Tuesday, April 30, 2013

DE LA SOUL, interview
Melody Maker, May 25th 1991

by Simon Reynolds

De La Soul may not be dead, but positivity smells kinda funny.

When 3 Feet High & Rising came out in 1989, De La Soul were in perfect sync with the favourable signs of the time. They revolutionised rap, replacing its stock emotions of rage, paranoia and hypertension with a new spirit of affirmation and togetherness. Along with Soul II Soul, they popularised the creed of positivity; Deee-Lite were their cartoon lovechild.

But suddenly, in the middle of 1990, Soul II Soul's new decade turned out to be a false new dawn for humankind. Even as Deee-Lite were putting the finishing touches to World Clique, the outlook for peacedelic unity abruptly deteriorated. The Eastern European revolutions merely opened a fresh can of worms (ethnic tensions, the spectre of neo-fascism); Gorby put the brakes on glasnost and the recession kicked in, putting intolerable stress on an already frayed social fabric. To cap it all, there was even a war, the biggest since World War II, with an increasingly grim aftermath of Kurdish agony and ecological woe.

With the global trend toward misery exposing the triteness of positivity's platitudes, there was no way De La Soul could return with a simple reiteration of 3 Feet High, hence De La Soul Is Dead.

Superficially, the new album sounds like no huge departure; there's the same slaphappy-go-lucky beats, goofy rhymes and lazy haze of samples, the same rather wearisome preponderance of skits and spoofs, running jokes and comedic interludes. But something has changed, the cover image (a knocked over flower pot and an uprooted, dead daisy) and the videos (black and white, as opposed to the dayglo Sesame Street hues of yore) symbolically underline a crucial shift in tone. Probe a little deeper beneath the sublime scat-doggerel lyrics and the disarmingly easy-going pace, and you'll find murkier, nastier undercurrents.

‘Please Porridge’ is based around a deceptively jaunty sample of Twenties tap dance music, but its lyric takes pains to point out that just because De La Soul are laid-back doesn't mean they'll let any one walk over them. Posdnuos and Dove warn that if you bug 'em, you'll get sprayed with Black Flag (a pesticide). ‘Bitties In The BK Lounge’ is a sour diatribe against the two-faced attitudes of the starstruck, loosely based on a real-life incident in a burger joint in which a waitress treated De La Soul with disdain, then drooled over them when she realised they were famous.
‘Ring Ring’ is a weary whinge about being pestered by aspiring rappers with demo tapes. The gorgeously r(h)apsodic ‘Pass The Plugs’ turns out, on closer inspection, to be a veritable litany of gripes (about radio, their record company, "pimp promoters", talk show host Arsenio Hall, De La copyists etc ad nauseam). Even the record sleeve's list of acknowledgements include various pointed "Fuck you's" to De La Soul's foes.

Clearly De La Soul have no truck with the idea that fame carries with it an obligation to be gracious about its many aggravations; they resent being public property. Then there's the socially aware songs; the anti-drug parable of ‘My Brother Is A Basehead’, a withering portrait of Posdnuos' sibling who became the "lowest of elements" after getting into "nasal sports"; and the stand-out track ‘Millie Pulled A Pistol On Santa’, another true-to-life tale of child abuse set to a breeding backdrop of agonized blues guitar.

On repeated listens, De La Soul Is Dead emerges as a subdued, sprawling, ‘bleaker’ but altogether more ambitious record than the sunny 3 Feet High. Revealing a hitherto unsuspected capacity for cynicism and petty malice, the new album shatters the group's image as amiable rap clowns and replaces it with something far more complicated and interesting.


Naturally, De La Soul themselves see continuity rather than a drastic break with their past.

"With us, positivity was never about going around with a stupid grin saying, 'Hi, peace y'all, let's all be happy'," says Posdnuos through heavily-congested sinuses. "On the first album we had songs that dealt with social issues. We dealt with drug use on 'Say No Go', but it wasn't that personal, whereas 'My Brother Is A Basehead' deals with drugs from personal experience. The overall vibe of the new LP is not happy go lucky. But it is like 3 Feet High & Rising, in that there's positive elements and there's songs that deal with a negative situation, but trying to strive for a positive solution to it."

Did you find the positivity fad rapidly degenerated into inane platitudes?

Dove: "No, but it did get a little worn down, cos everybody was doing it. A lot of people lost sight of the fact that being positive means being aware of negativity, and trying to resolve it."

Posdnuos: "But there’s not one cut on 3 Feet High where we straight out said 'peace'. The 'hippy hop' thing was always something that the critics invented. ‘Me Myself & I’ was about not being like everybody else, 'Say No Go' was anti-drugs, 'Buddy’ was about being with the one you want to be with. What happened was the critics saw the overall vibe and look of the album and said we was about peace."

‘Please Porridge’ seems to be your rejoinder to the people who mistook your rejection of rap aggression for being weak or soft.

Dove: "That song's just saying that if people want to test us, we're not gonna stand for it. Just cos we spoke about being peaceful and positive, it doesn't mean we're gonna let ourselves be trampled on. We will do whatever it takes to defend ourselves. There have been situations where people tried to test us, and we defended ourselves, and whether it was worse for us or for them, it doesn't really matter."

Were these people gangsta rappers who thought the peacedelic attitude was wimpy?

"It wasn't even rappers, it was just kids of different ages that we met in clubs. They'd come to see our show, so it wasn't to do with music, it was just them wanting to test us as so-called peaceful people."

Then there was the strife on the LL Cool J tour, climaxing in De La being kicked off the tour for perpetrating violence!

"It wasn't trouble for us, it was trouble for them. We aren't people who have feelings and hold them inside. The people on the LL tour just didn't realise we were as open and forthright as we are. They treated us rotten. It was a learning process. You learn, especially if you're the last group on the bill, beneath Slick Rick and LL. We saw the bad side, and we got kicked off, because we stood for what we felt was right."


Various songs on the new album suggest that you feel a certain bitterness about the costs of fame.

Posdnuos: "All we're doing is writing about how we feel at one point. When you function everyday, you think of millions of thoughts each day you exist. But we can't put millions of thoughts and feelings on each piece of wax, because that’s just a record of where you are that day 'Ring Ring' is about how a certain kind of person had been bothering us, at a time when we really couldn't deal with being bothered. People don't realise that we're one group that really tries to be involved in all our business, every aspect of being a group.

"Often we're on our way somewhere to do something real important and people see it as their only opportunity to get to us. Half the time these kids are talking to us and they're so misguided you really need a couple of hours to straighten them out about how to work in the music business. 'Ring Ring' is about being bounded by these people and not having the time."

Dove: "The first album was the mood of us just getting into the business, and this one is about us being in the business. I'm not saying it's the worst thing that we ever experienced in our lives, but…"

What are the positive rewards of fame and success?

Dove: "You get a better life."

Posdnuos: "There are a lot of obligations, but you get a chance to do something positive. You have the options and the tools to do it. We can express what we feel, and people will buy what we're expressing. And the fact that we have influenced other artists is cool."

How closely does ‘My Brother Is A Basehead’ cleave to the truth?

Posdnuos: "Well, my brother is now in rehab, but it's basically a true story. Basehead is slang for someone who freebases or smokes crack. When he was basin', I had strong feelings about it. Some people might have thought it was too personal for them to write about, but I really didn’t care. It helped get it off my chest, plus I thought a lot of people could identify with it and it could help people.
Word by word, it's not following what actually happened, but it's close. It relates how we grew up together and how his downfall began."

Is he not somewhat miffed that you used his tale of woe as material?

"I really don't know – I don't speak to him. I really don't f*** with him too much. Even though he's trying to do better now, he's f***ed up so much in life that I really can't deal with him. He knows I've written the song, but obviously he can't do shit about it."

And what's the story behind ‘Millie Pulled A Pistol On Santa’?

"That's also about a friend of mine who unfortunately was being molested by her father. It turned out that all of us knew a person who was going through that. But this was something so close to me that I wanted to express it on wax. In reality, it didn't go as for as her pulling a pistol on her father. The story is fictional, but the emotions are real."


Overall, it seems like De La Soul’s colours were yellow and orange, but now your palette is all greys and blues and blacks.

Dove: "The new album is much harder in sound and heavier in concept. It's good to do something different. If we had done something exactly the same as 3 Feet High & Rising, we would have watered the whole scene down. Cos a lot of people have been doing the same thing, the same colours, the same style."

Do you worry that people will find the album a bit of a downer?

Posdnuos: "From what I've heard, everyone loves it -- industry people, critics, friends. People who are straight up De La Soul fans will love it, I think, because it's really a much stronger album than the first one. But those people who were just into De La Soul cos 3 Feet High & Rising reminded them of their Woodstock days, might not like it. Those people should listen closely because then they'll realise that it goes a lot further than a lot of rap albums will ever go."


What do you think of the state of rap? It strikes me as scattered and stagnant.

"It's in a real wack state," says Dove. "It's in a stand still. There's nothing new. Like before it was all from the heart, now it's less heart, more business. It’s like, if Salt 'N' Pepa did well, companies look to get another Salt 'N' Pepa. It’s all about dollars now."

My impression is that the rap community is divided into factions (the gangsta/ghetto boys, the righteous prophet-rappers, your peacedelic buddies in the Native Tongue movement, the old school survivors and revivalists) who all see themselves as the way forward.

"We don't see ourselves as a movement," Dove continues. "Native Tongue is just a name for us, The Jungle Brothers, A Tribe Called Quest and some others, but there's no set style. De La Soul do songs where we're preaching, songs where we're changing our characters, songs that a hoodlum or gangsta could relate to, songs that are just about fun. We don't stay in one style. At the moment we like groups like Brand Nubian, Leaders Of The New School, Son of Bazerk, but we don't downfall any rappers. We don't even downfall people like MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice. Everyone’s part of the same rap community."

Doesn't it feel like everyone’s waiting for the next great leap forward?

