It seems as if almost every decent house record of the last 20 years has been reissued in the last couple of years. Whilst this may be annoying for collectors who own the originals (and want to keep all the joy to themselves) it’s pure fun for the rest of us everyday folk who aren’t keen on spewing half a day’s wages on one slab of wax.
Of these above mentioned represses, Jovonn’s House a la Carte on Clone Classic Cuts has to be among the finest. It serves as a good entry point for an artist whose production career has spanned over two decades and donned many stylistic hats.
‘Project X’ with its typically seismic kicks still sounds fresh 20 years on. Its rhythms are simple and immediate: party music plain and simple. And as for ‘This Thing Is Jammin’, the title says it all. Yet behind the jacking exterior is an unmistakable musicality and soul: you could say this is the real deep house, before that term became so hackneyed as to be almost meaningless. It’s bumping, for sure, but there are many wistful melodies riding in the mix too. It’s this winning combination of the soulful and the slamming that has worked for Jovonn over his lengthy career.
Allen JoVonn Armstrong was raised by musical parents in Brooklyn, New York. His father was a percussionist and his mother conducted a choir. Their son first cut his teeth musically djing hip hop at block parties around the city. And he was still a teenager when he had his first breakthrough: 1991’s top 10 billboard hit ‘Turn and Runaway.’ Soon after he was penning classics such as Ceybil Jefferies’ ‘Love so Special’ which was later sampled by none other than Larry Heard in ‘Burning’. Yet aside from making a mint producing popular dance classics, Jovonn’s strongest early musical output is undoubtedly the dozen or so records he released via his first dance label, Goldtone Records. This now defunct yet legendary imprint was a vehicle for the true sound of the soulful underground. Operational between 1991-’94 and a sublabel of the mighty Emotive Records, it contains many, if not all, of Jovonn’s best productions.
Like many first wave house producers, Jovonn was a musician before a DJ and the sheer musicality of his productions is often the most striking aspect of his tracks. They often feature proper choruses, breakdowns, and even middle eights. And to substitute the vocals from any of his tracks, for me, is to suck them of their life (a point perhaps tacitly acknowledged by Jovonn himself as there are so few dubs). Instead there are hosts of honey voiced female singers on any of his Goldtone releases, and occasionally his own vocal chords are exercised too.
The superior vocal version of “Be Free” illustrates this point. Its lyrics about the liberating power of music need to be heard, its phrasing is beautiful, and the music itself is like a gospel hymn praising the God of house music. “It’s spiritual”, Jovonn has said of his approach to music. And whether religious or not, there is a beautiful escapism at the heart of his best records. Take another Goldtone cut, “Erson’s Keys”, whose bassline Omar S clearly listened to at a formative age. Its jazzy soulfulness, and octave spanning keyboard licks are sublime. At risk of contradicting myself, it is a rare classic Jovonn track without any vocals, and evidence that this “spirituality” can be conveyed through sheer instrumentation alone. He lays the piano melodies before any other aspect of his tracks, and this could explain their inherent tunefulness, even at their most slamming. The basslines are added last, yet as the above track illustrates, are by no means an afterthought. Instead, they are undoubtedly some of the best in the game.
Another characteristic Jovonn track is T Lavora’s “Basics 4 Love”, featuring a slamming, tracky bassline and sultry vocals from a previously unknown female vocalist. Jovonn was not just an accomplished singer and songwriter himself but also a great talent spotter. There are countless – sometimes uncredited – vocalists who grace his tracks. Singers he would often meet during the early hours on the NY club circuit, who would then go on to make an appearance on a record, like “Tannia aka T Lavora” here, and then disappear without a trace. Some of the synth settings perhaps sound a tad dated (duh, it’s from the 90s – I know) yet aside from that the tune hasn’t aged a day.
Goldtone was primarily a vehicle for Jovonn’s own productions (and an assortment of vocalists). The amount of records Jovonn produced in 1992 alone is staggering (at least 9 classics by my maths) and although he has a patchy discography compared with other garage greats like, say, Kerri Chandler, if he kept this up he would have been untouchable. Along with Chandler, Jovonn had a large part to play in creating the norms of ‘deep’ house we know so well today. And whilst his beats never quite have the precision of the Shelter Records boss, his melodies and musicality are a match for any producer. And the Goldtone Records oeuvre stands as concise proof of this fact.
Testament to the continuing influence of Goldtone Records is the use of his tracks by today’s vanguard producers. Both LIES affiliates Delroy Edwards and Greg Beato used the track “Don’t Want to Let You Go” on their respective Welcome to the Room and NTS takeovers. The Goldhouse EP from which this track comes, is an example of Jovonn’s versatility. “Pianos of Gold”, perhaps his most famous tune, does what it says on the tin; rendering simple pianos notes in shimmering glory. Whereas the other two tracks present a darker, more heads down approach that actually suits him well. Yet despite the tougher rhythm section, there are still mellow organ notes, and even brass, which lends the track an almost melancholy feel, befitting of a producer who seems incapable of ever making an aggressive sounding track. This is no bad thing, but what is more remarkable is that he has managed to do so without ever lapsing into schmaltz. The tunes are positive, yet never sickly.
Every record on Goldtone is a killer: it was one of the places soulful house music was created, and remains one of the best places to enjoy it.