Saturday, December 16, 2017

Routes from the Jungle (Kodwo komp)

VARIOUS ARTISTS
ROUTES FROM THE JUNGLE: ESCAPE VELOCITY VOLUME 1
Circa
Melody Maker 1995

by Simon Reynolds

What we have here  is a damn-dear definitive history of the genre '91-'95,  ardkore to art-core. Taking in happy, dark-side, ambient and drum & bass, this two-disc set only shortchanges us vis-a-vis ruffneck ragga. And it gets round the problem of being comprehensive yet avoiding redundancy (given the excessive number of jungle compilations in existence), by A/ including unusual mixes of key tracks that have appeared elsewhere on CD, and B/ dredging up some lost classics never before CD-anthologised.

Lost classics like Lennie D Ice's "We Are E", which cheekily turned an African chant into an anthem for the Luv'd Up Nation. And like the sultry smooch-core of "Waking Up" by Nicolette (now of Massive, then of the Shut Up and Dance stable), and of Manix's unbearably tender "You Held My Hand". Lost-est and classic-est of the lot, and my absolute favourite hardcore track of all time, is Foul Play's remix of their own "Open Your Mind". With its angel-host harmonies and diaphonous ripple of succulent synth, this track is as goosepimply as the entire works of My Bloody Valentine liquidised in a blender and injected into your spine. Midway, the track veers into the twilight-zone, then turns vicious with a veritable St Valentine's Day Massacre of rapid-fire snares.            

Other gems on Disc One include the febrile avant-funk of DJ Edrush's dark-core classic "Bludclot Artattack", as flesh-crawlingly foreboding as stumbling into a voodoo ceremony; the gloriously garbled "Secret Summer Fantasy" by the undeservingly forgotten Body Snatch (somebody anthologise their awesome "Just For U London", pu-leeze!!); plus A Guy Called Gerald's cyber-tribal "Nazinji-Zaka", making good its mysterious omission from the "Black Secret Technology" LP. Drawing mostly on late '94 and early '95, Disc Two is a handy survey of the state of the art-core. The old skool's rushin'-and-gushin' euphoria has given way to a more measured passion; fusion and Detroit techno influences are entering the junglist gene-pool. The result is a sort of ferocious elegance, best exemplified here by the delicate, deliquescent melancholia of Dillinja's "Deeper Love", the clockwork-gone-crazy convolutions of 4 Hero's Wrinkles In Time", and Droppin' Science's "Volume 2", with its radioactive synth-glow and grotesquely elasticated breakbeats.

All this, plus excellent sleevenotes from compiler Kodwo Eshun, makes "Routes From The Jungle" the most essential jungle-primer for the uninitiated since last year's "Drum & Bass, Selection 1". It's a history of the phuture. Buy, buy.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty

BEN RATLIFF

Every Song Ever - Twenty Ways to Listen In an Age of Musical Plenty

New York TimesFeb 17, 2016 

by Simon Reynolds


Few things scream “first world problem” more loudly than the notion that there’s too much good art and entertainment being made at the moment. Yet it’s undeniable that there is something curiously oppressive about the current bounty, something paralyzing about our ease of access to it. TV is one field where what ought to be a boon feels increasingly like a bane: once there were only dozens of new shows per season, now there are hundreds, such that keeping up with the quality output gets to seem like a chore.  If anything, the music overload feels even more unmanageable. 

New York Times music critic Ben Ratliff’s new book is a remedial intervention for our predicament of being able to “hear nearly everything, almost whenever, almost wherever, basically for free”.  Every Song Ever is framed as a set of  strategies to counter the confusion and appetite-loss that can afflict music fans as they attempt to navigate what feels like a cross between a maze and a banquet - the overflowing riches offered by  streaming services like Spotify,  unofficial archives like YouTube, music-sharing blogs, and other instant-access sources of sound.  Rather than rely on traditional signposts such as genre borders or artist biography, Mr. Ratliff proposes new routes across the teeming landscape: modes of attentive listening based around concepts or musical properties. Some, such as slowness, speed, stillness, and density, are fairly easy to grasp; others, like discrepancy and transmission, are more elusive. 

Close listening is Mr. Ratcliff’s forte. When he gets right inside what a musician is doing in a particular recording or performance, and how that affects your body or perceptions, the results are usually lovely and illuminating. His studies of James Brown’s “Ain’t It Funky,” Sleep’s Dopesmoker, and the work of João Gilberto and Curtis Mayfield, are precise but never clinical.  The chapter “Getting Clear,” dealing with “audio space” as conjured on records by producers and engineers as well as by players, is particularly vivid, encompassing  artists as various as Grateful Dead, Roy Haynes, Pink Floyd, Stockhausen and Miley Cyrus. Mr. Ratcliff fulfils the injunction of Manfred Eicher, the founder and in-house producer of the ECM label, to “think of your ears as your eyes.”    

Another absorbing chapter deals with participatory discrepancies, a concept coined by the musicologist Charles Keil to describe the minute imprecisions in a performance that create a group’s unique feel.  Mr. Ratliff advises that the best way to hear a classic rumba album by Totico Arango and Patato Valdés is “through headphones, at night, walking through heavy crowds in Times Square, smelling street food, visually processing the lights.” That’s because the music in your ears will mirror the external environment: “nothing happens in perfect synch or in a straight line”; instead there’s a mesh of “flickering, jostling particulars.” 

 Mr. Ratliff leans towards non-technical terms and unshowy language, which he then nudges towards the profound or revealing. Sometimes that works brilliantly:  a passage on the Allman Brothers and the glory of bands with two drummers likens the role of Jaimoe to “a housepainter doing touch-ups, not on the second day of work but as the first coat is applied.”  Other times the effect falls somewhere between cute and clever, like when attempting to account for why virtuosi are so often religious:  “Perhaps they can’t contain their own pride and gratitude, or they can’t house the gigantic battery needed to power it.  They need an external storage space for it, and they call it God”.
  
A larger problem with Every Song Ever is that its premise starts to fade from view – starts to seem like a pretext, in fact, for a fragmented miscellany of meditations on music Mr. Ratliff likes. That’s fine as far as it goes, and readers will often find themselves propelled to YouTube or Spotify to hear what he’s writing about. But I wasn’t convinced that the nomadic modes of engagement with music he advocates would necessarily help anyone grapple with the quandaries of listening in an overloaded era. The categories are so open-ended they might even increase one’s sense of disorientating plenitude. They seem more like exercises one might do after having listened to a hugely varied amount of music over the course of a lifetime. 

Mr. Ratliff is both wary and weary of genre, which, near the start of the book, he asserts is “a construct for the purpose of commerce, not pleasure, and ultimately for the purpose of listening to less”. Actually, genre terms mostly emerge organically out of communities of musicians and fans.  Although Mr. Ratliff announces early on that he’ll refrain from using genre language wherever possible, in practice he nearly always identifies music using those tags: as bebop, happy hardcore, flamenco, dark ambient, nyabinghi.  Genre terms are useful, perhaps indispensable; they tell you something. The self-consciously genre-crossing critic – just like the self-consciously genre-blending musician – depends on style boundaries precisely to transgress them and achieve desired sensations of liberation, discovery, an airy cosmopolitan feeling of rising above the rooted and local.     

