Tag Archive: Roots Manuva


September was a busy and mostly satisfying month. In addition to the Sonic Fiction’s recommendations from last month there were impressive albums released by Laura Marling, Death In Vegas and A Winged Victory for the Sullen, plus a solid effort from The Duke Spirit, which is well worth checking out if you’re missing the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Now to those recommendations:

This month’s biggest disappointment comes courtesy of DJ Shadow and his new album “The Less You Know, The Better”. Though I have to agree with those who criticised his last effort “The Outsider”, I actually found “The Private Press” to be a grower and so stayed open-minded about the new Shadow album. However, this unfocused and underwhelming effort needs more than an open mind to get you to like it. Eclectic is the appropriate word for this album and I have no problem with albums that flit between styles and moods, but this album rarely convinces or produces great moments/tracks. ‘Stay the Course’, ‘Warning Call’, ‘Enemy Lines’ and ‘(Not So) Sad and Lonely’ all try for some kind of rock as done by DJ Shadow but they come out bloated and hollow, it’s also not something I’d ever imagine Shadow making as it really doesn’t suit him. ‘Back to Front (Circular Logic)’ and ‘Circular Logic (Front to Back)’ are successful attempts at the atmospheric music that was once this artists signature, they bare a passing resemblance to some tracks from ‘The Private Press’, however they aren’t Shadow’s finest hour  either. Meanwhile ‘Border Crossing’, ‘I’ve Been Trying’, ‘Sad and Lonely’ and ‘Scale It Back’ all revisit the break beat based material Shadow released on Solesides in the mid to late 90’s and though these are better than a majority of material on the album, its feels like he’s on autopilot or way too early for any sort of revival of this style of hip-hop. Overall “The Less You Know, The Better” does prove one thing and that’s if we all knew less about DJ Shadow it’d probably be a slightly more impressive album.

I’ll be honest I’ve found it difficult to get my head around the new Roots Manuva album “4everevolution” and say anything meaningful about it that hasn’t already been stated. It’s definitely his most commercial release to date littered with catchy and clubby tracks, however few of these ever fully convince, his sung vocals are no match for his superior MC skills. It’s great when he gets stuck into some sociopolitical rhyming on ‘Skid Valley’ and ‘Who Goes There?’ the first time he approached such material in years. Although there’s nothing wrong with the music on “4everevolution” it just doesn’t grab me in the way earlier Roots Manuva albums have and doesn’t really suggest itself as a grower either. Still I believe Roots Manuva has it in him for at least one more great album, maybe next time.

The new self titled album from Megafaun certainly covers a lot of ground even introducing some new sounds, styles and instruments on this album. ‘Get Right’ combines the trademark Megafaun sound to Neu! style synth and motorik momentum. ‘Hope You Know’is an emotive and minimal piano ballad, another first for the band. ‘Resurrection’ is an Upbeat electrified folk rock filled out by Rhodes piano and pedal/lap steel guitar. Strings pop up across the album on the warm ‘Second Friend’, the abstract interlude ‘Serene Return’ and album closer ‘Everything’. The band push things out from their usual song based style on the aforementioned ‘Serene Return’, ‘State Meant’ and ‘Post Script’ which work a treat where they could have gone seriously wrong. This is an album that could be a grower, however so was their previous album ‘Gather, Form and Fly’ and repeated listens really paid off with that. It’s too early to tell if this album will equal the previous’ ones highlights but I think it’s worth giving the time to show whether it can or not.

“In The Grace of Your Love”, the long-awaited new album from The Rapture proved to be a mini triumph. Although time will tell us just how good this album is my first couple of spins left me impressed with the bands work. The only real missteps are ‘Rollar Coaster’ (pop era Talking Heads) and ‘Come Back to Me’ (an out-and-out dance tune that sounds like a dance production featuring Luke Jenner than a tune by The Rapture and suffers for it). The rest of album holds up a pretty high standard, the best examples being the rolling disco with post-punk guitars of ‘Children’, the funky title track and its near twin ‘Never Die Again’. Elsewhere the opener ‘Sail Away’ and ‘Miss You’ both combine dance music beats and backing and punchy rock dynamics that feels huge but not over bearing, ‘How Deep is Your Love?’ provides an epic house number and centre piece and closer ‘It Takes Time to be a Man’ is a surprising change with the band taking a soulful piece of with an almost hip-hop beat and feel. The glue that holds all of the album’s strands together is Luke Jenner’s stronger and more soulful vocal delivery, the band plays with a lot of black music influences and reference points but this is the first time Jenner has tried to sound ‘black’ and succeeds in this area most of the time. ‘In the Grace of Your Love’ develops further the sound the band adopted on their last album ‘Pieces of the People We Love’. Add to this the more explicit dance and disco influences that they now better incorporated into their sound and it seem this album will only get better with repeat listens.

