Weasels in the Dance-Music Hen House
"From this side," reports London resident Cris Stevens, "the drum and bass dance scene is really dropping off." Stevens is half of the new, beat-oriented instrumental act Chocolate Weasel. He and partner Marc Royal (both 29 years old) are veterans of the recent British drum and bass dance craze, having ridden the wave with the acclaimed jungle group T. Power (Royal was a full-fledged member; Stevens -- then employed by T. Power's label Sour Records -- contributed at the engineering console). According to Stevens, club nights that were the sites of the freshest and most exhilarating sounds only a few years ago have since become stale. "It's all just DJ fodder at the moment," he sighs.
Dance-music aficionados are vehement in claiming that its various styles (not only jungle and drum and bass, but also hardstep, speed garage, and dozens of others) constitute distinct musical genres. But to outsiders they all tend to sound the same -- like pretentious techno with incredibly fast, bloodless beats. For Stevens and Royal, Chocolate Weasel is a chance to take a step back, have a breather, and laugh a bit. As New Zealand expatriate Stevens relates, "The whole T. Power thing was getting a bit too serious for its own good. The whole dance scene takes itself too seriously, period."
Chocolate Weasel is signed to Ninja Tune, one of three successful British dance-music labels that refuse to heed genre boundaries. The other two, Mo' Wax (home of DJ Shadow) and Warp (home of Aphex Twin), have both proven to be supportive of new talents regardless of artistic style, though each has a specialty: the former with turntable masters, the latter with digital studio virtuosos. Ninja Tune's mandate is more open-ended. They've got vinyl-sampling mixologists and digitally sculpting knob-twiddlers, including the Herbaliser, DJ Vadim, and Neotropic, all of whom will join Chocolate Weasel for the label's Funkungfusion dance showcase this Tuesday night at Onyx in Miami Beach.
Stevens thinks that Ninja Tune owners Matt Black and Jonathan More encourage musicians to approach their work with a sense of humor. Together Black and More are known as Coldcut, one of the fastest-cutting, least predictable DJ acts in the world. A new, live recording of Coldcut performing "More Beats and Pieces" exemplifies the sort of inspired mix madness that gets clubgoers jumping like hot popcorn. That track is included on Ninja Tune's forthcoming compilation, also called Funkungfusion. The two-disc set is a followup to 1997's Cold Krush Cuts, which consisted of a pair of 60-minute remixes of various recent and not so recent Ninja Tune material, one by Coldcut with DJ Food, the other by Mo' Wax artist DJ Krush.
Out now on Ninja Tune is Chocolate Weasel's debut album Spaghettification, a sort of concept piece that takes off from Stevens and Royal's postjungle depressurization. As Stevens explains it, the process of "spaghettification" has to do with falling into a black hole: "Your feet accelerate away from your head -- you spaghettify. It's the process of stepping back into the past while trying to push forward into the future."
Spaghettification comes across as a more whimsical version of the many futuristic, down-tempo instrumental hip-hop records that have been seeping out of northern Europe since the early Nineties. The Chocolate Weasel world is one of color and animation, a place where spherical beat creatures seem to float and rebound like soap bubbles.
"We started by going back and listening to a lot of old electro," notes Stevens, a process that led the pair to conclude that "very few tracks have actually stood the test of time." (Stevens cites an exception -- the work of Half Man Half Biscuit, a band that became a major influence on Chocolate Weasel.) Revisiting the sounds they once found momentous and life-changing helped the two put their recent experiences into perspective. "We faced the realization that we all listened to crap music [in the past], and that sort of deflates the idea that everything you listen to [now] is cool and hip."
For Spaghettification, Stevens and Royal wanted to capture the way electronic dance music sounded when they first heard it. "Beats that sounded thumping back then," Stevens contends, "now sound like 'tap tap tap.'" So Chocolate Weasel put the boom they'd misremembered in the mix for real. It was a turn away from the jaded cynicism of the current dance scene. This theme of willful naivete is echoed in the Spaghettification package design, which Chocolate Weasel insisted feature Seventies-style bubble letters and a color scheme of orange and brown.
Stevens's memories of the Seventies include "crap curtains, horrible wallpaper, and your parents dressing you in the most horrible clothes." He and Royal "wanted to use that aesthetic as a reference point. At the time you really got into it -- you didn't see the crap around the edges. We wanted to revisit it from a Nineties perspective. So the drums thump -- maybe a little exaggerated -- because that's the way we remembered them."
Chocolate Weasel's live set will also attempt to restore crudely deconstructed disco to its former vanguard glory. Their headlining appearance will be preceded by the Herbaliser, DJ Vadim, and Neotropic, each of which will present a personal take on dance music's possibilities. The Herbaliser's 1997 album Blow Your Headphones was a collection of straight-up hip-hop tracks, many instrumental, some with guest rappers from England or New York City. During the preceding Ninja Tune tour, Herbaliser's DJ Ollie Teeba performed in the guise of a good-beat angel, building body-rocking momentum from a rapid succession of hip-hop classics lost and revered. Teeba embellished much of his set with turntable scratching so aggressively funky that many in the crowd were reluctant to believe the sounds were really coming from the pale little Brit on-stage.
Russia's DJ Vadim (whose works include 1997's U.S.S.R. Repertoire) specializes in an unusually cinematic brand of trip-hop. His beats pulse with a viscous heaviness, their weight sucking the listener deep into an insidious drama of slowly unfolding melodies.
Neotropic (no full-length album yet) joins Chocolate Weasel in the land of make-believe. Their song "Vicious Blooms" comes across like lounge music made in the rain forest -- a jubilant if silly torrent of warm energy. All four of these artists and much of the rest of Ninja Tune's roster can be heard on the label's double-CD Funkungfusion compilation, scheduled for release at the end of this month.
Chocolate Weasel, the Herbaliser, DJ Vadim, and Neotropic appear Tuesday, April 14, at Onyx, 245 22nd St, Miami Beach; 674-6699. Showtime is 8:00 p.m. Tickets cost $12.
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