Welcome back to On Our Radar, our monthly roundup of the DJs and producers we can’t get enough of.
Known for locking down impeccable sets and bringing profoundly dynamic rhythms to the dance floor, Gigsta is a dance music expert, plain and simple. Raised in France, she eventually made her way to Berlin, where she began a research project about early press on electronic music. In addition to having worked as a journalist for the website Trax, Vermoesen’s comprehensive understanding of the dance music scene is truly astonishing. After years of translating that immense knowledge into technical skill, she’s gone on to share the stage with healed acts like Batu, Joy Orbison, Joyce Muniz, Ben UFO, Call Super, and many more at gigs all over Europe. She’s an absolute force behind the decks who always comes strapped with an arsenal of tracks that are bound to leave your awestruck.
SAINT THOMAS LEDOUX
Hailing from Knoxville, Tennessee, Saint Thomas LeDoux is one of the core members of the city’s TEKNOX crew — a collection of twisted club experimentalists that consists of other noteworthy up-and-comers Nikki Nair, dialectic sines, and Alex Falk. Drawing a distinct energy from their small, underground community, TEKNOX’s bent and dense compositions of house, techno and beyond are making noise that isn’t going unnoticed. LeDoux’s Chain Letter EP on Jacktone Records is the latest example, and shows his propensity to translate elements of everyday life into startling and memorable slammers. Bringing a new concoction of southern heat to the dance floor, LeDoux and his buddies are spearheading an underground movement in Knoxville that we plan on keeping a close eye on.
With his penchant for chaotic hardcore and punk music, Chilean artist Tomás Urquieta has zeroed in on an abstract and riot-infused techno, which is not for the faint of heart. Based in Mexico City, Urquieta has is showing the Central American metropolis’ underground community that he isn’t afraid of experimentation. The industrial clash of his gritty sonic output is gearing up to baffle the techno scene even further with the arrival of Urquieta’s Sintesis de Friccion EP — set to drop on March 30 via the Columbian imprint, Insurgentes.
With releases on highly-regarded labels like Anjunadeep, Dirtybird, Life & Death, Pets Recordings, and more, UK artist Joseph Ashworth has been swooning various corners of the house music scene since 2017. His trim and vivid productions continue to receive support from heavy-hitters like DJ Tennis, Lee Burridge, Kölsch, and many more. At the same time, his DJ sets consistently wow crowds all over Europe and North America, and his latest EP, Breathe, on Moscoman’s Disco Halal imprint, sees the DJ and producer pushing himself into fresh and stimulating territory.
Over the past three years, Singapore native Mesmé has established herself as one of the Los Angeles underground’s most called-upon DJs. As the LA dance music scene continues to flourish at an astonishing rate, the Into The Woods resident has supported acts like Etapp Kyle, Hodge, Ellen Allien, Nastia, FJAAK, Four Tet, Laurel Halo, and Lena Willikens. With an endless supply of house gems, unruly electro, scolding breaks, and stripped-back techno, Mesmé is proving she can stand her ground with the best of the best (and sometimes even outshine them).
The piano has always been an integral part of house music. It’s the central element in countless dance floor classics. Here, Harold Heath looks back through the history of the piano in house, and speaks to some of the artists currently championing the sound.
As a kid, Marshall Jefferson loved Led Zeppelin. In his autobiography, Diary Of A DJ, Jefferson asserts that Led Zeppelin sped up the tapes on one of their albums so that they would appear to be virtuoso musicians who could effortlessly play complex music quickly. Following this belief, Jefferson — who’d never played an instrument in his life — set his sequencer to a crawling 40 beats per minute, allowing him to play piano parts for his seminal “Move Your Body,” and 34 years later, we’re still dancing to the awesome power of a fully operational house piano riff.
