Friday, May 22, 2009



"Power" was where I left off last time…

I've been trying to think of a more suitable analogy for the hardcore continuum than "Australia". Some sort of "actually existing entity" that's historical rather than geographical; something of real world-historical heft that lasted for a substantial duration before crumbling away and leaving barely a trace of itself… Then it struck me: the political party. History is full of political organizations that were massively consequential for a period but then gradually disintegrated as demographics shifted and the economy transformed, causing the various interest groups and social alliances that held the party together to dissolve and form into new clusters.

In mid-19th Century America there was the American Party (a nativist, anti-immigration party). Later that century there was the Populists, a major political force who threw their weight behind Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan in the landmark election of 1896, but in vain. I'm sure there are some U.K. examples. Political parties of this kind may never get hold of the reins of government, but they represent hugely significant mobilizations of energy---donations, volunteers, political capital, powerful backers. They hold assemblies, draw up manifestos, campaign, and they exert pressure by their existence on other, more successful parties that affect their electoral strategy and sometimes what happens at a legislative or governmental level. But in the end these parties crumble away leaving nothing but yellowing historical documents.

So too with the nuum… one day all that will be left of it will be… records.

I got quite taken with this idea of the nuum as a political party and in semi-whimsical fashion tried to map out its lifetime in terms of electoral struggle *… Hardcore 91/92 as a landslide victory over chartpop; jungle, a sharp turn to the left, resulting in years of exile, despite promising by-election results (Timeless; Logical Progression; a Mercury for New Forms); 2step, tacking back to the pop centre, embracing song and sexy midtempo grooves, resulting in a landslide return to chart power circa 1999-2001; grime, another swing back to uncompromised militancy, looked for a while like it could win power on its own terms but….

I came up with this better-than-Australia analogy thanks to Jeremy Gilbert's contribution to the UEL seminar: for me the most thought-provoking intervention, because the least expected. See I kinda guessed what the other angles would be, having seen the advance blogging, FACT articles and 1200 word letters to The Wire. I also somehow sensed Kodwo & Kode would deal with the nuum…. by changing the subject, talking about something else altogether! (Is that a tactic they got from Sun Tzu? ;) ). But Jeremy's critique came completely out of left-field. His argument was that, as glorious and mighty as the nuum had been as a musical force, it could equally be seen as a series of "failed politicisations": missed opportunities to translate the multiracial unity, localised collective energy and "sense of purpose" that the music mobilized into anything constructive.

I felt the sting of this rebuke and recognized its pertinence even as a gut-level, knee-jerk response--"come off it!"--kicked in. Seriously, could this ever really have happened? Struggle organized at the site of the means of entertainment -- dream on, John!

There's two moments when this kind of politicisation seems to have been faintly plausible: jungle and grime. Both had powerful currents of anti-systemic awareness, seethed with paranoia and rage that it's just conceivable could have been tapped, channeled, brought to mature ideological consciousness. But jungle was still partially mired in the drugginess and dissipation of rave; it was waking up from the Dream to face harsh reality, perhaps, but unlikely to embrace anything that smacked of didacticism or worthiness. The scene was fueled by the anarcho-capitalist energies of fiercely competitive rivalry, and there was also a shady undertow of crime… All in all, its impulses were as close to anti-social as proto-socialist.

Grime, a movement of inner city youth literally finding their voices, seems to have more potential than jungle, whose moments of consciousness were largely restricted to roots reggae samples like "alla the youth shall witness the day that Babylon shall fall". But I can hardly recall any conscious rhymes in grime. One stands out in the memory for being so unusual: a freestyle on a tape someone mailed me and which I titled "Black Man Freestyle" because of its roll-call salute to black icons (one line went something like "Biggie 'n' Tupac two powerful black men")(I think it was by Durty Goodz). Grime did have its positive side, but it was invariably couched in that hyper-individualist, chase-your-dreams, work-hard-you-WILL-make-it mold… pure American ideology in other words… inspiring and poignant with tunes like "Chosen One" , but a long way from collectivism. Far more often you got the opposite: a reveling in socially destructive negativity. Factor in the often rancorous rivalry between crews, the currents of gangsta-bling false consciousness, the 1000-to-1 stacked-odds-against dreams of crossover fame and privatized salvation… It all agitated against a political perspective. The best grime could offer was what Martin Clark neatly dubbed a "reflectist" approach---better than escapism, but resigned to a reality believed to be impregnable to any attempts at changing it.

