Here is the second article introducing BAMM.tv’s Global Scene London by Zakia Uddin, exploring various elements of the music industry. In today’s article, she explores the phenomenon of “genre-bending” currently in vogue in London. Expect new editions of Global Scene every week, only on BAMM.tv. And as always, let us know your thoughts!
“The moment it gets a name it starts to die away”
In Camden, speculation about the death of tribalism in music—and its consequent effect on clearly defined boundaries between genres—takes a new twist. The Goth capital of London has its own pockets of ska fans and rockabilly fans. Its legendary Marathon Bar plays host to Kingsnake, a North London born-and-bred rockabilly guitarist who can often be found in the local Tesco’s and rockabilly hangout The Elephant Head in his stage get-up. There are no recorded performances or set out dates. He happens to be there most nights of the week, performing to a wildly enthusiastic, and as is befitting for the neighbourhood, rather drunken crowd. A fan of his who often performs alongside him on any given night of the week, who professed to have been raised as a rockabilly, seemed relaxed about the possibly loaded question of whether he was actively engaged with any contemporary music. “I sing Kylie in a rockabilly style, I sing Nicki Minaj in a rockabilly style…,” he shrugged.
Although Kingsnake identifies with a very distinct musical genre, he refuses to box himself in by only listening to one type of music. Journalists and industry figures have endlessly debated the idea that music tribalism has died, having been replaced by a more robust, genre-bending patois. Think about it: Is it any longer possible to really identify what kind of music people like by what they choose to wear? The other side of the debate centres on what this means for musical invention itself especially in a place like London where musical tribes have co-existed for so long. Are we in a period when musicians can finally say—without ruining their credibility—that they don’t feel bound to any particular style?
The term ‘post-dubstep’ has been bandied around for a while since the bass lines and the two-step sound got incorporated into chart players. Having produced huge stars in the shape of Katy B and adopted by global figures such as Britney Spears, the scene has extended far beyond its South London base. This leaves those who started out at the clubs as fans keen to create their own tags. Artists such as Ikonika, Jam City and Girl Unit have been pooled together under the ‘post-dubstep’ moniker, partly because their sounds are similarly sparse and spectral, utilising dubstep’s familiar, insistent basslines. However, standing on their own each artist brings in a massive range of influences. Girl Unit’s dance floor anthem Wut doesn’t necessarily epitomise the influences on display across the 24-year old Londoner’s music. Rather, it sounds like the Antarctic, with huge glacial synths with crystal notes dropping onto the surface, underneath pitch-shifted rave vocals. Girl Unit and Jam City share some of the tropes of the witch house scene—nocturnal atmospherics, sloth-like pace and epic scales. Ikonika’s super-intellectual rhythms are comparatively spare and intricate, less euphoric than melancholic. ‘Post-dubstep’ has also been used to designate bass-heavy music from New York such as FaltyDL and London-based musicians that didn’t emerge from the dubstep scene such as Kieran Hebden, otherwise known as Four Tet.
Despite attempts by some to associate it with the post-dubstep scene, despite the ‘stickiness’ implied by the use of the word ‘label’, one (erm…) label, South London’s Night Slugs, consistently refuses to be pinned down. Its roster includes Girl Unit and Jam City, but it celebrates their diversity more than their similarity. In a recent interview, co-founder James Connolly told The Guardian: “If you check what we made a year ago, it’s totally different to what we’re making now—it’s always evolving, always in flux.” Co-founder Alex Sushon, otherwise known as Bok Bok, added semi-seriously: “There’s actually a ban on giving [the sound] a name. The moment it gets a name it starts to die away.” Elsewhere they have said they want to create dance music that doesn’t just go for the reflexes. So is it an ethos without a genre?
Connolly has just released his album Neon Dreams under his DJ name L-Vis 1990, which explores the early Detroit sound using analogue instruments from the period. At the same time, Night Slugs’ US label star Kingdomm has gone on to open a sister label in the US. Talking to Dazed Digital, L-Vis said that the two labels would operate under a ‘collective unconscious’, which determined their sound without any specific ‘label prescriptions’.
