DJ Food – Magpies, Maps and Moons EP
If nothing else, DJ Food provides NinjaTune with continuity.
By now verging on the status of a legacy act, the item has been around as long as the label itself, if not a touch longer. Like Trigger's broom though, it's been through a couple of transformations since it first started out. Even the name has mutated. It's all there in the subtle stressing of its syllables. The original concept of the act was based on splicing together beats, breaks and loops as a way of offering a sort of 'food' for djs mixing vinyl in early 90s nightclubs – the early 'Jazz Brakes' albums were in concept a resource for the burgeoning dance music scene, more than they were commercially marketed collections of tunes. Back then, before iPad apps could load a soundbank of 100,000+ ready-cut sonic voices to your bedroom studio for a couple of quid, the stress was on the D. ‘DEE’jay food.
At the dj booth of the Safari Club it was obvious that the name had mutated somewhat. Dug into the sandy lawns of a small resort on the French Atlantic coast, the Safari Club doesn't often draw big name acts. Or medium ones. Because the support act's set had segued into the main attraction without being specifically announced, there was some confusion amongst the boite's clientele.
About every five minutes of the first hour someone would press their face against the panel window, point at the slick-haired man tweaking the display on his aluminium-bodied MacBook, and ask 'Eeez zat DJ Food?' This time, even with the comedy French accent, the emphasis was squarely on the last word. Somewhere over the decades DJ Food has gone from being an altruistic concept, to being a man playing records. Even the pronunciation betrays the fact. Dj FOOD?
To be precise, the man behind the glass was Strictly Kev, who has been helming the DJ Food act since around 1997. Original members Jonathan More and Matt Black, collaborating elsewhere as Coldcut, went on to found NinjaTune. Paul Carpenter became Cinematic Orchestra, others came and went. Eventually the last man standing was Strictly Kev, and it is he who features on the 'Magpies, Maps and Moons' EP released on November 7th. Again, the keyword is 'continuity'.
There is much on this release which is familiar: the cut and paste approach to musicmaking, originally a necessary process to the act involving magnetic tape and splicing razors, is now presented as something more akin to an article of faith. And it is strangely comforting.
Credibility is a two-edged sword, ask any grime emcee who manages to achieve the smallest degree of financial success how frequently they hear the spiteful epithet 'sold out'. Few record labels in the UK could expect to be scrutinised with anything like the rigour applied to NinjaTune (or Warp). In the IDM forums of even the most far-flung regions of the globe, obsessional fans call each other trolls and noobs in vicious flamewars over questions as arcane as whether Quincey Jones really wrote 'Les Nuits' or if Raffertie can be truthfully termed 'post-dubstep'.
Such vehemence is unthinkable applied to any other label, no matter how painstakingly rehearsed their claim to grassroots indie savvy. Richard Russell, for all his swagger, could never claim anything like that devotion in fans of XL records, even before the worldwide hegemony of Adele's overstrained bellow and seven-figure Universal publishing deal obliterated any residual cachet left over from 'discovering' The Prodigy or Jai Paul.
the cut and paste approach to musicmaking, originally a necessary process to the act involving magnetic tape and splicing razors, is now presented as something more akin to an article of faith. And it is strangely comforting
'Magpies, Maps and Moons' is then, a reminder of where NinjaTune started. That, in a double-edged sword sense, could be construed as a polite way of saying that it sounds old. There isn't, it must be admitted, much in the EP that is cutting-edge. To give DJ Food the benefit of the doubt though, there really doesn't need to be. If this release came under another name, or was promoted as the work of an emerging DJ, the simple put-down would be that it sounds like early NinjaTune. Here, it's permitted.
In the catalogue of a label which has been showing a disturbing dependency on Ableton-compressed bass beats and frilly Abisynth toplines in the majority of its releases this year, 'Magpies, Maps and Moons' is satisfyingly short of such obvious signifiers of the dance music zeitgeist. It's chunky, and funky, and it's either twenty years out of date or completely timeless, depending entirely on your mood (enhancers).
In truth, few of the crowd in the Safari Club gave the name anything like that amount of thought. Most of them were 'saisonnaires' – waiting staff, lifeguards, childminders, commis chefs – celebrating the palpable easing of their workloads as the first hint of autumn wafted on the August air and the damned tourists were finally starting to leave. If you want a mental picture, think of the scene in Dirty Dancing where Baby finds her way into the after-hours dance den of the holiday camp staffers. The very same sense of collusion, the same catlike sense of territory marked and interlopers studiously ignored. Like smalltown nightclubs the world over, the seating booths had their regulars; the tears and vodka mini-dramas in the ladies' toilets were well-rehearsed; the low spot on the smokers' terrace where you could climb in without the bouncer noticing was much-used.
Dropped into a crowd of regulars whose night was more concerned with the continuation of their ongoing, summer-long soap opera, the music was never going to be the primary entertainment. From the start, a few imports try valiantly to soften the crowd. A rave-survivor in shorts and hip-length fur jacket mounts a table, joined by another period-dressed hopeful in flouro yellow safety wear. They keep it up for hours, unflagging in their efforts to convince the crowd that they are listening to a bona fide dance music legend.
