Classic Canadian House, Episode #2: Happy Days – PJ

It was 1996 and most of the popular “dance” songs to play at the time were predominantly Euro and dance-pop records of the day, but every now and again a house record would come along that slowed things down just a little bit and gave a dancefloor the chance to appreciate the groove once again.  I was working with a mobile company at the time and shortly after meeting the owner, I asked what were the big records he was playing at the time.  He rattled of a list of names, but one that stuck out was “Happy Days” – PJ.

The record started of as a project of Paul Jacobs, who was a university student in Toronto at the time and also DJed and produced on the side.  The bulk of his better known work including “Spanish Fly” and the “Soul Grabber” series, was released on the now-defunct Aquarius Recordings label, also based out of Toronto.  The label had taken an unique approach to their marketing:  vinyl only with very vague black-and-white labels containing only the Aquarius logo (a variation of the zodiac symbol), the producer’s name and the name of the E.P. and a release date from 1970-1979.  The flip side of the vinyl label would contain a photo of the artist whose music had been sampled for the tracks, and on other occasions a random picture of the producer from some point in their childhood years. Aquarius was seeking to bring back the essence and spirit of the disco 12-inch single with their designs and their releases which prominently featured disco samples, and their minimalistic approach probably helped with any sample clearance issues the label might have.  A number of Toronto producers released their early material on the label including The Stickmen, Nick Holder, Mitch Winthrop, and Miguel Migs and Aquarius continued releasing productions until 2003.

“Happy Days” began life way back in 1981 with the release of a track also called “Happy Days” by North End feat. Michelle Wallace.  North End was a project of disco producer Arthur Baker and “Happy Days” was their biggest success.  The success, though, came only after a the track was remixed and re-named “Tee’s Happy” on the b-side of 12″ releases.  This version saw most of the vocals stripped away and the groove was brought to the forefront.  The b-side was played regularly at the legendary Paradise Garage by the equally legendary DJ Larry Levan and quickly became an anthemic track at the club.  Listen above and you’ll hear all of the chunks sampled in the original and remixes over the years.

PJ’s release is not a complicated arrangement; the original (and IMHO best) version simply lifts a section of the guitar solo from “Tee’s Happy” and loops it for about four minutes with a little bit of filtering over a house groove that progresses along with the sample.  The track basic elements filter out, only to have a loop of the chorus (“Happy days, and thing are still okay, we’re going…”) come slamming back in to carry the track to the end.  A lovely little horn loop is added in two sections and is actually one of my favourite elements of the tune.

From my first listen, I knew this was a hot track and the simplicity of the arrangement and the vocal hook would make it appealing to a much broader audience than just the underground disco scene.  It took a minute to catch on, but eventually I would see dozens of people making their way to the dancefloor every time that funky guitar loop started inching its way out of the speakers.  The 12″ release actually contains three cuts, the original and two remixes also from Jacobs that expand on the original concept by extending and adding new samples from the North End track offering several good quality mixes on one release.  The track would go one to be remixed and re-released dozens of times over the years, as recently as 2011, in fact, but I’ve never found a remix that truly matches the pure brilliance of the original.

The tune also received massive support on Canadian dance music radio and was eventually the first Aquarius track to be released on CD single.  Acclaimed house label Defected even snapped it up for overseas release and it quickly became an anthem the world over.  “Happy Days” truly was one of the first tunes to put Canada on the map as far as house music was concerned, and it really hasn’t lost its luster over the years.  A lot of tracks are given the label “timeless”, but this one almost defines it.

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Canadian Classic House, Episode #1: I’m In Love With You – BKS

Welcome to a new feature here at thekeytothehouse.  Being a Canadian-based blog, periodically we will be featuring posts on classic house tunes that were produced here in Canada and that laid the foundation for the amazing reputation the Canadian House Scene is enjoying around the globe.  Check back regularly, subscribe to our RSS feed or follow us on Twitter to make sure you get every episode!

“Heavy tune.”

That’s what someone said to me when they heard me play this one way back in the early days.  And it was.  Not too heavy, but it had a certain…uniqueness to it and it certainly opened Chris Sheppard’s BKS project to a lot of ears in Toronto, and across Canada.

BKS was a project created through Quality Music Canada and consisted of ambient composer Hennie Bekker, producer and owner of Abbeywood Trail studios (where the bulk of the project’s material was recorded) Greg Kavanagh, and Toronto dance radio legend Chris Sheppard.  Taking the first letters of their last names, BKS was born.

