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2020: a year in dance music

Instead of our usual end-of-year lists, we’re doing things a bit differently this time. Below, DJ Mag's editorial staff and contributors highlight their favourite musical discoveries of 2020, and reflect on some of the vital topics, personal highlights and key developments of this most extraordinary year

To 150 and beyond

Just when you thought conversations about tempo were over, along comes 2020 with the hot, new, must-have bpm: 150. Though technically there’s actually nothing new about it — nosebleed techno has been happily ramping itself up to around that speed the past few years, and hardcore/ jungle producers like Foul Play and LTJ Bukem were doing it in the early ’90s — this year has seen a fresh wave of 150bpm beats sweep the UK scene.

There are two main reasons for this. The first is practicality; the past decade has seen multi-genre DJing explode like never before. With sounds from across the world evermore accessible, and DJ technology making once complex tasks evermore simple, artists have become more adventurous with what and how they play. Though there have been tricks for jumping between ‘unmixable’ tunes since the dawn of DJing, to achieve smooth blends when moving from, say, 140bpm dubstep to 160bpm footwork, stepping stones are needed: enter 150bpm.

The second reason for the rise of 150 is that the aforementioned hardcore/ jungle sound is very much back in vogue among non-purist acts — Foul Play in particular, after Sneaker Social Club dropped their fantastic ‘Origins’ compilation earlier this year. The 160 end of jungle has been rampant with rave sounds for a while now, as has the 140 end of breakbeat; artists like Mani Festo, Special Request, Yazzus, Local Group, Dead Man’s Chest and Coco Bryce are now filling the void in between.

Whether 150bpm evolves into a scene of its own or stays part of a larger spectrum remains to be seen, though the latter seems rather more enticing a prospect. Ben Hindle

Album: AceMoMA ‘A New Dawn’ [HAUS of ALTR]

“AceMo and MOMA Ready have been leading the charge with joint projects and amazing compilations on the latter’s HAUS of ALTR label. Their debut collaborative album has a primordial, proto-rave vibe, making it my number one for 2020.”

Compilation: V/A ‘Worst Behavior Vol. 3’ [Worst Behavior]

“Futuristic rave fission from artists like Swisha, Nikka Nair, Yazzus, Jon1st, bastiengoat and Stranjah — it’s crystal clear from the tracklist how hard this compilation slaps."

EP: Sully ‘Swandive’ [Astrophonica]

“Sully is one of modern jungle’s most unique talents, and 2020 saw him drop his best release yet, packed with his signature cluster-bomb breakbeats and enough hype to keep Tempa T satisfied ‘til Judgement Day.” 

Track: Dillinja ‘Sovereign Melody VIP’ [Deep Jungle]

“It feels vaguely counterproductive to pick a tune produced in 1995 as my favourite of 2020, but it’s simply a fact that no other track comes close to being rinsed as hard as this one has. An instantly recognisable intro and a spring-loaded bassline make this utterly irresistible.”

Mix, radio show or podcast: Rupture, Rinse FM

“It’s been tough without the best party on the planet to look forward to. Thankfully, Double O and Mantra have provided a lifeline through their Rinse FM show. Want to know what the biggest jungle tracks of the year are going to be? You heard them here first.”

The rise and rise of Bandcamp

Bandcamp became a more crucial platform than ever in 2020. With countless artists left out of pocket due to a lack of gigs, the online marketplace stepped up, updating its already viable transaction model to introduce a monthly “fee-free” day. On the first Friday of every month, artists and labels received 100% of revenue generated from sales, as opposed to the regular 80%. It stirred up unprecedented vigour in fans and creators alike, and on the first “Bandcamp Day” in March, $4.3 million was spent in 24 hours. The enthusiasm stuck, and Bandcamp Day became a vital lifeline for independent producers and imprints, many of whom would schedule new releases around the date to ensure that fans had something new to support and share each month. 

On social media, Bandcamp Days provided a much-needed sense of unity, excitement and positivity, as artists and labels shared their drops, and fans exchanged extensive round-ups of their favourite releases. Compilations for worthy causes gained traction too, with artists banding together to raise funds for the NHS, bail funds, anti-racism initiatives, mental health charities and NGOs around the world. In an increasingly divided scene, Bandcamp Day became a reminder of the camaraderie and shared purpose that can exist at the heart of electronic music. It was like Christmas coming every month.

