The hippest music around right now, as the success of Daft Punk and Cassius demonstrates, is a minimal house stripped of major-key piano breakdowns and wailing divas in favor of a streamlined flux that’s one part sonic wallpaper, one part sonic Wallpaper*. With the signifiers of gay abandon abandoned, all that’s left is that once-threatening, now-quaint disco 4/4, a soothing balm to a club culture knocked senseless by the aggressive rhythms of jungle, big beat, and gabba.
So no wonder the least hip music to be found in clubs is a Frankenstein monster built from everything the inhabitants of this unfurnished house put out with the trash. “Happy hardcore,” also known as 4Beat, deploys hardcore’s 160–180-bpm four-to-the-floor and fills the micro-spaces in between with jungle’s fractalized hyperbreaks. On top is the return of the repressed: Hi-NRG synth lines, gospel-tinged piano figures, and female vocalists pitched up to Sandy Duncan–level unashamedly singing about longing, surrender, and heartbreak— with lyrics and melodies once associated with Belinda Carlisle and Irene Cara, no less.
If you know your rave history, this won’t sound unfamiliar. Back in ’92, the U.K. hardcore scene started beating itself up after The Prodigy released “Charly,” a track featuring a sampled cat from a British children’s show. The glut of kiddiecore that followed— “Sesame’s Treet” and the like— led to a backlash: “darkside” tracks that morphed into hardcore’s more respected cousin, jungle.
But Brits who liked the helium-vocal kiddie stuff never went away. They just sped up the beats, kept up with a handful of dancefloor innovations, and turned into that strangest of pop phenomena— a terminally underground subculture that everyone treats like a sellout. The disdain isn’t surprising; it’s been a long time since club tastemakers would give the time of day to an amateur quoting a verse of “Flashdance.” What the terminally hardheaded miss, though, is that the cheese isn’t the goal, it’s the goad. The relentless cycle of pain-pleasure-pain, of chirpy lasses struggling to smile in the face of a forced march of industrial beats, comes off as a sonic equivalent of our technology-
driven New Service Economy— where workers are pressed to produce more and more leisure devices and then work harder still so they can buy them. It’s a sharper social critique than the gothic bludgeoning of most other hardcore subgenres.
Vaguely gay on the surface, but lacking a gay audience, happy hardcore remains so underground that even in New York it’s near impossible to find a club playing it or a DJ store selling the vinyl. The easiest way to get acquainted with the music is through Moonshine’s now three-volume Happy 2b Hardcore series. Mixed and selected by Toronto’s Anabolic Frolic, the H2bH discs display the incremental changes the music has undergone in recent years. The tracks on ’97’s H2bH are proudly lo-fi, the way new subgenres often start out, when someone knitting together two different styles is so jazzed by the process they don’t care if seams show. By Chapter Two, the production is slicker and the breakbeats are edging further up in the mix— much as they were displacing 4/4 as the de facto rhythms of dancefloors everywhere. H2bH Chapter Three, by contrast, opens with Unique’s “Distant Skies,“ a clear example of the psychedelic acid sounds that have begun to infiltrate happy hardcore as trance continues its global march from Goa to London. By this point cheesy ’80s references have taken a backseat.
Though rip-off tunes aren’t going away (I’ve already heard a remix of Cher’s “Believe”), the music depends on them less as it looks toward trance and jungle for inspiration (though don’t tell that to the L.A. promoter who passes out lyric sheets so dancers can sing along to the likes of “Sail Away” and “Give Me All Your Love”). On the second CD of the recent Absolute Hardcore 2 three-pak, scene maven Brisk mixes together a bracingly hard and creative set of the style’s new wave. Wannadivas are still in evidence, but in the first 10 minutes you hear a hiphop MC, some funk guitar skank, and a gangsta vocal sample— “when I raise my trigger finger/all you [unintelligible] hit the deck”— that junglists will recognize from DJ Zinc’s bootleg remix of the Fugees’ “Ready or Not.”
After five years of basically dancing in place, happy hardcore is getting the itch to stretch out, pulling Rick Wakeman keyboard lines, speed garage breakdowns, and— Andrew Loog Oldham call your lawyer— “Bittersweet Symphony” into the mix. The scene’s long-standing lack of standing has turned out to be a plus; with nothing to lose, happy hardcore can try anything it wants without risking critical scorn. And because it’s already hard and soft at once, there’s nothing it isn’t willing to try. The result is the sort of endlessly curious, omnivorous music that happy hardcore’s offspring jungle used to be— before it got so caught up in reminding us it wasn’t happy hardcore.