Friday, February 27, 2015

Feminine Pressure footnotes 1999


these were footnotes to the 2step article originally published as Adult Hardcore, April 1999, The Wire;   and which can be found at the Wire website
 here , where it nestles amid an archive of my Hardcore Continuum series essays. The footnotes appeared some months after publication on my website A White Brit Rave Aesthete Thinks Aloud aka Blissout.

I believe these footnots were the first time I used the phrase  "hardcore continuum" although the C-word had probably cropped up in various places for a good while before hand, e.g.  "pirate radio continuum".  As a lived reality it didn't really need articulating clearly;  it was just understood. 

1/ A typical MC mantra is "house and garage is setting the pace"; flyers commonly refer to "house and underground garage". Yet 2-step increasingly contains virtually no elements that relate to house music as commonly understood or currently practised. The rhythms, the B-lines, the vocals, the MC-ing, all have more to do with jungle, dancehall reggae, electro, and R&B; in some tracks, it's only the hi-hat patterns that connect to traditional New York garage. So why the rhetorical appeal to "house"? One reason may be what MC Neat articulates: "In the beginning was house. Without house, there'd be no jungle, no garage. 2step, it's just an evolvement of house." So the UK garage scene's pledging of allegiance to house represents a return to original principles (one of the first London garage pirates was called Chicago FM, rather than New Jersey FM or New York FM: the real homes of garage). It also signposts the scene's swerve from the "wrong" path that jungle took, the dead end that was techstep's dirgefunk.

2/ Quantization, a computer function that can alter the entire rhythmic vibe of a track, plays a big role in garage's bump'n'flex. You can use quantization either to correct the inconsistencies in a rhythm track (to make it more metronomic/hypnotic) or conversely to add tiny inconsistencies and accents that give "feel" to a programmed rhythm track (i.e. the illusion of hand's-on, real-time drumming). "Press one button, and it'll give the track a housey vibe, the hi-hats will sound square," says Fen of Ramsey & Fen. "Press another and you get more of a shuffle, a garage swing." Sounds easy, but, Fen stresses, the real skill of garage production is knowing the right kind of fills and percussion parts to program in the first place so that they will interact best with quantization when it's in "shuffle/swing" mode.

3/ 2step has actually inverted speed garage's rhythmic organisation. In the original 1997 speed garage, the snares are fussy and clattering over the stomping 4-to-the-floor kickdrum. But in 2-step, it's usually the kick-drum that gets busy with hyper-syncopated, feet-confounding patterns, while the snare dutifully marks out the measure.

4/ In terms of US garage, Kelly G's "Bump And Go" remix of Tina Moore's "Never Gonna Let You Go" is regarded as first 2-step track.

5/ Since writing this piece in January 1999, the jungle legacy has really reasserted itself with the trend for MC tracks with rhyming or half-toasting/ half-singing on top of the 2step beats: DJ Luck & MC Neat's rootical-vibed "A Little Bit of Luck," The Corrupted Crew's "G.A.R.A.G.E.," MJ Cole's 2step remix of dancehall raggamuffin Glamma Kid's "Sweetest Taboo", etc etc.

6/ Making the rhythms more breakbeat-like (and thus less conducive to E'd up trance-dancing) effectively makes speed garage "a London t'ing" again; the rhythms are tailored to please a multitracial audience with a long (20 years or more) tradition of moving to black beats. In fact, the composite of sounds in 2-step (garage, R&B, reggae, the jump-up side of jungle) could have almost been designed, consciously or unconsciously, to fend off "undesirables": non-Londoners, students (i.e precisely the sort of people who moved into jungle when it got technoid, and who now effectively "own" drum and bass).

7/ Here's Bat from UKdance further discussing with his usual meticulous attention to detail and insider's insight the DJ-ing differences between "US garaaaage and UK garidge": "Just been farting about on the decks trying to mix US garaaage with UK garidge (the housier 4:4 stuff rather than the 2step). As with most experiments, it was a miserable failure. Four main problems I reckon:

i/ USG has a key signature: all the components of the tune harmonise. So you have to worry about keymatching. UKG, in contrast, isn't nearly so sensitive on this score. Providing the vocals don't clash, you're sorted (the basslines are too low frequency to cause any problems). But mix harmonised USG with unharmonised UKG and you get a right fuckin dog's breakfast. I'm almost entirely tone deaf and even I was cringing.

ii/ USG sounds shit when pitched up. The vibe just disappears, bugger knows why. But with UKG you can pitch it up quite happily without losing the vibe of the track. Conversely, USG sounds quite good pitched down, kinda deep & spooky. UKG, however, sounds distinctly plodding when pitched down. Mix the two & you're stuffed either way: either the USG sounds all squeaky or the UKG sounds slow and clunky.

iii/ USG takes ages to build, the trax average at about 8 mins long and the mixing is all about slow subtle fade-ins over a long period of time. UKG is much faster paced - there's some kind of chop or change every 16 bars or so and it's designed to be mixed in a way that takes advantage of this. So you get a worst-of-both-worlds vibe-clash if you try to mix the two; the frenetic UKG distracts from the USG builds or vice versa.

iv/ the EQing/production is utterly different. USG is EQed around the midrange and designed for hi-fi style club systems. UKG is EQed like jungle - subbass & tops, sod the bleedin midrange. UKG sounds wicked blaring out of a bass-heavy dub sound system, but tinny and weak over a poncey hi-fi. USG, conversely, sounds great on expensive kit, but muted and grey on a ruffneck booyakka junglist dubshack ting. Mix the two and it's just messy, no matter what sort of system you're using.

8/ These gamelan-style percussive-melodic vamps and vibraphone/xylophone/marimba-like riffs constitute another micro-trend in 2-step, reaching its most bleep-and-bassy with the shivery, ice-plinky riff on Cisco's "Bonnie & Clyde," which sounds like Unique 3's "7-AM" (flipside of 1989's "The Theme"). In at least one case--Steve Gurley's remix of Lenny Fontana's "Spirit of the Sun"--the baleful chords are actually sampled from a Unique 3 track ("The Rhythm's Gonna Get You").

9/ Through the phenomenon of illegal bootleg remixes of American R&B goddesses, two of 1999's biggest underground records in London were by Whitney Houston (!!!!) and Brandy & Monica. In the spring and early summer, the remixes of "It's Not Right, But It's Okay" and "The Boy Is Mine" blared out of cars everywhere and were played on pirate radio twice an hour at weekends. Even a Whitney-phobe like myself had to admit the tune ruled (although the original is if anything even better than the many illicit garage bootlegs). One of the most gorgeous of the post-"Boy Is Mine" R&B diva bootlegs is Large Joints's "Dub Plate"; one side featuring a remix of "Down With You" (original artist unknown, by me: Total? Monica?), the other featuring a bootleg take on "I'll Be There For You" (again, diva unknown). What's striking about both sides of "Dubplate" is that, like the Brandy & Monica bootleg, the diva vocals aren't chopped up Dem 2 style but are left pretty intact, at least in terms of obvious stutters, edits, and warps. But the vocal is transformed on the level of timbre/grain, rather than accent and syncopation; it's processed to sound wobbly, warbly, ultra-tremulous. The swoony effect is simultaneously a flashback to old skook 'ardkore's sped-up chipmunk vocals and like an attempt to intensify the hyper-melisma of contemporary R&B. Various theories have been offered for this vocal effect. Talking about the "disembodied, gutless" vocals ("ethereal without being asexual"), Bat speculates that this stems from producers being unable to sample from an accapella and therefore having to isolate the vocal from the track's instrumentation using filtering. Inevitably this filters out the mid and bass frequencies of the vocal, creating the ultra-trebly "ghost-diva" effect. The fact that the original vocals are often absurdly addled with melisma and vibrato exacerbates the fluttery, ectoplasmic quality. My brother Jez reckons the warbly effect comes from producers using timestretching on a vocal that's full of vibrato and melisma; the timestretching exacerbates the micro-oscillations in the vocal.
Another cool thing about Large Joints and similar tracks like "Shorty Swing My Way" (I know neither the bootlegger nor the original artist unfortunately) is the way the diva vocal is left adrift in this dub-chamber echoey space over a reggae bassline and a little rootsical organ vamp. It's the kind of amazing mutation and recontextualization that only takes place in London: unsuspecting R&B goddesses abducted into a Jamaican soundworld. Of course, UK garage reaches "dub" spatiality through NY house's own tradition of dub mixes and early Eighties dub-influenced dance-pop (Peech Boys, Grace Jones, Arthur Russell/Dinosaur L) as well as through the transplanted Jamaican sound-system culture in Britain.

10/ "If Your Girl Only Knew" and "Are You That Somebody?" have been bootlegged, and "One In A Million" has been extensively pillaged.

11/ "Girls really do relate to vocals, " says Bethan Cole. "But that's something that's always been belittled by people into 'serious' dance -- it goes back to the days of 'intelligent techno' versus handbag house, which was dismissed as lightweight, fluffy, vacant." As part of its realignment with techno, the homosocial fraternity that is drum & bass gradually eliminated the vocal, perhaps regarding it as a vestigial trace of the social (love, sex, relationships) or as a biological remnant to be purged in favor of abstract textures and posthuman emotions.

12/ Jazzy B of Soul II Soul is really into 2-step and sees clear links between today's garage scene and the early Eighties lover's rock scene. It was also known as "uptown reggae", which suggests a perennial uptown versus ghetto dialectic in black music; R&B versus hip hop, playas versus gangstas/soldiers/thugs, lovers versus dub, Althea & Donna's "Uptown Ranking" versus Willie Williams's "Armagideon Time". Jazzy says that 2-step people "bust the same moves" as the uptown reggae folk back in the early Eighties; there's the same designer label, champagne VIP vibe. And the model of masculinity is identical: what he calls the "sweet boy", i.e. the guy who's ultra-masculine but dresses up "nice" for the girls. "Back in the late '70s it was Burberry coats, now it's guys in fake fur!". "Sweet boy" (Bat has heard the term "dainty boy" used today) suggests the polar opposite of the "conscious" dread; a rude boy in flash clothes, secular, enjoying Babylon's bounty, but still not fully assimilated, rather he's "ghetto fabulous". Six from KMA says he transferred allieganice from the roots reggae scene (sound systems like Saxon) to the lover's rock/soul/rare groove scene, "'cos that was where the pretty girls were!...". Re. Soul II Soul, the 1989 Number One success of "Back To Life" is just about the only precedent for Shanks & Bigfoot's "Sweet Like Chocolate": both London underground anthems going all the way to the top. Bizarrely, "Chocolate" was recorded in one of Jazzy B's Camden studios.

