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

Slam on the CDJ returns with sets from DJ Harvey, Kali Malone, Mr. Scruff, and many more.
By    April 8, 2020

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Michael McKinney has been holding virtual raves in his garage.

In late March, Resident Advisor hosted Club Quarantäne, a “42-hour virtual rave.” The event featured sets from a wide range of names, many hot on the international circuit that recently ground to a halt. In theory—and often in practice—it was great. The club even had digital chatter provided courtesy of a live YouTube chat box, filled with people asking for track IDs and cheering on DJs whenever a good-enough drop hit. But it was also deeply weird. The video showed a neon-lit cartoon vision of a club, a pile of speakers serving as the listener’s only companion as the music pounded. This pairing—clamoring community, isolated individuals—just underlined how uncomfortable this moment is for dance music. What happens when the entire industry stops and DJs stop playing new records?

While the economics are dubious, many DJs have responded to the Coronavirus crisis by doing what they do already: putting out new material. The question of monetizing live-streamed sets remains open, but there’s been motion towards streams anyways—Boiler Room has started a new “Streaming From Isolation” series, where DJs broadcast their sets from their living rooms, and Twitter has been full of people trying out blends and posting “isolation mixes.” 

It’s tempting to reverse-engineer a lot of the best sets from March into this narrative, to say that these selections are an attempt to bring the club into your bedroom. And sometimes that’s true. DJ Harvey released his house and disco-heavy DJ Harvey Live at Rumors with instructions to “enjoy it with your loved ones while we’re all isolating,” and XLR8R billed Tornado Wallace’s pile-up of jazz and ambient music as “a soothing session in troubled times.” And some of the other mixes function as a kind of escape: Ben Bertrand’s neoclassical ambiance, Kali Malone’s folk music and drone selections, Moopie and Bayu’s gorgeous and heartfelt IDM.

But some of the best mixes this month are here simply because they’re that good. Low Jack’s apocalyptic bass-music on RA.718 sounded great when everything was running according to plan, and Doc Sleep and Flora Yin-Wong’s brands of futuristic club music offer two radically different, but equally thrilling, visions of what the dancefloor could sound like. UMFANG’s drum-and-bass workouts are as invigorating as they are timeless, and Varg2™’s latest set threads the line between ambient music and Swedish trap in beguiling ways. Sometimes music doesn’t have to respond to hot-button issues: crafting a new world out of existing parts can be enough. This is a strange and disorienting moment to follow the music industry, but it’s helpful to remember that escape hatches can take all sorts of forms. 

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

Ben Bertrand – Sunday Mix

Ben Bertrand understands the power of stillness. His recent record, Manes, explored different modes of non-motion; its five pieces are serene, vertiginous, and disarmingly meditative. On his mix for Crack Magazine, he explores similar territories through other composers’ works. It opens with an aching and gorgeous rendition of Henryk Gorecki’s “Symphony No. 3, Op. 36,” and the mix only grows more intangible from there. Wispy ambiance from Sarah Davachi, Ryuichi Sakamoto, and Meitei floats through the room, and when Bertrand hints at the slow but unmistakable pulse of ambient dub, it’s quickly covered in field recordings and swept away. This is music that slips through the fingers but lingers long afterwards, its air of deeply felt calm tough to shake.

DJ Harvey – DJ Harvey Live at Rumors

DJ Harvey enjoys cult status among garage-house and disco DJs. He only rarely releases official mixes; combine that with a rock star’s self-awareness and any new release is sure to be an event. This set, recorded in May of 2019, shows just why he’s so revered. It’s a bit of a slow burn at first, but Harvey’s ear is impeccable and he mixes hit after hit. The majority of the set’s two-plus hours is made up of laid-back grooves stuffed with horns, a semi-truck’s worth of percussion, and exuberant and lovesick vocals. There’s a ton of variation on display – there’s an extended run of funk-leaning selections and acid techno threatens to work into the mix just often enough – but the real draw is how joyous and sun-kissed these grooves are.

