Soundtracking the emergency: Is there space for climate change in dance music?
Having been running since 1998 — with the first Academy being held, appropriately enough, in Berlin — RBMA seemed this year to be at the zenith of its relevance and popularity. The increased visibility and liveliness of electronic dance music of late — which remains RBMA’s bread and butter — means the Academy’s cultural appeal has extended out far beyond the realm of its initial specialised house/techno fare. The programming of this year’s event reflected that, with a diverse and relentless five-week schedule that included performers from as wide-ranging backgrounds as noise (Prurient, Body/Head) and classic house and disco (Masters At Work, Giorgio Moroder), as well as plenty of representatives from across the contemporary bass/house/techno spectrum.
The scale of the whole operation is equally impressive—in addition to some 34 events around the city, Red Bull established their Academy headquarters in a large building in Chelsea, re-fitting it with recording studios, a lecture theatre, common spaces for Academy participants to hang out in, and artist installations and performance pieces. In addition, this year’s Academy produced a steady stream of content online, on-air via RBMA Radio, and in print with the Daily Note newspaper. Neither a festival nor really a school (a lot of people I’ve spoken to in the last month seem unsure what the actual “Academy” part is), RBMA is described in its accompanying press release as a “parallel universe.” Red Bull functions in a way as the branded facilitators of an immersive, lifestyle-oriented experience, one which offers the utopian proposal of materialising an imagined global community of producers, DJs and clubbers in a context where money is no object.
Given the scale of RBMA my own experience of it was necessarily extremely partial, although this is arguably a necessary aspect of this style of curated event — like the organisers who have cherry-picked artists across historical and genre lines, the participant is obliged to carve their own path through an overabundance of content. However, the diversity of the artists playing over the course of the event, which manifested in just about every respect — in terms of popularity, geography, genre, old/young — offered an impressive cross-section of the current, multitudinous world of dance music from both NYC and the rest of the world.
Masters At Work live at Le Bain for RBMA in May 2013.
On the first Friday of RBMA, Masters At Work played a free show at Le Bain in New York’s Meatpacking District, where they performed live for three hours with a band that included Roy Ayers among other luminaries. I was a little bit wary, having heard so-so reports of their recent DJ sets, but this rare live performance from the legendary NYC house duo was something else entirely. The set leaned heavily on their later, lusher and less strictly-dancefloor material, and while less of a greatest hits set than might be expected, it seemed fitting to the show’s opulent, hotel penthouse setting. In some ways it was comical seeing Louie Vega and Kenny Dope standing behind their turntables at the back of the stage, while the audience’s attention was mostly drawn to previous collaborator Ayers’ staggering vibraphone playing.
“Stott’s set was a particular highlight, with his crumbling textures bolstered by the big room crispness to his beats, and unexpectedly veering into warped, half-time jungle”
The following night saw a special edition of longstanding Brooklyn techno night The Bunker. Headlined by Manchester dub techno producer of the moment Andy Stott, the night was organized with resident DJs in the difficult front room of Public Assembly and the more buzzed about acts—including Stott—in the more intimate, vibey backroom. I arrived in time to see most of 100% Silk-alum Octo Octa’s set, and having seen him a handful of times in DIY spaces with crummy sound-systems, Public Assembly’s muscular system did wonders for his already slick, trance-inducing house. Stott’s set was a particular highlight, with his crumbling textures bolstered by the big room crispness to his beats, and unexpectedly veering into warped, half-time jungle for the last 15-minutes of his set. And finally, Berlin producer Objekt, whose sound productively blurs dubstep and techno, closed out the night with a bristling and uncompromising set.
Dark Disco, on the final night of the first session, was held in a restaurant in Chinatown, which while aesthetically apt proved slightly less than ideal with poor sound and the venue also being nearly shut down by the police. Like many RBMA events though, the line-up was incomparable, pairing Metro Area — for their first show in ten years — with Gerd Janson and a back-to-back DJ set from Night Slugs co-founders Bok Bok and L-VIS 1990. While there was something oddly muted about Metro Area’s presence that night (here’s hoping they make another appearance soon in a better equipped space), L-VIS 1990 and Bok Bok only solidified my impression that they’re putting on some of the best parties in the world right now, making the best of quieter than ideal sound with a minimal, bass-led set punctuated by “fuck the police” MCing.
“Evian Christ played an extremely well-received set of warped, trap-inflected hip-hop, whose disembodied vocal samples gave it an unearthly, spectral quality.”
One of the more interesting aspects of the RBMA phenomenon is definitely their ability to pull huge and unlikely names as part of impeccably curated rosters (and, of course, what this says about the shifting role of corporations in facilitating things within underground culture — more on this later). A particularly notable line-up was the bill for United States of Bass, held at Santos Party House during the second RBMA session. The premise of the party, as alluded to by its title, was to provide a representative sampling of regional bass music styles from around the US — the proponents of which are mostly only just starting to get some the recognition they deserve. Particular highlights included Afrika Bambaataa’s packed set, which saw him mixing Nirvana with more expected NY hip-hop fare, and Chicago’s DJ Spinn and DJ Rashad bringing out the whole Teklife crew to close out the night in the basement. The event — which also included performances from Detroit’s DJ Assault, Chicago ghetto-house producer DJ Funk, and New Orleans bounce performer Big Freedia, among others—was a testament to the diversity and value of once-neglected dance music subcultures and points to what the Academy is actually very well poised to do: providing lessons in the contexts and history of dance music.
