FUNKY HOUSE: INITIAL REACTIONS
Early on I did think this post should take the form of
(the idea being, "if you've not got something nice to say, don't say anything at all")
then the permafrost of skepticism and gut-level aversion thawed ever so slightly.
So, first, the damning with faint abuse:
On the neg side
Percussion really is the last resort of the dance music scoundrel, isn't it? "Let's spice things up"*.
Judging my their myspace offerings, Apple, Roska, and Crazy Cousinz sound like Musical Mobb and Jon E Cash if they'd tried to do broken beats. Playstation-grime/8bar cheap'nasty meets aspirations to sophisticated/sultry = horrid combo.
I just wish I liked the basic rhythm-template more: that loping, clattery, bumpety-bumpety groove, unpleasantly redolent of reggaeton, and managing to retain the repetitiousness of house without its monolithic pump 'n' pound. The peculiar beat-emphasis (1st and 4th in the bar, is that right?) reminds me a bit of a pantomime horse trying to gallop. I swear to God on one of those Marcus Nasty sets the MC says "giddy up!"...
Waving my rave inspector's Nuum-ometer over a reasonably substantial swathe of the genre, I detect an overall deficit of "rude" and "cheesy" that's distinctly disappointing given the sound's ancestry and demographics.
EXCEPT, of course, for "Bongo Jam", which is cheesy like a gold medallion laying in a nest of chest hair.
On the strictly theoretical level, what's interesting about "funky" relates to precisely this deficit of rudeness, in so far as "rude" has generally signified the Jamaican influence in U.K. rave: sub-bass, rewinds, MC chat, etc. The funky house sound is constructed around the absenting of the Jamaican factor (perhaps dubstep's whiteboy curators have effectively taken "roots'n'dub" off the table, while grime has equally encouraged funky folks to actively deplete anything smacking of dancehall and that therefore might attract actual rude boys to turn up to the club). Instead "funky" looks to the non-Jamaican Caribbean (soca, primarily) and to Africa. Looking at their myspaces, it's really intriguing how so many funky DJs and producers put "Afro-beat" in the list of genres they do, right next to "garage" and in some cases "grime" and "jungle"; how the track "African Warrior" is such a massive anthem on the scene. This reinforces the claims made on Dissensus a couple of years back that there was a really strong rhythmic influence within grime from Londoners of African descent, who had a whole different immigrant experience than those from families of Caribbean origin(for instance, they'd have no real connection to the whole Rasta/"repatriation is a must"/exodus-from-Babylon/Africa-as-Zion cultural narrative, since they'd have voluntarily left Africa).
The interest of this demotion of Jamaica in favour of the other-Caribbean and African influences is rather theoretical, though, because few things irritate me more than soca. The African music influence could be really exciting, although I do wonder sometimes if funky is affected more by a hazy fantasy idea of "Africa" (lotsa percussion!)than actual influences from the myriad forms of African music past and present. (C.f. the cliche-ridden idea of "Brazil" in house culture).
On which subject, it's hard to think of anything less "carnivalesque" (in the Bakhtinian sense) than the carnival vibe in dance music. (I always disliked that side of Basement Jaxx).
If "funky" dominates the Notting Hill Carnival this year, then the music on the sound systems will be closer than it's ever been to the music on the carnival floats.
And where next after bongomania? Steel drum sounds?!?
It is possible, y'know, it is just conceivable, that London could simply be lame, for a season or two. Tread water. Funky house, then, could in fact just be a pause for breath, a placeholder sound, a way of carrying on/not giving up while avoiding exerting oneself too much.
On the poz side
It's more lively and vibely than bassline is at the moment, that's for sure. (What happened there?!?!? The North will sag again...)
You can't not like that Kyla "Do You Mind" tune, it's got the exact same plaintive yearning tinged with sensual sadness that you got last year with the lover's rock flavoured subset of bassline. Indeed it's funky's equivalent to "Heartbroken" and when it gets the licensed-by-a-big-label megapush will assuredly go to Number 2 in the UK chart.
There'll be at least one other similar-sized funky hit and then that'll be it, I think. Can't really see a repeat of 1999/2000 happening.
Every so... not-so-often, you'll see glimpses of a future worth keeping half an ear peeled for…. On the Footloose 1xtra sets from July (links to uploads secreted here), Roska's "Feeline VIP RMX", Unknown's "Darqueness", and especially MC Let's "Take It Low" raised my pulse. And on a Marcus Nasty set from back in April, I heard one track I absolutely adore. Don’t know what it's called or who it's by, but it's about half way through the track entitled "audio 1 unknown 4". For once the choppy, broken beats create a feeling of mounting ecstasy, like a classic house drum roll build but ultra-syncopated and kinda slipping around in the groove like your feet when you're trying to run up a sand dune; there's this chugging almost tango-ish keyboard vamp with an accordion/musette-type timbre,
and all this filtered silverhaze of sound wooshing around like a total champagne rush. And (tickling the Nuumological memory-rush centres) there's an almost-buried quote-loop from Double 99's "Ripgroove" (that Tina Moore "Never Let You Go" vocal-as-siren effect) plus a stringsy sort of sound that resembles the Onedin Line orchestral refrain from Orbital's "Chime". But even without those tingle-inducing nuum-signifiers, this is very very nice indeed and rather sticks out like a sore thumb in such otherwise tepid company. And the MC gets noticeably more "ooh, gosh" than on the rest of the set: "imagine this one in a club. Imagine this one in a CLUB, a big set, like Ministry." Yes, I imagine when this one drops the place does go off.
That's one of the likeable things about funky, actually, that it's allowed for the return of a more jungle/UK garage approach to MC-ing, the pre-grime style where the MC isn't the focus but someone who enhances the music, ad-libbing rather than spitting pre-written verses.
And I imagine that all of it sounds a LOT more vibey in a club.
(Trouble is, I'm not in a club. I'm listening to MP3s through computer speakers. But then so are funky's blogospheric boosters too).
To my mind the obvious comparison is with dubstep and microhouse (and indeed broken beat). The genre as an empty space, where particles from the earlier Big Genres of dance music circulate, come into friction but never quite ignite the firestorm of the New. As with dubstep and micro/minimal, I do wonder: what is the Big New Idea here, the genre-defining innovation, the motor propelling it and us into the zone of the unforeheard? To me, a "possibility space" involves the opening up of a virgin expanse out of which new genres form, not a gently simmering limbo where choice morsels from earlier genres bob about, maintaining a moderately energized half-life.
It's all a matter of perspective, of course. It all depends on how much you're prepared to squint for those microbial flickers of novelty. One person's possibility space could be another's "entropy space": not so much open and fertile, but inbetweeny, disparate, slack.
What I wonder with dubstep, microhouse and now "funky" is not so much whether they've managed to create a decent number of attractive and fresh-enough-for-now shapes using elements bequeathed by the Big Genres of yesteryear (jungle, acid, trance, dub, electro, etc etc). Dubstep and micro have done that at certain points, and funky looks promising in that area. What I wonder is what future genres will be able to draw on from these styles once they're over and gone, where are the elements that are unique to them and can rank with the Giant Steps made by the Big Genres of yore? In other words, what is their contribution?
The invocation by Tim Finney of Basement Jaxx in his latest Skykicking survey is telling, I think. Because in the end, for all their energy and inventiveness, the Jaxx boys were consummate mélange-ists; they rose to glory precisely at the cusp of an epochal shift in dance culture: 1999, the hinge year between the surge-phase of techno-rave's first decade and the recombinant plateau of the past ten years. (I haven't felt the urge to listen to the Jaxx's records for ages now, but who knows, maybe their time will come again for me. I've long felt the same about their hero and role model Prince, another figure I rated immensely in the Eighties and gorged on as a listener; but that lack-of-interest is actually starting to fade, I might be ready to dig out Sign O'The Times et al soon).
The name, the lame name! Jon's right, it's a real stumbling block, there's no getting round that.
Or is there? I've got an idea, actually. How about "bongle"? In reference and deference to the genre's fetish for all things hand-percussive and tribal-vibal. With all the permutations: "Big up all bonglist crew!" "Absolutely bonglistic!", etc. What do you reckon, chaps?
* My percussion-aversion partly stems from negative associations I have with the whole "live percussionist" as flyer-heralded attraction and alleged vibe-booster, going back to the early raving days when I'd often defer to my crew's desire to go to house clubs rather than--my growing preference--ardkore ones. in those golden early days, it was more about having adventures as a gang, getting off our faces. But as a result I associate bongos and congas with faux-classy vibes and the frittering away of fierce drug sensations on mild music.