Friday, May 15, 2009

THE NUUM AND ITS DISCONTENTS, # 3
"WOT U CALL IT?" versus "THIS IS WOT WE CALL IT!"



So I was talking before about the importance of scene, about how it gets neglected in favour of talk about genre.

Now there's this bloke who has an uncontrollable antipathy to my writing; imagine Tourette's syndrome if the condition was only triggered by one person, it's almost comic to behold. In derisive response to my infamous WonKy blogpost, he declared that W***y was

"not a scene, barely a genre."

Now this chap was hardly looking to give me ammunition in my arguments, so I give the remark credence. And anyway it fits with what the W's most theoretically sophisticated champions have been saying is cool and significant and new about it. They pretty much say that not being a scene and barely being a genre is the actual central point of W***y.

When I say theoretically sophisticated advocates, I'm basically talking about Alex Splintering Bone Ashes aka Gek-Opel, who conveniently is one of the few speakers at the UEL Hardcore Continuum Conference to post his talk on his blog.

The talk is a development of the line pursued in blog posts from earlier in the year. In those posts and in the recent talk, there is an invocation of principles of non-rigidity and boundary-lessness and drift, of lines of connection that cut across genre borders and geography. The valorized and libidinised terms in his talk are words like "crossing", "flexible", "transnational", "not a box… but operates between boxes", "liquidation" (did he mean to write "liquefaction"?) and above all the hot sexy new concept "transversal". The negative, yuk-yuk terms are "solidify", "sedimentation", "codified", et al. Now I don't want to say this is just a resurgence of ye olde Nineties talk about deterritorialisation, fluidity, connectivity, nomadism, etc etc. Still they do feel pretty close to some ideas that I contested back in 1998 in Energy Flash, in the process of which I formulated some tenets about dance music that I still feel hold:

* "generic" is not a negative in dance music: on the contrary, it's a measure of functionality (for the deejay, the mix), and a reinforcer of vibe and identity (for the scene)

* geographic location is not a constraint but a source of strength and scenic identity

* scenius is a concentration of power and energy; it consistently gets better results (in the sense of fiercer, more full-on vibes and weirder, more innovative music) than the post-everything transgeneric omnivores.

W***ky is defined by its dissolution, evasion, and transcendence of genre constraints and scenic location. Its shape-shifting slipperiness eludes the net of the nuum model. Alex says the nuum is "inadequate" to wonky. Well, I'd prefer to put it the other way around, naturally! But basically we agree! It makes no sense to squeeze this octagonal peg into a square hole. Any genre-not-genre that includes Flying Lotus, glitch-hop from California, can only have a tenuous connection to the hardcore continuum.

Now that is emphatically NOT a black mark against W***y. As I've said on many occasions (people steadfastly refuse to absorb this information, because it's not in their interests to) I like some of the music labeled W***y rather a lot. Long before this nonsense started I said some highly appreciative things about Neil Landstrumm
and about Zomby. The latter featured in last year's faves while Landstrumm featured in my 2008 and 2007 faves . Zomby, some of you may remember, was also paid a high compliment in the form of me imagining there was a correlation between his trippy, dislocated grooves and extreme drug states. (You thought that was derogatory? I'm the chap who wrote Energy Flash, named after a tune that's named after a drug-rush and that features a voice going "acid… ecstasy"! The entire bloody book is a paean to the drugs/music/technology interface!). Joker's done some excellent stuff; FlyLo have their moments. I can live without the other Dilla epigones. But the fact is, the nuum and the W only have a slight overlap, which is Hyperdub, pretty much.

What's curious is the slippage in people's arguments where the tenuousness of connection to the nuum migrates into the nuum itself, so that it's the nuum that becomes tenuous as a concept! At the extreme, in some minds, that tenuousness seeps backwards through history and undoes the links between genres that anyone with an ounce of sense--anyone who was there--experienced in real-time.

The most interesting move in Alex's argument--the new bit in his talk--is the "Wot U Call It Moment" concept. He acknowledges that he's not the first to talk about the "Wot U Call it Moment" (that was Paul Autonomic, while others, including myself, have also addressed this syndrome of semantic indeterminacy in grime and in earlier nuum phases). But Alex deploys it in typically provocative and thought-provoking fashion, saying that the phase just before Wot U Call It is when the most interesting music happens, because it is protean, or even protozoan, has to yet to become codified as a new genre. He argues that W***y freeze-frames that moment, hovers in the pre-nominalist phase.

