Friday, August 01, 2003
I was slightly miffed by Simon's comments with regards to dancehall. Undoubtedly he's right to some extent: dancehall always is pretty productive, and I'm sure that one reason it's so popular right now is because it's carrying the torch for sonic-exoticism so prominently. But I can't be happy with Simon's airy dismissal for two reasons.

Firstly, I don't think Sean Paul's domination of the US airwaves and charts can be solely attributed to a lack of anything else exciting happening. It's true that within the context of most other stuff on the radio, "Get Busy" commands a certain fascination, a what-the-fuck factor that lasts beyond the first few plays - but this would be true if it had been released at any time in the last four years or so. Between Sean's thick-but-decipherable patois and the bizarre-but-enticing Diwali-based groove, the song unifies dancehall's (increasingly co-aligned) tendencies towards alienation and populism. This really should be seen in the context of an overall fetishisation of the culturally unusual within urban music that's been an ongoing process for a while now (I remember putting the infiltration of dancehall into everything as a top-new-trend in some ILX thread in mid-2001 I think - and I was hardly being particularly prophetic then); it's not a mere reaction to a lack of new trends, but a trend in its own right. (Hopefully Sean's new non-album track "Close To Me" - on the Rebirth riddim - will be released as a single at some point in the future; it's just as much a head-fuck and is even more poptastic)

Secondly, dancehall itself is in an even healthier position than it was three years ago, and the absurd fecundity of its creative impulses demands attention in its own right, regardless of what's happening in music elsewhere. It's certainly not just Dutty Rock - across the board there has been a stylistic expansion, a flowering of the genre that comprehensively outstrips even quite recent revelations that the genre has thrown up.

Contrast and compare Elephant Man's debut Comin' For You!" with his most recent album Higher Level and the shift is quite prominent: now, I like the former just fine, but in both sonics and delivery its a fairly monochrome assemblage, the skeletal digital beats and Elephant Man's gruff pseudo-gangsterisms pinpointing a certain model for roughed-up futurism that is incredibly effective on a track-by-track basis, but becomes punishing when digested in one session.

Higher Level meanwhile is one of the most addictive, consistently engaging albums I've had the pleasure of hearing this year, its near-kaleidoscopic array of sounds and grooves lending the album a near-definitive feel, as if this album could stand in as a representative for where exciting pop sonics in general are at right about now. Certainly I'm tempted to cheat by making it in my top five album list for the year, despite it coming out in late '02.

I can't begin to explain how warmly affectionate I feel towards Elephant Man when I listen to this album. It's such a bouncy, idiosyncratic, hyper-enthused collection of performances which, when strained through Elephant Man's increasingly unhinged, almost comical delivery, attains the same level of endearing mania that characterises Mystikal at his best (who I also began to feel almost personally attached to as a character somewhere between "Danger" and "Bouncin' Back"). Curiously, like Mystikal Elephant Man seems to drift further and further from overt gangsta idioms with each release. In fact much of Higher Level reflects the current craze for songs about dance (a craze which is just getting more and more pervasive: check recent tracks like Beenie Man's "Signal Di Plane" and Elephant Man's "Pon Di River Pon Di Banks", both of which make no bones about their purpose in their titles) - both "Approach" and "Online" are silly-verging-on-inane dancefloor workout kits.

Odd that my two favourite lyrical snatches from the album are both from these tracks: on the former EM grunts "step on di dancefloor and crush dem like roots!", while on the latter he yells "take to da dancefloor like ya step on crime!" It's these weird visualisations and/or literalizations of metaphors in aid of straightforward hysteria-incitement, not to mention the suspicion that Elephant Man is just saying whatever is coming into his head at the time, that make these tracks such infectious fun. But beyond just this sort of track, Elephant Man demonstrates a greatly expanded sense of humour: on "Run For Your Life" he complains about insane knife-wielding female fans, and the song's two best moments come from EM's use of patois to exagerrate the intensity of what he's singing. First there's the dismissal of the excited fan, "Okay ya know mi name/ANYWAY!", and then, when it starts to get ugly, the desperate rasp "Move outta mi way/MOVE OUTTA MI WAY!" Even more bizarre is "Tall Up Tall Up", an astonishingly camp patchwork quilt of brutally physical stripped down beats and sections of beatless pomp and circumstance fanfare (with Elephant Man wheezing along to the tune in a comical falsetto), which sounds like a tribute to the British Empire. It's hilarious and adorable. When is he gonna join Sesame Street?

From edgy rave to dazzling Indian motifs to sugary pop hooks to tense hyper-minimalism, almost every cutting-edge sonic approach is filtered through the (now quite relaxed and negotiable) dancehall template, and I'm left with the impression that this music could anticipate and absorb pretty much anything you throw it at it. There's even the occasional flicker of traditionalist influences (the piano riff counterpoint in the Threat riddim used on "Ghetto Girls" is pure Soul II Soul). It's hard not to focus on the Indian-flavoured tracks though, just for how single-mindedly they follow this particular avenue.

Elephant Man's swiping of the groove from "Get Ur Freak On" on Log On was not an accident: much more than hip hop proper, dancehall has become fully invested in digesting the underlying possibilities for groove-science that the urban/Indian fusion of "Get Ur Freak On" implies, but which subsequent examples of hip hop's India fetish ("Addictive", "Nothin'", "React") have downplayed in favour of a more cultural fetishisation (eg. Erick Sermon yelling "whatever she said then I'm that!" in response to a snippet of a Bollywood siren).

On riddims such as Egyptian (Elephant Man's "Egyptian Dance"; Vybz Kartel's "Sweet To Da Belly"'; Sizzla's "These R Da Days") or the astonishing Sign (Elephant Man's "Fuck U Sign" on his forthcoming Good 2 Go album; Beenie Man's "Work It"-aping "My Dickie") the focus is on the bubbly, bouncy tabla rhythms, which combine with the barely-there imprint of dancehall's rhythmic-template to create grooves that are both bizarre and compulsive. Sign in particular has the most confounding, head-wrecking groove of the year, its heavy kickdrum-like tabla hits reminding me of the more insane Amen-mashup jungle tracks of yore.

(There's too many good Indian-flavoured riddims to count, but at the very least you should acquaint yourself with such pearlers as Glue (Sean Paul's "Samfy I", Elephant Man's "Miss Matty Son"), Famine (TOK's "Wap Dem", Elephant Man's "Approach"), Ba Ba Boom (Chico's "Hail Di Gals Dem") and Snake (a dancehall version of R. Kelly's "Snake" that's best heard on Capleton's "Baghdad") - all of which spin new and exciting variations on the same basic theme)

Of course Indian tunes aren't the only attraction, and I'm equally enamoured with the more electro-flavoured, synth-based riddims such as All Out, Wanted, Mudslide, Knockout and 20 Cent. Crucially though, there's a real sense that this music could go (is going) in a hundred directions. And I bet when Elephant Man's next album appears in September we'll see a few more.


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