Sunday, March 30, 2014

interview nuggets #4

What’s the difference between listening as a fan and listening as a critic?
I’ve been doing it as a critic for so long I’m not sure I can remember. I was listening like a critic before I actually was one, because I was such an ardent reader of the British music press and already half-knew that’s what I was going to be when I grew up. As far as I can tell, the main difference is that you listen not just for pleasure but always with the formation of new ideas as a goal. You want the music not just to satisfy but to give you new thoughts and new sensations. So this inevitably creates a bias, a distortion of sensibility.

For instance whenever I have written really rampantly about a new form of music—like, say, grime in the early 2000s, at a certain point I’ll have said everything I’m capable of saying on the subject. Unless the music keeps moving ever onwards, it won’t be able to stimulate new ideas in me. Most genres settle down after a while—even the most exciting and fast-moving ones can’t sustain that pace forever.
People who are just fans, who purely enjoy the genre, will probably stick around longer than a critic-obsessive. But for someone like me, the way I’m wired, I will want to move on. It may well be that genre continues to generate quality tunes, but if the broader contours of the genre or scene aren’t evolving or mutating, then there’s nothing more to say about it. So that is kind of occupational hazard or limitation—that you are not that interested in genres, or individual artists for that matter, who just solidly plug away churning out good-to-great stuff. A critic—or at least a critic of the kind I am—is always looking for the next leap forward, the new development. Because it forces your mind to come up with new ideas, new language.

Any observations on the link between music and the visual arts?

... I would flip the question and argue that music—or at least pop music—is a visual art in itself. The instances of popular youth music that are purely about the music are quite rare instances—even Deadhead culture, which would seem to be not very style oriented, has a lot to do with light shows and trippy colors (not forgetting the whole tie-dye thing). But specifically in terms of capital A “Art,” pop music has always been as much about clothes, stage moves, theatricality, spectacle… about packaging, album covers, posters, T-shirts, logos, promotional campaigns … about videos and films too.

Pop is a messy hybrid of music, visuals, lyrics, business, discourse. In the early decades of pop and rock, pop stars usually had teams of experts providing these elements: a group would have favorite photographers, or fashion designers they worked with, promo directors, graphic artists doing the logo and the album covers. Groups that took a very active and informed direct involvement in directing all of that were quite unusual—the David Bowies and Roxy Musics and Talking Heads. However as the years have gone by it’s more and more the case that bands involve themselves intensely in all the para-musical aspects of the band. Look at a group like Vampire Weekend, who design their own record covers and clearly have firm opinions about typography and such like. The new DIY artists in underground music often create the whole package themselves—the music, but also the record covers and the little abstract or weird promos they put on YouTube. I guess the software used in all these processes is not only affordable, but the skills required are transferable.

 [from interview with Corcoran School of Art blog ]

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

director's cut, Index  magazine, 2001
by Simon Reynolds

Centro Fly, Manhattan, Winter 2001. Tonight the club's mainfloor hosts a night called GBH--shorthand for Great British House. If the night was actually based in the U.K., the name would be mildly amusing--it's the abbreviation for "grievous bodily harm," an indictment roughly equivalent to "assault". There's also a faintly amusing echo of the veteran punk band GBH. 

This club, though, couldn't be more harmless, less punk. The music chugs along efficiently, a cautious composite defined mostly be what it's not (not too deep, too druggy, too gay, too hard, too organic, too anthemic). Groove Armada's "Superstylin'" comes on, and the residual tang of "vibe" in the dancehall vocal only serves to emphasize how deracinated and over-processed the rest of the track is. As for the crowd, they're smartly dressed but not flamboyantly styled, and impossible to gauge in terms of subcultural affiliation;  their celebration never reaches the level of abandon, let alone frenzy. 

I'm actually here for what's going on in the basement, the 2step night Drive By (where UK rave veterans Shut Up and Dance are spinning) but on a strange impulse I climbed the stairs to monitor the vital signs of house culture. And I'm ambushed by an unexpected fury of disgust, unable to understand why I find GBH's sub-Dionysian bustle so snugly smug, such a personal affront. And from there it's a short step to wondering: how come I ever got the idea that dance culture was meant to be an arena for danger in the first place? Right now, none of the styles of postrave floor fodder that rule the clubs--"progressive," trance, filter house, tech-house, hard house--substantiate the notion of dance-with-edge. 

