EPISODE 12: GENRE vs. ISM
This is about two principles acting on dance music. Beginning by looking at how genre is affected by being exposed to more international influence, it shows that power is involved questions about who gets to own a genre. I argue that the way dance music survives in its new international frontiers depends not only on what happens to an individual genre, but also to how genres take on ism.
I began thinking about this title 18 months ago so it was kind of funny to me when I got involved in an exchange of opinions about feminism and dance music – it seemed to prove what I was thinking at the time about the impact of ism.
Because this is quite long I've split it up so people can read it in sections or whatever you want. There's a long story in the first part that I wish I could have made shorter but the point of it will become clear.Towards the end there is an interview with Kuedo and a discussion of his album 'Severant' and LV's album 'Sebenza', and how their 'no genre' music takes on ism to keep hoodness alive.
Finally I'm so sorry I wanted to have the footnotes as hyperlinks but I can't get them to work – a good way to read them if you're into that kind of thing might be to open the same page on a different window and cross reference. (Footnote fetish anyone?).
Genre vs. ism
Last year I was the object of some really stupid verbal abuse. This is the beginning of my response. I’m not responding because I care on an immediate or personal level. (If I did I obviously wouldn’t have been this long about it). What interests me are the attitudes that it revealed. The first attitude is that journalists shouldn’t ask difficult questions. The second is that certain women still need to be put in their place.
What’s abuse if not the attempt to intimidate people into doing exactly what the abuser wants them to do? Abuse is a reaction to the threat of not having, or losing, power over others. So what I’m about to talk about is about power in dance music.[i]
Racism vs. journalism
This is what a feminist looks like blah blah.
The attitude about journalists was revealed when Spoek Mathambo launched a verbal attack on me after an article I wrote about South African kwaito beginning to have a new global reach was published. Reacting firstly to the fact that a sub editor wrote a picture caption calling him the ‘king of kwaito’ (the caption was later removed), Mathambo claimed that he was being used as a spokesperson for kwaito. He reacted violently and issued a twitter onslaught against me. The sum of his accusations were that I had tricked him, misleading him about the purpose of my interview, that I had been lazy in my research (he said that I didn’t talk to people I should have and didn’t go to places I should have) and had asked him to take me out to a club and then stood him up. The last part of these is true, kind of – what follows is what happened. Sadly it’s a story about racism.
Before going to Johannesburg I had been warned repeatedly about how dangerous it is. People who I knew in Cape Town were nervous about going there.[ii] Someone in Cape Town had advised me to stay in Sandtown when I was in Johannesburg, which I did. This was a stupid mistake, because Sandtown is far up in the North East of Johannesburg and it cost me way too much money to travel everywhere. I didn’t have much money because my trip was mostly self-funded. (Where I was staying in Cape Town there was nothing like the internet access we have here, but I’d also had problems getting hold of people in Johannesburg when I was in the UK, so it had been hard for to research where to stay etc.).
On the morning of my interview with Mathambo I’d rung up the driver I’d organised through a family friend who lives in Johannesburg. As soon as my intended driver picked up the phone at the time I’d told him I was going to call him, he started shouting at me that he was at the place I’d told him to be, waiting for me, and where was I? Unfortunately I hadn’t told him where I wanted to meet him yet. Since I then couldn’t get a word of sense out of him, I asked the hotel for help and one of their staff offered to drive me around instead. He charged a lot more than my intended driver had promised. I hadn’t been able to tell the original driver where I was going to go before this because I had been trying to contact Mathambo all week, through his manager, to find out where he wanted to do the interview, and only succeeded late in the afternoon of the day before. Also, the day before the interview, Mathambo said that he would go out somewhere with me and the person accompanying me in Johannesburg, but had then not picked up the phone all evening, when he had told us to call him. We had ended up being – very kindly – taken out by a friend of my friend who we had contacted before the trip and had promised us he could show us everything we needed to know about South African house. I don’t mean to be rude or ungrateful, but I was discouraged by the fact that there was, I think, one black person at the club we were taken to.
