When beloved designer Jeremy Scott showed his A/W 2013 collection in New York last week, we were definitely feeling the Bones Brigade — the drippy, crazed cretins he printed on skirts, sweaters and trainers looked just like the designs on the bottoms of every skateboard circa 1989. (They also brought to mind a little Danzig.)
Well, turns out we weren't just experiencing nostalgia: a post on the Facebook page of Jimbo Phillips — the legendary designer who, along with his father Jim Phillips, actually did the art for Santa Cruz Skateboards in the '80s and '90s — compares Scott's garments with his own back catalog, and it looks like someone did indeed get jacked. Under the header "this is crazy!," you can see the, ahem, similarities between the designs of Phillips' iconic goopy dudes and the ones Scott put on his clothes, apparently without permission. Another Facebook page that appears to be unrelated to Jimbo Phillips uncovers even more of Phillips' designs that somehow wound up on Scott's clothing. And elsewhere, the Tumblr Vampirestatebuilding points out that another piece in Scott's A/W 2013 collection appears to have appropriated a stencil by the political artist Michael Roman, an iconic skull look which ended up on a drum case carried by Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan.
Jeremy Scott is well known for his lust for youth culture and nostalgia, and these graphics are right in line with his sensibilities: last season he threw Bart Simpson all over a $500 sweater and no one batted an eye. But "repurposing" in the Internet era becomes something slightly more sinister when your source material is not already a household name. Matt Groening can take a hit, but we're betting that Jimbo's not sitting on a multimillion-dollar industry based on some trippy faces he came up with in the '80s. Of course, fashion ripping off cool kids is absolutely nothing new: Marc Jacobs has built a career off reselling youth culture to fashionistas at an astronomical mark-up. But it's a huge bummer when someone who ostensibly identifies with that culture ends up coming off like a mere culture vulture. Even if Scott's clothes diverge just enough from Jimbo's designs that he can avoid any kind of copyright suit (which, at press time, has not been announced), he risks alienating the very crowd he hopes to entice.
Where'd all the good Internet rap go? Rappers of all stripes from all over the map, meeting on Mediafire, felt so necessary a year or two ago. Now, that scene has congealed into an endless loop of RSS-feeding “collabos,” irksome nostalgia trips, and PR firms and quasi-labels shoving all the interesting, engaging personalities who don't play the game to the side. We're stuck with Joey Bada$$, Spaceghostpurrp, and a metastasizing clump of interchangeable, attention-starved streetwear-rockin', Tumblr-surfin' douchebags who show up for a few months before cashing-out for blog love. It's as codified as the old underground. A$AP Rocky looks pretty promising these days.
Good thing there's Antwon, now signed to Greedhead, and in his own miniature way, having something of a mini-moment, but continuing to make willfully strange, deeply personal rap music. His new mixtape, In Dark Denim, is a collection of apocalyptic sex raps. Probably because Antwon codes less as a strip-club jerk and more of a nerd, there's a charming, passionate realism to his lewd one-liners that never gets tedious. At the heart of every song about fucking is an eager-to-please character trying to forge connections. The Notorious B.I.G. comparisons are getting old, but he's Biggie in "One More Chance" mode — the open-minded, open-hearted asshole lover who goes down on girls, but gets annoyed when they squirm and get all awkward about that shit.
There is also a shit-ton of dread in this music. Hints of deeper pain and frustration poke through, and sex ends up as one more way for Antwon to keep his mind off how terrible everything is. There's a coy aside about a parole officer bugging him about career options on “Rare 2000s,” while “Burn Away,” bookended by audio samples addressing a system that forever dashes racial solidarity, features Antwon mentioning a “Childhood friend all hooked on meth," and culminates in a barrel-voiced groan of “Ugh, fuck!.” And check out this line, which begins as confession and ends as a way of finding hope in the hopeless: “Nigga, I want to die and I hate my life / And I take every chance I get." Simple post-hardcore existential sloganeering that hits hard thanks to Antwon's throaty booming vocals. "It'll All Make Sense" is a heartwarming ode to friends and celebrates being an outsider nerd as a kid who grew up to be a pretty damn cool adult who has his shit relatively figured out.
Antwon's voice has a nostalgic quality to it that he can't shake even if he wanted to, so he tempers it with an ear for eccentric beats. The winking, chillwave, coked-out '80s aesthetic turned evil is the sound here — thumping strip-club music from the underworld. A Goldfrapp sample on “Dark Denim” goes from victorious to hellish, while “Werk Me” is art-damaged bounce. On “Boomerang,” a tinny techno shuffle builds to a menacing throb and Antwon wisely stops rapping, giving the song over to Drexciya-like buzz. Antwon is stomping around the same punk-noise-rap axis as Cities Aviv and B L A C K I E (both of whom provide beats here), and similarly balances mannered art-rap weirdness with a fuck-you-up, fight-rap immediacy. It feels natural and earned. A dive into a young rapper's coolly curated mind. That's important, especially right now.
Baauer's "Harlem Shake," that squeaky, wubby trap-dance instrumental that has, over the past few weeks, gone full-on viral thanks to endless videos of people dancing to the song, is a moderately interesting slab of post-drop dubstep or EDM. But the Harlem Shake is already a dance. A once-popular and very loaded dance, at that. A few decades old, it rose to the mainstream in 2001 thanks to Harlem rapper G. Dep (“Let's Get It” and “Special Delivery”) and later on, in a slightly mutated form, as the Chicken Noodle Soup via DJ Webstar's 2006 song of the same name. And the actual Harlem Shake — a joyful, free-for-all rhythmic vibration of one's body — is quite different from the meme dancing found in these "Harlem Shake" videos, which is just kind of people wilding out in front of a camera.
