Tag Archive: Coldcut


Wow, 2010 was quite a year for music and Sonic Fiction, personally I think it was a really great year for music of all types and blog managed to grow massively in the second half the year when we doubled our views from the first half of the year. Thanks to anyone who has taken a look, enjoyed and commented on our pieces. I have to say though that in some ways the end of the year was frustrating reading end of year polls and finding tons of reviews of albums I hadn’t listened to in my bookmarks. Still I’ve decided not to stress about as even some of my favourite journalists haven’t found the time to listen to everything.

In 2011 we hope that Sonic Fiction can continue to grow both in terms of quality of writing and views. We aim to continually improve but want to make this a more conscious effort from now on. We’ve launched a Twitter account which will enable us to link readers to articles, albums, playlists etc and provide the real interactivity that we want with Sonic Fiction. I think that when we started the blog, we were just relived that it was (finally) up and running but as time has gone on a set of aims has emerged. We really want to start debates about the points that we are making and we hope that with the help of Twitter and even better writing we can do so. If anyone has any suggestions of further ways we can encourage this please let us know. We also have a new bi-monthly column launching in February (when we’ll be one year old) that will reassess the perceived reputation of artist(s), a period of their career or a genre, we don’t have a title but if anyone has a suggestion just Twitter it or put it in the comments section.

Ok, so looking forward into the New Year here’s list of the various cultural happenings we are looking forward to this year:

Bands/Artists/Releases

There’s a trio of returning post-punk legends (two of them this month) in the shape of Gang of Four’s (first album in almost 16 years) ‘Content’, Wire release new album ‘Red Barked Tree’ and The Pop Group return with a new album later in the year, which will possibly feature The Bug, Keith Levene (ex Clash and Public Ltd guitarist), Micheal Rother (Neu!), Richard H. Kirk (Cabaret Voltaire) and DJ Assault or not.

There’s ‘Violet Cries’ the debut album by spooky, folky goth types Esben and The Witch, a band I saw a lot of potential in last year but failed to mention.

The explosive agit-prop of Asian Dub Foundation is always welcome in my flat and on the evidence of the title track so will new album ‘A History of Now’ out 7th February.

A week later Mogwai’s fearsome noise will pollute speakers the world over with new album ‘Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will’.

I always get excited about new PJ Harvey album but haven’t even listened to one since ‘Tales from the City, Tales from the Sea’, so we’ll have to see if ‘Let England Shake’ changes that.

There’s also the much anticipated collaboration/remix album by Gil-Scott Heron ‘We’re New Here’, though the description I read on FACT doesn’t fill me with confidence.

The Knife have hinted via their newsletter of new material emerging sometime in 2011 and in other Scandinavian news, Bjork has said that new music will be “ready in a few months”.

Finally Primal Scream celebrate the 20th anniversary of ‘Screamdelica’ with a tour and impressive looking 6 disc box set on March 7th. There will also be smaller edition more info as I get it.

New band tips

  • OoOOo – self titled debut E.P. was one of the top releases of 2010, next release much anticipated.

  • Balam Acab – debut E.P. ‘See Birds’ was one of the top releases of 2010, to be issued on CD in February.

  • Factory Floor – this industrial dance outfit’s early singles impressed, an album is being recorded.

  • Dels – Big Dada’s new hip-hop hope delivers debut album produced by Joe Goddard (Hot Chip) early in 2011.

  • Laurel Halo – made waves all over the internet last year and seems to have the talent to back up the hype!!

  • Yanqui – I was very impressed by this post-rock bands self titled debut E.P. and think there’s real potential for development into something bigger and better.

  • The Samps – another impressive self titled debut E.P. from these sample lovin’ duo, kind of like a sampled based Chin Chin cheesy yet irresistible.

  • Games – this Oneohtrix Point Never side project launched with their debut release ‘We Can Play’ on the super hip Hippos In Tanks late last year and it was packed with great tunes that promises their debut album might just be as good as Oneohtrix’s own material.

