Last year I had the privilege to contribute an article to the awesome French music criticism journal Audimat. Now that a respectful amount of time has passed: the original draft in English. UK funky, and the ineffability of groove
The language of dance music criticism, torn between disenchanting technical-speak and myth-building, typically opts for both, and you can sense in its vertiginous leaps between a dry taxonomy of software patches and insistent invocations of spirituality, its endless restatements of its founding “ghost in the machine” narrative, a circular logic of causation, like an Escher picture of two hands drawing one another. Unable to put into words how technique gives rise to sensation, the critic presents each as both spontaneous and immutable, the inevitable product of a higher law (of genius, of soul, of zeitgeist - whatever works).
Dance music criticism is no different to any other music criticism in this regard, grappling with the eternal difficulty of capturing how the sound of sound affects us; but dance music, frequently shorn of the reassuring bulwarks of personality-based criticism, reveals the problem particularly starkly. We know that the phenomena of sound and sensation exist in a relationship, but trying to say what that relationship is with any precision or fixity is both immensely difficult and deflating, offering a demystified and denatured statement of cause and effect that seems to drain from the experience of music its air of magic and mystery. And yet mystical invocation has no proper language with which to describe music’s productive chaos, choosing instead to inscribe its familiar soothing fictions over the top of music which in fact excites because of its unfamiliarity, the agitation of its departure from the known.
This double-bind derives from the limitations of conceptuality as it grapples with the sensual: any explanation of music’s functioning proceeds by a chain of concepts which act to reduce the complexity of our experience by subsuming difference in sameness or identity; what Theodor Adorno called “identity thinking”. To use a prosaic example, no kickdrum acts in precisely the same way in any two house tracks, yet when we talk about the use of the kickdrum in house music this infinite variety is suppressed in the name of that which all house kickdrums seem to share. House survives and prospers by way of its endless variation around a norm, yet in discourse about house music this normative quality is prioritised over that in the music which resists it. The talented critic still attempts to grapple with specificity in dance music, but usually is at a loss as to how to connect its precise functionality to the imprecise sensation of its effects.
Even most talented critics struggled to capture in words the appeal of the late ‘00s UK funky scene, and there were very few who even made the attempt. Emerging out of the UK garage scene’s flight to vocal house in about 2005, funky erupted into a glorious three year golden age in 2008, only to rapidly deteriorate – in qualitative terms at least; in commercial and critical terms it barely ever lived – by the beginning of 2011. Like many of the dance music styles to have emerged out of inner East London (jungle, 2-step garage and grime), UK funky expressed a combination and mutation of stylistic influences, imagining a fantasy scenario where the pleasure-centered conservativism of US funky house is kidnapped by a loose cabal of grime (harsh, spare beats and energetic MCs rapping over the top), soca (bouncing, syncopated islander exuberance) and various other accessories. Unlike its predecessors, funky never codified a set formula or rhythmic matrix that was clearly and immediately identifiable as its own thing. Skeptics were frustrated by funky because it foiled any attempt to define its development, its aggressively percussive rhythmic experimentation never fully severing its ties with the comforting familiarity of house. It’s as if the music was a child, not quite fully formed, and reluctant to abandon the comfort of its stylistic parents and join the ranks of grown-up genres.
UK Funky expressed the tension and difficulty of capturing difference in music criticism more sharply than other genres in part because of this refusal to grow up and become identical with a particular distinct concept of itself, and in part because its stylistic structure is essentially analogical, each instance giving voice to the recurrent, insistent question “why not?” If that, why not this? Analogical, because there is no ultimate platonic standard against which all singular instances can be compared, and instead only the relationship between each instance. Rather than distinguish between core and non-core (or basic and superstructural) components, the music exists in an entirely constellational space where each element can be rearranged or substituted to achieve comparable effect. If tribal percussion can inject the desired element of syncopation into a 4X4 house groove, why not soca-derived snare patterns, or staggering synth chords, or pounding piano vamps, or brittle grime oscillations, or the nimble agility of the MC? Each and any of these substances can slip into a pattern that is traced, like a spirograph sketch, around an absent center that only appears to exist because of the pattern that gives shape to it.
It is the pattern, rather than its fixed points or its empty center, that establishes the music’s (non)identity, in a series of shifting and interlaced iterations, at once alien and somehow familiar. On Major Note$’ 2009 remix of J-Will’s “Déjà Vu” the house groove becomes jarringly topographical, not simply operating along the usual layers of kickdrum propulsion, snare uplift and hi-hat swing, but ceaselessly moving between levels, clipped bongo patterns drawing out the nervous ambivalence of the singer’s falsetto R&B croon, kicks like computer game explosions offering unexpected portents of doom. In effect, “Déjà Vu” is constructed like the R&B and rap of Timbaland, the rhythm track less a groundwork than a soundworld in and of itself, telling its own mysterious narrative.
Mr Mageeka’s 2008 tune “Different Lekstrix” retains house kickdrums, but they’re buried, submerged beneath a sickly high-pitched bassline that seems constantly to shimmer and deliquesce, while on top a dense layer of scratchy hi-hats, ostentatiously synthetic claps and unexpected yawning gaps give the tune a hesitant, stop-start feel, like an ancient, immensely complex machine wheezing into life. MCs love it, because the tune’s constant revolutions make their rhymes seem more rhythmically inventive than they might otherwise, while at the same time different rhythmic elements – a snare here, a sharp hand clap there – prop up a kind of 4X4 awning that their voices can glide across even when there’s nothing to bear their weight.
Importantly, though, funky’s rhythmic DNA does not insist on percussive complexity. Funkystepz’ “Fuller” from 2010 foregoes syncopated hi-hats in favour of a spare, rigid kickdrum pulse and echoey claps on the final off-beat, less a groove than a confining grid within which roams and prowls a synthesizer melody that steps in for (and in to) the rhythm like a beast snapping at the bars of its cage. Focused on this ultimate endpoint of rhythmic intoxication, funky was rarely too concerned with how it got there; in many cases an anaemically spare track in isolation might feel complete only when drawn into covalent association with other tracks in the mix, tracing complex patterns across one another, or with the arrival of the MC, whose (usually more straightforward) rhythmic attack renders visible the hard surfaces that the music’s beats ricochet against.
Can anyone put into words the precise dynamic that in their different ways each of these tracks express? Certainly it has never been done successfully. My only conclusion is that such expression ultimately is impossible to achieve in full. UK funky at its best delighted in constantly inventing new detours around its identified sonic thoroughfares, while at once hiding these detours within the contours of house, such that the inadequacy of any critical language to capture precisely how it functioned arguably became its raison d’etre. Ironically, this very quality is also what rendered UK funky’s lifespan as a creatively productive style so short, so vulnerable to failure: if your identity is premised on unidentifiability, on slipping through the space between sameness and difference, how can you ensure you stay who and what you are? The “golden age” of UK funky ended not because the music forgot what it was or what it was about, but because it began to understand itself too well, albeit shallowly: in 2012, UK funky has at least partially collapsed into a series of ever more obvious, spelt-out definitions of the kind of syncopated attack it once expressed only obliquely, rhythmically dumbed-down even as it increasingly targets an urbane, educated audience of dance music fans.
The decentered, remorselessly mutational quality of golden age UK funky is quite different (in both structure and effect) from the inexhaustible diversity of what we tend to call post-dubstep – as typified by artists such as Ramadanman, Joy Orbison, Scuba, Mosca or Jam City – with its ever shifting kaleidoscope of stylistic affectations running the gamut from house to grime to juke to 2-step garage. Post-dubstep is coalitional and conversational, offering up a series of collisions or negotiations between styles whose identity in themselves might appear certain but whose relationship to one another is in a state of flux. Modeled on the diverse, idiosyncratic DJ mix, post-dubstep expresses the principle of collage, and as such is essentially a post-modern take on syncopated dance music. UK funky at its best is not a collage of substances; instead it orbits around a single, unknowable substance to which it gives shape in a series of misfires. Analogical groove-making should not be mistaken for diversity, let alone eclecticism; the points in this constellation are intended to sound "of a piece". Despite the radical differences in their construction, “Déjà Vu”, “Different Lekstrix” and “Fuller” – together with a host of other tracks I could name – are in an important sense interchangeable, all finding new ways to make the same unarticulated (because unable to be articulated) argument about how to groove and how to dance.
For the listener and dancer, the analogical genre acts as an invisible guiding hand, imposing a strong sense of rules (what "counts", what doesn't) that the listener is unable to identify or particularise; the rules of the analogical genre, the genre's thing in itself, exists as an unknowable other, unable to be reduced to a concept, but instead dispersed within a patchwork of meaning generated repeatedly and spontaneously out of each new instance of deviation and recombination. In this regard, UK funky paradoxically is unique in its expression of a problem at the heart of all groove-based music. Or, rather, it is exemplary and indexical, allowing us to see clearly something that was there all along. Groove is not a concept, but material, the raw stuff of sound with and against which our bodies move. Like any material, it naturally eschews the clean lines of conceptuality for the dirty variability of existence, whose permutations exceed the grasp of even the most nuanced accounting.
Adorno once said:
Living in the rebuke that the thing is not identical with the concept is the concept’s longing to become identical with the thing. This is how the sense of nonidentity contains identity.
Our inability to capture exactly the ineffable substance of groove as a series of meaningful deviations tends to compel us either to lapse into mysticism or to say that what cannot be described does not exist, or at least ought not merit attention. Certainly, many critics expressed indifference to, or even unawareness of, UK funky’s rhythmic strategies, as if they had instructed their ears not to hear anything aside from the house grooves the music devoted so much effort to defacing, or alternatively to hear only the defacements and not how they bonded to the structures that gave them a home. But the inadequacy of concepts and critical tools to the task of saying what this music is need not blind the good listener to that which is beyond her reach. The presence of the ineffable rather should be the goad, the inspiration for a critical language that longs to do justice to dance music’s inexhaustible armoury of confounding tricks and tactics.
