Thursday, March 2, 2017

You Remind Me of Gold: Mark Fisher and Simon Reynolds dialogue about the state of dance music and the state of "the future" (2010)

(Originally published in much, much shorter form in Kaleidoscope magazine, 2010)

The first question is linked to my experiencing UK dance music of the 90s as a person living in a different country - via imported records and british music press - and one interesting thing was the idea of “futurism” that seemed to permeate the scenes: in terms of how the press presented the music as an area of advancement because made with “machines”. What are, if any, are the futuristic elements and aspects in UK 90s dance music & culture?

Simon Reynolds:

 The word “future” does not crop up in contemporary dance music discourse —in either the conversations surrounding the music, or in track titles and artist names—with anything like the frequency it did during the Nineties.  From artists with names like Phuture, The Future Sound of London, Phuture Assassins etc to UK rave/early jungle which teemed with titles like “Futuroid”, “Living for the Future”, “We Are the Future” etc, the whole culture seemed tilted forwards. Everyone was in a mad rush to reach tomorrow’s sound ahead of everyone else. That ethos continued into the early days of dubstep with the club name FWD». But  looking at the last half-decade or so of UK dance music, I really struggle to think of any equivalent examples.  Soul Jazz just put out a compilation of post-dubstep called Future Bass, and then you have the “future garage” sub-genre, although the irony here is that this direction involves going back to the 2step rhythm template circa 1998-2000.  But generally speaking the whole idea of the future seems to have lost its libidinal charge for electronic producers and for fans alike.  This seems to reflect the fact that dance music in the UK, and globally, is no longer organized along an extensional axis (projecting into the unknown, like an arrow fired into the night sky) but is intensive: it makes criss-crossing journeys within the vast terrain that was mapped out during the hyper-speed Nineties.

It seems symptomatic to me that “Gold”, the single off the debut album by Darkstar, is a cover of a Human League B-side from almost thirty years ago.  It’s definitely an interesting move for Darkstar to make, in terms of their previous music and the scene they’re from, dubstep. But as an aesthetic act the creativity involved is curatorial rather than innovation in the traditional-modernist sense:  it’s about finding an obscure, neglected song and resituating it within the historical narratives of British electronic music. The whole idea of doing a cover version, which is totally familiar as an artistic move within rock, is still pretty unusual within electronic music culture.  What also struck me listening to the remake next to the original (which I’d never heard before) is that both versions sound more or less as “futuristic” as each other. Well, the Darkstar reinterpretation obviously is technically more advanced in many ways; there are things done on it sonically that weren’t available to the Human League and their producer Martin Rushent. But in terms of the overall aesthetic sensation generated, neither version seems any further “into the future” than the other. Certainly, it doesn’t feel like there’s thirty years difference between the two. And it’s that precisely that feeling—that the Human League are contemporary with us—that is so mysterious and hard to explain. They ought to sound to us as ancient as early Fifties fare (Johnny Ray, say, or Louis Jordan) would have done in 1981 heard next to the Human League of “Love Action” .

Mark Fisher
The problem is that the word ‘futuristic’ no longer has a connection with any future that anyone expects to happen.  In the 70s, ‘futuristic’ meant synthesizers. In the 80s, it meant sequencers and cut and paste montage. In the 90s, it meant the abstract digital sounds opened up by the sampler and its function such as timestretching. In each of these cases, there was a sense that, through sound, we were geting a small but powerful taste of a world that would be completely different from anything we had hitherto experienced. That’s why a film like Terminator, with its idea of the future  invading the present, was so crucial for 90s dance music. Now, insofar as ‘futuristic’ has any meaning, it is as a vague but fixed style, a bit like a typographical font. ‘Futuristic’ in music is something like ‘gothic’ in fonts. It points to an already existing set of associations. ‘Futuristic’ means something electronic, just as it did in the 60s and 70s. We’ve entered the flattened out temporality that Simon describes - the 90s ought to be as distant as the 60s felt in 1980, but now the 60s, the 80s and the 90s belong to a kind of postmodern-curatorial simultaneity.

