It's not surprising that there's relatively few films made about pirate radio, when being collared with illegal broadcasting equipment or running a station can land you in jail, with an unlimited fine, or, in the infamous case of DJ Slimzee, receiving an ASBO banning you from the upper floors of buildings in London. Drowned City, a documentary by UK filmmaker Faith Millin that's been gestating over the past year or so, is an attempt to rectify that situation. From the title I was expecting some apocalyptic, Ballardian essay film – the name, it turns out, comes from a track by Dark Sky – but viewing a selection of rough cuts suggests the opposite. It's a personal, intimate film dealing with those who risk their livelihoods (and lives) keeping the pirates on air. Some of the stories are familiar from urban myth or recycled anecdotes – driving around for places to put aerials, shinning up pylons – but this is one of the first times the pirates speak for themselves, albeit often with hooded faces and under the cover of darkness.
The narrative of Drowned City is the familiar one of people doing it for the love of the music, but it's no less emotionally engaging for that. One pirate recalls picking up secondhand broadcast equipment and messing around with it with mates in the back garden, culling what he needed to know from YouTube and the net. There's footage of pirates shinning up electricity pylons overlooking London and the surrounding counties and accessing power for transmitters by breaking into electricity substations (surely cast iron proof that they're not doing it for self-interest).
Of more direct political import are accounts of pirates getting placed on lengthy periods of bail after arrest, and having their partners questioned for supposedly supporting their activities. From these anecdotes, the behaviour of Ofcom, the quango that regulates radio and telecommunications in the UK, seems odd – they expend serious money and police resources to keep small pirates off the air, with relatively little in the way of explanation. "They disrupt the vital communications of the safety of life services, particularly air traffic control," runs one rather shaky-sounding argument on the Ofcom website – surely air traffic control doesn't rely on the FM band?
The film is apparently still evolving as more figures from the pirate underworld are drawn into the film; as yet all that exists in the public domain are some relatively brief teasers, essentially just standard trailers for the forthcoming film. But judging by the work in progress, Drowned City could turn out to be an important document. The intimate conversations with the pirates show you some of the toil, the dirt under the fingernails, and the scars of those who struggle to keep pirates on the air. "They take from, rather than contribute to, the communities they claim to serve," states the Ofcom website. Drowned City looks like it could offer a positive counter to that argument.
Drowned City teasers:
"Accordions are banned from the office," comes the judgement as yet another lame East/West dance fusion disc gets abruptly slung out of the CD player. Like any rules, there's exceptions of course, and I'm sure we'll be giving this new Pauline Oliveros album a spin at some point. But It did get me thinking about funky accordions, and in the mid-2000s it seemed you could hardly move for sick beats busting a squeeze box.
Roll Deep "When I'm 'Ere", produced by Danny Weed. This sent the Roll Deep producer spinning like a dervish through a million takes on this style.
Cut-up accordion action!
But not as amazing as this remix, beatless in parts, that surfaced around the same time, just an accordion riff ran backwards and forwards (Eliane Radigue eat your heart out) over a minimal beat. On pirates around this time they would mix two copies of the records so they could just stretch out the beatless intro for minutes at a time (and the MCs could take a breather after a heavy set of bars).
Two of Dust To Digital’s recent releases, Rev Johnny L Jones The Hurricane That Hit Atlanta and the book and CD bundle Ain’t No Grave, a bio of Appalachian preacher Brother Claude Ely are two parts of a lineage. If Brother Claude Ely is the raw material, red raw vocal chords stripped by screaming, Jones is a mark further along that lineage, watered down - but not to its detriment - where sermons are songs (in the conventional sense) with electric guitars.
Asked about why they started calling him ‘The Hurricane’, Jones says: “The hurricane starts off slowly, slowly slowly, and as long as there’s the process, the faster, the faster, the faster she gets, and when she gets a certain speed, that’s when she’s dangerous.”
Listening to the two in sequence, this idea of a snowballing force is better applied to Brother Claude Ely than Jones, but it’s the idea that connects them: the sermon as a cumulation of dynamic energy. The final track on the CD with Brother Claude Ely is a 40 minute long sermon on how “lingerin’ could be your doom”, which swells from a fairly vanilla reading to loud, fierce preaching, exploding in its final minutes into a terrifying, rhythmic screaming, where an extra syllable is added on every beat - “that thing that was keeping me from the Holy Ghost-ah” - that snags, picking you up and pulling you downstream, past where the words cease to be clearly distinguishable; past the content to the pure propulsive rhythm of the voice stretched to a base squall.
Johnny L Jones isn’t so exhaustingly intense - he’s not after putting the fear of God in you so much as he is after using song as a means of worship. All the same it contains that dynamic, tempered and vocally refined so it retains the richness and melodiousness of his voice, and leaning more on a call and response than a syllabic marker, but it’s there, and it lulls and rolls you past rationalism and reason into the hands of God, just like Brother Claude Ely is terrifying enough to make you put up your hands in surrender and book yourself in for a baptism.
"Sound itself is queer." I was struck by this quote from Drew Daniel of Matmos while flicking through a video of a Q&A I did with them at Mutek last year (the Mutek people have kindly just put it online, a series of four interviews from the 2010 edition that they're putting up in the run up to this year's event). Queerness is what exceeds values and structures, he explained. So if sound qua sound exists outside language and and the usual hierarchies of taste, then is sound queer?
While Drew Daniel was riffing on this idea (22 minutes into the interview) I was in the presenter's chair with one half of my brain pre-occupied with thinking of the next question to throw back at him. But nearly a year on it resonated with ideas that have been rattling around my head in the meantime. Right now I happen, oddly enough, to be listening to disco genius Patrick Cowley's "Menergy". Disco was able to evoke desire precisely because it could be so direct and, hey, crude. From pop to metal to rave to noise, music can be so complex, chaotic and endlessly fascinating because in formal terms it is so cognitively simple and sensorially direct compared to other artforms. I'm not well-placed to comment on the idea of queerness in sound – check the clip for Drew's more eloquent thoughts – but this kind of thinking, exploring how way sound escapes objective analysis and exists outside most conceptual frameworks, at least gets us a little closer to why music has such power.
Still in the electro zone following Dave Tompkins's The Wire salon (see The Mire passim), I find myself slipping through wormholes of sample sources, song theft and shout-out references. Today in the office we're booming Zapp & Roger's "So Ruff, So Tuff":
Which sends me back to a personal favourite, Ronnie Hudson And The Street People's "West Coast Poplock", which borrows a chunk of Zapp, and adds the iconic lyric "California knows how to party":
Documentary evidence of real-life poplocking to Ronnie H can be found here:
The Hudson lyric was later, of course, borrowed by 2pac's "California Love", which featured Zapp's Roger Troutman:
Which melded it with the sample from Joe Cocker's incredible track "Woman To Woman":
A track which itself had been sampled by the Ultramagnetic MC's late 80s track "Funky":
In a neat reversal of the usual magpie sample theft of hiphop, Zapp & Roger did their own version of "California Love" later:
This much I knew already – funnily enough from the soundtrack to the Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas computer game (whoever compiles those soundtracks has got a seriously great record collection). But what I didn't know till now, thanks to a bit of googling, was that "West Coast Poplock" itself borrowed it's main riff from Booker T And The MG's "Boot Leg":
And that track has its own hiphop history, having been borrowed by Cypress Hill:
With this dense web of connections, moving both back and forth along the timeline, "West Coast Poplock" seems something like the keystone of hiphop, a crucial multi-way node in rap history. But perhaps out there is the another track which has even more points of connection – the Higgs boson of hiphop, connecting everything to everything:
Whatever it is, my guess is that DJ Funktual in Fort Lauderdale, Florida has already found it. His long running series of ten-minute shows on YouTube breaking down who-sampled-what are compulsive viewing, and take you as close to the sheer time-shifting delight of finding these connections as anything out there:
Tags: 2pac | Booker T And The MGs | Cypress Hill | Dave Tompkins | DJ Funktual | Joe Cocker | Multimedia | Roger Troutman | Ronnie Hudson | Think pieces | Ultramagnetic MCs | Uncategorized | video | Zapp
I've been alarmed recently to see how Grime's history is fading away, at least in the digital domain. Aficionados are probably familiar with how some of the most important tracks never even got a release. "Headquarters" by Essentials, the original version of their track "State Your Name", is a paradigm case, a posse cut Grime track where each MC would state their name and location before spitting 16 bars of lyrics – when time came to release the track commercially, the track's big name MCs such as Kano and Crazy Titch mysteriously disappeared. Perhaps it was contractual obligations, but either way, commercial releases seemed just an echo of the real music.
In retrospect it's easy to see why - some tracks were just CD-Rs sent to DJs to play on air, or in the case of Essentials, thrown into the crowd at shows. This stuff circulated quick, but old tracks would get left on old harddrives, or copied over, etc etc. But it illustrates an uncomfortable paradox: that this most digital-savvy of musics could get cut and copied until it was unrecognisable from what really happened.
(some cases in point: you can hardly find any tracks online by Essentials, although you can check out "Headquarters" via a tape rip; the amazing "Sidewinder" by Wiley, Flo Dan, God's Gift, Trim and many others is available to watch right now, but half the time I look for it it ain't there; and one which really tears at my heart is that Wiley's "Dylan's On A Hype Ting", an extraordinary response track to Dizzee Rascal, can't be heard anywhere)
Anyway, anyway: the point of this post is to introduce the excellent Grime Historian YouTube channel, which while it isn't remotely exhaustive, at least goes some way to plugging some of the gaps in Grime's history which have been punched in the last few years. There's over 200 tracks on there thus far, and it's been worth it for me simply to check out many long-cherished tracks by Ears, one of the best Grime MCs of the mid-2000s who somehow never really quite broke through and whose work seems to have disappeared into the ether. How can you resist a track called "Verb And Pronoun Boy"? I certainly can't. Ears was known for a tongue-twisting, syllable-mangling vocal style which somehow managed to always sound precise and elegant, and it's put to good effect on "Backwards Riddim", where he neatly tip-toes around a reversed version of Dexplicit's "Forward" rhythm. Finally, you can check out a version of Ears's "Fine Fine" – this is just a snippet, but this track is absolutely devastating, a sing-song delivery which darts in and out of the most futuristic body-popping beat that I'd ever heard, at least back in 2005. Back to the future...
The Wire’s monthly series of salon-type evenings continues with author and The Wire contributor Ken Hollings (author of Welcome To Mars and Destroy All Monsters and presenter of the Hollingsville series on Resonance FM) and Steve Goodman (Kode9, author of Sonic Warfare), discussing the uses and abuses of sound and noise from sonic bombs to soundclashes.
Below is a short online reading and listening list in anticipation of the event (mostly via Ken Hollings)
•Stream Hollings's Radio 3 programme From Gameboy to Armageddon on the Military Entertainment Complex
•PDF download of Theatres Of War: The Military-Entertainment Complex, an essay by Tim Lenoir and Henry Lowood.
•Projects page of the Institute For Creative Technologies - an institute set up to bring military planners, games designers, Hollywood SFX people and experts in interactive technology together.
•Give yourself an adrenalin buzz (or scare yourself silly) with Bohemia Interactive's Virtual Battlespace 2 promotional film.
The salon takes place at London's Cafe Oto, 6 May, 8pm, £4.