UK FUNKY 2010 HALF YEAR REPORT: WHAT'S REALLY GOOD
The most common complaint about - or, at least, resistance to - my uk funky fandom is the difficulty of actually following the scene if you're not downloading several radio sets this week, given how rare it is for a funky tune to get a proper release. So I thought i'd give you all a snapshot of uk funky in 2010 helpfully assisted by youtube. This has limited my options somewhat: no "Right There" by Eastwood, no Naughty Raver's "Drama", no Marcus Nasty/Bassboy collabos, to name but a few. But hopefully it makes connecting my purple prose to the actual sound of funky somewhat easier. I hope to follow this up with a more abstract and diffuse post regarding the state of uk funky in 2010, or something like that.
UPDATE: ILX poster Zvookster has excellently provided the following Youtube Playlist of all the tracks talked about here, including a few tracks for which youtube clips didn't exist before he created them. Go here.
Devine Collective - House Girls Part 6 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cDZceeoRZdI&feature=PlayList&p=C7E7A7BDFA1D6112&playnext_from=PL&index=0 Devine Collective's entire modus operandi seems to be ensuring that their very existence operates like a rumour or legend on the funky scene unless you follow very closely. You wouldn't know that they're pumping out hits in 2010 like nobody's business, building on the all-time-classic status of "People Keep Dancing" from the very end of last year - from the cheesy "Eyes On You", liberally swiping from Tim Deluxe's "It Just Won't Do", to the compulsive refix of Michael Jackson's "Thriller", to the simultaneously melodramatic, murderous and creepy "Touch Her In the Morning" (crazy slashing strings, a martial beat, and the weird refrain "I touch her in the morning / NO LIES!"). And then there's this: surely house music cannot get more apocalyptic than it sounds on "House Girls 6", a tune which bears only a tenuous connection to the original "House Girls". You're more likely to recognise the source of that eerie metallic hailstorm-like rhythm - it's the snare pattern from Dennis Ferrer's lovely "Hey Hey" of course. But while it would make sense for a Ferrer-sampling tune to signal a return to one's house roots, Devine Collective take that bewitching beat in the opposite direction, concocting a groove so overwhelmingly dense and murderous it makes Ferrer's own taste for melodrama seem decidedly kid-friendly.
Drake - Find Your Love (Drew Austin Remix) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GdRFqYopBRI I'd understand if you want to shy away from a funky version of a Drake tune, but, well, get over it, because this is excellent. Drake's already-cyborg-like performance, so draggy and deflating on the original "Find Your Love", sounds perfect pitched up over a funky beat, the twitchy avaricious compulsion of a tweaked out 5am dancer, the blank refrain "I better find your lovin/I better find your heart" over a stark skeletal groove of kicks, snares, handclaps and an oh-so-crucial hi-hat tick becoming the paranoid, desperate premonition of (and shriek of defiance at) the comedown that awaits.
Rudimental ft Adiyam and Shantie MC - Midnight Affair http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kA0wfeUVliQ "Midnight Affair" stands in as a microcosm of funky in 2010: the way the dreamy female vocal - much more R&B than house - seems to sing against the rhythm rather than squarely on top of it (the usual house diva approach), the way the restrained bass & beat combo dramatically brocks out halfway through each verse with heavy, metallic snares lashing out at your ears, not to mention the way MC Shantie's guest verse complements the vocals perfectly with its prissy, nimble flow bouncing over the groove with a cheerful rhythmic precision that's straight outta 2-step ("Bye lads! I've weighed up the options; see you later!"). In some ways my favourite funky tune on 2010 so far, or at least the one which, by virtue of its desire to cater for every need, I return to most often.
Donae'o - I'm Fly http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xxe7v4Yfcxs Really hoping this is the hit (finally) that Donae'o deserves: lord knows it leaps out of the speakers like it's trying to claw it's way above every other funky tune, and Donae'o has this kind of "is he joking or serious" gonzo quality you'd think would appeal to a generation that embraced Akon so quickly and easily. From that slamming beat like someone trying to hammer a pick into your skull, to Donae'o's ridiculous succession of repetitive vocal tics in a variety of registers, "I'm Fly" is less a song than a loosely but masterfully assembled bundle of great hooks, halfway between the slightly jokey vibes of "Party Hard" and the more ominous intensity of "African Warrior".
Aramac - Hurt Inside / Emvee - Windrush Riddim http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=113sDznDw9E http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AvcLhZhymsM Two peas from the same pod. "Windrush Riddim" is just so propulsive and exquisite and get-out-of-your-seat irresistible, a kinetic bundle of joy built out of a few organ chords, strings, xylophones, an indecipherable vocal sample, and then one of the most deliciously careening rhythms ever recorded, constantly tumbling over itself as it races for some imaginary finish line. "Hurt Inside" adds a certain tropical exuberance to the same basic formula, its soca snares sounding like dogs cheering you on (I kid not) as you try to dance to the impossibly convoluted groove - these tunes are funky at its most sheerly fun since Fuzzy Logic's "Leader".
SMI - 60 Hertz http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iCvwAynp56w Something like a 2010 equivalent to Altered Natives' "Rass Out", a tune proudly flexing its ostentatiously blunt muscularity, and yet remaining ridiculously upbeat and smiley. "60 Hertz" is all about the drop which, when it arrives, cheerfully takes the tune in a carnivalesque direction you'd never have guessed from the menacing build.
Undisputed - Fya http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pwiMdDk4IiA Undisputed did a great half hour mix for BBC 1xtra which marked them out as the foremost practitioners of synthetic funky: funky that sounds like it's been listening to bassline, Terra Danjah, even electro-house, foregrounding slimy, slithery metallic textured synth riffs and basslines. Their own 2009 anthem "Sunglasses" remains their pinnacle, but the overloaded robot charge of "Fya" is Undisputed at their most extreme - turgid and unrelenting, it might be worryingly Caspa/Rusko/Distance-ish if not for its dedication utterly compulsive syncopation.
T2 - Better Off As Friends (Lil' Silva Remix) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bgDEqUeVSTE Of course Lil' Silva remains the original master of evil robot funky, and pretty much all his big tunes of 2010 - "Against Yaself", "Night Skanker", "No Hooks" - carry the same virus, setting frigid bass, shrieking high-pitched electro melodies (or synthetic strings etc) and ostentatiously violent-sounding military snares against each other in unapologetically warlike confrontations. But his remix of T2's vocal tune "Better Off As Friends" remains my favourite of such efforts, perhaps because of the unlikely quality of the collision: the mournful vocals aren't buried by those jackhammering snares but lifted by them, making a break-up anthem that sounds like the world ending.
Sabrina Washington - OMG (Ill Blu Remix) / Craig David - One More Lie (Ill Blu Remix) / Cheryl Cole - Parachute (Ill Blu Remix) / Roll Deep - Good Time (Ill Blu Remix) / Roll Deep - Green Light (Ill Blu Remix) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1zcZbCpTg7g http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pPW_MpmgENs http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mUDesjxC1sY Five pop remixes that demonstrate Ill Blu's increasing mastery of the form, notwithstanding their maximalist, self-absorbed production style (Ill Blu's "sin" as pop-remixers lies in reducing every vocal performance to sounding like a session vocalist playing second-fiddle to the track's instrumental majesty). On "OMG" the beat is so deliberately neanderthal, it's like Sabrina is so consumed with mindless divatude jealousy she's regressing to a pre-human state, finally peaking/touching-bottom with a wordless ravey sigh of pure intensity "uh uh ayee uh uh ayee". "One More Lie" uses tense syncopated snares and ridiculous string riffs to transform Craig's wimpy moping into a defiant spitting in the devil's eye at the gates of hell. The nervous, wired "Parachute" remix utlises slithery, radioactive synth pulses and woodblock beats to give Cheryl's drab original an air of possessive intensity, less endless love and more single white female. And the remixes of "Good Time" and "Green Light", appropriately, reimagine an entirely different path for grime from underground to chart success, one where ravey sonics and Technotronic populism and singalong diva hooks aren't achieved at the expense of edgy rhythms and thrillingly high-stakes hi-jinx. Redlight - Stupid http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BW78HjQdvPM "Stupid" is more determinedly bass-driven and less glitzy than the above Ill Blu remixes, but it's cut of much the same cloth, trying to find a route by which manic rave energy and pop smarts don't cut against each other but slice together (through your skeptical bespectacled "skanking" reserve hopefully - if you're dancing to this stuff at half speed you can fuck right off in my opinion). With its one-note glowering bassline "Stupid" conjures images of masculine thuggish funky (though no more so than "Fya" above) but the beat is so frisky and fleet-footed that it never sounds anything other than entirely sensual and pleasure-centered. Or maybe that's due to Roses Gabor's marvelous tongue-twisting vocals.
Screama & Farah - Kiss Me / I Won't Lose http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e5zVBRwEGZQ What makes Farah so precious as a diva is the way her sense of ordinariness and humanness is not achieved by simply leaving in flaws or toning down trained diva theatrics, but somehow finding a way for the latter to give birth to the former - her melisma is so natural and unforced, always giving the sense of the tussle between emotions - frustration and desire on "Kiss Me", self-doubt and resolve on "I Won't Lose" - even as she sings each line. Screama's grooves here are simple and classicist-sounding, but something about them imprints deeply in my consciousness: hearing those signature beat patterns emerge in the mix never fails to be exciting. "Kiss Me", a not-so-subtle ode to cunnilingus, is of course an instant anthem; the more muted "I Won't Lose" sounds like a pale imitation at first, but its gorgeously delicate performance finishes just as strong.