I interviewed Mathambo the next day in downtown Johannesburg and we wanted to visit somewhere else a couple of blocks away. Our new driver hadn’t been able to pick us up straight away and the person who I was with was adamant that it was unsafe for us to walk anywhere downtown. Mathambo told us he couldn’t help us get a taxi, but we would be fine walking. My friend who was with me thought Mathambo was being flippant. I didn’t know what to think except that I thought that we would probably be fine walking if we didn’t act like we thought all the black people around us were going to kill us. We walked a few blocks and it was all good, but the situation ended up in another acquaintance of the person who had taken us out the night before screeching his car to a dramatic stop in the street where we were, shouting at us to get in and then telling us how crazy and stupid we were. He then said that ‘any one of these niggers would kill us any minute’[iii] and insisted, repeatedly that we were lucky we were still alive. The person saying this was a white person who had grown up in Johannesburg.[iv]
My friend and I stood up Mathambo that evening because this person who insisted, after saying that ‘anyone of these niggers would kill us any minute’, that he was not racist – and whose dad was some rich banker, and who didn’t seem to have much work to do that day even though it was a Friday, and insisted we spend the afternoon and evening with him and his friends, who were all drunk and spent a lot of time making jokes about how we were lucky to still be alive – had agreed to drive us to a spot in Melville that evening but changed his mind at the last minute. We arranged by text message to meet Mathambo there – I really wanted to get a better idea of clubs in Johannesburg. But at the last minute our host changed his mind and refused, insinuating that Melville was not a good neighbourhood because there are black people there. He dropped us instead back at our hotel and we rang Mathambo, who told us to get a taxi. By this point it was about 10 or 11 o’clock in the evening, and we had rung round a few taxi firms and been unable to find anything that didn’t cost the equivalent of about £40 (one way) and I had other places to get to the next day. We’d then decided to get in a taxi but my friend then got worried Mathambo was going to disappear again – he had in the past not turned up to an event my friend promoted, without any explanation – and we’d tried to ring him, but he hadn’t answered, so we’d gone back to our hotel. I later explained and apologised profusely to Mathambo, who had actually gone to the club we were planning to go to, which obviously I felt very bad about.
This is a difficult situation to write about for obvious reasons: if it was genuinely true that we were as unsafe as some people said we were in downtown Johannesburg, I should be grateful to the person who’d said ‘any one of these niggers would kill us any minute’. And in fact, if I hadn’t been so unsure about the matter of safety I would have got out of his car as soon as he’d said it – I wanted to. (I did point out, repeatedly, that I was still alive). But in short I stood Mathambo up because I’d unwittingly ended up in the company of racists. I don’t think my friend who was friends with these people had realised they were like this. It’s pretty astounding, and a testimony to the absolutism of racism, that anyone can live in a city in 30 years and be so utterly wrong about the people who live there. We went to Melville the next day and it was a lovely and friendly neighbourhood. More than that though, it was a huge shock (especially to someone who grew up in London) to experience such rigid and deeply entrenched racism – even though I knew it happened.
I’m not going to respond to the rest of Mathambo’s tweets about me, because it would be boring, and I’d rather leave my work to speak as to whether I am a lazy journalist who would deliberately mislead interviewees.[v]I just want to add that of course I wasn’t writing with a South African audience in mind – for me to write for a South African audience about kwaito would obviously be ridiculous.[vi] And also that I didn’t even know at the time this twitter onslaught was happening because I was being subjected to an extraordinary barrage of abusive emails from Mathambo’s manager. They were very long, fantastic (in the deluded sense) and saturated in expletives.
The evolution of genre
Photos by Steve Braiden.
Besides the frustration this caused me I was really (and became obsessively) interested in what it revealed about genre.[vii] As someone who was associated with dubstep before its current mainstream strain in artists like Skrillex had developed, I’m acutely sensitive to the issues of genre and the naming of it. What is now dubstep is not what dubstep once was to me, and to quite a few other people. To me it was DMZ, space, and frequencies that not only created a deep sensation but a critique of mass produced music. Dubstep’s international translation has meant it has changed both in its musical components and who plays and makes it.
During a previous trip to South Africa, I’d noticed that what was kwaito in South Africa was not exactly what was getting attention as kwaito over here.[viii] I’d asked to speak to Mathambo as at that time the most visible kwaito influenced artist getting publicity, bookings and releases in the UK because I wanted to address what happens to kwaito in translation. My feature suggested that what he put to me as for him the defining feature of kwaito – its chanted lyrics, which he felt need to be in a South African language – was not necessarily always going to be what defined kwaito. The Ruffest, who call themselves a kwaito group, told me they would use English in order to reach overseas audiences. If The Ruffest did this and still called themselves kwaito, Mathambo’s definition wouldn’t hold. Would some kind of genre police, in that instance, descend and prohibit The Ruffest from still using the tag kwaito?
