Sharps & flats

A new Astralwerks compilation takes the electronic pulse of underground urban America.

Published July 22, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Considering that the artists on this unique compilation are more than just piddly-widdly bedroom producers tweaking gear for no apparent reason, the title "Unknownwerks" is a bit offensive. "Unknown" implies that these 12 musicians don't exist, that they are unpromotable or unexceptional. But several of the acts included here are established, serious artists, known to a vast underground of other electronic musicians and DJs. "Unknown" is a relative term, and Astralwerks could have been more sensitive about it. Truth is, few electronic artists cross over into the mainstream marketing machine, and struggling indie labels -- the home of most the acts on "Unknownwerks" -- have a hard time aggressively promoting artists who look like computer programmers.

The country's most commercially successful electronic label wants this comp to represent the electronic scene across urban America. But even if it's nice to know that people got the funk in Denver and Milwaukee, it's also important in this case to recognize the second definition of "unknown": a symbol in a mathematical equation representing an unknown quantity; almost a synonym for infinite. This indefinite definition of "unknown" is highly useful when trying to understand the state of the American electronic underground -- there's more music being made than even the highest-paid DJ or pushiest PR agent can track down.

Youngsters are skillfully ravaging Mac software and Roland 808s in all 50 states. On "Unknownwerks," in Queens, N.Y., for example, the Beat Pharmacy is pumping out moody, psychedelic house, while in Phoenix, Ariz., DJ Donovan is slamming deep bass lines over old-school electro jiggles and raved-out break beats. In Los Angeles, Le Pimp is funking out the dance floor with bad-ass, booty-shaking house grooves, and in Bloomington, Ill., Central is busting out with hard-edged, rockabilly big beat. And again, it's nice to know that ravers exist in Colorado -- Denver's Agent Babylon brilliantly layers thick, horny bass lines over orgiastic, break beat rhythms in the sinewy "Liquid Loops." You probably already knew that San Francisco is currently the center of American drum 'n' bass -- but just in case you forgot, here Bionic represents with the beautifully melodic, tripped-out "Ultra Blue."

"Unknownwerks" is exactly what other big label players should mimic. Because the underground is thriving in America, and if artists remain "unknown" to more than a few, the essential sounds of a growing youth culture will be lost.

By Amanda Nowinski

Amanda Nowinski is a freelance writer in San Francisco.

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