Appropriately, the television show Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell, a post-Chappelle, Ego Trip-torch-carrying show on FX, cleverly reminded viewers of this fact by posting their own Harlem Shake video. It begins with the staff of the show dancing to Baauer's production, but it ends with a single dancer doing the Harlem Shake properly, and Bell giving him the thumbs up. Then, there is Harlem MC Azealia Banks' rap over "Harlem Shake," which is perhaps the only well-advised thing she's done as of late. Typically, Banks would soon ruin the goodwill of putting some actual Harlem into “Harlem Shake” by calling Baauer a "faggot" — and releasing a video for the song in which she doesn't do the real Harlem Shake, either — but the voice of someone from Harlem usurping this song for a few days felt vital.
However obvious, “That ain't the Harlem Shake” grousing is important. And it helps unpack many of the problems with the song and meme. Who knows and who cares how Banks vs. Baauer began, but a recent interview with The Daily Beast has the Brooklyn producer explaining that he had asked Banks not to release her rap over his song, but she did it anyway. Welcome to 2013, Baauer! So, here's a song by a dude from Brooklyn called the “Harlem Shake” that exploded thanks to Internet support and share-culture pilfering who is now attempting to control its dissemination, while it goes viral. There's a level of calculation here that seems to belie the free-culture Internet ethos it's exploiting. That matters.
And coupled with “'Harlem Shake': The Making and Monetizing of Baauer's Viral Hit,” a Billboard interview with many of the people involved with marketing “Harlem Shake,” it becomes apparent just how heavy YouTube monetizing is involved in this campaign. In short, every time someone throws up a video featuring Baauer's “Harlem Shake,” the owners of the song, Mad Decent, can remove that video, or if they want, monetize it. So, they have a monetary stake in these videos they are encouraging people to produce. Not that it matters too much, because only the illusion of an “organic” campaign matters here (and it's all about gaming the system, anyway), but this is a very 2013 cash-out version of going viral. The whole goal of going viral hinges on making money later on, but here, it's the proliferation of the video/song — the viral-ness of the thing — that brings in money.
Yesterday, FADER observed that the “con los terroristas” sample which kicks the song off comes from T&A Breaks 3: Moombahton Loops & Samples, and has its roots in a 2010 remix by DJ duo the Philadelphyinz (one-half of the duo, Skinny Friedman, has been covered on this blog). When asked in a Reddit session where he got the sample, though, Baauer said he “found it on the innerweb.” And while that is not necessarily untrue, it does seem disingenuous. What would be the reason for not citing one's sample source here? Once your song is embraced by dancing middle schoolers, it seems pretty bizarre to try to maintain some integrity about sampling. It's a small detail, but it's one more way that “Harlem Shake” should rub people the wrong way, at least a little bit.
Harlem Shake as a viral campaign also brings to mind Diddy's “Get Off” contest from 2006. Back then, Diddy hit MySpace and encouraged fans to shoot videos of themselves dancing to then-Press Play single “Get Off.” It was a more innocent time for the Internet, for sure, and going viral was, if one could contrive it, just some free, fun advertising. There were not yet YouTube companies to hunt down every person using your song and slap some advertisements on it. The campaign didn't ever take off because “Get Off” wasn't much of a single (it was relegated to a bonus track on Press Play eventually), but also because it seemed like everybody sensed they were being hustled by Diddy. We're far more trusting of the Internet now. Though maybe the most significant thing to take away from Diddy's “Get Off” contest, in contrast with “Harlem Shake,” is that here was a rapper from Harlem, pretty much doing a Harlem Shake contest of his own, with the good sense to keep the term “Harlem Shake” out of it!
The gentrification of the song is important, even if it just seems like more “SMH white people” craziness. Just a few weeks ago, I wrote something about why the dance subgenre of “trap” differs from trap-rap enough that no one could mix up the two. That's still true, but the web success of Baauer's “Harlem Shake” does illustrate how having the right resources can Google-bomb something else out of existence. Try searching “Harlem Shake,” even with a telling, early 2000s-related second term and the result will be overwhelmingly skewed towards Baauer. Even “original Harlem Shake” yields videos from the early days of this campaign. This is not the co-opting of a style or dance the way that say, New Orleans bounce, Baltimore club, or even trap-as-EDM (which retains the elements of trap-rap and just rearranges them) have penetrated hipster enclaves. What's happening here is one kind of thing being turned into another thing entirely. “Gentrification” almost feels too kind here. This feels more nefarious, even if it is being enacted by people who don't seem to know any better.
One way to maybe feel a bit less depressed about this is to consider this tweet from user Gordon Voidwell: “The evolution of the harlem shake is the evolution of harlem, nyc, itself." So, Baauer's “Harlem Shake” reflects the unavoidable shift and evolution of hip-hop culture and its elements, particularly in a whitening, increasingly cozy New York. While we're at it, here's one more important “Harlem Shake”-related tweet from Atlanta producer DJ Burn One: "To truly get the full experience of cracker trap make sure you listen while making a mayonnaise sandwich or kissing your dog in the mouth."
So, Fox News hired Herman Cain. This will be fun. More importantly though, it is a chance to resurrect my dream remix project: Jamie xx & Herman Cain's We're New Here. Come on bored DJs. The instrumentals for Jamie xx & Gil Scott Heron's remix record are readily available. By the end of week one, Cain will have delivered enough legendary nonsense to flesh this thing out. Glitch-ify some of the vocals, slur a few, layer it over Jamie's beats and you will make my year. Savvy photoshoppers, get working on the cover!
Gucci Mane ft. Lil Wayne & Young Scooter "Bullet Wound" On the hook to "Bullet Wound" off Gucci Mane's Trap God 2 – one of Gucci's most head-down, meter-happy, dead-eyed tapes in quite some time – Lil Wayne sounds living and breathing again (if you count Flocka's "Stay Hood," that's the second time this month) nodding to the sassy-singing, song-stealing dude from Playaz Circle's "Duffle Bag Boy" almost a half-decade ago. Though calling this a “hook” undersells it a bit because it's just sort of lodged into the song twice, and totally allowed to wander in a bunch of different Dada directions and go on way longer than Gucci or Young Scooter's verses: "Yellow bone butt naked/ If the pussy whack eject it/ Man, all my hoes be acting like detectives/ But I don't give a fuck, and if I did, I would give it to you/ That rainbow has two colors, rhythm and blues, yeah...Say we running out of time/ Tell that to a time bomb, yeah./ Then she kiss me on the bullet wound." That line, “Then she kiss me on my bullet wound" is like a curt sentence that should end the chapter of a doomed love crime novel from James Sallis, right? Wayne's king of this almost body horror romantic poetry, in which he speaks on lovemaking and eroticism embracing less-than-idyllic, arguably "unsexy" details.