I wasn’t trying to catch anyone out, just to capture a genre in a moment of transnational change (besides just reporting back what was said to me). As has been the case with dubstep, the translation of the particular genre kwaito has been engendering ambiguities about what defines it. There are already ambiguities within South Africa about what separates kwaito from house. Originally a derivation of slowed down house, the ‘old kwaito’ has been sped up again so that the ‘new kwaito’ can be played in house sets. This meant localised kwaito was already responding to international influences – the pull, if you like, of global house. In an interview I didn’t even have the wordspace to use in the article,[ix] DJ Cleo told me that kwaito ‘has been forcefully evolved from the slower dance to the fast pacey kwaito it is today’ and agreed that house and kwaito have become difficult to separate: ‘It’s very difficult, it’s an ongoing debate. Because some will say it’s house if it’s got vocals, some vocals, but some will say no, it’s kwaito if you’re rapping in that kwaito style of delivery, but it’s a tough debate that.’[x]
With all due respect (jk), Mathambo’s 2011 single ‘Control’ has a kwaito house beat – the right tempo, the right rhythm. You could justifiably call it a kwaito cover of Joy Division’s ‘She’s Lost Control’, if your definition of kwaito doesn’t hinge on the language being South African.There’s also something to be said about timbre and production style here: ‘Control’s is more grainy than in say this, though it’s not far off this. When I asked Mathambo what made his music not kwaito, he’d said, ‘does it sound like kwaito to you?’ But taking ‘Control’, and also, on his first album Mshini Wam ‘Tonight’, ‘Thunder’, and ‘Gwababa’, not to mention his MC style in general all over the album, my answer to that is still definitely ‘yes.’ I don’t mean that they necessarily sound the same as currently popular kwaito but like deviations in which some of the rhythmic signatures (and tempo) of kwaito are recognisable. (It’s possible there was a semantic misunderstanding here: I was thinking of like in the sense you use it in a simile, as in ‘your eyes are like stars’, where the two things being compared are the similar but not the same thing. Perhaps Mathambo meant ‘exactly like’, as in ‘do I look like a guide book to you’?). Even if you call them township funk or a darker mutation of house, can anyone say that these tracks wouldn’t have sounded like they do without kwaito?
You might be able to see how it all begins to get circular: if the new kwaito is beginning to be inseparable from house, only something else can define it as kwaito. But if the chanting is changing it can’t be that. And what if people start messing with the production style too? Who gets to decide when deviation in the combination of elements that make kwaito stops something from being kwaito? When a genre is evolving, who gets to say what it is and isn’t?
Of course making a kwaito track, or a kwaito influenced track, does not make someone a kwaito artist. If I’d heard the tracks Mathambo was making for his current album, ‘Father Creeper’, I would also have agreed straight away that they aren’t kwaito. I have never called him a kwaito artist and I’m not trying to do so now – what I’m drawing attention to is what happens when genre evolves internationally. What was at stake in my article and Mathambo’s response was not just what consisted kwaito musically but, perhaps more, who can be said to be making or representing it. It was the latter that, in his reaction, proved explosive.
Journalists aren’t PR people
You might be wondering what this has to do with these photos of me. There’s a ubiquitous attitude that music journalists are essentially PR people, for which ‘journalists’ are responsible as much as artists. And it’s so embarrassing. Imagine if political journalists, at the threat of being bullied if they asked awkward questions, fell in line with everything politicians wanted them to say. That would give the politicians all the power. Journalists are supposed to ask difficult questions. If they simply regurgitate marketing plans, or write copy whose adulation is not backed up with analysis, they’re not practicing journalism. This would apply to this publication who made a 'news' feature out of Mathambo’s tweets, without bothering to contact me to get my side of the story (which wouldn’t have been hard for them to do). Cutting and pasting what people say on the internet without either analysis or investigation is not journalism.
My writing hadn’t fallen in line with Mathambo’s and his manager’s marketing plan.[xi] The fact that they resorted to internet abuse told me they felt threatened – possibly simply by my ability to think independently about Mathambo’s music. But this wasn’t just about power over a journalist. It was about power struggles that get played out over the definition of genres.
A lot of people reading this will know that genre is one of the hottest issues in dance music right now. Artists and analysts are talking about being in a no-genre moment: the value of genre is contested. Summoning or citing the global and historical genre-traversing power the internet gives them, some artists, including Mathambo, disavow genre entirely. They say they are beyond it.
Artists can have various reasons for dissociating from genres. Later last year, Dot Rotten publicly stated that he doesn't think he's a grime artist. Though he indisputably cut his teeth on the grime scene, Dot Rotten didn’t want to ‘pigeonhole’ his sound (that’s a big cliché, by the way). You could say Dot Rotten disavowing genre is the inverse of Mathambo, who was probably partly worried about being bracketed with a kwaito scene which he hasn’t been a part of. (I actually represented him as part of an international scene, which I’ll return to below). The problem with Dot Rotten’s stance it is implies genres can’t evolve, which they clearly do. When I asked Frank Ocean last year why he didn’t consider himself an R&B artist it was more to do with the way genre is perceived through racial categories – his point was why do black singer-songwriters get called R&B and not singer-songwriters? Though if you listen to some of this batch of R&B artists there’s actually not much to distinguish them, musically, from Ocean’s sound.
Other people are saying that we need genre for there to be meaning to dance music (see paragraph 4 here). I’d just like to add to this debate that it also is – and the debate about it must be – about who owns the music. And in some cases, apparently, a paranoid fear of the genre police.
As for the photos, they’re about another thing I’ve been thinking about…
Women and dance music
A couple of months after the above incident something else not dissimilar happened. Last year in The Quietus Angus Finlayson, via Ben UFO , cited some apparently sexist jokes about feminism to begin an analysis of what he perceived as a culture of permitted sexism in dance music. I’m not a DJ or a producer, so I’m not trying speak for female DJs or producers, and I think there’s a lot of truth in the argument that it’s more important for women to actually just be DJs and producers than to complain about sexism. I also, though, think that ridiculing or bullying people who do raise these issues is a kind of censorship, a silencing of vocal resistance to the status quo.
