Damned if you do, damned if you don't
There is something curiously appealing about investigating a record (or other work of art) just a little after the event, so to speak. It is possible to take a perverse pride in being unaware of its immediate context at the time of release.
So, I recently picked up a very cheap copy of Sonic Youth's NYC Ghosts and Flowers from a year or two ago. I didn't know it existed. I don't know if it was well received. I'm not sure if it's considered to be on the Youth's better works of art. I do know that at the end of 2001 the title seems powerfully poignant, and that some of the songs are terrifically affecting, which is pretty cool.
You have to concede that 20 years down the line Kim and Thurston have achieved a very special place in American culture. I guess Sonic Youth is now an institution, and it seems a mighty long way down the paths of rock'n'roll from 1982 or '83 when I remember Edwyn Collins saying that the then largely unknown Sonic Youth and Glen Branca were really the true heirs of the Velvet Underground rather than the Orange Juice. This was around the time of Speed Trials.
I've not always been a fan of Sonic Youth. Perhaps if I had been I wouldn't be enjoying them so much now. Music means different things at different stages of your life. I didn't need Sonic Youth when I was 21. I have a need for their noise now.
The only time I saw Sonic Youth was at the Hammersmith Palais, supporting the Jesus and Mary Chain, in 1985 or '86. they were incredibly heavy and bad. But then it was such a horrible night; it seemed like the end of everything. There was no indication that night of how their 1980's recordings would reverberate so spectacularly down the years. There seemed little to distinguish them from all the other horrible American rock bands that would emerge like Dinosaur Jr, Butthole Surfers, Big Black, Band of Susans, Mudhoney, Nirvana, Swans, Royal Trux, Screaming Trees, Pussy Galore, Tad, whatever; all of which I would hate with a passion, and pretty much still do.
Thankfully, we know Sonic Youth's real contemporaries were Ut, and it is that trio's recordings which are the only US '80s recordings which leave the Youth standing. Thurston would be the first to acknowledge this.
I don't know how relevant this is, but I am convinced that what distances the Youth from their contemporaries is that NYC background, and like Ut, specifically the excitement of growing up in an atmosphere where the New York No Wave thing was happening, hardcore happening, punk reaching out into other areas like disco, reggae, jazz, and the UK underground groups opening up doors and lighting new ways. This must have had an influence, and it's something that has come across many times in interviews, sleeve notes, whatever, which Kim and Thurston have been involved in. There is a voracious appetite for expanding musical knowledge, which has an effect, and it's at its best when shared.
It's never the be-all and end-all, but there are certain people you would love to hang out with, and have a good rummage through their record collections. A great record collection does not a great artist make, but there are certain people where you know their obsessions have helped a special talent flower. I think that's true of Thurston and Kim, and it's fair to say another great American, DJ Shadow falls into that category.
So, appropriately, alongside NYC Ghost and Flowers and E.V.O.L. and Ut, I have been playing the two sets put together by DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist, Brainfreeze and Product Placement. Like NYC Ghosts and Flowers, I was unaware these sets existed, and I must have missed any hype and uproar these releases created. I bought my copies in HMV Oxford, but I understand copies go for small fortunes on the Internet.
I am also aware that within the Hip Hop community there is some resentment that a couple of white guys have been rewarded for doing what many a black underground DJ does on tape and CD al the time, and anyway, they say the Shadow/Chemist stars on 45 celebrity party mega-mixes don't feature obscure enough funk 7"s. Like Shadow has suddenly become as successful as Eminem or something, and as if it's his fault a bunch of college kids buy his records or got to his shows to play that 'know that, got that, what's that, want that' game.
I understand the concerns, but Shadow and Chemist are the wrong guys to point fingers at. After all, their backgrounds with Solesides, Blackalicious, The Jurassic 5 etc should exonerate them from any accusations of exploiting Hip Hop. And what all these dudes with their wall to wall collections of breakbeats and funky licks have to understand is that the art today lies in putting things together in new ways, and Shadow and Chemist do a great job with their sound collages created out of old 7"s. The CDS are great fun.
