2011 was a year of global turbulence. It seemed as if each day brought a new natural disaster, another populist uprising, another assassination or power grab. While looking back on this past twelve months can feel as chaotic and disorienting as the events themselves, no truer statement could be said of the music being made. The once sacred monoliths of Pop and the Underground have begun to crumble and fall into one another as the inertia of genre borrowing and sound sampling have overtaken our allegiance to one category or another. With music, it feels like nothing is off limits anymore, and so here we see a chance to share the wealth.
The dance floor will always offer a cathartic space, where history falls away in deference to the instant. The DJ mix is a time warp, amnesia with out a chemical aid. A masterful DJ mix is neither just nostalgia nor a vision for the future; it’s a breadth of feeling that commands our attention, melts time, suspends us forever in the DJ’s precious hour and a half.
Cluster Mag’s year in eternal mixtapes is a contradiction because in a time when singles and EPs have overtaken the album, the mix still invites the listener to enter a space out of her control—to listen cinematically at the mercy of moments possibly uncomfortable, disorienting, or transcendent.
In no particular order, here is a compilation of this year’s mixtape masters and innovators, those individuals who succeeded in shaping sounds into eternal magic, possibly to be forgotten about forever.
MikeQ’s XLR8R Podcast (direct download)
Few things resonated as controversially as the genius of MikeQ and ballroom in 2011. “This is a DJ MikeQ production,” was heard in underground clubs around the world, maybe at the risk of losing the story of the ballroom scene along the way. But rather than explain MikeQ, the whole story is in his mix for XLR8R magazine. Moi Renee, the late New York drag performer opens the set with her famous “Miss Honey,” a fixture of gay clubs in New York during the early 1990s. Soon after, Masters of Work’s “The Ha Dance” introduces listeners to MikeQ’s main arsenal of samples (the vocal in particular sampled by MAW’s “Little Louie Vega and Kenny “Dope” Gonzalez from a scene with Eddie Murphy in the film Trading Places). The rest of the mix is almost entirely made of up MikeQ’s tracks, including many from producers on his Qween Beat label B.Ames, Gregg Evisu, Jay R Neutron, and Kevin Prodigy. The overwhelming feeling from this mix is something altogether sinister and at the same time it begs the listener to pop, drop, and roll. Ballroom sounds like sex, rough sex. There is a power struggle inherent in MikeQ’s music—a desire to serve and be served, to push and be pushed, to claim and re-claim.
If many of this year’s best mixtapes sound like sex, we can only hope sex is being had to them. Cluster Mag favorite Dubbel Dutch quietly unleashed a mix with so much replay value that you know somebody was seriously getting some with this in their bedside stereo arsenal. Clocking in at a fuck-worthy 34 minutes, Dubbel Dutch ingeniously took a collection of Jersey Club’s R&B sampling, sweat-inducing heaters and put them through the slow motion machine. The result is a tempo perfectly at the intersection of reggaeton’s 90-100BPM and Jersey Club’s hype 134BPM. Peppered with equal amounts of “dick” and “pussy” drops, as well as the ever-present Jersey Club bed squeak, there isn’t really anything else to do but thrust along. At 6 minutes in a voice says, “Can’t nobody do it like us, can’t nobody mix chop and screw like us, all over the living room hittin’ it like us, in the middle of the night wake up the building like us.” No better statement captures the futurists making and listening to club music today, and Dubbel Dutch can be trusted to pitch us down and around the house, where we can “do you over here, do over there, do you over here, do you over there.”
