Cover Story: AceMoMA

For our final Cover Story of 2021, Shawn Reynaldo sits down for a rare and candid interview with NYC-based producers AceMoMA, whose futuristic blend of techno, footwork, and jungle has rocketed them into the limelight.

33 min
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Dec 20, 2021
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By
Shawn Reynaldo

“I don’t really like the press, to be quite frank with you. I think it fucks with narratives,” says Wyatt Stevens, better known as MoMA Ready. “These music writers don’t have to have any legitimate qualifications,” he adds. “They’re the only type of journalist that doesn’t need any qualifications.”

It’s an unusual thing for an artist to say in the middle of an interview, but Stevens doesn’t seem particularly concerned about crossing any imaginary lines about what he’s “supposed” to do or what role he’s expected to play in the larger electronic music sphere. AceMoMA — his collaborative project with close friend and fellow NYC artist Adrian Mojica (aka AceMo) — has never been about coloring within the lines of dance music, or kowtowing to its gatekeepers. It’s not a coincidence that the pair titled their 2020 debut album A New Dawn; they’re looking to usher in a whole new era — one in which Black and brown people reclaim the music that was originally born out of their communities — and based on the impact they’ve had during the past few years, they’re already well on their way to making it a reality.

Mojica and Stevens have only known each other since 2017, first meeting at Manhattan’s famed A-One Record Shop, and while they quickly bonded as young Black artists with a shared passion for music and skateboarding, they do make for something of an unusual pair. Stevens, who’s much more brash and outspoken, openly admits that the two are “polar opposites,” and describes the laid-back Mojica as an “actual artist.” He adds, “I’m like this bull, and Ace is like this little creature on my back saying, ‘Let’s go this way!’”

“I always say that Wyatt balances my vibes out,” says Mojica. “When I can’t be harsh or get a point across, I know Wyatt can. When we’re in the same room, we’re always on the same thought plane.” That shared thought plane certainly goes a long way towards explaining the chemistry they’ve found in the studio. Although they each have their own preferred methods of working — Stevens operates in the box, and so does Mojica, but the latter is more of a gear person who’s also willing to make music on pretty much anything — they’ve developed multiple collaborative workflows as a duo. More importantly, they’ve learned to trust their instincts. “We work in a fast way,” says Mojica. “We don’t like to harp on ideas.” Stevens adds, “We’re very focused on, ‘How does this feel right now?’ We’re trying not to overcook the turkey.”

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That spirit has undoubtedly contributed to the torrent of music the two have released—both together and separately — since they first linked up. AceMoMA’s self-titled debut EP came out in 2019 via online skate magazine Jenkem, but both Stevens and Mojica had already dropped numerous solo releases at that point, and they’ve issued dozens more over the past few years. And while social media clips of the two excitedly jamming in the studio might have led some people to think that Mojica and Stevens were randomly issuing tossed-off improvisations, they stress that all of their projects — both solo and collaborative — are fully considered efforts, many of which are literally years in the making.

Stylistically, AceMoMA are taking clear cues from the pummeling, percussion-led sounds of classic Chicago house and Detroit techno, but they refuse to be hemmed in by traditional genre boundaries. Mojica grew up playing trumpet and playing in all sorts of youth jazz ensembles, while Stevens, whose childhood was full of gospel music (his parents were music ministers of the church he grew up in), was both a breakdancer and a serious drummer, two passions that cultivated a genuine love of breaks. In many ways, their music is a distillation of decades of North American Black music, and their “style,” if it can be pinned down, basically boils down to the attitude that the two men bring to the creative process. “We are the sound,” says Stevens. “We are the music that you’re listening to.” Mojica adds, “If we’re making it, if our hands are on it, it’s going to have our sound. We feel like everything is available to us. Nothing is off-limits.”

