Wednesday, April 30, 2003

The Rough Trade test.
Can you spot what’s wrong about this? [And no, I don't mean the missing 'u' in 'varios']

===nu skool breaks===
fink presents sideshow sound of today 12 5.99 two sublime slices of broken beats with a 2 step edge from fink who has previously >recorded for ninja tunes
unknown the lucky ones 12 6.99 super hot bootleg from two of breakbeat's biggest producers
varios - tempa allstars vol 1 varios - tempa allstars vol 1 12 4.99 this demonstrates why tempa is the most innovative garage label. this features three tracks from dj abstract, benny ill vs goldspot and artwork

I’m hardly ever in London these days, but it’s easy to keep tabs on what the world-famous Rough Trade shops are stocking, via their emailed New Releases circular (which I cannot recall ever signing up for, but what the hey…) In the sleevenotes to that Rough Trade Shops 25 years CD, Jon Savage (who used to hang out at the Ladbroke Grove store back when it really was a cultural vortex-- nattering to the staff [he turned Geoff Travis onto the Cabs you know], musicians, fanzine editors, fellow journalists) anyway Jon writes of the stores as they are today: “Whatever it is you want, you can hear it before everyone else, whether it be limited edition 7-inchers, 12" promos, or drum'n'bass CDRs that arrive hot of the press”. And to be fair, that’s very nearly true. But there are some significant exceptions, and the exceptions form a pattern, and you start to wonder....

OK, it’s forgiveable they never stocked hardcore, because nobody but the scene’s own specialists did (actually that’s not true: I used to get 2 Bad Mice and Sub Base stuff and Omni Trio at my local Our Price in Brixton! And you could get hardcore in Virgin and HMV, until early ’93 anyway). But it took Rough Trade a long time to get on board with jungle, and when they finally did (in a big way) drum’n’bass was well on its way to irrelevance. To this day, they still stock d&b to an exhaustive degree, plastic sleeves spilling unmanageably out of the bins. More damning is the store’s total failure to stock UK garage at any point in its six years of existence. By any criteria you want to use--sheer sonic innovation, Black British cred, and (most relevant, from the Rough Trade philosophical standpoint) the DIY/self-released/micro-label nature of the subculture’s infrastructure---UKG qualifies superabundantly. But they will sooner stock some Violent Turd parody-pisstake rip-off-of 2step, or Manitoba’s polite misreadings, or Scud and Something J/DJ Maximum homages/mutations, than the actual fi-real deal thing. Well, slight correction, if you go back to the opening extract, you can see that every so often they DO stock a token bit of UK garage, always the breakstep or dubstep end of things natch, by Oris Jay or Tempa cru ["most innovative garage label" my English ass!!!], one of that lot. But ONLY listed under “nu skool breaks”. What an insult! A ferociously vital, resonant, even epochal sound, interred alongside a stillborn non-scene.

Okay, we all have our blindspots (although RT carry virtually everything else under the sun and uber-comprehensiveness is a central plank of their website manifesto: “we hope to bring you today the sounds that will be heralded by others as groundbreaking and innovative tomorrow”). Still, look at the blindspots, and they form a pattern. Plenty of digi-dub and archival roots, but no dancehall; no street rap but loadsa US undie backpacker biznizz; MC-fronted garage rap, not a sausage, but course there’s a superfluity of “proper” UK hip hop. Now I’m sure I don’t need to spell it out for you, you’re all-too-familiar with where I’m coming from on the polemical tip here. There's a distinct sociocultural bias here, an unacknowledged exclusionary process at work. It's the predictability of the syndrome that is depressing, the way the blindspots just keep recreating themselves along these determinist class-based lines. Plus the fact that Rough Trade are probably right, from a business point of view; they have a very good idea of what their clientele would be interested in, and their clientele would rather buy Prefuse 73 than some Ludacris track despite the fact that the latter creams the former on just about every front, including riddimological invention.

My bet is that you will find the same patterns replicated in hipster stores across the world (They certainly operate in the ones I visit in New York like Other Music---Tower, over the road from Other, has a far superior stock of UK garage CDs, thanks to the efforts of import controlla Paul ‘Sci Fi Soul’ Kennedy.) Is it hyperbolic to think of these sort of blindspots as constituting an unconscious form of cultural apartheid? Perhaps. But while iIn this age of the glorious interweb there may indeed be no such thing as marginal music, there are patently still musics that are marginalized.

