Each month with In Our Headphones, members of KEXP's Digital Content team share the music that's resonating with them right now. For this installment, in conjunction with Pushing Boundaries, the team shares reflections on music from Asian and Pasifika artists in their personal rotations.
Some people strive their whole lives to create a masterpiece, something that will resonate with the masses and shift art and culture forward. Others, apparently, have said masterpieces leaked.
Such is the legacy of Jai Paul’s only “album,” now known as Leak 04-13 (Bait Ones). If I were pressed to pick a record definitive of the previous decade, Leak would certainly be a contender. In 2011, Paul was riding a wave of considerable buzz following the release of his single “BTSTU,” albeit still classified as a demo, on XL Recordings. The song’s stark synthesizer warble and Paul’s cascading “don’t fuck with me” refrain over harmonized vocals was nothing short of revelatory. It quickly was sampled by the likes of Drake and Beyoncé (honestly, what bigger co-sign can you get than Beyoncé?). A year later he’d drop another scorcher with “jasmine (demo),” a murmuring wonder of a track that still feels like D’Angelo filtered through a particle smasher.
After this one-two punch, the hype for a full-length Jai Paul record is in many ways understandable. Paul was hard at work on an album tentatively titled Bait Ones, but apparently some couldn’t wait. In 2013, an anonymous user uploaded a collection of unreleased Paul material to Bandcamp. The leak was met with rapturous praise, even being included on end-of-year lists from Pitchfork and The Guardian. Despite the leak being taken down, the culprits punished, and the general excitement around the material, the whole experience left Paul hurt. It’d be six years before the material would finally get new material and an official release as Leak 04-13 (Bait Ones).
This whole scenario speaks loudly about the beast that is consumerism and how it infects something sacred like art. The prioritization of fans “need” for new material and disregard of the artistic process, a lack of empathy to think about an actual human who is creating work and what it means to pull from that unknowable inspiration in your soul.
I won’t sit on my high horse here. I had the leak way before the official 2019 release. Growing up in the age of Limewire and Kazaa, it wasn’t even a second thought. It’s my leak, and I need it now! It’s hard to deprogram yourself from this mindset. The world is brutal, unrelenting. This goes beyond art, but it’s telling that something that speaks to us on such a personal and emotional level can be subjected to this vile thirst. As time goes on, I empathize more with Paul. That he feels like he is in a place to share his music again is something to be celebrated and appreciated, moving at whatever pace suits him best.
That said, oh my god is this record something else. To now be able to listen with a clean conscience, Leak is an astounding work. Many of the tracks still are classified as “unfinished” or “demo,” implying that there is further perfection that Paul hasn’t even tapped into yet. I can’t even imagine what a “final form” would be here.
Whenever I hear the commanding opener “Str8 Outta Mumbai,” I feel an electric current run through my body. And then when the beat cuts out into a sample of Vani Jairam before swiftly colliding together… it’s such an earned moment of pure joy and ecstasy. “100000”, “Genevieve,” and “Zion Wolf Theme” revel in their metallic pulse, Pulse centering the human core with his voice. Elsewhere he turns Jennifer Paige’s 1998 hit “Crush” into a sexy, Prince-style dance floor jam.
Leak is a testament to Paul’s ingenuity as well as graciousness as an artist. While I can’t help but dream up what a follow-up could be, it’s a gift to have this record officially out in the world and a part of the pop and experimental canon. — Dusty Henry
I’m kinda surprised I haven’t written about Horsegirl yet, because their debut EP has been “in my headphones” for a while now. But, I was reminded of them following the recent viral success of pre-teen girl band The Linda Lindas (who I featured in KEXP’s The Weekly Mix podcast earlier this month), and after talking with Kishi Bashi about how his 15-year-old daughter gives him hope for the future (“Younger people are progressive,” he told us. “They can't wait for the world to change.”).
The members of this Chicago-based trio are a bit older, but still teens. Guitarist/vocalist Nora Cheng and drummer Gigi Reece are in their senior year of high school, hoping to be in New York for college by the fall, while guitarist/vocalist Penelope Lowenstein is a junior.
And it’s funny, but the bands they cite as influences are the ones I was listening to when I was in high school: Yo La Tengo, Stereolab, My Bloody Valentine. They even had a brief stint as a Sonic Youth cover band early in their formation.
Just last month, Horsegirl announced they had signed with Matador Records, home to many of those bands. They rhapsodized on Instagram: “Two years ago when we were underclassmen, we pooled together our money to see Yo La Tengo live (Ira Kaplan handed us his guitar). That fall we played a show in the street with a Stephen Malkmus poster taped to the kick drum. When Belle & Sebastian played the entirety of If You’re Feeling Sinister at Pitchfork, we stood in the front and said Judy had a dream of Horsegirl. Matador has been formative for our relationship as friends and musicians, and we feel insanely grateful to be working with them.”
