Ghost in the 404: This Month’s Best Electronic and Dance Music

We bring you an extended version of our electronic music column, featuring joints from Yaeji, DJ Swagger, Lil Uzi, Sam Gendel, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and more.
By    April 14, 2020

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The original idea of this column was to celebrate dance and electronic music as something that has meaning and value outside of a dancefloor, but folks, I have never in my life missed a dirty ass, decrepit, sweaty dance floor more than during this pandemic. Yes, this music can be enjoyed outside of that context, but there’s no denying that a lot of this music was made for movement, and for groups of people to experience and enjoy that movement of the human body together, with a booming sound system that can make you feel simultaneously individually attached to the music itself, and a small part of that collective energy of people on the dance floor. Now, that experience is a memory —  a temporary impossibility.

Writing about this music now seems a little odd, but as dumb as it sounds, seeing DJs and producers like Questlove, Mannie Fresh, Arca, the Discwoman collective, the Leaving Records crew, DJ EZ, and yes, even D-Nice, use Instagram live, Twitch, and other live streaming services to broadcast DJ sets from their homes, and seeing the corresponding chat boxes light up with endless positive and grateful messages from fans, the purpose of this music snapped into shape again for me. As cliché as it sounds, I don’t think this music can build a community. However, it can reinforce and strengthen one — not to just celebrate the music and art – but also to celebrate and embrace the people that comprise the existing community.

There’s a lot of great music. A ton that I couldn’t get to in this month’s column, including some great demo and rarities collections from the essential Elysa Crampton and Sela. Music From Memory also put out an interesting compilation of experimental theatrical dance music, Nazar put out an intense album about the Angolan Civil War, Scott Grooves put out a solid Detroit techno record , and footwork masters DJ Swisha and Kush Jones put out a pair of fun EPs. If you enjoy these artist’s work, and you can afford it right now, please think about supporting them and other artists by buying their music on Bandcamp, or through their label, or through your local record store.

DJ Swagger – “Smartphone Love” and Dawit – “Level 7”

Maybe I just want to find comfort in nostalgia and conformity, but these two tracks calling back past dance music styles really hit this month.

The first one, “Smartphone Love,” by Germany’s DJ Swagger is a slice of late 90’s UK Garage nostalgia that sounds like glistening lights refracted off of champagne glasses, boxy late 90’s Mercedes-Benz’, and the goblin orange glow of streetlights illuminating pirate radio stations blasting through living rooms and cars throughout London. Still a very real part of the UK dance music scene, (the aforementioned DJ EZ just did a 24 hour straight DJ set of garage music on Boiler Room to raise money for The Global FoodBanking Network), garage never really landed hard in the U.S., but the rolling drum breaks and crystal clean production definitely influenced the shiny suit era of hip hop and R&B in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. Like the shiny suit-era, UK garage sounds like both the soundtrack of the yearnings of aspirational wealth, and carefree, unencumbered by your own problems, or the problems of the world, fun with your friends, and that’s exactly what DJ Swagger captures perfectly on this track.

The D.C. by way of Ethiopia and the Ivory Coast producer Dawit taps into a very similar wavelength on “Level 7.” The opening ethereal ambient synth pad and the 808 tom hits sound like they came directly from the keyboard of Larry Heard on his mid-80s Mr. Fingers “Can You Feel It” era of deep, gospel tinged spiritual house. “Can You Feel It” is the best dance track of all time, and one of the best pieces of music to ever be recorded, and hearing Dawit play homage to it, adding in little details of his own like some clanging cymbals, and a kind of all over the place acid house synth bass line, reminds me of that ecstatic feeling of hearing those Larry Heard records all over again. I can’t wait to hear how hard this song goes mixing into “Can You Feel It” at a party when this pandemic is over.

Yaeji – “Waking Up Down” and Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith – “Expanding Electricity”

Yaeji is the queen of club introspection. On past releases she’s contemplated the changes that time brings, the building up of life’s stresses that necessitate therapy, and existential crises in the club. On “Waking Up Down,” Yaeji brings her trademarked almost ASMR levels of mic closeness and multi-lingual vocals and gentle breezy house, to let us know that she’s working on getting the important, foundational, aspects of living down. You know, waking up, hydrating, making lists, and checking in with her friends. In the Korean portions of the song Yaeji talk-raps “It’s not easy, there’s no such thing as easy.” In the thick of this pandemic, these words ring out even truer.

Like Yaeji, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith makes highly personal and emotional electronic music, but whereas Yaeji wants to express something about her personal life that she hopes connects with her listeners, Aurelia Smith gently grabs you by the collar and wants to talk to you about her deep love of nature and fractals. Aurelia Smith has gone back and forth on recent projects from just using a modular synthesizer, to using a modular synthesizer and processing her voice through it. On “Expanding Electricity,” she uses that voice to the greatest effect yet, stacking unintelligible angelical gnome android vocals through interlocking phasing modular synth runs and galunking percussion that sounds like hollow logs hitting a lazy river. I have no idea whar Aurelia Smith is talking about on this track, but after hearing this I’m about to be outside greeting the sunrise in the lotus position listening to this track, hoping for better days.


Flume feat. Toro Y Moi – “The Difference” and Tokimonsta and “Get Me Some (feat. Drew Love and Dumbfoundead)”

Remember future beat? For awhile in the early and mid 2010’s producers like Giraffage, Sango, Flume, Tokimonsta, and early Kaytranada, split the difference between EDM and the L.A. beat scene sound, added in some extra doses of electro pop and made electronic music made perfect for blissful summer days of youth and Youtube algorithms. While Sango and Kaytranada have in some ways moved beyond the future beat sound, there’s still plenty of future beat DJs that you can no doubt find playing college festivals all over the country, but DJs and producers like Flume and Tokimonsta who have matured within the sound. On “The Difference,” Flume surrounds a drum and bass rhythm with souring synths while Toro Y Moi brings an Iggy Pop stamina to a song about wanting to “bring the whole thing down” if he has to die. It’s an almost perfect thesis statement on the promise of future beat. Hope you’re safe Chaz Bear.

L.A.’s own Tokimonsta makes her best tracks with singers. From the hazy L.A. introspection of “Little Pleasure” and “Darkest (Dim)” with Gavin Turek, to the post-dubstep R&B of “Realla” with pre-fame Anderson .Paak, Tokimonsta has some magic aura working with vocalists to really bring the most out of them and her music, so it comes as no surprise that the best track on her newest album has both a rapper and a singer on it. “Get Me Some,” with singer Drew Love and legendary L.A. rapper Dumbfoundead is a pretty straight ahead looping piano vamp lead summer jam that sounds perfectly suited for a KCRW playlist, and it’s perfect in its simplicity. Dumbfoundead rhymes mukbang with “so fine the haters couldn’t even slut shame.” The perfect song to dance to and play your grandchildren to at a cookout in a couple decades.

BSTC – “Venus & Mars (Jamie 3​:​26 Edit)” and DJ Ends – “Family and Loyalty VIP”

DJ edits of classic funk and soul tracks are the bedrock of the art of DJing in both dance music and hip hop. Before computers and before portable samplers made looping this best part of a record easy, DJs had to have two copies of a record, one to play the part of a record to keep dancers dancing, and the other to rewind back to the start of that segment of the record to mix into when the first record ran its course. To continuously loop one segment of a record a DJ would have to jump back and forth between those two records, playing one while hurriedly rewinding the other one.

Anyways, there’s some great DJ edits out there, which usually is just DJs looping and slightly tweaking pre-existing tracks with a little bit of effects to really accentuate the best part of a given record. Take for example, this amazing Theo Parrish edit of the very end of a Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes track. Jamie 3:26, an old school Chicago house DJ of note, compiled some of his own edits on a recent compilation, and there’s nothing better than this first track, an edit of “Venus and Mars” by the group BSTC. Essentially a loop of the first half of the original track, with a hard rolling drum shuffle, sensual electric piano chords, and a brass and Moog section that explodes in the chorus, this is a loop you can, and should, get lost in for hours.

One reason I love footwork is because like dance and club music of old, footwork is all about samples and how a DJ can stretch and mold them into unique, personal, artistic expressions. On “Family and Loyalty VIP” German footwork producer DJ Ends makes you fall in love with a beautifully sublime piano and soft synth pad melody that sounds straight out of a video game or an anime before he chops it up, reverentially, into a solid footwork track that you can imagine a footwork dancer really putting in work to.

Lil Uzi Vert – Eternal Atake

Uzi always had an eclectic taste in beats, from the endlessly meme-able Chef Boyardee accordion beat in “Ps and Qs” to the chaotic laser tag trap of leaks like “Uppin Downers,” but nothing came anywhere close to the Dance Dance Revolution retro-futurism of “Futsal Shuffle 2020” and the preceding cornucopia of dance music influences on the Working on Dying-produced Eternal Atake album. Mixed beautifully sloppily, the first half of the record sees Uzi ducking and weaving through beats that share a certain DNA with the messy, chaotic, minimal beats of contemporary club deconstruction DJs like DJ Haram and Elysia Crampton, where drums are pushed to pummeling volumes, accompanied by sparse acoustic percussion and borderline cheesy synths. Later on, the record, with the help of an ethereal Chief Keef beat, steps into the almost choral pop-house of people like Jacques Greene with songs like “Chrome Heart Tags” and “Bigger than Life,” and “Bust Me.”

But whereas a lot of the music Uzi and Working on Dying are seemingly drawing from have an edge of melancholia, or even dread, Uzi and Working on Dying seem like ever the optimists, building on those influences with nods to techno-utopian pre-9/11 internet youth culture, like late 90’s anime style, the video game Dance Dance Revolution game, and even the Backstreet Boys, almost convincing you that another world is indeed still possible.

Sam Gendel – Satin Doll and Fresh Bread – Voice Memos

The record that’s given me the most solace this month, other than the Uzi record, is this album of chopped and screwed jazz standards. Sam Gendel is a saxophonist that’s played crunchy Rainforest Cafe background vibes for Vampire Weekend, freak funk with Knower, and big spiritual jazz explosions with Sam Wilkes, but in his own music he’s most at home in a kind of pensive, gentle, exploratory tone, with his sax run through some kind of phase shifter that makes it sound like a soulful sobbing android.

On Satin Doll, Gendel uses this tone to lead bassist Gabe Noel and electronic drum pad musician Philippe Melanson in almost live chopped and screwed remixes of famous jazz standards. Gendel strips down these classic, and complex, standards, slowing them down, and stripping them into simple chord changes and melody, or just pure tone and mood, washing then in electronic effects, glitches, and weird samples, letting himself and the band just find gentle psychedelia in these songs that every jazz band kid knows how to play, straight and boring, by heart.

Fresh Bread is Sam Gendel’s newest musical pseudonym, (I saw him open for Laraaji years ago as INGA), and the concept of Voice Memos seems to be that these are tracks first recorded as ideas on a phone, just like my guy Charlie Puth. Like Kendrick, just hearing Gendel mess around with his sax, adding in little Garageband percussion sounds, is still really enjoyable. Just listen to the gorgeously simple “Miss U Sunny,” where a moonlit opal of an electric piano chord progression is gently dueted by Gendel’s knowing sax. Once you fully get into the lullaby, the loud crack of an almost RZA like ominous sax chord marks the start of the next track. That’s Gendel.

Marco – Aquamarine and Mat/Matix – On Lock

Aquamarine is instrumental G-funk for the youth. Inspired by classic G-funk like Warren G and Battlecat, and the more recent modern funk of Dâm-Funk, Marco lays down bouncing G-funk bass lines, nimble, strutting drums, and cracked sun kissed pavement synths that sound in places pretty close to breezy Italian house music. This is the perfect project to play in a cruising car, when that’s possible to do again.

Mat/Matix has also received the good word that is modern funk from our savior Dâm-Funk. Amen. Combining boogie with electro, and early hip hop, G-funk and a little Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis style synth R&B, Mat/Matix takes a laid back cruise through the Southland with talk box funk, smooth samples of Marvin Gaye background vocals, a hell of a lot of neck snapping snares and breezy synth pads, and a really nice peacock strutting of a tribute to the pull of California an exiled Angeleno feels with the help of singer Iman Europe on “Calling Me.”

Ahnnu – Pattern Play and Visible Cloaks – Two Instalations

Leland Jackson has two main musical projects, there’s the mad scientist footwork of his Cakedog project, and the wide ranging, sound collages of his Ahnnu project. In the past, Ahnnu records have veered between spaced out beat music, to quiet, Pauline Oliveros type sound collages. On Pattern Play, it seems like Ahnnu is leaning into a style that combines both of those sounds. Across the album, panned modular synth beeps fall into gurgling and undulating pro-techno rhythms suspended in a gritty aural staticky textures, like Oval, or Madlib, or Edgar Varese at their nastiest, or like the soundtrack to some whacked out Stan Brakhage film.

I am physically unable to not love a Visible Cloaks release. Visible Cloaks are two white guys from Portland that got way too into Japanese environmental music from the 1980’s and thought, damn, we could do that too. By adding in a little bit of glitch music digital manipulation and weird sampling techniques, and glistening early 90’s pop synth sounds, Visible Cloaks have built up their own unique take on Japanese environmental music by building tranquil landscapes around electronically processed acoustic percussion and gently shifting synths, vibraphone, and woodwind, melodies and textures. Two Instillations is a compilation of two pieces of music made for two different visual art pieces from a couple of years ago, but they still sound like a gentle gush of fresh air, or like hanging out with the little mushroom headed people and the Forest Spirit in Princess Monanoke.

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