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Indian E-music – The right mix of Indian Vibes… » Derek Walmsley


Being in Limbo

Delivered... Derek Walmsley | Scene | Tue 25 Dec 2018 7:00 am

Reggae is rich with questions of belonging, but instead of domesticity it focuses on the state of limbo. After watching the documentary Being Blacker, Derek Walmsley examines how the Brixton figurehead Blacker Dread struggles with what he once called home. The film will be screened on January 13, 2019, at the 9th Norient Musikfilm Festival in Bern, Switzerland.

Filmstill: Being Blacker (Molly Dineen, UK 2018)

The representation of home in reggae has always been complex, which is one reason the music remains so rich with movement, dreams and allusions. In the early 70s in the UK, reggae dances were the equivalent for new immigrants of church – places where people divided and ruled by whites could celebrate and dream together as a community. Reggae can be romanticised as a guiding light that keeps someone on the right path, but in Molly Dineen’s 2018 documentary Being Blacker on producer and Brixton community figurehead Blacker Dread, music is far away. Instead, Blacker’s house is filled with many connections, possibilities and memories, many of which are unfulfilled. Blacker came to the UK as a young child, but now yearns to return to the Jamaica he remembers.

This might symbolise for him, like in reggae, not home but specifically homeland. The cornerstone of roots music, The Abyssinians’ early 70s track «Satta Massa Ganna», begins with the line «There is a land far, far away…», a place where “there is no night, there’s only day”. This theme, repeated often in roots, proposes somewhere else that one should be, distant in both time and space. Reggae is rich with such imaginary and remagined places: Augustus Pablo’s melodica sketched a blissful space of plenty East Of The River Nile, Burning Spear dreamed of idyllic living out of the city with Man In The Hills. Musicians and producers invoke time and again the «Train To Zion» (Linval Thompson, U-Brown, Bingy Bunny and many others) or the «Roots Train» (Junior Murvin). In contrast there is not much domesticity in roots music, outside of the romantic sphere of Gregory Isaacs, the lonely lover whose yearning entreaties helped pave the way for lovers rock with song titles like «Coming Home», «Love Light (Burning)» and «Intimate Lovers». 

Living In a Placeholder

Roots music can allude to deep questions of belonging, origins and destination, but to do so, it uses placeholders to address the present state of limbo. The idea of the ghetto is right at the heart of reggae, and returned to time and again, from different directions and with different expectations, from Big Joe’s «Sufferation In The Ghetto» to U-Roy’s Peace And Love In The Ghetto». The ghetto is a place of pride, invention, solidarity, hardship, hustling, struggle, pressure. The ghetto contains everything in life, yet is a place you seek to move out of, so whatever is said always feels provisional. The idea of babylon in reggae, another placeholder for the current state of affairs, is powerful because it invokes both the ancient and the modern. Babylon is the biblical place people wished to move out of, and in the present day, it’s used as a catch-all category for any of the many manifestations of oppression and power structures. Simple instances of everyday hardship are put in a proper context of recurring patterns. So, for instance, Gregory Isaacs in his classic «Babylon Too Tough» address police brutality and corruption, identifying not merely violence but criminality and animal instincts: «Dem a walk dem a loot dem a shoot… Babylon are a brute».

In reggae, the possibility of home can never be taken for granted, due to racism, the inequities of modern society, and the displacement and diasporic connections that are the legacy of colonialism and slavery. Dineen’s film reaches a melancholy conclusion as Blacker plans to go and live back in Jamaica, somewhere he can expect to see someone with the same skin colour as him in power, and not to be judged on the same basis. The roots of roots reggae extends across countries, oceans and generations. And it has to because, as Dineen’s film explores, everyone needs a home they can call their own. 

