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

Slam on the CDJ returns with new mixes from Max Pearl, DJ Healer, and more.
By    June 9, 2020

Please support POW by subscribing to our Patreon.

Michael McKinney has plenty of ammunition for post-quarantine DJ sets.

In case you need a reminder that techno is music of resistance, listen to the protesters. Electronic music’s history is packed with Black voices, sounds, and spaces; anyone who listens to or profits from it owes countless names an incalculable debt. To be Black and loud and creative is in itself an act of defiance: against white supremacy, against entrenched systems of power, against ahistorical revisionism that whitewashes cultures in the name of a faux meritocracy. The conversations sparked by Derek Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd are both long running and long overdue. Any calls for “normalcy” from pundits or “apoliticism” from club attendees overlook who benefits from status quos.While there has been some valuable institutional movements within electronic music in the past few days, too many spaces are willing to simply list names and otherwise stay quiet about the ongoing pain that birthed the music they owe their livelihood to.

Electronic music simply cannot be divorced from politics; to stay quiet now is to be ignorant at best and actively harmful at worst.
Given global protests over police brutality, systemic commodification and oppression of Black people, and international racial hegemony, it’s easy to see electronic music as a distraction from much more important things right now. Black trauma and the myth of the tortured artist are fetishized with disappointing frequency; the sources of those pains are real and feel more exposed than ever. Right now, the most powerful audio is spilling out of megaphones, not earbuds. The power structures, social hierarchies, and centuries of pain that made house and techno and escapism so essential are still here, but it might be possible to start dismantling them. It can—and should—be hard to justify listening to an hour of UK garage or bass music when one could be out protesting instead.

But it’s that kind of magnitude—the sheer weight of piled-up and ever resilient histories—that makes this music so essential right now. Whether in Detroit or New York or Chicago, electronic music acted (and continues to act) as a balm for that oft-romanticised and underserved pain. House and techno are communal healers; they help create spaces for collective joy when that might otherwise seem impossible. It’s cliché to describe music as “restorative,” but clichés can contain grains of truth.

It’s fitting, then, that some of May’s best mixes acted as monuments: reframing and reilluminating histories, showing DJs as thoughtful curators and storytellers rather than straight-ahead selectors. Gig flyers have long framed DJs in this way: gurus illuminating an otherwise invisible path through the club, using their seemingly bottomless crates as stepping stones. But there’s some truth and power to the tales. If a DJ’s knowledge is deep or wide enough, a well-crafted mix can underline sonic throughlines, celebrate scenes, and reclaim histories. That need isn’t new to dance music, but right now, it feels especially acute.

Many of these selections carry this sort of specificity. Benedikt Meger celebrated Florian Schneider, a founding member of Kraftwerk, with a mix that offers a glimpse at the massive influence of “Trans-Europe Express,” and SNO memorialized afrobeat pioneer Tony Allen with a playful and jubilant collection of his solo work. Kampala’s Slikback showed off his singular approach to noisy dance music in his set for Resident Advisor, throwing steamrolling beats into an industrial churn; Sherelle and Naina gave DJMag an hour of unreleased high-BPM club stompers. Max Pearl crashed through his childhood record collection with a mix of overclocked ragga jungle tunes, while FAUZIA looked to her home country in a love letter to the sounds of Somalian jazz, funk, and pop.

While many sets were focused on a certain scene or style, others focused on maintaining a mood. Rafael Anton Irisarri assembled an hour of murky and blurred ambient music for Portland’s Optic Echo, and elsewhere, Jamie Burke rubbed disorienting electronics and folk music against each other and zoomed in on the resulting shards. Iceland’s Tommasi pulled off a similar trick with different source material, blending vocal jazz and ambient music into an hour of slippery and ephemeral beauty. DJ Healer, on the other hand, dug ever deeper into their liturgical dance-music fog with three offerings of all-new material.

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

ᕦ(ò_óˇ)ᕤ – Sound of Russian Federation

Since 2015, Los Angeles’s Motion Ward has been building up a formidable catalogue of left-field ambient and techno. ᕦ(ò_óˇ)ᕤ, née Nikolay Kozlov, is the label’s latest addition, and his style—techno with the drums slightly askew, scrambled ambient, and synthetic clouds—makes him a natural fit. On Sound of Russian Federation, the Russian producer demonstrates that his sound has strong stylistic forebears, or at least plenty of geographic contemporaries. The scene painted here is diverse: boiling breakbeats, bleary-eyed ambient, busted-machinery techno, and alien electronics all make frequent appearances. But each selection is muggy and dimly lit. Through plaintive and far-left-of-center selections, Kozlov shows a Russia filled with captivating, eerie, and just barely recognizable forms.

