Monday, November 05, 2007

Nuum moves North

A few years back someone kindly sent me some CD burns of bassline house dj sets. I wasn’t especially swayed: at best it sounded like speed garage frozen circa 97, but with much of the US garage derived swing squeezed out while the UK Xtra-factor of junglized brock-out residues was toned down. A lot of it, corresponding I think to the subgenre “organ house”, just felt thin-sounding and tepid.

The other week, though, my friend Paul Kennedy urged me to check out 1xtra
and I had to admit bassline has come on a lot. Cameo has been championing the sound, in the processing shunting grime to the sidelines of his sets, and there’s a whole show, by DJ Q, more or less devoted to the Northern sound. I was particularly struck by the tunes and remixes by a DJ/producer called Mr V a.k.a. Virgo,
who belongs to Nottingham crew Bassline Allstars, and and anything either made by or remixed by T2. (And what’s with all the one letter-based--Q, V, T--names in the genre!?)

As you’d expect, bass-science is the core of the sound, descended from the wah-wah/dread-bass 1997 sound of 187 Lockdown and Gant, but assimilating subsequent low-end innovations and bass-gimmickry (Flat Bass, Azzido Da Bass-style wub-wub-wub, the kind of inorganic, oil-slick wet-black-gleaming timbres associated with the dark 4/4 garage made by DJ Narrows--seemingly something of a pivotal figure in Bassline’s emergence--a classic example of how what seems marginal and vestigial in one genre--2step in this case--can be foundational/seminal in terms of another). But bassline takes it to a whole nother level with the ridiculously intricate sculpting of the B-lines and its
interweaving of multiple basslines--the result resembling a writhing pit of snakes. Sometimes the corrugated convolution recalls the baroque bass-riffs you get in modern drum’n’bass, but less angular; there’s always a slinky sinuosity that’s pure UKG. There's pure instrumental bassline and then (usually more enjoyable) tunes topped with R&G (rhythm-and-grime, the UK's characteristically thin-vocalled but ecstastically horny and/or plaintively wistful cut-price Happy Shopper version of American R&B). And you also get what you might call B&G--bassline plus grime, tunes topped with MC-ing.

Some things that stood out on recent Cameo and Q shows:

* Mr V, “Hey Remix”: madly rotating treadmill of bassage, the tune that
sold me on the sound. See also his “Jack In the Box”
* J Holidays Vs T2, “Bed”: a wetly-iridescent rapturous quality redolent of Daft Punk
* Addictive feat T2, “Gonna Be Mine”: mad carousel-like churner
* Aaron, “Never Rush”: amorous R&G flavored, with what seems like a Pointer Sisters-eque “Slow Hand” wham-bam?-no-thankyou-man! lyric albeit from the male point of view.
* Mr V feat Willis Rose, “What's Your Name”: barmy bubbly-squirmer of bass-goo like foaming sex secretions, topped with ace male-vocalled R&G
* DJ Denver, “This Is Sick”: fractal roil of faecal flatulo-bass
* TRC featuring Zoe, “Why Can’t I Find Love”: a female Monsta Boy, distraught with loneliness
*TS7 & T Dot, “Ding Dong”: the Lady Sov of bassline?
* N-Dubz, “Better Not Waist My Time (Wide Boys RMX): rococo-levels of frilly bass-curvature
* TS7, “Smile”: obscenely quivering, lubricious'n' delicious
* DJ Q feat MC Bonez’s “You Wot”: it's grime, ooop North.

The bassline sound is full of neat echoes for the nuum-ological scholar. Some of the sour synth-tones and wincing electronic timbres recall bleep and bass (West Yorks and South Yorks, bleep’s heartland, is a stronghold for bassline), as does the obsession with sub-low frequencies. You get some really weird’n’woogly ooh-oohing squeaky-voiced tracks that flash on hardcore ’92 but also the sugar-rush diva-warble of prime 2step. But unlike dubstep’s nuum preservation society, there’s a rude’n’cheesy instantness, a nowness to bassline; it’s rampant floor fodder churned out with minimal preciousness in vast quantities (shops typically sell the stuff in 9 or 10 CD packs! Which initially I thought would be unbearable, seeing the stuff as best in small sugar-rush doses, but it's starting to seem more alluring. And value for money, since these packs go for about 18 quid). But for all the pulpy, trashy, fast-money-music aspect to bassline, the genre doesn't neglect the "avant" in avant-lumpen. At its most full-on, the delirium of wriggling, slimy bass-tendrils recalls acid house, the slippery involutions of the bass-warpage redolent of the role of slide/portamento in the Roland 303 bass-riff. When the bright, treble-upper element of divas and ersatz strings gets stripped way, what’s left can get pretty dark and deranged, in a Fingers Inc “Washing Machine” meets KMA “Cape Fear” kind of way. “Speed garage is sikkk!” sez a female bassline fan on one DJ myspaces, and that’s the vibe: a febrile hypersexuality that’s nauseously unreal, perversely porno-delic.

On the rhythm front, although descended from speed garage, the beats feel more linear, as though moving North has brought speed garage more in line with the kind of boshing and banging dance music that’s always been big up there, a hi-energy bias that goes back to Northern Soul (whereas the South of England preferred the slower, funkier music coming out of Black America). Bassline often gets compared to happy hardcore, which fits its full-tilt propulsion and fixated feel. Certain drum mannerisms echo speed garage but the actual beat feels more quantized (the hallmark of hard house). Most of garage’s swing has migrated into the bass, where the inventiveness has gotten so infolded the B-lines sometimes feel almost lateral in relation to the drums, or like they’re running backwards simultaneous with moving forward.

