Wednesday, July 25, 2007
Scorching heat, bright yellow cabs, grey ventilation units, brown rusty fire escapes… welcome to New York.
New Yorkers have a reputation for being unfriendly; rude and brash even. And you know what? It’s total bollocks… or should I say, total bullshit, man. Ten days ago I had my first visit to this legendary city transformed by the warmth and generosity of New Yorkers, in particular by Dub War’s Dave Q, Sekkle and Juakali. This is some of my NYC reflections.
I posted here I was in going to be in the city. It speaks volumes about the place that people then fell over themselves to send me recommendations, guides, ideas and general blasts of enthusiasm about NYC, so much so that like the city itself, even the run up to the trip was a sensory overload. Between a 500 page Rough Guide (useful for knowing what’s what) and about 4000 words of personal recommendations (useful for knowing what’s hot), I felt supremely well prepared for the Big Apple. Honourable mentions must go to Dave Q, Rick Herron and the Dissensus vinyl heads for particularly insightful must-see recommendation guides.
My feelings towards New York have changed over the years. In the mid ‘90s I discovered hip hop, a time of Tribe Called Quest, Wu Tang Clan, Mobb Deep and Gangstarr, a time when many MCs both talked loud and said something. Then came house and garage, with Body & Soul this mythical, enticing place of Afro rhythms and Cuban percussion. Love affairs with other musical cities ran in parallel, through Chicago’s house and Detroit’s techno. Yet come the early 00s and an awakening occurred for me through late UK garage and early dubstep/grime, that made me realise I was surrounded by an amazing city and that if no one was feeding me grand narratives to match those of the US, then I should go out and actively find them myself in London. In the end the New York trip during the NY adoration years never came about while my fever was at it’s peak. Better late than never I suppose.
So here it is, some reflections of New York. Given how photographed, filmed and documented New York is, I don’t think anyone needs me drone on about every last detail, but I can’t help but share some of the best bits of six intense and amazing days. So here are my NYC highlights:
Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the Brooklyn sun
So it’s clear blue day, a baking 40°C. Perfect for a nice stroll? Perfect for an entertaining English schoolboy error. Both Dave and Rick had recommended Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Looking at it on the map, well, it didn’t seem to far from downtown Brooklyn. Why not walk from one to the other, explore a bit? I mean, it’s by the river and everything. So began a compelling but gruelling, two hour trek across a baking hot industrial wasteland.
The wander began in “hipster ground zero” aka the area around Bedford Avenue subway. Think gentle record stores, coffee shops, wine merchants, novelty furniture shops and rough industrial loft-y living that looks cheap and cheerful but apparently isn’t, (cheap that is).
The walk followed south on Bedford Avenue and the boutique stores soon gave way to industrial and residential architecture, though sometimes the divide between the two wasn’t clear. Every country has it’s distinctive building styles and the US is no different. But walking through the 40°C furnace, there was something foreboding about these huge, windowless, airless buildings, air conditioning units poking out like a city-wide art experiment to re-use dead toasters. And these windowless buildings, are they internally darkened to exclude the heat or in fact sealed sweatboxes?
Ducking under the Williamsburg Bridge, the scenery became bleaker, poorer and more industrial. There were few people about, except in one big Project, where kids played in spraying fountains and a Puerto Rican-looking gang took shelter under the tower block eves.
Huge industrial buildings, fenced off by razor wire sat by the river. In the midday heat it was quiet, dead quiet. Sekkle had explained this is where the Mafia roll the bodies out of cars at night and into the East River. I’d remembered he’d said this, except amusingly, I thought he’d meant the other side of Brooklyn (the Jamaica bay side). Oooops.
The area became increasingly Jewish, Nursery school teachers filling a gaggle of kids onto one of the classic American school busses. Broken warehouses were adorned with Hebrew advertising. Dave Q later explained that this is a massive Hasidic Jewish community, possibly the largest outside of Israel. How these guys survive the heat in so much long, black clothing is beyond me.
After the Jewish nursery school, flyovers loomed. Then a turn onto Flushing Avenue, came the Navy Boat Yard, all “no trespassing” signs and more airless multi-story brutalism By this point, almost an hour and a half in, the heat was becoming really oppressive. Flushing stretched long into the distance, and the street had an eerie emptiness to it. Signs painted by school children read “Crime Hurts.”
After a long trek down Flushing, decaying buildings grew out of the trees. While you could see they had once been beautiful residential houses behind ornate wrought iron gates, in stark contrast to the naval industrial buildings and gritty warehouse units, they were now in a state of total disrepair, balconies spilling down. Later Dave Q would explain that they were once the Naval Officer’s quarters. Now they face into the Projects.
Half an hours’ walk from Flushing leads you to the contrast of Fulton Street, downtown Brooklyn. The borough obviously has a long history of association with hip hop, with Bedford-Stuyvesant to the east and a whole host of hip hop royalty living in Forte Greene. Junior’s, the Brooklyn soul food/cheesecake institution sits at one end. But even in spite of all this, I’d never expected to find a shopping district so damn hip hop it hurt.
If you like trainers bwoy, this one’s you.
