With elements of ballroom culture, UK Funky and Latin American infusions, Adam Harper considers the rising influence of Texas' vital underground dance music.
In the past week I’ve been relocating from the UK to Washington DC, where I’ll spend the next six months researching twentieth century lo-fi pop in order to finish my PhD. This might be good timing because American underground pop dollars feel higher against their UK counterparts now than I can ever remember them being, especially when it comes to dance music. Even some of the greatest releases to have come from the UK scene in the past year – Kuedo’s ‘Severant’, Jam City’s ‘Classical Curves’, Dean Blunt and Inga Copeland’s ‘Black is Beautiful’ – have had a distinctly American flavour. Scratcha DVA, Cooly G, Actress, LV, Dusk + Blackdown and newcomer Evian Christ have been flying the flag for the UK impressively this year, but the sounds of juke/footwork, ballroom/vogue house, cloud rap, so-called ‘trap’, the NYC art/progressive network, seapunk (yep – listen to Coral Records before you snort derisively) as well as classic Chicago, Detroit and Miami seem to be setting the agenda right now.
Of course, the connections between dance cultures on both sides of the Atlantic have always been tight and fuelled by mutual respect, but UK sounds have (arguably) had the upper hand since the 90s. So even if all this great material is coming from the US today, there are still echoes and influences of the UK much of the time, such as the grime flirtations of Baltimore’s Starkey, the UK-flavoured power-house of LA’s Kingdom, and, undeservedly less well known, a side of sizzling neo-jungle by Alaska’s Curtis Vodka. The contemporary transatlantic mongrel house style established by the sister labels Night Slugs and Kingdom’s Fade to Mind have laid a lot of the groundwork here, providing a context where exciting new progressive producers from the US such as Nguzunguzu can rise to prominence. Yet strangely enough, one particular American state seems to present a notably rich picture of US producers taking the reigns of underground dance sounds, and that state is Texas.
Texas is a bit of synecdoche for the American takeover. I’ve never been there, but to many Europeans such as myself, Texas seems like the essence of right-leaning American sentiments, the home of cowboys, big landscape, bigger meals, that TV show Dallas, the state governed by its sons George W Bush and Rick Perry. At best, this is only one side of the region – at worst, it’s a stereotype. The late DJ Screw, who gave his name to the now-ubiquitous technique of slowing down the pitch-time of hip hop records, was based in Houston (he’s probably the reason why hip hop’s latest star A$AP Rocky rapped “influenced by Houston, hear it in my music” on his LiveLoveA$AP mixtape). The city of Austin, Texas has been a bohemian mecca for decades, with every other American indie band seeming to hail from the area at one point in the middle of the last decade. The city is socially liberal and home to a big LGBT community, celebrates subculture, calls itself “the live music capital of the world”, and even has a popular unofficial slogan, Keep Austin Weird.
Texas, and Austin specifically, first showed up on my own radar with Dubbel Dutch’s (pictured) ‘Throwback’ EP in summer 2010, followed by a self-titled white label on Dutty Artz and ‘B Leave’ (featuring an early Nguzunguzu remix) the following year; this was before America seemed to be everywhere. Sometimes flirting with 90s UK hardcore and grime but comfortably within the UK Funky sound, all three releases could be filed comfortably next to artists on the UK labels Night Slugs, Numbers and Hyperdub, but they were more formally restless, visiting a wider range of materials as the tracks played out and led into each other. Dubbel Dutch also produced one side of a tribal guarachero-style 12” with London’s Untold. On his most recent release, ‘Hymn’, he revs up the textural and percussive inventiveness until it sits alongside that of Nguzunguzu and Jam City, but seems to lose some of his former power in the process.
