Thursday, August 28, 2003
Just heard a great DJ Skepta instrumental on Femme Fatale's 1xtra show, all squiggly eastern electronics hemmed in by snappy beats ands grunts a la Dizzee's "2 Far" - yum.

And back on the topic of grime, an it be only a month ago that I was complaining about the music slowing down? Not too much time has passed, and yet I now feel like I totally, intimately understand where Keith is coming from. Sometimes just listening to something closely, repeatedly, allows you to part the fog of uncertainty and ambivalence. By now I feel a strong sense of affection towards my favourite MCs - Kano's sly humour, Sharkie's absolute conviction, Donae'o's absurdist flow, Hyper's aggression, Dizzee natch - because, as is not really the case with US hip hop (or at least my relationship with it) I get the sense of watching these guys grow and develop in real time, hearing them become savvier, smarter, more distinctive. Sharkie in particular is really quite loveable: his whole schtick is so openly based around self-improvement as an MC, as shown on his version of Wiley's "Ice Rink" where he establishes the necessary standard of new lyrics per month for an MC of his calibre(sixteen, incidentally). With Sharkie, there's no sense of a distance between his rapping and his life, either in terms of fantasy (chart-rap) or ideology (indie rap). Everything is laid bare, and the very absence of life trauma, of glitz and glamour, of some absent third event, is what makes his rapping so appealing, so intimate. The medium is the message.

"It Ain't A Game" meanwhile is a rallying-cry sent both inwards and outwards, an affirmation of the journey (to success) as the destination. As nice as the song's fluttering flute riff is, what I really love is the sparing use of female vocals, particularly when you hear one vocalist soulfully echo "Much worse!" after Sharkie does, confirming that this tune is ultimately uplifting, a temporary respite in spite of or because of the endless struggle the song's narrative depicts. It's not even my favourite grime-pop tune, but I would love for "It Ain't A Game" to be a chart success, because it sounds like it should be, even more than "I Luv U". Its focus on the perils and rewards of being an MC feels like a state-of-the-nation report, and a self-reflexive celebration, the proof of itself as the new form (maybe it's the "Live Forever" of grime, and that's not an insult!).

This sense of having inside access into the MCs' development is heightened by the extreme interchangeability of the MCs' lyrics and the producers' "riddims", with each rap and each groove benefiting from a dozen different incarnations. I guess this is grime's third-level fusion of Jamaican riddim-culture and hip hop freestyling with the mix'n'match culture that has always characterised the hardcore continuum. If you were so inclined you could say it's just a reflection of Sharkie's admonitions that most MCs (including himself, evidently) don't have enough lyrics to go round, but I see it as a real quality in current grime. Practically, it makes the raps easier to learn, and I begin to grasp their real qualities in isolation from the song-context in which I first heard them, but it also gives them a panoramic flexibility, an ability to suit a dozen different contexts (harsh Wiley computerscapes, dramatic swing-swept Jammer productions, sweet'n'gooey g-funk grooves). And again it's about breaking down the monolithic nature of the pop single (said monolith not being a bad thing, after all I love stuff like "Scandalous", "Rock Your Body" etc. precisely because of their monolithic tendencies) into bits and pieces, lego sets that can be assembled a dozen different ways.

Luka's currently talking up the shift in the scene towards summery, tuneful, keyboard heavy, wistful, joyful etc. tunes (see for example Roll Deep's "You Were Always", "I Luv You II", "Ain't A Game" obviously and lots of Jammer/Nasty Crew 8-bars whose names are unknown by me). It's an obvious progression really, but a wonderful one all the same: I visually imagine the overall process as being like the cover for Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, the rainbow rays of 2-step refracted through a black point (Musical Mob's "Pulse X") and refracting back into multicolour glory, totally transformed to the point of unrecognisability. As with the Foulplayification of 'ardkore/darkcore, the attraction of this new-found sweetness and fragility lies in how it arises out of the muscular darkness of most 8-bar, the first buds of spring unfurling through the top layer of winter's snow.

The most amazing single example of this is on a tape Keith sent me which he got off Luka. Keith talks about it on his blog already, but to reprise: the appearance of a chillingly beautiful synth-heavy half-speed track (by DJ Skepta) in the middle of Kano's "Boys Luv Girls", the latter track's high-speed jitter beats giving way to a stunningly graceful midtempo strut while Kano's flow continues on regardless. It's hard to understand the appeal of these half-speed tracks until you hear them in the mix with an MC, at which point Keith's jungle bass = grime beats analogy works perfectly. The MC really is the speed-setter at this point, such that these half-speed tunes really do feel like they're operating at two speeds a la jungle with its dub basslines. A whole set of slow tracks would probably sound a bit odd, but sandwiched between two faster tracks the effect is to turn the tune into one massive DJ trick (a bit like Daft Punk's "One More Time"), a dramatic, stately crowd-hyper whose drop in speed results in a corresponding rise in intensity.

My other favourite slower track is another Nasty Crew number, although I don't know its name. I kept thinking it was D.E.E.'s "Birds in the Sky" and then getting disappointed when I actually listened to that track (good but not a patch on it!); this one's an amazingly solemn quiet storm of droning mandolins and a stalking b-line. The groove is incredibly funereal and eerie, more melodic than most 8-bar but what it loses in darkness it more than gains in pure sadness. Likewise check out Target & Danny Weed's "Pick Ya Self Up (Target Remix)" with Wiley and J2K which Luka was talking about - that same fragile sadness but framed by Wiley's motivational rapping, creating a bittersweet sensation reminiscent of Omni Trio - all those beautiful tracks vibing on e-memories and trembling at the inability of getting back to that halcyon wonderland - lovesongs for Eden.


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