The Academy also had its fair share of shows representing those producing music somewhere sideways of the dancefloor. The Blackened Disco showcase, featuring Oneohtrix Point Never, Evian Christ and Bill Kouligas, while perhaps a little haphazardly curated, gave an insight into some of the more interesting producers around working at the intersection of deconstructed dance music and noise. Opened by PAN Records head Bill Kouligas, his set consisted of layered, tech-y noise, not unlike the output of, say, the Blackest Ever Black label. Young producer Evian Christ then played an extremely well-received set of warped, trap-inflected hip-hop, whose disembodied vocal samples gave it an unearthly, spectral quality. Finally, Oneohtrix Point Never closed out the live portion of the night with the evocative, highly-polished, loop-based drone for which he’s so (deservedly) highly acclaimed. In keeping with the no expense spared mentality of RBMA, a piercing laser accompanied each set, dancing cosmic patterns into the smoke-filled room.
Gobby at the UNO NYC showcase, photographed by Stephanie Kimberly.
RMBA NYC was also good about making sure important players of the local scene, whether old or new, were well represented. On this note, the UNO NYC label showcase, located in the basement of Le Baron in Chinatown, was reassuring. The label has been getting a fair amount of attention lately and are representative of a growing dimension of adventurous cross-genre experimentation within the underground dance music world. Bearing this stamp of official institutional approval then, UNO brought many of its strongest acts out to play, including the Californian SFV Acid — whose electrifying live acid house set comes highly recommended — up-and-coming hip hop/R&B singer Ian Isiah, Gobby, Fur and Kuhrye-oo.
“A friend and I at one point caught the sound guy with his head in his hands during Jahilyya Fields’ dissonant but exhilarating set.”
The Academy’s closing party was held at the recently opened and mildly controversial Output club in Brooklyn. Utilising the venue’s new two room setup, the main room was home to a showcase from Brooklyn’s LIES label, while the adjacent Panther Room presented luminaries such as Mosco, Kerri Chandler and Mathew Jonson. The well-documented impeccable sound of Output was tested to its limits by the scruffy experimentalism of the LIES camp — a friend and I at one point caught the sound guy with his head in his hands during Jahilyya Fields’ dissonant but exhilarating set.
There’s a certain logic to this seeming clash of sensibilities. The LIES crew are perfect to close out the NYC edition of RMBA because they’re at the forefront of a growing push within dance music against a stale model of house/techno-centric club culture in favor of a multifarious approach to genre, a certain amount of grit, and most importantly, music that evokes place. Going by the line-up to this year’s Academy, as well as the post-RBMA video, _What’s Happened to New York – Rough Around the Edges,_Red Bull gets this. However, this raises the valid question of why Red Bull are so interested in pushing some of the most cutting-edge currents of electronic music—isn’t their on-point curation the antithesis of what we’ve been taught to expect from massive corporations?
RBMA presents: What’s Happened to New York? – ROUGH AROUND THE EDGES
A number of factors seem to be at play here. RBMA is in some senses representative of an ongoing shift in the value systems associated with the involvement of commerce in culture. There is a growing obsolescence to the notion of “underground music”, and a corresponding elevation of the local and specific; this is the paradox that RBMA embodies.
The growing acceptance of corporate funding and involvement within the realm of what used to be underground music has been the realm of some debate recently (notably and eloquently here and here). It is related, on the one hand, directly to the financial bottoming out of the music industry, encouraging a mentality where artists and musicians are more likely to simply take what they can get. But it is also part of a deeper philosophical shift which recognises that our surroundings are fundamentally branded and marketed — especially our technologies of communication such as social media — and so that resistance seems not only futile but hopelessly naïve.
“For all the worrying about the role of culture in today’s hyper-capitalist era, perhaps the art patron is returning in the guise of an energy drink manufacturer.”
Moreover, what Red Bull is doing with the Academy cannot be divorced from the infrastructure they’ve erected around it. From the steady stream of online, print and radio content in the form of videos, lectures, authoritative articles and oral histories of neglected eras, RBMA are clearly establishing an educational project that doesn’t bear any immediate relation to the product that they sell. Indeed, internet artist Ryder Ripps, when he proposed a performance project for RBMA in which he tweeted while drinking Red Bull, was allegedly met with bewilderment from the people at Red Bull, who were wary of associating his piece too closely with the brand.
What Red Bull seem to be going for is a much more comprehensive marketing strategy in which their brand becomes associated with not only a young, cool, creative lifestyle, but also gives them a stake in a culture which prizes relevance, where “likes” and historical authenticity matter in equal measure. The ongoing paradox of this is that by tapping into the desirability of the authentic and the local, Red Bull are contributing to the flattening of culture in a way that perfectly sums up the shifting, rapidly globalizing state of dance music today.
At this stage what Red Bull are doing with their conscientious and relatively adventurous involvement in underground music is peculiar, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it’s increasingly a model that companies adopt. For all the worrying about the role of culture in today’s hyper-capitalist era, perhaps the art patron is returning in the guise of an energy drink manufacturer.