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 √† la Swizz Beats or Ludacris. There's a whole vein of spartan tracks, just beats and B-lines, designed for freestyling over—the most famous and ubiquitous being Musical Mobb's "Pulse X," the U.K.'s very own "Grindin'." In techno, tracky tunes of this type are regarded as "DJ tools"—uncompleted work that only becomes music in the DJ's mix 'n' mesh. In U.K. garage, they function as MC tools, designed to both enable and test the rapper, the most extreme riddims as buckwild challenging to ride as a mechanical bull. Every big tune these days comes with an instrumental lick on the flip, so aspiring MCs on the pirates can version it, throwing down solo freestyles or sparring in on-air ciphers. Increasingly, they're using the instrumental B-sides of current rap hits.

Like its precursors dancehall and hip-hop, garage rap is capitalist competition at its most honestly brutal, a free market governed only by the fickleness of popular desire, a/k/a, the massive. Reigning rhymestar Wiley asserts, "I will not lose/Never, no way, not ever"; he's next in line for So Solid-style stardom, alongside his Rolldeep cohort Dizzee Rascal (who's quite possibly the most inspired and provocative U.K. rapper since Tricky). But most MCs will be lucky to have one or two hot tunes, and run t'ings for a season before they're dethroned.

Footnotes from Blissblog


1/ there was even hybrid rave-rap, with performers like Rebel MC, Ragga Twins, and Demon Boyz.

Plus the ones I didn’t have space to mention: Unique 3 (most reknowned for pioneering bleep’n’bass tekno, but on various B-sides and on the album Jus Unique they did a few rather shaky-sounding rap-rave tracks and were basically a B-boy crew who got tripped out by acieeed) and most heinous omission Shut Up and Dance. Who started out as the Britrap outfit Private Party ("My Tennants", way ahead of Roots Manuva, and a pisstake on Run DMC for sponsorship tune "My Adidas), then as SUAD did tunes like “Rap’s My Occupation” and “Here Comes A Different Type of Rap Track not the Usual 4 Bar Loop Crap”. Their conflicted relationship with hip hop (they wanted to be a UK Public Enemy, but thought the latter were sonically staid) was surpassed only by their conflicted relationship with rave (they deplored drug culture and declared “we’re not a rave group, we’re a fast hip hop group”). But despite doing socially concerned tunes raps “This Town Needs A Sheriff” most of their big anthems were sample-collages that updated slightly the DJ record style of Bomb the Bass/Coldcut/MARRS. Still, SUAD’s comeback of the last few years is all too appropriate, with killer tunes like “Moving Up” (not a fully-fledged rap track with verses, but with enough of a MC vocal lick thing to fit the current moment). Ragga Twins, who I did mention, were on the SUAD label and now seem especially ahead-of-their-time, with the Belgian h-core uproar of their “Mixed Truth” prophesying the gabba-garridge sound.

But let’s not bring MC Tunes into this, eh?

2/ a strictly supporting role, exalting the DJ and hyping the crowd

The MC's role in hardcore/jungle/earlygarage was paradoxically crucial-yet-menial: he (invariably a he) functioned as a membrane between the expressive/social and the rhythmic/technological, vocalizing the intensities of machine-rhythm and in the process more or less transforming himself into a supplement to “the drum kit”. Another key part of the job description: the rewind, in which the MC relays the will-of-the-massive to the DJ. A ritual aknowledgement, at least on the symbolic level, of the idea that he who pays the piper calls the tune.

From ’92 onwards, though, you could sense a latent expressive potential in rave Mcing -- especially on the pirates, when MCs like Don FM’s OC or Trace and Ed Rush’s sparring partner Ryme Tyme would go off on one, get real imagistic and panoramic (“North South East and West, we got you locked”), as if surveying their domain from a lofty vantage point. Never quite getting to the point of storytelling, but still, you could tell that there was an artform in waiting, something that could bloom if given the opportunity.


3/ there were star MCs

You had name MCs from quite early on in rave--mentioned in the pirate ads, obviously considered part of the draw. But the real character MCs arrived with jungle, when rave's aerobics instructor/cockney street vendor style of hoarse hollered rabble-rousing was replaced by something more relaxed (even as the music got more frenetic), warmer, magnanimous, full of authority. These guys--GQ, Dett, Moose, 5-0, Navigator, et al--were almost MCs in the old showbiz sense, hosting the event, stroking the egos of all present, from the selecta in the booth to the massive on the floor. And now and then you’d get the first hints of the MC’s role as truth-teller and vibe-articulator, someone expressing the values of the scene. Overwhelmingly, these were black voices. While the DJ and production sides of hardcore/jungle/UK garage seem close to racial parity, MC-ing, from jungle onwards, seems like it's a 98 percent black thing. Does this monopoly of the role of host/articulator/spokesman have a symbolic role, expressing the dominance of black musical/cultural priorities in a subculture that in terms of population composition is actually pretty mixed? A sense that the public face of the scene ought to be black (the MC is generally actually more visible than the DJ, out there with his mic). Or is it just something about the grain of the voice, suiting the flow of MC-ing?


4/ but their careers were largely based around a few trademark catchphrases or signature vocal licks

Which could wear real thin real quick. Somewhere I have this eight-cassette pack, the looks-like-a-video sort you could buy back in the day as a memento of megaraves like Raindance or Dreamscape, but this was for a Pure Silk garage event in ‘98. Eight cassettes, eight top DJs, and all playing the same hot-that-week tracks as each other: talk about “changing same”. Worse still, there was two or three top MCs hosting the night, and so you get to hear the same trademark vocal gimmicks and human-beatbox tricks over and over and over again.


5/ Gradually, MCs started to write actual verses

Some key transitional records here:

----DJ Luck and MC Neat, “A Little Bit of Luck”. Not many words by comparison with today’s norms, but the beginnings of MC tunes that actually said something (in this case, I-and-I survive, “with a little bit of luck we can make it through the night” doubling as a big up to his DJ, who takes first billing despite contributing a really rather perfunctory groove over which Neat croons the most naggingly catchy and rootically haunting lick). Big BIG tune this: I remember someone telling me they heard a pirate station play this tune over and over again for half an hour. For a month or so in 98 this tune WAS the scene.

----Corrupted Crew, “G.A.R.A.G.E.” Again, not saying a lot really, but awesomely hooky and the MC (Neat?)’s baritone is wonderfully commanding. Also probably the first letters-for-words spelling anthem (“E’s for the Energy etc”), a routine that still gets re-used.

