Just heard a great DJ Skepta instrumental on Femme Fatale's 1xtra show, all squiggly eastern electronics hemmed in by snappy beats ands grunts a la Dizzee's "2 Far" - yum.
And back on the topic of grime, an it be only a month ago that I was complaining about the music slowing down? Not too much time has passed, and yet I now feel like I totally, intimately understand where Keith is coming from. Sometimes just listening to something closely, repeatedly, allows you to part the fog of uncertainty and ambivalence. By now I feel a strong sense of affection towards my favourite MCs - Kano's sly humour, Sharkie's absolute conviction, Donae'o's absurdist flow, Hyper's aggression, Dizzee natch - because, as is not really the case with US hip hop (or at least my relationship with it) I get the sense of watching these guys grow and develop in real time, hearing them become savvier, smarter, more distinctive. Sharkie in particular is really quite loveable: his whole schtick is so openly based around self-improvement as an MC, as shown on his version of Wiley's "Ice Rink" where he establishes the necessary standard of new lyrics per month for an MC of his calibre(sixteen, incidentally). With Sharkie, there's no sense of a distance between his rapping and his life, either in terms of fantasy (chart-rap) or ideology (indie rap). Everything is laid bare, and the very absence of life trauma, of glitz and glamour, of some absent third event, is what makes his rapping so appealing, so intimate. The medium is the message.
"It Ain't A Game" meanwhile is a rallying-cry sent both inwards and outwards, an affirmation of the journey (to success) as the destination. As nice as the song's fluttering flute riff is, what I really love is the sparing use of female vocals, particularly when you hear one vocalist soulfully echo "Much worse!" after Sharkie does, confirming that this tune is ultimately uplifting, a temporary respite in spite of or because of the endless struggle the song's narrative depicts. It's not even my favourite grime-pop tune, but I would love for "It Ain't A Game" to be a chart success, because it sounds like it should be, even more than "I Luv U". Its focus on the perils and rewards of being an MC feels like a state-of-the-nation report, and a self-reflexive celebration, the proof of itself as the new form (maybe it's the "Live Forever" of grime, and that's not an insult!).
This sense of having inside access into the MCs' development is heightened by the extreme interchangeability of the MCs' lyrics and the producers' "riddims", with each rap and each groove benefiting from a dozen different incarnations. I guess this is grime's third-level fusion of Jamaican riddim-culture and hip hop freestyling with the mix'n'match culture that has always characterised the hardcore continuum. If you were so inclined you could say it's just a reflection of Sharkie's admonitions that most MCs (including himself, evidently) don't have enough lyrics to go round, but I see it as a real quality in current grime. Practically, it makes the raps easier to learn, and I begin to grasp their real qualities in isolation from the song-context in which I first heard them, but it also gives them a panoramic flexibility, an ability to suit a dozen different contexts (harsh Wiley computerscapes, dramatic swing-swept Jammer productions, sweet'n'gooey g-funk grooves). And again it's about breaking down the monolithic nature of the pop single (said monolith not being a bad thing, after all I love stuff like "Scandalous", "Rock Your Body" etc. precisely because of their monolithic tendencies) into bits and pieces, lego sets that can be assembled a dozen different ways.
Luka's currently talking up the shift in the scene towards summery, tuneful, keyboard heavy, wistful, joyful etc. tunes (see for example Roll Deep's "You Were Always", "I Luv You II", "Ain't A Game" obviously and lots of Jammer/Nasty Crew 8-bars whose names are unknown by me). It's an obvious progression really, but a wonderful one all the same: I visually imagine the overall process as being like the cover for Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, the rainbow rays of 2-step refracted through a black point (Musical Mob's "Pulse X") and refracting back into multicolour glory, totally transformed to the point of unrecognisability. As with the Foulplayification of 'ardkore/darkcore, the attraction of this new-found sweetness and fragility lies in how it arises out of the muscular darkness of most 8-bar, the first buds of spring unfurling through the top layer of winter's snow.
The most amazing single example of this is on a tape Keith sent me which he got off Luka. Keith talks about it on his blog already, but to reprise: the appearance of a chillingly beautiful synth-heavy half-speed track (by DJ Skepta) in the middle of Kano's "Boys Luv Girls", the latter track's high-speed jitter beats giving way to a stunningly graceful midtempo strut while Kano's flow continues on regardless. It's hard to understand the appeal of these half-speed tracks until you hear them in the mix with an MC, at which point Keith's jungle bass = grime beats analogy works perfectly. The MC really is the speed-setter at this point, such that these half-speed tunes really do feel like they're operating at two speeds a la jungle with its dub basslines. A whole set of slow tracks would probably sound a bit odd, but sandwiched between two faster tracks the effect is to turn the tune into one massive DJ trick (a bit like Daft Punk's "One More Time"), a dramatic, stately crowd-hyper whose drop in speed results in a corresponding rise in intensity.
