Theory On The Radio

Last night I was listening to music, the way I used to when I was a child: lights off, sitting in front of the speakers and emotionally available to go with the sound… but now with high quality headphones that detect the fine production details. It made a significant difference to the music I usually only hear when I mix and I found myself listening to certain tracks by the Two Lone Swordsman, Jlin and Kode 9 several times over, fascinated by their subtle productions techniques; arguably listening with respect for the time and experience that went into their making.

This is very different to when I mix, which is intuitive. I often playing with tracks I haven’t listened to all the way through, teasing out their possibilities as they unfold. I suppose this is why ‘tracks’ are called ‘DJ tools’. I tend towards eclectic mixes. I don’t stick to genres, nor the latest releases. I’m not part of any scene, so I lack insider knowledge and don’t get sent anything exclusive. Also, I don’t mix regularly. I tell people I stopped more than a decade ago and the entry level Vestax controller I bought around that time is proof of it. (The company went bankrupt in 2014, which I only learned when I recovered my barely used Spin last year from storage).

I digress. After last night’s listening session I decided I would push these tracks to front of my ‘crate’ in Mixxx (free and open source) and shape my collection around them. I’ve noticed there is a lot of footwork in this folder, old and new. Today, I read some interviews with Jlin. Living in Gary, Indiana (where the Jacksons were also born) her early points of reference were footwork from Chicago, but she describes her sound as ‘EDM: Electronic Dance Music.’

I’ve been thinking about a notion of ‘riddim discursivity’. With reference to ‘urban dance music’ (UDM?), there is an established discourse about how certain looped samples laid the foundation for specific genres. Think of the ‘Funky Drummer’ in hip hop, the ‘Sleng Teng’ riddim in ragga, the ‘Amen Break’ in jungle, the ‘Volt Beat’ for funk carioca, reggaeton’s ‘Dem Bows’. I could happily spend hours (days, months, years) traveling down these wormholes, exploring the genealogies of such genres, but that’s not what I want to do at present. Notably, all of these genres emerged out of specific locals, often lower socio-economic enclaves of big cities — hip hop from the Bronx, New York; ragga from downtown Kingston, Jamaica; jungle, garage and grime from the estates of London; funk from Rio’s comunidades. With their own histories and handful of pioneers these genres have all globalised and mutated. They have been opened up by a range of artists and production techniques, accelerated by peer-to-peer networks, blogs and file-sharing platforms; cross-infecting genres of bass.

So, I wonder what exactly is EDM? Most recorded music these days goes through some form of electronic, or more precisely, digital production. How does EDM differ from say, Electronica? It reminds me of IDM — ‘Intelligent Dance Music’. I don’t know where this term popped up. I vaguely recall reading an interview with Richard Devine in Cyclic Defrost, a zine associated with the weekly ‘Frigid’ nights organised by Sub Bass Snarl (Luke Dearnley and Seb Chan) in Sydney in the 1990s and early 2000s, that discussed IDM as a genre emerging from easier access to software, equipment and time. It inferred some class dimension to this music. It probably encompassed producers such as Squarepusher and Autechre, to which I would add DJ Spooky, Matmos, Amon Tobin — I don’t know, who isn’t intelligent? Jace Clayton AKA DJ/Rupture used to describe himself as ‘the world’s smartest DJ’, or words to that effect. Richard D. James AKA Aphex Twin and Grant Wilson-Claridge, perhaps mischievously, named their label ‘Braindance’, as an electronic music movement and ‘way of life’ that: ‘encompasses the best elements of all genres’. Perhaps IDM simply announced a shift away from ‘four-on-the-floor’ rhythms into more ‘abstract’ styles of production that were not perceived to be so dance-floor friendly; and more suited for listening to on headphones? IDM might also have signalled a delinking of production from geographically-locatable scenes, as music dispersed via networks rather than, say, record stores?

Anyhow, back to EDM. In a 2017 interview, Jlin discusses connecting online with the late DJ Rashad, regarded as one of the founders of footwork (a genre of urban dance music), when she began developing as a producer. In a 2016 interview Jlin divulges that she hates clubbing and I began to wonder about her scene; who does she make music for? Jlin says her main sounding boards are her mother and best friend. Next I read an ‘up-to-the-time’ guide to footwork by Chicago-based producers RP Boo, Jana Rush, and DJ Manny and was surprised by their inclusion of tracks from producers based in Poland and Berlin.

