Michael McKinney wants you to know that a year spent in quarantine only made his synesthesia stronger.
Clubs may be shuttered across much of the world, and their implicit electricity may be tougher to access, but the joy of dance music never went away. Just ask many of the DJs featured in this month’s column, who found a way to—yet again—pack the power of a dancefloor set into a SoundCloud upload.
Danielle assembled an intoxicating blend of turgid techno and livewire club tools; ZULI, fresh off a gig in Cairo, put together a full-throttle set of mutant dancefloor bombs. Special Request connected the dots between the ‘60s and the ‘10s, offering a deeply personal survey of dance music’s million corners; Jubilee did the same with a slice of Miami’s rave scene, showing off old-school electro, bass, and breaks along the way. Bill Spencer & Izaak, mixing for Truants, dug into their crates of vintage soul and R&B, while Tim Sweeney blended house, boogie, and unflappable joy. Bang Face uploaded their 2020 archives, dropping dozens of hours of barnstorming hardcore for would-be ravers.
There’s plenty of material for the dreamier set, too. Aaron J provided yet another window into his take on dimly lit ambient-techno; Katatonic Silentio darkened the scene further, blending eerie ambience and otherworldly electronics into a hair-raising set for Ilian Tape. Slowfoam’s set for Animalia is a mood piece of disorienting beauty, sliding between moods, genres, and styles without so much as a blink; Space Afrika put together a long-form sound collage for both gritted teeth and welcoming arms.
Here are some of the best DJ mixes March had to offer.
Aaron J – Truancy Volume 275
In his interview with Truants, Aaron J says that assembling his mix for the magazine was “a bit terrifying […] I was starting to worry that I wouldn’t be able to make this mix at all.” On Truancy Volume 275, Aaron J digs liberally into the sounds of lingering worry and slowly settling dread—in this case, bone-crunching percussion, disorientingly stilled air, and alien synthesizers. But he makes plenty of space for vulnerability and quiet beauty, too, taking care to contrast his cragged techno selections with wide-open borderline-beatless ambience. For much of the set, he threatens to drop the floor out and dispose of tempi entirely, but he (almost) never does. The result is two hours of low-oxygen techno: flickering lights, dimly lit figures, and an otherworldly beauty.
Ambient Babestation Meltdown – Dummy Mix 611 / Rachael – Rachael’s Asian Disco Special
Contrary to her stage name, Rachael Williams’s mix for DUMMY contains no ambient music whatsoever. But, in its own way, that’s fitting: the best Ambient Babestation Meltdown mixes are fueled by a dry sense of humor and an emphasis on the unexpected. On Dummy Mix 611, the London selector blends unidentifiable club tools and pitch-black EBM with radio-broadcast snippets about the power of friendship. (There’s a Nine Inch Nails cut midway through, and it sounds completely at home.) The combination is both playful and unsettling, with hints of communal joy giving way to a nocturnal churn that won’t let up. Rachael’s Asian Disco Special, by contrast, is much more direct, giving exactly what it says on the tin: soaring melodies, endlessly deep grooves, and an unmistakable joie de vivre. Taken as a pair, the two mixes showcase the depth of Williams’s crates—but, more importantly, serve to reveal the emotional and textural worlds contained within.
Club Fitness – Truancy Volume 276
Club Fitness—née Patricia Lavender—makes good on her name. Truancy Volume 276 is as good an example as any. From the start, she’s focused squarely on the dancefloor, moving from sweaty electro to playful acid techno and house as the set heats up. Highlights abound: a vanishingly small selection of hissing ambient-techno providing a launchpad about ten minutes in; a pile-up of acidic and off-kilter breakbeat-techno; the finale, a snowballing drum-and-bass cut which stretches towards a frenetic kind of beauty. But just about any bit from the set could count, too. Her selections are uniformly top-notch, making for a jubilant and floor-oriented club mix that isn’t afraid to toss a wrench in the works now and again.
Danielle – Left Bank Podcast 008
With each release, Danielle proves herself a master of combining slinky techno into rowdier, more left-field selections. Left Bank Podcast 008 is no different: in the span of sixty minutes, she leaps between any number of dancefloor idioms, tossing rip-roaring breaks on top of squelching electro and skittering dubstep. The whole thing’s an exercise in daring blends and bridges, with each segue coming off like a minor miracle: low-gravity almost-techno gets twisted up with the help of piledriving breaks, scorching hard drum turns acidic and launches into space, slamming four-on-the-floor kicks give way to metallic minimalism. She maintains this rambunctious energy and meticulous selection for the set’s duration, dropping plenty of bombs on the dancefloor along the way.
