Introducing: Yu Su

By consistently subverting expectations, China’s Yu Su is redefining what electronic music from her home country sounds like. Cameron Holbrook hears her story so far.

12 min
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Jan 29, 2020
Cameron Holbrook

“There’s always that one event or one record that opens up new worlds for you,” Yu Su says.. For the 26-year-old electronic musician, DJ, and producer who has become a prominent member of Vancouver’s underground scene, it’s both.

The first was a 2012 Floating Points show in Vancouver, her adopted city, where she was attending The University of British Columbia (or “The University of a Billion Chinese Students,” as she calls it in jest) to study business. “That was my first time hearing disco and house music,” Yu Su explains over Skype. She’s calling from Kaifeng in Central China, where she’s from. “I had never heard anything like that before. After that, I kept asking my friends about this new type of music so they could introduce me to more records, including Beautiful Swimmer’s debut album, Son.” It was the first record she ever bought in what is now a 400-strong collection of vinyl, a number which Yu Su remarks as being “very small.”

After dropping her business major to pursue art and anthropology, she found that the abundance of nature and solitude that Vancouver had to offer — combined with its close-knit underground scene — had a powerful effect on her newfound musical ambitions. After growing up in an expansive concrete city where walking on grass in a public park is deemed unlawful, the abundance of Vancouver’s greenery was wildly cathartic. She started reading about the World Soundscape Project, a 1960s Vancouver-based research initiative founded by Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer in the late 1960s which studies harmonious relationships between the human community and its sonic environment. Between Yu Su’s study of acoustic ecology and her various jaunts through the city’s surrounding nature, the scenery took hold of her sound. “With the landscape, everything makes sense right before your eyes. So for me, I would just subconsciously be influenced by it,” she explains.

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Yu Su’s first musical portrait of the Pacific Northwest came with her You’re Me project with Scott Johnson Gailey. Released in 2016 on Vancouver label 1080p, the duo’s experimental debut album Plant Cell Division is a mosaic of dub, drones, telluric rhythms, and abstracted electronica. Ethereal and delightfully experimental, You’re Me gave Yu Su the free-form foundation she needed to excel as a solo artist.

Listening to Yu Su’s original productions is like planting yourself in a dense wilderness that can grow and dissipate at visible speeds. The downtempo lucidity of her debut EP on Arcane, Preparations For Departure — released in 2018 and dedicated to her late mother, who passed away a year earlier — reveals meditative echos and melodic textures that are wholly exotic. The same goes for Yu Su’s 2019 EP 泉出通川为谷 (Roll With The Punches) on Second Circle, a widely celebrated release featuring tracks with fellow Vancouverites Michelle Helene Mackenzie and Pender Street Steppers, and three B-sides that were all recorded in a single take.

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“I didn’t even edit anything. I just recorded a live set out into three tracks,” Yu Su explains. “When it comes to my music, I’ll finish a song if I can make a it in one sitting. If I can’t, that means that track isn’t going anywhere. It’s like an instinct. If it works, it works. If it doesn’t, I don’t think spending 10 more days trying to finish this one thing would make a difference.”

Yu Su’s tracks are not necessarily designed for dancefloor consumption. Unlike many, her DJing and production sit as two separate entities. But this doesn’t mean they can’t, or don’t, overlap in sound and approach. “You can hear the sound I like in my DJ set as well as in the music I make, although it’s kind of two different things,” she says. “Basically, I like dance music that has organic elements in it.”

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In addition to some stellar remixes for Hidden Spheres, Fede Lng, and Guerilla Toss, the main exception to this fact is her breakout 2019 single “Watermelon Woman.” Released on Ninja Tune sub-label Technicolour, this wonky and delirious reinterpretation of Herbie Hancock’s jazz classic “Watermelon Man” is where her production prowess and dancefloor capability finally collided.