The surrounding production and beats may change and the tempo might vary, but house music producers have continually returned to the piano riff: a two-, three- or four-chord progression, played rhythmically and percussively, usually in the mid-range of the piano. Usually it’s euphoric, sometimes it’s dark, but it’s always emotive. When done well, a decent piano tune can attain anthem status. Singer-songwriter Rachel Row released “To Love You” on Running Back in 2019 with KiNK, a massive tune featuring a jubilant piano riff, old-school breaks and a warping bassline. “There is nothing else in music that gives you that uplifting feeling of happiness and freedom than a good piano chord progression. House music is the inheritor of disco music, which comes from R&B and gospel, where the piano has a leading role. If the guitar is associated with rock and blues music, brass instruments is jazz, and piano is house.”
The musical DNA of house music, and specifically its roots in disco, is key to the piano’s musical effectiveness. The earliest house productions continued and reinterpreted many aspects of older disco records. And when listening back to certain disco records, pre-echos of what would become the classic house music piano riff can clearly be heard.
Pioneering Philadelphia International Records (PIR) band MFSB were behind many pre-disco and early disco records, and, musically speaking, have a lot to answer for. Drummer Earl Young pioneered the disco beat — a 4/4 kick drum, snare on the second and fourth beat, hissing hi-hat in between — which became the house beat we’re still dancing to today. The other members of MFSB adapted to the increased tempo and complex Latin poly-rhythms of much of PIR’s output, tightening up their licks, each part rigidly uniform and precise so it could fit in the intricate arrangements. You can clearly hear early versions of staccato house piano chords on “Bad Luck” by Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes from 1973, which MFSB performed. Its insistent, stabbing, rhythmic, chord vamp style would be heard on many Chicago house records a decade and a half later.
Recording artist and DJ Hifi Sean, himself no stranger to the power of the piano in dance music — check his “Testify” with Crystal Waters — neatly sums up the piano’s lineage in house. “Let’s be honest, it all comes from blues, soul and gospel vibes, which merged into disco, and then into disco’s revenge: house music.”
Many of the players who made up MFSB went on to record as The Ritchie Family and The Salsoul Orchestra, creating a back catalogue of pivotal and prescient musical moments. Many of their records are known as the basis of house records, and have been sampled (or downright copied) endlessly. “My Love Is Free” on Salsoul by Double Exposure is a great example. Listen from the 4:25 mark, and you’ll hear musical pre-echos of early house songs like Ten City’s “That’s The Way Love Is” and Phase II ’s “Reachin,” which would be recorded over a decade later.
Sweet D’s “Thank Ya” on Trax from ’86 shows the clear lineage between early piano house and disco. All the elements were in place: the 909 beats, a lonely, reverberated vocal, sampled orchestral stabs, and at centre stage, a piano riff lifted from Cheryl Lynn’s 1978 disco release “You Saved My Day.”
The piano also found a place in the New Jersey sound championed by Tony Humphries, resident DJ at Zanzibar in the ‘80s. Humphries played melodic, soulful, gospel-influenced records, and his decade of DJing at Zanzibar would define what would become known as garage, epitomised by records like Blaze’s “Can’t Win For Losin’’” and Phase II’s “Mystery (Of Love),” both from 1988.
No history of piano tunes would be complete without mentioning the 1987 Detroit anthem “Strings of Life” by Rhythim is Rhythim, featuring a piano line made of chord inversions so emotive that it experienced multiple rebirths over the years. Sampled in a clutch of hardcore/rave tracks like “Jailbreak” by Paradox in ‘89, “Tapes” by Ray Keith in ‘91, and by Altern8 with 1991’s “Evapor8,” it was reborn again in 2004 with a cover version by Soul Central — which itself was revived with a vocal version called “Strings of Life (Stronger On My Own)” the following year.
Through the early years of house and its subsequent sub-genre splintering in the early ‘90s, the piano tune remained popular. The UK rave scene heartily embraced the piano break, either recycling riffs from older house records, or writing new ones before stapling sped-up breaks and sub-bass onto them. Manix’s (solo project of 4Hero’s Mark Clair) “Feel Real Good” from 1992 was one of the high points from this period, cheekily lifting from Sterling Void’s “I Don’t Wanna Go,” which had been released the previous year. Tim van de Meutter, better known as house artist Locked Groove, released a storming old-school style piano tune in 2019 called “Do Not Freak.” “I think a good piano progression is something a lot of people can relate to, and even though maybe the same progression has been done over and over again, it still has appeal,” he says. Indeed, some chord progressions possess so much voodoo they’re reused constantly. Both Outrage and Rockford Files released tracks in the mid-‘90s using the Sterling Void piano line.
The late ‘80s and early ‘90s saw the Italians —inventors of the piano — providing some of the very finest piano anthems in dance music history. Acts like the FPI Project, Electric Choc, Soft House Company, Sueño Latino and A.S.H.A were churning out colossal anthems based around simple three or four chord piano riffs, as well as lesser-known, though equally gorgeous and understated records like Don Carlos’ “Alone Paradise,” Onirico’s “Stolen Moments” and “Emotions” by the 707 Boyz. Some of these releases took on an almost mystical quality, appearing only on mixtapes, pirate radio or at the rave, leaving listeners wanting more. “[A.S.H.A.’s “JJ Tribute”] was only on rare mixtapes and never on real vinyl,” Yousef recalls. “It went on to become a huge record. Not long after came “Just A Feeling” by Terrorize and then “Anthem” by N-Joi, and again, when [these tracks] first appeared, they were mythical. You would go to a midweek rave just to hope to hear one of them.”
By the mid-‘90s, piano tunes had gone mainstream, and releases like Juliet Roberts’ “Caught In The Middle” had the potential to become huge crossover hits. But by the middle of the decade, it began feeling like piano house had run its course. Then came records like DJ Dove’s swoon-inducing “Illusions,” the gorgeous “Le Voie Le Soleil” from Subliminal Cuts, and David Morales’ killer dub of UK pop act London Beat’s “Come Back,” reminding everyone just how good a piano house record could be.
Terry Farley knows a thing or two about piano tunes. And the veteran UK DJ sees a clear connection between house music and much older genres. “I guess the piano dance chords go way back to rhythm & blues and Fats Domino, and the crew playing juke joints, then Jerry Lee Lewis and later into disco. There’s definitely a euphoric feeling about the piano drop, from Jerry’s “Chantilly Lace” to “Move Your Body” by Marshall Jefferson.”
Fred Everything agrees, arguing that the piano’s euphoric nature translates across to wide audiences. “The piano is a universal instrument that resonates with everyone,” he says. There’s clearly some kind of synergy between the euphoria of the best house music parties and the unselfconscious jubilance of a good house piano track; perhaps here, the gospel roots of disco (via soul) are relevant too. But given the gospel background of several MFSB members, it shouldn’t be surprising that an element of gospel snuck into the disco sound. “The sound of piano house is very uplifting, it has definite roots in gospel music, so it’s easy to feel the rapture!” Fouk says.
The spirit of gospel was present in several strands of pre- and early house music. Frankie Knuckles thought of clubs as churches, and Chuck Roberts told us house music is a spiritual thing. Classics like Ce Ce Rogers’ “Someday” or Joe Smooth’s “Promised Land” are drenched in spirituality, and house music parties have long been attended by dedicated zealots who enter a near-spiritual euphoria and transcendence during the dance. Records that channel this feeling are often crossover hits that reach the pop charts, like “It’s Alright (I Feel It)” Masters At Work or Byron Stingily’s “Get Up,” both from 1997.
Occasionally, certain songs come to change the way we think about specific genres, stretching their boundaries. Layo & Bushwacka’s “Love Story” from 2002 was one such track, updating the piano anthem for a new century by turning down the euphoria for a darker shade of delight, while producing a piano line so good it spawned a clutch of bootlegs and remixes.
The 2000s were extremely eventful in terms of electronic music. Electroclash, minimal, dubstep, disco-sample house, tech house, epic trance and grime were all at various stages of their development — some just coming to fruition, others over-ripening. And with so much going on in the mid 2000s, the piano tune’s popularity declined. There were exceptions, of course, like “Caramellas” by Aeroplane, which beautifully recalls the heyday of sophisticated Italian piano house.
However, towards the end of the decade, piano house seemed to again be on the rise, with Tony Lionni’s “Found A Place” and The Juan MacLean’s “Happy House” achieving anthem status. Eric Prydz and Maceo Plex both approached the piano tune from very different angles, producing very different results. Prydz scored a worldwide hit with his epic and accessible “Pjanoo,” and in contrast, Plex produced the dreamy “Vibe Your Love,” a track that gently placed heavily-reverberated piano chords on top of a tight bassline, tied hauntingly together with Stevie Wonder’s vocals.
With the 2010s came tracks like Tim Deluxe’s “Transformation” and Bassfort’s piano banger “Last Night,” further redefining the flavour and style of piano tunes, scoring big hits in the process. 2010 also saw Head High’s release on Power House, “It’s A Love Thing – Piano Invasion”, which uses a pair of perfectly-pitched piano chords to dramatically relieve the tension on what is otherwise a perfectly austere techno track. Techno, too, could sound sweet with a piano.
An alternative approach came again from South Africa’s Black Coffee, when in 2010 he placed the piano in an entirely lead role in his slinky vocal cut “Superman” featuring Bucie. Joy Orbison’s 2012 piano-laden “Ellipsis” stretched out the concept of a piano banger once again, with a rave-referencing sound complete with rubbery bass, relentless crispy drums and a resolutely old-school piano — almost incongruous in its futurist setting — creating a simultaneously nostalgic yet new-sounding track.
By 2013, Omar-S dropped his “The Shit Baby,” a track packed with piano riffs and jazzy keys, while UK producer Paul Woolford turned out a series of big, euphoric piano records, including his “Untitled (Call Out Your Name)” and “Forevermore,” his remix of “Sounds Good To Me” by Hanne Mjøen, “You Already Know” with Karen Harding, and 2017’s new-school yet old-school rave track “Brainstorm” as Special Request.
Some 30 years after the piano first made its way into proto house, and piano house seems as strong as ever. Artists like Gerd Janson, Duke Dumont, The Black Madonna, DJ Koze, Ray Mang, Marquis Hawkes, Terrence Parker, Weiss, Honey Dijon, David Penn, Cody Currie, KiNK, and Laurent Garnier continue to release first-rate, original takes on the early template; if the piano fell out of favour towards the end of the ‘90s, it’s safe to say that we’re currently astride a high-quality peak.
From its roots in gospel, soul and disco, piano house has come a long way. And on that journey, piano tunes have provided generations of clubbers with many truly memorable dance floor moments.
Ahead of their back-to-back performance at this weekend’s CRSSD festival, longtime DJ associates Nick Warren and Hernán Cattáneo offer their quick tips on playing the perfect B2B set.
Originally hailing from the Bristol, Nick Warren is one of the UK’s most respected DJs and producers. He’s perhaps best known for his seven flawless mixes on the acclaimed Global Underground mix series — or maybe his work with Jody Wisternoff as Way Out West; or perhaps his time at fabled Cream in Liverpool; or his work as A&R for Hope Recordings, which he continues to this day. However he’s known to you, it’s undeniable that his sets with fellow prog house connoisseur Hernán Cattáneo are the stuff of legend.
Cattáneo himself is no slouch either. The Buenos Aires DJs has a rabid following across South America and beyond, and his multiple additions to the beloved Renaissance mix series are masterclasses in finesse and grace behind the decks. Cattáneo is also a serious producer, having released on Perfecto, Bedrock, and Sudbeat, the label he’s helmed since 2009. Like Warren, Cattáneo also made regular DJ pilgrimages to Liverpool’s cream, and the pair share a special bond behind the decks to this day.
