Why Manchester is the new creative epicentre of neo-soul and hip-hop
What does it mean when a musical release seems to offer an almost completely identical copy of music from a very different cultural place and time? When this release chooses to bring that music into a such a different context? And what if it took extraordinary insight, energy and resources to recreate that music? And then: what if the two contexts are usually assumed to be completely opposed to each other?
These are the sorts of challenges thrown down by the increased use and intensity of pastiche in underground new music. To pastiche is to imitate a particular style of art or music in convincing detail, but it has to be an imitation of something from a different artistic sphere – it's not a pastiche if you're already deeply embedded in the culture you're pastiching. So why pastiche something in particular? In many cases, it's part of an educational process. It's traditional for art or composition students and even many regular music students to take on an exercise in pastiche on the way to getting a qualification. It teaches them to marshal resources and get inside stylicity, the better to develop their own. It's also very easy to evaluate success with a work of pastiche. But what about the comparatively free, autonomous artists and musicians who choose it as a creative strategy? In some cases, it would merely be a out of fondness for the particular style, but in others, it might be part of a wider point.
Whether through sampling or new-composition, pastiche would be the primary tool of a late capitalist musical pop art such as I wrote about a year ago, the holographic engine that conjures its virtual plaza. The subject of the first part of that piece, the emerging genre of vaporwave, has grown and consolidated. The subject of the second part however, did not resonate nearly as well: it was what I termed "distroid", a grim, violent and cybernetic strain driving hard at hardcore thrills, explored by artists in a network surrounding the almost ambiguously satirical art magazine Dis, as well as on the labels Hippos in Tanks and UNO NYC. But Dis are not quite so easily pinned down, and its sonic interests have continued to diverge. While broadly speaking they remain within contemporary pop-art plazas, their sound can be generalised only as being modern. The excellent Perfect Anything compilation they released in February this year for example, assembling much of the crew, had a still more surreal and discontinuous feel, much of it considerably chirpier or more abstract than the dystopian techno-violence of BODYGUARD's, Fatima Al Qadiri's and Gatekeeper's previous releases. Nor is James Ferraro one to stick around a sound for long – on the past year's releases 'Sushi' and 'Cold' he toned down the conceptual dimension in favour of lush electronic abstraction and emotionality, with considerable success.
"It's pastiche so hardcore that it seems like they form an extreme yet logical intensification, the furthest reach, an end-point perhaps, of the light pastiching that began with the likes of Stereolab, Boards of Canada and Ariel Pink messing around with cheesy old-fashioned pop."
But earlier this year, two members of the Dis camp released what might be two of the most perplexing and provocative albums of recent years, and both of them work with the deepest, most detailed and most unblinking pastiche of among the most lurid and inauthentic (traditionally, at least) music around today: ADR's 'Chunky Monkey' and YEN TECH's 'Revengeance' mixtape. Both are spectacular. It's pastiche so hardcore that it seems like they form an extreme yet logical intensification, the furthest reach, an end-point perhaps, of the light pastiching that began with the likes of Stereolab, Boards of Canada and Ariel Pink messing around with cheesy old-fashioned pop. Where those artists casually invited you to a wistful afternoon of sunny, dappled nostalgia, safely distant in time and historicised, a little cheeky lemonade to offset the artisanal ales of indie folk, maybe a faint pang of poignancy here and there, 'Chunky Monkey' and 'Revengeance' slam your head right into the toilet bowl and shout over and over again, "YOU LOVE IT! YOU LOVE IT!"
And eventually, you do. Because maybe it's not a toilet bowl at all. It's easy to forget that when acts like Stereolab, Boards of Canada and Ariel Pink started to pastiche culturally top-down sounds (early electronic lounge, state-broadcaster ambient music and 70s radio rock respectively), it felt weird to begin with, an enticingly strange thing to do. Even if indie's relationship to pop kitsch can be traced back at least as far as Calvin Johnson's professed admiration of the Brill Building, perhaps even to the Velvet Underground – think how much Sunday Morning sounds like a 60s washing powder commercial. Now, though, we appreciate, as the cliché goes, the "pop sensibilities" of a Johnson or a Pink, the craftsmanship that goes into making this music and the genuine appeal and emotion that comes out of it once the initial frisson of doing pastiche itself dissipates. With those acts the conventional separation between "rock" and "pop", or between "avant-garde art" and big-money commercial "kitsch", began to erode, as the elements will slowly fill in a trench that was dug decades ago. With ADR and YEN TECH, it's almost gone completely, with only a trace of it remaining in the culturally separated contexts of the pastiches and their objects, and not really in the sounds themselves. Lo-fi effects used to provide a means of sanitising pastiche, of sonically reassuring us that indie culture and its warm, dog-eared personal technology was still framing the music, but that's almost all gone now.
