Sampling as social commentary: Lotic's Damsels in Distress
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Picture a city, if you will. An immense and vast industrial organism, constructed out of various metals, stone and wood that is overflowing with energy, stimulus and, above all, possibilities. In all of its extraordinary modernity, the city defines the modern experience, particularly when considering the human being’s relationship to space and its myriad potentialities that unfurl and stimulate our capacity for spatial perception. Comparative to an open field, for instance, the city is a potentially infinite ground for exploration. Doors that lead to mysterious places, manholes that open up the ground below and alleys that string along like concrete mazes all contribute to the evolving human physiology of space, as our form attempts to integrate with the city’s functions.
Such a consideration is also strikingly true for electronic and sample-based music, a phenomenon borne out of the same technology and socio-political standards as the city. The once uni-directional process of recording sounds created by an individual and their instrument has now evolved into an endless, multi-dimensional palette of invention, with all sounds, either found or created, now at the mercy of manipulation and recontextualisation by any and all. Electronic music is the symphony of the city, and it’s re-defining everything we understand about music and perception.
It’s no coincidence then that Lotic, a young DJ/producer from Texas, has chosen to base himself in Berlin – one of the world’s great cities – to build his musical politics from the ground up. Although Lotic has a limited discography thus far, he is part of a collective of DJs whose Berlin club Janus (appropriately named after the Roman god of beginnings and transitions) houses a revolutionary ideology of inclusion and tolerance, particularly in the realm of LGBTQ subcultures. As a genre, dance music has traditionally occupied a space of exclusivity: you’ve got to be in the know to attend the show. Janus isn’t interested in such potentially destructive concepts, and promotes its ideology proudly and wholly; a unified vision of the future of pop music with a knowing responsibility of the impact that sounds have on both individuals and the collective.
The most interesting facet of their politics though would definitely have to be the club’s musical output, both in terms of their resident DJs (Lotic, M.E.S.H. and Kablam) and those who grace their decks sporadically (particularly Total Freedom and Venus X). Of all the music that trickles, song by song, out of this collective, none seems more complete than Lotic’s, particularly on his recent mixtape release Damsels in Distress. The record is a 27-minute distorted tour through contemporary pop, dance and hip hop that is both a blatant attempt at exploring new passages of musical comprehension as well as a manifesto for Lotic’s own breed of gender and queer politics. Like the city redefining how we relate to space, Lotic’s Damsels in Distress redefines how we relate to musical construction and comprehension, and the result is as exhilarating as it is provocative.
Relying on electronic music’s fascination with noise and disorder, Lotic’s compositions are scattershot and twisted yet also immediately recognisable. The coda and symbolism that come to define urban forms of pop music are all present on Damsels in Distress, but their form has been contorted into something unfamiliar, or, they are surrounded by sounds that recontextualise them. Lotic seems simultaneously obsessed with the pleasure of synchronicity that pop music breeds and also with the methods by which that very same blissful feeling can be disrupted by dissonance and speed. In other words, it’s subversive, a quality seemingly missing from most contemporary electronic works.
Although Damsels in Distress is basically a single recording, its form is also broken down into “tracks”, yet listening to the record you’d be forgiven for thinking the opposite. With track titles like “Faded (How the Hell…?)”, “Fractures (But just the Chromatic Growl)” and “KIDDIKUGKIDDIKIGKIDDIKIDDI”, Damsels in Distress is also concerned with the demarcation of musical movements, with Lotic’s tracks offering no discernable beginning or end. The mixtape comes as either a single mp3 file or a Soundcloud stream, making the track titles arbitrary to some degree, contributing to the feeling of dissonance and disruption that bleeds into the entire affair.
Examples of Lotic’s scrambled sampling are literally all over Damsels in Distress, but one of the best occurs near the beginning at around the 2:30 mark. As the sound of glass smashing gives way to a locust swarm of sirens (both aural symbols of popular dance music), Lotic builds the track with whiplash noise elements before giving way to a hard trap beat and melody that ties the entire thing together in a strange, sinister way. Each layer holds some agency for its own genre and subculture, but under the direction of Lotic’s composition the very elements that imbue these sounds with power are broken down, only to be built back up in a Frankenstein-like manner. As the skittering symbols of the trap beat rub shoulders with the blinding wail of sirens, your brain attempts to comprehend the juxtaposition, resulting in a new form of musical enjoyment and understanding. It’s barely danceable and commands no involuntary thrust of your person, but it turns your mind into a jungle gym, battering at your thought patterns and warping your brain’s structure.
The major moment of the mixtape, though, arrives right in the centre, beginning with the aforementioned “Faded (How the Hell…?)”, which finds a live rendition of Beyoncé’s “Drunk in Love” evolving from an isolated vocal performance into an echo chamber of wails from pop’s most powerful figure. All of the Janus guys seem to adore Beyoncé (her music is widely featured in many of their tapes and tracks), with Lotic joining their ranks in the most elegant of ways. The moment is the nucleus of the mixtape, and as Beyoncé’s feminist document swells in emotional size, the song eventually fails to withstand the weight of her vocals, collapsing under the coalescence of Beyoncé and Lotic’s politics and performance. The centre cannot hold.
Then, strangely, Lotic diverts into a warped rendition of PARTYNEXTDOOR’s “Persian Rugs” that evocatively integrates with Queen Bey’s melodramatic moaning, before giving way to a series of jagged yelps and exotic wails combined with cascading drums and a slightly pitch-shifted version of Missy Elliot’s “9th Wonder”. The placement and entwining of these samples is divine, and over the entirety of the 27 minutes of Damsels in Distress it’s obvious that Lotic’s talent isn’t purely superficial, but rather a by-product of careful composition and political consideration. Like some sort of junkyard sculpture, Lotic’s Damsels in Distress is a collection of pieces of pop music debris carefully reformed into a beautifully mutated shape. There’s an exhilaration that derives from the realisation of the endless possibilities of electronic sampling, a concept that obviously finds Lotic understandably overjoyed. Damsels in Distress is all of contemporary pop music’s possibilities boiled down to the singular. It’s techno-musical democracy in action. All one needs to do is open the door.