Saturday, April 26, 2008

[Bring the Noise deleted scene #74]

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]

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]

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.


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]

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,; 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 ( and Independance (, and the swarm of blogs covering the scene.

(SO SOLID 1999)
(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.


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.

(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”.

(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.


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.

(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.


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.

(HOT SOUND 2003)
(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”.

(AIM HIGH 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.


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.


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 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
(HOT SOUND 2003)
WONDER featuring KANO
(NEW ERA 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.


“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.


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”.


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.


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.


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**.”

(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]

Risky Roadz: Volume 1--Tha Roadz Are Real
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]

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]

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]

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]

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.”