Heath Caring TORO IN R3TVRN Titled "a chopped and screwed experience," this half-hour or so mix from Heath Caring, a Brooklyn duo intent to come up with terrible-on-paper ideas, make them work expertly, and totally dare you to dig it (another good example would be these guys sloshing the Drive OST all around), slows-up Toro Y Moi's Anything in Return, and surrounds the good-gone-bad vibes with UGK, Lil Wayne with 2 Chainz, and what sounds like a Derek Bailey in Ballads mode cover of the "Kraid's Lair" music from the classic Nintendo game Metroid? TORO IN R3TVRN is but another example of the strange hip-hop elasticity of Toro Y Moi's Dilla-ized wimp-funk. That these chillwave make-up-and-break-up songs can so easily and rewardingly downshift into syrup-drunk territory is telling. Also, these sort of blog-friendly supposedly #outchea screwings of non-hip-hop are very much in line with DJ Screw's C&S values; his ears were wide open and he was almost as likely to stretch out Junior's "Mama Used To Say," a Faith Evans instrumental, or Cameo's "Back and Forth” as he was an OutKast album cut. Deal with it!
Problem & Iamu Million Dollar Afro The entire mixtape! Not even going to try to pick a favorite song -- though "Change Up" and it's advice to dudes to "step your dick game up" is a winner. And in the rap Internet world, where Valentine Mixes were necessary and dogged dives into as many wizened feminist-enough dude rap songs and cunnilingus rhymes, "Change Up" can get ready to sit comfortably in those mixes next year. So can "Downtown" from Antwon's new one, In Dark Denim. Still, the appeal of Million Dollar Afro is the accumulation of snaps and claps and Problem and Iamsu's hooks-for-days songwriting. Problem, a rigid producer and jerk-like MC, and Iamsu, a casual experimentalist, accidental mid-tier pop-rap savant (“Up!,” “Who Booty”), and something of a sensitive soul, are well-matched. Other Million Dollar Afro highlights: The clipping bass blowout beat of "I Need It": The Ratchet Ravi Shankar intensity of "Wassup"; Yello "Oh Yeah" meets Luniz "I Got 5 On It" grunt heap of "Please."
Pusha T ft. Kevin Gates "Trust You" Another Pusha T mixtape means more mean-mugging yet somehow luxurious raps that don't hit no matter how hard he grits his teeth and adds some "yuckkkk" to his voice. The highlight here is Kevin Gates, whose Michael Mann Thief cinematic, Michael Mann Heat emotive The Luca Brasi Story continues to reveal little details to unpack (his complex relationship with religion is something someone needs to ask him about). On the hook here, Gates stands firmly in Future's world of warbling and it works. See, Gates can sing well and rap very well and he isn't afraid to break a 16 or 32 bar structure, so his voice can move all around a beat and really inhabit it, forcing you to sit with him in his d-boy dread or hyper-emotional romantic drama. You feel everything he says. Please, let this guy move through the street-rap-gone-radio-ranks with his integrity intact. There's also a mini-generation battle going on in this song: The hateful hustler street MC on his way out coming up against a cold-hearted-when-he-needs-to-be romantic who isn't afraid to get painfully sincere, and who can frankly, just rap way better than an aging-out crack rap innovator.
Tree "Get It" Not the first time this comparison has popped up on the blog, but Tree's approach has less to do with rappers than brain-fried blues-adjusting eccentric Captain Beefheart (to a less extent, Tom Waits' junkpile hobo rock, and Sam from Future Islands' demonic post-punk screams). Beefheart and Tree are both gravel-voiced folk art creative types who don't seem to fit in really anywhere, and do their best work in the midst of chaos. There is a palpable sense that this music, if one or two adjustments were made to it, would permanently sink into a wad of disorder. That's thrilling. And when is the last time a song about grinding sounded this just viscerally desperate and lost? Second Internet mash-up free culture request of the day: Someone, anyone, please remove that Rick Ross and Tupac debacle from that one diet caffeine-free Sergio Leone slavery sequence in Django Unchained and replace it with Tree's soul-trap Spaghetti Western wail, "Get It." From the upcoming Sunday School 2.
So, Randy Jackson was absent for much of Wednesday's show because he was “busy in the studio.” Is Aldo Nova recording a comeback record? What could the only remaining O.G. American Idol judge have to do that's more important than the show? Kind of feel like he just caught feelings because Keith Urban gets to wander off whenever he wants to, and Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey's lateness was a plot point a few weeks back. Not to mention, the dude's entire angle this year has been how he's the seasoned professional who has been in the biz for decades and knows music, so everybody else just needs to fall back. And now he's laying some bass lines down somewhere ignoring his Idol duties?
As you can probably tell by my cheap shots, I'm really stalling here. That's because the Wednesday and Thursday's episodes, which cut down 70-something female contestants to 20, were as tedious as it was when they did the same exact thing with the men last week. Once again, they stuck them into groups and made them sing together, which is a reliable disaster, and then let the decent ones shine as solo contestants, which had an on to the next one quality that downplays personality. Yes, it's a pragmatic way to structure the show but it isn't entertaining and just blurs every anonymous-ass singer together. Oh boy, so what happened that wasn't even entertaining? Probably the look on Mariah Carey's face when contestant Shubah Vedula sang “When You Believe,” a 1998 duet by Mariah and the late Whitney Houston. Mariah's response wasn't brimming with gratitude; it was more like, “Yes, this is how the world should be: People singing my songs to me."
