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No One’s Moving to DC to Get Famous. Maybe That’s Why the Music Is So Good.

Second Floor

True to the city’s hardcore and DIY roots, Washington, DC’s electronic and experimental music scenes are bullshit-free and defiantly different.

By Shawn Reynaldo


Shawn Reynaldo is a Barcelona-based writer and editor who specializes in electronic music. His First Floor newsletter often zeroes in on developments in the genre’s corresponding industry and culture, but the Second Floor column is designed to spotlight the music itself, examining trends, recommending releases, and keeping tabs on what’s happening both on and off the dancefloor.

Washington, DC is a transient place. Home to countless NGOs, think tanks, lobbying firms, and universities, not to mention much of the United States Federal government, it attracts people from all over the world. It’s also an educated city, and obviously a political one, and many people come to town specifically to work, sticking around for a few years with a particular objective in mind.

That objective, however, rarely revolves around music.

Don’t get me wrong: There’s plenty of music happening in DC, and there has been for decades. Go-go, a specific variant of funk that’s native to the region, is so locally beloved that it was signed into law as the city’s official music in 2020, while punk and hardcore enthusiasts will forever celebrate DC as the place that birthed Bad Brains, Minor Threat, Rites of Spring, Fugazi, and a slew of other iconic acts. Many of those artists were tied at one time or another to the scene-defining Dischord label, whose fiercely DIY ethos set the template for independent music culture in the 80s, 90s, and beyond. (Only in DC could someone like Chris Richards, the former frontman of post-hardcore faves Q and Not U, work as the pop music critic at The Washington Post, a job he’s held since 2009.)

As rents have increased and gentrification has gone into overdrive, DC music has retained that fiercely independent streak—and probably as a matter of necessity. Though the city has a wealth of nightlife options—all those politicians, bureaucrats, do-gooders, and aspiring kings of the universe have to go somewhere to blow off steam—very few venues are committed to music that veers away from the mainstream, and many of the places that have tried have ended up closing. (It’s telling that U Street Music Hall, one of the city’s most reliable nightspots throughout the 2010s, closed in 2020. The space is now a bottle-service lounge called Privilege DC.)

One place that’s weathered the storm is Rhizome DC, a non-profit community arts space that sits inside an old residential home near the Maryland border. Opened in 2015, it’s garnered a reputation as a hub for all things weird and avant-garde in the city, from film screenings and modular synth workshops to experimental jam sessions and concerts showcasing various forms of noise, drone, free jazz, and ambient music. It’s a place where versatile DC jazz bassist Luke Stewart (of Irreversible Entanglements, Heart of the Ghost, SILT Trio, Blacks’ Myths, and countless other projects, including his own Union of Universal Unity imprint) might rub shoulders with former Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty, whose work has taken a decidedly experimental turn over the years, most notably as a member of The Messthetics alongside former Fugazi bassist Joe Lally and guitarist Anthony Pirog. The latter can also be found making music as one half of Janel and Anthony, a collaboration with celebrated cellist Janel Leppin. And yes, those two have also collaborated with Stewart on a different project: Ensemble Volcanic Ash.

These kinds of connections are common in DC, a place where it often seems like everybody knows one another. Though the wider DMV metro area is home to more than six million people, the population of DC itself is somewhere in the neighborhood of 700,000. This makes for a relatively small music scene, especially because there’s so little in the way of a professional music industry. Most artists have proper day jobs, and places like Rhizome—and, frankly, most other creative endeavors—are fueled primarily by passion and a desire to cultivate community. The city simply isn’t big enough for people to silo themselves in their own little genre corners, and that’s given rise to an open-minded, musically omnivorous environment with a remarkably diverse cast of contributors.

