fugitive frequency, season 3, episode 1: “techno samba” live mix

A textured photograph of trees rising up from a field of grass at Residencia São João, Brazil.

01. 0:00:00 Simulacrum – Samba tem digital
02. 0:04:02 Juan Atkins – Other Side Of Life
03. 0:07:10 Der Zyklus – Diffeomorphism
04. 0:09:32 MU – Out of Breach
05. 0:12:12 Phuture – Acid Tracks (12″ Version)
06. 0:16:38 Adonis – No Way Back (Instrumental)
07. 0:21:26 Model 500 – NO UFO’S (Instrumental)
08. 0:26:46 Simulacrum – Zona Contacto
09. 0:28:12 DJ Joe Lewis – Acid Falls (Original Mix)
10. 0:30:52 Da Posse – It’s My Life (Aluh mix)
11. 0:34:52 Steve Poindexter – Computer Madness
12. 0:37:24 Despina – Alexa In Disrepair
13. 0:40:16 Traxman – BAD INDIGESTION
14. 0:43:46 Simulacrum – Bloco Techno
15. 0:47:44 Der Zyklus – Eigenface (Facial Asymetry)
16. 0:50:46 Model 500 – Digital Solutions

Riddim writing, software affordances, rhythmachine music.
This mix is far from perfect. It was recorded live and thus presents a “snapshot” of my thinking/feeling “in-the-mix”. It was made using MIXXX, a free/livre and open source (FLOSS) DJing/podcasting software and with a near pocket-sized Numark DJ2GO2 Touch USB controller that I bought last year to use while on a series of residencies in Brazil. The device compromises on controls for size, so it does not have separate pots for Hi/Mid/Low EQs on each channel that would seem essential for mixing. Instead it has a single knob that is mapped on MIXXX to a Lo/Hi cut sweep filter.

These genres of music are also relatively unfamiliar to me. I learned to mix garage, grime, dancehall, desi, baile funk, hip hop and what became known as “global bass” in the early 2000s, performing as Sven Simulacrum. I stopped around 2012 to focus on other research interests. Recently I’ve been curious about the abstract sonics and asymmetrical rhythms of “experimental dance music” (EDM) often made by producers who are “adjacent” to established genres such as footwork (Jlin) and ballroom (quest?onmarc) alongside high energy styles forwarded by labels including Principe, Lisbon and Yes No Wave, Yogyakarta. Music that I’m tentatively calling “other technos”.

The notion of “techno samba” emerged during fugitive radio’s recent time in Brazil, and particularly while in residence at Residência São João (RSJ); a farm, coffee plantation and self-organised artist space in the countryside of Rio De Janeiro in late October–November 2022. RSJ is reputed for its somsocosmos music residency, so I sought to spend my time there to working on sound production. Before leaving São Paulo late in October, I met with Coletivo Digital [Instagram] at their space in Pinheiros and my first task at RSJ was to I edit our conversation for a podcast. The collective had sent me a song to use, “Canção tem samba” by Trilha Sonora, recorded in their FLOSS studio and I’d thought to make a remix, also using FLOSS; specifically a suite of programs I was working with for Thalaam Riddim Reapers, alongside Luci Dayhew and Brendy Hale. Simultaneously, I undertook the same process with the popular proprietary music production and performance software Ableton Live, to understand the different affordances of these digital tools. I must admit, I was much happier with the results in Ableton and continued to use it to develop what became “Samba tem digital”, thinking once I was done I would return to a FLOSS set-up.

I should have seen it coming, but after some days of tinkering I opened a folder of musical skeletons I began in Ableton, 2018, when I first visited Brazil. At that time I was working on an urban research/cooking project, but had some inkling beforehand that Brazil would re-ignite my interest in music, as I had purchased a small USB keyboard that came packaged with an LE version of the software. In Rio I intuitively began making recordings on my smartphone of music I would hear everyday in my unfamiliar surrounds. This was also during the time of the presidential elections and there were regular demonstrations—manifestaçãoes—in the streets and plazas, notably the ele não campaign against Jair Bolsonaro, who went on to win by a significant margin. In Rio, I began to transcribe some of the rhythms I had recorded into MIDI—“riddim writing” is how I described it, as it bore some resemblance to writing, editing and fine-tuning text. After the patterns were entered into the software, I would run them through different drum kits and samples. Swapping drum kits on the fly is simple to do in Ableton and can lead to surprising results. I wasn’t sure what to do next. I sent a couple of riddims to some friends whom I thought might be interested to voice them, but received little response. Later I dropped them into fugitive frequency podcasts, just to put them to some use and to “see” how they sounded.

At RSJ, I was the sole inhabitant at figuera, a ground level cottage by an unsealed road that ran through the property, that could have easily housed four or five more residents. I had a small PA at my disposal and would often spend my nights mixing tracks, knowing that I wouldn’t be keeping anyone awake. My closest neighbour, Javier, was maybe 20 meters or so down the road. While I would make noise in the evenings, he would wake up early to practice trumpet and we never seemed to bother each other. Prior to moving to RSJ during the COVID pandemic, Javier was based in Rio where he’d been involved in a gallery/project space where I believe he was brewing beer, a practice he was carrying on at RSJ.  I asked if he was thinking to play trumpet with others—maybe join a samba bloco?—a popular sport of sorts in Brazil. He said something about playing in a “techno samba” group and I was intrigued.

In July last year Kode9/Steve Goodman released his album Escapology (2022). Like many others, I have much respect for the London based DJ, Hyperdub label boss and theorist. Alongside his colleague Kodwo Eshun, whose book More Brilliant than the Sun (1998) unleashed a slew of concepts concerned with black alienation, technology and “rhythmachine music”, Goodman has been a steady influence on my thinking about sound and EDM. At RSJ I listened to some recent interviews in which he recalled his early love for jungle, which reminded me of the “hardcore continuum”, a termed coined by another of Goodman’s contemporaries, music journalist Simon Reynolds. It describes morphing but consistent musical genres and scenes that extended from early hardcore rave in the late 1980s UK, to jungle, drum and bass, garage, grime and dubstep and its ecology of record shops, pirate radio stations, parties, promoters and clubs. The notion of a hardcore continuum has propelled my interests in EDM from the time that jungle and drum and bass first entered my consciousness growing up in Sydney, and a curiousity to tap back into it is what prompted me to start mixing again for fugitive radio.

It was again the time of the presidential election when I returned to Brazil in September 2022, and shortly after I arrived at RSJ a second run-off election was scheduled. While now relatively removed from the action in the bigger cities, the mood at the fazenda and among its community was anxious. On the day I arrived, I was swept up in a manifestação organised in the nearby town of São José do Vale do Rio Preto. The following weekend, on the 30 October election the working class icon and former president, Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva defeated Bolsanaro by a narrow margin, indicating that the country remained polarized.

So it was strange to find myself in the after glow of the elections and among RSJ’s idyllic surroundings in late Spring, turning to Reynolds’ 2012 book Energy Flash, which recounts his experiences of early rave and jungle in the UK, and following the scene as it transformed in the US. Early in his book Reynolds interviews Juan Atkins who coined the term “techno” to describe the music he and his friends were developing in Detroit, inspired by his high school readings of Alvin Toffler’s book Future Shock (1970) and its sequel The Third Wave (1980), which includes references to “Techno-Rebels” who “embraced technology as a means of empowerment and resistance”. Reynolds recounts Atkins describing himself as a “warrior for the technological revolution” (Reynolds 2012). For me, Atkin’s attitude reminds me of the techno-optimism of early net culture and open source movements; perhaps a “past potential future” to use a phrase associated with the Otolith Group, a collaboration/collective co-founded by Eshun and Anjalika Sagar in 2002, known for their film-essays. Reynolds points out that Atkins and his friends and collaborators, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson—mythologised as the Belleville Three—used the term “techno” to distinguish themselves from the other black dance music gaining popularity in the UK: house from Chicago. In his recent history of Detroit techno, Assembling a Black Counter Culture (2022), DeForrest Brown Jr [Instagram] notes that May preferred the term “High Tech Soul”, which became the name of a 2006 documentary.

Reynolds describes house music as “inorganic”: “machines talking to each other, in an un-real acoustic space” (2012: “New Jack City), which resonated with my experiences of working with software. He emphasises the musical form of the “track” (ie a drum track) rather than a song (2012: “Disco’s Revenge”), as a tool developed by house music DJs such as Frankie Knuckles (1955–2014); “house” being a contraction of “Warehouse”, the Chicago club where Knuckles honed his skills. Initially made on reel-to-reel tape, these would be used to mix, supplement and extend long instrumental sections of records. So the “techno drum track” became the point of reference to the music I was developing at RSJ and I adopted Javier’s phrase, “techno samba”, to describe it.

I’m aware of a recent re-appraisal of techno in sound studies, black studies, queer studies and contemporary art. For example, the short film Black to Techno (2019) by Jenn Nkiru, comissioned by Frieze and Gucci for their series Second Summer of Love (2019) recalling the music-driven cultural revolution of 1988.

