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]

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 #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 #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.

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.”

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?

—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).

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.”

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

[Bring the Noise deleted scene #63]

from Unfaves 2001, Blissout

by Simon Reynolds

Thoughts prompted by three near-simultaneous irritations: seeing the video for Style Council's "My Ever Changing Moods" on VH1 Classic (Weller and Talbot as Tour De France cyclists); reading Kirk De Giorgio's Invisible Jukebox in the Wire; perusing the suspiciously dapper and small-faced Paul Gorman's In their Own Write, with its excessive number of quotes from Paolo "Cappucino Kid" Hewitt.

I'm using "mod" here to signify not so much a specific period in the Sixties, or even its revivals and explicit echoes, so much as a UK youth cultural continuum, a perennial space in the sociocultural field of possibilities. And it's something whose appeal almost entirely bypasses me; it consistently non-resonates. And obviously in this respect I'm just as much trapped in my own class identity (middle middle class, as opposed to lower middle class). What irks? Mod's non-Dionysian, neat-freak retentiveness? Its refusal of both "revolution" (mod is essentially about resignation: youth as brief burst of energy and hope before capitulation to the humdrum) and "bohemia" (which as someone wise said, basically replaces politics with art as solution to/salve for the contradictions of late capitalist society)?

The mod/soul-boy continuum occupies a thin strip of sociological terrain--basically suburban upper working class/lower middle class--and is defined on one side through its disdain for the "studenty" (that bedrock of all things "progressive", Floyd to Radiohead) and on the other through its recoiling from the base pleasures of the un-sussed plebs (your proper proletariat). Caught between these two equally unattractive prospects and with the dire fate of suburban mediocrity staring it in the face, Mod escapes England through a massive projection towards Black America (never, crucially, rock'n'roll America) and through its flirtations with European-ness. As per Style Council's Our Favorite Shop, what's imagined is a utopia of perfect consumption: transcendence achieved through the details of a lapel, the iconicity of a label.

At the core of the mod self-conception is the idea of being one of a select few white boys who truly understand black passion and black style, simply through strenuous self-education in all its crucial details. The original mods were at least dealing with contemporary Black American music, but by the Seventies, with Northern Soul, the mod continuum became increasingly and paradoxically opposed to Black Modernity--it was equally horrified by white misappropriations of black music and by black musician's own deviations from the true path.

For Energy Flash, I was interviewed by Robert Elms on his GLR show, and during a desultory interrogation, with one eye kept on the Test Match playing on a little TV above the studio console, the former doyen of the style bibles opined that as far as he was concerned, house and techno had been the death of the British working class's love affair with black dance music. Like everybody else from a certain mid-Eighties moment in style culture/London clubland, Elms seemed to have imagined that rare groove/"the jazz revival"/go-go should have just have extended itself in perpetuity: a Thousand Year Reich of refinement and righteousness.

Elms's inability to accept house and techno as "proper black music" (let alone all the things that followed like jungle and 2step), then gets weirdly echoed by your Terry Farley types who went a bit further than Elms, falling in love with deep house, but stops there. Read his house review column in Muzik and you sniff the tell-tale neo-mod whiff of "we are the custodians", signaled by phrases like "proper black dance music" and "this is real black house music for those who know". Then there's Kirk DeGiorgio with his historically confused insistence that Detroit techno came entirely out of black synth-exponents like Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock, and Bernie Worrell, and owed not one whit to Kraftwerk/New Order/Depeche. DeGiorgio operates some kind of web-site project dedicated to documenting early Seventies black music year by year down to every last record released--so far as he's barely got to 1971!.

I've strayed a bit far from mod here (DeGiorgio is probably as much a case of a jazz curator or Steve Barrow-style archivist type as anything...) but the syndrome is essentially the same: what typifies the mod/soul-boy mentality is this weird self-effacing relationship with black music, where the best one can aspire to is to emulate/simulate black music as closely as possible. These white people are continually complaining about other white people ruining black music, making it too "white boy."

