The Dummy guide to purple

Navigate the thrilling psychedelic dubstep funk that exploded from Bristol last decade in a few easy steps.

This week saw the release of a CD entitled ‘Purple Legacy – A History Of Purple WOW’. If the title leaves you scratching your head, it’s accompanied by an equally puzzling claim; this compilation “charts the course of the ‘Purple’ sound over the last 5 years”. Let’s leave the apparent sensory confusion to one side (we’ll come back to it later). Whether described as the ‘purple wow sound’, ‘the purple wave’, ‘purple dubstep’, or simply ‘purple’, this is a bombastic, melodic and funk-laden sub-genre that developed out of two of the UK’s youngest and most exciting scenes – grime and dubstep. Though contained, for the most part, within the back catalogue of three young producers from Bristol, the ‘purple’ attitude – unpretentious, open, and ear-pleasingly fun – was incredibly eye-opening and influential for a whole generation of producers, and symptomatic of a growing tendency in young electronic artists that has shaped current events in music from the UK to the USA.

It all started with dubstep… or was it grime?

Though still fresh, back in 2006 the South London dubstep movement had found its feet, evolving out of dark and minimal bass-driven 2-step garage tracks into a new sound with a simple but versatile formula: a slower sounding half-step rhythm, a wall of sub bass that made your chest vibrate (at this point, no one resorted to the squealing bass that many find unappealing today), and an atmosphere of spliffed-out paranoia and mystical dread. Grime, often referred to at the time as something like dubstep’s hyperactive younger brother, actually grew separately out of the more boisterous, MC-led side of garage into energetic, brash, often aggressive beats with more melody than dubstep. 

Colour explodes out of the grey

Plastician, with his Rinse FM and Radio 1 shows, was one of the foremost proponents of mixing these two scenes. First appearing in his sets at the end of 2006, Gully Brook Lane, a track by a grime-loving Bristolian teenager called Liam McLean, or Joker, astounded everyone who heard it:

Melody wasn’t quite an afterthought in dubstep at this time, but it was generally subdued into sinister minimalism, mournful loops, and hypnotic mantras. Even when bright synthesizers were in abundance, as in Skream’s Midnight Request Line (the dubstep scene’s ‘breakthrough’ track) the eerie arpeggios clearly served to intensify the dark, meditative haze. Joker’s track was a bold, fresh injection of warmth and energy, due to the sheer drama of its squelching woozy colour and searing tremolo synths, swaggering and resplendent with stylistic nods to G-funk and West Coast hip hop. 

Joker and Gemmy came to define the sound

It took over two years for that wildly influential song to get pressed to vinyl and released on Plastician’s record label Terrorhythm, but Joker, with fellow Bristol grime head Gemmel Phillips found a lot of love in the exploding dubstep scene. 

Brilliantly naive and unfazed melodic exuberance, combined with commercial sensibilities and beats that grooved rather than skanked, set their sound apart as a youthful, bombastic reaction to UK dance trends. These tracks wore on their sleeve marks of the exposure to outside influences inherent to being born in the 80s: 90s hip hop characteristics emerge in the beats and sounds; retro computer game music and pop culture references are embraced, and even appear in track titles like Joker’s Retro Racer, and Gemmy’s Johnny 5.

The name given to the movement was just a slip of the tongue

The widespread adoption of the term ‘purple’ to identify this music was just a result of the three’s attempts to describe how they subconsciously perceive their creative vision; mentions of the hue crop up in interviews, release artwork, and track titles; firstly Gemmy’s Purple Moon. The idea touches on the blurring of the aural and visual senses that can occur through the condition known as synaesthesia; Joker himself has said he is affected by it, though not as strongly as his fellow producer Quest is said to be afflicted by the syndrome. In spite of this self-identification, it was never meant to be an official moniker, as Joker and Gemmy have previously complained in interviews. The aforementioned compilation is signed to Gemmy’s record label, World of Wonders; given the title and the hue of the sleeve design, it seems he has at last become comfortable with his legacy, if not the name he accidentally bestowed on it.

Wonky/purple: there are no clear lines

Times of such extraordinary creativity and originality in dance music are naturally accompanied by frenzied attempts to pin down the various strains. The term ‘Wonky’ was one of these, linking the chaotic clamour of the Flying Lotus-helmed ‘LA Beat’ scene, embroiled in post hip hop experiments with the near-mythical marks left by the late J Dilla, with the abstractions emitting from the more experimental quarters of London-centric dubstep, encapsulated by Kode9’s Hyperdub imprint. From 2007, the cerebral fluorescence of productions by Ikonika, Rustie, Quarta-330, and Zomby, such as Ikonika’s Please shared something of the purple aesthetic.

Guido was the third member of trio that came to be dubbed ‘the purple trinity’
He is also the sound’s most artistically mature craftsman. Guy Middleton’s releases from the end of 2009 onwards set another benchmark in the progression of the purple ideal.

Matching the woozy grooves with sexiness, an uncoiling femininity, he revealed a sincere musicality that was unprecedented, and the potential for real commercial crossover, as well as hitherto-unseen willingness in the subgenre to experiment with tempo outside dubstep’s 140bpm ballpark. Mad Sax is perhaps the strongest an example of the potential for real depth in the purple sound, wielding its harmonies and synthetic textures into a heartwrenching rapture.