J Labelz - Touch Me http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O4dgKnY1GMc I kind of have a weakness for diva tracks which basically announce "I will sexually dominate you", and the diva on "Touch Me" is so pregnantly sultry that she'd sound lascivious even if she wasn't singing "Wanna get nasty / wanna do freaky thangs." Much like Seb Chu's "You Got Me" from 2009, "Touch Me" is pretty simple and spare, a slightly syncopated beat, a few piano chords and heatstroke synth chords, but its almost unbearable lustiness makes entirely irresistible.
Funk Butcher ft. Shea Soul - Pull Me Close http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TxbRgpaDL0Q There's no evidence that funky is moving away from its beginnings with post-"Cure and the Cause" sultry, well, funky house, though it's notable that the rhythms on vocal tunes are much more consistently wired than they used to be: "Pull Me Close" sounds like broken beat, its propulsive, compulsive beat literally feeling slightly busted. Shea's vocal is excellent, worming its way around the beat in a manner that is becoming typical for vocal tunes in 2010, like a snake charmer enticing the rhythm further and further out of the box. "Boy... do you like the way I wiggle / left / right / front / back / Drop! Oh, boy..." It's a gorgeously sinuous performance as much a part of the groove as the beat.
Greyman - XZero / Invasion Countdown Smoove Kriminal - Stop That Horace Brown - Shake It Up (Smoove Kriminal Remix) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m0jo8jeZx2o http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ChInWtjZ5Mg&feature=related http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zcG0p-rUtvk http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mEDJecE_C04 LR Groove, Greyman and Smoove Kriminal are part of a new generation of tribal roller kings, mostly putting out taut, minimal grooves taking their cues from Swift Jay (where you gone Swift Jay??) and early Fingaprint, the focus on just how head-wreckingly chopped up the beat can get while still rolling. None of LR Groove's classics appear to be on Youtube unfortunately, but Greyman's "XZero" is a handy intro, little more than military snares so heavy, so dense that at times all you can hear is their sticky slide together - otherwise it's just some spare organ chords and Greyman's signature laughing ghost dog sample. "Invasion Countdown", like Naughty Raver's (sadly unyoutubable) masterpiece "Drama", takes those floating soca five-beat-per-bar patterns to a new level of, um, drama, its five-stab organ chord building an unbearable level of tension over clicking and hissing percussion.
Smoove Kriminal's "Stop That", with its chiming drums and collapsing horn samples is another great example, it's like every component has been ruthlessly examined and assessed for how much it contributes to the groove, and then removed if it didn't reach the producer's exacting standards. On an entirely different tip, Smoove Kriminal's gorgeous remix of Horace Brown's "Shake It Up" - the perfect R&B tune for a 2-step or funky remix because, while purportedly being a single-minded dancefloor bomb it ends up sounding all sentimental and teary-eyed, though maybe that's because 2-step/funky's habit of pitching up male R&B vocalists makes them seem more urgent and emotional and all shook up. The early breakdown with just bass and Horace's spoken word commands is simply beautiful. Scratcha DVA - Schizophrenic http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7nlQk-NeIr0 Must admit to feeling slightly ambivalent about the grim, serious direction in which Scratcha DVA's DJ sets seem to be heading: he's increasingly playing frowney tunes that are a little too dubstep-ish for my tastes. It's not that he should play more housey vocal tunes - in fact DVA's sets are always scrupulous in including at least a handful of these - but that there's developing an absent middle, a lack of tracks which effortlessly balance out fun with darkness, sensuality with ravey energy, the real vibey stuff if you follow my meaning. And that stylistic drift can't help but infect my sense of his productions, which arent obviously furrow-browed but easily can be read that way. So it's a good shake-up to hear "Schizophrenic", to my ears his best effort since the peerless "Hard House" from early 2009. This is club-footed, stompy, fucked-up and stuttery, sharing the same sense of actually totally destroying the groove as his Hyperdub release "Natty" (both tunes ape the old grime 8-bar habit of hopping back and forth between two entirely different rhythmic matrices as if trying to walk on hot coals), but with its big bold synth chords and goofy bassline it's also unfailingly smile-inducing.
MJ Cole - Volcano Riddim http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CeJLXyxBQ8M Easy to forget how much a master of the banger MJ Cole was when he wanted to be; to date his rep in funky is based more on bangers than vocal tunes, and "Volcano Riddim" is undeniably the best of the lot, one of those tunes that basically exists to be rewound so you can live through its many breakdowns over and over again: atonal string riffs aspiring to reach the top of an impossibly high mountain, only to erupt in galloping snares and turgid bass when they get there.
Addictive - Bad Girl (Champion Remix) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6eNisQ3if-U Not always sure what I think of Champion, who seems to get a bit dreary when he's actively trying to pay tribute to jungle or garage hits of the past - see his refixes of "Lighter" and "Hyperfunk". Rather like 30 Rock's theory of plummeting enjoyment as computer animated porn approaches reality, UK funky which flirts too openly with recalling jungle or garage hits of the past often ends up sounding like breakbeat garage or something. Not a good look. On the other hand, the rumbling "Motherboard" and the radioactive remix of Undisputed "Sunglasses" are both marvellous pieces of rib-rattling post-bassline funky; "Motherboard" in particular, with its slightly sick-sounding drums and ear-piercing synth-bass, is like D-Malice's "Gabryelle" refix with a hangover, in the best since. And when he's not trying to recreate the past Champion seems to have a really good feel for the importance of spectrum in funky: his DJ mixes are mostly excellent, as is this unlikely combination of the "Motherboard" instrumental with Addictive's sassy R&B. If you're used to the original "Motherboard", the addition of synth-strings and slightly shrill female vocals will sound thoroughly wrong for the first ten listens, at which point it will magically start to sound thoroughly right.
Carnao - Get Out http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=csh_-ioIcQs Hard to describe the appeal of "Get Out" - isn't it just slightly syncopated deep house? Well, yes, if you put it that way, but it's also so much more than that: the often-wordless dreamy falsetto vocals professing indifference to a departing lover, the weirdly haunting pulsating groove, the poltergeist eeriness of it all - it reminds me in feel (if not strict sound) of Terence Trent D'Arby's "Sign Your Name". It's one of those tunes that always makes you sad when the DJ mixes into something else: it deserves to float on for at least another ten minutes. Illmana - Kiss You http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qw3C8VCRA3k Stern, imperious soca-grime diva theatrics. Like "Midnight Affair", "Kiss You" could stand in for a whole host of ideas percolating in funky, its delicate female vocal buoyed by the tuba bass surges and pinging synth work that sounds like it's wandered in from a dark grime tune. With every passing month funky somehow knows better what it's always known: that it succeeds not by being fundamentally new, but by complicating ideas you thought you knew - like house, like R&B, like pop, like grime, like dancehall, but more relentlessly rhythmic, and not casually or airily or fetishistically so, but dangerously so. On "Kiss You" every single element deployed percussively, turning what would be a sweet love song into an exhausting, punishing work-out.
The first time I heard "Funky Sound" I felt this incredibly strong sense of rightness, an intuitive connection like "yes, I get what this track is doing and it gets me." The thick rubbery skippiness of the beat maybe, or the way it falls away for that nervously stuttering synth riff, or the slightly ghostly female vocal sample "It's my sound...", or the way that drops into eerie piano vamps and ominous bass plunges. A real dark-but-sexy garage vibe reminiscent of one of my old favourites, Richie Boy & DJ Klasse's "Madness On The Streets", that same moody seriousness with a glint of humour in its eye. That vocal sample also seemed to trigger a whole host of tunes with similar disembodied and discombulated rave-ish vocal samples, but sadly I've since identified almost none of them, the 'ardkore-ish corner of funky being also its most elusive.
I guess therefore it shouldn't be surprising that "Funky Sound" would be reinvented as a skank tune, though if you'd asked me beforehand I would have said I thought the arrangement was too busy for it to be an obvious choice for MCs. Black Biscuit do a fine job with "Skanking The Hardest", though its Simon Says moves are not merely pathetically easy but also bizarrely, um, boring (that whole hands in front of the face thing? Can anyone explain this to me)? With the addition of MCs the tune becomes more straightforward in its raveyness - paradoxically, less dark than before, if only because pretty much any skank tune appears lighthearted and cheerful compared to the habitual aggression of grime - making it clear that, as funky becomes more tenuously connected to full-blown house (but, importantly, not necessarily that much closer to grime or dubstep or even 2-step) it's developed a whole raft of options for capturing that flux of lightness and darkness characteristic of old rave (while, of course, not actually sounding much like rave at all).
From there Funkystepz seem to have gone basically in every direction possible, like they're trying to release enough tracks in enough different sub-styles to stand in for "UK funky" as a whole: nearly every rhythmic matrix and sonic template yet articulated within the borders of uk funky is deployed at some point, with little in the way of unifying consistency. This may have something to do with the group housing three probably rather distinct producers. Of course with such an outpouring of tracks in so many different styles the results unsurprisingly are mixed. "Trinity Hill" is an anthemic piano-pounder along the lines of Perempay's "Hypnotic", rendered distinct and memorable by its kinetic beat like a giant butterfly fluttering against your ears. "Over" is a tepid R&Bish vocal track, "Sounds In Moruga" a too-tasteful xylophone house workout that defers respectively to the precedent of Kentphonik's "Sunday Showers". The bleepy, ultra-fragmented "Gamechip" surpasses even Mos' Wanted's "Different Lekstrix" for LFO x Black Dog vibes. "Backwards" is dinky tropicalia. "Spend" is an autotuned MC track (a la "Stick Up") over blocky piano chords and rough snares. "Touch On Me" is addictive minimalist funky-bassline crossover, its worming bassline reminding me of Sticky's "Triplets" - and I feel ambivalent about it for similar reasons as I did with "Triplets", its studious glower bearing more than a small resemblance to old breakbeat garage (though the version with a breathy diva exclaiming "touch on me there!" is much better). If nothing else it's a sign of Funkystepz's savviness: far from being an attention-grabbing one-off, "Touch On Me" is really just the most blatant (or second most blatant, after Screama's "Funky Gangsta") indication of funky's increasing cannibalisation of bassline sonics, appearing not just in tracks by refugee producers (Screama, Naughty Raver, Bass Boy) but also in the work of new funky producers like Champion.
