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.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

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.
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

Melody Maker, early 1994

by Simon Reynolds

A decade ago, and a decade after the event, punk was the hot topic in pop academia. Today, hip hop is Number One in the cultural studies chart, although there are signs that rave will soon overtake it. Tricia Rose's Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (Wesleyan University Press) is by far the best treatise on hip hop yet. Being of a left-wing, black nationalist bent, Rose is keen to validate rap culture as a proto-revolutionary force, but happily, she's not blinkered by her beliefs. Instead she has a nicely paradoxical sense of rap's contradictions. In her analysis, hip hop simulataneously celebrates black community yet reflects the internicine warfare that sets brother against brother; it's fiercely capitalistic (rappers' obsession with getting 'paid in full') yet contains a critique of capitalism's dehumanising effects. Musically, rap pays homage to black music tradition (R&B, soul, jazz, P-funk) yet wreaks iconoclastic damage to that tradition (via sampling).Capturing rap's contradictions, Rose deftly defends hip hop against the attacks of both the white Right and the black bourgeois establishment (who see gangsta rap as a disgrace to the race, with its promotion of 'negative stereotypes' of the young black male).

There's some fascinating historical/urban geographical stuff about rap's origins in the South Bronx. Rose sees it as a cultural response to the economic policies that literally ghettoised the area. Rap's resistance is embodied in the three formal characteristics--flow, layering and rupture-- that Rose identifies running through hip hop culture from graffiti and breakdancing to scratching/sampling and rapping. Hip hop simulates the urban warzone, yet simultaneously incarnates a survivalist response to its constant threats. Hip hop is full of ruptures--scratches, ambushes of samples, breaks--but incorporates them into the flow.

My only problem with Rose's approach is that she's so keen to validate hip hop that she glosses the extent to which a big part of its appeal is that it's nasty. A lot of rap is just black heavy metal, powertrippin' fantasies for testosterone-crazed adolescents. Snoop Doggy Dogg is Sid Vicious (always a more important part of the Pistols' and punk's appeal than cult-studs academics like to believe); both appealed because they're evil muthafuckers.

Brian Cross' excellent It's Not About A Salary: Rap, Race and Resistance in Los Angeles (Verso) offers a corrective to Rose's East Coast-centric history of rap. As well as interviewing a host of names obscure and obvious, Cross provides an urban geography of LA rap, and traces its history back through blacksploitation movies, the Watts Prophets (LA's Last Poets), to street-poetry forms like toastin', boastin', signifyin' and the dozens. Some of the flava of this oral culture can be gleaned from Juba To Jive: A Dictionary of African-American Slang, edited Clarence Major (Penguin). From the 1880's verb 'knock a joe' (a convict's term for mutilating oneself to avoid chain-gang labour), through 1940's slang like 'crumbcrusher' (a baby) and 'swobble' (eat food in a hurry), through to post-rap words like 'body bag' (condom), this is a treasury of linguistic flair. My only criticism: the book should have extended its coverage to Afro-Caribbean patois.

Finally, Microphone Fiends: Youth Music & Youth Culture, ed. Andrew Ross and Tricia Rose (Routledge). Despite its Erik B & Rakim title, this isn't a hip hop book, but an essential anthology of up-to-the-minute essays by all the big names in cult.studs.. The best are Susan McLary's brilliant piece on the history of moral panics about music, from Christian thinkers like John of Salisbury and Calvin (who feared that church music was getting too sensual and 'feminine'), through Adorno (who described jazz as 'eunuch-like') to the hysteria about rock'n'roll's jungle rhythms. And Lawrence Grossberg's treatise on the recurrent rhetoric of 'rock's death', in which he concludes that something has changed. Rock is no longer the centre of youth culture. Apparently kids spend twice as much time listening to music as they did in the '70s but it's way down the list of things that matter to them; music is something they use, rather than invest in. As Grossberg puts it: "rather than dancing to the music you like, you like the music you can dance to".
TIMBALAND, Tim's Bio: From the Motion Picture: Life From Da Bassment
Spin, autumn 1998

by Simon Reynolds

Maybe you've heard of the Jamaican tradition of "version" albums:
a dozen or so tracks all built on top of the same bass-and-drum
undercarriage. Different songs, different dubs, same riddim. Timbaland isn't quite so frugal with his creativity, but Tim's Bio does pretty much consist of eighteen variations on that beat. For the last eighteen
months, Timbaland's convulsive kinaesthetic -- double-time kicks, crisp snares, spasmodic flurries of hi-hat-- has dominated the R&B soundscape. So what's immediately striking about Bio is its failure to probe a fresh new direction.

But perhaps this complaint misses the point. Ever since it lost the "-'n roll," rock has had a problem with repetition: albums and shows are supposed to have dynamics, pacing, constrasts,demonstrations of versatility; at a certain point, more is always less. But in dance music, more is... more; repetition accumulates intensity, creates and sustains that crucial intangible known as "vibe". Black dance scenes (and their white mutations) work according to the principle Amiri Baraka dubbed "the changing same": minute variations on the same building blocks (jungle's "Amen" breakbeat, Miami
Bass's subwoofer-quaking 808 boom, dancehall 's "pepperseed" rhythm , and so forth). Mercenary copyists and opportunistic cloners play their part, too. For when a certain sound is doing it, the audience can't get enough of the good stuff. If you're in it, the slight tweaks and twists to the reigning
formula have enormous impact, whereas the uninvolved outsider hears only monolithic monotony.

That said, Timbaland really does need to come with a new cyberfunk matrix. His frequent complaints about "beat-biters" are rich when Tim's Bio verges so frequently on biting himself--self-plagiarism as auto-cannibalism. Likewise the lyrics: where last year's album with Magoo was thematically impoverished, this one's destitute, reaching its self-reflexive nadir with "Here
We Come"-- a song based around the Spiderman theme. What does catch the ear is all the stuff interwoven around the basic grid-groove: the scurrying infestation of percussive detail, the digitally-warped goblin vocals, the Afro-Dada grotesquerie of keyboard licks and sample squiggles, the onomatopoeic bass-talk.

The viral spread of ideas in dance culture works to erode the auteur theory, our ingrained impulse to fixate on originators. Timbaland's twitchy hypersyncopation was widely attributed to a drum and bass influence, something steadfastly denied by Tim and Missy. Now you can hear that imagined compliment
being repaid by the children of jungle, in the form of the two-step garage style that currently rules London. Dropping the four-to-the-floor house pulse and "versioning" Timbaland's falter-funk kick, producers like Ramsey & Fen, KMA, and Dreem Teem are basically making smoov R&B filtered through a post-Ecstasy sensorium. Call it lover's jungle, strictly for the ladies's
massive : midtempop bump'n' grind; sped-up and succulent cyborg-diva vocals; a playa-pleasing patina of deluxe production.

With the next phase of beat-science being researched-and-developed in England , the "bumpy pressure" is really on for Timbaland, if he doesn't want to go the way of ex-pioneers like Jam & Lewis. The dancefloor has no brand loyalty.
SPORTY THIEVZ, 'No Pigeons' (Roc-A-Blok/Ruffhouse)
Village Voice, July 14 - 20, 1999

by Simon Reynolds

Polyrhythmically speaking, TLC's "No Scrubs" is a frisky bundle of joy, but words-wise, it's cheerless as can be. Designating an entire class of low-or-no-income guys as deadbeat "scrubs," the song obsessively reinforces the bleak notion that designer commodities and the financial wherewithal to ac quire them constitute the ultimate measure of a man: "I'm looking like class and he's looking like trash."

Now there's an answer record. "Representin' the so-called 'scrubs,"' says the sticker on Sporty Thievz's single "No Pigeons," and although they're brandishing champagne glasses in the booklet of their Street Cinema CD, the Yonkers trio aren't playas. In the "Pigeons" video, they dress like casual, neighborhood B-boys, while their track "Cheapskate" adopts a proud-to-be-tightfisted stance in defiance of con temporary rap's ethos of conspicuous consumption.

Basically a cover of "No Scrubs" with new lyrics, "No Pigeons" savagely mocks women who front like they're high-class by, say, wearing a designer outfit for one night then returning it to the store. What makes "Pigeons" more interesting than the opportunistic novelty hit it's already become is the smarting sense of wounded retaliation underneath its high-spirited surface.

BET has edited the "Scrubs" and "Pigeons" videos together into a single "sick mix"; if this were simply a straightforward battle-of-the-sexes à la UTFO vs. Roxanne Shante, the Thievz's jeers about dirty Victoria drawers and mustache removal would be plain misogynist. But class animosity gives the tussle a different inflection, and an edge. It even hints faintly at some dim-and-distant end to the name-brand-fetishizing, it's-all-about-the-Benjamins era. In the interim, maybe it's time for specter-of-Marx concepts like "reification" and "false consciousness" to reenter the lexicon of hip hop critique.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

KODWO ESHUN, More Brilliant Than The Sun: Adventures in Sonic

The Guardian, 1997

by Simon Reynolds

More Brilliant Than The Sun is a survey of the 'black science fiction' tendency in music, from Lee Perry and George Clinton to contemporary sonic wizards like Tricky and Goldie. Although the idea of 'Afro-futurism' has been broached before (most notably by American critics Mark Dery and Greg Tate), Kodwo Eshun's book is the most sustained and penetrating analysis to date of what the author calls 'sonic fiction': the otherworldly vistas and alien mindscapes conjured by genres like dub reggae, hip hop, techno, and jungle.

The book kicks off at blitzkrieg pace and ferocity, with a manifesto that excoriates music journalists and cultural studies academics for being 'future shock absorbers', forever domesticating the strangeness of music. Dance music hacks are rightly ticked off for their abject failure to deal with rhythm, dance music's absolute raison d'etre and primary zone of impact on its listeners. As for the academy, Eshun is particularly scathing about treatments of black pop that analyse it in terms of soul, roots and 'the street'.

Rejecting these notions of raw expression and social realism, Eshun instead celebrates a lineage of black conceptualists, speculators and fabulists. These renegade autodidacts - Sun Ra, Rammellzee, Dr Octagon, Underground Resistance's Mike Banks and Jeff Mills - weave syncretic and idiosyncratic cosmologies using an array of esoteric sources. Eshun tracks this 'MythScience' through lyrics, songs and album titles, cover artwork, and (in Underground Resistance's case) hermetic slogans etched into the run-out vinyl of 12-inch singles.

As well as decoding these encrypted expressions of the Afro-Futurist imagination, Eshun focuses on the materiality of the music -- jungle's convoluted breakbeat rhythms, the headwrecking delirium of dub production and 'remixology', the timbral violence of the hip hop DJ's scratching. But Eshun's brand of "sub-bass materialism" has nothing in common with Marxist historical materialism. Instead of causality or continuity, Eshun looks for breaks, those moments when the future seems
to leap out of music; his punning name for the Afro-futurist canon he's erected in More Brilliant is a discontinuum.

It's a provocative stance, for sure, but at times you wonder if the baby hasn't been thrown out with the proverbial bathwater. Jungle, for instance, is probably best understood as a tangle of 'roots and future', to borrow a phrase from drum & bass outfit Phuture Assassins; as a subculture and a sound, it has one foot in the concrete jungles of Kingston, Jamaica, and the other in the data jungles of cyberspace. And is it really true, as Eshun seems to insist, that hip hop or reggae are diminished by attempts to locate them in a social context? 'The streets' may be a journalistic cliche too often marking a condescending attitude towards black creativity, but the phrase also contains a kernel of truth that can't be blithely brushed aside: the material realities of exclusion, disadvantage and exploitation that simultaneously hamper and energise all forms of underclass music, black and white.

Still, as a rhetorical strategy, Eshun's relentlessly future-focussed approach pays huge dividends. Compare More Brilliant Than The Sun with Greil Marcus's overpraised Dylan tome Invisible Republic of last year. Marcus's is a book burdened with history and barely concealed nostalgia, weighed down with ponderous, almost Old Testament imagery of curses, birthrights, debts, reckonings, and so forth. Having gleefully jettisoned the very category of the sociohistorical, Eshun's prose is free to be rapt by the future-now materiality of music as it impacts his "bodymind". The latter is just one example of the author's favorite stylistic strategy: the neologism. Puns, self-coinages and compound terms like "sonomatter", "conceptechnics", "clairaudience" and "auditionary" (the last two refer to seers who work with sound rather than vision) induce a pleasurable disorientation akin to starting a William Gibson novel, where it takes 40 pages before you get any grip on how this strange new world works.

