Over at Shards, Fragments & Totems (I really need to update my links list stat) Paul has a go
at all the hipsterist grime fans:
"All this gutter-obsessed hipster carping about how previous strains of garage are irrelevant compared to the click-whoop tedium of SO MUCH gutter garage is just more knee jerk conservatism."
Now I like Paul's writing a lot and he seems to know his garage but to me this smacks of building a strawman. I haven't seen anyone complaining about how crappy golden age 2-step (and it was a golden age!) is compared to grime. No-one's saying that 2-step is shit 'cos it's old and grime is great 'cos it's future. What I do see, and what I share in, is a certain level of disappointment at the recent developments of "nu-step" - all those producers like Hatcha and Darqwan and even Plasticman who, while occasionally cranking out a decent tune, continue to fundamentally misread and thus surgically remove all those qualities that make grime and
2-step so enormously affecting, exciting, involving. I see far more of Artful Dodger-style dazzle, Dem 2-style rhythmic invention, Sunship-style poptasticness, Bump & Flex-style grooviness in grime than I do in current nu-step.
What happened to these guys?? You can hear in the development of Darqwan/Oris Jay the gradual rejection of garage's magical qualities. Those early tunes like "Biggin' Up Da Massive" and "Brand New Flava" positively ooze with 2-step's dark sexuality, all sticky beats and mysterious bass rumbles. From there Oris seemed to want to run away from 2-step's sexuality, and with every release you can hear its influence on him growing fainter and fainter. Sometimes that receding-horizon effect can be quite thrilling, as you hear a producer take a sound's impulse deeper and deeper into the wiring of his music, until it's a faint shadow that nonetheless informs the entire groove. For that reason I still love his one brilliant Darqwan tune, "Nocturnal", where sexuality is sublimated within razor-wire tension, snapping snares coiling like whiplash around a steady core of midnight funk.
But at some point, if you stretch that rubber-band far enough, it's gonna snap, and I haven't heard a Darqwan release with an ounce of funk in ages. It's not a case of him having not gone forward; I actually wish he'd go backwards
(a tune like "Nocturnal" actually exists on a point of intersection with grime, as something like Target's similar and excellent "Earthwarrior" demonstrates). And while everyone seems to check for him, I can't help but think that Plasticman is trying on exactly the same trick with 8-bar.
Not all the dubstep/nu-step/nu-dark-swing producers followed Darqwan following DJ Zinc down that road of breakbeat tedium; indeed some producers have staunchly held to the sprightly femininity of 2-step's beats. El-B's a good example of a producer who's still fairly consistently interesting. But that specific dubstep sound - feathery beats plus voluptuosly thick and mysterious bass-heavy dub arrangements, eg. In Fine Style
- is one which could only really be truly exciting in a certain place and time; it's contextual, positional music. As I said a while back somewhere on ILX, what made dubstep so interesting in, say, 2001, was that it provided a third way forward that sought to combine the best aspects of both garage's feminine slinkiness and its forceful physicality. Given the choice between another rote 2-step mix of a pop hit and another interminable breakbeat loop with some martial arts film sample, stuff like Horsepower Productions and Zed Bias was incredibly attractive.
But two things happened, very close in time to one another: one, these guys managed to refine their craft to its perfect essence as expressed in a few tracks (Zed Bias's "Ring The Alarm" and his mixes of 2 Banks of Four's "Hook & a Line" and El-B's "Serious; Horsepower Productions' "Django's Revenge" and "Pimp Flavours"; El-B's "Buck & Bury"; Menta's "Ramp"), all perfectly poised 2-step delicacy, breakbeat urgency and dub enigma; and two, garage itself managed to snap out of this pop-breakbeat tug of war by mutating into grime, which has its own set of contradictions (eg. electroid harshness vs urban songfulness). As dubstep was originally essentially a process of resoultion
rather than a sub-genre, a thinktank wherein producers attempted to synthesise and harmonise garage's contradictions, the shift from 2-step/breakbeat to grime took away their motivating engine, right at the time when they had just managed to distill this resolution into a perfected product. The result was that this perfected product, with nothing to push it forward
(ha ha), became static orthodoxy.
The outcome. There are now essentially two types of producers in the nustep mould - those who stubbornly continue to create tracks reflective of that momentary triumph (and what's interesting and slightly sad about these tracks is that both the awesomely programmed beats and the delicately constructed atmospherics seem to exist in separate worlds, overlaying eachother without an awareness
of eachother, like they were thrown together by random. There's precious little of the percussomelodic interplay that has always been one of 2-step's (and grime's!) defining traits), and those which desparately attempt to apply dubstep's original resolution template to subsequent innovations - ruff 4-beat and 8-bar. But with both of these they're simply attempting to combine these formal stylistic blueprints with their own pre-existing sonic signatures; but, cut off from the new
contradictions that characterise these styles (especially 8-bar), all they can do is attempt to pull them out of their productive bipolar orbits and send them hurtling towards, um, a dystopian dub-techno dead end, essentially (sound familiar?).
The new resolution-solvers are those who ever more inventively attempting to bridge the minmalism/maximalism divide that characterises 8-bar grooves, intermingling light and dark in ever more creative ways, further confusing the rhythmic and melodic components of their music. In other words, people like Wiley, Jammer, Danny Weed... Far from abandoning 2-step, these producers (and I imagine their audience) are the ones who are clinging to the original underlying spirit
of 2-step - as fundamentally ambivalent
music, where so many contradictions rush toward a horizon point of synthesis, just out of sight and sound.