Too often the DJ mix is expected to be a seamless, effortless display of both technical ability and song choice. In a time when Ableton warps everything into submission, disruption can be a welcomed change of pace, and one that has as much aesthetic potential as beat matching. While Tom Krell a.k.a How To Dress Well didn’t give us a new full-length of gut-wrenching lo-fi r&b this year, he did give us 3 mixes of equally personal, heart-throbbing musical favorites. My most-listened to mix is Krell’s “Love Yourself” mixtape, as it seems to play most like it’s straight from Krell’s heart. Opening the mix is the last minute of The-Dream’s “Mr. Yeah,” an outro for an intro where Terius exclaims, “You can always come back.” The rest of the mix seems to play out like a slew of great reasons to return, from Mariah’s “Underneath the Stars” to a live, pre-concert warm-up version of Stevie Nicks singing “Wild Heart.” And it’s the unmixed, casual way the songs play out that make the mix so disarming. Each track is uniquely gushing, even taking listeners to the club with the UK garage/bassline perfection of Seany Mac’s “One Of The Those Days.” It’s easy to listen to this with a broken heart and think you could bring an ex-lover back from the brink with it, but this is truly a return to one’s own heart. Krell’s return isn’t simple or seamless, its anxiously interrupted by Mariah’s longing crows, sounds like overhearing Stevie Nicks practice, or awkwardly falls into the drenched, beatless reverb of Grouper; sonic rooms of the soul’s past and future worth visiting before settling into the moment.
Looking ahead there is no question that there are many gunning for a triumphant return of grime in 2012. The unity around producers and MCs has been fractured at best, and it’s hard to look at the scene and place a finger on who might be carrying the torch. That said, if a torchbearer had to be named, it would be the Butterz label run by DJs Elijah and Skilliam. The two released the massive split 12” of P Money & Black’s “Boo You” and TRC’s “Oo Aa Ee,” putting themselves at the forefront of grime’s possible revival. In addition to an excellent mix for Rinse FM’s mix series, someone recorded 2 hour live set of the boys playing in Berlin earlier this month, and the whole thing blitzes and blazes through an astounding amount of the year’s highlights in grime, UK funky, niche, and general UK bass heaviness. The transitions are often swift, with many of them clashing grime MCs with dancefloor heaters like Mosca’s “Bax,” or Joe’s infamous “Claptrap.” It’s hard to imagine Berlin’s audience for this performance given the city’s obsession with all things minimal, as Elijah and Skilliam go all maximal for this set, only letting the hype fall for a brief announcement about someone’s lost car keys, but the take away from this mix is that of pure, gun finger raising hype, pull-ups, rewinds and all. And to hear the various bubbling UK sounds interspersed with London’s best grime MCs serves as a powerful argument for their 2012 presence in a sonic realm dominated by complex rhythms and gut-busting bass.
When the rest of the world catches on to the mixtape format as one of high-art potential, Los Angeles duo Nguzunguzu will stand out as some of the format’s true masters. In 2010 the two topped everyone’s year-end mixtape round up with their “Moments In Love” mix—a journey through various strains of club music with Art of Noise’s much-sampled “Moments In Love” threaded through out. This year Nguzunguzu dropped jaws again with a mix for DIS magazine titled “Perfect Lullaby.” The mix is pure fantasy, one to occupy alone or with a lover. In fact, it’s hard not to see everything Nguzunguzu does as a literal labor of love (it’s boyfriend/girlfriend duo), their art a manifestation of two high-frequency individuals coming together to create beautiful music babies. For “Perfect Lullaby’s” sonic foundation the two drew from a collection of Angola’s ethereal kizomba and zouk sounds, many of them a kind of slowed reggaeton tempo that seems to impossibly balance bounce and sway with catatonia. Perfectly pairing this vibe, the two make their mark putting their r&b favorites over the top, from Brandy & Monica’s “Boy Is Mine” at the start, to a genius pull of R. Kelly’s verse from Ja Rule’s “Wonderful.” Each DIS magazine mix comes with a page of unique GIF art to backdrop the mix, often highlighting the general aesthetic or feeling the mix is capturing. For “Perfect Lullaby” juxtaposing waterfalls flow into one another from the top and bottom of the page, two floods of energy colluding into the Soundcloud embed of the mix at the center. If the two members of Nguzunguzu are each vast rivers meeting, their mix is like watching the waterfall—its effortless nature mesmerizing, time-stopping, and endlessly fresh with each listen.