To take up the example that Simon uses. When you compare the Darkstar cover of ‘Gold’ to the Human League original, it’s not just that one is no more futuristic than the other. It is that neither are futuristic. The Human League track is clearly a superseded futurism, while the Darkstar track seems to come after the future. I should say at this point that the Darkstar album is my favourite album of the year - I’ve become obsessed with it. (It might be worth noting here that one thing that’s happened since 2000 in dance music is the rise of the album. The 90s was about scenes and singles; there weren’t any great albums. But since 2000, there have been Dizzee Rascal’s debut, the Junior Boys records, the two Burial albums and the Darkstar record. The temporal malaise I’m talking about hasn’t meant there are no good records - that’s not the problem at all.) Partly why I enjoy the Darkstar album is because, like many of the most interesting records of the last six or seven years, it seems to be about the failure of the future. This feeling of mourning lost futures isn’t so explicit as it was with the Burial records, but I believe it’s there at some level with Darkstar. Where with Burial you have a feeling of dereliction and spectrality, the lost future haunting the dead present, with Darkstar it’s a question of electronic rot, digital interference.

What you could hear behind so much 90s dance music was a competitive drive  to sonically rearticulate what ‘futuristic’ meant. The No U Turn track Amtrak features a sample: “Here is a group trying to accomplish one thing, and that is to get into the future.” But I think it’s uncontoversial to say that no-one was aiming to get into the future that actually arrived. If a junglist were pitched straight into now from the mid-90s, it’s hard to believe that they wouldn’t be disappointed and bemused.  In the interview that I did with Kodwo Eshun which formed the appendix of Kodwo’s More Brilliant Than The Sun , he contrasts the textual exhaustion of postmodernism with the genetic concept of recombination. I think Kodwo captures very well the recombinatorial euphoria that many of us felt then - the sense that there were infinite possibilities, that new and previously unimaginable genres would keep emerging, keep surprising us. But, sadly, what’s surprising from that 90s perspective is how little has changed in the last ten years. As Simon has said, the changes that you can hear now are  not massive rushes of the future, but tiny incremental shifts. That deceleration has brought with it a sense of massively diminished expectations, which no amount of tepid boosterism can cover over.

My friend Alex Williams has posited the idea that cultural resources have been depleted in the same way that natural resources were. Perhaps this is a reflection of today’s cultural depression in the same way that the 90s concepts were an expression of that decade’s exhilaration.

This isn’t just about nostalgia for one decade - the 90s was at the end of a process that began with the rapid development of the recording industry after the second world war. Music became the centre of the culture because it was consistently capable of giving the new a palpable form; it was a kind of lab that focused and intensified the convulsions that culture was undergoing. There’s no sense of the new anywhere now. And that’s a political and a technological issue, not a problem that’s just internal to music.

SR:
The Darkstar album could almost have been designed to please me: it’s the convergence of the hardcore continuum, hauntology, and postpunk & New Pop! It’s growing on me, but initially I found it a bit washed-out and listless. Still, Mark’s reading of it is typically suggestive. And I do think it is significant that an outfit operating in the thick of the post-dubstep scene, the FWD» generation, has made a record steeped in echoes of Orchestral Maneuvres (their first LP in particular was apparently listened to heavily during the album’s making), New Order, and other early Eighties synthpop. It also means something that a record coming out of dance culture is all about isolation, regret, withdrawal, mournfulness.

The Darkstar record is an example of a self-conscious turn towards emotionality in UK dance. Most of the album features a human voice and songs, sung by a new member of the group recruited specifically for that role. And just this week I’ve read about two other figures from the same scene—James Blake and Subeena—who are releasing their first tracks to feature their own vocals. But this turn to expressivity seems to me as much rhetorical as it is actually going on in the music. After all hardcore, jungle, UK garage, grime, bassline house, were all bursting with emotion in their different ways. What people mean by “emotional” is introspective and fragile in ways that we’ve rarely seen in hardcore continuum music. (Obviously we’ve seen plenty of that in IDM going back to its start: Global Communications and Casino In Japan actually made records inspired by the death of family members). The idea that artists and commentators are groping towards, without fully articulating, is that dance music no longer provides the kind of emotional release that it once did, through collective catharsis. So there is this turn inwards, and also a fantasy of a kind of publically displayed inwardness: the widely expressed artistic ideal of “I want my tracks to make people cry on the dancefloor”. Because if people were getting their release in the old way (collective euphoria), why would tears be needed

