Pulling upfront tracks from the radio and putting them up for all to share stands in a long line of subversive communications, and is essential for dance's development, writes Tamara El Essawi.
Joy Orbison (or Joy O), is one of the most important artists of this year. And yet he’s hardly released anything. Most of what we know of what he’s been up to comes from a small handful of DJs hearing unreleased tracks of his – Ellipsis, GR Etiquette, his Swims and Froth collaborations with Boddika, some remixes such as of Goapele’s Milk And Honey and recently Lana Del Rey’s Video Games – who then play them out, on their radio shows, and as parts of mixes. This doesn’t fully explain why a track like Swims is as well known as anything actually buy-able. The reason so many people know what Swims sounds like is thanks to some kind people ripping the track when it was played on Rinse FM and uploading it to Youtube.
Dance music fans in the UK have always taken the listening experience into their own hands, thriving on the semi-illegal fringes of intellectual property, using new technology to spread music, from ripping samples to running pirate radio stations. Even the taping of these has precedent, as recent film ‘Tape Crackers’ reminded us. Youtube is the perfect platform for the continuation of this essentially subversive approach to a tune. By taping a tune and uploading it, you are doing something with a song that isn’t yours, often without the permission of the producer. While it can be considered a romantic act of a fan, or a cheeky bit of horseplay, for many rights holders, it’s historically been something to stamp out, as anyone who has happened across deleted video knows. However, producers increasingly understand the importance of the Youtube rip to the listening experience. Krystal Klear posted a link to a youtube rip of his own unreleased tune We’re Wrong on Twitter, and Joy Orbison’s GR Etiquette does exist in full on Youtube, so someone with a complete version must have had a hand in getting it up there.
The first time I remember being aware of how key a much blogged/tweeted/discussed-on-DubstepForum rip is to dance music was with Blawan’s Getting Me Down. The first time I heard it, and I know the exact date because the Youtube rip kindly tells me, was on the 16th of January when Ben UFO was covering for Oneman on Rinse FM. A little while later, I typed it into the search bar on Youtube and it appeared, in literally exactly the form I had first heard it, ripped from that exact radio show, by someone who’d been just as excited by it as I had. A lot of people must have been thinking along the same lines because the track spread quick, people were singing along to it in clubs months before it actually got a release.
There’s a nine and a half minutes rip of the aforementioned Swims which I think is the one that’s been going around the most since it went up in April. It’s completely imperfect as a listening experience. The MC is on the mic all the way through, getting deliriously over-excited about the whole thing, rather cringingly singing along to the repeated “walk for me”, jabbering over all the important bits, when the cowbell appears, when that brilliant drop comes. He’s not really even MCing for most of it, he’s just having a good time listening to the thing. At first I just found it a little annoying. But I think the fragmentation, the way you’re not quite getting a complete, fully formed object, might be part of why it’s exciting. I even quite like the fact that on the accompanying image they’ve spelt Joy Orbison as ‘Joy Orbiosn’. The track is there, you can hear it, but it’s still inaccessible. You can’t stick it in a mix, every time you play it you’re reminded, by the virtue of this so clearly sounding like a radio rip, that you own the thing in a very incomplete, but thrilling, way.
There’s a thrill of the chase element in a Youtube clip. One I’m particularly fond of at the moment is a track by New York Transit Authority called Off The Traxx. The DJ on the rip tells me it’s forthcoming on Lobster Boy, and it’s been steadily slipping into mixes. It was played twice on Benji B’s Numbers label special, and Pearson Sound included it in his Hessle Audio tour mix. The way I first came across it though was through Youtube. I’ve noticed over the past few months that I spend an increasing amount of time flicking between related Youtube clips, most of them pretty forgettable, but occasionally stumbling across something great. It’s a useful new way of finding good music. I had never heard of New York Transit Authority or Lobster Boy before. Some subsequent internet digging revealed Lobster Boy to be Redlight’s record label, and Off The Traxx to have appeared on Mele’s Fact mix as being by the producer Mensah. It feels a lot more important when you’ve had to seek out these details yourself.
Huge artists aside, music websites don’t tend to jump on a Youtube rip quite in the same way as a free download or a Soundcloud stream. But they are one of the most important ways dance music (with its general aversion to free downloads, 12“s that are bought up avidly by DJs the moment they drop and labels like Swamp 81 that don’t do digital) is distributed. Besides, who knows if a track like Joy Orbison’s refix of Milk And Honey will ever actually get a proper release? We may as well enjoy it while we can.
People like pieces of things, from the notes that are all we have of Mallarme’s ‘Le Livre’, to Mozart’s unfinished Requiem, to Jungle radio rips, to old dusty and rough recording sessions of artists discovered and released many years later. Stumbling across an unreleased track on Youtube feels like striking gold, even if, as play counts will tell you, thousands of others are finding it too. It builds up widespread anticipation for a release in a way that the music industry formula of promo, press release, release date not long after, just doesn’t do. You also do feel much more like you need to buy it when the thing does actually come out, after having spent however many months trawling the internet for progressively better and better versions of it. So even if Joy Orbison continues to hold out on a release date for Ellipsis, well, here it is in all it’s euphoric, piano climbing brilliance – low quality perhaps, in a fragmented form, but all the more wonderful for it.