Photo via Boiler Room livestream.
Last night on the third floor of a dingy warehouse in Newark, New Jersey, a hundred or so people—mostly locals, most of whom knew each other—came together for a celebration of Newark’s local Jersey Club scene, featuring performances by R3ll, DJ Fiinesse, Uniique, Nadus, DJ Sliink, DJ Tameil, DJ Tim Dolla, and Lil Man, broadcast live to the web by Boiler Room TV. Early on in the evening, Lil Man—whose Twitter bio proclaims him “creator of Jersey Club”—played Bobby Shmurda’s “Hot N—ga,” looping the line, “Bitch I caught a body ‘bout a week ago,” tighter and tighter, until he’d turned the young Brooklyn rapper’s fight-rap anthem into a tight, spare chant of “Go! Go! Go! Go!” Soon thereafter, he proclaimed, “Let’s show ‘em how creative we is!”
The unspoken theme of the evening was solidarity within the local Newark scene, which has watched its frenetic, unique sound—characterized by clipped samples, staccato kickdrums, and the comical bed-squeak effect from Trillville’s “Some Cut”—become ubiquitous in mainstream dance music. As the sound rises, the scene’s leaders have struggled for notoriety and run the risk of being left behind. Though DJs such as Sliink, Uniique, R3ll, and Nadus are certainly rising stars in the global electronic music landscape, their renown pales in comparison to Cashmere Cat and Trippy Turtle, European DJs who have largely co-opted the sounds of Jersey Club to their own ends. Cashmere Cat scored a production credit on Ariana Grande’s My Everything with the Jersey Club-inflected “Be My Baby,” and Trippy Turtle’s debut single “Trippy’s Theme” was a marquee release for the Philadelphia-based label Mad Decent. When a festival headliner act such as Flosstradamus reaches into the underground to collaborate with Sliink (they recently released an EP titled Nomads on Fools Gold), it can be its own kinder, gentler form of co-option. Want to make a Jersey Club song but you’re not from Jersey? Collaborate with a Newark DJ, and you’ve got instant cred. The more well-known DJ can tour with the track, incorporating Jersey Club into their sets at festivals and marquee nightclubs. Meanwhile, their collaborator is often… still in Newark, an economically depressed town of about 275,000 that just a year ago was named the 6th most dangerous city in America by CNN Money.
But sound and signifiers do not a culture make, and last night served as a reminder of that. In front of the DJ booth a circle was cleared for dancers: some local legends, some kids who couldn’t have been older than 15, effortlessly performing a dizzying array of moves, working in symbiosis with the DJs and MCs to the point where you could barely tell who was driving who. This way of presenting the music—where the dancers and their battles are an integral part of the performance—is one of the aspects of Newark’s Jersey Club that sets it apart from, say, Cashmere Cat playing a Jersey Club track at a festival. An early thrill of the evening was when Lil Man remixed the Chicago bop hit “The Dlow Shuffle,” adding additional layers of maximalism and urgency to the tune while a team of dancers danced along in unison at blinding speed, seemingly extemporaneously. DJ Uniique, meanwhile, brought her own MC, and both stressed on the mic the need for the male dancers to cede the circle to women. “I wanna see some ladies in the circle, y’all fellas is sweaty and shit,” she joked, as women took center stage and danced with even more flair and vigor than their male counterparts.
The party, broadcast live to the web by Boiler Room, felt political without so much as a stated overture to Jersey Club’s place in dance music. Though Jersey Club managed to proliferate because tastemaking DJs caught on to the sound and started incorporating it into their music, dance music’s enthusiasm for new sounds and styles revealed the flaws in simply digging for new tunes on SoundCloud. Hyper-local styles such as Jersey Club—as well as Chicago footwork and bop and Bmore club—carry with them connotations that extend beyond music. Dances, communities, customs, terminology—these are things that can’t be communicated by a simple audio file. The Boiler Room live feed was a step in the right direction, offering an immersive experience that allowed Jersey Club culture to express itself on its own terms. It was an assertion that no matter how big the Newark sound gets, it won’t mean shit unless the surrounding culture gets recognized along with it. The struggle of local dance scenes isn’t simply a struggle for the popularity of an individual, or even a crew. It’s a struggle to assert that overlooked communities matter, that they can create progressive, vital art that’s all their own.
As he was closing his set, the DJ R3ll took to the mic, saying, “Shouts out to the people that’s not on the flyer! It’s not just about us. It’s so many people that’s played a role in Jersey Club.”
Drew Millard is Noisey's Features Editor. Follow him on Twitter.