Friday, May 29, 2015

Avant-Funk - A Certain Ratio and 23 Skidoo

The Graveyard and the Ballroom
To Each...
The Old and The New

reviewed for The Wire, circa 1995

A CERTAIN RATIO were one of those bands who seem monstrously significant at the time, but then fade away, leaving little in the way of legacy and nary a trace in the folk-memory. There was a lot of it about in the post-punk 'anti-rockist' era (see also The Pop Group, Gang Of Four, Magazine). All this makes it both touching and puzzling that Creation, that most rockist of labels, was sufficiently fond of ACR to reissue their Factory oeuvre.

Perhaps one indicator of the sheer speed with which ACR's moment was eclipsed (after New Pop, their angst-funk seemed like no fun) is the fact that the only thing of theirs I ever acquired is 1979's "The Graveyard and The Ballroom". Originally a cassette-only release in a nifty translucent green plastic pouch, it's still the most appealing document of ACR's peculiar project: draining all the joy, sexuality and
ecstatic release out of black dance pop, transforming funk into a grimly addictive rhythmic metaphor for control and obsession. Factory's house producer Martin Hannett lent his deathly-dry touch to the 'Graveyard' tracks, his trademark vaulted sound turning the discotheque into a mausoleum. It's perfect for ACR's skeletal garage funk (on the sick-joke 'Crippled Child' they actually sound like a sub-'Nuggets' '60s punk band). Musically primitivist, maybe, but ACR were far from ignorant: "Do The Du" refers to Isidore Ducasse, a.k.a. Lautreamont, author of the awesome proto-surrealist prose-poem "Maldoror".

The live "Ballroom" side sounds more full-bodied and texturally brimming (despite the lo-fi, virtually hand-held sound quality, which makes a mockery of the CD reissue format). On "The Fox", "Oceans" and "The Choir", the miasma of echoed falsetto, background whispers and sub-Miles trumpet-in-fog is nicely mesmeric, kinda like Joy Division getting on the good foot. (Mid-song Simon Topping piss-takes Ian Curtis with a burst of "I was waiting for a guy to come and take me by the hand").

"Ballroom" was probably as good as ACR got. Perhaps if they'd hooked up with Grace Jones to cover Talking Heads' "Houses In Motion", as was once mooted, they'd have injected some soul or at least personality into their ghost-funk. As it is, the official studio debut "To Each..." (1981) is as obtuse and intransitive as its title. Hannett shrouds every instrument with gauzy condensation, so that only the superior rhythm section (dig Donald Johnson's restless hi-hat and crisp snare-cracks!) keeps the fog of avant-funk anemia moving. "Sextet" (1981) is marginally less muffled-sounding, but this is still disco for dead souls. Bustling drum and bass grooves are wreathed in wisps of Martha Tilson's affectless vocal alienation, while the horns sound winded and wan, like an existentialist Beggar & Co. Still "Knife Slits Water" is dankly compelling, urgent slap-bass slicing through aqueous ambience.

"The Old and The New", a 1985 compilation that swept up some 12 inch semi-precious gems, is probably your second-best bet after "Graveyard". The cold-fever fatback shuffle and lunar gyrations of "Flight", with its distant jazz-funk whistles (ghosts of Caister weekenders?) still sounds fab, as does the dessicated cover of "Shack Up". And "Thin Boys", a Hannett-produced early track,is a dirge-in-a-catacomb worthy of US hardcore band Flipper, with comically grave lines like "clinging to each other like magnetised leeches". Tres 1979.

By the 1983 Simon Topping had departed (to study Latin percussion in New York, if memory serves), resurfacing at decade's end as a mainstay of house group T-Coy and the De-Construction label, just at the point when avant-funk ideas were filtering into popular consciousness via acid house. With Donald Johnson at the helm, ACR honed their jazz-funk chops and turned into Level 42.

Seven Songs
Uncut, 2001

by Simon Reynolds

Shame there's no good genre term sufficiently evocative and open-ended for the kind of music 23 Skidoo made. "Avant-funk" is too ugly, "death disco"  is melodramatic and PiL-specific, "industrial"'s been tarnished by its latterday exponents.  Whatever.  Skidoo were prime explorers of a sonic terrain that opened up in punk's aftermath, when people were looking for a forward path to take them as far from the reek of rock's corpse as possible. Funk, it was decided, was the new music of danger. Based on a quite small range of instances---the madness latent in James Brown's most frenzied polyrhythms, the voodoo grooves of  Tago Mago and Davis's On The Corner, Sly Stone's darker moments, Fela Kuti (Africa's JB), Last Poets--the idea of funk as a sinister energy emerged: rhythm as enslavement, as addiction, as possession. Mix in ideas borrowed from vanguard sci-fi authors Ballard & Burrough (sounds like a confectioners!) and paranoid vibes from Seventies auteur movies like Pakula's Klute and Coppolla's The Conversation, and voila, you've got the future. 

Proteges of Genesis P. Orridge (who let them rehearse at his Death Factory space), 23 Skidoo bridged avant-funk's first-wave (Pop Group, Cabs, A Certain Ratio) and lesser second-wave (Hula, Chakk, Shriekback, 400 Blows). Their records have been out-of-print for years, but Skidoo have enjoyed a spectral presence in dance culture: the bassline to their  single "Coup" was copied note-for-note by The Chemicals on "Block Rockin' Beats"; early darkside jungle circa 1993 was often bizarrely Skidoo-like, despite the absence of any direct lineage; the group's ethnological forgeries and tape-looped exotica pre-echoed the world music samplings of your Loop Gurus.

This sort of talk--precursors, legacies, inheritors, ahead-of-their-time, etc--is pretty academic, though: the real question is, why listen now? Because 1981's Seven Songs especially still sounds bloodcurdlingly intense. A malevolent tumble of hand-percussion, guitar feedback, and gutteral chants, opener "Kundalini" is as much Birthday Party as Gap Band, while the seething slap-bass and brittle-nerved rhythm guitar of "Vegas El Bandito" is offset by a lugubrious wail of lost-in-endless-fog trumpet. The track immediately cuts into "Mary's Operation", dropping everything but the dank, ailing Miles-like trumpet,  multi-tracked and mingled with tape-loop drones. This resulting gloomscape of wilted, billowing sound in turn devolves into  "Lockgroove", a roiling cosmic cistern. "New Testament" is dying machinery, a drum track massively slowed down and elongated, its rapid percussive events blossoming into pendulous cymbal-smashes and smeared snares. "IY" showcases Skidoo's strength (percussion) and  weakness (vocals), but "Porno Bass" is just ill: booming bassdrones reverberate in a cavernous murk, while Hitler fan Unity Mitford, plucked from some radio interview, rails against  pop music for displacing "manly" activities like athletics, sexually hyperstimulating da youth, and generally being "the sign of a degenerating race". When the rancid old nutcase opines that young people's  "ears become degraded by wrong style and senseless reiteration", Skidoo mischievously double-loop the word "reiteration". 

Seven Songs's closer "Quiet Pillage" references exotica king Martin Denny (whose Polynesian-flavored  "Quiet Village" was a massive Fifties hit) but evokes an Apocalypse Now: The Day After vibe of humid disquiet. The track's plinky metallic chimes look ahead to  1984's Urban Gamelan,  made after an expedition to Indonesia.  "GIFU" is basically an alternate mix of "Coup", Skidoo's  most straightforwardly funky single, with a Viet-Cong war-cry "G.I., fuck you" added for anti-imperialist edge, but most of the album is precisely what the title promises: gamelan-influenced drumstrumentals, all tuned percussion, hand-cymbals, and gongs. bals, gongs, and woodblocks. Well-produced compared with the hastily executed debut, Urban Gamelan often teeters on the thin line between minimal and underwritten. Its gently ominous atmosphere--space age bachelor padded cell music--grows on you, but it lacks the turbulence and sheer de-civilising ferocity of Seven Songs.


Tuesday, May 26, 2015

J Dilla

June 16th 2009, The Guardian

by Simon Reynolds

Record stores are dying in my neighbourhood, the East Village of New York. The only ones that are hanging in there, even prospering, belong to a particular type:  boutiques that offer a tidied-up version of the crate-digging experience, without the dust and the graft, the knees-bent flicking through musty cardboard boxes in roach-infested basements.  Smart-looking and well-organised, these stores have nice-looking racks made of unvarnished wood, while their wares--funk and soul, bebop and fusion, soundtracks and library music--tend to be selective and pricey.  As well as selling source vinyl for the  breaks and samples prized by deejays and producers, these stores also stock vintage rap 12 inches and current underground hip hop (always on vinyl, of course). Up by the counter, they'll have copies of Wax Poetics on sale.

