Monday, March 28, 2005

Skank physics

In physics, the Hubble constant is crucially important to the fate of the universe. Using the distance galaxies are away from us and the rate at which they are moving away, the constant tells us whether the universe is expanding or contracting. Whether we expanding exponentially (imagine an upwards curve), not at all (a flat horizontal line) or imploding exponentially (imagine a downwards curve).

With a cheeky lateral shift, maybe the Hubble constant can work as an illuminating analogy the 'ardcore continuum? "Dubble constant" anyone?

Everyone knows the shift from mid nineties jungle to mid noughties d&b has brought about a massive shift in energy levels. D&b's constant is now very high, a rapidly accelerating upwards curve.

Centred around club Forward>> there are a variety of garage hybrids and they are easily separated by their Hubble constant.

The breakbeat garage crew, with their take-you-away vibe derived from Zinc's high octane rinse-outs, can be found closest to d&b in energy levels. Theirs is also a steep upwards curve.

At the other end of the spectrum you have Kode 9's beatless "Sign of the Dub." and Wiley's Devil mixes of "Eskimo" and "Roll Deep Regular." Shorn of any rhythmic momentum, these older tunes have the lowest constants, downward curves of energy loss, dropping you into a dancefloor abyss.

Pitched between them you have dubstep's skank, neither wishing to "take you away" (ie "take you back to rave") with the caustic breaks nor leadening your limbs with what Jess called ankle-deep bass. Their curve is neither pitched violently upwards, nor tumbling precipitously downwards.

It might seem like hair splitting but within such a compact scene like dubstep, the nature of this curvature - positive or negative, expanding or contracting - is acutely relevant.

On one hand you have the downwards curving of the "halfstep," the boom-boom-crack rocksteady pattern that dominated last year's dubstep sessions, as observed recently by Dubquixote. This is was pioneered by dubplate master Hatcha, using Digital Mystikz and Skreams tunes, and taken to yet further extremes by that other dub soulja Youngsta armed with Loefah and D1 dubs.

Unlike the breaks crew, with their echoes of '97's nu-school movement and '90 4Hero before it, this negative curve of bass-space was unique. Junglists I dragged to raves looked confused. "When is it going to go off?" they asked. It wasn't, I smiled. The contradictions were glorious: 138-140bpm beats that felt slower than trip hop yet smothered in ten tons of sub bass. It tickled your plain/pleasure barriers. Standing in front of the speaker in Plastic People was a full body-experience. This skank was a compressed cauldron that never exploded, a glorious analogy for London living.

But recently there has been an upwards bending in the dubstep curve, pioneered in two different ways by Mala Digital Mystikz and Kode 9. Finding a degree of curvature somewhere just above zero, they've located a new skank, certainly within recent dubstep times. In energy it recalls 2step garage perhaps, though the sonics of the tracks set them far apart from that movement.

Anthems from Mala like "Neverland" and "Forgive" raise the energy levels without entering to caustic d&b/breaks territory, as showcased at the recent landmark DMZ party in basstown Brixton. Kode 9's recent sets, by contrast, have been energised by grime biggie's like Virgo's "Monster" and Aftershock riddims. Witness also his signing of Burial's swung "South London Burroughs".

Centred around zero, this new skank - neither rapidly imploding nor exploding - is like a ground-hugging bass wave spreading at street level outwards from a south London epicentre. Clipping decaying buildings and dark estates, it is spreading rapidly beyond the M25. Following the earth's curvature, the bass has said to have been felt on soundsystems in Bristol, Nottingham, Leeds, Baltimore, Sweden, Portugal, New York… and beyond. Hold tight myman Hubble.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Go on then!?

This piece Lives blighted by adversity and governed by the gun, appeared earlier this month but due to broadband nightmares I haven't been able to post it.

To me, from my experience of London and listening to the experiences of people who seem to live around guns, it seems the most accurate portrayal of the issues that I've seen in the national media. No talk of wishy washy initiatives or schemes, no rhetoric or bitter blame, just a grassroots representation of the psychology that exists in the darkest bits of our cities.

All this from a survey of just 15 men. It begs the question, "why the hell wasn't it done earlier?"