Eshun's stylistic dazzle (every sentence aspires to be a bomb going off in your head) is highly effective in conveying the intensities of music, but it does mean that More Brilliant is best consumed in short spurts and small sips; a little pacing, the odd workaday bridging sentence, wouldn't have hurt. The influence of Marshall McLuhan, Paul Virilio and Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari isn't just intellectual but stylistic; like them, Eshun's forte is the aphorism and apercu.

Still, if the absolute measure of any music book is the extent to which it makes you want to hear the records, More Brilliant is a blinding success (literally--sometimes you have to shield your mind's eye from the glare). Eshun's book will get you rushing off to hunt down George Russell's Electronic Sonata For Souls Loved By Nature, a 1968 masterpiece of studio-warped 'electric jazz',
or Alice Coltrane's controversial tetralogy of albums that orchestrally remixed the music of late husband John. A 219 page elaboration of the enthused entreaty "you've just got to hear this record, you won't believe your ears", More Brilliant Than The Sun is compulsory reading for anyone even
remotely interested in music's cutting edges.

More Brilliant Than The Sun, review for Groove magazine special on Essential Techno Books, 2008

Kodwo Eshun’s first book takes a panoramic sweep through the “black science fiction” tendency in music. Not so much interpreting as recreating in ultra-vivid prose the alien mindscapes conjured by genres like dub reggae, hip hop, techno, and jungle, More Brilliant offers a heroically unorthodox approach to music writing. Eshun rejects the standard academic and journalistic approaches to black pop, specifically the sociohistorical angle that analyses Afro-diasporic music in terms of soul, roots and “the street”. Instead of perpetuating what he sees as the condescending myths of raw ghetto expression triggered by oppression and exclusion, Eshun celebrates the power and penetration of black intellect. He focuses on a lineage of conceptualists and fabulists that includes Sun Ra, Rammellzee, Dr Octagon, and Underground Resistance. Practitioners of what Eshun calls “Mythscience,” these artists weave idiosyncratic cosmologies from an array of arcane sources, scattering clues for the listener in lyrics, song and album titles, cover artwork, and so forth. As well as decoding these encrypted messages, Eshun pays equal attention to the materiality of music--jungle's convoluted breakbeat rhythms, the head-wrecking delirium of dub production, the textural violence of the hip hop DJ's scratching.

Rather than celebrate the grand ongoing tradition of black creativity, Eshun looks instead for breaks: moments when the future seems to leap out of music. He calls his Afro-Futurist canon a discontinuum. It’s a provocative stance, especially when you consider that the discourse of roots and reverence for ancestors has always been integral to black musical culture. Another problem with Eshun’s approach is that in rejecting the social aspect of music, he falls back into a kind of cyberculture era update of auteurism. More Brilliant focuses entirely on the singular genius, figures like Lee Perry, George Clinton, Goldie, rather than the collective processes by which music really evolves and mutates. More Brilliant is asocial in another sense: it is written from inside the head (or “bodymind” as Eshun calls it) of the atomized individual. There’s never any sense of the communality of musical experience--a major failing when you’re writing about dance music and especially black culture with its call-and-response rituals, rewinds, and appeals to the “massive”. In the end, though, these are small quibbles next to the enormous stimulation provided by Eshun’s provocative thesis. Above all, the book triumphs as an intoxicating prose experience. The inventiveness of the language is dizzying, its bombardment of puns, neologisms and compound terms "sonomatter", "conceptechnics", "auditionary"--a visionary who works with sound rather than vision) inducing a pleasurable disorientation to rival the music itself. Ten years on, More Brilliant Than the Sun remains compulsory reading for anyone interested in music’s cutting edges.
JUNGLE EMERGES: A Flashback to 1993
director's cut of a piece written six years later, Spin, 1999

by Simon Reynolds

Years before Roni Size and LTJ Bukem became international hipster favorites, jungle was banished from the media limelight. To identify yourself as a "junglist" in 1993 meant you belonged to an outcast tribe, a scene feared by most London clubbers as a sinister underworld populated by speed-freaks and baby-gangstas. Born out of rave's Ecstasy-fuelled fervor, the music had mutated, under the influence of bad drugs and the desperation of the recession-wracked early Nineties, until it was too hard, too dark, and too black for most people to handle.

The emergence of jungle has everything to do with drugs. Its frantic breakbeat rhythms evolved because ravers buzzing on too many E pills and amphetamine wraps craved beats as hectic and hyper as their own overdriven metabolisms. The music's bad-trippy aura and disorientating FX simultaneously reflected and exacerbated the paranoia induced by long-term stimulant abuse. 1993 was the year of "darkside", a crucial transitional phase between hardcore rave's hands-in-the-air euphoria and jungle's guns-in-the-air menace.

"The production played tricks on your mind, " enthuses Two Fingers, author of the pulp novel Junglist, talking about twilight-zone jungle classics like Boogie Time Tribe's "Dark Stranger" and Origin Unknown's "Valley of the Shadows". "Darkside freaked out a lot of people, especially those still in the Ecstasy haze--because on E there's no distance between you and the music. Darkside was just evil, evil music--and that was good. Cos it got rid of the lightweights, to be honest".

One of the first all-jungle-DJs raves, Jungle Fever, went out of its way to scare off fans of happy rave and fluffy house, theming the venue with tombstones, coffins, and Gothic statuary. But the classic darkside moment in jungle mythology is an infamous inccident at a rave called Telepathy, where DJ Rap unwittingly played 4 Hero's "Mr. Kirk's Nightmare"---a song in which a father is informed about his son's fatal overdose--just seconds after a boy was knifed on the dancefloor.

