My recent mix Get It 005: Get Dark inspired some interesting comments in reaction to both the mix and the accompanying blog, which I wanted to round up here.
The post itself continued an ongoing conversation with Simon Reynolds about new breakbeat hardcore. In a sense, it was a tricky thing to write, because I wanted to say two somewhat contradictory things:
- Retro rave is a bit weird in some ways, in that it faithfully recreates something that was in its original phase anything but a faithful recreation of, well, anything – hardcore was dynamic and ever-changing the first time around
- That doesn’t really matter, though, because on a pure sonic level this stuff is great fun
The tricky part here is to examine the first point in a fair-minded way – because it’s interesting! – while also being respectful towards the modern producers. Because I really do enjoy what they are doing! I guess the risk you run is hurting peoples’ feelings, even if that’s not what you are trying to do – I just wanted to step back for a look at the big picture while considering all the differences between then and now, to try to provide some context.
I guess it’s up to you to decide if I succeeded or not!
On Facebook, Simon Reynolds offered this point:
i think you are on to something with the ‘too perfect’ uncanniness… it’s something to do that with opposition of ‘plunge into the unknown’ (93) versus ‘accumulated knowledge and know-ho’ (now). i’ve noticed the ‘too high standard’ thing with old skool sets, how they cream off the best tunes over a long period, whereas sets at the time tended to play a lot of just-out-this-week white labels, making it a lot more hit and miss.
In a follow-up on his own blog, he also considered Special Request’s new rave-inspired album:
That said, it don’t sound that bowel-evacuating to me… a bit clean, a bit digi-crisped.
Despite being produced in his underpants apparently!
On Discogs there were a few interesting comments, like this one from user fluffbomb:
I understand the comment about these tunes not being of the same pushing boundaries approach that was the case back in the day. But I don’t think that there is anything ‘wrong’ about making new music in this style. The vast majority of genres (dance, rock, soul, etc) consist of very little innovation and are following the established formula of sounds and arrangement .
A very fair point! Innovation is exciting, thrilling, but also messy, and there’s a bit of a double-edged sword effect here, as I mentioned in my post – a lot of hardcore written in 92/93 was frankly not that good. Some of those random ideas just didn’t work! With hindsight we now see more clearly what ‘good’ breakbeat hardcore is, and what elements it should contain. So in a way a carefully considered set of modern darkside should be more consistent that a 1993 pirate radio set of the freshest tunes, but the sheer head-frazzling wow factor is no longer present.
Also on Discogs, traffic_cone made a very important contribution about the role of influences:
i think part of the reason why the retro rave stuff can sound like that is because the original iteration of that style was made by producers who were influenced by a range of other music, but the revivalist stuff is often made by producers whose main influence is all the old records in that style. so it can become self-referential. at it’s most noticeable is when artists use samples already famiiiar from oldskool tunes.
but – that’s why some of the best of those new tunes are ones that do add something a little different – even in a relatively small way.
This is a very smart point! And this can also be applied to a lot of modern music, really. If you read interviews with, for example, the original Detroit techno artists like Juan Atkins or Jeff Mills, they had a long history of listening to all kinds of music, from synthpop to spacey jazz to soul and funk and random stuff like the B-52’s as well as obvious forerunners like Kraftwerk. All of those influences informed the development of Detroit techno, whereas a lot of the current big room techno that you would hear in the main Berlin clubs today seems to exist only in reference to the techno of the past (I also like some of this stuff, too, to be fair).
I think this also pinpoints why I am such a big fan of Sully’s recent jungle tunes – he is making stuff that is clearly jungle, not a whimsical spin-off, yet it is also clearly grounded in and informed by more recent musical movements, like grime, dubstep and UK Garage. Perhaps this is because he started his musical career doing other stuff and then latterly started making jungle? In any case, he’s doing great stuff, and I’m always excited to hear more from him.
Dogsonacid user El Dudereno also made a good point about some of the differences between the 90’s and now, which extends my point about the vast differences in context in which the original and modern darkside sounds exist:
I always tell the younger generation that I’m so happy I was old enough to enjoy the ’90s. It feels like it was the last decade of genuine hedonism. Young people didn’t have the same pressure to succeed in education or careers (my “gap year” lasted 8 years LOL), the cold war threat had ended and the threat to the environment was an ignorable blip on the horizon. We didn’t have social media, we weren’t as body conscious, and in the UK at least, ecstasy completely changed the mood of society. Music reflects the society it’s born into, and on the hardcore continuum, I guess Grime is the UK zeitgeist for younger people – even though I find it tough, militant, uncompromising and a bit cold.
On a more in-depth note, Pete Devnull from Blog to the Old Skool sent me this comment on the mix and essay, which I am reproducing here with his agreement (obviously I disagree on the tracklisting, but that’s ok, music is subjective):
I saw the mix, maybe 4-5 good choices but tracklisting was not in my view a strong representation of darkside centric stuff. Probably because it was an all vinyl mix, and some of the good nu-darkside things I’ve heard have been digis or came out a few years ago now (Champa B’s killer EP on Modified Magic from a few years ago would be a better call for instance than the tune featured, which is also good but not nearly as traditionally “darkside”).