My other favourite slower track is another Nasty Crew number, although I don't know its name. I kept thinking it was D.E.E.'s "Birds in the Sky" and then getting disappointed when I actually listened to that track (good but not a patch on it!); this one's an amazingly solemn quiet storm of droning mandolins and a stalking b-line. The groove is incredibly funereal and eerie, more melodic than most 8-bar but what it loses in darkness it more than gains in pure sadness. Likewise check out Target & Danny Weed's "Pick Ya Self Up (Target Remix)" with Wiley and J2K which Luka was talking about - that same fragile sadness but framed by Wiley's motivational rapping, creating a bittersweet sensation reminiscent of Omni Trio - all those beautiful tracks vibing on e-memories and trembling at the inability of getting back to that halcyon wonderland - lovesongs for Eden.
Ian talks about Underworld, linking them, most astutely I think, with my favourite record of all time (Tiger Bay doncha know). I agree with his assessment - Underworld are, if not exactly underrated, then certainly misrepresented, given credit for the wrong stuff (being a rock band?? I mean what the fuck??), worshipped for their songform when all the while the sole purpose of Karl Hyde's vocals is to give shape to the emotional content that is already there in the music (this is the real grand secret of Underworld: they make bangers not anthems, and yet somehow their kick drums and snare hits and chord changes all, simultaneous to rushin' outta control, tremble tremulously with unreleased tears. If you haven't bought Beacoup Fish yet you really really should. Really.
I was slightly miffed by Simon's comments with regards to dancehall. Undoubtedly he's right to some extent: dancehall always is pretty productive, and I'm sure that one reason it's so popular right now is because it's carrying the torch for sonic-exoticism so prominently. But I can't be happy with Simon's airy dismissal for two reasons.
Firstly, I don't think Sean Paul's domination of the US airwaves and charts can be solely attributed to a lack of anything else exciting happening. It's true that within the context of most other stuff on the radio, "Get Busy" commands a certain fascination, a what-the-fuck factor that lasts beyond the first few plays - but this would be true if it had been released at any time in the last four years or so. Between Sean's thick-but-decipherable patois and the bizarre-but-enticing Diwali-based groove, the song unifies dancehall's (increasingly co-aligned) tendencies towards alienation and populism. This really should be seen in the context of an overall fetishisation of the culturally unusual within urban music that's been an ongoing process for a while now (I remember putting the infiltration of dancehall into everything as a top-new-trend in some ILX thread in mid-2001 I think - and I was hardly being particularly prophetic then); it's not a mere reaction to a lack of new trends, but a trend in its own right. (Hopefully Sean's new non-album track "Close To Me" - on the Rebirth riddim - will be released as a single at some point in the future; it's just as much a head-fuck and is even more poptastic)
Secondly, dancehall itself is in an even healthier position than it was three years ago, and the absurd fecundity of its creative impulses demands attention in its own right, regardless of what's happening in music elsewhere. It's certainly not just Dutty Rock - across the board there has been a stylistic expansion, a flowering of the genre that comprehensively outstrips even quite recent revelations that the genre has thrown up.
Contrast and compare Elephant Man's debut Comin' For You!" with his most recent album Higher Level and the shift is quite prominent: now, I like the former just fine, but in both sonics and delivery its a fairly monochrome assemblage, the skeletal digital beats and Elephant Man's gruff pseudo-gangsterisms pinpointing a certain model for roughed-up futurism that is incredibly effective on a track-by-track basis, but becomes punishing when digested in one session.
Higher Level meanwhile is one of the most addictive, consistently engaging albums I've had the pleasure of hearing this year, its near-kaleidoscopic array of sounds and grooves lending the album a near-definitive feel, as if this album could stand in as a representative for where exciting pop sonics in general are at right about now. Certainly I'm tempted to cheat by making it in my top five album list for the year, despite it coming out in late '02.