Jubilee – Text Me When You Get Here
She may have moved to New York two decades ago, but Jubilee’s love affair with Miami’s club scene continues unabated. In the third entry for Mixtape Club’s mix series, Text Me When You Get Here, she digs deep, blending golden-era rave cuts picked up from the scene’s local DJs and blending them with left-field burners from her new-school contemporaries. It’s a winning idea, and Jubilee pulls it off: the set is a party-ready pack of squelchy electro and neck-snapping Miami bass, all raunchy and storming club thumpers suited for subwoofers. The cover, recalling The Prodigy’s Fat of the Land, fits: like that record, Text Me When You Get Here is loaded with rough-and-rowdy beats, serves as a love letter to her influences, and shows how their sound might continue to evolve.
Katatonic Silentio – ITPS060
On ITPS060, Katatonic Silentio takes pitch-black ambient and slow-motion synthesizers and drops them into deep space. From the beginning, it is alien and unnerving; the first sound is some sort of unknowable hiss-clang, and the second is silence. Spine-tingling discomfort, balanced alongside colossal beauty, is the order of the hour, and it arrives in any number of forms: gravelly incantations atop slurred breakbeats, skittering and insectoid synthesizers, mournful drones, imploding percussion. Using empty space and austere electronics, Katatonic Silentio conjures another galaxy, full of heart-in-throat terror and breathtaking vistas.
Prayer – In Session
The name should be giveaway enough: with his productions, Prayer strains towards something greater. This is hardly new in rave music, but his approach is notable for just how seriously he takes it. Given his mix for Mixmag’s In Session is largely composed of other people’s productions, it’s not as outright liturgical as his other releases, but rave music has no shortage of this stuff. This is hardcore breakbeat at its most outwardly melodic, white-hot, and joyous, with high-octane drums sharing space with old-school house-piano riffs and soaring string sections. Outside of curation, Prayer wisely stays out of the way of his selections, mixing them smoothly and leaving the breakbeats to snowball on their own accord. It’s a joyous session that dares to reach for euphoria; even more impressively, it gets there.
Slowfoam – Animix Twenty Nine
Animix Twenty Nine is predicated on scale as much as anything else: glacial drones share space with close-miced field recordings, slow-motion pan-flutes give way to a playful-but-insistent almost-four-on-the-floor, glitched-up mantras for one dissolve into scurried drum-and-bass. In what may be the most inspired stretch of the set, Madelyn Byrd blurs chilled-out guitar, noodling saxophone, buzzing drones, and a frigid drum kit into a mood piece of disparate tempos, sounds, and traditions. That it works at all is testament to Byrd’s approach, which is delicate and auteurist at once. No matter the tones, Animix Twenty Nine is transfixing thanks to its dance between cosmic grandeur and warm intimacy.
Space Afrika – RA.772
On their mix for Resident Advisor, Space Afrika continue exploring the dusty alleyways that inform so much of their work, leaning deep into slow and introspective electronics. They curate a curious vision of ambient music here, with open palms turning to clenched fists and back again. A slowly deepening haze of space-bound synthesizers, field recordings, and empty space offers an ever changing beauty, but, again and again, transmissions from the outside world—panicked spoken word, the howls from a circa-2010 Burial cut, static-laced radio chatter—complicate the mood, making it uglier and more uncomfortable. (This tightrope recalls 2020’s hybtwibt?, which worked in a similarly liminal state.) Space Afrika’s music has long lingered in the space between what ought to be and what is; here, through careful selections and a patient touch, they bridge those worlds yet again.
Special Request – DJ-Kicks
Writing about his DJ-Kicks entry, Paul Woolford—the Leeds producer of a million aliases—said that he sees the series as “a benchmark of quality and a time-stamped gateway into an artist’s state of mind.” When Woolford shows his hand, it’s worth paying attention; he has a habit of following through. (Look no further than the four Special Request albums he put out in 2019 after broadcasting the possibility on Twitter.) He did so here, too; DJ-Kicks functions like a lovingly curated grab-bag of worn-in records. These are tracks that span decades, histories, and genre, but in his hands, their similarities become obvious. The spaceborne synthesizers of µ-Ziq’s lush “Drocovums” recall the shimmering horns in John Morales’s remix of Alicia Myers’s “Right Here Right Now.” The line from AS ONE’s prismatic nu-breakbeat cut “We Are But Shadow” to Tim Reaper’s frenetic jungle edit of the producer’s own “Pull Up” isn’t as far as it might appear. DJ-Kicks is a veritable tour de force of dance music history. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, though: Woolford called it.
