View From The Side: Is dance music suffering from the weight of history?
Data hurtles from tiny screens to punchdrunk brains from the moment we wake and clutch for our bedside phones. It’s the information age. When it comes to music, we have the facility to know more than ever before – a trip to Youtube and we can hear every hissing hi hat on a mid-90s Mood 2 Swing dub. Five minutes on Google and the complete kit list Gerald Simpson created Voodoo Ray on is yours, along with the etymology of all its various samples, and more remixes than you even knew existed. Before you’ve finished chewing all this over, someone notifies you about a hitherto unheard cache of recordings of Aphex Twin scratching his balls with sandpaper, recorded on creaky reel to reel during a 7 day Ayahuasca bender Mr. James endured in 1995. Nothing is lost and everything is known. Everything, except, perhaps, what to do when you don't know very much at all.
Last week I interviewed Tim Brinkhurst, formerly of 90s dance pop outfit Soho. Remembering the house music he was writing around 1987, Tim pointed out that even though he and his friends wanted to sound as much like the new house music they knew was emerging from America as possible, in a lot of cases they hadn’t actually heard these sounds. Instead he was basing his ideas on “little bits and pieces we could garner, sometimes from just reading about it and trying to interpret it, as it wasn’t so easy to listen to things in those days… I think in a sort of mild way that’s what the original house guys were doing when they were trying to interpret the electro sounds that were coming from the UK and then mix it up with their own beats… it used to be a collision between groups of people who don’t know that much about something else that’s happening, but are excited by it”
This got me thinking about something that we may have lost- or at the very least be losing- in music now; the way in which gaps in knowledge were filled in by imagination and interpretation. Brinkhurst touched on something that’s been cropping up in a few interviews I’ve had with older dance heads. Back in a pre-internet world, a great deal of music would be read or talked about before it was heard. This was the era where music journalism had a genuinely vital function, existing to convey the aesthetics of gleaming new structures in as artful a way as possible. Dance music was still mining a shock (a futureshock, if you will) of fresh ideas, inventing new song structures on equipment that had barely existed some years previously. Journalists often found themselves in the curious, exciting position of having to invent entirely new terminology to describe the ceaseless mutations coming from Antwerp, Chicago, Detroit or Sheffield, like trying to describe a painting of the sky to people who’d never seen blue.
Vintage UK house from Brinkhurst
As a result there was a Chinese Whispers effect. Producers in the UK such as Brinkhurst would read about, say, the new Adonis record, and imagine what it would sound like. They may not actually hear the record for months at a time. Instead their brains would stretch out and try and translate descriptions packed with futurist language into music that they hoped sounded like the originals. Unsurprisingly, they failed in the Sisyphean task of sounding like songs they’d never heard, but in the process pushed things further and further forward. In Brinkhurst’s case that meant producing Jack Me Some Crack/ Cortina Kidz – 2 weird dance tracks that sound fresh to this day – it makes sense that Cortina Kidz has just been snapped up for reissue by Mr Intl. It’s impossible to really pin a genre on Cortina Kidz, but at a push I’d call it, say, gay goth synth pop, drawing as it does from hi-NRG, Chicago beats and European electro pop. Its charm lies in how very much like a London record it sounds, even as it strives to sound like a cool import. It’s Brinkhurst’s lack of knowledge that has allowed him to create something new – it’s hard to know what he would have made if he’d have been able to download the entire Trax catalogue in an hour, but I suspect it would have sounded a more like a-not-as-good Adonis record, rather than a weirdo bit of London culture that sounds thrilling to this day.
Another great example of a short fall in knowledge being made up for with a wealth of imagination can be found in the case of Ibiza Records. Ibiza was the label started by rave promoter and occasional DJ/ producer Paul Ibiza. It was foundational in the creation of jungle, moving UK hardcore away from the terror and clang of it’s Dutch and Belgian roots, and bringing in an overt Jamaican soundsystem influence that spoke to Paul’s heritage. When Paul decided to name his raves after the White Island, he’d never been to Ibiza. He hadn’t heard the music played on the island, and had no idea what the people wore, what the clubs were like or whether they spoke Spanish, Portugese or Esperanto. All he had was an idea, a fantasy of this utopian place he’d heard of where the most futuristic music possible was made and played, were beautiful people got high and danced and the sun never stopped- “I’d heard about Ibiza, as the capital of this rave thing, it’s why I called the parties Fantastic Ibiza. I’d never been to Ibiza in my life- I didn’t even have a passport. But I was imagining what it would be like, that’s why my first flyer had palm trees, I imagined they’d be there. I was dreaming of a better place.”
In context this imagining was life changing – even life-saving. Like a number of the early junglists, Paul came up on North London’s Broadwater Farm Estate. Cynthia Barrett, the women whose death during a police house search triggered the riots of 1985 was his stepmum. London after the riots was a grim and severely depressing place for a young black man- this was a time when Oliver Letwin was advising that no money should be spent on British black communities as it would only ‘be spent on drugs and disco.’* The Ibiza parties were a needed fantasy of escape to another world – a ‘better world’ that had never technically existed. Without live streams coming from Space, or Spotify playlists of this seasons hits, Paul had to invent what he thought would be played at a party where they looked to the future. The end result was the creation of jungle, a massive step left that changed the landscape of UK rave culture completely.
I can’t help but wonder if the barrage of knowledge we have now is a stifling factor rather than a liberating one. There’s a huge difference between reading about an MK dub, and trying to recreate that sound, with your own influences dominating that recreation, and listening to an MK dub online, and knowing exactly how those open hi hats hiss. It’s almost as though an extra writing partner, the silent sub conscious force of imagination, has been side-lined, replaced by stilted factual accuracy. I hate the idea of an old raver preaching to kids about how it was all so much better back in the day, but I think there is something to be said for noting that the weight of the past, so readily available to a new generation, appears to press heavier and heavier on their shoulders. It’s harder to think you’ve invented a concept for the first time when your forbearers are just a click away. On a related, if tangential note, I recently read an article that pointed out that at some point in the not-at-all-distant future there would be more dead people with a facebook profile than living. We’re being surrounded by digital graveyards, terabytes of past lives making it harder and harder to pick out the present, let alone look beyond. I have no doubt that some kids will work out a way to translate this new state of being into an incredible, vibrant form, but right now I’m starting to feel like the circumnavigation of necessary imagination is causing a lot of dance music to enter a rut, a place where there’s a lot of talented musicians making very, very accurate recreations of tracks made by people some 20 years ago- people whose only thought was to imagine the future.
*Ironically, even if this tediously racist statement was in any way true, and money had been spent on ‘disco’, the global impact of drum n bass and dubstep- genres emphatically born from the communities Letwin demonised- has gone on to raise a huge amount of cash over the years- ample financial compensation for any initial government outlay. Oliver Letwin is a moron.