Indeed, madison moore and McKenzie Wark, editors of a recent edition of e-flux Journal themed “Black Rave” (December 2022), issue a call to develop the field of “Techno Studies”.

Most significant is the campaign to “Make Techno Black Again”, fronted by the aforementioned writer and musician DeForrest Brown Jr/Speaker Music. With his interests firmly rooted in the black working class experience of Detroit, Brown Jr’s book Assembling a Black Counter Culture (2022), proposes to delink techno from the hardcore continuum and its associations with (European) rave culture and rather re-frame it as a distinct African American artform and “embodied aural history”. Perhaps a hardcore discontinuum?

Deforrest Brown Jr sits cross-legged on a polished floor. Dressed in black, he wears a “Make Techno Black Again" cap, a covid face mask and is reading from Kodwo Eshun’s book "More Brilliant than the Sun" (1998).
DeForrest Brown Jr reading Kodwo Eshun’s More Brilliant than the Sun. Photo: Ting Ding 2020

Brown Jr presents his thoughts as an extension of Eshun’s writing and he also responds to ideas raised by Goodman in his book Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect and the Ecology of Fear (2012). In the podcast below produced by Haus der Kulteren der Welt, Berlin and Camden Art Centre, London, 2021, Brown Jr, Goodman and musician Nkisi discuss the migration of techno from Detroit to Europe.

While I’m still working my way through Brown Jr’s detailed volume, it has pointed me towards some interesting music and history, some of which appears in this mix, notably the “acid house” tracks: Phuture’s “Acid Tracks” (1987), Adonis’ “No Way Back” (1986) and Steve Poindexter’s “Computer Madness” (1989). I’m also curious about the continuity of acid house in footwork, as can be heard in productions by Traxman (AKA Corky Strong), whose “Bad Indigestion” from his Acid Lyfe (2018) release also features in this mix. His 2019 reworking of Steve Poindexter’s “Work that Mutha Fucker” (1989), pressed on the same record as “Computer Madness”, is another notable track.

Another influence is Brown Jr’s descriptions of how house DJ’s would loop and mix instrumental rhythms breaks and drum tracks, into repetitive hypnotic sequences that could last up to an hour or more—“music that would never stop”, according to Larry Levan (1954–1992) the legendary DJ at the New York’s Paradise Garage in the 1980s. A combination of these readings and the qualities of these musics have led me to attempt looping and crossfading back and forth between tracks more than I am accustomed to doing, and admittedly with mixed results, nevertheless giving a sense of where “techno samba” might go. Another technique I’m curious to experiment with, but am limited by my current set-up, is the “rhythmic fader” DJing techniques of Derrick May (listen here) and that I find reminiscent of another influence on my mixing, Venus X (listen here). (Incidentally Venus X also features in Wu Tsang’s contribution to the Freize and Gucci series, Into a Space of Love (2019) concerned with New York House.)

While I am processing Brown Jr’s arguments in this mix, as a testing ground for thought, I nevertheless regard my approach to techno is in its most generic sense, ie rhythmic dance music made with machines.

fugitive radio rádio em fuga in Brazil 2022 was supported by the Australia Council for the Arts.

Theory On The Radio / Theory in the Mixxx

Vestax Spin

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 her early points of reference were footwork from Chicago, and 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 right now. 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 unique histories and handful of pioneers these genres have since globalised and mutated. They have been opened up by a range of artists and production techniques and new/sub genres have emerged as music travels across 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 as access to software, equipment and time became easier. 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’, to describe 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 better suited for headphone listening? 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 started out 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.

I find that the music that remains is not necessarily music I like or that I feel ‘represents’ me or that I would listen to in another way — say, if I was going about some chores. Rather, what stays is music that I am curious to mix. Furthermore, 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 ‘connect’ between different 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 / Theory in the Mixxx’ 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 sensing), 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) and this book alone is proof of how discourse 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 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.

I write this in an attempt to articulate what I mean by pursuing an ‘eclectic sound’; a sound that connects to a broader, lifelong project about how to be in an ever-evolving present, marked by crises and inequality. Currently, 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.

How can an eclectic sound might contribute to an effort to inhabit the world differently? Can alternative rhythms alter brain patterns and behaviours? What about communities who gather around these practices; might pursuing an ‘eclectic sound’ become ‘a way of life.’ A decade ago, my first point-of-reference as an eclectic selector 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
with speed and volume
(with or without chatter).
At best, a subjective experience transferred to others.
Find your niche and push it.