Imagine London’s Oxford Street, from Marble Arch to Tottenham Court Road, where every other shop is like Footlocker for kicks, but better. There were shops that had 20 foot walls of Nu Era caps that they’d personalise for you. It was nuts. With the pound strong against the dollar, shoes are basically half price for UK visitors. Air Max US = $89. Air Max UK = £89. The solution? Buy two pairs.
In the stores (and it is “stores” not shops), they blast you with hip hop videos. With the sheer selection of trainers on offer, it was an intoxicating and smothering mix.
Every so often, Common would come on the screens. His great new single intones “you know how we do/we do it for the people” (check the video on YouTube here) Yet with a new album to plug, he’s joined forces with a trainer company for a set of ads based around the theme of “revolution.”
“Make a change…” it said boldly, before continuing, leaning out of the screen, “…buy a shoe.”
Make a change, buy a shoe? How does that help “the people?” How about: make a change, don’t buy a shoe Mr Common?
As Common reached out to the store’s occupants, it was easy to see what a complete and self-reinforcing culture this was. Here’s one of Brooklyn’s most celebrated residents, telling me from fourteen different TV screens in a Brooklyn shoe store, to step into his shoes because it would change the world. On YouTube he told me to buy a T shirt, because that would change the President too.
Intoxicating, smothering, 360 degrees of consumerist rhetoric: I bought some shoes, but not because Common had told me to.
Later in the trip, in the far more ostentatious – yet fitting – surroundings of the Marriot Hotel Times Square’s rotating bar, I got into the usual discussions with an American friend about UK v US culture, while being served by an over friendly waiter who insisted we use his first name (“OK Damon, nice to meet you too Damon…”). Recently returned from working in the UK, my friend raised an oft-heard gripe about the UK but took it further. Service in the UK is shit, he insisted. Service is expensive, fake and unfair in the US, I returned.
In the UK waiters or bar staff are guaranteed a minimum salary. This is fairer because regardless of customer whim, they get a steady, predictable income. Furthermore they don’t act like your new best friend because realistically, they don’t know you – and for British people, that that’s fine. The situation in the US is that you tip many people in the service sector (don’t ask me exactly which, it’s still a mystery) around 18%. This creates an incentive for the server to give good service and makes the customer feel satisfied. More spending from the customer drives consumer business. And consumer spending is the driver for the global economy, because without it, he continued, there’d be no business-to-business economy and then we’d all be unemployed. Ergo the woman who greets you in the shop doorway is the front person for the entire global economy. Have a nice day.
The Marriot, Times Square, 6th avenue, Macy’s (1 store = 1 billion square feet), the food portions, the 5XL t-shirts in Brooklyn (like tents), the sky scrapers: everything’s so large and glittering here – and like the Common-endorsed trainer-walls of Fulton Street, it’s intoxicating. This emphasis of consumption and capitalism as the central pillars of society seem to be such a defining US trait. American have such a positive, can-do, anyone-can-be-President (especially if they’re vastly wealthy) attitude which you do have to admire. And, as the richest country in the world, their successes speak for themselves.
But personally, I just feel uncomfortable making such a central emphasis on capitalism. I wonder, what’s truly important: how rich we are? Or is it what we think, what we believe, whether we’re fair and inclusive? There might be, in theory, equal opportunity for anyone to become rich, but in practice the rich tend to get richer and the poor, poorer. Times Square gets brighter, the Projects of Flushing, Brooklyn get poorer. Nike rewards it’s shareholders, child labour in an Export Processing Zone gets exploited. And I can’t accept it’s that poor people don’t work hard enough (one unpleasant argument I heard this trip), it simply has to be that the playing field of opportunity (educational, health, financial…) isn’t equal, and that to me is an inequality that should be fought against. Have a nice day y’all – and I do mean all.
A paradox of Manhattan is that while it’s big in wealth, aspiration and vertical skyscraper ascent, along the ground it’s actually not that wide. As a consequence, exploring the various patchwork neighbourhoods that make up Manhattan is easy by foot – far easier than my foolish attempts to walk across a “small” town in California.
Another paradox that becomes apparent to visitors is that while the city has a reputation of being shiny and new, there’s far more sense of history embedded in the buildings that outsiders might initially anticipate. This became clear during two wonderful days spent exploring with NYC enthusiast and closet historian, Sekkle, of Dub War and Dubstep Forum fame.
The first journey began on Wednesday eve. We’d planned to see Femi Kuti and band in Central Park – how sick would that have been? – but despite the week’s 38°C heat wave, the heaven’s opened. We had to shelter from the Monsoon in the Apple store which, with stairs descending from the ceiling, resembles the glass structure in the Louvre. And damn the iPhone’s a good look – Dave Q’s bagged one. Cos he’s got it like that.
Instead of Femi we headed to SoHo for Thai food and when the rains had passed, we began wandering. Essentially we walked in a big circuit, taking in SoHo, the West Village, Greenwich Village and Astor Place. We had a pint in a sports bar (Argentina were tonking someone in the Copa America), saw tiles painted by school kids for 9-11 victims and came across Love – the new Dubwar Venue that has a soundsystem to fully rival Plastic People and 3rd Base I’m told. Next to Love is Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland studios and beyond that the park he used to jam in during session breaks.
