I came a little late to Rephlex's recent compilation of late 1980s/early 90s recordings by UK crew The Criminal Minds, but over the last couple of weeks it's completely blown me away. The comp spans their early hiphop recordings through to the vital Eureka! moment of the breakbeat and a little way beyond. There's so much to take in: the density of the music, the abrasive grain, like tarmac grazing your flesh, the cheap thrills of messing around with samplers, and a gawky sense of yoof-telling-the-truth about tough times in the UK (which actually seems more resonant in these recessionary times than, say, five years ago). The friction comes as hiphop meets the brutal torque of hardcore and early rave, with just about enough lyrical flow to stop the whole machine from overheating. The energy, physically and mentally, is amazing, several notches up from much of what emerges from the UK underground these days.
It sent me back to what I knew of UK hiphop in the rave and immediately pre-rave era. UK hiphoppers couldn't win: put on a US accent and you sound like a fake, rap in a UK accent and it sounded ridiculous. George Mahood, ex of Big Daddy Magazine, pointed me in the direction of the Aroe & The Soundmakers' two comps of UK hiphop, the Crown Jewels Volume 1 & 2. Mindboggling as these comps are, with incredible rarities and one-offs from some seriously obscure crews, it's frustrating that they're essentially mixtapes. Surely this era is ripe for rediscovery now? Estuary English even has a real nice flow to it, for me at least (do excuse the pun). It's high time a UK record label stepped up to the plate and properly compiled and documented the music of this era.
Sub-bass! Gunshot’s album Patriot Games pictured them sitting intently facing each other in a circle, holding mics, as if they're about to become blood brothers, or head off on some kind of a suicide mission. Nuclear war is referenced everywhere, in titles and samples from the movie War Games – perhaps surprising, as by 1993 and with the Berlin Wall a fast-fading memory, the UK wasn't in imminent danger of apocalypse (check out Gunshot's "World War Three", where the "Three" sample is from De La Soul. You can almost see the daisies wilting in the radioactive fallout). But that threat of apocalypse is echoed elsewhere, in The Criminal Minds' 2000 AD-style artwork and titles like "A Taste Of Armageddon" (whose samples are ripped from the darkside of the charts: Duran Duran's doomy, fatalistic bad-romance ballad "Save A Prayer" and Adamski's "Killer").
It's not reportage but a form of gothic – I can't find a single reference to the Gulf War (still fresh in the memory) anywhere in Patriot Games, but instead the album seems stuck in some kind of extended Cold War shellshock. You get a sense of lingering militarism everywhere – of US military bases in mainland Europe, of political subservience and impotence, of Chernobyl blowing up and blowing the bad dust in. Both groups reference a "reign of terror" (Gunshot sampling that line from TCM’s original track), but it's never clear who is doing the reigning.
Another theme which TCM and Gunshot share is the Old Bill. The police versus the people was another hidden war in the UK, with the silent majority happy with the boys in blue, who it later turned out were involved with low-level torture (in Northern Ireland), miscarriages of justice (the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four) and corruption. Blacks accounted for only around 5% of the population in the 1980s, so if you were white you were probably relatively sheltered from the stop-and-search and regular harassment which led to riots in Brixton and Tottenham in the early 80s.
The police references in Gunshot and TCM are to "Illegal Procedure", "Rough Justice", "Interception Squad" and Flying Squad – forces within forces, a police state which still maintains a semblance of normality. Gunshot kick against this by bigging up pirate radio and, in a skit which begins the album, tuning into the police frequencies. There's an echo here of Bomb The Bass's "Beat Dis", Tim Simenon's chart-topping sample/scratch fest which gave a kick start to both hiphop and house in the UK, with its barked introduction/call to arms "keep this frequency clear".
In Gunshot's great scheme of things, the effect of police harassment and living in fear is anomie – not the kind of psychology you usually associate with hiphop. MC Mercury's first line in "25 Gun Salute" could be straight outta Gravediggaz: "from the brink of madness comes one...". He trumps this in ”Social Psychotics“: "it's like I've got 12 voices singing in my head". Another Mercury line, "psychotherapy is needed for Bexleyheath" (the latter a Kent suburb of London), sounds faintly absurd, but accurately illustrates a particular kind of British small-town mentality where it's quietness and conservatism and your mum and dad who eventually fuck you up.
Gunshot described what they did as hardcore rap, which resonated nicely with what was gestating in rave at the time, and they painted themselves at outsiders – "some try to ban us/for cavorting round the hardcore banner". Whether they really were outsiders or not is a moot point, considering that they were widely discussed as the next big thing in UK hiphop for many years in the early 90s. But that's not necessarily important: anomie and outsider status becomes a fuel for the UK hardcore hiphopper. UK hiphop couldn't borrow funk and soul, and it had no real coherent community, so it had to take the sense of dislocation and find merit in that. The idea of UK hiphop being reviled had some truth in it, but it also becomes a convenient foundational myth which helps sustains the intensity of the music. This is where Gunshot, for instance, join forces with Napalm Death. Like grindcore, the shock value is a way to try and jolt UK society out of complacency.
This kind of shock value feeds into the brilliantly cartoonish samples of TCM. Why did no-one think before of putting Bernard Hermann’s Cape Fear theme under a fat hiphop beat? (On "Urban Warfare" they stick the "Death March" from the Star Wars soundtrack under an even more stoopidly fun rhythm).
It's just a short step from here to the sampledelic bombast of Acen's rave classic "Trip II The Moon".
Ferreting around on YouTube and checking out Aroe & The Soundmaker's comps yielded loads of great moments, and the dividing line between hardcore and hardcore rap is so thin as to disappear entirely. These tracks are so grimy and abrasive you begin to wonder, fancifully, if it's down to the records they sampled being that much further from the epicentre of funk and soul. You can almost see gaudy record covers emblazoned with James Brown Twenty Golden Hits (Includes Funky Drummer).
But more likely the abrasive, inventive grain of the beats is because it was the sampler talking here. UK hiphop was a music of kids in bedrooms working without the benefit of soundclashes, communal events, any real heritage of funk/hiphop/soul, or even an accepted dialect to rap in. Being outsiders, self-declared or not, sent them back to their bedrooms with even more determination. The sampler is the ultimate translator for hiphop – everyone understands a ridiculous beat – and this is the one thing they could excel out.