Some thoughts on 2017

Some thoughts on 2017

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Last year I spent a lot of time thinking about the politics of dance music. Interviews with people in Tbilisi’s club scene made more clearly than ever the connection between rave culture and social change. The tragedy at Pulse in Orlando gave cause to reflect on the nightclub’s role as a haven for marginalized groups, especially queer-identifying people, and to wonder how much it still serves that purpose.

For better or worse, those topics look set to become ever more relevant in 2017. In one way or another, Brexit, Trump’s election and Europe’s lurch to the right all run counter to the ideals supposedly at the core of dance music, posing a threat to our community and many of the people in it. I hope that, in the midst of this uncertainty, club culture proves itself to be a force for good, whether that’s through overtly political outfits like Berlin’s Room 4 Resistance, charity efforts like the Plus1 campaign, or simply by providing a community for people who have reason to feel more vulnerable than ever. I also hope dance music itself resists the kind of bitter division that’s become a hallmark of our time. It’s a cliché that music brings people together, but it’s also observably true, and not just in a dance floor sense—how many of us have music to thank for the most important relationships in our lives? At a time when world events have so many of us at each other’s throats, that notion feels far from trite.

On a lighter note, the musical outlook is particularly bright at the moment. Just a few days into 2017, my “new music” playlist is already loaded with incredible stuff, from Young Marco’s Selectors 002, to Soul Jazz’s reissue of Laraaji’s Celestial Vibrations to the dazzling first entry in the new ten-inch series from Leif. There’s plenty to look forward to on the events front as well, from old favourites like Nachtdigital (whose 20th anniversary should be one for the ages) to this year’s inevitable club and festival surprises, whatever they turn out to be. The year ahead may seem dark and full of terrors, but music, as always, is a reliable source of solace.

For me, a good DJ is someone who artfully constructs bridges between eras, tempos, sounds and styles. You can’t fake this kind of thing—it takes hours of leafing through record bins and scouring websites, and then working out ways to knit together your selections into something coherent and danceable. In 2016, these deep-digging DJs flourished. The sight of Motor City Drum Ensemble closing Dekmantel festival’s main stage was perhaps the most striking example, while the likes of Hunee, Sassy J and Antal soaked up plenty of love from dance floors, and rightly so: they work hard to find music and they’re not afraid to take risks.

The proliferation of digger DJs has turned out to have some interesting side effects. For one thing, it’s fuelling an obsession with rare records, with people paying stupid amounts of money for vinyl on the secondhand market. That can’t be healthy. There’s also a fervent track ID culture, something that seems to infiltrate all corners of electronic music—who hasn’t seen the blue glow of Shazam on club and festival dance floors? In 2017 I’ll try to keep my phone in my pocket and enjoy the music.

Last year I found deep pleasure in listening to non-western music (for lack of a better term). Some of the most rewarding included a reissue of a 1963 album by a piano-playing Ethiopian nun, a compilation of ’80s zouk music from the French West Indies, and a roundup of the Japanese label Better Days. There’s never been a better time to explore music from around the globe, old and new, and this year I’ll aim to do more of that.

Closer to home, there’s plenty else I’m looking forward to. Whatever Toresch, Willow and Carla Dal Forno release next, for example, and the new Jonny Nash album. But perhaps the musical project that intrigues me most is that of Leyland Kirby’s The Caretaker, which in 2017 will continue its descent towards “nothingness.” It’s a fascinating concept inspired by dementia (you can read more about it here), and Kirby says the five remaining albums, which will be released over the next couple of years, will get more difficult to listen to as he marches towards the project’s grim conclusion.

I went to my fair share of club nights in 2016, but I enjoyed being challenged and educated by festivals so much more. Sonic Acts (in Amsterdam) and Rewire (in The Hague) were particularly memorable. I was exposed to the poetics of energy and chaos of atomic matter in a shattering audio-visual simulation that melted the body and mind. I experienced sunrise in Madagascar’s remote Amber Mountain rainforest, from a pew in a 17th century church. I got my first taste of traditional North African Gnawa music (I visited Morocco for more), and I learnt about Holland’s tempestuous relationship with the sea through Lakker, one of my favourite techno acts.

