Saturday, 1 June 2013

Thoughts on the Dawn of Hop & Bass - Posterity Groans under The Strain

Some two months or so ago a woman wandering in the grassy heartland between friend and acquaintance, snagged on a shared love of All Tomorrow's Parties, asked whether I'd be interested in speaking to radio people about my initial impressions of the Golden Age of Hip Hop and to run through a quick appraisal of the tin lid that was drum & bass while I was at it.

She had heard I had knowledge that I'd been carrying about with me in between yellowing strips of newspaper in a wallet unpicking itself at the seams. This knowledge had been carried over the grassy grapevine from another acquaiend*. Her disabuse of this heavily-mistaken notion must have been swift as this was never mentioned again.

But by then it was too late; my mind had begun. Diseased springs twitched and cogs spat teeth as they tried to find a common forward movement. On the train from Manchester to London I summoned my immense intellect and scrawled some ideas on a clumsily-folded piece of paper. Just the act of doing that felt good, writing semi-arcane notes to myself about the fevered impressionist thoughts I was having.

But being the sweaty creep that I am, writing some shaky words on a piece of paper is not enough. I have to share these malformed ideas with the world; and so here I am. The BBC Four Friday night retrospective will be sure to follow. In time.

So. The glory and appeal of Old School Hip Hop.

Firstly, it's all about the breaks - even if they were profoundly transmuted. Early hip hop hits were heavily disco-inflected, reflecting the block parties the music had sprung from. It was party music at first, good time stuff. And that was how Grandmaster Flash was received at my primary school discos in distant, damp north Wales. Fancy dress on TOTP: a cosmic version of The Village People. Stop start rhythms ideal for musical statues.

The toughness must always have been there, as the parties must have got rough at times - for all of Afrika Bambaataa's attempts to chill everyone the fuck out. Gradually, this toughness asserted itself as it became clear that hip hop was for telling stories too. "Funky Drummer" sounds like light entertainment, but spun out into endless space in front of a Public Enemy crowd at the Hammersmith Odeon, its breakbeat has dramatic power. There is nothing to match the tension of a drum machine, the bite of a drum loop.

Early Def Jam music sounds too sparse: LL Cool J and Run DMC. The excesses of disco were pared back too far, driven perhaps by the need to escape the gravity of that sunken novelty cruiseliner. (Were I more erudite I would juggle the idea of hyper-masculinity about - even in the face of the fact there were women MCs too at this point. But my erudition is flagging chequeredly.) It was just about words and a solid stance. People were expected to listen. But once sampling technology really got involved and layers and layers of sounds began to be added, the words were scrawled across great, chaotic soundstorms. It all became so fucking tumultuous!

My first experience listening to Public Enemy was on a Walkman on the way back from a school trip to Lancaster in 1989. It was "Nation Of Millions"; and it was enormous. This was the moment when hip hop stepped away from memories of primary school discos and became what I would know recognise as the Golden Age of Hip Hop. Layer after layer of panic and solid noise, slipping and sliding against each other; black music history (and some metal too at times for a paranoid edge) re-configured and laid out in front of me in its new Chimeric form, torn into its component parts while still fizzing with life and urgency. Comparing "Yo! Bum Rush The Show" with "Millions" only a year or so later shows how fertile and explosive hip hop was in the Golden Age. Just like the period of five or six years when pop music split into rock and pop and everyone had a plan on how to push further and answer harder the music that went before. Nuclear fission still glowing forty five years on.

Listen to the way Kanye samples soul and R&B music these days in comparison to the (now impossible) piracy of the vinyl seas that De La Soul and PE explored so excitingly. For De La and producer Prince Paul  it was a game, stitching together tunes from childhood and exotic yet familiar pop sources just as they were facing down the dookie gold chains and restrictive practices that went on around them. Public Enemy and the Bomb Squad wanted to show you everything and the wide-ranging paranoid scramble of facts and mottos was reflected in the music. All the tension has been drained from the music by the time Kanye gets his sticky fingers on it - it's just a pompous backdrop for his globe-trotting; a bored, Ray-Bans wearing yuppie version of hip hop. Count your beans with a yawn on your bored looking face, you drippy cunts. Your aspirations have gone all to cock.

