When the unabashedly all-star billing of Diplo b2b Alison Wonderland b2b Jauz took to the stage at EDC Las Vegas, it was perhaps the most hotly anticipated set of the last few years. By far the most popular item on our festival app, the bass-heavy trio didn’t disappoint their legions of fans. They thrashed through a staggering 48 tracks in 56 minutes, throwing banger on top of banger—with Jauz’s penchant for low-end groove connecting the dots between Alison Wonderland’s hip-hop throwbacks, all seasoned with Diplo’s unrelenting mic hype and enhanced by his vast mainstage experience.
“There were definitely nerves before the set—at least on Alison’s and [my] side,” Jauz tells Insomniac. “I’m pretty sure Dip has played so many shows at this point that there’s just about nothing in the world that could make him nervous! Any time you are playing on a stage as massive and epic as kineticFIELD, especially at such a prime set time, you’re always gonna get butterflies. Luckily, both Alison and Dip are two of the best DJs I know. As soon as the first track was playing, I think we all were already in the zone, and the whole thing flew by. It was a blast, and I feel so lucky to be a part of something as epic as that set, with awesome people like Alison and Dip.”
“The beautiful things about b2b sets is the random, unplanned shit that happens, and I think that’s exactly why people are so excited to watch different artists play together.”
It was a perfect EDC moment: three of the biggest names in dance music bringing unrivaled star power to the biggest stage in the world. That’s a feat that can be achieved only by booking that boldly.
These days, the b2b set has become commonplace on club and festival lineups, as promoters strive to use two big names to double the hype. In a marketplace with lots of the same names appearing on similar bills, you can really spice things up by promising twice as much firepower—but it often doesn’t work like that. Sometimes these bookings misfire, resulting in half the vibe for twice the promise, as the acts fail to strike a chord and cancel one another out. But that doesn’t stop us from being seduced by this increasingly popular slot.
It’s thought that the b2b format originated in Jamaica, where DJs would go track for track in an epic dancehall battle, dubbed a “soundclash.” Judged by the whoops and boos from the audience, two or more crews would mob in with their crunchy, frankensteinian sound systems and face off on who had the best tracks and the best rig.
This form of musical sport clearly differs, in that it’s a competition as opposed to a collaboration, more akin to a rap battle than a DJ tune jam. Dance music just doesn’t have antagonism—unless we’re speaking of the trollings of deadmau5 or DJ Sneak, of course—so naturally our “battle sessions” are a bit more of a love-in. Our DJs knock back and forth against one another, ebbing and flowing among themselvse and with their collective connection to the audience.
“Trying to take it too seriously or plan something meticulous out, in my opinion, is never gonna work,” explains Jauz, who’s becoming known for his packed-out b2b sessions with fellow bass headz like Slushii, Mija, Getter, and Snails. “The beautiful things about b2b sets is the random, unplanned shit that happens, and I think that’s exactly why people are so excited to watch different artists play together. It’s never going to be just like a regular DJ XYZ set or DJ ABC set, and personally, that’s what I love about b2b’s. We tried to make our set a house party on a stage for 80,000 people, and I think it worked pretty well!”
In an interview with Thump’s Angus Harrison, Matt McBriar—one half of Northern Irish house duo Bicep—echoed Jauz’s sentiments about dialogue over detailing. “We hardly plan at all before a set; communicating during it is the most important part. First, read the floor; then talk to each other and plan periods that feel coherent. For example, we would agree to go more UK-bass-focused or very ‘synthy’ for a bit, and try and develop from there. We always play our best when we both know 80 percent of the material we’re playing and can judge the right tracks to follow.”
Jauz admits the trio didn’t plan “a ton” before their set at EDC, but given the monolithic enormity of kineticFIELD and the level of hype surrounding their set, they did meet a couple times to feel each other out and pick through tunes.
“We met once in L.A. for a few hours and just played a bunch of records together, got a vibe for what we all wanted to play, and then met again in Vegas and put together a general set list with a ton of all of our records—so at least we all had the same kind of set on each of our USBs,” says Jauz. “We all ended up dipping into our personal selections on each of our own sticks, but it was good to have a starting point so we were all on the same page.”
That element of spontaneity is the magic effect through which every b2b session passes. In the dingiest musky warehouse or the highest neon pedestal, the palpable tension from the booth keeps the crowd on its toes.
For underground heads, it’s the make-or-break first half-hour that sees the two selectors call-and-response until they’re singing in glorious harmony from the same hymn sheet—or until they’re farting it out in a mess that goes nowhere but right back up their own arses. There must be chemistry, or else it’s a big letdown. You’ve been teased into buying a ticket by the prospect of two formidable record collections coming together. Every track in an underground b2b session is a foot in front of the other, and the hope is that they coordinate into a straying saunter toward some weird and wonderful place we’ve never been before.
In the world of mainstream dance music, b2b sets offer a slightly different promise. With the heady notion of narrative being less of a virtue over on the mainstage, b2b sets are a rare opportunity for fans to see a vulnerable side of their favorite DJs. On the world’s biggest stages, the world’s biggest DJs step into the relative unknown, their worn and trusty road maps removed, blind beyond a foot in front of them. The sheer magnitude of the mainstage leads to sets being meticulously planned, and if you get to play only one track at a time, you don’t know what track is coming next. Yes, it’s largely just a banger contest, and flow doesn’t really enter into it, but the stakes are really high. Trainwrecks are going to be meticulously documented and shared from thousands of high-definition cameras. If you aren’t accustomed to that level of spontaneity, it could feel preeeetty tense up there.
For this reason, b2b sessions happen a lot more frequently in the underground scene, and many come together spontaneously. Friends jump up there together at the after-party, when there’s no booking, most likely no money changing hands, and no pretense. Everyone’s a bit of a mess and has a heavily compromised sense of quality. Sure, Seth Troxler b2b Ricardo Villalobos at some villa in Ibiza could blossom into an hours-long, waxy tapestry of tantric dancefloor ecstasy; or it could be one loooooong trainwreck, each record colliding head-on into the next, every transition sounding like a bag of dimes in a tumble dryer. But everyone’s probably too fucked to care or notice.
As you might have gathered by now, I don’t really vibe with the idea of smooshing big names together to add star power to a lineup. It feels like we’re struggling to find inspiration from our own scene, and that promoters are jangling a set of shiny keys in front of our eyes as they reach for the wallet. I’ve seen acts on their own and in b2b sets, and the acts are almost always better on their own. Although when it clicks, like it does with deadmau5 b2b Eric Prydz, Sasha and Digweed, Carl Cox b2b Loco Dice, or in this recent Boiler Room from Discwoman duo Volvox and UMFANG, it can be legitimately mind-blowing.
In my humble and utterly inconsequential opinion, we should be moving in the opposite direction. We’d be better clearing out all the bulk on our flyers and extending the sets. Fewer acts playing longer slots will push the DJs to dig deeper and deeper, explore sounds they wouldn’t normally play, build a relationship with the crowd, and cultivate a vibe.
But let’s be real: I still go all doe-eyed and reach for my wallet when I see [insert random legend] b2b [insert random legend] on a flyer.