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

Slam on the CDJ returns with (living room) dance floor fillers from Grant Aaron, upsammy, Visible Cloaks, and more.
By    August 4, 2020

If we did livestream sets, best believe they’d be poppin’. We do, however, have dope playlists for subscribers to Passion of the Weiss on Patreon.

Michael McKinney is a savage on the mixing board.

Seven months into the year, clubs are still in an unchecked freefall. DJs have started streaming online: perhaps to approximate the communal joy of a packed rave, perhaps to try out new records for the crowds they’d otherwise be seeing in person. Were things handled differently, it would be tough to imagine this continuing for much longer, but it may also turn into a new reality for quite some time. This even-more-online approach to DJing, as necessitated by the pandemic, has kept club music marching forward even as its focal points keep shutting down.

As such, some of July’s most striking sets read like love letters to the kinds of raves that just can’t (or shouldn’t) happen right now. STARKA turned in a set of blistering hardcore for New York’s Daisychain series, while ZULI’s Unsound set is an adventerous no-holds-barred live recording from October 2019. xela took the genre agnosticism further, slotting over forty tracks into an hour of screaming blends, edits, and club stormers. DJ Perception’s vision of UK garage piles up histories and jacking drum kits for a jubilant block-party mix; elsewhere, upsammy mixed trippy and off-kilter club music into an ever-evolving and playful blur.

The less club-oriented side of the spectrum is still going strong, though. Visible Cloaks and Grant Aaron both released wide-ranging and cinematic mixes, one using lush instrumentation and the latter disorienting clouds of synthesizers. Blue Bliss put together a set of quiet and refracting beauty, all slowly moving new-age ambient sonics. Vessel offered a counterpoint of sorts in their mix for Crack: a warped, eerie, and uncanny set of bossa nova, MBP, and cavernous modern classical records.

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

Blue Bliss – Deep Breakfast 071

Blue Bliss’s entry for Deep Breakfast starts slow: a smeared synthesizer, leaving a trail of fog, slowly fills the room. It’s a fitting opening, given the series is dedicated to “music for quiet morning reflections.” What’s striking, though, is how the initial atmosphere lingers even as the tracks spider outwards into new territories. Blue Bliss slowly folds in other sounds—new-age synthetics, murky techno, spare field recordings—but stays focused on the slowly moving mass at the center of it all, that cloud of space-age synthesizers, birdsong, and plaintive guitars. The set’s opening tones promise an hour of slow-motion deep-sigh ambiance, which Blue Bliss delivers in spades. But they only hint at the subtle ways that it shifts, deepens, and reveals new facets in a familiar sound. It’s this subtle sense of the unknown—of reframing familiar tones through a distinctly dank and blurred lens—that makes the set so captivating.

DJ Perception – RA.737

It’s no secret at this point: UK garage is undergoing a renaissance. The sun-kissed and eminently danceable sound has seen a resurgence in popularity and critical acclaim, with DJs diving headfirst into the sound and new-school genre labels sprouting up with alarming frequency. A recent piece by Resident Advisor pointed to DJ Perception as a veritable guru of the scene, connecting the bustling sound of yesteryear with the even bubblier sounds of modern UKG. His recent set for Resident Advisor is, through one lens, an immense flex. It’s almost entirely composed of unreleased pressings and untitled bits he’s yet to release; its thirty-four tracks are more or less impossible to identify online. But look another way, and it’s an immense celebration: a jubilant mix of skipping drums, clipped vocals, and glittering synthesizers. On RA.737, one of UK garage’s sharpest ears blends histories, records, and grooves into a pitch-perfect love letter to the scene.

Grant Aaron – RA.738

With RA.738, Grant Aaron demonstrates the approach to ambient music that has made his label, Mysteries of the Deep, stand out. This is ambience for engulfment, all deeply felt synth pads, barely present drums, and whirring clouds of noise. Aaron mixes slow and deep here, taking his time and allowing space for gurgles, clicks, and yawns to reverberate off the walls. The resultant ninety minutes are composed of a slowly undulating beauty that takes any number of forms: distant clouds blotting out the sun, birdsong and pattering percussion, organs shimmering as sunlight fills the air. Different sounds may appear or fall away, and beats may emerge or dissipate, but the emotional core—stilled, all-encompassing, and always strikingly clear—remains.

KG – Exhibition Mix

One of the best things about gqom, the icy and minimal take on house music that’s been blaring from South African soundsystems, is its mechanical precision. This is exacting music, with drums falling just so and empty space filling in the gaps. On her mix for London’s Insert magazine, Karen Nyame takes the sound and slows it down to a crawl. The effect is magnetic: by dropping the tempo and tone, she turns an already great selection of gqom and house records into a lurching and jagged mass of slowly moving grooves. Selected spoken-word recordings, all about Black femininity, surface between the cracks, and their power is mirrored in the chilled and unrelenting beats. Even the brightest bits here are twisted: the mix’s final minutes are dedicated to a single wordless vocal sample and a churning mid-range synthesizer, both looping a few notes without a clear resolution, sounding increasingly warped as the eddy deepens. This is demonstrative of the set as a whole. For her Exhibition Mix, KG takes familiar sounds and ideas and turns them sinister by making every moment last just a bit longer.