One definite highlight was the KGB bar that Sekkle lead us to. According to Sekkle, the venue used to be the home of the KGB during the McCarthy/Cold War era but masqueraded as an arts venue. These days it’s an enjoyably low-lit, grimey venue, with hip hop dudes eating fried chicken at tables next to the arts crowd. Naturally the venue’s red, with posters of Lenin above the vodka collection. The barman sounded American-Chinese (China: last true stronghold of communism?) and it only added to the atmosphere of the venue that Sekkle wouldn’t let me take photos.
But the evening’s real highlight was the beautiful Brownstones of the Greenwich and the West Village. While you always knew you were in New York – the stairs and dark stone never let you forget – with the old trees and quiet ambiance, there were definite parallels with London, old west London. Sekkle himself was a wealth of information about the differing buildings, pointing out ship-style windows, restorations or classic examples of architecture built next to cheap newer alternatives.
This amazing insight into the city continued the next day, when Sekkle Sights led us uptown, north of Central Park and into Harlem. With the benefit of two essential assets: local knowledge and a car, Sekkle’s offer of a trip through the historic black centre of Harlem was much appreciated. Harlem essentially covers the north tip of Manhattan. Columbia University is situated there and the immediate surroundings to the campus are gentrified and safe, but the reality is that while daytime is fine, as a white visitor, trips on foot in Harlem by night are not advised. I’d simply stand out.
Rolling in Sekkle’s car, we were listening to an old but special Rinse set: Kode9 b2b Mala b2b Joe Nice (shoes off), Orson inside. It was summer 2005 but already it feels like a long time ago, sonically at least. Then, as we hit the top of Harlem, who should call but Joe on his way to DMZ. There was some hollering in the car, I can tell ya.
A few days later, after we’d walked near some of the Projects off Flushing Avenue, Brooklyn, one of Dave Q’s mates questioned what the interest in places like these is. It’s a fair question and one I’d been asking myself while rolling through Harlem with Sekkle.
The answer comes in several parts. Firstly, there’s the buzz of exploring, of going where I really don’t belong. Secondly for anyone raised on hip hop from an early age, their minds are flooded with these grand narratives made from location-based identity. “Where’s Brooklyn at?” “The South, South Bronx…” “Strong Island!” “Bedford Stuyvesant.” Sugarhill, Harlem. Hook after hook sticks in your mind, so much so that you feel compelled to see some of these places. And finally it feels important to acknowledge that New York is not just Macy’s and Manhattan, that there are other lives and other ways of living beyond the glitz and glamour of affluent downtown.
All that said, by day and by car, Harlem was deceptively quiet. The only way to tell that a given road was a crime hotspot or drive by shooting location, was the density of CCTV cameras, two per door, on every door in a given street, to monitor the drug dealers, explained Sekkle. Despite America’s reputation for segregation, Harlem had that jumbled proximity quality, where in three streets you could go from des-res to do-not-enter, without much visual change in the surroundings.
The surroundings in Harlem were at times very beautiful, row after row of Brownstones. Other blocks were imposing and physical, chunkier than many London buildings. We also passed the Audubon Ballroom where Malcolm X was assassinated, the mosque where he practiced and the boulevard that’s now named after him. Sekkle’s sights then looped us over the bridge and into the South Bronx for a few moments, passing the once legendary jazz Cotton Club and Yankee Stadium, before we headed off to eat.
Another unexpected highlight was the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Museums of this weight are foolish to try and tackle in one attempt, so we picked our point of attack.
En route you can’t miss the drawing on the four-storey wall by Romanian artist Dan Perjovschi. MoMa has YouTube links of him drawing them here. People were dotted around this space, just stopped wherever they were when they noticed the drawings. Each is simple but cheekily political, a comment-puzzle on current living that invites the brain to decipher it. There’s a great photo on Flickr here
Next we headed into the Richard Serra exhibition, as recommended by Rick Herron. Serra’s most impressive work in this exhibition is a series of massive, curved, sculptures. Built from rusty sheet steel and folded gracefully into 20 foot or so high, meandering abstract structures, you are at liberty to wander between and around them, the curves engulfing you and then spitting you out.
The exhibition notes talk of the work “engaging with memory – with the inevitable inability of the viewer to construct any distinct memory of these almost indistinguishable and ever-changing spaces.” Yet my impressions were instead of a sense of majestic rhythm mixed with a playful joy. Close inspection of the rusty steel revealed marks from running water, which made me question the artists’ intent. Were all the marks on the steel as the artist had intended, was decay and weathering part of his message, or were these random defects incurred post-construction?