And actually, I don't think this is about irony either. Not much, not traditionally. A lot of the time when people talk about "deconstructions" of high art and low art, what's often really going is a sort of reactionary irony, where the separation is not genuinely worn away for the onlooker but re-emphasised by the internal contradictions in the piece and/or its context. For example, the fact that, say, a twee china bunny has been brought into a sophisticated New York gallery sometimes gives, you, if anything, an even stronger sense of the opposition of kitsch and art, with the latter mocking or despairing over the former.
But what if rather than this superimposition of kitsch and art to create a contradictory work that maintains that separation, there was a genuine attempt to reveal something reprehensible, or even – more strangely – something beautiful? What if the two were so closely entwined that you couldn't tell them apart, the margin of error being too narrow? It would be a matter of how the work resonates with you, and how it informs and changes you. If you move past the initial spark of recognition in these pastiches, you find that the sounds go deep, and you begin relating to their details on a formal and emotional level.
Or what, more radically, if we imagined that that almighty ideological separation never existed in the first place, and this sort of pastiche was simply one area of culture inspiring another? Maybe albums like 'Chunky Monkey' and 'Revengeance' are no more ironic than it was for the Rolling Stones to explore their interest in electric rhythm and blues through their own music. It's just that this time the inspiration cuts across that long-established cultural divide between authentic, rebellious and negatory rock and independent music and lighter pop music with more obviously commercial origins, as many listeners and no doubt ADR and YEN TECH themselves appreciate. I'm less and less convinced that the bringing of such "commercial" styles into underground new music, styles it has long considered inauthentic and taboo, has to be read as an inherently ironic or satirical gesture. Instead, we might consider it a study in Utopianism: an honest and potentially critical reflection on, maybe even a shifting of, the modes of living and perceiving we aspire to, independently of top-down motivation and proscribed opinion.
That's not to say that its authors or its listeners are 100% supportive of these Utopias, and would spend the rest of their lives committed to the realities that flow out of them. Besides, matters of the sincerity and intention of those in music-making and music appreciation are usually not at all concrete, and attempting to measure and capture them will only deform them. This music has simply been brought to your consideration. You can laugh and turn it off, or you can let it get under your skin.
"The gap between the caricature and its object narrows to a hairline fracture. No longer is underground new music merely caricaturing the sounds its audience associates with capitalistic or technological excess, leaving us space to comfortably situate ourselves in relation to it. For all intents and purposes, it is the music of capitalistic and technological excess."
Out of the two Utopias, ADR's 'Chunky Monkey' (the name comes from a flavor of Ben & Jerry's ice cream, a drink at Starbucks and slang for an overweight person) is the one more easily interpreted as benign. It has a similar mood to lots of the more smilingly energetic corners of the virtual plaza – upbeat, maximalist, playful. In style, it closely matches the acid-jazz electronica of the late 90s. It's somewhere between very coffee-shop friendly acts like St Germain, or Royksopp on 'Melody AM', and the more IDM-oriented early Mouse on Mars. The former were the sort of CDs I used to borrow off my older sister when I was 13, and the album reminds me of venturing into the newly opened coffee shops that would play those things in my early teens, before I'd learned I should sneer at them. Indeed, the name and the cover of the album suggest the sort of global-village infantilism that Starbucks et al were exporting to the UK during that era. But it's not really a historical thing or a nostalgia thing – this milieu is still very much a part of the present day. The thing is, the pastiche of this milieu on 'Chunky Monkey' is so very, very close. Such is the effort, care and complexity of 'Chunky Munky' that I hesitate to believe it was made in an atmosphere of pure irony and contempt. Nor, I think, can it be heard that way.
