Iconic deep house, revisited by Kirk Degiorgio.
The end of the millennium was a transitional time for dance music. The late '90s had seen a disastrous experiment with superclubs, where the commercialisation of the grassroots house and techno scenes collapsed creatively and financially as a generation of clubbers rejected a cynical attempt to water down and monetise an entire music culture. Coupled with a sharp decline in record sales due to increasing online piracy and peer-to-peer networks, many established artists struggled to survive in an increasingly fragmented industry.
Creativity thrives in a vacuum, however, and many underground microscenes sought inspiration from the DIY ethic of early house music. While progressive and filter house still dominated the remnants of the commercial landscape, hard techno went deep underground in Spain, and drum & bass and a fledgling bass scene became hip on the US West Coast. In London, the broken-beat scene based around a handful of West London producers and DJs flourished.
From this mosaic of scenes and influences, a unifying anthem came out of Paris. It was a soulful house track that found favour with DJs across many scenes, released in 1999 as a B-side on Paris's Kif Recordings. Pépé Bradock was a pseudonym for Julien Auger, a musician with a history in jazz-funk and hip-hop bands before discovering house and techno in the early '90s. Before the Burning EP surfaced, Auger had quietly released an album on the fledgling Versatile label. The label's founder Gilbert Cohen, AKA Gilb'R, has mixed memories of those times.
"Hearing 'Deep Burnt' for the first time was a particular moment for me," Cohen told me over email. "At the beginning of Versatile, I teamed up with Julien's producer and it turned into the worst decision of my life. 'Deep Burnt' came out just after we had separated in a very tough way, but even so, the tune touched some deep part of my soul."
"Deep Burnt" was initially a slow burner, perhaps due to the unnerving cover art (which certainly did not hint to the lush soulfulness of the music) and that it was tucked away on the B-side. The A-side featured the uptempo gospel-tinged stomper "Burning Hot." A track that harked back a decade to the classic Pal Joey releases by Earth People and Soho, the heavy swing drove the track on the dance floor. "The Right Way" reaches even further back, touching upon the '80s rare groove-sampling hip-hop days of Biz Markie and Big Daddy Kane.
"Deep Burnt" outshone both, one of those tracks built around the creative use of a sample. Of course, the obscurity of the sample often helps in these cases, as the majority of those listening will be unaware of the origin of the track's main element. To jazz-funk nerds like myself and many on the broken-beat scene, the sample was instantly recognisable but no less genius. The sample sounded as if it always belonged there.
In 1979, the legendary jazz-trumpeter Freddie Hubbard teamed up with the orchestral arranger Claus Ogerman. The resulting album, The Love Connection, was a big-seller in no small part thanks to the track "Little Sunflower," an update of a 1967 composition with new lyrics and vocals from Al Jarreau. "Deep Burnt" takes an isolated string motif from "Little Sunflower" and processes it using the classic French filter house technique and some clever pitch manipulation. As well as the four-note melody, the string sample also has a secondary constant high note. It sits perfectly astride the 125-BPM groove with sparse percussion, bursts of clavinet and a bassline supported by delicate synth lines and organ-like riffs.
One of the peculiarities of the track soon became apparent to DJs, such as myself, who played it in pretty much every set between 1999 and 2001—the shifting nature of a tambourine shake and hit that forms a crucial part of the beat. I always liked to have a long mix out of "Deep Burnt" as its spareness lent itself to this, but would always need to keep my fingers on the pitch control, constantly adjusting the speed to compensate for the wavering beats that seemed played by hand. Once again, this percussion part is a clever example of creative sampling. (The tambourine is taken from the intro to the track "Driva Man" on the jazz-drumming titan and civil rights activist Max Roach's We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite album of 1960.) Bizarrely, a haunting, twisted burst of Lulu's intro to "Shout" even makes an appearance towards the end of the track.
Challenging mix not withstanding, "Deep Burnt" became the track that reached across the disparate scenes at a time of fragmentation. It was an anthem that unified clubbers to a soulful voice with echoes reaching back into a past of jazz harmony and soulful rhythm. Despite a slew of remixes that followed the success of "Deep Burnt," Auger has shunned the limelight and fame this classic anthem could have given him. At home releasing on his own Atavisme label, his artistic approach is refreshing in today's scene.