LDY OSC – Deep Breakfast 069

For Deep Breakfast 069, Vienna’s LDY OSC—named for her love of DIY synth culture—shows just how varied the umbrella of “ambient” music can be. She mixes a tremendous range of sounds here, moving from live-wire gothic rock to blissed-out synth exercises and spacious dub, but she keeps it coherent by mixing with glacial patience. The set is, in turns or at once, crushingly heavy, meditative, and starry-eyed. None of this is unexpected—her productions show a familiarity with both meditation music and electro, after all. But it’s this range, alongside her total tonal control, that makes the set so impressive: everything is united under a bone-chilling breeze, even when the ground gives out to reveal new and unfamiliar worlds.

STARKA – Daisychain 128

STARKA opens their Daisychain entry with a bit of a feint. “Endless Garden,” Himera’s mile-a-minute trance-synth workout, establishes the scene as a neon-lit night-drive: playful, a bit livewire, and just unpredictable enough to be memorable. But as its opening notes fade out, the Brooklyn DJ catapults the set into the gritted-teeth world of hardcore. They spend much of the remaining hour playing hard, loud, and contorted club music defined by blistering tempos and earth-shaking kick drums. That’s not to say it’s all in one mode: while it may be unrelentingly tough, it’s still playful and wide-ranging. There’s a slamming Charli XCX remix near the top, a hard techno edit of the Mortal Kombat theme, a smattering of straight-up trance, and gabber of all sorts laced throughout. If anything, its intro wasn’t punishing enough.

upsammy – Bleep Mix #122

On her set for Bleep, upsammy blends the trippier side of her collection into a suitably shapeshifting ninety minutes. Her selections are consistently outré and playful, running a wide range of club sounds—buzzing halftime, sparkling IDM, manic jungle—but they’re all linked by their jubilant and unpredictable rhythms. These are punchy and sparkly tracks, with skittering and ever-evolving drum kits making sure nothing gets too settled. Given the range of styles and patterns here, upsammy’s mixing is noteworthy for its dexterity: every blend comes off, and a good number of them are wholly unnoticeable. Here, new rhythms seem to tunnel out of old ones, or perhaps form as natural growths. Bleep Mix #122, taken on both micro or macro scales, is beguiling, joyous, and effortlessly alien.

Vessel – Crack Mix 362


In an interview with Dazed, Sebastian Gainsborough spoke to their disillusionment with club tracks and gradual pilgrimage towards classical compositions: “When I started getting deeply into classical and chamber music, I let out a big sigh of relief, like, finally. This is the language I’ve been looking for.” Their music since—most notably 2018’s head-spinning Queen of Golden Dogs—has dived in between the concert hall and the DJ booth and reimagined both in the process, often in loud and tumultuous ways. Crack Mix 362 is most notable, perhaps, for how it reconfigures their approach yet again. Here, Gainsborough has jettisoned the dancefloor entirely, replacing it with bossa nova and MPB records. They hold these pieces, all quiet, aching, and lush, in sharp contrast with modern classical works that fill the air with dread and a lingering sense of discomfort. It’s an uncanny and unsettling combination, shot through with tension and only the occasional glimpse of daylight. This central duality—deeply felt unease held up against flickering beauty—renders the selections indelible.

Visible Cloaks – FR065

FR065 offers Spencer Doran a chance to return to the half-remembered ambiance that makes Visible Cloaks’s’ best music so transfixing. The set, recorded for the Chilean collective Fake Rolex, is stilled, contemplative, and filled with empty space. Organs, saxophones, spacious electronics, and solo voices flit in and out of the fabric, their measured tempos and tones recalling devotional, or at least deeply revential, music. Thanks to the thoroughly controlled atmosphere, Doran is able to explore many nooks and crannies of understated sounds without moving too quickly: glacially cool jazz, hushed and intimate spoken word, pieces for recorders and bells and droning percussion. FR065 takes Visible Cloaks’s approach—open-air almost-ambient music, lushly composed and starkly rendered—and underlines just how meditative it can be.

xela – Femboy Heaters

Just looking at the tracklist gives up the game. Femboy Heaters, which John Xela described as “the first proper planned thing I’ve done in years,” stuffs forty-four tracks, blends, bootlegs, and film snippets into barely over an hour. The resultant mess is a total thrill, though, in large part because they lean into absurdity and playfulness: Missy Elliott on top of storming kick drums, Mariah Carey against Autechre, Ariana Grande acapellas laid over Barker’s weightless techno. As Femboy Heaters steamrolls ahead, Xela turns increasingly anarchistic. But there’s a clear throughline: wild-eyed dancefloor sounds; anything goes as long as it keeps the energy up and the listener guessing. That’s why a donk edit of Mike Jones makes sense here; it’s also why throwing Valee on top of whirlwinding drums works. Femboy Heaters may be cacophonous, but it’s also a testament to just how much fun that can be.

ZULI – Unsound Podcast 66

There’s a palpable energy to ZULI’s Unsound entry. Maybe that’s because it was recorded live at the festival’s 2019 edition; maybe it’s because of the set itself, which is an unrelenting crash through mutated club music, serrated techno, and steamrolling drum programming. But regardless of the reason, Unsound Podcast 66 is undeniable. ZULI jumps between styles quickly and fluidly, blending “Ha Dance” flips, avant-rap cuts, explosive percussion workouts, and straight-up slamming techno without getting too overbearing or wide-ranging along the way. A particularly great bit comes near the end, where ZULI crashes overblown bass into what sounds like an indecipherable rap sample and white-knuckle breakbeats; not long after, he’s moved to a woozy and stuttering cut that bridges the gap between electro and techno. Unsound Podcast 66 moves hard, fast, and with little regard for genre lines.

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