Several years ago I was in one of these local shops, just about to clap headphones on my head and sift through an armful of vinyl, when some wondrous music streamed out of the store's sound system. All rippling ribbons of synth and quiet storm diva murmuring and gasps, it was the most swooningly cosmic thing I'd heard in a small eternity. As I headed down the aisle to the back of the store where the deejay lurked, the thought popped into my head: "p'raps this is Dilla?" 

I don't know why, really, since I only had a vague idea of who he was, having read about his recent death and gleaned that he was this big deal cult producer.  J Dilla, a/k/a Jaydee, a/k/a James Dewitt Yancey, is someone I had "slept on" (to use the American expression).   To be honest, I avoid that whole backpacker rap/Premier-is-God/Wax Poetics area.  (In fact I only go to these crate-digger boutiques because they sometimes have Sixties and Seventies rock and weird avant-garde stuff). I'm one of those who believe that the sector that kept rap vital these last dozen years wasn't the underground but that cusp zone between "the streets" and commercial mainstream: Cash Money, Ruff Ryders, Ludacris, Lil Jon. Mostly Dirty South, in other words: hip hop that isn't encumbered by crippling reverence towards its old skool past. 

Still, sometimes as a critic you just absorb a sense of the musical landscape through osmosis and sure enough when I asked the deejay what record he was playing, he reluctantly (the attitude, typical for this kind of store, seemed to be "if you need to ask, you're not someone who needs to know") showed me the instrumentals version of Dilla's posthumous album The Shining.

In the next week I got hold of as much Dilla as I could:  stuff he'd done with his group Slum Village and in collaboration with Madlib, solo records like Donuts, Ruff Draft, Welcome To Detroit, and, naturally The Shining (where I discovered that the track that blew my mind in the store was called "Won't Do"). 

As a body of work, though, it seemed… variable. For every "Won't Do" or similar gem like the halcyon summer-soul-breeze "So Far To Go"  (also on The Shining) there'd be a bunch of backpacker-friendly beats with a languid MC rapping on top.  Still cultists love fragmentary, scattered bodies of work, they enjoy nothing more than chasing down obscure remixes and impossible-to-find mixtapes.  

And sure enough, in the ensuing years, the cult of Dilla has grown ever bigger. An entire wave of music has come through influenced by his trademark style, the most prominent exponents being Flying Lotus, a/k/a Californian experimental hip hop producer Steven Ellison, who recorded the Dilla homage "Fall In Love",  and SA-RA Creative Partners, who collaborated with Dilla on the track "Thrilla" and whose splendid new album Nuclear Evolution: The Age of Love is out soon.  

There's also a burgeoning micro-industry of posthumous product.  Rapster/!K7 have issued two Dillanthology compilations of his productions and remixes for other artists, the second of which is out this month. As is the all-new album Jay Stay Paid, a selection of basement tapes sequenced and spruced up by his mother Maureen Yancey with help from Dilla's hero Pete Rock (like Premier, one of those  cult producers that underground rap types drool over).  As far as I can tell, Jay Stay Paid is the first time that a hip hop beat-maker has gotten the kind of life-after-death treatment afforded superstar rappers like Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G. You even get people wearing T-shirts that say "J Dilla Changed My Life".

So what made Dilla special?  If you could break his style down into three main components, they'd be his way with a vocal sample, his way with a beat, and his way with synths.  

As an example of the first, let's look at a really old track that's on the first volume of Dillanthology:  "The Light" by Common. I loved this when it came out in 2000 but I'd never realized that Dilla produced it until I got Dillanthology.  "The Light" is pretty much the only Common tune I've ever cared for and such was my antipathy to the rapper that for a long while I considered the track a kind of sample-delivery machine: you wait patiently through the verses for the gorgeous, glistening chorus, which is derived from "Open Your Eyes" by Bobby Caldwell, a white-but-sounds-black singer who hit big in early Eighties America with a similar "rock 'n' soul" sound to Hall & Oates. 

If you compare the original song (and do check out Caldwell's hat while you're about it) with "The Light" you can clearly see  Dilla's artistry: he's taken an already lovely, if slightly schmaltzy song and created another song out of it.  "Open Your Eyes" is a guy telling a woman to stop pining for her lost lover, because what she needs is right here in front of her. Combining different bits of the chorus into a new chorus, Dilla extracts from the original song a more mystical statement about L.O.V.E. that fits Common's lyric (which I grew to find, um, touching) like a glove.   The most extraordinary, steal-your-breath part of "The Light" comes at the end where Dilla takes vocal fragments from various points in the song--a line here, a curl of grace notes there-- and weaves them into what sounds like a stretch of spontaneous soul-singer extemporizing. It's as though Caldwell is right there in the studio with Dilla and Common, scatting over the beat.

Talking of beats: Dilla's signature, widely forged at the moment, is what tech-heads call unquantized drums.  Quantization is a procedure that makes rhythms perfectly regular, grooves superhumanly tight.  The gist of what Dilla did (and I invite comments box experts to fill in the gaps in excruciating technical detail) is to avoid quantizing and go for a looser, human feel, fitful and fallible, sometimes pushing "off-beat" to the edge of plain wrong.  Hip hop headz talk of Dilla as the catalyst for "the return of the boom-bap"  ,  a phrase originally from  KRS-One's  1993 album "Return of the Boom Bap" . 

Sometimes rendered boom-boom-bap, it's a phonetic evocation of hip hop's classic drum pattern.  The booms are the kicks, the bap is the snare, and the combination is that loping midtempo groove that tugs at your neck and your head, not so much at your hips or your feet.  As it has developed in underground rap circles these past fifteen years, boom-bap has come to refer to hip hop for nodders and smokers.  To backpackers it's the very pulse of life itself, but to these ears, boom-bap strikes me as being as capable of being blandly formulaic as any other kind of beat.  Dilla did his fair share of perfunctorily functional grooves but at his most creative he deconstructed the rhythm, placing the booms and baps, hi hats and claps, in an off relationship to each other, clustered too close or coming in too late, but always retaining a ghostly relationship to hip hop feel.

And finally the synths, which burble and twitter through a lot of Dilla tracks (see "On Stilts,"  "Spacecowboy vs. Bobble Head" and "Dilla Bot Vs. The Hybrid,"  highlights of Jay Stay Paid) , although it's often hard to tell if they are sampled off some obscure record or played on a vintage analog keyboard.  Even more than the cut-up "vocal science" and the stumbling beats, this is one of the most widely imitated aspects of Dilla's style, especially within that amorphous genre-not-genre known as Wonky.  A musician friend of mine, Matthew Ingram (check out his debut album as Woebot ) tells me this has a lot to do with the rise of "soft synths," which have been embraced by producers in lots of different genres.  Simplifying the technicalities, what this means is that producers can have the virtual equivalent of an analogue synthesizer inside their digital audio workstations.  This enables them to simulate the hands-on fun of knob-twiddling and moving sliders that you get with an antique synthesiser and which generates all those supercool retro-futurist wibbles and wooshes.  "Soft synths aren’t always emulations of analogue synths," says Ingram. "But analog synth emulators are increasingly popular at the moment."  And they're one reason Dilla is such a spectral (omni)presence across the left-field music landscape of the late Noughties.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

disco heritage

'Sound of the City' column, Village Voice, June 1st, 1999

by Simon Reynolds

During VH1's rock history series, Tom Petty (historically speaking, a louse on Dylan's scrotum) declares: "Our goal in the Seventies was to destroy disco". VH1 clearly endorse Petty's view of disco as "a terrible menace to music." Blissfully unaware that their culture is still being written out of history, a thousand mad-for-it dancers gather every Sunday evening for Body & Soul at Vinyl, and celebrate disco as a living musical tradition. 

Like many in the crowd, resident DJs Francois Kevorkian and Danny Krivit are middle-aged veterans of Manhattan's 1970s underground disco scene; B&S is modelled on the legendary Paradise Garage, right down to the alcohol-free juice bar and fabulously crisp sound system. The crowd--a utopian mix of black and white, male and female, straight and gay, drugged and undrugged, shirted and shirtless--clearly don't recognize the rockist version of disco as the death of community and meaning. Soul classics by Stevie Wonder and Curtis Mayfield are dropped next to Nineties deep house anthems, as if they're all part of the same sonic/spiritual continuum. Krivit sometimes cuts out the testifying choruses so the audience can participate, call-and-response style. 

