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Friday, September 6, 2002

++ Back To My Other Late Night: It Ain't All Good

++ For a genre supposedly founded on faceless gearhounds and DJs, electronic music is turning out to be awfully savvy when it comes to the cult of personality.

I'm not talking about Moby or Fatboy Slim, or even the Aphex Twin, an artist so hopped up on his own notoriety that he's been known to spin sandpaper discs in DJ sets, just to see how much he can get away with.

I'm talking, instead, about the rise of a new phenomenon that I call the "vanity compilation." Not a DJ mix in the classic sense, the vanity comp is a collection of tunes hand-picked by a given artist — essentially, a mixtape, the kind that you make for your friends in high school — and then released under that artist's name. In one of the more curious developments in electronic music, vanity comps have become big business, with at least five branded series on the market, and numerous one-offs to boot. Back to Mine and Another Late Night are the best known series out there, but It's All Good marks a recent entry into the space, while the creator of the Another Late Night series has just launched another venture specific to hip-hop, BadMeaningGood.

++ Back to Mine was launched in 1998 with a first installment from trance DJ Nick Warren. Sets from Dave Seaman and Danny Tennaglia soon followed. In some ways, the series made sense. The product of DMC, the British owner of numerous DJ competitions, mixed-CD series, and even dance music magazines Mixer and Seven, Back to Mine was conceived as a portrait of the DJ's home listening habits, avoiding obvious club classics in favor of chillout tunes like Craig Armstrong's "This Love" or Global Communication's "Epsilon Phase." If the project seemed a bit self-indulgent, at least it fit the DMC's mission of promoting DJ culture in all its forms. Back to Mine was simply the "behind the scenes" portion of the ongoing documentary. The series also offered the guilty pleasure of sneaking a peek at a DJ's covetable treasures — or at least it claimed to. The comps hinted at tastemaker exclusivity with the inclusion of ostensibly rare tracks like Coldcut's "Autumn Leaves," but ubiquitous Balearic favorites filled much of the aluminum on these discs: Moby's "Go," Lamb's "Gorecki," Isolee's comped-to-death "Beau Mot Plage."

Back to Mine hit its stride with Groove Armada's edition, re-branding itself with a focus on downtempo and electronic pop artists. Succeeding compilers include Faithless, Everything but the Girl, Morcheeba, Talvin Singh, MJ Cole, Orbital, and — in a departure from the formula — New Order. (After casting about for a consistent design format, the series re-branded in its sixth edition, 2001's Everything but the Girl disc, with cartoon renderings of its compilers.)

Curiously, Azuli's Another Late Night — the Pepsi to Back to Mine's Coke — shares uncannily similar packaging to BTM's early editions (for instance, compare this cover with this one). The similarities certainly don't end there. ALN has featured downtempo artists like Fila Brasillia, Howie B, Rae & Christian, Zero 7, and, remarkably, Groove Armada (so much for exclusivity clauses!) selecting an eclectic mix of minor classics, inspirational cuts, and curveballs, like Zero 7's inclusion of Jim O'Rourke's "Ghost Ship in a Storm." For what it's worth, ALN tends to showcase a wider and more unpredictable selection than BTM, but like the first series, the albums favor sequencing over actual mixing.

Ultimate Dilemma's BadMeaningGood seems to be an attempt to duplicate the success of the ALN empire. Created by the latter series' producer, Austin Wilde, BMG is intended to showcase the influences and tastes of hip-hop DJs and producers. The first edition presents UK hip-hop producer Skitz veering from the Blackbyrds' much-sampled "Wilford's Gone" to Donovan's "Get Thy Bearings" to Anthony Redrose and King Kong's rootsy "Two Big Bull inna One Pen." Again, it's hardly a mix in the traditional sense, and in fact it's doubtful that two turntables and mixer were even involved in putting the project together (so much for the fourth element of hip-hop).

The very latest entrant to the industry — in case there weren't enough outlets for vanity comps — is the It's All Good series, adhering to the apparent rule that these brands must bear a three-word name. IAG Volume One features the now-defunct Red Snapper, who to their credit kick off with the genuinely rare and legitimately astounding Ectomorph remix of His Name Is Alive's "Someday My Blues Will Cover the Earth." IAG's second volume features Tim "Love" Lee — an artist with very similar credentials to Groove Armada, Howie B, and the rest.

++ So what, you say. Why complain? After all, vanity comps (in my entirely derisive phrase) showcase fine music, make rare tracks accessible, and may even turn casual listeners on to excellent but obscure artists like Zongamin, featured on Tim "Love" Lee's IAG set. True. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with the form. What bothers me, on one level, is this emphasis on branding — creating a vibe around a series name and a set of signifiers — and the rush by companies to create competing brands. But there are other, more concrete problems associated with the proliferation of these series.

First, and most critically, they divert resources away from artist albums, in the form of promotional dollars, record store space, and even column inches in the reviews pages. I've been hearing about Skitz for ages — he's immortalized in Earl Zinger's hilarious "Saturday Morning Rush," in which a hipster record buyer races from shop to shop in search of an elusive new 12" from the artist — but with his records barely available on these shores, I have yet to hear his actual productions. (The stateside publicist for his album couldn't even come up with any of his productions for me, even as she attempted to pitch me on a feature profile.) Is it any wonder that I'd rather hear his own work than a collection of his influences? In fact, if I can't vouch for myself that he's as stellar an artist as he's purported to be, why should I give a damn what he listens to?

That, in many ways, is the rub: vanity comps take the adulation of supposed tastemakers to a new degree. For years, the British DJ Gilles Peterson has staked his reputation on his ability to select and sequence top-notch tunes, despite the fact that he doesn't mix or beatmatch. Nothing wrong with that: after all, that's what radio DJs are for, and John Peel became one of the world's most influential DJs on the strength of his impeccable taste (even if he does have a questionable affection for happy hardcore). But with the explosion of vanity comps, suddenly everyone's a tastemaker: their artistry becomes a guarantee that their record collections are far better than our poor, proletarian stacks at home. It's a paradoxical move: the artist's name validates his selection, and sells it on the strength of his reputation — after all, it's not the track listing moving units, it's the artist's brand — and at the same time, the selection reinforces the artist's own mystique. The line between creator and curator blurs. This tendency raises important questions: what do we require of our artists?

And for what do we reward them?


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