Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Under and over

It’s been a busy few months on the music front, between one thing and another but recently it occurred to me that a common idea kept appearing again and again.

First there was my Dizzee review for eMusic, as I came to terms with the changes he’d made to his sound and his message. In last month’s Pitchfork column I interviewed Skepta. The week before last I was invited to a “dubstep round table” for music marketing magazine Frukt, that featured MJ Cole, Plastician, Del from Drum & Bass Arena, Geeneus from Rinse and Dan Hancox from Dot.Alt. Then last week I was interviewed by Mary Anne Hobbs for a forthcoming Radio 1 dubstep documentary, due to go out at the pretty much peak time slot (for dubstep) of 9pm. It was in talking to Mary Anne that I realised the common thread that united all these events.

Both dubstep and grime are, by and large, underground phenomena. Dubstep is currently in an unprecedented growth period and grime has, in aspiration, always aimed high. In all four events, the Dizzee review, Skepta interview, the Frukt round table and the Radio 1 interview, the issue came up of what happens to underground scenes when they reach for the mainstream.

I’m not intrinsically against the mainstream. I love hearing Timbaland’s or Ryan Leslie’s weird beats on the radio and it was incredible when Dizzee won the Mercury Music Prize with “Boy In Da Corner.” Kanye does confidence on a global scale. And yes, while it’s true that I struggle to relate to most mainstream music, it’s fair to generalise that most artists would like their music heard by the widest possible audience: for them to think otherwise would be irrational. But increasingly reaching the widest possible audience comes with some very large terms and conditions, ones that like a straight jacket, tend to restrain.

First off there’s my eMusic “Maths + English” review, the closing paragraph of which reads:

“Much of what made Dizzee so utterly compelling has been discarded, a unique message replaced by the everyday urge to entertain. “A couple of years ago in my road-yout days/I was into pirate radio I guess it was a phase…” spits Dizzee on “Pussyole”. It’s a tragic admission. While the track as a whole lays into his former mentor Wiley, those bars cheaply dismiss pirate radio, the medium that first afforded him a voice and that continues to function as the voice of inner city London that mainstream radio will not allow. If Dizzee has fought his way to the heart of commercial media only to loose his message, did the end justify these means?”

Skepta, alongside his brother JME, has done more to work with mainstream media than any other unsigned grime act (they played at celebrity socialite Peaches Geldoff’s birthday party – that’s breaking serious cultural boundaries!). Speaking to him, prior to the launch of his self-released debut album about his strategy on reaching a wider audience, it was interesting to hear some compromises he makes. From the start, one of the appeals of grime has been its unique use of language. Even in my first Dizzee interview for Hyperdub.net almost five years ago, I spent time with him clarifying what the slang terms he used meant (“shotters/blotter/HMP…”). The slang itself evolves within the grime community and takes dedicated listening by an outsider to decipher. Talking to Skepta, his approach seems to be a process of lyrical self-clarification, both in vocabulary and delivery, to ensure his message is heard and understood. It’s about knowing your audience, he believes: speaking to 50 grime fans on London pirate radio is not the same as MCing to 1000 clubbers in Russia or wherever.

I mentioned this at the Frukt round table and Plastician, who’s tight with Skepta and has spent time on tour with him, attested to this change in approach by Skepta when facing audiences abroad. Lots of the Frukt debate centred around “what’s next for dubstep?” with many inevitable comparisons to drum & bass. “Will dubstep become ‘coffee table’ music?” went on line of questioning. Will we see dubstep-lite on adverts like we saw drum & bass-lite selling shampoo and conditioner in the late ‘90s?

Whether we will or won’t can only be speculation. The bigger question is, will it still be dubstep if it is? How much do you have to compromise for it no longer to be recognisable and furthermore, if the price of compromise is a complete loss of everything that made your art form unique and interesting in the first place, was it worth it?

The Mary Anne Hobbs interview was a strange experience. Putting headphones on in a broadcast studio so you can hear your own voice – and only your own voice – reverbed, and then being asked emotive questions you feel deeply about, gives the an effect that’s not unlike having the entire room be able to hear your deep, near-subconscious thoughts.

