Slam on the CDJ: The Best DJ Sets of January 2020

Michael McKinney breaks out the turntables for a collection of the month's choice cuts.
By    February 12, 2020

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Michael McKinney spins and spins until he’s dizzy.

Given January marked the start of a new decade, it’s fitting that a number of the month’s best DJ mixes offered spaces for reflection. This manifested most obviously in Nadia Khan’s new-age mix for Resident Advisor, but also in Otro’s slow-motion tumble of liturgical music and folk for Music for Parking Garages. Elsewhere, Germany’s Pom Pom and Nina turned ambient music into a thing of quiet horror, making any reflections warped and slightly wrong. 

But a number of the best sets come from rave scenes, too, in case stilled rumination isn’t your speed. There are all sorts of exciting visions of modern dance music on display: Elias Mazian and Luc Mast’s interstellar house and techno, HMT Hard Cru’s wild-eyed post-everything pile-ups, DJ Spit’s set of 160-BPM hard dance, Gigsta’s zonked-out breakbeat odyssey, and Ziur’s anything-goes fusion of icy drums, industrial rhythms, and off-kilter raps.

Here are some of the best DJ mixes January had to offer.

Christoph de BabalonCrack Mix 330

Christoph de Babalon is perhaps best known for his horror-flick drum-and-bass masterwork, 1997’s If You’re Into It, I’m Out of It. His mix for Crack Magazine gives him space to play into the unnerved freakouts of that record while expanding into a range of other modes. The set mixes dimly-lit dub, creaking ambiance, and spoken word into a dynamic and otherworldly collection. Eventually, when the tiptoeing turns to white-knuckled chase scenes, the manic energy is undeniable.

DJ LytaSounds of Nairobi: Boiler Room x Ballantine’s True Music

One of the newest scenes to bubble up out of Kenya, gengatone is a radio-ready vision of rap on top of dancehall riddims and reggaeton drum kits. On his mix for Boiler Room, Nairobi mainstay DJ Lyta shows off what makes it so magnetic. The grooves, often a combination of dembow and synth-blurt basslines, are compulsively danceable; the rappers and singers are spirited and laid-back in equal measure, finding thrilling pockets throughout. While there are probably only a dozen emcees on the whole thing, Lyta varies the voices in both tone and timbre, mixing quickly and smoothly to make it all seem effortless. As a document of a burgeoning scene, Sounds of Nairobi excels, but it’s also just top-to-bottom fantastic dance music.

DJ Spit@ Reaktor 2019

Amsterdam has a proud history of hard and fast dance music: the city is synonymous with gabber, one of the heaviest and most turbocharged strains of hardcore. It’s fitting, then, that the Berlin-based DJ Spit’s recently-released set is dominated by scuzzy and slamming techno. In the back half, he changes things up just enough to remarkable effect. Wobbling dubstep, hypnotic UK garage, careening edits of Gucci Mane and Main One, juke remixes of electro cuts: if it’s 160 BPM, it’s fair game.

Elias Mazian & Luc Masttwentyfour/seven London

Another key side of Amsterdam’s dance scene—the side that moves just a bit slower—was put on display at Resident Advisor’s twentyfour/seven party in London last July. Elias Mazian and Luc Mast, two mainstays of house-and-techno mecca De School, turned in a set of midtempo rollers that wouldn’t sound out of place at one of their home-team gigs. It’s all classic four-on-the-floors here, with just enough serrated electro-style synths thrown in for good measure. Once the set takes off, it never comes down; the mixing is seamless and the selections—with pumping kicks, unexpected vocal samples, playful drums, and synths of every color—are top-shelf.

GigstaDekmantel Podcast 265

In case you were looking for proof that Gigsta is going to mix whatever she pleases, look no further. Her entry in Dekmantel’s mix series opens with teeth-chattering ambient before moving into a brief flurry of chopped-up breaks and slow-motion dub-techno; Gigsta doesn’t reach her trademark breakneck mixing for twenty minutes. But once she does, she doesn’t let go. The remaining hour and a half serve as a crash course through compulsively danceable strands of breakbeat, UK bass music, garage, dubstep, hardcore, jungle, and a million other genres.

