Essay: Meanwhile, in the UK’s dance underground…

Following the US's recent dominance, Adam Harper charts the development of the UK's 'neon' sound and a new school of syncopation surrounding the Keysound label.

It barely even has a kick drum, much less a regular one. The foundations of the rhythmic architecture are almost entirely hidden inside its deceptive bulk, wrapped in the blobs of curved muscle that urge us forward, wave upon peristaltic wave, as fleshy antenna arc above in an organic centrifuge. Sophie’s Bipp might be the first underground dance hit to have evolved an endoskeleton. There are almost no perpendicular lines in time or timbre space – sounds curve upward, glide downward, slide off another or withdraw swiftly into the membranes they came from, leaving silence. The acoustic is strangely close, enhancing the bass, and the voice is confidently post-human. And along with all of this is the promise, quickly fulfilled: “I can make you feel better… if you let me…”

Bipp has experienced underground music’s equivalent of going straight in at number one. Pitchfork made it a best new track, almost all the top magazines and blogs got in there, BBC Radio 1 played it on prime time, and Diplo said it was his “tune of the summer”. But not only does Bipp have that almost unattainably rare combination of high inventiveness and popular success, it’s one of the best signs yet of a new surge of life in the UK’s dance music underground.

When introducing an essay on the underground dance scene in Texas last year, I noted that ‘American underground pop dollars feel higher against their UK counterparts now than I can ever remember them being, especially when it comes to dance music’. That year I’d found it difficult to name any new UK-based producers to have made a significant splash even in their own country. Now however, a critical mass of interesting releases, many from new blood – and some of it dating from before the Texas essay, admittedly – have attested to the growing potential of the UK scene.

The status of UK dance in recent years can be summed up in one controversial term: “post-dubstep”. The term doesn’t name a genre, still less a particular sound. It’s the name of an era in the UK’s underground dance scene, aptly describing how it began to move on from the typical dubstep template starting from around 2008, even as it was starting to become an international overground success. In fact, much of what went on in the underground can be understood as a strategy of differentiating itself from the grim, macho intensification of dubstep the underground named “wobble” or (derisively) “brostep” and the flashy EDM phenomenon sweeping the US. If “dubstep” was now what was attracting “bros” and selling cars and mobile phones before superhero films, then the UK underground would be everything but “dubstep”.

“Since 2008 there have been several different sub-scenes and sub-sounds that never really got called anything more fitting than ‘post-dubstep’.”

During this period, the scene vehemently resisted being pinned down to any one style or genre name. For a while now the music and the discussion surrounding it has observed a tradition of “wot do u call it?”, referencing the seminal Wiley single of the same name. Now the phrase is almost entirely rhetorical, a question that answers itself. In 2004 Wiley called it the eskimo or “eski” sound, and it became a major part of what would go on to be called grime, but since 2008 there have been several different sub-scenes and sub-sounds that never really got called anything more fitting than “post-dubstep”.

One descriptive term that has been coming up a lot in music writing since 2008 is “neon”. It seems to describe many different kinds of a more playful, expressive, synth-led sound that has variously tied together strands of grime, 8-bit, skweee, aquacrunk and synthed 80s R&B and disco-funk (what’s sometimes called “boogie” these days), and often placing this on a rhythmic bed of halfstep, UK funky, or more recently footwork or the “trap” production style. The labels Hyperdub, Night Slugs and Numbers did much of the groundwork here, and varieties of this sound were encapsulated on albums such as Rustie’s ‘Glass Swords’ (2011), Ikonika’s ‘Contact, Want, Love, Have’ (2010) and DVA’s ‘Pretty Ugly’ (2012). It can, though, be traced back to the earliest work of these producers from a few years before, together with considerably avant-garde figures like Zomby, Hudson Mohawke and Jam City, the sibling “purple” sound of Bristol producers Joker, Gemmy and Guido, and arguably has roots way back in the eski sound too. Another strain of the UK underground has a darker, more complex, finely crafted sound – it was put out by labels like Hessle and Hemlock, and represented by artists such as Untold, Ramadanman, Objekt, Shackleton and Evian Christ. Another strain was grime itself, now a decade old but given extra impetus by Terror Danjah, the Butterz label, and a number of more recent producers. Still other strains lead to James Blake, Mount Kimbie, Darkstar, Actress, Hype Williams and more.