Trailer

9th Norient Musikfilm Festival 2019

Deconstructing Violence in Grime

Delivered... Derek Walmsley | Scene | Thu 3 Mar 2016 7:10 am

Violence may be a frequent theme in UK grime music, but its influence on the aesthetics of the music is stronger than its connection to real life disputes. War is everywhere in grime lyrics, but violence is fictionalized. From the Norient book «Seismographic Sounds» (see and order here).

Elijah & Skilliam & Skepta at the Butterz 3rd Birthday party at Cable club London in  Feb 2013 © James Gould

Elijah & Skilliam & Skepta at the Butterz 3rd Birthday party at Cable club London in Feb 2013 © James Gould

«It’s all playground,» grime rapper Wiley said to me at the end of an interview once, qualifying the tough talk that came out in our discussion—of rivals he claimed stole his music, or of his use of samples of guns. It was as if he was saying: you know it’s all pretend? Likely, it was an aside to me, as an outsider, who might not understand the particular context of references to violence in grime. In any case the reference to the schoolyard is revealing. Violence in grime is simultaneously a matter of fantasy and reality. References to guns, knives, beefs and war are a way of both boosting your own image at the expense of others—all the while keeping the tension on a strictly lyrical level—while also reflecting a setting for the music in which the realities of gang life are never entirely absent. A track by The Essentials, «State Your Name Soldier,» took this situation to its logical extreme—it had each MC introduce their location and who they were repping before each verse, as if they were addressing a drill sergeant.

Violence in the Grime Scene

Grime as a musical form came out of the UK garage scene in the early 2000s when MCs began rapping on the tracks. It started primarily as a London-based movement, but quickly ran into controversy when numerous live events were disrupted by disputes between rival crews, licensing problems or police interference. Violence has often lurked in the background, from volatile MC Crazy Titch getting jailed for murder in 2005 at the height of his fame, to grime shows getting kicked off the former pirate radio station Rinse FM in December 2006. (This was after Wiley dissed former ally God’s Gift live on air, calling him a «donut,» which allegedly resulted in God’s Gift and crew gatecrashing the station to beat up Wiley.) As Wiley’s playground reference suggests, though, these conflicts are almost always internal affairs between the different artists. Because live grime events are often shut down by the police, often before they even take place, war in grime often happens at a distance. Vocal «diss tracks» are recorded in the studio, in which MCs ridicule and goad their rivals by calling out their names on live radio sets. War is a state of mind: a state of constant awareness of the need to protect your reputation against those in the rest of the scene wanting to take it.

Wiley & Flowdan live in 2005 © Flickr/Kevin

Wiley & Flowdan live in 2005 © Flickr/Kevin

In the 2010s, instrumental grime has gained in popularity in London, the rest of the UK and beyond, often overshadowing the vocal tracks with which grime made its mark—perhaps in part because it lacks the tough talking that gained grime a reputation for trouble. Instrumental grime gave rise to the phenomenon of the «war dub, » in which producers take musical pot shots at each other by dedicating tracks (usually on SoundCloud) to producers they feel deserve targeting. Instrumental grime has also gone deeper into the palette of «war» sounds originally explored by producers like Wiley—the sounds of guns firing, cartridges hitting the pavement, magazines being inserted, and so on. In the hands of new producers, particularly on the Keysound record label, similar sounds (for example metal reverberating like cartridges hitting the floor, sudden thrusts of noise like explosions) are composed in an abstracted and almost formalistic way—they have lost their sense of tension and fear, instead becoming a mere default choice. These sounds carry a sense of something almost like nostalgia for the original grime styles of producers such as Wiley or Jammer.

The Idea of Violence Shapes the Lyrics

To take the prevalent violence theme in grime seriously, you need to consider its lyrical battles, clashes and disputes in detail. «War» is a common word in grime lyrics; «violence» is not. In contrast to grime, hip hop has space, slow tempos, and the back-and-forth of the «boom bap beat» so an MC can get their mouth around the three syllables of the latter word easily. Whereas hip hop lyricists have style or flex, in grime, you are said to have a flow. As that term hints, the words move in one direction: forward. In grime, a common lyrical device is the one line flow, where every line ends with the same word, an AAAAAAAAA rhyme pattern like a machine gun. In Jammer’s track «Destruction VIP,» Wiley ends every line of his verse with the angry words «don’t know you.»

