“The revolution is a non-violent movement. Only ignorance, and sucka DJs will be killed. In my spirituality, we follow a concept of build and destroy. In order for us to build the new paradigm, we must first dismantle the old one.” —Amir Alexander
The entity that is Vanguard Sound is not a safe bet, it’s much more akin to gambling it all away in an adrenaline rush of uncertainty. As co-founder Chris Mitchell says, “I always joke that I have two mantras, ‘Ara Kara,’ meaning anything is possible, and ‘Fuck It,’ if it doesn’t work out.” Seeing as the collective, headed by Chris and Amir Alexander, boasts two upcoming showcases at some of Paris and Berlin’s most shining beacons of the global underground, Concrete (Sep 19) and Tresor (Sep 18), things seem to have worked out. They’re no strangers to either institutions either, as both have played the clubs on previous occasions, with Amir Alexander mentioning “magic regularly happens for me in Paris” in regards to his 40th birthday spent in the foreign city, and Chris Mitchell even having released on the label arm of Concrete. But, as the name would suggest, the Vanguard remains on edge — in one way or another. Balanced enough to not tip the scale and topple over while also leaning far enough forward to stay pointed in the direction of progress, the crew does not rest here.
Make no doubt about it, this sort of relevancy was a concerted effort. Amir Alexander made this goal clear in his lengthy introduction to Sound of Thought in 2012, “We’d like to be able to tour and take our message to the streets worldwide, but if that never happens, we will still create at the top of our abilities.” And just last year, in our own interview that was unfortunately cut short by the RIAA, Chris Mitchell explained, “One of the greatest fringe benefits to DJing is being able to travel the world and I am consciously trying to go to as many places as possible.” For an often distant and separated, but cosmically and spiritually close, American family of DJs and producers, it takes the Europeans to bring all of the family together. This weekend’s showcases are a validation of almost a decade’s years worth of hard work for the crew, a collective comprised of Chris Mitchell, Amir Alexander, DJ Spider, Dakini 9, Hakim Murphy, and G. Marcell (missing on this go around, but next time) — not that they need any. As a vinyl-only imprint, they now proudly stand atop a stack of releases from their catalog, records steeped in studio and dance floor sweat equity, showing this revolution will not be digitized.
Perhaps not geographically so for the (just short of) two decades that they’ve known each other, Amir Alexander and Chris Mitchell are still intrinsically linked as kindred spirits. They certainly share the militant mentality of early hip-hop, an adolescent influence, which also serves as reference for organizing as a crew. Like those groups, the path to today for the pair is marked by being criminally blue collar, fiercely opposed to the status quo, and hell-bent with revolutionary ethos. This is a stark contrast to much of the context-free whitewashing that dance music has undergone throughout many of its different phases. Some would prioritize maintaining likability and remaining favorable over honesty, so that they can gain a platform from which they can look out over an admirable audience and effectively say… nothing. Amir has pointed out in the past, “I am in the proletariat class, my life is a struggle, and my art reflects that.” Self-described as such, and with plenty of stories to back it up, he further expanded on this thought with Ransom Note in a statement that certainly hits as authentic and heartfelt, “It is my belief that human struggle makes for the richest and most soul penetrating art.” Mirroring their lives, the aesthetic of both Vanguard Sound and its sister label Anunnaki Cartel is raw and full of grit.
It may come as a surprise seeing as Florida often feels like one big sinkhole for electronic music, but Chris Mitchell and Amir Alexander have much of their roots in the swamp state. The pair met in the second half of the ’90s in Tampa. “From day one, he was a selfless friend,” Amir says of Chris in his Sound of Thought interview, “I always remembered that.” They instantly connected as two DJs operating in a house and techno vacuum, where progressive, breaks, and trance were the dominant sounds — remnants of which still echo through the peninsula.
For much of his life, Amir’s been split between the East Coast of Florida and Chicago, with some time also spent soaking up the sanguine San Francisco scene while the Wicked Crew and their full moon parties were still at large, but today he increasingly calls home to Europe. Before immersing himself in the Midwest and further afield on the West Coast, he cites the freedom of the early days at Simons in Gainesville as an influential learning period for him, a swell that has long since died down and trickled out. So when he eventually returned to Florida, it was as a respite from a harshly competitive and clique filled Chicago and a place of isolation for him to hone his craft. As for Europe? That’s not just where the work is, it’s also culturally where Amir Alexander feels at peace, something he was never able to fully find in the States, telling Stamp the Wax, “It was never really my place.” His tell-all with the site held far more discomforting insight though, as Amir disclosed of a pact to make it by 40 or die by his own hands — which goes back to the opening and gambling it all away. Through his debut artist album, Love & Fear, a pinnacle moment both in stature (represented by mountain peak climbing imagery) and reception (making into a Pitchfork review by Philip Sherburne), he’s thankfully since acquiesced the hardline ultimatum. Besides, the man with a nurturing world view of the dance culture he’s dedicated his life to now has a son of his own to take care of.
Chris Mitchell, on the other hand, serves as more of a silent partner when, at least when compared to Amir’s energy and outspokenness. “This guy is very easy going and reserved until you put him behind some turntables. Then he becomes a monster.” Having hosted him at an Open House Conspiracy party in Orlando before, our relationship with Chris can attest to that. Perfectly at home in making others uncomfortable through eccentric and discordant selections, he is not a DJ for the faint of heart. While Tampa may always be an anchor for him, he is also hardly a product of it and has always maintained a global focus while finding his existence lies in the world of music — more so than any physical locale. It’s fitting then that he refers to himself a sort of quilombo (chaotic or a mess), especially considering the term’s Portuguese roots recall freedom settlements. In the footsteps of Amir, he too tried Europe for a stint, but really found his native element during his most recent and extended stay in South America, a continent he has always taken an interest in. Whereas Amir’s story is that of an outsider looking in, Chris’ is maybe more of the escaped fugitive.
For some, dance music is a bastion of freedom (an unfortunately oft regurgitated cliche), but Chris Mitchell and Amir Alexander truly embody this. There is still a long ways to go, both individually and collectively, for Vanguard Sound and the global culture. Yet, this weekend in Paris and Berlin is a celebration of a crew that’s slowly becoming more free, at last. So for those joining the party at Concrete and Tresor, we’ll leave you as we began, with Amir Alexander’s words.
“Just imagine what happens when you have several hundred people intentionally focused on elevating the collective consciousness. A fucking revolutionary event!”