WORDS: NICK GORDON BROWN
Enigma. This is the description most often applied to Kenny Dixon Jnr, more often known as Moodymann. It peppers features and reviews of this Detroit pioneer, alongside words such as ‘elusive’ and ‘mysterious’. The simple reason for this being that for the most part, Moodymann doesn’t do interviews, doesn’t “play the game”. However, you only need to scratch the surface of his wide-ranging, groundbreaking catalogue of the past 25 years to get a strong sense of what makes this unique artist tick. Dixon has said he makes music for those who listen – and on doing so, the so-called enigma is soon stripped away, and we discover an artist like no other sharing his world with us.
Black Music History
Moodymann clearly differs sonically from so many of his Detroit contemporaries who have chosen techno, the city’s biggest musical export since Motown, as their chosen path. First and foremost, where techno thrives on visions of the future, and tries to create a soundscape to match, Dixon unashamedly wraps his music in a blanket of reference points from the past. Specifically, he celebrates the depth, diversity and genius of decades’ worth of black music. Artists he has sampled include Bob James, Earth Wind & Fire, Donna Summer, Curtis Mayfield, Muddy Waters, Funkadelic, Sister Sledge, George Benson, Randy Crawford, Lonnie Liston Smith, Joe Bataan, Quincy Jones, Gil Scott Heron, Isaac Hayes and Teddy Pendergrass. Sometimes it’s a hook, sometimes it’s all but hidden – but collectively these reverential nods to past greats act as a black music history lesson. Moodymann laid down a marker for this approach with one of his earliest releases in 1994. ‘The Day We Lost The Soul’ is a collage of Marvin Gaye samples intertwined with news reports from the day the soul star was tragically gunned down by his father – this sets the scene for ‘Tribute! (To the Soul We Lost)’, a loose-limbed workout evoking Gaye’s majesty.
A 1996 release that firmly imprinted the Moodymann moniker in the minds of many for the first time sampled CHIC’s ‘I Want Your Love’, the words “I can’t kick this feeling when it hits” expertly woven into one of the most hypnotic grooves in house music history. There are alternate versions, as is often the case in the Moodymann catalogue. On debut album Silentintroduction, an at times barely audible but clearly heartfelt monologue from Dixon intros the track (“I’m tired of motherfuckers coming up and telling me that 80 percent of material from Detroit ain’t good material - you see, what you don’t understand is that 80 percent of that shit ain’t from Detroit”). However, here we highlight the original 12” mix, where the outro samples the spoken word section from Stevie Wonder’s ‘Livin’ For The City’, before the eerie string line and mournful “what am I gonna do” sample fade into the ether.
Dixon’s idiosyncratic approach has often been compared to Prince, and he makes no secret of his devotion to Minneapolis’s finest (he even owns a house in Detroit replete with purple curtains, a shrine to Prince). Arguably his most inventive Prince-related sampling doesn’t even feature the man himself. On ‘J.A.N.’, over a backing track that moves from dirty techno to jazz workout, he takes an interview with the Purple One conducted by Detroit radio legend The Electrifying Mojo, edits out Prince’s replies, and even cuts up Mojo’s words to make them sound like he is answering himself.
Moodymann’s skill lies in stitching together elements that in the hands of most would appear dissonant. Sounds that to all intents and purposes should be contradictory become natural bedfellows in KDJ’s expert hands. The foundation stone is house, but jazz and soul influences loom large. Disco, techno and gospel inflections are often prominent. The sound is frequently raw, but the piecing together of component parts is intricate. Tempos vary too, with the 4/4 beats often interspersed with a soulful broken beat torch song or a sample-based interlude. Our three picks here all broadly speaking qualify as house tracks, and come from the albums Silence In The Secret Garden (2003), Black Mahogani (2004) and Moodymann (2014) respectively. Stylistically, on initial listen they may seem poles apart. All, however, are prime Moodymann.
Detroit is writ large throughout everything Moodymann turns his hand to. Much like his kindred spirit Mad Mike Banks at Underground Resistance, he is fired with a passion for his home city. In a rare interview last year entitled Detroit Dust On My Shoes (promoting his headgear collaboration with New Era), he gave Mixmag (and Gilles Peterson) quite an insight into this two way love affair. For diehard fans and the simply curious alike, this is well worth 15 minutes of your time. As one of the YouTube comments notes, “this felt like an interview with Kenny Dixon Jnr – we normally get an interview with Moodymann.”
