Why Manchester is the new creative epicentre of neo-soul and hip-hop
It’s been just over a year since The xx released ‘xx’, a year that’s seen them graduate from night time crafting in a West London studio to packing out venues on a seemingly endless global tour. They’re an intensely private band who’ve quietly stacked up 650,000 album sales worldwide. They were nominated for tonight’s Mercury Music Prize, and won it. This is why we believe it was deserved.
Crystallised the sound of 21st century London
Places are not fixed. An x might mark a spot but that location is not fixed, static. It is molded, shaped and shifted by the lives swirling around and within it. The London of the 50s was a distinctly different place to the London of the 70s, just as the landscape of 1989 – the year in which all three of The xx were born – is very different to our London now.
In the 21 years since the latter half of the second summer of love, the UK has been in a state of ever-quickening to-and-fro flux that’s been at its most concentrated in our capital: economically from boom to bust twice over; politically from right to left to centre-left to a new, muddied hyper-right; and socially from a relatively buoyant public consciousness to one of increasing paranoia, born from events both tragically real and media constructed. Unsurprisingly, the soundtrack to those two decades also took an undulating back-and-forth course between guitar-based and electronic music, between past dreams and imagined futures.
The xx grew up amidst this flux. Born to the rave generation, their South London school years saw grunge, Britpop, US R&B, UK garage, Eurodance, commercial pop and grime each take their star turn on Top Of The Pops: a richly textured set of influences to later draw on. Then as The xx came of age in the mid 2000s, so did pop: recast as an elastic notion with room for all those different forms, sounds and ideologies and more. Yet this new idea of pop still largely existed in waking hours, in the public spaces of daytime radio and after-dinner telly. It took the more recent blurring of the lines between public and private spaces to set the stage for The xx. Previously private spaces – our homes, the night – are now places where we conduct our public life and where new pop stars are born thanks to the internet. Previously public spaces – our streets, the day – can now be private by listening to music on our headphones.
The xx exist in and draw strength from this tension. Their music found its voice at night and brings that darkness and pace into the day. What’s more, their emotional timbre is ambiguity: nothing is fixed or has to be. Their strength lies in giving validity to that uncertainty, in allowing those suspended moments. They present a vision of London that offers refuge and breathing space from the suffocating march of daytime realities.
A couple of weeks ago Skream tweeted that The xx are “like Burial but with a face”. There are many truths in that: like Burial, The xx have mapped midnight landscapes awash with the many overlapping emotions that slip and slide into our consciousness at night; both have painted a picture of that London we all recognise, one bathed in twin desires to belong and to escape; and both talk to the level of clarity that day hides and night reveals.
While Burial chose to remain in darkness, The xx have brought their night time into the day. Through their re-imagining, the London that they’ve dreamt up is taking root: a group of artists including but not limited to Mount Kimbie, Darkstar, Kwes, Sampha and Pariah (download his remix of Basic Space above) are all helping to build it. All know the importance of silence, of confident uncertainty, of creating landscapes with room to breathe. Through their eyes, our eyes can adjust to the dark of this new night/day too.
Given voice to a new youth
When the BBC wanted to paint a picture of the confused mood of Britain during the 2009 general election, they chose The xx to do it for them. A clip of Intro, the opener to ‘xx’, soundtracked the BBC’s election coverage advert in which urban scenes were rendered stagnant by a heavy mist. The music was muffled until a giant fan cleared the mist, and Romy and Oliver were freed to sing. But they had no words – instead it was their ‘ahhh’s that signified movement and a reawakened clarity of thought.
It’s an entirely new idea of youth that The xx represent – one that is more serious, questioning, introverted and undeniably quieter than previous generations. Since the birth of the teenager in the 50s (as BBC4 music documentaries often like to remind us), our idea of teenage-ness has barely shifted. From rockers to hippies, punks to ravers, lads/ladettes to hoodies, each odiously labelled incarnation might have appeared alien to its predecessor but their voices all took the same shape – deliberate, disruptive and loud.
The impact of this two-dimensional concept of youth can be felt in every attempt to communicate to a teenage audience: brash, neon television programming; cartoon-like radio personalities; movies that reduce genre to parody; lazy social media strategies; and hilariously off-point brand campaigns. Every action, every message is communicated in cap locks, in text speak – desperate attempts to score points.
We’re young, not deaf – Casely-Hayford know it, Press Free Press know it, Jayne Helliwell knew it, and The xx know it. They are part of a generation that understands the strength of silence and the power of whispering – that if you say something quietly, people have to lean in closer. Their music has become shorthand on TV shows, idents and events for a very specific kind of brooding, worried youth. When you consider the twists and turns of our recent history, it’s no wonder – a cacophony of irresponsible decisions, destructive actions and ‘lapses of judgment’ have forced a collective unease that’s had a profound affect on our country’s psyche. The music of The xx provides a counterbalance to the insanity. Theirs is a very serious music. That’s not to say it’s joyless, quite the opposite. What I mean is that they convey every shade of emotion – there’s honesty there, a truthful 3D portrayal of human experience. Dressed in their trademark black, they provide a sobering opportunity to digest, to reflect, to wonder. While previous youth cultures have proclaimed to have the answers, the generation that The xx hint at are taking their time with the questions.
Capitalising on the critical and public acclaim of ‘xx’, their label Young Turks/XL ran a shrewdly simple, ‘guerrilla’ ad campaign at the beginning of 2010. A stark black background with nothing but a single, white, sans-serif, block bold, lower case ‘x’. It made for a thoroughly distracting poster campaign on the tube (how many phones store photos of those ads I wonder?) but it was even more striking on the telly. That ‘x’ was beamed into UK living rooms for 10 silent seconds during a Skins ad break on E4 in February: quite literally cutting through the noise of the increasingly schizophrenic (by turns patronising and parodying) yoof programming. In a wonderful coincidence (perhaps?), it was preceded by an advert for Biffy Clyro’s new album, a classic piece of old guard music advertising: cue Radio 1 personality voiceover (in this case Edith Bowman) and heavyweight press quotes over brooding music video clip.
For fans, this bold approach served as a message of inclusiveness: we understand, we are part of this. For those yet to discover the band, it was the ultimate dangling carrot: a clue in the landscape waiting to be cracked. Certainly, The xx are not the first band to harness the power of logo but what makes theirs so powerful is its inherent rich symbolism. Instead of attempting to assimilate a new symbol-logo into an already overcrowded public consciousness (Prince could share a few tips on that), they appropriated one already rich in meaning. And it worked: people started spotting ‘x’s everywhere and ‘seeing’ The xx in their surroundings. Who needs adverts? The ‘x’ acts as a tag – both a signature and a shortcut to an identity, to a message. By creating an emotional attachment to that tag, the fans do the work – any naturally occurring ‘x’ in the world provides a mental shortcut to, and reminder of, The xx.
And who’s steering the helm of this ship? Sure, the label and management had their hand in the channels of communication but the idea is straight and direct from the band. “We chose the name purely aesthetically. It’s just really strong and bold. There’s so much you can do with it, pattern-wise,” said Oliver when I spoke to them back in early summer 2009. All too aware of the possible multiple meanings in their album title, Romy said: “It’s silly really. I realised that xx meant 20 and when it comes out we’ll all be 20.” Plus: “they’re like kisses”, which has to be my favourite reading of their ‘x’s. A new sound, a new voice and a new way of doing things, sealed with an x.
Created a new language of British music
The xx have garage in their blood. You don’t need to second-guess their record collections (you can grab any of Jamie’s superlative mixes for that) – it’s there, in the sumptuous loneliness of VCR, the coiled epic space of Intro, the grinding delicacy of Islands. They’re the most important British band of our times, because they understand instinctively to the codes, expressions and sonic spaces of urban Britain and spontaneously create a new language. Their heritage is the anonymous broadcasts of pirate radio and unsigned whites, but they don’t just react – they move it on, they take it out, take it deep.
Take gender as an example. In the ‘hardcore continuum’, Simon Reynolds’ theory of British electronic music since 1989 (that year again), he talks of a series of repeated threads that bind the lineage together: there’s the respective soul and style of imported Chicago house and New York hip hop that kick(drum)-started it all; there’s the texture and irreverence of the multicultural British identity; and there’s an underlying “feminine pressure” that runs all the way throughout.
Reynolds goes on to talk of the female voice as holding a “privileged representation of bliss” and yet it’s a position that is very much man-made. Female vocals are processed, chopped and resequenced so as to become simply another texture in the sound, in the journey. But The xx’s representations of gender are neither fixed nor static. Romy’s femininity is not an effect that can be controlled; it is active, not passive. Oliver and Jamie both digress from the ‘natural’ masculine roles within the continuum: Oliver is not an MC, he sings, he emotes; Jamie’s production creates a third emotive ‘voice’ and he rejects a faceless position. In fact, Skream was half right: The xx present not one but three faces, each as visible as each other. There is no front person, no larger than life leader, no sun around which the others orbit. Instead the three young Londoners stand at three corners of an equilateral triangle, as in Saam Farahmand’s 3D video sculpture exhibited in January this year, each with their crucial role to play.
Jamie is the enabler; he creates the space in which Romy and Oliver can tell their separate stories. “What she sings she’s written and what I’ve written I sing,” said Oliver last year in my interview with them, and Romy has remarked in a Youtube interview that neither of them has questioned the other one on their lyrics. Traditional pop structure has it that a male and female presence in the same space equals call-and-response, means a duet or a conversation. But as Romy pointed out (again, in last year’s interview): “We’re best friends so it’s not like love songs to one another, it’s too an outside subject.” Male and female are neither wooing one another or in competition in The xx’s world, instead they exist without conflict, without question – each letting the other one simply be. There’s much hope in that.