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Thursday, 23 October 2014


Photo by Pat Pope

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

New Nineties US Edition - LABRADFORD: 20 Unanswered Questions


In writing, chasing the people I wanted to talk to in A New Nineties, some of them never got back to me. Rodan. And Labradford. Sent these questions to the three of them on the 5th March 2013. Never got an answer. I know why, I think. The questions are appalling. But they sum up what I think about their still-amazing music. If any of Labradford see this, I'd still like to know your answers. Here's the original E-mail.

"OK guys, yes these are rambling, vague and somewhat unfocussed but I am rambling, vague and somewhat unfocussed so all apologies. To be fair, I start all over the place then get more specific -  answer anything you deem fit. Thanking you again in advance and all apologies if any of these questions bug the hell out of you. Waited 20 odd years to interview Labradford so any answers you can give are massively appreciated. As ever, thanks so so so much for the amazing music you made together and for being willing to talk about it now. Will  e-mail you links to the completed article once it’s online. Any time over the next few weeks is fine for the answers. Thanks again, Neil Kulkarni x

Were you simply arrangers/sonic architects/players with sound I don’t think I’d have been as fascinated/enraptured by Labradford as I was and still am. I think it’s the fact that within what you did were SONGS, pop songs actually, as melodically memorable as my favourite pop, and though often drumless, possessed of unmistakeable movement & rhythm. Is it fair to say that you weren’t interested in just doodling around aimlessly, THE SONG is always what guided the writing process and that structure and discipline interested you a hell of a lot more than abandonment or ‘freedom’?


I’m wondering how ideas were arrived at – jamming, visualisation (did you SEE the shape/feel of songs before you made them), sounds you wanted to explore that THEN got forced into songwriting structures? Was there a ‘typical’ Labradford process or was it all very random and (shudders to use the word cos so reminiscent of compost) ‘organic’? Did the processes change as Labradford went on? Did you alter the technology you used as time went on deliberately or just down to finding equipment you like playing around with? Was there ever an ‘intention’/’direction’ you wanted to go in that was discussed before recording took place or were things simply allowed to emerge?


Most bands keep adding to their sound, end up usually less effective/enjoyable as a result, with Labradford it seemed at times that what you were engaged in was the exact reverse, a steady stripping down, paring things down to that which was important and an increasing realisation that it’s what you CAN’T hear that can be crucial, the notes left out, the silences. It’s as if you ended up with MORE sounds doing LESS. A fair precis of the arc of Labradford’s creativity or an over-simplification (I imagine the latter!)?


   The old Miles Davis quote about ‘it’s about what you don’t play’ comes to mind – reason I harp on this point is because Labradford in a deep deep sense always seemed, though often instrumental (or at least lyrically obscure) to NAIL what it felt like to be alive, to be BETWEEN things, neither believing nor unbelieving, halfway between places and feelings. Feel free to tell me I’m barking up the wrong tree but in that inbetweeness I think is the crux of why Labradford work emotionally, still hit me in the gut.


OK, lets get down to some nitty gritty and nuts and bolts. I recall hearing, perhaps erroneously, that before Robert joined Labradford they were a lot noisier/Merzbow-like? Is that correct? What militated towards the band slowing down and developing along the lines that led to ‘Prazision’?


What was astonishing first hearing Prazision was that here was something seemingly already fully-formed, coming from out of nowhere like a bolt from the blue, utterly engulfing not just in terms of sound but the whole package, sleeve, titles etc. Was it always your intent not to be dictatorial about the style/meanings your music delivered but always to be massively SUGGESTIVE? Were you unsure/sure yourselves about exactly Labradford were ABOUT as such?


How isolated did you feel in the US at the time? Would you say you felt more akin to artists from Europe/elsewhere? What exactly were the influences swirling around in Labradford? What individually (not just musically but in terms of temperament and attitude and ambition) do you think you all bought to the table (feel free to talk about yourself and the others!)?


For me stuck over in England Labradford were always enchantingly remote. You didn’t slog thru the live-circuit, just delivered these amazing long-anticipated transmissions from the back of beyond every now and then. Was there an intention to have a ‘mystique’ or was that just a natural consequence of your personalities & what was going on at the time in the mainstream music-biz you were so far away from. Was there a weird disconnect between the attention you got in the UK, and that you received in the US?


Clearly, you wanted every album to be a move on, to be different. What do you think happened between ‘Prazision’ and ‘A Stable Reference’? Distillation? Refinement? Expansion?


