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Going West End

West End Records' anniversary set showcases dance music with a human touch.

By Amanda Nowinski

NOISE COMPLAINTS AND dance music seem to go hand in hand, and since moving into a tiny studio last September, I've had to kiss my boom-boom-boom good-bye. Headphones are great when I'm stoned late at night and simply must hear Masters at Work's "I Can't Get No Sleep" about 16 times in a row. But otherwise, wearing them makes my eardrums bleed.

So after the third complaint from Miss Pressed Slacks next door, I had no choice but to forfeit the beloved bass. And anyone's who's suffered eviction knows this compromise all too well. The first few times, I coolly scoffed at her, accusing her (behind her back) of aesthetic ignorance, of being an inferior life form – uptight and unfunky, the kind that just doesn't get dance music. But after complaint number three, I recognized her torment as genuine. "I don't know what it is," she cried, frantically tugging at her dyed-blond head in the hall at midnight. "But it's the same thing over and over, and it's driving me fucking nuts. Please, please, please – I can't take it anymore!" Visions of eviction notices fluttered in the air, and I knew she meant business. End of story (and of playing house music all night long).

Now that my home is herbal-tea central, Alice and John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Isaac Hayes, and Curtis Mayfield dominate the sound system. Not that this music is conventionally mellow or slow by any means. But live instruments and keyboards just don't possess the icy, sharp, stentorian thunder of computer-generated sound. Breath and the imperfect human push and pull are all but absent from pixilated music, and although I'll never turn my back on the thumping precision of Pro Tools, I'm thankful for the toned-down palette. (Note: I still think my neighbor is a total bitch.)

So when the final version of the Masters at Work Presents West End Records: 25th Anniversary Edition Mastermix landed in my mailbox a month ago, my newly rehumanized senses were more than ready to enjoy the up-tempo, feel-good vibrations of danceable '70s and '80s R&B (don't call it disco). Compared with the jazz and soul I'd been obsessing over, this shit hit me with the force and bang of heavy metal – well, relatively speaking, anyway. Let it be known that there is no funk synthesizer riff more ferocious than that of Stone's 1981 single "Time," and that there is no sassier double entendre than Loose Joints' 1980 "Is It All over My Face," which has the dark, sexual feel of a quaalude-fed Grace Jones swinging aloofly across the dance floor. Any solidly informed hip-hop or house DJ certainly has fed Taana Gardner's narcotically bumping "Heartbeat" to many dance floors, where people probably had no idea that the song was made in 1981. That's because there's a timeless beauty to West End's music. Although getting people to dance may have been a motive behind the productions, it never comes across as the primary goal. It's almost as if the impetus to shake it were secondary – a quality that separates the old dance music from much of the new.

New York-based West End, launched in 1976 by Mel Cheren, cultivated some of the most influential post-disco records of the late '70s and early '80s, many of which are part of the roots of garage (house music with R&B vocals). If the madcap sampling of West End's music is any proof of the label's influence, it's safe to say that it has found a home in all kinds of records from hip-hop to house and even new-school R&B. A former executive at the old R&B label Scepter, Cheren founded West End to build on the innovations he implemented in the dance music arena while at Scepter – which included the B-side dub version, a format he created in 1973 so that DJs could ride the mix a little longer, thereby extending the dancer's groove. In his autobiography, Keep on Dancin': My Life and the Paradise Garage, Cheren chronicles the rise and fall of disco, as well as his role as the financial backer of the Paradise Garage club in New York, which spawned garage house, thanks in part to the legendary Larry Levan, who also produced some of West End's most definitive songs.

After receiving the West End compilation, I intentionally avoided contemporary music (on my headphones and in clubs) for several weeks. Before I returned to the present, I put on Chicago house innovator Larry Heard circa 1986 and could truly feel his place in the continuum of dance music captured there. Although early house producers were certainly breaking new musical ground, they also consciously and subconsciously reinvented the post-disco West End-style sounds, minus the live players. You can feel the deep, bluesy influence on the Chicago house classics, all made with simple pieces of machinery. As music moved from the pared-down musicianship of the late '80s – the era of keyboards and drum machines – to '90s-style sampling- and loop-based technology, many uninspired producers left live performance out of the mix entirely.

"Unfortunately, many of the people creating music today are not musicians," Cheren told me over the phone from the West End offices. "So they're going to create what they know. And a lot of DJs will not play music from back in the day for two reasons. One, they don't have the records, and two, if they do, they don't know how to ride the mix. They're used to records that have computerized drums, which are easy to mix. Anything that has live drums throws them through a loop." Producers rarely work with live instrumentation, he said later, because "it's a cost issue."

I've heard the money argument endless times before, and I'm starting to doubt its legitimacy. A working DJ and producer spends an average of $100 a week on records alone, and the Korg Triton Pro X, a top-of-the-line machine that enables you to sample, sequence, and loop beats, costs about three grand. Tack on the high cost of computer equipment, and it becomes apparent that working with live musicians is an aesthetic decision rather than a financial one.

"I don't think it's a cost issue," said local jazz saxophonist Joshi Marshall, who plays with Mingus Amungus. "Where are computer programmers spending their money anyway? If you're spending thousand of dollars on equipment, you can stand to pay some flute player 100 bucks to lay down one line. I think it's a choice for sure."

Still, dance producers are becoming increasingly open to live musicianship, a welcome change from the oversampled, monotone, tracky feel of much late-'90s music. Live drumming, extensive use of keyboards, and stand-in musicians meld deliciously into music by house producers like Jay Denes (Blue Six), Osunlade, Kerri Chandler, Joe Claussell, and of course, Blaze and Masters at Work, all artists who have consistently integrated live instrumentation into their sounds. Outside of straight-ahead house, the broken beat camp – 4 Hero, Alex Atthias, Orin Walters (Afronaught), and so on – has certainly pushed the live styles aggressively, with results that are authentically warm and more complex than those old acid jazz shticks. Perhaps producers have realized that the computer is not as infinite as it once seemed. Or maybe it's just that futurism never fully separates from the past.

"The people who use the computer in conjunction with live instrumentation are a lot better off than the people who just use the computer," Cheren argued. "I think the computer – and people think I'm crazy when I say this – will be the ruination of the world because people rely so much on the computer, and although it does some great things, it's taken away the ability to do other things. If you don't use it, you lose it, as far as creating goes. There's no question that the computer can only create a certain sound and cannot come close to what the live instrument can create."

When you're talking about a purely electronic group such as Underground Resistance or even a local act like Blaktroniks, there's no reason to add a sax player, because the music is fully realized on its own. But place the West End compilation in regular rotation, and you'll see where Cheren's coming from. In fact, it may be a place you'll never want to leave.