In their polystylistic quasi-cynicism (throwing anything and everything at the wall, shamelessly copying dozens of blueprints) and their capacity to stay ahead of the curve while still being quintessentially generic, Funkystepz remind me of my garage hero Bump & Flex (Grant Nelson), a commercial-minded producer who nonetheless made some of the most amazing, forward thinking garage tracks ever, especially in its 2000-2002 period - tunes like his hardstep dub of Doolally, his dancehall dub of Cleptomaniacs' "All I Do" and his dub of Mis-Teeq's "B With Me" were intensely physical, spiky barnstormers whose wired dancehall vibe was overlooked by many garage fetishists presumably on account of the dude's slightly mercantile quality, the sense (shared with other awesome producers like Dubaholics) that this guy was probably a remixer-for-hire, inevitably tied to the commercial fortunes of garage as a whole rather than a solitary trailblazer, not the kind of producer prepared to blow everything on exquisitely pressed, economically disastrous limited-run label imprints to be treasured for ever (the kind of thing you need if you want to be retrospectively lionised). Funkystepz feel similarly practical, defiantly un-iconoclastic and yet perversely inspired in their all-encompassing embrace of the entire genre.
To the extent that anything can be, "Malibu" is archetypal Funkystepz, its radioactive, stabbing bassline and clattering snare track basically a simple paean to funky's desire to sound as rhythmically distended as possible while still adhering to a danceable 4X4 format. And yet it's little more than a set-up for their classic "Bounce", best heard in its vocal form as "For You" (Marcus Nasty, on his recent excellent mixtape with Majestic, actually uses the two tunes in precisely this way). The intro (chorus? It's hard to tell) of "For You" is powered by its solar flare melody and typically prowling groove, but this gives way to an astonishing second section featuring awesome coinciding snare hits and synth chords which feel positively acrobatic, like some sort of weird routine featuring spinning wooden boards, or some particularly gymnastic video game involving jumping onto fast-moving floating clouds. A third section then sends the synths into overdrive, their flickering ultraviolet pulses suggesting bassline's sonics shifted entirely into the treble range. Throughout Lily McKenzie's vocal paces around the groove (now adhering, now departing from) with an intuitive sense of syncopation typical of the R&B vocalists that funky most adores (Jazmine Sullivan, Teedra Moses - and a whole 'nother article could be written on why these are funky's favourite divas rather than Aaliyah or Beyonce or Brandy or whoever - Funkystepz have done their own remix of "Be Your Girl", incidentally). "For You" suggests that Funkystepz' contribution to the genre could be as much with respect to songs as production - as great as so many of UK Funky's housier songs are, McKenzie's performance here feels organically suited to the form, sacrificing straightforward catchiness in order to gain an intuitive, in-the-pocket sense of fit vis a vis funky's rhythmic preoccupations.
Recently Funkystepz's resident DJ Maxsin has started a show on Rinse, which is mostly notable for the frankly disturbing number of new Funkystepz tunes aired - you get the impression these guys are banging out several new tunes a week - check the February 5th show in particular. As implied above, not all of these are great - with volumes of this size quality control necessarily suffers, and the fact that several tunes are previewed in draft form doesn't help. But the strike rate remains impressively high, and you also get the sense of a definite aesthetic emerging amidst the barely-creditable diversity. If Funkystepz seem to have embraced the notion of a funky-bassline fusion (on this tip see also their remix of Rihanna's "Rude Boy") this is merely a subset of their increasing obsession with shrill, plasticky sounds. Hence "Malibu" and "Bounce" coming on like trebly inversions of bassline. Other new tunes take this quality in a mindboggling variety of directions, unified only by this woozy synthetic quality, and almost as commonly rhythms patterns of starling originality even as compared to one another, all wide pacey hits dissolving into a blurred rush of snares.
"Lovers" is syncopated sturm und drang diva-pop, equally amazing for its stabbing, cluttered-yet-graceful groove (awesome textured blocky snares, orchestral hits, monstrously seething bass, ravey piano riffs) and Louise Williams' sweet vocal, which darts across the topographical extremities of the arrangement with a jazz-inflected sense of exquisite timing, even more startling than McKenzie on "For You". This is real UK Funky: every single element following a line of deviation and yet all in secret communication with one another. If Funkystepz can get their act together and really push any single track, it should be this one. Still, the hits keep on coming: the muscly, shrill "Mr Bandicoot" is like soca made by Richard X in collaboration with Jess & Crabbe; "Locomoca" is sickly artificial salsa; "Hurricane Riddim" is Wagnerian Rapid-style grime crossed with bassline warping bass; "Leave With You" is string-shrieking dreamlike diva-rave (you may know this one, the vocal goes "Hey! 'Cos I'm feeling like I wanna leave with you! Hey! What you wanna do?"); "Piano Storm" is plinky-plonky high-drama, every element from the hyper-nuanced handclap beat to the bass-synths to the shrieking strings sounding assembled from glass shards; the hard-riffing "Bubbly" falls somewhere between early Jammer (slamming kicks, revving synthetic string riffs) and late 90s Basement Jaxx ("Flylife" or "Yo-Yo" maybe). Other tunes suggest Low Deep's ornery harpsichord febrility, piledriving snare bangers, unsettlingly squawking synth work-outs reminiscent of Orbital circa Middle of Nowhere, churning caribbean electro-house... Taken as a whole, this body of work sums up better than any other producer's the notion of uk funky as electro-carnival, a machine's fevered imagining of the fun humans must have at Notting Hill. It's an astonishing outpouring of creativity as frustrating, exhausting and rewarding as uk funky itself.
Devine Collective aka Devine Recordings aka Mad One, Murdz and Others
I'm not trying to be legislative when I suggest that sometimes certain artists just seem to represent the quintessence of a genre, to capture some constellation of qualities that, while not exhausting the possibilities of the style, nonetheless acts as a kind of metonym for an entire scene, for everything in the scene the track doesn't reproduce as well as for everything it does. As you'd expect, the only artists who can do this are precisely those who don't have a singular and unique aesthetic - rather, it's like their musical flesh is animated by the impulses of the genre-spirit itself, as if they were somehow a manifestation of the dialectical movement of the style as a whole, playing itself out through contradiction and resolution before your ears.
Critics don't tend to go for that sort of thing, but rather for the very opposite; if there's one thing critics love, it's iconoclasts. Devine Collective - sometimes known as Devine Recordings, sometimes broken down to their individual producers Mad One and Murdz - are anything but. Their tracks are distinctive of course, anthems usually, but they don't provide visions of the unknown future so much as bottle the excitement of the open present - capturing the ever-present sense of possibility in funky, their tunes always standing at the crossroads and staring in every direction at once. And, of course, their tracks rarely if ever sound like one another.
If there's a thread of consistency to the collective's music, it's maybe that they always remind me of that long-since abandoned term for the nascent funky scene, "urban house" - not in the literal sense of sounding like R&B or hip hop, which obviously is pretty common in funky, especially these days. Rather, in the sense of sounding like house strained through a series of "urbanising" influences, and specifically very London urban influences at that. Simon Reynolds once said of Basement Jaxx's "Jump & Shout" that it had managed to concoct an entirely separate fusion of house and jungle to the then prevailing sound of speed garage. Devine's tracks feel like a never ending series of such concoctions, each bringing different ingredients to the table and ending up with very different results.
The story begins, appropriately enough, with "House Girls Part One" from late 2008, the group's first big hit and most well-known track, especially after appearing on Marcus Nasty's Rinse 10 mix. It's also one of their simplest efforts, for much of its length a stripped down banger of kickdrums, one-note bass booms, "Inflation"-style 5 beat snare patterns, piercing synth bleeps, staccato organ vamps and a timestretched vocal shouting "Giiiiiiirrrrrrrlllllllssssssss" in time-honoured "Arrrreyouuuurrreaadddyforsomeblaaaadclaaaattjungglllettechnoo?" fashion. It's an irresistible masterpiece of economy with slow-tease reveals to spare - when a ravey high-pitched female vocal sample starts to yell "yeah yeah!" towards the end it actually sounds like your drugs kicking in.
"Tribal Conga" emerged at about the same time, but sounds totally different - a slightly unnerving combination of itching, rollicking tribal percussion, a frail-sounding high-pitched piano hook and valkyrie synths hovering warningly in the distance, while sly trombones provide a sludgy, ennervated central hook, the musical equivalent of a car failing to start - only, bizarrely, it works brilliantly. Whereas the structure of "House Girls Part One" is deliberately simple and flat, an endless plane upon which discrete effects can run parallel to one another (in a Kraftwerkian, music as an autobahn sense), on "Tribal Conga" all the elements are mutually implicated, impossible to detangle from their intricate state of codependency. It's not straightforwardly banging enough to be an anthem proper, but it's the kind of track that's always a pleasure to listen to, a welcome presence in the mix as it adds an air of understated malevolence. In typically connoisseurial fashion, MC Rankin' always singles it out for special mention, marveling at the piano hook in particular - dude knows what he's talking about it when it comes to this stuff.
The simultaneous appearance of two such different takes on the funky template - both by main producer Mad One - have set the tone for the group's subsequent efforts, which seem to jump from idea to idea with little in the way of consistency beyond that general sensibility of urbanized house music. "Gotta Have It" is a ridiculously catchy, ants in yr pants number, a descending piano riff and a scatting female vocal (sounding like "Dah dahp! Daah hrurvurr!") set against a straight 4X4 kick drum that then drops into a riveting drum solo of ostentatious broken beat fiddliness. Here Mad One is playing off the seeming contradiction between funky's house-based simplicity and rhythmic adventurousness, the frenzied leap from one pole to the other and back again a literal staging of funky's entire complicated relationship with house music - without the friction building tension of the 4X4 sections, the sudden bursts of funk drums would be meaningless, but in context the effect is thrilling.
