Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Against All Odds: Grime in 2005

director's cut version, Spin August 2005

by Simon Reynolds

The first thing that hits you is the clashing reek of twelve different brands of cheap perfume. The second is how weird it is to stand in a crowd of teenage girls waving gun-fingers and yelling “BRRAP BRRAP BRRAP.” The trigger for their frenzy is Crazy Titch, an East London MC who’s the closest thing the U.K. grime scene has to a heart throb. He’s hoarsely hollering his anthem “Sing Along” over a bizarre rhythm made from a chopped-up classical symphony. One 13-year-old black girl stands stock still, staring at Titch with awe and adoration, intently biting her fingernail. Everybody else in the auditorium is going mad. When it gets too rowdy—some heavy-set ruffnecks are crushing girls up against the stage—an organizer halts the music and grabs the mic: “Settle, boys. There’s girls down there. They want hugs and kisses.”

Grime is usually seen as bad-boy music, its blaring bombast and mosh-activating aggression making it the U.K.’s counterpart to crunk. Yet the huge number of young females at this show proves that grime isn’t necessarily synonymous with testosterone. The high proportion of teenagers present is partly due to the fact that the venue, Stratford Circus, is an art center, meaning that the entertainment ends at midnight—when most raves are just getting started. Tonight’s all-star grime bonanza offers a rare opportunity for under-18s to see in the flesh the MC idols they’ve watched only on Channel U, a digital/satellite TV station that airs U.K. urban music on an equal footing with American rap and R&B. It juxtaposes the latest glitzy videos from 50 Cent with shakily choreographed, low-budget promos from local heroes like Bruza.

Grime events have a reputation for trouble. The music builds up tension, but offers little scope for release—a recipe for fights on the dancefloor. And people often bring outside-world antagonisms into the club. Police are always “locking off” grime parties, which makes promoters increasingly reluctant to hold them in the first place. At one point in the night, the host Peaches comes on to report the disappearance of a cell phone, then delivers an impromptu lecture. “Stop thiefin’! Stop the armshouse!” she berates, ‘armshouse’ being grime slang for bloodshed. “They’re locking off grime raves, dancehall bashments—where you gonna go? Country & western nights?!” Later, she reports that the young lady’s phone has been found and returned. “Honest black people!” she notes with mock incredulity. “This will be a newspaper story: BLACK PEOPLE FIND PHONE.” She’s taking the piss out of stereotypes about ethnic youth, forgetting how quickly she’d jumped to the assumption that the phone had been stolen.  

The specific worry tonight is that the beef between two rival crews, Roll Deep and Fire Camp—will lead to mayhem. Although either group could claim the headlining spot, Fire Camp perform much earlier in the night, so there’s no frictional hand-over of the stage. Later I learn that Roll Deep were only let onstage once Fire Camp and their vast entourage had left the building. A couple of days later I ask Lethal Bizzle, leader of Fire Camp, about his feud with Wiley, the Roll Deep don. “Wiley is into lyrical battles, he’s done records dissing everyone from Durrty Goodz to Crazy Titch,” says Bizzle. When Wiley put out a record attacking him, Lethal took it as a backhanded compliment—a sign that he was an adversary to be reckoned with. “I was happy, my name was hot. And retaliation was gonna build up my name even more. Everyone calls him ‘Kylie’ so I got ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’ and dissed Wiley over it. That just put the curtains on him. Cos the streets said I won.”

Wiley and Lethal are duking it out on the underground and overground simultaneously. While stoking their hardcore fanbase with the battle tracks, both hope to seduce the mainstream with crossover grime albums this summer—Roll Deep’s In At The Deep End and Lethal Bizzle’s solo album Against All Oddz. Bizzle’s ahead at the moment, having scored grime’s biggest U.K. hit to date with “Pow,” a massive jolt of sonic adrenaline that even turned some heads in America, getting airplay from Funkmaster Flex on Hot 97 and talk of Lil Jon protégé Pitbull versioning the track’s frantic “Forward” riddim for his debut album. But Roll Deep is more densely stacked with talent, their 15-strong ranks boasting some of the scene’s finest producers (Wiley, Target, Danny Weed) and MCs (Trim,  Flow Dan, Riko, Wiley again).

