How Ukrainian DJ collective Uklon brought Kyiv-style raves to lockdown New York

Brooklyn-based DJ collective Uklon started in 2018 out of a desire to throw a party: a “no limits, high-speed, crazy” time. Now the group is providing solace and solidarity for communities trapped in New York amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

26 October 2021

It is the summer of 2021: Covid-19 restrictions have just been lifted, and nightlife is slowly returning in full swing to New York City. Hardstyle bass and a newly-reinvigorated live-fast mentality permeate dancefloors as the city rises from what can only be described as the ashes of 2020.

Brooklyn-based DJ collective Uklon know how New York’s artists have struggled to keep the flame of creativity alive even in the darkest of times. Over the past year, the team — founded by a group of artists originally from Ukraine — held “apocalypse raves”, small, intimate shows where people could reunite with their community and party like the world was ending. “Since Covid, we’ve invented new ways of enjoying music, enjoying ourselves,” they tell me on a rooftop in Bushwick. “We’ve enjoyed inventing this environment where it’s kind of like a club, but it’s not a club— it’s someone’s home.”

For groups like Uklon — largely immigrants, forced to band together in a deserted New York metropolis while other Americans sheltered elsewhere for the worst of the pandemic — the search for connection has never been greater than during the past 18 months.

But when your craft is dependent upon immersive experiences and community, what is left when the city is forced into lockdown? Faced with uncertainty, Uklon has been obliged to pivot, moving to livestreams, social media, and underground gatherings. Now, after a year-long incubation period, they are back with a fresh approach to fast beats and rooftop parties, hoping to take lockdown lessons into the wider world.

Uklon started in 2018 out of a desire to throw a party: a “no limits, high-speed, crazy” time, says co-creator and DJ Sasha Klu. The word “uklon” in Ukrainian means incline, or, in this case, decline. (“It’s kind of a downward dynamic, like spiraling down,” Klu explains.) It was partly inspired by a Ukrainian Uber-style app of the same name, a cab service where it wouldn’t be too unusual to get a 16-year-old driver driving a sport-tuned Soviet car blasting techno. (“If you asked where the seatbelt was, he would be like, ‘You think I don’t know how to drive?’” Klu laughs.)

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Fellow co-founder Katja, better known by her stage name of Raw Unkut, links the name back instead to one of her favourite idioms: “Maya zhizn’ poshla pod uklon,” loosely translated as “my life has gone off-kilter”.

Both theories evoke the chaotic nature of their shows, accompanied by flashing lights, high-BPM tracks, and edgy head bangers. Influenced by techno and hardcore, hardstyle bass sounds like a dystopian warehouse party from a 90s sci-fi movie. Hypnotic beats are accompanied with samples that sound as if they’ve been scratched up by an industrial robot or cyberspace alien. There is a spirit of joy coupled with intensity; seriousness and play— not unlike the spirit of the reckless teen cab driver. When I was first introduced to their parties, I was equally drawn to the hypersonic nature of their sets, as well as the welcoming nature of the crowd. It wasn’t too unusual for somebody with a trendy haircut and what looked like prison tattoos to give you a big grin and a hug, before getting right back to head banging.

The community around Uklon was already forming organically all the way back to 2014, usually through real-life connections — typically through mutual friends the crowd had met in Ukraine. “I come from Kyiv,” says Klu, “so I’m used to this really hard techno and all sorts of music: big room music, some niche music, so many parties, such a variety of forms and shapes and formats.” Both Klu and Katja wanted to bring these familiar Ukrainian sounds to Brooklyn, introducing the country’s own brand of drum’n’bass, trance, gabber, and hard techno to the local New York scene. By approaching smaller venues, meeting owners, and building up an online presence, they started to get booked. Through the contributions of rotating resident DJs including Ivan Chayka (aka Slavic Spirit), and Artem Velychko (aka Svavillya), they were able to build name recognition as a group and book larger parties, solidifying the Uklon collective.

As Uklon brought its distinct hard-edge sounds to Brooklyn nightlife, taking over venues like Rebecca’s, Bossa Nova Civic Club, and Mehanata Bulgarian Bar, the group itself expanded. What started as a niche Ukrainian party began welcoming musicians from other communities and backgrounds. V Pan (also known as Lilei / Zyxlei) remembers getting her start with the crew after starting her career serving fast, deconstructed club sounds to single-digit crowds. “Sasha [Klu] and I connected over Soundcloud. And then he asked me to do a mix,” she says. But while music is the glue that holds the group together, she also appreciates “the people and this feeling, this connection and energy” that Uklon provides. “My parents are Chinese immigrants,” she says, “and I still see myself as not fully integrated [in the United States.] I’m still trying to figure out my people. I think what attracted me to Uklon was that there was so much of this core in this community of people who bonded together through their identity, but also through the exciting sounds and BPMs.”

