Saturday, 23 May 2009


***Disclaimer: This should perhaps go without saying, but the following article, like all of those on this page which relate to music, is written from the perspective of a fan. As such, it represents the views of someone who is interested and enthusiastic about the music, but who not only lacks technical understanding about it but also is often quite new to the sounds under consideration and because of geographical location not with much opportunity to experience them first-hand. So this piece may very well contain opinions which could be taken as contentious; despite my best efforts to properly research it, it may even contain factual inaccuracies and displays of ignorance. Alternately, it may state a good deal of what to people more directly experienced amounts to the bleeding obvious. Any improvements, corrections or disagreements that you might like to add after reading it are more than welcome, and should be directed to the comments box. Now with that out of the way, to business... ***

Some of you out there may be aware that a few weeks ago I was lucky enough to attend a night in town featuring Hudson Mohawke and Kode 9 on the decks. I had a fantastic time - in fact, the experience has pushed me yet further into more excited about music again than is probably healthy for someone of my increasing years. I'd planned a big write-up on the night, as per my DMZ post below, but found it was difficult both to find enough interesting things to say and to stay true to the experience of the night at a level that went beyond sudden, vivid impressions, of which the following are some of the most memorable: tight mixing from 9, a good ¾rs of an hour of funky, Hud Mo giving us a mini blast of classic Chicago house, Grievous Angel getting played to top reaction, Glasgow going mad to the Bug’s tunes again, tons of jungle from Kode 9, loads of girls dancing and invading the stage, friends that I’d dragged along ending up getting into it. So all in all a great night.

But what seemed like a potentially much richer project was to write something about the thoughts the night had set off in me about the current music I'm into more generally. The thoughts were along these lines:
It's been occurring to me for quite a while now that the various styles of UK music that myself and a lot of the people that I chat with and read stuff from on-line - call them hardcore continuum, UK bass, post-garage, whatever - have been moving towards some kind of convergence.
I'd be hard pressed to pinpoint an exact starting point for this trend, but at a push to nominate a time and place I'd go for Ayia Napa from the summer of 2006 onwards (Martin Clark in this old Pitchfork column seems broadly to agree with me, which is promising). Since the time of 2-step garage's peak popularity around the turn of millennium, the Cyprus resort has been established as the prime holiday location for the UK's 'urban' demographic, with pretty much all the euphemisms and different nuances that term covers at play in the location. The holidaymaking clubbers brought with them taste for diverse but at some level related styles of UK music, which the djs and crews would quickly learn to cater for by playing genre-hopping sets. Marcua Nasty, one of the leading DJs playing the vanguard sound in UK funky house, rose to prominence here, but probably the most important figures in this regard were the grime collective Boy Better Know. A BBK Napa set, among the most popular in the resort, might feature some of the biggest, most crowd-pleasing tunes from grime, old-school garage, bassline, dubstep and funky house.

As the clubbers and performers returned home each year, this taste for genre-mixing seemed gradually to seep into the indigenous British music circuit. This process of intermixing has occurred at various levels: probably the first to really take off, and perhaps still the dominant medium, was that of DJ sets in clubs and on radio. Many of the most exciting figures in tune selection of the last 2 or 3 years have established part of their reputation through the ease and coherence with which they mix styles, hyping up the maximum excitement in their audience: Kode 9, Bok Bok and L-Vis, Ben UFO, Oneman, Brackles, the Bruk crew and others have all excelled in this regard, with their shows forming a major part of their output of popular and influential pirate stations like Rinse and Sub FM, and their sets making regular appearances at prominent, trendsetting London club nights such as FWD and Night Slugs.

Inevitably, this pan-hardcore unity displayed by the DJs had begun to slowly filter down into the actual new productions themselves. An early taste of this was given in 2006 through the brief, rather tentative interaction between grime and bassline. Skepta of BBK produced the massively popular Duppy which displayed grime and bassline's shared heritage in old-school speed garage, and the tunes' bassline elements were brought out more strongly in the remix by Jamie Duggan, that scene's major DJ. Producer Dexplicit, meanwhile, has gone from making crucial grime tracks like the Forward riddim to gaining widespread acceptance in bassline with productions like his banger Bullacake. Also from this time on, bassline tracks with grime-style mcing became common, seemingly especially amongst Birmingham/West Midlands artists, though often they were rather awkwardly executed.

But the real fruits of the cross-genre interaction has probably only become apparent over the last year or so. Many of the most striking examples have been quite isolated and sporadic rather than amounting to any coherent 'movement': along with his DJing rennaisance, Kode 9 in his
own productions has increaingly featured unusual beat-templates showing the influence of funky and broken beat, whilst recently several grime MCs such as Nasty Jack have vocalled tracks by dubstep-associated producers such as Zomby and Joker. Dirrty Goodz is perhaps the MC who has taken the grime/dubstep interaction the furthest (though Roll Deep's Flow Dan also deserves a mention here, especially for his long-term involvement with the dancehall-infused dubstep of the Bug). First collaborating with Dusk & Blackdown on the Concrete Streets on their 2007 album Margins Music, Goodz then went on to vocal Starkey’s killer tune Gutter Music, their version being released in March this year.

One of the most straightforwardly enjoyable and entertaining upshots of generic flexibility has been the recent spate of mash-up remixes. To my knowledge there could already be as many as half a dozen remixes of Tempa T’s huge current grime anthem Next Hype – some of the most interesting (no on-line audio as of yet for these) include the blends with the bangin grimey garage of DJ Oddz’s Blade Runner, the sinister whining synth-sleaze of Joker’s Hollybrook Park and the surreal kiddies-playgroup style experimental dubstep of Untold’s Anaconda, along with the more conventional mixes by Brackles and Plastician. Another blend doing the rounds is the thoroughly compelling mix of Zomby’s Aquafresh with the vocals from Dizzee Rascal’s Stand Up Tall.
Relevant here also is the increasing awareness of producers of the newer ‘wonky’ strands of dubstep of those executing similar strategies, but in the context of hip-hop and related styles like crunk. So Joker and Rustie have collaborated to make the Play Doe track, while Rustie has also remixed Zomby’s Spliff Dub to produce what is often taken as the definitive version of the tune. Kode 9’s Hyperdub label provides a shared home and distribution method for artists across different styles but sharing the same wonky aesthetic.
Also very important to mention is Mickey Pearce’s thrilling recent track Innami (again, sadly no on-line audio) which deploys discernable influences from funky, dubstep, dancehall and grime but generates an end-result which does not seem to be reducible to a mere addition of elements, a true ‘next-level’ tune. (To my knowledge there simply aren’t many other comparable tracks around yet; one possible point of reference is the spacey, twitchy rhythms of forward-looking Hessle Audio acts like Martin Kemp, Untold and Joe, though these artists, excellent though they are, seem more clearly rooted in dubstep).

The most fully-developed and probably up to now most discussed result of these cross-fertilisation, however, has been the spate of Grime-influenced funky house records. Once again, there are several observable layers to the developing relationship between grime and funky. It was first noticeable, from around 2005/6, in the influx of established grime DJs like Marcus Nasty, Supa D, Mak 10 and Geeneus (who has also become an important producer in both scenes) into the funky house circuit. But then, as these DJs looked to their production contacts for new beats that fitted with their own tastes, we saw the emergence of grime-influenced funky instrumentals from around the beginning of 2008. Traces of grime, in terms of textures, sounds and beats, can be found in virtually all examples of the forward-looking vanguard sound in UK Funky, but (to these ears) the most notably grime-influenced producers would include Lil Silva, Roska, Scotty D, DVA, Sami Sanchez, and Mario, and indeed the simplest research into the background of these figures shows that many of them had attempted to make grime beats, with varying degrees of success, prior to funky’s explosion. In some cases, the lineage has been made explicit in almost tribute-like fashion, with the production of several funky refixes of classic grime tunes: for example, Lil Silva’s reworking of Musical Mob’s Pulse X into Pulse vs. Flex, Grievous Angel’s recent refix of Riko’s version of the seminal Ice Rink riddim by Wiley, Roska remixing Scratcha DVA’s Nasty Nasty Nasty, and Gdub’s updating of When I’m Ere, the Roll Deep anthem. The popularity of this grime-flavoured funky has lead to another wave of major grime DJs such as Spyro and Maximum incorporating them into their sets.

