Back in the '90s when house ruled the world, Daniel Wang ignored the prevailing trend and chose analog synths instead and came out the other side with throwback disco excursions on labels like Morgan Geist's Environ and Wang's own Balihu. At the same time, Wang took this sound to the clubs, playing forgotten disco classics like a missionary whose religion was slowly disappearing.
Nowadays, disco is undoubtedly back, but Wang remains as committed to spreading the gospel as ever: He is passionate and knowledgeable about the music he loves, and quite opinionated about the music he doesn't. RA caught up with the outspoken DJ/producer earlier this month in Berlin to play him some records and see what he had to say about our picks.
Le Casse, 1971
This is from an old French movie soundtrack, Le Casse. I picked this out for the string arrangement, because it puts a lot of emphasis on build-up, much in the same way that disco producers arrange strings for climactic dancefloor moments.
I must confess I don't know Morricone's works so well. I don't think I have been a really big fan, mainly because I don't know it so well. My first impression of this track, which I didn't know, was that it's a formal composition. In my head I make a distinction between pop music, which has almost very definite rules, and people following it like Abba. It's not formulaic, but there are very basic chord progressions that are based on the blues and jazz that you can do in pop music and that have their own logic and their own progression.
Many pop songs are actually the same song. "Good Times" by Chic is one kind of groove and twenty other songs sound exactly like it. It could be "Rapture" by Blondie or something. That's pop music writing. And then you have soundtrack music writing and it has a different logic. It doesn't have to follow a certain progression like in pop music, which has a reason and an impulse that keeps on pushing the song forward. When I heard this I thought it is a very good example of soundtrack music writing where you don't really have to explain the logic of the chord progression, it just sets a mood. It makes an ambience. I think this is probably from 1967 to 71.
Good guess, it's from 1971.
Because from 1972 on you start getting the big multi-track stuff, like Philly Disco and the more sophisticated pop, and this still sounds relatively simple. My first impression was it's like a slightly cheaper copy of Burt Bacharach's "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head," but with more drama. It has some very formal devices, like it's basically a minor key. But at some points he plays the same theme but he opens it up with a major key.
Lately all this beautifully orchestrated obscure library music back is popping up again and people are scanning back catalogues for songs groovy enough to suit a disco context.
Yeah, that's interesting, and I think there is a good reason for that. There is such a thing as real music, in the sense that there were people who did music for films, like Ennio Morricone, or Giorgio Moroder, with a more naïve use of the rules, or the very sophisticated Henry Mancini, or Alec Constandinos, or Vangelis, or Jean-Michel Jarre. All these people were obviously classically trained and they followed the rules. It doesn't really matter if it's a bossa nova, '60s GoGo or a disco beat, the rules of the music don't change. I think that is why everybody is going back now to find real music.
When people like Masters At Work appeared in the 90's, people who didn't know anything about the basic rules of music started making music. That's why it sounds so awful. [laughs] A lot of DJ-produced music doesn't have its own intrinsic logic and sense. And chords, progression and melodies have that intrinsic logic. That's what's been missing. So everyone of this generation who wants to find out what is really musical has to go back to the '60s and '70s, and there you find it everywhere actually.
Blood Simple, 1987
This is from the soundtrack of the debut film from the Coen Brothers, Blood Simple.
It's from the '80s, I suppose.
Yes, it's from 1987. It's a mood piece with a synthetic feel to it.
I found the orchestration is simpler, but it's similar to the previous song. Again, it's not a pop song with an intrinsic deep logic. Like Bach's "Air on the G-String," that is also some kind of pop music because it has a very definite logic. This one has a formal piano theme that sounds a bit like Erik Satie. Simple chord, simple melody, a little bit like Mozart's "Eine kleine Nachtmusik." It is not original, it is a formal piece, it follows a form that other people have created.
You could maybe alter its logic by just putting a beat under it, and by not adding much you would have a really moody dance track.
Yeah, actually this is the thing. To be honest, and many people are going to hate me for saying this, I'm not a big fan of Portishead. It's very easy to make a mood piece. Anybody can do it. All you have to do is take a minor key and play some stuff over it, doesn't really matter what. I think Portishead never even use a major key. [laughs]
They don't have to, really.
Yes. I think anybody writing good music should move between major and minor keys, that's part of the magic. Since we now accept that some people make mood music, you can have a whole album of just melancholy. Personally, that doesn't move me at all and I don't find it very interesting. I think a lot of people in this generation think that this is a valid way to do music, for me it's not enough. Some Salsoul records only have two or three keys but they do it so well, there are so many nuances.
"One for the Money"
One for the Money, 1986
Well, I think you can guess why I chose this one.
Hmm, I wonder why. [laughs]
You sampled this on your first Balihu record.