In the experimental and avant-garde realm, a sampling of that cast includes folks like ambient collagist Nate Scheible, Brian Weitz (a.k.a Geologist of Animal Collective), Lebanese-Canadian sound manipulator TALsounds, boundary-pushing Argentinian composer Alma Laprida, and Korean-Japanese gong player Naoco Wowsugi, among many others. No conversation about contemporary DC would be complete without mentioning Model Home, a collaboration between NAPPYNAPPA and Pat Cain that pushes hip-hop into a trippy, distortion-filled space somewhere in the stratosphere. Sonically adventurous and creatively uncompromising, the duo’s place in the local landscape is unquestionably unique, though they’re not the first DC outfit to bridge the noise-rap divide. Before he founded the beloved Future Times label and became one of the city’s premiere groove merchants as one half of DJ duo Beautiful Swimmers, Andrew Field-Pickering (aka Max D, Maxmillion Dunbar, and Dolo Percussion) was part of a hip-hop group called Food for Animals.

That project has been over for more than a decade, but in the meantime, Field-Pickering has become one of the creative fulcrums of the DC music scene. Future Times, which began in 2008 and has released music from Huerco S., Nick León, Shanti Celeste, and Kush Jones, is a globally renowned dance imprint. Yet it’s also consistently platformed acts from DC, many of whom aren’t necessarily making dancefloor records, including rapper SIR E.U, R&B artist dreamcastmoe, and Lifted, a free-flowing, ever-evolving collaborative project that’s loosely rooted in free jazz and headed up by Field-Pickering himself. His resume is full of collaborations, and while Beautiful Swimmers (with Ari Goldman, who also heads up the excellent World Building label) may be the most recognizable, his recent excursions into techno, drum & bass, and other uptempo sounds as Superabundance (alongside fellow DC polymath Jackson Ryland, who’s also one half of Rush Plus) have proven very rewarding.

Founded by Dawit Eklund, Sami Yenigun, and Joyce Lim, 1432 R is another key node for (mostly) dance music. Many of the label’s early releases showcased hybrid forms of Ethiopian house music from artists like Mikael Seifu and Ethiopian Records, a connection that came via Eklund, who grew up in Addis Ababa before moving to DC for college. But in recent years, 1432 R’s curation has been more focused on the East Coast, with releases from Max D, Ryland, bass alchemist Soso Tharpa, and synth explorer Analog Tara. (Aside from her work with the label, Lim is also part of the cheekily named queer DJ collective Dance Club, where she’s joined by Baronhawk Poitier and Tommy C.) Another DC staple is People’s Potential Unlimited. An offshoot of the online record shop Earcave, PPU is best known for its reissues of funk and boogie obscurities, mostly from the 70s and 80s, but its catalog also includes fresher (and equally funky) material from artists like Pender Street Steppers, Benedek, and Space Ghost.

Black people have historically made up a plurality, if not a majority, of DC’s population, and their cultural influence is central to the city’s identity, as Parliament alluded to on their 1975 album Chocolate City. And if there’s one consistent undercurrent to the city’s dance music, it’s funk, a historically Black music style with deep roots in the city. Sadly, that legacy hasn’t always been reflected in the city’s dance music clubs, especially the ones devoted to more “underground” sounds. Still, Black DJs like drum & bass veteran Dee Clark and techno maven Juana have been holding it down for decades; the latter throws Noxeema Jackson, a QTBIPOC2S+ party lovingly known as Noxy’s, that has become a beacon of nightlife in DC. And in the aftermath of the pandemic and the global Black Lives Matter protests, there’s been a renewed movement to level the playing field. Launched in 2019 by multi-disciplinary artist Bernard Farley (aka B_X_R_N_X_R_D, among several other aliases), Black Techno Matters is an organization, platform, and record label dedicated to “celebrat[ing] the Black roots of techno” and “reclaim[ing] techno as a manifestation of Black expression in a society that has oppressed it.” Now a collective with members spread across the country, Black Techno Matters regularly stages events across DC (including a Sunday afternoon “Techno in the Park” series) and has released music by artists like STUKES, blvksite, and Farley himself.

