From Die Antwoord to Mykki Blanco, our resident essayist reflects on the landmarks that loomed over our ever-metamorphosing musical landscape in 2012.
Lots of great music misses the “Best Of” lists every year because it gets released in December. A producer known only by the moniker Evian Christ first announced himself to the world by means of three YouTube videos at an even more awkward time, that gap between Christmas and New Year’s. Against shifting slowly blocks of colour, his tracks fridge, crank, gun, drip and fuck it none of y’all don’t rap were immediately recognizable as some of the highest quality material to have emerged from the UK’s slightly flagging underground dance scenes that year.
Though initially reminiscent of Burial, Machinedrum, and the new tribe of ghostly producers to have risen to prominence in 2011 (Clams Casino, Balam Acab, Holy Other), Evian Christ had a very particular style that he explored with mesmerising subtlety, poise and finesse. It was the same mix of ambient atmospherics and street-level beats that Machinedrum had somehow failed to make more than the sum of its parts that Evian Christ made into a compelling and poignant union of apparent opposites. In this case it was Southern-style hip hop drum machines and vocal samples, handled with complex and long-term structuration, against a backdrop of full but muffled textures like faded theatrical scenery.
Naturally it was a very cold time of year, and ripped off YouTube, fridge, crank, gun, fuck it none of y’all don’t rap and MYD (released later) felt like they embodied the spindly trees, the nip in the air and the exhalation of small clouds. Their hi-hats shivered periodically across a four-bar phrase, several months before less subtly employed ‘trap’ hi-hats became a cliché. It becomes easier to perceive the back and forth of Evian Christ’s wholly contrasting timbral and rhythmic units if you count along with the beat, 1 2 3 4, 2 2 3 4, 3 2 3 4, 4 2 3 4, you begin to see how well the tracks are put together, and how the mood shifts between the winding up of the rhythm and the gestural, rising and falling sadness of the harmonies.
Evian Christ captured this amazing effect from a number of different angles, releasing four more tracks by the first week of January. In February, he had signed to the label Tri Angle – home of the ghostly producers – and was identified as 22-year-old Joshua Leary from Liverpool. Alongside this, old material was released in a zip file on Mediafire. I’m not sure when the original YouTube videos were removed, but many of the tracks, now collectively called ‘Kings and Them’, had been rewritten, with a less mysterious harmony and unnecessary extra detail in fridge, crank, gun and a lengthy new middle section fuck it none of y’all don’t rap that just brutely repeated a section of the vocal sample. Since the commercial release, the mixtape has been available to download exclusively on the Tri Angle website. All this was a reversal of how Evian Christ exemplified the increasingly common situation in which some of the best underground music debuts of recent times are offered to listeners free online.
Evian Christ – Fuck it None of Y’all Don’t Rap
2012 was a great year for music videos from Die Antwoord [pictured], the South African rap-rave crew of Yo-Landi Vi$$er and Ninja. If in 2010 it sometimes appeared that they could be regarded as a bit of a novelty group, the strength of the video singles released alongside their second album ‘Ten$ion’, and the much faster, ruder, exponentially improved music therein, removed any doubt that they should be taken seriously. There was Baby’s on Fire, a well-told tale of thwarted paternalism in pastel colours, and Fatty Boom Boom which mocked Lady Gaga alongside a series of dazzling costumes and tableaux that made me wish they’d done the Olympic ceremonies. My favourite was the first, I Fink U Freeky, a terrifying essay in grayscale grime, evil-eye close-ups and flailing limbs.
Both solo sections, one by Yo-Landi and one by Ninja, offered fantastic schooling in rapping to a high-speed groove, the dexterity of their prickly accents making you forget to breathe. Yo-Landi’s high voice lilts over a trance rhythm as she narrows and flares her eyes for the camera. Later, after Yo-Landi removes a cockroach from a fry-up, Ninja begins to spit over a steadily accelerating beat. The effect is so exhilarating you wonder why it doesn’t happen more often. My favourite shot is at 2:47, where Yo-Landi and Ninja’s paper hoodies have been sprayed with what could be blood, the only effect of which seems to have been the slight widening of Yo-Landi’s eyes.
Watching dancers in a video like this fires the mirror-neurons. All the movement in I Fink U Freeky’s video reports directly to the beat, and so it does the dancing on the viewer’s behalf.