"Even De La Soul is waiting," Posdnuos says. "We all wonder what the next step is. It could lie in working with live bands. We were involved in this ‘MTV Unplugged' show where LL Cool J and us played with a live band. That was real cool. And we played some instruments on the new album, and we got people in to play some stuff. I think sampling's been taken as far as it can be taken. We're watching and we're waiting, and when the new thing happens we'll see if we can be down with that too."


Like 3 Feet High & Rising, the new album displays what US critic Greg Tate described as De La Soul's "Fear Of No Music" attitude. As well as the usual archive of obscure disco, R & B and jazz-funk records, on De La Soul Is Dead, the group sample from such un-rap sources as Serge Gainsbourg, Frankie Valli, Wayne Fontana, Chicago and The Doors.

Dove: "Our sampling goes to any category of music you can name. There is every kind of music in our house. And it goes beyond music, to sound effects, instruments, toys, sounds that we make with objects."

This time around, you seem to prefer less recognisable samples.

Posdnuos: "That's not to do with the litigation problems that we had, it's more like a reaction against the fad of sampling something that was famous. With rap now, coming up with a real familiar loop isn't important any more. We feel relying on a famous sample overshadows what we do in terms of arrangement."

It sounds like you're using fantastically obscure records (the only one I recognised was the vamp from ‘Touch Me’ by The Doors).

"That delayed the album because a lot of what we sample was so old that it was hard to track down who owned the track, or whether they was even alive! A couple of the people we dealt with were sort of at the senile stage. They didn't even know what rap was!"
GREG TATE, 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 LP's 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 baaaad to the bone. Miles is the paradigm of the black innovator (see also: Hendrix, Sly Stone, George Clinton, the artist 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 ideas 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 coincintally 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 only mapped the surface of Miles' planet, not probed the demonic, unclassifiable emotions that seethe at its 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 alway be "further" when it comes to Miles).

An excellent book.
Melody Maker, January 30th 1993

By Simon Reynolds

Alternative rockers from the Chili Peppers to Sonic
Youth rallied eagerly to MTV's "Rock The Vote" crusade:
underneath the urgency with which they exhorted kids to
register, you could clearly read the message "VOTE CLINTON".
But rappers were conspicuous by their abstention. Ice T
couldn't be bothered to express a preference between the
candidates, while post-election, an underwhelmed Ice Cube
declared that now he was looking forward to getting "Clinton
out of the White House."

You could hardly blame the hip hop community for feeling
uninvolved. Clinton went out of his way to placate white
fears, with his strategic masterstroke of dissing Sister
Souljah, his cold shouldering of black leaders like Jesse
Jackson, and his often-aired plan to put 100,000 more cops on
the streets. Of course, you could hardly blame Clinton for
doing what he had to do to lure the Reagan Democrats (the
white, worried middle class) back into the fold. This was
politics as usual, and a lot of Black Americans gritted their
teeth and accepted it.

What was truly unnerving and despicable was the deafening
silence maintained by all the candidates concerning the LA
riots. In the Middle Ages, popular revolt functioned as a
form of petition. Rioters knew that the uprising would be
quelled, but they also knew the King would pay attention and
make an effort to alleviate their woes. But the LA riots
failed to elicit such a response from the political classes,
bar some woffle about creating 'enterprise zones' to
encourage business to move into the destitute inner cities.

So what do you do if you're black, from the ghetto, and
the most virulent and visible explosion of your pain and fury
has been swept under the carpet? The rap equivalent of
rioting is songs like Ice T's "Cop Killer" and Paris' "Bush
Killa": unconstructive, if perfectly justifiable, expressions
of rage, symbolic and ultimately sterile. These songs remind
me of Morrissey's petulant fantasy "Margaret On The
Guillotine", written at Thatcherism's zenith, when it seemed
the "good folk" were outnumbered by the loadsamoney majority.
The problem with the "killa" songs is that rage is vented
in the instantly gratifying fantasy of revenge, rather than
channelled into politics (which takes a lot longer to get

In the pilot issue of Vibe, a new rap culture
mag, Greg Tate agonises over whether hardcore rap is just a
"momentary containment of [black anger] or worse, an
entertaining displacement?" For Tate, rap's problem is that
it's "agenda-less. It reacts better than it proposes."
Despite hip hop's astonishing cultural victory (its
permeation of US society from advertising to fashion), it's
yet to prove itself as "a harbinger of the black revolution".

In truth, hip hop is going through a bit of a
slack, directionless phase, and its problems are aesthetic as
much as political. Public Enemy's music has gotten mighty
tired: maybe Chuck D's recent pilgrimage to Africa will
rejuvenate, although the black Clash might end up recording a
Sandinista style turkey. The only sonic innovators around
are Cypress Hill, with their Hispanic-flavored, 'blunted'
vibe (a blunt is a special kind of joint), and Arrested
Development, who were last year's De La Soul, i.e.
bourgeois-turned-bohemian art-rap. And the only really
magnetic characters are Treach from Naughty by Nature and Ice
Cube, whose charisma and intelligence sustains their solid
but unimaginative music. The rest of rap is awful samey,
from butt-fixated crossovers like Mixalot's "Baby's Got Back"
and WrecksN'Effect's "Rump Shaker", to the underground's
unremarkable variations on the same old gangsta/B-boy themes.

Apart from the braggart bitch-dissing, hardcore rap's
main message is it's own refusal to cross over. This
fretting over "authenticity", which is partly an anxiety to
keep whites (as consumers and performers) out, has had a
inhibiting effect on the music. The retreat to old school
purism means every record revolves around the same formula: a
mid-pace funky beat, "phat" bassline, and looped samples
(usually jazzy horn-squawks or Hammond ripples). The
"authenticity" school of thought is articulated by the rap
magazine The Source (its name connotes roots, heritage). If
only the highbrow detachment of Vibe* could be combined with
the fanzine-like street-level patriotism of The Source, then
hip hop would have a magazine that could set challenges for
the music rather than follow in its wake. Rap sorely needs
such an injection of impetus.

* no really that's what Vibe was like in those days! Greg Tate was a regular contributor and not that out of step with/further out than the rest of the contents.
GRIME: A Primer
director's cut, The Wire, April 2005

by Simon Reynolds

Grime emerged from London’s pirate radio underground. Its immediate precursor was 2step (a/k/a UK garage), which at the turn of the millennium broke into the UK pop mainstream in a massive way. 2step had been shaped by the “feminine pressure” for singalong melodies and wind-your-waist grooviness. Grime arose as a backlash against this crossover sound, a violent swing in the scene’s inner gender-pendulum from yin to yang. Out went 2step’s high-pitched diva vocals, sensual swing, and sexed-up amorousness; in came gruff rapping, stiff electro-influenced beats, and raucous aggression.

MCs have been part of the pirate radio tradition for at least fifteen years, going back through garage and jungle to the early days of hardcore rave. By the end of the Nineties, however, the MCs were moving beyond their customary restricted role as party “hosts” and sidekicks to the DJ. Instead of gimmicky vocal licks and praise-the-selector exhortations, they began to rap actual verses: initially, extended takes on traditional boasts about their own mic’ skills, but soon getting into narrative, complicated metaphors and rhyme schemes, vicious dissing of rivals, and even introspective soliloquies. The MC’s rise swiftly eclipsed the DJ, hitherto the most prominent figure on rave flyers or the main designated artist on record releases. 2001 was the turning point, when MCs shunted selectors out of the spotlight. So Solid Crew broke into the pop charts, and the underground seethed with similar collectives modeled on the clan/dynasty structures that prevail in American hip hop and Jamaican dancehall.

Emerging from the transitional sound known as “garage rap,” grime really defined itself as a distinct genre when the first tracks appeared that were designed purely as “MC tools”--riddims for rappers to ride. These grimestrumentals were largely sourced in the electro diaspora-- post-“Sleng Teng” ragga, Miami bass, New Orleans bounce, Dirty South crunk, and “street rap” producers like Swizz Beats. Like these genres, grime doesn’t go in much for sampling but prefers synths, typically with cheap ’n’ nasty timbres that vaguely evoke the Eighties and often seem to be influenced by pulp-movie video soundtracks, videogame musik, and even mobile phone ring-tones. But in grime’s textured beats and complex programming you can also hear the imprint of the jungle that most of these late teens/early twenties producers grew up on, alongside folk-memory traces of gabba and techno. Sometimes, listening, you might imagine you can hear uncanny echoes of postpunk-era electro-primitivists such as The Normal, DAF, Cabaret Voltaire, or the calligraphic exquisiteness of Japan, Thomas Leer, and The Residents.

Inherited from the period when 2step ruled the Top 10, but also inspired by enviously watching the living-large of American rap superstars, Grime feels a powerful drive to invade the mainstream and get “paid in full.” Pirate radio, a broadcast medium with a potentially vast audience, encourages this grandiosity. One peculiar byproduct of grime’s ambition is the scene’s craze for DVD releases, like Risky Roadz and Lord of the Mic, containing documentary material with live footage. It’s as if the scene is DIY-ing the sort of TV coverage it feels it deserves but isn’t getting. Yet while some of top MCs are being groomed for stardom by major label-owned boutique labels, the day-to-day reality of grime is grafting to get by in a narrowcast culture. Selling 500 copies of a track is considered a good result. The way Grime operates--small-run vinyl-only pressings and CD-R "mix-tapes", often sold directly to specialist stores--has a surprising amount in common with the micro-cultures familiar in the pages of The Wire *, such as noise, free folk, improv, and extreme metal. Like these genres, grime is what Chris Cutler would call an “engaged” culture, with a high ratio of performers to consumers. These aspiring MCs, DJs and producers have a deeper understanding of what constitutes skill and innovation in their scene. Grime even has an improv element with its freestyles and MC battles. There’s a glorious ephemerality to the way MCs riff off-the-cuff lyrics during pirate sessions, although fans have always tape-recorded the shows and some are now getting archived on the web.

