From The Bricks To Bangkok

The iconic, stretched-out “DAAAAAMMMMNNNNN” vocals spill out of the cherry red Void speakers and onto the dance floor, followed quickly by a drop into banging kick drums and wild, strobing lights. Behind the decks, New Jersey’s R3LL starts dancing, mic in hand. Half the crowd goes wild, arms in the air, cheering happily. The other half is just as excited but a little confused. “What’s happening?” one person asks with a big grin on their face. The moment is a distillation of Jersey club’s power and potential here in Southeast Asia, half a world away from its roots. It’s the peak of the party, a high point that draws everyone in collectively. But it’s also a teachable moment for a genre with more than 20 years of history that many people still don’t understand, despite the fact that it’s in constant rotation via pop songs.

The song playing is “Just Wanna Rock” by global powerhouse Lil Uzi, which uses a Jersey club beat as part of a new wave of mainstream artists incorporating the sound these past couple of years. The dance is the “running man,” a foundational step at the root of Jersey dances, one where the feet are crossed and the dancer dribbles them up and down in a running motion. R3LL played an early and influential role in the culture, throwing house parties during high school in the genre’s backyard during the mid-2000s and going on to become one of its most recognized producers. These days, he’s one of the few artists from Jersey that are touring globally.

The genre, in its most distilled form, is best recognized by the additional kick between the third and fourth beatsβ€”that “BOOM, BOOM, BOOM-BOOM-BOOM” that gets everyone so hype. But chopped vocal samples, the “Sing Sing” break, and the notorious bed squeak are other common elements. Remixes of rap and R&B songs have been staples since the beginning, which not only made it easy to slip into a DJ set playing those styles, it also made its transition into today’s popular music landscape all the more inevitable. It’s become firmly global, with everyone from grimy drill rappers to glittery pop stars dipping their toes into the sound, even if most people don’t know exactly what it is they’re listening to. Hearing the Jersey triplet wafting randomly in the background of a discount Thai mall is a reality now.

This is R3LL’s third time in Bangkok, and he’s here as part of a multi-city tour that also brought him to China, Tokyo, and Seoul. He’s been touring Asia since 2017 and says he sees evidence of club music’s growth with each visit. “Japan understands it really well,” he says. “At first they’re just listening to me like, ‘Oh, this is cool!’ Then the next time I visit they have producers making the music. Next time I’m doing production seminars and getting in the studio. Now they have dance classes. The venue keeps getting bigger each year too, from a couple hundred people to two floors now”

Even here in Bangkok, where he’s stayed for two weeks, he sees an understanding growing among crowds with each gig, although on a much smaller scale. “I saw 25-30 of the same recurring people at four gigs. I watched them get more and more comfortable. They lost the nervousness, the fear about doing something wrong. They’re actually letting loose and dancing by the end. Just being here on the ground and consistently playing is key so they understand.”

R3LL sees his role in Asia as something of an ambassador and educator of Jersey club. His set at Air and the “Wanna Rock” moment are a great, in-person way to experience the culture in the form that it’s presented back home. “People expect me to play club the whole night and get nervous about that, but I take them on a journey. I present it with patience but still in the way that it should sound. Give them a little hip hop, a little house, some Jersey. Convey an entire Jersey experience of how they would get club within the timeframe I have,” he explains. Even those who are well-versed in the sound here have almost always only engaged with it through the internet, but with these deeper experiences, he hopes everyone will go home and dig even deeper.

Club’s explosion into popular music has made things easier, R3LL says. “A lot more people understand the concept and cadence. It’s conditioning people to understand the drum pattern and the style, even if it’s in a different context. It’s a little easier to articulate how it should sound.” He points to the music by NewJeans as a great example of club’s impact in Asia and which he personally enjoys on a sonic level.

But there’s still a disconnect between the world of popular music and the dance music culture R3LL grew up with. It’s hard to draw these new and massive crowds to parties if they don’t know it’s Jersey club to begin with. There are a lot of new opportunities for people from Jersey in terms of production and streaming, but not for gigs. “The ones touring have already been doing this for years now already.” Part of the reason for that is the speed at which information spreads makes it difficult to educate listeners. It’s also the format, where artist-driven music relegates the production and culture to the background, reducing its visibility. And many of these tracks are manufactured products totally disconnected from their roots. “I’d love to see more of us behind some of those creations. More artists like myself and my peers should have the opportunity to work with bigger artists. There are people doing things now who should definitely know better. There should be more guidance from someone who really knows the culture in that room with them.”

R3LL is quick to point out that trying to gatekeep the culture is not the move and that ultimately he wants to see club music keep growing. “It’s important for artists like myself to be reachable for those abroad who can’t connect to the roots themselves and provide them with guidance if they want it,” he says. To do that, he’s starting a brand and collective called Clubanese, a meeting ground where people can get the history, learn what’s new, and present their own work. “I want people who love the music but have no place to share it to be able to find a community.” In addition to this Asia tour, he’s also launching a radio show in Japan. Ultimately he hopes to work with artists directly and spread it to the rest of Asia, where he says he gets the most support outside of the US. “I want it to be global but I mainly want to cement myself here in Asia. Gotta lean into where I’m getting support,” he smiles.

Artists and fans from around the world should be encouraged to embrace club music, R3LL argues. It’s mainstream now, for better or worse, and he’s intent on making the best of it. “This could go away fast, and rather than be like, ‘I told you so,’ I’m trying to be innovative and be on the next wave.” Bringing in artists from other parts of the world like Asia is one way to do that, and he hopes that Clubanese can help support them. “It’s time to add some different spices and seasoning to the pot so it doesn’t stay the same.”

To help elevate the culture, R3LL offers some advice. In addition to educating and immersing yourself in the culture so you truly understand it, you should create your own style: “Inserting elements of your own culture is the best thing. It’ll give you that edge, where you can pay homage but carve your own path, rather than doing the same thing that’s already been done.”

For more pics from R3LL’s party at Blaq Lyte Air, see below!