Die Antwoord – I Fink U Freeky
With his first three EPs released in quick succession in 2012, each more fascinatingly exotic than the last, Arca easily makes the shortlist for debut artist of the year. Hailing from Venezuela but based in NYC and allied with the network of producers surrounding Dis magazine, Arca only had a few remixes on Soundcloud to his name at the end of 2011. His rise to prominence coincides with that of his label UNO NYC, who since last year have been backing artists like Fatima Al Qadiri, Mykki Blanco and Gobby. In February, UNO NYC released Arca’s first EP ‘Baron Libre’ for free in the ‘Giveitaway’ section of their site, on which his abstract, chopped-up and highly creative beats showed masses of promise. It was when UNO NYC did the same for Arca’s second EP, ‘Stretch 1’, in April, however, that Arca really began to shine.
If you’d have asked me back in 2009 what kind of music I hoped would be getting produced in 2012, I think I would have hoped for something pretty similar to Arca’s sound. I say this because his style is not unlike that of the psychedelic, so-called ‘wonky’ beat-makers that were beginning to flourish around that time, those who took J-Dilla’s sound and made it sloppier and stranger. Arca’s thing is stranger still, like a Caribbean Reef Octopus coming at you squirting LSD and occasionally rapping in a menacing way out of a small, beak-like orifice on its underside. It often has that splattery boom bap feel, but it’s much less warm and genial than before, with shards of digital processing protruding from it (of the granular synthesis variety, like Autechre have used), or icicle racks of synth. Yet somehow it was never merely a cold, intellectual electronica, partly because it resembled the future dancefloor of contemporaries like Nguzunguzu, but largely because it was always tethered to a scary-cool hip hop stance. Arca’s sound is like those insane trainers you see in a shop and you think, ‘does anyone actually wear those?!’ and then later on you see someone looking amazing wearing them and you try to take a picture of them with your phone secretly.
Arca – 2 Blunted
‘Einstein on the Beach’ was minimalist composer Philip Glass’s first opera, written in 1975, and a show I’d been wanting to see for a very long time. I’d booked the ticket over a year in advance, and the performance, which is basically an extended elaboration of three notes, lasted five hours. It’s an abstract meditation on Albert Einstein’s life and the consequences of his work, and each scene had an average length of around thirty minutes and featured only a handful of different events.
Of course, they say time flies when you’re having fun. I’d complicate that, and say that time flies when you pay less attention to change – either because you don’t want your situation to change (i.e. you’re having fun), or because there is actually less change to pay attention to (i.e. you’re watching ‘Einstein on the Beach’). ‘Einstein on the Beach ‘ is an experience that so differs from the traditional, everyday flow of stimuli in time that after a while, I didn’t know whether I’d been there for an hour, a week, a minute, or an entire, parallel lifetime that opened up at a tangent to my previous one. Glass’s music, like the staging and the choreography, was either slow or heavily repetitious, or both. It’s a cliché to describe his music as ‘hypnotic’ – in this context it was spiritually psychedelic.
The opera was filled with fascinating and disturbing tableau – painstakingly slow trains, buses and spaceships, an enormous rising bed, a child judge presiding over a huge, grey courtroom, and an exchange of nuclear missiles complete with a control-room of frantic military personal and a striding Death-like figure in black. These last two images are what haunts E=mc2 and its opening of the door to nuclear power. But another, more basic nod to Einstein could be felt in the opera’s mind-boggling bending of time and space.
Phillip Glass – Einstein on the Beach
Willis Earl Beal’s sudden rise to fame in the first half of 2012 provided one of the year’s more interesting stories. Garnering sporadic attention from magazines and blogs until the end of 2011, Willis Earl Beal’s arresting, ‘straight from church’ old-time R&B vocal skills are combined with a determined creativity. Beal recorded his album, ‘Acousmatic Sorcery’, while living in poverty and relative loneliness in Albuquerque, and used a bottom-of the-range cassette recorder and scant, often DIY instrumentation to do so. He also famously posted adverts for himself on hand-drawn flyers, offering his phone number. Yet almost as interesting as Beal’s music, background and methods was his critical reception, which replayed the old tale of the “lo-fi outsider”, a favourite narrative about pop musicians since at least before the Second World War: Beal’s music was true, real, shining through the dust and debris of his musical and technological poverty as if to chide the banality of contemporary pop culture.
It seems however, that since the end of 2011, Beal’s image was gently massaged by his new management, who re-ordered Beal’s own ‘Acousmatic Sorcery’ tracklisting to make him sound stranger, got him to perform in front of a reel-to-reel tape machine that he never used and was older than he was, and who paid to continue Beal’s phone-me pledge until he got so many calls he would snap angrily at the callers. In short, they maintained and marketed an image of him as a cultural and historical outsider beyond what was real. Yet “reality” was what everyone valued most about Beal. When it turned out, in March, that Beal had been a contestant on the American X Factor, the reaction was one of confusion. Whether or not it proved him insincere or even more naive than previously imagined, the news certainly came out at a calculated moment, a month before the album launch and the tour.
However much a closer look at the way Beal was presented to pop music fans and commentators might leave a bad taste in the mouth, his talent in live performance is incredibly striking. Dressed like an electric-rhythm-and-blues hipster dustman in South Dakota circa 1958, hidden behind those wayfarers, Beal threw himself a capella down the microphone clenched in his gloved fist, elbow jutting in the air, crouching down slowly, face and arms beginning to glisten with sweat. Or he was standing on a chair, wrapped in a sheet and swaying slowly to the weird synthesiser incantations on the backing track. Or he was pulling his belt half-off so that it dangled obscenely between his legs, before removing it entirely and using it to whip the empty chair. And along with it all, his intensely warming vocals, a bizarre blessing on such an artist, with their power to silence a room and raise everyone’s hair.
Something real was shining through, but I was glad that I didn’t understand it or know what it was.
Willis Earl Beal – Monotony
Clams Casino sealed his place as one of the most important underground producers around today with his second free mixtape, in which he honed his signature sound right down to what could be its perfection. Michael Volpe’s debut release for Tri Angle was a wonderful EP of rugged ecstasy, of hip hop beats like vines and trees grown over the church until they’ve entirely replaced the structure but retain its shape. In hindsight, though, it was more stitched-together than sculpted. Last year’s tape ‘Instrumentals 1’ collected together some of the beats used for Lil B, among others, but it was still broad strokes.
Though there were some great tracks for Mac Miller and Lil B, ‘Instrumental Mixtape 2’ was dominated by everything that had made A$AP Rocky’s ‘LiveLoveA$AP’ mixtape phenomenal: the roaring sacred choirs of Palace shooting upwards like midnight fires on the savannah, the peculiar balance of frail falsetto and bass weight on Bass, the cold tombs and elegiac flute of Leaf. The crowning moment was Wassup, the sort of track where the words needed to describe it have not yet been invented. Perhaps an image from the video helps most – moving human bodies vaguely visible behind thick steam and glass. In this track Clams Casino takes the kind of human/non-human vocal mix already explored by acts like Boards of Canada, Burial and Darkstar to such an extent of fine integration that terms like “cyborg” seem laughable and old-fashioned. Casino’s vocal elements melt completely into the mix, and are used for their envelopes, consonant sounds and overtone structures rather than anything as quaint as words or melodies. Likewise, instead of cymbals, Casino just uses a gentle, continuous and fading hissing sound to mark out the groove, and the faintest of metallic sounds, acoustically buried at the back of the mix. Then he lacquers the whole thing with a phaser or flange effect, thus putting it all behind class, or making it into the hull of some sleek vehicle of the future.
Already, there are Clams Casino imitators. You can expect to see more than a few CC knock-offs in 2013, but if the previous rate of improvement is anything to go by, keep an ear out for ‘Instrumental Mixtape 3’. Perhaps even more famous rappers will be using him, and bringing his sound to a much wider audience – isn’t that a thought.
Clams Casino – Instrumental Mixtape 2
Very well received in a few places but not making a whole lot of splash elsewhere was this solo debut by Fay Davis-Jeffers of the progressive indie band Pit Er Pat. ‘Din’ is one of those albums that gets twice as good every time you revisit it. At first it seems just like a load of relatively arbitrary vocal samples and non-Western percussion thrown together, but somehow it becomes richer and richer. Perhaps it’s because it comes as a relative surprise in the underground music of 2012 that nothing is really being nodded to or evoked in ‘Din’. Its concern is mainly with sound and movement.
Every element is placed by hand, just so, and Fay either suspends you over the potential for grooves in a state of rhythmic tension or she drops you into them with relish. Amazingly, though the sound-world is coherently to hand, nothing is predictable. The pieces move along on one tack, juggling just a few components, before suddenly exploding into a flurry of percussive and tuned paraphernalia. Hopefully there can be more experimental pop in 2013 as enterprising as ‘Din’ – it’s just the antidote to the current and now slightly boring vogue for pastiche.
‘Searching for Sugar Man’ is a highly affecting documentary film that forces probing questions about the nature of pop success while telling one of its greatest lesser known stories. It’s about the Detroit-based singer-songwriter Rodriguez, who recorded two albums in the early seventies but then faded into deep obscurity. Yet unbeknownst to him, he was accruing a huge cult following in South Africa, where he became a symbol of the countercultural movement there to seriously rival Dylan, Hendrix and the Beatles. In the early nineties, South African fans, who thought he’d died, managed to reach him and book him for a hugely successful tour.
