Saturday, May 27, 2023

Hardcore! - New York Times, January 1993

 For over a year, the most vibrant dance cult in Britain has been "hardcore".  The term originally came from "hardcore techno", a style of electronic rave music that's faster and more brutal than its melodic cousin, house.  A year ago, "hardcore" meant bombastic synthesiser-riffs, programmed machine-rhythms, and a clinical but crazed vibe.  But during 1992, hardcore has evolved into a mutant hybrid of hip hop and techno, merging the former's grit with the latter's futuristic weirdness.  Dee-jays and producers started to take breakbeats from rap records and speed them up. In the process, they retained hip hop's funky syncopation, but at tempos (140 - 150 beats per minute) far faster than any flesh-and-blood drummer couldsustain.

     Like most rave music, hardcore (or 'ardkore, as it's sometimes misspelt in order to exaggerate the subculture's delinquent aura) is brazenly druggy, both in its sound and its lyrical allusions. Hardcore's manic pace has been influenced by the fact that Ecstasy, the raver's stimulant of choice, has become steadily more adulterated with amphetamine. But beyond its function as the soundtrack to the frenetic club-going of a dissolute subculture of speed-freaks, hardcore has been a strong force in the British pop charts in the eighteen months, attracting large numbers of teenyboppers too young to attend raves.  Hardcore is music for the Nintendo generation.  Its hyper-kinetic aesthetic provides a sexless exhiliration similar to that offered by computer games.  (There was even a hit single based around the theme from the game "Tetris"). The music's non-stop barrage of samples and sonic gimmickry appeals to reduced attention spans.

     Like other dance cults, hardcore thrives on a rapid turnover of tracks. Dee-jays search out the latest and most obscure 12 inch singles in order to stay ahead of the competition.  This lack of brand loyalty makes for a climate inimical to long-term careers or artistic development.  Nonetheless, some figures have emerged out of the faceless morass of one-hit wonders.  The most consistently successful of these groups - The Prodigy, Messiah, Eon, Bizarre Inc, Utah Saints, Altern-8 - have recorded albums, and these are now being picked up by American major labels.  The problem is that hardcore works best in 12 inch single form, as mixed into a 'total flow' by a club or pirate radio dee-jay.  The next best format for the music is the 'various artists' compilation, as put out by "hot" labels like Kickin', XL, Rising High, and others.  It's not clear yet whether the scene has generated artists capable of sustaining the listener's interest over the duration of a CD.

     If anyone has come close to achieving this, it's The Prodigy, a techno unit from Essex, near London, whose tally of four consecutive UK chart hits in eighteen months is a feat of longeveity quite remarkable by hardcore's standards.  The Prodigy's creative core, 21 year old Liam Howlett, originally began in the hip hop field, but was drawn into rave culture by its celebratory, socially inclusive atmosphere.  In The Prodigy, he combines the turntable-manipulating skills of rap, with a flair for melody derived from a classical training in piano.  The album "Experience" (Elektra, 9 61365-2) is a breakneak onslaught of bustling beats, soul vocals sped up into shrill chipmunk histrionics, and stuttering synthesisers. Everything in The Prodigy sound is designed to heighten the sense of rush, of headlong, goal-less acceleration.  Like much rave fare, The Prodigy's music is self-reflexive: the songs celebrate the transitory but real communion of the dancefloor ("Everybody In The Place"), the Prodigy's prowess ("Out Of Space", which promises to "take your brain to another dimension"), and the sensation of speed in itself ("Hyperspeed").

     "Experience" includes The Prodigy's smash hit, "Charly", which incorporates a cartoon cat's 'miaoouw' and a toddler's voice from a public service announcement aimed at kids.  Tapping into an infantilistic strain in rave culture (gaudy clothes, dancers sucking on pacifiers), "Charly" inspired numerous imitators, who sampled bygone children's TV themes and playground refrains (Urban Hype's "A Trip To Trumpton", Smart E's "Sesame's Treet", Major Malfunctions' "Ice Cream Van").  On the stand-out track "Ruff In The Jungle Bizness", The Prodigy responds to the hardcore scene's vogue for "junglist" rhythms (dense, roiling percussion and seismic basslines taken from reggae). Throughout the album, there's frequent recourse to another hardcore fad, sampling "ragga" singers.  Ragga is reggae's equivalent to rap, a patois chanting style whose insolent, uproarious quality ('ragga' comes from "raggamuffin") fits perfectly with hardcore's rough, rowdy rhythms.  "Experience" is a perfect document of the hardcore state-of-art. Mr Howlett's genius is his ability to take underground idioms and combine them with the hooks and structure of pop. Similarly, he uses samples not as tacked-on novelty effects but as integral, functioning elements in his songs.

