Not so much a genre as a mode of appreciation, IDM (short for “intelligent dance music”) was infamously defined by ambient guru Mixmaster Morris as “the opposite of stupid hardcore.” Pure prog mind/body split, this snobby distinction between food for thought and rave fodder is just one reason why IDM deserves a punk-style kick in the ass. Right now, a lot of people believe 19-year-old Michael Depredo from San Diego, a/k/a Kid606, is delivering it. Overcivilized and effete like the twilight Roman Empire, IDM needs revitalizing infusions of barbarian blood, Depredo reckons. So he brings the noise from, where else, Stupid Dance Music—hardcore styles like gabba, early pre-gentrification jungle, Miami bass, dancehall. His new album, “Down With the Scene” (via Ipecac, the label cofounded by Faith No More’s Mike Patton and former Alternative Tentacles boss Greg Werkman), features titles like “Punkshit,” “Hardcore,” and “Luke Vibert Can Kiss My Indie-Punk Whiteboy Ass” that proclaim the kid’s something-better-change intent.
The Vibert dis is a half-flippant, half-earnest gauntlet to the first-wave IDM luminary whose 1995 EPs as Plug pioneered what was later christened “drill’n’bass,” a mini-genre based around the intensification-through-caricature of jungle’s breakbeat-splicing technickery. Drill’n’bass is one-third of what Kid606 is about, so his joust with Vibert is a 50/50 mix of anxiety-of-influence and upstart cockiness. On tracks like “Buffalo 606—The Morning After,” Depredo does to Vibert what the latter did to jungle—exaggerate drill’n’bass’s already absurdly convoluted and convulsive rhythmic mannerisms. Bringing new meaning to the old skool jungle superlative “tearing,” Depredo shreds the fabric of beat, honing splinters and shards of hands-on funk into fléchettes that snag your limbs and flail your body every which way. Exacerbating the Plug/Squarepusher approach to savagely EQ’ing and processing drum sounds, he conjures a timbral fantasia ride: cymbals that weep, meow, hiss sulfuric in your face; snares that silversplash like drumsticks in a pool of mercury.
The other two-thirds of the Kid606 sound spectrum are even noisier: gabba’s distorto-blare riffs and stampeding kicks, and the hums, crackles, and tics of “glitch” (all that post-Oval music made from damaged CDs, abused equipment, etc.). As hybrids go, it sounds horrible on paper, but Kid606’s saving grace is what I can only describe as musicality—a feel for the sensuousness of different kinds of distortion, a refined approach to the excruciation of sound. It’s a subtle frenzy—recent developments in audio software allow producers to tweak the parameters of every single beat or loop, a level of microprocessing that results either in music of inexhaustible listenability or a self-sabotaging fiddliness. Subscribing too often to the puerile equation of speed with intensity, Kid606 is actually most absorbing when he slows down. “GQ on the EQ” is like a drum solo composed from what sounds like a wasp in a jam jar, sizzling bacon, and a wah-wahed bedspring; “Secrets 4 Sale” is Prince gone glitch, a micro-funk mosaic of twitches and hiccups; “Dame Nature” is house built from gastric rumblings and stomach sonar.
Attitude-wise, Kid606 reminds me a bit of mid-’90s U.K. riot-grrrl banner carriers Huggy Bear—the same petulance and obstreperousness, the divided impulses between communicative urgency and hermetic encryption, the exaltation of youth (Depredo is the real deal, whereas Huggy sloganeered about being kid’s-lib guerrillas but turned out to be the oldest teenagers in London town). There’s also a similar neopunk do-it-yourself creed. Kid606 is one node in an international network of home-studio/laptop experimentalists (Speedranch Jansky, Fennesz, Matmos, Marumari) and tiny labels (Irritant, Mego, FatCat, V/VM, Skam). It’s an incestuous little rhizome, endlessly inbreeding through split singles, one-off collaborations, and remix swaps (as collated on the recent, excellent Kid606 and Friends Vol.1 compilation on Kid’s own label, Tigerbeat6). With records released in editions of 500 or fewer, it could be that this scene (IDM’s new wave) contains more producers than consumers. Which either fulfills punk’s utopian dream of a culture where there’s no gap between engaged artist and passive spectator, or makes this zone a cultural backwater. (What’s the point of having a revolution if nobody notices?)
Punk was a spasm within the same cultural formation that included progressive rock: younger brothers rejecting the wisdom of older brothers. Still, many punks had Gentle Giant records hidden in back of their collections (bizarrely, Kid606 has remixed Gentle Giant, his Web site claims); likewise, Kid606 and friends share familial traits with IDM. Such as its founding and fallacious dichotomy between listening and dancing (dancers are really listening with every sinew and muscle), and such as the notion that scenes by definition place creative shackles on the artist (that’s how I read the ambiguity of “Down With the Scene” anyway). Bollocks, of course: Nine times out of 10, in the history of dance music, it’s the populist hardcore scenes that generate the Really Big, Really New ideas, which the fringe experimentalists then appropriate, tweak, and addle with nuances.
Drill’n’bass is the obvious recent example of this parasitic relationship. Take Squarepusher’s “Come on My Selector,” a jungle parody whose title’s added word on deliberately enfeebles a dancehall catchphrase that has enormous historical and affective weight behind it. Trivializing jungle is how IDM patron saint Squarepusher deals with his humiliating indebtedness to that particular stupid-dance genre. “Catstep/My Kitten/Catnap Vatstep dsp Remix”—a remix of a Depredo track by his pal Hvratksi that appears on both Down With and Kid 606 and Friends—is superficially similar to “Come on My Selector.” But there’s something palpably loving about its daft pastiche of jump-up clichés: Sleng-Teng bassline, tumbling Amen breakbeats, hilarious vocoder-ragga voice chanting buzzphrases like “mash it up,” “dubplate pressure,” and “ruffneck soldier” like some cross between Stephen Hawking and Beenie Man. Although there’s the trademark liability of all IDM forays into hardcore terrain (a sort of dangerless mayhem), “Catstep” really does resurrect the explosive, topsy-turvy energy of jungle’s prime. Maybe the difference between Squarepusher and Kid606 comes down to the latter’s attitude to black music—respectful but not pious, eager to engage without merely replicating. Hence “Down With the Scene” ‘s “It’ll Take Millions in Plastic Surgery to Make Me Black,” a glitch-racked maiming of what sounds like a Ma$e track. And hence the new Tigerbeat6 three-inch CD Attitude, a collection of unofficial remixes of N.W.A. songs, perpetrated by kid and pals, that sounds like demented desecration but is clearly meant as a twisted tribute to the gangsta pioneers.
Left-field artists often get applause for combining several Really Big, Really New ideas that all originated elsewhere. The harshest thing you could say about Kid606 is that he’s actually just offering an excitingly executed composite of already established extremisms. I’d rather give him the benefit of the doubt, though, and hear his music as the omnivorous, insatiable frenzy of a restless musical spirit. If he hasn’t yet reached the absolute novelty he craves, you can catch its scent.