Cult heroes: Moodymann – the enigma who remade dance music

The mysterious Detroit musician abhorred the shiny sounds of the mid-90s and replaced them with nasty, dirty techno – electronic music with grit in its grooves

For a certain type of cult musical hero, a significant part of the appeal lies in remaining resolutely unknowable. Moodymann, a producer of obstinately beautiful house music, exemplifies this idea, his history a mesh of half-truths, rumours and silence that seems to refuse to resolve itself. As he puts it: “I don’t make music for the masses to dance to. I make music for the small majority that listens.”

In the mid-90s, when the first Moodymann releases started filtering into European record stores, all we knew about him was that he was called Kenny Dixon Jr, he came from Detroit (and was proud of it), he had a family background in jazz, and he ran his own record label, KDJ.

He seemed angry, too. A spoken-word introduction to I Can’t Kick This Feeling When It Hits lambasted producers who tried to pass their music off as coming from Detroit. “I’m tired of motherfuckers coming up and telling me that 80% of material from Detroit ain’t good material,” he intoned solemnly, over a sun-warped synth line. “You see, what you don’t understand is that 80% of that shit ain’t from Detroit. So don’t be misled.”

We were left to judge him by his music. In the 90s, for many dance music fans, house meant the shiny, upbeat sounds of New York, from Masters at Work to Mood II Swing, productions that were buffed to an immaculate sheen that wouldn’t sound out of place at a suburban wedding. Techno, on the other hand, was nasty and dirty, the kind of thing your mum would shake her head at, issuing from the sinking city of Detroit. But Moodymann turned that upside down. Here was house music that stank; house music with dirty teeth that hadn’t changed its T-shirt; house music where you could hear the grit soaked into every groove.

There’s nothing particularly complicated about Moodymann’s music – most tracks consist of a few simple loops and filters. But it’s full of atmosphere, crowd noise and voices cutting in almost at random, undercut by unsettling synths that set the hair on end. Listening to his records, you can imagine Moodymann in his Detroit studio, working on tracks until he finishes them or passes out, because they simply have to be made.

He has a distinctive way of using these samples, too, jerking the drums out from underneath the listener just as they are getting comfortable or, as on Shades of Jae, teasing with two and a half minutes of tightly coiled vocal, keys and tambourine, before unleashing a single bar of kick drum that invariably makes dancers go mad. European audiences lapped it up.

I Can’t Kick This Feeling When It Hits – originally released in 1996 – exemplifies Moodymann’s minimal ethos. The song takes a couple of samples from Chic’s I Want Your Love and rides them to a point of utter hypnotic musicality, the track’s simplicity a trap for the unsuspecting listener, who risks losing their mind in the hall of mirrors of warped repetition.

In the absence of biographical detail, the samples Moodymann used told us a lot about him. Alongside Chic there were staples of black American music such as Marvin Gaye – lots of Marvin Gaye, none more so than on tribute track Tribute (To the Soul We Lost) – as well as Prince, Curtis Mayfield and Quincy Jones. Here, the samples suggested, was a producer with one eye on the future, yet firmly rooted in musical history. “People ask me, ‘What kind of music do you like?’” Dixon told the audience during a rare interview at the Red Bull Music Academy, London, in 2010. “Well, I prefer to like pretty good music. There is good and there’s real good. Just like any artwork, there is some music you want to hang around and some music you don’t want to hang around.”

As the 90s turned into the 2000s, Moodymann started to emerge from the shadows. Carl Craig’s Planet E Records released the Silentintroduction compilation in 1997, followed by a string of albums on UK indie label Peacefrog, which took Moodyman’s music into HMV. He started to DJ more, too, his brilliant selections winning admirers all over Europe.

For all that, he remained a confusing figure. Dixon didn’t give an interview until 2007 (with Gilles Peterson on Radio 1) and his releases housed a maze of alternate versions, odd mixes and mislabelled tracks that threatened to send record collectors to an early grave, songs turning up under different names and in different mixes apparently on a whim. He later said that it was the result of financial constraints. “I had to save money. I can’t be changing a bunch of labels,” he said. “But actually, there’s as many as four different B-sides. You can get that same 12in – you have no idea – there are four different B-sides.”

The Red Bull interview, which you can see online, saw Moodymann lift the curtain further. It is quite a piece of theatre. Dixon, in town to promote a roller disco, takes to the stage in a skimpy white vest and red sunglasses, accompanied by four women in Moodymann T-shirts, one of whom proceeds to tend to his hair. He then charms the audience over 90 hugely entertaining minutes, in a way that seems at odds with his earlier, prickly image.

The interview is fascinating, covering everything from his experience on roller skates to his relationship with his family. And while he clears many things up, much of the enigma remains.

