The 8 Best DJ Mixes of March 2021

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Whether you fantasize about getting back in a club or just getting out of your head, this month’s mixes should have you covered. 

The 8 Best DJ Mixes of March 2021

Every month, Philip Sherburne listens to a whole lot of mixes so you only have to listen to the best ones.

As we sail into a second year without clubs, it can be easy to wonder what the point of dance music even is anymore. Then there are artists like Cairo producer ZULI to remind us. “I grew up listening to dance music indoors, on my computer,” he told Resident Advisor last fall. “It’s always been an end in and of itself, never a means to the end that is ‘raving’ or ‘clubbing.’” That attitude might help explain why his new set for Mixmag is so satisfying: It’s a club set through and through, yet it doesn’t rely on fantasies of nightlife to make sense. Quite a few of this month’s standout mixes bring the party home, like Katerina’s love letter to Finnish minimalism, D. Tiffany’s bright-eyed rave throwback, or Russell E.L. Butler’s exploration of the overlap between chilly EBM and sweaty techno. But, as always, if your head’s in the clouds, we’ve got you covered, thanks to downbeat and ambient sessions from Space Afrika, Deadbeat, and Amelia Holt.


Tim Sweeney – Beats in Space #1085

“Special one tonight,” Tim Sweeney promised at the beginning of his March 9 edition of Beats in Space—show number 1085 after 21 years of Tuesdays, week in and week out. The veritable dance-music institution often features a pair of guest DJs, but that night Sweeney took the helm. “Gonna play a lot of classics,” he said, then added: “There’s a message in the music, you know?” In retrospect, the message was right there for all to hear, in tracks like Hot Chocolate’s “Don’t Turn It Off,” Alicia Myers’ “I Want to Thank You,” Chas Jankel’s “Glad to Know You,” Arnold Jarvis’ “Take Some Time Out,” and Parada 88’s “You’re Gonna Miss Me.” For over two hours, Sweeney played a top-shelf selection of the music he has championed over the past two decades: woozy disco, spangled boogie, stripped-back house, all mixed with flair and obvious love. Then, with just minutes left on the broadcast, he dropped the bombshell: Beats in Space was coming to a close. “It’s not the end, though,” he promised. “Just a break, OK?” But the catch in his voice said something else, something his listeners intuited: Whatever comes next for Sweeney, BIS Radio Show #1085 marked the end of an era. Let the history books show that he closed with Kid Creole and the Coconuts’ “Going Places.” A fitting track, because Sweeney took his listeners along for a hell of a ride.


Zuli – In Session

A year without dancing has driven some producers to temporarily abandon club sounds, but not Cairo’s ZULI. His recent All Caps EP is among the heaviest, most physical music he has made. But he also recently told Mixmag, “I’ve never really subscribed to the idea that dance music should be for the club,” and this set reflects his seemingly contradictory mentality: It’s got all the force of a peak-time club set and all the strangeness of a soundtrack for shut-ins. ZULI doesn’t scrimp on power; tracks like FJAAK’s breakbeat anthem “WH?T” hit like pile-drivers. He’s also not shy about throwing in the occasional crowd-pleaser, like a cheeky remix of 2 Unlimited’s immortal rave anthem “Twilight Zone.” But even the beefiest beats are likely to crumble into gravelly dancehall or disintegrated trap, in which heavily processed vocals ride roughshod over blasted drums and bass: club music meant for dancing amid the rubble.


Space Afrika – RA.772

Much like their recent mixtape hybtwibt?, Space Afrika’s Resident Advisor podcast drifts without self-evident aim. It’s difficult to tell how many discrete tracks are in play at any given moment, and their selections—burbly synth etudes, foggy downbeat, Auto-Tuned ambient rap—are held together by rain noise, whispers, and unidentifiable environmental sounds. It all comes together in a dreamlike, shape-shifting mass, at once grainy and gelatinous. Despite the occasional cello or scrap of sung melody, moments of lyricism are few and far between; a kind of gentle dissonance reigns, building to a harrowing climax with Lancashire rapper Blackhaine’s “I’m Only Here,” a free-associative string of nightmarish images over a downy bed of flute synths. The duo, now split between Berlin and their native Manchester, has often spoken of how North West England has shaped and shaded their music. But beyond obvious signifiers like gray skies and industrial clang, Space Afrika’s music suggests no single place so much as an imaginative world of their own making.