MF:
I think part of the reason I like the Darkstar record so much is that I don’t hear it as a dance record. In my view, it’s better heard almost as mainstream pop that has been augmented by some dance textures. “Aidy’s Girl is a Computer” apart, if you heard the record without knowing the history, you wouldn’t assume any connection with dubstep. At the same time, North isn’t straightforwardly a return to a pre-dance sound. Much has been made of the synthpop parallels but - and the cover of the Human League track brings this out - it doesn’t actually sound very much like 80s synthpop at all. It’s more a continuation of a certain mode of electronic pop that got curtailed sometime in the mid-80s.


SR:
In the Nineties, drugs—specifically Ecstasy—were absolutely integral to this communal release. One of the reasons hardcore rave was so hyper-emotional was because its audience’s brains were being flooded with artificially stimulated feelings, which could be elation and excitement but also dark or emotionally vulnerable (the comedown from Ecstasy is like having your heart broken). One thing that intrigues me about dance culture in the 2000s is the near-complete disappearance of drugs as a topic in the discourse. People are obviously still doing them, in large amounts, and in a mixed-up polydrug way just like in the Nineties. There have been a few public scares from the authorities and the mainstream media, like the talk about ketamine a few years ago, and more recently with mephedrone.
But these failed to catalyse any kind of cultural conversation within the dance scene itself. It is as if the idea that choice of chemicals could have any cultural repercussions or effects on music’s evolution has completely disappeared. Compare that with the Nineties, where one of the main strands of dance discourse concerned the transformative powers of drugs. There was a reason why Matthew Collin called his rave history Altered State and why I called my own book Energy Flash. That was a reference to one of the greatest and most druggy anthems in techno—Beltram’s “Energy Flash” (which features a sample about “acid, ecstasy”— but also to the more general idea of a psychedelics-induced flash of revelation or the “body flash” caused by stimulant drugs.

The turn to emotionality at the moment seems like an echo of a similar moment in the late 90s, when the downsides of drugs were becoming clear and I started to hear from clubbing friends that they’d been listening to Spiritualized or Radiohead. But where that was a flight from E-motionality (from the collective high, now considered false or to have too many negative side effects, towards more introspective, healing music), the new emotionality in the postdubstep scene is emerging in a different context. I’m just speculating here, but I wonder if it has anything to do with a dissatisfaction with Internet culture, the sort of brittle, distracted numbness that comes from being meshed into a state of perpetual connectivity, but without any real connection of the kind that comes from either one-on-one interactions or from being in a crowd. The rise of the podcast and the online DJ mix, which has been hyped as “the new rave” but is profoundly asocial, seems to fit in here.

The concept of futurism also contains the idea that a cultural form can capture the zeitgeist of an era and facilitate/modulate the vision of the one to come and by implication revolt against past cultural practices; this might also in this case translate with the idea of “the sound of now” that was a vastly common mood of UK dance music in the 90s, and the continuous re-organisation of label, clubs, promoters, DJs in new networks and sub-genres that created an inbuilt obsolescence in the micro-scenes themselves. A sort of voluntary short term memory imbalance that is hard to understand in the following decade - the 00s - in which one of the most original and popular artist has been Burial which has been one visible manifestation of a fixation with the past which has previously reached similar levels in indie-rock. Not to speak of the literalist approach of a very interesting artist as Zomby in “Where were you in 92?”.

SR:
I was totally caught up in the Nineties rave culture and I can testify that there was a sensation of teleology, a palpable feeling that something was unfolding through the music. It would be easy to say in hindsight that this was an illusion but I’d rather honor the truth of how it felt at the time. On a month by month basis, you witnessed the music changing and there seemed to be a logic to its mutation and intensification. From hardcore to darkcore to jungle to drum’n’bass to techstep, it felt like there was a destination, even a destiny, for the music’s relentless propulsion across the 1991 to 1996 timespan. I entered the scene in late ‘91, when the “journey” was already well underway, so you could say that the trajectory started as far back as 1988, when acid house originally impacted the UK.

