This is the first of many in-depth articles by Zakia Uddin exploring various elements of the music industry. This time, to coincide with the upcoming launch of BAMM.TV’s Global Scene, she exposes London’s varied music scenes.
In 2004, emerging grime star Wiley mocked the obsession with defining a music ‘scene’’s sound with the track ‘Wot Do U Call It?’ on his debut album ‘Treddin’ on Thin Ice’. Its title refrain in an old-school Cockney accent is followed by pushy suggestions of ‘urban’, ‘garage’ and ‘two-step’ – all early names for grime’s rapidly developing sound. Wiley sardonically responds: ‘I use their scene but make my own sound/It’s mine you can’t claim what’s mine/It’s my time to bait you up’. The track is a meta-commentary on the internal battles that go on when creating a sound and laying ownership on it, when other people want to pin it down and compare it to already familiar styles. Ironically, ‘Wot Do U Call It’ became definitive of grime – arguably London’s most distinctive home-grown genre. That scene has evolved, but the discussion of new genres remains heated. So how do we, the musicians, and the record companies decide what makes a bunch of bands a ‘scene’ – especially in a musical landscape that’s as diverse and fast-moving as London?
London is the kind of place that makes you feel as though if you’re not at an incredible gig, you’re the only person that’s not. The city’s live scene is flourishing, leaving the most seasoned gig-goers in the sprawling metropolis flipping coins to choose between three to four ‘must-see’ gigs a night. A casual scan of Time Out’s listings for the average weekend presents upwards of 50 choices, with even more options online for the more intrepid investigator. The digital revolution has, paradoxically, fuelled the growth in the live scene. It’s become a truism that bands must tour more these days, in order to recoup losses from illegal downloads, but arguably it’s become easier for people to put on shows and get together to make the music in the first place. What this means for the London gig-goer and the new arrival to the city is that it’s now easier than ever to find new scenes, developing on the ground.
Rather than musical development in the city being a series of kaleidoscopic revolutions, there are many genres co-existing and developing in a parallel fashion. Arguably, genres can be seen as the seismic plates underlying the busy music London scene—trends come and go, but the evolution of music styles moves much slower. Dan White of the band Orders of the British Empire told BAMM.TV’s Global Scene: “Word of mouth London changes all the time, because people are told a certain area or type of music is cool. But as soon as you get them people that want to go to that place, another little counter-culture springs up somewhere else.” While word-of-mouth can keep mean that what’s fashionable changes month-to-month, London’s scenes are still divided by genre. Speaking to Global Scene, upcoming band Jonah Maddox describe London’s music lovers as composed of “tribes”- while they’re nomadic, they also each have their own ethos. Discussions about crossovers and developments and the existence of scenes continue, suggesting that musicians and writers feel keenly about what might seem to be journalistic conveniences to confused readers.
So what makes a genre unique to London and how does London help create some genres? It seems to be a two-way relationship. London informs how the music is made, while also shaping what it is about. Two genres that demonstrate these influences respectively are noise and grime.
Noise, for example, is a relatively small music scene dependent on the interactions of tech-savvy music lovers who promote each other’s gigs and play in each other’s bands, creating a protective ecosystem. The term is a catch-all to describe different inflections of the same impulse to make loud, complex music, dropping drums in favour of synthesisers, guitars, pre-programmed beats, 8-chip squalls and feedback. There is an old-fashioned element of performance, with bands such as Cementimental citing controversial figures such as GG Allin as “inspiration”. Arguably, such a scene could not easily exist outside of London, as there are fewer venues are up for grabs and like-minded individuals cannot travel more easily to collaborate after connecting to each other online. London hosted what was called the First International Noise Conference at the Vice Magazine-owned Shoreditch pub Old Blue Last. Given the ability to instantaneously upload footage from such an event and make it available internationally, it may not be such an ambitious title. However, most of the performing bands lived in the capital, with performers migrating between the audience and the stage, seamlessly blending into each. Tim Drage, part of Cementimental and promoter of several noise nights, commented that London was integral to his music: “It’s right there when I set out to record and perform some music. There’s more different things, opportunities, gigs, people to work with in a concentrated area than anywhere else in the UK, and more people interested in any given niche activity so more chance of getting a reasonable turnout for a noise show.”
