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The Mire: Tangents, threads and opinions from The Wire HQ

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Derek Walmsley

The big news Grime-wise in London this month concerns Rinse FM's 14th Birthday party at The End in London on 22nd August – the Pay As U Go Cartel of Slimzee, Wiley, Gods Gift et al, some of Rinse's earliest stars, are reforming for the event. Anyone who witnessed Wiley's performance at one of these events a few months ago will know what to expect in terms of lyrical intensity. But it's especially heartening to see Slimzee out on the scene (the DJ who at one point was banned by an ASBO from being on the higher floors of tall housing blocks). Slimzee's DJ sets were key to the transition between Garage to Grime proper. His abrasive dubplates were as cold and tough as concrete streets – they called out for some human presence, if only to leaven the feeling of sheer loneliness. It was on these kind of tracks that London MCs first began to find their voice, and his Sidewinder sets with Dizzee Rascal are justly revered (they circulate in various forms, but you can get a taste of them on You Tube

On a similar tip, DJ Rupture's excellent WFMU show Mudd Up had a special show recently with Bok Bok and Manara, where they play tons of tracks from this limbo zone between garage and grime – you can listen here. Lots of memories for me here, including all but forgotten tracks by Alias, whose indefatigable toughness almost recalls Belgian Nu Beat.

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Return to the fairground

Mark Fisher

"Minimal, of course, was the straw that overflowed the glass of Red Bull," writes Philip Sherburne in his jeremiad on the state of electronic dance music.

Scapegoat or no, in the last 18 months, the ubiquitous and yet strangely ephemeral genre has become a lightning rod for every conceivable critique. It's too soulless. It all sounds the same. It's lost touch with the roots of "real" dance music. It might not be surprising to hear a DJ like Diplo tell Pitchfork, "I go to a club in Berlin and I want to kill myself." But even within the scene, everyone complains about minimal, leveling complaints that often seem indicative of a much wider unease.

But the problem doesn't really lie with minimal itself. (One difficulty, though, is defining what minimal "itself" is; and it's questionable whether everything now labeled 'minimal' can now usefully be defined as belonging to one genre or sensibility.) As Simon Hampson argued in The Wire 293, it is the position that 'minimal' occupies in dance music, rather than any properties of the music itself, that is the issue:

[M]inimalism and austerity in dance music work best as counterpoints to more ebullient fare - a short, salty shock to set the scene for the climax to come, or to open up space for you mind to go wandering. But now minimal Techno rarely plays off against anything else; it is the main event.

There's a direct analogy with dubstep - more than an analogy, actually, since dubstep and the empire of minimal are converging, what with Villalobos and Shackleton remixing each other, the 2562 record, etc. What is needed is the confident reassertion of a dance music mainstream. That's related to Simon Reynolds's comments in Philip's piece:

Whenever, as a producer, you feel yourself flinching a bit from using an idea or a sound or an effect, hesitating on the grounds that it's maybe a wee bit cheesy, then I would say just to push right past that feeling and go for it. Do it twice over, even. There can never be enough monster riffs or cheap tricks in dance music; there can definitely be a surfeit of just-so subtleties.

Could minimal be defined as 'devoid of cheese'? Maybe so - but it would be a mistake to equate cheese with a retreat from innovation, just as it would be an error to align tasteful restraint and austerity with experimentalism. Hearing XL's rerelease of The Prodigy's first LP recently, with its its vertiginous jump cuts and bizarre angles, brought this home with E-flashback ultravividness. The barrel organ-like cartoon euphoria of Experience has always sounded like fairground music, and indeed it was at home pounding out from a fairground as it was at a rave. Wandering around a fairground in Kent recently, I kept being drawn back to the ride that was pumping out Bassline House, the genre whose hectic animatronic ebullience is at home in the fairground environment as rave once was. Is it time to forget the austere appartments that minimalism is so often reminiscent of, and return to the fairground?

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non-urban field place

Derek Walmsley

A puff-piece on Radio 4 recently marvelled over the rise of popular music festivals in the UK and beyond. Admittedly, it's nice that festivals like Green Man are taking advantage of outdoor settings for staging music, and certainly the feeling of a return to nature, of reclaiming the land, is a powerful one. However for me it's hard not to see the rise of outdoor music festivals in the UK as a corollary of the decline of urban music venues and the rise in property and rent prices everywhere. As cities grow, urban space becomes prohibitively expensive, and the only leisure spaces are at the peripheries, in temporary zones a day trip away from the city. Promoters turn to the greenbelt to host their events, and music festivals pile the acts high to keep prices relatively cheap. The performers appearing become ever more bland, as promoters focus on providing an undemanding soundtrack to the brief moments of summer reverie we get in the UK. Like out of town shopping centres, we end up with lots of choice in outdoor music festivals, but no real quality.

