This year, dance music opened its mind to a new wave of innovation and experimentation, best exemplified by our pioneering cover star.
We started to see how the work that’s been done to open up dance music to more diverse backgrounds and communities has strengthened and deepened the talent and art and culture within it.
And amid all that, there were still plenty of dancefloor bangers to enjoy – and enough daft moments to make sure we didn’t lose our sense of humour.
The following artists have typified an incredible year of music and have all done their bit to earn star of the year status. Without these acts, the musical landscape of 2018 would have been a very different place.
Here's to our stars of the year...
The Belgian DJ became the hottest name in techno in 2018...
Amelie Lens was DJing in Mannheim on her birthday in May when she heard singing – and it wasn’t coming from the track she was playing. “I’m always so focused during my sets so at first I was like, ‘Who is that?’” she explains. “But when I turned around it was Steffen [Charles] from Time Warp and Richie Hawtin singing ‘Happy Birthday’ and holding a vegan birthday cake!”
Being serenaded by a techno icon was the year’s most memorable moment for Lens, but there’s been plenty to compete with it. The 28-year-old Belgian is the breakout star of the year, and while she might be super-focused during her sets, to the delight of her many fans she always looks likes she’s having a blast.
Typically, she plays hammering, eyes-down techno, but that doesn’t stop Lens grinning from ear to ear as she dances behind the decks and mixes with consummate skill, usually clad in something fashionable and black.
She’s got plenty to smile about. Her bumper year of highlights includes playing both days at Awakenings Festival, her Mixmag cover feature in October, her Time Warp debut in Brazil, starting her own label, Lenske, and hosting her own Exhale nights at some of Europe’s best clubs, including Fabric.Not bad for someone who released their first EP just two years ago.
It’s all happened so fast that even Lens finds it difficult to take in sometimes. “It still happens at least once a week that I think “Wow, is this real? Is this really my life?” she says.
There’s been a downside to the busiest year of her life, though: a sometimes gruelling touring schedule. She’s spent at least half the year travelling, and the self-confessed workaholic has had to learn the importance of down time.
“I had to find a way to reorganise studio time, personal time and time with my friends and family,” says Lens. “At first I used to work while on the road but it didn’t work well for me. Now I relax while travelling, I watch movies or read.”
Lens’ rocket ride to the top has not been entirely smooth. Like many who achieve sudden fame, she fell victim to ‘tall poppy syndrome’, with some questioning how she had achieved so much so fast. In 2018, though, many of her peers and even some of her critics came to realise what her fans had long known: Lens is the real deal, and her success is 100 per cent deserved. Annabel Ross
The 23-year-old Northampton rapper is the voice of a disenfranchised generation
“I’d be in a dark place if it wasn’t for music,” admits Tyron Frampton one stormy afternoon in London. “I think I’d just be darting around Northampton on my push bike, convinced there’s nothing more to life.” Thankfully, at only 23, the Northampton rapper is carving a new path to success in an era of political unease, rather than aimlessly circling around his provincial home town. Dubbed the voice of a generation (a disenfranchised one at that), Frampton shrugs the potential pressures of such a title off casually. “I don’t feel the pressure from anybody else, just myself,” he says. “Anyone who makes anything or does anything creative is hyper-critical about everything they do.”
Frampton’s captivating brand of Dizzee Rascal-esque lyrical poetry and boyish, mischievous flow has earned him an army of dedicated followers. From early cuts like ‘T N Biscuits’ or ‘Jiggle’ to recent material like ‘Ladies’, ‘Rainbow’ or the ‘RUNT’ EP demonstrate why his music has resonated with so many this year. Conjuring up tales of life in the UK over beats that flit between grime, UK rap, dubstep and more, they’re visions of a Britain in disarray. “I was eating breakfast with my girl in Northampton the other week and this geezer in his mid-thirties comes up to the table like, ‘Yo, Slowthai!’ It’s eye-opening to see the people who actually feel what I’m doing.”
His sweat-drenched, mosh-filled shows often end with Frampton stripped back to his underwear, submerged in the raucous crowds. “Touring’s the best bit,” he says. “Everyone’s there, no-one gives a fuck, everyone feels the music and we can have a fucking party.”
