Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Sunday, October 05, 2008

The Italian edition of Bring the Noise is published on October 9th under the title HIP-HOP-ROCK: 1985-2008 and translated by Michele Piumini. More information at the publisher ISBN Edizioni's website. Check out (click-to-enlarge) the striking cover, which is styled -- as with ISBN's Rip It Up translation -- around the book's index. Like the forthcoming German and French editions, the Italian version contains extra material from the last couple of years to bring BtN (whose inclusions end in early 2006) up to date.

Italian readers can also check out any day now a profile of me in the first edition of newspaperIL SOLE 24 ORE's new monthly magazine, and a two-part series of excerpts from Hip-Hop-Rock in another Italian newspaper, IL MANIFESTO.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

[Bring the Noise deleted scene #74]

KANYE WEST
Late Registration (Roc-A-Fella)
Uncut, autumn 2005

by Simon Reynolds




Last year, Kanye West cut through rap’s standard-issue one-dimensional personae with some refreshing complexity. Neither “conscious” nor a bad-boy chasing bling and bitches, he was a little of both: a hungry soul (“Jesus Walks”) trapped in a body prey to venality (“All Falls Down”). Kanye can pull off the occasional highminded lyric without risking sanctimony, because he’s clearly the sort of preacher who gets caught with call-girls.

Late Registration’s core of mixed emotion clusters around four songs that deal with themes of worldly wealth versus gold-of-the-spirit. “Diamonds From Sierra Leone” starts where College Dropout finished (“Last Call”). It’s another paean to Roc-A-Fella, the label that signed West where other A&Rs scoffed at his deceptively sloppy flow. The giddy ascending chorus “forever ever ever EVER ever” pledges fealty to Jay-Z’s dynasty, which rescued him from the parlous times when “I couldn’t afford/A Ford Escort.” But when West chants “throw your diamonds in the air,” he’s not really showing off his new status symbols so much as his aesthetic riches, the genius-visionary’s “power to make a diamond with his bare hands.” The song lives up to this boast and then some. Nobody deploys vocal samples better than West, and here it’s Shirley Bassey’s “Diamonds Are Forever” that gets shook down for hidden hooks and latent meanings. The glittering production, laced with harpsichords and strings, matches the lines about “Vegas on acid/Seen through Yves St Laurent glasses”. But what about the title’s reference to “Sierra Leone”? That just got tacked on after the fact, to fit the video, an expose of child-slavery in African diamond mines, and has absolutely nowt to do with the lyrics!

It would have been cool if “Gold Digger” sampled “Goldfinger”. Instead, a Ray Charles loop powers this gritty groove, while (cute touch) Jamie Foxx kicks it off with a faux-blues whinge about a “triflin’ bitch” who sucks up his money and weed. West wryly observes “I ain’t saying she’s a gold digger/But she aint’ messin’ with no broke niggas!” “Addicted” offers a far fresher angle on exploitative heterosex. “Why everything that’s supposed to be bad/Make me feel so good?” ponders West, before launching into a rueful account of a mutually degrading affair that interwines sex and drugs. The admission “and I keep coming over” is shivered with a hiccup of pained ecstasy, hinting at the double meaning of “come”. The song’s exquisite arrangement lends poignancy to this tale of male weakness and shame: a glisten of Amnesiac guitar, filtered hi-hats, a sampled chanteuse crooning “you make me smile with my heart” (a line from “My Funny Valentine”). “Crack Music” disconcertingly equates the analgesic powers of drugs and music, with Kanye and The Game chanting the chorus--“That’s that crack music, nigga/That real black music, nigga”--over an impossibly crisp military beat. If Black Americans traffic in the best pain-killers around, the song implies, it’s because Black America has the most pain to kill.

It could be that Kanye West’s “honest confusion” anti-stance will become its own kind of shtick eventually. But judging by the mostly-brilliant Late Registration that won’t be happening for a while yet. He might even make it unscathed to the end of the quintology of conceptually-linked albums of which this album is merely instalment #2.
[Bring the Noise deleted scene #73]

YING YANG TWINS
U.S.A. (United State of Atlanta)
Blender, late summer 2005

by Simon Reynolds


“Wait” is, no contest, 2005’s most striking single. The track’s radically emaciated structure--just that four-note sequence of 808 bass-thud, a few fingersnaps, and a faint rustle of hi-hat--eclipses even previous pinnacles of minimalism like the Neptunes-produced “Grindin’”. Yet many who dig the Ying Yang sound recoil from the words as mere sexual-harassment-with-a-beat. You don’t have to be prudish or PC to flinch at lines like “I’m gonna beat that pussy up”--less a would-be seducer’s come-on murmured into a lady’s delicate shell-like than the boast of a schoolyard bully about to go on a nerd-crushing rampage, surely?

If “Wait” pushes beyond your personal comfort zone, prepare to be outright traumatized by “Pull My Hair”, the stand-out track on the Ying Yang Twins’ fourth album. Built, like the bulk of U.S.A., by the Atlanta duo’s audio-svengali Mr. Collipark, the track is absolutely stunning, from its low growling bassline and spare snare-clicks to the eerie spatial placement of the vocals, whose sculptural vividness verges on psychedelic. What comes out of D-Roc and Kaine’s mouths ain’t pretty, though: “look, bitch/you’ve been talking a whole lotta shit/but wait ‘til you see my dick… your ass is in trouble… fuck you ‘til you crack”. Creepier still, the album implies that domination and degradation is what women “really want” by framing “Wait” and “Pull” with “Sex Therapy” skits, in which female callers tell a radio host how they like to be approached (“step up with swagger… and take control with me”) and what turns them on (“I can’t lie--I likes its rough”). Forming a triple-X trilogy with “Wait” and “Pull”, “Bedroom Boom” is more softcore, all caressing harpsichord ripples and baby-oil vocals from Avant. But clunker lines like “spread your legs like a bald eagle” show the Twins have got some ways to go before they truly master the Keith Sweat mode.

Just as you’re thinking that D-Roc and Kaine should go get lessons in love-making from Al Green, “Long Time” turns up, its gorgeous chorus borrowed from the Reverend’s “Belle.” Gospel-crunk featuring neo-soul singer Anthony Hamilton, the track is U.S.A.’s only song of devotion, but tellingly, the object of adoration here is masculine (the Almighty Lord). “My Brother’s Keeper” likewise reserves its tenderness for man-to-man relationships, wrapping the lyrics (about fraternal loyalty in the face of adversity) in a dreamy swirl of sound that recalls Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature”. But U.S.A. does spare a scrap of empathy for Womankind on “Live Again”, an uncharacteristically compassionate portrait of a single mom stripper struggling to escape the clubs. Maroon 5’s Adam Levine (fresh from cameoing on Kanye’s new LP, he’s clearly the new Michael McDonald, the whiteboy rated “soulful” by African-Americans) croons sweet’n’sad about how the girl's existence is as confined as “a little box”. As these gestures toward depth and range suggest, Ying Yang Twins also chafe at the fetters of genre. But soon they’re back toiling at the crunk grindstone, rasping out song after song in praise of ass, thongs, and female compliance. It may not feed the soul, but it clearly pays the bills.
[Bring the Noise deleted scene #72]

KANO
Home Sweet Home
Uncut, late summer 2005

by Simon Reynolds


Grime has reached a crossroads. Everyone agrees that this is the year it’s going to blow, but nobody knows for sure how to make that happen. One strategy is for grime to simply be its in-yer-face self. Another involves toning it down just a tad. This is what Kano, one of the scene’s top MCs, does on his long-awaited debut: downplay’s grime’s adrenalin-jolting, abrasively avant-garde aspects in favour of midtempo grooves and listener-friendly gloss. In Kano’s case, though, this shift suits the exquisite poise and panache of his delivery. Unlike the aggy bluster of most grime MCs, it’s easy to imagine him winning over Jay-Z fans with the slick sinuousness of lines like “I’m trying to perfect my flow/So my dough grows loads/Like Pinocchio’s nose.”

Kano understands that uncut grime can get wearing over the length of an album. So he and his handlers’ solution is to pull together a well-sequenced smorgasbord of faintly calculated versatility, ranging from turgid metal (“Typical Me”) to the deliciously frivolous “Remember Me”, a samba novelty similar to Roll Deep’s hilarious “Shake A Leg”. Ripping the monster riff and drum rolls from Sabbath’s “War Pigs” and adding scratching and cowbell, “I Don’t Know Why” comes off as an awesome Def Jam tribute, right down to the nasal, Beasties-like tang to Kano’s vocal. “Signs in Life,” meanwhile, offers stirring orchestration and semi-conscious lyrics about maintaining a steady course despite the slings and arrows.

