|The NYC House renaissance
New York City house music was stuck in a rut in the early '00s, but a new batch of producers centered around Jus-Ed's Underground Quality label have recently emerged, and pushed it into a new era. This is their story.
For all its talk of the future, dance music has a decidedly classicist bent. Some of the best music currently being released is unabashedly backward-looking, whether it be in the purist strains of Berghain techno, nu-disco's Balearic fixations or house music's deep resurgence. The latter is being pushed by artists around the world, but few are doing it with the same sort of vitality—and coherence—as a group of New York-based and -influenced artists centered around Jus-Ed's Underground Quality label. Some are calling it a New York house renaissance, and based on the incredible music and parties that have been emerging from the likes of Ed, Levon Vincent, Black Jazz Consortium, DJ Qu and Anthony Parasole, it's hard not to see that something is happening there. And that 2009 may be its tipping point.
To call it a New York house renaissance, though, is slightly misleading. New York is a big place. But of the five artists largely responsible for this sound, only two actually live there. Parasole, who co-helms the Deconstruct imprint and co-runs the House-N-Home party, is in Brooklyn. While Black Jazz Consortium, AKA Fred P, is based in Queens. DJ Qu (New Jersey), Jus-Ed (Connecticut) and Levon Vincent (Indiana) each have strong ties to the city, though. Record stores, record distributors and parties in New York have all left an indelible mark on each.
The story of how this group came together revolves around a record shop called Halcyon. Set—at that time—in Brooklyn's Carroll Gardens neighborhood, the store, which doubled as a cafe, was among the finest that the city had to offer. As Jus-Ed remembers it, "You had to fill out an application to play [an in-store show] there. There were a lot of big-name DJs that wanted to play there that never did. I was lucky to be with Vic Money, the big dog at 98.7 KISS FM, and we still got the shit night. Mondays from 6 - 9 PM." Levon Vincent, an employee at the time, quickly grew to love the slot, though, warning off any fellow co-workers from taking that shift so that he could listen to Ed's sets each week.
Parasole also worked at Halcyon later on, and eventually became a buyer, purchasing some of the first records that DJ Qu released to stock in the shop. Vinyl that Ed had championed to New York distributor Downtown. And Fred P? The producer did a remix for Ed's wife, Jenifa Mayanja, on an Underground Quality EP of a song called "Time Waits For No-One" that piqued Ed's interest. In talking with Fred about his experiences in the industry, they immediately realized they shared common struggles, as well as similar sounds.
That sound, despite being house-based, though, is hard to pin down. The music that is being released by Levon Vincent and Anthony Parasole's labels has a toughness to it that is finding fans in the techno community. DJ Qu's tunes appeal to the old-school house heads. Fred P, meanwhile, is charting a course towards a deep house that is equal parts darkness and light, simple and complex. And Jus-Ed simply mixes it all together seamlessly, making it all sound like one big canvas upon which these artists are painting.
Jus-Ed is the Godfather. The central figure in the New York house renaissance, his label Underground Quality and weekly radio show on myhouse-yourhouse.net are the first port of calls for anyone interested in learning more about the artists talked about here. Ed never asked to be the mentor to these artists, but due to his gregarious nature and his record business experience, he's given plenty of advice to Parasole, Vincent, Qu and P in their efforts to launch their own labels. And, crucially, plenty of advice on how to represent themselves, and Underground Quality, at gigs.
"The one that I impress upon the guys is professionalism. I tell them, 'How you are received, is how we are perceived.' You want to keep the door open for the next person, whoever that may be. When Fabric came calling the first time, I said, 'Finally! This is my Shelter moment!' Now I have to make a good impression, because I know these people are taking a risk creatively having me here. It's been a while since they've had this type of character. And they're not even clear on who this character is! But I went over there with Qu, and we played together and we kicked ass. They had to throw us out of the room. They had to tell the boss, Judy, who was in there jamming to shut us down. Normally they close it at 5:30, but that night we had it open until 6:30. The next time, we were there until 8!"
Ed's tireless work ethic only comes into focus, though, once you realize that despite his gigs around the world, he still maintains a full-time job back in Connecticut. Our conversation is peppered with quick phone interruptions about perennial flowers and tax talk, as Ed graciously relates the history of how he met each member of Underground Quality—even the ones not affiliated with New York—in painstaking detail. It's clear that he revels, to a certain degree, in multi-tasking. Or that he's simply become accustomed to it. Needless to say, however, his joy for DJing has never dimmed. "If I could get enough money to pay for my kids to go to college, I'd do every gig for free," he tells me before breaking into his trademark laugh.
Levon Vincent is the survivor. Each of the artists featured here have gone through a lot, but anyone that has met Vincent at his increasing slate of international DJ gigs knows that he's had to endure a lot in the past few years. Vincent walks with a cane, the result of a back injury sustained in New York. It's one of the reasons that he decamped to Indiana early in 2009 to focus his energies on music, after the usual run of odd jobs that never amounted to much in the way of health insurance. The injury, as Vincent will admit, though, was a blessing in disguise. Without any distractions in Indiana, he's produced the best work of his career, releasing track after track that bridges the gaps between house, dub and techno in a novel way.
Releasing on his own imprint, Novel Sound, and a label that he co-runs with Anthony Parasole called Deconstruct, he's seen his star rise over the past six months to a level that he likely never would have predicted when he was working at Halcyon, making sandwiches and working the register. Vincent, like the others, has had a long history in New York, but perhaps the most formative experience was working at designer Pat Fields' shop in the mid-'90s. It was there that he saw many of the wild characters that made up the local dance scene up close and personal. He was even booked to play The Limelight for the first time the night that notorious club owner Peter Gatien was hauled off to jail on federal drug charges.
