Why Jlin’s ‘Black Origami’ Will Probably Make All the Best Albums of 2017 Lists
The American producer’s electronic music makes your mind melt and your feet work
“As a matter of fact, I’ve never told anybody this,” says Jerrilynn Patton conspiratorially, “but my first DJ name was DJ Skip.” She laughs her quick, infectious laugh. “Saying it out loud makes me sick. Seriously, I don’t think I’ve ever told anybody that,” she says. “And then I changed my name to Gaga, and I had to switch that because Lady Gaga came out. Now, Gaga had been my nickname all my life, so when she came out I was like, really?”
Today, Patton uses the moniker Jlin (short for Jerrilynn), under which she has released two albums and an EP, and the music she makes couldn’t be further from Lady Gaga. In the two years since her first album, the critically acclaimed Dark Energy, Patton has grown in both skill and recognition to become one of the foremost electronic music producers on the scene. Her latest album, Black Origami, develops upon her frantic, unpredictable style, which draws heavily from footwork, the genre of house music and dance originating from Chicago. “But I don’t consider myself a footwork artist,” says Patton firmly.
To relegate Black Origami to just one genre would indeed feel reductionist. The album operates in multiple different headspaces at once, using richly layered samples and intricate, erratic rhythms. “Origami is the art of folding a piece of paper, folding and bending it into this complex piece of work,” says Patton. “Instead of using paper, I replace the paper with sound. I called [this album] Black Origami because that’s basically the definition of what I do.”
It’s Monday afternoon in Krakow, Poland, and 29-year-old Patton is sitting in her manager’s studio, in the middle of recording a track for an unnamed project (it’s “a secret,” she says) in between Europe gigs. “The reason I call [my work] complex is because sometimes I don’t even know how I did what I did,” Patton says, laughing. “I just was actually in that space right before you called, where I was actually stuck for about 45 minutes, and then all of a sudden it clicked and I was like, ‘Oh my god, I hear it!’”
It’s evident that Patton’s recording process is as intense as the music that comes out of it. “When I create, I create from the depths of my core, which means, well–it’s kind of self-explanatory, but for me, it [involves] being in a very uncomfortable place,” she says. As a result, she finds herself needing to record in environments where she can find absolute focus. At the start of her career, that meant her bedroom in her hometown, Gary, Indiana. Though she’s still based out of Gary, these days, Patton makes music all over the world. She has a particular affinity for recording in India, where she actually completed making Black Origami.
“India brings me a lot of peace when I go there,” she says. Patton has been to India four times, visits which were partially catalyzed by her friendship and ongoing collaboration with Bengaluru-based dancer Avril Stormy Unger. Unger reached out to Patton via social media in 2015, shortly after the release of Dark Energy, to tell her that her music was what inspired Unger to start dancing again after a health-related break.
Unger and Patton soon became fast internet friends, and the two began sending each other music regularly. One day, Patton found herself watching a video of Unger dancing on the latter’s Facebook page. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, this perfectly matches my sound,’” says Patton. “I went and and I told her, ‘Yo, every video you have of you dancing, send me as soon as possible.’ You know how you just want to make sure that something’s not a fluke? So she sent me everything she had, and it turns out it wasn’t a fluke.”
Patton’s last trip to India was to play the Boiler Room that took place in Bengaluru last month. During Patton’s set for the virtual gig series, Unger went up to perform choreographed dances on stage for some of the songs. It’s not the first time they’ve performed together: Unger danced at Patton’s Unsound Festival set in Krakow the very same year they met online. “That was also the first time we had ever met face to face,” says Patton. “It was a big dynamic, and it worked out, it was really organic and everybody really enjoyed it. And we’ve just been doing it ever since.”
Patton is no stranger to performing with other people up on stage with her. With quiet persistence, she shatters the stereotype of the electronic music show as the solitary male producer behind the DJ booth. At the end of her Boiler Room set in Bengaluru, Patton was surrounded by the event’s attendees, who were invited to come up on stage and dance to her music. While other artists might feel uneasy at such detractors to their performance, Patton clearly relishes in the frenzy and the fervor of the movement her music generates in people.
On a July day last year in Chicago, the birthplace of footwork, a crowd of people gathered beneath a tree-shaded stage at Pitchfork Music Festival. Many had heard of the young woman who was about to take the stage, which looked altogether too wide for just one person and a DJ setup. Many of them had not. So when Patton began her set–simply appearing behind the booth with little to no fanfare, surrounded by at least thirty men and women performing improvised footwork dance moves–people audibly wondered if “Jlin” was a group act.