Mine is a London-centric viewpoint, but similar trajectories were unfolding in Europe, with the emergence of gabber, and trance, or the evolution of minimal techno’s evolution. There was a linear, extensional development, along an axis of intensification. Each stage of the music superceded the preceding one, like the stages of a rocket being jettisoned as it escapes the Earth’s atmosphere. And you are right that there was a forgetfulness, a lack of concern with the immediate past, because our ears were trained always on the future, the emerging Next Phase.

At a certain point the London-centric hardcore/jungle narrative took a swerve, slowing down in tempo and embracing house music’s sensuality, first with speed garage in 1997 and then with the even slower and sexier 2step. But that just seemed like a canny move to avoid an approaching dead end (one that drum’n’bass would bash its collective head against for… ever since really!) The rhythmic complexification that had developed through drum’n’bass carried on with speed garage and 2step, just in a less punitive way.

In the Noughties, especially in the last five years, the feeling you get from dance culture and the endless micro shifts within it is quite different—whatever the opposite of teleology is, that’s what you got! It is hard to identify centers of energy that could be definitively pinpointed as a vanguard. The closest thing in recent years might well be the populist “wobble” sector within dubstep, if only because there’s a kind of escalation of wobble-ness going on there. There is a full-on, hardcore, take-it-to-extremes spirit to wobblestep. Ironically, the dubstep connoisseurs and scene guardians can’t stand wobble and have veered off into disparate welter of softcore, “musical” directions. Wobble is quite a masculinist sound, it reminds me of gabba. But then it is easy to forget that the Nineties was all about this kind of punishing pursuit of extremes: the beats and the bass were a test to the listener, something you endured as much as enjoyed (or had to take drugs in order to withstand). The evolution of the music was measurable in a experiential, bodily way. Beats got tougher and more convoluted, textures got more scalding to the ear, atmospheres and mood got darker and more paranoid.

Apart from grime and aspects of dubstep, Noughties post-techno music overall seems to have retreated into “musicality” (in the conventional sense of the word) and pleasantness. So instead of that militant-modernist sense of moving forward into the future, the culture’s sense of temporality seems polymorphous and recursive. And this applies on the micro as well as macro level: individual tracks seem to have less “thrust” and drive, to be more about involution and recessive details.
Touching on the question of rave nostalgia, the question “Where Were You in ‘92” posed by Zomby is interesting on a bunch of levels. There is an echo, possibly unintended, of the marketing slogan for American Graffiti (“where were you in ‘62?”, the year the movie is set), George Lucas’s groundbreaking vehicle for mobilising and exploiting generational nostalgia. Then there is also the unexpected biographical fact that Zomby is perfectly capable of saying where he was in ‘92, becuase he was 12 and a precocious fan of hardcore rave (which further suggests he must have just followed the trajectory of the music through jungle and speed garage to dubstep just like me and Mark, only quite a bit younger). Even as the album offers a loving pastiche of old skool hardcore, there seems to be an element of mockery of aging ravers with their “boring stories of glory days” (to quote Springsteen). That would probably appeal to younger dubstep fans who, unlike Zomby, didn’t live through rave as participants and probably find the legacy of the hardcore continuum to be an encumbrance, a burden. Finally, it’s intriguing that Zomby did this pastiche record as a one-off stylistic exercise, in between much more cutting-edge dubstep records such as the Zomby EP on Hyperdub. It suggests that Zomby’s generation can play around with vintage styles without the kind of fanatical identification with a lost era that you generally get with musical revivalism. It’s just a period style, something to revisit.

MF: 
The point is that the question ‘where were you in 92’ makes sense, whereas the question ‘where were you in 02’ (or indeed ‘08) doesn’t. One of the things that has happened over the last decade or so is the disappearance of very distinctive ‘feels’ for years or eras - not only in music but in culture in general. I’ve got more sense of what 1973 was like than what 2003 was like. This isn’t because I’ve stopped paying attention - on the contrary, I’ve probably paid more close attention to music this decade than at any other time. But there’s very little ‘flavour’ to cultural time in the way there once was, very little to mark out one year from the next. That’s partly a consequence of the decline of the modernist trajectory that Simon describes.

