WENCH (Arca & Shayne Oliver)
Greatest Hits ’88-’16
ABOVE THE CURRENT
The legendary New York club night GHE20G0TH1K was never a very big event square-footage-wise, at least by the standards of today’s megaclubs. But if you want to see how influential it’s become in the 13 years since it was founded by DJ/visionary Venus X—and particularly in the seven years since she threw the last one—you only need to look around. From vampiric rappers filling stadiums with industrial beats, to pop stars dabbling in dystopian retrofuturism, to the dirty digital design aesthetic that’s crept into anything even vaguely youth-facing these days, a party that played out in cramped bars and Brooklyn warehouses has had a world-changing effect on global pop culture.
Among GHE20G0TH1K’s most notable alumni are Shayne Oliver and Arca, two artists who’ve revolutionized their fields by erasing the distance between the underground avant garde and its highest echelons. Since they first met at the party—where their DJ sets pioneered new ways of tearing apart and recombining hip-hop, pop, and underground club music—Oliver has elevated streetwear into luxury art with the Hood by Air label, while Arca has turned aggressive sonic experimentation into collaborations with megastars like Björk, Rosalia, and Sia. The pair have been making music together since they met, including original music for Hood by Air and the occasional track posted to SoundCloud under the name WENCH. Now a new collection titled Greatest Hits ’88-‘16 presents a curated overview of their collaboration.
Greatest Hits captures two brilliant creative minds at a formative stage of their development, with recordings going back to the cramped Chinatown apartment Arca inhabited at the time. The tracks are raw, confrontational, and punk in both their blown-out production (which emulates the sound of low-bitrate MP3s played through an overtaxed PA) and the pair’s willingness to throw anything at the wall to see what sticks: hip-hop, house, vogue beats, Japanese RPG music. At that point, neither had fully formed their aesthetic, but you can make out the rough outline of the groundbreaking work ahead of them in Arca’s intricately warped arrangements and Oliver’s gift for tearing apart influences and recombining them into preternaturally beautiful shapes, which also underlies his designs for Hood by Air.
WENCH’s music embodies everything that made GHE20G0TH1K great—not just the party’s aggressive sonic identity, which tended toward jittery, bitcrushed minimalism, but also the way it dared its talent and audience alike to question the boundaries between genres and genders, between the individual and the collective. “Teen Spirit” shows off the pair’s shared pool of references and mutual willingness to fuck with them, deconstructing hip-hop, Nirvana, ballroom culture (which Oliver came up through as a protégé of vogue legend Willi Ninja), and techno (which gets stripped down to a raw 4/4 kick), and lacing them back together with a streak of digital noise. “Primal Pussy” pairs Oliver’s Auto-Tuned pop-dancehall vocals with a relentless fusillade of klaxon-like synths that seem to both parody and pay homage to the air raid siren sample drops popularized by Jamaican DJs.
At its core, according to Arca and Oliver, WENCH’s music is about transness, the idea that one thing could be another thing, or multiple things, or a blurry space in between them: club music that’s rap music that’s heavy metal. Samples that warp and transform from one second to another. An emcee who slips fluidly between identities, summoning a ballroom commentator on “Teen Spirit,” a slithering reptile on “Snake,” and Madonna (via an “Erotica” quote) on “Give It Up (Do As I Say).”
Genre-bending was popular before GHE20G0TH1K, and it would have become the defining sound of modern pop even if the party had never existed. But GHE20G0TH1K made crossing stylistic boundaries feel transgressive in ways beyond simple aesthetics—made it feel queer, trans, kinky. Through their rippling influence, the artists who made up that scene have helped make sure that today’s post-genre landscape, which now covers every corner of the globe, still carries some of that energy.
Right now, Greatest Hits ’88-‘16 is only officially available to listen to as an archived front-to-back album playthrough originally streamed on the agenda-setting internet radio station NTS. If you dig around you can probably find someone online who’s chopped the stream up and posted the individual MP3s. It’s a good reminder that in a time of increasingly centralized platforms, there’s still world-changing art being made in places that algorithms don’t reach.