Adam Wray wrote that Onion headline.
I work in a boring office, spending 40ish hours per week sitting at a boring desk, staring at boring spreadsheets. I complain about my job a lot, but beyond paying a decent wage, it gives me total freedom to listen to music all damn day. At a time when recorded music exists in absurd abundance among many platforms, that’s no trivial perk.
I love dance music, and so I typically have one Chrome tab open to SoundCloud and another open to Boiler Room – SoundCloud for singles and mixes, and Boiler Room for its endless rotation of live, streaming performances by virtually every DJ worth their salt. This is largely how I consume new dance music – not in a warehouse in Manchester nor a club in Berlin, but in a nondescript building at the University of Toronto, drinking coffee in front of a Macbook, head-nodding in silence. And I am far from alone – Boiler Room will reach over 200 million views sometime this year, and SoundCloud, with its ease of use and steady social media integration, is becoming an indispensable part of our musical ecosystem. For better or worse, this is how we listen.
Which brings me to the latest single from Kieran Hebden aka Four Tet. Its title – “The Track I’ve Been Playing That People Keep Asking About and That Joy Used in His RA Mix and Daphni Played on Boiler Room” – is overlong but apt. It’s a cheeky comment on how new tracks are experienced in 2013. It goes something like this: DJ gets laced with new, as-yet-unreleased tune, DJ uses tune in widely-circulated mix, listeners foam at mouths trying to identify tune, tune is eventually titled and released. This is actually not so different from how songs spread in, say, 1993.
20 years ago, producers would gift DJs the new-new via dubplates (acetate discs that would last 35-to-50 spins) that they’d use at clubs and on pirate radio stations. Listeners would record and swap mixes on cassettes. Today, the fundamentals are the same, but the dynamics have been scaled up drastically by technology that allows tunes to spread way farther, way faster. That same technology also provides listeners to chat and gossip and speculate on these songs and their makers ad nauseum – the sort of internet kibitzing that, I assume, lead Hebden to this track’s title.
That title, silly though it may seem, is the key to unlocking the tune. Coming on the heels of a huge year that saw Hebden drop a steel-sturdy LP, churn out a string of top-shelf remixes, and lace dance floors with worldly, forward-thinking sounds, “The Track” feels a bit slight.
It opens with a minute of loose percussion before introducing a chorus of African voices. The beat drops out, the chanting picks up steam, the drums come back harder, and Hebden rides this groove to the track’s completion. Its stripped-down simplicity is a major departure from sprawling style he’s developed over the past few years. But the title clues you in on how to best enjoy the tune. “The Track” underwhelms on its own because it isn’t meant to be played on its own. It was made as tool for DJs, and it’s much more satisfying when heard in the context of a mix.
Though it was debuted by Hebden in his “Conference of the Birds” mix, it really gained notoriety when Joy Orbison dropped it in a mix assembled for Resident Advisor in early October. Bracketed by the shiny, late ’90s house of Groove Chronicles’ remix of Damage’s “Love Lady” and the deep techno vibes of Norman Nodge’s remix of Onmutu Mechanicks’ “Phosphor,” “The Track” stands out. It’s unlike anything else in Joy’s mix, puncturing its cool synths with sinewy intensity. Set in this context, it’s no wonder listeners were clamouring to identify the track.
A week later, Daphni would deploy it in a Boiler Room set, and it works even better here. He uses its beatless vocal section to focus the room, then lets its slow build take over, eventually blending it into the propulsive groove of Billy Byrd’s “Lost in the Crowd.” Joy O and Daphni, canny selectors both, get that the tune’s potential lies in its uniqueness – it’s so unlike most of the tracks you’ll hear on Resident Advisor or Boiler Room mixes that it demands attention.
The day before he played that Boiler Room set, Daphni had this to say to Spin regarding DJing: “[…] my favourite thing about the DJs I like the most, and when I’m happiest with my DJ sets, is that ability to really surprise people – to blindside a room in a way that somehow makes sense. […] Sometimes I play that track right after people have gotten accustomed to a certain tempo or a certain kind of music, and it just unleashes this wild energy. People are like, “What is going on right now?” That moment of excitement is something that’s really special in clubs.” He may as well have been talking about “The Track.”
In early January, Hebden titled the tune and earmarked it for release. By this time its reputation as a floor-filler was well established thanks to high-profile spins by Joy O and Ben UFO. I saw Joy O play a couple weeks ago, and the response to “The Track” was enormous, eliciting what was easily the biggest crowd reaction of the night. I wonder if it would’ve been treated as such if we were all hearing it for the first time. Either way, “The Track” offers a fascinating look into how we consume dance music in 2013. Its genesis could only have happened in this peculiar echo chamber we’ve built together.