It's not the only example of live-flight in London music. Grime and garage events almost never happen in the city anymore – the police, assuming a role of 'advising' music venues, create a de facto ban on all but the most selective of these events happening in the city.

When in Blackpool recently, it struck me how much of the economy of modern life these days is predicated on punters paying money just to move around. Large tourist attractions make a lot of their money from meals and drinks, ie the subsistence costs people pay to sustain themselves in these other-places. It's why coffee places thrive in city centres – cities are so unwelcoming and psychologically stressful, you need to pay to go somewhere to chill out, and there's a feedback loop where the less publicly accessible places there are in cities, the more you need these refreshment waypoints and the more they make. Festivals are largely the same – you get sponsorship from a drinks company, and they mop up the refreshment tab. Like a lot of things in modern life, increasingly you don't pay for the actual products you want – ie music – but the delivery systems for those products.

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Ridicule Is Nothing To Be Scared Of (Slight Return)

Mark Fisher



Like David Stubbs, I'm of course delighted to have been shopped to the commissars of commonsense who compile Private Eye's Pseud's Corner. It's always bracing to be middlebrow-beaten; a pleasure I can expect to enjoy fairly regularly from now on, since, if the section from the Mark Stewart feature that they selected is considered fair game, then they might as well open up a permanent spot for me.

It's difficult to know what the alleged problem is: the conjoining of politics and music? Well, it's hardly stretching a point to argue that a record such as For How Much Do We Tolerate Mass Murder? might, y'know, have had some connection with geopolitical developments at the end of the 70s. Would the same objection be made to linkages between politics and other areas of culture? But of course what is objected to is as much a question of tone as of content. The default expectation in British media is that writers perform a homely matiness: writing must be light, upbeat and irreverent, never taking itself or anything else too seriously.

The function of Pseud's Corner – to punish writing that in some way overreaches itself, that gets ideas above its station or gets carried away – has now been taken up by online discussion boards and comments facilities everywhere. The effect on any writer who internalises the critique is to be intimidated into colourless mediocrity. But the problem with most published writing today is not that it is 'pretentious', it is that is unreflective PR hackwork. David Stubbs is right to invoke a certain Orwell as the patron of bluff, plain speaking John Bull prose - but the Orwell of "Politics And The English Language" also attacked the mechanical circulation of dull, dead language. If only that Orwell were more heeded. "Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print," he demanded, optimistically hoping that "if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase — some jackboot, Achilles’ heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno, or other lump of verbal refuse — into the dustbin where it belongs." Over sixty years later, such "verbal refuse" continues to circulate with impunity, and is supplemented by a whole inventory of PR commonplaces and consumer-affect babble (journeys, rollercoaster rides). Surely any amount of 'pretentiousness' is preferable to these soporific linguistic screensavers?

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Dave Tompkins on air

Derek Walmsley

For those missing their regular fix of The Wire hiphop columnist Dave Tompkins, he did a great radio show last week, as part of the Finer Things programme in Poughkeepsie, hosted by another contributor, Hua Hsu. Great stuff which is heavy on the electro and vocoder flavours, and every bit as indefatigable and crate-diggerly as you'd expect from Dave's contributions to the mag:

Part One is here
Part Two is here

If you're still not sated, I'd recommend checking out the mammoth Miami Bass throwdown he did on WFMU from back in the day. You can access the archives here.

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Far East sound

Derek Walmsley

Nice article on China's reggae heritage by Dave Katz, author of Solid Foundation. Not only did I not realise that Leslie Kong was of Chinese origin (and he's the guy who recorded arguably the best sides ever by The Wailers, some of the formative documents of roots reggae), but the scale of Vincent and Patricia Chin's VP label was brought home this week, when I realised they're now the people who own Greensleeves. Thanks for Steve Barker for pointing the article our way.

