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Walter Gibbons - Jungle Music: Essential & Unreleased Remixes 1976-1986

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Artist: Walter Gibbons

Album: Jungle Music: Essential & Unreleased Remixes 1976-1986

Label: Strut

Review date: Jul. 20, 2010


Betty LaVette - "Doin' The Best That I Can (Walter Gibbons 12" Mix)" (Jungle Music: Essential & Unreleased Remixes 1976-1986)


Funny thing, disco. Like the mono-myth and cooking with fire, dancing and dance music appear spontaneously across every cultural boundary, class line, age group and gender gap. In the past hundred years alone, people danced to soul, rockabilly, hip hop, swing, rhythm & blues, funk, dancehall, country, and even hardcore. We’ve paired off for "Moon River" or "On Bended Knee," flailed around in the pit, gotten loosey goosey to the Grateful Dead and sock hopped to "The Wanderer." There’s ballet, Butoh, tap and modern, square dances and "Dancing With Myself." We love to dance, probably need to dance; it is one of our few indelible social practices. And yet when music heads talk about "dance music," they aren’t talking about "The Locomotion" or "Shoulder Lean" or Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. They’re talking about disco and its legacy.

What made disco so special was that it changed the game. It distilled the beat to the simplest four-on-the-floor heartbeat, and from there built up songs that throbbed expansively, that hypnotized as much as they excited. It also distilled the live performance, eliminating any trace of the concert by giving over the night to the DJ. Guided by the pulse and freed up to explore one’s own body, discos evolved from a few cool house parties into veritable dance laboratories. The direct result of those early innovations would be the sprawling worlds of house and techno, the instrumental backdrop for the first wave of rappers and the amped-up pop of Madonna, et al. Disco did not create dance, but it did give it a new life as its own massive, autonomous universe.

Walter Gibbons was one of disco’s earliest DJs, active on the scene before it had a name, and Jungle Music, which compiles some of his most groundbreaking remixes and personal edits, gives as much a sense of that shock-of-the-new as it does his personal vision. Although best known today for his close collaborations with Arthur Russell, his reputation was first made by hard-hitting, percussion-heavy edits. Reportedly the first DJ to be commissioned by a label for an official remix (in 1976 by Salsoul for Double Exposure’s "Ten Percent"), he isolated the defining elements of disco in a track and brought them unabashedly to the foreground, using the rest only as it might serve his needs on the dance floor.

The opening selection, Jakki’s "Sun… Sun… Sun…" illustrates his budding technique perfectly. Frankly, the song is terrible, a schizo-prog soul number with traces of post-hippie musicals like Jesus Christ Superstar and jumbled lyrics that are either about being heartbroken at the loss of a lover, loving the sun or maybe that the sun only ever thinks about love. I have no idea, but when I first tossed Jungle Music on, my heart sank at the thought of slogging through two discs of this kind of crap. But then, about halfway through, Gibbons pulls one of the most hilarious power moves I’ve heard in recent memory. The song, going full-force, suddenly disappears in a primitive crossfade and is replaced by a sweet bongo-heavy beat, some driving bass work and trippy, looped vocals. It feels like Gibbons is right there in the room with you, just as tired of the source material and ready to get into the zone. Eventually the song comes back and it’s a bummer, but the listener can consider themselves warned: we’ve seen what this man is capable of, where his head is at, and where we’re going.

Many of the selections that follow are similarly spotty, leaning toward schmaltzy champagne fare that feels seriously dated. Yet, each one has some revelatory touches, additions and subtractions, hard cuts and weird fades that illuminate early-form dance music as we know it. One thing Gibbons pioneers here, which is still a major pillar of all dance genres, is a teasing approach to melody. He lets you hear it just enough to set the scene, and then holds off as long as possible before giving it back, stretching out what might have been a bombastic, three-minute soul song into a 10-minute journey.

