In an old Radio On fanzine my friend Scott Woods put this diptych in his Top 100 favorite songs of all time:
54. “I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll,” Joan Jett & the Blackhearts (1982) Me too!
55. “I Don’t Like Rock ‘N’ Roll,” Schoolly D (1986) Me either!
Scott recently elaborated:”The Schoolly song, by the way, is the one where he tells all the ‘long-haired faggots’ to ‘kiss my ass,’ but that comes right after he—the way I hear it anyway—says that ‘microphone living is a thing of the past,’ so who knows who he’s dissing—or, rather, who he’s not dissing. MCs, glam rockers, they’re all evil critters far as he’s concerned, I suppose.”
Two years after “I Don’t Like Rock ‘N’ Roll,” Schoolly recorded “No More Rock ‘N’ Roll,” in case we didn’t believe him the first time; and in fact I don’t believe him, not just because he in all seriousness on the same LP rapped to Led Zep’s “Kashmir” for about five minutes, but also because the attack of his voice seems so rock, and it’s no coincidence that rock critics flocked to the guy. He isn’t hip-hop’s “original gangster,” though, as the press release for the new Hardknox album claims; he just is (or was) one of the world’s oldest permanent 12-year-olds.
Anyway, “Come in Hard (I Don’t Like Rock & Roll),” my favorite track on the Hardknox LP (which I’ll describe as “electronic dance” simply because I don’t know what to call any of this British dance stuff), samples and reorders the vocals from the Schoolly D song, plays with the speed and pitch, and really rocks hard. I’ll emphasize this again. It really really really rocks hard. One of the six or seven hardest rockers I’ve ever heard in my life.
Just as disco in the ’70s took over some of the function of rock ‘n’ roll—to rock you and roll you, basically, and to be an all-inclusive everything-can-go-onto-this-beat genre—some “techno” has taken over the role of hard rock. Or, not exactly taken over, since there still is hard guitar rock out there on the hard-rock stations, not to mention hard industrial rock and hard techno rock and hard rap rock; but anyway, there’s a neighborhood within techno where the music is expected to be hard both in sound and in difficulty and to be pushy and progressive.
But I do find this intriguing: Hardknox is an electronic dance band, in a genre ultimately derived from disco, that uses hip-hop to rock hard. The hip-hop vocals become hard-rock vocals; this is helped by the sound and texture of the sampled raps—another track samples AMG’s “Bitch Betta Have My Money”—which were already hard in the delivery even before being put in a hard-rocking context.
Now, however irritating and misleading one finds genre labels—they scrunch together what shouldn’t be scrunched, they separate what shouldn’t be separated—they’re not meaningless, at least not in this instance. British electronic dance differs from hip-hop—in rhythms, textures, cultural landscape, socio-emotional feeling. The two genres are from different lands, figuratively as well as literally. So in playing with Schoolly’s vocals Hardknox also seems to filter them and make them almost indecipherable, thereby filtering out a lot of Schoolly’s social specificity, his brand of sneakers and so forth. “Long-haired faggots” get deleted altogether. And the Hardknox track uses beats that are much straighter than Schoolly D’s gay beats . . . I mean, than Schoolly D’s funky beats. (Since Hardknox’s beats go back to disco, maybe their straighter beats are the gayer beats.)
The musicological distinction I’m making here is that funk and hip-hop cluster their beats while disco tends to spread them more evenly; funk and hip-hop make all the musical elements—vocals, instruments, percussion—part of the basic rhythm, with musical lines countering each other rather than backing one another up and with less of a distinction between foreground and background; disco tends to build up from the bottom, with a vocal on top of a rhythm. Funk and hip-hop are a conversation between musical elements, disco is a construction of them.
