The Burgeoning Underground Minimal and House Movement in the Heart of Texas
- Published on Wednesday, 07 November 2018 15:09
For decades, Austin’s self-proclaimed “Live music capitol of the world” motto has generously boasted both local and touring artists to global fame. The city’s counterculture and music got noticed as early as the 1960’s –- where singers and songwriters flocked to the lush Central Texas hill country to create a grittier, more lawless, and psychedelic-inspired sound that melded hippies and rednecks. These progressive sounds brought to light artists like Janis Joplin, Willie Nelson, The 13th Floor Elevators, Spoon, Explosions in the Sky and countless others.
The mid-sized city has attracted free spirits for decades. It makes sense that a state as large as Texas, which is home to over 28 million people, would give way to a micro-culture like Austin. It's the distinct attitude that enabled the Capitol to prop the early New Wave and Punk scenes in the late 70’s and early 80’s followed by an impressive lineage of Alternative and Indie Rock bands through the 90’s and early 2000’s.
Yet, when it comes to dance music, the city’s contributions are anonymous compared to the far more documented histories of Detroit, New York, and Chicago. Outside of Texas, little is known about the local DJs and promoters that have been contributing to Austin’s grandiose but rooted vision to create a new canvas for emerging underground artists worldwide.
House music hero Brett Johnson traces Austin’s cultivation of dance music from his early years as a DJ in Texas:
“There was something special about dance music here in the late 80’s and early 90’s; being right in the center of the country afforded us access to music and DJs coming from the East and West Coast dance music scenes. Dallas had a strong house scene which was attributed to an influx of New York transplants and Austin was pushing a more euphoric warehouse sound. It’s completely understated how much was actually happening throughout Texas because everything was more or less underground at that time.”
It’s 12:30 am on Friday in the center of bustling Congress Avenue; one of the main roads that connects the city and shows off the unobstructed view of the state’s massive Capitol building. A group of exuberant young men and women artfully layered in monochromatic black attire catwalk their way into a bar. As they strut by businessmen and politicians decompressing their week’s anguishes over cocktails they illustrate the juxtaposition of the city that has cozily cohabited the concept “weird” for decades.
They make their way to the back of the bar where a thin, well-groomed man sits next to a closed double doorway. After a quick exchange of friendly welcomes they walk through the doors into what feels like an air-tight room that’s shaped like a square. There’s approximately 100 people moving to the stripped-down rhythm that takes over the room. The lighting is calculated and unobtrusive.
Beyond the feeling of entering into a secret party, the most overwhelming observation is the sound. It paints the space with a crisp mid-level and low-end punch. You get clarity no matter where you stand in the room. The music is a hypnotic, electro-inspired beat, which pulsates ubiquitously. The selector is one of the party’s founders and residents, a polished DJ that goes by Majiini. The mood of the party is distinct: this is an affair for refined palates. However, the air remains inviting; there’s a lack of pretension that one would typically associate with a party that esteems this level of aesthetic and production quality. There’s a maturity in the crowd that still proclaims a sense of house-party intimacy. Over the next few hours, a certain tension builds: where the crowd converts itself into initiated dancing; where the music precision begins to increase in pressure, expressing intense bursts of colors and shapes.
The production behind this event, BlackTone, is one of the most unexpected underground parties being shaped in the United States. It’s emerging in an opportune time where there’s a void to fill in Austin's currently mainstream dance music identity. Each BlackTone event is curated under the ethos that elegance, intelligence, and community are complementary ingredients introducing Texas the forefront sounds emerging from Europe.
Behind the BlackTone concept are two charismatic figures who exude warmth and passion for niche dance music: Alejandro Joya and Jorge Castillo. Alejandro, born in San Francisco, is an energetic, approachable Honduran who grew up in Texas. As a natural conversationalist, you’d never know he’s an introvert. He has a polish and wit about him, perhaps attributed by professional life in sales, which inadvertently fuels his tenacity.
Jorge, a DJ and avid vinyl collector, is an inquisitive and slightly recluse character - a perfect balance to his counterpart. Born and raised in Honduras, he moved to Austin a few years ago. Jorge is an introspective man, with a poetic way of expressing himself.
“I’m not a fan of big crowds. There’s a type of paralysis that comes from the abundance,” says Jorge. “When you have smaller amounts of people it creates the right conditions for exposure. To me, Austin feels very homey. There’s just enough going on here to open you up to new experiences without losing the sort of connection and groundedness you get when cities become too large and dense.”
Both Alejandro and Jorge emanate certain characteristics that make them uniquely qualified to introduce something different to Austin: they have a distinct Latin flare with European values and American determinism.
“For me, it’s always been a unique experience having a Honduran background and European affinity while also reconciling that I’m Texan. This third-culture kid syndrome brought out of me a desire to find ways to connect with people. Music, particularly the environments in which its experienced, was always an appealing and effective format for me to connect. I wanted to take that concept and create it here in Austin because I felt like the culture could handle it,” Alejandro shares.