Not only does Dixon frequently namecheck Detroit in his work, when he collaborates with others, it is invariably a native of Detroit, or someone who has made the city their home. Norma Jean Bell - vocalist, saxophonist and Detroit institution - has worked with Moody more than most. Best known to house audiences for her mid-1990s hit ‘I’m The Baddest Bitch’, here is the Moodymann remix.
3 Chairs is an occasional hook-up between Detroit residents Dixon, Theo Parrish, Rick Wilhite and (from 2002 onwards) Marcellus Pittman. This cut is a KDJ contribution to their debut 1997 EP, on which the tracks were credited to each producer individually (unlike some of the later releases which were presumably more collaborative).
Our final Detroit collab selection sees Dixon team up with adopted son of the city Andres on the delicious, Prince-esque ‘Lyk U Used 2’ (complete with official Mahogani Music video – edited from the version on 2014’s Moodymann LP, check the final 90 seconds, where a slice of electronic funk soundtracks footage from one of Dixon’s much beloved roller discos).
In 2016, Mahogani Music also collaborated with Detroit-born clothing giant Carhartt (a move replicated the following year by Underground Resistance). The partnership was reborn late in 2019, when Dixon delivered this absolutely sublime mix to celebrate 60 years of the city’s most iconic record label Motown, for the brand’s Carhartt WIP radio show. This is an essential listen, a beautifully curated selection that digs deep into one of music’s greatest vaults.
While prolific in the studio, you will still find Dixon behind the decks regularly (and yes it will invariably be decks, as he swears by playing vinyl). There are times when he will spin from behind a curtain, or in a mask, and the ‘enigma’ line inevitably gets rolled out. In sharp contrast, you might find him serving drinks to the audience, as he once did at Dekmantel; or if you’re really lucky, getting the opportunity to purchase his new LP for $10 before it’s been made available anywhere else, as happened with last year’s Sinner collection at a BBQ party he hosted as part of Detroit’s annual Movement festival (here’s the awesome horror film-referencing video for the classic opening track from that album, ‘I’ll Provide’).
No two Moodymann sets are ever quite the same. Nor will you find him on Boiler Room or The Lab. Scouring the internet you will come across shaky fan-filmed efforts from a daytime set at Movement’s forerunner the Detroit Electronic Music Festival; Amsterdam in 2015; and Barcelona in 2017. Back in 1995, someone was even enterprising enough to record a set from one of his first overseas jaunts, at Paris’s Rex club.
Perhaps the quickest way to hear a snapshot of Dixon on the decks is to check out his only high profile mix CD release, recorded for DJ-Kicks in 2017. In its sheer diversity, the mix is in its own way as astonishing as Coldcut’s landmark 70 Minutes of Madness set. However, where the London duo used studio trickery to meld together seemingly disparate styles, for Moodyman it’s all about mastery of mood. It’s about refusing to be restricted by the limitations of the 75 minute CD format that so often leads to collections lacking in variety when it comes to tempo and genre. The first half of the set matches any chill out mix you’ve ever heard (Defected fans will enjoy contributions from Nightmares On Wax and a Flying Lotus track that features The Vision’s guest vocalist Andreya Triana). Some moody electronica gradually raises the BPMs, and before you know it, disco is rubbing shoulders with deep, jazzy flavours. As we move into the housier final furlong, two Defected favourites feature, in the shape of ‘Fall For You’ by Kings Of Tomorrow and the Solomun mix of ‘Around’ by Noir & Haze. However, it’s hard to think of another DJ on the planet who would travel from one to the other via the soulful NYC house of ‘Hostile Takeover’ by Lynn Lockamy, mixed into, then over the menacing ‘Our Darkness’ by avant-garde English poet and electronic experimentalist Ann Clark, and little more than 90 seconds of the robotic electro of Peter Digital Orchestra. Such is the devotion Moodymann inspires in his fans, one even took the time to upload videos in running order sequence of all the featured tracks.
Above all, Kenny Dixon Jnr has achieved something all artists strive for but often fall short of – control over every aspect of what he does. Thus he will agree to an interview with Resident Advisor on the condition that he is only going to talk about roller disco event Soul Skate; he will accept an invitation to be photographed for the coffee table book DJ Faces, but only after the photographer has rolled him a joint, also not allowing him to use a flash in the dark basement setting; he will remix Lana Del Rey if first he can release the mix on the B side of one of his limited 12” releases.
You buy his records or go to his gigs never quite knowing what to expect. However, you can always rest assured he is giving of his best, striving for perfection, and putting every ounce of his encyclopaedic knowledge and unique talent into his work – and he’s doing it for Detroit. Defected Croatia is in for a treat.
Tickets and info for Defected Croatia available at defected.com/croatia
Cover image courtesy of Parklife / Justine Trickett