In Europe we have privileged access to many daring, dynamic and divergent events; events that incorporate the wider political, social, technological and economic discourse encircling club culture into their programming. Meanwhile, organisations like We Are Europe and SHAPE are helping to make radical (European) talent more mobile, visible and accessible to us through a network of mutual platforms across the continent. Clubbing doesn’t have to be conservative in 2017, and I plan to continue being challenged and educated this year. Everyone should. If we all take more risks, step out of our club-comfort zones and into something new, I’m sure the end-of-year polls could look different.

The global (music) village is feeling a lot more global these days, though mining it remains as daunting as ever. We need more Brian Shimkovitzs, Nan Kolés and Andy Votels (deep, enthusiastic ethnomusicological diggers) to help us navigate continents and cultures unknown. I hope to discover more festivals like Strange Sounds From Beyond, which delivers precisely that. I look forward to peeking at parties in countries I may never visit through Boiler Room’s spyglass. And I’m banking on Ben Ratliff to help me articulate it all in a more fittingly non-linear, post-genre and inclusive fashion.

Finally, I’m eager to hear and see more of Flava D, SØS Gunver Ryberg, Mira Calix, Or:la, Kiki Hitomi, Aïsha Devi, Zora Jones, ASMARA, Moor Mother, Marie Davidson, Puce Mary, Geneviève Pasquier, DJ Barely Legal, Madam X, Reka, Lux E Tenebris, Volvox, Yuka, Dasha Rush, Machine Woman, Beatrice Dillon, Anastasia Kristensen, Laurel Halo, Nadia Rose, Pan Daijing, Klara Lewis, Holly Herndon, SKY H1, Alis, Gazelle Twin, Mica Levi, Nkisi, Pharmakon, Suzanne Ciani, Umfang, Kara-Lis Coverdale, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, Poppy Ackroyd—plus a ton of other female and female-identifying artists I’ve not come across yet, who I hope will find me in 2017.

I’m going to make some predictions for 2017 while trying to reconcile the uncomfortable fact that, given my age, I’m now someone who can say, “I remember that from the first time around.” So considering my 20-odd years of listening to this stuff, working with the principal of Newton’s third law, and rehashing the truism that dance music is cyclical, I’ll guess that this year we might see the following.

Very broadly speaking, new techno has been hovering around the same tempo (130) and tonality (mostly dark) for the last few years. The influence of industrial and noise has been a disruptive force, but, for the most part, this hasn’t meant an enormous divergence from the genre’s established sonic order. The loop techno scene of the late ’90s infamously ran itself down a creative cul-de-sac, but its tenets of speed (I’m talking 140 BPM and above) paired with swing could be ripe for reappraisal. I recently dusted off old records by The Advent, DJ Rush, Surgeon, Stephen Brown, Oliver Ho and others, and was struck by how oddly joyful some of it is. An exciting production development could be: “tempo” on the Y axis, “funk” on the X axis, mixed with something new.

On the opposite end of the speed scale, my colleague Angus Finlayson recently said he’d noticed a micro-trend of sub-100 BPM sets, which is something I’d picked up on myself. He mentioned Call Super, Objekt and Ben UFO as proponents, and I’d been buzzing about the moves that the Night Slugs stable had been making at this tempo. I’m on board with this for the simple reason that it creates a completely different type of dance floor energy, particularly when hip-hop, dancehall and dub are thrown into the blender. Contrary to what I said above, I’m not aware of a precedent for such tempos being explored in traditional dance music clubs, which could point to an interesting tangent for DJs and producers.

Electro is supposedly trend resistant, doing its thing regardless of what’s going on around it. But even so, artists like DJ Stingray, The Exaltics, Ectomorph, E.R.P., DMX Krew, B12, Helena Hauff and Gerald Donald were more in focus than ever last year. The sound’s template of 808 drums, spacey pads and rattling tempos is one of dance music’s great mainstays, but in 2017 I think more artists might go nuts and significantly broaden the palette.