"When, Where" is pounding bleep-house enlivened with gorgeously cheesy salsa-tinged high-pitched female vocals but threatened by an ominous trombone bassline. "Dirty Funk" is the kind of raw but musical instrumental cut that (like the VIP remix of DJ Naughty's "Quicktime") seems to recall grime while never actually sounding like it, all cutting tribal percussion and ominous synth-strings. "Never Coming Out" is high-drama piano-house, its insistent, tugging riffs reminding me of Fuzzy Logick at his most classicist, while its even larger sequel "Never Coming Out Part 2" swathes the same structure with seething synth sweeps and supple samba piano ripples, and then enormous string stabs heralding the end of the world. "Night Train" is practically hard techno, its ruthless percussion loop and nervous strings building a taut, anxious groove with not an ounce of fat or softness - Fagan Lee has compared it to Dave Clarke, which is spot on.
The two most recent Devine Collective tracks to become anthems are at once the group's most "People Keep Dancing" feels like an unofficial sequel to Donae'o's "African Warrior" from 2008: both take the veneer of Africanness so common to UK Funky and make it the music's main selling point via a series of interlinked impressions and associations - Africa as in the jungle as in jungle as in rhythm. "People Keep Dancing" is less aggressive, though, and more seductive, weaving its sinuous, hypnotic groove from eerie animal noises, lush synth pads, flickers of horns and a rolling, roiling rhythm that seems to furl and unfurl like densely interlaced foliage. Over it, an intense sing-songy vocal intones "We inna jungle / and we about to make money in a bundle / that's why we play our bongos / 'cos there's nothing that we can't handle..." Kinda ridiculous, but "People Keep Dancing" is entirely straightfaced, any humour transmuted into the seriousness of ecclaesiastical ritual. "Tribal Day Dream" is a darker take on the same template, its nervous tribal (duh) beat full of unexpected fidgety stabs, while ominous bass drops and hysterical strings provide the perfect backdrop for the portentous announcements of a very serious, fervent MC: "It's Devine Collective / and you know this beat sounds hectic... We bring Peace! Love! and Unity! So share the Love! There's no need for War! So get on the dancefloor!"
There's a seriousness of purpose to these tunes that marks them out, but should not be mistaken for "seriousness" in the sense of grimness or aggressiveness or high-production values - rather it's simply this sense of conviction that settles over the tracks, the resolution that funky can feel important without having to strain towards satisfying anyone else's notions of what important music should sound like. As with everything else about the group, this emerging sense of confidence feels organic, a creeping realisation shared between you the listener and them that, actually, this can be the most exciting music in the world. If you feel passionately about UK Funky as a scene, Devine Collective's status as emergent ambassadors makes them even more treasurable than they would be otherwise. I also can't deny enjoying the air of mystery surrounding them - the evocative lack of information about the group or its origins or its intentions, the painstaking cross-referencing of a host of unknown, unattributed but amazing tracks into some sort of roughly coherent image. But I'm prepared to give up this private enjoyment and let others start to run with it, if it means these guys will start to get the reputation they deserve.
Dubplate Wonder Dubplate Wonder and Hard House Banton occupy a curious niche within the funky scene, almost a cul-de-sac, and one that's easy to bypass. Certain people in the know swear by their late 2008 DJ sets on Deja Vu FM as the alpha and omega of UK Funky (I've got the sets dating from 4 November, 25 November and 9 December, and based on this evidence there's a limited truth in such caims; they're pretty amazing sets, and probably good as funky DJ sets without MCs get), and of course everyone knows Hard House Banton from his monster tunes "Sirens" and "Reign". These very masculine, bass-driven tunes gave the erroneous impression that Hard House Banton was, alongside Lil' Silva, going to "grime up" funky. The truth was quite different: the vast majority of Hard House Banton's tunes are smooth, suave, girlish at times, with crisp, precise, even prissy drum programming. On some sets Hard House Banton even toasts, and his vocals are similarly prissy, "educated" sounding; he talks about how his music "floats", which captures perfectly his deliberately inculcated lightness of touch (anyone who loves the dark desire of Hard House Banton track "Turn It Around" will know this ain't necessarily a bad thing).
Ironically, his frequent recording partner Dubplate Wonder (they work together as D'n'B, amusingly) is mostly darker, heavier, denser, though not in any obvious way. If Hard House Banton's rhythms often have a startling sense of cleanness to them, Dubplate Wonder prefers busy, textured snare-patterns and thick bass and synth sounds that seem to bleed into one another like a child's watercolour painting. The two producers, appropriately, appear to match each other in talent and skill, Wonder hasn't garnered anything like Hard House Banton's level of public awareness, if only because he's even more resolutely "tracky" than his partner ("I make bangers, not anthems, leave that to..." Crazy Cousinz I guess?).
I'm tempted to describe Dubplate Wonder as a "uk funky purist", but this may give the wrong impression; it's not like he has a restrictive or pared-back or traditionalist sound, as his frankly ludicrous blend of Claude Von Stroke's "The Whistler", Donae'o's "African Warrior", Fingaprint's "The Takeover" and Rodamaal's "Insomnia" aptly demonstrates - a bootleg track that groans under the weight of its own density, its deluge of sonic information. Rather, Dubplate Wonder's productions feel "purist" in the sense that their appeals are always the appeals of funky in itself, not funky as a cipher for some other impulse - funky-as-dubstep, funky-as-house, funky-as-techno, funky-as-grime and so on. Dubplate Wonder productions never feel like anything other than funky, and while they're hardly forbidding, I can imagine the uninitiated finding them perhaps middling, not obviously delivering the thrills they associate with a certain kind of vocal, a certain kind of harsh synth sound. For the familiar though, this stuff is delectable, truly 3 michelin hat funky for funky connoisseur-bores (me and...?).
Basically, a Dubplate Wonder track stands and falls on the magical interplay of intricate, papery snare patterns, and warm, slightly roughened bass - and then the interplay of those with a vocal if present. He's not a professional remixer or anthem-crafter in the sense of Crazy Cousinz or Perempay & Dee, but Wonder appears to like basing his productions around other people's songs, I suspect because they allow him to get down to the business of focusing on his craft: check his remix of John Legend's "When I Used To Love You", and the way he frames the vocal in coils of rapidly curling and uncurling drums. Or his remix of T2's "Butterflies", with its sour three-note bass riffs and reggae piano lilt over deeper, warmer floods of bass and Ill Blu-style skipping stone snares. His remix of his partner in crime's signature tune "Sirens" is even more to-the-point, its only amendment a fluttering handclap drum pattern like a moth beating its wings at your ears and, somehow, a deepening or magnifcation of the already majestic bassline.
This may sound somehow negligible, but remember Foul Play and their to-the-point, rhythmically obsessed remixes of Omni Trio and Hyper-On Experience: this is the vibe that Dubplate Wonder inhibits, taking his productions ever deeper into the rhythmic foliage of funky's horizon of possibility, and further and further from any other possible mode of understanding. For instance his remix of Diamond's swirly, sweet-toothed "I Think I'm In Love With You" sounds as if it's being played underwater, so thick, so viscous and amniotic are the layers of bass and so lost-in-the-detail are the odd, hyperactive trebly synth patterns that might otherwise provide the hook. Wonder doesn't despise hooks by any stretch, but you get the impression that when it comes to arranging the elements in his tunes they're first among equals at best; the groove is the thing, and if you don't intuitively get the groove, don't feel the drums sing under your skin, well, what are you doing listening?
I've written about remixes of course because I can identify some of them; there are so many tunes that are simply unknown grooves, like the whistle-tune that samples TNT's "Rhumba" and features "Grindin" style backfiring noises at the end of each measure, not obviously life-changing like a good Ill Blu tune and yet hypnotically involving, a groove whose dovetailing iterations seem to conceal and only obliquely disclose a wealth of detail and mystery. Or there's the one with woodblock beats and flighty synth-strings and high-pitched bassline that sounds like it's being played on some sickly, warped glockenspiel. Or the frantic and yet oddly melancholy MC track with the ragga chat "what you know about Wonder? Bloodclaat know about Wonder??" Or that staccato string riff track, like an even more alien, evil-intentioned take on D-Malice's "Gabryelle Refix", its beats and serrated bass pulses swarming like an army of giant insects with sharpened mandibles. Or his own siren tune, closer to Ill Blu's "Blu Magic" than "Sirens", only with beats like high heels stomping on a dancefloor that are all his own.
You should track down his Wonderland '09 mix of his own productions, recorded at the beginning of the year. If any other producer recorded such a mix, in any other moderately in-vogue dance genre, you'd see excited artist profiles, formally commissioned podcast sets, breathless whispers that this guy was "the one to watch". The feel of listening to these 24 track in succession is curious for a funky set: the words that spring to mind are "enveloping" and "entrancing", notwithstanding the sudden eruptions of hyperactive drum patterns or evil-sounding bass. It's this dreamlike quality that makes me think of Jam City, or Cooly G for that matter, and wonder (no pun intended) at the media black hole which seems to engulf this producer by comparison, especially given he doesn't at all appear shy about pushing and promoting his own productions.
The only explanation I can think of is the one I offered upthread - that Wonder is too resolutely funky-qua-funky to be of much interest to anyone not closely following the scene itself, an occupation whose difficulty and (at times) perversity requires a certain religious zeal at any rate. But this mix - always astonishing me when I return to it with its range, its inventiveness, its nuance, its sheer quality - ought to inspire a certain religiosity in and of itself. Maybe the absence of critical hosannas so far is due to a simple oversight - if so, here's your chance to address it: any media types reading this, you can steal this idea for an "emerging artist" profile, and anything else in this piece, lock stock and barrel; I promise I'll be so pleased that I won't even think to gripe.
