Tuesday, August 02, 2005

dust and sun

I’ve been in the San Francisco and Bay Area for the last two weeks, being baked by a brittle sun in dry heat.

Despite two brief forays into US waters, I’ve never been to America before. Despite so much of it being comfortably familiar – thanks to blanket global media exports – there’s still so much to take in.

Naturally, Americans, particularly in shops (“stores”) and restaurants are as ludicrously friendly as expected. But contrary to expectation, the darkside Londoner in me doesn’t find it ridiculous. Or want to hit them. It must be the weather.

Their friendliness contrasts interestingly with their government, though not really California’s government, a point not lost on me while bashfully reading Philippe Sand’s Lawless World (America and the Making and Breaking of Global Rules) in restaurants, hoping no one notices the cover. Sitting in the US I’m a little outnumbered. Outgunned too.

Over ten chapters, Sands – a respected international law expert – describes how in 1941 Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt built the cornerstones of global law as we know it by writing the Atlantic Charter, which the UN Charter went on to be based upon. As the chapters unfold, it describes how in recent years the US has cherry-picked the international laws it wants to honour. Trade agreements, Geneva Conventions (when US citizens are captured) and prosecutions of foreign ex-dictators like General Pinochet: yes. Kyoto Agreements on greenhouse gas emissions, Geneva Convention (when foreign citizens are captured), UN resolutions and the International Criminal Court: no. Doesn’t explain why people are friendly in shops (“stores”) though.

I do however understand why Bush starts war for oil. It’s a scale thing. One morning I walked from the local train station to an office in the same town. It took an hour. In that hour not one bus passed me. The road lead into an industrial park. With tech firms to the right and US Air Force and cruise missile manufacturers to the left, the road was five lanes wide. Each way. Dammit even the roads got supersized here.

When the first bombs went off in London this summer I was on the tube. London’s all about immersion but that was far too close for comfort. When it happened again I was out of the country. Expats kept saying they felt removed. To me it was beyond that, like it was happening to someone else’s way of life, while I was in a place where the lights had been turned on too bright, the hills bleached to dust and the weather gage jammed to “scorchio.”

Skanking round my hotel room to Skepta on Rinse started to feel weird. If you can’t feel the tube dirt in your lungs and your blood simmering down from some east London road rage, grime make less sense. Given this, how can grime have any US following?

As a teenager I dreamt of Detroit. Carl Craig and Robert Hood, Underground Resistance and Derrick May. But beyond the mournful melodic synths, my lasting impression is of a curiosity for a city far removed from my birthplace that had given us Motown and P Funk, Planet E and the Model T. Detroit wasn’t a sound, it was a narrative. Why else would I be daydreaming of deserted streets decorated with junk by local artists or of the white-flight phenomenon or decaying buildings? Like Kid Kameleon describes, I was an outsider looking in.

It was around 2002-3 that I felt the same should be assembled for London (if jungle hadn’t done it already), and in particular for Croydon too, so that Londoners didn’t have to be the outsiders looking to other cities. That thought set me on the journey towards learning to produce, and ultimately, to launch Keysound Recordings, a label that in essence acknowledges that it’s our surroundings that influences the feel of our sound. An essence that explains why dancing round my Californian hotel room to Skepta on Rinse felt weird.

Gazing out of the Caltrain to San Francisco felt weird too. American buildings: they’re all so large, cubic and flimsy. Flat roofed, square, stocky industrial units spreading as far as the eye could manage in the bright sun’s glare. Impermanent. Modern. Different. How could dubstep or grime ever make sense here?

Part of grime’s importance is that it threw away the rule book. It was ejected from garage. It in turn rejected garage. Its one big “fuck you” to the establishment, a multicultural punk revolution. And within this movement of change, the life cycle is punishing. To its young fans, 2003 is “old school.” On the RWD forum the other day no one could remember Wonder’s anthem ‘What,’ only Wiley’s recently released cover version “Morgue.” The past is irrelevant to grime. It’s not where you’re from it’s where you’re at.

But staring out across rows of Bay Area dusty industrial units zipping by, it occurred to me grime, whether it overtly acknowledges it or not, might be nothing without it’s past. Grime owes the Victorians, for row after row of terraces houses, or experimental 1960s city planners for ugly concrete brutalist towerblocks. Dubstep owes Croydon too, for it’s flyovers and motorways. Grime owing the Victorians, well I never. Well I never thought I’d think that.


bruno said...

'inner landscape' matters as much and perhaps more than landscape in the case of grime. it's mood music. when i started listening to grime i was emotionally wrecked and broke. though the city i live in (santiago, chile) is conveniently ugly, had my surroundings been any different the music would have felt the same. just a thought.

Blackdown said...

really? i'm not sure. grime and dubstep doesnt feel the same to me when the sun shines every single day.

and to me grime and dubstep aren't 'inner' music, mind explorations like electronica, they're surroundings reflections.

subframe said...

I'm a native Californian. I live in San Francisco now.

I've felt what you felt before, that there was a bizarre conflict between the music I love (drum n bass, now grime and dubstep) and the environment. I keep lots of other music on my ipod for when I'm walking around town and the disconnect between sounds and surroundings gets too much and I have to switch it up.