Stabbings and muggings, friction and tension.... Many blamed the shift from rave's smiley-face glee to jungle's skrewface scowl on another drug: crack. After all, who else but rock-smoking fiends could possibly enjoy such insanely frenetic beats? Joe Wieczorek, owner of the hardcore rave club Labrynth, claims "the early dark jungle, you might as well call it crack music. There's nothing worse for a raver than being somewhere he doesn't feel safe, and if there's fifty rock-heads in the club, it's going to frighten the life out of you." But although there was a spate of anti-crack tunes like DJ Ron's "Crackman On the Line" in 1993, others reject the linking of jungle and crack as a crypto-racist slur based on the fact that the dancefloor was anywhere from 50 to 80 percent black.

If any substance has a claim to be the true junglist's drug, it's marijuana-- especially the hydroponically-grown ultra-strong weed known as skunk. An archetypal tableau in any jungle club is a group of boys stood in a huddle "building and burning." One youth clasps his hands together, fingers interlocked, and upturns the palms to form a flat surface for his friend to build a massive spliff on; in a crowded, jostling club, it's the only way to roll. Another friend leans close to block off the sight-lines of any security guard in the vicinity. "Burning"... well, that's self-explanatory. Marijuana is the reason jungle basslines started to run at reggae tempo, exactly half the speed of the accelerated breakbeats, thereby allowing dancers to skank rather than rave. And marijuana is why the nudge-nudge wink-wink references to E in tracks were gradually replaced by roots reggae samples exalting ganja, sensimilla and herb.

Jungle wouldn't exist without two black musics that also worship sub-bass and the chronic that intensifies the low-end boom: hip hop and reggae. The life arc of DJ Hype, founder of the labels Ganja and True Playaz, is typical. A white working class boy from the desolate East London borough of Hackney, Hype spent the Eighties playing on a reggae sound-system and competing in hip hop cut'n'mix contests. By 1990, he was spinning house on pirate station Fantasy FM and recording brutal Euro-techno anthems as The Scientist. Jungle is the only-in-London amalgam of all these different imported sounds, and crucially it was a collective invention. " I always say, we are the foundation, because there's no one record, no single DJ, no specific club, where jungle started," Hype declares.

If you wanted to pinpoint the emergence of jungle, though, one contender is the moment at the end of 1992 when tracks like Bodysnatch's "Just 4 U London" and Code 071's "London Sumting" hit the pirate radio airwaves. "That it's-a-London-thing stance, I always took as this-is-a-black-thing, y'know," says Two Fingers. "London has the biggest black population in Britain". It was black fashion that shaped jungle's style spectrum, which ranged from hip hop-influenced "ruffneck soldier" minimalism (puffy MA1 and MA2 flight-jackets, namebrand sneakers, baggy pants) to dancehall-reggae derived ghetto fabulous flashiness. At the ragga-dominated raves like Sunday Roast and Desert Storm, the 80 percent black British crowd "larged it" VIP style--the men flaunting Versace and Moschino, gold sovereign rings and bottles of champagne; the women flexin' their abdomens and winin' their waists in their skin-tight "batty rider" shorts, micro-skirts, bustiers, and thigh-high boots.

As well as changing the way people moved on the dancefloor, the ragga influence was decisive in another area that sealed jungle's break with house and techno: the crucial role of the MC. "Girls sticking their asses in the air and a MC really working the crowd, getting them to hold their lighters up and blow their horns to get the DJ to rewind the track." is how Lee Billingham, aka DJ Bo!ne, recalls his first encounter with jungle at the South London club Lazerdrome. "I loved the whole 'selector! wheel-and-come-again!' , rewind thing," says Two Fingers, another Lazerdrome regular. The democratic way in which the audience controlled the DJ via the MC, he argues, is part of jungle's renegade blackness--its participatory, call-and-response ethos. "As the jungle MCs like GQ, Det, 5-0 and Moose took on the Jamaican patois thing, they became more than crowd motivators, they were vocalizing what the massive was feeling, connecting you with the music more intensely, and adding a lyrical element to this largely instrumental music. There's an ephemeral, magical quality to the MC chants--especially on the pirate radio stations, they'd just go off on one, creating stuff on the fly."

It's the pirate radio stations that are the real heroes of jungle's story--they kept the vibe alive in the scene's early, pre-breakthrough phase. London has dozens of these illegal radio collectives, gangstas of the airwaves who broadcast from the top of towering apartment blocks and engage in a constant, quasi-military struggle to survive not just governmental suppression but the skullduggery of rival stations who'll gladly steal their pirate brethren's transmitters. Legend has it that one outfit, Rush FM, turned the derelict upper floors of an East London block into a fortress so impregnable that the DJ's had to rappel up the side of the building to reach the studio. They sealed the stairwell entrance with concrete, hollow metal tubes pumped with ammonia gas, and a wire connected to the electrical supply. When local government officials attempted to drill through the barricade, they hit the live wire and an electric spark ignited the gas, exploding the concrete and showering the workmen with shrapnel.

Yet for all its militancy and moodiness, jungle seethed with "a fierce, fierce joy", as convert Bjork put it. The speed of the music was crucial, as if you could somehow ride its future-rush, achieve escape velocity, and smash through to a brighter tomorrow.

"The breakbeats were so fast and chopped up, your body wanted to be pulled in twenty different directions at once," recalls DJ Bo!ne of his baptismal experience at Lazerdome. "Me and my mates just looked at each other, jaws dropped, and were, like, 'This is mental!!!!"."

Says Two Fingers: "Anyone can be a junglist, but for me, it's part of having a black spirit. Jungle is about getting sweaty and having a religious experience on the dancefloor. It can feel like the Holy Spirit is moving through you."

A London Sometin' Dis
A Jungle Documentary filmed in 1993
Segment 1
Segment 2
Segment 3
another one, this from 1996
Lost In Music
EVE, Ruff Ryders’ First Lady (Ruff Ryders/Interscope)
Village Voice, October 6th 1999

by Simon Reynolds

It was like the changing of the guard—that moment this summer when Missy's "She's A Bitch" flopped spectacularly while Eve's "What Ya Want" established its long thrall over BET and Hot 97. This wasn't just Eve Jeffers displacing Missy Elliott as "that next bitch" (as she describes herself in her album's notes), it was the defeat of Timbaland by Swizz Beatz, chief producer for the Yonkers label/MC clan Ruff Ryders. Indeed, there was a definite hint of slay-me-not Oedipal anxiety when Timbaland paternalistically bigged up Swizz in The Source as the only producer he checked for.

