Thursday, May 10, 2012

Revisiting Deee-Lite's "Infinity Within" After 20 Years

L to R: Dmitry, Towa Tei, Kier
Three individuals, Dmitry Brill, Dong-hwa Chung, and Kierin Kirby drew together in the cultural axis of New York City to form Deee-Lite two decades ago. Known collectively by their respective stage names Super DJ Dmitry (production), Towa Tei (keyboards), and Lady Miss Kier (vocals) they blasted onto the popular culture lexicon with the super duper pop slap of "Groove is in the Heart" from their first album World Clique (1990).

Deee-Lite became the group to keep on pushin' dance music, which had gone through another of its many shifts, into a new decade. World Clique, a swanky collection of funk, disco, with hip-hop sample know-how clutched a pop fetishism that snagged casuals and snobs. Deee-Lite crossed over into the mainstream charts but kept their underground dance scene credibility. Deee-Lite encapsulated the (later) emergent trait of the 1990's: that catch-all embrace of pre-existing musical sounds, in retrospect, putting them far ahead of the curve. That advancement doomed them to the fate of "one-hit wonder-dom" and revisionist cruelty. At the time, they were a glaring oddity, dance floor hedonists who flung their skills in the faces of the dominating forces of West Coast hip-hop, grunge, and New Jack Swing.

Majority of the active pop purveyors of the time (Michael Jackson, Madonna, Paula Abdul) were adopting the harder sides of the mentioned dominant popular music styles (Dangerous 1991, Erotica 1992, Spellbound 1991). Nonplussed, Deee-Lite plowed their own path that was decidedly freer and poppier on their second offering 1992's Infinity Within.

Infinity Within was bigger, bolder, and brighter than World Clique. A cementing of their pop niche that had them, like World Clique before it, borrowing from the best parts of the '70's, and working with the best talent around. On board to join Deee-Lite as they steered their sophomore vehicle included Speech (of Arrested Development), saxophonist Maceo Parker (of Parliament-Funkadelic), guitarist/vocalist Bootsy Collins, and Michael Franti (of Disposable Heroes).

The above list was just the "star power" side, the musicians and vocalists troupe included: Fred Wesley (brass), Bernie Worrell (clavinet), Catfish Collins (guitar), Satoshi Tomie (piano), Robin Lobe (percussion), Misha Masud (tablas), Gary "Mudbone" Cooper, Danny Madden, Sahirah Moore, Zhana Saunders, Sheila Slappy (background vocals).
Single cover to "Runaway"

Under Deee-Lite's guidance, the assorted talent assisted in erecting a powerful album that cut between carefree concerns and socio-economic issues. The fun sides were contagious and giddy. Opening with Bootsy Collins declaring "Skinnybackmonkeyandhitme!" on "Heart Be Still," the surefire jungle groover dipped, swerved, and curved.

The polished house finish in the lead single "Runaway" was sleeker and serrated (something they'd pick up on their third, and final, album '95's Dewdrops in the Garden). "Runaway" pulled at the listener, even those looking for another "Groove is in the Heart".
"Two Clouds Above Nine" was a jittery shuffler, "Electric Shock" misled in its title as the song was all calm intonations and ice cream cool. The barely there sweetness of "I Won't Give Up" platformed Kier as an adroit stylist that held her own vocally. The flirtacious creamery in "Pussycat Meow," an aural come-on that Kylie Minogue herself would've killed to have owned, playfully seduced.

On the deeper sides, "I Had a Dream I Was Falling Through a Hole in the Ozone Layer" worked over gospel organs, sampled and authentic funk steam, and presented progressive politics versus empty rhetoric. Their brand of activism was kooky on "Vote, Baby, Vote" (tapped as an advertisement for the 1992 U.S. Presidential Election), and at times severely danceable and serious on "Fuddy Duddy Judge." "Fuddy Duddy Judge" in particular was an excellent mash-up of Michael Franti's alert raps and Kier's jump roping croons. The layered, often to hypnotic effect, sonics placed Dmitry and Tei as acute tunesmiths that knew how to apply rhythms and weird noise widgets ("I.F.O (Identified Flying Object)") or slip into chill-lite plastered corners ("Love is Everything").

A pop record with a message? It appeared Deee-Lite was ambitious, and rightfully so, Infinity Within a rare beauty and a beast of musicianship. It also heralded firsts in the music marketplace, being one of the initial "digi-pak," or paper sleeve, CD's released. In one of the obnoxious and mean twists of industry fate, the album met indifference. Critically, some said it was accomplished, but reached too high. Fans have tended to be kinder to Infinity Within, granting it status of Deee-Lite's best work.

Deee-Lite's MTV Interview for Infinity Within

Elektra Records, Deee-Lite's label, not knowing how to market a record that courted both escapism and introspection contributed to the commercial floundering of Infinity Within (#67, U.S. Hot 100).  All of the singles ("Runaway," "Thank You Everyday," "Pussycat Meow") from Infinity Within went on to become massive club storms (hits) and kept them hot on the touring circuit.

Only one more album appeared, the dancier, but no less captivating Dewdrops in the Garden in 1995 as mentioned. They pulled in another member at this time, Ani Schempf (DJ Ani), who replaced Towa Tei who departed after this, Deee-Lite's third album, to go on to a lucrative solo run. Both Dmitry and Kier moved further into DJing professionally after Deee-Lite's dissolution and remain revered figures on the club scene today. Looking back, especially with the success of lesser imitators (sorry Black Eyed Peas, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry), Deee-Lite were light years up on things. Infinity Within endures as a lost anthemic recording that captures what humanity does best, reflecting and partying. Five out of five stars.

[Editor's Note: Deee-Lite's catalogue is in print, digital and physical formats equally, however Infinity Within is only available new digitally. However, decent copies (conditions vary due to its paper sleeve nature) abound in used record stores for decent prices where yours truly found a clean copy.-QH]


Randy James said...

Great in-depth review that puts the time frame of the album into perspective. Loved reading it.

QH said...

Thanks Mr. James for the comment & support.-QH

Anonymous said...

I just now realized that Michael Franti was on this album and googled deelite/franti. I'm sad to say that I never really listened to this album much, but I will now! Thanks for the review. :)

Ian Ibiza said...

It's wasn't even just that the label didn't know how to market them, they just refused to promote them. According to Lady Kier: "The president of Elektra Records told us he was not going to spend one dime on either album because they were “too gay.” I funded the Dewdrops tour out of my own bank account, and we sold 500,000 copies and sold out every single venue. Unfortunately, the label made 90 percent of the profits, so at the end of the tour I was broke."

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Pop Rescue said...

Ugh! The Elektra President sounds dreadful. Sounds more like HE didn’t know how to market them, so stopped everyone else.