Poor John Digweed. He sells out huge clubs, travels every continent, and has a large fan base that consistently votes him one of the top DJs in the world. But he gets no critical respect because he's still equated with the dance-floor-diva antics of his Twilo days, when he and his long-term DJ partner, Sasha, spun grand, uplifting house, replete with arpeggios, epic 10-minute mixes, and extended piano "breakdowns" explicitly designed to send the audience into an ecstatic fervor.
But the Rodney Dangerfield of the most misnamed style in techno, "progressive," must be having a good laugh these days. During the past seven years—as reflected in the artists signed to his Bedrock record label and his own mix CDs—he's been slowly inching away from the histrionics of progressive, trance, and epic house and sneaking in music that is truly progressive to his audience, which likes its sugar spoon-fed. When the sub-subgenre of tech-house was all the rage—think Swayzak, Terry Francis, Mr. C—Digweed was cherry-picking his favorites, releasing music by tech-house stalwarts Scumfrog, New York City techno producer Gregory Schiff, and Timewriter/Plastic City protégé, Morgan Page. Even as early as 1999, when Twilo was still open, on the Global Underground mix Hong Kong, Digweed matched ADNY (classy deep-house artist Alexi Delano) with a record by bona fide trance star LSG that sounded suspiciously deep—and bereft of melodrama.
On his latest mix, Fabric 20: John Digweed (Fabric, U.K.)—part of the venerable London nightclub's CD series, which has also served up titles by Stacey Pullen, Akufen, Michael Mayer, and Eddie Richards—he creates one giant arc, starting off with a mellow, hazy Pete Moss track and building toward a nastier, rougher center. Most of the songs don't sweep or swoop; they glide like an ice-skater. Some of the records are tribal and percussive and sound rooted to the ground; others just plod. Parts of the mix feel workmanlike, mainly because some of tracks are clunky and mediocre—they made me wish, for once, for a little sensationalism. A few are even beautiful, most notably DJ Rasoul's "True Science," a giddy, jazzy romp, with playful horns that skip across the surface like a little girl playing hopscotch.
The mix is pushed forward by a driving urgency, a technique that marks most of dance music's A-list DJs. They strive for a sound that is almost ostentatious—it has to be big enough for the bass bins at international clubs like Ministry of Sound or the now-defunct Twilo. If they overshoot sometimes, that's OK. It's why they are headlining on the main stage and my tech house and minimal techno heroes play in the side room.
To the average music fan, the two genres aren't discernibly different, but to techno purists they're worlds apart. Progressive house is like an actor who aims for the Oscar by throwing crying fits and temper tantrums, while tech-house, microhouse, and minimal techno win the award with stillness and subtlety—think Benicio Del Toro in Traffic over Sean Penn in Mystic River. For years, techno aesthetes carefully guarded their minimalist treasures—artists on labels like Kompakt, Perlon, and Mosaic—while simultaneously snickering that the people who went to see DJs like John Digweed at superclubs like Crobar would never "get it." We also secretly hoped that everyone would get it, and that in America, Perlon's Sammy Dee or Kompakt's Michael Mayer would regularly spin on the massive sound systems on which their music is meant to be heard instead of what passes for speakers at the local bar. In a perfect world, Mayer would have headlined the larger venue Element, where Digweed is playing Friday, rather than the smaller Chop Suey, where Mayer played last Monday.
Funny, then, that the most "trancey," overtly melodramatic track on Fabric 20 is Mayer's remix of Superpitcher's "Happiness." It starts out moody and pensive, with a male vocal half-whispering, half-speaking, and slowly builds to a crescendo, stopping midway to near silence, before picking up where it started. Using a fugue structure usually found in classical music, it's got soaring synths and a steady percussive climb. In other words, it's exactly what John Digweed used to play at Twilo. Whether you can still call it minimal techno is up for discussion, but it's the ultimate irony that Digweed might be the one bringing it to the masses—even as techno itself becomes more mainstream.
It helps that Digweed is a first-class turntable technician, able to mix in key with seemingly little effort, gracefully moving from one record to the next, melding them together harmoniously while still managing to create friction. I can't help but feel like John Digweed is a bit like a beautiful blond friend of mine whose physical appearance is so overwhelming that people forget how sharp she is. Digweed is so well known for a particular sound, and for being either embraced or dismissed for it, that he's reveling in how people continue to underestimate him. Go ahead, he seems to be saying. I'll show you.
John Digweed plays Element with Luke Fair at 9 p.m. Fri., March 18. $22.