Strut Records’ Jungle Music is the first truly career-wide retrospective of pioneering DJ and producer Walter Gibbons. Selections from the artist’s tragically short yet fruitful career — a difficult personality who early in his career found religion and became alienated from his base and peers, Gibbons died alone and penniless from complication due to AIDS at the age of 38 — are collected onto two CDs. The release is a welcome addition to completing the DJ culture narrative as Gibbons is most often remembered as a “DJ’s DJ.” In fact, he was responsible for inspiring many performative (he mastered extending sections of a song by going between doubles of a record unknowingly around the same time as Kool Herc) and production (dance-floor-friendly arrangements) standards. To date, only a portion of Gibbons’ career, particularly his output for Salsoul (1979’s Disco Madness and the 2004 Mixed With Love: The Walter Gibbons Salsoul Anthology), has been officially collected or anthologized. While his work for the label represents a sizable chunk of his overall output, Strut’s compilation is the first to acknowledge the breadth of his talents.
Jungle Music showcases Gibbons’s ability to work with a variety of labels and music ranging from conventional disco (Gladys Knight’s “It’s A Better Than Good Time”) to classic no wave (Dinosaur L’s “Go Bang! #5”). The tracks originate from the most active period in his career (late ’70s to mid-’80s) and chart the development of his idiosyncratic takes on percussion breaks and trance states. The Knight track, though relatively mild, showcases Gibbons’s ability seamlessly extend brief instrumental sections to turn charming radio singles into dance-floor workouts. A more adventurous example is his version of Bettye Lavette’s “Doin’ The Best That I Can” which applies echo techniques and extends numerous instrumental breaks to resemble something that Lawrence describes as the “closest disco had come to establishing an aesthetic alliance with dub.” Similarly, while Francois K’s better-known mix of “Go Bang! #5” hurried along at a brisk pace, Gibbons’s version somehow floats in an otherworldly fashion due to its djembe opening and jazz-funk feel. The compilation earns special distinction for including the previously unreleased “See Through,” a production of his late-career collaborator Arthur Russell’s work.
Perhaps because his biggest Salsoul hits (Loleatta Holloway’s “Hit and Run,” Double Exposure’s “Ten Percent,” First Choice’s “Let No Man Put Asunder”) are relatively available or known, they are not included here. However, their absence makes it difficult to comprehend Gibbons’s full impact. Although he was highly regarded by his peers for a brief period, his re-envisioning of such seminal records as the aforementioned impacted generations of club culture and dance music genres that they are subsequently critical in understanding his influence.
Additionally, Jungle Music may be the first collection in recent memory to pale in comparison to its copious liner notes. An edited version of Tim Lawrence’s near-dissertation “Disco Madness: Walter Gibbons and the Legacy of Turntablism and Remixology” prompts a thorough analysis of Gibbons’s role in developing the 12-inch and remix mediums. While Lawrence points out the strengths and weaknesses of the included tracks, he also highlights numerous tracks that are not included: For example, Gibbons’s numerous self-released Melting Pot edits, Salsoul Orchestra’s “Salsoul 3001” and Arthur Russell’s “Let’s Go Swimming (Coastal Dub).” Lawrence’s notes inadvertently argue for a more comprehensive collection of tracks (at least two more CDs’ worth, by my informal count) to properly understand Gibbons’s career-wide development and his impact on DJ/production culture.