In the first half of the 2010s, the western world dominated the conversation in electronic music. White, male producers and DJs, often based in London, New York or Los Angeles, mostly controlled the barriers to entry, and took music from foreign cultures without consequence. Diplo, cherry-picking from baile funk, dancehall and reggaeton and tailoring each rhythm to suit an English-speaking market, is the most high-profile example of this appropriation, but he is just one of many white producers in the post-internet decade who dabbled in different cultures with boyish insouciance they regarded drop-crotch trousers, curtained hair, or any other passing trend.
In the second half of the decade, however, multilateral club scenes from Latin America, Africa and east Asia have come to define the global underground, each pressing their native sounds towards the razor’s edge with confidence and technical prowess.
This exists, in part, thanks to collectives such as NON and Naafi, who loosened the western stranglehold on dance music. Alongside America’s Chino Amobi and South Africa’s Angel-Ho, UK musician Nkisi conceptualised NON in 2014 as a pan-African, “borderless state” that was intent on “decolonising the dancefloor”. Their incendiary manifesto and militant sound, which included sundry genres from mutant dancehall to the sparse architecture of South Africa’s gqom style, moulded their cadre into something akin to the Black Panthers of clubland – all of which was bound up in red, Soviet-reminiscent agitprop.
For NON’s label collaborators, black liberation meant denouncing their citizenship from the countries, institutions and social spaces that had subjugated and erased black and brown bodies. No matter their origins, they found solidarity by sublimating what they called the “reverberations of racialised violence” into music-making and DJing, with a nonhierarchical structure.
The Mexican collective Naafi (short for No Ambition and Fuck-all Interest) can be seen as NON’s Latin American counterpart. Founded in 2010 by Tomas Davos (who DJs as Fausto Bahía), Lauro Robles (AKA Lao), Paul Marmota and Alberto Bustamante (AKA Mexican Jihad), it emerged into western consciousness mid-decade. They, too, condemned the insidious effects of colonialism in the industry.
“In Latin America, anything coming from the media or music was something that was created in the Anglo world,” Lao said in 2016. Nahuel Colazo, co-founder of HiedraH, an Argentinian collective affiliated with Naafi, says: “Among my friends, it was common for Latin music to be looked down on. If you listened to a lot of Latin music, you were weird. Tthere was something wrong with you.”
What he refers to is the type of music that threw Naafi into the global club spotlight. Initially, the crew spun South African house, Angolan kuduro, drum’n’bass and techno before suffusing their sets and productions with the thrum of more local rhythms. Listen to one of their mixes and you might as easily hear Guadalajaran trap by Jarabe Kidd, or a bootleg mashup of Yaviah’s reggaeton track En La Mía folded into Nicki Minaj’s Truffle Butter instrumental.
Their focus on showcasing regional genres, as heard in the Prehispánico, Guarachero, and costeño genres in their 2014 tribal compilation, was a rebuke. Tribal music was associated with the poor tastís of the working class, and, according to Lao, not something that the government sees as important or appropriate for the culture in Mexico. Among mainstream, white-washed Mexican DJs and producers, it was wiped from club contexts. Naafi, however, wanted to do justice by tribal music and save it from erasure – they managed to secure national arts funding for the compilation, an astonishing step forward.
The success of NON and Naafi countered the notion that you had to pander to an anglicised palate in order to be internationally successful. But NON and Naafi’s ascent is partially due to the diasporic dance culture planted in 2009 by New York party GHE20G0TH1K.
GHE20G0TH1K established itself as the matriarchal antithesis to white, male electronic dance music. Helmed by Venus X – AKA Jazmin Venus Soto, a Dominican woman from the New York neighbourhood Washington Heights – GHE20G0TH1K railed against formulaic mixing techniques and predictable DJ sets, instead favouring disruptive transitions between far-flung genres that had no business being juxtaposed against one another. Inside the murky Brooklyn warehouses that the mutant party occupied, punters mobbed to heaters dished up by such DJs as Total Freedom, Arca, Kingdom and Jubilee and ranging from warped alien rap and New Orleans bounce, all the way up the bpm spectrum to unrelenting hardcore. This dancefloor was also highly politicised in the sense that its broad music selection properly represented the black, brown, queer and second-generation immigrant attendees who peacocked in its Saturday-night spaces.
Even so, the DJs at these nights resided in cultural epicentres such as New York, Los Angeles and London, with more opportunities, platforms, financial capital and technology, and also had the privilege of being from places that the rest of the world glorified. So, when NON introduced the concept of decolonising the dancefloor, and Naafi spoke about the self-flagellation of Mexico’s DJ community towards its own indigenous sounds, the discourse moved from the diversity of the music itself to the DJs playing it. The critique shifted from representing the likes of tribal, Afrobeats, and baile funk to a diasporic audience towards finally allowing DJs who came directly from the original cultures to be on stage.
In a recent survey by Pew Research Center, 60% of Americans believed the United States would decline in global importance by 2050. Current music trends already reveal these drastic vicissitudes of western power. Today’s pop stars no longer necessarily speak English, but often Spanish or Korean. The vocabulary critics use to describe non-English-speaking genres has become more richly textured and granular than ever, firmly eschewing the ghettoising catch-all term “world music”. Club music is no different: the most vibrant and forward-thinking of left-field electronic music exists in Latin America, Africa and east Asia.
