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Between Two Coasts: Underground club music is thriving in America's heartland

Experimental collectives and communities are taking shape outside of major US cities

  • Words and art: Whitney Wei | Photos: Jay Levy, Allison Kienzle, Jon McAllister, Asher Gray, Jay Tovar
  • 31 May 2017

Underground club music has a penchant for existing beneath the radar. Its parties squat in the sweat-soaked shadows of unsuspecting dive bars and undisclosed (RSVP for address) locations that are constantly threatened by gentrification and crackdowns by the authorities. Visibility is key to bolstering these vibrant communities but many exist beyond mainstream dance music culture, making them difficult to find outside major cities like New York, LA or Chicago. But still, the momentum behind the Southern and Midwestern experimental scenes is steadily growing and you can now find incendiary sounds across America's heartland.

Disparate cities such as Atlanta, Houston, Milwaukee and Ohio may receive less shine, but the crews and labels behind their respective homegrown subcultures are intent on making an impact. They choose to write their own rules. Pay attention.

On a Saturday in March, Morph invades the basement of an old elementary school. A wander down the maze-like subterranean hallways lined with threadbare couches reveals a dancefloor bathed in red light and peppered with the amber glow of lit cigarettes and blunts (selling these tobacco wraps in all Atlanta clubs is customary). Veer left and you stumble into an adjacent open artist studio, where the painter inside seems unfazed by the soundtrack of Kilo Ali, Cool Amerika, Epic B, and refixed Brandy vibrating against her walls. Co-head JSPORT rallies partygoers as he calls Philly headliner Nargiz to the decks: “This is a place where we move however the fuck we want to!”

Creative director JSPORT and Fade to Mind co-sign Leonce created Morph out of necessity. After facing instances of harassment in nightlife spaces, Jay resolved to provide a safe alternative. “For me to be happy,” he says, “I have to have an escape — a moment or a space where I can get away and dance. Morph gives me life.”

Morph’s commitment to their mission is evident in their line-ups. The party is little over a year old, but the crew is carving a name for themselves shipping in Fade To Mind heavyweights Asmara, Rizzla, and Kingdom, as well as Night Slugs’ Manara, #KUNQ/ Discwoman-affiliated SHYBOI, and LSDXOXO of GHE20G0TH1K and Qween Beat to spin alongside their nine rotating resident DJs Leonce, J Sport, Helix, Divoli S’vere, Divine Interface, Type O, NO HIGHS, Amari Tariq, and Anonima. Despite Morph’s import of continental acts, the night is still Atlanta to its core.

Long heralded as the capital of hip hop, trap, and r'n'b, Atlanta has a robust musical landscape with a lesser known, but equally faithful following for electronic music with roots in house and techno. Afrobeats and dancehall have also joined the contemporary mix. Helix, the ‘resident Uncle’ of the party and Night Slugs signee, explained that rap is Atlanta’s greatest contribution to the club music world. It makes sense: anthemic 808-heavy tracks are the crowd-pleasing favorites at Morph, often edited and reconfigured with polyrhythmic flair, to color the DJ sets. “And I know you listen to Young Thug on the way to the rave,” he says. With the sheer number of contemporary rappers based out of the city responsible for popping off DIY dancefloors, it’s hard to disagree. This, coupled with Leonce’s stripped back and syncopated club tracks, is at the forefront of the capital’s distinct after hours sound.

“It is a beautiful cross section,” says Helix of Morph's sound. “You can hear everything. People come to Morph because they have some representation in some way. That’s what Morph does that no one else can quite as well.” With a nod to the city’s entrenched music history, Morph is making sure the rest of the underground takes notice. Don't forget, Helix adds, “We invented the term flex here.”

To producer and Tri Angle affiliate Rabit, the Texas underground is “all the bad kids at your high school all in one place.” It sounds menacing, but his Houston-based label Halcyon Veil, formed in 2015, lives up to this rebellious standard with its appetite for unsettling, ear-aching motifs perched on the cusp of noise and frenzied electronics. The imprint is soon debuting a range of local artists who share a similar emotional undercurrent, such as San Antonio’s House Of Kenzo and Austin’s Ciel.

Rabit’s dedication to his creative projects is, in part, due to location. He’s been a Houston resident for 10 years. “I try to take the focus back to the music, and so that’s why I like being away so I can intentionally do that,” he explains. When the pressures of a fast-paced industry grow too distracting, he takes solace in being removed from its more image-based epicentres, “I can be here and make it about whatever I want it to be about rather than remaining relevant or being on a line-up every month.”

Rabit says his local shows are now drawing crowds comparable to New York, Los Angeles, and even London. He suspects the spiking interest began in 2015 when he, Arca, and fellow Texan Lotic (now based in Berlin) started making headlines for their noisy brands of club music. Rabit’s music, distinguished by an unprecedented fusion of industrial, grime and club music has even spawned a generation of likeminded area producers such as Santa Muerte and Josiah Gabriel, next to Halcyon Veil signees Ciel and Ledef and Tone Padron (both part of House of Kenzo).

