Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Wicked wierd

A north Hampshire town in 1984, the usual Saturday traipsing shopping streets behind mum. I was waiting outside one shop when three or four older, harder, cooler, more confident boys surged past – one carrying a huge ghetto blaster blaring out these taut rhythms, icy synth lines and robotic voices. It was a moment, and I had to have that sound (the tune was Man Parrish’s Boogie Down Bronx). This was my first ticket out of the suburban quotidian: electro music had entered and would never leave. I had no real idea of its provenance other than it was American but to an 11-year-old lack of details were no barrier to imagination. Only superficially was it dumb party music bragging about girls, and it laid the groundwork for my perceptions of popular music, and particularly the divide between dance and rock, years before I was ready to process those ideas.

A Damascene moment it may have been but electro was no early stage, esoteric cult. After punk had razed the ground but also made yet more variations on rock ‘n roll palatable to the wider world only as pastiche, a New Pop which the newer, cheaper synth technology facilitated had arrived. With real instrumentation less in favour, the funk quota that most bands still strived for was also more easily achievable through this route. Many a rock outfit had a makeover and descuzzed their sound. Blondie rapped about Flash and Fab Five Freddy. It was also well served on film with the likes of Breakdance Electric Boogaloo and Wild Style. So any near-adolescent wanting to appear a la mode had to have a passing acquaintance with it, just as any with-it band – say The Clash – would pay respect to the culture and dabble in the sound.

My own causal, if very tonally different, link was the beguiling sights and sounds of synth Britons such as the Human League, Soft Cell and Depeche Mode on Top of the Pops in 80-81. Turned out these groups were also enormously influential among black Americans too. Paradoxically getting into it when I did would save me from the worst stylistic excesses of the New Pop which would begin to lose its way; I’d leave the Now tapes to my elder sister and her cronies.

As legacy I would take just the music from this era, but this was a well rounded culture encompassing the four corners of breakdancing, graffiti, MCing and DJing. We were in a ‘crew’ of course, with the hi-top boots, jeans with decorative zips in, the fat laces and the (rarely unfashionable since) two-tone Nike cagoules, although only one of us had any real skills on the lino. For a while all this completely took over – I’d write long graf lists of all the words associated with the genre (smooth/tuff/wicked/etc); tap my pens a lot on school desks in mimicry; adapt Whodini’s Freaks Come out at Night to our tent’s travails on our school camping holiday; spend way too much time with my mate in the hi-fi shops checking out the nice eject actions on blasters we couldn’t afford. I boldly pronounced to my mum that this electro-breaking lark was the future, ‘here for ever’ or something. Well not quite, but while all the elements reduced in relevance most of them have refitted and resurged more popular than ever.

The chaotic scratching, blunt industrial beats and MC reportage would offer fitting representation of the Bronx and other districts being torn down. What passed for the banner of ‘Electro’ was a much wider genre encompassing the escapist post-Soulsonic forces stuff, Run DMC’s stripped back bluntness or the even more basic drum machine minimalism of Roxanne/UTFO. In ’85, as this DJ Revlution comp would attest, synthesised riffs were losing out as virtually everyone was rocking hard bass kicks and snares backed up with electronic handclaps, scratching and riffs broken down and exploited for pure rhythmic import – when much of the subject matter being spat was still quite prurient such force could seem a little bewildering. And though there were gritty tales as made most obvious by the likes of Grandmaster Flash’s The Message I was pretty much out of there when the stuff started going gangsta for reasons I’ll explain later. Yes there was also shit like the Fat Boys giving it a bad name, and all manner of prurient eccentricity before that became uncanny and hip. There were a few popular long-running themes such as the welter of battle rhymes/answer records between Roxanne with UTFO and Roxanne with Roxanne Shante; apparently there was a version with swear words on it which had to be tracked down. For my own part, I was also on a quest to find the most perfect scratch sound, and I located it in NYC Cutter’s DJ Cuttin’s licks contorting the sounds of brakes being slammed on.

This was a shortlived spell like the most intense obsessions; I was on the sound probably from late ’84-late ’86. Enthusiasm for playing and watching football dropped as my interest in hanging round crappy precincts listening to music and talking about breakdancing – but never having actually any burns – increased. Crucially, this would be an early sign that in any such scene the music would be my over-riding concern. That did not mean I would slip into fanboy obscurantism – to have the prime cuts from each act would be enough.

