How Discrimination Fueled The Swet Shop Boys’ High-Powered Album

Swet Shop Boys with Rendinho

Swet Shop Boys with singer and producer Redinho (on the left). Photo by Erez Avissar.

For Riz Ahmed and Himanshu Suri of rap duo Swet Shop Boys, entering airport security can be something of a hassle. Their problems go far beyond merely taking their shoes off: Suri has been interrogated, detained, and sent back to his departure country. Ahmed once left a Berlin film festival, only for an officer to twist his arm and scream, “Did you become an actor to further the Muslim struggle?” To hear of all the different ways they’ve been singled out and sized up—most of them likely due to post-9/11 Islamophobia—can be harrowing. “A lot of odd looks,” Suri says. “A lot of body touching. A lot of sitting at a table and being asked questions. A lot of sitting in rooms with other brown people.”

What makes this even more frustrating is that both artists are more recognizable than ever before. Suri, who raps as Heems and was formerly a member of the group Das Racist, gives lectures at Ivy League schools; last year, 20th Century Fox bought the story rights to an autobiographical sitcom titled Eat Pray Thug, which shares its name with Heems’ solo album. When Ahmed isn’t rapping as Riz MC (his latest mixtape, Englistan, came out earlier this year), he’s acting; he recently starred in HBO’s acclaimed crime drama The Night Of and filmed scenes for both Jason Bourne and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Their sharp debut album as Swet Shop Boys, Cashmere, perfectly captures that irony.

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The Merch Table: October 2016


Every month, The Merch Table brings you the best and most bonkers merch you can find on Bandcamp. We commend bands and labels who get a little creative and think outside the tote bag. Whether it’s a fashion accessory, a piece of art, or something entirely unique, The Merch Table will showcase inventive, original—and, occasionally, downright strange—stuff that you might want to get your hands on. But, sorry: only one lucky person gets to spend one thousand euros on a swimsuit.

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Antifur Want to Shake Vaporwave Out of Its Meaningless Irony


“Hardvapour isn’t really a specific genre, more of an empty placeholder, a vibe, a feeling.” So says Vladyk Predovitch, the Ukranian founder of Antifur, a barely year-old imprint who “release only hardest of music.” This is initially confusing; if it’s not the propulsive beats and abrasive keys that distinguish hardvapour from its softer parent genre, what exactly makes hardvapour the “hardest of music”?

Antifur’s Bandcamp page doesn’t offer much help at first glance; Vlad uses variations of the word hard in a way that presents the idea of ‘hardness’ as almost tongue-in-cheek. And yet, while his unrelenting, near-comical emphasis on this idea might make such label standouts as Meineke // Humanoid Sound and La Noche seem as ironic as the classic vaporwave these two brutal albums aim to defile, it turns out that Antifur couldn’t be more anti-irony.

This, at least, is what Vlad tells us. Even if he recounts that he launched the label last December for the simple reason that his “good friend” Flash “need label to drop [Hacking for Freedom] under,” it soon becomes clear from his answers that Antifur has as much a mission and a meaning as any other recording stable in Ukraine, or anywhere else on Earth for that matter. Speaking with Vlad via email, it soon becomes hard to deny that the sub-genre his label represents is as much about making vaporwave more politically engaged and socially aware as it is about making vaporwave harder.

At first, this engagement and awareness is difficult to detect, if only because Vlad doesn’t provide an obvious window into his hardness-fixated vocabulary. In describing how he selects artists to join the Antifur roster, he semi-cryptically reveals, “So basically, when I listen to the demo, I am looking only for if it is hard, and if it is vapour, this can come in many different forms. We have release some ‘vaporwave’ sounding stuff before, but only because it has hard message.”

Taken too far, this frequent leaning on the adjective hard and its offshoots can be mystifying. Used to describe label releases as diverse as There is Truth in Fiction and VIRTUAL REPUBLIC, its near-indiscriminate overuse can sometimes threaten to rob the term of meaning, or at best make it appear as though it holds meaning only for a few initiates on hardvapour’s inside. Yet the next sentence from Vlad reveals that such an impression would be wrong, since the founder dislikes the fact that “There is a lot of soft hardvapour out there, playing only on dumb ironic jokes without meaning or purpose behind it.”

