NPR logo The Year in B2B DJ Sets

The Year in B2B DJ Sets

Unexpected Partnerships In The Booth Were One of 2015's Defining Dance-Music Stories

Armand Van Helden and Disclosure's Guy Lawrence at Holy Ship!, January 2015. Erik Voake/courtesy of the artists/Holy Ship! hide caption

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Erik Voake/courtesy of the artists/Holy Ship!

Armand Van Helden and Disclosure's Guy Lawrence at Holy Ship!, January 2015.

Erik Voake/courtesy of the artists/Holy Ship!

One of dance music's prevailing trends in 2015 was surely the collaboration. Diplo and Skrillex partnered as Jack Ü and produced "Where Are Ü Now," among the biggest songs of their platinum careers — and one that also marked Justin Bieber's comeback. Chicago house pioneer Green Velvet scored a huge club hit with by pairing up with Technasia (the bluesy "Suga"), and played with Dirtybird head honcho Claude von Stroke under the name Get Real at Miami's Ultra Music Festival, an act they're now taking into the studio. And such promiscuous connections were one of the key traits on the charts tracking big-room EDM records: Tiësto had huge hits co-billed with KSHMR and Vassy ("Secrets," the number one electro house track of the year on the sales site Beatport) and with Martin Garrix ("The Only Way Is Up," the top progressive house track), while the top house title was "Intoxicated" by Martin Solveig & GTA.

But more than anywhere else, dance-music collaborations could best be observed in the DJ booth. 2015 proved itself as the year of the back-to-back (or b2b), one-off sets by DJs who don't normally play together. (Typically, each plays a couple of tracks before trading off, though obviously situations vary.) At festivals all over the globe, much was made of headliners teaming up, like Super Friends, to play side-by-side, or arm-in-arm.

The spectacle of two DJs rocking a crowd together goes all the way back to Jamaican sound system culture, founded in competition between rival selectors booming tunes at one another while the crowd decides who's boss. The rave scene in the '90s featured a lot of b2bs at after-parties, when the DJs would get loose. It was also in vogue to book special pairings at some of the bigger parties as well: Detroit techno originators Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson would often play them together when booked at dance spectacles like the 1997 Big Top tour.

But this year, the b2b seemed to explode — by mutual agreement. From local club nights to the decks of Holy Ship!; on podcasts and on radio shows, in commemoration and just for the hell of it, the sheer number of such fleeting partnerships became conspicuous. Historically, something about this points to an imminent recession: how much more gigantic does dance music need to be — or feel — whether it's the sight of a headliner at a mega-festival like Electric Daisy Carnival with a blinding, overblown stage-show or a must-hear DJ mix that lasts six hours? Is all of this just the dance-music equivalent of, say, a mid-1970s prog-rock double-album full of noodling jams?

Not necessarily — not when it's done well, and often it was. Whatever the venue, b2bs always elicit hope of two players pushing one another in fresh directions. Though this didn't always happen — in fact, sometimes it really didn't happen, in telling ways — most of the ten I've listed here did. (Though I must confess up front: One of them I haven't even heard.)

Floating Points & Four Tet: Final Plastic People (London, January 2): The London club Plastic People was home base to a sensibility more than a strict sound: dance music as both sport and scholarship. (Not only was the Detroit house producer Theo Parrish a Plastic People resident, it also once hosted the world-building dubstep night FWD>> during the genre's nascent days.) The club's closing-night finale served as the beginning of a big year for Floating Points (Sam Shepherd) and Four Tet (Kieran Hebden). The former ended up making one of 2015's most critically beloved electronic albums, Elaenia, and debuted his dense but lively big band; the latter earned plaudits for his newest album, Morning/Evening, as well as his remix of Eric Prydz's "Opus" (an assignment he got after appealing to Prydz on Twitter).

As DJs, both have huge ranges, with vintage records (deep astral jazz cuts, funk 7"s, Brazilian music, anything with a beat really) the common touchstone. Basically, they're guys comfortable with a diverse, bohemian DJ aesthetic where everything is in play. Such sets can be a lot of fun when done with a sense of mischief and derring-do, which is how Floating Points and Four Tet did it on the last night of Plastic People's public existence, for six straight hours.

