Sunday, May 10, 2009

THE NUUM AND ITS DISCONTENTS, # 1
CENTRIPETAL versus CENTRIFUGAL


Centripetal
1/ proceeding or acting in a direction toward a center or axis
2/ tending toward centralization : UNIFYING

Centrifugal
1/ proceeding or acting in a direction away from a center or axis
2/ tending away from centralization : SEPARATIST


In this, the first of a series of meditations inspired by the recent hardcore continuum conference, I'll be teasing out the implications of one axis (out of several) around which the argument is organized. These two opposed forces--centripetal and centrifugal--are at work within the musical-subcultural field of historically linked genres-scenes under dispute, but they also strike me as a revealing way to characterize the two opposed approaches to writing about this area of dance music (perhaps even any and all forms of popular music).

Centripetal tendencies are the forces that cause genres to form and that mobilise populations into scenes. As a centripetally-minded writer, my primary interest is the conditions that lead to the coalescence of a genre out of a disparate array of influences, the circumstances that provoke scattered members of the general public to select themselves as a subcultural tribe. This slant makes me less concerned with edge cases, all those "but what about…"' exceptions brandished by those of the centrifugal inclination.

As regards the hardcore continuum, what interests me -- amazes me, inspires me -- is the way that people came together in a cultural space… a space that perpetuated itself while also going through a series of drastic lurches and twists, dialectical reversals and inversions … the resulting series of sono-historically connected spaces constituting at once a MACRO-GENRE and a MACRO-SCENE.

There is no teleology immanent to this runaway evolution, although on an affective level, for those inside the ride, it can feel like there's a destination, a destiny. In reality, its blind surge into "the future" was always prey to grinding to a halt without warning, or entering into a entropic wind-down, settling into half-life homeostasis…

To convey how the play of centripetal versus centrifugal worked within this macrogenre/macroscene, I suggest another opposition:
flava versus structuration.

"Flava" refers to those elements within any given nuum genre that are closest to conventional notions of "musicality"; these tend to be centrifugal, in the sense that their logic pulls away from the hard core of the nuum; their presence makes the music less distinct from the rest of the genrescape. "Structuration" refers to those structurally innovative elements that are generative in terms of opening up a whole new zone of musical productivity. These structuration elements are centripetal in the sense that they are what make the sound cohere and they are what distinguishes the sound from the rest of the genrescape.

If you were to survey the almost-twenty years of the nuum's existence, you'll see getting on for twenty distinct flavours pass through the various phases of this macro-genre--popping up, disappearing, resurfacing again. Jazz, Latin, industrial/EBM, R&B, soundtracks, Detroit techno, sub-classical, rock, electro, acid house, ambient, Italohouse, Brazilian, blacksploitation funk, world musics of various kinds…. the list goes on….

Flava seems to be the right word , for these elements are essentially spices or garnishes, functioning to enhance the appeal of the various nuum genres. But none of them are central in terms of the nuum's evolution, which depends on core structuration features that originate in a relatively small number of primary precursor genres--hip hop, dub reggae, dancehall, house, hard techno/Eurorave--but have been drastically intensified and mutated. Rather than flitting in and out of flavor-favour, these are the building blocks of the sound(s), its beams and cornerstones. They include:


Breakbeat science (developed from hip hop)

Bass science (developed from dub reggae; also from hip hop/electro)

Vocal science (developed from house)

MC fast chat (developed from dancehall)

Mentasm-stab and variants (developed from hard techno/Euro-rave)


Now, not all of these structuration features are present in all nuum genres of course, some absent themselves for a while, and the relative balance between them alters dramatically.

"Mentasm" is borderline, I think--somewhere between structuration and a very pungent flava. Early on (ardkore into jungle) it's part of the architecture of the sound, but it dips away in later years, recurring like a kind of recessive gene or folk-memory in early grime and here and there in dubstep.

"Breakbeat science" need some clarification: I would say that at a certain point both the science and the sensibility get detached from breakbeats per se. So speed garage has the 4/4 house matrix, but increasingly all the hallmarks of breakbeat science (hypersyncopation, ultra-texturised percussion, "jagged swing", fractured funk etc)migrate into the house groove. This reaches fruition rapidly with the dropping of 4/4 in favour of 2step (slowed-down jungle, virtually). B(reakb)eat-science then continues with grime and also dubstep (slowed-down jungle, pt 2).

Going back to the flavas: out of all of them, probably the most recurrent is jazz (which makes sense given how many London nuum-ists had soul 'n' jazzfunk backgrounds before getting pulled into acieed and rave). But its strikes me as a flavor not a structuration element within the music because it is almost always about certain kinds of chord-changes, melodic moods (languid, blue, serene etc) and textures (Rhodes piano, 70s synth, double-bass), hardly ever about improvisation or any of the actual structuration principles around which jazz itself is organized.

