Friday, November 19, 2010

Simon Reynolds: War in the Jungle

The following excerpts are taken from Simon Reynolds' article which is reprinted in The Popular Music Studies Reader. They are an inspiration for my paper, "Despotism and Music."

The year of jungle's mainstream breakthrough in Britain and critical recognition in America, 1995 saw jungle torn every which way in a conflict between two rival models of blackness: elegant urbanity (the opulence and finesse of fusion/garage/jazz-funk/quiet storm) and ruffneck tribalism (the raw, percussive minimalism of dub/ragga/hip-hop/electro). Lurking beneath this smooth/ruff dialectic was a covert class struggle: upwardly mobile gentrification versus ghettocentricity, crossover versus undergroundism.

...Techstep is a sadomasochistic sound. Edrush declared bluntly, 'I want to hurt people with my beats,' and one No U Turn release had the phrase 'hurter's mission' scratched into the vinyl. This terrorist stance is in marked contrast to the rhetoric of intelligent drum and bass artists, with their talk of 'educating' the audience, 'opening minds,' and 'easing the pressure' of urban life. Sonically, techstep's dry, clenched sound could not have been further from the massaging, muscle-relaxing stream of genteel sound oozed by DJs such as Bukem and Fabio, with its soothing synth washes and sax loops alarmingly reminiscent of Kenny G.

While the intelligent and jazz-step producers prided themselves on their 'musicality,' the techstep producers veered to the opposite extreme: a bracing 'antimusicality.' Incorporating atonal, unpitched timbres, nonmusical sounds, and horror movie soundtrack dissonance, the new artcore noir was simply far more avant-garde than the likes of Bukem. In an abiding confusion about what constitutes 'progression' in electronic music, the intelligent drum and bass producers were too deferential to traditional ideas about melody, arrangement, 'nice' textures, the importance of proper songs, and hands-on, real-time instrumentation.

...Where did the apocalyptic glee, the morbid and perverse jouissance in tech-step stem from? Nico described the music-making process-- all-night, red-eye sessions conducted in a ganja fog as a horrible experience that poisoned his nervous system with tension. Ed Rush talked of deliberately smoking weed to get 'dark, evil thoughts,' the kind of skunkanoia without which he could not achieve the right vibe for his tracks. Like Wu-Tang-style horror-core rap, techstep seemed based on the active pursuit of phobia and psychosis as entertainment, which begged the question: what exactly were the social conditions that had created such a big audience for this kind of music?

If rave culture was a displaced form of working-class collectivity, with its 'love, peace, and unity' running counter to Thatcherite social atomization, then jungle is rave music after the death of the rave ethos. Since 1993 and hard-core's slide into the twilight zone, debates about 'where did our love go?' convulsed the UK breakbeat community, with grim tales of muggings outside clubs, of fights and 'crack' vibes inside. Disenchanted ravers sloped off to form the happy hard-core scene. Others defended the demise of the euphoric vibe, arguing that jungle's atmosphere was not moody, it was 'serious.'

In the absence of Ecstasy, jungle began to embrace an ideology of realness that paralleled the worldview of American hard-core rap. In hiphop, 'real' has a double meaning. First, it means authentic, uncompromised music that refuses to sell out to the music industry. 'Real' also signifies that the music reflects a 'reality' constituted by late-capitalist economic instability, institutionalized racism, and increased surveillance and harassment of youth by police. Hence, tracks such as T. Power's 'Police State' and Photek's neurotic 'The Hidden Camera', lyric-free critiques of a country that conducts the most intense surveillance of its own citizenry in the world (most UK city centers now have spy cameras). 'Real' means the death of the social; it means corporations that respond to increased profits not by raising pay or improving benefits but by downsizing.

Gangsta hardstep shares Wu-Tang Clan's neomedieval vision of late capitalism, as influenced by martial arts and Mafia movies whose universe revolves around concepts of righteous violence and blood honor. Techstep is more influenced by dystopian sci-fi movies such as Blade Runner, Robocop, Terminator, et al. which contain a subliminally anticapitalist message, imagining the future as a return to the Dark Ages, complete with fortress cities and bandit clans. Hence, No U Turn tracks such as 'The Droid' and 'Replicants' and Adam F's 'Metropolis.' 'Here is a group trying to accomplish one get into the future' goes the sample in Trace/Nico's 'Amtrak.' Given the scary millenial soundscape techstep paints, why the hurry to get there? The answer: in the new Dark Age, it is the 'dark' that will come into their own. 'Darkness' is where primordial energies meet digital technique, where it gets scientific. Identify with this marauding music, and you define yourself as predator, not prey.

What you affiliate yourself to with techstep is the will-to-power of technology itself, the motor behind late capitalism as it rampages over human priorities and tears communities apart. The name No U Turn captures this sense that there's no turning back. The pervasive sense of slipping into a new Dark Age, of an insidious breakdown of the social contract, generates anxieties that are repressed but resurface in unlikely ways and places. Resistance does not necessarily take the 'logical' form of collective activism (unions, left-wing politics); it can be so distorted and imaginatively impoverished by the conditions of capitalism itself that it expresses itself as, say, the anticorporate nostalgia of America's right-wing militias or as a sort of hyperindividualistic survivalism.

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