So my initial response to Jeremy's critique was "let's be realistic, this was always going to be outside the bounds of the possible, and politics is the art of the possible, right".

Then again, as Mark K-Punk pointed out, to say that is to acquiesce to the logic of capitalist realism.

How could it have gone down differently? What were the potentials that were allowed to remain dormant? There were figures in the early days of the nuum who were quite political--Shut Up and Dance, Rebel MC/Conquering Lion/Congo Natty/Tribe Of Issachar, Kemet Crew. Jeremy mentioned Exodus, the sound system organization in Luton, who threw illegal raves but then moved into activism and community work, setting up a youth centre, getting embroiled in local political struggles, becoming targeted and persecuted by local authorities and the police. I'd never thought of them as part of the jungle scene particularly, although hearing Jeremy refer to them in those terms I flashed on that Hackney Festival in Clissold Park, going there in 1994 and hearing Exodus's system play a junglized version of Marley's "Exodus" (presumably their theme tune). But overall they were too peripheral to have an influence on jungle proper.

Why couldn't a pirate station in London have become an Exodus-like force, though--a real community radio station? Pirate radio was a noticeable absence from the discussion at UEL; I wish I'd talked more about the pirates in Liverpool. After all, they got a whole chapter in Energy Flash, celebrated for staging a kind of "power surge" against consensus reality; the pirate MC's creativity and crucialness is bigged up in a kind of foreshadowing of grime. Pirate stations are already political simply by their hijacking of swathes of the FM spectrum, invading the mainstream media and asserting the existence of a subaltern class within the UK. Think also of the considerable organizational skill involved in keeping a pirate running. The pirate station as an engine fueled by volunteerism: DJs and MCs and support personnel not just giving their time and energy but actual money, weekly or monthly dues to keep the station on air.

Pirate radio in other countries is as often, or more often, political as it is about music. In America, the sense I get is that most pirates are short-range broadcasters of left-wing counter-propaganda. I think as always of Radio Alice in Bologna during the anarcho-communist turbulence of the late Seventies, memorably celebrated by Felix Guattari.

In Britain, though, it's always been music that's almost entirely been the raison d'etre of radio piracy, give or take the occasional pirate set up during a strike… from the Sixties beat music and psychedelia beamed into the mainland by the off-shore stations, to the Radio One-neglected black music output of the Eighties tower block pirates (servicing a marginalised community), to the acieed-and-after stations that kept the nuum massives locked on. That emphasis--music taking precedence over politics--seems to encapsulate the role that music has played in Britain: a deflection of radical energy from its proper target, revolutionary impulses and the appetite for change fatally aestheticized.

Pirate radio is where the idea of "underground" in the musical sense shades closest to "underground" in the political sense. (They have also at times been where "underground" shades into "underworld", in the criminal sense). The operations involved in operating a pirate station--reconnaissance, staking out locations, trip wires, maneuvers and raids done under cover of night, dodging enemy patrols--take on a paramilitary or urban guerrilla air. Pirates have been and continue to be treated as enemies of the state. This sort of quasi-militarism runs through much of the nuum: the idea of being a soldier, of the ad break as a "pause for the cause". But for all the antagonism towards the police, the gleeful apocalyptic anticipation of Babylon's fall… the nuum has primarily and ultimately been an aesthetic opposition party. Its objection to the corporate mainstream has not been anti-capitalist but because it believed that major labels represent dilution and blandness, they move too slow to do justice to the protean turnover of the music.

But then, if it was always just about the music, how is it even thinkable for Jeremy to highlight this short fall in potential? What is it that makes it possible for him to pose this issue of the nuum as a series of failed politicisations?

The power.

The power that anyone felt, anyone who was there--meaning 1992, or 1994, or 2002--any year where a new phase of the nuum kicked off.

The power in the music **, at once purely sonic and yet emanating from outside it, passing through the music from the world of the Real and the Social, and going back out there, spilling the bounds of music as a segmented-off category.

I'm thinking of the electrifying sample that kicks off DJ Crystl's "Warp Drive"--"feel the power". (Apparently from the movie The Dark Crystal). The power is the breakbeat--which at the time "Warp Drive" was getting heavy play on the pirates seemed just about the most jagged and mashed slice of breakbeat science yet unleashed upon the world. It feels like a sculpted riot, a paroxysmic portent of social collapse. If I recall right, on "Warp Drive" Crystl was inspired by the ominous humming drone and beats-and-bass minimalism of Doc Scott's "Here Comes The Drumz," a track which samples Public Enemy, the original "fast rap" group so inspiring to the Brit B-boys who would build ardkore from the ground up ***.

There was a feeling this music gave off, not unlike the forcefield aura emitted by "Rebel Without A Pause" and "Bring the Noise" and "Welcome to the Terrordome", a feeling that this was both the ultimate dance music and much more than dance music. I think of Disco and the Halfway to Discontent, the album by Cornershop alter-ego Clinton (whose name--George or Bill?--further plays on the ambiguity of party-hard and party-political). I recall also the sleevenote on Rufige Kru's Ghosts of My Life EP, Goldie writing, "For those who don't quite understand, 'Ghosts' isn't about 'Disco'… It's about life and my experience, The memories, the haunts, the people, the places. All of us have ghosts in our lives." Both these inflections--the idea of a politicized party music, and of artcore, dance music that's both experimental and expressive--are claiming that there's more going on here that just celebration and letting off steam, the temporary utopia of weekenderism.

What was this power in the music, amorphous and yet real like a punch to your gut? It evoked forward-motion, violence given focus and discipline. The feeling of being in the vanguard, in both the artistic and military senses. In other words, the same "militant modernism" recently invoked by Owen Hatherley. Modernism, in its early 20th Century prime, almost always burst the enclosure of Art to take up one form or other of political commitment -- mostly (not always) left-wing, which in those days usually meant Communist.

I think of the hardcore continuum as a flashback to--or unscheduled recrudescence within popular culture of--modernism. But with a muffled or absent sense of the imperative felt by its High Art precursors that art had to escape the category of the purely aesthetic and spill out into the world if it was to truly realise itself. Or as Adorno put it, "in order for the work of art to be purely and fully a work of art, it must be more than a work of art."

You could see rave as a whole, and the nuum in particular, as modernism's last stand, or unexpected comeback, long after the ideals of modernism had been abandoned, eroded, questioned, everywhere else (including in pop music). Various factors enabled the nuum to evade the general drift towards postmodernism (factors perhaps shared by other black musics such as hip hop and dancehall). Amazingly it was able to evade the blight of postmodernity (irony, referentiality, citational aesthetics) even as it embraced and explored to the hilt the potential of what would on the surface seem to be the ultimate postmodern sound-machine, the sampler.

Miraculously holding pomo at bay, the nuum preserved within itself, within its own partially cordoned off space, the heightened temporality of peak-era modernism: a sensation of hurtling into the future. Like modernism before it, the nuum propelled itself headlong thanks to an internal temporal scheme of continual rupturing; it kept breaking with itself, a reactive dialectic that pushed it ever FWD. As a result it qualifies as one of those "steadily fewer" examples of "combative, collective movements of innovation" (Perry Anderson) that managed to withstand the onset of postmodernity and its culture-pervasive sensibility of eclectism, historicism, and cosmopolitanism.

"Pulp Modernism" is how K-punk classes this renegade aesthetic. With my more Subcultural Studies bent, I prefer the term "Street Modernism". But we're basically talking about the same thing.

According to Fredric Jameson, what defines the modernist artwork is a relationship to time. It enacts the break with the past forms of art within itself. "The interiorization of the narrative [of modernity/modernism]…" becomes an integral element of the artwork's fundamental structure. "The act of restructuration is seized and arrested as in some filmic freeze-frame" such that the modernist work "encapsulates and eternalizes the process as a whole."

What could that mean in music? Precisely a genre that involved a kind of suspended clash of sampling/digital processing with the analogue/hand-played, such that the uncanny time-warping of digital technique coexists with and permeates the hands-on, real-time musicianship. Thus breakbeat science captures the moment of superhumanisation, the funk of flesh-and-blood drumming (just eight seconds of G. Coleman's life-force from "Amen, My Brother") mutating into something beyond itself. Likewise with vocal science. Jameson, again: "the older technique or content must somehow subsist within the work as what is cancelled or overwritten, modified, inverted or negated, in order for us to feel the force, in the present, of what is alleged to have once been an innovation." The shock of the new, eternalized.

People regularly refer to Plato's wary conception of music as inherently subversive, his idea that music in its very essence is a threat to social stability, and therefore something the state needs to control tightly. Actually what he wrote is slightly more complicated , and even more interesting, in the present context. In the imaginary philosophical dialogues of The Republic, speaking through the historically real but here fictionalized figure of Socrates, Plato warns that "the attention of our rulers should be directed so that music and gymnastics [dancing, presumably?] be preserved in their original form… any musical innovation is full of danger to the whole State, and ought to be prohibited... For the modes of music are never disturbed without unsettling of the most fundamental political and social conventions."

Could that be true? I don't know, it seems far-fetched, at this remote vantage point. It's almost a struggle to remember that this, precisely, was the affective sensation generated by this music, in its various heydays. The shockwaves of the beats and bass passing through your body seemed to herald equivalent tremors passing through the body politic. That must be the promise in the music that Jeremy is responding to with his question about the nuum as a series of failed politicisations.

But if the power was really in the music, intrinsic to it, what kept it from spilling out into the wider world, boundless and unstoppable? What made it in the end a narrowcast transmission? I will return to speculate about this and other mysteries in my final reflection.


* is this a sort of reverse Carmodyism?

** Jeremy tells me that the next book he plans to write is actually titled Music is Power is Music

*** odd that in writing about submerged politics within jungle I should happen to fasten on two producers who are white but could be seen, and were heard as, "culturally black"... that fact in itself could and should be counted as a significant political achievement on the part of the nuum

Friday, May 15, 2009


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

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

"not a scene, barely a genre."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


Strange that my innocent analogy with Australia should prove such a stumbling block with the assembly!

The choice of Australia was arbitrary, but I almost seem to have been guided to it by my unconscious, as it's perfectly suited to my argument.

I was referring--and I thought this would be obvious--not to Australia as a political unit, which is obviously a man-made convention, nor to the population, but to the land mass denoted by the word Australia. No one, surely, would deny that this land mass exists and would exist whatever we had decided to call it?

What makes it such a fitting analogy for the hardcore continuum is that it is a substantial body of land, large enough to have several different climate zones in it, but in the grander planetary scheme of things it is eclipsed by much vaster, more densely populated continents. Australia is also relatively isolated. There are territories quite near it--the Philippines, New Zealand--but it is cut off from the other continents. And as a result its ecosystem has a number of animals and plants you don't find elsewhere in the world. Evolution took a different path there.