It was seemingly an apt metaphor for Vincent's work up to that point: While he made initial forays into the club world, it was only years later that he was able to truly find his own niche, taking the musical lessons he learned when studying at the State University of New York and applying them to the wisdom taken from watching Jus-Ed and others work the floor. As Vincent put it in a recent interview with Bodytonic, "I am a scientist working in the field of ass-shakery."
Fred P is the quiet genius. Humble is the word that was uttered over and over to me when I asked the other artists about Fred Peterkin, and you can hear it quite clearly in his music. Recording under the Black Jazz Consortium moniker—"It was originally called Brooklyn Jazz Consortium. But then I moved," he laughs—Peterkin has carved a niche for himself in the deep house community. But, as Philip Sherburne noted in a recent column for Pitchfork, Peterkin stands above many classicists. He points to the sneaky complexity to his rhythms that contrast the simple and beautiful sentiments contained within the keys that he often plays over top. In listening to his latest album, Structure, or one of his best singles preceding it, "God's Promise," it's hard not to agree.
Structure almost never materialized, though, as Peterkin had given up music completely in the mid-'90s in favor of a full-time job. It was only a good friend bringing him mixtapes with music from the likes of 4 Hero and Spacetime Continuum that got him back into production again. Inspiration only went so far: "[When I started producing again] I couldn't get arrested in this town. 'Too this, too that, could you make it this way, could you make it that way.' The music I was making wasn't right for that time period though. It was too raw. Everything back then had a finished, glossy, beautiful kind of feel to it. And I was living in a room filled with cigarette butts, y'know?"
Like Vincent, Parasole, Ed and Qu, Peterkin went out plenty during the late '80s and early '90s to clubs like The Sound Factory, The Red Zone and The Tunnel, but you get the sense that in listening to Black Jazz Consortium that it's music borne out of hours of studio work. While Qu was dancing in the middle of the floor, Peterkin was busy studying what was making them dance. Peterkin is no slouch behind the decks, though. His mix in advance of the crew's appearance at Berlin's Tape club may be the set's best. "I'd definitely like to play more, but I know I'm a bit different than what is happening now. I'm not reinventing the wheel, though. I guess it's just because it's where I'm at, or where I'm starting from."
Anthony Parasole is the party maker. His major contribution thus far to the New York house renaissance is via his DJing and his crucial House-N-Home loft party, an event done with The Bunker's mastermind Bryan Kasenic. Coming up on its first anniversary, the loft party has hosted the likes of Patrice Scott, Keith Worthy, Dixon, Mike Huckaby, Move D and more to the 12 Turn 13 space in Brooklyn. But just as it has showcased international and domestic talent, it's also served as an unofficial UQ residency, giving space to Vincent, Fred P, DJ Qu, Ed and of course Parasole on a regular basis to push their sound at an ideal location.
Unlike many of the other excellent parties that UQ-affiliated artists play at, such as the Tuesday deep house soiree Deep See, DJ Qu's aforementioned House Dance Conference or the outdoor summer series Sunday Best, it's one of the few that brings together disparate crowds—old-school house heads ready to dance, The Bunker's techno-loving crowd in search of a house alternative, those simply looking for a good loft party. Parasole often opens or closes the night, breaking out a mix of classics and future classics that you'll have rarely heard before. His recent mix for mnml ssgs is as good example as any of his talents.
After many years of being ensconced into the New York scene, it's clear that Parasole is finally reaping some of the benefits of his hard work as a DJ. The reason that you haven't heard much out of Parasole in the production arena? Like Ed, he has a full-time job, which occupies a great deal of his time. But he's also resistant, like many of the UQ-affiliated artists, to delve too deeply into new technologies. (That's also a major reason why Deconstruct, his label with Vincent, is still an entirely vinyl affair thus far.) He's set to release his first remix, an effort done with Fred P, on the next Deconstruct.
DJ Qu is the dancer. Now known primarily as a DJ, Qu made his start in the dance music world through dancing. Traveling the world as a dancer for a variety of artists, and then going on to teach classes and workshops alongside his mentor Brian "Footwork" Green and friend Joey Anderson on house dancing, when Qu talks about tapping into the spirit of true house music, you can be sure he knows exactly what he's talking about. Over the past few years, Qu has largely given up dancing and instead focused his energies toward DJing, production and the House Dance Conference party, an event that was started by Green in 1999. It's a night for true heads, with people flying in from all over the world to visit.
"I had been wanting to DJ at their party for a while, because I consider myself the dancer's DJ," Ed laughed, when I asked him about how he met DJ Qu. It's a common sentiment for each of the UQ DJ's: Their music is embraced by connoisseurs of the genre, those who have either lived through house music's golden age, or those seeking to capture a little piece of what they imagine it must have been like. Qu's music is some of the most stripped down of the artists working in the New York house scene at the moment, carving out deep grooves that reflect his tendency to favor the dancer above all else. You can hear as much in his recent mix—part of the six-mix CD that the label is using to promote their upcoming night at Berlin's Tape club—whose irresistible rhythms are perfect for fancy footwork.
Like Ed and Parasole, he also has a full-time job, which limits his time, but he's nonetheless been able to build his Strength Music imprint into a respected label based on the quality of what are largely his own productions. Qu has a shorter production resume than most. In fact, his Strength Music label hasn't issued a single released in 2009. He's spent the majority of the year focusing on remix work, and is set to relaunch the label in September with The Semesters Pt. 2, as well as a DJ Qu album which will likely hit stores sometime in 2010.