In praise of the short song

Brevity is the soul of wit - and today's music artists are creatively pushing the short track, says Sunil Chauhan.

27.10.11

Words by: Ruth Saxelby

We are constantly told that Google is making us stupid, that the web is eroding our attention span and that sending instant messages while watching streaming video has diminished our sensitivity to appreciate. Hands will keep getting wrung over what this has done to listeners but what about the artists? Bristol producer Joker has spoken about keeping chat conversation windows open at the same time as his production software while Peckham rapper Giggs records while reading his lyrics from his BlackBerry. Plus with most artists tweeting from the studio, it’s probably okay to wonder if maybe they should be giving a bit more concentration to the thing they want us to pay for. But one of the main ways all this diverted focus has impacted on modern music – some of the most exciting modern music – is one of the most obvious: its length.

Where late 90s producers like DJ Shadow and RJD2 were interested in slow reveal and exploring how epic hip-hop could be, today producers like Ras G and Paul White are interested in the opposite: how miniature beats can be made. Almost aloof about the presence their tracks have, they’ve taken a Stanley knife to the 90s beats they revere, never letting their tracks play too long and ending them abruptly to draw attention to their brevity. Influenced by J Dilla’s ‘Donuts’, the album that made it okay to release a beat-tape as a stand-alone set, White was also hooked on Madlib and Dilla’s beat-tapes (samplers of instrumentals handed out by producers for rappers to choose from) that leaked around the same time, as were pretty much all the current LA beat scene producers. Punchy and straight to the point, tracks from albums like White’s ‘The Purple Brain’ or Ras G’s ‘Down To Earth’ are ultra-concise and curt, with a laid-in-one-take air about them. Swift running times mean they last long enough to tempt with what might be coming but end tantalisingly before they could ever be accused of outstaying their welcome.

Though Erykah Badu’s ‘Nu-Amerykah’ (still the most imaginative album-length and song-based application of the ‘Donuts’ ethos), Georgia Anne Muldrow and Flying Lotus have all taken this aesthetic to their heart, this kind of functionalism can also be found in the likes of Rustie and Hudson Mohawke and scores of other producers happy to choose an inspired moment over a ‘finished’ one. Why flesh out an idea if the feel of it is already there in sketch form? For his Fly Lo-produced debut, Thundercat felt he had to keep everything brief as he was worried people would otherwise worry it would be “like jazz where a piece starts and then every musician takes their turn to solo – I didn’t want to scare anyone away.”

Outside of hip hop, others also seem to prefer what’s under the three minute mark. Dutch bubbling house producer Anti-G’s brilliant Planet Mu release from earlier this year barely made it past half an hour with nearly every track only just breaking the two minute barrier. Mu labelmates and footwork producers DJ Roc and DJ Nate are a continent away in Chicago and sound nothing like Anti-G’s quick-footed house music but most tracks on Roc’s album were lucky to make it past three minutes either. Most footwork producers have no use for smooth fades with most tracks halting suddenly as if someone randomly knocked the stop button. Like earlier Midwestern dance music, footwork is made with dancers in mind but where house classics like Acid Tracks topped fifteen minutes, the emphasis is now less about locking dancers into a state of sustained ecstasy than keeping them in a state of restrained frenzy to ensure competition between the crews on the floor stays intense. Producers also have no reason to make tracks with slow-burning dynamics like Ramadanman or Addison Groove’s takes on footwork when DJs switch tracks up so rapidly.

“People are still attentive,” says One Handed Music’s Alex Stevenson, who’s released music by Paul White and Bullion, “but we don’t give things a chance nowadays. With a beat, you get your point across in a few seconds, and move on to the next one quickly.” Just as we seem to lack the patience to sift through all the music we download, musicians seem to have little interest in spending too long refining and developing as they once might have done. It’s also worth noting that most of these producers will see little remuneration for their work, which makes exerting themselves beyond that initial burst of inspiration not always worth the effort. But while some might miss the deep listening demanded by hip hop, jungle or techno in the 90s, short songs shake up our structural expectations and offer the perfect aesthetic for the modern age. They cater to our lack of patience, serving up their thrills quick and upfront with all the fat trimmed, going for pure visceral impact even if they occasionally sacrifice something in the way of old fashioned dynamics. Like an attempt to take back control, these artists are leaving nothing for us to skip, edit or rearrange, stripping not just albums but individual tracks down to their absolute, most essential components. The future will be short.