Beat Connection: A Few Words About Avicii

As the dance world said goodbye to the late Swedish DJ, these five sets helped lift our spirits


I saw Avicii DJ twice. Here’s what I wrote for the Voice about seeing him at Lavo in January 2012. The second time was at Tomorrowland in Belgium, on July 27, 2013, when the rain began and I helped guide a colleague in flats down a slippery high hilltop as — what else? — “Wake Me Up” played. Neither set reached me musically, as the Lavo piece demonstrates; I’d never call myself a fan. But the pitch of frenzy Avicii commanded was visibly real. My gut tightened hard when I opened Twitter the day he died. I wasn’t sad — I was furious; still am. The whole thing looks horribly sordid in ways that not only resonate outward but also appear damningly inevitable, from his self-enforced “retirement” to his obvious, increasing amount of visible discomfort. Somebody should go to jail for it.

dgoHn, RA.620 (April 16, 2018)

At first I wondered if this primer of the drum ’n’ bass sub-style dubbed “drumfunk” wasn’t just indiscriminately dazzling me. As the name indicates, this stuff isn’t simply drum-heavy but largely drum-exclusive. Aside from some inevitable dabs of depth-charge bass and the occasional melodic instrument weaving through the mix, as well as a handful of voices, speaking as much as singing, drums are what you hear on this set: paradiddles, fills, splashes, turnarounds, rolls, pauses, and trick-heavy, multiple-signatures timekeeping, not to mention enough tonal variety, skids, smears, time-stretching, crazed EQing, and all manner of electronic treatments, as well as a couple dozen other kinds of percussion.

This stuff is not about stars. The London DJ, born John Cunnane, wants you to know about his life so much that his Facebook bio claims he was “Born in 1000” and has zero other pertinent personal information, and he seems to play about two gigs a year. Drumfunk is a small style within an already pretty finite scene; it’s 3-D muso music, its clockwork-like attention to detail much of the draw. But despite the high-tech surface of his own tracks on this mix, Cunnane claims on the RA.620 info page to use only a “basic and cheap” setup for making his tracks, six of which are sprinkled among the seventeen here (one of them under the name Kunst): “Just a DAW and the scissors tool.… There is nothing futuristic or old-school about [it].”

Maybe Cunnane doesn’t hear those two things, but I do. Furthermore, I’m a sucker for this sort of drum trickery — the evolution of post-rave U.K. hardcore into drum ’n’ bass in London during the Nineties’ first half is my favorite music that isn’t by Prince or the Beatles. (The example most recent to my ears is a dizzying September 1991 set by DJ Krome and Mr. Time from a Suburban Base Records showcase in Madison’s, Bournemouth, uploaded April 18.) That shape-shifting led to a series of rhythmic kaleidoscopes, as sped-up breakbeats first goosed four-to-the-floor kick drums, then became crystalline discrete timekeeping units. It was, as Will Hermes wrote of DJ DB’s History of Our World Pt. 1 (Profile, 1994) and Pt. 2 (Sm:)e, 1996) at the end of the Nineties, in a phrase even more historically acute than anyone imagined, “Like hearing Apples mutate into iMacs before your ears.”

But RA.620 isn’t a Nineties throwback at all — it’s perfectly in line with Cunnane’s own evolution. At the end of that decade, drum ’n’ bass had gone from being the home of rolling and crashing breaks to, in the words of former Voice columnist Tricia Romano, the home of the “oh-Mickey-you’re-so-fine beat” — direct descendants of Alex Reece’s 1995 single “Pulp Fiction,” a good record that predicted a lot of bad ones. (Recently, for an assignment, I began a dozen 1997 d&b sets from London pirate radio, but couldn’t finish one.) But in 2004, as Jess Harvell put it in Pitchfork, d&b saw a “return of chopped beats.” dgoHn (pronounced, you know, John) began releasing 12-inches a year later. By then, my passions had moved elsewhere; I’ve only fitfully followed drum ’n’ bass since then — and even when I hear something this good, I seldom wonder what else I’m missing. RA.620 is an exception; its spry fifty minutes make me curious.