This paragraph is on the money:

What emerges most clearly from the research is that the problem is social as well as criminal, and that it defies easy answers. All the 15 men had been victims of crime. Significantly, only three turned to the police. The majority abided by peer group codes which obliged them to seek personal retribution for fear of being labelled a grass. One said: "You go to the police, you're a low life." Another added: "If someone kills one of your people, you don't want to think of them going to prison. You're going to want to kill him."

This too, seems to fit the patterns of current urban voices:

One offender described the strong pull of such a lifestyle. "Kids are hungry because they have seen what they can achieve without going to school," he said. "They say 'I don't want to go to college or school. Look what my cousin can do. My cousin makes £1,000 a week.' They think it's all right." Another said: "I'm more likely to see a rich person in the 'hood that's made money from drugs than somebody in the 'hood that's made money from being a doctor, so I will learn from what I am closest to."

As does this:

"It is not just about drugs, it is certainly not just about yardies, and at best 'gangsta' rap has only a peripheral influence," they say.

I was listening 1Xtra's audio of dancehall's Sting event in Jamaica yesterday and was really struck by the lyrical differences between grime and dancehall. Although Jamaica may well have more guns, through religion there is still a conscious voice in dancehall, telling the gunmen to put their weapons down. The lyrics, on the whole, are fixated by/directed towards women.

Grime, perhaps London's equivalent voice, on the whole has no conscious side, especially live, and lyrically is almost without exception fixated by/directed towards other men.

I'm also haunted by something drum & bass artist Klute said in a biog interview with me late last year. Drawing on his experience of punk yet describing the current state of d&b, he commented on how scenes that rev themselves up often find it a dead end. Ultimately, revving is a cul-de-sac, where as the energy levels rise, the only thing left for them is to rise yet further before ultimately stalling.

Apply this to grime and you wonder where we're headed. Dynasty's set on Cameo the other week just descended into shouting. Roll Deep on Westwood has had me mesmerised for the days since it happened, but Skepta's lyrics - that generated huge response from the Entourge - are of concern. How can "go on then/go on then/Go on then/GO ON THEN/GO ON THEN!!!!!" be adept lyricism? Sounds like revving to me… and no one wants grime to stall.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Garage triathlon… the winner?

Three garage events within three days? For garage of the dark persuasion it was unprecedented. On Thursday there was Forward>> at Plastic People featuring Wonder, Plasticman and Kode 9. Then Run the Road hosted a room at Fabric featuring Cameo, Roll Deep, Bruza, Kano, Semtex and more. Finally Digital Mystiks hosted the first of the DMZ parties in Brixton with Slaughter Mob, Skream, Chef, Plasticman, Youngsta, Kode 9 and Spaceape live plus Mala v Loefah from DMZ back to back. Attending all three was always going to hurt. Work on Friday was going to require mainlining coffee. Large parts of lives were going to be wasted on nightbusses. F**k it.

Q: So given the weight of talent on the line up… who won the triathlon?
A: Digital Mystikz. By a hundred f**ing miles.

There were certainly highlights of all three. Plasticman playing bare grime vocals on the Plastic People soundsystem (“When I’m Ere” and “Nu Era” ). Plastic playing bare grime instrumentals at Plastic People and DMZ (Wiley’s “Ice Cream remix” and load of Aftershock instrumentals.) Kode 9’s FWD>> set was definitely a contender for set-of-the-triathlon. For the first time since FWD>> began, Kode was put in the primetime last slot, instead of the early warm up. It reflects a recent change in his DJing goals, heading for a more dancefloor ethos. He’s come a long way from the beatless “Sign of the Dub” to the weighty, droney melodica/sinodub “Blues.”

Kode 9 and Spaceape ( the artist formely known as Daddi Gee … THFKADG anyone? ) live at DMZ was the sound of things to come. Backlit by blood red light, Spaceape wobbled his cosmic afro gloriously. “Sign of the Dub,” “Fukkaz (aka Subkon vox),” “Blues (vox)” and their beatless cover of “Ghost Town” sounded remarkable, though falling firmly in the zone of engrossing spectacle rather than danceable DJ set. Get them boys an album deal, pronto.

Run the Road at Fabric was one of the strongest grime line ups I’ve seen at a mainstream London club. Bruza was comedy, keeping his thin shellsuit hood up at all times, on stage and in the balcony bar. Cameo played tons of Dexplicit riddims and while I’ve never really rated Dex’s lo-fi crunchy handclapy productions, they sounded militant over the Fabric system.