Like the house bods referenced earlier, these guys always seemed destined to become curmudgeons, disenchanted by the direction that their beloved black music has gone. Because their attitude to black music is so reverential, conservationist, and purist, they cannot comprehend black musicians own impulses to be faithless and heretical, to miscegenate. Your actual black musicians, on the whole, give or take a few real cultural protectionist/Afrocentric/black power sorts, don't think like this: in fact they think as musicians first, responding to excellence wherever it comes from. The examples are too numerous: southern soul singers who loved the plaintiveness and everyman's-woes aspects of country, George Clinton loving the Beatles and Vanilla Fudge, Ice T's penchant for Phil fucking Collins and making bad hard rock records, jungle with people like Goldie being into The Stranglers, David Sylvian and PiL as much as Loose Ends, Maze, Marley Marl; Jeff Mills's digging post-DAF Euro Body Music and actually playing in an industrial band called Final Cut.

For your mod/soulboy types, this sort of swerve is a real headfuck. And so electro and the hard, drum-machine driven rap of the early Eighties totally wrongfooted the chaps at Echoes and Blues & Soul [supposedly they formed a--admittedly jokey organisation--called something like LADS, League Against Disco Shit if I recall rightly], and most of your style bible clubland guru types consistently backed the wrong horse, rallying to go-go or rare groove rather than rap or house. All hand-percussion and call-and-response, go-go corresponded to their received ideas of proper blackness; Troublefunk's shows in 1986 were wall-to-wall white hipster funkateers, barely a black face in sight.

Black music has an inherent mutational drive that is continually pushing it into directions that are "un-black"--in the process challenging and complicating the reified notions of blackness ("swing", "funky", "soulful", "warmth" etc) cherished by the white believers. (And sometimes the black believers too: in The Death of Rhythm and Blues, Nelson George's ideas lead him towards the paradox that, post-electro, the true conscientious custodians of black music, the people who really cherished and had a gut-understanding of its principles, were all white and mostly British: your George Michaels, Phil Collins, Daryl Halls,Steve Winwoods, Mick Hucknalls etc.) Time and time again, a younger, upstart generation of black musicians will find themselves attracted to some new white music and embrace its qualities (hard attack riffs, distortion, machinic angularity), and the result is the next quantum leap for black music. Time and time again, the white soulboys huddle in horror and disdain, holding tightly onto models of black innovation that have become essentially antique.

And here's the truly perturbing twist---quite often it's been the "pale theory boys", the studenty, art-school, pretentious twats that your mods and soul-boys love to mock--who are not only the first to grasp the new cutting edges of black music (I'm thinking here of your Cabs, New Orders, Mark Stewarts) but who even occasionally have reciprocal influence back on black music (DAF and Throbbing Gristle with the Chicago house pioneers; Pop Group deeply shaping members of Massive Attack, etc). Standing to one side of this fruitful dialectic of funklessness and refunktification, the mod/soulboy types condemn themselves to irrelevance and redundancy. Can you imagine any black musician being inspired by, or finding some re-deployable element worth stealing in, the music of Jamiroquai or the Style Council?

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

[Bring the Noise deleted scene #62]

Village Voice, October 9th 2001

by Simon Reynolds

Rap's a funny business, really. People pay good money to experience as "entertainment" what in real life they'd run a mile from. Bug-eyed sociopaths threatening cruel and unusual deaths, nouveau riche bores droning on about how much they make and the expensive shit they wear... And (let's not forget the underground) paranoid poets who've never met a conspiracy theory they didn't like, crackpot autodidacts who glimpsed the secret of the cosmos in a cloud of weedsmoke and they just have to tell you---the sort of I-be-the-prophet spiel you can endure for free if you hang out on the subway long enough.

The cipherpunks of undie hip hop can be a real chore for ear and brain: barely scanning stanzas overcrammed with too many words per bar (at its worst, indie-rap rivals opera for its anti-musical subordination of sonix to textuality), as imagistically over-ripe and knotted with riddles as a late period Costello lyric. Your typical undie MC sounds like he chomped down a dictionary for breakfast and it keeps repeating on him. The prolix code-flow and hermetic, baffle-them-with-thy bullshit shtick is just the bookworm counterpart to gangsta machismo---often just a more convoluted and encrypted battery of boasts and threats. Jesus, with all the wordy machismo and heated who's-really-real debates, it's a bit like rock criticism with a beat!

