Words: Seb Wheeler
Photos: Kevin Lake
With a rich lineage that includes hardcore, jungle, d’n’b, garage, grime and dubstep, the UK has always been responsible for revolutionary bass-heavy dance music. But as both dubstep figureheads and club kids have been seduced by house and techno, it feels like fresh, low-end propelled ideas are harder to come by. You could be forgiven for fearing the worst, but there’s hope on the other side of the Atlantic. As the dust settles around the Skrillex explosion, attention has focused on a thriving underground of hyper-creative artists such as XXYYXX (pictured), Shlohmo, Slava and his close namesake, Salva. The most exciting, innovative bass music is now being made in the USA.
“2013 is going to be one of the best years,” says Salva. “I’m finally going through promos and finding what I actually want. Last year I couldn’t find tracks to play for the life of me.” The LA-based DJ is paying testament to America’s fertile state and the rapid way in which visionary producers and mutant sounds are being cultivated. “People are trying new things,” he continues. “I’m hearing a lot of innovation.”
Salva is part of a new wave of artists who are keen to put cracks in the EDM monolith and prove there’s life beyond alpha male mosh pits and nauseatingly big drops when it comes to the country’s approach to low-end frequencies. Part of the Friends Of Friends crew, responsible for a track that helped birth a new genre (his remix of Kanye West’s ‘Mercy’ with RL Grime is one of the foundations of trap), a collaborator with hip hop’s Pusha T and host of an In New DJs We Trust slot on Radio 1, he epitomises the type of musician who’s contributing to the energy currently rippling through the US. “The only things to survive for a while were hard dubstep and trance,” he explains. “But there’s more money now. Promoters are able to do underground parties; it’s not just EDM stages and pop-dance stuff. Artists like me are able to go and play Lollapalooza and Coachella. The US is really growing up and expanding, for sure.”
Although there are murmurs from the UK underground, such as the Pinch and Blackdown-championed dark house sound and the renaissance of instrumental grime, all the major movements are being made in America. “The scene became saturated by people with a lot of talent but little creativity [during the rise of EDM]. There were very few intellectual thinkers attempting to explore new ground,” says Rinse FM DJ and Terrorhythm label boss, Plastician. “Now we have lots of interesting music coming out of the USA because people are taking risks and enjoying making music as opposed to following the quest to blow up overnight.” Bass music has been bolstered by a network of established labels and parties like Trouble & Bass, Mixpak, Brainfeeder, Low End Theory, SMOG and Seclusiasis that has built up over the last decade and is rapidly expanding with newer ventures like Body High, Fade To Mind, Hot Mom, Uno NYC and We Did It. There’s an innovative mood among artists, meaning America’s rich heritage of electronic music (regional strains like ghetto house, juke, Miami bass, Baltimore club) is being spliced and diced, allowing fresh possibilities to bubble to the surface. Alongside modernist, amorphous sounds, trap has emerged as a defined, populist genre in the wake of the dubstep boom (see: Flosstradamus, RL Grime, Baauer, UZ) while underground, local scenes like New York’s ‘ballroom’ and the DJ Sliink-fronted ‘New Jersey club’ keep things moving forward, too. Bass music is also bleeding into pop culture, with mainstream hip hop and r’n’b stars raking the underground in order to stay at the cutting edge. Put simply, it’s all happening now.
“It’s an exciting take on bass music in the US,” says Slava, a New York-based producer whose debut album ‘Raw Solutions’ (out on experimental NYC label Mexican Summer), provides astral takes on the skitty rhythms of southern rap and amplifies the sensuality of Brandy and Aaliyah. “It’s getting mixed up with all these hip hop and r’n’b influences, and that’s something I myself am excited about doing.” Most of all, his sound is directed by Chicago, the city where he grew up and which influenced him from the off. “You’d go to a club and watch legends like Felix Da Housecat play and see part of the old house scene, that crowd going crazy and getting down,” he recalls. “By being there you had access to that state of mind, that essence.”
Slava takes the city’s heady, highly percussive ghetto house and juke templates and spins them into overdrive, a radioactive cascade of drums and horny vocal samples that burn white hot against your eardrums. He hacks into and rewires the Chicago vibe, imagining music for a dancefloor in brave new America.
The same tactics are used on ‘Odd Furniture’, the latest EP Salva has released on LA imprint Friends Of Friends. It’s an explosive joyride that also channels Chicago and DJ Funk’s raw, pounding approach to percussion and explicit sexual overtones. But Salva also solders together the hydraulic bounce of Miami bass, the gargantuan 808 drum-rolls used in contemporary hip hop, trap’s half-time lunacy and neon rave stabs, flickers of melody most likely caught at parties he frequented in the aforementioned cities before he moved to LA. “I feel lucky that I can express myself and that my fans will accept the fact that I do different things. Five years ago that wouldn’t have been the case,” he says. “I don’t want to follow a formula. That’s been my only rule.” His style of club music is supple and open to influence, but it’s always affecting, like the first licks of thunder before a storm.
“We DJ a lot more actual raves, where you have to play pretty banging stuff,” says Star Eyes, a key figure behind New York’s long-standing Trouble & Bass party and label. “You can’t just turn up and play these intricate or mellow or minimal post-dubstep tunes because no one will dance.” What’s delicious about a lot of underground club music from the US is its rough, combative form, from the dominating thrust of MikeQ, a talisman for New York’s ballroom scene, to the jagged perpetual motion of DJ Rashad’s footwork productions. This aesthetic has seeped into the output of Fade To Mind, the label helmed by Kingdom and an offshoot of Night Slugs (Bok Bok and L-Vis 1990’s ever-insurgent UK imprint). 12”s from Portland’s Massacooramaan and LA’s Nguzunguzu are sharp as shards of glass, ballistic music that challenges you to dance or face being impaled.
‘Vertical XL’, Kingdom’s new EP for Fade To Mind and the label’s sixth release, has a stark, menacing beat palette that’s draped with glowing r’n’b chords, a sword wrapped in a silk sheath. Though seemingly cold, his productions are charged with melancholy and the embers of romance, directly influenced by Rod Lee and the ‘Baltimore club’ sound, Timbaland and Three 6 Mafia. “There’s some great stuff coming out right now and Fade To Mind’s sound keeps evolving,” he says. “There are always boundaries to be pushed and we get bored quickly.” America bangs hard – but on the flipside, the emotional charge of r’n’b is being used to full effect. Shlohmo is one artist melting the genre into a sticky gloop of sub frequencies and bitter-sweet synthetic textures. He’s now collaborating with vocal sensation Jeremih and has seduced countless listeners, racking up an extraordinary number of plays on SoundCloud. ‘Laid Out’, his EP for Friends Of Friends, begins with ‘Don’t Say No’ (feat How To Dress Well), which sounds like a deeper version of The Weeknd and descends into four tracks of ghostly r’n’b, where purring basslines, skeletal hi-hats and yearning melodies slush together to create an avant garde epiphany for 21st-century pop.
Though the myriad influences on American bass music come direct from home soil, it’s also been shaped by the infinite horizon of the internet. XXYYXX, real name Marcel Everett, is a 17-year-old from Orlando who felt alienated by the commercial dance music played out in local clubs. Online, he discovered Rinse FM’s archive of bass-heavy radio shows and a wealth of low-end activity during the height of post-dubstep. “Without the internet, music would be in a totally different state right now and I’d be a completely different person – and that’s the same for anyone my age,” he says. “The idea of the internet is to spread ideas. You take it all in and make something new.” Mixing the pitch-bent sugar rush of future garage with much-loved commercial r’n’b vocal samples, XXYYXX has already produced two LPs brimming with endorphin-fuelled bass music. His online following is huge, an internet sensation in every sense. But like other contemporary American producers, he’s not resting on his laurels. “A lot of people are starting to branch out,” he states. “The whole ‘post dubstep’ label was cool for a minute,
but I’m glad everyone’s trying to break out of that.”
The heightened level of activity in the US has become ever more audible as UK DJs cherry-pick tunes for their own sets. The eighth birthday of London bass weight sanctuary DMZ was marked by Hyperdub boss Kode9 playing a peak-time set spliced with trap and footwork. And like Plastician, fellow bass ambassador Oneman is feeding large doses of bass-driven new-skool hip hop and r’n’b into his selections. “I can incorporate this new young rap sound into what I play because it’s energetic and has a lot of sonic similarities to grime,” he says. But it’s not just one directional. American artists like Baauer, with label affiliations either side of the Atlantic (Mad Decent and LuckyMe), regularly drop UK tunes during live performances. It’s a dialogue that’s breathing life into the UK scene, and emboldening the US one.
At tonight’s sold-out show promoted by The Playground at London’s KOKO it’s clear US bass vibrations have spread to an international audience. A queue snakes round the block and Mixmag struggles to get past a scrum of 20-somethings straining to bundle past security. The hype is palpable. XXYYXX’s sleek, rolling rhythms slide straight into a quick-fire session of punishing trap from Salva. It’s his set in particular that proves the power of low-end music currently rumbling out of the States, as he pushes high pressure, piston-powered intensity on to the 1500 strong crowd. You know something’s good when it knocks the air out of your lungs, wherever it comes from.