Like that other new beat pretender She'k spere (TLC, Destiny's Child), Swizz is rhythmatically a son of Timbaland, though; both take the latter's trademark microsyncopations and hiccuping hesitations and make them even more fiddly and off-kilter. The flagship single off the Ruff Ryders' Ryde or Die, Vol. 1 compilation, "What Ya Want" worked as a perfect advertisement for self—Eve pushing herself forward both as look-don't-touch fantasy object (for male rap fans) and "the one to fear" (for rival female rappers), Swizz polyrhythmically announcing the Ruff Ryders sound as "changing the game." The ultra-languid groove of "What Ya Want"—a slinky lattice of Latin percussion and piano—dovetails perfectly with Eve's seductively supercilious flow.

"Gotta Man," the first single from Eve's debut album (which entered the Billboard pop charts at No. 1 a few weeks ago) is even more striking. It's so sparse, so deceptively simple, there's almost nothing to it: a loping, falter-funk beat, a pre-orgasmic female moan like the lowing of a lovesick cow, and a plangent mandolin refrain doubled at the chorus by a singsongy schoolgirl vocal with the indelibly catchy play ground chant quality of "The Clapping Song," "Double Dutch," or "Iko Iko." "Gotta" is a chip off the same block as Swizz's other smash production of the moment, Jay-Z's love song to diamonds "Girl's Best Friend"—similar clip-clop rhythm and ultrafeminine vocal hook, but even more so-wrong- it's-right sounding. With its asymmetrical beat-loop and staccato Morse code synth-riff, "Girl's Best Friend" could al most be a hip-house or early rave track, some thing by Shut Up And Dance or 4 Hero from 1990—there's that same makeshift, threshold-of-disintegration quality.

Exquisitely blending supple lilt and stilted lurch, "Gotta Man" and "Girl's Best Friend" are the most peculiar black pop hits since Aaliyah's "Are You That Somebody?" So it's a little disappointing that nothing else on Eve's debut approaches their idiosyncrasy and charm. Most of Ruff Ryders' First Lady sounds like Swizz's productions for DMX—that grimy, "ugly" sound that defines street (as opposed to under ground) hip hop in 1999. The formula is crude but effective: muddy bass thump, kick drums impacting like low blows, snares like syncopated flurries of punches to the head, and the Hook. Usually played on keyboards (Swizz prides himself on not using samples) and exuding that cheap-and-nasty '80s-digital odor, the Hook ranges from the bleat of a traumatized pocket calculator, to spindly semi-melodies like ad jingles or videogame muzik, to sub–Harold Faltermeyer synthstrumental refrains of the sort you'd hear in a pre-Hollywood Jackie Chan movie, to riffs that oddly recall early-'80s hard core techno, to random-sounding, atonal trills like mice scampering on Schoenberg's piano.

There have been hints that First Lady is not exactly the record Eve intended to make—one early interview promised a Lauryn Hill –style mélange of styles and collaborations with multiple producers. But Swizz wound up producing almost all of it—a putsch that might explain his low placement in Eve's sleeve-note thank-you list, after virtually everybody else involved in the record, including the team who designed the sleeve. And you can sorta see why she might be pissed. From the testosterone-soaked production to the title Ruff Ryders' First Lady itself, Eve is subsumed within her crew's identity. Although she holds her own amid the gruff-voiced brawl of posse cuts like "Scenario 2000," she's had to play down what was so unusual about "What Ya Want"—the sultry skrewface poise, the sweatless cool—in favor of a more in-yer-face, tomboy raucousness.

At a time when hardcore rap's sole acknowledged value is flow (verbal and cash), Eve is more than capable of running with the boys, though. Rhyming with an impressive blend of smooth 'n' vicious, she finds the requisite new twists to the standard-issue thematic repertoire: boasts, threats, brand-name checks, click salutes, and territorial boosterism (like her Illadelphian anthem "Philly, Philly," which is preceded by a nativist-verging-on-racist skit caricaturing a Bangladeshi immigrant who can't make a cheese steak correctly). Predict ably if entertainingly, Eve righteously scourges inadequates and haters, blasting "little-dick niggaz" and "fake-ass bitches" in "Let's Talk About," and in "Stuck Up" humiliating a suitor with "insufficient funds" and an unfortunate allegiance to last year's designer goodies. "Ain't Got No Dough" is the most sonically arresting track after "Gotta Man," an amalgam of con temporary r&b beats, electro high hats, and scratching (skids and disconcerting decelerations, like your turntable keeps switching off midbeat). Lyrically, though, it's just a late entry in 1999's quasi-feminist trend of divas trashing "broke-ass niggaz." The skit "Chokie Nikes" similarly savages a scrub with a fake Rolex, chronic halitosis, and poor chat-up technique. And while the anti-wifebashing "Love Is Blind" could be construed as pro-empowerment by those looking for strong women in hip hop (what other kind could there be, though, rap not exactly being a haven for the shy or self-doubting?), Eve seems as disgusted by her girl friend's weakness in sticking with her abusive man as by the perpetrator's brutality.

