“I’m not normally one to be so dismissive, but isn’t the hardcore continuum just a way for older guys to relate to these off-the-wall kids making totally new original stuff that, aesthetically at least, bears little resemblance to the genres that the ‘Nuum designates as their supposed predecessors? Imagine talking about the hardcore continuum with Oddz & Eastwood. I don’t know if it would hold a lot of water for them (or whether they would even care).” – Alex Sushon, 10/01/08
“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.” K-Punk 09/02/09
On Wednesday of this week Simon Reynolds spoke on the hardcore continuum in Liverpool, accompanied by K-Punk/Mark Fisher, author of the ‘defence of the hardcore continuum’ quoted above. Sadly I couldn’t make it to along to put this case in person, so let me explain why these recent events have provoked a flurry of rolled-eyes and creative swear-words from ‘my generation’ of bloggers in the general direction of our elders.
The hardcore continuum is an interesting idea whose time has passed. It was formulated in 1999, looking from 2-step garage back to 90s rave and jungle. The theory’s decreasing utility shouldn’t be surprising: it’s wildly problematic to take observed historical trends and then project them forwards, not least because your willingness to make it ‘fit’ compromises your perception of real, live events. This is something Lenin knew, writing in a letter to his wife Krupskaya in 1917, in the midst of a revolutionary ferment that can stand in for the current UK club scene:
“We would be committing a great mistake if we attempted to force the complex, urgent, rapidly developing practical tasks of the revolution into the Procrustean bed of narrowly conceived ‘theory’.”
Procrustes was a villainous landlord in Greek mythology, a nasty piece of work with an iron bed as his weapon. He would stretch people out who were too short for it, and amputate those who were too tall – and no-one would ever fit in the bed, because it was secretly adjustable. The point is not to attack theory per se, but to be aware of its outliers, contortions and amputations, and not to be bound by a theory that has outlived its use.
I don’t think it puts me out on a limb to opine that Ikonika, Joker and Zomby made some – possibly most – of the best tunes that came out of the UK last year, while the second half of the year saw funky’s harder, percussive side go into creative overdrive. Yet K-Punk dismisses them all in favour of a successful but too often monotonous bassline scene, simply because it displays an abstract sense of the hardcore spirit, “a rude energy”. The donk scene has a certain ‘rude energy’ if you squint, but I’m not moved to call it the most exciting club music in Britain.
‘Watch me confuse the dance…’
So this generation of producers that are ‘slowing innovation’; what’s making them slow? The problem is apparently that they are bombarded with too many influences, adrift without the Nuum to tether them. “Glutted musicians make clotted music” Simon Reynolds wrote in The Wire. Only recently, FACT’s Tom Lea explored Joker’s latest horrifying rupture of the continuum – new tracks that sound like G-Funk, “remodelled for a generation that thirsts for bassweight and 140BPM, but still remembers caning Death Row records at school.”
Unfortunately for the ‘Nuum Generals’ (great nomenclature courtesy of Joe Muggs in The Wire), the internet has happened, and it’s too late to turn it off now. So this ‘resentful’ generation of producers and bloggers alike, say we are all glutted? When the UK club scene is reverberating to a diverse mess of influences and new releases, do you think any of us mind? One of the lyrical motifs of KIG Family’s ‘is it grime? Is it funky?’ hit-to-be, ‘Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’ is “watch me confuse the dance”. The dance is not clotted but confused: deliriously so.
And it really is confusing out there. A friend asked me this week why someone had told her that ‘Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’ was “funky, NOT house”, and then the YouTube clip described it as ‘funky house’. Meanwhile some people want to banish ‘wonky’ from the UK house scene , which is exactly the same kind of grimey house that other people are calling ‘funky’. But this ‘wonky’ is not the same ‘wonky’ that Joker and Rustie make, which in any case some people call ‘aquacrunk’. All this brings to mind current ‘wonky’ don Zomby becoming hilariously worked up on Dissensus a year or two back, repeatedly clarifying the difference between ‘bassline house’ and ‘niche’. Taxonomy, like taxidermy, should be treated tentatively and with a sense of humour.
“In a profound sense, underneath two decades of relentless sonic mutation, this is the same music, the same culture. What’s also endured has been the scene’s economic infrastructure: pirate radio stations, independent record shops (often in out-of-the-way urban areas), white labels and dubplates, specific rave promoters and clubs (again often in the less glitzy, non-central areas of cities).” – Simon Reynolds, 28/01/09
This is from Reynolds’s introduction to his series of excellent articles for The Wire on ‘Nuum sounds’ 1992-2005. The economic infrastructure he mentions provides some tangible signifiers we could use to test the theory’s ongoing relevance, and I’m afraid it doesn’t look good. A club like FWD>> may embody its own continuum of UK club sounds, but they’re not the same ones the Nuum dictates. Meanwhile pirate radio is being supplanted by internet radio, mp3s and podcasts, independent record shops are closing, and white label dubplates replaced by leaked wav files, or the perennial web query, ‘320?’, as in ‘do you have the tune in question at 320kpbs, so I can play it in a rave?’.
I can’t think of a way to ask this that doesn’t sound petty, so I’m just going to apologise and ask: how much time do the proponents of the hardcore continuum actually spend in raves these days? It can’t be a coincidence that the most vocal critics of the Nuum are the same people I see in raves every week, hearing these sounds mutating, evolving, and igniting, chatting to the producers and DJs, and working it out with their feet as well as with a pencil. It’s all very well saying funky is unrelated to the hardcore continuum genres, as K-Punk does, but was he one of the 100 odd people in a snow-capped FWD>> last week to see Jammer, who produced grime classic ‘Destruction’, gingerly spitting bars on funky records, played by Maximum, who is to date primarily a grime DJ? Or does this little mini-continuum make funky ‘okay now’?
We know there are some common threads to the last 20 years of UK club music. I acknowledged in my FACT review of Zomby’s Where Were U In 92? that there is great passion among this ‘resentful generation’ for our rave predecessors. But that question Zomby asks in his album title: that’s not a plaintive cry for a bygone era, a halcyon time when rigid formulae dictated our youth, that’s a very stoned, very talented producer taking the piss out of his antecedents, even as he pays homage to them. And when he finished that side-project he got on with the business of making ‘Silver Rizla’, ‘Be Reasonable, Expect The Impossible’, ‘Dipset Birdcall’, and a whole bag of extraordinary, twisted-steel sci-fi anthems that defy genrefication, and defy the continuum.
Ultimately my question to the Nuum Generals is this: what purpose does it serve to continue to blithely abstract something whose tangible realities are so dazzling? The urgent, rapidly-unfolding tasks of the revolution are happening now, and it would be a mistake to confine them to Procrustes’ bed.