Yes He Did: Relive Obama’s Early Career With This Novelistic Podcast

I had just finished the final episode of Making Obama, a six-part podcast documentary miniseries on Barack Obama’s public life in Chicago from WBEZ (91.5 FM), which concluded on March 15, when I knew I’d be replaying the entire thing for pleasure as soon as I could manage. (I’ve done it a few times now.) Though there’s nothing at all in it on his presidency or Trump’s, the series depicts a period full of bilious racial division and cockeyed political hope in a way that is obviously resonant today. And the people who made it sound like they’re having the time of their lives.

Hosted by WBEZ anchor Jenn White and produced by Colin McNulty, an American who spent several years making documentaries for BBC Radio, Making Obama is a deeply reported and researched and dramatically paced look at Obama’s early career. But simply as a listening experience, it’s a feast: deeply layered but never cluttered, weaving together crowd noise, interviews, White’s voiceover, and music. The musical choices are spare but well-selected, including snatches of hits that end after just a few seconds to stay within fair use, sometimes to great dramatic effect, as with the foreshortened snippet of “Orinoco Flow” that accompanies an old Obama colleague recounting the future president listening to Enya all the damn time. Making Obama is produced, in the manner of a major-label rock album, as opposed to the no-budget indie approach of most other podcasts.

There is merit to thinking that this sort of thing used to have another name: radio. But according to McNulty, “We were never thinking about broadcast — at all.” Speaking from his office, he and White have the kind of easy, sharp back-and-forth suggested by their work. “You just have to keep people engaged and listening to it, because they will stop,” he says. White elaborates: “With podcasts, people really want to move through a journey with you as an experience that I think is different from how people listen to radio. It changes the way you think about how people are listening along. They’re not going to miss an episode unless they decide not to finish listening to the podcast.”

Making Obama is twice as long as its predecessor, 2016’s three-part Making Oprah, partly because that series was so much more successful than White or McNulty anticipated. Making Oprah, says McNulty, broke down neatly into the Eighties, Nineties, and 2000s. “In doing the Obama preparation, we discovered six pretty well-defined chapters; we knew the appeal was big enough that it would justify six full hours.” Adds White: “We had to tell that story with that degree of detail — especially talking about politics in Chicago, it required a little more in terms of the narrative arc.”

Even without his childhood, his college years, or the presidency — Making Obama concerns itself strictly with the Chicago years — it’s quite an arc. Obama arrived in Chicago in 1985 and worked as a community organizer for three years; twenty years (and Harvard Law) later, he was elected president.

The series makes clear that Obama’s rise was both improbable and inevitable — and could only have happened in Chicago, a point made by the president and, in a cascading stack of quotes at the end of the final episode, about twenty interviewees. The first episode deals with Obama’s life as a community organizer — a job often made fun of by his political opponents (we hear Sarah Palin, of all people, mocking him for it during the 2008 presidential campaign), because, as White notes, its ground-level grunt work doesn’t afford the kinds of photo ops so important to many career politicians. It’s also straight advocacy work; Obama had his sights set on making bigger changes — which meant compromising more than the average community organizer was prepared to.

After moving back east to get his law degree from Harvard, Obama had been inspired to return to Chicago by Harold Washington, who in 1983 became the first African American mayor of a U.S. city the size of Chicago (at that time the second largest in the country); much of the second episode (splendidly titled “Chicago Politics Ain’t Beanbag”) concerns Washington’s epoch, as well as providing an overview of the city’s political history. About five minutes into episode two, we hear Washington announcing his run on a mini-cassette acquired from a reporter on the scene. (Washington’s righteous anger and firm commitment to progressive change — “I approach this job just like any masterful surgeon,” he said of the Chicago backroom dealing he opposed: “When you have to cut out a cancer, I cut it out with no emotion. Get it out!” — are especially tonic in a political atmosphere overloaded with double-talk.) But politics in Chicago, entrenched in the favor-trading Democratic “machine” of Richard J. Daley, have always had serrated racial edges — intra-racial edges, too, which applied doubly to a rookie politician with light skin, a Hawaiian upbringing, and an eager mien.