--- N&G feat. Rose Windross and MC Creed, "Liferide” . A classic plinky xylo-bass tune, with Creed spinning out some dizzyingly assonance-thick rhymes in his trademark clipped’n’prim style (weird how something so compressed and inhibited sounding is so cool).

---Middle Row's The Warm Up EP. Are these the first real narrative tunes? I’m talking about “Millenium Twist": Shy Cookie, Sweetie Irie and Spee reinventing the Englishness of canonical literature and costume drama with this hilarious slice of Dickensian dancehall, starring an updated Fagin from Oliver! instructing modern urchins how to duck 'n' dive Y2K stylee. And "K.O.", with its bizarre boxing-ring MC narrative (Neat again, accompanied by Shy Cookie and Spee).

Should also mention perhaps the “singjay” tunes, half way between chat and song, by the likes of Richie Dan (on the M-Dubs tune “Over Here”) and Glamma Kid ("Sweetest Taboo", yes a Sade cover), not forgetting the various 2step hook-ups with dancehall dons and don-ettes such as Lady Saw (underlining the point that UK garage’s return to the vocal, after the vocal-free desert that was techstep drum’n’bass, wasn’t just about diva vocals but about ragga chat, e.g. Gant’s “Sound Bwoy Burial”).


6/ they refused second billing status (DJ/Producer X featuring MC Y)

As in Scott Garcia feat MC Styles “It’s A London thing.” From ’97, which might very well make it the first garage rap tune of all.


7/ Suddenly the scene was swarming with MC collectives

There was a predecessor to So Solid Crew, a group no one cares to remember, because they weren’t much cop. I’m talking about Da Click of “Good Rhymes” infamy. A seriously naff record (Chic’s “Good Times” reworked) but it made the pop charts and was “important”, just like “Planet Rock” (surely the most over-rated dance record of all time? I always thought it wooden and dreary, but I bought it anyway: you just knew it was important). Same applies to “Good Rhymes”, had to have it, if only for the sleeve with its pix of 70 players on the UKG scene. Da Click was basically the scene’s premier MCs teaming up to make a record with the explicit intent of bigging up the role of the MC in UKG. They were inspired in a major way by Puff Daddy and the whole Bad Boy thing of flash thugs riding/rolling with this collective swagger. One of the record’s instigators, Unknown MC, used to be in Hijack, a Brit-rap group signed to Ice T's Rhyme Syndicate label. In late 2000, quite some time after the group’s profile had waned (the follow-up single was even worse), he told me “in London right now, there's a thing happening where true MCing is coming back to the floor. You have these clubs with 2000 people where the MC really is interfaced between the DJ and the crowd. And he's whipping the crowds up into mad frenzies, getting them involved in the party. Which I imagine is what it must have been like in the Bronx in the 70s, you know what I'm saying?”


8/ American rap's clan-as-corporation structure

Crews and posses have always been part of hip hop lore, but it’s fair to say that until the late Nineties rap's dominant lyrical mode had always been been first person singular. But with the rise of Ruff Ryders and Cash Money (both based around real families) and with the likes of Roc-A-Fella’s styling themselves as Cosa Nostra-like syndicates ("You Are About To Witness A Dynasty Like No Other), there’s been a dramatic first person pluralisation of rap; ego eclipsed by what might be called "wego," the collective triumphalism of Ruff Ryders's "We In Here" or Hot Boys's "We On Fire". Likewise in UKG you’ve got Kartels (PAUG) and Famos (K2) galore.

It would be incorrect to suggest, though, that this vogue for presenting what are clearly economic organisations as quasi-families is just ideological window-dressing for business realpolitik. Hip hop’s family values represent a kind of privatized socialism, based around ideals like sharing, altruism, co-operation, and self-sacrifice. In the war of clan against clan, loyalty is paramount, not just because teamwork is more effective, but because cameraderie provides refuge and respite from what would otherwise be a grim dog-eat-dog struggle. Effectively, the rap clan offers a haven from the rapacious cut-throat competition of the hip hop industry/capitalism, and on some level offers solace and security in what would otherwise be a desolate moral and emotional void. This is also why the Ruff Ryders/So Solid style emphasis on unity resonates with their fans--the idea of the clan on the warpath magically reconciles the contradictory impulses to be a winner but also to belong.

Of course, there’s a tension between business realities and these quasi-familial relationships: rappers like The Lox and Snoop Doggy are flexible in their fealty, shifting allegiances as deftly as sportsmen changing teams at the drop of a cheque. Still, for many, the "thick like blood" rhetoric is for real. DMX, in particular, regards loyalty as a transcendent value. In a hyper-individualistic world where market forces tear asunder all forms of solidarity and everybody has their price , he claims: "They do it for the dough/Me I do it for the love". Lyrically DMX is fixated almost exclusively on loyalty, betrayal, and retribution. Then there’s his curious obsession with dogs. Strikingly different from the lecherous hound persona adopted by George Clinton ("Atomic Dog" etc) DMX's use of "dog" seems to draw on the idea of canine fidelity--to the pack in the wild, to its owner (hence Fido). In song after song, DMX insists "I will die for my dogs". Then there’s the way he reinvokes what Foucault called “the Medieval symbolics of blood": Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood, his new label Bloodline. All seem to relate to atatvistic notions of blood-brotherhood and the loopy fantasy of DMX and his dawgs as some sort of pedigreed aristocracy of the streets ("My dogs, the beginning of this bloodline of mine"). So it’s interesting that in UK garage slang “bruv” has been displaced by “blood” as a salutation or bonding term--“ya get me blood?”

“Dog”, “blood”, “nigga”: all these terms have superceded the old racially encoded but more universalizing greetings like “brother”, which one associates with the civil rights era. The idea of family offers a kind of unity that seems more tangible and grounded than allegiance either to abstract, remote and problematic entity known as the United States of America, or any of the various forms of African-American nationalism. In rap and in UKG, group affiliation contracts to the compact and plausible dimensions of a clique, and one usually one tied to a place---a project, a council estate, a borough, a postal district (More Fire Crew shout out to the E4 and E11 crew on the sleevenotes to their debut album), or at the very most, a city (from “it’s a London thing” to “Millenium Twist”’s "L.O.N.D.O.N, London/That's where we're coming from"). As opportunities for feelings of solidarity and communality shrivel and retreat all over the social landscape, the withering especially pronounced in the very places where people once found them (trade unions, electoral politics, organized religion), it makes sense that this basic human need for a sense of belonging would find other points of focus, albeit on more diminished terms. In the neo-Medieval scenario of unchecked capitalism and holy war, it’s no surprise that we’re witnessing a resurgent atavism in the form of these Mafia-inspired clan structures (“amoral familialism”, Italian sociologists call it, diagnosing their persistence as caused by the relative weakness of nationalism in Italy--as a political entity, Italy is a relatively recent creation). Musical mobs indeed.


