I got James Blake’s album in the post today. And as well as the usual feelings of anticipation and curiosity you’d expect to feel when faced with such a hotly-awaited piece of music, I also felt a genuine sense of pride. I didn’t have anything to do with this album, obviously. I didn’t write the stripped down gospel songs, or let the beats fall in that idiosyncratic way, or allow the silence to gain such momentum that it became a presence: 22 year old Blake did all of that in his bedroom. But I know something about it, I know something that he knows, because I also attended FWD>> regularly during that heady period of expansion between 2006 and 2008, a place that is regularly cited as the springboard for Blake’s music. I wasn’t there at the start; I was part of the generation that took over from the hardcore that built dubstep’s foundations, a period that maximised the beginnings, but before the existence of all those horrible records people shout over on Radio1.
When I think about FWD>> I think about the music, and the darkness behind the curtain that separated the dancefloor from the bar area (watch any YouTube footage to see how dark that place was. All you can ever see is the orange light behind the DJ booth and the odd lighter). It was funny, intense, energetic, hedonistic, powerful. You’d meet people from wildly different lives: sophisticated 16 year olds who’d post on the dubstepforum about bouncing across the playground to Barefiles mixes; old school bassheads who had been around the block and recognised that spark of scene genius; short Croydon girls in loads of make-up and shirt dresses; middle-class students and of course the regular contingent of DJs and producers who you’d find at the back, where the bar merged into the cloakroom.
But where is FWD>> in James Blake’s self-titled debut? I can hear shades of Plastician and Skream playing their mix of Black Ghost’s ‘Some Way Through This’, or the first time I heard Appleblim playing there – my overriding memory of that set is hearing shockingly irrational beats with huge cliffsides of compressed air powering through the speakers, and hearing him play ‘Circling’ – or those weekly spins of galloping, understated soulful Mala tracks ‘Left Leg Out’, ‘Blue Notez’ and ‘Lean Forward’.
Most, though, I can hear Kode9 playing Massive Music’s ‘Find My Way’, a song recast to suit the needs of people who’ve grown up with breakbeats and who understand instinctively that music, song structure and rhythm can be re-arranged. ‘Find My Way’ felt like one of the first records I heard within dubstep that could be classed, however vaguely, as a song (that’s excluding all the dancehall and grime lyricists who’ve always surrounded the music) and to me, it’s a definite precursor to Blake’s music. One major difference is that Blake has dropped any hint of Jamaican soundsystem heritage from his album and replaced it with Bon Iver-style vocodered folk (that one second of vocoder on ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’, stretched out over a whole song on ‘Lindesfarne I and II’), sparse, skinny gospel (‘Measurements’), and emotional, hungover pop (‘Limit To Your Love’). I might write a fuller album review at some point, but for now, two listens in on a rainy Saturday morning, I think that’s enough.
I saw someone questioning on Twitter whether 2011 would be the ‘year dubstep meets the pub singer’ and at its worst, that’s an apposite and accurate observation. On the other hand, this is a year when people who’ve experienced something special are coming back into the world, armed with everything they know about sub-bass and silence and perfectly misplaced beats and they’re taking this armoury into pop songs. James Blake has done it and who knows what fellow FWD>> alumni Ikonika, Braiden, Subeena, Deadboy or Ramadanman will create over the next few months and years. But I’m telling you. It’s going to be interesting.