“Coracle”, the new album from Kompakt’s Walls, opens with ‘Into Our Midst’, which sees the bass, drums and percussion pushed forward into a techno groove as a looped vocal sound plays against the swirling, arpeggio synths. ‘Sunporch’ continues on from ‘Into Our Midst’. A commanding bass line pulses through hi-hats and percussion and small snatches of melodies ebb and flow in the thick cloud of synths and guitar. Most of the tracks continue in this manner. “Coracle” is a seamless continuation of Walls’ debut and isn’t a great development of their sound. It is, however, a bolder, more confident release that emphasises percussive groove and harsher guitar buzz underneath the syrupy gauze of synths. ‘Raw Umber / Twilight’ begins with the background chatter that arose in earlier track ‘Vacant’ then unfurls into twinkling melodies and glassy synth arpeggios bedded into warm, hazy techno. This is the most beautiful track on the album and the one that condenses the album’s strongest elements into a potent song that perfectly encapsulates Walls’ sound.

“Get Lost” the new album from Mark McGuire came in for a bit of stick in The Wire magazine’s recent review. The reviewer claimed McGuire wasn’t contributed anything new to the ‘kosmische musik’ revival he and his band Emeralds are part of. I don’t believe that Mark McGuire and his band mates have never claimed to contributing anything new to this style of music, I think they’d readily admit being guilty of recreating the music of Tangerine Dream, Ash Ra Tempel and Cluster in their own way. As such this album is very similar to a large amount of McGuire’s back catalogue and with the first extensive use of guitar-synthesizers; instead of his trusty guitar-synth it moves his material closer to that of the ‘kosmische musik’ of Emeralds. A section of the album also sees a first for McGuire as he uses vocals on ‘When You’re Somewhere’. ‘Alama’ and ‘Alma (Reprise)/Chances Are’, the most explicit use of these is ‘Alma’ and it’s a success the warmth of McGuire vocals compliment that of his music. All the typical traits of McGuire’s guitar playing are present especially his fuzz lead lines and repetitive yet hypnotic delay heavy rhythm patterns, the album also features a lot of acoustic guitar which also featured prominently on last year’s “Living With Yourself”. It’s the synth drones and arpeggios though that dominates, and is the biggest departure for McGuire. “Get Lost” slots easily into McGuire hefty back catalogue and will delight long time fans, it may not add anything to ‘kosmische musik’ but that doesn’t mean it’s not an album that’s well worth having.

After 5 years Spank Rock returned this month with his second solo album “Everything is Boring and Everyone is a Fucking Liar”. Overall the album is a stormer combining tracks that consolidates what he’d achieved on previous album “YoYoYoYoYo” and moving into new areas like four to floor dance music, grungy distortion and Can sampling single ‘Energy’. Spank Rock also tries out singing on ‘The Dance’, ‘Baby’ (on which he pulls off an excellent Prince impersonation) and ‘Energy’ and does so with aplomb. The triple dance floor whammy of ‘The Dance’, ‘#1 Hit’ and ‘Turn It Off’ are the biggest departures but also greatest success on the album. During the second half of the album the majority of tracks recall “YoYoYoYoYo”s’ electro sound but here it’s been expanded and built upon to incorporate tribal vibes, industrial touches, grungy distortion and on ‘Baby’ a phat funk groove. Like on his début Spank Rock pushes the envelope of electro hip-hop successfully bringing together disparate elements and combining them as if they should be together. An excellent album full of energy, humour and electro!

