Wednesday, December 8, 2021

RIP Greg Tate (Flyboy in the Buttermilk review, 1992)


Flyboy In The Buttermilk: Essays On Contemporary America

The Wire, spring 1992

by Simon Reynolds

One of the most intriguing phenomena in recent years has been the rise of the "postmodern Black". From hardcore punk rastas Bad Brains, through the Kraftwerk influenced Afrika Bambatta and Derrick May, to rap's strange infatuation with heavy metal (Motley Crue-fan Ice T's Body Count) it's become apparent that racial tourism is no longer just a one-way traffic, with whites spoiling the black scene(ry). As a staff writer for Village Voice, Greg Tate has spent the last decade formulating a critical language to deal with this anything's-up-for-grabs state of play. (He's also been a co-founder of the Black Rock Coalition, which really got the crosstown traffic goin' on).

Tate's writing is produced out of interesting tensions: between his academic/radical background and his yen to be down with street culture, between his gung-ho fervour for African-American art and his fondness for some white artefacts (his fave LPs of last year included My Bloody Valentine, Nirvana, and bizarrely, Van Halen!). The most crucial, productive tension comes from his desire to build a bridge between Black cultural nationalism and post-structuralism; Tate wants his criticism to be proud-and-loud, but not to succumb to any fixed notions about what constitutes "authentic" Black culture. This is probably why Miles Davis is such a totem for him, Miles being the example par excellence of the Black artist who could incorporate white arthouse ideas and riffs (Stockhausen, Buckmaster) into his groove thang, and make them bad to the bone. Miles is the paradigm of the Black innovator (see also: Hendrix, Sly Stone, George Clinton, Jean-Michel Basquiat) who fused the superbad Stagolee tradition with an intellectual sophistication that white high culture couldn't deny. Their threat lies in being 'neither one thing nor the other': they're neither naively, instinctively passionate (the trad, racist idea about Black creativity) nor do they conform to the arid, restrained proprieties of white highbrow culture. Tate sees "signifyin'" -the ability to disguise meaning, to appropriate and remotivate elements from hegemonic culture - as a survival skill intrinsic to the Black American tradition.

Tate inscribes this "neither/nor" factor in a style that mixes in-your-face Blackness with po-mo riffs. Sometimes the onslaught of 'muhfukhuh's and 'doohickeys' can be a little alienating (possibly the point!). The idea is probably similar to the old Lester Bangs/Richard Meltzer notion of rock'n'roll writing that throbs like the music. Tate wants to write with the swank of a Bootsy bassline, and more often than not succeeds. Some of his neologisms are inspired: I particularly like "furthermucker", an inversion which manages to combine the swaggering Stagolee persona and the far-out cosmonaut of inner/outer space tradition, thus becoming the perfect term for Miles, P-Funk, et al.

A hefty portion of Flyboy In The Buttermilk consists of stimulating essays on Black culture--theorists like Henry Louis Gates, writers and artists like Samuel Delany and Basquiat. There's even some pieces on the occasional, honorary Caucasian, like novelist Don de Dillo, who's acclaimed for documenting the paranoiac death throes of white American culture. But for Wire-readers, the most interesting essays are about music. In some of his earlier pieces, Tate has yet to shed reified notions about musical "Blackness". In the 1982 piece on Clinton's Computer Games, he's flummoxed (as an unabashed Santana fan well might be) by the phenomenon of Black kids turning onto electro's "Monochrome Drone Brainwash Syndrome beat". At this point, he seems to share Chuck D's view of disco as soul-less, "anti-Black" shit. This notion of Black music as hot, sweat, funky and frictional, is uncomfortably close to the white stereotype, and it's a fix that Black youth have being evading throughout the Eighties. I wonder what Tate thinks of acid house or Detroit techno?

Elsewhere, though, Tate acknowledges that Bad Brains were most authentic and innovative when playing ultra-Caucasian hardcore thrash, but totally jive when they tried to play roots reggae. And in his piece on the Black British but not "Black" sounding A.R. Kane, he acclaims their radically polymorphous swoon-rock for opening up the possibility for a Black avant-pop that isn't "in the pocket" but out-of-body. 