Correcting what many listeners might think when first encountering the label, Vlad affirms, “We choose to release music that is real.” Of course, what’s ’real’ can vary from person to person, yet for such sonically raw, uncompromising records as فخ العربية, I$I$, and XXXVAPOUR, this realness means truly seeing the harsher side of reality obscured by so much non-threatening vaporwave. As Vlad declares, “We want only to bring people to a feeling or state of mind which is foreign to them, maybe scary for some. It is about exposing reality, and at the same time, hiding from it.”

Contradictions like this aren’t all that foreign to a genre of music—vaporwave—that appears to denounce and wallow in consumer society at the very same time, thereby undermining its sense of authenticity. That said, when it comes to hardvapour and Antifur, there’s generally less self-contradiction, irony and absurdity. In particular, the label is focused on giving representation and voice to a wider range of cultures than is ordinarily associated with vaporwave. This comes out most clearly when Vlad asserts, “We have released albums from people all around the world, all sharing different cultural inspirations. It brings us together, without fear of judgment or hate. There is no need to fear of offending another, because that is all part of the movement.”

As to the particular sound of this movement, Vlad confesses that it’s less fundamental to hardvapour than the music’s underlying message. “[T]here is no defined “sound”, he says, “it is more based off feeling than anything. If I get a release which has profound meaning, but is not necessarily what people tend to categorize hardvapour as (’90s techno) I will still release it. Hard concepts are important.”

For a label based pretty much entirely around aggressive, even anti-social music released under anonymous pseudonyms, this recurring mention of the importance of “meaning” and “hard concepts” could be a little surprising. Self-referential titles like Music is Dead and  wosX is a Bitch don’t, at first listen, seem as though they’re moving beyond vaporwave’s cozy little bubble of hyperreality. Yet the notion that hardvapour and Antifur in particular are striving to tackle the confusing, multifaceted reality of the world comes to the fore when Vlad hits us with a remarkable if not entirely unsurprising confession:

“I believe that as a creator of a genre that’s meant to express reality, I should be open to whom my aliases are. My real moniker is wosX, and I am Canadian, of Romanian and Hungarian background. I decided to use the alias of Vladyk to be the runner of Antifur, because it created a narrative surrounding the music being released. I spent a lot of time analyzing different forms of broken English of various languages, finding patterns in the speech that almost made that broken english into its own language. There were a lot of people who called what I did a mockery of those people, but I really wanted it to be the opposite—making it socially acceptable and almost aesthetically pleasing to experience  this slang.”

This is quite the admission, and in explaining further his motivation for assuming the identity of a Ukranian with poor English, Vlad/wosX explains, “We are entering a globalized world, and the social interactions we make online should not be filled with judgment on how the person speaks, but more with open arms. Culture is very important in our world, and we tend to believe that the culture we are born into defines us as people, but that is simply not true. We can find ourselves in any culture and can relate to those cultures, because they were invented by people just like us.”

After reading such an explanation, it’s tempting to assume that provocative records like Vaporwave is Dead Again and OPTI 1 are therefore less about a particular style centered around strident gabber beats and hostile atmospheres, and more about opening up some kind of critical distance from the impersonality, detachment and coldness of vaporwave itself. Yet the truth is subtler than that, since Vlad replies, “there is nothing wrong with the actual music of vaporwave. The problem though from the genre comes from the fact that it is all meaningless irony. We have sunk into this deep virtual plaza and have made a prison for ourselves made of softness. But this is not how the world is. If we want to change the world for better, we cannot escape into little fantasy world forever. Sometimes we must face the truth, and only the hard truth.”

This is perhaps the most revelatory of all Vlad’s answers, underlining how his label use ’hard’ and ’hardness’ as code for ’true’ and ’truth.’ And once again, this truth concentrates primarily on the world’s diversity and complexity, on how it often conflicts with the all-too perfect ideals we forge for ourselves in our increasingly virtual spaces. For example, Vlad tells us that the Eastern-European themes of such harrowing albums as Дьявол в деталях “is just another way of incorporating cultures into the scene and being inclusive for all. It started with having Slavic influence, but hardvapour can be made from any cultural background. We want as many cultures incorporated with us, and the beauty of it is that we do not care who makes it or where the original artist comes from.”