Unlike those globally dispersed micro-cultures, Grime is geographically concentrated. It’s popular across London and has outposts in other multiracial UK cities, but its absolute heartland consists of a few square miles in that part of East London not served by the Tube. In truth, it’s a parochial scene, obsessed with a sense of place, riven by internecine conflicts and territorial rivalries (the intense competitiveness being one reason grime’s so creative). Still, despite this insularity, Grime has never been easier for “outsiders” to investigate, thanks to 1xtra (the BBC’s digital radio station for UK “urban” music, http://www.bbc.co.uk/1xtra/garage/; check especially the weekly shows by Cameo and Richie Vibe Vee), the trend for pirates like Rinse FM to go online as well broadcast terrestrially, mail-order via companies like Rhythm Division (http://www.rhythmdivision.co.uk/home.asp) and Independance (http://www.independance-records.co.uk/ug.htm), and the swarm of blogs covering the scene.

(SO SOLID 1999)
(EAST WEST 2000)

So Solid are famous as the first MC crew to crossover big-time--they hit #1 with “21 Seconds”--and infamous for their frequent brushes with the law. In grime terms, though, their single most influential track is this instrumental, which replaced 2step’s sultry swing with an electro-derived coldness and rigour. This new starkness was a timely move given that 2step had reached the inevitable “over-ripe” phase that afflicts all dance genres, its beats becoming cluttered and fussy. With its hard-angled drum machine snares and single-note sustained bassdrone veering upward in pitch, “Dilemma” rediscovered the Kraftwerk principle: inflexibility can sometimes be more funky than suppleness. So solid, indeed: “Dilemma” is like a huge block of ice in the middle of the dancefloor, a real vibe-chiller.

So Solid affiliates DJ Oxide and MC Neutrino also scored a #1 UK hit
with “Bound 4 Da Reload”. Initially a pirate radio anthem through 1999, “Reload” created a massive rift in the garage scene: older types loathed it, young ‘uns loved it. Today’s grime heads would probably disown their teenage favorite as a mere novelty track. Which it certainly was, from the Casualty TV theme sample to the “can everyone stop getting shot?” soundbite from Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Gimmicks aside, Oxide’s production is heavy, from the ice-stab pizzicato violins (“strings of death,” perhaps, given the track’s allusions to the rising blood-tide of violence on London’s streets) to the doom-boom of sub-bass to the morgue-chilly echo swathing much of the record. Probably equally repellent to 2step fans was the nagging, nasal insistence of Neutrino’s rapping, which is remorselessly unmelodic but horribly catchy. Instantly transforming 2step from “the sound of now” to its current nostalgia-night status as “old skool,” “Reload” has strong claims to being the first Grime tune.


Circulating on dubplate as early as 1999, “Know We” was in constant pirate rotation by the time of its 2001 release, alongside chip-off-the-same-block track “Terrible”. Both are back-to-basics affairs: simple programmed beats, in each case adorned with the solitary hook of a violin flourish, functioning purely as a vehicle for the MCs. Another striking shared characteristic is the use of the first person plural. Each MC bigs up himself when it’s his turn on the mic, but at the chorus individualism is subsumed in a collective thrust for prestige. “Now we’re going on terrible,” promise/threaten Roll Deep, and they don’t mean they’re about to give a weak performance. “Roll deep” itself meaning marauding around town as a mob. But there’s a hint of precariousness to Pay As U Go’s assertions of universal reknown. The sense of grandeur is latent; they’re not stars yet. What does come through loud and clear on both tracks is the hunger. “Terrible” starts with a Puff Daddy soundbite: “sometimes I don’t think you motherfuckers understand where I’m coming from, where I’m trying to get to.” Both the PAUG and Roll Deep tracks were produced by a young prodigy named Wiley, whose catchphrase back then was “they call me William/I’m gonna make a million”. Roll Deep are grime’s NWA (its ranks have included such luminaries as Dizzee Rascal, Riko, Flow Dan, Trim, and Danny Weed), with Wiley as its Dr Dre. If he’s yet to make that first million, this human dynamo must surely have released close to that number of tracks these last four years.

(KRONIK 2001)

The gangsta rap comparison isn’t an idle one. PAUG and Roll Deep pioneered criminal-minded lyrics. Taking them literally isn’t always advisable, as the imagery of “slewing” and “merking” is often purely metaphorical, signifying the destruction of rival MCs in verbal combat, the maiming of egos rather than bodies. Still, the genre wasn’t always so relentlessly hostile. Just before the grimy era, “garage rap” outfits like Heartless Crew and Genius Cru exuded playful bonhomie. The follow-up to their #12 pop hit “Boom Selection,” Genius’ “Course Bruv” talks about spreading “nuff love” in the club and stresses that they “still don’t wanna hurt nobody.” The chorus even celebrates the rave-era ritual of sharing your soft drinks with complete strangers, the “course bruv” being Genius’s gracious acquiescence to “can I have a sip of that?” Producer Capone weaves an effervescent merry-go-round groove of chiming bass-melody and giddy looped strings, while the MCs hypnotize with the sheer bubbling fluidity of their chat. The verses are deliberately preposterous playa wish-fulfillment: “Number one breadwinner” Keflon claims he’s “invested in many shares, many many stocks” while Fizzy purports to date “celeb chicks,” “ballerinas” and even have “hot chicks as my household cleaners”.

(GO BEAT 2002)

Pirate radio culture evolves in small increments, month by month. The onset of one genre or sub-flava overlaps with the twilight of its predecessor. There are rarely clean breaks. Still, every so often a track comes along that yells “IT’S THE NEW STYLE!!!!” in your face. “Oi!” was one of them. Drawing on the most anti-pop, street vanguard elements in black music history--ragga’s twitch ‘n’ lurch, electro’s
(f)rigidity, jump-up jungle’s bruising bass-blows --producer Platinum 45 created a most unlikely #7 hit. Factor in the barely-decipherable jabber of More Fire’s Lethal B, Ozzie B, and Neeko, and the result was one of the most abrasively alien Top of the Pops appearances ever. The tune’s pogo-like hard-bounce bass and uncouth Cockney-goes-ragga chants mean that “Oi!” has more in common with Cockney Rejects-style punk than you’d imagine. “Oi!”, then--grime’s biggest hit to date, before the genre even had a name.


Widely regarded at the time as UK garage’s absolute nadir, “Pulse X” is actually a pivotal track: the scene’s first purpose-built MC tool. Locating a new rhythm at the exact intersection of electro and gabba. “Pulse” is virtually unlistenable--those dead-eyed claps, those numbly concussive kicks--on its own. But in combination with a great MC, the skeletal riddim becomes an instant and massive intravenal jolt of pure adrenalin. It’s not just the headbanging energy, though, it’s the track’s very structure that is radical. “Pulse X” was the first 8-bar tune, so-called because the rhythm switches every eight bars, thereby enabling MCs to take turns to drop 16 bars of rhymes using both beat-patterns. Far from being UK garage’s death-rattle, “Pulse X” rescued the scene, rudderless and demoralized after
2step’s pop bubble burst. The sheer phallomorphic rigour of “Pulse X” gave the scene a spine, a forward direction.

(XL 2003)

Circulating as a white label from summer 2002 onwards, “I Luv U” turned London pirate culture around as much as “Pulse X”. Legendarily creating the track in a single afternoon during a school music class, Dizzee took the same sort of sounds Musical Mob used--gabba-like distorted kickdrums, shearing-metal claps--and turned them into actual music. Add a teenage MC genius desperate to announce himself to the world, and you have grime’s “Anarchy in the UK.” The punk parallel applies because of the harsh Englishness of Dizzee’s vocal timbre and the lovelessness of the lyric, which depicts the pitfalls of the, er, dating game from the p.o.v of too-much-too-young 16 year olds whose hearts have been calloused into premature cynicism. Dizzee’s snotty derision is almost eclipsed by the come-back from female MC Jeannie Jacques, who throws “that girl’s some bitch yunno” back in his face with the equally corrosive “that boy’s some prick yunno.” The original white label featured the “Luv U” instrumental, but tossed away on the XL rerelease’s B-side is the classic “Vexed”: Dizzee’s stressed delivery makes you picture steam coming out of his ears and the music--beats like ice-floes cracking, shrill synth-tingles--renders obsolete the entire previous half-decade of retro-electro in one foul swoop.


Ex-PAUG but at this point still Rolling Deep, Wiley invented a entire mini-genre of low-key, emaciated instrumentals: asymmetrically structured grooves based around sidewinder B-lines that “Slinky downstairs” (as DJ Paul Kennedy put it), and glinting, fragmentary melodies. From his legion of imitators, these tended to be strictly MC-funktional beats, but in Wiley’s case, more often than not the tracks are highly listenable stand-alone aesthetic objects even without rhyming. The first in an ongoing series of ice-themed tunes (“Igloo”, “Frostbite,” “Snowkat”, et al). “Eskimo” was the blueprint for this dinky-yet-creepy micro-genre (which Wiley dubbed “Eskibeat”). “Ice Rink” took the concept of MC tool to the next level. Instead of just being sold as an instrumental for MCs to use, it was released in some eight versions featuring different MCS. Spread across two 12 inches, ‘Ice Rink” constituted a de facto riddim album. Dizzee’s turn is the stand-out, his scrawny voice oozing the impudence of someone at the top of his game, as he invites all haters to plant their lips upon his posterior: “kiss from the left to the right/kiss ‘til my black bum-cheeks turn white”. Wiley’s palsy of gated doorslam kicks and mercury-splash blips jostles with Dizzee for your attention.

