Tone Glow 018: DeForrest Brown, Jr.
An interview with DeForrest Brown, Jr. + an accompanying mix, album downloads, and our writers panel on Nídia's 'Não Fales Nela Que A Mentes' and Arca's 'KiCK i'
|Jun 17, 2020||4||1|
DeForrest Brown, Jr.
DeForrest Brown, Jr. is a New York-based theorist, journalist, curator, and artist. He’s created work under his own name and as Speaker Music, and is a representative of the Make Techno Black Again campaign. His writings have appeared in Tiny Mix Tapes, Afropunk, Artforum and Hyperallergic. His upcoming book, Assembling a Black Counter Culture, is out this year on Primary Information. Joshua Minsoo Kim talked with Brown, Jr. on May 28th about his new albums and book, COVID-19, George Floyd, techno, and empathy. Photos by Ting Ding.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: Hello, hello.
DeForrest Brown, Jr.: Hey, how’s it going?
Good, how are you?
I’m all right… you know?
Just all right?
Yeah, it’s just one of those things… You know, the news. Hold on, I’m moving a big ass bean bag chair. (moves chair). I’ve been working on the book, but the book is kind of forming in my life right now, I guess.
What do you mean by that?
So my book, Assembling a Black Counter Culture, it starts at the gold rush and I’m trying to tell the history of America through techno and the Industrial Revolution, tying it all together. Between George Floyd and these protests and the economic collapse, it’s kind of a weird thing to see the end of the book. The book wasn’t going to go that far but…
It feels necessary now.
Yeah, it’s weird. I guess I could be more specific.
You don’t have to be if it’s too much.
No, it’s just that my thoughts are so scrambled from making this grilled cheese (laughter).
Let’s descramble then (laughter). We don’t have to go through everything in your book, obviously, but what was your goal behind it and can you walk through the timeline and tell me what the throughline is between the different periods?
Yeah, so it’s kind of funny. I was actually approached to write the book. It wasn’t my idea initially. James Hoff, who runs Primary Information, asked me. We were hanging out in a bar and we just talked about this book idea. I already knew how I was going to approach it. I found techno in the weirdest way—I actually found it through Alvin Toffler and his book The Third Wave where he writes about the transition between the Industrial Revolution over to the data-oriented one that we’re clearly living in right now. The word techno pops up in that as a prefix for the word technocracy and Juan Atkins read that book in a class called Future Studies in high school and that’s where he got the name.
The whole point of writing this book was to sort of dig into… I don’t want to say the deeper meaning of techno because that’s silly, but there’s a lot of implications to a 19-year-old Black kid in a Future Studies class in Belleville, Michigan reading about the next stage of industrial development in a city that has completely collapsed and has been the exact opposite of everything that American utopian futurism was supposed to present.
Since college, I’ve always said that Detroit was like a small-scale version of what America’s collapse would look like, and to see it happening now as I’m finally documenting these thoughts has been a little unsettling. It’s been interesting just listening to the music and going back through archival interviews and making these comparisons. A few weeks ago, I was reading an interview with Mad Mike. I think it was in The Wire with Mark Fisher. It actually wasn’t a very good interview—Mark wasn’t very good at interviewing (laughter). But Mad Mike talks a lot so it kind of works. There’s a section where he’s going on about being a kid in Detroit during the riots and talking about seeing tanks drive down the street. And so I followed that and found documentaries that had old archival footage of those riots and, I mean, those riots were completely necessary and still are now.
I was watching the George Floyd protests last night from someone. I don’t even know who it was. Someone was streaming it on Facebook Live and all the people around him were using their phones to push the cops back—it was like a weird episode of Black Mirror where 20 people were wielding phones at these cops and the cops were just, like, frightened by these screens.
There’s just so much in the present moment. It’s gotten me overwhelmed in a way that I haven’t been in a long time, but I feel morally responsible to continue writing and to continue documenting this as America goes up in flames. Not to jump into all this.
No it’s good. So you’re seeing a parallel between what Mad Mike said in the interview and what’s happening now… what do you feel is important about viewing all this through the lens of techno? What insight is there to be gained from this perspective that is ignored when viewing it from a different angle? What would people be missing out on if they only focused on other aspects?
Like techno as a sound?
What’s really cool about techno actually is that I mean—. Okay, so again, you have this 19-year-old Black kid in a city that has just crumbled. Oil prices were dropping and Japanese and German companies were pumping out cars at faster and more efficient rates than Ford. That’s what we’re seeing right now where the entire economy and the supply and demand models are being ramshackled (pauses). Sorry, I’m actually still really emotional about everything.
It’s okay, take your time.
When I think about Black music and being here from 1619 to the present, I see a long line of traumatic screams. It’s kind of churned into various instruments, various formal types, various rituals that aren’t necessarily perceptible to the modern music canon. Yeah, sure, people listen to rock music, they listen to jazz, but I don’t think that any of the trauma that would be inside of a body that would make these sounds necessarily translates to a listener who buys vinyl to listen to in their study, or to stream on Spotify or whatever else.
What techno means for me in the larger scope of America is, again, this 19-year-old Juan Atkins getting a Korg MS-10 and making electronic music in his bedroom. And this is one of the first times in history when someone of his age and class demographic can actually touch some gear and express himself. That mode of isolated expression, that idea of touching this Japanese technology and putting feeling into it is something that is particular to what America has done to Black people and around Black people.
So I was saying that book started at the gold rush. A lot of that was to trace how America became its full united self, so when they brought in Texas and California through the Mexican-American War, and also the Underground Railroad that transferred a large number of Black bodies from the South to the North. So the gold rush fed into Detroit being able to build itself up as a financial center because there’s four or five investors who ran out to California to grab some gold and ran back. But at the same time the Underground Railroad was dropping Black people off in Michigan.
I’ve been thinking so much about how at that time, the Union and the Confederacy were theoretically different nation states that were not abiding by the same cultural norms and rules, and suddenly the living inventory of the South pops up to the North and you have a border control issue but there’s a lot of weird implications there, right? Where you have these people who are literally like commodities—it’s kind of like smuggling in coke or something. But then at the same time, the North has all these cities and I’ve been thinking about Black people literally running to these cities and just literally popping up in the future and being like, “Oh my God, what’s a car? What the hell is a vending machine?” Just having to confront these technologies which, I mean, have been around since—I think—the 1920s, but it’s something that class and… (pauses). There’s so much disillusionment and disorientation just in general with a Black body being on American soil… then you add in the complexities of touching foreign technologies…
Techno is important to American history in a lot of ways. I don’t want to say it pulls it all together, but it puts me in the mind of programs that would send Coltrane over to Europe to show that we had culture. When you have Derrick May going over to Europe in the late ’80s, early ’90s, that’s part of this cultural exchange that Black people on the ground were maybe not necessarily aware of, but that’s still the funneling of inventory, even still. It’s this transference of bodies and sounds around to do this thing. Techno is one of the more advanced steps in positioning and moving Black bodies around and introducing us to European technological-centric ideas that normally would not have been a part of our lexicon. I think that’s why techno didn’t necessarily pick up in the Black community—it’s too weird. Well, not weird. It’s abstract.
You mentioned this idea of Black music being this series of traumatic screams, and obviously those who have been in charge of establishing canons or talking and writing about music have not been Black. They’re largely white.
There’s actually a book that I got some years ago called Free Jazz by Ekkehard Jost from 1974. I think a lot about this German guy sitting down with a bunch of free jazz artists. It’s a cool but really idiotic book where he’s sitting down with Archie Shepp solos and trying to chart the improvisations and is like, “Where are the improvisations? Where is it?” like he can really put this on a line. And there’s stories of Kraftwerk sampling and trying to isolate rhythms from Isley Brothers songs and what they come up with is Computer World and they just got it all wrong.
I guess it’s a problem with empathy, right? Where, sure, what they’re seeing with this Eurocentric view of sound and music composition is systems—they're seeing nodes in a system moving along a linear path for satisfying or not satisfying rises and falls and conclusions—when what’s actually happening is a sort of speaking in tongues. Even with techno where there’s a four-on-the-floor beat, there’s all this keyboard work happening over it. There’s Derrick May using a knife to cut up tape reels and glue them together. There’s a lot of physicality to the music that’s not being calculated by the Eurocentric understanding of how music should be presented, expressed, played—all that jazz.
Cornelius Harris from Underground Resistance was giving a talk about a year ago in a space called Performance Space with some other members of Underground Resistance and Kevin Beasley. He started talking about picking cotton and how Black people in a line would pick cotton in a rhythm and it would become this communal, efficient thing and they’d be singing slave songs as this would happen. There’s this communal rhythm that, from Cornelius’s perspective, was replicated on the assembly line at Ford plants and all.
