The sound of summer 2020 is scattered.
The total disruption of this year has forced artists to adapt, rather than sit about and hope to get lucky. For Dua Lipa, whose instant-minted second album Future Nostalgia has already resulted in a batch of frontrunning singles (Physical, Don’t Start Now, Break My Heart), this means doubling down.
“Being grounded during the pandemic led me to start thinking out of the box,” Lipa says through a screen, one day before her 25th birthday celebrations in Los Angeles. “Whether it was putting a green screen in my living room to create performances, or thinking of new ways to promote my music, ideas were flowing.”
Hence, now, a quick five months after the parent album’s release, comes Club Future Nostalgia – one of the most audacious remix projects this side of the 1990s.
Pop’s relationship with an abstract notion of The Club has resulted in a lot of peculiarly sterile music over the years. But Future Nostalgia was that rare banger-thon that really did feel like one thousand clubland mirrors winking back at you. At just shy of 40 minutes, it was built to be unskippable, all bops and no troughs, sustained ecstasy from start to finish.
But if Future Nostalgia positioned Dua Lipa as the most natural foil to house, disco and hi-NRG grandeur since Fever-era Kylie Minogue, then the Club version is the aural equivalent of Kylie emerging out of a jewel case at the 2002 BRIT Awards to sing the mash-up Can’t Get Blue Monday Out Of My Head.
Club Future Nostalgia is an 18-track rerub featuring 16 new collaborators and 11 listed samples from across dance history. It’s executive produced by The Blessed Madonna, aka Marea Stamper, who took on A&R duties to meet Lipa’s brief of a “DJ style dance mixtape”.
When Stamper found that Larry Heard, Yaeji and Paul Woolford had already been approached by Lipa’s team, the east London-based Kentucky native knew they were onto a winner. Lipa and The Blessed Madonna are jointly credited as featured artists, harking back to a time when there was a two-way street of respect between star and studio wiz. It’s the dynamic that allowed Jellybean Benitez to draw new strengths from Madonna on 1987’s remix compendiumYou Can Dance, or powered David Morales’ 1993 take on Mariah Carey’s Dreamlover to crossover status.
But in an age of TikTok-angled choruses, does a remix project that smooths out the bops and seeks to preach patience contravene pop’s new rules?
Neither Lipa nor Stamper were fazed. The aim was to make a futuristic record in an old world way to complement the present moment.
“I see Dua in a long line of incredible pop sensations,” Stamper tells me from her couch, not far from where the entire project came together, in the top-floor studio of her home.
“Pop music is, if nothing else, the way we talk about our lives. Future Nostalgia speaks universal truths. For me, Dua’s music lives in the same continuum as Madonna’s Confessions on a Dancefloor, as Arthur Baker, as Metro Area’s Miura, as Frankie Knuckles’ remix of the Pet Shop Boys. I mean, Dua literally raps it: ‘You want a timeless song, I want to change the game.’ I was 100 per cent pulling in that direction.”
As much as the pair bounced ideas back and forth, according to Lipa much of the chemistry was unspoken.
“I feel that because of the energy I’ve put out into the world – speaking about my inspirations from a wide range of genres and using samples like Al Bowlly on Love Again – there was a clear direction.” That said, she stresses, “the only way it could be a real collaboration is if I let the artists create whatever felt right for them. I’m a pop artist, and I can’t do what some of the incredible producers that are on the record can do. There’s no way I could stand behind them at the desk and be like: “This is what it needs to sound like.’”
The trust paid off: speaking about the final product elicits genuine delight in Lipa’s voice. “It is in-cred-ible. To have all these samples, all these producers! I mean, Gwen Stefani and Jamiroquai and Stevie Nicks [sampled] on my record? It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing that I could have only ever dreamt of.”
The contributor cast on Club Future Nostalgia sprawls geographically, from LA to Texas (Dallas-based Zach Witness, the producer behind Erykah Badu’s perfect But U Caint Use My Phone EP), through pillars of British house music (Londoners Midland and Joe Goddard, of Hot Chip) and onto giants of east Asian pop (South Korea’s BLACKPINK and Japan’s Gen Hoshino).
