Saturday, April 26, 2008

GRIME: A Primer
director's cut, The Wire, April 2005

by Simon Reynolds

Grime emerged from London’s pirate radio underground. Its immediate precursor was 2step (a/k/a UK garage), which at the turn of the millennium broke into the UK pop mainstream in a massive way. 2step had been shaped by the “feminine pressure” for singalong melodies and wind-your-waist grooviness. Grime arose as a backlash against this crossover sound, a violent swing in the scene’s inner gender-pendulum from yin to yang. Out went 2step’s high-pitched diva vocals, sensual swing, and sexed-up amorousness; in came gruff rapping, stiff electro-influenced beats, and raucous aggression.

MCs have been part of the pirate radio tradition for at least fifteen years, going back through garage and jungle to the early days of hardcore rave. By the end of the Nineties, however, the MCs were moving beyond their customary restricted role as party “hosts” and sidekicks to the DJ. Instead of gimmicky vocal licks and praise-the-selector exhortations, they began to rap actual verses: initially, extended takes on traditional boasts about their own mic’ skills, but soon getting into narrative, complicated metaphors and rhyme schemes, vicious dissing of rivals, and even introspective soliloquies. The MC’s rise swiftly eclipsed the DJ, hitherto the most prominent figure on rave flyers or the main designated artist on record releases. 2001 was the turning point, when MCs shunted selectors out of the spotlight. So Solid Crew broke into the pop charts, and the underground seethed with similar collectives modeled on the clan/dynasty structures that prevail in American hip hop and Jamaican dancehall.

Emerging from the transitional sound known as “garage rap,” grime really defined itself as a distinct genre when the first tracks appeared that were designed purely as “MC tools”--riddims for rappers to ride. These grimestrumentals were largely sourced in the electro diaspora-- post-“Sleng Teng” ragga, Miami bass, New Orleans bounce, Dirty South crunk, and “street rap” producers like Swizz Beats. Like these genres, grime doesn’t go in much for sampling but prefers synths, typically with cheap ’n’ nasty timbres that vaguely evoke the Eighties and often seem to be influenced by pulp-movie video soundtracks, videogame musik, and even mobile phone ring-tones. But in grime’s textured beats and complex programming you can also hear the imprint of the jungle that most of these late teens/early twenties producers grew up on, alongside folk-memory traces of gabba and techno. Sometimes, listening, you might imagine you can hear uncanny echoes of postpunk-era electro-primitivists such as The Normal, DAF, Cabaret Voltaire, or the calligraphic exquisiteness of Japan, Thomas Leer, and The Residents.

Inherited from the period when 2step ruled the Top 10, but also inspired by enviously watching the living-large of American rap superstars, Grime feels a powerful drive to invade the mainstream and get “paid in full.” Pirate radio, a broadcast medium with a potentially vast audience, encourages this grandiosity. One peculiar byproduct of grime’s ambition is the scene’s craze for DVD releases, like Risky Roadz and Lord of the Mic, containing documentary material with live footage. It’s as if the scene is DIY-ing the sort of TV coverage it feels it deserves but isn’t getting. Yet while some of top MCs are being groomed for stardom by major label-owned boutique labels, the day-to-day reality of grime is grafting to get by in a narrowcast culture. Selling 500 copies of a track is considered a good result. The way Grime operates--small-run vinyl-only pressings and CD-R "mix-tapes", often sold directly to specialist stores--has a surprising amount in common with the micro-cultures familiar in the pages of The Wire *, such as noise, free folk, improv, and extreme metal. Like these genres, grime is what Chris Cutler would call an “engaged” culture, with a high ratio of performers to consumers. These aspiring MCs, DJs and producers have a deeper understanding of what constitutes skill and innovation in their scene. Grime even has an improv element with its freestyles and MC battles. There’s a glorious ephemerality to the way MCs riff off-the-cuff lyrics during pirate sessions, although fans have always tape-recorded the shows and some are now getting archived on the web.

Unlike those globally dispersed micro-cultures, Grime is geographically concentrated. It’s popular across London and has outposts in other multiracial UK cities, but its absolute heartland consists of a few square miles in that part of East London not served by the Tube. In truth, it’s a parochial scene, obsessed with a sense of place, riven by internecine conflicts and territorial rivalries (the intense competitiveness being one reason grime’s so creative). Still, despite this insularity, Grime has never been easier for “outsiders” to investigate, thanks to 1xtra (the BBC’s digital radio station for UK “urban” music,; check especially the weekly shows by Cameo and Richie Vibe Vee), the trend for pirates like Rinse FM to go online as well broadcast terrestrially, mail-order via companies like Rhythm Division ( and Independance (, and the swarm of blogs covering the scene.

(SO SOLID 1999)
(EAST WEST 2000)

So Solid are famous as the first MC crew to crossover big-time--they hit #1 with “21 Seconds”--and infamous for their frequent brushes with the law. In grime terms, though, their single most influential track is this instrumental, which replaced 2step’s sultry swing with an electro-derived coldness and rigour. This new starkness was a timely move given that 2step had reached the inevitable “over-ripe” phase that afflicts all dance genres, its beats becoming cluttered and fussy. With its hard-angled drum machine snares and single-note sustained bassdrone veering upward in pitch, “Dilemma” rediscovered the Kraftwerk principle: inflexibility can sometimes be more funky than suppleness. So solid, indeed: “Dilemma” is like a huge block of ice in the middle of the dancefloor, a real vibe-chiller.

So Solid affiliates DJ Oxide and MC Neutrino also scored a #1 UK hit
with “Bound 4 Da Reload”. Initially a pirate radio anthem through 1999, “Reload” created a massive rift in the garage scene: older types loathed it, young ‘uns loved it. Today’s grime heads would probably disown their teenage favorite as a mere novelty track. Which it certainly was, from the Casualty TV theme sample to the “can everyone stop getting shot?” soundbite from Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Gimmicks aside, Oxide’s production is heavy, from the ice-stab pizzicato violins (“strings of death,” perhaps, given the track’s allusions to the rising blood-tide of violence on London’s streets) to the doom-boom of sub-bass to the morgue-chilly echo swathing much of the record. Probably equally repellent to 2step fans was the nagging, nasal insistence of Neutrino’s rapping, which is remorselessly unmelodic but horribly catchy. Instantly transforming 2step from “the sound of now” to its current nostalgia-night status as “old skool,” “Reload” has strong claims to being the first Grime tune.