Nevertheless, Obama was ready to campaign. About sixteen minutes into episode three, Carol Anne Harwell, campaign manager for his 1996 run for state senate and the MVP of this series, describes her initial reaction to Obama: “He was born in Hawaii — whaaaa? —you know, that kind of thing.” He was hazed by his black Illinois senate colleagues, but when State Senator Rickey R. Hendon called Obama out on the floor for not voting with him, a seriously heated Obama invited Hendon into the break room, away from cameras, and got to “a little pushing and shoving — men acting like kids,” says Hendon recalls. Donne Trotter, yet another senator, reports that he finally “got between them and said, ‘We can’t do this.’ ”

Equally intense is the account of Obama’s sole political loss, to ex–Black Panther Bobby Rush in a 2000 run for Congress. Rush’s deeply rooted popularity with black voters in Chicago’s South Side proved the upstart’s undoing. Rush’s voice is labored — he beat salivary cancer ten years ago — but there’s no misunderstanding the tone behind his unstinting belief that Obama was a front by white bosses to unseat him. When White asks Rush how he felt after his win, his answer is simple and damning: “Victorious.”

After dusting himself off following his defeat, Obama readies himself for another go — episode five details how he won over the allies who’d help back him in his 2004 race for U.S. Senate, including Valerie Jarrett, a powerful attorney who became Obama’s senior advisor in the White House. When she and Michelle Obama tried to talk Barack out of running again after his loss to Rush, he persuaded them otherwise. As Jarrett recalls: “In the space of about two and a half hours, we all went from, ‘Don’t do this,’ to, ‘What a great idea!’ ”

One of the great archival finds of Making Obama comes in episode four (around 39:30), with “Blackout,” a radio ad targeted to Chicago’s black stations during that 2000 campaign. “He’s making the case for all of these things he’s done while in the state senate,” says White. The ad featured an African American couple whose lights go out, as was happening inordinately on the South Side at the time. At the end, following a bit of Obama speechifying, White recalls, “There’s a group of maybe five people trying to give this rambunctious cheer: ‘YAAAY!’ I said, ‘I think one of these people is Barack Obama.’ ”

“We can’t verify that that’s Obama,” McNulty makes sure to note.

“When you listen to that ad, and then you listen to the ads that David Axelrod produces for his U.S. Senate race — the difference in the sophistication, the professionalism, is telling,” says White.

According to McNulty, an even funnier vault find occurs in the podcast only as a snippet: a disastrous Obama radio appearance to promote his 1995 memoir, Dreams From My Father. “The guy keeps mispronouncing his name the whole time: Barrick Obama,” says McNulty. “Somebody calls in and says, ‘I don’t know what this is about, but there’s a lot of noise in my neighborhood with the boom boxes and all that.’ It’s completely separate from the topic of Obama’s book. You hear him really struggling to engage with this person.

“Then a phone call happens later. I realized that voice was [Harwell]. She didn’t identify herself as his campaign manager. She says she was not his campaign manager at the time. I couldn’t tell if she was a plant or not, because the timing was kind of weird. It was funny to hear how ragtag the whole thing is. Him struggling during the interview is kind of sad, but it’s pretty revealing, just how different his life was ten years [before] he’s a United States senator.”

The Axelrod ads were where Obama first tried the slogan that would eventually help put him in the White House. In episode six, around minute nineteen, we hear the U.S. Senate campaign radio spot that introduces the slogan “Yes we can.” Obama worried it was too corny. “He turned to Michelle and said, ‘Mich, what do you think?’ ” recalls campaign manager Jim Cauley. “She had her chin in her hand and she just sort of slowly shook her head and said, ‘Not corny.’ ” His TV spots, Cauley says, made him go “from ‘Who?’ to The Man.” We later learn that Obama’s first draft of his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech was thirty minutes long, eventually cut to eighteen: “I struggled with that,” Obama says. “There were a lot of good lines in there that got put on the chopping block.” The excerpts of his DNC speech are still stunning, and its unbridled belief in a United States that had more in common than not, in the wake of everything that’s happened since Obama left the White House, now sounds almost unbearably poignant.

A Detroit native, White joined WBEZ two years ago. “I didn’t come to ’BEZ saying, ‘I’ve always wanted to do a podcast,’ ” she says. But then McNulty, who’d been hired as part of WBEZ’s expansion of its on-demand content unit, approached her to work on Making Oprah with him, promising, “It’ll be really easy.”

“He lied!” White says, laughing uproariously. “It was not easy, but it was a lot of fun. And professionally it made me rethink what the future looks like for me.” Podcasting gives her the chance to “be more responsive to what the story really needs, what it’s asking for, because we don’t have to be attached to hitting a certain time post. As a person who on the other side of my job has to watch the clock, I really enjoy that freedom.”