Out in 2019, Slowthai’s album will explore both his music and his message on a whole new scale. “It’s called ‘Nothing Great About Britain’ and I want it to [include] all the experiences you would have growing up here,” he says. “It’s every vibe that this country has to offer, and not just one side of the coin.
“I’ve got to set an example to everyone who connects to me,” he continues. “I’m trying to better myself so I can show people who have felt lost or have felt like they don’t belong in this society that they can be anything they fucking want to be. The album is about bringing all these different people together and showing that even though we come from different walks of life, we’re not
so different.” Jasmine Kent-Smith
Belgium’s Charlotte de Witte tore 2018 apart with heady and explosive sets, cementing her position as one of the most in-demand DJs on the planet...
Ghent-born, nightclub-raised. At 25, with almost a decade behind the decks, Charlotte De Witte has a list of achievements many techno heavyweights fail to rack up in a lifetime. “I’m all over the world on a weekly basis,” she tells us. “I have fifteen to twenty gigs a month and they’re all sold out! To feel the appreciation from fans, that’s absolutely mental“
Making her name playing the likes of DC10, Junction 2 and Printworks in 2017, De Witte kicked off 2018 in similar style: first with a BBC Essential Mix, then prime spots at Sonus and Sónar, a residency at Amnesia, her own stage at Tomorrowland with her concept ‘KNTXT’ and more. “I wake up in the middle of the night sometimes and panic ,like, “Fuck, did I DJ already? Do I still have to play a gig?! What time is it? What country is this?!” she laughs.
She’s also found time to release three EP’s; ‘Brussels’, ‘Heart of Mine’ and ‘The Healer’ which clocked up multiple spots on the Beatport Techno 100: darkly melodic, stripped-back techno that’s just as uncompromising as her bass-heavy and pummeling live sets.
“I’ve played some pretty crazy gigs this year, but my favourite has to be KNTXT at Sportpaleis in Antwerp,” she tells us. “To see a night I started four years ago sold out to ten thousand people in an arena show – that’s definitely the highlight of the year for me! I invited some of my favourite techno legends like Len Faki, Chris Liebing, and Sam Paganini too. It was absolutely surreal.”
With her DJ debut in Thailand already in the books, new music on the way, and KNTXT set to hit the international circuit for the first time, 2019 looks to be another big year in De Witte’s blistering trajectory. “When I started my set at Sportpaleis, I really felt like I’d become one of the guys,” she says. “People really respect me for who I am and what I do, and I don’t have to continuously prove myself to keep doing what I’m doing. It’s really fucking cool.” Tracy Kawalik
A track released at the tail-end of 2017 sent Mella Dee on a rocket-paced ride through 2018...
Ask Ryan Aitchson if an increasingly hectic schedule took its toll in 2018 and he’s got a great answer. “I’ve done harder work than this, mate,” he tells us. “I used to fit roller shutters back in Doncaster, standing outside in the cold and the rain for 12 hours. I’m just lucky I finally got the chance to have a proper crack at music.”
While Ryan’s been turning heads with the Mella Dee moniker since 2012 with a slew of EPs that range in style from Hessle-esque bass to garage-tinged deep house, it was one track released at the tail-end of 2017 that really brought him to the fore and gave him his ‘proper crack’ at music. The Sister Sledge-sampling ‘Techno Disco Tool’ was inescapable in 2018, going from being made Nick Grimshaw’s Tune of the Week on Radio 1 in late 2017 to getting hammered by everyone from Bonobo to Floating Points to Adam Beyer in 2018.
“I remember when I first sent that track out to people,” he tells us, “and Spencer Parker replied saying, ‘That’s your big hit there mate’. It’s just built and built – people like Floating Points have played it at Panorama Bar and Pan-Pot dropped it at some huge Brazilian festival.”
As is the way, with a big tune comes the big gigs – and Mella Dee’s racked them up this year with multiple sets at Lost And Found (where at points it seemed like ‘Techno Disco Tool’ was being dropped every third record) to playing to 5,000 people on the beach outside Café Del Mar for Radio 1 Ibiza and making his debut at Printworks in Autumn.