The Kane boys acknowledged only one influence, Miles Davis, who coincindentally is the subject of Tate's best two essays, "The Electric Miles", and the elegy "Silence, Exile and Cunning". The former is the best piece on Miles' most feverishly creative, least understood phase I've yet encountered, with Tate anticipating the now emergent critical doxa that the late Sixties to mid-Seventies albums constitute the alpha and omega of furthermucker music, pre-empting Can, Eno/Byrne/Hassell, Metal Box, even dub and late Eighties freak-rock. Miles and his floating pool of players explored "a zone of musical creation as topsy-turvy as the world of subatomic physics". Tate's metaphors are vivid and precise: "He Loves Him Madly" is an "aural sarcophagus", Dark Magus sees Miles "scribbling blurbs of feline, funky sound which under scrutiny take on graphic shapes as wild and willed as New York subway graffiti". To say that he's mapped only the surface of Miles' planet, not probed the demonic, unclassifiable emotions that seethe at its volcanic core, is no diss to Tate, only a tribute to the inexhaustible nature of the music, of how far we still have to go (there will always be "further" when it comes to Miles).

An excellent book.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

A Guy Called Gerald



Melody Maker, March 25 1995

by Simon Reynolds

     In many ways, Gerald Simpson has the absolutely stereotypical profile of  your average art-core junglist.  Steeped in early '70s jazz-rock (Herbie Hancock,  Chick Corea, etc), Gerald flipped for electro (Afrika Bambatta, Mantronix), then tripped out to acid house and Detroit techno. 

  His first creative efforts were in the Hit Squad, a Manchester hip hop collective from whose cadres 808 State coalesced. Gerald was briefly a member of 808 (who, non-coincidentally, were also fusion freaks), and actually co-wrote their biggest hit "Pacific State".  By then, Gerald had his own thing going, having scored a Top 20 smash with "Voodoo Ray".  This slinky aciiied-samba reappears in drastically remodelled form as "Voodoo Rage", on Gerald's brand new, unspeakably brilliant album "Black Secret Technology". It turns out that the song was always meant to be called "Voodoo Rage", but Gerald didn't have enough memory in his sampler and had to chop the "g" off!

 After "Voodoo", the logical thing for Gerald would have been to follow all the other Detroit buffs up the funkless cul de sac of 'electronic listening music'. Instead, after a frustrating period signed to major label Sony, Gerald discovered the glory of the breakbeat.  Originated by James Brown and the Meters,  sampled by hip hop producers, breakbeats are what enabled a generation of post-rave producers to move beyond the 4/4 monotony of house, into the multi-tiered, hyper-syncopated rhythmic psychedelia of drum & bass.

     "Originally I was into drum machines, I used to hate breaks. But then I discovered that with a sampler you don't just have to take a break and loop it, you can chop it up into segments, recombine it, enchance and stretch the sounds.  Basically you can turn a couple of hits into a whole drum solo!"

     Metalheads' Goldie had contacted Gerald, dragged him down from Manchester to Rage, London's legendary 1991/92 ardkore club. Gerald realised that hardcore was an emergent subculture that was totally British, and he wanted in.

    "The whole vibe was totally different to what was going on in Chicago.  I realised there was no point in me trying to sound like American house.  Jungle was also like touching ground with my own personal roots, 'cos my parents are from the West Indies.  For me it was like 'I'm still a real person, I've not been castrated by Sony'. Cos they'd wanted me to make Hi-NRG style music."

     Gerald's first efforts were ragga-influenced tracks like "28 Gun Bad Boy", but gradually he evolved towards the art-core end of things. In early '95, the term 'jungle' has already been outmoded by the music's onward and outward diffusion. That familiar matrix of influences, fusion/electro/Detroit, is pushing 'jungle' in all manner of astonishing directions--the cyber-jazz strangeness of Photek and Alec Reese, the hyper-soul 'hardstep' of Hidden Agenda, the lambent aqua-funk serenity of LTJ Bukem and his cronies.  On "Black Secret Technology" Gerald dabbles and daubs in all these different shades of the state-of-artcore spectrum. But his stuff is still too weird to get played at Speed, Bukem's Thursday Night salon for the drum & bass scene's inner circle of cognoscenti.

