Sunday, October 28, 2007

From the ground

Time in Thailand meant space. Room to read. Choked by multiple channels digital media, my book reading has suffered in the last few years. Only when the plug’s pulled do I find the mental space. And boy, do I feel the benefits.

In an impulse airport buy, I picked up Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point.” First published in the UK in 2000 (I know, I’m late…), it sets out to explain how given social phenomena, seemingly in contented equilibrium, can suddenly undergo explosive growth. The parallels with epidemiology and virology are strong.

Having read it, I guess I should admit I’m not sure I entirely buy “The Tipping Point.” Gladwell assembles disparate case studies and claims to find laws. There’s little scientific method nor attempt to eliminate whether a complex interaction of multiple forces was responsible for a given “tipping point,” rather than taking the easy route of pointing to the influence of, say, one sole Salesman. Yet to me its real value is in learning about the case studies he’s so painstakingly read up on, whether it’s crime in STD infections in Colorado or New York in the 1990s.

Yet within a few pages of “The Tipping Point,” I was dumbstruck how clearly there were parallels with dubstep’s growth. The year “The Tipping Point” is released in the UK, dubstep’s little more than a good idea (dark garage) contained in a handful of releases (Ghost 001, Tempa 001…) lost amongst the hype and success of UKG.

It continues its outsider status for nearly six years, largely derided (“it’s too slow,” “it’s too dark”, “when does it go off?”) by other genres (breaks, drum & bass, broken beat, mainstream dance, grime…), written off by most bloggers and totally ignored by the mainstream music press. It sells little but incubates quietly amongst a handful of committed DJs, producers and fans. While it experiences gentle growth beforehand, dubstep’s tipping point was clearly January 2006.

Malcolm Gladwell attributes scenes that “tip” to three factors:

• The Law of the Few
• Stickiness Factor
• Power of the Context

Of these three in relation to dubstep, “The Stickiness Factor” is by far the easiest to assign. Where in other social epidemics it might be less clear, here you can simply say “the music appealed to people.” I always felt it could. I can’t honestly say I knew if it would. In the end it has. Of course some tunes are stickier than other and the stickiest has important role as appeal means audience. At this time, no tune was stickier than Skream’s “Request Line” which burst the genre out of its confines, though the weight of multicolour tracks from Mala (“Neverland,” “Forgive,” “Changes” …) certainly helped.

“The Law of the Few” centres around the idea that certain types of people can have a disproportionate effect. He names three of them Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen.

In Gladwell’s world, the connectors are the facilitators, people who link, join and arrange. The classic example of this is Sarah Soulja from Ammunition. To this day people have no idea how much she did and still does for dubstep behind the scenes. Other, less clear cut, examples of connectors include Boomnoise, but also Barefiles and Rinse, who connected the fans to the music. Also the DJs and producers themselves, act as connectors as they spread their sound.

Then there’s Maven, people who ingest, rank and share vast amount of information about the scene. I guess at that time that was, well, probably myself and Gutterbreakz who probably came under this umbrella.

Then there’s Salesmen, evangelists, people who take the idea to the audience. This was clearly people like Boomnoise, Mary Anne Hobbs and George Drumz of the South. To an extent I’d also argue that clubs like FWD>>, DMZ and Subloaded were Salesmen, but perhaps they are more easily categorised using…

“The Power of the Context.” Where some of the other examples seem a little stretched, according to Gladwell’s definitions, “The Power of the Context” has blatant resonance with dubstep. To quote from “The Tipping Point:” “The Power of the Context: …in ways that we don’t necessarily appreciate, our inner states are the result of our outer circumstances.” How clearly does that resonate with the importance placed in dubstep around bass heavy, clear soundsystems installed into essential club environments like FWD>>, DMZ, Subloaded?

In a final twist in the correlations between “The Tipping Point” and dubstep, I did find a startling parallel between some of his ideas around The Power of the Context and some of my Keysound thinking, the ideas that underpin our label.

Here’s something I wrote recently about Keysound Recordings:

“What is Keysound thinking?

Around 2005 I found myself returning to, in essence, the same question: why is so much of the music from London, from jungle to grime to dubstep, so dark? What was it that unified all these producers in their love of dark, edgy beats? Again and again, I came back to the same conclusion. Of those making dark beats in London, the only single factor that united everyone - from all backgrounds, gender, ethnicity, age or class - was their London surroundings.”
Contrast this with Gladwell’s The Power of the Context:

“In ways that we don’t necessarily appreciate, our inner states are the result of our outer circumstances.”

Or his explanation of a concept called FAE:

“The mistake we make in thinking of character as something unified and all-encompassing is very similar to a kind of blind spot in the way we process information.

Psychologists call this tendency the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE), which is a way of saying when it comes to interpreting other people’s behaviour, human beings invariably make the mistake of overestimating the importance of fundamental character traits and underestimating the importance of the situation and the context.”

Using criminologists James Q Wilson and George Kelling’s “Broken Windows” theory, Gladwell points to the power of cleaning up the New York subway and its positive effect on crime rates.

“Muggers and robbers whether opportunistic or professional, believe they can reduce their chances of being caught or even identified if they operate on streets where the potential victims are already intimidated by prevailing conditions. If the neighbourhood cannot keep a bothersome panhandler from annoying passersby, the thief may reason, it is less likely to call the police to identify a potential mugger or to interfere if the mugging actually takes place.”
By extension perhaps London’s grimey surroundings are responsible for its dark music epidemic?

Old ILEA building, Hackney
Originally uploaded by Fin Fahey

A late twist to this train of thought came to me when I returned to London. I was talking to, well let’s just identify the person as a Rinse insider, who was describing the funky house nights going on out east right now. I didn’t write down the quotes, so here’s a loose paraphrasing.

“I’ve been to some funky house after parties that you’d love. Out east, some grimey venue, all girls and ghetto kids. Everyone’s dressed up, no hoods or trainers. It’s exactly like UK garage again. The music’s London funky house, except the ghetto kids are starting to make it now too. It's unclear, but in a minute it will be something. There’s no trouble though, perhaps the dress policy keeps them away…”
Apart from my obvious curiosity about “a new UK garage,” despite my musical narcolepsy, sorry reservations, about funky house, a parallel appeared to me with Kelling’s “Broken Windows” theorem.

“There’s no trouble though…” said the insider, despite this being exactly the same audience/demographic/location as grime. Perhaps, surrounded by well dressed people, a individual behaves differently? Frankly that isn’t such a revelation, think about the number of times you’ve dressed up and been on your best behaviour.

But then I think back to the one time I went to Twice As Nice in 1998 at The End. At that time it was the quintessential UK garage rave. Then a few months later, someone who may or may have not have been at the club got shot about half a mile from the venue.

In fact I remember one senior urban journalist telling me once, “mate, it’s not the new school (grime) MCs you gotta look out for, it’s the old school garage mafia…”

Hmm. Am I looking through “broken windows?” or a prism reflecting many complex colours.


Anonymous said...

making alot of sense

Anonymous said...

Excellent post, reallt enjoyed reading your well written thoughts.



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CPW said...

This really resonated with me for some I am reading your blog more than 5 years too late. It's some of the best commentary on dubstep I've read. I only heard about this music in 2011, so I feel like I finally have a real idea where it came from, not the Big Apple cliches that Skream et al trot out on the regular.