In discussion with Sassy J on “Songs In The Key Of Life” by Stevie Wonder (1976).
I found „Songs In The Key Of Life“ in the record collection of my mother in the 70s and secretly transferred it to my own after listening to it. How did the album find you?
I grew up listening, dancing and singing to this album as a little girl. It was one of the rather few soul records amongst my parents Jazz collection. I made my babysitter put it on. I was singing along the lyrics using my skipping rope as a mic. Oh well… That’s why I picked this record for this interview. I think next to all the Jazz at home “Songs In The Key Of Life” built the firm roots of musical tree of life.
Were interested your parents’ Jazz collection as well, or did the album offered an alternative to what you were used to hearing around the house?
The Jazz records that were playing and Jazz tunes my dad played on the piano was just the music that was mainly there. I remember being scared when Duke Ellington’s „Caravan“ would play, or that I loved to fall asleep to Sarah Vaughn’s voice. The funky clothing or jewelry and style of the musicians that stayed with us stuck with me. I also remember artists performing in our living room on house parties. So I was interested in those other aspects of Jazz at home. When I started getting into Hip-Hop later on, finding out about the samples & originals, I got more interested in their Jazz collection again – up to now. I am still pulling out things.
Some childhood memories are very formative and lasting. Was it important that you were introduced to the album at a young age?
I guess so. It reached out to the little girl in that living room. It triggered the attention of her ears and eventually made me choose it for this particular interview.
Why did you think the album had such on impact on you, and what kind of impact was that?
I liked it and I wanted to hear it over and over again, because it made me feel good. The sound, the groove, the melodies, the moods and of course his voice. Next to all the other music at home, this record surely made me fall in love with music. Music is the love of my life. I couldn’t live without it. That’s a hell of an impact!
I remember that even the format of the album was very special to my fledgling music enthusiast self. There was a lot of music spread over two discs, plus a bonus 7“ and a fat booklet. Even at a time when I did not spend too many thoughts on an album’s background that seemed extraordinary. Does the album justify this grand scope, could it not have been any other way?
Yes, the format added an extra attraction to it. I used to love to sit down, open it, take out the booklet and look at it while the record was playing out and out: the cover art, his signature and fingerprint, all the content of it. The older I got, the more I would discover. Singing along to the lyrics, finding out who was featured on there or who was listed in his thank you’s.
What are the highlights of „Songs In The Key Of Life“ for you? And is it mandatory to swallow it as a whole, or can you skip parts that do not hold up to others?
To me the highlight is the journey you go on, listening the whole record. The cover artwork and title reflect it: Mr. Wonder’s Songs In The Key Of Life. Genius. Timeless. So much to hear and discover. So rich.
Most critics heralded „Songs In The Key Of Life“ as a masterpiece ever since, fewer noted that it is patchy in parts. Not only in terms of songwriting, but also in terms of stylistic diversity. The latter I always found very unfair, as the diversity was always one of the aspects I found most fascinating about the album. Would you agree that this ambitious palette is a pro rather than a con?
I groove, feel, get inspired, sing, dance … to music. I don’t approach it that way. To me the record is genius. It is ONE. No drawers or palettes needed.
It is quite astonishing that Stevie Wonder was only 26 years old when he released „Songs In The Key Of Life“. Yet he signed to Motown when he was 11, and before he started work on the album he even considered quitting the music business for good. So he had a long career going on already. Does this inform the music contained on „Songs In The Key Of Life“? Is this a statement bursting out he could not deliver before? How much artistic freedom is needed for an epic like this?
It is a beautiful thing in life to learn, grow and get better and more experienced in all you do.
I think the beauty in this album lies in the journey he made up to then. On “Songs In The Key Of Life” you can hear his experience, all of his brilliance and essence. It feels so complete, strikingly timeless. A flower, fruit, expression of the genius he is. I believe delivering a record, an epic like this, you need to be yourself to the fullest and complete artistic freedom is needed – else it wouldn’t be that complete. Read the rest of this entry »
The original idea was to record mixes for my wife to listen to in the car on her way to work. She loves anything UK and bass & breakbeats related, but I have not made a mix for her before with the styles contained here. It was meant to be one longer mix at first, but then I found too many tracks in the shelves I just had to include. It was the same with a 90s Deep House retrospective I did for Modyfier early last year. I’m afraid I cannot portion myself anymore. And I hope it does not become a habit, it really messed up my weekly schedule.