That playfulness exemplifies McNulty’s approach. At the BBC, he says, “I made a lot of shows called The Archive Hour, which was very sound-rich, tons of layering going on.” A good example of this approach at is purest can be heard on the McNulty BBC production Sounds Up There (2015), a narrator-less 28-minute exploration (that’s the word for it) of the first-ever space walks.

“I think the tradition of doing multilayered features for broadcast in the U.K. is pretty advanced compared to the two-way model here,” he says. With Making Obama, he says, the goal was “to be as comprehensive as possible, in the way of a novel, where it’s constantly switching between clips, and building and building and building something. There’s so many friggin’ podcasts out there, thousands of them, and in order to get out of the chaos of it, you have to have a really high bar for what this thing is. I kind of go big with everything.”


Beat Connection: Party Logic

Because I hear so many more worthwhile sets than I can include every month it behooves me to try and not repeat DJs too often. But Ben UFO’s Mixmag Cover Mix (April 3) deserves at least a mention. It’s friskier musically than the wide-ranging Dekmantel set I wrote about in February, but it also follows a less zigzagging, more linear progression, and that clearer contour makes it far more immediate. Ben UFO was hardly the only competition — I found a dozen more killers this month, easy — but the four new ones below I landed on almost effortlessly. The fifth, older set still holds up— as history, if nothing else.



Blue Hawaii, Midnight in a Perfect World (March 16, 2018)

There are filter-house loops and gauzy breakbeats on Tenderness (2017), the second album from this Montreal electro-pop duo, and though they have a melancholic underpinning, they reach pitches of euphoria — “No One Like You” clangs to a climax worthy of a loved-up Elephant 6. But it isn’t “dance music” in the 3 a.m.-at-Output sense. This set for the Seattle radio station KEXP’s weekly Friday-midnight DJ showcase is a different story — not simply because they go for faster tracks-not-songs than the mid-tempo songs-not-tracks that they make, but because it sounds not like a visit to the dance floor but born to it.

Building from cocktail-hour slink like Galcher Lustwerk’s “Nu Day (Jimpster Edit)” all the way up to Nineties 2step [house style OK — still 2step?] garage, these tracks unfold as genuine personal favorites lined up with pride and care, but not in obvious ways — instead of bunching all that 2step together, they follow Steve Gurley’s remix of Basement Jaxx’s “Red Alert” (nice one, guys) with a hazier-sounding recent track from the Lobster Theremin label. And they also follow the DJ code of a continual build, which keeps it going right to the end. The segue from 2step classic “Stone Cold” by Groove Chronicles into Robert Hood’s filtered, sped-up loop of Sister Sledge’s “He’s the Greatest Dancer” sums up their ecumenism nicely. And Late Nite Tuff Guy’s “Hold Tite” — an edit of Change’s “Hold Tight” — is as graceful a closing number as you could ask for.

Nark + Analog Soul, Beats in Space Radio Show #930 (March 20, 2018)

“Are you our first Seattle person here on the radio?” Beats in Space host Tim Sweeney asks Kevin Kauer, a.k.a. Nark, proprietor of Bottom Forty Records and one of the Emerald City’s party-throwing mainstays. On this set, Nark approaches techno and house as aggressive, hypnotic psychedelia with deep roots in Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” and Phuture’s “Acid Tracks.” The rhythms don’t usually have that after-beat clap that typifies the Chicago “jack” rhythm (an exception is DJ Boring’s “Different Dates”), but all that acid engulfs you anyway. Within eight minutes, as Chaim’s “Ha Lalla” marches out the slinkiest 303 line in an age, Nark has sunk his hooks into you, and every subsequent turn is equally assured. The capper comes at 53:45, when the best refrain I’ve heard in an age burbles forth: “Your techno is misogynist.” I cannot wait to encounter this one on a dance floor.

Nark’s set never stops building, but the episode’s follow-up is a lot more ruminative. Analog Soul is twin sisters Jacky Sommer and Kat Smith, formerly of L.A. and Oakland, now in Brooklyn, with a new residency at Nowadays, as they mention to Sweeney. It’s rare for a set with as many tempo shifts as this one to be so seamless. One reason is that they let their records run their course — for example, letting Sterac’s “Primus,” from 2010, fade out as Matteo Monteduro’s “06 Planet Amor,” a 1994 gem from the Detroit label Generator, revs up with menacing little synth-string peals before a pumping little kick-drum beat. And then letting that track’s follow-up, the Experience’s “Tubes” (1992), go all the way to its doleful piano ending, allowing them to press reset on the tempo yet again. “The only real conversation about a set we might have is beforehand to say, ‘Well what are you thinking about playing?’ ” Smith told Resident Advisor recently. “And then we’ll give each other a general idea in terms of sound, but we never actually rehearse.” This set doesn’t seem rehearsed, but conversational.

