Image via Michael McKinney
Michael McKinney understands the cultural importance of Kreayshawn’s “Gucci Gucci.”
Forgive, if you will, a brief peek behind the curtain. The DJ mix, as a format, is both highly specific and maddeningly vague. There’s a methodology to the thing, sure, but you can chain most any kind of sounds together and credibly call it a set. A DJ mix can be a document of a history, either on purpose or by accident; it can be an attempt to tunnel into genre specifics or a tossed hand grenade; it can be ripped straight from a live PA system or assembled, over years, in a bedroom. A mix can, in short, be just about anything. That’s part of the joy, and challenge, of running a column like this: Should each month’s selections lean into the kind of dance-music idioms that you might expect from a great set? How often should things take a hard left? In a column focused on format rather than specific sounds, more or less anything goes. That’s the fun of it all.
That’s how it should be, too. There was no obvious center of gravity to clubbing in 2023, and home listening wasn’t much clearer. Depending on who you ask, the best stuff came out of São Paulo, New York, NTS, or Instagram stories. DJing is, by and large, a physical art; it’s about getting people in rooms, turning down the lights, and straining towards something like euphoria—Right? Or is it about slow-motion world-building, or Internet-addled kaleidoscopes, or pushing histories forward? Last year, countless DJs, ravers, and headphone purists explored rabbit holes in DJing. At the end of the day, after all, at the most basic level, you’re just putting tracks together; hopefully, something serves as a stepping stone towards joy. The specifics, it seems, are hardly the point.
In the past few years, this column has presented a ranked list that, by and large, revisits sets from monthly round-ups. This year, it’s something slightly different. This isn’t intended as an argument against ranking or revisiting. (You’ll find both here, although the writing and list-making may not precisely line up.) Instead, consider this an attempt to survey scenes and evolutions in the DJ set in 2023. Sometimes, it’s through a highly specific lens—say, the continued rise of billion-genre DJing—and sometimes, it’s something as diffuse as entire cities. Hopefully, it’ll be of some value: If DJing is about putting artwork in conversation with itself, and bodies in conversation with each other, then it’s only fitting that the form gets considered in the same way.
It’s hardly a controversial statement at this point, but it’s still worth saying it straight. New York is home to some of the most exciting and vital club music in the world. Brooklyn selector DJ Voices, in a conversation with this blog from 2023, put it simply: “There isn’t just one New York sound […] All my favorite DJs in New York are playing a little bit of everything, and the dancers are quite open-minded.” DJ Voices is, in fact, a key part of this: She helps run Nowadays, a club that DJs the world over swear is the best spot to play at. Punch “Nowadays” into SoundCloud and you’re bound to find all sorts of gems: “Wiggly wormhole” techno from Brooklyn’s own Lychee, peak-time glitter bombs courtesy of Oakland’s Wonja, slow-boil bassbin burners from New York’s Escaflowne; and, of course, a veritable gold mine of dancefloor wigglers from DJ Voices herself. (Each of these recordings is from Nowadays Nonstop, a monthly twenty-four-hour party at the club; it’s proven to be enough of a hit that it’s now expanded to a weekly endeavor.)
Of course, Nowadays shouldn’t get all the fun. Club Night Club and GROOVY GROOVY stand out from the pack, too, thanks to their critical mix series and live recordings. Club Night Club is, by and large, well-suited for hardcore scholars. In the past dozen-ish months, they supplied a handful of barnburners: Forest Drive West’s pitch-black techno-dubstep-breaks, Elle Andrews’ wigged-out acid-dancehall, Jon K’s drill-dubstep-grime mania, Ploy’s brain-bending juke, and a three-hour odyssey from Bristol’s Bruce, running the gamut from zero-gravity dub to bad-trip jungle and children’s television bootlegs. (The sets from Ploy and Bruce, in particular, stand out, but best of luck getting your hands on the Bruce release.) GROOVY GROOVY is a relatively new institution, but everything they’ve posted has been heat: for example, there’s dembow-techno from Simisea, bone-crunching machine-funk from DJ Healthy, and shoulder-rolling dubstep and chunky techno from—who else?—DJ Voices.