Ill Blu are without doubt the year's finest producers - not just in uk funky, but period. Their anthems in 2009 - "Pull It", "Heartbreaker", "Blu Magic", "Time To Get Nasty", "Bring It Back" - read not just like a great night out, but an index of what is possible in the genre; this despite having an instantly recognizable "signature sound" that renders their deep voice cyborg "Ill... Blu..." samples redundant. I want to talk about some of them now.
I've started several homemade compilations with "Time To Get Nasty", on account of its brilliantly eerie intro: a solitary Danny Weed style persian clarinet riff is slowly enveloped by a surround-sound, bassy sheen like a THX "the audience is listening" advertisement, then one of those levitating five beats per bar patterns that Ill Blu always do so well, always reminding me of stones skipping across the surface of a lake at high speed, then more and more tense counter-percussion and shrill string riffs, before it all falls away as a warped commander announces "Time to get nasty!" And like a guillotine falling, an onslaught of high-drama synth vamps at once punitive and faintly gothic duck and weave around the stabbing beat. I know nothing about drums, but "Time To Get Nasty" doesn't offer a steady kickdrum, just its dancehall beat impacting solidly in the mid-range; this gives the tune the effect of aiming at your head as much or more than your mid-range, like a nervous boxer so light on its feet they barely touch the ground.
The reference points are easy: Danny Weed's "Shank Riddim", Davinche's "Mr. DJ", that rendezvous between steely futurism and cheesy goth melodrama that puts me in mind of The Matrix visually and therefore of course Missy's Da Real World musically. What Ill Blu share with Da Real World and Danny Weed is a certain meticulousness even at their ruffest and tuffest, an almost prissy insistence on having everything in its right place.
The menace of high-tech precision: in 2009 this should be the most tiresome of all possible aesthetics for populist dance music, but any aesthetic defined so broadly can always be as good as producers are prepared to make it (as a side note, when someone claims "x is back", they invariably mean "x was always there but the cultural products it's inspiring right now seem good or important enough to make an issue of") - it would make sense for this particular niche to be creatively exhausted, endlessly spinning its shiny car wheels, but in Ill Blu's hands it's the gift that keeps on giving, perhaps due to the ruthless kineticism of their grooves. This is the slight edge that Ill Blu's best work has over, say, Joker & Ginz's "Purple City" (an enormous, brilliant track to be sure, and probably the only "wonky" track I'd call a truly deserving popular anthem), the music's grounding in house offering it a truly ravey, propulsive drive that makes everything seem just a little bit more high stakes on the dancefloor.
This remix of Kris Baya's "Heartbreaker" demonstrates Ill Blu's talent as pop song arrangers: I often hear the instrumental of "Heartbreaker" but I prefer the slightly cheesy vocal version, with all of the duo's high-drama tricks and twists entwined around Baya's smooth 'n' sweet R&B loverman vocals. Sure, it's a great riddim, but the point of the spectrality and fragility of this groove, mixed so inextricably with its half-hearted brutality, only becomes clear in the context of Kris's admittedly by-numbers tale of a praying mantis female eating him up and casting him aside. Ill Blu choose and deploy their weapons with brutal efficiency: supple, rippling tribal percussion, shimmering faux-pizzicato string-synths, those faux-hardman grunts and exhalations punctuating the groove, ghostly keyboards, and of course doom-laden tragi-comic synth-horns straight from a 1983 Depeche Mode record, encapsulating and perfecting the Hammer Horror vibe that is Ill Blu's standard pop maneuver. An audible smirk hangs over proceedings, and not in a bad way - the producers know they're not fooling anyone with their psuedo-darkness but they're banking on the listener loving cheesy drama as much as they do. Baya's anonymously smooth vocals are perfect for this - anyone more idiosyncratic would interfere with the clockwork perfection of the production, drawing attention to itself when the whole appeal is that of a maximilaist riot in which every element understands its place.
This of course means that on "Heartbreaker" Ill Blu aren't great pop qua pop arrangers, only great pop qua dance music arrangers - unlike an Artful Dodger or a Sunship or indeed a Crazy Cousinz, they're unwiling or unable to reduce and refine their armoury to the point where the song itself can take over, so even their most pop moments sound busy, overwhelming, musically egotistical in a way that undermines the potential for crossover. This is a problem if you're consumed with setting up universal "pop" barometers of judgment, but the question "does this work as a pop song" is always a loaded and misleading one - great pop songs are not instances of "perfect" pop so much as love letters between pop and something else. What's so appealing about Ill Blu is that they increasingly seem to approach their "pop" moments not by toning down their excesses (though earlier tunes like Princess's "Frontline" and their own "Rider" are more straightforward) but by ramping them up - the only way they're prepared to "cross over" is by being ever more ridiculously themselves.
The remix of 321's "Bring It Back" meanwhile is so overblown and so obviously Ill Blu to its toenails that it verges on parody, both of the duo specifically and of a certain kind of pop music - loving it makes me feel like a cliche in the same way that being gay and loving Kylie Minogue does. Again so much here is about the build: the robotic "Ill...Blu...", the frankly astonishing beat, all stabbing military drums and not a 4X4 kick in sight, more robots announcing "It's a funky ting right now, it's a funky ting" over corporeal strings and synths, then 321 announcing "I come to party party, we come to party party..." followed by a massive foghorn blast, and then suddenly everything together in a rush as the central groove takes off, reminding me of the many climaxes in Hyper-On Experience's "Lords of the Null-Lines". "BRING BACK THE GORGON DANCE!" 321 demand, one of many dance demands made that results in "Bring It Back" sounding half like a nostalgic "this is your dancehall life" tribute and half like a hostage letter. Around this are inserted shrill diva cries, post-"Gabryelle" descending string riffs, sludgy bass and, of course, more foghorns, which in this context performs the same sonic and cultural function as the piano vamps in Kylie's "Better The Devil You Know". The tune is thrillingly physical, but it feels like a showpiece, as much designed to rock you on your heels a little with its size and hauteur as get you to dance (though I warrant it does the latter pretty damn effectively).
Perhaps what I like most about "Bring It Back" is how, taken in context with their other productions, it demonstrates their equal sense of devotion to what I might reductively call "style" and "substance". The duo have their share of more straightforward or even anti-populist tracks, of course. Their big club anthem of the moment is "Blu Magic", a deceptively simple charger of whooping bleeps and deliciously programmed papery snares, like a funky take on "Geht Nocht". "Dragon Pop" meanwhile is furrow-browed tribal clankery along the lines of Scratcha DVA's Soule Power work, all booming junglist bass, sampled hand percussion and not a melody in sight (in the youtube clip at the very top of this post, the duo play a new track which winningly splits the difference between "Dragon Pop" and "Time To Get Nasty", part tribal music part apocalypse). Against such demonstrations of pure functionalism or self-conscious progression, the "Bring It Back" remix is more like pure glamour, a giant balloon of thrilling signifiers and hot air. I love that Ill Blu - and it's not them specifically so much as an impulse of funky generally - recognise that glamour is important too, that it's how surface sparkle and core groove science come together and vibe off each other that allows funky to stretch itself and outperform its own expectations.
The duo's biggest 2009 track, and maybe the one that nicely summarises all of the above, is their remix of Shystie's "Pull It", which also functions handily as a signature track for the funky + female mc equation that is so popular at the moment (see Ms Dynamite & Geneeus's "Get Low" produced by Geeneus, Lady Stush's version of Hard House Banton's "Sirens", Sticky's work with Lady Chann ("Eye Too Fast") and Natalie Storm ("Look 'Pon Me") just to start with...). This time riding a firm 4X4 kick, "Pull It" actually has a faltering, halfstep feel to it by virtue of those resonant almost gated snares on every third beat. Moreover Ill Blu's sadsack synth chords have never sounded more computer game spectral than they do here, while baritone choirs sigh wordlessly in the background. Against this Shystie's remorselessly cheerful rap ("Put ya hands up high if ya feel it! DJ! Pull it! Wheel it!") offers the kind of odd warp and weft common in dancehall where energy, sadness, fun and darkness are all natural dance partners.
The production here is just impossibly nuanced: there's a bit where Shystie chants "flash ya lighters high if ya feel it" over galloping snares, and the snares seem to... stagger momentarily, like they're racing to keep up with Shystie's rapping and had to stretch themselves to avoid from falling behind, or maybe to avoid a pothole in the road. The vibe this creates is subtle but lovable - instead of you dancing to the beat, the beat is dancing with you, there's a kind of "we're all in this together" feel where everything is egging everything else on to greater heights of explosive physicality. And then, just because they can, Ill Blu switch to an amazing xylophone interlude, twinkling chords bouncing round a rigid dancehall beat in a fitting tribute to 2-step's amazing xylophone workouts. Both "Bring It Back" and "Pull It", simultaneously nostalgic and futuristic, offer such historical tidbits as if to say "look how far we've come, look at how much we can do now."