His first release was, he said, recorded in an hour in a Guitar Center shop on two tape decks, then released six months later (possibly in 1992, he doesn’t really remember). He hinted at having produced other artists at the start of his career and revealed that he had stolen his father’s record collection. “My father is a different cat, a lot of our views are very different,” he said. “Me and him at the moment are really not getting along, but that is his views, that [is] his world, that is his situation. Yes, I stole all his records. Fuck it, he ain’t playing the motherfuckers nowhere.”

If anything, Moodymann’s legend only grew after this public appearance, which gave a carefully orchestrated glimpse into his musical world without revealing too much, leaving new questions unanswered (what’s going on with his father? What happened to that first record?) as older ones were put to bed.

In 2016, more than 20 years after his first release, Moodymann seems stronger than ever. His 2008 mini album Det.riot ’67 was a brilliant distillation of his various musical shades, including straight up, joy-filled vocal disco (Hello 2morrow), darkly erotic techno (Freeki Mutha F cker) and edgy, paranoid house (Det.riot, which relates the story of the 1967 Detroit riot), while his last studio album, 2014’s Moodymann (a 27-track mixture of old and new material, the vinyl editions of which came packed with seemingly random bonus CDs), was one of his most high-profile releases in years.

The last six months, meanwhile, have seen the release of a 7in single for the clothing company Carhartt, as well as Dixon’s first mix CD of other people’s music, for DJ Kicks. Journalists who received the DJ Kicks promo were politely informed that Moodymann wouldn’t be doing interviews, which came as no surprise. But perhaps he didn’t need to: the mix is typically idiosyncratic, a brilliantly confounding collection of music, where the disco house of Daniel Bortz ambles into José González’ beat-less acoustics and a piano take on Anne Clark’s Our Darkness forms an unusual start to the mix’s climax. It speaks, in other words, of a very singular artist who remains reassuringly unknowable, a musical enigma to the end.


Ben Cardew

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Cult heroes: Virgo – obscure Chicago house duo full of mournful mystique
Their truly original 1989 release wasn’t by Virgo, nor was it actually an album. But Eric Lewis and Merwyn Sanders created an introspective dance music classic

Alexis Petridis

12, Jan, 2016 @4:24 PM

Article image
Cult heroes: Optimo (Espacio) – the club night that defied expectation and defined a generation
Keith McIvor and Jonnie Wilkes ran Optimo in Glasgow for well over a decade and influenced dance music experimentation way beyond the city

David Pollock

11, Oct, 2016 @12:38 PM

Article image
Cult heroes: Altern-8, the pop jesters who took rave music to the playground
A welcome alternative to the faceless dance acts and dull pop groups of the 90s, the cartoonish Midlands act turned a generation on to raving

Ben Cardew

24, Nov, 2015 @11:00 AM

Article image
Cult heroes: Terry Allen – country music outlaw and renaissance man
The Texas-born artist’s work is found in the Museum of Modern Art and he’s creating a sculpture from Nashville legend Guy Clark’s ashes, but his reissued 1970s concept album might be his greatest work of art

Garth Cartwright

02, Aug, 2016 @12:11 PM

Article image
Cult heroes: DAF – electro brutalists using hedonism as heroism
With their homoerotic image and Nazi-baiting lyrics, Gabi Delgado-López and Robert Görl were synth-disco rebels bent on pulverising the rulebook

Paul Lester

05, Jan, 2016 @11:00 AM

Article image
Cult heroes: Liars – masters of eccentric electronica
These most obstinate of oddballs have made a career of gleefully snubbing comfort zones and spurning sensible choices

Ben Hewitt

20, Sep, 2016 @11:37 AM

Article image
Cult heroes: Raspberries – 60s-loving progenitors of powerpop
Like Big Star, this Cleveland quartet ditched the beard-stroking of prog to channel the wham and bam of pop’s golden age into something catchy and current

Michael Hann

12, Jul, 2016 @9:20 AM

Article image
Cult heroes: Carter USM – wagers of pop's cultural wars
Les ‘Fruitbat’ Carter and Jim ‘Jim Bob’ Morrison bought back indie’s anti-establishment rage with their searing social commentary and mockery of squeaky-clean pop

Mark Beaumont

18, Oct, 2016 @12:59 PM

Article image
Cult heroes: Tahita Bulmer demands to be judged on her smarts, not her looks
NYPC might have been consigned to the new rave recycling centre, but they’re still out there, making clever, catchy records that deserve to be heard

Ben Hewitt

03, Mar, 2015 @3:30 PM

Article image
RIP DJ Spank-Spank – your music changed the way people dance
When Phuture’s Earl Smith Jr messed around with a Roland TB-303 synth one night, he helped create acid house – and his legacy lives on in basements the world over

Joe Muggs

22, Sep, 2016 @2:26 PM