Take his set at last autumn's Janus party at Berghain. As a resident of Janus, which had hosted regular parties in small Berlin venues since 2012, Lotic and his audience knew each other well. But that didn't quite explain the thick cluster of dancers in front of the DJ booth, apparently as drawn by the sight of Morgan as the music itself. His enjoyment was palpable, as he flung his arms and body in time to the energetic mix. As usual, he rapidly moved through different club genres, including rap, R&B, Jersey club, ballroom house and bounce, in a still unnamed style that's also associated with artists on the Fade To Mind label. It might not have seemed unusual except that the area in front of the DJ booth became more normalised during the following set by Total Freedom, the night's headliner and another Janus regular. Whereas Total Freedom could be described as poised behind the decks, Lotic's vivacity created a frenzy.
"As a DJ, I want people to dance, but I also want them to be a little bit unsure of what's going on most of the time," he tells me a month after the Berghain event. "If it's going too smoothly I'll just fuck it up really bad on purpose [laughs]. Not all the time, because sometimes I'm just having too much fun. But another way for me to have fun is to just stop that flow and play something really spooky." In a city built on the predictable pulse of house and techno, Lotic aims to reveal something unexpected in the party. That might not be immediately clear when you first hear him play; he's certainly no stranger to radio hits.
But once you hear Morgan's productions and the way they weave into his sets, you begin to understand that element of surprise. For me, that moment crystallized during a Lotic set in the summer of 2013 at Chesters, Janus's then-regular venue. Around 7 AM, Morgan played a delicate number built around a commanding but spacious percussive line, lit by an arpeggiated synth that made it feel like dawn had broken in the darkness of the club. It was "Fractures," the final track off his second EP, Fallout, released later that year by Sci Fi & Fantasy.
Listening to Morgan's releases—the first was 2011's More Than Friends EP, which also launched Ben Aqua's #FEELINGS label—it's clear that his background includes as much experimental music as it does superstar rap and R&B. It made me smile to discover his past life as a band nerd, playing alto sax in the school band from 12 years old: "I got a lot of theory through that. Like, if you're playing in an ensemble, at the top of the chorus sometimes you have to be a little flat. Stuff like how sound works." But it makes sense when you discover he studied electronic music composition at the University of Texas at Austin, specializing in electroacoustic music.
"It was a lot of sampling, real-world sounds, and then making full compositions out of them using various nerdy processes of treating audio," Morgan recalls. "We were using Max/MSP and Csound, that kind of stuff. That was the beginning of thinking about music the way I think about it now, I guess. Like being very sample-based, but also adamant about samples. And so this was learning a lot about how to change things that already existed. I was making really interesting sounds, too. I have this huge library of stuff from like 2009 until 2012 that's just weird sounds that I've made, but I was never able to put a fully structured piece together."
Morgan's college frustration led him to switch to Ableton and also to embrace pop music. DJing for the college radio station led him to dance music. "We had such a cute library, and I just kept picking things from the electronic section," he explains. "That and the experimental section, those were always my favorites. Then I went to the club in 2009 or 2010 and heard Kingdom play, and that's when everything clicked." At the time, Fade To Mind had not released their first record, but the label's co-founder was already a Night Slugs artist. Morgan continues, "I heard him playing this stuff—I was just having such a new experience that I don't remember most of what I heard, I just remember what I felt. Everything was so weird, but I was dancing so hard. And I had a, 'Oh, this is what I'm supposed to be doing,' moment. This was how I knew how I should approach making music, finally."
Fade To Mind, alongside Venus X's now defunct New York club night GHE20GOTH1K, itself something of a template for Janus, soon found itself at the vanguard of club music. They also pushed a new wave of almost exclusively American takes on global, underground club sounds, and their roster was populated primarily with minorities—either ethnically, sexually or both. Soon after Morgan graduated and moved to Berlin in early 2012, the label asserted itself, following up a Fatima Al Qadiri EP with 2013's banner year of releases by Kingdom, Nguzunguzu and Kelela.
For Morgan, who realized he was gay during middle school (between the ages of 10 and 13), clubbing and becoming a DJ coincided with a new politicization. "Austin is very, very white," he says. "And with white people comes segregation, and with segregation comes racism. So, I didn't really have that much sex, which means that I wasn't very confident. It [became] clear to me that clubs were special spaces for outsiders to go, and I felt a strong need to protect them. My way of doing that was not by going to parties, but by becoming a DJ and taking control of the parties. It didn't really work out, of course, but that's when it became, 'OK, these are actually not separate parts of my identity.' 'I'm a musician and I'm gay,' became, 'I'm a gay musician. And I'm going to be very upfront about that.'"
As such, musically, politically and personally, Fade To Mind was a dream label for Morgan. Given the direction of his own music—its meld of club sensibilities rooted in experimentalism—and the fact that he regularly played parties with their artists, it felt inevitable that Fade To Mind would return his interest. So when they invited him to release on the label, shortly after Fallout came out, he jumped at the opportunity.
In January 2014, Morgan sent Fade To Mind some demos, but months later he had received no feedback. Frustrated, he vented his feelings with a series of edits and originals sewn together for the Damsel In Distress mixtape. "It's a quote-unquote mixtape, but it's the anti-mixtape mixtape, where you can't dance to any part of it," he laughs. "But that was also on purpose, it was meant to be the worst 25 minutes of your life, or whatever. And it ended up being so popular. I was like, 'Wait, no, you're supposed to be mad.' I saw it as a cry for help. And I described it as a clean slate, and it actually kind of worked, which is funny. I didn't expect that."
The distress is evident on Damsel—glass shattering, swarms of bird/klaxons, horror soundtrack creepiness—but it's underpinned with an innate rhythmic sensibility. It also felt like the best realization of Morgan's music, mixed with his newly adept DJ's ear. It brought new eyes and ears to his art.
One night, in the back of a club, Morgan whispered to me, "Robin [Carolan, who runs Tri Angle] is giving the tracks to Björk!" Some time later, the morning after Unsound Festival finished, I shared a ride to Krakow's airport with Morgan, Dan DeNorch (Janus's promoter), Janus resident Kablam and Total Freedom, AKA Ashland Mines. None of us had slept. Morgan confessed to finding a sex club, thanks to his "Unsound boyfriend." Mines told us about a party he attended hosted by Björk. "She was playing your tracks, J'Kerian," he says. Morgan showed no surprise at the comment, but he couldn't contain his glee when, months later, he revealed that he's remixed Björk for one of her upcoming releases.
The tracks she was playing for her guests would have been from Lotic's upcoming EP, Heterocetera. Damsel In Distress's tension comes with a richer tonal palette and slightly more refined composition, but Heterocetera has the same warped rhythms. "The title actually comes from an Audre Lorde essay," Morgan says (Lorde is a respected black feminist writer). "She's in Moscow, living with her straight friends, and she's at dinner with them. She usually travels with her girlfriend, or I think she was still married to a man at this time, and she really wanted him to be there. But the way she wrote it, they're talking about their cars and their families, etc., etc., heterocetera. I was like, 'Oh my god, yeah,' and that word always stuck with me. Ever since Damsel, I wanted to be loud and upfront about being a black, gay male through my art, not just saying it in interviews every time. The more I realized I was going to be a musician, the more I realized that I needed to use any platform that I would have to further my peers, basically."
Blackness, like whiteness, is something you can often hear, especially in traditionally black genres like hip-hop and R&B. Can you hear gayness? In the work of Lotic, at least, otherness is clear. It projects an array of emotions, including sadness, anger, fear, wonder and displacement, in a way that's both exciting and unsettling—related feelings, for sure. There's a complexity that might not feel accessible on first listen, but it opens up, especially in the mix. Much like Lotic himself.