The impact of the internet over the past seven years has certainly made a difference to how such scenes develop, especially those that are more niche or specialist. Drage added: “Things are definitely more active these days than when I first moved to London some seven years ago. There are more gigs going on and far less of the sort where I’d be one of three paying audience members the other two of whom would turn out to be friends of mine.”
In contrast, one of the aspects of grime that makes it distinctively “from-London-and-nowhere-else” is its subject matter that draws upon the slang of the estates, raucous, harshly lit night buses and the inner-city schoolyard. The music, which leaked into the mainstream after the release of Dizzee Rascal’s debut Boy in the Da Corner, is an offshoot of the UK Garage scene, which gave us era-defining bands such as So Solid Crew. Broadly, grime took the syncopated rhythms of its progenitor, turned them up, and layered choppy sounds that mimicked the harsh spitting of its MCs on top of low bass frequencies. Its subject matter and splicing of sounds and aversion to the sugary hook differentiated it from the bloated, pop sample-heavy US rap that dominated the British charts.
Some of the most prominent purveyors were young, with Dizzee Rascal only 17 on the release of his first album. ‘I Luv U’, which relays a teen lovers’ dispute with its back and forth girl-boy vocals, set to ominous bass, anti-hooks, and a glowering drum beat, moved away from the minimalism of UK garage to embrace something much darker, yet strangely accessible. The youthfulness of most grime listeners—and makers—necessitated a low-cost approach to production, with local radio stations and home-made DVDs and CDs crucial to distributing music in the early stages. Artists such as Lady Sovereign developed their sound by swapping early tentative examples of their music online with future collaborators. Ignoring this entrepreneurial element, grime became a scapegoat for politicians and others that precisely objected to its aggressive sound, and thus recalling similar objections to the distinctive UK permutation of punk two decades earlier. Arguably, the reality of hearing teenagers talk to one another how they really do, seemed to shock authority figures.
The debate about authenticity has changed direction now, as many early artists have had commercial success. Tinchy Stryder, Tempah T and Chipmunk’s chart hits have given rise to arguments about whether grime’s original sound has been compromised by pop production. On the flipside, there have also been fears that the music simply won’t translate in the US, with one urban artist Sway telling The Guardian last year that American audiences told him he sounded like Harry Potter. Despite this, the uniquely London vocals are becoming more representative of a British sound here and abroad.
UK garage’s other offshoot dubstep has had a more far-reaching influence internationally, but its producers and makers feel strongly that the London scene retains its distinctiveness. Local dubstep producer Caski’s describes how the city has an energy of its own which shapes the music of residents – and even those who are just passing through. He said: “London’s special, man. London’s like New York City, if you went to New York, I’m sure the residents will tell you we invented this, and this is our version of this, and it’s the same with our version of this, if you move to London from New York, and you were like I’m a dubstep producer from New York and I’m over here, you’re not going to sound like any other New York producer’s tracks sound like. You’re going to sound like either a bass-weight guy or a midrange guy or you’re going to take influences from where you are. If you’re in London, no doubt you’re going to be making rave music quickly.”
Dubstep evolved out of 2-step garage, itself a sub-genre of garage music, which deviated from the standard 4-4 rhythm. It kept the pitch-shifted vocals, and added a propulsive bass line that moved submerged by the half-time of the drum sequences common to it. The genre gestated first in Croydon, South London, where the figureheads of the scene including Skream and Benga started playing in local clubs before the central London night FWD >>, which gave a home to the sound and its producers.