This can get a bit too Pentecostal, though, and I prefer it when vocal-free house tracks are meshed into a redemptive flow of ambient gospel. The combination of the club's sweat-stippled humidity and the spongy, succulent sound creates an intimate pressure, amniotic and baptismal. Often, I'm reminded of Talking Heads at their Steve-Reich-meets-King-Sunny-Ade peak--like Remain In Light, the music's built from onionskin layers of melodic-percussive pulses. Afro-funk is actually a major fad in house at the moment, with Masters At Work reworking Fela Kuti tunes. 

If anything, B& S set a tad too much store in vocal accomplishment and live instrumention (chickenscratch guitar, horns, etc), not enough on disco's plastique fantastique side. To my rave-glazed ears, the most exciting stuff at B&S is what house heads call "tracky" as opposed to "songful"--instrumental rhythm tracks that are dub-spacious and FX-addled. But even spinning a hoary slice of faux-disco like the Stones's "Miss You", Kevorkian will use the mixer's EQ switches to cut out whole frequency bands, creating violently lurching, staccato dynamics. It's like a latent house track is fighting its way out of the original song, Alien-style. The phuture manifesting itself through the past's flesh---this is how disco/house culture evolves, honoring its ancestors even as it bastardizes the legacy.

Disco Double Take - New York Parties Like It’s 1975
Village Voice, July 11 - 17, 2001

by Simon Reynolds

Bang the Party prides itself on being "the last real underground house party in New York." Held upstairs in Frank's Lounge, a Fort Greene, Brooklyn, bar, it's an unpretentious and intimate affair. The lighting and decor are minimal, and there's free food laid out in a back room. The crowd, mostly black and Hispanic, includes many people who look old enough to have been clubbing for two decades or longer. Likewise the music: The beats kick with a contemporary sharpness, but most of the tracks played by resident DJ E-Man sound like they could have been made in the mid '70s, exuding a played-not-programmed feel and brimming with warm textures that feel "organic" rather than computerized. Most importantly, that crucial intangible "vibe"—the thing that makes or breaks a party—is fully present. When a fuse blows, temporarily cutting the sound dead, the audience claps and hollers to maintain the absent beat, with one patron rhythmically chanting, "We don't need no music!"

Bang is one of a number of New York parties directly modeled on the Loft, a legendary dance party of the early '70s hosted by David Mancuso in his own apartment. Fascinated by the futuristic, dance culture feels an equally potent tug toward the past: It's obsessed with roots, origins, and all things "old school." In the last few years, interest in this pre-disco era of New York nightlife—during which the Loft and similar clubs like the Sanctuary and the Gallery thrived—has grown dramatically. Partly this is a response to a sense of malaise in the city's contemporary dance culture, which some identify with slick corporate superclubs like the recently closed Twilo and others attribute to the Giuliani-sponsored crackdown on clubland. Reinvoking the "original principles" of the New York dance underground, nights like Body & Soul, Together in Spirit, Journey, and Soul-Sa appeal both to disenchanted veterans of the original scene and to neophytes who feel the romance of a lost golden age they never actually lived through. With clubbing tourists coming from all over the world to experience "the real thing" as a sort of time-travel simulacrum, New York's '70s-style dance underground has become a veritable heritage industry similar to jazz in New Orleans.

Stoking the interest in this period during the past year were a spate of books (ranging from the disco memoir Keep on Dancin' by Mel Cheren, financial backer of the Paradise Garage, to histories like Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton's Last Night a DJ Saved My Life) and CD compilations (like the ongoing series David Mancuso Presents the Loft and Disco Not Disco, a collection of the "mutant disco" played by the late Larry Levan at the Garage). There's even a documentary movie, Maestro, due out this fall and featuring interviews with all the major players of the era. "We have rare footage of the Loft, the Gallery, Paradise Garage—stuff that no one's ever seen," says producer-director Josell Ramos. Excerpts will be previewed at Body & Soul's annual July 22 birthday bash for Levan, which is hosted by the Maestro team this year.

Some of the most diligent curators of this era of New York club culture are actually foreigners. The first academic treatise on this subject, You Better Work!, is by a German, Kai Fikentscher. And it took a London label, Nuphonic, to honor David Mancuso's legacy by organizing the Loft compilations. Right now, Nuphonic is about to issue a trilogy of anthologies that pull together the hard-to-find output of avant-disco auteur Arthur Russell, creator of quirky "Loft classics" like Dinosaur L's "#5 (Go Bang)" and Loose Joints' "Is It All Over My Face?" The Russell project is a labor of love that has taken Nuphonic founder Dave Hill six years to complete. Nuphonic is also home to contemporary U.K. outfits like Faze Action and Idjut Boys, whose music is steeped in the '70s New York sound. Listen to Faze Action's debut Plans & Designs, and you imagine the brothers Simon and Robin Lee fanatically studying the orchestral arrangements on old Salsoul 12-inches, like the Stones once did with Muddy Waters records.

What exactly is the allure of this period? "It's that whole mythic aura thing," says Hill. "None of these people went to the Loft in the '70s or the Garage in the '80s, so the spell can't be broken.

It's like some mad idyllic party that they can't ever have attended. Who knows if these clubs were really that great, but they certainly yielded some fascinating stories, and some fantastic records."

Pretty much anybody who's anybody in the New York house scene, from David Morales to Danny Tenaglia, was a "Loft baby" (or claims they were). Although the Sanctuary's Francis Grosso—who died this year—invented DJ'ing in the modern sense (long sets "beat-matched" to sustain a nonstop groove), it was Mancuso who pioneered the we-are-family vibe central to house culture and the idea of the club as total experience, with every aspect—audiophile sound system, lights, decor, free food—micromanaged for your pleasure.

"I started doing the Loft regularly in 1970, as an invitation-only rent party at my Soho apartment," says the bearded and big-bellied Mancuso between mouthfuls of Italian sausage at his favorite East Village restaurant. A few blocks away is his 6th Street office, where Mancuso keeps the remnants of the Loft's legendary sound system. Keen to demonstrate the importance of what he calls "Class A audio," the 56-year-old DJ treats me to a private performance.

Tracks like Nina Simone's "My Baby Just Cares for Me" shimmer with lustrous detail—the crisp, clear sound gives me goose bumps. Suddenly, it's easy to understand all those stories of people being brought to tears by Mancuso's DJ'ing.

One record Mancuso plays—Van Morrison's 1968 classic Astral Weeks—reveals the crucial, underacknowledged links between the proto-disco scene and the rock counterculture. Today, disco is often celebrated for its camp and kitschy plasticness. But the pre-Saturday Night Fever dance underground was actually sweetly earnest and irony-free in its hippie-dippie positivity, as evinced by anthems like M.F.S.B.'s "Love Is the Message." And the scene's combination of overwhelming sound, trippy lighting, and hallucinogens was indebted to the late-'60s psychedelic culture. Mancuso still uses the Timothy Leary catchphrase "set and setting" to describe the art of creating the right vibe at parties.

Part of the fascination for the Loft era is that it's about as far back as you can trace the roots of today's dance-and-drug culture. But it was actually another DJ—Nicky Siano, cofounder of the Gallery—who took the Loft's synergy between sound, lights, and drugs and turned it into a full-blown trance-dance science. "I had this brainstorm—no one was eating the free bananas, so we dissolved LSD in water, borrowed a syringe from a junkie friend, and injected the fruit," says Siano. Larry Levan, then learning DJ'ing under Siano's tutelage, was given the job of spiking the fruit punch. With much of the Gallery crowd buzzing on acid, "the vibe was electric; people were having seizures on the dancefloor," says Siano. Another popular substance was Quaaludes, which created a touchy-feely "love energy" similar to Ecstasy.

The New York dance underground described by Siano—clubs with house dealers, audiences hyped on a polydrug intake, trippy lights synchronized to a hypnotic beat, DJs working the crowd into mass hysteria—was essentially rave culture in chrysalis. More immediately, clubs like the Gallery inspired Studio 54, where Siano DJ'd for a few months. When disco went mainstream, the original scene bunkered down in the underground. The Paradise Garage, founded in 1976, was a members-only club with resident DJ Larry Levan playing to a mainly gay, black and Hispanic crowd. That same year Levan's friend Frankie Knuckles moved to Chicago to take up a residency at the Warehouse, transplanting the New York underground ethos and in the process fathering house music.