(HOT SOUND 2003)
(HOT SOUND 2003)

2003 saw a slew of 8-bar instrumentals suffused with cod-Oriental exoticism. As incongruous as a pagoda plopped smack dab in the centre of Bow, “Weed Man” is the supreme example of “sinogrime,” Hyperdub webzine’s term for this micro-genre. Produced by Nasty Crew’s Jammer, the track is dedicated to “all the marijuana smokers” and appropriately the tempo is torpid to a trip hop-like degree. The loping, sprained rhythm flashes back to Sylvian-Sakomoto’s “Bamboo Music” while the ceremonial bassline and breathy flute conjure mind’s eye imagery of Zen gardens and temples. But where Wiley’s similar excursions Eastwards were fueled by record-buying trips to Sterns, Jammer mostly likely derived his notion of Oriental mystery from videogame muzik and martial arts movie soundtracks.

“Birds In the Sky” has a similarly Medieval atmosphere but, apart from the plucky twang of some kind of stringed Far Eastern instrument, is less obviously an ethnological forgery. The solo debut of one of grime’s greatest MCs, D Double E, “Birds” has a brooding meditational aura. The lyric pivots around the bizarre trope of a verbal drive-by, the MC firing off word-bullets that are also “like birds in the sky/hit one of your bredren’s in the eye”. Double muses on his motivations--“why?/cos I’m an evil guy”--then emits his signature vocal-licks, the pain-pleasure groan of “oooh-oooh” and the mouth-mangled “it’s me, me”, which sounds more like “mwui-mwui”.

(AIM HIGH 2004)

Former PAUG stalwart and man behind the ace Aim High compilations, Target here creates one of Grime’s most stirringly cinematic epics, placing a heart-tugging orchestral refrain amid a strange decentered drum-track whose flurries of claps and kicks seem to trip over themselves. This groove’s sensation of impeded yet steadfast forward-motion totally fits the lyric’s theme of determination and destiny. In his smoky, patois-tinged baritone, Riko (another PAUG alumnus) counsels calmness and composure to all those struggling, whether they’re aspiring MCs striving to make it or regular folk trying to make it through everyday strife: “Use your head to battle through/cos you are the chosen one.” The synth swells favoured by Ruff Sqwad also have a cinematic grandeur, like gangsta Vangelis. “Lethal Injection”, though, is one of their more minimal efforts, consisting of a wibbly keyboard line, the boom of a heavily echoed kick drum, and the Sqwad’s rapid-fire jabber, swathed in a susurrating shroud of reverb and background chat. Not a tear-jerker like “Chosen One,” but incredibly atmospheric.


Judging by Industry Standard, you could justly describe Terror Danjah as one of the most accomplished electronic musicians currently active. On tracks like “Juggling” and “Sneak Attack,” the intricate syncopation, texturized beats, spatialized production, and “abstracty sounds” (Danjah’s own phrase) makes this “headphone grime”--not something that could be claimed for too many operators on the scene. Yet all this finesse is marshaled in service of a fanatically doomy and monolithic mood, Gothic in the original barbarian invader meaning. The atmosphere of domineering darkness is distilled in Danjah’s audio-logo, a demonic cackle that resembles some jeering, leering cyborg death-dwarf, which appears in all of his productions and remixes. “Creep Crawler,” the first tune on Industry Standard, and its sister track “Frontline (Creepy Crawler Mix),” which kicks off Pay Back, are Danjah’s sound at its most pungently oppressive. “Creep Crawler” begins with the producer smirking aloud (“‘heh-heh, they’re gonna hate me now”), then a bonecrusher beat stomps everything in its path, while ominous horn-blasts pummel in the lower mid-range and synths wince like the onset of migraine. From its opening something-wicked-this-way-comes note-sequence onwards, Big E.D.’s original “Frontline” was hair-raising already. Danjah’s remix of his acolyte’s monstertune essentially merges it with “Creep Crawler,” deploying the same astringent synth-dissonance and trademark bass-blare fanfares (filtered to create a weird sensation of suppressed bombast) but to even more intimidating and shudder-inducing effect.


If you hadn’t already guessed from the name, grime inverts values. Dutty, stinkin’, even disgustin’--all are positive attributes in grime parlance. So when I say “Hard Graft” is utterly dismal, you’ll know this is the thumbs up. Grime often represents itself as gutter music. Mark One and Plasticman go further, or deeper, with this track, and seem to plunge into the sewage system. Full of clanking beats, septic gurglings, eerie echoes and scuttling percussion, “Hard Graft” makes you imagine pipes, storm drains, dank chambers.

Mark One, Plasticman and their cohorts constitute not so much a subgenre of grime as a side-genre, running adjacent to the scene proper. The sound is techy, MC-free, and more danceable than grime. Although a number of black producers are involved, you could fairly describe this style’s sonic coding as whiter than grime, and situate it on a Euro continuum running through Belgian industrial techno (Meng Syndicate, 80 Aum) through the cold technoid end of rave (Nebula II) to No U Turn’s techstep and Photek-style neurofunk (the beats on “Hard Graft” sometimes recall his “Ni Ten Ichi Ryu”). Plasticman’s nomenclative proximity to the Richie Hawtin alias seems telling.

The black component to this genre-without-a-satisfactory-name is dub (indeed its precursor was a UK garage micro-genre known as dubstep). Loefah’s clanking skank connects to a lineage of industrial-but-rootical UK music: On U, bleep’n’bass (Ability II’s “Pressure”, say), The Orb, Techno-Animal. “Bombay Squad” is built around what feels like a half-finished, or partially erased, groove: massive echo-laden snare-cracks, a liquid pitter of tablas situated in a localized corner of the mix, and… that’s it, apart from the dark river of sub-bass that propels the track forward. The title’s intertextual traces include Public Enemy’s producers and 2 Bad Mice’s rave anthem “Bombscare,” but actually allude to the track’s sole coloration, the plaintive ululation of a Bollywood diva.


Wonder works on the cusp between grime proper and the Plasticman/Mark One/Loefah sound. “What” makes something compellingly atmospheric out of the most meagre components: a beat dragging like a wounded leg, sub-bass yawning ominously like a portal into the underworld, a dejected one-finger-melody suggestive of an autistic desultorily toying with a xylophone, occasional dank blips of electronics. Overall, the audio mise-en-scene is something like “twilight falls on the battle-scarred moon.” Also vaguely redolent of The Mover’s gloomy brand of ambient gabba, Wonder’s remix of “Hype! Hype!” replaces the perky original backing track (produced by the great Sticky) with a groan-drone of sick technoise. This
catastrophe-in-slow-mo makes a marvelously incongruous backdrop for the roaring vocal hook chanted by North West London crew SLK.

JAMMER featuring KANO
(HOT SOUND 2003)
WONDER featuring KANO
(NEW ERA 2004)

The backing tracks are fabulous--Jammer’s frenetic snare-roll clatter, Wonder’s tonally harrowed synths, Danjah’s aching ripples of idyllic electronics--but it’s the MC who really shines. With some grime rhymesters, the flow resembles an involuntary discharge (D Double E being the ultimate exponent of MCing as automatic poetry). But even at his most hectic, as on “Boys Love Girls,” Kano always sounds in complete control. All poise and deliberation, Kano invariably sounds like he’s weighing up the angles, calculating his moves, calibrating which outcomes serve his interests. That’s blatant on “Boys” and “What Have You Done”, both cold-hearted takes on modern romance that depict sex in transactional terms, a ledger of positives and minuses, credits and debits; a war of the genders in which keeping your feelings checked and maintaining distance is strategically crucial. But it comes through even in the gorgeous ballad “So Sure,” on which Kano blurs the border between loverman and soldier drawing up plans for conquest: “ain’t got time to be one of them guys just watching you and wasting time/next time I’m clocking you I’m stopping you to make you mine.” As much as the acutely observed lyrical details, it’s the timbre of Kano’s voice that’s enthralling: slick yet grainy, like varnished wood, and knotty with halting cadences that convince you he’s thinking these thoughts aloud for the very first time.


“So Sure” is an example of the burgeoning subgenre R&G, basically a transparent attempt to lure the ladies back onto the floor, after they’d been turned off by the testosterone-heavy vibe of tracks more suitable for moshing than sexy dancing. As the name R&G, short for rhythm-and-grime, suggests, the mini-genre replicates 2step’s original move of copping American R&B’s luxurious arrangements and diva-melisma. Alongside Terror Danjah, Davinche pioneered R&G with tunes like “Leave Me Alone”. Too often these attempts at Brit-Beyonce fall short owing to a lack of grounding in songcraft and the studio art of mic’ing vocalists, and end up sounding slightly thin and shabby. So I prefer Davinche’s instrumental efforts like the Dirty Canvas EP series. The quasi-soundtrack orchestration of “Stinger”--flurrying strings, decaying tones from a softly-struck gong--are designed to swathe any MC who rhymes over it with an aura of slightly-harried majesty. Built out of similar pizzicato elements meshed to a beat like a clockwork contraption gone haywire, “Madness,” I’d wager, drew inspiration from the paranoia zone reached after one toke too many on a spliff: racing thoughts, pounding heart, jangled nerves, the suspicion that you might just be losing your mind.

Grime is synonomous with East London, but other parts of the city are starting to get a look-in. Essentials, Davinche‘s crew, operate out of South. This powerful sense of territoriality is integral to the concept of “Headquarters,” which draws on the talents of a veritable battalion of MCs, some guests and some from Essentials’ own barracks. At each chorus, a drill sergeant barks questions at the MC who’s stepping up for his mic’ turn: “state your name, soldier”, “state your location” (usually “East” or “South,” sometimes a specific postal district), “who you reppin’” (usually a crew, like Essentials, N.A.S.T.Y, Aftershock, but sometimes just “myself”). Then the sergeant orders each recruit to get down and “give me sixteen”--not press-ups, but 16 bars of rhymes. The amazing production seals the conceptual deal, the chorus being accompanied by cello-like instrumentation that’s been digitally contorted into an unearthly wraith-like whinny, or a cyberwolf howling at the moon.


