Slam on the CDJ: The Best DJ Sets of September, 2023

In the latest edition of Slam on the CDJ, Michael McKinney highlights some of the best DJ sets of the past month – featuring DJML, Djoser, Physical Therapy & more.
By    October 4, 2023

Image via Michael McKinney

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As the leaves start to change color and cover the streets, it’s only fitting that the soundtrack changes, too. DJ sets are, by their very nature, ephemeral: some of them live on after recording, but many disappear in the moment. Life-changing recordings might only be experienced once, if you’re so lucky. It’s a format intimately connected to the moment, and energy, of the space it’s recorded in. This month, some of the best to find their way underlined that connection.

In the aptly titled Autumn Mix, New York’s Arp dug into their crates of folk and minimalism records, making something that feels as transient as the season; over on the west coast, DJML explored jazz, classical, and progressive-electronic records to similar effect. Physical Therapy offered up a set of heart-in-throat field recordings and folk-rock tracks, and Space Afrika & Yungwebster explored the Venn diagram between ambient and trap music. In a set that dials the clock back centuries rather than mere decades, a recent In Focus session on NTS explored the discography of Ensemble Organum, a men’s chorus focusing on old-world choral music.

If you want something a bit more uptempo, there’s a wide range there, too. F-on, a critical techno DJ from Madrid, cooked up over four hours of zero-gravity minimal techno, and Djoser dug deep into contemporary dubstep and breakbeat grinders in a set for Truants. OJOO and Phil in a Maze offered up complimentary visions of futuristic dancehall, leaning hard into the genre’s scorched-earth experimentalism to thrilling effect. Finally, Bobby Beethoven, f.k.a. Total Freedom and Big Gay Idiot DJ, furthered his everything-goes vision of club-music confrontationalism, turning in an hour of car-crash industrial, R&B, techno, and kuduro.

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

Arp – Autumn Mix

One of the joys, and challenges, of a seasonal DJ mix arrives early: how do you make something sound like a moment in time? For Arp’s latest quarterly mix on NTS, the New York DJ-producer-composer answers a slippery question with an equally wide-ranging set of answers. At points, Autumn Mix moves with the speed, and grace, of falling leaves; at other points, it’s something closer to a bone-chilling breeze, suggesting darker nights on the horizon. Arp makes the canny decision to avoid leaning too far into either direction, making for something that’s gently unpredictable; it feels transient and spacious all at once. Here, slow-motion meditations for piano and cello sit comfortably alongside dirges for organ and spoken word; twentieth-century minimalism bleeds into thrumming upright basses and lightly battered tom drums; and field recordings lit by fireflies pair nicely with skeletal acoustic guitars. Throughout Autumn Mix, no matter the genre or aesthetic at play, Arp emphasizes music that feels like it might fall away at any given moment; it is simultaneously beautiful and a bit frigid. In other words, it sounds like fall.

Bobby Beethoven – RA.900

At this point, Bobby Beethoven—a.k.a. Big Gay Idiot DJ, a.k.a. Total Freedom—is undoubtedly one of the most influential DJs of the twenty-first century. He’s behind countless gigabytes of brain-bending club music, and, over a decade into his career, his best stuff still sounds like nothing else. His music collides pop radio and avant-garde electronics with a devil-may-care kind of glee—it’s the Yin Yang Twins cast in a David Lynch film; it’s Tweet and Tinashe catapulted into an abyss. (That he first arose as part of GHE20G0TH1K, a massively influential queer party dedicated to avant-club haymakers, is no surprise.)

In his latest studio mix, the DJ leans into his particular brand of everything-goes mania once again. Never mind that his approach isn’t far off from how he sounded in 2014: that only serves to underline how far ahead of the pack he’s been since the beginning. In just under 60 minutes, he sprints between 46 selections, building an avalanche of left-field club sounds. After a whisper of an intro, he’s more or less immediately cranked things to eleven, crashing into high-speed hardstyle, heavyweight batida, and bone-crunching industrial music. The mix only grows more discordant as it goes on, an affect underlined whenever he drags acapellas into the fray. As ever in Bobby Beethoven’s approach, contemporary R&B serves as a signpost, snapping his sound back to the real world even as it alienates the familiar. Kelela’s ambient-breakbeat come-on “Contact” gets reimagined as a billion-ton techno record; Summer Walker’s “Nobody Else” is dunked in molasses and tossed on top of a screwed-up “Ha Dance”; and, right at the end, he puts Tweet’s “Dadada… Struggle” on top of gut-churning bass. In RA.900, as in many of his best sets, Beethoven tosses all sorts of familiar club-night idioms into a hurricane and charges directly into the windstorm.