Actually, the consciousness informing underground hip hop reminds me more specifically of nothing so much as prime period Forced Exposure, the legendary post-hardcore noisezine: the recondite reference points and in-jokes, the cultivated trash aesthetic, the ultra-condensed and jaggedly stylized writing style. As Sasha Frere-Jones quipped in these pages a while ago, El-P--lynchpin of late lamented undie-rap gods Company Flow and producer of Cannibal Ox--is something like the Steve Albini of hip hop: fanatically opposed to the major label rap industry, addicted to noise. Extending the analogy a bit, you could imagine
a few years down the line the emergence of a rap equivalent to grunge ("grime", maybe): underground in style and sound, but hooky and forceful enough to storm the barricades of Hot 97 and BET, and end the entire bling-bling era (hip hop's equivalent to hair metal). And a few years after that, El-P will be drafted into uglify and render radio-unfriendly the post-breakthrough album In Wu-Tero by spearhead grime-rappers Gnosis....

El-P's the anti-Bling king, with an approach to sound that equates "independent" with "fucked". (His forthcoming solo album's titled Fantastic Damage). Cold Vein is actually steeped in some of the same Eighties electro and Nineties technorave synth-sounds you can hear in Hot 97-style rap, but the chrome futurism is rust-speckled, worm-holed with the metallic equivalent of cancer. El-P's sound--electronic-but-dirty, grooves that are borderline dysfunktional--has a lot in common with IDM groups like Autechre and the whole glitch approach to using software malfunctions and digital distortion. Something of a convergence is taking place between underground rap and left-field electronica, signalled by the recent Chocolate Industries compilation Rapid Transit with its mix of MCs and IDM artists, or figures like Prefuse 73's Scott Heren who has a foot in both backpacker and nerdtronica camps. Indeed, the response to Cannibal Ox has been warmer outside rap than within: cover stars of The Wire, rave reviews everywhere from Urb to NME to CMJ, but so far snubbed by The Source (perhaps because Vordul demands "108 mics", 103 more than the highest mark in the mag's album grading system)

What El-P shares with your Autechre sorts (who typically started out doing breakdancing and graf) is roots in that brief post-electro, pre-sampling phase when rap tracks were built around drum machines, scratching, and not a lot else: Schoolly D's "P.S.K", Skinny Boys's "Rip the Cut". Back then that slow, torturous sound struck me as closer to post-hardcore bands like Swans and Big Black than the mainstream black pop of the day--it was music for wigging out, not dancing. Company Flow's debut EP Funcrusher had a title more redolent of Godflesh than a modern rap group, and Cannibal Ox itself sounds like a grindcore band. Cannibal Ox are essentially the continuation of Co-Flow--same soiled samples, entropic tempos, and sprained-in-both-legs beats--but fronted by two new MCs, the marvellously monikered Vast Aire and Vordul Megilah, both formerly of the Harlem group Atoms Family but now live-in proteges chez El-P's Red Hook, Brooklyn apartment.

The worldview that V&V tout is deeply unjiggy: gangsta hyper-realism, but without the crime-pays glamor or delusions of invincibility. "Iron Galaxy" is their trope for an uncaring cosmos. The track starts with a movie sample, a blase white voice going "Yeah, tell me about it... it's a cold world out there... Sometimes I think I'm getting a little frosty myself". Then, riding a groove uncannily reminiscent of Donna Summer's "State of Independence", the duo unfurl a panorama of urban decay, rife with imagery of vultures, dogs eating dogs, roaches and rotten apples, little black girls getting shot, absent fathers ("Course his pop's gone/What you figure?/That chalky outline on the ground is a father figure?"), stillborn babies.
"Molested children" gets rhymed with "rats in ceiling". Clearly Cannibal Ox have inherited the Co-Flow mantle of "#1 feel bad crew".