During the interview this “future of dubstep” question came up and also “should dubstep go down the ‘live’ route” and I thought back over the Skepta, Frukt and Dizzee encounters. Then an analogy came to me, that I’d been mulling over for some time, that applied to all the situations.

Imagine a political party with a brilliant, nation-changing idea. They do everything to gain power, except in doing so, have to compromise the one idea that made them unique and important. You’d have to ask, as a voter, was it all worth it? The same question applies to dubstep and grime.

I try wherever possible, to remain positive and idealistic about music. But I appreciate that with a few exceptions (Dizzee’s “Boy In Da Corner”, Burial’s “Burial” and Lethal B’s “Forward Riddim” aka “Pow”), access to the mainstream audiences – if an artist wants to go down that route – requires some degree of compromise. I guess then, the crux of this arguments then reduces itself to, what compromises are acceptable for the two genres if they’re to retain what makes them unique, vital and interesting?


Anonymous said...

nice job on this one martin.

my personal (quick) opinion is that dubstep is in a "lose/lose" situation right now.

go big and you might alianate some of the older-core 'fans' or be crucified for selling out.
stay low and you may regret not going for it and getting your name out there.

i live in the states, in a bigger city and have been following dubstep and grime for a good 3 years now. i would prolly say 1 out of 100 people i talk to specifically about music have a tiny amount of knowledge about either genre.

personally i think dubstep in particular is peaking, and maybe even on the downward slide. the quality of releases compared to the amount of releases is ridiculous.
hopefully when the popularity peaks alot of the "scenesters" will leach onto something else, this goes for producers and dj's aswell as fans.

but in saying that, if there is one person who i think is making all the right moves its kode 9.he's not my favortie producer or dj but he seems to be making smart decisions.

pollywog said...

oh so we're back to playing this game again huh...


...but like i said you made ya bed now lie in it

Anonymous said...

Nice piece Martin.

I was out last night at dubwar in NYC and it was a great rave. Great sound, vibes, people were losing their shit. At one point a bunch of dudes up at the front started basically fully moshing. I was surprised but it was cool (although it pissed off some of the girls who were nearby trying to dance).

Mala and Loefah played back to back. I like both, although I find loefah's halfstep military music a bit trying in a club I can really enjoy it on radio or whatever, even without the right sound system. It's stark and interesting.

Mala however, I really enjoy all around. Specifically his melodic sense and the deepness he brings to his sets. I came hoping to hear an hour of 'changes' and 'anti war dub' type flavors. Instead he played back to back with Loefah and basically played a lot of big crowd pleasing tunes that often were really not that deep at all, and I was a bit disappointed.

I guess now that these guys are moving into bigger arenas they feel that this is what they need to be competitive but it does feel like a loss to me.

Tom White said...

The mainstream of culture will always absorb aspects of the underground tributaries that feed it - this is the nature of culture. Of course, for those who have been part of a particular artistic movement long enough to remember the days when nobody seemed to know or care about it will always be distressed by the dilution that occurs when it enters a wider arena.

However, there will always be artists and audiences who produce/appreciate forward thinking and/or high quality examples of the artform; who allow it to grow and evolve and maintain some sort of 'quality control' on the culture they know and love.

It is formulaic, second rate imitations and homogeneous pandering to mainstream popularity which will kill the energy of the art. The more people are aware of it, the greater the risk of this happening. But it is this risk itself that pushes people to asses an artform and push it's boundries in order to keep it fresh and new. Hence Dubstep (for example) owes it's existence in part to the mainstream incursions made by Drum & Bass and Garage. What these music forms lost in the process fueled the birth of another, one with roots in both.

So I welcome this, and can only hope that in the end, quality music will prevail and just under the surface of the mainstream, the underground will always bubble with creativity.

Anonymous said...

losts of deep things to think about there... i saw skream at deviation in east london last night & the crowd were really feeling it... it gave me hope that dubstep can grow into something bigger actually, but if it evolves into something else i like what tom white says about quality music always prevailing... so something good will keep growing... let's keep moving fwd...

Anonymous said...

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