Just as with Future Nostalgia, we’re taken on a joyride through the last 50 years of culture, the dial turned to a particularly vibrant radio station. At one stage Mark Ronson “calls in” and asks to hear Neneh Cherry’s towering Buffalo Stance. His request is honoured over Hoshino’s dreamy edit of Good In Bed, which morphs into Louie Vega doing DJ drops over Cajmere’s Coffee Pot (Percolator Mix).
Not long after, the rubbery bassline on Dua’s INXS-indebted smash Break My Heart gets even funkier, thanks to an interpolation of Dimitri From Paris’s lux take on Jamiroquai’s Cosmic Girl.
And on and on it goes, the engine never once stalling.
“I was obsessed with Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique and De La Soul’s De La Soul Is Dead when I was a kid,” Stamper explains of this non-stop ref-o-rama. “I took those breadcrumbs and found my way to the original artists, which would not have happened without The Dust Brothers and Prince Paul’s crazy attention to detail.”
The risk of getting sued to oblivion resulted in a creative recession for sample-stitching extraordinaires, one that only eased once filesharing took hold in the 2000s. Little wonder that Stamper shouts out two classics of the blog era as essential components of the vision: Danger Mouse’s legally problematic 2004 Beatles-vs-Jay‑Z splicing The Grey Album, and the same year’s Piracy Funds Terrorism mixtape from Diplo and M.I.A. – ironic influences, both, given the ultra-secrecy and encrypted servers that prevented this project from getting leaked like Future Nostalgia was.
The torch of blog tapes burns brightest in the second half, where a blend of Stefani’s Hollaback Girl and Heard’s The Sun Can’t Compare – the best sleight-of-hand 2ManyDJs never thought of – is one-upped by an appearance from the actual Ms Stefani.
“The Hollaback Girl era is so close to my heart,” Lipa beams, “so getting that sample cleared was already a surprise. Marea and I then began essentially manifesting ideas about who should appear on [the album].”
Stefani herself, Missy Elliot and Madonna were all blurted out, and all came through.
“Gwen was so cool about it,” Lipa coos. “She was just like: ‘Fuck yeah, I’d love to be on it.’ So I got a double whammy of Gwen on my record. Again: a dream come true.”
Though we hear Stefani’s voice on Ronson’s smoothed-out redux of Physical, just as we heard Madonna’s and Missy Elliott’s on Levitating, the mix doesn’t just feel like one protracted lead-up to the megawatts guests. They were, in fact, some of the final pieces of puzzle to fall in, and ones of varying quality at that.
“Mike Dean was the secret weapon for why Madonna sounded so clean,” reveals Stamper of the revered hip-hop producer who’s worked with everyone from Jay‑Z to Travis Scott and Drake. “He engineered her vocals, and there is literally nobody better for that. But Missy…”
She breaks off here, eyes opening wide in mock horror.
“Missy sent me an M4A file that started with an airhorn. I had to Frankenstein three versions together to make sure we had the arrangement.”
With so many moving parts to corral, Stamper applied monastic discipline working on the whole mix from April right up until the tracklist was announced. In fact she was still at it the night before we spoke, adding flourishes and pulling out uncredited samples.
It didn’t have to be this way. Dua Lipa is currently the third most streamed artist in the world, and could have easily stuffed the bench with fellow contemporary superstars. Instead, millions of listeners will get exposure to Jayda G or Moodymann or Art of Noise or even Lyn Collins’ Think break for the very first time.
To any underground grouches whose mental gymnastics leads them to believe this moment in the sun (and hefty payout) is somehow a bad thing…. Well, it’s probably time to check your head, Beastie Boys style.
The making of Club Future Nostalgia hasn’t been entirely smooth sailing. As one of the most prominent DJ/producers to rise through contemporary dance music, Stamper might be better suited anyway to pop. It’s a land where heal-the-world ambition (or, Messianic tendencies, if your outlook is sourer) is par for the course. But that doesn’t mean pop heads take easily to dance music of a classic mould.
Case in point: the album’s first single. The Blessed Madonna remix of Levitating was put into the world without full communication of the project’s intent. Stans became feral, as they do, seeing a downshift in tempo and removal of chant-along backing vocals as an invasion of their hallowed ground.
