[2010 was the year of the tiger. Image by Pete Harrison.]
The year 2010 was swift moving and impressive. There’s no way we can create any comprehensive statement about what happened. But there were a couple visible threads that helped defined it. The boundaries of genres weakened significantly, a move that was actually coupled with the creation of a few loosely organized new ones and the rejuvenation of others. The combination of sounds from around the world also saw a steady advance. And dubstep continued expanding its reach and impact, even as it was challenged by the encroaching dominance of its filthier brostep wing.
This end of year piece will briefly explore some of those new genres as well as focus on a couple of our favorite artists who embody the year that was. Many more deserve mention, but the few below serve our purposes admirably.
A WORLD WITHOUT GENRE BORDERS
People intimate with the techno and house world are the ones most familiar with NICOLAS JAAR. That’s probably a result of his affiliation with Brooklyn’s Wolf+Lamb, who first released his music. As such, the fact that he works in tempos below 115 BPM – often far below – is the first thing people notice. “I’ve played in places where people really just don’t get it,” he says. “In Rome I had people screaming at me, telling me to speed it up. That’s funny, I kind of love when that happens.” But Rome is an exception, since so many people seem to love his music. The twenty-something’s approach to dance music is so exceptional because he’s never tried making dance music. “It’s marketed as house music, but I never really made dance music at the beginning, and I never think about making it,” the young producer explains. “Dance music is a lot of genres and this and that, but the Beatles can make you dance. It doesn’t have to be a 4/4 kick drum with a hi-hat in between and a sub-bass or whatever. A lot of things can make you dance, so I never stick to that – it’s not interesting to me.” And herein lays another reason his sound deserves recognition – the fact that he makes electronic music but uses sounds as diverse as avante-garde detuned instruments to non-Western samples.
But don’t call the styles of this French-Chilean-Palestinian New Yorker world music: “‘World music’ has just become techno’s favorite shiny new toy. Most of the music seems to be a cheap appropriation of what the Western world thinks world music is.” And yet Jaar is much more interested in what he can learn from people in other countries than what the indie rockers are up to. “Before I sit down and make music, I listen to a lot of Ethiopian Jazz, and try to imagine what Mulatu Astatke would have done if he had an 808.” True to that statement, one of the standout artists on his new imprint, Clown and Sunset, is Soul Keita, a teenage Ethiopian who recently dropped a track called “808s n Dusties“. “Nico’s very comfortable leading us all in exciting new directions,” says Wolf+Lamb’s Zev Eisenberg, “He’s like a sponge, which is why he keeps on making such relevant music. We hear his live set enough and it’s constantly changing, even surprising, and somehow always appropriate for the show.” Taking a crowd from instrumental hip hop to minimal to Latin music? That’s definitely a journey to be led on.
NGUZUNGUZU were also enlisted in that movement to pummel regional barriers. These aural hackers were bent are on freeing the world’s shared culture and sound. That overwhelming flood of information is frantically stitched together for the dancefloor by the LA-based duo, resulting in a new, unidentifiable creature they simply refer to as ‘global club’. “We look anywhere and everywhere for music,” they say. The eyes of this hyperactive creation flicker with the glare of a youth spent in front of screens absorbing music and ideas from around the world with no reservations. Angolan kuduro is grafted onto Baltimore club and spliced with merengue then mixed with UK funky and a touch of electro until it’s nearly unrecognizable. The impromptu feel of their music may be a direct result of how they make it. “Most of our tracks come out of playing things live together, either with MPC, analog synths, CDJs or DJing, and taking from the ‘live’ session we make a complete track out of it,” they explain. “That part is more spontaneous, but when we edit it, the idea becomes more formulated and built up.” And the result is dancefloors united in the pluralist beat as drums pound and the energy boils over.
They got their start when Kingdom came across a CDR of theirs and remixed a couple of the tracks in 2007. (Grab the “Oxxygeneration” remix here.) After that, they released a steady stream of well-received free music. Soon, their prowess was acknowledged by pop star M.I.A., who recently enlisted one of the Nguzus as her tour deejay. Hollywood has even taken notice, and the two remixed the theme song for the A-Team in collaboration with Rye Rye. But it’s unlikely they’ll get caught up in visions of riches: “We thought releasing [our EP] for free the way we did was the most effective thing to do. We get so much for free we wanted to just give it away.”
