2018: the year in black electronic music

January 23, 2019
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Electronic music embodies a special space within the history of Black culture, serving as a space for community and self-development while also promoting rational and radical political ideology. A connection between a human and machine is oftentimes construed as a soulless interaction, but the involvement of technology in Black culture has opened up a range of new ways for expression. When using a sampler, the word memory comes up quite often, the literal capacity with which a sampler or drum machine can remember the patterns you program into it. Historically, Black music is a liberation technology and a means to process and imagine further than the present conditions. The introduction of production tools like the mixing console, the drum machine and the turntable granted even greater possibilities for building music that can exist as a sculptural audio object.

In his 1998 book, More Brilliant than the Sun, the writer/filmmaker/critic Kodwo Eshun delves into an Afrofuturist reading of black music. Considering the long-suffering history of violence and oppression inflicted on the collective black body, Eshun refers to a Black culture in regards to its interaction with machines and production as a “series of material that’s been agglomerated on one hand, and on the other, it’s much more like a series of techniques.” Sound can be seen as a technology for touching the senses; injecting a feeling wordlessly, with soul.

In 2018, there were a number of Black voices in electronic music actively seeking to define a sound and their situation. 2018 saw the return of veterans and a host of emerging talent, taking their own approach to gear and sound.

Chicago House pioneer Larry Heard has produced a number of classic albums and singles across his career, some of the most iconic under the name Mr. Fingers. Cerebral Hemisphere is a compilation of recent tracks that appear to represent the varied spectrum of Mr. Fingers’ musical interests in 2018. Lasting over an hour and a half, the album can be assumed to be more of a mood board, balancing his impulses from R&B and smooth jazz (or quiet storm), to acidic techno.

English artist and musician Steven Julien (formerly known as Funkineven) released two EPs in 2018 that split his impulses down the middle. The first being Bloodline, a seven-track collection of drum and synth music that leans heavily into jazz fusion territory. The eponymous opening track is a modal keyboard jam consisting of warm harmonies, shifting and lulling, injecting a host of emotions into a very machine music. His second offering last year was the more dancefloor-aimed 8-Ball, four workouts that highlight Julien’s skills with an 808 drum machine and recall Chicago house producer Steve Poindexter.Kyle Hall is a Detroit producer who falls within the sonic legacy of techno and house pioneers like Carl Craig and Omar-S. Starting his music career at 15, Kyle Hall has created a singular, organic take on dance music. His latest EP Equanimity marks the 10-year anniversary of his label Wild Oats, and branches his sound out further along, adding a holistic philosophy to his musical approach. The EP’s sound and atmosphere is divided into two thematic halves expressing the duality of solar and lunar cycles and their accompanying effects on our bodies. Equanimity is a pleasurable, deep listen, spiritually thick and musically rich.Jlin’s transition from a bedroom footwork producer, mentored by pioneers like RP Boo and DJ Rashad, to a composer presenting in the contemporary art world has been stunning to observe. Autobiography is a soundtrack of a Wayne McGregor conceptual dance piece of the same name. Despite the work being specifically about McGregor’s own life (and it’s relation to molecular development), Jlin’s artistic progression is present as well. Her talent for folded rhythms and acrobatic percussive patterns is placed alongside precise sound experiments and poised sound design in a way that is totally unlike her previous albums.Artist, singer and producer Klein is another artist ascending from bedroom to art world. After releasing the Tommy EP on Hyperdub in 2017, last year was a busy one for Klein. She performed at New York’s Gavin Brown Enterprise; directed and scored a musical, Care, that was staged at London’s ICA; and self-released an EP, cc, full of heart-warming collages created out of sound fragments and pitch-shifted vocals. Klein’s music has a quality that makes it reminiscent of something you can’t quite put your finger on. Artist and poet Diamond Stingily appears on the opening track, mulling over the stress of “growing pains” and childhood memories, as synths swell in Disney-like harmony. Later tracks sputter with radical voice edits, like a house track spun in reverse (“Explay”); or chug along a Terrence Dixon-like groove (the hypnotic “Apologise”). A typical Klein track is infinitely listenable even as it appears to be abstract balancing artistic expression with an acknowledgement of pop culture.Jasmine Infiniti of the Oakland party and art collective Club Chai is a non-binary, trans DJ/producer contorting vogue and ballroom tropes into personal and psychedelic soundscapes. Sis is her commentary on “fear, sexuality, the importance of community and camaraderie,” as well as the “anger and shade” surrounding her identity. The subject matter weighs heavy in tracks like the minimal industrial techno of “Wat U Gon Do” and “Intervention.”

