Sermon or mammon?

Master Nuyorican producer Little Louis Vega and Subliminal Records label head Erick Morillo have decided to hock their DJ skills on the double CD House Nation: America, only the second domestic release from Ministry of Sound, Britain’s marquee superclub and lifestyle dance label.

As half the house duo Masters At Work (with Kenny Gonzalez), Vega constantly updates the musical freedom charted by garage legends such as Larry Levan, while emphasizing a distinct concern for his own interests. On House Nation, Vega lays out a simple blueprint for this approach, emphasizing house’s gospel structure by draping life-affirming messages over various Latin rhythms and jazzy piano solos. Starting with his own “Elements of Life” then segueing into Joe Clausell’s drum circle-inspired track “Spiritual Insurrection” the message of life and rebirth resonate throughout the mix. “Father,” with its harmonica melody line and gentle demands that father should “help your children” hints at the longtime house theme of people (historically black, Latin and gay) searching for spiritual-familial recognition.

Morillo, though in a very different and distinct way, presents a similar theme in his mix, further complicating the already thin line between love and heartache when you’re a social outcast. Witness Morillo’s mixing Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech at the end of Hatiras’ “Invaders” just before Thick Dick’s “Welcome to the Jungle,” with its deep male voice intoning, “In the darkness I hear the call of the wild …/I want to fuck you like an animal/sink my teeth into your flesh.”

In this stronger, Strictly Rhythm style, Morillo plays confidently with the apparent contradictions of civil rights speeches and “mating season in the underground,” the message clearly being that in house music, the former necessitates the latter. Vega’s mix also points to another, seemingly contradictory, need of house innovation by dropping tracks by Isolee (“Beau Mot Plage”) and Southwest Detroit’s Rolando (“Knights of the Jaguar”). This nods to house’s indebtedness to more techno-driven sounds in order to guarantee its own survival.

But if there are concerns, they lie not with the mixes but instead where they always seem to lie — in the packaging. Despite Morillo’s constant sampling of voices asking “Where did it all go wrong?” and “We got to bring back that feeling” or Vega quoting gospel riffs, the specter of handing these sentiments to a lucrative lifestyle company interested only in raising its own bottom line through “payrolls, profit margins, and long-term expand-and-diversify strategies” (thanks Simon Reynolds) gives pause. Souls at any price?

E-mail Carleton S. Gholz at [email protected].

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