House Afire

Future shock: Armand Van Helden beats the Chemical Brothers at their own game.Photo: courtesy of Armed Records

Almost since house music first rose from the ashes of disco, critics have been ringing its death knells. That’s why it’s so surprising that house has reemerged as the dance music of 1999, and that New York – despite its reputation as a hip-hop stronghold – is at the heart of the international renaissance, thanks to trend-setting clubs like the Warehouse and Body & Soul and producers like Armand Van Helden. Van Helden’s single “U Don’t Know Me” recently hit No.1 in the U.K. and has sold more than 800,000 copies there, and British dance-music magazines regularly publish awestruck testimonials from readers who have crossed the Atlantic to visit Body & Soul.

Most fans of house music believe it came out of Chicago in the eighties, at clubs like the Music Box and the Warehouse (hence the term “house”), where D.J.’s like Jesse Saunders and Steve “Silk” Hurley adrenalized R&B and soul records (like Isaac Hayes’s “I Can’t Turn Around,” which became the anthem “Love Can’t Turn Around”) with thudding, “jacking” beats. But New York dance music has a far more diverse lineage, dating back to mid-seventies and early-eighties nightspots like David Mancuso’s the Loft and, more famously, the Paradise Garage, where D.J. Larry Levan’s ecstatic, all-night mixes of classical music, soul, R&B, and funk earned him a cult following. New York’s current crop of house auteurs, Armand Van Helden, Cevin Fisher, and Joaquin “Joe” Claussell, have inherited the open-minded ethos of the early eighties.

Van Helden is perhaps the most enigmatic of the trio. A house producer who worships Hot 97 D.J. Funkmaster Flex and whose work ranges from a spellbindingly strange Tori Amos house remix (“Professional Widow”) to a boisterous but poorly received hip-hop album (Sampleslaya), Van Helden slyly eludes categorization. Although dance-music audiences are accustomed to his ever-evolving sensibility, 2Future4U (Armed) is an unexpectedly huge leap forward. Uniting a jaw-dropping range of musics – hip-hop, soul, turntablism, salsa, techno, and drum-’n’-bass – 2Future4U delivers the kind of gleeful, genre-destroying party promised, but never fully realized, by acts like the Chemical Brothers.

Nearly every track bristles with inventiveness and – even more important in the poker-face world of electronic music – humor. “Psychic Bounty Killaz” opens with the kind of melodic trance you’d expect from superstar British D.J.’s like Paul Oakenfold or Sasha. Suddenly, a needle is dragged across the vinyl, followed by gunshots. The assailants replace the record with a rough-edged, hip-hop-influenced house number slashed with orchestral samples. It’s a smart, funny way for Van Helden to reclaim the dance floor from Euro-trancers in the name of New York house.

“U Don’t Know Me,” sung by New York vocalist Duane Harden in a smooth, George Michael-esque croon, delivers joyous disco without the numbing nostalgia that plagues much of current disco-fied house. “Rock da Spot” pairs a chugging, rock-and-roll bass line with the stunningly disorienting turntable work of Mr. Len, the D.J. for the hip-hop group Company Flow; “The Boogie Monster” marries vertiginous drum breaks with a slap-happy bass line that could satisfy Fatboy Slim, the doyen of big beat, dance music’s amphetamine-spiked, hip-hop-sampling, scruffy little brother.

“Flowerz,” oozing a polysexuality not heard since the Prince gender-bender “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” is Van Helden’s most palpable triumph. The song’s conceit, that a relationship could have been saved by a bouquet, might sound unbearably corny, but thanks to vocalist Roland Clark’s breathtaking falsetto and a hypnotic, galloping bass line that’s paired with a seventies-funk-style wah-wah guitar, “Flowerz” approaches the dizzying heights of Al Green’s rhapsodic love songs.

Cevin Fisher isn’t an experimenter like Van Helden, but he’s a great example of the power of a stick-to-your-guns purist. Fisher’s interested in the kind of pumping house that keeps dance floors packed. If you’ve been at a club any time in the past year, you’ve probably heard his big hits “Freaks Come Out” and “(You Got Me) Burnin’ Up.” “Freaks” is overrun by wailing divas and samples of a woman orgasmically crooning “Oooh, baby”; “(You Got Me) Burnin’ Up” is anchored by a sample of the ubiquitous dance vocalist Loleatta Holloway. But while My First CD (DMC), a compilation of tracks mixed by Fisher, has its share of anthems, like Nancey Jackson’s gospel-inflected “Free (Yes I’m Free)” and Studio 45’s luscious bliss-out “Freak It,” there are unexpected moments too, like the queasy sub-bass of Those Norwegians’ “Soda” and Agent Purple’s “Kings of Spain,” which perfectly meshes disco-era hand-claps with flamenco guitar.

Joaquin “Joe” Claussell, a D.J. at Body & Soul, a producer and the co-owner of Spiritual Life Music, has a world-music-meets-soulful-house approach that may seem safe in the global-village-oriented nineties, but at his best he makes you feel as though you are entering some unexplored territory where the barriers between live instrumentation and house’s mechanics fall away. Sharing duties with François Kevorkian and Danny Krivit at Body & Soul, Claussell is the most commanding presence of the group. His sets, which travel from house to Gamble & Huff-era soul and Stevie Wonder, evince a true passion for music but without the pretensions of rare-groove acolytes. And Claussell is that rare D.J. who uses his technical prowess (his cuts between records have a raw physicality that runs counter to house’s vaunted smoothness) to push the audience’s emotions, and not mere awe of the D.J., further.

So it’s somewhat disappointing that his two-CD set Mix the Vibe: Joe Claussell (King Street/Nitegrooves) alternates primarily between lush, ambient house, in which the atmospherics seem to wash over the listener, and percussive house. There are plenty of beautiful moments (like Ananda Project’s hypnotic “Straight Magic” and Jamico’s chimey love song “This Luv Is Real”), but the gorgeousness becomes suffocating after 140 minutes. Like the records of LTJ Bukem, who pioneered soulful, ambient drum ‘n’ bass, Claussell’s work forces the question: Can beauty become tiresome?

Aesthetes may prattle on about the “mature” sound of exquisitely arranged flute and conga solos, but house music draws its life force from raw, repetitive beats and the sweaty energy of the dance floor. For one brief exhilarating moment in the early eighties, it seemed like everyone in New York – black, white, Latin, gay, and straight – was invited to the house party. That’s the spirit Claussell, Van Helden, and Fisher have conjured again.

A Top Ten of New York’s Finest

1. Garage City, various artists (Kiss FM/Beechwood)
2. “Rescue Me,” Sunkids featuring Chance (Yellorange)
3. Body & Soul Vols. I and II, various artists (Wave Music)
4. “He Is the Joy,” Donna Allen (Soulfuric)
5. “If I Lose My Woman,” Kenny Lattimore (MAW Remix) (Columbia)
6. “Never Forget (When You Touch Me),” Hardrive featuring Lynae (Strictly Rhythm)
7. “What You Need,” Powerhouse featuring Duane Harden (Strictly Rhythm)
8. “Je Ka Jo,” Joe Claussell (Ibadan)
9. “Just Can’t Get Enough,” Harry “Choo-Choo” Romero presents Inaya Day (Subliminal)
10.. “I Feel the Rhythm,” Ron Trent (Prescription)

All of the above can be found at Vinylmania (60 Carmine Street; 924-7223) or Dance Tracks (91 East 3rd Street; 260-8729).

House Afire