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This Month In... Dancehall: Why Only Jamaicans Should Use Autotune
Neil Kulkarni , March 3rd, 2010 09:55

Neil Kulkarni delivers a swingeing blow to the whingers. Imagine a glitter and blood encrusted Doc Marten stamping on the face of autotune for all eternity. Unless you're in Jamaica of course...

New decade, new afflictions. Porn fatigue. It sets in eventually, don't it? Not just in the wrist or eyes or nethers but, crucially, in the head. At some point the repetition, the organisation, the availability of all that skin starts feeling like too much of a good thing, Whither the chase, whither the hidden, whither love, whither yearning? How much hornier did you get when the only smut you found was discarded in park bushes, hidden in a parent's secret stash, swapped in a secret playground moment, hard-earned? Just as the charmless ubiquity of all that filth makes you dream of chastity, want your virginity back, I feel the same exhausted ennui with the slaggish textures of chart music these days. If modern pop organises sound in an entirely pornographic fashion — always at pains to drag us intimately into the softcore close-up, the lips, the fingers, the hardcore loudness and lurid 2D flash of the club and the limo and the bedroom — is it any wonder that Autotune is the audio/visual effect of choice, the airbrush lashed swiftly into the mix before anything can threaten the panoptic perfection of all that clicked and corrected skeez?

And man, I would love to still get horny over modern chart pop (and Shakira when her voice backflips, Britney’s snarl and GaGa when she allow us to hear her wonderful accent still hit it). But too often it sounds wet'n'willing to the point of affording no friction, the techniques too flappily apparent for you to even get close to anything approaching the ol' vinegar strokes.

S’weird, even though its detractors are a sorry bunch of festival fodder (Jay-Z's menopausal 'D.O.A. (Death Of Autotune)' included) man is it DIFFICULT finding autotune's pleasure centre, so severely do its gleaming textures corrode our bourgeois assumptions of democratised technology being good for music. We're getting such sloppy seconds cos Pro Tools and Cubase done turned all the innocence out of pop, the ability to be naïve, childlike rather than childish. The stink left by production’s state-of-the-art right now is that of a just-cleaned club-toilet, the freshly-fragranced fakery exposing rather than disguising the shitty ideas within.

Perhaps down to pure shrunken vision of what pop can do in our celebutante/can't-singjay age, even amongst supposed movers and shakers (the now-overrated Rihanna, the long-overrated Kanye), too often autotune's controls are set for the heart of the hotel pool, the video-shoot, all that audible luxury and bad taste — an orifice-cramming glut of sophisticated sheen and classee boy-band-finger-in-ear showiness. Cos that’s what Cowell wants. What the people in their podules want. I don’t buy it. I’m a person in a podule. I want no such thing.

Don’t fkn jump on me, poptimists. I have no problem with tech-abuse bullying itself to the front of the mix. When Pierre and other Chicagoans started fucking around with 303s it was go-nowhere magic, it was the reinvention and resurrection by discarded people of something discarded, something designed for rock that rock didn't need and that rock didn't have the guileless grace to abuse into new shapes, new futures. Autotune's progress into pop has suffered no such drama, no such rediscovery; it's a golden shower that has never showered gold. First the rich had it. It sounded horrible. Then the poor had it. It still sounded horrible. As a sign of the times we live in, autotune is cocaine, guilty secret of the rich-turned cheapskate currency, as classless now as fake tan and steroid abuse but — importantly, for pop's possibilities — it's a sound that's repellent, in all senses, a motif impervious to all around it. From uberproducers' guilty secret to Cher's out and proud vocal surgery down through T-Pain's zero-speed belligerence to every laptop studio on the planet, autotune has wheeled through its possibilities to ever-dwindling avail, finding itself now the deodorant/slap of choice for pop before it can even dream of stepping out into the night and those bright flaw-exposing lights.

In excess (on the chaffest of the chaff hip-hop singles) it can make a weird kind of sense, preferable to its detractors' mealy-mouthed bleatings about authenticity and integrity. We should be mindful of anything that seeks to make musicians pay dues, that imposes a hierarchy on inclusion in pop based on vocal 'talent'; indeed any orthodoxy that makes us forget what a confection pop is. But the recording angel surely has to sound like an angel, has to have a sense of battle with the humans within it — too often we find, listening to modern pop and R&B/hip-hop in particular, autotune inflexibly sitting on weedy-assed beats, shining like a fake Rolex in a suitcase, blinding the eye whist dropping a glistened turd in your ear. You can't polish it, no matter how reverse-double-bluff-with-salko be your hipster manoeuvres.

