Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Tektonics and hip-house history

Various Artists


(Om Records)

unpublished review, Spin, 1999? 2000?

At a recent electronica festival I watched queasily as an English DJ played "Planet Rock" on one turntable, scratched feebly on the other, hyped the crowd with repeated hollers of "1, 2, 3, 4, HIT IT!," and then stepped stage-front to perpetrate some lame breakdancin' and backspinnin'. There is something nausea-inducing about the way that Eighties hip hop signifiers became white property (in the form of trip hop and big beat) just a few years after African-Americans moved out and onward. In a similar (if not so problematic) gentrification syndrome, turntablizm has codified old school DJ techniques into a black bohemian virtuoso art, but only when those skillz became near-irrelevant in contemporary street rap.

Which means there's a weird kind of sociocultural logic to Tektonics's alliance of mostly African-American turntablists (Disk, Rob Swift, Craze, J-Rocc) with mostly white Brit old-skool fetishists (Meat Beat Manifesto, Howie B., Freestylers, Propellerheads). The results are entertaining but hardly, pardon the pun, earthshaking. Rather than reverberating like the long-overdue collision of two sonic continental plates that have been kept unnaturally separate, Tektonics cosily recalls bygone happier days when hip hop and rave shared small patches of common ground: the late Eighties DJ collage tracks by Coldcut, M/A/R/R/S, and Bomb the Bass; the mirage/lost dream that was hip-house (Shut Up And Dance, Blapps Posse, Rebel MC), the breakbeat-and-incongruous-soundbite tomfoolery of early jungle.

The story of British rave basically is a series of compulsive attempts to merge house with hip hop, resulting in the sort of hybrids that rarely happen in the New World but thrive in the U.K. (where everything is inevitably decontextualized and therefore open to recombinant mash-up). Not that many of these collaborations achieve anything as seamlessly organic as a hybrid. Photek meets The Scratch Perverts is more like superimposition, or even defacement--the glassy surge of the former's "Water Margin" daubed with scratchadelic scribbles. It's weirdly appropriate (given that Photek's innovation/crime was to replace jungle's B-boy flava with techno's frigid neurosis) and, like graffiti on a subway train, it actually enhances the clinical original. 

J-Boogie meets DJ Imperial's "Brazilelectro" thrillingly renovates the spectral syncussion shiver of Man Parrish's "Hip Hop BeBop" and T. La Rock's "Breaking Bells". But elsewhere the mix-illogical sleights and disruptions feel deja entendu: portentous this-is-a-journey-into-sound type voices (like the smarmy voiceover from a stereo-testing LP declaring "probably the most challenging record you have ever put on your turntable" in Wagon Christ/ DJ Rob Swift's "Never Ending Snorkel"); wikky-wikky flurries that could be from McLaren and the World's Famous Supreme Team's ancient "Buffalo Gals"; overfamiliar breaks, stabs, horn fanfares, and go-go percussion loops welded together in ways that advance on West End Mob only in terms of airless digital precision. 

Fresh ain't the word, in other words.

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