Because they come from a city where the relationship between physical geographies and their respective musical traditions is territorial, the issue of musical appropriation is not only relevant, but also a central concern in The-Drum’s music. The fracturing of an urban space like Chicago into discrete turfs, each with their own distinct micro-cultures, renders the city’s sonic dimension a proxy space for the marking of territory. This phenomenon becomes additionally complex in the digital era, wherein the internet serves as a two-way virtual window running between the local and the global.
Add to that the fact that, in 2013, Chicago’s prominence as both a hip-hop and dance music capitol is reaching a climax. The apocalyptic sonic extremes of the drill sound popularized by teenage producers like Young Chop and 12 Hunna have infiltrated the hip-hop mainstream to the degree that the sound has become an aesthetic signifier for Blackness itself, consumed by the whole of America on a massive scale. Meanwhile, increased visibility of the formerly underground phenomenon of footwork has spawned a worldwide fascination with the fast tempos and rhythmic trickery propagated by Chicago natives DJ Rashad, RP Boo, and DJ Nate (whose recent robbery was made publicly viewable over YouTube). In light of all this, it’s not surprising, then, that The-Drum (a.k.a. Chicago’s Brandon Boom and Jeremiah Chrome)’s debut album Contact finds the group positioning themselves in an extremely specific sonic space.
On Contact, The-Drum navigate the rhythmic clusterfuck that is their hometown scene in a way that simultaneously respects their influences and challenges them, making a caricature of the contemporary listener’s insatiable beat fetish by teasing our desire to learn the rules of an unfamiliar sound — remember, sound is space. Contact’s compositions are much more deliberate than the record ends up feeling, and that’s the beauty of the thing. Boom and Chrome extract, isolate, and synthesize elements from across the grid of their home city’s varied tempos and rhythms in order to draw attention to the ways in which geographically disparate scenes aren’t really so far apart.
The immanent faded God/ego of commercial trap gets blasted here into orbit along with its speed-addled but wizened older cousin, who lived through the psychotropia of acid house and the rampant BPM escalation that gave way to first juke and then footwork. On “Sirens,” Martian throat-singing suddenly invades an machinic backdrop of ballroom bass and a gravitational snare clink, and the track coalesces into a dromoscopic netherworld somewhere between the pleasure-seeking immediacy of social media-age club culture and the psychonautical asceticism of synth drone.
This unnerving dichotomy persists throughout the length of Contact, an equal fascination with New Age camp and dead-serious rhythmic mindfuckery that exposes the listener simultaneously to signifiers of experimentation and to pure, immediate pleasure. Contact hums with the polyphonic data of the omnipotent cloud network, but filtered through a deliberately futurist lens. At the opening of the record, an uncanny bitcrushed voice establishes the listener’s “data connection,” and all the compositions are orchestrated with so many biomorphic sounds that it becomes impossible to distinguish between synthetic and organic. If Contact doesn’t sound sci-fi enough for you yet, it even has a video-game-style pseudo-origin: the aural experience has been curated for the listener by a virtual pharmaceutical corporation called Sense Net (also the name of the duo’s first EP).
The-Drum wouldn’t be able pull off this much stargazing kitsch if it weren’t supplemented by such a visionary grasp of how tiny mutations in rhythm spawn wormholes into unforeseen galaxies. Mid-album centerpiece “Narco” showcases their ability to trace the movement of rhythmic memes across genres, enveloping the listener in a meditation on the evolution of sound. The track fades in with retro-futurist sonics that could easily be the soundtrack to one of those educational LaserDiscs about the universe that your 6th grade science teacher made you watch — at the center of the mix, a thick, insistent kick drum thrusts the listener into a panorama of deep space other-fetishization with the colonial urgency of NASA circa 1984.
Just when the vessel is breaking free of the Earth’s gravity, an alien presence intervenes: the kick begins to fade and the spine of the track snakes into a spare trap wriggle with distant snaps punctuating the eons of empty space between the beats. By shifting from New Age overdrive into a blunted, meandering cadence, The-Drum foregrounds the cartoonishly exotic atmosphere of the song rather than attempting to mask it under self-seriousness. Then at the halfway mark, around four minutes, “Narco” pulls yet another structural fast one — this time, the beat disintegrates completely, leaving behind only a cloying robotic vocal and the intermittent cascade of white-hot footwork battle clicks. Double-time 808 subs come bubbling up and engage the terrestrial kick from the beginning in polyrhythmic flirtation. The listener’s model of physical space gets hacked and corrupted throughout the course of the track. The medium works the listener over, the subject is stripped of their capacity to territorialize. The ego is dragged through a dissociative wormhole when we lose the ability to know which sounds belong to us and which belong to an other.
Contact contains the molecules of trap, drill, UK bass, dancehall, footwork, R&B, and even Top 40 pop, all suspended together in deep space and unhinged from their earthly preoccupations. Out here, the traces of influence are ethereal; sometimes the beats aren’t even audible, mere phantasmic outlines implied by the arrangement of the melodic elements. The-Drum’s intuitive understanding of sonic space explodes into moments of cosmic revelation when they deny the listener the seismic drops we’ve been conditioned to anticipate, asking us to consider whether or not our intuition is valid. This encouragement to meditate unleashes the vaporous dreamstate at the core of The-Drum’s influences into a high-vaulted temple, allowing their micro-focused earworms to expand and billow into shapes that evoke the Lynchian horror-state that lurks in the psyche of mainstream hip-hop’s Auto-Tuned, rap-singing EDM/R&B hybrid. The hallucinogenic sensory data of the club has always been imagining the cosmos, trying to establish contact with a force greater than itself with the right combination of flashing lights, chemicals, and sound frequencies. Contact ends up being less about physical proximity than it is about imagining contact — a paranoia that says there’s something out there on the other side of the door, and it’s peering back at you.