Although Vast spells out their ghetto-realist creed with the lines "I guess that's why I was born/To recognize the beauty of a rose's thorn", Cold Vein isn't relentlessly grim. There's a sense of deadly frolic, pure linguistic sport. On "Raspberry Fields," Vast kills his battle-rhyme opponent repeatedly in successive reincarnations ("this is the next lifetime"). This "scissortongue" MC with a "mouthful of parables" prides himself on vocabulary and the writerly art of elegant variation: when he drops the verse "the sample's the flesh and the beat's the skeleton/you got beef but there's worms in your wellington/i'll put a hole in your skull and extract the skeleton," he immediately corrects himself ("oh my god, said a word twice") and then repeats the whole verse changing the second "skeleton" to "gelatine". Vordul favors breathless sprints of assonance-dense rhyming like "stress got my chest a mess/breathless and vexed/trying to escape/from outa the depths of hell's nest" that suit his blurting flow, a logorrheiac lockstep that often seems barely tethered to the groove. Vast is more ruminative and languid, crisply enunciating choice lines like "the beat be trying to sex me and marry me/I'm talking white picket fence and a family" and audibly underlining specific words to ensure your close attention. On "Vein" he verbally smacks down a 12 year old baby-gangsta who flashed a gun in his face (the kid's got saggy pants, but "thoughts gotta pull up") while "The F-Word" explores the vulnerability of being a love triangle's third side (the dirty word in question is "friend", as in "just friends", as in being the thankless, nookie-less role of shoulder-to-cry).

Throughout El-P's sonic choices are stunning--the galactic funk of "Battle for Asgard"; the dank futurism of "Vein"; the melted-candle sample-slurry of "B-Boys Alpha"; "Raspberry Fields" with its Butthole Surfers-like slowed-down vocals and dying-walrus guitarwail. "Real Earth" simultaneously reminds me of Flipper's cosmic dirge "Survivors of the Plague" and a slowed-down version of the Blade Runner-esque techy-sounding drum'n'bass purveyed by E-Sassin and Dieselboy. His tour de force comes with the closing songs "Pigeon" and "Scream Phoenix" (a hidden track). The avian imagery has run through the album: pigeons representing the world's small fry, the dowdy downtrodden. The phrase "Scream phoenix" is V&V's grimy equivalent to Curtis Mayfield's "move on up": imagination soaring free of reality's chains. In an alchemy of soul, every pigeon can will their metamorphosis into the glittering phoenix. El-P rises to the challenge of such epic concepts. "Pigeon" sounds literally Gothic: Rome after the barbarians, temples sacked and torched. A grandiose horn fanfare conjuring the twilight of empire, and Neil Hagerty-like guitar raining down on the smoking embers. "Scream Phoenix" is a woozy delirium of just-offkey angelic chorale and a looped tic of beautiful blues guitar. The way the final track offers a glimpse of hope recalls Tricky's similar move with "Feed Me" at the end of Maxinquaye.

If there's one drawback to Cold Vein, it's that the music's so strong and strange it almost overshadows the words; simultaneously, focusing on Vordul & Vast's dense verbal flow with anything like the intensity it deserves makes it hard to wallow in the sonics. Separate dub and accapella versions would be a dream. Mind you, this splitting of consciousness/double-tiered focus effect only adds to Cold Vein's sensations of disorientation and out-of-jointness. After 74 minutes of gruelling brilliance, you'll probably need to lie down and unclench your brain.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

[Bring the Noise deleted scene #61]

JAY-Z, The Blueprint
Uncut, autumn 2001

by Simon Reynolds

This is supposed to be Jay-Z's big comeback. Which is odd 'cos he's been "away" a year, and the last album sold a couple of million. Then again, the one before sold more, and the album before that shifted five mill. So the perception was that Jay-Z had fallen off significantly (and bar the Neptunes-produced monstergroove "I Just Wanna Love U," the last record did show signs of burn-out) while the hype is "Jay-Z reclaims the throne"--a coup almost unprecedented in the merciless, high-turnover world of rap supastardom.