We wandered up to the photography floor. A few rooms clustered disparate black and white photographs together, including Cartier-Bresson’s famous Behind the Gare St. Lazare, Paris. Most amusingly, amid all the black and white American shots, was a photograph of Croydon airport, circa 1920. A dubstep head goes half way around the world and enters the best modern art gallery in town, and what does he see? There’s no escaping Croydon ;-)
I’d bumped into Loefah in the street in central London a few days before I’d flown out, and it had reminded me of something he’d said in our interview about how photographed NYC was, how iconic it seemed, especially to music fans who’ve grown up with it as a backdrop to the music of their youth, and how familiar that made the city feel at regular places. Now I was in NYC myself, looking at iconic imagery of Loefah’s south London…
The other highlight of this floor was the Barry Frydlender. In contrast to the small, black and white shots of previous rooms, Frydlender delighted in massive, colour panoramas that ostensibly told the tale of everyday life for Israelis and Palestinians. What made the shots to absorbing was the level of detail visible at this size. Closer inspection drew you in until you realised that many of the characters in the shot appeared twice, if not more. Israeli soldiers, armed to the teeth with M16 assault rifles and dogs, raided militants’ homes: when you noticed one of them staring right back at you, it stopped you dead. Other panoramas depicted Arab revellers of an evening, settlers being removed or heavily-dressed orthodox Jews at hot, outdoor ceremony.
The museum’s final highlight that we encountered was a room that not only hung Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, but twenty or so preparatory sketches and paintings, many of which revealed quite different discarded features, such as men amongst the prostitutes for example. The influence of African tribal masks was quite apparent. After gliding past some of Monet’s soothing water lilies (MoMA is a bit like Now That’s What I Call Modern Art in places), it was time to leave.
The Met Museum wasn’t a priority on the New York agenda, but stumbling across the armoury on a hot day was a welcome break. Armour’s never been a huge fascination of mine, probably because of its use for killing and warfare, but the Japanese swords and Arabic scimitars were breathtaking. The Japanese armour is hilariously shaped, with evil faces and shaggy beards built in. Their master sword makers fold their steel hundreds of times and the blades remain elegant, centuries later. Arabic swords were mostly used in rituals, one that took precedent over the coronation: the Met has one scimitar who’s owner went insane between becoming the ruler and having is ceremony. Unfortunate.
Record shop worth shouting about: A1, Manhattan:
Yes, that’s Premier in the signed Polaroid. How many Salsoul 12”s is that?
· The Watts Prophets “Rappin’ Black in a White World” (Ala records)
· “Music of Iran vol 3: Santur Recital” (Lyrichord)
· “Caravan: Melodies of the Middle East” (Orient Record Co)
· Shanung “Music of Confucius’ Homeland” (Lyrichord)
· Aaliyah “One In A Million (LP promo)” (Be)
· Aaliyah “Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number” (Jive)
· Dr Martin Luther King Jr “Memorial Album: New Wine in Old Bottles” (Napamy)
· Pandit Pran Nath “Raga Cycle Palace Theatre Paris 1972”(Sri Moonshine CD)
· Konono N°1 “Congotronics” (Crammed CD)
· Lower East Side: probably my favourite part of Manhattan. Funky, run down, cool. We wandered into Hamilton Fish Park lido. If it had been 38°C in my estate and I was 12, I’d have been in that pool too.
· DUMBO: walk over Brooklyn Bridge at sunset, only look back at the midpoint. The head left to the riverside park nestled under Manhattan bridge. Views to die for
· Tubes that are air conditioned: how fucking civilized?
· Passing famous landmarks: “oh, there’s The Blue Note”
· Meeting Hank Shocklee of Bomb Squad fame. He’s making a dubstep album…
· Ron Trent at the glittery Deep Space nice. Sweeet soundsystem
· The Pickle Guys and Essex Street market, Lower East Side
· Grimaldi’s Pizza’s, DUMBO
· The Nuclear Bunker signs on Harlem and Brooklyn houses
Had to grab a shot of this…
The “for next visit” list
· VP Records, Queens
· Arthur Kills Boat Yard, Staten Island
· Dub War@Love
Dave Q on the decks
Saturday, July 21, 2007
I reached Jammer’s launch party at Dirty Canvas last night. It was fucking heavy, the best grime night I’ve seen in a while.
Held out east at the Rhythm Factory on Whitechapel Road, even as I approached the queue, there was the sense that this was going to be a good night. The location’s ideal, further east than Shoreditch, it’s perfect for grime – and large bits of the grime community had certainly turned out in force. It wasn’t just the night’s crowd that excited (road but chilled, where were all the Hot Chip fans… though who cares?), it wasn’t bumping into Terror Danjah, fresh from remixing the Bladerunner soundtrack the night before. It wasn’t seeing Chantelle and friends.
No, it was probably because Jammer was standing there in the full Merkle Man outfit. Priceless.
Fake pecks, huge glasses, tight spandex trousers and a green supercar: it was hilarious. But little topped the purple cape. It was a lot. Urkle!
Rhythm Factory, despite the worst, ear shredding, bassless soundsystem around, is a nice venue. The front room’s like an open-VIP space, a pub for chilling in. Through into the main room the stage dominates the view, and beyond that leads to the entrance of the back room.
