“Two turntables and a microphone…”
Anyone who turned on a radio in the latter half of the ’90s is probably familiar with the refrain, Beck’s return to the spotlight after “Loser” had him earmarked as a likely grunge-era novelty one-hit-wonder. In hindsight, it’s a brilliant move, a self-assured tune with a back-to-basics theme from a guy who never really got away from the basics. “Where It’s At” adopts a flow that’s remarkably similar to that of “Loser,” except now, it’s in service of a party rather than a means of self-deprecation. If the popularity of “Loser” didn’t exactly have listeners running to see what Mellow Gold was about (and it didn’t), “Where It’s At” was the sound of someone you might want to spend some time with.
Of course, at least as much of the credit here, and for much of Odelay, goes to The Dust Brothers, whose chunky, ever-changing production turns “Where It’s At” from a simple little hip-hop tune into something of an odyssey, even if the digressions, variations, and interludes are so seamless that you barely notice them. Unfortunately we don’t get all of the good stuff — this is a radio edit that scalpels about a minute of guitar noodling, samples, and noise out of the song, turning it into a prime radio cut but sadly robbing it of much of its personality.
Given its nod to DJ culture, it’s only natural that “Where It’s At” would sound incredible on vinyl, and so it does. Imperfections in the vinyl — and this record is 20 years old, there are certainly some imperfections — sound natural, as though they might even be part of the original recording.
In addition to the excellent album version of the song that we all know, there are four remixes on the record, including the magnificent “Make Out City”, which takes its name from Beck’s hilarious little aside: “Make Out City is a two horse town.” Making good use of a fantastic soul sample (that’s Freedom’s “Get Up and Dance”), it’s a quick, raucous, live-sounding version of the song that sacrifices all the subtlety of the original for a full-on party. The Mike Simpson half of the Dust Brothers does a fine job of amplifying everything fun about the original and stuffing it into just over half the time. It’s like Beck fronting a tune from The Go! Team’s first album.
(It surely doesn’t hurt my perception of this mix that it’s exclusive to the vinyl version of the Where It’s At single.)
The B-side of the single has three more remixes, the first of which is credited to Mario C. and Mickey P. As the Beastie Boys taught us, Mario C. “likes to keep it clean”, and this is no different — this version of “Where It’s At” is a mellow, bass-heavy take, more or less what you’d expect from guys who’ve been around for some of Beck and the Beastie Boys’ best moments. The bell synths are particularly effective here, and the scratching at the halfway mark is on point. Then, the remix from the John King half of the Dust Brothers takes the song even further into hip-hop territory, with a menacing, repetitive bassline that actually makes Beck’s “doo doot doo” falsetto vocal melody sound vaguely threatening. There’s also a little vocoder work — including some exclamations of “California” — that recall the west coast hip-hop of the time. It’s played almost entirely straight-faced, and so comes off as homage rather than parody, which is an admittedly difficult line to tread when you’re dealing with Beck.
The record closes with “Bonus Beats”, which does a lot of the same things as the John King mix without the bassline or Beck’s rapping. It’s actually a fine way to finish, an extended coda with a big, solid, chunky beat.
Here’s the great thing about this 12″: Every single version of “Where It’s At” (save “Bonus Beats”) could exist on a Beck album of its own merits. Each version has its own appeal; each version is catchy, and fun, and reminiscent of another era or genre of music. Every era represented clearly carries a lot of weight with the artists involved. It’s a fine spin, liable to leave you hungry for more of Beck’s unique brand of genius.