Clearly the embattled star felt he had much to prove, because it's all nonstop Jay-Z: no verses farmed out to proteges from his Roc-A-Fella camp, and the only celebrity guest is Eminem, whose flow on "Renegade" is so dense and twisting it damn near sprains your brain. The CD booklet shouts out "To This Whole Fake Bulls**t Industry, Thanx 4 being so Fake and Keeping me on my Toes!!!," and the lyrics stomp down various upstarts who'd been sniping that Jay was slippin'. "Takeover" absolutely DESTROYS Nas, ridiculing his output ("that's a one hot album in every ten years average") and boasting alpha-male style of fucking his girl ("you know who/did you know what/with you know who"). The track is based on The Doors's "Five To One" (Morrison hoarsely hollering "gonna win, yeah/we takin' over") and there's more inspired pop intertexuality when the chorus from Bowie's "Fame" is transformed into a series of deathblow disses: "that's why you're... LAAAAAME!!!".

If The Blueprint is a triumph, it's one of form over content: Jay-Z's got nothing new to say, but loads of fresh twists on the same-old same-old. Plus he's always been able to cherrypick the hottest tracks from the most inventive trackmasters, and the sonics here are relentlessly ear-catching. Almost every tune sounds like a hit: Kanye West's insanely catchy Jackson 5-based "Izzo," the swampy reggaematic fonk of Timbaland's "Hola Hovito", the drum 'n'bassy tympani thunder of Bink's "All I Need," Just Blaze's "U Don't Know" with its sped-up diva histrionics like parakeets on amyl, the crunchy-yet-wet percussion and snakecharmer melodics of Poke & Tone's "Jigga That N***a" .

Apart from Jay's mic' hogging, the most striking thing about The Blueprint is how deeply steeped it is in 70s soul. Ignoring the fact that this music's melt-your-hard-heart tenderness was originally radically opposed to big-pimpin' niggativity, Jay-Z deploys the timeless sweetness of Al Green, Bobby Blue Bland, and David Ruffin to sugarcoat his own ultra-cynical worldview. The plea for social redemption in "Heart of the City (Ain't No Love)" gets flipped around into Jay-Z complaining about resentful haters: "where's the love?," he asks, as if it never occurred to him that rubbing your success in people's faces will rub 'em up the wrong way. Jay-Z's OG shtick involves the fact that he was wealthy through drug dealing before he became a rap star, and that "the rap game" is just a phase before even greater glories. "Put me anywhere on God's green earth/I triple my worth... I'm a hustler, baby/I sell water to a well". The sole chink in these delusions of invincibility comes with "Song Cry", an almost-apology to the girl he lost through fucking around. The title's clever concept is that the music (more symphonic soul) sheds the tears Jay-Z's too tough to weep.

Rap's mystery is that people pay to be entertained by what they'd normally flee: vivid death-threats, bores bragging about their income and sexual conquests. Clearly a deeply unpleasant fellow, Jay-Z is also mildly evil. How about the line "I'm still fuckin' with crime, 'cos crime pays" for socially destructive myth-mongering? Ultimately, though, resistance is futile. So give it up for the don of disrespect, the virtuoso of vanity, the king of conceit.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Bring the Noise deleted scene #60]

AALIYAH, Aaliyah
unpublished* review, Village Voice, August 2001

by Simon Reynolds

I was going to call myself an Aaliyah fan--after all, she's made two of my
all time favorite singles, "One In A Million" and "Are You That Somebody?"--but somehow the idea of an "Aaliyah fan" seems faintly absurd. There's dozens of websites devoted to the singer whose name is Swahili for "most exalted one", but beyond her obvious beauty and vocal skill, what are these folk latching onto? The sites are uniformly thin on biographical content or back story. Of all the premier league R&B goddesses, Aaliyah seems the most blank: she doesn't even have a persona as such, let alone exhibit actual this-is-me personality. This is a young woman who's been involved in the music industry for most of her 22 years, working her way up the rungs from the age of nine. In a recent Billboard interview, droning fluent bizspeak about the importance of "versatility" and the need to pace your career, unfurling cliches about creative "chemistry" and thriving on "pressure", Aaliyah comes over as a dour professional and a workaholic strategist who's cannily diversified into movies like Romeo Must Die and Queen of the Damned.