  • Blondes – synth based Brooklyn duo who after the success of their ‘Touched’ E.P. should release a debut full length that takes their ‘bedroom space disco’ sound even further out.

  • Win Win – a three way collaborative project comprising XXXchange (Spank Rock), Chris Delvin (of Baltimore DJ duo Delvin and Darko) and visual artist Ghostdad. Their self titled album is out on Vice on 15th February and features Alexis Taylor (Hot Chip), Naeem (Spank Rock) and Lizzie Bougatsos (Gang Gang Dance).

  • Floating Points Ensemble – the side project of producer Floating Points have already received critical acclaim for their spat of electronic jazz infected 2010 releases, a debut album on Ninja Tune awaits in 2011.

  • Holy Other – The haunting track ‘Yr Love’ leads to a potential album this year. The electronic music producer’s blend of gauzy vocals, 808 claps and swampy delays creates a highly emotional feel, which hopefully will materialise as a complete release.

  • White Car – Having released two EP’s last year this exciting industrial dance duo are currently putting the finishing touches to a début album to be released later this year.

  • Suuns (pronounced ‘Soons’) – This band’s début album ‘Zeroes QC’ manages the ineviable task of  combining post-punk and post-rock influences into a cohesive, tuneful and confident and all without sounding like overblown and bloated rock.

  • Breton – This South London have been saddled with the unfortunate description of ‘post-punk dubstep’ but don’t let that put you off. It’s true that they combine influences from those genres but a quick visit to their MySpace will show that they transcend these distinct sounds to make their unique style. With only one 12″ the potential is definitely there and only time will tell if it can blossom further.

Albums we hope finally see the light of day in 2011

Missy Elliott’s long anticipated ‘The Block Party’, the second Madvillain album, the new Mouse on Mars album; a new album by audio-visual dons Coldcut is due and The Avalanches much, much, much anticipated follow to ‘Since I Left You’, yes I believe this is coming soon.

Spotify playlist:

Preview of 2011

Recommendations

Wire – ‘Red Barked Tree’ (Pink Flag) 10th January

Wire return with their 12th album (and first without guitarist Bruce Gilbert), the bands own description makes it sound like business as usual but this no bad thing!!

Deerhoof – ‘Deerhoof vs Evil’ (Polyvinyl) 25th January

American indie-rockers return with their 11th album, following on from their great contribution to Tradi-Mods vs. Rockers: Alternative Takes on Congotronics’ late last year. You can hear tracks from the album via Soundcloud now and in each week leading up to release.

Gang of Four – ‘Content’ (Groneland) 25th January

Post-punk legends return with their first new album since reforming in 2004. Heavily published by the bands fund raising efforts which included giving away vials of blood to fans with the album. Should be interesting as the two tracks I’ve heard so far have gone from great to so-so.

Talib Kweli – ‘Gutter Rainbows’ (Talibra) 25th January

Talib’s first independent release after the fall out from ‘Eardrum’ lead to leaving Warner Bros. early signs are good and come in the form of the Ski Beatz produced ‘Cold Rain’. You can hear the track and read more details here.

Esben and the Witch – ‘Violet Cries’ (Beggars Banquet) 31st January

Quietly gathering support from The Quietus to the Guardian through last year and expected to produce one of the debuts of the year. Will their folky gothic pop live up to the hype?

I hope to have some more music, plus television and film recommendations next month.

Coming up in January we have a piece on slow music (more interesting than that sounds), the return of Music Is Improper with the second part of its history of techno and ‘Doolittle’ by the Pixies is this month Classic’s Critiqued.

Top 5 Non Musicians

What is a non musician? The most obvious application is to describe people who are not musicians, but it has also been used to describe musicians who approach their work from a non musical perspective. The non musicians I will be talking about have all separated themselves from conventional and traditional ideas of how to create music, how music can be perceived and even what it can communicate and represent.

