Maybe the swellest thing about the first wave of electroboogie funk in the early ’80s, “Planet Rock” and the Jonzun Crew, Space Invaders and all the rest, was how, without making a fuss about it, a whole different way of feeling about the city jumped out of the ground. This was something new and weird: optimistic fatalism. The music embraced a digital technology that you couldn’t fight, and it was made by people losing the fight with the forces of technology in their community—Bambaataa’s South Bronx, Juan Atkins and Derrick May’s Detroit. Yet optimism rocketed, though you could call it optimism only because it was so fearless, single-minded. Bring it on, electroboogie taunted the future.
Over a decade later, the Beastie Boys’ “Intergalactic” is the wake-up signal: suddenly, brushed-steel robots are popping out of the soil, reemerging in answer to a secret command. Electroboogie has returned. But this time it’s way larger than life, it’s pop rather than subculture, and the optimism is softer, laced with irony.
Lo-Fidelity All Stars may be the biggest robot yet, certainly the one you would want to send into battle with the Prodigy juggernaut. The Lo-Fis have been lumped with Big Beat acts like Fatboy Slim and the Propellerheads, but unlike those musicians their allegiance isn’t to flaunting the illest merkin; they manage to keep the testosterone within boundaries. And unlike most Big Beaters, they aren’t about killing you with the perfect sample, the wickedest loop. Lo-Fis are about the surge of electrons leaping from wires to speaker cones, they are about flow: not in the hip-hop sense, but in the manner of a toothpaste tube in zero G. Give ’em a little squeeze and they go and go and go.
Not a concept or a black hole, they are a band—as if DJ music was bigger than a niche—and their debut, How To Operate With a Blown Mind, is about something bigger than the size of one’s record collection. They nest even the samples that stop you cold in a kelp forest of Wu-Tang Philly soul, hostile disco, and Bootsy stomp: nothing staunches the groove. Yet while this self-produced five-member unit of musicians and DJs were launched from the British dance scene, there isn’t anything particularly subcultural about them: what you get straightaway from Blown Mind is a vague dissatisfaction with the dance floor, a desire to apply its energies to the city surrounding. They’ve been dancing all night and still haven’t quite got off. This is where the record really begins.
With a publicity shot taken in jail, with stories of turntables set on fire and subway cars bombed and plenty of gangsta samples, no question the Lo-Fis wanna be known as lo-lifes. If only life really were that simple. But, drat—with only a few brain cells standing between them and the true oblivion they crave, the band pull back, wander off, and that’s when things get interesting. They want to have fun as much as the Prodigy, but they can’t figure out how fun is sup posed to make them feel. They drift about a modern metropolis trying to sort out their excitement from their nausea, looking for a pint, looking for a wrecking ball.
“Can we hear an amen? Right on!” a soul-powered voice loops on “Blisters on My Brain.” The Lo-Fis want a hit of higher power—they lie prostrate before an electronic altar, waiting for the jumper cables to spark. Singer Dave Randall fumbles for connection like a guy fishing for change in a wishing well; he’d never do something as cornball as Spiritualized singing gospel with a choir, but he’s definitely coming from the same basic place. Blown Mind peaks with “Battle Flag,” a remix of a Pigeonhed song that scraps most everything but the original vocal. Pure people-get-together tribalism, not retro but not really of the moment, the song calls for a “revolution behind the eyes” in such ’60s terms (down to its soulful-white-guy optimism) that unity seems more far away than imminent.
At the middle is Randall, who owes something to the early PiL-era John Lydon, though he sometimes seems positively on the verge of crooning. No one will ever accuse him of being pretty fly for a white guy; if the music is steeped in hip-hop and house, Randall skews toward moony Brit rock singers. You won’t accuse him, either, of the brute futurist optimism of ’80s electroboogie, be cause Randall is of two blown minds about the city he staggers through. He reportedly wandered early-morning London with a dictaphone to come up with lyrics like “the streets are paved with fears…severe mental fog/Breeds a mad-killer dog/London lives up its ass.” Lurching, full of juice that surges and wavers, he pours out his soul. And vocodered, garbled, detached, and stretched across cheek-bumping grooves, it glows lysergically. This is what it sounds like when Teletubbies cry.