Over time, the pair have displayed an increasing affinity for rave and drum & bass rhythms, high-speed drum patterns that are frequently attributed to the UK. “We love breaks and we love fast tempos,” admits Mojica. “They expand the style and the music into greater places and just broaden things for people. There’s freedom above 160 BPM.” At the same time, Stevens is quick to point out that many of those rhythms are actually rooted in American breaks, and neither he or Mojica grew up worshipping — or even knowing much about — the UK hardcore continuum.

Like many young Black people in the US, Mojica and Stevens spent most of their lives largely unaware of dance music’s distinctly Black roots. Although Stevens did have an aunt who “used to rave back in the day” and would blast house music when she’d babysit him and his sister, what ultimately left a much larger impression on him was the media that he consumed: movies, television and video games. “Remember that dumpster fire of a movie Lost in Space? The outro is drum & bass. It’s horrible now that I go back and listen to it, but the drums stood out to me because I’m a drummer.” Mojica had a similar experience: “I used to love the intro to Invader Zim. I used to turn the volume up every time it came on and run around my house.”

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Toonami, Adult Swim, all this stuff, you were just constantly being bombarded as a young alternative kid with rave sounds,” remembers Stevens. “The ending of Mortal Kombat is ‘Halcyon’ by Orbital. That’s also the intro to Hackers, which had a huge influence on me. The whole soundtrack of The Matrix is big beat. It was non-stop media, and my body made a decision for me that I wanted to do this music.” Mojica, who first started learning digital production during high school, describes the experience as a sort of awakening. “All the things that I liked had electronic music in them,” he says, “and once I started doing production classes, it was a big unlock where I was like, ‘Oh, this is how all that stuff is made.’”

Electronic music’s extended history, however, and more specifically, its roots in North American Black communities, remained elusive until Mojica and Stevens were in their early twenties. (Both men are now 28 years old.) “We found out together,” says Mojica. “Honestly, we loved Black music when we were growing up and listening to it with our family members, but in Brooklyn, it wasn’t a thing that was happening. It was like a bunch of white DJs.” Stevens adds, “This was in 2016, 2017. You couldn’t go see somebody that looked like you that played the type of music we’re playing.” Even as they learned more about where the music originally came from, the idea of Black artists making house and techno “felt like a myth,” remembers Mojica. “It felt like a long-lost thing from the ’90s, or a party that we weren’t invited to. So we had to start the party ourselves.”

The prospect of reorienting the entire electronic music industry and carving out a place for young Black and brown creatives would have seemed impossible to most artists, but Mojica and Stevens never shied away from thinking big. “The conversations that we would have walking down the street,” says Stevens, “we would talk very grandiosely about what we could do, and now we’re doing it.” Confidence is not in short supply with these two, who both also note that hip-hop has played a major role in shaping their approach to the industry. “We come from that,” explains Mojica. “That’s what we know, and I think that’s why we kind of came into this world with that kind of attitude, and it’s working.”

On a practical level, that means not being shy about releasing a lot of music, in the same way that a rapper might drop several mixtapes in a year while also featuring on a bunch of other artists’ projects. Traditional electronic music wisdom tells producers to not flood the market with releases, but AceMoMA brush that notion aside. “Some of my favorite artists have large discographies, with stuff you can find and stuff you can’t,” says Mojica. “There’s unreleased stuff and stuff that was released on a white label. It all adds to the lore, and we love that.” Stevens puts it more bluntly: “I don’t think anybody has the balls to tell us that we’re releasing too much music.”

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“I have at points said that I want to come at this shit like a rapper,” adds Stevens. “The average techno guy is just some basement-dwelling dude that’s digging through records, or some upper-crust, upper-middle-class motherfucker who was bored and likes electronic music because he went to EDC one year or some shit. That’s fine and I don’t care, but if I pull up on you with the experiences that I’ve had and the lifestyle that I live, and compare it to the way that you do things and the lifestyle that you live, you’re not built like that. I’ve kind of come through like a bully. Not in a disrespectful way, but it’s like, ‘Yo, you guys aren’t going to stop me. What are you going to do?’ Let’s be real here. This is not rap, it’s techno, and these dudes aren’t built like that.”