All this has an unintended useful side effect, though: what I call the Rough Trade test. If you want to know if a UK dance genre still has da vybe, street-wise, if it’s still got its "social energy" legs, just check see if the Rough Trade shops stock it yet in a designated section of its own. And checking the latest new release list, i can tell you: UKG is still alive and still kickin’.

Tuesday, April 29, 2003

50 Cent, "In Da Club". Beats: lifeless, leached of colour, yet oddly hypnotic, almost like subdued and slowed-down house music (those stilted, suppressed-sounding strings seem distantly related to "Strings of Life"). Vocal: a nagging dirge-drone, the opposite of those hyperbright vivacious Americanradio voices where ever syllable gleams perkily for your undivided attention, it's as if every potential point of emphasis or accenting is flattened (is it true, he raps that way cos he’s got a damaged tongue from being shot up?!?), but again, oddly mesmerising (perfunctory-as-cool, indifference-as-Zen). Like “Grindin’”, it's one of those nadir-or-the-new thing tracks. Still can’t decide if I like it. Liking it seems beside the point--it just is.
Classic OWD sighting--Notorious BIG, “Juicy”, on MTV2's Old Skool slot last night. There he is, grooving away. He's not the only white person in the video of course--there's the maid serving the bubbly, and even more symbolic, the accountants who take care of managing Biggie’s money so he can enjoy spending it the more.

Monday, April 28, 2003

Hip hop may not love you back, whitey, but it loves your dollar. There was something faintly scandalous about the revelation, last year, that 70 percent of rap CDs are bought by white kids. It seemed like the sort of information that really ought to cause hip hop to implode through its own contradictions. It could be the statistics are skewed (presumably white suburban youth have more disposable income than black inner-city youth, probably buy more CDs per capita and make more casual purchases, while urban youth buy a lot more bootlegs and mixtapes and other stuff that’s below the statistical radar). Still and all, it seems like a fucked-up disparity. What are the examples, historically, of a music where such a high proportion of its consumers feel discouraged from participating creatively in the culture they identify with?

I was thinking perhaps my last entry was slightly overstated, and Mike Barthel concurs,
arguing that there’s a new generation who are totally comfortable with being white hip hoppers and who are reasonably accepted, if they have the skills. He says in six years we’ll really start to see the fruits of this, in terms of white MCs. Hmm, six years though, 2009, add it up, you're talking about 30 years since “Rapper’s Delight”, over twenty years since Licensed To Ill… that’s a long time. There were white bluesmen, blue-eyed soulsters, and punk-funkateers way quicker and in way larger numbers. Between Beasties and Eminem, who's there been, of any credibility or any significant success? What’s striking about Eminem is his absolute isolation in the mainstream. I’m sure part of the massiveness of his success, beyond his ability, is that he’s been embraced out of sheer relief: at last one of ours who’s so good he’s undeniable. (And there’s still holdouts among hip hop performers and critics--Armond White for instance--who refuse to give him any props, see him as an Elvis-type appropriator/exploiter/con!). Don’t bring undie, with its slightly larger complement of non-blacks, into this, because undie is irrelevant to the black pop mainstream. And that mainstream is organized around the concealment from one chunk of its audience of the existence of another larger chunk of its audience--the invisible majority of white rap fans.

Now there are lots of good reasons why it is important for hip hop to sustain itself as a cultural enclave where blacks are the overwhelming majority. It’s also possible that white fans prefer it that way, too, that it’s part of the fantasy of real-ness they’re buying into, that double-whammy of exoticism and authenticity. Perhaps that's why studio audiences at BET or hip hop videos with in da club scenes are 99 percent black. (If you see footage of live hip hop shows, though, 50 percent or more of the audience are white, and I'd be interested to know the racial breakdown of BET's home viewership). The pathos-shading-into-patheticness of a figure like Serch with his always-already-hopeless desire to be accepted as “the baddest white MC out there” has a visual echo in the form of that peculiar rap video convention, the one white dude. The first OWD that caught my eye was way way back, in one of the Dr Dre videos, “Nuthin’ But A 'G' Thang” I think. You know it, there's a house party, the fridge is stacked with malt liquor, some Gs take revenge on a snooty black chick with airs and graces by shaking up 40''oz bottles and drenching her in frothy symbolic semen. As the camera pans across the dancefloor, all of sudden, there he is: the white dude, lurking by a pillar. Looking hopelessly out of place and distinctly uncomfortable. It’s like, what’s he there for? Why did they even bother? (Or is he there precisely to be outnumbered?). Look for the OWD, he crops up more often than you’d think. Always on his own.

