"Sounds like a skeleton having a wank in a biscuit tin". Such was my mate's considered critique of an oddball track I had been digging on The Smuggler's Inn, an online radio show. With its dissonance, polytonality and general all-round wonkiness, the track may well have been an example of the genre that host Danny Berman (aka Red Rack'em) had described in his intro as "wrong house" – as in: "I'll be playing bruk, funk, grime, hip hop, Detroit techno, wrong house..." What was this genre? I was determined to investigate.
But first, a caveat. Given that musos have been known to get a little irate about genres — fiercely protective of their borders, as with the tropes of "real house" and "proper techno" — it should always be borne in mind that no genre is an island. They emerge from a sea of influences and are constantly bumping into other genres. With their impure beginnings and constant overlappings, they are "vague essences", genre-lisations that may or may not serve the practical function of pointing you towards the shit that you're after.
Nevertheless, despite the difficulty of pinning down what's inside and what's outside these porous, ever-mutating categories, you can more or less set out a list of traits. They are recognizably something. So, wrong house: qu'est-ce que c'est, (in)exactly? Is it a bona fide genre, or simply an attitude?
Berman was probably only half-joking when confessing that his original coinage of the term was "as a metaphor: imagine getting totally wasted and staggering home but then realizing you were in your neighbours' house by mistake — that feeling of 'oh shit, wrong house' is the confusion I'm looking for in some of the music I play. Stuff which is really wrong is stuff that's not tightly programmed and creates a fucked-up mood."
As for the production techniques behind the creation of that fucked-up mood, Berman lists several aspects that are 'wrong' from both the standpoint of conventional rhythmic meter and harmonic 'rules': "Loose wonky swung beats; hip hop-style double kicks — so not just a standard 4/4 kick pattern, often a second kick is used to create an offbeat 'bump' between the main kicks; slightly distorted, 'French'-style hats which are usually mixed too loud with a loose quantization; atonal, jazzy, clashy samples which shouldn't work together but somehow do; synths and rhodes with glide on them and a detuned feel; echoes, crackles and vinyl noise; big-room reverbs on the whole track; samples which have been needle-dragged so they're cutting between sounds themselves before you even use them in the track; staccato and loudly mixed sub-bass or wonky bass noises – basically, the shorter the notes the better, as you can play funkier, more out-of-time basslines and mix it louder. Listen to The Love Movement by Tribe Called Quest and you can hear the wrong house blueprint right there."
As well as acknowledging the debt to hip hop, jazz and funk, Berman namechecks several of house music's auteur producers as precursors of the current wave making "wrong house". Among the luminaries are: Matthew Herbert, who has been fashioning grooves from unpromising raw materials for two decades; Isolée, who gave us the bubbling tics and fuzz of 'microhouse'; Theo Parrish's woozy, underproduced 'beatdown'; Moodymann's smudged disco-soul; and the singular wonkiness of Pépé Bradock.
As for the current crop, Berman, who has released on Wolf Records, Ramp, Philomena and Bergerac among others, nods appreciatively toward labels such as "Real Soon, NDATL, Workshop, Firecracker, Sonar Kollektiv (pre-2006), Playhouse, early Rush Hour, Dopeness Galore, Philpott" and artists such as "Frits Wentink, Chicago Damn, Erdbeerschnitzel, Glenn Astro, Gerry Read, Juju and Jordash, Move D, Red Nose Distrikt, Vakula, Moiré, Moon B, Awanto 3, Iken, Inkswel, Kez YM, Domu's Discoteque EPs, Linkwood, Lady Blacktronica, Kid Sublime, Max Graef, early Oliver Hacke, early Trickski..."
However, mindful not to give the world's longest Oscar acceptance speech, he adds: "It's really hard to give an exhaustive list as some of the best tracks were made by unknown producers who only made a couple of records. It feels a bit unfair to try to give a roll call for a scene which isn't a scene! It's cool that there's not a scene, though. There's no 'King of the Genre'. It's open, and everyone's making a difference."
If there's no over-arching aesthetic or scene as such, the creative animus and shared outlook behind this non-scene is nonetheless underlined by Tim Kieling (aka Erdbeerschnitzel): "I'd rather see these artists as individuals who work out their independent ideas isolated from other tastemakers or knowbetters who tell them 'don't overdo it'. This leads to all kind of sounds which are only connected by the fact that they are sounding slightly off to mainstream house."
Of course, as with the evolution of any system – from species to genre — such innovative niche-finding at the local, micro-level is precisely what leads to macro-transformation. Thus, with the so-called 'deep house revival' — about which many a baffled "but it never went away!" would have been sighed — having produced a raft of derivative and inherently nostalgic imitations of the classic sounds of New York and Chicago, little wonder these boundary-pushers have been actively undermining the slow ossification of that house tradition, as would any artist worth their salt.