It was easily the most viral DJ mix of 2015, and not simply because happened on the year's second day. There's great effervescence here: the increasingly audible crowd, a clear kinship the DJs have with each other and with the dance-floor, and that all have with the venue which brought them together. Floating Points and Four Tet would pair up often over the course of 2015 (most frequently on London's NTS Radio), but for many, this night helped define the year, or at least set it off and running.

Eric Prydz & Jeremy Olander: Essential Mix (BBC Radio 1, January 3): Sometimes a b2b is a way for a big artist to cosign or raise the profile of an up-and-comer. 2015's inaugural episode of BBC Radio 1's Essential Mix, which turned a spry 22 years-old in October, is a case in point. Jeremy Olander is only the second artist Eric Prydz has signed to his Pryda label, and their joint set showcases the lushly dark progressive house the imprint and its founder are known for. Prydz didn't just give Four Tet a remix assignment because he was feeling generous, either — he's one of the few DJs who can headline American stadiums while still swaying fans of headier underground beats to his cause.

Disclosure & Armand Van Helden: Holy Ship! (Half Moon Cay, Bahamas, January 4): Holy Ship! is an EDM pleasure cruise through the Bahamas, which sailed twice in 2015, and these boat-rides were ripe with b2b sets, featuring pairings like A-Trak & Craze and Skrillex & Kaskade. One key to a successful b2b is the element of surprise, the idea that even a successful DJ could have his/her usual rhythms disrupted, and strikes off into new mixing territory. Too often though, it works the other way: DJs conservatively spinning the usual sets, in short alternate blocks, never building to a collaborative arc. That could be particularly true of artists with fully stocked arsenals of crowd-pleaser tracks, like Disclosure (young, deep-house world-beaters whose second album, Caracal, was released in September and received largely warm but tempered notices) and Armand Van Helden (one-half of the Grammy-winning duo Duck Sauce, and one of the most important house music producers of the '90s). So, yes, when they teamed up on the rave boat, the enormous hits were all present. (The Lawrence Brothers' "When a Fire Starts to Burn" and "White Noise"? Armand's "U Don't Know Me" and his remix of Tori Amos's "Professional Widow"? Check and double-check.) But what made their pairing work so well weren't the surprises, but in hearing those classics, and a slew of other big records, put together with true party-rocking zeal.

Martyn & Actress, NTS Radio (London, March 13): The radio b2b is a very different beast from the live one. You don't necessarily have to make anybody dance on the radio, though the jocularity that comes through the microphone of stations like NTS and Rinse.FM is a lot tougher to access in a live setting. That's the case with this wonderfully zigzagging, two-hour session between a pair of lateral-thinking bass producers, Holland-born Martyn (Martijn Deykers) and native Londoner Actress (Darren Cunningham). It is a sit-down session as indebted to post-punk as to the huge spate of house and techno that shapes the set's bulk, so David Byrne appears at the beginning and end, while the Japanese producer Mick, and his track "Macho Brother." evokes the music popularized at both NYC's downtown-music haunt, The Kitchen, and Detroit's Motor.

Skrillex & Four Tet: The Underworld Camden (London, April 5): In 2015, Kieran Hebden was to the b2b approximately what Sonic Youth was to the indie-label tribute album circa 1991: omnipresent. In addition to loads of NTS sessions, Four Tet paired up with Jamie xx for an enjoyable joint Essential Mix on March 27, appeared again on BBC Radio 1's Exploring Future Beats in July when he brought on Floating Points and Caribou's Dan Snaith, and again on Rinse FM during Christmas Eve, when he participated in a four-hour, five-DJ roundelay with Ben UFO, Pangaea, Caribou, and Joy Orbison. And that's just a cursory glance.

But the most notorious b2b Four Tet participated in last year has never been shared (though audio documents are said to exist): featuring none other than EDM poster-boy Skrillex. It took place on one week's notice in, as Resident Advisor reported, "an endearingly grotty 500-capacity events space under a pub in North London, which is known for hosting rock and metal shows." The RA reviewer added: "Neither Kieran Hebden nor Sonny Moore publically explained how the gig came together, but 20 minutes into their set, the question became, 'Why haven't they done this before?'...It was obvious that Hebden would need to amp up what he'd usually play and Moore would have to tone it down a bit, and they established a sweet spot that didn't feel like a compromise for either of them — in fact, if you weren't watching, it wasn't always obvious who was playing what...Any supposed boundaries between underground and mainstream, between highbrow and lowbrow, had been temporarily melted." DYING to hear this.