First pleasant surprise of the night was during the Aftershock showcase. Bruza was funny; the way he does the cockney knees-up while MCing is classic. But half way through, on came Ny (shown sitting together, above). I still listen to her mixtape weekly. While retaining an edge, it makes a refreshing change from the aggression of grime and is definitely a 2007 highlight. Turns out her appearance wasn’t planned, but respect for taking on a few songs acappella and pulling them off. Many more-famous r&b pop stars would have had their voices shown up. Not Ny.
I got to chat to her later on: it was nice to be able to convey my enthusiasm for her songs and she seemed really down to earth despite the life her open and heartfelt songs reveal she's lived. She’d played the Roskille festival recently, which sounded massive and we joked how her gran had read a review of her in Metro and loved it. Gwann grandma.
The night built with a set from Coki DMZ and Chef. With Jammer, Purple and Goodz vocals of his tunes, Coki currently seems to be the dubstep producer of choice for the grime scene, the way Skream was for a bit circa “Request Line.” It was great to see dubstep so accepted by the crowd too. There was a time when grime audiences wouldn’t have had a beat of it, but now there seems so much overlap between the scenes and audiences, that no one batted an eyelid.
The climax of the night wasn’t one of the MCs trying to get Logan to dance, though that was fairly amusing, but the "Stage Show" medley. While essentially a one-bar percussive loop, it’s still Hypting.com forwardslash NASA backslash alot.
Footsie did his “rastaman pickney” bars and D Double is “ooh ooh” hooks. I’m always fascinated by the contrast between how stiff Double's body language is and how fluid his bars are when he spits. The relay built towards Tempa T’s verse, which if you haven’t heard it, is essentially him screaming at the top of his voice, “SWIIIIIIING, BANG ‘IIIIIIIM”. The energy levels are off the Richter.
Inevitably by this point there were about 40 MCs on a stage with room for 15. But I think it’s the measure of why Dirty Canvas was such a great night, that unlike old Sidewinder, say, there wasn’t people rushing the stage or this tense atmosphere of screwfaces and standoffs, both between the crowd and amongst the MCs. It was a proper grime crowd, out in east London, but everything was cool. Long live grime.
Monday, July 16, 2007
“This is not your normal dubstep mix – this is filled with hyped up, nervous energy, and it gets pretty banging – there’s a techno flavour here, but it’s not minimal at all. In fact, after a sub-aquatic start, this mix represents a maximalist dubstep. As ever, there’s lots of re-edits and FX, as well as a heap of unreleased stuff, and this time, I’ve combined the normal dubstep flavour with a lot of wicked grime.”
-- Paul.meme / Grievous Angel
A few weeks ago a link appeared in my inbox to a dubstep mix – nothing out of the ordinary you might think. But within a few minutes, it became very clear how extraordinary Paul.meme aka Grievous Angel’s mix was. He's since blogged about it. Blending dubstep, grime and a little hip hop, it quickly showed itself to be far greater than the sum of it’s (many) parts, not just capturing the zeitgeist of the cutting edge of dubstep but bringing into question where exactly the boundaries of mixes, live sets and production cross…
Grievous Angel Presents: Dubstep Sufferah Volume 3: download it here
[00:00] Narcossist: No Love (CDR)
[03:36] Caspa: Homesick (CDR)
[04:24] DQ1: Gud Money (CDR - forthcoming on Tectonic)
[05:24] Kano: Mr Me Too (Kano Mixtape)
[10:43] Side 9000: Dhun (CDR)
[13:42] Massive Music: Find My Way (Kode 9 remix) (Hyperdub)
[16:52] TimeBlind: Copy Copy (Soot)
[18:31] Roll Deep: Celebrate (Rules and Regulations CD)
[21:28] DJ JSL: Coyote Dub (CDR) / Slew Dem: Bumbaclaat Badman
[23:19] Monochrome: Mine a Kill Dem (CDR)
[26:44] Narcossist: White Lotus (CDR) / Scare Dem Crew: Take Off
[30:18] Skream: Make Me (Tempa) / Timbaland & Magoo: Get Crunk / JME: Deadout / Caspa: LFO King (CDR)
[33:36] Cloaks: Dark (Version) (CDR) / Kano & Jammer: Tapout (Jah Mek The World The Classics Mixtape)
[37:40] Komonazmuk: Fear (CDR) / Roll Deep: Babylon Burners (Rules and Regulations CD)
[40:55] Coki: Tortured (Tempa) / Ruff Sqwad: Down (Gun and Roses Mixtape)
[43:44] Cloaks: Too On Top (CDR) / Trim: But I Still (Soul Food mixtape)
[47:17] Loefah: Voodoo (666) / Lord Finesse: Check the Method (DJ Premier Scratch Mix)
[52:20] Loefah: Natural Charge (Grievous Angel Edit) (CDR)
[56:40] Loefah: Disko Rekah (Deep Medi) / Cluekid & Cotti: Sensi Dub (White)
[59:41] Cluekid & Cotti: Flashback (White) / Ruff Sqwad: When Itz On (Guns and Roses Mixtape)
[63:07] Skream: Losing Control (Grievous Angel Edit) (Tempa)/ Trim: In the Ghetto (Soul Food Volume 1 Mixtape)
[65:28] Grievous Angel: Culture Killer (CDR) / Trim: Wot Part One (Soul Food Volume 1 Mixtape) / JME: 96 Bars of JME
[70:39] TRG Vs Selector DubU: Losing Marbles (CDR)
[73:37] Kode9: Magnetic City (Hyperdub)
B: So, can you tell me some background to the mix…
GA: The idea behind the Dubstep Sufferah series was that while dubstep is fantastic when it's mixed live and hyped up, there's still scope for mixes that were coherent, long-form pieces of music in the manner of house or techno mixes. Obviously this kind of approach is fraught with danger - you can suck the life out of the music if you over-egg. Nevertheless I wanted to hear a denser variant of dubstep that was simultaneously more dubby and more vocal. A wide-screen, cinematic experience in a way. In the first Dubstep Sufferah I was wanted to do dubstep in dub, but with proper track sequencing so the mix had direction. In the second, I wanted to create vocal versions of dubstep tunes while emphasising the reggae aspects of dubstep. For the this one, I was originally going to do an all-vinyl mix, but it wasn't really unique enough, and then Paul Autonomic said he wanted to hear some of the unreleased stuff, so I went in another direction. Simultaneously there was - in my opinion at least - an explosion of creativity in grime, and I found that loads of it actually went really well with dubstep. Plus we were working on the first issue of Woofah magazine, and it became obvious just how important grime is right now.
