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Label Feature: Eastern Margins

Click here to listen to the Carhartt WIP Radio Show featuring Eastern Margins. 

“It’s music from the in-between place… from the margins,” says Lumi, co-founder of the London-based collective, label, and creative agency Eastern Margins.

Five years ago, he and friend Anthony Ko established Eastern Margins as a Lunar New Year party in London, their motivations stemming from the city’s absence of alternative festive events. What began as a party in the basement of an east London bar has since evolved into one of the most prominent spaces for showcasing the disparate sounds of the East and South-East Asian diaspora.

From exploring deconstructed mutations of Indonesian funkot and Vietnamese vinahouse, to Chinese manyao and Japanese rap, the platform is redefining modern notions of what ‘club’ music is. “Electronic music has been around for a while in Asia,” says Eastern Margins member and DJ Ar. “But these weren’t necessarily produced and consumed in the same way we’d see them in the West.”

Eastern Margins solidified itself as a label in 2020, releasing boundary-pushing projects from rapper Ill Japonia and Hong-Kong based artist QQBBG, as well as a collaboration from Laenz & T5UMUT5UMU. In the following year, it released Redline Legends, a compilation featuring tracks from artists such as Shelhiel, Puppy Ri0t, and Jiafeng.

This high-octane concept was amplified in 2023 with the “Road 2 Redline” tour, which saw Lumi and Ar playing a slew of shows in Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Manila, Bandung, Manila, Bangkok, and Saigon, alongside acts like DJ Dragon, PRONTAXAN, Astral Angels, and LARRIA.

For this month’s episode of Carhartt WIP Radio, members Ar and Lumi have created a dynamic, breathless mix including some early-day Eastern Margins classics, as well as a few tracks from nascent producers and pop-trance remixes. Accompanying the mix is an interview in which Ar and Lumi discuss the impact of video game Mobile Legends, how they plan to push Asian music to the “surface of global music consciousness”, and which elusive London producer they’d like to hear collaborating with K-pop band NewJeans.

How much did music inform your early years?

Ar: It has always been an important part of my life, subconsciously or not. Music is where I find solace from the cacophony of life. I guess it’s why I've always been more attracted to alternative sounds – from weird breaks in 90s video games as a kid to hardcore punk in my adolescence.

Lumi: Music was my catalyst for self-acceptance. I dropped into a new country and culture when I was young and music, specifically electronic music, was the first place I found a sense of acceptance that I could be comfortable with.

Can you explain the meaning behind the name Eastern Margins?

Lumi: It’s music from the in-between place, at the intersection of genres and cultures, from the margins. This idea of the margins repeatedly bubbled up at the inception of Eastern Margins, from the liner notes of Margins Music by UK (Post) Dubstep legends Dusk & Blackdown to the English translation of the Chinese novel 水浒传. I was drawn to this idea of undefined spaces for sonic outcasts. The Eastern part speaks for itself.

If you could describe the Eastern Margins sound in one sentence, what would you say?

Ar: Hi-octane beats to study and berserk to.

Lumi: Hi-NRG sonic mutations for Bluetooth speakers and backroom stadiums.

What was the reason behind starting the label?

Lumi: We started the label from a desire to globalize and immortalize the sounds percolating through our parties and lives. I think one of the most important functions of a record label nowadays is to provide context, to provide a cultural framework for atomized sounds. And we felt this context was missing, so the label offers that. For the other aspects of the Eastern Margins ecosystem, the events and the agency, that’s born from a desire to avoid fragmentation. We don’t draw strict divisions between different mediums of what we do, as we don’t believe that’s how culture is created or communicated. The goal is globalizing our culture and we deploy whatever the right vessel is for that.

What difficulties have you encountered as an independent agency and label?

Lumi: Balancing creative honesty and financial sustainability. It’s no secret that there’s limited ways to generate meaningful income through music. But pressure makes diamonds. We believe in the cultural potency of what we’re trying to achieve, so we believe that will shine through.

As curators of music, what qualities do you search for in a body of work? And what is your process for finding new artists to sign?