Still, for all the big noise that grime has made in the UK mainstream media—Ms. Dynamite and Dizzee Rascal won the Mercury Prize in successive years and Dizzee appeared on the remake of Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas”—it remains a small scene. Only a few people within grime can make a living out of it. “There’s not a lot of MCs that are just MCing and not doing something else,” says Kano, one of the most touted performers on the scene. The doing “something else,” he hints, could be a day job or it could be something nefarious—“shottin’ weed,” in some cases. Selling 500 copies of a 12-inch is considered a good result these days, and after production costs, that would generate less than a thousand pounds profit. When they perform at raves, most MCs “get paid about 150 pounds, which is not good money,” says Kano. “And there’s less raves than there was. Clubs don’t want to deal with it. People get banned from playing certain areas, certain clubs—blacklisted.  Cos of what promoters think is going to happen.”

*          *          *         

The day after the Stratford Circus festival, Roll Deep divide their energies. One half plays a gig at a trendy hip hop club in Hoxton, a recently gentrified area of East London. The other faction stays underground with their regular Sunday night show on pirate radio station Rinse FM. Although Channel U is increasingly important, grime’s primary medium remains illegal radio stations. Rinse is literally an underground operation, its HQ being a former travel agent’s office in the basement of a nondescript building. Pass through an unremarkable-looking ante-room (pine floors, shabby sofas serving as a makeshift hospitality lounge) and you enter the spartan studio.  In addition to turntables and audio equipment, there’s a brightly flashing fruit machine and a TV tuned to a spycam monitoring people in the street outside (in case of a raid by OFCOM, the government organization dedicated to stamping out the pirates). The walls are bare (Rinse FM prides itself on its professionalism, and graffiti is forbidden) and apart from a few empty soft-drink containers, the room is incongruously tidy.

Before Roll Deep turn up, legendary grime MC D Double E does his weekly show. Nearly six-feet tall, but weighing only 130 pounds, he has elegant, cut-glass features that border on emaciated. You wonder if the sheer rapidity and intricacy of his flow burns up all his calories. “I’m gonna start zonin’ out in a minute,” he warns, and there’s something faintly redolent of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis in the way he stares sightlessly into the middle distance, one hand darting in dainty, air-carving gestures. Double’s imagery is relentlessly violent—“I’m on the way to stardom / Anyone test me I will scar dem”—but the vibe he transmits is entranced reverie rather than menace. Every so often he emits an eerie ululation, what he calls “the D Double signal”—“Mwui! Mwui!”

After some ads—revenue from these, plus subscription fees from each crew that has a regular show,  keep Rinse FM afloat—Roll Deep take over. The night before, at Stratford Circus, they made a Roots-like maneuver and performed a set with a live band, leaving the teenage girls long-faced with boredom, chins in hands like school kids sitting through morning assembly. Tonight, yelling into microphones to an invisible audience, Roll Deep are in their true element. Wiley, dressed in a blue Nike coat, rhymes over a new riddim built by Target out of an accordion riff, describing himself as “the black 007”. Two new recruits to the sprawling Roll Deep family dominate the mic’. Skepta, a lean black youth, pulls his jacket over his head and spits from inside this murky cocoon.  “Draw for the ’chete,” he warns some nameless adversary. “Bullets fall down like confetti / Make you look like spaghetti” (presumably served with marinara in this scenario). Syer, a stocky white kid, launches into a rant about “dutty girls” who “give brains... to every breh in the hood.” There’s a constant nerve-jangling bleeping of cell phones—‘missed calls’ that assure Roll Deep the faithful are out there (without the listeners having to pay a phone charge) or texted requests for a shout-out. “Big up the HMP massive,” intones Trim, a reference to those listeners detained at one of Her Majesty’s Prisons. “Hang tight the E3 crew.”

