*In his bedroom
This week I’m gonna look at the relation between American RnB and English rave. I think this is a topic I’ll be returning to time and again, as there’s been so much interplay between continents. In the 90s the cultural theorist Paul Gilroy came up with the phrase ‘The Black Atlantic’ to describe the flow of thought and culture across the disposed peoples of the African diaspora, charting the passage of music over routes previously navigated by slave ships. The English dance underground has long been the place to witness those exchanges in action, with American, Jamaican and African signifiers freely, gleefully hijacked and repurposed for London soundsystems.
What I find interesting – and what I’m looking at today – is the way technology has shaped the interaction between rave and RnB.
One of the defining characteristics of the hardcore sound of 89-92 was the helium vocals nicked from the acapellas on US import 12”s. Limited sampler memory meant that producers could only ever grab snatches of vocal; a line, a screech, a holler. Just check these early tracks from the unsung genius Noise Factory – he’s packing the samples in like a digital Phil Spectre, creating a wave after wave of screaming soul in single second bursts . The way he works with his limitations kills me – on ‘Was I Raving’, in lieu of having another synth, he simply batters the pitch adjust on a Technics to create a really shaky, really exciting lead line.
His sample choices are straight from the UK rave songbook – in the way that traditional musicians new certain vamps or keys create certain moods, there’s a pantheon of samples that lay the foundation for rave – not just the well documented breakbeat sources, but the vocal stabs – in this case Noise Factory uses the disco of First Choice’s ‘Let No Man Put Asunder’ (a sample so rinsed it’s almost invisible), alongside selections from Ecstacy, Passion & Pain - Touch And Go. Touch And Go was a New York warehouse classic, it’s vocal cannibalised for countless rave hits, from the underground (junglists Jumping Jack Frost and Tom & Jerry both had a crack at it) to the mainstream; JX’s mid 90s house chart topper ‘Son Of A Gun’ pinched it’s vocal wholesale from the track. With limited sampler space it seems fair to assume that certain vocals were privileged for a) being able to fit to tempo and b) nailing an emotion instantaneously- A feat those big lunged New York diva records had well sewn up.
With jungle you see a change, with both the switch in tempo and the expansion of technology having an effect. With more memory longer sections of songs could be grabbed, and with the bpm’s nudging to 160 and beyond, it suddenly made more sense to slow a vocal down, or leave it completely, and run it at half time to the snare drum. With so much of jungle being about reclaiming the swing from hardcore’s mad speed addled energy, it made perfect sense to let the vocals breathe a little. Zinc’s Fugees remix is probably the most famous example of jungle rhythms matched to half speed RnB to mind blowing effect, but his was just a stop on a long road – this ’94 Toni Braxton remix – given the bizarre, asinine name of ‘Nice Tune’ - teams Braxton’s voice with a simple, near perfect steppers reggae bassline, and some mad frantic break chops. It was caned all over pirate and sounds incredible today – it also is as good a marker as any of how technology allowed samples to return (kinda) to their original context – where hardcore ripped vocals and fucked them up, twisted them, distorted them and made them sharp kinetic hits, junglists were seeking to retain the soul and emotion of the song they were robbing, and apply that slickness to their own UK ruffidge.
This process reached it’s zenith in UK Garage, still London’s strongest claim to a homegrown RnB scene. With the technology now available to take vocals wholesale you had complete songs remixed in a 2 Step style – from Sniper adding a bump and flex to Destiny’s Child to Sovereign who became an expert at reimagining soul – check him here working with Eboni Foster’s 90s jam ‘Everything You Do’ on Truly and Pink’s ‘There You Go’ on the cut of the same name. Of the Sovereign tracks I’m posting here, it kills me that I haven’t got a 12” of Truly – I’ve had to stick up a Youtube clip instead, but it’s too perfect not to post. If anyone’s flogging a copy and doesn’t want dumb discogs prices, get in touch!
I do find myself wondering though, whether the increase in technology is coming at an expense to creativity - where the hardcore cats had to make American RnB work for them, seeking out ways to infuse their tracks with the mystique and skill of American soul, but without being able to directly lift whole passages, the limitation gave rise to strange dayglo hybrids. Now producers can be that little bit lazier, and weget a situation where Ben Pearce becomes a big name by wholesale teefing an amazing Anthony Hamilton vocal and whacking it over a humdrum house plodder. Where's the magic?