Friday, August 12, 2005

None Of That Commercial Bullshit

In Princeton today to see Maura, so of course I had to go to the Record Exchange. I left $17 poorer, not bad at all (could have been much more painful to my already bleeding wallet), but infinitely richer because of two "omg wtf" finds in the "Budget Electronica" (ha ha) section: Illegal Pirate Radio II & III on Strictly Hardcore/Underground records from picturesque Romford, Essex.

I don't even really want to review the music. (Which is easy, because I've barely digested half of it.) The packaging alone was worth the $1.99 for II and the $7.99 for the double-disc III. II has stuff like "In Effect", "Alright Wit Me", the original "London Someting", as well as no names like the amazingly monikered Mole The Dipper (?!) with "Eye of the Dinosour" (btw from here on out most of the mispellings in the titles and names should be pre-sic'd) and Hackney Hardcore (you know the score) with "Rave Scene '94" (which sounds more like rave scene '92 but who's counting?). So you know what's up: looped breaks just starting to be chopped up enough to be junglized, boombastic (more often than not sine wave) bass, retarded scratching, chipmunk voices, 303 acid noises, sound FX straight out of the Warner Bros playbook, and mentasms. III is broken up into one disc of jungle and one disc of "happy hardcore", which sounds mostly like regular old hardcore to me. The jungle half has stuff like Aphrodite's "Beat Booyaa" (TUNE), a fractured Steve Gurley remix of "The Sound of F.X." by (duh) F.X. (who is not, I don't think, Shy FX), and more unknowns like Sub Sequence with the artlessly masterful title of "Long Sex".

So, yeah, woo, more jungle. But the packaging...oh man. II is all black and white with a fuzzy skull and bones (complete with eyepatch) sporting headphones flanked by two turntables. The insert claims "Strictly Hardcore Records accepts no responsibility for speaker damage caused by this CD." Inside there are ads for other Strictly Hardcore comps, including Illegal Rave! The Compilation and Sonic Experience: Def Til Dawn ("The True Rave Scene") with (what I can only assume from the tiny reproduction) a badly painted cover shot of one of those hangar-sized outdoor raves. By III they could afford two colors, red and yellow. A grinning skull with yellow eyes and backwards red baseball cap leers from the front over, while a similar gurning noggin boggles on the back.

Apparently in the 12 month interim S.U. must have come up with some decent cash because the insert is hawking no less than 17 compilations, including two volumes of Jungle Soundclash and two volumes of Hardcore Junglistic Fever (featuring the Thundercats logo), Ravealation Live At Wembley (a keepsake memento of "The Best of this 11 Hour Event"), another two volumes of Illegal Rave, and something billing itself as Intelligent Drum & Bass (despite featuring the same shitty "graffitti" art and lettering as everything else) (everything else that wasn't done on an Apple IIe). I wish I could fully get across the charming crapness of it all without you actually holding the CD's in your hands, how this music which has been retroactively renovated as the Superfresh Art Pop Of The Future is housed in these ugly, mispelled, silly, pandering sleeves. (All that's missing are some pot leaves or tablets.)

They take a whole page to tell us how they were voted number one rave compilation label in the country but they cant even manage to print it straight, cropping a bunch of the words out. They tell us that "any poor sound quality is in the original recording supplied by each record label"...they mastered these things from 12"s! And yet, without wanting to get all misty eyed and indefensibly patronising vis a vis the "realness" of this crapness...it's kind of undeniable that this stuff does feel realer presented like this. Steve Gurley is shaken free from the cold dead hand of auteurism to sit alongside Slipmatt as Just Good Dance Music. Photek (as Studio Pressure) is on even footing with Mad Dog (?) whose "My God" - oozing noir menace with a restrained groove and without a hint of camp - is actually the better tune.

And that's the real lesson amongst the Crap Graphics Democracy of comps like these: canon building can't be avoided entirely. When the Manix and Code071 tunes appear, they are very audibly "better" than 90% of the other tracks, even without acknowledging the Godlike Genius of 4Hero. Ditto the Aphrodite tune on III. Even in a blind taste test you can distinguish cream from milk. But labels like Strictly Hardcore, consciously or not, don't allow producers who've developed a rep (especially here in the "future") to use that to mask a lack of flavor. The joy of these comps, the reason you keep one eye fixed on the used bins wherever you go, is the moment when a Mad Dog or a Hackney Hardcore stands tall (if not towers) next to yr 4Heros and Photeks.

The other dance record I snagged is from the exact opposite of the spectrum, the Wookie album from 2000. (Hey, it was $1.99.) These graphics are of course far more slick, with lots of sumptuous black and white (out of a sense of aesthetics rather than a money saver) photographs of the artiste (sporting a conspiciously visible diamond ring) and text that doesn't run off the page by accident. Wookie, like Photek, has taken a bit of a critical beating from the strictly hardcore contingent, and, like Mr. Parkes, his interview quotes, album graphics, and occasionally even the music itself has done a lot to foster that feeling of resentment. But it seems kind of unfair to me because this is at least 3/4ths of a good album. (Think of the Hidden Camera EP and less Modus Operandi.)

