A few years ago music critic and theorist Simon Reynolds coined a new phrase - the Hardcore Continuum - to describe a lineage of UK Urban music that includes rave, jungle, UKG, speed garage, 2step, dubstep and grime. Knowledge finds out more.
The Hardcore Continuum, or 'nuum' for short, is a term coined by music critic Simon Reynolds (author of legendary jungle / rave tome Energy Flash and recent post-punk book Rip It Up & Start Again among others) while penning a series of articles on everything from jungle to 2step, UKG and grime for experimental / avant-garde music magazine The Wire.
On February 11th at Liverpool's FACT centre, Reynolds spent a couple of hours explaining to an assembled audience the basic premises of the nuum, which describes and supports the connections between these UK urban scenes in terms of factors such as continuity of infrastructure, population, rituals, musical influences, broadcast mediums and personnel.
He explained why it's called 'Hardcore' ('because the tradition started to take shape circa 1990 with what people called Hardcore Techno or Hardcore Rave') and how the nuum has its roots in the groundbreaking collision of four main musical elements - house, hip hop, reggae and techno - in late 80s Britain.
'What really alerted me to the 'continuum' idea was that with speed garage and 2step you had all these tracks that were remaking hardcore rave anthems, and lots of samples from classic hardcore and jungle tunes,' he says via email.
'So it was like the scene was paying homage to its own ancestry and consciously emphasizing the continuity. And that's carried on to this day, you have things like dubsteppers Caspa & Rusko and Hijack remixing Lennie D'Ice's 'We Are I.E.' which was a hardcore rave classic, I think it actually came out in 1991, when Caspa was nine years old!'
The basics of the nuum - that the urban genres mentioned above share intimate and visible connections - are difficult to refute. Aside from sounds, locations and other overlapping factors (from economic infrastructures and pirate stations to record shops and rewinds), there's the visible crossover of personnel.
From the multitude of DJ / producers - Nico, Jonny L, MJ Cole, Grant Nelson to name just a few - that have moved fluidly from the rave through to garage, 2step, and even dubstep and funky, to pirate stations like Rinse FM that have mirrored the scene's permutations and the links between Grime MCs and their jungle counterparts, the connections are generally highly visible.
'Jungle was definitely the one that started me off,' says MC Sway. 'Loxy and Ink are my older cousins so they switched me on to that side of music. I used to go to Under 18 raves and see the reaction people like Shabba D got from the crowd - it was crazy! It opened my eyes to the power of the music.
'I started freestyling to the music and it grew from there. One of the most exciting developments was the success of garage and 2step - it showed there was potential to make credible music that could commercially crossover and get in the charts. That encouraged me professionally too.'
'I like the way Reynolds has shown the links between what some might think are disparate, disconnected scenes,' agrees Heatwave.co.uk founder, DJ / producer Gabriel Myddleton.
'Loads of kids who were into jungle when I was at school were going to garage raves by the time we were at sixth form. Many garage or drum & bass DJs and producers I knew at university went on to become big in grime and dubstep. As Simon Reynolds says himself, it's less of a theory than an observation of fact: the progressions and connections are clear.'
Yet the nuum has inspired intense debate, mostly on the blogosphere but also via organized panels like 'The Hardcore Continuum? A discussion' where a group of speakers ranging from Mark Fisher (K-Punk), Steve Goodman (Kode 9), Lisa Blanning (The Wire) and Kodwo Eshun (author and critic) sat together in the University of East London and asked questions like 'what is the value of the concept?' 'Does it still usefully describe the context from which dynamic new beat musics emerge?' 'Can the conditions of creativity in the 1990s be replicated in the era of web 2.0?'
Blackdown's Martin Clark was among those in the audience. 'The talks were designed to address the concerns some writers had that the theory was at best out of date or at worst, broken,' he says. 'Clear outcomes are hard to pin down, but it certainly raised the points that the new house mutation funky was being badly dealt with. Wonky, a theme running through several genres I proposed last year, caused lots of discussion, mostly when other people used it as a genre.
'Kode9 and Kodwo Eshun proposed a very elaborate and creative paper that highlighted a separate thread, of how you could trace a link back from Joker and Terror Danjah through G Funk to the Ohio Players and Roger Troutman. Pretty funky stuff. Best of all it got all of the main writers and bloggers debating the issue, including Simon Reynolds himself.'