Mojica and Stevens spent 2018 feverishly making tracks and putting their mark on NYC’s club scene. “We were DJing and breaking parties,” recalls Stevens. “We were making it so the next DJ couldn’t DJ. We were smoking people. We were DJing so hard, and when I think about some of those parties, I get chills remembering the energy that we could create in those rooms.” Yet even as they were ascending through the DJ ranks, they never stopped focusing on production; both men had started releasing music prior to 2019, but that year was arguably when their march toward domination really kicked into high gear. It was then that Mojica’s “Where They At???” became one of the year’s biggest club tracks, and Stevens’ HAUS of ALTR label (which had only begun releasing music the year prior) began to be touted as one of dance music’s hottest imprints. A New Dawn dropped in January 2020, and was racking up tons of accolades before the pandemic hit. And while COVID put most of the industry on pause last year, AceMoMA kept on working, their intensity — and the spotlight on their work — only growing in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death and the rise of Black Lives Matter protests around the globe.

“We were beating on that glass for a while and kept beating on it, even once the pandemic happened,” says Mojica. “And then it broke. There was nowhere else to go. It didn’t really feel like we were blowing up. It felt like it was meant to be. We were asking for that spotlight, and people were wanting to let us speak on what was going on at that time.” Still, it was their music that ultimately spoke the loudest. “That felt like the work that I could do as an African American Black man,” says Stevens. “I wish I could have gotten out there and done more during the protests, but I’m asthmatic. I’ve been pepper sprayed before and almost died, so there’s work that I can do and work that I can’t do. ‘What can I do?’ is the question that I kept asking myself, and through that the HOA010 compilation was born. I just kept asking myself, ‘What can I do to contribute to the betterment of my people, at least in the industry that I’m a part of?’”

Released on Juneteenth, it’s hard to overstate the impact of HOA010, a 26-track compilation that showcased Black artistry from both sides of the Atlantic and arrived when the conversation about Black lives was at a fever pitch. “I kind of knew it was going to happen,” says Stevens. “I’m very calculated in how I do things, and I knew what a large compilation would do. With the amount of people that were on the compilation, and the people that were on there, it was an ‘it’s about time’ type of thing. It was about time for us to all know each other and be on the same page.” Additional volumes, HOA011 and HOA012, followed in July and September, and Stevens states that the three compilations have collectively brought in more than $60,000 in sales, a figure that’s almost inconceivable for a series of independent, digital-only releases.

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While the compilations were greeted with widespread praise, and helped to put dozens of Black producers on the wider industry radar, not all of the responses were positive. “I was shook when the first one dropped,” recalls Stevens. “There was a whole Reddit thread with people racistly bashing our efforts. It had like 200-plus comments just railing us, and it was kind of painful. Everybody else gets to be DJs, and we were getting treated like we were left-wing activists or something. It was kind of scary, with weird accounts following me and lurking me.”

That alone would have been daunting enough, but the compilations also drew the attention of corporations, many of which were scrambling to support Black artists during the summer of 2020. “People like to position themselves next to your platform to make themselves look like they care about the subject matter that you care about,” says Stevens. “But I don’t put faith in corporations. I use them as tools the same way as they use me. I’m not under any illusion of a friendship. We’re also not hopping on stuff just because it’s an opportunity. We’re very ‘no’ type of guys.” Mojica adds, “We’re down with people willing to help, but it should be mutual. We’re the people that are putting in the work, so people shouldn’t hit us up and not come with anything.”

The same goes for labels, as AceMoMA are hesitant to sign with an established imprint based on name-recognition alone. “At the end of the day,” says Stevens, “the amount of money that I can make off of one release, there is no fucking electronic music label that’s going to make me more money than that. That’s facts. These idiots that run these labels are selling you so much smoke up your ass, and they’ll own you for fucking five projects and your back catalog. They’re doing the same deals that major labels are doing but without the ability to provide the support that major labels provide. It’s completely ridiculous.”