Sandrien, Boiler Room Amsterdam DJ Set (March 6, 2018)

Techno’s long builds can make people impatient, understandably enough. Still, for this former resident at Amsterdam’s fabled (and now shuttered) Trouw club, taking five full minutes to get from effusive announcer intro to some lonesome watery chords rising all the way to legibility in the middle distance are worth it because within another two the groove is stark, shadowy, and viscid, and stays that way to the end. The DJ goes so far into the shade she threatens to become merely deliciously gloomy wallpaper — and then, around 16:40, a snake-charmer melody seeps out like a mirage. Every corner offers a similar nudge, from the sputtering acid-line climax of ROD’s “Acine” to the drop-dead-perfect closer, Underworld’s “Rez,” sounding absolutely refreshed in this company. It was a good month for DJ sets that approximated glittering whirlpools: Pär Grindvik’s XLR8R Podcast 534 (March 21) and John Dimas’ RA.618 (April 2) were strong contenders for this space, and although I was late on it, so was Bonobo’s Boiler Room New York DJ Set (January 19). This one plays less like a cozy fantasia than a clarifying submergence.


SHYBOI, RA.615 (March 12, 2018)

I’m alarmed to see the copy of this mix’s home page calling SHYBOI’s sets “bewildering and unpredictable.” Who could be dumbfounded by a bunch of party tunes? Try delightful and cohesive — or, better yet (and pardon the pun), boisterous. I do sort of get it: At first, the Brooklyn DJ’s set for Resident Advisor seemed willfully all over the place — I’d check to see which new set I’d stumbled on only to find it was still this one — but once I locked in it became a freewheeling tour of slammin’ rave tunes through the ages, from People of Cactus’s minimalist, insane-making “Traky” to Krome & Time’s eternal U.K. hardcore-unto-jungle anthem “This Sound Is for the Underground.” “I’m Jamaican — we’re sprinters,” SHYBOI says in the Q&A. And: “I still don’t think I’m capable of the patient party logic that happens with extended marathon sets.” Not everybody needs to be.

Mat Zo, Electric Daisy Carnival Las Vegas (June 22, 2013)

It starts out like a frat party, with Kurd Maverick’s dunderheaded “Hell Yeah”: “You getting drunk up in this motherfucker?” “Hell yeah!” The doof-doof-doof-doof entering soon thereafter doesn’t help. And this is a live recording, not a direct soundboard feed, with the very audible crowd adding to the feel of a time capsule of the U.S. EDM boom cresting. (EDC Vegas’ attendance in 2013 was 345,000, up 25,000 from 2012.)

The result can be janky — when the bass goes infrared on DallasK’s “Alienz (Botnek Remix),” around 32:30, we hear the bins rattle but don’t feel ours. But even at EDM madness’s height, it was obvious that Mat Zo had more going on behind the decks than your average piece of main-stage headgear. (In my lexicon, “EDM” means it’s from this decade and sounds like it was injected with collagen.) The 94 Zo sets you can find on 1001 Tracklists (the EDM world’s go-to set aggregator) show as much variation as anyone in the “underground” this column typically dotes on. Zo’s upcoming open-to-close set at Output is hardly his first, and while in the aforementioned underground long showcase sets of this type are normal, they’re notable from a guy who made his bones on hour-long blurts for neon-clad kids.

And this particular big-room blurt has real shape. He modulates from an over-the-top screamer like Ferry Corsten’s “Rock Your Body Rock (ARTY Rock-N-Rolla Mix)” (its hyper-compressed circus riff reaching peak bombardment around minute 21) through to the Spanish guitar-led stomp of Knife Party’s “LRAD.” He treats “Get Lucky” — by then out for two months, and already a stadium-DJ cliché — with the irreverence it deserves, speeding it up and slowing it down, a sly aural grin that points up both the song’s ubiquity and its irresistible bounce. And around 32:30, after slipping on “Rebound,” his collaboration with ARTY, he gets on the mike: “Yeah — I copied this song off” It was, of course, the other way around. It’s a telling moment of the growing pains EDM experienced as it entered the pop arena. Zo’s set remains endearing for how little about pop it caters to. These are dance floor dynamics at play, however overblown. You don’t have to be mellifluous to be subtle.

