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13 of the best dance music sets on NTS Radio

The London station is a treasure trove of enlightening shows

  • Words: Michaelangelo Matos | Photo: Lawrence Abbott
  • 1 August 2019

Founded by Boiler Room originator Femi Adeyemi and on air since April 2011, the London community station and stealth web presence NTS Radio has made itself an intrinsic part of modern global dance culture. “We have maybe ten well-known DJs and everyone else is just someone who loves music,” Adeyemi said in 2013. Still, an NTS guest set or series is mandatory for many of the world’s best DJs.

But what makes NTS a before-and-after marker for London radio – like Kiss FM, Rinse FM and Resonance FM earlier – is its fearlessly wide reach. Modelled on American freeform stations such as New Jersey’s WFMU, NTS prides itself, rightly, on its wide tastes. Still, after a pleasurable month roaming through the NTS archives for old favourites, random finds and recommendations from other writers, I’m limiting this overview to 13 electronic-focused sets.

One of the few shows still circulating from 2011, NTS’s first year, Joy Orbison’s two-hour guest set makes an appropriate introduction to the station’s archive. It starts slow and builds over the first 20 minutes, whereupon the groove struts in, deepening as it progresses – and by the first hour it’s a steamroller. A year later, Detroit techno innovator Derrick May (July 2012) spent an hour in the studio spinning records and talking trash, his specialties. Even on a warhorse like Âme’s ‘Rej’, the second selection, May tweaks the EQ until the song shifts shape, and his trademark moves – lots of quick cutting, including sudden silences right on
the beat, and filtered minimalist percussive tracks – still thrill.

One of NTS’s trademarks are its Specials on specific artists, styles, labels and scenes. One of the most arresting is Shiva Feshareki’s Éliane Radigue Special (August 2016): a vinyl-only three-hour set of the French electronic music pioneer’s deeply immersive catalogue tied together with works by the likes of Daphne Oram, Pauline Oliveros and James Tenney. These drones accrete in detail, working with and against each other to revelatory effect.

Speaking of electronic legends, it turns out that when the Yellow Magic Orchestra domo Ryuichi Sakamoto (September 2017) spins an hour of his favourite tunes, he selects as sharply as he composes. Radiohead, J Dilla, Demdike Stare and Andy Stott all make appearances here, and the results are utterly transfixing, slowly accumulating raw beauty and utter delicacy. Swoon. Half a year later came an analogous set, less enchanted and more astringent, but still plenty gorgeous, from Basic Channel co-founder Moritz von Oswald at NTX x Sonos Berlin (April 2018). Where Sakamoto declined to play his own tunes, about half of von Oswald’s mix stems from his catalogue, which sounds great from any DJ. It’s creaky, creepy and powerful; an old master picking up his heaviest brush.

Given its wide remit, NTS doesn’t program too much straight techno, but what it does is choice. One of the great UK techno DJs, Ben Sims’ Run It Red podcast began as (and remains) a monthly NTS show. The June 2015 edition showcases his ferocious yet refined palate for three sustained hours. Four years later (and an hour shorter), Sims’ April 2019 set shows him every bit as playful and rangy. If you prefer your techno Detroit style, go for the Polish spinner Olivia’s Alien Jams (August 2017), which morphs from twinkly synth disco to something far more electro and less earthly.

NTS is more likely to air not-so-straight techno. Take the dank, fluttering-light-bulb-in-a-spritzing-socket sonic quality that pervades L.I.E.S.’ NTS Radio Takeover (April 2013) – two DJ sets from Ron Morelli and his crew that sandwich a live electronics improv session. Subterranean, yes, but endlessly playful; a bubbliness pokes through the muck constantly, like if Perlon were noise dudes. It’s the definitive L.I.E.S. document.

German minimal techno power-house Perlon is one of the labels that the producer Stephan Laubner, aka STL, has issued vinyl on – usually adding a few locked grooves, which play in perfect loop until you remove the needle. For his STL Special (February 2016), Mosca has taken 42 of those loops and, working with some relatively simple effects, turns it into a two-hour masterclass on how lustrous minimalism can be.

Just about the opposite of minimal, the new Copenhagen fast techno gets a raring recent showcase from Mama Snake (May 2019). Of course, this sound could just as easily have come from a killer night on the German trance circuit in 1994 (way before Tiësto, kids). If you’re really feeling jumpy, go for the next-gen rave toons of Spinee (December 2016). Gross, populist bass melts here, high-pitched glass-wipe noises meet microsamples there, all of it over beats that herk and jerk but don’t fall down.

The most consistently exciting NTS DJ of late is the Bristol house spinner Shanti Celeste, whose charming, swinging selections work especially well in back-to-back settings–nowhere more than her breakbeat-dusted roundelay alongside Moxie and Peach (March 2019). The bonhomie of that one is off the chart: these three are clearly having a great time together, vibing off the others’ selections, pushing toward the positively ravey by the end. The voiceovers just add to the good time. It’s what NTS Radio was made for.

Michaelangelo Matos is the author of The Underground Is Massive, follow him on Twitter

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