Derek Plaslaiko & Mike Servito, The Bunker Podcast 100 (July 3): The Bunker has long been my favorite techno party in New York, not least because for so long it was pretty much the only techno party in New York. (My oral history of the party, covering it through 2012, is here.) Two of The Bunker's best-loved residents, Derek Plaslaiko (now living in Berlin) and Mike Servito, are also old friends from Detroit who've played many times together. So for a "Limited" party at a small venue on Brooklyn's borderlands, the two took turns for nine straight hours — the entirety of which was uploaded as The Bunker's hundredth podcast. And there was more: Following a repeat performance the following week in Los Angeles, Plaslaiko tweeted a challenge at Servito: "tell you what . . . let's do the same party every 6 months. No repeat tracks." (Servito took him up; no further word yet.)

Julio Bashmore & Shanti Celeste: Ray Ban x Boiler Room 009 (London, July 23): Matt Walker, the Bristol producer who does business as Julio Bashmore, established himself with a series of early-2010s club bangers ("Battle For Middle You," "Au Seve") and by supplying beats to then-budding UK pop star Jessie Ware. Shanti Celeste is a rising star on Bashmore's Broadwalk label, another Bristolian with a knack for spooky, minimalist, disco-fueled rhythms that snap and stutter. On this pairing for the DJ livecast show, Boiler Room, such stutters are literal: Stephen Brown's "Medusa" cuts and layers a line from Inner City's "Good Life" into confetti, as does Robert Hood Presents Floorplan's 1996 gem "Funky Souls." There's a hard edge throughout, even when they smooth things out with music by Photek and Robert Owens' glimmering "Mine to Give."

Maya Jane Coles & Kim Ann Foxman, ENTER.Sake at Space (Ibiza, September 3): ENTER.Sake, Richie Hawtin's residency at Space, in Ibiza, made the b2b its raison d'être this year. Over the course of the summer season, the club teamed up residents Guy Gerber and Matthew Dear, Jackathon domo Heidi and party-rocker Miss Kittin (broadcast as an Essential Mix), and the techno heavyweights Marcel Dettmann and Ben Klock, among many others. Particularly inspired was the late-season pairing of Coles, a Londoner whose tech-house tracks shot to the top of DJ lists early this decade, and Foxman, a former collaborator with NYC disco-house stalwarts Hercules and Love Affair (whose own Firehouse label issued "Tribal Rhythm" by Josef K, Winter Son and Flora Cruz, one of the year's best tracks, which shows up early here). Coles has been worryingly smooth at times, but that's not the case here — the two DJs are clearly on the same path, egging each other on.

Seth Troxler & Michael Mayer: The Peacock Society (Paris, October 7): As often as not, the worst aspect of the b2b is the way certain DJs might as well just be playing self-contained fifteen-minute mini-sets, one after the other, rather than traveling the same road. But there's a clear mesh going on at this Paris club between Troxler, the young Detroit-to-Berlin transplant who's been in the top ten of Resident Advisor's annual DJ poll for six years running, and Mayer, the public face of Cologne's legendary Kompakt label. Both have a taste for tangy hooks balancing freaky minimalism, and wide-open, disco-flavored grooves, not to mention curious vault picks, such as Emmanuel Top's acid-monster remix, from 1997, of the Age of Love's self-titled 1990 single. (ED. This one's awesome!)

Matthew Dear & DJ Koze: Verboten (Brooklyn, November 14): That series-of-mini-sets feel was prevalent at another of Troxler's b2b's this year, at the second edition of the Time Warp U.S. festival, in Brooklyn on November 19, when Troxler paired with London's Jamie Jones. Frequently, it was an exercise in frustration, with Jones often bringing things down to a simmer so he could rev up again, rather than meeting Troxler head-on.

Five nights earlier, in a different part of Brooklyn, the Williamsburg club Verboten hosted another b2b that operated on a similar principle. Matthew Dear and DJ Koze are old collaborators — Koze did a definitive remix of Dear's "Elementary Lovers" in 2008, and Dear sang on two tracks from Koze's fabulous 2013 album Amygdala. Yet each man's DJing tends to be full of stops and starts (cf. Koze's DJ-Kicks from the year), and their shared taste for melting timbres and gurgling vocals meant that, even though they seemed to be playing more side-to-side than back-to-back, the set worked as one thing.