In 2001, a young Harvard graduate named Jace Clayton began to tire of Boston’s club scene. “It’d be one tempo, one style of music all night long, and I just felt that didn’t reflect what I was as a musician,” he recalled. “I was like, I wanna rupture that dance floor, put a big hole in that.” Using a groovebox and samples found online, Clayton started working on a sprawling mixtape as varied as a night out should be long. He called the album Gold Teeth Thief and gave himself the stage name DJ /rupture.
Self-released online, the album packed 43 songs into a mix recorded live in just over an hour. Opening with snatches of Missy Elliott and Nas, Clayton then mashed up their songs with snippets of dancehall, Arabic folk, and Paul Simon’s Graceland. In the process, he created a blueprint for how 21st-century music could sound: eclectic, anarchic, at once global and local, uprooted and linked to a variety of specific musical traditions.
In an earlier time, Clayton’s work would have had to be passed around by hand. These days, though, a Boston-based DJ with a laptop and a good ear can create a mixtape that becomes an international hit almost overnight. Within several weeks of Gold Teeth Thief’s release online, Clayton was a viral phenomenon. Magazine covers, world tours, and corporate endorsements followed.
As Clayton shot to prominence and became a favorite of music critics and websites like Pitchfork, he began to develop a philosophy of this new cosmopolitan and digital sound. A new space for cultural and economic exchange had opened up in the post–Cold War years—one that was no longer defined by one’s language or passport. This was especially true of music, which was helped by the easy proliferation of MP3s online. “The Web,” as Clayton later observed, “is…a superabundant and hopelessly cluttered digital warehouse distressed by user error, junk data, and bandwidth bottlenecks.” From this cluttered international warehouse, a savvy musician could develop a new kind of global sound. He or she could help find in the midst of all the chaos some kind of coherence, making “disparate records sound like a whole.”
Around the time Clayton was beginning to gain prominence, another young musician was just getting her start. On the recommendations of the Canadian shock-rocker Peaches and Elastica front woman Justine Frischmann, Mathangi Arulpragasam began tinkering with a Roland 505 turntable. In her early 20s, Arulpragasam was a student at Central St. Martins, a prestigious art school in London. The child of refugees, she’d planned to make documentaries about her parents’ native Sri Lanka. She was not a musician by any stretch of the imagination and back then, as she later recalled, could barely clap in time. Still, inspired by the music she had been exposed to on a recent trip to the Caribbean, Arulpragasam began to record, pairing dancehall and reggae rhythms with samples and noises that sounded like they could have come out of Brazilian carnivals and local construction sites.