Dubbel Dutch – Throwback
Dubbel Dutch turns out to be the tip of a respectably sized iceberg. There are two whole labels producing music of a broadly similar stripe in Texas: #Feelings, based in Austin, and Freshmore, based 160 miles down the road in Houston. Though it only has three releases so far, #Feelings is one of Bandcamp’s many hidden gems. With effortless glamour wicked camp, the label combines a stridently embodied theme of hard-dancing gay male subculture and desire with the surreal digital future faddishness of the twenty-first century. The statement on the label’s Tumblr speaks for itself: “#FEELINGS IS A FWD THINKING CREATIVE COLLABORATIVE INFLUENCED BY THE INTERNET, SUBWOOFERS, FAKE METALLIC TEETH, HYBRID CLONED ANIMALS, PSYCHOLOGICAL POST HUMAN WARFARE, SHY #HATERS, EURO CLUB CULTURE FROM THE YEAR 2525, TUMBLR, CONCEPTUAL METAPHORIC ORGASMS”. It’s run by the Austin-based visual artist and musician Ben Aqua, who had a string of projects prior to founding the label, including the electro booty of DYX, the queercore of ASSACRE and the high-speed synth disco of MVSCLZ.
#Feelings is stylistically both broad and ground-breaking, but if anything, it takes many of its main cues from the past and present of American gay and (mostly) black ballroom culture. This culture of competitive masquerade and a bravura dance made up poses in series (called ‘voguing’) was immortalised in the documentary Paris is Burning. There are samples and references to Paris is Burning and 1991 ballroom classic The Ha Dance by Masters at Work across the label. Together with the East Coast’s MikeQ, who reworked ‘The Ha Dance’ on his Fade to Mind EP, and DJ-producers like Vjuan Allure, #Feelings is part of a new prominence for ballroom, updating it with an even slicker, more cybernetic feel for the twenty-first century.
The EP on the label that represents this the most is perhaps ‘Let Me See It’ by the Dallas-based Ynfynyt Scroll. The EP’s online blurb proudly announces a “stunning collection of Dramatic Club anthems that are strictly rhythm + verbal altercations over fashion + glamourous ladies & gentlemen + forceful and confusing sexuality. It’s the c-word and the f-word and the p-word and the b-word.” The tracks are highly accomplished in the atmosphere and energy they build, though their fondness for 90s ballroom and vogue house takes them to the point of retrograde nostalgia in many places. (More Ynfynyt Scroll, including the high-octane Pluto Maximo, can be found at the SoundCloud)
For futurism with little compromise, the label’s strongest offering is undoubtedly the ‘More Than Friends’ EP by Lōtic, a DJ-producer formerly of Austin but now based in Berlin. Lōtic’s music is particularly exciting, its energy and immediacy improbably but undeniably of a piece with its startling imagination. What’s more, the EP is free. He specializes in cold and pared-down hi-fi textures, ringing with titanium and cybernetic flex, and wraps his inscrutable future house in ambient effects that reverberate for eons. Rendez-vous speeds down an alien tunnel until it reaches an enormous echo chamber with a transfigured, augmented Beyoncé poised statuesque at its centre, beset by swooping holograms. In Lust, tropical nanorobots perform eroticized surgical enhancements on a human female in a cathedral of mirrors. Coming Together is a twenty-fourth-century fencing duel held across a series of parallel cheese-wires strung across a bottomless pit, its urgent ostinato a nod to The Ha Dance.
Texas’s culture is often heavily influenced by its proximity to Mexico, south of the border, and dance music is no exception. Perhaps the most influential sound to have come out of Mexico in recent years is tribal guarachero (often abbreviated to ‘3ball’) which mixes goofy synths with traditional Latin American cumbia-like folk rhythms (a fascinating, subtle groove balanced partway between a duple and a triple rhythm). Jace Clayton flagged up some amazing made-in-Texas 3ball remixes of dubstep supergroup Magnetic Man in early 2011. (See also: Peligrosa is a popular Texas DJ collective working with Latin American music in an EDM context more generally – a nice recent release by some of them mixes in screwy hip-hop for an ‘authentic Texas feel’.) #Feelings has its own Tex-Mex connection in Mama Testa, a producer based in Mexico City. His gorgeous ‘Globalized’ EP for the label freely mixes footwork, vogue house, garage, UK funky’s syncopated sensibilities and trappy hi-hats. 3ball rhythms are never far away; they’re subtly hinted in the hi-hats and other hi-range percussion – in Wet Feet, they merge seamlessly with the trappy hi-hats. Pale Purple is the EP’s highlight, a smooth deep house take on 3ball ticking along with two interlocking rhythms and digital divas.