An Ill Blu Discography:
Princess - Frontline Lloyd - Girls Around The World (Ill Blu Remix) Princess - Frontline (Remix) Coldsteps - I Will Be There Ill Blu - Time To Get Nasty Ill Blu ft. Hoodzee - Rider Kris Baya - Heartbreaker (Ill Blu Remix) Shystie - Pull It (Ill Blu Remix) Princess - Big Boys Young Nate - I Wonder (Ill Blu Remix) Aaliyah - Rock The Boat (Ill Blu Remix) Ill Blu ft. Shanique - Say Yes Shontelle - Battle Cry (Ill Blu Remix) Ill Blu - Blu Magic 321 - Bring It Back (Ill Blu Remix) H20 ft. Zoe - Pink Love (Ill Blu Remix) Ill Blu - Dragon Pop Ill Blu - Touch It Donae'o - Watching Her Move (Ill Blu Remix)
What is and isn't "uk funky"? What's in and what's out? It's a sign of the genre's weakness for some that this isn't an easy question to answer. I hope I'm not merely being contrarian when I claim it as a key strength: for a music with such a strong sense of identity, it's like uk funky has an inbuilt resistance to being determined by any one quality (musical or social), as if by doing so it can avoid being pinned down, reductively defined and so reduced in possibility. You know a track is "uk funky" in the same way that a judgment of physical hotness is like the square root of the entire interrelationship between a person's appearance, swagger, accent, the heat outside, how long it's been since you've gotten some, not to mention your most private odd desires and fantasies. It's never clear what the key factor is, if there even is one.
The task of saying what uk funky is generally can be approached only obliquely, by exposing the shortcomings of each attempt to hypostasize it, to anchor it to some concept which can provide both definition and a means of judgment. And I do tend to react a bit over-zealously when I see audiences acting like uk funky (or, rather, "good" uk funky) is about one or two qualities in particular. There are dubstep partisans who praise deepness and moody atmospheres, grime refugees looking for MCs, velocity and metallic sonics, pop fans who seem to think the noblest endeavour of a funky tune is to transcend its genre base and aspire to the timeless combination of good tune + catchy chorus + memorable (female) vocal. None of these positions are wrong per se - there are fabulous tracks that work wonders while inhabiting each of these equations almost solely - but for the scene itself they can only ever be the smallest fraction of what's right.
The desire to establish a story within a story - to say that, as far as you care, (good) funky is about (insert your niche here) and the rest can be ignored - is fine as far as it goes, but I can't help but feel sorry for the people who approach it this way. In the same way that I feel sorry for people who love Zed Bias but can't get with "Flowers" (or vice versa!), or people who can wax lyrical about No-U-Turn but can't stand Aphrodite (or... but you get the idea). Surprise surprise, funky is exciting as a "scene" when it's trending furthest from such partial visions: when "In The Morning" rubs shoulders with "Seasons" and both learn something from one another. Think of it like a giant single pool of water, where each ripple ultimately spreads out and rebounds across the entire surface: as well as being factually correct by and large, this is what we should want funky to be, because this is the model with the most possibility, wherein populism and abstraction, tough grooves and sweet vocals can all swap tricks and share their stories.
Pearson Sound is a pseudonym for Ramadanman, one of my favourite dubstep producers - he made last year's "Blimey", which was deeply reminiscent of primo Metalheadz, or perhaps more specifically Photek's "The Rain" meets Roni Size's "Timestretch" meets 1994 era Dillinja. "Wad" has just been released on Hessle Audio, probably the best dubstep label in my untrustworthy opinion, but "Wad" is, on any sensible reading, a funky track. Certainly, "Wad" is a rhythmically dense as funky comes: an almost overwhelming ensemble of sycopated door slam kicks, tense snare attacks and opulent latin percussion latticework. As such it bears some of the hallmarks you might expect of a dubstep producer going funky: at once spare and cluttered, the track suggests that what gets Ramadanman excited is the rhythmic possibilities of funky, while perhaps less so its songs or its roots in house. But "Wad" is far too cheesy to really profit in any traditional or expected fashion from such dubstep associations, its one-note birdcall samples and general friskiness suggesting nothing so much as someone dropping an E at a salsa class. Tellingly, one sceptic complained on youtube: "is this part of the Zumba dance fitness craze cd?". I like that "Wad" sounds too enthused and hyper to ever stop and worry about sounding classy. But Ramadanman has hardly abandoned all the production nuances that characterise his dubstep material. Check the tune's amazing "chorus", which consists of those door-slam beats threading themselves through an immaculate cut-up vocal singing something like "Work! Hi'tm dat dat, si dah! Der! Work! Hi'tm dat ooh si dah! People Work!" and so on, before pausing for a bonetrembling bass drop, only to deliver you safely back at latin central. It's the dynamism of its construction, rather than just its awesome springloaded groove or head-circling vocal hook or even pungent corniness, that makes "Wad" stay with you.
Soule Power is in fact Scratcha DVA, one of funky's most unpredictable producers. Dude's got a history as a grime producer, but he's also behind the sassy broken beat house anthem "I'm Leaving" (should appeal to fans of "In The Morning"), and he seems to take funky's roots in house very seriously (see his clanking, pounding refix of "God Made Me Phunky"), while his dj sets have a heavy electro-house tilt to them. "Natty Dub", meanwhile, has been picked up by Hyperdub, and it's not hard to see why: alongside Roska's work as "Uncle Bakongo", this is as spare and as self-consciously "avant" as funky gets, its waterlogged tribal beats sounding rather like a lethargic, multilayered instrumental dub of "Get Ur Freak On", while its loping "halfstep" kickdrums probably will win over dubstep fans straightaway. At the same time, "Natty Dub" has a grime style flip-flop structure, with every second set of four bars featuring a counter-rhythm that sounds like a car failing to start. As with a lot of Cooly G productions, the effect is a kind of emotionless intensity, where you lock into the circular, cyclical iterations of the groove. Again, a dubstep kind of vibe. Ironically, given that Hyperdub sponsorship equals instant auteurist fetishism, this stuff tends only to properly come alive in the mix, where it provides compelling bridges between more traditional house "build" tracks or the more blunt, ravey or sing-songy attractions of other uk funky. Cooly G in particular has an excellent ear for picking "deep" US or Euro house tracks whose scintillating percussion arrangements gel well both with her own tracks particularly and uk funky generally; in her sets, tunes like "Natty Dub" and Uncle Bakongo's stiff tribal assault "Bambara" are like moments when the house groove, always stretched to the limits, is now caught or snagged, snarled in some syncopated thicket. Think of "Natty Dub" less as a tune in its own right and more as a wickedly effective uk funky dj tool and its appeal becomes obvious immediately. I probably wouldn't listen to the tune by itself, but then, that's what DJ Naughty's "Love Lockdown" is for (not to mention a million others).
On ILX last year the very cluey Siegbran asked what made uk funky so different from the "Spanish house" scene typified by dj Vato Gonzales, who I think is actually dutch (go figure). Listen to Gonzales' sets and the similarities are clear though not conclusive: it's like this scene has taken a slightly different set of signifiers (Fedde Le Grand style "funky" electro-house, Pitbull) and started edging into the same space of raucous, syncopated, distinctly "urban" sounding house music. In what feels like a weird karmic reaction, uk funky has answered Siegbran's question by adopting Gonzales' "Badman Riddim" as its very own. At least a year old now, "Badman Riddim" would be a strange beast of a track in any context: stiff beats, massive seismic bass reminiscent of the best Metope or Basteroid tracks on Areal Records, forbidding string riffs, and then a monstrously overblown horn breakdown worthy of '94 era jungle, over which a voice announces portentously, "Right about now! Badman riddim! Inside the place! Place! Place! Place!" Rather like the Seeed crew from Germany, this faux-patois sounds halfway convincing if you're not paying attention, but of course once you focus the accent sharpens into something all too Euro. I suspect that those horns are sampled from Pharaoh Monche's "Simon Says", and indeed "Badman Riddim" shares that same bludgeoning so-thuggish-it's-funky vibe, that same macho aggression that trips right over into high camp. I also imagine that its breakdown goes off like a bomb in a club setting.
How can UK funky hold its head up high when a track like this becomes an anthem? But surely, "Badman Riddim" is only continuing what "Doom's Night" started: if a track is banging in any genre, it's banging in any genre. And this is the secret appeal of UK Funky's openness, its fuzziness, its lack of firm (or any) borders: it provides a context of greatness in which the appeal of outsider music can flourish, and anything that this music lets in automatically sounds better than it did before. Once you get in, who'd want out?
Most "skank" tracks don't really survive the transition from homemade youtube craze to proper crossover phenomenon. Fr3e's "Tribal Skank (Skank Calm Down)" being a case in point - when it was the soundtrack to a dozen amateur dance-offs it seemed like the best thing ever, but the eventual slick pro video clip immediately transformed it from gimmick-good to gimmick-bad, and it's hard now to hear it with the same enthusiasm and fondness I once held (the annoying extra vocals didn't help, admittedly). Why does "Stick Up" work in the opposite fashion? Well maybe it's because the video is just awesome, a weird and unexpectedly successful melange of high-tech alien futurism, high street humour and dance instruction class. Such a triumph of little details: the girls dancing in the shiny tops with the overexposed lights streaking across them is maybe my favourite music video visual this year.
Its glittery video also helps "Stick Up" pass some credibility test that I didn't even think I believed in. Skank tracks - with their basic "nursery grime" chants and rudimentary or outright pirated grooves - attract all the kinds of criticism you would expect: made in 2 minutes, no soul no feeling, blah blah blah. I don't truck with this, but nonetheless it's difficult not to feel like their cheery populism is slightly wasted when the tunes are too literally cheap to appeal to a pop audience weaned on high-tech production values and glamorous photo shoots. "Stick Up" as a tune could go both ways. On the one hand, with a homemade dance routine video it sounds like a defiantly unprofessional mishmash of R&B signifiers, funky beats and the tune from Faithless' "Insomnia". Plus as near as I can tell the accompanying dance routine is rather too straightforward.
On the other, it really is impeccably produced: there's such a widescreen vibe to it, the bass when it drops is just so lugubrious and doom laden, and in this context the Faithless synth riffs sound exotic as much as anthemic (plus it's made me go back to "Insomnia" itself - better than I remember!). The mixture is kinda inspired. Funky is probably the only house-related sub-genre in which sampling "Insomnia" wouldn't sound obvious as well as corny, and where its corniness might become a strong point in the song's favour. If "Stick Up" does well in the charts (highly unlikely as that prospect may seem) it would be a vindication for that disaster-courting magpie tendency. If, as is more likely, it doesn't do well, it'll still be a glitzy and glamourous minor classic in my book. Plus how cool is it that Dotstar looks a lot like Green Velvet at times.