Another release on Kompakt is Gui Boratto’s “III”. His previous releases “Chromophobia” and “Take My Breath Away” are built on staccato rhythms that trip over themselves and push and pull against arpeggiated synths and gently overdriven, poppy melodies. “III” is all about slower grooves and dark, searing techno. Twin tracks ‘Geluchat’ and ‘Stems From Hell’ sound like Gui Boratto deep in Berghain. The bass drum pounds, bass lines growl and groove and grainy synths coil and graze. His use of peaks and drops are masterful; they tease and reward the listener; pure peak time clubbing. This opening set also explains the black cover. Where the covers of Boratto’s previous albums are vibrant reds and blues, ‘III’ is hard and confrontational. It demands to be played loud. Next track ‘Striker’ features, for the first time, vocals from Gui Boratto and recalls Madga’s awe-inspiring basslines and her inclusion of sinister post-punk tracks in her mixes. Disappointingly the final track ‘This Is Not The End’, which features his wife Luciana Villanova, feels like a misstep and is too lightweight against the abrasive, pummelling techno. Finishing with ‘The Third’, a floating track of held chords and delayed melodies would have been a great finale; the sun rising after a night of dancing.

Kid Koala’s “Space Cadet” was definitely the best album experience this month. The “Space Cadet” CD accompanies the graphic novel of the same name perfectly. Kid Koala balances the need for musicality with an atmospheric and emotive sound that never fills contrived. Reading along with the soundtrack heightens everything on the page and the album stands up brilliantly on its own. A fine demonstration of this artist’s constantly developing skill as a composer and creator of turntable music that is capable of expressing emotion beyond humour.

This month’s best album is definitely Apparat’s “The Devil’s Walk”. I’ll admit that his last solo album ‘Walls’ did take quite a while to grow on me and reveal it charms. Not so this time Apparat now displays his ability to write both immediate and engaging material that is rich both in hooks and melody as it is in deep harmony and atmosphere. Fans of ‘Walls’ will not automatically recognise this as the Apparat they know and love. In fact that album has a lot more in common with his collaborative project Moderat (the best of this is ‘Song of Los’) and the ‘Orchestra of Bubbles’ album with Ellen Allien  particularly the string sounds employed throughout this album. ‘The Devil’s Walk’ occupies similar territory to the Moderat album with a dark, Gothic atmosphere and medieval sounds a constant throughout. The cover echoes these influences and this album coming out on electronic music pioneers Mute Records and at time indirectly recalls Depeche Mode at the finest. Apparat’s vocal’s even sound like Marc Almond (of Soft Cell fame) minus the camp edge. Apparat’s greatest achievement here is combining modern production techniques with strong song writing. His song are now more memorable and emotional evocative.

Spotify Playlist:

September playlist

Coming up in October on Sonic Fiction:

Classics Critiqued – “The Modern Dance” by Pere Ubu

Recommendations – October

3rd October

Zola Jesus – “Conatus”

‘Vessel’, the first single recalls a gloopier ‘Enjoy’ by Bjork or perhaps a b-side from Homogenic while second single ‘Seekir’ promises a leap in production and instrumentation for her second album. Developing from ‘Stridulum II’, Zola Jesus allows the fervant electronic drums and wet synths to drown her voice before rising into one of her soon-to-be-trademark choruses.

10th October

Bjork – “Biophilia” (Nonesuch/One Little Indian)

Bjork doesn’t do anything in half measures. She is guaranteed to put her heart in every one of her albums and “Biophilia” continues this stream of strong artistic statements. First single ‘Crystalline’  is filled with delicate, glassy timbres, fizzing electronic drums and a female choir that celebrate Bjork’s proud return before jungle drums explode out of the ether. Critics may complain this is just a repetition of previous albums but “Biophilia” feels like a great comeback after four years away and really she could do almost anything and it would still top most albums around.

The Field – “Looping State Of Mind” (Kompakt)

Sweden’s Axel Willner (The Field) returns with his third album on Kompakt. “Looping State Of Mind” neatly builds on the landscapes of his previous releases “From Here We Go Sublime”,  a collection of icy yet deeply affecting techno tracks, and “Yesterday and Today”, which covers a warmer krautrock-indebted area, to merge the best of both into a beautiful seven track blend of warm synth arpeggios, droning, pulsing pads and that  Kompakt schaffel. The eponymous loops feel like they could last forever; building and dropping and shuffling.

Wolfgang Voigt – “Kafkatrax” (Profan/Kompakt)

The Kompakt co-founder collects the Kafkatrax vinyl releases on a 10 track CD. Hearing the tense, disembodied voices, taken from audiobooks of Franz Kafka’s works, stretched and clipped and set against a never-ending bass drum is a fascinating listen in one unbroken stretch. The release is perfectly fitting for the idiosyncratic Voigt and Kafka’s paranoid, dystopian words.

