Infinity is Now: in defence of the hardcore continuum

By , Feb 2 2009

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Later this week, I’m appearing with Simon Reynolds at the other FACT, the Foundation For Art And Creative Technology in Liverpool, to discuss his concept of the hardcore continuum. To coincide with the event, The Wire has posted on its website a series of articles that Reynolds wrote for the magazine throughout the 90s and earlier this decade.

In the last year or so, there has been some scepticism about the concept of the hardcore continuum. Did the idea have any validity in the first place? And even if it did, does it continue to have any purchase today? Before we go any further, it is worth clarifying what is meant by the hardcore continuum. The claim is that the most urgent and innovative British dance music of the last twenty years – Jungle, Speed Garage, 2-step, Grime, Bassline House – belongs to a lineage that started with a mutation of rave at the beginning of the 1990s.

As Reynolds explains in the introduction he has written for The Wire pieces:  “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. … 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.”

Hardcore was the first properly British version of/ alternative to American House or Techno; as Reynolds points out though, the Britishness consisted not so much in the use of specifically UK sounds or signs, but in a mongrelising of House and Techno with genres such as hip hop, dub and dancehall that would not have been possible in Chicago or Detroit. Instead of being an eclectic slurry, what emerged from this promiscuous intermixing of styles was a consistent and durable matrix of reconfigurable sonic options – heavy synthetic bass, breakbeats, MC chat, film and videogame samples – which, together with a material infrastructure of pirate radio, clubs, white labels and promoters, has generated and sustained subculture after subculture.

When you listen to the different genres that are held to belong to the hardcore continuum, it is hard to deny that they draw from the same sound and vibe palette. It is also hard to ignore the way in which the different scenes were, in part, responses to one another.  At its most vibrant, the continuum seemed to be a cybernetically self-correcting system: the original hardcore sound was a darkening of rave’s smiley face, but when the scene became excessively dark, with Techstep Jungle, along came Speed Garage to lift the mood again. These recalibrations and adjustments would happen without the continuum repeating itself. Previous moments were neither forgotten nor reiterated, but subsumed and synthesised into new hybrids; and, rather than individual artist-geniuses, it was the collective ‘scenius’, the interaction between DJs, producers and dancers, that brought about these shifts.

 

“If it were possible to have played someone in 1988 a Jungle track from only four years later, it would have struck them as bewilderingly, unplaceably new.”

 

Is this idea still relevant today? With its absurdist wah-wah reverse bass sound, Bassline is the current scene which most blatantly still belongs to the continuum (it’s no accident that for me, it’s by far the most exciting British dance genre); its response to its immediate precursors, Dubstep and Grime, was to bring back some of the rave exhilaration that those two scenes had rinsed out in favour of moodiness and antagonism respectively. The scene labelled Wonky seems to lack the rude energy that has been a hallmark of the continuum genres, even at their most enervated. Yet its heavy reliance on vintage videogame sounds and references suggests a commonality with the continuum; the uncharitable might go so far as to say that Wonky is a kind of sidestreet running off the continuum’s busy thoroughfare.

Besides, one of Wonky’s leading exponents, Zomby, blew the gaffe when he released an LP which was in effect a tribute to the hardcore continuum, Where Were U In 92. He has also released a Rave Mix, which begins with an MC defiantly proclaiming that as long as there are DJs, producers and dancers, ‘hardcore will always be’. Funky House appears to be even less related to the continuum, but its formula (a return to the US templates of Garage and House, plus heavy Latin percussion), has made for a sound that feels arid, undercooked and tasteful. In any case, a fusion with the continuum is already underway, with Kode9’s championing of Funky perhaps indicating a way out of the cul-de-sac that Dubstep has crawled down.

The problem is that Wonky and Funky, and also Bassline, for all its merits, induce a feeling of past shock. If it were possible to have played someone in 1988 a Jungle track from only four years later, it would have struck them as bewilderingly, unplaceably new. Yet if you played them a Wonky or a Funky track from 2008, the chances are that they would only have been mildly discomfited; in fact, they might be shocked that the music of twenty years in the future was still so recognisable.

Behind specific grumbles about the concept of the hardcore continuum, one can detect a more general discontent: the hoary old idea that dance music shouldn’t be theorised at all, only enjoyed; that its pleasures are self-evident, spoiled by too much critical reflection. This often finds support in an Anglo-American empiricist disdain for theory, which has entered into a kind of unholy alliance with a certain Deleuzean anti-theory celebrating flows and multiplicity, the two combining in a hostility towards any theoretical generalization. Sadly though this hasn’t prompted an intricate engagement with particular records, but a can’t-see-the-wood-for-the-trees platitudinous mush (‘music is music’, any discussion of context is an illegitimate imposition).

There is perhaps an element of generational resentment too: a generation younger than Reynolds is frustrated that it has yet to produce a music which can’t be comfortably fitted inside a theoretical framework generated nearly two decades ago.  It’s a measure of the robustness of the hardcore continuum (and its theorization) that it should still be holding on after twenty years. Yet it’s also a sign of the slowing of the rate of innovation in popular music, with British dance music, once so furiously inventive, now falling prey to the conditions of entropy which have long prevailed elsewhere. If only there could be a shattering break that would definitively relegate the hardcore continuum to the past.

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