Sitting at the crossroads of techno, noise, gabber and breakcore, Rita Mikhael's music is fearless, confrontational and utterly thrilling. Max Mertens hears the Iraq-born, Toronto-based artist's story.
"When you hit that perfect bassline you literally feel it in your chest," Mikhael told me. "When I play, I love to play as loud as possible. I think that in a way is definitely confrontational to me."
From her early, self-released tapes under the alias RM, to records on leftfield labels like Aught Void, BANK Records NYC and Opal Tapes, the 26-year-old Iraq-born producer has accomplished a lot in a short period of time. All the while, she's been utterly unafraid to challenge audiences. She started the experimental electronic and industrial-focussed cassette label Summer Isle in 2014 with her partner Max Klebanoff, who plays drums in the Toronto death metal group Tomb Mold and solo as Death Kneel. Since then, they've put out 60 releases by artists from Canada and abroad. Known for their outré sounds and stark, monochromatic cover art, the limited-edition cassettes, which frequently sold out, introduced listeners to E-Saggila's sonically brutal compositions. Mikhael and Klebanoff occasionally threw shows with avant-garde-leaning acts that Toronto's more established bookers and venues wouldn't touch.
Mikhael's range as an artist is striking. In addition to techno, gabber and breakcore, her output draws on ambient, jungle and dancehall influences. This versatility has led to her playing both larger warehouse raves and smaller punk and hardcore venues across Toronto. Likeminded acts with whom she's shared a stage include Toronto hardcore punk band Fucked Up, Palestinian hip-hop artist Muqata'a, and Varg, who released her latest album this year on his label, Northern Electronics.
The seven tracks on My World My Way were born out of Mikhael's live shows, and find her exploring new corridors. "I definitely wanted to make this not like a proper techno album," she told me in Toronto this August. "I don't only listen to underground punk and noise, I'm definitely into mainstream pop and dancehall and reggaeton. It definitely inspires me to work differently and not just have the same foundation of making a techno track. It just helps me to look through a broader spectrum of how to reduce."
Unlike last year's Dedicated To Sublimity, My World My Way features several collaborators. Chicago-based Club Chai affiliate Thoom's shrieks cut through the unrelenting "Alia" like a wounded animal (one of the song's lyrics translates to "deserve like dog" in Arabic). On the closing track, "One Last Midnight," Los Angeles producer Oil Thief delivers an ominous monologue over white noise squalls and phone dial tones.
"Thoom and I actually did a show together in Chicago a couple years ago," Mikhael said. "I think we both have the same views on harsher and harder music, and I thought it was a perfect fit. She's also speaking Arabic and that was really important to me to have that resonate through the track. Oil Thief has been a friend for a while now. It's mostly artists who I enjoy and think should have more exposure than they already have."
Inevitably the topic of our conversation turned to the ongoing challenges facing artists in Toronto. The city is currently facing one of North America's worst affordable-housing crises, and lacks the kind of spaces where promoters can put on shows. "We don't have the fees to rent venues out," she said. "Especially when you're bringing an international artist here, you don't have the money to pay them and the venue, and sometimes you have to rent the PA system."