August promised plenty with a good haul of releases to listen to, however a lot of acts delivered disappointing or average albums with the exception of Balam Acab hard to define debut and the latest offering from Steve Malkmus and The Jicks.

I’ve been genuinely struggling to come up with anything to say about “West” by Wooden Shjips, August’s biggest disappointment. Almost all the track bar the closer ‘Rising’ are practically identical only changing in tempo and intensity. The same elements are used throughout – fuzzed guitars, organ melodies, motorik drums and the only difference is from previously releases is that Ripley Johnson’s vocals are higher in the mix. The repetition on this album is boring and not hypnotic which is what the band was aiming for. My other big problem with the album is that there’s little to distinguish it from its influences Neu!, Spacemen 3 and the Velvet Underground, in fact you’d be better off buying an album each of those artists. There seems little point in repeating this music unless you can find some way of putting a personal stamp on it. Wooden Shjip’s have had a lot of of critical praise heaped on them and are supposedly the best of this type of music and the previous albums I’ve heard suggest they are good at what they do. However, even when on form I’m not convinced enough to buy one of their albums.

The new CSS album “La Liberacion” is a rather eclectic mix from the electro reggae of single ‘Hit Me Like A Rock’ featuring Bobby Gillespie to punk stylings of the title track and ‘Ruby Eyes’ via the breezy pop of ‘Partners in Crime’. Overall this is a very polished effort from the band that had thrilled us with the lo-fi feel of their debut album, in fact song like ‘Rhythm to the Rebels’ and the title track remind me of that album. Though the music itself successfully achieves a move into pop music territory the vocals of Lovefoxx leave a little to be desired. It’s not that I think she’s a terrible vocalist or that she needs to be a pitch perfect singer far from it, some of my favourite vocalists are often accused of not being able to hold a note. But against a more sophisticated backing she struggles to hold her own sometimes to the point of it being irritating. This album of exuberant pop that will delight many, however it’s often just a little too light weight for my tastes.

“Watch The Throne” is a hit and miss selection from Jay-Z and Kanye West that and doesn’t quite deliver to their usual high standards. Maybe if they’d stuck with the original mini-album format they’d have had a higher hit rate and tighter concept. Having said that it’s not all bad by any means and it’s interesting to hear Jay-Z able to adapt to the often up tempo and electronic beats and sounds that dominate the album. Highlights include the rolling bass line and cinematic strings ‘No Church in the Wild’ feat Frank Ocean, ‘Niggas In Paris’ which features a great section were Kanye slurs his first verse along to the lurching electro beat, the soul filled single ‘Otis’, the emotive piano stampede of ‘Murder to Excellence’ and the surprisingly successful ‘Made in America’ feat. Frank Ocean which manages to stay the right of mawkish. However, there’s a lot of throw away material that fails to make an impact and sounds like it was thrown together in five minutes. ‘Lift Off’ featuring Beyonce doesn’t quite make it as the big moment as it could have been but is an interesting combination of R&B/electro and hard(er) edge hip-hop beats, ‘That’s My Bitch’, ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ and ‘Why I Love You’ feat. Mr. Hudson are the worst the first two feel lightweight and the lead sounds are annoying and the later features liberal use of Auto Tune that would work fine if it wasn’t for the awful 80’s guitar work playing in the background. The remaining tracks are all pretty middling fare and unfortunately with the possible expectations of ‘No Church in the Wild’, ‘Niggas in Paris’ and ‘Murder to Excellence’ I can’t see these tracks being remembered long after this year.

Tinariwen’s “Tassili” was an album that felt like a disappointment from an act that has proved to be very consisent across previous releases. However, there return to their acoustic roots sounds flat and their collaborations on this album are hit-and-miss the contributions of TV on the Radio Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe are the main disappointment, being left adrift on the chorus of ‘Tenere Taqqim Tossam’ where I was hoping they’d combine their unique harmonies with those of Tinariwen, but this never happens. Nels Cline’s slide guitar is an improvement but sometimes dominates the music too much, the only real success is The Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s deep and probing harmonics on ‘Ya Messinagh’. Elsewhere the band consolidate on previous triumphs or deliver inspid acoustic takes on them.