“Shortly after the turn of the decade, the often radical post-dubstep inventiveness of previous years was sanded down, as if those amazingly fresh artists and their fans were scrambling to erase a terrible mistake.”

Shortly after the turn of the decade, a number of American sounds present (namely footwork) and past began to enter this milieu. Alongside this, the often radical post-dubstep inventiveness of previous years, neon or otherwise, was sanded down layer by layer, as if those amazingly fresh artists and their fans were scrambling to erase a terrible mistake. Soon huge sectors of the UK underground came to closely resemble pre-millennial US dance sounds, namely house. It’s been everywhere, and not as UK funky house, not ultimately as a sort of neon house, not lo-fi “hipster house”, certainly not proto-EDM French house or “blog house”, but house house, the housiest of house sounds, housier even than classic Chicago house somehow. Y’know – house. And lots of traditional techno, too, in just the same way.

There are a number of possible reasons for this shift. One might be that this music served as a way of making it plain that these artists and fans were serious about an authentic EDM in direct contrast to those involved with its extravagant explosion across Western youth culture, and getting back into history and traditional values was a way of doing that. Put less cynically, perhaps, the turn towards traditional sounds was lead by a number of producers who were beginning to discover the history of the subculture they’d fallen in love with a few years earlier. In connection with this, it might be that the new post-dubstep producers were looking to begin professional careers, and part of this meant – unconsciously, maybe – embodying established tenets of craftsmanship rather than risky avant-garde manoeuvres, even perhaps to the point of catering to new fans brought into the subculture by blockbuster EDM.

In any case, the taste for retro US sounds didn’t entirely eradicate the uniqueness of the post-dubstep milieu or its imagination, and there are signs that it’s beginning to grow back. Sophie’s Bipp has its roots in the neon sound and audibly shares genetic material with eski, but along with this it has a strangeness and a confidence worth getting excited about. ‘Bipp / Elle’ was put out by Numbers, a Glasgow-based label all too easily overlooked next to Night Slugs and Hyperdub (especially if you lived in London). Usually favouring synth-led sounds, Numbers had several strong but relatively unnoticed EPs in 2010 and 2011 such as Taz’s grimy ‘Gold Tooth Grin’, Mr Mageeka’s ‘Different Lekstrix’ and Ill Blu’s brilliant UK funky EP ‘Meltdown’. One of my favourites was Redinho’s ‘Bare Blips EP’, a highly inventive and unpredictable take on the neon sound, every track its own freely imagined world. Redinho’s follow-up in May 2011, ‘Edge Off’, continued this intrigue into a still-more sophisticated palette, and included the stunningly strange Whips. The continuity in Redinho’s music is its strong syncopated feel, something that comes from both 80’s R&B and disco-funk as well as UK funky and is a key aspect of Bipp.


Redinho – Edge Off

One particular branch of the neon sound is more exuberant, harmonic, busily-textured, high-pitched, funky and sparkly – it could be called “magic” after Jam City’s ‘Magic Drops’ or ‘Joy Fantastic’ after the single from Hudson Mohawke’s album ‘Butter’. This sound originated in Glasgow, and was pioneered on Mohawke’s ‘Polyfolk Dance’ EP (2009) and the under-appreciated ‘Butter’ (2009), on Jam City’s ‘Magic Drops’ EP (2010) and (to some extent) on Hyetal’s ‘Broadcast’ (2011) before reaching its greatest critical success on Rustie’s ‘Glass Swords’ (2011). In April this year, Rustie released the ‘Triadzz / Slasherr’ 12” in the same style, but adding that more recent trap feel to it. And early indications, such as the track Mr Cake, suggest that Ikonika’s forthcoming Hyperdub album ‘Aerotropolis’ will be quite close to the magic fantastic boogie sound.

