Looking backwards to move forwards, BackRoad Gee is taking UK rap into uncharted territory
This is the second half of a feature about the rise of underground artists using capitalist iconography and virtual imagery to create some of the most thrilling music of the moment. The first half, on ‘vapourwave’ and more, was published yesterday and can be found here. We hope you enjoy the feature.
“Why the helicopters, artificial body-parts, and manically dehumanised machine-music?” – Nick Land, ‘No Future’, 1995
The second main branch of this potentially accelerationist stance in art-pop, represented by artists like BODYGUARD, Fatima Al Qadiri, Gatekeeper and others, is much more brutal and cybernetic than vaporwave. As a shorthand, I’ll label it ‘distroid’, and that should probably be written in capital letters, but I’ll keep it quiet on the eye. The term could be a combination of ‘disturbing’, ‘dystopian’, ‘android’ and ‘steroid’ but its primary association might be with the satirical art/fashion site DIS Magazine, who are perhaps the key focal point for the network of artists working in this aesthetic. Found on DIS Magazine’s site and on the Hippos in Tanks and UNO NYC labels, distroid is not quite a genre in the conventional sense – you might call it a style, it’s really a collection of relatable tropes and tendencies, a spider diagram of angles on a particular theme. And of course, anything we can describe as being related to distroid can also be described differently too, related to other, probably contradictory ideas that have not been named or have yet to emerge.
If vaporwave is the doomed Japanese businessman roaming the halls of the virtual plaza with a vacant grin on his wrinkling face, distroid is the former soldier and body-builder now working for a private international security firm, his bulging muscles criss-crossed with blade and flame tattoos and his face screwed into a macho grimace above a tight black T-shirt bearing the Monster Energy Drink logo. He has been involved with rap, rave and street dance before but today in the virtual plaza he’s making sure this evening’s pop-up Monster promotional rave goes exactly according to the corporate client’s design. Next to him sits an enormous translucent green polythene bag full of empty cans. And the speakers are stacked taller than he is.
Distroid is ice cold and white hot, unnatural and sublime. Its starting point is contemporary hi-tech ‘overground’ subcultural pop (i.e. underground sounds that have been reprogrammed by major labels or other businesses and have now become top-down movements), be it techno, trance, rap or R&B, but it drives them further, with an often religious or apocalyptic fervour, into the futuristic, lurid and brutal sensual territory that they were already bordering on. Either rapid in tempo or slow, stifling and calculating, distroid is hi-fi to the point of actively fetishising the hi-frequency hisses and twinkles that lo-fi was unable to produce, and, taking vaporwave’s penchant for E Pianos further, it has a particular affinity for metallic pitched percussion or ‘metallophones’ such as steelpans and gamelan, along with any synth timbres that sound like them. It also favours complex, non-standard percussion elements in the form of violent, powerful or robotic (or all three) noises and effects, luxuriates in sheets of hi-tech synth, and likes to reduce the voice to a sonic object, largely absent of real semantic content, screwed, autotuned, choral, or merely simulated on a keyboard preset. Although intensely macho, distroid is inhuman and post-human, and perhaps the scariest thing about it is that it’s often genuinely, thrillingly alien in the process.
James Ferraro has flirted with this territory before on industrial albums with themes of violence, futurity and body-modification such as ‘Postremo Mundus Techno Symposium’, ‘Body Fusion’, ‘Virtual Erase’ and the two Edward Flex albums, but this was through a hypnagogic 1980s lens. His projects as BEBETUNE$ and BODYGUARD are hi-fi, ruthlessly contemporary and have a hip-hop element. The BEBETEUNE$ zip album ‘INHALE C-4 $$$$’ was a ‘Far Side Virtual’ for the street, and although it approached distroid in many respects it had moments of sweetness and smoothness that set it apart, altogether suggesting an android replica of Drake performing charismatically in the year 2050.
The ‘Silica Gel’ mixtape released under the name BODYGUARD was distroid in full effect – BEBETUNE$’s taller, stronger and more intimidating older brother. It was slower, harsher, more violent and more hardcore. BLACK AND RED juxtaposes a crystal clear gamelan riff with horrifying noises like cyberpunk battle axes being thrust down and enormous centrifuges whirring overhead. The whole mixtape hisses with high frequencies like the nanodrills mounted on the 10ft tall robotic arms of an automated car factory in H.U.M2.E.R, the future tambourines, hammered cables and screwed emporer synth-strings in BLOOD TYPE: 5 HOUR ENERGY and the gaseous emissions clouding the steelpans of DRY ICE ¥2K12. Underneath all this is a profound bass – again, a frequency that lo-fi could never reach – and slow, sexual trap beats. Accompanying the dulcet laser light of the single RAIDEN – BLUE LIGHT is the imposing SEX WITH AXE™ ON, referencing the deodorant that smells like nothing Nature has ever produced. All suggestive of some kind of extreme multimedia advertising campaign for cosmetics, stimulants and vehicles aimed at young men and giving off a considerable fascist vibe, ‘Silica Gel’ the gruesome logical endpoint of a culture that pushes body supplementation and modification products and their ideologies well beyond the point of inhumanity.