Before their set at CRSSD this weekend, which Beatport will live stream, the two share tips on how to execute the perfect back-to-back performance.
First, don’t think about your next track before your B2B partner plays their last one.
Secondly, see the set as a partnership, instead of two separate DJs or a competition.
And lastly, always choose a DJ whose company you enjoy. Interact with each other, laugh and enjoy!
Firstly, play B2B with a friend or someone you like.
Second, try to play 3 tracks each, that way you have a nicer flow of about 15 – 20 min each.
Lastly, remember a B2B is never a competition, so be generous with the other DJ — play tracks with a friendly outro for your partner to make the mixing easy!
CRSSD Festival will take place on March 7th and 8th. Beatport will be streaming several sets, including Nick and Hernán’s. Tune in on Facebook.
When London’s Rockwell started releasing music in 2009, tracks like “Underpass” and “Noir” he immediately began turning heads. His unconventional approach to drum & bass production, and his wide-reaching array of influences, announced that this was a newcomer to be taken seriously.
Rockwell has since released on some of the best labels in the genre — from early hits with Critical and Digital Soundboy, to his long-running relationship with Shogun Audio, and more recently with his own Obsolete Medium imprint.
He kicked off 2020 with the third release on Obsolete Medium — his own Isolation Ritual EP, a four-tracker aimed firmly at the club. But the EP’s cinematic flair marks it with Rockwell’s unmistakable stamp.
With the release of Isolation Ritual, we caught up with Rockwell, who gives us the inside story on six of the most important tracks of his career so far. In his own words, here’s Rockwell.
Rockwell – Vent [Obsolete Medium] 2020
The results of a simplified approach. Spending less time in the studio has helped my creative process, resulting in less procrastination and more focused application. For the past few years, I’ve also really struggled with objectivity in terms of quality control, leading me to be on the verge of scrapping this entire EP on more than one occasion. Taken from the third release on my label, ISOLATION RITUAL has reinvigorated my desire to write club-focused drum & bass music, and has also been the first time where I felt that my label is starting to get on a sure and stable footing. I’ve had some amazing points in my career, but the DIY approach of writing the music, then designing all the visual assets and releasing it myself, is something that I find extremely fulfilling on a personal level. It’s received support from Workforce, Alix Perez, Noisia, Kasra, Ulterior Motive, Jubei, Camo & Krooked, Enei and more, which is very humbling. I think starting the label and going out on my own has at times been a difficult road to travel, and I may have dipped under the radar a little over the last few years because of this. This release however definitely feels like a step in the right direction.
Rockwell – User [Shogun] 2013
The opposite of “Detroit,” and a track that was completed in record time. The track name is a nod to the fact that I went back to sampling to make the majority of the record. For many years before this, especially on my LP Obsolete Medium, I wasn’t using many samples and preferred making my own through synthesis. With “User” I flipped my process on its head and went back to digging again. I put so much time and energy into my LP that I think for a few years after I was completely spent and a little burned out creatively. The sessions I did catching vibes for the User EP were probably the most fun I had in the studio for many years, and I think you can hear that on the record.
Rockwell – Detroit [Shogun] 2013
Many producers attest to the fact that their best tunes are the ones that were written in the quickest time — rolled out over an afternoon and ready to play that weekend. I would say that “Detroit” was the antithesis of this. It was on my hard drive for over a year-and-a-half, from its inception to being finished. The reason for this was that probably at the time I started it, I didn’t have the studio skills and techniques necessary to get it over the line and execute it in a manner and standard that was required. I had the concept, but not the tools to realise it.