(One slight difference I have with Simon is that I prefer the term ‘trajectory’ to ‘teleology’. For me, what was exciting about the 90s - and popular culture between the 60s and the 90s - was that sense of forward movement. But it didn’t feel linear, as if everything was inevitably heading in one direction towards one goal. Instead, there was a sense of teeming, of proliferation.)

If time is marked now, it’s by technical upgrades rather than new cultural forms or signatures. But the technical upgrades increasingly seem to be manifested in terms of the distribution and consumption of culture rather than in terms of production. You can’t hear or see dramatic formal innovations - but you get a higher definition picture, or a greater storage capacity on your mp3 player. Adam Harper, one of the most interesting young critics, has made a case for the new culture of micro-innovation, arguing that the kind of music culture Simon and I are talking about here - defined in terms of scenes organised around generic formulas - is an historical relic, replaced by a culture of a thousand tiny deviations, an “infinite music”, in which the temporal recursion that Simon has referred to is not a problem but a resource. Yet, for me, this sounds suspiciously like the Intelligent Dance Music that people were praising before the hardcore continuum came along. It’s easy to forget that disdain for the supposed vulgarity and repetitiveness of scene-music was a critical commonplace until Simon and Kodwo made the case for ‘scenius’ in dance music.

But it seems to me that the phenomenon we’re talking about here - temporal flavourlessness - is a symptom of a broader postmodern malaise. Every time I go back to read Fredric Jameson’s texts from the 80s and early 90s, I’m astonished by their prescience. Jameson was quick to grasp the way in which modernist time was being flattened out into the pastiche-time of postmodernity. When I read some of those texts in the 90s, I thought that they described certain tendencies in culture, but that this was far from being the only story. Now, there’s only a very weak sense of there being any alternative to the postmodern end of history. The question is, is this all temporary or terminal?

SR: 
I should have also noted that one of the main reasons a sense of linear progress was physically felt during the Nineties was that between 1990 and 1997, techno got faster: there was an exponential rise in beats-per-minute, that accompanied all the other ways in which the music got harder, more rhythmically dense, and so forth. So as a dancer you felt like your were hurtling.

Mark mentions the idea of technical upgrades as the metric for a sense of progression in the last decade. This reminded me of a conversation I had with the Italian DJ and journalist Gabriele Sacchi. In the space of about fifteen minutes, Sacchi went from complaining that there had been no really significant formal advances in dance music since drum’n’bass (he discounted dubstep, as I recall) to then commenting with approval of how advanced sounding records were now compared with ten years ago. What he meant is that they sounded better in terms of production quality: what’s available today in terms of technology, digital software, etc, to someone making, say, a house track, enables them to make much better-sounding records (in terms of drum sounds, the textures, the placement of sounds and layers in the mix). That sounded totally plausible to me and it may well be the defining quality of electronic dance music in the 2000s. You might say that the basic structural features of the various genres were established in the Nineties but what has improved is the level of detailing, refinement, and a general kind of production sheen to the music. An analogy might be a shift from architectural innovation (the 90s) to interior d├ęcor (the 2000s).

Mark also mentions Fredric Jameson. His work— the big Postmodernism book from 1991 but also, especially, A Singular Modernity—helped me see that rave in general and the UK hardcore continuum in particular had been a kind of enclave of modernism within a pop culture that was gradually succumbing to postmodernism. Coming out of street beats culture, without hardly any input from art schools and only the most vague, filtered-down notion of musical progress, it nonetheless constituted a kind of self-generated flashback to the modernist adventure of the early 20th Century. The hardcore continuum especially propelled itself forward thanks to an internal temporal scheme of continual rupturing: it kept breaking with itself, jettisoning earlier superceded stages. One small aside in A Singular Modernity struck me as both true and funny, when Jameson talks about the modernists being obsessed with measurement, “how do we determine what is really new?”. That struck me as the characteristic mindset of those who came up through the Nineties as critics. But the new generation of electronic music writers (and probably musicians too) don’t seem to respond to music in this way. It’s no longer about the lust for the unprecedented, about linear evolution and the rush into the unknown. It’s about tracking these endless involutionary pathways through the terra cognita of dance music history, the tinkering with inherited forms.

