Posts from 3rd July 2000

3
Jul 00

The problem that I have with Robbie Williams nicking hip hop lyrics

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The problem that I have with Robbie Williams nicking hip hop lyrics for his new single, “I Don’t Wanna Rock, DJ”, doesn’t come from the re-using of the rhymes. If taking a Slick Rick lyric (Williams uses “When I’m on the mike I rock the mike right” from “Ladi Dadi”) was banned then half of Snoop’s and Biggie’s back catalogues would have to be destroyed. The problem comes from the fact that he won’t acknowledge it. Some of his listeners may remember “Can I kick it? Yes you can!” from the Nike advert but no doubt he’ll pass the rest off as his own. Why can’t the kids be enlightened, Rob?

Sure there’s a bit of a double standard there – I’m sure Snoop and Biggie sometimes didn’t acknowledge it – but wouldn’t the hip hop listener already be more knowledgeable when it comes to hip hop lyrics? References like this are common in hip hop but not in rock/pop like Robbie Williams’ stuff. Rob, if you’re reading, do the right thing and tell the kids to find themselves the originals.

“[The snares] sound like the snapping of Sisqo’s lady’s thong straps against her thighs as she swivels her hips to the beats”

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“[The snares] sound like the snapping of Sisqo’s lady’s thong straps against her thighs as she swivels her hips to the beats”???

Tim, this is meant to be a nice clean family page! That kind of thing’ll have our readers all excited. But, yeah, I suppose you’re right…

However, while the Garage remixes of R&B singles are pretty much ubiquitous now, how many actually get a US release? Napster might be the only chance US fans get to hear them and then we’re back to the same old problem of the downloader not knowing anything about each track except the name.

I think the level of globalisation which we each perceive there to be is pretty subjective.

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I think the level of globalisation which we each perceive there to be is pretty subjective. Robin argues that we, the globally aware, may overestimate others. The difference I see, though, is that it’s not just internet users or amateur global politicians who are becoming more globally aware. Kids are far more aware of the world; we know where places are, what they’re like, we’ve been on holidays there, we have friends there…

I don’t think I’m overestimating our generation when I say that we realise far more than any before that the distinctions between countries and people are generally insignificant and this undoubtedly spreads over into the music which we’re likely to listen to.

Sisqo – Thong Song (Artful Dodger Mix)

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Sisqo – Thong Song (Artful Dodger Mix)

I’ve been watching my name stare out at me accusingly from Tom’s list of “team members” for a while now, and so thought I better drag myself away from my own blog and contribute something for once. And what better than a review of the UK Garage mix of Freaky Trigger’s favourite song?

I’ve been following Robin and Greg’s conversation with some interest. Analyses of UK Garage’s commercial appeal have dominated representations of it in the media, perhaps in an attempt to explain just how it blew up right under the media’s nose despite numerous warning signs. What seems to have been lost though in the talk of Garage as the “new urban soul” or “transcultural pop music” is its savvy combination of not only commercial influences, but also cross-genre experimentation. In the average Garage track you’ll hear glimmers of house’s textural manipulation, hardcore’s sampladelic intertextuality, jungle’s breakbeat and sub-bass wizardry and contemporary R&B’s techno futurism. It’s just that when the whole mix is blended and poured out so smoothly by groups like The Artful Dodger, it’s hard to see past the lustrous soft sheen.

I reckon Garage mixes of US R&B singles will become ubiquitous soon, because the contexts of the raw material shared between the originals and the remixes aren’t too different: stuttering beats, cluttered arrangements and melodramatic divas. Hence material designed for one genre can be recontextualised within the other with little difficulty. And it’s only in the context of the garage arrangement of “Thong Song” that I realise what a great garage diva Sisqo is: lusty, soulful, melodramatic, and with a predeliction for sex and the high life. While the original version of “Thong Song” sometimes verges on being both sleazy and frivolous in the face of the de rigeur icy cold R&B that otherwise dominates the charts, the garage remix belongs to a genre dedicated to pleasure and over-succulent with sexual tension, and thus makes all too much sense.

The Artful Dodger are a great choice as remixers, because their tracks gloss over the rawness that still informs most Garage (I don’t know how receptive US artists are to someone like MC Neat growling all over their tracks just yet), and instead walk a fine line between tearjerker melancholic beauty and reassuring fluff. I suspect nothing will quite top their otherworldly mix of Valerie M’s “Tingles 2000”, but here the Dodgers come close by making the inspired choice of switching the bombast of the original for an almost laidback gamelan funk – it’s the sort of thing I kind of expected when I heard about Beta Band’s “Sequinsizer”, only you can dance to it. It’s in the arrangement details that the Artful Dodger really excel, pulling together random, dislocated snippets of melody and tonal colour into a seamless web of sound that I reckon has very little to do with their much vaunted classical training. The effect is similar to that of the orchestral bleeps used on R&B tracks like Kelis’ “Caught Out There” or Destiny’s Child’s “Perfect Man”: a surround-sound environment of non-musical noises that only happen to coalesce into a song by accident.

