Sunset and Public Works present Moodymann
Friday, Nov. 30, 2012
Better than: Valentine's Day 2010, Moodymann's unfortunately aborted last appearance in San Francisco.
"It was 1981, we wasn't playing no house, we wasn't playing no techno. It was just music to us." Kenny Dixon Jr. (a.k.a. Moodymann) was on stage with microphone in hand, tossing quotes off to the waiting crowd as naturally as he flipped through his record bag. Projected polygonal Chinese characters climbed the wall behind him, creating a surreal contrast to his oversized "Detroit" Hoodie, rose-tinted glasses, and iPod earbuds. "What were you doing in 1981?" The angular lines of A Number of Names' "Shari Vari" shot out of the speakers, punctuating his words with bouncy hits of synthesized bass. "I'm just playin' some records and some CDs. We're having a good time."
The night was already in full swing by the time we got to "Shari Vari," and Moodymann had proven without a doubt that he's as much of a showman as legend would suggest. Absent from the party for most of the night, he appeared out of nowhere after midnight with a huge bottle of Hennessy that quickly found its way into drinks across the front row. Moments later he was joined onstage by a group of three girls wearing Mohagani Music T-shirts. Performance and spectacle played into the overall ambiance of the night, which, from the beginning, felt very different from any other DJ set I've heard. This was the rare kind of party in which it was entirely okay for him to turn the music off and lecture the crowd for minutes at a time. He threw another record on deck and mixed an incredibly short blend into Telex's "Moscow Discow."
"First time I came to San Francisco, the bouncer wouldn't let me in. He said, 'You're not the DJ, the DJ's already on. And anyway what've you got there, who plays records anymore?'" -- pause for punchline -- "Yeah, yeah, yeah, and I don't download my girlfriends neither."
The dancefloor was packed up tight and standing still was an uncomfortable proposition. Sweat, violent elbowing, and sloshed drinks gave the room an overflowing energy that clung to the air. I looked over and saw a couple people desperately holding their phones up, trying to Shazam the music off the speakers. I can't imagine it worked very well, since one of the stranger things about Moodymann is the way he alternates between quick mixing and letting records breathe. Short medleys of '80s R&B would merge together as though they were being faded in and out on some late-night radio program.
He did this with style and precision, on vinyl and CDs, all while using only a pair of earbuds. I'm still wondering how that works. If it wasn't for the fact that he kept holding up his records you'd almost think he was playing a pre-recorded mix. But he definitely wasn't. In fact, he was one of the more active DJs I've seen in a while; constantly up there working the EQs, nudging things back in sync, and putting records corner-side up in his box, old-school style.
Portishead's "Pedestal" turned the club smoky and noirish. Beth Gibbons' tortured rasp and the jazzy riffs of mute trumpet filled the room, much to everyone's surprise. The song's downtempo vibe and lazy scratching sounded fresh in a time where both of those things have been relegated to the unrevived side of the 1990s.
He was unafraid to play with tempo and genre, dipping away from the kind of Detroit house music he's known for into a mixed-bag of things like Whitest Boy Alive's "Done With You," Nitzer Ebb's "Join in the Chant," Flying Lotus' "Tea Leaf Dancers," Main Source's "Looking at the Front Door," and even Ann Clark's "Our Darkness." Though he moved through a stylistic blur, there was never the feeling that any of these records were misplaced. In fact, every selection felt as though it was the only song that could have been played. But this wasn't a linear DJ set or some conventional narrative. Instead it felt like a tour through Dixon's music collection, with his omnipresent personality glueing space and sound into a cohesive environment.
"I got a big bottle of Grey Goose and a whole bunch of red cups," he said in his radio-worthy drawl as he held up the bottle right before last call. People screamed, but I'm pretty sure security intervened before he started pouring. He cued up another record, "What we're gonna do right here is go back." This wasn't Dixon talking. "Way back, back into time. When the only people that existed were troglodytes. Cave men, cave women, neanderthal. Troglodytes!" Slipping back into hard-edged disco funk, he brought the energy back up and kept on going past Public Works' usual cut-off of 3:30 a.m. Dropping Eric Clapton's cover of Bob Marley's "I Shot the Sherriff," he said, "Alright San Francisco you've been good, but I need to get back to Detroit. My city needs me, she goes crazy if I'm away for too long." He stepped off, Solar got on, and the party continued as we stepped outside into the morning.