These scenes, which are tethered together through the internet and social media, grew out of championing continental minorities, as in the case of HiedraH Club de Baile in Buenos Aires. This LGBTQ+ music collective, whose mission links together disparate regional rhythms such as cumbia turra, cumbia villera, perreo, corporal, sasha and guaracha, considers parties a form of political protest and sonic liberation. Co-founder Tayhana (also an affiliate of Naafi) has an almost intimidating mastery of CD decks, and is among the global south’s best and brightest. British-born live streaming site Boiler Room took note of all this earlier this year on the collective’s tour across Latin America. Their first stopover was in Argentina to hold a HiedraH label night alongside affiliates Lechuga Zafiro, Brea and Aggromance.
Despite censorship of western platforms such as SoundCloud, Facebook and Instagram, collectives including SVBKVLT, Genome 6.66mbp and Asian Dope Boys in Shanghai have succeeded in circulating their fringe futuristic Chinese sound around the world. English DJ Hodge approached SVBKVLT – made up of Hyph11E, 33EMYBW, Scintii, Nahash, Osheyack, Gabber Modus Operandi and Swimful – for a three-hour takeover on Rinse FM in April. Its crew members have played European festivals such as CTM and Unsound, as well as the opening night of the Warehouse Project in Manchester. Yet, back home, this community of cyberpunk provocateurs still struggle to protect themselves against government-imposed conformity and surveillance, and have struggled to secure licences and regular homes for their events.
Arts collective, festival and record imprint Nyege Nyege in Kampala, Uganda, rose to global recognition through celebrating and showcasing the best of their native underground. At the very beginning, organisers used their life savings for the inaugural event, hunted down emerging performers in remote villages and went to painstaking lengths to transport industry standard Funktion-One speakers from Kenya. Their tireless efforts led to high praise: UK website Fact declared it the world’s best festival. In October, Nyege Nyege’s Slikback played at Europe’s most prestigious club, Berghain in Berlin, and his cohorts have also made major waves this year: Hibotep debuted at Sonar festival in Barcelona; Tanzania’s Jay Mitta had his first performance outside Africa for Boiler Room London; and MC Yallah performed at the German pavilion in the Venice Biennale.
Perhaps partly helped by the global panopticon of the internet, new generation DJs and producers like these combine everything from the weighty syncopations of footwork to the sparse, percussive rolls of gqom and euphoria of hard trance, until the key compounds are almost unrecognisable – and then add their own distinctive local flavour. The result is a simultaneously global and local sound, and cross-continental collaborations are making it even more cosmopolitan. Slikback and Hyph11E, for instance, joined forces in September as an east Africa-meets-east Asia caucus to produce the EP Slip B. Their tracks are five agitated, polyrhythmic workouts stricken with high tempos in classic Slikback style, while HYPH11E provides a noisy palette of chaotic scribbles and mechanical whirrs; both share a penchant for dystopian jungle-adjacent rhythms.
There are sceptics who regard enthusiastic media coverage – like this! – about these distant subcultures as exoticisation. Tavi Lee, the founder of Genome 6.66Mbp, told Bandcamp Daily: “People tend to overhype and fetishise China, perhaps seeing it as a rising, futuristic force that will save the west from its apparent stagnation.” Nyege Nyege co-founder Arlen Dilsizian echoed similar sentiments in 2018. “We see this overwhelming wave of praise, like: ‘Wow this is amazing!’ Well, wait a minute. Five years ago, they said [South African genre] kwaito was amazing, or Shangaan electro.”
Both comment on the west’s leering gaze and attention deficit, but there is something to be said about the way, year after year, these global scenes continue to push forward fresh permutations in club culture. Given the nature of today’s polylingual pop, and world politics on the whole – Brexit, and the Trump administration’s dismantling of western multilaterialism – are the US, UK and Europe finally relinquishing their superiority complex?
At the dawn of 2020, it’s likely that the xenophobia in western bureaucracies will directly clash with foreign artists from these underground milieus. Crossing borders has never been so difficult. Last month, for instance, Tayhana was detained at Glasgow airport ahead of her show at the Art School; in May, Tanzanian artists DJ Duke and MCZO from Nyege Nyege were denied month-long visas into the US, in spite of support from Red Bull music festival and New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand. Red tape to import acts means club enthusiasts might increasingly travel to the source. As demonstrated by Berlin’s scene, which brought €1.5bn into the city last year, electronic music tourism is a highly lucrative industry. Festivals like Nyege Nyege and clubs like Cakeshop in Seoul, South Korea significantly boost a city’s cultural capital, leading to sustainable local economic development. Over time, it is likely fans must export themselves to these faraway locales to experience the uncharted frontiers of experimental music – and how this will ultimately affect the community’s carbon footprint is another question.
One thing is clear: the guard is changing. Along the international club continuum, producers and DJs are reassembling dancefloor sonics in more iconoclastic combinations than ever before. Promising young performers now have the infrastructure to draw audiences, and audiences, in turn, know that the experts and innovators of any particular genre are best found at the source. As the rest of the world is finally given a global voice, westerners should bow their heads and listen.