Would it be churlish of me to point out that he would never even have had this phrase Wot U Call It to play with without the incredible culturally generative power of the nuum?

Would it be cheeky of me to suggest that perhaps, taking a grander time-scale, the entire history of the nuum to date has been one long Wot U Call It Moment?

Across its timespan, the issue of what to call this music has come up repeatedly, because the music's frenetic rate of stylistic mutation has obsolesced the previous genre term over and over again.

The nuum as macrogenre could be conceived as a possibility space* for genres to solidify and then rapidly undergo dissolution. (C.f. postpunk). Wot U Call It then is not so much a recurrent moment of semantic "crisis", as an integral functioning element of the nuum, which re-fluxes itself as soon as things ossify.

Looking back over its almost-twenty year history, it can sometimes seem like there's been more phases of Wot U Call It than nomenclative stability.

Look at the period 1990-1993: in rapid succession, jostling and overlapping, you had terms like bleep, breakbeat house, hardcore house, hardcore techno, rave, ardkore, jungle house, jungle techno, jungalistic hardcore, hardcore junglism, darkside, darkcore, jungle, drum and bass. …

But even when a single genre term has achieved dominance--as with jungle--underneath that term roiled an ever-shifting semantic blur of sub-flavas: ragga jungle, rinse, jazzy, ambient, intelligent, artcore, hardstep, jump up, techstep, dolphin, nu-dark, liquid funk, probably lots I'm forgetting.

What's going on here is what Fredric Jameson called, in reference to early 20th Century modernism, "a process of unnaming and refiguration" .

But this is only half the story. Just as important as Wot U Call It is the This Is Wot We Call It moment. The two phases are welded together, inseparable. And when a name does get settled on, it's like a sudden power surge. Popular will condenses around the new name and it has a powerful centripetal effect. Suddenly the massive has an identity, junglists or whatever. (See Tribe of Isaachar's "Junglist").

A name is also crucial in terms of having any impact in the world beyond the scene, any traction in the media or mainstream record industry. That's by the by, perhaps; a downside, some would argue, the prequel to formularization and commercialization; a form of self-branding and thus capitulation to marketing culture. But even on the underground level there is value to tribal identity being crystallized in a new scene/genre name. It's identity politics; in the case of jungle, I'd say it was literally the sign of the emergence of a new post-racial race, a people.

In the Noughties there seems to have been a discernible ebbing in the nominalist mania that characterized the preceding decade. The fact that grime's name has just stuck as the genre moniker, that there's been no convulsion within the scene that demanded new coinages, suggests a degree of homeostasis. The violently lurching oscillations that convulsed the macrogenre through the Nineties have evened out into a steady-state pattern (perhaps because the initial massive jolt of Ecstasy culture, the original "energy flash" hypercharging the system, wore off long ago).

Funky house seems indicative: here it's almost like the scene couldn't be arsed to come up with its own name but took on a second-hand one laden with prior association and lameness. The "house" has gone now but "funky" too is pretty unevocative and weak. (Misleading too, sez Dr Paul Gilroy, who's in remarkable concurrence with me about the sound: the "small island rapture" of soca, spot on, Doc!).

And then wonky itself--a name with a couple of prior owners, quirked-out pop and mindbent techno. (It's also over-coded with a drug meaning that almost invites misunderstanding).

But let me reiterate: I'm not "dismissing" W***y as music. What I am doing is raising a question. If this music is--as its advocates insist--"not a scene, barely a genre"--and this is the new paradigm for dance music, it is worth considering the implications of what would then be an epochal shift, the closing of one chapter and the opening of another. Is it possible for a not-scene and barely-genre to achieve the level of impact and sociocultural traction that marked earlier dance subcultures? (Including those outside the nuum lineage, from gabba to trance to acieed back in 88 to whatever). W***y, if its theorization is accurate, seems to be not only on the side of the centrifugal but to enshrine centrifugality as its principal virtue.