13/ Dance music theorist Will Straw argues that high-end sounds (strings, pianos, female voices) are coded as "feminine", while low-end frequencies (drums & bass) are coded as masculine. Neurofunk and techstep are all low-end (growling, gurgling, duck-being-strangled, old-man-farting bass) and midfrequency distortion, with hardly any treble. Weirdly, some recent 2-step tunes have gone all neurofunky and technoid, e.g. E.S. Dubs's "Standard Hoodlum Issue" with its moody bass and Source Direct-like sample "reflex action, like a snake".

14/ One of the ironies of UK garage is how a genre originally identified with NY gay culture (The Paradise Garage) has become so fiercely heterosexual. When house originally reached the UK, the gay sexual passion of the music was shifted to a new referent; a specifically drug-induced bliss. Now with 2-step garage, the loved-up, hypergasmic vocals refer once more to sexual desire, although still carrying residual traces of drugged intensity (which possibly work as as memory-rush flashback FX that conjure up the scene's roots in hardcore rave). It's a strictly heterosexual desire, though; I've noticed certain DJs on the scene refer with a hint of anxiety to how garage has been perceieved as "a gay thing; " It's as though the "batty boy" side of house needs be continuously exorcised and compensated for by doses of dancehall rude-boy attitude.

15/ With their 130 b.p.m shuffle and boombastic bass, two step tunes often sound like the early breakbeat house tracks from 1990-1 by Shut Up and Dance, Ragga Twins, Rum & Black etc, albeit filtered through nearly a decade of added production expertise and subtly marked by the neurological echoes of years spent at the cutting edge of the drug-technology interface ("caning it", in plain English). "Lost In Vegas" is serious intertexutality bizness 'n ting: it's a tribute to/remake of Shut Up And Dance's 1990 track "Ten Pounds To Get In," which sampled Suzanne Vega vocal-riff from "Tom's Diner" but probably got from DNA's unoffical-then-subsequently-sanctioned dance version of the S. Vega track. The Suzanne Vega vocal melody-riff also cropped up, in mimicked form, on Ratpack's hardcore "Searching For My Rizla" . Like the bleep-and-bass echoes in current 2-step, "Lost In Vegas" pays homage to the hardcore continuum: ten years of mixing it up, hybridising hybrids and mutating mutations; a tradition of futurism. Roots N' Future = the endlessly fresh NOW!!!!.

16/ MCs send out shouts to "all the garage ravers" or dedicate "this one's for the bumpy ravers". This semantic slippage, "garage/rave", would have been unthinkable in the early 90s when garage clubs like The Ministry of Sound positioned themselves as the classy, "mature" antithesis to rave's rowdy juvenile thrills. Why has the word "rave" persisted despite the jettisoning of rave culture's behavioral and attititudinal apparatus, its paradigm drug Ectasy, etc?. In part, it's a reversion to the (largely black, and derived from Jamaica) use of the term in the pre-rave 1980s: letting off steam at the weekend. Partly, it's an honoring of rave culture, an acknowledgement of it as a lost dream that most of the people in the garage scene passed through; culturally, and neurologically, they are still scarred by their pursuit of that dream. So the trajectory of the verb "rave" goes from weekenderism in the Eighties, aquires a utopian/dissident charge in the early Nineties, then gradually fades back to its original meaning, albeit bearing faint trace-associations of hardcore madness. Just like the music itself...

17/ To get Deleuzian, "vibe" is the mechanical hum of a desiring machine cranked to the max.

18/ Evolution versus revolution. Influenced by Rock and the Pop Narcotic and its anti-art rock/anti-bohemian polemic, I'm starting to agree with Joe Carducci's argument that it's easier to destroy a tradition than it is to replace it or renew it; that expanding/mutating/contributing to an aesthetic form or scene is hard work. Think about it: it's far easier to break the rules of a genre than it is to bend them. Anybody can break the rules of jungle, by making it 40 bpm too fast or too slow, or using a bassline that doesn't work with the beats. (Despite Boymerang's "No Rules", jungle's never been about limitless possibilities or utter lack of formal constraints; at any given point in its history, the genre's had parameters that you work with). To actually take a genre's format and create extra room within it, find new twists and possibilities, while still making something that's recognisable as that genre and, more importantly, actually works in that scene's context -- that's real work. That's a genuine contribution. This model of how genres mutate and grow also helps to explains why, at a certain point, all the possibilities for extension or expression within a given format become exhausted, and the genre stagnates, survives only through purism or antiquarianism (what Carducci calls "genre-mining").

Discarding the "revolution" model of musical progress means abandoning the closely linked notions of genius and vanguard. (Political revolutions are always triggered by a small party of individuals who are more theoretically advanced than the rest of society). Replacing the auteur theory, Brian Eno's notion of "scenius" explains how hardcore dance cultures develop. "Scenius" maps perfectly onto Deleuze & Guattari's "rhizome"; where genius implies a tree-like hierarchy, innovators generating new ideas that are then copied by the second-rate mass, scenius operates rhizomatically, like grasses, bracken, lilies, orchids, bamboos: "creeping underground stems which spread sideways on dispersed, horizontal networks of ... filaments and [which] produce aerial shoots along their length and surface" (Sadie Plant). A hardcore scene like early jungle or 2-step is literally grass roots -- it's a distributed meshwork, a ceaseless exchange of ideas; culture in that yeasty, bacterial, composty sense that Eno the gardener loves; small incremental advances on a week by week basis. So you could totally remove Goldie or Bukem in jungle, or MJ Cole and Dem 2 from 2-step--or whatever privileged innovator you might focus on (and I certainly haven't expunged auteurism from this piece)--remove them wholesale, and the culture would still grow and prosper. No one individual is the guardian of the scene. Rhizomes are notoriously hard to uproot; like weeds or nettles, you kill one but the group-organism survives. Same with music; we're dealing with tribe-vibes. This also explains why scenes decline, like drum and bass currently, where it's like everybody has simultaneously been afflicted by creative block, all the old reliables like Andy C, Dillinja, Trace, Hype. If the health of a scene/sound was down to individual pioneers, at least one of them would have found somewhere new to go. Instead, it's like a collective malaise, a scenius exhaustion; an ecology in evolutionary wind-down, its biodiversity fatally depleted.

19/ Recently, I realised that what I've been doing these last seven years--tracking the various permutations from hardcore to jungle to garage, analysing/celebrating a London-centric subcultural continuum--is really a kind of ethnomusicology. We're talking about a "vibe tribe" (to again borrow a song title from hardcore heroes Phuture Assassins); a tribe scattered amongst the general population but which communicates via bush telegraph (the 20 plus pirate radio stations operating at any given point 1989-99), and that gathers at various privileged spots (specialist record stores, clubs, raves). Over the years, the population has fluctuated, expanded and contracted both in numbers and geographical reach; at one point, "hardcore" basically equalled the entire UK national rave scene, 18 months later (in mid-1993) it was strictly a London thing, with tiny colonial outposts in Bristol and the Midlands (ie. the most multiracial, London-like areas of Britain). Different tribes have splintered off from the subcultural continuum (e.g. drum and bass). Throughout it all the 'strange attractor' that has acted as the geographical pivot of the scene has remained, arguably, just a few square miles in East London. Stray too far from what this "strange attractor" "wants", and you spiral off into a different orbit (as happened with drum and bass, caught in techno's gravitational field).

What defines this "tribe", this postmodern ethnicity? Neither a type of person (sociologically) nor a set of folkways/type of music; rather it's a vital tension between the two as they evolve according to their own dynamics. Neither base nor superstructure is the determining factor. Both the demographical constituency and the aesthetic/drug-tech parameters of the culture are in constant-but-separate flux; yet somehow the culture, the tribe, has managed to maintain an undeniably consistency. Different people come into the tribe (some get old and drop out, some get old and stay involved, new recruits come in; different classes and races and genders are attracted or repelled at different stages of the culture's evolution); similarly, the music is constantly shifting and redefining its contours thanks to the flows of influence from other genres, subculture, technological change, drug use patterns etc. That it all manages to hang together as an entity seems remarkable, but this is only what an organism or an ecosystem does; perpetuate itself, as it responds to and absorbs environmental pressures and opportunities.

The evolution of the tribe-vibe has taken a peculiar trajectory. "Hardcore", born in 1989 with the split between the ravers and the Balearic, back-to-the-clubs types, quickly became a nationwide phenomenon that was simultaneously underground and chartpop. After its 1991-92 heyday, hardcore contracted to darkside and then jungle (underground, London-centered, multiracial but dominated by black sonics/behaviors), then re-expanded to drum & bass (ultimately a national/international, bourgeois-bohemian network, multiracial but dominated by white sonics/behaviors), then mutated into speed garage (back to a London/multiracial/ working class thing, but quickly escalating to a national fad...) prompting 2-step (London-centric, multiracial, with a strong Asian component; plus unexpected intersection with American R&B although this remains a "one-way alliance," unreciprocated, so far).

My own role as an ethnographer is a bit like one of those researchers who lives with the tribe, gets too involved, and compromises his objectivity.

