Image via Michael McKinney
Michael McKinney understands the cultural importance of Kreayshawn’s “Gucci Gucci.”
In January, plenty of DJs slowed down a bit. Berlin-via-Australia DJ Sa Pa spun ambient and drone records for a sleeping audience; elsewhere, in Romania, 4142 dug into bleary-eyed psychedelia and Petre Inspirescu conjured images of Gothic architecture and stories-tall pipe organs. John Gómez dug into blissed-out jazz, funk, and soul, while Jack Rollo, a.k.a. Peace Pipe, offered up an exploration of sepia-tinged downtempo and house records. Huerco S., a critical DJ at the intersection of—what else?—left-field breaks, deep-fried plugg, and zero-gravity ambient, turned in a characteristically oddball set over in Spain. Ambient-music jam-band Purelink grabbed dub-techno, ambient, and straight-up club tools in a pair of mixes that showcase their breadth, and Kiernan Laveaux explored wigged-out downtempo and trip-hop in a set for Knekelhuis.
Over in Amsterdam, Monty DJ, Tracey, and Maurane Gabriël went long, effectively DJing opening sets for themselves, and essential Detroit DJ Jeffrey Sfire dug up six hours of jubilant Italo-disco, house, and rave tools. Vladimir Ivković, a surrealist behind the decks if there ever was one, cracked open the decks to reveal pillars of smoke before reassembling them with a well-laid synth line; Objekt, an anything-goes selector if there ever was one, went straight-ahead with a set of blood-boiling techno for Dekmantel. CCL reassembled dubstep by rendering its influences nigh-unrecognizable, and Ikävä Pii assembled a session of rusty machinery, whip-cracking drum-and-bass, and yawning ambience. The Sorry Records crew took over Nowadays with an everything-goes eight hours of techno-et-cetera, and DJ Swisha grabbed the decks for nearly as long, sprinting between footwork, house, techno, and of-the-moment East-Coast club idioms.
Here are some of the best DJ sets January had to offer.
4142 / – TON / Petre Inspirescu – TON
On the first day of 2024, 4142 heralded the new year by hurling a gauntlet. Behind the decks at BAR TON, a venue in Bucharest—”not a bar, not a listening bar, not a day club, and definitely not a nightclub,” per their SoundCloud page—they pulled up a bit of hushed spoken-word. Over barely-there synth gurgles, someone promises entrancement: “You are about to go into the deepest parts of you, with new ears listening like never before, with new eyes seeing.” It may be an unconventional way to start a set, but it’s certainly an effective way to set the scene. In just a few minutes, 4142 pulls back the curtain, dims the lights, and reveals an entire universe.
From there, 4142 makes good on the promise of that first track. Here, anything goes, as long as it’s left-field, hushed, and transportive. At points, that means walls of organs and glockenspiels; elsewhere, it’s snippets of whispered foreign-film dialogue held against high-pitched synthesizers echoing into the darkness; elsewhere still, it’s Spaghetti-western ambience or gravelly-voiced incantations. The whole thing works thanks to its uniform focus on patient world-building; here, 4142 blends no-BPM music at a glacial pace, letting each note stretch out and lending the whole thing a sense of quiet grandeur.
If you’re looking for something a bit more direct—but only a bit—then wind the clock back a week. Last December, Romanian deep-space dancefloor wizard Petre Inspirescu took to the boards and unveiled a completely different side of his crates. Here, kick drums are out and pedalboards are in; from start to finish, Inspirescu grabs liturgical choral music and pitch-black organ soli. There’s plenty of variation even within this mode, though. Depending on how tight the harmonies are, the choirs can sound like sunlight refracting through stained glass or recall the furies of the Old Testament; the organs are, at turns, reedy, grandiose, frigid, and torrential. Here, Inspirescu bridges centuries of psychedelic music by looking towards liturgy.
CCL – A Night in the Skull Discotheque
In their work, CCL traverses universes. This, in itself, is hardly remarkable—One version of DJing is about blurring idioms until they are indistinguishable. But what is remarkable is the ease, and audacity, with which CCL moves. Sometimes, their sets are a veritable cornucopia of styles; they’ve got tracklists that look like dares, filled with why-not blends and disorienting BPM switch-ups. But, sometimes, they’re more or less the opposite: A microscope taken to a Discogs search bar, a mood chased to its logical end-point, a miles-deep dive into an inch-wide pool. HNYPOT 291, a landmark dive into dubstep from the Berlin DJ, is one example of the latter. A Night in the Skull Discotheque, released roughly five years later, after umpteen blasts into the stratosphere, is another.
