A few years back, in the heyday of chillwave, it seemed to me that a lot of trending music relied on easy tricks in order to fake a cohesive aesthetic, disguising the fact that the music was light on craft and substance. Somewhere in the mud and murk of that time, there began a strong if somewhat subconscious trend toward appreciating people who knew what they were doing, and toward embracing clarity. Maybe I imagined this trend, but it sent me further into the far corners of electronic music than I might have ventured otherwise. That road eventually led me to Future Brown and, because they are extremely proficient and precise and make exquisite party beats, a belief that they’re one of the better groups making music in modern times.
Future Brown work in grime, dancehall, reggaeton, r&b, Chicago bop, hip-hop and more. They’re producers and DJs, and all four members are respected and revered in their own right. Los Angelenos Asma Maroof and Daniel Pineda are well-regarded as experimentalist duo Nguzunguzu. Kuwaiti-born, New York-based Fatima Al Qadiri has released highly processed vocal landscapes as Ayshay and futuristic instrumental explorations of an “imagined China” under her own name. J-Cush operates NYC’s Lit City Trax, known for bringing footwork and other progressive regional genres to greater recognition through legacy releases (including the late, great DJ Rashad) and legendary parties in major cities across the US. Before Future Brown was even a gleam in their collective eye, they were responsible for some of our era’s most forward-thinking music.
Where some are known for experimentation in the avant garde, the members of Future Brown seem to function within the group as each other’s ballasts; none of these vastly different songs sounds out of place next to the others. All of them present within the context of a shared and clear vision. Their eponymous debut album starts off with “Room 302,” a feature by Tink, a 19-year-old powerhouse singer and rapper from Calumet City, Illinois, just outside Chicago. You’ll know her soon enough, if you don’t already. On “Room 302” she wastes no time pussyfooting in a celebration of hotel sex. (“You been going steady with the girl of your dreams/But the girl in your bed ain’t shit like me.”) As ice-cold as her delivery can be, Tink is fun and a little madcap in her lyrics, and she’s more or less perfect on the last song on the record. (“Don’t you wanna party/with some liquor in your body?/Fuck this club, let’s get drunk/Why you talkin’ to me?”) That song, “Wanna Party,” was the first single from Future Brown and introduced signature elements: the majestic church bells that open the track, huge bass, an atomic beat and a supremely deft use of space that felt worldly and state-of-the-art. Few things sound quite as good coming out of a well-tuned club system.
One of those ethereal Future Brown bells also opens “Talkin Bandz,” followed by an unsettling, super-synthetic voice, which might also work as a description for the hook: a heavily processed Chicago-based DJ Victoriouz getting down to the business of “bandz” with an elastic, almost viscous chorus. Both the synthesized voice and the hook are good examples of the level of craft happening here. The voice could’ve gone all wrong in lesser hands; instead, it’s elegant and chilling. Victoriouz is saturated in Auto-Tune in a way that’s deflated peoples’ opinions of other well-known artists but, again, here it sits very comfortably alongside the ricocheting metallic percussion and synth lines that drip from the ceiling. No matter how much or how little is going on, Future Brown know how to wield the space. It certainly seems as if a lot of precision work went into making these sounds — as well as this record works at the club, it’s at least as good on headphones.
Another Chicagoan, Shawnna, destroys with rapid-fire, standard-setting verses on “Talkin Bandz” (“I’m not like that other shit/Don’t compare me to no other bitch/My wrist game like butter, whipped/So please get off my mothership/I’m hot”) that complement the thick-as-molasses hook and bounce off Future Brown’s beat like a well-played pinball. It’s apparent that Future Brown write with specific vocalists in mind and that an aspect of their expertise lies in knowing how to pair music with the strengths of their collaborators. The Chicago bop of “Big Homie” is a personal favorite, with its jerky sampled steel drum, thin, cracking snare and Sicko Mobb’s wiry, restless vocals. Despite its sinister synths and insistent dancehall beat, “No Apology” becomes, for Kingston-based dancehall star Timberlee, almost anthemic. (“This fuck is a go/This fuck is a go/’Cause every time we fuck it’s like I’m fuckin’ a pro/Fuck without apology tonight.”) If you haven’t seen the surreal video for ultramodern reggaeton number “Vernáculo,” you should; NYC’s Maluca, aka Maluca Mala, is as captivating and hi-gloss in its absurd, hypnotic take on beauty propaganda as she sounds while delivering a socio-political declaration of her intent to say wtf she wants. (“Mírame el culo, mi vernáculo.”) Track by track, Future Brown tackle those genres, along with grime (“Speng” and “Asbestos”), R&B (“Dangerzone”), drill (“Killing Time”) and hip-hop (“MVP”), each bearing hallmarks of the group as well as the distinct regional traditions that inspired them. The vocalists similarly hail from far and wide, representing Chicago, LA (Kelela), NYC (Ian Isiah, Tim Vocals), London (Riko Dan, Roachee, Prince Rapid, Dirty Danger), and New Orleans (3D Na’Tee). Some of the vocalists’ names will be more readily recognized than others, but all of them hit a high mark. The only notable exception comes on “Killing Time,” featuring Johnny May Cash, YB and King Rell, which has a lot going for it but gets a weak final verse. It’s not that it’s bad, but it suffers in comparison to the greatness surrounding it.
In Escape from Evil (a book I like so much that I named my band’s new album after it), Ernest Becker talks about how early man used magic in community rituals to renew life. In 1975, Becker used the phrase “giving life” in a way analogous to the modern colloquialism “giving us life” to describe that which is inspiring or transformative. He touches briefly on how the only modern experience he can think of that comes close is live music performance. But in the computer age it’s no longer strictly limited to live performance. Live shows and parties are still where this kind of rejuvenating force is most potent, but music is, in some senses, also experienced collectively when it’s released and celebrated on the internet. Future Brown being a quintessentially modern group, and a project with nearly 20 vocalists and counting, they will exist for most of us on the internet more than anywhere else. Fortunately it’s the kind of music that brings people together, even if it’s within a virtual reality. Future Brown has managed a serious coup here: an album that is pristine and powerful in nearly every which way and, in a very real sense, giving life.