Why ethnomusicology as a model, and not just "subcultural studies"? The trouble with the "resistance through rituals" tradition of cult-studs is its left-ist bias and insistance on locating in every form of popular culture it studies some kind of "contribution to the struggle," however opaque or obtuse or tangled with 'false consciousness'. 'Resistance' is too loaded a term; in some cases, what we're dealing with is more like "resilience through rituals", or resistance in the sense of intransigence. So the persistence of Jamaican folkways in jungle, the rootsical traces you can hear in UK garage, constitute a sort of anti-colonial, anti-hegemonic alterity that endures despite the upwardly mobile, outwardly assimilationist and conservative sheen of the music. "Anti-hegemonic" may be overstating the case, though, with a subculture that seems to have more to do with Baudrillardian, contradiction-fraught notions like "transgressive hyper-consumption" or "resistant micro-capitalism"; precarious strategies of survival that collude with as much as they resist the Thatcher/Major/Blair order.

The crucial distinction is between class identity and class antagonism. Phenomema like UK garage and US R&B have a class identity; they mark themselves out in terms of class and race. But there's nothing oppositional about them, or at least overtly oppositional. The insubordinate energy of hardcore and jungle isn't there; it's aspirational working class, playa rather than gangsta. Bat from UKdance believes that London's multiracial, working class "street" culture is intrinsically where it's "at"; you have to follow the London massive as they are always the leading edge, and the massive have gone into R&B and garidge. So his affiliation is to the class rather than the specific music form it generated (jungle). Not sure if I buy Bat's stance (what if the massive suddenly got into New Age or Britpop?!?) but I do agree with him that the massive's secession from jungle in 1997 fatally depleted that music of its vibe and energy. This argues for really complex interrelationships and feedback loops between the sonic and the social.

20/ In a sense, speed garage only needed to emerge because drum & bass steadily banished its vibe-creating elements (ragga influences, diva vocals) as it adopted a techno mindset (auteurism, the notion of music as quasi-autonomous aesthetic realm divorced from the social). Like minimal techno, drum & bass has oh-so-abstractly painted itself into its corner of anhedonic (meaning: the inability to feel pleasure) experimentalism. The cunning of UK garage is the way it's taken the skills aquired during the jungle era--the rhythmic and texturological science--and directly transferred them into a context of enjoyment rather than "education". In a broader sense, the frenzy of jungle and the delirium of hardcore have also been cunningly resituated inside a smoother, mellower, more "adult" and "musical" sound--reflecting the way that the hardcore tribe has grown up but refuses to relinquishes drug-and-dance culture. 2-step is ten times more exciting than the UK garage of 1990-95 precisely because of these encoded traces of hardcore and rave.

21/ Reasons to be hostile, part three: The elitist dress code (no trainers, no caps, often no jeans; sometimest the injunction "dress smart/glamorous") designed to keep the young and the poor out. The designer-label fetishism and flagrant materialism: I saw a guy walk around with the neck label of his Moschino shirt pulled out from under his sweater, just so you could be sure of seeing how much he'd spent; T-shirt logos like "Dolce & Gabbana Is Life" suggest a rather shallow worldview. Cocaine itself, that ultimate signifier for expenditure and waste: a drug whose high lasts about twenty minutes and that, because of its rapid comedown , encourages the user to repeat the dose until the supply runs out. Whereas Ecstasy creates a Zen-like plateau state of serene joy for a good six hours, and then leaves you with an afterglow that lasts another 24 hours. And despite the explosive euphoria and sunshine spirit of the music, UK garage can be a grim, unfriendly scene, oddly fusing the snobbery of the deep house purist with the moody, rude bwoy menace of junglists.

22/ That itchy , anxious quality in speed garage makes me think of a delusion that sometimes afflicts abusers of drugs like amphetamine and cocaine that stimulate the central nervous system: the belief that insects are crawling under your skin. Intravenous abusers of speed and cocaine sometimes scratch at their arms until blood is drawn in order to remove these " crank bugs", as speedfreaks call them. Like darkside hardcore and jungle (musics metabolically overdriven by E and whizz), 2-step is insectile music, full of clicks and chitters and mandible-scrapes (the insects's musical world is relentlessly percussive). The music's rhythmic tics are themselves like kinaesthetic infestations that penetrate your body, muscular parasites that burrow inwards and possess our nervous system. To give this CCRU-style idea an appropriately Deleuzian spin, could the body-without-organs be defined as the "desire" "felt" "by" a subdermal swarm of intensities, a "desire" to break the individual's skin and form a macro-swarm with the intensities of the massive? Is that what "vibe" is? Sub-individual intensities communicating with other sub-individual intensities....electricity....

23/ UK garage involved a reversion to traditional sexual roles. In contrast to the androynous baggy clothing of rave, women wear more revealing clothing. Men tend to look musclebound; there's a big connection between speed garage and the East London gym culture.

24/ Cocaine is basically a snob's expensive, short-lived surrogate for long-lasting,
value-for-money amphetamine; in clinical literature, these two central nervous system stimulants are not differentiated. The cocaine/garage interface creates a sort of grown-up, upmarket version of the hyperkinesis induced by hardcore/ E's 'n' whizz. In his phenomenology of intoxication book On Drugs , David Lenson discusses a phenonemon called "reverse tolerance". It's the opposite of the normal syndrome of building up tolerance to a drug and being forced to take more and more to get the same effects. Instead, those who've been through periods of intensive use of stimulants can find that a low dose of the drug will get them disproportionately high; it's as though the brain has learned a short-cut to this higher plateau of drug-sensation and only requires a small trigger dose. Could it be that "garage ravers" only need relatively small doses of cocaine to trigger sensation-memories and flashback-frenzies encoded in their brains back in the old skool days of hardcore stimulant abuse?

25/ A doctor friend tells me that one definition of neurosis is anorgasmic sexuality. One of the characteristics of cocaine intoxication, its mechanism of desire-for-desire, is that the release/relief of tension through orgasm is forestalled as long as possible. Sexual satisfaction is dreaded. Compare this with what CCRU's Mark Fisher favorably identifies as "anorgasmics": abandoning the "testicular-thermodynamics" of climax-oriented sexuality in favor of polymorphous plateaux of pleasurable tension. "Alienated and loving it".

26/ At a garage club, I've only ever seen one person in a state approximating "hypersexuality": a woman doing the most twitchy, alienated-looking dance I've ever seen; with her clenched fists level with her jaw and meeting under her chin, her arms were pulled tight up against her body and the elbows nearly met at a point just above her navel. She was frugging urgently and fussily, twirling around in a sort of grim rapture, her face racked by this rictus snarl of coked-out disdain, at once absurd and terrifying. She was like the incarnation of Colours feat Stephen Emmanuel's "Hold On (SE22 Mix)", its vocal spasm-riff ("wh--ERE?! wheresitgonewhereitsgone? wh--ERE? wheresyourlovewheresyourlove?") conjuring a nympholeptic frenzy of desire without locus or focus.

27/ Bizarre, and apparently coincidental echoes of darkside hardcore in KMA's darkside garage: Six's use of the pitch wheel to warp the bassline of "Cape Fear" paralleling Goldie's pitchshifting of the breaks on "Terminator" (making them seem to speed up vertiginously while staying in tempo--a similar destabilisation FX to 'Cape Fear', where the bass suddenly trembles and threatens to give way underfoot, like the floor's turned to jelly); the spelling of "Kaotic Madness" echoing Kaotic Chemistry (the darkside alter-ego of Moving Shadow's 2 Bad Mice, which was Rob Playford and cohorts). Fact tidbit: "Cape Fear" and "Kaotic Madness" both started life as jingles for Six's brother DJ Madness's pirate radio show.

28/ UK garage has resolved (or rather, suspended in a productively unresolved tension) most of the major conflicts and binary divisions that have structured rave culture this last decade: musical v machinic, soul v. posthuman, organic v. synthetic, song v. track, pop v. underground, breakbeat v. 4-to-the-floor. In 2-step particularly, songs become tracky and tracks become songful; melody is percussive and percussion is melodic; the vocals constantly make you wonder if this is a human being or a machine, soul or technics. Answer: it's both, and neither, simultaneously.

Perhaps the most crucial conflict that UK garage resolves is between tradition and futurism. Raymond Williams, the grandfather of cultural studies, analysed culture in terms of "residual" and "emergent" elements. Residual was what persisted from the past (e.g. country music in the USA, superstition etc); emergent is what's marginal now but will one day be mainstream and hegemonic (e.g. "camp" in the Sixties). But the reality is that almost any cultural artefact that has any popular currency (ie. not the totally antiquarian or the utterly avant-garde/academic) will in fact be a tissue of residual and emergent elements; that could work as a definition of "the present". Dance culture rhetoric tends to overstate the emergent properties of a musical phenomenon. For instance, discussions of "breakbeat science" in jungle (including my own) stress the science, the posthuman futurity of the programming. Yet the "science" would have nothing to manifest itself in or work through without the historical materiality of breakbeats--the human, hand's on, real-time rhythms laid down in the 1960s and 1970s. When breakbeat science is at its best there's a vital tension between the humanity and the technology, the residual and the emergent. Too much technique led to the over-programmed, micro-edited , vibe-less beats of latterday drum & bass; relax the technical virtuosity too much, though, and the results sounded too naturalistic, too residual.

2-step at its best has achieved a vital poise, a tense balance, between the residual and the emergent. So in conclusion, let me reinvoke Phuture Assassin's phrase Roots 'N Future. "Roots" plural, because they're multiple, hybrid, intertangled, but always specific--we know where we've come from. And "phuture" singular, because tomorrow by definition is abstract, open-ended, and unknowable.


For a full 2-step discography, go to Favorite Records of 1998, where all the tracks that informed this piece when it was originally written are mentioned and lavishly described. Below is a list of top tunes that have stepped into my earshot since February 1999.