E3 is a zip code, or as they call it in England, a postal code. Grime is intensely territorial. The major divisions used to be between between East London, South London, and so forth, but the imperative to represent your ’hood has devolved into a Balkanized welter of mailing districts.  “E3’s the big one,” says Bruza, one of the scene’s most charismatic MCs. “That’s where Roll Deep are mostly from. E3 is like the Queensbridge of grime, bare talent comes from there. But it’s the same with my area, E17.” According to Roll Deep’s Target, “If you’re from E3 and I’m from E15, it’s not like we have to fight or anything. It started with just biggin’ up East London, and then you want to big up your exact bit of East London!”

What most of the postal zones have in common is that they correspond to a large swathe of the East End that’s not served by the subway system. You can only get there by car, bus, or the overland railway system that traverses much of London on decrepit, redbrick Victorian viaducts. This slight diminishment of ease of access to the area has contributed to its peculiar insularity. It’s also delayed the tide of gentrification, meaning that the East has remained a largely working-class area. East London (the heartland of musical innovation in Britain since at least the early-’90s emergence of jungle) has a sort of unpretentious, street-level cosmopolitanism, the result of the area having absorbed wave after wave of immigration over the last century. First came the Jews, many of them from Russia. Then, after the Second World War, migrants arrived from all over the former British Empire--from the Caribbean, from South Asia (Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshi), and from Africa. Most recently, the alien tongues of East European asylum seekers have been audible on the streets. From drum’n’bass to grime, the influence of Jamaica dominates (most grime MCs cite dancehall and jungle chatters as their primary influence, rather than American rappers). But the actual variety of ethnic origins on the grime scene is staggering. At Stratford Circus, Peaches called out to the audience, asking “anybody here from Nigeria? Ghana? How about Antigua? Trinidad & Tobago?” Each country triggered a flurry of hands in the air.

Possibly even more crucial than its multicultural mix, though, may be East London’s dreariness, the bleak featurelessness of its landscape. The architecture mixes shabby old buildings that hark back to the area’s industrial and warehousing past, with the kind of Brutalist architecture that was fashionable in the 1960s and 1970s. In some areas, the sky is punctured by ugly slabs of high-rise tower blocks that formed such a crucial part of punk’s imagery. More common, though, are smaller, undistinguished three-story blocks of flats, interspersed with small, melancholy recreational areas. On a sunny day, East London can look reasonably pleasant. But most of the year English skies are grey, which means most of the time East London looks grim. Grim, and yes, grimy.

In between jungle and grime came a late Nineties sound called UK Garage. You could see garage as an attempt by East London youth to manufacture their own sunshine. One of the scene’s biggest anthems was called “Spirit of the Sun”. All shiny treble frequencies (highpitched divas, skittering  snares and fizzy hi-hats), garage streamed out of the pirate airwaves like aural champagne. The sundrenched Greek island Aiya Napa became the garage’s scene very own equivalent to Ibiza, that raver’s paradise at the other end of the Mediterranean. Every summer, grime fans still flock out to Napa, but the idea seems wrong somehow. Because grime is winter music. Cold, brutal, and desolate, it doesn’t seek to escape or soften its environment. It amplifies the punitive bleakness.

Wiley caught the sunless spirit of grime with a series of brilliant minimal instrumentals, designed for MCs to spit over, and themed around ice and snow: “Eskimo,” “Ice Rink,” ad infinitum. He says the idea came to him during a period when he felt “cold inside as a person. I might make a warm tune now, ’cause I might not be angry anymore.” Yet from its shivery synths to its real-world inspiration, his most recent tune “Morgue” is as chilling as its title. The track is literally the mausoleum of a dead friendship. “I used to hang around with this boy, Wonder,” Wiley explains, alluding to one of the scene’s most talented producers. ‘Me and him fell out ’cause of bunglings” [serious arguments]. “Bunglings”--this time with a girlfriend--inspired the even more desolate “Ground Zero,” which was actually recorded on that September 11th. “I realized that was the day when I’d never see that girl again. I felt like my world came down as well then, just like those buildings.“