Like Steely Dan, like the Band, always got the feeling Labradford didn’t really like playing live. Was I wrong? Saw you at the Union Chapel in London late 90s and you were incredible so clearly you COULD DO IT but didn’t do it that often. Why? Problems logistical (variability of venues/sound-provision) or personal (shyness)?


Inbetween ‘Stable Reference’ and the self-titled album you’re next heard on the oft-overlooked Duophonic single (esp. the fascinating b-side ‘Underwood 5ive’) and that split 12” on Trance Syndicate with Stars Of The Lid. Did remixing other people’s work, and hearing your own work remixed, change things as Labradford moved onwards or were you never ‘precious’ about your music in that sense? You never ‘abandoned’ the guitar as so many musicians did the further they got into sampling technology, what made you keep that umbilicus back to your ‘sound’ up until then?


At around the same time I seem to recall (again, I could be wrong)  you turning up on the Kevin Martin-curated ‘Isolationism’ compilation alongside people like Zoviet France, KK Null etc. Did you feel as time went on a growing sense of belonging with other artists (even if it never, thankfully, constituted a ‘scene’)? Did you ever feel constrained by that?


The self-titled album seemed to demonstrate a deeper immersion into samples & found sounds (a stronger sense of definite rhythm as well?) Is that fair? Also a wider palette of instrumentation? Or am I hearing things (all too likely) ? I hear a heavy British influence (Disco Inferno, Talk Talk, O’Rang, Bark Psychosis, drum’n’bass) and an increased sense of THE CITY in that record. Labradford is most emphatically always urban music isn’t it? Music for city life.


 I used to walk the streets with Labradford in my ears. You were the perfect soundtrack for movies of my own creation, directed and shot & lost on a constant basis with my vision as the lens. Yup, we were all a bit mad in the 90s but how did you envisage your music being ‘used’: concentrated on? Background sound to drop in and out of? Or didn’t you care how the music was being used so long as you got to express it? What, if any, were your ‘ambitions’ beyond being able to make the next record?


Mi Media Naranja’ as almost-previewed  in the last track of the self-titled album ‘Battered’ had a heavily suggestive, rich sound often labelled ‘cinematic’ – how accurate did you find the writing about Labradford? A necessary evil? Did you start seeing yourselves less as a band and more like composers (Morricone/Herrmann etc) for movies that didn’t exist? Did this necessitate the string section, the warmth of the Rhodes, the slide guitar? Would you say this is the first time Labradford felt confident enough to step out of ‘reality’ and into pure ‘imagination’, conjuring landscapes you emphatically didn’t live in, a certain amount of sonic ‘fantasy’ you hadn’t had before, an absolute disinterest in whether these soundscapes could be recreated live? And also, ‘Mi Media’ brings out all of your developing talents as musicians/producers/arrangers to a zenith. Would you say you were finally getting close to ‘perfection’? Did that worry you? As ever, if I’m wrong, tell me so.


Was time spent recording an endless hermetic process or something grabbed on the hop? Was there a typical ‘Working Day In The Life Of Labradford’ or did things only start happening once a decision was reached to record another record? I ask because there’s not a lot that’s very ‘bandlike’ about Labradford, none of the gang-mentality or ‘get in the van, man’ sense of endless toil. How democratic a process was the band? Did anyone dominate? Did you enforce a kind of mutual conciseness on each other?


  By the time of ‘E Luxo’ it seems that you’re actually getting increasingly frustrated with the constraints of being ‘recording artists’ altogether’, as if you’d rather put your music out with no titles, no barcodes, nothing to in any way affect or prejudice the listener in any sense to what they were hearing. The production & credits actually being the song titles is such a blindingly brilliant idea but I’m still unsure as to whether a point is being made or not?! There is that sense of the band pushing at the limits of possibility – perhaps a vague presentiment that Labradford’s days were numbered? ‘E Luxo’ works almost as a Rachel’s-style suite of classical/minimalist music, barely band-like at all. Were you shifting roles  within the band-unit at the time – it becomes increasingly impossible to actually unpick who is doing what (in direct contrast to the nuts/bolts nature of the songtitles) and the voice (whether sampled or distorted) has finally been abandoned altogether. Why?


 'E Luxo' is the album I remain most fascinated by so apologies for the slight monomania) – more than any other Labradford album E Luxo seems to have a sense of real environment and space – you can HEAR the room, the noises you made moving around it in a way other Labradford records didn’t have (either by sounding quite claustrauphobic or by conjuring up the world OUTSIDE the studio more than the studio itself). This revealing-of-the-bare-bones seems tied in with the song-titles, an almost Residents-like attempt to reveal the means of production? Overthinking on my part?


How did working with Albini on ‘Fixed::Context’ change the working dynamic of the band, what did he add/subtract to/from the recording process? It seems that where Labradford had been getting more detailed/lush, ‘Fixed::Context’ was a brutal paring down, an attempt to simplify. Did you know it would be your last album?


Labradford never officially ‘split’, no announcements, just dissappearance. Why? And would any of you consider Labradford dead and buried? Or there to be picked up at any time in the future? 


Monday, 6 October 2014


EP #2040
The official word, again, is that hip-hop's played out. Lost its musical power and innovation, dumbed down into a rotation of monomania, misogyny, violence. The official word is as dumb and lazy as ever and as ever, is not listening.
(Real fucking lazy. I mean, even accepting your US-centric myopia,  a few weeks from Ferguson and THIS sounds sharper than ever and don't you dare tell me that ANY OTHER TYPE OF POP on the planet is saying anything even close to it).

   But why are you holding your pisscup out to the States for anyway? Why do you care about 'realness' anyhoo? When the only 'realness' that's gonna help right now is a commitment to transforming what's real in determinedly lurid cartoon ambition, a focus on fantasy that can unpick those damaging fantasies that chain us to cliche and stereotype and liberate those fantasies that might unchain us, that might make us not just too big for our boots but make our boots MASSIVE. Music that understands that the only way to stay sane is find a way to make the insanity that reality insists is mandatory productive? When the only way to possibly, reasonably, move through time and not want to die is to suffuse your time with the unreal, the absurd, the surreal, the impossible, and unreasonable?

   Or if I can boil this till it hardens and cracks and splinters and sets you free can I simply ask, why the hell are you not listening to Strange U right now?

   Right fucking now. Their new 7-tracker, the cryptically monikered EP#2040 is just about one of the most astonishing things I've heard all year and is more addictive than any other lie keeping you alive this autumn. Ever since I first got it I've needed it 3 times a day. To get me off the straight and narrow, to get me on the twisted and wide. It contains sounds and words that blast doors in your consciousness, that makes the rub and rattle of your own inner horror that little bit more liveable with. Strange U are a side-project of rapper Kashmere and producer Dr Zygote. Kashmere has for a long time been one of the most compellingly strange and unique voices in British music. His lyrics are always a wipe of the third-eye with a triple-strength acid blotter, a true tapping of hip-hop's near-forgot potential to be both titanically egoistic and become a process of shattering those fictional identities into a myriad revealing fragments. His work takes on rap's essentially self-aggrandizing energy and inflates it to preposterous, hugely unsettling extremes - revealing both the collosal unreality behind our 'real' selves and the huge dishonesty most from-the-heart honesty carries with it. By turns he can be hardcore poet, fictional superhero, rambling schizophrenic, wide-eyed visionary, red-eyed prophet, badman on the street, kid in his bedroom geeking out over his comics, mile-high robotic overlord. Check out everything you can by the man (particularly his Raiders Of The Lost Archives and Galaktus albums, as well as his work alongside Jehst in the pharmacologically unhinged, Hunter S.-influenced Kingdom Of Fear). And if you want, read my interview with his Galaktus persona here.

But before you do. Check out EP#2040. It's free.

Dr Zygote has been the producer and co-founder (alongside the equally nuts/genius Jazz T) of perhaps the greatest unsung modern British music label, Boot Records. The Boot crew have produced some of UK music's most astonishing highpoints and abyssal depths in the past few years, have a trademark sound that's all their own, instantly identifiable, utterly addictive, a sound once heard that demands you seek out everything you can find with the JT/DrZ/Boot imprint. Heavy beats, sick and deranged low-ends, treble populated with all kinds of noise and wreckage and black science friction. It's a groggy, gorgeously bleak brew you will want more of as soon as the first contact-high starts pounding from your numb lips to your cortex - listen to previous Boot productions of work by Kash, Ramson Badbonez and Cappo and you'll see and hear what I mean. Boot are entirely d.i.y and self-sufficient, have no networked-up pals, rely entirely on word of mouth and their genius can be checked out here.

But before you do. Check out EP#2040. Did I mention? It's fucking FREE.