“Well, Madonna fans loved it,” Stamper counters. “I watched the numbers come in as we went Top 10 in 15 countries and let me tell you: it was only a slapback from a small section of people. Besides, we don’t make music for the comments section.”
More critically, in the midst of the album’s creation came an alias change for Stamper, as The Black Madonna became The Blessed Madonna. In spite of its Catholic roots, the original could never truly stand once vital conversations over ownership and reclamation of Black art reached fever pitch this summer.
Stamper initially feared the controversy would lose her the work with Lipa. But the opposite happened.
“Dua was utterly supportive. She reached out with alternative suggestions, told me to hang in there and reinforced that she had my back. She obviously experiences the heat of the public gaze at a level greatly magnified from my own. But I can’t tell you how welcome that was.”
When I relay this to Lipa, she has a simple explanation.
“It’s so important for women to stick together in the industry. I get support and guidance when I need it, so I’m all too happy to reach out to my friends and pay that out in kind.”
That friendship was forged at last year’s Glastonbury, helped along by one of Club Future Nostalgia’s contributors. Ronson introduced Stamper to Lipa during an all-night-long DJ takeover, telegraphing the 4am vibe they would eventually come to capture on this year’s mix.
At the time Stamper had already turned in a remix of Electricity, the piano-house stormer made by Lipa and Silk City (aka Ronson & Diplo). “Still probably the best dance song I’ve ever been involved with,” Ronson tells me. It says a lot about Dua’s place atop Mount Pop that the equally insatiable One Kiss, released in April 2018, was still in the top 40 six months later when Electricity hit the charts.
Neatly, Glastonbury has played a pivotal part in Dua’s stratospheric ascent. In 2017, a rammed Friday lunchtime slot in the John Peel tent assuaged nerves that no-one would show up, come out or care about her.
Following that breakthrough, Block9, the creative hub that runs the most overtly queer and notoriously loose zone of Worthy Farm, were tapped for direction and stage production of Dua’s 2018 arena tour. Then, moving onwards and upwards, much of Future Nostalgia was penned with the aim of blowing the roof off the Pyramid Stage – which feels a matter of when, not if.
So does Club Future Nostalgia suggest there will be an enormous celebratory afters kicking off in Block9, too?
“Who knows, I might get both slots,” Lipa laughs. “But if Marea is booked for Block9, you can be sure I’ll be up there dancing in that tent with her.”
Of course, there was no Glastonbury this year. There’s no anything. Twenty-twenty has banjaxed it all. Which means that this could be seen as an unfortunate time to release not one but two records about nostalgia. See, already, how people casually drop “The Before Times” into conversation to signify life before March – a joke but also, not really.
Lockdown has meant that the multi-sensory associations that colour memories have been sterilised by the biosecure environments everyone has found themselves penned into. Accordingly, people might hear a banger off either version of Future Nostalgia in 10 years’ time – two years’ time, even – and, rather than recall long summer nights melting into glowing morning skies, flash back to staring wanly down a laptop camera or at the ceiling.
That’s kind of weird, right?
“Yeah, it is kind of weird,” Lipa allows, her voice trailing slightly. “This hasn’t been easy for anyone. Your mood is very much dependent on the day. You have to just play it by ear, to try and see the positives in everything. But I hope the music has helped take people’s minds off what’s going on outside their window and carried them into a positive mindset, whatever the circumstances. And when they remember this time in the future, I hope that memory stays positive and not: ‘Oh no, where we could have been…’”
Dropping two albums in five months isn’t the only unexpected way Dua Lipa has kept herself at the front of the media conversation this year. A blend of Hallucinate and the BBC News theme was such a perfect match that it resulted in news segments dissecting it on TV and radio, a scenario so ludicrous that she can barely mention it without bursting into laughter again.
Similarly, earlier this August, she remotely hosted an episode of American late night chat show Jimmy Kimmel, including a Zoom-to-Zoom confessional with Stefani, in which it was suggested that Hollaback Girl taught nine-year-old Dua how to spell the word “bananas”.
