skykicking end of year report: album of the year
I first head The Endz “Are You Really From The Endz? (V.I.P. Mix)” on The Nasty Crew’s Nasty Show
set in early 2003, and ever since it’s probably been my favourite 8-bar of all time (I even wrote about it on skykicking at about that time, though back then I didn’t know which mix of the original track it was). What a brilliant, perfect, unprecedented and, perhaps most significantly, unrepeated
groove it is: the post-“Boo!” rrrushy beat and string riff sections competing with those spare, drum-only piledriving dancehall interjections, like one of those cartoon car races where the two leading cars exchange the lead position repeatedly and instantaneously, back forth, back forth. Was there ever anything more hype-inducing? By today’s standards, this tune is probably a bit too
8-bar-ish, too ruthlessly mechanical in its frenzied, palsied alternations (mind you, with tunes like “Sidewinder”, one wonders…), but I love it enough to quietly mourn its passing.
I finally tracked this down on CD about a year later when I bought the Ministry of Sound Street Beats
comp, whose Femme Fatale disc is really quite underrated. It’s pretty much the only official document of the explicit “8-bar” moment in early grime, when Youngstar and Big$hot and Jon E Cash were running tings with their ultra-simple metallic grooves. As a “Greatest Hits” document of this moment in garage’s lifecycle the Femme Fatale set does pretty well: most of the justifiably inescapable stuff like “Bongo”, “War”, “Stomp” and “Target” are present and correct, as well as several of my personal faves like J-Sweet and Cameo’s “Baby”, one of early grime’s most jittery moments, and surely Gemma Fox’s finest hour – her ragga-laced vocals here sound like B15 Project’s “Girls Like This” on bad speed (forgive the “x sounds like y on z” bullshit, it’s true!).
Listening to the disc last week, I was again reminded of how quickly grime has developed its own competing narratives: alongside grime-as-8-bar, there’s grime-as-dubstep (foreshadowed on the Slimzee mix on the same comp), grime-as-UK-hip-hop, grime as nu-rave-R&B (can we think of something other than “R&G”? It’s less unwieldy than “grimette” I’ll admit, but it’s also a bit boring and limiting, emphasising the wrong part
of the music I reckon), grime as pop-rap… One of the nice things about The Nasty Show
is how it pre-empted so many splintering developments and yet seemed oblivious to the fact of the splintering itself.
And it follows that for me the better grime sets tend to be those which traverse the boundaries of these different incarnations, rather than the ones that draw lines in the sand. There’s another reason for this: the different incarnations all in some way relate to a genre of music external
to grime, and in their haste to mark themselves out and declare allegiances they will often all to readily leave grime proper – e.g. on Ruff Sqwad’s Guns & Roses
mixtape, the eagerness of the crew to make grime-as-US-street-rap results in a lot of indifferent freestyles over familiar US beats. Pluralist grime mixes are less likely to get pulled into oppositional orbits, more likely to try to capture grime qua
grime. The danger of holding out any particular direction as being “the way” forward for grime is that doing so almost inevitably leads away
from grime as a distinct approach.
I say all this to temper any extreme conclusions that might be drawn from me saying that Target’s Aim High 2
mixtape is my favourite album of the year. Which it is, but not in the sense of it being the definitive statement of grime’s ideal future.
At their weakest, Target and Danny Weed both tend toward polite, barely distinguishable hip hop grooves – Target’s production for Riko’s “Hands Up” (not on Aim High 2
), for example, has very little to recommend it beyond its own professional functionalism; thankfully nothing on Aim High 2
is actually bland, but a few tracks such as Wiley’s “Be Yourself” – with its warm, sentimental piano chords and uplifting male R&B chorus – are perhaps a bit too refined for their own good. Bob Zemko from Spizzazzz has complained that Target is the LTJ Bukem of grime, but moments like these tend to remind me more of MJ Cole - a rather subtle distinction I realise, but one I think is interesting to think about.
Bukem has a nice historical parallel for any damning critique of Target: you merely need to repeat the narrative of stellar, starbound early efforts deteriorating into insipid classy musicality (to come? Already here?). MJ Cole circa his first album provides a better sonic parallel though, for good and for ill. There were, of course, those insipid classy tracks, which didn’t achieve anything beyond proving Cole knew his way around a string section and had listened to a lot of acid jazz. There were the bassline tracks, which rejected class in favour of roughhousing physicality (the cynical among us might say that such efforts were at once very deliberate-sounding and still a bit too polite). And there were also the occasional track like “Crazy Love”, which, while sophisticated and refined, were just too breathlessly joyous to be drab.
But there was also Cole’s finest moment, “Sincere (Y2K Dub)”, which stretched his duelling impulses – pristine, delicate soul ambiance and devastating bass lines – to their mutual extremes, gorgeously echoey piano tinkling ascending from a fog of eerie reversed strings and sighs, before vanishing into a black hole of bass onslaught. What I love most about this tune is its spectral
quality: its beauty is so fragile, so fleeting, so imperfect
that it seems to be a vision from another world, another order of existence. The successful co-existence of these elements always appears to threaten the symbolic security of the music, to gesture toward emotional states we have no words for. In my wilder flights of fancy I can sense in this balancing act a certain gap or hollowness, a link between worlds which allows its different, opposed elements to contact each other. It is the preservation of this gap, this space allowing for the emergence of spectral apparitions, which entails a certain aesthetic of minimalism, of restraint, a willingness to not fill in the void.
But, of course, an aesthetic of minimalism and restraint can all too easily become its own end, losing sight of its original purpose and prioritising instead an oppressive blankness. This is the quandary of dubstep: almost all the best dubstep has devoted itself to exploring this spectral connection (as early as the flatlining diva seduction of Horsepower Productions’ early classic “One You Need”), but its elevation of minimalism to a foundational a priori can make it easy to lose sight of the original balance, to celebrate the void itself rather than what it gives rise to.
It’s in this sense that Target and Danny Weed’s early work together always resembled dubstep idealised
: their classic “Fresh Air” was the grime 8-bar at its most eerie and delicate, populating the valley of the shadow of death with tiny white flowers. Target’s remix of their co-produced “Pick Yourself Up” for Wiley was practically haunted
, its lugubrious synth motifs evoking a Bronte-style romantic fatalism which lethally undermined Wiley’s own paean to self-improvement. Target reworked the same vibe on his now signature tune, Riko’s “Chosen One”, whose hazy Oriental mirage of a melody recasts Riko’s spiritual trek into a post-mortem journey toward the light.
By the time of Aim High 2
(released at the beginning of the year – it’s taken me a while to work up to writing about it), it is really Danny Weed who is filling this role. His best, most muscular work retains on the one hand an air of menace and sense of forward propulsion from his early 8-bars, as well as a slightly unreal, supernatural vibe. On Donae’o’s “Bark” the ascending bass in the chorus acts as tension builder, before an agonising (if only momentary) pause announces the release of the verses, constructed out of synths torn between mimicking viola riffs and Arabic accordions, not to mention a panoply of percussive dog yelps.
The same ingredients (using gunshots instead of dogs) form the basis of his Shank Riddim, which provides the rhythmic bed for three freestyles here. Shank Riddim has an almost gypsy vibe about it, conflating near east, middle east and far east (as with some Low Deep riddims, it reminds me a bit of Jammer’s old gypsy tunes like “Mystic”); at once more aggressive but also more mournful than “Bark”, it’s music for spells and incantations, for warding off evil spirits with other evil spirits. Danny has kept the faith with 8-bar’s secret weapon: the frenzied palsy hop between motifs that renders the music so impossibly exciting, ramping up the tension with every switch.
Target has largely abandoned the 8-bar structure; his recent grooves attempt a perfectly sealed singularity, intricately syncopated rhythms dovetailing back into themselves with a quietly shuddering intensity that is at best utterly hypnotic. On his remix of Sadie’s “So Sure” he brings Terra Danjah’s pretty but oddly formless original production into sharp focus: the foreground stuttering rhythm constrains Sadie’s yearningly high vocals, evoking the fragility of her optimism as the anchor that prevents the tune, and Sadie, from floating off in reverie. And yet the tune still strains against its chains: Target introduces woozy piano chords and eerie synth clouds which blur the line between melody and atmospherics – between the here and the elsewhere. If Danny Weed’s productions envisage the outside as something to be feared, warded off, kept shut out, Target is much more ambiguous, mingling uncertainty with a certain sense of desire and yearning – his remix of “So Sure” turns a simple declaration of love into a séance dialogue.
I love this pathetic
quality which infuses so much of his work: turgid basslines doing battle with twee trebly synth and string motifs. Even the aforementioned piano chords can work marvellously when they’re held in check by the chilly and mechanical surroundings, the metaphorical flower struggling up through the crack in the street pavement of a dead city. On harder tracks like Roll Deep's "Trouble", the same ingredients (morose string riffs, intricate percussion loops, portentous electro bass riffs) are employed to create impressively austere steel lattice grooves: if Danny's harder tracks retain an edge of raucousness despite their dark mysticism, Target goes for widescreen precision depictions of war and destruction - instead of recreating the sweaty directness of the physical or verbal tussle, the groove plays the role of the sad-eyed chorus, shaking its head in unison at the tragic hubris of the foolish brave challenger who went up against its host MC.
It’s all pretty melodramatic stuff, and the rapping on Aim High 2
is correspondingly almost always very serious, mostly stories of self-improvement through adversity or apocalyptic battle rhymes. The first tack has become a bit of a cliché for Target productions, especially after “Chosen One”, and indeed there is evidence here of what I’ve been calling in my head “the Riko Fallacy”: the idea that there is a direct relationship being the quality of an MC and their focus on soul-bearing – named after Riko because so many people seem to rate said MC based on how many times he talks straightforwardly about being poor or something, when in fact he’s at his best when sliding into near-incomprehensible patois (the oneupmanship ragga chat with God’s Gift on “Dead That” being far superior to his round table with Dogzilla on poverty in “Critical”). The sad fact is that many MCs lose all their wit, their flow, their verbal imagination, when they try to get in touch with their feelings, erroneously assuming that “straight talk” is an ends in itself. Not everyone is a Dizzee, and nor should they feel the need to be.
Case in point here being Dogzilla’s “Never Ending Story”, a somewhat self-absorbed and uneventful story about the myriad of hardships which Dogzie has faced on his way to the… er, middle? Delivered in that “no gimmicks” transparent professional hardman voice of his, the entire track feels like a lecturer leading a class on the topic he wrote his thesis on - noble exception being the inspired bit where he dreamily lists a string of Ayia Napa-related destinations, which comes closest to capturing the captivating stream-of-consciousness torrent of grime’s primary m.o., freestyling.
When it comes to white MCs I far prefer the somewhat ridiculous Discarda of the Wile Out Onez, who’s all
gimmick, splicing Crazy Titch’s comically unhinged aggression with a cockney thug accent that I half-suspect was inspired by The Streets’ The Irony of it All. Discarda has nothing to say, really, but he delivers his spittle-flecked battle raps with a wonderfully rhythmic intensity, a rising fury that gives his tenuous jokes an ominous edge – he doesn’t really care if you find him funny or not: “I’m back, back on crack, not in that way in the other way, I’m on cracking your head off road, I’m back on the block, back on rocks, not in that way in the other way, I’m on rocking you up I’m on brocking you up I’m on blocking you in a dead end, I’ll stab the shit outta you in a dead end!” I find it totally arresting, fascinating: it’s not the lyrics themselves, and it’s not anything about Discarda (watching him freestyle the same lines on the accompanying DVD is a curiously deflating experience, he’s such a scrawny type, and the amateurishness delivery makes me wonder just how many takes it took to get the perfect performances on the album), it’s the flow
, the way its rough unstoppable torrent mirrors the non-stop thud and judder of Target’s morosely implacable groove.
Even better than Discarda’s flow is the unstoppable machine that is Roll Deep when they’re on form: their harder tracks here are nothing short of astonishing, a composite of different performances whose value far exceeds the sum of its parts. What gets me about Roll Deep is the preponderance of memorable voices: Scratchy D, whose clipped nasal flow makes him out to be the steely-eyed scientist of the group, as cold as ice (far colder, indeed, than the mostly absent Wiley, however much the latter may boast of his low temperatures); Trim Taliban, whose hoarse and slightly off-kilter flow always sounds totally unrehearsed, unreheasable; the underrated Flo Dan, deeply rhythmic and muscular, threats tautly flexing from bar to bar – his basso profundo rumble of a chorus on “Trouble” is perhaps the most chilling moment on the album; and the brilliant and endlessly versatile Breeze, moving easily from witty and acerbic to contemplative to morbid – even when rhyming at a ridiculous tongue-twisting double-time pace he sounds perfectly relaxed.
Unsurprisingly, Breeze’s “Be Like This” is one of the best and most convincing slow tracks I’ve heard from a grime artist: Target providing a slinky, cruelly sexy groove that moves at a hip hop tempo but remains as distinct-sounding as any 8-bar, while Breeze delivers a devastatingly indifferent kiss-off to a failing relationship (“don’t start getting’ on yer high & mighty/you ain’t been dropped, I let you down lightly”). It’s hard to say which is more crucial to the track’s success – Breeze’s magnetism and panache or the perfect balancing act of Target’s groove, which manages to avoid sounding like both “regular” hip hop and grime at half tempo, instead blending both sides’ genes expertly to create a distinct new breed.
And this, on a sonic level at least, is what makes Aim High 2
mostly so impressive: Danny Weed and (especially) Target are fusionists, drawing links between grime and other styles and sounds with a practiced and thoughtful air. Despite this, they are not really eclectic
: their distinct sonic signatures are instantly recognisable, and they recycle certain key motifs in a manner that suggests single-minded dedication rather than laziness. Aim High 2
cycles through a range of different approaches to current grime, from the straightforward 8-bar to girly “r&g” to hip hop and dancehall fusions, but it mostly feels like a mono-genre excursion, a devastatingly consistent riff on a single theme. Despite the pair’s interest in gene-splicing, they remain faithful to the core sonic principles which they have pursued since grime’s genesis – grime is the “dominant” gene, if you like.
More fundamentally and viscerally, their grooves get
to me, their melodrama and physicality and pathos short-circuiting the wires that run between grime-as-pop and grime-as-underground-music and grime-as-hip-hop – grime can and should be all these things simultaneously, and these guys know it. I don’t really know if they could or should be “the way forward for grime”, but as an example of what I like in music - any music
- here and now, they fit the bill admirably.