The Black Experimental Music Mixtape is a monthly mixtape curated by music journalist and critic, Jordannah Elizabeth. Each month, Jordannah will bring the best of the most far out music from Black musicians in America and across the world.Black experimental music has no unifying characteristic beyond breaking the rules of contemporary Black music across genres. This month, SassyBlack’s intoxicating voice sits alongside Tomeka Reid’s otherworldly cello playing and The Veldt’s esoteric shoegaze. Meanwhile, Vagabon breaks the mold of what alternative rock should look and sound like; Valerie Joon explores out-of-body experiences on “Astral Plane”; 2Chainz refines trap on “Realize” in a way that encourages the maturity of the genre; and Zeal & Ardor meld American slave spirituals with heavy metal.
There are some styles of music that get codified early on, and then musicians play by certain rules in order to fit in with a group of artists and succeed in their genre’s community. But that’s not the case with black experimental music, where it’s best to surrender to your musical intuition instead of relying on a definition. I, for one, listen for creativity, off-kilter sounds, and anything and everything that veers away from popular aesthetics. Sure, it’s possible for black experimental musicians to cross over to the mainstream—like Funkadelic, Outkast, Erykah Badu, and even Kendrick Lamar—but that popularity doesn’t deter those artists from continuing to shun musical norms and cultivate music from their own imagination.The way I became a vocal proponent of black experimental music was by loosening my own reins as a music critic. Experimental music reveals itself to the world—it finds you and pulls you in. Those nuances of strangeness—the tiny surprises of beats, reverbed whispers, overlaid vocals, and sounds that don’t quite make sense—call out to you, and these artists ask you to listen on a deeper level. This Black Experimental Mixtape Series exists for that purpose. I’m not here to tell you what I know, but to share the sounds that come out of the deepest recesses of black artists’ psyches and creative inner worlds.
Improvisation is not solely tied to one genre of music. The notion of free-form performance is generally tied to jazz, but women in blues, experimental music, and even punk rock have all engaged in off-the-cuff creations. Women are very rarely highlighted for their ability to improvise on stage and in recordings, but everyone from Sarah Vaughan to Patti Smith has made an art of it. Even the quintessential all-female punk band, Bikini Kill, improvised on stage very often as well.These women embody the art of interacting with their audience as if they were interacting with their fellow musicians. When Nina Simone played her many interludes (before, after, and in between her rehearsed music), you felt electricity in the air. Her fingers flew across the keyboard with the ease of a sultry virtuoso, and her declarations were jarring, honest, and, at times, slightly demented. Improvisation is what pushed funk-music queen Betty Davis over the top, and it’s what made avant-garde vocalist Pamela Z and jazz pianist Geri Allen masters of their respective crafts.When women improvise, you get to see their raw talent in action and gaze into the innermost depths of their personal creativity. That’s why these women are being highlighted here: They gave their audiences, their stages, their instruments, and microphones everything they had, and they should be recognized accordingly.
In this volume of my Black Experimental Music Mixtape series, I didn’t include Jimi Hendrix or Prince, because I wanted to share contemporary and/or lesser known artists like Heroes Are Gang Leaders and Burnt Sugar The Arkestra Chamber. These artists belong to a lineage of soul, free jazz, funk, and experimental Black music that extends back to the ‘50s and 60s—and, in some instances, back to before music was even recorded.Black Experimental Music is a form of expression that can reinvent itself without losing its basis in the African American (and Black International) artistic ethos that permeates early predecessors like Lead Belly and Lightnin Hopkins. But before we go that far back, we begin this mix with D’Angelo, an artist’s whose music will never get old. From there, Sly & the Family Stone’s “Africa Talks to You (“The Asphalt Jungle”)” explores what it means to be from an ancient time, yet living in the mean streets of present-day urban chaos. FKA twigs’ “Water Me” is a haunting, hollowed ballad, while Cassandra Wilson’s interpretation of Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” is a song my mother used to play on car rides when I was a little girl. Black Spirituals finishes off this collection with a track that resembles a futuristic, minimalist Sun Ra, bringing elements of sound art and electro-acoustic noise to the forefront of current underground Black music.