But private discord or woe can’t explain why a whole genre of music takes a sharp turn to the dark and doomy. Target says that “as things went bad, away from music”—meaning in the outside world—“the music’s just got darker and darker.” Wiley agrees: “The music reflects what’s going on in society. Everyone’s so angry at the world, and each other. And they don’t know why.” Tony Blair’s New Labour government, elected in 1997 after almost two decades of Conservatism, promised a fresh start for Britain. The economy was booming. It’s still strong, but in 2005, the rewards are mostly going to the already well-off, young professionals in media, marketing, and management. As a post-socialist party, Labour no longer even pays lip service to ideas of wealth redistribution, but instead talks in the bland neo-conservative language of enabling people to help themselves. The U.K. has become much closer to America than Europe, in the sense that people do believe “anyone can make it,” despite the fact that the social odds are stacked unfairly. If you don’t make it, it’s your own fault, the result of a deficit of get-up-and-go.

Grime kids constantly spout this kind of talk. Target has put out a series of CD/DVD compilations called Aim High, while Bruza’s new single is called “What You Waiting For”—“a get up off your arse song,” as he puts it. As well as the culture of enterprise built by Thatcher and maintained by Blair, these attitudes have been assimilated from American rap. Although virtually every grime artist stresses that they grew up on the fast-chatting style of jungle MCs like Shabba and Skibadee,  they have been profoundly influenced by U.S. hip hop: not so much stylistically but in terms of ambition, a sense of the scope of what can be achieved. Bad Boy, in particular, was the role model. One of Roll Deep’s earliest tunes, “Terrible,” starts with a soundbite from P. Diddy: “Sometimes I don’t think you motherfuckers understand where I’m coming from, where I’m trying to get to.”  Explains Wiley, “Puff was a big person at the time I made that tune. He had a set-up that everyone wants to have—own label, clothing line. That’s what I’m doing it for.” The Bad Boy leitmotif crops up elsewhere in grime. Guesting on a track last year called “One Wish”, Bruza offered a hilarious rejoinder to Notorious BIG-- “more money more problems, though?/Forget the problems, GIMME THE MONEY!!!!”. Bruza also appears on a new tune that remakes the Ma$e smash “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down,” vowing to “hold me head up and keep on movin’ and bruzin’”.

Grime lyrics teems with expressions of hunger and ambition, drive and dedication. Eight years of New Labour have not improved options and opportunities significantly for inner city youth. If they haven’t applied themselves in school, they typically face the prospect of working in a service sector job, selling things. “I think that’s why most people in our area have got on it,” says Target, referring to grime and the dream of making it as an MC or producer. “When they get to eighteen, they don’t know where they’re going.   They’ve got no money, they didn’t care about school. Where we are from, most people’s lives are not good. If we didn’t have music to express our lives, I don’t know what we’d do.”

*          *          *         

As grime’s profile surges to its highest level yet—major-label albums for Roll Deep, Lethal Bizzle, Kano, and Lady Sovereign—2005 is turning into a weirdly conflicted moment for grime. For every motivational tune like Bruza’s “What You Waiting For,” there’s a lyric advising wannabe MCs to not give up the day job. On the surface, the scene is bursting with confidence. But U.K. pirate culture has been here before—a host of jungle artists got signed to album deals, but only Goldie and Roni Size got anywhere near crossover. 2step garage crossed into the pop mainstream hugely, but didn’t endure (where’s Artful Dodger now?). Grime too has already had its fair share of failure—More Fire, Lethal Bizzle’s first group, released a flop album in 2003, as did Wiley.

On the track “Sometimes” from his debut Home Sweet Home, Kano documents a rare (or rarely acknowledged) moment of self-doubt: “When I see the fans go mad I think, ‘Why do they like me?’ / There’s about a thousand other boys just like me… I know I’ve got far / Is it too far to turn back?… Sometimes you’ll see me in a daydream / Thinking, ‘Can the underground go mainstream?’”