Mat Zo plays a five-hour extended set at Output on Friday, May 4. More info here.

 Michaelangelo Matos lives and raves in St. Paul, Minnesota. At this month’s Pop Conference in Seattle, he will be historicizing the male orgasm in dance music. Tweet mix recommendations to @matoswk75.


Beat Connection: A Nightmare Soundtrack to the Age of Trump

Right, dance music is “specialist” — feel free to cling to that notion, rockers whose festivals are two-thirds electronic because promoters want people under thirty to actually show up. But the most confounding, reverberant, and perhaps important set here isn’t specialist — it’s not even particularly electronic or dance. It’s a deliberate affront to every verity of taste in that realm, or rock, or anything else, for that matter. Geek girls who grew up on Dr. Demento are an under-recognized demographic I suspect we’ll be hearing from more.

DJ Bus Replacement Service: RA.610 (February 5, 2018)

Doris Woo dresses in a Kim Jong Un costume when she performs as DJ Bus Replacement Service, but she’s not kidding, and neither am I when I say this is the most accurate, horrifying, drop-dead funny, burn-it-all-down reflection of the Trump age I’ve yet encountered. It’s all novelty-record ridiculousness broken up by occasional white-noise bomb bursts.

An accompanying interview on the Resident Advisor mix host page confirms Woo as a resolute dork. Her day job is in “commercial/data protection” law, and her track list — just the track list, not the interview — contains sixteen footnotes. She’s such a student of Dr. Demento and Irwin Chusid and Jim Nayder (host of The Annoying Music Show, WBEZ-Chicago, mid-1990s to mid-2000s) that — like a house DJ opening with First Choice and closing with “No Way Back” — she leads off with Ivor Cutler and closes with Weird Al. (If you’re questioning her DJ bona fides, ask yourself — did you interview Daft Punk in 1997?)

What makes her RA.610 not just outlandish but delicious to the bitter end is that she sets out to find the best possible examples (or at least the most contextually apt) from an ocean of one-joke novelties (James Vincent’s “ ‘Roxanne’ by the Police but every time they say ‘Roxanne’ it gets faster”), badly dated historical markers (Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Posse on Broadway”), and pure silliness (see above). Then, true to her DJ calling, she makes them resonate off one another. Everything’s a zigzag. Hence, this mix’s effectiveness goes well beyond matters of taste — DJ culture is about sensibility, and DJ Bus Replacement Service’s is truly gleeful. This is a testament to a lifetime of listening, just to the “wrong” (to use her word) stuff. Compare Floating Points & Four Tet on NTS Radio (February 9, 2018), where recently reissued obscurities from labels like the Numero Group and Melodies International serve to give a basically tasteful selection some tang; by contrast, this is like diving into a swimming pool full of Jell-O. It’s not for everyone, but you’ll never forget it.

The selections resonate even harder because of what the DJ does for her final third. There are hints of what’s coming on the tenth track: MC Mr. Napkins’ “Mussolini Miscellany,” which probably seemed highlarious when Comedy Central released it in 2010 and now comes across as a Reddit site in motion, right down to the jaw-dropping tasteless final words: “Fascism, my nizzle.” (We can hope for this mix to give Steve Bannon a richly deserved aneurysm.) The USA Freedom Kids’ “Freedom’s Call,” as one YouTube commenter puts it, “reminds me of a certain German youth group from 1943.” Naturally, the follow-up is a gabber record from 1994 titled “North Korea Goes Bang” (on Earache, home of Napalm Death), followed by a Korean newsreader from the summer of 2010, and Ghost in the Machine’s “Hold My Drink,” from last year, on the industrial-leaning London techno label Perc Trax. It’s stomach-churning; that’s the point. Following that, a segue from Ethel Merman’s disco “There’s No Business Like Show Business” into Shitmat’s IDM-jungle “There’s No Business Like Propa’ Rungleclotted Mashup Bizznizz” isn’t just a relief but the very thing this medium was made for. Thank her after the nightmare subsides.