That’s what I mean about the trauma. When you’re working for your life, a different sound comes out when you open your mouth and can’t speak the English language because it’s not your native tongue and you’re not allowed to read. Expressions mean a totally different thing when you’re able to read. That’s something that’s been striking me as I’ve been writing—just marveling at the fact that I can speak the English language and marveling at the fact that I can type on a QWERTY keyboard. I’ve been thinking so much about Paul Gilroy and W. E. B. Du Bois’s double consciousness idea of having to acclimate to these technologies that are presented to me as normal but are actually manipulating. Like, I have to really adapt to it.
I think there’s just a huge lack of understanding of what is required, or even what is happening when a Black music is happening. Amiri Baraka writes about this in ’66 when he’s talking about Unity Music and how the jazz of Coltrane but also the funk music of James Brown are all just one thing. It’s all this one sound of trauma and bodily agitation that comes out in various forms. And it’s not really helpful for anyone to separate James Brown from Coltrane.
We should think of the entire accumulation of emotions and events that led to James Brown singing something like “I used to dance.” There’s this song where he goes on about how he used to dance and can’t dance anymore but at the end he says, “Now watch me!” That’s always been a real penultimate song for me for what would go into techno, this idea of dancing anyway. And not dance music in the sense of having fun but, like, David in the Bible where he would dance for God—where he danced so hard that he danced out of his clothes. It means a different thing for us. If you’ve ever seen me perform—wait are you in Chicago?
I am but I didn’t make it out to your LAMPO show, unfortunately.
That’s probably for the best (laughter). It was a good show, it was just a funny thing where you stand in front of an audience and realize there’s not really a lot of empathy for me there (laughs).
Is that because a lot of people at LAMPO shows are old and white?
Yeah, but it was strangely a kind of diverse crowd. It was at a performance space in South Side Chicago called Green Line Performing Arts Center, which I guess used to be an old jazz joint owned by a boxer [Joe Louis]. There was all this history and I was so excited because I used to spend my summers in Chicago and there’s house music and all that but I got there and I had my iPad and Kepla was on piano and it was just the two of us battling this black box theater where I’m like (laughs) telling my life story and playing drones on an iPad.
I eventually just threw my iPad down and started yelling at the audience about McCarthyism and how Americans are worthless spectators who refuse to interact and engage in an empathetic way, though we’re maybe seeing a change right now with the protests. The show ended with the entire crowd leaving the stands and joining us on the floor and dancing, and then I yelled at them some more (laughter). I’ll send you the recording at some point but it’s some dark Gil Scott-Heron techno shit. It was at a time in my life where I had a shitton more venom than I have right now.
You’ve mentioned this idea before, of people not listening to music with empathy. You actually mentioned that on Twitter after the writers on Tone Glow reviewed your album, of desire, longing. What does it look like for someone to listen to music with empathy?
To be honest with you, I’ve not really seen anyone do that in a really long time. Actually, there was one person—Tayyab Amin—who was moderating this panel I was on at Unsound and we were going to various performances together and I saw him close his eyes and just kind of start flailing in this way—it was kind of spiritual. We talked for 20 minutes on the dancefloor about letting loose and (sighs).
I don’t know, in college I would tell people all the time about the music I was into and would be like, “Yeah I was really crying at this one part and it really got me” and people would be like, “Why are you crying? It’s just music, man.” And I was like “No, you’re damn lucky to be listening to this person expressing.” If you listen to someone like Pharoah Sanders, he’s really giving it to you for like 20 minutes. Or Rick James, or anyone! They’re really putting some shit out there.
I guess I don’t know what it would necessarily look like for someone to feel empathy but… oh shit, is it seven? This is when people start clapping in Manhattan. Goddammit.
It’s okay! I can still hear you.
I saw someone tweet the other day asking about the exit strategy for this clapping thing (laughter). They haven’t figured it out in my neighborhood yet. It’s funny—it fluctuates. Every other day it’s riveting or everyone’s half-assing. I actually really like my neighbor but he’s really into it so I try to not be seen. It’s one of those things like in the show Home Improvement where you can’t see the neighbor’s face.
Is that your neighbor playing that right now?
Yeah there’s like air horns and shit, it gets pretty rowdy.
Yeah that’s pretty loud considering how loud it is just through my phone speakers (laughs).
I live in the East Village and I have this deck where I can go out onto the roof and it’s facing the back of the building, which is facing another building’s back. Because of that, all the sound of everyone clapping funnels straight into my apartment. To sit with your question, I’m kind of conflicted about all this because I’ll listen to this clapping—if I’m playing music I’ll pause it—but I haven’t figured out what to do morally—(sounds start getting louder) oh they’re really getting into it today (laughter).
Well it’s also just something to do because there’s not a lot to do right now.
Yeah, totally. It’s a funny thing because they don’t give a shit about the pandemic. I’ve talked with my neighbor and they don’t care. I don’t really know who this is for because the hospital is twenty blocks up the road. It’s this college drum circle thing where I see one neighbor is making eyes with another neighbor and then this one ISSUE Project Room lady over here brings out an actual drum and then a Hispanic band is somewhere too, it’s like a full band.
Oh wow, people are really into it.
Yeah totally. I’m trying to be, like, culturally respectful because this is a cultural thing that is happening, even if it is facetious. I may have said this to you before but I’ve gotten this sense that Americans don’t really like music. Like, they just don’t like expressive music. They love it manufactured—it has to be verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus with some punchy lyrics about some bullshit that’s supposedly universal. But then I hear people out here doing this pots-and-pans symphony and I haven’t figured out what to do with it yet.
Do you think that your neighbors doing this is evidence that they do care about music?
I haven’t figured out if this is music for them or not. The thing would be to talk with people but that doesn’t really happen either. It’s a weird thing—I’ve really been wrestling with this. The clapping thing was also like a PR company’s stunt. My partner [Ting Ding] was like, “No, we’re not doing this” because of that fact (laughter).
With Black people making up 13% of the population and making up a disproportionately large number of the deaths. So it’s one of those things where I join in for the sake of my own personal grieving, but then do I offer that to the frat boy thing that’s happening? You can go out to the parks in the city and people are sunbathing—they’re maskless, shirtless… they’re having picnics! It’s like, the majority of people dying from the pandemic is Black, and then there’s all these people who are like “Cool, Coachella day in the city.” And then they clap like this at 7PM so I don’t know.
Speaking of urban industrial cultures, I’ve been thrown off by the fact that you can hear bird sounds all day around the city. I’ve been recording them because it’s been so spatial. The new sounds of birds singing together and all these people having a Wes Anderson jerk off session—it’s not the city that Steve Reich lived in (laughter). Or maybe it is! Maybe this is the city where “It’s Gonna Rain” came from. (sounds continue playing). Towards the end they get more Sonic Youth with each other and really start jamming. (sound gets louder). It’s sounding a bit like Stomp right now (laughter).
You were talking about people being worthless spectators. What’s the dividing line between someone being one versus someone doing something with empathy? And obviously this doesn’t have to be just about music.
The dividing line is really complicated because we live in a country that’s kind of like Disney World—it’s a big ass resort for people who make enough money, and everyone else is in service to the people making the money or are visiting. I don’t know how empathetic an American can be based on what this country is.
One of the main reasons people are out sunbathing on a Saturday in the park is because they have healthcare and know that there’s someone in the healthcare world who will be there to service them and nurse them back to health. And most of the essential workers, the delivery workers, the nurses and medical workers—if they’re mostly of color then you see this system where people of color are robots serving people their frosés, their pizzas.
There’s a Shake Shack around the corner from here and there’s literally a bunch of Black workers using iPads to take orders. I took a picture of that and just cried because it’s like, these Black teenagers are just here to be literal touchscreens to people in the middle of a global, deadly pandemic in the world’s epicenter. And this is what Shake Shack thought was a responsible thing to do after taking a $10 million loan.
When you have systems like that, whoever is consuming and able to pay for that stuff isn’t necessarily caring; if we lived in a caring country, the whole thing would be shut down and we’d all get two or three thousand dollars a month and see where the economy goes and figure that out later. When you’re living in a country where moneyed people are leaning that hard on the disproportionately unfortunate, there’s going to be a kickback effect. And that’s what I’m seeing in this book with techno.
One of the main things about the book is this guy named James Boggs, an autoworker from the ’50s, who was a communist and involved in unionizing the auto workers. He wrote a lot about Black people in automation and this service assembly line labor and predicted the eventual classless state that America would come to with unions being busted up and companies paying people the lowest they could while someone like Ford would still make his cars affordable enough for his workers to buy so they could essentially sip the Kool-Aid of the thing they were making. In the present day, we’re reaching the points that he’s talking about where everyone’s unemployed except those who would call themselves fortunate.
With empathetic listening, America’s clearly not listening—they’re not listening to anything, be it music or people’s cries. I saw people talking about how the Target in Minneapolis shouldn’t have been burned and it’s like, fuck it! Burn every Target down if that’s what it takes for people to listen for the first time ever.
