Sunday, February 21, 2010

The first time I heard "Funky Sound" I felt this incredibly strong sense of rightness, an intuitive connection like "yes, I get what this track is doing and it gets me." The thick rubbery skippiness of the beat maybe, or the way it falls away for that nervously stuttering synth riff, or the slightly ghostly female vocal sample "It's my sound...", or the way that drops into eerie piano vamps and ominous bass plunges. A real dark-but-sexy garage vibe reminiscent of one of my old favourites, Richie Boy & DJ Klasse's "Madness On The Streets", that same moody seriousness with a glint of humour in its eye. That vocal sample also seemed to trigger a whole host of tunes with similar disembodied and discombulated rave-ish vocal samples, but sadly I've since identified almost none of them, the 'ardkore-ish corner of funky being also its most elusive.

I guess therefore it shouldn't be surprising that "Funky Sound" would be reinvented as a skank tune, though if you'd asked me beforehand I would have said I thought the arrangement was too busy for it to be an obvious choice for MCs. Black Biscuit do a fine job with "Skanking The Hardest", though its Simon Says moves are not merely pathetically easy but also bizarrely, um, boring (that whole hands in front of the face thing? Can anyone explain this to me)? With the addition of MCs the tune becomes more straightforward in its raveyness - paradoxically, less dark than before, if only because pretty much any skank tune appears lighthearted and cheerful compared to the habitual aggression of grime - making it clear that, as funky becomes more tenuously connected to full-blown house (but, importantly, not necessarily that much closer to grime or dubstep or even 2-step) it's developed a whole raft of options for capturing that flux of lightness and darkness characteristic of old rave (while, of course, not actually sounding much like rave at all).

From there Funkystepz seem to have gone basically in every direction possible, like they're trying to release enough tracks in enough different sub-styles to stand in for "UK funky" as a whole: nearly every rhythmic matrix and sonic template yet articulated within the borders of uk funky is deployed at some point, with little in the way of unifying consistency. This may have something to do with the group housing three probably rather distinct producers. Of course with such an outpouring of tracks in so many different styles the results unsurprisingly are mixed. "Trinity Hill" is an anthemic piano-pounder along the lines of Perempay's "Hypnotic", rendered distinct and memorable by its kinetic beat like a giant butterfly fluttering against your ears. "Over" is a tepid R&Bish vocal track, "Sounds In Moruga" a too-tasteful xylophone house workout that defers respectively to the precedent of Kentphonik's "Sunday Showers". The bleepy, ultra-fragmented "Gamechip" surpasses even Mos' Wanted's "Different Lekstrix" for LFO x Black Dog vibes. "Backwards" is dinky tropicalia. "Spend" is an autotuned MC track (a la "Stick Up") over blocky piano chords and rough snares. "Touch On Me" is addictive minimalist funky-bassline crossover, its worming bassline reminding me of Sticky's "Triplets" - and I feel ambivalent about it for similar reasons as I did with "Triplets", its studious glower bearing more than a small resemblance to old breakbeat garage (though the version with a breathy diva exclaiming "touch on me there!" is much better). If nothing else it's a sign of Funkystepz's savviness: far from being an attention-grabbing one-off, "Touch On Me" is really just the most blatant (or second most blatant, after Screama's "Funky Gangsta") indication of funky's increasing cannibalisation of bassline sonics, appearing not just in tracks by refugee producers (Screama, Naughty Raver, Bass Boy) but also in the work of new funky producers like Champion.

In their polystylistic quasi-cynicism (throwing anything and everything at the wall, shamelessly copying dozens of blueprints) and their capacity to stay ahead of the curve while still being quintessentially generic, Funkystepz remind me of my garage hero Bump & Flex (Grant Nelson), a commercial-minded producer who nonetheless made some of the most amazing, forward thinking garage tracks ever, especially in its 2000-2002 period - tunes like his hardstep dub of Doolally, his dancehall dub of Cleptomaniacs' "All I Do" and his dub of Mis-Teeq's "B With Me" were intensely physical, spiky barnstormers whose wired dancehall vibe was overlooked by many garage fetishists presumably on account of the dude's slightly mercantile quality, the sense (shared with other awesome producers like Dubaholics) that this guy was probably a remixer-for-hire, inevitably tied to the commercial fortunes of garage as a whole rather than a solitary trailblazer, not the kind of producer prepared to blow everything on exquisitely pressed, economically disastrous limited-run label imprints to be treasured for ever (the kind of thing you need if you want to be retrospectively lionised). Funkystepz feel similarly practical, defiantly un-iconoclastic and yet perversely inspired in their all-encompassing embrace of the entire genre.

To the extent that anything can be, "Malibu" is archetypal Funkystepz, its radioactive, stabbing bassline and clattering snare track basically a simple paean to funky's desire to sound as rhythmically distended as possible while still adhering to a danceable 4X4 format. And yet it's little more than a set-up for their classic "Bounce", best heard in its vocal form as "For You" (Marcus Nasty, on his recent excellent mixtape with Majestic, actually uses the two tunes in precisely this way). The intro (chorus? It's hard to tell) of "For You" is powered by its solar flare melody and typically prowling groove, but this gives way to an astonishing second section featuring awesome coinciding snare hits and synth chords which feel positively acrobatic, like some sort of weird routine featuring spinning wooden boards, or some particularly gymnastic video game involving jumping onto fast-moving floating clouds. A third section then sends the synths into overdrive, their flickering ultraviolet pulses suggesting bassline's sonics shifted entirely into the treble range. Throughout Lily McKenzie's vocal paces around the groove (now adhering, now departing from) with an intuitive sense of syncopation typical of the R&B vocalists that funky most adores (Jazmine Sullivan, Teedra Moses - and a whole 'nother article could be written on why these are funky's favourite divas rather than Aaliyah or Beyonce or Brandy or whoever - Funkystepz have done their own remix of "Be Your Girl", incidentally). "For You" suggests that Funkystepz' contribution to the genre could be as much with respect to songs as production - as great as so many of UK Funky's housier songs are, McKenzie's performance here feels organically suited to the form, sacrificing straightforward catchiness in order to gain an intuitive, in-the-pocket sense of fit vis a vis funky's rhythmic preoccupations.

Recently Funkystepz's resident DJ Maxsin has started a show on Rinse, which is mostly notable for the frankly disturbing number of new Funkystepz tunes aired - you get the impression these guys are banging out several new tunes a week - check the February 5th show in particular. As implied above, not all of these are great - with volumes of this size quality control necessarily suffers, and the fact that several tunes are previewed in draft form doesn't help. But the strike rate remains impressively high, and you also get the sense of a definite aesthetic emerging amidst the barely-creditable diversity. If Funkystepz seem to have embraced the notion of a funky-bassline fusion (on this tip see also their remix of Rihanna's "Rude Boy") this is merely a subset of their increasing obsession with shrill, plasticky sounds. Hence "Malibu" and "Bounce" coming on like trebly inversions of bassline. Other new tunes take this quality in a mindboggling variety of directions, unified only by this woozy synthetic quality, and almost as commonly rhythms patterns of starling originality even as compared to one another, all wide pacey hits dissolving into a blurred rush of snares.

"Lovers" is syncopated sturm und drang diva-pop, equally amazing for its stabbing, cluttered-yet-graceful groove (awesome textured blocky snares, orchestral hits, monstrously seething bass, ravey piano riffs) and Louise Williams' sweet vocal, which darts across the topographical extremities of the arrangement with a jazz-inflected sense of exquisite timing, even more startling than McKenzie on "For You". This is real UK Funky: every single element following a line of deviation and yet all in secret communication with one another. If Funkystepz can get their act together and really push any single track, it should be this one. Still, the hits keep on coming: the muscly, shrill "Mr Bandicoot" is like soca made by Richard X in collaboration with Jess & Crabbe; "Locomoca" is sickly artificial salsa; "Hurricane Riddim" is Wagnerian Rapid-style grime crossed with bassline warping bass; "Leave With You" is string-shrieking dreamlike diva-rave (you may know this one, the vocal goes "Hey! 'Cos I'm feeling like I wanna leave with you! Hey! What you wanna do?"); "Piano Storm" is plinky-plonky high-drama, every element from the hyper-nuanced handclap beat to the bass-synths to the shrieking strings sounding assembled from glass shards; the hard-riffing "Bubbly" falls somewhere between early Jammer (slamming kicks, revving synthetic string riffs) and late 90s Basement Jaxx ("Flylife" or "Yo-Yo" maybe). Other tunes suggest Low Deep's ornery harpsichord febrility, piledriving snare bangers, unsettlingly squawking synth work-outs reminiscent of Orbital circa Middle of Nowhere, churning caribbean electro-house... Taken as a whole, this body of work sums up better than any other producer's the notion of uk funky as electro-carnival, a machine's fevered imagining of the fun humans must have at Notting Hill. It's an astonishing outpouring of creativity as frustrating, exhausting and rewarding as uk funky itself.


Thanks for this!

I'm really glad you're back Tim!

Just a question: although the old blogspot makes me feel pleasantly nostalgic, any plans to update the site? Maybe even get a domain and move to WordPress? At the very least, maybe the songs roll needs updating!

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3/15/2010 12:38 PM  

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