Sunday, March 09, 2003
(disclaimer: this post was feverishly written in an internet cafe in an attempt to write something down. No guarantees of coherency)

I've been obsessing over a lot of musical ideas, which tend to run round and round in my head and then disippate into incoherency because I haven't been writing them down. More frequently though I've been thinking about the playlist for my 21st birthday party - still two months off, mind you (how's that for obsessive showmanship??) - which morphs and mutates constantly. Of course there'll be party classics for all (I've got three categories forming with the nominal figureheads of Martha & The Vandellas' "Heatwave", Sugarhill Gang's "Apache" and - what else? - Nelly's "Hot In Herre"), but my list is mainly pivoting around the firm conviction that there will be a raft of late eighties/early nineties classics that my generation would know but probably not appreciate. By this I mean Soho's "Hippie Chick" and Beat International's "Dub Be Good To Me" (talked about at length here prior), but also early Soul II Soul, SWV, pretty much anything with a langorous breakbeat that you can still sort of dance to. Don't know why this stuff is interesting to me right now - chalk it up to my ongoing meta-obsession about looseness versus tightness in rhythmic pop (that essay is almost half-half-written!!!), and the fact that so much of what I have been listening to lately is on the tight end of that spectrum, current garage being the most glaring example. Anyway, my party will be among other things an homage to celebratory black London circa 1990, and if no-one gets it then at least they'll be dancing, yeah?

Some outlines of my thoughts on the looseness-vs-tightness quandary: after much deliberation I finally settled on "Play That Beat" as being my favourite song from Missy's Under Construction its sheer take-no-prisoners pop-urgency not allowing any competition, Missy's unequivocal surrender constituting a sense-searing release like the woosh of a dam-burst (contrary to the standard line on Missy, she is just as good - if not better - in the role of victim as she is in the role of triumphant hero. Maybe why I return to Da Real World so often is the sense of inadequately-concealed vulnerability that glimmers through the rigid shards of "Hot Boys", "You Don't Know", "Sticking Chickens", "We Did It" et. al. In contrast the formally superior Miss E allows only one real moment of weakness in the form of "Step Off"). But "Play That Beat" is also loveable for its sonic bluntness: that beat, an imperceptible but immeasurable improvement on the snare-slam of Method Man's "All I Need", the raucous crowd shouting "I'm ready!!!", the awesome frission between all these elements and the ultra-smooth R&B backing vocals (always a huge improvement to any Missy song). What I like about "Play That Beat" is how it sounds cheap and banged together in spirit, evoking an image of Missy literally running to the mic while Timbaland frantically presses some buttons with only three minutes at hand to capture the overwhelming creative urge. The meaningfulness of such an image is automatically lost when applied to genres which grapple with the cheap-and-banged-together daily; it's the sense of behaving against type which makes "Play That Beat" unusually compelling.

"Play That Beat" also fits into an emergent narrative of breakbeat revivalism, specifically a return to and reevaluation of energetic funk breaks. See also the amazing Outkast Remix of No Doubt's "Hey Baby" with its grandiloquent drums stomping all over the place, the hectic party vibes of Faith Hill's "Burning Up (Remix)" or even J Lo's "Jenny From The Block", the funk-by-implication of the Neptunes or Jay-Z's "Hovi Baby".Notably, the dancefloor readiness of this stuff prevents it from slotting easily into either side of a polarised DJ Premier vs Swizz Beats sorta argument, but beyond that I'm not even sure if it can be equated automatically with the straight-up old-skoolisms of Missy's "Funky Freshed Dressed", say. Ideologically, maybe. Rhythmically? Physically? Maybe not. "Funky Freshed Dressed" is undeniably tight, its stuttering drums nostalgic for limited technology rather than a disavowal of technology altogether. In contrast 'Play That Beat", as well as "Bring The Pain", use technology as a self-cloaking device - what Reynolds calls "retro-funk fluency"; or in other words an electronically-enabled humanism. Is there an underlying (if not necessarily primary) conflict within all groove-based musics of humanism versus inhumanism? See UK Garage, which moved from jittery R&B-isms to increasingly wooden, junglistic ergo "naturalistic" rhythmic patterns, almost being ensnared by the low-com-denom incarnation of the latter (being breakbeat garage), before snapping back into inflexible neo-electro mechanism. It was a dialectic struggle that jungle faced prior, and before that there was within US R&B and hip hop the switch from programmed to sampled beats during the eighties, a move ultimately reversed by the advent of Timbaland and the rise of bounce. Of course these switches are never immediate or fully-totalising, and there are times of flux in between when both impulses are realised and realisable (eg. that moment in jungle circa. 96-97 when Optical's "To Shape The Future" co-existed with the last wave of J Majick/Lemon D/Peshay/Photek etc. breaks-obsession, or in garage 00-01 with Zed Bias and So Solid Crew). As regards US black pop music, we might be in a state of flux now, and have been, for maybe a year and a half? - the contrast that made me think this all up originally was Brandy's "What About Us" versus Mystikal's "Bouncin' Back" - in short, to funk or not to funk.

On the whole I've tended to come down on the side of funk. Which is to say, I suspect that the funklessness well may be almost dried up, whereas a return to funk offers a wealth of possibilities. What it must coincide with is a technological advance, a sense that this return is not a simple and straightforward step backwards, but rather a reinvocation of certain musical values from a new perspective. Hopefully we have moved as far beyond the original blueprint of retro-funk-fluency as that paradigm had moved beyond session musicians. What I hear in the Neptunes' most funk-infused arrangements is an ideological gauntlet prioritising naturalism within a technological context that is soaked in post-Timbaland anti-naturalism - it's hard to imagine anything before these tracks shivering in quite the same way. Hopefully this explains my feeble attempts to lionise the Neptunes in my previous post. It's not so much they themselves as what they are part of. But "Play That Beat", in a humbler and more immediate way, is part of whatever-that-is too. Go listen to it again.


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