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.

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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.”

2 comments:

Andrew K said...

I fear your analogy-making fuel might have been cut with some rather underclass substances, possibly smelling of deisel, and bulked up by some microwaving techniques.

Andrew K said...

That said, some of the most enjoyably demented music writing witnessed in an aeon or two.