Basically, Eve's persona is the thug's moll. As guest rapper DMX puts it in "Dog Match," "behind every real dog there's that bitch behind him"—you'n'me–against-the-world, Bonnie & Clyde romanticism undercut somewhat by the chorus's marrowcurdling image of "paramedics on your chest/pushing and breathing." (The couple that slays together, stays together?) By far the best of First Lady's (th)ugly tracks is "Maniac." Driven by rowdy call-and-response and a TV sports–style triumphant synth-horn fanfare, the song thrillingly evokes the bristling alpha-male energy of a nightclub. It's a milieu through which Eve moves confidently, flirting with the scene's "top dog," getting "drunker than a muthafucker," and finally cutting in line for the ladies' room. The image of Eve gloating as she leaves a long line of "chicks hating" in her wake says something about the bitch-eat-bitch "reality" that rap in 1999 so doggedly represents. And it says something about Eve herself—in the contrast between the originality of the rhyme versus the petty triumph of incivility it celebrates.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

JAY-Z, Vol. 3... Life and Times of S.Carter
DMX,And Then There Was X
THE LOX, We Are The Streets
Uncut, May 2000

by Simon Reynolds

Critics love lost causes. It’s almost part of the job description. At a certain point, though, doggedly insisting “this should be pop, not that chart crap” gets counterproductive, blinding you to vital things going on in the world of the stuff that sells. It’s particularly problematic with rap, a megabuck entertainment industry these days, but still motored by the cruel fluctuations of popular desire, aka “the streets”. Predictably, last year’s critics polls endorsed such “lost causes” as the Roots and Prince Paul/Handsome Boy Modelling School, and overlooked huge-selling records by DMX and Eve, Lil Wayne and Hot Boys, despite the fact that the two labels/clans to which these artists are affiliated (Ruff Ryders and Cash Money) are at the forefront of a creative upsurge in hardcore rap. Yo, reality check: a bitter pill to swallow, but the truth is that Nineties rap was shaped not by 3 Feet High or Fear of A Black Planet (twin totems of the critic-cherished “lost golden age of 1988-91), but by NWA’s Efil4zaggin and Notorious BIG’s Ready To Die. Similarly, the directness of Tupac has proved far more influential than any Wu-Tang clansman’s virtuoso encryption skillz.

These new platinum-selling monsters by Ruff Ryders’ DMX, Cash Money’s Juvenile, and Jay-Z (don of his own dynasty, Roc-A-Fella) completely shred the tired critical line: major label = formula and indie (aka “undieground”) = inventive. Take Jay-Z's single "Do It Again": Rockwilder's production as harsh and mechanistic as a track by Jeff Mills, just a melody-free spasm of sub-bass, a nagging blurt of computer-in-distress bleeps, and an asymmetrical loop of punishing kicks and snares. Not for nothing does the track start with the warning: “it’s about to get real ugly in here”. Street rap like Jay-Z’s is unpretty in another sense. Like the Swans circa Greed, the lyrics--an interminable catalogue of boasts, threats and flaunted wealth--offer an X-Ray view of capitalism’s primary drives of will-to-power, alpha-male display and ravenous appetite. But where Gira’s vision was a Beckett-style dehumanized hell of domination/submission, Jay-Z and Juvenile make like they actually enjoy living like this. Lyrically, “Do It Again” revels in the playa's nightly cycle of clubbing, drinking, pulling, and taking the ho home: "6-AM I be digging her out/6-15 I be kicking her out". But the music (tres Swans, actually) makes it sound like a treadmill grind.

As superthugs go, DMX is the most interesting, because he doesn't glamorize the gangsta lifestyle. Produced by Ruff Ryders chief soundboy Swizz Beatz, "One More Road To Cross" has the accursed, burdened heft of Blacks Sabbath and Flag--a perfect fit for DMX's stoic description of a carefully planned liquor store heist that goes bloodily wrong. "The Professional" is a bleak glimpse into the mind of a hired assassin ("Shit ain't go too well/THAT'S MY LIFE/Know I'm going to hell/THAT'S MY LIFE") while the betrayal-and-retribution themed "Here We Go Again" starts with the insuperably fatigued murmur "Same old shit, dog/Just a different day". This vision of thug life as agony, repetition, and endurance is communicated as much through DMX's hoarse rasping timbre (pure Ozzy/Rollins) and his flow (alternating between pay-close-attention-this-is-hard-earned-knowledge-I'm-sharing slow to rapid-fire blurts like he's got too much pain to cram into the rhyme-scheme's stanzas.)

The Ruff Ryders camp has its moments of exuberance, like the rowdy call-and-response clamor and bruising bass-bounce of The Lox's "Wild Out" . It’s almost exhilirating enough to make you forget socially irresponsible couplets like "if a nigga step on your goddamn shoes/fuck him up/WILD OUT!!!"--virtually incitement to over-act to any perceived insult or threat. Lyrically, no two ways about it, street rap is pure evil: spiritually bankrupt, in thrall to false consciousness (delusions like “crime pays” and “some gangstas stay on top for ever”) and basically no advance on the black nihilism and commodity-fetishism of Schooly D circa 1986’s “PSK” and “Gucci Time”.

Word-wise the creativity resides in the endless, black-humorous twists on murder/money/misogyny. Jay-Z’s OG shtick pukes up some of his wittiest wordplay. In “Do It Again” he’s so iced-out with diamond-encrusted jewelry , his “wrists’s frostbit minus two degrees”, while “S. Carter” turns the rapper’s real name into the jeering chorus: “S dot carter/you must try harder/competition is NADA!”

Juvenile’s old-head-on-young-shoulders, worldly and slight-weary persona is much easier to warm to than Jay-Z’s richer-than-thou condescension. It helps, too, that Cash Money’s trackmaster, Mannie Fresh, is rap’s most creative producer right now, merging the joyous electro-style bass-boom and ear-tickling triple-time hi-hats of New Orleans bounce with incongruous stuff--baroque pseudo-classical synth-melodies, jazz-fusion guitar licks, techno stabs and textures. Fresh used to make house tracks with Chicago pioneer Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley. There’s been a bizarre convergence between rave and rap in the last year: Jay-Z’s "Snoopy Track" sees Timbaland blaring Numan-meets-Beltram synth-bombast, while his Swizz-produced “Girls Best Friend” has the off-kilter lurch of 4 Hero’s early breakbeat hardcore.

On the latest Ruff Ryder product, the Lox’s album, though, Swizz’s sample-free digital synth sound (theme-from-Rocky-style triumphal fanfares, spindly videogame semi-tunes, atonal keyboard trills) is sounding a little threadbare from over-use. The Lox don’t help with lines as blunt as “I turn your face into pudding”, “I’ma make a nigga leak”, and the niggativity nadir of call-that-a-worldview? couplet “all I know is drugs and guns and plenty of weed/and that bitches suck dick and niggas’ll bleed”.

The trouble with hardcore rap is that while producers keep coming up with sonic surprises, the MCs face a tougher challenge: how many different ways can you say “I don’t give a fuck”?
Uncut, January 2001)

by Simon Reynolds

Wu lynchpin the RZA is almost unique in the pantheon of great hip hop producers for having not-a-lot going on rhythmically. Most of his creativity goes into Wu's trademark cinematic arrangements--noir strings, moody horn stabs, dank wafts of gloomy ambience--and even these tend to be looped and layered in fairly straight-forward fashion. Trouble is, in this post-Timbaland era of futuristic cyberpunk and jagged riddim science, it simply doesn't cut it anymore to take a breakbeat and let it roll. Track after track, that's exactly what the RZA does. It took me a while to work out why his beats are so subdued and pro forma. In contemporary rap and R&B, the drums are basically lead voices, duetting with and sometimes upstaging the real vocalist. But for Wu-Tang Clan, the Word is King. Rhythm is subordinated to a supportive role; it should never draw attention to itself.

What Raekwon, Method Man, Ghostface Killah, GZA, and so on do is great. But it's hard to see why headz rate the Clan on a higher level of consciousness than, say, Jay-Z. Sure, they invented that we-are-crime-family, collective thang. But everybody's now copped the blood-brotherhood, dynasty shtick. And, 90 percent of the time, all the Wu offer lyrically is more complicated boasts and threats than your average gangsta. You get the alpha-male humiliating his inferiors by stealing their women: "You know me/Every time you kiss that ho, you blow me". You get delusions of invincibility and thugly nonsense about fucking "bitches raw". You get crime/rhyme analogies ("used to be in chains/now we snatch chains/took the crack game/applied it to the rap game") and realer-than-thou bluster about how "the streets raised us" and living on "hostile blocks" where "Glocks is spittin'". Basically you get the same old shit--redeemed, just, by the cinematic vividness and rapid-fire relentlessness of image-flow.

That said, The W contains a fair few exceptions to this deadly combo of "talking fast saying nothing" over perfunctory beats. Standard-issue RZA dirge-murk "One Blood Under W" is given added ache by Junior Reid's mournful roots vocal. Ol Dirty Bastard drools neat, wacked-out drivel on "Conditioner". "Let My Niggas Live" is the only really rhythmically inventive track--a percussive roil of brooding avant-funk that could be Last Poets or Tago Mago. Based around a beautiful if over-used sample source, "I Can't Go To Sleep" is a howling blues of racial paranoia. The similarly themed "Jah World" makes an abject plea for deliverance from intolerable conditions the Wu apparently believe are only one tiny step up from slavery.

In some quarters, the W is being hailed as a return to Enter the Wu-Tang , the group's worldstorming debut. And there's little here that would sound anachronistic in 1993. OK, it's a great Wu-Tang Clan LP, complete with the obligatory, well-stale-by-now snatches of dialogue from martial arts movies. But the rap game's changed several times since '93, and, beyond the diehards, does anyone really care any more?
BREAKBEAT GARAGE a.k.a "Grime Ahoy!"
from Unfaves 2000 (written spring 2001)

by Simon Reynolds

When this flavour of "garage" first started to come through--must have been late
1999, with Deekline--I remember being excited by the way the sultry, swinging R&B-2step flow would be disrupted by this much more raw, stripped down and rhythmically unsupple sound that was disconcertingly similar to Big Beat: 130 bpm breaks, bulbous bass, wacky samples. But what was refreshing about these tune--"I Don't Smoke", later the more electro-flavored "Dilemma" by So Solid Crew--when they were a brief tang of different flavour, becomes tediously homogenous as a scene/sound on its own. Stanton Warriors's Da Virus" especially seems to be the drab template for a lot of this stuff, and "138 Trek" wore out its welcome fairly quick. There's some cool-enough stuff, I suppose--like Blowfelt's bippety bassline tune "Lickle Rolla"---but generally it sounds too much like jungle minus the extra b.p.m speed-rush, hardcore without the E-fired euphoria. Or worse like nu-skool breaks (alarming to see Rennie 'Stupid Fucking Name' Pilgrem reviewing 2step tunes in Muzik's breakbeat column).

That said, the last batch of pirate tapes I got, showed signs of a new twist in this breakstep (or whatever they're calling it) direction: not so much jungle-slowed-down, and more like a post-rave, drum'n'bass influenced form of English rap. On these spring 2001 pirate tapes, there's hardly any R&B diva tunes, and every other track features very Lunndunn-sounding MCs or ragga-flavored vocals, over caustic acid-riffs and techsteppy sounds, like some latterday Dillinja production. Unlike with techstep or recent d&b, there's very little distorto-blare in the production, there's this typically 2step clipped, costive feel, an almost prim and dainty quality to the aggression-- a weird combo of nasty and neat-freak. Lyrically, the vibe seems to be similarly pinched in spirit, a harsh, bleak worldview shaped subconsciously by the crumbling infrastructural reality beneath New Labour's fake grin; UKG seems to be already transforming itself from boom-time music to recession blues. The Englishness of the vocals reminds me of 3 Wizemen Men and that perpetual false-dawn for UK rap. Lots of killer tunes I can't identify, but one in particular stood out that I could: "Know We" by Pay As U Go Kartel. As I say, quite mean-minded and loveless music but sonically very exciting-- a new twist if not quite paradigm shift from the hardcore continuum.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

VARIOUS ARTISTS, The Biggest Ragga Dancehall Anthems 2000
ELEPHANT MAN, Comin' 4 You!
Uncut, March 2001

by Simon Reynolds

From early Nineties jungle to 2-step garage, dancehall is the vibe-it-up spice, the pungent flava added by producers for that extra tang of rudeness. Beyond this subordinate role as a pantry full of patois vocal licks ripe for sampling, though, dancehall has its own forceful claims as Electronic Music. Just check the madcap creativity of Beenie Man's "Moses Cry" on this Greensleeves double-CD Biggest Ragga Dancehall Anthems 2000 for sounds as futuristic and aberrant-sounding as any avant-techno coming out of, say, Cologne. Produced by Ward 21 & Prince Jammy, its assymetrical groove is built from palpitating kick drums, garbled rave-style synth-stabs, and an eerie bassline that sounds like a human groan digitally mangled and looped. Or check the quirktronica pulsescape underpinning Beenie on "Badder Than the Rest", or Elephant Man's amazing "2000 Began," which is basically acid techno a la Plastikman.

