After I published On Genre Tourism back in July I've had a few conversations about alternatives to the superficial and individualised mode of engaging with music that I describe there. If there is such a thing as ‘music as object’, and if we already recognise such a philosophy as anathema to our values, how might we avoid it in our thinking and writing? Rather than write a manifesto that answers this question (at least beyond what I have written here in this foreword) I am writing this piece as an attempt to lay out a positive picture of what I think I want music writing to be like.
I have chosen forty-four tracks released by UK producers in the noughties, and each one gives me an opportunity to write about some aspect of culture. The tracks are not chosen because they are my favourites or because they are the most historically important, though I do love them all and I do think they are all important in some way, even the lesser known ones. It may seem silly to try and eschew a music criticism of and for the commodity by adopting a structure centred on discrete pieces of music, rather than as a more traditional and continuous history. Formatting the piece this way gives me some distinct pivots from which theses emerge in the process of writing, which means that the music is to some extent in dialogue with what I write about it, rather than serving only to illustrate some argument about the history of music.
The limited temporal, stylistic, and national scope of this piece—as well as my own opinions and methodologies as a writer—make the emergence of macro-level arguments inevitable. I have not tried to reject these. My preference is that they emerge as organically as possible from efforts to describe music, rather than as pre-planned routes upon which pieces of music serve as signposts.
As of early December, 2022, I have a chosen all forty-four tracks but I haven't chosen specifically what I want to write about all of them yet, and most are incomplete or not yet started. Here are the first five completed chapters: the year 2000 in chronological order.
Lots of jungle heads ended up feeling alienated by the turns taken by techstep in the late 90s. The most common complaint was that, simply, the vibes were off. When I was first discovering a load of really grimy and evil techstep and neurofunk in the late 00s my little sister told me that it sounded like music for getting stalked by a robot paedophile. One of the other usual complaints—one more grounded in musicality—was that the new sound represented a step backwards in terms of drum break complexity. It goes without saying that different producers of drum and bass have valued different things at different times, and we can (for now, arbitrarily) diagnose that early 00s techstep producers were more likely to gravitate towards a repetitive, head banging 2-step shuffle while junglists in the mid 90s tended towards jagged funk-cubism. No writer can resist making implicit value judgements on these contending philosophies—simply describing jungle breaks accurately means evangelising them in some sense as reality bending, whereas the description of the younger groove rarely graduates beyond some variation on rather more prosaic descriptions like “furtive” or “relentless”.
Our arbitrary diagnosis here, of course, is less interesting than analysis that transcends any one composition: the relative and stammering development of large scale aesthetic developments over the course of many years and by many producers. One identifiable trend here is the course from complex to simplistic (problematic if only for epistemological reasons, never mind musical ones), but another is the course from contiguous to fragmented. The mayhem of the jungle break is perhaps best understood as a sort of kaleidoscope: we point the kaleidoscope at a sample of a real drummer and the methodology of jungle produces fragmentations and chromatic aberration of this break. The increasing complexity of arrangements of these breaks taught producers to loop and isolate the grooves they wanted in ever smaller and tighter parts, so that eventually less and less of the contiguous drum break survived and almost every drum arrangement consisted of a set of isolated samples of individual drum hits. The groove of techstep depends on the didactic process of deconstruction that allowed for the groove of jungle.
Can’t Punish Me was the first great drum and bass EP of the 00s, released on the 3rd of January, the day I turned four. In the context of this piece of writing it then has to act as a sort of spokesperson for what came before and what comes later. There are so many things to love about the title track: the ice cold digital stabs of violet, the curiously atypical vocal sample (more breathy and soulless than was typical for rave—in turn voicing big euphoric pitched up chords and eerie bitcrushed stutters) and that enormous hoover of a bassline. Controversially I think one other track on the EP might be better: my taste in mean-spirited steppers endears me more to the cyberpunk nightmare of Sky Spirits. But Can’t Punish Me is awkward in a magical way that that track is not: in how it seems to embody the broader socio-aesthetic tendency from contiguous to fragmented.
The intro section of this track bares its guts: we listen to the drum break being constructed in real time. A single snare, silence. A glitched out rapidly looping shuffle, some sputtering kick drums unfolding from the same break and reversing on completion. All that is built up from this point depends on this: the final Vitruvian Man that propels the composition forward is still experienced on some level as a super-addition of a halloween pick-and-mix bag of disconnected cartoon body parts. That hoover of a bassline, under these conditions, reveals itself to be the combination of the swirling free time of a reese bassline and the looping of sections of that free time into rigid 16th-note patterns. This is why Can’t Punish Me is so otherworldly: with the benefit of the ensuing twenty two years of drum & bass characterised by excursions into incestuous self reference and historically agnostic tunnel vision, this odd little masterpiece helps reveal the extent that those excursions still exist in continuity with the remote mythology of hardcore and jungle.
