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Moodymann’s Soulful Anthems Redefined Detroit Dance Music. Here Are 8 of His Best.

Drake has a reputation for featuring artists on the rise, feeding on their youthful energy like the Silicon Valley tech honchos sucking up blood transfusions from teenagers. So it seems telling that when the Toronto rapper sampled the iconic Detroit house producer Moodymann on “Passionfruit” last year, he didn’t actually use any of the latter’s music, just his voice. “Hold on, hold on, fuck that—fuuuuck that shit,” drawls the Motor City DJ from behind the booth, seemingly in response to some snafu on the decks. His voice is gravelly, his tone unfazed, his sly grin almost audible. He banters a bit about the record he’s about to play before telling the crowd: “Hey, y’all get some more drinks goin’ on, I’ll sound a whole lot better.” It’s classic Moodymann: the consummate entertainer with a wry twist, definitely a Dude Who Has Seen Some Shit. Instead of drinking from the fountain of youth, Drake was hitching his horse to the proverbial tree of wisdom—and a famously craggy one, at that.

It’s not that Moodymann, born Kenny Dixon, Jr., is an elder statesman, exactly; with a discography stretching back to 1994, Dixon is likely somewhere in his forties. But where electronic music’s dominant narrative has always put its chips on futurism, Dixon is a dyed-in-the-wool classicist. His sample-heavy productions have drawn on artists like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and Chic, not to mention gospel music, and his beats have always remained rooted in disco’s bump and swirl. Rather than positing a break from the past, he explicitly positions himself within established traditions—soul music, roller disco, the black church.

Dixon was once known for his righteous fury: A note in his 1997 debut album Silentintroduction read, “To all you white suburban kids, sampling black music all the time, try some rock’n’roll for a change, you’re making black music sound silly, weak, and tired.” But in recent years, it’s his audacity and his wit that have come to the fore. In a Red Bull Music Academy lecture in 2010, he confessed to having made a track on the demo equipment at Guitar Center once, when he was young and broke. That admission turned into the setup for a soliloquy—“It ain’t what you got; it’s what you do with what you have, you understand? And it ain’t what you do, it’s how you do it”—that has, ironically enough, become sample fodder in its own right. The site WhoSampled notes nine tracks that allegedly incorporate elements of Dixon’s speech, and there are almost certainly more out there. That Dixon spent the entire lecture having his afro combed out only contributed to his mystique: part trickster, part philosopher, and all keeper of the flame.

Last month, Moodymann dropped a new single, “Got Me Coming Back Right Now,” as a teaser for his album that’s expected this June. In anticipation of the new record, here are eight essential tracks from his discography.


“The Day We Lost the Soul”/“Tribute! (To the Soul We Lost)” (1994)

Early in his recording career, at a time when saucer-eyed British ravers were still dancing to happy hardcore in muddy fields, Dixon was already placing himself within the lineage of American soul music. The third release on Dixon’s KDJ label, home to much of his music over the years, pays tribute to the Motown icon Marvin Gaye, who was shot and killed by his father in 1984, the day before his 45th birthday. The first track on the A-side, a 93-second collage of obituary broadcasts, snippets of Gaye’s music, and radio-dial swirl, is all scene-setting. It’s the exuberant “Tribute!” where Dixon gets down to business, looping deep-blue keys and whoops over flashing tambourine and floor-filling kick drums.


“I Can’t Kick This Feeling When It Hits” (1996)

Dixon is a master of the slow build, as he demonstrates on this sublime eight-minute side from 1996, in which a drawn-out string ostinato and some loping congas are spun into one of the most hypnotic grooves in the house-music canon. True to the title, “I Can’t Kick This Feeling When It Hits” takes a good two minutes for “it”—that is, the kick drum, mixed with a restlessly syncopated one-note bassline—to hit in earnest. But even then, it’s not so much a climax as a step up to a plateau of pure dancefloor delirium stretching all the way to the horizon. The looped vocal poses a question (“What am I gonna do/Gonna do/Gonna do”) but there’s no answer; that open-endedness, that refusal to offer any kind of resolution, just makes the tune that much more seductive.


“I Like to Know” (1997)

Just like he does on “I Can’t Kick This Feeling When It Hits,” Dixon shows off his masterful command of tension and release on this 1997 cut. The introduction is a breath-bating minute and a half of rolling congas and celebratory crowd noise; he wields another long, flat string ostinato like a lever to crank the energy level up a notch. There’s a tonal mismatch between the strings and drums, a kind of calculated dissonance, that puts everything on tenterhooks. Even when the keys and looped vocals drop in earnest, the tune retains that woozy feel of things being not quite in key, and in that perpetual state of friction, sparks fly. (This was the inaugural release on the short-lived Music Is… label; the follow-up, Theo Parrish’s “Smile,” is another essential document of hypnotic Detroit house.)


“Dem Young Sconies” (1997)

Here’s proof that, when he wants to, Moodymann is more than capable of cutting to the chase. There’s no funny business to this one: just chugging one-note bass, a hint of acid squelch, and a stripped-back drum groove. It’s all so propulsive that you might not even notice that there’s barely anything to the percussion, just a steady kick and the odd burst of shakers. Yet the beat is so solid, it’s as though he’s scooped up fistfuls of empty space and sculpted them into gleaming slabs of marble.


“Shades of Jae” (1999)

For most producers, incorporating a snippet of crowd noise in their own club anthem comes dangerously close to a B-grade sitcom’s use of a laugh track. Dixon gets a pass. On “Shades of Jae,” he does exactly the opposite of what you’d expect: Instead of using bursts of crowd noise to punctuate his climaxes, he smears them like background texture as he builds tension, then mutes them for effect when the beat drops in earnest. That’s just one of the things that makes 1999’s “Shades of Jae” so great. Flitting between Bob James’ jazzy keyboard soloing and soulful vocal entreaties, between stonking peak-time grooves and soaring pauses, it feels like a DJ working the crossfader so hard it burns a hole in the booth.


“J.A.N.” (2001)

Dixon’s love of Prince is well documented: He has an entire house decked out as a shrine to His Purpleness. On “J.A.N.,” he pays tribute in roundabout fashion, building the track around samples of an interview with Prince conducted by the Electrifying Mojo, an iconic Detroit radio personality. The twist here is that Dixon cuts out all of Prince’s responses, leaving only Mojo’s questions—some verbatim, and some edited to seem like Dixon himself is the subject. Prince’s silence becomes a metonym for Moodymann’s; for years, Dixon declined to do any kind of press at all. Instead of speaking out, he withdraws into the shadows of the track and swaps in a spooky choral sample, more moaning than singing, which he unleashes in waves over one of the most sullen—and most irresistible—grooves of his entire catalog.


“Freeki Mutha F cker (All I Need Is U)” (2008)

Speaking of Prince, Dixon was definitely channeling him when he brewed up this simmering cauldron of pure sex. Over a hiccupping bassline and drums like a palpitating heart, Dixon mutters sweet nothings to a would-be paramour down the block, like a Skinemax remake of Rear Window: “I love your bedroom shows at night, they’re better than cable TV/And the things you do to yourself, I wish you did to me.” His own gravelly voice, run through some kind of guttural talk-box, is met with backing whispers and sighs. There’s no climax, no comedown—for six whole minutes (or 10 in the long version), it just bubbles away teasingly, lost in the ecstasy of here and now.


“Born 2 Die” (2012)

Before this was eventually unveiled as an official remix, Dixon snuck this unexpected edit of Lana Del Rey’s “Born to Die” onto the B-side of his 2012 EP, Why Do U Feel. The title track is one of the standouts of his work this decade, and maybe the most flat-out gorgeous song he’s ever recorded. But “Born 2 Die” deserves mention, if only because the prospect of Moodymann remixing Del Rey once would have seemed all but unthinkable, pretty much right up to the point that he went and did it.

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