This week I’m interested in how and when scenes name themselves. Running through UK dance music there’s this cycle of creation, consolidation, and saturation. It’s a process that sees new sounds emerge as a nameless, fluid synthesis of a number of other elements, nicking musical signifiers taken from pre-existing genres (ie, jungle taking the breakbeats from hip hop and hardcore and the bass of reggae), and recontextualising them, often driven by new developments in technology (sticking to the jungle example; developments in sampling technology allowing producers to time stretch and carve up breaks microscopically, in grime’s case I guess you could say it was the sudden prevalence of cheap music sequencing software for Playstations.). Once the sound has emerged, somewhere along the way it gets a name – there’s your consolidation. A consensus emerges over what constitues the genre; what sound, tempo, etc, which tunes fit and which don’t. Next comes saturation –once the genre has been locked up tight in what it can and can’t be, there’s little room for it to grow upwards, so it just grows outwards, with more and more people drawing from a limited pool of ideas. Sooner or later the innovators have moved on.
It’s quite interesting to see how this plays out in the music itself – when and where the tracks appear that specifically incorporate their chosen genres name into the music. There seem to be two types of self-naming going on –first, that which is knowing : a record that identifies itself as belonging to an already existing scene, second, that which is creating: a record that seeks to apply a new name to the music it’s making. This all sounds like vague bollocks, so let me get more specific with examples from the archives spanning acid house, hardcore, jungle and grime.
Jolly Roger – Acid Man
Acid Man got banned by the BBC –at the time of it’s release ‘acid’ was the media’s favourite bugbear, and, inevitably, a playground chant. When Jolly Roger (aka Eddie Richards) bought out Acid Man, it was from a position of consolidation – the scene had already been named, and he was celebrating that existence. This means that retrospectively Acid Man sounds exactly like acid house as you imagine it, as does D-Mob’s We Call It Acieeed – even if it sounds like D-Mob couldn’t afford a proper 303 (Fun fact: Like so many other previously cool 80s musicians, Dancing Danny D- writer of We Call It Acieed - shat away all credibility by appearing in Band Aid II a year after his D-Mob hit…). I guess you could say that Acid Man is, to a degree, a cash in, even if it is a fucking tremendous one.
The Moog – Jungle Muffin / Remarc – Drum n Bass Wise
So now I want to look at the other side of things. These two tracks use the term ‘jungle’ and ‘drum n bass’ respectively, but neither sound quite like the genre’s they are linking themselves to. They’re from that fluid point where scenes are struggling for a cohesive identity. The Moog track is incredibly early, from 1992, and probably the first use of ‘jungle’ in a record I can think of – although the ‘hardcore junglist’ phrase is clearly a sample, the implication being that the Moog producer has lifted it from a live tape – in which case MCs were already describing themselves as hardcore junglists back in 1992, and possibly before. The Prodigy’s Ruff In The Jungle came out around the same time, and is also far more of a hardcore track, without any of the rolling amens you would associate with jungle. Meanwhile, the Remarc track is the first recorded version of the term ‘drum n bass’ I can think of (in this context anyway, Lee Scratch Perry was going on about drum n bass over dub tracks way back in the 70s). But really, Remarc’s Drum N Bass Wise is closer to the wild, reggae influenced amen breaks that have come to be thought of as jungle. I guess this shows the tricky nature of narrative – whilst drum n’ bass has come to be seen as the more rigid sound that evolved out of jungle post ’95, in ‘93/ ’94 the terms were pretty much interchangeable – one school of thought would have it that ‘drum n bass’ was used because there was a concern amongst a number of producers about the racial implications of the term jungle. Ask another man and you’ll hear another reason. The thing is, it was quite clear that at this stage, producers were trying to settle on a term for their sound, be it Jungle-Tekno, Drum n bass, or whatever.
Rebel MC – Junglist
This Congo Natty track was recorded in 1996. Rebel MC has never been shy of addressing the appropriation of Jungle by mainstream culture, and how he believes the process too often results in the music being divorced from its Jamaican roots. In that context, this tune can at least partially be heard as a refutation of the term ‘Drum N Bass’. The lyrics say it all – “When I’m weak your telling me that I’m strong/ When I’m right you’re telling me that I’m wrong/ But I know, now I understand/ Now I see/ I see your wicked plan// I’m a junglist / Don’t try to change my plan/ Understand/ Why won’t you understand/ I’m a junglist”
Tu Tuff Crew – Grimey EP
There’s still a lot of dispute over the term ‘grime’. I interviewed Lethal Bizzle a month back, and he told me how uneasy many of his peers had been with the term when it first started gaining traction – apparently so much so that Crazy Titch had chucked a table off stage when he was asked about grime as a name at a conference the two of them were speaking at in the early 00s (but then Crazy T is crazy….) Wiley’s Wot Do U Call It struggled with terminology to quality effect, but there were contemporaries that just went right ahead and called it grime – as on this rare 12” from Tu Tuff Crew. You can tell how early this tune is by the writing on the white label – I picked it up from Independence on Lee High Road sometime round 2003, and it’s clear that at the time no one had even settled on how to spell grimey – ‘Grimme’ (which I suspect I might have written) didn’t catch on… I’ve included the B Side Code Blue here as well, for no reason other than it’s a rare, killer bit of Eski Beat, similar to Danny Weed’s Roll Deep stuff.
Going through these tracks has got me thinking about our relationship with genre titles. I can understand the desire to classify music, and the need for producers to identify their own scene, their own bit of turf, but it's a double edged sword. Once you've defined something it seems that little bit less magical, this little bit less able to stretch to the impossible. I'm watching with interest as afrobeats refuses to take on a more specific name - when I spoke D'Banj (he of Oliver Twist fame) about this, he told me that it means multiple tempos and styles can exist under one roof, without the constraints of a track having to retain certain highly specific features - all the music requires is an African flavour, which in itself can be very ephemeral. To the purists its a nightmare, to the classification obsessed minds of music geeks it's a nightmare, to the musicians, maybe it sounds like freedom.