“Check your attitude at the door, and throw your coat on the floor.” This was Basement Jaxx’s house motto through the 1990s, from their first night in the back of a rundown Mexican restaurant under a railway bridge in Brixton, London, to the improved digs of neighborhood clubs like the Junction. Felix Buxton and Simon Ratcliffe made the Jaxx name, both their Basement Jaxx nights and their Atlantic Jaxx label, on a consciously unpretentious pursuit of dance pleasure. After five years that established their profile, when too much attitude started coming through the door, they stayed true to their word and moved on.
“It became the cool place to go,” Ratcliffe told Rolling Stone in the fall of 1999. “Before, we could just play the music we wanted. That disappeared. Everyone started coming with this attitude of ‘You’re cool, let’s see what you can do.’” Pulling up stakes once the too-hip onlookers show up might be anti-snobbery as its own kind of snobbery, but Basement Jaxx also had other things on their mind. Having steadily put out a series of EPs from ’94 to ’97, as well as the attention-catching singles “Samba Magic” (1995) and “Fly Life” (1997), it was time to boldly go where other contemporary electronic music duos like Daft Punk and the Chemical Brothers had recently gone before: mainstream.
The state of rock music in 1999 was uneven, and too much of it was stuck in a rut. Judging by the music press’ reception of Remedy, Basement Jaxx’s debut album released in early May of that year — 20 years ago today — dance music wasn’t faring much better. Could one artist turn the tide? “Basement Jaxx are the saviours of British house music,” declared Uncut that June. “Simple as that.” Well then. Such statements would have rung like hollow hyperbole if they weren’t coming from all sides. “More fun than Fatboy Slim, more creative than the Chemical Brothers,” affirmed Entertainment Weekly — not exactly the house aficionado’s magazine of choice, but that was the point, to invite everyone.
Buxton and Ratcliffe were indeed consciously offering a cure. Elaborating on the title to Uncut, Buxton called the album, “a remedy for all the kind of misery we’ve been having in the last few years…. All the boring generic samey club music, and all the music saying ‘We’re bored, and we’ve got no hope and there’s no way out.’ We’re saying we’re glad to be alive and everything’s cool, don’t worry.” That sentiment dovetailed with the message of what was then their most recent single, “Red Alert”; its verse “Don’t worry/ Don’t panic/ Ain’t nothin’ goin’ on but history” sought to soothe the pre-millennium tension coursing through the general populace at the time.
As far as house history goes, though they may have been as much saboteurs of purism as they were saviors of the party, Basement Jaxx respected it. “This album came about as an attempt to recapture the feeling, energy, and soul of classic Chicago and New York house music,” they told Billboard that summer. “Our songs evolved from there.” Where others wanted to replicate the details, Basement Jaxx sought to recapture the broader joy, while also making their dissatisfaction with the current state of the scene known to anyone who asked.
“In the beginning we were just trying to be House producers,” Ratcliffe told The Wire as Remedy was preparing for release. “Now we’re trying not to be House producers.” Basement Jaxx coined the term ‘punk garage’ for themselves, but even though Remedy was put out by XL Recordings, then most popularly known as home to the Prodigy, they didn’t sport mohawks and use distorted guitars like their new labelmates. Their application of punk was the anything-goes spirit (going with ‘garage’ over ‘house’ seemed more about making the witty word switch than identifying with one close style over the other) and the eclecticism they espoused, which might have even made it more a kind of post-punk garage.
As if to make a point right away about that eclecticism; that, despite the “electronica is the new rock ‘n’ roll” talk of the late ’90s, dance didn’t need to replace or be defined in opposition to anything else, one of the very first instruments on Remedy is a guitar. Albeit an acoustic Spanish guitar, but still there’s potential for finding a symbolic gesture pointing either direction in the way that “Rendez-Vu” flicks a couple of Castilian chords in circles until it drops the guitar and drops in the beat. Whether it means anything or not — ‘guitars welcome,’ ‘guitars stand aside’ — is less relevant than Remedy establishing its cleverness upfront without prioritizing it above having a good time. It’s deep house; not deep in its mood, but utilizing intellectual depth.
That so much of the buzz around Remedy had to do with Basement Jaxx’s ability to write songs that sounded like real songs, as opposed to over-repetitive techno tracks, shows the kind of expectations Buxton and Ratcliffe were exploiting. Though their Surrender that year would mix things up more, even electro-titans like the Chemical Brothers had up until then released albums that largely functioned as an idealized hour of their set sliced into skippable segments. Remedy had full stops and all manner of rhythms, not just BPM increases and decreases. It also offered up jarring juxtapositions — such as the crunching stomp, telephone ring and calmly delivered goth metal lyrics (“You were a prophet from above/ Then you came and sucked my blood/ My pain became my strength/ I am reborn…”) of “Yo Yo” — and made the unnatural feel organic.
Its focus on songwriting over function also meant that, unlike so much purpose-built dance music both then and now, Remedy didn’t call for chemical enhancement. Every song was so ripe with detail, if you were on something you might miss your favorite bit. Basement Jaxx weren’t really anti- anything, but drugs didn’t have much if any role in their process. Clubbing in the ’90s, their release was just to “dance as hard as possible.” Again, for all their right moves and right connections with the likes of Daft Punk, Armand Van Helden and other notables, this kind of difference helped cement their outsider self-image. “I never thought we’d have commercial success at the beginning,” Buxton told the Guardian in 2005. “What we were doing seemed very off to the side of what mainstream culture was into. It was nothing to do with the British dance scene, which was very much about cocaine.”
It was nothing to do with it, until it was. “…Basement Jaxx have spun the whole British dance scene upside down,” Rolling Stone informed America in August of 1999 when Remedy landed via Astralwerks, who also handled the Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim. Remedy didn’t quite produce a “Praise You” or “Setting Sun” crossover hit in the US, but Basement Jaxx had already been embraced by the dance world here. “Red Alert” was a genuine number one hit on the Dance Music/Club Play chart, and “Rendez-Vu” and “Bingo Bango” followed suit. Remedy’s durable shelf-life made it a record that kept attracting the kind of newcomers who only had a few scattered big beat CDs in their collection. The growth of their live show — not just two dudes behind a table but an invigorating, genuine performance with a live band, singers, and dancers — made an increasing impression as well.
Two years later, Rooty, their sophomore album, would capitalize on the attention Remedy had both gradually earned and had thrust upon it, and Basement Jaxx were on their way to being festival headliners. If musical influence is measured in how many artists follow in another’s footsteps then the breadth of their legacy is up for debate, but the nature of their approach made them nearly an impossible act to follow. What’s more, Basement Jaxx’s mission from the start had been to get free of the constraints of reverential homage, so the most appropriate respect to pay them would be to do your own thing. Remedy certainly did.