It’s the bones of this music that attract me most — like an old jazz head who wants to hear sharp new changes run on the standards as much as hearing the parameters pushed out. Here, the standards are the breaks, chopped fine as parsley and gleaming like a new knife, and the mix of secret spy-transmission talk, spare soul-vocal slivers (little of it instantly recognizable; the voices are as chopped up as the drums), and splashes of Rhodes/bells/vibes gleam that typified stripped-down d&b in its mid-Nineties pomp. dgoHn’s own tracks, like “Ralph,” are the most acute renderings of this style here, but their ample spaciousness gives extra room to more densely produced Amen break teardowns such as Nebula’s “Noir.” It’s not the future I thought it might be, but I’ll take it over any number of the ones we actually got.

Dr. Rubinstein, #SlamRadio 290 (April 19, 2018)

I can’t put it better than RA’s Stephen Titmus did in a review of last September’s Oasis Festival in Marrakech: “Dr. Rubinstein has a rare knack for making hard techno seem fun.” You don’t need her physical presence to hear that, but the mischievous, toothy grin of her press photos (she’s having fun, at least) is a tell. Russia-born, Israel-raised Marina Rubinstein seems to have been hard-wired to spin in party mode, whether as ultra-suave as her appearance six months ago on Beats in Space (October 3, 2017), or on this far darker, crunchier, bleepier, more menacing podcast hour hosted by Scottish techno O.G.’s Slam. She’s generous with acid tracks, from Helltown Acid Militia’s slithering “We Are Here” near the top to the burbling comedown of Voiron’s “4 Pole (Voiron’s Acid Mix)” at the end. Yet even though 303s predominate, they feel more like seasoning than stock. It’s the cockeyed tunnel vision of the whole thing that’s most impressive — a landscape that’s cavernous and picturesque, whimsical and musty.

Dr. Rubinstein plays Output Grayscale with KiNK Pres. Kirilik, Avalon Emerson, and Kr!z, on Friday, May 25.

Tata Ogan, Dekmantel Festival São Paulo 2018 (March 3, 2018; uploaded April 26)

Duty bound, or just curious, about the clutch of sets available on SoundCloud from this iteration of the Amsterdam-based event, I sampled most of them and enjoyed myself — it wasn’t like being there, obviously, but it gave a strong taste anyway, even if a lot of the sets could be left in passing. Still, a few stuck: Nascii (glowing disco chug), Tessuto (skittering, angular techno), Elena Colombi & Interstellar Funk (pure, agog electronics of all stripes, with a whale of a turnaround around the 66:30 mark; not incidentally, Colombi’s Beats in Space episode #934, shared with Call Super, was this month’s near-miss). But Tata Ogan’s two-hour deep dive into not just Brasiliana but, specifically, northeast Brasiliana, from a DJ whose surname means “boss”, and who IDs herself, on SoundCloud, as “Acupunturista de frequências,” is that group’s, and this month’s, permanent ear-opener.

This is largely because, aside from some obvious canonical names (Ben Jor, Costa, Gil, Veloso, Zé) and a handful of other recordings, I know relatively little about Brazilian music. The only Brazilian electronic artist I could ID at the drop of a hat is drum ’n’ bass producer Amon Tobin. In the late 2000s I paid some attention to DeepBeep, a Rio de Janeiro-based podcast (its archives live on Mixcloud) with a heavy emphasis on local grooves, but not enough to do much more than wave at what was on display. With regards to house music, my “Latin” defaults tend to be Nuyorican. Samba is a very different kind of groove, one you don’t hear as much in the U.S. or U.K., Basement Jaxx aside.

In Tata Ogan’s hands, that groove (those grooves, I mean) feels immediately charged, even if I couldn’t quite tell in which ways, as the expert I reached out to confirmed when I sent the link. Not only is this a showcase of Brazilian roots, “Just about every sample is referencing the Northeast,” says Wellesley musicologist Kariann Goldschmitt, author of the forthcoming Bossa Mundo: Brazilian Music and the Global Media Industries. Specifically, Goldschmitt points to an early track that uses the berimbau, a traditional one-stringed percussion instrument, and rabeca, “a type of violin from the northeast.” About fourteen minutes in, they add, “a sample appears that sounds like Samba de Coco Raízes de Arcoverde. It’s the same kind of music that Maga Bo samples in ‘No Balanço da Canoa.’”

