Slam on the CDJ: The Best DJ Sets of September 2021

Slam on the CDJ returns with the best DJ sets of the past month featuring Ausschuss, BFTT & Clemency, D-Grade and more.
By    October 15, 2021

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Michael McKinney absorbs more music in a week than most do in an entire calendar year.

After umpteen false starts, crowds are starting to fill out festivals again. Many of September’s best sets work with this communal joy, stretching it in all sorts of directions. Simo Cell and Bony Fly, recording live from Dekmantel Selectors in August, cooked up two sure-fire firestarters: the former leapt between anything-goes UK club tools, Detroit techno, and hip-hop the world over, while the latter opted for a more specific selection of dancehall and reggaeton burners.

On the other side of the globe, Huerco S. and Purelink did similarly wild-eyed mixes for c- Fest. Huerco S. may be known best for his ambient productions, but his set looks to dance music from across the global South for inspiration, and Purelink eschew their typically moody drum-and-bass for a goofy house, trance and techno rave-up. BFTT & Clemency joined forces for a characteristically diverse back-to-back that launches between jungle, dubstep, and left-field belters; Vigro Deep showed off a dense and discombobulated take on amapiano.

Not everything’s so raucous, though. Hoshina Anniversary, mixing for Truants, assembled an hour of alien almost-techno. Malibu and Lychee blended generous and deeply felt ambience. Ytem & Escha put together a collage that sounds like a million pop-up windows; Ausschuss channeled that same unnerving energy into slow-motion and weighty techno, and D-Grade complicated the mood further with glacial gabber and skeletal synthesizers. Elsewhere, the mysterious techno-etc. producer Traumprinz introduced a new trance-indebted alias, and London’s Time Is Away offered up a pastoral meditation on stories and traditions.

Still others were deliriously playful: Darryn Jones and Tone B. Nimble reached into their seemingly endless crates for two hours of joyously analog soul, funk, and disco, and DJ Persuasion and Dev/Null celebrated the legacy of drum-and-bass pioneer Dillinja. Dream Software’s breakbeat odyssey is as retrofuturistic as the best stuff from the ‘90s, and Deep Creep, Pascäal, and Llloyd turned in two hours of defiantly genre-averse dance music that runs the gamut from ambient dub to smoldering acid.

Here are some of the best DJ sets September had to offer.

Ausschuss – Exhibition Mix

Mucking up the BPM can be a dangerous game, but, done right, it can flip tracks inside out. Ausschuss’s mix for Insert is predicated on this practice. The tracklist shows all sorts of dubstep scorchers alongside moody ambience: Andy Stott and Joker, Jon Hopkins and John T. Gast. The combination appears unusual to the point of dysfunction, but in practice, the Berlin-based producer renders them all out of whole cloth by twisting a few knobs. The towering synths of Rustie’s “Neko” bookend the set, but they’re slowed to a crawl here, rendered as a distant figure shrouded in smog; elsewhere, weighty techno cuts are turned to elephantine stompers thanks to a bit of molasses. Even as the tempo picks up, the gut punches never let up. Somewhere between DJ Screw, Paulstretch, and club-music futurism, the set is blisteringly heavy and deeply uneasy.

BFTT & Clemency – Keep Hush Live Manchester: Left, Right & Centre Takeover

The UK’s club scene has long since splintered into a million scenes; trying to pick out a single name or movement as the circuit’s foremost vanguard is an exercise in futility. That said, it’s tempting to do just that after watching the latest broadcast from Keep Hush, a club night that’s turned into something of a mecca for underground dance music. For just under an hour, BFTT and Clemency tap into the kitchen-sink energy that’s fueled UK clubs forever, triangulating the space between industrial sonics, junglist energy, and throttling bass cuts. The resultant mix is uniformly thrilling and unpredictable, twisting into new forms with each passing minute: post-everything breaks that wouldn’t sound out of place on YCO, depth-charge negative-space bass blasters, and plenty of rubbernecking blends. (One particularly riveting sequence features scorched-earth grime, a peak-time spinback into acidic jungle, and a flip into marching-band pop.) It’s more or less impossible to bottle the energy coming out of the United Kingdom right now, but BFTT and Clemency come close, connecting a huge range of club sounds and blasting them all into the next century.

Bony Fly – Dekmantel Selectors 2021

Bony Fly may be based in Switzerland, but his crates are transatlantic. For the better part of a decade, he’s been pushing reggaeton, dancehall, and dub records, fusing soundsystem records with club tools that land a bit closer to home. His set for this year’s Dekmantel Selectors, recorded live in August, is as good an example as any. Here, he mixes playful and tough records in equal measure, moving from disorienting dancehall-minimalism to bone-crunching reggaeton and scorched-earth ragga with panache. Highlights abound: Beanie Man’s snowballing “King of the Dancehall,” a momentary dip into Alkaline’s nigh-intangible “Nuh Play Dat,” the barely constrained menace of Shabba Ranks’s low-and-slow dancehall burner “Pretty Please,” a left-hook Britney Spears flip that slides a bit of dembow into the drums. No matter the specific forms, the set works as a neat encapsulation of Bony Fly’s ethos; it is international and hyperspecific, playful and informed by a deep understanding of auditory histories. Beyond all that, though, is something much simpler: by packing the decks with a million styles of soundsystem records, he set the amps alight.

D-Grade – CXIV

CXIV opens simply: a voice, seemingly processed through mountains of tape recorders, murmurs some ancient-sounding melody, and the percussion responds, whirring to life with unplaceable clicks and gurgles. It’s an unusual and menacing way to open the mix; it seems more like an incantation than anything liable to spill out of amplifiers. (CXIV was recorded for Melbourne club bleus’s essential dancefloor-oriented mix series “in your body,” which makes the opener all the more startling.) If that opener is a summoning, though, it works: the mix slowly lumbers to life, moving from tectonic-plate bass drums to teeth-gnashing synthesizers and screeching drum kits. D-Grade finds countless shades of black throughout, crashing whiplash drum-and-bass into glacial gabber records and bass-blasted slow-motion dubstep. A ghostly low-end slowly gives way to apocalyptic hardcore as walls of bass drums, garbled vocals, and busted synthesizers render each moment queasier than the last. CXIV serves as a masterful example of sonic and aesthetic pacing, full of left turns down ever darkening alleyways.

Darryn Jones & Tone B. Nimble – RA.796

Darryn Jones and Tone B. Nimble have earned a reputation as two of Chicago’s most fastidious record-store diggers. (Between the two of them, they’ve DJ’d for 70-odd years, so they’ve had plenty of time to flesh out their crates.) It’s only fitting, then, that they brought piles of vinyl to their Resident Advisor set and just hit record. The product of that session is freewheeling and jubilant, packed with house-music building blocks: soaring and lush disco cuts, ramshackle jam-session Afro-jazz, tightly wound funk edits. Quantized drums are out, replaced with hand-drum whirlwinds and effortlessly funky kit playing; the mix has plenty of breathless moments, but they’re provided courtesy of its effortlessly deep grooves and endlessly charismatic vocalists rather than audacious blends or eye-popping club tools. In other words, it’s built with timeless records, stuff that doesn’t feel tethered to any particular period so much as a larger tradition of dance music that stretches back to, and beyond, Chicago. Jones and Nimble gesture at those broader conversations through the music they’re selecting, but that’s hardly the point: for now, they seem to be saying, the most important thing is to get on the floor and move.

Deep Creep, Pascäal & Llloyd – Pipipi @ The Lot Radio

Among other joys, radio mixing offers an enormous amount of freedom. It can be a hugely variant space, offering room for genre-focused hours and anything-goes oddballs alike. (For a million examples of this, tune in to a local college radio station, or NTS, or the dearly missed Beats in Space.) The Lot Radio has become a hub for modern electronic mixing thanks to this laissez-faire sensibility; they offer up an empty shipping container in New York City and let DJs loose. For two hours behind the station’s decks, Deep Creep, Pascäal, and Llloyd take that approach to heart. What starts as an ambient-music blur melts into innumerable forms: turgid dub, blissed-out dream-pop, bass-music bulldozers, white-hot hardcore. As the set heats up, the mixes get more daring and playful; it’s hard not to imagine the DJs ribbing each other and pushing themselves into even more outré places throughout. A prime example of this comes a bit over an hour in: as the post-everything dubstep-steamroller of Mershak’s “Barricade (Puralist Remix)” fades out, someone in the booth tosses in DJ Black Low and DJ Saxo Boy’s “9 Days,” an alien bit of acid-flecked amapiano; from there, they slide into reverb-drenched drum tracks that upend previous categorization entirely. Throughout the session, the trio pull off countless blends like this: coloring outside the lines and finding a jubilant and endlessly surprising picture along the way.

