Last year I had the privilege to contribute an article to the awesome French music criticism journal Audimat. Now that a respectful amount of time has passed: the original draft in English.
UK funky, and the ineffability of groove
The language of dance music criticism, torn between disenchanting technical-speak and myth-building, typically opts for both, and you can sense in its vertiginous leaps between a dry taxonomy of software patches and insistent invocations of spirituality, its endless restatements of its founding “ghost in the machine” narrative, a circular logic of causation, like an Escher picture of two hands drawing one another. Unable to put into words how technique gives rise to sensation, the critic presents each as both spontaneous and immutable, the inevitable product of a higher law (of genius, of soul, of zeitgeist - whatever works).
Dance music criticism is no different to any other music criticism in this regard, grappling with the eternal difficulty of capturing how the sound
of sound affects us; but dance music, frequently shorn of the reassuring bulwarks of personality-based criticism, reveals the problem particularly starkly. We know that the phenomena of sound and sensation exist in a relationship, but trying to say what that relationship is with any precision or fixity is both immensely difficult and deflating, offering a demystified and denatured statement of cause and effect that seems to drain from the experience of music its air of magic and mystery. And yet mystical invocation has no proper language with which to describe music’s productive chaos, choosing instead to inscribe its familiar soothing fictions over the top of music which in fact excites because of its unfamiliarity
, the agitation of its departure from the known.
This double-bind derives from the limitations of conceptuality as it grapples with the sensual: any explanation of music’s functioning proceeds by a chain of concepts which act to reduce the complexity of our experience by subsuming difference in sameness or identity; what Theodor Adorno called “identity thinking”. To use a prosaic example, no kickdrum acts in precisely the same way in any two house tracks, yet when we talk about the use of the kickdrum in house music this infinite variety is suppressed in the name of that which all house kickdrums seem to share. House survives and prospers by way of its endless variation around a norm, yet in discourse about
house music this normative quality is prioritised over that in the music which resists it. The talented critic still attempts to grapple with specificity in dance music, but usually is at a loss as to how to connect its precise functionality to the imprecise sensation of its effects.
Even most talented critics struggled to capture in words the appeal of the late ‘00s UK funky scene, and there were very few who even made the attempt. Emerging out of the UK garage scene’s flight to vocal house in about 2005, funky erupted into a glorious three year golden age in 2008, only to rapidly deteriorate – in qualitative terms at least; in commercial and critical terms it barely ever lived – by the beginning of 2011. Like many of the dance music styles to have emerged out of inner East London (jungle, 2-step garage and grime), UK funky expressed a combination and mutation of stylistic influences, imagining a fantasy scenario where the pleasure-centered conservativism of US funky house is kidnapped by a loose cabal of grime (harsh, spare beats and energetic MCs rapping over the top), soca (bouncing, syncopated islander exuberance) and various other accessories. Unlike its predecessors, funky never codified a set formula or rhythmic matrix that was clearly and immediately identifiable as its own thing. Skeptics were frustrated by funky because it foiled any attempt to define its development, its aggressively percussive rhythmic experimentation never fully severing its ties with the comforting familiarity of house. It’s as if the music was a child, not quite fully formed, and reluctant to abandon the comfort of its stylistic parents and join the ranks of grown-up genres.
UK Funky expressed the tension and difficulty of capturing difference in music criticism more sharply than other genres in part because of this refusal to grow up and become identical with a particular distinct concept of itself, and in part because its stylistic structure is essentially analogical, each instance giving voice to the recurrent, insistent question “why not?” If that, why not this? Analogical, because there is no ultimate platonic standard against which all singular instances can be compared, and instead only the relationship between each instance. Rather than distinguish between core and non-core (or basic and superstructural) components, the music exists in an entirely constellational space where each element can be rearranged or substituted to achieve comparable effect. If tribal percussion can inject the desired element of syncopation into a 4X4 house groove, why not soca-derived snare patterns, or staggering synth chords, or pounding piano vamps, or brittle grime oscillations, or the nimble agility of the MC? Each and any of these substances can slip into a pattern that is traced, like a spirograph sketch, around an absent center that only appears to exist because of the pattern that gives shape to it.
It is the pattern, rather than its fixed points or its empty center, that establishes the music’s (non)identity, in a series of shifting and interlaced iterations, at once alien and somehow familiar. On Major Note$’ 2009 remix of J-Will’s “Déjà Vu” the house groove becomes jarringly topographical, not simply operating along the usual layers of kickdrum propulsion, snare uplift and hi-hat swing, but ceaselessly moving between levels, clipped bongo patterns drawing out the nervous ambivalence of the singer’s falsetto R&B croon, kicks like computer game explosions offering unexpected portents of doom. In effect, “Déjà Vu” is constructed like the R&B and rap of Timbaland, the rhythm track less a groundwork than a soundworld in and of itself, telling its own mysterious narrative.
Mr Mageeka’s 2008 tune “Different Lekstrix” retains house kickdrums, but they’re buried, submerged beneath a sickly high-pitched bassline that seems constantly to shimmer and deliquesce, while on top a dense layer of scratchy hi-hats, ostentatiously synthetic claps and unexpected yawning gaps give the tune a hesitant, stop-start feel, like an ancient, immensely complex machine wheezing into life. MCs love it, because the tune’s constant revolutions make their rhymes seem more rhythmically inventive than they might otherwise, while at the same time different rhythmic elements – a snare here, a sharp hand clap there – prop up a kind of 4X4 awning that their voices can glide across even when there’s nothing to bear their weight.
Importantly, though, funky’s rhythmic DNA does not insist on percussive complexity. Funkystepz’ “Fuller” from 2010 foregoes syncopated hi-hats in favour of a spare, rigid kickdrum pulse and echoey claps on the final off-beat, less a groove than a confining grid within which roams and prowls a synthesizer melody that steps in for (and in to) the rhythm like a beast snapping at the bars of its cage. Focused on this ultimate endpoint of rhythmic intoxication, funky was rarely too concerned with how it got there; in many cases an anaemically spare track in isolation might feel complete only when drawn into covalent association with other tracks in the mix, tracing complex patterns across one another, or with the arrival of the MC, whose (usually more straightforward) rhythmic attack renders visible the hard surfaces that the music’s beats ricochet against.
Can anyone put into words the precise dynamic that in their different ways each of these tracks express? Certainly it has never been done successfully. My only conclusion is that such expression ultimately is impossible to achieve in full. UK funky at its best delighted in constantly inventing new detours around its identified sonic thoroughfares, while at once hiding these detours within the contours of house, such that the inadequacy of any critical language to capture precisely how it functioned arguably became its raison d’etre
. Ironically, this very quality is also what rendered UK funky’s lifespan as a creatively productive style so short, so vulnerable to failure: if your identity is premised on unidentifiability, on slipping through the space between
sameness and difference, how can you ensure you stay who and what you are? The “golden age” of UK funky ended not because the music forgot what it was or what it was about, but because it began to understand itself too well
, albeit shallowly: in 2012, UK funky has at least partially collapsed into a series of ever more obvious, spelt-out definitions of the kind of syncopated attack it once expressed only obliquely, rhythmically dumbed-down even as it increasingly targets an urbane, educated audience of dance music fans.
The decentered, remorselessly mutational quality of golden age UK funky is quite different (in both structure and effect) from the inexhaustible diversity of what we tend to call post-dubstep – as typified by artists such as Ramadanman, Joy Orbison, Scuba, Mosca or Jam City – with its ever shifting kaleidoscope of stylistic affectations running the gamut from house to grime to juke to 2-step garage. Post-dubstep is coalitional and conversational, offering up a series of collisions or negotiations between styles whose identity in themselves might appear certain but whose relationship to one another is in a state of flux. Modeled on the diverse, idiosyncratic DJ mix, post-dubstep expresses the principle of collage, and as such is essentially a post-modern take on syncopated dance music. UK funky at its best is not a collage of substances; instead it orbits around a single, unknowable substance to which it gives shape in a series of misfires. Analogical groove-making should not be mistaken for diversity, let alone eclecticism; the points in this constellation are intended to sound "of a piece". Despite the radical differences in their construction, “Déjà Vu”, “Different Lekstrix” and “Fuller” – together with a host of other tracks I could name – are in an important sense interchangeable, all finding new ways to make the same unarticulated (because unable to be articulated) argument about how to groove and how to dance.
For the listener and dancer, the analogical genre acts as an invisible guiding hand, imposing a strong sense
of rules (what "counts", what doesn't) that the listener is unable to identify or particularise; the rules of the analogical genre, the genre's thing in itself
, exists as an unknowable other, unable to be reduced to a concept, but instead dispersed within a patchwork of meaning generated repeatedly and spontaneously out of each new instance of deviation and recombination. In this regard, UK funky paradoxically is unique in its expression of a problem at the heart of all groove-based music. Or, rather, it is exemplary and indexical, allowing us to see clearly something that was there all along. Groove is not a concept, but material, the raw stuff of sound with and against which our bodies move. Like any material, it naturally eschews the clean lines of conceptuality for the dirty variability of existence, whose permutations exceed the grasp of even the most nuanced accounting.
Adorno once said:
Living in the rebuke that the thing is not identical with the concept is the concept’s longing to become identical with the thing. This is how the sense of nonidentity contains identity.
Our inability to capture exactly the ineffable substance of groove as a series of meaningful deviations tends to compel us either to lapse into mysticism or to say that what cannot be described does not exist, or at least ought not merit attention. Certainly, many critics expressed indifference to, or even unawareness of, UK funky’s rhythmic strategies, as if they had instructed their ears not to hear anything aside from the house grooves the music devoted so much effort to defacing, or alternatively to hear only the defacements and not how they bonded to the structures that gave them a home. But the inadequacy of concepts and critical tools to the task of saying what this music is need not blind the good listener to that which is beyond her reach. The presence of the ineffable rather should be the goad, the inspiration for a critical language that longs to do justice to dance music’s inexhaustible armoury of confounding tricks and tactics.