Sunday, June 7, 2009

THE NUUM AND ITS DISCONTENTS, # 5

MASCULINE PRESSURE

or,

(REAP)PRAISING THE "HARD" IN HARDCORE



Quite often during hardcore continuum discourse there'll be an invocation of "the feminine"--as a depleted or suppressed quality in the music, and sometimes in the discourse about the music too. This deplorable deficit will prompt calls for an irrigation of fluidity to counteract the encroaching inflexibility, whether it's a stiffness and riffness afflicting a particular nuum genre, or the "ossification " [fnote1] syndrome caused by excessively rigorous theorizing.

Now the person invoking "the feminine" in these debates (if they're well-read they might even mention Helene Cixous's ecriture feminine) is always male, and not the least bit hesitant about recruiting "the feminine" to support their argument (generally aimed against some other male, an old fashioned iron fist wrapped in the velvet glove of quasi-feminism). Compare that with the way that few people nowadays would be sufficiently unaware to do a similar rhetorical move using "blackness": over time it has sunk in that few things are more undignified than two white guys squabbling over whose has the better understanding of/ relationship with musical "blackness." (I speak, wincing, as someone who has in the past been one of those two white guys). Despite this it's still permissible to do the inverse racism move and complain about an excess of "whiteness" in the music. Indeed nuum-discourse participants do this quite regularly, railing about particular subgenres that have gotten too "whiteboy" , which usually means too rocky/riffy, which in turn means too masculine/phallic. Taking us right back to all those invocations of "the feminine".

Now I did actually feel slightly self-conscious about invoking the Mighty Yin during my Liverpool talk--the passage on hypersoul/diva vocal science/"feminine pressure". As the paragraphs approached it suddenly felt awkward to be talking about this stuff in a room that contained a fair number of women: what would they think? But I ploughed ahead--had no choice, since those points were central to my argument, and furthermore were (as far as these things can be gauged) "true". There is a diva-fabulous, "feminine presha" undercurrent running through the nuum that every so often totally swamps the music (2step being the supreme example).

But in terms of my becoming intrigued by gender-coded discourse games [fnote2], the seeds of this essay go back a couple of months, when my interest in Caspa was sparked, having been startled by the vilification of the man and his music. All that incredibly vivid revulsion for wobble's mid-frequency blare as the sound of "someone jizzing in my face" and "bukkakestep"! All that anxiety about dance music degenerating into rock: "rigor mortis mid range shite… punching the ceiling and moshing rather than dancing… shouty soulless gack… big chunks of riff meat".

Here's a recent deployment of this kind of rhetoric, albeit calmer in tone: Louis Pattison spotlights as Guardian single of the week "Narst"/"Love Dub" by Cooly G (an actual woman! on Hyperdub!!).

"As dubstep begins to resemble, quite literally, a boy's club -- one that pongs of a pungent mix of spliff and locker rooms -- Hyperdub, the label behind the murky, underwater two-step of Burial, ups the ante once more… 'Love Dub' and its remix are a reminder of UK bass music's capacity to sooth and seduce, all gently massaging sub-bass, breathy vocals and woozy synth that collects like warm pools of sunlight."

Stop press: and here's another one, same newspaper, different writer, same rhetoric from scribe and artists alike (Bristol's new "purple" sound purveyors Joker, Guido, Gemmy--all men as it happens):

"There's a gender issue here, too: since the sexy vocals and pop sensibilities of garage disappeared, British club music has become dominated by bland masculinity. Guido says that is reflected on dancefloors: 'The low-end sounds carry the power, bass, and aggression, and the mids and highs carry the sexy melodies. Without the melodies, dubstep and grime clubs have lost the girls. But the girls get up and dance to our stuff'.... For too long, British dance music has been po-faced, masculine, drab...."

Stop Stop Press: in the big dubstepforum July 2009 discussion about wobble versus post-dubstep, one commenter referred to the low-frequency-oscillation riffs of wobble as "LFO rape":

"its not even the fact that the wobble is hated. Its just the LFO Rape I dont agree with.. My Defininition of LFO Rape... the process in which subject uses an LFO preset to create soul-less, machine music."

Stop Stop Stop Press: and still they come: in the second issue of Loops, Kev Kharas bigs up the in-touch-with-its-feminine-side aqua-step of Joy Orbison's "Hyph Mngo" versus the Swarzeneggerism of Coki's "Spongebob" ("a workout in thugstep cliche that womps along tediously doling out nuggies and farting the word 'generic' into air stale with dead sweat reek and 'roid fumes... pumped and solid to the extent that it leaves no room for any response other than a moody grimace and a flailing fist" followed by numerous references to the "generic thugstep" it spawned (Caspa, Rusko, etc), music "that only seems to make sense to moshing males with a heavy sadness in their loins".