Being rude ‘n’ cheesy as opposed to “deep” and spacy/spacious has made some tout bassline as, if not a riposte to dubstep (which it couldn’t be, since its emergence, many years back, coincided with dubstep’s, plus I imagine most on the scene are blissfully unaware of DMZ and FWD et al), then some kind of remedy or respite from dubstep’s sloth and rootical reverence. But the more interesting relationship to me is bassline’s (actual and potential) one with grime. There’s a strand of tracks featuring MC-ing, like DJ Q feat MC Bonez’s “You Wot” and JTJ Productions “Stand Up” (included on this Niche Vol 1 Bonus Tracks CD which someone at this Dissensus thread made available and maybe it still is).

The rapping on JTJ Productions
“Stand Up” is more like ”garage rap” than today’s grime, but all the better for that as far as I’m concerned--a reversion to the bouncy flow and hype-the-dancefloor energy of K2 Family, Genius Cru and GK Allstars. The track admonishes scowling guys in the club for not getting down but having their "arses on seats", for clinging to the wall and acting “dark”. A female MC takes the

“Stand up
You’ve come here to get down
So don’t be a pose or a let down
Don’t act like a waste guy
I wanna see you SHOCK to the bassline”

--sending little thrills shivering through me when her Yorkshire vowel sounds ring out through the otherwise grimy parlance.

Although "Stand Up" is clearly designed as a catalyst for that critical point in the night when the club really needs to ignite, that little extra push to coax the bystanders onto the floor--you could almost imagine it as addressed to grime as a whole. Bassline puts the MC back in his place, as an ancillary figure, an adjunct to the DJ and the dancefloor, a vibe-enhancer rather than a star in his own right. And if bassline swallowed grime whole, that could be the jolt of dance energy the London scene needs to actually involve the outside world again.

The role of MCing suggests bassline is a blacker sound than I’d initially imagined. The slanguage on the V and JTJ Productions’s myspaces is totally grime-atized: “Nottz man reppin’”, “Lesta Man Dem”, “It’s goin on weighty brrrap”, “Big Bad Birmz”, “Tunes r smashin it”, to the point of inadvertent, Ali G-esque comedy (“It’s a Rugby Thing”). But while it’s initially bizarre to hear Cameo calling out to the massives in Sheffield, Leeds, Stafford, Barnsley, Liverpool, Wakefield, just like the shout-outs to London Ends a few years back, perhaps it’s not so surprising. The big cities in the North of England have long been multitracial places (I read somewhere that Leicester is on course to the first city in Britain where whites are the minority). And the hardcore continuum was never quite as Londoncentric as made out by us Londoners. There were strongholds of breakbeat and jungle tekno in the Midlands and Bristol, obviously, and prime movers based out of certain cities in the North: DJ SS and Formation Records in Leicester, L Double and Flex out of Huddersfield. Not forgetting Leeds with its Chapeltown and bleep history.

(I was always puzzled by Manchester’s failure to embrace or contribute to jungle (A Guy Called Gerald excepted, but then he had to move to London eventually), given the jump the city had on everybody else in terms of “gangsta rave”. But then no less an authority than Tony Wilson said, not long before his death, that “nothing has ever come out of Manchester in terms of black music and that's a tragedy”, a bitter remark inspired by his failure with Manchester grime crew Raw-T but equally applicable to fabulous Factory electrofunk act 52nd Street back in the Eighties. Then again, has anything, white or black, come out of Manchester in terms of innovative dance music since 808 State?)

But looking at the myspaces, at the way people dress and the things they say, what’s striking to me isn’t so much the North Will Rise Again/Nuum migrating beyond London thing, but the fact that what some people call “chav” is proven yet again to be the most fertile and vibe-generative sector of UK pop culture. Indie may be a white-out, but this is the forward sector, the class, that maintains the great British tradition of being plugged into black music and bringing something to it.


It’s UK garage’s 10th birthday–-not this week, obviously, but this year, and looking back at its decade so far, the legacy seems remarkably rich.
Compare it to where jungle was by its tenth birthday (let's say, for the sake of argument, 2003) and the progeny it had spawned (drum’n’bass… long before 2003, nothing to be particularly proud of; erm…. does breakcore count?), compared with UKG’s incarnations and offshoots (2step, dubstep, grime, bassline). There’s no contest, really. And UK Garage is in surprisingly fine fettle in its tenth (or is it eleventh?) year. Dubstep, getting a bit formulaic perhaps, but still throwing out fabulous records like the new Burial and Pinch’s debut. Grime, ticking along, probably in better shape than bruised believers like myself would want to acknowledge. And then bassline, throbbing with obscene life. It’s silly and artificial to separate jungle and UK garage since they’re mutually enwebbed and part of the same grander formation, but still, presenting the Nuum as "a game of two halves", might be instructive. Where jungle beat UK garage is its success in globalizing itself, spawning undergrounds across the world, and filtering into the mainstream (albeit, humiliatingly, as muzak). UKG seems to instinctively close off those possibilities for itself and stay local (the very prefix UK highlighting that correction of jungle's "mistake"). A trade off: limiting the spread of impact versus protecting and nurturing the vibe.