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The Wire 300: Simon Reynolds on the Hardcore Continuum: Introduction

February 2013

Simon Reynolds introduces a series of seven essays on his idea of a Hardcore Continuum. The essays all originally appeared in past issues of The Wire.

The first thing to say about this series of seven articles is that they weren’t conceived as a series at all. It was only in 1999, with the sixth piece – “Adult Hardcore” aka “Feminine Pressure”, about 2-step garage – that I really became conscious that for several years I’d been documenting a continuum of musical culture that emerged out of the British rave scene – a specific strand of dance music centered in London with outposts in the Midlands, Bristol and various Northern cities with a large black population. The majority of these articles were very much responses to the current state of the scene, totally of their moment. They were all written – obviously – without knowledge of where the music would go next (although predictions and warnings get made now and then, some off-base and others on the money). Most of the time I’m just about keeping up with the music’s ceaseless forward drive. Often I’ll be using the genre terminology of a phase that’s already ending to describe something that – annoyingly – gets definitively named shortly after the piece ran. The fourth piece – “Slipping Into Darkness”, on drum ‘n’ bass in 1996 – is like that: I refer to ‘hardstep’ and ‘darkcore 96’ but what I’m talking about would soon be known respectively as jump-up and techstep.

I call it a ‘continuum’ because that’s what it is: a musical tradition/subcultural tribe that’s managed to hold it together for nearly 20 years now, negotiating drastic stylistic shifts and significant changes in technology, drugs, and the social/racial composition of its own population. It’s been a bumpy but exhilarating ride, but let no one doubt that it’s the same rollercoaster at every stage of the journey (a ride which most likely has yet to reach its end). And I call it ‘Hardcore’ because the tradition started to take shape circa 1990 with what people called Hardcore Techno or Hardcore Rave, or sometimes simply Ardkore. These early sounds – bleep tunes from the North East, breakbeat house and ragga techno from London – were the first time that the UK came up with its own unique mutant versions of House and Techno (ironically by adding elements from dub reggae, dancehall, and hiphop that weren’t British in origin, but equally would never have been let into the mix back in Chicago and Detroit). From Jungle and 2-step to today’s Grime and Bassline, the basic parameters of the music have stayed the same as they were in the early Hardcore, although the relative balance of various sources (reggae, rap, R&B, Eurotechno, etc) has shifted, and the beats-per-minute rate has fluctuated wildly. Those core elements are: beat-science seeking the intersection between ‘fucked up’ and ‘groovy’; dark bass pressure; MCs chatting fast over live-mixed DJ sets; samples and arrangement ideas inspired by pulp soundtracks and orchestrated pop. In a profound sense, underneath two decades of relentless sonic mutation, this is the same music, the same culture. What’s also endured has been the scene’s economic infrastructure: pirate radio stations, independent record shops (often in out-of-the-way urban areas), white labels and dubplates, specific rave promoters and clubs (again often in the less glitzy, non-central areas of cities).

Around the time of 2-step and “Adult Hardcore”, I also noticed a continuity in my approach: I realised that I’d been operating a little like an ethnomusicologist, someone who gets involved in the tribe and joins in the rituals, and in the process has their objectivity compromised more than a little. I’ve been what anthropologists call a ‘participant-observer’. A critic-fanatic. Hands down, this Hardcore Continuum thing is the most remarkable popcult phenomenon I’ve witnessed with my own eyes and ears. For me it’s been the most exciting music of our time; the most thrilling but also the most thought-provoking.

In conclusion, I’d like to say ‘big up’ to the editors of The Wire over these last 17 years, for giving space to these pieces in the first place, and presenting them so attractively. I don’t think there’s another magazine where I could have ‘gone off’ on these subjects at such length and in such depth. It’s great to see them all archived here.

NB I had thought of including the discographies that some of these pieces originally had, but anything that’s mentioned in the text can be looked up on the web, with being the most authoritative source of data and also a forum for finding and buying tracks, compilations, etc). But if you just want to hear what I’m prattling on about you can also go to YouTube where a vast number of Rave/Jungle/UK Garage/Grime/etc tracks have been uploaded by fans, typically with a still image of the record label as the only non-audio content.

The Hardcore Continuum #1: Hardcore Rave (1992)
The Hardcore Continuum #2: Ambient Jungle (1994)
The Hardcore Continuum #3: The State Of Drum 'n' Bass (1995)

The Hardcore Continuum #4: Hardstep, Jump Up, Techstep (1996)
The Hardcore Continuum #5: Neurofunk Drum ‘n’ Bass Versus Speed Garage (1997)
The Hardcore Continuum Series #6: Two-Step Garage (1999)

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