Indeed, as Keiling says of his own productions, which steer clear of convention and club functionality: "It was always a reaction against generic electronic music which got popular and I never understood why. I'm honest: with today's social media I get envious pretty fast when I see bad music succeed — 909 drums, pitched rhodes stabs, KDJ credibility vocals. My reaction is to make music which tries to be different in any way. Morphing granular synthesis, mumbled and cut-up vocals, four-layer kickdrums, my stuff often sounds too complex because of this drive to make it different; it doesn't get played by a lot by DJs, but I'm ok with that. Its awkwardness is a reason why the liveset makes sense for my music."
The voyage away from the safe and predictable waters of deep-house-by-numbers is where Steve Mensink (aka Frits Wentink) has set his course, injecting a little non-linearity into a cozy, fluffy sound that might have been cutting-edge when ecstasy was new and rave culture seemed to prefigure a new society, but which today can all too easily lapse into a loved-up cliché or retro triteness. "I'm after an uncomfortable feeling," he says. "Things not fitting together, but then in a right way. If this is done properly it makes me so excited, a sort of energy I could never get from the biggest drop or whatever."
Red Rack'em's 'Wrong House' Precursors playlist
Perhaps the 'wrongness' is a sort of oblique challenge to the shrinking optimism in the zeitgeist, as if these oddball dancefloor curveballs somehow suggest history –— neoliberalism, surveillance, cynicism — isn't a vast and overwhelmingly linear inevitability to which we must remain passive. Just as sales of lipstick go up in a recession, maybe the grooves get more fucked-up in more straitened times. Maybe as austerity restricts the outer possibilities of life, house music explores greater inner possibilities (all the better, hopefully, to reconnect to that external reality).
For Gavin McClary (aka Chicago Damn), one of Berman's wrong house practitioners, musical choices and trends are much more haphazardly reflective of personal matters: "It's whatever you've been thinking about, going through and influenced by. Although it might sound like 'club music', sometimes it's not made with a dancefloor in mind. Sometimes it is. The genre is irrelevant. If someone makes a funky, soulful 'minimal techno' track then I'm gonna play it, whether it's the 'dominant sound' or not. If the party called for some weird-as-fuck house music, then let's have it".
Nevertheless, such choices and tastes don't occur in a vacuum. Mensink believes programming wrong house into a club set requires a certain openness in the crowd, one that "is looking for new things and realize that generic-ness is not something that makes them happy. Some of the weirder house tracks are hard to dance to. And when you play a tune like that most of the time it gets misunderstood. People can't dance to it. But you always have listeners that are getting so excited by the fact that it is not easy to dance to. If you have a room filled with people like that, that's brilliant."
Despite having lived in Berlin for the past four-and-a-half years, Danny Berman feels it's not always easy to find a crowd who want it 'wrong': "I tend to get booked at more banging events these days with a very young crowd so it often seems a bit deep or too fucked-up to play in today's environment. But that could just be my perception — it's sometimes hard as a DJ to read the limit of the crowd. Maybe we could all play it a lot more fucked up and people will dig it. Berlin is/was great for experimenting, as people are normally a bit more open-minded at 10am in the morning."
Implicitly, a dancefloor that doesn't want familiar sounds and predictable connections tends to be more progressive in outlook, which for Berman suggests it fits the psychodynamics of particular drugs. "I would say it's a really ecstasy-leaning sound — all those atonal rhodes and fuzzy, woolly sounds. It's warm music which is aimed at those kinds of parties where people dance without caring what they look like. To me and my friends in the early 2000s it was the most druggy house out there, which is why we loved it so much! Dance music is trendy again so it's hard for people who are just in it for the music to break through the wall of standard house pretenders – so I don't think it's so easy for true wrong house to make it to wax these days. Ecstasy quality is at an all-time high, so who knows, but I think the Wall Street-style culture in dance music right now is not helping the music. Wrong house is definitely not cocaine music. I think it represents a love of jazz, contemplation, noodling, a lack of interest in 'banging' culture and more of an appreciation of hip hop, vibes, surprises and sex."
Red Rack'em's Contemporary 'Wrong House' Cuts playlist
Rather than providing the anthemic soundtrack for fashionistas and wannabes eager to demonstrate they understand the codes – to be seen in the right place, wear the right clothes, dance in the 'correct' way – wrong house is the sound of real life in all its glorious unpredictability, its swerves and sensuality. "I think wrong, slow house is waaaaay more 'sexy' than standard house," Berman purrs. "Who wants to fuck like a quantised Ableton robot? I am much more interested in a sultry, offbeat, jazzy bump."
A far cry, then, from a skeleton having a wank in a biscuit tin.