A soft-spoken, somber fellow, Kano is realistic about grime’s prospects, especially in America. Recently, he got to support Nas on his U.K. tour—a big deal for the grime MC, but not for the rap superstar. “Met Nas once, got a handshake,” Kano notes wryly. “That was it.” The respect will come, he reckons, when grime acts start selling records. “Not even over there, but over here, in the U.K. We can’t just fly into America and think we can bang with 50 Cent and all them lot! But if they come over here and see, ‘Oh, you’ve got a little thing going on,’ and it’s selling, they’ll notice.”

Of all grime’s major stylists, Kano’s flow seems like the one most likely to appeal to American hip-hop ears. An admirer of Jay-Z’s conversational delivery and the laidback West Coast style of Snoop Dogg, Kano sounds smooth and poised even rapping in quick time. Playing to this slick panache, Home Sweet Home, is front-loaded with mid-tempo joints. Roll Deep’s debut likewise skimps on uncut grime in favour of conventional hip hop and novelty tunes. Lethal Bizzle even promises some grime/rock fusions on his solo debut Against All Oddz, saying he’s a big fan of Green Day (“I love that “American Idiot’”) and Nirvana. Terror Danjah, the innovative beatmaker behind Bruza and the Aftershock label, dreams of one day recording tunes “with Robbie Williams or Franz Ferdinand.” The gamble with all these tentative moves to court the mainstream is that grime will lose what it has now. The strategy doesn’t even seem that sensible: difference sells, and grime is more likely to succeed by amplifying what’s unique and exotic about it. Lethal B should take heed of the success of “Pow”—his grimiest, rowdiest tune is the one that’s grabbed the ears of the world beyond London.

If grime does go pop, the most likely perpetrator is Lady Sovereign, a 19-year-old white MC. Some scowling scene purists refuse to take her seriously, partly because she’s from Northwest London as opposed to East, but mainly because she bypassed pirate radio and instead made a name for herself through the internet forums where young fans chit-chat in cell-phone text-speak (e.g. “sov ur buf”). Yet Sovereign has guested on numerous grime tracks, while her “Cha Ching” is one of the highlights of the scene-defining Run The Road compilation (the first widely available in the U.S.). Her mic skills are undeniable.

Sovereign’s also a star, something that’s apparent the minute you clap eyes on her. She keeps me waiting for 90 minutes, staring morosely out of the windows of the fourth-floor Bethnal Green studio where she and her producer Medasyn  work, taking in the lugubrious vistas of East London, the only splash of colour coming from a car dealers called RUDE MERCS. But when Sov arrives--a tiny ball of colour and rude energy herself--any irritation is charmed away in an instant. Five-foot-one but only 82 pounds, with hazel eyes and hair pulled back tightly into a long ponytail, she weirdly reminds me of Audrey Hepburn—if she’d grown up in a North London estate listening to ragga and UK garage, that is.

Lady Sovereign has signed to Island for a four-album deal reputedly worth three-million pounds (a figure Sov denies, while admitting the true amount was “nice, really nice”). It’s easy to imagine record-company execs with dollar signs reeling in their eyes, imagining the spin-offs (video games, a cartoon series, Lady Sov dolls, a Spice Girls-style movie). When she discusses how her forthcoming debut album--working title Straight Up Cheeky-- has veered off into “alternative grime,” with influences from ska and punk, you wonder if her backers are steering her in some kind of Gwen Stefani meets the Streets direction. But it turns out her dad used to be a punk rocker and she grew up listening to X-Ray Spex and the Selecter, so the direction is somewhat organic. And when she plays a couple of tracks from the album, it’s clear the grime-goes-new-wave notion is inspired. “Tango” and “Public Warning” fizz with cartoony humor, from Sov’s killer inflections and irreverent lyrics to Medasyn’s romping beats and arrangements dense with quirky detail.

The 2-Tone echoes aren’t just cute, they’re appropriate, given how grime echoes the multiracial ethos and urban-realist approach of bands like the Specials. Eerily, that group has inspired two new grime tracks,  Kode 9’s eerie remake of “Ghost Town” and Alias’ “Ska,” which samples “Gangsters” then literalizes the title with gruesome lyrics like “You don’t want fluids leaking out yer body / No you don’t.” But Lady Sov’s thing is altogether more lighthearted. “Tango,” for instance, is a put-down of a former friend who’s overdone the fake tan. “She was once really pale but now she’s orange,” says Sovereign. “It’s actually scary.” The title, she explains, comes from a tangerine-colored soda popular in the U.K.

