“And yes, I’m settled back at school, and will be blogging more. I mean it this time.”
Er, about that.
Well, the semester has come and gone, and it was my best yet. But that left little time for blogging.
In any case, it’s been a fairly dull year for music thus far, or maybe just for my interest in it. I did really enjoy the Portishead record, especially “Machine Gun” — white dubstep, more or less, which would be a terrible idea for a genre but is a great idea for one (1) song which has easily been my favorite single of the year (and I’m pretty shocked considering how poorly I regard “Dummy”).
In any case, I’ve recently found some stuff which is really exciting. Tipped off by an issue of FACT that I picked up in London over spring break, I checked out Scottish beatmaker Rustie’s myspace. Simon wrote recently of his disenchantment with “beats,” of the sheer safety haunting dubstep’s borderline-museum-culture austerity. I was impressed, then, by the general pandemonium and cacophony of Rustie’s sound, seemingly wrought from an irreverent and passionate desire to make beats dangerous again.
Having been a child for most all of the rave movement, my primary vessel to understand the idea of “believing in beats” is hip-hop. Learning to believe in hip-hop beats was more of an unlearning of the focus on lyrics which drives most people in my race and class position towards the likes of Talib Kweli or Atmosphere — an often noble gesture but totally musically vacant and boring sludge (except for a handful of tunes, like Kweli’s great, Kanye-produced “Get By”; Atmosphere, on the other hand, belong to the bottom echelon of my musical universe, alongside the only two other acts I hate with this much of a passion: Of Montreal and Matisyahu).
Incidentally, while grime’s beats were thrilling jagged and lo-fi, a lot of the danger factor may indeed have come from the lyrical element rather than the beat one. The jagged rhythms of garage-descended MCing posed not only a counterpoint to the hyper-dull tradition of UK hip-hop but in fact to the entire hip-hop tradition. Dubstep, it seems, has been trying to take the beat-based end of grime and trace its mournful lineage back through the entire history of British electronic dance music. It’s yielded some lovely records, but in no way does it feel like a scene, a movement. Rather, it resembles a discrete moment so severed from any sense of history that it may be doomed to remain stationary unless it can point somewhere else, and fast.
Rustie delightfully fucks with the entire scheme of the dubstep and grime sound, and he may be (at least part of) the dance underground’s much needed way out. And sure, his messy conflation of the most enticing developments in hip-hop, techno, and grime/dubstep, brilliantly situated by Blackdown as part of a semi-global “wonky” trend in his Pitchfork column, is pretty thrilling at first. But — and here, there are minute echoes of grime’s crisis circa a couple of years ago — the perverse twist is that a sound like this probably can’t mobilize the social energy which used to catalyze underground music movements without making interventions into, perhaps even without becoming, pop.
Thankfully, in post-MP3 mash-up culture, this is as easy as fucking with mainstream pop tracks, which Rustie has done in his own inimitable style on his remix of Brandy’s “What About Us?” and on his incredible “resmacked” version of Keyshia Cole’s “Shoulda Let You Go,” which you can hear on his myspace linked above. The “Keesha resmak” is probably the most exciting thing I’ve heard in about six months, a lethal ear-demolishing monster with almost no genre coordinates whatsoever.
The original, produced by Darkchild, is a pretty standard ’00s R&B track. I’ve kept myself tuned to R&B not only because it regularly churns out delightful if ephemeral pleasures but because it has been one of the prime sites of pop innovation in the decades since hip-hop more or less swallowed it whole. The feverishly inventive rhythms of R&B’s “Waterfalls”-to-“Bugaboo” late 90s peak may have dried up long ago, but the genre continues to spit out ravishingly perfect flashes of pop futurism and percussive energy — see Amerie’s “1 Thing” and Cassie’s “Me and U” — amidst its routine of mass-producing tame but wondrous pop anthems. Part of what made the Keyshia original great — and, really, part of why I listen to or write about music at all — is because of how it, as a pop-song/culture-machine hybrid, exposes and accelerates the hyperreal social fictions of (taking “Shoulda Let You Go” as the example) Black Womanhood that the Capitalist culture machine has such investment in reproducing, reselling, reinventing and eternally recommodifying. Listening to pop, or to any music, is inseparably both an aesthetic pleasure (or displeasure) and an immanent spectacle of Capital’s structural effects. What makes pop music such an exciting site for this power play is the way that particular sounds — in this case, take Cole’s hysterical melismatic wails — or technologies — Darkchild’s hyper-quantized strings and the thickly smeared layers of post-B-Boys-on-E squeaky clean ProTools production gloss — are revealed as intimately welded to the discursive violence the pop marketplace performs on its own consumers and producers as well as to the agency these consumers and producers can muster against that discursive violence.
Rutie’s version of “Shoulda Let You Go,” then, is something like a phallic modernist assault on Keyshia Cole’s tame, generically feminine original. Indeed, abuse seems to be a key word here — why does Cole get “resmacked” instead of “remixed,” anyway?
Rustie begins and ends the song with an onslaught of chopped female voices, hicupping, coughing, and maybe choking. Convulsive percussion throws us into Rustie’s carnival of pop chaos. Cole’s vocals are pitched up slightly, accelerating the original’s traditional pop melodrama, while the vocal-science dissection of the track’s inorganic female protagonist suggests not so much reconstitution as it does full-on disassembly. Synth-bass roars flood the low end, while the mid-range is an air-raid of disorienting effects. Lyrics like “And we both know you’re wrong/ There’s nothing you can do to ever undo what you done to me” become anguished pleas directed against the violence of the track itself.
Listening to it is an almost exhausting experience, but one that I’ve returned to dozens and dozens of times (really) in the last week. It’s hard to say exactly why, but part of it is that the track seems to interface with a dozen microscenes at once — the already acknowledged fragments of grime and dubstep rubbing up against sounds and rhythms cribbed from hyphy, bassline house, and crunk — negotiating their microscopic similarities and their shared sense of local, culturally specific social energy against the monolithic force of contemporary pop. It’s exciting, even physically wracking, in all of the places that I usually find mash-ups and myspace remixes to be cheap and uninspired. And it will probably fade into the Internet ether, given the nature of an attention-deficient culture where, particularly in the States, the roles of consumers and critics have dissolved into each other and toward a mess of bourgeois dilettantism. But if we’re lucky, it’s a sign that beats may again become something that we — my generation, at least — can believe in.