“There were a lot of things that were telling me to leave”, says Houston-born J’Kerian Morgan, in bed and on camera from his Berlin base. “Me and my boyfriend at the time literally sat down and brainstormed: ‘what can we do to get out of here?” Better known as producer Lotic, Morgan has been calling the German city home since 2012. He’s one of a wave of US expats flooding its music scene, along with party organisers Janus for whom Lotic is resident DJ. It’s a collective that includes other artists like M.E.S.H., and Kablam, as well as founders Daniel DeNorch, Michael Ladner and James Whipple, and has released Lotic-produced mixtape Damsel in Distress –with an infinite recycling symbol saying “HYPE, HATE, COPY” –last year. It’s a heavy listen, pulsating with a kind of numbing heat that melts through clonking beats and warped vocal samples like Beyoncé’s ‘Drunk in Love’ and Missy Elliot’s ‘9th Inning’.
Following that up with his first EP, Heterocetera, released on the New York-based Tri Angle label on March 2, the sonic pop culture references are gone –or, at least, less recognisable –and a restless, delicate universe of metallic strokes and icy rhythms stands in its stead. “I’m really happy with the back cover because it looks like a skeleton but if you look closely it looks like it’s made out of glass. It shatters”, says Morgan about the EP cover art, featuring the lustrous bones of a “creature with wings” by Munich-based artist Alberto Troia (aka Kyselina) on the front, its fragmented remains on the back.
It’s almost like a wordless expression of a world that isn’t quite right, one that’s ensnared in its own mirage of polished strength, but cracks easily. It’s this awareness of a certain fragility that bleeds through Heterocetera, whether it’s in the hocking, heaving bounce of ‘Phlegm’, or the urgent clatter carrying through the sighing pitches of ‘Suspension’. There’s something off in Lotic’s universe, where US-born Americans can’t stand to live there, and techno is a sound invented in Detroit, yet is somehow now ruled by Berlin. Morgan understands this, and it’s reflected in his music, visuals and conversation, where issues of ignorance, prejudice and the internet are as streamlined as the systems that perpetuate them.
Do you think being in Berlin that you’re treated differently?
J’Kerian Morgan: Um… yes… no… it’s different. I’m definitely more comfortable, I feel safer. I’m probably not going to get shot on the street. But then I don’t speak the language very well and I am still playing a very strange kind of music for the general setting that I’m in. I’m still super-comfortable but, I mean, racism still exists. Here it’s more like this exotic vibe thing where they are still very curious because they don’t know anything about where I’m from, which is fairly innocent. It’s not okay but people aren’t like, assuming I’m a bad human being, or up to no good etcetera, etcetera.
Also, being gay here is really easy [laughs], which is not anything I can say about anywhere in Texas, and I hear a lot of bad things about New York too, actually.
That’s what’s so interesting about the US, when you think about popular culture. You might get an impression of the country being a liberal one but it’s actually pretty conservative.
JM: It’s so insane. This is a huge thing that Austin prides itself on, specifically. Especially being in Texas. It’s like, ‘okay, yes I can ride my bike to school but this is still Texas. There are some things that you can’t believe in. It becomes a very specific kind of liberalism. Like you have to be a vegan, or you have to ride a bike and it’s like, ‘no, how is this freeing for anyone? This is like a very specific lifestyle’.
Also, when I would DJ, I would just play just RnB and hip hop at certain venues and it would be such a huge problem to be playing this ‘black music’. They want to hear like 60s rock n roll, it’s so weird. It’s like, ‘How can you pride yourself on being so liberal and you don’t care about anything, you actually don’t care about anyone except yourself?’
You have some noise elements in your music, is that a result of that kind of homogenously rock environment?
JM: Those are just my own personal interests. Growing up in Houston, there was a super strong hip hop scene, with DJ Screw and his whole universe of friends and colleagues, but he had this approach – which I hadn’t realised was actually pretty experimental until later. I sort of got sick of hearing just the music on the radio. I always enjoyed it but as I was getting older I was getting more interested in hearing stuff that I hadn’t heard before. I kind of started with other radio stations and took it all the way to the other end [laughs], to songs made of pigs being slaughtered or something like that, over the course of years. I was trying to go as far as I could go in terms of discovering sounds.