Stop Stop Stop STOP press: and yet more--reviewing the Ikonika album in the Wire, Adam Harper sets up the familiar bogeyman of wobble a/k/a brostep: "at a time when what many hold to be dubstep has taken steroids and left London to conquer the world as the new Heavy Metal, rattling (almost exclusively) male students' bedrooms with its gargantuan sub-bass"

Stop Stop Stop STOP STOP press: and for once, here's a woman actually voicing this complaint, Ikonika herself, interviewed in FACT, says of wobble and the big room/big drop mentality: “I’m not into jumping about, moshpit kind of stuff.... I have played after some big headliners who’ve caused a moshpit, and you can smell the set... I dunno if I should say this, it’s pretty explicit, but from a girl’s point of view, whenever I hear really big wobble sets, I find it offensive. ‘Cause I’m picturing sex, and when these guys are playing big wobble sets it’s like coming on a girl’s face. And you’re reloading it, and you’re doing it again.”


Yes, the potent whiff of man-stench has been giving the custodians of dubstep the jitters recently. Is it going the way of drum 'n' bass post-1997, they worry? Actually what I hear, at least in potential, is something closer to slowed-down gabba. Complete with gabber-like cartoon bad-boy samples and puerile abjection/pulp horror yuk-yuks (track titles like "Diahorrea," "Putrid Creature," "Puking Over", "The Mong Song"). The handwringing dismay of the cognoscenti has a curiously déjà vu quality. Dubstep, six years into its existence, has become a hardcore, headstrong, having-it scene, with a following of punters and munters, not just pundits. Its original fans, scholars of the history of hardcore to a man, are repeating the exact same kind of attack lines the Balearics and house heads spat in 1991: ardkore as "the new heavy metal" for shirtless sweaty hoolies, "all the curve and swing has been squeezed out… all it seems to be about is boys, bass and bother".

At the time there was a counter-view: another Caspar (Pound, young boss of Rising High Records, RIP), proclaimed: "Hard as fuck! It's the rock of the future… The best thing about hardcore is that all the soul's been taken out. We’ve had 200 years of human element in music and it's about time for a change…. It's not about happiness, it's more aggressive, more intense."

Those words were uttered in early '92, the nuum's dawn (bliss twas to be alive and rushing your nut off). What Pound identified as an emergent force in the music--aggression, apocalyptic darkness, a soul-less mechanistic coldness--would prove to be a massive current within the hardcore continuum all the way through its existence. It's hardly ever gone away completely, and often it's flared up to completely take over the music.

Yet strangely it's become almost impermissible in recent years to say that what attracted you to this whole area of music was--in large part--its qualities of hardness and darkness, its ability to overpower and dominate the listener. In a peculiar twist, "macho" has replaced "poppy" (code for "girly") as the way cognoscenti diss(miss) things that aren't tasteful or "progressive" enough. As I noted in the Caspa column, people refer to the macho, noisy dubstep as "commercial".

Now all these gender-codings and "feminine pressure" moves [fnote3] would be irrelevant if they didn't have some correlation with what's going on within the scene itself. Handily corroborating what I'm addressing here is currently hot tune "Too Many Man", a grime/funky hybrid by Boy Better Know:

"We need some more girls in here/We need some more girls in here/There's too many man/Too many many man"

So at last we arrive at the crux: the lugubrious concept of the "sausage party", a social gathering where hardly any women are present. Jeremy Gilbert described the UEL seminar as the most male-dominated academic event he'd ever organized. I wasn't surprised to learn this, not in the least. In my second reflection I noted that "the majority of us appear to be boys, regrettably" and suggested "the reasons deserve further investigation". What follows is my attempt to probe that mystery.

First thing to note is that no one ever voluntarily and with foreknowledge goes to a sausage party. It's something you end up at inadvertently and discover with slowly mounting dismay. In the case of nuum-discourse, I don't believe women are excluded so much as they simply don't turn up. Some do, obviously, but the sexual imbalance is marked. Begging the question: if this music is so crucial, and the discussion about it so compelling, why don't we have something much closer to gender parity?

I'm not sure this is a nuum problem exclusively. It's probably even worse in some other areas of discussion about dance music--deep house snobs, Detroit techno purists. It's possibly a fairly uniform syndrome across the music nerdosphere. Even in the poptimist milieu--where the whole premise is "letting in and privileging the music of the teenage girl"--there's a rather high density of sausage. This doubtless relates to a common mode of engagement with music that cuts across genre divisions: competitive expertise, the drive to mastery and knowledge, curation, collecting/classifying, canon guardianship, taste and taxonomy battles, etc.

I can get weary of all that, like anyone. But I get equally weary when blokes go into auto-flagellation mode about their blokeishness (especially when the self-reproaches quickly subside and it's back to blokey business as usual). I don't believe that obsessiveness and hyper-seriousness are somehow discredited by this gender imbalance, that it reflects badly either on Obsession in a general sense or on the specific musical area being obsessed about, over-interpreted, etc. I think these activities have an intrinsic value. Nerdishness has some things going for it: knowledge, enthusiasm, the capacity to get carried away by ideas. I'm just curious why relatively few women are drawn to engage with this particular form of music in this particular mode.

One possibility, of course, is there is something about this music that has a particularly strong attraction to males, or to a particular subset of males.