If someone can’t say that such and such kinds of behaviour are wrong, it means that behaviour is consented to. If someone encounters sexism (or you could substitute that here for racism) and then talks about it, openly and publicly, she’s both warning other people and saying this needs to change. Speaking up about sexism is politically and morally necessary.
There’s a lot to be said about the whole topic of women and dance music, but to me what was most telling was that this dispute happened the same week that Sepp Blatter was being publicly reprimanded for suggest that racist remarks on the football pitch could be sorted out with a handshake. The defence of stating that ‘feminism is […] a minority of women attempting to control other women’ was a ‘good comment’, and that ‘feminism is largely lesbian propaganda, most actual women no longer feel repressed’, not only by the people who had written the tweets but a lot of other people, was that they were a joke. So, um, what exactly was funny about them?
A strategy that has been used both to dismiss feminism and to put women off being associated with feminism has always been to depict it as unnecessary, unwelcome and – worst horror of all! – unsexy. Bra-burning, for instance, was a myth created by the media, that effectively begot an image of feminists as women who had given up on style and the trappings of sexual attraction and were just letting it all hang out.[xii] The myth worked because it gave people the power to bully women who might call or consider themselves feminists by making them feel that in doing so they would be undesirable.[xiii] And who wants to be undesirable? Portraying feminism as unsexy has been, and continues to be, a powerful way of putting that movement back in its place. Which, given that feminism is a movement about claiming women’s right to autonomy and independence, amounts to putting women back in their place. That is why any type of behaviour that uses that tactic is both sexist and misogynist: it expresses a fundamental aversion to independent women. I’d quite like to take anyone who thought these were ‘good’ comments to meet some victims of sex trafficking, or domestic violence, and tell them that ‘actual women’ no longer feel repressed.
I’m not trying to brand anyone in particular as a sexist or misogynist here. I’ve talked to a lot of male and female friends about this, including DJs and producers, because I wanted to gage how to pitch what I have to say, and what I’ve concluded is that even some very intelligent people who I love have internalised misogynist myths propounded by antifeminists. So if I sound chastising, I’m also chastising people who I love.
It was poignant to me that all this happened the same week that Sepp Blatter was being publicly censured for his comments because it pinpointed the lack of consensus against sexism in dance music. You might say that the two above jokes about feminism can’t be compared to for instance calling someone a nigger on the football pitch – the equivalent would be calling someone a slut or a bitch, or a witch right? (All of these have actually happened to me and friends of mine who work in dance music). But besides making women who associate themselves with feminism feel like they will be left outside of heterosexual desirability – ‘lesbian’ – doesn’t ‘lesbian propaganda’ also suggest that lesbians get dissed just for being lesbians? And what does it really mean to say feminists are just women trying to control other women? Why would someone respond to women’s demand for autonomy as being about control?
If the ‘jokes’ were meant to be funny in the sense that the people who said them were somehow mocking themselves for being sexist, I still don’t see how that’s funny. What’s funny about making yourself out to be sexist? Would I be funny if I put on blackface and pretended to be a racist?
The public censuring of Blatter signalled a public consensus that racist comments aren’t okay. When someone called out people – one very influential person – in dance music for making sexist remarks, the equivalent consensus just wasn’t there. Though there was a lot of support for Angus’ article, I also saw his attempt to talk about women and dance music pervasively ridiculed and derided as ‘boring’. Does that mean people think sexism in dance music is okay?
Genre and ism
You may be starting to see the point of my pictures now. Other than calling Scuba ignorant, I never personally insulted anyone: I was the object of insults for instance telling me PhDs can’t be what they used to be,[xiv] and saying ‘And you wonder why people continue to attack women? You ask him to back up his statement and in return you will suck on his penis? You're no better than the dirt that's under my shoe’. To me this suggested that I was more of a threat than I had realised.
Even more interestingly, a few months later when I wrote a review of D’Angelo’s live show in Brixton, someone called Wendy accused me of objectivising the artist. I was talking about what makes D’Angelo desirable because his career has been inflected by being an object of desire. Feminism has produced a critique of the heteronormative gaze and the way that objectifies women (and I would define objectifying as disavowing subjectivity), but the idea that feminism is just a critique of objectification not only reduces what’s actually a huge and sophisticated movement and body of thought, but also plays into the hands of people who try to bully women by making them feel unattractive. So this is partly my response to Wendy. I thought I’d respond to your accusation about objectifying D’Angelo by ‘objectifying’ myself.[xv]
The widespread resistance to the topic of women and dance music (let alone feminism and dance music) signalled that that topic is threatening to some people. Why would that be embarrassing or laughable – shameful – as a topic? Who would deride the attempt to have the same kind of discussion about women and politics, for example, or women and sport? I’m not even saying that sexism is widespread or ubiquitous in dance music, but that ironically people’s reactions actually flagged up where and just how much sexism there is. And I’m saying that over this issue there was a power struggle similar to the one that takes place over genre. This is the reason for my title.
Thinking about ism though began for me with Africa Hitech, who I interviewed last year. As artists who engage with a range of genres, they could definitely be cited as part of the whole post-genre thing. Something interesting Mark Pritchard said in the interview was that their music was driven by an ism. An ism is apparently a 'doctrine, theory, system or practice'. Feminism and racism as subsets of ism parallel kwaito as a subset of genre. So – actually even before this whole dance and feminism thing – I started thinking about how music could be organised by an ism as well as by genre; more specifically, that you could tackle the genre issue with an ism approach. Ism could be applied to the problems with no genre that I’m about to outline.
Global bass anyone? Kuedo
The first problem with the idea of post-genre or no genre is that the artists who fit into this new category aren’t actually beyond genre. A lot of the meaning and power of their music still derives from recognisable tropes of specific genres. (My meaning of ‘meaning’ here is the non-verbal meaning of music as well as the meaning that takes place in words.)
Just when in my mind I was venturing further into the issues about genre that my Mathambo encounter raised, I heard Kuedo’s (stunning) album ‘Severant’. I had to interview him. In interviews I’d read, Kuedo, real name Jamie Teasdale, had talked about another ism, futurism, as informing his creativity. The relation between genre and ism was beginning to me to look topical.
Understandably, when I asked Jamie if he had any other isms that he was into he laughed his head off and then said: ‘it’s not a question I’ve ever posed myself Melissa’. Nevertheless we actually had a great discussion about genre, futurism, and Jamie’s creative development.
Severant uses synth music (meaning the term applied to artists like Vangelis and Oneohtrix Point Never), trap music, and footwork. So it belongs to no particular genre, and no particular locality (Vangelis is Greek, Oneohtrix is from New York, trap is from the dirty south and footwork from Chicago). (I’ve noticed people like Hudson Mohawke arguing that trap music isn’t a genre, or more precisely that it’s no different from dirty south/southern rap – a case of genre evolution overstated?) What Jamie said, though, made it apparent how his music generates music not just through but also about genre.
Jamie found it weird that people reacted to Kuedo by relating it to dubstep – either by calling it dubstep, or being disappointed that it isn’t dubstep like the music he used to be known for making as one half of Vex’d, alongside Roly Porter. No particular reaction was for him necessarily more valid: ‘… the prism by which people see it is often so radically different to yours, like their references […] but I don’t think there’s like a correct way to hear it, like everyone’s response is completely valid’. He said that ‘To me this word dubstep is still DMZ, Mala, I guess I’m just old school, I remember it when it had that meaning. But that’s not the meaning that is commonly held by the majority of people who describe themselves as fans, they would describe it as Skrillex and whoever the hell else the big artists in that that scene are. They have a different idea of it. And between those two descriptions of the music, I don’t feel like I belong to either one.’[xvi]
At that time Jamie hadn’t come across the whole post-genre, no genre, genre is dead discussion (he actually pissed himself laughing when I mentioned that too). He said, though, that maybe ‘genre as perhaps we’re talking about it is in some way […] bit more of a recent thing than we appreciate’: that electronic music used to be broadly referred to as electronic before it started becoming divided into sub genres and sub genres. ‘I don’t see what’s to lose really’, he said, ‘so long as there’s a locality to genre’ and we talked about whether it was necessarily locality – being from the hood – that defined genre.
Could it be that the no genre-ness of ‘Severant’ has to do with the need for music to be hood? (I don’t necessarily mean hood in a like ghetto sense but in a roots sense that would include ghetto). In the other interviews I’d read Jamie had talked about futurism as more of a sentiment than a doctrine and he explained to me that he meant an imaginative orientation from growing up in the 80s surrounded by ‘pop artifacts’ like Tron, Back To The Future, and Ulysses 31: ‘and it was a time when futurism had a lot of cultural resonance […] my imagination as a kid was defined by that stuff. That’s what I mean by futurism being a sentiment. My definition of it is like an imaginative orientation.’ But he also admitted that he might have overstated the importance of futurism in the making of ‘Severant’: ‘it’s just a big fucking smoke screen, like it’s there and you can take it as that and I do hear it but it’s more like a kind of surface level thing, it’s not really what the tracks are about when I hear them.’ ‘Severant’ was also – more – about dealing with some personal experiences that he didn’t want to divulge in interviews.
