SIGNAL PATH – Plugging in to the history of headphones

About 20 years ago, there was a late-night show on WLUP (“The Loop”) in Chicago called ‘Headphones Only.’ Predictably, each episode promised to take you, the listener, on sound-filled journey featuring the sites, sounds, and vibes of albums that were “meant for headphones.” Curiously, 90% of the music programming on ‘Headphones Only’ featured songs already in the Loop’s daily dosage of AOR rawk n roll. You know: plenty of the ‘Floyd, Grand Illusion-era Styx, and ELO…or was it ELP? Doesn’t matter. The point is that ‘Headphones Only’ never really lived up to its self-professed hype. Sure, plenty of 70s rock opuses featured studio hijinks meant to ensure headphone heaven for the listener. But even if you had the really bitchin’ Jensens, the squelch and pop of the FM band was going to limit your aural pleasure. So rather than revealing the sub-channel, multi-tracked intricacies of, say, BB Steel’s On The Edge, ‘Headphones Only’ played out like an aging rock jock’s sonic reefer fantasy. “Dude, I think I can see the inside of my mouth, man…”

‘Headphones Only’ has long since left the radio dial. And headphone use itself has left the home completely, in favor of mobile use. While your pale-skinned audiophile friend probably swears by his $850 Sennheisers, the majority of us are happy with the unobtrusive in-ear units that accompany most portable music sources. Because they don’t envelope your ear in a collapsing-star sort of way, these headphones tend to let in the external sounds and general undercurrent of train announcements, traffic, and idle chatter that is the soundtrack of life in the city. Inevitably, this background noise affects the sound of the music from your headphones. There are different ways of solving this public headphone dilemna. One option is to purchase a Discman that features volume levels in the deafening range. To drown out nuisances like horns, trucks in reverse, or yapping friends, one needs only to turn it up and tear off the knob. For some reason this option is the first choice of club kids, Samhain fans, the unwashed, and lovers of Salsa music.

I stumbled across another solution while listening to Kid Loco on my headphones.

A French producer/studio tinkerer who specializes in downtempo beats and esoteric post-party chill music, Kid Loco’s music is seemingly stuck between multiple worlds. While his DJ skills create a subtle groove, his contribution to the DJ-Kicks Series from Studio K7 takes things to a new level, incorporating a melange of international flavors on top of traditionally chill beats. After a brief introduction with the obligatory Cypress Hill sample, the deep drones of a tabla drum drop in behind a scratchy female vocal loop. Walking down a busy street in Chicago’s Loop, I added to this backbeat the grinding, banging sounds from the construction site across the way, as well as a grumbling diesel bus engine and the high-pitched moan of the newspaper vendor. At first, it was a bit odd to have all of this going on. Especially because, when listening to Kid Loco in a subdued, indoor environment, the album seems almost ambient at times. But there’s just enough urban groove in the beats he chooses that the pounding and yelling of city life seems like a real-time remix.

It’s true that not every record, when listened to on a mobile CD system, will be effected so positively by the noise of the city. I can’t see Nick Drake adding the rumble of a tractor trailer truck to his quiet folk music, “just to get that city vibe.” But in a way, albums like Kid Loco’s DJ-Kicks set are just as suited to headphone use as the high-concept AOR studio albums whose sonic operas ruled the airwaves each Wednesday night during ‘Headphones Only.’


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