Right up front it ought to be acknowledged that lots of the key moments of the nuum have been, if anything, hyper-masculine: ragga-jungle, techstep, grime, and certain strains of dubstep (early on, the colder, techno-y side of the music; more recently the rowdy wobble yobbery). (I'm trusting here that people will allow me to use the conventional codings of masculine and feminine in this essay for the purpose of argument--obviously I'm aware of their culturally constructed nature). There have been peak phases within the trajectory of the nuum that have only really been celebrate-able in terms of their hardness and aggression, through recourse to notions of music that tests the listener, to an ideology of the underground as anti-pop. Terms that are conventionally negative, that are unappealing in life and in entertainment--cold, severe, militaristic, machinic, emotionally armored, tense, dread-full--are valorized within this music culture. More than that: they're glamorized. You only have to look at the slanguage of praise generated within the scene itself: tracks or DJ sets that are slammin', kickin', tearin'…. deejays or MCs who smashed it, tore it up, killed, slew… music that is rude or ruff, sick or disgusting…

And then consider the sonic currents percolating all the way through the music's history. The gruff swagger of hip hop and dancehall reggae doesn't require elaboration, and in nuum history these flavours generally overpower or at least balance out the influence of house (diva vocals, groove, the disco tradition). But pushing things further to the yang, you have the fourth cornerstone of the nuum: hard techno [fnote4]. The "Dominator"/"Mentasm" sound of Belgium and Beltram… the clanking, mechanistic industrialism of Meng Syndicate and 80 Aum plus the harsher bleep exponents like XON and Forgemasters… the riffy-ness of Frank DeWulf and CJ Bolland… even the darker side of Detroit (early UR, Suburban Knight, Kevin Saunderson's Tronikhouse alter-ego) creeps in a bit… This strain of cold, punitive bombast, rooted partly in Electronic Body Music and Euro industrial, is something that resurfaces periodically: in the techstep brutalism of No U Turn and Dom & Roland and Renegade Hardware, in early grime and sub-lo, at various points in dubstep. Hell, there's some Human Resource-style sicknoize on "Mind Is A Gun" on the recent Newham Generals album!

So running parallel with the current of feminine pressure within the nuum there's an equally strong current of masculine pressure [fnote 5]. Crudely diagrammed, you can track a dialectic here, a pendulum-like oscillation, or (more frequent, actually) the fissile coexistence of opposites:

Yin / Yang
Pop / Anti-pop
Song / Track
Maximalist / Minimalist
Swing / Stiff
Cheesy / Dark
Sentimental / Cold
Groovy / Machinic
Human / Inhuman
Pulse / Riff


A point worth making at this juncture is that the yin terms are very much forces within the music. It's feminine pressure. What could be more formidable than the diva? I make this point because many who call for the nuum to get back in touch with its "feminine side" confuse that with a sort of aquatic androgyny, a metrosexual mildness. Hence the recurring error of the Dolphin Move, where the "logical progression" for this music is to make it sound more like Carl Craig or a Nu Groove B-side (something you can see with a lot of the wishy-washy, watery dubstep of recent years that converges with Basic Channel/Chain Reaction…. Don't get me wrong, that Martyn album is splendid home listening, but mash up a dancehall?). Or you'll get people bigging up deejays for mixing with slow blends and gradual builds rather than the wham-bang pander-to-the-massive style, with its orientation towards "the drop". But "true" nuum music is about the dynamic co-existence of equal but opposed forces (dark/light, minimal/ maximal, etc), rather than a Derek Smalls-like "fire + ice = lukewarm water" half-measure.

Looking back across the history of this music, it seems to me that even during those periods when you might say that fem-presha was ascendant (speed garage and 2step), the darker, harder undercurrent still lurked balefully within the slinky sexiness. Early UK Garage had tunes like "Gunman" and "Sound Bwoy Burial" (the raucous dancehall MC christens the track's genre-of-one as "ruffhouse"!), like "Cape Fear" and "Bad Boys Move In Silence". Even 2step--nuum at its slickest, most mature and melodic and sugarsweet--had its fair share of rudeboy MCs and dutty bass-2-dark. On one of 2step's most poptastic crossover hit ever--Truestepper's "Out of Your Mind"--Victoria Becks taunts: "this tune's gonna punish you".

So what I'm talking about is how the nuum (and dance music in general) has this secret side that's raucous and ruckus-oriented and, face it, rockist. And this is disavowed, even when it might have been the very thing that drew some of us into the music in the first place. Certainly in my case it was Beltram and Bolland and the Belgian bombast-blare that pulled me into rave, before I turned on to the breakbeat direction…. the mid-range riffage of what was then just called "techno" was the first time that I heard something coming out of the house music area that had the full-on bliss-attack and engulfing (over)power of MBV and other neo-psych bands I worshipped…. or rather it was the first thing since the original
acid house (another hard, cold, mechanistic music that had certain parallels with rock).

I don't think I am alone here. Some of us are pulled in by this rockist/testosterone-y element in the music and then later on veer away from it; our tastes evolve or we learn to think of it as less sophisticated or advanced or something.

