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Why Minnesota's DJ mix culture is up there with the best

Exploring off-kilter tapes from the Twin Cities

  • Words: Michaelangelo Matos | Illustration Lawrence Abbott
  • 10 March 2020

Minnesotans like it freaky: the more off-kilter-sounding the techno or house music, the better. I was born in Minneapolis, left in 1999 and in 2016 returned to the neighbour city St Paul (together they are the Twin Cities). It takes a little effort to find your way into the dance music scene here, but the work has paid off in musical terms. This winter, while at an after-afterparty, the host said: “There’s, like, forty good DJs here.” He could have just meant in his apartment that moment. He was right either way.

Minneapolis has long had a healthy DJ scene, though several of its most notorious parties are deliberately kept off social media; email alerts are coin of the realm here. If that can make it seem somewhat isolated at times, the sense that most of the people a DJ is playing to are other DJs has had a honing effect. You don’t have to be in London or Brooklyn or Berlin to know it. Even if they’re your friends, playing for people who really know what they’re doing will sharpen you up.

The easiest place to access the Minneapolis (and surrounding areas) scene is through Kajunga Program, a podcast from local imprint Kajunga Records. “The goal is to showcase and archive our favorite DJs and producers who have a strong impact on the music community here in the Midwest and beyond,” says Ryote (aka Ry Johnson), one of the label’s co-founders. “There’s no shortage of talent in the Midwest, and with our constantly growing list of connections, it has never been an issue keeping up with putting out a monthly mix.”

Kajunga was founded in 2015 by Ryote, Berndt (Jordan Berndt), Cloudy Kid (Matt Harris), and Private Guy (Alex Guy); they’d followed one another from Duluth, three hours north, to Minneapolis’s sister city, St Paul. “We’d all been going to parties and festivals, making tracks and DJing for years,” says Ryote.

The four of them decided to jump in. Ryote’s role in the operation is “designer/creative director, and to maintain a current Kajenda.” He adds: “The mix series was a secondary thought, but it seemed like an appropriate thing to do after we got started. I think we’ve developed a solid variety of vibes and styles over the four seasons, and in turn a nice niche presenting a mix series from a Minneapolis dance music perspective.”

In the case of Ryote and Cloudy Kid’s duo Final Förmat’s SE4 EP5 (October 2019), that’s bendy, sinister electro in the John Carpenter vein. “They don’t want you to dance,” explains their SoundCloud page, “They want you to BLEED!!!”

The figure who’s probably done the most for the promulgation of techno in the Twin Cities in the 2000s is Centrific, who promotes the spring-summer Sunday weekly Communion as well as larger parties under the banner of Intellephunk. His own sets tend to be lengthy and feel like they’ve got serious dirt under their nails – techno of this sort may be voguish globally, but it’s never gone away in the Twin Cities, and Centrific’s SE.3 EP.12 (April 2019) is a three-hour amble through the style’s mustier sides.

When Ryote goes outside the label’s core for sets, he does so properly. “We make these neat, hand-crafted, personalised invites for all our guests and hand-deliver them, so it makes the whole process special for us and hopefully our guests too,” he says. Indeed, the best Kajunga Programs often feel like personal statements. Take Elysium Alps’ SE4 EP6 (November 2019). The alias of Jamie Larson, Elysium Alps’ MO is to freely roam the record-scape using post-hip hop breaks-and-bass continuum as his compass, with dips into sad teen goth-pop. At nearly two and a half hours long, it’s ambitious, but it feels spacious, not heavy-going.

Angelica Ottavia’s SE3 EP1 (April 2018) is a similar kind of triumph, albeit a more compact one. Resident at Deeper, a monthly night of “dark dance music” at the aptly named Red Room of The Loring Bar (near the University Of Minnesota campus), Ottavia seldom records her sets – this one is only 46 minutes. But it gets her style across perfectly: techno, house, and industrial with occasional shuffling breakbeats and wobbly acid lines, witchy on the surface but with an undertone of deadpan humour.

Humour is also central to my favourite recent Kajunga Program. Ian Lehman is a Minneapolitan who records as Doubt, among other monikers. Whenever you see him peering out from behind the decks at a party here, you know the music’s going to get strange in a hurry. Lehman’s SE3 EP3 (June 2018) consists entirely of his own self-made edits. It’s hardly a disco party; rather than simply splicing standard grooves together, Lehman distends blues, rock, and electronic music into often alien, always engaging grooves. His Neil Young rework, in particular, is one for the ages – and it’s the Twin Cities in a nutshell, an eyebrow-cocked refraction of the classic rock culture that, alas, still holds sway here.

Hear the podcasts at SoundCloud.com/kajunga or via www.kajungarecords.com

Michaelangelo Matos is Mixmag's mixes expert, follow him on Twitter

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