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LFO Peel Session

Derek Walmsley

If you download only one thing today, I'd heartily recommend the LFO Peel Session from all the way back in 1990 that you can find at robotsound. Spine-tingling stuff. Like Peel Sessions from many other electronic types, it ends up somewhere between a studio track and live one – electronic sketches rather than fully fledged dancefloor wreckers. But that's the beauty of it – spare architectural lines, immeasurably expressive. It seems to drip with adolescent yearning – not surprisingly, as LFO were still barely out of their teens. Yet, it seems incredible to recall, they were in the studio with Kraftwerk around this very time (you can find their handwritten account of it in Rob Young's Black Dog Publishing book on Warp Records).

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Derek Walmsley



With a certain synchronicity, just as Blissblog reminisces about old tapes (with the help of FACT magazine's Woebot), this item emerged from the postbag at The Wire – a promo release for the forthcoming Russell Haswell Editions Mego double LP Second Live Salvage (fearsome, thrilling noise architecture). The Wire office has been without a tape deck for a short while, so I had to do my own salvaging, retrieving mine from the loft to play it on.

I've no idea as to the sonic merits of tape versus CD or MP3. But in terms of how they are used, and how they embed themselves in you habits of music appreciation, there's lots to be said for tapes, specifically self-recorded ones which allow you to write many times/read many times. Many tapes of mine have changed like a patchwork quilt as I've dubbed new things next to old, over and over again. Strange juxtapositions emerge and persist (Black Dog Peel Sessions next to Will Oldham, Wu-Tang albums from mates bookended by Seefeel), and they become a living chronicle of obsessions and listening habits. Compared to the wealth of once-used CD-Rs which litter my desk, all of which carry a psychological traces of me wearily inscribing the album name on them, knowing soon they'll probably be lost among many other once listened to CD-Rs, tapes are like long lost friends. Of course, with iTunes, everything is at your fingertips anyway. But frequently one doesn't want them to be at fingertips. That conscious decision to access something feels too much like work, like acting as your own private librarian. Not only that, but you're at the mercy of the speed of the computer – so it's like being a librarian but needing someone else to clamber at that ladder for you.

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Anti-Epiphany

Mark Fisher

Simon's response to Mark Wastell's Epiphany in Wire 292, fascinating not because it is a Rashômon-like alternative reading of the same event, but because - contrary to certain prevailing hedonic relativist orthodoxies - it demonstrates that there is something more involved in aesthetic judgments than a mere registering of sensations. The difference between Mark's response and Simon's was not at the level of pleasure; it wasn't that Mark found Parker and Braxton any more agreeable than Simon did. But, in Mark's case, the initially disagreeable sensations induced him to take a leap beyond the pleasure principle: a cognitive act, a commitment, a decision to override the 'anger and confusion' that the music first caused him to feel.(Simon of course has taken such leaps in respect of other scenes, other musics.)

The mantra of hedonic relativism has it that 'everything is subjective', where subjectivity is construed as an arbitrary set of preferences. But Mark's Epiphany vindicates the view that certain encounters - events - produce subjectivities, even as they destitute us, deprive us of old worlds.

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August Darnell

Derek Walmsley

Discussion in The Wire office turned the other day to Kid Creole, with the recent release of Going Places: the August Darnell Years 1974-1983. Aside from fronting one of the plain weirdest bands of the early 80s, the tropical gangsters Kid Creole And The Coconuts, I hadn't realised, among his other projects, he'd produced perhaps my favourite ever disco track, Machine's "There But For The Grace Of God Go I", perhaps the most impassioned chronicle of inner city bigotry and white-flight in the entire disco canon. Listening to that track, a mix of gospel guts and pure synthetic pulse, what strikes me is how camp is an essential part of the physical DNA of the track – flamboyance and narcissism is practically built into its outre melodies and assertive, strutting steps. While the primal urge that runs through rock, funk and house - the drive, the motor of so much music, from Black Sabbath to James Brown – has been analysed to death, I wonder if the counter-current of camp, which delights in lateral movements and show-stopping pauses, has been analysed in dance music as much. It's easy to hazard a guess as to why it might not have been – male music journalists would rather talk about unbridled sexual energy than something as supposedly effeminate as camp.

Mostly, though, the compilation makes me wonder what's become of camp in urban music today. RnB and rap videos these days look airbrushed, as if hidden behind a plastic wall, a distancing effect exacerbated by the constant use of slow motion and fast cross-cutting. The big names of urban music are synthetic products of the studio system as much as (arguably more) than Hollywood stars. The overall impression is a fear of people finding out what they're like. This look-but-don't-touch sexual politics is, for me, deeply un-sexy, and it's music's loss.

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