Music

Beat Connection: Black Minimalism and Tape Noise

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I usually keep my intros short here — it’s where I talk about stuff that I can’t cover below, sometimes because I know the people who made it too well, or, in this case, to talk about something that isn’t a DJ set, per se. But this month calls for something a little more involved. You can’t call the British writer David Toop’s Wire Playlist: Black Minimalism (July 28, 2018) a DJ set, per se — “playlist” is right in the title. It builds from the 87-song suggested-playlist with which Toop concludes his essay, “Forever and Never the Same,”  in the August 2018 issue of The Wire magazine — a fierce polemic about the whitewashing of Afro-diasporic musicians (and visual artists) out of the “minimalism” canon, in particular what Toop calls “the unexamined trope of the black voice in early white minimalism (EWM) and, by extension, the musics of black America, Bali, India, Ghana, and Japan that provided in every case the stimulus” for composers like Glass, Reich, Riley, and Young. 

The Wire‘s website contains an embedded playlist of some 65 songs; it also links to an even longer Spotify version (embedded below). It’s broadly encompassing: Al Green, One String Sam (a Detroit diddley bow–playing bluesman who made one single, in 1966), Company Flow, Phuture, De La Soul, Donny Hathaway, and jazz harpist Dorothy Ashby constitute one circuitous sequence of many. But even if it weren’t, or were just something Toop threw together without an accompanying essay, its nonstop display of Afro-diasporic genius, cunning, suavity, teeth, melody, and rhythm would constitute a major musical argument unto itself, from a man who isn’t a DJ but deserves to be in the same conversation.

Rather, since the 1996 release of the two-CD soundtrack, on Virgin AMBT in the U.K., to his book Ocean of Sound, Toop has been our greatest compiler. A former member of the Flying Lizards (who made the classic postpunk deconstruction of “Money”) and an avant-garde guitarist who is Chair of Audio Culture and Improvisation at the London College of Communication, as well as the author of such wide-ranging works as Rap Attack (1984), one of the first serious hip-hop overviews, to Sinister Resonance (2010), on the function of music in the visual arts prior to sound recording, Toop wrote Ocean as a sweeping, playful argument about, as he said in 1997, “the immersive quality of twentieth-century musical experiences” — not about “ambient music,” per se. “Immersion is the key word for me, not background,” he added.

Compilation is a different skill set than DJ’ing — more historically based and forthrightly scholarly, both less hands-on (not manipulating records to blend together) and more, since in many cases compilers deal with archival material that hasn’t been heard publicly before. Great compilers often work with entire catalogs, such as the adept James Brown reissues helmed by Harry Weinger, Alan Leeds, and the late Cliff White, among others; or Ken Braun’s heroic double-CD overviews of major Congolese stars like Franco, Tabu Ley Rochereau, and Le Grand Kallé for Sterns.

Toop, on the other hand, isn’t out to limn careers; he’s out to create, or at least evoke, worlds. The packaging of my original copy of the Ocean of Sound CD (purchased shortly after release for $30 at the downtown Borders in Seattle) is, to put it politely, mangled — I really should have gotten a new double-slimline case for it, oh, fifteen years ago by now. But from King Tubby’s “Dub Fi Gwan,” which leads off the first CD (and also graces the Black Minimalism playlist a bit past the halfway point) to the recording of a Japanese water chime that closes it out, Ocean of Sound wrecked my 21-year-old head for life, and I will be forever in its thrall.

The same goes for another 1996 double CD that Toop compiled for Virgin AMBT, the astoundingly erotic double Sugar and Poison, a collection of soul ballads that evoke, as NYU’s Jason King once described Roberta Flack, “the sound of velvet melting,” but with paranoia playing deliciously at the edges. Everywhere on these sets — and other Toop-made goodies like Booming on Pluto: Electro for Droids and Guitars on Mars (both 1997) — the compiler’s sensibility is front and center. Toop’s ear and sensibility are restless, voluptuous, obsessive, and it gives his assemblages a unique charge.

That’s certainly the case with the Black Minimalism set. Its track-to-track hopscotching is thrilling, engrossing; every selection makes the others shine. I’m amazed that having had seventeen years to think about it, I didn’t think to follow Prince’s “Kiss” with Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On” before this, or notice the irresistibly skeletal through-line between Junior Walker and the All Stars’ “Shotgun” and Lyn Collins’s “Think (About It).” Sometimes musical links don’t match up by beats-per-minute, or have to. Even if you know all these tracks (I sure didn’t), Toop’s cross-section is rich enough to learn from for years to come.