Behind the decks, Yu Su has mastered the element of surprise. Sitting atop an arsenal of infectious and slippery selections, one can expect to experience a mishmash of acid, leftfield techno, classic house, breaks, soul, funk, and plenty of early electronic gems that send crowds scrambling for track IDs. “At the start of 2018, I remember telling my agent, ‘If one day I can play Dekmantel, I would be so happy that I could just quit music altogether,'” Yu Su exclaims, with sparkle and laughter in her voice. A year later, she landed a spot on the festival’s 2019 bill, and thankfully reconsidered her previous remark.

By the time she’d been booked to play the world-famous event, she’d also booked gigs in 22 countries across six continents, with appearances at festivals like MUTEK, Listen!, Nuit Sonores, and Kala in Albania.

“Albania was really special,” Yu Su says. “It was where I really started to realize how lucky I am to be able to come to a place that I never thought I’d get the chance to visit and do what I like.” However, the place that has had the most significant impact on her musical journey thus far is her country of origin. Towards the end of 2019, Yu Su embarked on a month-long tour through China for the first time.

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“It’s been a crazy experience,” she says. “I was booked for nine dates in December, but now I’ve added six more in January, which is shocking because I would never have thought that there were that many cities with clubs. With every one of these smaller cities I’ve played, I get so surprised by the number of people that show up and how they dance and react to the different styles of music I play. The energy is so fresh.”

For Yu Su, the billowing potential of China’s electronic music scene is as clear as day. Malleable and rapidly growing in strength, she’s thrilled for what potentially lies ahead.

Similar to her connection with nature, Yu Su’s cultural identity and interest in Daoism seeps into her music. While she states that she’s not intentionally trying to create music with an eastern edge, it’s something both fans and peers have noticed. “Some people were commenting online how they’re surprised that contemporary Chinese music can sound Chinese in this way,” she says. “Like it doesn’t sound Chinese, but it still sounds Chinese, you know?”

Because this was her first tour through China, many fans who’d only listened to her records arrived at her shows expecting something completely different from what they got — an eclectic display of dance music the likes of which they’d never seen before. “Some young people who showed up don’t even like dance music or don’t go to parties, but because they’ve heard my records, which isn’t really dance music, they arrive as if they’re going to a concert. When they get there, I have the opportunity to expand their idea of what a party is and what electronic dance music is. It’s been really fascinating.”

That’s not to say that the country is fully green to clubland. Techno, house, and club music have a sizable presence throughout the country. New venues continue to pop up with international bookings, and Chinese artists like object blue, Tzusing, and Pan Daijing have made huge strides in putting the country’s underground scene on the map. However, it’s Yu Su’s display of profound dance music fusion that’s seen as something utterly new for much of China’s wide-eyed dance music community.

“Something I hear a lot from the audience here is that they would say, ‘I never thought music that’s not harsh techno could make me dance.’ Or someone would say, ‘I never really heard anything like this before.'” Yu Su says. “Unlike in Europe, where everyone has seen hundreds of DJs perform, it’s still relatively new here. It’s great how we get to surprise each other.”

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In 2020, Yu Su will continue to tour around the globe, and hopes to release a full-length album later this year. Because China has no dedicated download services, like Juno or Beatport, she’s hoping to release her LP in China. “For people to buy records in China that are released in other countries, it’s tough and expensive. It’s not accessible, and lots of people can’t get it. I want to make my album more accessible to the people here,” Yu Su says.

As she continues to build her reputation as a champion of China’s electronic music frontier, the ravishing musical narrative that Yu Su presents to her fans is picking up steam in numerous corners of clubland. With a busy tour schedule ahead of her, she’s hoping to find time to get away from it all so she can concentrate on producing. Seclusion plays a key role in the hypnotic quality of her sound. “It’s important to me to have some quiet time outside of the touring territories,” she explains. “I hope I can have enough time on my own without socializing where I can finish a full-length album. That’s the dream.”

Cameron Holbrook is a staff writer for Beatportal. Find him on Twitter.