Eight outsider musicians deserving of your attention
Visionary oddballs that will change your life for the better
’Outsider music’ is traditionally produced by a certain type of person. Usually a self-trained oddity operating within folk, jazz and salt-of-the-earth blues, and often predating or eschewing 21st century technology. Unfortunately, it’s also traditionally enjoyed by a certain type of person. Self-ordained gate-keepers deciding what merits ‘the right kind’ of eccentricity. For a genre so inherently rooted in individualism, this seems very wrong. It’s high time to blow this wide open.
Below are eight active artists that embody the guiding tenets of outsiderism. Their catalogues run the gamut from absurdist rap and gamelan jams to Heart FM hits from another dimension. Some are direct descendants of pioneering freaks (for Ariel Pink, see R Stevie Moore; for Shitmat, see Alec Empire), while others more broadly carry the adventurous spirit of avant-garde icons like Yoko Ono and Laurie Anderson. Yet all are auteurs who slip in and out of convention at their leisure – and all are worth your time.
At just 26, Portland-based Vektroid - Ramona Andra Xavier to her family - is the effective patient zero for one of the most fascinating subcultures in existence: vaporwave. What began as a wry pastiche of the 1980’s slick, saccharine tropes (read: infomercials, day-glo, muzak) bloomed online into one of this decade’s most creative hubs for experimental sounds. And memes. As vaporwave splintered and mutated, unlocking value in tasteless cultural detritus, Xavier has too continued at a prodigious clip. But in spite of around 50 full albums and offshoot labels to choose from, it is her early uploads as New Dreams Ltd. and Macintosh Plus that represent the best entry point to an infinite wormhole of sample-stretching, late capitalist critique, and Chris de Burgh.
Don’t let his relatively high profile fool you: Ariel Pink is still a bizzaro bum, a miscreant manchild, an acid casualty with as much of a gift for self-combustion as songcraft. Having staggered out of his native L.A.’s lo-fi pop scene and onto the international stage with 2010’s masterly Before Today, he has recorded some of the greatest earworms of this era. Live, this audacious amateurism becomes a double-edged sword though. His performance at Primavera Sound this summer was a case in point: resplendent in a child’s Call Of Duty tee, Pink sunk pints in between freewheeling falsetto acrobatics. Some loved it, some hated it, but no-one could ignore it. He has the hits, he just refuses to do them justice –– the big idiot (savant).
Of everyone in this list, you won’t be able to find an up-to-date photo of Shinichi Atobe. Good – it would pinprick the myth anyway. A single 12” in 2001 on dub techno label Chain Reaction was once the extent of his discography, but a hunt for the producer in 2014 by Mancunian duo Demdike Stare reaped gold. Since then, we have been treated to dancefloor dispatches from the other side of the world – literally, in the case of new album, Heat, which unexpectedly popped through Demdike Stare’s letterbox last month, fully formed and ready to go. It continues Atobe’s rich style of house and techno: deep, driving, misty, melancholic, and emphatically human… if he’s human.
London’s electronic scene is currently in an interregnum, with no particular trend dominating. Beatrice Dillon sidles into this well. A discreet yet quietly influential figure in the city, the artists and labels she works with read like a who’s who of cult favourites operating to the left of contemporary DJ culture: The Trilogy Tapes, Karen Gwyer, Call Super, Where To Now?, Kassem Mosse, et al. Pick of the litter, for my money, is her collaborative LP with Rupert Clervaux, 2015’s plinky-plonky Studies I-XVII For Samplers And Percussion. As well as being a fine foil on record, Dillon’s other skill is her digger’s ear: tune into her NTS Radio show and open yourself up to sounds you never even knew existed.
Dr Dooom, Robbie Analog, The Commi$$ioner: call him what you will, Kool Keith is a lifelong proponent of the surreal. His free-associating flow bundles up cryptic wisdom, pseudoscience and flirtatious filth, often within the same couplet. His two best-loved classics – Ultramagnetic MC’s knotty Critical Beatdown and 1996’s lurid Dr. Octagonecologyst – prised open alternate paths for rap’s future. From contemporaries O.D.B. and Prince Paul to Lil B and Earl Sweatshirt today, a trail of wisecracking wackjobs lie in his wake.
Holding down a place for three decades in the mighty Boredoms, a group that has seen almost as many chops and changes as The Fall, deserves kudos alone. The elite experimentalists have shifted over time from wanton noise terrorism to tribal zone-outs, even gathering 88 cymbalists on stage at The Barbican once, just for kicks. Anchoring the project throughout have been multi-instrumentalists Yamantaka Eye and Yoshimi P-We, the latter of which also fronts female collective OOIOO. As a bonus, by virtue of The Flaming Lips’ seminal Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, she is probably the most famous Yoshimi in existence.
Since the early 2000s, Shitmat has been a key proponent of ‘wrong music’. Envision a 200bpm avalanche of amen breaks and anarcho spirit, audible carnage for a rave generation scraping the barrel of a stale sesh. Everything is a pisstake. Alter-aliases (can you spot a running trend here?) include DJ Cheese And Ham Sandwich and Armand Van Hard On. He also spuriously claims to have had a UK number one hit, which in fact belongs to happy hardcore oldhand Slipmatt. I once watched him – Shitmat, not Slipmatt – off his nut in a floor-length turquoise mack at Reading Festival, beatboxing into a water bottle while trying to drink from a microphone. A glorious finger in the eye of anyone looking to club music as having greater significance than pure ‘aving it.
Emmanuel Macron might regard himself as Jupiterian, but that is still 655 million kilometers closer to mankind than Saturn’s finest, Sun Ra. The man is an avant-garde demigod. Alongside June Tyson, Marshall Allen and Pharaoh Sanders – all fellow spaceway travellers in his namesake Arkestra – Sun Ra expanded the boundaries of jazz and human consciousness in tandem. His clarity of vision, repeated defiance of convention, and nifty headwear, makes him one of the most important figures of 20th century culture, full stop.
At this point you might think, “but wait, we’re talking about active musicians. Didn’t Sun Ra die in 1993?” But you would be wrong; Sun Ra is eternal.