Can you tell us something about the concept behind every mix?
The concept is really simple. Mix 1 starts with 80 BPM, Mix 3 ends with 150 BPM, halftime though. The pace gradually increases in between, and the mixes are more sequenced then mixed. Predominantly for listening purposes, but feel free to move if you want to move. The music is a diverse mix of Grime, Hip Hop, R&B, Dubstep and affiliated sounds. As mentioned, the reason I chose these sounds were mainly motivated by my wife’s preferences, but recently I was also getting really fed up with the current high level of pretentiousness in club music. Every day I hear House and Techno music and I see designs and read track titles or concepts that are desperately pretending something but there is actually not much going on beneath the surface. There is some longing for intellectual weight and diffuse deeper meanings, but there is a considerable discrepancy between creative intention and creative result, and a disappointing display of conservative ideas in the process. I think a lot of the music you can hear in these mixes is not afraid to use commercial elements and turn them into something that is innovative and more forward-looking than other club music styles that want to be advanced, but in fact just vary traditional formulas. You may argue that lot of the tracks I have chosen sound similar to each other as well, but I would like to think of the listening experience as a whole, and that for me presents a much appreciated alternative. I do not think it is better than other music I am more associated with as a DJ, but for me it helps to look elsewhere as soon as routine creeps in. I usually regain patience with the sounds I am normally occupied with if I do so. But apart from a regular change of perspective, I also cannot listen to 4/4 club music more than I do for all my work commitments. That is more than enough. I like to reserve my little leisure time for music I do not know as well.
You’ve been heavily influenced by Hamburg’s legendary club Front. Do you think that a club nowadays can have such massive impact on local and even nationwide music scenes like back in the days when dance music was born?
I don’t think so. At least not until you can present a sound that is new. In that aspect Front is a good example. It existed from 1983 to 1997. Just think of all the new club music styles that occurred in that period of time, and then compare that to the last few years. Apart from Grime and Dubstep most new music played in clubs now is a variation of the music that came into being in said period. I am very grateful that I belong to the generation that could witness that directly on the floor. Pioneering days are always easier. Of course the combination of extraordinary DJs, a dedicated crowd and a unique location and interior will always work, but I think that in recent years a lot of clubs did not become widely known for paving the way for crucial musical developments. They became widely known for good bookings that make a difference and for being an outstanding attraction as a club itself. Clubs and DJs can still inspire new ideas and even change lives, but I doubt this now happens on more than an individual scale. I welcome the next lasting musical revolution in club culture though, it is overdue.
Macro has always been a very versatile sounding label covering new and almost forgotten releases. Who does what at Macro?
Stefan Goldmann concentrates on the manufacturing, mastering and administrative side of the label, I concentrate on how we communicate what we do to the outside world and the digital and virtual part of our catalogue. But we both decide what we want to release and with what artwork. And we are in constant touch with each other about every aspect running a label requires. There is no other way, at least not for us.
What are the future plans for the label?
We are constantly looking for new talents that we feel can add something other to the canon. Thus we signed the band KUF, whose first single is out while you are reading this. They are also working on their debut album, due later this year. And then we always appreciate new material by artists we already worked with. Elektro Guzzi for example are also working on a new album, others to be confirmed will follow suit. There will be new material from Stefan as well, which will probably draw from recent commissioned works. And there will be another album with compositions by Stefan’s father, the late Friedrich Goldmann. For the rest of the future, we just try to keep going as long as we enjoy to keep going.
You’ve written for the highly acclaimed but now gone German print magazine De:Bug. Do you miss it? What do you think of today’s dance music journalism?