Lumi: Emotion. It’s always the guiding principle. If it elicits an emotional response – even shock or repulsion – then it deserves more attention. We want to be naive, to get that feeling of “WTF is this?” We want to text each other about it straight away. We’ll meet new friends and dig up digital trails. We have an outsider’s naivety, a perspective that ensures our curiosity never becomes mundane. There’s a benefit to distance.

Ar: Also curating things that would excite the 15-year-old version of ourselves! As for the process, it’s usually on my sofa at 2am after some drinks, texting about new artists or sounds we’ve been introduced to. We have eternal gratitude to our friends and the wider community who share music with us, introduce new ideas, and continuously challenge and open our minds to exciting material.

Do you have a wishlist of artists you'd like to have on Eastern Margins?

Lumi: There’s no wishlist, no better time than now. Nothing more vital than the present.

How much do you feel creative decisions are shaped by cultural differences and vice versa?

Lumi: I love this question. What is alien to me, is the norm for you. I think a really fascinating phenomenon is the advent of increased regionalization in digital media algorithms. Social media algorithms increasingly prioritize local content. In my view, that’s actually contributed to more space for regional subcultures to incubate. We see exciting instances of that in our world, especially in South-East Asia, with local music mutations achieving virality via TikTok or Douyin trends.

Ar: Much of the visual and sonic cues we are inspired by come from these physical and digital spaces, where different elements just mix. For example, you’ll get a bus with a screen on its side advertising a jasmine tea drink to a trance soundtrack, driving past a man selling tofu with his own speaker and chanting a slogan.

What is your view on the political, social, and creative tasks of artists today? And how are artists from the Asia-Pacific area influencing this?

Lumi: I think art, and artists, must stand for something. I don’t think artists from the Asia-Pacific area are any different from artists elsewhere in that respect, but perhaps there is a diversity of topics that are relatively untouched from a global perspective.

As DJs, what stands out to you about performing in Asia? Is there a difference compared to the rest of the world?

Ar: I’d say in the stops we’ve made in Asia, club culture is a relatively new concept. Electronic music has been around for a while in Asia – as early as pirated DAWs made their way to internet cafes – but these weren’t necessarily produced and consumed in the same way we’d see them in the West. For example, certain clubs and genres in London have a degree of history and legacy around them, and we respect the culture they’ve cultivated. But in Asia, there aren't as many of these. Making things feels more free and can get a bit weird, but in a good way.

Are there any post-show meals you’ve had while touring that you’ll always remember?

Lumi: Racing through red lights to get to an after hours Sisig spot in Manila after an Eastern Margins show there with the whole line-up. There’s nothing that beats the feeling of exchanging music you heard at the club through some phone speakers over food. Shout out to Aren from Fortune WWD and the whole Manila crew.

Ar: After the show in Bangkok I gave my phone to Che from Blaq Lyte. He ordered the best meal of the tour for me from Grab. Pad kra pao, tofu curry, oyster omelet, and some fine Thai jasmine rice. Simple, unassuming but extremely satisfying.

How did you go about selecting the tracks for your Carhartt WIP Radio show?

Lumi: A statistical regression analysis of tracks which best improved our APM [actions per minute] rate during after-hour Mobile Legends pavement sessions.

Ar: Also, we wanted to highlight the music we put out over the years. There are some Eastern Margins classics in there; some material we put out during the label’s early days.

How do you approach mixing so many different genres together? And what are your current top five genres to experiment with?

Ar: On a technical level, having multiple genres which share the same BPM helps. For example, a lot of rap is 90 BPM. We can double-time mix it with faster genres like funkot or donk. So, we’ll have the rap verses going over a redline, speedy club beat.

Lumi: We’re leaning into the harder, rawer sounds at the moment. There’s a sense of urgency and pressure in these genres that really fits the sense of speed that underlines our journey right now. Right now, from Asia there’s funkot, vinahouse, budots, manyao. And the last one… EDM. Pushing beyond the stigma, there’s a lot of exciting sounds from EDM right now. Ultimately, EDM has the true hallmarks of subculture: its own community, its own sound, and its own cultural signifiers.