Nene H., Crack Mix 220 (July 20, 2018)
The EBM-techno fault line keeps on ripping. Born Beste Aydin, Nene H. is just your everyday Turkish concert pianist turned blistering Berlin techno DJ. In May, she described a nosebleed-inducing set for Groove Magazine this way: “My idea was to make something colorful, weird, messy, and groovy. Staying positively aggressive and experimenting on rough edges.” That’s her mix for Crack Magazine in a nutshell, except replace “colorful” with “staticky black-and-white” and “groovy” with “increasingly unhinged.” “The tempo never dips below 140 BPM,” boasts Crack’s info page.

The set starts brusque, like the bus jerking around and the person standing near you adding a little extra shove to see if they can get away with it, and by the time it’s two-thirds done it’s worked itself into a full-on basket-case froth. It comes to a screeching-in-all-senses halt when a fiercely overdriven synth loop hurdles itself into an audio cloud of black smoke before the beats charge back in (beginning around 51:30). Think of the last four minutes as the afterburn. Even as the sounds she works with are blown out and audibly flayed, Nene H.’s controls the chaos with an impressive sure-handedness.

Mors Mea, 5918mins. (July 3, 2018)
Everybody needs a means to calm the eff down now, right? Whatever the reason was, I heard a lot of superb ambient sets in July, just as we needed them. Kohwi’s Blowing Up the Workshop 92 (July 9) is only “ambient” in its accepted (soporific) sense for a while before it broadens, thickens, deepens; J Colleran’s Irish Ambient (July 20) excavates a tradition most of us barely knew existed (including — of course — a track of guitar immersion by My Bloody Valentine leader Kevin Shields). There were yet others. But the most immersive sound-pool of the month is also the most unsettling.

Mors Mea, who lives in Budapest, runs a YouTube channel devoted to the Eighties and Nineties noise-cassette underground. Her set for the recently established 5918 min. mix series (“No limitations on genre, style, or time,” its SoundCloud page promises, “just letting the most evil diggers on the planet introduce themselves”) makes a case for those buzzy old tapes as a dark wonderland. Rubber bullets ricochet off a metal shield; a muezzin wails over distant percussion; cut up radio voices alternate with the sound of breaking glass; waves of crackle and hiss call up the unconscious’s muck. But it’s the soundtrack to a really beguiling snuff film!

Mr. Scruff, Gottwood Mix #041 (Live From Gottwood) (recorded between June 7-10, 2018; uploaded to Mixcloud July 3, 2018)
The Resident Advisor bio page for Manchester, U.K. native Andy Carthy, who does business as Mr. Scruff — a reprint of an official bio, like all on the site — specifies: “Preferred set length: 5 hours.” He means it. Just scroll down Mr. Scruff’s Mixcloud page — as many of the sets are five hours as not. “I started my own night in 1999, and I basically tried to include aspects of things that I enjoyed at other people’s nights,” he told RA in 2012. “I like being surprised by the selection of music, so I’m going to play all over the place.”

Carthy studied fine art at Sheffield University and began playing records out in the mid-Nineties, and a particularly English whimsy is his calling card, from his predilection for drinking tea on the job to his good-humored music (you might know his 1999 track “Get a Move On,” built around a Moondog sample, which was licensed for a Volvo ad) to the delightful and deceptively simple cartoons he makes for album covers, gig flyers, and of course the packaging of his own now-expired tea brand, Mr. Scruff’s Awesome English Breakfast Brew. He is, naturally, on Ninja Tune, a label that prizes colorful beat-driven music and cheeky humor in equal doses; one of his albums for them is called — drumroll, please — Ninja Tuna.

What this means, though, is that Mr. Scruff is a DJ who puts a good time ahead of everything, even when he’s digging deep. “The longer I play the more esoteric records I can play — the records that are important to me,” he reasoned in a 2004 interview. “If you want to play jazz records in a nightclub you have to spend half an hour creating a mood where that seems the most obvious thing to do.”

You can hear that impulse to play the really fun stuff, the stuff you have to set up, and his delight in crafting those setups out of equally enjoyable stuff, on this four-hour set — accompanied by fellow Mancunian MC Kwasi — from Gottwood Festival, which takes place in a Welsh forest (that’s getting away from it all, all right) in early June each year. He leads boldly with African tracks — Scruff’s second selection is Tony Allen’s “N.E.P.A. (Never Expect Power Always),” the ex-Fela drummer’s great hat-tip to his old boss’s sloganeering, and while the pace dips and swerves, it never wavers. This is clearly a man in his element.

At the set’s hour mark, Mr. Scruff drops “Flash It to the Beat,” the rare Grandmaster Flash and the Furious 5 record on Bozo Meko, recorded around 1980 (and not to be confused with their otherFlash to the Beat,” no “It,” on Sugarhill, from 1982). This is Flash and 5 live at Bronx River, doing a routine to a drum machine; it’s raw sounding, obviously made from a cassette, but that splotchy quality works brilliantly here, after MC Kwasi’s been yelling for the last few minutes over Danny Breaks’ burbling-sine-wavy “Duck Rock” with the pitch well up.