Tuesday, April 22, 2003

Serch me. Interesting if excessively long ILM thread sparked by a Sasha Frere-Jones query, itself spun from his EMP2003 paper on Amerindie rock’s gradual disengagement from black music as a source of inspiration or influence. Which is an old SFJ bugbear, going back at least as long as I’ve known him (those good old post-rockin’ days of '95 when there were a handful of ex-Amerindiebands gesturing faintly in the direction of dub, remixology etc) and probably all the way back to his formative trauma (that crux moment when Liquid Liquid was decisively displaced by Sonic Youth as the mold for NYC rock bands). Haven’t read the paper, obviously, but my two word answer to the quandary would be: MC Serch.

Consider the self-hatred involved in that “Pop Goes The Weasel” song/video (the one where 3rd Bass give a verbal and physical beatdown to Vanilla Ice for discrediting da cause of authentic whiteboy rap), consider the soul-contorting pressures on any non-black American understandably driven to engage with hip hop, patently the most significant and exciting form of American popular music these last 25 years. Why would anybody want to put themselves through all that agony, and then risk the gauntlet of derision and non-acceptance? Much easier to steer clear, stick to a race (no pun intended) where the odds of a non-ignominious outcome are tilted in your favour.

And if indie whitey stays well away, this is also partly a response to not-so-subliminal messages emanating from the music. Unlike the earlier black forms like blues/soul/funk, which were massively appropriated and adapted in their own time by white musicians (some of who even made significant contributions), hip hop has always projected a much stronger sense of "hands off, whitey---we own this shit’. This leaves white Americans--especially the more P/C conscious types in the cadres of independent music--wary of trespassing upon what everyone agrees (and not without justification) is African-American cultural property. It’s all very understandable, on both sides of the divide.

It must be quite tough, being a non-black American whose primary musical identification is with hip hop (a sensible thing to do, given its ubiquity, ascendancy, and impeccable edge factors both aesthetic and sociocultural). The contradictions and conflicts must gnaw at your guts and tie your mind in knots. That's why you get the overcompensation syndrome, from the extremes of wigga-ism to the way those who write critically from that problematic place often become like over-vigilant custodians, warding off improper developments like jungle or The Streets. In Britain, it’s always been easier because the music came originally as an import and thus equally at-one-remove whether you’re Black British or white. So in Massive Attack, 3D and Tricky were both coming at the music from an equally “inauthentic” position; in the realm of Brit B-boys who became junglists, pasty-faced Doc Scott was no more an outsider than Dego MacFarlane. Plus, it's almost like we in the UK are operating out of view, the hip hop culture guardians aren't watching (don't give a toss, frankly--that US isolationist, world-unto-ourselves thing), so we can take some liberties, mess around more. Ironically, the statement "I love hip hop" can trip off the white Brit tongue easier, precisely because there's an intrinsic detachment and distancing for even the fiercest UK believer in Hip Hop As Cause; not belonging is the ground on which it's all built. Here in America, so much closer to the action, where the stakes are much higher and the question of who belongs and who doesn't becomes urgent and painful, to utter the statement "I love hip hop" as a person of non-black color immediately opens a can of worms. Because it's not at all clear the feeling is reciprocated.

Monday, April 21, 2003

Ian Penman enters the blogosphere!!! The Pill Box is a chance to eavesdrop on of one of our great minds thinking aloud---at the moment, mostly on matters (geo)political rather than musical/cultural. A full-on IP website is on the cards, he says, containing more essayistic writing; I hope he'll delve deep into what must surely be a Lester Bangs-scale trove of unpublished works, "director's cuts" that exceed the printed version by a factor of five, random aphorisms, prose-poetical meditations. Can I put in a plea for fragments from his unfinished book on Roxy Music? (Or was that just a rumour?). For now, though, The Pill Box---one to bookmark and no mistake.

