Halal has hosted a successful party in Brooklyn called Mutual Dreaming for the last four or five years, but the city's music scene can be fragmented and prickly, and she wasn't entirely sure who her audience was and whether they'd make the trip upstate. In the end, Sustain-Release was a sellout, and by all accounts a huge success musically and aesthetically. It also proved beyond all doubt that a community has sprung up around deeply underground house and techno in New York these last few years.
Sustain-Release nailed the region's particular taste for electronic music, but Halal deserves credit for creating the space in which an event like it could thrive. As much as anyone in Brooklyn, Halal helped build a niche for drum machines and synthesizers in a borough traditionally obsessed with guitars, often presenting the former in the same scuzzy, dubiously licensed spaces where promoters like Todd P had for years booked the latter. She's also stepped on-stage herself, or at least just behind it: in addition to Mutual Dreaming, Halal played in the band Innergaze with Steve Summers and has worked extensively as a video artist, producing raw, psychedelic and pointedly un-digital pieces that pair well with the sounds she's long favored as a promoter and performer.
She sees all of these creative endeavors as coming from the same place—a kind of perennially evolving art project expressed through whatever tools excite her the most at a given moment. "I have a lot of phases," she said. "Like when I'm in the mood to do something I'll work on it really, really hard, and then sometimes I'll switch focus." So about a year and a half ago, after touring extensively with Ital, her boyfriend and oft collaborator, for his A/V show, she was itching to do something else. "I thought, 'I don't want to be the one in the video booth. I want to be the one playing at those parties.'" Armed with the gear she'd used in Innergaze, she started writing tracks and developing a live set as a solo artist for the first time. The sound she's carved out both on record and in the live space—hefty, rhythmic techno inflected with grit that could have flown in off the subway tracks that run above her bedroom studio—clicked immediately, hardly sounding like the work of someone who's just recently struck out on her own.
Halal describes herself as a perfectionist, though there's a caveat: "It's not perfection, because there is no defined idea of it. I just always see things a really certain way in my head, and I have to do them that way." She traces that ethereal something back to her hometown of Washington, DC, where her friends included Steve Summers, Ital and the crew that would go on to form the label Future Times. DC was adamantly not a dance music town—Dischord-style hardcore still reigned supreme—but she and her friends became enamored of the stuff, particularly after Halal left to study at Bard College in upstate New York. She'd come home to find the crew, many of whom shared a house, living a quasi-cultish existence, eating "raw vegan and stuff like that" and obsessing over records they'd bought using money from their dog-walking business. Occasionally they'd decamp to the woods around Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where Andrew Field-Pickering, AKA Maxmillion Dunbar, would throw parties Halal described as "family reunions" for "people who just wanted somewhere to interact on a deeper level." The music was cosmic disco, the vibe was magical, and Halal has long credited them as planting the seed for Mutual Dreaming and, later, Sustain-Release.
Her early events in Brooklyn, where she moved after college, were a far cry from the woods around Gettysburg—at least on the surface. After throwing a few parties in her loft, she got a slot at the Market Hotel, the infamously scruffy Todd P venue on the border of Bushwick and Bed-Stuy. "So many of these parties would have this amazing energy," she remembered, "but there would be all kinds of problems that I hadn't figured out. Like the turntables were on two trashcans—literally—and one of the subs kept cutting out because of some beer-soaked, disgusting cable that had been used for 10,000 indie bands." A venue contact at an early party failed to properly pay her and the artists she'd booked, leaving her feeling bruised but resilient. "I'm so glad it happened, because it was the impetus I needed to do things on my own terms and just kind of break out, no collaborations needed. Like, why do I need to collaborate when I can just call the venue and set up everything by myself? From then on, I just did. Whenever I had a problem, I would just figure it out or hire someone."
Under that ethos, Mutual Dreaming evolved into a tighter operation. From the venue (the now shuttered 285 Kent became home base) and lighting (often accompanied by Halal's trippy visuals) to the bookings (a who's who of the American underground, with compatible Europeans like DJ Sotofett occasionally joining with the likes of Terrence Dixon) Halal crafted a party that was by definition DIY, but ruffled to perfection. "DIY kind of had a bad name, because sometimes in New York it can mean, you know, slapdash," she told me. "Mutual Dreaming is about finding some sort of space and taking charge of all the details."
That's also exactly how she's approached her own productions. Where so many newer electronic records from artists in and around the Brooklyn scene amplify their imperfections, Halal's music sounds like it's aiming to achieve clarity. Passageway, released on her own Mutual Dreaming Recordings and so far her only solo EP, employs the familiar tools of American dance music (Roland drums, threadbare synth pads), but places them in tight, considered arrangements with ambitious melodic flourishes. She cites seeing and interacting with producers she admires at her own parties as a major inspiration, if not necessarily an outright influence: "I'm not a genre-studying type of person. I don't want that; I'm scared of that." Detroit outsiders like Terrence Dixon loom large over Halal's work, but so do her own postindustrial surroundings in New York. As she puts it, "this sort of grimy, open and free place that's always building on its own mythology."
There's also the simple fact that when she got back to work on the MPC she was using in Innergaze, it was still filled with 808 samples. I asked her if she's seen a fast progression since her earliest days in the studio, and she said, "I'd still describe everything as early on in the process." She's much less enamored of rough-hewn sonics now than she was at one point, citing a Function set at Output last summer as a turning point. "The clarity of the sound and what felt like a 3D spectrum of frequencies coursing through space was just so overwhelming that there's no going back. I'm not interested in lo-fi at all—high-definition psychedelic emersion is my number one priority right now."
This was evident when I caught Halal at Stattbad Wedding in Berlin this past June. On the back of her studio work, Halal has spent a sizeable portion of this year in Europe, playing live and DJing—often both in the space of a single timeslot. At Stattbad, she started by weaving jet-black techno from a cluster of hardware, then stepped to her left to summon similar sounds from a pair of CDJs. The set had the tightness of European techno, but it never felt staid or monolithic, and Halal wore a little smile through the bulk of it.
She told me about her and Ital doing something similar at VENT in Cairo. "These kids started this venue—it reminds me of all these Brooklyn venues that start from scratch, because it's almost the same instinct—and so far the only guests they've had are all Brooklyn artists: they've had Patricia, Terekke, Huerco S. So I wrote the guys and said, 'You've had a lot of my friends. Are you interested in having me and Ital?' We go there, and it was a Ramadan closing party, before everyone stops drinking for Ramadan. It wasn't expatriate or anything—it was only Egyptian hipsters dancing so much and having the most amazing time, and the only lights were these really powerful black lights, and everyone had face paint on. It's really hard to describe how wild it was."
When I asked if there was a highlight of the tour, she told me that while she was impressed with everyone she played with, she was struck by how darkly serious or, alternatively, generically party-oriented a lot of the music was at random nights she'd drop in on—"ubiquitous commercialized background music intended to service the all-weekend endless 'trot,'" as she put it in an email exchange after our call. I clarified that I was asking for a highlight, and she countered that she was telling me about one. "It showed me how much I value the climaxes in musical experiences," she said. "I want evocative images, hypnotic motifs—overwhelming surges of feelings, risky combinations and even uncomfortable moments, or else I'd rather go home."