I took small satisfaction in seeing No Lay perform. No Lay doesn’t know me from a hole in the ground, never will. But I honestly know I played a small part in putting her on the stage that night. Last summer, when Dan Stacey and I were struggling to compile Run the Road, I spoke to Forward>> promoter and key underground lynchpin Soulja at RinseSessions about the comp. She described the best female MC she’d heard since Ms Dynamite. High praise indeed. But when we first heard some Unorthadox productions we initially weren’t sure. In June I headed off on holiday to Spain, taking with me a CDr of potential comp tracks. Speeding through switchback after switchback of sun-drenched narrow mountain roads, “Unorthadox Daughter” blazing out of the stereo suddenly made total sense. When I returned to grime’s hometown, Dan agreed. Seeing her spit “because I bloody heard ya” in front of a huge Run the Road banner was special.

Kano and Ghetto lead a NASTY onslaught, Jammer leapt about like the bedredded mad/genius he is (“It’s NEEEEEEEKLE”) before Roll Deep took over to headline. Roll Deep always, well, roll deep. Wiley, Riko, Trim, Scratchy, Breeze, Gods Gift, Maxiumum (with Target, Danny Weed backstage) were joined by Ears, Tinchy and Ruff Sqwad, JME, Syre and more.

Roll Deep’s appearance at Fabric last year was a landmark. Then it felt like new ground was being broken. Live, The Bug compared them to the first time he saw Wu Tang. It was awe inspiring. Maybe it felt like again that to people who’d never seen Roll Deep before. This time most tunes were rewound seconds after the drop and the MCs trademark lyrics increasingly dissolved into indiscernible shouting, reloads earned by the vocal energy dissipated not the MCs individual lyrical prowess.

It was like being attacked by an enemy armed only with hand grenades to throw, not equipped with a continuous hale of automatic weapons fire. And it did feel like a sonic assault. My response to Run the Road should be measured in the background of extreme tiredness. By 3am, after Forward>> and work the day before, I was really starting to hurt. All over. Fabric doesn’t help either: it’s a venue where the clientele are constantly funnelled through dark narrow bottlenecks. Like a micro-metaphor for London, it feels like to get anywhere you will have to individually fight each member of the population. Perhaps it’s the perfect environment to experience grime then.

In retrospect Brixton is a perfect venue for Digital Mystikz’ dubstep. A stronghold of London’s Anglo-Jamaican community, Brixton has always been a reggae, not garage, heartland. Perhaps that’s how DMZ were able to come across the most insanely loud and bassy speaker stacks that towered either side of the decks. Even in compared to Fabric and Plastic People’s badboy sounds, this system made them look weak. My ears rang the next day after wearing professional earplugs.

DMZ always had the potential to be a landmark. The hype has been building for DMZ for about 18 months now. “Pathwayz” being smashed by Hatcha at Forward>>, the Grime 2 comp exposure, DJing at Maida Vale for the John Peel Tribute night, Loefah remixing Bugz in the Attic: now is their time.

Equally it had the potential to be a disaster. I’ve trekked forever sarf to Croydon several times to hear them play, only to see more people behind the decks than on the dancefloor. Personally it’s always worth it – Mala, Coki and Loefah always keep their powder dry, always have new anthems to premiere on dub – but disappointing to see this music not reaching it’s audience. They found an audience at DMZ.

Digital Mystikz’s uptempo tracks like “Neverland,” “Conference,” “Twissup remix,” “Forgive” and “Roots” achieve a unique balance. On one hand they empower rooms, smothering them in heavy sub bass and energetic swung rhythms. On the other there’s a warmth and melodic element that triggers memories of great black music past. They never need resort to cold, distorted breaks or distorted midrange noise that the breaks crew feel “makes” people dance. Like all great black music – jungle, hip hop, dancehall, reggae, 2step – DMZ riddims don’t “make” you dance, they ask.

2004 was grime’s year, there’s no question of that. Culturally it’s still undeniably unique, vital and groundbreaking. In grime’s shadow, dubstep has suffered from a degree of reverse snobbery. But over these three days, nothing got even near the emotion unleashed by Mala and Loefah back-to-back at DMZ. Nothing.