – funky house seems to have an unlimited supply of really great vocal tunes. I’d give all of these a personal rundown but this was the last block of tunes I was planning to write about and I’ve run out of energy and I’m coming down with a cold. Suffice to say that I don’t want this side of the scene to disappear – these are great singalong tunes, and the production on all of these is not to be fucked with. Specific kudos to that warm, glow(er)ing bassline on “Make You Move”, the general vibe of claustrophobic on the potential crossover anthem “Tell Me”, the supa-tight diva rhymes on “I’m Right Here”, the supa-sexy stop-start groove on “Get Off The Floor”, the stabbing pizicatto strings on “High Heels”, and the perverse, strangled flute hook on “I Tried”.


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