The big American Idol event this week had nothing to do with the show. It was Nicki's guest verse on French Montana's single, “Freaks.” The song arrived the week of Mardi Gras, which was ideal because all the rap stations spent their Tuesday mix hours digging into their digital crates for reggaeton and loosely world music-sounding 2000s hits. Here's one more for next year, DJs! French's mumble even has a Sean Paul quality to it, and the beat's A.D.D. island-y vibes are a nice B-Side corrective to run-a-train fuckface bro-thousand rage-out, “Pop That.” The sense that “Freaks” is bizarro “Pop That” is furthered by assertive, corrective sex raps from Nicki: “So, I took him to the crib to kill him with it/ Put my legs behind my head, I hit the ceiling with it/ When I put it in his mouth I couldn't believe it”; “No wins in Mi casa/ Big fat pussy: Mufasa.” That Nicki would bend back on her more explicit mixtape rap style at the very moment when she's on the most wholesome reality show around is pretty inspired. There's still moments of distinct goofy personality, though too: “Freaks” begins with the realest, most embarrassing laugh by a rap superstar since Jay-Z donkey guffaw on Kanye West's “Last Call.” This is a female rapper/singer/capital-A artist fully in control. And that's more interesting than American Idol in assembly-line mode.
The first thing you'll notice about Waka Flocka Flame's DuFlocka Rant 2 (besides the stunning, syrup-rave lurch production), is how often other rappers steal the tape out from under him. Lil Wayne, who has been flopping around for years now, gets witty again on "Stay Hood," threatening to "beat yo' ass with [his] skateboard." That's him straight-up owning his mall-prick douchebaggery, and turning a supposed negative — just like say, being a martian or a weedhead — into a positive. Young Scooter continues working every nook and cranny of his "I sell a lot of coke and it is awesome but sometimes it is a bummer" fantasy ride on "Murda She Wrote." And the inclusion of Young Thug, a generically named, Hot Topic-sporting, melodically mature croon-rapper who should be bigger on "Fell," is a vital sprucing up of Brick Squad's aggro-trap fun.
Guests usurping the featured artist, who is now famous, fat, and comfortable, is the normal progression of events in hip-hop. You blow up and then become more like a conduit for other MCs to do their thing. Rap-game rich guy hosting a party and hovering around in the background just happy everyone else is having such a good time. The big-deal rapper as curatorial force. Wisely, Waka doesn't coast. He doesn't try to complete with other rappers' versatility (a decision that marred moments of Triple F), he uses his voice as a vehicle for urgency and rage. Check out "Fast-Forward," an almost double-time, mealy-mouthed rant that finds Waka hoarse and pained, like he's been up all night, upset. It's the most effective and moving use of vocal grit and "Really, this is the take they used?"-intensity on a rap song since Heems' “NYC Cops."
At other times, Waka's rapping his ass off, or at the very least, doing all the right things with his voice to make it sound like he's rapping his ass off, which is pretty much the same thing. It's his "Foreign Shit" voice, for a whole tape. He sounds alive and hungry. "Blowing money like a drug dealer/ You doing shit I did last year / I running circles around you fuck niggas" from "Fast Forward" is a Lou Reed "My week beats your year" moment. Somewhere, a college student better be writing a paper about Waka shouting "Smart black man, no Willie Lynches" on "Real Recognize Real." That line seems as important as, "Ever since they killed my nigga Trav, I been poppin' pills and acting crazy,” in terms of putting a more "significant" frame around Waka's thrilling, rudimentary rage-out raps.
Still Waka's strength is declarative, surprisingly emotive explosions of feeling, more like a hardcore singer than a rapper: "Keep it real until I die" ("Can't Do Golds"); "Where I'm from, we don't brag if we catch a body, nigga, that's just life." ("Bad Decision"). And on “Anything But Broke,” this devastating bit of pulp-rap poetry: "Them fuck boys know, ain't no ends over here / We're gonna fight and fuck and shoot until our souls disappear." Consider just how bleak that is. I fear this type of praise threatens to resurrect the big dumb Chief Keef debate, but the idea that it's problematic for a rapper to contexualize and wail about the violence that surrounds them is nuts. Let's at least save that argument for Flockaveli 2.
How about that brostep State of the Union address advertisement? Did Tim & Eric direct that thing, giggling the whole time? Nevertheless, contrast it with Republican hero of the moment Marco Rubio (who will soften on some all-important policy or another and be abandoned soon enough), and his perfunctory nods to '90s hip-hop and Democratic wub-wub-wub is, well, at least contemporary. Maureen Dowd's "The Rap on Rubio" in the New York Times takes on Rubio's rap shtick, and acknowledges the only curious element of this recent GOP move: "Gangsta rap used to be a reliable issue for politicians, but they were denouncing it,” she writes, “now Senator Marco Rubio of Florida is praising it." That's right-wing progress. One of their members doesn't vilify expressive pop-cultural art as the end of civilization simply because it's mostly made by black people.
The “Rubio, hip-hop head” angle hinges on a Spotify playlist that includes plenty of rap music (Tupac, Sugarhill Gang, and others) and this video of Rubio semi-cogently discussing Tupac vs. Biggie. He provides a passable understanding of the sociological components of '90s hip-hop, and good for him. But do recall the first African-American chairman of the Republican National committee Michael Steele back in 2009 saying the party needed a "hip-hop makeover," and getting clowned. It's telling that the tragically clueless GOP of 2013 has leaned hard on Cuban-American Rubio to rep rap. African-American conservatives it seems, must maintain their beyond-reproach Booker T. Washington stance. But hey, this is all just a market-tested, right-wing hustle anyway. A Spotify playlist that nods to hip-hop is the same as Paul Ryan gettin' his gym on to Rage Against the Machine. Clueless jerks like political music too, sometimes.
