À la Trackmode
Chilling with Brett Dancer and his Deep-House Label Mates of Trackmode Recordings at the Winter Music Conference
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“If someone wanted to be a terrorist against every DJ on Earth, this would be the time and the place,” Chez Damier says to an uproar of laughter. The famed Chicago-based DJ/producer is sitting in the backseat of a black Lincoln Navigator scouring the streets of Miami Beach hoping to luck out and find a parking space. It’s around midnight in late March, the middle of the annual Winter Music Conference, where almost 2000 DJs and producers from all over the world have gathered to showcase their work.
Riding shotgun is a guy with corn-rowed hair, puffing on a clove cigarette, and wearing sunglasses at night: Brett Dancer, the 36-year-old Kalamazoo, Mich., native who moved his Trackmode Recordings to Northwest Baltimore in 2002. Since forming his house-music imprint in 1996 around the motto “being deep is a way of life,” Dancer’s Trackmode has been one of a handful of house-music labels concerned with preserving the classic Chicago-Detroit soulful Midwestern-bred house sound—a sound that relies on real instrumentation and stirring vocals rather than the computerized sound found in most mainstream dance-music clubs today.
The imprint is known as a place where emerging and established producers interested in contributing to this deep-house legacy can get their ideas on wax. It’s the current home to house pathfinder Larry Heard (aka Mr. Fingers), who has released two albums with the label and whose new Loose Fingers comes out in July. Dancer puts out Damier’s music, and has also released such deep-house A-listers as Glenn Underground, Craig Alexander, and Kai Alce, an Atlanta-based DJ/producer of the 2004 house anthem “Sak Pase,” which featured icon Ron Trent on keyboard.
Every year around this time, Dancer and his Trackmode friends sponsor a party at the Winter Music Conference showcasing the label’s new and upcoming work. This year he’s primarily come to plug the label’s latest from Chicago-based producer Anthony Nicholson, Necessary Phazes.
“I try to create a home for the producers that I work with—we’re a family,” Dancer says, powering down his window to get some of the night wind. Over the years Trackmode has released about 56 12-inches and about seven LPs/compilations. “I can’t be totally sure of the number, though, because I’m a little inebriated right now,” Dancer confesses to more good-hearted laughter. The three friends reminisce about drinking the fruit-flavored fortified wine Cisco one night in New York. “You know Cisco is off the market now?” Dancer informs. “Well, you might find some dusty bottles in Cleveland somewhere,” Alce jokes.
They miraculously cop a space on Euclid Avenue and get out and hit the pavement. The mission: Distribute as many of the sea-blue flyers advertising Trackmode’s Sound Beneath Atlantis showcase, happening the following night, to as many people as possible. Also on the agenda: Deliver hot-off-the-presses 12-inches to DJs working tables tonight. Copies of “Dirty Soul,” a single off Necessary Phazes, weigh down Dancer’s leather messenger bag strapped across his chest. The South Beach sidewalks are strewn with thousands of Technicolor circulars advertising hundreds of parties, providing a slippery tapestry on which to walk.
Trackmode vinyl is available at Baltimore’s Midtown Records—in Washington at DJ Hut or Capitol City Records—but Dancer has broadened his formats in recent years in an effort to make the music accessible to regular consumers and not just the DJ. He releases CDs now, and he offers MP3 downloads at Trackmode.com and iTunes.
“My biggest sales are in Europe and Japan,” Dancer says, shifting his bag’s weight from one hip to the other as he heads toward Washington Avenue. “There is definitely an interest in the music stateside, but you’re talking about a very specialized market in which you can’t count on selling a million copies, because there isn’t a marketing machine here focusing on the music that we’re doing. We don’t have radio. It’s only the foot soldiers like you and me that are pushing this music.”
The trio stops by a party at the Hotel St. Augustine sponsored by New York’s West End Records—the label that brought the dance world the Tanaa Gardner scorcher “Heartbeat” in 1981. The frenzied dancing inside the lobby condenses sweat on the hotel’s bay windows. The three run into Detroit’s DJ Mike Clark, aka Agent X, on the way in to the lobby, and they quickly give each other the lowdown.
“Where you playin’ tonight, man?” Dancer asks.
“I gotta play in about 40 minutes down the street,” Clark replies. “Where y’all headed?”
“Man, we don’t even know. Just free flowing.”
“Man, I’ve spun four parties already.”
“Four parties? It’s only Wednesday.”
“Oh, Chez, hey, I didn’t know that was you.”
Damier quips back, “Who did you think I was, man? The pope?”
After Hotel St. Augustine, the trio makes five more party stops, reuniting with DJs and friends along the way.
At 2 a.m. the next night, a line of people waits to get in the Trackmode showcase at Buck15, the intimate, trendy Lincoln Lane art gallery that doubles as a bar and lounge. Once inside, patrons meet an extra-large living-roomy space with couches and love seats. The off-kilter décor features, among other oddities, the backsides of skateboards splattered with paint hanging like canvases on the walls and vintage tin lunch boxes in glass display cases.
The place is markedly multicultural and alive with interaction. Some patrons sit with drinks meditatively, others hold conversations in small groups, but the charm of the lounge is that you can start dancing anywhere. A few sofas are in front of the DJ booth to outline a makeshift dance floor where a circle of dancers has formed.
Alce, Damier, and Dancer take turns at the tables; featured prominently during Damier’s set are tracks from Necessary Phazes. The low-key congas that begin the downtempo “Thinking of You” on the jazzy disc mix well with other soul classics he puts down, such as Sister Sledge’s “Lost in Music,” Bebe Winans’ “Thank You,” and a club remix of Randy Crawford’s remake of George Benson’s “Give Me the Night.”
Dancer notices that there are more “regular people” in attendance and not as many music industry people as at their showcase last year. “That’s what we need,” he says, acknowledging the need to broaden the music’s audience, before putting on his headphones to play his second set of the night. Interestingly, Dancer doesn’t play any Trackmode records during his set. “Sometimes I like to play only other people’s stuff when I’m DJing in order to get inspired,” he explains later—4:30 a.m. later—while shutting down the place.
The three have breakfast at Jerry’s Famous Deli, a shopping center-sized 24-hour diner on the corner of Collins Avenue and Española Way. The eatery is packed with hungry, till-the-break-of-dawn partyers.
“I know I’m not going to please everybody,” Dancer says summarily about his growing label between sips of black coffee. “Trackmode is not for everybody, but it’s definitely for someone. And they will know who they are.”