Then there’s Black Rave Culture, a veritable DJ and production supergroup that includes James Bangura, Nativesun, and Amal. All three have made waves on their own, but as a trio, they’ve rapidly ascended the dance music ranks, dropping three separate albums in three years and taking their genre-blurring, speaker-rattling rhythms on tour around the globe. But they’re also making a difference at home; last September, they curated an all-Black lineup at a special DC edition of Boiler Room, and Amal has been going hard with Hochi Runs, a label and party continuing the long-running East Coast tradition of connecting the dots between regional dance music styles and contemporary hip-hop and R&B.

One problem, artists on the ground have told me, is a lack of dedicated spaces. Online broadcaster Eaton Radio and local non-profit station WOWD do serve as minor community hubs, as do the Tonal Park recording studio and the Joint Custody record and vintage store. But venues? That can be tough. DJs and promoters cite the recent closure of The Owl Room as a major blow, especially for those with a preference for more intimate parties, though Jimmy Valentine’s soldiers on as a small bar with a killer soundsystem. And DC does have one spot, Flash, that reliably brings quality touring DJs to town. During the next month, it’ll play host to artists like Laurel Halo (read Nina’s recent interview with the Los Angeles-based composer and producer here), CCL, Ciel, Ariel Zetina, and DVS1.

Every major city needs a place like Flash, but the most interesting parties in DC are often happening elsewhere, and they’re usually spearheaded by younger promoters. Hast du Feuer only began in 2022, but under the guidance of DJs Koh and Madalin, it has quickly become one of the most ambitious parties in town, staging multi-room mini-massives that bring together different generations and sounds in an almost carnivalesque atmosphere. True to the spirit of DC, the crew’s latest party was headlined by go-go legends Trouble Funk, but it also featured the likes of Floorplan and Danny Daze, along with a slew of local DJs, plus live painting, tarot readings, tattooing, and a vintage clothing market. Similarly youthful is 140+, a party that, as its name implies, is devoted to high-octane raving. Residents DJ Land Reform and gabberbitch69 serve up turbocharged tempos and sensory overload, and they often join forces with GET FACE, a Miami-raised provocateur who operates under the banner Friends with Benefits.

Oddly enough, what may have been the most interesting DC event of the past year actually took place at a summer camp in West Virginia, about two hours outside the city. Billed as a “DMV electronic & punk campout,” Zapateo featured many of the names already mentioned, plus a few out-of-town ringers, like Karizma, Byron the Aquarius, and Priori. More importantly, it was by all accounts a total success, providing DC with not only a boutique festival in the vein of events like New York’s landmark Sustain-Release, but also a space where members of the city’s music community could come together and celebrate one another.

In the end, one another—and the music, of course—is really all that artists in DC have. No musician or DJ is moving to the nation’s capital to make it big, so why not collaborate? Why not try something new? If someone shows up at a gig or a party, it’s almost certainly because they really want to be there, and that automatically breeds a level of trust and respect between everyone in the room. For all the spinning that happens in the city’s many halls of power, DC’s music scene, from what I can glean from conversations with many of its participants, is a remarkably bullshit-free zone. That humility and open-mindedness might be the city’s biggest strength. And it might also explain how the city has given rise to so much great music while the rest of us have hardly been paying attention.

Dreamcast - “Liquid Deep”


Before he changed his name to dreamcastmoe and signed to Ghostly International, which released his MOLLY’S SON EP earlier this month, Davon Bryant went by the name Dreamcast. First released on a 7-inch in 2017, “Liquid Deep” was his debut single. It’s a bare-bones slice of slow-mo boogie that sees Swedish producer Sasac staying mostly out the way, providing just enough rubbery, space-age funk to keep things moving as Bryant’s buttery voice takes center stage. Deeply retro but refreshingly free of kitsch, this could be a long-lost D Train or Kashif tune. But Dreamcast sings with a sort of unpolished vulnerability that cuts right to the bone. What does “liquid deep” even mean? I have no idea, but I’ll gladly listen to him sing about it.

