For this edition of Subliminal Transmissions, we offer some thoughts on the increasing convergence/irrelevance of genre in a web-driven world, and the rise (and rise) of R'n'B signifiers in UK bass sounds.
A couple of weeks ago Tri Angle Records boss Robin Carolan’s So Bones night, dedicated to ‘cutting edge commercial R’n’B and hip-hop’, descended upon Bristol again. So far, so unremarkable in the popular clubs sector. Except, as has become increasingly common over the last year or so, the evening’s special guests were darlings of the UK bass scene – Velour (the velveteen duo of Hyetal and Julio Bashmore). And even a quick scan through some of the biggest bass hitters of last year - Guido’s airy ‘Mad Sax’, Girl Unit’s ‘Wut’, James Blake’s gritty recontextualising of Kelis and Aaliyah in ‘CMYK’, the Legoland aesthetic of the Night Slugs crew - reveals a musical community increasingly colour-saturated by the synth ‘n’ beat work of dirty south hip-hop and R’n’B.
In many cases, rather than being a new or zeitgeist-following development (more on that later), already present interests have gradually emerged in many UK producers’ music. Though their influences stretch as far as UKG and early grime (particularly with regard to both's bass-centric, body-shaking approach), it’s easy to track R’n’B and hip-hop’s sonic signatures in dubstep backward at least as far as early 2008. At that point, early sounds from Joker, Ikonika, Hudson Mohawke and Rustie sat alongside individual curios like Forsaken’s Tweet-sampling ‘Hypnotised’. And the transatlantic axis that formed between London and LA that year, with Flying Lotus’ drawling bass landscapes on Los Angeles and Samiyam’s Hyperdub debut, solidified a mutual fascination that’s only continued to blossom.
Forsaken - 'Hypnotised' [Immerse]
Joker - 'Psychedelic Runway' [Kapsize]
Since then, that sonic exchange has seen sheets of synthetic colour tear through the darkened spaces of early dubstep and grime. Rigid rigid tempo and beat structures have begun to dissolve into a fluid stew, somewhere between 120 and 140 bpm, modifying beat chemistry. Over the last couple of years it’s also become common to hear the sultry strains of a female voice drifting from the void – thanks both to UK funky’s validation of the diva vocal among a younger, raised-on-grime generation, and to the hand-in-hand way they slide into the toxic instrumentals once horribly pigeonholed as ‘wonky’.
At one end of the scale, the likes of Forsaken (with ‘Hypnotised’) and Joy Orbison’s refixes of Jamie Foxx (‘GR Etiquette’) and Goapele’s ‘Milk & Honey’ have been concerned with setting distinctive vocal samples in a UK-centric environment: relocating, rather than redesigning. Right at the other pole though, the likes of Deadboy, Girl Unit and Hyetal have adopted sounds that eschew viewing from afar in favour of an actively synthetic approach, weaving nuum traits seamlessly into influences from The-Dream and Timbaland. Guido’s Anidea album is a great example, a brilliantly realised mesh of several complementary dancefloor forms. The gorgeous, astral funk of ‘Way U Make Me Feel’ is pure West Country R’n’Bass, Yolanda’s hoarse vocal dripping like honey off a beat a thousand times more opulent than her tracks on Pinch’s Underwater Dancehall.
Guido - 'Way U Make Me Feel' ft. Yolanda [Punch Drunk]
In the grime world, the reanimated Terror Danjah’s grasp of noxious melody and recent pop-friendly album on Hyperdub align perfectly with the sterling work of London’s Butterz stable. Headed up by Rinse DJs Elijah & Skilliam, their record label and blog (plus prodigious volumes of free music from a new generation of young producers) have spearheaded a revival in instrumental grime. But building on the genre’s early Eski days, childhood videogame soundtracks and Youtube have stacked extra layers onto its sparse skeleton. S-X’s ‘Woooo Riddim’, last year’s biggest grime track, has as much in common with dirty south instrumentals as with anything from London, and Royal T’s recent ‘Orangeade’ was produced after a remark that 'Lemonade’, by Atlanta's Gucci Mane, was the best grime track currently doing the rounds.
Girl Unit’s Wut EP, meanwhile, plays like a set of dirty south hip-hop instrumentals displaced in space to London’s club landscape, mixing seamlessly into beats from US producers like Lex Luger and Shawty Redd. Skydiver, Local Action’s recent free album of Cassie remixes, features a trio of impressively placeless tracks from synthesists du jour Brackles, Mickey Pearce and Jacques Greene. All these examples suggest a fluid, reciprocal musical communicaton between intrinsically connected genres – a world where it’s getting tougher to separate single strands from the whole. It works in reverse too: Tricky Stewart’s whipcrack production on Ciara’s ‘Gimme Dat’ and Ramadanman’s dancefloor anthem ‘Grab Somebody’ could practically be siblings, such are their similarities – from pulsing sub motion to their use of elastic kick-snare combos as heavy weaponry.
