Dance music's squabbling factions should all join hands and sing "Kumbaya" this Saturday, when Layo and Bushwacka! storm the decks at Shine. Refreshingly the veteran English DJ duo brings it back to a time when genres didn't matter. They revive what did matter — the imperative of a beat that grabbed you by the collar and dragged your ass out on the floor.
And Layo and Bushwacka! have become master architects of those moments over the decade-and-a-half of their DJ/production partnership. The latest shining example: Global Underground 033: Rio, their first contribution to the near-mythical series of city-theme DJ mixes. Ever the accidental mavericks, they proffer a two-disc set that marks a stylistic break for both them and the GU series.
Where previous editions saw DJs focusing mainly on new club stompers, Layo and Bushwacka! have devoted the first half to a trip through decidedly retro-sounding, but über-classic, house. And the second disc, all white-hot contemporary tracks, ditches their previous breakbeat-inflected, hooky, housey sound in favor of a techier, often stripped-down groove. "CD one is our past history, our roots. It's where we've started and come from," says Matthew Benjamin, a.k.a. Bushwacka!, over a tragic mobile phone connection from his London hometown. "CD two is the more modern, up-to-date sound that we're playing now. It's all based on what's close to our heart."
Benjamin first met Layo Paskin in the Edenic rave milieu of early-Nineties England. Benjamin was a young DJ in a collective called the Ratpack, and Paskin promoted a series of storied warehouse parties called "Too Much Music." Drawing on the various burgeoning, still-aggressive sounds of the scene, their earliest offerings were kicky, acid-soaked, and synthy with hardcore-ish breaks spliced into a four-four pulse. The first full-length Layo and Bushwacka! album, Low Life, dropped in 1998.
However, it was the followup four years later, Night Works, that became a not-so-sleeper megahit. For one thing, by then, dance music was an essential part of the U.K. soundscape, dominating swaths of mainstream radio and sales charts. For another, there were the monster tunes that comprised the album's first singles. "It's Up to You (Shining Through)" reached number 25 on the U.K. singles chart. And then there was "Love Story," a rollicking house track mashed with both minor-key, old-school-sounding synth and commanding female vocals. It was a typical Layo and Bushwacka! pastiche working with usual astounding cohesion. Add to that a video of a sexy young thing gyrating in a glowstick body suit (really), and the track shot to number eight. A third full-length, Feels Closer, followed in 2006, with a host of new influences but similar popular success.
Benjamin concedes it's actually their debut that remains his favorite. "Low Life was our first major project.... We were just writing for ourselves, with each other, no rules. It was so much fun...."
These days, despite commercial success, Layo and Bushwacka! have leapt over pigeonholes. They're living every DJ's dream, to have control of a choice venue: Paskin has run the intimate, but popular, London club The End for the past 12 years. The club's programming has reflected the duo's across-the-board sensibilities. Their current monthly Olmeto part picks up where their former residency, All Night Long, left off, with breaks, techno, house, and even dub and soul vying equally for ear drums and feet. And the venue's other nights have been equally eclectic. For several years it was home to the notorious Monday-night party Trash, where the artfully down-at-the-heels peacocked to future disco in the sunken main room, and ate psychedelics and made out to Joy Division in the side lounge.
When Layo and Bushwacka! aren't tending to these London digs, they're collecting the world's sights and sounds during gigs around the globe. Which brings us back to their Global Underground mix. Each installment of the series, which began in 1996, features a famous, internationally gigging DJ and his — they've all been male — sonic take on a favorite city. The first few — Tony De Vit/Tel Aviv, Nick Warren/Prague, and Paul Oakenfold/Oslo — were recorded live in the place; the rest were just meant to be inspired by it. At first listen, Layo and Bushwacka!'s Rio seems more like it should be called Chicago, and Maybe a Little Detroit.
Because disc one, plainly, is one of the best recent compilations of early American house. From the opening kick drums and charmingly dated synth stabs of Ellis Dee's "Took My Love Away," it's almost painful how well the mix segues from one treasure into another. It trips from the soulful, mystically tinged "Open Our Eyes" by Chicago legend Marshall Jefferson, to 808-driven acid house tracks like Sheila's "Acid Kiss." There's even a smattering of the oft-forgotten hip-house (KC Flight's "Planet E"), before wrapping up in uplifting anthems like Kenny Larkin's "We Shall Overcome."
Disc two picks up this musical thread 20 years on. But it's a different skein from Layo and Bushwacka!'s previous work. Here they dispatch with the vestigial drum 'n' bass and breaks touches for a surprisingly concise thump. There's an appearance from an almost weirdly subdued Tiga ("3 Weeks"), and — minimalicious! — a Richie Hawtin track.
Amusingly this has all further tightened the panty knots of some of Global Underground's most purist fans. For most of its existence, the GU sound was readily identifiable — deep, and often dubby, but firmly falling into the "progressive house" rubric in clean, linear mixes. But earlier this year, with Global Underground 032: Mexico City, Adam Freeland swiveled the concept 180 degrees, with an astonishing mixup of everything from filthy French hipster house to Norwegian shoegaze rock. It was, then, a good predecessor for Layo and Bushwacka!, who continued to strain the brand into further oddball turf. Still, it's a little unclear what it all has to do with Brazil.
"The Rio part has got nothing at all whatsoever to do with the music, in terms of the actual music on the CD," Benjamin concedes. Rather it's more about an energy thing, capturing a vibe that would go down well in Brazil, where the two DJs often perform both as a duo and solo. (Benjamin is next headed down in January for a three-week stint at the Santa Catarina island club Warung).
"They're really into music, into the stuff we play. We've been going there for 10 years," says Benjamin. "On a personal level, I've flown there 36 times in the last 10 years. We've got a strong connection with the kind of Latino end of the culture there as well. Italy, Spain, South America — all Latin places. It's the spirit of the culture, the body language. It's really warm; it's really friendly. I guess we really vibe off it a lot." Saturday, then, everyone should feel right at home.