Flash back, ooh, 23 years.  Disco is still at its height, and although discophobes are calling for its death, it actually seems, in 1978/79, that rock is the one that's ready for last rites. Out of those mobilized by punk, the smartest minds are arguing that traditional rock'n'roll is exhausted and the way forward involves embracing  the rhythms and studio  techniques of  disco and dub.  This "anti-rockist" vanguard--Public Image Ltd, Talking Heads, Gang of Four, James Chance, Pop Group, A Certain Ratio, to name just a few--share David Byrne's belief that "black dance production is a bigger revolution than punk."
But they don't want to simply copy black dance music as closely as possible, in that time-honored, over-reverential white bluesman/blue-eyed soul/wigga tradition; they want to mutate it, warp it, infect its upfulness with angst, militancy, and political despair. 

Two songs from this punk-funk moment seem especially emblematic, and could be said to have changed my life. PiL's "Death Disco" was actually a UK Top 20 hit in the summer of 1979, and I can vividly recall the pained expression on the presenter's face as he announced the group's appearance on Top of the Pops (England's equivalent to American Bandstand).  "Death Disco" shattered the show's merry light entertainment atmosphere: over Keith Levene's soul-flaying guitar and Jah Wobble's dark-surging  disco-style "walking bassline", ex-Sex Pistol John Lydon howled muezzin-style as he anatomized the horror of  looking into his mother's eyes as she lay on her deathbed.

The other funk noir tune is "Dance of the Screamers" by Ian Dury & the Blockheads, who weren't generally thought of as part of the post-punk vanguard. Indeed by 1979's Do It Yourself they'd crossed over as massively popular entertainers in the UK: the once-menacing Dury clasped to the British public's bosom as the chirpy Cockney king of comedy-rock.  "Dance of the Screamers," that album's stand-out song, is no barrel of laughs though. The sound is slick disco (the Blockheads were shit-hot, session-quality funkateers) but the lyric devastates the party vibe, reimagining the dancefloor as a killing field for social cripples and lost 'n' lonely losers desperate for love. Eventually Dury abandons words altogether, his hoarse howls of agony sparring with Davey Payne's freeform sax-blasts.

Dancing in the dark (figuratively and literally) to "Death Disco" and "Screamers"--this was my introduction to dance music. Later I fell for the punk-funk paroxysms of Delta 5 and Gang of Four, the  polyrhythmic panoramas of Talking Heads' Remain In Light, the dark absurdist "mutant disco" of Was (Not Was), the Chic-for-sociopaths of Defunkt. The latter, hailed at the time as funk's very own Sex Pistols but now almost totally forgotten, was formed by James Chance's  estranged horn section (New York between 1979-82 was a hotbed of groups based around the notion of dance-with-edge). Leader Joe Bowie defined the group as a revolt against the sedative culture of disco: "We've got to wake up again and Defunkt are part of that resurgence of thought."

By 1983, though, the notion of avant-funk or punk-funk had run out of steam, trapped itself within its own cliches: sub-Miles trumpet-heard-through-fog, neurotic slap-bass, guttural pseudo-sinister vocals,  Ballard and Burroughs references. The leading edge of white alternative music recoiled from the dancefloor. Groups as diverse as The Smiths, Husker Du, REM, Jesus & Mary Chain, restricted their influence-intake to the whitest regions of rock's past: The Byrds folk-rock, Velvet Underground, rockabilly. Still, the core contention of the punk-funk project--that rock's hopes of  enjoying a future beyond mere antiquarianism (the Cramps, the White Stripes) depends on assimilating the latest rhythmic innovations from black dance music--never entirely disappeared.