Aside from the snowball success of ‘Techno Disco Tool’ and the non-stop gig schedule there’s been more music in the shape of the ‘Northern Jamz’ EP, four tracks of proper tough and minimal heads-down club music made in collaboration with an anonymous artist, and ‘Donny’s Groove’, another disco edit in a similar vein to ‘Techno Disco Tool’ and an ode to his fiancée and manager, Sarah.
“It definitely makes things easier that we both work in the industry,” he tells us, “though the chances of us both getting a free weekend together is very rare!”
With an Essential Mix in the bag and a wedding locked in for 2019, the only other certainty for Mella Dee in the year to come is plenty more music.
“Even if I’m really rough after DJing I’ll get up and make sure I get in the studio,” he explains. “The day I don’t want to get in the studio I know something’s wrong.”
Don’t expect to see him back fitting roller shutters anytime soon. Sean Griffiths
Gender-nonconformist producer of loved-up retro-rave and deep house...
“It got to the point,” says Maya Bouldry-Morrison earnestly, “where I was going out on the porch and yelling ‘TURKEYYYYYYS!!’” Thankfully, this wasn’t entirely irrational behaviour: one of her biggest annoyances this year has been actual turkeys – wild ones, digging up the garden of the log cabin that she and her partner have bought in New Hampshire.
It’s a much-needed sanctuary, because 2018 has seen Octo Octa’s DJ and live show schedule go off the scale. “I’m managing,” she says; “I’m still here, we’re talking, so I’ve survived, but my gosh it’s hard sometimes.” But this success is also a vindication of an unorthodox creative and personal journey, from teenage misfit breakcore producer through “overtly queer” deep house and retro-rave DJ on the Brooklyn scene and producer for the 100% Silk label to coming out as transgender in 2016. There had already been quite a major clue in 2013’s ‘Between Two Selves’ album, mind. Bouldry-Morrison has always flown the flag for electronic music as a culture for self-exploration and self-expression.
“Dance music has always been the most positive outlet for me,” she says. “It’s helped me to connect to people better, helped me to be myself better. I have a track coming out soon called ‘Loops For Healing’ and that is literally how I see it. This music is healing.”
And for all the stress the lifestyle brings, it’s kept bringing victories too. Playing a four-hour all-vinyl set (“pretty much only from 1987 to 1997”, she smiles; “don’t ask me what’s happening in the modern world!”), she had one “techno dude” at Panorama Bar run up to dub her “Octo, Queen of the Vocals”. “I was like ‘Yes! I got one!’” she grins. Playing to the “super queer crowd” at Leeds’s Love Muscle even saw people dancing naked. “I’ll be back there as soon as I can!” she laughs.
To cap it off, there’s a stunning joint EP with her hero Eris Drew on the naïve label run by Lisbon DJ/producer Violet. It’s a glorious meeting of minds around the sound of UK rave circa 1990: sub-bass, breakbeats, all-enveloping, ecstatic chords, everything rolled together to make you feel – even if just for a few minutes – like Octo Octa might really have powers to bring people together and provide hope and healing in a troubled world... if she can keep the turkeys off her lawn for long enough. Joe Muggs
A mainstay since the early 90s, Randall’s riotous d’n’b and jungle sets have been discovered by a whole new generation in 2018...
Can you handle the Randall? It would seem that in 2018 many of us most definitely could. He’s a certified star at any time in the drum ’n’ bass diary, but this year he found himself aligning beyond the genre’s standard solar system.
“The minute I knew they could handle us is when I went to Dekmantel with Goldie,” Randall laughs with his signature smoky cackle. “Three-hour set in the greenhouse. Special Request and Source Direct give them a taste of the drums before me and Goldie went in. And I mean in. The vibes were fucking incredible. And I got to be a bit of a fanboy over Carl Craig. Not a bad night, mate.”
It was better than ‘not bad’; being booked to play at a festival that’s predominantly house and techno was something of a full circle moment for the London-born, Bristol-based DJ. While he’s most famous for being one of the most astute, dubplate-stacked, unapologetic roller merchants in d’n’b, his reference points go back to the very source. Alongside OG luminaries such Carl Cox, Colin Dale and Colin Faver, Randall McNeil was one of London’s earliest acid house DJs. In fact, he even gave Josh Wink his first UK booking when resident at the seminal Orange weeklies at Rocket Club in 1990.