Charlotte de Witte: Essential Mix (February 10, 2018)

In techno, the line is all — as long as it undulates persuasively enough to make you notice it at whatever your entry point is, you can follow it till it fades or fizzles out. Belgian comer Charlotte de Witte’s debut Essential Mix offers us a handy place to start: Luca Ballerini’s “Prelude,” whose futzing little out-of-focus synth part wows more than flutters. When the beat finally kicks in after two full minutes, it reveals even woolier edges before flicking into the background and back. About twenty minutes later, de Witte draws attention to the environment she’s created when she brings in her own “Look Around You” —  the filtering breaks each couple of letters of the phrase “look around you, it’s a beautiful life” into shivering stand-alone phonemes. The Belgians tend to design their long, dark tunnels with real style.

That sense of the antic nosing around the edges of hard refinement works perfectly with the alias the 25-year-old producer-DJ started off with: Raving George. On Facebook, de Witte admitted she’d picked the “masculine name…because I didn’t want people to book me because I am a woman.” If comparing her to another woman is reductive, so be it, but the set my mind reaches straight back to is the Helena Hauff Essential Mix from February 2017, named the year’s best by listener vote. Me, I’ve always preferred the September 2015 XLR8R Podcast that converted me to Hauff — and I’ve already played de Witte’s more than either. It’s more rigorous, more playful, more lurid — more techno.

CP Smith: CPU Records x Boiler Room Sheffield Off Camera DJ Set (March 2, 2018)

This passed the crucial investigation we’ll call the You Fucker Test: Count the number of times a DJ makes you say “You fucker” out loud during a set. Consecutive selections get bonus points, and better still if the DJ waits nearly thirty minutes to start pulling out the stops, as CP Smith does. Smith runs the Sheffield label Central Processing Unit, which specializes in acid-tinged, thick-toned, unhurried electro by old hands such as Cygnus, DMX Krew, and Neil Landstrumm. That’s what prevails for this set’s first half — gauzy, naive music-box tunes, menacingly playful Vocoders-or-whatever (“Welcome to the future!”), aggressively slurp-and-slide “snares,” the works. Then, over the course of a long, slow slide to the Prodigy’s “Your Love,” he says the hell with it and gives in to his party impulses — and the “You fucker” moments become a chorus, especially when he follows the Prodigy with one foundational Detroit techno classic (“You fucker”) after another (“Oh, you fucker”). Incidentally, the host explains the evening’s title at the set’s very top: “I don’t think we’ve ever done this before, it’s a Boiler Room without cameras — we basically got bored of ourselves and decided to switch the cameras off for one night only.” Really, guys, you can do it again.

Seth Troxler & Craig Richards: Beats in Space Radio Show #925 (February 13, 2018)

What happens when two famous DJs get together? That’s right — they audition for the chill-out room. Not that you should necessarily ever hope for, much less expect, congruency from your average back-to-back DJ encounter. Richards is an old hand at this — as the long-standing resident of London’s Fabric, he is cognitively prepared for anything, while we could say that Troxler, shedding his earlier bad-boy persona a lot more tidily than the EDM bros he so aptly blasted a few years back, is congenitally so. So you’ll want a seat when these two low-key show-offs build a slow-winding staircase to the stars and/or a groove, each step of which is only obvious in hindsight. (Sun Ra into Aphex Twin, ho-hum, right? Nyet.) The grooves that follow in the second half are just as laid-back and unendingly curious — at first suspiciously lightweight, then holding tightly rather than quivering out. Troxler and Richards’s mutual taste in obscurities is genuinely sly — damn if I can find anything concrete by searching for the track labeled “Craig Paul — Elektro” on the BIS episode page, and damn if its slumping groove and askew snare don’t make me want to cockeyed sing along to its half-garbled refrain every time. “This world could be this world,” I think he’s singing. Sorry, did I say “chill-out room”? Maybe I meant “salon.”

Adam X: Welcome to the Sonic Groove: The 2001 Mix (2000)

When I interviewed Adam X a few years ago, he told me that he felt like techno had reached an end point around 1998: “The market was flooded with all this loop techno stuff that was all sounding redundant.” He jumped ship for a decade to EBM (electronic body music, not to be confused with you-know-what), sneaking back in under the alias Traversable Wormhole. “With EBM and industrial music, there’s as many different elements as techno,” he said. “I was even trying to break some of this music in the techno scene. Now it works! It only took ten years.”