Contrast Rubio's boilerplate insight with President Obama's nods to hip-hop, chronicled by SPIN here, which seem, however dad-like, organic and sincere. The President brushing dirt off his shoulder was code to the hip-hop generation that he's down enough, and references here and there to Lil Wayne or calling Kanye a jack-ass (a no-nonsense moment that an Alan Keyes-level nut should admire), never felt too cloying. And an adamant focus on Chicago street violence when most of the county is really just concerned about whether or not guns are wandering into suburban schools, is pointed. That stuff resonates with raps fans who are painfully aware of street violence because the music they love has been dealing with it for decades now. Frankly, Rubio's rap awareness is about normal for a man his age (he was in college in the early '90s). That Marco Rubio knows much of anything about rap is just a case for the genre's significance, not Rubio's stunning ability to tap into the hip-hop generation(s).
And maintaining the sense that the Republicans must always pine for the good ol' days of something or other, the Rubio interview finds him commenting on how hip-hop's values have shifted to partying now. He ignores the knotty politics of, say, Watch the Throne or all the emotive street rap hovering around the periphery of the mainstream. The idea that hip-hop, simply by existing and invading the culture, is inherently political does not occur to him, either. Or maybe ignoring Jay-Z and others makes this cheap rhetoric an easier sell. Plenty of rappers have aggressively supported the president; and towing the “real hip-hop is dead” party line is to not wrestle with the same things the GOP always avoids. Namely, that not all people vote and make decisions with their money in mind. Even ballin' and blingin' rappers.
Dowd points out that The Atlantic's Elspeth Reeve argued rap's up-from-nothing angle is very individualistic and Republican-friendly. Many others, including hip-hop-is-the-devil hustler Thomas Chatterton Williams, have pointed this out as well. It's a good one-liner but it ignores the fact that the policies the GOP holds so dear would never allow the majority of rappers to flex their right-wing libertarian muscles and live “free.” Hip-hop is a warts-and-all kind of genre. Whether it's Jay-Z spending much of Watch the Throne reminding everybody that his all-American come-up is based on crack sales (an apt metaphor for America's glorious, exploitation-tinged history) or the nagging sadness in so much "We made it!" rap that remembers dead friends, rap's addiction to truth-telling is pervasive. Typically, Rubio and the Republican party, who are being destroyed by an ideology-only wormhole of their own creation thanks to never say die Tea Party maniacs and vagina-phobic old whites, have momentarily fallen in love with the idea of hip-hop. But they want nothing to do with its messy reality.
On the new Netflix original series House of Cards, whenever the hotshot blogger character Zoe mentions a fictional Politico-like website called Slugline, the first thing that always pops into my mind is a conga line dancing to the music of London's Night Slugs label. It's nothing like that, of course; I doubt we'll be hearing any electronic music from the inside-the-Beltway political drama, unless, I don't know, maybe Zoe and Frank hit the U Street Music Hall for a Moombahton Massive party after a particularly intense redistricting session.
But the fact that I can't hear the word "slug" without thinking of Night Slugs suggests the impact that the label has made in just three short years. Under the guidance of co-founders Bok Bok and L-Vis 1990, the label-cum-collective has developed one of the most distinctive sounds in U.K. dance music, a mutable hybrid of grime, house, electro, R&B, techno, hip-hop, and dubstep. Night Slugs ranks alongside outfits like Hyperdub and Hessle Audio as a label that has carved out an entirely new niche, all on its own terms. Just as impressive, though, is the diversity within the label's catalog. No two tracks sound alike, even though they're all readily identifiable, by some impossible-to-determine metric, as Night Slugs tracks.
That immediately becomes clear listening to Night Slugs All Stars Volume 2, the label's second anthology of singles, remixes, and exclusive cuts. Bok Bok's "Silo Pass" bleeps and bounces like brawling Roombas; Lil Silva's "The 3rd" jabs daggers between the bricks of Wiley's igloo; L-Vis 1990's "Not Mad" interpellates "Wordy Rappinghood," while Girl Unit and Jam City play fast and loose with freestyle. The beat patterns and stylistic tropes they draw from are all over the place, but it's all held together by virtue of its vivid timbres and textures. Broken glass, halogen glow, torn fiberglass, brushed stainless steel, dry ice — they're all shards of Night Slugs' jagged kaleidoscope.
I spoke to Bok Bok (Alex Sushon) about the development of the label's unique sound; he talked about the history of the London club scene, their recent U.S. tour, and why Night Slugs never wanted to get stuck in a "neon universe."
Let's start with a bit of the history of Night Slugs. Who exactly is involved? It was started by myself and L-Vis 1990, and early on people like Jam City and Girl Unit were really involved; Kingdom was really involved from the start, and Egyptrixx was totally on board from the start too. It was just people that we had already been DJing with and whose tunes we were already playing.
Were you doing Night Slugs parties before you started the label? That's right, yeah. We were doing these club nights in and around London. We started doing it in South London in a really janky little squat venue, and then we moved on to more proper clubs in East London. We were playing a kind of sound that hadn't really been — at this point, we've been through so many cycles that it doesn't really sound particularly original to say that we were playing different musics from around the world alongside each other, or we were mixing up genres, because at the moment, it seems like it's second nature to do that. But there really wasn't a lot of people doing that, especially in London, so we were amongst this crop of people that were thinking a little bit differently about club experiences and DJing. But it was still very much informed by that kind of London underground style of music that we'd grown up with, and bringing those two influences together. So from 2008 'til 2010 we were doing just that, and eventually we graduated to the label.
There had been an accumulation of stuff by these producers who were mostly new to the world, so we gathered a bunch of unreleased tunes by them that we were playing in our DJ sets. It just made sense to sort of legitimize everything, give it all a home, and sort of take things to the next level by starting to put out their music. Mosca was also there from the start, as well; he's a little bit less in our crew now, but he was important for the beginning because he was the first release.