SLINK and HAUS of ALTR are doing something different, but no less critical. SLINK is still a young label—their first release dates to 2020—but their approach, a yes-and attitude applied to pan-Atlantic club sounds, is a neat encapsulation of New York at the moment. The four heads behind the label and club night (the aforementioned Simisea, K Wata, rrao, and Enayet) took over Nowadays back in June, in one of the best bang-for-your-buck eight-hour recordings you’ll hear in some time. In October, they snagged a bimonthly radio slot with NTS, and while it’s only two episodes deep, that’s proven to be appointment listening, too. HAUS of ALTR, the label founded by New York’s own MoMA Ready, is largely devoted to the kind of stuff he’s been pushing for years: wigged-out breakbeats, house, and techno; Black dance music that’s steeped in the history of New York and Chicago’s rave scenes. MoMA Ready, alongside his tristate compatriots AceMo, Kush Jones, and DJ Swisha, put up countless hours of essential YouTube content with their shows at The Lot Radio and elsewhere in NYC; and, like SLINK, they took over Nowadays for a riotous all-night session.
Finally, there’s Sorry Records and The Carry Nation. Sorry Records has built up a reputation as an ebullient hub for the city’s club circuit, each new release and mix somehow wilder and more joyous than the last. The label’s crew earned this reputation, again and again, in 2023. Boxofbox supplied two: Mood Uplifting Eucalyptic Tricks, a celebration of Italo house, vintage breakbeats, and old-school R&B; and A Euphoria for Rolling Green Hills, which leans into chunky house records, blissed-out rap, and Golden-age rave tools. Nick Boyd and Tony G, the label’s founders, dug into bone-chilling house and techno in a goofy-slash-spooky set recorded on Halloween 2022. The Carry Nation, a critical duo from the city, have been waving the New-York house flag for years; at this point, they’re practically foundational to the scene. Full Tilt Carry sees them nodding to a newer generation while keeping things a bit old-school, with plenty of deliriously horny dancefloor fodder bound to keep folks moving. On R.I.P. UNTER Closing Set, they mourn the loss of one of New York’s great modern parties in proper fashion: it’s a headlong sprint into jubilant techno, Latin house, pop-radio balladry, and a million rug pulls.
Back in January, on the other side of the States, two of Los Angeles’s hometown heroes pulled out their vinyl and cranked the heat. The recording of their set—”Baseck 2×4 Flapjack”—recalls the anything-goes energy of ‘90s gabber raves, in no small part thanks to their selections: Scorched-earth gabber and freetekno records with titles like “Dominator ’96” and “F*ckin Hostile (Brooklyn Mix).” They add to the mania by scratching more or less continuously, making an already blood-boiling session even more dynamic. It helps that they’re clearly having a ton of fun, pushing each other into ever faster, messier, and more riotous territories. Hardcore, as they say, will never die; this is the kind of session that makes that feel true.
Alternatively, how about some Rebecca Black? In their entry in Boiler Room’s Hard Dance mix series, 40ozluv took the semi-ironic pop edit to its logical height, turning in eighty minutes of maddening bootlegs and inside-out reconstructions. In their world, Lil Peep and Huey grew up in New Jersey, Lil Uzi Vert is a hardbass MC, Limp Bizkit were a rave-rock act, and gabber made it to Top of the Pops. This kind of Internet-addled mixing is both deeply of the moment and tough to make work for this long, but 40ozluv pulls it off thanks to a rolodex of micro-genres and a uniform focus on busted-amp dancefloor cuts, turning in something that sounds like a million TikTok feeds scrolling at once.
In case 40ozluv’s selections didn’t make it obvious, hardcore is often pretty funny. Maybe it’s a heavyweight techno cut built around a ridiculous sample, or maybe the sheer weight of a kick drum forces out an involuntary laugh—wait, what? The folks behind Bang Face, which has become something of a hardcore mecca at this point, understand this. Each year, the festival has paired inflatable rafts, countless balloons, suggested costume themes, and chest-caving kick drums.
