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All Over the Place

New DJ Sets From Hot Chip And Spank Rock Attempt To Answer "What Is Hip?"

CASHING IN: Hot Chip digs up a vibe in its mixed-up record crate on its new mix disc.

By Michaelangelo Matos | Posted 5/30/2007

A full-time club DJ knows from experience what moves a crowd, and most of the better-known DJs hone a definable sound while varying it within their range. Their job is to keep the groove steady. For hobbyist DJs, the trick is closer to that of a college-radio jock or the homemade mixtape maker: the artful juxtaposition, the what-was-that? rarity, the tune you forgot you remembered (or you forgot even existed), and the classic that puts everyone in earshot on the same page.

Note the word "hobbyist" above. Its purpose is to ease us into the wonderfully comfortable terrain of a different--and to some, interchangeable--word: "hipster." In latter-day pop-music terms, this often means someone whose base is the arty, trendy, and semipopular, leavened with healthy dabs of the well-known and less-than-cool. What this frequently translates to in dance-music terms is someone who crosses over to DJ culture from somewhere else.

Hot Chip and Spank Rock are two good examples. The former is a groove-rock five-piece from England, the latter a self-aware Philadelphia-by-way-of-Baltimore party-rap group featuring two in-house DJs who are already well-known to a certain segment of local clubbers. Both groups have toeholds in the international dance-music marketplace that are likely to be strengthened by their newly recorded DJ sets. K7's long-running DJ-Kicks series, which averages a CD a year, is helmed this time around by Hot Chip, while Spank Rock's mixed Fabriclive 33 is one of two mix-disc series regularly issued by the London superclub Fabric. (The other series is simply titled Fabric; six of each are put out annually.)

Both mixes are unsurprisingly eclectic, and whatever their merits, both are plainly the work of labels cannily aiming for crossover. It's a niche-market version of the "celebrity DJ" trend of the past few years, in which Madonna appears behind the decks of a nightclub and has someone else play records for her. Not that Hot Chip or Spank Rock didn't create their own mixes--audibly, far from it. But it's the marquee appeal, however limited, that's the primary draw--K7's and Fabric's way of grabbing extra sales from Pitchfork-reading club-music rubberneckers.

On first look, Hot Chip's DJ-Kicks has the look of forced diversity, like a record geek (or five) trying to prove a point that isn't exactly crying out to be made: Hey, look, guys, New Order and Young Leek and Tom Zé and Audion and Ray Charles, all in one mix! That impression is especially pronounced at the disc's beginning; Grosvenor's languid "Nightmoves," Positive K's early-'90s party-rap one-shot "I Got a Man," and the Detroit-ish techno of Gramme's "Like You," are segued abruptly and not especially cannily.

But with "Like You," the mix finds its groove: airy, fond of melody, its percussive touches working more as timbre effects than slanting or re-upping the beat. A cluster of tracks following "Like You" vary an insistent shuffle--not glam rock's swagger-stomp, or the variant of German techno's recent "schaffel" trend, but a basic forward motion that drags a touch, its roots in the blues laid bare by the juxtaposition with Etta James and Sugar Pie DeSanto's "In the Basement." On paper, placing that track between Baltimore rapper Young Leek and the self-explanatory Black Devil Disco Club looks forced, but in the air it fits quite well.

Hot Chip provides the mix's peak with its own "My Piano"--DJ-Kicks requires its stars to include a new track in their mixes--which undulates as sweetly as the band's press kit insists its other recorded work does. When the beat eventually straightens itself out midway through the disc with Dominik Eulberg's "Der Buchdrucker," its gleaming high-hats still carry an echo of the earlier hesitant glide, and when Grauzone's "Film 2" ups the tempo, it feels like a logical next maneuver. DJ-Kicks' beginning and end--Joe Jackson and Ray Charles, take a bow--are still too show-offy. But Hot Chip can indeed make all-over-the-place sound unified.

Spank Rock's Fabriclive 33 is far more rambunctious than Hot Chip's mix, which you'd figure from a hip-hop group. It's also much hammier: Where old-old-school R&B provides Hot Chip's most pertinent blasts from the past, Spank Rock's golden age is mid-'80s AOR. Yes' "Owner of a Lonely Heart" and the Romantics' "Talking in Your Sleep" each appears in its near-entirety.

They fit, too, because most of Fabriclive 33 is electro the way it was defined in the '80s: boisterous robo-grooves and voices, Latin funk at bottom even if what was on top were remnants of Alvin Toffler fantasies provided by machines the size of cottages. (Switch's "A Bit Patchy," which reconfigures the Incredible Bongo Band's breakbeat classic "Apache," and Kurtis Blow's set-opening, percussion-heavy "The Breaks," one of the very first rap hits, both underscore the Latin rhythmic affinity.) But the mix's chaotic feel undermines it, despite its steady rhythmic base. Bits of songs reoccur as teasers of things to come or reminders of what we've already heard. It's a sign of the set's attention to detail, but often it provides too much detail. Fabriclive 33 is a joyous clutter, but sometimes demonstrating your breadth of interests can be as good a way of dispersing focus as of grabbing it.

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