9/ torrential wordiness

Never ceases to amaze me, this. In UKG at the moment there's almost like a battle between the words and the music for dominance, the MC's almost seem to trying to drown out the DJ. Are there even name DJs anymore? Who gets top billing on the flyers these days? Recently playing Pied Piper's 'Do You Really Like It', which can only be two years old, I was struck by 1/ how as MCing it just wouldn't cut it now, it sounds so wack, and 2/ there must be about 25 words in the whole song. That said, the first true examples of rampant logorrhea I can think of date from shortly before ‘Do You Really Like It?’: Sparks & Kie on Teebone’s “Fly Bi” (wrong Matthew, sorry this tune is the B.O.M.B. and what's wrong with the spelling thing anyway) and Skibadee on Teebone’s “Super S”, mad-hectic tongue-twisty sinous sibilant biznis.


10/ with its raucousness and Englishness

One of my favorite bits ever on a garage rap record, can’t remember the tune or artist right this minute, occurs when, after a series of grisly threats, the MC’s killer verbal blow to his adversary is the instruction: “Behave!”. It’s like some eerie transcultural morphing effect: Bounty Killer turns into Frankie Howerd. That’ll be lost on non-Brits, I’m afraid, as is the next reference: the way Horra Squad’s Mr Guns’s has this bizarre tic-like mannerism of going “just like that”--an immaculate imitation of Tommy Cooper--right in the middle of the most bloodcurdling eruptions of “thugsy-ugsy” threats and “messy-essy” slackness.


11/dainty crispness of diction

Actually, it’s all about the tension between the impulse towards criss precision and the “drag” of the uncouth grain-of-the-voice that resists and impedes that impulse. But, and this is crucial (what some Americans, no offence, don’t get), the refinement doesn’t equate with whiteness and gentility (Masterpiece Theater, your daft ideas that the U.K is all castles and cucumber sandwiches), and the ruffness doesn’t equate with black/Caribbean. The uncouth element isn’t so much the patois as the Cockney gutternsipe factor, and the slick diction is more about a Black British elegance-smoothness aspirational thing. So you have this really semiotically rich and overdetermined criss-cross collision of class/race factors, a tug-of-war between assimilation and recalcitrance, “this is where we came from" and "this is where we're going" . But most of all it just sounds wicked.


12/expressing its rage-to-live through individualistic fantasies of stardom or crime

The art of Mcing doesn’t really entail opening up virgin zones of unexplored content. “Originality” means finding fresh twists on a stock set of themes. Like that literary critic who broke down the entirety of western drama and fiction to seven basic narrative structures (I.A. Richards?), here's my stab at isolating UKG’s core thematics (which are also stances, outlooks, dispositions, states of mind, ways of walking through the world).

i/ “I will not lose/we’re gonna make it/ain’t know stopping us/we are coming through”
more on this below

ii/ “know we/they don’t know/people dun know/if you don’t know, get to know”.
Probably the most interesting and unique to UKG theme (despite my Notorious BIG quote just now). Interesting, because the scenario it implies is that the MC is actually unknown---it evokes an imminence, a star status or stature that is being suppressed, thwarted, or is simply latent. The MC is an unknown on the brink of breaking out massively, a "supernova" (to quote Neutrino) microseconds before ignition. They don’t know but they should know and they will know. It’s hard to imagine an American rapper writing from this position: regal triumphalism, Jay-Z style, or even ennui (that standard face of blase derision you get in all the videos) seems to be more appropriate for a music that has won and is basking in its victory. Because “they don’t know” also suggests a collective demand for recognition, which US hip hop enjoys but UKG hasn’t; the theme seems to convey something of the marginality and underdog status of UKG-rap as a whole. “They” could be mainstream UK culture (which only acknowledges UKG when it is scapegoating it for street violence), or it could even be American hip hop. Alternatively, "They don't know" sometimes carries a suggestion of (see Black Ops cru) of secrecy, subterfuge, assassins with deadly powers moving unnoticed through society.

iii/ making paper/chasing cheddar/we floss the biggest whips etc

Wish fulfillment, one assumes, or hope: there can’t be that much money to be made on this scene, surely. (So Solid sold 400,000 of their album but when you divide the royalties by 30…). Nice UK-specific touches to the conspicuous consumption/status games, e.g. A-reg and K-reg license plate disputes.

iv/ biters/why you want to imitate me

yeah right, if you're so unique how come you sound just like everybody else?

v/“haters
—yeah yeah they're all sick to their guts on account of your wealth/fame/success with the ladies, well why not desist from rubbing it in their faces every chance you get then?
Biters and haters are essential accoutrements, status symbols, on a par with the flash phones and cars. Mo money mo problems etc.

vi/ alpha male biznis (is that your chick/steal your wifey/kiss her on the lips you’re tasting my semen).
Char-ming.

vii/ “wego-mania” (ride with us/imagine, you’re with a crew like this, etc)

Viii/ “revenge/retribution/ultraviolence”.
the scenarios seem to get more vivid and colorful and cruelly creative every month


13/ Laid Blak .

From Bristol, and not just a UKG outfit, their spokesman tells me, but a proper band that can do all sorts. I await their next release keenly and with real curiosity.


14/ equal parts Cockney Rejects and "Cockney Translation"

The cover of that More Fire Crew single is a beautiful thing. Not because it’s especially attractive or remarkable-looking (it’s quite plain and nondescript actually) but simply because it has these three black lads and the word “Oi!’ on the sleeve. And the last time the word “Oi!” appeared prominently on record sleeves, these were early Eighties Oi! compilations and the young men on the sleeves would have been cropheaded and pasty-faced hooligans with dubious political allegiances and jingoistic leanings. In one infamous case, Strength Through Oi! (a supremely tasteless and inflammatory title), the chap stomping his 18 hole DMs at the camera (almost as if to suggest if the photographer was the victim of a racial attack) turned out to be an ex-member of the British Movement or NF or some similar neo-Nazi outfit. So the More Fire Crew sleeve is an encouraging sign, in some weird way, of a degree of cultural miscegenation that's taken place in the last twenty years: a once noxious word being defused and reclaimed. (“Oi, oi!” was always a big MC chant on the hardcore scene, come to think of it).