Bump 'N Flex ---"2 Step Tonight" (white label)

New Horizons-- "Slamdown" from Scrap Iron Dubs Vol 1 (500 Rekords)

Architechs--"B&M Remix: The Boy Is Mine (white label)

DJ Luck and MC Neat--"Little Bit of Luck" (Red Rose Recordings)

Colors featuring Stephen Emmanuel--"What U Do (10 degrees Below Remix/Hold On (SE22 Mix)" (Inferno/Ice Cream)

Large Joints--" Dubplate" (white label) --"Dubplate Remix" (white label)

Same People--"Dangerous" (Locked On)

Angel Farringdon & 'Lil Smokey--"No Fighting/Clean Rhythm" (JBR)

Mad Shag --"Madness on the Streets Remix" (Stamp)

In 'Sinc--"Cool the Menta" (500 Rekords)

Deetah--"Relax (Bump 'N Flex Remix)" (ffrr)

The Corrupted Crew-- "Tales of the Corrupted" (Kronik) [featuring MC Neat's "G.A.R.A.G.E."]

10 degrees Below meets Fierce--"Dayz Like That"

Cisco--"Bonnie & Clyde"

DJ Dee Kline & Pixie--"I Don't Smoke" a/k/a "Don't Smoke Tha Reeefer" (RAT001) [with sampled dialogue from Mike Leigh's Abigail's Party --'ardkore '92 style bricolage lives!]

Urban Myths --- "Without You (Dark Mix)"

Master Stepz---"Melody" (Outlaw, OUT003)

E.S. Dubs -- Standard Hoodlum Issue (Social Circles)

Glamma Kid & Shola Ama-- Sweetest Taboo (MJ Cole Remix) (WEA)

DJ Luck & Shy Cookie--"Troublesome" (Kronik)

Box Fresh---"Talk To Me" (Prolific)

Norris 'Da Boss' Windross -- "Heartbeat" (Pseudo)

Reliably rumoured to be killa tunes 

NM Productions---"Searching EP"

Groove Chronicles--"99/Black Puppet". (Dat Pressure Recordings/DPR)

Antonio "Bad Funk---" Dem 2 Remix (Locked On)

Mystic Matt---"Krushgroove"

B-15--- Project "Soundbwoy" (G Spot)

Artful Dodger---"Rewind" (Public Demand)

Future Underground Nation's---"The Way"

M Dubs---"Bump'n'Grind" (Babyshack)

M-Dubs--"Body Killing" (Babyshack)

Mystic Matt & The Anthill Mob---"A Shock 2 Da System" EP (Love Peace Unity).

Craig David & Robbie Craig---"Woman Trouble" (Public Demand)

Groove Chronicles---"Masterplan"

Fierce----"So Long (Bump N Flex mix)"

Point 7 feat Anita Austin--"Love Is A Fire"

not forgetting countless unidentified dubplates--that's the downside with scenius, the rhizome's spores are hard to track....

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

punk before punk

Various Artists - Dirty Water: The Birth of Punk Attitude
(Year Zero)
The Wire, 2010?

by Simon Reynolds

Punk must be the most over-determined event in rock history. The decade leading up to it is so crowded with antecedents that it's hard to see how it could possibly not have happened.  Dirty Water runs to two discs but it doesn't come close to exhausting the prehistory of 1976-and-all-that. Indeed part of the fun of Kris Needs's expertly selected compilation is thinking of things that ought to have been included. So the righteous presence of The Sensational Alex Harvey Band's clangorous "The Hot City Symphony"  makes one wonder why not The Sweet, whose 1976 hit "Action" simply is punk with a lick of gloss.  If the serrated choogle of "Roxette"  by Dr Feelgood and the football terrace stomp of "Oo Oo Rudi" by Jook make the cut, why not the Mockney rockabilly of Kilburn and the High Roads's "Upminster Kid"?

These aren't quibbles, though, just the listener's natural response to the compilation's premise. In this respect, Dirty Water recalls Chuck Eddy's heterodox heavy metal guide, Stairway To Hell: there's a similar mixture of what-you'd-expect and stuff straining the genre's definition to bursting point.  So you get lashings of what Seventies rock writers called "high-octane" hard rock (MC5, Pink Fairies, Dictators, etc ) but also regular jolts of the aberrant: the multi-voiced babble of Sun Ra's "Rocket Number Nine,"  the psychotic mandolin busking of Silver Apples's "Confusion". 

Proto-punk is inherently amorphous, since roots can stretch back as far and as wide as you care to trace them. The Silhouettes's "Get A Job" and Gene Vincent's "Blue Jean Bop" might be a stretch too far. Closer to Year Zero, there's Peter Hammill's "Nadir's Big Chance",  title track to a 1975 album on which the prog rocker took on the alter-ego Rikki Nadir, a "loud aggressive perpetual sixteen year old" playing "beefy punk songs".  It's a reminder that "punk" was common rock parlance for years before it signified a safety pin through the nose, from critics describing the young Springsteen as a "street punk" to boogie band Brownsville Station's 1974 LP School Punks.

Named after the Standells's Sixties garage ode to their hometown Boston's river and the "buggers lovers and thieves" clustered on its seedy banks, Dirty Water is a real blast of rock-historical edutainment.  But its accumulation of precursors and pre-echoes has one less salutary effect, which is to further erode the sense of punk as out-of-the-blue, a shocking surprise.  Archaeological investigations into the prehistory of revolutionary moments do tend to make them seem less of a break with the past than they felt at the time.   Ideally, the Dirty Water listener will come away not with the belief that Seventies rock fans really ought to have seen punk coming long way off, but with an enhanced awareness of History's contingent nature.  For this anthology points to the possibility that punk might have happened earlier, and differently.  Equally, if it could have happened earlier, yet didn't, it's just remotely conceivable that in 1976 it might not taken off at all. 

Friday, February 20, 2015



"Darkcore / Injustice" (Hate)

"Pretty Boys don't Survive Up North / Pretty Boys (gfuta Mix)" (Hate)

The Wire, 2009?

by Simon Reynolds

This double debut arrives clad in a back story that gives off a pungent whiff of "fishy". 

Supposedly, Unknown's two  12 inches are the first issues from a monster  cache of 1991-1994 vintage , never-before-released ardkore rave. At a rendezvous on Sowerby Bridge in Yorkshire earlier this year, a mystery man handed over  "a carload full of dubplates and DAT tapes"  from producers who wish to remain anonymous.  

The tall-seeming tale  recalls the intrigue about that lost classic of Italodisco by Black Devil that Rephlex put out a few years back, which some alleged was really by Richard James and/or Luke Vibert (the latter of course put out his own faux-jungle EPs as, snigger, Amen Andrews). 

"Darkcore," the A-side of hate001, has the classic period signifiers down pat--mashed and smearily processed Amen breaks,  reedy twilight-zone synths,  tingle- triggering Morse Code riff. But there's something off about this track, from its disconcerting plinks of treated percussion to the peculiarly static and suspended quality of the groove, which you can't imagine mashing up any real ravefloor of the era. 

On the flipside "Injustice," two distinct rhythm tracks are placed in adjacence but never gell: a slow, ponderous beat (either proto-dubstep or post-dubstep, depending on whether this is the genuine article or a period pastiche) and  a juddering, fever-dream groove redolent of 1993 classics like Potential Bad Boy's "Work the Box". Wisps of sick noise snake up from the depths of the mix, but the overall feel is dislocated and remote, like a faded memory, creating an atmosphere closer to the elegaic mirages spun by Burial or V/vm's  "The Death of  Rave" .

 The second  slab o' vinyl  "Pretty Boys Don't Survive Up North"   is more convincing: the jarringly off-kilter pattern of metallic snares are a dead ringer for Boogie Times Tribe's "The Dark Stranger"  while the "gfuta mix" (done this year) makes the groove even more jagged while intensifying the Mentasm-synth until it's a writhing, maggoty cloud of malevolent sound hovering overhead.  

In the end, it doesn't really matter if this is a homage or a real-deal relic:  these tunes are ruff enough to transport this aging raver right back there like a regular time machine. 


Monday, February 16, 2015

Terror Danjah Sleevenotes

sleevenotes for Planet Mu compilation Gremlinz

By Simon Reynolds

Ninety-five percent of grime beats are strictly functional: they're designed as launching pads for an MC's skills rather than as showcases for the producer's virtuosity.  These tracks don't tend to go through a lot of shifts and changes but instead loop a drum pattern and a refrain (typically evoking an atmosphere that mingles menace and majesty, with melody and "orchestration" pitched somewhere between a straight-to-video movie score and a ring-tone).  And that's fine, you know: it's a perfectly valid and valuable craft making this kind of basic MC tool.  It's okay if the tune doesn't go anywhere, because the pirate deejay's only likely to drop a minute-and-a-half before cutting to the next track.  It's alright if it's  thinly textured, a bit 2-D and cheapo-sounding, because  it's going to be largely drowned out by MCs jostling for their turn to spit sixteen bars.  But it stands to reason that few of these tracks are going to be things you'd want to buy and listen to at home.   They're just not built for that purpose.

Out of the handful of grime producers who've made some beats that work as stand-alone aesthetic objects--Wiley, Target, Wonder, Rapid from Ruff Sqwad--the undoubted ruler is Terror Danjah.  But this 29 year old from East London is not just grime's most accomplished and inventive producer.  

He's one of the great electronic musicians to emerge in the first decade of the 21st Century, a figure as crucial and influential as Ricardo Villalobos or Digital Mystikz. Someone who's kept on flying the flag for futurism at a time when recombinant pastiche and retro-eclecticism have taken over post-rave music just like what happened with alternative rock a couple of decades before.

Like earlier artcore heroes such as 4 Hero and Foul Play (in jungle) or Dem 2 and Groove Chronicles (in 2step garage), Terror Danjah knows how to walk that perfect diagonal between function and form, how to maintain a tightrope balance between rocking the crowd and pushing the envelope.  He has made plenty of MC tools, tracks like his "Creepy Crawler" remix of "Frontline" or "Cock Back" that have become standard beats of the season on the grime scene, enabling MCs he's never met, on pirate shows he's never heard, to show off and sharpen their skills. Terror has also crafted beats tailor-made to a specific MC's talents, like "Haunted" (the instrumental for Trim's classic "Boogeyman") or "Reloadz", whose speeding-up and slowing-down-again rhythm is a perfect vehicle for Durrty Goodz's quick-time style.  (That track is also a kind of living history lesson, cutting back forth between grime's stomping swagger and jungle's breakneck breakbeat sprint, between 2008 and 1994.)