Following a failed mainstream-bid album, More Fire looked all washed up in 2003, but Lethal B rebuilt their street rep from the ground up. In 2004, his “Forward” riddim became the scene’s biggest anthem. Renamed “Pow” on account of its main vocal hook, it ultimately barged its way to the outskirts of the Top Ten, achieving grime’s highest chart placing since… well, “Oi!”. The riddim, produced by Dexplicit, is basic verging on crude, a madly gyrating loop that resembles an out-of-control carousel. “Pow!!!,” Lethal’s chorus chant, evokes the fisticuffs of comic book superheroes. Matching the track’s rowdy vibe (it was reputedly banned in some clubs for inciting mayhem on the floor), a squadron of top MCs lay on the ultraviolence, the cartoon flavor of which can be gleaned from Demon’s immortal warning “you don’t wanna bring some beef/Bring some beef you’ll lose some teeth”.


Like “Pow”, “Destruction” is a rollercoaster of pugilistic noise and lyrical aggro, but Jammer’s production is marginally more sophisticated, slicing ‘n’ dicing brassy fanfares (probably from blacksploitation movies) and filtering them to create a sort of surging-yet-leashed effect, like the track is simmering with pent-up rage. The four scene-leading MCs rise to the occasion, from Wiley’s riffed variations on “I know Trouble but Trouble says he don’t know you,” to Kano’s quaintly Anglicized gangsta boat “from lamp post to lamp post, we run the road”. But the star performance comes from D Double. Seemingly battling multiple speech impediments, he expectorates glottal gouts of raw verbiage. As so often, there’s that characteristic sense of involuntary utterance, like it’s him who’s being spoken through. “Spitting” is too decorous a word for his rhyme style;
retching is closer. Witness Double’s astonishing first six bars on “Destruction”, a gargoyle-like gibber closer to hieroglyphics than language, and seemingly emanating from the same infrahuman zone Iggy plumbed on “Loose” and “TV Eye”.

On Double’s first solo single since “Birds in the Sky”, rising producer P-Jam’s snaking wooze of gaseous malevolence sparks one of the MC’s most Tourettic performances. Barely tethered to the beat’s bar scheme, Double seems to be wading waist-deep through sonic sludge. He boasts of “sucking up MCs like a hoover”, an image possibly cued by the Mentasm-like miasma unloosed by P-Jam.


The sped-up diva on “Str8 Flash” might be a nod to Kanye West’s Chaka-accelerating “Through the Wire” but equally could be a folk-memory flashback to the early Nineties, when rave producers whisked female vocal samples into helium-squeaky hypergasms of spectral bliss. That said, everything else in Lowdeep’s hot riddim testifies to the influence on grime of the last half-decade of rap and R&B. Pizzicato harp-like sounds and stuttering beats create a frozen peak of tense glory. IMP Batch’s “Gype,” the inescapable riddim of early 2005 and the backing track for Crazy Titch’s “Sing Along,” takes grime’s quasi-orchestral ambitions to the next level. Using classical music samples (Prokofiev?), IMP Batch expertly chop up and resequence the refrains--fluttery flutes, cascading strings, a cello ostinato--to form a hilariously prissy yet dynamic groove. This parodic high-culture refinement makes a wonderfully incongruous setting for Crazy’s hoarsely hollered anthem.


Like most producers in most dance genres, grime beat-makers typically invent a striking sound, then wear it out with endless market-milking iterations. Terror Danjah has often approached that dangerzone, but on “Boogieman,” he shows how much scope for inventive arrangement remains in the “Creep Crawler” template. You can hear the cartoon-comical wooh-wooh-woooooh ghostly touches best on the instrumental version, “Haunted” (on Aftershock’s Roadsweeper EP). “Boogieman” itself is a showcase for rising star Trim, here honing his persona of scoffing imperturbality: “I’m not scared of the boogieman/I scare the boogieman.”

On “Not Convinced,” Danjah draughts a whole new template that reveals the producer’s roots in drum’n’bass (the track’s futuristic tingles vaguely recall’s Foul Play “Being With You” remix). Again, though, the MC makes it hard to focus on the riddim. More than anyone apart from not-grime-really Mike Skinner, Bruza incorporates British intonation and idiom into a totally effective style of rapping, in which the not-flow of stilted English cadences becomes a new flow. It sounds “brutal and British,” as Bruza puts it. As his name suggests, the MC has also perfected a hardman persona that feels authentically English rather than a gangsta fantasy based on Compton or Kingston. He exudes a laconic, steely menace redolent of bouncers. “Not Convinced” extrapolates from this not-easily-impressed persona to create a typology of character in which the world is divided into the serious and the silly, the latter lacking the substance and conviction to give their words authority. Bruza addresses, and dresses down, a wannabe MC: “I’m not convinced/Since you’ve been spitting/I haven’t believed one word/Not one inch/Not even a millimeter/To me you sound like a silly speaker/Silly features in your style/You spit silly/You spit like how kids be**.”

(ON HOME SWEET HOME, 679, 2005)

Circling back to “Bound 4 The Reload,” this track celebrates the pirate radio and rave tradition of the DJ rewind, when the crowd hollers (or home-listening audience text-messages) its demand for the selector to wheel and come again. Until grime, the trigger for rewinds would be a killer sampled vocal lick, thrilling bass-drop, or even just a mad breakbeat. Nowadays, the MC being king, the crowd clamors to hear their favourite rhymes. “This is what it means when DJs reload it/That sixteen was mean and he knows it,” explains Kano, before listing the other top dog MCs who get nuff rewinds (two of them, Double and Demon, guest on the track). “I get a reload purely for the flow,” Kano preens, and you can see why as he glides with lethal panache between quick-time rapping and a leisurely, drawn-out gait that seems to drag on the beat to slow it down. The track itself, co-produced by Kano and Diplo, is all shimmery excitement, pivoting around a spangly filtered riff that ascends and descends the same four notes, driven by a funky rampage of live-sounding drums, and punctuated by horn samples, Beni G’s scratching, and orgasmic girl-moans. The old skool breakbeat-like energy suggests an attempt to sell the notion of Grime as British hip hop, yet if Trans-Atlantic crossover is the intent, that’s subverted by the lyric, its theme being as localized and Grime-reflexive as imaginable. “Reload It” encapsulates the conflicted impulses that fuel this scene: undergroundist insularity versus an extrovert hunger to engage with, and conquer, the whole wide world.


* footnote: I quipped to my friends that when I’d pitched this piece to the Wire it was on the grounds that the scene was now unpopular enough to be in the magazine! Joking aside, it was actually, weirdly true. The breakthrough for me was realizing that pirate radio had become a narrowcast medium. Because the potential audience is limitless, there’s always been a grandiosity to the pirates—“this one’s for you, London”—and at key points, that’s been perfectly justified: hardcore was massive nationwide, jungle was the Sound of London in ’94, as was speed garage in 1997, while 2step felt like a form of pop music in exile and sure enough broke through to dominate the mainstream. Grime initially had the air of something that was destined to be pop, and the precedents of So Solid and More Fire and various garage Number One hit wonders like Pied Piper gave it great self-expectations. But just because you’re broadcasting doesn’t mean everyone’s tuning into the signal; most people who chanced upon grime stations probably veered away as quickly as if they’d stumbled on a pirate dedicated to Derek Bailey-style improv. All of sudden, I realized that the grime pirates had become a niche thing, a micro-culture that probably wasn’t that much bigger than the anti-pop vanguards that populated the pages of The Wire.

Then of course, grime did become pop - Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee with Calvin Harris, Wiley's "Wearing My Rolex", etc etc -- but only by getting rid of all the griminess, everything that distinguished it as a genre, a movement, a cause worth championing. I was chuffed for Dizzee - especially with "Bonkers" - got a big buzz seeing him in videos on Euro MTV type channels with Shakira - and a mighty rush when he materialised onstage at the Olympics opening ceremony, doing "Bonkers". But if you'd told me in 2005 that the absolute highpoint of grime-as-grime's popcultural impact would have been "Pow" getting to just outside the Top Ten... 

** for the longest while I heard this as "you spit like Agnes B"!

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Melody Maker, May 30 1992

by Simon Reynolds

Last year, the cult movie in America was Slacker: a low-budget snapshot of the drifting, shiftless, decentred life of the twentysomething hangers-on and burn-outs who inhabit the bohemian fringes of the University of Austin, Texas. The film's 28 year old writer/director, Richard Linklater first became aware of the slacker phenomenon when bumming around college towns in the US. Laterally mobile, slackers have rejected careerism and devoted themselves to "daydreaming as productive activity". Drifting through Austin's summer streets, Linklater's camera bumps into a hundred of these ne'er-do-wells, eavesdropping on their bizarre monologues and debates (usually concerning conspiracy theory, crackpot mysticism, or elaborate validations of their own apathy), and observing their peculiar rites.

Slackers are beatniks without the whooping, joyous get-up-and-go, hippies without the hope, punks without the will-to-power. But "beat" is probably the best parallel, since Kerouac's term meant both exhausted and beatifically blissed-out. Travel was a quest for satori, the sublime moment. But slackers are shagged out before they even step out the door: they experience satori by wandering listlessly through their own neighbourhood, flitting through TV channels in search of absurdity, or trawling the kitschy detritus of dead pop culture.

As well as the movie, there's an amusing book about the poignant plight of twentysomethings who never got on the career ladder (Generation X by Doug Coupland, Abacus), and even an art movement (installations that mostly consist of
random accretions of refuse, kitschy flotsam and personal souvenirs). American slackerdom is very similar to our own (post-Thatcher, somewhat beleagured) "dole culture", not least in that it's where all interesting bands spawn from. One scene in the film takes place in an Austin club, where a band engage in slovenly performance art in front of an audience of six pals. And there's a cameo performance from Theresa ex-Butthole, as a unhinged deadbeat trying to score drug money by flogging what she claims is Madonna's cervical smear specimen (complete with a pubic hair). And of course, the whole slacker sensibility was prefigured years ago in indie rock. Dinosaur Jr, Butthole Surfers, Sonic Youth, all trailblazed the slacker mix of kitsch and mysticism, the fascination with extremists and psychos; Daydream Nation was almost the last word about the lifestyle, unmoored drifting taken to the brink of schizophrenia.

