Artist of the Month: Nicola Cruz

Henry Ivry digs in with Ecuadorian dance music innovator Nicola Cruz to learn more about his traditional rhythms and roots, hybrid tones, his academic studio outlook, and celebrating Latin talent on his forthcoming fabric presents album.

16 min
September 2022 Nicola Cruz
Sept 19, 2022
Henry Ivry

Just as we’re wrapping up our Zoom call, the producer, DJ, and all-around rhythmic polymath, Nicola Cruz mentions to me that doing press has been a challenge over the years. Most of the interviewers he speaks with are constantly pressing him about the “exotic” elements of his music. Exotic, as he is quick to point out, is a code word for music and sounds not from the hemispheric North. A fixation on those exotic sounds, as we go on to discuss, can feel voyeuristic at best, colonial at worst.

But for Cruz, his music has always been about celebration, rather than fetishization. This is something you can hear on his forthcoming fabric presents Nicola Cruz mix. It’s a landmark moment for an artist who has never released a commercial mix and also a landmark for the club that has never released a mix by a South American resident (Ricardo Villalobos, of course, has released fabric mixes, but the Chilean-born DJ left Santiago when he was 3). Cruz blends together acidic and strange rhythmic workouts from old-school British heads like Lovable Rogues with a cross-section of Latin American artists who are redefining contemporary dance music, from Miami’s Nick Leon to Mexico City’s CNDSD to Brazil’s Marcela Días Sindaco. As Cruz explains, “The idea was to include the eclecticism in my head, but also to invite a few people who are pushing the boundary in Latin America. It was a good chance to open doors that are sonically impacting ideas of the moment.”

In many ways the mix feels like the culmination of Cruz’s career thus far — it’s a balance between functional dance floor fare and music that trades in more textural (and experimental) tones. This is, as Cruz explains, something that has always attracted him to dance music more generally. “Electronic music is all about exploration because of the machines and the means that allow you to [experiment],” he says. “I am always trying new stuff and always pushing it towards situations where I might not be that comfortable. That’s the cool thing to do.”

This may come across as somewhat generic in most contexts. Who hasn’t, after all, rolled their eyes when they read a Bandcamp press release about an artist who doesn’t “work with genres” or an interview about an artist working outside their comfort zone. But with Cruz it’s hard to see this as anything but utterly sincere. This is no doubt because his career to date has been filled with twists and turns as he has created an utterly singular musical lexicon that is as identifiable as it is unexpected.

The mix album fabric presents Nicola Cruz drops on November 19th.

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Born in Limoges, a city smack dab in the middle of France known more for its beef than for any musical exports, to Ecuadorian parents who were studying abroad, Cruz moved back to Quito when he was 3 and, thanks to an indulgent mom who didn’t mind hearing him hammering away on a drumkit, quickly became immersed in music.From his adolescent forays in the world of garage rock, Cruz continued his trajectory, studying audio engineering and sound design before starting to DJ weddings to make some money on the side. At the time, the Quito electronic music scene was fully immersed in the more psychedelic and emotional end of the dance music spectrum — Cruz remembers psytrance and progressive house records dominating the club’s airwaves. But while he could sneak in the occasional prog arpeggio and thumping psy record at the weddings, he explains, “I DJ’ed salsa, merengue, electronic music as well, weddings are very eclectic so you had to have a big repertoire.” But eventually, he narrowed his focus: “I stopped doing [the weddings] and mixing on dance electronic music, which is much easier than all these other styles.”

Taking a break from the wedding circuit coincided with a chance to study in Mexico City from 2007 – 2011. It was a moment of serendipity for the budding DJ and producer — the city already had a thriving dance music infrastructure and Cruz met a teacher who helped him dig deep into the world of synthesizers and musical theory. In Mexico, he tells me, he could “combine the music world and the scientific world of acoustics that led me into electronic music, being fascinated by sound and all its capacity.”

This time was transformative in a number of ways. “From the beginning, I was always involved in this music academy, you learn music from this traditional and Western point where everything is notation and harmony and counterpoints and arranging. And all of this is the mathematics of music that you are understanding at its core, it’s very academic,” he tells me. But electronic music felt different to him. “Electronic music without these rules in terms of actually creating musical ideas with sounds — not necessarily music — with harmonics, with reverberation, with field recordings,” he continues, “I see into the machines I force them to act into different ways than if I was sitting in front of a drum set or a piano.”

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It’s an interesting take on electronic music and one that, on first pass, might seem counterintuitive: dance music is, almost by definition, rigid, clinical in its four-four precision and mix-friendly structures. But when you put Cruz’s ideas into context with the music he began creating around this time, it’s clear that he was trying to think outside of both the strictures of academic music and Western sonic traditions. “I was making electronic music and techno and I did everything from scratch – uptempo techno stuff. At some point,” he explains, “the fast tempos, I couldn’t feel it anymore. Around 2011, I started to slow down and try different emotions. I started finding space in slower rhythms, everything clicked again, and had the space to coexist.”