A number of newer producers have been picking up this sound, too. Like Hudson Mohawke and Rustie, Lockah hails from Scotland. His ‘When U Stop Feeling Like A Weirdo & Become A Threat’ came out in June 2012, the ‘Please Lockah, Don’t Hurt Em’ EP was released on Bandcamp by the New York-based fashion label Mishka NYC in October 2012, and his ‘Only Built 4 Neon Nites’ EP was released on Donky Pitch in March. Lockah mixes trappy hi-hats in with the sound’s characteristic e-pianos and synth harmonies, active drum machine, chime trees and contemporary rave pop. Try, for example, from ‘Neon Nites’, the righteous Young Neon Countach (below) and Platinum Blonde with its synth bass running up and down the steps like Rocky. Lockah also runs the Aberdeen-based label Tuff Wax, whose beguiling High School / Ruff Stuff indicates that young local producer Zubuntu shows potential. Bobby Tank, based in London, also operates with this school – he has a rapid-fire intricacy to his music as shown on April 2012’s Vector Beach and February 2013’s ‘The Way’ EP, particularly its highpoint Vorpheum.

Donky Pitch is a promising Brighton-based label that’s taken up the neon boogie sound in the past year. Had I known a bit more about what they’d been doing when I wrote the Texas piece, I might not have been so pessimistic about the UK scene. In early 2012, Donky Pitch released three free EPs by local producers through their Bandcamp page, and each one is well worth a listen. Ghost Mutt’s ‘Sweat Mode’ EP offered a slightly leaner take on the magical neon sound constructed just-so from tight chunks of soul. Boss Kite’s ‘Comicon’ EP explored a unique, complex and disjointed form of neon-boogie jam. Moscow’s ‘The Hyaline’ EP had yet another able and distinctive take on the sound, with the sublime glassy timbres of its Belltones a real highlight. Last October, Donky Pitch brought two more promising UK-based neon producers, Arp 101 and Elliot Yorke, together for ‘Fluro Black’ EP, where each track takes a different stylistic angle but all are well crafted. Many of Donky Pitch’s other releases are by Americans, embodying the ongoing dialogue between the UK and US undergrounds. The latter seems less interested in the boogie dimension than the blissed, reverb-y euphoria that many of them (on labels like Freshmore) have been enjoying lately. LiL TExAS’s ‘Talkin 2 U’ is an idyllic take on the magic neon sound that blends it comfortably with sounds of Southern hip hop and footwork.

The neon-magic-fantastic-wot-do-u-call-it sound can’t be reduced to 80s retroism, or not nearly as much as hipster house and the recent revival of pure house can. Some commentators have taken to calling it “maximalism”, too, a vague term implying that it frenetically grabs at everything it can when it’s merely thicker-textured and more formally active than some classic dance styles. It has a very particular sound and set of methods, drawing influence from boogie but transforming it significantly through the crystal prism of its big and airy textures, and it is a sound that more and more producers are taking up. Some have been experimenting and taking it to new places – Hyetal’s latest album ‘Modern Worship’, released this month, is an intriguing progression from ‘Broadcast’: dreamier, dronier, more surreal, and with beautiful vocal input from some friends.

In the less magical, grimier recesses of the neon sound – the recesses of London – is the producer E.m.m.a., whose debut album ‘Blue Gardens’ is out next month on Keysound. While it shares much with early Darkstar and with Ikonika circa 2010, its roaming, unpredictable and curiously fractured qualities feel like not just a welcome return to the avant-garde, emotionally expressive qualities of the late 00s London sound but an update on it. Dream Phone shudders like a jammed motor in an android’s shoulder struggling to keep up with its UK funky beat. The envelopes in Green Light achieve the same sweetspot differently by being slightly sloppy off the mark. In terms of beats, the album is an interesting mix of grime, UK funky, and, mostly, UK garage, but it’s the synths that do the talking.


E.m.m.a. – Dream Phone

An offshoot of the magical neon sound is the highly modern, streamlined, robotic sound developed by Jam City on ‘Classical Curves’, released by Night Slugs a year ago. It brings in a more hardcore sound probably partly influenced by the Night Slugs family’s recent interest in ballroom. Now, though, Jam City is not the only producer to be exploring this territory. This year on Night Slugs’s recent ‘Club Constructions’ initiative, Helix (from Georgia in the US), and Hysterics (a new alias for star-of-2010 UK producer Girl Unit), look to similarly lean, repetitious, unusual, almost industrially hard, heavily syncopated (even in the bass) grooves, now practically the antithesis of the fairy-dust-and-joy Scottish sound. Also on Night Slugs this year was the startling ‘Ballads’ by L-Vis 1990. I’d always considered L-Vis one of the less exciting components of the Night Slugs crew on account of his closer connection to classic house and the nu-cosmic-boogie on his ‘Neon Dreams’ album of late 2011, which almost felt as if 2008 and the credit crunch had never happened. ‘Ballads’, however, is futurism fresh enough to seriously rival labelmate Jam City at his own game. Ballad 4AD has a slow-footwork pattern on top of a deep submarine drop, Not Mad is a series of hi-tech syncopations crowned with a sliver of sleek boogie, while Signal (below) offers a tantalising stand-off between several future vehicles of fibreglass and carbon fibre. Three years on from their first and wildly successful offensive, Night Slugs appear to be back at the cutting edge of UK underground dance with this absorbing and highly energising sound – yet another strain of UK wot-do-u-call-it.