But on this all-instrumental anthology, with the pungent charisma of MCs like Bruza or D Double E removed from the picture, you can really hear all the work that Terror Danjah puts into his tunes.  On tracks like "Code Morse" and "Radar," the intricate syncopations and hyper-spatialised production, the feel for textural contrast and attention to detail, are comparable to German minimal techno producers like Isolee.  But all this sound-sculpting finesse is marshaled in service of a gloweringly intense mood--foreboding and feral-- that is pure grime.   This is artcore: a stunning blend of intellect and intimidation, subtlety and savagery.  Street modernism, in full effect.

Gremlinz is named after Terror Danjah's trademark:  the grotesquely distorted, gloating laughter that makes an appearance in all his tracks, a poisonous  giggle that makes you think of a golem, some horrid little homunculus that  Terror's hatched to do his bidding.  The gremlin audio-logo crystallizes the essence of Terror Danjah's work and of the London hardcore continuum of which he's such an illustrious scion. It's at once technical (the product of skilful sonic processing) and visceral,  funny and creepy.  Like the catchphrases and vocal-noise gimmicks that MCs drop into their sets or tracks (think D Double E's famous "it's mwee mwee" signal), the cackling gremlin announces that this here is a TERROR DANJAH  production you're listening to.  When a pirate deejay drops one of his tunes, when a crowd in a club hollers for a reload, that slimy little goblin is Terror marking his sonic territory like the top dog, the alpha producer, he is.

Q/A with Terror Danjah

You started out in the late Nineties with Reckless Crew, an East London jungle/drum'n'bass collective of deejays and MCs. How did that come about?

I formed Reckless in 1998. The other members were D Double E, Bruza, Hyper, Funsta, Triple Threat, DJ Interlude and Mayhem. We came to fame from being on Rinse Fm and playing at local clubs and raves including One Nation, Telepathy, World Dance, Garage Nation, and Slammin' Vinyl.

What did you learn, as a producer, from those drum and bass days? Who did you rate at that time and would consider an influence?
I wasn't much of a producer back in them days. I was absorbing the musical sounds from Roni Size, Dillinja, Shy FX, Krust, DJ Die, Bad Company, Andy C and DJ SS. I learned a lot from listening to their music. Jungle was the first British music we could say was ours. I'd grown upon on reggae, R&B, soul. And also house music, on account of having an older brother. I was deejaying on the pirates and I got into producing drum and bass, because I wasn't getting a lot of tunes from producers. They'd be giving me one or two dubplates, but they had the big DJs like Brockie to service first. So I started making my own  "specials" and did loads of tracks. But I didn't put them out, just played them on the radio. My own personal sound.  But DJ Zinc and a few others cut my tunes as dubplates.

When did you make the transition to UK garage and that MC-fronted 2step sound that was the prototype for grime?

 I did two garage tunes and they blew up so I decided to stick with that. In 2002 I did "Firecracker" b/w "Highly Inflammable" on Solid City, Teebone's label.  For a while I was part of N.A.S.T.Y. Crew,  because I'd been at St. Bonaventures [a  Roman Catholic comprehensive school in Forest Gate, London E7] with a couple of members of N.A.S.T.Y.  But all the time I was doing my own thing and eventually just branched off. 
Then in 2003 I formed Aftershock with this guy called Flash, who I'd met at Music House where everyone goes to cut dubplates.  The first two Aftershock releases were Crazy Titch's "I Can C  U, U Can C Me" and N.A.S.T.Y.'s  "Cock Back".  That got the label off to a flying start--everyone was buzzing after those two releases.  Then it was Big E.D.'s "Frontline" and then in 2004 I put out the Industry Standard EP. That’s the one where people thought "this label is serious".

Industry Standard is where you can really hear your three-dimensional "headphone grime" sound coming through, on tunes like "Juggling" and "Sneak Attack".  With those tracks and all through your  music, the placement of the beats, the way sounds move around each other in the mix--it's very spatial.

Some of that comes from listening to a lot of Roni Size and Andy C and producers like that. Lots of abstracty sounds rushing about, coming out of nowhere.  There's a sense of more life in the music.  That’s what I do in my tunes. Drum and bass gave me ideas about layering sounds and placing sounds. But it also comes from studying music engineering at college, doing a sound recording course.  I learned about mic'ing a drum kit and panning.  You've got the pan positions in the middle of your mixing desk, and the crash should be left or right, the snares should be slightly panned off centre, the kick should be in the center. So you've got a panoramic view of your drum structure. Obviously I went beyond that, started experimenting more.  The bass stays central but the sounds always drift. So each time you listen you’re not just bobbing your head, you’re thinking  "I heard something new in Terror Danjah’s tune". So it always lasts longer.

 Industry Standard was the breakthrough release, in terms of people realizing that here was a producer to reckon with. What came next?

Payback was the biggest.  That EP of remixes was one of Aftershock's top sellers. It was getting caned the most, especially my "Creepy Crawler" remix of "Frontline".   That cemented it for us.

Basically you took Big E.D.'s "Frontline" and merged it with your own "Creep Crawler" from Industry Standard.  It's got a really unusual synth sound, harmonically rich, with this sour, edge-of-dissonance tonality. It makes you  feel like you're on the verge of a stress-induced migraine. A sound like veins in your temple throbbing.

It's a normal synth, but where many people would just use it straight out of the module without any processing or texture,  I’ve learned some techniques to give it more.  I add that to it. I can’t tell you how, though. Certain producers might go "ah!"

Those sort of wincing tonalities are a Terror Danjah hallmark.  Another are the bombastic mid-frequency riffs you use that sound a bit like horn fanfares, and that sort of pummel the listener in the gut. They've got  this distorted, smeared quality that makes them sound muffled and suppressed, like their full force is held back. But that just makes them more menacing, a shadowy presence lurking in the mix.  Like a pitbull on a leash, growling and snarling.

That's like an orchestral riff.  Again, it's all about the effects I put on it. If you heard it dry you’d think "Is that it?"  It’s the same techniques I use for the giggle.

Ah, your famous hallmark:  the jeering death-goblin laughter.  How did you come up with the Gremlin?

I had a lot of drum and bass sample CDs back in the day and I had that sound from time.  I used it a couple of time in tracks, just to see how it sounds.  Then I stopped using it and everyone was like, "Where is it?!?". I was like, "I don’t want to use it no more".  But everyone was going like "That’s nang! Use it!".  So I switched it up, pitched it down, did all sorts of madness with it.

But Terror Danjah music is not all dread and darkness. You do exquisite, heart-tugging things like "So Sure," your R&G (rhythm-and-grime) classic. Or "Crowbar 2," a really poignant, yearning production draped in what sound like dulcimer chimes,  a lattice of teardrops. That one reminds me of ambient jungle artists like Omni Trio and LTJ Bukem.

 I used to listen to Omni Trio and all that, when I was 14 or 15. That R& G style is more me.   Everything you hear is different sides to me, but that sound, I can do that in my sleep.  One day I can be pissed off and make a tune for deejays to do reloads with. And another day I'll do one where you can sit down and listen and relax, or listen with your girl and smooch her.

Do you see anyone else in grime operating at the same level of sophistication, in terms of producers?

I don’t think none of them really. [Aftershock producer] D.O.K. is the closest in terms of subtle changes, and DaVinChe. You've also got  P-Jam.   But I don't really look at anyone and think they’re amazing. Wiley at one point was the guy whose level was what I wanted to get to.  But I don’t think there’s anyone now who’s doing anything different. They’re being sheep. 

Longer version of Terror Danjah interview at FACT

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Run the Road / Risky Roadz

Various Artists
Run the Road
Various Artists
Risky Roadz: Volume 1--Tha Roadz Are Real
(On Road  Entertainment)
Village Voice, April 12th 2005

By Simon Reynolds

I’ll cut to the chase: if you can’t find anything to like on Run the Road, you might as well give up on grime.  Listen to the five best tracks--Terror Danjah’s “Cock Back,” Riko & Target’s “Chosen One,” Jammer’s “Destruction,” Lady Sovereign’s “Cha Ching,” Shystie’s “One Wish”--and if you still feel a bit shruggy, well, strike the genre off your list, ‘cos that’s as good as grime gets.

I’d be perplexed and disappointed if you did, admittedly. Surely there’s something for everybody here? You want to feel the same dark rush that “Bodies” by the Sex Pistols gave you? Just listen to the six opening bars of D Double E’s “performance” on “Destruction”-- vomitous, a self-exorcism, he sounds barely human. Conversely, if you’re jonesing for nursery rhyme tunefulness, there’s pasty-faced Lady Sovereign’s delicious faux-patois. Grime can do quasi-orchestral grandeur (swoon to Target’s “Chosen One” and Terror Danjah’s “One Wish” remix) as superbly as Anglo-gangsta (check Bruza’s astonishing 27 seconds on “Cock Back,” equal parts Jadakiss and Bob Hoskyns in The Long Good Friday). But what pushes Run into the first-class compilation zone is the second-tier tracks: Durrty Goodz’s double-time and ravenous “Gimmie Dat,”  EARS’ plaintive elegy for lost innocence “Happy Days”… Indeed there’s only a couple of outright duds.

Grime sometimes gets treated as merely “the latest fad” from the trendhoppy U.K. But the grander movement of which it’s an extension/mutation--London pirate radio culture--has been going on since circa 1991, if not earlier. From hardcore rave to jungle to garage to grime, underlying every phase-shift there’s an abiding infrastructure based around pirates, dubplates, and white labels sold direct to specialist stores. The core sonic principles are also enduring: beat-science seeking the intersection between “fucked up” and “groovy,” dark bass-pressure, MCs chatting fast, samples and arrangement ideas inspired by pulp soundtracks. The b.p.m. have oscillated wildly, the emphasis on particular elements goes through changes, but in a deep, real sense this is the same music. You could even see it as a conservative culture, except that the underlying article of faith is “keep moving forward.”