Monday, April 14, 2003

Now that the disabling rollercoaster of shame and dread of the last three weeks has slowed down a bit, and in the lull before "we" invade Syria, it seems like a timely opportunity to whack out a quick round-up of the best of the year so far. Don't know about you but it feels like 2003 has barely started, admittedly there's been the all-eclipsing current events to distract, but still, by this time last year we already had The Streets. When is the first real blockbuster of 2003 going to arrive? Anyway, here's my picks, new and old.

Junior Boys, “Last Exit” (forthcoming in some form via Nick K’s new label KIN).
I’d heard some Junior Boys stuff (one of the duo, Jeremy Greenspan, is sibling-ly connected to CCRU cru) and liked it quite a bit but it wasn’t until hearing this track on its own in the middle of a bunch of other unlike stuff (on a Nick K 2step-flavored comp) that it really BLEW ME AWAY. By some distance my favorite track (outside gutter-garridge) I’ve heard this year. In fact, it makes a good companion piece/contrast with the likes of Dizzy and Kano and Nasty Crew, it’s like a whole other direction 2step could have gone: androgynous, fragile, exquisitely tender (the tremulous chorus whispers "I'll catch you if you fall"). 2step infused with the subtle melodic grace and glistening delicacy of Prefab Sprout or The Blue Nile. Yin to gutter's yang-overdose.
DJ Scud and Panacea Present The Redeemer, Hardcore Owes Us Money (Position Chrome). SoundMurdereresque spirit of old skool homage but expressed through all new tracks, and pitched slightly earlier (92/92 not 94, hence the titular nod to the Ragga Twins). A sample-crazy barrage of diva versus raggamuffin vocal-licks, oscillator riffs and death-ray zaps of sick noize over more up to date post-techstep growly b-lines and linear jacknife beats running at 170 + bpm. The most flat-out fun thing Scud’s done.
Animal Collective, Here Comes The Indian (Paw Tracks)
The crew that brought you Avey Tare & Panda Bear, on a new offshoot of Carpark Recordings. The most untaggable thing I’ve heard since Position Normal. People say ‘This Heat’, which I can hear but it’s like This Heat fused with Incredible String Band and The Godz. Psycho-acoustica. “Panic” would fit onto that outer-limits vocal box. The Campfire Recordings thing on Catsup Plate also good.
Data 80, “Baby I Can Forgive” off Data 80 (Force Inc).
Hakan Lidbo’s one of those second-order talents, he’ll never be an innovator, but here his supplement to the Daft Punk bliss-text almost surpasses the digital lovers. The whole album’s good but this track glistens and pulsates in the most eerie, bewitching way.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs, “Y Control” off Fever To Tell
As above, I like the whole record but this is the one that really gets me--something in the way it moves.
The Mover, Frontal Frustration (Tresor)
Fanatics: 2017. Dilettantes: nil
Crossbones, 2003 prerelease sampler.
Been hearing about this cru for a while, finally got to hear them: that unheard of rarity, Brits who follow the dark gospel according to Acardipane, making doomcore and throwing way-way-WAY underground parties (although they’ve now stopped apparently since the squat-rave scene got taken over by ketamine and crack). Artists with names like Face Hoover, Kenny Kramp, Floorkiller Project, and The Chicken Farmer, serving up phuture techno the way you like it.
Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft, Funfzehn Neue Lider (Superstar)
People don’t appear to rate this comeback too highly, but it seems to strike a pretty good balance between keeping-what-was-great and updating-for-a-post-techno-universe. As house-inflected EBM goes, this is a good stop-gap until the next Green Velvet album.
Dizzee Rascal--“I Luv U/I Luv U (remix)/Vexed” (XL)
Best single of last year and front runner so far, given thin competition, for best single of 2003. Come on people!
Soft Pink Truth, Do You Party? (Soundslike)
Dinky, Black Cabaret (Carpark)

Eighties, done right.