As much as electro or the proto-ragga Casio-riddim ‘Sleng Teng”, I like to think of Smiley Culture’s "Cockney Translation" as the Eighties Origin for “Oi!” and for MC garage as a whole. At least it makes for an appropriately fertile fiction, as Mythic Origin. Released on the Fashion label (worth rediscovery I reckon, it captured a phase-shift in the Caribbean-British story), this is the tune where Smiley translates back and forth between patois and patter, West Indies and East Enders. “Say Cockney say Old Bill/We say dutty Babylon”, “we say bleach. Cockney knackered”, “Cockney say triffic. We say waaacked…. sweet as nut. just level vibes. Seen?”

It pointed ahead to the future hybrid argot of multiracial London, the hardcore/jungle/garage mix’n’blend of rhyming slang and rhymes-and-slang.

And talking about the More Fire Crew song, here’s a particularly apt line from Smiley’s song:

“We bawl out YOW! While cockneys say Oi!”

“Cockney Translation” is an ancestor for garage rap in more than a symbolic/mythic way, though. The tune was an example of the UK fast-style reggae sound, which Dick Hebdige describes as “reggae’s answer to rap”, as spearheaded by the Saxon International Sound System and its MCs like Tipper Irie, Asher Senator, Lady Di, and Philip Levi. Fast-style chatter is, if not ‘the roots’ then one key root for everything from Ragga Twins and SUAD to jungle/UKG MCs like Skibadee.

More Fire’s debut album is good BTW.


15/ a Warnerdance U.K. compilation you might find in Tower or Virgin.

At one point I was thinking about framing this piece as a ‘world music’ story. Because that’s what this music is at this point—impossibly exotic and hard to get hold of outside the UK. In America, it’s easier to buy records of Madagascan guitarpop or Javanese court gamelan than it is to acquire UKG.


16/ "I will not lose/Never, no way, not ever"

Been really struck by the recurrence in UKG Mc-ing of expressions of uncontainability: “we’re coming through, whether you like it or not” (Black Ops), “this style be original/we can’t be stopped” (GK Allstars). Or a sense of destiny and determination that would seem pie-in-the-sky if it wasn’t marked by such hunger--the scrawny ardor animating lines like: “always believing/follow my heart, keep up the dreaming/behind the cloud, there is a shining….I know my time is coming.” (GK Allstars again). Talk of dedication, hard work, all of my energy going into this. Again and again, this almost-American insistence, not that anyone can make it, but I’m gonna make it (I’ve got to make it; there is no alternative). Flying in the face of statistical reality.

Here’s Peter York (an under-rated analyst of UK socioculture) on what happens in a tightly class-stratified country like Britain where talent is “blocked off from conventional embourgeoisment”. “If you have a whole lot of people who are blocked, then the steam is much more intense. And where it finds a crack it rises more violently.”

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

[Bring the Noise deleted scene #63]

THE MOST OVER-RATED SCENES/GENRES OF ALL TIME PART 2: THE MOD/SOULBOY CONTINUUM
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]

CANNIBAL OX
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."

Friday, March 07, 2008

[Bring the Noise deleted scene #56]

BREAKBEAT GARAGE a.k.a "Grime Ahoy!"
from Unfaves 2000 (written spring 2001)

by Simon Reynolds


When this flavour of "garage" first started to come through--must have been late
1999, with Deekline--I remember being excited by the way the sultry, swinging R&B-2step flow would be disrupted by this much more raw, stripped down and rhythmically unsupple sound that was disconcertingly similar to Big Beat: 130 bpm breaks, bulbous bass, wacky samples. But what was refreshing about these tune--"I Don't Smoke", later the more electro-flavored "Dilemma" by So Solid Crew--when they were a brief tang of different flavour, becomes tediously homogenous as a scene/sound on its own. Stanton Warriors's Da Virus" especially seems to be the drab template for a lot of this stuff, and "138 Trek" wore out its welcome fairly quick. There's some cool-enough stuff, I suppose--like Blowfelt's bippety bassline tune "Lickle Rolla"---but generally it sounds too much like jungle minus the extra b.p.m speed-rush, hardcore without the E-fired euphoria. Or worse like nu-skool breaks (alarming to see Rennie 'Stupid Fucking Name' Pilgrem reviewing 2step tunes in Muzik's breakbeat column).

That said, the last batch of pirate tapes I got, showed signs of a new twist in this breakstep (or whatever they're calling it) direction: not so much jungle-slowed-down, and more like a post-rave, drum'n'bass influenced form of English rap. On these spring 2001 pirate tapes, there's hardly any R&B diva tunes, and every other track features very Lunndunn-sounding MCs or ragga-flavored vocals, over caustic acid-riffs and techsteppy sounds, like some latterday Dillinja production. Unlike with techstep or recent d&b, there's very little distorto-blare in the production, there's this typically 2step clipped, costive feel, an almost prim and dainty quality to the aggression-- a weird combo of nasty and neat-freak. Lyrically, the vibe seems to be similarly pinched in spirit, a harsh, bleak worldview shaped subconsciously by the crumbling infrastructural reality beneath New Labour's fake grin; UKG seems to be already transforming itself from boom-time music to recession blues. The Englishness of the vocals reminds me of 3 Wizemen Men and that perpetual false-dawn for UK rap. Lots of killer tunes I can't identify, but one in particular stood out that I could: "Know We" by Pay As U Go Kartel. As I say, quite mean-minded and loveless music but sonically very exciting-- a new twist if not quite paradigm shift from the hardcore continuum.
[Bring the Noise deleted scene #55]

WU-TANG CLAN, The Wu
Uncut, January 2001)

by Simon Reynolds


Wu lynchpin the RZA is almost unique in the pantheon of great hip hop producers for having not-a-lot going on rhythmically. Most of his creativity goes into Wu's trademark cinematic arrangements--noir strings, moody horn stabs, dank wafts of gloomy ambience--and even these tend to be looped and layered in fairly straight-forward fashion. Trouble is, in this post-Timbaland era of futuristic cyberpunk and jagged riddim science, it simply doesn't cut it anymore to take a breakbeat and let it roll. Track after track, that's exactly what the RZA does. It took me a while to work out why his beats are so subdued and pro forma. In contemporary rap and R&B, the drums are basically lead voices, duetting with and sometimes upstaging the real vocalist. But for Wu-Tang Clan, the Word is King. Rhythm is subordinated to a supportive role; it should never draw attention to itself.

