Talkhouse Contributing Writer Norman Brannon is a musician, writer, and educator in Brooklyn, New York. Best known for his work in bands like Texas Is the Reason, New End Original, 108, Shelter, and Ressurection, Brannon has also maintained a steady, albeit whimsical career in music criticism, worked as a TV presenter on a gay cable network, and has been recognized by his music-loving students while working as a university lecturer. You can follow him on Twitter here.
The single most important thing I can tell you about Basement Jaxx is this: Even after 20 years of listening to their records, I cannot tell you a single thing about Felix Buxton or Simon Ratcliffe. If you were to hold a photo of them in front of me, I could not point out which was which. Either one of them could literally rob the deli on my corner, and if I were the only eyewitness I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to tell police it was the dude from Basement Jaxx.
To be clear, in my world this is less a criticism and more a marvel. At one time, I argued that this kind of soft anonymity — to be “rich” and inconspicuous — was a dream scenario, and in the late ’90s I quietly traded in my (relatively) higher-profile indie rock career for a dimly lit life in house music, largely drawn by the tantalizing possibility that one could make a respectable living without having a particularly public life. Amazingly, I got exactly what I wanted, and I still look back on those six years as a DJ and record-label owner as a sort of personal gold standard for the relationship between being an artist and navigating the social sphere. In the longstanding discourse of Chicago house music, there is an implied contract that simply states: You do your thing. We’ll do ours. Buxton and Ratcliffe know this.
Of course, it’s not like house music is completely devoid of hero-worship, and some of the earliest Basement Jaxx records knelt before an altar bearing cameos from some of the genre’s best-loved icons —Romanthony, DJ Sneak and Gemini among them — with a none too subtle awe. But the notion of the house producer as rock star is still a relatively recent invention. And even though it has entrenched itself in the broader EDM culture, it’s not something that ever really penetrated the Chicago house scene so revered by Buxton and Ratcliffe. Indeed, despite their arrival during the “electronica” wave of the late ’90s, Basement Jaxx have consistently applied their take on the Chicago ethos to their career in a way that even Daft Punk — who come from a very similar place in terms of musical and cultural influence — simply couldn’t sustain. If Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter decided they’d rather become anonymous robots than have to deal with the rock star life, Buxton and Ratcliffe settled instead for being anonymous human beings.
There is a pitfall to this approach, however, and it’s that Basement Jaxx have done a whole lot of the heavy lifting for house music’s current cultural moment without ever earning much of the credit. One recent review in Uncut magazine even went so far as to undermine their stature entirely, claiming that Junto, the duo’s seventh full-length album, “borrows from the likes of Breach and Disclosure,” without even a passive acknowledgement of Basement Jaxx’s sustained and direct influence — causation, even? — on the likes of Breach and Disclosure. (Let it be known that Disclosure’s Howard Lawrence was born in 1994, the same year that Basement Jaxx released their first single. At least Breach’s Ben Westbeech was 12 at the time.) This lapse of critical memory is maddening but not entirely inexplicable. There are no videos on YouTube of Nile Rodgers attesting to Basement Jaxx’s brilliance despite the fact that their Chic-sampled “Jus 1 Kiss” placed on Britain’s official charts 13 years before “Get Lucky.” There is no Kanye West co-sign, only a lesser-known Chance the Rapper shoutout from 2012. There are only 17 UK Top 40 hits, four UK gold and platinum albums, and two decades of forward-thinking house music — embraced, almost impossibly, by both underground purists and casual pop radio listeners alike — and by all accounts that should be enough. Seriously, how is that not enough?
In a 2006 New York Times review, Kelefa Sanneh made the particularly acute assertion that the Basement Jaxx formula “sounds less weird with every passing year. These days, and this year especially, lots of mainstream pop music sounds strikingly Basement Jaxxish.” With the release of Junto eight years later, it’s fair to say Sanneh was prescient. “Never Say Never” is a vintage strings-and-piano Jaxx track that exposes the roots of Clean Bandit. The Mykki Blanco-led “Buffalo” crosses hip hop, dancehall, and jungle with a bold idiosyncrasy whose earlier incarnations lit the fuse for Switch and Major Lazer. And “What’s the News?” manifests a fully fleshed-out version of the kind of ’90s pop-house from which Kiesza derives but that she never fully embodies. In other words, to say that Basement Jaxx came late to this party is to admit you have no idea who the hell is throwing this party in the first place. And yet it’s kind of hard to fault you because, after all, Buxton and Ratcliffe did leave their names off the invite.
This time last year, when my old band Texas Is the Reason reunited for a brief tour, I was frequently asked — by journalists, by peers, by friends — what I thought it was about our band that allowed it to persist so stubbornly in the collective memory. I liked to shrug this question off with a pragmatic reply like, “Our record label never went under.” But if I’m being honest, I know that memory is not simply preserved by culture; it is produced. And part of that production of memory means being complicit in your own myth-making — whether you admit to it or not. (Most of us, perhaps obviously, deny our own involvement.) It’s still unclear whether or not Basement Jaxx’s reach and innovation will be obscured by better myth-makers, by more visible storytellers, but while I respect the duo’s lack of protest — You do your thing. We’ll do ours is the mantra, after all —I can only take comfort in knowing that the construction of memory is both a collaborative act and a perpetual project of culture. It does not require their participation, and it will never, ever end.