I'm amazed. Sometimes I think there should be some lawyer coming to hunt me. You sampled this record? I'm afraid of that. We know it's produced by Paul Simpson, who did a lot of slightly strange but great disco records. He mixed "Heavy Vibes" with Vince Montana, he also did Paul Simpson Connection, "Use Me Lose Me." He also did Adeva, "Respect."
And "Musical Freedom," too. And a version of "You Got The Love."
Yeah, right! That's him, too! There's so many interesting things by Paul Simpson. Also the biggest one, "You Don't Know" by Serious Intention. He also produced two records by Simphonia. I think some of his productions were a bit awkward. This is one of those records, made in 1986. I never liked the sound. The drum sound is really stiff, the bass sound is really artificial. I never liked the song itself.
It has a weird quality to it, it's certainly not a smooth record.
Like with my own records. A lot of those Balihu records, they're kind of weird. Not necessarily good. The technical production qualities are not totally correct. I don't listen to them because I just hear mistakes. I'm not being modest. But it's true that the lesson from Balihu 1, with "Like Some Dream I Can't Stop Dreaming," sampled from this song, is that what is more interesting than a correct song and a technically perfect track is an unusual sound. Not necessarily a hook, but something you can remember, that sounds different from everything else.
Were you aiming at such a pop hook, in a way?
Not at all! The whole thing I feel was one big accident. The whole record had an incredible irony. At that time everybody just sampled. On the back of the record there's already a joke thing. If you can recognize all the samples you get free promos from me etc. This record is kind of a joke. Look, we're not even going to use any instruments we're just going to sample. The whole record is seventeen samples.
So you already knew it would be just a phase.
I hoped so! I didn't know what lay beyond. But we have to thank Paul Simpson. I hope he doesn't find me and ask me for royalties, because there are none. [laughs]
Town / Black Eye Lady, 1981
This is kind of a special record because the focus in Japan seemed to be on synth-pop, but this one is more like a flamboyant full-on disco anthem.
Right, totally. Japan is in a sense much like Germany. (The United States is a very particular case of course because it is so racially and culturally mixed.) What's amazing about Japan is that they have these super modern and super sophisticated jazz bands and musicians, orchestras and their traditional music, so many facets. This record is actually from 1981. My friends tell me Minako Yoshida was like the Patrice Rushen of her time, with braided hair. She went to Manhattan, I think she was already singing jazz and funk. I think she produced and arranged some of the songs herself. But the strings and horns were arranged by Tatsuro Yamashita, who was like the Quincy Jones and Rod Temperton of Japan. A super jazz funk arranger pop guy.
I don't think there are that many, because the pop market is different. This is a very definite attempt from Japanese people to do a sound that can be compared to the strength and power of a Western jazz funk groove. I don't think that is the natural mode of Japanese pop music. Japanese pop music in general, especially from the late '70s to the mid 80's, was much more sentimental. In fact all Asian pop music in general is far more sentimental. I don't think there's such a strong emotion. What is jazz funk music? A lot of sexual power.
Is that a reason why so much Japanese synth-pop is interested in kitsch and exotica?
A little bit. Yeah, I think so. I don't think it's all so kitschy or exotic really, because that is seen from the outside. With modern Japanese or Asian culture you have this problem where they start defining themselves from the view of the outside. Some people are very sophisticated and play with it, like Yellow Magic Orchestra. The theme from YMO's "Computer Game" was actually taken from a Martin Denny record, which was exotic Hawaiian music. They were actually playing with exotic Polynesian music and turning it into modern oriental electronic groove. But their view was also ironic.
I think "Town" is also interesting because this woman has an interesting vocal register. What she does with her voice, which is kind of uniquely Japanese. When Asian people, since I'm Chinese, compare themselves to Europeans, or Africans, Black Americans, Brazilians or whatever, you certainly notice there is a physical difference. Simply, when you have a black woman sing, like Aretha Franklin or whoever, there is this kind of power there which comes from physical strength and also from sexual hormones, female or male hormones. Think Barry White. That's not a voice that most Asian people can produce, because it's not physically there. On the average, their bodies don't develop the same way.
This is my own theory, and of course there are exceptions. Minako has this power but her voice doesn't have the same range as a black woman does, so instead when she does this screaming, it sounds almost like a child or a teenager. You hear that a lot in traditional Japanese music and theatre, this screaming voice. It has a lot of strength but it doesn't have the same depth as a Soul singer. But it gives it its own personality and that makes it sound very Japanese, so to say. I mean, there obviously also were Japanese and Chinese pop singers who have this really deep voice, but they're not as popular as the ones with a really sweet voice.
There is this ongoing fixation with young girls being cute.