With the Paradise Garage era ending with the club's closure in 1987, and the Loft in difficulties, New York's dance underground survived into the '90s thanks to enclaves like Better Days, Tracks, Shelter, and the Sound Factory Bar. But at these clubs, the underground's sensibility became gradually more conservative. DJs venerated Mancuso and Levan (who died in 1992), but few emulated their openness to left-field artists like Jah Wobble and Holger Czukay, Nina Hagen, and Liquid Liquid. Instead, "garage" solidified as a genre term referring to soulful New York house characterized by organic textures, Latin percussion, and a jazzy feel. By the mid '90s, the city's dance culture was divided between the traditionalist house scene and the more future-leaning rave, which arrived here as an exotic U.K. import (but was actually a mutant form of Chicago house). On one side, white glow-stick warriors stoked on E rally to superstar DJs from Europe. On the other, it's Europeans who flock to worship at the shrine of all things authentically old school—the largely gay and black dance underground, where the DJs are local.

Since Twilo went wholesale into the Euro-trance sound, there's been a real divide in New York between drug clubs and what you could call soul clubs or 'vibe' clubs, like Body & Soul," says Adam Goldstone, a local DJ-producer who records for Nuphonic. Body & Soul—founded in 1996 by two veterans of the '70s underground, Fran├žois Kevorkian and Danny Krivit, and their friend Joe Claussell—almost single-handedly sparked the renaissance of interest in New York's pre-disco club culture. Harking back to the approach of Mancuso and Levan, the trio DJ together round-robin style, and generally play tunes from start to finish rather than mixing. Echoing Mancuso and Levan, they believe the real art of DJ'ing is "programming"—the selection and sequencing of songs—a reaction against the cult of DJ virtuosity where jocks like Sasha and Digweed show off their seamless mixing by picking compatible samey-sounding tracks.

Another aspect that Body & Soul revived is the old-school ethos of playing healing, redemptive music. "Back in the day, the talented DJs really spun to tell a story with their records," says Krivit. "At Body & Soul, we are conscious that the music's talking, and you can't just play nonsense, or go to a song that contradicts the message in the previous song." Like the Loft, Body & Soul is dedicated, says Kevorkian, to "cherishing and perpetuating" a gay urban tradition that's over 30 years old and that survived both the disco backlash and the decimation of AIDS.

The party—hailed by U.K. dance magazines as the best club in the world—draws party animals and purist house scholars from Britain and Europe, immaculately retro-styled Japanese waifs, and bored New York hipsters who want a taste of what things were like "back in the day." "Dance music had become too technical, people were missing the soulfulness," says Richard Costecu, another member of the team behind the Maestro documentary. "That soulful house sound never went away; there were always people who lived for it. But maybe more people are ready for it now—they're sick of hearing disco loops all night long, they want 'real music.' And the new recruits are really interested in the history of the scene. It's still a more mature crowd at Body & Soul, not annoying suburban kids who are popping E's and want to hear fast music."

Not everybody is happy about the newcomers, though. "Some people say that the vibe at Body & Soul has deteriorated as the composition of the party has changed, and I'm one of them," says Fikentscher. "So I've looked for other parties that are more 'underground.' "

This is a vital contradiction running through house culture: The overt ideology is one of love, unity, and inclusivity, but in reality this is limited to insiders, "those in the know." "Body & Soul was initially a secret you passed only on to your best friends, just like the Loft and the Garage," says Fikentscher. "To this day, you see parties advertised that say, 'If you have a Paradise Garage membership pass from way back, you get in for free.' " The most positive spin on this exclusivity is to see it as tribal rather than elitist. To maintain the right vibe, clubs need to control access. But even the best-kept secret can't stay on the down-low for long, and clubs have an in-built mortality. By the time they've established a killer vibe, it's only a matter of time before outsiders arrive to alienate the "true believers." Hence the post-Body & Soul rash of small underground nights like Bang the Party, Journey, Together in Spirit (like Body & Soul, a Sunday-afternoon party), and Deep See, an after-work club DJ'd by veterans like Andre Collins and sometimes kicked off by Kai Fikentscher's irregular series of lectures on the history of house.

Clubs like these are glorious proof that New York's disco-house tradition is a living thing. But there's a downside: The keep-the-faith attitude often translates into a kind of cultural protectionism (typified by the snobbish disdain of most New York house purists toward 2step, London's radical twist on garage). Worse, the excessive sense of heritage ensures that the scene evolves very slowly. In truth, New York dance culture hasn't delivered the shock-of-the-new in well over a decade. Despite the rhetoric of open-mindedness and eclecticism, the fusions that occur—Afro-Beat, Brazilian music, the lighter side of electric jazz—are rather predictable, and hidebound by the scene's premium on old-fashioned notions of "musicality" and "soulfulness." The underground's refusal to break with the past has effectively denied it the musical breakthroughs that have occurred in other cities: Detroit, Sheffield, Ghent, Frankfurt, Rotterdam, Berlin, and, repeatedly, London. There's a fine line between honoring the past and living there. The solution? A little less reverence, maybe.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Reinforced / 4 Hero

Alternative Press, 1996?

by Simon Reynolds

      Originally released in late '94 by influential UK drum & bass label Reinforced (for whom 4 Hero are house band), 'Parallel Universe' was the first of a spate of single-artist 'armchair jungle' albums (see also Omni Trio, A Guy Called Gerald). Appropriately, "Parallel" illustrates all the possibilities and perils of 'art-core'. With its astrophysical imagery (titles like "Solar Emissions" and "Sunspots"), its cosmic utopianism, its jazzy cadences, this music is basically a digitized update of the early '70s fusion  of Weather Report and Herbie Hancock. The downside is occasional lapses into jazz-funk mellowness, e.g. the cheesy sax solo and creamy garage-diva vocal that mars "Universal Love". The upside is the astonishingly intricate array of multi-tiered breakbeats (processed and pitchshifted so they're textural as much as percussive) and the hall-of-mirrors production, wherein sounds morph as eerily as Salvador Dali's melting clocks. 4 Hero's mutational, maze-like aesthetic is at its most mindwarping on "Terraforming" and "Wrinkles In Time". At its best, "Parallel Universe" is black science-fiction in full effect, Sun Ra's "Disco 3000" meets William Gibson.


REINFORCED label profile
Spin, 1998

by Simon Reynolds

Reinforced is one of those labels--think SST or Homestead vis-a-vis
proto-grunge--that literally makes  history, even if its releases never
make the Billboard Top 200. Since 1990, the London-based drum 'n' bass
imprint has been building the future, breakbeat by breakbeat. Reinforced
alumni include pioneering producers such as Goldie (operating under his
early alter-ego Rufige Cru) and Doc Scott (a/k/a Nasty Habits), while its
"house band" 4 Hero have crafted arguably the most consummate and
consistently ahead-of-the-game oeuvre in jungle.

Rob Playford--Goldie's erstwhile co-producer and boss of the
similarly seminal drum 'n' bass label Moving Shadow -- once described
Reinforced as the scene's "research lab". Although the label had a couple
of near chart-hits during Britain's early Nineties hardcore rave explosion,
Reinforced have generally operated about a year in advance of their own
genre. Inevitably, more canny and market-conscious labels have reaped the
benefits of Reinforced's innovations.

When euphoric rave tunes still ruled in '92, Reinforced were
already exploring "the darkside": its roster--4 Hero, Rufige Cru, Nasty
Habits, Nebula II, Tek 9, to name just a few--developed a repertoire of
bad-trippy effects, ectoplasmic sample-textures, swarming death-ray riffs,
and convulsive, highly-processed breakbeats that blurred the line between
rhythm and timbre. In 1993 the UK rave scene went dark en masse, using
Reinforced's patented palette of audio-grotesquerie to reflect the paranoid
delirium  caused by long-term Ecstasy abuse. But by this point, Reinforced
were taking the proto-jungle sound in a more "musical" direction infused
with soothing jazz, soul and ambient flavors---a process that peaked in
late '94 with the blissful disorientation of 4 Hero's Parallel Universe,
one of the  first single-artist drum 'n' bass albums. And when that
"intelligent jungle" sound itself became consensual and cosy, Reinforced
moved on yet again, pushing the music into more unsettling experimental

This  twisting-and-turning trajectory can be traced on Enforcers:
The Beginning of the End  (available in America via Crammed/SSR), a
compilation of highlights from the label's acclaimed Enforcers  series of
multi-artist experimental EPs. Mixed by DJ Stretch, the CD starts with the
present and works backwards to 1992--an unorthodox ruse that enables you to
hear the future emerging out of the past even more effectively than a
conventional chronology. The anthology's first half also serves as a
showcase for some of Reinforced's "new boys"--producers like  Sonar Circle,
Procedure 769, G-Force & Seiji, Vortexion, Arcon 2, Torus,  Nucleus &
Paradox. Resisting  drum 'n' bass's current stagnation--an excess of
"copycat music", as label manager Ian Bardouille puts it, DJs playing safe
and producers hidebound by the reigning formula of stiff two-step beats and
quasi-funky basslines--Reinforced's roster  are intensifying breakbeat
science to new headwreckin' heights of polyrhythmic complexity and
chromatic density.

Reinforced's stateside profile is also set to be raised,
indirectly, by the domestic release of 4 Hero's third album in October. Two
Pages  could be 1998's New Forms: it's a double CD, it's on Talkin' Loud
(the same major label affiliate that issued Roni Size's meisterwerk), and
it's staggeringly good. The first disc, Page One, does for orchestral
strings what Reprazent did for jazz horns. Tracks like "Loveless"
(featuring brilliant Philly-based poet-rapper Ursula Rucker), "Escape That"
and  "Star Chasers"  hark back to the Seventies astro-fusion and cosmic
soul of  The Rotary Connection, Donald Byrd, The Isley Brothers and Sun
Ra's Strange Celestial Roads. The basic concept is Afro-Futurist:  space is
the place where the race can escape terrestial oppression --an idea earlier
explored on the exquisite self-titled album by Jacob's Optical Stairway,
one of numerous  4 Hero alter-egos.

If Page One is occasionally a tad too mellifluous  for rock-reared
ears, Page Two's contorted beats and twisted sounds should satisfy
anybody's appetite for brain damage. "When people hear that album drop,
it's gonna blow their heads off," says Bardouille. "It'll be too much for
them to handle,  'cos they won't have experienced black music like that

The arc of decline: compare this (1993)

to this (1998)

from students of the phuture

to studium of a hallowed past

On Talkin' Loud, too... gahhhh

(s)addendum: Broken Beats

People... Make the World Go Round (People) 
Co-Operation Vol 1 (Goya) 
No Tricks (Virgin) 
The Remixes 1997-2000 (Compost) 
The Good Good (2000 Black) 
Compost Community (Compost Records) 

(faves/unfaves 2000 based partly on Uncut review)

by Simon Reynolds

With no massive convulsion likely to renew dance culture any time soon, some 
observers are touting "broken beats" a/ka "the West London Sound" (a/k/a 
"house-not-house", "nu-jazz", "phusion": why can't they just settle on the one 
name?!) as the Next Medium-Sized Thing. Weaving together the jazzier strands of 
drum'n'bass, deep house, and Detroit techno, this new(-ish) style could be 
critiqued from a number of angles: sceptics arguing that it's merely acid jazz 
upgraded with digital tricknology, populists attacking it as a composite of 
cognoscenti-oriented snob musics (fusion, rare groove, acid jazz again) that 
unavoidably conjures the image of some twat sashaying down Portobello Road in 
Jamiroquai-style woolly hat and wafting the stale reek of jazz Woodbines in his 
wake. But, hey, I thought: maybe I should check my bigotries at the door, wipe 
from my mindscreen the incontrovertible subcultural pre-eminence of East London 
(font of greatness from hardcore to jungle to 2step), and give the new contender 
a half-chance. 

Well that's what I did and I'm still on the fence. The People double-CD has some 
magic moments, especially when this dude I.G. Culture is involved--particularly 
his Likwid Biskit alter-ego, rather than New Sector Movements. The latter's 
Virgin debut EP has some good sounds'n'rhythms but they're ruined by a Big-Voice 
Female Singer doing this Afrodelic mystical positivity thing a la Rotary 
Connection or the vocalists on Roy Ayers and Lonnie Liston records. 

Co-Operation Vol 1---named after this micro-scene's principal club, the Co-Op---shines when 
Reinforced's side label for broken beats, 2000 Black, is involved: Seiji & 
G-Force's "Chase De Ace" and Nu Era & Pavel Dego Kostiuk's "Nana Nomura" take 
off from the 70s-into-90s nu-fusion developed by on Parallel Universe /disc one 
of Two Pages /Jacob's Optical Stairway and soar to virgin outerzones of 
drum'n'space. The twinkling keyboards and crisply textured percussion exude the 
cosmic utopianism of Roy Ayers and Lonnie Liston Smith. There's a particular 
Moog-tastic synth-sound--sort of spangly and squelchy at once---that's all over 
the Reinforced posse's productions and I can't get enough of it. Surprisingly, 
though, 2000 Black's own comp The Good Good (out on Planet E in the USA--and 
Innerzone Orchestra is a good reference point actually) is a bit blah, on the 

4 Hero have the first track on Jazzanova's double CD collection of their 
celebrated remixes. Part of the Compost family (the German chapter of "broken 
beats" movement), Jazzanova are feted for their flair at digitally simulating 
the "feel" and "swing" of real live drumming, and for their facility for 
complicated time-signatures. Like their West London allies, Jazzanova fetishize 
analog and acoustic timbres, the sort of "warm", fuzzy sounds that get
DJ/producers digging through crates of old vinyl in search of undiscovered 
sample-sources from the 1970s. They also exemplify the broken beats scene's 
hallmark infatuation with Brazil, home of musical hybridity and polyrhythmic 
percussion. Remix clients here include Brazilian fusion outfit Azymuth, and 
there's a pervasive bossa nova influence. 

The Brazilian fetish also results in some truly puke-provoking Portuguese-sounding names--Modaji, Misa Negra, Domu, Da Lata (apparently a reference to some folkloric tale about marijuana first 
arriving on Brazilian shores in a tin---pass the sick bucket, please). 

Jazzanova's own name is enough to make me vom into my lap each time my eyes make 
contact with it. And as I've said before in these pages, you can tell a 
lot--maybe everything--from the names of bands and titles of records.

Still, if you ever dug the jazzual, easy-glistening side of drum'n'bass--Alex 
Reece's "Jazz Master", Roni Size's Roy Ayers/RAMP sampling "Daylight" , Adam F's 
"Circles": and those are all undeniable, certified bomb tunes in my book--you'll 
find thrills here and there within the West London output and on the Compost 
compilation especially. 

Unavoidably, though, there is that Gilles Peterson/Mo 
Wax/Bar Rhumba/Blue Note/Straight No Chaser sort of stench round 
the whole thing---and the lack of any interesting "social energy" behind the 
scene is a big minus for me. 

Not sure if West London/broken even counts as a 
genre as such, it's more like an aggregation of oneupmanship strategies---a 
tapestry of music styles that have all historically been rallied to as 
connoiseurial bulwarks of taste and musicality against the plebeian rave horde. 

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

published as 'Chant Down Babylon', The Wire, 2000

by Simon Reynolds

Where better to open a meditation on the white romance with Jamaican music than with a record guaranteed to induce cringing from a higher percentage of reggae connoisseurs (and probably a hefty proportion of the Wire readership too) than any other? I'm talking about "White Man In Hammersmith Palais". Whatever you think of its rabble-rousing punky-reggae, The Clash's 1977 single is interesting because lyrically it's actually about the projections and misrecognitions that inevitably occur when white folks "engage" with black music (as opposed to simply consuming it). Joe Strummer attends an All Nighter featuring such "first time from Jamaica" stars as Dillinger and Delroy Wilson. But the performances--"showbizzy, very Vegas," Strummer recalled years later--frustrate his expectations: instead of "roots rock rebel" fighting talk, "it was Four Tops all night/with encores from stage right". The transracial identification felt by punk rockers towards roots rockers---captured earlier in "White Riot", with its admiration and envy towards the black rioters at 1976's over-policed Notting Hill Carnival--collides with a different reality of Jamaican pop culture, leaving Strummer demoralised and confused.

Roots reggae is now almost exclusively valued for dub's legacy of disorientating studio techniques. Which makes it disorientating in itself to go back to the mid-Seventies roots heyday and discover that reggae fans, black and white, actually looked to the music for "a solid foundation" (as The Congos sang it), for certainty and truth, for militancy and motivation. "Roots rock rebel" neatly condenses how Jamaican music was seen both by rock and by reggae itself. Reggae was anti-imperialist: Rasta's Pan-Africanism connected with the period's post-colonial struggles, from the communist MPLA in Angola resisting a South African invasion that was covertly backed by the USA, to the Patriotic Front liberation forces in white-controlled Rhodesia (Bob Marley later headlined Zimbabwe's 1980 Independence Celebrations). Reggae was anti-capitalist: Rasta's rhetoric of downpressed sufferers and judgement day for Babylon's plutocrats  was co-opted by Michael Manley's socialist government, whose warm relations with neighbouring Cuba led the USA to try to destabilize Jamaica via an IMF money-squeeze and other dirty tricks. And reggae was anti-fascist, providing the between-band soundtrack to Rock Against Racism concerts and bringing radical chic to a thousand student bedrooms with its poster iconography: Pete Tosh, a Che Guevera with natty dreads and black beret;  Medusa-headed spiritual warriors Black Uhuru, Burning Spear, and Culture; Steel Pulse preaching about "Handsworth Revolution".

