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For The Record: How Sasha & John Digweed's 'Northern Exposure' Broke The Mix Album Mold

John Digweed (L) & Sasha (R)

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For The Record: How Sasha & John Digweed's 'Northern Exposure' Broke The Mix Album Mold

Released 25 years ago, Sasha and John Digweed's pivotal mix album 'Northern Exposure' shook up DJ mixes, pushed the boundaries of the mix-CD format, and became a belated classic in the electronic world

GRAMMYs/Sep 28, 2021 - 05:00 am

In October 1994, the British DJ duo Sasha and John Digweed released Renaissance: The Mix Collection, a three-disc odyssey through the sounds they played as resident DJs at the Renaissance club night at The Conservatory in Derby, England. The three CDs--one blue, one orange, one green--came in an elaborate foldout case adorned with Renaissance art, including a detail from Michelangelo's vast Sistine Chapel ceiling painting on the cover. In every way, from the ornate design to the considered liner notes, the package was a world away from the trippy patterns and smiley faces dominating rave culture at the time.

Over three-plus hours, Renaissance: The Mix Collection blended house anthems with progressive house and trance, two interlocking genres defined by lush melodies and fluid build-ups that took hold of the U.K. in the early '90s. Expertly mixed and featuring producers of the moment like Leftfield, Fluke, Spooky and Age of Love, Renaissance: The Mix Collection was an instant sensation, becoming the U.K.'s first-ever gold-selling mix compilation. For fans of the now hallowed DJ pairing, another serotonin-spiking multi-part mix couldn't come soon enough.

As it turned out, Sasha and Digweed's next move was to swerve. Released 25 years ago this week, on Sept. 27, 1996, Northern Exposure saw the pair step out of their comfort zone to deliver a concept album that straddled home listening and dance-floor reverie. The previous year, Digweed had returned alone to mix all three discs of Renaissance - The Mix Collection Part 2, while Sasha dropped a four-track set for the Essential Mix compilation. Coming back together, they were eager to push the boundaries of the mix-CD format they'd helped create.

While Northern Exposure is now considered a classic on par with the duo's first outing, its reception in the moment was mixed. Some listeners were put off by the simmering, global music-inflected ambience of disc one, titled "0°/North," while others chafed against the darker, strobe-lit atmosphere of disc two, titled "0°/South." In an infamously scathing review, DJ Mag gave 0°/South a score of 0/10.

The confusion was only deepened by the mix coming out on Ministry Of Sound, the London club-turned-label then best known for releasing slamming house mixes from Tony Humphries, Paul Oakenfold and Masters At Work. Northern Exposure peaked at No. 7 on the UK Compilation Chart, a strong showing that nevertheless fell short of Renaissance - The Mix Collection. "It definitely wasn't what people were expecting," Digweed told Red Bull in 2019. "[DJ Mag] thought we'd disappeared up our own arses."

The cult of Northern Exposure grew over time, creating tingly associations with featured artists like Underworld, Rabbit in the Moon and The Future Sound Of London. The compilation also popularized the concept album in dance music, spawning many mix-CDs made in its image. Most significantly, Northern Exposure cemented Sasha and Digweed as true superstar DJs for a legion of fans who'd pore over their sets to tease out the subtlest differences between their styles.

Sasha and Digweed were mutual admirers before they became DJ partners. After falling for acid house at Manchester's storied Haçienda nightclub, Sasha started DJing with fewer than 50 records to his name, picking up his first residency at the Ashton-under-Lyne club Bugsy's and graduating to the legendary rave venue Shelleys Laserdome. In 1994, he appeared on the cover of dance bible Mixmag doing prayer hands and looking heavenwards above the headline "Sasha: Son of God?"

Digweed, meanwhile, honed his craft in the south coast town of Hastings under the early alias of JD. He convinced Sasha to drive five hours to play the Storm! party on Hastings Pier, and a lifelong friendship was born. After sharing the booth at Renaissance, the pair created their own niche with the Northern Exposure midweek club night, which inspired the dreamy-to-banging feel of the mix compilation and grew into a national touring brand.

Sasha and Digweed designed Northern Exposure as a departure from the glut of anthem-stacked mix-CDs at the time. Speaking to Australian radio station triple j in 1997, the pair described the 0°/North disc in particular as an after-hours affair.

