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The Sound Of: Eastern Margins

The Sound Of: Eastern Margins

In the space of five years, the Eastern Margins collective has become a nexus for artists from East & South-East Asia and its diaspora, connecting the dots between regional electronic music genres that are often overlooked in the West. Alongside a mix from its catalogue recorded by Jex Wang, James Gui learns how the label continues to evolve

Eastern Margins is all about redlining. An Instagram caption for an upcoming show at Pitchfork London explains: “REDLINE IS HI-NRG, HI-OCTANE, LO-FI...EJECTING USB UNSAFELY...MIXING 2 YOUTUBE WINDOWS...THE SPIRIT OF FUNKOT, BUDOTS, DUGEM, MANYAO, VINAHEY, BEK SLOY, THAIBEAT.”

If that list of East and South-East Asian (ESEA) regional club mutations sounds unfamiliar, take a listen to Eastern Margins’ 2021 compilation ‘Redline Legends’. Featuring producers from throughout ESEA and the diaspora, the record traces the shape of Asian club music to come. From Prontaxan’s 190bpm funkot belter ‘This Is A Kenonx’ to rEmPiT g0dDe$$’s Malaysian gabber mutation ‘HAPUS’, the tracks on ‘Redline Legends’ amount to a manifesto for the label.

“Club music subgenres in ESEA have been overlooked or perceived as low quality,” explains Eastern Margins co-founder David Zhou, aka Lumi. These are the sounds of internet cafés and rickshaws, blasting in the streets of Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Hanoi, Yogyakarta, and beyond; it’s Eastern Margins’ mission to reclaim the cultural capital associated with these “low” forms.

Eastern Margins began as a Lunar New Year party in London four years ago, but quickly evolved into one of the foremost collectives pushing ESEA sounds in the West. While the diasporic condition is often considered a source of vexation — neither Asian enough for Asia nor Westernised enough for the West — Eastern Margins turns that positionality into a boon. 

“We can draw the dots between these ESEA sounds because we’re coming from the perspective of standing slightly outside of it,” says Zhou. And because the collective consists of people from across the globe, the range of artists within just their personal networks stretch far and wide. Eastern Margins’ head of community and press Jex Wang mentions working with Filipino-Australian hip-hop artists BAYANG (tha Bushranger) and Kuya Neil, while Patrick Wu, head of partnerships, is tight with Shenzhen club OIL, having grown up in the Chinese megacity.

The Eastern Margins label started in 2020 and has already amassed a kaleidoscopic catalogue of ESEA and diasporic artists alike. Korean-British rapper PianWooo finds easy company alongside Chinese-Australian art pop artist Rainbow Chan and Malaysian hyperpop diva Shelhiel in their catalogue.

But it was ‘Redline Legends’ that marked the label’s shift toward exploring the ESEA underground. As with many great (and not-so-great) musical developments in recent years, the album was born from the Covid-19 pandemic. “I played a lot of [mobile game] Mobile Legends during lockdown — it’s big in SEA — and I would watch clips on YouTube,” says Arya Rinaldo, Eastern Margins’ head of operations. Playing in the background of those clips was “mostly dubsteppy EDM”, but Rinaldo also started to hear sounds from his upbringing in Indonesia, but from different regions in SEA as well. Rinaldo started to reach out to these producers, who were “very young and new, and almost experimental in their own way”.

One such artist is Hanoi-based DJ and producer Puppy Ri0t. Her track ‘RaizeR’ is unmistakably influenced by the bouncing basslines and heavy drops characteristic of vinahouse, sculpting around those elements with an industrial, noisy sound design. “She mentioned that a lot of what makes vinahouse what it is, is these plugins that you need to download from a Vietnamese website, and it’s all in Vietnamese,” says Rinaldo. “It’s a very ‘in-the-know’ kind of scene, and that’s also reflected in other scenes in Southeast Asia.” Funkot, Rinaldo continues, is primarily broadcast on FM radio in Indonesia, with DJs trading tracks via WhatsApp groups.

Because a lot of this knowledge is situated regionally behind language barriers, these scenes aren’t typically connected to each other, despite similarities in energy and spirit. But after Rinaldo discovered a niche funkot scene in Japan, the idea for connecting the rest of these ESEA sounds in a compilation was born. “We put Prontaxan together with Japanese producer Tomoyu on an NTS show, and that was the trigger for turning it into an album,” he says. And now, that album is leading into a sub-label meant to be a “regional sound hub,” says Patrick Wu.

