On a cool night in upstate New York in September 2019, the floorboards of a wooden hut at Camp Kennybrook are shuddering with bass.Somewhere in the pitch-dark room, Batu is pulling off that weird DJ trick, available only to the rare few and with exactly the right lighting, reorganising time and space. Walls become whorls, dancers hurtle through dimensions, powered by unending tessellations of drum: funky, gqom, technoid bass. “WHAT IS THIS MUSIC?” one elated dancer is heard shouting into a friend’s ear. The next night, during Powder’s closing set at Sustain-Release, the floorboards cave in.
Earlier that year, Omar McCutcheon was stepping up to the biggest stages of his career. He played a nerve-wracking set in front of 3,000 people at Nuit Sonores, a spiring-time festival in Lyon, but by Glastonbury that June, he was handling a crowd three times the size. His set at Dekmantel raised the roof so definitively that he was pencilled in to headline the next year. And at Sustain-Release, where several hundred of the East Coast's techno fraternity take over a kids’ summer camp for a wild weekend before the fall, Batu was one of a handful of UK artists taking prime positions on the bill, including his Bristol day-one Bruce and drum & bass architect dBridge.
From booming festival sets to trendy underground raves, the legacy of UK soundsystem culture is more audible abroad now than it has been for years: from the melancholy jungle of Ilian Tape and the rave exuberance of Bored Lord and Introspekt, to the broken beats of Brooklyn’s DJ Voices and the Slink crew. With his soundsystem credentials and global ear for new styles and blends, Batu was in a strong spot to take advantage of a UK wave in front of ever-bigger audiences. On the inside, though, he was a Buckaroo mule, just one plastic cowboy hat from collapse. “I think it was gonna end badly, to be honest,” he says of his pre-pandemic schedule. “When so many things are happening so quickly, you get pretty swept up in it. I was on a bit of a bad path, not really aware of where the threshold of ‘too much’ was.”
Success in the dance music industry tends to be measured in headline slots and international bookings, the stuff that reaches bigger audiences and makes the middlemen more money. But in the two years since Covid-19 put the brakes on, many artists have been pointing out the quiet truth that they’d known all along — that success, on those terms, requires a level of determination that lays waste to your actual life. It separates you from the scene you came up in, and turns you into a cortisol-pumped, social media-obsessed, hustle-and-grind droid. Knackered, in other words.