My first night at the music festival Sonar: Reykjavik—which took place at Harpa, a glass-walled concert hall on the shores of the Icelandic capital—I caught a stunning set from from Jlin. Born and raised in Gary, Indiana, Jlin initially drew on the work of Chicago footwork pioneers like RP Boo and DJ Rashad for inspiration. Over the last decade, she’s emerged as one of the most idiosyncratic electronic artists in the world, exploring a universe of her own design across two full-length albums, Dark Energy  and Black Origami . She played around midnight in a subterranean parking garage; her set crackled with energy and dense polyrhythms. I spied Bjork, obscured beneath a translucent face mask, floating across the dance floor.
The next night, I caught a performance from Klein, a young British artist who released a dazzling EP titled Tommy on the boundary-pushing label Hyperdub last year. Her harmonies emerged through clouds of static and blasts of fog, like a radio station fading in and out of range.
The following morning, I caught up with both of these talents and was privy to a no-holds-barred conversation about making a career in electronic music on their own terms. Pay attention, you might learn something.
EZRA MARCUS: How did you guys first discover each other’s work?
KLEIN: My friend Lafawndah sent me your stuff. She sent me your stuff like 3, 2 years ago and I thought you were a dancer, because she didn’t explain the context, that you weren’t the dancer in the video. So I was like, “Wait, she’s a dancer as well, what is this?” And she sent me your stuff and I was like, “Yeah, yeah,” I was like “Yeah, yeah, it’s cool.” And then I checked it out maybe a year and a half later but you know when you think you’ve discovered something yourself and I was like, “Wow, this was so sick” and I swear everyone was like “We literally shown you her stuff before” but I was like “Wait, no, it’s different,” it was like exactly the same but for some reason—
JLIN: No, it was different. You were somewhere else in your mind, I get what you’re saying.
KLEIN: I feel like it was a year later, I digged it, I was like “This is actually sickening.” And I saw you at Simple Things.
JLIN: Oh, yeah!
KLEIN: And you were doing your set, and you were doing the boom clap, boom clap and I was like “Okay. Why are you trying to send for Timbaland?” So, yes. It’s like that. You know in one of these things when you’ve heard someone and you seen them live and it fully just cements it as well, I guess I fully just connected to it and got the references and I was like, “Okay, sick.”
JLIN: Thank you, thank you. It was actually like the last year. Okay first of all, I had a crazy experience because I was at Unsound when I first got to see you live. I heard your work before but, like you said, seeing the live just kind of puts the icing on the cake, like that’s just it, you know? So when I saw you live, first of all, there was so much smoke on the stage, [Klein laughs] we didn’t know if y’all were actually performing.
KLEIN: People didn’t think I was there.
JLIN: We were like “Is she there or are they making this up?” The only reason I believed it was because I saw you after the performance.
KLEIN: “Hello!” [laughs]
JLIN: Yeah, otherwise I wouldn’t have believed it. But when we were watching you I was so pissed off because I was like “Damn, we can’t see anything” but then also, too, everybody was standing there, they were dancing, but they were just doing this. And I’m in the back like “Oh! Oh!” and I was like why is nobody else doing this but me? So I’m super excited. And then you hear all the people in the back that’s hollering, every time y’all started like when the beat drop all you hear is “Ay! Ay!” all in the back, and then everyone else in front of us—
KLEIN: It’s so funny, I feel like proper electronic bros, they watch shows, and they’re very proper, they deep it, they’re thinking—
JLIN: Totally analyzing the whole performance and I’m like—
KLEIN: It’s just like, listen mate, just live your life, shake a shoulder! I was watching your set with my glasses on. My fingers on my forehead, just kept being like, “The strobes will eventually destroy us all.”
JLIN: The strobes were killing me while I was playing.
KLEIN: Because you use…?
JLIN: Ableton Push 2.
KLEIN: So you sort of do like sequencing.
JLIN: Yeah, I’m sequencing.
KLEIN: That’s the thing. The past year I kind of gotten into doing more of that and it’s so fun right?
JLIN: Yeah because it’s freestyle. I play my tracks out the way that they sound but I’m actually paying them out section by section which is not easy because if you mess up or you skip a section when you’re actually sequencing manually, you can easily mess up. Especially with tracks like mine because the rhythms change so much, so it can get easily. The only thing I’m thinking is, “Please don’t fuck this up.”
