Writer Matthew Collin presents a selection of links based around his new book Pop Grenade: From Public Enemy To Pussy Riot: Dispatches From Musical Frontlines
Pop Grenade is a series of personal dispatches from critical moments when music has been used as an agent of change, or as Fela Kuti once put it, as a weapon – reports from turbulent times featuring a compelling and occasionally bizarre cast of hip-hop preachers, techno activists, punk provocateurs and rock’n’roll visionaries.
It’s about fleeting periods in recent history when music became a soundtrack to social transformations, quickening the heartbeat and feeding the soul of cultural movements or alternative communities seeking to confront injustice, alter the consciousness of a generation, or at least create safe havens where they could freak freely until the police moved in.
The first dispatch opens with Public Enemy detonating like a sonic cluster bomb on their first British tour in 1987. Suddenly here they were, the ‘Black Panthers of rap’, the new militants of the hiphop age, incandescent with revolutionary zeal. But they were also fervent Afro-futurists who set out to be as radical musically as they were in their lyrics. Chuck D told me that they wanted to sound an alarm call for a generation: “We were trying to make people think, ‘What the fuck is this?’”
Public Enemy “Rebel Without A Pause” on Soul Train
Public Enemy’s influence was even felt in the libertine nocturnal world of the electronic dance scene of the time. In the US, the Detroit techno crew Underground Resistance adopted their black power iconography and used it as ideological fuel for an even harsher sonic assault, channelling their fury at the Motor City’s decline into machine music that sought to break free of earthly oppression and blast off into the cosmos.
Underground Resistance “Riot”
The book takes a trip through the lawless creativity of the early Berlin techno scene after the fall of the Wall and tracks the demented trajectory of anarchist sound systems on their psychotropic journey to the outer limits of hedonism in the late 1990s. This was the moment, after the 1994 Criminal Justice Act outlawed guerrilla raves in Britain and post-acid house club culture became increasingly commercialised, when the movement’s radical fringe became increasingly political, with wildcat crews like Desert Storm providing the jagged-edged soundtrack for Reclaim the Streets demonstrations.
Desert Storm at Reclaim the Streets, Bristol 1997
As British sound system crews like Spiral Tribe fled the country seeking free spaces in the wake of the Criminal Justice Act and created the Teknival circuit of outlaw festival/raves in mainland Europe, Desert Storm made a series of hazardous sorties to Bosnia and Herzegovina during the mid-90s conflict in the Balkans. They delivered aid supplies but also threw frontline parties that helped to inspire a techno scene in war-traumatised Sarajevo which still exists to this day.
Musicians were also on the frontline in Istanbul in 2013, when mass resistance erupted against authoritarian prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s plan to bulldoze a beloved city-centre park. One of the first protesters to face down the riot police in Taksim Square was Serhat Köksal, alias 2/5BZ, the pioneer of politically charged Turkish electro music and a favourite of the late John Peel.
What was fascinating was how contemporary Istanbul bands and DJs involved in the Taksim Square protests drew on a history of radical Turkish psychedelia and politically engaged Anadolu pop made by 60s and 70s musicians like Cem Karaca, Moğollar and Selda Bağcan. This movement was all but snuffed out by the military coup in 1980 and some of the musicians were persecuted by the regime for years afterwards. But this song by Selda Bağcan – a revolutionary call to seize the day – shows how brightly they burned before the darkness fell.
Selda Bağcan “Meydan Sizindir”
There was also an upsurge of dissent in Moscow at the start of this decade, dramatised in spectacular fashion by balaclava-clad feminist art punk collective Pussy Riot. Their audacious guerrilla performances were a thrilling counterpart to mass protests in the city streets, but when they delivered their seditious “Punk Prayer” in a Moscow cathedral, they were arrested and sent to remote prison colonies after a preposterous show trial which showed that the regime was as keen to silence avant garde pranksters as it was to lock up conventional political activists.
Pussy Riot's “Putin Zassal”
In the book, the veteran Russian music critic Art Troitsky says that most Russian rockers wanted nothing to do with politics – too dirty, too dangerous – but a few have dared to speak out during the Putin era. He cites rapper Noize MC, whose song “Mercedes S666” raged against a Russian oil company executive who got away with killing two women in a car crash, and veteran rockers DDT, whose singer Yuri Shevchuk personally confronted Putin over free speech, corruption and police brutality at a televised meeting in 2010.
Noize MC’s “Mercedes 666”
Sometimes inspiration comes from the most unlikely sources, I found. When I interviewed Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova after she was released from jail, she said that they were not only influenced by the feminist riot grrrl movement of the early 90s, but also by songs about police oppression and working class life by second wave British punk acts like the Angelic Upstarts, Cockney Rejects and Sham 69. As Tolokonnikova explained during their trial: “We were searching for real sincerity and simplicity, and we found these qualities in the holy foolishness of punk.”
Matthew Collin’s Pop Grenade: From Public Enemy To Pussy Riot: Dispatches From Musical Frontlines is published by Zero Books.