Thirty years is a long time in dance music – and in radio. So it was big news when the producers of the Solid Steel radio show announced in December that its weekly shows would be coming to an end. The program, which debuted on December 3 1988 on London’s then-pirate Kiss FM, went out with a flurry: five ‘final’ shows, one a night for a week, leading to the finale: an encore of Solid Steel’s debut, featuring Coldcut on the decks for the first time in two years and special guest Juan Atkins in his first appearance since that Kiss opener. The mixes, thankfully, continue on Ninja Tune’s SoundCloud; Ben UFO’s near two-hour workout went up in March.
For the vast bulk of its run, Solid Steel was a Ninja Tune showcase – fair enough, since the label’s founders, Coldcut, had started the show, with artists PC, Strictly Kev and DK all involved with its production since then. And of course, the Solid Steel remit of sharp, diverse, playful mixes was mirrored by Ninja Tune’s roster. That eclecticism remained evident even as, in more recent years, Solid Steel became a more straightforward showcase for DJs from beyond the label’s orbit (the show’s history is available for perusal at SolidSteel.net; a handy episode guide can be found on MixesDB.com).
Fittingly, the show’s final 10, grouped together as a SoundCloud playlist called ‘30 Years Of Solid Steel’, had the feeling of the show’s trajectory in miniature – which is to say, as iffy as not. As in baseball, no mix showcase bats 1.000 – which is a polite way of saying that the Atkins and Coldcut sets are not their best work (frankly, neither is the legendary OG ’88 Atkins set, except for historical purposes). Sure, you can hear both play better in other venues, but it hardly matters, because five of that ‘30 Years’ playlist – fully half – are absolute stone-cold killers. Here they are, in order of appearance:
The Bug (December 4, hour 1)
“It’s been my aim for years, since naming myself The Bug and devoting myself to soundsystem culture, to try and develop my own mutant dancehall vocabulary,” Kevin Martin writes in the introduction to his Solid Steel farewell. His methodology for the mix is 40 wire-taut riddim bangers, a great many of them his own – “prototypes and demos of what will form future Bug releases,” as Martin puts it, an enticement in itself. It also acts as an informal history of post-digital Jamaican production, with look-ins from JA legends Bobby Digital, Steely & Clevie and – near the end, cleverly dipping back to 1988 – David Eccleston’s ‘Ride Pon Riddim Version’.
Mark Pritchard & The Milky Man (December 5, hour 1)
Sometimes Solid Steel sets are just too eclectic – disjointed and all over the place, rather than broad but cohesive. This leisurely two-hour showcase from the Sydney producer Pritchard, who records for Warp, and his old friend (about whom I could find nothing beyond this set), is in that crazy-quilt fashion – but its frayed edges and oddball selections (from the likes of art-rockers Henry Cow and Syd Barrett) have a lived-in appeal that speaks to the best parts of the show’s whimsical air. Most inspiring is the ending: astral jazz from LA giant Horace Tapscott, followed by NYC indie singer-songwriter Jeffrey Lewis’s bracing ‘What Would Pussy Riot Do?’, a song to sing to yourself the next time you’re at an ‘underground’ party surrounded by corporate insignia, and finally Social Climbers’ ‘Palm Springs’, gorgeous proto-electronica from 1981.
DJ Food feat Humanoid (December 5, hour 2)
In his introduction, DJ Food (Kevin Foakes) explains: “I wanted to take a bunch of motorik, minimal tracks and fuse them together into a steady pulse of polyrhythms and then add more layers.” Sounds simple, but the results are otherworldly, as when The Beach Boys’ ‘Our Prayer’ stretches out over Eno & Lanois’ ‘Ascent (An Ending)’, or the delicious expanse underpinned by Steve Reich’s ageless ‘Music For 18 Musicians’. But what, you may wonder, is the ‘feat Humanoid’ part? Simple – that artist, the early alias of Brian Dougans, later of Future Sound Of London and responsible for the early UK acid standard ‘Stakker Humanoid’, recorded six new songs that Food drops, almost willy-nilly, roughly two-thirds into the set. A mix isn’t necessarily an album, but who says it can’t contain an EP?
Gerd Janson (December 6, hour 1)
Smooth house mixes may not be the first thing that comes to mind with Solid Steel, though it has in fact been a primary strength in recent years; one of 2018’s highlights (in terms of the show specifically, and DJ sets in general) was the disarmingly supple Beautiful Swimmers mix from May. Running Back main-man Gerd Janson’s isn’t merely in that vein, it sums up that vein, offering a mere nine selections over 62 minutes. Don’t call it ‘deep house’; it doesn’t have that sort of soulfulness. But is it flavourful? Extremely so.
HAAi (December 6, hour 2)
Apparently it wasn’t enough to make the Essential Mix of the year; instead, the London DJ born Teneil Throssell flexed with equal facility on this playful showcase of misty acid, opalescent electro and ambient glitch. “I’m a big fan of long, winding, melon-twisting mixes,” she said in January. “Playing a longer set definitely allows you to become more experimental, it allows you to build real trust and lay down much more interesting trips.” Here’s proof she can do just that in a mere hour.
Michaelangelo Matos is a regular contributor to Mixmag, follow him on Twitter