Ghost is one of the aliases of El-B, widely credited as one of the most important garage pioneers in the development of dubstep. The preceding sentence is a pretty terrible way to open a piece of music writing, of course. Why should you care? Is the purpose of this essay to summarise Wikipedia to you? The reason I open with this is that the information above is more (or less) than fact, it is mythology. Knowing that the man who produced this is “El-B”, the nebula of meaning that that name is and implies, means going into this looking for dubstep. I first discovered 2000, and the equally brilliant B-side The Club in the context of exploring the earliest history of dubstep. I was captivated by the dusty bass plucks and wobbles, convinced I was hearing some essential genealogy. Now, armed with a communitarian ideological distrust of individual genius, knowing that this production from “Ghost” is in fact a collaboration with the equally important J da Flex, and knowing that El-B was making stuff in the 90s which had much more in common with later dubstep as Groove Chronicles, I instead come to this track fascinated by its snare of all things.
A lot of El-B’s production from this time feels spartan without necessarily feeling minimal. The timbres he is interested in are too flickering, too rusty to sound minimal. The combination of this haze and his willingness to let his samples speak for himself means he feels both more individually conspicuous and more emotionally anonymous than his peers. Conspicuous because his skeletal productions anticipate the secret weapon of grime producers: the mixture of minimal arrangements and scuffed up timbres, and transposes this future ubiquitous combination into the pre-grime chromatic ecosystem of garage where it doesn’t seem to fit in. Emotionally anonymous because, as YouTube commenter Kolendo points out:
The El-B snare is iconic, but the material substance of this icon is, basically, a sound from a sample pack that he happened to like. Every time it appears it does so in the context of a beat that is more than this snare: the snare’s envelope and tone are adjusted to the mood of the groove in question, and it also isn’t literally the exact same sample but similar ones. Even so, El-B’s work depends on apparatus. He is one among thousands for whom this is true, although the self assured nakedness of his technique makes him the exemplar of this phenomenon. Examining the DNA of dubstep means taking account of this essentially impersonal and materialist influence. It means tempering the mythology of dubstep expressivity and replacing stupid human voices with garage snares.
One of the objections that often appears to the genre name “IDM” is that not only is the name itself masturbatory and ugly, it isn’t even useful. The various records that are grouped under this name (for instance, something by Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada, and Squarepusher) have little in common musically. Their identity depends on social convention over some objective similarity in aesthetic matters: what these artists make is IDM because they belong to the Warp Records subculture that the name refers to. This is true to some extent of all genres, but dance music is perhaps the sphere in which it is least true. With dance music, the delivery mechanism of the DJ mix is generally taken to be at least as legitimate a method of packaging tunes as the album or compilation, which is unusual. The DJ mix is an exercise in controlled crescendo. A narrative analysis emphasises the ways in which the mix tells stories, but a more musical explanation should emphasise that the mix depends on balancing variation over rhythms and textures with the maintenance of a continuity: music which is similar in some important formal way.
With this in mind, what are we to make of industrial techno in the noughties? Industrial techno as a genre designation depends on the same social grouping as IDM, though its relatively niche appeal and tighter coordination as a scene does not make this obvious. Fundamentally, techno that is “industrial” is so because it derives from a scene of people in Birmingham who were actively channelling an influence from an older genre called “industrial”. Though the genre is now much larger than the Brummie scene, it retains this cultural lineage and is not united by any formal aesthetic descriptions or prescriptions. What survives from industrial to industrial techno is something of an ethos, which is particularly unsatisfying to those of us who tend to prioritise the concrete properties of music over the sensationalism that is spun around it, but fortunate for those of us who are not really into industrial music and love industrial techno.
After its 90s genesis, this weird little subgenre started to head off on side quests. Influence from Jeff Mills is ubiquitous: early compositions from Regis, Surgeon borrow actual musical ideas from his Waveform Transmissions canon much more than they ever borrowed from Throbbing Gristle or Einstürzende Neubauten. The fact that Jeff Mills is not recognised as an industrial techno artist himself, when he essentially invented the sound, is more than enough to prove that the genre refers to a social grouping. When Jeff Mills diverted from tungsten head crunchers and started down his path of motorik psychedelia this new voice of his had to be reconciled with the aesthetic groundwork of producers of a greyer, more British kind of techno.