Now I hasten to add that I'm not suggesting this kind of aggy, hard-as-hell stuff has no appeal to women. I was always surprised by how many girls were into the post-97 drum'n'bass, after the supposed defection of Womankind to speed garage; indeed one female friend of mine only got into D&B in a real heavy-duty fanatical way after I'd switched over to UK garage (but then she was from a kind of rocky, indie background). When you get female deejays in these seemingly macho-land genres like jungle or gabba, often they play it as hard or harder than the men. (I'm flashing on DJ Rap one time at the Paradise, scourging the audience with a set of ruthlessly stripped-down, hard-as-nails jungle, out-blasting the likes of Hype and Randall on the same bill). Or think of someone like Mary Ann Hobbs, who was into heavy metal and motorbikes before she became the first lady of dubstep.

Nonetheless, one has to say that a lot of this music--resorting to gender designation as conventionally understood, seen--it's quite… manly, isn't it? And it's not just about the sound of the music, it's about the imagery that surrounds it: the track titles… the artist names picked by producers, DJs, MCs… the samples used… There's a steady stream of masculine archetypes, of heroics and anti-heroics. The rude boy, the gangsta, the thug, the soldier… It's all very Clash, to be honest! Grime was the culmination of this funk-to-punk tendency within nuum music, and how right that the genre virtually begins with a song titled "'Oi!".

I'm going to seize the opportunity to talk at some length about grime here because it got somewhat neglected at Liverpool and in the subsequent discussions. In my case this was partly because it seemed so recent it almost didn't need to be accounted for, unlike the Nineties stuff. But grime is a totally crucial phase-shift within the nuum narrative: in some ways the most drastic transformation (from a dance/deejay oriented sound to a verbal/MC dominated culture) but undeniably continuum-ous from what came before (the flowering of rave/pirate MCing as a latent artform, the fact that the grime artists were all inspired by jungle MCs). Grime represented the remasculinisation of the music after 2step's girls-like-this shift. All the supple slinkiness of 2step rhythm was reversed, with cold, stiff beats that merged aspects of electro, ragga, even gabba. The sound-palette became vastly less "musical" in the conventionally understood sense (a marked diminishment in "played" feel; tonalities that are glacial, dry, thin, redolent of video games or ringtones). All this makes grime ideally suited for a discussion of the play of genderised terms within nuum music.

It's also overdue for me to grapple with grime again because the fact is I was as excited by that "moment"--from the summer of 2002 to the summer of 2005--as I was by jungle or 2step; as much of a believer. It's only the bruising failure of its push to crash-over (rather than cross-over) into chartpop that led to the emotional exhaustion with grime candidly recorded in the 2006 blogpost that Dan Hancox wheeled out at UEL and which he seems to almost take personally. I also eagerly grab the opportunity to discuss grime because I think it's one of the most potent arguments against the nuum-is-over case. The fact that grime has endured through the entire Noughties, that in crossover terms it's bigger than ever while the underground is healthy, as triumphantly noted in this piece by Man Like Dan
(which I could almost imagine as belated riposte to my 2006 blogpost!)… all that would seem to prove that the nuum remains relevant both as an actually living body of sonix/scenius and as a model that retains some purchase on current musical reality. So I'm delighted to direct the spotlight of my mind on grime once again.

And the first thing to say about grime is to acknowledge how much of its compelling aesthetic qualities and its sheer pleasure is related to the flexing of power and violence.

Let's look closely at two tracks that have claims to be absolute zeniths of grime both formally and in terms of a cultural moment rising to its peak:

"Pow (Forward)", by Lethal B featuring Fumin, D Double E, Nappa, Jamakabi, Neeko, Flow Dan, Ozzi B, Forcer, Demon and Hot Shot
which you can watch as a video here


and

"Destruction (VIP)" by Jammer featuring Wiley, D Double E, Kano and Durty Doogz
which you can listen to here

The title of "Pow" comes from comic book superhero violence--"Biff! Bang! Pow!" --but there's nothing very cartoon-like about the lyrics, which are at pains to convey the gritty specifics of their various threats:

Nappa promises:
"I'lllll....crack your skull
Leave you fucked up in a wheelchair
If you try to clash this evil brer"


Jamakabi describes how he's going to
"draw fi da metal
Not da gun, me draw for da belt buckle
I make a bigger boy feel so likkle
Just swing my belt round like a nun chuckle
Bus you head and make your blood start trickle
"

Neeko and Flow Dan both vow to cock back their steel and bun fire, with Flow Dan adding the grace note of
"Man I go step in a him face with my new Nikeys"

Then there's Demon's immortal verse:
"You don't wanna bring armshouse
I'll bring armshouse to your mums house
You don't wanna bring no beef
Bring some beef and lose some teeth"


"Destruction VIP", while more direct in its title, is less bloody in its verses, but does feature the bravura Wiley sequence where he dresses down a wannabe bad-boy, a fake-gangsta:
"I know Trouble
Trouble said he don't know you
I know Beef
Beef said he don't know you
I had War
And War said he don't know you
"

...and so on, through a long list of Personified Essences of Grime Reality… Crime, Street, Empty Belly, Robbery, .38, Hustler, Ghetto Life, Bad Boys… all of which Wiley's intimately familiar with. (Which leaves your typical middle class bloggerati grime-lover in a strange place, since he's unlikely to have made the acquaintance of any of these fine fellows).