Circulating on dubplate as early as 1999, “Know We” was in constant pirate rotation by the time of its 2001 release, alongside chip-off-the-same-block track “Terrible”. Both are back-to-basics affairs: simple programmed beats, in each case adorned with the solitary hook of a violin flourish, functioning purely as a vehicle for the MCs. Another striking shared characteristic is the use of the first person plural. Each MC bigs up himself when it’s his turn on the mic, but at the chorus individualism is subsumed in a collective thrust for prestige. “Now we’re going on terrible,” promise/threaten Roll Deep, and they don’t mean they’re about to give a weak performance. “Roll deep” itself meaning marauding around town as a mob. But there’s a hint of precariousness to Pay As U Go’s assertions of universal reknown. The sense of grandeur is latent; they’re not stars yet. What does come through loud and clear on both tracks is the hunger. “Terrible” starts with a Puff Daddy soundbite: “sometimes I don’t think you motherfuckers understand where I’m coming from, where I’m trying to get to.” Both the PAUG and Roll Deep tracks were produced by a young prodigy named Wiley, whose catchphrase back then was “they call me William/I’m gonna make a million”. Roll Deep are grime’s NWA (its ranks have included such luminaries as Dizzee Rascal, Riko, Flow Dan, Trim, and Danny Weed), with Wiley as its Dr Dre. If he’s yet to make that first million, this human dynamo must surely have released close to that number of tracks these last four years.

(KRONIK 2001)

The gangsta rap comparison isn’t an idle one. PAUG and Roll Deep pioneered criminal-minded lyrics. Taking them literally isn’t always advisable, as the imagery of “slewing” and “merking” is often purely metaphorical, signifying the destruction of rival MCs in verbal combat, the maiming of egos rather than bodies. Still, the genre wasn’t always so relentlessly hostile. Just before the grimy era, “garage rap” outfits like Heartless Crew and Genius Cru exuded playful bonhomie. The follow-up to their #12 pop hit “Boom Selection,” Genius’ “Course Bruv” talks about spreading “nuff love” in the club and stresses that they “still don’t wanna hurt nobody.” The chorus even celebrates the rave-era ritual of sharing your soft drinks with complete strangers, the “course bruv” being Genius’s gracious acquiescence to “can I have a sip of that?” Producer Capone weaves an effervescent merry-go-round groove of chiming bass-melody and giddy looped strings, while the MCs hypnotize with the sheer bubbling fluidity of their chat. The verses are deliberately preposterous playa wish-fulfillment: “Number one breadwinner” Keflon claims he’s “invested in many shares, many many stocks” while Fizzy purports to date “celeb chicks,” “ballerinas” and even have “hot chicks as my household cleaners”.

(GO BEAT 2002)

Pirate radio culture evolves in small increments, month by month. The onset of one genre or sub-flava overlaps with the twilight of its predecessor. There are rarely clean breaks. Still, every so often a track comes along that yells “IT’S THE NEW STYLE!!!!” in your face. “Oi!” was one of them. Drawing on the most anti-pop, street vanguard elements in black music history--ragga’s twitch ‘n’ lurch, electro’s
(f)rigidity, jump-up jungle’s bruising bass-blows --producer Platinum 45 created a most unlikely #7 hit. Factor in the barely-decipherable jabber of More Fire’s Lethal B, Ozzie B, and Neeko, and the result was one of the most abrasively alien Top of the Pops appearances ever. The tune’s pogo-like hard-bounce bass and uncouth Cockney-goes-ragga chants mean that “Oi!” has more in common with Cockney Rejects-style punk than you’d imagine. “Oi!”, then--grime’s biggest hit to date, before the genre even had a name.


Widely regarded at the time as UK garage’s absolute nadir, “Pulse X” is actually a pivotal track: the scene’s first purpose-built MC tool. Locating a new rhythm at the exact intersection of electro and gabba. “Pulse” is virtually unlistenable--those dead-eyed claps, those numbly concussive kicks--on its own. But in combination with a great MC, the skeletal riddim becomes an instant and massive intravenal jolt of pure adrenalin. It’s not just the headbanging energy, though, it’s the track’s very structure that is radical. “Pulse X” was the first 8-bar tune, so-called because the rhythm switches every eight bars, thereby enabling MCs to take turns to drop 16 bars of rhymes using both beat-patterns. Far from being UK garage’s death-rattle, “Pulse X” rescued the scene, rudderless and demoralized after
2step’s pop bubble burst. The sheer phallomorphic rigour of “Pulse X” gave the scene a spine, a forward direction.

(XL 2003)

Circulating as a white label from summer 2002 onwards, “I Luv U” turned London pirate culture around as much as “Pulse X”. Legendarily creating the track in a single afternoon during a school music class, Dizzee took the same sort of sounds Musical Mob used--gabba-like distorted kickdrums, shearing-metal claps--and turned them into actual music. Add a teenage MC genius desperate to announce himself to the world, and you have grime’s “Anarchy in the UK.” The punk parallel applies because of the harsh Englishness of Dizzee’s vocal timbre and the lovelessness of the lyric, which depicts the pitfalls of the, er, dating game from the p.o.v of too-much-too-young 16 year olds whose hearts have been calloused into premature cynicism. Dizzee’s snotty derision is almost eclipsed by the come-back from female MC Jeannie Jacques, who throws “that girl’s some bitch yunno” back in his face with the equally corrosive “that boy’s some prick yunno.” The original white label featured the “Luv U” instrumental, but tossed away on the XL rerelease’s B-side is the classic “Vexed”: Dizzee’s stressed delivery makes you picture steam coming out of his ears and the music--beats like ice-floes cracking, shrill synth-tingles--renders obsolete the entire previous half-decade of retro-electro in one foul swoop.


Ex-PAUG but at this point still Rolling Deep, Wiley invented a entire mini-genre of low-key, emaciated instrumentals: asymmetrically structured grooves based around sidewinder B-lines that “Slinky downstairs” (as DJ Paul Kennedy put it), and glinting, fragmentary melodies. From his legion of imitators, these tended to be strictly MC-funktional beats, but in Wiley’s case, more often than not the tracks are highly listenable stand-alone aesthetic objects even without rhyming. The first in an ongoing series of ice-themed tunes (“Igloo”, “Frostbite,” “Snowkat”, et al). “Eskimo” was the blueprint for this dinky-yet-creepy micro-genre (which Wiley dubbed “Eskibeat”). “Ice Rink” took the concept of MC tool to the next level. Instead of just being sold as an instrumental for MCs to use, it was released in some eight versions featuring different MCS. Spread across two 12 inches, ‘Ice Rink” constituted a de facto riddim album. Dizzee’s turn is the stand-out, his scrawny voice oozing the impudence of someone at the top of his game, as he invites all haters to plant their lips upon his posterior: “kiss from the left to the right/kiss ‘til my black bum-cheeks turn white”. Wiley’s palsy of gated doorslam kicks and mercury-splash blips jostles with Dizzee for your attention.

(HOT SOUND 2003)
(HOT SOUND 2003)

2003 saw a slew of 8-bar instrumentals suffused with cod-Oriental exoticism. As incongruous as a pagoda plopped smack dab in the centre of Bow, “Weed Man” is the supreme example of “sinogrime,” Hyperdub webzine’s term for this micro-genre. Produced by Nasty Crew’s Jammer, the track is dedicated to “all the marijuana smokers” and appropriately the tempo is torpid to a trip hop-like degree. The loping, sprained rhythm flashes back to Sylvian-Sakomoto’s “Bamboo Music” while the ceremonial bassline and breathy flute conjure mind’s eye imagery of Zen gardens and temples. But where Wiley’s similar excursions Eastwards were fueled by record-buying trips to Sterns, Jammer mostly likely derived his notion of Oriental mystery from videogame muzik and martial arts movie soundtracks.

