Is Moodymann Dance Music's Last True Mystery?
We went to Liverpool to spend some time in the company of Detroit's prodigal son.
Photos by James North.
The days after you've seen Moodymann are always characterized by the same phrases, the same questions.
"Was he wearing the mask?" "Were there loads of women round him?" "Were they braiding his hair?" "Was he using iPod headphones?"
These are the weird theories, the quirks, the unmistakable reference points that mark Kenny Dixon Jr out from every other DJ. The question marks and gaps in knowledge that mean the minute his silky, rippling voice blesses the mic the room stops dancing—if only for a second—and pivots, craning their necks to try and get a look at the myth behind the decks. Then the dancing starts again. Suddenly the air seems thicker, the grooves deeper and the room is lifted higher than it was before. Spaces become frenzied just because he's turned up. This is what scientists call The Moodymann Effect.
Last weekend we saw the effect in, well, full affect. Leaving Euston station behind us, sat Corbyn-esque on the floor next to a Virgin rail toilet, we found ourselves hurtling towards Liverpool—home to Klopp, the Cavern and absolutely no copies of the Sun. Of course, the city is known for far more than these obvious cultural signifiers, but if we're being totally honest this was our first visit, so our minds were filled with little more than a few Wings songs and the promise that Red Bull Music Academy had planned enough amazing events in the city to make our stay in the city a memorable one.
The headline event was Club Cosmos. Taking place in the Invisible Wind Factory, a new venture from the team behind legendary Liverpool institution the Kazimier, it was an opportunity to spend the night in the company of a whole host of THUMP favorites, with OR:LA, Sassy J, Hunee, and Young Marco gracing the decks. Oh, and Moodymann was there too, but we'll get to that. The Invisible Wind Factory, we can happily confirm, is also an excellent source of amusement to Uber drivers who've never heard of it before.
After a day enjoying the city—and if we can just add as a really quick aside, it turns out that Liverpool=GOAT place in the UK—it was time to make our way to the club. Invisible Wind Factory is not unlike the Gatecrasher or Cream that lives in your imagination. In fact, it's the sort of venue that barely exists anymore. An expansive, warehouse space, as tall as it is long, with clear and painstaking care invested in its decor and lighting. It also felt fiercely independent—or at least individual—the inside of the space a million miles away from the identikit setups of so many contemporary venues.
By the time Moodymann took to the stage—not that we have a clear idea of when this was, given how far shrouded in both smoke and, yes, women, he was—we'd already been worked up suitably by Sassy J. Yet, very little could've reasonably prepared us for what came next. Hendrix's "Purple Haze" rolling through the sound-system—a selection that, truly, under any DJ would be unforgivable–and then that unmistakable voice, "how you doing Liv-ur-pooooool."
It's hard to pin down exactly how a DJ gets themselves to the position Moodymann is now in. That sort of unshakable, unquestionable status. The sort that allows you to swan on, play a Hendrix track, and mix with Argos earbuds. For Dixon Jr, it surely has as much to do with his refusal to ever speak to the press, as anything else. Bar his RBMA lecture in 2010, and a couple of other scattered examples, he has remained resolutely distant from the media. Yet that isn't to say he has remained silent, in fact, far from it. Take the opening of "I Can't Kick This Feeling When It Hits", the inclusion of Anne Clarke's "Our Darkness" on his recent DJ Kicks mix, or simply how much he talks during his sets—Moodymann is one of the most vocal presences in house and techno. Yet crucially he is in control of this voice. He has never left his words open to the manipulation of the press, forging instead a direct channel of communication with his followers, with the dance-floor. Outspoken on authenticity in dance music, and the struggles of African-Americans—most powerfully on "On the Run"—he is part of a dialog that circumnavigates outside influence.
As a result of this, Moodymann has protected himself from the predictable slump into, well, predictability that most DJs would have experienced by this stage in his career. Even the most venerated of veterans, once they reach a certain point, become creatures of habit. They buy into their own character and often, however gracefully, ultimately descend into a caricature of whatever they set out to be decades before. Kenny Dixon Jr has rebuffed this. He remains a figure of mystery, of intrigue—take THUMP's Michelle Lhooq's recent trip to Detroit, where she discovered the producer's private Prince palace if you need further evidence of this point. Yet more than just rumors and hearsay, he is a producer who continues to create and reinvent, arguably putting out some of his best work in more recent years—most glaringly his DJ Kicks, which perfectly represents his continuing power to surprise after all this time.
All that said, as we lost ourselves further in the dusty, chopped and re-rubbed grooves of his selections, the clearest truth was that really, the reason he still holds such a hypnotic grip on audiences is down to little more than the absurd quality of his sets. Really and truly, when you're in a dark room, with little more than a few pinging laser lights and some equally transfixed friends for company, no matter of reputation or prestige matters. All that counts in the bottomless basin of a big night out is the music. Of course for Moodymann that means cut up jazz, reprocessed funk, and clattering, shuffling, house. It means everything from Fred Wesley's "House Party", to LTJXperience "You Will Know"—the Universal Togetherness Band all the way to Moderat. It means a party you'll never forget, from a DJ you can barely see.
Having been handed over to a final two hours of Hunee and Young Marco enjoying a decidedly acidic B2B, our night, and time in Liverpool was coming to an end. Of course, as we spilt out into the biting cold of a Merseyside Saturday night, we were no closer to decoding the man we'd just spent hours in the company of. Yet truth be told, that's exactly how it should stay.