The new Sun Araw album ‘Ancient Romans’ is a bit of a mixed bag on first listen. The first three tracks (‘Lucretius’, ‘Crown Shell’ and ‘Crete’) and closer ‘Impluvium’ are big disappointments for different reasons, the first three mainly because they are too busy and seem to miss the whole point of Sun Araw’s repetitive and meditative music. ‘Impluvium’ lets itself down as it starts off seemingly to use modern production techniques such as chopped up vocals which is a first for Sun Araw however it ends up sound like antiquated rave music slowed down. The album isn’t a complete disaster and when it’s good, it’s very good. ‘At Delphi’ and ‘Fit for Caesar’ are cinematic and drone based triumphs that take what great about Sun Araw and times it by 100. ‘Lute and Lyre’ has its moments too starting off feeling a little weak it slowly draws the listener in and transfixes them, however this is spoilt by Stallones not being able to resist over complicating parts and flooding the mix.

Balam Acab’s ‘Wander/Wonder’ is one of the best albums I’ve heard this month, though it is disappointingly short at only 36 minutes and he does have a habit of repeating the same stylistic elements again and again. However, Acab’s grasp of music theory combined with his unique aesthetic are enough to ensure the quality of this release. At its best the album perfectly balances the digital and the organic, the tense and the relaxing, the watery and the bone dry, the artificially processed and real world sounds. Along with his label mates such as ooOoo and Clams Casino, Balam Acab is carving out his own sound world and it one that’s a great place to be.

I’ll admit that I haven’t paying much attention to what Steve Malkmus has been up to since he released his self titled debut solo album in 2001. At the time I was a huge Pavement fan and desperate for something to come out from Malkmus, the leader of a band I’d become obsessed with in my teens. However the following albums just seemed to bring more and more songs that sounded like pale imitations of Pavement songs and I drifted away from the alternative rock. After reading that there was a new Malkmus album due and it was being produced by Beck my interest was piqued. It turns out Malkmus is firing on all cylinders (I’ll have to revisit the previous four albums now as I feel I may missed out) and has delivered an eclectic album full to the brim with tunes. From the opening ‘Tigers’ (which reminds me of ‘Range Life’ by Pavement) to the closing ‘Gorgeous Georgie’ (the album most relaxed song) Malkmus delivers. The highlights include the folk inspired ‘No One Is (As Are I Be)’, the rambunctious single ‘Senator’, the funky and spare take on Alt. Rock of ‘Brain Gallop’ and ‘Stick Figures in Love’ which has a middle 8 that reminds me of ‘Third Uncle’ by Brian Eno and the bouncy ‘Forever 28’. The album’s second half features a selection of quieter, slower and more contemplative songs (‘Long Hard Book’, ‘Jumblegloss’, ‘All Over Gently’, ‘Fall Away’ and ‘Gorgeous Georgie’) which show that Malkmus is not a one trick pony . Another way forward is the increased usage and presence of The Jicks great rhythm section who on tracks like ‘All Over Gently’, ‘Forever 28’ and ‘Brain Gallop’ they suggest new rhythmic avenues for the band to explore in future. Even when “Mirror Traffic” sounds like Pavement I realise this no bad thing as Malkmus on top form equalling the legacy of his former band and not a creating pale imitations of his former glories. All power to the former Pavement man’s elbow!

Spotify playlist:

August 2011 playlist

Coming up in September on Sonic Fiction:

Classics Critiqued – “Thrills, Pills and Bellyaches” by the Happy Mondays – sorry that there was no Classics Critiqued in August I was unable to find any information when researching the piece on “Mr. Brubaker’s Strawberry Alarm Clock” BY Neotropic. This release come highly recommend to any fans of Ninja Tune artists!

Recommendations – September

Key * = albums that I’ve already heard, so I’m sharing my intial thoughts on them