“Birds In the Sky” has a similarly Medieval atmosphere but, apart from the plucky twang of some kind of stringed Far Eastern instrument, is less obviously an ethnological forgery. The solo debut of one of grime’s greatest MCs, D Double E, “Birds” has a brooding meditational aura. The lyric pivots around the bizarre trope of a verbal drive-by, the MC firing off word-bullets that are also “like birds in the sky/hit one of your bredren’s in the eye”. Double muses on his motivations--“why?/cos I’m an evil guy”--then emits his signature vocal-licks, the pain-pleasure groan of “oooh-oooh” and the mouth-mangled “it’s me, me”, which sounds more like “mwui-mwui”.

(AIM HIGH 2004)

Former PAUG stalwart and man behind the ace Aim High compilations, Target here creates one of Grime’s most stirringly cinematic epics, placing a heart-tugging orchestral refrain amid a strange decentered drum-track whose flurries of claps and kicks seem to trip over themselves. This groove’s sensation of impeded yet steadfast forward-motion totally fits the lyric’s theme of determination and destiny. In his smoky, patois-tinged baritone, Riko (another PAUG alumnus) counsels calmness and composure to all those struggling, whether they’re aspiring MCs striving to make it or regular folk trying to make it through everyday strife: “Use your head to battle through/cos you are the chosen one.” The synth swells favoured by Ruff Sqwad also have a cinematic grandeur, like gangsta Vangelis. “Lethal Injection”, though, is one of their more minimal efforts, consisting of a wibbly keyboard line, the boom of a heavily echoed kick drum, and the Sqwad’s rapid-fire jabber, swathed in a susurrating shroud of reverb and background chat. Not a tear-jerker like “Chosen One,” but incredibly atmospheric.


Judging by Industry Standard, you could justly describe Terror Danjah as one of the most accomplished electronic musicians currently active. On tracks like “Juggling” and “Sneak Attack,” the intricate syncopation, texturized beats, spatialized production, and “abstracty sounds” (Danjah’s own phrase) makes this “headphone grime”--not something that could be claimed for too many operators on the scene. Yet all this finesse is marshaled in service of a fanatically doomy and monolithic mood, Gothic in the original barbarian invader meaning. The atmosphere of domineering darkness is distilled in Danjah’s audio-logo, a demonic cackle that resembles some jeering, leering cyborg death-dwarf, which appears in all of his productions and remixes. “Creep Crawler,” the first tune on Industry Standard, and its sister track “Frontline (Creepy Crawler Mix),” which kicks off Pay Back, are Danjah’s sound at its most pungently oppressive. “Creep Crawler” begins with the producer smirking aloud (“‘heh-heh, they’re gonna hate me now”), then a bonecrusher beat stomps everything in its path, while ominous horn-blasts pummel in the lower mid-range and synths wince like the onset of migraine. From its opening something-wicked-this-way-comes note-sequence onwards, Big E.D.’s original “Frontline” was hair-raising already. Danjah’s remix of his acolyte’s monstertune essentially merges it with “Creep Crawler,” deploying the same astringent synth-dissonance and trademark bass-blare fanfares (filtered to create a weird sensation of suppressed bombast) but to even more intimidating and shudder-inducing effect.


If you hadn’t already guessed from the name, grime inverts values. Dutty, stinkin’, even disgustin’--all are positive attributes in grime parlance. So when I say “Hard Graft” is utterly dismal, you’ll know this is the thumbs up. Grime often represents itself as gutter music. Mark One and Plasticman go further, or deeper, with this track, and seem to plunge into the sewage system. Full of clanking beats, septic gurglings, eerie echoes and scuttling percussion, “Hard Graft” makes you imagine pipes, storm drains, dank chambers.

Mark One, Plasticman and their cohorts constitute not so much a subgenre of grime as a side-genre, running adjacent to the scene proper. The sound is techy, MC-free, and more danceable than grime. Although a number of black producers are involved, you could fairly describe this style’s sonic coding as whiter than grime, and situate it on a Euro continuum running through Belgian industrial techno (Meng Syndicate, 80 Aum) through the cold technoid end of rave (Nebula II) to No U Turn’s techstep and Photek-style neurofunk (the beats on “Hard Graft” sometimes recall his “Ni Ten Ichi Ryu”). Plasticman’s nomenclative proximity to the Richie Hawtin alias seems telling.

The black component to this genre-without-a-satisfactory-name is dub (indeed its precursor was a UK garage micro-genre known as dubstep). Loefah’s clanking skank connects to a lineage of industrial-but-rootical UK music: On U, bleep’n’bass (Ability II’s “Pressure”, say), The Orb, Techno-Animal. “Bombay Squad” is built around what feels like a half-finished, or partially erased, groove: massive echo-laden snare-cracks, a liquid pitter of tablas situated in a localized corner of the mix, and… that’s it, apart from the dark river of sub-bass that propels the track forward. The title’s intertextual traces include Public Enemy’s producers and 2 Bad Mice’s rave anthem “Bombscare,” but actually allude to the track’s sole coloration, the plaintive ululation of a Bollywood diva.


Wonder works on the cusp between grime proper and the Plasticman/Mark One/Loefah sound. “What” makes something compellingly atmospheric out of the most meagre components: a beat dragging like a wounded leg, sub-bass yawning ominously like a portal into the underworld, a dejected one-finger-melody suggestive of an autistic desultorily toying with a xylophone, occasional dank blips of electronics. Overall, the audio mise-en-scene is something like “twilight falls on the battle-scarred moon.” Also vaguely redolent of The Mover’s gloomy brand of ambient gabba, Wonder’s remix of “Hype! Hype!” replaces the perky original backing track (produced by the great Sticky) with a groan-drone of sick technoise. This
catastrophe-in-slow-mo makes a marvelously incongruous backdrop for the roaring vocal hook chanted by North West London crew SLK.

JAMMER featuring KANO
(HOT SOUND 2003)
WONDER featuring KANO
(NEW ERA 2004)

The backing tracks are fabulous--Jammer’s frenetic snare-roll clatter, Wonder’s tonally harrowed synths, Danjah’s aching ripples of idyllic electronics--but it’s the MC who really shines. With some grime rhymesters, the flow resembles an involuntary discharge (D Double E being the ultimate exponent of MCing as automatic poetry). But even at his most hectic, as on “Boys Love Girls,” Kano always sounds in complete control. All poise and deliberation, Kano invariably sounds like he’s weighing up the angles, calculating his moves, calibrating which outcomes serve his interests. That’s blatant on “Boys” and “What Have You Done”, both cold-hearted takes on modern romance that depict sex in transactional terms, a ledger of positives and minuses, credits and debits; a war of the genders in which keeping your feelings checked and maintaining distance is strategically crucial. But it comes through even in the gorgeous ballad “So Sure,” on which Kano blurs the border between loverman and soldier drawing up plans for conquest: “ain’t got time to be one of them guys just watching you and wasting time/next time I’m clocking you I’m stopping you to make you mine.” As much as the acutely observed lyrical details, it’s the timbre of Kano’s voice that’s enthralling: slick yet grainy, like varnished wood, and knotty with halting cadences that convince you he’s thinking these thoughts aloud for the very first time.


