Listening Booth: Yaeji’s Borderless House Music

When the house producer Yaeji played an edit of “Renegade Master,” by the late English d.j. Wildchild, last Saturday night, fireworks went off over the Hudson River. They burst through steady rain in plumes of red, yellow, and gold, visible through the window just past the young d.j.’s shoulder as she bopped in the booth of Le Bain, at the top of the Standard Hotel. “Back once again for the renegade master! ‘D’ for damager! Power to the people!” the nasal sample chanted as the tinny rave claps and sirens roused the floor to life. The club was hardly full—Yaeji was playing on the wet and cold night before Mother’s Day—but the track’s frenzied pitch quickly lowered inhibitions. Wearing thin-rimmed glasses and a tight bun, Yaeji pumped her hands spritely in between knob adjustments. The fireworks continued as bodies coalesced under the speakers. A brave soul jumped into a hot tub built into the club’s floor. Three more soon followed.

I learned days later that the fireworks weren’t a hallucination. The National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations had staged the display as part of its thirty-first Ellis Island Medals of Honor ceremony, which is “presented annually to American citizens who have distinguished themselves within their own ethnic groups while exemplifying the values of the American way of life.” Consider it a fitting coincidence: Yaeji, a twenty-three-year-old Queens native, was born Kathy Lee. She splits her time between New York and Seoul, and nimbly reckons with her Korean-American world view in her music. When she was a child, her parents moved her to South Korea, fearing she would become too “Americanized.” She returned to the city as a teen-ager. Across her début, a five-track, self-titled EP of rubbery house, released in March, Yaeji sings in English and Korean in a dim, squirrelly deadpan, and her icy productions ebb and flow like a dinghy. During her d.j. set at Le Bain, she slipped in her track “Feel It…

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