Another topic I find very interesting is the fact that the dance music referred as Hardcore Continuum, even if had an international resonance through the media has maintained a strong local connotation and a somehow insular development (in other close genres as techno or house the localisation seemed to be less prominent even if, for example, the first ground breaking LP from the band Basement Jaxx resonates with a milieu of influences not too dissimilar to some other post-rave productions). Somehow some of the music in the continuum feel like a sonic cartographies of London (or other cities in the UK), responding and being connected to very specific contexts. Is the geographical aspect something you use in the reception of this genres?

SR: 

Music from the hardcore continuum has obviously found audiences all over the world. The early breakbeat hardcore was universal rave music for a few years in the early Nineties. Jungle established scenes in cities from Toronto to New York to Sao Paolo and in its later incarnation as drum’n’bass became a truly international subculture. The same applies to dubstep. And even the more London-centric styles like 2step and grime had really dedicated fans in countries all over the globe and small offshoot scenes in particular cities outside the U.K. That said it is incontrovertible that the engine of musical creativity for hardcore continuum genres has always been centered in London, with outposts in other urban areas of the U.K. that have a strong multiracial composition, particularly Bristol, the Midlands, and certain Northern cities like Sheffield, Leeds, and Leicester. The next stage of the music  has always hatched in London.

That is related to pirate radio, the competition between DJ and MC crews both within a particular station and between stations. And the sheer number of pirate radio stations owes a lot to the urban landscape of London, the number of tower blocks to broadcast from, and the density of the population, and the existence of a sizeable minority (in both the racial and aesthetic sense) whose musical taste is not catered for by state-run radio or by the commercial radio stations (including the commercial dance station Kiss FM). This competition— expressed through the pirates striving to increase their audience share but also through raves and clubs competing for dancers —is partly economic and partly purely about prestige, aesthetic eminience. And it has stoked the furnace of innovation.

That London-centric system focused around illegal radio stations seems to be gradually disintegrating. It is still what fuels the funky house scene, its primary audience is still “locked on” to the pirate signal. In fact I’m told that there aren’t many funky raves or clubs at all, and hardly any vinyl releases or compilations, so the only way to hear funky is through the pirate transmissions. But dubstep, like drum’n’bass before it, is much more of U.K. national scene, and also an international scene. Martin Clark, a leading journalist on the scene and also a DJ and recording artist using the name Blackdown, told me something interesting. The Rinse FM show that he and Dusk do, which is eclectic post-dubstep in orientation, gets a high proportion of its audience responses, message and requests, through the internet, from as far afield as Finland or New Zealand (the Rinse FM signal goes out on the internet as well as broadcast through the air). But the pure funky house shows get most of their requests and calls as texts from cellphone users who live within the terrestrial broadcast range of the pirate stations. So funky is still a local scene in the traditional hardcore continuum sense, it is very much East London.

But I think that London-centric orientation is on the decline. Dubstep is fully integrated with the web, it’s all about podcasts and DJ mixes circulating on the web, about message board discussions. I think of funky as the “dwarf star” stage of the hardcore continuum: it has shrunk in size, still emits some heat in the sense of vibe and musical creativity, but it hasn’t been able to command attention beyond the pre-converted diehards, in the way that jungle or grime once did. If you look at funky, it’s the first hardcore continuum sound not to have any UK chart hits at all. It’s not spawned any offshoot scenes in foreign countries. It hasn’t achieved critical mass in the sense of non-dance specialist journalists giving it the time of day. Jungle and grime got mainstream coverage because they simply couldn’t be ignored, they were so aggressively new and extreme. But funky, to people who don’t follow the minutiae of the hardcore continuum, just sounds like “tracky” house music with slightly odd-angled beats and a London flavor. It’s not anthemic enough to make it as pop like 2step garage did, but it doesn’t have the vanguard credentials of jungle.The interesting thing about the hardcore continuum is the way that during its prime it refuted all that Nineties internet and info-culture rhetoric about deterritorialisation. This was a music culture that derived its strength and fertility from its local nature, precisely from being territorialized. Indeed during the early days of jungle and of grime, it had a kind of fortress mentality. That seems to connect with its vanguardism, this military-modernist mindset.