               *                   *                   *

The critic Andrew Ross recently asked where (given US rap's current reliance on '70s funk, its old skool nostalgia) had hip hop's "rage for the future" gone? The answer is: Blighty, where phuturism is alive 'n' KICKIN'.  From Tricky to Goldie, from Earthling to Droppin' Science, Britain's first generation of B-boys have come of age. And the striking difference about trip hop and art-core jungle vis-a-vis US rap, is that race is not the crucial determinant of belonging. Instead, what unites da massive is a shared attitude towards technology, an impatience to reach the future (hence Omni Trio's "Living For The Future", Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse "We Are The Future", Red One's "The Futurist", ad infinitum).

     From the orgasmatronic rapture of "Energy" to the cyborg paranoia of "Gloktrak", Gerald's new LP is virtually an essay (non-verbal, bar the odd sample) about the bliss and the danger of techno-fetishism. The title, "Black Secret Technology", expresses this ambivalence perfectly.  Gerald heard the phrase on a TV talk-show about government mind-control via the media, where some kind of witch-woman used the word 'black' to denote  malign sorcery.  But Gerald detourned the word to evoke the science-fiction fantasies of black pop's maverick tradition--Sun Ra as Saturn-born ambassador for the Omniverse, Hendrix landing his kinky machine, George Clinton's Mothership taking the Afronauts to a lost homeland on the other side of the galaxy, Afrika Bambatta's fetish for Kraftwerk and Nubian science, Juan Atkins and Derrick May's cybertronic mindscapes.

     At this fraught fin de millenium moment, technology appears both as instrument of domination and of resistance; machines can both castrate and superhumanize you.  Gerald belongs to a subculture based around abusing technology (jungle's all about doing things with machines unintended by the manufacturer) rather than being abused by it.  And it all goes back to his childhood.

    "I got a tank for Christmas and it played a tune, and I just had to know how it worked. I took a knife but I couldn't get these mad screws to open. So I heated the knife on the oven and sliced through the plastic, and ripped the tape recorder out. I just had to know!"

     Gerald still has that small boy's confidence about technology. As with a lot of post-rave producers, there's something vaguely auto-erotic verging on autistic to his techno-fetishism. When I ask him if he ever feels like a cyborg, in so far as his machines are extensions of his body that give him superhuman powers, he frankly admits that working in his studio, "it's like your own world and you become like the god."

     Like a lot of art-core producers, Gerald's eager to extend his dominion from the aural to the visual; he's hungry for the new frontier of virtual reality.  He dreams of a machine that "could convert sound into visuals.  You'd feed a sound in and the computer would turn it into an image on a screen.  Then you'd manipulate that vision and turn it back into sound. There's still scope for new things using sound. But hooking into the visual would make it even more interesting.  Epecially for kids nowadays, who're into computer games."

     On the album, "Cybergen" is all about an "imaginary drug that's basically virtual reality. The vocal goes 'it takes you up, down, anywhere you want to go.'. It's a drug where you're in total control of the experience: if you wanted a steel globe floating about, then going purple, you'd have it. Then the vocal says 'it's too late to turn back now', and that's making the point that it's no use saying we can't cope with this technology, that it's going to ruin society. Cos the technology's already here.  You either cope with it or you're lost. Kids today are already totally hooked into it. Kids today are frightening! I grew up with records, and now I know how to manipulate records.  When today's kids grow up, they'll know how to manipulate the visual side of it."

     So do you think people will lose interest in music?

    "Yeah, sound will just become a small part of it.  I can't imagine a kid today just sitting down and listening to an album. It's progression, innit?"

     Feeling like a fogey, I quibble: isn't part of music's magic the way it makes you come up with your own mind's eye imagery?  Gerald's chirpy response is that with CD-ROM you'll soon have the power to create your own graphics.  But, I counter feebly, who actually has the energy for all this inter-active self-expression?

       "Not people who grew up in our era. But kids today, given ten years, they'll be on it."

     People from 'our era', even those who are getting on-line, feel a deep anxiety about the digital revolution. The sense of being outstripped by technology's exponential development has even penetrated the subconscious: once, schizophrenics imagined loss-of-control in terms of demons and incubi, now they rant about microchips implanted behind their eyes or satellites irradiating them with a brainwashing beam.  But Gerald is gung-ho about technology's empowering potential. He takes a boyish delight in the sheer "deviousness" of the ever-escalating, techno-mediated struggle between Control and Anarchy.

