NICK HOLDER with DALE ARSENAULT at Tangerine (647 King West), Thursday (October 23). Free. 416-361-9111. Rating: NNNNN
Go into any dj record shop in the world and ask about Canadian house music and the clerk will pull out some Nick Holder records. The Scarborough-based producer/ DJ is our most widely recognized house export. Since 1991, the records he's been putting out have been played by some of the biggest names in the industry.
So why does his new album, The Other Side, focus so much on rhythms and genres other than the 4/4 stomp he's made his name on, and what does this say about the current state of house music?
"I had to do something different," says Holder, sitting in his busy Scarborough studio. "I'd already put out four full-length house albums and I really wanted to do something that wasn't house. I think I was afraid to start this album. I spent almost a year thinking about it. The label (NRK) told me that people don't want to hear a whole album of house any more, but also wanted me to include some because that's how people know me."
"Everything you can do with house has pretty much already been done. There are only so many options with a straight four-on-the-floor beat. I don't actually listen to house these days except for when I do my radio show or I'm playing a gig."
Holder has always had one foot in hiphop anyway, but that side of him was usually relegated to discs on his Treehouse label (currently on hold until January). This time he gets to integrate those influences, using MCs on a couple of tracks as well as making some forays into broken beat and deep R&B. Those are the songs that most stand out on the disc - especially one called No More Dating DJs, featuring local spoken word artist, MC and radio show host Jemeni in a vicious critique of the state of underground hiphop and DJ culture.
It's too bad that there isn't also an equivalent deconstruction of the stereotypical house DJ, but in some ways the disc itself comes across as a challenge to the underground house scene. It dares the scene to break away from its conservative definitions of deep dance music.
This is the kind of re-evaluation that needs to happen. The underground dance music industry, and house in particular, is going through some of the toughest times since its inception.
"There's definitely a slump going on. Since 9/11, everything has slowed down. Suddenly, we were having trouble getting paid by our distributors, and a bunch of big labels have shut down. I actually had to move my DNH label to England this year. There are a lot of reasons: downloading is affecting things, people have less money, and records are really expensive these days. Back in the 90s, the average person still had a turntable, so it wasn't just DJs buying vinyl. Now most listeners would rather just download the songs."
It's not just radically declining sales that have Holder worried. DJ bookings are sparser as well, although he's been playing in Toronto more than in the past. There's still a local scene, but it's shrunk noticeably over the past two years. He attributes the phenomenon in part to a generation gap between those who grew up partying in warehouses and those who grew up on the dance party from music videos.
"There are too many DJs and not enough people who want to hear them. Too much of the 19-to-30 crowd has gone over to that BET vibe, and new people aren't coming in. When the whole rave thing stopped, the rest of the scene slowed down, too. In the past people would come into house as they grew out of the rave thing, but since that was shut down young people have no way into it."
At one point it wouldn't have been so strange for someone to go from being a hiphop head to getting into house - the two were more connected in the days before rave. Holder himself started out as a hiphop fan but was introduced to house by his neighbours the Assoon brothers, who opened up an all-night club called the Twilight Zone. The Zone served as ground zero for the first generation of Toronto house - all the original producers and DJs started out or got their first taste there.
Hiphop is still Holder's first love. It's what he plays in his car and at home. When he plays overseas, he gets away with including some hiphop. Ironically, it's locally that he gets typecast as Mr. House Music. It's strange that the mainstream clubs can mix genres and tempos but the underground is usually strict and segregated.
Maybe all it takes is for more of the old guard to come out with statements like this album, in which house is re-integrated into the larger context of North American urban music. The genre Nazis have been in control for too long. Looking at the parties. It's obvious that the audience is ready to move on to a wider appreciation of music.