It is said that all contemporary American music derives from Black music. Folk, rock ‘n’ roll, blues, jazz, and country music have roots in African American spirituals, and the early guitar music of slaves and poor Black musicians who created songs that addressed their work, their love lives, and their community.Black folk music can be traced back to the early 1900s through the guitar-based music of Elizabeth Cotten, whose self-taught finger-picking style provided an equally complex and tender backdrop for her soft vocals. It’s since become so steeped in the American artistic lexicon that you many not even notice how prevalent it is in modern music.Today, Black folk music is commonly associated with the artists who broke into the mainstream in the ’80s and ’90s, like Tracy Chapman and Ben Harper. But there is so much music that came before and after. A folksinger since the ‘50s, Alabama native Odetta was a huge influence on artists like Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash. (In fact, Odetta was a guest on Cash’s variety show in 1969, and one of his final singles, “God’s Gonna Cut You Down,” was a cover of a song Odetta recorded back in 1956.) Now, artists like Valerie June and Rhiannon Giddens are continuing the tradition of Black folk music, incorporating acoustic guitar, banjo, and mandolin on their recent albums. This mixtape spans 1910 to 2017—it was a pleasure to make and I hope you’ll find it’s a pleasure to listen to.
The history of black experimental music is made up of musicians who were and are unapologetically proud of their African descent. They not only used their skills to create profoundly unique music — they also leveraged their connection to their heritage to uplift black American communities, as well as convey their personal frustrations with the oppressions of the pre- and post-civil right eras. This mixtape is filled with artists like Sun Ra, Alice Coltrane, Betty Davis, and Funkadelic, who pushed, pulled, and broke the boundaries of what black music in America should be, yanking themselves from the mold of Motown to explore new musical territory. A small army of gifted artists followed in their footsteps, from Afrika Bambaataa to DJ Spooky, Flying Lotus to Azealia Banks.
Being a feminist music critic is much less restrictive than it may seem. I put this specific mixtape together because I’d been having a number of conversations about the blatant misogynistic content in contemporary trap music. Back in the ‘90s, when Goodie Mobb, Outkast, and Master P were laying the foundation for trap, the lyrics were much less abusive towards women, our bodies, and general existence. But these days, when I talk to younger trap listeners, they treat me like I had never heard the genre before, while cis male music enthusiasts who are my age tell me I’m being too rigid with my music taste.When you’re a female-identified music critic, there are going to be those times when you have to say, “I know what I like.” Not only do I know what I like, but I can make a collection of trap songs that are not overwhelmingly exploitative and abusive.When Nicki Minaj’s “Beez in the Trap” came out in 2012, the song felt truly empowering. It was in-your-face, sexy, and had the quintessential elements of trap production style. I loved her interaction with 2 Chainz, so when they came together again in 2017 for “Realize” on 2 Chainz’s latest album, Pretty Girls Love Trap Music, I was excited. For me, finding good music takes patience—I’d rather wait five years for a collaboration I know I’m going to like than to listen to every single thing on the radio that comes my way.The feminist aspect of this playlist comes from me being clear about what I enjoy as a female-identified listener—and it also comes from having the discipline to listen to music that isn’t profoundly violent towards women and female-identified queer music listeners. This playlist includes cis and LGBTQ women as lead rappers on their tracks, it features trap originators from the mid-’90s, and it consists of music that has a bit of depth—not to mention authenticity, a little sexiness, and dope beats.Not all trap music is offensive, and even if some of the artists on this mixtape have other songs that are disrespectful towards women, I want to highlight those rare tracks where they show who they are without having to demean anyone. I’m not about censoring artists, but rather giving listeners the freedom to choose safe music.
As cassette tapes and CDs proliferated in the ‘80 and ‘90s, music began to travel to uncharted territories—like small villages in South America. And thanks to the vast reach of MTV and, later the internet, that cultural cross-pollination has only accelerated. One of the more intriguing results of this process has been the rise of Latin American shoegaze: young South American musicians in thrall to U.K. bands like My Bloody Valentine and Ride, but putting their own spin on the genre.Latin American Shoegaze can be milky and romantic (see: Robsongs’ “Essa Grande Falta de Você”), touching and spiritual (Sexores’ “Sasebo”), or brisk and spiky (Blancoscuro’s “Figaro”). The lyrics are often completely in Spanish or Portuguese, bringing a unique, authentic tone to the music (particularly in a genre known for obscuring the words). As this playlist shows, shoegaze has permeated the Latin American underground from Sao Paulo to Mexico City to Buenos Aires—have a listen to hear how they do it down south.
The ’90s have never sounded better than they do right now—especially for modern-day indie rockers. There’s no shortage of bands banging around these days whose sound suggests formative phases spent soaking up vintage ’90s indie rock. Not that the neo-’90s sound is itself a new thing. As soon as the era was far enough away in the rearview mirror to allow for nostalgia to set in (i.e., the second half of the 2000s), there were already some young artists out there onboarding ’90s alt-rock influences. But more recently, there’s been a bumper crop of bands that betray a soft spot for a time when MTV still played music videos and streaming was just something that happened in a restroom. In this context, the literate, lo-fi approach of Pavement has emerged as a particularly strong strand of the ’90s indie tapestry, and it isn’t hard to hear echoes of their sound in the work of more recent arrivals like Kiwi jr. or Teenage Cool Kids. Cherry Glazerr frontwoman Clementine Creevy seems to have a feeling for the kind of big, dirty guitar riffs that made Pacific Northwestern bands the kings of the alt-rock heap once upon a time. The world-weary, wise-guy angularity of Car Seat Headrest can bring to mind the lurching, loose-limbed attack of Railroad Jerk. And laconic, storytelling types like Nap Eyes stand to prove that there’s still a bright future ahead for those who mourn the passing of Silver Jews main man David Berman. But perhaps the best thing about a face-off between the modern indie bands evoking ’90s forebears and the old-school artists themselves is the fact that in this kind of competition, everybody wins.
It may be that 2019 was the best year for ’90s metal since, well, 1999. Bands from the decade of Judgment Night re-emerged with new creative twists and tweaks: Tool stretched out into polyrhythmic madness, Korn bludgeoned with more extreme and raw despair, Slipknot added a new drummer (Max Weinberg’s kid!) who gave them a new groove, and Rammstein wrote an anti-fascism anthem that caused controversy in Germany (and hit No. 1 there too). Elsewhere, icons of the era returned in unique ways: Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor scored a superhero TV series, Primus’ Les Claypool teamed up with Sean Lennon for some quirky psych rock, and Faith No More’s Mike Patton made an avant-decadent LP with ’70s soundtrack king Jean-Claude Vannier. Finally, the soaring voice of Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington returned for a moment thanks to Lamb of God guitarist Mark Morton, who released a song they recorded together in 2017.
Taking a look at the playlists for my show on Boston’s WZBC might give the more seasoned college-radio listener a bit of déjà vu: They’re filled with bands like Versus, Team Dresch, and Sleater-Kinney, who were at the top of the CMJ charts back in the ’90s. But the records they released in 2019 turned out to be some of the year’s best rock. Versus, whose Ex Nihilo EP and Ex Voto full-length were part of a creative run for leader Richard Baluyut that also included a tour by his pre-Versus outfit Flower and his 2000s band +/-, put out a lot of beautifully thrashy rock; Team Dresch returned with all cylinders blazing and singers Jody Bleyle and Kaia Wilson wailing their hearts out on “Your Hands My Pockets”; and Sleater-Kinney confronted middle age head-on with their examination of finding one’s footing, The Center Won’t Hold.Italian guitar heroes Uzeda—who have been putting out proggy, riff-heavy music for three-plus decades—released their first record in 13 years, the blistering Quocumque jerceris stabit; Imperial Teen, led by Faith No More multi-instrumentalist Roddy Bottum, kept the weird hooks coming with Now We Are Timeless; and high-concept Californians That Dog capped off a year of reissues with Old LP, their first album since 1997. Juliana Hatfield continued the creative tear she’s been on this decade with two albums: Weird, a collection of hooky, twisty songs that tackle alienation with searing wit, and Juliana Hatfield Sings the Police, her tribute record to the dubby New Wave chart heroes (in the spirit of the salute to Olivia Newton-John she released in 2018). And our playlist finishes with Mary Timony, formerly of the gnarled rockers Helium and currently part of the power trio Ex Hex, paying tribute to her former Autoclave bandmate Christina Billotte via an Ex Hex take on “What Kind of Monster Are You?,” one of the signature songs by Billotte’s ’90s triple threat Slant 6.