Note: all those bands, majority white dudes. What I love about seeing bands like Horsegirl propelled into the spotlight is the increase of female and non-binary musicians in the media, especially young artists of color. It’s the representation I longed for in my youth, and I’m excited (and relieved!) to see it on the rise. Here’s to more young women and non-binary musicians taking shit over. Here’s to the next wave. — Janice Headley
Before preteen punks the Linda Lindas went viral for their excellent song calling out a boy who was told by his father not to associate with Chinese people (“Racist, Sexist Boy”) — before any of its members were even born, probably — I used to sit at Que Linda’s kitchen table listening to music, sometimes until 3:30 in the morning.
For our newer readers, Que Linda (obviously not her real name, nor a nickname I gave her while she was alive) was a Dominican American feminist punk with whom I shared an enormous and close friendship in my mid-twenties. A smart, gorgeous, outstandingly talented woman about six years my senior, covered from her neck to her ankles with tattoos, who put me on to quite a few of the bands that would become foundational influences over my music tastes. Some of those bands include the Velvet Underground, the Raincoats, and Wipers; she was also the person who helped me “get” Sonic Youth. She is also the reason I’ve been such a long time fan of feminism-driven punk music.
She spent a little time at Evergreen State College before somehow settling in Federal Way, about a five minute drive from the apartment I shared with my step-sister. While in Olympia, she became indoctarined in the punk scene, enamored with riot grrrl, and alienated by many people in the community who felt as though their scene had no room for a woman “different” from them (read: not white). Even though such actions flew in the face of the initial riot grrrl movement (in spirit if not always in practice), which was implicitly intersectional through race, gender, physical ability, and economic background. The sort of “social accessorizing” that low-key happens everywhere in 2021 — thank you, performative wokeness — wasn’t really happening 20 years ago. The white girls were all scared of her and pretty much shut her out because of it.
That didn’t stop Que Linda from being an avowed fan of epochal punk bands like Bikini Kill and Bratmobile, but there was one band she had a special fondness for. One that never got quite as much press during the riot grrrl wave (and Kill Rock Stars’ surging popularity with the punk and indie-rock kids) of the early-to-mid-’90s; due to a lack of careerist intent, the sort of erasure that ultimately benefits white people, or a combination of both. The band was named Emily’s Sassy Lime. Three first-generation Asian American teenage girls, two sisters and their friend, who took Southern California’s sunny sprawl and layers of smog and shaped them into their own image.
Legend has it Emily Ryan met Amy and Wendy Yao when her parents gave them all a ride to a Bikini Kill and Bratmobile show at UC Irvine under the guise of “studying with her classmates.” This secrecy — emblematized by the fact that their parents were adamant that they focus on their studies — led to them recording their sole full-length, according to Wendy Yao, “on a West Coast tour our parents didn’t know we were on.” Desperate, Scared, but Social was less written than culled from intuition and imagination, given the fact the trio rarely practiced their songs together.
The band, often derided by the (still-)white-dominated punk press as crudely rudimentary, were extremely intelligent young women; weaponizing their conceptual brilliance to the point where critics twice their age referred to them as “obnoxious.” Their name is a palindrome, their full-length debut delivered almost entirely from the id, greatly informing their singular brand of loosey-goosey art-punk. It seems like they had the art form of punk music down better than most of their detractors.
Through its sixteen songs and sound experiments, the only song on Desperate longer than two minutes is sinister closer “Superior Threat,” and that’s mostly because there’s an extended coda tying it to the found sound of its “Untitled” intro. Far weirder than their riot grrrl forebears, indelible tunes like “Would-Be Saboteurs Take Heed” and “Mr. Moneybag$” are augmented by the lurching, jazzy “There’s a Snake in the Steakhouse” and the six-second “Save the Drama for Your Mama.” Even with the arty abstractions that punctuate the album, it’s still filled with wall-to-wall bangers with evocative titles like “Not in a Biblical Sense,” “G.Q. Pimp Theme Song,” and “Other People Would Be Suspicious of You.”
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s pretty apparent that Emily’s Sassy Lime wasn’t meant to be a career endeavor. The band broke up in 1997 after deciding to attend separate colleges and would eventually endeavor themselves in the worlds of music, experimental film, masters programs, and DIY spaces. But for a very short period — at an age where most of us are primarily concerned with social standing and part-time jobs — they created some of the most ingenious music associated with the riot grrrl movement. Erasure be damned. — Martin Douglas
Muqata’a’s latest release, Kamil Manqus كَامِل مَنْقوص, is best experienced in headphones (making it perfect for this column) and with eyes closed. It’s wobbly, glitched out, and uses silence like a knife. By sitting with the album fully, I’m shuttled through trippy musical mazes, in landscapes my imagination couldn’t conjure alone. I’m also free to explore the intricacies of the music’s tension, which at times feels disruptive and uncomfortable, requiring focus to process. Samples of chanting vocals are interrupted by radio static, looped noise motifs, or the sound of a distant alarm, only rarely to break out into a discernible rhythm.
Finding transcendence in this chaos is central to the album, whose name translates from Arabic to “perfect imperfect,” or “complete incomplete.” With the track “Simya’,” Muqata’a evokes an ancient metaphysical science of the same name, where specific patterns in numbers and letters allow one to communicate with the unseen. In an interview with Inverted Audio, he says he creates these patterns in connection with classical Arab music samples in an attempt to communicate with his ancestors, and “to document [their] history before it is erased.”
