How Moodymann's 'Silentintroduction' set a new standard for house music world building
In 1997, Moodymann released his debut LP, ‘Silentintroduction’, via Carl Craig’s Planet E imprint. A compilation of some his best early tracks, the album captured a scuffed, lo-fi sound that perfectly captured the environment of his hometown of Detroit. Here, Ben Cardew looks into the enduring legacy of Kenny Dixon Jr.’s influential 10-tracker, a masterpiece of artistic world building
In the mid-1990s, the very idea of a Moodymann record seemed almost impossibly exciting, arousing a stomach-churning feeling of nervous glee spurred on by the consummate mystery around his music. Today, Moodymann (aka Kenny Dixon Jr.) strikes an avuncular, slightly eccentric figure; elusive but undeniably present. He’s sat down for interviews, has a sporadic presence on social media and has even worked with corporate partners, putting on a roller-skating jam for Red Bull Music Academy and collaborating with Carhartt on a bespoke range of clothing.
Back in the mid ’90s, however, when Moodymann’s records started appearing in record shops outside of his native Detroit, we knew almost nothing of this amazing producer, beyond the slices of sample-house heaven that would appear at erratic intervals on our shelves. We gleaned what we could from the records, which were released on his own KDJ label. But even they proved elusive, with tracks running to different lengths on different pressings and coming with a variety of different edits and mixes — apparently, he would later reveal, because financial constraints prevented him from “changing a bunch of labels”. It was fascinating, brilliant and frustrating, all wrapped up in one funkily enigmatic bundle.
That made ‘Silentintroduction,’ a compilation of some of the best early Moodymann tracks released by Carl Craig’s Planet E label in 1997, a godsend for house music lovers. It was the kind of record you almost couldn’t believe you were allowed to own: 10 tracks from the elusive house master that you could buy in your local record store for a reasonable price, take home and enjoy. Even today, more than 20 years on, I still have the notion I’m not really worthy of owning this record.
‘Silentintroduction’ isn’t exactly an artist album; it’s not a long-playing statement that Dixon necessarily intended to make. (For that, fans would have to wait until 1998’s ‘Mahogany Brown’.) And it isn’t a comprehensive guide to those early KDJ years, either. Each Moodymann fan will have their own early favourite tune that wasn’t included on ‘Silentintroduction,’ with mine being the Marvin Gaye elegy ‘Tribute! (To The Soul We Lost).’ And yet ‘Silentintroduction’ remains a near-perfect initiation into one of house music’s most singular talents, one which displays all of Dixon’s incredible mastery of ambience and mood, played out through a shifting web of samples and effects.
Moodymann is one of those incredibly rare musical talents who can make one and one equal three, a producer who wrings more than seems humanly possible out of a small number of basic ingredients. Take ‘I Can’t Kick This Feeling When It Hits,’ Moodymann’s classic 1996 record and track two on this compilation: There’s almost nothing to it. Bar the moody synth and spoken word intro (of which more later), the song consists of little more than samples — very long samples — from Chic’s monster 1978 hit ‘I Want Your Love,’ along with sustained synth wash and various filters.
Somehow, though, Dixon manages to make something new, deep, and entirely classy out of these well-worn ingredients, looping exactly the right parts of Chic’s disco number for maximum efficiency, weaving them in and out of the mix like a digital bandleader. So well does Dixon use his material, in fact, that when one listens to ‘I Want Your Love’ today it sounds almost wasteful, as if Chic have abandoned their magical musical parts after just one use, when so much more could have been wrung out of them.
Dixon pulls off the same trick time and time again on this album, without it ever getting tiring. ‘Music People’ feels like a perfectly judged homage to the lysergic rush of Mass Production’s ‘Welcome To Our World’ (a staple of Tony Humphries’s sets at Club Zanzibar), while ‘Answer Machine’ definitively answers the question of how to use jazz samples in house music. The song is reverent but not overly so, the production ever so slightly askew in the spirit of jazz swing.