The influence of “tribal” sounds on techno tends to be superficial, which should surprise no one. The freakish late 20th century “world music” imagery of tribal music, divorcing it from its social function and turning it into a source of samples and influences, produced also a kind of rave anthropology which diagnosed the long dark tunnel of the club and the underpass as a sort of channel for ancestral memories of pagan ritual. In the hands of black producers like Jeff Mills and Dave Angel, the tribal influence in techno produced a 21st century afro-futurism: sapped of its colour by the death of a coherent alternative to Clinton and New Labour. In the hands of white continental Europeans, it became hardgroove. Somewhere between these two, industrial techno producers carved out a niche which was gone before anyone noticed it was happening. In 1999, Surgeon’s album Force + Form borrowed the low frequency noise that adds organic texture to the kick drums of hardgroove and built a psychedelic atmosphere of cursed portals and distant lights on top. After his 1998 album Delivered Into the Hands of Indifference, Regis switched gears by taking the blunt objects of his adolescence and wrapping them up in carnival shakers and chants of ritual sacrifice. In the year 2000, Regis and Female put out a split EP called Gayscene which included a track weirder than both of these.
Female’s Role Restriction shuffles and lurches, a snare that sounds like a sound effect from a kung fu film whacks you over the head and a babbling grey head sometimes pops up low in the mix to bark at you. It feels dry: the kick drum is short and sharp but lacks the tuned distortion that would characterise the percussion of the harder acid techno tracks of the 90s. There is a foley room dirtiness buried in here which produces a tuned drone, but it takes the form of the untuned hum of machinery until one pays active attention to it, like the ticking of a clock which is deafening when focused on and silent otherwise. How nebulous its parentage is produces anonymity, its inherited industrial ethos produces austerity. It is nondescript but surreal. This is music as pure “tool”, devastating because of its functionality, like a missile prototype. I once found myself trying to articulate this to a non-believer, and I stumbled upon the phrase “sociopathic charm”.
Bad Company is widely considered one of the greatest drum & bass groups of all time, and Coma is still not very well known. This is a quintessential drum & bass hidden gem: nothing about it is revolutionary but everything about it is lovely. The stuttering snare and kick drum pattern is an awkward companion to the icy white keys until the big percussive bassline slots its punches right in between the gaps. The push and pull of these lurching staccato events creates a time which bunches up and springs back out, but a time which is tamed and mediated by the regular ticking of unnaturally crisp hi-hats. Much of the tech-step of this era was flirting with long release warping bass sounds. Pursuit of this aesthetic, along with the curation of an alien asymmetry of squelches and groans, would lead to the mature sound of neurofunk. Coma isn’t interested in doing this. Its basses are ballistic, not plasmatic. It’s a muscular roller made of military grade black steel.
This track, as well as its B-side Spraycan, is not a group production. Writing and production credits go solely to Daniel “DJ Fresh” Stein, something I didn’t know until years after finding this track. Bad Company officially disbanded in 2005 and each member went in wildly different directions. Vegas and Maldini had similar trajectories: both were far less prolific than the other two members and primarily appear as co-producers here and there on neurofunk productions. Special attention must be drawn to the 2018 neurofunk / technoid masterpiece Shinde that Vegas produced alongside Bosnian virtuoso lunatic Billain. dBridge would go on to almost single handedly invent minimal drum & bass, codifying what that genre would come to mean with his own productions and those released on his label Exit Records.
DJ Fresh would head into less defensible territory. His 2010s productions Gold Dust, Hot Right Now, and Louder (which is not drum & bass but spiritually belongs in this trio) average more than fifty million views each on YouTube. They’re all awful. Most of the time, writing about music one dislikes is useless—writing is a way of capturing fleeting details of sense impression and multiplying them into a fractal arrangement of meaning, and why should we want to use this spirit of passion to make fractals out of boredom? The Gold Dust trio does not deserve this, and if it did you would not want to read it. But what must be said about them is that Stein never extends the material that is recognisable as drum & bass—the combination of breaks and bassline—over a period of more than a few bars. The audience cannot be trusted to enjoy even very mildly flavoured drum & bass for very long. They must quickly be steered back to their comfort zone of LA production house electro-pop, and when the song structure does let the break ride for more than 16 bars at a time it does so in service of supporting a vocal hook that reflexively conforms to this comfort zone. The universe of possibility and expressivity that this culture is capable of is drafted into the service of illuminating the chorus of a pop song that doesn't seem to want anything to do with it. Dance music here functions as a kind of empty sign: this is the chorus, this is where you put your hands in the air.