Do you think listening with empathy requires—at least in part—for people to approach music, or other people or whatever else as something beyond its function in servicing them?
Yeah, that’s definitely it.
That’s sort of what I’m seeing with what you’re saying. When people listen to a piece of music, they often just approach it for—and evaluate it by—the enjoyment it can provide for them.
Yeah, whereas I’ve always thought of music as literally being a person who you can walk up to and say, “Hey, how are you?” Like, really listen to it. I had a friend who was DJing at a club in New York and this white girl comes up to them during the set and shows them their phone. The DJ looks up from the decks to read what’s on the phone and it says “Thank you, next.” That happened maybe three years ago, but I think about it all the time—this idea of telling a live person who is playing, ironically, other people’s music and then asking for the next DJ to come on to play other people’s music. I guess people do the same thing with Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey and Jeff Bezos, jumping between which daddy they like the best who can provide us with bullshit technology that can fill up our days. People aren’t empathetic enough to just go outside and have fun.
That’s something I think about with people consuming frosés on Memorial Day. Why does going outside have to involve consuming capital? Why can’t it just be about observing the ruins of New York City. In a culture like that, it makes sense that music would be packaged on an app like Spotify for $9.99 a month. You can sell “all of music” for the meager fee of $9.99 and of course you’re not gonna value any of that. They hardly value the human lives right in front of them.
Yeah, and we’ve seen that with Spotify’s donation buttons and how they’re not committing to paying artists themselves.
Yeah, exactly. And that sort of futurism isn’t what I think Juan Atkins and Carl Craig and Derrick May and all of them were thinking of when they were making techno. I would like to think that they were imagining something more holistic and loving and fulfilling. You think about Detroit as a model city for America—what they wanted was a city designed for these cool things called cars, you could drive to the inner city and the outer city, you could drive everywhere. But obviously that’s not empathetic for people who can’t afford cars and what you see now is a bunch of people in Detroit with no cars. And in a city designed for cars, Ford is making cars for everyone but those in the city now? It all gets so tangled and fucked up.
I was going through Discogs and was on the Underground Resistance artist page and was listening to this artist called Alone. It was a newer release from, like, 2014. The album was called Has God Left this City? and the first track is an address. I plugged it into Google Maps and what I got was a church that was a block away from the hospital I saw on the news that was being overrun with COVID patients. And then you have Kevin Saunderson who had COVID, Mike Huckaby dying from COVID, I think Carl Craig’s father had COVID. We know enough about Detroit to know it needs help, but listening to techno and making it a worldwide enterprise has not done anything to put money back into the city. Instead, Detroit is something that we think about in abstract and techno is something we just press a button and say, (through laughter) “Here’s some boom-booms for a nice time, I took some molly, let’s do this.”
I think Moritz von Oswald has a house in Detroit and Tresor had these ideas about opening up a club in Detroit but in their heads it’s all just a romanticized version of what Detroit is supposed to be. I don’t even know if a full-scale Tresor club would take off in Detroit. When I looked at the Music Institute, the club that Derrick May was a resident at—the one techno club that existed in Detroit from 1988 to 1990 or so—the club was like the basement of a department store. They had one strobelight, there was nothing exciting about it. They didn’t even tell people it was a techno party—they had to trick people into going. So it’s one of those things where when people tell me they love Detroit and techno I’m just like, “No you don’t.” I can hardly say I love Detroit and I have family there. That’s also the other thing: If you consume all this Black music and see George Floyd die, there should be a 1:1 understanding.
You have the Make Techno Black Again hats. Is a crucial part of “making techno Black again” about getting money back into Detroit? Obviously it has to also do with who gets coverage. I’m just wondering what the impetus and goals were for the hat.
It’s a funny story. I always have to clear my throat before I say this (laughter). It’s like I have to run through a script. (in a joking manner) It all started in 2016… (laughter). My partner runs a sustainable genderfluid clothing line called HECHA, and her business partner [Luz Angelica Fernandez], who paints on the fabric of this clothing—each piece is original and made to order—she posted a meme around the Trump election that said “Make Techno Black Again” and I was not around at the time.
The hats were made as a side project for the line. Both my partner and Luz are like ravers. Luz works at various clubs and parties in New York, like the Unter party, and Ting lived in Berlin for five years and did the Berghain thing and is invested in club culture and counterculture. So that was their way of putting this thought out there, this culture jam.
A few years later, after this first run of hats sold out, I saw this hat again and was like “Whoa, this is really crass.” But I was taken by this idea of what I knew about techno and it coming from the term technocracy, like “Okay, let’s make technocracy Black again.” It made a lot of sense—taking the entire technological, urban structure of America and reducing it down to slave labor.
There’s a charity that is attached to the hat—10% of the proceeds go to an educational program in Detroit called Living Arts, and it’s like in-school music and technology training for kids. We haven’t met them but we get hand-written letters from them every now and then and it’s been heartwarming to receive those messages.
The hat for me was also a distress signal. At the time I was down on my luck. I had been, let’s say, blacklisted in the music industry as a music writer. It was a thing where the Resident Advisors of the scene would be like “Actually, no, we don’t want you to write for us” and wouldn’t give me a real reason why, but it would be coming from someone I had interned for years before. You’d be like, “okay maybe there are some mixed feelings there.”
I had already gotten fired from Mixmag over questioning why they didn’t cover more Black music, why they turned their whole platform to video after two months of the numbers going up—they didn’t like that. For me, the hat was kind of a distress signal to send out messages. One of the first places I ended up wearing the hat to was actually Berghain, which is kind of a funny thing because it was the most Berghain night where Dixon and Ø [Phase] were on the main floor and all these people were like “Oh your hat!” and it was a whole thing.
Ting Ding, Deforrest Brown, Jr., and Luz Angelica Fernandez
I’m really surprised the hat has reached a lot of the right people, which has been really nice. Recently, King Britt—who teaches at the University of San Diego—had a class where myself, Ash Lauryn, Juan Atkins, Carl Craig, Waajeed, and Jenn Nkiru talked about techno and it was one of those cool moments where the hat had gotten into the face of the guy who made the music and we were able to have an actual exchange. The hat has been really good for gathering bodies, which is what the book is kind of expanding on. Like, now that there’s an active audience or active interest in making techno and thusly “America Black Again,” it’s like okay how do I narrativize this history, how do I tie it all together for these people who aren’t thirsty for this information, especially now that race tensions are high.
That’s the thing the stay-at-home protestors are fighting, that’s what the Jeff Bezoses are doing when they fire people like Chris Smalls—they want to keep the technocracy white. I think about Chris Smalls a lot, especially in relation to James Boggs because he’s kind of like a modern day incarnation of them. He’s a whistleblower who was on the factory floor saying, “You can’t treat workers like slaves, you don’t take away bathroom breaks, you don’t have people work on the floor with sick people during a pandemic and not tell them.”
When I think of techno I think about the business/economic hierarchy that developed in America. Boggs also talks about the sliding scale of labor from slave labor to a lower class or middle class worker, and then you have the middle class white that becomes the white collar worker in the 1910s when corporations start buying out all the businesses. It’s this slow transition of plantation labor and plantation business organization to corporation and it’s kind of 1:1. There’s not much of a difference between a plantation and the Ford industry and Amazon—those are all three modes of extracting and Black people are at the very bottom of all of those groups.
I never take for granted that Jlin worked at a steel plant. She did an interview for Unsound at New York and talked about how music saved her life. I didn’t realize she went to Purdue and studied mathematics and worked at a steel plant. There’s nothing wrong with working at a steel plant, but I can imagine that if you get a degree in mathematics that you expect something a bit more glamorous. I really related to that and obviously related to the fact that we’re on the same record label.
Making music was a similarly life-saving thing where when I was blacklisted from the music industry, of desire, longing quite literally fell out of me one night. When I saw the Make Techno Black Again hats I made it all in one night, or at least the skeleton of it. I looked at it and was like, oh God—all this anger got into this sound and I had to do something with it. We talk about empathetic listening and when I say the album came from that and then Resident Advisor reviews it saying that it’s nice background music, that’s not exactly empathetic.
It’s one of those things where, like, you could’ve actually met the person who made the record, but we didn’t talk and they didn’t seem to want to talk—and that’s not a judgment call on their personality—but the chance to commune was there but when the communion point happened with my product, it became a thing of… is this music titillating and does it match what I think are his philosophies are today?
I’ve become friends with a lot of people whose records I reviewed simply because they were like, “Wow, you really listened.” That’s how I met my publisher, I reviewed his album in 2014 and bumped into him at MoMA PS1 and he was like, “Let’s go out for a drink, I really liked your review.”
That’s the PAN one, right?
You had two releases earlier this year. One of them was built on stuff from of desire, longing, that was processing intimacy. And then you had Percussive Therapy. I don’t want this to sound facetious, but what was “the point” of those releases, what did you want for people to extract from them?
There’s always a point, which is a funny thing about me because I’m always paranoid about that.