It was hearing Ms. Dynamite’s early tracks like “Booo!” on the pirates that really inspired Sovereign to take MCing seriously. But instead of sparring with the bad boys (like other female MCs on the scene such as Lady Fury) or move into socially conscious lyrics (like Dynamite did on her crossover album), Sovereign carved out her own identity. “I’m not a mean MC, I’m cheeky,” she twinkles, puffing on a cheap brand of cigarette called Sovereign. Although her first record was called “The Battle” and she’s just done a limited-circulation EP called Bitchin’, Sovereign’s rhymes are closer to playground taunts than the ego-maiming verbal drive-bys other MCs traffic in. Perhaps that’s what galls some grime gatekeepers, the sense that it is just fun’n’games for “the multi-talented munchkin” (as Sov dubbed herself on “Cha Ching”), rather than deadly earnest struggle.

The London scene is overflowing with talent. “You see kids in the street just spitting to themselves,” says Bruza. “One kid’ll be human beatboxing, and another’ll be spraying his lyrics or clashing another MC. You see it everywhere, every day.” What’s poignant is that only a few will ever have a chance of making it. “Everyone is rushing for that one small gap and there’s that many people trying to get through,” says Terror Danjah. “Everyone can’t get through that gap, ’cause everyone’s pushing and shoving. That’s life though, innit?”

Thursday, October 26, 2017


The Observer Music Monthly, 17th June 2006
by Simon Reynolds
The mystery-shrouded artist known only as Burial is affiliated to the dubstep scene, a sister-genre to grime that this year looks set to eclipse its waning sibling. Running in parallel for the past half-decade, both these London underground sounds rely on the same pirate radio infrastructure and share a common history in UK garage and jungle. But dubstep is a largely instrumental style bigger on mood than on personality (no shouty MCs here). It's also a site-specific music, its bass-heavy menace achieving full impact only through a massive sound system in a dark, crammed club. Burial's self-titled debut is the first record from the scene to transcend that context. Its evocative atmospherics and enfolding ambience make it a perfect lose-yourself soundtrack for headphones or lights-low living room listening.
'Distant Lights' blueprints the basic Burial sound: an ominously amorphous bass-rumble and a frantic-yet-subdued two-step beat are countered by the slow-motion mournfulness of the track's other elements, a yearning vocal sample and a reverb-blurry trumpet, like Kenny Wheeler wilting in a Temazepam swoon. Titles such as 'Night Bus' pinpoint Burial's subject as the melancholy and anomie of city life, while 'Southern Comfort' localises the vibe further to south London. But the feeling this music creates - imagine the Blue Nile circa 1989's 'Downtown Lights' but with the euphoria turned to sorrow - is something any metropolis-dweller anywhere on the planet will understand: sensations of grandeur and possibility battling with desolation and entrapment.
There's a simmering, suppressed violence bubbling inside Burial's music which conjures images of a city full of damaged people ready to inflict damage on others. But there's also a hovering grace and tenderness that makes me think of Wim Wenders's film Wings of Desire - a quality that emerges most clearly on 'Forgive', a beatless ache of sound threaded with the sounds of cleansing rainfall.
This album actually comes complete with a concept (it's a sound-portrait of a near-future south London submerged under water, New Orleans-style) while the most compelling readings of its theme hear it as a requiem for the lost dreams of rave culture. But the non-specific sadness that shimmers inside this music ultimately transcends attempts to pin it to a place, period, or population.
You can imagine Burial's tremulous poignancy reaching out to hurt and heal all kinds of listeners - fans of David Sylvian and Harold Budd, Massive Attack and Boards of Canada, Radiohead and Joy Division. This music can go far.