What happened was that the next-wave of postpunk groups, like Scritti Politti and New Order, fully embraced the latest black dance styles (electro, synthfunk) and their tools (drum machines, sequencers, Fairlight samplers), infiltrating their doubt or dread into the mix via the lyrics and vocal approach, but not tampering with the music to any great degree.  Other ex-punks (Paul Weller's Style Council, Simply Red) just took on blackness wholesale: the music, the lyrical language, the soul style of vocalisation. And for quite a long period in the Eighties, this was the consensus: that the best white artists could do with black music was try not to fuck with it, for fearing of fucking it up. Emulate, not mutate.

This "soulboy" consensus was rudely shocked by the arrival of acid house in 1987. Gospel-influenced song-based house was highly palatable (Weller even made a deep house record) but the harsh futuristic attack of the Roland 303 acid bass was greeted with appalled incomprehension: "it's so cold, so mechanistic---where's the soul?!?!". To which my response, was "exactly, exactly, and who cares?", Hearing the early Chicago acid tunes was like the totally unscheduled resurrection of avant-funk, half-a-decade after its demise, and half-a-world away from its birthplace in Britain and Germany. In songs like Phuture's "Your Only Friend" and Sleezy D's "I've Lost Control", you could hear uncanny echoes of PiL, Cabaret Voltaire, 23 Skidoo: the inhibited and coercive treadmill rhythms, the constipated basslines, the desolate dub-space. Even the  imagery evoked by the track titles or stripped-down vocal chants--trance-dance as control, a sinister subjugating form of hypnosis; scenarios of mindwreck, abduction, paranoia---was just totally 1981.  And as it happened, some of the acid house pioneers were influenced by the early avant-funk and synth experimentalists, from Throbbing Gristle to German outfits like DAF and Liaisons Dangereuses (both huge on Chicago's early Eighties dancefloors).

It was only right and proper, then, that the pan-European subcultural upsurge triggered by acid house allowed many original avant-funkers to resurface. Cabaret Voltaire's Richard H. Kirk formed Sweet Exorcist and made some of era's classic "bleep techno";  Graham Massey, 808 State's musical genius and future Bjork collaborator, was formerly of minor avant-funk outfit Biting Tongues. Throbbing Gristle/Psychic TV's Genesis P.Orridge, Soft Cell's Dave Ball, Youth from Killing Joke, 400 Blows's Tony Thorpe, Torch Song's William Orbit, Quando Quango's Mick Pickering.... there's an endless list of avant-funk veterans whose dormant careers were instantly revitalized by the new context created by the synergy of house and Ecstasy. The concept of "rave" itself, with its multiple connotations of madness, fury, and deranging euphoria, seemed to me like pure punk-funk in spirit: the ultimate merger of aggression and celebration. 

Between 1991 and 1993, as rave turned to hardcore, hardcore to  jungle, it really did seem like the reactivation of the avant-funk project, except on a mass scale. This was a populist vanguard, a lumpen bohemia that weirdly mashed together the bad-trippy sounds of art school funk-mutation with a plebeian pill-gobbling rapacity that recalled the vital vulgarity of Oi! (In the early Eighties, your 23 Skidoo art students and your Oi!-punk proles would have been deadly class enemies). In particular, the transitional sound of "darkside"--febrile hyperspeed percussion, ominous basslines, dizzy sensations of harrowing bliss, a haunted/hunted vibe of spooked-out paranoia---was uncannily redolent of  the soundtrack of my youth: Death Disco, Pt 2.  Indeed "darkside"'s  reflected a moment circa 1992-93 when Ecstasy abuse was starting to exact its heavy toll, transforming many into braindead zombies and a few into actual real-deal corpses.   

*                  *                           *                           *

To be a participant in the underground rave scene of the early Nineties was electrifying, like being plugged into currents of revolutionary energy. The sensation was explosive: energy exploding into public space (with illegal raves and warehouse parties), energy exploding across the airwaves (with pirate radio), energy exploding through the music itself, which felt like it was propelled pell-mell by a mutational momentum that was uncontainable.