Mama Testa – Globalized
Each #Feelings EP is filled with many high quality remixes, indicating a rich network of DJ-producers, and the label’s Tumblr has recently started hosting some decent mini-mixes. The label is really worth a listen and one to watch – if you haven’t discovered it yet, it’s not because it’s no good, it could be because the blogs and magazines you or your friends read and the shops you frequent don’t follow Bandcamp much (perhaps they should). Another dance label based in Texas, Freshmore, is slightly more conventional, releasing on Juno. It’s related to #Feelings by mix and remix, and features a range of dance and local hip hop flavours, with a preference for a euphoric atmospheres and expansive acoustics (lots of Texan artists seem to love their reverb). Highlights include the speleological melodies of Anna Love’s ‘Ghost Champagne’ EP, the garage-plus-something-else of Artifacts ‘Kyu Bon’ EP, the sapphire hood beats of Cosmic Revenge’s ‘Crystal Skies’ EP and the bizarre, classy future juke of Wheez Ie’s ‘Big Gulp’ EP. The label’s Tumblr also hosts mixes by like-minded producers, including Ben Aqua and Lōtic.
Remixing is one of the things that appears to hold the Texas dance music underground together, and each release on #Feelings and Freshmore has them in spades. It’s often a good way of tracking down local producers whose releases might be elsewhere (usually SoundCloud). Some of the best and most interesting remixes on both labels came from one Arms&Suites, whose self-titled EP I subsequently found on Bandcamp. Based in the Rio Grande Valley in the far south of Texas, Arms&Suites (Matthew Crossman) is yet more proof that Bandcamp artists don’t get the coverage they deserve. After a week of becoming increasingly fascinating by his EP, I revisited the Bandcamp page and was amazed to find that it had apparently been released over two years ago.
Arms&Suites – My Masterpiece
The Arms&Suites EP is constantly surprising – like Dubbel Dutch and other Texan artists (and Mosca back in the UK), he constantly switches his topic during his tracks, making them into rich sequences of sensations. It’s like a laboratory in which different types of dance music are spliced together in sequence, and yet never just for the sake of it. My Masterpiece.mp3 begins with downtempo ambient beats hinting at the Amen break before it launches into an ambrosial garage-like groove. Suddenly, a gossamer synth descends from above, coiling around itself before joining in with the groove. Brainwash winds itself up as a strange example of garage before a 3ball beat drops, later to be interjected by tiny slivers of bandoneón. 925 really can’t be described in terms of pre-existing genres, really – it has a loosely Hemlock Records feel perhaps, which Arms&Suites often has. It aptly balances heavy bass drums with gliding synth keys and claps in the midrange on either side of your head. Royal Courtyard starts the UK garage flow before discovering its grimy bassline. Halfway through, with little warning, the track lurches into triple-time and cowbells (it’s like suddenly finding out that the motorbike you’re hitching a ride on can fly), before returning to duple and a still richer texture. I think the UK would have really gone for this EP had anyone there known it existed back in early 2010.
Texas proves that thriving underground dance cultures don’t have to be limited to a handful of the largest cities, or those closest to other cities. In fact, localized flavours have always been a major driving force behind the evolution and revolution of the music. Where to next?
Adam Harper is an author and academic. His latest book, Infinite Music: Imagining the Next Millennium of Human Music-Making, is available through Zero.