However, it took several years before a breakthrough album emerged from the scene, with artist Burial’s self-titled album being one of the first most hyped albums of 2005. His second album ‘Untrue’, released in 2006, is a soundtrack to London life, titles such as ‘In McDonalds’ and ‘Night Bus’ chronicling and romanticising the shared mundane post-clubbing experience in the metropolis. His choice to remain anonymous reflected dubstep creators’ focus on developing the sound and its move away from the superstar culture that had defined other scenes, such as big beat in the first half of the 1990s. The showcasing of the music by respected BBC Radio 1 DJs John Peel and Mary Anne Hobbs as a distinct genre gave it an international presence, but its makers such as Caski point to how it is impossible to transpose such a home-grown genre to another place without losing or adding something in the mix.
Despite such possessiveness, others believe that dubstep’s newly evident presence in the charts has made it easier for others to get in on the scene – wherever they are. From Britney Spears’ relatively early adoption of the sound in her single ‘Hold it against me’ to Rihanna’s collaborations with seminal dubstep producers Chase & Status, the genre’s tropes have become commonplace in pop. Born-and-bred London acts have also made the music commercially appealing on a big scale. Grace Wood of digital agency Lilac London said: “Acts like Katy B and Magnetic Man appearing in the top ten have opened up a world for bedroom DJs and producers to step up and take hold of the ‘scene’ and make it their own. It’s not just restricted to dubstep either, that’s just one example.”
The half-time drum beats and the typical “spaciousness” that define dubstep are now giving way to more intricate productions, which have led to the coining of the term “post-dubstep”. It seems at the moment to be a hold-all term for several artists that thrive on the eerie nocturnal expanse of dubstep, while experimenting with new beats, and alternately stripping down and embellishing the sound. Some exemplars of what some call post-dubstep include south London’s Night Slugs label, artist Ikonika and producer James Blake, among others.
The comparative liveliness and international scope of these scenes fuel the debate that guitar music “has died”. Yet any music-goer in London can easily pay testament to how it is thriving in the city. In the early 2000s, after the first flowering of what was called Britpop, a band called The Libertines created a cult of fans who were keen once again to get close to their idols. The bombast of stadium-filling acts such as Oasis and Blur was rejected by Carl Barat’s band, and the many bands sharing their orbit in North London. Though the music itself wasn’t breaking any new ground, its distinct romanticism appealed to fans alienated by the sudden popularity of their former favourite bands, now casually talked about on weekday morning chat shows and in tabloid newspapers. The Libertines played music that recalled a (mythical) England, looking like chimney sweeps in their Sunday best, singing dreamily of Albion and mythologising rainy London and its bedsit-dwelling failed poets. While the dream swiftly turned into a Fuseli-styled circus of drug rumours, and inter-band rivalries, The Libertines arguably alerted many young people in the city to the ability to DIY. Playing gigs in basements and even on the street, with fans filming and documenting history as it was being made, they created their own mythology. The epicentre of this scene remained in Camden, where Britpop had taken root only a decade earlier. Dedicated fans would have seen Razorlight on the circuit supporting the Libertines before they went off to have international success with anthems such as ‘America’. Offshoots such as Special Needs and The Holloways (named after the much-maligned Holloway Road in North London) are still kicking around while the annual Camden Crawl continues to attract thousands of music lovers, from Europe and elsewhere, seeking out the next big thing.
While the arrival of the Libertines injected a tangible passion into the live scene, other music lovers in the capital were strongly aware of a gap in the market for a more experimental indie. Upset the Rhythm describes itself as a collective, forming in 2003 to promote bands that were too awkward, angular and unpolished to appeal to NME readers. The collective sought to promote bands in venues that for a few years became weekly pit-stops for what might be described as the first wave of self-conscious hipsters, wearing checked shirts, non-prescription glasses, and American Apparel. The Luminaire in Kilburn, north London and Barden’s Boudoir in Dalston, east London played host to eclectic bills, with bands only united by their stage theatrics, and DIY enthusiasm. Though the more quirky American music scenes influenced many of the bands it highlighted, Upset the Rhythm created their label to give London’s experimental bands “a natural home”.