1. Brian Eno

An obvious but valid choice. From the very beginning of his career through to the present day Eno has constantly pushed or been pushing the ideas of what music is and how it can be created. He began his musical career in Cornelius Cardew’s Scratch Orchestra, which allowed anyone to join and created experimental music using graphic scores instead of the traditional stave and improvisation to achieve the resulting sound. His next venture was Roxy Music. Though they had a rock music sound they weren’t any normal rock band, Andy Mackay’s saxophone was something rarely found in the genre at the time. In addition to this, Eno used the EMS VCS3 synthesiser, which featured no keys and produced effects and synthetic sounds instead of discernible notes. He also treated Phil Manzenera’s guitar on ‘Ladytron’, which was Eno’s first use of what he later called ‘treatments’ in an attempt to describe what he did with instruments and to distance himself from other pop/rock musicians. After Eno left Roxy Music in 1973 he began his solo career in an equally bizarre fashion. He credited himself on the sleeve of solo debut album ‘Here Comes the Warms Jets’ with playing ‘simplistic keyboards, snake guitar, electric larynx and synthesiser’. At this time he also began his pioneering work with King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp, employing tape delay techniques to create the sound they dubbed ‘Frippertronics’. As the 1970s progressed Eno’s music seems, in retrospect, to lead naturally to his next innovation – ambient music (despite his claim to the inspiration of being unable to clearly hear his guitar while lying a hospital bed). In 1978 he released the first album of this new genre ‘Music for Films’ which was inadvertently the achievement that he became most famous for, at times overshadowing his other work. The intention for ambient music was to change the listener’s perception of the space they were in and this was reflected in albums titles such as ‘Music for Airports’ and ‘Ambient#4: On Land’. This was a radical step and a precursor to Eno’s later work as both a multi-media artist, such as his recent ‘77 Billion Paintings’ exhibition and authoring the Generative Music software, which required no musical skill to use.

Why has Eno felt the need to switch between so many different roles and collaborations (and this is of cause not forgetting to mention his career as a record producer for U2, Talking Heads, James etc)? Why does he continue to insist he is not a musician? In an interview with legendary music journalist Lester Bangs in 1979 Eno explained that he felt that many bands or artists pursued a linear career path treading water, producing album after album but he preferred the accidental career path he found himself on, putting it down to his desire to avoid clichés and getting stuck in an artistic rut. He claimed to have been offered tempting profile boosting opportunities but turned them down because he wanted to ‘maintain his mobility’ and lead his career his way, meaning that Eno can constantly move between collaborative, solo or ambient albums and multimedia projects.

As for his claims of being a ‘non musician,’ this statement seems to contradict the incredible body of work he has created. It is a selection so strong and so full of musicality, how could it come from anyone other than a musician? Eno answers this in the same interview, saying that again he is standing in opposition to generally accepted ideas of what a musician is. He discusses his processes as having more to do with ‘manipulation and ingenuity’ than musical skill. This involves picking out parts on various instruments then feeding them through electronics and effects before getting other collaborators to overdub onto the basic tracks. Being more interested in sound than technical ability, he starts with a sound then works on the harmony or melody often feeling his way to find complimentary notes. This method of working can also be dictated by a set of cards, named Oblique Strategies, that are designed to provide unorthodox forms of inspiration and include instructional statements such as ‘Honour thy error as a hidden intention’ , a technique that has been utilised by Radiohead.  Eno also believes that not having formal music training can ‘generate surprising results sometimes; you move to places which you wouldn’t do if you knew better, and sometimes that’s just what you need.’

2. Matthew Herbert

My second choice for this chart is the ‘found sound’ auteur Matthew Herbert, a non musician in the most literal sense. Herbert doesn’t play a conventional musical instrument on any of his records, despite the fact that he learnt piano from the age of five. He has created music in various guises since his first release as Wishmountain in 1995 and has always composed with ‘found sound’ and not traditional instrumentation. His interest in ‘found sound’ began at Exeter University where he learnt about aleatoric processes (anything left to chance or that is indeterminate) while studying drama. Herbert soon discovered that his true calling was music and that he could apply these theories to its creation. His first performance came in 1995 and featured only a bag of crisps, a microphone and a sampler. His early career (1995 – 2000) was split between his Wishmountain guise (in which he helped invent the mircohouse genre) and Radioboy (where he explored his more experimental and political side). It was in 2000 that Herbert’s career and theoretical work really took off though. He created the P.C.C.O.M. (Personal Contract For The Composition Of Music) a set of rules for his own musical composition, such as:

• ‘Only sounds that are generated at the start of the compositional process or taken from the artist’s own previously unused archive are available for sampling.’