In fact, it was just the beginning. Nirvana are slackerhood gone mainstream (Cobain's narcolepsy is THE slacker disease). Mercury Rev's Yerself Is Steam and Pavement's Slanted and Enchanted are masterpiece crystallisations of the sensibility, reality as viewed thru the off-kilter kaleidoscope eyes of folk who've slipped outside the schedules of productive life. Rev and Pavement both share an uncanny affinity with the Krautrock of Faust, Amon DuuL II and Can: drivelling streams of semi-consciousness, found sounds, haphazard hotch-potched stylistic jump-cuts, deadpan wit confounded by kosmic noise, blissful bafflement. And there's more of this stuff coming thru: look out for Unrest, whose Imperial f.f.r.r. combines oblique, translucent dream-pop with a bizarre gamut of pop kultur obsessions. As American bands cotton onto the "when
you're awake you're still in a dream" vibe of post-Valentine noise (MBV are real hip here, and starting to influence a whole new breed of US bands), slacker rock is going to get even weirder and wired-er.
CYPRESS HILL, Black Sunday
Melody Maker, July 31st 1993

by Simon Reynolds

The first words you hear are "I wanna get high", and the rest of
Black Sunday is riddled with references to blunts and bongs.
Outspoken advocates for the legalization of hemp, Cypress Hill's
'blunted' sound defines hardcore hip hop today. The first time I
heard the term, I assumed 'blunted' had something to with dope taking
the edge off aggression, mellowing macho tensions into stoned, woozy
cameraderie. Actually, it comes from the Phillies Blunt, a cigar
which B-boys hollow out to make enormous joints. But my original
misapprehension actually fits Cypress Hill's fuzzy, muggy sound
perfectly: their laidback songs simmer with a violence just barely
held in check.

It's so right that this LP's release coincides with a record US
heatwave. Cypress Hill capture that humid, heat-hazy unreal feel
where walking the streets is like being inside a bad dream. Cypress'
music blurs the borderlines between psychedelic and psychotic. The
songs sound deceptively jaunty (the samples are all upful slices of
Sixties soul, Meters-style proto-funk, jump-blues, doo-wop), but the
lowest-of-the-low-end bass exudes a baleful, viscous menace. Rappers
B-Real and Sen Dog's nonchalant nursery rhyme delivery only increases
the marrow-chilling quality of the lyrics, a non-stop namedrop of
weapon slang (gats, glocks, AK's, sawn-offs, et al). The cartoon
violence ("coming out blasting like Yosemite Sam") and the jeering
"nya nya nya" playground chorus of "Hand On the Glock" add to the
impression that gangsta-ville is populated with overgrown schoolboys.

Talk about arrested development: Cypress Hill's world is so
retarded it's almost prepubescent. If there's no misogyny here, it's
only cos it's a boy's own world. The only tender line on the album
is "I love you, Mary Jane"--and it's not about a girl. Cypress aren't
as deeply into male-bonding as those other current hardcore rulers,
Onyx (slam-dancing slapheads whose chant is 'let the boys be boys!').
But their world is chastely fixated on two things: stupefaction
("Legalise It", "Hits From The Bong") and paranoia ("Insane In the
Brain", the creepy "Cock The Hammer", where samples shimmer like
spectres in the far corner of your vision).

Cypress Hill's soundscaper DJ Muggs is inspired, but he's a
fundamentalist. Shunning the arty advances of the post-De La Soul
bohemians, he takes rap back to the old school days when "get a
little stupid and pump that bass" was the rallying cry. Despite
their Cuban/Italian-American/Mexican composition, Cypress refer to
themselves as "niggas", in solidarity with the black lumpen-
proletariat. "Real-ness" is gangsta rap's watchword these days.
Ironically, the quest to be harder and realer than the rest has
spiralled out of control, resulting in a grotesque cartoon of ghetto
reality. Cypress' shrill loops of horn or soul-screams (the "kettle's
boiling!" effect invented by the Bomb Squad) make me think of a
'Beano' angry bloke with steam coming out his ears, blowing his lid.

Black Sunday is samey, thematically (it's all about getting
wasted or wasting the other guy) and musically (there are no
departures like the debut's sultry "Latin Lingo"). It's a
consolidation of DJ Muggs' influential sound, not an evolution. The
feeling of continuity is increased by quotes from earlier songs,
while "Hand On The Glock" is a (brilliant) remake of the debut's
"Hand On the Pump". But it's a magnificent, malevolent monotony.
Black Sunday is a chiller-thriller that'll have your blood running
cold even as the thermometer tops 99.
Melody Maker, August 28th 1993

by Simon Reynolds

For a bliss-rocker like myself, the resurrection of agit-pop is a right turn up for the books. And it isn’t actually that easy to explain. Sure, socio-economically, we’re heading further up shit creek every day. But deterioration, immiseration and crisis have been the way of things since… since I was a nipper, actually. And for the last six years, pop culture’s response has been largely escapist (rave, slackerdelia, dreampop). So why--now--the return of agit-pop?

Perhaps people have simply been pushed too far, to the end of their tether. I don’t believe the current wave of agit-rockers has evaded the inherent problems of politics and pop any more successfully than, say, Gang of Four or The Redskins did. But even if they are just “preaching to the converted”, even if their audience are merely consumers of radical meanings, the very fact that consumer demand for “edutainment” has resurged is significant. Feelings of disconnection and impotence are so pervasive that people want to feel less isolated and find it cathartic (in an almost therapeutic way) to see anger and frustration acted out on stage or on record. There’s also a sense in which the apolitical rock that’s ruled the rock for so long has driven itself into a dead; rock culture needs to renew itself, and re-engaging with “reality” is one way to do that.

But, as I say, the contradictions of political rock, of protest in an entertainment context, remain unresolved. What do slogans actually achieve, apart from degrading language, and providing the warm, glowing feeling that comes from having one’s own convictions confirmed? For me, there’s a crucial difference between “political” (all music is political--even Slowdive--in that it involves choices and values) and the overtly “politicized”.

In terms of thought-provocation, I find more “politics” in the turmoil of contradictions of a PJ Harvey or the incoherence of Nirvana than in the plain-speaking, tell-it-like-it-is of Blaggers ITA, Rage Against the Machine, et al. And the utterly non-PC gangsta rap of Cypress Hill or Onyx--rage that offers no solutions or redemptive vision--tells you more about the state of Black America than the didacto-rap of KRS-1 or Hiphoprisy.

Consolidated trailblazed the revival of agit-pop: they grappled with its contradictions with a hyper-aware ferocity that puts the current wave to shame. But, to my mind, they foundered on those contradictions. Their first LP, The Myth of Rock, was totally invigorating, simply because its militancy was so virulently opposed to the dozy, hazy apathy of rock in 1991. The sequel, Friendly Fascism, was a precarious affair, with some blasting tracks but others that were just lectures over a beat. The last album was unlistenable and self-parodic.

The trouble with politicized rock is that the proselytizing impulse almost invariably goes hand-in-hand with a contempt for the aesthetic: music is only a means to an end. Look at Manic Street Preachers, who also trailblazed the resurrection of combat rock. Their desperation to get those supposedly crucial lyrics (actually a turgid, anti-poetic mish-mash of slogans from which I glean nothing--no illumination, no emotional response) into mass consciousness has led them to ape Bon Jovi’s quaint, lite-metal anthems.

As a movement, Riot Grrl has massive resonance and ramifications, but musically it’s had the effect of subordinating the music to the message: hence the staid, tomboy quality of Bikini Kill’s sound. The UK chapter, Huggy Nation, is more ambitious, and at least likes the idea of pushing the sonic envelope, but its doctrinaire rejection of virtuosity cripples that impulse.

So the perennial paradox endures: the most aesthetically adventurous music being made today is just--purely aesthetic, art for art’s, headfuck for headfuck’s sake. Ambient techno, the UK post-MBV fringe (shoegazing’s smarter sister), the US lo-fi bands--all are music that sounds great but “says” nothing. The US post-Pavement bands are a new kind of prog rock or jazz-rock (fission rather than fusion). Truman’s Water may be lo-fi, but their unusual time signatures, schizo-eclectic song structures and gibberish lyrics are pure prog. Most of the interesting music being made today is heading towards the state of the instrumental, all texture and no text.

Ambient dub-techno has already reached that point of pure muso-dom. It’s music as drug (or as adjunct to drug-taking), and its ascendancy shows that many people’s response to a strife-torn intolerable world is to seek asylum. Ambient is psychedelia, warped by Nineties retreatism, a desire to exile oneself from History. Whereas the agit-pop bands want to reconnect rock and history.

There are bands who combine radical form and radical content (although usually they’re more about personal politics), bands like Pram and Moonshake, who have revived the spirit of ’79 (PiL, the Raincoats, Gang of Four). But this avant-rock sector is probably too abstruse to win a mass audience; it doesn’t offer the satisfyingly simplistic, crude catharsis of your Rages. So, for the moment, aesthetic revolution and political radicalism remain uneasy bedfellows.

Perhaps agit-poppers devote so much time to rhetoric that they have none left for raising the aesthetic stakes? And yet agit-pop doesn’t need to sound trad to be populist (remember Public Enemy?). For now, though, we’re still waiting for that dream fusion of challenging form and confrontational content.
contributions to "New Wave of New Wave" issue, Melody Maker March 26th 1994

by Simon Reynolds

SAVAGE VERDICT: Jon Savage interviewed * on the New Wave of New Wave

Jon Savage's England's Dreaming, the first proper history of punk, is
often cited in interviews and overviews of the New Wave of New Wave. It seems
to have made the Sex Pistols adventure available to a whole new generation, just at
the point at which the saga was fading from folk memory. So does Savage, a
veteran of the original era as both participant and commentator, take any
credit for the current resurrection?