Pleasingly, she not only confirms that this is true, but offers up that: “I learned to spell ‘beautiful’ from Bruce Almighty, too.” As she says this, she slides reflexively into her best Jim Carrey – “B‑E-A-utiful!” – before a nostalgic sigh.
“It’s the little things that stick with you, isn’t it?”
As proven by the intricate, personal, joyous sounds of Club Future Nostalgia, the answer is a resounding y‑e-s.
Club Future Nostalgia’s beatmakers, remixers and demixers break down their moves
Your take on Physical is around 90 bpm, whereas the original is high-octane. What was the process of smoothing it out?
So, 140 bpm is not in my repertoire. Whether it’s UGK or HudMo or Britney Spears’ Toxic, there’s plenty of great songs at 140, but it’s just not something I do. But, you know, lockdown left everyone with time on their hands. I was like: “All right, let me take this shit apart.” Dua had told me stories of how she’d loved Ruff Ryders from a young age and even gone to see them in concert when she was, I think, 12. I tried to push it in that direction, but it just sounded like a b‑rate Swizz Beats knockoff. So I went the other way, going for a classic electronic‑R&B mood, putting in the notes and fixing it in the field by hand – stuff I haven’t done in quite a while.
Where did Gwen Stefani fit?
At the last minute I got the word that Gwen wanted to jump on. And I was like: “Well, the song is full. Would she be down to re-sing the second verse and the chorus?” I didn’t hear anything back, then all of a sudden I received the finished article with Gwen on top. As soon as she comes in, she oozes warmth and comfort and familiarity. So that stepped it up another notch.
You were vocally supportive of Dua from the off, predicting around the period of New Rules and Electricity that she would be a generational star. Can you identify that from the first meeting or studio session?
You just get the feeling. I’m not the best judge – I’ve been right and wrong with these calls – but I know when people switch me on musically. It’s like: “Do I click with this person? Does this person know exactly what they see for themselves, have good taste, understand the power that they wield, what they can get away with musically?” I guess that’s kind of the basic criteria. From there it’s gut instinct.
It strikes me that she connects with people in quite an unforced way – and that relatability translates across the board, from fellow artists down to the listener.
Definitely. Also, there hasn’t been a really huge new English female pop star in a while. From the ones that I’ve worked with closely, there’s a vibe of: “Any which way the wind blows, we do our thing. You like it, that’s fucking amazing. But this is just who I am.” There’s something that you see with the Adeles and the Amys. Their personality gives them that little extra.
Your take on Don’t Start Now thumps with stop-start rhythm and deep bass that is almost G‑funk lowrider levels. What was the goal going into the remix, and how did you arrive here?
Don’t Start Now is my favourite track of Dua’s. So as much as my excitement was through the roof, I was also daunted by the challenge of reimagining a song I already love so much. I rarely set myself a concrete goal going into music making, but I did want to pull out different emotions and moods, with different sonics the original track does not have. This resulted in a darker, emotional take.
We’re used to hearing your own voice contour and complement your music. In instances when you can’t apply it as readily, do you make the instrumentation extra characterful to fill that space?
My voice is my most comfortable instrument, and most songs I’ve worked on – even remixes – make use of it, Don’t Start Now inclusive. It was a bit of a challenge finding ways to blend my voice to fit Dua’s powerful and energetic takes, so I decided to have my voice way in the back, a bit faded, with granular delay to add a bit of texture.
Now that you’ve been spliced together on record, can we cross our fingers for a full Larry Heard x Robert Owens x Yaeji supergroup to emerge some day soon?
One can only hope!
Your remix of Hallucinate is credited as Mr Fingers Ambient Deep Stripped Mix. On a technical level, how did you go about applying an “ambient deep strip” to a compact, high-energy hit of this nature?
I don’t know how technical this is, but I just tried some club-style concepts alongside the vocals to see what felt OK as a starting point and got going. The creative process is the same for me, no matter the status of the recording artist. A difference might be the psychological pressure you feel to deliver something as good as possible, given the opportunity.
What exactly differentiates a Larry Heard remix from a Mr Fingers one?
