WORDS: NICK GORDON BROWN
As Roberto Surace’s Joys dominates summer 2019 dancefloors, we select a series of choice cuts that have helped shape the unique world of Italo house over the past 30 years…
Three decades of Italian house music have gifted us a kaleidoscope of classics. Such is the stylistic smorgasbord on offer, that it is impossible to pinpoint an Italian ‘sound’. This is perhaps not surprising for a nation long in love with jazz, soul and funk; which had international success with its own take on the disco sound; and which threw all these influences into the melting pot when taking house music to its heart. So it seems only fitting that our opening selections defy easy categorisation, but are all united by their ability to raise spirits and fill dancefloors.
Majestic in its simplicity, perfect in its execution, Alone by Don Carlos from 1991 is still a track DJs can pull out knowing those who are already familiar with it adore it; and those who don’t soon will. Ethereal pads introduce then caress a hypnotic bassline, and as the uplifting piano slides in, the hairs on the back of your neck instantly stand to attention. Topped off with a dash of sax, Alone is as timeless as it is sublime.
Last Rhythm by Last Rhythm truly is a thing of beauty. Much like the make-up of the track itself, it was a slow burner. First released on American, a lesser-known Italian label, UK imprint Stress latched onto the fact that it was getting into more and more DJ boxes (and staying there) and licensed it, taking it to a much wider audience. There have been several remixes over the years, the best of which wisely chose not to stray too far from the original, realising its core elements were best left untouched. Despite its melancholy feel, it never fails to inspire euphoric smiles.
Italian producers love an alias. In 1989, FPI Project scored a hit with Rich In Paradise, their piano house re-work of Going Back To My Roots, following up with floorfillers Risky (1990) and Everybody (All Over The World) in 1991. At this point the production team decided upon a new pseudonym, TC 1991 – whose track Berry was a house monster which married a jackin’ groove with a breakdown to die for. TC 1992’s Funky Guitar flipped the script, as brass stabs and breakbeats underpinned the titular funky guitar. It too slayed floors, and expectations for TC 1993 were high. When it arrived, Harmony had less initial impact – but we feature it here as arguably it was both a more adventurous track and one that has aged especially well. The mood is similar to Funky Guitar, but it’s the vocal sample from Gladys Knight & The Pips’ Friendship Train that stays embedded in the brain.
In our recent Iconic Labels Pt. 2 feature, we put the spotlight on UMM, set up by the influential Flying organisation to give producers the freedom to experiment. This allowed the Visnadi brothers Gianni and Paolo to deliver one of Italy’s greatest ever leftfield productions. Racing Tracks has a mesmerising beat, some pleasingly squelchy acidic noises, the sampled sound of racing cars – and is utterly brilliant in its weirdness.
Alone received a 25th anniversary reissue in 2016, cementing its iconic status
K-klass were one of the most in-demand remix teams of the 1990s. Their chart-topping remix of Bobby Brown’s Two Can Play At That Game featured a piano line clearly inspired by Last Rhythm – the Italians spotted it, made a couple of phone calls, and ended up with a deserved slice of the royalties.
The best known version of Going Back To My Roots was Odyssey’s disco hit – but the inspiration for FPI’s re-work came from the Richie Havens’ interpretation, a staple of any Balearic DJ’s box.
The Visnadi brothers were also behind huge crossover hits such as Alex Party’s Saturday Night (Read My Lips) and Livin’ Joy’s inescapable Dreamer.
Whilst the sounds and styles of Italo house are many and varied, there is no doubting that the Italians are famed worldwide for their mastery of piano house – indeed much as many early US tracks featured pianos, it was arguably the Italians who made it an art form. From hands in the air bangers to jazz-infused mood tracks, the keyboard kings of the Mediterranean and Adriatic know how to push the collective buttons of the house music family. Rather than some of the more obvious chart hits, we have opted for three cult tracks from the early 1990s that are guaranteed to make clubbers of a certain age well up and involuntarily punch the air (see the comments below the clips). We suspect many of you hearing them for the first time may react in the same way.
JJ Tribute by A.S.H.A. (the JJ refers to Janis Joplin, whose vocals were sampled) was first released in 1990, but like Last Rhythm, was a slow burner, with demand seeing a fuller release continent-wide in 1994-5 (and further 2008 reissue). Check the intro – goosebumps alert!
Also from 1990, and sharing a label (Beat Club) with A.S.H.A, Don’t Deal With Us by J.T. Company perfectly marries both strands of the Italian piano sound, mixing a jazzy feel augmented by some nifty vibes work with funkier piano and vocal samples.
It’s 1990 again, this time the label is X-Energy with a full vocal, as producer Stefano Secchi and singer Orlando Johnson delivered a track that helped form the blueprint of the euro dance sound of later in that decade. This track delicately balances on the tightrope between the clubland and commercial worlds, but was catchy enough to be picked up by major label Epic for the USA and UK.
The Joplin track sampled by A.S.H.A is called Ball & Chain. Generations of clubbers used to sing along to JJ Tribute, usually “dancin’ dancin’ – never change!” or “dancin’ dancin’ – in a chain!”. However, a look at Joplin’s lyrics reveals no sign of the word “dancin’” – a mystery!
J.T. Company was the first alias of a certain Joe T. Vanelli – more from Joe below…
Many of the more commercial Italo releases of this era had more underground mixes tucked away on the B side – if the A side mix of I Say Yeah is too cheesy for you, check out this ‘Flute On’ version that was equally popular with DJs.
