The Moscow-born, New York-based, footwork-influenced producer signed to Oneohtrix Point Never’s Software label isn’t afraid to point out the thread of pop misogyny linking East and West. Steph Kretowicz hears Slava’s raw solutions.
According to Slava Balasanov, there’s more than one Russian pop star who appears in their music video “totally naked.” Compared with the US, where pop icons are generally barely-clothed, there isn’t much of a distinction in intent. That’s something the Moscow-born, New York-based DJ, producer, graphic artist, and programmer—going by the mononym Slava—explores in his latest Software release Raw Solutions.
He may not be very ‘verbal’ by his own account, but it’s in dissecting and recombining the hidden perversities of Western popular culture that Slava’s scattered and syncopated beats, informed by Chicago footwork, are taken to harder, more debauched levels. From the Britney Spears monologue of “Slave 4 U” to the distorted, jackhammer repetition that sees the phrase “all day” morph into “all gay”, Slava identifies and enhances the unsettling undertones of these chart-topping tropes and shows us what they’re really saying.
Most explicitly, there’s “Girls on Dick”, featuring an aggressive loop iterating its title over a palpitating bass, the track echoes the downtempo mincing of Tyga’s “Snapback Back” by Tri Angle affiliate Evian Christ. That comparison is probably one of the reasons Slava has been associated with the label’s unwelcome ‘witch house’ tag in the past, while also appearing on a #seapunk compilation with equally dissimilar artists, Le1f and Unicorn Kid. Most recently grouped (perhaps misguidedly) with Kingdom’s Fade to Mind label in a 2012 Unsound Festival appearance, alongside Fatima Al Qadiri and Nguzunguzu, it’s a comparison that Balasanov understands through their shared interest in DJ deconstructionism but rejects with a much harder, darker production sound, illustrated by the zipper/skin fetish motif of his album art and intensified by his rejection of computer software during recording.
Stripping his sound from the more refined decadence of his previous Soft Control EP to a core of primal insinct, Slava’s Raw Solutions is probably best suited to a release on Oneohtrix Point Never‘s Software label for the mere fact it doesn’t fit anywhere else. A giddy but always frustrated drive to death, the record reflects a polarized East-meets-West upbringing that harnesses those cultures’ shared depravities in order to corrupt and ultimately liberate its listener.
The way I interpreted Raw Solutions is this fascination with American popular culture, that obsession with its hidden darkness.
Yeah, here it’s mixed in with this fun, glossy bubble gum wrapper, where in Russia it’s like all the nastiness is just out in the open. Even in the way that the government operates, it’s just very open cynicism. No one tries to pretend that things are good, or comfortable, or easy. That’s what I found so fascinating about America when I moved here, because there is this image of all these bright colors and this really sexy effect of marketing, but then there’s still all this darkness underneath. The juxtaposition of those two things is really fascinating and a big contrast to Russian culture, where there is nothing glossy about it.
Do you think part of your role as an artist is investigating and magnifying these hidden currents?
I don’t feel like it’s my role to do it as much as it’s something that I’m fascinated by, uncovering these layers. I think, in general, what I’m interested in is this cynical decadence and the different shapes and forms that it could possibly take. Especially in music, it’s such a rich subject. Both culturally and emotionally, music is the ultimate medium for expressing all these very rich, complex emotions. So exploring these subjects through it is what is important to me and what drives me to make it.
On that Coral Records #Seapunk Vol. 1 compilation, you sample Britney Spears, then again on your Soft Control EP and then in “Doit” and “I Know” on Raw Solutions. What’s your connection to her?
There’s a lot. Just the sample in itself is really amazing because it’s a little monologue at the beginning of “I’m a Slave 4 U”, and if you take every phrase it’s so strong on its own. If you cut it out, it’s like a self-contained object. It’s always been a problem with my mix samples, where the trickiest part is finding one that says more than just the literal words.
I’m interested in the way you use language in your music. Where you pick a tiny phrase, word, or sound and manipulate its intention.
Yeah, sometimes, once a phrase is looped and it’s an English phrase, I’ll start hearing Russian in it or I’ll start hearing something else. I’m fascinated how, through this repetition, a phrase can become transformed and become something else and begin to embody all these different associations. It starts to break down into distinct sounds and your brain begins to recombine these sounds into new meaning. That’s always been really exciting for me.
Since you moved here from Russia at 12 and have an outsider’s perspective, do you think that, considering her history to this point, that Britney Spears represents the cracked American dream, in a way?
Oh yeah, totally, this glamorous decadence that spirals out of control and ends up in these episodes of insanity and chaos. It’s kind of a beautiful, exciting thing to be able to see that.
In seeing you perform live, I’ve felt parallels with the virility of drum n bass culture. It’s a certain abandon in this really macho, heavy dance music. Do you feel that energy in your own production and do you see that as filtering through from your Russian history?
Oh yeah, definitely. I feel like, even house music, as positive as it can be, has these really dark undertones. It’s true of a lot of music in general, like hearing a song that makes you want to cry. It’s probably the most beautiful, intense experience and the fact of music having the power to convey these things is amazing; all this emotional information coded in these little segments of time that are so transparent, so communicative. There’s definitely that emotion, the feeling of darkness, but then that’s also transformed into energy. It’s something that doesn’t bring you down but makes you want to move, and makes you want to release these emotions.
That’s definitely what drum n bass does and, in a way, that’s also in Russian culture. This dark, negative cynicism can be life-affirming through humor, through irony… It’s kind of a way to deal with negativity in life, in general. Not denying but accepting it, and digesting it and transforming it into energy that you can use to do constructive things.
I wasn’t going to mention this because I initially figured there wasn’t much of a concept behind Raw Solutions because, as you say, your music is informed by your DJ sets but I’ve noticed a lot of misogynistic elements in the phrases you’ve chosen for the tracks. Is that conscious?
Yeah, it is conscious and, in a way, it’s almost such a huge element of pop culture that I feel like it can’t be ignored. I’m not trying to criticize or promote it, but it’s a part of the language of music, especially hip-hop music and a lot of pop music. In that sense, in my live performance and in the music I play, it’s an interpretation and rearrangement of existing pop music and culture.
That’s why all those things are there and, surprisingly, they’re the most effective elements. People go crazy. I think it’s because they’re, in some ways, I don’t want to say subversive, but they’re ‘edgy’. I feel like lots of people identify with those kinds of things, in different kinds of ways. Well, not ‘identify’ but respond to and think about. So, I feel like it brings out a lot of energy and a lot of emotion in people and being able to channel that is important.
Have you identified a similar thread running through Russian popular culture?
Oh yeah, of course. The exciting thing is; there’s this pop star called Katya Sambuca. She’s like a porn-slash-pop star. She’s very pop and mainstream, so it’s really interesting because, there, it’s taken to a whole other level, where it’s more blatant and more crazy and insane.
Then, I guess, the most disconcerting aspect of this conversation is that we’ve established Russians and Americans might have a completely different cultural disposition but the attitude towards misogyny is the same.
Slava’s Raw Solutions is out now via Software.