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Sam Ribakoff put spinners on his Bird scooter.
Dreams– “Terminal Reactions”
Don’t let the mild-mannered Balearic house music at rooftop Arts District parties sponsored by Lime-A-Rita and some local charter school goblin fool you, hardcore techno is the sound of the L.A. dance music underground. Folks like Dreams, and like-minded DJ/producer collectives like The Black Lodge, and L.A. Club Resources, have been steadily evangelizing this grimy dystopian sound around clubs and warehouse raves for years. Equally inspired by classic Detroit techno like Cybotron, and L.A.’s own brand of electro pioneered by Egyptian Lover, Dreams’ “Terminal Reactions” hooks an acid-spitting techno beat around ominous horror movie, John Carpenter-esque fog horn pads. The track sounds like a Bird scooter junior executive making the wrong turn while trying to get to a club in downtown L.A. and realizing they’ve stepped right into the heart of Skid Row.
AshTreJinkins– “I’m Not Scared”
AshTreJinkins started off his career years ago as a young disciple of L.A. Low End Theory OGs like Dibia$e and Samiyam. Early AshTre tracks paid homage to those folks’ revisionist reintegration of hip hop and electro music, but even in early tracks like “96 CadillaK,” and “ThizzFace,” AshTre showed his interest and ability to take his production just a little farther to the left, a little farther toward both ambient haze and a Detroit techno and house groove.
For the past couple of years, AshTre has lept fully into that house and techno sound, sliding in elements of booty house, G-funk, and Low End Theory beat music, to create a truly unique, truly L.A., sound. Released as a loosie on AshTre’s Soundcloud page, “I’m Not Scared” is a pristine example of this sound. Beach ball-sized buoyant bass drums are swatted into place by icey lo-fi hi-hats and snare hits while a G-funk, slick bass line and a looped, two-chord synth line try to make their way into the melee.
Revolving around all of this is an extended vocal sample dropped throughout the song of people talking about their experiences with the police. “I told my kids, you see a cop, you cross to the other side of the street,” one woman is heard saying. “I’ve seen plenty of my friends murdered by cops,” a man’s voice exclaims. “Cops like to kill, that’s why they become cops.” “Cops like you to be scared of them, that’s what makes them mad,” another man says, “I’m not scared.”
The last clip gets repeated a couple of times throughout the remainder of the track, and while the first two vocal samples sound like confessions of people stricken with fear and anxiety by their experiences of dealing with an institution of oppression and subjugation, the “I’m not scared” guy exudes what can either be heard as revolutionary, transcendent confidence like Fred Hampton, or a complete ignorance to the realities of police violence, like the white guy who taps a cop’s badge and says, “Hey, I pay your salary buddy.” It’s an interesting duality to think about while dancing.
Austin Ato– “Ben’s Groove”
Okay, okay, okay. I know I made fun of boring KCRW style Balearic house music before, but folks, I must admit, this KCRW style Balearic house song bangs. Built on a much-too-simple loop of what must be a sample of some late 70’s disco gem, Scotland’s Austin Ato channels Moodymann’s ability to find the most ecstatic moments in between clipped guitar chugs and bumping bass lines, adding in what sound like live trumpet vamps and Fender Rhodes guiding chords. If you see Garth Trinidad, or Anthony Valadez DJing at a party in these last couple weeks of summer and they don’t put “Ben’s Groove” on as the sun is setting through the crowd’s IPAs, you don’t have to renew your KCRW membership. As noted legal scholar Yo Gotti wrote, that’s law.
RP Boo– I’ll Tell You What
Unlike a lot of electronic and dance music styles, footwork producers care about albums. Not just albums as data dumps of haphazardly slapped together tracks, but albums as cohesive artistic statements. Records like DJ Rashad’s Double Cup, or Jlin’s Dark Energy, or DJ Taye’s recently released Still Trippin, showed that a style of music so heavily focused on the strengths and abilities of individual tracks to make dancers dance could also be used to construct a narrative, build a theme and a mood, and speak to listeners outside of dancefloors, outside of Battle Groundz.
RP Boo, one of, if not the, creator of footwork music has been putting out tracks since the late 90’s, and releasing albums since 2013. While RP’s albums have been interesting experiments, and have included classic tracks like “Banging On King Drive,” they never really matched the wild house party energy of RP’s older mixtapes, like 2007’s Dude Off 59th Street. RP’s most recent record, I’ll Tell You What starts off sounding like RP’s previous albums, meticulously sound designed, really well produced, minimal to the bone footwork music, with deep bass, rumbling synthesizers, and ominous chopped up vocal samples. It’s a fun listening experience on headphones, as the first couple of tracks layout their elements plainly, you can trace each component of the tracks as they weave and bash against each other.