The previous releases that Soraya Lutangu released under her Bonaventure alias on the PTP (fka Purple Tape Pedigree) and NON Worldwide labels, used narrative recordings spooled around ideas of deconstructed club music to work through the hard questions and life experiences of geopolitical violence and racists micro-aggression. Bonaventure’s 2018 album, Mentor, is on Planet Mu, and on it, Lutangu considers the more positive and structural subject of knowledge sharing. It takes a village to raise a child, and over time a history of the collective experience of becoming together develops. Acute, suggestive phrasing in the tracklist offers a mantra that underlies the spatial sketches of club music. The closing track “Both” features conceptual artist and writer Hannah Black whose voice is shrouded in spiral trap/grime hi-hats and bass, stating curtly, “Both apocalypse and utopia are already here…”

DISCWOMAN’s Akua has been making waves in the Brooklyn underground dance scene with blistering, high-speed techno sets. Akua is homegrown, having initially learned to DJ from Umfang at a DISCWOMAN Intersessions workshop. Her DISCWOMAN mix is a great example of her flexible voice as selector, an hour-long journey placing classics like Underground Resistance’s “Seawolf” and contemporaries like Jana Rush on a sliding scale.

Russell E.L. Butler’s The Home I’d Build for Myself and All My Friends is a similar sculptural take on kinship and establishing institutions for community and collective rest. Each track takes an object or anecdote, and sonically ponders over it. The structures of songs like “Builder” and “Love Unlmtd” mull over their subject matter with a stuttered and groove reminiscent of Detroit giants like James Stinson or Jeff Mills.

New York’s AceMo and MoMa Ready are two New York DJ/producers on the forefront of a younger take on house and techno. Both share an appreciation of the long history of styles and approaches to dance music, and subtly update the 4/4 with a new energy. AceMo’s EP for Vanity Press is a collection of four tracks much more dancefloor-focused than his previous work, featuring an analog, straight-to-tape ethos that punctuates dance songs with a lo-fi and hazy texture. MoMa Ready’s compilation of tracks, Body 18, elaborates on classic Chicago and New York house tropes while leaning into the futurism of techno, expressing “a range of emotion from euphoria to melancholy.”

Kelman Duran is an LA-based producer conjuring transcendent ambient reggaeton. His second album, 13th Month, is a spiritual experience with a proper volume and rhythmic sensibility for club spaces. The opening tracks “13th Month in 3 Movements” and “Club664B” are ecstatic symphonic excursions lasting around 10 minutes each. Disembodied vocals, sampled choirs and plump, muscular basslines inform the dream-like atmosphere of Duran’s music, while vocal clips and classical movements suggest meditations on trauma and anxiety.

Finally, it took until 2018 for footwork originator RP Boo to release his official debut album, I’ll Tell You What!, after a nearly three-decades-long career that has spanned singles for quintessential dance-music labels, from Dance Mania to Planet Mu. The album reminds me of jazz drummer Max Roach’s 1960 album, We Insist!, which inferred a sonic manifesto for the Civil Rights Movement. In a similar way, RP Boo’s first album proper is emotional and expansive in its exploration of the fundamentals of the footwork sound, while also layering in his own voice, with poignant, subliminal raps connoting the intensity of his music-making process and the harshness of Chicago.