Genre-pollination operates not only across cities, but also across the sea—throwing into question the idea that a style can be identified foremost with ‘a place’. Whether this is a temporary period before musicians again align themselves with a scene is uncertain. The music journalist Dan Hancox, an authority on the roots of grime, taking its origins in Bow, East London, to the wider London scene, comments on the term ‘post-dubstep’. “There have been plenty of times when the lines have been blurry in the past. In electronic music, the end of the UK garage period was marked by loads of names for loads of different new micro-genres. Before dubstep was dubstep it was ‘the Croydon sound’, ‘new step’, ‘8 bar’, ‘dark garage’. Maybe we’re in a similar moment now with the Venn Diagram displaying house, garage, dubstep and related animals. But maybe these sounds will never ossify into genres, and maybe that is a good thing.”
So is it the case that there is a scene percolating again slowly—or to quote David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, there’s a fish in the percolator? Or has there been a genuine shift which means that there is too much fragmentation, too much going on, too many influences in this city for another major era-defining, now globally influential genre like dubstep to coalesce?
Wayne Francis of the 12 Tone Brass Band told BAMM’s Global Scene that he thought that production using the DJ programme Ableton and combining with instruments on-stage will result in “a new London sound” which is not “definable other than the fact that everyone approaches it this way”. He adds that is about the approach, rather than the actual ‘sound’. The idea is that the character and spirit that define an ethos are more important than prescribing to a specific sound. And this certainly fits with what’s happening across London in 2011.
Musicians arguably now face less pressure to fit into any scene, and this affords a great deal of creative freedom to experiment. However, the nature of London’s hipster culture tends to imply that as bands are often around for just a short time, there’s no apparent need to develop in a particular genre, or identify with one particular tradition. The quick turnover of bands barely meets the appetite of taste-setting websites such as Platform and Hipster Runoff. Some of the biggest tags of the past two years, ‘witch house’ and ‘chillwave’, have remained amorphous, with bands loosely associated with the label, based on name or their aesthetics.
One example of a shape-shifting musician whose career trajectory defies categorisation is Devonte Hynes. Starting off in the short-lived hipster synthy dance band Test Icicles, he moved onto a solo career as Lightspeed Champion, singing rather wan, mildly depressive folk. Since then, he has become a constant chameleon on the fast-changing scene, relaunching most recently with the narcotic synth dance duo Blood Orange, who have made low-key, packed out appearances in Dalston, East London’s venues such as Efes and the Alibi.
Speaking to Interview, Hynes said that his desire to write a quick succession of projects was down to believing that “all music exists on its own and should be listened to with a clear head”. “That’s what I’m hoping to achieve by giving different names to each new project I begin,” he said. “I’m always weary of connotations. I don’t want people to listen to the music I make presently because they liked my previous work, or to dismiss it because they didn’t. I’m guilty of this as well—having preconceptions about other artists.”
Hebden is another musician who has objected to labelling but for different reasons. The 32-year old artist, now on his sixth album, told Clash magazine last year: “It’s all a bit silly to me, the speed in which everybody’s trying to bring out new genres. Sometimes I think it’s a bit disrespectful to what’s come before it.”
The aversion to labelling may come from a keen sense of experimentation, which has seen critics define their own terms to describe his sound—‘folktronica’ is one of the more memorable phrases—to label his experimentation with folk artist Adem, and other collaborators. Others have see Hebden as someone who borrows motifs from different genres in London and melds them into unique shapes to construct his own musical universe. Ironically, for this reason, he fits perfectly within the ‘post-dubstep free-for-all’ Zeitgeist, where artists are free to borrow and affiliate themselves at will. His upcoming Fabriclive CD is strongly influenced by his recent frequent residencies at London’s Plastic People, with his own distinct sounds combining with those of grime and dubstep. It could be a chicken and egg debate—Hebden’s credibility with his own music may give him the authority to experiment with established genres, or alternatively, the scene may have opened itself up to more experimentation.
