Friday, May 10, 2013

THE SKINNY BOYS, interview
Melody Maker, March 28 1987

by Simon Reynolds

There’s an argument in circulation right now that claims the development of the 12-inch single was a more significant pop revolution than punk rock: the 12 inch’s wider grooves allowed for the rise of techniques like mixing and scratching, thus giving birth to hip hop, the sole vanguard of futuristic music left in the Eighties.

Well, this argument is not without polemical merit (unprivileging rock’s sacred cows, rewriting history as ammunition in contemporary struggles, etc) but what strikes me as bogus and itself rockthink is the association of a musical style with moral superiority. Certainly, hip hop/12-inch culture amounts to a revolution in the formal possibilities for music, but if hip hop proves anything, it’s there is no necessary link between musical radicalism and social radicalism, form and content.

Hip hop is an avant-garde wet dream: here is a popular music based around minimalism, dissonance, the supercession of melody and harmony in favour of great slabs and splurges of sound. But it is inadvisable to read into hip hop’s irreverence for musical rules/copyright laws/stylistic integrity, any evidence of resistance to authority.

If the formal irreverence of hip hop is a metaphor for anything, it’s not radicalism, but nihilism. Hip hop’s social consciousness is hardly progressive, rather it’s thoroughly entrenched in American capitalist ideas of self-definition through competition/acquisition/one-upmanship.

And in its more extreme manifestations, the hip hop imagination is drawn to the language of criminamlity--think of Schoolly D, Run DMC’s gangster imagery, Public Enemy (“I’ll show you my gun/My Uzi weighs a ton”). Crime isn’t a subversion of capitalism, but its caricature: an alternative means to the symbols of status used by those for whom conventional channels are blocked by inequality and prejudice.

Criminality is part of hip hop’s fantasy vocabulary because it’s a metaphor of total possibility. In this, hip hop reminds me of nothing so much as punk’s anti-social individualism/”so many ways to get what you want”/anarchist-Antichrist attitude. What’s happened is that hip hop’s psychic extremism has found a perfect expression for itself in avant-garde assault--a mindfuck of a marriage.

All this suggest that hip hop’s “radicalism” is, at best, ambiguous, destructive rather than constructive. Just like punk, in fact. What’s also daft is the implication that to celebrate hip hop necessitates a denigration of rock. This kind of thinking in oppositions is itself a punk hangover. It’s especially inappropriate considering that hip hop increasingly has far more in common with punk/heavy metal/the rock avant-garde (aggressive self-projection, the pursuit of bedlam and oblivion, NOISE) than it does with soul (the expression of desire and loss with poise and dignity, yawn).

Just take the Skinny Boys. Their debut album Weightless, released late last year, had cuts heavier and grislier than anything so far thrown up by rock Noisists like Age of Chance, Test Dept, Ciccone Youth. The Skinny Boys are an example of an astonishing co-incidence between hardcore hop hop and hardcore rock--a similarity not just of effect, but of texture too.

The Skinny Boys are mindblowing. Take a hardcore B-boy track like “Rip the Cut”. Far too slow to dance to, based around a single drone-riff that sounds like someone puking up down a deep well, this monstrous snail of idiocy crushes your consciousness like a scrap-metal compressor. The Skinny Boys seem to be striving to produce the same impact on the listener as hardcore groups like Big Black or Black Flag--a state of aphasia or speechless oblivion, not so much beyond dance as beneath it, perhaps equivalent to the hip hop expression “cold getting dumb”. The only possible response to this kind of music is frozen immobility, “chillin’ in the B-boy stance”.

The Skinny Boys quirk out. A track like “Weightless”, with its eerie, disembodied edit of a little girl’s voice, its waddling rhythm, its farty swell of bass, its human beatbox solo (Dadaesque bodymusic), is as surreal and downright hostile to meaning as anything Beefheart or Pere Ubu have produced.

The Skinny Boys kick ass
. “Feed Us the Beat” could be Black Sabbath--a migraine-morose abyss of sound, powered by a drone-riff like a kick in the guts. But whereas Run DMC, LL Cool J and Beastie Boys weld metal guitar onto their sound (the Beasties pilfering the riff from Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf” for “Rhymin’ and Stealin’”) the Skinny Boys do it all with scratch (and various studio techniques they are understandably reluctant to divulge).

Again, the “pleasure” of this music seems to be concussive, bashing your brains out, inducing a state of wigged-out catatonia. It suggests an appealing fantasy: if hop hop continues along this course of development, can it be long before we see long tongues, make-up, chainsaws and flamethrower codpieces, barbiturates, Satanism, becoming de rigeur? The Occult would be a logical destination for a subculture that already inverts values, so that “treacherous”, “ill,” “wicked, “damage” all become good things.

Meeting the Skinny Boys in the flesh brings me down from these delirious heights with a swift and ignominious bump. I came expecting to meet three surly monsters of hip hop rock. I find instead three polite, rather sweet brothers, into wholesome pursuits like bowling and basketball. Super Jay is 19 and the DJ of the group. Jock Box is 17 and their human beatbox. Shockin’ Shaun is 18 and the MC. Accompanying them are cousins Rhonda and Mark Bush, who are a bit older and who produce/write for/manage the Skinny Boys. This is a close-knit, family operation--the little girl on “Weightless” is daughter Chrystal Kiayonda Bush. A nice, thoroughly decent, thoroughly American family, from Bridgeport, Connecticut, just outside New York.

It’s unavoidable, I guess, that white rock critics invariably misrecognise black music, bending it to fit their fantasies and schemes. But talking to the Skinny Boys I sometimes wonder if they actually feel their music differently to me. To me, Skinny Boys music is mad; I place it alongside classics of teenage dementia like The Eyes’ “When the Night Falls” or The Groupies’ “Primitive”, music that makes me feel murderous. But I suspect the Skinny Boys see their music as simple entertainment, part of showbiz. Here are some of the things they tell me:

“It all pays off in the end, if you work hard”

“We want a gold album”

“We try to appeal to everyone. We have commercial cuts. We have hardcore B-boy cuts--we’ve got a “Rip the Cut Part Two” coming up. We’ve got a heavy metal track. We even got a jazz cut on this LP.”

“The Skinny Boys like good clean music, so people of all kinds can enjoy it--little kids, middle-sized kids, grown-ups.”

“We respect all entertainers. But we have favourites--LL Cool J, Run DMC, Whodini, Monkees. Beatles, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Janet… too many people.”

“Hello London!”

“People see rap as a load of violence and stuff, but what we’re saying in our music is that you’ve got to have ‘Unity’. No matter what colour you are, you’re our brother, y’know.”

Maybe I got it all wrong. Or perhaps The Skinny Boys have a perfect grasp of the form of hip hop, and just don’t need to live out the fantasy. But when “Rip the Cut” rends my flesh, when I catch lyrics like--“When I walk on the stage/I’m like the mainman/Hitler” and “I’m like Jaws/the killer shark/I rip the skin off our face”--am I wrong in thinking that something odd is going on here? Isn’t this a strange kind of fun?

1 comment:

james harrison said...

Let's get one thing straight, being the head of the group(superman jay), nobody and I mean nobody ever wrote anything for us...lyrics and beats were all written and produced by superman j, shocking Shaun and jock box, regardless of what credits say and that will go with us to our graves.....we may have been too trusting of family and young and dumb, but as a trio we've always been talented.