Every week or thereabouts, Mutant Dance Moves takes you to the shadowy corners of the dancefloor and the fringes of contemporary electronic music, where new strains and dance moves are evolving.
For a generation of poppers, lockers, breakers and b-boys, the word “wikki” signifies not an online open-source encyclopedia but the much longer alien incant of “WikkiWikkiWikkiWikki!” And the folks responsible for that deeply funky and extraterrestrial 1983 electro hit, “Jam on Revenge (The Wikki-Wikki Song),” were a group of teenagers from the Bed-Stuy neighborhood of Brooklyn centered around a DJ named Ben “Cozmo D” Cenac, his wife “Lady E,” as well as his cousin Monique “Nique D”Angevin and her husband Bob “Chilly B” Crafton. Newcleus broke into the consciousness of ‘80s kids with “Jam on Revenge” and soon followed it up with another monstrous breakdancing anthem, “Jam on It,” before disappearing from the public eye.
Only, that’s not exactly what happened. “Newcleus actually didn’t have a demise,” Cozmo D informed me recently from his home in Pennsylvania. “The four of us all still worked and lived together. We just realized we were getting ripped off so we stopped being Newcleus.” Instead, Cozmo D began branching out and producing hip-hop, R&B, freestyle and by 1986, a singular take on New York house music. Recently, the Dutch dance music imprint Rush Hour reissued one of Cozmo D’s rarest productions from 1990, recorded as Dream 2 Science.
While the Rush Hour label has always done an excellent job rescuing dance music titans from the memory hole (see also their crucial compilations of greats like Kenny Larkin, Recloose, and Anthony “Shake” Shakir to name just a few), this past spring they’ve shed light on a generally unheralded time in New York City’s dance music history, between the fall of the Paradise Garage and the rise of Masters at Work. In addition to the Dream 2 Science reissue, they also compiled a massive overview of the work of twin brothers Reginald and Ronald Burrell, who kick-started the influential Nu-Groove Records imprint and helped define ‘90s house music at a time when Gotham was losing ground to the techno scene emerging from Detroit and the acid tracks coming out of Chicago.
Reggie Burrell remembered a childhood growing up in Queens, with Louis Armstrong across the street and breakdancers in the parking lot at Shea Stadium. But it was when he heard Rufus’s “Tell Me Something Good” that he realized he wanted to make music. “I was in a daycare center, face pressed against the fence, listening to that part of the song where they breathe heavy,” he tells me via phone from his home in North Carolina. “I don’t know why they would do that in a song. I didn’t get it. But at the same time, I got it.” Cenac also had his musical revelation as a kid: “I was always intrigued by the futuristic, atmospheric music that accompanied sci-fi movies and then I took notice of the theremin in the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” and immediately sought that record out.” When as a teen he encountered the European electronic music being made by Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder, he decided to make his own music.
But while Cenac had early success as a music-maker, the Burrell brothers had their minds focused on entirely different careers. Ronald was studying to become a New Jersey state trooper while Reggie was teaching kung-fu and studying at DeVry in Somerset, NJ. He taught kung-fu in the same building as someone playing new dance music. “I went by one day and they were playing (Russ Brown’s) ‘Gotta Find a Way’ and Marshall Jefferson’s ‘Move Your Body,’” Reggie recalls of the new sounds he heard. “It sounded like someone made it on their home organ. It was gritty, it wasn’t polished at all. There was something wrong about it that was just right.”
Soon after, Reggie and Ronald set up shop in the mother’s basement and began making their own tracks. They were signed to Virgin Records for a minute, but when Frank and Karen Mendez happened to hear the brothers’ rough demos, the brothers became the foundation of the new record label, Nu Groove Records.
The label would kickstart the careers of heavyweights like Kenny Dope and Frankie Bones, as well as Joey Beltram and Joey Negro, but as this 2CD set makes evident, the Burrell boys were veritable polygons, each new alias revealing a new aspect to their sound. And while they almost never worked in tandem, they both indulged their influences. So Reggie’s more jacking house tracks would manifest as N.Y. House’n Authority (the classic APT EP from 1989 epitomizes the atmospheric serious house music of that era) while Ronnie’s more sumptuous and ‘deep’ side would come out on his Aphrodisiac releases. And since Frank Mendez dug everything the brothers touched, Reggie says they had free reign to release whatever they deemed fit: “If I wanted to do something disco, I did it. If I wanted something more jazzy, I did it. If it was just weird, I did it. I had nobody to answer to aside from me.”
Cenac’s own productions show a similar willingness to engage in any inspiration or musical genre. And while he was contemporaries of NY house heavyweights like Todd Terry, Louie Vega and Kenny Dope, Cozmo D’s touch brought to mind Chicago producers like Larry Heard more than his neighbors: “Todd, Louie and Kenny were friends of mine and I admired their work, but I was from a different school than they were. They drew their musical cues from the ’80s, but mine were from the pre-samplers, pre-MIDI ‘70s.” Late-‘80s tracks like “You Keep Me Coming On” and “Makin’ Love in the Jungle” showed off a licentious side while the Bang the Drums album he made as Push/ Pull anticipates tribal house music while also showing off his deep debt to jazz music.
In his short-lived Dream 2 Science project, his love of jazz, sci-fi, house and funk music all came together. “With Dream 2 Science, I was doing the same thing,” Cenac recalls of his process for this six-song EP. “But I was also reaching for an ethereal, atmospheric sound that would be totally unlike anything else out there.” Lost to all but the highest bidders for the past two decades, the newly available Dream 2 Science set the bar high for the next generation of house music productions. Dreamy, sultry, body-moving, it’s a lost classic of the era and with new electronic acts like Ital, Miracles Club and Beautiful Swimmers mining that era of ‘90s house music, it still sound prescient.