About things being pointless. About things actually mattering in the world. I’m not really defensive about my music and how people approach it, but I am defensive of whether the point was gotten or not, and the cultural angle at which it’s approached. Though I’ve played music since I was a kid, I never intended to make music. Now that it exists, it’s kind of like bait that I lay out and I use it to review the listener without them maybe ever really knowing. And hopefully during the process of them listening, the music should be reviewing you.
What does that mean, for the music to be reviewing the listener?
With processing intimacy, that was actually two live sets. One of the writers who reviewed of desire, longing for Tone Glow actually was at one of the sets.
Oh yeah, Mark Cutler.
It was actually crazy to read that. It was a funny performance. Again—angry at the audience, angry at the guy who curated the whole thing (laughter). of desire, longing was meant to be a multi-part symphony that would encompass several releases on Planet Mu. The first live show at ISSUE was me presenting the coda of the album before presenting the album. The whole thing was botched though because of institutional bullshit.
Do you wanna talk about that?
Oh yeah, sure, why not.
Hold on, though. I have to go to the bathroom, is that okay?
Yeah, I’ll just pace around.
[Kim goes to the bathroom as Brown, Jr. talks to his neighbors]
I’m communing with my neighbors as we watch a bird fly around.
(laughs). Nice. Okay, so what’s the bullshit?
I used to curate at ISSUE Project Room but I guess we’re fine now. One of my issues with the arts industry is the way in which this technocracy plays out in non-profits where it’s run like a for-profit because white men typically don’t know how to do something that does not make a profit (laughter).
Anywho, I get a phone call from the executive curator—the executive whatever—and he’s like, “I wanna book Actress, do you think he’s a good idea?” And I’m like “Sorry sir, that’s a $500 consulting fee and also you stole that from my application for the curatorial fellowship four years ago so I also need a finder’s fee, so that’s $1000.” (laughter). And he says no. And I know he’s not privy to this kind of music because he’s a classical music guy who was trying to replace George Lewis, and he wanted another Black guy who plays on the computer. And that’s already a little dubious, but sure, fine, Actress gets to play at an institution and I wanted to book him.
He calls back and says, “How about you open for him?” and I said “Sir, that’s blackmail, I’ll take it!” (laughter). So I took it because I had a record coming out on Planet Mu and opening for Actress gives people a legible understanding of the music. It’s this whole empathy thing again—you know, people need too many reasons to know why to listen to something so this was like, “Okay, Black man with computer, another Black man with computer.” (laughter).
It’s funny, there’s Derrick May interviews from ‘92 where he says how Europeans are just not intelligent enough to listen to Black music without an assumption. I thought that was funny coming from Derrick for other reasons, but anywho—
I get ready to play the show and my partner does this thing with security cameras. She sets them up and uses them to interrogate the audience, but also to document the performances on our terms. We actually have on tape the executive director coming into the setup being like, “What is all this? Do you even need this?” He was doing the typical white man profiteering, auditing thing, being like, “Am I paying for this?” I don’t know what I’ll do with that audio besides tell you about it right now (laughter). He was all like, “What is all this shit? Is this gonna bother the donors?” So when it was time to perform, I was like “Fuck it!” What was supposed to be a very romantic, free jazz, Wagnerian show ended up being me blasting noise.
I do this thing where I move around the room and snap my fingers to get everyone together and in a rhythm. And when you move from the stage it also freaks people out because, you know, difference freaks white people out (laughter).
That show got really rowdy and I wanted to salvage the audio so I sculpted it over another live show I played at Fridman gallery in January. I originally wasn’t going to release it because I didn’t see the need, but then COVID happened while I was at the residency in Rauschenberg. I flew back and my partner and I started writing an essay called “Manufacturing Normalcy” to keep up with what the fuck was going on because her mom had sent us a video of a Wuhan citizen back in January who was talking about the virus. She and I had already been documenting and following the virus and we did not expect it to blow up like this; we were waiting for an economic crash but not a killer virus. So I took the recording and applied an essay to it and threw it out there. I wanted to see if people would read it. That’s what processing intimacy was.
With Percussive Therapy I was working on it during the residency whereI was staying in Robert Rauschenberg’s house on the beach in Captiva, Florida, and was working in the studio that Merce Cunningham had been using—it was a crazy, crazy thing. I was traversing all these spaces where Rauschenberg had made his works. His art’s everywhere, and his picture is in the living room—he’s smiling at you while you’re eating your breakfast (laughter). I found my sound kind of changing. I was supposed to finish my book while I was there, but I was making music because they had stuff there.
Percussive Therapy came out of wanting to metabolize stuff we were talking about with the book into my own work as Speaker Music. It was also to test out the whole Bandcamp Day thing. I probably would’ve waited to release it on Planet Mu but with Bandcamp Day, I wanted to see how much I could make without a label. To be honest, I’m quite skeptical of Bandcamp Day.
I actually was planning to ask you about all that.
Well there you go, that’s what Percussive Therapy was about, because I was curious too. I was like… a single company that has a monopoly on every single kind of independent music and is deciding what day to release music on? Again, it’s technocracy.
Obviously Bandcamp has done a lot of good—
Yeah, it’s a great platform.
But obviously if we’re all just putting our eggs in this one tech company’s basket…
Yes, they are still a tech company, whether we want to acknowledge it or not.
Yeah and despite everything that’s good… it’s like, these days are loss leaders for them and everyone is joining and just continually going to use Bandcamp. And then people are being pressured to get more music out, and all on the same day, like you said.
Everyone’s asking for a tax cut, right? So we’ve all become independent corporate moguls looking for a tax break. That’s an adaptive preference—teaching people to seek out tax breaks. It’s sad because it’s like a ten dollar release—we’re getting a tax break on crumbs, and that’s what everyone thinks is socially and empathetically acceptable.
I made about a thousand dollars. And I was like “Oh shit!” (laughter). That actually put a real wrench into things. Given the attendance I’ve seen at most clubs and art events, there’s not enough money to go around to justify being a musician financially, so it’s all kind of a weird rat race. What Bandcamp Day showed me is that people would rather buy all their music when they’re told to rather than on their own accord.
It’s one of those things where at this point, if people weren’t willing to buy a $20 vinyl yesterday, I don’t know why they’ll suddenly want to buy it today. If it’s under the guise of helping out musicians… well it’s like the word “patronize” has different meanings, you know? You’re also paying them but you’re also, like, patronizing them—throwing petty cash at them that will result in a good that can sit on your harddrive forever. I don’t quite like what that does to the musician. We become vending machines, spitting out music every month, hoping that the momentum of buying Bandcamp releases won’t go down. I feel like by August everyone will be looking for an exit strategy.
There’s no coordination from the magazines either. Resident Advisor puts up a long list of names but there’s no, like, formal reviews of everything they’re taking in. Which, of course, is impossible, but also shows an inefficiency of magazines and why they’re all failing, how they don’t have enough staffers. I’m seeing these full-system glitches. I mean, I got a grand, and I had to sit with what that meant.
Now is the time for people to really listen to music and think about where they’re putting their money. I’m grateful that people bought Percussive Therapy—it seemed like a few people listened to it (laughter). That’s the thing, you’ll never know. I look at the stats every other day and out of the 900 people who listened to it, 53 people finished the first track, like 2 people finished the second. It’s depressing.
Oh yeah, I’ve seen that with the one release I have on my own label. It’s like, oh God—people are just skipping all these tracks (laughter). Though there are people who are downloading it and you don’t know about them.
And that’s the thing, it’s about trust. It’s been about trust. But now we know that 53 people out of 900 people listen in full and now I don’t have respect for people! (laughter). It’s like, ugh don’t tell me this. Even with “Manufacturing Normalcy” and the “Platform Capitalism” piece before that, that was me trying out Medium instead of Twitter despite them being started by the same people. And I’ve always seen Medium as longform Twitter except less accessible. I wanted to publish on my own and see what that would be like.
You get something crazy like 9% of people read the whole thing and it’s like, okay… cool. I think I made $71 off of “Platform Capitalism” and $20 off of “Manufacturing Normalcy.” So ultimately, was Medium worth it? Not at all. There were like 22,000 “reads” for the “Platform Capitalism” piece but it was mostly shared through email so it was all backend stuff. And that’s what I’m seeing with Bandcamp. I’m seeing who’s buying the record and it’s, like, an editor from RA, an editor from The Quietus, and it’s like “Oh shit, the money is just circulating in a small pool.” Which is fine. I mean, that’s community, but we also have to temper expectations about what the music industry is if all twenty people in the experimental scene are buying each other’s music.
And there can be this perception that things are better than they actually are, because you see all those squares underneath all the albums!
That’s scorekeeping. The squares make it so bad because then you’re like, “Oh I don’t have as many squares as so-and-so.” (laughter). And now that Joe Rogan’s gotten $100 million from Spotify—now that $100 million is on the line—I don’t know what we’re doing. I wanna start like a town hall meeting somehow but I don’t know how to do that.