While I’ve been collecting footwork and juke since before I withdrew as a DJ, the genre currently comprises much of a folder on my desktop labelled ‘Next Level’. Not all of the music gathered here is new, indeed tracks by the Two Lone Swordsmen date back to 1998. I’m enjoying the process of working out what stays in the mix, what gets culled and then figuring out what is missing — ‘curating my crate’, you might say.

Arguably, deciding what works in the mix is subjective, but it’s not necessarily music I like, or would listen to in any other way. With DJ software, the speed of a track — BPMs — need not necessarily govern what is most readily beat-matched. Pushing tracks well beyond their speeds (+/-24 is enough for me, but this range can easily be widened), opens up what is possible and introduces some novelty. While I know producers who have long designed their tracks to switch between tempos (80/160 BPM seems to be the footwork standard), lately I‘ve developed new respect for tracks that can connect between genres.

Although I’ve a life-long fascination with rhythm, I’ve noticed that I habitually drop my interest in dance music (or any other genre), returning to it some years later, enthused to find ‘something new’. This pattern of behaviour is arguably a rhythm in itself. Another habit is to reach out to theory and then stumble into ways of doing theory that are not strictly academic. Hence, ‘Theory on the Radio’ as the headline for this post and a description/prediction of how this ‘urban artistic-research’ project might evolve over the coming year/cycle.

I often find music by reading rather than listening; reading about producers, scenes and genres. Recently chatting to a friend and philosopher Bruno Besana, who sometimes collaborates with experimental musicians, he observed that music — and all art — is accompanied by a context or discourse that frames it, and that indicates what to be attentive to. But I’m also interested in what Kodwo Eshun termed ‘sonic fiction’, the interplay between close listening (or dancing or reading or looking or in other ways feeling), thought and the construction of narratives and concepts. Indeed, Eshun described himself as a ‘concept-engineer’ in his bio for More Brilliant than the Sun (1998). This book alone is proof how such concepts can fold back to influence the music or whatever material that was initially being addressed, or diverge altogether into different fields. So, while I take pleasure in listening to finely detailed productions, I wouldn’t describe myself as an audiophile. Rather I also enjoy thinking with music, as a embodied process, recalling Kodwo Eshun observing his body reacting to jungle ‘faster than the speed of thought’. Another digression.

Mixing is for me a way of listening and it often leads to music I wouldn’t otherwise be attentive to. I’ve also noticed the syncing features of DJ software have impacted the way I do this. While I appreciate being able to push tracks into speeds well beyond those in which they were made, I’m not so sure this has made my mixing any better. I write this in an attempt to articulate what I mean by pursuing an ‘eclectic sound’; a sound that connects to a broader — and also lifelong project — about how to be in the world that is an ever-evolving present.

At present I’m thinking with Sylvia Wynters’ urgings for specifically Black, colonially-oppressed and gendered people, to break from historical scriptings, and embrace invention [PDF]. Simultaneously, I’m thinking about Eshun’s speculation that the kinetic rhythms and forward pressure of jungle were somehow re-training or upgrading our bodily organs for what was to come. This is something that Steve Goodman AKA Kode9 picks up on in his book Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect and the Ecology of Fear (2010) in which he discusses (amongst other things) the ‘(sub)politics of frequency’ — by which the affective manipulation of sound (notably bass) is used to modulate the tensions of urban life, ‘transforming deeply engrained ambiences of fear or dread into other collective dispositions’ (p. xx). In a 2013 interview he says:

… for me, if the sound is right, then the politics are secondary. That is one of the key powers of music, to overload and short circuit people’s value systems and produce an intense encounter in which all other issues temporarily subside. It’s great where the music resonates with what you might think politically, but it’s not necessary, because the burden of political correctness can also be the ultimate vibe killer.

So I’m toying with how an eclectic sound might also contribute to this effort to inhabit the world differently, by means of alternative rhythms, brain patterns and behaviours — and also communities who gather around these practices; ‘eclectic sound as a way of life.’ A decade ago, my first point-of-reference was DJ/Rupture, these days it is Zíur who springs to mind.

It seems, mixing for me is a somewhat improvised, but no less habitual approach to elaborating on emancipatory impulses that are also ‘faster than the speed of thought’. Drives. So in this spirit of experimentation, this post concludes with some notes cribbed from last night’s listening session:

‘If Deejay was your trade’
and your job was to modulate bodies and time through sound — ‘vibes’;
emotions and energy,
push-and-pull people through rhythmic abstractions.
(You might)
manipulate the tick-tock passing of time and textures that trigger memory, nostalgia, fantasy and curiosity
dread
with speed and volume
(with or without chatter).
At best, a subjective experience transferred to others.
Find your niche and push it.