"There were a lot of tunes we'd listen to when we'd come in from a night out that we wouldn't be able to play in a club, because they weren't appropriate," Digweed explained, name checking The Future Sound Of London's "Cascade (Part 1)" and The Orb's mix of Keiichi Suzuki's "Satellite Serenade." Sasha added, "We wanted to choose some stuff from our record collections that were classic records to us but perhaps forgotten classics."

To fit their home stereo favorites into the flow of a DJ set, Sasha told triple j the pair "did re-edits of certain tunes that needed them." Fans have debated just how much of Northern Exposure was created using the then-nascent music software Pro Tools, although the tech-savvy DJs have never claimed it was recorded live with only a pair of turntables and a mixer.

Speaking to Billboard in 2013, Sasha said his early mixes were "all handmade," then polished in the computer. "By embracing the technology at the time, we were able to mix to the limits with layering and effects," Digweed told Billboard in 2020. While some attribute the boundary-pushing 0°/North disc to Sasha and the Renaissance-like 0°/South disc to Digweed, both DJs are adamant they work as a team, their roles always adapting and evolving.

The two mixes that make up Northern Exposure are distinct but inseparable. The shimmering synths, nature sounds and sampled David Attenborough narration in The Orb's remix of Keiichi Suzuki set an appropriately wide-eyed tone for 0°/North. While the disc itself is a cohesive journey, the individual tracks (most clocking in well over five minutes) also contain their own movements and mood changes.

Each selection tells a small story of '90s dance music, from the early adventures of William Orbit, who'd later make his name as a three-time GRAMMY-winning super producer to Madonna and others, to the brilliance of Bay Area pioneer Scott Hardkiss, aka God Within, who died in 2013. The mix was influenced by the duo's travels in America and especially the trance and breakbeat scene in Florida, home to acts like Rabbit in the Moon. While "timeless" is a cliché often used to describe significant dance albums, the 0°/North disc is truly of its time, which doesn't diminish its impact.

0°/South is closer to a Sasha and Digweed club set in 1996, starting at a slow simmer and building to a driving pay-off in the final third. Its tracklist is another snapshot of the moment in dance music, including a hard-hitting remix of Pete Lazonby's "Wavespeech" by U.S. house don Junior Vasquez and closing with Underworld's "Dark & Long (Dark Train)," which also appeared that year on the Trainspotting soundtrack. It was this disc's patient build and fine-drawn shifts that upset DJ Mag's reviewer at the time, who called it the "altogether duller" half of Northern Exposure that "makes the rock people think that we are all drugged-up idiots."

After Northern Exposure, Sasha and Digweed were a powerhouse team. In 1997, the duo explored trancier sounds on Northern Exposure 2, with its mixes this time divided between "East Coast" and "West Coast" discs. The third volume, 1999's Northern Exposure: Expeditions, coincided with the duo's new residency at the revered Twilo nightclub in Manhattan. In 2000, they started anew with the club-focused Communicate mix album, which led into the ambitious Delta Heavy tour across the U.S., featuring rock concert production and support from the duo's protégé Jimmy Van M.

Without hard feelings or a major divergence in sound, the DJs went their separate ways after the Delta Heavy tour. In 2002, Sasha released his definitive artist album, Airdrawndagger, kickstarting a new phase of his career. His sound evolved over time, including excursions into techier and Balearic sounds, but never so far as to alienate his fans.

Digweed, meanwhile, carried on as the steady captain of his long-running Bedrock label, reliably delivering extended sets that brought tune trainspotters to their knees. Both DJs also remained committed to the mix-CD form, from Sasha's innovative Involver to Digweed's ever-reliable Transitions series. Speaking to The Guardian in 2016, Sasha drew a direct line from Northern Exposure to his ambient artist album, Scene Delete, saying he "always looks for those melancholic heart-tugging melodies."

Northern Exposure has continued to inspire other DJs too. A host of progressive house mix series followed in its example, including Balance, Global Underground and Global Underground: Nubreed, which featured fellow genre flag-bearers like Nick Warren, Hernan Cattaneo and Danny Howells. Sasha and Digweed's outing also coincided with the emergence of DJ-Kicks, a still-active mix series that features home listening sets by house and techno DJs.

In 2016, techno DJ Nicole Moudaber raved to Insomniac.com about playing Northern Exposure "probably 500 times since it was released" and noted its influence on a new generation of melodic techno DJs like Tale Of Us, Mind Against and DJ Tennis. Notably, Age of Love's "The Age of Love," featured on Renaissance: The Mix Collection, has returned as one of 2021's biggest peak time techno tracks, courtesy of a new remix by Charlotte de Witte and Enrico Sangiuliano.