Bad Company, Shots Down on Safari plus Best of the Bad Mix
The Motorhead of drum’n’bass. Before last summer's DJ Marky "LK" single the only outfit in ooh 4 years that came even close to coaxing me back into the fold of the faithful.
Factrix, Artifact (Storm Records/Tesco Distribution)
Along with London and Sheffield, San Francisco was one of the hotbeds of early industrial music. Allies and sometimes collaborators with the likes of Mark Pauline and Monte Cazazza, Factrix obviously shared some of the same thematic preoccupations and sonic techniques as their contemporaries Cabaret Voltaire and TG, but they had another, appropriately West Coast dimension, a dark psychedelia most evident in the trippy soloistic guitar playing of Bond Bergland (later of the superb Saqqara Dogs). This double-CD is a splendid addition to the mini-boom in archival industrial.
The Passage, Pindrop/Degenerates/Enflame/For All and None (LTM)
Underrated Manc postpunk outfit, lyrically slightly didactic for modern tastes but interesting use of electronics and percussion.
Lory D, Sounds Never Seen (Rephlex)
The Italian Acardipane? Not quite, but close enough.
Ultramarine, Companion (Every Man & Woman Is A Star Versions) (LTM)
Faces you already love, from a slightly different angle.
Fred Frith, Guitar Solos (ReR Megacorp)
Maybe I should have taped all of David Stubbs's Recommended lps when he left his entire record collection in my bedsit during the summer of 83.
Minny Pops, Sparks In a Dark Room/Secret Stories (LTM)
He had stuff by these Dutch electroquirksters too and all--what was I thinking?
Casino Vs Japan, Go Hawai
A sketch for Whole Numbers, but a lovely one.
SoundMurderer, Wired For Sound
see yesterday's entry.
Ingram, now reneging unreservedly on his vow to take a six month break from the blogosphere (hooray!), goes all Krautrocksampler with this appreciation of neglekted kosmische klassiks, komplete with scanned in album covers. 500 % in agreement re. his controversial inclusion of that DAF album. But wrong, quite wrong, to diss La Dusseldorf. The first Dinger Bros. album is of a piece with Neu! 75 and even Viva has its charms. Better than any of post-Neu! Rother's "Neu Zeit" waftings at any rate, although I don't think I've heard the one Matt cites as an overlooked gem.

Sunday, April 13, 2003

SoundMurderer, Wired For Sound (Violent Turd)
Is this the greatest jungle mix-CD ever? (Meaning, obviously, therefore the greatest dance music mix-CD ever?). DB's History of Our World Part One (but that's not focused only on jungle like this is), or something by DJ Hype might pip it to the post, but only by a whisker. Sixty --that’s SIXTY!!!--tracks of 94-style pure ragga-jungle, from Kemet Crew to L Double to Marvellous Cain, in a little over sixty minutes. An awesome barrage of Amen snare-rushes and sublo rootical bass-sway, sound-against-sound bashment battle cries and roots-era sensi-paeans. Listening to this stuff for the first time in a while, it’s hard to imagine how anyone who heard this music in its time could fail to feel it as a call, an energy signal, and respond accordingly. “Quite liking” jungle, “enjoying a bit of it now and then” seems somehow an inadequate response to a sound so total.

The sixty tracks are divided into three megamixes, the third veering off towards techstep/dark d’n’b 95-96 vibe, still exciting, but the first two are the shit. The most exciting shit, like, ever? Still sounds more far out than anything that followed in dance music (or anywhere else really), no matter how everyone from splatterbreaks Scud-types to your drill’n’bass Squarepusher types to Hrvatski 'n' the Kid tried to make it fiercer and more mashed. Talking of the Pusha, he actually appears at the very end of the second megamix, with his junglizm parody ‘Full Rinse’ (feat MC Twin Dub--ho ho ho, very satirical you sad little man, you’re not even a footnote m8 you will not be remembered, truly shameful that even for a little while back there you were more known than Bizzy B or Remarc [the latter has about five top killatunes on Wired For Sound), although that-ranted, the Pusha track actually fits fairly well with the general vibe of total over-the-topness and doesn't stick out overly.

Ragga-jungle original 12”s go for vast amounts these days, they’re almost as collectable as the ‘ardkore/darkkore stuff. That’s another reason this CD is toppermost, I have silly amounts of jungle on vinyl and even more on CD, but most of the tunes on this I’ve not got. Though the bulk of them are familiar, stirring somatically encoded memories in my sinews and reflexes, neuromuscular scars from nights of thunder and joy. If this CD (originally a mixtape apparently) has a fault, it’s too unrelentingly mash-up. SoundMurderer has spliced together the most intense drum-loco breakdowns and house-of-cards-tumbling bridge bitz, it's pretty much continuously one long amen-rinse orgasm. If it was actually to be a recreation of "how it was", there’d be a tiny bit less rinse and a lickle bit more roll: some slow’n’sexy wind-your-waist interludes, cool down the dancehall vibe for a bit before re-escalating. Still this isn’t a time travel trip, it’s a rereading or re-rending, and the aspect of non-fidelity is what makes the record thrilling and valid beyond being a trip down memory lane: it’s a tribute that intensifies and exaggerates the thing it’s paying homage to.

