Beat Connection: Five Essential DJ Sets

Floor fillers and surprises from Ben UFO, Lone, Colleen “Cosmo” Murphy, Noncompliant, and Dense & Pika


Nine years ago, I began a column with the same name for the A.V. Club (archived here). What started as a look at new dance music recordings quickly rerouted somewhere more interesting once I started including my favorite online DJ sets. Those who love dance music are often dismissed as merely responding to real-space epiphenomena, but the best online mixes give the lie to that sort of you-had-to-be-there. They don’t simply bring the club home; they occupy a third space between club and home, a space that rewards active listening. 

In my case, a lot. DJ sets are my primary listening. (That’s DJ sets, not live p.a.’s or electronic performances — sorry, Jeff Mills and NASA.) Those that jolt my attention and keep it you’ll find in this monthly roundup of five mixes — four new, plus an older set tied to an upcoming New York date. (You can tweet suggestions to @matoswk75.) I think they’re worth your time because I know they were worth mine. Welcome.

Ben UFO: Dekmantel Podcast 154B (January 2, 2018) 

Hessle Audio co-founder and Rinse FM host Ben Thomson is often dubbed a DJ’s DJ, which is generally shorthand for someone who plays records no one else would dare to and whose individual selections are off-kilter enough to ID the DJ without knowing who did what. His two-part set for Amsterdam’s Dekmantel Festival constitutes a case in point. Podcast 154A, which dropped on Christmas Day, is akin to an elongated spritz of perfumed air, climaxing around minute 47 with an un-ID’d track that’s engorged, almost irradiated, flitting in a dozen directions, especially on headphones.

I love bell-toned tintinnabulation that just keeps building as much as the next boffin, but there’s a difference between fitting together a bunch of records that basically sound alike and finding the logic between a bunch that don’t — and doing it so well you can’t imagine wanting to hear them differently. That’s why 154B gets the nod. Rather than a misty build to a blissy peak, this one triggers surprise upon surprise — here spring-sprong electro from Drexciya, there a rough kick-drum stomp so sideways it threatens to topple itself (unidentified, around minute 31). A Kirk Smith track from 1993 is ravey without evoking an aural glow stick; a Kode9 track from 2004 makes early dubstep seem positively jumpy in a way almost none of the period’s actual sets do. The enormous, flat synth layers of Caribou’s “Julia Brightly” nearly upend the sound picture; naturally, it slides into the pseudo-tribal stomp of CultureClash’s “Sultan Groove,” recorded in ’92 but not made available on vinyl for another 25 years. Ben UFO’s weirdo side is more fruitful than his tone-poem side, and his keep-shit-moving side is most fruitful of all.

Lone: Essential Mix (February 3, 2018)  

The best tracks by Lone, born Matt Cutler in Nottingham, England, transmit a sense of pure agog. His Emerald Fantasy Tracks, from 2010, is my favorite album of the decade so far, though it differs greatly in temperament than the early-Nineties rave classics that inspired it. Once, while driving through Los Angeles with a friend, I played EFT back to back with a 1992 breakbeat hardcore set by Jumpin’ Jack Frost, and the latter was manifestly nuttier. Despite the wide-screen vigor of Lone’s tracks, there’s a fundamental modesty, even homeyness, about his music, and the same is true of his DJ sets — that’s part of their charm.

But there’s nothing modest about his edition of BBC Radio 1’s weekly, two-hour Essential Mix, and that’s why it’s the best set he’s ever made. It begins mellow-ish and starts to hurtle in its second hour. The moment of liftoff comes around minute 45, with an amazing Alicia Myers edit (and there’s no shortage of killer Alicia Myers edits) juddering into Scan-7’s “The Resistance,” a Mad Mike joint from 1993 with a title phrase that’s, you bet, absolutely au courant here in Trumplandia. With the selector giving himself seven evenly paced tracks out of thirty, this is the strongest argument for Lone’s place in the floor-filler pantheon rather than the tune-making one, even if you want to hear every tune again ASAP.

Colleen “Cosmo” Murphy: Boiler Room London DJ Set — The Final Night in Paradise Closing Party (November 26, 2017) 

DJ’ing doesn’t automatically equal mixing, never has — not even in dance music, since the guy who more or less kicked the whole thing off, David Mancuso, didn’t mix at all. Mancuso, as Barry Walters put it in his Voice obit, “didn’t even like being called a DJ. He considered himself…a ‘musical host.’ ”

The founder of the Lucky Cloud Sound System, which put on Mancuso’s Loft parties in London in the last years of his life, Murphy arrived in New York in 1986 and spent the early Nineties “going to charity shops, buying Larry Levan remixes for a dollar,” as she told Love Injection. She got to know Mancuso in that period as well; in the Love Injection interview she describes their tastes as being near telepathic. Both were/are serious gearheads as well, as the Boiler Room announcer notes: “You brought some ridiculous audiophile equipment that I don’t even want to touch.”

Murphy plays less like a host and more like a DJ than her old friend, though her higher ratio of blended segues still places stock in older verities — no coincidence that, following an NYC Peech Boys a cappella, she hits us with D Train imploring, “Where would you be without a song?” Whereupon she unleashes a veritable ’78-to-’84 pantheon of late disco, post-disco, synth-funk, electro-boogie, potayto, potahto. If you’re above a certain age (I turn 43 this weekend), you’ll know every one of these tracks — Sylvester, Inner Life, Sister Sledge, Ashford & Simpson — by heart; if not, you’ll recognize the source of at least half a dozen samples. As Murphy plays them, their placement sounds immediately definitive — like you’re home, just how Mancuso wanted it.

Noncompliant: Discwoman 37 (January 18, 2018)

Born Lisa Smith, Noncompliant spent many years playing and recording as DJ Shiva; this newer moniker is less a signal of rebirth than of consolidation. (And, of course, protest, as a perusal of her Twitter account makes plain.) But though she’s always played hard and deep, the sets she’s issued since the switch have been especially focused and invigorated. This one — recorded live at a femme-centric party thrown in Pittsburgh last July 29 by promoters GirlFx at the club Hot Mass, which resides beneath a bathhouse and whose capacity is under 200 — lets Smith show off her, and techno’s, full range. Right, a live set tends to lose something in the transition to earbuds, especially considering the original setting; and right, even I get sick of nonstop techno over four hours. But this set transmits the humidity of the original room. I keep waiting for things to flag, and for 221 minutes, nothing does. Instead, rooms open up to more rooms. And as a colleague put it, “Just when I’m about to give up, ‘Energy Flash.’ ”

Dense & Pika: Boiler Room London DJ set (May 14, 2014)

I first got to know these two when they were releasing tracks on Hotflush Recordings, a floor-focused but rangy label. More recently, they’ve been keeping company with Drumcode, the Swedish techno label, founded by Adam Beyer, known for head-down, hard-charging stuff with the occasional glint of mischief. But Dense & Pika (Alex Jones and Christopher Spero) are so much friskier than the Drumcode norm — powerful as Beyer can be, he’s never going to make me cackle in my living room the way these two jokers do around minute 36 by dropping in a friggin’ Technotronic a cappella. Better yet, the music earns it — it’s densely reverberating warehouse techno that’s ridiculously simple, ridiculously propulsive, and even when it’s obvious it slams so hard that it beats your resistance down.

Dense & Pika play Output on Thursday, March 1, at 10 p.m. Pig & Dan open. Tickets here.