Even before punk, rock culture had seized on reggae as the "rebel beat" of the Seventies, a much needed dose of authenticity at a time of post-countercultural burn-out: critics like Greil Marcus lionized Bob Marley  as a Caribbean Dylan and the Wailers as Jamaica's own Rolling Stones ("Street Fighting Men," but this time for real). Punk itself has been interpreted (by subcultural theorist Dick Hebdige) as partly based in the yearning for a "white ethnicity" equivalent to Rastafarianism: U.K. punks as exiles on every High Street, stranded in a Babylon burning with boredom. During the half-decade from 1977-81, reggae vied for supremacy with funk as the musical template for progressive post-punk groups. After the Pistols's break-up, Richard Branson wooed Lydon by flying him to Jamaica as A&R consultant for Virgin reggae imprint The Front Line, whose logo (black power fist clenched around barbed wire) conflated militancy and martyrdom; PiL's own dread vision rode the basslines of a blue-eyed Londoner who'd reinvented himself as Jah Wobble. In Scritti Politti's early Gramsci-influenced DIY phase, "Skank Bloc Bologna" linked the Notting Hill riots with Italy's 1977 anarcho-syndicalist uprisings; even after Green lost his Marxist faith and went post-structuralist, his deconstructions of the lover's discourse ("The 'Sweetest Girl'" et al) swayed to a lover's rock lilt. Pop Group and The Slits worked with UK dubmeister Dennis 'Blackbeard' Bovell; Ari Up eventually became a full-blown Rasta. The Specials fused social realism with the sulphate-twitchy rhythms of ska, and the mixed-race UB40 hymned the integrationist Martin Luther King (rather than separatist Marcus Garvey) over dole queue skank. And always, always, The Clash: getting Lee Perry to produce "Complete Control", covering "Armagideon Time" and "Police and Thieves," pulling off a convincing roots facsimile with "Bankrobber" (Mikey Dread at the controls). Former colony Jamaica responded to all this sincere flattery from the British Empire's bastard children with songs like Marley's "Punky Reggae Party": "The Wailers will be there/the Slits, the Feelgoods and the Clash." Not quite sure why pub rockers Lee Brilleaux and Wilko Johnson's were on Bob's guest list, but clearly it was a time of strange alliances.

The cultural studies/Rock Against Racism approach to reggae didn't ignore dub totally, but it was never really able to integrate dub's topsy-turvy sonic overturnings with its get-up-stand-up conception of reggae's political dissidence. In neo-Marxist academia and SWP activist circles alike, there's a certain uneasiness about drugs (ganja is barely mentioned in Hebdige's 1987 sound system culture book Cut 'N Mix), partly because of an anti-psychedelic premium on clear-minded rationality, and partly because linking black subcultures with drug use was felt to be dodgy, even crypto-racist. But the real stumbling block in the post-punk engagement with reggae was the religiosity of roots culture. It's possible to translate Rastafarian beliefs into Marxist terms, or treat them as allegory, mythic narratives of dispossession and deliverance. Just don't do it in front of a true Rasta believer--when ethnologist John W. Pulis attempted such a dialogue, his Western liberal relativism was swiftly dispatched: "Only one reality.... na views.... I-and-I no deal with kon-sciousness, I deal wit' truth."

Today, a totally different white hip discourse frames reggae, emphasising elements downplayed in the late Seventies but (inevitably) suppressing others. For simplicity's sake, I'm going to shorthand this cluster of ideas as the Afro-Futurist discourse, but it actually has multiple facets: dub as deconstruction (of the song, of the metaphysics of musical presence); the producer as mad scientist, dark magus, shaman, trickster; the Macro Dub Infection notions of dub as postgeographical virus and of dub's sonic instability as an education in "insecurity". The sonic praxis of these notions encompasses New York's illbient scene (We, Sub Dub, DJ Spooky) and Brooklyn's Wordsound massive, Bill Laswell's numerous dub initiatives, post rock outfits like Tortoise, Labradford, Rome, and Him, and quite a few others. Theoretically, the ideas have been largely developed by people associated with the Wire, from John Corbett's seminal essay on the "madness" of Lee Perry (and fellow Afro-Futurists Sun Ra and George Clinton) through David Toop's probing of the origins of modern remixology in reggae's versioning, to Ian Penman's classic meditation on Tricky and "the smoky logic of dub."

What all these strands of dub theory share is the exaltation of producers and engineers over singers and players, and the idea that studio effects and processing are more crucial than the original vocal or instrumental performances. Which is why thousands of words have been spilled on the wizardry of Perry or Tubby, but very little on reggae vocalisation or the role of drummers, bassists, rhythm guitarists et al in building kinaesthetic mood-scapes (a/k/a grooves). The mystery of "skank" has failed to provoke a downpour of eloquence--the way different ridims pull you into their flow, entrain your limbs in their gait, tune your cells into their vibration. This is understandable, given the difficulty of writing about rhythm with any specificity (mind you, it's just as tough to go beyond generalities and talk about a specific auteur-producer's signature, to isolate exactly what it is that gives one dub engineer, breakbeat scientist or 303-tweaker his singularity and superior rank).

The really distorting side effect of the Afro-Futurist privileging of the producer, though, is that the fact that reggae actually involved people saying stuff about stuff has almost totally been forgotten. Lyrically, most Seventies roots reggae is as plainspoken and bluntly demagogic as Tom Robinson Band. This is not to say that the shift in how reggae has been conceptualized---from "the sound of politics" in the Seventies to "the politics of sound" today--hasn't opened up exciting ways of thinking about the music; indeed, it was originally a necessary corrective to the exhausted post-punk over-emphasis on messages and meaning. But it has also de-politicized and de-spiritualized a music that was originally "part journalism, part prophecy" (James A. Winders).  At the extreme, Jamaica is effectively erased in all its materiality and knotty cultural contradictions. So Calvin Johnson, founder of Olympia, Washington's K Records and frontman of Dub Narcotic Sound System, can blithely declare: "I never saw dub as a type of music, but as a process. The fact that it originated in reggae is inconsequential."

The totem, touchstone, and discursive bulwark for the Afro-Futurist take on reggae is Lee 'Scratch' Perry. I'm going to take two tacks here: firstly, contesting the reduction of roots culture to this single smoke-wizened figure, and secondly , suggesting that the mad scientist version of Scratch is itself reductive. As the Afro-Futurist consensus about dub has solidified over the last decade, the apotheosis of Perry at the expense of his less flamboyant yet more consistent peers (Tubby, Keith Hudson, Augustus Pablo, Tommy Cowan, Joe Gibbs, Scientist, etc) has intensified.

In the Afro-Futurist discourse, Lee Perry and Bob Marley are conceptual twins, linked but opposed. Interestingly, two critics who've contrasted Marley-ism (reggae as text/truth/roots) with Perry-ology (dub as texture/play/deracination) also use the same metaphor to reject the former and big-up the later. Ian Penman, in his Tricky meditation (Wire 133, also in the essay collection Vital Signs) mocks Bob as "an olde worlde flat-earth icon".  Kodwo Eshun, in his brief Perry chapter in More Brilliant Than The Sun, praises Scratch's location "far from Rastafari's flat-earth metaphysics". Apart from the ethnocentrism of the Rasta as flat earth theory analogy (odd, given the Afro-Futurist tendency to valorize voodoo, alchemy, Gnosticism, and other superstitions), it's misleading to imply that dub and roots reggae can be understood separately from that strange Jamaican religion. For starters, Rasta's sacred burru drums--bass, funde, repeater--are embedded deep in reggae's rhythmic matrix. Perry himself is a devout Rasta. He produced and often had an instigating conceptual role in scores of songs with titles like "Psalms 20", "Zion's Blood", "Dread Lion", "Sodom and Gomorrow", "Feast of Passover", plus numerous topical social comment tunes like Max Romeo's "War In A Babylon". Even a seemingly whimsical Perry lyric like "Roast Fish and Cornbread" is actually about ital, the dietary guidelines that are crucial to righteous Rasta living.

