, March 24th, 2011 13:37
The internet is essentially a massive social experiment. It's only really been a decade (if that) since the web became a solid fixture in most households, and there's a dividing line of age that splits people who clearly recall a time before its presence from people who don't. On one side you've got those who remember the animatronic whirr of a 56k modem and the torture of spending three hours downloading a single track from Audiogalaxy, only to have its arrival cruelly cut short by someone picking up the phone in the next room. Beneath that gap, broadband became so ubiquitous that an entire generation of people are now growing up barely able to recall life without it.
In widely democratizing the movement of information and gathering the sum total of an entire species' knowledge into a sort of collective intelligence – into and from which individuals can upload and download their own experiences – Web 2.0 set into motion a process as rapid as it is unpredictable. In its all-encompassing vastness and growing presence in peoples' lives, the internet is almost becoming realer than the physical world, pointing towards an information-assisted hyper-reality, every bit as tangible and far more swiftly accessible than the pleasures offered by the world around us.
It's worth mentioning because over the last couple of years that dividing line, between those who remember and those who don't, has started to blur boundaries in the music world. With a generation of musicians now taking their cues from a massive web-generated music taste, assisted by YouTube, BitTorrent and Rapidshare, it's getting harder to unpick the web of influences, both musical and nonmusical, that inform their magpie-like approach to sonic appropriation. We're fast approaching a net-assisted musical singularity, one where it's nigh on impossible for nascent sounds to develop in the safe isolation of insular scenes (could the darkened London spaces of dubstep have developed in the same way now as they did 10 years ago?), and individual producers are unconcerned with throwing apparently unconnected influences together into dense and unpredictable lattices of sound.
Enter London/Berlin duo Hype Williams, hard evidence of the web's ability to physically melt down pop cultural influences into a formless, borderless stew. Over the course of the last year they've operated a rapid-fire and enjoyably irreverent release schedule that's seen them catapult from the humid, spidery instrumentals of their untitled debut to the tropical concrete jungle that was second album Find Out What Happens When People Stop Being Polite And Start Gettin' Reel - via inspired deconstructions of Drake and Sade, amongst others. What's emerged is a portrait of a band that seem to approach composition with dreamlike, catch-all logic, dissolving an audible love of commercial R'n'B and hip hop in a bath of battery acid poured direct from the UK's bass crucible. 'The Throning', their take on Sade's 'The Sweetest Taboo', cut the chorus in favour of a whispered and paranoid thought loop: '”Sometimes I think you're just too good for me…”. Find Out...'s 'Rescue Dawn', meanwhile, opened with the whine of an autotuned baby, before descending into screwed Pokemon drawl.
The same deadpan appropriation of pop culture remains central to their new album One Nation. Tracks are named after Wiley bars ('Your Girl Smells Chung When She Wears Dior'), humanity is still largely generated by a grainy mesh of samples nicked from self-help videos and YouTube ('Dragon Stout'; 'Untitled (And Your Batty's So Round'). In the past it felt as though all these disparate sounds and spaces hadn't quite gelled, and you could still examine the seams where the stitches hadn't healed properly. But One Nation takes impressive steps towards a wholly coherent Hype Williams 'sound'; there's nothing particularly new here per se, and little that couldn't have slotted neatly into any of their previous releases, but everything feels better integrated. The album's compositions themselves are starker and often strikingly beautiful. Its title matches this new self-assured beast perfectly, as well as neatly (intentionally?) referring outward to a single, net-connected musical world.
'Your Girl Smells Chung' is a good example. Setting a tortured take on Cassie's 'My Addiction' vocal adrift above a backdrop of toxic green synth and brittle, rattling percussion, it subverts the lovelorn R'n'B of its source material in favour of something dense and intensely muggy. In tone it's closest to the spacious synthscapes oft-peddled by London's Hyperdub label: Kode9 and the Spaceape's use of glowing synthetic tones and deep-seated dread vibration on their Memories Of The Future album springs immediately to mind, as well as the frosty, heartbroken electro-pop of Darkstar's North. The same is true of the entire album; best listened to as a whole entity, its soft radioactive hum and recurrent themes are evocative of crying circuitry, or the fuzzily disconnected reality of online 'social' networking.
So while it's been tempting to mentally place Hype Williams into a similar lineage as the hypnagogic likes of Oneohtrix Point Never, LA Vampires and especially the cut 'n' paste chaos of James Ferraro, their connection to this distinctly UK-centric lineage opens a yawning chasm between the two, as wide as the Atlantic gap that separates them. There are certainly similarities in approach. Both camps balance a time-suspended, free-associative approach to childhood and trashy modern culture (obsessions with kids' TV programmes, video games and the mundane signifiers of eighties and nineties life) with a sarcastic edge that borders on subtle social commentary ('Rescue Dawn's chopped 'n' screwed Pokeraps; the mangled voices of Ferraro's Edward Flex characters). But Hype Williams' affinity with hip hop, R'n'B and bass culture runs deep and in opposition to the airy, spaced-out worlds inhabited by their US contemporaries. While naturally gleaned psychedelics would seem to be the hypnagogists' drug of choice, Hype Williams embody ecstasy's serotonin addled twitch. Their sound evokes its sensations of joyous, painful, fucked lucidity, where fragments of unreality flicker around the edges of perception, even as the real world repeatedly zooms sharply into focus.
Faced with this musical language – the blending of so called 'high' and 'low' pop sounds, the use of apparently throwaway cultural detritus to make music so eminently serious – it's necessary to develop new ways of thinking. Until this point, there has been some question as to Hype Williams' sincerity. Their disinterest in interviews and sarcastic, art-school attitude towards publicity, alongside the fact that their hipster/mystic aesthetic (something they certainly share with Ferraro) seems almost a contradiction in terms, seems to have led to suspicion that we as an audience are bearing the brunt of some off-kilter joke.
One Nation's self-contained brilliance and emotional resonance ought to dispel that notion. We are currently witnessing a situation in which traditionally accepted modes of music journalism and discourse are becoming swiftly irrelevant, dissolving in much the same way as the increasingly arbitrary barriers thrown up between genres. As easily definable scenes and closed systems break apart under the pressure of the information age, attempting to understand and frame individual artists' music in these terms becomes a redundant pursuit – especially within the realms of underground and experimental music. It's difficult to imagine Hype Williams caring that their sound draws upon signifiers of UK bass as much as it does R'n'B, hip hop and new age meditational music, beyond each's merit as potential source of inspiration and/or appropriation. At this point, when it's getting tougher to expect a musician to be a part of a single movement – each is scattered into scraps as soon as it's begun – there can be little incentive to pander to the whims of any single audience. We will doubtless see many more of Hype Williams' ilk in the future.