Dance culture has always carried more than a trace element of psychedelia.
It’s right there in genre names: acid house, k-house (as in ketamine—think of the most vaporous DJ Koze or Ricardo Villalobos tracks), and maybe the most unbeloved genre name ever: trip-hop. Hip-hop aimed at head-fuck as much as head-nod, this term came along right as mid-90s hip-hop was obsessed with “keeping it real,” meaning a cheerily winking term like “trip-hop” was liable to get stomped, though this was usually done by the kind of folks who hated dance beats and wanted real music like Seven Mary Three.
But the idea of funk-derived aural craziness still has value, whatever it’s called, as you can hear on a recent episode—actually, a number of recent episodes—of the Solid Steel Radio Show. Started in London by Ninja Tune founders Matt Black and Jonathan More, Solid Steel is the longest-running DJ mix show anywhere—next year it turns 30. Unlike BBC Radio 1’s Essential Mix, Solid Steel isn’t out to find the most talked-about DJ of the moment every week but to showcase a heady eclecticism that has marked Black and More’s work from the late ‘80s on, when they were sampling and cut-and-paste DJ pioneers as, among other aliases, Coldcut.
Ninja Tune’s m.o. has always been playful and mind-bending as well as groovy, so it stands to reason that their radio show—also run by associates PC, Strictly Kev, and producer Darren “DK” Knott—is a reliable go-to for the danceably weird. (For more background on the show, check Joe Muggs’ oral history.) Reviewing a number of recent shows—each in two parts, with a pair of DJs getting an hour or so apiece—sets by DK (August 25) and Kai Whiston (August 18) are some of the most deranged-rangy I’ve heard in a while.
But even in a series that prizes the strange, the August 11 Solid Steel with Illum Sphere and Beau Wanzer is two of the most deliciously bent hours I’ve encountered in a while. They ping-pong stylistically a lot: During one late sequence from the first half, Illum Sphere, the Ninja Tune artist born Ryan Hunn, darts from the minimal techno of Shinichi Atobe to Pink and Black’s poppy ’85 new wave, before melting into Arthur Russell’s cello-led half-pop then landing in a beatless area, out of which crawls Siouxsie & the Banshees in all-atmosphere-no-song mode. It’s pure mood, dark and deranged rather than sunshine-and-giggles, and it’s a perfect lead-in to Wanzer’s even danker second hour.
Wanzer, who made his name with releases on L.I.E.S., the New York weirdo-house label, declined to include a track list with his set. So the signposts are more nebulous for anyone who doesn’t share Wanzer’s files, which naturally makes them the set alluring. Or maybe just more subterranean—there’s a lot of sonic dirt on these tracks. Take the one from around minute 17, a voice that seems to come in from an alien transmission sounds out over snorkeling walking bass and beer-alley sax, only for smeared sonar blips to take over. Creepy cricket noises, detuned and decentered drum machine loops, and slithering organs are coin of the realm here. In the waning hot days of summer, you may want to hold off on it till very late at night. Just don’t try to sleep to it unless you want strange dreams.
Each week, Michaelangelo Matos will spotlight a different DJ set—often but not always new, sometimes tied to a local show but not necessarily—and discuss its place in the overall sphere of dance music and pop.