Lyrics like this--boasts and threats; the verbal articulation of relationships of dominance and humiliation; invidious contrasts between the MC's street knowledge with the fronting of rival MCs, the MC as man of experience exposing the empty talk of mere boys--all this is standard business in grime. You could pluck a record at random almost and you'd likely as not find some variant. So here's "Bruzin" by Bruza featuring Footsie. Triple Threat and Shizzle:
"come on bruv let's ave it, let's war….
"bare left hooks to your jaw…
"to your bredrens you look poor/ there the reason you don't wanna war"
"bring bodily harm, leave you in a mess"
"we're bruising/against us, you're losing/we're the microphone ooligans/ with higher powers/we spit fire showers."


Even if grime words are taken as metaphorical, about verbal maiming, the use of rhyme skills to slay rival MCs… you'd have to say that grime was a gladiatorial art, each sixteen a flurry of verbal blows, cracking egos like skulls.

To quote Bruza's classic track about boy-men pretending to be tougher than they are, I'm "not convinced" by an argument that would propose grime could be reformed, that all it would take would be to get grime artists to drop the gun talk, the murking and feuding, etc, and spit about… other stuff. It's not just about the content. The form of the music is violence, or at least combat.

Take D Double E's performance on "Destruction". His words are usually riddled with descriptions of ultra-vivid violence, but here the lyrics are virtually inaudible. The violence is the delivery itself, the mangling and shredding of language. Here's how I described the first six bars in the Grime Primer for The Wire --"a gargoyle-like gibber closer to hieroglyphics than language… seemingly emanating from the same infrahuman zone Iggy plumbed on “Loose” and “TV Eye”.

I actually met D Double E in 2005, doing a feature on grime for Spin, and was as thrilled as if I'd met Iggy Pop. I was struck by the fact that he was this soft-spoken, dreamy guy with an astonishingly skinny frame, seemingly unlikely to hurt a fly, and yet his rapping is almost non-stop carnage. Here's some of his most famous and frequently recycled lines, which appear on the Terror Danjah tunes "Cock back" and "Frontline" [fnote6] and probably other places too:

"Think you're a big boy cos you got a beard/Bullets will make your face look weird"
"For what I just done/I could get years/Heart is cold and I got no fears/Shed no tears"
"Think you're a big boy cos you go gym/Bullets will cave your whole face in"
"Tip of the gun straight up your nostril and pull"
"Head get mangled and then dangled just like I wear my kangol"
"Who do you resemble?/Face looks fucked up like Michael"
"Never going to go away/Permanent scar"


But listening again to some of his other performances--"Signal", "Birds in the Sky"--what strikes me is the odd fusion of wimpiness and thuggishness. With its lack of definition and edges, his voice is actually weak ("seemingly battling multiple speech impediments" is how I described it in the Wire primer), but there's this sense of tremendous inner turbulence bubbling up through the delivery. (See also the feral gnashings, growls and roars that serve as "backing vocals" in tunes like "Not Convinced" and Flirta D's "Warpspeed"). This gives D Double's utterance an almost involuntary quality, a quality of possession or trance. Seeing Double live onstage in New York and later at the Rinse FM studio, both times I was reminded of Ian Curtis; Double stares sightlessly into the middle distances, makes these strange dainty carving and slicing gestures with his hand, which hovers by his chestbone like a hummingbird.

Some time ago, listening to A Guy Called Gerald's "28 Gun Bad Boy", I suddenly heard the breakbeats as a ballet of violence [fnote7]. Listening now to the jagged syncopations of D Double on "Destruction," to the "Pow" MCs spitting across and against the "Forward" riddim, to the growling distortions and mouth-manglings that transform all these MC's voices into slashes of pure texture ("sixteen bars, sixteen scars"), I started to hear grime rhyming as breakbeat science given voice. In another sense, grime is literally the verbalization of jungle's submerged "content" : society-as-warzone. In jungle that content was audio-allegorised as rhythm and bass and atmosphere, with occasional articulation in the form of samples about darkness or street knowledge. With grime, this became a lot more stark and in-your-face: the lyrical content, the delivery, the performative stance, are all about
mayhem style-ized.

Jungle and grime: martial art forms.

You're not feeling this music if you don't understand it viscerally as the violent assertion of self. Everybody knows this but it doesn't get talked about much because the implications don't bear thinking about too closely. You might start to become aware of uncomfortable stuff, like the way that the knowledge prized in our little subculture is so often related to being down with the minutiae of social destructiveness. E.g. youngers took the piss out of me a few years ago for taking my eye off the ball and missing the rise of the praise term "showa." What they were proud of was being au fait with slanguage derived from the shower of bullets rained down on their enemies by an infamously ruthless Jamaican gang! Another e.g.: a mini-debate triggered by my Caspa piece, where I'd talked about a double standard of black grime MCs acting thuggish on record being deemed cool whereas Caspa was considered both a lout and a poseur. Martin Blackdown effectively argued in defence of the double standard, saying that Caspa's Cockney shtick was all front whereas your grime youth were walking it like they talked it, and going on to cite various acts of real violence perpetrated by certain grime figures. What a fucked-up world where fake thuggery is worse than the genuine article! But not to be the kettle calling the pot black, I've verged on similar logic myself, e.g. semi-dissing dubstep by saying the reason it would always be somewhat lacking for me was related to the reasons why you would never hear anyone utter the words "police are locking off dubstep raves." Yet on some level that is simply true, and sometimes you have to say stuff like this however close to the bone it is. There has been a certain tension and menace at nuum-related raves that's inseparable from the vibe and from the very qualities of the music that make it so powerful.

Yet (no surprise here) I've never voluntarily been involved in violence in my life. The few times it's come calling, it's only been the pure adrenalin-rush of fear, plus dormant capacity left over from my schoolboy cross-country running, that's saved my skin. So why the attraction to music that is actually the opposite of how I live my life and to a large extent opposed to my values?

Of course, the kind of ruff-housing, second-person-directed hostility, megalomaniac energies present in grime are far from unique to it. Think of rap [fnote8] , metal, hardcore punk (and also, within dance music, gabba). Now, once again I don't want to underestimate here the female capacity for aggression, albeit more often of a non-physical sort. You only have to look at the behaviour of teenage girls towards each to see the fairer sex's flair for competitiveness, status games, verbal cruelty, and so on. Nonetheless it seems reasonable to generalize that there isn't quite the same intense attraction towards theatricalised violence in art and entertainment. I'm guessing that by and large women watch movies like The Godfather or Goodfellas (movies which I am incapable of not watching for the umpteenth time if they happen to be on TV) despite the violence, not because of it [fnote9].

I don't know if I'd go as far as saying men, myself included, enjoy watching violence. But there is a compulsion there that feels gender-specific. With this sort of movie it is probably similar to what goes on when you listen to gangsta rap: a dizzy-making double identification [fnote10] with the perpetrator and the victim simultaneously. Plus a pornographic aspect, seeing what should not be seen, what in fact (in our relatively orderly society) most of us don't ever get to see (thank God). But, to take another example, when I read Bill Buford's Among the Thugs, it was fairly obvious that I was not reading about the activities of these soccer hooligans entirely to inform myself about a peculiar subculture or to disapprove, but because there was a certain appalling thrill. Buford places his own voyeuristic/vicarious fascination for these brutal boors right up front, he becomes a particant-observer in fact and the narrative of the book shows him getting swept up in the mob rampages, leaving behind his civilised, literate self in a kind of tribal group-mind, and then taking the brunt of an almighty comeuppance (he's taught a lesson at the hands and truncheons and boots of riot police in Italy, if I recall right). That's the moral at the end of the story that retroactively washes clean the body of the book as a whole, justifying the prurient pleasure in ultraviolence the reader has taken. (I wonder how many female fans that book has?)

Sports itself, as opposed to sports fan hooliganism, offers another analogy, since a lot of sports are forms of aestheticized warfare. The more gladiatorial and war-like--boxing or team-based contact sports like American football and ice hockey--the greater the proportion of the audience are male, I think it would be fair to say.

So what is going on here? In the case of this discourse around grime and other nuum genres, as opposed to the composition of the subcultures themselves, it's a rather nerdy fraternity we're dealing with, by and large. I'm guessing, owing to the level of literacy and the general left-leaning bias, we are talking about a constituency that is pretty aware of feminist issues and therefore has some ambivalence about conventional notions of masculinity and gender, a degree of confusion about what it means to be a man in the 21st Century (a common predicament anyway in this era of the "kidult"). Through this music, though, we have access to dramas of strength and power, survivalist sharp-wittedness and prowess, that temporarily resolve--or rather, work through--or maybe just put in play--these doubts and confusions.

Now this is nothing new, actually. It's one of the oldest stories in popular culture: white, mostly middle class men working their identity issues out through an intensely felt, deeply confused, slightly problematic identification with black masculinity as manifested through music. It goes back at least as far as The Rolling Stones and John Mayall's Bluesbreakers. Probably a lot further back. This kind of projection towards black music may well be more than slightly problematic, but there's no doubt it's hugely significant as a historical phenomenon. As a syndrome it's something impossible to feel comfortable about, let alone affirm unreservedly, but equally it seems to have certain things going for it and be broadly preferable to the alternatives (the de fact apartheid/monoculturalism of indie-rock, for instance).

Nor is it, when looked at in the grander historical scheme, just about black masculinity in the "street soldier" sense as laid out in the Wiley verses on "Destruction". Not at all: there's a whole range of things that your white male has sought and found in black male musical expression, things that have filled in holes in their own culture or upbringing, that have provided a "way out" (especially in Britain, where the projection towards Black American music is especially intense). These things include:

-- an emotionalism that isn't "wet" or "weak" but powerful, a form of strength (soul)

-- worldly wisdom, life-tested toughness (blues, etc)

-- grace, elegance, gentleness, urbanity (softer soul, cooler jazz)

-- gnostic cool, cosmic suss (certain jazz, the boho styles of hip hop)

-- protest, spiritual-political critique, militant pride, purity, prophecy, preacher (conscious rap, roots reggae, etc)

-- exuberance, joie de vivre, sass, earthiness, vitality, energy, style (funk, etc)

And doubtless a bunch of other things too.