As in all house nations, Italy has godfathers of its scene, DJs and producers whose passion and artistry have helped create, nurture and develop it. There were many contenders, but we have opted to highlight Claudio Coccoluto, Alex Neri and Dino Lenny. Coccoluto, a gentle giant of a man who oozes love for music from every pore, was arguably the first Italian house DJ to make a name for himself internationally via gigs at the likes of Ministry of Sound. He also conquered New York with his debut 1991 release on Big Apple label Maxi Records:
Claudio’s long time label project has been The Dub, home to many an underground tune – and one international hit. Initially, there was little interest from labels outside Italy in this samba-based epic (inspired by Brazil’s Airto Moreira), until Coccoluto’s friends Basement Jaxx picked it up for their independent Atlantic Jaxx label. The gamble paid off for all concerned as it became the sound of the summer of 1997. Here we bring you the full length 12 minute version in all its 20th anniversary remastered glory.
One of Coco’s earlier collaborators on The Dub label was Dino Lenny - DJ, producer, singer, label boss, and all-round global ambassador for electronic music. There is a dizzyingly diverse catalogue that we recommend you investigate, but with Lenny arguably more relevant than ever, our two choices here are both contemporary, and demonstrate his abilities as both producer and vocalist across very different styles, with The Magic Room (2017) being massive on the house scene, and his collaborations with Ukraine’s Artbat (2018-19) making their mark on techno and progressive dancefloors.
Like Lenny, Alex Neri has an impressive catalogue built up over some three decades, frequently in partnership with studio collaborator Marco Baroni. As with both our other Godfathers, he remains as active and relevant today as he has ever been, as both DJ and producer. Spoilt for choice from a history of quality (under numerous pseudonyms – see below), we have opted for the track that took him global, Planet Funk’s Chase The Sun from 2000; and a lesser known (and blissed out) 1995 release, this time under his own name, but confusingly titled Planet Funk.
Neri & Baroni were responsible for a string of 1990s Italo classics under a variety of pseudonyms, including the piano-led Balearic hit of Korda’s Move Your Body; and the Italo goes progressive of Kamasutra’s Running Away.
Bizarrely, Chase The Sun has also become the unofficial theme tune for UK TV’s coverage of the Darts World Championship.
At last count Claudio Coccoluto’s vinyl collection totalled 70,000. The Angels of Love track is named after a club he used to frequent in Naples.
Dino Lenny and Strictly Rhythm got David Byrne’s personal blessing to release his magical mash up of Talking Heads’ Psycho Killer with Hardrive’s equally legendary Deep Inside.
From Capella’s Helyom Halib and Black Box’s Ride On Time onwards, Italy has given the world numerous house hits, from Robert Miles’ dream house blueprint Children (1995) via Spiller’s Groovejet in 2000 (which started life as a disco sample record named in tribute to an influential Miami nightclub before Positiva Records got Sophie Ellis-Bextor on board) to the pioneering electro house of Benny Benassi’s Satisfaction in 2002. So, we decided to revive a couple of hits that you may not have such instant recall of; and an old favourite recently remixed in fine style.
With an introductory vocal sample from 1990 sci-fi movie Total Recall, Open Your Mind by U.S.U.R.A is effectively a remix of Simple Minds’ New Gold Dream – but in 1992, it was guaranteed to blow up a dancefloor.
In 2000, Santos cunningly interwove a trio of 1970s disco samples into a manic disco house workout.
One of the very first Italian-produced full vocal tracks was Sweetest Day Of May, created in 1995 by Joe T. Vanelli, who was a major international presence throughout the 1990s. The track has recently been revived and remixed by Full Intention, who as Defected fans know are masters at remixes that always do just enough but never too much to fine tune the original.
Open Your Mind isn’t the only house track to have Simple Minds at its heart. Corporation of One’s 1988 classic The Real Life (re-worked by Joey Negro under his Raven Maize guise in 2001) may have a Queen sample as its vocal hook, but Theme For Great Cities by Simple Minds is the musical bed.
Fatboy Slim was a big Santos fan – he has tracks featured on both Volumes 1 & 2 of Norman’s Big Beach Boutique mix CD releases.
Full Intention’s Michael Gray & Jon Pearn first remixed Sweetest Day of May on the original 1995 Positiva release, but under their Greed moniker.
‘00s Standard bearers
If Italo house was at its most celebrated through the 1990s and the Italian scene has had something of a techno-tinged upsurge in the last few years courtesy of the likes of Marco Carola, Davide Squillace and Donato Dozzy, in the early 2000s for many it had fallen off the radar. One act, however, bucked the trend. The Pasta Boys (a self-consciously ironic name) tore through the decade and beyond with a home run of productions and remixes on labels such as Irma, Manocalda and, of course, Defected, that kept il Tricolore flying high on the house scene. We salute them here with two selections, the accurately named Deep Musique collaboration with Osunlade (we have gone for the original mix as it has had less exposure than the Rampa remix); and first, the acid funk of their 2006 Defected release, Limit.
deFACTed: the trio came up with their name as an ironic riposte after seeing an English magazine flippantly refer to Italo house as ‘spaghetti house’
As we celebrate the many joys the Italian house scene has brought us for 30 years, there is only one way to sign off…