As ADR, one half of Gatekeeper or one of the HDBoyz, Aaron David Ross might be one of the most noticeably technically accomplished producers in the underground today, his abilities extending significantly above the watermark for professional commercial composition. His music comes across like he could write hours of above-average video game, TV, and general stock music in his sleep. Where Ferraro's 'Far Side Virtual' was pastiche for sure but a little rickety, its frenetic excitement slightly outmatching its technical aptitude (though he's been getting slicker since), ADR is almost indistinguishable from "the real thing". When you get down to it, there's hardly any music that sounds just like 'Far Side Virtual' that actually gets regularly played out there in everyday life. Loads of listeners got where Ferraro was coming from with 'Far Side Virtual', understood what it was representing, but on the whole it was a hyperreal caricature, instructively over-the-top, which was the point – there was a small but significant difference between music we had experienced out in the world and where Ferraro was taking that music.
With ADR, Gatekeeper, and now perhaps Yen Tech, the pastiche is so close and so deadpan that the listening experience becomes even more confusing and provocative. The gap between the caricature and its object narrows to a hairline fracture, for many listeners it disappears completely. No longer, it seems, is underground new music merely caricaturing the sounds its audience associates with capitalistic or technological excess, leaving us space to comfortably situate ourselves in relation to it. For all intents and purposes, it is the music of capitalistic and technological excess. The only thing missing is the big record contract, or the advertising deal. It might be just around the corner.
Now, listening to 'Melody AM' or St Germain's 'Tourist' and 'Chunky Monkey' side by side, you can begin to see the differences between them. 'Melody AM' and 'Tourist' take things a bit easier. A clued-up buyer at Starbucks would probably turn down 'Chunky Monkey,' certainly over the others, for being slightly too eager. But that's not to say a less thorough, less informed inspection wouldn't hear them as being pretty much the same thing. In fact, the review of 'Chunky Monkey' on Pitchfork didn't quite seem to realise that there was a pop-art dimension to the album, even though the press release had described it as "a sound for shopping malls and/or space stations; a shark-eyed jest downloaded from the fractured fizz of New Consumerism." The reviewer aligned it with the Chemical Brothers, another very successful late nineties light electronica act, and then compared it to Rustie (what is it with people thinking all vaguely busy electronic music is part of the same trend?). The review of the album on Tiny Mix Tapes was a little more up-to-date on the aesthetic, perhaps.
People often ask me if I actually enjoy vaporwave and this virtual plaza stuff. I regularly do, and I do enjoy 'Chunky Monkey.' Despite myself? Probably. Despite, similarly, its musical style's co-optation by commercial forces such as Big Coffee and Big Lifestyle, there's a lot that's fun, even delectable about 'Chunky Monkey' and it's worth being honest with yourself about how the album makes you feel. It is exciting to see breathy flutes climbing into the stratosphere while a beat-boxer pirouettes around you (Slush Fund). It is amusing to have a gawky reggae bounce and a heavily wobbling vibrato hum and timbales and dub sirens, as in Stray Dog Strut. But listen again to that last one – is that the faint, pitched-up voice of someone screaming at the top of their lungs like they're being crushed to death? Maybe. See, as well as being an image of a fun global-village Utopia, this apparently easy-going, liberal, fun musical style may come yoked to, if indeed to Big Coffee, a system which relentlessly puts local independent cafes out of business even as it pretends to be home-grown and folksy, that drives prices up and wages down, that destroys diversity unless it can exploit it, its image and its associations, and that avoids paying taxes. Maybe 'Chunky Monkey' is the sound of these things. Or maybe the music is separable from these things, especially if it comes from ADR and from underground music – maybe through the music we can come into contact with the utopia without the dystopia and claim it, we can learn whether it's possible to extricate the valuable from the reprehensible, whether it's possible to take that back from those who claim a monopoly on it. Or maybe we can't, maybe it's a naïve romanticisation of top-down, industrial musical propaganda to cast it as positive kitsch. Can we have our cake and eat it too (along with a cup of chunky monkey)?