Was dubstep the dominant sound in the clubs at the time? It wasn't dominant in the clubs yet, not in the way that it became afterwards. I wouldn't say dubstep itself, but definitely the wider scene that surrounded it. It's a more complex story if you're from London. Dubstep is the headline that made it out, but in actual fact it was a really rich scene with a lot of different sounds going on. But definitely the infrastructure for that kind of scene is something that hugely influenced me and influenced the way that I wanted to run Slugs. Particularly with Rinse FM and the club night FWD, which, as well as dubstep, also had a lot of grime down there, a lot of different styles. That's something I started going to early on, and it was a big influence for me in the early 2000s. The way that they mixed up those styles was cool. It was a variety, but it was more about the vibe. The way you engineered tracks, the way you prioritized the bass or the way you prioritized subs, it was kind of new. Also, the kind of environments it was supposed to be played in, which wasn't huge clubs; it was supposed to be for small, dark rooms. That was kind of new. So this aesthetic fed into what we were doing, for sure.
Given the speed a lot of this music moves, and the speed with which the London scene has evolved over the past couple of years, I was interested that Night Slugs All Stars Volume 2 mostly gathers material from last year, and even some tracks going back to 2011. About half of the compilation is new stuff, and about half is old stuff. There's actually several reasons for that. First, it's really simple: I just wanted to make sure everyone heard that music. When you put out a CD, it's not necessarily aimed at the same people that are following us from day to day. It's aimed at a slightly wider audience. Also, we don't make our music with the idea that in four to six months' time, everyone will have forgotten about it. Hopefully, it's something that people will hold on to and keep valuing.
We wanted to put together this really playable compilation, and I'd like to think that it works — when you listen to it from start to finish, it follows on. Which is interesting, because it's obviously tracks from various artists and various projects, so it wasn't written to follow on from each other. Yet somehow it does. That's kind of what we were trying to say. Some of this music may be over a year old by now. "Silo Pass" is, like, 18 months old. But it's kind of about making it all work together, and saying, "Yeah, this might have come out awhile ago, and it might have had its time in the clubs, but it's still valid." We want people to listen to it in a new light, maybe alongside other tracks, and just enjoy it for listening purposes.
I think the compilation fits together really well. I didn't know all the tracks, so there were some things that really surprised me to learn were actually a year old. It flows really well, and it gives a good sense of what Night Slugs is all about. Awesome, thank you. Some of it is to consolidate what we've been doing, especially for people who aren't following releases on a weekly basis, which is fair enough. For DJs, that makes sense, but for music fans, that's not always how it works. People discover music late, or they sometimes sleep on a release. It's all disparate and it's all come out in separate places, so it's nice to bring things together and say, "Yeah, this is what the label's really about." If you listen to the whole thing, you have a much more immersive experience of what's been going on than if you listen to the EPs separately.
In the press text, you said that the compilation "charts the label's move away from the early digital world into a more developed and more textured universe." What were the big changes for the label, musically, between 2010 and 2012? It's many-fold, but I guess what that phrase is referring to is visually as well as sonically, just the changes in texture that are going on with the crew. We were pinned down after 2010 as being a certain kind of label with a certain kind of sound. In my opinion, 2010 was very diverse for us, but the impression people came away with — there were certain ingredients people thought would make a Night Slugs tune. Obviously, that's fair enough, because it's natural for people to try and find commonalities amongst music and draw threads there. That's healthy; it's the way to understand things and the way to digest it. But all the while, we're moving forward. We didn't want to get stuck in that whole neon universe that people seem to have ascribed to us.
I think the producers themselves have found lots of new textures and lots of new processes. There's been a move towards hardware and analog gear and outboard recording, which always brings in new textures and takes you out of that strictly in-the-box, digital realm. But it's more than that; it's also the graphics and the approach. The universe that we're trying to create, I guess, has become richer. In 2010 it was quite confined to this sort of admittedly Tron-like existence — really simple shapes and simple ingredients trying to create something beautiful. I think one of the biggest changes was Jam City's album. He brought a lot of new textures to the table. I think that Slugs is a kind of pool for all of our creativity that individual producers bring something to. Jam City's album brought all this stuff about chrome and metal and broken glass and all these different things that we weren't talking about at the time. We were talking about, maybe, lights and, I don't know, neon colors and things like that. He brought something new to the table. Since then, there's been a bit of a phase shift.
You guys seem really focused on texture. I was reading an interview where Jam City asked Girl Unit what textures he would be searching for after Club Rez, and he described it in really vivid terms: "Big, airy, barely-there synth atmospheres, that vibrating sound you get through the walls of club toilet stalls, something that sounds like Future's vocal fry, and beat patterns with no snares or claps, just ghost percussion." Absolutely. It's trying to make it more than fairly disposable club music. Our belief is that club music shouldn't be treated as something you're going to hear once and forget about. It should be a slightly more rich and immersive experience — thinking about things in terms of textures and aesthetic properties.
There's also a sort of deconstructed approach to rhythm, especially on Classical Curves. There's been such a narrative of "bass music" turning towards house and techno, and you're playing with some of those ideas in your use of 808s and 909s, but Night Slugs rhythms are rarely straight 4/4. There's a lot of start-and-stop action. On the Jam City album, it often felt like he was holding down the mute button on certain audio tracks, almost at random. There's a sense of being thrown off your guard. I think that was his intention in a big way. He wanted to throw you off, and I think he succeeded. The thing with the rhythms, I think I could never be comfortable in a straight 4/4. Even though, as a DJ, I play so much house and techno, and I play so much music that has a straight kick drum, I think all of us as producers have that unsteady kind of feel to our music, where we just can't settle into that too much. Yeah, we've all made 4/4 tracks, but overall, it's not something we can commit to and shut the door on syncopation once and for all. It's not just grime — grime is definitely what brought it through for all of us, for sure, but if you listen back to '80s funk and so many different styles of music, even R&B, the idea of this stop/start, this stuttery beat, is something that's really important to us that we could never turn our back on. Also, speaking of the narrative you mentioned, of bass music turning into house and techno, honestly, that's boring to me, because house and techno is house and techno. If producers want to make those kind of tracks, that's fantastic, but I feel like there's so much more there, and we started out with such diverse influences, so it would be such a shame for us to simplify it down to basic, Europeanized music. That's not what this is about at all.
