PARTY ILLEGAL FEAT. SINISTARR
Saturday, Feb. 16, 10 p.m.–2 a.m., $10
The Pinhook, Durham
In 2002, James Stinson—half of the enigmatic, pioneering Detroit electronic duo Drexciya—gave a rare interview to WDET. In it, Stinson described his knotty fixation with cryptic ocean imagery as a desire for limitless sonic exploration. He wanted to transport his audience to uncharted worlds beyond Detroit.
“I don’t want to ride the image of a place,” Stinson said. “I want to take people somewhere else, instead of giving them the same things they see every day. Yes, I was born here, but I want to give a different feel.”
For decades, this adventurous impulse drove the best strains of Detroit electronic music. Even now, in the ever-expanding realms of this decade’s dance music, when the internet has rendered crate-digging as effortless as downloading Soulseek and plugging a panoply of on-trend SoundCloud mixes, the curative act of stepping outside the tried and true is more crucial than ever.
Despite unlimited options, the signal-to-noise ratio in the algorithm-driven streaming age makes singular voices feel like priceless gifts. Oliver Long, cofounder of Charlotte’s Detroit-influenced techno label Abstracta Audio, sums up the ethos nicely: “I often want to hear sounds where I question how the fuck the producer did this,” he says.
Detroit’s Jeremy Howard, aka Sinistarr, is a varied and prolific drum-and-bass producer who has released records on seminal labels like Metalheadz, Hospital Records, and Exit Records. On February 16, he performs with Long, DJ Jules, and Treee City at Party Illegal’s latest Pinhook show. As Sinistarr, he has long acknowledged the need to chart his own atlas through dance music.
“I think modern internet trends lead to groupthink, especially in drum-and-bass and jungle circles,” Howard says. “As a result, you get ten of the same deejays playing ten of the same tracks off of one mix they heard. So I do my best to stay out of most of it in order to keep a clear head.”
As far back as his earliest releases in the mid-aughts, Sinistarr’s smeared take on breakbeats revealed his interest in crossing genres and boundaries. On cuts like 2008’s “Detroit Diesel,” he interlaced the complex, anarchic spirit of drum-and-bass with a no-genre menagerie of sounds that felt true to his influences: classic off-kilter jungle breaks, roughshod ambient samples, and the blippy plinks of early video game soundtracks.
Almost thirteen years later, his productions are polished by a lifetime of music obsession. Growing up as a curious kid in Detroit, Howard voraciously sifted through mixtapes his parents received from friends, which provided exposure to genres like soca, Nigerian highlife, and house music. There was also the magnetic attraction of local radio, which helped him key in to Detroit’s dance-music legacy, including area staples such as Underground Resistance.
“I would listen to live-mix shows on Detroit radio stations like WJLB and WDTJ in the late nineties on the weekends,” Howard says. “We knew drum-and-bass as ghettotech, which is a style of deejaying in Detroit that also has its own dance called jit. Their style is wild because it’s literally a mix of everything, set to a fast tempo—you get Miami bass, juke, jungle, and house tunes sped up to match the faster tracks. Only later on did I understand that there was a strong connection between Detroit and London, from digging deeper for both techno and drum-and-bass records and finding samples that were originally techno songs in the drum-and-bass tunes.”
Howard began to gain traction in his production career around 2010. Jungle, drum-and-bass, and other breakbeat-focused forms of music have never entirely disappeared from public view, but they maintained a lower profile throughout much of the aughties, after the rave era of the mid-nineties dissipated and trends like “breakcore” sputtered.
But in the last decade, there has been a strong move towards innovation and experimentation along this axis, thanks to savvy UK labels like Creative Source and Exit Records, both of which have released records by Sinistarr. Other internet-beloved outposts like Night Slugs began to subtly incorporate breaks into their post-genre stew. At the same time, dance music was being pulled into the proclivities of EDM, and a number of less-than-nuanced producers began to adapt drum-and-bass, often in formulaic, ham-fisted productions designed to appeal to the burgeoning EDM festival market. I ask Howard where he thinks this cluster of genres has landed ten years later, now that some of the noise has died out.
“I think this music has gone back to being experimental rather than sticking to a certain formula or label, and to uniqueness being considered niche,” he says. “Hip-hop and dance music have become the two primary genres on the radio, and there are edits, original songs, and remixes that cover both in a really creative manner, especially with footwork, ghettotech, and jungle. I think mixing the two makes music much more accessible and can really grab the interest of both old and new listeners.”