There’s an argument to be made that African-American music has consistently been at the fore in using available technology to push the boundaries of pop music, both in terms of form and content. From Stevie Wonder’s collaborations with Ray Kurzweil to Cybotron and the Belleville Three’s invention of electro and techno to the Bomb Squad’s layered sample-based explosions, black musicians have embraced the future with gusto. With Personal Space, Chocolate Industries has put together a fascinating collection of homemade electronic soul records spanning the years 1974 to ’84; a rough-around-the-edges, DIY mix of pseudo- and proto-techno, lo-fi disco, and electro funk.
The artists here are all hyper-obscure and represent the rise in home recording that took place in the late ’70s as a result of studio equipment becoming more readily available. The records that emerged from this new shadow recording industry were largely done as small vanity pressings and are nearly impossible to track down. Lovingly compiled by Chicago DJ Dante Carfagna (of Express Rising fame), Personal Space makes for a strange yet oddly moving listen. While there are elements to these songs that one can parse out in the various R&B genres that would crop-up in the decades to follow (with Dam-Funk currently leading the charge in keeping this outcast art alive and well), the stuff here is largely self-contained and anomalous. The excerpt from Starship Commander Woo Woo’s “Master Ship” is an epic synthesizer odyssey that calls to mind a funkier, weirder Rick Wakeman (if such a thing can be imagined). “All About the Money” might take on a subject familiar to hip hop and R&B listeners, but there are few examples musically of the kind of star-dusted cosmic groove laid down by Spontaneous Overthrow anywhere in those genres today. And the disc-closing “Time to Go Home,” with its lonely drum patter and delicate, remote organ groove, sounds positively forlorn as if composer Otis G. Johnson is about to leave this planet for good.
Indeed, there is an introspective quality to Personal Space. While the sounds here didn’t completely emerge from the ether, with the most obvious precedent being Sly Stone’s There’s a Riot Going On, they are decidedly the product of the isolated creative mind at work, one boldly harnessing new technology in order to actualize a personal vision. Sun Ra and George Clinton introduced the concepts of space and the cosmos to jazz and funk with the notion that black music was an alien element beamed in from other planets and could be harnessed as a powerful and moving force for the liberation of a people. With Personal Space, the idea of using music to explore galaxies far, far away, becomes, as the title so clearly posits, an inward journey, where the boundaries of individual creativity are set by the heavens within.