And then a strange thing happened--all that unruly, turbulent energy, and all that borderline-criminal activity, started to get orderly and organized. Clubs and labels became business-minded, looking towards steady long-term profits rather than quick killings, and thinking like corporations rather than buccaneers. Raves in the "darkside" era  became too edgy for all but a diehardcore of headstrong nutters, and alienated by the moody, paranoid vibes, many ravers returned to the clubs, with their safer atmospheres and  predictable satisfactions. Gradually, the punk principles that informed the original rave scene ( the crowd-as-star, the anonymity of producers and DJs, "faceless techno bollocks") faded with the emergence of a global circuit of superclubs and a hierarchy of superstar DJs: pseudo-personalities like Paul Oakenfold, Bad Boy Bill,  Lottie, Paul Van Dyk, Dave Ralph, who travel the world earning fat fees and racking up the Air Miles. 

The music changed too, the fever and fervor of hardcore rave gradually tempered into something milder. On the global quasi-underground of superclubs, the dancefloor is dominated by the whiter-than-white sounds of trance and its mature cousin "progressive" (the sound made famous by Sasha & Digweed at the late unlamented Manhattan superclub Twilo, among other places). Anthemic and sentimental, trance has a certain cheese-tastic anti-snob allure: in some sense, it is still music for ravers. Punkless and funkless, "progressive" is definitely a post-rave style.  Musically, it's somewhere between a de-anthemized trance and a house music utterly purged of blackness, gayness, sexuality, humor. What's left is a faint aura of ersatz futurity, spirituality, cosmic-ness. Sleek, abstract artist names like Evolution, Breeder, Hybrid, Moonface, Quivver, Lustral, and vapidly big-sounding track titles like "Force 51", "Syncronized Knowledge",  "Gyromancer", "Enhanced", "Carnival XIII", "Descender", "Supertransonic" seem almost subconsciously designed to to avoid conjuring real-world evocations or resonances.

 Purging all the aspects of rave that harked back to earlier youth movements like hippie and punk, progressive has achieved a blank purity, sterile and non-referential. It's the nullifying soundtrack for experiences sealed off from everyday life--the sanitized debauchery that superclubs are in the business of  catering for, despite their front of co-operation with the authorities against drug use. Beyond "edge" in the subcultural sense, the very sound of the music lacks edges --your typical progressive track is a featureless miasma of samey-sounding texture and mid-tempo surge-pulses,  blurring indistinguishably into the next track as DJs compete to perfect the craft of the seamless, pointlessly prolonged mix. It's music that doesn't explode with crescendoes and climaxes, but slow-burns, simmers. And this  implosive aesthetic mirrors the way the club industry has successfully corraled and contained the once anarchic energies of rave.

Part of progressive's selling point is its image as streamlined pleasure-tech. The tracks are mere components for the mixscapes assembled by the ultra-skilled technicians who travel the global superclub circuit. Temples of  too-easy hedonism like Gatecrasher, Cream, Ministry of Sound, actually use their very leisure industry corporate-ness as part of their image and sales pitch: the logos, the slogans like Gatecrasher's "Market Leaders In Having-It-Right-Off Leisure Ware," the merchandising and spin-off compilations, all communicate the sense of quality guaranteed, a reassuring predictability. You get what you pay for, the superclubs and superjocks seem to be saying; your precious leisure time is safe in  professional hands. But Progressive  embodies the ultimate vacuousness of pleasure as its own justification. For without difficulty (the physical commitment of actually journeying to a remote rave, or a shady club, say), you get what you pay for and nothing more. The "surplus value" that came with participating in the rave underground--with its possibility of either wild adventures or a total bust--has disappeared as an option.  The superclubs are like department stores or shopping malls, the dancers like consumers or spectators. Factor in the Ibiza-isation of dance culture, and the Spring Break-isation of Ecstasy, and you have a depressing picture: the transition from rave as counterculture to clubland as a mere supplement or adjunct to affluent, aspirational, enjoyment-oriented lifestyles. A dance "culture" without even the transcendent escapist frisson of the original disco. Because with lives so well-adjusted and abundant, why would you even need to escape at all?