“So Sure” is an example of the burgeoning subgenre R&G, basically a transparent attempt to lure the ladies back onto the floor, after they’d been turned off by the testosterone-heavy vibe of tracks more suitable for moshing than sexy dancing. As the name R&G, short for rhythm-and-grime, suggests, the mini-genre replicates 2step’s original move of copping American R&B’s luxurious arrangements and diva-melisma. Alongside Terror Danjah, Davinche pioneered R&G with tunes like “Leave Me Alone”. Too often these attempts at Brit-Beyonce fall short owing to a lack of grounding in songcraft and the studio art of mic’ing vocalists, and end up sounding slightly thin and shabby. So I prefer Davinche’s instrumental efforts like the Dirty Canvas EP series. The quasi-soundtrack orchestration of “Stinger”--flurrying strings, decaying tones from a softly-struck gong--are designed to swathe any MC who rhymes over it with an aura of slightly-harried majesty. Built out of similar pizzicato elements meshed to a beat like a clockwork contraption gone haywire, “Madness,” I’d wager, drew inspiration from the paranoia zone reached after one toke too many on a spliff: racing thoughts, pounding heart, jangled nerves, the suspicion that you might just be losing your mind.

Grime is synonomous with East London, but other parts of the city are starting to get a look-in. Essentials, Davinche‘s crew, operate out of South. This powerful sense of territoriality is integral to the concept of “Headquarters,” which draws on the talents of a veritable battalion of MCs, some guests and some from Essentials’ own barracks. At each chorus, a drill sergeant barks questions at the MC who’s stepping up for his mic’ turn: “state your name, soldier”, “state your location” (usually “East” or “South,” sometimes a specific postal district), “who you reppin’” (usually a crew, like Essentials, N.A.S.T.Y, Aftershock, but sometimes just “myself”). Then the sergeant orders each recruit to get down and “give me sixteen”--not press-ups, but 16 bars of rhymes. The amazing production seals the conceptual deal, the chorus being accompanied by cello-like instrumentation that’s been digitally contorted into an unearthly wraith-like whinny, or a cyberwolf howling at the moon.


Following a failed mainstream-bid album, More Fire looked all washed up in 2003, but Lethal B rebuilt their street rep from the ground up. In 2004, his “Forward” riddim became the scene’s biggest anthem. Renamed “Pow” on account of its main vocal hook, it ultimately barged its way to the outskirts of the Top Ten, achieving grime’s highest chart placing since… well, “Oi!”. The riddim, produced by Dexplicit, is basic verging on crude, a madly gyrating loop that resembles an out-of-control carousel. “Pow!!!,” Lethal’s chorus chant, evokes the fisticuffs of comic book superheroes. Matching the track’s rowdy vibe (it was reputedly banned in some clubs for inciting mayhem on the floor), a squadron of top MCs lay on the ultraviolence, the cartoon flavor of which can be gleaned from Demon’s immortal warning “you don’t wanna bring some beef/Bring some beef you’ll lose some teeth”.


Like “Pow”, “Destruction” is a rollercoaster of pugilistic noise and lyrical aggro, but Jammer’s production is marginally more sophisticated, slicing ‘n’ dicing brassy fanfares (probably from blacksploitation movies) and filtering them to create a sort of surging-yet-leashed effect, like the track is simmering with pent-up rage. The four scene-leading MCs rise to the occasion, from Wiley’s riffed variations on “I know Trouble but Trouble says he don’t know you,” to Kano’s quaintly Anglicized gangsta boat “from lamp post to lamp post, we run the road”. But the star performance comes from D Double. Seemingly battling multiple speech impediments, he expectorates glottal gouts of raw verbiage. As so often, there’s that characteristic sense of involuntary utterance, like it’s him who’s being spoken through. “Spitting” is too decorous a word for his rhyme style;
retching is closer. Witness Double’s astonishing first six bars on “Destruction”, a gargoyle-like gibber closer to hieroglyphics than language, and seemingly emanating from the same infrahuman zone Iggy plumbed on “Loose” and “TV Eye”.

On Double’s first solo single since “Birds in the Sky”, rising producer P-Jam’s snaking wooze of gaseous malevolence sparks one of the MC’s most Tourettic performances. Barely tethered to the beat’s bar scheme, Double seems to be wading waist-deep through sonic sludge. He boasts of “sucking up MCs like a hoover”, an image possibly cued by the Mentasm-like miasma unloosed by P-Jam.


The sped-up diva on “Str8 Flash” might be a nod to Kanye West’s Chaka-accelerating “Through the Wire” but equally could be a folk-memory flashback to the early Nineties, when rave producers whisked female vocal samples into helium-squeaky hypergasms of spectral bliss. That said, everything else in Lowdeep’s hot riddim testifies to the influence on grime of the last half-decade of rap and R&B. Pizzicato harp-like sounds and stuttering beats create a frozen peak of tense glory. IMP Batch’s “Gype,” the inescapable riddim of early 2005 and the backing track for Crazy Titch’s “Sing Along,” takes grime’s quasi-orchestral ambitions to the next level. Using classical music samples (Prokofiev?), IMP Batch expertly chop up and resequence the refrains--fluttery flutes, cascading strings, a cello ostinato--to form a hilariously prissy yet dynamic groove. This parodic high-culture refinement makes a wonderfully incongruous setting for Crazy’s hoarsely hollered anthem.


Like most producers in most dance genres, grime beat-makers typically invent a striking sound, then wear it out with endless market-milking iterations. Terror Danjah has often approached that dangerzone, but on “Boogieman,” he shows how much scope for inventive arrangement remains in the “Creep Crawler” template. You can hear the cartoon-comical wooh-wooh-woooooh ghostly touches best on the instrumental version, “Haunted” (on Aftershock’s Roadsweeper EP). “Boogieman” itself is a showcase for rising star Trim, here honing his persona of scoffing imperturbality: “I’m not scared of the boogieman/I scare the boogieman.”

On “Not Convinced,” Danjah draughts a whole new template that reveals the producer’s roots in drum’n’bass (the track’s futuristic tingles vaguely recall’s Foul Play “Being With You” remix). Again, though, the MC makes it hard to focus on the riddim. More than anyone apart from not-grime-really Mike Skinner, Bruza incorporates British intonation and idiom into a totally effective style of rapping, in which the not-flow of stilted English cadences becomes a new flow. It sounds “brutal and British,” as Bruza puts it. As his name suggests, the MC has also perfected a hardman persona that feels authentically English rather than a gangsta fantasy based on Compton or Kingston. He exudes a laconic, steely menace redolent of bouncers. “Not Convinced” extrapolates from this not-easily-impressed persona to create a typology of character in which the world is divided into the serious and the silly, the latter lacking the substance and conviction to give their words authority. Bruza addresses, and dresses down, a wannabe MC: “I’m not convinced/Since you’ve been spitting/I haven’t believed one word/Not one inch/Not even a millimeter/To me you sound like a silly speaker/Silly features in your style/You spit silly/You spit like how kids be” *.