Finally, and I know people will roll their eyes at me saying this, but I think at least a version of the original dubstep template might make a comeback. Kahn & Neek, Commodo, Gantz, Goth-Trad, Silkie and others have continued to keep the tradition alive, but enough time has elapsed for a new generation to discover the sound for the first time. The results might not necessarily be pretty, but I basically think the original records are much, much too good to be left alone.

The biggest story from Ibiza 2016 was the closing of Space, a club that arguably did more than any other to promote the island’s freewheeling party ethos around the world. With it went Carl Cox’s dominant Tuesday night residency, Music Is Revolution. These departures are a loss, but I think a shake-up of the status quo was overdue. The island needs new spaces, new nights, new faces. If Space, as rumours suggest, is transformed into a nocturnal Ushuaïa, packed with VIP tables and EDM DJs, then it’ll at least lead to a gap being filled elsewhere on the island. Privilege, perhaps. Or San Antonio. Or, better still, somewhere completely new. These are uncertain times on the White Isle, and that feels exciting.

Last summer was filled with stories of police raids, license revocations and noise complaints, but there were some great parties, too. Smaller, homelier residencies like Nightmares On Wax’s Wax Da Jam, Mark Barrott’s Hostel La Torre and Artwork’s Art’s House showed a side to Ibiza that few get to see, where the crowds are friendly and open-minded, and the music stretches from disco to dub to ambient. I hope Ibiza Rocks House, AKA Pikes Hotel, throws even more parties that pair great bookings with an atmosphere of unbridled hedonism, like the ones hosted by DJ Harvey.

On a larger scale, I’d like to see Unusual Suspects continue to flourish, whether that’s back at Sankeys or elsewhere. The island desperately needs these kinds of artists—DJs like Binh, Francesco Del Garda, Rhadoo, Vera—to show people there’s an alternative to slamming tech house, and that house and techno can be subtle, stirring and full of left turns. These parties are proof that fresh, interesting music can triumph in Ibiza. In 2017 I hope this idea is built upon.

I still feel shell-shocked by the events, mostly political, of 2016, and therefore pretty bleak about the prospects of 2017. So instead of offering predictions, I’ll give you my hopes. First and foremost, I hope that culture in general and the underground experimental dance music scenes I’m most personally invested in find new ways to engage with the world at large. Too often, especially in the scenes I follow, we have been secure in our bubbles, happy to think of ourselves as separate from the rest of what goes on out there. Turns out we’re not.

It was revered music figure Brian Eno who, in his New Year’s Day Facebook post, offered the most reassuring take on the state of the world, as well as real, achievable advice for steps we as individuals can take to address it. Eno isn’t the only person operating in our reality with the wisdom and clarity to offer something useful for everyone. If you have a good idea, an original take, share it. If you have a platform, no matter how small, use it. That’s what Berlin producer Ziúr did when she spearheaded a compilation from her peers that was downloadable in exchange for the promise of a time or money donation to just causes. So many of us want the same thing, and our diversity within a unified cause is a source of strength.

Speaking of diversity, one bright spot of 2016 was Jace Clayton’s (AKA DJ /rupture) excellent book Uproot: Travels In 21st Century Music And Digital Culture. Clayton is not only intrepid, he’s also a respectful explorer. As we uncover and enjoy more and more highly localised regional electronic club music—last year was the first time I got to experience a gqom DJ in the dance—I hope we can remember his non-proprietary contextual example (read the book if you haven’t already, you’ll certainly get something out of it). More and more, these are the kinds of discoveries that give our global electronic underground much needed jolts of electric energy. As DJ /rupture, Clayton is worldly, inclusive and fun, never pedagogic.

This is my last hope for 2017: that our scenes can continue to generate new ideas, political discourse and fun. In 2017, the one thing that will remain the same is my desire to feel complete abandon on the dance floor.

In January 2016, I wrote that I was excited about what minimal dance music was becoming. One year later, I’m feeling less so. It seems like every DJ with a handful of [a:rpia:r] records has ditched them for Plus 8, switching steady groove and melody for bleeps, blops and higher tempos. We’re now seeing the familiar process of hype and oversaturation play out, just as it has with plenty of other styles before. The line between finding inspiration in someone else’s work and copying it is once again blurred, and the result is an increasingly homogeneous landscape.

Will dance music ever rid itself of the cycle of originality that turns into people following a trend en masse? Whatever happens, we have a problem when, as one DJ recently told me, people are writing privately to Discogs sellers to ask what records certain DJs have bought. One reason why artists like Zip, Onur Özer, Sonja Moonear, Dorian Paic, Vera, Nicolas Lutz, Dana Ruh and Binh are so on-point after so many years is that they do what they feel, not what they think they should do. Wider dance music’s tendency to follow hype makes scenes like Montevideo’s, with DJs like Koolt, Fabricio, Melina Serser, Emilio and Z@P, all the more vital—they’re modern, but far enough away to not be swept up in whatever new trend is taking hold in Berlin, London or Paris.

So, in 2017, maybe don’t buy a record because Nicolas Lutz, Marcel Dettmann or Motor City Drum Ensemble plays it. Or don’t make squiggly, electro-tinged house because Spacetravel does it. And don’t play an electro and techno set at 133 BPM because Treatment did it. Make your own way.

Last year, I couldn’t help but notice a recurring theme while speaking to artists: the importance of questioning accepted wisdom in the creative process. A Made Up Sound, Klara Lewis, Peder Mannerfelt and Kyoka spoke to the idea that knowledge does not equal power when it comes to making music. This isn’t to say that learning in production isn’t important—the opposite is true—but when you’re constantly presented with ways to advance your technical expertise, there’s a danger of it becoming a common sense that occludes more important creative choices, especially in a genre as regimented as electronic dance music. So while common sense urges you to increase control over your creativity, to better manage the challenges it presents, these artists are trying to reduce their control over the creative process so as to encounter the path not taken.

This attitude is often the difference between a good track and a remarkable one. It’s a sensation that’s hard to put your finger on, but you know it when you hear it. To take just one example, a lot of post-minimal producers consciously embraced microtonal melodies and syncopated basslines in 2016, but only a small minority, such as the Traffic Records crew and Spacetravel, felt as if they were pushing beyond the limits of control and developing from intuition rather than process. It’s not my place to tell artists how to make music, but here’s hoping that 2017 will see them challenging best practice and resisting external pressures.

After December’s horrifying warehouse party fire in Oakland, underground dance music in the US enters 2017 in a state of uncertainty. The ramifications were quick and unforgiving. Electronic music was demonized, DIY spaces were shut down and the media rooted out small venues that were hardly dangerous. But the artistic community’s reaction has only served to underline how vital these spaces are.

The fire has had the effect of politicizing electronic music gatherings at a time when the music itself has started to grapple with politics in a meaningful way. The last year has seen the rise of groups like Discwoman and NON, and artists like Chino Amobi and Lee Bannon, all of whom express themselves through, and advocate for, their race, gender and sexuality. They do this through the lens of experimental electronic music, sometimes abrasive and sometimes soothing, but removed from the academic world that “experimental” typically implies.

Lechuga Zafiro & Pobvio’s SALVIATEK label’s efforts to decolonize indigenous Latin music has resulted in some of the most exciting new dance music coming out of the Americas. NON’s fiery releases channel the alternating frustrations and beauty of the African diasporic experience. Club Chai’s excellent upcoming compilation showcases producers who are part of that diaspora, as well as female-identifying or trans artists. This music, volatile and unpredictable, turns the act of genre-bending into something political. Rules are broken and barriers are forcefully knocked down as an expression of identity. It’s an assertion of power in a world otherwise hostile to such identities.

Some of the most exciting dance tunes coming out in 2017 will not be at home in glitzy nightclubs or on high-spec soundsystems; they will be heard in dive bars, warehouses, studios, galleries and converted spaces claimed by those who need community gatherings the most. Dance music’s origins in oppressed peoples and cultures is essentially folklore at this point, but it’s these young artists who are making electronic music a force to be reckoned with all over again.

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