But there are times - October winds blowing through darkened dirty streets, August fog, watery January sun lighting up the canyons of downtown - when the music feels right. That sense of yawning emptiness wells up and suddenly you realize, these thousands of people aren't walking the streets, they're stalking the streets even if they won't admit it.

I've never been to London. But I think the music really can speak for itself, and if you're ready to listen, it's an easy language to understand, even if what it's saying can be painful to hear.

Blackdown said...

wicked subframe, that makes total sense.

bruno said...

well, the sun doesen't shine here every single day. this isn't a tropical country. but you have a point. i would stress a couple of things, though. grime may owe it's existence to it's surroundings, but it communicates itself in abstract, like all music. so if you listen to, say, ruff sqwad, the music speaks with the same voice of people in a city like mine in a way. there is no uk monopoly over decaying urban areas and over the aspiration to create something where there is nothing, it's a global thing and girme communicates these things viscerally. also, arguably your average forum dweller or record buyer isn't in a different dimension to a non-uk grime listener, interfacing with the music through a computer screen. and one last thing: there is always night to cloak the surroundings!

Blackdown said...

i love the night!

bruno said...


so do i.

David McDougall said...

well, as an american who's into grime, it seems to me that grime is about urban environs... which is the root of much US hiphop as well. especially crunk and anything that stays 'thug' or 'real'... you used to dream of detroit, but you're in san francisco now, which is in many ways the opposite of the urban ghetto US areas that have produced rap since it's beginning.

but early hip hop drew on a really different strain of dance music than garage... hence the less frenetic and dark beats. but take some crunk beats and play them a bit fast, throw Lil Jon over it and all that's missing is the London speech.

Americans are really nice. only, lots of them hold to a doctrine of American exceptionalism, including our government... but please give us the benefit of the doubt and recall that only half of us voted Bush & co in

and while lots is made of grime's 'what-have-you-done-for-me-lately', recall that the same young fans of grime over there are the young hiphop kids here who in 2 years wont know JayZ ever rock'd a mic... difference being they're white kids in the suburbs. possibly suburban/exurban alienation shares lots with feeling ghetto-trapped, while british youth have either an urban or rural experience? unconfirmed musings

coming to NYC?

Mr Broadacres said...

A friend of mine in San Diego listens to Dizzee, Wiley etc all the time, with liberal amounts of Sabbath thrown in (it does make sense oddly...). The sun shines but he has always kept a downbeat mindset. He really wants to get back to london, where he went to college with me. He loves the people and the weather, the weirdo. He's definitely a Londoner born in Cali. And I think that kind of yearning leads to interest in music which speaks of it.
To me there's loads of frustrated energy in grime, drawn from a reaction to an environment, its people. But also your postion and movement in it. Wether you want in or out (or neither), and what your feelings about that are. It's a straight-up quick-fire reflection on a situation.
Dubstep feels different to me somehow, more of a collected feeling and mood. A personal brew of london vistas and sweaty basements. Definitely more 'inner' I'd say.
Anyway before I go off on some rant I just thought I'd recommend a writer called Iain Sinclair. The inspired connection between the victorians and grime, in fact your last post in general made me think of his stuff - he's a stalker of London, digging up its histories and reasons, giving equal importance to tags and memorials. Lights Out for the Territory is the book to check. Just a thought...

ripley said...

I vibe with what you're saying.. as far as contextualizing grime. in talking about it, all those frames make sense.

But people rebel against the sunny glory too. I'm thinking of the horrific screamcore and grindcore (guitar-based 'cores, as far as I know) that comes out of truly sunny places like San Diego.

that said - I always thought of urban, particularly industrial decay (detroit, manchester) as somehow fermenting into some powerful music.

it's interesting - the inner/outer music thing. Listening to jungle in some parts of the US felt like "inner" music because it was so completely unlike what was happening musically in clubs and on the radio. I had no experience of large crowds dancing to jungle for quite some time... even found it hard to picture, although on another level something about the music seemed to evoke that..

JD said...

Don't let the sunshine and pretty surface fool you, 'cause its just shine, just surface. San Francisco is a dark place. Thick fog rolling in over the headlands.

Southern Cali has its own brand of noir: Chinatown, Chandler, Day of the Locusts, Sunshine and Noir, City of Quartz, Joan Didion, etc.--"Murder Was The Case" even, or Gravity Records.

That grime sounds like London, though, is one of its appeals for us: just like hip hop sounds like Houston, or Atlanta, or Brooklyn


was surprised too that I didn't find the friendliness in California fake or annoying... and yeah their public transport is awful, I got stuck on the buses in LA all day til I ended up in downtown at night... don't do that, although Grime would sound a bit more in keeping then maybe.

Grime definitely connects me to the city and in some ways my past as I grew up in the Hip-hop and Jungle scenes when they were still edgy and exciting and some of that energy has been passed down. I can draw that energy from the music no matter what the environment but if I was sitting up on a mountain it might be the last music I'd choose to bump.

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