Eastern Margins group shot. Credit He Xin Run

Eastern Margins credits local collectives, labels and artists with helping to present and connect these sounds. “A big part of what makes this possible is we’re able to talk to different crews and artists from local scenes,” says Zhou. Consider the collective’s 2022 Lunar New Year mix for NTS, a four-hour behemoth produced in collaboration with Vietnam’s Nhạc Gãy, Hong Kong’s Absurd TRAX, and Shanghai’s Genome 6.66Mbp. The mix is a cross-section of sounds at the cutting edge of the ESEA underground, a potpourri of genres — grime, hardcore, V-pop, manyao, jungle, ambient — broken down and reassembled to “give the tip of the iceberg of what the underground sounds of the street are,” says Rinaldo. The crew rattle off a laundry list of other collectives that are also inspiring their sound: GGI 끼 club, Dutty Worldwide, Baesianz, WildStyle Records, HER, ANTIANTIART, the various online community radio stations in Manila, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and beyond.

It bears repeating that these genres are often shunned from more “respectable” clubs in Asia, which are influenced by Eurocentric conceptions of taste and originality. So it’s fitting that ‘Redline Legends’ was inspired by a Chinese video game that’s under fire for being a “clone” of League of Legends. “Mobile Legends has developed into its own very homegrown culture, most of the people that play it are from South-East Asia, and at this point it’s really something that deserves to be celebrated on its own merits,” says Zhou. “I think that’s pretty similar to music from the region; these DIY genres have developed and mutated enough that they deserve to be celebrated on their own terms.”

Eastern Margins aim to use the “infrastructure and privileges we have in the West to amplify the stories that are more local,” says Zhou. “But hopefully in the future, we won’t have to rely on the Western music industry at all; it’ll all come from the region and be supported by the region itself.” The crew are inspired by events like Nusasonic, which connected the myriad South-East Asian experimental and electronic music scenes in Ho Chi Minh City earlier this year.

This focus on ESEA regional culture is a direction that has come after nearly half a decade of representing Asians in the club scene in the UK. “We’ve grown to have a more nuanced view of what it means to be ‘Asian’ in today’s world, with a team and community that’s now made up of a very diverse range of backgrounds,” says co-founder and art director, Anthony Ko.

“Representation is great,” adds Zhou, “but we have to think about what exactly we’re representing. Just the pure fact that we’re of ESEA descent is probably not enough to move the conversation forward.”

The collective is in the middle of changing their own identity to reflect these shifts in thinking — one point that sticks out as outdated for them is their logo, which uses the Chinese character “东” (meaning “east”). “We are still working it out as we go along,” says Jex Wang. “Sometimes I do get worried, like, are we telling the story correctly, are we working with the artists properly?” 

And yet, their relative longevity and prominence as a collective for ESEA artists means that they’re also in a position to influence up-and-comers. “It feels kind of cool to have younger artists reach out to me and ask, ‘Hey, can you help me?’” says Wang.

A lot of time has passed since Eastern Margins’ first Lunar New Year party, which aimed to provide an alternative to the KTV or ABACUS celebrations typical in London’s Chinese diaspora. “I feel like we have a level of responsibility now,” says Zhou.

Listen to a mix of tracks from the Eastern Margins catalogue recorded by Jex Wang, and check the tracklist, below. 

Eastern Margins celebrates its fifth birthday on 4th February with a party at London’s Colour Factory featuring sets from Tohji, Lil Mariko, LVRA, Animistic Beliefs, Larasati and Redline Allstars. Tickets are available here.


Shelhiel ‘Racing Hearts’
Rainbow Chan ‘Idols 偶像’
PianWooo ‘Bird’s Eye View (ft Renaqami)’
Rinsaga ‘We?’ 
Ill Japonia ‘Lounge Muzak’
$ucc ‘Siomai Rice (similarobjects budots mix)’
Puppy Ri0t ‘RaizeR’
Primula ‘Cmuhn’
Laenz & T5UMUT5UMU ‘Death Blossom’ 
QQBBG ‘Hentai Babe 変態ベイビ’ 
LVRA ‘LOOK (Hard Like That Mix)’
Dirty K ‘Tokyo Renaissance (T5UMUT5UMU Mix)’
Kelvin & Takeem ‘Like Me’
Prontaxan ‘This Is Kenonx’
rEmPiT g0dDe$$ ‘HAPUS (Freeze)’

Want more? Read about Nhạc Gãy, the collective leading Vietnam's new era of electronic music, here

James Gui is a freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @_zkgui

Photo credit: He Xin Run