Bettye Lavette’s "Doin’ The Best That I Can" is a perfect example, a master class in disco dynamics. The song opens with cascading horns and some bells, but no bass. Then the kick comes in, but the horns cut out; the listener is left hanging, waiting not just for the melody to return, but for the full spectrum of instruments. Eventually the horns start to return, one at a time, until finally he hits us with the bass and some piano, too. Still, though, no Bettye, and we’re already more than a minute deep into the track. When Lavette finally does show up, she only gets one run through the chorus with the instruments before the entire band sans drummer bails, leaving her alone with some frantic timbales and that insistent kick drum. Gibbons holds it like this for a verse, a chorus, and another verse again before slowly reintroducing the instruments; most songs would be done by now, but this one is just getting underway. Of course, by the time he finally — finally — brings back the bass, we’re practically begging for it, and so we’re rewarded with… a little more. There’s a longer section where he lets the song ride, normal and full, but pretty soon he’s throwing in space sounds, percussive synths and new melodies. The song as it was conceived by its creators has been profoundly deconstructed, edited into something new, into a track which plays with your body as much as it tells a story about someone "doin’ the best that I can." Disco is officially born.

But the real deal, the really juicy stuff, is on the second disc. Honestly, as sweet as his editing is on "Doin…," the song itself is a little thin, not exactly a lost classic, and I would say the same for much of the rest of the material on the first two sides. Here, on sides C and D, however, we’re rewarded with a beautiful Arthur Russell mix that sounds more like abstract digital dub than anything you’d play in the club, as well as an exemplary unreleased mix of Dinosaur L’s classic "Go Bang." I’m happy to hear that song anytime of the day, as its pairing of funked-up organ and nostalgic melancholy ("I wanna see all my friends at once / I’d do anything for a change to go bang / I wanna go bang") perfectly encapsulates the aching heart at the core of much disco. Also pretty sweet is the ultra-minimal, proto go-go of Stesasonic’s "4 Ever My Beat," which jams heavy electro drums, some chanting and a touch of keys into a quintessentially NYC groove.

None of those, however, is going to prepare the listener for Strafe’s "Set It Off," undoubtedly the holy grail of this collection. A freaky-as-hell stew of downtown cool and off-the-grid wildness from 1984, "Set It Off" oozes a creepy boogie menace that’s strangely alluring. Although he’s projecting quite audibly, the singer’s questioning "Y’all want this party started, right? / Y’all want this party started quickly, right?" calls to mind the Ying Yang Twins’ controversial "Wait (The Whisper Song)" in its nasty complicity. (The lyric was re-purposed later by C + C Music Factory.) The mix is all over the place, with cavernous drums quiet in the background, synth handclaps and hissy "set it off, set it off, set it off set set set set it off” overbearingly loud. Forget wah wah’ed solos and long hair — this is real psychedelic music, equal parts pleasure and squirming discomfort in its startling, tactile properties.

"Set It Off" also marks the passing of the baton to a new generation, one which had absorbed disco’s early revelations into a coherent language of post-disco dance. Those who followed Gibbons and his contemporaries were starting where they left off, taking their innovations one, two, countless steps further. It’s just a short leap from the tracks on Jungle Music to, say, "Can You Feel It" or "Strings Of Life," but who could have seen it coming? I may not have loved many of the songs on this comp, but listening through it over and over, an image started to form. Not just of Gibbons alone in the studio, meticulously cutting up reels of tape and inventing dance music as we understand it today, but also of a larger cultural moment. Arthur Russell may be the 21st century’s darling disco producer, but there was so so much more, a whole web that tied together DJ Kool Herc, Stonewall and its aftermath, post-’60s "Me Generation" processing, the birth of electronic music, Studio 54 and a ton of free spirits and freaks in search of a crazy time. Jungle Music sheds light on a converging era, where abstract soundscapes and pulsing drums shared the floor with glitzy divas and soul singers, where a hedonistic sex scene cross-pollinated with the avant garde, a perfect storm of pan-everything body liberation and a still-resonant sonic paradigm shift. It was just the beginning, but y’all want this party started right? Y’all want this party started, quickly, right?

By Daniel Martin-McCormick

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