Futurism as sentiment was also a personal definition. So futurism to ‘Severant’ is both an imaginative orientation that drives forwards in time and a personal compensation. And if not all, Jamie did actually divulge part of the personal experience he was compensating for in the way he talked about genre. There was an absence in his personal relation to dubstep: the meaning of dubstep to him was absent from the new dubstep. But in dance music there is also a constant drive for the new that needs to be satisfied – and Jamie also talked about modernism as a more thought driven demand for new form: ‘thinking about modern music I’m thinking about which forms are modern, you know and my answer to that last year was like trap and footwork and some newer kind of like synth stuff’. Jamie found another new in place of dubstep.
‘Severant’ uses aerial synths in spacious, dreamy and sometimes nostalgic melodies, broken chords and often beautifully detailed effects. Most of the tracks use a clap or snare backbeat on the third and seventh beat, and the rapid hi hat rolls characteristic of both trap and footwork. Jamie also said that choosing the palate of synth and drum kits and patterns is ‘more kind of like form and aesthetic, and then when you’re writing the track, when you’re choosing which melodies to use that’s when the personal stuff … you start chasing that’. The fast drum patterns in ‘Severant’ propel the personal content that fills the space, the melodies, forwards.
If the no genre-ness of ‘Severant’ has to do with its unique combination of synth, trap and footwork, that combination also enacts the way Jamie talked about dealing with his personal experiences by literally driving the music forward in time. That no-genre process includes compensation for the absence of dubstep.
Though Jamie felt estranged by people relating Kuedo to dubstep it might also have had to do with the double time trap/footwork structures he used. If one of the signatures of early dubstep was the snare on the third beat, DMZ tracks like ‘Goat Stare’ and ‘Lean Forward’ also had overlaying drum patterns at double time, making their rhythmic structure comparable to trap and, to an extent, footwork. There’s a temporal ambivalence in that structural tension between the laid back third (/seventh) snare and the rapid, precipitate drum rolls: rhythmically the music feels both rooted and restless. (This is slightly less the case with footwork because it’s faster, but it still has that doubleness.) Because the tempo of the tracks on ‘Severant’ is varied – from up to around 170-175 bpm like footwork on ‘Salt Lake Cuts’ and ‘Scissors’ down to 120bpm on ‘Memory Rain’ – this temporal doubleness is dissociated from one particular genre. (Dubstep is around 140 bpm while trap is around 130-165 bpm).
Moving among genres ‘Severant’ puts in motion a temporal structure common to three different hood types of music. Add to that movement ‘Severant’s atmospherics, the lo-fi production style, falling basslines and the dread effects of tracks like ‘Flight Path’ and ‘Memory Rain’: an amalgam of hood styles that allude to what has been lost from dubstep. There was obvious enthusiasm in Jamie’s voice when he said that ‘for want of a better word – hood kind of production forms and aesthetic are just my favourite, they always have been, I just love listening to that music.’ By moving through genres, being of no particular genre, Kuedo finds something other than genre to capture hoodness. Hoodness allows Kuedo to reclaim his music from the new dubstep: hoodness owns it.
Global bass again – LV
I’ve gone from saying that there needed to be something else that defined kwaito to suggesting that something else that (following Jamie) I am calling hoodness can be used to reclaim genre. Ism – futurism and modernism – provided the drive and the direction for this to happen. I want also to apply this kind of analysis to LV’s new album, which is easily one of the most important albums to come out of the bass world this year. Constructed from a range of different tempos and patterns ‘Sebenza’ is a definitively ‘no genre’ album. In a text conversation Gervase Gordon, one third of LV along with Simon Williams and Will Horrocks, I suggested that ‘Animal Prints’ is garage except for the MC-ing, and ‘DL’ is funk house/kwaito, ‘Zulu Compurar’ was pretty much kwaito and ‘Spitting Cobra’ was hip hop and he replied, ‘Hahahaha … yes probably!’. Gervase also said that when LV set out to write a track they don’t sit down with a particular genre in mind. ‘Sebenza’ features vocals from The Ruffest, Okmalumkoolkat and Spoek Mathambo.[xvii]
If the no-genre moment in bass music has to do with reclaiming the music from the wrong hands – and I’ve had conversations with people who are central to the no-genre scene about this,[xviii] so I know that it is the case – no genre is about power. It’s about how power gets played out at a certain historical point in the global distribution of genres and who owns the music.
I quoted DJ Cleo telling me that the new kwaito was ‘forcefully’ evolved into house because of international pressures. Since the old kwaito was originally a local, slowed down deviation of international house, as a genre kwaito has always been formed out of the shifts between local and global pressures. There’s the local pressure of identity and then the pressure of global capital: if by being sped up kwaito could be played in house sets, it could be more profitable. Both locality – hoodness – and capitalism impacted on the generic form of kwaito. (This could be said of many or maybe all dance music genres).
If hoodness is about owning music, that raises an issue about social mobility: if only one class of people and not others are allowed to own a genre, doesn’t that risk genre reiterating the kind of categorical absolutism of racism? This is ours not yours, you can have nothing to do with us, etc. Racism is an abusive ism – it’s about the power is ours and absolutely not yours. That’s why I’ve never objected to Skrillex and co being called dubstep. On the other hand, globalising a genre risks subsuming people’s personal and meaningful identification with it under the universalising pressure of capitalism (I don’t like Skrillex’s music, that’s not what dubstep means to me, etc.).