When I got more serious about making music I wanted to incorporate all of those things into my own. Also discovering things on the internet, and this community of people on the internet, that were interested in similarly strange or unusual ways of making music. That helped and encouraged me to keep doing it. So I was like, ‘okay, I’m not the only one doing it, I can maybe make this work somehow’.
It’s funny that the internet was meant to bring the world to you but seems to have sent you out into the world instead.
JM: Yeah, I’m so happy to be in Berlin because I do have more real access to people. I can go to someone and touch them, and talk about music. I was never super interested in having ‘internet friends’. It’s a thing that happens, but I never wanted to be one of these internet-based artists; to just have tonnes of connections because you’re on, whatever, Soundcloud or Twitter all day.
I always felt like I was isolated already [laughs], so I didn’t want this further isolation from the world. But yeah it’s funny, we talk about the internet connecting you to the world but it can easily become the only connection that you have.
I was thinking about this idea of ‘networking’ detracting from the merit of the work itself, how it’s being exacerbated by online networks. Because not only do you have enough connections to help you gain notice but you become more desirable to online media based on those connections. It’s more insidious than just knowing a bunch of people who can help you.
JM: It is, and also the fact that music itself is made for the internet. It’s like, ‘can you actually play that on the radio or in the club? What is the function of it?’ Not that I think that music needs to be functional in any way but there’s a specific thing that happened culturally when Soundcloud made it easy to reach millions of people. There is a very dark element to this sort of internet music community.
You use that Masters at Work ‘The Ha Dance’ sample in ‘Heterocetera’, as a sort of tongue-in-cheek reference to how overused it is in electronic music. It’s as if that Voguing compilation came out in 2012, everyone heard that and thought they knew everything about House Ballroom.
JM: Yeah, it’s very strange. You also can hear similar things happening with this ‘new grime’ thing. It’s like, ‘ok, how many space-ish tracks with vaguely video game-esque sounds can I make?’ ‘How many more times are you going to do that, and keep grime where it is? At some point you’re going to have to have an actual emcee on your track’.
I always just have this feeling of, ‘when is this going to die?’ Not that all trends are bad, they’re fun and they’re useful, especially for dance music, but when things just kind of keep going, and going, and going, and going, and going, and there’s no real basis in the real world. Like, Vogue music is obviously still relevant in certain communities in the ‘States but when ‘x’, ‘y’, ‘z’ white person in the UK is sampling it, it’s like, ‘where does this go? Are you sending it to Mike Q or just trying to capitalise on the popularity of this thing that people are talking about, a lot?’
How does it feel then being in Berlin and outside of this mostly white techno scene, when techno wasn’t white in the first place?
JM: Yeah, it’s weird. I think Berlin has definitely developed its own kind of techno, and places like Berghain are very responsible about recognising the history of it but it’s like an industry here, you are always going to hear techno, wherever you go. I have a lot of friends who come to this city just to come and dance, which is totally fine, but the historian in me, the black man in me, the gay man in me, always wants to be like, ‘do you know what you’re doing?’
People talk about techno so much and they love it genuinely and it’s like, ‘do you really know the history of it?’ Of course, I try not to assume, but sometimes when I’m DJing and I get a weird response I’m like, ‘who do you think are the originators of all interesting forms of music for the past couple of decades?’ [laughs]
Not to say that I’m doing something that is historically important, but I always have this reaction that’s like, ‘is it because I’m black?’ I have trouble detaching the experimental nature of what I’m doing from just being there doing it.
When you talk about this inability to distinguish this kind of cultural ignorance from prejudice, it makes me think of this problem with the internet. It feels like I can’t have my own thoughts because I’m constantly exposed to everyone else’s and it causes all this confusion, like the more you know the less you understand. You know there’s an issue but the difficulty is pinpointing that issue. It becomes difficult to take a position, and that’s how the internet can be disarming…
JM: Definitely, and so my visuals, and the music too, is always an attempt at trying to steal this attention just for one second. If you’re scrolling through a bunch of artworks and you stop on mine, then I’ve succeeded somehow [laughs], even if it’s only a tiny, tiny victory. That’s also the idea for the Janus posters. If it will make you pay attention for one second, then that’s good for us, whether or not we succeed, it’s impossible to know.
It’s about creating a very strong and memorable image, even if it’s sort of distorted and it’s going to get lost in the sheer volume of the internet. There’s no way to really have a clear message when there’s all this noise surrounding you. I think there is a lot to take-away from the artwork, it does speak but how clearly can it speak when there’s all this other stuff being said?**