When Kash and JT come together to make Strange U music, something altogether new starts happening. A freedom their other personas stop shy of. A determination to making their words walk and step into the listeners day, start haunting their daydreams and stalking their nightmares. Opener 'The Cake Is A Lie' comes in on seven-league bassboots and skyhigh uppers and jeebus hyperion Christ I don't think I've heard such a thuddingly bruising hip-hop track since . . . actually scratch that I HAVEN'T heard hip-hop quite like this before. As much Fela as New Kingdom, as much Live/Evil as Real Live, as much Scientist/Roots Radics as it is Premo. In their own words "inspired by the spirits of Oshun, Vishnu, Apollo, Sobek and Jim Henson".  But it's also Kash's lines, pitchbent down to a wonderfully overloaded gruffness, flat out telling us he doesn't give a fuck about being real but then making that immolation immortal by sounding like his dreams, built on a lifetime of cultural junk-addiction, are true, will come to life so long as he can birth them through verbalising them. You'd be fucking daft to deny him, to suggest these things aren't real. Check out the street. Check out the government. You telling me that 'reality' isn't a fucking joke or a nightmare or a horror-show right now? At a time when 'competing'/'competetiveness' is what everyone from yr idiot teachers and parents all the way up to the front-bench of parliament have dripping from their mouths like so much re-heated re-eaten vomit, who wants rap music that's still all about beating others on their turf, beating others in being real, rich, lucrative?

   "Never tell a lie when I rap/only yesterday I was caught in a Venus Fly Trap/One false move I'm letting off shots/now . . . slowly . . . hand over the jelly babies mmmmm/undeniably the greatest sportsman/scored a hole-in-one the first time I played golf it was awesome/ if i said it in a rap so it must be true STUPID/if I told you 'eat shit' would you do it?/ By the way  - I was born of a dragons egg and get respect for playing the clarinet/ Reality's wack, I'm trying to escape/ FUCK THE TRUTH MAN I'M TRYING TO BE FAKE"

Looking at so much hip-hop in 2014, I see a race for realness, for that competetive edge, for whatever chance of crossover is forthcoming. I know I'd rather be on the freak train with Kash, heading out into his imagination. Making up what's real. Making every new second count with new thoughts, new images.Stupendous production from Zygote as always, he knows the devil's in the detail and beyond the fantastic low-slung fuzz-synth funk grind it's the sudden splashes of dubbed-out keys and flickering guitar that make 'The Cake Is A Lie' such a compellingly deranged delight.  This is music from minds that seek those moments when you think you're awake but realise your body and brain simply aren't hanging out together no more. Those moments when you stick your tongue in your own fractures and drink deep. The second track 'Vapourous' is even more of a molten mind-fuck. Often on EP#2040 the beats are like nothing else you can hear right now, certainly not from rap - more akin to something Cabaret Voltaire might've coughed up in their late 70s zenith, or like the bruising sluggish hard-blast of a Kevin Martin production (think God/Ice/TechnoAnimal era). Atop 'Vapourous'' primordial ooze of bass a whole frightmarish whirlwind of distended noise and echoes chases its own tail around your headspace, while somewhere in the midst of the carnage sits Kash aka Darq Twin, swirling his own vocal into dubbed out distorted infinities, advice on how to succeed in the endless bullshit-moebus of 'digital' reality.

"Masturbate to your digital person everyday/until your giant head detonates/you're so dangerous/vapourous/smoking that angel dust for the camera/It's all about the spectacle/I will go further than the truth if it's more entertaining/too cool for school get stupid/You're not famous enough? BE AN IDIOT"

'Part Machine', all stop-start robo-funk and smeared analogue texture, absolutely yearns for a new definition of humanity. Yearns to become half viscera, half circuitry but with none of the gliding romance of a Model 500 or Kraftwerk - rather what Kash seems to be expressing is a need to speed time up, bring the future forward a few millennia, accelerate closer to the science-fiction dreams his brain is stuffed with, the dreams that make his and our current intermediary state so massively frustrating. Throughout EP#2040 the heaviness of the concepts and the sheer pressure put on the vocals by the intense music is always beautifully leavened by Kashmere's attitude, his ability to rip the piss at the right moments, crack the po-facedness with a grin, come on like a futurist preacher when needs be.

"They wanna put a chip right there on my spine/I look em in the face like 'where do I sign'?/Part real part dream/ I really wanna be a part man part machine/You're scared of progress/I excel in it/Break out the robot in the car for the hell of it/You better loosen up your blazer/secret societies are doing us a FAVOUR!'

