The Nobel Prize-winning physicist Dennis Gabor once claimed that, “the future can’t be predicted, but it can be invented.” He died right as the synthesizer came into vogue, but still somehow aptly described Zoospa, the first full-length innovation from J-E-T-S.
J-E-T-S is Jimmy Edgar and Travis Stewart (Machinedrum), two of the past decade’s most versatile and protean producers, who have artfully glided through techno, house, IDM, bass, hip-hop, R&B, and pop without being pinned down to any one of them. Their only commitment has been to lucidly fuse the mutant strains of the past into the vaguely familiar present. No ideas are original, but they’re singularly creative artists who could only comfortably exist in modern chaos, the strange invented future.
Released on Innovative Leisure, Zoospa is fiercely cohesive but wildly varied. It’s a group effort casting a wide net of brilliant collaborators (DAWN, Mykki Blanco, KingJet, Rochelle Jordan, Tkay Maidza), but ultimately guided by the auteur visions of Edgar and Machinedrum. If many all-time great duos are guided by a competitive rivalry, J-E-T-S discard that sensibility to form a unified whole. If not in sound, they channel the two-heads-one-brain spirit of a more danceable Autechre or Outkast raised on the Belleville Three and first wave IDM. If you heard Timbaland and The Neptunes in 1999, this is what you’d expect pop music to sound like 20 years later.
The genesis of J-E-T-S fittingly dates back nearly two full decades. Machinedrum and Edgar first meet as teenagers on a pivotal trip to Miami, one of their first-ever gigs outside of the places they were raised (Edgar originally hails from Detroit, Machinedrum from rural North Carolina). They immediately bonded over a mutual love of Warp, Schematic Records, and Chocolate Industries. A tight friendship was forged when both lived in New York, but their first self-titled EP wouldn’t drop until 2012, by the time the pair had independently decamped to Berlin.
Eventually, they relocated to Los Angeles where their second EP was recorded in 2015. The idea was always to record something bigger and more expansive, but it wouldn’t become a reality until Edgar headed up the coast, eventually settling and building a home studio in Portland. That’s where Machinedrum headed in the late summer of 2017 to cook up the tracks that eventually became Zoospa.
In the first three days of recording, the pair wrote four songs and expanded their conception of what they were capable of. The spontaneous alchemical ease with which they created could only come from being long-time kindred spirits. Zoospa is the product of a constant search to discover the new. Whenever a session became rote, they’d experiment with a unique format or a different process—whether it was spending an entire day making samples, tinkering with a modular synth, or processing and building drum kits. The result is an album that sounds like little else: an organic creation of sacred rituals and wild, ungovernable energy.
There is “Potions,” which chops and warps the militaristic funk that Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis once supplied for Janet Jackson. It’s what Rihanna should be asking her A&Rs for her next album: 32nd Century bass music with huge drums offering the propulsion and thrust that SpaceX is permanently seeking. “Fire Fly” is both gothic and gauzy, with pop synthesizers crushed into purple cosmic dust. The album was produced in layers, starting with basic tracks that sounded like futuristic R&B, but then deconstructed and assembled with vintage instruments—encoded with a new DNA that can’t be decrypted.
“Look Out” is a slice of post-trap futuristic R&B with a traditional hip-hop breakdown that almost recalls vintage turntablism. “Play” features exotic percussion and Mykki Blanco breathing fire like the ideal soundtrack to a reboot of Paris is Burning. “Ocean PPL” answers the question what would Aaliyah sound like in 2019. While “Real Truth” synthesizes jerkin’, ratchet, hyphy and dance music into something that resembles the avant-garde hip-hop beats that Edgar and Machinedrum have made for Vince Staples and Azealia Banks.
Yet the proceedings feel quintessentially different and skewed from anything past or present. 808 drum rolls are warped and bent. Old samples offer a gritty sound. The melodies incorporate ambient and new age synths. Effects from the ‘70s and ‘80s offer welcomed scuffs and creases. This is the world of J-E-T-S, a hybridization of different and distinct ideas, fearless, fast-paced and full of telepathic communication, but playful and without pretension. The future we’d dreamed about, not the one that we deserved.