Throughout history, the mask has been a loaded symbol. And while masks are an essential part of many ceremonies and holidays, they're also the province of rebels, outlaws, and thieves. Recently, the mask has cropped up in a heated discussion around anonymity and appropriation.
Last week, Dirty South Joe took to Facebook to call out masked artists from outside of New Jersey producing and DJing Jersey club music, and it's all gotten a little emotional. There's over 200 comments on Joe's post, and it's clear that message boards and comment threads may not be the best places for reasoned discussion.
So we decided to break things down in hopes of being productive. What should we make of this new crop of outsiders who have chosen to hide behind their masks? Are they culture vultures or just creative types adding flair and mystery to their music? There's a range of opinions on the subject.
In case you haven't been paying attention, here's a quick crash course: Jersey club is an offshoot of Batimore club that got its start in Newark around 2001. It rides on heavy kick triplets and the beat switches up all over the place. It's played at around 140 beats-per-minute and uses lots of cut-up vocal samples, usually from rap and R&B.
Dirty South Joe, who manages some of club's top producers, kicked up the dust by saying these secretive artists are taking opportunities away from Jersey artists. He also said the actions of these masked men have racial implications, with white people getting more opportunities than the black artists who started and perpetuate the culture in Jersey.
To be fair, most of these anonymous artists are not stacking like Scrooge McDuck or anything, and some Jersey artists don't come from poor backgrounds either. But the issue of more privileged artists taking a genre birthed in urban settings with a long history and running with it once it's trendy is an issue that concerns a lot of people (although not everyone).
Jersey producer DJ Tiga isn't a fan of the masked men (or women?) either. He's frustrated with the trend and wonders why they can't just stand up as themselves and show love for the sound. But it's bigger than the mask to him and he wouldn't support them even if they took off the disguise. "It shouldn't have had to come this far, where Jersey has to ask of this," he tells me. "It's principals and matters of respect. Even Jersey shows love and respect to Bmore."
"Everyone else runs with the bookings because we've been sharing our craft for years, and now that the genre is blooming, people want to play the tunes," he adds.
Still, Tiga acknowledges a number of outsiders who are engaging with the genre in a positive way, including Dubbel Dutch, Sinjin Hawk, DJ Slow, and Sam Tiba. He's also released music on France's Moveltraxx alongside OG Jersey club producer Tameil. And even Dirty South Joe personally thinks the masked artists are making good music. So it's not like anyone's trying to throw up barriers to the sound. In fact, there was going to be a Brick Bandits Japan chapter, although that fell through.
Dj Uniique expressed her concerns about cloaked artists in a piece we ran shortly before the shitstorm, and she asked for the artists to reveal themselves. But some of those signaled out have said, in more discreet forums, that label contracts are a reason they hide their faces.
Responses from veiled artists signaled out by Dirty South Joe vary. The anonymous Trippy Turtle was brief in an email exchange with me, and his main contribution was, "It's just music man. Music doesn't have borders or laws." DJ Hoodboi didn't respond to a request for comment by the time of publication. Yolo Bear will actually be performing tomorrow in Brooklyn with Uniique, Nadus, and Tiga, but that's not really an endorsement since it was Brenmar who insisted they join him on the bill. DJ Funeral was also named, but was one many said shouldn't be lumped into this category (including Joe himself after the fact). Unsurprisingly, Funeral had some things to say:
"DJ Funeral has many influences, club music being one. Starting a project completely separate from my established alias more than anything else gave me creative freedom from both the expectations of established fans and the restrictions of my exclusive recording agreement. However, the umbrella of anonymity itself isn't the whole issue here. The real problem lies with those who tag their music as 'Jersey Club' or even go so far as to claim they are from 'Jersey' while obscuring their true identities. This kind of parodying, while seemingly inoffensive, can potentially disenfranchise artists by replacing their culture with faceless enterprise. There's an assumed difference between inspiration vs. imitation, but most people vary in some degree on where to draw that particular line. In some cases, that line gets irrefutably crossed."
The Funeral subject is a strange one, because he and the Body High label have been invaluable in breaking the genre outside of the state and related scenes. And yet, the trend of anonymous (if not masked) producers making Jersey club started with DJ Ghost Pepper on one of the label's first releases.
And Tim Dolla, who also agrees that Jersey should go harder in response, points out that imbalances of power are always a problem. Within Jersey, for example, DJs reap most of the benefits while producers don't receive nearly as much shine.
He goes on to say that the issue of newcomers taking a piece of Jersey club is also not unheard of. Something similar happened when the second generation of kids in Jersey making club were coming up. "We've gone through this before with the up-and-coming kids," the veteran recalls. "That's why we took the people we could see were going to be hot and showed them some things. We took them under. So it's like, certain people who are hot, you can reach out and work with them."
But Dolla's personal opinion of this new stuff is less conciliatory: "Half of that shit is garbage. Mothafuckas ain't hot."
Mike Steyels will never reveal any of his real names - @iswayski