As much as I love and respect guys like Dave Godin, I am not very good at the whole authenticity thing. I believe the Action's take on soul music is as valid as any James Carr collection, and if Shadow can offend funk purists by spinning and scratching a bunch of old 7"s and getting some well earned kudos as a result, that's fine. If I, or anyone else, feel at all uneasy about buying Shadow's CD rather than a tape a guy is selling on a street corner, then that's the way we are. We probably feel the same way about reading James Sallis or George P Pelecanos, yet that in no way should diminish the fact that Sallis and Pelecanos are great writers.
Any such debate detracts from the fact that Shadow has developed into a curious figure. Rather like Weatherall, he could have had the world eating out of his hand, but drew back and went off to follow his own obsessions. After End-troducing came out in '96/'97 whenever, he could have easily become a megastar. He perhaps got burned with U.N.K.L.E. and the contractual mess that was the demise of Mo'Wax, and away from the spotlight he did some great work with Quannum, and a few other underground things that helped redress the excesses of Hip Hop's movers and shakers.
The fact that we are talking about a couple of live mix CDs of old 45s, reassembled in such a way that the whole becomes a new entity (that ranks alongside the best of current Hip Hop, like Anti-Pop Consortium, Cannibal Ox, part of the Skitz LP, Prefuse 73 and so on) is puzzling in itself.
So, Shadow could be out there playing the super-clubs ech weekend, but he seems happier sifting through salvaged piles of old 45s for lost gems and sharing some of them with us. I'm all for that.
I'm no longer into collecting records in the Shadow sense. I too used to be happy sifting through all the 10p 7"s in the basement of Record and Tape Exchange, and buying anything that looked vaguely interesting. I ended up with some real gems, and a lot of rubbish. I no longer have the inclination, and I don't have the room for stacks of vinyl. So, I am quite happy for the likes of Shadow to do the searching now, and if it results in compilations like the superb Funky 16 Corners on Stones Throw or the Jazzman Whatiswrongwithgroovin' set I am more than happy, and better off in all sorts of ways.
I have come to accept that people like Shadow, Thurston Moore, Tim Gane of Stereolab, or even Bob Stanley, are always going to be several steps ahead of me in terms of seeking out lost gems, and if they do the leg work which results somehow or other in a nice compilation or reissue, then again, I am happy.
Thanks to Bob, for example, I am sitting here listening to the Free design compilation on Cherry red, which is essential of you have ever loved Fifth Dimension, Mamas and Papas, Left Banke etc, and I have a magazine open at a page where Tim Gane has written an article on Krzystof Komeda, the Polish jazz composer/soundtrack creator, dimly aware that I will no doubt end up dabbling there also. After all, Gane did point me in the direction of Os Mutantes and George Russell's Electronic Sonata for Souls Loved By Nature a long time ago; so he knows his stuff.
So, Shadow's career trajectory seems a strange one. He could, after all, be Fatboy Slim or the Chemical Brothers. The clues were there a long time ago, though, when he came to the UK while End-troducing was blazing a trail. I saw him make an in-store appearance in the Rough Trade Covent Garden shop. There he was, spinning some End-troducing related tracks, until he clearly became uncomfortable and felt he need to prove something. So, the word went out that Shadow would mix in with what he playing any record anyone cared to take from the racks. So, it started with some Kosher Hip Hop, expanded into the more esoteric instrumental Hip Hop of the time, then branched out into all sorts of stuff as those present grew more adventurous. Thus everything from Sonic Youth to Fugazi squalls of noise to the most minimal Basic Channel dubbed out techno was thrown into the melting pot and Shadow made it work. It was something special for those present, and it was a subtle way for Shadow to say he does have a gift. Since then, as I have been at pains to say, he must have struggled with demons and resisted a lot of temptation, to follow the path he has chosen. Let's celebrate that! My heart's with the Shadows and Sonic Youth's of this world. It's what I always say: those guys know how to keep the mystery caged.
© Kevin Pearce 2001