More than just impersonal, there's something almost immaterial about Aaliyah
(it's hard to imagine her flossing her teeth, or wiping her bottom). Aaliyah might be best understood, and enjoyed, then as a figment--a phantom of cathode-ray dazzle and studio-processed breath--concocted by an ensemble of stylists, choreographers, make-up artists, personal trainers, lighting technicians, video directors, song-doctors (like her main writer, Static from Playa), and, not least, trackmasters like Timbaland, her primary production foil until now. Timbaland has said he uses Aaliyah as "a probe" (itself an oddly depersonalized phrase), a vehicle for testing his most far-out ideas in the "urban" marketplace. That metaphor fits "One In A Million", the 1996 smash whose stutterfunk kick drums created the rhythmic template for the last five years of R&B and rap, and it works for 1998's "Are You That Somebody?",
which took the stop-start groove thing to the brink of rhythmic arrest. But the sole novelty of last year's "Try Again," its acid-house Roland 303 bassline, was fresh only in context (urban radio), while this year's "We Need A Resolution" continues the decline in daring, showcasing no new moves whatsoever. Everything in the song is decidedly deja for Tim-watchers, from the snake-charmer flute motifs ("Big Pimpin'") and tabla-like percussion ("Get UR Freak On") to the sinister slither of the reversed-sounding techno riffs ("Snoopy Trak," off Jay-Z's Vol. 3). With his two other cuts on Aaliyah's new album being the catchy but unstartling "More Than A Woman" and "I Care 4 U", a five year old, Missy-penned out-take from the One In A Million album sessions, there's a suspicion that Timbaland shot his wad on So Addictive and is all innovated out for the time being.

The other producers involved in Aaliyah--Keybeats, Inc (a/k/a Rapture & E-Seats), Bud' Da, and J-Dub a/k/a Rockstar-- aren't probing any outer limits either. The result is an album that is unspectacular, but very listenable. From the ungainly title/chorus down, "We Need A Resolution" wasn't exactly singular as a single, but its midtempo understatedness works just fine as an album opener. The same applies to most everything here: Aaliyah's all album tracks and no obvious hits, but it's expertly paced and programmed, the whole stronger than any individual part. Make it past the first, underwhelmed listen and its cumulative seductiveness kicks in.

Rapture & E-Seats's stand-out "Rock The Boat" is all diffuse sensuality and shimmering sleekness. The song's "adult" lyrics--"stroke it for me/work it to the middle/change positions"--are something of a maturity move for Aaliyah, and not wholly convincing. She doesn't really do "hot", it doesn't suit her gritless voice, at times so snowy-textured and sparing with the melisma that it's almost white. Showing more skin than usual, draped in snakes and caked in vampy make-up, she looked uncomfortable in the "Resolution" video, and you can't really imagine
her mucking in with the harlots of "Lady Marmalade". Until now, her two primary modes have been near-virginal devotion ("One in a Million", "4 Page Letter") and tension, a yearning-but-holding-back wariness of love. Both "Are You That Somebody" and "Try Again" are premised on the idea of Aaliyah as hard-to-get, while "Resolution" is all about people not getting (it) on.

Outside these two modes, Aaliyah doesn't fare so well. The twittery-vocaled
anti-wife abuse schlock of "Never No More" is a calculated display of versatility, announcing "I can deal with heavy topics". "U Got Nerve" is a weak stab at Beyonce-style toughness, and "I Refuse", from its I-am-woman-hear-me-roar defiance to the baroque'n'roll bombast of J. Dub's arrangement, is a "Bills Bills Bills" knock-off two years tardy. Mind you, this Austro-Hungarian Rhapsody might be the album's most authentic Aaliyah moment, given that her all-time favorite band is apparently Queen!