In 2023, festivities continued apace—“Dress as Royal Wronguns & Neo-Rave Punks,” their site instructed—and plenty of DJs turned in gut-busting (and amp-busting) sets. Lucy Stoner dug into high-speed hard dance and big-tent EDM bootlegging; Hanka zoomed in on raucous drum-and-bass; DJ Bus Replacement Service’s “Eurovision-o-Rama” paired hardcore techno with piles of oddball pop cuts; Indian Junglist and [Insert Gore] sped things up further with two sessions of breathtaking breakcore; and Minor Science dug deep into dumb-fun club music, stuffing the amps with “Bang!” flags along the way.
Club music from South and Central America has been hot stuff for the past few years, but it feels like something clicked into place in 2023. Suddenly, Miami’s long-reviled club scene was on everyone’s lips, in no small part thanks to the efforts of Nick León, Jonny From Space, Coffintexts, INVT, and Danny Daze—a few, but by no means all, of the movers and shakers of Miami’s new-school club scene. The best stuff coming out of the city, nowadays, sits somewhere between the city’s histories and its futures: wiggly IDM and neck-snapping dembow rhythms twisting around each other like a double helix. If you want to hear this stuff, tune into most any set coming out of the East Coast, but if you’re looking for specifics, check out León’s brain-bending “post-reggaeton” set for Hessle Audio, Jonny From Space’s propulsive and psychedelic hour for DJ Mag and his two-hour firestarter at Nowadays, Coffintexts’s quick-and-messy hour of jungle, hip-hop, and dembow, or Danny Daze’s electro-drenched sunrise set.
Miami was hardly the only hotbed of innovation, though. Down in Brazil, the sounds of baile funk continued their seemingly unstoppable ascent. It’s not hard to see why: The genre, not unlike northern Europe’s heaviest hardcore, is maddeningly heavy and unabashedly chaotic; its tracks typically take just a few elements and whips them into a frenzy, with samples looping around each other and creating a barely contained frenzy. DJ Ramon Sucesso flooded Twitter with videos of chopped-up samples and tectonic-plate bass, and his show on NTS is a critical half-hour of his stylings.
DJ K, the architect behind one of 2023’s finest club-music albums, dug ever deeper into his skin-crawling take on the style in a maddening hour for Fact. His specialty, called “Bruxaria”—which translates to ”Sorcery”—is heavy and disorienting even in this context, with billion-ton bass drums, clipped video-game samples, and voices screaming over the chaos. Elsewhere, billdifferen, the Internet’s preeminent ambassador for baile funk, turned out to be a great selector himself; in his Ghost Notes Worldwide guest spot, he assembled two hours of baile funk, moving from (relatively) subdued to hair-raising mania.
Three other names contributed to the confusion, further scrambling what “Latin electronic” music might sound like. Hellotones, a singular figure in the Bronx’s cumbia scene, put together an hour of cumbia sonidera—cumbia records slowed to a crawl—and tangled it up with earth-shattering techno records, DatPiff-era DJ drops, and fleet-footed breaks. In an electrifying set for Resident Advisor, Barcelona breakcore experimentalist Cardopusher dug into the industrial-din side of his sound, infusing each dembow stomp with a razor’s-edge tension. Over in Caracas, DJ Babatr—a founding father of raptor house, a style that fuses acidic synths with quick-and-precise kicks—finally got his flowers, with a steady run of show-stopping mixes.
The names above typically all focus on a highly specific genre: a scene-specific style of baile funk, or cumbia, or house. In 2023, though, plenty of DJs veered hard in the opposite direction, throwing as many things at the wall as they could manage in the name of kitchen-sink euphoria. When it’s done right, this approach works wonders: It sketches out entire constellations, rendering obvious stylistic connections that, moments prior, were more or less invisible. That said, it’s tough stuff. Scuff a blend, or throw too many things in, and the whole thing turns muddied and indistinct.