Bill Spencer & Izaak – Truancy Volume 274
Near the end of their interview with Truants, Bill Spencer and Izaak are asked to name a few of their favorite tracks from their latest mix. The two are happy to oblige: each of them pick out a few favorites that the other found. This wasn’t planned in advance; instead, their mutual admiration spilled out impromptu. It’s fitting: Truancy Volume 274, a two-hour opus of ‘80s and ‘90s R&B and soul crate-digging, is filled with that same kind of joy, warmth, and heart-on-sleeve sincerity. The selections attest to the depth of knowledge that the pair have, running between countless deep cuts without a sour note among the bunch. Its grooves run deep enough, and its melodies soar high enough, to make it work as late-afternoon windows-down music, but its unabashed focus on love, joy, and communal celebration ensure it would fit on just about any dancefloor.
Tim Sweeney – BIS Radio Show #1085
After twenty-one years, Beats in Space is closing shop (for now). Since its launch in 1999, Tim Sweeney’s much-loved WNYU radio show became a mecca for DJs, making room for uncountable strands of dance music along the way. BIS Radio Show #1085, mixed by the man himself, is a fittingly joyous and free-form send-off. Sweeney spends two and a half hours blending the kind of dance music he’s long loved: low-slung boogie and soul, tightly wound disco, and a million shades of house. There’s plenty of obscure gems throughout, but Sweeney never seems like he’s flexing. Instead he comes off as affable as ever, an obviously seasoned presence who just wants to keep the grooves rolling. It’s not clear what he’ll be doing next, but that’s beside the point. For now, Sweeney celebrates Beats in Space’s meteoric impact on dance music by throwing the kind of party it deserves.
ZULI – In Session
ZULI’s In Session mix was recorded the morning after a night out (Cairo isn’t under COVID-19 lockdown), but it could have just as easily lit up the dancefloor. As a DJ, ZULI tends towards the raucous and unpredictable corners of dance music, where anything goes as long as it hits hard enough; this wild-eyed spirit runs through his latest set. Recorded in one off-the-cuff take, it packages what makes his approach so magnetic: it’s both fluid and wholly unpredictable, a stream of curveballs that always land just right. This time, he’s somersaulting between nocturnal trap selections, white-knuckle breakbeats, skyscraping trance, walls of bass, and plenty of sounds that don’t have a name yet. ZULI’s club music is playful, full-throttle stuff, all fueled by a devil-may-care sensibility. In Session is no different, and it’s all the better for it.
Adamant Scream / DJ Rap / Fabio & Grooverider / Ray Keith / Minor Science / Original Sin / Benny Page / SHERELLE – Bang Face Weekender 2020
Since its first party in 2003, Bang Face has become the stuff of legend. The party that Holly Dicker dubbed a “hedonist’s Narnia” was founded on a straightforward premise: blend ‘90s hardcore sounds with their more contemporary counterparts. Nearly two decades later, the rave is still going, and it’s just as riotous and cheeky as ever. (A few sets from 2020’s weekender took place in Inflataland, an “inflatable playground” with bouncy castles and slides abound.) Given 2021’s weekender was cancelled, the party went online. Over the course of three days, nearly thirty-six hours of wild-eyed hardcore showed up on their SoundCloud. They encompass what modern Bang Face is about: hardcore veterans sharing space with fresher faces, each DJ peddling their own vision of what rave music can sound like.
Two of the best sets from that pile-up belong to the lifers: Fabio & Grooverider’s session is a masterclass of old-school drum-and-bass, all sweltering breaks, walls of bass, and an unbeatable emcee. It’s mixed fast and hot, with the drums constantly molting to reveal new forms without sacrificing their driving energy. Ray Keith pulled off a similar trick, fusing drum-and-bass with ragga jungle and shrieking bassline. Two relative newcomers offered their own takes on the idioms: Benny Page sped the drums up and flipped them upside down, creating a riotous ragga jungle set packed with frantic emcees and wild-eyed percussion. Original Sin offered a newer-school take on drum-and-bass, taking the style’s tried-and-true rhythms and blasting them with shuddering bass that never lets up.
Of course, breaks are but one shade of hardcore. Adamant Scream offered up something else entirely, an unrelenting mass of pitch-black gabber: white-knuckle rhythms, mountains of bass, and kicks that hit like a sack of bricks. DJ Rap’s set opens with Urbandawn’s maddening bass-blasted bootleg of “Come Together” and never lets up, somersaulting between garage, acid techno, grime, and frenetic breaks. SHERELLE and Minor Science, two darlings of the new school, offered gnarlier, and more tongue-in-cheek, takes on their sounds. For SHERELLE, this meant taking her love of breaks and everything 160-BPM to ever wider territories, with frantic Jersey club and acid-tinged techno alongside juke and jungle. Minor Science, meanwhile, went for anything-goes hardcore, blending old-school rave-ups, body-slam techno, blistering donk, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, and walls of synthesizers into a steamrolling session.