COMMUNITY MUSIC SPOTLIGHT: Young Man

by on October 27, 2017

Posted in: Album Review

WRMC’s Community Music Spotlight is an ongoing series, profiling new projects by artists/bands from the Middlebury and greater Addison County community. If you are a local band/artist, or know one with a new project we should write about, email wrmc911@gmail.com!

Young Man (Adam Kelley) is probably the only person who has been on a Middlebury sports team (cross-country, for a semester) and also DJed what feels like hundreds of sets across campus, produced bona fide hits for a student artist (Rubby) and played gigs on both coasts. Eclectic is an overused word for DJs, but given that Kelley’s favorite books are the young adult fantasy series Pendragon, it’s fair to say his taste is wide-ranging. Besides his work with Rubby, this new EP, Tapestry [vol. 1] is his first serious release. The soundscape ranges from reggaeton and dancehall to harps and running water, creating a melodic world of rhythm and fantasy. WRMC caught up with him before his album release party in New Haven to talk about exploitation in dancehall music, where he ranks in the pantheon of Irish musicians, and what global club music looks like across scales:

Describe the vibe of this EP in three words.

The words I used on Bandcamp were ethereal… umm…. I wish you sent this to me ahead of time so I could have come up with something cool, but not overly pretentious, like the right note of cool.

This is pretty good so far.

I kind of wanted it to be transportive as well. I just really like with certain genres and artists how there’s another world in their music—it seems to be more than about partying, especially in the context of dance music. So yeah, transportive, I hope that’s what it does for people. And then I guess fantastical, it’s supposed to have this fantasy vibe to it.

That definitely came through, especially in album art and song titles. How do you translate imaginative fantasy element into tangible work?

I guess I try to use certain sounds that point to a certain vibe, like the harp that’s in there on “Imaginary Riddim” and, like, the kind of sparkly xylophone-y noises that are in a couple of those tracks. And I was kind of trying to have little textures in there that don’t really make a melody or contribute to the track except for creating an atmosphere, spending a long time getting sounds that create an atmosphere, starting with that then trying to build a track around those sounds. That was something I was really happy to do.

This project is tagged on Soundcloud as a dancehall EP. I feel like in recent years the major label music machine has really caught onto the genre, and there’s often been an exploitative relationship there. Could you talk about what it’s like to make dancehall or dancehall inspired music in that context?

I’m really glad that you asked that question because I definitely think that anyone that makes this shit who is not from the Caribbean or from a community where that type of music would be a part of your daily life, or whatever, should be thinking about that and has to have an answer to that question.

I definitely try to tread carefully, and when people ask me, “What kind of music do you play or make?” I try in my answer to not come off as someone who is ignorant of the power dynamics. I try to be very conscious of that in my answer, and not make anyone discovering my music wonder, “Is this person trying to rip this shit off? Do they realize the power imbalances at work in the music industry and society at large?”

I’m very upfront. I say I do dancehall and reggaeton-inspired music, and I don’t try and say that what I’m doing is straight up dancehall and reggaeton because I don’t think that it is really. I try and portray it like I’m taking off from this genre, ripping it off in a white boy way maybe, but it’s what I like to do. And I think that maybe it can come off weird to people but for the most part people who I’ve been straight up with about that have appreciated it. It feels like I should constantly be critiquing what I do and thinking, “Am I trying to represent myself as a part of community I don’t understand, or am I trying to interject myself into the history of this type of music that is really coming from a context I don’t understand and haven’t experienced and is made for an audience that does not include me?” That’s something I think about a lot, and I hope that I’m doing a good job.

There’s many times where I think I might get some shit on the Internet where someone’s like, “This is fucked up, I don’t think you should make music like this,” and then I would be like, “Yeah,” and just delete it. That hasn’t happened, but that’s what I’ve thought about—to err on the side of, if someone tells you what you’re doing is weird or bad, listen to them and not think that you have a right to make this music without getting challenged.

Its definitely weird to me how big artists who get called out on it are like, “It’s good, I don’t care.”