MC Kwasi is adorable, by the way. He’s on here a lot, but he hypes things up expertly, insert himself into the flow just enough to goose it: “I wanna see the whole field bouncin’!” (He even scolds the crowd enjoyably: “Imagine watchin’ a whole festival t’rough your mobile phone.”) So do the occasional bouts of live crowd noise. Mr. Scruff is here to serve a living, dancing audience with as much as wit as he can get away with — not least when he follows Flash with the stalking downward-spiral bass line of Showbiz & A.G.’s “Soul Clap.”

It’s a misnomer to call this set a “history lesson” — Scruff draws lines between everything he likes, but he isn’t proffering a primer in the way of Mors Mea above or Finn Johannsen in last month’s column. Still, the very width and depth of his range here suggest a historian’s contours. Not to mention a fan’s, as when he drops Aretha Franklin’s “I Say a Little Prayer,” whose tapping-not-driving backbeat makes it an atypical DJ barn-burner. But when Scruff drops it about a quarter after the third hour, following some splashy jazz — see, he wasn’t kidding — its airiness is so welcome the entire crowd sings along. No way it’s like being there, but sometimes evidence is plenty.

10.4 ROG, Midnight in a Perfect World (July 26)
Seattle FM station KEXP’s weekly DJ showcase trends away from straight dance beats most times, which makes sense, given the station’s indie-rock proclivities — see Eleanor Friedberger’s July 9 set, which took in Bob Dylan, Soft Machine, Orange Juice, and the selector herself, both solo and with the Fiery Furnaces. This deeply psychedelic hour from Washington-born, L.A.-dwelling producer Roger Habon, who works as 10.4 ROG and has done work with, among others, Seattle rappers THEESatisfaction, is a listening mix, too — every track melts beautifully into the other, whatever their variances in tempo. You could even call it “indie” — c.f. the lo-fi dream pop from Toronto’s Matty followed by the halting falsetto of Cham’s “I’m Shy,” or Kadhja Bonet’s “Wings,” which is like the windmills of the Small Faces’ minds. But mostly, it’s young artists of color taking the freewheeling musical range of “indie” as a birthright. Bonet’s astonishingly ornate string arrangement, two-thirds in, is the mix’s peak. Janelle Monáe’s “Stevie’s Dream” follows it like Lou Gehrig batting after Babe Ruth.

Aphex Twin & Luke Vibert, Ultrasound, KNDD 107.7 FM, Seattle (September 22, 1997)
Both natives of the remote southwest British county of Cornwall, Aphex Twin — born Richard James — and Luke Vibert are two of the crucial figures of Nineties IDM — “intelligent dance music,” which reprioritized techno by turning it inward. Though both have made plenty of tracks for the purposes of dancing, each man’s deeper priority has been in tickling the ear. By the time of this laid-back radio set, Vibert, who made bent drum & bass as Plug and wiggy downtempo as Wagon Christ, had issued the lustrous, playful Big Soup under his own name in 1997 on Mo’ Wax; “a planet of sound with a core of pure cheese,” the NME wrote approvingly. Aphex was about to issue the Come to Daddy EP, his most sustained immersion into drum & bass rhythms.

Consistently misidentified as from 2000 — an old forum post on the We Are the Music Makers discussion board offers the correct date (see comment 11), as well as a track list — this set on the Seattle FM station nicknamed the End (one of the Nineties’ key modern rock stations) is fairly off the cuff. But it’s also a piece of history, and an engaging one — it has an arc and a sense of roots. Tod Dockstader, Erik Satie, and Underground Resistance kick it off, and Vibert and James add a lemon twist by finishing with Julie London. Via the Tornados (produced by Joe Meek), Detroit electro futurists Drexciya, a Busta Rhymes–Fat Boys-EPMD trifecta, they work their way around some hunks of — what’s that phrase again? — pure cheese in “Axel F,” a whistle-only version of “Dock of the Bay,” and Ramsey Lewis’s “What’s the Name of This Funk (Spider Man).” It wouldn’t work in a club (“I almost got beaten up a number of times back in the day,” Vibert told RA three years ago of his early DJ gigs), but that’s what the radio is for.

Luke Vibert plays Good Room with FaltyDL, Will Dimaggio, and Hank Jackson on Saturday, August 25. Info here.

Thanks to Andy Kellman.

Want more mixes? Join the Beat Connection Long List for links to all the goodies that didn’t fit the column by DMing your email to @matoswk75 (they’re open).

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