I have this far-fetched theory that Daft Punk's album of last year, Discovery--with its titillating infusions of late Seventies AOR, soft-rock, and lite-metal, its evocations of Frampton, 10CC, Van Halen, ELO, Buggles, and the actual recognisable Supertramp keyboard lick on "Digital Love"---was trying to make a point: that dance music right now has a lot in common with American rock at its most toothless, radio-programmer-castrated, emollient (all those groups ruled the radio roost during the punk-never-arrived-here FM void of 1976-80). Almost as if, by making this unhappy resemblance blatantly obvious, Daft Punk could somehow prompt a real Dance-Punk into existence. Well, I said it was far-fetched theory.

Another abreactive symptom of this dawning sense of dance culture as a dead end, as a new decadance, is the resurgence of interest in the original dance-with-edge: avant-funk, mutant disco, early Eighties proto-house. Compilations like In The Beginning There Was Rhythm: The Birth Of Dance Music After Punk,  Disco Not Disco, and  Nine O'Clock Drop (complete with compiler Andrew Weatherall's sleevenote railing against the way dance music has become "the soundtrack to complete an easily assembled life(less) style.... the soundtrack for ad agency pick and mix culture snitches"). Reissues of 23 Skidoo, Cabaret Voltaire, ESG.  Clubs like Mutants and Transmission. Then there's the plethora of contemporary groups who are taking cues from the early Eighties: Playgroup, with their loving pastiches of New York mutant disco and synth-funk, their Pigbag and Specials homages; the  Kraftwerk circa Computer World meets Todd Haynes circa Safe anomie & modernity of Adult; the art school bop and Sprockets-funk of Berlin's Chicks On Speed; Le Tigre's lo-tech agit-funk, all spiky riffs and rad-feminist sloganeering.

Angular, scrawny, not-quite-fluid, early Eighties postpunk dance is a world away from the plumply pumping satisfactions of modern dance music, the supple repleteness of its production. What seems appealing to contemporary ears about that period of punk-funk is its very failure to be funky in a fully-realised fashion.  And that brings us back to the original question of what the white boys and girls can bring to the party? Precisely their alienation, their awkwardness and unrelaxedness, their neurosis, their inability to swing (think David Byrne's persona: the geeky consumer-commuter burb-dweller straining to "stop making sense," trance-out). It was this very Euro-WASP stiltedness and coldness that was so inspiring to the original Detroit techno people (a paradox that Carl Craig crystallized with the insight: "Kraftwerk were so stiff, they were funky"). Rave culture once offered a transgressive ecstasy, but after ten years of professionalisation and technical refinement, rapture has become routizined, bliss banal. No wonder that a new generation is rejecting the very notion of trance-dance as narcotic, lulling, null, and grasping instead for some kind of edge. Rather than the ease of release offered by house music in its many forms, tension and unease seem desirable again, for their own sake.

(contribution to a set of responses to the World Trade Center attacks by musicians and critics)
The Wire, 2001

by Simon Reynolds

In the aftermath of  9/11/2001, commentators in every field of art and entertainment joined the culture-wide consensus-chorus that "nothing will ever be the same again". Many argued that a new spirit of civic commitment and self-sacrifice would inevitably spill over to culture, with artists becoming more engaged and tackling more profound themes, and the public craving deeper, more demanding work. There were hasty announcements of  "the end of  irony", predictions that a new seriousness would wipe away the vapid, trivial pop culture of the last decade or so. 

The precedent that everyone seems to be reaching back for is WW2 and the reconstruction that followed: the moral (and morale) uplift created by a stark Good Versus Evil struggle, and the sheer energy and can-do spirit generated by the mobilisation of entire populations and economies, led to hopes of rebuilding a better world. But the "WTC-as-Pearl-Harbor/Bush & Blair as Roosevelt & Churchill" parallel doesn't really hold;at best, this is a choice between lesser evils. For most of us non-combatants, the "war against terror" will be passive and ultimately enervating, as we watch the professionals rain death (and food parcels) down on remote populations, while the home front will entail the emergence of an Israel-style security state, with a constant and debilitating sense of being both under siege and under surveillance.  It's hard to imagine either a massive project of social renewal like the Welfare State, or a great era of artistic creativity, coming out of this.