Thursday, April 10, 2003

I've only ever knowingly heard two songs by The White Stripes, as videos on MTV2, but I'm exceedingly grateful to Marcello Carlin whose Church of Me review of Elephant Gun relieves me of both the need and the desire to hear any more. "Nothing is more contrived than not being contrived," sez Marcello. Always good to have one's own sneaking suspicions amply confirmed, without the chore of listening to the actual records. "Fi real", I'm all for, but faux-real is unbearable.

Sunday, April 06, 2003

On the subject of mailed-cassette-as-field-recording, this guy David with whom I have a trade pact with ('93 for '03 ya get me) quipped "maybe us pirate tapers are the new Harry Smiths eh?". Must admit the Smith/Lomax parallel had crossed my mind--this stuff is like folk music in a lot of ways, throwing up stuff as bizarre and eerie as anything on Anthology.

UKG as modern urban folk, yes why not? People singing about local things for a local people, using coarse vernacular, making the music themselves in relatively lo-fi manner. Obsessed with questions of realness and authenticity and grit-as-truth. The product of its environment. But that environment isn't just physical surroundings. This tribal music dwells in a media jungle as much as a concrete jungle. For instance there's a hardcore tune from '92 by Payback called "Eastenders", a cover (you guessed it) of the Eastenders theme. I could probably write a 3000 word essay (with footnotes) on this one tune -- the way it collides the fictionalized pseudo-real East End of TV (and c.f. US soap operas, Eastenders is gritty social realist drama only a notch below from Ken Loach, indeed it's shown on PBS the equivalent of BBC 2 over here) with the real multiracial East End of emergent junglizm, of De Underground Records and Labrynth and DJ Hype. The Eastenders' theme's sickly caramel-centre melody is turned first into a gorgeously soppy lover's-rock-meets-chillout lilt and then into a gloriously nutt-E rave-stab, and in between comes a chap jabbering in thick patois about whether the tune's a dubplate or not over monstrous quaking blasts of sine-wave sub-bass.

A few years back Pere Ubu's David Thomas opined: "Music should be regional, it should speak directly of a specific place on the planet, of a specific geography, a specific time, otherwise music is a function of merchandise and market… If it doesn’t speak of a small community of people, then it isn’t music.” I don't actually agree, but whereas 12 years ago I would have jeered at this idea, rejected it out of hand, now I pause and think: maybe the old curmudgeon's got, like, half a point. True, there's a lot of amazing music that isn't about a specific place, that is in fact about space. Then again, per Sun Ra, space is a place, albeit imaginary and utopian (root meaning literally no-place): ecstastic and otherworldly and often interstellar, but an environment. The only music I can think of that really seems to evoke nowhere in its pure blankest sense---the non-place of digitized and dematerialized and meta-stized information--are mash-ups.

"Rock" (I'm using that as omnigeneric shorthand for everything that conceivably might be under discussion) has never decided whether it's a folk form or an art form, and perhaps that indecision or undecidability is crucial, enabling it to perpetually explode and re-explode a whole bunch of different binaries, make a nonsense of them. Stuff I like seems to fall into either category or best of all into both simultaneously (that scenius-genius cusp/interzone/overlap--4 Hero or Dem 2 or Wiley, the auteur nourished by a particular subcultural soil). There's a third category, though, entertainment a/k/a showbiz. That's the enemy, not because I don't want to be entertained, but because if that's all there is, there's nothing to talk about.

Friday, April 04, 2003

I guess the condensed version of below is: you can take UK garage out of London, but you can't take the London out of UKG. And why would you even want to? No, you don't have to be "there" to feel it or understand it, but it's a faulty logic leap to then conclude that questions of "there"-ness are irrevelant and outmoded in these easy-access days of the glorious interweb. Because "there" permeates every fibre of the music.