Certain aspects of the nuum have indeed been open to criticism and / or misinterpretation. Reynolds has been quick to clarify certain points, namely that the 'nuum' is not a theory but 'an actually existing, empirically verifiable (and abundantly verified) thing-in-the-world, like jazz or reggae or folk or metal' (though it can of course be theorized about).
That he uses the term 'continuum' because 'it's another way of saying tradition, which I prefer because 'tradition' has that folksy / rootsy whiff about it.' And that the nuum is not about 'what's in, what's out disputes'.
That said, one of the main criticism towards the nuum is precisely that it doesn't include several genres that some would argue should be in there. One of the biggest controversies, as mentioned above, is that Reynolds does not consider funky part of the lineage.
'I kind of wish I liked funky more,' he admits. 'It has just one too many flavours in it that doesn't appeal to me. But as a scene, looked at objectively, it's a classic London 'road' scene in terms of having the pirate radio link, the multiracial audience. I'm hoping it'll veer in a direction that's more my bag.
'One of the things that makes me doubtful about it is that of all the things to come of the continuum it's the one that's created the least buzz outside London. There's only a handful of international 'hardcore continuum' obsessives talking about it on the web and as far as I know nobody's attempted to do a club around it in New York. You probably get dubstep DJs here trying to work in a bit of it into their sets maybe. But it hasn't really captured the wider world's attention, which is what jungle, 2step grime, dubstep all managed to do to varying degrees.'
'There's no doubt for me that funky is part of the lineage of London-centric dance music that includes hardcore, jungle, garage, grime and dubstep,' says Myddleton. 'From what I understand of Reynolds's theory, there are numerous aspects of funky that echo what he has outlined as being common threads tying together earlier scenes, such as chopped and re-pitched female vocals, sampled dancehall, heavy bass, and continuity of infrastructure in terms of radio stations like Rinse or Deja Vu and record shops like Blackmarket Records aka BM Soho. There's also continuity of personnel - countless key players in funky have histories in grime, dubstep, garage and jungle, for example Donaeo, Marcus Nasty, Geeneus, Perempay or Sami Sanchez. Big names from previous scenes are also getting involved, such as Scott Garcia, Boy Better Know, Lady Chann, Gappy Ranks, Maxwell D, Sticky, Wookie or Kode 9.'
Other important and influential genres such as breaks, trip hop, broken beat, or even UK hip hop don't get much of a look in either, though as always Reynolds has reasons: 'Jungle in many ways was the UK's answer to hip hop,' he states, 'as opposed to the actual Brit rap scene, which despite its best efforts tended to be more straightly imitative of America. Trip hop produced lots of great stuff early on especially but really it's a separate lineage I think. It's much less about dancing and rave energy, more about the head-nod. It's smokers music, but it does have similar sources in terms of hip hop and reggae.
'Nu skool breaks is an odd one, I guess there is a relationship to hardcore, Rennie Pilgrem worked with one of the big rave outfits Rhythm Section. But overall breaks feels like it's branched off to be its own entity. I could be letting my personal lack of enthusiasm for the sound colour my judgment here though. Broken beat is a bit like trip hop I think, it's a much more a mellow dancing or head music type thing. It doesn't have that sort of rude-boy aspect that runs through most of the continuum, nor the continuum's other side, which is a sort of fearless cheesiness and poppiness, i.e. lots of cheeky samples from chart hits. But of course certain key figures from jungle moved into broken beat like 4 Hero.'
'The hardcore continuum by definition doesn't try and include all UK genres, just what comes out of the urban multicultural working class areas,' defends Clark. 'So with breaks you could say it makes an appearance when Zinc's '138 Trek' becomes the biggest record in UK garage circa 2000 but the current breaks scene, which has minimal presence in urban London or through the pirates, isn't. Similarly when jungle was, ahem, massive in Hackney it's a core part of the continuum. But when Pendulum are touring international rock stadiums, it isn't. Trying to force Pendulum's stadium rock to fit into the continuum is to miss what the continuum is about.'
