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Dear Diary: Tomu DJ’s Crazy Trip
Skye Butchard , August 10th, 2023 07:45

A fog lifts on the new record by this expressive and emotional electronic producer, finds Skye Butchard

Whether it’s a stock hi-hat, a reggaeton loop or the ‘Think’ break, it’s a form of magic when a producer can get across their own story and personality through the base elements we all use. The shared language of electronic music comes from the same recycled sources, carrying a lineage of messy cultural collaboration and context with it, but it becomes fresh again when new voices shape it in their own image.

When you hear how Tomu DJ uses the ‘Think’ break on ‘Band Man’ from her new record, Crazy Trip, you’re hearing her story. You hear her early love of footwork, and the parties she threw with DJ Manny, DJ Spinn and the Teklife crew during her college days in Oregon. You hear open self-reflection in the woozy pads she surrounds the sample with. You hear the joy of exploration, and the simple pleasure of just jamming out to beats, alone in your bedroom, a cat at your feet.

That she gets all this across with four or five bare elements is impressive, but emotive minimalism has long been Tomu DJ’s calling card. Her releases are diaristic collections anchored by a specific theme. They’re often raw and loose, retaining the air of the room they were made in, though the tonal precision also suggests there was plenty of care put into sound selection and mixing. She plays it pretty loose with genre too, freely moving between various strains of club music, and often out of the club completely. Once, when DJing at a Jacques Greene show, she had to hastily switch out planned material when a club promoter panicked at her selecting Nicki Minaj, having expected house. She’s just as likely to play Steely Dan or juke.

Her early work was fun and frenetic, largely based on pop samples, though much of it has been scrubbed from the internet. Since 2021’s FEMINISTA, she’s been on an incredible streak, compiling full-lengths that are coloured by a more introspective pallet, without losing their freeing and accessible appeal. FEMINISTA itself was inspired by a traumatic car crash, which left its mark on her mental state and also altered her perception of rhythm. Though still featuring her adventurous spirit and cute soundplay, it was a nervy collection, popping with low-fi noise and moments of heaviness. Half Moon Bay followed last August, inspired by her home in California with its dreamlike vistas and optimism. Tiny details, like the swirling hisses of noise that spill out of the opening pads on ‘New Body’, hint at a world living inside.

Given the familiar musical building blocks, it’s not surprising that FEMINISTA, Half Moon Bay and Crazy Trip overlap in time of creation. Some fans may wish for more obvious forward progression when hearing similarly constructed tracks on this relatively short offering. But what the record does offer is a new entry in Tomu DJ’s tonal diary.

Crazy Trip is the sound of the fog lifting, of enjoying spending time by yourself, and of appreciating how cool and weird the world is. Brooklyn Rapper Petty Getty sets this tone well on ‘Bedroom DJ’, a track that somehow makes the Bop It sexy. You remember Bop Its, right? They’re that plastic rhythm game you either annoyed your parents with on a long drive or wanted to throw out of a moving vehicle, depending on your age. Tomu and Petty turn its commands into a catchy sexual instruction (“Bop It, twist It, flick my snatch / I like money, prefer cash / gushy gushy got that gash / I’m the bedroom DJ”). The seriousness of sex and DJing is waved off by a cheeky chorus that sees both as a tactile bit of play, or a chance to explore a new toy. Here, as on the rest of the record, Tomu DJ is confident and upbeat. Her percussion is dry and front-facing, with jazzy house piano twinkling in the background.

Opener ‘Mewsic’ is just as perky. Detuned keys lightly stretch in pitch like a cat stretching out its body in the sun. Slow-mo cymbals move around the mix like light bouncing off glass. In contrast, the drum programming is spritely and swung. An offbeat open hat keeps time while more noodling keys join in at their own pace. Bass wubs swallow up the space that’s left, keeping the track moving without rushing. What’s the rush? Relax. Get a drink. Have a good time, now. Welcome to paradise.

‘Pretty Funny’ is busy and alive, fitting in a whole drum kit without becoming cluttered. Notably, it does so while keeping its pensive, laidback house sound. ‘LA Vibes’ is more propulsive, with its chopped and scattered breaks, familiar elements once again used to support a fresh perspective. Here, Tomu DJ proves how capable she is at writing straightforward club music. It’s begging for a sweaty room of bodies to enjoy it.

The closer and title track is the strongest offering here, where the club becomes a happy memory or a promise of the future. Tomu DJ’s ear for emotive harmony and melody is obvious, as balmy new age synths gently roll on. A piercing synth is heard through the radio static, like a positive kind of tinnitus that reminds you of what you experienced the night before. She drops two of those base elements: a dembow rhythm, and a breakbeat. You get that messy cultural context and knowing conversation. But you also hear her story, a story about being free and happy.

You get the sense that Crazy Trip and what has come before are just the first chapter for Tomu DJ. These early records have the joy of a novice learning how to express with their tools, but they’ve also got taste that’s hard to replicate. For now, we’re happy to enjoy the ride.