Today I take you on a journey to a country we have not been yet, a land which is often unfairly forgotten in terms of electronic music, a nation being eclipsed by its shiny neighbours: I am talking about the great Italy. UK took the bass, Germany the techno, France the electro and Spain got Ibiza. What’s left for Italy then ? Italo-disco, amigo mio. Let the dutch master I-F guide you via Rimini, Roma and Milano.
Where to start ? This is big, really. This 1999 mixed compilation, produced by I-F in the Hague (in the Netherlands, hence the name) is absolutely essential. I will first talk about the italo-disco genre (which I love), then about I-F (whom musical path is very rich and diverse), before going through the mix (which is obviously amazing).
Italo disco is an electronic genre of music that emerged in Italy around the end of the 70’s, and lasted a bit less than 10 years. It was quite popular in Italy of course, in Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland and France; but it somehow never made it to UK. This is how I would define italo-disco: it “historically” appeared right after the 70’s disco and before the late 80’s Chicago house. Hence it inherited some of the characteristic disco sounds such as guitar riffs, violin and voice parts, but got rid of the drums: those were entirely replaced by electronic drum machines, which the house music obviously kept. Synthesizers were widely used, as were vocoders and samplers. Overall the tempo of italo tracks is quite slow when compared to disco or house; I would say it gives it a human feel. When there is a voice part, the lyrics are always in english, and deal with themes such as love, space or robots. There are no big artists or producers when it comes to italo-disco because they have never been really famous; few tracks made it to the top 40 of european countries (despite being largely played in clubs, including in America). Plus the producers never pushed themselves into the limelight; this role was devoted to the singer who almost never took part in the song writing process. Between 1982 and 1984, countless tracks were composed in Italy and as a result, some labels got very big: I have selected a few and listed them at the very end of this article.
This cocktail of synthesizers, drum machines, sexy singers and dull lyrics characterizes italo disco. Today, it is often considered as cheesy 80’s music but I can assure you it has delivered some extraordinary gems, with beautiful melodies (especially instrumental tracks). The house/disco/nu-disco ever-reliable californian duo Classixx enlisted ten of their favourite italo-disco tracks over here, and they undoubtedly encompassed some very essential releases, so I highly recommend you give those a listen if you want to make your own idea of what italo is.
It is quite hard to define the exact influence italo-disco had on other types of music, because it never gained a true public recognition (despite a huge underground success). I think it contributed to the general growth and rise of the electronic music in the 80’s, since it even “appeared” in some popular films. Musicians like Vangelis or Giorgio Moroder and his long-time associate Harold Faltermeyer composed entirely electronic original soundtracks: think of the Beverly Hills Cop theme (by Faltermeyer), the stunning Blade Runner soundtrack (by Vangelis, one of my favourite albums), or the fabulous Midnight Express ‘The Chase‘ theme (Moroder even won an Academy Award for this one).
On to I-F now. Just like the italian producers hidden behind male models trying to sing in english, Ferenc E. van der Sluijs (his real name, from which derives his stage name I-F, standing for Inter-Ference) likes to keep a low profile. A very humble man, I-F comes from the Hague, in the Western Netherlands, a coastal city between Amsterdam and Rotterdam. His musical course started in 1993 when he opened a record shop in the Hague, inspired by the Do-It-Yourself attitude of Detroit’s Underground Resistance and Chicago’s Trax. He then met the guys of Bunker Records (a pure techno label), and together they set up the infamous Acid Planet parties. Held in squats in and around the Hague, they were focused on acid music and.. acid. Legend has it the Bunker guys funded some of their releases with the money they got from selling LSD at their parties.. Those lasted a few years then eventually stopped, as house music and electro took over acid. But it allowed I-F to release his first tracks as part of Unit Moebius along with the Bunker guys. Give it a listen over here, but be warned, it is quite acid indeed.
I-F’s most known track, released in 1997 on Viewlexx (one of his labels), somehow reflects the change of direction he undertook after the acid years and remains his most successful track to date. A true electro hit in the underground late 90’s scene, ‘Space Invaders are Smoking Grass‘ revolves around an electronic bassline and an vocoder part that warns you about the space invaders (“they’ll kick your ass”). I think it is safe to say that the ‘Space Invaders’ sound is not far away from the electronic jams that happened in Italy some 10-15 years earlier, and this is no coincidence: I-F is indeed a great (maybe the greatest) fan of italo-disco.
During the 90’s, I-F was very busy: producing tracks, managing labels, throwing parties and DJing. Yet another major facet of his musical career lies in his involvement in pirate radios, which he joined in the early 90’s. Playing all kinds of music (disco, italo, acid, techno, electro or house), his motto has always been to “get the music out”. He eventually stopped producing in 2003 to focus solely on radio and launched the pirate/then-new internet radio Cybernetic Broadcast System (CBS, obviously a parody on the american major group), which in 2008 transformed into today’s Intergalactic FM, an online radio hub which has six different streams. Tune in to ‘Intergalactic Classix’ to hear some good disco or italo, ‘MurderCapital FM’ (named after another of his labels) to get your dose of electro, or ‘Radio Galaxia’, the so-called “Intergalactic Housing Authority”.
As you would have probably guessed by now, I-F is a man of many talents and he is of course a great DJ. Back in 1999, he made up a demo CD to showcase how his DJ sets look like, but as he says himself, “it got out of hand”. Indeed, “Mixed Up in The Hague Vol. 1” quickly established itself as a landmark compilation of the 00’s, being responsible for the resurgence of italo-disco. And it is easy to figure out why: out of the 22 tracks featured on the CD, 17 were released between 1982 and 1984, with 11 of them coming from italian producers. The 5 remaining tracks are mostly 1999 dutch productions, released on Viewlexx, I-F’s label. I think this represents quite well his influences at the time.
Let’s go through the mix now. It starts quite smoothly with the weird noises of dutch duo E.O.G. and the choirs of ‘Primitive World’ by legendary and highly-influential disco producer Patrick Cowley (one of the pioneers of electronic music in the late 70’s). After this short intro, you are in for a stellar who’s who of 1982-83 italo disco. “World Invaders” by Pluton & Humanoids kicks things off before Giorgio Moroder follows up with his fantastically synth-driven “The Chase” (as mentioned earlier on). After that, Man Parrish and then The Jonzun Crew proclaim their adoration for the vocoder, and, well, space. I-F keeps the pace high and uses clever breaks as transitions; as you focus on strange machine and beep sounds you are already into “Spacer Woman” from Charlie, an absolute italo classic. And no wonder where the guide takes you next: the extraordinary Hipnosis rework of the Blade Runner theme propels you directly into space for a one-way trip. That is where you meet the ‘Lectric Workers and their fabulous systematic robots, after another incredible and seamless transition.
The electro-heavy “Love Explosion” from Alden Tyrell (Viewlexx, 1999) concludes brilliantly this first half of the mix, leaving room for a relatively calm Kraftwerk remix by François K. and the dreamy Midnight Version of another italo classic, “Problèmes d’Amour” by Alexander Robotnick. Without you noticing it, I-F merges the basslines together and you are back in Italy in 1983 with the unbeatable “Take A Chance” by Mr. Flagio, its amazing vocoder and its subtle guitar riff. Klein & M.B.O. build their “Dirty Talk” upon it but at this point it is the gorgeous “Livin’ Up” by B.W.H. that really stands out (wich, with this very track, makes up for one of the very finest EPs of italo disco ever produced, and also one of my very favourite songs; the piano part is sexy as hell). But the italo festival is not over yet and soon you get to hear the wonderful synth melodies of Doctor’s Cat – Feel The Drive and Catch by Sun-La-Shan, released on Il Discotto and Superradio, two essential italo labels (see below). After two calm tracks from Electronome (a dutch 1995 production), the mix ends up strongly with the classic yet hypnotizing, haunting vocal version of Sharivari by A Number of Names.
Flawless selection, totally perfect mixing, continuous groove and contagious party vibe; you really can’t get any better than this. Story goes that the first time I heard this mix was in a restaurant at lunch and I got so entertained by the music that I almost stopped eating. This has to be one of my very favourite mixes, makes me do the robot dance everytime.
Huge respect to I-F for putting this mix up some 14 years ago; brilliantly standing the test of time, it is still as fresh as it was on the first day.
Thanks for having read this article, I hope you like the mix. Here are some stuff to keep you awake at night, if you love italo (you should love it by now).
-I-F interview on Resident advisor: here;
-His lecture for RBMA: here;
-The Intergalactic FM radio website: here;
– A nice live recording of I-F in Dublin back in 2010: here;
– A brilliant mixtape from The Twelves, a duo from Brazil (who got featured on this blog right here), including some very good italo: here.
– The ten italo tracks selected by Classixx (essential selection): here.
– Mixed Up In The Hague Vol. 2: yes it exists. And yes it is equally awesome as Vol. 1. Check it over here.
A very short list of Italo-disco Labels:
– Discomagic Records: the biggest in Italy between 1982 and 1985, it got a hell lot of sub-labels (ranging from italo to trance), and scored numerous hits thanks to ‘Lectric Workers or P. Lion (Dreams and Happy Children). I can’t assure you that each release is of high quality, but if you really like italo, this could easily become your goldmine.
– Superradio Records: Still going today, it got decent releases from Camaro’s Gang (whose excellent “Super Shuffle” is featured in the mix), and Sun-La-Shan (“Catch” is also in the mix) back in the day. Those two projects are composed of Franco Scopinich and the singer Venise who both run the label.
– Il Discotto Productions: Alive from 1982 until 1986. Releases randomly include: Doctor’s Cat productions (“Feel The Drive”, included in the mix), Scotch’s hit from 1983 “Penguin Invasion“, an EP by Cerrone, and that fabulous track “Magical Body” by Los Angeles T.F. which I really like. Il Discotto also distributed the releases of the next label.
– Memory Records: With classic releases from Hipnosis, Koto and Cyber People (whose tracks Polaris and especially Void Vision are favourites of mine; the synth melody of Void Vision haunted me for days after I heard for the first time; this has to be one the best tracks ever produced), Memory Records holds without a doubt many gems in its collection.
– ZYX Records: One cannot talk about italo-disco without mentioning ZYX Records, from Germany. They were the first to use the word ‘italo’ for their compilations, hence creating the genre outside of Italy. They also released hits from a hell lot of people, from obscure italo synth producers to cheesy pop-acts from the 80’s.