KLEIN: That’s the one thing I’ve started to realize is you know when you mess up here nobody actually knows but yourself, but your soul.You know when people see you playing live or just see you behind the computer, they actually don’t know the spirals that you’re going through. Even me, because I’ll just be sipping my beer and you don’t know that I’m recreating everything live right now. It’s like the sweat and the pain but also trying to keep a straight face and being like “I hope nothing. Goes. Wrong.”
JLIN: And then even to the end of the performance, I’m hoping to God as I’m unplugging my shit that I don’t accidentally unplug the person that’s now playing.
KLEIN: Oh my God, oh my God. That’s my laptop. Oh, God. I’ve got this old Dell laptop that I need to upgrade to a Mac, but this Dell laptop, if one plug comes out, it’s a wrap.
JLIN: It’s a wrap.
KLEIN: I’m always just like people please don’t get excited, no one come too close to my laptop, because once it happened. I played this show and it came out and I was like “Okay, well, I guess it’s just going to be acapella. It is.” And I had to do an acapella set and then I left and I was like “Okay.” But that’s always my fear, is living my life on edge.
JLIN: When things go wrong, the audience, especially people new to your work, get to see your vulnerability. You’re already naked performing in front of them, you’re completely vulnerable, but they get to see the human side of you,. I was talking to Björk about this—I said, “I like when people see my human error, because I want people to know that I’m not perfect.” But in saying that though I open myself up to probably the most fickle people on the planet. Because it’s just like, “Yes, JLin we [clap] love [clap] you [clap]!” And then tomorrow social media says JLin does something crazy; I don’t know, JLin hit a frog in the street. “Oh my God, we hate you, you animal killer!’
KLEIN: I feel like if you’re black and you’re a woman and you do music, you can’t really fuck up.
JLIN: You can’t fuck up, there’s no room!
KLEIN: With black people who’re musicians, they’re really—[sings] “You only got one shot,” that Eminem song.
JLIN: Black people, that Eminem song is their life.
KLEIN: There’s already so many people with our complexion in this field, and there’s this sort of weird, unspoken rule where if you mess up there won’t be any opportunities for other people to come in. [laughs]
JLIN: You’re carrying the burden. You’re carrying everyone. I’ll give you an example with me. When Dark Energy came out I placed an 8.5 on Pitchfork, then Black Origami came out, I placed an 8.8 in Pitchfork. You better believe, especially as a black artist, I have all eyes on me, because they want to know what that next score is. “Can she really hold it? Can she hold it!” Like, “Is this real?!”
KLEIN: If you get an 8.6, it’s a wrap. Just pack your bags, get the hell out of here.
JLIN: And the thing I have to tell myself is, that I create for me and I’ve always created for me. It’s beautiful that other people appreciate my work and I inspire people, I love it, I love to hear it. I’m very grateful and I’m very humbled by it, but the first validation I need is from me. You know what I’m saying? If I flop tomorrow and got a 1.0 for the next album, that’s okay. If I approved that work being out, it might be one of those situations where media has to catch up, not me.
KLEIN: It’s funny that you said that the media has to catch up, because that’s definitely been a situation with me. So I put out a record, Only [in 2016]. I was playing shows, but obviously wasn’t able to get in any magazines because, at the time, I wasn’t cool, I didn’t know any press people, whatever. A year later, all it took was one person to give it a good review, and everyone’s like “Actually, dadadada,” about my recent record [Tommy] at Hyperdub. Imagine if I just quit! [Only] didn’t even have one download, imagine if I just went, “Oh, this isn’t getting that much traction,” and I just didn’t continue? Because there’s so many people that are making sick music out here and they’re not getting the pitch for it. The media likes to portray things like there’s only five black people [making electronic music] and the only reason they’re doing it is because maybe they had a torturous childhood.
JLIN: There’s always a backstory.
KLEIN: There’s always a traumatic reason for you making music.
JLIN: I made a statement that said, “I create from a dark place,” and the word darkness is already given a negative connotation. You can imagine as a black person, what that feels like. Just because I said I create from a dark place, with us being the hue that we are, that’s already given a negative connotation. So I had to explain. I said, “I really need people to understand what I’m saying when I say I create from a dark place.” I said, “Media gave the word ‘dark’ a negative connotation. When I say I create from a dark place, I am creating from a space that is pushing me to my full potential.”
