The grounding of music

Sunday, September 13, 2020 - 5:30pm

NOSELL

Erin Ruark

Unlike the clear geographical divides that segregate the rich and the poor in most American cities, London is a city where “council tower blocks (roughly, housing projects) are mingled in with the multimillion-pound mansions,” writes Dan Hancox in “Inner City Pressure: The Story of Grime.” In the center of the city lie its central business districts: the City of London and Canary Wharf, symbols of extreme privatized wealth and decadence, not unlike similar projects undertaken in New York City and other world cities in which high finance has taken over. Just a few miles away lie “the boroughs of Hackney, Tower Hamlets and Newham,” arguably the creative centers of the book’s eponymous genre, grime. Notably, these boroughs also constitute some of the “most deprived local authorities in the entire country.”

Despite the interconnectedness of the city that Hancox describes, even those only somewhat familiar with London’s history might recognize the position of East London in comparison with the rest of the city. From “Mary Poppins” to “West End Girls,” East London has always been seen as the more deprived area of the greater metro area, with a large working-class population, and recently, an especially large immigrant working class population. After widespread changes in the shipping industry decimated the London docklands, then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher ushered in a new age of capitalism, one in which developers and the financial sector could retake the abandoned docklands under an environment of “no questions asked” deregulation, all with public financial support. This sealed off what is now Canary Wharf from the “disproportionately sick, unhappy, overcrowded, addicted, jobless and impoverished neighbours.” Grime MCs such as Dizzee Rascal note how when growing up, the skyscrapers of the new financialized London were ever-visible and ever-present as a reminder of the city they were never a part of, their own green light in the harbor.

On the other side of the Atlantic, similar events played out in the 1970s and ’80s, the era when post-New Deal America crumbled and when the foundations of Reaganism, Clintonism and everything beyond rose from its ashes. In “Black Noise,” Tricia Rose explains that by the middle of the 1970s, New York City was “virtually bankrupt and in a critical state of disrepair” after the refusal of the federal government to provide any more public funds, as well as widespread changes in America’s economy. In response, city officials negotiated a federal loan which was to be accompanied with crushing austerity measures such as the removal of federal jobs. According to Rose, these conditions had an outsized impact on Black and Hispanic communities in the city, with homes being destroyed by the hundreds of thousands to facilitate city planning projects designed not to support the city’s most vulnerable, but rather to attract wealthier, whiter, more technocratic new residents. This had the effect of shifting large Black and Hispanic populations from all over the city into the South Bronx: a cultural mélange where native New Yorkers, immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean and a crushing environment of poverty and desperation all gave rise to the genre of hip-hop.

These days, geographical boundaries are almost obsolete in delineating musical genres. A teenage boy in Sweden can make hip-hop that recalls the washed-out sounds of Houston, a Californian can make Jersey Club and a Nigerian can make shoegaze without a blink of the eye. Labels such as Artetetra can set up shop in Bologna, yet sign artists from Moscow to make extremely cosmopolitan pop. Not to say that this couldn’t or didn’t happen before the advent of mp3s and SoundCloud. After all, we did see rock take an impressive hold in some countries in South America as well as the migration of jazz to Africa and East Asia. However, this process often unfolded over much longer time periods than today. Traditionally, supporting a burgeoning scene takes work. It would require the cooperation and enterprising spirit of label managers, record shop owners, A&R personnel, promoters, concert hall owners and of course, the musicians themselves. Due to this, the development of these “scenes” more often than not took place in cities.

Allan Watson, a professor at Loughborough University who studies the interaction between geography and music, wrote that “The local infrastructure of production, including recording studios and live music venue, helps to solidify diverse musical scenes in space, through the ways in which musicians, audiences, and music industry professionals make use of the infrastructure.” He further noted that “Even at their most intimate moments of birth, creative moments and episodes connect with concrete social conditions. Therefore, it is important to give attention to the social and physical environments in which creativity happens,” and that cities, especially in certain “bohemian” quarters inside them, facilitate these social connections and develop the professional networks that beget the rise of scenes.