Unsurprisingly, the most exciting cuts on the record are the grimiest. The fogeyish (for a 19 year old!) whinge “Nobody Don’t Dance No More” cuts from sexy, swingin’
2step to bombastic, ungroovy grime to illustrate how kids today nod their heads to the MC’s words rather than shake booty to the DJ’s beats. Equally scene-reflexive, “Reload It” in contrast celebrates the MC’s ascent to supremacy, noting how crowds today demand that DJs rewind a track to hear favorite rhymes, as opposed to the tune's breakdown or intro. Pivoting around a phased riff and live-sounding drums that recall the Experience’s Mitch Mitchell as much as peak-era jungle, “Reload It” is a pure rush of energy and euphoria.

Yet the best track on Home turns out to be the most subdued one. “Sometimes” compellingly captures a moment of precariousness and self-doubt in the young MC’s upward arc. “I know I’ve got far/Is it too far to turn back?” he muses over a sad-eyed glide of synth-and-violin. Poised in limbo between the fickle streets and a potentially unswayed mainstream, Kano’s reverie serves as a poignant allegory for grime’s own crossover dilemma.

INTERVIEW WITH KANO

The grime cliché is the ravenously hungry MC for whom music is the only escape route from ghetto life. But it seems like you were spoiled for choice, with career opportunities ranging from university to professional football. In “9 to 5” you rap about not letting “my laziness ruin” your MC prospects like it did with soccer.

“I used to play for Norwich, the schoolboys team. But it was far away and I was quite young, to be doing all that travel. I wasn’t feeling it. So that faded out. It wasn’t a conscious choice between football and music, though, it was like different stages of my life.”

Exemplifed by the classic early single “Boys Love Girls,” a bonus track on the album, your songs have a rather cold-hearted attitude to romance. Even on the rhythm-and-grime track “Brown Eyes,” you’re besotted, but the chorus still insists “I don’t want to fall in love”.

“I ain’t really a romantic person. I’ve had experience with girls, but not that much experience with relationships. My view on them is that I don’t really want to get involved. ”
[Bring the Noise deleted scene #71]

LETHAL BIZZLE
Against All Oddz
Observer Music Monthly, July 17, 2005

by Simon Reynolds


Lethal Bizzle has the distinction of scoring grime’s two biggest hits. Last Christmas, his solo debut “Pow” peaked just outside the Top 10, but two years earlier Bizzle and his group More Fire did even better with the number eight smash “Oi!”. In between these highs, though, came an ego-crushing career crash: More Fire’s album totally flopped. Bizzle’s response was impressive: he gradually clawed his way back, rebuilding his street rep with implacable determination and hard graft.

Hardly surprising, then, that keynotes of defiance and vindication are sounded repeatedly on this album, over adrenalin-pumping carousel-like grooves modeled on “Pow”, such as the mad-catchy “Uh Oh (I’m Back)!”. You can forgive Bizzle for gloating just a bit, as he does on “Hitman” and “The Truth,” the latter jousting with rival crew Roll Deep, pointing to the poor sales of Wiley’s own solo album and advising Riko that “there’s plenty of nine-to-fives out there”. But by far the best thing here stems from the Bizzle’s long dark night of the soul after More Fire were dropped by their label. Closer to spoken word than rap, the title track has the MC describing feeling like he was “finished, no one” over a haunting mid-tempo synth-strumental (originally titled “Funeral Vibez” and built by guest producer Plasticman).

What’s unsettling about “Against All Oddz” is how Bizzle seems just as
headfucked by his career resurrection, by the phone that won’t stop ringing and the “Beyonce look-alikes” looking to bed him. “When you’re hype everyone cares,” he intones mournfully. “But leave me alone… This world is so strange.”

Ice T once declared “don’t hate the player, hate the game.” On “Against All Oddz” Bizzle almost sees right through the game, apprehending the hollowness of triumph within a system (hip hop, a/k/a capitalism) where winners take all, but most will be losers.
[Bring the Noise deleted scene #70]

GRIME: A Primer
director's cut, The Wire, April 2005

by Simon Reynolds


Grime emerged from London’s pirate radio underground. Its immediate precursor was 2step (a/k/a UK garage), which at the turn of the millennium broke into the UK pop mainstream in a massive way. 2step had been shaped by the “feminine pressure” for singalong melodies and wind-your-waist grooviness. Grime arose as a backlash against this crossover sound, a violent swing in the scene’s inner gender-pendulum from yin to yang. Out went 2step’s high-pitched diva vocals, sensual swing, and sexed-up amorousness; in came gruff rapping, stiff electro-influenced beats, and raucous aggression.



MCs have been part of the pirate radio tradition for at least fifteen years, going back through garage and jungle to the early days of hardcore rave. By the end of the Nineties, however, the MCs were moving beyond their customary restricted role as party “hosts” and sidekicks to the DJ. Instead of gimmicky vocal licks and praise-the-selector exhortations, they began to rap actual verses: initially, extended takes on traditional boasts about their own mic’ skills, but soon getting into narrative, complicated metaphors and rhyme schemes, vicious dissing of rivals, and even introspective soliloquies. The MC’s rise swiftly eclipsed the DJ, hitherto the most prominent figure on rave flyers or the main designated artist on record releases. 2001 was the turning point, when MCs shunted selectors out of the spotlight. So Solid Crew broke into the pop charts, and the underground seethed with similar collectives modeled on the clan/dynasty structures that prevail in American hip hop and Jamaican dancehall.



Emerging from the transitional sound known as “garage rap,” grime really defined itself as a distinct genre when the first tracks appeared that were designed purely as “MC tools”--riddims for rappers to ride. These grimestrumentals were largely sourced in the electro diaspora-- post-“Sleng Teng” ragga, Miami bass, New Orleans bounce, Dirty South crunk, and “street rap” producers like Swizz Beats. Like these genres, grime doesn’t go in much for sampling but prefers synths, typically with cheap ’n’ nasty timbres that vaguely evoke the Eighties and often seem to be influenced by pulp-movie video soundtracks, videogame musik, and even mobile phone ring-tones. But in grime’s textured beats and complex programming you can also hear the imprint of the jungle that most of these late teens/early twenties producers grew up on, alongside folk-memory traces of gabba and techno. Sometimes, listening, you might imagine you can hear uncanny echoes of postpunk-era electro-primitivists such as The Normal, DAF, Cabaret Voltaire, or the calligraphic exquisiteness of Japan, Thomas Leer, and The Residents.

Inherited from the period when 2step ruled the Top 10, but also inspired by enviously watching the living-large of American rap superstars, Grime feels a powerful drive to invade the mainstream and get “paid in full.” Pirate radio, a broadcast medium with a potentially vast audience, encourages this grandiosity. One peculiar byproduct of grime’s ambition is the scene’s craze for DVD releases, like Risky Roadz and Lord of the Mic, containing documentary material with live footage. It’s as if the scene is DIY-ing the sort of TV coverage it feels it deserves but isn’t getting. Yet while some of top MCs are being groomed for stardom by major label-owned boutique labels, the day-to-day reality of grime is grafting to get by in a narrowcast culture. Selling 500 copies of a track is considered a good result. The way Grime operates--small-run vinyl-only pressings and CD-R "mix-tapes", often sold directly to specialist stores--has a surprising amount in common with the micro-cultures familiar in the pages of The Wire *, such as noise, free folk, improv, and extreme metal. Like these genres, grime is what Chris Cutler would call an “engaged” culture, with a high ratio of performers to consumers. These aspiring MCs, DJs and producers have a deeper understanding of what constitutes skill and innovation in their scene. Grime even has an improv element with its freestyles and MC battles. There’s a glorious ephemerality to the way MCs riff off-the-cuff lyrics during pirate sessions, although fans have always tape-recorded the shows and some are now getting archived on the web.

Unlike those globally dispersed micro-cultures, Grime is geographically concentrated. It’s popular across London and has outposts in other multiracial UK cities, but its absolute heartland consists of a few square miles in that part of East London not served by the Tube. In truth, it’s a parochial scene, obsessed with a sense of place, riven by internecine conflicts and territorial rivalries (the intense competitiveness being one reason grime’s so creative). Still, despite this insularity, Grime has never been easier for “outsiders” to investigate, thanks to 1xtra (the BBC’s digital radio station for UK “urban” music, http://www.bbc.co.uk/1xtra/garage/; check especially the weekly shows by Cameo and Richie Vibe Vee), the trend for pirates like Rinse FM to go online as well broadcast terrestrially, mail-order via companies like Rhythm Division (http://www.rhythmdivision.co.uk/home.asp) and Independance (http://www.independance-records.co.uk/ug.htm), and the swarm of blogs covering the scene.