I actually do miss it, yes. De:Bug offered content that other German music magazines do not offer, or do not want to offer. Every defunct print magazine takes away something that is not necessarily replaced. Not by other magazines, and also not by web media. And there are not enough websites in Germany that reach a wider readership. I can remember a lot of people sneering at the demise of De:Bug, they felt a print magazine was outdated anyway. But every media outlet passing away also diminishes the reach you can have with what you do. And in times when it is quite a struggle to make a living from whatever profession within the music industry, this is a problem. Unfortunately this struggle also changed today’s music journalism. For the worse, in my opinion. There is more clickbait controversy than well researched discourse. Occasional thinkpieces are presented as something exceptional, when they should be the norm. I notice a worrying increase in factual mistakes when I read print or web media these days. There probably is not enough budget for sufficient editing, but even if the small budget only allows freelancers and interns and only a few journalists on a monthly payroll, thorough supervision should be a must. Otherwise you can hardly justify that people should still buy a print magazine for example. And too much online music journalism is just a newsfeed. I get a lot of PR mails on a daily basis, and a lot of them I will find on websites only shortly later, too often without any own words added. Music journalism should offer individual perspectives and opinions, based on individual research. Else there is not enough to learn from it. I think it is a bit sad that a lot of interesting debates about music happen on social media, and they are not even sparked by interesting features in other media. A good music journalist should try to lead the way, and not vice versa. And in any case the traffic obligations should not lead the way either.
Back then journalists were always one step ahead and everyone relied on their reviews. Now you can stream everything via Soundcloud or preview via the shop websites. From your record shop buyer perspective: are record reviews still relevant for you?
Not really. I mostly order releases for Hard Wax weeks in advance before the according reviews are published. Web is usually quicker than print, but still most reviews are connected to actual release dates. The rest of the texts sent my way want to sell their product, they are not reviews per definition. But I always choose to remain as neutral as possible. I listen to the music first, and then I may read the accompanying text about it. In my experience as a buyer it is very advisable to follow your own instincts. I register the opinions of distributors, labels and early adopters, particularly if I think they are reliable. But they do not really influence my decisions what to buy, and in what quantity. That is a different reality.
Lowtec told us that they were calling Hard Wax from their telephone booth back in the 90s and that one of the sellers previewed them the tracks via phone. When and where did you started buying music and how did that change over the time?
I bought my first records in the mid 70s, when I was about six years old. And then I never stopped. You only learnt about new music from friends, record stores, magazines, books and radio. Sometimes it took me quite a while to figure out certain tracks I liked in clubs, sometimes I never succeeded. The internet of course changed all that dramatically. You can learn about anything in a short time, and then you can purchase it a few clicks further. I also called up Hard Wax to buy records in the early 90s, holding up the newsletter leaflet with highlighted picks. That always felt a bit awkward, compared to just browsing through the crates of a well selected record store. But however convenient it is nowadays to gather knowledge about music and then acquire it, it is not necessarily more exciting to do so. The process almost completely neglected the element of surprise and there is a linear way to what you want. Still, whenever I find a record in a store I was not aware of before, it feels much more satisfying than finding music online. Store finds beat web finds, and I like surprises. And I do not want anything to fall into my hands, I do not want to feel lazy. And I will probably never value an audio file in the same way I value a record. I think you lose the respect for the music you are listening to if you do. But all that is a generational thing, even if a lot of people way younger than me are getting into vinyl. It is the privilege and imperative of youth to question the habits of the previous generations. I certainly did the same. But now I gladly act my age.
We’re always wondering how do you manage the flood of new releases as Hard Wax buyer?
You have to organize yourself cleverly and you have to know what you can ignore and when. And you have to develop ways to keep being interested. If you lose your curiosity, you have a problem. Personally, the minority of records that I find interesting outweighs the majority of records I do not find interesting.
Will there ever be a book about those famous one-liners?
We are aware of the cult status our comments have, but for us they are more a means to an end than anything else. But if someone rises to occasion, I hope it is highly recommendable to the point of being killer, and not just writer tool literature.
Finally, what do your children think about what you do?
I have a wonderful five year old daughter, and she knows exactly what I do. She likes to listen to music, either on her little cassette or CD players, or when I play records to her. She thinks I have too many records, but she also likes them. Especially since she brought some of her Kindergarten friends to my room and none of them had ever seen a record, or a turntable, and jaws dropped. She copes with me being away on weekends or working at night by thinking I am at least a little bit famous, and that what I do makes some people happy. She might even be a bit proud of me when she hears or sees me play on the web, or when she sees photos of me somewhere, or flyers and posters, or articles I wrote. But it is not too important for her and she does not want to do my job later on either, because she likes to sleep at night, and have her weekends off. Her favourite tracks are “Die Roboter” and “I Like To Move It”.