And completing the picture is the much-debated development of grime MCs vocalling funky instrumentals. This first came to the fore in late 2008 with the popularity of ‘skank tracks’ (see here for some of the biggest ones), featuring MCs calling out dance moves in what often seemed like a nursery-rhyme esque style. Personally I was initially rather annoyed by the overtly cheesy novelty aspects of these tunes, but over time have come to enjoy most of them for precisely these same factors. But also notable about the tracks was the way that they often featured ‘failed’ grime artists like Gracious K and the KIG Family who have been on the margins of the scene for some time. And now as we’ve moved into 2009, the success of these tracks has drawn in some of the more established MCs to make their own attempts, leading to productions which undeniably sound like a more polished ‘finished article’, with the funky beats and grime flows gradually starting to sit more comfortably with each other. By far the best track so far in my opinion (and that of many others, it needs to be said) is Maxwell D’s infectious Blackberry Hype, which uses Lil Silva’s Different instrumental. Ghetto’s Came in the Game is also a more than decent effort, based on another Silva tune, Seasons. BBK have jumped into proceedings again with their funky-influenced single Too Many Man, of which I have mixed opinions. Also of great interest currently is grime giant D Double E’s radio freestyle on Reign, one of the big tracks of last year from Hard House Banton.

So these are, roughly, the facts, but what might it all mean. The broad point is that this united direction seems to be somewhere that the music, its producers and its audience want to go, not something being forced on it externally. Eclecticism and genre-merging are often, with a degree of justification, treated suspiciously as an attempt by non-aligned parties to cherry pick the most appealing elements from various fashionable scenes, without taking the effort to engage with those scenes on any deep level. Apart from this being a potentially dubious way to behave, the implication is that since these eclectic movements are dependent on prior scenes for their existence, and also tend to lack the strong social and geographical base of those core scenes, there is no real pressure or drive for them to develop innovative, exciting, important music of their own.
While this model does no doubt accurately describe many past occurrences, I (of course!) think something rather different is going on this time around.
Think of the complaints and concerns that have been raised consistently within the various scenes over the last couple of years. Within grime, there were eternal worries – there weren’t enough girls or enough femininity, there was too much focus on aggressive posturing, the tunes weren’t danceable enough, the MCs had come to dominate too much at the expense of the producers and DJs. Within dubstep, a similar set of endlessly-rehearsed complaints: the scene was too focussed on a certain notion of darkness, the music lacked life and humour, the increasingly dominant halfstep/wobble-bass format was plodding and monotonous. As funky house emerged, it was frequently suggested that the music was too tasteful, not banging enough, and also that it was too closely derivative of traditional US house. Whereas with bassline, the complaints centred on the music being too repetitive and the scene being too parochial, cut off from other currents of UK music and therefore developing at too slow a rate. With the recent focus on ‘wonky’ flavours of dubstep, and similar flavours that relate to instrumental hip-hop and in some cases to grime, a number of inter-related criticisms have been raised, even amongst those who enjoy the actual music as music: they are too esoteric, too centred on tongue-in-cheek humour, they are made for other producers rather than dancers, they are parasitic upon existing scenes and sounds which they can be construed as taking the mickey out of, they are an internet-driven phenomena lacking in real social energy.
Now is not the time to pass judgement on whether all these criticisms are valid, or whether the apparent deficiencies are or can be rectified. What interests me is that many of the most interesting debates centred on there being a certain lack in the styles of music, an absence of crucial elements which meant that the music wasn’t quite enough to stand on its own as the vanguard of UK hardcore music. (Speaking from an honest personal perspective, though I have loved and continue to love music from all these scenes, I have always felt very wary of aligning myself with one of them in particular, for fear that I would end up disappointed and disenchanted. None of them seem to have quite what it takes to make a zealot, a die-hard). *
This crisis seems to call for the existence of a new meta-genre which can combine the strengths of the different styles, plus generate new developments from their combination – I believe we are now witnessing the emergence of this meta-genre.