What Raekwon, Method Man, Ghostface Killah, GZA, and so on do is great. But it's hard to see why headz rate the Clan on a higher level of consciousness than, say, Jay-Z. Sure, they invented that we-are-crime-family, collective thang. But everybody's now copped the blood-brotherhood, dynasty shtick. And, 90 percent of the time, all the Wu offer lyrically is more complicated boasts and threats than your average gangsta. You get the alpha-male humiliating his inferiors by stealing their women: "You know me/Every time you kiss that ho, you blow me". You get delusions of invincibility and thugly nonsense about fucking "bitches raw". You get crime/rhyme analogies ("used to be in chains/now we snatch chains/took the crack game/applied it to the rap game") and realer-than-thou bluster about how "the streets raised us" and living on "hostile blocks" where "Glocks is spittin'". Basically you get the same old shit--redeemed, just, by the cinematic vividness and rapid-fire relentlessness of image-flow.

That said, The W contains a fair few exceptions to this deadly combo of "talking fast saying nothing" over perfunctory beats. Standard-issue RZA dirge-murk "One Blood Under W" is given added ache by Junior Reid's mournful roots vocal. Ol Dirty Bastard drools neat, wacked-out drivel on "Conditioner". "Let My Niggas Live" is the only really rhythmically inventive track--a percussive roil of brooding avant-funk that could be Last Poets or Tago Mago. Based around a beautiful if over-used sample source, "I Can't Go To Sleep" is a howling blues of racial paranoia. The similarly themed "Jah World" makes an abject plea for deliverance from intolerable conditions the Wu apparently believe are only one tiny step up from slavery.

In some quarters, the W is being hailed as a return to Enter the Wu-Tang , the group's worldstorming debut. And there's little here that would sound anachronistic in 1993. OK, it's a great Wu-Tang Clan LP, complete with the obligatory, well-stale-by-now snatches of dialogue from martial arts movies. But the rap game's changed several times since '93, and, beyond the diehards, does anyone really care any more?
[Bring the Noise deleted scene #53]

JIMI HENDRIX RECONSIDERED
essay contributed to feature package on Hendrix, Uncut, July 2000

by Simon Reynolds



Think ‘Hendrix’, and the first image that comes to mind is the onstage Jimi – a sensual inferno of improvisatory creativity, fingertips ablaze; Jimi the aural arsonist, sonically torching the Stars and Stripes; Jimi the Dionysian dandy, the pyrotechnician who put the flamb√© into flamboyance. But – and you knew this was coming right? – there was another side to Hendrix that runs against this pat if not entirely misleading image: Hendrix the diligent, patient craftsman, the ‘studio rat’ who methodically pieced together Electric Ladyland over several months of
ten hours per night, all week long work. Some Ladyland songs were re-mixed three hundred times.

If Jimi onstage was a case of never-mind-the-Pollocks, a volcanic spermatozoic splurge of garish gushing expressionism, in the studio he was more a landscape painter, endlessly layering overdubs, tweaking equalisers and echo buttons, trying out new effects and arrangement ideas. With Electric Ladyland, Jimi exhibited the kind of obsessive detail-oriented perfectionism you associate with ultra-white, classicist-not-Romanticist auteurs such as Brian Wilson, Paul McCartney/George Martin, Todd Rundgren, even Brian Eno. This isn't a Dionysian lineage (frenzy, intoxication, orgiastic chaos – think Stones, Doors, Stooges) but an Appollonian one (Apollo being the god of serenity, sanity – art as contemplation, Nature garden).

As well as this unlikely white company, you could also place Hendrix in a black lineage of studio science and producer wizardry – Lee Perry, George Clinton, Sun Ra, Prince. In the ‘Afro Futurist’ pantheon, the band leader or producer orchestrates all the sonic strands into funkadelic symphonies, using texture, polyrhythm, and multi-track spatiality to weave what critic Kodwo Eshun calls "sonic fiction". A crucial aspect of this producer-led approach is that effects and studio as-instrument processing are as important as the musicianship. In Hendrix's case, the two things were always inseparable: using wah-wah, sustain, distortion, fuzz-tone, feedback modulated by the tremolo arm, etc, he refracted the blues into a vast spectrum of timbres. And this was a pretty radical idea at the time. When Jimi did a session for Radio One, the crusty old BBC engineers were hopelessly confused, and in the end the producer had to speak up: "Look here, Jimi, I'm terribly sorry, but we seem to be getting quite a bit of distortion and feedback and can't seem to correct it."

As Hendrix's music evolved, its timbre-saturated colour motion got more ultra-vivid and kaleidoscopic. It also got more spatialised. ‘3rd Stone From the Sun’, a sirocco roar of controlled feedback and one of the few songs on Are You Experienced? to extend beyond three minutes, looks ahead to Ladyland's studio-spun immensities, and further still – to the drone swarm daze of My Bloody Valentine (who worked with Roger Mayer, the geezer who built FX pedals and technical gizmos for Jimi), to Husker Du's wig-out blizzardry, to Sonic Youth's "reinvention of the guitar". Jimi's guitar becomes increasingly gaseous and contourless, like radiation or a forcefield in which the listener is suspended. Contemporary rockcrit Richard Meltzer described how Hendrix replaced the "tunnel space" of conventional rock production (the guitarist distinctly positioned in the stereo-field) with "paisley space" (a wormholey, fractal surroundsound with Jimi coming at you from all sides, from behind you, sometimes seemingly from inside you). Electric Ladyland had a ‘3D sound’ that, Jimi later complained, the technicians who transferred the masters to vinyl "screwed up… they didn't know how to cut it properly. They thought it was out of phase."

Jimi's music was about space in another sense. His lyrics are full of extra-terrestrial journeys and kosmik imagery – ‘3rd Stone’'s Barbarella-like request, "may I land my kinky machine?", and bizarre narrative about aliens visiting Earth, deciding chickens are the smartest species, then blowing up the planet; the imagery of "Jupiter sulphur mines/Way down by the Methane Sea" in ‘Voodoo Chile’; the solar system tour guide of ‘The Stars That Play With Laughing Sam's Dice’, a title that non-coincidentally acronyms the hallucinogens STP and LSD; unreleased songs like ‘South Saturn Delta’ and ‘Valleys of Neptune’. Jimi was an avid consumer of sci-fi, fantasy, and all forms of mysticism. His obsessions included the I Ching, numerology, astrology and the symbolist poets' belief that there are synaesthetic correspondences between colours and sounds; he believed he had ESP and could recall astral travels. All these traits came together in his dream of an "electric religion". He died before he could pull together the overtly transcendentalist double album, First Rays Of The New Rising Sun, his hymn to the Eternal Cosmic Feminine, featuring songs like ‘Hey Baby (The Land Of The New Rising Sun’ about a female messiah leading humanity to the promised land.