Having come out of a scene that's related to dubstep, do you feel like that's led to misunderstandings about what Night Slugs is, particularly in the U.S., where people may not understand how diverse the London club scene is? Yeah, it has, although it's not something I want to dwell on, because I feel like it's our challenge to make people understand. If people aren't understanding, then we just need to carry on putting out records and making mixes and playing for them, so we can get that message over. But there are definitely some preconceptions, definitely some stigmas. I still think the whole idea of "bass music" itself, that phrase, is a little bit damaging to us. It kind of holds us back to some extent, because people assume a certain something. It suggests there's going to be some aggressive element pre-determined there, and I don't think that's necessarily true. It's not necessarily what we're always going to bring to the table. Sometimes we're going to want to go deep, or sometimes we're going to want to play R&B in the club. That's just what we're about. I don't lament that there's some pre-conceptions there or that people might have the wrong idea about us. As I say, we just have to address that issue through our output and through communicating with our audience. It's kind of an ongoing project, I guess.
What do you think of the whole trap-rave phenomenon? We all love rap music. I don't know about trap music, but I know it's one of these genres that's around at the moment that's kind of doing it in the clubs in America, and to some extent over in Europe; there's definitely some of it coming over. I think that many producers' approach — I don't want to generalize too much — seems to borrow the tropes of southern rap, of a certain style of rap production, but the way they borrow the tropes is on a very superficial level. They put them on a beat which is otherwise quite a standard club beat for the U.S. big-room situation. And, you know, they dress it up with 808s, skittering hats and snares and whatnot. Which is fine, but it's not really anything to do with what my interests are or what my label's about. Where there's crossover there between the world of "real trap shit," so to speak, and Night Slugs, is the hip-hop influence. And I think that's pretty much the start and end of it.
How was your recent U.S. tour? New York was fantastic. I've been playing in the U.S. for years, and it's only getting better, really. The feeling that people are there now, people are getting more and more interested in this. I just want people to come out and see us. They need to come with a slightly open mind, be relaxed and be ready to dance, and I think everyone will have a great time. It's great to see that things are picking up over there.
New York was great — a really smoky, really dark party. Not a big room, which is how we like it. We prefer it a smaller, more intimate space. No one could see each other, which is right up my street. That's exactly what I want out of a party. We also did Denver, which was fantastic, as well. We played start to finish with no opening acts, no support, which, again, is how we like to do it. That's something I feel is quite different for the U.S. It takes people a second to get their head around the fact that this is it, this is the act. You don't have to wait around: The night starts now.
My favorite sets in the past few years have been ones where I've played for seven hours. Again, it's about immersiveness, it's about trying to give people a richer club experience — not something disposable that they can just get drunk to. Well, they should still get drunk! They should still get crazy. Then they can come away with a feeling that they maybe have experienced something a little more interesting and deeper than your average club night, hopefully.
We did Holy Ship! as well, which was a pretty cool experience. It's cool to be embraced by that world — I wouldn't have expected that to happen. We definitely felt slightly like outsiders, but in a really interesting way.
Do you find yourself playing different music when you're on a boat? For some reason I wanted to play a bunch of garage, and I haven't done that in a long time. But I didn't play different music just because I was at Holy Ship! We still did exactly what we do.
I just wondered if the experience of being on an actual boat made you bust out, like, Christopher Cross or something. Nautical vibes? Yeah, to some extent there was a bit of that. I don't know what it is, but there's a very specific feeling about floating like that, and it does make you kind of draw from different records. I haven't quite got my head around it yet. I'm still puzzling about what made me choose to play certain tracks, but I think there was something in the air, for sure.
What's going on with your own music? Will you be releasing an album this year? I won't be doing an album. I am in the studio and I am producing. My plan is to continue to put out hot twelves, honestly. That's all I've really been interested in, personally. I'm a DJ first and foremost, and I'm an A&R and label curator second, and a producer third. When I make tracks, it's just for me to play in my DJ sets and for me to have fun with. I'm not really intending to make an album for the time being. I am planning to put out a few EPs, and also there's my side project with Tom Trago, which is called Night Voyage. We're going to pick that up again this year. We've got quite a few twelves to put out already, and maybe even a compilation at some point. My production stuff is a little bit secondary to everything else that's going on. But I'm fully intending to drop some heat, for sure.
I wanted to ask you about the Tom Trago collaboration — that first record is killer. How did you hook up? We hooked up because of Teki Latex. We'd been talking a little bit before that, and we were aware of each other, but Teki noticed that, because he's got a skill with people. So he picked up on the fact that me and Tom had some kind of connection and really brought it home by commissioning us to do this collaborative record for his label, Sound Pellegrino. So we did that, and it was way too much fun to just leave the project there, so we decided we're going to carry on with this crossover between Tom's thing, Voyage Direct, and Night Slugs, so when we cross it over we call it Night Voyage. We made this quite impromptu decision back then to carry on working together, and since then we've been doing it fairly regularly and just kept in touch. You know, we're buds — we get on, and we share a vision. We definitely bring something out in each other. We're pretty different artists in our solo work, in our day-to-day lives, so when we come together, the stuff we've got in common is really, like, jacking Chicago house, arpeggiated disco, and kind of dirty, sort of dusty, like, home-made sounding house shit. That's the kind of stuff we end up making together, somehow.
Do you work together in the studio, or are you trading files back and forth over the net? We trade files only once the idea for a project is there. We might pass a project back and forth once we've done the session, but things always come out of this one week of intense work. We'll do one week at a time, just stay up all night, into the morning, and get it all banged out in Tom's studio over in Amsterdam. The new batch is going to be interesting, I think. Not better, but it's going to take it somewhere else.