Another thing is that the hardcore continuum genres were very slow to get integrated with the web. When I did early pieces on 2step garage and grime, the labels and artists had hardly any web presence. Nearly all the interviews I had to do calling mobile phone numbers or speak in person, rather than do email interviews. It was only about 2005 that you started to get grime figures with MySpaces. It was only around then that you started to get tons of DJ sets being uploaded to the web. Before that the music was really hard to get hold of if you didn’t live in London, you had to mail order expensive 12 inches and CD mixtapes. Now it is totally easy to stay on top of the music no matter where you live. But some of the romance and mystique of the scene has gone as a result.

MF: 
It’s not only UK dance music of the 90s that is associated with cities; the whole history of popular music is about urban scenes. It’s no accident that Motown started in Detroit, House in Chicago, hip-hop in New York … Cities are pressure cookers which can synthesize influences quickly and in a way that is both collective and idiosyncratic. Scenes in city depend on a certain organisation of space and time that cyberspace threatens. For example, the hardcore continuum depended on an ecology of interrelated infrastructural and cultural elements - pirate radio, dub plates, clubs, etc - but it also relied on these elements being somewhat discrete. For instance, dub plates acted as probe heads, which would be tested out in clubs. But cyberspace has collapsed the differences between making a track at home, releasing it and distributing it. Now it’s possible to upload a track into cyberspace immediately, there’s less sense of occasion about a record release. So there’s a collapsing of time. But alongside this is a collapsing of the importance of spaces. Club spaces were important because of that ‘evental’ time: you would be hearing a track for the first time …. But now new tracks in DJs’ sets are immediately made available on YouTube. It goes without saying that the club experience is a collective experience - it gains much of its power from people experiencing the same thing in the same space. Cyberspace is much more individuated. Because it isn’t a ‘space’ in the way that physical space is, you don’t get that sense of coming together. it’s more like being involved in a conversation than being in a crowd. Even with instant messaging, there’s a delay.

Clearly, there’s something potentially positive about people being able to make and release music without worrying about the costs of recording studios, about how it will be distributed and such like. But while this might remove certain obstacles for individuals making music, it’s not clear that cyberspace is good for music culture. Urban scenes compressed and concentrated things; cyberspace and digitality are in danger both of making culture too immediate (you can upload a track right now) and too deferred (nothing is ever really finished). The city-based music scene is perhaps one of the things you can hear being mourned on Burial’s records, with their many references to London. The ‘sonic cartography’ of London you pick up from Burial’s records is in many ways a pirate radio cartography.

The international reception of some of the sounds in the continuum was the one of a music alternative to what some perceived as the pure recreational hedonism of house music, for example in Italy jungle was embraced by “Centri Sociali” (squats), maybe they were some of the musical genres that help dissolving resistances towards dance music within non clubbers. Maybe this was because of with the persisting connections Jamaican music, maybe because of the dystopian mood / control society references. But apart from this I’d like to know what is, in your opinion, the most significant political significance of these genres?

SR: 
The major political significance of the hardcore continuum is the role it’s played in the emergence of a post-racial Britain. Which has not fully arrived, obviously there is still a lot of racism in Britain, but you could talk about jungle and UK garage especially as having created a post-racial “people” within the U.K — it’s most obviously a force in the major cities like London and Birmingham and Coventry, but this tribe has members scattered all across the country.. It’s not just the mix of black and white, it’s all sorts. I’m always amazed at the range of ethnicities involved, there’s people whosr parents are from the Indian sub-continent, or who are Cypriot or Maltese, and you also get every imaginable mix-race combination. Even talking just about ” black Britain”, it’s not just people of Jamaican descent, there’s all the other islands in the Caribbean that have their own distinct musical traditions like soca and so forth, and there’s also been more recently African immigrants, whose influence is really felt in the Afro flavours you can hear in funky house.

So it’s a really rich mix, but I guess the predominant musical flavours that run through the whole span of the continuum involve the collision of British artpop traditions (postpunk, industrial, synthpop) with Jamaica (reggae, dub, dancehall) and also black America (hip hop, house, Detroit techno). And it’s very much a two-way street: it’s not just white British youth turning on to bass pressure and speaking in Jamaican patois, it’s about second-generation Caribbean-British youth freaking out to harsh Euro techno, having their minds blown by all that early Nineties music out of Belgium. Or someone like Goldie growing up on reggae and jazz-funk but also on groups like PiL and The Stranglers.