DJML – A Rainy Summer Day

The title gives away the game. A Rainy Summer Day, the latest mix from critical Oakland selector DJML—a.k.a. Daniel John Myers Letson—sounds the way wet grass smells and the way a long day filled with nothing to do feels: laid-back, thoroughly blissed-out, and a tiny bit downcast. Throughout the session, Letson reaches back into his archives of classical, almost-yacht-rock, and library music selections. On paper, the tracklist ought to be incongruous: there’s ‘70s jazz fusion from Contraband and cragged ‘80s minimalism from David Torn; late-’80s avant-pop lullabies from After Dinner and circa-2003 modern classical from Michael Byron. But Letson holds it all together thanks to his continuous focus on slow builds and hushed atmospheres; again and again, he reaches towards a quiet kind of joy. The result is a set that’s deeply mellow but rarely overcast; with each selection, Letson offers a wink as he deepens the set’s sepia hues. Maybe it’s a good day to stay in and plan on doing nothing.

Djoser – Truancy Volume 317

Early into his interview with Truants, Djoser brings up the Croydon dubstep producer Distance, or, more specifically, the Vex’d remix of their track, “Fallen.” That track is both skeletal and a bit eerie; it takes the core elements of low-slung dancefloor dubstep—wobbling basslines, a drum kit locked in a menacing swing, and a deep sense of vertigo—and injects them with a bone-chilling ambiance. It’s a take on club music that feels deeply left-field and a bit unsettling, and it’s a useful bit of context for Truancy Volume 317. On the set, the D.C.-via-Egypt producer leans hard into outré dancefloor tools, locking in on a speedy and zonked-out sound and stretching it in all sorts of directions. Early on, that means gnarled bass workouts from New York’s Tamo and Amman’s Toumba; later, it’s fleet-footed minimal-techno from Al Wootton and high-octane hip-hop pulled from Alexandria’s underground. Djoser balances this focus on breathless tempi with a wide-ranging palette, keeping things from getting too exhausting by pulling the rug out every few minutes. The result is a thrilling survey of contemporary club sounds, each track gesturing ever further into the unknown.

F-on – Acquario

One of the biggest draws of minimal techno—or techno in general, for that matter—is its ability to create its own gravity. If you let a groove ride for long enough, it becomes a kind of black hole. F-on, a.k.a. Alfonso Pomeda, understands this. The Spanish DJ was last in this column for 2020’s remarkable El continuo sonoro que nunca se acaba #1, a six-hour opus of barely-there minimal techno that took a million kick drums and suspended the dancefloor a few inches off the ground. Three years later, he’s back at it. Acquario is downright taut by comparison, running at just under four and a half hours, but the effect is the same: slow-motion drone-techno stretching into infinity, each kick drum and synth roll encased in amber. Fittingly, Pomada takes his time, barely offering any percussion at all for the first sixty minutes—instead, he leans into gauzy ambience and kind-of dub records, hinting towards the space-borne sonics he’ll be conjuring later. When the beats arrive, you’re likely to have forgotten you’re listening to a techno DJ at all, but he’s (relatively) quick to remind you where his forté lies: zero-gravity techno with all the air sucked out. For the next several hours, he weaves between vertiginous and tripped-out techno idioms, digging deep into his USBs and pulling out a rolodex of deep-space gurgles and ricocheting kick drums. Acquario is a masterclass in patient mixing; throughout, F-on shows off the hypnotic power of techno at its most minimal.

OJOO – Unsound Podcast 96 / Phil in a Maze – RC:127

Dancehall may have sprouted out of a highly specific soundsystem culture, but it has long since spread the world over. Its foundational rhythms and ideas have spidered into all sorts of genres and styles, moving in ways that are nigh unrecognizable when cross-checked against the original. Two sets from this month showed that off, albeit in wildly different ways: OJOO, a critical dancehall-adjacent selector from Brussels, used the style as a launching pad for creeping electronics and hair-raising drum programming. In Prague, Phil in a Maze did something similar, digging deep into his left-field dancehall crates and offering up a survey of the genre’s avant-garde.

OJOO, f.k.a. OJOO GYAL, is a critical figure in left-field dancehall. (She’s behind the industrial-dancehall-techno half of AMX004, one of last year’s finest DJ sets.) The Brussels-via-Morocco DJ pushes an uncompromisingly weighty vision of what the genre can sound like, so it should come as little surprise how Unsound Podcast 96 opens: harsh noise, or something close to it. The first several minutes of the set juxtapose blasts of speaker-cracking noise against what sounds awfully close to a children’s seance; it is simultaneously eerie and ear-pricking. Once the drums kick in, OJOO sticks to that same duality, offering up a barrage of industrial-tinged drums, each a bit more busted than the last. Early on, it’s clattering digital dancehall and slow-motion drum-corp workouts; by the end, it’s noise-encrusted drum kits and hair-raising low-end riddims. No matter the specifics, though: here, OJOO offers a thrilling and thoroughly disorienting vision of contemporary dancefloor skin-crawlers.

On RC:127, Phil in a Maze digs deep into his dancehall-et-cetera crates and pulls out a buzzsaw. When the kick drums on Low Jack’s “Ice Formula Riddim” kick in, that’s Phil in a Maze’s way of making his intentions clear: this is going to be an hour of industrial dancehall; it will recall malfunctioning factory floors and gleaming hunks of metal. He makes good on that promise throughout the rest of the session, whether that’s in the form of corrugated-metal minimalism, horror-flick synths, or walls of feedback. With this session, Phil in a Maze takes the heftiest parts of dancehall records and stretches them into parts unknown, building something with an earth-cracking energy along the way.

Physical Therapy – Car Culture Remissions Vol. 4

Physical Therapy, a.k.a. Daniel Fisher, thrives in specificity. Dig through his can’t-miss NTS residency and you’ll find all sorts of deep dives: hardgroove, fidget house, liquid drum-and-bass. But there’s more than one way to skin that particular cat—just as a set can hone in on a sound, style, or era, it can zoom in on a mood. As Car Culture, he’s found something just as exacting. Car Culture Dubs, which is likely one of this decade’s finest edit packs to date, underlines that as well as anything: plaintive, sepia-toned, and a bit heartsick. It’s the sound of yesteryear’s pop tunes getting played on warped vinyl, or perhaps acting as a barely-remembered Rodgers & Hammerstein ballad. Heartbreak and euphoria, if pitched right, can sound remarkably similar.

Again and again, on Car Culture Remissions Vol. 4, Fisher returns to voice mails. It makes sense: if he is aiming for unguarded intimacy, then roughly recorded phone calls, mumbles and all, offer a fast track towards it. It’s hardly a new trick, though. At this point in pop music, you have to earn those kinds of moves. So he doubles down, leaning into two seemingly disparate threads: lighter-than-air electronics and folk-rock tunes you might hope to hear on an AM radio. Thanks to his iron-tight grasp on aesthetics, he pulls it off. It doesn’t just not feel audacious: it feels natural. That’s how The Beatles and DJ Lostboi end up on the same billing, and it’s the only way that CFCF and Cheryl Crow make sense together. Throughout the set, Physical Therapy reaches towards plainspoken intimacy; if you’re generous enough, you can find that in just about anything.

A few minutes into Car Culture Remissions Vol. 4, Fisher plays a flurry of voicemails. They touch on love, on loss, on joy, on the kinds of truths that sound cliche until you back up a bit. “I wouldn’t mind doing the mundane things in life,” one man says, “If the mundane things were more interesting.” Car Culture Remissions Vol. 4 puts the lie to that idea, taking mundane ideas and building them into something beautiful. It is a tower of intimacies; it takes the familiar and zooms in ever further, finding the heartbreak, joy, and quiet jubilee that can be found in the everyday. When you see a double rainbow and hear someone break down in awe, will you laugh at them, or will you look towards the sky and cry?

Space Afrika, Sferic & Yungwebster – 5th September 2023

Space Afrika, the Manchester duo of Joshua Inyang and Joshua Reid, have built a career upon a highly particular vision of ambient music and field recordings. Their music touches on field recordings, hip-hop, and ambient music traditions in equal measure. In both aesthetic and form, it frequently sounds like a photocopy of itself: the contours are all legible, but many specifics are a bit blurry. It is smeared, and a bit ambiguous, but still highly specific. It sounds like an indelible memory remembered a bit incorrectly.

In retrospect, it was only a matter of time before they connected with Yungwebster. The New York rapper is behind one of this year’s most arresting rap records. Titled Yungwebster, it sits somewhere between left-field trap, dust-covered screw tapes, and YouTube “slowed + reverb” edits. Each track is paired with a tempo-adjusted version of itself. Yungwebster’s vocal tendencies recall the sounds of thickly laid AutoTune, but they never wholly lean into the technology. The music is lethargic and urgent at once; it is built, fundamentally, around disorientation. It, like so much critical modern rap, sounds like timeline collapse.

On 5th September 2023, Space Afrika and Yungwebster connect on a shared interest in slow-motion disarray. The session, which runs for nearly two hours, underlines just how little distance there is between Space Afrika’s percussive ambient and Yungwebster’s ambient-drenched hip-hop. This is a mix filled with the sounds of digital ephemera: bleary-eyed synthesizers and static-encrusted voices, field recordings and 808s rendered at 144p. It’s not exactly ambient music, but it’s not quite about the lyrics, either; instead, everything is in service of deepening the digitized vertigo.

[unknown artist] – In Focus: Ensemble Organum

Ensemble Organum may have been founded in 1982, but they sound several hundred years older than that. The French vocal ensemble is dedicated to early music: Old Roman compositions and Mozarabic chants and Renaissance polyphony. It’s a style of music that most readily brings to mind soaring cathedrals and long-abandoned cities; if you tilt your head right, you might just hear God.

In Focus, a critical mix series hosted on NTS, recently hosted a mix devoted to their work. It’s a canny decision: this is the kind of music whose power only grows the longer you live in it. The session offers a glacially paced survey of their work, offering up two hours of gravel-encrusted throat singing and solemn incantations. It carries the same kind of understated beauty that can be found in so much early religious music: this is material that strains towards something greater, one carefully laid harmony at a time. As the set runs on, it turns to a kind of black-hole psychedelia; each new selection, offering up yet another bottomless drone, only increases its gravitational pull. It is “awesome” as monastic scribes might use the term: not beautiful, per se, nor just aesthetically grand. It simply feels massive, with every new selection gesturing towards something—Gods, long-gone histories, eroding traditions—that was here long before the Ensemble. Eventually, the only choice is to get swallowed up.

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