FACT’s Brad Stabler heads into deepest, darkest Brooklyn to investigate two different-but-related outposts shining a light on the city’s emerging talent: Bootleg Tapes, an irreverent cassette imprint helmed by Lord SMS, and Swim Team, a collective of like-minded dance music obsessives throwing parties and putting out tracks.
Let’s start with the epilogue. Up until January 16, the night of the last Household, winter had been mild, or at its worst, pleasantly annoying. That week Trans-Pecos, an out-of-the-way Brooklyn DIY spot (The Bunker’s venue of choice) nestled on the cusp of the Bushwick-Ridgewood border, suddenly had to move all its shows due to the lack of heat; up until showtime Swim Team had been assured that its annual monthly was going to be at the usual time. Needless to say, it wasn’t. Due to emergency renovations, it was moved a block away to a tiny Mexican restaurant with an even smaller makeshift dance floor and just one bathroom, all of which was soon swamped by wayward dancing travelers and fog, visibly pissing off the staff. Bottles of water were $4, sodas went for $3, just for that night.
Navigating the party’s center was Lord SMS, aka Ritchard Swain, founder of Bootleg Tapes, jumping back and forth between the roster of DJs and the crowd, grinning from ear to ear. The party ended up getting cut short but all of Swim Team’s regulars (SMS, DJ Lilmatt, Color Plus, AceMo, DJ John Brooklyn, Kanyon, and rapper Izy) played, with special guest Helix along for the ride. The next day I went to interview them for this article, and it quickly became apparent that none of us was in any state to answer or ask questions. We were better off waiting until later, and instead spent the time watching X-Files and eating bodega sandwiches.
“Everything has its place.”
It’s easy to to try to connect Swim Team and Bootleg Tapes, as Swain is actively involved with both – he is always around for the latter, and founded the former. AceMo and Kanyon have both released tapes on Bootleg, as will Color Plus will later this year. Swim Team’s first compilation was released on tape rather than the traditional vinyl that’s almost mandatory for club music. The tentative links are there, but Swim Team would rather you leave them alone: it’s important to approach the two projects separately.
“Bootleg,” Swain explained, is “a showcase of music that is envisioned in physical form before production. It doesn’t have to be dance music, it can be anything that’s fitting with the aesthetic of a bootleg.” For what that aesthetic actually is, you’re going to have to go back a little ways. Back in the 90s, Canal St was a bootlegger’s paradise, with rows of storefronts selling counterfeit goods – from knockoffs of popular clothing brands to pirated copies of the latest albums and television shows (usually anime or kung fu flicks). Swain, a New York native, was hooked from the jump, impressed by how the tapes were all handmade (usually in bulk), and transferred and duplicated by hand. The stickers and J-cards were never quite right, often faded or off-center, but for anyone who bought a bootleg in the 90s it was ultimately endearing. Besides, you still had the same shit compared to the official thing anyway. And if that’s offensive, it made the difference between dropping $5 or $15.
The “beat scene,” as it’s referred to both affectionally and otherwise, had stagnated by 2013. Wave after wave of Dilla and Flying Lotus copycats had begun spinning in circles like wheels in the snow, and at that point, Swain felt like he needed to regain control. Imprints that specialized in it were picking up steam in Brooklyn, like the more polished Paxico Records and the grittier, soulful Dirty Tapes. But Swain wasn’t trying to start a schism; he just wanted to get weird. He had been making beats, but was turning increasingly toward VHS culture and noise, and decided he needed an outlet to do things his own way. With SEXTAPE, there was an opportunity.
SEXTAPE, on paper, is something that outright should not work, and it definitely wouldn’t if it weren’t for irony and the internet. It’s a whiplash-inducing 33 tracks on cassette, accompanied by a 30-minute VHS of public access karaoke, RoboCop, dead memes, skating, and porn. Lots of porn – the uglier and more poorly filmed the better. It would be the first project where Swain would change his moniker to Lord $M$, and together with Lampgod (aka Bryant Canelo), it was deliciously weird. Who the hell would it put it out? Bootleg Tapes would.
“You know, you have to bring something to the table before you can start getting at people you want to work with.”
