If it’s about anything, house music is about impact. It’s about hitting them where it hurts, in the groove, in the heart, on the dancefloor. It’s about that time of night when everyone wants to surrender to a delicious chaos, to shut out the world, to remember how to feel and forget how to think. Done properly, it is pop music at its most perfect and most pure. From the opening jet-plane whoosh, slinky percussion, and squawk of a scratched record that opens ‘Muzikizum’, the debut album from British house trio X-Press 2, it’s clear they’ve got all this sorted out.
Sorted out enough to have hooked in two impressive collaborators - Talking Heads’ singer David Byrne and Yello’s front man Dieter Meier - who make up just part of what is as accomplished an album as British house has produced in a decade of existence. And yet X-Press 2 know that house music is often taken less seriously than pretty much anything else in pop music. As Ashley Beedle - who with fellow DJs Rocky and Diesel, makes up the X-Press 2 triumvirate - points out: "A lot of people have given house music a bit of a bad press. But compared to rock n’ roll or even hip hop, house is such a young thing." Perhaps that’s because it gives its listeners more immediate physical fun than most things - and consequently it’s assumed makes them think less. This album’s most obvious single - the muscular, yet euphorically melodic deep house number ‘Lazy’, with its vocals from David Byrne, efficiently dispels that that notion by the end of its first chorus. "I’m wicked and I’m lazy," Byrne drawls mellifluously. "Don’t you wanna save me?" It’s as if Byrne has picked up on the house music’s essential decadence in a simple phrase. There’s no doubt that he is one of the most thoughtful, even cerebral band-leaders 40 years of popular music has thrown up. It’s no coincidence he’s also one of its funkiest. X-PRESS 2 first burst onto the international club scene in 1993, with the demented sirens, typewriter-noise percussion and dance floor pyrotechnics of ‘Muzik Express’.
The three DJs, all from unfashionable suburbs of London, had each played leading roles in the capital’s cooler, more influential club scenes: Flying; Slough’s famous Sunday afternoon club Full Circle; Soho record shop Black Market, where Ashley was the manager. Rocky and Diesel had been mates since 1986. They knew Ashley because they bought records from him. Their first studio session left them cold - they’d intended to sample an old Cloud One track but that typewriter percussion noise was all that survived. Everyone else disagreed. Muzik X-Press’ was an instant worldwide club hit. DJs as influential as Pete Tong and New York’s Junior Vasquez - then in his Sound Factory prime - loved it. Clubbers around the world declared it an instant anthem. Its follow up, the juddering, funky London X-Press’ with its exhortation to "raise your hands!" was just as monstrously successful, as was the daft dancefloor smash, ‘Say What’, that came next. It was also endearingly clear that X-press 2 didn’t take themselves too seriously.
They parodied the Beatles by doing a silly walk across a zebra crossing for an early photo shoot and took the piss out of themselves constantly. But they took their music to heart ” so when their records began to get, as Ashley puts it, "more oblique", the three were content to put X-Press 2 aside and move onto other projects. Beedle had his Black Science Orchestra alias, Rocky his Problem Kids alter ego; and the three moved effortlessly into jazzier, funkier, more downbeat arenas with their internationally respected Ballistic Brothers team-up. It was this that first caught the attention of David Byrne. "I had contacted Beedle and co some five years ago after hearing Ballistic Brothers, which I loved," says Byrne, who offered them a slot on his European tour, thinking they were a live band. He’s glad this collaboration has finally happened. "I love the contradiction of a pumping dance track that is called Lazy’," he says. X-Press 2 are overjoyed ” and not just because ‘Lazy’ is memorable enough to become their biggest hit yet. Ashley Beedle met Byrne once in New York. "He’s very focused on art and how it integrates with society. He’s into painting, he’s into books, he’s into music," says Beedle, clearly impressed. It’s about the art and the magic, Ashley says.
Dieter Meier, the eccentric and brilliant leader of Swiss electro-pop experimentalists Yello was equally amenable to a team-up. His unmistakably mustachioed growl sends threatening shards of kitsch vocal through the percussive groove of ‘I Want You Back’ ” a fascinating track that jerks between weird synth pop and pounding house. "We’re huge Yello fans and his voice is so eerie," says Diesel. "We thought, wouldn’t it be great to hear him on a house tune?’’ YELLO’S sense of the theatrical, it emerges, has always been a key influence on X-Press 2. "Their grooves are amazing. The drama in those records as well," says Diesel. "That’s what we try and do in our records. We try and arrange them so they have some kind of story. We’re trying to do make them more than just groove tracks. We enjoy doing arrangements where there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end." Last year’s vinyl-only club smash ‘AC/DC’, with its horror-house chorus, is a neat example. It’s one of three fabulous club instrumentals that also shine on ‘Muzikizum’ ” and it’s a sign of how rounded a house album this is that they don’t pale next to the celebrity collaborations. The merciless ‘Smoke Machine’ was inspired by the machines used at Danny Tenaglia’s Winter Music Conference, set at Miami’s Club Space, and it simmers with brooding, late night menace. The title track combines the raw funk of American house with the futuristic power of European techno and it will fog any dancefloor with the confusion of a battlefield.
Over the past year, X-Press 2 have been putting the drama back into DJing with six deck DJ performances that used effects-ridden mic performances from Ashley, CD-players and basic samplers to send crowds at London’s Fabric and Ibiza’s Pacha wild. "We like a bit of a challenge and it certainly creates something of a potent atmosphere," says Rocky. "It’s like a jam, really, it’s not rehearsed, we’re inspired continually by the shenanigans on the dancefloor. We play two records each and we go round like a tag thing. Whoever’s playing the tune coming out the speakers, the other two can cut in effects, beats, acappellas. It becomes like a wall of sound." These sets incorporate everything from deep house grooves to hard percussion to uproarious vocal tracks. This album does the same - threading innovation and originality amongst the rich rhythms. Exactly what house music, done right, is all about. Thinking and feeling on your feet. Marrying a schizophrenic’s range of moods to one relentlessly funky groove. Sometimes the simplest things are the hardest. Just ask David Byrne.