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?