“You go back far enough for some of us and there’s a musical thread that holds us all together, before it all got fractured and we explored our different paths,” Randall reflects. For him, the path was clear; alongside Fabio and Grooverider, Randall was one of the earliest DJs to seek out the dark breakbeat sound that would eventually form jungle, then drum ’n’ bass. One of the residents at genre-defining night AWOL, it was Randall who Andy C would religiously watch and study week-in, week-out. Besides the odd period where forefathers were overlooked a little in favour of fiery freshmen, he’s been in demand, and his distinctive selection has been studied ever since.
“There’s been the odd pocket where things dipped a bit but I’m thick-skinned. There’s always disappointments in life but we are blessed as DJs. A lot of my friends work nine to five – they get two weeks holiday a year,” says the 48-year-old DJ who first trained as a commodities trader, before being sacked for clocking off early every Friday to DJ. “We need to remember that a lot of people out there wanna do what we do.”
No-one will ever do it like Randall, though. In fact, if there’s anything that secures his selector star status more, it’s this. He even gets sent dubplates in other genres beyond d’n’b by the likes of Zed Bias and DieMantle. Just in case of an alternative set emergency.
“I’ll be cracking a few of them open soon,” he grins. “Eats Everything’s booked me for an ‘anything goes’ thing. I love those sets – they gas me!”
With more diverse bookings and co-signs from across the dance music firmament, plus rumours of some long-awaited productions, we reckon 2019 will be another big bang for the star most d’n’b fans know simply as ‘The Daddy’. Dave Jenkins
Comedy’s hottest act, or house music’s funniest looper? With millions of views out of nowhere, Marc Rebillet is the internet’s next big thing...
A few months ago something incredible happened to Marc Rebillet’s social media pages. After plodding along as a relatively unknown one-man music and comedy live show for three years, his numbers began to rocket. “Within a week and a half I went from three thousand fans to over a hundred thousand,” he tells us over a YouTube call with the excitement of someone who’s just found a winning lottery ticket. Even more surprising were the locations of his new found fans. Many were overseas in Europe and a long way away from his home town of Dallas, Texas.
Like most of these new found converts, Mixmag discovered the 29-year-old by the way of a friend sharing one of his videos on Facebook.It shows Rebillet, dressed like a diminutive Clark Kent, deftly laying down a house beat and playing a chord sequence that wouldn’t be out of place in a Kerri Chandler classic, before dropping a side-splittingly funny vocal.
His show has been described as ‘Reggie Watts on bath salts’, and his blend of comedy and improvised songwriting, courtesy of a Roland loop machine, has found a particularly deep niche within club culture. Within weeks he was signed by two top US and European talent agencies and US and Europe tours began, with dates in London and Leeds selling out fast.
Some of his videos have had millions of views. One was recorded at his first overseas live show in Vienna in October. It begins with Rebillet asking the audience to suggest a topic for his next improvised song. A member of the audience suggests Donald Trump, and Rebillet immediately invites the crowd to chant ‘Fuck Donald Trump Baby’, loops up his vocal and then improvises a raucous distorted house bassline and beat, before plunging the club to silence and launching into a hilarious, Texan drawl diatribe against the US president.
Part of Rebillet’s rise to prominence lies in the goldfish bowl-like relationship he shares with his online community. He records a new video from his apartment on a small webcam set-up once a week. Some feature him talking about music he’s into (he loves Aphex Twin and Ross From Friends), but usually they involve him recording a new improvised song. One such performance was made just days after his father died after a long battle with Alzheimers, and is an incredibly candid and powerfully emotional performance. “I was having a hard time and a few days later I felt like I had to get something out regardless of whether it was good or shit,” he says.
His Motown-esque voice and incredible keyboard skills also play a key part in wowing fans, something he says is thanks to his parents insisting on him taking piano lessons from the age of four.
