One of house music's great unspoken strengths is that, at a base level, it is the easiest ever music to dance to. Its particular recipe of beat (four on the floor), tempo, and message means that over the years it has welcomed not just all races and sexual orientations, but also the club-footed, the pigeon-toed, and the lead-hipped. The second wave of Chicago house music, defined largely by Cajual Records and kindred spirits such as Derrick Carter and DJ Sneak, exemplified this, achieving a kind of pure dance alchemy by refining both the methods and the message of Chicago's first-wave pioneers. Strut's Only 4 U: The Sound of Cajmere & Cajual Records 1992 - 2012 is a cohesive and generous look into the brash sound of Chicago House 2.0.
By the time Curtis Alan Jones (a.k.a. Cajmere a.k.a. Green Velvet) began producing in the early 1990s, house music was a global pop concern but had been scattered to the fringes in his hometown of Chicago. Rave music, imported from the UK and just beginning to incorporate classic Midwestern electronic sounds, had roped in a suburban audience that was younger and whiter. Still, there remained a small community of worshipers who had had their lives changed by DJs like Frankie Knuckles, Marshall Jefferson, and Farley "Jackmaster" Funk. Only 4 U crystallizes this moment, and while there's no denying the instant, raw appeal of Cajmere's breakthrough single, "Percolator," it's the bolder, vocal-oriented tracks that define Cajual Records.
It's easy to read into what might have happened: a generation of young producers, eager to share the community and transcendance they found in early clubs, take the religious overtones implicit in those experiences and make them explicit. The result is quicksilver gospel music, tracks whose emotions are still raw as hell but whose execution is more polished. Frequent collaborator Dajae, a converted session singer who possesses a torrential, piercing voice, is unafraid to whip Cajmere's lithe funk into proper devotionals. "Brighter Days" remains the enduring classic (presented here via a seminal Masters at Work remix), though "U Got Me Up" and Dajae's own "Day by Day" are just as dynamic, if not as anthemic.
These are giant, mantra-ridden tracks, so relentless that when presented back-to-back-to-back on the first disc it feels a little like Jock Jams: Jackin', a set of music in which subtlety is jettisoned in the name of inclusionary zest. (An imperfect comparison, perhaps, considering house music was eventually co-opted in the name of crowd-baiting and marketing.)
There are surprises, though. The little-known Adam—who released just one single for the label—offers a brilliant, spaced-out synth exploration, "Moments in Time," while G.U. turns in 10 minutes of motorik celebration. During mid-aughts offerings, Jones, ever the chameleon, alternates between smoove partystarter on "Midnight" and punky charlatan on "Lalalala (Nside My Mind)," the latter created under the guise of his silly and righteous Green Velvet persona.
These tracks are often long and, minus a DJ's context, can be overbearing over the course of two discs. Cajmere's XLR8R podcast from last week provided a wonderful map to help navigate; near the end of the mix, when the strained vocal exultations of "Feelin' Kinda High" ("high-yeeee!") poke through a fog of vocoders and drum machines, their ballast is justified. Jones—mostly as Green Velvet—has made hay as a star international DJ; Cajual releases have slowed but not stopped in recent years. Only 4 U—especially the primary-colors saturation of its first disc—helps recall a time when house music's apostles were preaching to an increasingly large audience. Like any good sermonizer, Jones knew he had to give the people something they could believe in.