Until really quite recently this has been one of the striking things about the hardcore continuum: its relative insularity and its evolutionary peculiarities. Note the word "relative". Nonetheless I believe it operated in a relatively self-contained way through the Nineties and a good way into this decade. It assimilated stuff from outside--as influences or through sample theft--but this was funneled into its own internal dynamic of evolution and the creative war of all against all. The scene's focus was inward; centripetal, you might say.

But what about my contentious assertion that the hardcore continuum is an entity, some kind of thing?

I'm not a philosophy student so don't have the squeamishness about certain words ("empirical"; see also vitalist, Romantic, etc) that seems to come with that training. I have what I suppose must seem like a rather literalist/realist--even commonsensical--approach, in so far as I think that things I've witnessed and participated in actually… existed. Perhaps if I'd used the word "phenomenon" rather than thing it would have gone down better. Probably not, there are so many forbidden words in philosophy, aren't there? (Such that certain texts often seemed to be produced out of the contortions made to avoid contamination by certain yuck-yuck concepts or unclean bodies of thought!).

The philosophy students haven't actually had too much to recoil from in this discussion, though, because the experiential and empirical have mostly been eschewed in favour of musical taxonomy. So far the discussion has almost entirely been on the level of genre as opposed to scene. The scenic aspects of the hardcore continuum--the stuff you can see (and feel and smell)--hardly came up at all at the UEL seminar. My Liverpoool talk had a bit more on this aspect, especially at the start but quickly fell into the typical mode of genre-focused talk, tracking the evolution of the music, etc.

Genres can exist without scenes, but it doesn't happen often and in the case of the hardcore continuum the two things are virtually indivisible. When you contemplate the scenery of the hardcore continuum, the analogy with Australia makes complete sense, merely states the obvious. The scene is everything that surrounds and supports the music: the clubs and raves, the media (pirate radio primarily) and the retail network of independent specialist record stores, the labels and DJ agencies. The scene consists of flows of money and of drugs, of energy and emotion. The scene is everything that the music catalyses in terms of behavior and discourse: dance moves and crowd rituals, clothing styles and the graphic imagery of flyers/zines/ record sleeves. And finally the scene consists of the punters, the individuals who come together to form the massive(s).

In a nutshell, "scene" contains and refers to everything in the hardcore continuum that isn't music.

(I think I could make a case for the music as a thing, to be honest: soundwaves have material impact on the ear drums and limbs and other body parts of the dancing crowd; until it's activated the music is trapped inside various recording formats, vinyl or mix-tapes; the music has discernible patterns and structures in it. But we'll leave that argument for now).

So when I say the hardcore continuum is like Australia, what I'm saying is that for a period of some duration, multitudes of people gathered repeatedly, participating in a great number of events that took place at various geographical sites--sometimes one-off parties, more often regular locations--where they behaved in particular ways, expending energy and passion and time and money in a fashion that had direct consequences on their day-to-day lives, and, indirectly, incalculable (meaning hard to calibrate but also "big") effects on the society they lived in; that there was a material infrastructure supporting this through which substantial revenue passed, ranging from the legal (promoters, retail, record labels) to the criminal (drug trade, etc). The nuum was (maybe still is) a socio-economic force in the world and a cultural force (maybe even a proto-political one, more on this in a later post).

In all these senses, the hardcore continuum was (maybe still is) a concrete, material entity of real consequence and impact. By all means stop using the term; that won't unmake the referent it was coined to describe, any more than a worldwide ban on the use of the term "Australia" wouldn't cause that isolated continent in the Southern Hemisphere to cease existing, let alone cause it to never have existed. The only difference is that the hardcore continuum was a historical entity as opposed to a geographical one.

Of course there's another difference, which is that the term "hardcore continuum" is a specialist one as opposed to a generally used term like "Australia". True, it has currency only within a milieu of people who enjoy analyzing music and subculture, and if you went up to most actual inhabitants of the nuum they would look blankly if the word "hardcore continuum" was uttered. But the thing that it describes--a family tree of genres + scenes that runs, in the simplest formulation, hardcore/jungle/UK garage/grime/dubstep--is material and consequential in the same way (if not degree) as Australia is.