The emerging result was the digital folk masterpiece, Prender El Alma. Although it wasn’t released until 2015, it was recorded between 2011 and 2012 and was both of the moment – landing right at the time that labels like Cómeme were graining traction and Huntleys + Palmers was releasing the likes of Alejandro Paz — and also completely out of time — the melodies pull from traditional and Indigenous Ecuadorian instruments while the rhythms are low-slung and slippery, closer to the lethargic pacing of early 2000s-minimal than peak time techno. Cruz called the music “Andes-Step” and, if you listen closely to the tracks, you can hear a little bit of tech house wiggle in it (just check that bassline in “Puente Roto“).

Prender El Ama is a delicate album that is intimate and fragile — each song carries with it a hundred valences of emotion — but, also, as Cruz makes clear, just as many valences of the political. “When I used to play with more traditional rhythms from Ecuador it was much more political,” he says when I ask him about the record. “Those ideas – what’s behind that traditional music — is a big, marginalized, and segregated community: it was a way of celebrating this through my own expression.”

It would have been easy for Cruz to keep making these sorts of tunes — and, indeed, he does still have fans that ask him to play tracks off that first record – but his ambitions have always been to create larger dialogues with his records. His subsequent releases maintained similar principles but expanded to include a larger cross-section of music from across the Black and Brown diaspora.

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You can hear this on releases like 2021’s Sentimientos Encontrados where he delved into the world of reggaeton or on 2020’s Fuego Nuevo where he explores Afro-Cuban rhythms. As Cruz explains though, his goal here is not to try and fetishize exotic sounds, but figure out ways that they intersect and inform his own musical cosmology. “I do merge bass rhythms — reggaeton or breakbeats — and then I create this hybrid or this new output in a way,” he explains. “Ecuador has nothing to do with breakbeat, for example. The only thing that I know about breakbeat is my incursion through my DJing and what I hear. It’s not necessarily that I feel it as if it is around me, as if I’d grown up in Miami and been influenced by Miami Bass. I try to do my own hybrid thing — combining elements of bass, exploring what this means to me.”

This experiment with music from across a larger global circuitry led to a standout release on Rhythm Section International earlier this year. Cruz had released an EP of typically whimsical and emotionally evocative tracks on the label previously, but Self Oscillation was a watershed release with a bit more bite to it. Mind-numbing acid lines are stretched across competing drum lines; slinky dembow beats meet Bleep-style techno; jazzy broken beat slides into modern tech house. But if all that sounds academic, don’t worry, Cruz keeps things undeniably funky. “I have rhythm before all because I come from that world,” he tells me.

The sounds he began trotting out on that record — not to mention for his fabric mix — might be a bit of a surprise for those hoping for a career of Prender El Alma repeats. The first half of the mix, in particular, is filled with late-night revelry from the minor key menace of Spike’s “Are These the Future” to the bottom-heavy bass hits of Nick Leon‘s “Multiplex.” Cruz’s mixing is also suited for peak time as his blends are short and sharp, only bringing in tracks long enough to make a quick point before moving on to the next one. Things start to change for the strange once we hit the cellist-turned-producer Marcela Días Sindaco‘s “Ficção Inédita” where her voice is held in the mix over the squishy polyrhythms of Cruz’s own, appropriately titled, “Polimetría.” The mix then takes a moment to fully restart itself as it is dissolved into the skittering vortex of sub-bass and steel drum on Klahrk‘s “NuNegative.” It’s a canny reset by Cruz as he seems to catch his breath before a final run of some of the toughest techno on the record (including another new track by him under his Fauna Extincta alias) that ends with the haunted beauty of Marco Shuttle.

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As a DJ and record collector, the mix allows him to show his deep knowledge of the past, present, and future of house and techno in their purest forms. But it’s been a long time coming as he only now is starting to feel like he can also produce in those templates. “A few years back I started feeling a little more uptempo and energetic, housier stuff,” he explains. I started producing again in faster tempos. The fabric mix celebrates the faster tempo and the energy of electronic music at fast driving tempos.”

Both his recent releases and the mix, then, are more club-focused, but Cruz hasn’t lost the political and anthropological bent of his musical philosophy. Throughout our conversation and my time listening to his records, I keep thinking about a recent book by Métis scholar, Max Liboiron, Pollution is Colonialism. There, they argue that settler colonialism has restructured our relationship to land through an emphasis on extraction. Liboiron’s definition of land is capacious, meant to include “land-based cultural designs and culturally appropriates symbols for fashion” as well as “using land as a resource, a practice that may generate pollution through pipelines, landfills, and recycling plants, or as a sink to store or process waste.” What they are critiquing is the fact that settler colonialism has instilled in many of us a violent relationship to land in its myriad forms.

While certainly not identical, there is a similar violence in the way we can sometimes talk about musical traditions and tropes created outside the global North, looking at ways to incorporate them into existing structures and templates, thinking of them as both interchangeable and disposable — easily substituted for another set of references at any time to add a flare of exoticism to a sound. Cruz’s music, on other hand, demands that we understand a wealth of musical traditions differently outside of these sorts of extractive terms. He wants us to see, for example, that the distance between Sheffield bleep and Quito cumbia, for example, is negligible and merely a matter of perspective, undercutting any ideas about what constitutes the “exotic.” Cruz is creating his own dance music universe where historical and colonial lines between colony and metropole, center and periphery, folk and contemporary, all blur into one another.