On the cover of his album Skyscraper Anonymous, Yung Bae wears a yellow cable knit sweater and khaki pants, and offers a bowl of fruit to an inflated flamingo floatie. The Portland producer sits in front of a backdrop that's found in seemingly every school portrait taken in the '90s—pale blue with a nondescript texture somewhere between marble and tie-dye. The photo sums up his entire brand.
"It's as corny and as tacky as possible," says the 23-year-old future funk artist, whose real name is Dallas Cotton. "I want people to look at a picture of me and get a similar feeling if they picked up a really tacky record."
In a sense, Cotton views Yung Bae more as a meme than a persona. His online presence is normcore driven to a sugary, neon zenith—he often poses with wide eyes and a broad smile against brightly colored backdrops, or posts stills from anime movies. His music is a pulsing fusion of loungy kitsch, from obscure disco to funk and bossa nova. On "Lady," from Skyscraper Anonymous, Cotton samples an odd chorus by the mustachioed slow jazz crooner Michael Franks: "Daddy plays the ashtray/Baby starts to cry." Cotton pitch-shifted Frank's velvety voice up into a starry-eyed register, set it over a bassy beat and a soft swirl of jazz guitar, strings and sax. Like many of his SoundCloud-based, future funk contemporaries, Cotton also frequently splices amped-up disco jams and anthemic J-pop choruses.
Four years into his career, Yung Bae is more from the internet than he is from Portland. He's released eight albums on Bandcamp and has accumulated millions of streams on Spotify. He frequently collaborates with New Jersey producer Flamingosis, and a handful of other buzzy electronic producers like Josh Pan. But Cotton says his biggest collaborations are currently in the works, and are strictly bound by nondisclosure agreements—he had initially agreed to be interviewed in person, but had to reschedule for a phone interview so he could fly down to Los Angeles for some last-minute meetings.
But with the exception of a background music gig at White Owl Social Club a few years ago, Cotton has never played in Portland. Even though he's been on several tours in Asia (his largest following is in Korea), Yung Bae's show at Holocene this week will be his first official show in his hometown.
"If I didn't have any internet, I wouldn't be anything right now," he says.
Cotton began making music after he dropped out of Oregon State University four months into his freshman year. He had always been a music fan and an avid record collector. After he moved in with his parents, he began experimenting with sampling.
From the start, Cotton was drawn to maligned dance music. "When it comes to YouTube, I'll automatically start looking for the lowest play count on a video and kind of dig from that, make sure nobody else has sampled it or heard it before," he says. "When it comes to records, I always base it on artwork. It's very 50-50 with that mentality, but it leads to some really obscure samples."
What began as killing time by getting sucked into clickholes eventually morphed into a career. Through SoundCloud, Cotton connected with Flamingosis. He dropped his debut album, Bae, in 2014, and has dropped at least one album every year since. Eventually, he moved out of his parent's house and briefly relocated to L.A. before returning to his hometown.
Cotton samples from across the spectrum of gaudy '70s dance music, but has a particular affection for disco. "I think people make fun of disco and think it's super-ironic and tacky, but I always thought it was quite the opposite," he says. "It's a good time. It's not very exclusive. Everybody can love it."
You could say the same about Yung Bae's music. His combination of glittery J-pop and vintage American tropicana is almost hedonistic in its pursuit of feel-good, dreamy samples. And with a boardless platform like SoundCloud, Cotton has been able to tap into a sizable audience. But he's aware that his music has a very specific sound.
"I know a lot of people, they'll see me on social media posting a Sailor Moon picture and then they'll listen to one of my Japanese tracks and then they'll be like, 'This dweeb, what is this kid doing? He definitely lives in his mom's basement still,'" says Cotton. "But I just own it at this point."
At times, it can be difficult to tell whether Cotton is being self-deprecating, is trolling, or both. A kitschy sense of humor might be integral to Yung Bae's image, but it's not meant to be insincere. "On the music side, I want to be taken seriously," says Cotton. "But branding and aesthetic, people can think what they want when it comes to that. That's totally up to them."
Now that he has amassed a following, Cotton hopes to step out of the internet and into real life. His Portland show kicks off his first North American tour. On future tours, he plans to move away from samples and play with a live band.
For now, though, Cotton is sticking to DJ sets. But his growing American fan base has already materialized beyond streaming stats—he's sold out his shows in L.A., Chicago and Toronto. The online community that craves future funk isn't exactly mainstream, but that doesn't mean it's insignificant.
"It's a weird niche," says Cotton. "But now, I think it just works."
SEE IT: Yung Bae plays Holocene, 1001 SE Morrison St., holocene.org, with Colin Jenkins, on Thursday, July 12. 9 pm. $10-$12. 21+.