Although YEN TECH's 'Revengeance' mixtape explores exquisite, ecstatic EDM-pop, to me the album has a slightly more dystopian resonance than 'Chunky Monkey'. What's surprising is that it goes so lovingly far with the pastiche, and that it's hard not to find that genuinely impressive, even thrilling. It's not surprising to see that ADR helped out on a couple tracks. Stylistically, it's within the distroid aesthetic I described last year: hi-tech, hi-octane, violent, explosive, accelerationist, relentless. In fact, it takes its name from a Metal Gear Solid game. But where BODYGUARD, Fatima Al Qadiri, and Gatekeeper were often strange, twisted and avant-garde, 'Revengeance' is (with the exception of the beguiling Protoxol) more in the HDBoyz territory – ice-blue smooth vocals, bouncing choruses, pin-up pop, and again, almost indistinguishable from "real" EDM-pop. Well, who's to say it's not real EDM-pop? Watch the video for the lead track Forever Ballin and see what you think.
Then there's the 'Message to Fans', where the charismatic YEN TECH greets us "backstage", assuring us that his debut mixtape is going to be "super sexy". It seems heartfelt, sincere, warm, right? Even if it might be pastiche? Or rather – wouldn't it be awesome if it was sincere? Maybe in the world the music creates, this hoping makes it so.
Does the music have the same persuasiveness? Again, the margin of error is too narrow for me to say for sure, the gap between reality and illusion is too close to call, and that's surely the idea. "Calling it" seems beside the point. You don't turn up at the theatre and feel dismayed when you discover that the characters you see in front of you turn out to be actors who are putting it all on. Music might be the same, it's just that we don't normally think of pop as being a performance to the same extent, with the music separable from the artists and the actors. Perhaps we should – all music is a performance, an impersonation, to some degree. With 'Revengeance,' you have to admire the blood, sweat and tears that went into putting on the performance because, like a Glenn Brown painting, it makes the meaning of the gesture (beyond the pure abstract sensuality) come across even more urgent, mesmerising and baffling.
There are a few subtle clues in the music suggesting to me that there is still a distance between YEN TECH and a real EDM-popstar. My ears are telling me that the mp3s were rendered at a low rate of kilobytes per second, or not quite professionally mastered – it has that thin mobile phone sort of sound. It's so faint that it could be unintentional lo-fi, or even just an artifact of the way my imagination sets up my expectations of music like this and reacts to it. And like 'Chunky Monkey,' it's just slightly too eager and too delirious to have genuinely passed through any higher levels of the music industry, to my mind at least.
One particular moment that seems to stand for the album as a whole is R&B Thug (Interlude), which could be sampling vaporwavy sound from a Hollywood sci-fi film before an apparently typical phone-call recording, as on a rap or R&B record, begins. YEN TECH is ringing his squeeze. Almost all she does is giggle on the end of the phone, not offering any personality or autonomy, and eventually YEN TECH says, "I'm just leaving the studio, but do you wanna meet up and do something beautiful?" It makes me wonder whether 'Revengeance' is "something beautiful". YEN TECH then adds that he has a surprise for her. It feels kinda creepy.
Indeed, the lyrics are pretty creepy throughout: strongly male-gaze-oriented and possessive, and the violence of the music only emphasises this. It culminates in the finale On Me, whose lyrics sound like "Don't give a fuck unless we going on, I'ma make that body work, work, work, real bad bitch, I think she hungry, who cares what she on, as long as she's on me". Lyrics like these are not unusual out there in the rest of the pop world, of course, but the shift of context to art-pop does make them stick out rather than just flow past, and they cut deeper than, say, HDBoyz's lyrics because they're closer to reality than knowing lines like the latter's "unzip me tonight". 'Revengeance' might be no more sexist than 'Schindler's List' is pro-genocide – both are performances, both are honest and instructional depictions of control and violence on the Other, not mere expressions of it. Or perhaps I'm gravely wrong, and 'Revengeance' is at best complacent, at worse horribly sexist. But I think I trust in the developed consciousness of the Dis people and their audience, mostly.
If simple, uncomplicated enjoyment without naivety is not possible with these two albums, what do we get out of them? We can use them to learn about ourselves and our relation to culture at large, literally and emotionally. Both 'Chunky Monkey' and 'Revengeance' made me question not just the acceptability of their musical languages within an underground new music context, but drew attention to the very position from which I make such judgements, and the social and political baggage that comes with that. We are invited to both warm to the heady and genuinely Utopian creative impulse within the Big Coffee or slick EDM-pop cultures and see if we can detach it from the complicity of their respective aesthetics in social and culture violence. If we really listen, we learn where we are and what's going on.