Sharps & flats

"Little Louie" Vega's mix of early '90s dance remembers a time when electronic music was still sexy.

Published October 1, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

"Little Louie" Vega's latest compilation CD is a trip back to when dance music was just being discovered by suburban white boys in baggy trousers, and house was the raw, throbbing pulse of New York City's polyracial, polysexual Babylon nightlife. Mixed from tracks released by producers the Burrell Brothers on the Nu Groove label between 1990 and 1993, the record sometimes sounds a bit cheesy and primitive by today's standards, but it's alive with a sensual heat that's often missing from the electronic music mainstream.

The album's first line sets the tone -- a deep, insinuating male voice curls around the line, "How do you love a black woman?" on a song with the same title. The beat pulses beneath a funky, melodic keyboard loop, picking up energy midsong, after another voice answers, simply, "Like this."

The vocals are sometimes too shrill and overblown, making the album's two tracks by Bas Noir, "My Love Is Magic" and "I'm Glad You Came to Me," sound like something a Jersey mall girl might have blasted out of her Camaro a decade ago. And Equation's "Dum Dum," suffers from the opposite problem -- while its ultra-spare bongo beat might be hypnotic on the dance floor, it's just monotonous on the stereo.

All that aside, though, the down-and-dirty pleasures of "New York Underground" are undeniably alluring. It has a libidinous playfulness that comes from the same place as Donna Summers' orgasmic collaboration with Giorgio Moroder on "I Feel Love" (1977). Rather than racing toward the next climax, these tracks take their time, lingering over piano vamps and soulful diva moans. The sex is most explicit -- and delicious -- on New York Housing Authority's "Apt. 3A," with its squeaky-bedspring sample and (occasionally comic) coital whispers, "Where'd you learn to do that? Are you double jointed?"

Contemporary producer Howie B. tried to capture a similar aural eroticism earlier this year on his compilation "Suck It and See," the soundtrack to an imaginary porn flick. But that record, rather than being inspired by sex, just seemed inspired by the music from '70s smut films, making it little more than a kitschy novelty. In contrast, the sweaty rhythms of "New York Underground" feel deeply organic. They flow right into your body and make you want to move. Abstrax's "I Desire You," with its warm horns and exuberant vocal samples ("Take me! Love me! Squeeze me baby!") doesn't so much try to simulate sex as channel it. And the scatting vocal builds on Avante Garde's "Somebody Skat'n" express pure ecstatic release. Because these songs were created before electronic music's exponentially mutating subgenres sparked an unquenchable lust for novelty, the beats are quite basic, but they're still entirely effective. The transmission of physical joy is often house's highest achievement, and in that regard, the funky, nasty disco inferno of "New York Underground" seems far smarter than the newest, most intricately constructed "intelligent" dance music.

By Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

MORE FROM Michelle Goldberg

Related Topics ------------------------------------------