So Dubstep Sufferah 3 turned into a dubstep versus grime cross over mix, while also showing how dubstep doesn't have to be this narcoleptic, mordant trough of despondency that some people are trying to turn it into. I mean, I like my half step as much as the next guy but the reality of a dubstep night is that it's incredibly high energy. As Simon from Whistlebump (he's a house producer and runs one of the best house nights in London) put it, at dubstep events people really really have it, but really really slowly! Plus I'm trying to create this little side-branch of dubstep that's ragga techno - really banging, but funky and syncopated and rooted in dancehall, not electronica, which is where the mix goes towards the end. It's actually slower in BPM than the rest of the mix, but it sounds faster cos it's all double-time. That's not so far from where Skream and Shackleton are going. I wouldn't want all dubstep to go that way and I wouldn't want all dubstep mixes to be like the Sufferah series, but I think there's space for it.
B: While taking it further, this mix really builds on both some of the ideas Kode9 was looking into during 2004/5 and his recent techno-influenced Sonar mix…
GA: Kode is definitely an inspiration and I'd be interested in your comparisons. Obviously he's always been about grime as much as dubstep, and he rightly believes that the world may not need yet another genre of instrumental dance music. But the Sufferah series started as a response to the mixes Paul Autonomic was doing. I loved the way he re-edited all his tunes and mixed dubstep and grime into one throbbing mass - I heard This One Is Computerised and went out and got Live almost straight away. Our release cycle is pretty much synchronised - he usually gets his ones out a month or so before mine - and I deliberately don't listen to his until I've finished mine. His Going South mix is an attempt to break out of half step, reaching back into dubstep's history while tracing out some of its future. They kind of go together even though we didn't tell each other much about what we were doing, though funnily enough a few people have said it goes with Kode 9's Sonar mix, which is a great compliment. I've been following what The Nine has been doing since the mid-nineties, from when he was talking about 2step. My reggae partner John Eden did a conference with him way back when about Dub Architecture, and he used to do this little garage / breaks / electro night in Brixton that was, I think, one of the roots of FWD>>. Plus he used to drop me the odd email encouraging me with my productions - he's a good guy.
This mix started off as all vinyl, but most of that got trashed along the way as I started adding more unreleased stuff in. Pretty much everything has been edited, and absolutely everything has some FX on it, so it's almost as much composition as it is DJing. The “LFO King” / “Make Me” / “Dead Out” / “Get Crunked” section is probably the most extreme example of that. I think it's good but you don't want to take it too far. I went through nine versions of the mix, changing the selection and running order hugely, and to do that you really need something like Ableton. It's interesting to see Vex'd now doing laptop sets live - I just played with Maga Bo who did this amazing Baile Funk / ragga / breakcore / dubstep mix using Ableton. I love it, but it's too easy to make the seamless beat so relentless it's annoying. Sometimes you really need a rewind! I just played sevens and the next couple of mixes are probably going to be vinyl, just for fun. But I need to get a few tunes finished first.
B: Your mix also brings up some of the issues around beat mixing I went into for Kode9’s Dubstep Allstars sleevenotes. On this, Kode was used mixing of two tunes (cut to dubplate) to create new sounds and dissonances, but this can only happen as quickly as he can mix, which can’t be more than about 50% of any given set length. In Ableton, you've made it possible to be permanently in the mix, so the boundaries and ordering between any given track is lost.... is that the intention?