Wednesday, April 02, 2003

Mass(ive) media. Philip Sherburne spins an interesting piece out of the tension between his renewed passion for UKG (must hear this Platinum 45 track he's banging on about) and feeling frustrated because he doesn't know who the music is aimed at and how they consume it. I must admit though I'm surprised he feels like he's not got enough sociocultural background to get a proper "read" on what garage rap is "about'"-- mean to say, apart from my own blogging activities and others on the unofficial gutter-garridge webring (Luka the prophet, firing on all cylinders at the mo'; Ingram, finding it harder to stick to the hibernation resolution than he thought, glad to have you back bro) it's not like UK garage and its constituency is undocumented, is it? This subculture hasn't sprung out of nowhere, surface sonic details aside at core it's essentially the same thing, the same system/infrastructure/"people", as jungle, which (I'd have thought) has been thoroughly placed and analysed both journalistically and academically. Plus now with garage rap you have the words which actually TELL you what it's about; even when there's a hyper-real fantasy element to the thuggism, the fantasies-as-social-facts-in-themselves tell you things. I'd say UKG w/ MCs as a social text is currently one of the richest and most transparently legible reads available, Lunnun accents and hyperspeed rhymes notwithstanding.

Still there are some things that obviously get lost in the transatlantic translation, and maybe i can assist with Phil's perplexity vis-a-vis the fact that Platinum 45 maker of mad sick underground beats as twisted as anything out of Cologne is also Platinum 45 as in Platinum 45 Featuring More Fire Crew as in Number 7 UK pop hit "Oi!". I suppose if you live in America land of Clear Channel and hits that take months to build and months to go away once they've finally clawed their way into the top 10, it's hard to understand how it can work in the UK with singles that are massive hits without ever really being pop. It's been like this at least since hardcore or earlier still with aciieed -- tunes that are so popular with the massive and on the pirates that they can shoot straight into the charts without any mainstream radio support. I'm sure "Oi!" got minimal play on Radio One and Capital or even from Kiss, but the sheer demographic heft of the garage nation propelled it into the Top Ten. And then the kiddies TV show appearances follow.

This is one of the most interesting, little understood things about London pirate radio -- it's not so much an underground as a counter-mainstream. It's like the scene has its own mass media which make up a world that people can live inside and ignore the "real" pop world. Scroll through the FM dial at the weekend and the garage pirates almost outnumber the legal stations, plus these days you get pirates operating every single week night as well, with different crews having regular shows at specific times (see luke's heronbone blog for a Radio Times style breakdown of when to tune in). As a result of this, in their own heads and within the parallel pirate counter-mainstream universe, these MCs and crews are already stars, long before the outside world acknowledges them as such or even knows they exist. Most of the time it's the case that every so often one or two of the pirate-universe "hits" slips through into the chartpop universe. But every so often, the entire pirate universe manages to superimpose itself in a mass putsch and become the real-world pop music, almost totally supplant and displace it. That's what happened with hardcore in 91-92 and that's what happened with 2step in 2000. Hard to believe now but Artful Dodger and Craig David were underground right up until the last minute before they became chart overlords. In '91 Prodigy remained underground even when they were Top 5 with 'Charly' and 'Everybody Is The Place', then gradually became a pop group and then a rock band. And Dizzee Rascal will still be underground when "I Luv U" gets it XL rerelease in a few weeks and goes Top 30. (On which subject check the CD-single's B-side 'Vexed' which renders irrelevant the last six years of electro, and the tear-jerking tenderhearted "I Luv U" remix, showing off Dizzee's vulnerable side). Crossover success doesn't diminish the records or dilute them, it becomes an enhancement, a collective triumph for the massive.

This ability to be underground and pop simultaneously has something to do with how music from the hardcore/pirate continuum is innately populist anyway, addressed to a "people". It's like the difference between the crowd and the in-crowd. With other forms of electronic music, "underground" means unknown-to-most: IDM for instance defines itself as for-the-chosen-few, whereas rave is something like for-the-chosen-many. It's all to do with the scene's will-to-power and out-reach. Pirate radio after all is a form of broadcasting not narrowcasting, anyone can tune in or stumble upon the stations by accident. If you are broadcasting this stuff on the open airwaves you are by definition not cultivating culthood or following the small-is-beautiful-is-superior-is-cosily-incestuous line. There's an availability of access there, so fucking easy in fact that no Londoner has an excuse not to be plugged into it as far as I'm concerned.