Ciara - 'Gimme Dat' [LaFace]
Ramadanman - 'Grab Somebody' [white]
Somewhere in the middle of the spectrum lies current media crush James Blake. Blake has always described his Harmonimixes as carefully chosen tributes to songs he loves, as opposed to quickly thrown together remixes. And, to be fair, it shows, in the dissonant complexity of ‘Bills Bills Bills’ and the perverse humour of setting Lil Wayne’s nasal brag to a soft nursery rhyme melody. Admit it: “You like a bitch with no ass/You ain’t got shit” doesn’t quite carry the same menacing weight while a music box whistles a merry tune in the background. Both tracks’ murky, distant feel, alongside the static cloak surrounding ‘CMYK’ – itself a double-barreled remix - represent Blake’s appreciation of R’n’B as practically subconscious, a kind of passive knowledge absorbed through years of hearing the stuff piped from mainstream radio in cars, shopping centres and at the back of buses.
And that’s one particularly interesting aspect of UK-borne club music’s appropriation of such distinctly US styles. Rather than making music from the perspective of people directly involved in the R’n’B or hip-hop scenes, they’re often producing from outside. These tracks are artists’ impressions, modified through distance and experience, rather than carbon copies. That’s why despite their sonic similarities many UK producers’ music remains steeped in a peculiarly British sensibility: a cocktail of wit and melancholy, stirred with occasional outbursts of unabashed enthusiasm.
James Blake - 'CMYK' [R&S]
At this point, where the sounds that have developed post dubstep (as distinct from ‘post-dubstep’) are beginning to court serious attention in the clubbing mainstream, it’s surprisingly difficult to write about the subject without falling victim to the trappings of hype. Similarly, R’n’B is almost painfully hot right now, with the slightly pop friendlier likes of James Blake, How To Dress Well and oOoOO all incorporating its tropes into individually tweaked forms. It’s difficult not to feel at least a pang of cynicism about its sudden peak in popularity among some circles. For a start, the almost frantic rush towards R’n’B mirrors the semi-ironic and uncritical re-emergence of chart UK garage in certain clubs after dubstep’s sudden ascent.
All of this having been said, to dwell excessively on demographics may be to miss the point slightly. Web 4.0 plays the role of cultural particle accelerator, sending fragments of sound skating across the surface of the globe at unimaginable speed before smashing them headlong into one another. As a result, many upcoming producers are refreshingly unconcerned with sticking to strictly defined genre lines: everything blurs into one single, undifferentiated mass of sound. Where the dancefloor’s demands are no longer a limitation, the boundaries find themselves on unsteady, corroded ground, with the emergence of several artists making music reflecting that melting-pot sensibility.
The likes of Damu, Dro Carey, Hype Williams and Forest Swords are writing music that’s thrilling in its disregard for genre functionality (be that for either pop or club audiences). Forest Swords' spectral cover of Aaliyah’s ‘If Your Girl Only Knew’ bears only the slightly similarity to the original, choosing to cloak its sentiments in a haze of anonymity. Again, R’n’B’s influence is tangible (FS’ Matt Barnes regularly discusses it in interviews) but displaced in space and time, refracted through post-punk’s wiry, contorted frame.
Forest Swords - 'If Your Girl' [Olde English Spelling Bee]
Dro Carey - 'Much Coke' [Brain So Soft]
The Venus Knock EP, by Sydney’s Dro Carey, is smudged to the point of obscurity, finding a disorienting middle ground where fragments of hip-hop bravado snag in a thicket of barbed synth and sub-bass. He’s equally comfortable exploring regions both on and off the dancefloor, with upcoming material for Ikonika’s Hum & Buzz imprint and a raft of tracks on his Tumblr channeling those same blurred tendencies into music that demands direct physical action. London’s Damu, meanwhile, boasts an impressively prolific record - his Soundcloud page is packed with everything from minute-long synth experiments to fluorescent club hits. The neon two-step of ‘Be Free’ is particularly spectacular, marked out by supple threads of melody that dazzle like burning magnesium.
London-Berlin duo Hype Williams’ output so far has been akin to a compression chamber, physically squeezing reference points into almost impossibly dense but still graceful vignettes – a paradox that makes them a joy to listen to. Last year’s untitled album on Carnivals saw them chucked into the ‘hypnagogic’ melting pot, but their recent Do Roids & Kill E’rything 7” was altogether more claustrophobic, screwing a Drake vocal with a homemade chemistry set and melting down Sade's 'The Sweetest Taboo'. Their second album Find Out What Happens When People Stop Being Polite, And Start Gettin’ Reel (one of the best titles we’ve encountered for a while) opens with the autotuned whine of a crying child and continues as a seedy, ambiguous take on soul and hip-hop. Upcoming third album One Nation is a further distillation; it’s intense and strikingly self-contained, save a brief snippet of Cassie’s ‘My Addiction’ vocal, writhing in an endless tortured loop.
The music emerging from these camps and others frequently reflects the internet’s democratization of music culture. It’s getting harder to track the provenance of individual sounds as small, insular scenes are swiftly scattered across the globe. The atomic fragments released when those separate particles collide are, it would seem, a powerful mutating force.
Flex Mentallo's recent mix for Always Everything takes the convergence of UK bass, hip-hop and R'n'B as a basis and runs with it, exploring even a small selection of the sort of hybrids that are currently developing.
Gucci Mane - Volume (instrumental) [Prod. J.U.S.T.I.C.E League]
Morgan Zarate - Hookid
Young Jeezy - What They Want
Maximillion Dunbar - Down There
Gucci Mane - All About The Money (Instrumental) [Prod. Drumma Boy]
Beyonce - Diva
Rustie - Dragonfly
Young L - Loser
Ginz - Boss
Rick Ross - MC Hammer (feat. Gucci Mane)
SX - 10:28am (Instrumental)
Pearson Sound - Blanked
Ciara - Ride (feat. Ludacris)
Becoming Real - Showdown In Chinatown (Instrumental)
Dozen - Too Much (Illum Sphere)
Ludacris - Party No Mo
Superisk - Find Your Way VIP (Instrumental)
Kuedo - Joy Construction
The-Dream - F.I.L.A
Jam City - 2 Hot
Hype Williams - Ooovrrr
And the pick of recent and upcoming releases...
LHF – EP2: The Line Path [Keysound]
Speaking of LHF… The shapeshifting London collective’s second EP finally lands on Keysound this week, and true to the form promised by their regular mixes it's a considerable expansion of their universe. Split between two of the group’s main producers, it once again represents nothing so much as the combined creative force of sleeping London’s restless dreams. Double Helix’s ‘Chamber Of Light’ is their finest moment so far, driven by oil slick percussion and broken by moments of sudden shattering force, before sheets of unsteady melody rip through its core. ‘Bass 2 Dark’ again pushes forward with stop-start, arabesque intensity, while Amen Ra’s two tracks cast their eyes across the Atlantic, reinforcing the London-LA connection with visceral force. ‘Candy Rain’ is particularly special, lurching out of the blocks in a haze of half-drunk, half-stoned synth.
Illum Sphere – Dreamstealin’ [Tectonic]
In the past, Illum Sphere’s music haunted the loose, off-kilter beats of J Dilla and Madlib with dubstep’s ghosts – the end result didn’t quite fit happily alongside either (mostly a good thing). However, this first release for Bristol’s Tectonic label both refines his sound and pushes its boundaries outward. His murky, heavily reverbed synths are still present and correct, but on the aptly named ‘Dreamstealin’ perform a strobe-like dance over skittish hi-hats and walking bass that could have been nicked wholesale from a seventies psych record. The result is an unsteady but rather beautiful fusion of old and new. ‘Blood Music’ is a little more sedate and less engaging, but Indigo’s remix gives it a subtly Detroit-ish Autonomic makeover, punctuated with bursts of programmed breaks and a certain aquatic flair.
Orphan101 – Propa/Disemble [Apple Pips]
It’s testament, I suppose, to Appleblim’s curator’s ear that even producers whose output tends towards the patchy usually pull something quite special out of the bag for his Apple Pips label. Alongside Komonazmuk, upcoming Bristolian Orphan101 is a case in point – his previous tracks, whilst lean and muscular, lacked flair. This lovely little 12” shines by comparison, hosting a pair of pulsing four-to-the-floor grooves that retain intrinsic ties to their UK roots even as they drive forward with Berlin-worthy intensity. Just beneath the surface of both lurks the oceanic influence of Drexciya, which occasionally summons a deadly riptide from beneath – check the massive stabs of bass that knock ‘Propa’ off its feet for a few seconds at a time.
Julio Bashmore – Everyone Needs A Theme Tune EP [PMR]
I’m still yet to be entirely convinced by the slightly fidget-y, Dirtybird approach to house that characterizes much of Julio Bashmore’s music. That said, at his best (‘Batak Groove’; ‘Footsteppin’) he produces sophisticated hybrids that, while not wholly original, convincingly fuse a whole host of different approaches. With that in mind his new EP is probably his best so far. The voices that pepper ‘Battle For Middle You’ summon the phantoms of raves long past in a way that avoids nostalgia in favour of celebration, and the title track makes ingenious use of triplets to give a 4/4 track the lilting feel of a waltz.
Distal & HxdB – Typewriter Tune [Surefire Sound]
As its name suggests, Distal and HxdB’s ‘Typewriter Tune’, and its accompanying VIP mix, use the snap of ancient keys to craft beats that click like the mandibles of some gigantic insect. Alongside seasick synths that swing back and forth in a decent aural approximation of the Titanic going face-down-ass-up, the result is a pair of hyper-caffeinated, nervy club tracks. ‘Frozen Barnacles’ is a little more straightforward rhythmically, welding the same chaotic sense of melody to winding ‘step percussion.