"Scene", then, is everything in a musical subculture that isn't the music itself. Scene, but not heard.

Why did we hear so little about "scene" then, and so much about genre?

Genre is easier to talk about. To illustrate a talk, you can play examples of the music much easier than you can convey what it's like to be in the thick of the scene, what the vibe is like (although I tried to get some of that across with the flyers and other ephemera projected on the FACT big screen). There isn't much footage and what there is doesn't really convey what it was like to be on the dancefloor, the sensory overload, the crowd reactions, etc.

At UEL, as Dan Hancocks was quick to point out (and pat himself on the back for), he was pretty much the only person in four hours to actually mention dancing, what this music is ostensibly created for. And the snippet he offered--that the rhythms of funky prompt a different kind of dancing than dubstep or earlier nuum genres--was fascinating. It actually gave me a way into funky, to learn that moving to it involves the hands and arms and shoulders much more than hips or feet. (Perhaps it's the case that different zones of the drum kit activate different zones of the body, so that the higher in tone/timbre percussion sounds tug at the upper body? Or is it just the intricate flickering rhythm patterns invite sinuous finger and arm movements?). This one, brief morsel of data opened up funky for me much more than all the detailed breakdowns of influence-constituents in Track X or Track Y, the micro-taxonomic analyses of miniscule eddies of style-flava within the genre. (Such a pity he immediately went back to dredging up 2006 blog posts of mine!).

Here's an article from early 2008 where I talk about dance music journalism's strange silence about dancing.

"Scene" is the most objectively undeniable and vividly concrete aspect of the nuum, yet it's the thing we habitually neglect to talk about, instead wrestling endlessly over genre theory, tracking various auteur-hero musicians and the influence they had or the influences that made them, discussing intricacies of technology and production. Meanwhile, the affective, the experiential, the behavioural, the social, the participatory… all these "aspects", which are less aspects and much closer to being the whole raison d'etre of the music, get short shrift. Why do we do this?

The pro-nuum camp tends to fall into this approach because of the emphasis on theory, which abstracts the music from the experiential; it will talk about scenius dynamics in an abstract and machinic way, but rarely about the specific ways that the massive create the screenplay to the music's soundtrack; it will celebrate "energy" but in a depersonalized way, as though it was not embodied or enacted by flesh and blood people. The anti-nuum camp has little motivation to evoke the vividness of the nuum as lived historical reality, since it wishes to wish it away. Besides, as I pointed out in my previous reflection, anti-nuumers tend to have an auteur-ist bias and are therefore less interested in scene reporting or participant-observer type documenting of the scene.

Plus, it's what boys do, and the majority of us appear to be boys, regrettably (and the reasons deserve further investigation). Boys like getting stuck into the aggy business of taxonomic disputation and border skirmishes.