^ = albums recommended by our electronic music columnist Vier

~ = this album release has been moved to the 3rd October

The Rapture – ‘In the Grace of Your Love’ (DFA, 5th September) *

The long awaited new album from The Rapture proves to be a mini triumph. Although time will tell us just how good this album is my first couple of spins left me impressed with the bands work. The only real missteps are ‘Rollar Coaster’ (pop era Talking Heads) and ‘Come Back to Me’ (an out-and-out dance tune that sounds like a dance production featuring Luke Jenner than a tune by The Rapture and suffers for it). The rest of album holds up a pretty high standard, the best examples being the rolling disco with post-punk guitars of ‘Children’, the funky title track and its near twin ‘Never Die Again’. Elsewhere the opener ‘Sail Away’ and ‘Miss You’ both combine dance music beats and backing and punchy rock dynamics that feels huge but not overbearing, ‘How Deep is Your Love?’ provides an epic house number and centre piece and closer ‘It Takes Time to be a Man’ is a surprising change with the band taking a soulful piece of with an almost hip-hop beat and feel. The glue that holds all of the album’s strands together is Luke Jenner’s stronger and more soulful vocal delivery, the band plays with a lot of black music influences and reference points but this is the first time Jenner has tried to sound ‘black’ and succeeds in this area most of the time. ‘In the Grace of Your Love’ develops further the sound the band adopted on their last album ‘Pieces of the People We Love’. Add to this the more explicit dance and disco influences that they now better incorporate into their sound and it seems this album will only get better with repeat listens.

Gui Boratto – “III” (Kompakt, 12th September) ^

The Brazillian techno artist returns with his third album for Kompakt. ‘The Drill’, an EP taken from the album, shows the emotive, harmonic approach  of his two previous albums imbued with a bold darkness.

Kid Koala – ‘Space Cadet’ (Ninja Tune, 19th September)

The Canadian turntablist and cartoonist returns with a “still picture score” for his new graphic novel. In addition to unique and amazing turntable skills their is room for new instruments including strings, horns and marimba. Can preview ‘Space Cadet’ at Ninja Tune’s website.

Megafaun – “Megafaun” (Crammed Discs, 19th September) *

The new self titled album from Megafaun certainly covers a lot of ground even introducing some new sounds, styles and instruments on this album. ‘Get Right’ combines the trademark Megafaun sound to Neu! style synth and motorik momentum. ‘Hope You Know’is an emotive and minimal piano ballad, another first for the band. ‘Resurrection’ is an upbeat electrified folk rock filled out by Rhodes piano and pedal/lap steel guitar. Strings pop up across the album on the warm ‘Second Friend’, the abstract interlude ‘Serene Return’ and album closer ‘Everything’. The band push things out from their usual song based style on the aforementioned ‘Serene Return’, ‘State Meant’ and ‘Post Script’ which work a treat where they could have gone seriously wrong. This is an album that could be a grower, however so was their previous album ‘Gather, Form and Fly’ and repeated listens really paid off with that. It’s too early to tell if this album will equal the previous’ ones highlights but I think it’s worth giving the time to show whether it can or not.

Apparat – ‘The Devil’s Walk’ (Mute, 26th September)

The German electronic music producer returns with the follow-up to his critically acclaimed album “Walls”. The two pre-release tracks ‘Ash/Black Veil’ and ‘Black Water’ show a new Gothic atmosphere pervading throughout. This seems like the perfect record to release on Mute Records who Apparat decided to release this new album through.

Roots Manuva – ’4everevolution’ (Big Dada, 26th September)

Roots Manuva returns with his fifth (official) studio album, which is reportedly an eclectic 17 track affair that covers everything Mr. Manuva has done thus far and much more. You can download first single “Watch Me Dance’ here.

Mark McGuire – ‘Get Lost’ (Editions Mego, 26th September)

McGuire’s third release on Edition Mego in under 2 years sees him recording all new material completely digitally (a lot of Emeralds and McGuire previous releases were recorded to tape) with a combination of electric and acoustic guitar, vocals (is this a first?) and guitar-synth. As a huge McGuire fan I (Liam editor/founder of Sonic Fiction) can’t wait!

DJ Shadow – ‘The Less You Know The Better’ (Island, 26th September 2011 ~)

DJ Shadow is back and the early signs are good after he released two tracks destined for this latest release. However, after being stung by ‘The Outsider’ some fans might be reticent about this new release. However, I’d say give it a shot as ‘The Private Press’ was a grower for me and it paid eventually.

Spank Rock – ‘Everything is Boring and Everyone is a Fucking Liar’ (Bad Blood, 26th September) – Its been along time coming but the follow-up to ‘YoYoYoYoYo’ is finally here!! Featuring all the usual members of Spank Rock plus Boys Noize has produced some tracks including the Can sampling ‘Energy’, which you can download here.

Walls – “Coracle” (Kompakt, 26th September) ^

The duo’s second album sees them once again capture a shimmering sound with swirling layers of guitars and synths and as first single ‘Sunporch’ displays they have now grounded their synth washes in authorative bass lines. ‘Coracle’ is an album to watch for Kompakt’s continuing evolution.

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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