GA: To a degree this has always been the intention of DJing – “give me two records and I’ll make you a whole world” – and it’s particularly evident in house and techno, where the blend creates radically new music. You can do the same with jungle and UK garage, but it’s less prevalent in “urban” music. r’n’b and hip hop tend to jump between tunes even when they’re mixed, and together with the ragga-derived rewind, creates a deliberately discontinuous, even disjointed, progression through a set that at its best massively builds hype and energy. This is most apparent in live grime. Dubstep is actually very mix-friendly, but done live it has lots of rewinds and is very discontinuous. This has actually been a good thing for dubstep (even though the rewinds have been over-done) because it partially inoculates dubstep from some of the nerdier mixing-for-the-sake-of-it that you get in techno. But I think dubstep’s potential for continuous mixing is under-exploited. Go to see Mala play solo at an out of town event – it’s a completely different experience to what you get at DMZ, it’s a revelatory journey, with a flow that is comparable with people like François K, and it’s amazing. But that’s not really the norm in dubstep, which is good, because it means there’s still a range of different experiences that the genre can offer.
[I think Paul’s comparison between François K is uncanny and timely, not least because Mala and François reportedly really connected in New York, with Mala “owning” the house-bastion Deep Space when he played there post-Dub War. Mala’s groove-lead approach is a refreshing and welcome contrast to the drop-contest much of dubstep seems to be heading for. It also fits with the new dubstep/Basic techno axis that Appleblim, Peverelist, T++ etc are pursuing – Blackdown ]
GA: However, the big feature of the rewind heavy, “if it sounds nice we play it twice” style of mixing (or non-mixing) is that it puts the individual track at the forefront – the “text” if you will. You play the record two or three times, until the crowd really drinks in the significance of that piece of music. When I’m doing a mix like Sufferah 3, I’m doing something completely different to that – I’m diluting the impact of the singular piece of music in order to create something new from the combination of different tunes. Which is great, but you don’t want all dubstep mixing to be like that. There’s always a tension between giving the audience something new and tasty from blending, and actually giving the individual tracks room to breathe so their full impact comes across. I’m happiest with my mixes when I’m making something new with the tracks, whether through re-edits or mixing or effects, while at the same time making sure the full force of the original track comes through. An example of that is “Natural Charge.” It’s totally re-edited and combined with a completely different vocal track, and it’s taken from an early, unfinished version anyway cos that’s all Loefah had at the time. But I think you get all the weight and tension of that tune in the mix. And frankly, the mixes would be enhanced by a couple of strategic rewinds.
The boundaries between production and mixing are broken down by Ableton, which do you think is more powerful and why?
GA: Yes, these mixes are almost like sampladelic albums. You have to set a limit to your re-production though. Atomising the music is great, but you have to make a judgement about whether you’re just boring people with snippets of music. Production and mixing became one in a couple of places on this mix – especially on the mix of Skream’s “Make Me,” Caspa’s “LFO King,” JME’s “DeadOut,” and Timbaland’s “Get Crunked,” where these tracks are combined into a new, symmetrical whole, with Timbaland at the start and end, and, and Make Me and LFO King swapping basslines in different verses. It worked, but in the end you’re reliant on the contribution of all these other producers. Mixing is more powerful than production because you’re using the combined talents of many other people, whereas production is just you and a few collaborators. You have the producers helping you, you have Transition helping you, you have recordings of MCs – there is a lot of great music out there to leverage and synergise. In fact there’s so much great music out there you have to weigh up whether it’s worth adding to the pile.
B: with so many tracks to choose from and the ability to drop any bar at any time in Ableton, how did you decide what to bring in where? With so many tracks piled on top of each other, as the mix came to a close the strongest thing you could do was just to leave one whole track in... I love Kode9’s “Magnetic City” at the end, placed there it it's epic. At the very end of the mix, I found myself struck by how powerful silence felt.
GA: I spent a long time getting the sequencing right. So much is down to happy accidents, as well as skill in figuring out what goes with what. I was trying to get this gentle upward drift of energy, with a jump in vibes when “Celebrate” comes in, another jump with Trim over Cloaks, a step down for Loefah, a massive step up for Trim over Skream and over my tune, a massive drop down for TRG and Kode… it’s a deliberate sequence of moods. I really try to make sure there’s one instrumental track that is dominant at all times, telling its story, by doing really sharp changes in level and in EQ when one track is bowing out and another one coming in. And there’s a few sections where the listener can relax a bit and focus on just one track – at the start with Narcossist, and at the end with “Magnetic City,” which has just the ghostly presence of slivers of Flow Dan on “Jah War.” A cut up sample from that begins and ends the mix. “Magnetic City” is amazing, showing how far dubstep can go in terms of subtle mood. I did a lot of intricate FX editing on that, and layered it under the previous track before bringing it in properly. But in terms of silence – that’s the big issue facing these kinds of mixes. Do they, quite simply, go on too much, are they too intense to bear, should they break down to silence at times? I think they should and there’s some strategically placed double drops to try to create those breathing points, but I’m not sure I put in enough. The most important thing is you can dance to it.
B: speaking of Kode again, Kode spent a lot of time in the grime v dubstep territory a few years ago, were you influenced by that?
