2019: THE YEAR IN BLACK ELECTRONIC AND DANCE MUSIC
December 16, 2019
It’s downright disrespectful to discuss the year in Black electronic and dance music without first acknowledging Ras G. This Los Angeles-based visionary, beatmaker, and Afrofuturist, who was one of the founding artists of Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder imprint, passed away on July 29. Simply put, Ras G created the space for a whole generation of Black (and non-Black) LA electronic music producers to exist. The man born Gregory Shorter Jr. made his self-proclaimed “Ghetto sci-fi” music on a Roland SP-404, an electronic sampler that loops and manipulates sounds using 12 rubber pads. Its lo-fi sonics told a large swath of young Black folks that WE can exist and flourish on this frequency. When in 2016 Ras G said that his Gospel Of The God Spell beat tape came from two weeks of running through the Gospel section at Poobah Record Shop, the Pasadena wrecka stow he worked at, making quick freestyle beats during his bluntch breaks on a Space Program 303, it was clear: he was Leimert Parkʻs Brian Eno, its Lee “Scratch” Perry, and so much more.
I realized when Toni Morrison and Ras G both got called home to Saturn in the same calendar year, that storytelling was the theme running through Black Electronic music in 2019. Both were educators and community builders whose work hacked new territory. Intuitive inventiveness weaving across two entirely different generations, mastering separate tools and skillsets, communicating various shades of the Black experience. Delivered in our tongue — dispatched by our drum. In the way that Black Girl Magic has always been there — though it took Morrison to speak the term — Ras G had the insight to connect J Dilla, through Jamaican dub and Reggae, by way of Sun Ra’s cosmic Jazz, and then ride it into the Nebula. NOBODY but Ras G did that.
Ras G started releasing music in 2005, helping give the LA underground beat scene an international identity, despite the fact his music never hit the top of anyone’s charts or amassed notable amounts of streams. His bass left a footprint in your chest, a thumpasaurus that tinny streaming services and their computer speakers can’t deliver. It could only be taken in live. At the long-running and influential LA club night Low End Theory, Ras G destroyed speakers, rattled ceilings and made that beat scene feel like a family. His impact on mainstream artists was profound: Erykah Badu, Kendrick Lamar, Kamasi Washington, and Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, among many, all got it.
On Dance of the Cosmos, one of his last releases, this pioneer was still challenging himself — this time with a dedication to the four-on-the-floor tabernacle of Chicago House. From the jump, we know this transition to the 4/4 form would not be gradual, nuanced, or stretched out. Nope. The Space Program is on a mission, with a schedule to keep. While that could be off-putting to some traditional house-heads, such immediacy feels right at home if you came up listening to Theo Parrish‘s Ugly Edits or other Black house-centric white labels. So yes. There is a dialogue — a story, if you will — rooted in swing and bass, going on between Los Angeles and Detroit productions.
On “Long Gone” this granular mood bumps right from the start, with a Kalimba at the top of the mix and a gritty, straight-forward organ on the bottom. Everything is locked, grounded. It’s an expert nine-minute chunky workout that feels timeless. The spoken word segments in-between his trademark shouts (“RAAAAAS” and “African Space Base”) run through the five-song EP, keeping your ear connected to who is bringing this transmission. Ras preaches the importance of Black control and consciousness, with the immediacy of a loudspeaker in a public school classroom. His are sonic alerts about the struggle. So while the lo-fi bump keeps compromising speakers, that piercing tone cuts through everybody’s good time, keeping the ongoing education fluid.
There were other Black storytellers who spent 2019 using the drum and the machine to keep our experiences authentic and clear…far above all the noise.
Pursuit Grooves, BESS
While researching Mae Jemison, the first Black woman astronaut, Pursuit Grooves (aka Vanese Smith), read about a photo of Bessie Coleman that joined the historic journey into space as a sign of solidarity and respect. Coleman was the first Black American woman pilot, who left for France to get her international pilot’s license in 1921, studied with master flyers in Europe, and returned to the U.S. as a spectacular performer and air trickster. With flight as her metaphor, she celebrated her achievement by encouraging others. In spite of extreme racial and gender bias, she fulfilled her dreams. Over the course of its 15 tracks, Bess, Pursuit Grooves’ largely instrumental tribute to Coleman and her achievements, brings a sense of physical and spiritual elevation. Smith is a Maryland-born, Toronto-based, veteran electronic music producer, who makes industrial, experimental, and funky arrangements that take listeners into unknown sonic regions. Tracks like “Cloud Pusher,” with clicks and synths wrapped up in a mechanical narrative, evoke a sense of limitless space and all the sacrifice it takes to get there; and “The French Connect,” with its upright house music structure, stuttering snares, booming kicks, dub-wise bass lines, and air-raid noises, capture the beautiful struggle in song, and give a sense of how weightless Bessie must have felt upon reaching Europe.
Afrikan Sciences, Centered
Since last autumn, Eric Porter, the ever-transforming electronic music producer, has gone on a determined run, self-releasing Bandcamp albums that hopscotch through house, techno, and breakbeats. He’s doubling down, challenging the Big Box EDM convention with digitized music that carries the great spirit of Everything and Nothing all at once. Assembled with wings, intellect and omnipotent connectivity. It’s old and new simultaneously. Always traveling. Centered saw the NYC-based artist facilitating breakbeat music, with a bit more redemption, re-contextualized sound collages and grinding up various kick-drum-assisted genres. This change-up was right in line with a refusal to repeat himself, leaning on percolating rhythms, discordant pathways, and pressurized breakcore mayhem. The centerpiece, “aRuema,” which stays humid over its eight-minute run, features a talking drum conversing over a horizontally moving bassline. It carries the spirit of the Ancestors, holding court in the nebula, communicating via the drum over digital frequencies. It’s got THAT feel.
rRoxymore, Face To Phase
Face to Phase, the début long-player from the French-born Berlin-based producer rRoxymore, rewires electronic music with raw noise and acoustic instruments. The woman born Hermione Frank is not so much pushing against the norm as shuffling away from the expected “thump and grist” Berlin Techno. Released by Bristol, UK’s Don’t Be Afraid Records, Face to Phase rearranges the DNA of underground house music, creates attitudinal grooves with runway dreams and muted Disco flourishes, and tosses about random percussive ideas scattered with faint drum and bass, UK Funky and Grime references. Face to Phase is a trip, on which rRoxymore goes in her own direction.
Ash Walker, Aquamarine
Since 2015, Ash Walker, the London-based multi-instrumentalist, has released music that he refers to as “adventures on land.” An ardent collector of jazz, blues, soul, funk, reggae, and all things in-between, he’s put in work behind the decks far and wide. Aquamarine, his most recent collection of grand soundscapes, designed for the traveling-without-moving temperament, sees the British artist put together a Trip-Hop-meets-R&B union that will keenly charm dub and Radiohead fans alike. His self-described production outline is heavily informed by old King Tubby records. Filling out the mix with surface noise of fuzz and crackle, it’s a balance that uses a model placement of frequencies. His audio spaceship, created in the hiss and pops of many vinyl albums, is a signature grouping of analog and digital oscillations that resembles NOTHING from this era.
Waajeed, Ten Toes Down
When traveling through Wajeed’s hometown of Detroit, it’s important to remember that EDM is a dirty acronym..Over the past decade, the man born Robert OʻBryant has watched thieves try to enter the temple of house and techno; and in to this redistricting Jeedo has marched that sound right the fuck back towards its unapologetically Black rhythmic perspective.Ten Toes Down offers five tracks to keep our collective spirits positive with R&B, funk, disco, and soul with the uplift of call and response communication. “Heavy,” featuring Candi Lindsey (better remembered as former Wu-Tang Clan vocalist, Blue Raspberry), is a soulful house statement of salvation, giving extra life. Ten Toes Down is potent, direct anti-virus against algorithmic silliness.
It’s been five years since Mtendere Mandowa, aka Teebs, released E S T E R A — a time that the Los Angeles producer invested in life and watching his family grow. Anicca is his grown-ass-folks serenity statement, made mostly in his home (with a Roland sampler and Mellotron synth, but also a Ghanaian harp-flute called a Seprewa, among other instruments) and filled with tranquil, ruminative compositions. Featuring heightened and holy eclectic blends of chamber pop, modal acoustics, and experimental hip-hop, it has more wings and challenge than E S T E R A did. Teebs says, “If you listen closely you might hear my daughter speaking, or my wife typing on a laptop on the record,” letting us know he’s in a different creative space. LA vocalists Jimetta Rose and Sudan Archives, and string arranger Miguel Atwood-Ferguson top the list of serious musicians (many of whom are Low End Theory progressives) guesting amidst a rhythm of familial stillness that makes the sun rise at any point throughout the day.
Kaidi Tatham, Serious Times
On Kaidi Tatham’s EP Serious Times, longtime London producer and keyboardist delivery system remains a soulful and syncopated broken beat thing, but its guts are a hard and fast traditional jazz piano attack. Last year Radio 1′s Benji B praised this multi-instrumentalist as “UK’s Herbie Hancock”; but in 2019, Ahmad Jamal may be a more àpropos comparison. Loaded with Afrobeat micro-rhythms, Serious Times is a dancefloor igniter that transforms previous modes of swing, connecting them to the old school London thing.
Black Jazz Consortium, Evolution of Light
Recently the Queens-born, Berlin-based artist Fred Peterkin (often known as Fred P) rebooted his Black Jazz Consortium alias to deliver Evolution of Light, an album heavily influenced by the music and culture of South America. Fred P interprets Latin and Brazilian music through his own unique lens — intense chord progressions that link modal pathways of connectedness between jazz, house, funk, and techno: All are sub-genres of soul when executed with a certain Peterkin instinct. It is a beguiling and vivid undertaking. Using acoustic and electric guitars, masterful bass playing, vocal scat-singing, exquisite piano chords, and heavy kick drums, Peterkin, luckily for us, shows his love for Brazilian jazz-funk pioneers.