The trio’s first singles, “Talkin’ Bout Love” and “Living in Ecstasy” were released in 1992 and were regularly featured on Sheppard’s weekly Pirate Radio broadcasts.  The group also collaborated with Canadian hockey icon Don Cherry to record the much-ballyhooed “Rock ‘Em, Sock ‘Em Techno”.  Their debut album “For Those About To Rave….We Salute You” was released around this time.

1993 saw the release of their sophomore album “Dreamcatcher“.  The album’s title track, a downright decent stomper in its own right, was well-received, but it was the B side of the 12” release that started gaining some serious attention.  Featured on Sheppard’s first “Pirate Radio Sessions” CD mix compilation, and hammered relentlessly on his radio show,  “I’m In Love With You” became a Toronto club staple and was widely praised the standout track from the album.  Clocking in at just under 3:20, it got to the point quickly.  The throbbing bass was always my favourite aspect of the track, together with the extremely sweet shaker line in the background.  But there was something about the basic groove of the track and the one-note staccato acid sound that dropped in a couple of times that made me think, “Hey, I’ve heard something that sounds like this before.  But what???”

As a matter of fact, I had heard the sounds before, but it wasn’t until several years later when I was talking with DJ Swet (Cory Bradshaw), Shep’s main DJ, that I found out what they had gotten up to.  Swet had come into Kavanagh’s Abbeywood Trail studio to help out with the track.  BKS had already decided to sample the drums from an already established hit, “Do You Know What I Mean?” – Fresh Tunes #1.  During the recording, the group felt the track needed something extra.  Bradshaw had brought his trusty AKAI sampler and nicked the acid line from “Magic Feet” – The M.D. Connection, another track being smashed by Sheppard in the clubs and on the radio.  Hennie Bekker laid down two very funky little organ solos and vocalist Simone Denny, who would work extensively with the group on their third album, “Astroplane“, provided the simply, yet very catchy, vocal hook.  Denny would also work with Sheppard on his post-BKS project, Love Inc.

It was stripped down, almost raw-sounding, but it worked the dancefloor nicely.  I would often use it as a transition track because the arrangement at the end gave DJs a couple of different options.  You could  mix out of it if you wanted to keep the groove going, or you could use it to transition into a different tempo or style altogether.  I still enjoy dropping this one, it always seems to bring back a lot of memories for those who used to party in the City of Love back in the day.  As for BKS, their third album would be their last but “I’m In Love With You” gave them a key dose of credibility which allowed them to deliver their final disc to a bigger audience than ever before.  I remember having about eight CD copies of this at one time due to the number of compilations it was licensed to.  Now I only have two (I think), but I always make sure it’s in my arsenal.

Classic House Series, Episode #5 – Magic Feet – The MD Connection

In the early 1990s, there was a strong underground rave culture thriving in Toronto and with it came certain records, both locally and via imp0rts, that became seminal classics in the scene and helped define the vibe of the Toronto house sound.  With a new wave of new DJs embracing the developing sounds of Toronto’s house scene, one of those records was “Magic Feet” – The MD Connection.

Back then, there was only one club in the city where you could go and hear good quality electronic music and actually want to stay until the very end of the night.  Now known as the world-renowned Guvernment Entertainment Complex, in the early nineties it was simply called R.P.M. and served for many years as Toronto’s answer to legendary clubs like Chicago’s Warehouse and New York’s The Loft in terms of breaking new music and creating hits Toronto house-heads could call their own.

“Magic Feet” had a certain attitude that made it stand out against the other jackin’ house tunes of the time.  A prime example of what could be done with basic gear and a good idea, the track is not much more than some Roland 808 and 909 drums, a single note acid line repeated throughout the track and a crushing, balls-to-the wall kick that came in twice on the last bar.  Originally released as part of the “Tracks That Move Ya” album released by veteran house producer Mike Dunn under his MD Connection pseudonym, “Magic Feet” got regular rotation from nightclub and radio legend Chris Sheppard at his weekly shows at RPM and on his groundbreaking Pirate Radio show which dominated the weekend airwaves in Toronto during this period.  Here’s an excellent interview with the man himself from the New Music:

Given Shep’s knack for knowing a good tune when he heard one, Toronto DJs would flock to Play De Record on the weekends to grab the tracks they heard him spin the night before and copies of “Magic Feet” were in constant demand, whether legally or on white label.  The repetitive one-note acid line would play an important part in another classic Toronto house anthem with Sheppard himself having a hand in the production(more on that to come).  The tune, interestingly enough, gained something of a reputation outside of the clubs in Toronto and could regularly be heard at high school dances and formals around the city (especially if you were at one of the ones I played at back then).  It was included on the second installment of Chris Sheppard’s acclaimed “Techno Trip” series which at the time was one of the few releases to feature a proper CD version of the track.