Micachu, aged 24, is another example of a musician who has moved between different genres in London. A classical composer, she made her commercial name on the dance floor by collaborating with grime and dance artists. Her dance mix tape Filthy Friends featured singer Ghostpoet, Jack Penate and the pop band Golden Silvers. Despite going on to produce fuzzy, hookless, dark music characterised by its distinct technical flourishes such as open tunings, discordant noises, she describes her music with her band The Shapes as ‘pop’ music.
Speaking to Time Out in 2008, the singer said: “I don’t really know what it is. I’m not saying I’m doing something amazingly new and different but I’m a bit greedy in that when I bring songs to the band I’m taking a lot from everything I listen to. I’m a sucker like that. Like, if I’m into something, like garage or R&B, I try and write music like that. It gets all mixed up and makes it pop because it’s not one specific genre.”
These individuals would be hard-pressed to describe themselves as part of a musical movement, either seen as being ‘post-’something, or otherwise, but they have experimented from the outside, and been accepted from the inside despite their patchwork approach and refusal to integrate into any given tradition or genre.
The music that people listen to when they are out and about also informs what music is made back at home. Producer Daniel Avery, aka StopMakingMe, believes that DJs in London are instrumental in creating cross-currents in music across the city. “There are definitely lots of new DJs emerging who are all making names for themselves—and producers as well—who play in clubs but their music is informed by lots of things outside of the dance floor, outside of the club.” Aspiring DJs can sit at home and watch live broadcasts of sets at places such as the Boiler Room, instead of actually stepping out for themselves. While there are more opportunities to go out than ever before, there is also the online world of collaboration and uploading, potentially making music creation a more introverted experience that uses non-musical influences as freely as more conventional ones.
Whether constant turnover by musicians and cultural mavens such as Devonte Hynes is good for the future of music or not might be dependent on which side of the ‘poptimist’ versus ‘rockist’ debate you fall on. The debate is relevant, as it forms part and parcel of a maverick approach to music, which refuses to align itself to any tradition, and questions the use of the term ‘commercial’ as criticism. One of the debates that may have had a significant influence outside of rock critic circles is whether all music should be judged from the same set of values associated with rock music, such as authenticity, tradition and posterity. Stemming from a famous article in the New York Times by Kelefa Sannah called “The Rap against Rockism”, the debate has changed music commentary and criticism itself. Beyonce’s latest album is likely to get more serious analysis than the latest Radiohead album, mostly because she’s glamorous and her music, being covertly seen as reactive and commercial, might offer a prism through which to analyse contemporary cultural obsessions.
Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Welcome to the Goon Squad was a paean to the music industry, which ended on a strangely jarring note. The friends and family of different generations ended up watching an ageing rocker perform a comeback gig in Madison Square Garden, his authenticity a uniting strand for those of different generations. The popularity of the book attests to the ideal that music can still have this effect, but the picture rang false. However, the book could also be perceived as part of the backlash against the new hegemony of poptism.
Several music commentators have pointed out staunchly poptimist critics could replacing one set of dominant values with another. Poptimist criticism is seen as being at risk of rejecting the legacy of rock criticism, which fought to shield popular music from the idea that it was inferior to classical music. However, with musicians embracing the possibility of picking from a smorgasbord of sounds, without any fear of being ‘inauthentic’, poptimism seems here to stay.