Mr. Ratliff uses terms like “comfort zone” as negative concepts, implying that listening widely is virtuous, or at least good for you, promoting a suppleness of sensibility.  But fanatical relationships with a particular sound or scene can be just as engaged, just as rewarding. Metal fiends, for instance, find an infinite array of subtle shades in what seems like undifferentiated monotony to non-initiates.  This sort of patriotic adherence to genre is something that Mr. Ratliff believes is on the way out, historically.  Which may be true, but is that a good thing?  The roaming listener who samples across the genrescape is more often than not harvesting musical fruits that were generated by narrowly focused and dedicated purists. 

In the end, it remains debatable whether there is a right or wrong, healthy or unhealthy way to listen to music. Being an omnivore doesn’t even guarantee increased enjoyment. There are people who derive endless delight just listening to one kind of music, or even a single artist, as Mr. Ratliff acknowledges in a section about individuals he’s encountered who have all-consuming obsessions with Frank Zappa or the Grateful Dead’s live recordings.  Conversely, one of the downsides of the age of plenty is that the more widely you listen outside your well-worn grooves, the more frequently you’ll experience disappointment, distaste, or just indifference.  More is less. 

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Moon Wiring Club / Jon Brooks - Cafe Kaput - DD Denham

Moon Wiring Club and DD Denham: music for children, by children

The Guardian, 24 November 2010 

by Simon Reynolds

"One thing I've always wanted for my music is for it to appeal to children," says Ian Hodgson of Moon Wiring Club. "An ideal listening situation would be a family car journey. I think children would like all the voices and oddness. If you present kids with fun, spooky electronic music, then they might grow up wanting to make it themselves, like I did with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop." Hodgson's friend and collaborator Jon Brooks, aka the Advisory Circle, goes one better with the debut release for his label Café Kaput, which consists of spooky electronic music made by schoolchildren in the 70s.

Brooks and Hodgson originally met through MySpace. They rapidly discovered that they were "probably variations of the same person", according to Hodgson, with a shared passion for vintage 70s and 80s TV (not just the programmes but their incidental music and theme tunes). The friendship soon became an alliance. Brooks has done the mastering for all four Moon Wiring Club albums, including the brand new and brilliant A Spare Tabby at the Cat's Wedding. Hodgson, in turn, has done the artwork for Café Kaput. A full-blown collaboration between Moon Wiring Club and the Advisory Circle is in the pipeline.

The pair are chalk and cheese, though, when it comes to the way they operate musically. A skilled multi-instrumentalist whose music is "98% hand-played", Brooks makes little use of sampling or computer software. The Advisory Circle's 2006 debut EP Mind How You Go (reissued this year by Ghost Box in expanded, vinyl-only form) and 2008's much-acclaimed Other Channels reveals Brooks to be one of the contemporary scene's great melodists, with a gift for plush, intricate arrangements. Hodgson's approach, in contrast, is much more hip-hop raw. Entirely sample-based, Moon Wiring Club is assembled using astonishingly rudimentary technology: a PlayStation 2 and "a second-hand copy of MTV Music Generator 2 from 2001".

Hodgson turned to this crude set-up after struggling with software typically used to make electronic dance music. Because he's a longtime gamer, Hodgson found using a joypad to make music "much faster and more enjoyable" than clicking a mouse. But it still took him a while to work out how to get good results out of a PlayStation 2. "After months of tinkering, I discovered that it's good at sequencing short repeated phrases." Instead of looping breakbeats, Hodgson builds up rhythm patterns from single drum hits. Then he'll weave in sinuous and sinister basslines that are often coated in a dank layer of echo and delay. "I'll place the bass melody around the rhythm in a very 'stereo' way. I tend to see it all in my head as a 'cat's cradle'. Then if you add delay to the bass and time it right you get extra little melodies inside this structure. They sort of bounce and react with each other. Add melody and atmosphere to it and you get another interlocking structure – slightly organic, soggy, bouncy and knackered."

Moon Wiring Club often resembles trip-hop if its "vibe" was sourced not in obscure funk and jazz-fusion records but from the incidental music to The Prisoner, Doctor Who and The Flumps. Vocal samples are a huge part of Moon Wiring Club. Always spoken not sung, and always British in origin, they're derived largely from videos and DVDs of bygone UK television series such as Casting the Runes, Raffles and Ace of Wands. A scholar of "vintage telly", Hodgson can discourse at persuasive length about the superiority of British theatrical-turned-TV thesps such as Julian Glover and Jan Francis over American actors like Harrison Ford. He recently dedicated a podcast mix to 70s voiceover deity and Quiller star Michael Jayston.

Moon Wiring Club originally evolved out of what was intended to be "a peculiar children's book", Strange Reports from a Northern Village." That project got stalled but it did spawn the Blank Workshop website, based on an imaginary town called Clinksell, which has its own brand of confectionery, Scrumptyton Sweets, and a line of fantasy fiction, Moontime Books. The children's book project lives on also in the distinctive graphic look that Hodgson, a former fine art student, wraps around the Moon Wiring releases, drawing on influences including Biba's 20s-into-70s glamour, the strange exquisiteness of Arthur Rackham's illustrations, and Victorian fairy painters such as Richard Dadd. Blank Workshop and Moon Wiring Club is where all of Hodgson's enthusiasms and obsessions converge: "Electronic music, Art Deco, and the England of teashops, stately homes, ruined buildings and weird magic." Not forgetting computer-games music, a massive influence. "There is something about the forced repetition that makes you remember the tunes in a unique way," Hodgson says, adding that in some ways "Moon Wiring Club is meant to be Edwardian computer-game music."

"Still a kid in a lot of ways," is how Jon Brooks describes himself. His journey through music began "at pre-school age", thanks to his jazz session-player father. "Fellow jazzers would come round to record demos or share ideas. There were always instruments and tape recorders lying about." Brooks was proficient on a half-size drum kit his dad bought him before he even went to school. Soon the child prodigy was grappling with guitar, glockenspiel and keyboards, as well as messing with tape recorders and learning from his father about microphone placement. Although his dad died when Brooks was only nine, the son continued to pursue music, avoiding any formal training but studying music technology while helping to teach an A-level class in music technology.

Perhaps his early start with music, along with his later involvement in musical pedagogy, accounts for why Brooks was so intrigued by Electronic Music in the Classroom, an ultra-rare recording that was the byproduct of a course implemented at several home counties schools in 75-76 and which he has reissued through his just-launched downloads-only label Café Kaput. Originally released in a miniscule edition of reel-to-reel tapes and cassettes for the parents of the children involved, this remarkable record is credited to DD Denham, the peripatetic teacher who devised and implemented the course. But the contents are actually the creme de la creme of the work created by participating children. Now retired, Denham stresses that "the concepts were always those of the child. I would help quite a bit with technical realisation, in terms of connecting that concept to a sound. But I always explained to them the steps taken in order to achieve the sound. The children soon picked up various techniques and developed them on their own. So, a little bit of collaboration, but it was more guidance than anything."

