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Moodymann’s 'DJ-Kicks' Mix Is a Work of Radical Empathy

The Detroit producer's latest effort isn't explicitly political, but its eclecticism still carries an important message.

In contemporary political music, sonic eclecticism seems to be the rule of the day. Kendrick Lamar mixed contemporary hip-hop with neo-soul and unpredictable live instrument freakouts from Los Angeles' finest jazz musicians on To Pimp a Butterfly, a record whose best tracks have been adopted as anthems for the Black Lives Matter movement, For his December 2014 effort Black Messiah, a record that wore its political motivations on its sleeve—literally—D'Angelo folded piercing distortion, flamenco guitar, walking basslines, and jaunty pop whistles into his usual stew of 70s influences. The medium mirrors the explicit message on both albums. Lyrical calls for a more democratic and inclusive society—such as Lamar's pleas for freedom on "Institutionalized"—are reflected in more democratic and inclusive instrumentation. With the aid of this musical adventurousness, the messages bypass the brain and get absorbed directly into your bloodstream. As the critic Robert Ray once put it, "Music's effects always register less at the level of explicit political content than at the level of sound."


This genre-hopping aesthetic did not originate with the recent crop of records centered around the Black Lives Matter movement: the Detroit artist Kenny Dixon Jr., who records as Moodymann, has been working in this mode for more than two decades. He emerged in the early 90s—along with Robert Hood, Kenny Larkin, and others—as part of the second wave of Detroit musicians building on the techno template developed by predecessors like Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson. However, Moodymann did not fit cleanly in the worlds of techno or house. While Hood, Larkin, and Carl Craig's Paperclip People pushed the possibility of machine-made music, largely avoiding traditional band textures, Moodymann reached back to the legacy of 70s R&B, channelling the genre's live funk instrumentation as well as its on-the-ground engagement with politics. A 1995 single "The Day We Lost the Soul" begins with a snippet of a broadcast from the day that Marvin Gaye was murdered by his father in Los Angeles, framing the song as an elegy for a man and the musical form he championed. Similarly, 1996's "Don't Be Misled" take its title from Curtis Mayfield's "Freddie's Dead," and includes a pointed sample of Mayfield: "Why can't we brothers protect one another?" It's clear his early compositions were meant to shoulder heavy messages along with their dancefloor predilections.

Following these early attempts to meld soul with more mechanized forms of dance music, Moodymann's output has only become increasingly idiosyncratic and open-eared. His eponymous 2014 album spanned jazz, soul, house, techno, and hip-hop while zooming in thematically on the past, present, and future of Detroit. The CD version of Moodymann ­added an additional 15 tracks to the 12-song vinyl edition, and these tunes served to focus the album around the city's high rate of violent crime. "Other cities have all the problems Detroit has," a sampled narrator says in "Yet Unknown." "For some reason…their citizens don't kill each other as often." "Sloppy Cosmic" notes that more people were murdered in a single year in Detroit than during the entirety of Desert Storm.


Now, Moodymann's latest release, the 51st entry in the DJ-Kicks series, represents his first foray into the world of multi-artist commercial mixes. While it's less overtly political than his previous works, this mix is his most artistically radical statement to date, encompassing a remarkably diverse set of sounds and forging connections between songs that initially seem wildly unalike. The new territory includes spectral, flowery folk from a 2004 album by Beady Belle, a Norwegian jazz group, and placid singer/songwriter fare from the finger-picker José González, a Swede of Argentinean heritage. One of the most shocking selections is "Our Darkness," a track that the English poet Anne Clark originally released in 1984, reimagined here as an urgent recitation over theatrical piano.

This variety feels generous and unforced. Certain motifs volley back and forth across the tracks to help maintain cohesion despite difference—the vocoder funk of Talc's "Robot's Return (Modern Sleepover Part 2)," for example, finds a kindred spirit in Les Sins' "Grind," which appears 14 songs later, and a sweet trio of lovelorn club tracks late in the mix reminds you of the ease with Moodymann can compel movement. But this compilation packs a lot into a short amount of time, creating a Pavlovian state of expectation—what's next?

In the light of the political bent of the rest of his discography, even the more abstract eclecticism on display on Moodymann's DJ-Kicks feels weighted with meaning. Each transition that should be jarring, but isn't, feels suffused with empathy—the result of a unique ability to see common ground even when stylistic boundaries suggest irreconcilability. New York Times music critic Ben Ratliff writes in his new book Every Song Ever that "genre is a construct for the purpose of commerce, not pleasure," and Moodymann's collection seems cognizant of the political power of remaining genre-agnostic. It's a resistance to the status quo, even just on the level of what records he chooses to gracefully braid together.

The mix's final selection, a song from the Berlin-based DJ/producer Daniela La Luz drives home the sympathetic effect of the boundary-blurring work that preceded it. Its vocal refrains serve as reminders of the leveling power of sorrow. Some feelings are universal and remembering that fact can help summon the compassion necessary to obliterating lines of division: "Do you know the feeling of a broken heart?"