Doc Sleep – Truancy Volume 259

On her latest mix for Truants, Doc Sleep takes techno and stuffs the kick drum with stardust. This isn’t unusual for the Berlin-based DJ, but it’s still remarkable whenever she mixes everything just right. That’s the case here: this mix is barely restrained rocket fuel; synths glitter on top of drums that threaten to go into overdrive at any moment. The moments where she really lets loose, then, are all the more thrilling: skittering hi-hats circling zoned-out breakbeats, clanging keyboards on top of deep-house drum kits. The number of genres Doc Sleep hops between would be dizzying if her selections weren’t so elegantly chained.

Flora Yin-Wong – CSS068

CSS068, like many of Flora Yin-Wong’s mixes, is defined by a set of pitch-black selections and a queasy ambiance. After setting the scene with walls of feedback and mournful piano, she slowly moves into her wheelhouse: futuristic and unsettling club music. Whirlwinding drums crash into funereal dirges; rap gets chopped into unrecognizable forms and put next to choral samples; the pattering of a kick drum turns to an unceasing pummelling. But it’s never too unrelenting; she knows when to back off, as evidenced by the deep-sigh catharsis provided by the house and ambient at the end. CSS068 is transportative and disorienting in equal measure.

Jana Rush – Live at New Forms

Footwork is, among a thousand other things, a bit of an arms race. This is dance music, after all, and whenever a great set comes around it’s not hard to imagine how crowds might push the music to new heights. Live at New Forms is one of those times. This is footwork and juke rendered at a breakneck pace and stuffed with exciting left turns. Not even a brief departure into modal jazz can slow things down – Rush simply acts as another drummer. A rolodex’s worth of chopped-up rappers, just enough Rashad cuts, frenetic mixing, and steamrolling tempos: this set functions as a thrown gauntlet for what footwork can sound like.

Kali Malone – 24th March 2020

The Sacrificial Code, Kali Malone’s 2019 collection of solo pipe organ pieces, is shot through with a cleansing beauty. This is due in large part to how wide-open it is; Malone is willing to let tones stretch for as long as they need to. That quality fuels her recent mix for NTS Radio, which is filled with suitably spacious selections: her own meditations on organ, Lithuanian and Russian folk songs, slowly sweeping string quartets. The mix has a hushed and reverential air to it, and its deeply felt beauty shows Malone to be a masterful curator of atmosphere.

Low Jack – RA.718

March’s most scorched-earth set comes courtesy of Low Jack, the Parisian producer best known for his warped bass-heavy takes on dancehall. RA.718 doesn’t do away with that formula, but it learns more on the former half than the latter. This is an hour of serrated and apocalyptic dance music, with jagged synthesizers, slamming drum kits, and plenty of guns-blazing aggression. The whole set is contorted into a pissed-off sneer, whether he’s pulling from local rap heroes, the perpetual motion of bérite club’s icy percussion, or fellow trap-music collaborator Brodinski’s productions. Here, Low Jack leans into slippery tempos, slabs of bass, and nail-biting energy to craft something great.

Moopie & Bayu – 20th March 2020

Following the release of the fantastic Still in My Arms compilation, Melbourne mixers Moopie & Bayu turned in a set that tread along the same lines. This is a mix of heart-on-sleeve IDM that puts plainspoken beauty above all else. Even when the drums get a bit busier, they’re still in service of hushed and elegant synthesizers. The result is a strikingly beautiful hour that never feels like it’s asking for attention: instead, Moopie and Bayu have crafted a watercolored world suffused with quiet joy.

Mr. Scruff – DJ-Kicks

If a DJ mixes tracks quickly enough, they can collapse genres into themselves. That’s what happens on Mr. Scruff’s entry into the long-running DJ-Kicks series. The mix is unassuming enough—it’s built on slow-burning jazz, dub, and house, with in-the-pocket grooves linking each selection—but it moves in enormously unexpected ways. To pick one example of many: just a few tracks, he moves from the smoky nu-jazz of Black Pocket’s “Thankyou & Credits” to Tiger’s barely contained dancehall, and again to DJ Nervoso’s vision of batida, a wild-eyed percussion-forward sound coming out of Portugal. The entire mix runs like a playfully mixed grab-bag whose contents work both in the background and for an impromptu dance party.