Ritchard Swain, Lord SMS
Swain thought back to Canal Street and figured he would do it all himself. He and Canelo locked themselves indoors for five days to edit the audio and video themselves, working until everything felt right and doing all the tapes and printing by hand. This worked like gangbusters, immediately getting the new label buzz from word-of-mouth (or just words from Tiny Mix Tapes). It wasn’t until three releases later that Swain caught his breath and realized that Bootleg was working, immediately followed by the thought, “Holy shit! This is sweet! I’ve got a lot of fucking tapes to make!”
It’s a one man show, too. All the tapes are picked up in a huge army bag from a distribution center way out in Brooklyn filled with dead stock, then taken back home before the master gets made and the tapes are used. Everything that goes with the tape – art, stickers, stamps – is done by hand on a short-circuiting printer. They all look and sound flawless, and like a real Canal St bootleg, the devil’s in the details. Each release is done one by one until it’s out.
In theory, Bootleg isn’t the kind of label that would blow up: its releases are still announced sporadically and everything’s hush-hush. There’s no release schedule, or a press blast. There’s only a Facebook page and the label’s artists either keep a low profile or put their bigger projects on bigger imprints. There’s a sense you get by listening to a Bootleg tape that you’re listening to a series of conversations between friends and music fans actively showing off what they’re into.
“[Bootleg] is DIY in the purest sense, it’s at home. It’s [part of] the beginning of a new era of labels, ” says Nick Guy, aka VESA, who released two tapes in 2014, Wet Dreams and Angels. “You have the freedom to try different shit – I could put out an ambient tape, I could put out a boom-bap tape. You can explore. It’s more about the artists.”
It would be all too easy to call Bootleg a “lo-fi” label, but it’s more of a hideout for different artists to explore different modes without boundaries. VESA’s Wet Dreams, a standout from last year, deleted hip-hop from the producer’s blueprint altogether, instead taking a tropical ambient (some might even call it vaporwave) direction and bumming it the fuck out over the course of 20 minutes. AceMo, who is better known for producing straight-up club tracks, turned himself inside out on his release Boarders, pushing all his backdrops to the foreground.
Then there are projects like Cleaners and Kanyon, which are easier to explain than attempt to get at what they actually sound like. Real Raga Shit Vol. 1 from Cleaners (word is mum on whether there will ever be a second volume) consists of two uniform sets of sound collage pieces that are equal parts spoken word and orchestral experimentation. Kanyon’s Paladium is all kinds of warped – shimmering chimes and thick kick drums dragged through molasses and then shot into the upper reaches of the atmosphere on a bottle rocket-powered Cadillac. Still others, like Celestial Trax’s Ride or Die, a co-release between Purple Tape Pedigree and Bootleg, are there just because they should be on tape; because, why not?
Each release may not be related musically, but they hang together through Swain’s direction, whether musically or artistically. Every release, down to the stickers on the tape, the insert, and the cover, are designed (by Swain or in certain cases the artists themselves) to hang together based on how they look on a shelf, just like a collector would want. The only stamp that shows it’s Bootleg is a screen cap of a strange woman either singing, or screaming. It’s on every tape. There’s no consistency with the artwork or even the fonts but you might notice that woman. You see that and go, “Oh! I trust that label!”
What Bootleg comes down to is curation: these are friends and musical inspirations (Swain points out Bryant Canelo and Leaving Records’ D/P/I, specifically) that Swain wants to put out. “Connecting with like minds is the key to evolving. Evolution is always what I’m trying to learn and better myself at in all regards. So all these artists are my friends through naturally finding who I can work with and who I’m relative with, not just with the kind of shit that we’re into making music-wise but just the kind of people that we are.”
That’s how this whole Swim Team thing started, too.
Everyone in Swim Team grew up on dance music. “I heard jungle on pirate radio stations in middle school,” explains Color Plus, aka Lars Probert, over email one day. “I thought it was cool as fuck. I remember being that guy in the chatroom asking for every ID and was so amazed how people would know every single track.” Lilmatt came up mostly the same way: “Jungle and techno, my brother put me onto it. When I got into it more he would show me photos from Contact, Mayday, NASA, all those old parties.”
“Jock Jams tapes,” Kanyon added. “Ecstasy.”