If anything, I’m releasing music to test out formats from artists who will benefit from it far more than me. My hope is that at 50 I’ll start writing plays or some shits, or wearing capes—whatever shit 50 year olds do. I’m not trying to take up space, I’m just a critic. I’m not like Minor Science—I’m not a storied RA critic who at the end of his tenure decided to mix together everyone else’s music I had shat talked and turned it into a fucking Beats headphones-like demo expecting pats on the back from my fellow critics (laughter). You know, if someone would’ve let me, I would’ve gone off, but no one accepts negative reviews.
I’m very disappointed by the lack of negative reviews everywhere.
And the thing is like, sure, you can write a bad review of my record, but I’ll also roast your ass.
It’s give and take.
There needs to be this reciprocity in general. When we talk about empathetic listening, it’s about reciprocity. If I go to a club and everyone’s on their phones, I know that they’re not there for the music. I’ve been to bad basement shows where everyone’s gotten into the music. It’s fine if people don’t like music, it’s just that in the middle of a pandemic, at the end of industrial capitalism, at the end of post-Fordism business managerial models, at the end of tech bubbles bursting, at the end of startups, maybe we should finally say, “Hey, we don’t care about music, that’s why we’re selling it for $9.99.” And that’s really all I’m ever trying to prove.
There’s this book called Generations by William Strauss and Neil Howe where they view a history of America from 1584 to 2069. They follow the generational cycles and, while they don’t acknowledge this, they sort of ask, “What do you do with a group of people who go to a new place they’ve never been before and murder the fuck out of everybody, enslave a group of other people—torture them, rape them, castrate them, all sorts of fucked up Purge-like shit—and then have kids for 400 years?” What do you do with that? And how does each generation handle this trauma? How does each generation respond to the previous generation? And then there’s the accumulation of wealth across that whole spectrum.
It’s two white guys so they don’t get into the gruesome details of all that, but when I read it, as a Black guy, I see how the “American white” went from being various Europeans to a singular white in 1980 or so. I see that generational accumulation. For me, a millennial is a person who has grown up in an era where 24 hour television was around, global travel was the most accessible it had ever been, art was more accessible—millennials are the most perfect test subjects for the American experiment. Like all of it was building up to us. And the Generations book covers that idea, that we’re the millennials because we’re coming into our adulthood in the first decade of the new millennium, or what was essentially defined by America as the future that Juan Atkins and Toffler were looking for.
For me, a millennial—I’m thinking of Americans—is white kids who have accumulated all the wealth and privileges of all the previous generations, but also all the ignorance and being born inside this bubble and having to come to grips with the bullshit their ancestors have instilled upon Black people systemically, physically, and personally. We’re seeing it now with George Floyd. This is a last stand in which, maybe throughout the past 30 years or so there’s been a kind of silence on the race front. A sort of stalemate where after O.J. everyone was like, “Okay let’s chill out for a little bit.” The tech bubble’s bursting, white millennials have proven to be subpar allies and are ignorant of the country’s violent history, and now with George Floyd it’s time to put up or shut up.
Joe Biden said that we’re fighting for America’s soul right now. But it’s not a fight for Black millennials, it’s a fight for white millennials to really consider all of it—to consider everything that led to them getting the nice job at the tech company in New York. And then, like, how do these same people take in music?
DeForrest Brown’s work as Speaker Music can be found on Bandcamp. He has a new album (with accompanying zine) called Black Nationalist Sonic Weaponry out now. His book, Assembling a Black Counter Culture, is out later this year on Primary Information.
Tone Glow Mix
Every now and then, artists will provide a mix personally made for Tone Glow. Mixes will always be available for streaming and download.
Further Expressions of Hi-Tech Soul is a live set inspired by Derrick May and Mad Mike Banks’ understanding of techno as a form of hi-tech soul, funk, and jazz. I wanted to improvise a kind of rhythm and soul music using drum machines and keyboards on the iPad filtered through-composed stereophonic effects in Ableton.
-DeForrest Brown, Jr.
Every issue, Tone Glow provides download links to older, obscure albums that we believe deserve highlighting. Each download will be accompanied by a brief description of the album. Artists and labels can contact Tone Glow if you would like to see download links removed.
Clifford Thornton & The Jazz Composer's Orchestra - The Gardens Of Harlem (JCOA Records, 1975)
The spiritual and psychological fulfillment resulting from re-establishing the relationship with the traditional ethos/aesthetic is boundless. It continually re-energizes, re-inspires, and re-affirms a sense of direction. At the same time, it serves chiefly as a balance between the inner-self and the environment. This is, in part, the role and function of music in traditional African societies and among peoples of primarily African derivation. In this connection, music is vital to both religious and secular life for the same reasons and is manifested in the same ways. It is the core and foundation, the language of both religious and philosophic thought. The spirit which informs an object or living thing must be HEARD to be completely experienced, understood, and felt.
The Gardens of Harlem was in the works since the beginning of Thornton’s teaching career back in 1969 but it wasn’t recorded until 1974. It was originally conceived for an orchestra of jazz soloists, driven by an expanded percussion section of African drums, and would geographically and sonically trace the echoes of traditional African music in the colonial slave states of the new world. Dahomey war dances, Yoruban religious chants, and American blues were to be refracted and syncretized through the aesthetic of jazz and, as Thornton writes in the insightful liner notes, would “re-energize, re-inspire, and re-affirm a sense of direction” in “peoples of primarily African derivation”—a well of strength, comfort, and pride to draw from for his (worldwide) community.
Thwarted by a paucity of funds in comparison to his vision, and given the reins of an orchestra that was about to collapse (the orchestra and their distribution arm were deeply in debt—this was to be their last release), Thornton had only one day to record his entire masterpiece. Though the end result falls short of his own ambition to create the first true Afro-Jazz symphony, only the most curmudgeonly could dislike what is on offer here. Blessed by a star cast of soloists who all play to the utmost of their abilities (Carla Bley, the tragically underknown Janice Robinson, Dewey Redman, a young Wadada Leo Smith) and his own considerable talents on the cornet, Thornton’s final album as a bandleader before his untimely death stands as a true testament to his genius as a composer, musician, educator, and leader in black political thought. —Samuel McLemore
Bengt Berger - Bitter Funeral Beer (ECM, 1981)
Something I learned from a very young age is to be careful about the way I engage with cultures that are not my own. As a person of mixed race that didn’t often have the opportunity to practice culture I conceivably could have felt I belonged to, I spent a lot more time learning about things on my own than feeling part of anything. It was a bit surprising to me, then, to grow up in the internet age and see people my age proudly and openly flaunting who they are. It made me envious, but self-conscious. It was even more surprising to me, however, to see other people using symbols of culture as a fashion statement. Feeling like a bystander in my own upbringing for most of my life, it was deeply confusing to see people connecting with things that meant nothing to them personally, simply because they liked something about it. It made me further self-conscious, and I took even more care to make sure that wasn’t how I seemed to anyone, but it did plant some ideas that I wouldn’t reckon with until I became familiar with Bengt Berger’s Bitter Funeral Beer.
As an ethnomusicologist that has deeply studied other cultures with the intention of understanding and preserving them, Bengt Berger is about the furthest thing you could imagine from the traditional idea of a “cultural tourist.” Sure enough, just having a look through the packaging of Bitter Funeral Beer, you get a clear picture that Berger does not believe this music belongs solely to him. The liners are adorned with pictures of Ghanain people (taken by Berger himself as he studied and learned with them) rather than pictures of the band, and it clearly states on the back that it’s “based on funeral music from the Lo-Birifor, Sisaala, and Ewe peoples of Ghana.” These arrangements of African funeral dances capture the joy, sadness, and real human emotions of a proud people in a way you wouldn’t be able to grasp by just observing them from a distance; he stood with them, learned from them, and tried to understand what they felt. Which brings me to what Bitter Funeral Beer reminded me of that I knew all along: it’s okay to say you love something and that it moves you, to say it is important and worthy of appreciation, and acknowledge that it doesn’t belong to you. —Shy Thompson
Nyssa Musique - Comme Au Moulin (self-released, 1985)
There’s not a lot of readily available information about French collective Nyssa Musique, and Comme Au Moulin doesn’t give you much to work with if you want to attach a narrative to this album—it’s a private press affair adorned with little but the track titles, credits, and a photo on the back cover of the group posing in immaculately pressed white shirts. The story of Nyssa Musique comes together a little bit if you look at the careers of each individual musician, many of whom have their first credit playing with this ensemble. Armand Amar grew up in Morocco, apprenticed under a South African choreographer, and studied the tablas, zarb and congas. Double bass player Renaud Garcia-Fons was considered prodigious at his instrument at a young age; but, unsatisfied with the trappings of classical music, he became interested in jazz and learned from musicians from Turkey, Tunisia, and Vietnam. Jean-François Roger, also classically trained as a percussionist, rounded out his abilities by studying under masters from India.
It’s no surprise, then, that the first track of Comme Au Moulin hits you with an assortment of marimba, steel pan drums, contrabass and flute right from the beginning before introducing some congas and tablas shortly after. The compositions are rooted in a foundation of American minimalism—Terry Riley feeling like a particularly appropriate touchstone—but with intersections of influence from Africa, India, the Middle East, and who knows where else. Most of the musicians on this record would go on to nurture these influences and continue to experiment, but in a more formal and rigorous way. Really, what’s interesting about this record is not that these influences are present, but what Nyssa Musique does with them. One might be tempted to call this “ethnic” or “world” music, but it’s not; it’s classical minimalism and elements of jazz, with the unique timbres of unconventional instruments. Comme Au Moulin serves as a document of these six young artists coming together with a patchwork of ideas and ambition from far-flung sources, and stitching them together into something more interesting—and, frankly, more respectful—than “world”-influenced music that is meant to be representative of a place you’re not from; Nyssa Musique made their own little world. —Shy Thompson
Every issue, Tone Glow has a panel of writers share brief thoughts on an album and assign it a score between 0 and 10. This section of the website is inspired by The Singles Jukebox.
Nídia - Não Fales Nela Que A Mentes (Príncipe, 2020)
Press Release info: In typical Nídia fashion, we come in touch with a moody, unsettling tone over the first couple of minutes, successful in conveying an automatic sense of respect for the remainder of the album. And you might call it mature, reflective, contained, slow-paced. And we might call it individual, rich in songwriting ability (we call them songs), 2 steps forward or sideways from Nídia's body of work,
Any way we approach it, it's a rich and emotive take on much loved afro styles, blended with Life guiding the producer's hand and a resolute sense of direction in a career already full of high points. Check the late acid on "Tarraxo Do Guetto" and the trilogy of "Rap"-titled songs, sounding like intimate moments in the bedroom, details maybe lost in the fog of memory but retaining all the passion. Fittingly, the last song is titled "Emotions", featuring an epic progression that makes it hard to decide if it's uplifting or profoundly melancholic.
You can purchase Não Fales Nela Que A Mentes on Bandcamp.
Gil Sansón: Today’s dance electronica has no problems being more or less elusive when it comes to genre (or subgenre, for that matter). It’s common to find producers willing to mix lessons learned from dubstep, garage, glitch aesthetics, hip hop and any other style into their own, and the success has more to do with attitude and twisting expectations than with the quest for originality at all cost. This probably explains why there’s a high reliance on using the same equipment, presets and software and how this doesn’t seem to hinder highly personal approaches to the form. Nídia’s latest is a refreshing album that plays with many of the clichés of contemporary electronic dance music, and it does so with great a ear for hooks.
The tracks themselves are more akin to plateaus than properly structured compositions, but being mostly short and to the point, they never outstay their welcome. It’s a joy to hear typical sounds of the genre (hand claps, for example) being used in a way that feels current and natural, with little pretentiousness and with no claims to rewrite or revolutionize a genre. On paper, what Nídia is doing seems like nothing extraordinary, but like a good pop song, sometimes all you need is a beat that makes you move and a few melodic hooks to keep you engaged, and this record succeeds without seemingly trying too hard.
I find myself seduced by the video game sound aesthetic that pops up often on the record; I’m pleasantly reminded of Nuno Canavaro’s Plux Quba, it sharing a similar feeling of childish amazement at the working tools and what they can do, and all without overcooking the dish or compromising its simplicity. In fact, I have no favorite tracks—all of them scratch the particular itch that I get when I want to listen to dance electronica these days: fresh approaches to the same tropes we have grown accustomed in recent years, with an ear for melodic hooks and beats, treated like natural body functions, playful in an almost naive manner and all the more attractive because of it. No track sounds alike in spite of the reduced palette and approach—the whole album begs to be replayed as soon as it’s over.
Marshall Gu: Nídia’s music plays like a series of paradoxes: how can beats so loud be so reflective? How can beats so primal be so futuristic? How can beats so skeletal be so full? How can beats so alien be so familiar? She asks listeners to reconcile these conflicts in a short amount of time too; half of the songs on Não Fales Nela Que A Mentes are under the three minute mark, and yet, none of them feel undeveloped. Nídia’s drum programming is at once rhythmic and monolithic, and the familiarity comes from Western sounds: trap and footwork. But she approaches the other sonic elements in the same manner; “Rap Tentativa” is comprised of these larger-than-life bright synths, which are then followed up by a mini-synth orchestra imitating portentous horns. Ultimately, the music on Não Fales Nela Que A Mentes makes me think of Jlin, not just because of the rhythms, but because there’s a sensuality underneath the visceral beats. Case in point is the closer “Emotions,” where handclaps and a triumphant horn line belie the ghost-child vocals buried underneath them. This is music that moves you, and not just physically.
Jeff Brown: Spry rhythms and thick synth lines fill out each piece; they're never overly frantic and, at times, slower passages are able to blossom out as atmospheric pads float in the background. With all its clicking and mechanical melodies, one can imagine a cavernous arcade: screens flashing brightly, machines dumping quarters. The closing track, “Emotions,” is a nice change of pace—it’s almost ballad-like, introspective in a way that the previous tracks aren’t. It all flows expertly; it’s both contemporary and futuristic.
Samuel McLemore: As literally everyone knows, all kinds of dance music sound best when played loudly, preferably through a sound system with enough bass to make your hair vibrate. A simple experiment can prove this dictum: play any track from Não Fales Nela Que A Mentes from your cell phone speakers and then play the same track through the loudest, bassiest speaker you own.
The difference is immediate and obvious: what can sound monochrome and dull in cell phone stereo is whipped into a multifaceted edifice when given enough volume. Drum beats and basslines gain new tones, the rhythm becomes deeper and more invasive, and what were muted background accents suddenly gain prominence and clarity in the composition. Nídia’s confidence in her production skills has allowed her the ability to compose more tense, ambiguous, and far-reaching music than before while never losing the insistent, hooky drive inherent in the tarraxo and kuduro rhythms she is exploring. Listen to it ALAP (as loud as possible).
Jack Davidson: Much attention has been paid to the eclecticism and ambition of Nídia’s genre-bending new album Não Fales Nela Que A Mentes (at least in the critical praise I’ve come across), but I think the thing that makes this release as seductive and magnetic as it is might be the direct opposite of the maximalist connotation of those qualities: all the empty space. The succinct opener, aptly titled “Intro,” undergoes an evolution from sticky synth wiggles into a relentless assault of heavy-hitting percussion, slamming hard in the center channel and sending shockwaves lancing through the dead air. This is stuff that definitely benefits from being listened to at a loud volume, but a deliberate minimalism is maintained nonetheless; the choice elements that are used punch with formidable force, yet we’re also aware of the void around and in between them, our attention drawn to how the reverb artifacts radially decay from their point of impact.
Nídia’s approach to sampling and composition is refined to the point where she can mine an infectious beat consisting of no more than three or four different sound objects for the duration of an entire track (as on “Raps,” one of the best tracks). Beginning with “Tarraxo do Guetto” she begins to settle into more melodic territory, with both it and the following “Rap Tentativa” making use of cold, sparse tonal loops atop the shifting messes of drums. It’s here that the album starts to lose me; the melodies don’t bolster the rest of the music in any way, and they just seem to make me notice the repetitiveness much more than I was at the beginning. “Royal” is a nice little penultimate oddity, sounding more like a bunch of layered MIDI malfunctions than a detailed art-club beat, but it really works. Not enough to make me forget how bored I’ve managed to get in less than ten minutes’ time, however.
Sunik Kim: The rhythms here are too gelatinous and elastic to be compelling, propulsive—each bar plods along, falling flat as the canned MIDI drums, pianos and synth warbles. “Intro” is promising in its tense, fragmented melody, but the rest of Não Fales Nela Que A Mentes quickly sinks into syncopated tedium. Club music this stripped-back on the sonic front needs rhythms so irresistible that they sound good on pots and pans; though Nídia inarguably executes what she sets out to do, her combination of lethargic sounds in the name of simplicity and gooey, just-barely-too-slow rhythms makes this a very long, sleepy and repetitive 29 minutes.
Eli Schoop: Nídia’s music bounces and sways effortlessly. It’s the auditory equivalent of Source engine films, with objects and models being stretched to their limits for the sheer thrill of it. She utilizes sensation thrillingly, propelling bodies to dance and move akin to puppetry, bobbling around clumsily and giddily. “Raps” could be played to the beat of a factory of robots as well as it could blow the lid off a batida night at a club, and that’s due to Nídia’s playful spirit imbuing the tracks with a vigor only matched by her fellow Principe labelmates. The piano intro of “Capacidades” sounds like Drake is going to come in with some corny verse, only for the bass and syncopation to take over and Nídia bringing her DAW to the limit with some euphoric sonics. Maybe Drake should bite batida next.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: It’s been increasingly hard to do anything at all; I just want to be weak, for wounds to dehisce, for days to end swiftly. Last week I took a midday nap and awoke feeling satisfied, but it quickly begat a feeling of disgust. It was a moment of clarity: how anhedonic had I become for happiness to have only arisen in sleep?