“‘So it’s all over,’ you mumble weakly… Metal flexes beneath vatgrown skin. Hard jungle hacks through blue gloom” – Nick Land, ‘No Future’, 1995
But before the Silica Gel mixtape was an EP by artist and DIS Magazine contributor Fatima Al Qadiri, ‘Genre-Specific Xperience’, released on UNO NYC in October 2011. This seems to have been an originary moment for many of distroid’s tendencies, most notably its sinister, crypto-fascist feel and penchant for metallophones (in this case steelpans, right in the foreground on Hip Hop Spa and D-Medley and featured in Vatican Vibes too). On the EP’s cover is a glittering gothic veranda, complete with plasma screens and a sports car, looking out on what is probably Dubai. The music is punchy, uptempo and heady, and although it claims to represent a range of pre-commodified genres, it is well beyond pastiche and frighteningly fresh. The main drop of Corpcore is wholly percussive, like a machine gun, before colliding head-on with a monstrous synth lead.
Al Qadiri’s videos, often featuring superbly simulated computer cityscapes, carry much of what might be called the message. Vatican Vibes is presented as a console game based on a high-tech, computerised Catholicism fighting a holy war with Apache helicopters that ultimately destroys the Earth in its quest for spiritual fulfilment. D-Medley has exotic female dancers dancing on a computer screen in front of psychedelic screensavers. Similarly, Hip Hop Spa taps into the male gaze imagery of hip hop culture. As the blurb to the YouTube video goes, “_Hip Hop Spa_ posits an uncanny parallel between the luxurious solitary confinement of a spa experience and the introspective image of prison solitary confinement often presented in contemporary, genre specific, hip hop cultural product. Solitary subconscious is the experience of virtual age hip hop culture. The track expands the lexicon of the genre, while questioning the general public’s consumption of rap and hip hop aesthetics.”
“Matter goes insane. You are led to a simulation of God as a hypermassive ROM security construct at the end of the world. It is 2011 and monocrat New Jerusalem approaches climax, directing retrochronal counter-insurgency sweeps down into the jungle, where space-programmes subside into the inertia of myth.” – Nick Land, ‘No Future’, 1995
Gatekeeper’s debut in December 2010, ‘Giza’, explored retro, John Carpenter-style industrial 80s disco, but the new album by the duo of Aaron David Ross and Matthew Arkell, ‘Exo’, released this month on Hippos in Tanks, brings things up to date and into the future. It’s high-energy, high-octane techno throughout, often reminiscent of the sort of music found accompanying violent, futuristic first-person-shooter computer games since the late nineties. Indeed, it’ll be complimented by a first-person virtual gaming environment designed by Tabor Robak, who did the video for Vatican Vibes as well as ‘Exo’’s cover. But as well as a formidable accomplishment in complex, hi-tech, if unsubtle music, ‘Exo’ is starkly creative too, especially with its percussion, timbres and textures. It has as much ultramodern HD terror as you’ll find in the most palacial cinemas – indeed, the first track Imax is something of a sound logo, and feels like being squashed repeatedly by enormous plasma screens. Other tracks bristle with the unconventional and irregular percussion effects distroid celebrates, suggestive at varying degrees of abstraction of motors and smashing glass.
Tracks bristle with the unconventional and irregular percussion effects distroid celebrates, suggestive at varying degrees of abstraction of motors and smashing glass.
‘Exo’ sounds so detailed, serious and hardcore that it can be too difficult or too simplistic to see it as merely sarcastic, as a ‘Far Side Virtual’ of digital brutality. But then it can be put into context in comparison with another band that Aaron David Ross is in, HDBoyz. With visuals designed once again by Tabor Robak, HDBoyz are ‘the first boyband in high definition’, and performed a choreographed dance routine to their hyper-kitsch songs at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in August 2011. With lyrics like unzip me tonight and you should lose your boyfriend – he looks photoshopped, HDBoyz have been pictured in the latest fashions and clutching bottles of Mountain Dew, the labels facing outwards. Sarcastically accelerationist rather than grimly distroid, HDBoyz nevertheless share a thrilled anxiety about the increasing extremity of technological representation and its inverse proportion to depth and reality. Similarly, former hypnagogic explorer as Matrix Metals Sam Mehran, following some YouTube instrumentals relatable to vaporwave and BEBETUNE$-style trap, has styled himself as a slightly screwy answer to Justin Bieber as Outer Limitz, whose single I KONTACT also visits this theme of looking.