[Four Tet - "Plastic People", (Domino, Feb. 2010). Image by Matt Slaybaugh.]
One artist who takes particular issue with the idea of genre is FOUR TET. The music he makes caught the folktronica tag, and even though he disparages it, he can’t shake it. His latest album, There Is Love In You, certainly has a tendency to include folksy elements like acoustic guitars and sunny, nostalgic sounds with synths, effects and beats rooted in electronic culture. But he thinks folktronica is short-sighted and results from the power of the internet. “Things stick around in new ways at the moment,” he says. “The fact that it probably says folktronica on my Wikipedia page means that it’s around to stay.” While there was a large mount of artists bringing disparate sounds together this year, a major tenant of the trend was a gearing towards the dancefloor, and Four Tet is a part of that. Love In You was largely influenced by his recent residency at London’s Plastic People. His previous LP, Rounds, was also influenced by a residency at a different club. But that was “a full-on techno night“, and the Plastic People night offered the freedom to play anything he liked: “I had all the space in the world and could play whatever I wanted. Pretty much all the tracks on the record were tried out in that club, and I worked on the tracks so they sounded as good as possible in there.” Another impact on the record was his earlier collaboration with jazz drummer Steve Reid. “I just think in a whole different way,” Four Tet explains. “I think my stuff in the past was more Hip Hop influenced and quite a lot slower but working with Steve, the music became a lot faster and had this fast pulse underneath the whole time.”
[Music: Sabo - "Toca Pra Moombahton". Image: A rare shot of Dave Nada without liquor by everyoneisfamous.com.]
BURGEONING NEW GENRE MOVEMENTS
While the above three mentioned seem bent on destroying genre, the collision of various sounds has definitely spawned new ones. One such example that was impossible to avoid this year was MOOMBAHTON. This accidental creation, the story goes, came about when D.C.’s Dave Nada slowed down Dutch house to reggaeton speeds to satisfy a crowd he was DJing for at the beginning of the year. T&A Records quickly released a free EP of the screwed down creations, which was eagerly lapped up by the internets. And it didn’t take long for others to emerge and take it further. Munchi appeared on the global radar when he took the idea another step ahead and added original production elements into the mix. DJ Orion and DJ Sabo threw their hats into the ring as well, and more and more sounds began making their way into the style. Nada has since been whisked off to Mad Decent land in L.A. And with the year now coming to a close, most people nurturing an interest in the combination of electronic and Latin musics have done something with moombahton at some point. Orion is already pushing a new subgenre he’s calling boombahchero, which is faster and uses the 3/4 time signature of tribal guarachero.
[Salem - "Asia", (IAmSound, Sept. 2010).]
WITCH HOUSE also congealed this year from the increasing interest in using a vast array of influences. (The burgeoning genre also known as drag, haunted house, screwgaze and others that have since been disowned.) While it has undeniably been a force this year, it’s easily the most controversial. Debates about authenticity, complaints about references to rape, and the attitude and background of some of its protagonists are inevitably brought up alongside any mention of the sound. This blend of shoegaze, dirty South hip hop, industrial, and other sounds often wallows in its own despair and is fond of evoking the worst imagery it can come up with: witch house is likely a reference to the place where trials were held before the burning of accused witches at the stake in Salem, Mass. Salem is also the name of one of its first bands to release a real album. But descriptions don’t do it justice, says the founder of Tri Angle Records, a label that did the most to bring these artists together. Some of the music they’ve released, like that of Balam Acab and oOoOO are an example of the lighter side of the sound, with lush portraits drawn with found sounds, retro synths, and heavy beats. Witch house’s players are a bit uncomfortable getting pigeonholed, too. “People’s perspectives are exactly that: perspectives,” says Lauren Flax, half of CREEP. “We have absolutely no control over that. We don’t advertise ourselves as a ‘witch house’ band. We just want to make what we feel and if that helps start a movement, we won’t argue that.” It definitely is a movement.
