All photos courtesy of the artist.
Elysia Crampton's new live set is a mammoth production, at least temporally speaking. "It starts in September of 1782," she tells me, sitting across from me at a table in Lincoln Center's David Rubenstein Atrium on a grey June afternoon in Manhattan. "Actually... it starts with the creation of the world." She looks around, taking in the vaulted, cavernous interior of the lobby and cafe, which stretches across an entire block of 62nd Street, all the way from Broadway to 9th Avenue. "It encapsulates an eternity."
In just a few hours, here in the Atrium, the Northern California-based producer and DJ will unveil the experimental theater piece—dubbed Dissolution of the Sovereign—for a New York audience, following a debut performance at Ohio's Oberlin College, and others in Paris, Amsterdam, and Toronto. The idiosyncratic solo work features Crampton alternating between poetic spoken word—which deals, in part, with an 18th century Bolivian revolutionary hero named Bartolina Sisa—and shredded mixing that jumps between genres and epochs. At one point, she cheekily blends Beethoven's 5th symphony with crunk beats.
Caught up in the enormousness of the timeline, she pauses, brushing her shoulder-length black hair behind her ear with her left hand, which bears skeletal fingers tattooed over her own. She wears a black leather jacket with orange and white accents at the shoulder, swishing athletic shorts, and ankle-length boots made of a vaguely reptilian material. She widens her large brown eyes and continues: "Then it blasts off until the sun has been burned out."
Like the best academic writing, her every sentence feels like something to be savored, its spiderweb of ideas and meanings worthy of untangling. Dissolution, she explains, is dedicated to her grandfather, who passed away during the piece's conception, in late fall of 2015. It tells a fictionalized story of Bartolina Sisa—a woman of the Andes mountain range's native Aymara people, from whom Crampton descends—who led a rebellion against the Spanish and was eventually executed. "In 1782, when Bartolina Sisa was fighting for liberation, her idea of liberation was already shaped by the horizon of coloniality that had been there for a few centuries," Crampton says.
She calls the piece—and Demon City, the album it inspired, due July 22 on Break World Records—her "sloppy exploration of sovereignty," one in which she finds herself interrogating the dictionary definitions of the term as "power" or "authority." "It's what I'm really trying to talk about, even though I don't know how to talk about it," she says, smiling. "My whole thing is following people like [trans activist] Sylvia Rivera and [writer and academic] Fred Moten and many others that question the limits of sovereignty itself, wondering if that could even be done away with, and what we could seek in its place—to move closer to those frequencies of self-determination."
My life is a process of generating hope—or something like hope.
By her own admission, teasing out the ways in which we're trapped in a "colonized" frame of mind, as she calls it, is complicated business—not least when you're trying to do so using a colonial language like English. So is the idea of using experimental music to shatter that mindset, but if anyone has the daring to make connections between seemingly disparate things, it's Crampton. The music she's been making over the last half-decade—first as E+E, and more recently under her own name—has largely followed in this lane, drawing lines between dots that seem to be in different universes. Her edits of tracks like Justin Bieber's "As Long as You Love Me"—released under the E+E moniker—wrap high-gloss pop songs in breaking glass and digitalist polyrhythms, inspired by her long held-fascinations with cumbia and South American metal.
Her originals are predictably head-spinning. On last year's American Drift, you'll hear moments inspired by or sampled from Lil Jon songs, Bolivian folk music, and anime soundtracks; it'd be easy to get lost in the flurry of disparate sounds were it not for the careful way she arranges them. Music critic Adam Harper called her earliest music epic collage, but that implies that her constructions are haphazard, without clear intent. Instead, I'd argue that she fits in more with producers like Tri Angle club splinterer Rabit, NON co-founder Chino Amobi, the shapeshifting producer Why Be, and London's Lexxi—artists who all feature on Demon City, and who employ a disorienting slew of sounds in the service of emotional narratives.
The crunch of broken glass is a common signifier in their work, as are unpredictable kick drum barrages and synthetic sounds that feel more like metal scraping metal than familiar club melodies. Crampton's take on these sounds, in particular, might be understood as a response to living as a trans woman of color in a society where expressing that identity can, and often does, result in literal violence. Her music is largely wordless, though a pitched-down vocal sample on "Children of Hell" underscores the general sense of foreboding: "The darkest hour." It's overwhelming, but that's not an accident—existence can be overwhelming, too.
The last year or so has certainly been that way for Crampton, enough so that she finds it hard to give a straightforward narrative of exactly where she's been and what has happened. Part of the issue, she explains, is that she doesn't feel it necessary or even possible to frame her life in terms of chronological steps. "Coming from an Aymara perspective, the language doesn't even embody that linear perspective of time," she says, matter of factly.
Crampton, now 30, was born in Riverside, California, but she grew up in a small town near Monterrey, Mexico. In the time since, has lived in La Paz, Bolivia, Virginia, and multiple Californian cities, never really settling for anywhere for too long. "I was taught at an early age that mobility is key to survival," she said in an interview with Modern Painters earlier this year. She took piano lessons as a kid, but didn't really start musically blossoming until 2008, when she adopted the E+E moniker. She released her first tracks under her own name soon after that. She hasn't stopped moving since then.
When we last spoke—just before the release of American Drift, in July of 2015—she was poised to relocate from her longtime home in Weyers Cave, Virginia, where her immediate family owned an Italian restaurant, to her extended family's farm in the Pacajes province in Bolivia. She did end up living there briefly last fall, but when her grandfather's health took a turn for the worse, she took him back to the States from Bolivia, because other members of her family wanted him buried in the U.S. She wanted to head back to Bolivia for the long term, but while she was making her way there in the winter of 2015, she hit a snag, losing all of her documents during a stop in Los Angeles. "I got stuck there," she says with a sigh.
Crampton had lived there for a stint a few years prior, and decided to make the best of the situation. Reaching out to the geographically dispersed network of producers she's become close with over the years—Rabit's Eric Burton in Texas, Amobi in Virginia, Why Be in Copenhagen and Berlin, and Lexxi in London—she decided to start working on a collaborative record that'd span countries, continents, scenes, and styles. Demon City, she says, came together more quickly than she could have ever imagined. "My friends work so fluidly and understand me so much," she says. "It was the first time that I had worked with Eric, and it was like he was family already."
Dedicated to her friend Ashland Mines—AKA Total Freedom, who also collaborated on the sessions that made up the album, but whose contributions didn't make the final cut—and Crampton's grandmother, Flora, the record is an interrogation of the ways that our relationships to our family and close friends help us survive. She calls maintaining these crucial ties a process of "being-with," or figuring out a way to exist in relation to those who support her. "How does my friends'—[who are] from all different backgrounds—support of me inform my own autonomy, my own agency?" she wonders at one point of our conversation.
Demon City is largely the outgrowth of this line of thinking; even as she enlists her friends to contribute, there's a warped voice that's distinctly Crampton's, a way of overstuffing samples and intersecting instrumentals that could only belong to her. Demon City standout "Dummy Track," which she made with Why Be and Amobi, layers intersecting samples of disaffected laughter and a chattering drumbeat into a simmering rhythm. It's woozy and nauseating, but the goofily syncopated giggles are likely to leave you cackling, too. You can press onward through the chaos; even if it overtakes you, you can laugh.
Hours after our conversation in the atrium, Crampton takes the stage to perform Dissolution before a crowd of hundreds. On a screen behind her, the video portion of the piece begins with a swirl of interstellar imagery; Crampton recites an abridged version of the Sisa story at the front of the stage, then dashes back behind a set of CDJs, unleashing beats that wobble uncontrollably. Throughout the performance, she continues this abstract but harrowing narration, speaking in monotone and offering the odd death metal growl as she traipses the stage. After she nods to the Sisa story, horrifying images of bruised and battered brown bodies flash on the screen, as do portraits of colonial figures (such as our own founding fathers), and fires, burning brightly. It's an overload of gruesome imagery—spoken, visual, and musical.
Her music's whiplash-inducing transitions between forms and styles has always been suggestive of violence and chaos. But Dissolution makes the brutality explicit. At one point in the set, she imagines a future in which the heat death of the earth brings about the end of the prison system, and parts of Sisa's body are found and reanimated by a sentient AI. A world of possibility reopens. The story she tells is one of horror, then more horror, then ecological catastrophe, then something small and precious, something that always made Crampton's work so powerful: the soft light of optimism, rising out of ash and chaos.
A few weeks later, we catch up again on Skype, and discuss the performance. I ask if she feels hope for the future, in her own life, or if the end of Dissolution is a sort of sci-fi fantasy. "I think my life is a process of generating hope," she tells me, confidently. "Or something like hope. It's hard but you try. Are you a hopeful person?"
I stutter something about feeling hopeful in my private life, but not for the ultimate state of the world—at least not in the way she suggests is possible in Dissolution. But she rejects my pessimism.
"Whether you acknowledge your involvement in the world's happiness or the world's functioning, that so-called private interaction is materially informing the goings on of whatever the ecology is," she says, catching me off guard. "Those things aren't separate but we're taught to treat them separately." She's speaking in her usual abstractions, but she seems to say we can make the world at large better, even just through our relations with those closest to us. Somewhere within all the oppression, there's a glimmer of possibility. That's the beauty of art like Crampton's—it's about pressing on, even when the world tells you not to.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Crampton was Bolivian-born, she is Bolivian by descent, but was actually born in California.
Elysia Crampton's new album Demon City is out now on Break World Records.
Colin Joyce is THUMP's Managing Editor. He's embracing his newfound optimism on Twitter.