Saturday, October 13, 2007

It's hardly news that there's a big buzz building across the blogosphere about the mixtape by London-based MC/producer DMZ. Credited to DMZ versus DJ Stepinac, This Ain’t Rock’n’Roll, It's… mix'n'mashes DMZ’s own tunes with
underground anthems from across Europe’s post-gabba underground. If there's a dominant flavour to the mix, it's jumpstyle, the new-ish genre that's gotten hipsters chattering excitedly these last few months. Originally from the Flemish north of Belgium, jumpstyle is starting to establish footholds across Northern Europe. Associated with working class teenagers from the poorer districts of Antwerp and Leuven, jumpstyle has developed its own look, slang, and most crucially, dancing (imagine speedfreaks Morris Dancing on a freshly buttered sidewalk). Jumpstyle's stompy vibe is plastered all over DMZ’s first single “Proud and Loud,” a lo-budget self-directed affair which has already chalked up over half a million views on YouTube.

DMZ's own tracks, many co-produced with Stepinac, offer a rampaging, rude'n'rowdy blend of gabber, happybass, bouncy Scots rave, and turbofolk. Most of the tunes on This Ain't Rock'n'Roll, It's... blur the line between sampladelia and mash-up, pivoting around chunky samples heisted from all across the music spectrum: Cockney Rejects’ “Flares and Slippers” (on “NeedaBass”), Albion Dance Band’s “Hopping Down In Kent” (on “Flying Feet”), Marshall Masters’ “I Like It Loud” (on “Proud and Loud” ), The Skids’s “Into the Valley” (on “Euro Trashed”), and Dropkick Murphys’s "The Legend of Finn MacCumhail" (on “Walking In Antwerp”).

Just twenty years old, DMZ’s real name is Dragomir Žerjavic. He arrived in London as an eight year old in 1995 with his father and three sisters, refugees from Operacija Oluja (Operation Storm), the Croatian army’s onslaught against the Serbian rebel minority in Croatia, during which 200 thousand Croation Serbs were driven out of a region ostensibly under UN protection. As asylum seekers the Žerjavic family were initially housed in the notorious Clichy Estate in Tower Hamlets, but eventually settled permanently in Kilburn. The whereabouts of Žerjavic’s mother are unknown: tragically, DMZ hasn’t seen her since his seventh birthday party. But she is very much present in spirit on the debut album due out early next year on Black Hand, an imprint launched as part of a deal with Perfecto. Black Hand will cater for DMZ and DJ Stepinac's’s joint and separate projects plus acts they sign (the first is set to be a MC collective from Zagreb called Alkan Warriors.

First up though is DMZ's proper debut album. Titled Fur Ilija Garašanin after his mother's maiden name, the album is already stirring controversy owing to its apparent homage to his mother, the commander of a paramilitary squadron implicated in various incidents of ethnic cleansing,
most notoriously the expulsion of 78,000 ethnic Croatians from Krajina, which in turn provoked the retaliation of Operation Storm. Some believe that she's in hiding, having changed her identity and quite possibly surgically altered her appearance, living in fear of being hunted down for war crime prosecution or even assassination by Croat secret police. Challenged by interviewers, DMZ has refused to condemn his mother outright, saying only that she was "misguided" and that the Croatian Serb cause was "misunderstood".

The DMZ hype ball got rolling when respected music writer Anton Hatton-Smooker II, resident pop critic at the National Review, heralded DMZ’s music as "an authentic example of modern day volk music, imbued with the true and abiding values of fraternalism and shared destinty". Soon, music blogs and message boards were all twittering with excitement about the MC’s feisty flow, ruffneck beats and politicized lyrics.

Inevitably, there's been nay-sayers too. Skeptics have pointed out that the hybrid nature of DMZ's sound (which smash-and-grabs elements as far afield as polka, North African Rai and even--on one song--bhangra) actually undermines its volkist credentials, and that any rate his sound owes far more to the Nordic gabber continuum than his own East European roots. There have been murmurings that the whole thing is an art project in the tradition of Laibach. Venerable rock critic Robyn Crisco accused DMZ of jumping on the Balkan dance music bandwagon, as represented by outfits like Gogol Bordello, that she’s championed over the last few years: “Don’t let the hard-to-pronounce Slavic nomenclature throw you off, DMZ has no more connection to Balkan beat than Timbaland does”.

DMZ's credibility has also been undermined by accusations of fad hopping (in the early Noughties he was a minor player on the broken beats scene, MC-ing on tracks by Bugz in the Attic, I.G. Culture and 4 Hero) and by the involvement in the early days of his career of faded Britpop star Crispian Mills of Kula Shaker. Žerjavic even lived in the summer house at the bottom of Mills’s garden for a couple of years. The association has continued with Kula bassist Alonza Bevan’s co-production of “They Walked In Line”, one of the standout tracks on Fur Ilija Garašanin. (Other producers involved on the debut include Scott Brown, Oliver Chesler and, naturally, Stepinac).

DMZ shrugs off the sniggering aspersions and the more considered critiques alike, arguing that he’s not so much a pure volkist as someone looking to expand the pan-Slavic principle to all of humanity. “It’s like I put it on 'Marchin' into Gladness': 'every people need a homeland, a place to call their own'. As far as I'm concerned, we’re all Slavs under the skin."

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