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JAMS tries to transform Madison’s role in electronic music

The monthly series has carved out a consistent spot for out-of-town DJs of note and local support. (Illustration by Shaun Soman.)

From the house and techno meccas of Chicago and Detroit to the smaller underground scenes that smaller cities so lovingly incubate, the Midwest has always been a booming hotbed of electronic music. By the time it ripples outwards to Madison, though, this boom quiets to more of a murmur. It’s hard to make out and harder still to pin down and amplify into something self-sustaining with a regular presence in the community.

It’s not for lack of interest, effort, or even history. Madisonians can catch very good if largely under-appreciated local DJs most nights of the week, especially at downtown spots including Natt Spil, Maduro, and Tavernakaya. The small independent booking team behind the annual Musique Electronique and Willy Street Beats events brings in internationally renowned headliners every summer. The young DJs and producers of Foshizzle Family recently marked six years of throwing annual dance parties in James Madison Park, and queer-focused bookers like Sarah Akawa have built their own robust communities around dance music. Madison even has a whole record store devoted to electronic music, JiggyJamz, and Madison artists have contributed to the long-running Even Furthur rave produced by Milwaukee’s Drop Bass Network. But everything about music in Madison can feel a bit scattered, and weeks can go by without a visit from a high-caliber DJ from out of town. The monthly JAMS series, however, aims to fix that.

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Since October 2017, series founder Nathan Port (who DJs as Natural Language Processing or NLP, for short) has been working to fortify the local scene and strengthen Madison’s place on the electronic music map by bringing DJs from around the world to the lush, cozy dancefloors inside Robinia Courtyard. Originally envisioned as a bimonthly event, the party took on its current monthly format in March 2018. “I was just thinking about how there were not that many opportunities to dance to underground house and techno in Madison,” Port says. “Considering its proximity to Chicago, I thought that it should be relatively easy to get DJs to come up.”

And so far, JAMS has had remarkably consistent results. The party’s lineups from this past summer alone boast an impressively diverse roster, from Australia’s Francis Inferno Orchestra, who explores the rich ether that lays between house and ambient music, to Harry Cross, a staple of Chicago’s gay nightlife scene. Even lineups from JAMS’ earlier installments have boasted big names including Montreal’s Project Pablo and Toronto’s Ciel. Another Chicago artist, Leesh, is slated to headline the next event, on December 14.

JAMS doesn’t skimp on celebrating locally based talent either. Each edition of the party brings in Madison-area DJs, sometimes as support and sometimes as headliners. In fact, this past October’s JAMS, an afterparty for WSUM’s annual Snake on the Lake fest, featured exclusively local DJs, including Conor McGinnis (AKA MCG), who met NLP through their time hosting shows on WSUM, and Foshizzle Family member Jordan Ellerman (AKA DJ Umi), both of whom have been helping book and throw JAMS parties, especially since Port moved to Japan earlier this year. It’s often been these local acts and the simple word-of-mouth hype that they build that’s done the most to help JAMS grow over the years. “If they have a local following,” McGinnis says, “[they’ll bring] in a pretty big group of people.”

That’s where the real mystery and magic of JAMS begins. While Willy Street Beats and Musique Electronique showcase have been bringing in internationally recognizable DJs for years on an annual basis (and the House Of Love series scored some excellent bookings before ending in 2015), JAMS is the only local event to be pulling anything like a similar caliber of artists from outside the area into Madison on a regular basis, growing its foothold month by month. And yet, a huge share of JAMS’ crowd and of the scene it’s started to eke out seems to be drawn not by the bigger names, but by local acts. According to McGinnis, Madison-area DJs have been a big factor in drawing in a more diverse crowd, too. It’s not uncommon to see everyone from UW students to 40-something rave nostalgics show up to see locals like The Hermit or Geoff Kaster of JiggyJamz when they’re on the bill.

It’s hard to say yet if what JAMS is doing will have any sort of greater, long-lasting impact on Madison’s electronic music scene. On one hand, the party is growing quite steadily, even with Port abroad. New and old faces meet on the dancefloor in Robinia Courtyard month after month. Port, McGinnis, and Ellerman are able to book lineups that would have been hard to imagine pulling off just a few years ago. Meanwhile Ted Alsop, another of JAMS’ key players, has been able to build a familiar ambiance for the parties by fine tuning the technical details, including lighting, fog, and sound. On the other hand, though, there hasn’t been much of a tangible shift in the local community in response to JAMS. Nor has there been a clear sense of how JAMS has grown and crystallized its identity over time aside from garnering larger crowds and operating budgets to book bigger artists from overseas going into 2020. Madison’s infrastructure for music is shaky at best, and ambitious, compelling things tend to come and go here.

But then it’s hard to say that it matters very much at all whether JAMS creates a greater electronic music ecosystem outside itself. It may be its own self-contained machine, but it’s one that reliably serves its purpose – making people dance. For all the ambiguity that surrounds JAMS’ identity, that’s one thing that everyone involved agrees on wholeheartedly. Yes, of course, the visual elements of the party, its streamlined flyers, and the plants and mood lighting so carefully strewn throughout Robinia on that one night a month are all essential parts of the JAMS experience. But it’s the freedom to dance, as Port says, in a place where the opportunities to do so can feel few and far between, that really defines JAMS’ ethos, vague as the notion may be. “You have to be able to make people dance,” says Ellerman, “I don’t want to sacrifice that at all. That’s the most important thing, that’s the thing that drives the party, make the party fun. That’s the thing that makes people want to come back.”

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