First Floor #92 – Celebrating Legends While They're Still Here
a.k.a. Paul Johnson, K-Hand and all the pioneers who don't get their due until they're gone, plus a whole lot of new tunes.
Hello there. I’m Shawn Reynaldo, and welcome to First Floor, a weekly electronic music digest that includes news, interviews, my favorite new tracks and some of my thoughts on the issues affecting the larger scene / industry that surrounds the music. This is the free edition of the newsletter; access to all First Floor content (including the complete archive) requires a paid subscription. If you haven’t done so already, please consider signing up for a subscription (paid or unpaid) by clicking the button below. Alternately, you can also support the newsletter by making a one-time donation here.
DANCE MUSIC IS STARTING TO LOSE ITS PIONEERS
Last week, the electronic music world lost two giants (Chicago house legend Paul Johnson and Detroit trailblazer K-Hand) on the very same day. Tributes to both have been pouring in, and while it’s been lovely to see these two being recognized and celebrated, I’ve also found myself thinking about something a co-worker said to me a few years back:
“All of these incredible older artists are out there, and if we don’t interview them soon, they’re going to start dying—and taking their stories with them.”
In fairness, that’s not an exact quote, but the deaths of Johnson and Hand—who were only 50 and 56 years old, respectively—do highlight a looming wave of losses, particularly amongst the Black artists who laid the groundwork for house and techno during the ’80s and ’90s. These people have incredible stories to tell and insightful wisdom to share, but while they’re alive, they’re often underappreciated and undersupported by an industry and fanbase whose priorities are elsewhere.
What, if anything, can be done about this? Some of the problem ties into larger structural issues that extend way beyond dance music, and the current economic dynamics of music and media aren’t helping either. It’s a complex issue, but I did my best to dive in and take a closer look in a longer essay, which can be found here.
PLEASE NOTE: The full essay was originally published yesterday and shared with paid subscribers, but the paywall has been temporarily removed for the next 24 hours. If you’d like exclusive first access to long-form First Floor pieces—and unlimited views of all newsletter content—then please sign up for a paid subscription.
A round-up of of the last week’s most interesting electronic music news, plus links to mixes, articles and other things I think are worth sharing.
These articles were linked in the essay I mentioned above, but they’re worth another mention here. Gabriel Szatan wrote a moving Paul Johnson obituary for DJ Mag, while Marcus K. Dowling penned an excellent (if somewhat more zoomed-out) tribute to the Chicago house legend for Mixmag. For those seeking words about K-Hand, Dazed enlisted Annabel Ross to write a remembrance, and even the NY Times recognized the Detroit pioneer’s accomplishments in this piece by Johnny Diaz.
Journalist and researcher Cherie Hu—who I also interviewed earlier this year—announced that her wildly successful Water & Music platform would be leaving Patreon at the end of August, and also teamed up with Brooke Jackson on an information-rich deep dive into how the live music industry is grappling with COVID as events return across the US. (Spoiler alert: their conclusion, which states that the industry’s COVID data strategy “currently doesn’t exist,” is less than encouraging.)
According to this Twitter thread by indie label Fourth Strike, Spotify is apparently beta testing a new “Campaigns” feature that will require artists to pay (up front) to notify their own followers that they’ve released new music. In related news, Cherie Hu also highlighted that the streaming giant has amended its “About Recommendations” tab to specifically state: “In some cases, commercial considerations may influence our recommendations.”
In a move that will likely alleviate the post-Brexit fears of many British artists, the UK government has worked out an agreement that will allow short-term, visa-free touring in 19 of the 27 countries in the European Union.
Four Tet has initiated a legal action against his old label Domino, demanding that a “reasonable” royalty rate be paid for streams and downloads of his music. While the UK artist is now asking for 50%, the label has apparently been paying him an 18%, a royalty rate they’ve based upon their interpretation of a contract he signed with Domino back in 2001. (Given that the contract was drafted and signed long before the rise of today’s streaming economy, this matter could wind up serving as a precedent for thousands of artists who find themselves in a similar contractual situation.) Further clouding the matter, Domino also states that Four Tet’s legal action is actually intended to pressure the label to sell him back his masters, after his offer to do so last year was rejected.