The attitudes of musicians towards the history of music arguably parallels that of fans and music consumers who have embraced technology that allows them to mix up musical genres, regardless of tradition and scene. Countless editorials have already highlighted how having endless amounts of music at your disposal makes the prospect of listening to a whole album paradoxically feel like working. A recent article in The Observer asked whether musical tribalism is dead following the announcement of the finalists for 2011’s Mercury Music Prize, which for the first time included a huge cross-section of genres in its embrace. London-based acts as diverse as electro band Metronomy, electronic composer James Blake, singer Ghostpoet and grime star Tinie Tempah were nominated side by side. Marketing figures were confused about whether this is a good thing or not. While there is a bigger market for all genres, how do you pitch these records to music buyers? Uneasy music industry figures said that the interchangability of genres threatens to make music more ‘grey’ and ‘homogenous’—that is to say, less marketable. Respected music sociologist and chairman of the Mercury judging panel Simon Frith pointed to how the free-for-all attitude was impacting on the music industry itself: “For some of these artists it is quite difficult to pinpoint what genre they represent… artists are not constrained by marketing labels any more.” The biggest losers appeared to be marketers, with musicians speaking excitedly about potentially being able to experiment with all the different types of music on their iPod when in the studio.
Secondly, it is important to ask whether music is the most important social glue when the internet allows young people to connect over gaming platforms and social networks. The same fear of losing an established set of marketing categories seems to have bought the Channel 4’s Tribes research project into existence. It began in 2005, with the aim of categorising an increasingly fragmented youth audience. Its research only identifies around five distinctive music tribes out of 23 in total. Despite the exercise in segmentation, the large-scale ethnographic study acknowledged that these affiliations, and indeed all the categories it found, were more fluid than ever before.
So, diversity. It seems you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. Arguably, the historical roots of different genres in the capital still serves as a source of inspiration to musicians. Without London’s unique variety of influences, so many different sounds wouldn’t be up for grabs. Some recent (short-lived) developments have included grindie, which was very briefly championed by grime artist Lethal Bizzle, who made a rare urban incursion into the NME’s tour in 2007. He told The Independent: “In the Nineties it was really divided. I think people were scared to cross over but me and a few others have just thought, ‘You know what, fuck it! Let’s try and do something different.” ‘Grunk’ may have been a better term, given that the most referenced artists by Lethal Bizzle were the Sex Pistols and other punk bands from the late 1970s. Interestingly, the scene has taken off outside of London, with Leeds-based Hadouken being most closely associated with the cross-genre sound, which mixes up punky guitar riffs with spitting. That poses the inevitable question of whether the vastness of the London musical landscape means that it’s easy for new sounds to develop, but harder for them to cohere into their own ‘scene’.
On the other hand, it’s not as if everything in The Big Smoke has become The Big Creole. Digital radio station Deju Vu recently decided to resurrect grime nights on Monday, marking the shift from when grime and dubstep events used to be held on Sunday nights because the music was considered otherwise too inflammatory. Grime artist Frank Sly described the move as a “positive one” for the scene. However, others have spoken out against the “perversion” of the sound elsewhere. In June, journalist Mark Doogan complained in a provocative statement against the development of ‘gorestep’—the term for dubstep from US-based metal producers such as Skrillex who have made the sound much more wobbly and heavier than before. “Unfortunately [US artists] are not mad for the sound us Brits went mad for. I know I’d rather be wanked off by Freddie Kruger wearing a wire brush round his palm, than go out and listen to that trash,” Doogan colourfully observed. Commentators on the UK-based Grime Forum and even scene originator Skream described Doogan as verging on hysterical, but his comments show a sound is still seen as part of an ethos stemming from a lifestyle by some fans.
A recent exhibition at The Old Truman Brewery in Brick Lane documented dubstep in pictures over the past ten years, showing an inextricable intertwining between the iconography and the genres of dubstep and grime. As Rory Gibb of the Quietus said: “[The attendance] is a reminder that, though some of the sounds they’ve pioneered have become globetrotting prodigal children, the people involved in FWD>>, Rinse and Tempa have been tirelessly working away in the underground for years. You don’t collaborate with such a passion for such a long time without gaining a sense of perspective.”