It's not at all clear how the repercussions of 9/11/2001 will play out in pop culture, let alone its  semi-popular and marginal adjuncts. With a few exceptions (hip hop, most notably), music had seemed like it was ever more compartmentalized and sealed-off from "the real world", developing according to its own self-reflexive trajectory.  But maybe History will impact pop music and  recreate the conditions that prevailed in the postpunk era. When I was a lad, bands rarely mentioned music in interviews, political issues were so much more urgent; it was a context in which a song like UB40's "The Earth Dies Screaming" getting on Top of the Pops seemed like a crucial intervention. The recent spate of rock bands like Radiohead and U2 speaking out against globalisation, Third World debt, etc. already suggested a return to activism, altruism, and earnestness. Actually, having chafed against the irony culture for a long while, I already feel a slight pang for that cosy, harmless decadence. Indeed, it seems likely that a certain sort of acerbic, bitter irony is going to be an essential weapon in these days of bizarre reversals--like the way Bush, the President dedicated to narrowing the gap between church and state, has suddenly been recast as global defender of  secular liberalism against theocratic absolutism.

Where the WTC horror might  have at least a temporary dampening effect is on musics based on  the aesthetics of devastation: extreme noise terror, aural bombardments, apocalyptic soundscapes, traumaturgy, ambient fear. From DJ Scud's "Total Destruction" and Techno Animal's Brotherhood of the Bomb to the death metal covered by Terrorizer magazine, it all starts to seem, if not questionable then at least.... superfluous, surpassed by reality. Like, remind me why  this was supposed to be a good thing to be doing in the first place?

The alibi, I guess, is that it's not about vicarious delight in wanton destruction (as with small boys who love blowing stuff up,  Hollywood disaster movies), but  about waking people from cultural slumber, confronting them with the worst that can happen.  In times of numbness, ersatz emergency gets those atrophied adrenal glands pumping. But when everyday life is sufficiently raw-nerved, thank you very much, who wants to experience simulated armageddon as entertainment? Stuff that soothes,  or helps the tears flow, seems more suitable--Harold Budd, Sandy Denny. 

Of course, terrible things have been going on for, like, ever--massacres, massive bombings,
cumulative collateral death tolls that are way bigger. But as they say, it makes a difference when it's close-to-home.  That's literal in my case: I live about one and a half miles from the site, and even now,  a month later, the air is sometimes fouled by the wind-born vapors from what is essentially a gigantic slow-burning crematorium. 9/11 has fatally interfered with  my appetite for "destruction" (meaning cultural/sonic images thereof).  Even something like Tricky's "Aftermath," one of my favorite pieces of music ever,  might be a tough listen in the future, the  lines about going "looking for people" having a new resonance.  And maybe my sharing in our 2 year old son's delight as he points at a glistening airplane in the wonderfully blue skies over Manhattan will from now onwards always be accompanied by a shudder, a twinge of anxiety.

Some of the more daring commentators have broached the whole question of  the carnographic sublime, writing honestly about the appalling splendor of  blazing fusilages piercing the sundazzled glass, the sheer spectacle of the  towers crumbling. Even dotty old Stockhausen, who got in such trouble for his ill-phrased remark about the  WTC attack as "the greatest work of art in history," was clumsily reaching towards something worth addressing: the extent to which apocalypse, carnage and cataclysm are embedded in the "libidinal economy" of  the avant-garde. From Hendrix's aural pyromania to Einsturzende Neubauten's End Times scenarios, from underground hip hop producer El-P titling his solo album Fantastic Damage to kid606 ally Electric Company using a picture of a collapsing building on the front of his latest release for Tigerbeat 6, imagery of waste and warfare seem to offer figures for absolute desire, excess, too-muchness; it's the 20th Century sublime, man-made (where the 18th Century's sublime was rampaging Nature)  but inhumane and anti-humanist.  Underground dance  music of all kinds is full of this kind of imagery, from drum'n'bass to gabba. For some years now dancehall reggae has been dominated by fire imagery, whether it's gangsta gunfire or the Rasta vision of Babylon being destroyed  by the cleansing flames of  Jah's righteous wrath (the fantasy is essentially the smiting of infidels, something that appeals in postcolonial vassal state Jamaica for precisely the same anti-globalisation, anti-American reasons it does to Islamic fundamentalists).