Indeed, Ogan’s mix for Tropical Twista Records’ TTRadio podcast last year features Maga Bo’s remix of Samba de Coco Raízes de Arcoverde’s “Ê Boi.” An earlier mix in March, for Dekmantel, in advance of the São Paulo festival, notes that Ogan is a “researcher in the field of ancestral Afro-Brazilian music” who, behind the decks, mixes “Carimbó, African soul, and sometimes even a bit of jungle” and “is an expert when it comes to Brazuka sets derived from African influences, through different genres, regions, and times from our land, Samba, Forró, Carimbó, Folk with unique stamps and textures. In general, it can also be called Macumbá music.”

If that sounds like a wide array of sources, it is; Ogan’s Dekmantel São Paulo set is so varied musically it’s nearly kaleidoscopic. Yet it’s also songful rather than strictly a parade of rhythms; nearly every track features some kind of vocal, with only a few instrumentals working as glue, and so much variation rhythmically that the beats link up solidly without seeming overbearing. From groaning laser-bass to trumpet-led marching-band disco, spaghetti western guitar plod to accordion-led forró, this thing is a mile deep, and shows no signs of wearing out. What a find.

Skream b2b Dennis Ferrer, Boiler Room Local Heroes DJ Set (March 5, 2018; uploaded April 13)

Oh, goodie — a couple of showoffs spend ninety minutes maneuvering to out-shameless one another in front of a group of people in London ready to leap around. New Jersey’s Ferrer is the breathing link between the kind of house fans who just want to let loose and those who raise their eyebrows at the wrong vocal sample (his breakout was 2003’s “Sandcastles,” with Jerome Sydenham; London’s Skream the dubstep pioneer (his breakout was 2005’s “Midnight Request Line”) who veered into straighter house as the decade turned. Both of them battle with tracks that are freaky, minimalist, and knock so hard you nearly snap your neck in half. Even stay-at-homes know some of these chants: “Pump up the jam, pump it up while your feet are stomping”; “Sweat drippin’ on the floor, make your body herk-and-jerk”; “Walk for me — serve! Walk for me — serve!”; “Yo, say something”; “Toni-igh-igh-igh-igh-ight”; and maybe most resonantly, “Let’s get back to the raw.”

Derrick May, Mix-Up Vol. 5 (Sony Music Japan; released July 28, 1997)

Derrick May will forever be known as one of the “Belleville Three,” alongside Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson — three legends for the price of one, unfair as it ultimately is. (In case you missed the last thirty years of culture, they invented techno.) But even if May effectively stopped producing at the beginning of the Nineties, there’s no mistaking his primacy behind the decks — over them, over everyone. May is the greatest of club DJs, the model of how one person and two decks can snap an entire room to complete attention. “I just want to hit it,” he told an interviewer in 2010. “The audience is my enemy. My job is to destroy them. That’s the way I approach any gig. I want to hurt you. I want you on your knees. That’s my approach. I don’t care if there are fifty people or fifty thousand; I’m going to hurt you. It’s a fight between you and me and I’m going to win.”

That combativeness isn’t just talk; it’s embedded in May’s playing style. This officially licensed and mixed CD from 1997 is a miniature version of a night out with the maestro, his stripped-to-the-waist edit of Billy Paul’s “Only the Strong Survive”  daring you not to move. Same with those horns overlapping with “French Kiss” for minutes at a time — at a time when you couldn’t just automate that shit. (It goes without saying that May, when DJing, automates nothing.) And for all his pitched swing and fierce momentum, he’s every bit as expert a down-shifter: check his transition from Basement Jaxx’s “Get Down Get Horny” into Aubrey’s slower “Shimmer” around the 59:00 mark. There’s plenty of fierce joy here — this feels expansive, not condensed, even up against a slew of lengthier Mayday sets.

Derrick May spins at Le Bain, Saturday, June 9.

Michaelangelo Matos lives and raves in St. Paul, Minnesota. Tweet mix recommendations to @matoswk75.