Gallic disdain is a refined art, almost every one of its subgenres is directed at the whooping tabletop pair at some point of the night. Ironically, there is no need for their slightly desperate attempts at animation. The dancefloor only holds a hundred or two bodies and it's full all night. So are the seating areas though, and the smoking deck up top. It's an opt-in, opt out kind of evening.
Gallic disdain is a refined art, almost every one of its subgenres is directed at the whooping tabletop pair at some point of the night.
So Strictly Kev has to work it, and keep working it. And if there are mutterings from some of the trainspotters lounging around the corners that it's a bit safe, stuck in 4/4, all crowd-pleasing house beats and 90s vocal samples, it could be that they're missing the point somewhat. For a month before the gig the posters around the resort simply read 'NinjaTune, Safari Club, August'. No dates, no names. If NinjaTune means Raffertie, Slugabed, Emika, Loka to you, there's every chance that the DJ Food set sounds a bit cheesy. If it means Coldcut, Mr Scruff, The Herbaliser, Cinematic Orchestra, then it possibly sounds like the well-honed craft of a veteran. If you've been cleaning hotel rooms for eight hours a day for most of the summer, it possibly just sounds like something you want to go and wriggle to. Mid-way through the night there The Beatles' 'Come Together' provides the vocal hook for a throbbing five minutes of bass and beats cut-up, and if it's a bit cheap, no-one on the floor is complaining – the place goes simultaneous-multiple.
The new EP is darker than that, less obvious and transitory. 'Prey', featuring JG Thirwell plots b-movie horror vocals onto a driving Tim Simenon-style bassline, peppering it with snare breaks and some deftly off-kilter barbershop harmonies that stay just on the right side of comedic. 'Percussion Map' owes a debt to classic breakbeat too, with robotized vocals and filtered bass flitting in and out of a blend of sonics prompting vague memories of 'Stakker Humanoid' or 'Voodoo Ray'.
As an EP 'Magpies, Maps and Moons' plots the sort of mood swings that make up a well-constructed DJ set, the tension-release structure of dance music applied not just to the individual tracks, but also to their placement in the collection. The entertaining vocal narrative of 'Discovery Workshop' comes as a relief from the intensity of the first two tracks; the more exploratory Magpie Music (feat. 2econd Class Citizen) plots that contemplative part of the night when fatigue begins to set in; finally 'In Orbit Every Monday' eases the listener out with a psychological comedown track owing a lot to Death in Vegas's '68 Balcony'.
'Magpies, Maps and Moons' plots the sort of mood swings that make up a well-constructed DJ set
The lecture snippet used as the vocal on 'Discovery Workshop' celebrates the frivolous but intoxicating nature of the 4/4 time popsong. Its a signpost of sorts, a self-aware implied claim that there is plenty of life left in four-to-the-floor, cut and paste dance music. 'Magpie music' is a bit of a giveaway title too. Strictly Kev's devotion to the beats/loops/samples technique was made evident in his 'Raiding the 20th Century' album, composed of just about every significant vocal sample used in the last three decades of dance music – from the Ofra Haza snippet on Coldcut's remix of 'Paid in Full' all the way through to Kylie Minogue. The only conundrum on listening to the EP is whether Dj Food is enough of a cultural artefact to claim immunity to the argument that it is simply getting dated.
Talking to one of the skeptics at the Safari Club, who wasn't even born when 'Jazz Brakes' came out, the answer was negative. In a conversation which touched upon dubstep (fine for a while but suffering from mainstream appropriation and the brostep phenomenon); glitch (not a bad concept, but uncomfortable to listen to recreationally); and liquid drum 'n' bass (his eyes went glassy at this point and he babbled reverentially for some minutes), the Kiwi kitchen-hand nursing a litre bottle of Perrier wasn't impressed.
The problem, he reckoned, was that the kickbeats were too washy, drowning out any detail, just pummelling the place in flabby sub-bass with stacks of heft but no pop. Liquid d 'n' b has fluid, non-percussive basslines; he pointed out, back onto his favourite subject, and hence avoids that drawback. The Safari Club is circular, with raw stone walls surrounding the dancefloor. That might have had a bit to do with the (genuine) issue too. He loped off into the night early, all smiles and offers of free food at his employer's restaurant. 'The bang-bang chicken's wicked mate!'
On the dancefloor, his disdain was not shared. A solid crowd, dancing hard to meaty beats and elusive, memory-nagging samples and VSTs – one moment the Grandmaster Flash, the next something just familiar, maybe Nomad? Furcoat and Fluoro were still larging it. No-one could argue that it wasn't a fully immersive, exquisitely crafted set, replete with the builds, drops, humour and intensity that define the art of the DJ. Even the Kiwi chef gave him that.
Dj Food, bang bang chicken, drum 'n' bass though…what decade is it again?
Dj Food – Magpies, Maps and Moons EP, out November 7th on NinjaTune