The Hardcore Continuum: the Case for its Existing Evolution

Disclaimer: Before beginning I would like to acknowledge that this was written by an 18 year old from Sydney. Thus, the knowledge is learned rather than empirical; please forgive any perceived inaccuracies or generalizations. I wasn’t even born in ’92 let alone remember where I was.

Debate surrounding the ardkore continuum has escalated lately. It has become in vogue to declare the ‘nuum dead – UK music, it is argued, has slouched into a postmodern, retrogressive cycle. Martin Clarke’s recent article for FACT, entitled ‘End of the Road’, suggests the rise of ‘road rap’ as signifier of the nuum’s decline. Clarke cites the emerging influence of US hip-hop (UK emcees rhyming over Nas instrumentals rather than grimey beats) as a death blow to the quintessentially UK genre of grime (I’ll talk about grime more extensively later in the piece). Aside from road rap, the most recent Trim single, ‘East’, is equally telling.

With the menace, pace and delivery of grime absent, Trim is also leaning further and further into the US realm (and need I even mention Dizzee Rascal’s Iccarus-like fall from grime golden boy to working with Armand Van Helden?) Grime is not the only UK scene to have fallen victim, according to modern theory, to retro. One could equally reference the Detroit/Chicago sound of Gerry Read, the techno throwbacks of recent R&S singles, Joy O, and South London Ordnance, or Boddika/Lone/anyone’s forays into acid, et al, as an indication of the UK’s decline. Yet, while these examples may evidence a cataclysmic (and catastrophic) halt in progression, it would be unwise to ignore other fields in which, I believe, the continuum continues to flourish and prosper.

Simon Reynolds, god bless him, is a central figure in this debate. On ‘Energy Flash’, his blog analyzing the continuum, it is written that "hybridisation, in the digital era, seems to not lead to anything ... something about it's very fundamental constitutive processes (editing, morphing, etc) is inorganic, hence the non-generative nature of the one-off hybrids, the fact that they don't become genres ... there is a momentary agglomeration of all these networked influences ... but it doesn't become a sound that is adopted/mutated/evolved..." I have a problem with this. With regards to a genre’s dispersion and proliferation, juke fulfills all the criteria of organic breeding. Sure, one might argue that juke’s infiltration of UK airwaves and headspaces may be a “momentary agglomeration” that has not developed into a “sound.” But juke’s influence began in 2010 with Addison Groove’s ‘Footcrab’ and continues to rise in prominence to this day in 2012.
Furthermore, juke’s influence has appeared in an incredibly wide array of UK scenes. From the ‘UK Bass’ of Ramadanman’s ‘Work Them’ to the dubstep of Africa Hitech’s ‘Out in the Streets’, to the dark garridge of Sully’s ‘Carrier’ LP, to the hypergloss of Girl Unit’s Erykah Badu remix, to the cracked-house influence of Andrea’s (aka Andy Stott) ‘Retail Juke’, to even Kode 9's most recent material, juke has planted its seed and spread like a rash. Granted, these artists may not constitute a scene, like the footwork scene in Japan for instance, but it certainly does constitute a sound – one that is more than prevalent in UK music at this time. Indeed, this had been facilitated and intensified by DJ Rashad's hard work in the area, continually pushing his sound through EP appearances and remixes.

In conjunction with grime, the last major step in the nuum’s narrative was dubstep. However, with respect to its current inclusion in the nuum, the massively popular brostep has truly midrange wobbled “real dubstep” to its death. Like a phoenix rising out of the ashes of dubstep, ‘post-dubstep’ made a strong case as a contender for the nuum’s throne. As it turned out the genre is simply too weak, too nerdy and saccharine to enter into a dialogue with the likes of jungle or grime. James Blake, Mount Kimbie, Jamie xx, Disclosure, Fantastic Mr. Fox: they all make great music, but it simply does not fit into the ruffneck, badman aesthetic of hardcore.
Indeed, a recent Mount Kimbie show saw two polite young British lads playing their not quite heavy, not quite poppy sound that your mum probably likes and thanking the crowd after every song. This doesnt quite correlate with the narco-hedonism of hardcore now, does it? Seriously, no e-rush was induced until I had left the concert and was jamming Jam City's 'Her' through my iPhone.