     Utah Saints pull off a similar trick on their hit single "Something Good", the opening track on the debut album "Utah Saints" (London/PLG ------). The song's principal hook - a sample from Kate Bush's "Cloudbusting" - is at once gimmicky and gorgeous. Utah Saints take the first syllable of Ms Bush's chorus, "ooh, I just know that something good is going to happen", and modulate it on a sampling keyboard, distending this single vowel like a glassblower shaping an intricate bauble. In the process, Ms Bush's wide-eyed anticipation is amplified into a spine-tingling shiver of euphoria. This little masterstroke of sampling sorcery is the jewel that elevates an otherwise basic hardcore anthem, complete with raucous chants and octave-hopping piano riffs. On the rest of album, Utah Saints try to pull off the same trick again and again, with diminishing returns. "What Can You Do For Me" is totally dependent on its samples (Annie Lennox, Gwen Guthrie), while "New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84)" is a pointless remake of the Simple Minds song of the same title.  Too often, Utah Saints don't rework their samples or frame them in a new context, like The Prodigy does, but rely on them to make their songs memorable.

   Like "Something Good", Messiah's "Temple Of Dreams" (Def American maxi-single, 9 40655-2) is another fine example of chart-friendly hardcore (both songs were hits in Britain).  Indeed, the track's focal sample is a sped-up incantation by Liz Fraser, whose ethereal style is not too many mystic moons away from Ms Bush. Taken from This Mortal Coil's "Song To The Siren", Ms Fraser's enquiry "did I dream, you dreamed about me?" floats over a locust-swarm of synthesier noise.  Other stray squiggles of noise resemble massively amplified gastric rumblings.  In the UK, Messiah's records are released by Kickin', one of the country's top independent dance labels.  But in the US, Messiah have signed to Def American, whose supremo Rick Rubin is convinced that techno is the new punk. Judging by "Temple Of Dreams", Messiah are more like purveyors of bubblegum hardcore.  Their debut album, to be released this spring, will doubtless reveal more about Messiah's balance of pop appeal and hardcore frenzy.

     Where Utah Saints, Messiah and The Prodigy rely, to varying degrees, on a collage aesthetic, Eon's version of hardcore is based more on pure electronic textures.  On "Void Dweller" (Vinyl Solution/Columbia CK 52472) Eon (London-based DJ-producer Ian B) plays with the idea of disco as a sinister form of possession or mind-control.  Starting with a line hijacked from a science fiction movie ("we will control all that you see and hear"), "Inner Mind" elaborates eerie ripples and vortices of synthesiser drones.  It sounds like a brainwashing machine.  The track that cleaves closest to the contemporary hardcore sound is "Basket Case (White Coat Mix)", whose title chimes in with hardcore's imagery of psychosis, disorientation and catatonia (good records are praised as "mad" or "mental").  The track combines horror soundtrack motifs, spooky laughter, deranged screams and eerie electronic pulsations to create a bedlam of sound.  If "Void Dweller" is successful as an album-length experience, it's because it's mood-muzak, establishing a chilly, creepy atmsophere. This is techno as isolation chamber, rather than party music.

     Rave music has provoked much hostility from rock fans. Ironically, its critics often use the same kind of derogatory terms with which alarmed adults in the Fifties lambasted early rock'n'roll: as mindless, repetitive, barbaric, nihilistic in its pursuit of sensation and kicks.  Veterans of punk, in particular, are offended by hardcore techno, accusing it of "not saying anything", of being apolitical, escapist and nullifying.  Certainly, hardcore is one-dimensional music.  But it commands that dimension with a singleminded intensity that's as close to the primal essence of rock'n'roll as you can get.  It's a techno-pagan celebration of dance, of staying up way past your bedtime, of the sheer kinetic exhiliration of rhythm. Perhaps hardcore techno is the new rock'n'roll - it's certainly erected a new generation gap.

No comments: