THE NUUM AND ITS DISCONTENTS, #4
PARTY, POLITICAL / PARTLY POLITICAL
"Power" was where I left off last time…
I've been trying to think of a more suitable analogy for the hardcore continuum than "Australia". Some sort of "actually existing entity" that's historical rather than geographical; something of real world-historical heft that lasted for a substantial duration before crumbling away and leaving barely a trace of itself… Then it struck me: the political party. History is full of political organizations that were massively consequential for a period but then gradually disintegrated as demographics shifted and the economy transformed, causing the various interest groups and social alliances that held the party together to dissolve and form into new clusters.
In mid-19th Century America there was the American Party (a nativist, anti-immigration party). Later that century there was the Populists, a major political force who threw their weight behind Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan in the landmark election of 1896, but in vain. I'm sure there are some U.K. examples. Political parties of this kind may never get hold of the reins of government, but they represent hugely significant mobilizations of energy---donations, volunteers, political capital, powerful backers. They hold assemblies, draw up manifestos, campaign, and they exert pressure by their existence on other, more successful parties that affect their electoral strategy and sometimes what happens at a legislative or governmental level. But in the end these parties crumble away leaving nothing but yellowing historical documents.
So too with the nuum… one day all that will be left of it will be… records.
I got quite taken with this idea of the nuum as a political party and in semi-whimsical fashion tried to map out its lifetime in terms of electoral struggle *… Hardcore 91/92 as a landslide victory over chartpop; jungle, a sharp turn to the left, resulting in years of exile, despite promising by-election results (Timeless; Logical Progression; a Mercury for New Forms); 2step, tacking back to the pop centre, embracing song and sexy midtempo grooves, resulting in a landslide return to chart power circa 1999-2001; grime, another swing back to uncompromised militancy, looked for a while like it could win power on its own terms but….
I came up with this better-than-Australia analogy thanks to Jeremy Gilbert's contribution to the UEL seminar: for me the most thought-provoking intervention, because the least expected. See I kinda guessed what the other angles would be, having seen the advance blogging, FACT articles and 1200 word letters to The Wire. I also somehow sensed Kodwo & Kode would deal with the nuum…. by changing the subject, talking about something else altogether! (Is that a tactic they got from Sun Tzu? ;) ). But Jeremy's critique came completely out of left-field. His argument was that, as glorious and mighty as the nuum had been as a musical force, it could equally be seen as a series of "failed politicisations": missed opportunities to translate the multiracial unity, localised collective energy and "sense of purpose" that the music mobilized into anything constructive.
I felt the sting of this rebuke and recognized its pertinence even as a gut-level, knee-jerk response--"come off it!"--kicked in. Seriously, could this ever really have happened? Struggle organized at the site of the means of entertainment -- dream on, John!
There's two moments when this kind of politicisation seems to have been faintly plausible: jungle and grime. Both had powerful currents of anti-systemic awareness, seethed with paranoia and rage that it's just conceivable could have been tapped, channeled, brought to mature ideological consciousness. But jungle was still partially mired in the drugginess and dissipation of rave; it was waking up from the Dream to face harsh reality, perhaps, but unlikely to embrace anything that smacked of didacticism or worthiness. The scene was fueled by the anarcho-capitalist energies of fiercely competitive rivalry, and there was also a shady undertow of crime… All in all, its impulses were as close to anti-social as proto-socialist.
Grime, a movement of inner city youth literally finding their voices, seems to have more potential than jungle, whose moments of consciousness were largely restricted to roots reggae samples like "alla the youth shall witness the day that Babylon shall fall". But I can hardly recall any conscious rhymes in grime. One stands out in the memory for being so unusual: a freestyle on a tape someone mailed me and which I titled "Black Man Freestyle" because of its roll-call salute to black icons (one line went something like "Biggie 'n' Tupac two powerful black men")(I think it was by Durty Goodz). Grime did have its positive side, but it was invariably couched in that hyper-individualist, chase-your-dreams, work-hard-you-WILL-make-it mold… pure American ideology in other words… inspiring and poignant with tunes like "Chosen One" , but a long way from collectivism. Far more often you got the opposite: a reveling in socially destructive negativity. Factor in the often rancorous rivalry between crews, the currents of gangsta-bling false consciousness, the 1000-to-1 stacked-odds-against dreams of crossover fame and privatized salvation… It all agitated against a political perspective. The best grime could offer was what Martin Clark neatly dubbed a "reflectist" approach---better than escapism, but resigned to a reality believed to be impregnable to any attempts at changing it.
So my initial response to Jeremy's critique was "let's be realistic, this was always going to be outside the bounds of the possible, and politics is the art of the possible, right".
Then again, as Mark K-Punk pointed out, to say that is to acquiesce to the logic of capitalist realism.
How could it have gone down differently? What were the potentials that were allowed to remain dormant? There were figures in the early days of the nuum who were quite political--Shut Up and Dance, Rebel MC/Conquering Lion/Congo Natty/Tribe Of Issachar, Kemet Crew. Jeremy mentioned Exodus, the sound system organization in Luton, who threw illegal raves but then moved into activism and community work, setting up a youth centre, getting embroiled in local political struggles, becoming targeted and persecuted by local authorities and the police. I'd never thought of them as part of the jungle scene particularly, although hearing Jeremy refer to them in those terms I flashed on that Hackney Festival in Clissold Park, going there in 1994 and hearing Exodus's system play a junglized version of Marley's "Exodus" (presumably their theme tune). But overall they were too peripheral to have an influence on jungle proper.
Why couldn't a pirate station in London have become an Exodus-like force, though--a real community radio station? Pirate radio was a noticeable absence from the discussion at UEL; I wish I'd talked more about the pirates in Liverpool. After all, they got a whole chapter in Energy Flash, celebrated for staging a kind of "power surge" against consensus reality; the pirate MC's creativity and crucialness is bigged up in a kind of foreshadowing of grime. Pirate stations are already political simply by their hijacking of swathes of the FM spectrum, invading the mainstream media and asserting the existence of a subaltern class within the UK. Think also of the considerable organizational skill involved in keeping a pirate running. The pirate station as an engine fueled by volunteerism: DJs and MCs and support personnel not just giving their time and energy but actual money, weekly or monthly dues to keep the station on air.
Pirate radio in other countries is as often, or more often, political as it is about music. In America, the sense I get is that most pirates are short-range broadcasters of left-wing counter-propaganda. I think as always of Radio Alice in Bologna during the anarcho-communist turbulence of the late Seventies, memorably celebrated by Felix Guattari.
In Britain, though, it's always been music that's almost entirely been the raison d'etre of radio piracy, give or take the occasional pirate set up during a strike… from the Sixties beat music and psychedelia beamed into the mainland by the off-shore stations, to the Radio One-neglected black music output of the Eighties tower block pirates (servicing a marginalised community), to the acieed-and-after stations that kept the nuum massives locked on. That emphasis--music taking precedence over politics--seems to encapsulate the role that music has played in Britain: a deflection of radical energy from its proper target, revolutionary impulses and the appetite for change fatally aestheticized.
Pirate radio is where the idea of "underground" in the musical sense shades closest to "underground" in the political sense. (They have also at times been where "underground" shades into "underworld", in the criminal sense). The operations involved in operating a pirate station--reconnaissance, staking out locations, trip wires, maneuvers and raids done under cover of night, dodging enemy patrols--take on a paramilitary or urban guerrilla air. Pirates have been and continue to be treated as enemies of the state. This sort of quasi-militarism runs through much of the nuum: the idea of being a soldier, of the ad break as a "pause for the cause". But for all the antagonism towards the police, the gleeful apocalyptic anticipation of Babylon's fall… the nuum has primarily and ultimately been an aesthetic opposition party. Its objection to the corporate mainstream has not been anti-capitalist but because it believed that major labels represent dilution and blandness, they move too slow to do justice to the protean turnover of the music.
But then, if it was always just about the music, how is it even thinkable for Jeremy to highlight this short fall in potential? What is it that makes it possible for him to pose this issue of the nuum as a series of failed politicisations?
The power that anyone felt, anyone who was there--meaning 1992, or 1994, or 2002--any year where a new phase of the nuum kicked off.
The power in the music **, at once purely sonic and yet emanating from outside it, passing through the music from the world of the Real and the Social, and going back out there, spilling the bounds of music as a segmented-off category.
I'm thinking of the electrifying sample that kicks off DJ Crystl's "Warp Drive"--"feel the power". (Apparently from the movie The Dark Crystal). The power is the breakbeat--which at the time "Warp Drive" was getting heavy play on the pirates seemed just about the most jagged and mashed slice of breakbeat science yet unleashed upon the world. It feels like a sculpted riot, a paroxysmic portent of social collapse. If I recall right, on "Warp Drive" Crystl was inspired by the ominous humming drone and beats-and-bass minimalism of Doc Scott's "Here Comes The Drumz," a track which samples Public Enemy, the original "fast rap" group so inspiring to the Brit B-boys who would build ardkore from the ground up ***.
There was a feeling this music gave off, not unlike the forcefield aura emitted by "Rebel Without A Pause" and "Bring the Noise" and "Welcome to the Terrordome", a feeling that this was both the ultimate dance music and much more than dance music. I think of Disco and the Halfway to Discontent, the album by Cornershop alter-ego Clinton (whose name--George or Bill?--further plays on the ambiguity of party-hard and party-political). I recall also the sleevenote on Rufige Kru's Ghosts of My Life EP, Goldie writing, "For those who don't quite understand, 'Ghosts' isn't about 'Disco'… It's about life and my experience, The memories, the haunts, the people, the places. All of us have ghosts in our lives." Both these inflections--the idea of a politicized party music, and of artcore, dance music that's both experimental and expressive--are claiming that there's more going on here that just celebration and letting off steam, the temporary utopia of weekenderism.
What was this power in the music, amorphous and yet real like a punch to your gut? It evoked forward-motion, violence given focus and discipline. The feeling of being in the vanguard, in both the artistic and military senses. In other words, the same "militant modernism" recently invoked by Owen Hatherley. Modernism, in its early 20th Century prime, almost always burst the enclosure of Art to take up one form or other of political commitment -- mostly (not always) left-wing, which in those days usually meant Communist.
I think of the hardcore continuum as a flashback to--or unscheduled recrudescence within popular culture of--modernism. But with a muffled or absent sense of the imperative felt by its High Art precursors that art had to escape the category of the purely aesthetic and spill out into the world if it was to truly realise itself. Or as Adorno put it, "in order for the work of art to be purely and fully a work of art, it must be more than a work of art."
You could see rave as a whole, and the nuum in particular, as modernism's last stand, or unexpected comeback, long after the ideals of modernism had been abandoned, eroded, questioned, everywhere else (including in pop music). Various factors enabled the nuum to evade the general drift towards postmodernism (factors perhaps shared by other black musics such as hip hop and dancehall). Amazingly it was able to evade the blight of postmodernity (irony, referentiality, citational aesthetics) even as it embraced and explored to the hilt the potential of what would on the surface seem to be the ultimate postmodern sound-machine, the sampler.
Miraculously holding pomo at bay, the nuum preserved within itself, within its own partially cordoned off space, the heightened temporality of peak-era modernism: a sensation of hurtling into the future. Like modernism before it, the nuum propelled itself headlong thanks to an internal temporal scheme of continual rupturing; it kept breaking with itself, a reactive dialectic that pushed it ever FWD. As a result it qualifies as one of those "steadily fewer" examples of "combative, collective movements of innovation" (Perry Anderson) that managed to withstand the onset of postmodernity and its culture-pervasive sensibility of eclectism, historicism, and cosmopolitanism.
"Pulp Modernism" is how K-punk classes this renegade aesthetic. With my more Subcultural Studies bent, I prefer the term "Street Modernism". But we're basically talking about the same thing.
According to Fredric Jameson, what defines the modernist artwork is a relationship to time. It enacts the break with the past forms of art within itself. "The interiorization of the narrative [of modernity/modernism]…" becomes an integral element of the artwork's fundamental structure. "The act of restructuration is seized and arrested as in some filmic freeze-frame" such that the modernist work "encapsulates and eternalizes the process as a whole."
What could that mean in music? Precisely a genre that involved a kind of suspended clash of sampling/digital processing with the analogue/hand-played, such that the uncanny time-warping of digital technique coexists with and permeates the hands-on, real-time musicianship. Thus breakbeat science captures the moment of superhumanisation, the funk of flesh-and-blood drumming (just eight seconds of G. Coleman's life-force from "Amen, My Brother") mutating into something beyond itself. Likewise with vocal science. Jameson, again: "the older technique or content must somehow subsist within the work as what is cancelled or overwritten, modified, inverted or negated, in order for us to feel the force, in the present, of what is alleged to have once been an innovation." The shock of the new, eternalized.
People regularly refer to Plato's wary conception of music as inherently subversive, his idea that music in its very essence is a threat to social stability, and therefore something the state needs to control tightly. Actually what he wrote is slightly more complicated , and even more interesting, in the present context. In the imaginary philosophical dialogues of The Republic, speaking through the historically real but here fictionalized figure of Socrates, Plato warns that "the attention of our rulers should be directed so that music and gymnastics [dancing, presumably?] be preserved in their original form… any musical innovation is full of danger to the whole State, and ought to be prohibited... For the modes of music are never disturbed without unsettling of the most fundamental political and social conventions."
Could that be true? I don't know, it seems far-fetched, at this remote vantage point. It's almost a struggle to remember that this, precisely, was the affective sensation generated by this music, in its various heydays. The shockwaves of the beats and bass passing through your body seemed to herald equivalent tremors passing through the body politic. That must be the promise in the music that Jeremy is responding to with his question about the nuum as a series of failed politicisations.
But if the power was really in the music, intrinsic to it, what kept it from spilling out into the wider world, boundless and unstoppable? What made it in the end a narrowcast transmission? I will return to speculate about this and other mysteries in my final reflection.
* is this a sort of reverse Carmodyism?
** Jeremy tells me that the next book he plans to write is actually titled Music is Power is Music
*** odd that in writing about submerged politics within jungle I should happen to fasten on two producers who are white but could be seen, and were heard as, "culturally black"... that fact in itself could and should be counted as a significant political achievement on the part of the nuum