"Well, S.M.A.S.H. were very excited about England's Dreaming, and that
was very flattering. I mean, if you're a writer, that's the ultimate--to be
told that you've inspired someone else. I always intended England's Dreaming to be a kind of primer, presenting the data and saying 'this is how it's done'. The idea was not to push myself to the foreground, but to provide all the sources, the books and records that inspired the original punks. I don't know
if the book influenced the other bands, just that S.M.A.S.H. say they were
influenced. Thank God they're really good! Hahhahaha! I like S.M.A.S.H. a
lot. They've got good songs, cheekbones, short hair--a classic suburban English
mod band. Very exciting live--after I saw them live I stayed awake til 3-AM
just buzzing on adrenaline, and that's pretty late for me. And they have a
song called 'Shame', and that's a very English thing to write about."

Why are we still so obsessed with punk? Ever since 1978, most Brit-rock
activity has been conceived, and judged, as either a return to, or swerve away
from, punk--as either a resurrection or a 'betrayal'. Punk revivals have almost
been annual occurrences. Why are we still hung up on happenings 16 years time
ago--it's equivalent to the Pistols being obsessed with pre-Beatles pop, Billy
Fury and Adam Faith! Why is it that British rock culture can't bury punk, break
free of its ancient agenda?

Savage's explanation is that "the years 1976/77 are a bit like 1966/67--years of fantastic compression, too much happening too quickly. It takes years to unravel all that. And so those moments of breakthrough and upheaval always cast a long shadow. With punk, it took about 10 years to work through all that stuff. Beyond that, punk is simply a classic English archetype--with precursors in Dickens, in Graham Greene's Brighton Rock, in the Angry Young Men, in The Stones and The Who. And that archetype is so potent. The punk movement was very powerful, very ambitious, so it's no wonder that pop keeps coming back to it. Punk was all to do with sex, which is still a very charged phenomenon in England; it was about bondage and going into the nation's subconsiocus to bring out all the violence and filth. There's a huge gulf between the reality people live and the media edifice that's constructed over that reality. The simple fact is that all the things that were talked about during punk are still there and still need to be talked about. Nothing's changed.

"It's like with the fashion side of the current interest in punk--in a
sense, people are 'trying on the clothes' to see if they fit, and finding that
they do. The 'clothes' are all about anger, confrontation, hostility, and they
fit because there is a mood today similar to '76. The punks, and the
hippies in their own way too, posed certain questions that haven't been
answered. All great pop movements pose those questions, in slightly different
ways. Even rave culture is born of frustration, a desire to break out.
England is still a very claustrophobic, class-ridden, static society. And I'd
hate to be 18 now."

Arguably, it's much worse today than in '76. Not just economically but in
the sense that in the past 16 years all the little spaces of freedom have
contracted--what with the assault on dole culture, the impoverishment of
students, and of course, the forthcoming Criminal Justice Bill with its virtual
outlawing of squatting and its draconian clampdown on raves and warehouse
parties. The government seems determined to extinguish all the bases of an
oppositional popular culture. Today it's not even a question of 'No Future',
but closer to Hendrix' lament: "ain't no life nowhere".

"If I was 18 today, I'd be incredibly conscious of the hegemony of the
babyboomer generation. Because so much of the commentary on pop is by people
from that generation, and most of them wouldn't give a band like S.M.A.S.H. a
chance, 'cos the attitude is 'we've seen it all before'. And of course that's
totally irrelevant since, as any fule kno, when you're 20 you haven't seen it
all before."

Are there any parallels between 1976 and 1994, in that there's an
apocalyptic vibe--a feeling that something appalling is lurking on the horizon,
the spectre of social collapse, and its corollary, the resurgence of fascism?

"I don't know if that's actually happening, but it is a very teenage thing
to think that. Also--it's like, 'hello, it's 1994, the Millenium is coming'.
Punk was a millenarian movement, absolutely."

One of the interesting things about the New Wave of New Wave is the way
it's resurrected punk's ethics of drug use, ie. speed = good (cos it increases
IQ, self-confidence, aggression), dope and E = bad ('cos they make you mellow,
quiescent and full of love). Amphetamine is the perfect drug for messianic
fervour and tunnel-visonary crusading zeal, but its downside is paranoia (which
adds to the Millenarian, Doomsday vibe) and, at the extreme, psychotic

"Well, amphetamines are very bad news. I only took it four times during
punk and it made me feel so peculiar. Whenever a pop movement gets overtly
based around one drug, it gets stupid. Speed is a dangerous drug. Several
friends of mine from the punk era ended up either psychotic or dead, because of
speed and heroin. Then again, if These Animal Men want to talk of burning for
two years then crashing, that's their prerogative. There's a grand tradition
there, a classic rock'n'roll trajectory,--Sid Vicious is the obvious example."

My reservation with these bands is that they're a too literal recreation
of punk. Really, they're like the pub rock bands that paved the way for punk:
back to basics, except that in this case "basics" means Situtationist slogans
and McLaren-like masterplans. But any real successor to punk would have to go
as far beyond 'nouveau punk' as the Pistols went beyond the white R&B
fundamentalism of Dr Feelgood et al. Another thing: the NWONW is
Nth-generation whiter-than-white rock, mod filtered through punk filtered
through the Manics. It completely ignores anything that's happened musically
since 1978: black or white, rap or rave.

"From an outside perspective, maybe that whiter-than-white rock can seem a
thin option compared to the wealth of stuff around, whether it's black-derived
or not. But why not make white-boy music? It doesn't make you racist, in

It's interesting the way that ambient techno has provided these bands with
a readymade enemy, the '90s subcultural equivalent of the mid-70s hippies. As a
punk vet whose current favourite music includes Aphex Twin, Richard Kirk,
Seefeel and Biosphere, what does Savage make of the nouveau punk critique of
ambient: that it's just aural sedatives for a defeated, spineless generation?

"I can understand their arguments against ambient. But I'm not at an age
where I need to define myself by the music I like. I've grown out of that
partisanship, cos I've been lucky enough to have lived within it. But the NWONW
is music that demands that kind of partishanship, and I can easily imagine that
if I was a kid who'd gone to see S.M.A.S.H. I might be inspired to want to
change my life..."

And throw the ambient LP's and Rizlas in the bin?

"Well, what the punk critique of ambient misses--and it's a fault shared by
all politically-engaged rock--is that there's a politics of sound that's just as important as explicit politics in lyrics. And the best ambient is streets ahead in terms of sound, the way the music makes you feel, the moods and images
it conjures. When rock gets too puritanically concerned with stripping
down to just the message, you end up with the Tom Robinson Band, who I
always had problems with--great politics, shit music. But anyway, at my age
I don't have to choose between ambient and punk. Ideally, the best of both
worlds would be great--ambient punk!"

TECHNOPHOBIA! The New Wave of New Wave versus d-generation

The great failing of the nouveau punk bands is their willful denial of the music of the last six years. The Sex Pistols had a relationship with both their era’s chartpop (glam’n’glitter like the Sweet) and its underground rock (The Stooges). Any band hoping to have the same impact today would have to take on board the innovations of sampler-based music, from rap and rave to ambient and avant-rock. A Nineties Pistols would be something like a cross between The Prodigy (this era’s Sweet), The Young Gods (this era’s Stooges) and Public Enemy (the black Clash).

Another big failing is that the NWONW’s refried Who riffs lack any kind of relationship with contemporary black music. Although the influence of roots reggae and dub really came through musically in 1979, punk had a spiritual kinship with reggae: both punk and Rasta were about exile and alienation. A Nineties punk should also have an awareness of, if not alliance of, today’s black British subcultures. And that means ragga and jungle techno, music of pre-political rage and urban paranoia. If These Animal Men are really into speedfreak music, they should be making 160 bpm ardkore jungle, which is driven by a rage-to-live that’s pure punk. THIS is the sound of youth today, whereas These Animal Men’s “This is the Sound of Youth” is the sound of youth yesterday: 1966, or worse, that year’s dismal replay in 1979, with neo-mod bands like Secret Affair and Squire.

We need real modernism, not mod revivals. So let me introduce: d-generation. As the name suggests, their music is informed by, but also a swerve away from, the music of the E Generation: “the corrupt modernism” of dark techno, jungle, ambient and ragga.

“We would have been punks in ‘77”, admit d-generation, “but today we can’t see why anyone would ignore modern music.”

They call their sound “psychedelic futurism, techno haunted by the ghost of punk”. It sounds like Ultramarine gone noir: ambient drones, lonesome dub-reggae melodica, stealthy junglist breakbeats. Like Ultramarine, d-generation deploy imagery of “Englishness”, but instead of pastoral quirkiness, the vibe is urban wasteland, influenced by “the dark, expressionist, deviant tradition” of Wyndam Lewis, The Fall and Michael Moorcock.

On their yet-to-be-released EP Entropy in the UK, ghostly allusions to punk are omnipresent. “73/93” turns around the sampled phrases “eroding structure, generating entropy… no future”. “The Condition of Muzak” (the title is from a Michael Moorcock novel) goes even further, using Johnny Rotten as a stick to beat the rave generation. A sample from the Pistols’ last performance at Winterlands is turned into a techno riff: Rotten’s famous “ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated” and mirthless cackle “ha ha ha”. Perfect: if this was played at a rave, it would start a virus of disaffection that would undermine the whole subculture. So many ravers have a cheated look on their faces, sometimes cos they’ve been sold dodgy E, mostly cos they’re burned out and can never get as high as they used to.

Rave is full of submerged utopian longings (“living the dream” etc). But because they aren’t articulated, the culture ultimately functions as a safety valve, releasing frustration at the weekend then returning you to workaday drudgery.

It’s not a culture of refusal, but an anti-culture that defuses. d-generation suggest one way that a true successor to punk (rather than a mere replay) could operate: as spies in the house of the loved-up, sowing seeds of discontent, making a grim dance of our national decay.

