Sunday, January 16, 2022

The case for "unreleased" sets: a positive, optimistic vote for the now


Following a thought provoking tweet about sets focused on unreleased music, I'm going to try to respectfully make the case for why they have value.


Before anyone gets funny, Eich is perhaps my favourite DJ of the last 3 years and the person I feel musically closest to outside of Keysound. We talk regularly, we've done interviews together, she’s supported us a ton. I’d go so far as to say we’re mates.

So this is a discussion about an idea or a position on DJing, not a person, because that person is great.

I’m going to try to make the case in favour of DJ sets that are focused around new unreleased or exclusive tracks. But first, here’s where I’m coming from when I try and make the case:

  • We live in an era of unprecedented access to - and abundance of - music from all eras, even though our daily attention remains finite. DJing is in part a way of filtering down music for our attention, in different settings.

  • There’s no objectively right or wrong way of DJing and/or having musical fun, though I have a personal preference.

  • To say one way of DJing has value is not making the case that other ways do not. They all have value - but they also may have very different goals. This is OK.

The case for unreleased sets

To me, DJs sets of unreleased music are: 

  • Just one of many ways to approach DJing

  • A positive, optimistic vote for the now: this moment, a community

  • A proven way to build something creative and lasting for DJs, producers, scenes and community members. There are other ways too

  • A powerful way to form a distinct identity as a DJ

  • A powerful way to support new producers and the unheard talent of the future over those who already have a voice, especially people of colour and the LGBTQ+ community who have been given less voice before today

  • A hard and sometimes thankless approach: all other things being equal, it’s harder than sets of well known music and hence harder still to become popular doing it

NB: to be super clear here: just because a track is newly made, doesn’t mean it’s expressing a new or interesting musical idea.

Being new or unreleased is necessary - but not sufficient - on the path to saying something interesting, right now. 

What is your goal as a DJ?

Let’s step back a second. Here’s some strong beliefs I have long since held: 

“I hold deep, long term optimism for the ability of all people to be creative and that includes DJing & music making communities - but that creativity needs to be actively supported and incubated.” 

“While each community has the chance to look back and see the big creative moments that came before it, every community also deserves the chance to make its own unique creative works that persist over time. To get the chance to say: ‘this is us, this is now.’” 

“I have been blessed with being in close proximity when several bass music scenes were founded and I wish that blessing on everyone who wishes for it, at least once in their lifetime.” 

“The works made in these times may well be connected to what came before but are more likely to be remembered and cherished if they are distinct from what came before. And again: creativity needs to be actively supported and incubated for it to happen.”

That strong belief is what has motivated my decades of music listening, productions, A&R, journalism, blogging and events, in and around London black music and multicultural bass-heavy, pirate radio-inspired sonics for many years. I mention this to support my points by my actions, not just words.

It’s motivated the Keysound show on Rinse FM, which - as I have been trying to articulate a bit more on Instagram recently - has been dedicated every month for nearly 15 years to finding and showcasing unreleased music, sometimes from established producers but more often than not from producers who have not yet reached their peak of recognition.

Our approach goes like this:

  1. Begin with a set of moods, influences & musical values: without this it’s chaos.

  2. Dig for producers that are currently being creative in these spaces regardless of stature.

  3. Filter their tracks based on which ones best articulate their ideas & fit with the base values.

  4. Mix them in clusters to find creative similarities and novel juxtapositions. Tell small stories of today and of now.

  5. Share with the widest audience to try to inspire further creativity.

  6. Loop back to 1.

Now if we’re being critical, why can’t step 2 involve digging back in time? 

Many DJs are making sets by looking for moods and vibes across all eras (and that’s great!), but our goal here is to “support and incubate” new artists such that they get the “chance to make [their] own unique creative works that persist over time.

All DJs may have their own goals and motivations by the way - rock the crowd as easily as possible, have a laugh, get messy, get famous/adored/rich, escape difficult circumstances/bad jobs etc - and that’s OK, this is mine.

The reason why I believe in this new and unreleased music approach, is in part because almost every black music or pirate-centric scene I have loved through history has come about by a series of committed creative people making new music in the moment: dubstep, grime, jungle, hardcore, house, ragga, uk funky, deep tech, gqom and now UK’s flirtings with amapiano. 

Generally speaking this has happened by looking to the now and moving forward with what you’ve made, not reviving old tracks, relentless anthem bashing etc. 

If your goal is to make your “own unique creative works that persist over time” then this is a good approach that has worked for every pioneer I can think of: DJ Hatcha (dubstep), Slimzee & Mak10 (grime), Fabio & Grooverider (jungle), Larry Levan (US garage), Mark Radford (deep tech), Roska & Marcus Nasty (UK funky) + more. 

(And yes, no doubt there are other ways (“genius not scenius”): I’m just pointing to the value of this one, while not saying it has a monopoly on helping make “unique creative works that persist over time.”)

Here’s something I wrote on this blog having observed the process, back in 2009:

Put simply: a band of like minded community members break away from the status quo, experiment a bit and find some “unique creative works that persist over time.”

What has the British wedding DJ ever done for us?

To see this more clearly, here’s an extreme, absurd example to contrast with it: British wedding DJs. 

Everyone loves a wedding, I love a wedding, but in truth I have never gone to one to hear the DJ.

I have however DJed a whole bunch of weddings, usually with Dusk and we have our go-to selections there that I’m sure you’ll be relieved to know are quite unlike our Rinse sets.

But generally speaking other wedding DJs are the opposite of everything I stand for musically (apart from the Sikh wedding, I went to: that was amazing). 

The approach of most UK wedding DJs is to play something everybody already knows, often zig zagging around haphazardly, or narrowing down to generational slices on the bride+groom’s orders. And having been there as a DJ, I really am sympathetic to the challenge because unlike clubs, you have a super wide age group, literally none of whom have come to see you play so the DJ has to go to the lowest common denominator. 

