Once a week I try to boost my karma by cooking at Chicken Soup Brigade. I started doing volunteer work years ago so I'd interact with people outside the music and publishing worlds. Being cooped up in a kitchen with a steady crew provides a great opportunity to find out what real folks think about music. When you're chopping a 50-lb. bag of onions, the wrong CD can really piss a body off. I popped in the first disc of Tommy Boy's excellent The Perfect Beats anthology of club classics one afternoon, but had to pull the plug about two minutes into Kraftwerk's "Trans Europe Express" when I noticed people with knives looking distressed by the robotic beats.
My Chicken Soup colleague Max, who knows a lot more about music than many of my esteemed peers, calls the tunes that survive on our CD player "production music." The first time he used the term, I thought he was talking about Phil Spector and Arthur Baker, i.e., producers with an established sound and a mastery of the recording studio. But I'm a geek who sits around in his underwear listening to records all day. What my buddy was actually referring to are tunes that make repetitive tasks fly by faster, bringing us ordinary mortals as close to the all-singing, all-dancing wackiness of Hollywood musicals as we'll ever get.
The disc that sparked our conversation that afternoon was Non-Stop Funk Volume 2 (PolyGram Chronicles). Featuring selections like the Pointer Sisters' rousing "Yes We Can Can" and Junior's elastic "Mama Used to Say" (the best '80s jam DeBarge never wrote), these 50 funky minutes turned cooking a couple hundred servings of pork fried rice into a cakewalk. That I didn't stumble into the oven while shaking my ample booty to "You Dropped a Bomb on Me" by the Gap Band is astonishing enough to warrant a Fox TV special.
Programming production music when I'm alone is more challenging. I won't play Patra's dance-hall cover of Grace Jones' "Pull Up to the Bumper" when I'm driving because I can't keep my hands on the wheel with my arms in the air. This column would've been finished a lot sooner, but I slapped the 12-inch single of Cathy Dennis' 1991 hit "Touch Me (All Night Long)" on the decks. Like the common crow—or Madonna—I'm easily distracted by shiny objects, and there's nothing like a Shep Pettibone remix to keep me away from the computer.
The gym is the toughest place for me to figure out what to listen to. It's got to be disco or house for my aerobics, but if the beats get too speedy chaos ensues. Peaches & Herb's "Shake Your Groove Thing" might be fast-paced fun on the dance floor, but it doesn't sound quite so sexy when you're flying off the treadmill at high velocity. I change tapes in the locker room before I do my weights, which require punk or heavy metal—something about blaring Metallica or the Misfits gives me the added testosterone the gods normally deny me. My gym actually pipes in pretty good tunes, but that route is unreliable. One time my batteries died, and I had to endure a dance remix of "My Heart Will Go On." Needless to say, I cut my workout short.
Sometimes picking production music means finding something that's upbeat but not too distracting. The recent Mushroom Jazz 2 (on Om), mixed by DJ Mark Farina, provided the perfect accompaniment for an endless Christmas baking odyssey last week. Through hours of mixing and rolling and frosting, minimalist house grooves like "Make Me Happy" by Cooly's Hot Box and "Then Came You" by Euphonic with Kevin Yost kept a spring in my step, but didn't whip me up into such a frenzy that I tossed aside my cookie cutters for a few rounds of living room karaoke. Which, now that we're finished, is exactly why there's an instrumental b-side on that Cathy Dennis single. . . .