I can't begin to explain how warmly affectionate I feel towards Elephant Man when I listen to this album. It's such a bouncy, idiosyncratic, hyper-enthused collection of performances which, when strained through Elephant Man's increasingly unhinged, almost comical delivery, attains the same level of endearing mania that characterises Mystikal at his best (who I also began to feel almost personally attached to as a character somewhere between "Danger" and "Bouncin' Back"). Curiously, like Mystikal Elephant Man seems to drift further and further from overt gangsta idioms with each release. In fact much of Higher Level reflects the current craze for songs about dance (a craze which is just getting more and more pervasive: check recent tracks like Beenie Man's "Signal Di Plane" and Elephant Man's "Pon Di River Pon Di Banks", both of which make no bones about their purpose in their titles) - both "Approach" and "Online" are silly-verging-on-inane dancefloor workout kits.
Odd that my two favourite lyrical snatches from the album are both from these tracks: on the former EM grunts "step on di dancefloor and crush dem like roots!", while on the latter he yells "take to da dancefloor like ya step on crime!" It's these weird visualisations and/or literalizations of metaphors in aid of straightforward hysteria-incitement, not to mention the suspicion that Elephant Man is just saying whatever is coming into his head at the time, that make these tracks such infectious fun. But beyond just this sort of track, Elephant Man demonstrates a greatly expanded sense of humour: on "Run For Your Life" he complains about insane knife-wielding female fans, and the song's two best moments come from EM's use of patois to exagerrate the intensity of what he's singing. First there's the dismissal of the excited fan, "Okay ya know mi name/ANYWAY!", and then, when it starts to get ugly, the desperate rasp "Move outta mi way/MOVE OUTTA MI WAY!" Even more bizarre is "Tall Up Tall Up", an astonishingly camp patchwork quilt of brutally physical stripped down beats and sections of beatless pomp and circumstance fanfare (with Elephant Man wheezing along to the tune in a comical falsetto), which sounds like a tribute to the British Empire. It's hilarious and adorable. When is he gonna join Sesame Street?
From edgy rave to dazzling Indian motifs to sugary pop hooks to tense hyper-minimalism, almost every cutting-edge sonic approach is filtered through the (now quite relaxed and negotiable) dancehall template, and I'm left with the impression that this music could anticipate and absorb pretty much anything you throw it at it. There's even the occasional flicker of traditionalist influences (the piano riff counterpoint in the Threat riddim used on "Ghetto Girls" is pure Soul II Soul). It's hard not to focus on the Indian-flavoured tracks though, just for how single-mindedly they follow this particular avenue.
Elephant Man's swiping of the groove from "Get Ur Freak On" on Log On was not an accident: much more than hip hop proper, dancehall has become fully invested in digesting the underlying possibilities for groove-science that the urban/Indian fusion of "Get Ur Freak On" implies, but which subsequent examples of hip hop's India fetish ("Addictive", "Nothin'", "React") have downplayed in favour of a more cultural fetishisation (eg. Erick Sermon yelling "whatever she said then I'm that!" in response to a snippet of a Bollywood siren).
On riddims such as Egyptian (Elephant Man's "Egyptian Dance"; Vybz Kartel's "Sweet To Da Belly"'; Sizzla's "These R Da Days") or the astonishing Sign (Elephant Man's "Fuck U Sign" on his forthcoming Good 2 Go album; Beenie Man's "Work It"-aping "My Dickie") the focus is on the bubbly, bouncy tabla rhythms, which combine with the barely-there imprint of dancehall's rhythmic-template to create grooves that are both bizarre and compulsive. Sign in particular has the most confounding, head-wrecking groove of the year, its heavy kickdrum-like tabla hits reminding me of the more insane Amen-mashup jungle tracks of yore.
(There's too many good Indian-flavoured riddims to count, but at the very least you should acquaint yourself with such pearlers as Glue (Sean Paul's "Samfy I", Elephant Man's "Miss Matty Son"), Famine (TOK's "Wap Dem", Elephant Man's "Approach"), Ba Ba Boom (Chico's "Hail Di Gals Dem") and Snake (a dancehall version of R. Kelly's "Snake" that's best heard on Capleton's "Baghdad") - all of which spin new and exciting variations on the same basic theme)
Of course Indian tunes aren't the only attraction, and I'm equally enamoured with the more electro-flavoured, synth-based riddims such as All Out, Wanted, Mudslide, Knockout and 20 Cent. Crucially though, there's a real sense that this music could go (is going) in a hundred directions. And I bet when Elephant Man's next album appears in September we'll see a few more.