Burn Up The Floor: Pop & Politics In 2013 Dance Music
, December 20th, 2013 07:54
At the end of an exhausting year in club music, Rory Gibb reflects back upon 2013 on and off the dancefloor, and considers some of the political, social and technological issues facing the dance music community in the near future
Photo by Anna Spysz
It felt like you couldn't move ten metres for a four-to-the-floor beat during 2013. Quite literally, too, during the summer months, when the perpetual pulse of pop-house stompers from Disclosure and Breach leaked from shopfronts, market stalls, car radios and cheap earbud headphones to mingle with Daft Punk's ubiquitous tune-of-the-summer 'Get Lucky'. Beyond their undeniable hook-led charms, though, it all added up to a rather anodyne sonic backdrop to the warmest and most outdoor dancing-friendly summer the UK experienced in years. In spite of the genre's origins and the lyrical sentiments of a track like 'Jack', the continued resurgence of house music in the British mainstream this year largely felt frustratingly sexless, its glossily wipe-clean surfaces lacking in sweat, swing, grit and the funk of pheromones - the neo 'deep'-house sound often possessing all the depth, longevity and integrity of corrugated cardboard. Compared to the raucous pop rush of Katy B's 2011 On A Mission album, a clear precursor to much of this year's pop-dance activity - or, indeed, her recent single '5AM' and its B-side 'I Like You' - most of it didn't even come close. Although admittedly, whatever your perspective, the news in November that US garage and vocal cut-up veteran Marc Kinchen had scored a UK Singles Chart No. 1 with his remix of Metro Area man Morgan 'Storm Queen' Geist's 'Look Right Through' couldn't help but feel like a small triumph.
Some of this year's oddest and most perversely enjoyable moments were those that found chart dance rubbing shoulders with what you'd perhaps consider rather more niche concerns. Field Day, for example, found Disclosure's stadium-optimised live show (drum kit, live bass guitar and all) scheduled alongside the Hessle Audio triumvirate of Ben UFO, Pangaea and Pearson Sound dropping garage, techno and bruk 'n' bass percussive bangers, while a two-minute hotfoot across the site brought you a grubby seeing-to from Blawan and Pariah's none-sterner hardware project Karenn. In Ibiza, meanwhile - an island whose dancefloors are traditionally associated with a relatively conservative selection of well-engineered house and techno - Richie Hawtin laudably invited artists like Demdike Stare, Emptyset, Lee Gamble and Vatican Shadow to play at his ENTER events at slick mega-club Space. UK producers Hudson Mohawke and Evian Christ were propelled to near-household name status through contributing beats to Kanye's Yeezus. And back in London, former pirate station Rinse FM continued to broaden their remit, pairing accessible, pop-friendly daytime radio with specialist programming from DJs as varied as Hessle Audio, techno veteran Surgeon, grime crew Butterz and Night Slugs.
Joe - 'Maximum Busy Muscle' (Hessle Audio)
This sort of arrangement has become progressively more commonplace in recent years, underlining the increasingly permeable, if not functionally defunct, boundaries between the once defined-in-opposition territories of 'underground' and 'mainstream'. In our economy of attention, widespread internet access and an omnivorous online music media now make it easier than ever for hardcore and casual dance fans alike to discover and listen to any track at any time, regardless of genre, provenance or initially limited release run. So it was inevitable, and not necessarily a bad thing, that those notional divisions would eventually be bridged in the physical world of multi-artist bills, festivals and big clubs. Certainly it's pleasing to hear Ben UFO dropping pieces of music by Charles Cohen and Bee Mask on decks that might later the same evening be commandeered by a big-room trance-house DJ.
