This is likely the least influential sentence I’m ever going to write, except for the next one. This entire paragraph won’t sell a single record, and this entire page probably won’t influence a single person’s decision over whether they love or hate the new self-titled album from Moodymann.
Kenny Dixon Jr. is one of the few true midwest artists to have a cult behind him. Those fans are some of the smartest motherfuckers in the room – those kids you see at the record store with the almost savant-like ability to identify three second samples and a Google-like recall of the minutiae of KDJ’s discography.
Moodymann’s style encourages this: his records are an encoded message pointing to other records (on this one alone, the young archeologist can discover Amp Fiddler, Andrés, Jose James and Nikki-O from their performances, aside from the influences on individual songs.) By way of comparison, listening to a Richie Hawtin album will take you on a tour with Richie Hawtin through Richie Hawtin to Richie Hawtin.
All of those fans and cultists of KDJ have surely listened to Moodymann and unrolled a couple of 20s to reserve a copy as the scarce vinyl and CD copies wend their way through the distribution racket. I’m pretty sure they don’t give a fuck what I have to say about it. So this is for anyone else.
Moodyman’s influence on the scene is like an invisible hand: even people who profess to have never listened to him are still trying to cop his style and imitate his strut. In 2004, when much of the New York-lead House scene was intoxicated by their “dope Afro/Brazilian vibes”, or whatever, KDJ took it to the streets, using the urban Black American language of soul, blues, funk and jazz as the raw material for the universally acclaimed Black Mahogani album on Peace Frog.
A decade later, the “mainstream” of the underground caught up with him. YouTube has made it easy for a young producer to scroll up Black Mahogani or any of the five albums KDJ has released since then for a course in self-education. Of course, the problem with being “self-taught” is you can teach yourself wrong, and there’s no sensei on hand to correct your posture with the whack of a stick. Hence the sadness of the Beatport “Deep House” Top 100, or the hundreds of other faceless tracks that debut every week, containing the word “jazzy” somewhere in their description.
These records have become a high wire act, played out year after year, to see if Moodymann can sustain and even build upon a sound that his many imitators have driven into the ground. Once again, he does. In fact, even the 13 minute sampler mix he posted for free on SoundCloud is better than any soulful house album I’ve heard this year.
There are at least two different versions of the album floating around right now. The CD contains a multitude of additional short transition pieces and “skits” – while not essential, they absolutely enhance the single listener’s experience to the point that I wouldn’t want to listen to the album again without them. Three tracks stood out immediately, but the one that grab held of my head was “Lyk U Use 2” which has the fingerprints of Andrés all over it. It’s the standout track for me at the moment, though a year from now I might say it’s “No” (the song). “Hold It Down” is an invocation, complete with a flute to rival the great Brian Jackson. These are dripping with soul and Fred Williamson swagger, most of all “Sloppy Cosmic” with Funkadelic (borrowing from the title of their 1973 soul-funk-tech-psychedelic album Cosmic Slop).
There’s such an amazing vitality to this, which makes it surprising that nobody’s noted what a politically charged record this is. Many who write about Moodymann are going to point out the references to Detroit and the economic and social disintegration of the city. They’re going to point it out, and that’s all they’ll do: they’ll take a neutral position, feeling as if this is somehow a topic too complex for the music-minded or even somehow “controversial”.
Yet it’s the soul of this record. I suppose these references to Detroit might mean as little to people in Germany or the UK as the lyrics of “Alternative Ulster” meant to me in Chicago in the mid-1980s. But this is the experience for a lot of people in American cities circa 2014 – largely ignored by other Americans. If our cities aren’t in cardiac arrest, like Detroit, or already dead, like Gary, Indiana, Youngstown, Ohio and other rust belt ruins, they’re becoming mean, mean like Chicago is mean – a city becoming stratified, a city of slums and palaces and practically nothing in between.