Rebillet’s road to internet acclaim took another major turn when he was laid off from his customer support job three years ago. “I’d been doing these jobs for ten fucking years, that just sustained me and wishing that one day, something would happen. Some magical alchemy would break and I would be able to some day do something I enjoy,” he says. The spell, it seems, is now in
full effect. Gavin Herlihy
DJ, producer of 2018 house banger ‘Silky’ and self-proclaimed ‘ball of energy’...
Chatting at break-neck speed in her husky, Canadian accent, Peach’s enthusiasm for the London nightlife scene she’s helping to shape is clear. And it’s that same enthusiasm which caught the attention of Midland, who released her debut track ‘Silky’ earlier this year on his new label Inter:Graded.
“I named the track after a friend of mine who passed away in 2016,” Peach explains. “So although it’s uplifting and hopeful it’s also very emotional for me. I think it fits really early in the morning. My friend and I, we always used to dance until sunrise. And he was a big fan of Midland so it’s really come full circle.”
The release was followed by a ridiculously fun, high-energy Boiler Room set made famous by the vogueing, daggering and dance-offs happening behind her throughout. “That’s when I know I’m doing a good job,” she laughs.
Her DJ career began in Toronto in 2012, playing in the bar she used to work at, before she took on the moniker Peach in 2015. “I actually opened for Derrick Carter and Deadmau5,” she tells us. “I can’t believe anyone gave me a platform to train wreck!” After honing her skills at home, she moved to London in 2016 and has been juggling a full-time job in advertising with her burgeoning career. “I played a set in Manchester and got a six o’clock train to London that morning because I had to be in the office by nine.”
With residencies on Radar Radio and NTS, her radio sets tend to start with chill house grooves, building into luscious, rolling melodies and crescendoing with techno tracks. “I go with early 90s house and techno, leaning towards UK based labels,” she tells us. “That sound inspires me the most.”
Peach’s journey has taken her all over Europe playing at Corsica Studios, ://About Blank and XOYO alongside the likes of Prosumer, Midland and Ben UFO. “Nathan McKay (Bwana) gave me some good advice: he said ‘Don’t rush anything. You’re doing this in your own time and there’s no due date. Don’t feel pressure to do anything too soon’.”
But she has no plans to take her foot off the accelerator in 2019. “I want to make lots more music and I have plans to play in countries I’ve never been to. But the dream is Japan. So if someone could book me there and combine it with a food tour then we can just shut it all down.”
Surely it’s just a matter of time. Alice Austin
Declan Lennon created one of the biggest tunes of 2018...
The “maddest dose” of ‘Neutron Dance’ – Krystal Klear’s inescapable anthem of 2018 – came when it was played on TV for the Premier League opening. “It was on Monday night football,” the Dubliner tells us between gulps of champagne backstage at Printworks. “My mates who are proper lads and know nothing about dance music were texting me saying ‘Fucking hell, man, you’re on Sky Sports!’. It’s the silly stuff like that where you think, ‘wow, this is bananas’.”
Dominating festivals and clubs worldwide, the 80s nu-wave inspired anthem – made on “just another day in the studio” for Dec Lennon – was everywhere in 2018. Looking to change direction from the music he’d been making and playing out, the former professional poker player, photographer and graffiti writer decided it was time to “shift gear musically” and make something different from what he was hearing in clubs.
Finished in just two hours, Dec knew it was a big tune straight away – but he could never have predicted quite how massive ‘Neutron Dance’ would become. ”It still surprises me. I can’t help but laugh that it gets the reaction it does,” the 30-year-old admits. “I never would have expected it to get to such a ridiculous level.”
Eventually signed to Running Back Records, it had been sitting in mentor Gerd Janson’s inbox for six months before he paid attention. Once it was unearthed, the pair started texting and swapping stories about how the track was taking on a life of its own – especially after Gerd played it three times in
one set at Panorama Bar.
Getting to be a part of the label has been another highlight of Dec’s career-changing year. “It’s been invigorating to work with people who are really behind what I’m doing. It’s something I hadn’t had for a really long time,” he tells us, a few minutes away from playing before dance music legend Armand van Helden. “Things were a lot different before… this year has really forced me to up my game in a lot of ways.”
With new music ready to go and gigs booked up for the next six months, there are no doubt more mad doses on the way. Ben Jolley