• ‘The inclusion, development, propagation, existence, replication, acknowledgement, rights, patterns and beauty of what are commonly known as accidents, is encouraged. Furthermore, they have equal rights within the composition as deliberate, conscious, or premeditated compositional actions or decisions.’

Like Eno, Herbert has created an aid to creativity. However whereas ‘Oblique Strategies’ was a tool to help inspiration, P.C.C.O.M. is used to restrict what Herbert can use or do while he is creating music. Both approaches encourage and cause innovation in music and have also shown that high quality music can be made via unorthodox methods and not necessarily from people with a classically trained background like Eno. Matthew Herbert could have chosen to compose music using traditional instrumentation, but instead he pursued a more experimental path, one that has resulted in more interesting and possibly better music.

Why did Herbert chose to do this? Initially it would seem that this was due to his interest in the concept of the accident and indeed this persists to this day as Herbert named his own record label Accidental Records. Since founding the Radioboy alias in 1997 and creating the P.C.C.O.M. in 2000 Herbert’s music has grown more potent, more musical and, most importantly, more symbolic and political. Herbert claims to have taken it beyond ‘found sound’ and coined his own term ‘that sound’. Not interested in merely sampling what’s around him, he is interested in what it is and why he is sampling it. His music is rich in symbiotic and discursive content, whether it be the subtle and sumptuous orchestrated sounds of his ‘Scale’ album or his most experimental work to date ‘Plat Du Jour’, he is always addressing political and social issues, using sampled items that are representative and intrinsic to that issue and that have been moulded into musical sound by Herbert.

Matthew Herbert has been included at No.2 in this chart due both to his innovative non musical approach and like Eno he produces incredible musical results, the political messages cleverly woven into the very fabric of his music and the use of a limiting manifesto to create interesting, unique and often sublime music, which continues to evolve.

3. Coldcut

Coldcut take the idea of being a non musician into a whole different area by creating multimedia audio visual pieces that recycle elements from all over music and film/television history. Coldcut believe that ‘the whole world is there to be cut and pasted’ and they have (almost) literally done that since they released their debut single ‘Say Kids, What Time Is It?’ in 1987. The cut ‘n’ paste genre was in its infancy at this point but since then Coldcut have become a by-word for the genre and the modern audio visual art form of VJing (Visual Jockeying), but more on that later. Coldcut were formed by ex art teacher Jonathan More and graphic designer Matt Black after they met in a record shop where they played each other bootlegs they had been working on. They were both DJs on the rare groove scene, which later mutated into the door opening rave/acid house scene. They continued to establish themselves as remixers and producers scoring hits including their legendary remix of Eric B and Rakim’s ‘Paid in Full’ and ‘Docterin’ the House’ by Yazoo (Yazz in the U.S.), this culminated in being awarded the BPI’s ‘Producers of the Year Award’ in 1990 and a major record deal. At no point in this period did Coldcut refer to themselves as musicians (and they haven’t since). When they attempted to register with the Musician’s Union they couldn’t as DJs, so signed up as drummer and keyboard player, despite no proof of these skills.

After tiring of the marketing juggernaut of major label life, the germ of their own record label formed in a hotel room in Japan and a philosophy began to form. In 1993 Coldcut set up Ninja Tune records initially to release their own records and multimedia projects including DJ Food and Hex (their first audio visual project) but steadily evolving into a home for many like minded artists including Amon Tobin, The Herbaliser, DJ Vadim etc. Ninja Tune allowed More and Black to invest time and money in developing the software VJamm, which launched in 1997. It was packaged with fourth album ‘Let Us Play, which included videos for most of the songs and it revolutionised the underground VJ scene and enabled Coldcut to take it to a wider audience. VJamm changed previous ideas about VJing being an accompaniment to music into to being integrated, VJamm used audio/video clips, there was no separation and users could create and mix their own material for performance. Over the next few years VJing took off all over the world, as the ‘Let Us Play’ tour spread over five years and they released VJamm 2 to further acclaim in 2003.

Though Coldcut remained musically quiet (aside from the Re:volution single in 2001) they remained busy with various projects including piratetv.net, a website that broadcasted from their Spacelab studio and featured guests such as Radiohead and vjs.net that focused on educational activities. Coldcut finally returned with ‘Sound Mirrors’ in 2006, an album produced completely in Ableton Live a new piece of initiative music software designed for live performance and recording. It was also Coldcut’s first ‘song based’ studio album featuring guests ranging from guitarist Jon Spencer to rapper/poet Saul Williams, and also featured a bonus demo of VJamm 3. Coldcut had managed to produce their most complete album and piece of software in one go. However, there was no audio-visual material with the album but it was soon revealed that they had commissioned a selection of directors to produce videos for a ‘Sound Mirrors’ DVD/CD release later that year, the CD featured a diverse range of commissioned remixes of tracks from ‘Sound Mirrors’.

Coldcut are my No.3 selection because they have never proclaimed to be musicians and yet have probably produced some of the most thrilling musical (and visual) art of the last 20 odd years. They have managed to stay at the cutting edge (despite their advancing years) and have constantly engaged and challenged their audience while doing so. Their own work has created and raised the profiles of the cut ‘n’ paste and VJ scenes in the U.K. and abroad. Matt Black’s Youtube channel is worth checking out for audio visual thrills!! From the start Coldcut were ahead of their time and continue to create 21st century music, while not having a single theory grade between them.

4. DJ Shadow

The next artist in the chart is instrumental hip-hop artist DJ Shadow, whose album ‘Endtroducing’ revitalised hip-hop in 1997 and whose production work for the likes of Solesides/Quannum Projects and UNKLE raised the bar in terms of what hip-hop could be. In addition, he has produced many mixes and bootlegs of high quality, the highlight being his collaboration with ex Jurassic 5 DJ/producer Cut Chemist ‘Product Placement’. All this and Shadow has never played a note on any record he’s been involved with. Like the other artists in this chart Shadow has chosen to create music in what was, at the time, an unconventional method. He replaced his lack of traditional musical skill with access to a phenomenal record archive and knowledge of and innovative use of the sampler whilst getting the most out of his basic equipment and musical resources.

His debut LP ‘Endtroducing’ was produced using only an AKAI MPC-60 – a 12-bit sampling drum machine, a pair of turntables and a borrowed Pro Tools setup. This is even more amazing when you consider this album was voted the Best Dance Album Ever in Muzik magazine in 2002 and was the first album ever to be made completely from samples, as stated by the Guinness Book of Records in 2001. In 2006 it was named one of TIME magazines greatest albums ever. Unlike previous albums that had used samples (maybe with the exception of Public Enemy) Shadow gave the music more depth and emotional resonance, marking him out from his contemporaries and inspiring a spate of imitators, who have rarely matched the original innovations of Shadow. Like Herbert and Coldcut, Shadow pushed the accepted ideas about what originality in music is and whether the sampler can be considered an instrument. He took sampling to a higher level layering eclectic musical elements together to create a new, and more importantly, completely different piece of music. He didn’t find a beat or a break and write music to it nor did he just take a riff, melody or voice from a record and write a hip-hop beat to it. He created a tapestry of samples, that were never meant to be heard together and made it all make musical sense. ‘Endtroducing’ takes the listener on a musical and emotional journey, Shadow replaced Gangsta rappers simplistic talk of guns, money and ho’s into a much deeper, broader and more introspective landscape that was not previously thought possible in hip-hop.

Though he has not talked about this, Shadow’s use of the sampler has pushed forward the argument that a sampler is an instrument, as much as fellow sampler users Coldcut and Herbert who verbally intellectualised the idea. Shadow has let his music do the talking. His second and third albums have seen his stock continue to lower and a move towards more conventional instrumentation but it is churlish to expect Shadow to produce ‘Endtroducing Part II’ or something as ground breaking again. In retrospect ‘The Private Press’ stands up much better than the music press gave it credit for, though I agree with critics who universally panned ‘The Outsider’. Despite this DJ Shadow deserves his place on this list for beginning a new era in the sampling of music. Without DJ Shadow artists such as The Avalanches, Girl Talk, Amon Tobin and many more may not have existed.

5. Joe Meek

The last non musician in this chart is by far the most commercially successful, notching up an incredible 40 British Top 40 chart hits (all produced in his bedroom studio), and created a legacy that continues to influence musicians, producers and non musicians to this day. Joe Meek is a forgotten man in the landscape of British popular music despite his huge success and the dubious honour of his biggest hit ‘Telstar’ being Margaret Thatcher’s favourite song.

Why is Meek forgotten? Meek produced and co-wrote these hit singles despite being tone deaf and unable to read or write a note of music. Unlike other high profile producers and hit writers at the time, such as Phil Spector, Quincy Jones and Burt Bacharach he never had a public face and thus disappeared to be rediscovered by later generations. Meek was only credited as producer on the records that he created and so it was not realised for decades that he was the creative force behind these unique sounds. Meek, like Spector, created his own sound world but, unlike Spector, did not have access to expensive studios, session musicians and orchestras.

Meek built his own processing and effects equipment and custom designed his studio. This gave him his trademark sound that presented otherwise traditional pop and rock ‘n’ roll songs with a space age feel and predated some computer technology used in the creation of many electronic music styles today. It wasn’t just Meek’s production tools that set him apart, he had a unique way of getting his ideas across to the young musicians at his disposal (which included future Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore, Chas Hodges aka Chas from Chas and Dave, and Mitch Mitchell later of The Jimi Hendrix Experience). He would play a record similar to the idea in his head and then sing (out of tune) his own song over the top and then Hodges would interpret it so that the musicians were able to play the sounds Meek heard. Another strange recording technique employed was that Meek made a singer sing to a piano piece and recorded the music around the vocal performance so the singer wouldn’t know what it sounded like until it was released; this was not due to inspiration but the intense secrecy that Meek demanded.

Meek’s greatest contribution to popular music is that he developed the following two ideas:

1)      Recording and treating instruments separately that later combined to make the finished record.

2)      Tape editing and use of multi track recordings to produce a ‘perfect’ version of the instruments recorded from a number of takes and/or to create many layers of the same sound.

These two innovations changed the face of popular music recording, which up until that point was mostly being recorded straight to disc minus any sort of processing. In addition, Meek’s creation and use of his own electronic effects processor and other gadgetry preceded later developments in both popular music and more experimental electronic music by almost two decades. Joe Meek earns his place in this chart not because he produced so many hit records but because of how he produced them and the legacy that he left for the likes of Orbital, Stereolab, Radiohead and many more artists particularly in the techno and electronica genres.

This post’s Spotify playlist:

Non Muscian’s Playlist

Non Muscian’s Playlist

In November 2009 I read ‘When Will Hip-Hop Hurry Up And Die?’ as part of the Notes on the Noughties blog series for The Guardian written by Simon Reynolds. Reynolds began by discussing a piece by New York Times journalist Sasha Frere-Jones that suggested 2009 was the year that hip-hop finally died. He continued Frere-Jones’ proposal with adding that between 2005 and 2010 hip-hop had stagnated, lost its grip on the charts and even its biggest stars and producers admitted they were “bored” with a now “corny” genre. In the article and on his Blissblog Reynolds opened the subject up to question whether genres actually do die and concluded that hip-hop isn’t dead, just out of touch with the zeitgeist and a weakened commercial force.

Then in December I watched the ‘UK B-Boy Championships: World Finals’ on Channel 4. I was astonished at the moves and routines on display and how it had developed since its birth in late seventies, New York. After the programme finished an idea occurred to me. Maybe hip-hop music was stagnant but the other elements were flourishing away from the media spotlight.

