dltzk radio: eyes off the wheel, i'm a star

dltzk

I found dltzk on Lower Wacker, carving a space between Christian contemporary and Spanish talk radio. Hidden under ten thousand pounds of reinforced concrete, teenage apathy and processed vocals sound like Top 40 confectionery served on a speeding, metal platter. Radio rock melts into NPR news until jazz-turned-gospel disappears into a hiss of static and spits out a sound that can't possibly be what you think it is. (This is the radio after all, not some playlist curated by an anime profile picture with pronouns in their bio.) Still, you lean into your steering wheel as I turn the dial and for a second we think we hear something more than static. We look at each other, hesitant. How do you distinguish between the intentional and the inevitable when distortion washes from your KIA’s dashboard into the Chicago River?

A MIDI keyboard plays out the final notes of the hour-long LP. "That was Frailty by dltzk," says a college kid through campus airwaves. Their voice carries across the nighttime streets of Chicago and bounces around the backseat. No epitaph is performed as the DJ transitions into another song made for the Internet; an AI woman announces the hook. And then it’s gone. Dropped from the airwaves. Dead air.

There is no chance to replay this moment, only scan in the hopes that someone somewhere is experiencing the same thing. Somehow the digital underground tuned in to FM radio and dltzk crawled through with their entire LP intact. You and I caught only the last 18 minutes of the album, but there was no doubt that the project had been played in full for anyone willing to listen.

So, who had Frailty reached? How far did the signal go? Were farmers in rural Illinois finally forced to reckon with another wave of genreless, teenaged noise, or did they simply skip to the next station?

On the fringe of Internet stardom and irl obscurity, dltzk was never meant for Midwest radio. Give us the farm report or an Evangelist’s sermon, for God’s sake! We want our favorite hits from the 80s, 90s, and now, not another melancholy teenager producing from their bedroom. We want production value and clarity and AutoTune with a long, drawn out attack. We want the next big thing, and there’s no way it sounds like that.

Instead, dltzk was meant for the Internet. Which is exactly why the drop in “how to lie'' sounds so alien coming from the car’s speakers. The KIA’s never known an AUX cord. It has a CD player, but no CDs. So the radio’s all we have. And sure, it plays songs that blew up on TikTok every once in a while, but radio programming feels ancient and unchanged compared to the ultra-curated playlists on Spotify. Tuning into the radio seems like a last resort. But when “how to lie” seamlessly transitions into “champ,” you sit up straight and listen.

The car is full of giddy 20-somethings that call themselves “artists.” You are in the driver’s seat, beaming from ear to ear. “Yo! It’s fucking dltzk!” You drive fast. I quietly listened to Frailty earlier that day as I folded laundry and I didn’t get it. I knew the album was important because people online said so. But by the time I got to the LP’s third quarter, everything sounded the same. In the passenger seat, all I hear are third-quarter songs.

Five weeks later, I glance in the rearview mirror and see three Oak Park pop stars sharing a gas station vape and a can of sugar-free Monster. I tune the radio to 104.3 JAMS (Chicago's #1 for Throwbacks) and some song from the early 2000’s plays. You mention hearing dltzk on the radio and everyone lights up. I loosen my seatbelt so I can turn around and address the backseat, “When Frailty came out, it was all over Twitter — Fantano even reviewed it! But no one explained why it was so important.” My curiosity had been soured by an avalanche of half-baked explanations typed into the abyss: “it’s just special, you can feel it idk.”

A Midwest drawl greets my frustration, “I love dltzk because they synthesized like a million of my favorite aesthetics into the most ‘new feeling’ artist project.” Which causes me to pause. I know I’ve heard this before. A Pitchfork review stares back at me: “With Frailty, dltzk argues that digicore is a methodology, a way of understanding new forms with an existing toolkit.”

This musical retrofitting is driven by a collective nostalgia for genres-past and ignited by accessible technology and digital globalization. But it’s all buzzwords. Deep, meaningful buzzwords, but still. I feel the veil slipping. How long can we credit the next generation for making next gen music? How many retrofit waves can possibly crash into Lake Michigan before we succumb to ennui? The radio hisses and someone cracks open another Monster. We pass the vape. dltzk does not play.

And that makes sense.

Until Fraxiom appears outside the Dakota Watch Company booth in an underground Chicago mall. They’re ten feet tall (cat ears and platforms included) and are gone in three strides. They glow bleach-pink across the polished concrete before passing through the “L” station turnstile. A train takes them somewhere, I’m sure, but we can only gawk for so long. A month later they reappear at a show that never should have happened. Lunamatic plays “axel ocelot” and Jedwill topples the folding table and the contents of the Internet spill out over the converted-apartment dancefloor. And in the static, surrounded by 30 Midwest kids trying to make it big on SoundCloud, I hear dltzk play.

“Don’t touch that dial!”

A MIDI keyboard plays out the final notes of Frailty and for the first time ever I hear digicore on the radio. I hear a quiet, terminally-online kid who synthesizes a million of my favorite aesthetics from behind their bedroom door. I hear Midwest emo and UK jungle and a canned slide whistle sound effect bridging their gap. I hear sampled screams and recorded whispers. And I hear static that’s been produced to perfection. It rests on dltzk’s shoulders, weighed down by an infant scene in search of their figurehead. And I realize why it’s so exciting to hear Frailty on the radio, regardless of its retrofit:

dltzk is just like the rest of us.

The backseat of the KIA fills and empties with underground musicians. Different online scenes are represented as seatbelts unlatch and snap open. They want out: the Dariacore memelords, the shoegaze apologists, the dubstep-producer-to-pop-star-pipeline riders. They’ve done their time hunched behind dual monitors and Amazon mixing speakers. They’ve penned nostalgia and pitched their voice up a step or two. They’ve gained a following. So before they slam the car door, they log off and tune into the radio.

On our way home, I search for dltzk on Lower Wacker and find them in the backseat. They spill into the cupholders and seep into the upholstery. They’re chatting with gabby start and puyu princess. They’re stuck in JIN!WA’s lungs. I open the glove compartment and find them crouched under pict0chat’s registration papers. Hidden under ten thousand pounds of reinforced concrete, I hear dltzk on the radio. And they sound like the entire scene screaming, “Eyes off the wheel, I’m a star.”

Katie Manners

Katie Manners, catgirl CEO, is a hyperpop apologist. While raving on Zoom, she stumbled across the digital underground and never left, covering some of the scene’s most prominent figures along the way. As the founder of cat scratch magazine, she believes in the importance of community building and fat bass drops. She is currently located in one of the most boring cities in Canada.