Wednesday, August 12, 2009
Swift Jay - Revenge
Hard to select my very favourite development in UK funky over the past 12 months or so, but probably top of my list is the number of tracks that sound like funky versions of ‘ardkore rave. In terms of specific sounds this usually means: bouncy piano vamps, spiraling mid-range synthesizer effects (which might otherwise be characterized as electro-house affectations) and, best of all, shrill high-pitched diva exhortations, from declamatory full-fledged phrases (“It’s the new sound!”) through enigmatic fragments (“Oh… and I’m here to tell you…!”) to isolated sighs and moans of painfully ecstatic feeling (“ey-EY-ey!”). Incidentally, the three preceding vocal snippets come from tracks I’ve yet to ID – any assistance is highly appreciated.

Based on the tracks I have been able to identify, the Funk Factory team (Scottie D and Smoovie T) are the clear masters, and I’ll be talking about them quite a bit later on. Initially I thought “Revenge” was a Funk Factory track, as it shares a similar vibe: a spare, cutting percussive groove that keeps layering on more and more rhythms, the snares slashing into your ears with an air of casual violence. Above and throughout, a big-chested Loleatta-style house diva bellows “Give yourself! Give yourself! To meeeeeee!”

There’s frequently a breathtaking superficiality to discussions about the role of masculinity and femininity in UK dance music: the characterization of jungle, grime and dubstep as masculine and 2-step, bassline and funky as feminine fails to grasp entirely anima/animus logic that defines all these styles. Notice how 2-step and grime seem to diametrically oppose and yet mirror each other on this issue. 2-step was almost always at its most thrilling when it was trying to plumb new, hitherto undiscovered depths of sexy darkness, the cyborg funk of “Destiny” giving rise to the bass explosions of “Neighbourhood” which in turn led to the tense percussive attack of London Dodgers’ “Down Down Biznizz” (i.e. just follow the line of development taken by the Locked On label between 1998 and 2001). Sure, some of 2-step’s most brilliant tracks were unashamedly sugary and “girlish” – tunes like “Flowers” and “Crazy Love” – but as a genre, what pushed garage along was the magnetic attraction between sensuality and muscularity, pop hooks and dark bass-driven grooves. Conversely, grime was almost always at its most exciting when it was trying to find its way back to the light.

People talk about funky like it’s a swing back to femininity from grime and/or dubstep. This is true only to the extent that funky harks back to garage’s particular arc of development at times. Even then, that’s only half the story: funky sounds crude or robotic as easily it does fluid, sexy and, well, funky. As with dancehall, funky’s flexible beat structure and hormone-balanced aren’t tied to any particular strategy of affect, but (especially in good DJ sets) create a sense of such questions being suspended. I suspect that this sense of suspension owes a lot to dancehall, but it’s also a hallmark of rave fully as much as are breakbeats or piano vamps or hoover riffs.

On one Marcus Nasty set I have, while “Revenge” is playing an MC expands on the diva sample: “yes, just give yourself to us, that’s all we want, just you for the night, your ears, your mind, your body, your soul!” He sums up the ambivalence of this demand for the listener’s submission, which requires a total surrender to the logic of the music. Funky had to harden up to capture this vibe; “Revenge” is a house record that samples a diva, but everything about its clipped, buzzy groove feels violent and charged with testosterone. And yet this toughening is not achieved at the expense of the diva, who remains a real, tangible force in the music. As should be obvious, what is exciting about tracks like these isn’t just their component elements, but the way in which they’re brought into constellation with one another, the imperious diva and the impossibly sharp beats egging each other on to ever greater heights.


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