These porous borders manifest themselves in the new dance music that's being written too, in the way that sonic signifiers once considered limited to particular genres now leach out across styles and tempos. Breakbeats nodding to jungle and hardcore, for example, have cropped up all over the place in 2013, from DJ Rashad's anxious, emotionally-charged Rollin' EP to the killer, exploded rave-techno architectures of Tessela's 'Nancy's Pantry' and A Made Up Sound's 'Ahead'. When considering in particular the bleed between pop and supposedly 'non-pop' worlds, though, nothing encapsulates that permeability better than the ongoing dominance of Lex Luger-esque rolling, boom-tick-boom-clap drums and slurred hi-hat blizzards. Those sonic traits, originally rooted in southern hip-hop, are now being expressed everywhere, from underpinning tracks on Beyonce's newly released latest album and filling Stateside EDM festival dancefloors to the bicycle-chained percussive runs of Kode9's dizzying 2013 singles for Rinse and Hyperdub.
Kode9 - 'Uh' (Rinse)
On one level, there are certainly questions to be asked about appropriation here. As we've seen in US EDM-trap, with its crass slogans of "run the trap" and "real trap shit", the ravenous appetites of the global bass music community are capable of rendering once fiercely specific genre traits politically inert, stripped of any broader context or meaning beyond their effectiveness on a massive sound system. Yet there have been plenty of examples in 2013 where southern rap signifiers have been adopted sensitively and respectfully. That's also been true of footwork, which has traveled beyond its Chicago base - both via genre originators like DJ Rashad, with his broad-ranging material for Hyperdub, and those further afield like Om Unit and Machinedrum - without sacrificing its intoxicating weirdness and rhythmic complexity. (To dwell on footwork for just a moment, and consider it largely apart from its engagement with the wider world of dance music, no look back at 2013 would feel complete without mentioning RP Boo, whose Legacy - collecting a decade's worth of virtuosically abstract and devilishly funky material from the man who essentially invented the style - was the year's most unique and self-contained dance album, a dazzling listen from start to finish.)
RP Boo - 'Speakers R-4 (Sounds)' (Planet Mu)
One net result of these wider crossovers - again underlining the redundancy of simplistic notions of 'underground' music in 2013 - has been that much of this year's most abstract and brilliantly weird trap-inspired dance music was also among its most accessible and dancefloor irresistible. Take Rustie's 'Triadzz', one of my absolute favourites of the year, a hulking, fluoro dye-injected beast of a tune whose drop is so sudden, so luridly grotesque, that it's tough to resist the temptation to laugh out loud when it kicks in for the first time - or it would be, did its gushingly synthetic pink-fizz chords and rave air-horns not feel like the equivalent of having liquid MDMA mainlined straight into your central nervous system. Another great example is 'Aurora', by Norwegian producer Cashmere Cat - a textbook big-room tune, primed to set crowds of 10,000 aswagger, but whose choked glugs and crumpling rhythms are shiver-up-the-spine sinister, akin to the muffled cries of someone having their head forcefully held underwater. (Both can be found on Kode9's mix CD for Rinse, which escalates from house tempo to footwork across a disorienting hour).
Rustie - 'Triaddzz' (Numbers)
Perhaps the best recent example of an inclusive, considerate internet-borne dance music community - one with scant regard for supposed divisions between pop and experimental music, and which engages with wide-ranging musical source material in a respectful and considered manner - is the London-LA axis of Night Slugs and Fade To Mind, two sister labels who've had an excellent 2013. Both have been putting out challenging between-zones music since their founding (lest we forget, Night Slugs kicked off in 2009 with Mosca's mind-bending three-part epic 'Nike'), but this has been the year when they've matured into a futuristic, chrome-plated club music behemoth, via floor-centred EPs from Helix, Kingdom, L-Vis 1990 and Jam City, among others. LA duo Nguzunguzu's recent Skycell drew influence from trap, R&B, Chicago and ballroom house and grime, yet refused to pillage or caricature its source material, instead uniting those styles in an otherworldly zone where pillow-soft textures shroud diamond hard percussion and echoing gunshots. But for all that theirs is often starkly experimental and strange (yet undeniably banging) electronic music, Fade To Mind and Night Slugs also formed a crack production house to write beats for Kelela's exquisite Cut 4 Me mixtape, which further articulated the long-running connection between Night Slugs, grime and post-Timbaland vocal R&B. In addition to a being a killer dance tape, it was one of the best pop releases of 2013, to which regular play on daytime Rinse FM and critical acclaim across the board attested.