Yet somehow, in 2000, Adam found enough new techno records not to bore himself, or you, silly. Time may have had the last laugh here — when I re-upped this set to Mixcloud, it recognized a whopping two selections, Tribal Crew’s “Tribal Beats 1” and Makaton’s “Module Man,” back to back between 29:00 and 35:35, of eighty-eight total. Discogs doesn’t offer much either. These are notes rather than complaints; they’re also telling of just how unloved techno was in that era.

And they’re misleading, because this is my favorite Adam X set out of many. Listening to his sets through the Nineties you hear a conscious, levelheaded distillation that stops mostly because he did. Nowhere near as prolific as his older brother Frankie Bones (my surface-scratching guide is here), Adam was also nowhere near as scattershot — in fact, let’s just call him New York’s finest techno DJ and get it over with. For a guy who was ready to turn over a new leaf, he never stopped finding truffles.

Adam X plays Output on March 24.

Michaelangelo Matos lives and raves in St. Paul, Minnesota. He recently wrote a Primer of UK pirate radio DJ sets spanning 1988–2008 for The Wire’s April issue. Tweet recommendations to @matoswk75.


Boyd Jarvis: Remembering the Architect of House Music

Boyd Jarvis, who died after a two-year battle with cancer on February 16 at age 59, was one of the key architects of post-disco New York dance music. When I interviewed him five years ago, he was both genial and at pains to take credit for his innovations. It’s easy to understand why. Working with two synths — a Yamaha CS-15 and a Prophet 600 — Jarvis created “The Music Got Me” in November of 1982. Credited to Visual and issued the following year on Prelude, its plangent feel and simple patterns are a clear precedent for the Windy City’s recombinant cheapo disco, and it precedes the first Chicago house records by a year.

A synthesizer and organ player, as well as a radio and club DJ, Jarvis was a native of East Orange, New Jersey. He began hitting New York clubs as an early-Seventies teen, when there was little separation musically between the nascent disco and hip-hop scenes, and he cited Larry Levan, Tee Scott, Nicky Siano, Grandmaster Flowers, and Pete “DJ” Jones as favorite DJs.

Jarvis himself first got on the decks at outdoor parties in Fort Greene in 1977: “I was dragging my two huge Vox speakers. I had two Garrard turntables, [on which] you can really blend, but you can’t be doing any rugged scratching, and a McIntosh power amp. I would bring that shit out to the park. Right there at the corner, Fort Greene and Adelphi, plug up and had a little party, man, outside.”

Jarvis was an early regular at the Paradise Garage, which opened in Soho in 1977. “The entire room was designed to be a big huge speaker,” he remembered. But the recording studio interested him far more than the DJ booth. He began purchasing equipment, including, around 1981, a Yamaha CS-15 monophonic synthesizer. “I was intrigued by the ability to shape and create sounds,” he said. “Synthesizers can do some amazing things. I’ve created water. I’ve created wind. I’ve created chimpanzees jumping from tree to tree. I didn’t have any drum machine at that time. I created an artificial kick drum with the synthesizer and I played it with my finger. The snare was also artificial. I created that using white noise. You can make a combination of white noise and a tone and you can create a damn good kick drum.”

It was at the Garage that Jarvis first met Timmy Regisford. When Jarvis took his CS-15 to accompany another DJ, Derrick Davidson, at the NYC club Melons, Jarvis recalled, “Timmy happened to come down and heard me doing it and said, ‘Yo, what do you think about you doing my audition for WBLS with me?’ That was it, man. That started my whole career.”

With Jarvis adding keyboard lines and effects to the records Regisford spun, the duo would stay on the station until 1986. “We were so young and so naïve to be able to have that position and not knowing the power in that position,” he said. WBLS DJ program director Frankie Crocker had enough faith in Regisford and Jarvis that nothing held their creativity in check. “It was carte blanche. Wednesday was the day everybody came up to ’BLS to get their record played. Frankie had the chicken line. Anybody who came to get their records played — you’d better bring a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, or Frankie will not be playing your shit.”

Regisford, credited as co-producer on “The Music Got Me,” became Jarvis’s primary musical partner of the decade. “When I made ‘The Music Got Me,’ we didn’t even call anything house,” Jarvis said. “We call it club music or dance music. Most of that stuff was done straight to reel [-to-reel tape] in Timmy’s bedroom. I said, ‘What are we going to call this stuff?’ and he said, ‘Shit, let’s call this ‘bedroom music.’ ”

Jarvis was never too hot on early Chicago house — “I don’t know about the ‘jack, jack, jack your body’-type shit. It wasn’t too hard. It was too country for me.” The DJ classics he made with Regisford — including Circuit’s “Release the Tension” (4th & Broadway, 1984), Boyd Jarvis & Timmy Regisford’s “Battle of the Beats” (Next Plateau, 1985), and Colonel Abrams’ “You Got Me Running” (Echovolt, 1984) — had a far more professional sheen.