Rodriguez’s music is something great to discover off the back of the film. It’s charming, of its time, keenly political, varied and paints some lasting pictures. But more provocative is the idea that ‘greatness’ in music will not naturally reach a universal audience, or that success and critical praise is a relatively arbitrary matter of visibility and context. As the film shows fans lining up to get autographs from Rodriguez, one of whom has a tattoo of his debut album on his arm, it asks whether pop icons, Dylan and Rodriguez alike, are interchangeable rather than universally and inherently great, and whether their success is more subjective and more relative to historical circumstances than we’d like to think. We see how the adulation of listeners snowballs until it becomes a matter of (what could be) enormous faith that a musician “is great”. If Rodriguez “isn’t as good as Dylan” as one reviewer suggested, how did he become so successful in South Africa? Were they all mistaken? Perhaps it is Dylan who is not as good as Rodriguez, and we are so aware of the cultural value projected onto Dylan, and his particular methods, that we find it difficult to see it. ‘Searching for Sugar Man’ offered a vertiginous de-naturalising of twentieth-century pop history and its pantheon of heroes.
Once upon a time, “lo-fi” home-recordists didn’t really have a live act, and just did a bit of karaoke while the reputation of their recordings did most of the work. Many still do this. How To Dress Well, however, can translate the intensely emotional interface of his recordings into a heart-stopping, heart-starting-again performance. He even uses two microphones at once, one with reverb and without, and moves between them as a very modern way of decorating and emphasising different points in his singing.
Tom Krells’ second album ‘Total Loss’ was released this year, and is a fuller, more developed example of his sonic thinking than the disintegrating parchment sketches of 2011’s ‘Love Remains’. It’s still characterised by ultra-sensitive R&B vocals in falsetto, but it’s become more orchestral in its texture, and almost symphonic in its linear structure. Krell reaches the very pinnacle of mannerist expressivity, deeply provoking both the heart and the head, only this time he’s steadier on his feet.
On Washington, DC’s H Street East – the city’s equivalent of Bethnal Green Road – Krell’s mid-tour performance was a spectacle of survival, emotional and physical as one. He had gotten ill, and was warning us that he might not be able to hit some of his notes as cleanly as he might otherwise have done. Yet he was there, way above middle C, flinching as he looked upwards with his eyes closed, not only during the songs, but in an a capella encore that was both saturated with suspense and silently participated in by an audience now brimming with the utmost warmth and understanding.
How To Dress Well – & It Was U
Something else that could slip through some of the end of year lists was yet another incredible modern rap mixtape, and in many ways this one outdid them all. Few names carry as much weight of buzz as Mykki Blanco at this precise moment, but I’ll wager that its significance has yet to be exhausted.
Much attention has been paid to issues of gender and sexuality among the small crowd of new rappers to have emerged over the past couple of years (Azealia Banks, Lil B, A$AP Rocky, Le1f, Zebra Katz and Blanco) and very rightly so, but I haven’t seen much about quite how radical some of the sounds they’re spitting over are – which, indeed, is not an entirely differentiable matter. Not only does Blanco have the flow, energy and creativity (as well as the subtlety of delivery) to compete with the best, her beats and electronics come from a different planet. There are many of those soda-pop staccato synthesiser tones that have been appearing lately (most famously in Nicki Minaj’s Beez in the Trap), as well as, yes, plenty of those clockwork trappy hi-hats, but there’s much more too.
In Kingpinning (produced by Brenmar), the percussion is made up of hand-drum hits that rush forward and then settle down, as if being wound up with a rubber band and let go. The textures Blanco uses are often very discontinuous, with long breakdowns, beatless sections and variations, making her tracks more like a polyptych than a single statement, and Kingpinning has many different composite sections in this way, winding up and spinning around on many levels. Fuckin the DJ begins with a cold synthesiser in an abandoned warehouse, but in the chorus there are bizarre backmasked chords with an odd kind of warmth, while Blanco is transfigured by electronic modulation. Produced by tipped, innovative producer Gobby, Riot sounds like a cult film soundtrack being haphazardly drowned in cotton wool, while in the chorus a piercing metallic noise cleans out the inside of your skull. Oh, and then it becomes freestyle footwork. Then there’s Wavvy (produced by Brenmar), the mixtape’s single of sorts, which has an immediate dance appeal and makes a great arena for Blanco’s personality.
In my letter to Santa this year, I’m asking that Blanco and the new rappers begin to change rap on their own terms in 2013, making the flatness and the dance-pop in the charts still more woefully misplaced. Since John Cage 2-Step didn’t materialise this year, he really owes me one.
Adam Harper is an author and academic. His latest book, Infinite Music: Imagining the Next Millennium of Human Music-Making is available through Zero.
This article was edited on 19th December 2012 to clarify that Evian Christ’s ‘Kings and Them’ is available for download through Tri Angle.