In this piece I will briefly discuss the current state of hip-hop before exploring in more detail the other areas of hip-hop culture: break dancing, graffiti, outsider art and turntablism.

Though not entirely moribund, hip-hop music is in a bad way. At the commercial end and in the underground there is a lack of anything inventive and, worse, little that demonstrates the traits of an enduring classic. At the beginning of the noughties commercial hip-hop was enjoying a flush period of creation and innovation. Across the US and UK new strains and variations of the music were showing a way forward beyond the traditional samples and breaks formula. US producers including Timbaland and The Neptunes were exploring new ways of programming and manipulating beats and rhythmic measures using computer technology. Crunk and Dr. Dre produced superstars that ruled the charts and critics took on Kanye West and Lil’ Wayne as their new darlings. Though the US underground struggled to keep up due to its purism, it still produced artists and albums of note. In particular the Stone’s Throw and Def Jux labels were responsible for pioneering records by Madlib, Cannibal Ox, EL-P and Jay Dilla yet the majority of underground artists hesitating to embrace some daring records neutralised the scene. Meanwhile in the UK, artists such as Roots Manuva, Dizzee Rascal, Phi Life Cypher and producers like Lewis Parker were establishing their own brand of hip-hop and its sub-genre grime. The innovations in England were more restrained. Parker’s melancholic sound, Roots Manuva’s absorption of a wide range of influences encompassing dub, dancehall and club-orientated music led to him consistently evolving his sound throughout his career. These trendsetters, however, found increasing numbers of pale imitators riding on their coat tails, leading to a lack of faith in the scene and a realisation that the repetition hindered wider commercial success so some redeveloped their sound and image in order to achieve.  Former grime MCs Dizzee Rascal and Tinchy Stryder are among these artists and Sway is now featuring on and producing tracks for American R&B stars like Akon.

So while hip-hop music seems to be stagnating, the other areas of hip-hop culture have evolved and are thriving. In the last ten years graffiti and its relative outsider art have moved into the media spotlight thanks to the work of Banksy, Robert ‘3D’ Del Naja (Massive Attack and The Wild Bunch), Jamie Hewlett, the Faile collective and many more. The former of these art forms developed from its origins on the New York streets in the ‘70s as a way for artists to express themselves and which group they were a member of into a style that has not only entered mainstream consciousness but has commented on socio-political and international issues and ideas before traditional media. Examples of this is the brilliant satire of Zevs and Blu, the hard hitting War Paint exhibition by 3D, which informed UNKLE’s ‘War Stories’ album artwork and the original Throw Up and Wildstyle lettering has evolved into stencilling (popularised by Banksy), Stickers or Slaps, Pieces, Blockbuster and Heaven. Though it has yet to be accepted by many in the art world as ‘true art’, graffiti is being included in art galleries and becoming a wider acknowledged form of artistic expression. Even York, where I live, young people are commissioned to create works with the help of a graffiti artist. While it is hidden well out of the city centre, it’s a step in the right direction for such a tourist-oriented place and outside art.

Like graffiti, break dancing or ‘b-boying’ has also enjoyed increased media and cultural exposure in the last ten years. This has included new TV series in the form of ‘Break’, a 2006 S. Korean drama about a break dancing competition and ‘Over The Rainbow’ which centred on characters who b-boy together. Documentaries ‘The Freshest Kids: A History of B-boy (2002) recorded the evolution of b-boying and ‘Plant B-Boy’ (2007) followed competing crews as they travelled the globe. There was also the ‘B-Boy’ videogame,  the comic book ‘Hip-Hop’ that launched breaking in S. Korea in 1997, a novel called ‘Kid B’ by former b-boy Linden Dalecki and in 2005, a Volkswagen Golf GTi advert featured a CG Gene Kelly break dancing to a new breakbeat version of ‘Singing in the Rain’ by Mint Royale. A b-boy even won the woeful Britain’s Got Talent in 2008, getting the opportunity to perform to royalty and helping seal b-boying’s place as a new media force.

Before watching the B-Boy Championships I admit I wasn’t aware of b-boying’s evolution and hadn’t expected the transformation in techniques and professionalism. I have been to hip-hop club nights and seen people break dancing in a ‘cipher’, where one or two b-boys compete in the centre of a group, and while enjoyable it didn’t signify the athletic displays I witnessed in the programme. Individuals and crews demonstrated an incredible range of routines and skills and the competition also represented the international spread of this cultural component. B-boying is huge in Japan and S. Korea and I was surprised by the Dutch, Ukrainian and Russian teams’ entries. It illustrated a thriving sub-culture and the ideas expressed about hip-hop’s apparent death were underlined by the lack of any contemporary hip-hop backing the performances.

To lesser degree, as its last great period was in the ‘90s, turntablism has continued to develop throughout the noughties. It has become a wider accepted form of musical expression and the turntable is acknowledged in some quarters as a musical instrument. Brand-sponsored tours and the transition of turntablist to acclaimed producer experienced by several artists demonstrate a mainstream acceptance and documentaries such as ‘Scratch’ that document the sub-genre’s past and present and the release of ‘DJ Hero’ in collaboration with the likes of DJ Shadow, DJ Q-Bert and others are further proof of this. Another major development is the increasingly popular audio-visual turntablist who, like the internationally adored DJ Yoda and Coldcut, manipulates and scratches musical and visual elements.

Although hip-hop music is in stasis, it or any other genre cannot be pronounced dead. There are still signs of life and creativity yet I do concede that statement albums and charismatic performers are few and far between. Kanye West’s actions have been criticised (and rightly so) but there is no doubt he is one of the few rappers/producers who truly continues to espouse the hip-hop spirit. A restlessly challenging and prolific creator, his persona and sound evolve with each new release whilst still undeniably Kanye. Since ‘The College Drop-Out’ he has rarely dropped a beat and in the last 18 months alone produced the brilliant if difficult ‘808 and Heartbreaks’ and presented Jay-Z with a fully sequenced version of ‘The Blueprint Vol.3’, which was a more varied affair that showcased a new dark pop/hip-hop sound and in ‘Run This Town’ produced a stone cold classic. Furthermore West has already nearly finished creating his next record that it will surely signal another change and controversy.

The question is: what now for hip-hop music? Where does it go and who will take it into a new era? There are some possible contenders. One is LA’s Flying Lotus who has great credentials. He is signed to Warp Records, a label with a 20 year history of innovation and his collective and own label, Brainfeeder, allows him access to a range of artists and their skills. However, despite the hype around the releases I have yet to hear anything that compares to his live performances but this may be an artistic choice. Another candidate is fellow Warp signing, Glasgow’s Hudson Mohawke. Like Flying Lotus he is part of a collective, LuckyMe, and he and Flying Lotus have both been categorised into the wonky style, a sub-genre of hip-hop that incorporates unstable time signatures and sits between hip-hop and dubstep. The difference with Mohawke is that he is venturing into production for other artists and has no problem adapting his ideas for mainstream music. This may mean that the old adage of ‘today’s underground is tomorrow’s overground’ could become true for hip-hop for the first time since crunk and grime temporarily took off in the early noughties and that the other elements of hip-hop culture can only continue to find new ways to innovate and new avenues in which to endeavour. With graffiti founding its own art spaces like the Lazarides Gallery and finding its way, legally and otherwise, into traditional art galleries, people’s exposure to and understanding of this phenomenon will only improve. Alongside this, progressive theatre companies are using b-boy performances, which expand audience awareness and participation. Despite being perceived as a niche activity pursued by an elite of geeks, turntabilism has become the most high profile. It has moved into people’s living rooms and with the release of DJ Hero will engage with an entire new audience. There is a very positive outlook for these sub-cultures and I can’t wait to see the progress they make.

If you have your own suggestions feel free to discuss them in the comments section.

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Hip-Hop Culture Blog

Hip-Hop Culture Blog

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