L-Vis 1990 – Signal

Meanwhile in the darker corners of the UK scene, those lit less by neon than sparsely by the flickering orange of the country’s signature sodium street lights, something else is on the move. The Keysound label, run by Martin “Blackdown” Clark and Dan “Dusk” Frampton, has been releasing very decent, complex tracks from able but less famous producers for a while without much fuss, roving somewhere between dubstep, grime, funky and UK garage. Dusk and Blackdown’s recent album ‘Dasaflex’ was something of a tribute to London’s underground, and their label’s often been home to its own strand of neon on Damu’s ‘Unity’ (2011), Logos’s ‘Kowloon EP’ (2012) and E.m.m.a.‘s upcoming debut, but lately the darker sound has been the prevailing focus on a number of excellent, unique releases from new artists which suggest that the label’s really beginning to come into its own, a laboratory for new sounds.

“One way of looking at much of the stuff on and around this Keysound vibe might be as a darker version of the Jam City / Helix / L-Vis 1990 / Hysterics sound”

Keysound is exploring the circa 130bpm zone and highlighting a number of emerging producers there, but it nonetheless feels like every track they release is a unique marriage of high quality and a burning-edge inventiveness lying beyond the reach of those old maps, the ones that marked out “dubstep”, “grime” and “funky”. One way of looking at much of the stuff on and around this Keysound vibe might be as a darker version of the Jam City / Helix / L-Vis 1990 / Hysterics sound: just as interested in heavy syncopation at all layers, unusual timbres and sound effects and disjointed textures composed of several separate elements appearing in sequence, but preferring subtlety and UK dread to robo-athletic energy.

The first volume of ‘Keysound Allstars’ came out in August 2012, bearing gifts from Manchester’s Walton, Finland’s Gremino, London’s Visionist and London’s Vibezin, each drawing on fragments of funky, grime and UK garage without fully adopting those styles. Beneath’s ‘Illusions’ EP was released in October 2012, featuring seven unusually long tracks that were close to the feel of early London dubstep but had a much more active, rolling, syncopated percussion groove and less focus on the bass than dubstep would go on to have. Some tracks had a house beat, but in others, such as Wonz, Illusion and Tribulation, the kick drum itself was extensively syncopated, making them something quite different. Even better was Wen’s ‘Commotion’ EP, released in February, with a very modern and spooky sound, effects-dry vocal interjections, richly fragmented textures, shimmering sample-based keys and the same syncopated grooves. (Wen had provided the inaugural release on the South Fork Sound label in January this year, ‘Lo-Fidelity / Takin’ Over, with a similar sound, also worth checking out).

In March, this Keysound salvo was topped off by, as Angus Finlayson noted, a full-on “statement of intent”: the manifesto-like 14-track compilation tellingly called ‘This Is How We Roll’. An essential listen in every sense, it opens with the provocatively titled New Wave, a track by Visionist, Beneath and Wen together that crystallises this dread, shimmering, rolling, heavily syncopated sound both musically and in its vocal sample, which announces “the new wave, coming through”. Most of the other tracks on the compilation take on the same style. And in May, there was further consolidation on the second volume of ‘Keysound Allstars’, with another top-notch track from Visionist and some angelic avant-eski from one of this group’s most imaginative talents, the aptly named Fresh Paul.