One of the few recent innovations in the scene’s means of p & d has been the vogue for DVDS (which Americans can mail order from companies like Independance. This syndrome seems symptomatic of grime’s impatience for fame. Tired of waiting for the TV crews to arrive, they decided to do-it-themselves. Typically consisting of promos, live footage, interviews and quasi-documentary material, the production values lean toward cruddy. Nonetheless, these DVDs are fascinating capsules of subculture-in-the-raw.  For American grime fans just seeing where their heroes actually live--projects a/k/a council estates in low-rent areas like Peckham and Wood Green--ought to be revelatory. Some of the videos in Risky Roadz are shot on the concrete pedestrian bridges connecting different blocks of flats.  Compared to American rap promos, the camerawork and “choreography” look positively third-world.

In Risky Roadz, Dizzee Rascal is interviewed on an actual road--Roman Road, to be precise, a crucial thoroughfare in grime’s topography, home to legendary record store Rhythm Division. Dizzee offers sage advice to aspiring MCs: “Do you. Do you well.” Another interview is with Riko--a future star, everyone agrees, so long as he can stay out of jail. “I want to get my zeros,” says Riko hungrily, talking of his immediate plans (to get signed). When the subject of mic’ battles and MC feuds comes up, he fires off the usual threats to anyone stepping forward to test, then checks himself: “I don’t mean ‘shot’, I mean lyrically shot.” Looking at Riko standing there, you might well think: “here’s someone with the charisma-glow, the sheer physical beauty, and--‘cos these things count, for better or worse--the bad boy back-story, to be, ooh, as big as DMX.” It’s quite likely that’ll he’ll remain just a local legend. The excitement of this moment in grime’s rise is that that unjust outcome doesn’t feel inevitable. 

Garage Rap Footnotes

Footnotes from Blissblog to the Garage Rap Village Voice piece
Blissblog March 2003

1/ there was even hybrid rave-rap, with performers like Rebel MC, Ragga Twins, and Demon Boyz.

Plus the ones I didn’t have space to mention: Unique 3 (most reknowned for pioneering bleep’n’bass tekno, but on various B-sides and on the album Jus Unique they did a few rather shaky-sounding rap-rave tracks and were basically a B-boy crew who got tripped out by acieeed) and most heinous omission Shut Up and Dance. Who started out as the Britrap outfit Private Party ("My Tennants", way ahead of Roots Manuva, and a pisstake on Run DMC for sponsorship tune "My Adidas), then as SUAD did tunes like “Rap’s My Occupation” and “Here Comes A Different Type of Rap Track not the Usual 4 Bar Loop Crap”. Their conflicted relationship with hip hop (they wanted to be a UK Public Enemy, but thought the latter were sonically staid) was surpassed only by their conflicted relationship with rave (they deplored drug culture and declared “we’re not a rave group, we’re a fast hip hop group”). But despite doing socially concerned tunes raps “This Town Needs A Sheriff” most of their big anthems were sample-collages that updated slightly the DJ record style of Bomb the Bass/Coldcut/MARRS. Still, SUAD’s comeback of the last few years is all too appropriate, with killer tunes like “Moving Up” (not a fully-fledged rap track with verses, but with enough of a MC vocal lick thing to fit the current moment). Ragga Twins, who I did mention, were on the SUAD label and now seem especially ahead-of-their-time, with the Belgian h-core uproar of their “Mixed Truth” prophesying the gabba-garridge sound.

But let’s not bring MC Tunes into this, eh?

2/ a strictly supporting role, exalting the DJ and hyping the crowd

The MC's role in hardcore/jungle/earlygarage was paradoxically crucial-yet-menial: he (invariably a he) functioned as a membrane between the expressive/social and the rhythmic/technological, vocalizing the intensities of machine-rhythm and in the process more or less transforming himself into a supplement to “the drum kit”. Another key part of the job description: the rewind, in which the MC relays the will-of-the-massive to the DJ. A ritual aknowledgement, at least on the symbolic level, of the idea that he who pays the piper calls the tune.

From ’92 onwards, though, you could sense a latent expressive potential in rave Mcing -- especially on the pirates, when MCs like Don FM’s OC or Trace and Ed Rush’s sparring partner Ryme Tyme would go off on one, get real imagistic and panoramic (“North South East and West, we got you locked”), as if surveying their domain from a lofty vantage point. Never quite getting to the point of storytelling, but still, you could tell that there was an artform in waiting, something that could bloom if given the opportunity.

3/ there were star MCs

You had name MCs from quite early on in rave--mentioned in the pirate ads, obviously considered part of the draw. But the real character MCs arrived with jungle, when rave's aerobics instructor/cockney street vendor style of hoarse hollered rabble-rousing was replaced by something more relaxed (even as the music got more frenetic), warmer, magnanimous, full of authority. These guys--GQ, Dett, Moose, 5-0, Navigator, et al--were almost MCs in the old showbiz sense, hosting the  event, stroking the egos of all present, from the selecta in the booth to the massive on the floor. And now and then you’d get the first hints of the MC’s role as truth-teller and vibe-articulator, someone expressing the values of the scene. Overwhelmingly, these were black voices. While the DJ and production sides of hardcore/jungle/UK garage seem close to racial parity, MC-ing, from jungle onwards, seems like it's a 98 percent black thing. Does this monopoly of the role of host/articulator/spokesman have a symbolic role, expressing the dominance of black musical/cultural priorities in a subculture that in terms of population composition is actually pretty mixed? A sense that the public face of the scene ought to be black (the MC is generally actually more visible than the DJ, out there with his mic). Or is it just something about the grain of the voice, suiting the flow of MC-ing?

4/ but their careers were largely based around a few trademark catchphrases or signature vocal licks 

Which could wear real thin real quick. Somewhere I have this eight-cassette pack, the looks-like-a-video sort you could buy back in the day as a memento of megaraves like Raindance or Dreamscape, but this was for a Pure Silk garage event in ‘98. Eight cassettes, eight top DJs, and all playing the same hot-that-week tracks as each other: talk about “changing same”. Worse still, there was two or three top MCs hosting the night, and so you get to hear the same trademark vocal gimmicks and human-beatbox tricks over and over and over again.

5/ Gradually, MCs started to write actual verses

Some key transitional records here:

----DJ Luck and MC Neat, “A Little Bit of Luck”. Not many words by comparison with today’s norms, but the beginnings of MC tunes that actually said something (in this case, I-and-I survive, “with a little bit of luck we can make it through the night” doubling as a big up to his DJ, who takes first billing despite contributing a really rather perfunctory groove over which Neat croons the most naggingly catchy and rootically haunting lick). Big BIG tune this: I remember someone telling me they heard a pirate station play this tune over and over again for half an hour. For a month or so in 98 this tune WAS the scene.

----Corrupted Crew, “G.A.R.A.G.E.” Again, not saying a lot really, but awesomely hooky and the MC (Neat?)’s baritone is wonderfully commanding. Also probably the first letters-for-words spelling anthem (“E’s for the Energy etc”), a routine that still gets re-used.

--- N&G feat. Rose Windross and MC Creed, "Liferide” . A classic plinky xylo-bass tune, with Creed spinning out some dizzyingly assonance-thick rhymes in his trademark clipped’n’prim style (weird how something so compressed and inhibited sounding is so cool).

---Middle Row's The Warm Up EP. Are these the first real narrative tunes? I’m talking about “Millenium Twist": Shy Cookie, Sweetie Irie and Spee reinventing the Englishness of canonical literature and costume drama with this hilarious slice of Dickensian dancehall, starring an updated Fagin from Oliver! instructing modern urchins how to duck 'n' dive Y2K stylee. And "K.O.", with its bizarre boxing-ring MC narrative (Neat again, accompanied by Shy Cookie and Spee).

Should also mention perhaps the “singjay” tunes, half way between chat and song, by the likes of Richie Dan (on the M-Dubs tune “Over Here”) and Glamma Kid ("Sweetest Taboo", yes a Sade cover), not forgetting the various 2step hook-ups with dancehall dons and don-ettes such as Lady Saw (underlining the point that UK garage’s return to the vocal, after the vocal-free desert that was techstep drum’n’bass, wasn’t just about diva vocals but about ragga chat, e.g. Gant’s “Sound Bwoy Burial”).

6/ they refused second billing status (DJ/Producer X featuring MC Y)

As in Scott Garcia feat MC Styles “It’s A London thing.” From ’97, which might very well make it the first garage rap tune of all.

7/ Suddenly the scene was swarming with MC collectives

There was a predecessor to So Solid Crew, a group no one cares to remember, because they weren’t much cop. I’m talking about Da Click of “Good Rhymes” infamy. A seriously naff record (Chic’s “Good Times” reworked) but it made the pop charts and was “important”, just like “Planet Rock” (surely the most over-rated dance record of all time? I always thought it wooden and dreary, but I bought it anyway: you just knew it was important). Same applies to “Good Rhymes”, had to have it, if only for the sleeve with its pix of 70 players on the UKG scene. Da Click was basically the scene’s premier MCs teaming up to make a record with the explicit intent of bigging up the role of the MC in UKG. They were inspired in a major way by Puff Daddy and the whole Bad Boy thing of flash thugs riding/rolling with this collective swagger. One of the record’s instigators, Unknown MC, used to be in Hijack, a Brit-rap group signed to Ice T's Rhyme Syndicate label. In late 2000, quite some time after the group’s profile had waned (the follow-up single was even worse), he told me “in London right now, there's a thing happening where true MCing is coming back to the floor. You have these clubs with 2000 people where the MC really is interfaced between the DJ and the crowd. And he's whipping the crowds up into mad frenzies, getting them involved in the party. Which I imagine is what it must have been like in the Bronx in the 70s, you know what I'm saying?”