Handily, for at that time I had neither financial or logistical resources to deepen my knowledge, this was a music well contained by Mike Allen’s shows on Capital Radio and the ‘Electro’ compilations, straight outta West Acton and regular enough to be fairly definitive (although looking back they did seem to flip back and forth between older and newer stuff). Mates would tape compilations complete with photocopied and badly coloured in covers. Some stuff got into the UK charts giving us a chance of direct ownership (Mantronix, Doug E Fresh, DMC). Generally outrĂ© acts like Chris ‘the Glove’ Taylor with his Itchiban Scratch stayed as eccentric one-offs in my mind, enhancing their weirdness. This was a street music before the tiresome ‘reality principle’ was enforced on music either as willed expression or theatrical gesture, so it was tuff but often dead weird at the same time.

What stays with me from this scene today? Almost embarrassingly so, much of it is note-perfect thanks to regular trips back to the sound (a friend ripped me a CD-rom’s worth of all of the Electros), but the ones I offer up as examples are:

Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde were a double act in at the start of the scene, and therefore not totally transformed by the takeover of drum machines and Bambaata type electro. ‘Fast Life’ is a Kurtis Blow production with live bass and synth sweeps offset by the electronic handclap machine on random, a fine background for Andre Harrell and Alonzo Brown to divert from the usual rock the party rhymes to deliver a cautionary tale about a kid who ‘grew up much too quick’. Harrell went on to form Uptown records where the duo’s corporate livery was more suited to its New Jack Swing.

Marley Marl is deservedly cited as a leading light. With his cousin MC Shan here, we have ultra tight beats, big ups to self, not a chord or melody in sight. As head of the Juice Crew, Marlon Williams’ style was an arrogant and assured anti-music. He also led the late 80s evolution of hip-hip with his work for Eric B and Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie, Kool G Rap & Polo, Masta Ace and others. That DJ Cuttin record is his too. And you must check his harsh brutalism on MC Craig G’s Transformer – a late appearance on Electro 10 but a bleak and ugly slab of shifting sledgehammer beats, shock instrumental stabs and the shapeshifting daemon himself coming through the vocoder.

Then there was there more straight-up electro bounce LA sound – the pre-NWA explorations of Dre in the World Class Wreckin Crew and Professor X as the Arabian Prince, as well as the Unknown DJ. And the guy who stands out with his consistent Pharonic concept was Egyptian Lover. These days those pitch-bent riffs, queasy voices and druggy beats are the meat and veg of the fidgety pop world; back then I used to find Greg Broussard’s material dangerously exciting and disturbing as I’d listen to a tinpot tape-player or radio under my sheets.

I also retain big love for Aleem – twins Taharqa Aleem and Tunde Ra Aleem with 70s soul-disco man Leroy Burgess who peddled emotionally charged electro soul that through its energy sat better with the Electro compilations than the slicker, high-tech soul of its Street Sounds cousin (one of which actually I got in error after I instructed mum, obviously shopping alone in Aldershot that Saturday, to come home with any Electro she saw in Our Price). They also produced for acts such as Captain Rock.

More well known than all of these with his highly distinctive electrofunk, it’s hard to avoid Mantronix as a considerable auteur. Kurtis el Khaleel epitomised the rise of the singular producer who like Marley Marl would release under different guises/styles and work with a range of rappers and vocalists. I choose Ladies, standard girl-talk for sure but with a weird atmosphere catalysed by slower than usual polyrhythmic drum patterns with real percussion, minor keys and echoed MC Tee rhymes.

If 82-84 saw the emergence of this futurist thrust, then 1985 was the year of take-over, certainly that DJ Revolution comp would suggest it was a big year. That meant consolidation was round the corner; by ’86 the purer electro sound was getting overexploited (Paul Hardcastle’s 19, anyone?), while the industry had seemed only to raise the profile of the dumber stuff (Fat Boys, LL Cool J – anything past Rock the Bells is cack), get behind acts past their sell-by date (Roxanne, Kurtis Blow) or usher others into more soulful, rockier or mainstream material such as Run DMC or Mantronix, in stark contravention to where the culture was actually going. With New York repurposed as a city of service and finance capital, those industrial slabs of rhythm, wreckin shop scratching and block rockin lyrics that purveyed a tumultuous city with considerable heterogeneous cultural force were out of place – it was now the job of rappers to talk about the crack zones left behind. For that true ‘hip-hop’ itself was coming to the fore. Boogie Down Productions was one of the first of the new school – and as with so many KRS-1 would soon have his own tale for summary inspiration after Scott La Rock’s death. The braggadocio of the frontman gripping his johnson had been replaced by an in-your-face bad boy with deadly intent. Either as preacher man, griot or grisly celebrator of the life, rappers (no longer just plain old MCs) had stories to tell beyond girls about using guns and selling drugs and for this his ‘cadence’ was all-important and the return to musicality served that – sampling took over and the real funk of the 70s was plundered – I’m tempted to think because you needed a fun counterpoint to all the lyrical brutality.

By its twelfth edition it was ‘Hip-Hop Electro’ 12, and by 17 it had lost any mention of electro at all – while nominally the term did not fit everything in this wide range of emerging sounds it had been accurate enough; by now it was outdated. The modern shapes and blocks of colour were also slowly edged out, and with this loss of consistent corporate identity the game was over. Or rather it had changed. The strictly entertaining party elements took a back seat until consumer capitalism was ready to re-embrace them. I corresponded by having a period out of the game – a spiritual penance if you like away from other people’s hyper-reality (the music I chose for this interlude was mostly U2, the Minds and Jean Michel Jarre! Oh what scars in my collection!) before Public Enemy and others such as Eric B bought me back in time for hip-hop’s golden era to follow. But that’s the music of another decade.

25-30 years on electro music’s legacy is strong. The reliance was still on the ever fertile production line from America but for Britain’s multi-culti teenagers always so achingly keen to be on-trend, this was the first visible subculture to explicitly refute live music and be all about DJs, producers, labels, the latest up-to-the-minute beat (a more visible cousin to the necessary occlusive soundsystem-based dub reggae culture). The notion of the b-boy still has a very strong hold on how up and coming British producers present themselves. You can view it as pre-nuum in this respect, possibly with even more direct linkage than the more naively utopian, therefore less streetwise, rave.

Personally, electro/hip-hop goes far beyond being my first window on the black American world and a companion in my adolescent stirrings – ‘Electro is aural sex’ they used to print on the inlay of the tape covers. I still exercise an over-reliance on the compilation method of accumulation Electro introduced me to – picking the best artists with no particular need to discover the full blown artist album where your loyalty is frequently let down by lack of quality/overindulgence. And while Rubin and co were introducing elements of rawk as it collided with the MTV generation, these few years precluded any liking for metal/rock/indie and coloured my perceptions of those genres for years afterwards. Hearing this blunt but emphatic anti-music as my source material would make my inherently distrust the vaunted ‘emotion’ of the troubled rock artist, or the value of all the ever diminishing repetitions of musicality the bands behind him present. Since I have realised the pointlessness of relativity in relation to disparate musics I have opened up my ears, but in many respects it’s still all about the beat. And yeah sad to say I still annoy a lot of people by beatboxing too often.

In terms of the music itself, well from Dizzee’s bite of the Roxanne/UTFO beat on Fix Up, the Chemical Brothers’ use of the Roof is on Fire or any number of wholescale lifts from those Brighton Go! Team merchants who wear the influences very visibly on their chests – very little of it that was any good hasn’t been appropriated. On one hand the pulse beat seemed to served the rather dull breaks genre, on the other austere and enlightening Detroit electro from Aux 88, Mike Banks’ various guises, Drexicya and the broadening out from electroclash artists like Peaches. Bear in mind what was called electro-house very rarely had that pulse-beat but still traded off the genre’s schlock value. The breaking, popping, graffiti and so on are so thoroughly re-entrenched in a now officially sanctioned Street Culture that for originals like me to call its bluff and claim it’s nostalgic would be nonsense. A kid (or more likely, a student wearing a rucksack into the scene) can immerse themselves in this life more completely than we ever could and, with ever more distance from the original Bronx explosion of the late ’70s, questions of cultural theft seem much less relevant.

With any retrospective of a once vital culture we have to be careful not to lurch into nostalgic soft focus or use it as a validator of once vibrant lives, like the way pissed Dads attempt the moonwalk, the body pop or, no! please don’t!, the crazy legs at a wedding. Or the way Vernon Kay endlessly evokes the spirit of rave as if he’s a Haciendia veteran. But if you deghettoise the sound – not necessarily think of it as childish electro but straight-up dance music – then much of it competes with all the myriad disco/funk/early house stuff of the Dance Decade. Generally, all the genre’s trademark sounds have been back in vogue for a good 10 years so the more pertinent question is when will it stop being so influential.

An Electro 10
MC Craig G – Transformer
Imperial Brothers – We Come to Rock
Aleem – Release Yourself
Captain Rock – Cosmic Blast
Cybotron – Clear
Egyptian Lover – My House on the Nile
Marley Marl ft MC Shan – Marley Marl Scratch
Man Parrish – Boogie Down Bronx
Dr Jeckyll & Mr Hyde – Fast Life
Roxanne Shante ft Biz Markie – Def Fresh Crew

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