Myddleton, for one, would like to see the nuum stretched to include the larger and longer line of soundsystem culture originating in Jamaica. 'The likes of John Eden and Dave Stelfox have written about this, and the compilation An England Story that I compiled for Soul Jazz Records explores those JA/UK links as well,' he says. 'Obviously, hardcore is the beginning of a new chapter in that it blended Jamaican soundsystem influences with UK / US rave music, but seeing it in a deeper historical context seems to make sense. The way grime and funky interact with Jamaican music, culture and language is not dissimilar to the relationships between English dancehall MCs and their Jamaican counterparts in the 1980s.'
'Music and culture is messy, so when I talk about these big patterns it's really general outlines and broad trends,' states Reynolds. 'Naturally there are always exceptions and overlaps and so forth. I don't think any of the various nits that can picked undermine the central argument which is that in the early 90s when house music and techno collided with hip hop and reggae influences in London and a few other multiracial cities in the UK, something remarkable happened - there was a surge of cultural energy, partly fueled by ecstasy's ability to melt social barriers and open people's minds to strange mind-bending sounds and also just get everyone buzzing with belief. That energy-surge then played out through successive mutations in a context of raves and rave-like clubs and most crucially pirate radio. You have various hallmarks of the continuum that make its vibe drastically different from traditional house and techno, the role of the MC, rituals like the rewind, the use of dubplates. It's the most amazing cultural phenomenon I've ever witnessed with my own eyes and ears.'
In the end it seems the nuum's most applicable aspects are its most obvious ones: that it accurately describes the connections - musical ideas, broadcast medium, rituals, influences, personnel etc. – that run through much of our beloved UK urban scene, As Martin Clark points out, 'it shows that root causes are connected and that key elements are retained. It explains that when drum & bass became too tech-steppy, UK garage arrived to accommodate all the women in inner city areas that didn't want to rave to dark machine music. Or when grime became a serious concert based around aggressive male reputation and conflict, it explains the rise of funky - music you can dance and have fun to. This is because it seems that there are a bunch of balanced musical elements in a lot of these genres and history shows if you unbalance them, the continuum mutates to re-accommodate them.'
Which begs the question: what’s next? 'I'm not a big one for predicting what's going to happen, though I suppose it's usually a safe bet to predict some kind of cycle,' says Myddleton. 'So a retreat from fun, party music to something darker is probably round the corner at some point. I've seen this happen a few times in the decade or so that I've been listening to Jamaican music, from the grimey, minimal Ward 21 productions, which dominated the late 90s and early 00s to the fun, over the top jiggy / dancing tunes popularised by the likes of Elephant Man in the mid 00s. What I'm particularly excited about at the moment are the possibilities for musical collaboration between Jamaica and the UK. It seems like bashment and funky are made for each other, sharing vocal styles, tempos, drum patterns, certain production qualities and a fun, dancefloor-focused philosophy. I think we're looking at some fertile years for creativity, innovation and interesting connections.'
'All kinds of scenarios are imaginable,' reckons Reynolds. 'One is that the continuum tradition has used up all its resources, musically, in terms of that matrix of house / techno / reggae / hip hop. And to get fresh renewing 'vibe' it will have to siphon more and more ideas from elsewhere - from different elsewheres - which will cause it to fragment, with different bits joining up with other genres. That maybe what's happening with funky, that to keep a fresh vibe in the mix it's pulled all these sounds from tribal house and broken beats and soca. That in turn expands its demographic reach maybe.
'A similar possibility in terms of demographic changes in the crowd actually changing the sound is dubstep. It seems to have become something else, this party-hard sound, it's come a long way from where it started. The UK garage roots of it are almost gone, and quite a lot of the reggae element too. It's become this bombastic hard-riffing thing, which appeals to a different crowd - students, former drum & bass people, free party crusty types even. It's becoming a populist sound and in a bizarre way, more of a ravey scene, even though it's slow in tempo. A sound for munters. The original dubstepheads are fleeing for the exits, they hate it. It could become something absolutely grim, or something interestingly extreme, like slowed-down gabba.'
Simon Reynolds: http://blissout.blogspot.com
Martin Clark: http://blackdownsoundboy.blogspot.com
Words by Paul Sullivan
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