Nate Scheible - Fairfax

[ACR/Warm Winters Ltd.]

Not many ambient releases will straight-up break your heart, but Nate Scheible’s Fairfax is beautiful and strange enough to make even the gruffest noise dude shed a tear or two. First released in 2017, and reissued in 2022, the album is essentially a “found sound” work, centering a series of vocal recordings Scheible came across on an unlabeled cassette tape, which had apparently been recorded by an unknown woman decades before, for a partner stationed somewhere far away. Also present are all manner of delicate drones, strings, and chimes, lending the proceedings an ethereal, almost new age vibe. 

But that voice! There’s nothing ethereal about that. Tender and devastating, the woman’s words provide an unnerving look into the depths of one person’s loneliness and longing. And though what we’re hearing is essentially a one-sided conversation, it’s made all the more heartbreaking by the fact that the person the tape was made for doesn’t seem to be a particularly nice or empathetic dude. It’s incredible stuff, and it’s far from the only item in Scheible’s catalog: he just released a tape called or valleys and on a new DC label called Outside Time.

Jackson Ryland - Rapid Xpansion


Rapid Xpansion
Rapid XpansionJackson Ryland

  • 1Rapid Xpansion
  • 2Move To Brooklyn
  • 3Storm 2050
  • 4Mass Strike
  • 5Lo Voltage
  • 6Oasis Shout
  • 7Cigarette Zero
  • 8Amtrek Coast
  • 9F-Alarm
  • 10The Only Lane
  • 11Liquid Temp

One of DC’s under-the-radar talents, Jackson Ryland has been quietly dropping quality records and smashing genre boundaries for nearly a decade, both solo and as part of collaborative projects like Rush Plus and Superabundance. The latter probably gets the most attention, simply because it involves Max D (an amazing artist—and human—in his own right). But Rapid Xpansion, which came out earlier this year, is a brilliant showcase of Ryland’s jack-of-all-trades versatility. Oscillating between moody, borderline trip-hop beats and more lively house and jungle rave-ups, he proves compelling at any tempo.

Martyn - Odds Against Us

[Ostgut Ton]

Martyn technically lives in the Virginia suburbs, so perhaps it’s cheating to include him here, but I’m guessing that he would at least be accepted as an honorary member of the extended DC family. (Another point in his favor: As the head of the 3024 label, he’s also been a consistent champion of Djoser, a low-end-loving artist who was born in Egypt but came of age in DC.) A native of the Netherlands who came up on the drum & bass circuit, Martyn is now widely respected by artists across the electronic spectrum, and not just for his music. Since 2020, he’s also been building a different sort of community via his Artist Mentoring Program, which provides knowledge and guidance to DJs and producers around the globe.

And yet, even as he spends more time in the virtual classroom, there’s no forgetting Martyn’s top-notch production skills—and Odds Against Us showcases his ability to traverse multiple genres while combining detailed sound design with rave-ready rhythms. Of the three tracks on the 2019 EP, “B.C. 2” was probably the most exciting to hear, simply because it marked his long-awaited return to jungle. But the busted house hybrid “Rhythm Ritual” and the bass-loaded, garage-inspired title track are equally capable of smashing up the dance.

Black Rave Culture - Black Rave Culture

[Haus of Altr]

The self-titled debut album from Black Rave Culture is more than just a collection of danceable tunes; it’s a statement of purpose. Across 10 tracks, James Bangura, Nativesun, and Amal comfortably (and repeatedly) switch up both their configuration and their sound, dissecting house, techno, footwork, hardcore, jungle, garage, and more, then piecing the bits back together in thrilling new combinations. There’s a vibrancy to what they do, and while they may be proudly reclaiming a Black musical tradition that originated in the 80s and 90s, Black Rave Culture is squarely focused on the future.

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