Thursday, 18 August 2011

The Kool Kids Klub's Moombahton Special: the night the UK caught up

All photos: Lee Tickett

If you look closely enough, you can see the smear. The ugly, jealous smear left on the window, put there by my nose, after it was repeatedly pushed up against the pane, enviously watching the rest of the world enjoy what we here in Britain were being deprived of. Amid all the excitement and, yeah I admit it, my obsession for moombahton, one of my key joys was reading Marcus Dowling’s heady, sweaty, evangelical reports from the Moombahton Massive parties over in DC, along with raucous tales from the Arizonaton bashes of DJ Melo, Pickster One and Frank Mendez’s El Cuco fam. Meanwhile, the likes of Dave Nada, Heartbreak, Dillon Francis, Sabo, Munchi and Skinny Friedman were jetting all over Europe and the rest of the planet, spreading the word like hipster jehovah’s – yet apart from a short residency from Dillon Francis, the UK’s door remained unknocked.

The irony was painfully clear – for a scene forged in a global workshop, only a handful of geographically favoured people could get the full picture, right there, in the clubs, where moombahton truly makes sense – the punk-acid house energy streamlined by an unfettered, languid and sexy latin grace and nobility. Moshpits kicking off and G-spots being located on the dancefloor: the same hedonistic vibe you get from any great scene before it’s co-opted by the mainstream – the debauched freedom that comes from knowing you can do your own thing while the uninformed majority aren’t paying attention.

But it’s okay, we’re here now. It happened. The Kool Kids Klub, Smutlee and Jake Twell made moombahton work in the UK. This isn’t to demean what has gone on here before, far from it – both Club Popazuda’s Fiyahpowa and Boyfriend’s Club Tropicana were perfect ambassadors, both stepped up to try to bring moombahton to London, both were offered scant reward for their efforts. DJs, producers and club nights had also sprung up all over the country – but there had yet to be a major statement event that resoundingly gave the club scene the UK cosign to corroborate the media support from Toddla, Annie Mac, Mistajam and Nihal from BBC radio, and Mixmag and The Guardian *proud face x2*. Yeah, it’s arrogant of us to think that it matters, but even though we live in the era of a global community, this place remains an unquestionable epicentre of dance music - just ask Dave Nada: “I'm beyond excited about all the positive UK response to moombahton. To me that's the biggest compliment. I feel like if you win over the UK, then you’re automatically ahead of the curve.”

Anyway, we’re here now, we’ll have what you’re having, ta very much – and it’s all down to The Kool Kids. Alex Baker, George Smith and Justin Reid-Simms already stood tall on the bass scene from their base in Southend, just outside of London - their last three guests were Toddla, Annie Mac and French Fries, while A-Trak, Herve have also done a shift, as have any number of up-and-coming talents like Mele and Warrior One. If you do bass, you either play or want to play there. The Kool Kids haven’t just swooped in to claim the prize, by the way – when I discovered moombahton last year, two of the first people I found in the UK who were on it here were Smutlee and Justin, Whole Sick if you want to find him on Soundcloud. For around a year, Whole Sick was dropping 108s into his warm-up sets, to the point that Smutlee’s Majic had become a minor anthem.

There’s a neat symmetry to it happening outside of London. With the rise of regional hip hop and moombahton setting up shop in DC and Phoenix, the dominance of traditional cultural meccas like New York and London has been challenged. Arguably, it was the strength and diversity of the London club scene that stopped it bedding in earlier, with both Fiyahpowa and Club Tropicana coming up against a city with a fiercely competitive club scene that wasn’t keen on nurturing fledgelings. Away from that mecca pressure, it can grow, and it’s no coincidence that many of the producers and DJs in the UK are from outside London – guys like Twell, Jamrock, Mr9Carter, Untimely Sounds, Jera and Jimi Needles.

So logic was on the Kool Kids’ side, as was the crowd - loyal, committed and fervent. If you have a crowd’s trust, you have more freedom to take them places. It’s only right that Whole Sick prepped the crowd for Smutlee – and gave us the first of the night’s key moments, supervising the switch to 108 for a crowd weaned on 130. After French Fries’ Senta got the place up, a pitched-up DJ Sabo’s Spock’s Delight dropped – which could have indicated an evening of compromise, but instead it morphed smartly into Snoop’s Drop It Like It’s Hot - and then back to the Sabo track at the correct speed. The gear shift was palpable – as was the cultural shift. The hard part over, Smutlee had carte blanche. Lee excels in smart, melodic, well-crafted sets, warm in character and diversity. From his own dancehall-informed edits, to the metronomic squeaks of Halo Nova’s Get Sticky, via DJ Melo’s Told Ya, that Get Yr Freak On edit by Alvaro that I really need to get my hands on and Heartbreak’s monstrous remix of Toddla’s Watch Me Dance, Smutlee packaged up the depth and breadth of this sound, and provided symbolic moments two and three. Much of what was played early on had the feel of a Trojan horse, edits with enough familiarity to reel in those on the fence, so hearing Ckrono’s edit of Samim’s Heater felt pivotal. Sure, it’s an edit, too, but its cleaner use of the dem bow, reined-in bass and cumbia-tinted melodies suggested a point in the night when moombahton stopped wanting to be something else and claimed a spot of land for itself. Then Smutlee delivered a simple, devastating few minutes: Daft Punk’s Da Funk into Dave Nada’s Moombahton, two mid-paced, unique EDM icons providing a sweaty cosign. Next to DC, we’re at ground level still here, so you’ll forgive me for reading small moments as portentous.

There was nothing small about Jake Twell’s set, though. Put simply, Smutlee popped the cork, then Jake quickly shotgunned the contents (note: check metaphor works before publishing). Twell’s one of the nascent UK producers brought over to the scene from dubstep by Munchi’s Firepower, and brings a sound that works on a partycore level of beats and bass that both bounce and wobble. His set felt like blue balls being drained in the middle of a primal scream therapy session – the pressure of a year’s wait being released in one fierce burst. It was a blistering set, and the kind you can only ever hear once, packed with the cherry-picked killers that people aren’t tired of yet. This was Moombahton 101, bringing newbies up to speed at pace: Firepower, King Kong, Cam Jus’ Big Boss, Sandungueo, Sabo’s Jump Around – tick, tick tick. Yet this wasn’t just a hall-of-fame routine, this was fully up to speed, with still-fresh tracks like Sazon Booya’s La Bomba, Pickster’s Dem Bow Is The New Amen and Bro Safari’s Wombats ensuring that this was no half measure.
It worked - Smutlee and Twell helped the Kool Kids provide a platform for moombahton to grow here in the UK, using both tropical and bass as door wedges to let it in. Seeing that Munchi played London shortly after, and Smutlee gained his wings by playing at New York’s Que Bajo, signs are this won’t be the end of it. The real pity is that The Kool Kids appear to have no immediate plans to follow it up, which is a huge shame, as they could seriously boss it here in the UK. Who will profit from their hard work? We’ll see.

It’s funny, a few years back, I was writing a new music column for The Times’ website, and the need to write about the newly formed Mumford & Sons was far outweighed by the urge to big up what was emerging stateside, hipster rap, with acts like The Cool Kids offering a buoyant, populist sound that cut across much of what I was hearing. We all know where that ended up. Yet, now, another buoyant, populist sound just took a step to making the grade. It’s an irony that isn’t lost on me: Kool Kids 1, Cool Kids 0.

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