Both Sasha and Digweed have mentioned their hopes to reissue Northern Exposure for its 25th anniversary so it can finally live on streaming platforms—a plan that as yet hasn't eventuated. "Unfortunately, a lot of these compilations keep dropping off streaming because the licensing on the tracks expire and we can't track down [the rights holders]," Sasha told Billboard this year.

As consolation, the DJs are in sync and back out in the world. Their first reunion set, at Ministry of Sound's Bedrock Easter celebration in 2016, was kept a secret until Sasha appeared as a shadowy figure next to Digweed in the booth. They've since played a host of festivals alongside DJs who grew up worshipping Northern Exposure, and just wrapped a joint fall tour of the U.S. Three decades on from their first meeting, there's no separating Sasha and John Digweed.

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N.W.A Are 'Straight Outta Compton': For The Record

N.W.A's DJ Yella, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and MC Ren

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N.W.A Are 'Straight Outta Compton': For The Record

What started as an attitude that helped put Compton on the map grew into a worldwide music revolution celebrating the streets

GRAMMYs/Jul 26, 2018 - 11:05 pm

A debut album that landed like a sledgehammer, 1988's Straight Outta Compton has become a legend in its own right. The featured N.W.A lineup was Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and MC Ren. The album was produced by Dr. Dre and DJ Yella, and released on Ruthless Records, the label co-founded by Eazy-E and N.W.A manager Jerry Heller two years before.

Although it sold well initially, its landmark status rested on the controversies surrounding its gangsta lifestyle themes and attitudes. Its provocative tracks described the world N.W.A knew through their own eyes, including the title track, which elevated the group's hometown of Compton, Calif., "Express Yourself" and "Gangsta Gangsta." The album also included "F* Tha Police," which resulted in the FBI and U.S. Secret Service sending threatening letters to Ruthless Records and the group's banishment from many venues.

Credited as one of the most influential hip-hop records of all time, in 2015, Straight Outta Compton the film appeared, dramatizing the 1988 impact of the album, with Ice Cube portrayed by his son O'Shea Jackson Jr. Confrontations with law enforcement and antagonism based on "F* Tha Police" form a core element of both the 2015 drama as well as the drama on the streets that has never stopped.

Among the album's many aftermaths, Eazy-E died in 1995, Ice Cube went on to produce and star in his extensive filmography and the adventures of Dr. Dre touch on many other histories, including those of Eminem and Kendrick Lamar. Meanwhile, in recognition of its critical importance to music history, Straight Outta Compton was inducted into the Recording Academy's GRAMMY Hall Of Fame as well as the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry.

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Alanis Morissette's 'Jagged Little Pill': For The Record

Alanis Morissette

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Alanis Morissette's 'Jagged Little Pill': For The Record

Learn about the singer/songwriter's big GRAMMY night at the 38th GRAMMY Awards with her third studio album

GRAMMYs/Mar 23, 2018 - 03:10 am

For a generation of music lovers, the '90s hosted a boon of hits that have now attained classic status. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill is arguably at the top of the list.

Released June 13, 1995, as her third studio album, Morissette worked on the project exclusively with producer/writer Glen Ballard. She plumped the depth of raw emotion to craft the LP's 12 alt-rock tracks, marking a departure from her previous pop-centered releases.

The Canadian native's honest approach to Jagged Little Pill flipped the industry upside down. The album went on to reach No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and produce three No. 1 Billboard singles: "You Oughta Know," "Hand In My Pocket" and "Ironic."

As of 2015, sales of the album surpassed 15 million copies in the United States, making it one of only three albums to reach that milestone behind Metallica's self-titled album (16.1 million) and Shania Twain's Come On Over (15.6 million).

Further solidifying its legacy, a musical stage production based on the LP will premiere in spring 2018.

Jagged Little Pill also brought Morissette her first four career GRAMMY wins at the 38th GRAMMY Awards. She took home the coveted award for Album Of The Year and Best Rock Album, while "You Oughta Know" earned Best Female Rock Vocal Performance and Best Rock Song.

"I actually accept this on behalf of anyone who's ever written a song from a very pure place, a very spiritual place," Morissette said during her Album Of The Year acceptance speech after thanking Ballard. "And there's plenty of room for a lot of artists so there's no such thing as the best."

Kendrick Lamar, 'DAMN.': For The Record | 2018 GRAMMYs Edition

Kendrick Lamar

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Kendrick Lamar, 'DAMN.': For The Record | 2018 GRAMMYs Edition

Celebrate the Compton rapper's successful fourth album, which brought home a total of five GRAMMY wins on Music's Biggest Night

GRAMMYs/Feb 9, 2018 - 03:16 am

Kendrick Lamar's phenomenally successful fourth LP, DAMN., landed with a bang in mid-2017 that saw fans digging voraciously into the full media experience of the album's release in an intense manner.

There were rumors based on tweets, there were secret second album release theories, there were even guesses at the tracklist's double-meanings that actually turned out to be true.  Altogether, it made for a moment in pop culture that coalesced into an explicit public statement: Lamar was no longer content to merely capture the attention of hip-hop purists and music scenesters with their ears to the street; he was here to convert new listeners over from the mainstream without sacrificing the authenticity of his core sound. And along the way maybe raise a few middle fingers in the direction of his oftentimes befuddled political detractors.

"The initial goal was to make a hybrid of my first two commercial albums," Lamar explained to Zane Lowe on Beats 1 Radio. "That was our total focus, how to do that sonically, lyrically, through melody – and it came out exactly how I heard it in my head. … It's all pieces of me."

Lamar's soul-bearing reaped obvious rewards at the 60th GRAMMY Awards, with DAMN. generating a total of five GRAMMY wins, including Best Rap Album, Best Rap/Sung Collaboration ("LOYALTY."), Best Rap Song ("HUMBLE."), Best Rap Performance ("HUMBLE."), and Best Music Video ("HUMBLE.").

Along with its successes on Music's Biggest Night, DAMN. also proved to be a commercial windfall for Lamar, with lead single "HUMBLE." clocking in as his first-ever No. 1 single on the Billboard Hot 100, with supporting singles "LOYALTY." And "LOVE." both charting in the Top 15. For its own part, DAMN. debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, has been certified double-platinum by the RIAA, and ended the year as the No. 1 album of any genre for 2017, by chart performance.

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Alabama Shakes' 'Sound & Color': For The Record

Alabama Shakes

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Alabama Shakes' 'Sound & Color': For The Record

Wilder than before, the band's fusion of country and soul with immersive rock on their 2015 album defined a sound all their own

GRAMMYs/Jun 21, 2018 - 09:43 pm

Alabama Shakes' 2012 debut Boys & Girls was such a wild success, no one expected the band would get even wilder on 2015's Sound & Color. But the band took their music way out, exploring a spacious, country-soul rock sound that would be more completely their own if it didn't seem so timeless.

"We're just a normal group of people who believe in writing and making something, and honestly, it was truly from a point of having fun," lead singer/guitarist Brittany Howard told our oral history of the album. "It wasn't to get famous or anything like that. We wanted to play gigs, that was our goal, but we didn't have anywhere to gig."

Bassist Zac Cockrell, guitarist Heath Fogg and drummer Steve Johnson write together with Howard, and the band shared in their Best Rock Song win, at the 58th GRAMMY Awards for "Don't Wanna Fight," as songwriters, in addition to winning Best Rock Performance. Sound & Color also won Best Alternative Music Album that year.

Alabama Shakes' 2012 debut brought them 55th GRAMMY Awards nominations for Best New Artist and Best Rock Performance for the song "Hold On." As a single, it remains their biggest hit so far, having reached No. 93 on Billboard's Hot 100. The following year the band was nominated for Best Rock Performance again, for "Always Alright" from the soundtrack to Silver Linings Playbook. A truly admired band, their album sales suggest Alabama Shakes falls better into the category of classics-makers than hit-makers. Their debut reached No. 6 on the Billboard 200 in 2013 and Sound & Color reached No. 1 in 2015.

Although Alabama Shakes hasn't released an album since Sound & Color, their performance of "Joe (Live From Austin City Limits)" drew another Best Rock Performance nomination at the 59th GRAMMY Awards. Earlier this year at the 60th GRAMMY Awards, Alabama Shakes' performance of "Killer Diller Blues" won Best American Roots Performance, the band's fourth win. The song was originally recorded by Minnie Lawlers, and as for other artists participating in the Jack White and Bernard MacMahon 2017 project American Epic: The Sessions, all final recordings were made on an antique 1925 Western Electric direct-to-disc system. How's that for a historic recording?

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