SO SOLID CREW
"DILEMMA"
(SO SOLID 1999)
OXIDE & NEUTRINO
"BOUND 4 DA RELOAD (CASUALTY)"
(EAST WEST 2000)

So Solid are famous as the first MC crew to crossover big-time--they hit #1 with “21 Seconds”--and infamous for their frequent brushes with the law. In grime terms, though, their single most influential track is this instrumental, which replaced 2step’s sultry swing with an electro-derived coldness and rigour. This new starkness was a timely move given that 2step had reached the inevitable “over-ripe” phase that afflicts all dance genres, its beats becoming cluttered and fussy. With its hard-angled drum machine snares and single-note sustained bassdrone veering upward in pitch, “Dilemma” rediscovered the Kraftwerk principle: inflexibility can sometimes be more funky than suppleness. So solid, indeed: “Dilemma” is like a huge block of ice in the middle of the dancefloor, a real vibe-chiller.



So Solid affiliates DJ Oxide and MC Neutrino also scored a #1 UK hit
with “Bound 4 Da Reload”. Initially a pirate radio anthem through 1999, “Reload” created a massive rift in the garage scene: older types loathed it, young ‘uns loved it. Today’s grime heads would probably disown their teenage favorite as a mere novelty track. Which it certainly was, from the Casualty TV theme sample to the “can everyone stop getting shot?” soundbite from Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Gimmicks aside, Oxide’s production is heavy, from the ice-stab pizzicato violins (“strings of death,” perhaps, given the track’s allusions to the rising blood-tide of violence on London’s streets) to the doom-boom of sub-bass to the morgue-chilly echo swathing much of the record. Probably equally repellent to 2step fans was the nagging, nasal insistence of Neutrino’s rapping, which is remorselessly unmelodic but horribly catchy. Instantly transforming 2step from “the sound of now” to its current nostalgia-night status as “old skool,” “Reload” has strong claims to being the first Grime tune.


PAY AS U GO KARTEL
"KNOW WE"
(SOLID CITY 2001)
WILEY AND ROLL DEEP
"TERRIBLE"
(SOLID CITY 2001)

Circulating on dubplate as early as 1999, “Know We” was in constant pirate rotation by the time of its 2001 release, alongside chip-off-the-same-block track “Terrible”. Both are back-to-basics affairs: simple programmed beats, in each case adorned with the solitary hook of a violin flourish, functioning purely as a vehicle for the MCs. Another striking shared characteristic is the use of the first person plural. Each MC bigs up himself when it’s his turn on the mic, but at the chorus individualism is subsumed in a collective thrust for prestige. “Now we’re going on terrible,” promise/threaten Roll Deep, and they don’t mean they’re about to give a weak performance. “Roll deep” itself meaning marauding around town as a mob. But there’s a hint of precariousness to Pay As U Go’s assertions of universal reknown. The sense of grandeur is latent; they’re not stars yet. What does come through loud and clear on both tracks is the hunger. “Terrible” starts with a Puff Daddy soundbite: “sometimes I don’t think you motherfuckers understand where I’m coming from, where I’m trying to get to.” Both the PAUG and Roll Deep tracks were produced by a young prodigy named Wiley, whose catchphrase back then was “they call me William/I’m gonna make a million”. Roll Deep are grime’s NWA (its ranks have included such luminaries as Dizzee Rascal, Riko, Flow Dan, Trim, and Danny Weed), with Wiley as its Dr Dre. If he’s yet to make that first million, this human dynamo must surely have released close to that number of tracks these last four years.


GENIUS CRU
"COURSE BRUV"
(KRONIK 2001)

The gangsta rap comparison isn’t an idle one. PAUG and Roll Deep pioneered criminal-minded lyrics. Taking them literally isn’t always advisable, as the imagery of “slewing” and “merking” is often purely metaphorical, signifying the destruction of rival MCs in verbal combat, the maiming of egos rather than bodies. Still, the genre wasn’t always so relentlessly hostile. Just before the grimy era, “garage rap” outfits like Heartless Crew and Genius Cru exuded playful bonhomie. The follow-up to their #12 pop hit “Boom Selection,” Genius’ “Course Bruv” talks about spreading “nuff love” in the club and stresses that they “still don’t wanna hurt nobody.” The chorus even celebrates the rave-era ritual of sharing your soft drinks with complete strangers, the “course bruv” being Genius’s gracious acquiescence to “can I have a sip of that?” Producer Capone weaves an effervescent merry-go-round groove of chiming bass-melody and giddy looped strings, while the MCs hypnotize with the sheer bubbling fluidity of their chat. The verses are deliberately preposterous playa wish-fulfillment: “Number one breadwinner” Keflon claims he’s “invested in many shares, many many stocks” while Fizzy purports to date “celeb chicks,” “ballerinas” and even have “hot chicks as my household cleaners”.


PLATINUM 45 featuring MORE FIRE
"OI!"
(GO BEAT 2002)

Pirate radio culture evolves in small increments, month by month. The onset of one genre or sub-flava overlaps with the twilight of its predecessor. There are rarely clean breaks. Still, every so often a track comes along that yells “IT’S THE NEW STYLE!!!!” in your face. “Oi!” was one of them. Drawing on the most anti-pop, street vanguard elements in black music history--ragga’s twitch ‘n’ lurch, electro’s
(f)rigidity, jump-up jungle’s bruising bass-blows --producer Platinum 45 created a most unlikely #7 hit. Factor in the barely-decipherable jabber of More Fire’s Lethal B, Ozzie B, and Neeko, and the result was one of the most abrasively alien Top of the Pops appearances ever. The tune’s pogo-like hard-bounce bass and uncouth Cockney-goes-ragga chants mean that “Oi!” has more in common with Cockney Rejects-style punk than you’d imagine. “Oi!”, then--grime’s biggest hit to date, before the genre even had a name.


MUSICAL MOB
"PULSE X (VIP Mix)"
(INSPIRED SOUNDS RECORDS 2002)

Widely regarded at the time as UK garage’s absolute nadir, “Pulse X” is actually a pivotal track: the scene’s first purpose-built MC tool. Locating a new rhythm at the exact intersection of electro and gabba. “Pulse” is virtually unlistenable--those dead-eyed claps, those numbly concussive kicks--on its own. But in combination with a great MC, the skeletal riddim becomes an instant and massive intravenal jolt of pure adrenalin. It’s not just the headbanging energy, though, it’s the track’s very structure that is radical. “Pulse X” was the first 8-bar tune, so-called because the rhythm switches every eight bars, thereby enabling MCs to take turns to drop 16 bars of rhymes using both beat-patterns. Far from being UK garage’s death-rattle, “Pulse X” rescued the scene, rudderless and demoralized after
2step’s pop bubble burst. The sheer phallomorphic rigour of “Pulse X” gave the scene a spine, a forward direction.


DIZZEE RASCAL
"I LUV U" / "VEXED"
(XL 2003)

Circulating as a white label from summer 2002 onwards, “I Luv U” turned London pirate culture around as much as “Pulse X”. Legendarily creating the track in a single afternoon during a school music class, Dizzee took the same sort of sounds Musical Mob used--gabba-like distorted kickdrums, shearing-metal claps--and turned them into actual music. Add a teenage MC genius desperate to announce himself to the world, and you have grime’s “Anarchy in the UK.” The punk parallel applies because of the harsh Englishness of Dizzee’s vocal timbre and the lovelessness of the lyric, which depicts the pitfalls of the, er, dating game from the p.o.v of too-much-too-young 16 year olds whose hearts have been calloused into premature cynicism. Dizzee’s snotty derision is almost eclipsed by the come-back from female MC Jeannie Jacques, who throws “that girl’s some bitch yunno” back in his face with the equally corrosive “that boy’s some prick yunno.” The original white label featured the “Luv U” instrumental, but tossed away on the XL rerelease’s B-side is the classic “Vexed”: Dizzee’s stressed delivery makes you picture steam coming out of his ears and the music--beats like ice-floes cracking, shrill synth-tingles--renders obsolete the entire previous half-decade of retro-electro in one foul swoop.


