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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.
To paraphrase a recent single from Your Old Droog, a white New York rapper previously and ludicrously mistaken for Queensbridge legend Nas, what often sets the righteous creative apart from the scofflaws is being a good guest. It pays to have an active understanding and conscious recognition of the fraught racial history of genre and cultural theft. Respect matters, perhaps especially in cases such as funk where the plunder still feels stinging and fresh.
One need only look to the pop charts to see the contortions and consequences of casual white appropriation of historically black music. Mark Ronson's smash hit "Uptown Funk" required a retroactive writing credit be granted to the Gap Band, while Robin Thicke's legal woes from the late Marvin Gaye's estate were highly publicized. Yet the normalization persists. In many such contemporary cases, it seems a foregone if troubling conclusion that the industry continues to favor and value whiteness after so many decades of at least institutionally perceived progress.
All too familiar with this dynamic, Mayer Hawthorne and Jake One respectively and respectfully built their careers in such contested genres, the former singing soul and the latter slinging beats. Together, they comprise Tuxedo, a project indebted to Chic, Shalamar, and the storied Minneapolis sound of the 1980s.
If you're already thinking about Chromeo, you're not entirely wrong. Too much comparison to those cloying Canadian dweebs deflects what Tuxedo accomplish here on their solid second record, simply entitled II [Stones Throw]. Both groups employ a certain heart-on-sleeve approach to their funk and boogie forbears, favoring earthly delights over cosmic slop. Beyond that shared sentimentality, however, Tuxedo approach--and sometimes even achieve--a classy cool that Chromeo, for all their positive qualities, never could, even with Vice’s imprimatur.
From the jump, Tuxedo demonstrate a mindfulness about their place in the funk tradition. A cameo by Snoop Dogg on opener “Fux With The Tux” acknowledges both the rapper’s reverential Bootsy roots of his breakthrough ‘90s output for Death Row along with his relatively recent musical output alongside producer/preservationist Dam-Funk. On tracks like the disco-licking “Livin 4 Your Lovin” and “Take A Picture,” Jake One takes a satisfying traditionalist approach, though he gets freakier elsewhere.
Even operating in a genre as naturally prone to gimmickry as this one, Hawthorne's superior vocal chops sets the project apart, as he has with his blue-eyed solo efforts. Cuts like the joyous "2nd Time Around" and "Back In Town" find him showing off his formidable vocal range and predilection for mighty fine hooks. He's not always so showy, though, staying comparatively muted on "Special" and the Cameo referencing "Rotational."
Sixteen years ago, when Chris Clark first stepped into the spotlight, few expected him to grow into the artist he’d become. Following his Warp debut Clarence Park, that oft-diverting collection of AFX-nods, he spent years making records that flirted with greatness. Yet the since-truncated Clark nom de guerre truly came into his own with 2014’s eponymous techno masterwork. Following an intervening dark foray into television soundtrack work, he returns with the literally breathtaking Death Peak. Dependent on gasps, coos, and croons, these nine unconventionally vocal cuts offer some of the best use of voice as a dance music texture since the halcyon days of Orbital. Trance without the thump, “Living Fantasy” shimmers with urgency accented by haunting murmurs, while brainy banger “Hoova” squirms its way around soaring leads and celestial moans. Highlight “Peak Magnetic” subtly weaves silken vocalizations into a dancefloor tapestry. Elongated stump closer “Un U.K.” barely contains the artist’s concern and contempt over his country’s spiraling Brexit.
Domenico Crisci, Body Punishment [Opal Tapes]
Following releases for labels like L.I.E.S. and Russian Torrent Versions, this Italian producer delivers an industrial-strength techno offering for this experimentally-inclined imprint. Some of Crisci’s latest record feels like body music in the classic Belgian EBM sense, with the Front 242 vibes of “Your Scent” delivering a mechanically cold and precise kick drum straight to the gut. Otherwise, Body Punishment mirrors what one expects when digging through the Downwards crates, and the clubby grimness of “Black Roses” or factory fueled “Knife” would certainly suit a Surgeon DJ set. Thumping and springy, “EX” boasts many of the hallmarks of warehouse techno yet carries a darker tone than it ought, less euphoric than dysphoric. There is a sort of gabber-eque brutality inherent here, though thankfully the tempos never quite get that unbearably high. Instead, cuts like “United Tribes” and the title track churn and grind at a more merciful pace.
Known to a certain extent in rock circles for his work with the Mars Volta and Red Hot Chili Peppers, keyboardist/percussionist Marcel Rodríguez-López gets into all sorts of mischief for his latest project under this solo moniker. The playfulness of the cover art accurately depicts the tone of the near eponymous ¡EUREKA!, an easygoing record that freely frolics in the fields of hip-hop, EDM, and other decidedly genre-less flora. Such electronic eclecticism is almost expected from an artist bearing the Rodríguez-López surname, what with his older brother Omar's diverse endeavors, several of which include contributions from Marcel. Even when testing the weight of bass on cuts like "The Formula," Eureka veers from clubby familiarity, choosing odd bells and chimes over safer presets or soundbanks. Prog heads and synth-funk enthusiasts alike will find common quirky ground in the midst of "Run Off On Me" and the squelchy "Super Movements," while the Sahtyre-infused lead single "Rap Songs" ventures into Dungeon Family reminiscent weirdness.
Slaptop, With You [Sunsquad]
With ostensibly electronic projects firmly positioned in the upper reaches of the Billboard Hot 100, plenty of commercial opportunities exist for pop dance producers to operate in this happy interzone. The full-length With You follows the San Francisco based Slaptop’s stretch of catchy vocal singles, none of which appear here. Yet those familiar with those prior cuts like “Sunrise” and “Walls” know what to expect here, regardless of who happens to hold the microphone. Assisted by guests including Bay Area types Oliva Florentino and Will Fraker, Slaptop’s straightforward approache covers a number of radio-ready styles. The mellow, melodic house of “Passenger” and “Jump Into” possesses a certain familiarity, while the bubbly “I Try” evokes the lighter side of bass. On “What I Mean,” Baltimore rapper Tate Kobang glides in with a carefree verse abutting the producer’s own effects-laden vocal hook. When it’s just him in the room, With You recalls a perhaps unintentional 2000s Pet Shop Boys.
Born, raised and still living in New York City, Gary Suarez writes about music and culture for a variety of publications. Since 1999, his work has appeared in various outlets including Forbes, High Times, Rolling Stone, Vice and Vulture, among others. In 2020, he founded the independent hip-hop newsletter and podcast, Cabbages.