Simply put, Mojica and Stevens are happy to chart their own path, and though their goals have always been big, they’ve never hired PR or chased attention, especially from the press. “These writers, they’re just fluffing things up,” says Stevens, “using these crazy poetic words to describe what you’re doing. And I have to live up to this bullshit that you just said when I was literally in my underwear smoking a joint when I made the song.” Although the coverage of their work has been almost universally positive, it hasn’t necessarily been accurate, which they find endlessly frustrating. “People just don’t ask,” says Mojica. “Send us a DM and say, ‘Hey, I’m writing an article about your music, do you have anything to say about it?’ It doesn’t happen, and then they go and write an article. There could have been a little bit of truth in this article, but instead, it’s just someone’s interpretation of it.”

Journalists have also repeatedly compared Mojica’s and Stevens’ work to house and techno legends, which doesn’t sit well with the duo. It’s not that they don’t respect their electronic music elders; they’ve been humbled to connect with artists like RP Boo, Traxman and Waajeed, and have also been tapped to open up for people like Robert Hood, Stacey Pullen and Jeff Mills. But as incredible as those experiences have been, they don’t think it’s fair for music writers to put them on that level. “Comparing me to Jeff Mills?,” asks Stevens incredulously. “Stop. Please don’t do that. You’re making me uncomfortable. Jeff Mills doesn’t like living up to Jeff Mills, so who wants to live up to being like an icon all the damn time? That’s fucking whack. That’s mad depressing. So many artists get destroyed by that and the media aids in that. So, as a Black man, I’m not really down with being depicted that way, often by fetishizing white men that are masturbating over the music.”

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For AceMoMA, white interaction with Black art is at the root of many of dance music’s shortcomings, and is also a big part of the reason that so many young people aren’t aware of where the music actually came from. Stevens elaborates:

“Something happens when white people see African-American art. I don’t know what it is, but they feel as though if it works for them, then they ignore everything about it that makes it Black and they take it. They try to get the vibe that they felt from it, and they want to be the reason that the vibe exists.

They’re not content with letting Black people keep this music and this art that they made via whatever their personal experience was. And a lot of that experience is the way it is because of the world that white America has created for African Americans. We create this art to have a relationship with these experiences, and then it gets taken by the people that force these experiences on us. It’s very strange.

Whenever that happens, Black people have a tendency to move on. Even in hip-hop, where you could argue that Black people haven’t moved on, they move on from genre concepts. Once the greater white America becomes attached to these artists and becomes attached to the ideas, the music, the slang, the styles of clothing, all of that; once the suburbs get ahold of it, it’s not really cool anymore in the hood. I think the same thing happened to dance music once Europe took ahold of it.

The more white participants get involved in the music, the less Black people see themselves in it and they move on from it, just like they do everything else. Black people are very futuristic. They love the new thing. So if something’s not new, it’s like, ‘That shit’s old, that shit is tired,’ but I really think that’s a trauma response from not being able to have anything for ourselves long enough for it to truly be cultivated.”

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Cultivating space for Black and brown people in electronic music has been one of AceMoMA’s goals since day one. “That’s exactly why we created this,” says Mojica. He and Stevens want to build their own thing, but not just for them; it’s for their friends, like-minded peers and future generations of artists, especially in North America. (Again, it’s not a coincidence that the duo’s second album, which came out back in March, is entitled A Future.) “We have every intention of holding the door open as long as we can behind us,” says Stevens. “The industry deserves to see the faces of the people that created it. It could only benefit this industry to have a little more authenticity and a little more love, and we’re going to bring these people on so they can show you what that looks like in our modern times.”

For now, that includes people like Mojica and Stevens, not to mention close friends like fellow NYC talents Kush Jones and DJ Swisha. And though they actively celebrate the efforts of UK artists like Sherelle, who’s been making a similar push to support Black artistry on that side of the pond, they also make clear that their hometown is absolutely bursting with under-appreciated talent. They namecheck people like Elise, BASSBEAR!!, Kanyon and James Bangura (who hails from Washington DC), but also note that there are simply too many names to list. NYC lineups have become notably more diverse, and as far as Mojica and Stevens are concerned, the city’s revitalized electronic music scene doesn’t get the attention it deserves. “There are five parties a week here,” says Stevens, “and we all know each other. That’s not happening anywhere else. Everywhere else, it’s weekend stuff, even in Germany. Here, you could go to a good party literally every night of the week, and it’s been like that since 2018, but nobody’s saying anything about it.”