Lee Perry's antic personality is enormously enjoyable (even if enjoyed, surprisingly, by people who usually profess contempt for pop's cult of personality), his sonic achievements mighty (if strewn amid much bad-TV-left-on-in-the-background flimsy fare, and tarnished by a post-peak trail of underachieving disgrace as long as George Clinton's. And that gig he did at Dingwalls in 1987 was fucking atrocious). Still, towering if erratic dub genius aside, I can't help suspecting some dubious ulterior factors behind the privileging of Perry. One is his fertility as a text for exegesis: Perry's syncretic cosmology of  superstitions, science fiction, and pulp movies, his is-it-schizophrenia-or-performance-art-that-never-stops eccentricity, his Sun Ra-like wordgames and encryptions, will support a micro-industry of dissertations and seminars for decades to come. The other reason for the Perry Cult is, I reckon, because the tomfoolery and quirked-out levity of  much of his output offers a blessed repreive from the sheer earnestness of roots reggae, which is often literally sermonising, all parables and chapter-and-verse.

Time to probe the peculiarities of Rastafarianism a little deeper. Dub's tricknology is sometimes linked to the trickster gods of West African animism (spirit-worship). But Rasta itself is not pagan. It has little in common with Haitian voodoo, Cuban santeria, or the other Africanized remixes of Catholicism. Instead of a panoply of spirits disguised as Catholic saints, Rasta has just the one God, the stern patriarch of the Old Testament---not someone with whom you can cut deals, as you can with voodoo's loa. If anything, Rasta is Afro-Protestant, sharing with mainland America's fundamentalists an emphasis on close reading of the Scriptures and a millenarian belief in an End of Time whereupon the righteous get transported to the promised land. Rasta resembles some of the revolutionary heresies of the Middle Ages documented in Norman Cohn's The Pursuit of the Millenium. The belief in Haile Selassie, His Imperial Majesty of Ethiopia, as the Messiah recalls those Medieval sects whose utopian hopes involved the resurrection of a king or Emperor who would be saviour of the poor and scourge of the corrupt (false kings, the clergy).  Historically, as much revolutionary energy has been mobilized by the idea of going back as going forward. Rastafarianism also owes a lot to Judaism---the kosher-like ital laws, the taboos about menstruation, and above all the Exodus saga of a people uprooted and enslaved (first by the Egyptians, then by the Babylonians) but struggling to return to their homeland. (Rasta's own version of racial envy goes: "Black Zion! We want a Zion of our own"). Transmitted via reggae, this mythic narrative resonates with dispossessed peoples across the world, from aboriginal Australians to Native Americans (roots reggae is hugely popular on the reservations, and rivaled only by death metal!).

Because of its anti-institutional bias and trust-in-Jah fatalism, Rasta has never had the will-to-power to actually create the theocratic society it basically proposes. To grasp how weird it is that such an anti-modern creed has been so influential over Western youth culture, imagine the following alternative history scenario:  the parallel universe where post-revolutionary Iran generated a form of popular music so globally inspirational it spawns its own Ayatollah-friendly Polices, UB40s, Ace of Bases. Both Rasta and Islamic fundamentalism are anti-imperalist, anti-America, and opposed to ungodly Western liberalism--from women's reproductive rights (Rasta decries birth control and abortion) to homosexuality.

Which brings me to what prompted this piece in the first place: the gap between my intense pleasure in and (for want of a better word) "identification" with roots reggae, and the glaring fact that my experiential framework and worldview are utterly remote from the Rastafarian's. For instance, one of my absolute favorite pieces of dubbed-out roots vocalisation is Linval Thompson on the King Tubby mixed "Straight To Babylon Boy's Head" (compiled on King Tubby's Special 1973-1976). Thompson sings: "From I was born in this world/My mama always tell me/That Babylon is a-wicked... Babylon drink rum/Babylon eat pork/Ride on dreadlocks... If you don't believe me, just look in the Bible... Babylon have to face/the Judgement Day." Now, I had a bit of bacon only the other day, and although I think "Babylon" is a handy nickname for the multi-tentacled malevolence of globalizing capital, the Good Book is just another book for me, not God's truth. Listening, rapt and swoony to roots songs like this one, I feel a bit like Morrissey: twisting the words of "Panic" slightly, "The music that I constantly play/Says nothing to me about my life"--yet I love it to death anyway. How can it happen, such violent cathexis, this flooding intimacy of pleasure, this beckoning? It's surely mediated by all the cross-cultural baggage of projections and preconceptions, but it doesn't feel like it --- it feels like an instantaneous spark of connection, almost pre-cognitive. It's tempting to woffle about inarticulate speech of the heart, about pure spirit cutting across all barriers. Morrissey, who once declared "all reggae is vile," actually provides my only clue. There's an uncanny vocal resemblance between Thompson and the Smiths frontman--the fey flutter and lambent grain, the mixture of rejoicing in the fallen-ness of the world and confidence in the singer's elect righteousness. Mozzer sang about his Mum a lot too.

I feel a similar inexplicable soul-bond with The Congos shimmering falsetto harmonies as they beseech "open up the Gates of Zion," plead "send us another Moses", and promise "repatriation is at hand." Probably the pinnacle of the roots era in terms of vocal groups, Heart of the Congos is prime evidence for the case that Lee Perry's best work was his productions of superlative singers rather than his own talkover dub. On the Congos's album, there's none of the mixing-board buffoonery that sometimes makes Perry resemble Jamaica's own Gong; even his favorite sonic effect, the moo-ing cow, can't deflate the devotional trance of "Children Crying." Instead, the famous Black Ark 4-track sound--a numinous haze of will-o'-the-wispy susurration that actually stems from the "degradation effect" (Steve Barrow) caused by Perry's having to dump multiple tracks onto one track to free them for further overdubbing----enshrouds the Congos's harmonies like the nimbus of light around God's head.

John Peel once described the sound of Misty In Roots, his favorite UK reggae group, as "Medieval". Rasta's liberation theology is a disconcerting weave of revolutionary and reactionary, and its paradoxes are intrinsic to dub's own double-feel of pre-modern and postmodern. Could it be that dub only works because it is simultaneously about "a solid foundation," absolute bedrock certainty, and yet offers an adventure playground for the perceptions?   It is Jamaican psychedelia, but it is also Jamaican gospel. Therein resides this music's abiding mystery: the intermingling, the warp'n'weft co-existence, of two different modes of consciousness. Because reggae has penetrated British culture so deeply and feels so familiar, it's easy to forget that Jamaica is still part of the undeveloped Third World. Reggae is a membrane between pre-industrial antiquity and hi-tech futurism. Hence Perry's own magick-meets-sci-fi imagery of "vampires" and "bionic rats."

There's another gap that inspired this piece--between the Afro-Futurist version of dub as headwrecking delirium and my personal pleasure in the music, which is less a sensation of being hurled into an alien, chaotic soundscape and more like coming home, being returned to my true element. The notion of dub as apocalypse, ambush, assault course, seems more like a response to a non-Jamaican lineage (a continuum that runs from On U Sound and Mark Stewart through Massive and Tricky, and many others) that sensed and amplified a potential for mindfuck in Seventies reggae.  Listening to the original roots era dubs, though, there seems be different stuff going on.  There's a kind of impressionistic pictorialism, like Ethiopianist program music--the golden horizons and mirage shimmer of an Abyssinia of the stoned mind's eye; patient processional rhythms suggesting freedom trains, the stoic trek of exodus and homecoming. The other aspect is an erotics of sound: dub's teasing drop-outs, its dapplings and tingles, flickers and fluctuations, correspond to Roland Barthes's notion of eroticism as "intermittance", as glimpses "where the garment gapes."  Dub's polymorphous perversity is why its techniques migrated so well into disco's endless foreplay, its caresses without climax.

The trajectory of dub & roots after its late Seventies peak corresponds to a familiar syndrome: the black popular music (social, designed for dancing) that gradually turns into highbrow art, its past cherished and conserved by white curators and archivists, its present sustained by a mostly white vanguard who rarify the music and place it firmly on the cerebral side of the mind/body dualism it once so successfully dissolved. You can see this syndrome recurring through the histories of jazz, soul, funk, old skool hip hop. Often running in parallel to the avant-garde abstraction option, there's a purely antiquarian approach--the pointless fidelity of trad jazz or digi-dub.

The first casualty of the bohemianisation of dub wasn't the usual one (danceablity), it was the voice. Dub and dub-influenced music in the Nineties almost always consists of instrumentals. At best, you got love songs to dub reggae, rather than love songs to Jah. At worst, you got a music that is all effects and no affect.  The symbiosis and synergy between roots and dub, it's a bit like Swiss Cheese. Without the holes, the cheese is less eye-grabbing but it still works on a basic nutritional and flava level. But the holes, on their own (i.e. tricknology abstracted and decontextualized) are nearly nothing. For sure, Tubby's dubs of singers like Linval Thompson are more thrilling than the originals: hole-some is better than wholesome. But Tubbs needed material to go dub crazy with in the first place. The same applies to more recent tricknologies like breakbeat science---the science needs something to manifest itself through, the flesh and sweat and "feel" of the "Amen" or "Think" break.

