Eine Kleine Musik

My friends at RBMA Radio have been locked away in a Berlin back room for over three weeks now, serving up ten hours of radio every day. I’ve come for the last two weeks of the pop-up radio station, which has turned a Kreuzberg Italian cafe into a musical magnet of sorts.

Berlin has become the central location for a  generation of artists who sit broadly within the descriptive realm of electronic music – which means a lot of local treasure. Even if it’s a lot of highly internationalised local treasure.

First day I was here I met Morphosis, aka Rabih Beaini who runs a label called Morphine. He is reissuing the work of a musician called Charles Cohen, who was one of the few people who used very early synthesisers, particularly those made by eccentric innovator Don Buchla. This was music made for experimental dance or theatre performances, but it sounds an awful lot like the music that Detroit musicians like Mad Mike, Jeff Mills and Derrick May would make some years later. Even the titles resonate with those of classic Motor City techno. Dance Of The Spirit Catchers is a Charles Cohen piece, but is interchangeable with UR titles like Hi-Tech Jazz or Journey Of The Dragons. The music is gorgeous.

Young Turks did a takeover of the station for the last two hours of the day, and included an interview with FKA Twigs. The music has a quality that marks her out as an innovator: it doesn’t sound like anyone else. Much is made of her distinct visual flair, which like the music, is confident, beguiling and seriously original. This is well worth a listen.

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A couple of days later we had a two hour special from the Hotflush label, who brought along one of their artists, Recondite. He’s a seriously serious man, both sartorially – all blacks and greys and minimalist glasses – and sonically. We played some of his music and talked about it, on air, in-between plays. On one, he described the music as coming from the perspective of a hawk, circling high up, seeing everything. He makes lovely music but should also be writing hard-edged, brutalist nature novels, like a Berlin-drenched Knut Hamson or Cormac McCarthy.

Leisure System, or more specifically Ned Beckett, came in yesterday. They run parties here in Berlin and have morphed over eight or nine releases into a record label, too. The thing they do really well is breadth, bringing together musicians as superficially distinct as Objekt and Gold Panda, and picking up brand new artists like Hubie Davison, like musical Manta Ray, scanning the ocean floor for buried treasure.

The final entry is for some music of the mouth. Yes, I got myself some classic Berlin fast food in the shape of gemuse kebap from Kottiwood, just down the road from where I’m staying at Kottbusser Tor. Yes boss!

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#cultureclash

Last Wednesday was a momentous day. Obama was re-elected. Celtic won against Barcelona. And grime collective Boy Better Know beat Annie Mac, Major Lazer and reigning champs Channel One at the Red Bull Music Academy Culture Clash.

I jest, slightly.

Culture Clash was more than just an awesome night of sound entertainment, and I’ll tell you why. First, it’s the full and final confirmation that the British iteration of the Jamaican dancehall soundclash has been fully revived and revitalised. Secondly, it tells you a lot about the power and forward motion of grime. And thirdly, much like in the ‘90s when rave music was all over the charts, it means our current crop of teens are getting schooled in UK street-up music, which bodes well for the next generation of British musical hybrids – and indeed for British culture and society in general. Mainstream society might not recognise it as such but this is art.

The original Jamaican soundclash was a development of the way liquor store owners set up speakers outside their shops to bring in more custom. This turned into dances as we understand them: outdoor musical events where American R&B, and then new Jamaican music was played to appreciative crowds at loud volume. Rivalries ensued between competing sounds, which eventually turned into the soundclash, where two systems would be placed facing each other with the crowd inbetween and would take turns to play sets, with the people deciding the winner through the volume of their appreciation.

In the UK, it shifted and changed. It wasn’t possible to hold dances outside and most of the year it’d be too cold anyway. So the dance moved into community centres and the clash moved with it. Two sounds at either end of places like Pountley Hall, showing off their selections and their ‘specials’, big songs that had been re-vocaled by the artist to ‘big up the sound’ or diss a rival. I don’t know exactly when the soundclash died out in this form but it must have been at the point that single sound dances run by dons like Aba-Shanti-I or Jah Shaka took over, so perhaps the late ‘80s.

In the interim, there was silence. Well, that’s not exactly true. Soundsystem culture swung into the DNA of every new hybrid of UK street music since Lovers Rock, coursing through our version of house music, jungle, garage, grime and dubstep. But there was no clash apart from the grime MC battles so memorably recorded on the Lords of The Mic DVDs or perhaps in the shadows of the MCs waiting to get on stage at grime raves like Sidewinder determined to outdo the previous performer, or perhaps even in the idea of the b2b where two DJs would play together, five tunes on, five tunes off.

In November 2010 as part of the London Red Bull Music Academy (of which I was part – I’ve hosted interviews at the Academy since 2002) the clash was revived. DMZ, Metalheadz, Trojan, Soul II Soul went head to head in a supersized four-way clash at The Roundhouse. I’m easily pleased by this kind of thing but this was a night to convert even doubters. This was high-octane musical collaboration and abrasion at it’s finest. Metalheadz had Goldie dashing about on stage, DMZ frontman Sgt Pokes insulted everyone, Trojan drew for the original style dub reggae and Soul Jazz mixed up the selection. Metalheadz won. The following year four different sounds (reigning champions Metalheadz, dub specialists Channel One, Soul II Soul and Skream and Benga) stepped up with similarly energetic effects – and Channel One reigned supreme. This week, the whole thing moved up a notch or two. It was at Wembley, there were 7,000 people there including a swathe of 16-18s allowed by the lowering of the entrance age and the participants came from Radio One (Annie Mac’s AMP stage), from LA, with hitmaker to the stars Diplo aka Major Lazer, reigning champions Channel One and grime dons Boy Better Know. I hate to sound smug, but my money was on BBK right from the start because who knows better about battle styles than London’s grime MCs?

I’ll post some footage when it’s up.

BBK’s powerful, hilarious, no-holds-barred final round and eventual win says a lot about the healthy state of grime. Wiley is all over the charts and is packing out his Eskidance raves. Elijah and Skilliam’s Butterz empire has shifted instrumental grime into hyper-loaded jump-up rave territory but with brilliant tunes that nod to early grime instrumentals like Musical Mobb’s Pulse X and multiply them. JME’s ‘chatty policeman’ series on YouTube, where he films himself being (repeatedly) stopped and searched has many thousands of views. Grime is national, multi-ethnic and as open to ladies with the right flow as it is to the thousands of boys who step up their literacy by writing and practising bars every lunchtime. If the government wants to explain recent rises in literacy (according to NASUWT, not Michael Wilshaw) it might want to thank grime rather than the counterproductive literacy curriculum which gets results despite of rather than because of its impact.

So who’s for next time? There are some big names who have not yet entered the arena: David Rodigan; Jamaica’s multi-winning Stone Love team; the aforementioned Butterz; Lemon D and Dillinjah’s Valve Sound; a UK garage sound headed perhaps by revivalist DJ Oneman… this thing could run and run. And hopefully, it will.

Terror Danjah on Pick N Mix

Just a warning, really. Grime producer Terror Danjah is coming down to the studio tonight to be interviewed on my weekly radio show. I’ve got questions about the space between grime and dubstep, about SB.TV and about his trademark gremlin cackle… and who knows what else’ll come up. He’s a nice man. So nice in fact that he came down to Live Magazine a few weeks ago, armed with a bottle of Lucozade to keep him refreshed while the journalists of the future grilled him for a profile piece we ran in the mag.

I’ll put up a transcript of the interview over the weekend some time, ready to read alongside the show which will be available to listen again on Monday.

Barcelona Calling

I’ve just returned from two weeks in Barcelona, working for the Red Bull Music Academy. I’ve worked on five Academy editions now, taking in musically heightened fortnights in Sao Paolo, Rome, Toronto and Melbourne before landing in Barcelona for the tenth anniversary Academy. I interviewed a whole handful of people on the couch, including Christian Fennesz, Appleblim, Gary Bartz, El Guincho, Buraka Som Sistemaand LDN grime MC Skepta. Check the video archive here http://www.redbullmusicacademy.com – cuz as well as my stuff you’ll find a literal A-Z of wikkidness.

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