But the case I’m trying to make with this absurd example is this: no musical scene, great lasting sonic works or cultural movement has ever come out of UK wedding DJ sets.

Why? Because they are playing records everybody already knows. 

The memories and moments that those known records are tied to, have already happened. So the DJ playing them now will be forgotten tomorrow. 

The same applies broadly to revival or old school nights: fun? Yes. Breaking new musical ground? No, literally by definition.

There is also another huge advantage wedding DJs and other “anthem bashers” use: someone else found the diamonds in the dirt for them already. So going back years or decades, it’s just so much easier to find dozens of (now) popular tracks and play them back to back than it is to listen to a dozen or even ten dozen tracks now and find one that will become popular.

This is totally OK by the way, wedding DJs have a very different goal but the point stands: if you think that each community deserves their “own unique creative works that persist over time” then playing records everybody already knows isn’t effective, even if it gets granny on the dance floor.

Why do people return to their teens for music?

As it happens, for a long time I wondered about wedding DJs and the music they are asked to play. As I went to weddings I thought to myself:

“Isn’t it weird that as many people get married around 30ish, the bride and groom almost always want music from when they were 14-20ish?”

Often when I thought “weird”... I also thought “depressing,” since there were bangers in the charts at that moment and lots of great music made in the decade since being a teenager. Why ignore all of that?

This led me to read “This is Your Brain on Music” and I learned why that usually is. This is why I think it’s objectively harder to play music people don’t know or music that contains new patterns - to people and get an emotive response, than it is to play music with patterns they know or even more so tracks they already know. 

So according to the book’s author Levitin, the reason why people getting married want songs from when they were 14-20ish is because in this period your brain is still knitting together new connections, after which it peaks.

I think we’d all recognise this period as the time we formed our identity and neuroscientists are making the case that the brain behaves differently before compared to after it and the music you’re exposed to then and the patterns and complexity it has, sets the pattern for what you find enjoyable. After that it’s possible to find new tastes, it’s just that bit harder.

So what we’re hearing from Levitin is that there’s a special time in our lives for setting your music tastes but there’s something even more amazing he reveals. I think he can also tell us why it’s objectively harder to play tracks people don’t yet know or styles they don’t easily recognise, and get a positive emotional response.

Put simply: there’s no memory of the future. 

“Each musical genre has its own set of rules and its own form. The more we listen, the more those rules become instantiated in memory.”

Turns out, the parts of the brain that are activated by music are shared by the parts that store memories. Music is a series of real time sonic patterns: each sound relates to what has come before it - a beat or a chord - and your brain processes that in real time using your musical memories. 

As you listen to music you are real-time using your memory to see if you recognise the patterns in this song, against musical styles you’ve heard before or even if you’ve heard that song before.

Musicians even leverage this, when they set up a series of patterns that you then recognise, then in real time break the pattern - like a drum break with hits offbeat or a note that is suddenly out of the major chord. They then un-break the rule, resolve the pattern and as our memory recognises the pattern, the relief is pleasurable.

So let me try and summarise how unreleased sets have value, while repeating “to say one way of DJing has value is not making the case that other ways do not”:

  • Music freshly made now is by definition of the moment

  • Great tracks don’t come by often: there are far more of them in the past 

  • People’s brains are hardwired for tracks and musical patterns they already know, so playing unreleased sets is the harder path

  • Every day someone falls in love with a song from an older era but that older song will never speak for a community in this moment as well as their new body of work can

  • By playing sets of unreleased and upfront music, we are making positive, optimistic vote for the now and what could be, rather than what already is, giving a voice to those who are not already celebrated. 

So there it is, my case for unreleased sets. If you were unconvinced before, I hope I convinced you a little.


Appendix: outtakes, offcuts...

The fundamentals of DJing

DJing fundamentally has several key components that have not changed in maybe 40+ years: 

  • Selection 

    • choosing of tracks

  • Sequencing

    • the order in which you play tracks to tell your story

  • Mixing

    • the process of getting from one track to another

  • Performance

    • this is a bit of a catch all, it could be the bits of mixing that are more creative less functional, it could be all the visual signs you give  

This piece is mostly about selection.

Given that advances in DJ equipment from the vinyl through the CD to the digital era have made mixing so much easier, it’s never been more true that selection is hugely important in being creative as a DJ.

Zooming out, I think DJing is quite established now and it’s more likely that this decade will be better remembered for creative works and societal changes in other sectors, as they seem to be evolving faster. Also it’s not long before machine learning (AI) can recreate what most average dance DJs can do, in fact it’s probably already happening. Dance producers too.


Here’s what I mean by some terms involved:


Tracks that only you as a DJ have. Crucially, they do not need to be new to be exclusive to you: some DJs hold onto exclusives for decades. See also “specials:” a form of exclusive that mentioned you by name as a DJ.

"New music" also referred to as "dubs, dubplates, unreleased or demos." 

These terms have related meanings but in this context what they mostly have in common is 1) they were probably made recently and 2) in most cases have not been made widely available (released by a label, free DL etc). They’re new and probably scarce. 

A track may be new - newly made - but it may also have musical patterns that are long since familiar. Imagine, say, a bait, formulaic piano-house-by-numbers banger made in 2022: the track is new but the form is not. 

Now, it’s hard to make something that fits the patterns our brains think of as music (rather than noise) and is also completely and utterly different, so to be clear what I am interested in as a DJ is new music that nudges the forms, moods, feelings of music within the broad constraints of black dance music in novel ways, rather than obviously pastiching the past.

And finally...

Anyone who says in earnest “there’s only two types of music ‘good and bad’” needs to go and have a word with themselves.