“The techno scene is supposed to be forward thinking, but I don’t think that happens all that much,” says Chicago house giant Cajmere, who performs here this weekend as his techno alter ego, Green Velvet. “When I got into the music, you always wanted your stuff to sound different and refreshing. I know lots of producers and artists, especially in Chicago, get caught up with what other people will say, and they talk about ‘keepin’ it real,’ but what is ‘keepin’ it real’? They don’t really know, it’s just something they say. I just do whatever and I don’t really worry about how people perceive it.”
At his most bizarre, Green Velvet is techno’s answer to hip-hop’s Dr. Octagon: anything but real. The beats on the first Green Velvet full-length, Constant Chaos (on the Belgian Music Man label), come in reliably relentless sets of four, but his austere mix of robotic rhythms, analog synth squelches, and occasionally hallucinatory lyrics sounds like nothing else out there. For instance, on “Abduction,” one of two tracks for which he improvised the lyrics in the studio, he describes an encounter with some little green men: “All of a sudden, I think, I guess, they saw me lookin’ at them, and if I weren’t looking at them, I guess they wouldn’t have saw me looking at them, you know, so I should’ve been doing something else like watching TV so that I wouldn’t have had to go through the things that I had to go through.”
Now 32, the man born Curtis A. Jones embarked on his musical career in 1990, when he was halfway to a master’s in chemical engineering at Berkeley. Music until that point had been a hobby; he’d cut tracks for his own amusement in Champaign as an undergrad at the University of Illinois. But that summer he worked at a chemical engineering internship, he says, “and I got a taste of what the career was going to be like, and I didn’t like it.” This sentence, like most of Jones’s sentences, concludes with a bout of vaguely inappropriate giggles–he’s also techno’s answer to The Simpsons’ Dr. Hibbert.
Figuring he could always return to Berkeley if music didn’t pan out, he moved back to Chicago, where he’d spent his teenage years listening to house pioneers like Frankie Knuckles and Jamie Principle. In 1992 he scored a massive house hit with “Percolator.” His skillful production on his own work made him a popular collaborator, and later that year he recorded a song, “Brighter Days,” with a local diva named Dajae. He used it to launch a record label, Cajual Records, and the tune became a smash hit, peaking at number two on the Billboard dance chart. The single not only gave Cajual instant cred but put Chicago back in the house spotlight, which had been diverted by artists in New York, London, and other cities.
Over the next five years Cajual and Relief, a subsidiary imprint founded to release more aggressive, less vocally oriented material, issued almost 150 singles and albums by a veritable roll call of important Chicago dance artists, Glenn Underground, DJ Sneak, Gene Farris, DJ Rush, Mark Grant, Braxton Holmes, Boo Williams, and Paul Johnson among them. But in 1997 the label folded and Jones, after performing as Green Velvet at the BF Goodrich-sponsored Electric Highway electronica showcase at Navy Pier in August, adopted such a low profile locally that some people thought he’d moved away. “I don’t go out as much as I used to,” he says, “but when I do I always run into people who say, ‘Oh, I thought you lived in such and such.’ And I’m like, ‘What, I’ve been at the crib.'”
Jones, who spoke to me from a hotel room in Zurich, has actually been performing regularly in Europe as well as working on the Green Velvet album. He says he did attempt to do some local parties that never materialized, such as an opening bash for the 18-and-over dance club Dock 5 that ended up being postponed for almost a year.
As for the label, a reliable source who’s worked with Jones and many of the artists who were on Cajual says that the relatives Jones hired to work for him mismanaged it into the ground. But Jones denies this, saying the problem was that he became “really dis-heartened” by the business. “I de-voted a lot of my time and energy to it, and I began to feel that it wasn’t really appreciated,” he says. “It had a lot to do with jealousy and envy. It’s hard to be an artist and have a label and to work with other artists too. The Green Velvet stuff became popular, and although I’m not sure, I think a lot of other people may have felt that I was neglecting their stuff, and that caused friction.”
On Saturday Green Velvet will perform locally for the first time since his Electric Highway appearance, at a huge rave called Comfortably Numb. The Green Velvet live show currently features Jones–usually sporting a crazy green coif–on vocals and keyboards, along with a second keyboard player and a rhythm programmer. The rest of the lineup for the rave includes popular local DJ Terry Mullan, Minneapolis star Woody McBride, DJ Q-Bert, Miles Maeda, and Zinc, Pascal, and MC Rage of Britain’s True Playaz; see Michaelangelo Matos’s Critic’s Choice in this section for further specifics.
Peter Brotzmann’s Tentet, which closes the Empty Bottle’s Festival of Jazz & Improvised Music on Sunday, is bound to be a highlight (see Neil Tesser’s Critic’s Choice for details), but so is the superb smaller group with which the burly German saxophonist will kick off the weekend’s events. The quartet Die Like a Dog consists of Brotzmann, drummer Hamid Drake, bassist William Parker, and great Japanese trumpeter Toshinori Kondo. While Kondo’s electronics-enhanced tooting made his collaboration with DJ Krush on last year’s Ki-Oku (Instinct) sound like cut-rate Amandla, the same setup is used to devastating effect on the two volumes of Die Like a Dog’s Little Birds Have Fast Hearts (FMP)–the best work I’ve heard from any of Brotzmann’s ensembles in five years. Kondo adapts the dark, smeary sound of Miles’s better electric albums, like Agharta and Dark Magus, stripping off the funky grooves and running them through Brotzmann and Parker’s sublimely muscular improvisational wringer. The show starts Friday at 9 PM.