DJ Kicks: The Exclusives
he concept was simple enough—invite prominent DJs and electronic artists to make a mix CD, suitable for home listening or the drive-time blues, and release for general consumption. Though it has precedents, the idea was not fully explored in the 70's or 80's, as the notion of the DJ as cultural force slowly developed. Enter into this equation the fledgling !K7 label and their DJ Kicks album by CJ Bolland, released in the fall of 1995. Since then, dance music has only continued in its quest for world domination, seemingly unsatisfied with being sexier than rock music—now it wants to take over the record store! In the interim, the DJ Kicks series has become a benchmark of the mix album, given no less a signifier than "the most important DJ mix series ever" by Mixmag. Along the way, it's managed to draw in some big guns of dance music (Carl Craig, Thievery Corporation, Kid Loco) as well as a number of its misfit offspring (Annie, Chicken Lips, Erlend Øye).
While other popular mix series revolve around a specific place, record label, or genre, the appeal of DJ Kicks has been so widespread because it allows each artist to do their thing and then slaps a recognizable name on top. Thus, the series has been able to incorporate entries ranging from the decks-and-FX excursions of Kruder & Dorfmeister to the wobbly amateur DJ sets of Erlend Øye (which found him singing ad hoc covers and originals over beats) and Annie, along the way taking in the range of dance styles from nu-jazz (Thievery Corporation) to electro (Tiga). As the series continued and the line between DJ and musician grew blurrier and blurrier, artists were asked to contribute an original track for their disc, which would then be released unmixed on a 12" single.
DJ Kicks: The Exclusives rounds up these releases for a collection commemorating the series. At first, it sounds like a pretty suspect cash-in, but in the end works perfectly as a coherent album. Sequenced chronologically, it inadvertently (perhaps) takes the listener on a trip through the ever-changing sounds of ten years of top-shelf dance music. The popularity of the series is strong enough that it seems to have provoked most of the artists into bringing forward a superior example of their work—perhaps due to their reluctance to put a makeshift cut of their own against their favorite work by others, perhaps motivated by the series' increasingly high profile. However it was inspired, the end result is a collection that feels more like an above-par label retrospective than the usual roundup of one-offs.
With no true stinkers to whine about, I'm hard pressed to wax on about a handful of these tracks at the expense of the others. But highlights indubitably abound—the Thievery Corporation's "It Takes A Thief" is so spacious and smoky I swear it's on The K&D Sessions, though my tracklisting might say otherwise. Playgroup's tight rework of Depeche Mode's "Behind the Wheel" (although I still abhor the lyric changes) makes a brilliant bridge between the sexed-up breakbeat of "Sensuality" by Victor Duplaix and the absurdity of Tiga's cover of "Hot in Herre." Always an amusing proposition for me, it's a version that at least illustrates the irreverence of the dance world—even if he does kind of suck the funk out of the original, the overtly homoerotic delivery punctures the rap mainstream with precision. Ahh, but the list goes on—Chicken Lips' "Bad Skin" is pure diggy disco-dub, Kid Loco gives us the warm fuzzies with "Flyin' on 747," and DJ Cam's aptly-titled "Bronx Theme" is a sublime justification of the notion that hip-hop is the 'new jazz,' blending both with a loving touch and an easy hand. But all things must come to an end. Luckily, DJ Kicks: The Exclusives ends on a high note with the Carl Craig track, simply titled "DJ Kicks."
Twenty-six entries deep, the DJ Kicks series has proven to be both dictator and defier of trends. Dance music is a fickle beast, immediate and immediately dateable, timely and timeless. To survive amongst the flotsam and jetsam of innumerable beats, tracks, and remixes is no mean feat. Luckily, !K7 have impeccable taste in dance music. I can think of a billion mix CDs I wouldn't want to hear or own, but you'll find none of the entries in this series on that list. This collection of exclusive tracks serves to highlight one clear thing which often gets misunderstood about dance music—the source of its creation is the same as the source of its dissemination. While the “DJs are rockstars, rockstars are DJs” debate continues pointlessly, !K7 has quietly been getting the job done by showing us that DJs are musicians (they essentially have to be in order to be successful at what they do), and musicians can be DJs, too.
My favorite entries in the DJ Kicks series are divided between sets by "serious" DJs and singers "playing records." DJ Kicks: The Exclusives is a collection of "songs" by jocks and "tracks" by artists that obliviates the need for the tired debate surrounding what constitutes creativity in this arena. It's called music, people. Wise up.