DJ Persuasion & Dev/Null – In Focus: Dillinja

Since his first tracks in the early ‘90s, Dillinja has become a force of drum-and-bass and jungle production. Rough and achingly precise, his sound is reminiscent of much of the Amen-break continuum because he helped shape it. For their turn at NTS’s In Focus turntables, DJ Persuasion and Dev/Null—each of whom have lengthy histories of highly specific mixes—dig deep into the producer’s back catalogue, uncovering countless gems along the way. Across two hours and forty-one tracks, they pile up sweltering breaks and white-hot bass lines, matching the music’s speed with quick hands of their own. The set never shows its length, though, thanks to the variety found within Dillinja’s oeuvre: fleet-footed jungle, spaced-out and dreamy drum-and-bass, hectic walls of synthesizers, gnarly and serrated bass workouts. It’s tough to neatly and wholly bottle any long-running producer’s approach to their style, let alone one as prolific and instrumental as Dillinja. On In Focus, though, DJ Persuasion and Dev/Null come close, showing a million shades of hardcore along the way.

Dream Software – space•cast 006

The cover gives away the game. space•cast 006 is presented as an imagined CD, all retro-futuristic typography and blurry pastels. That play with both past and imagined futures runs throughout the mix. The session is both hypnotic and beguiling, stuffed with dreamy synths and scuffed-up breakbeats that wouldn’t sound out of place on a mid-’90s label compilation. The set is defined by this aesthetic commitment: Dream Software takes a huge range of rave styles here and combines them to make a sepia-tinged letter to the dancefloor. The breaks come wrapped in a pillow of ambient pads; the heftier bits can pack a bone-rattling kick; flecks of acid techno make the air a bit more electric; towering synth chords evoke both Ibiza and Germany’s big-tent trance traditions. It’s a mix that slips between peak-time raves and chill-out room bliss with ease, blurring them into something that somehow sounds like both at once: a rave heard through a wall, perhaps, or a club-night set for the 6 a.m. crowd.

Huerco S. – @ c- Fest

c-, a loose ambient-etc. collective whose members span the globe but are primarily based in Kansas City, might not be the first group you’d think of to host a killer weekender: their music is wildly exploratory, but it is often hushed and insular. (Not to say they can’t pull it off.) That same idea applies to Huerco S., née Brian Leeds, a crew affiliate whose ambient records flip Bandcamp upside down on release day. But discographies can be deceiving. His recording from c- Fest takes the crew’s globetrotting and anything-goes ethos but takes aim at percussive and left-of-center club tools. For much of the set, he’s grabbing stuff from the global South: incisive neoperreo, skeletal and chilly gqom, blazing kuduro. These are cuts with sharply delineated and loopy drums that chase each other down contorted rabbit holes, so it follows that half the fun of @ c- Fest is seeing what blends Leeds pulls off—skittering harpsichord-techno into riotous Khia edits and disorienting Aussie-Lebanese hard-drum, say, or haunted-house drum workouts into piano-house stompers and anxiety-attack techno epics. The whole set goes like this: for ninety minutes, Leeds scans the globe for contemporary club tools, stretching dancefloor idioms until they bust in half and reveal entirely new forms. If c- is about anything in particular, it’s that kind of exploration within genre and form. Why not turn the dancefloor inside out along the way?

Hoshina Anniversary – Truancy Volume 283

More than anything else, Truancy Volume 283 is defined by its negative space. Throughout, Hoshina Anniversary works with bare-bones club tracks that sound hollowed out, all marrow and no fat: spindly synths atop barely-there bass, vocal samples suspended in air, disembodied machinery-clatter dirges. This approach turns the mix equal parts morose and menacing; throughout, a kaleidoscopic range of club music is rendered in greyscale, any particulars snapping underneath the pitch-black cinematics. (In this post-everything and downtrodden take on electronic music, the set recalls peak Actress: dance-music idioms as a thing of dust and long-abandoned opulence.) Hoshina Anniversary warps all sorts of styles into this vision. Midway through, he takes a bit of slow-motion synth-play—hip-hop? Lo-fi house?—and melts the percussion, replacing it with dreary synth-bells and rattling drums that circle around the downbeat; and that wilts into wholly alien forms, sounding like moody and broken-down electro. This dream logic carries through the set in ways both chilling and transfixing. Throughout, Hoshina Anniversary uses rusted and blown-out sounds to collapse dance-music traditions into a pile of embers.