Porn fatigue starting to nag, to sap your drive to keep hearing. So let’s start setting some rules here.

RULE 1 — rappers should stop singing. Don't sing, rappers. Rappers, do not sing. The singing has to stop for those of you who are rappers. Y'know you rappers who sing? The singing rappers? Yeah, you. Sorry and all that, I know some of you have tried really hard but you can't do it. Give it a rest. Anyone can rap (look at all the singers who think they can) but not everyone can sing. It's your chronic reliance on autotune to fill the gaps in your melodic abilities that's making much black pop feel so foil-on-the-filling nasty right now. Harmonies, multiple voices, are pop's sweetest sound but autotune roboticizes their creation so predictably, fatally removes ALL trace of humanity. No matter how devoted you are to electronics and synthetic textures, without the sense of some moment of human volition/decision behind it pop simply doesn’t work. Spector, Meek, Derbyshire, Czukay, Macero, Quincy J, Moroder, Orridge, The Bomb Squad, Timbaland, Dre all knew it is an utter mistake to think there is 'nothing natural about recorded music'. Without something natural, there is no recording; there is only demonstration, a tour round the desk, a spod’s snortling glee from the depths of the manual. Technological exploration/abuse is only progressive when directed by heart or head, when it's kinda afraid but insatiably curious, when it wants revolution (e.g. scratching) or release (e.g. distortion). The only emotion you can consistently connect with autotune is smugness about the program's performance, pride in the presets. And, crucially, when the machines are being binge-fed entirely unimaginative lazy-assed tunes to correct, it's no wonder there's so much hip-hop now you just can't and won't remember even if or when it's huge.

The new kit — and crucially, too many producers’ lack of imagination with all that doodaddery — have served to make much ‘urban’ in oh-ten an identikit chrome blob, orbited by tricksy voices solidifying nothing. And it’s not just harmful for US pop when R&B is in such stasis; it’s harmful to any music for whom R&B is an historical, ever-influential touchstone.

Speaking of which, RULE 2 – autotune should only be allowed in Jamaica.

Because Jamaican voices right now have nothing to hide or correct. In Jamaica, autotune find voices that can match, outwit, outgun it, contrast with it — voices that make the beast with two backs even as they're being compressed into the atomised spray of gamechair-pop. The pop nous in Jamaican pop's bloodstream — the ear for hooks and the vocal ability that knows 300 pre-programmed fake notes cannot compete with the RIGHT note at the right time — means that, in dancehall, digi-tech finds itself beautifully harnessed, harshly treated, commandeered in pop’s name rather than stamping its size-tens all over its fragile neck. Listening to the biggest hits in dancehall from 2009/10, the contrast between the likes of Steven McGregor’s charged-up control of modern mixology and hip-hop's dumb demo-setting obviousness is crystal clear — dancehall's biggest names, from Vybz Kartel's Gaza coterie to BKiller's Alliance clan (and everyone operating in the no man's land between those combatants), create singles that burn themselves to the memory's hardrive like the nastiest viruses, singles that CARE about percussion, detail, those tiny moments that can become huge without sounding like gestures or gimmickry. At no point in the best dancehall does anything sound smeared indiscriminately across the mix; everything down to the tiniest fizz or pop is there for a reason.

For the weeks that they corrupt you no other sound seems as desirable. But unlike hip-hop, the point of contact is vital here — out the tiny, flinty confines of your computer fuggedaboutit (and I can't go to dancehall clubs as I've been assured by those juvenile fans I know that as an old Asian man I'd get shot). At home, dancing with the kids (kids love this stuff — just be aware the lyrics might require some, ahem, explanation/ euphemisation) you get dazzled. You need good headphones or big speakers to make the beats and bass work their magic, to make the voices walk tall, like they're real people lost and let loose into a different world; every riddim change, a different place in regard to themselves. Everything earmarked as reasons US rap sucks right now finds new life in Jamaica: autotune loses its imperialist smarm in the mouths of doubtful, desperate, deranged, driven-mad-by-lust propa pop singers (and if the interminable snoozeworthy disswars that plague US rap seem pointless, then at least the Gaza-Gully turf wars in Kingston pop are as absurd and action-packed and kinda like WWE as these things should be).

At the moment the sound of Jamaican dancehall is the sole reason not to locate’n’liquidate the Antares plant — the only adequate rebuttal to the legions of luddites currently looking to eject autotune from pop's craw. Jamaican producers, musicians and singers (who, let's face it, since the days of Steely & Clevie through Bobby Digital have been obsessively busy with digital music for longer than anyone) have made the new kit work, dammit. They've hit the balances because the humans involved USE the device, not t'other way round — there's no less control behind the desk, but there's voices grown up enough to lose control behind the mic, and lose control melodically, tunefully. Harmonies don't just intertwine in dancehall — they're too interesting to pull pat moves — rather they disperse like snipers, move like a SWAT team, pop off across the mix and assail unexpected peripheries. The producer is in his heaven, and all is right with the world.

Likewise, when the Europeanisation of US hip-hop (all those trance/house textures so bemoaned by US hip-hop purists, like Ford-workers watching Merc engines lifted into Mustangs) translates to Jamaican music the effect is ambiguous, confusing, wonderfully threatening to dancehall's stern sexual politic. Set against the none-more-macho lyrics all that none-more-gay lushness starts calling the machismo and misandry into question, starts making it sound desperate, pathological. Voices launch out but find themselves uploaded to the ether in a gurgle of chrome, defused of outward danger but launched lethally in on themselves. The same production tricks that make so much US rap sound like so much unjustified ball-ache and bullshitting strands the protagonists of dancehall in a soundworld in which their violence and randiness start sounding like addictions, like problems rather than unproblematic prejudices.

It's partly down to the music's refusal to simply stomp. Dancehall's impetus is so often found on the soca-step, silkily on the snare rather than the kick, so all the delirious digi-detail (that flashery that R&B puts at the heart of its current deterioration) flies away from the centre of the sound, flitters and flutters around the voices instead of changing or correcting them. And it's partly down to the sheer wonder of the voices themselves: on the staggering 'Sumpn 4 Ya' Aidonia seems constantly breathless in anticipation, frantic, lurid, downright spasmodic on an eternal brink to a particularly sticky end — the macho-ness of the man always prone to the uncoolest moments of genuinely losing it, losing control, his verbal acrobatics always carrying the threat of falling without a safety net, returning to the gasp and the groan and those petit-mort noises the grown-ups make. Where US R&B sounds so painfully in search of the hook it ends up bobbing in lukewarm waters, clinging onto only what’s most obvious, Aidonia naturally, fluidly, intersperses his dizzying lightspeed verbals with moments of pure grunt, squeal, shudder — and these moments become things you want to hear again and again.

Further, Jamaican voices tend to not go for range, big leaps or Carey-esque oral-batics between notes. Rather it's the frantically fast rotations around a simple melodic riff that make these tracks so demanding of your time, so bewitching, so devilish, so human. 'Sumpn 4 Ya' is a record that spins on the edge between mind and body, and the body always breaks on through to the voice, makes it do things the words, dazzling as they are, can't let out or release. Replay repeatedly (for you will if you care about pop) and the key becomes clear. 'Taint the trancehall backing, or jabs of palpitating synth, or even that planet of bass you seem to be orbiting. They're all gorgeous but no-one else rode the Outbreak riddim quite like Aidonia — when Aidonia yelps you're inside it; when Aidonia screams you shiver; when Aidonia sounds like he's into the heat of the final fuck moments the music just evaporates in the white heat of your relationship with that voice. It's doing weirdly classic things (think Teddy P, Barry W) — things only the rewind can reveal, things unfathomable and unfeasible. Things you HAD actually been led to expect from Aidonia's other big tracks ('Rifle Me Bark', 'Thunderclap'), which are just as excessive to requirements.

Because no matter what’s going on behind the scenes in pop, if the right people aren’t in place, shit won’t happen right. In Jamaica, unlike nearly everywhere else on the planet, the right people are making music.

These are voices under stress, under pressure, squeezing out their trigger-happy testaments before the sky falls or hell opens below or the front-door gets kicked down. The best voices in dancehall right now — ERUP, MAVADO, AIDONIA, BUSY SIGNAL, STACIOUS (No Freak and Head), TIMBERLEE (check the ace 'Fashionista'), CE'CILE, the outrageous LISA HYPE (go back and listen to Face Facts & The Truth), NATALIE STORM (go back even further and hear 'Look Pon Me' and 'Dip & Fall') — sound like they’re singing to survive, punching against music-and-FX that bounces their threat back on themselves, the sounds heavy, lush and lethal enough to push the extreme extroversion of the singers inward to the curious helium-bubble of the production even as the beats rampage on, the doom and dread and apocalyptic gunplay/perp-smoking/sexuality only ever damaging to the frantic, frightened personas behind the voices, never to the listener.

Best riddims I heard this winter were the stompin' 'Gunshow' (Aidonia's uproarious 'We Run Uptown', Mavado's stunning 'Everything Inna Hole', Elephant Man's slightly-knackered 'Boy Dead'), the robo-soca of '10 Long 10 Strong' (Bugle's eloquent 'Unlimited', Kartel's Imagination-style undulation-fest 'Seductive', Leftside's way-freakier 'Magnum' & '2 By 4'), the livid ‘lectro of Style & Swagga ('Assassins Wanna Be Ballaz' , RDX's startling 'Deliver Mi'), Death Row's mournful glide up the long road through the cemetery gates (Movado's 'Sing Song', Stein's 'Bad Mad Straight') & Thunderball’s spy-movie stealth (Aidonia's 'Thunderous Clap', Stein's military-industrial 'Slow Motion'). In contrast to the dreck hip-hop/R&B tried to warm us with over the past few months, these tracks are hotter than the sun left in the microwave for ten minutes too long. Go go go seek and mind your minds. Stuff can burn your synapses.

BUT new decade, lowered expectations. Amidst all this future-fuckery the return of Steely & Clevie's nutzoid 'Steel Frog' riddim (esp. with Capleton's 'Lip Lip Lip') is some retro I can live with, even if it casts a baleful, withering light on dancehall’s current progress. To be honest I simply wouldn't bother chasing riddims anymore. Keep on top of the shit bubbling on Youtube or even better (esp. if you’re an old tech-unfriendly fucka like me) stick to mixtapes, for we're not in a golden age and we are lazy. We're in an age where despite R&B's current paucity of newness, dancehall is still managing to take on and twist American styles into interesting new shapes: but the deeper disease, the lack of imagination in mainstream US R&B / rap is fatal for much dancehall as well — the return of 'Steel Frog' posits an intriguing thought that mebbe it's time for Jamaica to turn away from US influence a little, seek out their own unique lineage and slant a bit more often. The response of Jamaican voices to US decay is just strong enough, just inventive enough right now to still find ways of being fascinating to anyone in earshot.

And if Tighten Up was the bargain-pack tropical-transmission of choice in the 70s then now you have no excuse not to be checking out the Dutchman DJ Triple Exe's Pure Winery series 4-6 (ace wee dubbed-out segues and technoid rerubs included), 2010 mixes from DJ I Kandi and DJ Waxfiend, DJ Greedy's Famine 4, DJ Aliaz Reggaefest 2010, DJ Polombo's Bells Of War, Mischief Sound Crew's Fever 2K10 mix, Chinese Assassin DJ's Prepared For War 3 or DJ MBA's Outbreak 2 mixes this month. Let them do the hard work, pack together the hits, lash lightning strikes to your dome/home (and it’s particularly intriguing hearing how US and European DJs inf[l]ect dancehall with their own techno-traditions). Crucially even at our distance from dancehall's daily motors and moodswings, keeping up with riddims and the frenzy of the version-flood isn’t entirely necessary. So let obsessives like Triple Exe and Waxfiend filter this shit for you, but ferchrissakes don’t ever cock an ear AWAY from Jamaica, cos you’ll probably be missing some of the most vital, invigorating pop music being made on the planet right now. Just like you did last year with British hip-hop. Details anon.

Re: dancehall I declare autotune reprieved. Just. Next month all this will be irrelevant. And that’ll be the next turn in the story. Be there.