Mutant Joe – Hard Dance 050

Mutant Joe, Brisbane’s resident mad scientist, is a great fit for Boiler Room’s Hard Dance series: his music is playful and off-kilter, but a decent chunk of it is defined by its weight and speed. This mix takes the overpowering discord of industrial techno and stuffs the cracks with a huge range of dance music. He mixes it as elegantly as you can with something this heavy: gabber-indebted kick drums, hand drums pulled straight from Portugal, blown-out SoundCloud rap, messy and garbled jungle, and unrestrained acid techno all make a twisted sort of sense. He eventually turns the knobs so far that the machinery busts, but the party rages on anyways.

Tornado Wallace – XLR8R 636

When Tornado Wallace spoke with XLR8R about his latest mix, he said that XLR8R 636 was intended as “a little break from dance music.” He normally spins house and chilled-out nu-disco, so this set shows where he might go if he mellowed out even more: slowly unspooling ambient music and meandering jazz. His deep crates help to make the transitions between genres and modes disappear entirely, with snaking saxophones fading into lapping waves of new-age synthesizers or playful organ solos. This may not be dance music, but its slowly undulating forms eventually reflect the kind of trance that the best sets can induce anyways.

UMFANG – Baby lo’s DnB

Drum and bass has been going through a kind of critical resurgence recently, and it’s not hard to see why: at its best, its rhythms are witty and playful without losing the dancer entirely, and the frequency of just a few breaks means the drums are stuffed with personalized history textbooks. UMFANG’s Baby lo’s DnB is made up of drum and bass cuts that could have been made at just about any point in the past thirty years, and it’s got a timeless sense of joy to it. The cuts run the gamut, relatively speaking: wobbling bass could be the main attraction one moment, but elsewhere, it’s anonymous vocal samples, acid-techno caliber synthesizers, or light-speed breaks. Whatever it is, UMFANG demonstrates that drum and bass—that genre that seems incapable of aging—also doesn’t need to.

Varg2™ – VARG2TM EP001

If you ask the right corner of the internet, Bladee is the most exciting rapper on the planet. The Berlin-via-Stockholm twentysomething fuses icy and plaintive cloud rap with trap and ambient-leaning pop music, and the results are often stunning. There’s an entire generation of rappers like him, and Varg2™—another Swede, this one specializing in mutant techno sounds—clearly gets the appeal. The first half of his mix for Tukio is all distant and otherworldly ambient music, with clicking and whirring machinery contributing to an alien ambiance. The turn towards hip-hop calcifies in a pitched-down Notorious B.I.G. sample (“Suicidal Thoughts”) played on top of haunting cello, and after that concludes, it’s mournful cloud-trap all the way down. The most impressive part about the set is how organic and obvious the fusion seems. The whole set is waterlogged and murky, with bleary synthesizers and an overwhelming sense of loneliness linking it all together.

Powder – Yeast Mix  20200327 

Powder seems to build her mixes with an eye towards negative space. More often than not, her selections are preternaturally stilled, any grooves coming second to the open air. Her “Yeast Mix,” dropped with little fanfare on SoundCloud, is possibly the DJ’s most tranquil set yet. The selections run the stylistic gamut—fantastical and cosmic jazz, operatic and lonesome pieces for piano and voice, creaking ambiance, lounge music from yesteryear—but they form a wistful set filled with a hard-to-place nostalgia. Yeast Mix 20200327 feels like the soundtrack for leafing through a book of sepia-toned photographs: the most powerful stuff isn’t the images themselves, but instead what they recall. As always, Powder has her ear towards the ephemeral.

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