Still to this day, nothing will get me dancing more promptly than classic hip hop - even the "throwaway" stuff like House of Pain or Cypress Hill. Today's chartbound sounds are so limp and complacent by comparison. Even when someone of the standard of Killer Mike comes along and launches "Reagan", you can't really dance to it. It has the same leaden-footed keyboard shuffle. "Fight The Power": that's a tune you can shake serious body parts to. Yes, sir.**

Another thing about hip hop is its viral accessibility. Cultures all over the world have adapted it to their twisted ends; it has spread everywhere like some hydroponic pondweed. Even in a distant outpost of the Western cultural experiment like Eighties Anglesey it forged a connection between a pale and uninteresting sixteen year old lad and packs of angry, educated Afro-American New Yorkers. Its DNA can be reproduced in every part of the world, taking on mutations as it adapts to survive in different cultural climates. It goes native, becomes unexotic; it becomes us. It can be bolted onto anything and in so doing will subtly or unsubtly change the essential nature of its host nature.

And as a result of this chameleonic quality, as in all good bodysnatcher movies, up rose a panic about authenticity. At first the battle was between neighbourhoods in New York, Queensbridge and Brooklyn, as to who invented what. Then it was deemed the property of New York until gangster rap definitively opened up the West Coast as a second front. Still today (despite hip hop's global relevance) the sound of hip hop with non-American voices can cause a frisson of novelty-hunting excitement or a stinkcloud of ridicule. But the reality is that anyone can pick up a mic and spit their brains out over repetitive loops. Party jams became tales of urban deprivation became rants at the global poltical military industrial complex became whatever the fuck we want. And there is nothing anyone can do about it - the fatty acid chains are out there, shagging everything they touch.

Compare the career of hip hop's uncle, reggae. How despite being loved around the world and even copied by acts from highly non-Rasta/non-Jamaican cultures, reggae and its immediate descendants (roots, ragga, etc.) has an impenetrable, uncorrupted core that keeps its exoticism integral. It never assumes the identity of its host in the same way. Perhaps it doesn't offer the same opportunity to relate your own story. There is still a strong flavour of Marcus Garvey and Afrocentric spirituality that turns its head from any attempt to completely sublimate the music. It's not just about the patois, as plenty of hip hop vocabulary crossed cultural barriers within a couple of years. It's about access.

So hip hop is huge now, that's agreed. It's able to spawn and reproduce itself in a way that even rock music hasn't quite managed - adapting itself to agendas from Welsh cultural resistance to Jihad to Eminem's white boy parenting issues. It isn't about the Five Elements anymore, although you can probably trace the remains in what is going on now; but why do I think the Golden Age still holds my imagination in a way that Hova and Eminem never have?

It must be partly where the music fitted in with my own adolescent development. The timing of that Public Enemy experience, coinciding with being sixteen and beginning to form an idea of how I'd engage with the world again, couldn't have been more perfect. But I think the enduring quality is the energy, the sense of momentum - as with post-punk in the late seventies. A fresh culture (if you'll pardon the pun) breaking out, people living on their wits and kind of doing for love - as the money wasn't in hip hop yet and there were no fucking CEOs of rap music. It was vital, unrestrained by music piracy laws and responding to the civil rights optimism of their parents' generation represented by their choices of musical samples.

As hip hop had grown in confidence to express itself, it was showing me exactly what I needed to do myself. Round the corner waiting for me in the early Nineties was Hardcore/Drum & Bass, but I can't get into that stuff right now.

Yours in think

Your pal

Coc x

* Surely there must be some kind of daily spot prize for coming up with the internet's most awkwardly-jizzed neologism? No. Then I fall back on my genetic research as a back up plan for notoriety.

** Perhaps this is because the all-encompassing Illuminati-style paranoia of much of hip hop these days already feels defeated by the military industrial delusion of democracy and so dancing feels pointless. PE were still riding ripples set in motion twenty five years before with Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan and perhaps that also reflects why the use of soul music was still vital. They'd been swimming in those civil rights Motown Stax waters at first hand.

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