SATURDAY, RED STAGE, 3:20
If the fact that Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler named Digable Planets after reading through works by Jorge Luis Borges doesn’t convince you to see them at Red Stage on Saturday afternoon, I don’t know what will. After releasing just two albums since 1993 and disbanding in 1994, the Planets are back together after a quarter of a century hiatus for a momentous summer tour. The Brooklyn-based jazz/hip-hop trio (who certainly deserve all of the overtly sensational hype they can possibly amass) are especially relevant this year, as their tracks typically carry politically-charged messages such as a celebration of black power on “Jettin’” and a woman’s right to choose on “La Femme Fetal.” There’s a good chance that this will be Digable Planet’s last tour as Butler has since dedicated most of his musical energy towards his new project, Shabazz Palaces, so be sure to catch this integral part of hip-hop history before they’re just that.
WNUR and Pitchfork have at least two things in common. We’re longstanding media outlets based in Chicago, and we’re both regularly accused of being pretentious music snobs (a decade later, we still hear you, Jason Bolicki). The partial validity of this criticism (depending on your perspective) is beside the point: the fact remains that our organizations have earned this reputation by exposing and booking artists who typically aren’t being heard elsewhere in the Chicagoland area. Of course, we have our occasional qualms with Pitchfork’s reviews like anyone else–and I’m sure they’d have a thing or two to say about our programming. But when it comes to Chicago music festivals, Pitchfork is leagues beyond any other in supporting musicians who align with WNUR’s mission and have seen regular airplay on our station across the genre-spectrum (though Big Ears still takes the cake on a national level). This year, we’re embracing that commonality more than ever.
Does this mean we’ll start celebrating and/or playing Carly Rae Jepsen on our station? No, but we will give you a rundown on the artists we’re most excited to see at the festival in two weeks, and why we think they deserve the shine. Keep an eye on our website in the days leading up to Pitchfork as we give individual, in-depth assessments of some of this year’s performers (and listen to WNUR this week for your final chance to win passes to #P4Kfest).
Kamasi Washington seems an almost-obligatory place to start this preview; this guy has been everywhere in the past year. First, he was part of the studio band that performed on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly. Then, his aptly-named, three-hour debut album The Epic dropped on Brainfeeder in May 2015, earning an 8.6 and “Best New Music” classification on Pitchfork. All of this was preceded by a lengthy career touring and collaborating with established artists like Lamar and Snoop Dogg–but his momentum has only snowballed in the past six months. Some of our staff first got a taste of his (or should I say, his group’s) live performance at Big Ears in April. I caught them again at an overpriced-though-worth-it 2AM after-show in New Orleans post-Jazz Fest, so this set will be my third time around.
This collection of musicians is comprised of childhood friends from the LA area (as you’ll learn during their performance, unless they change things up; there was a fair amount of repetition in the banter and format of the performances I’ve seen). It quickly becomes evident that their performances are more about the group than they are about Washington himself–the collective spent a year dedicating all their time to recording and playing on each other’s projects, and the group mentality that results is palpable. The buzz is credited to Washington because his album was the first to be released (and likely also, of course, because of his involvement in TPAB), but they’re still sitting on the rest of the musicians’ projects. That knowledge puts things in perspective: though he’s undoubtedly talented, Washington’s live saxophone-playing isn’t really what makes the show something special. The dynamic between the musicians is paramount, and the key lies in Washington’s recognition and mediation of that. He’s generous with sharing the spotlight on the stage, and he exudes a warmth and calm in his demeanor that structures the entire experience–and makes it into a just that, a genuine experience. He brings out his dad (who turns out to be pretty killin’ on the flute and clarinet) for the better half of the performance, which proves both endearing and impressive while adding to the familial vibe. Add in two (yes, two) exceptional drummers and a funky keytarist and you’ve got something undoubtedly unique. Keep an eye on the bassist, Miles Mosley, who manipulates an upright in ways you’ve likely never seen (or even considered). And in the meantime, give a listen to “Re Run Home” and “Final Thought.”