With A Night in the Skull Discotheque, CCL digs deep into one of their histories with dance music: Dubstep, or, more specifically, the “proto-dubstep” sound that was bubbling up around 2008, working at the intersection of bass-rattling dub, shuffle-and-skip two-step, and yet-to-be-named techno-futurism. At its best, the sound—much like CCL’s finest blends—was surreal, playful, and endlessly inventive. Here, CCL pulls off an impressive feat of DJ-deck acrobatics, crafting an hour of music that feels adjacent to dubstep but rarely dives headlong into it. Instead, they LEGO it together, zooming on a bit of low-end wobble here, skull-cracking drum programming there, and left-field sound-design from a third deck, assembling a nascent genre out of its component parts. It’s an understated feat of alchemy, and it doesn’t hurt that it’s got an undeniable skip in its step, too.
DJ Swisha – All Night @ Nowadays
Halfway into All Night @ Nowadays, DJ Swisha pulls off something remarkable. By this point, the New York firestarter has vaulted between all sorts of club-night sounds: raucous Baltimore club and jubilant deep house, scuffed-up breakbeats and fast-and-loose acid, rickety electro and skull-cracking techno. But, at peak time, he drops the beat out entirely, queueing up Funkmaster Flex’s infamous call for listeners to rob their local convenience store. It’s an audacious move made even stranger a moment later, when he grabs a chopped-up flip of Bell Biv DeVoe’s “Poison,” their vocals cascading against metronomic hand-claps. It’s a maddening sixty seconds, and it perfectly encapsulates the kitchen-sink precision of DJ Swisha’s work: Here, as ever, he collapses decades of dancefloor heaters into something that threatens to burn the place down. All Night @ Nowadays is among his most unpredictable, and most playful, sessions yet, filled with sudden dives way into left field and a million carefully sequenced kick drums.
Huerco S. – At Casa Montjuic, Barcelona
Plenty of ink has already been spilled about Huerco S.’s evolution, so we’ll keep it tight. The Emporia-born and Brooklyn-based DJ made his name on the back of sludged-up ambient music. His 2016 LP is a true wonder of the form; in retrospect, it sounds like a clear precursor to the wigged-out sort-of ambient music coming from crews like 3XL. Even then, his “ambient” music pushed against any easy-listening conceptions of the style, eschewing any obvious stylistic ideas for something a bit more muddied. It shouldn’t have been much of a shock when he jumped ship, then: In the press run for his 2022 LP, he called ambient music “productivity music” and “capitalist music,” and if you tuned into a set of his from the same year, odds are you’d hear deep-fried plugg, reggaetón, dubstep, IDM, and any number of zonked-out dancefloor spinners. And that’s that—right?
Well, maybe. At Casa Montjuic, Barcelona, the DJ’s latest recording, complicates this narrative further: It’s not out-and-out dancefloor material, exactly, but it’s not quite the bleary ambience that catapulted him to sort-of fame a decade-ish ago. The remarkable thing about the set is how it sits between those worlds, using a dream-logic approach to dream-pop and dimly lit electronics. Call it uneasy listening: Here, Huerco S. folds together barely-there plugg records, straight-up indie-folk, lo-bit breakbeats, starlit ambience, and bad-trip synth workouts; here, everything feels blanketed in a thick layer of fog. It’s not ambient music, exactly—its nooks are too deep for that, and its left turns too sharp—but, listening to it, it does cast the world in a peculiar hue.
Ikävä Pii – TOWER Imports 001
The factory floor has long been a source of inspiration for electronic-music producers. Industrial techno has been showering dancefloors with metallic sound design for a few decades at this point; the title of Kraftwerk’s 1978 LP translates to The Man-Machine; dig into quick-and-precise IDM and you’ll start to find stuff that sounds like a punch-card machine gone haywire. That’s not to say the wellspring has run dry, though. With TOWER Imports 001, London-based producer Ikävä Pii looks towards the sounds of corrugated metal, rusted piping, and dented tanks, taking an industrial-din approach to hardcore dance music. This is eighty-odd minutes of gasket-popping and carefully calibrated drum-and-bass, each drum break balanced against creaking and churning ambience: Faucet drips and Amen breaks, power-surge snare rolls and abyssal groans, screeching TB-303s and malfunctioning circuit boards. By the end, Pii has rocketed between umpteen variations on the theme, moving from no-BPM sludge to white-hot experimentalism, showing the dancefloor with sparks in the process.