Like other Afro-Futurists, Hendrix was as interested in mythic antiquity as in the outerspatial tomorrow – Nubia, Atlantis, the whole "ancient to the future" (Art Ensemble of Chicago) shtick. His song ‘Pali Gap’ was named after the Hawaian goddess of the volcanoes aka Pele (beating fellow space cadet Tori Amos by a couple of decades). ‘Purple Haze’ was influenced by Hopi Indian myths, and ‘Voodoo Chile’ taps into West African magick via Haiti and New Orleans. In terms of his own mystique, Jimi achieved a double-whammy, being half black and half-Native American. For the beats and the hippies, blacks and Red Indians represented two kinds of authenticity and exoticism that beckoned as alternatives to consumerland emptiness: blacks incarnated passion, sexuality, energy, soul, and Native Americans represented mystery, ritual, ceremony, a non-alienated relationship with the land.

The culmination of all these tendencies – the black science fiction, the studio wizardry, and the alienation from contemporary Western industrial culture – was Ladyland's closing song suite, ‘1983 … (A Merman I Should Turn To Be)’, and ‘Moon, Turn the Tides… Gently, Gently Away’. The lyrical scenario is Jimi and girlfriend abandoning a war torn, despoiled Earth for a subaquatic paradise, ignoring their sceptical friends who argue "the machine, that we built, would never save us… it's impossible for a man to live and breathe under water… anyway, you know good well it would be beyond the will of God". Flouting the patriarchal
reality-principle, Jimi and his water babe are reborn as aquanauts in a womb-like wonderland beneath the waves. Sonically, ‘1983’/‘Moon’ is a masterpiece of stereo panning and guitar-treatment techniques (slowing down and speeding up tapes to depict a shoal of fish swimming up to check out the human visitors, then darting away again; seagull noises created from headphones feeding back into mics), with all the myriad components painstakingly assembled and then mixed live in a way that anticipates both dub reggae and ambient. All undulating flow and flickering refraction, this is rock unrocked and uncocked, androgynised, Jimi exploring the anima kingdom inside his own soul. There is nothing else like it in rock except maybe Robert Wyatt's similarly oceanic/amniotic Rock Bottom, Can's moonstruck ‘Come Sta La Luna’, John Martyn's dubby-bluesy shimmerscapes ‘I'd Rather Be The Devil’ and ‘Big Muff’.

Electric Ladyland is sometimes accused of being somewhat self indulgent and over-produced, but if anything it's not self-indulgent enough. The double-album was, however, the climax of his burgeoning relationship with engineer Eddie Kramer, who was able to implement Hendrix's vague desires ("I want the sound of underwater") and who gradually displaced the Experience as Jimi's foil and launchpad. With Ladyland less like a power trio than a 300-piece guitar orchestra, songs like ‘All Along the Watchtower’ and ‘Burning of the Midnight Lamp’ are stately constructions rather than spontaneous combustions – haciendas and pagodas gyrating in the sky.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

[Bring the Noise deleted scene #52]

PAUL GILROY, Against Race: Imagining Political Culture Beyond the Color Line
director's cut, the Village Voice, May 2 2000.

by Simon Reynolds


It was Randall Jarrell, I think, who took the entire oevure of Yeats, did the pre-computer age equivalent of a word-search, and discovered the matrix of forty or so favorite (that's to say, over-used) words and tropes that encapsulated the poet's aesthetic. You could do something similar to Against Race, the new book by Paul Gilroy, the black British cultural studies maven and Yale Professor of Sociology and African American studies. On one side, there'd be the list words that make Gilroy frown: purism, essentialism, roots, unanimism, primordialism, homeland. On the other, the words that make Gilroy smile: hybrid, syncretic, cosmopolitan, transcultural, creole, heteroculture, and, especially, diaspora.
Against Race's contentious contention is that even in their "weak" cultural forms ("mild ethnocentrisms" identity politics, discourses of racial pride), the first frowned-upon cluster of words are philosophically on the path that leads to a bunch of even nastier words: ultranationalism, fraternalism, militarism, fascism, ethnic cleansing.

Against Race is going to upset a lot of people. With admirable courage and forthrightness, Gilroy dismisses race as a quasi-biological mystification, a toxic concept that, even when turned around into black-is-beautiful pride or made the basis of resistance, has basically fucked up our thought. Railing against the "cheap pseudo-solidarities" offered by ethnic loyalty on the grounds that they effectively terminate politics (in the sense of coalition, mediation, negotiation, alliance), Gilroy aims to discredit what he calls "race-thinking" or "raciology". He aims to analyse the history of race as a concept in the same way that Michel Foucault interrogated "sexuality" as discourse and discipline. Gilroy traces the way the near-simultaneous birth of "rationality" and "nationality" at the start of the modern era led to pseudo-scientific mergers of superstition and logic such as eugenics and theories of racial decline through miscegenation. Imperialism, Darwinism and the emergence of ecology, and the growing importance of what Gilroy calls (after Foucault) "biopolitics," created the context for ideas of the people or volk as a quasi-biological organism rooted in specific territory. This in turn led to the Nazis's demand for lebensraum and the literalisation of their slogan "blood and soil"--where the soil is soaked in the blood of the original but now exterminated inhabitants of the conquered territory.

What is going to offend a lot of people is the way that Gilroy shows that fascism is not the special genius of the German people, or even the white race. He reveals not just alarming parallels but strange alliances and mutual respect pacts between black separatist groups and white supremacists. The British National Party actually demonstrated in support of a Bermudan Rastafarian who wanted the UK government to fund his "return" to Ghana. That sounds bizarre, but if you listen to the Seventies roots reggae of groups like The Congos and Israel Vibration, you will hear the word "repatriation" being sung with disconcerting yearning and anticipation. Even more startling is the story of how Marcus Garvey met with the Ku Klux Klan in 1922 and concluded that they shared similar ideals of purifying and standarizing the race. Gilroy dubs this syndrome "fraternalist mirroring"--blood-brotherhoods who are enemies but who respect each other as honest representatives of their race, and actually even admire each other's brutality. Garvey's United Negro Improvement Assocation anticipated the European fascists with their use of uniform and drill. In 1937, Garvey boasted "we were the first Fascists... Mussolini copied fascism from me. " Long after the defeat of the great dictactors, his son Marcus Garvey Jnr called in 1974 for "African lebensraum" and talked about "African National Socialism." What connects these depressing examples is a fundamental nation-building narrative, argues Gilroy, that goes back to Moses and underpins the careers of Hitler, Farrakhan, and Milosevic to name just a few: the shepherding of a weak, scattered, decadent but "chosen" people, by a messiah-like leader, towards its manifest destiny and/or promised land.

