Son Raw is a card-carrying member of the Purple City Bird Gang
2016 has been heavy on good music but light on actual surprises. For hip-hop and R&B, this is barely noticeable: they’re currently feeding off America’s racial, social, and economic tensions to deliver a string of well-received concept albums. For dance music however, the situation is dire: almost a decade after EDM’s initial boom, its festivals are more often in the news due to drug related deaths than music.
Meanwhile, the upscale, bougie confines of house and techno are now mostly inhabited by the descendants of the same uncreative, fashion-obsessed middle class dolts that sent indie into a death spiral the second Vampire Weekend became a thing. Traditional dance music has become a white walker: a pale parody of life marching to a listless thump.
With this in mind, pardon my cynicism when it comes to “tropical house,” a stilted non-genre seemingly cooked up to add even the slightest dash of color and funk to an increasingly monochromatic dance scene. In comparison, actual dancehall is rhythmically, sonically and creatively miles ahead, but even compared to music that’s actually good or even great, Jamaican production team Equiknoxx’s Bird Sound Power is a tremendous record. In fact, it’s the most joyously innovative collection of instrumental music I’ve heard in ages.
First, some biography: Equiknoxx are responsible for dancehall hits by Aidonia, Busy Signal, Christopher Martin (not the Coldplay bro), and countless others, operating as part of the country’s unique music industry away from the glare of mainstream music critics. Bird Sound Power, their first instrumental collection, is a very-welcome stab at correcting this lack of critical attention, appearing on experimentalists Demdike Stare’s DDS label with the kind of full vinyl pressing associated with prestige acts targeting music nerds.
Both of these elements are crucial to Bird Sound Power’s appeal: on one hand Equiknoxx’s beats rattle with the ruthless functionality of music meant to shake asses in Jamaica’s dances, but on the other, their quirky, minimal productions are shockingly creative, outdoing self-consciously experimental producers at their own game.
That balancing act would be hard enough to do once, but miraculously, few of Bird Sound Power’s tunes even sound alike, showing an astonishing variety of tempo and texture. “Peanut Porridge” grooves like a DMZ classic reengineered for 2016 but “A Rabbit Spoke to Me” buzzes like a Hudmo banger minus the fat. “Last of the Mohicans” and “The Link” are dancehall at its most ruthlessly lean, but “Clink’s” tribal drumming and pads land closer to Flylo circa-Los Angeles if he’d been more interested in high-def mixing. This inventiveness is apparent even on a micro-level, with tracks evolving or switching up midway, displaying more ideas in four minutes than most producers would over the course of an entire EP.
This rapid fire flow of ideas and the instrumental context make Bird Sound Power a perfect entry point for new listeners—even the quirky, literary track titles seem designed to be inviting to outsiders compared to the usual riddim naming convention. Yet Equiknoxx rewards the more adventurous listener willing to jump down a Youtube rabbit-hole into their wider discography—these guys have been racking up Jamaican hits for over half a decade and one look at their catalogue shows why.
These sparse, rhythmically inventive tracks are just as captivating when paired with Jamaican vocalists, be they major stars or the crew’s own stable of acts. This isn’t weirdo outsider stuff that doesn’t get play in the dance, even if Equiknoxx do go light on the sort of trancehall pads that dominate the most commercial reaches of Jamaican music these days.
It’s an unfortunate cliché that when western music gets boring, critics suddenly remember that Jamaica exists. But if the mainstream music industry is going to make us suffer through a summer of Bieber, Diplo, and Drake’s rehashed island beats, the least we can do is pay attention to the genuine article instead, particularly when it comes wrapped up in the perfect package for casual listening. Equiknoxx and DDS (with promotion from Swing Ting, longtime supporters) have put out an exceptional package in Bird Sound Power, one that proves that one way or another, good music gets out there.