Meanwhile, the beats are kept pretty simple, playing out a standard 2-step rhythm. The real joy lies in the delectably programmed rustle of the snares trailing each beat, which sound like the snapping of Sisqo’s lady’s thong straps against her thighs as she swivels her hips to the beats. It’s the pure kinetic energy of tracks like this that place them on the forefront of popular music, while simultaneously being the soundtrack to the summer of so many. In a musical environment where experimentation is so often equated with structureless sprawl, the ruthless repetition that dominates so much popular music gives it the framework within which it can be more experimental than any twenty-minute jam.

Yeah, “attitude problem” is the wrong phrase

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Yeah, “attitude problem” is the wrong phrase. I exaggerated. It’s 90% indifference and only 10% contempt, I’d guess.

Greg, I see all your points. Maybe I’m obsessed with national differences

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Greg, I see all your points. Maybe I’m obsessed with national differences (I was once told that my specialist subject, as it were, was “national identity seen from the perspective of a diehard internationalist”, which was spot on) but I think enthusiastic, forward-looking globalists such as ourselves can exaggerate the way expectations for records to sound instantly “of” the country from which they came are declining. Even in the first “internet generation” (for want of a better phrase) there are people with little or no experience of the net, and if you don’t have that experience then the much-vaunted mass popular globalism of this era will be infinitely less likely to form.

Also, if Americans had such a stereotypical view of the British in the 60s compared to now, why did the Rolling Stones achieve so much there? The writers and target audience of the “Violent Britain” scare stories are actually of the generation which embraced them so enthusiastically, which kind of interrupts a linear interpretation of history. National identity is still intertwined with pop music – maybe not for the likes of us, but for a significant enough proporiton of the audience.

But if anything the problem to my argument is that the music in question doesn’t stress aggression or abrasiveness in the way I seem to imply. You’re right about Craig David not suffering at all from those attitude problems – quite the opposite, in fact, there’s something about his presence that could give him star status *anywhere*. Indeed it does remind me of the (at the time) totally unexpected US breakthrough of Soul II Soul – I’m drawing mental comparisons as I write, and part of me can very strongly imagine “Fill Me In” achieving what “Back To Life” did. Having said *that*, though, the US pop charts in 1989 / 90 were still dominated by AOR and pop (it was before the great commercial breakthrough of R&B and hip-hop, along with Nirvana, broke down the 80s consensus for good) – there’s an analogy there to be drawn with the dull, safe nature of the US charts in the year or so before the Beatles exploded there.

But, as you say, ultimately too much of this kind of discussion can remove us from why we’re here – enjoying the music.

THE INFESTICONS – Hero Theme, Cave Theme, Precious Theme and others (from the album Gun Hill Road)

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Is there some connection between the enjoyably overblown and absurd “concept” for this record and the bizarre way it sounds from time to time like late 60s acid rock at its most self-indulgent, with organ reminiscent of the Doors? Probably not, actually, but it’s an intriguing connection … the basis for this Mike Ladd-helmed collective effort is that there’s a battle for hip-hop between the Majesticons (allies being the Nostalgicons, “a crew in downtown Manhattan who thinks everything from the 70s and 80s was cool no matter how bad it sucked at the time” … hmmm, why do the initial J and the number 5 come to mind?, and the Jiggidons, “the record exec secret society”) and the Infesticons (allies including the “rejecticons”, “electicons” and so on). While these concepts are all good fun, I find the whole idea of music having to be “saved” or “battled for” inherently flawed, because it implies that music can be defined in timeless, changeless terms (the hideous idea of “quality control”, as somebody else might put it). Plus, the choice of betes noires can become outdated very quickly – the originator of the Jiggidons is one “Poof Na Na”, with Mr Combs now an impotent, meaningless target, and it’s an unpleasantly homophobic “pun” as well.

That said, much of this album is excellent, and it mercifully avoids the outmoded ideas of “soulfulness” that let down so much undie rap. “Precious Theme” is terrific, fizzing with brassy funk, “Cave Theme” is very good (even the cliched operatic vocal just about works) and “Hero Theme” has a power redolent of the best 80s hip-hop (the riff and chorus have that certain effortless, commercial memorability that most undie deliberately avoids). It begins to fall down in the second half of the album, though, and then you get that bizarre muso rockism utterly removed from the sound this album achieves at its best – Rob Smith’s “Chase Theme” and Liza Jessie Peterson’s “Figurine Theme” suffer from poor, indulgent emceeing over incongrous organs and electric guitars, and Saul Williams’s “Monkey Theme” doesn’t at all live up to the best of his 1998 work on Rawkus. The “Night Night Theme” is brilliant to start with (memorable computer game sounds, unnecessary but memorable reference to Vic Reeves) but then fades out and comes back as yet another sub-acid rock workout, for no reason at all.

The whole set of values on which this album is founded – a battle for the “soul” of hip-hop – are illusory, but if you can leave that aside there’s some pretty good music here.

Thanks to Boyce for letting me know that…

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…the Olde Mix sounds like it might be the original demo of “Intergalactic” (as mentioned in the Anthology liner notes). Now if only I can find those liner notes somewhere…

Robin, I see what you mean but I’m not sure I agree with the idea of the US’s attitude towards Britain being a problem.

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Robin, I see what you mean but I’m not sure I agree with the idea of the US’s attitude towards Britain being a problem. Have you considered that the authors (and audiences) of these news stories about Violent Britain are likely to be much different to the audiences of pop music? The main record audience generation (16-25?) are much more globally aware than even the previous generation. This links in nicely with the ideas on Steal This Blog! about Independence Day celebrations. While this generation, my fellow fill-in bloggers, may not be celebrating freedom from Britain or anything patriotic, there’s a distinct possibility that their parents or their grandparents may be. In that short space of time a fantastic shift has taken place in which much less attention is paid to cultural differences. The older generations may not like a British record to sound un-British, but the younger generation may just want the best records around. Admittedly, the name UK Garage may not be the best to try and break the barriers of nationality but when Big Beat can become Electronica why can’t UK Garage adopt Breakbeat Soul or Bass Funk or some other ludicrous title?

On the other hand, the attitude which you refer to could be a problem. Much is made of UK Garage being “a London thing” or “black music” but really I don’t think beyond a certain press fascination this is relevant. If there’s one chance for UK Garage it’s that it’s been accepted into the mainstream so quickly. The blend of R&B, hip hop, house and countless other forms of music has meant that it’s easy for the music to be polished up for the pop charts. Craig David hardly has an attitude that would put the US off, does he? While I think the cliquey obsession with the underground might be a problem for artists like Wookie or MJ Cole, artists like Sweet Female Attitude (unlikely) or even Victoria Adams (much more likely) shouldn’t have too much of a problem escaping the image, seeing as they have little or nothing to do with the underground anyway.

In the end we can only enjoy the music and hope for the best.

I’m as keen as Greg to see UK Garage get exposure in America

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I’m as keen as Greg to see UK Garage get exposure in America, but I can’t realistically see it happening – because (and I know this will seem like a sweeping and, to some, offensive statement) it just doesn’t fit into the portrayal of Britain that mass American audiences want (if they care about this country at all). The so-called “furore” this past week over the claims that Britain is a more violent society than America is simply the byproduct of a slow, pained realisation of the fact that Britain, for all its faults, is not some quaint, crime-free little island.

When “British but un-British” records *have* succeeded there, though, it’s interesting how they stand out for wildly varying reasons – the global stereotype of the British has been that they don’t calmly and naturally relax, but also that they never get *too* excited, they don’t lose all self-control. It’s a potent cultural myth based around a perceived emotional avoidance of extremes – and that explains why “Get Off Of My Cloud”, one of the Rolling Stones’ three or four worthwhile efforts, sounded “un-British” because of its unstoppable rhythmic aggression, while Soul II Soul’s “Back To Life” sounded “un-British” because of its possessing the opposite mood, immaculate relaxation. When “Get Off Of …” topped the Billboard chart in 1965, the sheer force of its instrumentation, the way the words “Hey” and “You” are then viciously repeated to force the message home, and (especially) its use of the drums as a virtual lead instrument, shocked American audiences used to the post-war ideal of the polite Englishman. “Back To Life”, meanwhile, at the tail end of the Thatcher era and after Reagan had gone, transcended all ideas of the English being uptight, and the very fact that it was a black, urban British record was subversive in certain quarters. These two brilliant extremes of un-British Britishness both stood out in America because of the way they perfected particular feelings at opposite ends of the emotional scale, coming from a country almost universally associated with an avoidance of emotional extremities.

But I still reckon that, while UK Garage *will* suffer from media underexposure, it will also suffer from a certain attitude problem which does not look like changing in the foreseeable future.