Billie’s “Nobody’s Business” (Fleetwood, 1986) may be his greatest record. Jarvis met the singer — real name Robin Williams — after leaving Studio 54. “Billie was kind of cute,” he said. “I was really trying to get some pussy. I was like, ‘Hey, what’s happening, baby?’ You know, that little spiel: ‘I am a producer and I make music.’ She said, ‘I can sing.’ I said, ‘Sing me a song.’ ‘The only song I know right now is a Billie Holiday song.’ I said, ‘Why don’t you come to my house? I got this track.’ I noticed that she had this little high range and I said [to] scream, [laughs] and she did.” A refurbished version of the Jazz Age standard “ ’Taint Nobody’s Business If I Do,” the track became a monster at the Paradise Garage, one of Levan’s all-timers, even though the club closed a year after the record’s release.

Following the success of “Nobody’s Business,” Jarvis had gotten heavily into cocaine; he entered rehab in the early Nineties. It was then that he found out his old assistant engineer Freedom Williams had issued a record, “Get Dumb (Free Your Body),” as the Crew featuring Freedom Williams — an early run for what would become C+C Music Factory — that heavily sampled “The Music Got Me.” “I don’t realize how bad it was until I was in Jersey one night at a club, and they played the record and I was excited. And then I started hearing the orchestra is coming and went up to the DJ, and he said ‘Yo, this is Freedom’s new record!’ I took them to court.”

The verdict, in Jarvis’s favor, set a sampling-law precedent. The judge’s opinion dismissed C+C producer Robert Clivillés’ statement that “Get Dumb” took a chunk of Jarvis’s track that was “mere background lasting for only a few seconds toward the end of plaintiff’s recording” as being “so untrue that I must question how defendant’s counsel could have allowed this statement to be submitted to the court in a sworn affidavit.”

Jarvis worked with big artists (he played keyboards on Jellybean’s 1984 single “Sidewalk Talk” and on Herbie Hancock’s 1988 single “Beat Wise”) as well as his clubland confreres. One memorable later gig was his late-Nineties residency at the Tribeca club Vinyl. “There was lots of drugs flowing in Vinyl,” he recalled. “I used to stash my boss’s drugs underneath the turntables. You had BTS, those little gangster white boys from Brooklyn coming in. They robbed the ravers. It was crazy: K-holes all over the place, bro. I have never seen such hilarious shit as these kids overdoing it with those drugs, that special K shit.”

In 2016, Jarvis was diagnosed with cancer; that October, a number of his colleagues — including Regisford, Francois K, Joe Claussell, and host Barbara Tucker — held a fundraiser at Brooklyn’s Output. Another colleague, Paul Simpson — who co-produced Serious Intention’s equally sparse and impactful “You Don’t Know” in 1984 — told Red Bull Music Academy in 2016, “Boyd Jarvis invented house…. When Boyd was doing it, the sound didn’t have a name.” Bedroom music, house — whatever you called it, it was Jarvis who first gave it shape. 


Beat Connection: Five Essential DJ Sets

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.



I’ve begun several of Continuum’s 33 1/3 series, 20,000-word miniatures devoted entirely to one album, and I hope to finish more. Michaelangelo Matos’s Sign ‘O’ the Times, however, was the first to usher me into its second chapter pain-free—and not because of what he has to say about Prince’s greatest album. Like several of these critiques, Matos’s clears its throat with some autobiographical notes, and although I know the guy, we’re not so close that I was aware he’d grown up on welfare in a Minneapolis suburb—a redolent story that ties him to Prince in a way few can claim. The close reading that soon takes over could only have originated with a bright kid in straitened circumstances for whom this first-of-the-month cassette became the center of the universe at a pivotal moment of adolescence. It’s not always crisp, but it’s full of stuff that never occurred to you, climaxing for me in the pages that describe “If I Was Your Girlfriend”/”The Ballad of Dorothy Parker”—one of the diptychs into which he divides the album. Note, however, that not even Matos, who’s been pondering Prince for most of his conscious life, thinks to tell us what the charismatic little motherfucker signifies. It’s as if it’s too obvious to be stated—or comprehended.