“In some ways it’s the opposite of pure house, a sort of anti-house”

What’s going on? The majority of these recent Keysound and other recent UK tracks including Bipp have a pronounced and extensive, often almost bar-long syncopated feel: five hits in a bar, only the first and last of which are on-pulse, either without a regular kick drum beneath it to bounce off of, or actually on the kick drum itself, or a bit of both. In other words, it’s a polyrhythm squeezing as many as five evenly spaced sonic events into four ticks of the metronome (it’s not always the full five, often it’s just the first two or three, or just 1, 3 and 5, and so on) but with the straight “four” component practically absent. In some ways it’s the opposite of pure house, a sort of anti-house, separating all the “funky” syncopation out from “funky house”, flattening its alternation onto single, repeating timbres (pitched or percussive alike), and discarding the straight “house” beat.

And it’s not limited to Keysound. It parallels what Jam City, L-Vis 1990, Helix and Hysterics are doing – indeed, the thrillingly bizarre In Reverse by Mumdance and Logos on ‘This is How We Roll’ [below] seems to echo ‘Classical Curves’. Antecedents of it can be found in the neon funky of Scratcha DVA, Funkystepz and Ill Blu, especially on the latter’s Meltdown. One of the highlights of ‘Glass Swords’, Surph, also featured a groove of this kind, and the Night Slugs white label ‘Drum Track’ by Helix released early last year was a very clear and confident example of it. By drawing inspiration from UK funky, footwork and UK garage and driving their syncopations so far from house’s 4/4, could the UK dance underground have converged on a new rhythmic template, a new beat pattern, for the first time in several years? We’ll see. One thing’s pretty sure – no-one will want to call it anything (other than “how we roll”…). At least not until it’s good and ready.


Mumdance & Logos – In Reverse

In any case, Beneath, Wen, Visionist, Fresh Paul, Helix and all the others might be worth watching over the coming years. Visionist has explored Ramadanman-style drum machine instrumentals since 2011, he runs a Bandcamp page and his sound is rapidly developing. One of his most intriguing tracks appears on another compilation of note released in May, ‘Grime 2.0’. Compiled by Big Dada in collaboration with Joe Muggs, perhaps one of the foremost experts on UK dance music and its culture, ‘Grime 2.0’ is a proper treat. Some of its tracks display the five-into-the-count-of-four syncopation pattern partially or completely (such as Visionist’s Dem Times, TRC’s Cartwheel, Chaos and Order’s Logan’s Mind, Juzlo’s Nail Thrower, Moony’s Winner, MRK1’s Smash it Up Hard, Prettybwoy’s Kissin U, Stenchman’s Machine Molester, Slackk’s Spray, Spooky’s Moonlight, TC4’s Lazer Riddem, Gumnaam’s Desi Bullet – only a few, then) while the rest have a more traditional half-step, house or other groove. Some tracks are either American or show American influence (Canadian Tre Mission’s Dollar Bill, Faze Miyake’s 5000, DECiBEL’s Bend), while other tracks are typical grime, with square-wave-based basslines or that synth-orchestra sound. But many of them come straight out of left-field – Inkke’s L-O-K sounds like Jam City or James Ferraro, and Prettybwoy’s Kissin U boasts the weirdest of the compilation’s many attempts to evolve synths away from the neon sound an into something more hi-tech. One of the compilation’s shiniest gems comes from Darq E Freeker, the exciting young talent behind the mind-bending riddim to Gita’s Mardi Gras released in April.

While the neon-fantastic sound consolidates and spreads, these two potentially watershed compilations suggest that London-centred sounds seem to be experiencing a punctuational change, a time of rapid evolution deeper underground. There’s something “proto-” about this primordial soup of inventiveness, like listening to the ‘Grime’ or ‘Roots of Dubstep’ compilations but with new methods. It’s probably too early to say whether this will congeal into any particular new species (mind you, the seed may already have been sown), but in any case, it’s interesting times for the UK scene once again.

Living in the UK has not been much fun in the past few years, with austerity, bad economy, countless high-level scandals, riots, a war on several socialised institutions, especially those set up to help the poor and the disabled, and a wave of nationalism manifested in a series of heavily enforced public events and the rise of the racist far right. Now you can hardly get through the day without seeing a union flag, a “keep calm and carry on” reference or something needlessly qualified as being “Great British”, and there’s something not just backwards but sinister behind it all. But my UK is its dance underground, and it’ll be moving forward for a long time yet.

Artwork by Louis Labron-Johnson.

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