Perhaps the "bye bye nuum" contingent are right. In the ever more webbed and post-geographical future that we've already entered and are moving deeper into by the day, it could well be that music will be about "flavours" or modalities that drift transversally across the global infosphere, liberated not just from the confines of space but of time too (zigzagging across the archival space of music history… a kind of day-glo hauntology, a hauntology without ghosts or yearning?). In these new conditions, it seems unlikely that the concentrations of focused energy that characterized the era of scenes and genres will occur. Will we ever witness again anything with that kind of mobilizing power?

"Power" is a subject I'll return in my next reflection.


* Footnote: I think the paragraph below is the first time I used the concept of "possibility space," although it's phrased as "permutation space", for the echo of "mutation". From my Faves of 1999 Round-Up, it's a celebration of 2step Garage as a machine for inventing micro-genres (some as small as a single track).

"In the tradition of hardcore and jungle before it, London's garage
scene works as a gigantic laboratory, a permutation space where new hyphenated hybrids and creole micro-genres flicker into life for a few months or even just weeks, then disappear: speed garage, slow jungle, ska-house, acid swingbeat, hyper-funk, breakbeat garage, disco-ragga, grunge dub, riddim & blues,
electro-gamelan, divas-in-the-echo-chamber, crack house, tech-2-step, quiet stormcore, sugarshack breakbeat funk, scrap iron dub, bleep garage,
wildstyle soul, lover's jump-up…"

4 comments:

Andrew TSKS said...

These last few posts have been very enlightening for me. As someone who is currently at least in the embryonic stages of putting together a book on the other kind of hardcore music--the mostly American subgenre of punk rock--and specifically its growth and experimentation in the 90s, these entries have really helped me crystallize my thoughts about a lot of development, both in the music and the scene. Despite having lived through them, and maybe even because I lived through them, I often find myself lacking the ability to contextualize the evolutions that went on. Your thoughts here about hardcore dance music are helping me structure my own thoughts about hardcore punk as it existed over the last 20 years or so. If I ever do see my book project through to fruition (which, admittedly, is a big if), I wouldn't be surprised if these writings ended up informing the way I present my own thoughts. So hey, thanks for that.

Lee Manikk said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
PG-13 "Panther God" said...

Flying Lotus is a guy, not a group. Otherwise a very interesting read here!

PMX said...

All jokes aside, the echo chamber is a proper diva's worst enemy.

WOT U CALL IT!?

"Diva Dub"

Sounds as silly to me as the term "Dubstep" which just comes across to me as a lame and lazy approach to branding music which is more than capable of sustaining itself as a stylistically versatile and quite progressive cultural music-oriented movement.

And I have recently been re-energized by some of the sounds I've heard from the 'Dubstep' realm, but what attracts me now is the bizarre - dancefloor friendly - shift AWAY from the wobble wobble boom simplicity of it's recent past. I love the challenge of an already niche subculture rebelling against itself and the labels its inherently confined to;

I can best describe its effect on me akin to that of earlier Photek, Source Direct and some Reinforced guys like Paradox (so underrated!) or Leon Mar. It just begs of more respect or at least a more respectable -sounding nomenclature than a messy sandwich of DUB (duhhhh) and STEP (SPLAT!)...

Tangent under control, I present you with my own shtick concerning gun violence, bravado based on questionable-at-best skills pon the mic, and the trappings of any streetlife-oriented entertainment lifestyle.... Police enforce manditory repeat screenings of Paris Is Burning DVD.

- It's a great documentary!

- You'd have no Grime (per se) without House music!

- Gay culture has EVERYTHING to do with the earliest incarnations of House Music, which is Grime's great grandfather (grandmother?) so that's kinda weird, bruvv!

- Puerto Rican drag queens battling for supremecy on the catwalk/dancefloor sounds gay, but is VERY GANGSTA in its own funny way; Mafia-style 'families' were formed (for protection?), ensuring a system of quality control, branding and supply of product they were pushing (vogue!)

- It just hit me the other night that Paris Is Burning is just a fitting film to represent the nebulous system of niche music-based subcultures across time and space. Just think of your favorite badbwoy Shotta persona in the grime game at the moment - and then incorporate the drag queen/vogue element and you have yourself an interesting match.



Ch33rs from DC!
Thanks for the immense and thought-provoking analysis, as always...


PMX