You might say that the music of the hardcore continuum reflects the emergence of this post-racial “people” within the U.K. more than it has created it. But I think it has sped up the process, by being so attractive and so obviously the cutting edge in British popular culture. People have been actively drawn into joining this tribe, it’s been an identity manyhave wanted to embrace, because it’s been the coolest music of its era and it’s been something to be proud of: a post-racial way of affirming Britishness.

So this I think is a major political achievement for the hardcore continuum. Some commentators like the music theorist Jeremy Gilbert have asked why that never translated into politicization per se. At various point, particularly with jungle and with grime, there has been a sense that the music has been telling us things about society and what life is like for the British underclass. The darkness and paranoia of jungle (also carried on to an extent with dubstep), and the aggression and self-assertion of grime, reflect the gritty side of urban existence. But there is also a feeling, on my part certainly, that at a certain point simply reflecting Reality isn’t enough. Jungle and grime never really managed to get beyond being “gangster rave”, which is to say the British equivalent to gangster rap. So across its historical span it has oscillated between darkness (reflecting ghetto life) and brightness (dressing up and looking expensive, partying, dancing to sexy groovy music, chasing the opposite sex—that’s the side of the continuum that produced speed garage, 2step, funky house). Apart from the post-racial aspect, the other major achievement of the hardcore continuum is the creation of an autonomous cultural space based around its own media (pirate radio) and its own economic infrastructure (independent labels and record stores). Pirate radio seems particularly significant: the fact that it is community radio, offering the music for free, and that it is amateur, with DJs and MCs actually paying to play (they have to cough up a subscription fee for their air time, to pay for equipment that is lost when the authorities seize transmitters and so forth). Pirate radio is important also because it is public: the culture is underground, but this is an audible underground, it is broadcast terrestrially, blasting out onto the airwaves of London or the other big U.K. cities. It’s a community asserting its existence on the FM radio spectrum. This means that people who don’t like the music or the social groups it represents will stumble on it, but also that people who don’t know about the music will encounter it — potential converts to the movement. If the pirates went completely online, it would cease to be an underground, it would become much more just a niche market of marginal music going out almost entirely to the pre-converted. The paradox of music undergrounds is that the idea is not really to be totally underground, invisible to the mainstream and the cultural establishment. You don’t want to be ignored, you want to be a nuisance! And there is also an interaction between the undergrounds and the mainstream, where ideas from below force their way up into the mainstream and enrich and enliven it. Which then forces the underground to come up with new ideas. That process worked for a really long time with the hardcore continuum: it would develop new ideas that were so obviously advanced and compelling that the major labels would sign artists and big radio stations like BBC and Kiss FM would recruit DJs to host regular shows. It seems to have broken down with funky house, though, it’s the first hardcore continuum genre to just stay in its ghetto.

MF: 

In my book Capitalist Realism, I quote an article that Simon wrote on Jungle for The Wire magazine. Simon put his finger there on how crucial  the concept of ‘reality’, of ‘keeping it real’ was for both Jungle and US rap. Simon writes of an implied political position in jungle: how it was anti-capitalist but not socialist. That always struck me as very suggestive - but these politics were never developed.

I would tend to agree with Jeremy Gilbert - that the encounter between jungle and politics never really happened. But this wasn’t only a failure of the music; it was also a failure of politics. During the 90s, the British Labour Party courted the reactionary rockers of Britpop. But where was the politics that could synchronise with the science fictional textures that Jungle invoked?

So yes, Simon is right, if the hardcore continuum had any impact on politics it was in playing a part in establishing a post-racial Britain. It was impossible to fit Jungle into a pre-existing racial narrative - it didn’t sound like ‘white’ or ‘black’ music. And the extent to which the hardcore continuum has helped to consolidate this sense of the post-racial was made clear by an hilarious recent piece in Vice magazine called ‘Babes of the BNP’, in which female supporters of the far right British National Party were interviewed. One question was:

In terms of the BNP’s repatriation policy on immigration, if you had to choose, who would you repatriate first, Dizzee Rascal or Tinchy Stryder?

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