Nightclubs remain the ultimate adult playground, a swirl narcotics and dence, yet the soundtrack accompanying all those altered-mind states can be stubbornly conservative. For decades, the four-to-the-floor thud house and techno has dominated in clubs the world over.
Over the past couple years, though, a jolt electricity has been sent through clubland by the return breakbeats – one its oldest, and most Marmite, component parts. Breakbeats were the backbone rave’s boom years, fuelling the eruptive mania hardcore and jungle, but by the time the namesake genre “breaks” had bedded into the vernacular, along with its associated cousin big beat, originality had flamed out. You ended up with stuff like DJ Deekline’s I Don’t Smoke, a wobble-bass novelty hit that sampled a Marcus Brigstocke comedy routine.
But breaks are now firmly back in vogue and, as a redress to a scene that remained stubbornly white, straight, male and stale, the new movement is spearheaded by a coalition acts from the queer fringes. In their hands, breakbeats-propelled club tracks are tactile tools rather than blunt percussive cudgels. Alongside newer names such as CCL, Ciel and LSDXOXO, two relative lifers, Chicago’s Eris Drew and Lisbon’s Inês Coutinho, AKA Violet, are representing a more conscientious side the contemporary underground.
“The essence breakbeats for me is that it’s] drum cuts from funk and pop, so it’s] a part the collective unconscious,” says Coutinho. A seven-second fill can be recycled countless ways, something that “recharges meaning as opposed to exhausting it”. In the flesh, Coutinho and Drew bear this out, each typically bounding around the DJ booth with unbridled, utterly infectious glee. Going f the grid with snare rushes or spasmodic drum patterns provokes a similar excitement on dancefloors, says Coutinho. “It’s funny to switch from a squarer song to these while looking at the room – it gets bouncy, the atmosphere shifts to a vibe fluid dancing and informality, like people suddenly feel at home. They] seem to make people comfortable in their skin.” Drew agrees: “Nothing cracks your body quite like them.”
What marks Coutinho and Drew out is not just their music, but their attitude; they keep the drawbridge down to help new voices pass through. The aesthetic recent queer electronic stars such as Arca and Venus X could be seen as dysmorphic, harsh and exclusive – a retaliation to a world that sought to deny them agency. For those in the global network Drew and Coutinho are part , approachability is key. “A lot energy right now emanates from people with marginalised identities working together to elevate each other, to host events in safer spaces, and to mentor young musicians,” says Drew. Wherever possible, she will pair DJ sets away from home with a daytime talk or workshop on “techno as a healing or mystical art”. Coutinho founded both the radio station Rádio Quântica and record label Naive as a way to connect people who love “rave-inspired, melodic, oneiric music … and who really trust each other on a personal and ethical level”. This includes Drew, whose Naive-released EP Devotion, made with her partner Octo Octa, was one 2018’s biggest club releases.
The overarching goal for Drew is “to form a deeper understanding our connection to the music and dancing,” something she expounds online by using her social media for public good. After a transformative recent trip playing in Brazil and Colombia, she spent six hours writing an extensive social media post to praise her hosts and process a wider “kaleidoscope emotions” that had percolated about colonisation, privilege, her trans identity and the power psychedelics. As post-gig content goes, it certainly stood out from a stream “thank you Norwich!” posts and daybreak selfies.
As dance music becomes increasingly image-driven and commodified – a £1,195 Balenciaga hoodie emblazoned with the words “I Love Techno” probably wasn’t what the first kids to throw parties in underpasses had in mind – the pair uphold its original ideals communality and a reprieve from the threatening outside world. Their message is resonating: between them, they have played at least 120 events in the past 12 months, and both have a bursting summer festival calendar ahead. More and more people are tuning in to what Coutinho calls “post-cynicism,” and a breakbeats-driven sound that, says Drew, transcends fluctuating fashions and taps into something much deeper. “There is no ‘ecstatic’ genre tag in stores – and let’s hope there never is.”