Two Sundays ago, I heard Philadelphia's King Britt play a DJ set on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial as the sun set over the Tidal Basin as a part of the sixth annual week-long Forward Festival. One really can't understand the power of Donna Summer's "Last Dance" until the sun is setting and you're surrounded by people who in standing in that spot, at that moment, have effectively found serenity both with themselves and with the world.
As well, there was the moment that I heard the O'Jays' "I Love Music," too. In the hands of a veteran DJ from Philadelphia (where the record was produced, and backed by Philadelphia International Records' backing band MFSB at the legendary Sigma Sound Studios), that record has a different energy. There's a sense of pride that comes in letting it breathe, a way in adjusting the highs so that the horn gets set free that is all about pride in home, but also pride in self and an organic devotion to the smooth, funky groove that the city created that pretty much started everything. Hearing that, in the shadow of one of America's great structures was this weird moment of subversive patriotism, this "God Bless America" that for underground folks has a backing beat that feels more like Parliament's "One Nation Under a Groove."
There's a cool thing when a classic era house DJ spins rap music, too. Trap is a modern-era DJ thing, mainly meant for kids who grew up with hip-hop and see Mannie Fresh's Southern bounce sound in the same way that classic rap fans see Afrika Bambaataa's NYC style derived from a love of Kraftwerk. Hearing edited and remixed boom bap rap anthems and their breaks up against house edits of soul records was a treat, as so much of EDM right now is all about trap-style bounce records, "twerk," and hard electro. Having recently seen Mannie Fresh speak and play music for three hours at NPR as well as hear King Britt DJ for two hours, the divergent energies apparent in the two styles (and ultimately why pop-dance sounds like it does right now) was more than clear.
Over the past seven years, Washington, DC's Forward Festival has been an oasis of sorts in the midst of EDM's American rise. The past six years has seen dance music in the United States grow from an anathema to the newest, brightest, boldest and now most ubiquitous reminder of our country's love affair with bright lights, big sounds and massive crowds. However, Forward steadfastly remains an outlier doing whatever they damned well please, wherever they damned well please. Retaining some semblance of dance's historical connection to the organic growth of underground culture, the festival is guided by a sense of wild creativity and the notion that if you free your mind, your ass will follow.
For three years, Forward's wanted to host eight-hour dance music events on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial, and for two of those years, they were denied the opportunity. That isn't to say that Forward has been stymied as a festival in providing incredible moments. Last year, I trudged through an abandoned industrial park under the glow of the streetlights of what were once some of DC's most dangerous streets to hear drum and bass DJs, a Zuzuka Poderosa performance and in an adjoining room, disco legend Nicky Siano spinning pre-"disco" and disco era classics. I can't remember a time in the past decade where I danced so hard that my entire body literally poured sweat to the point where it puddled in my shoes, but that absolutely happened.
There's educational initiatives at Forward, too, and as well, they're fond of using more traditional dance venues like DC's renowned U Street Music Hall. Also, it's important to note that none of those big Beatport names or big room house ragers are booked over the week's worth of events. As it sometimes needs to be, the focus is on the music and not on the names playing the music. These are skilled DJs and talented producers, though, but in our haste-loving society, we oftentimes forget that dance has a history and that dance has a future. Pushing things "forward" requires knowledge of the past in order to propel the future even further ahead. It's a sometimes downright wacky event, but as well oftentimes spiritually uplifting and dare I say, magical, too. When a DJ-as-wizard like Britt is behind the decks, and the scenery is perfect, it truly strikes a chord.