“There’s been a changing of the guard,” he adds. “We were the kids scrapping for gigs, and now we’re the guard. Sometimes it’s a lot of pressure, but this is what the plan was from day one: to come in and change the landscape into something that we felt that we could navigate. We’ve created enough of our own world where we’re able to have more autonomy as artists, and not just us, but the people around us as well.” Sustainability is a word they mention repeatedly, and while Mojica is already playing around North America regularly, Stevens explains that they want to help build “a sustainable community outside of the EDM dance music world in North America.” They envision “a circuit, a genuine circuit, an accolade circuit, a canonized circuit, something that young DJs in America of any background or heritage can aspire to being a part of. And where they don’t feel like they’re like selling out, and they don’t feel like they’re having to change their artistic integrity or anything like that. A world of music that cares about the vibe.”

Moreover, AceMoMA are also determined to pass along the knowledge they’ve picked up to the next generation, ensuring a metaphorical passing of the baton that they themselves never properly received. “Dance music dies a thousand deaths, and it’s because there’s no wilful cultivation,” explains Stevens. “In hip-hop, there are A&Rs, there are all these people that are there to literally find the next generation of artistry. In the dance music industry, it’s more about protecting the current standards. And unfortunately, what happens is this gatekeeping effect, where the younger generations don’t have access to what’s necessary for them to meet the industry standard.”

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“How could young people even infiltrate this industry?,” he continues. “How could you know that you have to play good files on a prime sound system? If someone is ripping all their shit off YouTube, doing their absolute fucking best, they’re still embarrassing themselves in front of these big-wig DJs. And it’s because they don’t know how important that type of stuff is. Nobody told them because they don’t want them to actually do well. Established DJs want to show the venue why it’s necessary for them to get booked over these young kids that they’re trying to pay less money. That’s the type of shit that we’re dealing with, even in New York right now. There’s nobody to be there and say, ‘There’s a reason why these big DJs are big DJs, and there’s a reason why, no matter how hard you try, you’re not. And I’m going to tell you how to break that glass ceiling.’ There’s nobody to do that, so now we’re doing it.”

As lofty as it sounds, AceMoMA are world-building, and their ambitions are pretty much limitless. “We’re always focused on what could be versus what is,” says Stevens. “If something is wrong and you’re the only one that seems to notice or care about it, maybe it’s because you’re the one that’s supposed to do something about it.” At the same time, no matter how grand their vision becomes, music remains the foundation of everything that Mojica and Stevens do, and their 2022 is going to be busy. AceMoMA have booked their debut live show at next year’s Primavera Sound festival in Barcelona, and more (as yet unannounced) releases are on the way too.

“Expect an onslaught,” says Mojica, who notes that his Sonic Messengers label — which initially grew out of a DJ residency at Brooklyn’s Public Records (and whose name is inspired by Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers) — will not only be more active, but has also developed into a sort of live band project. Stevens promises that HAUS of ALTR will remain a vital outlet, both for other artists’ work and his own, including material from his Gallery S alias, which he refers to as his “creative safe space.” Collaboration is something that both Mojica and Stevens have a passion for, and the two have each been making music with a variety of different artists, including their own siblings, who’ve already appeared on some of their past releases. Those efforts will begin to surface in the months ahead. And even if only a fraction of the projects Mojica and Stevens have brewing actually come to light, there will be no shortage of new music.

“Things are going to get pretty spooky,” says Stevens. “If you were stressed out already, thinking, ‘How do they keep doing it?,’ it’s going to get worse. We’re trying to leave a little stamp here and take this as far as it could possibly go. And as big as you think it could be, we’re probably thinking it could be bigger than that.”

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