On two songs, you get a glimpse of Aaliyah as a potential auteur, rather than just a key component of hit records, the brand name front for a collective of expert technicians. Bud'Da's "I Can Be" is Aaliyah at her most frosty, shrouded in a skein of glassy guitarscree that seems to belong more on a Banshees or Cocteaus album. And the J.Dub-prod. "What If," daubed in garish metal-funk guitar, even sees Aaliyah rock out with a modicum of sass. The song's sheer overwraughtness feels cathartic after so much mature'n'demure restraint.

Hints, if not of darkness or deepness, of at least an aspiration in that direction: Aaliyah as ice queen of Gothic R&B! "I Can Be" especially is a glimpse of the more audacious album Aaliyah could have been, if, for instance, the singer had
done a collaboration with Trent Reznor as she once improbably contemplated with apparently genuine enthusiasm ("I think he's a genius!", she gushed). For the time being, though, Aaliyah is a fine third album. And Aaliyah remains a exquisite cipher.

* unpublished: this had to be pulled at the minute having been written and edited and ready-to-roll but then Aaliyah died in that awful plane crash.
[Bring the Noise deleted scene #58]
CEX, live
Village Voice, May 2 - 8, 2001

by Simon Reynolds

Cex, a/k/a 19-year-old Baltimore-based Rjyan Kidwell, is an infamous figure in the world of IDM (Intelligent Dance Music). A recent IDM digest contained an open e-mail to Kidwell and mentor kid606: "Do not bowdlerize our subculture just so you can finally get your goofy looking nerd asses laid." Their crime? Bringing too much showmanship to live performance, which left-field electronica purists believe should be faceless and abstract. The trouble with the purist line is that IDM, because it's not dance oriented, can't count on involving the audience through physical participation; in the absence of visual stimulation, it runs the risk of lapsing into background ambience.

On April 23, a kid606-and-friends night at Tonic showcased various strategies for avoiding the laptop musician's nightmare scenario: that "all is lost" switch point when the audience chatter gets louder than the music. kid606 held the listener rapt through sheer density of sonic events per second (and was helped not a little by Kurt Ralske's ravishing improvised video projections). Matmos usually incorporate an eye-catching performance-art element in their sets, but tonight they simply played tunes from their new plastic-surgery-themed album (A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure) against a backdrop of discomfiting close-up footage: ear canals, eyes, hair follicles, and the like.

Opening the night, Kidwell took the most radical approach. Instead of playing what he puts out on record (plaintive, melodious electronica perfectly suited to the IDM palate), he's got a totally different live set based around the premise of Cex as "#1 Entertainer in the Game." Naked save for his fashion briefs, he looks like an emaciated computer programmer but sounds uncannily like Eminem, his rhymes oscillating wildly from professions of alpha-male omnipotence ("I know you're stressed/cos there's only one Cex/and your girlfriend's pissed/cos it's not you") to touching admissions of terminal dorkhood. Often he's rapping over purloined grooves (like the Neptunes-produced instrumental track from Jay-Z's "I Just Want to Love U"), and like a rap CD, he does between-song skits—like his hilarious fantasy about going to the MTV Awards "the year minimal techno blew up."

"Representin' for fun" versus art-techno solemnity, Cex reminded the audience, "You got booties, let's use 'em," and then vowed to "take your maturity/eat it up, spit it out" (this accompanied by cartoon-raptor gestures of devouring/regurgitation). Surprisingly, the audience lapped up Cex's wiggatronica shtick, avidly participating in call-and-response and throwing hands in the air on cue. As an in-joke/polemic within the cloistered IDM context, Cex's Apple Mack Daddy persona is inspired, although you do wonder how a real rap audience would respond to his not-exactly-fluent freestyles. Then again, only the sternest purist (techno or hip-hop) could fail to chuckle at Cex's adapted-for-PC booty song, which starts by exhorting "Ladeez in the house, get the fellaz in the house, to take their balls out," then extends its equal-opportunity agenda to the inanimate: "Objects in the house, get the people in the house, to take their balls out."