Against all these different manifestations of "ethnic absolutism", with their tendencies towards authoritarianism, militarism, and pageants of primordial kinship, Gilroy marshalls the concept of diaspora. As developed in The Black Atlantic (his book about the cultural traffic connecting West Africa, the Caribbean, the Southern USA and the U.K), diasporic identity has nothing to do with chosen exile or mere migration; Gilroy stresses the crucial dimension added by the forced nature of the dispersal. It might seem odd to valorize such cataclysmic traumas as the scattering of the Jews or slavery, but Gilroy--himself a child of the Black Atlantic--values the end result: a kind of subject-in-process, neither totally assimilated to the new culture nor able to preserve the old folkways. In turn, diasporic peoples unavoidably transform the cultures they pass through; they unsettle as they settle. London, whose popular culture is a mish-mash of Jamaican, Indian and imported Black American music and style, is one example; the entirety of Brazilian culture is another, where the ideal of mesticagem (mixing) was enshrined as state policy only a few decades after slavery was abolished in the late Nineteenth Century.

Unfortunately the weakest parts of Against Race are those concerned with the play of hybridities and essentialisms in modern pop culture. While you've got to admire his guts in dissing current rap as mere "pseudo-rebellion" and appreciate his chutzpah in using Luther "2 Live Crew'" Campbell's professed debt to lecherous Brit comedian Benny Hill as proof that hip hop is not a purely black artform, Gilroy's analyses of contemporary rap and R&B are riddled with strained over-interpretations, non-sequiturs, and arguments that trail off frustratingly. There's also a fogey-ish slant to his repetitious complaints about the video age and its privileging of image over sound, or his misinformed identification of sampling and programmed rhythm with musical de-skilling (no, Paul, it's just a new form of digital-not-manual virtuosity). Despite his nostalgia for the bespectacled seriousness of Curtis Mayfield and the fluent fingers of bassist Marcus Miller, he does acknowledge that it's precisely in the domain of computerized dance music that the praxis of "multiculture" is at its most vital--clubs, raves, pirate radio, are the real Rock Against Racism, he argues. Indeed, rave's implicity anti-fascist bodypolitics can be traced all the back to the secret parties in Nazi Germany where "niggerjew" jazz was played on gramophones rather than by live bands. The sound-not-visuals oriented hybridity of underground dance contrasts with the "specular" orientation of "corporate sponsored multiculture", where imagery of blackness as vitality, health, beauty and physical potency circulate in music videos, sports, fashion, and advertising, and negritude has been transformed "from a badge of insult into an increasingly powerful but still very limited signifier of prestige".

As Gilroy concedes, some of the race-thought eradication he wants to see is already being implemented by globalisation. But he doesn't really take on the quite powerful notion that ideas of local tradition and ethnic identity might be useful resources for resistance, if only in the mechanical sense of a drag or recalcitrant counterweight to capitalism's tendency to dissolve all forms of solidarity and difference. This in turns opens up another set of problems that Gilroy acknowledges but doesn't attempt to resolve: how to avoid the kind of homogenisation caused by globalisation without being insular, Luddite, nativist; how to avoid the weak and banal forms of rootless cosmpolitanism in which "everything becomes... blended into an impossibly even consistency" . The problem is that Nietzche was right: a fierce sense of identity and an us-versus-them worldview creates a certain kind of will, vehemence, and certainty that people find attractive and energizing. Which is why, as the old ethnic, regional and religious tribalisms fade, new ones keep emerging around culture and consumption--new volks like death-metal fans, snowboarders, Abercrombie and Fitch wearers. Maybe, for all Gilroy's hopes, there's actually an innate and almost pre-cultural instinct towards tribalism--look at the way children instinctively form gangs and show hostility towards the non-same. Humanism and tolerance have to be learned, they're part of the civilising process (which is why Nietzche was against civilisation and regarded the "will to stupidity" as an evolutionary advantage). Fascism and ethnocentrism can also draw upon all the irrational romance of the archaic and mythological--the seductive sagas of decline and rebirth, the resurrection of lost imperial powers and the inauguration of new eras. In response, Gilroy imagines abandoning the mythopoeic allure of antiquity and instead relocating utopia in the future: a "heterocultural, postanthropological and cosmopolitan yet-to-come".

In the end, the grand problem at the heart of Against Race is how to reinvent "that perilous pronoun "we" without lapsing into the inclusion/exclusion effect, into us/them psychology with all its consolations and intoxications. Gilroy's answer is to wield a bigger "We" that will hopefully subsume the smaller, squabbling "we's"--a species-level "strategic universalism" that repairs the shattering damage caused by raciology to the notion of the human. Following his hero Franz Fanon, the great anti-colonialist thinker, he wants to renew Europe's humanist project and simultaneously "purge and redeem" the Enlightement of its darkside (imperialism, racism, the coupling of reason and superstition that culminated in the scientific slaughter of the concentration camps). It's a noble but somewhat woolly ideal, and it's ironic that Gilroy takes heart from the way white and black unite to fight malevolent extra-terrrestials in movies like Independence Day and Men In Black, without realising that this is just racism on the cosmic scale, war against monstrous Others that truly are alien.