* Owing to a major cock-up by the copy editors, a massive chunk in the middle of the Savage interview was left out of the version as published, so this is actually the first time the piece in its entirety has appeared.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Request, May 1996

by Simon Reynolds

Right now, the British weekly music press--New Musical Express (NME) and Melody Maker (MM)--is going through one of its periodic phases of feeling self-important. The reason, of course, is Britpop. The weeklies didn't create the movement, but they did name it, and for two years now they've given Britpop their unconditional support. The official line is that 'we've never had it so good' (an echo of a famous political slogan from the '60s); that Britpop is a golden age for UK music, and that if you want to keep tabs on this fast-moving scene, you've got to buy the weeklies.

Grunge wasn't a bad time for the UK music press (in fact Melody Maker
was way ahead of American publications in picking up on what was happening in
Seattle). But the Brit-press is happiest when it can cover stuff happening
on its own doorstep, on a week-by-week basis. If a band is local, it's so much easier to kickstart the hype-cycle that so appals Americans: the group's discovery at a live gig by a cub reporter ('I have seen the future'), its endorsement by a more established writer, the granting of 'Single of the Week' honors, the pricking of major label A&R interest, the full-page debut album rave, the front cover, and so forth. So accelerated is the hype-cycle these days that stages are often
skipped; buzz bands sometimes make the front cover before they've even released a

Being so USA-based, grunge interfered with this process. NME  and MM rely on record companies to pay for trips outside the UK, which means that most American bands are already signed by the time the press write about it. Grunge also goaded the Britpress' patriotic pride, triggering its reflex-resentment towards America's domination of pop culture. After an initial anti-grunge backlash in '93 (Suede's defiantly Anglophile blend of glam Bowie and glum Morrissey),Britpop really got rollin' in '94. There was the neo-Merseybeat swagger of Oasis, Blur's unexpected self-resurrection out of the 'has been/never-was' dumpster, and Pulp's strange and wonderful ascent to cult popularity, after 15 years in the wilderness. In '95, Britpop went into overdrive: Elastica, Supergrass, Bluetones, Cast, Gene, Shed Seven, Menswear, ad infinitum, ad nauseam.

The Britpress will seize on any excuse for a fit of chest-swelling, tub-thumping jingoism. Britpop was ideal, since its aesthetic base--the mid-60's, filtered through its late '70s echo, New Wave--had hitherto been strictly an indie style, and thus the province of the weeklies. At the same time, Britpop bands are overtly anti-experimental and pre-psychedelic; they combine a playsafe 1966-meets-1978, three minute pop aesthetic with a doctrine of stardom-at-all-costs, making them highly desirable to record companies and extremely radio-friendly. Because the bands it deals with now hit the charts,
the prestige and morale of the Britpress has been boosted; for the first time in 15 years, people turn to them as tipsheets on future stars. For instance, this January a grubby little gang of sub-Oasis oiks called Northern Uproar appeared on MM's cover one week, and on Top Of the Pops the next (TOTP being the UK's premiere pop TV show, based around that week's new chart entries). Furthermore, Britpoppers behave like pop stars; they make strenuous efforts to give good face and good quote, all of which makes the music papers' job much easier.

That job is basically to convince the readers that stuff is happening. Now, you might think that ain't so hard, given the plethora of scenes and sounds  generated by the merry postmodern tumult of the 1990's. But the Britpress readership is deeply conservative, and its idea of what's relevant
is decidedly narrow. Look at the NME and MM annual readers polls in the last 15years and you'll invariably find the Best Band position occupied by a white, all-male, British guitar band: the Jam, Echo & the Bunnymen, the Smiths, the Stone Roses, Suede, Blur, Oasis. The Top 10 Band, Album and Single categories usually feature no women, no blacks, no dance music, and rarely any Yanks (although REM and Nirvana did briefly challenge the Anglocentric bias).

The Britpress has to give its readers what they want, i.e as many pieces as possible on the 10 or so Big Brits (pegged around the single, the album, the tour, any excuse whatsoever basically), plus features on Brit-pop 'contenders'--younger bands waiting in the wings for fame and fortune to take its toll on the established Brit biggies. That still leaves a fair number of pages which have to be be filled by token coverage of 'minority' interests like techno, hip hop, weird guitar experimentalism, American rock, and other stuff which market research shows the readers are simply not interested in.

The big problem for the weekly music papers right now is that the very commercial success that's vindicated their Britpop boosterism is also making their own role redundant. A few years ago, NME started its Brat Awards as a sort of parody-cum-riposte to the Brit Awards (the UK record industry's official, Grammy-like honors). In the beginning, NME could justifiably argue that the truly vibrant pop of the day was being ignored by the Brits, in favor of MOR artistes like Elton John and Phil Collins, whose awards were basically rewards for their contribution, via international sales, towards rectifying Britain's trade deficit. These days, both Brits and Brats are alarmingly similar in their fixation on the triumvirate of Blur/Oasis/Pulp; yesterday's alternative has become today's mainstream.

Because of this, everybody is writing about Britpop--from the newspapers and tabloids to glossy teenybop mags like Smash Hits. With their traditional turf usurped by other mags and by TV, the weeklies don't know where to go next, how to reclaim their unique role. Do they carry on
scrabbling to find the next Blur or Oasis ahead of the slower-moving monthly magazines, a strategy which is already dredging up lame xeroxes and runts-of-the-litter like Northern Uproar? Or do they dare to drift left-field, and discover/dream up a new alternative?

Another reason why the weekly papers have been obliged to narrow their focus is the vast range of music media now available in the U.K., from specialist publications (dance mags like Mixmag and Muzik, metal mags like Kerrang, cutting edge eclectics like The Wire) to the 'general interest' music monthlies like Select, Q and Mojo. The last three are owned by the publishing group EMAP, and are designed to take the reader from cradle to grave: Select is targetted at indie-loving teens and colledge kids, Q is for late twenty-to early thirtysomethings who buy maybe ten CD's a year, while Mojo is
a largely retro-oriented magazine aimed at the 30-plus market who've given up on 'modern music' but are still passionately interested in the graying rock'n'rollers who soundtracked their youth.

NME and Melody Maker are deadly rivals, which is odd because they're owned by the same media conglomerate, IPC, and are situated just one floor apart inside IPC's King's Reach Tower.
Once upon a time, this emnity was based on ideological differences. Today,  the rivalry is sustained out of habit more than anything; Britpop unites all in its engulfing mediocrity. In truth, the papers have a complementary relationship. Since the late '80s, MM has been ensconced in the role of discovering new bands first; the bigger-selling NME bides its time and usually reaps the benefits of timing its coverage closer to the point at which bands break into the mainstream.

Writing for a weekly music paper offers writers cachet and power, but little financial reward or career prospects. There's a constant influx of firebrands who arrive, make their mark (usually by crusading on behalf of a particular scene or genre) and then burn out. There's a definite type that's attracted to the weekly music press: almost always male, almost always middle class, over-educated, a bit emotionally retarded. (I speak as someone who's written for Melody Maker for ten years, and certainly don't exempt myself from this description!). The Fall's Mark E. Smith tagged this breed with his phrase 'hip priest'. Throbbing with will-to-belief and gifted in the arts of messianic
rhetoric, these angsty young men gravitate towards the music press, where in previous generations they might have chosen revolutionary politics, poetry or evangelism.

See, thriving (as opposed to eking out a living) in the Britpress requires a weird sort of doublethink: the knack of participating in the conscious construction of a 'happening scene', while simultaneously believing in the reality and righteousness of the figment you've created. A good example of this syndrome is Romo, the pipe-dream of two of Melody Maker's brightest journos,Simon Price and Taylor Parkes. Short for 'Romantic Modernism', Romo is not, the duo stress, merely a revival of early '80s New Romantic synth-and-eyeliner pop, but "a renaissance" of the quintessentially English aptitude for artifice and androgny. No matter that the one Romo band I've seen so far, Viva, were quite dreadful, a cut-price Roxy Music; Price & Taylor's manifesto-mongering and sheer will to hallucinate into being an alternative to the increasingly prosaic Britpop are admirable. It's what the English music press does best, and doesn't do often enough these days.

British music hacks engage in this kind of scene-making partly for glory, partly out of dissatisfaction with pop's stasis quo, and partly in a purely generous attempt to make things seem more exciting than they actually are. Ideas are thrown down, as a challenge and a reproach, and in the hope that someone will pick up the baton. There's no profit to be had from these crusades; only the bands who get signed by majors thanks to the hacks's efforts, and the A&R scouts who do the signing, make any money out of the hype-cycle.

The weekly nature of the Britpress, the sheer number of pages that require filling, and the swarm of young egos hungry to make their mark--all this contributes to the infamous "hothouse atmosphere" of the UK music scene: the rapid turnover of scenes and styles, the histrionics and overheated prose.
The readers don't particularly like these qualities, but they kinda expect them; they're locked in a peculiar love/hate relationship with the weeklies, and tend both to overestimate and underestimate their power. NME and MM can't break bands on their own, without radio play, nor can they significantly damage successful bands. But the papers do have a huge influence on the record companies' A&R policy (several Romo combos have already been signed!),
and a more subliminal effect on British music culture itself. By creating a critical climate in which certain ideas and attributes become highly charged, sexy, de rigeur, the music papers shape the aesthetic universe in which a young band develops; by the time they're getting written about, the bands are spouting the buzzwords, dropping the references, reciting the litany. Dreampop, the post-My Bloody Valentine wave of Lush, Slowdive, Ride, etc, is a good example of this syndrome.

In the end, the Britpress's virtues are the same as its vices. It is volatile, venomous, fickle, pretentious, lacking in perspective, frothy with premature exaltations and disproportionate fervour, absurdly polarised in its judgements, prey to the most pernicious kinds of boosterism, and an utter stranger to fact-checking. Wholly un-American, in other words.