JLIN: I used the metaphor of when a diamond starts as a piece of coal, you don’t pay attention to that piece of coal, you step over it, you kick it around, but the minute it becomes a diamond, you’re focusing on it. That’s what I mean. It goes to show you, in an industry like this—and Dave Chappelle talked about it pretty heavily—you are in an industry that will raise you up and tear you down in the same sentence.
KLEIN: It’s true though. It was so funny because I always used Twigs as a reference. I’m like, she’s hot, she’s talented. When she first started everyone was like “Yeah, yeah, Twigs, Twigs.” She had to be great, she couldn’t really be okay. The minute she did one bad show, she would get all these hate comments, and I was like, “Can someone breathe?” It removes the carefree aspect of music, you know what I mean? People should be allowed to be like “Oy, mate!” Why can’t I be like Show Me The Body and be wasted! I always thought about that and I always thought of it as a stressful thing.
JLIN: It is!
KLEIN: But then I also thought, actually, isn’t it also kind of cool as well. It’s stressful because people put so much pressure on themselves, but the only good thing that comes from it, is everyone is sick. Everyone I can think of that is black and doing music in the electronic world—excellent, fantastic. I always go “Oh, I wonder if I was a white woman just doing exactly what I was doing, I wonder where I’d be then.” But everything goes through such a gaze, even this interview will be going through a white gaze. It will take awhile for someone to really, fully understand where we’re coming from.
JLIN: You know what’s so funny, another thing too, I never really talked about it openly but since we put this on the table, is when media’s trying to pigeonhole you. When I came out I started making footwork tracks; I’m very vocal about it now, as soon as a journalist says something to me about it I correct it right then about being pigeonholed into footwork. I said, “I’m more than that, I’ve always been more than that.” There’s nothing wrong with being a footwork artist but understand, people change.
KLEIN: That’s crazy that you said that, because I used to tag R&B in my Bandcamp bio just for bants and it was hilarious because it was songs and people would be like “R&B, yeah, yeah, R&B.” But if there wasn’t a face to it and there wasn’t any vocals or anything like that, my stuff stems from classical, my songs stem from Disney soundtracks, but the minute you see my complexion and you hear one riff, the one riff in my vocals, it’s like “Oh my God, it’s R&B, you’re an R&B musician.”
JLIN: It completely happened to Nina Simone. She was a classical pianist, that’s what she wanted to be and she was that, but they put her in jazz. I think she never felt fulfilled because she was put into the genre of jazz, and so the Curtis Institute ended up honoring her, a year or two ago, because they denied her entry into that school. People of color, we’re always honored after we die.
KLEIN: When you’re dead.
JLIN: I find that just astounding honestly, because you’re honored after you die, it’s like, “I put you in this category.” Usually when you’re put into a category anyway, it’s because the person that’s given the observation or analysis does not understand. Or there’s this need, I need to have a grasp on what it is that you do, because if I don’t label it, I can’t get ahold of it. It’s okay not to be able to label something. I use the media as an example; it’s easier to pigeonhole me into footwork than to say, “You know, J, you have your own sound and it is experimental.” When people ask me, “What would you call it?” I would really just call it naked, because I’m displaying the vulnerability of myself to my audience every time I create something. I honestly think it’s the need for control.
JLIN: I do believe an artist is placed into a category because there’s this sense of, “I want to keep this artist here.” Have you ever been in a club or done an event where I swear to God, the rhythm, the beat was 4/4 with the first five acts before you. Like, it’s just [hits table in rhythm]. [Klein laughs] I’m like fuck, please, for the love of God, somebody change the rhythm. And then you know what happens? I’ll go and play after those first five people who did that same rhythm, and people will come up to me after I play and say, “This is the best thing we’ve ever heard.” I say, “No, it’s not.” I say, “I’mma tell you what happened. It’s not the best thing you’ve ever heard. The first five people before me were playing the same beat. That’s what happened.” I’m not the best thing that ever happened, you just sat there and listened to five different people play the same god damn beat. That’s what happened.
JLIN RECENTLY CONTRIBUTED A REMIX FOR BJORK’S SINGLE “ARISEN MY SENSES”; KLEIN’S EP TOMMY CAME OUT LAST YEAR ON HYPERDUB RECORDS.