Unpicking the truth behind the public façade of Omar S is one of the things that makes him such an enduring character. If we’re to believe what he says, then he cares little for the concept of curation, and new long-player Thank You For Letting Me Be Myself is more of a compilation than a proper album, made up of some of the presumably hundreds of tracks burned onto CD that litter his studio floor under a layer of Nunn’s BBQ sauce and dusty footprints. It’s certainly how his last album felt at times – comprised of some new tracks with a couple of previously vinyl-only cuts thrown in for good measure, it never felt like it was intended as a cohesive listening experience.
The fact that virtually nothing is known about OB Ignitt has led to widespread speculation that he’s another pseudonym in a long standing tradition of FXHE trickery, and it wouldn’t be the first curveball the label’s thrown at its fan base. After all, it’s doubtful that those Black Eyed Peas were responsible for remixing last year’s joyously anthemic “S.E.X”, and it’s still a bit puzzling that there never really was a “Wayne County Cops” pt. 1 that preceded Ignitt’s rugged analogue collaboration with Omar-S.
Record labels are the bricks and mortar of the independent music industry, the foundations upon which artists and scenes flourish and grow. During 2012 there seemed to be a glut of new labels popping up across the board, and though some made strong statements with their initial releases, our list largely acknowledges the imprints who continue to lead the way for others to follow. The people behind our top labels are individuals we – and many others – willingly place our trust in; their curatorial abilities are integral to ensuring they stand tall amidst a sea of samey musical dross.
In many cases, passion for the music these labels have released is the over-riding factor, any notion of profiting from the releases secondary to the rush of seeing it out there, pressed on wax and housed in a nicely presented sleeve. For regular readers of Juno Plus, these ten names should make perfect sense; a selection of labels whose output has made it easy for us to show our support for over the course of the last 12 months.
There’s short video clip on YouTube that follows Theo Parrish as he wanders the streets of Detroit in baggy acid wash jeans and Adidas shell toe shoes, armed with a recorder, boom pole, mic and windsock. The revered producer records raw sound – hanging out the window of a speeding car, banging on rusted and paint chipped playgrounds, shuffling around sparring boxers and setting up under a damp archway to collect natural reverb, collecting the natural sounds of his city, part archivist, part musician.
Viewed from a superficial perspective it would appear difficult to understand why Keep On is available on FXHE. After all, the logic runs, Omar S isn’t exactly the biggest fan of dub techno. However, as Hess’ second album so articulately demonstrates, he has been somewhat unfairly lumped in with that often-maligned sound. Keep On has no shortage of powerful basslines and foreboding chord sequences or indeed the sense of space and spaciousness that dub techno is endowed with.
Aaron Siegel has thus far occupied an interesting space in the modern Detroit techno landscape. Building up his Fit establishment around distribution for the key labels in the Motor City has clearly placed the man in a strong position among his globe-trotting brethren. One look at the list of imprints he works with says it all; KDJ, Sound Signature, FXHE, Planet E, Underground Resistance, Three Chairs, NDATL, Moods & Grooves. We could go on. However, as a couple of releases for Omar S’s FXHE now attest, Siegel’s talents reach beyond logistics and business, and he appears to be making forays into the production world with some choice collaborative ventures.
“There are bands that have been acting ruthlessly in the shadow for years, in a completely confidential manner, then one day chance (but does chance exist?) makes you find one of their recordings, listen to it, and at that moment you could kick yourself for not having discovered these soundscapes earlier and you try to find all of them.”
In 2011 Omar S was seemingly on a mission to befuddle and inspire his fans in equal measure: first there was a shrewd, ahead-of-the-curve reissue of perennially under-appreciated house don Marc Kinchen, then came the all-conquering “Here’s Your Trance Now Dance” 12”, which was in turn followed by a surprise album and a collaboration with urban crooner Colonel Abrams. All of this was pulled off with the kind of cocksure bravado that invited both adoration and ridicule – no one gets house music fans riled up more than Omar S – business as usual at FXHE, then.
Omar S has always been something of a maverick, but even by his own high standards, surprise second album It Can Be Done, But Only I Can Do It is something else. For starters, it was largely unexpected, gloriously unencumbered by pre-hype (stores were given little over a week’s notice of its release) and little indication that he was prepping a new full-length (his last album was released back in 2005). Given his usual secrecy and forthright attitude towards music industry protocol, this shouldn’t come as a total shock. Even so, it’s a bold move that’s taken his usual fanatical and clued-up fan base by surprise.
So what of the album itself? Like much of his work, it’s riddled with acute contrasts: tough and aggressive on one hand (the ragging acid of “Ganymede”), soft, calming and blissful on the other (the casual jazz-flex of “Nites Over Comption”). This bi-polar approach is obvious from the very start, when bubbling acid opener “Solely Supported” makes way for the hissing, melodic futurism of “Supported Solely”. It’s like the rest of the album in microcosm. One of the Detrotian’s greatest gifts is his refusal to stick to one particular groove, or for that matter carve his own distinct niche within a trusted genre. Here, he uses that to his advantage, successfully touching on a number of his usual musical staples. The results veer from the merely impressive to the utterly mindblowing.