Many of the pieces on Electronic Music in the Classroom are disorienting and disquieting, reflecting children's under-acknowledged appetite for the sinister. "Some children would get spooked by each other's compositions or sounds," Denham recalls. "Sometimes an oscillator would emit a loud wailing and lots of other children would gather round the instrument like a magnet, rather than run away. Kids actually love being scared and sound, although harmless in this case, can be scary and thrilling." The reissue comes with the original liner notes, in which Denham recounts some of the quirky inspirations that the children drew on, from a nightmare about nuns, to the unsettling smell of the air expelled from a church organ, to the ghostly flitting figures of poachers seen from afar after dusk.

Then there's The Way the Vicar Smiles, a delirium of drastically warped, vaguely ecclesiastical sounds (what could be church bells, a choir singing psalms). In the liner notes Vicar Smiles is accurately described by its young creators Robert and Luke as "a bit creepy". "The local education authority thought we were probably skating a little too close to the middle with that one," recalls Denham. "You couldn't get away with it now. However, the vicar in question disappeared from his work a couple of years later, without so much as a whisper. Make of that what you will."

Thursday, November 23, 2017

RIP Malcolm Young

AC/DC
 High Voltage / Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap / Highway To Hell/ Back In Black / For Those About To Rock We Salute You 
Mojo, 1994


by Simon Reynolds

Beats me why AC/DC aren't rated alongside The Ramones as seminal mid-'70s
minimalists. Both have built a career out of flogging a formula. Musically,
AC/DC's rock'n'roll fundamentalism takes the form of stop-start raunch-riffs and
lewd sub-blues rasp, as opposed to the Blitzkrieg Boppers' buzzsaw ramalama and
gabba-gabba-hey. Lyrically, AC/DC's fuckin', fightin' and hellraisin' yarns, like
the Ramones' gonzo shtick, is 50 percent tongue-in-cheek rock'n'roll parody, 50
percent genuine thick-as-pigshit moronicism.



AC/DC and the Ramones both debuted pre-punk, and hit their creative stride
in '76. But one's hip and the other's not. The reason is that AC/DC have no
progeny, whereas The Ramones blueprinted punk. Flattening the syncopation and the
sex out of rock'n'roll, the Ramones inadvertantly created a whole new rock
aesthetic. Whereas what makes AC/DC trad is precisely their strongest point, the
supple rhythm section and hip-grinding riffage: they're a reversion to the pre-
punk, pre-metal days when rock was dance music. AC/DC funk, which is why the Beasties sampled them to def (jam). In fact, "TNT", from 1976's High Voltage, is rap megalomania a decade ahead of its time, with Bon Scott boasting he's gonna "explode" just like LL Cool J in Mama Said Knock You Out, then nominating himself "Public Enemy Number One"!



The RIFF is one of those things that rock-critical thought has no purchase
on. As with the grain of the voice in soul, or the bassline in funk, it's
something you can't really talk about, or explain why one grabs you where
another doesn't. The RIFF is rock's base element, and AC/DC's absolute essence;
it's not Angus Young's solos, but his and brother Malcolm Young's dual rhythm guitars
that are the lure on "Rock'n'Roll Singer", "Live Wire", "Problem Child", "Highway
To Hell". AC/DC also have a great way with a teasin' intro, e.g. "For Those About
To Rock We Salute You."




Other aspects to AC/DC are pretty peripheral next to the meat-and-potatoes
of the boogie. Juvenile is the keynote: this is the band that put the 'base' in
back-to-basics. The bawdy misogny and puerile innuendo can get mighty tiresome:
the VD metaphors of "The Jack", the drooling lechery of "Love At First Feel",
"Beating Around The Bush", ad nauseam.



Then again (returning to the punk analogy), "Rock'n'Roll Singer" (from High Voltage) parallels "Career Opportunities" as Bon rants "you can stick your 9-to-5 living ...and all the other
shit they teach the kids at school". And "Problem Child" (from Dirty Deeds) is as psychotic as "No Feelings". AC/DC's ethos is nothing if not "the truth is only known by guttersnipes". But truthfully, their petty delinquency is closer to Oi! than Class of '77. Imagine Cockney Rejects, but with 'feel' and 'groove'.





An anthology of singles (AC/DC are one of the great singles band) and best
album tracks is way overdue, but until then these digitally remastered reissues
offer an opportunity to reappraise the aged Aussie reprobates. High Voltage is a stone classic, and the rest all have their moments.





Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Carol Clerk remembered

reminiscence of a Melody Maker colleague, part of a memorial package that The Quietus organised in April 2010 in celebration of Carol



Carol Clerk is a vivid and indelible presence in my memories of my time at Melody Maker. The same surely goes for anybody who passed through the portals of that paper (and the public houses adjacent to it). I remember the impish twinkle in her eye, the cadence of her voice, the tininess of her frame (often brought into relief by the size of the pint glass in her hand). She was one of the most approachable people in the Melody Maker office but also probably the most formidable. I think I escaped getting a tongue-lashing from her at any point during my time at the Maker (even after "helping" out on the news desk one week with typing in information about new releases and inserting some made-up stuff about a couple of bands I detested). No doubt I would remember such a well-deserved telling-off if it had happened.

Actually I'm surprised I was let off, because in my mind's eye I picture Carol as this newspaperwoman of the old school, a real professional, still chasing stories hard on a Friday afternoon, when most everybody else in the office was slacking off down the pub. The British music press was unique in that you could prosper there and get right to the top, without any journalistic training or being the slightest bit versed in traditional reporting or editing skills. Carol was an anomaly in that respect, in that she actually did have that training. If I remember correctly, she had worked at a newspaper or two on her way to ending up at the Maker. One thing that really amazed me was when I learned that she did her interviews without a tape recorder, just using a notepad, scribbling down the conversation in short hand.

Carol was an anomaly in another sense, a woman in what was (especially when she started out) a male-dominated field. ("Dominated" always strikes me as a bit of an overstatement: I think most people in the music press really wanted more women to be involved… but at the same time it's true there could be a laddish aura about the Maker). Carol thrived despite this in part because she could out-drink, out-smoke and out-joke any of the men, but at the same time she managed to retain through it all an aspect that was…. motherly.

Another admirable thing about Carol was the way she stuck with the music she was into, which was basically hard rock. There was no keeping up with what was au courant (she must have found so much of what got covered in the Maker--and the way it was covered-- to be ridiculous). Carol liked what she liked and with characteristic tenacity and loyalty she stayed with it.