The New York scene is still greatly influenced by parties in Kyiv. While hardstyle bass has since moved outside Ukraine, blowing up all over Europe, its start has been a little slower in the States. At the beginning, Uklon would get invites for big sets abroad, while similar parties were only just getting traction in Brooklyn. But as the US scene gained speed, the resulting sets weren’t just a rehash of Ukrainian sounds, but the result of a culture unique to an international community with an affinity for interesting beats. The fact that part of this culture came from a tradition of Kyiv garage raves and local parties resonated with a wider community beyond the music. They began their own tradition of enjoying something immersive and niche, together.

“I think what attracted me to Uklon was that there was so much of this core in this community of people who bonded together through their identity, but also through the exciting sounds and BPMs”

The importance of such communities and rituals, particularly for immigrants disconnected from their families and homes, became particularly apparent at the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic. For those working in New York’s nightlife industry, there was also the difficult adjustment to losing their livelihood. Katja recalls her initial coping mechanisms. “I didn’t listen to electronic music for a year, pretty much. It was either Snoop Dogg or some cumbia music”. But when it became apparent that the world would not be going back to normal for some time, the group slowly turned back to music, launching livestreaming instead. They would gather at each other’s apartments, set up ambient lighting, and channel their creativity to online listeners: at first 10, then 20, then hundreds of people.

In what was a stressful time, playing music with friends provided some much-needed intimacy and solace. Klu remembers missing the “IRL vibe” of the artform: “you want to be drawn in by this bass, you want to have all these bodies moving around you in a fog,” he says. “That’s the whole experience. It’s about music, but in the broader scheme, it’s about this physical sensation of being a part of it, whatever is happening.” This desire for an immersive experience carried over onto Uklon’s Twitch and YouTube streams, where the channel known for its moody lighting and dark, foggy dark rooms.

For the team, it was about working with that they had. During the pandemic, the city quickly emptied, with many relocating to expensive properties upstate in the Hudson Valley, summer homes in the Hamptons, or back to family homes in the Midwest. Immigrant and lower-income New Yorkers did not have the same luxury, and instead found themselves with disproportionately higher rates of Covid-19. The New York City left behind banded together and maintained morale as best as it could. Connecting over music restored a sense of community and hope.

At the height of the pandemic in the summer of 2020, illegal gatherings, social distancing, and mask mandates were being monitored by New York law enforcement. But slowly, the party scene began to break through. Katja recalls attending illicit parties hosted under bridges and in parks, seeing “people going fucking crazy and acting like it was a pre-apocalyptic rave, the energy was wild.” I attended one of the infamous lockdown raves under the Kosciusko Bridge in Brooklyn, hosted by another DJ collective in August 2020. I remember the overwhelming feeling of both dread and fascination seeing a crowd of people, the almost tribal need to feel alive and connected again, even when a voice in the back of your mind is screaming that you risk this being your last night out — for good. The dancing was a little more intense, the beats were a little faster, and the air was electric. People initially kept their distance, before letting the adrenaline take over. It was a brief and highly irresponsible adventure, but certainly put into perspective the risk people were willing to take to experience music again.

Eventually, Uklon began planning socially-distanced rooftop “apocalypse” parties. Initially the gatherings were planned for a close circle of 30, but once word hit social media, hundreds of people were appearing at their venues. While the fear of being shut down by authorities was nothing new to Uklon, (veterans of routine noise complaints), the existential fear and the legitimate concern of gathering during a pandemic was palpable.

“It felt insane,” Klu admits, “you’re running on adrenaline and having so much fun, but you’re also freaking out, because you don’t want the building to collapse.” Others struggled with Covid anxiety: “As long as shit was not indoors, I was totally fine with it,” admits Katja. “I remember feeling uncomfortable when we went to our friend’s loft; it was packed.” Beyond the danger of infection that came with larger gatherings, the social strain was also an additional hurdle for DJs to deal with. “You’re so unused to talking to a lot of people, you’re just used to being at home with your beloved, with the cats,” says Katja.

But beyond the adventure of “apocalypse raves”, the collective has also found something unexpected: a much-appreciated space to nurture and reconnect to their craft. When all else was stripped bare, it was music that remained central to their lives. Even now as New York slowly reopens, they have held onto this tradition of hosting intimate listening sessions amongst themselves, all while juggling their growing calendar of live shows and rooftop parties. The pandemic has forced them, like many of us, to create a space for their personal lives and closest relationships. This new wave of rooftop and loft parties, brought a community-centric, distinctly Uklon vibe to Brooklyn. As V Pan puts it, “this was such a new feeling. Covid brought about these opportunities for us to have these more meaningful and smaller group hangs where everyone played wild sets for each other in the comforts of our living room.” This underground collective of musicians from around the world, united by a Ukrainian root and passion for immersive sound, is a small sampling of the multicultural community that is NYC. “It’s just that we’re doing what we love doing,” Klu concludes “and then this name just sticks to us. Uklon is an ever-evolving project, a chosen family, and one hell of a high-speed, fun time.

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