Saturday, September 12, 2009
 
Pearson Sound - Wad
Soule Power - Natty Dub
Vato Gonzales - Badman Riddim


What is and isn't "uk funky"? What's in and what's out? It's a sign of the genre's weakness for some that this isn't an easy question to answer. I hope I'm not merely being contrarian when I claim it as a key strength: for a music with such a strong sense of identity, it's like uk funky has an inbuilt resistance to being determined by any one quality (musical or social), as if by doing so it can avoid being pinned down, reductively defined and so reduced in possibility. You know a track is "uk funky" in the same way that a judgment of physical hotness is like the square root of the entire interrelationship between a person's appearance, swagger, accent, the heat outside, how long it's been since you've gotten some, not to mention your most private odd desires and fantasies. It's never clear what the key factor is, if there even is one.

The task of saying what uk funky is generally can be approached only obliquely, by exposing the shortcomings of each attempt to hypostasize it, to anchor it to some concept which can provide both definition and a means of judgment. And I do tend to react a bit over-zealously when I see audiences acting like uk funky (or, rather, "good" uk funky) is about one or two qualities in particular. There are dubstep partisans who praise deepness and moody atmospheres, grime refugees looking for MCs, velocity and metallic sonics, pop fans who seem to think the noblest endeavour of a funky tune is to transcend its genre base and aspire to the timeless combination of good tune + catchy chorus + memorable (female) vocal. None of these positions are wrong per se - there are fabulous tracks that work wonders while inhabiting each of these equations almost solely - but for the scene itself they can only ever be the smallest fraction of what's right.

The desire to establish a story within a story - to say that, as far as you care, (good) funky is about (insert your niche here) and the rest can be ignored - is fine as far as it goes, but I can't help but feel sorry for the people who approach it this way. In the same way that I feel sorry for people who love Zed Bias but can't get with "Flowers" (or vice versa!), or people who can wax lyrical about No-U-Turn but can't stand Aphrodite (or... but you get the idea). Surprise surprise, funky is exciting as a "scene" when it's trending furthest from such partial visions: when "In The Morning" rubs shoulders with "Seasons" and both learn something from one another. Think of it like a giant single pool of water, where each ripple ultimately spreads out and rebounds across the entire surface: as well as being factually correct by and large, this is what we should want funky to be, because this is the model with the most possibility, wherein populism and abstraction, tough grooves and sweet vocals can all swap tricks and share their stories.



Pearson Sound is a pseudonym for Ramadanman, one of my favourite dubstep producers - he made last year's "Blimey", which was deeply reminiscent of primo Metalheadz, or perhaps more specifically Photek's "The Rain" meets Roni Size's "Timestretch" meets 1994 era Dillinja. "Wad" has just been released on Hessle Audio, probably the best dubstep label in my untrustworthy opinion, but "Wad" is, on any sensible reading, a funky track. Certainly, "Wad" is a rhythmically dense as funky comes: an almost overwhelming ensemble of sycopated door slam kicks, tense snare attacks and opulent latin percussion latticework. As such it bears some of the hallmarks you might expect of a dubstep producer going funky: at once spare and cluttered, the track suggests that what gets Ramadanman excited is the rhythmic possibilities of funky, while perhaps less so its songs or its roots in house. But "Wad" is far too cheesy to really profit in any traditional or expected fashion from such dubstep associations, its one-note birdcall samples and general friskiness suggesting nothing so much as someone dropping an E at a salsa class. Tellingly, one sceptic complained on youtube: "is this part of the Zumba dance fitness craze cd?". I like that "Wad" sounds too enthused and hyper to ever stop and worry about sounding classy. But Ramadanman has hardly abandoned all the production nuances that characterise his dubstep material. Check the tune's amazing "chorus", which consists of those door-slam beats threading themselves through an immaculate cut-up vocal singing something like "Work! Hi'tm dat dat, si dah! Der! Work! Hi'tm dat ooh si dah! People Work!" and so on, before pausing for a bonetrembling bass drop, only to deliver you safely back at latin central. It's the dynamism of its construction, rather than just its awesome springloaded groove or head-circling vocal hook or even pungent corniness, that makes "Wad" stay with you.



Soule Power is in fact Scratcha DVA, one of funky's most unpredictable producers. Dude's got a history as a grime producer, but he's also behind the sassy broken beat house anthem "I'm Leaving" (should appeal to fans of "In The Morning"), and he seems to take funky's roots in house very seriously (see his clanking, pounding refix of "God Made Me Phunky"), while his dj sets have a heavy electro-house tilt to them. "Natty Dub", meanwhile, has been picked up by Hyperdub, and it's not hard to see why: alongside Roska's work as "Uncle Bakongo", this is as spare and as self-consciously "avant" as funky gets, its waterlogged tribal beats sounding rather like a lethargic, multilayered instrumental dub of "Get Ur Freak On", while its loping "halfstep" kickdrums probably will win over dubstep fans straightaway. At the same time, "Natty Dub" has a grime style flip-flop structure, with every second set of four bars featuring a counter-rhythm that sounds like a car failing to start. As with a lot of Cooly G productions, the effect is a kind of emotionless intensity, where you lock into the circular, cyclical iterations of the groove. Again, a dubstep kind of vibe. Ironically, given that Hyperdub sponsorship equals instant auteurist fetishism, this stuff tends only to properly come alive in the mix, where it provides compelling bridges between more traditional house "build" tracks or the more blunt, ravey or sing-songy attractions of other uk funky. Cooly G in particular has an excellent ear for picking "deep" US or Euro house tracks whose scintillating percussion arrangements gel well both with her own tracks particularly and uk funky generally; in her sets, tunes like "Natty Dub" and Uncle Bakongo's stiff tribal assault "Bambara" are like moments when the house groove, always stretched to the limits, is now caught or snagged, snarled in some syncopated thicket. Think of "Natty Dub" less as a tune in its own right and more as a wickedly effective uk funky dj tool and its appeal becomes obvious immediately. I probably wouldn't listen to the tune by itself, but then, that's what DJ Naughty's "Love Lockdown" is for (not to mention a million others).



On ILX last year the very cluey Siegbran asked what made uk funky so different from the "Spanish house" scene typified by dj Vato Gonzales, who I think is actually dutch (go figure). Listen to Gonzales' sets and the similarities are clear though not conclusive: it's like this scene has taken a slightly different set of signifiers (Fedde Le Grand style "funky" electro-house, Pitbull) and started edging into the same space of raucous, syncopated, distinctly "urban" sounding house music. In what feels like a weird karmic reaction, uk funky has answered Siegbran's question by adopting Gonzales' "Badman Riddim" as its very own. At least a year old now, "Badman Riddim" would be a strange beast of a track in any context: stiff beats, massive seismic bass reminiscent of the best Metope or Basteroid tracks on Areal Records, forbidding string riffs, and then a monstrously overblown horn breakdown worthy of '94 era jungle, over which a voice announces portentously, "Right about now! Badman riddim! Inside the place! Place! Place! Place!" Rather like the Seeed crew from Germany, this faux-patois sounds halfway convincing if you're not paying attention, but of course once you focus the accent sharpens into something all too Euro. I suspect that those horns are sampled from Pharaoh Monche's "Simon Says", and indeed "Badman Riddim" shares that same bludgeoning so-thuggish-it's-funky vibe, that same macho aggression that trips right over into high camp. I also imagine that its breakdown goes off like a bomb in a club setting.

How can UK funky hold its head up high when a track like this becomes an anthem? But surely, "Badman Riddim" is only continuing what "Doom's Night" started: if a track is banging in any genre, it's banging in any genre. And this is the secret appeal of UK Funky's openness, its fuzziness, its lack of firm (or any) borders: it provides a context of greatness in which the appeal of outsider music can flourish, and anything that this music lets in automatically sounds better than it did before. Once you get in, who'd want out?


6 Comments:

I'd be one of those dubstep partisans I'm guessing (although these days I'm getting most of my kicks in deep house) but yeah there is that tendency to skip over the Pop side and head straight to Cooly G.

When I see the video for In The Morning I feel like I'm watching the mainstream of UK Pop circa 2011. Like when this blows its going to be UK Garage all over again. And I'm not really sure if I'm willing to follow it down that rabbit hole yet or not.

I've got more love in me for 2-step directly before it blew (early Locked On, Groove Chronicles) and directly after (El-B) than the full on Craig David, Wideboys, Artful Dodger stuff.

But once again I have been your stereotypical moody dubstep dude. I'm trying, really trying to find more stuff along the broken beat / ghetto Booka Shade line of thinking. So far not so much luck.

By Anonymous Silent Ally, at 9/15/2009 5:43 PM  

tim likes slagging off dubstep fans whilst forgetting how much he loved early foundational dubstep... don't you tim ;)

By Blogger Blackdown, at 9/15/2009 10:32 PM  

Ha, I thought my problem was that I annoyingly preached about the greatness of early foundational dubstep followed by a flight from Eden.

Anyway my point in this post wasn't to slag off the dubstep perspective. If anything, in the last couple of months I've learnt to shrug off my preconceptions a bit and really enjoy that Cooley G-style deeper/techier slant wholeheartedly. So this was me really saying: here are three tracks that a more zealous person would say aren't "proper" funky (though for different reasons in the case of each) but to my mind each contribute something really valuable and even essential to funky as a whole.

It'd be disingenuous of me to pretend that I have this idealised holistic approach to all genres - I approach US hip hop rather like my hypothetical uk funky pop fan, for instance. With uk funky though, insofar as I spend a lot of time trying to think about the genre [i]as[/i] genre (as opposed to just some vague context for individual tracks I enjoy) the need to work out how all of this stuff actually interrelates seems more important.

By Blogger Tim, at 9/16/2009 10:39 AM  

'Wad' reminds me a little of All Seeing I's 'Sweaty Walls' (b-side of 'Walk Like A Panther' with a vague ruff 2Step vibe). I love it of course.

By Blogger Steve Mannion, at 10/13/2009 11:40 PM  

this horns are sampled from godzilla, that where the simon says beat got them

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