Thursday, July 17, 2003
Typically perhaps, just as I think that bar is coming into its own aesthetically, garage shows signs of possibly changing tack again by slowing down into “proper” hip hop mode. It almost makes me resent these newer, slower tunes – Sharkie Major’s “Ain’t A Game” and Nasty Crew’s “Birds In The Sky” are so obviously musical, so obviously songful that it’s hard not to imagine them having a devastating impact on the scene (in both the good and bad sense), potentially stifling 8-bar before it’s had a chance to fully spread its wings – but this approach is perhaps being a bit hard on the aforementioned tracks, both of which are pretty fabulous.

Still, conceptually I can’t get behind them as much as I can behind the bittersweet soundclashes of 8-bar at its best – perhaps because 8-bar still demands that the listener focus on the fucked-upness of the beats. Keith McDougall (the brilliant guy who’s been my supplier for a lot of this stuff) reckons that the tempo change is a red herring because the real “breakbeat science” of newfangled garage is actually “MC science”. I agree with him, but from my personal perspective it’s always been primarily the beats that have provided that element of friction, of future that has made this music my calling-card for so long. Adjusting to an MC focus will require practice.

Anyway, the “coming into its own aesthetically” bit I’m talking about is the rush of tunes (well, I’ve heard them in something like a rush at any rate) which seem to marry 8-bar minimal template to alternately bizarre and beautiful textures and ideas in an expansion of the sonic horizon that’s pure ‘ardkore ’93. Most prominently there’s Wiley’s found-sound loops on “Ice Rink”, which takes the cardoor-slam beats of Clipse’s “Grindin’” to whole new levels of rigorous abstraction. I find “Ice Rink” and other Wiley tunes like “Eskimo” and “Snow Kat” to be endlessly listenable, their icy sheen suggesting an enigma that survives the sometimes endless repetition with which they’re used for crew freestyles. My favourite Roll Deep freestyles are Kano’s take on “Ice Rink” (Kano reminds me of Jay-Z rhyming over bounce, hence he’s fabulous) and especially the Harry Toddler version of “Eskimo”, called “Donkey Kick” – Harry’s got a totally unhinged dancehall flow, something like a cross between Sizzla and Elephant Man at their most hyperactive, and he sings about “this new dance named ‘Donkey Kick’” with a madcap fervour that almost turns camp as he sighs, “Oh, I just loveto dance!!” It perfectly matches the dark drama of Wiley’s production, which uses the 8-bar format of arrangement vs bassline to see-saw back and forth in a pressure-cooker of tension and urgency, an attribute slightly lost on all MCs to grace the tune prior to Harry.

The other great see-saw track is Jammer’s remix of The Ends’ “Are You Really From The Ends”, which cycles between Jammer’s trademark furious string riffs and an ultra-minimal stuttering dancehall riddim that harks back to the likes of “Down Down Biznizz” while still positioning itself firmly within the 8-bar tradition. This is one thing I find quite amazing about 8-bar’s development: the way in which so many the 2-step tricks which seemed to be cast by the wayside on “Pulse X” are creeping back in modified form, even more unstable and alienating than before – see also Jammer’s production for Kano’s “Vice Versa (Boys Luv Girls)”, the cheerfully cynical cousin to the black humour of “I Luv U”. All machinic clatter and clicking whirs, “Vice Versa” is the most rhythmically dense piece of garage pop since the marble rolls and military snares of David Howard’s “U & I”. “Vice Versa” replicates that track’s realisation that at some point the underlying rhythmic matrix of a dance style (2-step’s bump’n’flex, 8-bar’s bang’n’scrape) is internalised, felt even when it’s not heard, and so abandons the basic beat structure, replacing it with a much less familiar, much more compelling substitute which forces the dancer to find the rhythm by instinct alone.

The real headtrip though is the remix, which takes the original’s Spartan recorder hook and expands it into an exotic, utopian flute loop that’s flushed with Eastern promise, furnished with Oriental synths and belly dancer percussion. The 8-bar format becomes a deadly game where the gorgeous flute and a decidedly sickly-sounding bassline that mimics it chase eachother, in constant pursuit. The ultra-delicate closer (all marimba rattles and sparkling synth harmonies) suggests that the flute escaped intact, but the memory of the physically impacting bassline undermines this tune’s sweetness – danger still lurks. The tune reminds me heavily of Foul Play’s “Open Your Mind”, where the first visions of Eden are glimpsed through the gritted teeth of darkcore’s illness. In both tunes the mixture and mingling of light and dark are irresistible.

Possibly the most distinguished purveyor of Eastern charm among the 8-bar producers is Target. If much “dubstep” of late has constituted half-arsed attempts to belatedly come to grips with both 4/4 and 8-bar, Target makes good on the idea of a dubstep/8-bar by coming from the other direction, infusing 8-bar with the delicacy and intricacy of El-B and Horsepower Productions whilst retaining the menace and grit of traditional 8-bar – check how “Runaway” splices a madcap beat around precise guitar-riff slashes. Best of all is “Fresh Air” with Danny Weed: although less unabashedly gorgeous than “Vice Versa (Remix)”, it possesses a unique haunting fragility; the stately half-time bass riff and the interplay between Danny’s shuddering cash-register beats and Target’s stuttering tabla claps suggest not a martial arts display but an ancient devotional ritual. It’s not all awe-inspiring solemnity though: the duo’s other Eastern flavoured tracks, “Splash” and “Hyperdrive”, push the same formula into a zone of heart-racing intensity, all manic-to-the-max beats and jittery Orientalist riffs. “Hyper Drive” in particular stretches that line of fragile/insane to almost torturous levels of hyperactivity, putting me in mind of Horsepower Productions on heavy, heavy doses of speed.

In short, 8-bar is firing all along the gamut from hard and nasty to sweet and gentle. With so much potential left open to it, it would be shame to see its possibilities for development foreclosed prematurely. No matter how amazing “Ain’t A Game” is.


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