January 23, 2003

Does the Beat Go On?

Well we all know the music industry is the midst of a trauma. Convulsions with the strong risk of death. Technology vs. Tradition. The future business models are up in the air, or if we are lucky getting cultivated in some low rent basement somewhere.

But what good is the new model if their is no new music left? Make no mistake 2002 was a bad year in music. Got to see it in action as I made a hipster hopping tour of NYC.

Started off with the Manhattan upscale crowd at the Tribeca Grand, with James Murphy of the DFA on the decks. DFA is the production team of the minute, and a record label to boot. They are strength behind two of few 2002's songs worthy of being called anthems: The Rapture's "House of Jealous Lovers" and LCD Soundsystem's "Losing My Edge".

If any songs sums up the state of boredom that infects todays music its "Losing My Edge" a flat voice music nerd talking about all the good old obscure music. Like we need to be reminded. The DFA get buzz by making dance-rock mutations that rip off Gang of Four endlessly. The Rapture is as close to enjoyable as it gets. But its not even close to those early Gang of Four records... Needless to say no one paid attention to the music as Mr Murphy spun. Not worth the time. The crossbreeding of indie rock and electronic music is a stop gap, there is no music salvation in this.

Shot off to Williamsburg for the boho hipster scene. The Stinger Club gets raw no doubt. Kill Whitey is the night and music is booty. 5 year old music made in Detroit by taking 10 year old Miami Bass records and mixing them with Techno. It was innovative once, and its damn good party music. But its more house keeping then anything. Hipsters running out of music so they mine the interesting corners of recent history. Only genre left is the slowed down DJ Screw sound of Houston. At least they know how to have fun, the party was as live as the music uneven.

Musical highlight of the night was Avenue D, two girls rapping sex like Too Short over electro beats. Post Electroclash is already hear, and ready to die too. There are only a finite number genre's left to recombine, and after a year in which hip hop featured a handful of hits sampling Indian film scores we are getting damn close. The "bootleg" or "mash-up" scene takes it to the limit recombining the most diverse music is the name of the game. And the game is almost over.

The excellent Simon Reynolds places his hope in "gangsta garage" coming out of the darkside of London. A repeat of the birth of Drum n Bass. Sadlly its not happening. What's missing from the formula is the technological revolution that paralleled the creation of Darkside, the proto Drum n Bass music that Reynolds sees being mirrored in current UK garage. There are surface similarities in the darkness and ghettoized nature of both genre's. But the innovation in the Darkside music didn't come from the evil vibes, it came from Cubase, a program that revolutionized the use of sampled breakbeats.

Reynold's points out the constant use of the words ice and snow in UK Garage song titles, but doesn't connect them to their source, Cocaine. And Cocaine just doesn't make for good music. Good vocals yes, so there is hope on the MC tip. But the crappy Timbaland meets Dancehall tracks that underscore the music aren't taking us anywhere. Nope sorry Mr. Reynolds musical serendipity doesn't strike twice in the same place.

Back in New York the future is just as grim. Hip hop's king of the streets 50 Cent is about the only live thing out there. And he's nothing new, another MC claiming to be the realest of them all. "Me, I'm no mobsta/ me, I'm no gangsta/
Me, I'm no hitman/ (yea) me/ I'm just me/
Me, I'm not wanksta/ me, I'm no actor/
But it's me you see/ on your tv/ cause I hustle baby". No doubt he's got skills, but he not advancing the music either, look for more of the same from hip hop in 2003.

So where is the future music? The live shit that grabs you by the eardrums and into otherworldly states? If I knew I'd be listening not writing, but there are some hints around. Retro trends are rushing through the 80's and simmering on the edges of grunge. As always retro season tells a lot about what's wrong with the current music.

The 80's trend screams of a need for character to return to the music. A need for narrative, drama and straight up fun. DJ culture is bland and faceless, and laptop even more so. And people aren't having it anymore. The next wave needs singers with personality and flair. It needs humor and stories, and once again straight up fun. And it needs to be liver then electronic music, the return to rock is a call for a return to the band. The sampler and computer are instruments, not the end all be all.

If there is a model for the next wave, perhaps its Barcelona's Manu Chao. In a musical world filled with pastiche, Chao is about the only artist who effortlessly blends genres and styles, but at the same time makes it sound unique. Before Chao and his band Radio Bemba Soundsystem, only hip hop artists were able wield samples without sounding overly referential. Rock, reggae, ska, hardcore, hip hop, flamenco and more all get drawn into is world, and the flavors meld flawlessly into a unique, polylingual Manu Chao flavor.

More then that, Chao is a real star, something missing from "serious" music for quite sometime. His personality shines through the music, his anarchist politics bite hard at the establishment, and his nomadic lifestyle a sharp break from the norm. Pull in sample artist and or DJ and the result might look a lot like the future of "serious: western pop music.

While writing this, I started reflecting on how many people I've met recently have mentioned being into jam bands. And it struck me how similar Chao is these bands. Now I avoid listening to jam bands the way I avoid sleeping with HIV positive lepers, but they just might be a model for the future. Reynolds has commented on how innovative music often comes out of the most overlook backwaters of the music world. And jam bands fly way south of both the mass media and the trend media's radar.

More telling is the way these bands present an alternative to the dying major label system. Tour endlessly, encourage file trading, and sell a lot of merchandise. Tighten up the sound with a dose of electronics, reduce the self indulgent jamming, add a flamboyant hip hop punk singer and things get interesting. Get a multinational to sponsor the tour for big bucks, film a slick music video, sell live streams of each show and make merchandise like the band is Yu Gi Oh, and its a highly profitable enterprise.

Right or wrong this musical stagnation can't last much longer...

Posted by Abe at January 23, 2003 10:06 PM

Comments

i think you confuse music with celebrity and swagger. not everyone needs to be pandered to. personally, i enjoy music which doesn't feel the need to insult me by presuming to know what i want or need. i guess i just don't think that "stars" are really what music needs right now. "stars" are what celebrity magazines need.
i don't trust swagger. i understand the value of propaganda, but it doesn't need to be put into action in ALL aspects of life.

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