Maybe it's the fact that five years later I am much more comfortable with things like broken beat and downtempo. (Christ, say one or two nice things about Sa-Ra on your blog and suddenly you start getting every jazz remix comp released sent to you directly. "Time Sensetive Materials" my ass, Universal...your Telefon Tel Aviv remix of Oliver Nelson goes to the bottom of the pile.) (On the plus side I did get sent a copy of the new Spacek LP.) Maybe it's my mother's influence and all those Anita Baker and Luther records surfacing after years of screeching punk and crashing rap. But even the much derided "Battle" sounds okay to me. (From the vomitous reaction this provoked in some people I expected some ghastly, over-orchestrated soul boner, but instead I got a fairly restrained neo-soul song with some swinging, garagey snares.)

And of course "Scrappy" is probably in my top 10 garage tunes, like, ever. It is an object lesson in what good dance music is supposed to be, the drums and the bass in conversation with each other. It is positively teetering with little fills and catchy drum riffs. Like, say, "Renegade Snares," "Scrappy" is one of those records where you want to begin beatboxing the drums as the hook, rather than the barely there organ licks or the "cuh-cuh-cuh-come on" vocal. This sort of texture-rhythm-hook interchangability (texturhythm, to steal a word from Kodwo Eshun, himself a Wookie fan) is a sign of (musical) maturity, no doubt. It involves wanting to construct grooves, rather than simply provide propulsion (as on Illegal Pirate Radio II) or show off in a wildstyle uh style (as with many of the tracks on III, noticably the Aphrodite). "Scrappy" is minimal because it has extreme faith in its ability to do what it sets out to do. A lot of early hardcore is maximal because it's terrified of boring its audience. Both are pretty valid approaches. You just run a bigger risk of failing with the former, and get fewer skulls in backwards baseball caps to boot.

16 Comments:

Blogger vahid said...

jess, that was strictly awesome

everyone go to discogs right now - they have nice scans of some of the albums jess is talking abt

strictly for the hardcore addendum: "sonic experience: def til dawn" apparently contains dictaphone field recordings from illegal raves, with promising titles like "all we wanna do is dance", "blow your whistle for the dj", "high court injunction" and "the police have stopped it".

anybody who has access to this - or any other, uh, documentation knows where to find us.

12:45 AM  
Blogger j. said...

oh shit that was one part i forgot! (the perils of writing at 1 am.) at the end of each disc there's an "ad"...the only one i've listened to is on illegal pirate radio ii, but it's amazing: a cut up of various breakbeat rave tunes and crowd noises, samples of DJ's, someone talking about a "court injunction" being pushed back...it's like a four minute version of the dj wrongspeed album ten years before the fact. also, at the very end, there's a horrible blast of rave whistles and sirens for about 20 seconds, so shrill and distorted and LOUD that if you looped it and stuck a Mego label on it, no one would be the wiser.

6:09 AM  
Blogger Sleeping on the Floor said...

i have the first strictly hardcore comp -- but that's "strictly" stuff that was released on that label, not the sort of collection you describe -- also, i think mark ryder kinda does have auteur status -- i.e, released a techno record on transmat way back in the day, he did "body action" which grame park used to rock massively in 89, did the an lfo rip-off-job on xl (and xl was strictly auteur productions before shifting to breakbeat hardcore in 91) -- also don't forget that dj hype released a lot of stuff on strictly hardcore ----- even so, based upon what you say, i will keep my eyes pealed for more strictly hardcore comps!!!!!

10:26 AM  
Blogger Sleeping on the Floor said...

also -- the cover art on the first comp isn't cheesy -- it's just a british flag

in general, i'm of two minds when it comes to cover art -- i.e., i'm a big fan of self-consciously "aesthetic" images and design that communicate what the music makers are tryng to do (see codek records, for instance), but i also appreciate the "cheesy" covers for street hip hop r'n'b collections, dancehall mixes shifted at street fairs, etc

10:32 AM  
Blogger j. said...

oh crap it IS mark ryder isn't it! haha that bottles most of my "theories" in this post, now doesn't it?

10:46 AM  
Blogger j. said...

didn't he eventually start doing (speed?) garage stuff too? i wonder where he is now...

10:47 AM  
Anonymous Adamrl said...

picturesque Romford

nice one

;)

3:00 PM  
Blogger Sleeping on the Floor said...

i think mark ryder still makes music to this day and that it's in a ukg vein -- and i think most of it is on the strictly underground label, i.e., the label still exists after some 16 or 17 years -- but i'm not really the person to ask, i.e., i just happen to know this info for some reason

7:44 PM  
Blogger Sleeping on the Floor said...

strictly hardcore was a sub-label of strictly underground

7:47 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

Mark Ryder did the garage tune wot sampled "Tainted Love" yeah?

I only have one Strictly Hardcore comp - can't even remember its barely differentiated name now - but it's amazing, has two of my top ten jungle tunes ever on it, both by unknowns.

Great post Jess!

8:13 PM  
Blogger ambrose said...

strictly underground still exists and mark ruff ryder is much loved in moscow! that is all i know

9:35 AM  
Blogger Robin said...

"Tim said...
Mark Ryder did the garage tune wot sampled "Tainted Love" yeah?"

Indeed he did - it was called 'Joy', and he had renamed himself Mark RUFF Ryder

11:21 AM  
Blogger Tim said...

Update: the awesome Strictly Hardcore comp I have is "Jungle Sound Clash". The best track on it is the (otherwise unknown to me) "What Is Love (Exclusive VIP Mix)" by Radical Sound, which simply has to be one of the top five jungle tunes ever, despite its lack of prestige - and perhaps the best prgrammed beats ever. I challenge anyone to hear it and disagree!

3:54 PM  
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