More than just a Bristol thing: colours run

The major source for the most exciting of these purple excursions was the Bristol-based label Punch Drunk record label, run by quiet visionary Tom Ford, also known as Peverelist; local producer Ginz (and later Baobinga and Mensah) was an important collaborator in the sound. Bristol has long been a key place for musical movements, owing much to its diverse ethnicities and post-slave trade West Indian community for its role in the history of UK soundsystem culture; but for all its basis in the fertile Bristol scene, the movement was never confined there. Striding, funked out beats and garish, sneering synths reflected the existence of the purple gene – whether through direct influence, or individual development of similar ideas – in artists as far away as London, Glasgow, Scandinavia and the USA – including Starkey, Hudson Mohawke, 2000f & J Kamata, Kryptic Minds, Silkie, Swindle, L Wiz, Swindle, Eskmo, Noah D, and the Antisocial crew, comprised of Quest, Silkie, Heny G and Mizz Beats. 2000F and J Kamata’s vocoder-funking You Don’t Know What Love is? had a massive impact, proving the existence of the sound, and its appeal, far from its source.

Where are they now?

Joker, undoubtedly king on the purple throne, has pushed his talents into some of the most commercially successful and stadium-sized output of the last few years of UK dance music, remixing mainstream pop artists like he was born to do it. Though he has compromised some of the gritty appeal of his earlier work, his success represents a direction potentially chart-bothering direction for dubstep that carries more emotional content than the current bro-step trends. And he is still absorbing influences: his latest offerings contain everything from starry-eyed, rushing trance leads to RnB crossover styles, such as this crooning collaboration with William Cartwright.

Guido too is advancing the smooth and accessible pop edge too, perhaps more quietly than Joker, but newer productions like Flow, featuring singer Jay Wilcox, are great examples of thudding pseudo-R&B for the dancefloor. Middleton has fulfilled his early promise of progression by engineering his songs into a live band format. His new label State of Joy is now an outlet for his own diverse work, flickering between poppy and perfect vocal jams, and some of his most dark, difficult and interesting rhythms and ideas so far, such as the jagged stepper Afrika.

From Gemmy’s quarters recently, a new take, at a reduced tempo. Amiga and Lakota (named after a notorious Bristol nightclub), perhaps his strongest tracks to date, recently appeared on his Soundcloud page. The latter is unlike anything you’ve heard from the purple generation; jaunty but deadly, with breakbeats and tropical rhythms and a carnival atmosphere.

Heirs to the purple throne

Hyetal’s glimmering synth-work probably owes much to the purple ideology, albeit with a more considered approach; track titles like Gold or Soul and Like Silver suggest a different take on the idea of connecting colour with sound.

His sound, more breathless and beatific than the traditionally purple beats, too, seems to cross over with the 80s-venerating retro-futurist ‘synthwave’ of producers like the USA’s Com Truise.

Hudson Mohawke and Rustie’s releases for Numbers and Warp undoubtedly share some of these sensibilities too. Kromestar & Om Unit, and the latter’s label, Cosmic Bridge, are another touchpad for swaggering, synthy gangster music that draws on US ‘trap’ style hip hop beats – one signing, Danny Scrilla, has just remixed Joker & Ginz’s foundational Purple City

Likewise, Kuedo’s towering, emotive, synth-driven songs contain similar elements of widescreen radiance.

But that’s not to say the purple aesthetic has been bent out of shape. Swindle’s been making the most vital and strongly purple steppers recently, including for Deep Medi. A new track featuring Toddla T and Sam Frank, comes off like Zapp & Roger Troutman doing dubstep, in a whirlwind of cosmic vocoder funk and walking bass. It might be the sleaziest, most perfect slice of purple yet.

Young and prodigiously talented Bristol producer OH91 seems like a rightful inheritor of this music too, almost to the degree of déjà vu.

Youthful, vivid and kind of wonky, a new generation of MCs such as Lil B, A$AP Rocky, Danny Brown, Odd Future, and SpaceGhostPurrp are making a big noise. Productions by the latter, and Clams Casino – one of the main producers for Lil B and A$AP Rocky as well as having released fantastic instrumental EPs under his own name – seem to have some parallels with the purple scene in their synth-drenched, hallucinatory exuberance, even down to the ‘purple’ tag; this track is lifted from A$AP’s Deep Purple mixtape, also featuring a track called Purple Swag (it’s likely that the rapper is at least partly referencing the codeine-based home-made intoxicant ‘purple drank’, as well as purple haze, a notorious strain of weed).

Danny Brown has brought things even more firmly into a full circle with characteristically raucous, X-rated collaborations with Joker, and another colourful UK grime producer, Darq E Freaker.

It’s clear that this new generation of young artists doing things in a different way is having a similar effect on hip hop as the purple trinity had on dubstep.

The future is purple

The whole landscape of UK music has been altered since the purple heyday, and the open sort of creativity behind this movement has similarly made an innate mark on the DNA of contemporary electronic music. This idea is so indefinable and uncontainable, that to try to define its overall place today by, say, looking for 2012 producers to group with the ‘purple wave’, would be to miss the point; you just have to notice the undeniable colour to so much of the music that has grown from garage and dubstep. The post-Joy Orbison advent of ‘future garage’, technicolour house and ‘bass music’ has meant that tracks glistening with melody are par for the course, and it’s not really very easy or sensible to define purple as a separate entity. This proves is that the instinct towards catchiness and colour has become an irrevocable part of today’s cross-pollinating spectrum of electronic music.

‘Purple Legacy – A History Of Purple WOW’ came out on World of Wonders on Monday 25th June 2012, available on CD or digital release

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