In isolation, none of this information is particularly insightful. In a sense, this phenomenon applies to many sectors of the arts and other endeavors. Cities host networks of successful individuals and attract those who want to share part of that success. However, it is important to note that music is one of the arts that is (or at least historically has been) the most dependent on some form of collective experience and enjoyment. Musicians of all levels of popularity have depended on live performances and merchandise sales that come along with them to make up the majority of their income. Moreover, it is undeniable that the city’s material conditions, geography and history all shape the sounds of the music that comes from it. While it may be overzealous to claim genre A or B could not be created anywhere other than the place that it came from, perhaps such a claim is not too far from the truth. It also begs the question: How much of this is relevant anymore? In the age of Spotify, SoundCloud, TikTok, etc., how much do local scenes matter in the development of a sound or new genre? Does this get rid of an intrinsic part of music culture or does it break down barriers and create new revolutionary methods of creative ideation?

Returning to London in particular, how do these geographical factors affect the sound of grime? Hancox suggested one element of its sound is a form of Afrofuturism: “The African diasporic aesthetic that takes science fiction as a tool for discussing oppression and freedom–where spaceships might be a metaphor for slave ships, subverting the journey to make it one of escape, not damnation.” These ideas are prevalent in grime’s instrumentals.  Hancox argued that this could all be traced back to the gleaming skyline of Canary Wharf, constantly visible from some of the poorest, most forgotten council flats in the city, where refugees and immigrants from some of the poorest countries in the world could see the symbols of 21st century London as both a menace and a sort of inspiration. The philosophy that places like Canary Wharf represent is that of “privately owned public spaces: where security guards can ask you to leave just based on looking at you,” writes Hancox.

On the lyrical side of grime, it is impossible to escape the overwhelming influence of Jamaican reggae culture and music. Jamaican, and West Indian immigrants in general, have a long history in London. Notably, it in part stems from a 1948 journey by the HMT Empire Windrush which brought hundreds to begin their lives in the city, mainly to work as laborers. When Jamaican immigrants first arrive, many live in the very council flats which later become host to the pirate radio shows and bootleg production studios giving rise to iconic British genres such as jungle, garage, dubstep and grime. Per Hancox, “It’s not just a family connection, or an abstract component of the musical bloodline: grime echoes its Jamaican reggae heritage in its structure, in its tropes, in its slang, in the way it’s performed, and stylistically: particularly harking back to the ‘fast chat’ reggae style of the likes of Smiley Culture.” Even more so than the music itself, grime borrows from this heritage through the likes of its methods of distribution as well as the structure of its live performances.

In New York City in the 1970s and 80s, in the midst of its transformation into the center of global commerce (what economist Yanis Varoufakis dubs the “Minotaur”), a similar set of events played out, producing one of modern music’s most globally dominant genres. Like grime, hip-hop owes much of its early sounds to Jamaican immigrants and the music culture they imported. According to Rose, one of the most important figures in early hip-hop history was a Jamaican man named DJ Kool Herc, who helped import Jamaica’s sound-system culture, which involved playing music out of impressively large towers of speakers and a whole range of activities surrounding them. In particular, Kool Herc was known for “his practice of extending obscure instrumental breaks that created an endless collage of peak dance beats named b-beats or break-beats,” writes Rose, with sources ranging from Isaac Hayes to European groups like Kraftwerk. Rival crews established their own sound systems and competed for territory and attention, simultaneously developing innovative DJing techniques such as backspinning to create complex new collages of music from different samples. Around the same time, MCs and rappers started coming into play, at first as a way to keep the crowd focused on the center stage. Hip-hop culture in general resulted as a combination of these West Indian influences, and its interaction with the culture of the South Bronx and surrounding areas. From the very beginning, Black and Hispanic women and men developed the arts of graffiti and breakdancing alongside rapping and beatmaking.

