When DJ and music writer Jace Clayton began working on his new book Uproot, he had a deceptively simple premise in mind: “that really exciting things are happening, musically, all over the place.” In search of those lesser-known sounds, Clayton traveled the globe and chronicled the effects of the internet and widely available digital technology on music scenes everywhere, performing club gigs under his long-running moniker DJ /rupture along the way. Uproot took Clayton to Morocco, where Berber pop and folk musicians were exploring the creative potential of Auto-Tune years before the rise of T-Pain; to a Danish world music festival, where “exotic” sounds are a cottage industry; to Brooklyn, where cumbia fans send letters back home to Mexico via an elaborate system involving club DJs and live-recorded CDs.
One morning earlier this week, Clayton and I sat in front of our laptops at his New York apartment, surfing Soundcloud and chatting about whatever sonic ephemera we happened upon: wild bootleg remixes, official tracks, a sponsored audio post by Goldman Sachs. Soundcloud is thrilling, but it isn’t quite utopian, and in that way it offers a useful microcosm for the global digital music revolution Clayton discusses in Uproot.
The digital stream digging took us from Dominican dembow to New York City litefeet–a frenetic style of dance music that is best known to those who live in the city as the soundtrack to countless “showtime” subway dance routines. Early on, I asked Clayton whether he ever scours Soundcloud for new material for his sets. “It’s not about discovery per se,” he said. “For me as a DJ, it’s more like–I hear Desiigner on the radio and like it. Let’s go to Soundcloud to hear what the club remixes sound like.” As if on cue, a Desiigner club remix from an Angolan DJ named Havaiana arrived as the very next song on our Soundcloud playlist.
1. DJ Havaiana – “Panda (Afro Remix)”
Clayton: I sort of hate Soundcloud, for the way they courted DJs in the beginning. They were really interested in getting people, specifically DJs and remixers, to use it. And then one or two years later, once they had a wider user base, they started coming down on it, pulling stuff down over copyright. And it’s like, come on. It’s so antithetical to the culture. And at the same time, they’re aware that they need those people to drive its use.
But with any sharing platform, whatever it happens to be, you do get this thing of people learning how to make beats in a semi-public manner, which can be interesting. Is it just enough to have that one little word–“Panda”–to connect it somehow to something going on in the states? And then it’s a fairly simple four-bar loop. You get a lot of this on Soundcloud: not quite works-in-progress, but in a way it’s a sketchpad, or many people use it like that.
2. Nilüfer Yanya – “Keep on Calling”
Is this English-as-a-second-language singing?
London-based singer-songwriter. Not a lot of information online. She has previously released a cover of The Pixies – “Hey.”
She’s doing the Black Francis “Woo-ooo” thing, there.
She’s a Londoner from a big Turkish family, it says on NME.
In a way, this is music on auto-pilot. It’s just this very standard amalgam of pop gestures. Actually, when I heard the opening bit, I was like “Oh, she has an interesting voice.” But then I heard the thing the guitar is doing, and it’s almost like, “This is the structure of the guitar, and this is the type of music it makes.” Totally flowing with it. And then suddenly it’s like, “How can we reach the Samba audience while not actually being Brazilian?”
It has kind of a coffee-shop cosmopolitanism.
Totally. This is music that’s destined to be like, “If we can just get this into Starbucks, we’ll be all set.” Cool voice. But when people are like, “I just reproduce beauty,” sometimes that’s not enough.
It seems like she might be early in her career, based on the press that I was just glancing at.
That’s an interesting thing to talk about. You spent 30 seconds Googling her name, and you’re getting a snapshot of her career. That’s the equivalent of us surfing through these songs without context. I hear a song I like, I pop in their name, what are the first three links that come up, and how do they contextualize that person for me?
3. HANN – “Litefeet Jungle”
It’s still kind of weird to me that people aren’t paying more attention to litefeet. It’s like no one cares.