WILEY
"ESKIMO"
(WILEY KAT RECORDINGS 2002)
"ICE RINK"
(WILEY KAT RECORDINGS 2003)

Ex-PAUG but at this point still Rolling Deep, Wiley invented a entire mini-genre of low-key, emaciated instrumentals: asymmetrically structured grooves based around sidewinder B-lines that “Slinky downstairs” (as DJ Paul Kennedy put it), and glinting, fragmentary melodies. From his legion of imitators, these tended to be strictly MC-funktional beats, but in Wiley’s case, more often than not the tracks are highly listenable stand-alone aesthetic objects even without rhyming. The first in an ongoing series of ice-themed tunes (“Igloo”, “Frostbite,” “Snowkat”, et al). “Eskimo” was the blueprint for this dinky-yet-creepy micro-genre (which Wiley dubbed “Eskibeat”). “Ice Rink” took the concept of MC tool to the next level. Instead of just being sold as an instrumental for MCs to use, it was released in some eight versions featuring different MCS. Spread across two 12 inches, ‘Ice Rink” constituted a de facto riddim album. Dizzee’s turn is the stand-out, his scrawny voice oozing the impudence of someone at the top of his game, as he invites all haters to plant their lips upon his posterior: “kiss from the left to the right/kiss ‘til my black bum-cheeks turn white”. Wiley’s palsy of gated doorslam kicks and mercury-splash blips jostles with Dizzee for your attention.


JAMMER
"WEED MAN"
(HOT SOUND 2003)
JAMMER featuring D DOUBLE E
"BIRDS IN THE SKY"
(HOT SOUND 2003)

2003 saw a slew of 8-bar instrumentals suffused with cod-Oriental exoticism. As incongruous as a pagoda plopped smack dab in the centre of Bow, “Weed Man” is the supreme example of “sinogrime,” Hyperdub webzine’s term for this micro-genre. Produced by Nasty Crew’s Jammer, the track is dedicated to “all the marijuana smokers” and appropriately the tempo is torpid to a trip hop-like degree. The loping, sprained rhythm flashes back to Sylvian-Sakomoto’s “Bamboo Music” while the ceremonial bassline and breathy flute conjure mind’s eye imagery of Zen gardens and temples. But where Wiley’s similar excursions Eastwards were fueled by record-buying trips to Sterns, Jammer mostly likely derived his notion of Oriental mystery from videogame muzik and martial arts movie soundtracks.

“Birds In the Sky” has a similarly Medieval atmosphere but, apart from the plucky twang of some kind of stringed Far Eastern instrument, is less obviously an ethnological forgery. The solo debut of one of grime’s greatest MCs, D Double E, “Birds” has a brooding meditational aura. The lyric pivots around the bizarre trope of a verbal drive-by, the MC firing off word-bullets that are also “like birds in the sky/hit one of your bredren’s in the eye”. Double muses on his motivations--“why?/cos I’m an evil guy”--then emits his signature vocal-licks, the pain-pleasure groan of “oooh-oooh” and the mouth-mangled “it’s me, me”, which sounds more like “mwui-mwui”.


RIKO AND TARGET
"CHOSEN ONE"
(AIM HIGH 2004)
RUFF SQWAD
"LETHAL INJECTION"
(WHITE LABEL 2004)

Former PAUG stalwart and man behind the ace Aim High compilations, Target here creates one of Grime’s most stirringly cinematic epics, placing a heart-tugging orchestral refrain amid a strange decentered drum-track whose flurries of claps and kicks seem to trip over themselves. This groove’s sensation of impeded yet steadfast forward-motion totally fits the lyric’s theme of determination and destiny. In his smoky, patois-tinged baritone, Riko (another PAUG alumnus) counsels calmness and composure to all those struggling, whether they’re aspiring MCs striving to make it or regular folk trying to make it through everyday strife: “Use your head to battle through/cos you are the chosen one.” The synth swells favoured by Ruff Sqwad also have a cinematic grandeur, like gangsta Vangelis. “Lethal Injection”, though, is one of their more minimal efforts, consisting of a wibbly keyboard line, the boom of a heavily echoed kick drum, and the Sqwad’s rapid-fire jabber, swathed in a susurrating shroud of reverb and background chat. Not a tear-jerker like “Chosen One,” but incredibly atmospheric.




TERROR DANJAH
INDUSTRY STANDARD EP
(AFTERSHOCK 2003)
VARIOUS ARTISTS
PAY BACK EP (THE REMIX)
(AFTERSHOCK 2003)

Judging by Industry Standard, you could justly describe Terror Danjah as one of the most accomplished electronic musicians currently active. On tracks like “Juggling” and “Sneak Attack,” the intricate syncopation, texturized beats, spatialized production, and “abstracty sounds” (Danjah’s own phrase) makes this “headphone grime”--not something that could be claimed for too many operators on the scene. Yet all this finesse is marshaled in service of a fanatically doomy and monolithic mood, Gothic in the original barbarian invader meaning. The atmosphere of domineering darkness is distilled in Danjah’s audio-logo, a demonic cackle that resembles some jeering, leering cyborg death-dwarf, which appears in all of his productions and remixes. “Creep Crawler,” the first tune on Industry Standard, and its sister track “Frontline (Creepy Crawler Mix),” which kicks off Pay Back, are Danjah’s sound at its most pungently oppressive. “Creep Crawler” begins with the producer smirking aloud (“‘heh-heh, they’re gonna hate me now”), then a bonecrusher beat stomps everything in its path, while ominous horn-blasts pummel in the lower mid-range and synths wince like the onset of migraine. From its opening something-wicked-this-way-comes note-sequence onwards, Big E.D.’s original “Frontline” was hair-raising already. Danjah’s remix of his acolyte’s monstertune essentially merges it with “Creep Crawler,” deploying the same astringent synth-dissonance and trademark bass-blare fanfares (filtered to create a weird sensation of suppressed bombast) but to even more intimidating and shudder-inducing effect.


MARK ONE VERSUS PLASTICMAN
"HARD GRAFT 1" / "HARD GRAFT 2"
(CONTAGIOUS 2003)
LOEFAH
"BOMBAY SQUAD"
(on GRIME 2, REPHLEX COMPILATION, 2004)

If you hadn’t already guessed from the name, grime inverts values. Dutty, stinkin’, even disgustin’--all are positive attributes in grime parlance. So when I say “Hard Graft” is utterly dismal, you’ll know this is the thumbs up. Grime often represents itself as gutter music. Mark One and Plasticman go further, or deeper, with this track, and seem to plunge into the sewage system. Full of clanking beats, septic gurglings, eerie echoes and scuttling percussion, “Hard Graft” makes you imagine pipes, storm drains, dank chambers.

Mark One, Plasticman and their cohorts constitute not so much a subgenre of grime as a side-genre, running adjacent to the scene proper. The sound is techy, MC-free, and more danceable than grime. Although a number of black producers are involved, you could fairly describe this style’s sonic coding as whiter than grime, and situate it on a Euro continuum running through Belgian industrial techno (Meng Syndicate, 80 Aum) through the cold technoid end of rave (Nebula II) to No U Turn’s techstep and Photek-style neurofunk (the beats on “Hard Graft” sometimes recall his “Ni Ten Ichi Ryu”). Plasticman’s nomenclative proximity to the Richie Hawtin alias seems telling.

The black component to this genre-without-a-satisfactory-name is dub (indeed its precursor was a UK garage micro-genre known as dubstep). Loefah’s clanking skank connects to a lineage of industrial-but-rootical UK music: On U, bleep’n’bass (Ability II’s “Pressure”, say), The Orb, Techno-Animal. “Bombay Squad” is built around what feels like a half-finished, or partially erased, groove: massive echo-laden snare-cracks, a liquid pitter of tablas situated in a localized corner of the mix, and… that’s it, apart from the dark river of sub-bass that propels the track forward. The title’s intertextual traces include Public Enemy’s producers and 2 Bad Mice’s rave anthem “Bombscare,” but actually allude to the track’s sole coloration, the plaintive ululation of a Bollywood diva.


WONDER
"WHAT"
(DUMPVALVE 2004)
SLK
"HYPE! HYPE! (DJ WONDER REFIX)"
(SMOOVE/MINISTRY OF SOUND 2005)

Wonder works on the cusp between grime proper and the Plasticman/Mark One/Loefah sound. “What” makes something compellingly atmospheric out of the most meagre components: a beat dragging like a wounded leg, sub-bass yawning ominously like a portal into the underworld, a dejected one-finger-melody suggestive of an autistic desultorily toying with a xylophone, occasional dank blips of electronics. Overall, the audio mise-en-scene is something like “twilight falls on the battle-scarred moon.” Also vaguely redolent of The Mover’s gloomy brand of ambient gabba, Wonder’s remix of “Hype! Hype!” replaces the perky original backing track (produced by the great Sticky) with a groan-drone of sick technoise. This
catastrophe-in-slow-mo makes a marvelously incongruous backdrop for the roaring vocal hook chanted by North West London crew SLK.