The tracks are interesting enough, but not really engaging enough to fully devote your attention to. Which is why the fifth track on this album, “U-Don’t Know,” comes as such a big surprise. Taking full advantage of a pensive Stevie Wonder sample, RP goes from talking shit about his superior dance moves to blurting out, “Do I give away my soul?” to which the Stevie sample responds with a firm, “No.” Surrounded by subtle but persistent footwork hi-hats, it’s a really heartfelt and hard track that serves as a great example of how far and wide footwork can go musically and emotionally.
It also serves as a turning point, where I’ll Tell You What joins the pantheon of great footwork albums. “Earth’s Battle Dance” starts off with a beat that sounds far too close to “Bangin on King Drive,” only to fake us out 50 seconds into the track when RP drops a dirty gospel/soul loop out of nowhere. That track leads directly into “Work the Flow!” which sees RP working off the same minimal, well-produced, template as the first half of the album, but this time with such attention to detail as vocal chops, growling synths, and percussion bells are added and subtracted from the track like a well tweaked pop song.
The rest of the album follows this trend, creating a euphoric sense of impending dread. Tracks like the diva house vocal chop monster “U Belong 2 Me” sound like juking in a sweaty Chicago club while buildings are crumbling outside. The closing track, “Deep Sole” continues that vibe, repeating an exuberantly sorrowful soul sample while RP requests that we, “Light up the disco floor,” before the track slows into arpeggiated guitars, with RP repeating, “It’s always beautiful at the end.” It sounds like either RP’s gently consoling you as your body dies, or playing the last song of the night. Either way, it’s beautiful.
“Brown skin, masculine frame, head’s a target/ Actin real feminine, make ‘em vomit,” Lotic confidently whispers on “Hunted,” the second track on Power, giving a good summation of both this album and themself.
Born in Houston, but living in Germany, Lotic came to folks’ attention after dropping a Southern marching band remix of Beyonce’s “Formation” on November 9th 2016, a day after Trump’s election. The track, with a subtitle of “Election Anxiety/America is Over Edit” in parenthesis, recontextualizes Beyonce’s track back into the Southern black marching band music that she was hinting at in the song, and which she eventually took full advantage of in her Coachella performance earlier this year. The remix perfectly distilled the mood of the country for millions of vulnerable folks around the country who could hopefully find some sort of solace in Lotic’s anxious, angry, and militant connection of the present moment with the historical past of black music and culture, reaffirming a historical imperative to survive and thrive, even in the darkest of times.
Nearly two years later, Power picks up where the “Formation” remix left off, not giving an inch to the forces of regression and oppression. Tracks like “Bulletproof” plays with a dichotomy between harsh industrial club music, and soft, transcendent moments of harmony and melody. Where it first sounds like Lotic is doing a Travis Scott-like melodic hum in the middle of hammering industrial club gymnastics, it’s revealed in the end in a moment of quiet transcendence that Lotic is repeating a mantra, like a protective cocoon, that they are “bulletproof.”
While a good chunk of the album is left to those club workouts, Lotic really shines on the quiet moments. On a track like “Solace,” Lotic’s voice surrounded by two, sometimes three, shimmering synth lines sings out, “How can I just be/ Healthy living free/ Fearless, able to breathe/ With so much standing in between me?” When Lotic gets to the chorus, a hellish series of squealing machinery responds back while Lotic continues, “It’s gonna be ok/ It’s gonna be okay/ Hang in there.” I hope so too.
Laurel Halo– Raw Silk Uncut Wood
If you know Laurel Halo, you were probably up on last year’s Dust, her much slower, much chillier, and much more existential take on freestyle music. If not, maybe you were up on Quarantine from way back in 2012, where she stretched and screwed her pop sensibilities until they sounded like new age celestial music a la “Justin Bieber 800% Slower.” The supposed tea on Halo is that she changes her sound and style a lot, but even if you listen to the techno-heavy Behind the Green Door, you can hear a clear artistic sensibility in her music, an affinity for avant-garde jazz structure and composition, electronic space, melodic vocals, and ambient murkiness, that comes through even when she changes up her style.
Raw Silk Uncut Wood is being billed as Halo’s ambient album, as a radical break from the rest of her body of work. But even in this stylistic medium, Halo’s sensibilities come through. The tracks on this short album—apparently partially inspired by late great sci-fi writer Ursula K Le Guin’s translation of the Tao Te Ching—combines both electronic and acoustic instrumentation, with synths offering up space where slow and gentle chord changes for guitars, bird noises, and the occasional drums can wander around in.
Like the best ambient music, it’s music that can be used as background to help the listener drown out the world, to focus on a task, calm the mind, or simply to put them to sleep. As backhanded of a compliment as that sounds to describe music, anything as safe and reliable as music that can soothe and calm the mind is as important as any club banger in this dystopian present.