When a genre gets globalised, there’s a balance to be struck between keeping it hood and being too categorical. Having to say that music that reinterprets genre or puts it in a new context is no longer that genre (not kwaito, not dubstep) risks being too categorical. And it would also be wrong not to be able to refer to specific genres in an international context, because that would mean the hood got written out of the world. With kwaito that would also be fundamentally paradoxical, because its form already owes to international pressures.
So the second problem with the current idea of no genre is that it risks erasing hoodness. There’s a danger too in the term global bass: though the term suggests a positive political internationalism it also suggests the international capitalism that swallows up the local economic benefits of work into an asymmetric global economy. ‘Global bass’ risks repeating gross inequality under the guise of equality – you only have to think of the likes of Diplo here.
In terms of genre this would happen say if ‘LV’ had for example just tried to make a mock kwaito (or any other genre from a different part of the world). If they’d just lifted its tempo, rhythms, signature sounds and styles they might just be stealing it. Instead, because it belongs to no particular genre ‘Sebenza’ does the work that genre needs to do in order to be both hood and global. It does this by scrambling the codes. For example ‘Hustla’, with Cape Town kwaito duo The Ruffest chanting in both English and Xhosa, is around 113 bpm – the speed of the old kwaito – and has a shuffling snare and clap pattern (falling between the third and fourth beat) in the background that echoes patterns you can find on old kwaito tracks like this like this or this.‘Hustla’s echo-ey production style doesn’t sound either like the old or the current new kwaito style: it’s kind of a London sound. So it sounds both like and not like kwaito. As The Ruffest swing back and forth between English and Xhosa the is and isn’t kwaito gets referred to the international and the local. Again there’s a meaningful ambivalence: rather than the local being subsumed in the international, they’re both present. The Ruffest’s boasting on ‘Hustla’ and ‘Nothing Like Us’ also means the musical work they’re doing gets put in the context of competition – a core principle of capitalism.
If musical tropes can use ambivalence, metaphor works similarly in words. While metaphor threatens to replace one thing with another the thing replaced still remains in the meaning. If someone says ‘your eyes are stars’, whatever comes next you still know they were talking about your eyes. On ‘Sebenza’ Okmalumkoolkat sets metaphor loose. He and the objects of his address become animals – a lion, a unicorn, a zebra (making him a rapper with a wild imagination). On ‘International Pantsula’ he becomes music through a metaphorical thought process that begins with the internet: ‘trending topic, started as a rumour, I’m trapped in my hard drive, I think I’m a tune’. His metaphors rack up a tension between global technology and (an internet ‘rumour… trapped in my hard drive’) his identification with the music (‘I’m a tune’).
But the defining moment for me on ‘Sebenza’ is on ‘Zulu Compurar’, where Okmalumkoolkat becomes a ‘zulu confuser, zulu compurar’, murderously rearranging the figurative order of language (‘I shoulda killed you, shot you with my cameraphone’) in language simultaneously local and worldwide (‘taxi driver dialect, wifi direct’). Behind him, at around 110bpm, LV’s music is the speed of slow dancehall or old kwaito. But it also has claps again, a syncopated organ pattern common to a lot of new kwaito, and a UK bleep and bass thing going on. And then for a moment you hear Okmalumkoolkat exclaiming ‘I feel like I’m not working!’ Something about scrambling the codes sets him loose. This works back into the way LV use tropes like the claps and organs – similarly to sampling. Though sampling is a kind of theft because it recontexualises it also resists capitalist homogeneity. It refers to the way hood stuff has to keep moving under the radar, guerrilla style. Similarly if there’s nothing like The Ruffest, that means that nothing can displace them. If global capitalism threatens to swallow the local in the international, by mobilizing metaphor (or no metaphor) and traversing genres (or being no genre) ‘Sebenza’ resists that threat. It defrauds the system.
I’ve looked at futurism and capitalism in relation to the current no genre moment in dance. I’ve also shown how the no genre moment is about power. The way the music uses ism is also as important as genre, because ism affects how no genre redistributes power. Futurism and modernism in ‘Severant’ restore the forward momentum that reclaims hoodness, while ‘Sebenza’ confounds global capitalism’s pretence at equality. We all know we’re not living in an equal world.