Kelela - 'Enemy' (produced by Nguzunguzu)
Away from those frosty, grime-inspired sonics, one of the predominant themes that's continued to run through 2013, having acquired serious momentum in 2012, is the ongoing interweaving between the worlds of noise, improvisation, and dancefloor music. Some of my own most musically startling recent experiences have been those that plotted co-ordinates somewhere in that space: Magic Mountain High's entirely improvised live house sets that draw you along amid densely saturated drones and keys, before broadsiding you with a long-awaited kickdrum; scuttling, scratchy and scuzzy live sets from Steve Summers and Svengalisghost; Stellar OM Source's further excursions into cosmic acid house from an origin point in meditative synthesiser music; NHK'Koyxen, Objekt, Container, Rene Hell and Morphosis all battering minds into submission one exceptional summer's night in London. The latter also released one of the most challenging 'dance' records of the year in his Dismantle / Music For Vampyr double-pack for Honest Jon's which recast club music as slow, perniciously grinding decay.
Yet beyond those few examples, I'm loathe to dwell on that space for too long, as it's a prime example of how, in our over-connected world, patterns of kindred activity across several different communities can become swiftly co-opted into surprisingly rigid narratives. In 2012 and 2013 the 'technoise' and 'noisy dance music' tendencies so quickly became codified as an identifiable trend that it's surprising we haven't yet encountered an overwhelming flood of knock-off facsimiles of L.I.E.S material (though there's certainly been a growing number of straight-to-tape hardware jams pressed up onto 12" and flogged at premium prices). Indeed, as we move further into a period where electronic music is increasingly in vogue and the internet offers everyone a platform to participate in musical discourse (both sonic and written), it's been strikingly easy to feel disillusioned as a dance music follower in 2013. Not so much with the music itself - there remain plenty of new developments to be excited about - but with the structures that surround it. It's a two pronged attack: an ever-larger and more rapid turnover of new dance music released across all genres, combined with an excess of critical discussion over actual substance (new releases are frequently accompanied by a flurry of instantaneous online critical response, via online magazines, shops, blogs and social media), all feeding into a musical ecology that's never been more demanding of, yet ultimately indifferent to, your attention.
Stellar OM Source - 'Elite Excel' (RVNG Intl)
The predominant sensation, as a listener attempting to find their way through this treacherously dense terrain, is one of perpetual fatigue and over-saturation. Added to this the echo chamber effect, where certain narrative developments in club music are reinforced as more deserving of attention than others (especially when there's a strong critical angle already built-in), and the net result - somewhat perversely - is to draw emphasis away from the music itself and, most crucially in this case, its presence on a dancefloor. That's the main reason why I've only written seven editions of my supposedly monthly Hyperspecific Quietus column this year; I've felt reluctant to add to the deluge. (Although I should point out that, as a professional dance music critic, I'm certainly just as complicit as anyone in this state of affairs.)
But, more positively, that's also one reason why Galcher Lustwerk's astonishing free 100% Galcher mixtape felt so fresh - and so needed - this year. An hour of gorgeous, effortlessly atmospheric deep house - all twilight mischief, weedsmoke, rum and psychedelics - it was released quietly as a self-contained unit, lacking - and not requiring - any sort of external narrative beyond the compulsion to become totally absorbed. Simply listening was enough; and it's been wonderful to see it gaining devotees as time's gone on. The same was true of Heatsick's work this year, which actively sought to toy with the boundaries between stylistic and sensory modalities. His all-night Extended Play takeover of Bristol's Cube Cinema in particular turned the entire space into a treat for the senses: a several-hour long, immersive live performance of his shimmering, polyrhythmic dance music in the auditorium (with the audience dancing onstage and him in the stalls), plus installations, scents and drinks to excite vision, taste and touch.