GA: Definitely. It’s become controversial to mix grime and dubstep and I think that for example Pokes’ arguments are well-made. Dubstep is a beautiful scene, thus far it has been utterly blessed, to the point of being sacred. There was a deliberate distancing from Grime’s endless beefs and that was both helpful and understandable. But the space between grime and dubstep is still pregnant with opportunity. A tight MC over big wobble, projectile steppers or sub-zero infrasonics is unbeatable and I really wanted to show what could be done with this mix. Again Kode is the inspiration here because he combined dubstep and grime with this other-worldly vision that was really personal. I loved that. And again, there’s his relationship with Space Ape, who for all the acclaim he gets in dubstep is still underrated as an MC in the wider music world. Anyone who’s seen him play out of town, where there is more of a challenge, will know that he is an invocatory, transcendent MC.
B: One thing I suspect that ended up hindering/changing Kode’s approach is that once he left Rinse FM he had reduced access to exclusive grime. Your approach gets round this by re-editing and EQing the tracks like they're new, is this deliberate?
GA: Yes, that search for freshness goes across all I do – this mix has most of my unreleased tracks in it on the dubstep side, including fresh talent like Monochrome and Narcossist, but much is familiar and needs an edit or two to keep the ear candy. On the grime side, it’s mostly off mixtapes. But there is such a wealth of great grime tracks that would work with dubstep if you cut them together in Ableton. Even more so if you edit them so the verse structures fit those of dubstep, which can be very different. I think Grime producers should still be sending Kode exclusives – he’s probably more influential now than ever…
There’s a lot of good dubstep releases at the moment but I think what’s going on in grime is at least as important. There is a whole worldview there that needs to be represented and which is being ignored, and a wealth of musical enjoyment that is being spurned – partly, it has to be said, due to political action. It’s not right – and that’s one of the reasons we started Woofah Magazine, to represent not just dancehall, but grime too.
B: what about the Kano track, is it supposed to sound screwed and chopped? It sounds immense when he comes back in shouting (“what the hell have you been looking for…”) pitched down. Have you heard Trim's mixtape with the screwed and chopped “When I'm Ere” on it?
GA: You mean “Mr Me Too”, near the start. It has to be, well not screwed and chopped, but slowed down. It’s about 100bpm originally, so to keep it half-step and in-time with 138bpm dubstep, you have to take it down a bit, to 70 – if it was really screwed and chopped it would be down to 50 or 60 I reckon. It still just about works – it stretches out the malevolent joy of it. I love the hypnotic, overtoning low end on it – it complements dubstep perfectly. But Kano’s flow is just amazing on “Mr Me Too” and it’s a good statement to put at the start. I think the screwed and chopped “When I’m Ere” is OK, but Trim is so brilliant you just want more new tracks from him.
B: Can you tell me some background about yourself…
GA: Like everyone else I went from jungle to garage and for me 2step is the greatest music ever outside of reggae. It's kind of a cliché now but I really liked the darker, dubbier end of it - El B, Dem2, Groove Chronicles, not so much Ghost and people like that who came later. I was totally set up for the first phase of dubstep but I had a kid in 2001 and moved to Sheffield in 2002, so I dropped out of the scene. It's weird travelling 200 miles to get to DMZ when I used to live on Appach Road, which is about 200 metres from Mass.
I've been playing out for a long time, mainly reggae sets. The last one was with the C90 crew, warming up for Maga Bo (amazing Baile Funk / dub / techno guy) and Heatwave (London's best dancehall crew). It rocked. And I've been producing for a while and people have been picking up on it. I do a lot of dubstep but, going back to your thing about tempo intensities, I do work at a lot of different tempos, and I definitely don't just do half-step! I'm trying to push this idea of ragga techno - the 3-2 syncopated rhythms of ragga, done with 808s and stuff, at techno speeds. It's music with a lot of energy and rush without going down the headbanging 4x4 route and it's ripe for MCs. I'm talking to a label about doing something in the Autumn.
[Paul’s idea of 3+2 percussive dubstep is hot, one that Dusk and I have definitely looked into in the studio. Bring it on - Blackdown ]
Finally, I'm a director of techno and electronica label Dust Science (http://www.dustscience.com/) which is the home of the Black Dog; we've done 20 releases from people like Detroit originators like Anthony Shakir, Claude Young and Dan Curtin, new school stars like Derailleur, and of course the mighty Dog. Hopefully we're going to do a release with Loefah - we really think dubstep is a natural progression from electronica so we've been trying to sign dubstep people for a while.
[Dubstep a progression from electronica?! Gah, fucking spare me… ;) – Blackdown]
Some of Paul.meme / Grievous Angel’s mixes:
Dubstep Sufferah mixes:
· Volume 1
· Volume 2
· Volume 3
· Pure-dub mix for Blogariddims
Dancehall mixes with John Eden:
· "Lyric Maker" fast chat mix:
showcase of 80s UK MCs.
· Fast Chat mix
went out on Resonance FM during Dave Stelfox' residence there.
· Boom Boom Bashment:
the follow up, a showcase of under-appreciated nineties dancehall.
· Blogariddims mix.
· The First Taste of Hope Is Fear
a selection of early 80s industrial, in dub.
Forthcoming mixes include: a series of mixes of 94 jungle