It’s difficult to explain exactly why this tune did so well; it’s a hard, heavy, nasty piece of early techno, to be exact, but whenever I’ve played it, people usually get the idea that it’s time to just lose it for a few minutes and kick up their feet to this battle-tested party weapon.  It’s simple, and it works.  What more could you ask for?

A Tribute to Pryda

We’ve been anxiously counting down the days to the release of the “Eric Prydz presents:  Pryda” triple CD here at thekeytothehouse and we now have just two weeks to go!  To wet your appetite for what’s to come, I’ve dug out a Pryda tribute mix that I did back in 2009 for all of you to enjoy.

Eric Prydz has been nothing less than the most consistent producer in house music today.  Consistent in the sense that every single track that this guy makes is pure GOLD!!!  Since bursting on to the scene with the seminal “Call On Me” back in 2004, Prydz has demonstrated a remarkable ability to balance his underground productions under his Pryda alias with the commercial sensibility of his releases under his real name including “Call On Me“, “Proper Education“, “Pjanoo“(originally a Pryda production which crossed over nicely) and others.

Prydz’s productions are laced with his signature throbbing basslines, gorgeous, uplifting synth melodies and thumping grooves that you will feel in the depths of your soul.  Classified as house, progressive house, techno and trance, I prefer to call the music of Prydz “J.C. tracks” simply because whenever I hear something new from him, I inevitably exhale and say “Jesus Christ!”  He could be considered the Chuck Norris of dance music as I believe this guy could eat a synthesizer or sequencer for breakfast and crap out a masterpiece by mid-afternoon.  A Pryda release is not just another track to come out, it is an event to look forward to and it’s easy to see that millions of people around the world would agree as his releases almost instantly hit the top of the charts on sites like Beatport and others.  And, as forward-thinking as he might be, he continues to make his releases available on vinyl and his Pryda label boasts some of the biggest sales around with respect to that format.

As a DJ, Prydz has stepped up his game and raised the bar with his jaw-dropping “E.P.I.C.(Eric Prydz In Concert)” shows which feature his amazing tunes against a backdrop of incredible imagery and even 3D holographic projections to create a truly unique experience for his fans.  Hopefully we will one day see him take this show to venues around the world and I know I will be in attendance if he touches down in good old Toronto, Canada.

Fans have been clamouring for years to see a proper CD release from Prydz, and his upcoming 3-disc set will finally satisfy those admirers.  Sadly, one of my favourite Pryda productions “Wakanpi” will not be part of the set, but it is included in my tribute mix above.  Nevertheless, the set will feature new and classic productions mixed by the man himself and should help cement his status as perhaps the top electronic dance music producer of the new millenium.

Be sure to check back here at thekeytothehouse for our review of the set once it is released on May 21, 2012.

Got a favourite Pryda production?  Post your comments below and let us know which of his “epic” productions means the most to you!

Classic House Series, Episode #4 – Do You Know What I Mean – Fresh Tunes #1

This track asked a simple question and everyone knew the answer the second they heard it:  YES!

You can’t help but consider this record when looking at the greatest classic house tunes of all time.  This one drove the dancefloors crazy when it was first released in 1993/1994 and it still does serious damage to this day.  Pressed up through various labels over the years, the track found the most success with its release under the classic Fresh Fruit and almighty Strictly Rhythm banners.

The simplicity of the track is one of the major reasons why it has aged so well over the years.  A good and proper house groove (which would later become the backbone of a Toronto house classic, more on that to come), a three-note bassline, and a vocal sample lifted from Colonel Abrams’ classic “The Truth”.  Throw in some steel vibraphone chords, strings and a an insanely catchy organ riff and you have a tune that forms a HUGE part of my definition of classic house music.

