On Record: LDLDN
When Semtek texted me and asked if I’d contribute to the DBA ‘On Record’ series, weirdly, it took about two minutes to work out the subject of my post. Why weird? I’ve always struggled when asked questions like, “What’s your favourite record ever?” But this time round it just …. clicked.
It’s a struggle because having grown up in London’s Camden Town during the 80s, my taste stretches across scenes and genres. The place was a musical blender packed with synth pop, rock, electro on the streets or in school, and soul, boogie and jazz fusion at home. Teenage Friday nights spent at indie clubs, then Saturday nights wedged into a sketchy car and driven to a warehouse rave somewhere in Essex. That game of genre pinball has continued, with time and money spent in clubs and on amazing records spanning techno, all the colours of house, broken beat, jazz etc. This is reflected in my NTS Radio shows or DJ sets that start in one place, but end up in another. You get the idea. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Back to the choice of record. Jacob’s Optical Stairway’s self-titled LP released on R&S Records. When it came out in 1995, some people considered it an abstract, risky side-project by 4 Hero’s Dego & Marc Mac, but that was hugely missing the point.
For context, 4 Hero had already established themselves the architects of a more futuristic, technical and cerebral type of drum & bass through their Reinforced imprint. 1994’s ‘Parallel Universe’ was a statement LP that widened people’s perceptions of what drum & bass was about – not a typical dance floor driven piece, it evoked different kinds of feelings within the scene (and beyond) with intricate production techniques and elaborate synth / sampling work. It’s – rightly – considered by many to be the greatest drum & bass album of all time.
Jacob’s Optical Stairway (for sake of ease, let’s call it JOS) took a lot of these musical concepts to an entirely new level, and only a year after ‘Parallel Universe’ dropped. The album was a hugely confident expression of sounds, emotions and themes. Sonically the palette was similar to ‘Parallel Universe’, but distinctly different with a greater emphasis on live instrumentation (we’ll get onto that) and collaboration (we’ll touch on that too). I think it created the platform for 4Hero’s subsequent hit releases on Gilles Peterson’s Talkin’ Loud, and undoubtedly set the template for electronic music producers in the UK and beyond for years to come.
Arguably the most ‘complete’ and mature track on the LP is ‘Solar Feelings’ – it sits at track six but kind of wraps around the LP as a whole. The intro chords instantly introduce a warmth that’s quickly elevated by a beautiful saxophone riff that reappears throughout, this jazz influence extending into the drums which are identifiable as classic Reinforced hits but programmed to swing and slop. The ‘Solar Feelings’ vocal is suitably soulful, with lyrics that talk about space and emotions. The track rolls elegantly. It was also put out as an excellent remix 12” featuring Detroit legend, Claude Young… which leads me onto my next pick from the LP.
The other brilliant and innovative thing about the whole LP is its relationship with the Detroit music scene. It’s well documented that Marc and Dego’s productions were heavily influenced by the sounds coming out the Motor City (take a listen to 4Hero’s ‘Golden Age’ released in 1993 to get a sense of this). This grew into a far stronger bond over time, with mutual admiration between the Detroit heavyweights and the Dollis Hill crew culminating in regular co-productions and remixes. ‘The Fusion Formula (The Metamorphosis)’ is the most overtly Detroit-driven track on the LP, mainly because Juan Atkins’ expert hands are all over it. The edgy, distorted 808s and acid basslines add another texture to the LP that defies categorisation at times. That Detroit-to-Dollis Hill bond is strengthened further with the second track on the LP – ‘The Naphosisous Wars’ – which was co-produced by the legendary Josh Wink.
‘Jacob’s Optical Illusion’ follows on from ‘Solar Feelings’ both sequentially on the LP but also in terms of feel. One track blends into another. Its defining feature is the willingness of Marc and Dego to experiment with live instrumentation and dig deep into their musical influences. They’ve often spoken about their underpinnings in the sound systems of West London, their family’s music collections. The soul, the jazz fusion. This track draws heavily on that with a rounded, thick jazz bassline that acts as the glue between scattered drums and wide synth chords (they loved their Roland gear back then, so no doubt a Juno 60 or a JX-3P).
The track on JOS that affects me the most is undoubtedly ’20 Degrees Of Taurus’. It always has. It evokes teenage memories, good and bad. Listening to it at the time guided me through some tricky times, the vocal sample being the main source of inspiration – a young guy saying: “sometimes I look at the stars at night, stars seem to tell me that things are ok or not ok, that’s just the way I look at the planets sometimes”. I’ve no idea where it was taken from, but it generates a sense of optimism or opportunity when I look to the night sky, the possibility of a brighter tomorrow. Mad how a 12 second sample embedded in a beautiful piece of experimental music can stay with you for over 20 years and still feel like a personal motif.
You can still pick up ‘Jacob’s Optical Stairway’ for reasonable money on Discogs, and if you’re lucky, you might still be able to locate the special reissue that Marc Mac announced in Summer 2021. It’s worth bearing in mind that there was only ever one JOS album, a singular creative supernova. I’m not sure Dego reflects too regularly on this piece of work – he’s moved on in many ways, while Marc is more willing to celebrate their past. However, they should both know that the course of many careers – and lives – were changed for the better when this LP was released into the world.