Some have questioned the Bandcamp Day trend, emphasising the soft control it gives the platform over when and how artists release their music. With the sense of “deadline” these fee-free days present, are artists being persuaded to release music they are unsatisfied with? Does the pressure to release something each month devalue the music by giving it an implied shelf-life? While it began as a means of supporting and showing solidarity with artists in the wake of a pandemic, Bandcamp Day as a concept has threatened to burst at its own seams. While the announcement that the platform will be extending this policy to May 2021 will come as terrific news to many, it’s important to bear these concerns in mind as we enter into the new year.

Either way, 2020 put the world’s most important music sharing platform under a new spotlight, and reminded fans of just how easy and rewarding it is to support artists by putting money directly in their pockets. To see that happening, and to discover so much incredible music along the way, has been one of this terrible year’s few saving graces. Eoin Murray

Album: KMRU ‘Peel’ [Editions Mego]

“Every ambient fan’s favourite artist of 2020, KMRU, eased into his stride on this album for the legendary Editions Mego label. The Kenyan artist weaves field recordings and textured electronics into living, breathing audio tapestries. It’s a tonic for the soul.”

Compilation: V/A ‘Physically Sick 3’ [Allergy Season] 

“Released in July to raise funds for a Brooklyn organization fighting racist police brutality, ‘Physically Sick 3’ captured a moment when the electronic underground united in protest. With 27 tracks of kaleidoscopic techno, house, ambient and experimental club music, it brought together some of 2020’s most exciting artists in one defiant, adrenaline-filled package.”

EP: Loraine James ‘Nothing’ [Hyperdub]

“Loraine James’ ‘For You & I’ was DJ Mag’s favourite album of 2019, and on her four-track return to Hyperdub in 2020 the London artist further solidified her status as one of the most vital electronic artists around, balancing tenderness with febrile experimentalism.”

Track: Duval Timothy ‘Fall Again feat. Lil Silva & Melanie Faye’

“Duval Timothy’s ‘Help’ is an album about healing, expression and identity. Like all of his work, it’s beautiful and poised: a perfect fusion of jazz, contemporary classical and experimental hip-hop. ‘Fall Again’ is just one of its top notch collaborations, with vocalist Lil Silva describing it as a reminder to “settle down your constant cycle of thoughts and be still”. Few messages have felt more pertinent in 2020.”

Mix, radio show or podcast: Time Is Away, NTS Radio

“Time Is Away is a long-running series of audio-essays and musical excursions on NTS. In 2020, these educational and transportative shows have been all the more welcome, assembling field recordings, spoken samples and cinematic soundscapes into mixes covering various topics."

NTS Radio programming

If there were to be wagers placed on the most-watched television series during lockdown, you could go in with pretty good odds for David Chase’s mobster epic, The Sopranos. The same could be said for cult films and TV series, like the 1995 coming-of-age movie Kids, Donnie Darko and The Breakfast Club, or the more recent HBO blockbuster, American Horror Story. In a time when dance music became a reminder of the places we couldn’t be, an hour-long radio show escape through NTS Radio, provided by the stars of cult cinema, became an unlikely crutch.

This July, actor Michael Imperioli, aka Christopher Moltisanti from The Sopranos, delivered a special show on NTS Radio of jazz, shoegaze and rock dubbed ‘632 Elysian Fields’ — a nod to another cult classic, Tennessee Williams’ 1951 showstopper A Streetcar Named Desire. In October, actress Chloë Sevigny joined NTS Radio for a one-off show alongside We Are Who We Are: presenting a slot about the nostalgia of first love, mixing listener- submitted love songs with the stories that made them special. In a slightly different vein, but still just as surprising, Deftones’ frontman, Chino Moreno, also joined the station for an hour of his favourite music.