Nídia’s latest three releases encapsulate and ameliorate my current state, and Não Fales Nela Que A Mentes is particularly potent: its spacious, minimal productions are attractively hollow, but there are moments here that remind me I’m alive. “Nik Com”’s urgent swerving feels like a friend grabbing my wrist, dragging me up out the house. “Capacidades” is a late-album burst of joy, its gauzy keys and vocal samples like a blazing Catherine wheel. Closing track “Emotions” sounds almost insincere upon starting, but its handclaps and synthesized horns eventually feel like much-needed fanfare. When it ends, I get off my bed to put the album on again: right now, doing such a thing is a little victory.
Shy Thompson: People that know me often remark that I’m a little bit like a statue. I don’t make a lot of sudden movements, and any slight burst of kinetic energy is met with surprise. I was once told that rather than a wallflower, it’s more appropriate to describe me as a potted plant. Cognizant of these observations, I’ve become hyper-aware of how much I move around when other people aren’t present, and I have to say—it’s not much. My cat has proven a reliable measuring instrument to test out this hypothesis, because she is always by my side and jumps ten feet in the air the moment a single follicle of my hair moves out of place. Needless to say, her tail puffed up like it was hit with a hair dryer on full blast when “Nik Com” came up in the track list and I couldn’t help breaking my maxim of energy efficiency. Nídia’s Não Fales Nela Que A Mentes kicks off with some interesting rhythms, making my neurons stand at attention with the grace of a snake charmer with “Popo.” There are subdued, trance-like tracks; there are dancers that make you want to add your own percussion with whatever is around you; and there is the triumphant closer “Emotions,” a track with infectious hand claps that make you feel like you’re being applauded for defeating the final boss. It’s a short but varied album, and I went in for a second listen immediately after the first. Don’t get me wrong: my roots remain firmly in the pot, but it’s nice to sway my branches every once in a while.
Arca - KiCK i (XL, 2020)
Press Release info: Produced and recorded by Arca, KiCk i defines a new era of multiplex harmony for the Venezuelan artist, singer, DJ, performer and experimental music composer.
Buy KiCK i at the XL website.
Jack Davidson: I just want to start off by saying that I absolutely love this album cover. I first encountered Arca’s penchant for formidable body augmentations when I saw the music video for “Reverie,” one of the singles off her 2017 self-titled album, where she stumbles around on angled stilts in one of the most affecting portrayals of pain that I’d witnessed in a while. For the artwork of KiCK i, though, the Venezuelan artist dons an even more advanced and intimidating set of cyborg-like armor, and the photo’s simultaneous bristle and vulnerability is a great choice for the music contained therein.
However, I’ll admit that my first thought at seeing the double jointed legs was that of the titular hero from Xavier: Renegade Angel—whose legs really aren’t similar at all other than being bent backwards rather than forwards—and it got me thinking about opacity. My buddy always used to say, “We keep getting high until Xavier makes sense,” which was obviously just an excuse to keep getting high, because it never made sense. KiCK i isn’t like that, I’d argue. Arca’s music deals with emotions and struggles that many of her fans (including me) will never experience, but she’s done so with a varying level of abstraction over the course of her career. KiCK i thrives off of what is easily her most direct approach yet; slinking between an arsenal of alter-egos, from serpentine seducer over the warzone-club of “Nonbinary” to wise, atmospheric crooner on “Calor.” My favorite Arca material has always been her most experimental releases—Mutant, Entrañas, @@@@@—but wow, does the increased conventionality on a lot of these songs really work. To be honest, I’ve never felt more connected and immersed in Arca’s music; at times it’s like she’s right there in my living room, stomping her steel hooves around to erratic and confrontational glitch-pop mayhem. There’s plenty of dizzying deconstruction and detailed, abstract sound design amidst the intricate instrumentals, but KiCK i is Arca at her least opaque, her most fully exposed. Prepare yourself, or else.
Nick Zanca: Passing through ampersands and at signs, perpetual fluidity has been the center of Alejandra Ghersi’s work long before she started documenting her transition on social media. This restlessness is the most gratifying aspect of her productions and also the most frustrating—the sounds may be kinetic and vivacious but almost always more impermanent than what I would usually prefer as a listener. While KiCk i is a bumpy ride and nowhere near a groundbreaker, it manages to weave all of her past phases together in a setting bespoke for newcomers. The record clearly showcases her strengths as a collaborator—we witness her ostensible bygone fantasy of a Spanish-language Homogenic, and when sparring with SOPHIE, you can feel both their sonic signatures converge into full-throttle twin sisterhood. Beyond the fragmentary, it’s hard to say where cohesion comes in, if at all. Ghersi rarely lets her guard down for more than a minute at a time, instead letting chaos and programming do most of the legwork. Who knows, this record could become a grower, but at the moment I can’t help but struggle to find a place to put my feet down. Be that as it may, one has to admire her commitment to the bit; perhaps the urge to stay unfixed, i.e. outside binaries, is precisely the point.
Jeff Brown: KiCK i has essentially two gears: lush atmospheric ballads with piano, and frantic dance numbers that have stuttering tempos. It does both extremely well, never letting itself rest; it stays fluid. There are many quick, repetitive drums—even a rattling sound that resembles a spray paint can—that are the bedrock for roaring synth lines to fly across speakers, building melodies that propel songs to dizzying heights. Guest vocalists abound to keep things fresh: Björk has a powerful delivery, every line sung with cavernous reverb, like they’re coming from another dimension—at points, her voice is suspended in the air alongside affecting ambience. Overall, KiCK i is a strong and cohesive outing, ranging from rumbling futuristic electronics pieces to hair-raising, spatial arias.
Marshall Gu: Given that Arca has slowly introduced her own voice as another unsettling instrument into her arsenal, it’s not surprising that we’d eventually arrive here: Arca’s first pop album! And given how many pop artists have tapped her for beautiful dark twisted beats, Arca calls in all favours for her most voice-heavy album yet. Of course, it’s still weird, and you won’t mistake this for anyone else’s handiwork. For example, the way the vocals of “Rip the Slit” are pitch-shifted recall bubblegum bass artists, but the actual words and the way they’re layered are pure Arca: cartoonish if it weren’t so damn sadistic. As always with Arca, underneath all the spastic bursts and beats, there’s plenty of beauty to be found: opener “Nonbinary” ends by introducing these chiming chords and removes the beat so all we’re left with is an uneasy melody, while the chords and drum beat of the following song positively skip down the street. Meanwhile, closer “No Quede Nada” is positively sublime, with Arca’s own overdubbed vocals and the sky-scraping synths reaching higher and higher to glimpse the stars. I predict some push-back from people who miss the tiny abstract fragments that made up Arca’s early mixtapes and albums, so I’ll qualify: Arca’s music has always been uncompromising, and KiCK i is no different.
Gil Sansón: I admit that extramusical concerns are not my main interest when reviewing music, and that my evaluation of an album is primarily based on formal aspects. So the fact that Arca is a fellow Venezuelan actively trying to overcome gender limitations is something I can sympathize with, but it's not a factor when it comes to reviewing KiCK i. From a musical point of view the aspects that mostly appeal to my ears are the rhythms and the musical genre bending, regardless of how successful these experiments may turn out in the end. Arca has become a star, anyway, and one with a penchant for subverting urban genres, including styles that are characterized by misogynist lyrics like reggaeton. I can sympathize with the attempt to turn reggaeton queer, but what matters to me is how successful from a musical sense this endeavor turns out.
Arca is well known for her fresh approach to the type of deconstruction of rhythm that has been part of the lingua franca in XXI century electronic music, and this album offers fine evidence of craft and ingenuity in that regard, be it garage (“Rip the Slit”), abstract hip hop (“Watch”), reggaeton (“Mequetrefe,” “KLK”) or what I would call torch song (“Machote,” “No Queda Nada”). Apart from the rhythm, the other salient aspect is the treatment of the voice, which Arca seems to think of in terms of genre bending and construction and deconstruction of identity, with mixed success. In songs of a more R&B bent, like the aforementioned “Machote” and “No Queda Nada,” the pitch bending acts as an obstacle to the ear, creating distance when you would expect intimate delivery, but this seems to be part of the deal and likely related to the pains of identity construction.