Jeffrey Sfire – H.A.N.D. Mix 050
To a certain kind of raver, The Cosmic Hole has achieved immortality. The dancefloor, which was part of equally legendary queer party Cocktail d’Amore, was guided by one simple rule: Turn down the BPM. This slow-and-low approach led to sensual, playful, and delirious sets, with umpteen DJs and dancers going long. (One of this decade’s finest DJ sets, Trent & Dama’s The Last Cocktail d’Amore, is a twenty-four transmission from the same dancefloor.)
H.A.N.D. Mix 050, recorded years ago at The Cosmic Hole by Detroit DJ Jeffrey Sfire, captures what made the floor so special in a slightly truncated package. Here, he goes for just under six hours, keeping things at a simmer throughout. The upper ceiling on the tempo ensures that things never get exhausting, and Sfire’s encouraged towards what’s already his comfort zone: sexed-up house records, psyched-out disco B-sides, and dollar-bin synth-pop. The result is a best-in-show bit of lushly orchestrated psychedelia, with Sfire pulling from a seemingly bottomless bag of motorik grooves and exuberant synth solos.
John Gómez – Live @ B.P.T.
Bar Part Time is a wine bar based in San Francisco, but it lives something of a double life online. The space’s SoundCloud account is a quietly critical hub for slow-and-low DJ sets, filled with stuff that walks the tightrope between solid background music and exploratory mixing. Back in October, London dance-music mainstay John Gómez took over the space’s decks for a night. The result—Live @ B.P.T.—is playful and stuffed with Gómez’s trademarks, a five-hour pile-up of low-slung jazz, deep-groove funk, wiggly synth experiments, and miles-deep house. Given the venue, it should come as little surprise that the mix stays in the pocket throughout, with every selection serving to deepen the rhythms of the previous. The smoothness of the whole thing might make you overlook just how wide it goes; here, Gómez draws lines across entire continents and styles, jumping from modern-sounding ‘80s jazz cuts and brand-new house that hews awfully close to the mid-’90s.
Kiernan Laveaux – Knekelhuis #108
If there’s a throughline to Kiernan Laveaux’s approach, it’s in her tendency towards abstraction. Even her toughest sets are packed with left turns; again and again, she builds universes out of pulled rugs and concealed glances, conjuring black holes with warped vinyl and busted drum machines. So to say Knekelhuis #108 is among the DJ’s trippiest sets yet is no small proposal, but here we are. Here, Laveaux leans deep into pastel-hued psychedelia, curling smoky synthesizers around ramshackle drum kits, finding an intersection of lucid-dream pop, cragged trip-hop, and disheveled ambience in the process. This isn’t dance music, exactly, but it could work as such thanks to its steady(-ish) pulse: muffled kick drums doubling as heartbeats, vocal loops doubling back on themselves to form kind-of hooks, jangly guitar lines suggesting scraps of melody. With Knekelhuis #108, Laveaux builds a velvet trapdoor and drops the listener into the dark.
Monty DJ & Tracey – Murmur / Maurane Gabriël – Murmur
Monty DJ & Tracey open their set quietly. The first notes heard on murmur are a quiet exhale of synth tones; the next, a faint ringing in the distance, sounding like a digital windchime. It’s the sort of opener that encourages the listener to lean in, breathe deeply, and listen closely. In other words, it’s a perfect opener for what they’re doing here. Murmur is long and sprawling—it runs for just over six hours, and it moves from bleary ambience to gut-twisting dubstep. That sort of build isn’t unusual for a DJ mix, but the sheer length gives them room to keep the heat low; in effect, it’s like they perform an opening set for themselves. This space allows them to work in an extended segment of chilled-out jazz, blasts of new-school American minimalism, rickety house records, shades-on guitar solos, zero-gravity dub records, and just about everything else. Everything goes, if you’re willing to wait a moment or three.
During her turn behind the decks, Maurane Gabriël opts for something a bit more skin-crawling. She works with a broadly similar format to Monty DJ & Tracey, but she casts everything at a Dutch angle. She mixes relatively quickly, too, keeping things from settling into an obvious mode beyond disorientation. Here, she’s playing with creaky ambience and dimly lit sort-of-trap; there, it’s spoken-word folk records about worlds long gone; elsewhere still, it’s horror-flick screams soundtracked by a heart-in-throat kick-drum; scan yet again, and you’ll find vertiginous dubstep with low-end that comes awfully close to big-tent festival stages. It’s a minor miracle that Gabriël blends all of this together this cleanly, but her unwavering focus on slow-and-low disorientation does wonders. Over the course of six hours, Gabriël slowly turns the decks inside out.
