Being of a certain (old) age, dance culture is something I've pretty much grown out of. If I'm really honest, I was already semi-alienated before the rave era kicked in. And this is a guy who once spent more time listening to obscure disco 12-inchers than to scuzzy punk singles — who thought Patrick Adams was way more important than Patrik Fitzgerald.
Nonetheless this old dude has always kept at least one ear open for new grooves, even if they're just soundtracks for the party in my own head: Take a bow, Timbaland, Pharrell, and friends. Daft Punk's Discovery is one of my fave albums of all time, its cheesy AOR-house euphoria a guaranteed mood elevator when all other music just sounds too drab or grim. That French duo manage to have ironic fun with warped house tropes while forcing you off your behind and on to the floor.
The same's true of Felix Buxton and Simon Ratcliffe, the Brixton-based duo who for the past decade or so have traded under the name Basement Jaxx. Brixton, or at least South London, is currently in the news for all the wrong reasons: US-style gun culture coming to its streets as weapons flood into the UK like cheap crack cocaine. But Brixton was also the birthplace of the Jaxx aesthetic, which burst out of an unassuming club night called Rooty back in 1994.
Like several other DJ teams — Coldcut, Underworld et al. — Buxton and Ratcliffe eventually morphed into composer-producers of their own music. But Basement Jaxx were an instant revolution, injecting zany P-Funk fun and squelchy sonic clowning into a decidedly codified club scene. With their debut album Remedy (1999), the duo threw anything and everything into the mix in their playful dispensing with house formulae. The acoustic flamenco guitars and sub-robot vocals of “Rendez-Vu” were brilliantly different, the loopy funk of “Yo-Yo” and mutant disco of “Red Alert” as fresh and wild as early Prince.
But Basement Jaxx did more than just liven things up in dance music. They molded a sound that was utterly their own: rhythmically irresistible, melodically yearning. The bass-ic foundation of the Jaxx groove was tight, close, reverb-free — right up in your face. Keyboards screeched and yelped, deranged machines with minds of their own. And the duo's guest vocalists were always eclectic and surprising: from Dizzee Rascal to Lily Allen and Siouxsie Sioux to Meshell Ndegeocello, Jaxx cameos invariably broke the mould of R&B and hip-hop guest turns.
Basement Jaxx were simply a great pop group. When “Romeo” was issued as the first single from Rooty (2001), complete with adorable Bollywood-pastiche video, I felt a pop thrill I hadn't felt in a long while. “Breakaway,” the album's subsequent track, was one of the unsung masterpieces of UK dance — a song as lyrically heartfelt as it was compulsively rhythmic. That's without even citing what has become the duo's most enduring anthem, the naggingly interrogatory “Where's Your Head At.”
The Grammy-scooping Kish Kash (2003) was sublime. Anyone who could flip from the bereft sweetness of the strings on “If I Ever Recover” to the maddened bolshiness of the title track — Siouxsie Sioux outgunning Karen O, as Keith Harris noted — had to be doing something right. “Good Luck,” featuring the powerhouse lungs of the Bellrays'Lisa Kekaula, was a funk-rock reprise of “Romeo,” “Lucky Star” a hectic mash-up of Middle Eastern exotique and Dizzee Rascal verbal throwdown.
Last year's Crazy Itch Radio suggested that Buxton and Ratcliffe may finally be running out of creative steam. As an opening gambit, “Hush Boy” was altogether less surprising than “Good Luck” or “Romeo” or “Rendez-Vu.” The chirpy banjo line on “Take Me Back to Your House” couldn't disguise its tired melodic progression. Even the Weimar-cabaret disco of “Hey U,” with its daft overlay of tango and klezmer, failed to enchant.
But then the world always catches up with the true innovators. In the wake of kitchen-sink UK garage and MySpace rap — from the Streets to Jamie T and Lily Allen — Buxton and Ratcliffe are inevitably being overtaken by their own acolytes. Just as the unbridled fun and sexy sensuousness of the Jaxx's greatest trax has seeped into the pop and R&B mainstream, so the effort to reinvent the wheel has possibly made the duo themselves less bold.
Eight years on from “Rendez-vu,” I feel less need to scratch the Jaxx'crazy itch. But I'll always return to Remedy, Rooty et seq. as the joyful effusions of club spirit they are. Basement Jaxx blew very fresh air into the global dance scene and we should always be glad of that.