No, the only thing Antifur cares about is hardness, which as shown above equals authenticity and a willingness to face up to reality. Admittedly, these are qualities which can’t often be attributed to vaporwave, yet contrary to what Vlad has been saying, there are plenty of musical differences between the two genres as well. Not only is the younger subgenre more direct and punishing than its older, hazier parent, yet the very textures and tones used by hardvapour musicians are darker, more corrosive, and more strident as well. It’s this less hospitable sound and style that complements the overall meaning of hardvapour, and it’s precisely because it complements it so well that Vlad/wosX can honestly conclude that, aside from “the message [artists] bring,” the genre is ultimately “only about the music.”

Simon Chandler

Answering Machine Tapes, Old Synths and “Rock, Rot & Rule”: The World of Flannelgraph Records

Dan Muro
Don Muro.

Go out for coffee with Jared Cheek, the founder of Bloomington, Indiana-based Flannelgraph Records, and his label’s overall aesthetic will quickly snap into focus. Or, rather, out of it: Your conversation will jump from ’80s pro wrestling to Christmas music to public broadcasting. Cheek will be gregarious, his enthusiasm reignited every time another topic he’s excited about comes up—and seemingly every topic excites him. It’s that indefatigable earnestness—some would call it a ‘Midwestern sensibility’—that unites the eclectic assemblage of projects Cheek has released under the Flannelgraph banner. Compliment him on the coherence of the label’s discography, though, and he’ll demur.

“If it is [coherent], it’s not any work that I’ve done. It’s all just stuff that I’m into,” he laughs. “Not a lot of planning went into the aesthetic.”

Maybe that’s fair. On the surface, the Pet Sounds-gone-power-pop of Mike Adams at His Honest Weight, the manic synthesizer experiments of Don Muro, and an album of answering machine messages from a movie theater in Wisconsin don’t seem to have a ton in common. But if you squint a little, you’ll recognize a shared lack of cynicism, and that’s thanks to the virtue of Cheek’s irony-free curatorial spirit. We spoke with him about a few records that represent the label’s distinct DNA.

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The Du-Rites Detail Their Seamless Funk Debut

J-Zone with Pablo Martin

J-Zone with Pablo Martin, The Du-Rites.

If you’ve followed MC/producer J-Zone over the past few years, you’re not going to be surprised by the mind-rattling instrumental funk of his new album, J-Zone & Pablo Martin are The Du-Rites. Before he was a hip-hop producer, lyricist, and a scholar with an encyclopedic knowledge of the genre, Jay Mumford was an aspiring funk/R&B bassist. In the years since 2013’s Peter Pan Syndrome, J-Zone has reemerged as one of the best live musicians in hip-hop, a break drummer in the tradition of Carlos Bess whose instrumental singles and b-sides—including “I Smell Smoke,” “Seoul Power,” and early 2016’s “Funky”— are up there with the likes of the Heliocentrics and the Budos Band as hip-hop compatible tracks with a singular funk focus.

It’s “Funky,” which appears on J-Zone’s solo record Fish-N-Grits, that made the Du-Rites inevitable. Pablo Martin—a guitarist, longtime cohort and latter-day member of Tom Tom Club, added the Telecaster flourish and twang/fuzz texture to the track that made their collaboration worthy of a dedicated two-man supergroup. J-Zone & Pablo Martin are The Du-Rites is fittingly steeped in nearly every permutation of funk thinkable. It’s wide-scoped enough to remind you how wild it is that both 1966 Booker T. & the M.G.’s and Funkadelic fall under the same genre umbrella, and it’s fearless enough to pull off both modes and then some. Some of Zone’s characteristic humor slips through with sample-laced soundbite asides, or the occasional nod to the idea of “cop show music” (one particularly murky plaid-hued track’s even called “The Chief & I”). The grooves and the chops are serious. We spoke with Zone and Martin about their new—and great—release.

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