UEL (image by JDVC)
Devised as an offshoot of Simon Reynolds’ talk at FACT in Liverpool earlier this year, “The Hardcore Continuum? A discussion” event at UEL sought to test the relevance of Reynolds’ framework for both the histories of 90s British dance music and the output of the current scene. The debate was at times heated, with the particular points of contention appearing to be the status of the nuum itself and whether the sounds being produced now were a sign of it lack of productivity. Whilst I would shy away from attempting to make any qualified comment on these strands of thought, some of the speakers raise pertinent points. Mark Fisher (known to us as Kpunk) mapped out the key features of the nuum. For him it is not only a dynamic feedback system, but an intelligent entity it its own right and sufficiently open to produce mutations. Alex Williams (Splintering Bone Ashes) fixated upon the ‘what you call it’ moment, moving back and forth between the event of genre-naming. Jeremy Gilbert’s mourning for the inability of patently dangerous musics such as Drum n Bass and Jungle to harness their radical energies whilst the nuum was at its heights drew the debate into the wider realm of Britain’s recent political history.
Despite the intellectual energies being emitted, the stand out paper of the afternoon was Steve Goodman’s (Kode9) and Kodwo Eshun’s attempt to call for pause and suspend the cacophony of the event. I want to briefly regurgitate the trajectories of their paper because of the combination of creativity and rigour that was on display as they tuned into a set of sonic actualities.
Their desire to pause and step back from the energy that was being discharged was premised on the feeling that the debate over the critical status (maybe even the politics) of the nuum may actually prevent us from listening to the continual evolution of the sounds which are its fixations. More importantly, the general levels of contestation appeared to rush past the sonic giants of free jazz, reggae, funk, dancehall and electro which overshadow and nourish the nuum.
Goodman’s and Eshun’s starting point was Afro-Futurism, an intellectual project that appeared to have lost its impetus towards the end of the 1990s, but which they sought reinvigorate by way of the nuum’s current output. The stalling of Afro-Futurism took place because of the ways in which it was temporalised, with a normative commitment to linear time and the inability to think beyond desires for progress. Goodman and Eshun stepped away from that procedural framing of Afro-Futurism and resuggested the work of its temporalities. Afro-Futurism for them, in a flourish perhaps borrowed from Paul Gilroy, is an issue of roots/routes and futures. Rather than a preoccupation with causality, they seem to be more in favour of the diagonal diagrammatics of Afro-Futurisitic activity.
In this space sonic legacies become less deterministic and take on a Janus head quality. For example whereas Dub reggae is commonly figured as the progenitor of Jungle, that formation can be reversed, multiplied and refracted to the extent where they are heard as backgrounds to each other, flipsides of the same track. Theses are sonic signifiers which forge pathways within and, significantly in the case of the nuum, beyond the horizons of Afro-Futures. In essence what Goodman and Eshun illustrated was that Joker, Zomby, Prince and P-Funk can be endlessly enfolded into each other to the degree that finite sonic roots/routes appear to melt away.
The alternative diagrammatics they drew centred on a set of 5 synaesthetic signatures which can be heard cutting back and across the sonic activities of Afro-Futurism. The 1st is Day-Glo tone colour where sounds are heard in visibly toxic tones. Secondly there is Metric Drift which is marked by rhythmic patterns stumbling, and knocking into each other, like people negotiating their way through a busy street. But mysteriously these contrapuntally opposed beats always return to the “The One”. The Animatic Apparatus and Machinecorality that make up the 3rd and 4th signatures work, I would argue, in tandem. Sound machines come to life, the audio life form begins to pulse, breath. Conversely the voice responds by allowing itself to be subsumed by the machinic elements surround it. One thinks here of not only Stevie Wonders adventures on the Vocoder but the preminent squeal of the synth in much music of Afro-Futurism. That squeal at times strikes up rememories of Marshall Allen’s playing for the Sun Ra Arkestra, and in particular his attempt to get that thing to speak on “When Angels Speak of Love.” Finally, the sound more often than not becomes drenched in the synaestehtic signature of Cosmic Sleaze. The solar heights of the squeal meets the libido, cosmic dust becomes cosmic lust. The obvious reference points for this signature are the likes of Prince, P-funk and even Rick James, who take Funk out beyond the auditory and into its olfactory and sensuous terrains. Yet we can hear cosmic sleaze being reprogrammed by the likes of Jodeci and R Kelly into what our own poacher calls a simulacrum of lust. Taking this sleaziness out even further, there is the rabid (one could even say rapid) hypersexuality which dominates Charles Mingus’ extended self analysis in his “Beneath the Underdog”. Mingus’ grandiose libido speaks to the “huh” that fills the ensembles pause on “Old Blue’s For Walt’s Torin”. And finally we even have Miles Davis’ tales of nightly cocaine and sex binges during his self imposed exile from playing. Possibly a necessary rerouting of the machinic throbs and moans that can be heard throughout “On the Corner”.
The energies of Goodman’s and Eshun’s paper were then the result of a unique investment in types of sonic oscillation. Their redrawing of Afro-Futurism in light of the nuum emerged from and generated further dislocation. To reorganise a phrase which I tend to quasi-obsessively return to from Nathaniel Mackey, they appeared to be working on the crux of multiple yet broken claims to connection.
Afro-Futures and the Hardcore Continuum
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