The deeper reaches of Detroit’s beatdown sound are visited on “Look Hear Watch”, a kind of Moodymann-on-downers exercise in sparse deepness notable for the porno groans and heart-aching pianos that run throughout. “I Wish” offers heady, melodic deep house thrills, whilst “Bobien Larkin” strips back the action to little more than an intoxicating, hypnotic techno groove. Then there’s “Over You Two”, a next generation Motor City techno jam that pays homage to the city’s original pioneers whilst wrapping itself around one of Omar S’s trademark futurist grooves.
And so it goes on, fusing the past, present and future with cautious glee. The title track offers any icy, bleep-laden analogue/digital message to his doubters; arrogance turned into unfussy electronic blues. Towering over the album’s closing moments is previous single “Here’s Your Trance, Now Dance”, a near-faultless chunk of genius-like Detroit simplicity that has rightly become an underground anthem. Very few have succeeded in making genuinely brilliant house and techno albums, but here, Omar S has. Perhaps the album title is a warning. After all, it can be done, but only hecan do it.
2011 is proving to be a year of irresistible quirkiness over at FXHE. First there was the shimmering anthem “Here’s Your Trance Now Dance” from label boss Omar S, described by the man himself as so catchy it was “ringtone worthy”. Soon to come on the label will be a surprise appearance from Shadow Ray – we say surprise because the producer has spent the past few years holed up at Ryan Correctional Facility in Michigan. So the story goes, Alex Smith (aka Omar S) made a presentation to the facility’s parole board to commission a remix of “Here’s Your Trance Now Dance” as part of Ray’s work release program – and was successful. Before that, however, the second 12” of the year on the label throws up another surprise, with an (almost) forgotten Mark Kinchen gem from 1993 dusted off and given some love alongside a new Omar S offering.
Although Todd Edwards is routinely the first name mentioned breathlessly whenever the US garage sound comes up in conversation, Kinchen (perhaps more recognisable to house heads simply as MK) is not always held in the same lofty esteem – although Edwards himself is quick to credit him as a major influence in most interviews. Yet only a matter of weeks ago another MK classic, “4 You” (also produced under the 4th Measure Men moniker) was reissued by Defected – a label millions of miles away from FXHE in the underground stakes. Defected called on tech house producer du jour Maya Jane Coles among others to remix the track, a move that served to showcase the breadth of his influence and enduring appeal in certain quarters, despite some questionable career moves in later years (remixing Celine Dion anyone?)
The dub version of “Given”, which appears on this FXHE release and first saw release on Kinchen’s Area 10 imprint some 18 years ago, is a perfect example of his production style; wonderfully chopped vocals riding above a meaty bassline, sweet melody and those euphoric brass sections so favoured by mid 90s house producers. It’s release in 2011 is a shrewd piece of A&R by Omar S, coming at a time when many producers – including the aforementioned Maya Jane Coles – are (re)discovering the sound of vintage NY and New Jersey house and garage.
On the flip, the Omar S track “Sarah” opens with a quote from The Toxic Avenger (a celebratory image of the movie also adorns the vinyl), proving that the Detroit don is just as happy sampling cheesy 80s horror flicks as he is Motown classics. The track quickly locks into a solid groove with shuffling 808 hats and a deep, chuggy bassline. Although Omar S is clearly enjoying throwing down the odd curveball at the moment, “Sarah” – a wonderful slice of stripped back house – is a timely reminder that with FXHE there are certain things you can always rely on.
Omar S has made a career out of doing the simple things well; such as taking a single vocal loop from The Supreme’s “Come See About Me” and laying a shuffling filtered house groove beneath it on the eternally fabulous “Day”. On first listen the source is familiar and immensely pleasing on the ear, but never fully reveals itself. Indeed the entire FXHE empire is built on this kind of raw sound – there’s often not much more to his tracks than an analogue drum pattern, a few chords and keys, but when it’s done well it’s utterly beguiling (see “Psychotic Photosynthesis” as a prime example). His fabric mix from 2009 was a neat encapsulation of his style; keep it deep and dirty for a while, then feed them a couple of epic moments (finishing with the aforementioned “Day” and the Midway sampling “Set It Out”).
“Here’s Your Trance Now Dance!”, as one might expect from the title, fits into the end-of-night section of the Omar S discography. Waves of glistening synth patterns rise throughout – they are truly trance inducing – and beneath this a constantly ascending procession of gleeful melodic touches creates a simplistic yet deliciously crisp machine rhythm, replete with subtle arpeggios and infectiously warm bass nudges. This is a track that bears repeat listen through headphones to let the magic fully seep in, so we’ll leave it to you to imagine the devastation it will cause at 2am in a sweaty basement somewhere.
Omar obviously believes this track has legs, pressing it up as a one-sided colour 12″. He doesn’t tweet, rarely indulges in interviews, probably thinks Facebook is evil: all he has to fall back on is his attitude and his music. With such an impressive catalouge now behind him and some exciting future releases – most notably an upcoming 12″ featuring straight up US garage-style fire from Mark Kinchen – it seems like there’s plenty of mileage in the FXHE tank yet.