Craig Richards, Goldie, and Danilo Plessow
Craig Richards, Goldie, and Danilo Plessow Credit: Stefan Braunbarth

In rock or pop, the points on an artist’s career arc tend to be albums and singles. But for dance DJs, things get complicated. There, the mix is as primary a format as the 12-inch or CD.

Beat-matched compilations date back at least to 1974, when Spring Records released the nonstop-segued Disco Par-r-r-ty, but rave made them the norm. Early comps on labels like Moonshine Music often ran

everything together with Pro Tools, even when no DJ was credited. But though “unofficial” DJ mix tapes have been ubiquitous in dance culture for decades, in the pre-Napster era they were mostly local phenomena—only in the past five years or so have they become widespread on the Internet. Early-90s mixes tended to be snapshots, though, rather than the kind of portraits more ambitious DJs began creating in the mid-90s. Coldcut’s 1995 entry in the Journeys by DJ series, 70 Minutes of Madness, remains a model for many: with its style hopping and obvious edits and drop-ins, it develops like a canvas being painted. Indeed, it’s regarded more highly than Coldcut’s studio albums.

DJ mix series can’t rely on traditional hook-based songcraft or on personas revealed in lyrics, so they tend to sell themselves as brand names. (Journeys by DJ was one of the first.) A series tends to have a defined profile, no matter how much its volumes may differ—and in a good series, the mixes do differ from one another, often wildly but always cannily. That’s particularly true of three highly regarded mix series, DJ-Kicks (issued by Berlin label !K7) and Fabric and FabricLive (both released by three-room London superclub Fabric). All three have new volumes out, which provides the occasion for this review.

Well, OK—there’s always a new Fabric or FabricLive out, since both issue new titles bimonthly, with their schedules staggered so that they don’t skip a month. Both aim to represent or evoke recent sets played at the club, though few of the mixes are live recordings—DJs’ impulses don’t always jibe with copyright holders’ wishes. The difference between the two is that Fabric emphasizes four-on-the-floor styles like house and techno, while FabricLive ventures into syncopated terrain (dubstep, jungle, hip-hop) as well as more deliberately eclectic mixes, such as John Peel’s 2002 release FabricLive 07, the only compilation he assembled to be released during his lifetime. A dozen mixes a year can’t cover everything—dance music, it moves fast—but it can come close.

Dance music is also laden with history, and its culture can be just as fond of looking back as the larger culture is. It does this via reissues, of course, as well as with new tracks that hark back to everything from late-80s Chicago house (Steve Bug’s “Jack Is Back“) to early UK jungle (Bass Clef’s “Rollercoasters of the Heart“). To some degree, Craig Richards’s Fabric 58 (on which he “presents” his alter ego the Nothing Special), Goldie’s FabricLive 58, and Motor City Drum Ensemble’s entry in the DJ-Kicks series all look back as well, though none are precisely retrospectives. There are old tracks on all three, but the Fabric mixes carry dance music’s history less in what exactly gets mixed and more in who’s doing the mixing.

Craig Richards has been a music director and resident DJ at Fabric since it opened in 1999. In 2001 he mixed the inaugural Fabric 01; in 2004, as half of Tyrant, he mixed Fabric 15, the series’s only double CD to date. Richards is hardly self-indulgent, though: as befits his position, he’s adaptable, diverse, and tasteful. On 01 he leans toward the freaky and percussive; 15 remains a useful overview of mid-00s German techno, even though not everything on it is German.

The Nothing Special is Richards’s alias for when he DJs between live sets (as opposed to between other DJs), and Fabric 58 has a deliberate quality that suits such a setting. The mix isn’t downtempo—it just builds gradually and subtly. Things don’t hit anything like a peak till more than halfway in, when the glassy tech-house synths of Joel Mull’s “Leaving Ground” ramp up to the bare, jacking pulse of Marcel Janovsky’s “Vamos a Otro Piso“; after that only Johnny Fiasco’s “Kalimba” really jumps. It’s the kind of steady-state mix that normal humans will find pleasant if not especially compelling but that dance adepts will pick over for details—not because the material is so fascinating but because Richards is such a well-respected old hand. Only one other person has even made two Fabric mixes, and this is his third.