The disappearance of dress codes denoting certain musical affiliations has also resulted in much hand wringing. Teenagers who have never known a Walkman and have only ever downloaded music can buy Ramones and Black Sabbath t-shirts from Top Shop, when previously getting a band t-shirt meant that you’d been at the gig to get to the merch stall. Streetwear, such as baggy t-shirts and skinny jeans, are commonplace across urban and dance scenes. However, if tribalism is about having a certain look, then there’s no shortage of scenes predicated on getting the dress code spot on. It’s possible to speculate that these style-driven scenes, where musical innovation is less rated than getting it ‘right’, are a reaction against the idea that there’s a ‘universal’ definition of cool. The South Bank held a massive vintage festival in July, where the iconic Royal Festival Hall was transformed into a north and south-divided dance floor with music in each room covering scenes between the 1950s to the 1990s. The outfits on display and the attention to detail, combined with a deep knowledge of the music and how it should be played—there’s a Northern Soul rule that no DJ should ever play the same track more than once in their career—indicate that tribal affiliation is still considered a worthy investment of money and time.
That said, some scenes, metal and folk in particular, seem impervious to change. Jake Harding from London metal band Dead Existence told BAMM’s Global Scene that “metal doesn’t get bigger or smaller. There’s always a loyal following of fans. There are certainly some more commercial styles that have become more charty and popular, but they’re not necessarily metal any more. It’s maybe influenced more commercial styles of music.”
Responding to the debate on whether music tribalism is dead, Hancox said: “Nah. I went past Brixton Academy the other night as it was kicking out, and there were 3,000 people pouring onto the streets dressed head to toe in rockabilly garb—all tats and quiffs and turned up jeans and big 50s dresses. Tribalism may have changed, and in some areas it’s intensified, as with rockabilly, which is a weird one. Look at teenagers in London. They still wear their affiliations literally on their sleeves.”
If anything, the idea that genres die easily borrows from the same sort of superstition as the notion that ‘photography can steal your soul’. The obsession with documentation appears to pickle and preserve certain forms of music, serving to create nostalgia before its time. The power of genre to evoke an ethos or way of living remains strong, as proven by the recent riots in London. Cultural commentators were quick to identify rap as an influence. Historian David Starkey went on the BBC flagship current affairs programme Newsnight, blaming rap music for making “whites black” and encouraging young people to loot and riot. In December, the background to the student unrest and gatherings in squares was grime, with Lethal Bizzle’s Pow emerging as an anthem.
As a global city, London’s musical movements have tendrils everywhere, drawing in influences and then twisting them for its own ends. On the ground, the cross-fertilisation of different sounds has resulted in a scene where labels can become anathema to artists wanting to experiment. However, at the same time, the development of some genres of music are tied so closely to London that no matter how popular the sound becomes, it can always be reclaimed. The closest parallel to a scene such as grime might be punk in the 1970s. Punk brewed into its distinctly English variant in a similar economic climate, where the young felt disenfranchised and excluded. For that reason, grime and punk might have seemed like obvious bedfellows, despite leaving each other dissatisfied in the end. However, the musicians speaking to BAMM all confirm that cultural heterogeneity in London makes it a very different place than three decades earlier. Wayne from the 12 Tone Brass Band told Global Scene that “no one’s defined by their culture, but everyone’s culture has a place within it. And within the youth, more than the older generation, there’s a lot more intertwining and intermingling, which really wasn’t around before…”
Cross-pollination can happen because individuals feel freer than ever to move across scenes, while local musical influences help nurture and ground artists. This snapshot of London’s diverse music scenes has tried to pinpoint what makes London such a great site for musical innovation and collaboration. This is a task paradoxically made harder by the current vogue for labels and artists to deny tribalism or adherence to any genre. The denial allows musicians to give credence to all the different genres they are playing with in their music. It is possible to observe the phenomenon as part of the cycle of music scenes in the city, a fluid Venn diagram of a global city in perpetual motion. But a more exciting perspective would be to interpret the cross-pollination we see today as part of a wider, more long-term socio-cultural shift, making people eager to challenge the boundaries of music and the assumptions that come along with the terrain.