Who does Night Slugs' graphic design? It kind of used to be me. At this point, I'm doing the art direction, but the production and the actual generation of the images comes from various people now. But it's still my baby, I'm still looking after it. All the concepts come from me, in collaboration with the artists, and I will come up with a really detailed brief, with full descriptions and textures, and kind of plan it all out, and then hand it over to someone who would actually put it together.
That Classical Curves cover is great. It really nailed the feeling of the album. I can't take full credit for that; a lot of that was Jam City. He definitely had a really strong vision of what he wanted, and he brought it to me, and we ended up kind of sculpting it together. I had a hand in the art direction, but he knew what he wanted. That goes for the whole project: He knew what he wanted for that whole album when he started out. It all came together. It's really amazing to see an artist have that kind of overarching vision from the very start.
David Ayer's End of Watch, now out on DVD, is a jittery, picaresque cop drama that follows Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Richard Peña), two well-meaning, good-hearted though bro-ish cops in Los Angeles. The movie makes no wrong turns and never stumbles, despite being ostensibly caught up in a chintzy found-footage conceit and saddled with a loaded, unabashedly pro-police stance. At the least, director and writer Ayer does not believe that each and every person with a badge is a racist piece of garbage, which is sort of a big deal in the intellectually rigorous American crime genre.
Heroism exists in End of Watch, even though our heroes, upon saving some children from a burning building, admit they don't feel like heroes much at all. Also, their significant others are pissed that they would do something as stupid as rush into a building that's on fire to save some kids who aren't their own. A dead-eyed opening monologue all but admits that cops are a nagging and problematic force in communities, for better and worse, which should help cynics feel more comfortable watching this thing.
Not to mention, the deck is stacked against them from the start when they mercilessly blow away some gang members shooting at them in the first scene, and then, walk around with massive chips on their shoulder for much of the first act. The rest of the movie though, knocks that chip all over the place and reveals the humans behind the dude-cop swagger. Most of End of Watch consists of exceedingly well-acted conversations about life and love while the two are on patrol. It's a wizened buddy movie that touches on things like glory and duty and mutual respect without selling it too hard or getting too Peckinpah-like, which would just come off as stale and unrealistic in 2013. Men don't act like Warren Oates anymore. That's probably a good thing, right?
Ayer understands the way that the police and civilians, some of whom are criminals, are inextricably tied. The “us vs. them” attitude of cynical cop movies like Oren Moverman's recent Rampart gets a much-needed correction. In one of End of Watch's first scenes, a black drug dealer insults Zavalas to the point that the officer loses it and challenges him to a fistfight. The two brawl with the promise that if Zavalas wins, the drug dealer will handcuff himself. The scene is pure movie nonsense, but it's effective because it becomes about two dudes in opposition keeping their word to one another. The drug dealer loses. He cuffs himself. Later on, we witness the drug dealer recounting the story to his friends, who are surprised he wasn't charged with assaulting a police officer. Zavalas didn't cop-out or snitch. That's still important in Ayer's world.
One of the most fascinating elements of End of Watch, though, is the pervasive influence of hip-hop on these two cops' lives. Both Taylor and Zavalas are of the hip-hop generation. Zavalas tosses around hip-hop slang ("dope" is used quite frequently) and the two tease each other in a "stuff white people like" way that is, if not "post-racial" (because fuck that word), the kind of politically incorrect goofing around that comes from people who aren't hung up on these things like their parents or less-exposed peers. It's a movie full of mindful ribbing influenced by, say, Def Comedy Jam and Ego Trip.
Ayers also eases into hip-hop with the soundtrack, first by old-school nods via Public Enemy's "Harder Than You Think” and Paris' “Funky Lil' Party.” But as the movie goes along, he takes more risks with the music. A day trip between Taylor and his girlfriend is scored to Cam'ron's “Hey Ma” and the two of them lovingly sing the song to one another in the car, smiling with the “We gonna get it on tonight” hook. A few scenes earlier, a lovemaking scene is set to Mazzy Star's "Fade Into You.” There's no difference between Mazzy Star and Cam'ron. One isn't “serious” music and the other “party” music.
At the couple's wedding, they do the thing that all of us of Generation Xers and Yers do, which is not take anything seriously, so their romantic slow-dance morphs into a choreographed, jokey get-down to Salt n Pepa's "Push It." It's there, like so many things in End of Watch, because it is a well-observed and realistic generational detail, but also because it connotes the couple's genuine sense of fun and camaraderie. They "get" each other. Rap is part of the way in which these two fairly square white people communicate. And it informs these police officers' and multicultural best friends' conversations too. There's no sense that AK-toting, shit-talking gang members are any more or less a product of hip-hop than our cop heroes. In one of the most bleak and hopeless films in quite some time, hip-hop affords its characters some much-deserved joy.
The Carioca Bass EP, out now on Little Owl Recordings, is a collaboration between Brazillian MC Zuzuka Poderosa and Bay Area beatmaker Kush Arora. They're mining the still-fertile world of baile funk, tweaking the formula made popular by bigtime musical globetrotters like Diplo until it rubs up against an ever-expanding global bass music scene that's still figuring itself out (and never standing still).
The EP is set up like an old-fashioned dance 12-inch, with two mean tracks ("Pisicodelia," an almost industrial Lady D-like smack upside the head, and "Seda") and a whole bunch of wide-eyed remixes (including contributions from Chrissy Murderbot and CEE). "Seda" is a pro-pot, anti-criminalization party track that's all peaks and no valleys, one storm of grinding energy after another, with a gloriously extended beginning of choppy muffled grunts. Its video, by Artur Kummer (director of photography for the Brazilian music documentary Beyond Ipanema which featured Zuzuka), moves from a South Bronx mansion to an expressionistic Kuchar Brothers medium-budget netherworld, featuring Zuzuka as a futuristic #AllGoldEverything shaman at the center of it all. Dawn Richard, watch out.
You can watch the video for "Seda" by Zuzuka Poderosa & Kush Aurora here, exclusively at SPIN.