Chicago has a history of sending its emerging musical stars overseas to spread the word–and sound–of its modern musical creations. Since the city’s best-known homegrown dance music, house, traveled with Chicago DJs to London and beyond in the mid-1980s, the Windy City hasn’t stopped shuttling iconic sound-prophets across the globe. And with great success–today’s house legends continue to populate the most highly regarded underground dance havens with unmistakably unique styles (for example, Gramaphone Records owner, WNUR Streetbeat DJ, and Queen! resident Michael Serafini still graces Berlin’s Berghain on a semi-regular basis). A more current example lies in Teklife, Chicago’s premiere and pioneering footwork crew, whose fast-paced, dance-oriented creation has caught like wildfire in Japan and beyond.
Both the city’s historic and contemporary liaisons journey abroad while the sounds they bring (and the artists themselves) are still under-the-radar, carrying their budding (and often, yet-unheard on a large-scale level) genres to various locations where they take root and materialize into multitudes of sub-genres and stylistic variations that regularly end up vastly different than the original style (see: Chicago house compared to EDM). Chicago’s original pioneers often remain underground stars once the genres gain popularity (like Serafini, and even the late Frankie Knuckles), leaving commercial success to disciples across the globe.
You might, then, call this a city of tastemakers. It’s only fitting that some of Chicago’s brightest emerging stars are found on this year’s Outlook Music Festival lineup in Croatia–a festival devoted to various underground bass musics. We love local artists and we love the underground here at WNUR, so we’re giving you a read on Chicago artists on this 2016 lineup far from home.
DJ Spinn. This booking is perhaps the least surprising, given Spinn is the oldest living member of Teklife and most widely recognized as its current OG (rest in peace DJ Rashad, his childhood friend and best-known co-pioneer of the genre who passed in April 2014). But his presence on the lineup speaks to the growing notoriety of footwork across the globe, and a nod to one of the artists who started it all. The Chicago genre has been picked up by labels like Planet Mu and Hyperdub since its inception–also included in the lineup is UK-based Kode9, the founder of Hyperdub and a friend to many Chicagoans, Teklife and otherwise. Spinn’s anthemic, chord-driven “All My Teklife” can be found on last year’s Hyperdub 10.1. He’s also featured on eight of fourteen tracks on Rashad’s critically acclaimed Double Cup (2013), including two of my favorites, “She A Go” and “Feelin.”
DJ Taye. The youngest member of Teklife’s inner circle, Taye wouldn’t be my first guess to be one of footwork’s young guns invited to Croatia (I might have assumed DJ Earl), but his booking makes a lot of sense. He’s released less music overall than other members of the crew, but what he’s put out has made a significant splash. Of particular interest–and fitting Outlook’s bill–are his collaborations with barcelona-based Zora Jones (who I’m surprised not to see on the lineup, now that I think about it). Their Fractal Fantasy collaboration, “Neutrino,” pairs gritty, hard-hitting percussion, massive horns (it sounds like Jones’ partner, Sinjin Hawke, may have had a hand in that signature sound) and spaced-out synth progressions with suitably mind-boggling, rendered-object visuals. Taye generally represents a spacier footwork sound with higher frequency melodies, a characteristic that gives his style some distinction among the multitudes of releases from the crew. Check out 2014’s TEK x TAR Vol. 3, or 2015’s Break It Down, his debut release on Hyperdub.
Mick Jenkins. This is the most unexpected Chicago artist on the lineup, in my opinion. Jenkins isn’t not established, but he’s no Chance the Rapper or Kanye in terms of mainstream popularity (at least at this point). His presence suits the somewhat rap-heavy lineup, though a majority of the other Outlook MCs hail from the UK and other non-US locations and are associated with grime instrumentals. Jenkins first gained attention with his album The Waters. His deep, distinctive voice is reminiscent of Tyler the Creator, but his flow couldn’t be more different (see his latest release, “Sunkissed,” featuring TheMIND). His acclaim has grown with his most recent release, Waves. Jenkins’ performance at Outlook will round out a two-month European tour; he’s making the rounds like Chicago pioneers before him.
Who might we add to the ranks? Given the festival’s mission, the Chicago artists included are interesting and deserving of their bookings–but they’re centralized around one end of the “underground bass sound” spectrum. If we’re talking somewhat-established yet emerging Chicago artists making forward-thinking bass music, and we want something different, Jeremiah Meece certainly fits the bill. And of course, there are plenty of house DJs and producers to choose from here as well. Time will tell what next year brings, but in the meantime–anyone trying to take a trip to Croatia?