Blender, 2007

by Simon Reynolds

Enigmatic British producer Burial doesn’t make dance music so much as music inspired by dance culture. His fidgety, clacking beats mimic the hyper-syncopated bustle of styles like UK garage, but  he's more concerned with heartbreak than booty-shake. The Burial sound taps into the sadness secreted at the heart of the nightclub experience, the way feelings of blissful dancefloor community give way to the poignant comedown of heading home alone in the cold gray light of dawn.  Influenced by the painfully ecstastic soul-diva loops of Nineties rave, Untrue uses sampled voices more prominently than last year’s self-titled debut. But only “Archangel” gets anywhere close to being an anthem. Instead, the album works as an ambient whole, its fog-bank synths, yearning slivers of vocal and stoic basslines filling your room with cinematic melancholy. Shrouded in crackle and condensation, Untrue is like the “lost like tears in rain,” dying android scene from Blade Runner, looped for eternity.   

Sunday, October 15, 2017

HAUNTOLOGY: the GHOST BOX label (Frieze, 2005)

HAUNTOLOGY: the GHOST BOX label (original title)
(published under the Frieze-chosen title of "Spirit of Preservation")
Frieze, October 2005

By Simon Reynolds

In music, coming up with a name for your band or your label is half the battle. Ideally, it should work as a kind of condensed manifesto, or distil an entire sensibility into a miniature poem. “Ghost Box” does this almost too perfectly. The label’s founders Julian House and Jim Jupp-- who launched it initially as an outlet for the eldritch electronica they make as, respectively, The Focus Group and Belbury Poly--thought of “ghost box” primarily as a metaphor for the television. But it could  plausibly be a historically real, if scientifically fraudulent, contraption invented by 19th Century spiritualists. It could also be an ancient nickname for the gramophone, evoking as it does the sheer uncanniness of “phonography,” Evan Eisenberg’s term for the art of recording. Edison, after all, originally conceived of records as a way of preserving the voices of loved ones after their death.

 The Focus Group’s music brings out the latent and intrinsic séance-like aspect of sampling. Raiding vintage soundtracks and collections of incidental music, House leaves some snippets recognizable as orchestral playing but processes others to the point where they resemble ectoplasm or some supernatural luminescence  out of a H.P. Lovecraft story. House deliberately prevents the Focus Group tracks, as heard on this year’s two CDs Sketches and Spells and Hey Let Loose Your Love, from sounding too digital, by purposefully interfering with the CGI-style seamlessness that today’s sequencing and music editing software enables and enforces. House prefers “bad looping” because “the shifting loop points of the samples mean that it’s difficult to discern which sample is which,” or even to recognize an element of the music as a sample at all. This helps to create a disconcerting sense of the music as organic rather than assembled, something heightened by House’s attraction to woodwind samples: sibilant curlicues that slither like triffids or sentient ivy, a sound of tendrils and twilight. The Focus Group’s music feels “alive”. Or more accurately, “undead.”

Jupp’s work as Belbury Poly is closer to “normal” music, featuring fewer samples and more hands-on playing: lots of vintage analog synths, along with recorders, melodicas and zithers. “Farmer’s Angle,” the title track of Jupp’s debut EP, has a jazzy-Muzak feel (it’s the theme to an imaginary local radio show that provides “the latest agricultural news and weather” plus “a new look at ancient rites”).  The snazzy bombast of “Insect Prospectus” could almost work in a dance club. 

Yet on the astonishing “Caermaen, ”Belbury Poly summons a genuinely spectral presence. The track’s plaintive vocal comes from a 1908 cylinder recording of a Lincolnshire folk singer, Joseph Taylor. Sampling the whole tune, Jupp altered its speed and pitch, then restructured the melody entirely, effectively making a dead man sing a brand new song.  That’s a little eerie when you think about it. Someone with a superstitious streak might well hesitate before taking such a liberty, for fear of “repercussions”. 

Ghost Box releases are shaped by an integrated audio-visual aesthetic that reflects the pair’s professions (House is a member of the record-design collective Intro, while Jupp works as an  architectural technician). Each CD looks like part of a set, a format modeled on university course books and the classic front cover “grid” of Penguin paperbacks.  These are seriously covetable objects (especially the Farmer’s Angle three-inch CD) that are literally designed to make you want to own the lot of them.