Russell E.L. Butler – Dekmantel Podcast 324

Russell E.L. Butler’s Dekmantel podcast begins on a cautionary note. Over gravelly synths, a man says, “Just being in here is a humbling experience for me, because you’re looking through all these records, and it’s sort of like a big pile of broken dreams.” The voice is DJ Shadow’s, from the 2002 documentary Scratch. “Almost none of these artists still have a career,” he muses. “If you’re DJing, putting out releases, whether it’s mixtapes or whatever, you’re sort of adding to this pile, whether you want to admit it or not.” If you’re going to start a set with a quote like that, you’d better back it up with the requisite intent, and that’s just what Butler does. The Oakland DJ’s track selections zig-zag between ominous techno (Marie Davidson, Gesloten Cirkel) and gruff EBM (D.A.F., Chris & Cosey, Esplendor Geométrico); the mood throughout is dark, mysterious, and even a little bit sexy—a throbbing field of lo-fi drum machines and analog synths punctuated by suggestive, almost subliminal voices. Brandishing just the right balance of shadow and spark, it’s perfectly suited for springtime.


Amelia Holt – Juanita’s Mix 041

In its first year of operation, Juanita’s NYC, a mutual-aid platform rooted in New York’s underground club scene, has highlighted many of the community’s leading lights: SHYBOI, MoMA Ready, Galcher Lustwerk, Dee Diggs. No. 41 comes from an artist who’s less known, and it’s a corker. Brooklyn’s Amelia Holt is co-host of Cute af, a monthly show on Athens, Greece-based online station movement.radio, but a better descriptor for her set for Juanita’s might be “dark af.” She reaches back to 1995 for doomy isolationist beats from Scorn, indulges in the sepulchral gloom of the Bug and Dis Fig’s recent “In 2 U,” and stumbles sideways into the desiccated dancehall of Eszaid’s “First Class Dub.” The tempo is stubbornly slow, and her palette is uniformly gritty; about 26 minutes in, an unidentified track’s shredded low end has the charred whiff of burned-out bass bins. As sinister as it gets, though, the whole thing flows beautifully, with a satisfying arc from start to finish. Fleshing out the illbient/trip-hop vibes with classics from DJ Spooky along with Mad Professor V. Massive Attack, she wraps up with a true ’90s day-brightener: Dr. Octagon’s “Blue Flowers Revisited.”


Katerina – Kaiku #003

The Bulgarian producer Katerina pays tribute to her adopted hometown with a set of all Finnish techno for Helsinki’s Club Kaiku. Between Kim Rapatti, aka Mono Junk, and the late Mika Vainio, of Pan Sonic, Finland has long laid claim to two of techno’s most resolutely minimalist producers, and both artists loom large over the set. A queasy synth fugue released under Vainio’s Ø alias opens the mix, setting the stage for graphite-slicked beats and glassy pings from Samuli Kemppi and Aleksi Perälä. Halfway through, Mono Junk’s “Channel B” flashes back to classic mid-’90s dub techno before Ø’s “Tutkamaa,” from 1996, takes techno to an austere extreme, as clinical as the bleeps of the ICU ward. Despite the steely, even chilly mood, Katerina detours through lusher climes with her own “Bird People,” while a shot of Drexciya-inspired electro toward the end adds a welcome jolt.


D. Tiffany – The Sound of: Planet Euphorique

D. Tiffany’s Planet Euphorique label conjures rose-tinted visions of the golden age of rave. It’s not really a retro sound, despite the prevalence of classic tropes like the squarewave bass of bleep techno, the pads of proto progressive house, and the rigid arpeggios and filtered ostinatos of early-’90s trance. Rather, it’s a kind of idealized look back at rave culture’s spirit of freedom. In her mix for DJ Mag, D. Tiffany surveys the full sweep of her label’s sound, starting with lush house and gradually raising the tempo through acid, streamlined trance, and starry-eyed breakbeat hardcore. I cued up the set not long ago at a 6-year-old’s birthday party that took place at a century-old farmhouse surrounded by fruit trees and overgrown fields. The kids bounced on a trampoline, while parents enjoyed some (safely distanced) outdoor socializing, and between the giddy laughter and Planet Euphorique’s cheerfully ecstatic vibes, the scene—bathed in the glow of a disco ball hung from an avocado tree—wasn’t too far removed from what you’d imagine some idyllic free party in the English countryside might have felt like 30 years ago.


Deadbeat – While You Were Sleeping

Last year marked the 20th anniversary of Scott Monteith’s Deadbeat alias, which has taken the Canadian native through progressively deeper strains of dub techno and ambient dub over the years. Instead of observing the occasion with a celebratory tour, Monteith holed up in his Berlin studio to focus on making music. His “While You Were Sleeping” set, for Tehran online radio station Zarabat, amounts to a sneak preview of what he’s been working on. For three immersive hours, he wends through gaseous ambient, slow-motion shuffle, echo-soaked dub, and anti-gravity techno, all of it unreleased. There are a handful of reverent vocal tracks in the vein of his previous work with Paul St. Hilaire, aka Tikiman; toward the end, he reunites with Chilean poet Martín Bakero, laying down airy drones and tendrils of guitar beneath Bakero’s hypnotic incantations. It’s a deep, enveloping session that’s easy to get lost in.

 

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