Irini – Lost in Dreams

In a 2013 interview with Resident Advisor, Traumprinz spoke about the idea of “sehnsuchtsorte”—what he described as “a desirable place that only exists in our fantasy.” It makes sense; the producer’s club tracks live in a sort of liminal space between the physical and intangible, lacing sepia-toned vocal samples with pounding kick drums. (It’s fitting that his most well-known alias translates to “dream prince.”) In the years following, he’s explored this ethereal dance music in a number of ways: liturgical ambience as DJ Healer; simmering minimal techno as Prince of Denmark; gauzy dub techno as Golden Baby; dreamy trance as DJ Metatron; chilly and skittering house-etc. as Prime Minister of Doom. As Irini—Greek for “peace”—the producer adds yet another name, and style, to their arsenal. On Lost in Dreams, they fuse ambient music, techno, and trance to hypnotic effect; here. Rave-nostalgia kicks meet with smoggy synthesizers, sounding like a dancefloor half remembered; rapidly oscillating keyboards give way to lengthy codas of empty space; each white-hot drum break or hefty groove is accompanied by an achingly intimate vocal sample or a thick cloud of fog. The set runs three hours and seems to be unmixed, but the producer’s handle on atmosphere is steady enough that it reads like a near-continuous piece anyways. It’s possible to see the producer’s output as a long string of imagined utopias—that idea of sehnsuchtsorte, perhaps. With Lost in Dreams, he has again brought that vision into focus: rhythms that could go on forever, euphoria spreading through the club-night congregants, and sunlight streaming from the amplifiers.

Lychee – Unrushed 058

It’s fitting that Unrushed 058 was released at the turn of the season. Lychee’s mix for ambient-music hub Unrush moves with the elegance of the falling leaves: at first slowly, and then all at once. They set the tone early, moving from Nonchalant’s slow-motion trance to eerie and dubby techno-jazz courtesy of Architectural; the pairing suggests a mix that is both exploratory and a bit chilly. Lychee makes good on that promise for the following eighty minutes, folding glacial ambient-techno, deep drones, and hollowed-out IDM into the mix. They pull off the unusual trick of making the record deepen and slow as they add in more rhythms. Here, the punch of a kick drum serves to underline how surreal its surroundings are. What starts as a quiet and austere set starts to, delicately and deliberately, explore the more outré spaces between ambient and techno motifs. By the time Lychee brings the session to a close, it’s morphed into countless forms without moving an inch.

Malibu – Sunday Mix

Spend enough time browsing NTS Radio and you’re bound to run across Malibu. The French ambient-music producer and DJ has quietly built up a cult following on the back of her productions and mixes, which cast walls of synths and whispered conversations into a mist that threatens to dissipate at a moment’s notice. Her mix for Crack Magazine is a continuation of that craft, full of foghorn ambience and dimly lit dance floors; it is both intimate and grand, with synthesizers curling into infinity even as they tug at the heartstrings. That closeness is fueled, in large part, thanks to the human voice. Malibu works a few dialogue snippets into the set, favoring narrators stuck in liminal spaces: two women talking about a love gone south, a man describing what may be the scene of an accident. In the most daring flip of the session, the opening to Jaron DeRulo’s “Whatcha Say” emerges from the murk. Surrounded by sun-kissed ambience and slowed to a crawl, its central emotional tension is brought into sharp relief: someone stretching towards something just out of reach, yearning for something that is fully visible but perhaps only in their mind’s eye. It, like the set that surrounds it, is both gripping and ethereal: a smog that squeezes the larynx.

Purelink – @ c- Fest

Purelink are a relatively new name on the Chicago club-music circuit, but they’ve quickly established a sonic fingerprint. Their productions and remixes straddle the line between gauzy ambiance to whirling breaks, creating something that’s both downtempo and driving. It comes as little surprise, then, that their set from c- Fest is a bit surreal. Throughout the mix, they toss all sorts of funhouse mirrors onto the dancefloor, taking house and techno idioms and skewering them in increasingly unusual ways. To pull a particularly instructive sequence: halfway through, they grab DJ Jes’s “Wanna Fall in Love,” a jacking house track with synths that jostle against the kicks and keep the thing slightly off-balance; after that, they slip into ADY’s “Loborika,” whose keyboards are trapped in an endless and vertiginous skydive. A few minutes later, they’ve dipped into minimalist almost-trance and chopped-up 50 Cent records: all familiar forms rendered a bit off-kilter. The whole set fits comfortably into Purelink’s ethos, even if it’s a bit more juiced-up than their typical fare. Over the course of ninety minutes, the perennially off-balance trio tip the dancefloor on its side.