   "There always ways around it. Say if someone was scanning into this room with a directional microphone and listening to us, we could scan them back and find out their exact location.  Your phone can be bugged, but you can get devices that scramble the signal.  When we were at school, we used to fiddle fruit machines.  They always came back with some new trick to stop us, but we always got round it. We'd find ways to get credits on space invaders' machines. It was like, ghetto technology!"




Juice Box JB2 

by Simon Reynolds

    Technology promises "total control".  But there's a deadly ambiguity here: who's the controller, who's controlled?  Technology serves the secret agendas of corporations and government agencies as easily as it empowers individuals and facilitates resistance. When it comes to state-of-art gadgetry, we're all potentially in the position of Gene Hackman's surveillance expert in 'The Conversation', who ends up f***ed over by the very machinery at which he's a virtuoso.

    Jungle--the most relentlessly digitalized music on the planet--grasps the double-edged sword of technology with both hands.  Jungle oscillates between auto-erotic fantasies of man-machine omnipotence and paranoid anxiety about the invasive, manipulating capacity of technology.   In the junglist imagination, technology figures as both orgasmatron (a pleasuredome of artifically-induced sensations) and Panopticon (the  terrordome in which every individual is constantly under Authority's punitive gaze).

     With "Black Secret Technology", Gerald Simpson puts an Afro-futurist spin to this technophile/technophobe ambivalence.  The title aligns Gerald with the black science fiction tradition that runs from Sun Ra, P.Funk and Lee Perry, through Afrika Bambatta and Derrick May, to Goldie and Jeff Mills. Gerald's music actually sounds like a virtual jungle, a datascape environment that's sensorily intoxicating yet teeming with threat. Breakbeats coil and writhe like serpents, samples morph and dematerialise like fever-dream hallucinations, itchy'n'scratchy blips of texture/rhythm dart and hover like dragonflies.  This could be heaven, this could be hell... Either way, this jungle is a terrain where the natives, the tech-savvy, have the advantage.

     "Black Secret Technology" divides up into fairly distinct utopian/dystopian sides. First comes sheer bliss: the mellow jazz-goo of "Darker Than I Should Be", the lover's rock idyll of "Finley's Rainbow (Slow Motion Mix)", the mystic vapors of "The Nile" .  "Energy" hymns neurological overload, oozing druggy textures and ooohing angel-voices over a bassline as stealthy and spring-heeled as a panther.  "Silent Cry" is even better: its music-box chimes, bittersweet vocal pangs and sombre synths instil a mood of piercing poignancy, like Aphex gone jungalistic.

     Then darkness falls. On "Cybergen", the vocal samples are hideously twisted and extruded, like the human soul bent out of shape by the technology-driven pressures of the late 20th Century.   Kicking off with "you're gonna be a bad muthafucker" (sampled from the cyborg-building scene in 'Robocop') and named after a sub-machine gun, "Gloktrak" is Gerald's most brutally disorientating track to date: eerie, almost MBV-like drone-swathes waver and contort over squelchy blocs of Cubist rhythm and a pressure-drop bass-lunge so stomach-jolting it'll have your lunch leaping up to greet the daylight. 

     Finally "Voodoo Rage" jungalizes the aciiied-tribal anthem that first made Gerald famous.  The original's "oooh-ooh- hoo" chant is relocated to a dense thicket of slimy polyrhythms. Juxtaposed with torturously timestretched (literally like a Medieval rack) vocals, the chant's serene 1989 rapture contrasts with the absolutely 1995 tension-and-dread of its new context; it figures as a tantalising echo of the communal release and utopian dreams that rave culture once offered, but that are now long-lost.

     "Black Secret Technology" is all about the danger of bliss and the bliss of danger. Emotionally (narcosis vs. vigilance) and sonically (melting ambience vs. jagged drum & bass), Gerald's music embodies the contradictions of the present. It's absolutely NOW, absolutely ESSENTIAL.           


and unreadably small a separate, earlier MM interview with Gerald, I think largely recycling the chat I had with him for The Wire ambient jungle piece of summer '94