“The replicants drape themselves in wolf-pelts, and cross into berserk zones of alien affect, or melt into data-suits that pulse with digitised matrix traffic streams. They do not need to be told that cyberspace is already under our skin” – Nick Land, ‘Machinic Desire’, 1993
So you might say there’s occasionally a cutesy side to distroid that’s part and parcel with, and just as revolting as, its macho spectacle. But you could also, almost but not quite, say that distroid is anything that DIS Magazine is associated with or has posted on its site. The dozens of mixes it hosts, along with the imagery surrounding them, frequently embody or resonate with the distroid aesthetic and are sometimes even more hardcore, pushing many kinds of sickly, high energy rave and hip hop that both mock and luxuriate in the extremism that courses through the underbelly of Western leisure thanks to capital’s acquisitive, hedonistic and race-to-the-bottom ideologies. As the mixes collected together on the DIS site indicate, there are many artists and DJs who seem to be taking this angle. One German dance label related to the DIS crowd both sonically and by remix is, appropriately enough, called Dyssembler. It’s difficult to say if cynical dysphoria is always the intention here, especially since DIS blur the line between sincerity and satire with the people they feature and promote. Perhaps much of this is really nothing more than a sincere enjoyment of and engagement with hi-tech rave from the 1990s onwards and a simple love of hardcore, which, if that’s the case, I would say seems a lot less of an interesting thing for art-pop to do. Distroid is one way of reacting to it all this material, at least – one of many.
Indeed, some recent dance music has had sonic similarities to distroid even if they don’t appear to have the same degree of conceptual agenda. Arca, Jam City (on ‘Classical Curves’) and Nguzunguzu (on ‘Warm Pulse’) have used hi-tech and metallic synths, vocals as sonic objects, non-standard percussion effects and even irregular, unconventional beats lately, perhaps showing the influence of Fatima Al Qadiri. With the glossy, pristine marble lobby and modern motorbike on the cover of ‘Classical Curves’, it’s tempting to read its machine-gun rhythms, cybernetic swish, laser synths and precision energies as representing an inhuman future. But this could – and has – also been said of a great many genuinely modernist moments in the history of music and its application of new forms and technologies. We simply expand the borders of humanity to include what we’d previously heard as alien. One listener’s accelerationist is another listener’s modernist.
In the same way, E+E is an artist that’s composed a mix for Dis and appears to share some of the imagery and sonic world of distroid, but who pushes its more imaginatively alien aspects until he seems to be operating on the level of pure surrealism. There’s a beguilingly Utopian and sentimental element to some of his reworkings of R&B songs, too, that could make him the post-lo-fi equivalent of the hyper-Romantic How To Dress Well. It just goes to show that unifying stylistic handles like ‘distroid’ only go so far, and that there are other ways to paint the picture too.
Ultimately, it’s the profound ambivalence of this potentially ‘accelerationist’ art-pop that is its most constructive and provocative contribution. It asks us whether we accept or reject the image of the future, and indeed the present, that it conjures. It might make us feel powerless, bewildered and over-stimulated or it might leave us thrilled, blissful and entertained, and it’s at its cleverest when it can do both at the same time. This is when we see ourselves reflected, together with the ways that we and our fellow human beings have been manipulated, modified and dragged, either against our will or along with it, by the seductive violence of contemporary culture. Whether it makes us anti-capitalist or more capitalist than ever before, we’ll know where we stand when the future really does get here.
00:00 – Gatekeeper: ‘Imax’ from Exo
01:11 – BODYGUARD: ‘SEX WITH AXE™ ON’ from Raiden Single
03:40 – Fatima Al Qadiri: ‘Corpcore’ from Genre Specific Xperience EP
06:52 – BODYGUARD: ‘BLACK AND RED’ from Silica Gel
09:27 – M. E. S. H: ‘On My Body’ from Share the Blame EP
14:27 – Jam City: ‘Backseat Becomes a Zone While We Glide’ from Classical Curves
15:46 – BEBETUNE$: ‘Pepsi Baby’ from INHALE C-4 $$$$$
15:52 – Gatekeeper: ‘Vengier’ from Exo
20:16 – BODYGUARD: ‘DRY ICE ¥2K12’ from Silica Gel
22:14 – YEN TECH: ‘DVD & BLURAY’ from YEN TECH EP
24:15 – BODYGUARD: ‘BLOOD TYPE: 5 HOUR ENERGY’ from Silica Gel
25:29 – Fatima Al Qadiri: ‘Vatican Vibes’ from Genre Specific Xperience EP
30:40 – HDBOYZ: ‘UNZIP [SCREWED]’
32:12 – S.A.M.: ‘Free Hip Hop Instrumentals #011 Creative Personal Commercial Use HOWTO & STYLE’
33:02 – SICH MANG: ‘024XADAEX420’ from Soundcloud
37:12 – BEBETUNE$: ‘Sahara Jr.’ from INHALE C-4 $$$$$
39:08 – Gatekeeper: ‘Tree Drum (Pre-Gen Exo Mix)’ from Exo
42:52 – Fatima Al Qadiri / Nguzunguzu: ‘Hip Hop Spa (Nguzunguzu Remix)’ from _GSX Remixes)
47:00 – BODYGUARD: H. U. M2. E. R from ‘Silica Gel’
48:41 – Jam City: The Courts from ‘Classical Curves’
52:47 – BEBETUNE$: ‘NERO CEA$ER/ANTI CHRIST’ from _INHALE C-4 $$$$$’
56:34 – E+E: ‘THE GUTTING’ from BOUND ADAM