JAMMER featuring KANO
"BOYS LOVE GIRLS"
(HOT SOUND 2003)
WONDER featuring KANO
"WHAT HAVE YOU DONE"
(NEW ERA 2004)
TERROR DANJAH featuring KANO and SADIE
"SO SURE"
(AFTERSHOCK 2004)

The backing tracks are fabulous--Jammer’s frenetic snare-roll clatter, Wonder’s tonally harrowed synths, Danjah’s aching ripples of idyllic electronics--but it’s the MC who really shines. With some grime rhymesters, the flow resembles an involuntary discharge (D Double E being the ultimate exponent of MCing as automatic poetry). But even at his most hectic, as on “Boys Love Girls,” Kano always sounds in complete control. All poise and deliberation, Kano invariably sounds like he’s weighing up the angles, calculating his moves, calibrating which outcomes serve his interests. That’s blatant on “Boys” and “What Have You Done”, both cold-hearted takes on modern romance that depict sex in transactional terms, a ledger of positives and minuses, credits and debits; a war of the genders in which keeping your feelings checked and maintaining distance is strategically crucial. But it comes through even in the gorgeous ballad “So Sure,” on which Kano blurs the border between loverman and soldier drawing up plans for conquest: “ain’t got time to be one of them guys just watching you and wasting time/next time I’m clocking you I’m stopping you to make you mine.” As much as the acutely observed lyrical details, it’s the timbre of Kano’s voice that’s enthralling: slick yet grainy, like varnished wood, and knotty with halting cadences that convince you he’s thinking these thoughts aloud for the very first time.


DAVINCHE
"DIRTY CANVAS EP"
(PAPERCHASE RECORDINGS 2004)
ESSENTIALS
"HEADQUARTERS"
(WHITE LABEL, 2004)

“So Sure” is an example of the burgeoning subgenre R&G, basically a transparent attempt to lure the ladies back onto the floor, after they’d been turned off by the testosterone-heavy vibe of tracks more suitable for moshing than sexy dancing. As the name R&G, short for rhythm-and-grime, suggests, the mini-genre replicates 2step’s original move of copping American R&B’s luxurious arrangements and diva-melisma. Alongside Terror Danjah, Davinche pioneered R&G with tunes like “Leave Me Alone”. Too often these attempts at Brit-Beyonce fall short owing to a lack of grounding in songcraft and the studio art of mic’ing vocalists, and end up sounding slightly thin and shabby. So I prefer Davinche’s instrumental efforts like the Dirty Canvas EP series. The quasi-soundtrack orchestration of “Stinger”--flurrying strings, decaying tones from a softly-struck gong--are designed to swathe any MC who rhymes over it with an aura of slightly-harried majesty. Built out of similar pizzicato elements meshed to a beat like a clockwork contraption gone haywire, “Madness,” I’d wager, drew inspiration from the paranoia zone reached after one toke too many on a spliff: racing thoughts, pounding heart, jangled nerves, the suspicion that you might just be losing your mind.

Grime is synonomous with East London, but other parts of the city are starting to get a look-in. Essentials, Davinche‘s crew, operate out of South. This powerful sense of territoriality is integral to the concept of “Headquarters,” which draws on the talents of a veritable battalion of MCs, some guests and some from Essentials’ own barracks. At each chorus, a drill sergeant barks questions at the MC who’s stepping up for his mic’ turn: “state your name, soldier”, “state your location” (usually “East” or “South,” sometimes a specific postal district), “who you reppin’” (usually a crew, like Essentials, N.A.S.T.Y, Aftershock, but sometimes just “myself”). Then the sergeant orders each recruit to get down and “give me sixteen”--not press-ups, but 16 bars of rhymes. The amazing production seals the conceptual deal, the chorus being accompanied by cello-like instrumentation that’s been digitally contorted into an unearthly wraith-like whinny, or a cyberwolf howling at the moon.



LETHAL B featuring FUMIN, D DOUBLE E, NAPPA, JAMAKABI, NEEKO, FLOW DAN, OZZI B, FORCER, DEMON, & HOT SHOT
"POW (FORWARD)"
(RELENTLESS 2004)

Following a failed mainstream-bid album, More Fire looked all washed up in 2003, but Lethal B rebuilt their street rep from the ground up. In 2004, his “Forward” riddim became the scene’s biggest anthem. Renamed “Pow” on account of its main vocal hook, it ultimately barged its way to the outskirts of the Top Ten, achieving grime’s highest chart placing since… well, “Oi!”. The riddim, produced by Dexplicit, is basic verging on crude, a madly gyrating loop that resembles an out-of-control carousel. “Pow!!!,” Lethal’s chorus chant, evokes the fisticuffs of comic book superheroes. Matching the track’s rowdy vibe (it was reputedly banned in some clubs for inciting mayhem on the floor), a squadron of top MCs lay on the ultraviolence, the cartoon flavor of which can be gleaned from Demon’s immortal warning “you don’t wanna bring some beef/Bring some beef you’ll lose some teeth”.


JAMMER featuring WILEY, D DOUBLE E, KANO & DURTY DOOGZ
"DESTRUCTION REMIX"
(WHITE LABEL)
D DOUBLE E & P-JAM
"ANGER MANAGEMENT"
(DICE RECORDINGS)

Like “Pow”, “Destruction” is a rollercoaster of pugilistic noise and lyrical aggro, but Jammer’s production is marginally more sophisticated, slicing ‘n’ dicing brassy fanfares (probably from blacksploitation movies) and filtering them to create a sort of surging-yet-leashed effect, like the track is simmering with pent-up rage. The four scene-leading MCs rise to the occasion, from Wiley’s riffed variations on “I know Trouble but Trouble says he don’t know you,” to Kano’s quaintly Anglicized gangsta boat “from lamp post to lamp post, we run the road”. But the star performance comes from D Double. Seemingly battling multiple speech impediments, he expectorates glottal gouts of raw verbiage. As so often, there’s that characteristic sense of involuntary utterance, like it’s him who’s being spoken through. “Spitting” is too decorous a word for his rhyme style;
retching is closer. Witness Double’s astonishing first six bars on “Destruction”, a gargoyle-like gibber closer to hieroglyphics than language, and seemingly emanating from the same infrahuman zone Iggy plumbed on “Loose” and “TV Eye”.

On Double’s first solo single since “Birds in the Sky”, rising producer P-Jam’s snaking wooze of gaseous malevolence sparks one of the MC’s most Tourettic performances. Barely tethered to the beat’s bar scheme, Double seems to be wading waist-deep through sonic sludge. He boasts of “sucking up MCs like a hoover”, an image possibly cued by the Mentasm-like miasma unloosed by P-Jam.


LOWDEEP
"STR8 FLUSH"
(COLORFUL STATE RECORDINGS 2005)
CRAZY TITCH / IMP BATCH
"SING ALONG"
(IN THE HOOD RECORDS 2004)

The sped-up diva on “Str8 Flash” might be a nod to Kanye West’s Chaka-accelerating “Through the Wire” but equally could be a folk-memory flashback to the early Nineties, when rave producers whisked female vocal samples into helium-squeaky hypergasms of spectral bliss. That said, everything else in Lowdeep’s hot riddim testifies to the influence on grime of the last half-decade of rap and R&B. Pizzicato harp-like sounds and stuttering beats create a frozen peak of tense glory. IMP Batch’s “Gype,” the inescapable riddim of early 2005 and the backing track for Crazy Titch’s “Sing Along,” takes grime’s quasi-orchestral ambitions to the next level. Using classical music samples (Prokofiev?), IMP Batch expertly chop up and resequence the refrains--fluttery flutes, cascading strings, a cello ostinato--to form a hilariously prissy yet dynamic groove. This parodic high-culture refinement makes a wonderfully incongruous setting for Crazy’s hoarsely hollered anthem.


TRIM
"BOOGIEMAN"
(AFTERSHOCK 2004)
BRUZA
"NOT CONVINCED"
(AFTERSHOCK 2005)

Like most producers in most dance genres, grime beat-makers typically invent a striking sound, then wear it out with endless market-milking iterations. Terror Danjah has often approached that dangerzone, but on “Boogieman,” he shows how much scope for inventive arrangement remains in the “Creep Crawler” template. You can hear the cartoon-comical wooh-wooh-woooooh ghostly touches best on the instrumental version, “Haunted” (on Aftershock’s Roadsweeper EP). “Boogieman” itself is a showcase for rising star Trim, here honing his persona of scoffing imperturbality: “I’m not scared of the boogieman/I scare the boogieman.”

On “Not Convinced,” Danjah draughts a whole new template that reveals the producer’s roots in drum’n’bass (the track’s futuristic tingles vaguely recall’s Foul Play “Being With You” remix). Again, though, the MC makes it hard to focus on the riddim. More than anyone apart from not-grime-really Mike Skinner, Bruza incorporates British intonation and idiom into a totally effective style of rapping, in which the not-flow of stilted English cadences becomes a new flow. It sounds “brutal and British,” as Bruza puts it. As his name suggests, the MC has also perfected a hardman persona that feels authentically English rather than a gangsta fantasy based on Compton or Kingston. He exudes a laconic, steely menace redolent of bouncers. “Not Convinced” extrapolates from this not-easily-impressed persona to create a typology of character in which the world is divided into the serious and the silly, the latter lacking the substance and conviction to give their words authority. Bruza addresses, and dresses down, a wannabe MC: “I’m not convinced/Since you’ve been spitting/I haven’t believed one word/Not one inch/Not even a millimeter/To me you sound like a silly speaker/Silly features in your style/You spit silly/You spit like how kids be**.”


KANO featuring D DOUBLE E & DEMON
"RELOAD IT"
(ON HOME SWEET HOME, 679, 2005)

Circling back to “Bound 4 The Reload,” this track celebrates the pirate radio and rave tradition of the DJ rewind, when the crowd hollers (or home-listening audience text-messages) its demand for the selector to wheel and come again. Until grime, the trigger for rewinds would be a killer sampled vocal lick, thrilling bass-drop, or even just a mad breakbeat. Nowadays, the MC being king, the crowd clamors to hear their favourite rhymes. “This is what it means when DJs reload it/That sixteen was mean and he knows it,” explains Kano, before listing the other top dog MCs who get nuff rewinds (two of them, Double and Demon, guest on the track). “I get a reload purely for the flow,” Kano preens, and you can see why as he glides with lethal panache between quick-time rapping and a leisurely, drawn-out gait that seems to drag on the beat to slow it down. The track itself, co-produced by Kano and Diplo, is all shimmery excitement, pivoting around a spangly filtered riff that ascends and descends the same four notes, driven by a funky rampage of live-sounding drums, and punctuated by horn samples, Beni G’s scratching, and orgasmic girl-moans. The old skool breakbeat-like energy suggests an attempt to sell the notion of Grime as British hip hop, yet if Trans-Atlantic crossover is the intent, that’s subverted by the lyric, its theme being as localized and Grime-reflexive as imaginable. “Reload It” encapsulates the conflicted impulses that fuel this scene: undergroundist insularity versus an extrovert hunger to engage with, and conquer, the whole wide world.

^^^^^^^^^

* footnote: I quipped to my friends that when I’d pitched this piece to the Wire it was on the grounds that the scene was now unpopular enough to be in the magazine! Joking aside, it was actually, weirdly true. The breakthrough for me was realizing that pirate radio had become a narrowcast medium. Because the potential audience is limitless, there’s always been a grandiosity to the pirates—“this one’s for you, London”—and at key points, that’s been perfectly justified: hardcore was massive nationwide, jungle was the Sound of London in ’94, as was speed garage in 1997, while 2step felt like a form of pop music in exile and sure enough broke through to dominate the mainstream. Grime initially had the air of something that was destined to be pop, and the precedents of So Solid and More Fire and various garage Number One hit wonders like Pied Piper gave it great self-expectations. But just because you’re broadcasting doesn’t mean everyone’s tuning into the signal; most people who chanced upon grime stations probably veered away as quickly as if they’d stumbled on a pirate dedicated to Derek Bailey-style improv. All of sudden, I realized that the grime pirates had become a niche thing, a micro-culture that probably wasn’t that much bigger than the anti-pop vanguards that populated the pages of The Wire.

** for the longest while I heard this as "you spit like Agnes B"!
[Bring the Noise deleted scene #69]



VARIOUS ARTISTS
Risky Roadz: Volume 1--Tha Roadz Are Real
VARIOUS ARTISTS
Run the Road
director's cut 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 pirate radio stations, 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 innovatons in the scene’s means of production & distribution 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 grime efforts, with their ultra-amateurish 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 the latter, lesser outcome doesn’t feel inevitable.
[Bring the Noise deleted scene #68]



VARIOUS ARTISTS
Run the Road
director's cut, Observer Music Monthly, November 14, 2004

by Simon Reynolds


Grime is our hip hop, the final coming of a Britrap that’s not merely a pale reflection of the original. Instead it’s a wonky, hall-of-mirrors reflection. To American ears reared on “the real thing”, grime sounds disconcertingly not-right--the halting, blurting MC cadences don’t flow, the gap-toothed, asymmetric grooves seem half-finished and defective.

Something of grime’s skewiff quality is captured in the title of this compilation. “Road” is grime-speak for “street”. On “Destruction VIP,” one of the killer tracks here, Kano proclaims “from lamp post to lamp post/We run the road”.The intent is gangsta menace, an assertion of territorial might, but perhaps even to English ears, the quaint phrasing makes the boast fall a little short. American rap fans would most likely crack up on hearing the line. No wonder Grime’s modest fanbase in the United States consists almost entirely of white Anglophile hipsters.

If Grime doesn’t have a hope in hell with American’s hip hop heartland, it can console itself with the knowledge that right now it’s got the edge over “the real thing”. The records sound cheap’n’nasty next to US rap’s glossy production values, but Grime’s way with rhythm and sound is far more jaggedly futuristic. More crucially, Grime has a feeling of desperation that American hip hop has largely lost. Individual rappers may still follow rags-to-riches trajectories, but as a collective enterprise, hip hop has won. It dominates pop culture globally. The music oozes a sense of entitlement, something you can also see in that lordly look of blasé disdain that’s de rigeur in rap videos nowadays. In America, rising MCs rhyme about the luxury goods and opulent lifestyle they don’t yet have because it’s also so much more plausible, within reach. The path is well-trodden--not just selling millions of records, but diversifying into movies, starting their own clothing lines, bringing their neighbourhood crew up with them once they’ve made it.

As a sound, Grime is still very much an underdog, and so its fantasies of triumph and living large are much more precarious, and affecting. There’s a definite ceiling to how much money can be made on the underground scene. Selling 500 singles is a good result, shifting a thousand is a wild success, and even hawking your white labels direct to London’s specialist stores with a huge mark-up won’t generate that much cash. At the same time, nobody in Grime, not even Dizzee, has really mapped out a crossover career path yet. Indeed, making that transition from pirate radio to Top of the Pops is risky. Take So Solid Crew, who got to #1 with “21 Seconds” a few years back. Their second album flopped and their rep on the street (or should I say "road"?) is now non-existent.



You can hear all this in the music, in those pinched, scrawny voices--the sound of energy squeezing itself through the tiniest aperture of opportunity and grabbing for a chance that most likely will prove to be a mirage. All of the guys (plus occasional gal) on Run The Road already feel like legends in their own minds. Standout track “Chosen One” by Riko & Target distils that sense of destiny and destination. Over sampled movie-soundtrack strings that evoke a kind of stunted majesty, Riko imagines himself as a star on satellite TV, then offers counsel that applies equally to other aspiring MCs and to everyday street soldiers dealing with adversity: “Stay calm/Don’t switch/Use composure, blood/Use your head to battle through, ca’ you are the chosen one.”

American rappers, once they’ve made it, can sound like bullies and tyrants when they reel out the same old lyrical scenarios: humiliating haters, discarding women like used condoms. From Grime MCs, the endless threats and boasts, the big-pimpin' postures, somehow seem more forgivable. When Grime MCs batter rivals real and imaginary, they’re really battening down their own self-doubt, chasing away the spectre of failure and anonymity with each verbal blow. Sure, the misogyny and gun talk can be hard to stomach. “Cock Back,” one of 2004’s biggest grime anthems, is a Terror Danjah riddim constructed from the click and crunch of small arms being cocked. Over this bloodcurdling beat, D Double E spits couplets like “Think you’re a big boy ‘cos you go gym?/Bullets will cave your whole face in.” Outnumbered twenty to one, the female MCs give as good as their gender usually gets. No Lay, on “Unorthodox Daughter”, promises to “put you in BUPA” and warns “soundboy I can have your guts for garters/turn this place into a lyrical slaughter”.

Probably the best grime collection yet, Run The Road is also touted as the genre’s first major label compilation. Actually, a Warners sub-label released one in 2002, Crews Control. But its contents were more like proto-grime, the beats mostly 2step and UK garage, and the vibe far more playful and genial, courtesy of now almost forgotten crews like Heartless and Genius. Their brand of boisterous bonhomie and quirky humour is in short supply on Run The Road. One exception: Lady Sovereign’s “Cha Ching”, on which the squeaky-voiced “white midget” announces “It’s Ms Sovereign, the titchy t’ing/Me nah have fifty rings/but I’ve got fifty things/To say/In a cheeky kind of way/Okay?”