Angel D’lite – Deep Mind Music Vol. 14

The sonic architecture of trance music makes no room for subtlety; this is the stuff of heart-on-sleeve sentimentality and little else. But it’s no accident that the style, with its swelling synthesizers and promise of something greater, has fueled massive festivals the world over. On Deep Mind Music Vol. 14, Angel D’lite explores the emotional side of trance but turns the volume way down. On mid-point highlight Solar Quest’s “Acid Air Raid (Ambient Mix),” high-end keyboards glisten over a throbbing low-end. Suddenly, D’lite moves to the distant-fantasy vocal swirl of Enya’s “Caribbean Blue.” The blend makes little sense on paper; the genres and textures are only vaguely related. But each piece feels impossibly far away, whether due to wide open skies or amber-encrusted voices. It’s demonstrative of how D’lite blends here, taking delicate selections and mixing them sideways. Like the best trance, Deep Mind Music Vol. 14 finds beauty in the act of yearning for something greater.

Benedikt Meger – The Trans-Europe Express Mega Mix

With a band as mammoth in influence, sound, and impact as Kraftwerk, it’s often easier to show than it is to tell. At this point, their robotic motions and synthesized strings are indelibly tangled with innumerable artistic DNAs the world over. A week after Florien Schneider, a founding member of the band, passed away, Benedikt Meger shared his commemoration: The Trans-Europe Express Mega Mix. Made up almost entirely of tunes sampling, interpolating, or otherwise inspired by the Kraftwerk tune of the same name, it’s a testament to how deep and wide the band’s influence spreads. Meger wrote that the mix is “mostly chronological,” and it works as a truncated history of hip-hop: Afrika Bambaataa, Ultramagnetic MC’s, Jurassic 5, R.A. the Rugged Man, the Dungeon Family, MF DOOM, Busta Rhymes. But it never feels like a history lesson. The track’s lurching strings, chanted vocals, and metronomic beats act as strikingly compelling motifs. Watching untold hands rework Kraftwerk in their own image is, in its own way, a beautiful eulogy for an incalculably influential group.

DJ Healer – der traum / die wüste / ins herz der dinge lauschen

As DJ Healer, Traumprinz—a shadowy producer from Germany who works under at least a half-dozen aliases—makes music for bearing one’s soul. Their 2018 releases, Nothing 2 Loose and Planet Lonely, were all new-age ambient synthesizers, biblical overtones, and painfully intimate conversations. It was ambient music for cathedrals. Near the start of May, DJ Healer released three new sets treading the same territory: die wüste, der traum, and ins herz der dinge lauschen. die wüste, or “the desert,” is bleary and distant, a seemingly omnipresent layer of white noise lending an air of history to Healer’s slowly unwinding synths. der traum—”the dream”—adds more dust-filled drums to the mix before winding down to a peaceful drone. ins herz der dinge lauschen, or “listen to the heart of things,” is the most settled of the three; its seven tracks come off as an extended sigh. Each set offers a slightly different version of Healer’s sound, but their alchemy is the same: beauty and melancholy combining into a glacial swirl; beating drums and beating hearts turning to one.

FAUZIA – Love Letter to Somalia

FAUZIA is best known for DJing footwork, breaks, and bass; her mixing, quick and precise, underlines the kinetic energy of her selections. (When she was last featured in these pages, it was for just that.) Her latest show for NTS Radio retains her clever ear and deep crates, but jettisons her usual sonic palette without losing any of the magic. In writing her Love Letter to Somalia, FAUZIA zooms in on sounds from her home country: jangly and playful jazz, slow-burning grooves with soaring strings, sun-baked funk. When she slides exuberant pop numbers into scorching horn sections or leisurely jam sessions, it can feel like jumping from one car’s radio to the other, moving between different communal joys along the way.  Her selections may be less livewire than her normal fare, but in a way that’s beside the point. With each passing tune on Somalia, a quiet elation grows a bit louder until it’s part of the air.