Weirdly , Against Race feels both overlong and sketchy. Passages of amazing lucidity and original insight alternate with garbled meanders where Gilroy seems perpetually on the verge of actually saying something. He also has an annoying habit of ending sections with long series of questions that propose fruitful areas of further enquiry, which only serves to frustrate the reader by making you think 'well, why didn't you enquire further?' Gilroy's prose demeanour can also be off-putting--a controlled simmer of indignation beneath the cool Sidney Poitier-like surface of elegant professionalism, revealed in odd verbal tics of squeamishness like his use of phrases like "unwholesome ideology" and "unsavory political phenomena" to describe things he disapproves of, like the Afrikaaner Voortrekkers. Other rhetorical gestures have the flavor of the lectern--lots of "I want to ask" or "I want to argue" , constant admonishments not to overlook or pass over too quickly the role of X in Y, calls for vigilance and diligence, soundings of notes of caution. Schoolmarmy tone and what Gilroy himself calls "my own wilfully dislocated argument" aside, Against Race is a brave and compelling book.
[Bring the Noise deleted scene #51]

JAY-Z, Vol. 3... Life and Times of S.Carter
DMX,And Then There Was X
JUVENILE, Tha G-Code
THE LOX, We Are The Streets
Uncut, May 2000

by Simon Reynolds



Critics love lost causes. It’s almost part of the job description. At a certain point, though, doggedly insisting “this should be pop, not that chart crap” gets counterproductive, blinding you to vital things going on in the world of the stuff that sells. It’s particularly problematic with rap, a megabuck entertainment industry these days, but still motored by the cruel fluctuations of popular desire, aka “the streets”. Predictably, last year’s critics polls endorsed such “lost causes” as the Roots and Prince Paul/Handsome Boy Modelling School, and overlooked huge-selling records by DMX and Eve, Lil Wayne and Hot Boys, despite the fact that the two labels/clans to which these artists are affiliated (Ruff Ryders and Cash Money) are at the forefront of a creative upsurge in hardcore rap. Yo, reality check: a bitter pill to swallow, but the truth is that Nineties rap was shaped not by 3 Feet High or Fear of A Black Planet (twin totems of the critic-cherished “lost golden age of 1988-91), but by NWA’s Efil4zaggin and Notorious BIG’s Ready To Die. Similarly, the directness of Tupac has proved far more influential than any Wu-Tang clansman’s virtuoso encryption skillz.

These new platinum-selling monsters by Ruff Ryders’ DMX, Cash Money’s Juvenile, and Jay-Z (don of his own dynasty, Roc-A-Fella) completely shred the tired critical line: major label = formula and indie (aka “undieground”) = inventive. Take Jay-Z's single "Do It Again": Rockwilder's production as harsh and mechanistic as a track by Jeff Mills, just a melody-free spasm of sub-bass, a nagging blurt of computer-in-distress bleeps, and an asymmetrical loop of punishing kicks and snares. Not for nothing does the track start with the warning: “it’s about to get real ugly in here”. Street rap like Jay-Z’s is unpretty in another sense. Like the Swans circa Greed, the lyrics--an interminable catalogue of boasts, threats and flaunted wealth--offer an X-Ray view of capitalism’s primary drives of will-to-power, alpha-male display and ravenous appetite. But where Gira’s vision was a Beckett-style dehumanized hell of domination/submission, Jay-Z and Juvenile make like they actually enjoy living like this. Lyrically, “Do It Again” revels in the playa's nightly cycle of clubbing, drinking, pulling, and taking the ho home: "6-AM I be digging her out/6-15 I be kicking her out". But the music (tres Swans, actually) makes it sound like a treadmill grind.

As superthugs go, DMX is the most interesting, because he doesn't glamorize the gangsta lifestyle. Produced by Ruff Ryders chief soundboy Swizz Beatz, "One More Road To Cross" has the accursed, burdened heft of Blacks Sabbath and Flag--a perfect fit for DMX's stoic description of a carefully planned liquor store heist that goes bloodily wrong. "The Professional" is a bleak glimpse into the mind of a hired assassin ("Shit ain't go too well/THAT'S MY LIFE/Know I'm going to hell/THAT'S MY LIFE") while the betrayal-and-retribution themed "Here We Go Again" starts with the insuperably fatigued murmur "Same old shit, dog/Just a different day". This vision of thug life as agony, repetition, and endurance is communicated as much through DMX's hoarse rasping timbre (pure Ozzy/Rollins) and his flow (alternating between pay-close-attention-this-is-hard-earned-knowledge-I'm-sharing slow to rapid-fire blurts like he's got too much pain to cram into the rhyme-scheme's stanzas.)

The Ruff Ryders camp has its moments of exuberance, like the rowdy call-and-response clamor and bruising bass-bounce of The Lox's "Wild Out" . It’s almost exhilirating enough to make you forget socially irresponsible couplets like "if a nigga step on your goddamn shoes/fuck him up/WILD OUT!!!"--virtually incitement to over-act to any perceived insult or threat. Lyrically, no two ways about it, street rap is pure evil: spiritually bankrupt, in thrall to false consciousness (delusions like “crime pays” and “some gangstas stay on top for ever”) and basically no advance on the black nihilism and commodity-fetishism of Schooly D circa 1986’s “PSK” and “Gucci Time”.

Word-wise the creativity resides in the endless, black-humorous twists on murder/money/misogyny. Jay-Z’s OG shtick pukes up some of his wittiest wordplay. In “Do It Again” he’s so iced-out with diamond-encrusted jewelry , his “wrists’s frostbit minus two degrees”, while “S. Carter” turns the rapper’s real name into the jeering chorus: “S dot carter/you must try harder/competition is NADA!”

Juvenile’s old-head-on-young-shoulders, worldly and slight-weary persona is much easier to warm to than Jay-Z’s richer-than-thou condescension. It helps, too, that Cash Money’s trackmaster, Mannie Fresh, is rap’s most creative producer right now, merging the joyous electro-style bass-boom and ear-tickling triple-time hi-hats of New Orleans bounce with incongruous stuff--baroque pseudo-classical synth-melodies, jazz-fusion guitar licks, techno stabs and textures. Fresh used to make house tracks with Chicago pioneer Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley. There’s been a bizarre convergence between rave and rap in the last year: Jay-Z’s "Snoopy Track" sees Timbaland blaring Numan-meets-Beltram synth-bombast, while his Swizz-produced “Girls Best Friend” has the off-kilter lurch of 4 Hero’s early breakbeat hardcore.

On the latest Ruff Ryder product, the Lox’s album, though, Swizz’s sample-free digital synth sound (theme-from-Rocky-style triumphal fanfares, spindly videogame semi-tunes, atonal keyboard trills) is sounding a little threadbare from over-use. The Lox don’t help with lines as blunt as “I turn your face into pudding”, “I’ma make a nigga leak”, and the niggativity nadir of call-that-a-worldview? couplet “all I know is drugs and guns and plenty of weed/and that bitches suck dick and niggas’ll bleed”.

The trouble with hardcore rap is that while producers keep coming up with sonic surprises, the MCs face a tougher challenge: how many different ways can you say “I don’t give a fuck”?