“Maybe the way we did it let people know it’s okay to be femme or it’s okay to distort your tracks if that’s how you feel,” Rabit says. “There’s an increase in activity that has allowed people to create their own identity here.” Lately, Rabit has nurtured this growth by consulting artists without agents and suggesting potential line-ups, in addition to playing out. The community he's helping incubate has swept past city limits to include San Antonio, Dallas and Austin.

Though still maturing, the regional scene has already found its defining characteristics. “It’s going to be dark, heavy, and cunty at the same time,” Rabit states. “That’s what makes us unique.”

Milwaukee club nights are found in living room-sized pubs and bowling alley basements. These unassuming environs that host Close Up Of The Serene’s night Precognition and the label's listening party Natural Resource are perhaps the key to cultivating a nascent platform. Liquid City Motors, who recently released his 'Current Source' EP on Dublin imprint Glacial Industries, is Close Up’s co-conspirer alongside founder Max Holiday. He says supportive DIY attitudes run prevalent in “bar town USA.” No drink quota, no problem.

“I hear a lot about club closures and gentrification, especially in New York, and it makes me grateful about the abundance of quality, small, profit-ambivalent venues in town,” Liquid City Motors says. “There’s a really good venue infrastructure here even if it’s not like sleek, Funktion-One system kind of clubs.”

These factors have allowed Close Up of the Serene, which began in 2015, to serve as a platform for young, likeminded Midwest producers. Liquid City Motors describes the label's sound as “a global perspective, but with a local context.” They’ve invited The Astral Plane’s Chants from Madison, Wisconsin and Elysium Alps from Duluth, Minnesota, as well as Milwaukee-natives Asher Gray, Altruist, and Apollo Vermouth onto their stage. Chants sang their praises: “I firmly believe that the right way to do things is to build them up locally, which is exactly what Max and Will are doing with Close Up of the Serene. Their party Precognition, is exactly the right combination of sound, vibe, and open ears.”

Liquid City Motors understands that Milwaukee is a blank slate. “When you’re not in a major global city, “ he says, “You don’t necessarily get the actual, fully-formed communities of artists who are working in certain realms that are more niche.” So he and Max Holiday are taking the lead. “The challenge is that there is not that structure, but you can also flip that into being a benefit, depending on how optimistic you feel because you get the space to work.”

Despite Close Up’s two nights, record label releases, and monthly radio show transmitting on the virtual airwaves of homegrown station Radio.computer, the ultimate goal is to link with other regional cities to form a creative nexus. “I want to get to know the scene better in places like Cleveland, Columbus, and Pittsburgh,” Liquid City Motors says. “The glimpses I’ve had into the stuff that is happening there makes me feel like our little electronic music scene is part of a node in a thriving network of club music and culture.”

A quick glimpse at BUILD’s flyers reveals clues to each party theme. Columbus-based founders Shirtless and Noelsferatu consider graphics, by fellow crew member and Glacial Industries-signee v1984, the book cover for their club experience: a hint of greenery here indicates the stage will be roped in climbing ivy; a metal accent there suggests a massive chain installation suspended from the ceiling and suffused with dramatic light. Attend one of their more ambitious parties, where they’ve invited Rabit, NYC’s PTP members Celestial Trax and Abby, and discover reflective mylar columns looming behind the DJ booth illuminated by pulsating strobe lights, or speakers affixed with rectangular panels for site-specific projection mapping.

This audio-visual narrative is important to Noelsferatu, as these immersive details elevate BUILD from a club night to an escape: “We want to have the night to have a bit of a story,” he says, “or the entire experience to have its own environment and transform a space that might be familiar.” To do this, the crew tries to collaborate with an artist every show and has even begun incorporating 15-minute performance pieces, choreographed by Noelsferatu and his partner Kat Sauma, into the night. “It’s a lot about exposing people to new music and doing it properly so they can latch onto it,” he says. “We found that works really well for people who won’t necessarily listen to electronic music. They come to the club and they’re losing themselves.”

Their music is as fluid as their parties. BUILD refuses genre classifications in earnest. “We don’t have a single genre, we just try to look deeper and push the boundaries of what you can do,” Noelsferatu explained. This sentiment, echoed so frequently by their contemporaries, is precisely what continues to advance club music. Case in point is Cleveland-affiliate producer v1984, making waves for his recent 'Pansori' EP, a crystalline electronic narrative informed by classical flections released on Planet Mu sub-label Knives. He extends across both club and experimental, but his grime, hip hop, and even anime influences refuse to fit into neat categories.

When BUILD started three years ago, the crew was venturing into uncharted territory. Since, competition has grown. Spaces like The Summit, where BUILD threw their first parties and helped turn into a legitimate venue with a soundsystem, are now fully booked two months in advance. The region’s tastes are also dictated by its proximity to Detroit and Chicago, and, most recently, techno has ruled Columbus club nights. An oversaturation of parties aren’t their only problem. The crew also cites early curfews, fickle crowds, and lack of DIY venues as obstacles, but ones that only fortify their mission. “It definitely presents challenges,” says Shirtless, “but I think that’s a good thing as far as keeping us on our toes, keeping us productive, and keeping us moving forward.”

Whitney Wei is a freelance illustrator and writer. Follow her on Twitter here

Check out the above mixes on SoundCloud here

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