Image result for carol clerk



Friday, November 17, 2017

slackers

SLACKERS
end-of-year essay for Melody Maker, unpublished i think
1992?

by Simon Reynolds



There were "slackers" long before anyone gave them a name. For
decades, every college town and major city in the Western world has
had its bohemian sector of n'er do wells and time-wasters busily
engaged in trying to stave off the Real World for as long as
possible.  Rejecting the career ladder, these drop-outs prolong
adolescence and mess about - for a few years, for decades, sometimes
forever.  Financial insecurity seems a fair trade for more time to
devote to creativity, questioning and self-discovery. It was this
bohemian milieu that birthed the hippy and punk movements, and it
remains the perennial breeding ground for indie bands.

     The UK equivalent of slackerdom used to be "dole culture",
before signing on became an increasingly untenable lifestyle after
Thatcher's assault on the Welfare State.  In the USA, middle class
kids try to drag out their college education as long as possible;
after college, some live off private incomes (as with the notorious
"Grandma's trust fund" that subsidises every Lower East Side
hardcore band's recording costs and drug habits), others eke out a
living with temporary jobs (waiting, working in record stores, etc).

     But in the late Eighties, a particular rock aesthetic and
worldview emerged that was eventually christened "slacker".  It
combined elements from earlier boho-movements: slacker = the stoned
dreaminess of hippy + the faithless vacancy of punk. But perhaps
more significant was what it left out of the fusion: slackers were
hippies without the world-changing idealism, punks without the
speed-fuelled uptightness and will-to-power. The defining quality of
slacker is limp: as Mercury Rev put it on their second album,
"Boces" - "if there's one thing I can't stand, it's up".  The
slacker is apolitical, a Rebel against Causes, against Movements
(and movement).

    Perhaps the archetypal slacker in rock is J.  Mascis. On the
early Dinosaur Jr's albums "You're Living All Over Me" and "Bug"
(1987/88), he came over as a pampered, housebound, spiritual
invertebrate. Mascis' ragged, frazzled guitar-sound, torn-and-frayed
drawl-whine of a voice, and fatigued lyrics, all aspired to that
early Seventies Neil Young feeling of burn-out, that stemmed from
the bitter comedown after the late Sixties high.  Another early
classic of slacker rock was Sonic Youth's "Daydream Nation" (1988),
which imagined New York as a psychedelic labyrinth, "a wondertown"
for the dazed-and-confused wanderer.  Songs like "The Sprawl",
"Eric's Trip" and "Hyperstation" took unmoored drifting to the brink
of psychosis.  Then there was the nouveau acid rock of the Butthole
Surfers, whose Gibby Haynes and Paul Leary chucked in careers in
accountancy for a life of making mess (on stage, on record) and
getting wasted.

     In the US, there's another strand of maladjusted, unmotivated
youth, who have less choice about wasting their lives: they don't
have any opportunities to squander in the first place. These kids,
known as "burn-outs" or "stoners", drop out while still at school.
Despised by their teachers and by their more aspirational peers,
burn-outs wear long-hair, smoke pot by the bike shed, and listen to
heavy metal (classics like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath,
contemporary thrash like Metallica and Slayer).  They hang out in
car lots and abandoned buildings, get harassed by the cops,
sometimes graduate to harder drugs like heroin.  The British
equivalent of burn-outs are probably the kind of delinquents that
made up Happy Mondays or todays' hardcore techno youth. But rave
culture hasn't impacted suburban America yet, so burn-outs don't get
hyper and happy, they numb the pain as best they can.

     In her book "Teenage Wasteland: Suburbia's Dead End Kids",
Donna Gaines pinpoints the predicament that faces the burn-outs.
With the decline of traditional manufacturing employment, the only
options for these kids are ignominious service sector jobs, devoid
of union protection or prospects for advancement.  Hence their low
self-esteem, the feeling that there's no future, and the commonly
expressed sentiment: "no job is worth cutting your hair for".  The
gap between the expectations fostered by the dream factory of
Hollywood and MTV, and what they can reasonably expect from life, is
huge.  The escape routes from this dead end include the
anaesthetic/amnesiac coma of drugs, and the one-way ticket "outa
here" of suicide. The more optimistic imagine joining the army or
forming a successful rock band: both ways of seeing the world and
learning a trade.  Even after Clinton, the outlook is still bleak
for American youth: paying off the deficit will depress the US
economy for years. There's literally "No Future": the babyboom
generation have already spent it.

     In the late Eighties, after years of "lite-metal" (all those
poodle-perm groups like Bon Jovi), metal got heavier again,
musically and thematically. Bands like Metallica took on punk's
attitude, cutting down the musical flab and addressing grim reality
in their lyrics.  Meanwhile, the post-hardcore bands were getting
heavier, fusing the turgid ponderousness of early Seventies blues
rock with the belligerence of punk. And so grunge was born. And out
of its birthplace, Seattle, Nirvana exploded into the mainstream
with "Smells Like Teen Spirit", a record that briefly forged
middle-class slackers and blue-collar burn-outs into a unity of
disaffected youth. Only Nirvana could do this, because of their
unique combination of intelligence (Cobain and Novoselic are
art-school drop outs, politically sussed) and raw, simplistic
aggression. Today, the grunge spectrum extends from arty absurdism
to bludgeoning, brain-dead bombast. At the slackerdaisical end of
the spectrum, there's Pavement, with their surreal wit and mild
disillusionment: at the other end, pure burn-out, you'll find Alice
In Chain, who are devoid of irony and totally mired in despondency.

     Pavement exemplify the brighter side of the slacker condition:
namely, that all that freedom from responsiblity gives you time to
bliss out on the weirdness and wondrousness of everyday life, time
to acquire an obsessive knowlege of music. But there's a downside
even here: you can tell that Steven Malkmus' inordinately large
record collection hasn't made him happy, that in fact he feels
dwarfed and unworthy when faced by the achievements of previous rock
eras. And like true slackers, Pavement disguise this by terminal
irony.  The dark side of slackerdom comes through more plainly with
bands like Alice In Chains, Soundgarden, Rollins Band, Nirvana:
feelings of impotence, entropy, entrapment.  I reckon grunge is
'castration blues', and if you think that's fanciful, consider the
fact that Alice In Chains actually have a song called "Slow
Castration", that there's a line in "Smells Like Teen Spirit" about
being "neutered and spayed".

     In that one song, Nirvana captured all the anguish and the
cruel irony of the slacker condition.  Nirvana want to rebel, they
want to believe that music can change the world, but their
insurrectionary spirit is crippled in advance because they know that
resistance is futile: the music industry routinely turns rebellion
into money. Teen spirit is bottled, shrinkwrapped and sold over the
counter.  And so Cobain's rage chokes in his throat, festers and
turns to bitter bile.

     *         *         *         *         *

    As well as Nirvana's breakthrough, 1991 also saw the cult
success of the movie "Slacker". Directed by 28 year old Richard
Linklater, it was a low-budget snapshot of the shiftless, decentred
life of the twentysomething hangers-on who inhabit the fringes of
the University of Austin, Texas.  Drifting through Austin's summer
streets, Linklater's camera bumps into a hundred of these ne'er-do-
wells, eavesdropping on their bizarre monologues and debates
(usually concerning conspiracy theory or elaborate validations of
their own apathy), and observing their peculiar rites. Funny,
touching, but implicitly sad, "Slacker" steadfastly refuses to judge
the slackers. For Linklater the film was neither diatribe nor
celebration, just a document.

    One of the things "Slacker" captured so well was the way that
slackers, while passive and weak-willed, envy those capable of
action. They have a voyeuristic, vicarious fascination with
assassins and mass murderers, perhaps because they offer a mesmering
spectacle of pure will.  "Slackers spend their whole lives in their
own heads," says Linklater.  "Making that leap of faith into action
is hard.  So when they hear of one person who did make a difference,
they're impressed, even if it's a mass murderer."

     Slacker's main activities (or passivities, more accurately) are
"daydreaming as productive activity" and trawling the detritus of
decades of pop culture.  The result is a slacker aesthetic, a weird
mix of kitsch and mysticism, that has obvious parallels in music
(Butthole Surfers, Sonic Youth, Bongwater) but also in modern art.
Artforum magazine identified a slacker school of artists, whose
installations involve random accretions of found objects, trashy
knick-nacks and personal souvenirs. In slackerdom, wrote Jack
Bankowsky, "everyone worships at their own jerry-built altar".

     1991 also saw the publication of Doug Coupland's 'novel'
"Generation X", an amusing but lightweight dissection of the
twentysomething malaise. Seeing no hope for advancement on the
career ladder, Coupland's X-ers are into "lateral mobility", moving
from one unsatisfactory "McJob" to another.  After the success of
their debut efforts, both Linklater and Coupland turned their
attention to teenagers: Coupland wrote "Shampoo Planet" (about
today's global teens) and Linklater filmed "Dazed and Confused"
(about Seventies high school burn-outs). Meanwhile, Hollywood
detected a market in the twentysomething demographic, and started
churning out slacker-sploitation pics, like Cameron Crowe's cute but
slight "Singles" and Michael Steinberg's stylish but pseudo-profound
"Bodies, Rest and Motion".

     *         *         *         *         *         *

     Since the Zeitgeist-defining moment that was "Smells Like Teen
Spirit", the precarious alliance between slackers and burn-outs has
disintegrated, in much the same way that punk dispersed into a
myriad fragments after the Sex Pistols auto-destructed. The slacker
contingent has gone off into the rarerified realm of noise-for-
noise's sake. In the wake of Pavement, a burgeoning movement of
lo-fi avant-garage bands has emerged: Unrest, Ween, Sebadoh, Mercury
Rev, Flaming Lips, Truman's Water, Royal Trux, God Is My Co-Pilot,
Timber, Thinkin' Fellers Union Local 282, Smog, etc.  Like Pavement,
these bands favour cryptic song-titles, surreal lyrics, arcane
influences (The Fall, Krautrockers like Can, Faust, Neu), and
a mess-thetic of loose ends and wilful dishevelment.  Meanwhile, the
bulk of the audience that Nirvana created has stuck with the simpler
fare of pure grunge: the brawn and bombast of punk-metal bands like
Stone Temple Pilots, Kyuss, Flotsam and Jetsam, who all plough the
narrow strip of terrain between Black Sabbath and Black Flag.  It's
seems unlikely that this split between arty elitism (the slackers)
and artless populism (the grungers) will be repaired.

     And what of Nirvana, the band who made the Slacker a public
figure? Judging by the sequel to "Nevermind", with its ultra-grunge
Steve Albini production, Cobain & Co seem deadset on alienating
their audience and shortcircuiting their success. You only have to
read the sleevenotes to "Incesticide", with Cobain's angst-wracked
writhing about integrity and his almost pathetic namedrops of
obscure bands, to realise that Nirvana want to go back to the indie
womb. A slacker who's somehow landed himself with a millionaire
career, Cobain is knocking on the underground's door, begging for
readmission.  And ain't that pure slack?

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Boys in the (band) Hood (do cry)

Hood 
Cold House 
(Domino/Aesthetics)
Spin, 2001

by Simon Reynolds 


Hood make mope-rock for the laptop era.  

This English quartet are survivors from a brief early Nineties moment of mingling between UK indie dreampop and techno. Reared on the guitarhaze of A.R. Kane and My Bloody Valentine,  these groups  had their heads flipped around by  Aphex Twin.  While some of these outfits, like Seefeel, gradually went all the way into abstract electronix,  others, like legends-to-a-few Disco Inferno, remained attached to the song and the voice.  Updating this indie-meets-electronica formula, Hood offering glitch with a human face, their sound poised somewhere between the jackfrost fragility of  New Zealand janglers The Chills and the faded-photo poignancy of  Boards of Canada. Crunchy filtered beats jostle with bright acoustic guitar, crestfallen analog synths waver alongside mournful horns.

But just as you've got Cold House pegged as a way-underground cousin to Kid A and Vespertine,  another element comes in from far left-field:  hip hop. Abstrakt-to-the-max rhymes from Dose One and Why? of Bay Area crew cLOUDDEAD feature on three tracks, ranging from surreal lines like "sometimes the sunset doesn't want to be photographed" to stuff that's more like a braid-of-breath than actual decipherable words.


As Cold House's title suggests, the dominant mood is desolate (Hood come from Leeds in the infamously bleak  North of England) . On "The Winter Hit Hard" gale-force winds of dubbed-out drumming buffet a frail sapling of a vocal melody, and the entire album teems with  images like "there's coldness in this sky" or "your cold hand in mine". 

This heat-dearth is as much a matter of internal affect as climate, though.  The singer's fallible voice recalls too-sensitive-for-this-world folk minstrel Nick Drake, and the lyrics manage to stay just the right side of "precious" as they flick through snapshots from what seems to be the drawn-out death throes of a relationship. Pained insights flash by concerning regret, the oppressive weight of the past, dreams "snatched from your grasp," and the way the world seems dead, stripped of all enchantment, after the love had gone.  

For Hood, life's a glitch, and then you cry. 

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Against All Odds: Grime in 2005

AGAINST ALL ODDS: GRIME
director's cut version, Spin August 2005

by Simon Reynolds

The first thing that hits you is the clashing reek of twelve different brands of cheap perfume. The second is how weird it is to stand in a crowd of teenage girls waving gun-fingers and yelling “BRRAP BRRAP BRRAP.” The trigger for their frenzy is Crazy Titch, an East London MC who’s the closest thing the U.K. grime scene has to a heart throb. He’s hoarsely hollering his anthem “Sing Along” over a bizarre rhythm made from a chopped-up classical symphony. One 13-year-old black girl stands stock still, staring at Titch with awe and adoration, intently biting her fingernail. Everybody else in the auditorium is going mad. When it gets too rowdy—some heavy-set ruffnecks are crushing girls up against the stage—an organizer halts the music and grabs the mic: “Settle, boys. There’s girls down there. They want hugs and kisses.”

Grime is usually seen as bad-boy music, its blaring bombast and mosh-activating aggression making it the U.K.’s counterpart to crunk. Yet the huge number of young females at this show proves that grime isn’t necessarily synonymous with testosterone. The high proportion of teenagers present is partly due to the fact that the venue, Stratford Circus, is an art center, meaning that the entertainment ends at midnight—when most raves are just getting started. Tonight’s all-star grime bonanza offers a rare opportunity for under-18s to see in the flesh the MC idols they’ve watched only on Channel U, a digital/satellite TV station that airs U.K. urban music on an equal footing with American rap and R&B. It juxtaposes the latest glitzy videos from 50 Cent with shakily choreographed, low-budget promos from local heroes like Bruza.

Grime events have a reputation for trouble. The music builds up tension, but offers little scope for release—a recipe for fights on the dancefloor. And people often bring outside-world antagonisms into the club. Police are always “locking off” grime parties, which makes promoters increasingly reluctant to hold them in the first place. At one point in the night, the host Peaches comes on to report the disappearance of a cell phone, then delivers an impromptu lecture. “Stop thiefin’! Stop the armshouse!” she berates, ‘armshouse’ being grime slang for bloodshed. “They’re locking off grime raves, dancehall bashments—where you gonna go? Country & western nights?!” Later, she reports that the young lady’s phone has been found and returned. “Honest black people!” she notes with mock incredulity. “This will be a newspaper story: BLACK PEOPLE FIND PHONE.” She’s taking the piss out of stereotypes about ethnic youth, forgetting how quickly she’d jumped to the assumption that the phone had been stolen.  

The specific worry tonight is that the beef between two rival crews, Roll Deep and Fire Camp—will lead to mayhem. Although either group could claim the headlining spot, Fire Camp perform much earlier in the night, so there’s no frictional hand-over of the stage. Later I learn that Roll Deep were only let onstage once Fire Camp and their vast entourage had left the building. A couple of days later I ask Lethal Bizzle, leader of Fire Camp, about his feud with Wiley, the Roll Deep don. “Wiley is into lyrical battles, he’s done records dissing everyone from Durrty Goodz to Crazy Titch,” says Bizzle. When Wiley put out a record attacking him, Lethal took it as a backhanded compliment—a sign that he was an adversary to be reckoned with. “I was happy, my name was hot. And retaliation was gonna build up my name even more. Everyone calls him ‘Kylie’ so I got ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’ and dissed Wiley over it. That just put the curtains on him. Cos the streets said I won.”

Wiley and Lethal are duking it out on the underground and overground simultaneously. While stoking their hardcore fanbase with the battle tracks, both hope to seduce the mainstream with crossover grime albums this summer—Roll Deep’s In At The Deep End and Lethal Bizzle’s solo album Against All Oddz. Bizzle’s ahead at the moment, having scored grime’s biggest U.K. hit to date with “Pow,” a massive jolt of sonic adrenaline that even turned some heads in America, getting airplay from Funkmaster Flex on Hot 97 and talk of Lil Jon protégé Pitbull versioning the track’s frantic “Forward” riddim for his debut album. But Roll Deep is more densely stacked with talent, their 15-strong ranks boasting some of the scene’s finest producers (Wiley, Target, Danny Weed) and MCs (Trim,  Flow Dan, Riko, Wiley again).

Still, for all the big noise that grime has made in the UK mainstream media—Ms. Dynamite and Dizzee Rascal won the Mercury Prize in successive years and Dizzee appeared on the remake of Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas”—it remains a small scene. Only a few people within grime can make a living out of it. “There’s not a lot of MCs that are just MCing and not doing something else,” says Kano, one of the most touted performers on the scene. The doing “something else,” he hints, could be a day job or it could be something nefarious—“shottin’ weed,” in some cases. Selling 500 copies of a 12-inch is considered a good result these days, and after production costs, that would generate less than a thousand pounds profit. When they perform at raves, most MCs “get paid about 150 pounds, which is not good money,” says Kano. “And there’s less raves than there was. Clubs don’t want to deal with it. People get banned from playing certain areas, certain clubs—blacklisted.  Cos of what promoters think is going to happen.”

*          *          *         

The day after the Stratford Circus festival, Roll Deep divide their energies. One half plays a gig at a trendy hip hop club in Hoxton, a recently gentrified area of East London. The other faction stays underground with their regular Sunday night show on pirate radio station Rinse FM. Although Channel U is increasingly important, grime’s primary medium remains illegal radio stations. Rinse is literally an underground operation, its HQ being a former travel agent’s office in the basement of a nondescript building. Pass through an unremarkable-looking ante-room (pine floors, shabby sofas serving as a makeshift hospitality lounge) and you enter the spartan studio.  In addition to turntables and audio equipment, there’s a brightly flashing fruit machine and a TV tuned to a spycam monitoring people in the street outside (in case of a raid by OFCOM, the government organization dedicated to stamping out the pirates). The walls are bare (Rinse FM prides itself on its professionalism, and graffiti is forbidden) and apart from a few empty soft-drink containers, the room is incongruously tidy.

Before Roll Deep turn up, legendary grime MC D Double E does his weekly show. Nearly six-feet tall, but weighing only 130 pounds, he has elegant, cut-glass features that border on emaciated. You wonder if the sheer rapidity and intricacy of his flow burns up all his calories. “I’m gonna start zonin’ out in a minute,” he warns, and there’s something faintly redolent of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis in the way he stares sightlessly into the middle distance, one hand darting in dainty, air-carving gestures. Double’s imagery is relentlessly violent—“I’m on the way to stardom / Anyone test me I will scar dem”—but the vibe he transmits is entranced reverie rather than menace. Every so often he emits an eerie ululation, what he calls “the D Double signal”—“Mwui! Mwui!”

After some ads—revenue from these, plus subscription fees from each crew that has a regular show,  keep Rinse FM afloat—Roll Deep take over. The night before, at Stratford Circus, they made a Roots-like maneuver and performed a set with a live band, leaving the teenage girls long-faced with boredom, chins in hands like school kids sitting through morning assembly. Tonight, yelling into microphones to an invisible audience, Roll Deep are in their true element. Wiley, dressed in a blue Nike coat, rhymes over a new riddim built by Target out of an accordion riff, describing himself as “the black 007”. Two new recruits to the sprawling Roll Deep family dominate the mic’. Skepta, a lean black youth, pulls his jacket over his head and spits from inside this murky cocoon.  “Draw for the ’chete,” he warns some nameless adversary. “Bullets fall down like confetti / Make you look like spaghetti” (presumably served with marinara in this scenario). Syer, a stocky white kid, launches into a rant about “dutty girls” who “give brains... to every breh in the hood.” There’s a constant nerve-jangling bleeping of cell phones—‘missed calls’ that assure Roll Deep the faithful are out there (without the listeners having to pay a phone charge) or texted requests for a shout-out. “Big up the HMP massive,” intones Trim, a reference to those listeners detained at one of Her Majesty’s Prisons. “Hang tight the E3 crew.”

E3 is a zip code, or as they call it in England, a postal code. Grime is intensely territorial. The major divisions used to be between between East London, South London, and so forth, but the imperative to represent your ’hood has devolved into a Balkanized welter of mailing districts.  “E3’s the big one,” says Bruza, one of the scene’s most charismatic MCs. “That’s where Roll Deep are mostly from. E3 is like the Queensbridge of grime, bare talent comes from there. But it’s the same with my area, E17.” According to Roll Deep’s Target, “If you’re from E3 and I’m from E15, it’s not like we have to fight or anything. It started with just biggin’ up East London, and then you want to big up your exact bit of East London!”

What most of the postal zones have in common is that they correspond to a large swathe of the East End that’s not served by the subway system. You can only get there by car, bus, or the overland railway system that traverses much of London on decrepit, redbrick Victorian viaducts. This slight diminishment of ease of access to the area has contributed to its peculiar insularity. It’s also delayed the tide of gentrification, meaning that the East has remained a largely working-class area. East London (the heartland of musical innovation in Britain since at least the early-’90s emergence of jungle) has a sort of unpretentious, street-level cosmopolitanism, the result of the area having absorbed wave after wave of immigration over the last century. First came the Jews, many of them from Russia. Then, after the Second World War, migrants arrived from all over the former British Empire--from the Caribbean, from South Asia (Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshi), and from Africa. Most recently, the alien tongues of East European asylum seekers have been audible on the streets. From drum’n’bass to grime, the influence of Jamaica dominates (most grime MCs cite dancehall and jungle chatters as their primary influence, rather than American rappers). But the actual variety of ethnic origins on the grime scene is staggering. At Stratford Circus, Peaches called out to the audience, asking “anybody here from Nigeria? Ghana? How about Antigua? Trinidad & Tobago?” Each country triggered a flurry of hands in the air.

Possibly even more crucial than its multicultural mix, though, may be East London’s dreariness, the bleak featurelessness of its landscape. The architecture mixes shabby old buildings that hark back to the area’s industrial and warehousing past, with the kind of Brutalist architecture that was fashionable in the 1960s and 1970s. In some areas, the sky is punctured by ugly slabs of high-rise tower blocks that formed such a crucial part of punk’s imagery. More common, though, are smaller, undistinguished three-story blocks of flats, interspersed with small, melancholy recreational areas. On a sunny day, East London can look reasonably pleasant. But most of the year English skies are grey, which means most of the time East London looks grim. Grim, and yes, grimy.

In between jungle and grime came a late Nineties sound called UK Garage. You could see garage as an attempt by East London youth to manufacture their own sunshine. One of the scene’s biggest anthems was called “Spirit of the Sun”. All shiny treble frequencies (highpitched divas, skittering  snares and fizzy hi-hats), garage streamed out of the pirate airwaves like aural champagne. The sundrenched Greek island Aiya Napa became the garage’s scene very own equivalent to Ibiza, that raver’s paradise at the other end of the Mediterranean. Every summer, grime fans still flock out to Napa, but the idea seems wrong somehow. Because grime is winter music. Cold, brutal, and desolate, it doesn’t seek to escape or soften its environment. It amplifies the punitive bleakness.

Wiley caught the sunless spirit of grime with a series of brilliant minimal instrumentals, designed for MCs to spit over, and themed around ice and snow: “Eskimo,” “Ice Rink,” ad infinitum. He says the idea came to him during a period when he felt “cold inside as a person. I might make a warm tune now, ’cause I might not be angry anymore.” Yet from its shivery synths to its real-world inspiration, his most recent tune “Morgue” is as chilling as its title. The track is literally the mausoleum of a dead friendship. “I used to hang around with this boy, Wonder,” Wiley explains, alluding to one of the scene’s most talented producers. ‘Me and him fell out ’cause of bunglings” [serious arguments]. “Bunglings”--this time with a girlfriend--inspired the even more desolate “Ground Zero,” which was actually recorded on that September 11th. “I realized that was the day when I’d never see that girl again. I felt like my world came down as well then, just like those buildings.“

But private discord or woe can’t explain why a whole genre of music takes a sharp turn to the dark and doomy. Target says that “as things went bad, away from music”—meaning in the outside world—“the music’s just got darker and darker.” Wiley agrees: “The music reflects what’s going on in society. Everyone’s so angry at the world, and each other. And they don’t know why.” Tony Blair’s New Labour government, elected in 1997 after almost two decades of Conservatism, promised a fresh start for Britain. The economy was booming. It’s still strong, but in 2005, the rewards are mostly going to the already well-off, young professionals in media, marketing, and management. As a post-socialist party, Labour no longer even pays lip service to ideas of wealth redistribution, but instead talks in the bland neo-conservative language of enabling people to help themselves. The U.K. has become much closer to America than Europe, in the sense that people do believe “anyone can make it,” despite the fact that the social odds are stacked unfairly. If you don’t make it, it’s your own fault, the result of a deficit of get-up-and-go.

Grime kids constantly spout this kind of talk. Target has put out a series of CD/DVD compilations called Aim High, while Bruza’s new single is called “What You Waiting For”—“a get up off your arse song,” as he puts it. As well as the culture of enterprise built by Thatcher and maintained by Blair, these attitudes have been assimilated from American rap. Although virtually every grime artist stresses that they grew up on the fast-chatting style of jungle MCs like Shabba and Skibadee,  they have been profoundly influenced by U.S. hip hop: not so much stylistically but in terms of ambition, a sense of the scope of what can be achieved. Bad Boy, in particular, was the role model. One of Roll Deep’s earliest tunes, “Terrible,” starts with a soundbite from P. Diddy: “Sometimes I don’t think you motherfuckers understand where I’m coming from, where I’m trying to get to.”  Explains Wiley, “Puff was a big person at the time I made that tune. He had a set-up that everyone wants to have—own label, clothing line. That’s what I’m doing it for.” The Bad Boy leitmotif crops up elsewhere in grime. Guesting on a track last year called “One Wish”, Bruza offered a hilarious rejoinder to Notorious BIG-- “more money more problems, though?/Forget the problems, GIMME THE MONEY!!!!”. Bruza also appears on a new tune that remakes the Ma$e smash “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down,” vowing to “hold me head up and keep on movin’ and bruzin’”.

Grime lyrics teems with expressions of hunger and ambition, drive and dedication. Eight years of New Labour have not improved options and opportunities significantly for inner city youth. If they haven’t applied themselves in school, they typically face the prospect of working in a service sector job, selling things. “I think that’s why most people in our area have got on it,” says Target, referring to grime and the dream of making it as an MC or producer. “When they get to eighteen, they don’t know where they’re going.   They’ve got no money, they didn’t care about school. Where we are from, most people’s lives are not good. If we didn’t have music to express our lives, I don’t know what we’d do.”

