Last week Paul Nickerson, co-founder (with Francis Englehardt) of Dope Jams and Slow To Speak, contacted FACT regarding the recent death of their friend, house producer Dana Kelley. What follows is their tribute to this great artist and his work.
We were devastated to learn that our friend Dana Kelley, influential producer originally hailing from Boston, Massachusetts, died suddenly on January 28th, 2013.
In the dance music world, Dana was better known under his numerous monikers, most notably Callisto, Krimp and DKMA. He released dozens of singles and remixes beginning in the early 1990s, becoming a local hero in the Boston house scene and an internationally recognised pioneer of underground electronic music worldwide. His records on Strictly Rhythm, Guidance, Large and other quintessential 1990s labels helped to define the deep house sound of an era, despite his persona remaining relatively obscure over the years.
Dana got his first huge break on the all time holy of holies, Strictly Rhythm. For a window between 1995 and 1996, he was the golden child of the label’s second wind, putting out 5 EPs in rapid-fire succession to massive acclaim, all at a crucial time when house music was attempting to redefine itself and bridge from its initial explosion to its still uncertain future. His early works straddled this divide, drawing from classic garage and underground club while blazing forward with an unorthodox production technique that relied heavily on ballsy sampling and serious musical proficiency, often manifesting in quintessential Dana/Krimp/Callisto key solos that propelled so many of his tracks into the unique stratosphere of vocal-hook driven house that he exclusively orbited. Both ‘Get Up’ and ‘House of Pain’ were hammered relentlessly by Louie Vega at his Underground Network/Sound Factory residency, and house legend Armand Van Helden, also originally hailing from Boston, ended up lifting the bassline of ‘In The Spirit’ for his hugely successful remix of CJ Bolland’s ‘Sugar Is Sweeter’.
It felt like everything was falling into place for Dana, but things took a different turn following a dispute with label head Gladys Pizarro over his first releases on Guidance, material that Strictly Rhythm had originally expressed little interest in. Incidentally, his divorce from Strictly resulted in his most fertile period yet, seeing Dana mature into the genius of a deep house producer whom his adherents still worship to this day. The conceptual vision expanded, the risk-taking hurtled forward, and the music took on a decidedly more ethereal tone. Dana’s sound as Callisto and DKMA felt like it emanated out of a video game transmitted from Mars, with robots pouring their hearts out in spoken word one-liners, B-movie villains chattering through meaning-displacement talk-boxes and singers from R&B’s storied past screaming to break free. Taking Chicago deep house forebears by the hand through rave culture’s forgotten back rooms, Dana appropriated their jazz-rooted musicality and transposed it onto a landscape of constantly shifted meaning, where secrets are transmitted and voices of pain and revelation sing through a wall of impenetrable, coded, beautifully lush melody. Sometimes delicate and other times dark, his new sound emanated from the ghost in the shell of countless fried hard-drives and over-worked midi controllers that he would leave strewn across his studio like fallen soldiers from the intergalactic war for underground dance music’s future. He put everything he had into his music, and it showed.
In our eyes, Dana was one of the most creative, innovative and freaky producers ever. He was a major inspiration behind Dope Jams and a truly special human being. Dana introduced Francis to producing electronic music and sold him his first gear. He was a mentor to us and so many other kids growing up in Boston, enraptured with the promise of underground club culture. But beyond our friendship, his music has always blown us away and showed us that there is a difference between the commonplace and the truly sublime, the everyday house track and the next tier of exceptional dance music. Dana knew how to make instrumental house tracks live, breathe and feel as vital and evocative as the most emotionally affecting and complexly arranged songs. He understood that in order to overcome the banality and imitation so commonplace in so much electronic music, you had to fight the very devices that allow you to create it; it’s only worthwhile if you combat the mechanical reproduction of repetitive music for repetition’s sake.
One listen to Dana Kelley at his finest proves that a house track does not need to rely on its good looks and pretty sounds to do the talking; it can build, peak, beckon, puzzle, challenge and ultimately change it’s listeners like any high form of musical expression. Dana made music worthy of the most discerning listener while satisfying the most unpretentious party people, because Dana made universal music. In honour of his memory and spirit, we wanted to share a little bit of why we think his contributions should be remembered and valued.
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