Muqata’a is from Ramallah in the West Bank of occupied Palestine, where this threat of erasure is urgent and consuming. Growing up under military occupation, where Palestinians’ mere existence is politicized, creation is an act of resistance. Great music and art have a history of emerging in this spirit, out of necessity. Muqata’a references hip-hop in the Bronx, saying, “It was to do with protest, resistance music. These sounds of the oppressed, who want to break their oppression, are very relatable.” His own music carries a similar pressure, teetering on a breaking point yet still emanating with grace.
He also demonstrates that yes, music heals, but it can also disrupt. The glitches in his sound force a break in conditioned thought patterns. The conversations between classical samples and future-leaning effects provoke curiosity around a culture that refuses to be erased or forgotten. Each time I listen to this album, my relationship to the dissonance changes. And it’s in this constant challenging of comfort that the truth emerges. — Isabel Khalili
Japanese super band Minyo Crusaders confirmed to the world that bridges between traditional music Min'yō (民謡) and Afro-Caribbean and Latin American sounds are more than possible. Artists Katsumi Tanaka and Freddie Tsukamoto are the founders of the 10-member musical group that set out in 2012 to popularize the traditional folk of Japan in a modern key.
In Minyo Crusaders you will find an alternate universe surrounding min'yō, a traditional form of Japanese music that is passed down through oral tradition and is grouped by themes. In different areas of Japan there are certain forms of min'yō, and its extensive range of possibilities. Being able to rescue this musical genre to make it accessible to new generations of people, adding to their passion for Latin American music, prompted Tanaka and Tsukamoto to create Minyo Crusaders along with key pieces from the Jazeera and Afro-Latin scene in Tokyo.
It wasn’t until the 2018 edition of the Tokyo-based festival Fuji Rock that Minyo Crusaders met the iconic Colombian instrumental group Frente Cumbiero, led by teacher, musician and producer Mario Galeano. After this first encounter, two more years would pass before they would release an EP together that conquered me: Minyo Cumbiero. Read the conversation we had with Mario for International Clash Day 2021.
This collaboration has four tracks: “Mambonegro Dai Sakusen”, “Cumbia del Monte Fuji”, “Tora Joe” and “Opekepe”. The incredible musical bridge was recorded in TWO days in Bogotá. It starts with a version of the theme song from the Chinese kung-fu computer game Yie Ar Kung-Fu – retitled “Un Dos Kung Fu” – now fused into a chicha and salsa-styled boogaloo; "Cumbia Del Monte Fuji" is a reworking of Pedro Laza’s classic version of Pascual Rovira’s Cumbia Del Monte; “Tora Joe” (Tiger Woman) and “Opekepe” are both ancient Japanese festival songs now reinvisioned with dancehall-reggaeton beat, dub, and flute.
The Minyo Cumbiero EP was released by Mais Um in 2020 and you can check it out this incredibly shot video of the session recorded in Bogotá’s Mambo Negro studio. — Albina Cabrera
I was recently reminded of Dirty Beaches via No-No Boy’s Hapa Book Club playlist for KEXP. In his blurb on the band, he recalls Michelle Zauner recommending them after lamenting the lack of Asian male rock stars. Zauner calls Alex Zhang Hungtai an “Asian Elvis” in her description of Dirty Beaches and it’s an apt description, though perhaps not the first that would’ve come to mind myself. Perhaps Elvis as seen through the lens of David Lynch on the saddest day he ever lived after consuming a terrifying amount of barbiturates.
My first introduction to Badlands was when the album found its way into the rotation for my college radio station. I remember the majority of us having no clue what to think of it or how to integrate it into a cohesive radio show because nothing else sounded like it at the time. In an era where indie music was run by chillwave and Hipster Runoff, where does a sullen dystopian crooner fit? As a result, the album regrettably got far less spins than it deserved and was quickly retired from the highlighted albums in the preview rack to live amongst thousands of CDs that lined the walls.
But with a decade of time, growth, and perspective between then and now, I’ve come back to Badlands and, I’ve got to say, it still sounds like nothing else out there. Perhaps I get a bit of Orville Peck in his vocals and, surely, there are plenty of bands that have utilized caustic, lo-fi distortion but rarely packaged alongside dreamy doo-wop and droney, drugged-out ditties for an experience that feels like being stuck in a looping dream sequence of a noir film. It’s manic, eerie, and — like Elvis — sexy as hell. — Jasmine Albertson
Each month with In Our Headphones, members of KEXP's Digital Content team share the music that's resonating with them right now. For this installment, in conjunction with International Jazz Day, a few of the team members share their reflections on jazz music in their personal rotations.
In this month's edition of In Our Headphones, KEXP's Digital Content team shares music by women artists that have been in their personal rotation lately.
In this month's edition of In Our Headphones, KEXP's Digital Content team shares music by Black artists that have been in their personal rotation lately.