Night Slugs co-founder Bok Bok, who launched the AP Life imprint earlier this year and also recently debuted his new One Bok alias, discussed his many projects (and more) in a lengthy interview with the 555-5555 forum.
Martyn’s Artist Mentorship Program has been mentioned several times here in the newsletter, but those looking for more details about the project (and what motivated the DC-based Dutchman to start it in the first place) ought to check this feature that Niamh O’Connor has put together for DJ Mag.
Colleen debuted a new mini-documentary showcasing the gear and music-making process that birthed The Tunnel and the Clearing, her LP which came out via Thrill Jockey back in May. A companion interview was also published on the Moog website.
Livity Sound is the subject of Resident Advisor’s latest Label of the Month feature. Written by James Acquaye Nortey-Glover, it dives into the Bristol outpost’s decade-long history and also features an exclusive mix from Hodge.
Working in partnership with Ableton, the Black Artist Database has launched a new, year-long series of free online masterclasses for Black-identifying people. No prior production experience is necessary, and each class will be open to 300 participants. (More details can be found on this sign-up form.) The series begins later this month, and first four sessions will be hosted by Loraine James, Russell E.L. Butler, KMRU and rRoxymore.
Saffron, a UK-based organization working to address the gender imbalance in the electronic music industry, has also launched its own Artist Development Project, offering six mentorship slots (which include a paid commission) to Black women and / or non-binary artists in South West England. Applications are due by August 25, and all of the details about the program can be found here.
A round-up of noteworthy new and upcoming releases that were announced during the past week.
Adult Swim’s music curation is always pretty stellar, but the most recent additions to its 2021 singles series are particularly good: “Bansby,” a new track from Galcher Lustwerk, and “Régime des Fleurs” from Christina Vantzou. (The latter is also available for download on Bandcamp.)
A new EP of previously unreleased material from late composer Jóhann Jóhannsson has quietly been released. Entitled Gold Dust, it contains unused pieces from his many projects (which included film, television and more) and at the moment, it appears to only be available on streaming platforms.
Nicolas Jaar rounded up a bunch of friends to contribute to Caves - A Compilation of Silences, a new collection of tunes on which artists like Lucrecia Dalt and Laraaji play with the idea of silence. (That said, the compilation, which is available now as a name-your-price download on Bandcamp, is not entirely silent.) All proceeds from the release will go to the Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery.
Topdown Dialectic has managed to stay anonymous while releasing two critically acclaimed (and deliciously dubby) albums for the Peak Oil label, and the American producer will soon be returning to the imprint with Vol. 3, the third and final chapter of the LP trilogy. The record is scheduled for an October 8 release, and two of its untitled tracks, “A4” and “B1,” are already available online.
Daniel Martin-McCormick was still going by Ital the last time he appeared on Planet Mu, but he’ll soon be returning to the famed UK label with a new full-length as Relaxer. A follow-up to 2019’s excellent Coconut Grove, the new album is called Concealer and is slated to arrive on October 15. Before that, he’s shared one of the LP’s tracks, “Mello.”
Italian techno veteran Marco Shuttle has teamed up with the Incienso label for his forthcoming third album, Cobalt Desert Oasis. Described as “something more abstract than a travel diary,” it’ll be released on October 15, but in the meantime he’s shared the playfully expansive LP cut “Acrobat.”
MY WIFE HAS BETTER TASTE THAN I DO
My wife Dania is a wonderful person, but she has little regard for my taste in electronic music. Head of the Paralaxe Editions label, she often describes the music I like with words like “cheesy,” “simple,” “predictable,” “boring” and, worst of all (in her mind), “happy.” In contrast, I think she has a fantastic ear, and I’m constantly amazed by the obscure gems she unearths, both from record bins and the dark corners of the internet. Given that, I’ve asked Dania to share some of her finds with the First Floor audience. Each week, she highlights something that she’s currently digging, and adds some of her thoughts as to why it’s worth our attention.
Hello. This is a live recording of pipe organ and vocals by French artist Delphine Dora from last month’s Jolie Vue festival in Switzerland. The show took place at the church of St. Saphorin, which is located in the town of the of the same name, and the music perfectly matches the setting: a tiny, picturesque medieval village perched on the edge of lake Geneva, with the French alps in the distance. The recording itself is eerie, ethereal and pure, and one can hear the shuffling of chairs, the odd cough in the background and the creaking of old floors. Dora’s blog also has some nice photos of the performance.
