Red alert! Red alert! It's a catastrophe!
A disembodied voice blares over the sound system at Nation, whipping the assembled crowd into a frenzy. People throw their arms above their heads and wave them wildly. Some yell and cry out.
But don't worry, don't panic . . .
The voice counsels calm, and indeed, many people have closed their eyes and bob their heads soundlessly.
Their impulse is correct. This is no real emergency--it's a performance by the British house music duo Basement Jaxx. The Friday night crowd at the Nation in Southeast Washington has waited all night to hear the Jaxx perform its smash dance club hit "Red Alert." There's no band, no stage set, no vocalist. Just a couple of British guys in a dimly lit deejay booth spinning vinyl.
Dance club music is bigger than ever in terms of its stylistic diversity and broad-based acceptance. While been-around divas such as Cher and Whitney Houston enlivened their careers with dance songs and remixes, acts like the Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim and Moby, who came out of underground dance scenes, are now the darlings of pop and alternative radio, MTV and Madison Avenue advertising agencies. Basement Jaxx--which consists of Simon Ratcliffe and Felix Buxton, both 29--is looking like the next act to break through.
You may not recognize the name Basement Jaxx, but by now you've probably heard "Red Alert." In addition to hitting No. 1 on Billboard magazine's DanceMusic/Club Play chart, it's become in recent months what's known as a "lifestyle song," the type of track you hear in coffeehouses, trendy clothing shops, hip eateries and, of course, at the gym.
"Red Alert" is the first single off the Jaxx's debut album, "Remedy," which has turned out to be one of the most critically acclaimed releases of the year. Rolling Stone gave the album a four-star "excellent" rating, and Spin included it as one of the magazine's top 90 albums of the '90s. Not bad for a collection that was released just two months ago. "It's a spectacularly great dance record," says Will Hermes, Spin senior editor. "There's a lot of variety."
"With this album, we tried to make songs that had a musical value irrespective of any genre," says Ratcliffe, smoking a cigarette in his hotel room a few hours before the Nation show. "Something that you could play to someone who's never been to a club before, that they'd be able to get into the music of it," adds Buxton.
For most of their six-year partnership, Ratcliffe and Buxton have tried to emulate the underground American dance sounds that sprung up in the wake of disco.
That would include hip-hop, of course, but also garage, the largely vocal R&B-based dance music named after the legendary New York nightclub the Paradise Garage. And house, the raw, stripped-down and often gospel-inflected disco derivative pioneered in Chicago nightclubs.
"In the beginning, we were definitely basing ourselves on Masters at Work and other cool house producers. But their sound seemed untouchable," says Ratcliffe. Soon, though, the duo found that its productions and remixes were being played in such underground U.S. dance spots as New York's popular Sunday afternoon Body and Soul party. "Once we became accepted by Americans," says Ratcliffe, "it was like, 'Oh, we've done it.' We asked ourselves, 'Where do we go from here?' "
"Remedy" was the result of that question. The album is a thrilling collection of underground dance rhythms laced with stunning and unexpected accents. Latin jazz horns and piano propel "Bingo Bango." Gangsta rap keyboards swirl throughout "Red Alert." And dancehall chants boost "Jump N' Shout."
"They combine a lot of styles and elements to create a really unique sound," says deejay Mandrill, a 20-year veteran of the D.C. club scene. "That's the main reason I play it."
The ragged guitar fuzz of "Yo-Yo" was inspired by D.C.'s post-punk icons Fugazi. Buxton says he was "scared" when Ratcliffe suggested copying the Fugazi-styled guitar. "I thought it sounded perfect, but I was like, 'What will people think?' That was one of the points when we were like, 'We're doing our own thing now.' "
Once they started following their own quirky path, the musicians found that many of the producers who once inspired them no longer excited them. "We didn't really have much to look up to anymore," says Ratcliffe. This includes producer-artist-mogul Puff Daddy, whom they recently dismissed as "cheesy."
"I was a massive fan of his a few years ago, because he was one of the few producers doing this kind of hip-hop-R&B, like early Mary J. Blige stuff," says Buxton. "That was wicked. It really pushed music forward."
But according to the Jaxx, Puffy has taken too many lazy sample-based pop turns. "He's gone in a different direction," says Buxton, "which is a good lesson for us to learn."
(To hear a free Sound Bite from "Red Alert," call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8181.)