An interesting thing about Harmless Records’ Backbeats series: it does not discriminate against disco records the way some soul music compilations do. In fact, Backbeats often devotes volumes purely to dance music, even going beyond disco to embrace later dance styles like techno and house. Yowsah Yowsah Yowsah and The Big Apple Bites Back illustrate the depth and breadth of the Backbeats approach to danceable music, effectively illustrating the connections between different eras of dance music when played back to back.
Yowsah Yowsah Yowsah is devoted to records that were popular in the New York club scene during the original disco era (the title comes from a popular Chic song). The focus here is on songs that marry lavish, melodically sweet arrangements to driving rhythms. There’s a strong amount of Philly-recorded material, highlights including First Choice’s “The Player,” where soaring orchestrations are anchored by an aggressive percussive attack (look out for those congas), and Loleatta Holloway’s “Hit & Run,” where the steady midtempo groove keeps things rolling ever-forward while the Holloway testifies in a go-for-broke gospel style.
However, there are some other styles going on under this set’s “New York Disco” banner. Other highlights include “Keep On Dancin” by Gary’s Gang, a spartan yet elegant track with jazzy vocal harmonies and an effective use of acoustic guitars to achieve a percussive texture, and Lucy Hawkins’ “Gotta Get Out Of Here,” a funk/disco hybrid with James Brown-style “chicken scratch” rhythm guitar and an assertive lead vocal. Some hometown musicians even steal the Philly groove and rework it for their own purposes on Ripple’s “The Beat Goes On And On,” an MFSB soundalike that gives the Philadelphia boys a run for the orchestral-disco money.
The Big Apple Bites Back continues the New York theme but brings disco into the modern dance era. It’s unique amongst Backbeats volumes because it breaks down into two distinct halves. The first half devotes itself to post-1970’s remixes of Salsoul Records material: Larry Levan’s classic remix of Inner Life’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” is the best known of these tracks but Joe Claussell’s epic redux of Double Exposure’s “Everyman” is also quite impressive, boasting an excellent breakdown middle section that highlights the record’s tasty vibes solo. Elsewhere on this half, Frankie Knuckles recasts First Choice’s “Let No Man Put Asunder” in a convincing house music guise and a Blaze DJ remix of Skyy’s “Call Me” completely rewrites the song’s backing track but still works.
The second half of The Big Apple Bites Back focuses on classic house tracks released near the end of the 1980’s. Your Humble Reviewer doesn’t generally gravitate towards this genre (he prefers his dance fare to be more lavish and instrumentally complex) but the selections chosen here are rock-solid stuff and particularly effective in the “children of disco” context they are given here: “Bango (To The Batmobile)” by the Todd Terry Project deftly mixes vocal samples and minimalist synths against an insistent beat and Black Riot’s “A Day In The Life” offers a hypnotic dub-styled blend of echoey synths and massive electronic beats. Afrikali’s “Out Of The Jungle” is another impressive track, adding a worldbeat flavor and incorporating a sermon-style vocal that conjures up memories of David Byrne and Brian Eno’s My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts.
In short, dance music fans will find plenty to enjoy on both Yowsah Yowsah Yowsah and The Big Apple Bites Back. They’re unusually well-curated and sequenced for budget compilations so anyone interested in these sounds shouldn’t hesitate to take a gamble on them: each is worth the meager admission price for genre enthusiasts.