NEW THIS WEEK
The following is a selection of my favorite tunes that came out during the past week or so. The ones in the ‘Big Three’ section are the songs I especially want to highlight (and therefore have longer write-ups), but the tracks in the ‘Best of the Rest’ section are also very much worth your time. In both sections, you can click on the track titles to hear each song individually, or you can also just head over to this convenient Buy Music Club list to find them all in one place.
THE BIG THREE
What if Burial’s music wasn’t sad? It might sound something like “Honey,” the lead track from UK producer Kilig’s new Canvas EP. In fairness, the song is much more than a mere Burial rip, as its skeletal (albeit potent) drums harken back to early Hessle Audio, and the work of Pearson Sound in particular. And while that makes the percolating tune suitable for the dancefloor, it’s Kilig’s ethereal, nostalgia-tinged vocal samples that provide the hook; flanked by warm pads and shining bits of melody, they flutter skyward and make for a fun—and rather uplifting—listen.
Following an impressive series of techno-ish releases on labels like Nous’klaer, Idle Hands and Delsin, Konduku has now landed on Donato Dozzy and Neel’s Spazio Disponibile imprint with the Parlama EP, and its title track is a sparkling wonder. Adorned with only the lightest percussive touches, the song nonetheless maintains a sense of forward momentum, largely thanks to its twirling, bell-like melodies, which lend the composition an almost exquisite air. Topped off with a smattering of psychedelic bleeps and bloops, the music is both pensive and transportive, hinting at classic Aphex Twin productions like “On” but also sounding oddly organic, as though its creator had pieced together an intricate lattice of delicate birdsong.
There’s no shortage of classic jungle throwbacks these days, but few of them match the quality of “Can’t Do It,” the title track of LMajor’s new EP. While many of his contemporaries tend to flood the zone with booming drums and menacing bass, this London artist clearly understands the value of negative space, leaving the track with plenty of breathing room—and a chance for its soulful vocal refrain to shine through. He still brings in some hard-hitting drums and big, wobbly bass, but thanks to the song’s minimal construction, each element gets its turn in the spotlight.
BEST OF THE REST
Fresh off a release on John Digweed’s Bedrock label—don’t hold that against him—fast-rising Parisian Captain Mustache has now landed on Kompakt with the Everything EP, and though the title track hints at fabulous, Moroder-esque pop, I prefer the twinkling, trance-indebted instrumental, which sounds like something Paul van Dyk would have produced in the late ’90s.
After dropping a series of what they describe as “ritual vibrations” and “electronic sound bath meditations,” Portland duo Moss Wand have turned toward techno on their latest release, and the dubby (albeit propulsive) “Channel” lands somewhere between Basic Channel and the textured dancefloor manipulations of their fellow Pacific Northwesterners in the Secondnature collective.
The new Basic Tools mixtape continues Equiknoxx’s exploration of dancehall’s outer limits, but “Thingamajigama” has the album’s most transcendent beat, looping a haunting vocal choir atop clacking drums and crooked bass wobbles that could have been taken from an old Benga record.
Back in the late 2000s, Apple’s “De Siegalizer” helped establish the original UK funky template, and it’s now been reissued on the new Air Siegalizer EP, which contains multiple takes on the song’s rattling rhythms and blaring riffs. All of the versions are enjoyable, but “De Fuckerlizer” does the best job freshening up the song’s joyously seasick melody.
Does Sully ever misfire? The UK producer has delivered a thrilling drum & bass workout with “5ives,” the A-side of his new 12” for Over / Shadow. (For what it’s worth, the record’s B-side, “Sliding,” is no slouch either.) As always, his drums are on point, as the song offers up an agile suite of bangs and crashes, but the track’s sense of bounce comes from its gooey, bubbling bass notes, which get an additional burst of energy from Sully’s twisted synth manipulations, tweaked vocal snippets and occasional synth flourishes. There’s a lot happening here, and it all bangs.