Ah but there's the rub, the catch: it's. a. Lon. don. thing. The sense of place is paramount (as per Luke's recent comments on the different East End manors ,or More Fire shouting out to different postal districts, E3 and E11). Contra Deleuze, territorialization is a positive force (none of that technoculcha post-geographical bollix), an intensifier. Indeed there's almost a sense in which you have to physically be in the orbit of terrestial transmission, the radiowaves passing through your body. Kinda mystical I know, but I'm sure that's the reason I've never felt like tuning into those pirates who do actually stream live on the web, it seems contrary to the spirit somehow (I'd rather have the mailed-cassette-as-field-recording than the digitized illusion of "being there", which would be fucked by timezone disparities anyway). Does this localized tribe-vibe thing make anyone who isn't "there" through no fault of their own automatically an outsider? Yes, but so what, the records rock with or without the context, can be taken as sonic objets d'art or munitions to mash up the dance as you prefer. And the fact that a music isn't aimed at you or made with you in mind doesn't mean you can't make it your own. Even if a music or scene doesn't "belong" to you, you can belong to it -- hip hop being the paradigm example here of a music whose signal is received as a Call by huge numbers of people across the globe despite the fact that it was not really beamed at them in the first place .

Tuesday, April 01, 2003

Talking of trivia and its life-affirming value, here's the missus celebrating the TV micro-trend of gay-hosted talk-shows, namely Isaac Mizrahi and Graham Norton (whose show is beginning to catch on here via BBC America.

If it was available on the web I would also link to a provocative piece entitled "Thick Plus: Dumbing Up In the Age of Consumer Enlightenment" by Steven Daly and Mark Jordan, as it represents a sort of opposing view, and contains an obliterating critique of Norton as part of a general broadside against the cult(ure) of "Irony, Frivolity, Cheekiness, Glibness, Knowingness, Campness", whic together constitute in the authors's words "Dutch Elm disease of the soul". The piece focuses on mostly-UK manifestations of meta-popcult that laughs at itself or encourages the viewer to see through it/feel superior to it even as they consume/enjoy it. Robbie Williams is a paradigm figure here. Seeing Robbo a few months ago on the MTV Europe awards I was struck by the fact that while he truly excels at all the marginal aspects of being a pop star--going on chat shows, doing MTV Cribs, all situations where his blend of charm and smarm work wondrously--he's truly pisspoor at the traditionally central functions of the pop star, like dancing, singing, projecting songs with emotional conviction, being sexy (he looks like a cross between Norman Wisdom and Grant Mitchell). As he sings he's constantly meta-mugging and pulling smirky grimaces, stepping outside his own performance to mock himself (rolling his eyes) and the process. It's like schmaltz with the camp appreciation in-built, showbiz that undermines itself by drawing attention to its own staging and overstatement. "Let me entertain you" my arse.

A barely controlled rant (and co-written by a former member of Orange Juice to boot!) "Thick Plus" struck a chord when I read it about a year ago, 'cos the whole syndrome of heterosexualised camp had been on my mind, initially spurred by thinking about Radiohead and whether they represented a return to earnestness, the unabashed seriousness of Rockism, and whether that was a good thing or not. What interested me particularly re. "Thick Plus" with its jibes against Norton and Robbo (what is his sexuality, exactly?) was how one negotiates the sticky problem of critiquing mainstreamed camp as a new decadence without ending up with this classic polarity: a stern and forward-thrusting "heterosexual modernism" that opposes itself to effete postmodern irony (superficial, celebrity-worshipping, inauthentic, gossipy/bitchy, trivia-obsessed). In pop terms, that polarity (culture-warriors versus fops, basically) would translate to something like Young Gods versus Pet Shop Boys, or more up to dately, Gabba-Garridge versus Electroclash. I suppose the crucial if subtle distinction here is that a sensibility that was dissident in its original gay context (after all, didn't camp, with its acutely heightened sense of irony and awareness of the performative, constructed nature of sexual-social roles, historically originate as a survival strategy in gay culture? Susan Sontag, are you out there? drop us a line, love, willya?) takes on a different aspect when embraced by the hetero mainstream. So, er, that must mean it's alright to think Graham Norton a silly and vaguely pernicious twat then, right?