Nothing in particular. I have the ability to dip into any of the monikers that I’ve used over the years, but I have been going with Mr Fingers to keep things cohesive lately. When it comes to remixes, “Larry Heard” might be only used for something more experimental or mature in feel, along the lines of [Heard’s 1994 album] Sceneries Not Songs.
After your relocation from Chicago to Memphis in 1997 seeking a less cluttered life, to what extent did dance-oriented pop land on your radar?
I’m pretty much like everyone else outside of the target audience who has other responsibilities to focus on: I just kinda hear about artists in passing. Even active participation in the DJ community doesn’t aid much in the task of browsing around. I may sneak a bit in here and there, but nothing significant where I’m really plugged in.
When you and Mr White hit upon that infectious 303 line on The Sun Can’t Compare, did you think it would have this long a lifespan and breadth of influence?
No – you never know for sure. But it is very nice when you come up with something that people enjoy for a long time. In initial stages, you just instinctually feel like it’s a good and fun tune and you hope that others agree when they hear it.
You have had a panorama of powerful female voices running through your headphones over the years. What are the qualities that you find in Dua?
Yeah, I’ve definitely played a lot of songs that have female vocals [as a DJ]. In terms of production, handling vocals, it takes a very different skillset. With Dua Lipa, I guess the best quality is her voice: very pop, very unique, very distinct. You always know when it’s her singing. I’ve never worked with someone’s voice like that before. It was a wonderful experience.
From the beginning right up to this summer’s Both Of Us, your music has found a happy middle ground between house’s thump, R&B’s snap, disco and soul’s instrumentation, and your own singing. Is there a golden rule for how to avoid congestion and let every element shine?
Oh gosh… It’s hard as a producer when you have a lot of sounds that you truly enjoy from a DJ perspective as well. I find I always end up putting too much in. I definitely get super congested, and then comes the editing process, slowly pulling it apart and locating what parts really lend themselves to that particular song. It’s different for every song, right? If there was a golden rule, it would be to let myself produce as much as possible, and then edit and strip back. Just reworking, reworking, reworking the material until I get there.
It’s rare to see you play out in person or tune into a mix without hearing at least a few showstoppers from the gilded age of vocal house. If it’s not too tricky, can you pinpoint some of your favourite remixes?Oh God. I’m a really, really big fan of Masters at Work and I play a lot of their remixes – they are a huge inspiration of mine. My favourites are their remixes of Janet Jackson’s Go Deep or Neneh Cherry’s Buddy X. I could genuinely go on and on!
Your music bridges the colour, melody and mid-tempo skip of classic songcraft with a close eye on contemporary movements. Does mixing future and nostalgia come easily to you, or is it a careful balancing act?
I get inspired by nostalgic music all the time, but I always try to keep the current atmosphere of the world in mind when writing. What comes out is a natural mesh of future and nostalgia. Concerning [Dua’s] Good In Bed, the essence of early ’80s soul music and the strange imagery of early ’80s electronic music came to mind as soon as I heard the song, and I thought I’d mix them all together with Dua’s contemporary nature.
You seem to have a close bond with Mark Ronson, guesting on stage together, and with you starring on his Love Lockdown video mix. Tell me about your relationship, and what role he might have played in your contribution to Club Future Nostalgia.
I actually didn’t know that Mark was going to be on the album until last month. Once I found out, I was thrilled. He’s one of my most beloved friends, so I’m glad that we ended up working on the same project. I love Dua’s aura as an artist, so once I got the request I told them straight away that I’d do it.
In April, the viral popularity of your track うちで踊ろう [Uchide Odorou/Dancing On The Inside] assisted health awareness in Japan and inspired local-language translations across the globe. Now, you’re involved with this major album, arranged remotely from thousands of miles away. What lessons will you take from this surreal year?
This might sound a bit simple, but I realised that I really do love making music! [Laughs] When I was remixing Dua’s song, I spent countless days in front of my computer, oftentimes without food or sleep because I didn’t want to waste any time. Yet, there wasn’t a single moment during the whole process that I thought was tough. I got worked up imagining listeners “dancing on the inside” without having to go outside. It was extremely fun through and through.
Club Future Nostalgia is out tomorrow, ready to soundtrack your Friday night