‘Dance music has always been political’: A new EP honours Black Lives Matter

This compilation aims to raise not only funds for the movement — but also awareness of house music’s Black origins
By Josh Sherman - Published on Aug 05, 2020
DJ Demuir is an electronic-music producer based in Toronto. (Jahthane Walwyn-Bent)

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After watching the video of George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police on May 25, Toronto-based electronic-music producer DJ Demuir took to his home studio. “Music is a safe haven,” he says. “When you see the George Floyd video, it didn’t matter where you were or what background you had — we all had the same feeling of enough is enough.”

Channelling these emotions, the artist, born Kevin Pierre, returned to a song he had created in 2008 — but never released — and added vocals sampled from a ’60s vinyl record, one of the 10,000 or so in his collection. “Specifically, it’s talking to things that resonate today,” he says of the audio clip, pointing to lyrics mentioning a hurricane: “The hurricane reference was used on my take of the George Floyd incident being a perfect storm of sorts that is rife with years of systemic injustices that have exhausted us all and propelled us into a hurricane.”

Demuir’s flash of inspiration yielded just the sort of song that Mark Kufner was looking for, when, a few days after Floyd’s death, he reached out to Demuir about collaborating. A white DJ and producer of house music, Kufner has long felt indebted to Black artists, who pioneered the sound in the ’80s. With a global anti-racism movement gaining traction, Kufner decided it was time to take action. So he made plans to use his record label, Selections, an imprint launched this year that's committed to releasing house music on vinyl only, to create a compilation featuring Black artists and to donate proceeds to Black Lives Matter. “I just wanted to do something while utilizing the art form that I’m involved in, which is house music and dance music, in respect to the fact that it was all started by Black culture and Black people,” says Kufner.

He also contacted Toronto-based artists Nick Holder and 83 West (Tyrone Solomon and Martino Lozej) and Atlanta’s Kai Alcé: all agreed to contribute one song each. “Kai, actually, through this thing, gave me a lot of guidance,” says Kufner, who initially wanted the B-side artwork to depict a protest. At Alcé’s suggestion, he says, he instead went with a Black Lives Matter fist symbol and a quote from Huey Percy Newton, a late Black American political activist: “There will be no prison which can hold our movement down.”

The four songs that make up what he’s dubbed The Movement EP (an EP, or extended play, is a musical recording that is more than a single but shorter than a full-length album) were chosen to fit the compilation’s political bent. Holder’s track “America” samples a Malcolm X speech; the name of Alcé’s tune “Hear the Waves” took on new significance: “If you can just see what’s going on today, there’s a wave of change happening,” says Alcé.

Holder, whose discography spans three decades, has long been matching polemics with club-friendly beats. “Since I don’t sing, I have to express it through other means, which would be sampling,” he says, noting, though, that his more militant songs tend to get less attention. “People just want to hear music that they don’t want to really think about sometimes … they don’t want to have to worry about thinking of the message in the music. Some people want to dance; some people want to listen.”

The idea of music made for dance floors being a vehicle for social commentary may seem incongruous. But there’s a long legacy of politics in the nightlife scene, where Black, gay, Latino, and other marginalized communities have taken refuge. “For me, dance music has always been political,” Alcé says. “A lot of this underground music came about because there were big clubs that most of the Blacks and Latinos couldn’t even go to — or really weren’t welcome — so we made our own spaces, and that music kind of evolved from those places, those safe places.”

It was Black American artists who arose in the ’80s who cultivated Demuir’s interest in electronic music in the decade that followed. “When I heard Derrick May and Rhythim Is Rhythim [one of May’s aliases], like, Detroit techno — that was it for me. I was just, like, ‘Wow,’” he recalls. Initially a hip-hop producer, he focused all his attention on dance music.

Frankie Knuckles, a Black DJ and producer from Chicago who died in 2014 at the age of 59, is widely known in electronic-music circles as “the Godfather of House” and credited with shaping the sound, which emerged in the early ’80s and, within a few years, had helped spawn techno in Detroit. “I would just call it disco’s revenge, to quote Frankie Knuckles,” says Kufner.

In an interview in the 2010 book The Record Players: DJ Revolutionaries, by Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton, Knuckles provided insight into that quote and context about how the genre, named for the Warehouse, a club he regularly DJed at, developed from deconstructing disco songs and making something new — looping certain parts, cutting others, and eventually overlaying additional percussion. “It might not have been revolutionary to anyone else within the industry, from the DJ side of it, but, as far as the crowd in Chicago, it was revolutionary to them because they had never heard it before,” Knuckles, whose given name was Francis Warren Nicholls Jr., said.

Ron Nelson, a long-time Toronto DJ who has taught a course on electronic music at York University, notes another characteristic of house. “It’s a lot of music that is not commercially formulated, like, verse, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, end of song — it’s not traditional like that,” he says. “It’s music that is driven by drums and bass.”

Artists featured on The Movement EP would like to raise not only funds for Black Lives Matter but also awareness of house music’s Black origins, something a lack of visible representation obscures. “There’s barely any Black artists in house music any more — techno, too — they’re not there,” says Holder. “It’s just gone from, like, all Black to almost all white.” Martino Lozej, one half of the West 83 duo and the only white artist appearing on the EP, is aware of that shift and wants to do his part to credit the inventors of the genre. “That whole identity has been lost, when you talk about the EDM [electronic dance music] circles and things like that,” says Lozej, who has a master’s degree in musicology from York University, in Toronto. “Any chance to be a part of something that reminds people of the roots of the music …  I’m totally down with.”

The Movement EP is available for pre-order online and is currently slated for release on October 5. While the record doesn’t drop for months, Kufner is hopeful that the talent behind it will make it a success. “It’s a solid EP, it’s a phenomenal lineup, and they’re all massive artists, so I can’t see it not doing very well — but it’s only being pressed once.”

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