(ON HOME SWEET HOME, 679, 2005)

Circling back to “Bound 4 The Reload,” this track celebrates the pirate radio and rave tradition of the DJ rewind, when the crowd hollers (or home-listening audience text-messages) its demand for the selector to wheel and come again. Until grime, the trigger for rewinds would be a killer sampled vocal lick, thrilling bass-drop, or even just a mad breakbeat. Nowadays, the MC being king, the crowd clamors to hear their favourite rhymes. “This is what it means when DJs reload it/That sixteen was mean and he knows it,” explains Kano, before listing the other top dog MCs who get nuff rewinds (two of them, Double and Demon, guest on the track). “I get a reload purely for the flow,” Kano preens, and you can see why as he glides with lethal panache between quick-time rapping and a leisurely, drawn-out gait that seems to drag on the beat to slow it down. The track itself, co-produced by Kano and Diplo, is all shimmery excitement, pivoting around a spangly filtered riff that ascends and descends the same four notes, driven by a funky rampage of live-sounding drums, and punctuated by horn samples, Beni G’s scratching, and orgasmic girl-moans. The old skool breakbeat-like energy suggests an attempt to sell the notion of Grime as British hip hop, yet if Trans-Atlantic crossover is the intent, that’s subverted by the lyric, its theme being as localized and Grime-reflexive as imaginable. “Reload It” encapsulates the conflicted impulses that fuel this scene: undergroundist insularity versus an extrovert hunger to engage with, and conquer, the whole wide world.

* for the longest while I heard this as "you spit like Agnes B"!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

FACT, February/March 2008

by Simon Reynolds

Bleep lives right at the heartcore of Energy Flash, my history of rave culture. It was the first uniquely British twist on house and techno. Rave had started out as that strange thing, a subculture based almost entirely around import records. In 1988-89, DJs had several years backlog of house classics to spin, plus fresh imports from Chicago, Detroit and New York each week; the homegrown tracks, mostly inferior imitations, just couldn't compete. But in 1989, a track called "The Theme", produced by Unique 3--a Bradford-based crew of B-boys turned ravers--announced the arrival of a fresh UK sound merging Chicago acid with elements from hip hop and reggae. In a paradox that would endure and intensify throughout the subsequent evolution of rave, what made it "British" was its incorporation of ideas and "vibe" from Jamaica and Black America. From bleep to 2step, jungle to grime, this country would host mutations that for various reasons were unable to hatch in the more purist and protectionist U.S. house scene.

"Bleep 'n 'bass" was an alternative name for the wave of North of England techno that followed Unique 3. "Bleep" referred to the electro-style pocket-calculator synth-motifs; "bass" nodded to the floor-quaking sub-low frequencies. Initially inspired by "The Theme" (which they tried unsuccessfully to license), Sheffield-based Warp quickly became the crucial label. Paralleling moves being made in London by ex-B-boy outfits like Shut Up and Dance but avoiding the use of looped breakbeats, the Warp outfits--Sweet Exorcist, Forgemasters, LFO, Nightmares on Wax--retained acid's tripnotic compulsion but programmed a skippy syncopation into their drum machine beats that looked ahead to jungle rather than backwards to house.

What's striking about bleep listening to it today is how well-produced these tracks sound. There's none of the low-resolution cruddiness of sample-and-breakbeat based hardcore, but a glistening thickness of texture and beat that comes from using analog synths and drum machines, and, in some cases, from making the tracks in professional studios rather than using home studio set-ups. Yet despite its time-defying excellence, bleep is poorly served in terms of compilations: basically, there's Warp's Classics double-CD, plus out-of-print comps from the original era. But the good news is that the original vinyl is easy to find. Because bleep dominated the British rave scene between late 1989 and early 1991, the classic tunes were pressed in large numbers, so there's lots of copies still floating around at reasonable prices.

Bleep's legacy? You can hear the era honored in the output of maverick producers like Rustie and Neil Landstrumm (whose overt homages include "Big in Chapeltown", "Bleep Biopsy" and " Yorkshire Steel Cybernetics”). But bleep's reverberations resound most potently in UK garage's offshoot genres, from dubstep's cold cavernous production and fetish for "bass weight" to the sweet 'n' sour synth-tones and deliriously inventive bass science of bassline house. The latter's homebase cities--Sheffield, Leeds, Leicester, Birmingham--are the exact same industrial swathe from South Yorks to West Midlands that spawned bleep. This is no history lesson, then, but a living thing.

"The Theme"/"7-AM"
(Chill/Ten, 1989)

Kickstarted by the hilarious vocoderized mission statement "we are the original acid house creators/we hate all commercial house masturbators," this seminal track marks the rebirth of rave as an underground sound--hard 'n' dark 'n' strictly for the headstrong. Motored by a miasmic bassline that recedes into the mix then swarms back to subsume your consciousness like malevolent fog, "The Theme" is the UK coming up with a creative response to "Acid Trax" rather than just a faint reflection. But the ultra-minimal flipside track is even more inventive: just bass, space, and a plinky percussion riff that sounds like a xylophone made out of a dinosaur's ribcage. The title "7-AM" evokes that eerie pre-dawn moment at the rave when the comedown's coming on and only the diehardcore ravers are still standing.

"Track With No Name"
(Warp, 1989)

With a name that doffs a flat cap to Sheffield's Steel City mythos and a title that turns acid house's radical anonymity into baleful mystique, Robert Gordon, Winston Hazel and Sean Maher were in the business of "faceless techno bollocks". Bowel-quaking bass, an Art of Noise-like vocal lick, and beats as punishing and precise as a foundry's drop hammer.

(Warp, 1989)

Sweet Exorcist were Richard H. Kirk from Cabaret Voltaire and Sheffield's DJ Parrot, and "Testone" is a classic example of bleep's sensual austerity: the barest components (growling sub-bass, a rhythmic web of Roland 909 klang and tuss, and a nagging sequence of five bleep-tones) are woven into something almost voluptuous. The title comes from the test tones built into synths and samplers, while the opening soundbite--"if everything's ready here on the dark side of the moon, play the five tones"--is sampled from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

"Ital's Anthem"
(Bassic, 1990)

Famed for their Leeds Warehouse dubplate sessions and later to become the digidub outfit Iration Steppas, Ital Rockers broadcast their Jamaican roots loud-and-proud with the opening sample "riddim fulla culcha, yah!". But you can tell where they're coming from just as easily from the shocks of mighty bass-pressure and the arabesque melody that could almost be Augustus Pablo if he'd swapped his melodica for a Yamaha synth.

(Warp, 1990)

Kraftwerk reincarnated as a pair of teenage ex-breakdancers from Leeds, LFO's Mark Bell and Gez Varley took bleep into the Top 20 with this immortal classic. Portentous and momentous like "Trans-Europe Express", the opening synth-chords make you feel like you're being ushered you into the prescence of greatness. Then that dark probe of a bassline bores its way into the depths of your brain, via your anus. LFO would go on to record the immaculately inventive Frequencies, one of electronic dance music's All Time Top 5 Albums.