Regarding the point about this music losing its purpose now that it’s a re-tread vs when it was fresh and innovative 25-26 years ago: well yeah, no one can argue that the context is the same now. These are fairly common complaints. Someone I used to knew personally HATED all the nu-oldskool stuff being made, because they saw it as totally missing the point since it was lacking the relentless progression which made them love it the first time around. That’s fine, and fair play if that’s the aspect of the original music which some people cared about the most. But, even if the music’s context has shifted, we’re in different times now. Media overload, media saturation, widespread instantaneous access to an insane amount of music and video via internet. I think this causes the temporal and locational aspects of culture to largely fade in importance for people, and seem a lot less relevant. It means less to a listener when they hear a good tune streaming on their PC in 2019 whether that tune was written this year, or 10, 20, 30, 50 years ago, than when someone had to go to a real record store and buy it years ago.
There’s still some people focusing in and trying to make “progress”, to find something generally agreed upon as novel to drive forward; some combination or series of elements which haven’t been done before. It’s that classic jungle/dnb progression deathmarch, which since genuine “progression” is hard and most people aren’t that up to to the task, often ends up being a reductive game of musical trope bingo. Aside from those limited number of people truly dedicated to “pushing the sonic goalpost forward” though, I think there’s a lot more more of a sense now that that ah explicit progression isn’t as important, and if people find some random thing in the ginormous landscape of what-has-come-before-and-is-instantly-available which piques their interest, they react to it any way they want. Yes, they can take influence from it, try to mutate it into something more “modern”. Or, they can just do THAT THING for its own sake, to whatever extent they want. It doesn’t have to justify itself by connecting the dots or breaking new ground or breaking from tradition. It can literally just be a sick well written old sounding deep house tune, or a grimey glorious 93 darkside jungle track.
Also, with massive availability of media, and decades of collecting, so many of the original tunes have been played over and over. Most of the white labels have been dug up and listened to, arguably to a much wider extent than they were originally (more decades of people hearing them on places like youtube by people across the world who would never have access to the original songs). Because of this some people are butting up against the edges of what’s available in terms of killer tunes, so there’s a highly pragmatic drive for people who DJ out and love a particular sound, to want something “new-old” which can still be effectively played alongside an existing subgenre without seeming awkward (see the “uncanny valley” part you talked about next). And yeah, some attempts at that, like reusing the same old samples or mimicking popular riffs can be a bit groan-inducing and feel like a poor substitute. Though the same type of shit was happening with oldskool functional “mash up” tunes circa 92-93, so it’s not without precedence. The better approach seems to be when people instead choose to mimic the methodology and approach of the original tunes, without sampling them, since this requires pulling from other styles of music (house, techno, hip hop, electro, funk, etc). One easy recent example of this is a 94-95 style happy hardcore EP, Trigger Happy Vol 2, where the A side is decidedly non hhc sounding, and more of a clever melodic jungle tune featuring a great mishmash of US house,techno and even freestyle vocal elements from non-obvious tracks. It’s not breaking any new sonic ground, but the transformation of those not-obviously linked samples into a very coherent jungle tune sounds great. It might not be BRILLIANT, but it sure is CLEVER.
As for the “uncanny valley” thing, I’ve had similar discussions before with respect to oldskool, but for me there’s a difference between the original context in that the visual “uncanny valley” is an innate, unconscious and visceral reaction with no explicit and opted into “training period” , For music though, it’s instead built up from long periods of listening to a particular style and absorbing not just the macro-elements but also the nuances and more subtle aspects of the sound. Hence, it’s relevant for you, and me, and other people who have “seen through the matrix” of oldskool by listening to a metric fuckton of 92-95 the past however many years. But it’s not relevant for a normal person not particularly versed in the genre, who processes an amen simply as an amen, not a particular era amen sampled from a particular track with particular production characteristics. Hence why a more commercial artist doing a “throwback” “oldskool jungle” tune where the breaks or elements aren’t really authentic sounding, isn’t a crime worth sending to the Hague. It’s perfectly enjoyable for the majority of people, even those who have heard some amount of jungle/dnb before but who arent proper beardy about it. It’s also the reason why most people are perfectly happy to hear a mostly-there microgenre flex which then abruptly deviates in a way that doesnt’ deliberate or a calculated choice (like a 93 jungle techno tune where four minutes, a random 97 crunchy techstep breakbeat appears). Stuff like that matters to the nerds (me and my friends), but only because we ARE nerds who have trained ourselves up to be sensitive to it, and one notable sample out of place can be as jarring as going to a historic battle recreation and seeing an 1800’s era general wearing an Apple watch.