Digital/Divide is a monthly column devoted to any and all genres and subgenres in the great big beautiful world of electronic and dance music. This edition covers Eli Escobar, Alpha 606 and more.
Whether casual or systemic, the adoption of house music by outsiders marks one of the grosser cultural appropriations in musical history. Co-opted ad nauseam for decades by pop pragmatists and indie aesthetes alike, its familiar kick-snare swing has been treated more like a tool than as a foundation. Other elements of these post-disco club sounds have become so ingrained into the mainstream that many remain oblivious that house has long served as both outlet and refuge for Black, Latinx, and LGBTQ people.
In Las Vegas poolside nightclubs and international soda commercials, the veritable whitewash of a music born of of bold minority is an ubiquitous one. As with hip-hop, there have been plenty of practitioners and parishioners from outside these traditions who respect the history and community of this music as they consume, produce, and perhaps profit from it. Even still, house needs its evangelicals, and New York's own Eli Escobar proselytizes with finesse. A DJ/producer with a genuine adoration for house music past and present, he makes a strong case for appreciating the genre on its own terms with the delightfully indulgent Happiness.
Fixated on pure grooves rather than trying to shoehorn himself into rigidly structured songs, Escobar sticks to repetitious and hooky fare like "So Good" and "I Need U." An affirmation of ownership and inclusion, "Chaka Khan" features a familiar slogan delivered with unflinching pride. More subdued is "Winter's Anthem," a laid back burner populated by warm pads and a clicky rhythm. Best known for her work with the critically acclaimed Hercules & Love Affair as well as the related Jessica 6 project, Nomi Ruiz makes a handful of credited appearances. She delivers breathy exaltations on "Can't Stop Dancing" and channels '80s R&B heroines for the afterhours pining of "4 Luv."
Understatedness has never been one of electro’s defining qualities. By nature, it is an audacious form of music prone to uniformity, militancy, and mythology. Straight outta the Cuban-American enclave of Hialeah, Florida, producer Armando Martinez essentially named this project by referencing an anti-Castro exile group that, in the days before Al Qaeda and ISIS, was suspected of employing terror tactics. While the title rather bluntly describes its music, this apparently once-lost album has surprisingly more nuance than that would suggest. "Armambo" and the hand drummed “DaHomey” lay it on pretty thick, as do the message-laden vocoded vocal tracks “Defection” and “Engineered Flotation Device.” Through its tough throwback beats and deep progressive melodies, Afro-Cuban Electronics embeds its Caribbean fringe in the shadowy nooks of straight electro bangers like "808 Trax” and amid the hip-house grooves of “Black Mermaid.” Lush opener "Afriba" and late blooming “Endangered Cuban Crocodile” let melody speak for itself.
In the late '90s and early '00s, the so-called French Touch ushered in a fashionable new line of house music marked by the gratifying manipulation of high-pass and low-pass filters. Often built around samples of records from dance and pop’s then-recent if buried past, a sort of new disco couture came via chic Francophone imprints like Crydamoure, Disques Solid, and Roulé, the latter of which yielded Stardust’s tremendous hit “Music Sounds Better With You.” But the filter house sound suffered at the hands of European club gluttony, turning a finely aged cheese into a dairy-based copycat gloop. Whatever part of this period inspired CLUBKELLY, the resulting eponymous EP sounds simultaneously experimental, cheeky, and euphoric. “Tool” takes a peppy vocal and contorts it into something both inscrutable and infectious. The beat is deliberately rough around the edges, its bassy low-end filtered into contrast with the paper-thin sampled hook. The formula comes together most effectively on “Mitsuki,” a brisk trip dotted by augmented 4/4 rhythms and a recurring angelic refrain.
At some point following the worm-eaten ambience and narcotized bass glitches of 2014’s ESTOILE NAIANT, this fairly mysterious UK project upgraded from solo to duo. To call their latest release "post-club" deserves an eyeroll even if it happens to be a rather accurate descriptor of its volatile and invigorating contents. Sure, grime chemtrails spray over deadly cuts like "Sonne" and "Dialler," but as much many of Warp's best releases genre takes a backseat to experimentation and innovation. The sort of incomprehensibly brilliant record you wish Aphex Twin still knew how to make, Ψ reaffirms patten’s place in as the contemporary provocateurs operating in IDM’s lineage. The fluffy jackhammering of "Pixação" and backwards masked pads of "Blade" explore compelling sonic contradictions. The vocals are persistent, detached, and unsettlingly effective, evoking the Orwellian dread of classic industrial groups like Skinny Puppy without chewing too much Halloween scenery ("The Opaque," "Used 2 B"). Comparisons to Cevin Key seem valid on the digital disruptions of "Yyang."
The bass provocateurs of Purple Tape Pedigree recently made some vague announcement suggesting this might be their label’s final release. Fortunately, this London-based producer’s brash and bizarre high-concept record makes for an auspicious curtain call. Beyond the Kafkaesque cover imagery, his expressed artsy intent is for One Deep to serve as an out-of-the-box demo for a VST plugin, one that may or may not exist in the real world. The thick rubbery gongs of “Go Plug” and alien vocal approximations of “Try To Levitate Above It All” sound far removed from any presets you might hear from a floor model at your local Guitar Center. Chin-scratching fans of Oneohtrix Point Never should find a lot to ogle and adore here, from the otherworldly vocal grate and vaguely Eastern melodies of "Renew Me" to the dystopian hard drive grunge of “Hyperspice.” Warped closer “On The Roof Texting” soundtracks circuitry as much as it does the ups and downs of human life.
Gary Suarez is a music writer born, raised, and based in New York City. He’s on Twitter.