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How Total Freedom’s devastating DJ sets changed club music

We trace the influence of Ashland Mines on today’s dark dancefloors, pioneering fashion shows and chart-topping rap records

In our Under the Influence series, we'll be tracing the ideas of underground artists, designers, labels and collectives and the impact that they’ve had on pop culture as we know it, examining how the revolutionary aesthetics and attitudes of outsiders make their way into the mainstream, and importantly, how much that should be valued and not forgotten.

For bodies marked by “otherness”, clubs as functional spaces are at once oppressive and liberating. For over a decade, Miami–based artist and DJ Ashland Mines has exploited that dichotomy, disrupting the linearity of club sets under his Total Freedom moniker to often devastating effect. This talent for compressing club atmospheres before working crowds into an almost religious catharsis has elevated Mines to a mythologised status across various creative networks and nodes of underground subculture. And as a true artists’ artist, Mines’ disruptive ethos echoes through a collaborative network of contemporaries shaking up the zeitgeist from the margins of popular culture.

Mines traces his gravitation towards the discomforting and grotesque to an unorthodox upbringing in the woodlands of New Jersey. “We were freaks no matter which angle you look at it from,” Mines recalls about the realities of being an affluent black family in active Klansmen country. “I was raised with a very clear impression and constant reminders that I was an outsider.”

It is with this spatial awareness that Mines would find a kinship with similar artists on the fringes of Los Angeles’ creative scene years later. Together with close friends and collaborators Wu Tsang and NGUZUNGUZU’s Asma Maroof and Daniel Pineda, Mines co–created Wildness in 2008, a clubnight in downtown Los Angeles’ The Silver Platter. The party pulled into its orbit Los Angeles’ overlapping immigrant, transgender and arts communities during its brief but formative two-year lifetime. In the eponymous, award-winning documentary about the party, Tsang’s visual narrative paints how its young creators, wide-eyed and inexperienced, had to straddle the complex intersections of class, gender and race. “I think Wildness was the origin of major artistic development for all of us,” Tsang once said in a Rhizome interview. “We started out as amateurs still learning how to use our equipment and we eventually got more sophisticated with our ideas and skills.”

The bar’s glitter-strewn, checkered dance floor became a contested political space, and the intra-cultural frictions of an urbanised population in flux translated, consciously or otherwise, into the party’s music policy. Mines describes the music as “disorienting”, clashing regional dance styles with sounds from across the southern border and the Latin Atlantic. It was at this unassuming bar in Los Angeles’ downtown that the city’s disparate musical influences began to instill in Mines what would later become his defining template of juxtaposed chaos and respite.

In hindsight Wildness also laid the connective tissue for a band of Los Angeles creatives later christened Fade to Mind – the label home to NGUZUNGUZU, Prince William, Fatima Al Qadiri, and Rizzla amongst others – which would go on to launch artists such as Kelela into crossover fame on the back of the label’s particular brand of brooding, net-artsy R&B and post-apocalyptic club constructions.

“I met Ashland around 2003 in western Massachusetts, but it wasn’t until a few years later when I met Asma and Daniel through him where I felt the crew congealing a bit,” muses Fade to Mind co–founder and producer Ezra Rubin, aka Kingdom. “When I started taking trips to LA for DJ gigs, the four of us would roam around in the desert, make little jam session recordings. That’s when I first played their party, Wildness, which also influenced the formation of Fade to Mind.”

Meanwhile, on the opposite coast in Brooklyn, Mines left crowds stumbling out onto the streets breathless after his sets at GHE20G0TH1K – the now iconic party conceptualised by Hood By Air’s Shayne Oliver and Jazmin Soto aka Venus X – where Mines would have his creative awakening. “I was turning into my image of the worst fucking trash DJ, and then GHE20G0TH1K happened – this space where I could actually be creative and communicate,” Mines mentioned in an interview with The FADER.

“We were freaks no matter which angle you look at it from. I was raised with a very clear impression and constant reminders that I was an outsider” – Total Freedom

The party came about in response to the campy lethargy of the New York queer party scene at the turn of the decade and quickly became a physical outlet for the restless creative pulse of the city’s disparate African American, Asian, Latin and queer communities that had hitherto only manifested itself on obscure Soundcloud pages and Tumblrs. The party’s indecipherable flyers – layered in warped text, hentai and BDSM imagery – teased sets from Oliver, Soto and Mines in particular that decontextualized American pop hits, stripped them of their corporatized optimism and reanimated their high–gloss carcasses with the rhythms and existential anxiety of ghettoes from around the globe.

In this way, Mines’ sets vibrated with the pulse of a Third World online, something he attributes to music sharing site Soundclick, a repository for everything from Latin covers of popular rap hits to low bitrate dancehall club sketches. “The music I play, generally is made by 15–year–old kids in Portugal that I don’t know and who don’t give a shit about me,” Mines told Interview Magazine.

It was into one such set that a young Alejandro Ghersi, aka producer Arca, would wander. “I remember having intense pangs of excitement in the pit of my stomach in response to his sets at (GHE20G0TH1K),” Ghersi says, “He was kind of holding up charts and diagrams, colliding and collapsing opposites in such a fertile way.” He recalls the intensity of the sound – “all sobs and gospel prayers, helicopters noises and screams and glass crashing,” as he puts it – and the way that Mines would then “throw you back into a dungeon of hellfire all with so much gory glee. He was absolutely the first person I ever heard do that in a club, years and years ago.”

“There’s so many DJs that are just sort of hobbyists – they play whatever, like pop trash – but to be able to play an edit of a pop song with a proper club track, you have to have control and confidence as a DJ to do that,” producer and DJ M.E.S.H. told 032c in a group interview with fellow Janus label associates Lotic and Dan DeNorch, “And for me right now, the most interesting DJs, like Ashland, are doing stuff like that.” 

“It would be all sobs and gospel prayers, helicopters noises and screams and glass crashing and then he’d throw you back into a dungeon of hellfire all with so much gory glee. He was absolutely the first person I ever heard do that in a club, years and years ago” – Arca

“GHE20G0TH1K, in terms of their use of CDJs, was completely revolutionary,” DeNorch continued, making specific mention of how this new club sound, pioneered by Mines and his GHE20G0TH1K contemporaries, is intricately interwoven with the possibilities being presented by new technological hardware specifically the CDJ–2000. “It’s a different form of DJing – it’s a completely new art form. There’s only so much you can do with a turntable. Now what we use are Pioneer CDJs, and the mixer, and that allows you to do things you couldn’t fathom ten years ago.”

“We all taught each other,” says Mines. “What Venus and Shane were giving in 2012 (was) untouchable, both of them will still disintegrate the club if you let them. Kingdom’s psychedelic live deconstructions of R&B songs, Asmara and Manara’s obscene, precise joy – we all developed each other’s voices.” 

It’s through this improvised use of hardware that Mines is able to render his sets virtually Shazam-proof through his on-the-fly DIY edits hammered out of programmed cue points, dragging bodies in the club through jarring plunges from 140 to 92 BPM before ascending once more within the space of three tracks. “Sometimes I want to fill the floor with broken glass and just leave a (microphone) on, feedbacking through the PA for an hour, but sometimes I want to just play R&B,” Mines tells me. No technique or creative flourish behind the decks is off limits, in fact, just recently Mines slipped ripped press conference audio of charges being laid against officers implicated in the death of Freddie Gray into a set at Brooklyn Night Bazaar, an apolitical marketplace and hipster enclave.

“I think Total Freedom’s work has always showed that your creative practice can be about defining boundaries, drawing connections between disparate sounds, delineating the connections then breaking them all apart again,” says Rubin, “less about building an altar to one sound but more about finding the farthest edges of the sounds you are drawn to and being fearless with it.”

Ghersi is particularly vocal about Mines’ influence on his work. “I can hear his way of delivering messages echoing in my own work,” he says. “I can sometimes swear I can even through the work of people who might not know who he is. And I don’t think he is threatened by that at all. I find it beautiful how he is so removed from caring about anything other than saying what he feels he needs to say through his work.”

In this way, Mines’ disruptive approach opened new avenues for visualising and perceiving sound. With this new sonic vocabulary the articulation of crippling anxiety, queer marginalisation and sexual freedom became possible, areas of the emotional spectrum previously untapped by a largely straight white hegemony in electronic music. This trickled down into production methods across the board and manifested in varying permutations on labels like PAN and sublabel CODES, Tri Angle, Halcyon Veil, Staycore and NON. Across the Atlantic this sound was being spearheaded by parties in London like Lexxi’s Endless or the popular Tropical Waste nights and even breaking ground within such shrines to house and techno as Berlin by the Janus collective; nights that Mines himself has played.

“It’s kind of fucked up – standing in the paradox of still feeling like a screaming witch, like an actual freak but seeing the voices and attitudes me and my friends have developed disseminated into popular culture, all hacked to bits” – Total Freedom

Above ground, this influence would have similar impact on gatekeepers and giants of modern popular culture. In New York’s creative circles, a significant cross-pollination of ideas was taking place in club backrooms and fashion show front rows. Kanye West’s divisive Yeezus seethed with Ghersi’s – and, by proxy – GHE20G0TH1K’s familiar distorted snarl; a connection facilitated by Shayne Oliver and Been Trill’s Matthew Williams, a friend of Kanye West’s. A$AP Rocky championed Oliver’s Hood By Air label and its transfigurement of streetwear into high gloss luxury, while Kanye’s long-time creative director Virgil Abloh played GHE20G0TH1K. Jazmin Soto locked horns with Rihanna for GHE20 G0TH appropriation while Mines found his music featured in DJ sets by living deity Björk.

But with this newfound hypervisibility comes a degree of commodification and erasure of the black queer origins and symbolic meaning of the sound and aesthetic. Asked about this, Mines responds, “It’s kind of fucked up – standing in the paradox of still feeling like a screaming witch, like an actual freak but seeing the voices and attitudes me and my friends have developed disseminated into popular culture, all hacked to bits.” Mines and his contemporaries therefore have something of a tenuous relationship with an uninspired centre represented by media and popular culture enticed by the “otherness” of those on the margins but only insofar as it is palatable.

Despite this, Mines stills finds solace in what Wildness and GHE20G0TH1K managed to achieve at their most fundamental level. “I guess those parties are where I started to realize how much you can provide with something as simple as speakers in a black box. I think the last year has a lot of people feeling like really beheaded, or at least profoundly confused. There’s a lot of feeling helpless and hopeless that can be worked through in those places. Not saying a nightclub is the answer to climate change or war – but making noise has always been therapeutic for me. I know from experience that going out to the right club or listening to the right record can save your head. I’ve screamed my throat hoarse and bruised my hand punching it against the wall during a Nkisi set; I’ve sobbed my eyes dry listening to a Visionist record – and I’m better for it.”