Fresh Tunes #1 (#1 Fresh Tunes depending on the label) was comprised of René ter Horst & Gaston Steenkist a.k.a DJ Zki & Dobre.  In addition to the classic piece of house, the two producers would also enjoy huge success with their release “Give It Up” as The Goodmen and over a decade later would drop one of my all-time favourite trance tunes “Stringer” under their Riva moniker.  The duo has recorded under at least 10 other aliases including Jark Prongo and the Rhythmkillaz.

The lads definitely hit the nail on the head with this one.  I remember dropping this back at Mixdown Mondays at Humber College in Toronto back in 2006 and a girl came running up to the stage to tell me I had just played her favourite song.  You can’t buy moments like that which is why I always enjoy giving this one a loving spin and it can work just about anywhere.  This tune is pure good times and I’ve seen it take the vibe to the next level in many clubs and everyone who gets on the floor to this one will have a smile on their face the whole time.

Have you got a story to go with this classic house anthem?  Post your comments below and tell us about it!

The Wanted – The E.P. – The Review

Let me clarify something to start:  NO, THIS BLOG IS NOT TURNING INTO A FORUM TO PRAISE BOYS BANDS.  But, unless you’ve been living under a rock in a cave on Mars, you’ve no doubt at least heard the huge single “Glad You Came” from British boy band The Wanted.  With its club-friendly dance-pop sound, this single has been garnering massive radio and club play the world over, and with today’s North American release of their new E.P., the question remains:  is there some substance behind this band or is it just commercial fluff?

The answer is a little of column A and quite a bit of column B.  The 7-track E.P. opens with “Glad You Came” which was produced by Steve Mac, producer of One Direction, Susan Boyle and Kelly Clarkson, among others.  Mac lays a decent sonic foundation here, complete with accordions and a pulsating bassline over which the lads layer pop fodder and the result is a rather good piece of commercial dance pop that should be working the wedding circuit nicely this year.

The rest of the disc pretty much follows suit and could accurately be called a dance E.P.  “Chasing the Sun” follows next and more or less recycles the same formula as “Glad You Came”.  The same holds true for the rest of the disc; up-tempo dance production with rather typical boy-lyrics and harmonies.  Mac also handles the production on three other tracks here, “All Time Low”, “Lightning” and “Gold Forever”, but with the exception of “All Time Low”, they just don’t quite have the same impact as “Glad You Came”.  “Heart Vacancy” remains the only ballad on this disc and really doesn’t do a whole lot to round this collection out.

The idea here was to give North American fans a little taste from both of the band’s first two studio albums, 2010’s “The Wanted” and 2011’s “Battleground“.  The result is a very radio-friendly dance-pop E.P. that, while somewhat appetizing, ultimately fails to deliver the goods and leaves the listener yearning for something with a bit more depth.  Reasonably priced (in Canada, anyway), die-hards will certainly want this in their collection, but for the casual listener, just flip on your radio and you’ll probably hear this band’s best effort in the next five minutes or so.

**1/2/ 5

A BIG THANK YOU FROM thekeytothehouse!

Well, it’s official:  thekeytothehouse has gotten 100 web hits!

Exactly one month ago on March 20, 2012, I started this blog as a personal project and have been amazed at the response it has received from around the world!  We’ve had visitors from Germany, the U.S., Italy, Ireland, Australia, India, Spain, Hong Kong, the U.K., Czech Republic, even as far away as Mauritius!  And, of course, my fellow Canadians have led the charge so big shouts out to my Canuck friends in house music.

I wanted to take this opportunity to thank each and ever one of you that has visited the site and let you know that I am extremely grateful for every page view I’ve received.  I am thrilled to see that people are embracing the concept and content of the site, and I will continue to provide music reviews, articles and the newly added Classic House Series with the same attention to quality I have always tried to provide to you.

I believe it is important to give back to those who help you, so I am pleased to share with all of you a little trance mix I recorded recently that I call From There To Here.  The review I did of Paul van Dyk’s new album “Evolution” was met with a fantastic response and you’ll hear a number of his new and classic tunes together with some of my personal favourites in this one.  I hope you all enjoy it, and you can check out some of my other productions at www.soundcloud.com/shawnaustinmusic.

I am always looking for ways to improve thekeytothehouse, so please feel free to comment or contact me with any suggestions you may have.  I am doing this because I love house music and I want to bring my readers, followers and fellow lovers of house the content they want to see covered.  Remember, this is the house that we can all help build and it doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from, everyone is welcome in this house!

Yours in house music,

DJ Shawn Austin