Progressive Logic EP
(Network, 1990)

Before they reinvented themselves as rave jesters Altern 8, Mark Archer and Chris Peat were devout Detroit disciples who combined Carl Craig-style calligraphic intricacy and wistful emotion with bleep's brutalist bass. Stand-out "Self Hypnosis" shimmers with limpid synth-pulses up top, but the low-end rattles your bones.

North of Watford EP
(Chill, 1990)

The U.K.'s answer to Mr. Finger's acieed-era classic "Washing Machine", this EP's standout track "Now Hear Me Now" is a mantra for a state of mindlessness. An inane sample (note that redundant "now") loops endlessly over a nodding-dog groove and fingernails-on-blackboard synth-noise. The missing link between "Autobahn" and autism.

"Take Me Back (Rob Gordon Edit--'With Extra Bass')
(Network, 1990)

Famous as the label that brought Detroit techno to the UK, Network shrewdly hopped on the Northern bandwagon and by 1990 were tagging themselves the home of "Dance Music With Bleeps". No ideal boast, either, thanks to Mark Gamble and Leroy Crawford, a.k.a. Rhythmatic. On "Take Me Back", the shimmerfunk of Kevin Saunderson/Inner City is given a butt-blasting dose of low frequency oscillations. Then Forgemaster Rob Gordon adds even more.

"Weight For the Bass (Original Soundyard Dubplate Mix)"
(Ten Records, 1990)

A mindboggling soundclash of Kingston, the Bronx, and, er, Rimini. The latter is whence hails the Italo-house piano vamp that chatters brightly over the tectonic plate shaking 808 bass, frisky electro beats and vast vistas of empty space that make up the rest of the track. This mix is named after the Soundyard, the legendary 1987-90 Bradford club founded by Unique 3's Edzy.

(Warp, 1990)

From the psychedelically-reversed vocals and migraine-wincing noises to the eerily reverbed samples of Cuba Gooding Snr announcing "there's something going round inside my head… it's something unreal," this is darkside bleep whose clammy delirium captures the moment when Ecstasy becomes agony. "Aftermath" anticipated jungle not just with its bad-trippy paranoia but with its scowling bass and jittery, breakbeat-like rhythms. The British "Energy Flash"?

"Tricky Disco"
(Warp, 1990)

Chirpy chirpy bleep bleep: "Tricky Disco" represents the lighter side of UK rave circa 1990, bouncing along on an air-cushioned beat and sugared with helium-squeaky cartoon chipmunk vocals and proto-ringtone ripples of synth. Tricky Disco was just one of a host of alter-egos for that prolific partnership Lee Newman and Michael Wells, who also recorded as GTO, Church of Ecstasy, John + Julie (perpetrating the fearsome bass-shredder "Circles"), Force Mass Motion, Technohead…

Non Stop Techno EP
(Zoom, 1990)

The South gets in on the act. Taking their name from a Philip K. Dick novel, Ipswich-bred Viv Beeton and Dave Campbell (later to operate as Hi-Ryze) specialized in austere but atmospheric techno attuned to the darker side of Detroit. On this EP's bleep-aligned "Bass Generation", though, the sound is emaciated electro: the duo cut the mid-range and boost the bass and the treble. Result: sub-aural bass-pressure below, whispery wraithes of synth and hi-hat above, and a chasm of shocking emptiness in between.

"Phase 3" (from Jus Unique LP)
(Ten Records, 1990)

Rave acts almost always stumbled when it came to the obligatory Album (see also Shades of Rhythm) but amid the mixed bag of commercial house and unconvincing UKrap that is Jus Unique there's some bleep classics, most notably "Phase 3", whose sagging drone-tones and weird blend of lush and harsh looks ahead to the mind-twisting directions that would spiral off hardcore in the near-future, from gloomcore gabba to darkside jungle.

"Join the Future"
(Warp, 1991)

Deceptively named, this outfit, for "Join" is bleep's dreamy, "musical" side. With its sinuously undulating bassline and almost-jazzy piano vamps, this midtempo chugger makes the future seems like not such a bleak break with the past as bleep's harder and harsher contingent.

The Black Steel EP
(Network, 1991)

Killer track: "Stress". Staccato bass pulses as svelte and deadly as a robo-panther mesh with glancing, glinting synth-tones so wincingly sharp they give your ear-drums papercuts. Then the bridge: clanky tingles that sound like they're played on a gigantic xylophone made from icicles and stalactites. (And is that a submerged nod to Public Enemy in the otherwise Sheffield-celebrating EP title?).

"Pressure Dub"
(Outer Rhythm, 1991)

The missing link between bleep and digi-dub, Ability II wave the red, gold and green on "Pressure", their solitary release. Skip the full vocal A-side for the gorgeous mirage of the flipside dubversion, where the stealthy and steadfast midget submarine that is the B-line trails a wake of sublimely shimmering reverb.

The Mood Set EP
(Network, 1991)

Sweet Exorcist's Richard H. Kirk and Forgemaster Rob Gordon team up for this coldly compelling one-off. All whiplash percussion and spectral synths, "Dissonance" is the prize here. Its "ooh, ooh, techno city" hook, sampled from Cybotron (Juan Atkins' first group) might be homage to Detroit. But it could equally be serving notice to the Belleville Three: watch out, Sheffield is the world capital of electronic music. Again. Because, actually, that Cybotron vocal sounds suspiciously like early Human League…

"Clonk's Coming" (off C.C.C.D)
(Warp, 1991)

Bleep at its most sophisticated, the final tune on this seven track maxi-EP (or is it mini-LP?) starts with a dizzy-making roundelay of dub-delayed bleeps, falls into a strange loping sashay of a groove, and blossoms into a fiesta of textured percussion, clanking bass, and densely clustered electronic tonalities.

"Feel It"
(Warp, 1992)

Twilight-era bleep, the almost eight minute long "Feel It" offers an awesomely intoxicating mood-clash of sultry sensuality and forbidding sang-froid. Stalking bass, seething percussion, whistles, the feverish chant "doncha doncha don't jerk it/work it", and THEN, that supreme rush-activating sample "fee-eee-eee-eee-eee-ee-eel it", taken from The Peech Boys (via Todd Terry?) and riven by an Ecstatic shudder of drop-out.

What Is House EP
(Warp, 1992)

Where better to end than with LFO voicing the question originally raised by bleep itself--just how far can house music be stretched and still be house? With its gnarly synth and electronically-distorted spoken-not-sung vocal, the title track sounds like the Fall if Mark E. Smith was reborn as a 20 year old South Yorks pillhead. The concise lyric pays homage to "the pioneers of the hypnotic groove"--from Phuture, Fingers Inc and Adonis to Eno, Tangerine Dream, YMO, Kraftwerk and Depeche--but like all tributes implies: we're more-than-worthy inheritors.