Chris Tipton, one of the founders of UTR, described in an interview in 2008 how he had wanted to change the relationship between fans and artists after travelling to San Francisco and checking out the live scene there. He said: “The relationship between the band and the audience was totally different from what I had seen in London. There had been efforts to create shows where amazing performances could happen and where people could enjoy a whole evening of shows. These shows were events rather than gigs.” Part of UTR’s mission statement was to keep prices low. The average ticket price was £5, making it easy to check out an intriguing sounding show, with the guarantee that at least one band would be worth the entry fee.
Since setting up as a label and promoters, UTR have curated Yes Way, a festival for UK-only bands in a former South London motor show room, brought over bands to play in medieval church towers behind graffiti’d bus stations in East London, and held gigs where strangers have sat on the floor clasping each other’s hands. Their two most-used venues, the Luminaire and Barden’s, no longer exist, with the latter (and the kitsch, oddly overpriced, furniture shop Barden’s that it was below) swept away in a wave of gentrification. The closure of Barden’s last summer attracted hundreds of music goers to say goodbye, with the police eventually turning up to clear the streets because of the noise generated in the still largely residential area.
While it began as a cross-cultural exchange, UTR has in fact bought an inventive energy to the live scene in London. Their influence can be seen in the appetite for novel events, for seeing bands in small spaces and novel intimate settings. As James Avery (StopMakingMe) told Global Scene, the tiny capacity venue is back. For example, last summer saw the return of Bandstand Busking, with bands utilising London’s forgotten bandstands to do acoustic sets for free. The outdoor setting paradoxically gave each performance a unique intimacy as the bands sang bare-voiced, against the wan backdrop of the cold English summer, with the audience leaning inwards over the sides of the bandstand, scarcely less close to the musicians than the audience members sitting in a semi-circle on the floor. The “event” gig goes hand-in-hand with the need to make an impact in a city where there is almost too much choice. Grace Wood, of the digital music agency Lilac London, comments: “I think for a new band starting out, it’s bound to be hard. There’s so much choice in London and it can be hard to try and build that little world around you and build a database of loyal fans.”
However, some artists are averse to the kind of hype that can swallow up a scene or an artist before they’ve even embarked released an introductory EP. The kinds of bands emerging on the London indie scene are more willingly experimental and less keen to “place” themselves anywhere. Summer Camp is an example of a band that confused the mainstream media by refusing to lay claim to the hype. A number attempted exposés eventually persuaded the musicians to reveal themselves as Platform editor Elizabeth Sankey and songwriter Jeremy Warmsley. Though Summer Camp’s obsession with the past feeds into the problem of “retromania”, charged by critic Simon Reynolds, arguably the duo haven’t adopted their aesthetic because it is already familiar to people, and therefore more commercially lucrative. While their music samples dialogue from dark US high school comedy Heathers and their candid, grainy artwork fetishises the 1970s, their willingness to wholly embrace and scrapbook whatever they want in aid of their own mythology also makes them a distinctly London band. Warmsley has long been around in the city’s more quirky indie scene, hosting near-secret gatherings at his home for the recording of a Wayne’s World-style chat show with musical interludes from other singers. The need for a sense of occasion in London enshrouds the indie scene, not only affecting the venues but also musicians’ identities.
This overview of London’s most notable genres leaves much out that is also distinctive about the music scene in the capital, because it is impossible to cover the depth and breadth of it in this short space. It doesn’t take into the club scene, and the many bars which put on DJs in the background, the audience half-listening while the DJ serendipitously does something alchemical with glowing waveforms on a laptop. And it doesn’t account for the many acoustic artists who play every night across the city, to handfuls of tourists, interlopers, friends and family. It also can’t include the everyday musical events such as the ukulele and banjo gatherings where people turn up and play together just for fun, the audience being part of the band itself. It all feeds into what makes London an exciting, varied scene, with the search for endless invention driven by a need to honour their historically-rich surroundings, be it estate, cavern-like club, established performance hall, or a dark, anonymous, dingy pub.