Bruza sounds comic, injecting the Cockney into “Cock Back” with his lurching, Arthur Mullard-like delivery and lines like “you’ll be left in ruins for your wrong-doings”. But content-wise, he’s “brutal and British”, reeling off the usual list of inventively gory acts of revenge. Run The Road 's brand of laughter is strictly the gloating, vindictive kind. Hence the eerie digital cackle, like an evil, leering cyber-goblin, used by Terror Danjah as a motif on all his productions (on this comp, “Cock Back” and Shystie’s “One Wish”). Compared to even a few years ago, Grime seems like it has less scope for goofing about now. There’s a deadly seriousness in the air, possibly influenced by the sense that there’s more at stake--a real chance of making it, now the majors are cautiously sniffing around and signing up MCs like Kano.

If Grime ever does makes it, collectively--achieving the sort of dominance that American rap enjoys--these last three years of the genre’s emergence will be looked back on as the golden age, the old skool. Make no mistake, the MCs on this compilation-- Kano, D Double E, Riko, Sovereign, Dizzee, Wiley--are our equivalents to Rakim, Chuck D, Ice Cube, Nas, Jay-Z. To twist slightly the words of another rapper from that American pantheon, Notorious BIG: if you (still) don’t know, get to know.
[Bring the Noise deleted scene #67]



INFINITE LIVEZ
Bush Meat
Village Voice, July 6th, 2004

by Simon Reynolds


For years the pathos of Brit-rap as a pale and slightly off reflection of the Real Thing was summed up in the name Derek B. He was pretty good, actually. But in the gladiatorial realpolitik of rap more than anywhere, "pretty good" don't cut it. All through the '90s, at regular intervals, you'd hear the cry go up: "British hip-hop finally comes good with ____." But to be honest, none of the names that've filled the blank ever got further than Derek-level decency. Which is why you never hear your Mike Skinners and Dizzee Rascals name-dropping Gunshot or Ruthless Rap Assassins or the Brotherhood; no, it's always Nas or Raekwon or Ludacris they cite. And that's not inverted patriotism, not really—-that's just genius responding to genius.

In recent years, the most convincing case for British hip-hop (not counting grime, which is really a totally different animal: nowt to do with UKrap, it evolved out of dancehall via rave's shouty MC'ing) has been mounted by London's Big Dada, the sister label to rap-less trip-hop imprint Ninja Tune. The British backpacker scene is even more insufferable and self-stifled-by-cool than its American undie-hop counterpart. But as heard on their excellent 2002 comp Extra Yard, Big Dada's acts (Ty, Gamma, Roots Manuva) injected some real and long-overdue rudeness into the U.K. sound—albeit mostly production-wise, as U.K. MCs on the whole tend to remain low-key. All that changes with Infinite Livez, who dominates his own records in a way few non-grime Brit MCs do.

The first thing that distinguishes Livez is his in-yer-face voice (or voices—he has several comic alter egos, some of them quite Monty Python–esque). He saunters through the tracks of his debut album, Bush Meat, with a sort of loutish elegance. One of his trademarks is extending the last syllable of a line into a great bleary smear midway between yawn and yowl, insolently slackjawed and somehow saucy. This man is larger than life; his imagination's equally outsize. Standout track "The Adventures of the Lactating Man" puts a whole new twist on "flow." After squirting his girlfriend in the eye when she's fondling his nipples, Livez visits his doctor. But when the nurse tries to take a specimen (expertly—"she was twiddling my nipple like my radio dial") the man-milk just won't stop gushing. The population has to stay "afloat in boats" as the entire U.K. gets inundated "with fresh milk well pasteurized" (past your eyes, geddit?). Livez's languid lasciviousness as he raps about girls "making me feel all frisky" by "chewing on my tit like it's made of Wrigley," and his delirious moans of "bit more . . . oooooooh . . . little bit more" as the "white gravy" gloops out introduce a Princely polymorphous perversity I've never heard in hip-hop before, apart from maybe OutKast. (Who might be a reference point, or even influence, although former art student Livez's favorite André is actually Breton).



Like a rapping Rabelais, or Bataille with a beat, Livez's mind's eye is magnetized by that ripe zone where the appetites (erotic, gastronomic) intersect with animalism and scatology. "White Wee Wee" is a moist miasma of sex-as-food and lovers-as-beasts metaphors ("ejaculate honey for you," "my snout in your wet wound") while the skit-ish interlude "Brown Nosh" features Bouncement Queen demanding a rim job as her fee for appearing on the album. "Worcestershire Sauce" redefines flava in terms of U.K. potato chips (or, to put it proper, crisps, which come in exotic flavors like "ready salted," "cheese & onion," et al.). And "Drilla Ape" tells the story of a man cheating on his partner with a primate.

The music, mostly produced by people from Livez's crew, Shadowless, totally fits the lyrics. It's a bit like "Atomic Dog" if produced by Rembrandt Pussy Horse–era Butthole Surfers: bulging and Bootsy-elasticated, hyper-gloss cartoony (Livez did a comic book called Globulicious and used to design Game Boy graphics), wriggly with funkadelic detail. The Afro-future funk of "Claati Bros" (lyrically a droll if slightly opaque spoof on Brit Art, painters daubing canvases with elephant doo-doo, etc.) might be Groove of the Year; like "White Wee Wee," it's slinky yet ruff. And some of the best bits are the interludes—for instance, the Animal Collective–weird romp of "The Forest Spirit Sings the Bush Meat Song."

Only toward the end does Livez's shtick gets a little fatigued—"Pononee Girl," from its punany pun on down, belabors a not hugely amusing sex-as-horse-riding metaphor. But then Bush Meat rallies with the brilliant "Last Nite." Over an apprehensive xylo-bass riff, Livez unfurls a panic-attack panorama of bad stuff, the mindscreen of a man unable to stop contemplating all the sadness and terrible goings-on in the world: stillborn babies, abused wives, teenagers scarred by a face full of shrapnel, murders in forest clearings, a Massai warrior losing all of his cattle. The chorus, nicked from Indeep's hymn to life-saving deejays, goes, "Last night I nearly took my life."

Honestly, I'd be surprised if a better rap album is released this year, from anywhere.
[Bring the Noise deleted scene #66]




CRUNK
Blissblog, March 22, 2004 / March 30, 2004

by Simon Reynolds



pleased to meat ya

… Re. Crunk's deep-bass growl... it's funny how when Ja Rule does it's like a thug rap update of Barry White the Walrus of Love, but w/ Crunk it's just pure leering menace, zero slowjamz potential. (Did I hallucinate this or is there actually a line in "Get Low" that goes "until the sweat runs down my balls?"). [Anthony Miccio’s] shouting-at-strippers thing is spot on, cos as Barthes said in Mythologies, striptease isn't about eroticism, it's about fear.

When I hear that bleary baleful rasp of unison baritone voices on Crunk records, it always makes me think of bad breath--you can almost smell this barking reek of chicken, beer, and stale weedsmoke hitting you in the face. Chicken.... hmmm... that's the thing about Crunk, it's carnivorous. It's all about surrendering to your basest appetities, being a predator. That's what makes it so vital... yet its vitality is intrinsically bound up with a kind of death-force, a monstrous will to make the world dead. Having mentioned Mythologies, I'm going to up the over-interpretation stakes and bring The Sadeian Woman into it, if only to get off on having a sentence that contains the names Angela Carter and Lil Jon in it. But in that book--whose subtitle if I recall is something like 'the pornographic imagination'-- Carter makes play of the fact that the German word for flesh-- fleisch--is the same as the word for meat. She writes that every time she sees the word she shudders. She then goes on to discuss how a certain objectifying form of (male, natch) sexuality turns everything into meat, devitalized and dead. Now, ur-Crunk text "What's Your Fantasy" I always thought had a hint of the Sadeian about, the scurrying ominousness of the music making the parade of sexual configurations Ludacris enumerates seem strangely joyless. At any rate as per Carter's fleisch thing you could pretty much summarise the lyrical universe of Crunk in two words: BEEF and RUMP. Men: I'll turn you into carcass. Women: you're just meat to me.

(Interesting too that as per recent New York Times piece Lil Jon has moved into the beating-yr-meat market and actually gotten into cross-synergy with the porn industry, etc)


dogg breath pt 2/the spiritual godfathers of crunk?

Picking up on that crunk-as-carnivore-music theme, it suddenly struck me that all that metal on their teeth must be a bit like braces--really bad for meat-shred retention. (Are rappers good about flossing? [Boom-boom!!!])

Also started wondering where I’d heard those halitosis-rasp baritones before--and then it hit me: The Stranglers! Aren’t they kinda like the godfathers of crunk? There was that infamous open-air concert in Battersea or someplace like that, where they had strippers onstage. And think of all those songs of sexual malice like the leering "Peaches" and the truly twisted “School M’Am” and the ho'-sanna “Princess of the Streets” (“she’s no lad-eee… she’s a sweet piece of meat”). “London Lady” slags off a skeez (except what she--a well-known punk scenester/journalist--is gold-digging for ain’t cash, it’s cred). And let’s not forget that char-ming B-side track “Crabs”.




The Stranglers-as-protocrunk ur-text though is “Bring On The Nubiles”--compare the title/chorus with Lil Jon’s ”all these females”: the idea is, this song is the opposite of a song for and about a special Lady, it’s aimed at a faceless plurality of fuckable fleisch, a banquet of ass and gash. "Nubiles" also has the strange malicious-witholding-of-satisfaction lyric "and when the fever reaches you/I'll hide beneath my zip". Pretty fetid, pretty rank, inside Mr Hugh "I Like Dominating Women" Cornwell's skull, I reckon.

Yeah, the Stranglers, they also had a whole carnivore theme--they identified with two carrion-eating creatures, first the Rat, and then the Raven. Hugh Cornwell’s gruffmale malevolence is one thing, but Jean-Jacques Burnell took it to a whole lower sewer level of nastiness: “Ugly” (“I guess I shouldn’t have strangled her to death… but she had acne”), and how about this verse from the Yukio Mishima paean “Death and Night and Blood”: “hey little baby don’t you lean down low/your brain’s exposed and it’s starting to show/your rotten thoughts, yeuuuuch”. In classic masculine abjection-projection syndrome, the “rotten thoughts” are all JJ’s. Yeah Burnel's voice simply is the pus of male self-loathing spurting free.

BUT (again, like making allowances for crunk cos when all’s said it rocks, unfortunately) The Stranglers remain a favorite band of that era, I can never quite disown them like I know I should. At the time their misogyny just seemed part and parcel of punk’s equal-opportunity animosity, that really crucial part of punk's appeal that related to pure monstrous evil, c.f. “Bodies” and “Belsen”, or the icky-grody side of Devo. Plus they had this really quite idiosyncratic and odd sound, and even the Doors comparison only takes you so far.... “Nice ‘N Sleazy” for instance sounds like nothing else in pop. Dave Greenfield did some cool stuff with Moogs and electronic keyboards on tracks like “The Raven” where the Stranglers developed this kind of rok-disko sound picking up where the electrothrob of “Hello I Love You” left off. And Burnel did a whole electronic solo album come to think of, Euroman Cometh, with an anti-America/European-unity-as-vital-geopolitical-counterbalance concept. Never heard it though.

But yeah with crunk and Stranglers, the nub of it is: you can smell death on their breath.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

[Bring the Noise deleted scene #65]

HIP HOP VERSUS THE ELECTRONICA INVASION
Blissblog, March 17, 2004

by Simon Reynolds


... On ILM I said rather metaphysically that dance isn’t generating anthems cos a culture in retreat isn’t going to have much call for rallying cries. The real explanation, though, is more prosaic. The kind of music being made now is made by and made for people who have been in this for a while; they’ve grown with the music, they don’t want to hear crass riffs and obvious hooks. Microhouse, especially, strikes me as music for seasoned sensibilities, sophisticates.

But new recruits get pulled in by the most accessible hooky stuff. I just can’t see it as a music that is going to pull in that many new people. It’s not fierce or full-on enough. Some of the riff-patterns in Michael Mayer’s set at Volume last week verged on the imperceptible to be frank, minute fluctuations of texture. Well they don’t call it ‘micro’ for nothing. I think you can see this de-cheesing tendency across the genrescape. And of course that becomes a self-perpetuating cycle, the neophytes arrive in steadily diminishing numbers, leaving the connoisseurs in an ever increasing majority.

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

A culture in retreat. Well, I promised a fanciful and involved theory last week, so here goes. You know how certain rock bands get “destroyed” by their failure to conquer America--it’s their last chance to really make some money, to pay off their record company debts. A certain Liverpool band had to break America to pay for its cocaine requirements and made a fatally compromised album that lost them their fanbase. Another Liverpool band tried repeatedly to break America and broke up over 1 million pounds in debt, despite selling millions of copies elsewhere in the world over the years. Anyway, pondering the meaning of the word ‘retreat’, it occurred to me that Electronica’s ultimately unsuccessful attempt to conquer America was a bit like the Nazi invasion of Soviet Union--a fatal act of hubris. In some weird way I think that was the beginning of the collapse.

The Nazis did real well at first, drove deep into Russia (this would be Prodigy, the Chemicals, Underworld in '97). But the supply lines got too long, there was a punishing winter, and then Stalingrad--in this schema, the failed campaign for Fatboy Slim’s You’ve Come A Long Way Baby. I would single out Spike Jonz and his fucking terrible video for “Praise You” as the turning point. (Get Joy on this subject and you will hear a rant, she loves that song, and Jonz just made a joke out of what could have been a glorious redemptive anthem, a ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ or ‘Beautiful Day’ if done right). Oh Fatboy did alright what with the songs in movies and on TV commercials, but in the deepest and realest sense he lost: he never became a household name or star, not even on the Moby level. Astralwerks now is like some Wehrmacht division stranded and surrounded in the Ukraine: you can only stave off the inevitable for so long.

The last gasp for Anglo-Euro-tronica, that would be Daft Punk. The Battle of the Bulge, in my schemata. D Day had happened, but the Germans unexpectly pushed back and looked like they might drive the Allies back to Normandy and another Dunkirk. They’d never win the war but they could dream of fighting on, forever. If the WW2 film I dimly recall from boyhood corresponds to historical reality at all, then the Wehrmatcht were so short of fuel their first goal was to capture the Allied gas depots, while all along their advance back into French territory they had to siphon fuel from the tanks of abandoned Allied trucks and armored vehicles. That’s Daft Punk, siphoning from America’s FM rock radio memory-banks in the hopes of infiltrating some house music into the US pop mainstream. Brave try, not a hope in hell. The writing was on the wall.

In WW2, the Soviet Union engaged something like 70 percent of Axis troops and suffered the most casualties, 20 million, something like 30 or 40 times the Allied losses. Okay, then, in my strained and deranged analogy, who’s the Red Army? Black American music. Hip hop and R&B. Between ‘91 and ’97, I really thought us Brits (and some of you EC lot) gave hip hop a good run for its money. We were more sonically advanced, and the whole rave thing mattered almost as much. It was a close as we were going to get to something as important and life-forceful as rap.

But around ’97, just as we started to flag, hip hop and R&B just surged forward again. I'm talking about the commercial mainstream street stuff of course. By and large, since then it has simply been better than electronic dance music
--better on every level -- just as, and probably more, inventive sonically, and it had personality, and an indelible, perennial connection to real-world stuff. How could trance, or nu skool breaks, or whatever you want to come up with, compete? That’s why even if Basement Jaxx could make the most fantastically excitement-crammed records of their genus ever (and they have, several times now, or so some claim), in America they’ll always sell less than, oh I dunno, Juvenile’s fifth, inspiration-sapped album, or Nelly’s nephew. As for poor old Armand Van Helden… he knows the score.

The exceptions? Well 2step and Grime are nothing if not attempts to keep up with and assimilate the innovations of Black America. Plus you could see the London pirate continuum as Britain's own little internal Red Army of a black population--the equivalent of Tito’s partisans, perhaps.

(Jamaica? The People’s Republic of China).

Yeah, the Red Army, that’s what Black America is. You cannot stop them. I vaguely recall Julie Burchill in her Stalin-groupie mode going on about the Russian masses, the unstoppable force of "that deep moral fibre". Moral fibre's not exactly the word that springs to me when you think of rap but this is pop music so the values are inverted: in these terms, thing of whatever the energy is that makes Bling or Crunk. English people had to neck loads of E and other mindbending substances for ten straight years just to have the same kind of life-force that Black Americans generate just through living in America and dealing with all the shit they have to deal with!

Okay, then, who’s Stalin? Timbaland, obviously. I never want to read another word about him (give it a rest Sasha!) but he’s pretty much the One who turned everything around in ’97. Interestingly he did it by being almost as good at being a Nazi (electronica, remember = Axis powers) as the Nazis were. He may even have ripped a few ideas off "us" (still not convinced by the he-got-it-all-from-dancehall argument, just don’t hear it to be honest). Jungle never happened in America. Except it did: that was “Get UR Rinse On”-- sorry, “Get UR Freak On.”

Sunday, March 30, 2008

[Bring the Noise deleted scene #64]

GARAGE RAP compilations
Village Voice, February 3rd, 2003
plus footnotes from Blissblog, February 05, 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.

Footnotes from Blissblog


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?

v/“haters
—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).
Char-ming.

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.”