HMT Hard Crutwentyfour/seven London

It’s fitting that HMT Hard Cru played their twentyfour/seven London set in a custom-decorated booth covered in memes. The UK-based group employs a no-genres-barred approach to mixing, and their picks often seem predicated, at least in part, upon humor – how else do you explain mashing up SALEM and UGK or putting Ciara, Drowning Pool, and Blawan back-to-back-to-back? But this mix isn’t just for the jokes: it’s packed with high-energy belters ranging from industrial techno and gabber to trap cuts and pop classics. By the time they’re blasting Thin Lizzy, it’s hard not to get totally absorbed into whatever alchemy they’re practicing.

Ninade Val

Given it translates to “the trap” in Dutch, de Val is well-titled. The release’s horror-flick leanings help fuel its overpowering claustrophobia, and its glacial pace evokes a circling apex predator. The release plays out like—and may just be—a through-composed piece, a sputtering and glowering hour-long assemblage of pitch-black ambiance and field recordings. Using scraped violins, distant drums, and morse-code synthesizers, de Val forms a world of its own. Nina moves too deliberately here for anything resembling jump scares, instead, the Hamburg DJ opts for a creeping sense of dread. 

Nadia KhanRA.710

January’s best Resident Advisor set turned out to be its most unassuming. RA.710, the US-based Nadia Khan’s entry into the website’s mix series, is an hour of deeply affecting ambient music that works as both spell and antidote. Over the course of the mix, Khan spins slow-motion ambient dub, shimmering organs, ghostly guitars, and lonely synthesizers into a gorgeous patchwork. It’s ambient music in the sense that it works well in the background, but if you give into its ebbs and flows, RA.710 has a quiet and undeniable transportive power.

OtroMusic for Parking Garages, Vol 2: A Leap Into the World

A Leap Into the World, Otro’s entry into the brand-new Music for Parking Garages series, is striking thanks to how stark the Spain-based selector’s choices are. The set shouldn’t work on paper: it’s largely composed of skeletal folk music, liturgical organ drones, and glistening electronics, three ideas that generally work best in longer and more isolated forms. But Otro zeroes in on their similarities. The mix underlines how, through sparse playing and with plenty of open air, a single chord can sound simultaneously lonesome and all-encompassing. This approach results in a beguiling mix of styles shot through with an overwhelming sense of longing and aching beauty.

Pom Pompom pom 20 20

Pom Pom was mysterious when they put out their first black-label EP two decades ago: beyond a tenuous connection to a record label in Berlin, the techno project’s identity was unknown. By some miracle, the project has managed to retain its anonymity since, and with every release, they lean ever further into unknowability. The latest entry into their catalog is pom pom 20 20, a six-hour opus that combines spacious ambient, new wave and post-punk from yesteryear, made-for-TV monologues about extra-terrestrial life forms, waterlogged house, and techno that bleeds into the red. 20 20 doesn’t answer many questions about Pom Pom, but, given its curious and constant tightrope between beauty and horror, it does establish them as a masterful selector.

ZiúrCrack Mix 331

Over the past few years, Berlin’s Ziúr has established herself as one of the city’s most ardent promoters of futuristic and jagged dance tracks. This, along with a fearless ear for mixing, defines her set for Crack Magazine, which is stuffed with serrated club sounds from around the globe. One second, she’s playing Jumping Back Slash’s stark and piledriving gqom; the next, it’s Slikback & 33EMYBW’s skittering take on footwork and IDM. The mix feels like it’s constantly shedding its skin to reveal a radically new form; for an hour, Ziúr holds both genre and tone in thrilling flux. But the throughline is clear. Crack Mix 331 is a survey of hyperrhythmic and hypermodern club music that never lets off the gas.

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