The ism that I glaringly haven’t looked at in relation to genre is feminism. But I’ve said that resistance to talking about women and dance music ironically pinpoints how and where sexism still is. Here are some other indictators of the status of women in dance music, besides the already debated absence of women on DJ Mag's top 100 DJ list last year. In the first column on the Outlook Festival 2012 lineup I counted 5 women in 95 acts (I’m not sure if any of the Don’t Flop MCs are girls – I didn’t count the other columns because it was really boring looking up loads of artists I’d never heard of and just that column took up most of an hour). A glance at the Dimensions 2012 lineup page isn’t saying much different, nor is a glance at Bugged Out Weekender 2013. I counted 11 women out of 110 of Rob da Bank’s friends at Bestival (I’m not sure this is absolutely accurate because my eyes were getting bleary and I didn’t have time/the emotional energy to do a recount). Unless the winner of DJ Magazine’s Top 100 DJs 2012 is a woman, they won’t have any women playing at their Ministry of Sound Top 100 Djs Party next month. 9 out of Resident Advisors Top 100 DJs 2012 were women. I haven’t even gone into producers here (because of a combination of time and wordlength…).
Mixmag hasn’t featured a single female artist on its cover in the past 12 issues – they did include women on their ‘Stars of 2011’ and ‘Who Is the Greatest Dance Act of All Time?’ issues. The greatest dance acts of all time cover had 8 women out of 56 artists, while their 2010 ‘Who Is The Greatest DJ Of All Time’ issue didn’t have any women on the cover – it was apparently 'the most important poll in dance music history'. They did do a Queens of the Underground issue in 2011: their other two covers with women on that year were women in bikinis promoting Ibiza. In the past year’s worth of covers of The Wire, 4 out of 26 people have been women. 2 out of the past 25 issues of Wax Poetics had women on the cover. Even The Fader is not doing much better, with 4 women out of 35 people on their past 2 years’ worth of covers. I could go on.
Now I'm not saying there isn't a complex series of reasons behind these kinds of phenomenon. But can somebody tell me why, in the fact of facts like that, it would be shameful or embarrassing to talk about women and dance music? Why should talking about women and dance music be experienced as a threat?
The whole global organisation of dance music means that the no genre (or global bass) moment is hanging in the balance between hood and capital. I think that the issue of women and global soundsystem culture is as much as if not more of a definitive issue as genre. It’s no coincidence that not gay rap is one of the most interesting things happening in music right now. Messing with the status quo and the sexual distribution of power is hardly coming across as boring or embarrassing – just badass.
In comparison, if we can’t talk about women and dance music that’s as conservative and reactionary as a UK government that axes public funding in a manner blatantly designed to curb women’s enfranchisement and shove them back into the home. It would be way, way behind the post Olympic mood, when so many women have proved exactly how capable women are, physically and mentally, of making amazing achievements in traditionally masculine pastimes, and the likes of Jessica Ennis and Nicola Adams have been national heroes. It would be totally hypocritical to support Pussy Riot and then hush up talk about feminism and dance music. If you’re fine with that, so be it. But I think it’s a pretty sad state of affairs, and I know I never got into dance culture because I wanted to catch some Toryboy vibes. Know what I mean?
[ii] It might be interesting to bear in mind in what follows that I’m the kind of person who when I was 19 years old travelled to southern Cuba on my own with a Rastafarian who I’d met through a friend (Rastas are not looked on kindly by the Cuban authorities) and been the only very conspicuously white person at a voodoo/santeria party at which my host had been ‘possessed’, shortly after I had nearly died after having an allergic reaction to being stung by a Portuguese Man-of-War. (It was the most painful experience of my life – I really really hate those bitches).
[iv] Since this incident, I have discussed with a lot of people whether it’s safe for white people to walk around in downtown Johannesburg. Some people I know who’ve been there have said absolutely not, others have suggested that it’s not dissimilar to white people not wanting to walk around Brixton on their own in the 80s.
[v] It’d be interesting to ask why it would be in my interests to trick Mathambo into doing this feature, and misquote him (as he also accused me of doing – he actually rang me up and commanded me to hand over my audio files)?
[viii] There is also this picture caption where Dj Mujava gets called a ‘kwaito star’ – you have to click on the picture to see it though. Mujava isn’t generally considered kwaito in South Africa.
[ix] I took up an hour of DJ Cleo’s time and when I told him and his manager I hadn’t been able fit any of the interview into my article they were really amazingly nice and polite and thanked me for taking an interest in his music anyway.
[xiv] I have a PhD. My thesis is about Elizabeth Bishop and Sylvia Plath and their poetry’s relation to psychoanalysis, and is grounded in questions about French feminism and what happens when women write. Anyone who knows me can tell you how hard I worked on it. I was examined by Professors Jacqueline Rose and Linda Anderson and if anyone wants to they should go and do some research on them and then go and tell them they’re letting PhD standards slip.
[xvii] I noticed that in the write up for LV’s recent mix for The Fader , Spoek Mathambo was listed first, which was interesting given that he’s on 2 tracks, The Ruffest are on 4 and Okmalumkoolkat is on 8. Kinda proves my earlier point about his visibility. Spoek also got to be a part of the recent Africa Express expedition – Okmalumkoolkat and The Ruffest have not yet been able to come to the UK to perform any of ‘Sebenza’.