It soon became clear, however, that the woman behind the DJ booth was the one calling the shots, in the same way that a conductor controls an orchestra with a flick of the wrist. “That’s her,” said a man in the audience, reverentially. Throughout her set, she flashed huge, radiant smiles, perfectly timed to each rhythm change, that felt much like the high hat sounds in her music: quick, cheeky and full of energy. Each full-toothed grin triggered a response from the dancers on stage, whose movements became more and more frantic as the set went on. Their identities were never explicitly stated.
“I made this decision at the last two minutes before walking on stage, yes, I did do that,” remembers Patton with a laugh. She explains that the group of people on stage was made up of prominent Chicago footwork dancers, including Patton’s personal favorite footworker, Crystal James. “It was at the last minute. It was time for me to go on, and then I was like, ‘Do y’all wanna go up and dance while I play?’” she says. “And that was it, and we just did it. My life is like that quite a bit.”
Patton says she owes a lot of her early forays into electronic music to Chicago footwork. She first heard it as a four-year-old in Gary, an industrial city which is adjacent to Chicago, when she was at her neighbor’s house and someone was listening to the choppy, fast-moving music through her headphones. “I never forgot that sound, because it sounded totally different from anything I had ever heard,” says Patton.
When Patton was in college, she was listening to a lot of footwork, and–casually, as you do–reached out to an early-career DJ Rashad (the late legendary electronic producer and footwork pioneer) to ask him if he could send her a copy of his remix of Kanye West’s “Flashing Lights.” He obliged. Later, she reached out to him again, when she downloaded a music production software through a friend (“I mean, who didn’t have an illegal copy of Fruity Loops?” she smirks), and wanted his advice on how to start her career. Rashad told her to call him while he was on his break. That conversation would go on to solidify Patton’s status as one of his protégés.
“I called him and we sat down and talked for an hour, his whole break,” says Patton. “He told me, ‘Don’t go out and buy a bunch of equipment.’ He said, ‘So many people have the best equipment, and their music sucks. Just feel what you feel without, first.’ So that’s what I did, and so, here we are.”
The fact that many of her career connections happened online is not lost on Patton, who brings up Myspace, Facebook and imeem (a music website from the Aughts, not unlike SoundCloud, where many inchoate footwork artists posted their songs) as platforms that helped her move forward. “Social media is such a powerful thing when used correctly,” she says, referring in particular to the instance when it connected her and Unger back in 2015, but also, probably, to its effect on her career and life in broader terms.
Not only does Unger dance at Patton’s shows, the dancer has also inspired some of the songs on Black Origami. Many of the samples and sounds are reminiscent of India in general, explains Patton, but the title track in particular is inspired by her Bengaluru dance collaborator. “‘Black Origami’ is very much an interpretation of how she dances–even though she won’t dance to it,” says Patton, a little ruefully. “She finds it very intimidating, at least for now. It was a complete interpretation of her movement.”
Tracks like “Carbon 7 (161)” and “Kyanite,” however, Unger will dance too–and those, while perhaps less intense, are also very much rooted in Indian sounds and rhythms. “Me being of African descent, as a black person, a lot of those sounds I can relate to, or those rhythms I relate to, because I have it [in me] naturally,” says Patton.
Dance is very much intertwined with everything that Patton does, at every stage of the process. Nowadays, Patton is composing an electronic score for an upcoming ballet choreographed by veteran British choreographer Wayne Collins called “Autobiography,” which will premier in London this fall. Patton loves a good challenge, and composing for ballet is definitely no mean feat. “When you’re doing an album, you know if you steer in another direction, it doesn’t really matter. If I steer in another direction, the flow is still there,” she says. “But ballet has a theme. You can stray, but you have to stray within that theme. I know it probably sounds super simple, but it can be really complex.”
Between composing for ballet, gigging around the world and recording more music, Patton has very little downtime. When I ask her when she’s heading home from Europe, she laughs heartily and quips, “That was cute, no.” She’ll make it back home to Gary for only four days in June before setting off again to play more festivals and shows. When she does get a break, however, she knows exactly where in the world she’s headed. “There is no place like India on this planet, at least that I’ve been to,” says Patton. “As soon as I have a break, I mean, I’m trying to get there [laughs]. As soon as I have that opening, it’s like ‘Oh! I’m gone.’”
Listen to Nyakinyua Rise, a track off ‘Black Origami’: