w/ DJ Riddler, Jeromy Nail
I-Spy, Sun Dec 30, $12.
"I want people to know that this music crosses all boundaries and cultures," King Britt says on the Six Degrees record label website. "I want people to listen all the way through and say, 'Wow. I wish there really was a radio station that played like that.'"
It's a statement that says a lot about the Philadelphia DJ behind the Sylk 130 collective and the now-defunct Ovum Records, which he founded with revered house DJ Josh Wink. Britt aims high, and his skills as a remixer, songwriter, and producer are immense. But as corny as it sounds, what's most interesting about King Britt is how much he appreciates music.
Over the past few years, Britt has been creating a trilogy of "autobiographical" albums that seeks to explore the music he grew up hearing. The first two are done and released (under the Sylk 130 moniker Britt uses to name an evolving collection of collaborators), and the third album (which will examine the music of the '90s) is in progress. When the Funk Hits the Fan, the first installment in the trilogy, came out in 1998; it's ostensibly an exploration of '70s funk and soul. Set in 1977, the album takes place in Philadelphia, and Britt's reason for creating it was to make a retro movie soundtrack. There is no movie, however--only a meaty romp through a decade of horns, beats, and soulful poetry. There's a smart remix of an awful disco classic ("Last Night a DJ Saved My Life"), a contextualized spoken-word poem by Ursula Rucker ("E.R.A.") that befits the era, and loads of referential samples, jazz enthusiasm, celebratory funk, and soundtrack-style dialogue. The rhythmic spoken word on the album--including Rucker's piece, but more specifically Capital A's thoughtful vocal contribution to "City"--is good poetry that travels back in time, only to anticipate beautifully the coming of hiphop.
In 1999, Britt released a remix album called When the Funk Hits the Fan: The Remixes, and in March of this year, Britt released the second installment of his trilogy, humorously titled Re-Members Only. It's a tribute to the early '80s that culls ideas from electro-soul, early hiphop, new wave, and jazz (among other forms), forming a libidinal and at times brilliant pastiche.
Re-Members Only takes place over the airwaves surrounding the idealized radio station from Britt's imagination: WISH 130 plays just the right '80s music. The album features such notables as late sax giant Grover Washington Jr., Alison Moyet, ABC's Martin Fry, Pos and Trugoy from De La Soul, DJ Jazzy Jeff, and Cee Knowledge from Digable Planets. (Britt's own notoriety can be largely credited to a stint he did as a touring member of Digable Planets.)
Like When the Funk Hits the Fan before it, Re-Members Only is deliberately retro, but Britt's very contemporary obsessions are all over it. What's most appealing about Britt, in fact, is his futuristic spirit. While the album incorporates primitive drum sounds, old-school hiphop beats, and actual '80s vocalists, it's also very up-to-date. The evocatively titled "Beauty of Machines," for example, seamlessly blends electro beats that recall Herbie Hancock's "Rockit" with tranquil contemporary ambience, suspending the listener in a very nice place outside of the present. It's a place somewhere between the past and the future, but evocative of both. Such a combination of sounds--ones that the interim decades have rendered so disparate--would be genius if the '80s elements weren't so unabashedly referential.
But for fans of great '80s music, the retrospective tune-up that the decade is given on Re-Members Only is most exciting. "'84 Fantastik" (featuring Cee Knowledge and the Cosmic Funk Orchestra) is a deeply authentic celebration of old-school hiphop. "I'll Do it for You," featuring producer/vocalist Vikter Duplaix, is dreamy and very contemporary, though it works beautifully on the record. "Happiness," featuring Alma Horton, is an easy, danceable winner, and Washington Jr.'s inspired contribution to "For Love" drips soul.
The real highlights of both records, aside from the stellar collaborators Britt manages to rope in, are the sublime atmospheric moments he creates. King Britt makes music to move rooms, and he effortlessly finds real joy in any era--past, present, or future.