Running through all this stuff, the Bad Boy side of it and the Good Man side of it, is the fact that these forms of musical expression offer heroic images of masculinity (even when anti-heroic, as in the gangsta/Staggerlee/rudeboy mode). They are also quite often models of authority. That applies whether it's a Jay-Z or DMX or Clipse talking in worldly-wise, world-weary tones about the game, the paper chase, the things a man does to make it in this world, or whether it's James Brown in soul statesman mode, or Bob Marley as prophet, or the great reggae producers as sound-wizards, or Miles as dark magus… (See also the I Am the King thread running through black music pinpointed by me and Joy in The Sex Revolts.) If you're a left-leaning type then the idea of authority may well be discredited by its association with authoritarianism, etc. But in black music you can find images of authority and stature that aren't about being a cop or colonel, a priest or politician. Perhaps they are images of authority untarnished by actual real-world power, in a similar way that the violence in gangsta rap and grime is inoculated by the justification of its being true-to-life, it's given an alibi and a pass on account of oppression, inequality, racism, etc.

I'm thinking now of Chuck D, the way his commanding cadences and gravitas called on the traditions of black oratory, all those preachers who blurred religion and politics. In a 1991 interview with me, Chuck D described Public Enemy as being rap's "positive hardcore," as opposed to--and in conscious opposition to--the "negative hardcore" of gangsta. In some ways my last essay on the partly political nature of the nuum was about the failure of nuum musics to make the transition from negative hardcore to positive hardcore.

So what I'm playing with here is the idea of a history of white men looking to all these heroic/anti-heroic images of masculinity that run through black music… attracted to those images, inspired by them, confused by them… all at a time when nobody knows what being a man is [fnote11] , and where there aren't actually that many images of positive manhood in the mainstream culture. Well, you can find heroism in action movies and CGI thrill-porn pablum of every sort, but I don't think that provides the same function that earlier forms of mainstream culture did (hardboiled fiction, say, or the war film). [fnote12]

The MCs in jungle and garage often seemed to have an aura of authority, they were the hosts of the dance, the vibe controllers, with deep baritone voices, sonorous and commanding. With grime, you get that surrogate father aspect here and there, but mostly the vibe is boy-men, shriller and less poised than the UK garage MCs. Power here flexes itself primarily as verbal assault and intimidation. And unfortunately what goes on in the music doesn't always stay within the bounds of sound but spills out into real life. Feuds have turned fatal, damage done to self-respect and public status have led to deadly reprisals. Grime seems particularly obsessed with the battle rhyme [fnote13], even more so than American rap with its young pretenders like Canibus taking pot shots at legendary elders, or Jay-Z versus Nas / Prodigy.

It makes perfect sense that you find some of the same dynamics paralleled in the (mostly male) discourse around nuum music: the murkage, the alpha male clashing, the territorial pissings. There's the same odd combination of collectivity and competition, fraternalism and fratricide. And occasionally a bit of patricide. Even this essay, as much as it’s a sincere quest for truth, has a war-like component [fnote 14].

So we're right back to where we started: the boys-own atmosphere enveloping this music and this discussion.

I promised last time to explore the reasons why music with such intense "power" seething within it proved to be a narrowcast phenomenon. I'm not sure I've got answers but here are some thoughts.

The sheer assaultive intensity of the music (thinking specifically of jungle and grime) limits the appeal. If you're not totally of the demographic that makes this music, it's going to take a special combination of factors to enable you to hear past the menace and moodiness of the music, and--specifically with grime--hear the harshness as a kind of sensitivity, the hostility and rage as the expression of legitimate social demand.

Raw uncut grime is more than most people are prepared to deal with in an entertainment context. Grime was only able to really prosper when it could present itself as genial and good times oriented ("Wearing My Rolex") or just innocuous. It amazes me, looking at the video for "Pow," that the track even managed to get to the edge of the Top 10. It's not just the fact that the MCs are physically attacking the camera much of the time, raining down blows on the viewer, nor that the lyrics are so graphic and gory. It's the sheer ferocity of each MC's hunger and ambition as he tries to squeeze through the miniscule aperture of opportunity presented by his guest verse in this sure-to-be-big scene anthem/potential crossover hit. Sixteen bars to be grabbed and smashed as a display window for their talent. "Spotlight's on me" Fumin gloats, before asking "how you gonna bust if there's no room?": a striking image of an ego expanding to crowd out the entire space-for-stars-to-shine that is grime. If you're not already a grime convert, the series of intense eruptions of egomania that constitutes "Pow" must be as alarming as witnessing a volcano go off at close quarters. Disturbing, for many people, at least on a subconscious level, because it's the expression of social energies they don't want to deal with: each sixteen bar burst, a miniature riot. So they flinch, turn away.