NTS Radio has always had a reputation for delivering some of the most diverse shows to the airwaves, spanning everything from post-punk, sludge and hardcore, to ambient beats, lo-fi house and spoken word. But the guest slots throughout the pandemic added something that wasn’t just different, but needed. They’ve found a perfect middle ground between nostalgia and contemporary pop culture, with the special slots sparking new conversations and bringing fans of the stars together alongside regular listeners, while providing light relief for those who needed a break from their usual electronic programming. Amy Fielding 

Album: Soft Boi ‘So Nice’ (Climate Of Fear)

“Pessimist’s first album under his Soft Boi alias through Berlin’s Climate Of Fear label is a sweet and sour masterpiece. Lots of gorgeous samples and ambience paired with periods of suspense.”

Compilation: V/A ‘HOA010’ [HAUS of ALTR]

“HAUS of ALTR released three of these compilations in 2020, and you can just hear in the production that they are integral passion projects to their very core.”

EP: Overmono ‘Everything U Need’ [XL Recordings] 

“Bangers, but make it emotional. I love everything from Overmono, but this is my favourite EP to date. ‘Clipper - Another 5 Years’ is one of those tracks that could work just about anywhere, nostalgic-sounding but perfect for club moments.”

Track: Hudson Mohawke ‘Monte Fisto’ [Warp Records]

“Having been one of my favourite Hudson Mohawke tracks for almost a decade, I was so glad that this finally got a release. It’s got some of the best drum programming I’ve ever heard.” 

Mix, radio show or podcast: LZ’s R.I.P. Niche: 2005 - 2010 Bassline Classics, NTS Radio

“Big nostalgia and even bigger basslines straight through a time tunnel with Swing Ting’s LZ, from Sheffield’s legendary Niche.”

Music of the Global South

When the pandemic set in, the systems that govern us were upended. This included the fragile club and festival infrastructure that dictates the electronic music industry. Global South artists, in particular, rely on tours through Europe and North America for financial stability and exposure, as the regions are the beating heart of the electronic music circuit.

Artists in the Global South had their livelihoods upturned and were cut off from global audiences. The Indian music scene heavily relies on international artists touring the country. South American artists were finally making headway in Europe. This pattern could be seen from Accra to Karachi to Rio de Janeiro: the future of the entire industry was mired in uncertainty.

What followed showed how humans can pull together during a crisis. Mutual aid projects blossomed across regions. Numerous countries in the Global South had unrest in the years previous, with protests sweeping nations. If anything, these scenes were serendipitously ready for upheaval; uncertainty underpins these already-fragile scenes. Forced inside, artists took the opportunity to work on their craft, livening bedrooms across the world with stellar online releases and mixes. 

Egyptian artists continued to showcase why the raw and explosive Mahraganat sound is bound to be the next global one. Kuduro continued to filter through in sets from East Africa and beyond. Brazilian artists pushed the envelope of global bass while Chilean producers’ minimal electronica alleviated anxieties. South Asian artists raised their fists in protest, breaking conventional stereotypes along the way, while two of the year’s best releases came from South Africa. The pandemic has shown us many things, and, hopefully, the serious talent on display in the Global South is one of them. Dhruva Balram

Album: Dumama + Kechou ‘buffering juju’ [Mushroom Hour Half Hour]

“This album from South African label Mushroom Hour Half Hour soothes the soul with harmonising vocals and poignant lyrics from Gugulethu Duma and minimal, choppy production from Kerim Melik Becker.”

 
Compilation: V/A ‘FRNDS & FMLY ’20’ [Consolidate] 

“For several years, Consolidate has been the most future-facing label out of South Asia. This compilation is a gentle reminder that despite a pandemic, talent doesn’t disappear.”

EP: Gafacci ‘Face The Wall’ 

“The Ghanian producer makes club-ready beats which lurch between Afroswing and kuduro, incorporating vast influences for club-ready tracks.”

Track: 3Phaz ‘Exploit’

"‘Three Phase’, a nine-track album from Egyptian producer 3phaz, highlights some of the year’s best footwork, hard drum and techno consolidated into one project."

Mix, radio show or podcast: RA.708: Kampire

“This showcases exactly why the East African club scene is so highly lauded.”

Charity compilations

While in lockdown with the shadow of coronavirus hanging over us, watching the Black Lives Matter demonstrations against police brutality in America unfold, and seeing Trump and Johnson attempt to subvert the law and common decency, many people felt powerless to help. Yet, as the pandemic and other forms of upheaval brought the inequities of society into sharp relief, various labels in electronic music mobilised and released special compilations to raise money to help people — whether it was bail funds for the unfairly incarcerated protesters in the US, victims of domestic abuse in the UK, the homeless, refugees, or families struggling to feed themselves.

‘Music In Support Of Black Mental Health’, put together by Lara-Rix Martin and Mike Paradinas, collected tracks from many of the leftfield electronic world’s most feted producers, to assist Black people in the UK and US affected by healthcare disparities. Euphonic Rhythms put out ‘Rhythmia Vol.1’, with 50% of profits going to the Trussell Trust, Migrants Organise and Resourcing Racial Justice. Lobster Theremin’s ‘PLUR 4’ collection assembled 35 tracks through a quick appeal to housebound producers, and contributed all profits to Hackney initiative Sistah Space, supporting African and Caribbean women impacted by sexual and domestic abuse.

This action, coupled with Bandcamp’s pledge on Juneteenth (19th June) to contribute all its share of sales to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, felt like a beacon of light in dark times. It was a refutation of those who believe that dance music is apolitical, and proved that its politics (at least where the underground is concerned) are largely those of social justice and the left. Most of all, it showed that it was possible to have a positive effect on the world, even while stuck indoors — and it made me proud to be part of this scene. Ben Murphy

Album: Ociya ‘Powers Of Ten’ [Acid Test]

“Astral acid and heart-tugging techno from production wizards Patricia and Tin Man.”

Compilation: Foul Play ‘Origins’ [Sneaker Social Club]

“Shining a light on the earliest and best material from one of the greatest hardcore and jungle collectives to have existed.”

EP: Justice & Necrotype ‘Ant Acid’ [Modern Urban Jazz]

“Excellent six-tracker of acid-fired rave and downtempo experiments from a jungle pioneer and one of the genre’s most promising newer artists.” 

 
Track: Angel D’lite ‘Crystalz’ [Banoffee Pies]

"Emotive synth melodies, breakbeats and a spoken word snippet about the power of crystals power this rave anthem that hits you right in the feels." 

Mix, radio show or podcast: Do!! You!!!, NTS Radio

The flagship morning radio show from NTS, hosted by Charlie Bones, is always an anarchic treat, with everything from dad bangers to ambient obscurities and plenty of weird humour.”

 

The evolution of streaming

While streaming DJ sets is nothing new, it became the only option as lockdown swept across the world. DJs scrambled to plonk a GoPro in their kitchens and win the race to bring music back to the masses for some much-needed familiarity in a chaotic time, albeit in sometimes-awkward first attempts.

As the year matured so did the streams — the popularity of DJ Mag’s own guide to streaming DJ sets can attest to that — with both the DIY from- home approach and the scaled-up production for various virtual festivals coming into their own. Festivals like Tomorrowland and Junction 2 opted for 3-D, virtual worlds that could be navigated and explored, while EXIT festival’s Life Stream toyed with a hybrid of real-world footage, filmed sets and green-screened DJs.

Visually stunning one-offs like Tungevaag’s set on a Norwegian barge for DJ Mag’s own Top 100 DJs Virtual Festival, campaigns like Move The Record to raise funds for struggling record stores and United We Stream, a global initiative to raise money for the arts industries affected by Covid, streaming came into its own in 2020. While its dominance this year was down to necessity, its emergence felt inevitable – Boiler Room announced they were hosting a VR club way back in 2016 – and development was simply forced to accelerate.

Now, as vaccine hopes hint at a turned corner, instead of being on the fringe as an impressive but ultimately gimmicky aspect of electronic music, streaming — albeit a virtual club environment, VR experience or simply drone-heavy festival footage with high production values — isn’t going anywhere. And while many will scoff and abandon screen-first festivals once the real thing returns, for those who are disabled, can’t afford to attend, or for electronic music fans tucked in remote parts of the world, the experiences are coming to them. Declan McGlynn

Album: Run The Jewels ‘RTJ4’ [Jewel Runners]

“Killer Mike’s painfully pertinent lyrics and the brilliantly chaotic production makes this their most powerful record to date.”

Compilation: V/A ‘Metro Jaxx Vol. 3’ [Balkan Vinyl]

"The Chicago Trax reference isn’t a coincidence – this is old school acid house at its finest, compiled by I Love Acid boss Posthuman."

Album: Andras ‘Joyful’ [Beats In Space]

“As the name suggests, it’s a warm, gooey, feel-good house music saunter. One of Beats In Space’s best releases in ages.”

Track: Cinthie ‘Concentrate’ [Aus Music]

“No-frills house from a great debut album. Definitely one of the first we want to hear on the dancefloor when they’re full again. Cinthie can do no wrong.”

Mix, radio show or podcast: Jamie Lidell - Hanging Out With Audiophiles

“Not new to 2020, but a must-listen for engineers and producers from electronic music master Jamie Lidell. Sometimes super technical, other times conceptual and creative, but always interesting.” 

Missing playing out

Pretty much every club DJ has missed playing out this year — and not just for financial reasons. To be deprived of an in-person crowd in 2020 has been a wrench for many. A DJ can always have a little mix on the home set-up: a plethora of live streams from bedrooms, studios and empty clubs have flowed on social media, and radio has blossomed in the moment. But the ability to play out has been removed as a result of this wretched pandemic.

Playing out is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s the totality of the experience: playing your part in creating a good night, dropping the right track at the right time to suit the communal mood. DJing is an improvisational artform that focuses on feeling in the moment, throwing a new promo track in after an established banger, and spontaneously pulling off a seamless mix that creates something more in the transition. Hopefully.

Everyone’s different, of course. I don’t practice... at all. I’m a sometime party DJ, less concerned with taking people on a smooth journey than rocking the joint from the off (if possible). Doing some prep beforehand though, naturally; I love that feeling of going through promos the day before a gig and finding a new gem or two.

The night before the second lockdown, I stumbled across a Gerd Janson remix that perfectly fitted that criteria. So I played it at my only gig this year — at the Block bar in Brighton, often the scene of some raucous parties, especially during Pride weekend. This time it was DJing to groups of six, seated at tables, in the covered beer garden — not quite the same buzz, but hey. We’ll all get back to the parties we know and love one day. Carl Loben

Album: Cinthie ‘Skylines - City Lights’ [Aus Music]

"I’ve particularly enjoyed albums from DJ Krust, Horse Meat Disco, Roisin Murphy and DJ Earl this year for wildly different reasons, but I’m opting for Cinthie because this wide-ranging gem got somewhat overlooked when it dropped this summer." 

Compilation: V/A ‘Bryan Gee presents Future’ [V Recordings]

“One of the finest pairs of A&R ears in the game charts a course for the next decade.” 

EP: Daniel Avery ‘Dusting For Smoke’

“From Daniel Avery’s tribute to the late, great Andrew Weatherall, ‘Lone Swordsman’ is a beautifully mournful downtempo cut with a touch of ‘Smokebelch’ about it.”

Track: Loods ‘Pure Bliss Meltdown (Gerd Janson remix)’ [Steel City Dance Discs]

“In the same ballpark as Fatima Yamaha’s ‘Araya’ and Midland’s ‘Final Credits’, this driving electronic house excursion would have been a staple of many sets if there had been any clubs open.” 

Mix, radio show or podcast: Mary Anne Hobbs, BBC 6 Music

“The legendary Mary Anne and her diverse selections have got me through many a mid-morning lull.”

Finding creativity in lockdown

With Covid, quarantine and lockdown, a night out in a club in 2020 was non-existent. 2020 posed an interesting question on how DJs and producers could work in such a restrictive environment. Nevertheless, all these issues weren’t going to disrupt the creative flow, and many adapted to the stark realisation of isolation by pulling together as a community and continuing to be creative.

As a result of this isolation, we’re starting to see a brace of great music that captures artist experiences of the year. Collaborating was one of the shining examples of how DJs and producers managed to overcome the tight restrictions. Huxley commented on his experience working with production partner James Smith (of Hadouken! fame) on ‘Piscean’: “I found it very freeing. I didn’t have to worry about the confines of ‘club’ music and constant pigeon-holing.”