Version at the FACT website -- longer than what was printed in the magazine, but here comes with pretty pix of all the record labels and/or covers.

Further reading:

Gutterbreaks pre-emptively fills in some of the gaps in the above with his UK Pressure Mix and accompanying blog post

and a scan-tastic Gutterbreakz piece on the genius of Rob Gordon

Me on Neil Landstrumm

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Drive By: New York's fledgling 2step scene
Sound of the City column, Village Voice,August 30th-September 5th, 2000

by Simon Reynolds

When subcultures are exported, they usually mutate interestingly in the process. A fair few folks are wondering whether 2step garage, the hottest dance scene in Britain right now, is going to take off here, and what path it might take. Drive By, the latest in a sporadic flurry of 2step parties, featured a bona fide Yookay Name DJ, Emma Feline, plus Reid Speed (also female, and for a long while the only local DJ pushing this sound), party organizer Dinesh, and DB. Its location was the Frying Pan, but the main dancefloor was on the Pier 63 quayside instead of the once-sunken boat's fantastically corroded interior—-doubtless because its Tool video/Quay Brothers ambience doesn't fit U.K. garage's plush, lush VIP vibe.

The Monday-night party recalled the first NYC jungle clubs in late '94—-a hardcore kernel of converted fiends, lots of curious fence-sitters, and an atmosphere of tentative excitement. Hipsters seem attracted by 2step's juddering bass and hypersyncopated beats (as complex as jungle at its creative peak), but confused or even repelled by the warbly divas and r&b influences. "Serious" techno and drum'n'bass headz tend to be sniffy about vocals, and one of the engaging things about 2step is its transgression of this taboo on sheer pop appeal.

Intriguingly, Reid Speed and Dinesh both bring a "deep" sensibility to 2step's glossy-surfaced instantaneousness ("deep" being house/techno code for "not blatantly tuneful") by focusing on less songful stuff—-all plinky xylo/marimba-style B-lines and tuned percussion. DB, being an English expat and a populist, is comfortable dropping such ultramelodic tracks as Shanks & Bigfoot's "Sing-A-Long" and the 2step remake of soppy piano-rave anthem "Sweet Harmony." Feline was authentically British in playing Big Tune after Big Tune, but her mixing was often sloppy and she didn't exhibit much flair for set building or vibe escalation. Still, the sheer implacable density of Big Tunes—-B15's "Girls Like This," Shola Ama's "Imagine," Gabrielle's "Sunshine"-—kept the converts on the floor. These high-pitched melisma selections also showcased another crucial aspect of 2step: the way that extreme treble can be as intense as extreme bass. The sensation is head-spinningly effervescent, like you've got champagne running through your veins.

Speaking of which, I didn't see one sign of the U.K. garage raver's fave tipple. Other differences: The dancing was more energetic, fluid, and expressive than the taut shoulder/hip/butt shaking you get in London clubs. Most striking of all was the utter absence of we-be-the-baddest-clique snootiness. In this respect, if no other, the fledgling American scene has the edge over its Brit blueprint.

Drive By's Birthday Bashment
Sound of the City column, Village Voice, July 18 - 24, 2001

by Simon Reynolds

New York's pioneering 2step garage party Drive By celebrated its first birthday in style with a riverside bashment at Pier 63 and a bill headlined by top-drawer U.K. talents Zed Bias and Deekline on July 3. Both DJ-producers are identified with "breakbeat garage," the inevitable backlash against 2step's mainstream crossover, and a mutant offshoot that strips away the r&b vocals and treble gloss in favor of bass-too-dark minimalism. Deekline's sound has virtually no connection to garage, but instead mashes up hip-hop, a lickle bitta dancehall, and whole lotta hardcore. He played two tracks that are basically unofficial remixes of rave-era Prodigy classics: the Max Romeo-pilfering "Out of Space" and the Arthur Brown-sampling "Fire." His absolute boom tune was uncharacteristically housey—Nu Yorican Soul's fevered "Runaway"—and other New York allusions flew by with licks ripped from Todd Terry and Mark the 45 King. Once again, you had to marvel at the Brits' verve (and nerve) at taking U.S. originals like hip-hop and house, then exporting them back to America as exotic hybrids.

Zed Bias's sound has more "swing," using U.K. garage's sticky snares and crisp, skippy hi-hats more often than the rigid, jackknifing electro beats favored by Deekline. Bias also has a stronger feel for the subliminal skank that is one of 2step's secret rhythmic ingredients: Tonight he dropped a great version of Tenor Saw's "Ring the Alarm" and climaxed with "Neighbourhood," his own dancehall-infused soundboy killer. "Neighbourhood," I've found, is the one tune that infallibly sways skeptics who profess to hate this music (usually based on hearing one Artful Dodger song). In this respect, Zed Bias is the Photek of 2step. Just as Photek drew people into drum'n'bass through his techno edge, five years on Bias seduces nonbelievers with the jungalistic feel of his 2step: growling sub-bass and mash-up beats, corseted within garage's plush elegance.

What a difference a year makes: With its crammed dancefloor and amazingly euphoric atmosphere, Drive By left one convinced that New York's 2step scene, after false starts and prematurely announced demises, is finally set to EXPLODE. The city now boasts several U.K.-level DJs (two of whom, Dinesh and Greg Poole, also played tonight) and a fervent core audience who really feel the music. Indeed I'd actually say the New York scene is better than its London prototype, which is increasingly blighted by moody attitude, gangsta bizness, and violence. In the London underground there's always been this weird mismatch between the music's effervescent joy and the crowd's screwface sourness. But New York has "corrected" that discrepancy. There's never been a better time to join the party.
"Red Alert/Yo Yo"
"Rendez-Vu/Jump 'N Shout"
director's cut, Village Voice, February 23rd, 1999

by Simon Reynolds

Nobody exemplifies the promiscuous impurism of late-'90s house music better than Basement Jaxx, the South London duo of Felix Buxton and Simon Ratcliffe. On their two recent singles (four A sides + dub versions = an album's worth of stuff), virtually every track creates a new subgenre. "Red Alert" is P-Funk house: Bootsy slap-bass, g-funk synth, a chorus of psychedelic dwarves. Flipside "Yo Yo" has been hailed as "punk garage," for the Nirvana/Pixies heft of its fuzzed-out bass riff. But the chorus reminds me of Jamie Principle's eroto-mystic house classic "Baby Wants To Ride." If Prince-wannabe Principle had ever got to make his own Sign of The Times, it might have sounded like Basement Jaxx.

On the most recent single, "Jump 'n Shout" is ragga-house driven by a flagrant, in-yer-face thug of a bassline and hectic patois patter; "Rendez-Vu" could be either "flamenco-house" or "The Genre Formerly Known as House," meshing Castilian guitar flurries, Zapp-style vocoder ditties, and a lush Prince-like decadence. Where most dance producers make a virtue of creative thrift, Buxton and Ratcliffe are maximalists: instead of interminable loops, you get new patterns every couple bars, sonic singularities, an insanity of detail, and a mix riddled with dub-wise wormholes. Yet the Basement boys' sonic largesse never degenerates into eclectic whimsy or that multilayered-but-not- integrated form of additive composition that undoes so much computer-based music.