Of course, in a networked capitalist world and with dance music's popularity currently at peak ebb, it's hardly surprising that the wider club music community - especially online - is progressively suffering from the same ailments that are affecting culture at large: an abundance of ill-thought-out and clickbaiting content, kneejerk comment storms, an overall disconcerting sensation of cultural acceleration. But given the history of most contemporary dance musics - house, techno, hardcore rave, grime - as implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) politicised cultures and modes of resistance, it's something that bears dwelling on for a while longer. The involvement of major corporate interests in the Stateside EDM boom has seen it grow into a multi-billion dollar industry fronted by speculators and venture capitalists, based around a commodified and pre-packaged ideal of rebellion - one with scant pastoral care for its audience's well-being and, grimly, one that strip-mines its once-meaningful sources of musical inspiration (southern rap beats as a prime example) to ultimately leave them inert, mere fuel for the illicit drug rush. While we're still some way from that kind of situation directly taking over so-called underground dance music communities, that grotesque image - of dance music used as financial fuel by the worst kind of exploitative, uncaring big-business models - highlights what's at stake.
Morphosis - 'Dismantle' (Honest Jon's)
2013, more than any year I can remember in my lifetime, felt like a period when the battle lines were being drawn across all sections of British society: culturally, but also socially and politically, with the eroding away of the welfare state, rising rents, sweeping privatisations, the slow and steady dismantling of the NHS, the surveillance state, and crackdowns on dissent. While the distraction and panacea of online interaction makes it temping to view our own little section of dance music culture as operating in its own world, semi-independent of wider neoliberal restructurings of society, that's far from being the case. One obvious example when considering club culture is growing governmental concession to the business interests of landowners and property developers, which ultimately puts the livelihoods of many UK club venues - who often operate with very narrow margins - at risk. Nuisance laws and anti-squatting legislation, meanwhile, continue to make it harder and harder to hold parties elsewhere.
This month was marked by the closure of Colony, one of my favourite regular London nights, and whose organisers have become friends of mine over the time I've been going to their parties. (We were lucky enough to put on a storming Colony vs. The Quietus night with them in September, which featured Mark Fell tearing shit up Sensate Focus style, danced along to by a crowd surprisingly willing to be pulverised by his rhythmic distortions.) When they announced their intention to shut up shop, on the one hand they were positive, stating that they "genuinely feel we've said what we needed to say". But equally, both in a mailout to Colony regulars and this illuminating interview with co-founder Max Bacharach, they highlighted the pressures - financially and ethically - placed upon them as small independent promoters by the changing structures of the dance music industry over the five years they've been putting on their parties - a time period, not coincidentally, that's seen dance music's broad re-emergence into popular culture.
Mark Fell - 'Sensate Focus 2-X' (Sensate Focus)
It served again to highlight that, within our increasingly divisive dominant sociopolitical paradigm, club music - a supposedly countercultural force - risks tipping into a structural model that mirrors the unequal stratification of society at large. A situation where a successful elite reap the majority of the financial benefit, while those near the lower rungs - whether DJs and producers or promoters, label bosses or record shop owners, all struggling to sell records, pay rents and club hire fees and break even - are expected to work for next-to-nothing, fueled by passion alone. (And one which, coupled with escalating rents in urban centres, risks turning music-making into the pastime of the privileged or exhausted - those with the money or parental support to afford to spend their time on creativity rather than on just about making enough money to get by.) Judging by the fatigue and burnout I've seen among friends who make music and run labels, parties and shops this year, and their struggles to stay afloat, these socioeconomic effects are real and they're being felt now - and they constitute far more serious risks to grassroots dance music culture than questions of appropriation and loss of local musical character.
All of these people who continue to work hard at their art, and at keeping dance music culture vital at ground level despite these mounting obstacles, are involved in important processes of resistance. To offer just one single UK example, Bristol's Peverelist, and his Punch Drunk and Livity Sound labels, has been a continual personal inspiration this year. He's been directly supportive of up-and-coming young producers from the city's dance community by providing them with a platform through which their work can be heard, while simultaneously taking his idiosyncratic and powerfully uncompromising vision of club music to spaces around the world. The rest are too many to list, but it's conversations and parties and music from these people that have kept certain sectors of dance music feeling like a crucial, inspiring and inquisitive force in 2013, despite the ever-looming threat of chronic exhaustion.
Peverelist - 'Aztec Chant' (Livity Sound)