Click here to view the embedded video.

 
Grime is sometimes accused of being one-dimensional, but this is simply a reflection of the speed and repetition of the artform. You get a rapid rat-a-tat-tat report of references and code words. In a lyric like Flow Dan’s «War» verse, dropped to devastating effect on Logan Sama’s last ever show on Rinse (and viewable on YouTube), the single syllable word «war» is wielded like a weapon. Because grime’s lyrical structure is simple and direct it has the effect of simplifying and abstracting the messy business of violence into a flow of code, boasts and bravado. There are many terms for guns, for instance, usually single-syllable words that can be dropped quickly: heat, skeng, shotty, pumpy, glock, gat, and so on.

On Dizzee Rascal’s verse on Roll Deep’s track «Eskimo Vocal,» each line contains a sum, and if you do the math, each of those sums is a reference to a different caliber gun. 3+2+3+1 equals a 9mm; 3×10+7+1 equals a .38 caliber; 9+8+3+2 equals a .22 caliber. He drops all these sums yet the whole thing rhymes. It’s a brilliant piece of lyric writing—dense, fast, yet subtle.

Click here to view the embedded video.

 
Similarly, on a Wiley production from 2005 entitled «Sidewinder,» two MCs from Ruff Sqwad, Tinchy Stryder and Slix drop verses with no rhymes, just chants of (respectively) «gun fingers» and «big shot pum pum pum.» Furthermore, on the original version of «Forward Rhythm» by Lethal B (also known as «Pow»), a verse by Hotshot reels off a list of guns with the exclamation «shoot it!» In these examples, the form of the lyrics becomes as simple as possible to make the wordplay sound fast and furious. In other words, there’s a perfect match between the form and the content. In these examples, violence has generated the form, the structure, and the contours of the lyrics.

Click here to view the embedded video.

 
Signed Up to the Gym

In other cases grime uses humor to disarm the violence of the lyrics. In a Skepta lyric from a clash with Devilman, captured on the Lord Of The Mics DVD, he produces perhaps the most absurdly extended threat in all of grime: «Signed up to the gym cause I heard man are looking for me and my mates / And after I’m done with pumping weights / I’m gonna buy a stab proof vest and slot in the plates.» It’s like a montage scene of an action movie in which the hero prepares for a showdown condensed into just over two lines. In a Wiley lyric in Roll Deep’s «People Don’t Know,» he says there’s not a gun in his car, but there is a baseball bat… that he uses to play baseball, or even more inoffensively, rounders. In these cases, the scenes sketched by the lyrics, even though they’re playing with notions of violence, are so extended that they become simply absurd. Grime MCs are able to extend lines in this way because the rhyme schemes are so simple; you can repeat words, you can rhyme very simply indeed, and stretch out your lines like a piece of elastic until it snaps.

Click here to view the embedded video.

 
There’s a recurring paradox at work here, which is that grime, by referencing violence and war so much, seems to blunt its edge. That’s not to deny that events in the grime scene ever overlap with real-word violence, but violence is part of the discourse of grime to such an extent that it bears no resemblance to real-life events. MCs can be bitter rivals on record but friends in reality. Disputes and threats are generated in a sphere completely separate from any real-life dispute. They quickly take on their own logic and rules as associations and perceived slights incorporate other participants. Lyrical wars in grime spread quickly—they are chaotic, almost self-generating, and more like a game of Chinese whispers than a real dispute. Allusions and references to violence in grime should never be taken at face value, but must be understood on their own terms.

 
This text was published first in the second Norient book «Seismographic Sounds». Click on the image to know more.

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