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Digital/Divide: April’s Electronic Music Reviewed

On April 30, 2019

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.

Among the countless blessings bestowed upon humanity by hip-hop, trap will go down in history as a defining part of the 2010s. Though the subgenre’s origins of course precede this most fruitful decade, the exponential popular growth and multivariate forms of this music became part and parcel of culture and subculture alike during it, continually impacting our listening lives still. Even the potentially countervailing SoundCloud rap movement can’t help but absorb some of trap’s aesthetics, a reminder of its inherent potency and authenticity.

But with ubiquity comes appropriation, and anyone who’s ever set foot on the festival grounds of an Electric Zoo, Forest, or Daisy Carnival knows that firsthand. Given the predominantly white demographics of its producers, DJs, and devotees, EDM’s adoption of trap often felt icky. For every breathtaking Carnage set gracing these stages or emanating from a nightclub’s elevated booth, countless cats with no discernible ties to the core qualities or geographic realities of the trap seemed downright gleeful to pantomime it to the amusement of melanin-deprived teens and 20-somethings.

On the surface, Party Favor appears uncomfortably close to that problematic state of affairs. A clean-cut looker straight outta Park City, Utah, home to ski resorts and the Sundance Film Festival, Dylan Ragland isn’t exactly someone you expect to find finessing the plug or frequenting the trap house. Yet the Mad Decent affiliated DJ/producer has built up a fine reputation for working well with Atlanta rappers like Gucci Mane and Rich The Kid. For Layers (Area 25), billed as his debut album after years of singles and EPs, he outdoes himself by uniting generations of hip-hop talents for bright and booming dancefloor cuts that honor trap’s history and its present.

Ragland defly bridges the 20-year age gap separating OG Maco and Memphis legend Project Pat on “Back,” an unpretentious twerk anthem with obvious charms. Similarly, he pairs up Three 6 Mafia co-founder Juicy J with Harlem’s ASAP mobster Ferg for the wobbly narco-banger “Wait A Minute.” Young hitmaker Lil Baby joins Party Favor’s veteran collaborator Rich The Kid on “Wave,” its speaker-rattling bass supporting two of trap’s 2018 standouts.

As evidenced by the title, Layers doesn’t stick strictly to the rapping guest formula. Ragland seems perfectly content to employ vocal samples as he sees fit, sometimes with like-minded production help in tow. Los Angeles’ own Hex Cougar comes through for the springy and spritely “RBRBRB,” while the GTA duo do what they do best for the rugged and swaggering halfstepper “Work It Out.”

Duke: Uingizaji Hewa (Nyege Nyege Tapes)

Singeli, that oft hyperspeedy sound booming out of Dar Es Salaam, is not a style one eases into. Its seemingly chaotic blend of cross-pollinated homegrown rhythms and feverish melodies doesn’t exactly jibe with the conventions of techno and house nor the West-centric futurism of deconstructed club. But for adventurous listeners or those already addicted to revolutionary genre styles like gqom out of Durban, the Angolan/Portuguese progressions in kuduro, or the footwork fringes of the American midwest, DJ Duke’s Uingizaji Hewa boasts all the hallmarks this Tanzanian form as well as the producer’s marginally less manic hip-hop interpretations. The latter comes roaring through on transcendently lengthy vocal cuts “M Lap” with the dizzying dancehall-on-amphetamine chat of “Naona Laaah” with the talented MCZO and Don Tach. Elsewhere, on the explosive “Kasema Kihindi” and closer “Kula Kihindi,” the full power of singeli emerges, leaving one stunned in place but still craving more and more.

Nonlocal Forecast: Bubble Universe! (Hausu Mountain)

At first glance, The Weather Channel seems an improbable source for musical inspiration. Yet when considering the popularity of ASMR YouTube videos and other such contemporary signifiers of our collective need to calm down online, Nonlocal Forecast’s approach here makes perfect sense. Somewhere between the limits of 1980s smooth jazz fusion and the selected ambient works of Aphex Twin, Bubble Universe! is an experience unlike any you’ve had outside of a Rainforest Café. Far from mundane, it captures the mood of consuming your regional five-day weather report and extends it beyond its logical interstitial bounds into something manic and sprawling. “Planck Lengths” smacks of Phil Collins prog-pop self-indulgence, while “Cloud-Hidden” shimmers and shatters in equal measure. Once you get over the absolute absurdity of it all, there’s so much to marvel and gawk at in her beauteous spirit world. Imbued with almost cinematic drama, “Triangular Format” races forward with urgently shifting beats. The storm subsides on “Foam, Vacuum, Om,” the closest the record gets to its new age roots.

Rare DM: Vanta Black (Rare DM)

You don’t name your album after one of the darkest substances known to man without good reason. Its tracklisting half-comprised of singles previously released over the past two years, the fittingly tenebrous Vanta Black serves as a rewarding, if disconcerting, introduction to the analog-centric music of Brooklyn-based Erin Hoagg. As Rare DM, a moniker that appears to hint at social media anxieties, she explores the unlit rooms of her unsettled psyche through a series of sometimes vocal yet always opaque electro pop. Not purely an internal journey, she lashes out at the titular type on “Softboy” as trembling percussion collides with muted bleeps and dissonant hisses. Far from the performative excess and superficiality of modern goth, songs like “Jade” and “Spell Cast” exhibit genuine depth while utilizing almost ascetic restraint in places. Even when lovelorn or lonesome, as on the brooding bellringer “Almost A Year,” Hoagg sings with android qualities, a nod perhaps to some of the technorganic themes lurking throughout this grim wonder.

Wasted Fates: Turbio (N.A.A.F.I.)

Mexico City doesn’t get the credit it deserves for its contributions to electronic music, even though N.A.A.F.I. — one of the most compelling record labels and self-identified collectives in the game — has its home base there. While sonically inextricable from that locale’s underground scene, Turbio found its final form during producer Octavio Kh’s time in Berlin as part of the 2018 Red Bull Music Academy. Any attempt to decode or otherwise apply regional prejudice to the intricate and nuanced club deconstructions of his latest album as Wasted Fates would be foolhardy. The deflecting synthesized whimsy of “La Excavación” scarcely masks samples of the rescuer aftermath of 2017’s deadly Puebla earthquake. His rhythms go poly and complex, roll-bouncing through “Trastorno” and running roughshod over “Voltaico.” From the frantic score of “Implosión” to the impassioned warehouse techno dramatics of “Bestia,” Turbio showcases a manic mastery of the forward-thinking dancefloor set.

Profile Picture of Gary Suarez
Gary Suarez

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.

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