Yeah, I mean basically you never get physically much older. In Germany I'm always surprised how they have these obsessions with mature sex. Mature women are quite sexy, too, because there is a physical difference. And in Japan, since nobody's body ever becomes like that, you have to find the erotic, also the spiritual and musical erotic, in the other direction, which is youth and innocence. Profound cultural commentary. [laughs]
Megatron Man, 1981
When I first heard the music you produced after your short sample-based period, with all the analog synth sounds, I felt there was some kind of ideological connection to this track. It has a similar feeling.
Yeah, definitely. Well, I think it's kind of funny. Patrick Cowley was from upstate New York and moved to San Francisco. Gay man. And I'm a gay person who was born around San Francisco, moving to New York. [laughs] Specifically, I love this song. It was played to me first by Eric Duncan from Rub N Tug, I think he probably got it from Harvey or from some old mixes from The Saint. We loved it right away. The beat is actually kind of rhumba. Mechanical, with a drum machine.
This song is actually the only song on his album "Megatron Man" which he didn't compose himself. Somebody told me this was a theme song from a television show in the 1960's. A police show. I think he used some choir from San Francisco to sing the chorus in the background. Patrick Cowley was obviously very good with the synthesizer but I think he didn't have all that serious jazz training, like all the weird diminished chords, and all this music sounds a little alike. "Menergy," Megatron Man," all this stuff is basically always a minor key and it goes into a very basic blues change and then it comes back to that same minor key. Formally speaking, all his songs are basically similar. But they're still great, I love them.
"Sea Hunt" is at least different from his upfront Hi-NRG productions.
Yes, "Sea Hunt" obviously has an unusual composition in it, from someone else. Jeffrey Sfire, DJ Menergy, who now lives in Berlin, was telling me that Patrick Cowley's best friend has some kind of biography on his website which says that you just give Patrick Cowley a Prophet 5 keyboard and he can do anything. I think this record is very Prophet 5.
I've heard this in a lot of your sets. How did you come about this record?
I don't remember. It's not like I discovered it. I mean, the Laura Branigan version was a huge international pop hit. I think I just found the original version in a flea market. There is a bit of history with this record. Raff was a legitimate pop hit in Italy two or three years before Laura Branigan, and it was produced by Celso Valli, who also did Tantra and Azoto. What's interesting is the difference in production and style. Italo disco is a copy of American disco, but maybe four years late. It's a perfect bassline almost like "Love Hangover," and a guitar almost like Chic, and they do a rap at the end, which was the trend in late 1979 and 1980. "Rapture," "Good Times," Grandmaster Flash, all those records. And this is an Italian Pop record which comes two years after all that.
How did it feel to first play this in Germany, where even the original version was a huge hit? For quite some time a lot of DJs here were playing that, so there already was a tradition for it.
I started going out in 1983 or 84, but I didn't hear this in clubs. I was first in Taipei, then California, and I heard "I.O.U." by Freeez, Madonna and Hazell Dean's "Searchin'." But I didn't hear all this Italo stuff in Taipei, and I never heard it in California when I was growing up. So when I started going out to underground clubs in New York in 1988/89 it was already house music. Chicago house like "Work It to the Bone" or "Jack Your Body." So for me there was no personal connection. Of course I realize now there is a kitsch value. You still hear Raff on the radio in Germany, you never hear it in the United States.
Since living here in Berlin, I noticed a big difference between what's playing on the radio in Germany and Europe and the United States. For one thing it's kitsch, but there are also a lot of young people in this generation who never heard these songs in clubs either. It's oldies, but they don't know it. When you were in the '80s and said oldies, you meant '60s. And '50s and '60s music really sounds like '50s and '60s, because the technology is not very developed. You can hear it's four or eight tracks.
But when you in 2008 listen to music from 1978 to 1984, the music from the '70s and '80s sounds better than the music produced now, so we have an opposite effect. In the '80s the oldies sounded old. Now oldies sound better than contemporary music. Better orchestrated and also technically better. Six years ago I went to Poland and the young DJs who wanted to play retro disco played "He's The Greatest Dancer" by Sister Sledge, and I realized that I had never heard that record loud in a club because it's too obvious and nobody would play it. But everyone went crazy, including me.
Well, you should never leave the house without a Chic record in your bag.
Yeah. [laughs] Especially if you play at a wedding.
Techno Vocals, 2007
This seemed to me like a late answer to your track "Das Ist Kein Techno!" on Ghostly International.
Yes [laughs]. Well, it was just a joke. Nd Baumecker from Berghain loved to play that. But it was number 32 on the Groove charts [laughs]. Every time I make a joke record it makes the charts, thinking of Balihu 1. Now Hercules & Love Affair open their whole live set with a girl singing "Like Some Dream I Can't Stop Dreaming." Every time I do a serious record it doesn't sell and every time I do a joke record people want to play it [laughs]. But this is a very funny record.