Hooversound Recordings – Introducing: Hooversound

Sherelle and Naina are two of the leading figures in London’s new wave of 160-BPM DJs, so it would follow suit that their new label, Hooversound, would be worth paying close attention to. Their recent mix for DJMag, Introducing: Hooversound, is entirely composed of upcoming label material, which is a thrilling idea. It’s the kind of snowballing club music that they’ve made their name on, a piledriving blend of acid, breaks, grime, jungle, footwork, and anything else that keeps crowds sweating. One moment, they’re crashing heaps of synthesizers into steamrolling breakbeats; the next, it’s skittering footwork or acidic dubstep. The only constants are tempo and intensity, both of which start high and only go up. London’s clubs might be shut down for now, but Introducing: Hooversound shows what the city’s DJs are likely to be spinning on opening night.

Jamie Burke – Wavering Forms 30

Wavering Forms 30 opens with a steady blues lick that sounds like it’s coming from a barely working gramophone. Someone, or multiple someones, speak and sing: sometimes indecipherable, sometimes diligent, sometimes pained. It’s a striking way to open a mix, but the set doesn’t stay there for long. The guitar gives way to meandering xylophones and whirring machinery; a string quartet joins only to collapse into a pile of spidering electronics. Every crack in the mix is filled with a charged unease: it’s not eerie, exactly, but there’s a sense that the foundations could give out at any moment. Piano balladry gets coated in static and scurrying noise, birds chirp over muffled chimes, and vinyl warps midsong. On Wavering Forms 30, the familiar and alien rub against each other in fascinating ways, as Jamie Burke suspends disparate forms outside of time until they blur into one.

Josey Rebelle – Josey In Space

Somewhere near the end of Josey In Space, Josey Rebelle pulls off a remarkable series of blends. In the span of about ten minutes, she moves from Rum & Black’s acidic and paranoid techno to Loraine James’s dreamlike synthesizer squiggles, Shy One’s pointillistic breakbeats, Access 58’s crack-of-dawn house music, and Andrés’s simmering nu-jazz. For many selectors, that kind of pan-genre mixing might be a show-stopping flex. On Josey In Space, it’s par for the course. Rebelle slides between genres, moods, and styles with impressive ease throughout. She leaps between spectral techno, airy jungle, and broken-hearted spoken word in a way that only makes sense in the moment. On Josey in Space, Rebelle takes the old trope of DJ-as-storyteller and flips it on its head: by crumbling so many forms of electronic music into a shapeshifting mass, she’s letting the million histories of dance music spill out over the decks.

Kilbourne – DISCWOMAN 94 x Kilbourne

When talking about her mix for Discwoman, Kilbourne called it “90 minutes of slow then fast then real fast hardcore techno.” It’s easy to take that as a joke at first, given it starts at a 140-something BPM gallop, but by the end of the set, she’s nearly doubled the pace. This is high-octane techno that starts heavy and gets heavier as it goes on. The kick drums only get more distorted, the sampled vocalists more frenzied, and the tempo never stops rising. DISCWOMAN 94 shows the range of sounds in modern hardcore—there’s blast beats, a few minutes of disorientingly pretty synthesizer work, and bass-blown rap. But it’s all about the slamming kicks and corrosive synthesizers that Kilbourne selects. Over the course of ninety minutes, she starts hard and gets harder, slowly turning the knobs up and coming up with a maddeningly intense set in the process.

Max Pearl – Ragga Breakcore Quarantine Massacre

If you play a ragga jungle record loud enough, the walls might cave in. Max Bell started listening to the faster-and-messier version of jungle as a teenager, but couldn’t find time to blend the 190-plus BPM records until self-quarantining. As with many of the best jungle mixes, this one moves so fast and aggressively that it sounds like it’s on the verge of collapse from the start. The drums are frantic and often indistinguishable from sampled machine guns; the tempos are relentlessly high; and the emcees are breathless and, somehow, inexhaustible. It’s all deeply physical and undancably heavy. Ragga Breakcore Quarantine Massacre is an unstoppable set dedicated to just a few things: wailing drums, overblown bass, screeching synthesizers, and blown-out soundsystems.

Rafael Anton Irisarri – OEP 5/12/20

In his recent guest mix for Portland’s Optic Echo, Rafael Anton Irisarri finds beauty in liminality. The mixing may appear quick, with eighteen tracks appearing in just over an hour, but any seams, whether textural or tonal, are rendered moot by Irisarri’s unwavering control of atmosphere. OEP 5/12/20 is uniformly hushed and unhurried: drones linger in the air until they sound like natural phenomena, a mallet’s reverberation is as considered as the initial strike, and keyboards unendingly circle each other. From minute to minute, the mix might appear jagged and uneven thanks to the range of ambient-adjacent sounds he selects. From moment to moment, though, each piece comes into focus. They often come off as muddled or distant, but that remove—temporal, spatial, or otherwise—is a feature, not a bug. Through bleary drones, delicately plucked strings, and chirping electronics, Irisarri shows a world half-remembered.

Slikback – RA.729

When speaking with Resident Advisor about RA.729, Slikback called the mix “a trip into the darker parts of me” that shared ideas with his musical influences. Both sides hold up, but the former is more immediately apparent: RA.729 is a pitch-black plummet through bass, noise, and screaming electronics. More obviously categorizable sounds appear, like the ice-cold rhythms of gqom or shuddering trap beats, but they are quickly swallowed up by the Kampala producer’s black holes. He populates the mix entirely with his own productions, allowing his approach to beatmaking, rather than his ear as a selector, to take the spotlight. In Slikback’s case, that means gritty and corrugated sheets of noise, artillery-fire bass, and blisteringly rapid-fire drums. The resultant pile-up is a pulverizing and unstable assemblage of world’s-end electronics.

SNO – Tony Allen

Tony Allen, who passed in late April, was one of afrobeat’s great rhythmic minds. His drumming was a mixture of wild-eyed improvisation and straight-ahead grooves; he drew a piece’s lines and then scribbled outside of them as often as he could. He was a first-rate bandleader, snapping horn sections to attention with a few well-tuned smacks. His playing, an ever-evolving and barely restrained series of explosive rattles and shudders and thumps, revealed his insatiable drive towards something new. Over time, he became a musical polyglot, folding new sounds into his rhythms: dub, techno, jazz, reggae. In her mix for Crack Magazine, SNO digs deep, assembling a rich selection of Allen’s solo work. His drumming is rhythmically dense but never showy, playful and knotty without breaking stride. The bands are tight, with any number of accompanists—horns, vocalists, guitars, dubby keyboards—tracing and deepening his patterns. It’s fitting that a tribute to Allen is so compulsively danceable, lush, and joyous.

Tommasi – 20th May 2020

On his monthly show with NTS Radio, Tommasi conjures a distant but slippery past. 20th May 2020 is shot through with longing and filled with ephemera; its best moments feel like sepia-toned photographs with the foreground blurred out. At times, that means lush and aching Golden-Age Hollywood string sections; elsewhere, it’s late-night bar-room stride piano. Tommasi lets the records play out here, and his stark mixing underlines just how sparse a lot of his selections are: piano and bass, voice and guitar, a wispy clarinet. It’s this emptiness that offers the mix its quiet power, suffusing it with an indelible melancholy. The love songs all linger on connections lost or broken; when the strings strain towards something out of reach, they wilt away; and when the mix ends, it seems as though it were barely there.

Yazzus – Dummy Mix 587

Yazzus’s style is all about the belters. Her mixing, whether solo or as part of 6 Figure Gang, is a combination of golden-era rave-ups and hypermodern and breakneck club sounds. (The same could be said for much of 6 Figure Gang, and they’re all making noise worth listening in on: LCY, Dobby, and Jossy Mitsu are all fantastic DJs in their own right, and both FAUZIA and Sherelle are featured above.) On her latest mix for Dummy, Yazzus synthesizes her influences—breakbeat, footwork, jungle, and the crisper side of hardcore—to cook up a storming hour of club music. She maneuvers from sizzling drum workouts to her own souped-up rap bootlegs and back again, ratcheting up the intensity as she slides between styles with a playful flair and an eye towards the dancefloor. On Dummy Mix 587, Yazzus takes any white-knuckle rhythms she can get her hands on and sets the amps on fire.

We rely on your support to keep POW alive. Please take a second to donate on Patreon!