Checking in with Seb Zito, he reflected on turning negatives into positives, overcoming the difficulties that isolation presents. “At first it was difficult because I was using a different space that wasn’t acoustically treated: I had to be mindful of the noise in our home because my daughter had just been born. Normally I would do 100% of the production myself, from executing the idea right to the mixdown. But I was struggling with the mixing process so I had to source that part out. On the whole it has been difficult, but I’ve adapted and made the most of the situation.”

One of the overriding themes we’ve seen from 2020 is that, whilst it’s been challenging, artists have adapted to keep the music flowing. Mick WIlson

Album: Thundercat ‘It Is What It Is’ [Brainfeeder]

“A collection of fusion and freeform jazz-inspired P-funk California magic, Thundercat delivers an album that gets you up and dancing.”

Compilation: Fatboy Slim ‘Back To Mine’ [Back To Mine] 

“A cool selection of guilty pleasures, classics and rare gems that keeps your head nodding and foot tapping.”

 EP: Bicep ‘Apricots’ [ Ninja Tune]

“The array of sounds in this two-track EP gives me goosebumps, blending classic, euphoric dance music with a modern delivery.” 

Track: James Blake ‘Before’ [Republic/Polydor]

“A track and video that captures the feeling of isolation. Some of the sounds are jarring, but it progresses with a sense of optimism and hope, with gorgeous layered chords.”

Mix, radio show or podcast: Beatrice Dillion – Crack Mix 337

“Her ‘Workaround’ album is one of the best of the year and this mix is a joy: an insight into her work and inspirations.”

TikTok

Love it or loathe it, TikTok became a welcome source of light-hearted relief for many in 2020. While the short-form content platform is most famous for its dance challenges, lip-syncing content and comedic skits, it’s also evolved into a useful tool for artists keen to connect with audiences and diversify their release campaigns.

Take Dua Lipa and Robyn, who were quick to utilise TikTok for hashtag challenges this year. When Lipa released her album ‘Future Nostalgia’, she teamed up with the app to launch #Duavideo challenge, where fans were invited to show off various creative skills for a chance to feature in her ‘Levitating’ music video. Robyn launched her own lockdown- inspired challenge: #onmyown. It essentially involved dancing along — or doing whatever you wished — to her evergreen banger, well, ‘Dancing On My Own’. Easy and fun enough, right?

I downloaded TikTok in the spring. While age may just be a social construct, I’d felt like I was too old to engage with the platform, despite being in its largest user demographic: Generation Z. At the very least, it offered a new form of stress-free digital interaction at a time where interaction, in any shape or form, was needed.

More importantly, it ignited a stronger love for artists I’d long enjoyed from a relative distance: the late Pop Smoke, say; Ashnikko, or even Dua Lipa, who despite her favour among poppier and dance music circuits — and her undisputable bangers — just hadn’t really piqued my interest prior. Elsewhere, it’s been interesting to watch users reminisce about the sesh in posts soundtracked by Bicep’s ‘Glue’, or discuss fka Twig’s love life to ‘Cellophane’.

Eight months later, I still use TikTok, though I haven’t quite committed to making an account. That could be something for the next lockdown. Jasmine Kent-Smith

Album: Zebra Katz ‘LESS IS MOOR’ [The Vinyl Factory]

"A concentrated dose of drama from a wildly underrated artist, Zebra Katz dives into industrial, drum & bass and club motifs for this bold debut."

Compilation: ‘Grief Into Rage: A Compilation for Beirut’

"Dance music is often praised for its connective, community-driven elements, and that’s exactly what this compilation showcases, with tracks from DJ Plead, Air Max ’97, Yazzus, Lara Sarkissian, Pablo Bozzi, Asquith, Hiro Kone and more."

EP: Shlohmo ‘Heaven Inc.’ [Friends of Friends]

"Los Angeles producer Shlohmo blends hip-hop and trip-hop in ways that are ambient and angst-driven. ‘Heaven Inc.’ is a comforting listen, but with subtle waves of intensity hidden in unexpected places."

Track: Dark0 ‘Oxygenesis’ [YEAR0001]

"Of late, we’ve had to forego dancefloor transcendence and opt for something more solitary. This seems to have deepened the emotional impact of Dark0’s work. His mixtape ‘ZERO2’ opens with ‘Oxygenesis’, a tough tear-jerker." 

Mix, radio show or podcast: DISCWOMAN 87 x FAUZIA

"In February, DJ FAUZIA joined the Discwoman roster and released this rapturous 40-minute production mix. This mix showcases her musicality, broad taste and new direction."

Pop Smoke and the US/UK rap cultural exchange

In February, Pop Smoke’s murder sent shockwaves through the rap scene, but many only began to understand the extent of his  impact in the months following his passing. When the sound of Chicago drill made its way over to London in the noughties, early adopters like Carns Hill and LA Beats fused it with homegrown sonics to create UK drill. After the scene grew and shifted in subsequent years, New York MCs like 22Gz and Sheff G discovered the music of London producers 808 Melo and AXL Beats, sending drill back across the Atlantic to help form the Brooklyn scene. From there, artists including Fivio Foreign and Pop Smoke helped popularise the sound, with the latter’s meteoric rise seeing Travis Scott — one of US hip-hop’s biggest stars — spitting on a UK drill beat on 2019 track ‘GATTI’.

That’s obviously a condensed version of a much more intricate lineage, but it represents one of, if not the biggest two-way cultural exchange between US and UK rap. Of course, much of this happened before 2020, but Pop’s artistic life, and untimely death, shone a light on the flow between hip-hop two scenes often considered disparate. It also highlighted the increased influence of the UK on the global rap community — New York isn’t the only place where UK drill made an impact, with scenes growing in Amsterdam, Australia and Africa — something that had been building for over a decade. 

Grime clearly made an impact in the US some time before UK drill did, but never created much in the way of a US scene. Many may look at something like Drake jumping on the ‘Only You Freestyle’ with Headie One as a sign of the UK scene’s recent impact, but the cultural exchange that has been growing for many years before that is a far bigger signifier. And Pop Smoke’s role in bringing that to a wider audience is indisputable. Rob McCallum

Pop Smoke ‘Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon’ [Republic Records]

“It’s impossible to ignore Pop Smoke’s posthumous release. Landing in July, after the Brooklyn MC’s untimely death, it’s a record that demonstrates why he left such an indelible mark on rap music despite being active in music for less than two years, his acerbic delivery unwavering throughout." 

Compilation: V/A ‘Black Riot: Early Jungle, Rave and Hardcore’ [Soul Jazz Records]

“Soul Jazz Records released a high-quality stream of releases in 2020, ranging from Afro-Brazilian funk and soul to the UK’s new jazz scene. This is the stand out though: 12 tracks of ragga-influenced hardcore jungle bassweight from the early ‘90s.” 

Backroad Gee ‘Mukta vs Mukta’ [23 Formation]

“Backroad Gee is part of a new wave of UK MCs — including the likes of Meekz, Pa Salieu and Tunde — who are combining elements of grime, UK drill, UK rap, garage, and more to make something entirely their own. ‘Party Popper’ is the central point of ‘Mukta vs Mukta’, one of the highest impact tracks of the year.”

Track: Abra Cadabra ‘On Deck’ [Abra Cadabra]

"2020 felt like the year that UK drill crossed over to the mainstream, and Abra Cadabra was one its real success stories. The North London MC dropped a relentless stream of the sound’s biggest singles. July’s ‘On Deck’ is the standout, with Abz’ inimitable tone laid over a pounding RA$H & Rxckson beat that demands a reload on every play." 

Joy Orbison Residency, BBC Radio 1

“A reminder — if one were required — that Joy O remains one of the UK’s most vital DJs. His selections connect a disparate array of sounds on the bleeding edges of electronic music, while his guest mixes have featured Rosa Pistola, Equiknoxx and Felix Hall.”

Listen here

Half a year since the Black Lives Matter movement sparked important discussions about racism within the industry, we caught up with four of the contributors from our Dance Music Is Black Music issue to find out what’s changed. Read it here