8/ American rap's clan-as-corporation structure

Crews and posses have always been part of hip hop lore, but it’s fair to say that until the late Nineties rap's dominant lyrical mode had always been been first person singular. But with the rise of Ruff Ryders and Cash Money (both based around real families) and with the likes of Roc-A-Fella’s styling themselves as Cosa Nostra-like syndicates ("You Are About To Witness A Dynasty Like No Other), there’s been a dramatic first person pluralisation of rap; ego eclipsed by what might be called "wego," the collective triumphalism of Ruff Ryders's "We In Here" or Hot Boys's "We On Fire". Likewise in UKG you’ve got Kartels (PAUG) and Famos (K2) galore.

It would be incorrect to suggest, though, that this vogue for presenting what are clearly economic organisations as quasi-families is just ideological window-dressing for business realpolitik. Hip hop’s family values represent a kind of privatized socialism, based around ideals like sharing, altruism, co-operation, and self-sacrifice. In the war of clan against clan, loyalty is paramount, not just because teamwork is more effective, but because cameraderie provides refuge and respite from what would otherwise be a grim dog-eat-dog struggle. Effectively, the rap clan offers a haven from the rapacious cut-throat competition of the hip hop industry/capitalism, and on some level offers solace and security in what would otherwise be a desolate moral and emotional void. This is also why the Ruff Ryders/So Solid style emphasis on unity resonates with their fans--the idea of the clan on the warpath magically reconciles the contradictory impulses to be a winner but also to belong.

Of course, there’s a tension between business realities and these quasi-familial relationships: rappers like The Lox and Snoop Doggy are flexible in their fealty, shifting allegiances as deftly as sportsmen changing teams at the drop of a cheque. Still, for many, the "thick like blood" rhetoric is for real. DMX, in particular, regards loyalty as a transcendent value. In a hyper-individualistic world where market forces tear asunder all forms of solidarity and everybody has their price , he claims: "They do it for the dough/Me I do it for the love". Lyrically DMX is fixated almost exclusively on loyalty, betrayal, and retribution. Then there’s his curious obsession with dogs. Strikingly different from the lecherous hound persona adopted by George Clinton ("Atomic Dog" etc) DMX's use of "dog" seems to draw on the idea of canine fidelity--to the pack in the wild, to its owner (hence Fido). In song after song, DMX insists "I will die for my dogs". Then there’s the way he reinvokes what Foucault called “the Medieval symbolics of blood": Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood, his new label Bloodline. All seem to relate to atatvistic notions of blood-brotherhood and the loopy fantasy of DMX and his dawgs as some sort of pedigreed aristocracy of the streets ("My dogs, the beginning of this bloodline of mine"). So it’s interesting that in UK garage slang “bruv” has been displaced by “blood” as a salutation or bonding term--“ya get me blood?”

“Dog”, “blood”, “nigga”: all these terms have superceded the old racially encoded but more universalizing greetings like “brother”, which one associates with the civil rights era. The idea of family offers a kind of unity that seems more tangible and grounded than allegiance either to abstract, remote and problematic entity known as the United States of America, or any of the various forms of African-American nationalism. In rap and in UKG, group affiliation contracts to the compact and plausible dimensions of a clique, and one usually one tied to a place---a project, a council estate, a borough, a postal district (More Fire Crew shout out to the E4 and E11 crew on the sleevenotes to their debut album), or at the very most, a city (from “it’s a London thing” to “Millenium Twist”’s "L.O.N.D.O.N, London/That's where we're coming from"). As opportunities for feelings of solidarity and communality shrivel and retreat all over the social landscape, the withering especially pronounced in the very places where people once found them (trade unions, electoral politics, organized religion), it makes sense that this basic human need for a sense of belonging would find other points of focus, albeit on more diminished terms. In the neo-Medieval scenario of unchecked capitalism and holy war, it’s no surprise that we’re witnessing a resurgent atavism in the form of these Mafia-inspired clan structures (“amoral familialism”, Italian sociologists call it, diagnosing their persistence as caused by the relative weakness of nationalism in Italy--as a political entity, Italy is a relatively recent creation). Musical mobs indeed.

9/ torrential wordiness

Never ceases to amaze me, this. In UKG at the moment there's almost like a battle between the words and the music for dominance, the MC's almost seem to trying to drown out the DJ. Are there even name DJs anymore? Who gets top billing on the flyers these days? Recently playing Pied Piper's 'Do You Really Like It', which can only be two years old, I was struck by 1/ how as MCing it just wouldn't cut it now, it sounds so wack, and 2/ there must be about 25 words in the whole song. That said, the first true examples of rampant logorrhea I can think of date from shortly before ‘Do You Really Like It?’: Sparks & Kie on Teebone’s “Fly Bi” (wrong Matthew, sorry this tune is the B.O.M.B. and what's wrong with the spelling thing anyway) and Skibadee on Teebone’s “Super S”, mad-hectic tongue-twisty sinous sibilant biznis.

10/ with its raucousness and Englishness

One of my favorite bits ever on a garage rap record, can’t remember the tune or artist right this minute, occurs when, after a series of grisly threats, the MC’s killer verbal blow to his adversary is the instruction: “Behave!”. It’s like some eerie transcultural morphing effect: Bounty Killer turns into Frankie Howerd. That’ll be lost on non-Brits, I’m afraid, as is the next reference: the way Horra Squad’s Mr Guns’s has this bizarre tic-like mannerism of going “just like that”--an immaculate imitation of Tommy Cooper--right in the middle of the most bloodcurdling eruptions of “thugsy-ugsy” threats and “messy-essy” slackness.

11/dainty crispness of diction

Actually, it’s all about the tension between the impulse towards criss precision and the “drag” of the uncouth grain-of-the-voice that resists and impedes that impulse. But, and this is crucial (what some Americans, no offence, don’t get), the refinement doesn’t equate with whiteness and gentility (Masterpiece Theater, your daft ideas that the U.K is all castles and cucumber sandwiches), and the ruffness doesn’t equate with black/Caribbean. The uncouth element isn’t so much the patois as the Cockney gutternsipe factor, and the slick diction is more about a Black British elegance-smoothness aspirational thing. So you have this really semiotically rich and overdetermined criss-cross collision of class/race factors, a tug-of-war between assimilation and recalcitrance, “this is where we came from" and "this is where we're going" . But most of all it just sounds wicked.

12/expressing its rage-to-live through individualistic fantasies of stardom or crime

The art of Mcing doesn’t really entail opening up virgin zones of unexplored content. “Originality” means finding fresh twists on a stock set of themes. Like that literary critic who broke down the entirety of western drama and fiction to seven basic narrative structures (I.A. Richards?), here's my stab at isolating UKG’s core thematics (which are also stances, outlooks, dispositions, states of mind, ways of walking through the world).

i/ “I will not lose/we’re gonna make it/ain’t know stopping us/we are coming through”
more on this below

ii/ “know we/they don’t know/people dun know/if you don’t know, get to know”.
Probably the most interesting and unique to UKG theme (despite my Notorious BIG quote just now). Interesting, because the scenario it implies is that the MC is actually unknown---it evokes an imminence, a star status or stature that is being suppressed, thwarted, or is simply latent. The MC is an unknown on the brink of breaking out massively, a "supernova" (to quote Neutrino) microseconds before ignition. They don’t know but they should know and they will know. It’s hard to imagine an American rapper writing from this position: regal triumphalism, Jay-Z style, or even ennui (that standard face of blase derision you get in all the videos) seems to be more appropriate for a music that has won and is basking in its victory. Because “they don’t know” also suggests a collective demand for recognition, which US hip hop enjoys but UKG hasn’t; the theme seems to convey something of the marginality and underdog status of UKG-rap as a whole. “They” could be mainstream UK culture (which only acknowledges UKG when it is scapegoating it for street violence), or it could even be American hip hop. Alternatively, "They don't know" sometimes carries a suggestion of (see Black Ops cru) of secrecy, subterfuge, assassins with deadly powers moving unnoticed through society.

iii/ making paper/chasing cheddar/we floss the biggest whips etc

Wish fulfillment, one assumes, or hope: there can’t be that much money to be made on this scene, surely. (So Solid sold 400,000 of their album but when you divide the royalties by 30…). Nice UK-specific touches to the conspicuous consumption/status games, e.g. A-reg and K-reg license plate disputes.

iv/ biters/why you want to imitate me

yeah right, if you're so unique how come you sound just like everybody else?

—yeah yeah they're all sick to their guts on account of your wealth/fame/success with the ladies, well why not desist from rubbing it in their faces every chance you get then?
Biters and haters are essential accoutrements, status symbols, on a par with the flash phones and cars. Mo money mo problems etc.

vi/ alpha male biznis (is that your chick/steal your wifey/kiss her on the lips you’re tasting my semen).

vii/ “wego-mania” (ride with us/imagine, you’re with a crew like this, etc)

Viii/ “revenge/retribution/ultraviolence”.
the scenarios seem to get more vivid and colorful and cruelly creative every month

13/ Laid Blak .

From Bristol, and not just a UKG outfit, their spokesman tells me, but a proper band that can do all sorts. I await their next release keenly and with real curiosity.

14/ equal parts Cockney Rejects and "Cockney Translation"

The cover of that More Fire Crew single is a beautiful thing. Not because it’s especially attractive or remarkable-looking (it’s quite plain and nondescript actually) but simply because it has these three black lads and the word “Oi!’ on the sleeve. And the last time the word “Oi!” appeared prominently on record sleeves, these were early Eighties Oi! compilations and the young men on the sleeves would have been cropheaded and pasty-faced hooligans with dubious political allegiances and jingoistic leanings. In one infamous case, Strength Through Oi! (a supremely tasteless and inflammatory title), the chap stomping his 18 hole DMs at the camera (almost as if to suggest if the photographer was the victim of a racial attack) turned out to be an ex-member of the British Movement or NF or some similar neo-Nazi outfit. So the More Fire Crew sleeve is an encouraging sign, in some weird way, of a degree of cultural miscegenation that's taken place in the last twenty years: a once noxious word being defused and reclaimed. (“Oi, oi!” was always a big MC chant on the hardcore scene, come to think of it).