The duo's debut album, due for April release, reveals even wilder twists to the contours of house as hitherto known— like "Don't Give Up," a quiet Sturm und Drang ballad of billowing acid-bass and Scott Walker strings. Remedy looks set to do for house what Reprazent's New Forms did for jungle in '97— explode the genre's parameters, and grab the ear of the wider world beyond.

BASEMENT JAXX, interview
The Wire, summer 1999

by Simon Reynolds

Without fanfare, house has crept forward to become the leading edge of dance culture again, like it was over a decade ago. It's managed to sidestep the grimly purist rut that's ensnared minimal techno and drum and bass ; rather than getting paranoid about stylistic contamination and bastardy, late Nineties house is pragmatically open to outside influence. Slyly, it assimilates rhythmatic and texturological tricks from overtly experimental forms of electronica, then resituates them in a juicier pleasure-principled context. As a result, late Nineties house encompasses a huge range of flavas: Stardust/Roule/Daft Punk-style disco cut-ups, Herbert's voluptuously textured future-jazz, Green Velvet's tripped-out story-songs over harsh machinic grid-grooves. And then there's Basement Jaxx--Felix Buxton and Simon Ratcliffe--whose music is so promiscuously impurist it should really be dubbed The Genre Formerly Known As House.

The Jaxx boys' first three EPs were lumped in with the mid-Nineties wave of "Nu-House," British outfits such as Faze Action and Idjut Boys. But Buxton & Ratcliffe soon got fed up with that scene's snobbery and authenticity fetish--the obsession with reproducing the sound of "Loft classics" (disco productions by Larry Levan and Francois Kevorkian popular at New York underground clubs in the 1970s and early Eighties).

"Nu House was good at first," says Ratcliffe, "but it quickly became dull and smug--'we know what the cool records are, we're replicating them, and isn't it groovy?'" Having rapidly achieved their initial goal--mastering the skills of contemporary US house auteurs they admired like Masters At Work and Mood II Swing--Basement Jaxx were hungry for new challenges. "In the beginning, we were just trying to be house producers," says Ratcliffe. "Now we're trying *not* to be house producers."

The Genre Formerly Known As House tag fits because Prince and his balancing act of identity-through-constant-flux is an aesthetic model for Basement Jaxx. Their debut album Remedy recalls Sign O' The Times in its insanely detailed production, compulsive stylistic hybridity, and warped vocal multitrackings. Above all, it's Prince-ly in its maximalist-not-minimalist extravagance--ideas that other producers might spin out for entire tracks occur as sonic singularities, gratuitous one-offs. "We want you to hear something different each time you listen," says Ratcliffe. "Hopefully we don't over-confuse people by putting too many things in. Then again, you want to be slightly baffled by music, don't you?"

Remedy's most jaw-droppingly disconcerting moment might be the point in "Same Old Show" where the listener realises the tune pivots around a sample from "On My Radio" by ska group The Selector--a short phrase of eerie vocal counterpoint brilliantly isolated from its perky Two-Tone context and looped to monstrously mantric effect. A protest against the formulaic homogeneity of dance music, "Same Old Show" gets it message across as much through its sound as the "it's just the same old show" sample. "There's a kind of ugliness to it," decides Ratcliffle. "A lot of the original Chicago house music was done by people who really weren't that musical, in the traditional sense. But the wrongness gave it a real excitement . It's good not to be too safe about being in tune or having correct timing. 'Same Old Show' isn't about musical cohesion, really-- it's about energy, and oddness."

Waxing lyrical about the scuzz appeal of Camberwell (where the duo's studio is based) compared with chic neighbour Brixton, Ratcliffe says the Jaxx are "anti-style... Our music's saying 'fuck off' to things everyone thinks are cool." In this Camberwell spirit, the Jaxx put a deliberate record-skipping effect into "Yo Yo," another Remedy stand-out. Combined with a simultaneous bassline change, the skip, says Buxton "makes you feel like everything's slipped. It's great because it's like a *new sensation*. And that's a bit of our jazz attitude--like Coltrane pushing his instrument, doing things that initially sounded totally wrong, and it's only later you realise 'that was music all along''.

Also citing jazz as an influence, Ratcliffe describes the Jaxx methodology as "freestyling-- we freestyle in our programming". The duo jam with their machines to create things like the strobing, wobbly-fingers-in-your-earhole effect in "Razo-Caine" (a fantastic bonus track on the recently re-released "Red Alert" single). "With that, I was playing the samples live on the keyboard and pitchbending them," explains Buxton, "Simultaneously Simon's EQing what I'm doing on the desk, effecting them, and placing them within the track."

Where Buxton's musical trajectory (digging Gilles Peterson's jazz-dance scene in the late Eighties, organising his own underground house parties in Brixton in the early Nineties) is oriented around club culture, Ratcliffe's background has oscillated wildly--from playing guitar in jazz-funk bands to making hardcore rave tunes under the name Tic Tac Toe. Fondly recalling the days when his breakbeat anthem "Ephemeral" got remixed by Fabio, Grooverider and Mickey Finn, Ratcliffe describes 'ardkore as a positive example of "the technology taking over. And it was so English--unsophisticated, full of attitude and energy. They used illegal samples, made vocals so high they sounded ridiculous--but it worked. It's that same punk spirit that we're trying to incorporate into our music."

Indeed, Basement Jaxx call what they do "punk garage". This nicely punning inversion suggests a spiritual kinship with speed garage--like Jaxx trax, a smooth and sexy New York sound ruffed up with English attitude. In the awesome "Jump 'N Shout", Buxton & Ratcliffe managed to create a bolshy, boisterous ragga-house hybrid that parellels but sounds nothing like speed garage, while the gorgeous hypersyncopated ballad "You Can't Stop Me" echoes 2step's infatuation with Timbaland-style beat-science. And the re-released "Red Alert" comes with a remix from two-step auteur Steve Gurley.

Like London's underground garage crews, Basement Jaxx brilliantly combine songful musicality and trackhead FX-mania, human fluency and machinic angularity, high production values and digital dirt, jazz and punk. In the past, they've swung back and forth on a song by song basis--from the sultry Latin house of "Samba Magic" and "Fly Life" to the evil drug-noise of "Raw Sh*t" and "Set Yo Body Free". But now they're meshing those extremes inside the same track. Take "Don't Give Up", simultaneously Remedy's most accomplished and most deranged track--a quiet Sturm und Drang ballad reeling between Scott Walker strings and nauseously roiling billows of acid-bass. The song's about how you can dig yourself a deep hole by thinking too deeply: the chorus beseeches "don't pull the cracks in your mind apart." And it reflects the trepidation Jaxx felt as they started recording Remedy.

"We were on this precipice, looking down," recalls Ratcliffe. " We'd talk a lot about what should we be doing. That song is like us saying 'let's just get on with it'. So instead of working our way up to it, we did did the most experimental track first. It was us forgetting about dance music altogether."

Tuesday, April 8, 2008