Goldie is even more of a London club-world fixture than Richards. With his 1995 debut LP, Timeless, he helped establish drum ‘n’ bass as an albums medium, not just the domain of singles and mixes. Since then he’s made movie and TV cameos as an assortment of two-bit gangsters (that’s him in the 1999 James Bond movie The World Is Not Enough) and placed second in the 2008 season of the British reality series Maestro (he missed a shot at conducting the BBC Concert Orchestra), in the process becoming a folk hero in England even among those with no use for pitch-shifted breakbeats.

But Goldie is a DJ first, and FabricLive 58 is his most boisterous official mix CD. It’s not definitive the way his 2000 mix INCredible Sound of Drum ‘n’ Bass was: that was a history lesson, and this is a time capsule. But it’s an engrossing time capsule, in part because drum ‘n’ bass is undergoing its most bullish creative spell in at least a decade, thanks to artists like dBridge (whose fierce, minimalist breakbeat workout “Cornered” is a set highlight) and Commix, who’s signed to Goldie’s Metalheadz label; his “Be True” is FabricLive 58‘s penultimate track, before Goldie reminds us who’s boss by closing with “Timeless.” He also tosses in another old track, Adam F’s rampaging “Metropolis” from 1996—the kind of nod to the genre’s roots that he usually includes in his mixes.

Before Fabric, the mix series du jour was DJ-Kicks, which began in 1995. It’s averaged two titles a year, and Motor City Drum Ensemble’s is the 36th (though they’re not numbered). DJ-Kicks began as a dance-purist series, more or less, serving straight doses of Detroit techno (Carl Craig, Claude Young) and trip-hop (Kruder & Dorfmeister, Thievery Corporation). And it still offers titles that stick to one style, such as the sunny house of last year’s Juan MacLean set.

But starting with Playgroup’s postpunky mix in 2002, DJ-Kicks shifted emphasis, aggressively pursuing indie-rock crossover artists (and dollars): Annie, Chromeo, Hot Chip, Erlend Øye from Kings of Convenience. Rather than earning the enmity of BPM-fixated trainspotters, these mixes have only enhanced DJ-Kicks’ adventurous rep—in part because they’re good, but also because they arrived when dance culture was on the outs with the mainstream music audience and really needed a shot in the arm. The curator of each installment is expected to create a new, exclusive track, allowing the mix to be promoted, album-style, with a lead single—and ringers who know how to handle pop songs surely help in that department.

Lately, even the DJ-Kicks mixes by dance-identified acts tend to cover a lot of range, albeit in a different way—tracks from wildly divergent genres and time periods winnowed into a flowing line. The volume by Motor City Drum Ensemble, aka Danilo Plessow, is a prime example. Plessow is from Stuttgart, the car-making capital of Germany, but his alias is equally a nod to Detroit deep house. That subgenre is soulful and brooding while still sounding above it all—and so are the sticky, entrancing 12-inches collected on MDCE’s 2009 release Raw Cuts Vol. 1 and the selections in Plessow’s 2008 podcast for Resident Advisor, almost all of which come from Detroit.

MCDE’s DJ-Kicks mix goes further out: jazz (Sun Ra, James Mason), Afrobeat (Tony Allen, Geraldo Pino), and disco (Stone, the Arthur Russell project Loose Joints) are well represented. But instead of flying all over the place the way, say, Hot Chip’s mix does, this one feels like a single big piece of music. Plessow looks for commonalities—”Actium,” by art-techno godfather Aphex Twin, bleeds easily into Isolée’s minimalist house remix of Recloose’s “Cardiology“—but the tracks’ varying provenances keep their sum total from sounding too damn steady-state.

The formal mix CD may be falling on even harder times than the album, thanks to the ease and freedom of the podcast—a medium that spreads via the same sort of decentered marketplace as the old-fashioned Maxell mix tape, with the Internet rendering the question of distribution moot. Podcasting is not only nearly instantaneous, it’s also a relatively lawless territory where paperwork and permissions are concerned—DJs who don’t want to get in trouble often just don’t include track lists. But there’s still a lot to be said for DJs who take the time to mull things over, narrow their options, and tinker till it’s just right. v