Objekt – Dekmantel Festival 2023
At this point, Objekt, a.k.a. Berlin’s TJ Hertz, has earned a reputation as an omnivorous selector—his DJ mixes are defined by their everything-goes approach and exceedingly high standard of quality. When he’s behind the decks, Hertz is liable to thread just about anything together; part of the thrill of a great Objekt set is the sheer number of neck-snapping blends that he makes look natural. In that context, Dekmantel Festival 2023 might be the sharpest turn he could have taken: Here, given two hours and a festival slot, Hertz goes deep on wheels-up techno and electro tools, chasing straight-ahead elation throughout. That’s not to say it’s not full of head-turners, but here, it’s not about left-field alchemy; it’s about the way a particularly acidic synth line bounces against a four-four kick, or the way he balances the din of industrial techno with the snarl of particularly rough-and-ready breakbeats.
Peace Pipe – PAMMIX030
Drum machines are funny things: If you wire them up right, decades of memories spill out the pads. Jack Rollo, a bookkeeper and DJ based in London, surely understands this. In the liner notes for Peace Tapes, a series of deep-house and house-adjacent mixes he released under the Peace Pipe alias between 2022 and 2023, Rollo zooms in on time and place, recalling a “dance music for listening” played at an art lesson or wondering about what he missed on the bus home from the club. As part of Time Is Away, his work spans centuries of folk music, ambience, and oral tradition; each week, on his weekly morning show, Early Bird, he communes with fifty-year old ghosts summoned by Brian Eno. If there is a throughline here, it’s one about slowing down, scrambling the old and the new, and keeping memories fresh.
With PAMMIX030, Rollo returns to the Peace Pipe alias yet again, turning in a long-form exploration of dance-music world-building. Don’t be fooled by the teal-and-gray cover art: This is unequivocally sepia-toned dance music, each kick drum bound up in countless memories and entangled with decades of history. The bulk of the mix sounds like it could have come out at any point in the past thirty years, and it’s all the stronger for it: Muffled deep house, with a single kick drum anchoring a twinkling upper-register keyboard; bleary-eyed ambient-IDM that sounds like a Music Has the Right to Children B-side; hushed spoken-word held against rattling trash-can drums and demure synth lines; ‘80s hip-hop with half the mics on mute. Throughout the set, Rollo explores countless shades of nostalgia and half-faded memories, digging into his crates and pulling out a mountain of dust.
Purelink – RA.917 / The Lot Radio
If ambient music can have breakout stars, then Purelink are surely the name to watch. Last autumn, they released Signs, a critical slab of nu-ambient that splits the difference between busted-hardware dub-techno and 2-a.m. ambience, and they’ve been on the rise ever since. Two recent mixes from the Brooklyn-via-Chicago electronic-music trio show why. On RA.917, their entry in Resident Advisor’s flagship mix series, they weave a similar texture to the one on Signs, moving between celestial ambience and zoned-out techno tools with ease. The tracklist features all sorts of new-school names, too—Nick Leon, Stone, qwqwqwqwa, James K, Downstairs J—which bodes well for this wave of digital-fuzz ambient, too.
Ambient and dub techno are such specific, and subtle, styles that even the slightest ripple can cause a tidal wave. In late January, Purelink took to The Lot Radio’s decks in their adopted home of Brooklyn and turned things up ever so slightly. It’s a winning move: The Lot Radio isn’t exactly gabber or hardstyle, but it’s got an undeniable skip in its step, especially compared to some of their other sessions. Here, they expand their interest in deep-space psychedelia to bass-blasted dubstep, rough-and-ready techno tools, hypnotic deep house, and heads-down halftime, all without losing their tripped-out charm or the richly textured electronics that make them so critical. Taken as a pair, RA.917 and The Lot Radio demonstrate Purelink’s range, showing that the line between late-night club music and early-morning ambience isn’t as far as it seems.
Sa Pa – isolatedmix 125
Sleep-in DJ sets are hardly a new concept, but they still carry an undeniable novelty. If a dancefloor typically fills up with ravers, sneakers, and smog, the idea of event-goers lugging mattresses into a warehouse is certainly some kind of inversion. These sets are the domain of dreamers, and, here, the DJ is tasked with soundtracking things they cannot see, hear, or feel. It’s a substantial lift, but the best sets in the style—in recent memory, there’s Steffen Dennemann’s Dreams—work no matter your state of mind. On isolatedmix 125, Berlin-based techno-et-cetera DJ Sa Pa builds a dreamcatcher and suspends it for a spellbinding three hours, moving, ever so slowly, between windswept ambient music, barely-audible field recordings, and ocean-floor drone. It’s a remarkable example of the form; every transition is handled with care, and the mood—from bliss to quiet fear and back again, over and over—moves with the steady undulation of an R.E.M. cycle.