Two tracks for the electro heads. “Connected” leads off NULLPTR’s new Terminus EP, its warbling melodies and spacious pads channeling the wondrous spirit of ’70s sci-fi. “Snow Walk,” a highlight of Escaflowne’s Emulations EP, is a bit more rough around the edges—in a good way—as the Brooklyn producer offsets the song’s space-age sound palette with some chunky basslines and just a hint of ’80s electro-funk.
Speaking of ’80s electro-funk, there’s a whole lot of West Coast swagger in “Zaiah,” a glistening, boogie-flavored standout from Jarren’s new Antera album. Listening to its laid-back, confident and deeply funky grooves, Snoop Dogg’s “Sensual Seduction” comes to mind, as do artists like Egyptian Lover and Dam-Funk. It’s the sort of tune that can make even the staunchest critics of LA dream of cruising down the boulevard in sunny Southern California.
Best known for his analog slappers, Mr. G charted a more introspective course during the pandemic, and his new album The Forced Force Is Not the True Force is the end result. While the LP does contain a few of his signature dancefloor cuts, the UK veteran has found a lush new gear on “Meditative State (Mantra),” a patient, dusty groover that pulls from crunchy ’80s drum machine experiments and the soulful sounds of classic trip-hop.
The title track of Chants’ latest EP, “Quintuple Helix” is rooted in the vibrantly bouncy rhythms of Baltimore and Jersey club, but its spiraling synth melodies sound like they’ve been sampled from old new age records, or perhaps some old Final Fantasy game soundtracks. It’s an unexpected marriage, but the song itself is a gleefully sparkling banger.
The original “Everyday Diamonds” is a fuzzy, melodic number that wistfully recalls ’80s synth-pop and new beat, but in the hands of Timothy Clerkin—who heads up the Insult to Injury imprint—the song taps into a different sort of nostalgia, transforming into a burly, acid-fueled ripper that could have been cooked up by the Chemical Brothers back in the day.
Rave nostalgia also runs high on “Stand Firm”—a trippy high point of Appleblim’s new Infinite Hieroglyphics album—as the British veteran tops his muscular basslines and jungle-indebted percussive rattle with floaty psychedelics, angelic vocal refrains and some delightfully corroded synth melodies that quite literally sound like they’re coming out of an overtaxed old cassette player.
One of the brightest young talents on the white-hot Time Is Now label, London producer Bakey dropped another pack of killer garage tunes last week, and while the entire Bring It Back EP is likely to be rinsed by DJs in the months ahead, “Reduced Vision” might be the best of the bunch, as he’s fortified its percolating rhythms, washy synths and palpably melancholy vocal refrain with snarling waves of industrial-grade bass. Think of it as something for the sadboys and rudeboys alike.
With tracks from DMX Krew, DJs Pareja, Monty Luke, Tevo Howard, DJ City and lots of others, the new Permanent Vacation 7 compilation is stuffed with dancefloor gems, but none reach the same heights as Rees’ “Digital Joy,” an ebullient, neon-flecked and intensely catchy cruiser that isn’t far off from what Krystal Klear has been doing lately.
It’s a testament to M. Geddes Gengras’ many years of synth exploration that a mere improvisation like this one could be so utterly enticing. Appearing on the beautiful new Flowers Under Glass album, this bright number glides through the air, its shimmering, almost crystalline tones sounding downright idyllic as the song gently drifts into the clouds.
Lewis and Mannerfelt, two of Sweden’s most innovative talents, have joined forces on the new KLMNOPQ EP, and the warped “You Need to Be Kind” impressively marries waves of droning bass and distortion with softly gleaming melodies and a cinematic sense of ambition. How did this collaboration not happen sooner?
Kevin Martin is just a few weeks away from releasing a highly anticipated new album as The Bug, but that didn’t stop him from dropping another full-length from his eponymous ambient-ish project last week. Melting Point is a gorgeous effort, and “Glisten,” with its delicate melodies and lumbering low-end, is a perfect showcase of its author’s blissfully glacial dirge.
That’s all for today’s edition of First Floor. Thanks so much for reading the newsletter, and I do hope you enjoyed the tunes. (Don’t forget, you can find them all on this handy Buy Music Club list, and if you like them, please buy them.)
Until next time,