Thinking again of Australia (a small continent or large island, who can say?) led me to another analogy with the hardcore continuum that may be less contentious and even more apt. A smaller island that is (or was, until really quite recently) also a relatively isolated music culture. Jamaica. Yes yes, reggae starts with New Orleans R&B misheard, rhythmically inverted. But the focus of Jamaican music culture was inward: the sound systems in the early days might have sent people to the U.S. mainland to scoop up obscure R&B singles but the systems were warring with each other and very soon the music evolved into a totally indigenous sound. There are obviously historical links between Jamaica and the hardcore continuum (transplantation of the sound system/MC, rewinds, dubplates culture to the U.K.) but the parallel works on a more abstract level, in the sense that you have a relatively insular music culture that becomes a kind of pressure-cooker of runaway musical evolution. And what you have in Jamaica is both a macro-genre and a macro-scene. The two things are tightly tethered to each other but they are not identical, which means that the genre can slip out of alignment with the scene and even have a kind of lingering post-scene afterlife. The classic example here is what happened to reggae. It's commonly thought that reggae is synonymous with Jamaican music but strictly speaking it's a phase--after ska and rocksteady, before 80s digital dancehall and ragga. What happens is that reggae-as-genre slips away from the scene that spawned it and becomes a global music, thanks to Bob Marley, The Police, et al. In response to this internationalisation, the native scene renamed itself dancehall, as if to acknowledge that the local audience must always takes primacy over any specific genre of Jamaican music; it named itself after the social spaces in which the music is heard, where its audience gather. At first dancehall was just digital reggae but then it gradually becomes what we think of dancehall today. And that is based around rhythms that actually predate reggae and predate ska, folk rhythms from rural Jamaica. Ultimately though "dancehall" means whatever the Jamaican audience dance too, which includes dancehall-as-genre, old style reggae riddims now and then brought back into favour, hip hop instrumentals from the States, other Caribbean rhythms like soca, and now, it's said, even some funky from London… But if the Kingston massive started shimmying to Radiohead instrumentals that would become "dancehall" too.

I think the relationship between nuum-as-macrogenre and nuum-as-macroscene is similar to Jamaica. The paradigm example in nuum terms is the switch-over from drum & bass to speed garage--drum & bass becomes untethered from the scene, becomes a UK-nationwide and increasingly international genre, while the scene itself, the nuum heartland of London, embraces a new genre that restores some of the junglistic things that D&B had lost but in a new slower and sexier rhythmic template.

So if not Australia, then perhaps we can accept the notion of the hardcore continuum as a sort of Jamaica-like entity within the UK… a nation within the nation, without borders in the conventional political or geographic sense, but certainly with privileged sites, gathering spots, centripetal zones. The fact that the idea of "nation" even rises to the discursive surface of nuum culture sometimes, with names like Jungle Nation and Garage Nation, suggests this analogy is sound. A tribe is a small nation, and likewise a subcultural tribe is a form of micro-nation organised around musical affiliation.

Finally, I have to disagree with a notion several people have brought up, the idea that the concept of the hardcore continuum is motivated by a canonic impulse, and therefore rooted in snobbery (boo, hiss! Critics should never say what's good and bad, should they?). This is a misconception. A canon--as with Harold Bloom's The Western Canon (which I've actually read in its entirety--meaning his book, as opposed to all the books he anoints therein!)--is the selected masterworks within an art form. In terms of the nuum, the canon would be the tracks that a community of informed opinion nominated as groundbreaking, innovative, epoch-defining anthems, or just plain killer. But the hardcore continuum is the sum total of all music made in this macro-genre during its historical span (1990-to-20??), not just the first division but the second and third division too, the mediocre and substandard. (The hardcore continuum also consists, as I've argued in this post, of the sum of all the behavior, the socio-economic and infrastructural etc--it's the macro-scene as well as the macro-genre).

The nuum is not equivalent to the canon of Western Literature; it's equivalent, in this argument, to Western Literature itself. Or to sculpture, or cinema, or... any vast body of artistic activity that varies widely in quality. The nuum is that entity itself, in its entirety, prior to the filtration exercise of aesthetic judgement and fan debate (which creates a canon).

To say that the hardcore continuum never existed (as a lunatic fringe now propose) is to me as silly as saying Western Literature never existed. The latter is a category that humans invented, for sure, if you really want to be pedantic. But it exists in the sense that millions of pages of "Western Literature" exist in the world, millions of hours were spent on the writing of it by real persons in the belief they were contributing to it and a similar amount of time and energy expended in the criticism of it by people who believed they were furthering it or protecting it; it led to billions of hours of enjoyment and also non-enjoyment by innumerable real readers who really existed. That's real enough for me.

Ditto (on a much smaller scale) for the hardcore continuum.

Sunday, May 10, 2009


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breakbeat science (developed from hip hop)

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

Vocal science (developed from house)

MC fast chat (developed from dancehall)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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