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[whitespace] Gilles Peterson Turntable Revolution: The songs on Gilles Peterson's new disc display great variety grounded in '70s funk.

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Sounding The Future

DJ Gilles Peterson creates thrilling mixes that shower listeners with sonic gold

By Michelle Goldberg

IN THE 1990s, the music scene grew grotesquely fragmented. Many DJs turned themselves into narrow niche brands, specializing in, say, anthemlike trance or polished, loungey ambient beats. Different styles now have their own fashions, codes and club nights, allowing devotees to wallow in smug sonic solipsism.

This development was especially depressing given the way DJs were once revered for their ability to introduce crowds to new sounds. As DJs' status grew preposterously inflated, turntablists started thinking of themselves as dance-floor shamans, beat-mixing maestros, scene figureheads and artists in their own right.

Thus, the most important DJ function of all--that of the broad connoisseur who burrows into myriad genres, finds the jewels and scatters them over listeners--has often been obscured by an ugly haze of pretension and cliquishness.

Renowned English DJ Gilles Peterson has always stood out as a dazzling exception to this depressing trend. While other DJs focus on ever more exclusive categories, Peterson revels in a wild, delirious eclecticism, traversing decades and genres to create thrilling mixes that highlight the connections between disparate music.

A devotee of jazz and rare groove funk, he's often credited with (or blamed for) inventing the term "acid jazz," the name of one of his early record labels. Today, he owns the label Talkin' Loud and hosts a famous BBC Radio One show called World Wide, which is rebroadcast internationally (it can be heard at www.kcrw.org Saturdays at 10pm).

His radio shows and club dates offer tours through the best music you've never heard, with a few hits or classics thrown in to help you get your bearings. On a recent appearance on the famed Southern California radio show Morning Becomes Eclectic, Peterson began with a largely undistributed Sarah Vaughan track. From there, he moved on to a gorgeous, undulating ballad from the English neosoul band Hefner, then to the sweaty, sexy thump of MJ Cole's "Hold On to Me," a fine example of the burgeoning two-step sound, ending with a piece of politically charged, street-smart spoken word.

Peterson thinks nothing of dropping Sun Ra, Tito Puente and Roni Size into the same mix, with exhilarating results. At a San Francisco date earlier this year, he had a crowd of jaded, cocktail-sipping ex-ravers throwing their hands in the air and grinning hysterically like teenagers in the throes of discovery.

All this is why Peterson's debut American release, INCredible Sound of Gilles Peterson (Epic), means much more than the arrival of just another dance music mix CD. Shot through with luminous warmth and sugary grooves, the songs on Peterson's new disc display great variety, but the whole thing is held together by a grounding in '70s funk and a vibe both street-smart and incandescently optimistic.

It's a record that suggests a real belief that music can enlighten, readjust our wavelengths and take us to new places. It's also a record that refuses to acknowledge the boundaries between, say, classic jazz and experimental electronic music, moving easily between a percussive freakout by jazz legend Pharoah Sanders and a contemporary, dubby ambient track by Soul Dhamma.

THE ALBUM BEGINS with Incognito's "I Can See the Future (Ski'sa Main Mix)," a pulsating mid-tempo cut alive with effervescent breaks, funk bass, horn lines and euphoric vocals backed by subtle ululations.

From there, it heads into Nu Yorican Soul's "I Am the Black Gold of the Sun," a 1996 house track mixed by the drum 'n' bass act 4 Hero. With its hints of mystical Afrocentricism, disco piano vamps and Isaac Hayes-style strings, it tastes strongly of the '70s.

Later on, when Peterson drops the 1978 song "Let the Sun Shine In" (from the now-obscure Oakland radical funk combo Sons and Daughters of Lite) and the trippy soul of angel-voiced Minnie Ripperton's "Les Fleur," the link between the message of social uplift so prevalent in the '70s and house music's obsession with spiritual uplift becomes abundantly clear. House, it seems, has channeled the utopian visions of other eras into the orgasmatron environs of nightclubs.

4 Hero's mix of "I Am the Black Gold of the Sun" ends with a coda of breakbeats set beneath gorgeous, forlorn strings, which transition perfectly into MJ Cole's "I See."

MJ Cole is one of the foremost practitioners of a new genre called two-step. Ordinarily, I have a hard time getting particularly excited about yet another dance music mutation and its attendant microculture. And, in fact, two-step isn't really all that new--the sound combines a big dose of house glamour with the ragga aspects of early jungle, which were lost when drum 'n' bass went murderously dark and hard in the mid-'90s.

At the same time, two-step is exciting simply because much of the music that falls under its rubric is absolutely delicious. Two-step combines the grinding, dirty bass lines and semichaotic rhythms of jungle with sweet, rich vocals and enveloping melodies. "I See" layers Elisabeth Troy Antwi's molasses soul-singing over bass that can be felt in the pit of the stomach, and sprightly piano flourishes, the whole thing throbbing with a sense of intense romantic melodrama.

Equally intriguing is traditional jazz musician Andy Bey's cover of folk angel Nick Drake's "River Man." The song combines hints of Bey's supper club panache, but retains Drake's delicate, pastoral aesthetic. It's both sublime and a testament to Peterson's catholic enthusiasms--how rare and wonderful it is to be able to indulge one's love of Drake and breakbeats on the same record!

Every song on the disc contains something fascinating or addictive, but other standouts include "The Truth," by insouciant hip-hoppers Handsome Boy Modeling School. Coasting along on a bluesy piano loop and featuring vocals from chanteuse Roisin (of the trip-hop band Moloko) and a chilled rap by J-Live, it evinces a sultry, tattered, boudoir vibe.

"Your Revolution," by DJ Vadim featuring Sarah Jones, is an amazing feminist take on Gil Scott-Heron's classic "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," a line recast here as "Your revolution will not happen between these thighs." "The real revolution will not be about booty size/The Versace you buy or the Lexus you drive," Jones purrs, her flow aping Scott-Heron's protorap. "Your revolution ain't gonna knock me up without no ring and produce little future MCs."

For years, self-aggrandizing DJs have spouted off about "educating" their listeners. But Peterson really is a kind of teacher, taking madly disparate songs and arranging them into something like a theory of dance floor evolution. Listening to INCredible Sounds of Gilles Peterson is a joyous, mind-expanding experience, and one that leaves you aware of a world full of hidden connections and intersecting histories.

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From the August 31-September 6, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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