The events of the last few weeks have made me question my own pleasure in this kind of imagery. I've also had pause to consider the way a crusading rhetoric, a messianic, rallying mode of address, has tripped off my critical tongue at various points over the years-- something that is paralleled by the way underground musics like drum & bass envision themselves in paramilitary terms, as guerrillas, renegades, armies of underground resistance,  even terrorists. Then again, as silly and trivial as it seems when the real thing flares up all around, maybe "culture" is the safest, most harmless place for this kind of soldier talk. Music and the discourse around it can sublimate desires for mission, insurgency, single-minded purpose, our will to believe and our craving for the absolute

Various Artists

The Biggest Ragga Dancehall Anthems 2000


Elephant Man

Comin' 4 You!


Uncut, 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 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 the Greensleeves compilation, 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.

Friday, March 21, 2014


Natty Universal Dread, 1973-1979

(Blood and Fire)


A Jamaican Story


Uncut, 2001

by Simon Reynolds

In Jamaica, the DJ isn't the guy who spins the records (that's the selector), it's the bloke who chats over the music. As misnomers go, it's a good one, though, since DJ is short for disc jockey, and the whole art of reggae deejaying is vocally riding the riddim--whether it's a loping nag as with the mellow skank of Seventies reggae, or a bucking bronco as with digital dancehall. 

Alongside U Roy, Big Youth was one of the first and greatest roots-era DJs, his smoky voice unleashing a gentle torrent of prophecy and prattle: "one love" beseechings, get-up-stand-up exhortations, Psalm-like chanting, but also boasts, children's rhymes, laughter, shrieks and grunts. As a less musically compromised natty dread soul-Jah than Bob Marley, Big Youth was a potent icon of radical chic for white youth during the punky-reggae era; John Lydon was a fan, and even persuaded Virgin to sign the DJ for their Front Line reggae imprint. Songs like "Is Dread In A Babylon" and "Every Nigger Is A Star" capture the militancy of a period when Jamaica was feeling the cultural tug of postcolonial Africa while remaining geopolitically very much within the American sphere of influence/interference. Perhaps that's one reason Big Youth forged connections with the US's own black "enemy within", interpolating lyrics from the Last Poets into "Jim Screechy".

Worth acquiring just for the glorious rhythm tracks over which Big Youth toasts, Natty Universal Dread is Blood & Fire's best since their Heart of the Congos reissue, and typically for the label, this 3-CD set is a beautifully designed fetish object. Trojan's A Jamaican Story is a curious looking thing, by comparison. Culled from this veteran label's formidable archives, its cardboard chest contains 10 smaller boxes, shiny packets that look like bars of Ritter chocolate. Each of these three-CD micro-boxes is devoted to one era or aspect of reggae history: ska, rocksteady, lovers, DJ, et al. Unlike the Big Youth set's exhaustive annotations and accompanying essay, there's minimal information provided, just a rudimentary sketch of the specific genres. You don't even get dates of recording/ release, or the identity of the producer and the engineer who did the mix (absolutely crucial information with dub). Truthfully, it's hard to know who A Jamaican Story is targeted at. Reggae fiends will want Blood & Fire-style data overkill (plus those vintage photo overlays and deliberately faded-looking graphics that emphasise the sense of bygone times), while neophytes are hardly going to shell out a few hundred quid for this thirty CD colossus.

All that said, it's impossible to quibble with the quality of music here: Story is a treasure chest. Its span stretches from Desmond Dekker to Scientist, a sonic journey from ska's two-dimensional cartoon jerkiness to dub's haze-infused chambers of deep space. Story also serves to remind just how much Jamaican pop falls outside the rudeboy/rootsman dialectic---there's goofy instrumentals, novelty songs, topical social comment, pure dance music, and love song after gorgeous love song. What's faintly terrifying, though, is that, as crazily copious and encompassing as it is, A Jamaican Story still warrants that indefinite article: 500 tracks long, it only scratches the surface of reggae's ocean of sound