Simo Cell – Dekmantel Selectors 2021

One of the best parts of Dekmantel’s annual Selectors festival is its sheer scope. It’s not a mega-festival, per se—tickets are capped at 2,500 to give people plenty of breathing room—but its list of names is reliably wide-ranging, running the gamut from Dutch house and trance favorites to club-music futurism and chill-out room wizardry, and DJs are given lengthy sets where they get plenty of time to stretch their legs. Simo Cell’s mix for this year’s edition exemplifies this playful spirit: he makes full use of this two-and-a-half hour slot here, turning in a breathless sprint through upteen dancefloor styles that seems to be in constant mutation. It starts off relatively relaxed, with laser-synth trance cuts dropping into stutter-stepping 90-BPM drum cuts. But he throws his first curveball quick: a sudden slip into the minimalistic club-rap of Leikeli47’s “Girl Blunt” and the Ying Yang Twins’s creeping and even-emptier “Wait (The Whisper Song)” clues the listener into Simo Cell’s omnivorous attitude. From there, he keeps turning hard lefts while upping the stakes, worming his way between dancehall burners, blazing Baltimore club, call-and-response Detroit rave-ups, hardcore techno, light-speed jungle, the gnarliest corners of SoundCloud rap circa 2015, and about a million other corners of club music the world over. By the end, he’s nearly doubled the tempo, and when he finally pulls the plug, it sounds like Simo Cell’s just getting started.

Time Is Away – Honey From a Weed Part 2

There are many lyrical passages in Honey From a Weed, a cookbook and memoir by the late Patience Gray, but one in particular stands out. Speaking about the communal labour of olive picking, she writes that “when you are most exhausted, you suddenly find that your fingers have acquired eyes, and are gathering olives all on their own. The phenomenon of the second, third, fourth wind appears. Your mind is free to listen to a birdsong, or to the ceaseless conversation in the trees. As the day goes on, everybody recalls the events of long ago. Olive picking dissolves the sense of now.” The prose suggests links between labor and community, between omniscience and quietude; it evaporates any space between the past, present, and future.

Honey From a Weed Part 2, the second in a series of DJ mixes by London-based duo Time Is Away, is defined by passages like this: a narrator reciting passages of Gray’s writing, sketching out intimate scenes that strain towards a kind of unattainable divinity. Where they offered a wide palate of sounds on Part 1—Greek folk recordings, American primitivism, Taiko drumming—here, they slow down and narrow their focus, zooming in on hushed field recordings and elliptical acoustic guitars. Alongside these selections, the narrator unspools all sorts of scenes bound up in millenia of tradition: the labors of winemaking and the joys of an accompanying soirée, a long day’s hike through the forested mountainside, cooking meals over blazes of rosemary and fig leaf. Their selections, whether crickets or birdsong or waterfalls of plucked strings, make for a fittingly pastoral soundtrack. The combination is wholly transportive: an hour of patient meditations, quiet grace, and hushed awe.

Vigro Deep – Keep Hush Live London

Amapiano has taken the dance-music world by storm in large part thanks to its sun-kissed stylings: this is ebullient and bright house music, full of laid-back grooves and joyous vocal performances. At his recent Keep Hush performance, Vigro Deep—a major player in the scene—flips that aesthetic on its head. On Keep Hush Live London, he takes the genre’s house-music chug and injects it with a shot of darkened bass selections. The result is moody and twisted but still undeniably South African; it is yet another vision of what happens when Durban and London crash into each other. This collision course turns up all sorts of fascinating debris: early on, some early-’10s dubstep synths threaten to unsettle a bit of slick amapiano, darkening the room in the process, before a bit of sleek and minimal gqom offers some undergirding; later, a pile of alarm-bell synthesizers and marimba careen atop syncopated and slick house records. Keep Hush Live London is full of blends like this, splitting the difference between playful curveballs and pitch-black rhythms.

Ytem & Escha – 15 Septembre 2021

15 Septembre 2021 opens quietly. “I usually do not record myself when I’m in this state, and it’s taken all of my strength to do this,” a woman says. “I don’t normally like to put videos of me crying on YouTube for people to see and judge, but whatever.” The vlog’s unvarnished emotions are matched by the accompanying soundtrack, all glacial cellos and spectral voices; it is both zoomed-in and enormous, offering an enormous importance to pauses for breath and microscopic vocal tics. And then the other browser tabs kick in. Blast beats, mid-’00s snap-rap rhythms, Justin Timberlake vocals, donk, news-broadcast snippets, wheezing synthesizers, screaming hardcore: the mix moves in a million directions at once, taking an internet-addled everything-at-once approach to an extreme. The discord is strong enough to capture an ever-widening scope of sounds into the mix without any new styles seeming out of place. An eleventh-hour detour into ambient-trance scans like another bit of nostalgia-soaked detritus coming to the surface; the same could be said of a mid-set Skrillex bootleg or the eurodance-gabber fusions that appear later. From the opening notes, the mix functions as a black hole of genre collagery, collapsing innumerable forms into something that’s wholly disorienting and unnervingly familiar.

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