*          *          *         

As grime’s profile surges to its highest level yet—major-label albums for Roll Deep, Lethal Bizzle, Kano, and Lady Sovereign—2005 is turning into a weirdly conflicted moment for grime. For every motivational tune like Bruza’s “What You Waiting For,” there’s a lyric advising wannabe MCs to not give up the day job. On the surface, the scene is bursting with confidence. But U.K. pirate culture has been here before—a host of jungle artists got signed to album deals, but only Goldie and Roni Size got anywhere near crossover. 2step garage crossed into the pop mainstream hugely, but didn’t endure (where’s Artful Dodger now?). Grime too has already had its fair share of failure—More Fire, Lethal Bizzle’s first group, released a flop album in 2003, as did Wiley.

On the track “Sometimes” from his debut Home Sweet Home, Kano documents a rare (or rarely acknowledged) moment of self-doubt: “When I see the fans go mad I think, ‘Why do they like me?’ / There’s about a thousand other boys just like me… I know I’ve got far / Is it too far to turn back?… Sometimes you’ll see me in a daydream / Thinking, ‘Can the underground go mainstream?’”

A soft-spoken, somber fellow, Kano is realistic about grime’s prospects, especially in America. Recently, he got to support Nas on his U.K. tour—a big deal for the grime MC, but not for the rap superstar. “Met Nas once, got a handshake,” Kano notes wryly. “That was it.” The respect will come, he reckons, when grime acts start selling records. “Not even over there, but over here, in the U.K. We can’t just fly into America and think we can bang with 50 Cent and all them lot! But if they come over here and see, ‘Oh, you’ve got a little thing going on,’ and it’s selling, they’ll notice.”

Of all grime’s major stylists, Kano’s flow seems like the one most likely to appeal to American hip-hop ears. An admirer of Jay-Z’s conversational delivery and the laidback West Coast style of Snoop Dogg, Kano sounds smooth and poised even rapping in quick time. Playing to this slick panache, Home Sweet Home, is front-loaded with mid-tempo joints. Roll Deep’s debut likewise skimps on uncut grime in favour of conventional hip hop and novelty tunes. Lethal Bizzle even promises some grime/rock fusions on his solo debut Against All Oddz, saying he’s a big fan of Green Day (“I love that “American Idiot’”) and Nirvana. Terror Danjah, the innovative beatmaker behind Bruza and the Aftershock label, dreams of one day recording tunes “with Robbie Williams or Franz Ferdinand.” The gamble with all these tentative moves to court the mainstream is that grime will lose what it has now. The strategy doesn’t even seem that sensible: difference sells, and grime is more likely to succeed by amplifying what’s unique and exotic about it. Lethal B should take heed of the success of “Pow”—his grimiest, rowdiest tune is the one that’s grabbed the ears of the world beyond London.

If grime does go pop, the most likely perpetrator is Lady Sovereign, a 19-year-old white MC. Some scowling scene purists refuse to take her seriously, partly because she’s from Northwest London as opposed to East, but mainly because she bypassed pirate radio and instead made a name for herself through the internet forums where young fans chit-chat in cell-phone text-speak (e.g. “sov ur buf”). Yet Sovereign has guested on numerous grime tracks, while her “Cha Ching” is one of the highlights of the scene-defining Run The Road compilation (the first widely available in the U.S.). Her mic skills are undeniable.

Sovereign’s also a star, something that’s apparent the minute you clap eyes on her. She keeps me waiting for 90 minutes, staring morosely out of the windows of the fourth-floor Bethnal Green studio where she and her producer Medasyn  work, taking in the lugubrious vistas of East London, the only splash of colour coming from a car dealers called RUDE MERCS. But when Sov arrives--a tiny ball of colour and rude energy herself--any irritation is charmed away in an instant. Five-foot-one but only 82 pounds, with hazel eyes and hair pulled back tightly into a long ponytail, she weirdly reminds me of Audrey Hepburn—if she’d grown up in a North London estate listening to ragga and UK garage, that is.

Lady Sovereign has signed to Island for a four-album deal reputedly worth three-million pounds (a figure Sov denies, while admitting the true amount was “nice, really nice”). It’s easy to imagine record-company execs with dollar signs reeling in their eyes, imagining the spin-offs (video games, a cartoon series, Lady Sov dolls, a Spice Girls-style movie). When she discusses how her forthcoming debut album--working title Straight Up Cheeky-- has veered off into “alternative grime,” with influences from ska and punk, you wonder if her backers are steering her in some kind of Gwen Stefani meets the Streets direction. But it turns out her dad used to be a punk rocker and she grew up listening to X-Ray Spex and the Selecter, so the direction is somewhat organic. And when she plays a couple of tracks from the album, it’s clear the grime-goes-new-wave notion is inspired. “Tango” and “Public Warning” fizz with cartoony humor, from Sov’s killer inflections and irreverent lyrics to Medasyn’s romping beats and arrangements dense with quirky detail.

The 2-Tone echoes aren’t just cute, they’re appropriate, given how grime echoes the multiracial ethos and urban-realist approach of bands like the Specials. Eerily, that group has inspired two new grime tracks,  Kode 9’s eerie remake of “Ghost Town” and Alias’ “Ska,” which samples “Gangsters” then literalizes the title with gruesome lyrics like “You don’t want fluids leaking out yer body / No you don’t.” But Lady Sov’s thing is altogether more lighthearted. “Tango,” for instance, is a put-down of a former friend who’s overdone the fake tan. “She was once really pale but now she’s orange,” says Sovereign. “It’s actually scary.” The title, she explains, comes from a tangerine-colored soda popular in the U.K.

It was hearing Ms. Dynamite’s early tracks like “Booo!” on the pirates that really inspired Sovereign to take MCing seriously. But instead of sparring with the bad boys (like other female MCs on the scene such as Lady Fury) or move into socially conscious lyrics (like Dynamite did on her crossover album), Sovereign carved out her own identity. “I’m not a mean MC, I’m cheeky,” she twinkles, puffing on a cheap brand of cigarette called Sovereign. Although her first record was called “The Battle” and she’s just done a limited-circulation EP called Bitchin’, Sovereign’s rhymes are closer to playground taunts than the ego-maiming verbal drive-bys other MCs traffic in. Perhaps that’s what galls some grime gatekeepers, the sense that it is just fun’n’games for “the multi-talented munchkin” (as Sov dubbed herself on “Cha Ching”), rather than deadly earnest struggle.


The London scene is overflowing with talent. “You see kids in the street just spitting to themselves,” says Bruza. “One kid’ll be human beatboxing, and another’ll be spraying his lyrics or clashing another MC. You see it everywhere, every day.” What’s poignant is that only a few will ever have a chance of making it. “Everyone is rushing for that one small gap and there’s that many people trying to get through,” says Terror Danjah. “Everyone can’t get through that gap, ’cause everyone’s pushing and shoving. That’s life though, innit?”