Alex Chilton spent most of his life in obscurity, working for shit wages to support himself as his records were released in tiny bundles that might as well have not been released at all. “Somewhere along the line,” he said, putting a bright face on it, “I figured out that if you only press up a hundred copies of a record, then eventually it will find its way to the hundred people in the world who want it the most.”
For most people working (sorry, “working”) in the music industry today, the problem is finding people willing to buy their music at all. But 2014 in dance music was bookended by albums which turned Chilton’s logic on its head and pointed to a problem that many artists would love to have: how an independent vinyl label can keep up with escalating demand.
Moodymann’s self-titled LP was scarce from the drop, with reports of hoarding by distributors and record stores eager to turn it around for a massive mark-up. His records never seem to be produced in numbers sufficient to meet demand – it seems that many are pressed in quantities of hundreds when thousands might not satiate the market.
Theo Parrish and Sound Signature have had their own struggles with supply and demand in an ultra-niche market. Practically every record he releases (but especially the Ugly Edits – see, for instance, here and here) flows in the supply chain from producer to distributor to store – and then seizes up. Mark-ups of as much as 400% are predictable and completely fucking outrageous.
Getting his records to the people that want them the most is a problem that Theo has taken in hand for American Intelligence. As soon as AI was listed, attention focused not on the sound but the price – some $45 to $50 for a nine track album, albeit one spread over three vinyl records. Stash these if you dare: right out of the gate, American Intelligence has an MSRP designed to terrify hoarders.
If this is price gouging, it has never felt so fan-friendly. For the first time, your local record store actually has copies of a Theo Parrish record in the racks, selling for the list price. You didn’t have to play games with the in-crowd or secure a copy through illicit means. It’s been available. Alex Chilton’s one hundred copies have found their way to the people who want them the most, and even to people who just want them a little.
This perversely egalitarian pricing game is about the only compromise Theo has made. In terms of sound, like Moodymann (up until here, probably my favorite record of the year) American Intelligence is about Theo giving you as much as he thinks you can handle.
House Music albums can often be silly, loaded up on filler and interludes and a DJ’s impression of what Brian Eno sounds like without having listened to Brian Eno all that much. Theo Parrish has never once forgotten the utilitarian nature of dance music – that its reason for existing is in its name, that these records have a purpose beyond pure listening and that doesn’t make them cheap or stupid at all. American Intelligence is a celebration of that. You can put it beside Songs In The Key of Life or Mothership Connection and it plays just like them, like a classic. It fits easy in a record bag too.
The album opens with “Footwork”, which served as a widely-praised teaser for the album released on its own a few months ago. “Footwork” might not go over with King Charles but “Cypher Delight” certainly will – the song is pure percussion and begs for someone used to playing in the 140 bpm range to push the pitch control to the limit.
Here marks the first dramatic shift of the record, as the pure percussion of “Cypher” is followed by the pure vocals of “Ah”. It’s not an acapella but features no percussion at all – just a lush thicket of vocal harmonies wrapping around each other. From here we journey to “Creepcake”, which reminds me of nothing so much as the wandering interludes of a Gil Scott-Heron live show, when a song’s intro could be extended longer than the song itself as Gil spoke to the audience about what it meant to him and what that meant to all of us.
Is it possible that the first sample of the album doesn’t appear until “Make No War”? The loop from Barrington Levy’s reggae/dancehall classic “The Vibes Is Right” is at least the first obvious sample, and it has the subtlety of a sledgehammer, repeating Levy and Theo’s message over and over again hundreds of times for seven minutes straight as the music grows more aggressive and biting behind it. “Drive” begins so muted it sounds like it was recorded Electric Ladyland-style, dunking a waterproofed amp in a tub of water before it emerges out of the deep as a sinister techno track. “Fallen Funk” is a sampling of what Drum&Bass or dancehall may have sounded like had it evolved fully in Ghana or Burkina Faso.
“Be In Yo Self” seems to be the consensus bust-out track of the album among my friends and it is with me as well. Everything you love about House Music in general and Theo Parrish in particular is present here – the musicality, the coarseness, the cry of anguish transformed on an underpopulated and unlit dancefloor into a cry of ecstasy somewhere in the heart of a forgotten part of your hometown. It’s a shame that the phrase “wall of sound” is already in circulation, because it’s the perfect description of “Be In Yo Self” as it reaches its peak. As can be said about the rest of the album, it’s quite enough, this song, to make the rest of us close up shop and find something else we can excel in.
When an album this big lands, we get a lot of hack intellectual takes on what it’s supposed to “mean”. Some have focused on the price and the struggle to get these records in the hands of those who love them the most, like I did; some on the medium; some on the artist’s mannerisms or the town he or she lives in and the environment that gave birth to it all.
But Theo has never shied away from what seems to genuinely bother the sensitive souls of Pitchfork – that dance music has a purpose, that it can be so beautiful and achingly expressive but can still fail on a metaphysical level if it doesn’t achieve its main purpose.
What does it mean, American Intelligence?
The meaning is to dance to it.