Except, of course, what I’ve just written is way too crude, and not just for obvious reasons like hip-hop DJs sometimes using the percussion breaks from disco records, or disco’s beat being funkier than its reputation (the one-two-three-four isn’t the only beat going on in a disco song). More basically, my description of funk really only fits the music that James Brown invented in 1965; since then the ongoing formal problem in r&b and hip-hop is how to put things—melody, songs, raps—back on top of the music without compromising the funk. Whereas in disco and subsequent club musics the background is often pushing its way up to the top—via long percussion breaks and extended “background” atmospherics: strings, synth washes.
[Insert unwritten 25-page article about why techno and drum ‘n’ bass, the latter of which is highly influenced by the rhythms and textures of hip-hop and reggae, still seem to occupy different psychological spaces from those of hip-hop/r&b, and why club music and r&b seem more divergent now than ever. Talk to people who actually go out at night to see if this is true. Figure out what I mean by “psychological space.” Claim that it doesn’t really work to define genres musicologically. Hem and haw and write sentences like, “Of course, there are vast differences within hip-hop.” Don’t elaborate on them.]
A friend of mine tells me, “Appearances to the contrary from an American point of view, the scene in Britain seems to be much more divided, and it’s fighting words if you get the name of the genre wrong.”
If this is so, then a lot of musicmakers must be fighting within themselves, or with their publicists at any rate, because almost all the promo sheets that accompany current Brit dance CDs portray the groups as multigenre hodgepodges. E.g., “they’re finding new crossroads between modern dub, jugular techno, and wild-eyed millennial electro.” “A collision of hip-hop, jungle, big beat, acid, spoken word, and opera.” “The ‘have-a-go’ mentality of the Happy Mondays crossed with [their own] take on ’90s UK hip-hop. . . . Firmly rooted in the Bristol sound (slower, bass-driven songs that most closely resemble dub).” And so forth. The only recent exception I’ve seen is the promo sheet for the Wiseguys, in which the Wiseguys guy insists that it all comes from his love of hip-hop. But he isn’t claiming that it all is hip-hop, and the Billboard review that comes attached to the sheet says, “Don’t be surprised when house rhythms get sideswiped by hip-hop beats or when jazzy disco gets shoved aside in lieu of adrenaline-pumped big beat.”
As for our heroes, Hardknox: “They both have a love for hip-hop, Drum & Bass, distortion, hooks, mayhem, and a good groove. . . . The techno gangsters seemto have found a unique formula that draws from the best of what hip-hop, electronic dance, and future rock have to offer.”
Anyway, my point isn’t that the terms are meaningless but that they’re functioning in these promo kits as adjectives not genres—just as a nondescript rock band might get promoted as “a heady mixture of blues-metal and funk.” (And “it all comes from my love of hip-hop” is sort of like “it all comes from my love of the blues.”)
I’d suggest that there might be an interesting disconnect: That is, for musicians and DJs, terms like “dub,” “drum ‘n’ bass,” “hip-hop,” and so forth are sounds and sources, daubs from the standard British dance palette, whereas for fans (and also I’m sure for at least some of the musicians and DJs, despite the contradictions) these terms really do link up to quasi-social categories. And of course the categories will slip and slide. Any time there is a proliferation of categories and subcultures there will also be a proliferation of hands grasping for the music, as people try to take a sound or a style for themselves, and others flee or change the sound or the style once it’s been used in the “wrong” context, contaminated by the “wrong” hands. [Insert potential 72-page essay, not by me but by someonewho’s actually lived in Britain, giving the gory details.] (By the way, this situation is hardly unique to Britain, or dance music, or the present. Consider the terms that were pouring out of Creem magazine in the mid ’70s: glitter, glam, punk, rock ‘n’ roll, heavy metal, and so on. The words made real social and musical points, they really mattered, yet the music that was actually being created made a complete hash of the distinctions.)
But anyway, my reason for delving into all of this taxonomic agony—to return more or less to the matter at hand—is that I could describe the music of Hardknox as swamped in dub and drum ‘n’ bass and even having touches of trip hop and ambient yet using—mostly—straight-ahead techno rhythms. As well as all the hip-hop/rock stuff I brought up earlier. Now if you took those terms to be genres, Hardknox would seem all over the place, a bizarre amalgam (what, for instance, is a touch of ambient?). But in fact, if anything the group’s music is too narrow.
That is, on the Hardknox CD the styles seem played for but one emotional effect. The echoey, dubby bass beats are portentous and ominous wherever they appear; the atmospherics are exercises in the use of various warning sirens (running in a range from “phone off the hook” to “car alarm” to “soundtrack-to-Psycho ambulance screech” to “nuclear meltdown in 30 seconds”); the softer tracks are laced with threats (“just me and you, motherfucker”); the guitarish tracks are subterranean rumbles; and so forth. “Come in Hard” manages to lift up all this doom and dread and make it move; the other songs tend to just sit you in it—sometimes to brilliant effect, sometimes to wearying effect.
In general, I find the quieter cuts a relief—this is one of the few LPs that I wish were more ambient. There’s an interesting dub-heavy track, “Ain’t Going Down”—”At last, a slow dance,” I said to myself; “Ladies and gentlemen, this one’s for smooching”—that alternates between reggae rhythms and a techno straight beat without any disjunction. Hardknox inserts some planks-whacking-together-at-the-construction-site percussion to insure that the mood doesn’t get too gentle. I wonder how this music plays out in dance clubs. Time to rock, time to smash—then time to chill out, but still to the sounds of doom. Track eight, “Resistance Is Futile”: Now the warning siren is far off in the distance, mixing with a gentle mood, until people get talking, beats get hard, life gets hard. Hard-rock ambient, sort of.
Rock music is the monkey in the ointment here. It’s not usually part of the story that’s told about funk, disco, hip-hop, techno. Yet it has a presence in dance music. That is, as my listening tended to drift away from “rock” over the years, this wasn’t only due to my interest in hearing other sounds. Sometimes nonrock did better than rock at fulfilling my need for hard-rock music: James Brown’s “I Can’t Stand Myself,” Big Youth’s “Jim Squashey,” Isaac Hayes’s “Theme From Shaft,” Jimmy Castor Bunch’s “Troglodyte,” Spoonie Gee’s “Spoonin’ Rap,” Public Enemy’s “Bring the Noise,” Phuture’s “Slam!,” Fluke’s “Atom Bomb”—not all of these were formally similar to hard rock or even influenced by it, but they all spoke to the hard-rock impulse within me.
But then, it’s not always apparent what is influenced by what; here’s Marshall Jefferson, quoted in David Toop’s Ocean of Sound, about the birth of acid-house music (Jefferson’s talking about Phuture’s “Acid Tracks” and Sleezy D’s “I’ve Lost Control”):
“Really, I was trying to get a mood something like the old Black Sabbath records or Led Zeppelin. So that’s how it got the name Acid Tracks, because it’s supposed to put you in a mood, you know? For one thing, the tune is eleven minutes long of the same thing. Slight changes, but not that noticeable. Like when you listen to a real long solo in the old days it’s the same bass line going and everybody’s doing something different over it. That’s supposed to capture a mood. Now what everybody thought acid house was after that was a drum machine and that acid machine, the Roland TB-303, which was not the truth. Acid house was meant to be the capturing of moods. You don’t have to use the same machine all the time. You can use different instruments. I hate that machine with a passion now. Everybody’s using it wrong. The way they’re doing it now it’s not capturing any moods. It’s disrupting thought patterns, man. That just hurts when you listen to it all night. It stabs your brain, man.”
Anyway, as I mentioned above, some of electronic dance is entering—potentially usurping—the old place of rock, especially progressive rock and alternative rock, in the social landscape. This doesn’t always mean that the dance music sounds particularly like rock, but it does tend to make the music more serious—and grimmer than the disco of old. For better or worse.