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Give me music and give me noise....

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Jim's at the controls

“It’s not the equipment that matters, it’s the music that you play.” So said the music manager to me at a London venue the other week. He was talking about the DJing.

Fair enough. Tech fetishists do seem to risk missing the point - the music itself. The DJ equipment world is full of middle-aged salesmen fast-talking their way through promo videos for flashy new kit being sold at trade fairs. It’s the dials, responsivity, weight in the bag, the impression it makes. And, at the other end of the supply chain, there’s a busy little subculture of consumers who are showing off their new purchases on home-made YouTube vids (quite entertaining these, a peek into the cave-like bedrooms of self-absorbed teenagers from places like Thunder Bay, Iowa).

It’s a slightly weird, obsessive world (though I quite like this about it), and apparently almost totally male. In the past week I’ve watched dozens of videos - trade, manufacturer’s instruction flicks, people actually unboxing their new toys - and I’ve read a lot of forum threads and other online ephemera. I can recall only one female DJ making an appearance (and that was an almost self-parodying “feminine” post about DJing with two iPods, laid out on a white and pink page).

No, the DJ kit world is a man’s, man's world. It’s all about speed and size. Check out that hard disk. Flex those specs.

But I don’t dislike it (well, not much) and I must admit that the equipment is, to the extent that I understand it, amazingly impressive. And this is where I part company slightly with the view that “it’s all about the music”. Yes, I’d much rather hear something good on simple equipment (The Fall or Fela Kuti on a bog-standard DJ deck that just plays CDs) than something dull on a £2,000 Pioneer rig. But sound quality matters, and in addition DJing is inventive and enhancing as well. Even if you’re not beat-matching, sound wave analysing, and looping and scratching your way through complex musical sets, you can still be putting together interesting transitions and mucking about with pitch bending or throwing in a few effects.

Meanwhile, it seems that the indie music tradition (from where I hail, if I hail from anywhere) is sniffy about “real” DJs, and similarly the world inhabited by Norman Cook-like pro jocks is one where people who “just put music on at gigs” are little more than a joke. It’s a shame there isn’t more crossover. Cross-fade!

I always liked that story (from Dave Haslam's Superstar DJs book) about how Jimmy Savile claims to have single-handledly invented DJing in Britain when he rigged up some kind of ultra-primitive speaker to make his dance band records sound louder when he played them at lunchtimes in the upstairs room of a pub (in Barnsley?) in the 1940s. Great. I bet he wishes he’d been using an Allen & Heath Xone:DX loaded with Serato Itch though. 

Monday, 5 September 2011

Is it because I is a reggae fan?

For a few years I’ve been doing a regular little compilation CD for a select group of friends (ie a small pool of people I foist them on). I love every one immodestly. They’re full of banging tunes from the likes of Bovaflux, Sung Eun Kim, Friends Of the Jitney, the De Ndirande Pitch Crooners, Tyvek and many more from some lesser-known artists.

What’s on ‘em? Er, they’re varied. Quite a few obscure artists (to most people), a few well-known ones. Twee sounds, lovely grindcore (one of my mum’s particular favourites), 20-30s blues, punk and garage, ska, some dub, a dash of jazz, a few oddities, tunes from Africa, India etc. It’s not O2 arena-filling stuff but it’s not meant to be. No-one’s going to like every single track (unless you share all of your DNA with me …), but there’s something there for every mixed-up kid from the wrong side of town …

Except, what’s this! There’s reggae on there. I’m getting a steady grumble about this. It’s like I’ve included an excessive amount of Stock Aitken Waterman, or too much Red Hot Chili Peppers. But reggae’s the problem. Two or three tracks out of 80 minutes and this gets singled out.

I reckon I could produce a CD with 78 minutes of feedback squeals (Neil Young’s Arc given a distorto remix) and two minutes of Studio One and I’d get someone complaining about the reggae. White noise versus black music - no contest.

Oh mon, what's dis ting? If I was a proper white rasta I’d be sucking my teeth and blaming Babylon. As it is, I’ll just plough on with my musical miscellany, ignoring the reggae refusniks. (The dub deniers!) And I’ll leave the last word to my dread bredren Melinda Hughes. 

Friday, 2 September 2011

Grunge: too much flannel

I’ve said before I’m not entirely convinced by Simon Reynolds’ Retromania thesis - no novel music is being made because everyone’s too busy consuming the past stuff on YouTube etc - but I quite liked his recent Slate article on the icky celebrations around grunge. Twenty years since Nevermind, eh? Can you believe it? Momentous album, high point in music, downhill since then.

Nah. OK album, overrated music scene, masses of great music since then, some of it much better than Mr Cobain’s meisterwerk.

Anyway, two quick observations.

One, that Reynolds’ analysis of the heritage-isation of grunge and what that might represent for some people - high-water mark for “rock”, golden age of “authenticity” etc - seems fair (not sure about the internet theorising stuff though, but er, never mind … ).

Two, that actually I don’t recognise Reynolds’ claim that there was comparatively little coverage of Cobain’s death at the time. I thought there was a lot. John Peel going on about how upset he was about it (surprising to me, a regular listener, as I didn’t remember him even mentioning Cobain before), the radio, news programmes, people in bars etc. I was bemused. What was all the fuss about …?

Actually - shocking confession coming - I hardly knew anything about the band at the time. Not for the first time, I’d basically missed out on an outfit that had more or less leapt from a small-band scene to superstar status, condemned to go on endless world tours to horrible over-sized venues reeking of hot dogs and the putrid stench of hype. (Ahem). 

Oh dear, I don’t want to write off the music altogether. I quite like it actually. And plenty of contemporary grunge-inspired bands are really good. So there, tuck your tatty flannel shirt in and stop complaining.  

Meanwhile, at round the same time that Nirvana were releasing that “paradigm-changing” LP, I was I listening to a fair bit of another supposedly "hip" American underground-to-overground artist - Beck. And you know what - Beck was a lot better than Nirvana.

PS: I could be wrong, but isn't this tune itself a parody of the trademark Kurt style and the whole MTV-goes-grunge phenomenon ...?