'Beast Moog' is the kind of instrumental 'Metal Box'-era P.I.L would be making right now, has those same harsh harsh beats that scare the shit out of you at the end of 'Careering' - 'Falcon Punch' is a deeply Chrome-like slab of psychedelic dancehall over which Kash's mouth runs away from him beyond my ability to transcribe him here, references to Super Smash Bros, V-dub, Thelonius Monk, Garth Merenghi slipping by at light-speed, demanding a rewind, and another and another until you can even catch a fraction of the imagery being sent your way. The 35th century griot of 'Strange Ones' kicks of with the line 'Standing on a planet made of amethyst' and then starts to get seriously wayward, demanding the return of Pangaea, a welter of P-funk references making a righteous and entirely correct connection with perhaps Strange U's true antecedents, one that gratifyingly doesn't leave out Funkadelic's darkness, weirdness, confusion.

'Destroy all borders/unify the four corners/atomic lizard mothership connection on some other shit/on one hit em with the bop gun/ they came & stole the fun but we shall overcome/Bring neon bright the flash light/we'll gather round the crater of the alien crash site/that's right get up for the downstroke/banging that funk for countrydwellers and townsfolk/ sounds dope it's psychoalphadiscobetabioaqua but never learned to swim though . . . "

 If the music and words Strange U shoot out were in any way a pose, in any way just an agglomeration of reference, I wouldn't even waste my time directing you towards them, let alone listen to them myself. What's key throughout EP#2040 is that there is DRIVE behind their ideas, a desperation to push through reality to somewhere else that feels as raging and as direct and dazzling as Sun Ra, P-Funk, Ornette, Jimi. Crucially, none of Strange U's 'learning' (and they're clearly people who know about music and literature and film and art and science and EVERYTHING with the suffused derangement of true seekers of knowledge) in any way inhibits them from making music that absolutely defies category, blasts apart all that lineage and chronology. Doesn't matter where they're from or where you're from. Just matters that when they're on you know where they and you are AT - listening to music that pushes you on, delights, disturbs, GETS to you in a big big way. Closing track 'Strange U In Africa' perfectly exemplifies this - you can tell the 'vibe' that's informed it, but it arrives at a place entirely unique, has a real livid seething sense of heat and stress, the bustling gritty funkativity of the finest Fela Kuti bootleg you never heard, the Idi-Amin-style vocal samples just adding to the bedlam and hilarity. The way the shard of traditional instrumentation is twisted out and pulled apart are as mind-melting as the moves Premo made on Jeru's 'Come Clean' but on every track of EP#2040 all that Strange U really share with their sources is a sense of spirit and intent. To make something brand new. Genuinely unheard as yet. Properly futuristic, ancient, magical. It's only when you really prod new music to see where that's happening that you realise exactly how rare it is. If the Mercury Music Prize wasn't a fucking joke, EP#2040 would win it at a canter - it's genuinely NEW BRITISH MUSIC and it's fucking awesome. Avail yourself immediately and feed your other current distractions to the lions on your lawn.
   All conquering music. Makes you stomp in those skyscraper boots. Turns you giant. Drink deep.

Monday, 22 September 2014


One look at this gormless cunt should tell you pretty much everything you need to know about his music, his message, his mithering mediocrity - though set up to be the opposite of pop's shallow show he's demonstrative of that fact that the way a band or artist LOOKS is massively important, massively revealing in ways the music doesn't have to be. You can hide in sound. The camera never lies and just look at the fucking state of this turnip-headed twat. A face that signifys his intrinsic dipshittitude even more than his horrific music or the lunkheaded quotes above. 

But Bugg's not really the focus here. The problem is that word 'soul'. Somewhere along the line musicians, esp. fkn white musicians, started thinking it was an acceptable word for them to steal, a word that could be applied to ALL music, no matter who the source or intent. That word needs taking back. 'Soul' is far less useful as a genre term than it is as a signifier of a very specific time and place - those early 60s years where gospel and r'n'b and new politics met up, and started talking about a world beyond the bar or the bedroom or the pulpit. 'Soul' for me is essentially political because of the times it was borne in, whether explicitly so (Marvin/Stevie/Temps/Hayes) or implicitly so for the alternative black reality it propounded, the self-sufficient strength of an alternative corporate America (Motown/Stax/Hi) it exemplified and pushed out there. For me 'soul' starts with Sam Cooke, ends roundabout the mid 70s with the Philly sound and disco refocussing things towards sensuality and joy. By the late 70s and early 80s other musics had taken that political edge away (hip-hop) and r'n'b became more useful as a term to describe most black pop as once again love and relationships became the main lyrical focus, at its best though always with soul's traces of a wider-world still threaded and glimmering through. There's very very little since 1980 that I'd describe as soul music. That's not a condemnation of that music, it's just a realisation that the historical necessity of soul's creation had passed, had played out, had come to an end, would find its expression and elaboration elsewhere. Whatever would come would need a new name. 

It's the interchangeability of 'soul' and 'soulful' in white musical consciousness that Bugg's expressing here. So a perceived lack of substance, an abundance of showiness/superficiality becomes 'soullessness', becomes things having 'no soul'. Take heed as to what the likes of Bugg mean by music being soulful. They mean it's simple. They mean it's clear. They mean it's naive - a direct communique between artist and listener, 'from the heart', 'from inside'. These people are the same fucking people who critiqued Isaac Hayes when he exploded and expanded the possibilities of pop and the pop song, derided his epic vision for lacking 'soul', insisted he should return to his more 'soulful' roots. These are the same people who wrinkle their nose with faint distaste when confronted with the post-60s reality that black pop wouldn't stay within the simplistic 'from-the-heart' confines they wanted it to, when it dared to fuck around with identity and sound beyond the supposed clarity of it's first footlings (a totally white misapprehension of the essential complexity of identity in blues and r'n'b music in the first place). They forget just how lush a dream, how ambiguous and charged by the OUTSIDE  'A Change Is Gonna Come' was, and that was the first fucking soul record. They don't realise that their notion of something being 'soulful' stems from such a withered, unthinking idea about what art is, what an artist can do - an idea that comes from their own inability to see beyond their own self-indulgence, see music as anything other than 'expression'. And they want music to fall into their own anointed sense of 'timelessness', imbued with immortal characteristics that surpass time, place, politics, erasing any potential fractiousness in the cannon. They want music to be as pathetic and tediously QUALITY as their own. 

Soul music is none of Jake Bugg's fucking business. And if his shit's 'soulful' we can all draw our own conclusions as to exactly how little that word is worth. Like 'passion' it's a word designed to limit music, erase thought about music. Next time you hear it, ask yourself what the person using it is using it to signify. More importantly ask yourself WHY they might be using it. My guess is the reasons are dumb. And weaselly. 

Tuesday, 16 September 2014


From but really, could be from anywhere right now. 

Jesu Christu Saints Preserve Us Don't ever ever ever call me 'passionate' about music. I'm as interested in being 'passionate' about music as I am about being 'credible'. Only people who at a fundamental level don't truly need music could summate their feelings about it as 'passionate'. I'm not 'passionate' about music because music is not something I come to from a life being led without it. Music is part of my life, part of me..., part of my make up and consequently I have as complex a relationship with it as I do with my body, heart and soul. Like those three things, music's too complex, too mutable to not be rejected now and then, hated, shut out, questioned, ignored, refused, resisted. 

'Passion' is the word the music marketeers use to grease their moves of exploitation, just as they have in football. They understand the fan's 'passionate' love. Thus better placed and justified in treating those fans like cattle, like idiots. 'Passion' is the word used in job-adverts, CVs, Linkedin profiles, career-development materials, it's a management word spoken by management people, a corporate word that corporations enbalm themselves with, a word you spout in the shameful self-loathing of a job interview, it's the word cast around by the creative sector to let the dog see the rabbit, the subtextual insistence that skill, or anger, or ability, or having some discontent behind your content, some style or substance doesn't really matter so long as you're keen. Madpash. Passionate. Passionate about strategic solutions for multi-platform brand identities. Passionate about dashboard paradigms and hotspots and dwelltime. Fucking fuck anyone who uses the word passionate unless they're talking about fucking. 

Fans aren't so dumb. Quite often, quite rightly, we feel dispassionate about music. Often dispassion enables insight and 'passion' clouds it. The dispassion that comes when pop hasn't just disappointed you but has betrayed you. The dispassion that comes from being a fan. 

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

White Power And Black Pop: The 1Xtra 'Power List'

Suckered in the morning, wise by teatime but still at sundown an old graze stings again, a dormant papercut refreshed. Isn't it nice when your low expectations are undercut with such clumsiness, such idiot innocence?  Initially I was tickled by the fact that 1Xtra had published a list of their most 'Important Artists In Music' of which 3 of the top 4 were white, nodded at Wiley's amusement, growled a little at those who thought something could be remedied or set right by the names on that list being more preponderately black. Never gonna happen. You're in England remember. We don't progress in our racial politics, we just get more self-congratulatory and blind. 
    Hence the immediate dismissal of criticism, the semantic pirhouettes, the insistence that all keepers of the racial order always insist on - 'it's not about race'. We'd all expect a list that foregrounds overwhelmingly white male pop names to be defended thus but what did tweak my nips about the screens I looked at this morning was the deeper, longer narrative about British pop you could see moving under the skin, behind the pixels. "Compiled by industry professionals". Absolutely goddamned right. I know what quantifies importance for those guys and consequently the list hurts cos it's true as the FTSE or Nasdaq - the problem is not that Sheeran and Disclosure and Sam Smith shouldn't be on such a list, the problem is that in terms of 'importance' to the music industry and influence over that tired-old keen-young industry's idea of what 'black and urban music' means, Sheeran and the others genuinely ARE influential. By equating, as we all have to now, 'importance' with economic impact, the industry can safely ensure it never seeks out any music straying too far from the golden-aim of 'crossover' or that would antagonise a white middle class audience. And so we arrive at a place where a racist, snobbish industry, with the press' ongoing acceptance, can continue to eliminate & shut out big neglected swathes of the music being made by the people of this country. A fake meritocracy that operates on pure favouritism, that can only push from the margins to the mainstream those names blandly palatable enough, safely connected enough with the existing power-structure, the right school or parents with their feet already in the door and a few hundred-thou in the bank to buy their kids the future they dreamed of.

Part of the problem is the existence of 1Xtra itself. I have problems with that, just like I have problems with the Asian network and Radio 6 and alot of the BBC's loss-leaders and specialist networks. I think they benefit older radio listeners to the detriment of kids in need of protecting from the ceaseless powermove onslaught of corporate pop. I don't think those stations benefit the minority communities in a real way because they make it easier for the BBC to continually marginalise those stations output away from their 'one-nation' voices, thus being able to keep those major stations as safe and neutered and unplayful as possible.  Keep the Locals local, the Loyal loyal, and the great unwashed at the edge of music, paddling in the shallows, any depths or drop-offs safely farmed out to those who are prepared for them - the priveleged 20 odd percent of listeners and dedicated fans who listen digitally. Despite the looming big switchover, despite their supposed committment to digital minority programming the marketing of BBC radio tells its own story, a massive foregrounding of 1, 2 and 4, an almost dreamlike non-mentioning of anything else unless something cross-platformy (eg. the Proms, Glastonbury) comes along. It bugs me that the BBC seems content to let its 'lesser' brands linger on the margins comparitively massively underpromoted compared to their flagship networks, while still being under threat of closure should their precarious and small RAJAR figures slip. Beyond that it bugs me that the major national radio stations are becoming more blanched and ossified, more parochial, more expressive of a primarily white understanding of modern British pop and British musical history. It fits with industry notions of the categories and strictures and shapes pop's present past and future must remain within - we have reached a point where, for all its self-piteous lifecoaching, the idea of pop as transformative of life, rupturing of the intellect, breaking barriers, busting heads, has been all but abandoned. Pop is confirming of life on radio right now, the hand on the shoulder too earnest to even think about straying down and copping a feel or reaching up & tweaking your nose. A soundtrack to your consumerism. The wallpaper of your essentially commercial existence, and thus it has to 'clean up' the more rugged genres it pulls from, make garage cosy, make rap tuneful, make grime behave itself and always always always, just as it's always been in the UK, it's only white artists who can perform that magical act of thievery, dilution and repackaging, it's only white artists who can fully reap the benefits of black innovation. Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was.

Pop radio, like the pop it plays, merely waits to settle on your lifestyle. Would never threaten it. Surprise is abandoned, the unforgettable radio moment of chance revelation forgotten in favour of the sureity of loyal ratings, quite rightly of course, to stay 'competetive'. The structure exudes itself an extra layer for this competetive edge, a 'diverse network' where the key is knowing your place, the sense of shared learning that was the BBC shattered into shards and target-audiences, a fragmentation in which mutual education stops and private indulgence is sated. In the name of catering for diversity the BBC's output becomes ghettoized, the playlists become narrower in the precise place where they should be opened up, on the network enjoyed mainly by kids. So black and white kids, the CDE's lumbered with old ways of listening (as opposed to those agile hyper-connected ABCs who for some reason BBC Radio seem to think are their target audience) listening to Radio 1 get fed only the most watered-down cross-fertilizers and stage-school pootlers in every genre, very-rarely the hardest-core from within those genres, the spitters and shredders who might really challenge but more importantly really delight. The 3 million odd people who listen to 6, Asian Network and 1Xtra are 'catered for', certainly - I just wish more of that content could be considered worthy of the rest of us. A bhangra tune, a grime tune, a voice not sanctioned by a major label in the daytime playlist? The national radio station sounding like the nation? Too much to expect perhaps, but some of my most formative pop memories are when something was put in my day that my day couldn't deal with, whether that was something odd spun by Annie or Peelie or those odd moments where something non-pop (hip-hop/metal/alternative) crashed into the breakfast playlist. Even yearning for such moments seems antiquated now. Get with the program. You're catered for, somewhere.

Beyond the individual source of this latest nonsense (and I happen to think that too often 1Xtra is a model of wasted potential) the major faultline in this shitstorm is that word 'important'. 'Important' (like 'iconic') is pure management-speak when it comes to music. It means 'stop here, look no further'. 'Importance' will always favour that which finds itself open to compromise, that which can adhere widely, across 'territories' and 'reaches' and 'awarenesses', build up enough agglomerative strength to hit those magic numbers whereby money starts coming your way. And the more often other notions of importance get written out of music, the less likely they are to return or be rediscovered, so the future looms, a hierarchy from old old roots of race and class, a hierarchy that kids us its a meritocracy. At the teat-end, we can't afford a future anymore. It's been postponed. So what we must do is engage far more furiously with the present and win ourselves a future. For they, those who have a future, will do anything to prevent us being there. And they have more time than we do to make sure of that, to ensure our vassalage and fealty or if we refuse, shut us out from the system altogether. It's colder than it's ever been out there. What are you willing to give up to make it?

Of course, as they're fucking idiots for making these lists, we're idiots for paying attention to them, but I'm sure 'importance' meant something else once. Or at least, could mean something more than just mercentile credit, a canny investment. As politics has delegated its responsibilities to business so goes so much critique (so much 'content' about music is fknway too content about music), analysis becomes a look at the figures and stats, appreciation a tacked on checklist of tired cross-reference and cliche. I loathe the idea of a 'Powerlist' but it's a bitter pill we should suck on a while cos it suits these mendacious, craven times, is something of a perfect emblem of the endlessly infantile listed ordering & toptrumps competetiveness that comes when a culture is looked at through backwards opera-glasses from the safe remove of the capital, fogged by chortling. 'Power' & 'importance' are useful things to write about because you don't have to write about the music, and they're particularly useful things to hide behind when ostensibly speaking for music fans you don't understand. Y'know, just like Jay-Z is the most important rapper of the previous decade, Kanye the most important rapper of this decade. Nothing to do with music, all to do with the most superficial of impressions, the bullying of airtime, the weight of hashtags and clicks: 'importance' and the search for it is a way for a lazy white superstructure to ameliorate its guilt about its own ignorance, the blatant contrast between its love of 'serious' white music in all its variety, its faint distaste for investigating anything bar the most obvious, deoderised or corporate-backed music from the other side of the racial tracks. 
   I know, change the record, been backspinning this a while now. But what unsettled me this morning was my own unsettlement. At my age, you might want to be resigned to this stuff cos you've experienced it so many times in your life as a pop fan, British pop's superiority complex about black music, the pat on the back it reflexively reflectively gives itself for waybackwhen reintroducing black American music to white america, the enabled entitlement to turn a blind-eye to what's going on now down its own streets. The elbows it throws out to ensure that any such flourishing of interest in black music from within our own borders can't get any oxygen, light, a chance to grow or go beyond the grassroots of localised scenes, without blanching itself with a touch of folk, a pinch of house, something to make it palatable to the playlisters. Reading the 'power' list, I had that not altogether unfamiliar feeling of apprehending how much worse things are getting, especially as the majors the PR and the press gets increasingly sewn up by an ever-narrowing class & race base. One of the most magical things about music is that it is communication between people unlikely to meet, a window into other worlds that are going on alongside your own, a response to urges you didn't know you had. By reducing music to a lucrative centre of overarching dullness creatively fed & sustained by margins of ever-dwindling opportunity the BBC are part of the damaging process of centralisation and conformity currently strangling the life out of pop and eliminating wonder from the charts. By qualitatively reducing music's analysis to an almost-mathematical evaluation of 'mobility' within markets, the 'Powerlist' eerily mirrors an entirely corporate & governmental idea of what music and the creative industries should be all about. By talking about it, of course we're all merely adding to the 'success' 1Xtra doubtless see the list as being, but our conclusions should be clear. Turn your back on the powerful. Seek the powerless. Fuck the statisticians. Do your own digging.