In a pair of sets from November, Berlin’s Objekt pulled off exactly this trick for five hours. On Waking Live 2023, he moves from prepared-piano industrial-techno to deep-space dubstep. It’s a somewhat low-key set for the selector, whose mixes typically run a bit closer to peak-time, but that’s by no means an issue: Instead of the typical Objekt joyride, expect something closer to the speed limit. In any case, FOLD, London more than makes up the difference. Here, he’s working with gut-punch kicks, light-speed junglist idioms, steamrolling dubstep, and anything bound to set the amps alight.
It’s not like Objekt has a monopoly on this stuff, though. Rama, another Berlin DJ, turned in a ninety-minute sprint that feels half that. It’s a celebration of hardcore dance music the world over: weirdo east-coast hip-hop; bass-grinder white labels; Baltimore club classics; screaming gabber; screw-faced grime. Simo Cell, mixing from Paris, did something similar with his Dekmantel Podcast. This is him DJing as quickly and deliriously as he can manage, crafting a pile-up of dubstep, jungle, house, east-coast club rhythms, and an entire rolodex of club tools that’s always within a hair’s breadth of collapsing in on itself.
Toumba, a critical name hailing from Amman, turned in his own take on everything-goes club music: Low-end dubstep cuts interspersed with scrambled dabke records; noise-encrusted pop tracks and chase-scene techno. OKO DJ, in a headspinning session from Lente Kabinet 2023, found the intersection between baile funk, rough-and-ready jungle, and out-and-out nu-metal belters. Lastly, there’s Anuraag’s ani/live Seven, perhaps the most psychedelic of the sets in this section: white-hot gqom and hard-drum stompers, throat singing and ambient techno, skyscraping noise and modern classical. It feels like a sprint across a tightrope; in its best moments, it’s a minor miracle that it works at all.
On first glance, Vladimir Ivković might seem to be doing something very different: His style is significantly more muted than anyone else in this grouping, and his blends run a lot slower. But zoom out just a bit. With rural 2023, he manages to flick between all sorts of oddities: old-school breaks, funked-up acid jazz, vertiginous new wave, static-encrusted New Order covers. He rockets between all sorts of steamrollers here, finding a way to string them together in a way that’s rivetingly new: It’s everything-goes disorientation delivered with a wink.
Sometimes, it’s good to slow down a bit. Traumprinz, of all people, knows this. The German techno-et-cetera producer has a rich history with minimal techno and ambient music; their best stuff, like DJ Healer’s liturgical ambience and Prince of Denmark’s never-ending minimal techno, suggests entire universes. In the spring of 2022, they returned to their best-known alias with another bespoke world. Entitled Blue Turtle, it sees the producer digging into the heart-on-sleeve elation of trance records and clear-skied ambient music; even when it has a pulse, it’s the kind of dance music that feels tailor-made for a late-night drive or an early-morning meditation.
If you want something suited for sunset, though, look no further than Dreams. At the top of the year, Steffen Bennemann released the recording of a set he played at a sleep-in concert. (Attendees were encouraged to bring their own sleeping bags or mattresses.) The full mix, which runs for several sleep cycles, trades in pitch-black electronics, all million-mile drones and late-night field recordings. Over time, he folds more rhythms in until the whole thing takes on a quiet sway: ECM-adjacent jazz records, metronomic minimal techno, dream-pop, choral music. Two selectors at NTS explored that final facet in two beguiling mixes for the station, first with a selection of Byzantine chants in March, and then with a deep dive into Ensemble Organum, a group focusing on chants and polyphony.
Tarotplane, a.k.a. Baltimore’s PJ Dorsey, spent 2023 working on “Zikzak,” which quietly became one of the year’s most essential series. Each mix was highly specific, and they often ran long—Dorsey is clearly a serious crate-digger, and why not take the chance to explore? The mixes include a three-hour dive into “British underground folk,” a survey of German kosmische, and “unsettled ambience from the industrial era.” The ninth and tenth episodes might be the most impressive of the bunch: they offer a long-form dive into “ambient techno, ‘91-96” and what Dorsey’s dubbed “American visionary music.” The former is relatively clear but no less beautiful for it; it’s techno with one foot in the cosmos and a never-ending groove. With the latter, he digs into hushed guitar music, blurry ambience, and a Spaghetti-Western kind of psychedelia. It’s not new age, exactly, nor jazz, nor ambient; this is, in its own way, a glacial sort of folk music.
A few selectors turned the page towards heartbreakers, mythology, and pathos. Physical Therapy, one of New York’s great modern dance-music diggers, turned his gaze towards wigged-out soft-rock, bear-hug ambience, and voice-notes intimacy with Car Culture Remissions Vol. 4; Myles Mac & DJ Possum, meanwhile, dug into F.M. radio static, top-down R&B, and sun-soaked hip-hop in their set for Melbourne Deepcast; and their comparatively rowdy live set at Sustain-Release 2023 still makes plenty of room for blissed-out ambience and stargazing techno. Milch’s B.P.T. Radio 063 worked heartsick pop records, sepia-tinged balladry, and left-field synth-pop into something oddly moving, and Time Is Away, a column favorite, continued their exploration of ancient folk musics and stardust. In May, they focused on the Greek muses; in August, they were concerned with nothing less than spacetime itself.
Here, we’ve got three wildly different visions of what the long-form set can offer. Back in October, Diskonnected—a titan of Taipei’s techno scene, turned in RA.904, one of those rare big-name mix entries that’s also a rip from a club. Despite that connotation, the set is anything but tossed-off: Instead, it’s surgically precise and carefully plotted, its six hours hiding countless twists and turns. The mix moves, ever so slowly, from heads-down downtempo to whip-cracking techno; it’s the kind of mixing that feels truly seamless, to the point where it’s tough to pick out any particular highlights. It’s ambient, and electro, and house, and techno, and disco, and a million other things, sure. But that’s not the point. RA.904 is all about the slow build: About the way that genres and histories and beats pile up into something that feels entirely new.
If techno is one form that lends itself to slow-and-low builds, it’s worth flipping that coin over, too. In this case, you can do that with a plane ticket from Taipei to Amsterdam and a reservation at murmur, a listening bar that, last year, built up a mammoth archive of quiet, weird, and playful mixes. You could point to particular sets, of course, but that seems beside the point. Instead, just dive into their playlist of splayed-out mixes. (At the time of writing, it encompasses 85 hours of music; at the end of 2023, it was something closer to 79.) You’ll find all sorts of gems in here: Spindly folk music and rickety house records; bleary ambience and globe-trotting folk music; drill, soul, jazz. The Murmur sets, taken as a whole, make up a truly remarkable body of work, underlining just how many territories DJing can stretch into.
Back in August, in the Pennsylvanian woods, ravers and DJs gathered for what has become an annual pilgrimage, and yet another argument for the DJ set as a kind of transcendence: Honcho Campout. The queer dance-music festival celebrated its ninth year in 2023, and if its best recordings are any indication, it was a resounding success. To name just a few: Jin & Juice rocketed between dancehall, trap, and R&B; Kim Ann Foxman dug into old-school house and techno; Will Automagic looked towards boogie, funk, soul, and classic house records; Yibing grabbed synth-pop, house, and rickety electro; and Razrbark blurred the lines between trip-hop, oddball rock, and wiggly techno. The festival’s proposition—endless beats, creativity, and communal joy—was as stellar as ever, and the full archive is well worth your time.
When you talk about the form of new-school DJing, you’ve got to talk about New York; when you talk about its sound, you’ve got to talk about the United Kingdom. Dance music is, of course, an amalgamation of a million histories and traditions and stories; it is simultaneously a celebration of, and a gentle push against, boundaries and borders. Last year, some of the United Kingdom’s finest DJs reckoned with their nation’s club-music histories directly, to consistently winning results. V.I.V.E.K, in a bone-rattling set for Resident Advisor, dug deep into the intersections of dub and dubstep, turning in something of a scene survey in the process. Dubstep legends Kahn & Neek, meanwhile, paired their latest album with a few mixes, each packed to the brim with turgid dubstep, queasy low-end rhythms, and horror-flick grime records.