Another aspect that limits nuum music's appeal concerns its "militant modernism", the interface between masculinism and the avant-garde. Fredric Jameson discusses how modernism is characterized by negatives: fragmentation, disorientation, stridency, and (quoting Hugo Friedrich) "bolts of annihilation", "brutal abruptness", "depoeticized poetry." Yet another crucial aspect of modernism's negativity, says Jameson, channeling Adorno, is its penchant for interdiction, its creation of new aesthetic taboos, its "ever keener distaste for the conventional and outmoded". This dynamic (out with the old, in with the new) leads to the >>FWD>> propulsiveness of modernism and nuum alike. Warp speed.

Then think of the soldierly subtext of modernism: the fact that "vanguard" is a military term, the idea of the shock troops of the avant-garde repeatedly blasting the new in the public's face. Art as bombardment, assault course, confrontation, challenge, test.

Factor in all these hallmarks and character traits of the nuum: its modernism (as both an inherent sonic narrative within the music and as a third-hand, filtered-down-from-on-high rhetoric of innovation and futurism), its "playing soldiers" aspect, its relationship to the streets as both UK socio-cultural reality and US hip hop cartoon fantasy, the scene's internal hyper-competitiveness, the influence from pulp fictions of all kinds (with their superheroics and dystopian darkness), the cult of technology… It all goes a good way towards accounting for
both the man-stench surrounding this culture and the narrowcast appeal of its musical output. Strictly hardcore.

for the footnotes, go here

4 comments:

Matt Moore said...

Course the one big female grime star is noticeable by a persona that has more in common with Jimmy Krankie or Poly Styrene than Madonna or Lil Kim. And that's not a diss of Lady Sov but it might be a diss of grime. It would be nice to think that there are other ways of being a female pop star that don't involve being a diva. BTW have there been any trad fem MCs in grime?

A couple of other aspects of the Nuum that come to mind are sex & drugs.

Grime (unlike the US hip hop that it often looks up to) seems to have a bit of a fear of sex. Dubstep seems bent on subliminating lust into something else. How do funky & bassline deal with it?

Linked to this attitude towards sex seems to be a difference in drug choice (and I'm no longer a UK resident so I'm probably speaking out of my arse here). Dubstep & grime are big on weed, funky & bassline seem to prefer stimulants.

Is there a split between euphoria & dysphoria at the moment? Is that linked to drug preferences? And does it have anything to do with gender?

queen emily said...

What you say about female lack of enjoyment of violence, I think it's partly about an awareness of vulnerability. Women are often taught to be afraid of public space in ways that men aren't--and the awareness that every man is potentially a rapist is a hard one to live with, even if it's just at the back of your head lurking barely acknowledged. There's something very Levinasian about that, the involuntary vulnerability one feels in a face as soon it's gendered male.

Lyrical violence is often being aimed at the feminine (men being bitches or batty boys or whatever), so men go into survivalist, toughen up mode. Dizzee, Wiley, loads of grime really.

But women, there's limits on toughness, hardness, especially for straight girls. A certain amount gives some freedom, but the payoff is being considered less attractive and at the top end, courting violence for being too butch.

So I think there's a kind of double-bind across the masculine/feminine divide that's specifically female. Men can fantasise about phallicising up as a way out of vulnerability to violence, women have no such avenue..

SIMON REYNOLDS said...

Matt -- I dunno Lady Sov can be quite fearsome, one of her several voices is this deep ragga growl

Lady Fury and No Lay, are pretty fierce MCs (No Lay promising to "put you in BUPA") and Shystie is somemwhere in between them and Sov. I remember one from the early days of the grime pirates, Tough Chick of Horra Squad, who came on pretty hard.

Re. drugs, I can't really comment, and really shouldn't, all things considered ;). i don't know if there's a drug synergy involved but rather than euphoria versus dysphoria, it seems like the mood split is between darkness/menace (which has become a bit hokey and over-exaggerated) [that would be dubstep and grime] and a new mood in wonky and to an extent funky which I would characterise as "blithe". That's the striking thing to me about Joker and Zomby's stuff, the care-free quality of Joker c.f the grime stuff he's quite close to, and the mechanoid serenity of Zomby

Funky seems quite upful but to stop short of euphoria

SIMON REYNOLDS said...

Queen Emily -- good points on the effects of socialisation / social pressures on the two genders... and the radically different experience of urban space

Angela McRobbie wrote a really good critique back in the day of subcultural studies's bias towards the masculine, its emphasis on the streets and tribalism, subcultural style as a form of semiotic warfare

>Men can fantasise about >phallicising up as a way out of >vulnerability to violence, women >have no such avenue..

there's probably quite a bit more scope nowadays for fantasy in terms of popular culture imagery of women defending themselves, being action heroes, being fearless plucky sharpwitted etc

but with grime it's not really about a fantasy of self-defence, it's about being the aggressor... so there would be as you suggest a fair bit of conditioning etc to overcome for women to step into those kind of fantasy roles