Vladimir Ivković – BLISS001 / All Night Long at 70th Limited Edition Portland
If you take a look at the tags on BLISS001, you’ll find something of a cliché: “#Storytelling.” DJs have been equated with authors countless times—Those old ideas of taking the audience on a journey; of connecting disparate ideas into something new; of offering a window into someone else’s mind for a night out. But clichés become that for a reason. Even if they’re inelegant, or too familiar, they are also frequently correct.
To grab an idea with only slightly less wear and tear: Vladimir Ivković is one of the most exciting DJs in the world, full stop. His music is compelling for the reasons mentioned above, but he’s also technically savvy and unafraid to take a leap into the void. Two sets of his from the past few weeks—eight hours, all told—are packed with his uncanny style of world-building, where even the strangest blends read as utterly natural. BLISS001—the more conventional, or at least the less surprising, of the two—offers Ivković the opportunity to dig into folk, ambient, and downcast electronics of a million stripes, creating throughlines between universes in the process. Perhaps the most striking moment in the set comes halfway through, when Ivković takes tightly harmonized a capella folk music, sounding marooned between hopeful and mournful, and crashes it into the noise-encrusted shoegaze of Medicine’s “One More.” BLISS001 is filled with left turns like this; again and again, Ivković angles towards the outré, slow, and disorienting, erecting a hall of mirrors along the way.
If BLISS001 is a hall of mirrors, though, All Night Long at 70th Limited Edition Portland is a mansion. This is most clear when looking at the runtime—All Night Long is true to its title, running for nearly eight hours. But it also becomes clear when listening to the thing. That length affords Ivković the chance to really stretch his legs, letting him mix long, slow, and strange. Here, he intertwines all sorts of stuff that normally wouldn’t come within a mile of a dancefloor; eventually, he saunters towards it and slowly turns the whole thing ablaze. Early on, that’s walls of discordant choirs, each voice scrambled and dubbed and suspended over black hole; it’s blackened ambience and calls to action; it’s motorik downtempo, each drum machine hollowed out and filled with a swarm of locusts. Gradually, turns things up to a gut-twisting 100 BPM, reaching for vertiginous dubstep, retrofuturistic acid, old-school trance gems, and anything else bound to keep ravers at it just a bit longer. All Night Long at 70th Limited Edition Portland is a masterclass of DJing, whether that’s the art of telling stories or the craft of recontextualization. Here, Ivković spends a third of a day thumbing through stacks of vinyl and turning the world inside out.
Nick Boyd – SORRYMIX25 / 30,000AD – SORRYMIX26 / AceMo & SWAP MEET! – SORRYMIX27 / Tony G – SORRYMIX28
Call it a meeting of the minds. At this point, Sorry Records and Nowadays are both out-and-out New York dance-music institutions, and for a similar set of reasons, to boot: A no-holds-barred approach to mutual uplift; a focus on communal joy and celebration; and immaculate curation. So when Sorry Records took over the Nowadays decks last July, it was—predictably—excellent. Nick Boyd, one of the heads behind Sorry, grabbed SORRYMIX25, throwing all sorts of dance-music curveballs—piano-house stompers, lushly orchestrated psyched-out soul records, acid-squelch synth workouts, and anything liable to plaster grins on faces. 30,000AD went a bit more straight-ahead in their selections for SORRYMIX26, but that’s by no means an issue. After a last-minute pivot to vinyl, they proceeded to pull out two hours of head-spinning house and techno, conjuring a minor hysteria in between all the four-four kicks.
AceMo and SWAP MEET!, two critical names in new-school techno, met up for SORRYMIX27, crashing together for a live-set-slash-DJ-set, sprinting through rollicking techno, joyful-noise acid, and blistering hardcore. It’s joyous and playful and loud and messy, packed with the sounds of busted amplifiers and the smell of a packed dancefloor. Tony G, the other head behind Sorry Records, wrapped things up with SORRYMIX28, which starts as low-key electro before jack-knifing into everything-goes mania: freaked-out soul records, acid-drenched breakbeats, blissed-out dub excursions, and plenty more. It’s the kind of closing set that takes a trusting dancefloor and uses it as a launchpad towards uncharted territories.