[Foreign Beggars & Noisia - "No Holds Barred - Excision RMX", ]
Another slow and volatile sound that grew into a behemoth was the half-step, mid-range bravado of brostep. While dubstep as a whole expanded its color scheme into fuller territories, the public’s grasp on the genre’s identity shrunk in proportion as the prevalence of the filthier side of things rose quickly. This was the year that Rusko hit #33 on Billboard, the year that Deadmau5 brought Skream and Benga on tour, and the year that lots of electro house producers picked up Datsik.
So it may have been a surprise to many when a classical pianist and singer made waves in the genre. But JAMES BLAKE’s collective acceptance is testimony to the reality of dubstep’s big tent-ness. “When I started putting chords into things and generally exposing my influences that were outside of dubstep I slowly realized that it was OK to do that and that people would love the music because it was OK to do that,” he relates. “Then I could be myself.” It’s a genre that rewards individual identity and places an emphasis on mood. But Blake does more than carve his own unique name into the broad dubstep trunk, he pushes it beyond atmosphere and into the realm of emotion. He challenges listeners to feel with their hearts and not just their bodies. And yet it still works on the floor: ” When I was writing the ["A Milli"] remix, I wanted to bring out the sadness and loneliness in his voice, but when I play it out at clubs people go mad to it.” The simplest way to start a discussion about him is to talk about that use of vocals, which play a large role in the passion of his sound. Bass music’s incorporation of R&B vocals has picked up a snowballing velocity this year, and this cooperative momentum undoubtedly helps place the artist in context. Blake is adept at plugging into the public consciousness and using that starting point as a springboard toward new ideas.
[James Blake - "Limit To Your Love", (Atlas Recordings, Nov. 2010).]
But he takes a different approach to the concept of sampling. “Vocals have sentimental value—they always do with me—and I’ve always wanted to sample things that I already love,” Blake explains. “And I think using them taps into a massive subconscious in our generation. But people don’t just want to hear them straight; they want to hear echoes of them in their dance music.” He then goes on to say that he’s sensitive about sampling: “I quite like to mask the identity of those samples, because otherwise I think, ‘Well, that would be too obvious.’ So, like, pitching vocals to sing new melodies, that’s something that I always found fascinating.” It’s not entirely about adding a touch of nostalgia, however: “People like Aaliyah, I wasn’t ever sure if I actually liked them. To me they are better as producer tools because they are very malleable vocal-wise. When [those songs] came out I thought a lot of it was forgettable.” But he isn’t stopping at sampling others. Blake’s newer work samples his own singing and ivory keying, affected in his own peculiar way – “ bastardized and manipulated.”
[Music: DJ Spinn and DJ Rashad - "Space Juke", (Ghettophiles, Aug. 2010). Image: Que in a footwork battle by Dave Quam.]
Dubstep’s omnivorous appetite has also helped shine an international light on other styles. Take Addison Groove’s “Footcrab,” the wildly popular JUKE track at dubstep tempos that officially dropped in the beginning of the year. Its success spawned juke parties in America as far flung as New Paltz, NY, to Atlanta. Then Planet Mu, which has always had eclectic tastes in electronic music, decided to sign some of the lynchpins of juke and its subgenre/accompanying dance style called footwork. These artists, like DJ Rashad and DJ Nate, necessarily hail from the hyper-localized genre’s home base in Chicago. The British label also put together a compilation that brought all of the Midwest city’s scene together on one album. “It took [Planet Mu] to put out a compilation for all us to be on one CD at the same time,” says DJ Roc, a member of Bosses Of The Circle footwork crew. The digital music store Bleep also started pushing it, and highlighted a number of labels releasing the sound, giving them early exposure to streamlined international distribution. Of course, juke got a taste of mainstream success in the late 90s and early noughties. And there has been underground interest for years. Dubstep’s impact on it has also led to a lot of tracks being created that make juke fiends shake their heads instead of their feet. But 2010 was definitely a highpoint for the scene’s recognition worldwide.
So while a rising number of people are happy to get down with a sound that has no name, being connected to a genre still helps gain traction (whether it’s a welcome association or not). And something with wide ranging influence like dubstep has demonstrated a perseverance stemming from a willingness to take cues from without. The styles that spouted this year also share similar qualities to it. They’re a combination of numerous influences, are quickly changing, and can be difficult to pin down accurately. Those are the traits of the tiger. - MS