The initial inspiration for BlackTone came shortly after the two friends returned from a marathon of Off-Sonar parties showcasing Perlon, Arpiar and tINI and the Gang. Frustrated by the influx of big room DJs saturating the city’s mainstream nightlife, and longing for the elevated dance music culture in Europe, they decided to organize a series of parties to present the sounds of more subtle, trip-inducing elements of house and techno. The second element that inspired BlackTone was the realization that this style of music needed to be introduced in the right type of format and environment.
Alejandro: “Most people who’ve lived here for even a short period of time know that Austin has two sides. There’s the exterior, which is for the tourists and college-town machismo party crowd. And then there’s this creative underlay. Like, you know that a lot of magic has been created in this city when it comes to music...and despite that you still have to search for it. It’s usually right around the corner but you have to keep your eyes open for it.”
Jorge: “Boundaries can be healthy. We had to create an environment that kept out the type of noise that distracts people from letting themselves be free: we want people to feel safe to be themselves and to use the right type of music to induce a level of introspection and stimulation they can’t get in most other experiences.”
In most American clubs, headliners only play for two hours and the night ends abruptly due to legislation and culture. In response, they committed to work with venue owners to present the music in intimate after-party formats; typically offering four hour DJ sets (or longer) for headliners and residents.
A pairing of the BlackTone sound coupled with an elegant venue proved to be a satiating recipe. They first tested their idea by inviting a respected Honduran DJ, which was warmly validated by Austin’s locals. Supported by their friends who invited others to experience their first party, Jorge and Alejandro realized their introduction to Austin couldn’t have come at a better time.
Only a couple of months later, they decided to take a calculated gamble and organize parties showcasing the sprouting sounds of techno coming from Romania. Their first guest, Sepp, headlined and had such an incredible time that he ended up evangelizing the Austin party to other international artists. In almost no time, BlackTone began circulating in Romania and beyond, galvanizing a remarkable roster of DJs such as Gescu, Priku, Afriqua, Giammarco Orsini, Lamache, Robin Ordell, Varhat, and Christian AB.
The common thread across each party is the level of care for the artists they invite and the production consistency. Each party experience offers a unique venue tastefully decorated with lavish plants, a capacious dj booth, red lights and candles, which creates an environment and mood that invites crowds searching for sophistication with a hint of hedonism.
Jorge: “We have this vision to create a level of magic that’s obvious enough people could begin to realize it actually exists. When you do something like that, it requires both planning and improvisation, which can be difficult to pull off...but when you do you know that you’re doing something special for the world and then the world gives back to you. It’s [the world] a mirror to your perspective.”
Equally noticeable to the visual detail is the music programming and spotlight on local artists. BlackTone has cultivated a group of refined and proficient resident DJs. Most of the DJs behind BlackTone have been stewarding their own events and cultivating underground parties for years under monikers such as Movement Collective, Mind the Funk, Loopy, and others. Each of these parties are committed to pushing sounds from avant garde to minimal techno and deep house.
The DJs – Robert Roman, Carlos Varela, Chklte, Isa, and Alejandro Dozal, Majiini, and Timo Salerno – represent a lineage of talented selectors now residing in Austin from Mexico, Romania, Honduras, Texas and beyond. With record collections that span a wide range of both new and nostalgic each of these DJs possess a distinct identity when they play – the common thread being their desire to dig for and expose rare, forgotten, and fringe sounds in dance music.
Alejandro: “This might sound confident but I truly believe our local artists, the BlackTone residents and others we’ve had open or close the party, can compete with anyone. We have quality selectors who have the the type of emotional intelligence and patience it takes to understand a room and take people on a journey. I think it’s only a matter of time, and not too long from now, where our talent here will be noticed by other respectable events throughout the country.”
In a time when the world desperately needs to see more good things happening to good people, the community culminated by music and art should be one of the last environments corroded by the ego and friction that can often be found in competitive cities. The curators behind BlackTone act like a family. Their passion for music and their love for each other is displayed by the level of dedication and planning they put into their events. BlackTone attributes their quick growth to the foundation and momentum others in the local scene have created as well as their symbiotic relationship with Movement Collective (who have also hosted both emerging and established artists such as Andrey Pushkarev, Mihai Pol and Melodie in the last year). They’ve tapped into a cadence that offers a level of class when it comes to dance music without saturating one sound over another. Perhaps it’s the Texas sincerity that roots these events, or it’s their fortitude to create memorable experiences. Their mentality has persevered and caught the attention of larger talents as BlackTone will be partnering with NY & Barcelona based promotions company ID to host Praslesh this month.
“Everyone DJ we’ve invited here has been completely surprised by the amount of quality people in our community,” says Alejandro. “We know that we’re not offering the most luxurious or top of the line nightclub experiences compared to cities like London or Berlin, but when you have good people turning up consistently with smiles on their faces and enthusiasm for hard to find music, it makes up for it every time.”
With their focus on intimacy, quality, and hospitality BlackTone is raising their flag in a seemingly unlikely place to illustrate a remarkable model for showcasing the fringed, stripped-down sounds in dance music. They’re doing so with a touch of class that brings comfort to DIY venues, making it accessible for the uninitiated and remarkably unique for mature crowds. But most importantly is how well they’ve responded and adjusted themselves into the burgeoning community while maintaining their creative autonomy and music-first sense.
Chad Will: www.facebook.com/willfuldesignandphoto/
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