As much as electro or the proto-ragga Casio-riddim ‘Sleng Teng”, I like to think of Smiley Culture’s "Cockney Translation" as the Eighties Origin for “Oi!” and for MC garage as a whole. At least it makes for an appropriately fertile fiction, as Mythic Origin. Released on the Fashion label (worth rediscovery I reckon, it captured a phase-shift in the Caribbean-British story), this is the tune where Smiley translates back and forth between patois and patter, West Indies and East Enders. “Say Cockney say Old Bill/We say dutty Babylon”, “we say bleach. Cockney knackered”, “Cockney say triffic. We say waaacked…. sweet as nut. just level vibes. Seen?”

It pointed ahead to the future hybrid argot of multiracial London, the hardcore/jungle/garage mix’n’blend of rhyming slang and rhymes-and-slang.

And talking about the More Fire Crew song, here’s a particularly apt line from Smiley’s song:

“We bawl out YOW! While cockneys say Oi!”

“Cockney Translation” is an ancestor for garage rap in more than a symbolic/mythic way, though. The tune was an example of the UK fast-style reggae sound, which Dick Hebdige describes as “reggae’s answer to rap”, as spearheaded by the Saxon International Sound System and its MCs like Tipper Irie, Asher Senator, Lady Di, and Philip Levi. Fast-style chatter is, if not ‘the roots’ then one key root for everything from Ragga Twins and SUAD to jungle/UKG MCs like Skibadee.

More Fire’s debut album is good BTW.

15/ a Warnerdance U.K. compilation you might find in Tower or Virgin.

At one point I was thinking about framing this piece as a ‘world music’ story. Because that’s what this music is at this point—impossibly exotic and hard to get hold of outside the UK. In America, it’s easier to buy records of Madagascan guitarpop or Javanese court gamelan than it is to acquire UKG.

16/ "I will not lose/Never, no way, not ever"

Been really struck by the recurrence in UKG Mc-ing of expressions of uncontainability: “we’re coming through, whether you like it or not” (Black Ops), “this style be original/we can’t be stopped” (GK Allstars). Or a sense of destiny and determination that would seem pie-in-the-sky if it wasn’t marked by such hunger--the scrawny ardor animating lines like: “always believing/follow my heart, keep up the dreaming/behind the cloud, there is a shining….I know my time is coming.” (GK Allstars  again). Talk of dedication, hard work, all of my energy going into this. Again and again, this almost-American insistence, not that anyone can make it, but I’m gonna make it (I’ve got to make it; there is no alternative). Flying in the face of statistical reality.

Here’s Peter York (an under-rated analyst of UK socioculture) on what happens in a tightly class-stratified country like Britain where talent is “blocked off from conventional embourgeoisment”. “If you have a whole lot of people who are blocked, then the steam is much more intense. And where it finds a crack it rises more violently.”

Monday, February 9, 2015

Garage Rap Compilations review, Feburary 2003

GARAGE RAP compilations
Village Voice, February 3rd, 2003
by Simon Reynolds

So everybody knows about the Streets now, but only as an isolated case: that unprecedented phenomenon, the U.K. rapper who's both excellent and authentically English-sounding. Skinner actually comes from a context, though. It's not that perennial lame duck Brit-rap, but a new genre that  some have dubbed "garage rap": basically, 2step fronted by MCs. Nowhere to be found in the American house tradition, the MC has been an important figure in U.K. rave culture from the start. All manner of Brit B-boys and dancehall chatters got swept up in the late '80s acid house explosion, and for a while there was even hybrid rave-rap, with performers like Rebel MC, Ragga Twins, and Demon Boyz. For most of the '90s, though, the rave MC knew his place: a strictly supporting role, exalting the DJ and hyping the crowd. Through jungle and early U.K. garage, there were star MCs, but they weren't nearly as well paid as the top DJs, and even when they appeared on records their careers were largely based around a few trademark catchphrases or signature vocal licks, like MC Creed's funky bullfrog stutter.

Gradually, MCs started to write actual verses, and then, two years ago, came the putsch: They refused second-billing status (DJ/Producer X featuring MC Y). Suddenly the scene was swarming with MC collectives—So Solid Crew, K2 Family, Pay As U Go Kartel, GK Allstars, Dem Lott, Horra Squad, Nasty Crew—as if only by ganging up for sheer strength of numbers could they shove the DJ out of the spotlight. American rap's clan-as-corporation structure was also an influence, with collectives like So Solid modeling themselves on such entrepreneurial dynasties as Wu Tang and Roc-A-Fella. If the trend continues, the DJ in U.K. garage could become a vestigial figure, just like in mainstream American rap. This power struggle has musical implications. Listening to U.K. garage these days, the most striking thing is its torrential wordiness. Rave music was always about the nonverbal sublime. But in garage rap, verbose and swollen egos trample all over the loss-of-self that was originally house  culture's promise and premise.

With its raucousness and Englishness and sometimes sheer malevolence, garage rap is comparable to another music of the embattled ego: punk. The Englishness comes through in the delivery: Mic chat has always been fast in Black British sound system culture, but there's also a tightness-in-the-throat, a dainty crispness of diction, that is distinctly un-American. As for the nastiness, you only have to look at garage's current lexicon of superlatives —"gutter," "stinking," "disgusting," "thugsy" —to see where it's coming from. There's even a character called MC Vicious! Sometimes it's closer to the original '60s garage punk: lots of sexual malice and second-person hostility. But when MCs drop lines like "there's a lot of anger that's been building up inside," there's a sense of pre-political rage and social frustration that feels very 1977. As it happens, the state of the nation in 2002 uncannily mirrors the mid-'70s U.K. context that fueled punk's ire: a fatally compromised Labour government, recession, public service workers on strike, and resurging racial tension reflected in both electoral success for far-right political parties and a revived Anti-Nazi League. As far as U.K. garage's underclass audience is concerned, though, collective struggle is a sentimental, distant memory, strictly for suckers. And so it bypasses the failed realm of politics altogether, expressing its rage-to-live through individualistic fantasies of stardom or crime: Staggerlee transplanted to Sarf Lundun.

Garage rap isn't all crime-pays false consciousness, though. Like punk, the nu-garage upheaval has opened things up for all sorts of quirky voices: Skinner obviously, but also honey-dripping Barrington Levy-like charmers such as Laid Blak's MC Joe Peng. On "Scream & Shout" (Moist import), he describes himself as "a nice and decent fellow," gently chides "the ladies dressed in black" ("those are the colors of a funeral"), and even pulls off a non-cloying plea to build a better world for our children. Judging by their name, Heartless Crew ought to be peddling more Social Darwinist ruthlessness, but "Heartless Theme" verges on positivity, talking about how hard they've worked for their success, and claiming that they're only heartless "cos our hearts are in the music." Then there's the geniality of Genius Kru, whose "Course Bruv" revives the amiable (if insanitary) rave-era ritual of sharing your drink. The insanely addictive chorus goes: Male Voice: "Can I 'ave a sip of that?" Genius Kru: "Course bruv!" Sexy Female: "Can I 'ave a sip of that?" Genius Kru: "Course luv!!"

Your best chance of hearing "Heartless Theme" and "Course Bruv" is on (groan!) Crews Control, a Warnerdance U.K. compilation you might find in Tower or Virgin. Somewhat patchy, this double-CD justifies the import price by containing around eight certified classics, including Purple Haze's "Messy" and More Fire Crew's "Oi!" Early in 2002, the latter became the most avant-garde U.K. Top 10 hit since the Prodigy's "Firestarter," its dead-eyed drum machine beats sourced in Schoolly D and "Sleng Teng," its patois-tinged jabber equal parts Cockney Rejects and "Cockney Translation" (Smiley Culture's 1985 dancehall classic). Garage Rap, Vol 1 (Eastside import) is more consistent and up-to-date, ranging from the quasi-orchestral grandeur of Wiley & Rolld Deep's "Terrible" to the thunderdrone rampage of GK Allstars' "Garage Feeling."

The trouble with comps, even superior ones like this, is they inevitably lag behind where the scene is at right this minute. With 2step's crossover bubble long popped, it's like the "real musicians" (MJ Cole, et al.) have fled to more prosperous climes, leaving the genre in the hands of barbarian teenagers who don't give a shit about things being in key, who break the rules 'cos they don't know the rules.

Right now, London's pirate-radio underground is like a primordial swamp, seething with protean new forms and percolating with ideas nicked from Dirty South bounce, electro, ragga, even gabba. Much of it is sub-music: unfinished experiments, prototypes thrown onto the marketplace for the hell of it. Some tunes want to be proper rap, but sound like all those No Limit wannabe labels: cheap 'n' nasty synth-refrains inspired by or sampled from video-game muzik or cell phone ring-tones, doomy horn fanfares à la Swizz Beats or Ludacris. There's a whole vein of spartan tracks, just beats and B-lines, designed for freestyling over—the most famous and ubiquitous being Musical Mobb's "Pulse X," the U.K.'s very own "Grindin'." In techno, tracky tunes of this type are regarded as "DJ tools"—uncompleted work that only becomes music in the DJ's mix 'n' mesh. In U.K. garage, they function as MC tools, designed to both enable and test the rapper, the most extreme riddims as buckwild challenging to ride as a mechanical bull. Every big tune these days comes with an instrumental lick on the flip, so aspiring MCs on the pirates can version it, throwing down solo freestyles or sparring in on-air ciphers. Increasingly, they're using the instrumental B-sides of current rap hits.

Like its precursors dancehall and hip-hop, garage rap is capitalist competition at its most honestly brutal, a free market governed only by the fickleness of popular desire, a/k/a, the massive. Reigning rhymestar Wiley asserts, "I will not lose/Never, no way, not ever"; he's next in line for So Solid-style stardom, alongside his Rolldeep cohort Dizzee Rascal (who's quite possibly the most inspired and provocative U.K. rapper since Tricky). But most MCs will be lucky to have one or two hot tunes, and run t'ings for a season before they're dethroned.