Working against this grain are the mysterious LHF collective. How does Mount Kimbie's politness, in both music and attitude, compare with the ragga profession on LDM’s ‘Rush’ of “the most cantankerous, ruffneck, poisonous dubplate you’ve ever heard!”? LHF engage, fundamentally, in both aspects of the hardcore continuum. First, as far as hardcore is concerned, the group qualify insofar as they are underground, anonymous, functional, and behold a DIY aesthetic. Further, they are self-professed “digital pirates,” i.e. the carriers of ardkore’s offshore flame. Indeed, in a recent interview with the Quietus’ Rory Gibbs, the collective described their relationship with hardcore. For LHF, it is the genesis of each scene that is most interesting: “all the scenes in their early stages are an influence. That’s what we associate with more – that freshness, something that’s right on the impulse, alive and unclassifiable.” And it is in this way that LHF make their mark; by both perpetuating and defying the continuum. Second, as far as the continuum is concerned, they are progressive – their most recent material showcases a true post-dubstep sound. Far from the melodic, IDM-leaning noodlings of Blake and co, LHF create a mutation of “real dubstep” (which is difficult to find in, say, Mount Kimbie’s ‘Bave's Chords’).
LHF maintain the bass pressure, sampledelia, ‘dungeon’ vibe and darkness, while the sparsity and minimalism of gold era dubstep is dismissed. The group’s output is dense and almost tangibly, physically rich in texture while equally tuned for the dancefloor. Take as an example the buzzing saw-wobble introduced in Amen Ra’s ‘Essence Investigation’ at about 2:50 .
This is dubstep’s wobble recontextualised and reimagined – its purpose shifted from focus of the song to enhancing addition. Or, as another example, look at the beat on ‘Candy Rain’.
The song shares dubstep’s tempo, snare pattern and fat, stuttered kick, yet, instead of the snare slamming on the third and resonating in gloopy, dank darkness, it is almost bypassed – it’s tinny, highly electronic and bereft of echo and reverb. Another criteria generally, in the postmodern age, used to measure progression is scope of influence – the merging of disparate sounds or genres. Forgive me for missing the Bollywood-step scene (Jammer's sino-grime probably comes closest), but it seems that No Fixed Abode stands alone in his interest in delving into the past and present of Indian music so wholeheartedly.
Indeed, the incorporation of worldly sounds is itself a characteristic of the continuum – No Fixed Abode incorporates Indian music just as reggae, dancehall, ambient, afrobeat et al has infiltrated UK dance music in the past. It is these kinds of innovations, both in the context of hardcore and the context of progression, that contribute to LHF’s claim as Keepers of the Light.

It is ironic that the author of that FACT article, Martin Clarke, is also the co-founder of Keysound Records, LHF’s label. But I think this contributes to my argument. Yes, there is much music that is worryingly retrogressive, but the article shows that Keysound and LHF are awareof this. Crucially, this awareness allows them freedom to do something about it – to continue the continuum and uphold its approach to music.

In addition to the true post-dub stylings of LHF, grime, despite popular discourse (as in Clarke’s article), continues to develop into fascinating areas. Grime is historically situated in cold, harsh sonic textures. This history is displaced by producers Darq E. Freaker and Jam City, who take the genre’s sound to both logical and illogical extremes. Freaker has taken grime’s hard edge and cut out a hip-hop flavoured (not derivative in the manner of road rap) and melodic take on the genre. While his anthem ‘Next Hype’ rings true to grime’s history, singles like ‘Cherryade’ and ‘Next Hoe’ swing and bounce against the rigidity and austerity of old. ‘Cherryade’ features Freaker’s signature massive stabs and the kind of roll that is often bereft in grime, while ‘Next Hoe’ is spiked with the cut-n-paste method of the L.A. beat scene, with ‘woo’ vocal samples and machinegun samples, and features a complex snare-kick combination that is also uncommon in grime.
On the other side, the asceticism of grime has been magnified and both metaphorically and literally exploded by Night Slugs signee Jam City. ‘Her’ is comprised almost entirely of a pounding gunshot and camera shutter sample.
It is brutally and tribally rhythmic as well as robotically futuristic, taking all the sonically cold, minimal and violent aspects of grime and turning them into a hyperbolic seizure. However, Jam City briefly mirrors the catchiness of Darq E. Freaker when the guns are usurped by a bubblegum organ riff in a moment of pure electronic bliss. Tracks like ‘The Courts’, ‘Final Joust’and 'Hyatt Park Nights Pt. 1' take a similar approach to grime – snare barrages and dirty synth sounds are exploded into an ultra-modern metropolis of sound. Like LHF, both Jam City and Darq E. Freaker maintain the hardness of hardcore while simultaneously managing to sound unlike anything else.

Jam City’s labelmate Girl Unit provides an equally progressive take on the continuum, proof provided by his most recent EP ‘Club Rez’. The other night Diffusion set off to see Blawan and Pariah at Goodgod. The night was full of hard, pummeling 4/4 kicks, huge bass drops and largely bereft of synths or vocal samples. At this stage in the development of ‘UK Bass’ there seems to be a fork in the road. On the one hand you have the likes of Blawan and Pariah (and associate labels like Hessle Audio, R&S and Punch Drunk) who have switched up their style from colourful beatwork (Pariah’s ‘Detroit Falls’) and soulful house (Blawan’s ‘Getting Me Down’) to hard-edged, acid-spiked club bangers. On the other hand you have Night Slugs, who function on a very different plane. Where Hessle and Punch Drunk are retro orientated (as much of Blawan and Pariah’s set was), Night Slugs is futuristic. Where Hessle is coldly trance-inducing, Night Slugs is welcomingly funky. Compare, as a visual reference point, the aesthetic of the two labels. Hessle’s mnml record covers reflect their stripped-down approach to music making, while Night Slugs’ colourful, ultramodern sleeves and videos (see Jam City’s ‘The Courts’ or Girl Unit’s Club Rez promo) reflect their choice to pursue brighter, groovier sounds. As Girl Unit recently stated in an interview with Cluster Mag, the artwork is supposed to be “representative of another world.”
The Club Rez EP demonstrates that Girl Unit has rebounded well from the success of ‘Wut’. It must have been tempting for the producer to attempt something similar, but, as he states in the Cluster interview, he “really didn’t want to outdo it.” And thus we are presented with a fresh sound, something new. While tropes of over-saturation and boom-bap swagger remain, the dizzying bombast seems to have retreated. Instead, Girl Unit is promoting a brand of ADD funk which is as stuck to the dancefloor as your shoes.

Tracks like ‘Ensemble’ elucidate a cocaine fuelled robo-club (just like the one depicted on the album cover) with Bootsy-from-the-future behind the decks. Throughout the EP, like any good producer, Girl Unit deftly balances harsher, grimier themes with the brightness that Night Slugs is known for. Thus, as with LHF, we have a riding of the boundary between hardcore’s past and hardcore’s future. This dialectic leaks into every corner of the release – from texture to melody to structure.
Girl Unit's futurism is further evoked in the language of Philip Sherburne's The Wire review of Club Rez. A writer concerned mainly with genre, he seems to uncharacteristically miss the mark when it comes to Girl Unit. Is 'Double Take' really akin to grime? It's notorious final minute to trance? 'Cake Boss' to Robert Hood Techno? 'Plaza' to latin? I would say absolutely not. Of course, grime, funk, techno, latin and maybe even the t-word are influences on Girl Unit, but these simple classifications are a hugely long bow to draw precisely because the EP is so future; it evades and displaces predisposed genre boundaries rather than fitting neatly into its hole. One might put this down to a matter of subjectivism - Sherburne hears trance and latin, I don't. Fair play. However, I did find this review an outlier for a writer with whom I usually agree. If you look just across the page he reviews Slackk's Raw Mission EP. Comparisons are drawn to OPN, Wiley, Musical Mob - all fine by me. So, when compared to the retro-lean of producers like Blawan and Pariah, or the ease of genre-classification found in Slackk, Girl Unit provides the image and sound of, as DJ Rashad says in his comment on Girl Unit’s ‘IRL’ video, “the future of music.”

I believe that, on closer inspection, the continuum steadily pushes along and that the music of LHF, Darq E. Freaker, Jam City and Girl Unit should be enough to convince a turn of paddle when crossing the river Styx. Indeed, constant lamentations and exhortations of the death of progression only have the dangerous effect of beating down any rising belief in a new sound. Imagine being a young, spritely music enthusiast such as us here at Diffusion. It has become difficult to swallow (post)modern discourse regarding progression when music like this exists – we believe that the future, not the past, lies ahead of us.


Soundcloud Round-Up

We haven't posted a lot of single trax of late, but the amount of good shit popping up on soundcloud warrants an update. New material from DJ Tylermania, remixing Lao on Soukouch Ethnik - a label that has heralded many successes this year. Its internet-depressed 92 hardcore; stabs, breaks, a dark bass breakdown - reminiscent of Zomby's classic Where Were U in 92 and constantly accompanied by the sultry seduction of "I'll give you pain." Like a rave drifting into the abyss. Boylan and Jana present the perfect collaboration, the soul of Boylan merges perfectly with Jana's coldness. Woody bass notes are joined by a screaming sax lick to create a cacophonous sample, while ghetto vocals (a touch of Jana's, I'd say, considering they are largely absent in Boylan's trax) keep the track floored. Traxman has been releasing a stream of trax on soundcloud of late, both as his house moniker Corky Strong, and as footwork's Traxman. This remix seems a continuation of his album, all its warmth, deepness, wonderful intensity. Traxman proving that there really is no other life but teklife. This new Pogflipper is an absolute jam. It sounds like if LDFD in his recent phase was making wonky. Bang it out yo car all day. Meanwhile, Hippos In Tanks has released a track from Nguzunguzu's forthcoming EP Warm Pulse. The 808s elucidate an off-kilter juke, but bassweight and vocals sound more like the UK, the chimes like Ferraro. Nguzunguzu really do have an amazing capability of crystallising their internationalist aesthetic. And finally, more gold from Paisley Parks. Check out any of his recent soundcloud material, it's all great, but this probably tops it all. A twee 40s vocal sample is accompanied by some big band fanfares as Paisley Parks carries out his particular brand of madness and battleground destruction.


Diffusion Mix #2 ~ Legit

 It is an honour and a pleasure to present Diffusion Mix #2 by Austin's Legit. A member of the Wabi Sabi collective and producer of one of my personal favourite songs of the year, Legit exists in the thriving Texas scene that, as #2 demonstrates, continues to evade boundaries. It is obviously centred around trap music, but provides so much more: where a mix by Flosstradamus or Diplo, for example, focuses on all the bang of trap (and while bang is still forefront in this mix), Legit engages with the ebb and flow of the mix as a whole - sections without bass, dipping into scenes America-wide and sounds world-wide. Like clicking through radio channels, as the beginning and end suggest. From trap anthems like Harlem Shake to Cedaa to Abel to Cocobass records, Legit surveys contemporary US bass music with a fine ear for anything that'll make you lean. Starting with some real trap shit, moving into dubsteppy territory by way of the UK techno sounds (think Blawan and Objekt, but replace the pounding 4/4 or dubstep bassweight with the south's boom-bap) and finally blossoming in full, peaking glory.

The mix also reflects the trap scene's, on a wider scale, obsession with internety murkiness, kitsch soundbites and watermarks. It switches from the minimal = maximal aesthetic of the likes of TNGHT to the schizophrenic, violently restless likes of LDFD in an instant, full of the sounds of cultural deconstruction and decay. In the mix Legit is keenly aware of the effect of these bleeps and bloops - the ecstasy of the barrage, the intrigue of their absence. And thus we have a perfectly balanced mix- between restraint and overload, between minimalism and maximalism, between sparsity and density. Brilliantly, this is still full volume, 1 a.m. music and it's a free download so get listening!


Teengirl Fantasy - Motif (Actress Remix)

What a superb instant entry into every top 100 of this year. On the back of Actress' more than monumental 'R.I.P.' long player this not only fulfills the inevitable urge for more, it also is the exact kind of musical release that Actress had deliberately left off the album. R.I.P. is a work that evokes a very itchy, ambiguous, mystical atmosphere where as this remix cuts through the fog of intellectualism and gives us Actress, humbly tweaking the knobs through his psychoacoustic dancefloor workout. There is a cleanness to the bass and the hissing textures the leak out from the plunging malicious four-to-the-floor kick. Hey, if you like Actress (which you do, let's get real) this is a compulsory addition to your iTunes library.


Jlin - EU4RIA

Every track Jlin lays her hands on, she doesn't just kill, she murders. Easily one of the best in the footwork game, Jlin also has to be one of the best females in dance music altogether. This track, with its spasmodic piercing string stabs, matches the supernatural adrenalin of a footwork battle. The listener falls into a pit of tribal screams and cartoonish textures that contain the feel of outright war. Jlin's free-form song structure also complements the air of madness and chaos that is embedded in all her best tracks, and this is one of the best to date.

Jam City ~ Classical Curves

Jam City is one of the most restless, the most varied producers on the Night Slugs roster. Classical Curves is a testament to this, to the eclecticism that comes with the name. Indeed, what is beautiful about this record is not its emotive and highly accurate portrait of the present day, nor its more modern (and arguably more successful) take on the objective of Detroit Techno (to amalgamate Kraftwerk and Parliament), but its heteroglossia - that fact that any of these readings is as good as the other. In Classical Curves I hear at once the hazey postmodernity of the Ferraro/Lopatin matrix, the glamour and sex-ooze of Prince, the coldness of eskibeat, the mechanical industrialism of Underground Resistance and the vibrancy of Night Slugs. But that's just me and my musical understanding - you may see something altogether different in it, and that's the beauty of this album.

Whether true or an elaborate publicity stunt, the backstory of the album provides a fitting environment for its themes. (The story goes that JC was approached to work on some chrome "body extensions" by a high-fashion label, naturally the project turned out to be overseen by a Big Brother-esque aero-space company and was consequentially shut down. Another goes that JC was involved in some sport-label spy missions to snoop on competitors.) Elucidated are modern surveillance, the ritz and materiality of haute-couture fashion, robotics and ultramodern technotopia. This is not only communicated in the albums story, but in the album's cover art. A crash devoid of humans, golden velvet, marble, and a splintered motorbike all framed in the kind of inside-outside area one might find in dystopic Dubai. It's an excursion for Night Slugs' visual aesthetic, just as it's an excursion for their sound.

'Her' has received a bit of botox since we last heard its demo. The album version makes the song more palatable, the brutality and violence of the drums has been pacified while the injection of the vocal sample adds a vogue poppiness to it. This is a bad thing by no means, more a matter of taste, with JC equally succeeding in promoting what was a great idea to an album-worthy track. I've spoken about my love for 'Her' before, but it really does prove what Girl Unit recently said about Jam City, that he "manages to recontextualise harsh sounds and make them beautiful." 'Her' and 'The Courts' work together in an almost symbiotic manner. Not only is ther no break between them, but they are sonically (the pounding gun of Her turns into the slap-claps of The Courts) and structurally (the emphasis on tension and release) aligned.

'How We Relate to the Body' is the centrepiece for Jam City's synth work. If I had a complaint it would be this; the overuse of that synth tone. When restricted to one song it creates a hi-sheen, effulgent, chrome gloss while remaining laceratingly potent and disarmingly modern. Coupled with the steadiness of a fat kick and the emotion of decaying replicant vocals, the track delivers not only thump fit for a club but subtlety fit for the home. Tracks like 'Club Thanz' and the 'Hyatt Park' sequence are where the synth work tires and where Jam City seems happy to sit back and sustain the album's concept. Having said that, they do work for the album and are far from skippable. Unless you consider what comes next. What can I say about 'Strawberries'? It's the best song on the album? One of the best of the year? Well, yes, but that doesn't compare to the sheer joy of listening to it. It is the standout not only because it retains a bigness to behold but because it is the most fully realised example of Jam City's aesthetic. It rolls all those influences I mentioned before, with a bit of trap music and a bit of Rustie thrown in for good measure, into a firework, and goes off in full, explosive glory. 'Love is Real', with its ambient drones, kitsch soundbytes and jittery percussion, could fit right in on the most recent Ferraro work, Bodyguard's Silica Gel.

'The Nite Life' is a strange collaboration, and it is testament to both artists' creativity that this exists, let alone that it is so successful. Jam City appears to have studied the vibe of Main Attraktionz and delivered it holistically without compromising the sound of the album. It's smoked out; emotionally so. After all, Main Attraktionz have shown that they approach drug taking in a nihilistically philosophical way - 'I Smoke Because I Don't Care About Death'. Jam City's production similarly conveys an aura of 21st century surrealism and disillusionment. But where Jam really shows is skills is in the vocal-less second wind that comes at the end of the track. Skittering hi-hats and a rolling bassline are added to create a lurching, ear-worming slow jam that only sticks around for a minute before drifting into oblivion. So there you have it, a highly anticipated and typically English club album that finishes with a collaboration with the creators of cloud rap. On that note...