It’s either a willful ignorance or willful exploitation of specific scenes and people, and it’s racist. Especially when you’re someone like Diplo and you go to a place—whatever global scene you feel like is gonna be cool when you bring it to a white audience—and talk to those people, and maybe put on a few of them after you made a couple million off whatever single you dropped based off their sound, and when people are like, “You should do more for these communities,” you’re just like “I don’t think I have to.”

The other thing I try and do—that doesn’t necessarily make up for it—if I’m gonna make this music, I should be paying attention to what other artists in the scene have said about white people or other people outside the community coming in to do this stuff, and support that message and be willing to get into conversations with other fans about it. When white people I know like club music try and talk to me about it, I try and gauge their stance on that dynamic, the racial dynamics within the scene, and make it clear: “This is what you need to be thinking about if you are going to be a consumer of this music.”

I think about it with Palmistry a lot, ’cause he’s a white British guy making dancehall stuff.

He’s Irish! After him and Ed Sheeran, I’m like the third guy. I’m number three.

Wow the Irish do not have a deep bench. What’s a misconception people have about remixing or sampling in music?

I would say surprisingly that people don’t really ask me about that in a pejorative way at all, except for my grandma. When I play her shit, I go, “That’s not me singing,” even though it should be obvious. And she’s like, “And people don’t think that’s stealing?!?! Watch out!!” She’s convinced I’m going to get caught for plagiarizing Rihanna.

I’m reminded of a quote from Daedalus, the remix artist, saying that sampling is not stealing or taking a shortcut, it’s about interjecting yourself into the narrative of a song and pushing it forward, expanding upon the original scope of the song as an homage—not using it for your own purposes, but saying, “This song is sick and I want to be a part of it.” I think that’s really cool, and I hope that’s what my work does.

I feel like that’s where a lot of the beauty of club and worldwide electronic genres comes from: that fluidity. But it’s also the reason hyper-vigilance is necessary around power dynamics because everyone is not interacting on the same plane.

If you come from a position of privilege, you definitely always need to police yourself and listen and take up less space.

In the club scene, you see these underground NYC club bingo cards that are like ballroom, crash grime, squarewave—all these samples that crop up in all these songs. It’s intended as a good-natured joke based off how omnivorous that scene has become, but I think it can be masturbatory or mind-numbing when you see all these different sounds that each point to these very different scenes that all have their own history being amalgamated into the same track. But I think there are people who do it very intentionally, and its awesome both musically and intellectually.

You’re talking about a geographic imbalance too, where NYC and Berlin and Tokyo and these cities hold power the nodes of these global genres, and I’m curious how you see these smaller cities like New Haven fitting into that framework, and what it’s like to make global music in a less global city.

I was recently reading this random tweet, and someone was talking about how as a DJ there seem to be two routes these days: the genre purist (someone that’s like, “I play dub techno and that’s all I’m gonna play in my set”), and then there’s the other extreme, “ghetto chic,” where you go to all these little cities and you purposely seek out scenes nobody knows about. Footwork would be a good example, something nobody really knew about outside Chicago for a long time. Then suddenly people—probably people with a certain amount of privilege, whether educational or class or race—go and seek out cool niche underground electronic scenes that no one knows about and string them together, and the point is, like, “I’m really good at finding music you’ve never heard of.” And in that, the person was saying on Twitter, you lose the individuality of these local scenes.

That’s kind of the flip side of what you said. In some ways the underground scenes in New York and London and Berlin went and mined these little cities that had their own thing going in order to make that global sound.

To bump it down one scale further, in your experience DJing so many shows at Middlebury, whether it was opening for artists like Kelela and Noname or just parties in Coltrane, what’s one thing that can make the DJ or music scene here better?

The party scene is so geared around drinking to relieve stress and also an underlying sexual tension, and it’s hard to get around those two aspects and cultivate a following for a type of music. I think there’s an element of pretension there, though.

I think if people let more kids DJ, and there wasn’t a barrier to enter around control of the music and you-need-to-know-who’s-throwing-the-party… If you had something that was like, “We’re throwing a party in Coltrane, who wants to DJ?” and four or five different people signed up, that’d be cool. I’ve seen that happen on a handful of occasions, and everyone had a good time. It’s good to open it up.

Check out Young Man’s music on Bandcamp and Soundcloud.