 The idea of having this uniform and faintly institutional-looking packaging also came from “library music”, a key influence and sampling resource for the Ghost Box roster, which now includes kindred spirit musicians The Advisory Circle and Eric Zann. Produced by labels such as KPM and Boosey & Hawkes, the library genre consisted of numbered volumes of atmospheric interludes and brief background motifs, intended for use on radio, in commercials and
industrial films, etc. 

Sample-hunters prize library recordings for their high-calibre musicianship (often involving top jazz players or classical musicians earning a few bob on the side). But where hip hop producers are searching for crisply funky breakbeats or stirring string flourishes, Ghost Box’s library fetish has a more rarified aspect. Jupp and House love the “science of mood” that informed the genre (tracks come with helpful descriptions such "light relaxed swingalong", "industrious activity",  "neutral abstract underscore"),  and the aura of “craft and anonymity” enveloping both music and packaging

“It’s like the musicians and designer are working from the same brief,” says House, describing how the covers’ clunky-yet-eerie photo collages seem to mirror the music’s “angular, disjointed” moods. When making their own music, the pair start by putting together “mood boards of relevant images and words,” says Jupp. “The design work for any Ghost Box release always runs parallel to recording.”

 Imagery and sonics, in turn, plug into a network of cultural references and allusions that together conjure a phantasmagoria of bygone Britishness. Talking to Jupp and House, it seems like any given track could easily be accompanied by footnotes or a swarm of hyperlinks whisking you to different nodes in this nation’s collective unconscious. The pair are serious scholars of arcana, capable of writing an auteurist monograph on Oliver Postgate (creator of the animated children’s shows Bagpuss, Pogle’s Wood, and The Clangers) or a sprawling polymath opus that traces the hidden connections between C.S. Lewis, Hammer House of Horror, The BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Spike Milligan, Jonathon Miller's Alice in Wonderland, and The Wickerman.

One key zone of obsession involves the tales of cosmic horror and pastoral uncanny penned by gentleman occultists like Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen. Inspired by a Blackwood story, the title track of Belbury Poly’s debut album The Willows marvellously conjures the weird energy that sometimes emanates from certain places--flooded meadows, deserted heaths--in the English countryside. And “Caermaen” gets its name from Arthur Machen’s fictionalized version of the Welsh town of Caerlon, which just so happens to be where Jupp and House grew up, spending many a happy boyhood hour roaming the banks of the River Usk or hanging out in the ruins of a Roman amphitheatre.

Yet as much as they feel the pull of old Albion, Jupp and House are equally drawn to another Britain: the bright, positivist post-WW2 United Kingdom that seemed to herald the triumph of reason, efficiency, and planning. Think of Lord Reith’s vision for the BBC, of the spirit of democratization of education that lay behind the Open University and the polytechnics, of the idealism that originally fueled  the New Town and Garden City movements along with the much-maligned Brutalist school of architecture pioneered by Alison and Peter Smithson. Think also of that largely disappeared genre of paperback non-fiction that could be termed “popular thought,” as purveyed by autodidacts like  Colin Wilson or by academics, such as M.B. Devot, keen to speak plainly in the language of the common man.

The inner sleeve of Hey Let Loose Your Love distils this clash of seeming incompatibles with its description of The Focus Group offering listeners “a varied program of musical activities for educational and ritual use.”  What exactly is the connection between pedagogy and paganism? House and Jupp don’t exactly know, but they feel it’s there. Perhaps it’s simply that both these Britains--heathen heritage, modernizing socialism----have faded away, eroded by the remorseless march of history.  Ghost Box’s “memory work” isn’t exactly therapeutic, though, a salve for homesickness (the root meaning of nostalgia). Their music is too disorienting for that kind of simple comfort. What is returned to you (assuming, perhaps, that you’re British and grew up in the Sixties and Seventies) is a sense of this country as a stranger, more fantastical place than you’d ever realized. Homeland becomes unheimlich.