5 Breakthroughs of 2017

Words by Cristina Plett, Hannah Pezzack, Samuel Asquith and Julia Connor

Umfang

The NY-based DJ and producer Umfang experienced a breakthrough 2017 both as an individual artist and as part of a collective. With the latter I am referring towards Discwoman, who as a queerfeminist group in the year of #metoo and an overall rise in societal consciousness have noticeably gained importance. And as Emma Burgess-Olson rose herself to be a notorious character, she in turn spread the word about Discwoman. As an individual artist her most important milestone this year has probably been the release of her second album Symbolic Use Of Light. It is a perfectly round mix of pure techno and ambient tracks, thoughtful somehow, leaving space for reflection, but also pumping and shooting straight up to the dancefloor. Having been released on Technicolour, a sister label of Ninja Tune, it is a sign of Burgess-Olson rising reputation and, obviously, her musical integrity.

Originally from Kansas, she got into electronic music as a teenager and began djing in 2009. In 2013 New York City, she started to promote a party now called “Technofeminism” together with a friend, Beta Librae. It was her first major action for giving people a space in electronic music who usually wouldn’t have it. This, but specifically for female-identifying people, is also the goal of Discwoman. Umfang founded the party series, booking agency and collective together with Frankie Decaiza Hutchinson and Christine McCharen-Tran in 2014. Satisfying to see, Umfang and Discwoman are increasingly getting the space they reclaimed not only for others, but also for themselves.

Esa

You might recognise Esa from his chilled out Boiler Room set at Dekmantal last year, performed in the hazy Amsterdam afternoon sunshine. Or from his standout EP Awah, released May 2017. Famed for easy listening, standout tropical beats and funky rhythms are his forte. Esa is a resident of Gilles Peterson’s WorldWide FM, an online radio platform celebrating universal music and culture.

As a globalist crate digger, he has a unique ability to blend together a mix of genre defying sounds, shepherding his listeners towards culturally diverse and unheard-of-before tracks. WorldWide FM has won many awards this year, including Digital Initiative of the Year and Best Online Radio Station. As a producer, Esa is never distant from his South African heritage, sampling traditional instruments paired with Afro-Synth magic.

Featured on FACT’s Against the ClockEsa’s processes really shine, freestyling on a thumb piano called a ‘mibra’ to create a jazzy, marimba influenced melody in under 10 minutes.  His band – Ata Kak – have been credited with reviving an interest in Ghanaian dance-rap, a ‘hidden’ genre of music which has been neglected since the 90s, but is in the midst of a heady revival.

Yaeji

Exactly what genre of music Kathy Yaeji Lee has cultivated seems to be a subject of much online discussion – not quite hip hop, nor house – her tracks are danceable, dark and deeply introspective. Singing in a mix of English and Korean in her iconic, breathy sing-rap voice, her poetic lyrics engage with club culture, depression, therapy, beauty ideals and Asian-American identity. Rarely does an artist resonate so successfully with both underground electronic enthusiasts and pop fanatics.

Yaeji has been making waves in every press repository from Resident Advisor and Pitchfork, to The Guardian Newspaper and The New Yorker. The BBC has nominated her for a poll for the Sound of 2018. Catapulted into the limelight, she’s left life as a conceptual fine artist, playing intimate squat parties in Brooklyn, to sell out venues and two EPs – Yaeji and EP2 – all in under 12 months. The video for her song ‘Drink I’m Sippin On’ currently has over 4 million views. Yaeji occupies a new, transcendent arena of dance music – her upcoming projects are eagerly awaited.  

Yan Cook

More often than not, a lot of ‘breakthrough’ artists have been kicking around producing and playing for years, which is in many ways testament to the sublime array of talent that choose house and techno as their go-to genres. Enter into the fray, Yan Cook.

One thing is for sure, you always know when you’ve heard a Yan Cook set. It is an indicator such as this that in my mind, distinguishes a great DJ. The Ukranian’s talent lies in his ability to weave destructive techno with rolling rhythmic melodies, an attribute many industrial techno DJs seem to sacrifice in favour of bass, yet Yan merges both with aplomb.

It is with his productions however that he must be most applauded. A bountiful producer, 2017 was Cook’s most fruitful yet, with the pick of the bunch being his ten track EP (yeah a ten track EP) Drifted Island. He also released on the techno titan Delsin earlier in the year, whilst his appearances at Berlin’s Tresor and upcoming New York gigs are inevitably worth all the hype. This guy really has something special, ears out for Yan in 2018.

Octo Octa

Maya Bouldry-Morrison aka Octo Octa has been releasing synth-heavy house for some time now, but as far as breaking through into the UK scene goes, 2017 was her year.

Her move towards the spotlight signals a step in the right direction for representation of minority groups in the underground sphere. Bouldry-Morrison spoke out about her transgender identity for the first time back in 2016, and since music is an expression of self, the deeply personal feel and evolution of her material since then is largely testament to the emotions she faced during the transitioning process.

Opening up about this opened a pivotal door into the international queer community, with her most significant release of 2017 being her 2nd LP, Where are we going?, dropping last March on HNYTRAX, the offshoot label of San Francisco’s queer party and label Honey Soundsystem,  gaining deserved attention from the UK music press. Having her work remixed for the first time ever was an additional breakthrough last year, with Adrift, the standout track from the LP for its off-piste intensity and dub techno nature, reworked by both Dorisburg and Avalon Emerson.

DJing across the pond has become increasingly commonplace as well, placing Octo Octa behind the decks of some of Europe’s most esteemed venues that most DJs can only aspire to – Tresor / De School – as well as on our shores at Corsica Studios, Sub Club and Field Maneuvers.