Even leaving aside that it's produced by Fingaprint's production partner, it shouldn't surprise that "Domino Effect" feels like a sister track to "Everybody": with its sexy female vocal and slithery synth melodies it ventures into similar territory of slick electroid vocal house. Marvelously so. Less rhythmically dense than "Everybody", "Domino Effect" is nonetheless the better of the two, its shimmering synth chords and lethargic, spacey groove creating a totally otherworldly vibe, especially when emerging from other funky tunes in the mix.
In contrast to "Everybody", the groove here is deceptively simple, a spare but gorgeously textured drum pattern pivoting fitfully around a single note bass boom, while overhead a succession of increasingly frail but springy and moist keyboard vamps bounce and twirl. Hardly bothering to differentiate itself from a straight 4X4 groove, nonetheless the track's rhythm sounds thoroughly distinct and memorable; I often find it circling around my head. In this, and in the tune's brooding eeriness, I'm reminded of Adamski's "Killer": there's that same sense of the groove being almost pregnant and weighed down by its own unsettling portentousness.
One thing that funky does which hitherto was almost lost to history is bring back the possibility of populist vocal house where the beat itself tells a story. We are used to this in R&B and rap of course, and we are used to magnificent house-pop in all eras, but what we no longer even think to expect is house-pop with an arresting, mnemonic drum pattern that itself captures and communicates much of the vibe of the song. "Killer" had this, indeed belonged to an era when such things were expected. Of course the other place this understanding has resurfaced is in R&B itself, where the revitalised popularity of the 4X4 beat has made the better producers think harder about how to squeeze every last drop of nuance out of relatively uniform grooves. Not surprisingly, "Domino Effect" also reminds me of such voluptuous kickdrum-epics as Electrik Red's "We Fuck You". If funky ever does cross over in the way that 2-step did, it's unlikely to be with driving housey vibe of tunes like "Do You Mind" or Wookie & Ny's "Falling" (as fine as both are); conversely, I could see this kind of torpid, expressive languor working a treat.
Also I can't go past the fabulous self-diagnosing lyrics here: "Psychedelic futuristic noise is playing in the background... You had my from the very start... Now it's time that I surrender... Something in my heart.... Just went click. Click. Click...." (cue drums)
Fingaprint and the other producers in the Invasion Records crew (O.B., who together with Fingaprint forms Magic Touch, and Tadow Productions) are considered pioneers in funky, the first producers to take it dark, to take it ravey, to take it dancehall. Fingaprint's "The Takeover", with its MC Creed lick and pounding syncopated groove, is that "seminal" announcement of the new thing in the same way that More Fire Crew's "Oi" was - though curiously I don't find myself returning to it so often, perhaps because I heard and fell in love with Fuzzy Logik's similar "Twiss" first. The big one for me was Fingaprint's slamming remix of Skepta's "The Rolex Sweep", which seemed just so much harder and more muscular than any actual grime I heard last year - indicative of the odd sense of gender flux that funky represents.
Some of Fingaprint's more recent productions have sounded rather electro-housey, which I'm somewhat skeptical about as a direction for the scene, but I'm keeping an open mind. On his remix of Rudenko's "Everybody" any such resemblance is more to do with the disaffected vocal than Fingaprint's music, but still the track reveals some lessons learned: with its concentration of mid-range detail the better electro-house is (or was) characterised by a quasi-Orbital love of warp and weft, each synth line or arpeggio interlacing with the others, the tracks rising and falling in intensity as elements are added, subtracted and added again. The delectably produced "Everybody" , translates this taste for interlocking into a feast of overlaid drums: I count at least five different patterns, usually running simultaneously, each simply exquisite sounding. Funky was already an additive style in this fashion (see Seany B's "Stompa" from last year for a great and very easy-to-follow example), but the "Everybody" remix turns this approach into an artform; the interplay between the drums and the vocals is a wonder to behold.
Simon R dismissed this trend last year with the elegant epithet "percussion is the last refuge of scoundrels" (or something to that effect). It has a nice ring, but it's misleading in two senses: firstly, in that the percussion-overlay approach is only one of many in funky - an equal number of funky tunes are as spare in their construction as grime tunes - and secondly, in that as applied to funky it relies on a logic of equivalence that simply doesn't hold true. The additive tendency in funky cannot be reduced to the stereotypical depiction of polite house with live percussion on top simply because the purpose, function and effect of the percussion-overload are entirely different.
One of my favourite albums of the last few years is the More Baile Funk: Favela Booty Beats compilation (if you understandably thought you would only need one funk carioca compilation in your life, I should note here that this one is far superior to its predecessor in my opinion). At the time what excited me about it was the way in which it seemed much closer to rave music (alongside the usual suspects - miami bass etc.) than to much of the populist rhythmic music of the past decade plus. It's not the similarity to rave itself that was exciting, but rather the way in which the music built grooves of sometimes mindboggling complexity and syncopated energy out of often very simple individual components combined together, while still sounding vital and jocular. This stands in stark contrast to the post-Timbaland consensus that characterises pretty much everything else: usually single loops obsessively constructed to do the most damage possible all by themselves. The point here is not that one way is better than the other, but that both options are on the table: at a time when "we" think we understand what makes all this great music just so great, that sudden sharp jab is necessary.
UK funky shares funk carioca's disinterest in (even impatience for) others' insistence on futurism, so it's not surprising that it also unconsciously resembles funk in its rhythmic approach at times (though let's be clear: it equally draws from the post-Timbaland heritage, via grime primarily; most of the time it falls somewhere in the middle). There's a certain... slickness to "Everybody" that obscures the unwitting relationship (more sympathetically: accomplishment), but nonetheless as the tune fires up to its most dense, most overblown peaks I feel that same little thrill, that same sense that here, thank God, is a music unafraid of the inherent corniness ("scoundrelness"?) of maximalism, of thinking about how rhythmic pretension might destroy the most ruthlessly unpretentious of dancefloors. But for grinches, here's a more respectable point of comparison for this track: the perfect midpoint between A Guy Called Gerald circa "Voodoo Ray" and A Guy Called Gerald circa Black Secret Technology.
Swift Jay - Revenge Hard to select my very favourite development in UK funky over the past 12 months or so, but probably top of my list is the number of tracks that sound like funky versions of ‘ardkore rave. In terms of specific sounds this usually means: bouncy piano vamps, spiraling mid-range synthesizer effects (which might otherwise be characterized as electro-house affectations) and, best of all, shrill high-pitched diva exhortations, from declamatory full-fledged phrases (“It’s the new sound!”) through enigmatic fragments (“Oh… and I’m here to tell you…!”) to isolated sighs and moans of painfully ecstatic feeling (“ey-EY-ey!”). Incidentally, the three preceding vocal snippets come from tracks I’ve yet to ID – any assistance is highly appreciated.
Based on the tracks I have been able to identify, the Funk Factory team (Scottie D and Smoovie T) are the clear masters, and I’ll be talking about them quite a bit later on. Initially I thought “Revenge” was a Funk Factory track, as it shares a similar vibe: a spare, cutting percussive groove that keeps layering on more and more rhythms, the snares slashing into your ears with an air of casual violence. Above and throughout, a big-chested Loleatta-style house diva bellows “Give yourself! Give yourself! To meeeeeee!”
There’s frequently a breathtaking superficiality to discussions about the role of masculinity and femininity in UK dance music: the characterization of jungle, grime and dubstep as masculine and 2-step, bassline and funky as feminine fails to grasp entirely anima/animus logic that defines all these styles. Notice how 2-step and grime seem to diametrically oppose and yet mirror each other on this issue. 2-step was almost always at its most thrilling when it was trying to plumb new, hitherto undiscovered depths of sexy darkness, the cyborg funk of “Destiny” giving rise to the bass explosions of “Neighbourhood” which in turn led to the tense percussive attack of London Dodgers’ “Down Down Biznizz” (i.e. just follow the line of development taken by the Locked On label between 1998 and 2001). Sure, some of 2-step’s most brilliant tracks were unashamedly sugary and “girlish” – tunes like “Flowers” and “Crazy Love” – but as a genre, what pushed garage along was the magnetic attraction between sensuality and muscularity, pop hooks and dark bass-driven grooves. Conversely, grime was almost always at its most exciting when it was trying to find its way back to the light.
People talk about funky like it’s a swing back to femininity from grime and/or dubstep. This is true only to the extent that funky harks back to garage’s particular arc of development at times. Even then, that’s only half the story: funky sounds crude or robotic as easily it does fluid, sexy and, well, funky. As with dancehall, funky’s flexible beat structure and hormone-balanced aren’t tied to any particular strategy of affect, but (especially in good DJ sets) create a sense of such questions being suspended. I suspect that this sense of suspension owes a lot to dancehall, but it’s also a hallmark of rave fully as much as are breakbeats or piano vamps or hoover riffs.
On one Marcus Nasty set I have, while “Revenge” is playing an MC expands on the diva sample: “yes, just give yourself to us, that’s all we want, just you for the night, your ears, your mind, your body, your soul!” He sums up the ambivalence of this demand for the listener’s submission, which requires a total surrender to the logic of the music. Funky had to harden up to capture this vibe; “Revenge” is a house record that samples a diva, but everything about its clipped, buzzy groove feels violent and charged with testosterone. And yet this toughening is not achieved at the expense of the diva, who remains a real, tangible force in the music. As should be obvious, what is exciting about tracks like these isn’t just their component elements, but the way in which they’re brought into constellation with one another, the imperious diva and the impossibly sharp beats egging each other on to ever greater heights.