The present moment is an odd time to be re-thinking dub. Its profile on the Hipster Influences Shares Index peaked around 1995-96, when you could hear its spectral presence everywhere from Tricky to Chain Reaction to Tortoise to Spooky. But with the roots reissue programmes of labels like Blood & Fire increasingly scraping barrel-bottoms and left-field music culture's attention drifting to other exoticisms (like Tropicalia) there seems to be a certain exhaustion of interest in dub. Things like the Grand Royal issue devoted to Lee Perry's every last curry-goat fart seal the sense of overdocumentation, of terra cognita. 

It would be easy, and not especially illuminating, to trace the permeation of dub's techniques through UK dance culture in the last twelve years. Instead I'm going to sketch another path of diffusion, taken by what was originally the raw material that got dubbed up: the roots vocal. From the start, British rave culture has been defined by a compulsion to fuse house with reggae and hip hop: the bass pressure and Yard allusions of bleep outfits like Ital Rockers and Unique 3, Meat Beat Manifesto's "Radio Babylon," Moody Boys's Journey Into Dubland EP with its Hugh Mundell "just got to be free" clarion, the Ragga Twins's fusion of dancehall jabber and hardcore blare. Even the terms "raver" and "rave" were originally Jamaican slang. As breakbeat hardcore evolved into jungle, vocal samples from roots singers and dancehall chatters like Dr. Alimantado, Leroy Sibbles, Eek-A-Mouse, Snaggapuss, Barrington Levy, Cutty Ranks, Anthony Red Rose, Reggie Stepper, Topcat, and many more, became endemic. The Prodigy even got Max Romeo into the charts with their 1992 hit "Out of Space." Imported "yard tapes" of Kingston soundclashes provided a wealth of catchphrases from unidentified MCs--"get ready for dis, for dis, for dis", "special request", "come with it my man", "get mash up," "champion sound a-way"--which were endlessly re-sampled and still crop up in today's underground garage and 2-step, vibe power undiminished.

There's a vast volume of discourse on the role of DJs and producers in dance culture, but hardly any discussion of the MC's crucial role in the hardcore/jungle/garage continuum: the way the mic' controller operates as a kind of membrane or integument between the expressive and the rhythmatic, the social and the technological. The MC vocalizes the intensities of machine-rhythm by transforming himself into a supplement to the drum kit, while simultaneously relaying the massive's will back to the DJ (rewind selecta!). The MC is the most stubbornly ineradicable Jamaican trace persisting in UK rave, permeating the music both as samples from ragga records and as live partner to the DJ. And the MC reveals that the influence of contemporary Jamaican music, dancehall ragga, on UK dance culture is the untold counterpart to the over-told story of dub's  legacy.

Hipsters lost interest in Jamaica during the Eighties, partly because roots fell into a platitudinous rut, but mainly because of dancehall's replacement of Rasta spirituality with slack talk about sex/guns/money and a faithlessness verging on nihilism ("Africa nah go mek me bullet-proof", as one rude boy put it). The white reggae audience withered away, alienated by dancehall's hieroglyphic opacity (its harshly exaggerated patois and Jamaica-specific references) and its jarring machine beats (actually more African than reggae, a digitalized reversion to pre-ska rural folk rhythms like etu, pocomani, and kumina). With Reagan-stooge Edward Seaga ruling the country, Jamaican pop culture looked away from Africa to Black America (gangsta rap) and to Hollywood bad-boy mythologies (cowboy and Mafia movies). Cheap cocaine defined dancehall's brash and braggart vibe, rather than Rasta's meditational sacrament "herb". Even when dancehall underwent its own mid-Nineties "cultural" revival with Rasta singers like Sizzla, Luciano, Anthony B., and bad boys turned conscious like Buju Banton, white hipsters didn't recover their interest in Jamaica.

Meanwhile, though, dancehall was infiltrating UK pop culture via second-and-third generation Caribbean Britons and the white working class youth who'd grown up with them. Intriguingly, that influence is largely on the level of vocals and language rather than rhythm or production. Although jungle's MC element was gradually purged from drum 'n' bass as part of its realignment with techno, it resurfaced in UK underground garage, from the raucous patois boasts of speed garage anthems like Gant's "Sound Bwoy Burial" to the current wave of MC-driven 2-step tunes from artists like M-Dubs, Corrupted Crew, Master Stepz, and DJ Luck & MC Neat (who scored a Top Ten hit early in 2000 with "A Little Bit of A Luck"). From the gruff, burly-chested boom of chatters like Neat to the serpentile ladies man drawl of Richie Dan, garage MCs provide the yang to the 2step divas's yin. But the ghettocentric grain of the patois voice also works as a kind of ideological/textural counterweight to garage's aspirational VIP gloss. Sampled from dancehall tracks or live-and-direct on the mic', the MC voice is a residual trace of non-assimilated Jamaican otherness; it's some "this is where we came from" grit to offset garage's "this is where we're going" slickness. It's roots 'n future, to borrow the title of a '93 hardcore rave anthem by Phuture Assassins.

It's not just dancehall, though, that lives large in UK underground garage: dub and roots have a more vital presence here than almost anywhere else in contemporary music, bar the new Pole album. Dub ideas originally infiltrated Eighties postdisco music via the B-side remixes of tracks on New York labels like Prelude, West End, and Sleeping Bag, and then blossomed with the spatiality of Strictly Rhythm's early garage tracks and productions by Mood II Swing. Over the last few years UK garage outfit New Horizons have picked up on the latent Jamaican element in New York house imports with their B-side dubs, and developed a strange and wondrous micro-genre of reggaematic house---the churchical organ vamps and Gregory Isaacs-on-helium falsetto froth of "Find The Path", the bassbin-crushing low-end and "slam down ya body gal" slackness of their "Scrap Iron Dubs EP," the skanking dips and afterbeats woven into the four-to-the-floor pump of "Cool Tha Menta". Even stranger hybridity came with last year's spate of R&B bootlegs like Large Joints "Dubplate" and the perpetrator-unknown illegal remix of  smash ballad "Swing My Way"---both bootlegs set the diva's gaseously timestretched vocal adrift in a dubby echo-chamber, over a groove built from a rootical organ vamp and a chugging house beat. Abducting unsuspecting R&B goddesses into a Jamaican soundworld, these tracks offer typical only-in-London recontextualizations of  non-UK sources.

2-step garage is really a four-way collision between gay American house, homophobic Jamaican ragga, Hackney council estate junglism and uptown New York R&B. It's the sonic embodiment of a British identity in flux, under the  triple attrition of American pop culture, European unity, and colonial chickens coming home to roost. Hence the "reverse assimilation" effect caused by the Caribbean population in the UK; diasporic peoples unsettle wherever they settle. Fulfilling the promise of Smiley Culture's "Cockney Translation", reggae patois has other-ized the "true" Britons, seducing the young into speaking a creole tongue and making them unfamiliar and alarming to the parent generation. Hence such anxiety symptoms as Ali G.'s popularity and the articles last year in the quality newspapers arguing that rap radio DJ/bishop's son Tim Westwood deserved to get shot because he speaks with a Jamaican accent. (Which he doesn't--it's Bronx B-boys he strives to be down with, not yardies). The subtext is pernicious, though: not so much "to your own self be true" authenticity but "stick with your own kind" apartheid.

In this undeclared kulturkampf, UK garage fights back with ridim and song. Artful Dodger's "Re-Rewind (The Crowd Say 'Bo! Selector')" took dancehall slanguage to Number 2 in the Pop Charts. On the recent "Warm Up" EP, MCs Shy Cookie, Sweetie Irie and Spee reinvent the Englishness of canonical literature and period drama in the form of "Millenium Twist"---Dickensian dancehall starring an updated Fagin from the musical Oliver! instructing modern urchins how to duck 'n' dive Y2K stylee. The chorus goes "L.O.N.D.O.N, London Town/That's where we're coming from". The paradox of London dance culture is the way it combines a fierce sense of local identity with total open-ness to external influence: the one-way, amazingly still unreciprocated alliance with American R&B; the enduring ties with Jamaica; the import culture around US house 'n' garage. London's endless permutational flux also illustrates something that offers a partial solution to my quandary about how I could possibly love Rastafarian roots reggae so much. Somehow music, even when targeted at a very specific community and tailored to a precise and rather inflexible worldview, drifts out of the hands of those who "own" it and gets under the skin of those it was not intended for and whose world it does not "describe". It still may not "belong" to you, but strangely you can belong to it.