“We are in a place now where fans don’t have conviction to one sound.”
This song caught my ear the first time I heard it: I recognized Usher’s R&B falsetto singing, of course, but what really got me was the sparse electronic backing track comprised of little more than a sequenced bassline, kick, snare, hi hat, plus bits of piano and a string arrangement by Nico Muhly.
The backing track is by Diplo, a globe-trotting DJ/producer/cultural broker who is also a respectfully inspired seeker and popularizer of dance musics from around the world. Diplo, by the way, produced the excellent documentary Favela On Blast, an inside look at the culture of electronic music making and dance parties situated in the favelas in the hills surrounding Rio de Janeiro. (You can read more about the documentary here.)
What makes Usher and Diplo’s song “Climax” compelling to me is how it makes the most of so little. First, the song’s 138BPM tempo does double duty, suggesting a fast speed with its quick ticking hi hats while keeping a half and quarter time feel with a snare drum that hits once a measure and a kick drum on the downbeat once every two measures. Second, the song’s sequenced baseline is simultaneously its chord progression. The baseline/chord progression pulses away at an eighth-note speed while subtly morphing in timbre via its frequency cut-off setting. Diplo talks about the origins of the song:
“The production actually started as a house thing with a chord progression that I wrote, but with some time in the studio alone I was making a sort of ‘wildfire’ beat out of it. The idea of pushing cut-off on a synth used so much in progressive house music but pulling back. I was making something like a minimal techno record with Atlanta strip clubs in mind.”
So what about this “wildfire” beat? “Wildfire”, it turns out, is the name of a track by UK electronic musician SBTRKT (pronounced “subtract”). Not only does Diplo’s “Climax” have pretty much the same tempo and rhythmic profile as “Wildfire”, but it’s in the same key too. Ah the ecstasy of influence! Still, “Climax” is a powerful track that makes maximal use of minimal means, yet another example of the trickle-down of electronic dance music aesthetics into the pop music cauldron.
Here is SBTRKT’s “Wildfire”:
And here is Diplo and Usher’s “Climax”: