It's 1am in Boston early Sunday morning, we're at Good Life on Kingston Street, and the downstairs dance floor is full -- fuller than full. DJ DERRICK CARTER has the people jumping all around. Hands rise and pump the air. Heather, whom this writer sees at many house music events, comes up to me and thanks me for bringing Carter's stuff to her attention (on FB of course). She's in full joy mode.
That Carter, a veteran of the first generation of house music creators, can overflow a dance club 25 years later, says a lot about how convincing -- and marveled at -- his work is. More than any other Chicago house music contemporary, with the possible exception of Robert Owens, Carter has kept on keeping on, detailing his sound, widening its taste for incorporating music of before his own time into his music of tomorrow.
Thus the dance floor is full of local DJs and house heads who know. And they are hearing his strongest stuff: "Interceptor," with its sassy bitch talk; "Squaredancing In a Roundhouse," in which honky meets conk; his remix of "Life," by Blair; "Where U At"; "Legacy"; portions of his number one current Beatport download, "On the Train" (again, a remix); and, the "Carter's Discocircus" remix of his and Blaze's "My Beat," with its girl-touting drop-in of "Deputy of Love," a 1978 convo piece by Don Armando's Second Avenue Orchestra.
There's much more, of course. In his almost two-hour set he plays possibly 12 tracks and at least that many DJ tool-ins. Using two CD players only, and a mixboard, he doesn't over-awe the music with mixology, or shapeshifts. Rather, he guides it, along its continuous groove. He counts on track selection to keep the music motivating and on his tool-ins to say the right thing at the right time, and do so in a way unmistakably Carter's.
It's jazz on many levels -- arranged jazz, as much Fletcher Henderson as Basie's Blue Five, but the sound is Blue Five; only the guiding is a Henderson. It's jazz improvisation, too, because the tool-ins that Carter brings come spur of the moment, albeit it after 25 years performing he knows most such moments by heart. (But then so does Pharaoh Sanders.) And Carter's right: it's the tool-ins that elicit the most screaming from the crowd at The Good Life. Screaming and grooving.
Tonight, he's showing off that, like the men of classic jazz whose work he so admires and makes use of, he gets sharper and more inventive at his music. Already when he began, late in the 1980s, he had a jazz pianist's right hand and a taste for moody bass lines. By the mid-1990s he had locked and loaded all of his signatures: funky, blue, high-stepping, and always filtered through the humors and sentimentality that signify Chicago house music. It's a sound which even was not at all like anybody else's. And so tonight, six years after this writer last reviewed him at RISE, Carter's sound comes more personally than ever, wiser, as singular as it dares to be and as proud a history and recombination of Black music as Betty Davis's "They Say I'm Different."
Thus, in addition to all of the above, Carter tools in the rap from Digital Underground's "Humpty Dance." He imports trumpet solos, and piano walks, and a voice that might easily be Lena Horne. The continuous groove that he holds to is a dark town stutters' strut, choppy low notes bopping across the floor at a brisk 126 to 128 BPM. At times the beat reforms -- like a marching band doing a Figure 8, say -- to boogie woogie, or to buck and stomp, even to techno; but whatever move Carter applies, the brisk pace holds true. Whatever voice or instrument came gliding on top, the beat stays its course. There's no station to get off at, it's all the way or nothing. But no one is shifting into getting-off mode. Through to the set's destination, Carter keeps on guiding, nudging, tooling in head-turners, strutting low and preening high.
It's the work of a house music shaman, a therapist of glee, a medicine man.
Opening DJ Matt McNeil, given the difficult task of preparing a table for Carter to work with, played a set of deep and jazzy that feels sultry, though not sassy. Still, sultry is delicious, and the already full room was dancing on it enthusiastically.