On his own, DJ Fresh both produced some of my least favourite UK dance music and also Coma, my favourite Bad Company track and one of the best techstep tracks of all time. The ideological temptation is to lay the blame for Gold Dust et al. squarely at the feet of the currents of the time: attention strapped audiences and big cash, absolving Stein of blame for them. Meanwhile, he gets all the credit for Coma, which is demonstrably his work, in the sense that it represents and speaks for the unadulterated core of his being. This is a mistake, the same mistake that annoying hardcore punk fans make when they accuse their favourite bands of “selling out”.
The critical meme that is “selling out” implies a double standard, and makes a moral affair out of changes in social dynamics. It implies an epistemology of individualism: that there is some ontological priority that places the eccentric above the orthodox, as if the divine object of expression is the denial of the mass movement and the heady embrace of the individual. It implies that the individual is true and that the collective is false. Everything that Stein has made is a product of the currents of its time and of Stein's creative topology: we cannot cut any of them up or fill in their holes to rob them of this expressive signature. But this is a recursive description: Stein's creative topology is not his ability to make music, but the capacity for his ability to make music in dialogue with the world in which he makes his music. Both Coma and Gold Dust are the result of Daniel Stein making what he wants to make, and if I think one is brilliant and the other appalling, it is because of a simple misalignment in the different social ecosystems that we are immersed in. This is the power of the collective, the power of culture as an inter-individual control schema. Stein’s artistic progression looks like a step back to people with my sensibilities, but there is no such thing: to pretend there is is just cliched elitism. Individuals do not take steps back or forward, they only sidestep from one cultural overbrain into another.
Before I realised that Sunship’s remix of Flowers by Sweet Female Attitude was originally released on vinyl in 1999, I had planned to write about that song for this project. It’s one of the most beloved UK garage tracks of all time, and it managed to transcend its scene to find a mass audience without losing any of its charm in the appeal to middlebrow sensibilities or messing about with genre-crossovers. One of my colleagues, who was about nineteen at the time, once played it out on a bluetooth speaker and was baffled by the idea that a man (especially one with my personality) would be so into “a song for girls”. It’s chirpy and bright, but it also feels a little bit psychedelic and melancholic to me. B15 Project’s Girls Like Us can serve as a didactic listening experience here, because Girls Like Us makes similar moves to Flowers but in a more easily noticeable way. Both have a deep mix with a lot of negative space implied by the successive layers of sound that occupy different frequency bands and ring with different resonances. Besides that though, the spell of melancholia that Flowers casts might be just as simple as that one whistling synth sound that flutters around in the background. I might sound insane for saying so but it reminds me of something from Stars of the Lid.
But what if we were to take this spatial and timbral obscurity and refocus it on dub? Ellie Kerry’s essay quoted above alludes to the role that ideal space plays in the listening experience of dub. Popular music depends on producing idealised, perfect copies of musical performances. 1960s pop arrangements suggested the Frankenstein's monster ‘best-of-all-worlds’ where compromise between amplitude and timbre are unnecessary: where once the harpsichord fell out of favour in the orchestra as the piano could command greater presence over larger spaces, we might no longer have to worry about anything getting drowned out. We simply record every instrument separately and adjust their amplitude accordingly, the effect of this being that the loud to quiet and near to far dichotomies were rendered as farce—instruments of arbitrary presence arranged around the listener’s head in Alexander Calder’s imaginary mobile orchestra. Dub, with its morphing reverbs and delays, takes this further by telling the listener that not only are they surrounded with this abstract instrumental arrangement, but it’s all happening inside a room which is simultaneously many different sizes.
Gorgon Sound does not do anything particularly interesting with reverb, but its layers of clattering percussion, polyphonic dub keys, and dry wobbling bassline imply all the rooms of many sizes without actually conjuring them directly. Where Flowers is a bubbly pop tune veined with mirages of a beach at sunrise, Gorgon Sound instead suggests the veins of its space and time: we listen in a room which is veined with larger rooms. We listen to a UK garage tune from 2000 which is veined with the dubstep of 2006. We understand that this is because this track influenced those that came later, but the parody of live-ness in dub becomes a parody of spacetime here: and we believe instead that the pressure of the future is reaching back and asserting itself on its past.
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