Looking back at these decades, it is remarkable to note the proliferation of new genres and styles popping up by the month. But these movements weren’t only occurring in the megalopolises of the two countries we’re focusing on. In the interiors of the countries, less “glamorous” cities such as Detroit, Cleveland, Manchester and Sheffield were also hotspots of musical creativity. In a suburb of Detroit called Belleville, three Black teenagers found each other in their mostly white town. Through their love of a wide range of music from Parliament-Funkadelic to Kraftwerk and Yellow Magic Orchestra, they created what is now known all over as Detroit techno. The “Belleville Three:” Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson “belonged to a new generation of Detroit-area black youth who grew up accustomed to affluence, thanks in part to the racially integrated United Auto Workers union,” wrote Simon Reynolds in Generation Ecstasy: Into the World of Techno and Rave Culture. According to Reynolds, their tastes were also influenced by WGPR radio DJ Charles Johnson, who would spin “Kraftwerk’s ‘Tour de France’ and other electro-pop” alongside American artists such as Prince. The music they developed through constant experimentation spinning records and working with drum machines and synthesizers combined the funkiness of their influences Parliament-Funkadelic with the cold, programmed rhythms of the oft-mentioned Kraftwerk. Like grime, this new genre they developed was future-looking from day one. Later artists such as the legendary Detroit duo Drexciya developed a whole Afrofuturist mythology around their nautical electro. Per Reynolds, “But for all their futuristic mise-en-scène, the vision underlying Cybotron (Atkins’s original group) was Detroit-specific, capturing a city in transition: from industrial boomtown to post-Fordist wasteland, from US capital of auto manufacturing to US capital of homicide.”

In England, Sheffield and Manchester faced similar fates to Detroit. Once stalwart industrial powerhouses, changes in the English economy and a targeted “managed decline” by Thatcher left the north of the country far worse off than the capital and its surrounding areas in the south. During this time, as a backlash against the established, seemingly reactionary ethos of rock, “post-punk” ushered in a new wave of experimental thinking not only with regards to sound but also to methods of distribution. According to Reynolds in Rip it Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984, this genre “aimed to sabotage rock’s dream factory, a leisure industry that channeled youth’s energy and idealism into a cultural cul-de-sac while generating huge amounts of revenue for corporate capitalism.” Bands, such as Gang of Four and Joy Division (from Leeds and Manchester respectively) rejected traditional “rockist” thinking, focusing concepts such as alienation and the moral degradation brought forth by the new hyper-capitalist modes of politics. They even looked toward the music of Jamaica and West Africa, becoming inspired by dub modes of production which emphasized the role of the rhythm section, leaving the once-dominant guitars in the background with a lesser role.

But what now? Even ignoring the giant elephant in the room in the shape of a global pandemic, the modes of distribution and production of yesteryear don’t seem to be nearly as relevant. Shawn Reynaldo, a writer who mostly focuses on electronic music, asked the same question. He noted, “Before the internet, participating in a music scene usually required some level of face-to-face interaction. Seeing an artist meant going to shows. Checking out an album required a trip to the local record shop. To find like-minded people, you had to actually leave the house and talk to other human beings.” More importantly, he argued that “geography mattered,” whereby “even in a small country like the UK, cities like London, Bristol and Manchester offered such unique sounds and styles during the ’90s.” For Reynaldo, if we focus on the main focuses of the media (eg. NYC, L.A., Barcelona, etc.), electronic music has become part of a “creeping monoculture,” which global festivals such as Sónar and Coachella taking over the scene and becoming tastemakers as opposed to local showgoers and participants in the local scene.

The average music consumer today has instant access to nearly every type of music ever made. For a musician, this can be a source of overwhelming inspiration, as the music one makes is not necessarily tied to one tradition. Nonetheless, we can still see distinctly local sounds thrive and develop. During the 2010s, Toronto was an endless source of dark, drugged-out R&B pioneered through early tapes by The Weeknd and later by artists under Drake’s OVO label such as dvsn and PARTYNEXTDOOR. Reynaldo cites Uganda’s Nyege Nyege and Portugal’s Principe labels as examples of distinct local sounds. As he suggested, what this might mean is that we must look to cities on the periphery of the concentrated areas of global media. With so much attention constantly devoted to cities like New York and Los Angeles, even cities like Toronto (Canada’s largest) can remain on this periphery. In an interview, Noah “40” Shebib, one of OVO’s most prolific producers, mentions that this isolation from the main centers of media attention allowed and continues to allow producers like him to bunker down, focus and develop new sounds which get popularized by Drake. Perhaps another dynamic at play is a widening gap between the “underground” and the mainstream represented by “tastemaker” festivals and magazines. Local scenes may still play an important role, but in the development of the underground without an explicit need to become part of the mainstream. After all, despite the rise of streaming platforms and increasingly privatized forms of consumption, music will always be a communal experience — one which will take effort from local scenes.

Daily Arts Writer Sayan Ghosh can be reached at sayghosh@umich.edu.