It's easy to overlook dancehall's sonic strangeness, though, because the performers' personae are so domineering. The mix seems lopsided, in-yer-face voices battling with the beat to control the soundscape, and crushing the rest of the music (strangulated samples, perky videogame-style blip-melodies) into a skinny strip of no-man's land in between. The ragga voice, jagged and croaky, is a form of sonic extremism in itself. Dancehall's got to be the only form of modern pop where the typical range for male vocals is baritone to basso profundo. Obviously related to the culture's premium on testosterone and disdain for effeminacy, ragga's ultramasculinist bombast sounds simultaneously absurd and intimidating. From some DJs, like Buccaneer, you'll even hear a Pavarotti-esque warble, hilariously poised between portentous and preposterous.

Elephant Man's own voice is a pit-of-belly boom that opens up like an abyss of menace, enhanced by a sinister, serpentile lisp. Combine this sort of gravelly machismo with typical lyrics about exit wounds and tonight being the opposite of your birthday (ie. your "deathnight") and you've got some seriously chilling Staggerlee business. "Replacement Killer," a series of boasts about how coldblooded Elephant is, actually utilises death-rattle gasps as functioning elements of the beat. No surprise, then, that there's a mutual trade pact between dancehall and gangsta rap. "One More" is based on DMX's "One More Road To Cross," "E-L-E-P-H-A-N-T" rips a Dre/Snoop chorus, and the album's fiercest cut "Somebody" rides the clanking rampage of the Yardbounce riddim, a fusion of dancehall with the New Orleans bounce style popularized by Cash Money Records.

With six appearances on Biggest Ragga Dancehall Anthems 2000 Capleton reaffirms his supremacy over the dancehall already established by 2000's awesome More Fire LP. Like Malcolm X, he belongs to the syndrome of the self-reformed Staggerlee; like Buju Banton, he's a raggamuffin who turned Rasta. But Capleton's sanctimony doesn't sabotage his records because instead of soothing roots reggae visions of "one love", he concentrates on Old Testament-style wrath and armageddon: Jah as the ultimate Enforcer, the Don of dons, smiting the corrupt and ungodly. The gloating relish with which he wields the brimstone imagery of divine retribution is as powerful as ragga's ultraviolence. Capleton's righteousness and Elephant Man's ruthlessness are flipsides of the same cultural coin as; God's fire simply replaces gun fire. Even though he's a "good guy" now, Capleton still sounds like a rude boy.

Bonus Bit, from Blissblog Wednesday, December 04, 2002

Still reeling from the Greensleeves launch party for Elephant Man’s third album Higher Level, probably the closest I’ll ever get to attending a proper bashment. What a strange-looking gentleman the self-styled “energy god” is—as my companion Sci-Fi Paul remarked, with his bright yellow tendrils of hair and homely face Elephant looks uncannily like Harpo Marx. And what gives with the bizarre patchwork corduroy suit in shades of brown, beige and white?

Elephant is probably the biggest dancehall deejay of the last few years, at least inside Jamaica itself, and offhand I can’t think of an event where I’ve witnessed such audience love: the front six rows were a forest of mini-cameras and camcorders, a panorama of adulatory faces and frank female lust. The first half-hour of the show was one of the most intense performances I’ve ever experienced, in impact terms on a par with Swans and Diamanda Galas. Perhaps the most exciting and thought-provoking aspect was the collectivity: it was meant to be Elephant’s show, but apart from a bizarre, extremely long and mostly (to me) incomprehensible-owing-to-patois speech right at the start of the performance, he mostly let his retinue of crew members and guests shine. Hardly any songs got played for more than a minute, and some got cut off after about 20 seconds; it was a chaos of MC freestyles and singers crooning lover’s rock and R&B in delirious falsetto (one chap actually sounding like a soprano, so womanly it was almost disturbing). And even though the event started to flag a bit about two-thirds through, owing to the excessive number of people onstage and the incessant swapping around of the mic, I’d still say this was way more entertaining than any hip hop show I’ve ever seen.

Which may explain the looks of sheer delight on people’s faces. After years of going to moody jungle and UKG events, it was a surprise, and refreshing, to witness such full-on enjoyment and joyousness. In a really interesting way, dancehall stars seem to simultaneously be treated as gods and yet have a representative-of-the-people quality that makes them accessible and down-to-earth. Maybe this is related to the way that dancehall’s turnover is so intense that most star deejays return to the street real quick. But while they’re in the spotlight, boy do they revel in it. Elephant, the bastard, made us wait two hours, basking in the VIP room as TV crews (presumably from JA) jostled for his attention, and members of his entourage seized their moment in front of the camera, firing off their mammoth “big-up” namecheck lists and performing their trademark vocal licks.

And along with the sense of fun and release, my god, the style of the audience: with the men, it was sometimes so exquisite, it verged on (and this is damn weird all things considered) gay. The whole experience did make me sympathise with wigga types who just decide ‘"nah, white culture can’t compete with this’"and dedicate their whole lives to the pre-doomed fraudulence and pathos of trying to pass for black. There were a handful of white wannabes at this event, looking distinctly awkward. And of course there was ginger-haired Bobby Konders of Massive B/Hot 97 fame. (Talking of your white custodian/Steve Barrow-Barker types, I was given a flyer for a David Rodigan event: have you ever seen a picture of this guy, he looks like Alan Partridge gone totally bald!).

And the album? It’s great—-my favorite track at this moment is “Tall Up Tall Up”, with its Yuletide dancehall versioning of “Joy To the World”, complete with string quartet. At a certain point I realized I was never going to be more than a dancehall dilettante, ‘cos to really keep on top of it is a full-time activity, entailing many hours in record-store basements whose walls are covered with 7 inch singles. But I look forward with renewed eagerness to the dilettante's annual ritual: buying the Greensleeves and VP "anthems of the year" comps.