Getting Your Hands Dirty for Music

Dirty Tapes’ Daniel Bashin on DIY music production and cross-cultural exchange.

Photo by Jitwam

Daniel Bashin is the curator, art-director, and executive producer of Brooklyn-based DIY label Dirty Tapes. Born in Russia and raised in the US, Bashin discusses how his backstory plays a role in his contribution to Dirty Tapes and in his ongoing engagement with the Russian underground scene. 

I was born into a family of Muscovite artists. Both of my parents are professional dancers and choreographers and worked with many 1980s Russian celebrities including Alla Pugacheva, Kris Kelmy, Filip Kirkorov and Kristina Orbakaite. My parents were pioneers in the field of Russian contemporary dance and drew inspiration from American pop music videos. They sought to incorporate the raw, energetic and sexual movements of American pop within their own dance routines. For Russia, this was all a breath of fresh air, and they eventually formed their own dance collective Novoi Soyuz. Soon they split up, and I subsequently moved to the US with my father. 

My early exposure to the performing arts definitely played a monumental role in my own development. I was always involved with the arts since my childhood – drawing, painting, graphic design. I initially got into music through designing album artwork for my friend’s hip hop group in high school. In 2006, I did the cover art for MF Doom’s 12” single “Vomit”. That was my first big break as a visual artist, and it opened my eyes to the underground music scene. 

I grew up mostly being influenced by the 1990s MTV Golden Era. Prodigy’s “Fat of the Land” really blew me away when it came out. Their image and sound was so raw and their mode of expression really spoke to me. I would tape their footage onto VHS and make video mixes. The 90s was a special decade to grow up in, rife with alternative music and culture. The raw element of that era fuels my approach to music, and I want it to permeate my own projects.

In college I started to gravitate towards underground hip hop and instrumental beat music. I became obsessed with the likes of Madlib, Jay Dee, Kankick and Flying Lotus. Around 2007 I began experimenting with music production, and joined the beatmakers MySpace community. Back then there was no Soundcloud, so Myspace was really the first vast online network for artists. 

In 2011 my friend Delofi  and I started Dirty Tapes with a desire to have an underground music scene here in New York –  a representation of the more gritty style that is now synonymous with our label. The underground community in the east coast was quiet at the time, so our mission was to showcase the underground talent that inspired us.

We knew we wanted to focus on cassette releases from the get-go. That was an essential part to our ethos: to return the analog format and make the process of listening to music physical again. We wanted people to buy the cassette and listen to it from start to finish, without skipping tracks or experiencing fillers. The product had to be strong and consistent all the way. This approach is really at the heart of the label – you invest in this physical object that you carry with you. So much of today’s music industry is oriented on music that’s expendable. We’re saying “nah, treat this music like art.”

Right now we are operating directly through our Bandcamp page. Every order is handled by us personally: carefully packaged and hand stamped. Everything is DIY, and we operate out of a basement in Bushwick. It’s definitely a labor of love. We’re not seeing large financial gains, but we don’t mind keeping our hands dirty and taking time with the projects. We’ve shipped to every continent in the world, and there is real value in maintaining that level of dedication with our audience. It’s amazing to witness the impact you’re making across the globe. It’s definitely something we want to keep as pure as possible, and for however long we can keep it running.

Originating from Russia, I always tried to keep the Russian indie circles on my radar. The 2000s MySpace days were a particularly creative and experimental period in Russia. I came across the earlier material of Nippletapes, Chushi, RBE, Vxlam, Fama87, Lapti and other musicians with unusual recordings. Around 2012, RAD collective emerged on the scene and I discovered Vtgnike and OL. Their experiments in mixing juke-ambient styles absolutely blew me away. 

I wanted to somehow work with the Russian community, but organically. Then Panya Zaitsev (Paul Hares) reached out to me. He was working under a different alias at the time and sent me this really obscure sounding music. I didn't even know he was Russian at the time, but we immediately became friends. This led to the release of Paul Hares: The Definitive Works cassette which was a compilation of the material he sent me over three years. It was raw, explosive, deeply haunting and contemplative – a reflection of the Russian soul. He works in a steel factory in the town of Balakovo, and makes the dirtiest beats. 

At a certain point the US underground scene started to grow redundant and over-saturated with producers emulating popular styles. The sound was becoming derivative, and I wasn't seeing much room for progress or experimentation. So I began to explore more energetic and fast paced genres of electronic music – juke, footwork, deep house – all of which were very prevalent in the Russian scene, which was contagious, exceptionally crafted and very close to my heart. I started to network with some Russian artists, and seized the opportunity to shed light on this mysterious and virtually untapped scene.

Dirty Tapes “From Russia” Compilation (2016).

There are many great collectives popping up: Oblast, Raw Russian, Systema, Raw Union, and of course GOST ZVUK. They are all very close-knit and based on local support, creating music on their own terms without looking for external recognition. Nor are they trying to emulate a particular sound. It’s a great time to bridge the gap and shed light on this region. I think the west has been reluctant to discover these scenes because the music style doesn't quite fit into any pre-existing cultural context. 

The US has its own distinct club culture driven by Chicago Club, Ghetto House, Jersey Bounce, Footwork and other vernacular styles. I see some overlap happening with Russia’s producers blending juke, bass music, lo-fi house, but there’s a distinctly Russian sensibility. The Russian sound has always had a more harsh, industrial overtone to it. The Russian sound’s uniqueness lies in its subtle uses of unpredictable, often Soviet-era, sample choices, hard-hitting drum patterns, strong synth work and raw production quality. Because of its isolation, there doesn’t seem to be a template for “popular sound,” leaving room for experimentation. There is a lot of untapped potential there, and it’s an honor to expose these sounds. The Russian artists add another layer of depth and intrigue into Dirty Tapes’ already diverse catalogue.

And we’ve been receiving great feedback on our Russian releases. People are getting bored of banal sound and want something unexpected. It’s like when a non-Russian tastes Russian caviar for the first time: “hey this is salty and a bit strange,” but then the reaction changes to “wow, this is actually incredible.” That’s what these releases are like.

Being a dual citizen I straddle between my two backgrounds on a daily basis. I feel my exposure to the realities of daily life in both countries allows me to see past certain facades the media paints. I would like to witness more cultural exchange between the US and Russia, and am fortunate to be partaking in it myself, albeit with music and art. Globally Russia has always been the outsider, just like Dirty Tapes has been on the periphery of the music frontier. At a time when we are told that associating with Russia is dangerous, we are doubling down on our efforts to showcase these incredible talents that are larger than any perceived border. Music has always united people, and we can use it to dismantle the systems that keep us apart. 

Dirty Tapes Moscow Takeover August 18, Powerhouse, Moscow.

Dirty Tapes released a compilation of Russian artists last September, with a second is scheduled for release this fall. This July, the label released a tape by Moscow-based artist DX2OV. Dirty Tapes is set to release more individual Russian artists including Caapi (aka Vxlam) on vinyl, as well as special releases from legendary lo-fi legends Nippletapes, Chushi, 1618 and Paul Hares. On August 18, the Dirty Tapes’ Russia contingent will host a show at Moscow’s Powerhouse venue.