I know, I think about it all the time. Every music journalist in the world, practically, is in New York City, and listens to it on the subway multiple times a week.
HANN are big producers in there. It’s very New York. It has these anthemic sample chops, it has melody, it has percussion stabs. Great percussionistic sounds.
I love the way that it’s so dense. It’s music for noisy environments. What does that look like? You can think of trap music: trap acoustics privilege the personal listening space. It’s in your car, and you’re rocking to your bass line, or it’s in your headphones, or it’s in your home, with your bassy speakers. But the second you go into crappy, open-air systems, or a boombox, you lose all the low-end. In a way, you lose the heart of the thing. Litefeet is like the opposite. It’s very high-end, very active. It’s gotta cut through.
4. Dumb Trackz – “Last Dance”
Cool. We are listener number 135. New York.
His bio says, “New litefeet producer but I will be expanding my genre of music soon.” He’s like, “I know SPIN is not going to give me the love I deserve! I gotta move out!” That’s awesome.
5. BSNYEA – “Go Stupid Challenge (2016)”
“Go Stupid Challenge 2016.” It’s like a dumb meme? Maybe it’s in tune with the election vibe. Young-looking kids. 17. That’s great. The album art is the corner of a room, with like a messed up floorboard. That’s the realness right there.
Litefeet is not only overlooked, but it’s one of these very specific situations where the press machinery should love this sort of stuff. It’s edgy, new, beat-based electronic music that’s performed quasi-legally in moving transportation through the city. This is the sound of the network of New York City. And yet, I think the people who should be writing about it are like, “I’ve had a long day. I don’t want to listen to this crap.”
It’s the way in which class issues, if they’re actually in proximity to you, can make certain things invisible. Many people who might be quick to champion other types of music that are far-flung might be like, “Oh, those kids. I feel uncomfortable.” But interesting stuff is happening.
6. Awa Bling – “Epitome of Hip-Hop feat. Izzy T”
Maybe this really is the epitome of hip-hop. It’s like this Gambian woman, two followers, making her songs, and claiming herself to be the best. And you’re like, “Oh, okay.” A pure self-invention.
7. TT Vutton – “I Am Your President”
More African hip-hop. There’s this sort of conscious, backpacker impulse in hip-hop that we exported in the mid ’90s. It really took root in South America, where there’s still this thing of “conscious rappers.” But this is rarer to hear: straight-up conscious African rap. Usually it’s super futuristic, super of a piece with the themes of mainstream American rap. But then you get this, where he’s talking about knowing your history, and things. As a genre internationalizes, it’s interesting to see what aspects of it make it out to the world. Here we have this idea of “real hip-hop.”
8. GIMMIKY – “Bang Bang” and “M Y S E L F”
Sex noises and a Drake beat.
So all of a sudden we’re in South Korean, Drake-o-philic hip-hop that’s very interested in this idea of female abuse.
It looks like a Spinal Tap album cover, or something. I don’t know what he’s saying, but visually and sonically, it sort of has a ’90s horrorcore vibe. Which is another funny aspect of hip-hop to export.
Yeah, ’90s horrorcore in the states, and 2000s Francophone rap. They’re still behind, and it’s like time slows down the further out you go. So here it’s 2016 and this guy is like 20 years behind.
9. El Alfa – “To Lo Deo Quemao”
It’s cool listening to dembow. At first, when I started hearing it, I was like, oh, this is this weird throwback sound. It sounded like really early, proto-reggaeton stuff, just sped up. And then, as time went on, I was like, oh no, this is its own thing.
But then recently, in the last two years, three years or something, it’s taken this turn toward–it’s another example of a genre sorting out its sound. It’s not less raw, but there’s more space, it’s more produced. These subby bass lines.
Melody is huge in so much Dominican music, but for a while, dembow was just energy-vibe emceeing. But El Alfa is bringing in this melodic thing, which has more nods to merengue and things. But still being super percussive, of course, vocal loops. It’s really great.