In any case, these are the least successful tracks in an otherwise rather accomplished collection of songs, and this strategy of disguising, masking (or queering) the voice is often spot on, as with the pitch-shifted voice (chipmunk voice, for a Gen X like myself) in “Rip the Slit.” Other notions of urban music like perreo are cleverly exploited in tracks like “La Chiqui,” and the collaboration with the ubiquitous Rosalía is quite engaging in spite of the predictable tropes of this type of cameo in hip hop. Also, people wondering how Björk would sound singing in Spanish should look no further than “Afterwards,” but for me, the main catch is the fresh air injected into the reggaeton blueprint in “Mequetrefe,” “KLK” or “La Chiquita” by putting some effort into the very basic (and very boring) rhythm of the genre. On the lyrical orbit, besides the use of codes of the malandro (thug in Venezuelan slang, as in “KLK”) we find Arca trying to express emotions in a direct way, maybe to balance the AutoTune and pitch shifting, but this aspect is probably lost on non-Spanish speakers.
Raphael Helfand: Since it went viral that her dad is a “high level predatory investment banker,” Arca has spent the past month digging herself into a hole on social media. She continues to post content maligning the socialist leadership of her native Venezuela, most notably a now-deleted Facebook photo with a split-faced image of Donald Trump and Hugo Chavez. When, without fail, someone in her mentions brings up how her father’s perspective, and her own privileged past—an early childhood spent in Darien, CT (one of the nation’s wealthiest towns), an undergraduate education at NYU (one of the world’s most expensive colleges)—may be causing her to disregard some glaring facts about the USA’s fraught relationship with her homeland, she takes the bait and violates rule number one of triage PR: Never argue with your haters in the comments. (Full disclosure: I’m currently in grad school at NYU and spent my teenage years in an affluent CT suburb.)
Arca’s sheltered upbringing and dicey politics don’t change the fact that she’s spent half a decade releasing consistently weird, raw, inspirational sounds. So it’s ironic (and sadly predictable) that the mainstream critical world has chosen this moment—the eve of the release of her blandest, most forgettable album yet—to recognize her as God’s gift to music.
No track on KiCK i has stayed in my head for more than five minutes. The songs are stripped of everything that makes Arca’s past music enjoyable. The Lopatin-indebted, stuttering synth swells are gone, as are the Gregorian a cappellas that infused her last, self-titled record with a spinal chill. The album generally comprises two types of track. The more common puts a downtuned, club-ready breakbeat under generic club vocals, their tempi stretched and compressed on cue. (Exhibit A: Track 1, lead single “Nonbinary”). The few leftovers are misguided Top 40 hopefuls. (Exhibit B: Track 2, subsequent single “Time”). These radio attempts are thwarted by the vein of individuality that still runs through Arca’s work, try as she might to hide it. Even with all the compulsive studio polishing in the world, her instrumentals remain slippery and ominous.
The only glimmer of hope comes at the end of the album. Penultimate track “Machote” falls into the aforementioned B category with “Time,” but Arca engages with the song’s pop sensibility more critically. Pairing a pensive, string-heavy instrumental with a doleful vocal that would sit more comfortably on a latin trap beat, she creates a sound that is atmospheric but still catchy. And closer “No Queda Nada” finds her singing in the same echoey ethos that pervaded tracks like “Piel” from her 2017 self-titled album.
It’s disappointing the way Arca has handled being outed as a rich kid, but much more disheartening is that she’s let her quality slip so far. Just four months have passed since she released the dizzyingly dynamic, hour-long track @@@@@, but KiCK i feels years regressed. Hopefully it’s just a glitch.
Sunik Kim: Arca’s earlier, chaotic side has always been the only one I appreciate; in her best work, she displays an uncanny ability to stretch and warp rhythms without sapping them of their kinetic energy—a rare feat. Though harshness—sharp, serrated reverbs and percussive glitches—is a key component in her best work, now, in 2020, in the age of Charli, SOPHIE, and thousands of deconstructed club acolytes, that same harshness sounds dated, locked in time, and exhausts rather than invigorates. Oddly, KiCk i’s non-stop vocal fuckery and frantic, blindly pummeling drums reminded me of two songs: Justice’s “DVNO” and RL Grime’s remix of “Mercy.” Both were showstoppers in their time, but, now that their eras have passed, sound comically overblown and ridiculous. What really characterizes these two songs, and KiCk i, is their stubborn determination to see things through—yes, the drop will go on, yes, there will be another verse, we don’t care if you’re tired. The end result is a garish rather than liberating chaos, a sound trapped in a specific time and scene with no way out.
Eli Schoop: As a member of the avant-garde music observatory, it might be shameful for me to say that I don’t quite get Arca. She is clearly a very talented producer and artist, someone who commits to a singular vision and collaborates with like-minded spirits (Kanye, Björk, Kelela) in order to realize ideas that are foreign to the average mind. This belies, however, the actual music. KiCK i feels like one big hodge-podge, Arca straining to get out every single radical sound she can muster onto record. Sometimes this works, like on “Watch,” a maximalist grime experiment up there with the best Jam City and Stormzy songs, and “KLK,” the successive urbano track that could slot into a Miami festival lineup as easily as it could soundtrack Halloween. But a lot of KiCK i sounds feigned. Arca’s operatic motions don’t land, even with Bjork herself assisting on “Afterwards.” It all amounts to very noncommittal measures, segmented pieces of brilliance that don’t add up to a great whole. For now, I will keep on not getting Arca.
Mark Cutler: How many hooks has Arca written in the last few years? She has always had a distinctive approach, preferring her music to throb, squelch, and slap the listener in the face. She builds diffuse, reverb-drenched fogs, then punctures them with sounds that are almost too sharp, clear to the point of abrasion. That talent for selecting and shaping her sonics has never really diminished—she still rarely sounds like anyone else. Yet when Arca burst onto the scene in 2012-13, with two EPs on UNO and the extraordinary mixtape on Hippos in Tanks, what made her so compelling was not just her unique sonic palette, but her ability to twist abstract and abrasive textures into genuinely catchy songs.
‘Catchy’ is a word I struggle to use for any of her post-&&&&& output. Arca’s ear for interesting synth sounds remains intact, but the songs themselves feel increasingly shapeless. So much of Mutant and Arca feel like production without purpose, yielding tracks that are unmemorable and largely interchangeable. All the right elements are there, but they just kind of come and go, draping on top of each other until each song feels like an aimless wander through New York Fashion Week circa 2016. With Arca, she began incorporating singing into her music. This would normally imply some level of songwriting taking place under all the production—but if this was the case, it was not apparent. Rather, Arca’s vocals became just another sound, lost in the murky, tentacular din.
The album is not all bad. Its first five tracks are a generally successful run through a wide range of interesting sounds and ideas. Here, Arca puts her voice to much better use than she did on her adventurous but undercooked self-titled album. On ‘Mequetrefe’, one of the most compelling songs, Arca raps with her pitch-shifted clones as a legitimately gorgeous piano melody wrestles with a jittering swarm of deep, bassy beats. She pushes her vocals to a rawer, almost ugly place on ‘Riquiqui’, keeping impressive pace with the machine-gun instrumentals. On ’Calor’, Arca changes direction again, keeping the instrumental simple and lovely as she sings up and down her impressive range, from otherworldly soprano to a baritone which, with some digital manipulation, booms as though filling some grand cathedral.
Then we get to the album’s bloated and feature-logged back end. Though it represents slightly more than half of the album’s twelve tracks, this stretch is almost twice as long as the first. The opening run succeeded largely on its swift and canny diversions, not only between songs but within them. At her best, Arca can take a track in four different directions over two minutes, and still make it all fit together by the end. This tendency falls away, as the songs become longer and less focused. It doesn’t help, either, that some of the songs here rely on warmed-over ideas that wouldn’t sound out of place on a 2012 Fade To Mind EP (looking at you, ‘KLK’).
Björk’s appearance on ‘Afterwards’ is an unfortunate reminder of her turgid and overlong Utopia. Arca’s production turned that album into a gruelling slog through tuneless molasses, and she would do well not to recall it. At four minutes, the song is one of the longest on the album; it feels longer. Shygirl shows up next on ‘Watch’, which is at least punchier, if no more memorable. Sophie makes a perfunctory appearance too, on a track which pleasantly recalls the sound of M.I.A.’s decade-old album MAYA. The listener would be forgiven at this point for pausing Arca’s album and revisiting that underrated industrial-pop opus. Yet they’d be remiss not to hear ‘Machote’, which is a refreshing, final reminder of why we all keep listening to new Arca albums, before the album plunges into what amounts to a nearly-six-minute outro.
What most excites me about KiCk i is that Arca has never worked so well with her own voice. The early tracks here show the promise of a genuinely great album, which would successfully straddle the line between pop songwriting and avant electronics. This is not that album. It spends far too long trying to resuscitate its D.O.A. guest spots, and, what’s worse, sometimes does so by falling back on shockingly dated-sounding instrumentals. Yet Arca has shown that she, at least, is not down for the count. For the first time in a long time, I’m eager to hear what she does next.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: Arca’s best album yet.
Still from Born in Flames (Lizzie Borden, 1983)
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