I am a big fan of the US underground in terms of club sounds. I love my Baltimore club and my juke. It was a track that was heavily influenced by Detroit, especially by DJ Assault and his mixtapes, Belle Isle Tech on Mo’wax, and the Straight Up Detroit Shit mix series Vol 1-5. I loved the rawness of that sound, the pace and frantic nature of the drum machine patterns and the riffs and sounds of the saturated basslines. Even when it was 99% done there was still something missing, and I sat down with my girlfriend at the time and listened to some of her techno records to find some inspiration.
She suggested the extremely staccato 1/16th synth line that sits on top of the 808s, with the decay increasing to the end of the phrase. It is such an insignificant part of the tune, in comparison to the bass riff and the vocal sample. But if you take it out, the tune loses all momentum and it just doesn’t work. First time I played a test version, it got rewound instantly. When Zane Lowe premiered it on Radio 1, it blew the subwoofer in the studio while they were prepping the show. Obviously, from this point, people started to take notice, and it got support from pretty much all the big DJs in drum and bass, many of whom are still playing it now many years later.
Rockwell – Full Circle [Shogun] 2010
At this point, I had a bit of a reputation as being a producer that made weird-sounding music — not suited to DJing or being played in the club. I was lumped in with a lot of producers under the minimal banner, which trendy at that time, even though a lot of my tunes — “Noir” and “Drums” for instance — were anything but minimal in execution. With “Full Circle” I changed my artistic approach a little and set out with the intention of making something that your average drum and bass DJ could (and would) play in a club. Within the writing process I left a lot of the finer details I was known for on the cutting room floor and made sure that although the drum patterns were quite heavily edited, every percussive sound was front and centre in the mix and sounding loud, fat, and aggressive. I made the intro DJ friendly, easy to mix and building nicely into a drop (of sorts) with a low-passed Reece baseline. This was familiar territory within the context of drum & bass as a genre, and the track started to get a wide amount of DJ support from people like Alix Perez, Icicle, Noisia & Friction. It was put aside to be released on Shogun sub-label SGN:LTD but was given a promotion to Shogun due to the amount of support that it was getting at the time. This was probably one of the most important tracks in terms of opening up my sound to the scene at large.
Rockwell – Underpass [Critical] 2009
Due to release schedules, this was the first track of mine to hit the shelves, coming on the Critical Sound compilation. This was written in a batch of three: “Underpass,” “Aria” and “Reverse Engineering,” all started and finished around the same time. I think two factors heavily influenced this batch of tunes — I wasn’t being booked yet as a club DJ, so the live and club environment wasn’t an influence to the mood or structure of the music, and I was having a difficult time mentally with crushing daily anxiety.
The wide support the track received was quite astounding — supported by everyone from Gilles Peterson to drum & bass dons like Loxy. I think, especially within the context of the release that it came out on, it sounded completely different from what a lot of people were hearing in the club. Traditionally, it is quite an “in your face,” loud and moody genre, and tracks like “Underpass” are heavily melancholic. I was listening to a lot of Boards of Canada at the time, so while it didn’t sound out of place in the context of my influences, in terms of a traditional drum & bass tune, it stood out like a sore thumb.
Rockwell – Drums [Digital Soundboy] 2010
Mainly due to the chronological order of my releases, I think people are under the impression that “Underpass” was the first tune that I had signed, but this was not the case. I made “Drums” during a period of unemployment (very drum & bass) in a flat in North London that I shared with a producer called Specific — who was known at the time for collaborating with Alix Perez. I passed “Drums” to Alix, who began playing it out quite a lot and it seemed to be getting a great reaction. At the time Alix was informally passing tunes to Shy FX (for example, the immense “Near Miss” by System) and he passed “Drums” to him too. I remember going to FWD>> at Plastic People one Sunday and seeing Shy sitting at the bar and him telling me that he loved “Drums” and wanted it for his label, Digital Soundboy. The track started to surface online in tracklists tagged as a Digital Soundboy dub and I think people were naturally quite inquisitive as to who this producer was that no one had ever heard of with a tune on Shy’s label. That cosign so early on really helped to pique people’s interest into who I was and what I was doing. After that my AIM blew up!