The story got a good amount of buzz, but I’m not sure how many people noticed the gravity of the announcement that Rick Rubin had assembled a crack team of producers to remix Star Wars sounds into an album’s worth of varied electronic and dance tracks, called Star Wars: Headspace.
On the surface, it sounds eye-rollingly cash-grabby: you take a superstar producer, have them call their friends who want to pad their wallets, let them make some Decent Branded Content®, and let the royalty checks roll in off the back of the largest pop culture brand of the last 50 years. Thing is, this is Rick Fucking Rubin, and JJ Abrams is a consummate nerd. He’s great at making shows and movies that make money, but make no mistake — JJ is a nerd first and foremost, and one who cares fiercely about the brands he’s associated with. JJ also grew up a fan of Beastie Boys and is no stranger to music, himself a composer. His choice of Rubin to helm the project is no flippant occurrence and a moment’s glance at the credits confirms that:
Star Wars Headspace – Tracklist
Kaskade — “C-3P0’s Plight”
GTA — “Help Me!”
TroyBoi — “Force”
Baauer — “Cantina Boys”
Shag Kava (editor’s note: JJ Abrams’ production alias) — “Jabba Flow: Rick Rubin Re-Work” [ft. A-Trak]
Claude VonStroke — “R2 Knows” [ft. Barry Drift]
Rick Rubin — “NR-G7”
Bonobo — “Ghomrassen”
Röyksopp — “Bounty Hunters”
ATTLAS — “Sunset Over Manaan”
Flying Lotus — “R2 Where R U?”
Shlohmo — “Druid Caravan of Smoke”
Rustie — “EWOK PUMPP”
Galantis — “Scruffy-Looking Nerfherder”
Breakbot — “Star Tripper”
Stop. Go back and read those again. There’s a lot to unpack here. We’ve only heard a handful of the tracks so far via Zane Lowe (they’re linked at bottom), but the tracklist is a literal who’s-who of electronic music power players. Kaskade, GTA, Troyboi, and Baauer up front woo the EDM crowd. Appearances from Abrams’ production alias Shag Kava alongside Rubin, A-Trak, and FlyLo should turn hip-hop heads. The likes of Röyksopp, Rustie, Breakbot, and Shlohmo have any electronic music fan worth their salt paying attention to this. The lineup is so packed with talent that if it were an event, they’d be selling tickets at $300 a pop without blinking… and I haven’t even touched on Claude VonStroke, Bonobo, ATTLAS, or Galantis.
Let’s also consider the focus on authorship that comes with Rick Rubin’s involvement — there is nothing he contributes to that doesn’t benefit patently from his involvement. Disney (who now owns the Star Wars brand) have had some questionable forays into the EDM sphere, including but not limited to Daft Punk’s arguably worst-received full length work to date and a remix album to accompany it that had as many flops as it did impressive efforts, without mentioning a lineup of largely aging and lackluster remixers.
This isn’t to say Headspace isn’t at risk to have weak spots, but when you consider that Rubin puts artist personality first when it comes to curation and creation, you have what appears to be a work that co-opts Star Wars’ universe with the varied personalities of a tastemaker-approved roster. It goes right down to the naming conventions: “EWOK PUMPP” is as Rustie as it gets; “Cantina Boys” sounds like a name for every Baauer track I’ve already heard.
The whole point here is that with each of these varied names being given carte blanche to explore their own sounds with a Star Wars backdrop and Rick Rubin curation heading it up, there’s an exceptionally small chance that this big-brand entry into dance music will fail. Not sure how the conversation happened at Disney, but the move of letting artist identities mesh into an existing universe – instead of floating on top of it – seems gobsmackingly obvious as to something we all want to hear.
It’s time we realize that Daft Punk, eternal superheroes of dance music, aren’t coming back any time soon. They did three years ago (yes, it’s been that long) and offered a beautiful, sample-free retrospective album in Random Access Memories that most folks didn’t appreciate beyond “Get Lucky.” It’s also finally the year that people aren’t buying into any rumor of Daft Punk surprise headlining a festival, something that’d become so commonplace in each year since 2007 that we actually stopped noticing it. The top-down ideal of having one group be at the so-called pinnacle of dance music is outrageously incongruous with the reality of the situation, particularly when their most-loved works are now a decade old. Holding out hope for a long-gone arbiter of a non-existent singular dance scene is… sad.
With EDM fadding out, we’re left with a hodge-podge of still-standing talent in diverse arenas of music that all are vanguards in their own way. This is not news in any way to Rick Rubin, whose revitalization of musical movements is already a legacy in its own right. Star Wars is as big brand as it gets, but as the success of The Force Awakens reminded us, “big brand” doesn’t have to suck when you let artists do their thing. That appears to be what’s happening with Headspace, and while it’s absolutely a possibility that the remainder of the album can suck, the already-debuted productions indicate nothing of the sort. Cue our awaiting the 19th February digital drop with much anticipation.