ON A SUMMER NIGHT IN MANHATTAN, Basement Jaxx are in a cab screaming down Canal Street, past run-down electronics shops and Chinese department stores. The street is deserted, but the Jaxx — Felix Buxton and Simon Ratcliffe — still peer intently out the window. "New York is so vibrant," says Buxton. "The stores are closed, but their signs just shout life. In England there's no flash; in New York everything's right in front of you."
There's also something else right in front of them: another cab. Bam! The collision pitches the duo forward. Ratcliffe slouches low in his seat, shaken, while Buxton cranes his neck to have a look. Luckily, the impact sound worse than it is. "Thank God — that's not the way I want to start my summer," says Ratcliffe as the cab continues. "Exclusive! Basement Jaxx — Dead."
THE MEN OF BASEMENT JAXX are alive and well, thank you, and their debut album, Remedy, has set the dance world on fire. It's the jump-up-and-get-down album of the year. Anybody up for an orgasmic ragga anthem ("Jump N' Shout"), a calypso romp ("Bingo Bango"), a slinky bump-and-grind ("Same Old Show") or thumping pogo funk ("Yo-Yo")? It's all here. Most important, Remedy is the rare dance record that oozes personality and enthusiasm. "Most dance music is very shiny and so robotic," says Ratcliffe. "There's just not much feeling. If we made a record like that, we'd be just like everybody else."
Sitting at a cramped table at a French bistro in SoHo, Buxton plays the manic sidekick to Ratcliffe's demure straight man. Buxton is wearing a knit hat, glasses and a goatee; his blue eyes constantly dance across his face. He inhales a plate of cod and mashed potatoes in five minutes flat, sucking down several glasses of dry white wine. He peppers his speech with a cackle that sounds like the Wicked Witch of the West on ecstasy. Ratcliffe, smoking Camel Lights and wearing a pink and blue Phat Farm sweater, is more analytical and speaks in a proper, thoughtful manner. He has a scar on his head from when, as a child, a car ran straight over him, splitting his skull in half and leaving him in a full-body cast for six weeks. "You could say I'm lucky," he admits before ordering a second bottle of wine. Both men are in their late twenties, are take-home-to-mom likable and have permanent grins. Usually Ratcliffe begins speaking, Buxton interjects, Ratcliffe finishes his thoughts, and then they both end up saying "Wicked!" or "Cool!"
The pair met six years ago through mutual friends at a bar in the multiethnic Brixton neighborhood of London. Buxton, the son of a vicar in the Anglican church — a "rather strict father," he says — was working for a publicity firm with such clients as Tupperware, but his true love was house and garage music. Ratcliffe, who grew up in Holland and Wales, was working for an electronics store and making his own jungle and house records in his basement studio. Buxton began coming round the flat, and the pair put out two EPs that went unnoticed in England but caught the attention of some of their heroes: American house DJs like Louie Vega. "We were two skinny white English guys," remembers Ratcliffe. "And we had Americans calling and telling us that what we were doing was dope. That gave us the push to continue."
Just as crucial to their eventual success in England were the monthly Basement Jaxx nights at various Brixton locales. The inaugural Jaxx night was held at Taco Joe's, a crummy Mexican restaurant frequented by crack dealers underneath a railway bridge. In the back room, more than a hundred people crammed into a space designed for fifty. The only illumination came from a candle at the DJ booth and a greenish light that flooded the place when someone left the door to the toilet open. "Posh people, people off the street, drug dealers," says Buxton, "everyone came together. The system was booming, and it was really raw. It was wicked."
From the beginning, the Basement Jaxx ethos has been "Check your attitude at the door, and throw your coat on the floor." A typical night would find them spinning everything from salsa, Whitney Houston and Public Enemy to obscure house and Basement Jaxx songs. It was anything goes. After six years, at the height of the event's popularity, Buxton and Ratcliffe pulled the plug. "It became the cool place to go," explains Ratcliffe. "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.'"
It was a bit fashion-overload," adds Buxton. " 'This magazine is coming this week, this one the next.' We could see it changing. So you have to move on."
After dinner, the pair move on to a bar farther uptown where the DJ is spinning soulful R&B and hip-hop. Drinks are ordered, and the talk moves to the Basement Jaxx live show, which should make it to the United States this fall. "Dancers, live band, live singers, all of it," announces Buxton gleefully.
Although the English press has called them "the coolest band in England," when the men of Basement Jaxx say they don't care about being hip or fashionable, you believe them. After another whiskey and Coke, Buxton gets up and, oblivious to everything but the music, begins a solo, herky-jerky B-boy dance. Meanwhile, at the table, Ratcliffe closes his eyes and bobs his head to the music. After several minutes his eyes open, and he spots his partner and shoots him a bemused look. "That's Basement Jaxx," he says, nodding to Buxton. "Anything goes."