The unfolding of this process also seems to show that people still care about the music, and providing possibilities for it to continue to grow. And we can see that, despite people’s fearmongering, there have been new hardcore genres that have emerged in the 2000s. However, there are clearly differences, (not necessarily in themselves indicative of a decline or deficiency, just a change) in the ways that things operate. Observations on these will have to basically stay in note form for now, as time and space are against me:
1st – scenes and genres develop more slowly, or at least, over longer periods of time, and 2nd - scenes and genres co-exist for longer spells, without one having to replace or supersede the other, both of these points probably relate to the fact that the basic templates for the styles, esp. in grime and dubstep, are quite open, have room to be filled-in in many different ways.
3rd – the scenes and genres aren’t so strongly tied to a single, physical geographical infrastructure, i.e. there is more of a contingent of international outposts and especially more of a feedback loop from the use of the web. But this shouldn’t obscure the fact that there is still usually a localised centre for each style of music. E.g. with dubstep, very rapid international spread, in part due to ties with drum & bass, but the core of the scene is still in London with DMZ and FWD; witness here the eternally-stated importance of hearing dubstep out on a big system to fully appreciate it. A plus side to this partial dispersion, though, is obviously that new people will have access to the music, and hopefully make something of it. Pirate radio over the internet seems to be esp. important here; people's suspicion about the internet as music distribution method seem to be partly based on concerns that it makes listening a solitary, isolated experience. But in fact people share their responses to the broadcasts in real-time via the various combinations of MSN/forums/ live-chat associated with each station (the live response to Logan Sama’s shows on Grimeforum being a particularly notable example here).
4th – there’s an overall trend in the beat grids, away from ease of release and towards a certain tension, seen perhaps most obviously in all of grime, in wonky’s unquantised beats, and in the broken-clave patterns underlying funky. Also in dubstep, most obviously with the return to 2-step among some producers, but also with halfstep beats when done well, the hesitation about what the ‘real’ tempo is, the tension between elements pushing forward and pulling back. I have a growing feeling that this tension could be said to ‘reflect the times’ in an abstract sense, but this idea clearly needs elaboration at a later date .
A 5th point, and one which really can't be fully developed here: in addition to the cross-genre interplay already discussed, there seems to be a strong current of influence from non-UK music, including styles outside the usual contact zone of the US, Jamaica, and certain parts of Europe. The most obvious of these are the elements drawing from soca and also sometimes from strands of African house and pop in funky. As stated above, discussion of these sounds takes us beyond the concerns of this article. Those who are interested should have a look at this article
on the Heatwave blog, plus shorter updates on the site from there onwards, which deal particularly with the interaction between UK funky and Jamaican dancehall, also this post on Lower End Spasm, discussing various Carribean influences on funky, plus an interesting comment-box debate where sceptical points are raised as to how strongly the new UK music is influenced directly from Africa, as opposed to sounds found 2nd or 3rd hand via US house.
But I would like to briefly address the occasional insinuation that this acceptance of new global influences is a sign of weakness and poor health in the music, as the new sounds are being interpreted and re-worked within the context of the UK scenes. Simon Reynolds, in his recent influential FACT talk (which I wanted to link to here but was defeated by broken htmls) emphasises the way that UK hardcore scenes are at their strongest when producers are listening outward to other contemporary styles of music and incorporating their influence, but working through this influence using their existing home-grown framework - both in terms of the current musical format and the wider cultural context of the scene.
This post is meant, then, as a sort of bedrock for discussion of the current state of play, and there are various parts of it which I hope to expand on in the near future, but this will have to do for now!

* And while I could make out a decent case for being justified in 3 out of the 4 cases, I can acknowledge that in the case of grime, the problem largely lies on my part rather than with the music. Despite its fluctuating levels of popularity, grime consistently seems to perform best in the UK hardcore scenes in terms of generating fervour and commitment amongst fans, amounting in some cases to an almost life-changing impact. And I can certainly see why. Not only is the music strikingly original, but it addresses social issues in a direct way, has DIY production ethos which encourages participation, and is an adsorbing, immersive culture with its own slang and own set of folkways - sending etc. The reasons why despite loving much of the music I've always held back from becoming a full-time grime head are more to do with my personal expectations - perhaps because I'm still new to this tradition of music as a whole, and still totally enamoured by rave and jungle, I always get stuck on this ideal that the central UK hardcore sound should primarily be about dancing. Now I do think that a lot of grime beats are actually very danceable, in a certain fashion, in contrast to what is often said or assumed about them. But it remains the case that danceability and the dancefloor are not the main concern of grime; it takes its identity from being a self-consciously MC-led sound. I'm not the only person to raise these concerns of course, as mentioned earlier on. However, it would seem that actually requesting that MCs fade back into the background of a sort of rave-host role and that the beats become more linear and locked into a groove would be perverse, as it is precisely these aspects which make grime a distinctive genre. So instead of projecting my ideals onto it, I choose to appreciate it as it is.