Another important aspect of the major structuration elements of nuum music is that these don't just drive the music's evolution, they are what grab the attention of listeners outside the scene. Ear-catching and stridently innovative, they are the "rally call," the "energy signal" pulling outsiders into the scene. They are recruiting devices: centripetalism in full effect. Lots of hip hop fans were drawn to jungle by the radically intensified deployment of breakbeats; others were attracted by the futuristic mutation of reggae bass. I daresay some people found jungle more palatable when it came coated with jazzual flava, but I doubt very much that you'd stick around unless you were held by the genre's core principles. After all, there's so many other places to get your jazzy hit.

Another way of looking at flava versus structure: flesh and bones.

"Flesh" is all the prettifying stuff in this music, the melodic and texturally decorative elements that can be draped around the skeleton of rhythm and bass. As I suggested above, these tend to be both centrifugal (stretching out beyond the nuum) and residual (linked to more traditional forms of music). The structuration features are the emergent forces, the cutting edges that keep pushing the genre away from the rest of the genrescape, the engine that drives the genre/scene full-tilt into "the future".

Covered in "flesh", the music is certainly more attractive. But the music can exist without this patina of palatability. There are tracks all through the nuum tradition that are just bones (Roni Size & DJ Die's "Timestretch") or bones with just a tiny ribbon of flava-flesh (Size & Die's "Music Box"). Without bones, the flesh-matter falls on the floor (fails on the [dance]floor), a messy mass of non-functional decorative matter. It's the bones that hold a track together and that slot it into the continuum, that make it "mixable as well as music" (Goldie).

Now on to part two: how does centripetal versus centrifugal play out in terms of different approaches to writing about dance music?

A centrifugal slant is oriented towards the exceptional; it's attentive to biographical quirks of a musician's listening habits, a DJ or producer's background before they entered the nuum, and so forth. It downplays those areas of intersection between a musician's output and the generic aspects of the scene. Auteur theory, essentially.

Plucking an example out of thin air, let's look at the case of El-B.

El-B has a jazzy background. He listens to samba non-stop in his spare time. He's rubbed shoulders with a lot of non-nuum people.

If you're fascinated by El-B in a sort of fanboy obsessive way, the samba thing is an engrossing morsel of data. If you've got your eye on the larger picture, though, what's really relevant is the series of records El-B made with Noodles as Groove Chronicles and the elegant (if somewhat over-rated) body of work he did as a solo artist and remixer. Listening to The Roots of El-B compilation, I can't hear much in the way of a samba influence. Even if there was a prominent samba influence in El-B's trackology, this would only matter from a centripetal perspective if his music had served as a conduit for samba into 2step or dubstep.

Even "jazz" has a fairly minimal presence in El-B's oevure: in typical nuum style, it's there as a tinge or ambient tint, rather than jazz-as-process. Okay, there's a long, languid stretch of horn playing (more than a riff but slightly less than a solo) on Groove Chronicles's marvellous "Stone Cold". But it can't be claimed that this track sparked a massive fad for jazzy 2step.

What's significant, from the non-fanboy/non-auteurist/centripetal perspective, is where El-B's tracks align with 2step and contribute to a provisional definition of state-of-the-art (i.e. for that season, since the music is always moving on). In the case of "Stone Cold" that place of alignment is the sublime vocal science applied to Aaliyah's vocal from "One In A Million" . This is a paradigm and paragon of what I talked about in Liverpool: the nuum's flair for creating a new song out of another song, for finding or creating an entirely different emotional mood using elements of a vocal performance.

A centripetal approach would also be interested in what it was that made those El-B/Ghost twelves so seminal, such a fetishised foundation for dubsteppers.

It's always the intersection between the individual producer's path and the genre/scene that matters: the transfers of ideas and vibe that run both ways simultaneously; the play between genricity and signature (in scenius conditions, the signature is always necessarily going to be somewhat cramped).

For sure, there are a million stories in the naked jungle (the naked garage, the naked grime, the naked dubstep, etc). Being an Omni Trio fanboy, it's fascinating to me that Rob Haigh was once deeply involved in the same scene as Nurse with Wound, doing avant-funk in The Truth Club and then solo records in a piano meditative mode not far from Harold Budd. But what really matters is that Rob Haigh was swept up in the currents of hardcore. He responded to the rally call, the summons of breakbeat science at its emergent stage and abandoned the housey 4/4 beat he'd been initially toying with (after hearing breakbeat hardcore, "there was no going back" are his words). You can auteurise Rob Haigh (I've done it many a time, blogging, in fanboy chat). But his ultimate historical significance is being subsumed into the anonymous collective. Rob Haigh joins in. He enters the game and ups the ante with every release. But unlike another faceless auteur and ally (Foul Play's Steve Gurley) he doesn't make the transition to UK garage, but instead sticks with the more cinematic tendency within drum'n'bass, which means that Haigh and the nuum go their separate ways eventually. In his nuum-phase output, his biographic/music-career past flickers insistently in the form of the piano lick/plinky timbre that is his signature; it's the only thing that connects him to those Eighties solo albums and also the solo album from last year he put out after retiring the Omni Trio name. But there is nothing in his pre-rave musical prehistory that can really account for his prodigious gifts as breakbeat scientist. He found his true calling as a musician by becoming a cog in the machinery of scenius.

There many other examples of key nuum figures with unusual pasts. It's interesting that Goldie hung with Nellee Hooper and Howie B and that whole Stussy/uk hip hop crew in the years before he saw the light at Rage. But his story--his glory--began when he fell into lockstep with Fabio & Grooverider & Kemistry & Storm while simultaneously being absorbed into a sort of micro-scenius, the Reinforced crew (all his Rufige Cru classics were made in collaboration with 4 Hero's Marcus and a mysterious guy called DJ Freebase). And we all know what happened to Goldie when he became disconnected from the nuum....

A centripetally-minded approach is not primarily interested in the biographical arc of the artists, their pre-HCC-history. It's less concerned with how they got there than with what they did when they got there. Above all it's interested in "there" itself--what it is, how it came to be, where it's going.

This approach is even less interested in semi-famous visitors to "there", people who pop their heads round the door but don't leave anything behind, don't contribute in any way. Its attention is focused on that majority of people who define their identity through the scene: the headstrong ardkore, the junglists, the garagists, the grimesters, etc etc. In my experience. we're talking upwards of 90 percent of the people in attendance at any given rave or club. It's these people who create the vibe; it's their collective will that drives the scene.

These two approaches to writing about dance music have their ideal formats.

The centripetal slant reaches its height with the thinkpiece. (Second best would be the compilation review, or the reported scene piece so long as it was a done with an eye to broad contours as well details, had a sense of the larger stakes and risked big conclusions).

The centrifugal approach excels at the single artist profile, which suits its attraction to the idiosyncratic, the biographic quirk. The problem with sticking to this approach alone is that you end up with a lot of lines that transect the central arena of the scene/sound. Nobody lives entirely within its space. Musicians, if you put a mic in front of them, will always seek to emphasise their individuality, what sets them apart. Almost no musician wants to focus on what's generic about their music. So Photek, for instance, talked plenty about Detroit, but not about having made "Let It Shine" under the name Origination, a gloriously generic minor classic of hardcore that bears no discernible trace of Detroit but plenty of that '92nutt-E vibe.

The thinkpiece and the single artist profile both have value. I've done both. To an extent centripetal analysis depends on material generated by centrifugally-focused work; this generates the matter out of which the larger patterns can be discerned.

But to my mind the centripetal approach takes primacy. It seems to be in tune with the spirit of the nuum (and dance culture in general?) since it is in alignment with the herding/flocking/swarming instincts that create larger unities, all those forces that drive people towards the hard core of a sound/scene. It is implicitly opposed to disparateness and entropy. Its logic is the rave logic of "come together", "calling all the people", "everybody in the place".

Centrifugal

1/ proceeding or acting in a direction away from a center or axis
2/ tending away from centralization : SEPARATIST

Centripetal

1/ proceeding or acting in a direction toward a center or axis
2/ tending toward centralization : UNIFYING

2 comments:

Keith said...

I'd replace "Mentasm-stab" with a more general "stab/staccato riff". "Mentasm" refers to the timbre of the riffs so it's merely a flava, but synth stabs, plinky riffs, bass boings, xylophones, pizzicato strings etc are structural. They were huge in hardcore, faded in jungle a bit (but there are string stabs in Renegade Snares, and maybe the piano could be included too), resurged in 2step, and then were a key component of the grime sound. To begin with, in I Luv U/Eskimo/Creeper/Pulse X/Oi, the "stab/staccato riff" element was indistinguishable from "bass science" but then the riffs became treblier in Skepta and Terror Danjah's work.

And stabs still survive today in funky - in the strings and xylophone in Crazy Cousinz' 'Inflation' and in the rave riffs in Geeneus's 'As I' and Roska's 'Feeline'.

Keith said...

When I said "synth stabs, plinky riffs, bass boings, xylophones, pizzicato strings etc are structural" I mean the rhythmic character that they all share rather than these particular sounds.