If you’re looking for a vision into the future of UK dance music—an admittedly fraught endeavor—you could do a lot worse than digging into Accidental Meetings’ catalog. A typical Accidental Meetings release—inasmuch as there is one—is singular and foreign, not so much a look towards left field as a dive into a miles-deep trench. In April, label cofounder Lucien Douglas, alongside label affiliate Susu Laroche, turned in two hours of outré electronics that further underlines the label’s approach: gauzy ambience and barely-there folk, million-limbed percussion and walls of noise. i-sha, another friend of the label, went equally dark and disheveled in a set for Fact, crashing tempi and genres into each other until the whole thing turns to a sludge.
There might not have been an obvious center to DJing in 2023, and the form was arguably all the better for it. But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a clear standout figure. Cue: CCL. The London-born, States-raised, and Berlin-based DJ spent 2023 dropping downright inimitable work, the kind of stuff that’s technically astonishing but never feels like it’s peacocking. On paper, their work slots nicely alongside plenty of their contemporaries: their deep knowledge of UK dance-music histories rivals New York house luminaries, their kitchen-sink stylings mirror those of Objekt, Simo Cell, and ¥ØU$UK€ ¥UK1MAT$U (all column favorites), and their sonic approach—often a collage of breaks, dubstep, and who-knows club sounds—is popular the world over. But there’s something special here: In nearly every set CCL put out this year, they built a universe of rug-pulls and unbridled joy, inspiring more rubbernecking and slack jaws than anyone else.
Here, we’ll pick three. liquidtime #9, subtitled Cape Fear: A Trip to the Darkside of UKG, is a relatively straightforward set for the selector: a rare hour-long dive into a particular style, all barely-lit two-step rhythms and shuffle-and-sneer drums. But, as ever, zoom in just a bit, and you’ll find an entire universe. There’s enough bass snarls here to make it feel like a kind of sequel to 2018’s landmark Ode to the Queer Steppas, a set that celebrated the outer fringes of dubstep at its most psychedelic. It’s got all the jubilee of great garage and two-step records, but plenty of the snare rolls are accompanied by something a bit more unsettling—scraped-metal synthesizers, haunted-house melodies, skin-crawling ambience. It’s simultaneously playful and disorienting, with each track landing like a left hook or a gut punch.
Their recording from Honcho Campout 2023 is closer to their modus operandi. Here, everything goes: low-end dubstep heaters and old-school breaks, sure, but also slow-mo R&B, chopped-up “Chop Suey!,” lighters-up trip-hop, sludged-up reggaeton, and straight-up dream-pop. It’s a wildly unpredictable session bound together by CCL’s characteristically precise mixing and seemingly endless vim, with a crowd that just won’t stop losing their minds. The recording captures the crowd noise, including screams, trills, barks, and the sound of the audience pounding on the DJ setup itself. It’s hard to blame them: This is full-on mania for just over three hours, with just enough breaks built in to keep things from getting too exhausting.
Lastly, there’s their entry in Dekmantel’s mix series. Dekmantel Podcast 427 takes the yes-and delirium of Honcho Campout 2023 and transposes that same energy to a home-listening environment, tangling up BPMs, time signatures, histories, and stardust for the better part of two hours. Others have already gone deep on the technical aspects of this session, so we’ll keep things tight here: Suffice to say, it’s a masterclass of highly technical DJing, with CCL juggling umpteen incongruous grooves and making them seem like obvious pairings. The set, broadly speaking, goes from a slow chug to a light-speed finale before finally landing in a zoned-out coda, but there’s so much in between. Here, CCL’s in conversation with grime and dancehall and techno, gamelan and hard-drum and half-time, IDM and acid and juke—it ought to be a miracle that it works, given how many things they throw at the wall, but it’s so meticulously assembled that the whole thing goes down without so much as a scuffed blend. By the end, it’s obvious: In 2023, CCL was the most dynamic, technically impressive, and outright mind-bending DJ in the world.
The Best Sets of 2023, Roughly Ranked: