Better Off Dread


British indie kids, white and black and Punjabi alike, really do love their reggae, God bless ’em. For 25 years now, U.K. art- & slop-rockers have been recording bedroom hymns to the power of blown speaker bins and that dippity-dippity-doo dub bass. Cod-dub is the Brit-indie default option: get any half-assed Wobble-y groove going and pile on the grungy noise, silty noise, chiming noise, rhythmic noise, whatever. And if it doesn’t take, hey no worries, mate—do another version. It’s just a seven-inch anyway; we’ll be at the pub.

You can blame the Clash, Mikey Dread at the controls. Or blame Virgin for making Johnny Rotten their Jamaican a&r man, championing Big Youth while his ex-bandmates wanted to be Status Quo. Whoever to blame, Jamaica itself doesn’t really do the dub thing—or even the reggae thing—anymore. As any No Doubt fan knows, it does the dancehall thing. And art-rockers and indie kids have been surprisingly hands-off about Jamaican music of the past 20-odd years, preferring to burrow ever deeper into Lee Perry’s aesthete-sanctioned madness than to get stoopid fresh with Beenie Man.

Maybe the key to unlocking dancehall was the Powerbook’s faceless democratic power, dissolving sticky-wicket notions of authenticity. (It also freed people from having to learn how to force instruments into playing all this fancy, non-rock music.) Anyone with Cubase can be Timbaland (yeah, right) and the entire history of recorded music now comes sluicing through your bedroom via a T1 line. So history’s dead, pick’n’mix rules, and quaint notions of local cultural cottage industries can be tossed out the window. From the Jamaican ghetto to yr stinky apartment, all without you putting on pants.

That might explain two nominally dancehall inflected/infected records appearing within months of each other on Rephlex, the label set up by the Aphex Twin to release dubplates of his mates farting. The Bug’s Pressure and DJ Scud’s Ambush! are the first art-rock/techno stabs at the genre that actually figure out how dancehall’s rhythms and inflections differ from reggae’s. The Bug does it through a kind of mischievous reverence, shading in the voices of his for-hire toasters with bongolated Neubauten oil drums. Scud explodes his tracks outward, all blood and viscera and skrees.

The Bug first rang the alarm a few months ago, on a split EP with The Rootsman, another pan-genre journeyman under heavy manners. The Bug Vs. The Rootsman (natch) is cousin to those seriously baked ’80s transmissions from the Mark Stewart/On-U-Sound bunker, the EP’s “Imitator” the kind of cone-melter Adrian Sherwood has night sweats over. Stoned but wary, the best parts of Pressure slink and slouch and approach a dancehall take on the anonymous dub-techno essayed by dour techno-Germans throughout the late ’90s.

Bug-man Kevin Martin’s rhythms are plenty metallic, befitting a guy who, in Techno Animal, builds plutonium grade hip-hop with an ex-grindcorer from Napalm Death. From his stat fronting the industrial big band God through his compilation curatorship at Virgin (Macro Dub Infection, Jazz Satellites, Isolationism), Martin’s journalist-dilettante approach exposed the wiring of ’90s London, dub and jungle joining hands with free improv and post-rock. The Bug can’t resist spinning his klingklang shuffle into moments of abstraction. The toasters, off-the-rack though they might be, thankfully keep things grounded, employing a full arsenal of growls, barks, trills, rolls, coos, and yawning black holes of baritone and basso profundo. So it’s exciting to hear Martin talk about working with Cutty Ranks, a man who gargles hot granite before going to bed and whose Jamaican smash “Limb by Limb” was the punk-as-fuckest song of the 1980s.

Scud doesn’t slink or slouch. Rumbling from the irritated bowels of the South London squat-rave scene, he’s been called the new Aphex by Brit DJ John Peel, but really he’s the new Discharge or GBH. He pits Stockhausen against Xenakis at the Pro-Tools Apocalypse, drowning his drum programs in the shittiest Nintendo FX imaginable, like Merzbow scribbling over drum’n’bass in neon crayola. Or at least he used to. Lately he’s picked up some worrisome habits: space and contrast. Instead of the relentless pummel & fingers-on-blackboard of old, drum shrapnel now ping-pongs across the stereofield and everything gets dubbed inside out until it’s an X ray, with gaps and fissures and scary bones where once was a remorseless onslaught of pink fleshy goo. Ambush! is a nominal greatest hits collection, though; play it after 10 o’clock at your own peril. Best of the best is (amazingly) his Asian Dub Foundation remix, wherein the Brit rap collective’s windbag rhetoric gets sucker punched through dancehall drums so purple they’re black and a vocal track deep-fried until it’s crispy and flaky.

Pressure and Ambush! aren’t “proper” dancehall, of course, except for kids who grew up with Autechre and a trust fund. And Scud and Martin would admit that up front. But Metal Box wasn’t “proper” dub either, and on my bad-hair days it’s my favorite album like ever. These albums are two fingers in the eyes of this year’s micro-whatever mini-dance-dance-revolution. And unlike Squarepusher and most of the other artists on their label, the Bug and Scud aren’t afraid to get really actually smart or stoopid. Which is what gets them closer to the heart of dancehall than anything else. A comfortable, honest middlebrow when so much music these days will settle for monobrow.

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