If there was a jumping off point for Swim Team, it was just a mutual love for dance music. House, footwork, and UK bass (2-step, grime, early dubstep, you name it), a faster tempo, and a desire to start something they could call their own. No one predicted that they’d be getting rinsed by Plastician and Skream by the end of 2014.
“I don’t think we’re trying to stand out, we just wanted our own party. Our own outlet to play our tracks and shit we’re into… and book DJs we really fuck with.”
Swim Team isn’t quite a label, yet. There’s been one compilation – mastered by Swain and dubbed to tape – with a psychedelic backdrop and a large smiley face over the top. Regardless of everyone’s separate projects, Swim Team is specifically about music for dancing. Fuck genre, just play a different tempo, or go a different direction altogether; rinse Young Thug and Mike Gip in the same hour, keep it loose and keep people moving.
Part of this is a knee-jerk reaction to the various circles that the members of Swim Team used to hang out in: beat shows. Six hours of 92bpm, regardless of how pretty the backdrop is, or how technically gifted the producer happens to be, turns into counting sheep remarkably quickly. I met Probert through SoundCloud in 2011 during the beat scene’s peak, and although no one in Swim Team wishes to be associated with it anymore, they still stress mad love for the folks they know who are still involved. Either way, the conclusion was foregone: with the amount of moves that dance music has made over the past couple of years (especially in footwork and grime), there had to be a point where it was time to stop making tracks for your homies and start a party.
“I was making really downtempo stuff before,” AceMo, aka Adrian Mojica, recalls. “I started being up in the city and playing shows. I wanted to move and make people move too, and the music I was playing out wasn’t making that happen for me.”
Then came Household, a night designed to come across the same as a sweaty basement party, complete with borderline-uncomfortable amounts of fog, and darkness in every available corner. “I want people that normally feel uncomfortable dancing or just doing their own thing to be comfortable,” Matt elaborates. “And the sound needs to be right, naturally. I know too many fools that have thrown parties and not paid any attention to sound at all, which is just foreign as hell to me.”
There’s an order to the madness. Color Plus, DJ John Brooklyn, Kanyon, AceMo, Rambow, Lord SMS, and Lilmatt will throw everything into the mix, with resident rapper Izy working like an anchor. He adapts to almost anything that’s played, while occasionally spitting bars on his own, Swim Team-produced tracks. Izy’s wordplay is loose, electric and spontaneous; it’s fun as hell and always barely-above tolerably loud.
Household’s manifesto is to be accessible. Swim Team have stated time and time again in our conversations that the goal isn’t to have an air of importance or snobbery, but to specialize in a complete bill every time, to be trusted to shut the house down. The guests can rotate and the residents can play in any order, but the quality has to be upheld, and it always has to stay cheap.
This is a balancing act for two reasons: one, as Swim Team’s profile continues, so will the artists that come to join them. Two, the roster relies on brand loyalty, and even that has an expiration date. But the goal of Swim Team’s Household is an admirable one, to say the least. Unlike the swathes of NYC’s more well-known niche parties – Legendary, Geng’s DWMS, Aurora Halal’s Mutual Dreaming – Household is the same group of collaborators doing their thing, once a month, without fail, with curation already in place and the promise of everything from ballroom to techno.
But if Household is the party, then what is Swim Team beyond a collective? The jury’s out on whether it’ll become a label. Color Plus just recently released a knockout EP on Terrorhythm, and Bootleg is planning to follow up with a cassette collection of B-sides. The difference between Bootleg and Swim Team becomes more clear as you see the artists in action: Bootleg is all Swain and SMS behind it, while Swim Team is about individualism as far as artists and a group effort with Household.
For now, “all our shit is hybrid,” says SMS. It’s a group effort. Lilmatt adds: “Most of us have the same idea for what we wanna do. Right now we’re just trying to make shit stick.” If Poolboy92 and DJ New Jersey Drone are your next guests, something’s definitely working.
Still, it all comes back to the homies. “I consider myself a musician,” says AceMo at the end of our thread. “Bootleg is an amazing outlet where I can do literally what I want and have it be heard. I’m releasing a tape with Dali Vision, and Ritch and I are putting some shit out, too.” But the difference between the two is that “we make shit for the dance floor – that shit you play off your phone when your boy asks for the aux before the party.” Separate but equal – just bring more smiley balloons.
Photos by Reginald Pascual.