What are your all-time favorite records?

Ar: Puppen – “Atur Aku” and Puppen – “Atur Aku (Cativymix)”

What are your favorite record labels from Asia and why?

Lumi: Avex, for defining Asian rave culture. Genome 6.66 MBP, for reinvigorating it. Yes No Wave Music, for putting it through a 250CC piston engine.

Can you name some up-and-coming artists to watch from East and South-East Asia?

Lumi: Tohji, who completely revolutionized authenticity in Japanese rap music; 1300, a vision of K-pop dystopia drawn from Sydney’s PC Bangsl; Shelhiel, Kuala Lumpur’s shining Y4K trance romantic; QQBBG, a Kawaii Hardcore idol; and Dirty K, the secret weapon of all our club sets.

Which artists or bands from these regions are you currently listening to?

Lumi: There’s a crystal sharp strand of new rap music – post-Drain Gang, post-Soundcloud – that’s absolutely cutting through Asia for me at the moment. STARKIDS in Japan, Astral Angels in Malaysia, Cybermade in Taipei, Billionhappy, Chalky Wong, and FANVY in China. Beautiful in its ugliness, comfortable in chaos. It’s music that’s full of the vitality of curiosity. It’s maximalist music, which resonates with the Asia I grew up with: dense, complex, and full of possibilities.

Ar: All of the artists Lumi mentioned. Also Asunojokei – atmospheric black metal for the London summer that didn’t quite arrive. Fax Gang, too – they’re really pushing internet-era music and collectives. And Shelhiel is such an angel.

How do you think music from Asia has influenced, or will continue to influence, global music culture?

Lumi: I think it’s already left an indelible mark. It goes without saying how prominent K-pop is in the global music landscape, and J-pop before it is really the blueprint of hyperpop and all its offshoots. But that just scratches the surface. I think what’s next, and what we’re driving towards at Eastern Margins, is for alternative sounds from Asia to bubble to the surface of global music consciousness. For global audiences to appreciate the subcultures from the region. Especially in electronic music – there’s still a certain neocolonial value system towards what is classified as “worthy” in the global electronic discourse. A value system that is often replicated within East and South-East Asia itself. We want to push past that and celebrate the regions’ homegrown sounds in all their raw, pure glory.

How important is the internet in what you do, in terms of both music and daily operations?

Ar: It’s extremely important. Most of our label’s inception and early projects happened between 2019 and 2021, which are the pandemic years. In that period, we connected with so many artists online and learned about various new sounds and scenes. There was a heightened sense of all of us being in this one massive online village, despite the geographical and language barriers that may have previously been a hindrance. Everyone was just super open to everything. So, it made sharing music faster. I think this culture will continue post-pandemic.

What is a collaboration you’d like to see happen in the future?

Ar: Burial and NewJeans.

What are your favorite accounts to follow on Instagram?

Ar: @asiangirlfriend

Lumi: The following cultural diffusion academic platforms: @dongbeicantbefuckedwith, @indonesans, and @vietnamemes__.

Do you have any new records or projects in the pipeline?

Ar & Lumi: Release-wise, we’ve got a wicked surprise from LVRA, which is still to be announced, and some exciting new signings to unveil later this year; acts that’ll reset your notion of what “club” music is. We’re also hitting the road with our ‘Road 2 Redline’ concept across East Asia. It will run for a month across 14 stops in China, Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan. Also, we have several events planned in London for the rest of the year, including our takeover at Phonox on 7th of October with DJ Sarah Bonito, Rui Ho & Hainfromchina, and a Balming Tiger headline show at Village Underground on Nov 8th as part of Pitchfork Music Festival.

Any lasting thoughts you’d like to share?

Lumi: There’s a palpable sense of momentum and of collaboration. Artists, collectives, and scenes are increasingly finding the connections. That bodes well for a future where our sounds and cultures can stand on their own terms and infrastructure, independent of any external infrastructure.

Ar: Watch the margins.