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Sam Ribakoff wrote this on a saxophone.
We couldn’t be sure if SOPHIE was actually going to show up to her own show last year at the Teragram Ballroom in L.A. until that tangerine orange hair and those spit shined black leather boots hit the stage. For most of her career since the release of “Bipp” in 2013, SOPHIE has been the MF Doom of dance pop music, eschewing most interviews, photos, and sending imposters to mime pre-recorded DJ sets for her. Combined with the sound and aesthetic of her music, which sounds like hyper consumerist, deadeningly loud JPop inspired EDM, SOPHIE could easily be mistaken for an ironic put on, someone who was trying to satirize consumerist dance music culture. For a while, blogs started rushing to champion her as such a figure. But just listen to “HARD” and say that shit doesn’t truly bang. This was no put on.
Since 2013, SOPHIE’s confidently expanded into producing for rappers and pop singers, giving those artists a little bit of her style, while seemingly expressing herself and her own artistry through them. For Vince Staples, SOPHIE got to explore her music’s own flirtation with ridiculously over exaggerated, distorted 808 bass. With her continuing relationship producing for pop star Charli XCX, SOPHIE burrows into to the reptilian pop nervous system, changing neuron connections until her darkest, strangest ideas, begin to sound like sparkling hot pink pop music.
But it was SOPHIE’s under the radar work with Bronx rapper Quay Dash that exemplified her most important collaborations. On Quay’s “Queen of this Shit,” SOPHIE shapes her maximal pop sensibilities into a mold of the minimalist distorted bass mania of tracks like “HARD.” It’s a great track for Quay to stunt on, and an important point in SOPHIE’s musical, and personal story.
Shortly after “Queen of this Shit” dropped, SOPHIE uploaded a music video for a new track called “It’s Okay to Cry” to YouTube. The video fades up from black, revealing SOPHIE, framed in a tight close up, orange hair and all, singing a heartfelt ballad about acceptance and the need for emotional vulnerability in a near whisper. This openness came with SOPHIE acknowledging and championing her own queer identify. Her debut album, which dropped this month, is called Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides, which apparently, if you say fast enough sounds like, “I love every person’s insides.”
While “It’s Okay to Cry” opens the album with an invitation for sincerity and openness, the rest of the album oscillates wildly between aggressive S&M anthems like “Ponyboy,” NON Records style noisy ambient music like “Infatuation,” and EDM bombast like “Whole New World.” It’s a confusing listen, and it was an even more confusing live performance when she performed the album in full at the Teragram last year.
During the performance, the concert hall was kept pitch black, the only light in the room coming from a large LED screen that irregularly flashed either a blindingly white light for a couple of seconds, or showed various 3D art pieces to accompany the music. After one long aggressive EDM jam, the screen again brought up the blindingly white light, but this time it stayed on. A grandiose sounding chopped organ chord progression came on, accompanied by over enthusiastic cheerleading style claps.
People had been left shocked by the sheer claustrophobia causing volume and intensity of the music, but in the first few seconds of hearing those chords people around me began jumping up and down, whooping and hollering. The screen flashed the words “GIRL” and “BOY” at a seizure inducing speed that made the words blend together until they were indistinguishable from each other.
When the beat dropped, a SOPHIE certified clanging pop banger, “Immaterial,” emerged and the crowd went wild. It’s a grandiose pop song filled into a lean, minimalist dance track, at once grimy, distorted, and glisteningly clean. It’s the best track on the album, and probably the best of SOPHIE’s career.
Ted Kamal– “All I Wanna Do Is Take Your Money”
It’s hard to forget when M.I.A. first came into the public consciousness. Furnished with Brazilian Carioca funk and Miami bass music beats pillaged by pre-EDM Diplo, M.I.A. rapped about taking inspiration from her father’s revolutionary past as a part of the Tamil Tigers, pulling up “the people,” and comparing her own stamina to the Palestinian Liberation Organization over a classic Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Dance Band sample. In retrospect, a lot of her first album sometimes seems like playing MadLibs with revolutionary leftist organizations and buzzwords, but at the time it had a sense of a truly righteous response to the Bush administration’s War on Terror.
Then her second album, Kala, dropped, which tuned down the third world revolutionary themes in favor of universal images of hustling over adversity, whether over poverty or political oppression. Out of this came the surprise hit of ’07, “Paper Planes,” a song seemingly about robbing the rich, which somehow was drained of all of its meaning and became a song used in commercials, TV shows, and movies to denote cynical narcissistic consumerism. Ted Kamal, who’s known on SoundCloud for slapping U.K. speed garage drums on Lil Uzi Vert and Playboi Carti tracks, gives the same treatment to “Paper Planes,” restoring some of that revolutionary energy to a now cemented Bar Mitzvah party classic. It’s a testament to the power of a good remix to completely re-contextualize and reinvigorate the song being remixed.
Steve Hauschildt– “Saccade (Feat. Julianna Barwick)”
This track sounds like a kid spent all night on Fruity Loops trying to make a techno love song to send to their goth cholo or chola crush as a Valentine’s Day present. It’s ambient techno shoegaze music that you actually want to hear your local NPR affiliate play on a late night drive. All praise to ambient music queen Julianna Barwick for her trademark ethereal, wordless, choral singing that melts right into Steve Hauschidt’s synth pads on the track. The atmospherics sound a lot like the synths used on Chief Keef’s “Citgo.” Keef, Julianna, Steve, we need a collab on Finally Rich 2, please.
Kaffe Creme– “Passacaille”
Just for the record, European house music usually sucks [ed. note: IDK about that but let him cook], but this French producer named Kaffe Creme has definitely taken time to study up on the patient sample building art of Detroit house producers like Andres and Moodymann. Over the course of the ten minute track, one soul jazz flute sample is looped ad infinitum, but it never loses character with the help of a solid, weighty, melodic bass line. It’s music to skate backwards to at your local roller rink. Do they even have roller discos in Europe though?
Jako Moran– The Electro Maloya Experiments of Jako Moran
Jako Moran is from Reunion, a small island way off the east coast of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. Colonized, and still controlled by the French, the island became home to indentured servants and enslaved people from southern India, Madagascar, and other east African nations. Maloya music was apparently the music that sprung from the interaction of enslaved south Indian and east African people. Focused on syncopated heartbeat like rhythms from an array of percussion instruments and group vocal choruses, Moran tries to make Maloya music out of modular synthesisers and drum machines. The results live somewhere between chopped and screwed acid house and experimental tape music with a beat.
Tracks like “Maloya Valse Chok 1,” build an ominous buzzing ambient soundscape over shaking percussion instruments. It sounds like music for a horror movie set in the tropics. Other tracks like “Megaloya” sounds like the kind of steady bass bombast that Texas revolutionaries House of Kenzo would serve up before tearing it apart with screeching metal guitars. “Kafelektro Larive” sounds like a track you could hear dropped in a techno set, if techno DJs had more fun and got off the 4/4 time signature every once in awhile. Other than that, I’m not sure on what occasion or during what activity listening to this album would be appropriate, but when you find the right setting, it’s an excellent experience.
Jon Hassell– Listening to Pictures
Jon Hassell is one of those hidden L.A. legends that make this city so endlessly interesting. Hassell, an astute jazz and experimental trumpeter, teamed up with ambient god Brian Eno in the ’80s for a series of albums they labeled “fourth world music.” Somewhere in between whacked out noodling and exotica orientalist kitsch, “fourth world music” was supposed to be an engagement with traditional styles of ethnic music around the world and futuristic electronic music.
Most of the time it just didn’t hit, but Hassell moved on, came out to L.A. to sometimes produce or play on other people’s records, maybe spent some time listening to Miles Davis’ On the Corner, maybe even some Oval, and made this beautifully off centered record. Ostensibly something close to ambient electronic jazz, Hassell loops and chops up ambient effect pedal swells, gurgling trumpet bits, and sputtering synthesizers into interdimensional humid methadone music.
Tracks like “Magna Scene” comes at you from all directions with indistinguishable sounds in the full color spectrum. Some are warm and inviting, others are cautious and prickly, but as the track gently convulses Hassell’s tender Kind of Blue trumpet tone swaddles you safely into the next song. Other tracks like “Ndeya” or “Picnic” sound like intros to old Flying Lotus or Daedelus tracks whose drums never come in. It wouldn’t be a surprise to hear that Hassell’s been to Low End Theory. At 81 he sounds like he’s still keeping his ears to the streets and the stars.
Sam Gendel and Sam Wilkes– Music for Saxofone and Bass Guitar
It also wouldn’t be surprising to find out that Sam Gendel and Sam Wilkes were hanging out with Jon Hassell. Wilkes, a bass player for L.A.’s zaniest jazz meets Jpop band, Knower, and Sam Gendel, a saxophonist and guitarist who used to make new age spiritual folk jazz as INGA, sound like they made this record in the same constellation, or at least the same frame of mind, as Jon Hassell.
The opening track, “BOA,” uses a similar method of looping a saxophone line, and then adding bass and an affected saxophone until the whole thing melts into a undulating cosmic slop. “Theem and Variations” finds Wilkes laying down a Dibia$e heavy bass line for Gendel to freak out on with another heavily affected saxophone solo. But while Hassell aims for a connection between the cosmos and a sweaty Earth, Gendel and Wilkes seem to ground their music much more down here on Earth. Tracks like “Track One” take a jazz inspired theme that sounds like the audio equivalent of watching the sunset while your stuck in L.A. traffic.