"‘Silentintroduction’ is an artefact of a time before streaming and playlists, and it continues to do exactly what it says on the cover: It’s a perfect introduction to the unique musical talents of Kenny Dixon Jr"
With these tracks, Dixon established his unique musical palette: that mixture of samples, murk and dust, brushed with a thin layer of crowd noise, atmospheric chatter and the occasional voice. Dixon’s irreverent attitude to his recorded past makes it difficult to talk about his origins with any certainty, but on ‘Silentintroduction’ his music appeared to arrive full formed, nailing a particular sonic seam that he still mines today.
Changes in musical technology mean that Moodymann’s records sound a little cleaner in 2021 than they did in 1997. But most of the tracks from his 2019 album ‘Sinner’ could have fit relatively comfortably on ‘Silentintroduction.’ (2020’s ‘Taken Away,’ with its wealth of musical guests, is a bit farther removed.) Those dedicated to the ever-spinning whirl of musical trends might wrinkle their noses at this lack of sonic development. But the point is that no one else sounds quite like Moodymann — no one else has his gift for musical arrangement or his ear for a sample — so if Moodymann doesn’t sound like Moodymann, then no one will.
That’s not to say that Dixon hasn’t had his impersonators. When ‘Silentintroduction’ was released, house music was, on the whole, very shiny music, still devoted to the orchestral sparkle of disco, while techno enjoyed more of a rugged reputation. Masters At Work — one of the key house music acts of the mid ’90s — made house music that sounded expensive and well-groomed, and we loved them for it. Moodymann made house that sounded like it had been dragged through a hedge backwards, its trainers scuffed and off-white; its hair sticking up at angles. Masters At Work brought you a night out at Studio 54; Moodymann belonged in a scuzzy basement night club, his music pulsing with the vitality of a life well lived.
Later years have seen other producers reach for Dixon’s crown of murk. I would be amazed if Burial had never heard ‘Silentintroduction,’ while the whole lo-fi / outsider house scene of the 2010s sounded like a feeble attempt to cop Moodymann’s production style, its low fidelity a cheap accessory to the art rather than a vital part of its conception. One can hear Moodymann, too, in the degraded nostalgia of chilllwave. But no one really got close to Moodymann’s magic.
In any case, ‘Silentintroduction,’ for all its musical unity, is far from one-paced. ‘I Can’t Kick This Feeling When It Hits’ is urgent, the endlessly looped vocal snatch of ‘gonna do’ driving it ever onward; ‘Oceans’ is languid, the sound of house music with nowhere particularly important to go; and ‘Sunday Morning’ is laid-back almost to the point of being comatose, a lazy jazz jam in house clothing that ends in a gorgeous saxophone solo, most likely from Dixon’s serial collaborator Norma Jean Bell. ‘Dem Young Sconies,’ which closes the CD and digital versions of the album, is different again, its gritty 303 pattern sailing close to the kind of gnarled techno that Theo Parrish would soon make his signature.
That the album holds so well together is a tribute to Planet E’s compilation skills, which made this collection of disparate tracks into a wonderfully coherent statement. As mentioned earlier, ‘Silentintroduction’ isn’t an artist album; but it might as well have been, so brilliantly does it hang together, the music ebbing and flowing in intensity as the record plays. (I actually think ‘Silentintroduction’ works better as a unit than some of Moodymann’s dedicated albums. But that’s a question for another day.)
In 2021, the sheer excitement of holding ‘Silentintroduction’ in your hand, ready to plunge headfirst into the Moodymann world, has been overridden by the internet’s never-ending musical buffet. There’s nothing scarce about Moodymann’s music, and nor should there be. But the magic endures. ‘Silentintroduction’ is an artefact of a time before streaming and playlists, and it continues to do exactly what it says on the cover: It’s a perfect introduction to the unique musical talents of Kenny Dixon Jr, from the purple tinted image of his face on the record sleeve, to the growling, angry voice that introduces ‘I Can’t Kick This Feeling When It Hits’ by railing against “motherfuckers coming up and telling me that 80 percent of material from Detroit ain’t good material.”
‘Silentintroduction’ is perfectly of its environment, a masterpiece of artistic world building, singular musical vision and the art of the sampler, one of the best house music albums ever to grace our shelves. Don’t be misled.