Note: Due to the fact that this was a rather ad hoc intro that came out of a sudden burst of structuring ideas that would allow me to write this piece--not to mention the fact that I believe in the 'neverending edit,' albeit with a healthy weariness--this will be continually in a state of refinement as I remove unnecessary editorializing and other unfortunate bad writing habits;) The whole theoretical thrust that will hopefully become more readily apparent in the coming pieces is that I am not writing from a place of conviction, but rather interrogative curiosity. I'm not trying to define anything in an essentialist manner, but I am trying to provide some definition where I believe it is lacking.
This was supposed to be a quick afternoon essay. Now, anyone familiar with either myself or my writer should chuckle at that as that's how most of my projects start, only to conclude weeks later on the other side of some theoretical-historical mound far from where I first started. But for the sake of showing some degree of transparency about the giant steps contained below, let me walk you through the particular thought process at work here.
Two weeks ago, we took a deep dive into the producer W3C’s Atmospheric Entry EP for dubstep innovator Pinch’s Cold Recordings imprint, a label that has been notably absent from much of our discussion of the past five years of UK dance and not for its lack of quality or radical innovation within established genres. As first noted in the preceding essay, upon its founding in 2013, the label stated its commitment to tracking “new movements in the ever-evolving UK hardcore-continuum — taking inspirational vibrations from a long-standing heritage that ran through acid house, hardcore, jungle, UK garage, dubstep and beyond.”
Now, in my research and interviews that has fueled my track analyses over the past three months that have helped me to articulate many of the patterns emerging in the past five years of UK dance music, when I see the term "hardcore continuum" used by younger music writers, it's typically used as a stand-in for "British dance music stemming from the nineties" and is seemingly expunged of the stench left over from the acrimonious debates that led to several academic conferences debating its very existence.
The enduring use of the term alongside its conceptual hollowing-out has been reinforced through conversations with DJ friends around my age or older. Responding to my using the term to explain what I’ve been digging into the past several months, they’ll typically remark with a bemused grin how the only time they’ve heard the HCC referred to has been from an American producer in his twenties who will describe the music he produces as “being HCC.” Seriously now, I have heard this story about four different times and I don’t think this is a case of them all happening to refer to the same bloke.
Now, if you’re already unsure of what the fuck I’m talking about, I’m going to do what I’ve been putting off for the past three months and offer up a humble synopsis of what the HCC started out as, what it became over the course of a decade-long debate that seemingly vaporized itself in 2012, and its role in understanding certain music today.
But first, as a means to shine a light on any unchecked biases or areas of ignorance I might be unaware of within my own thinking, I’m going to offer up my own personal history as an analogy of sorts for the great flight from theory that has marked the generally dismal state of music journalism and criticism in the past five years. And writing that is painful after reading Ruth Saxelby’s recent Reynolds-referencing essay “Rip It Up and Start Again” and its use of Jes Skolnik’s dead-on observation about the “predominantly male, predominantly white critics, who until the last five years or so have themselves been overvalued in the industry and have taken up too much critical space, controlling the dialogue.” An editor at The Fader for the past four years and a personal friend, Saxelby remarks of observing from her “vantage point of New York’s music and culture publishing world” she “saw new and old media alike make hiring decisions that felt like a step toward a more inclusive and incisive future.”
For someone who’s generally avoided the anxiety-inducing prospect of pursuing a life supported by my music writing, this is not the first time Ruth has made a big-picture or inside baseball observation that has caused me to holster my rancor over what I personally perceive as the PR-ification of music writing--which, after reading this piece of Ruth’s as well, I at least felt reassured in my perception that writers tend to lean hard on press materials. Nonetheless, something has been missing from music journalism and music fandom as well--though the degree to which one is informing the other is a topic for someday maybe. In Skolnik’s talk, she characterizes the type of anxious bitching done by white male critics over their “loss of status” as typically taking the form of “the bemoaning of “politics” in critical coverage.” Well, let me be one amateur white male critic to say that the awareness of systemic political power plays within cultural reproduction is not what I am personally bemoaning.
Though there is a forty-page version of this somewhere on my Google Drive, what has concerned me about the current state of music writing is the general lack of knowledge--or the research skills to fake it till you make it--that often gets forgiven by the poptimist posse. I see this lack of knowledge in writers using the HCC without being familiar with its origins and I see it in the shallow coverage of so much of the contemporary music I adore, which, just so happens to often draw heaps of inspiration from the HCC. It's a flight from theory by those that skipped their critical theory classes in undergrad, leading to the fact that, as Facta describes it, "What we're doing ends up being subsumed into either techno or bass music."
For anyone following British music through 2012, the hardcore continuum was something that was impossible to escape from the rise of dubstep (2003-2007) through the end of the post-dubstep period (2009-2012). Hell, my indie rock friends used to have a better idea of Swamp81’s circa 2011 release schedule than I did. Those same friends today readily admit to not having the damndest idea of the UK and UK-inspired musics I’m often prattling on about, a line of development that grew out of the Bristol-based Livity Sound/Dnuos Ytivil labels and axis of producers and has since blossomed into a rudely fertile non-scene of dubstep and post-dubstep-inspired producers operating across labels that include Batu’s Timedance, Beneath’s Mistry Muzik, Facta and K-Lone’s Wisdom Teeth, Pinch’s Cold Recordings, Hotline Recordings, Ossia’s No Corner, Parris’s Soundman Chronicles alongside para-scene labels like The Trilogy Tapes, Berceuse Heroique (and sublabel Ancient Monarchy) and Different Circles and two vanguard labels from the dubstep days, Hessle and Hemlock. It bears worth noting the increased amount of activity that has marked especially the past two or three years as labels like Hessle and Hemlock whose output dried up post-2012 roared back to life by cherrypicking from the best the younger labels had to offer.
Having received my baptism as a UK electronic music obsessive during my dubstep obsession of 2006 to 2008 and the years following it, I remember back in 2013 when what had been referred to for too long as post-dubstep started seeing an incursion of techno-focused producers and mixes (Pangaea’s fabric installment in particular) that to me seemed to lack the risk-taking innovation that had kept me checking Dissensus and Fact Mag several times a day. The single-word production names were proliferating at an exponential rate, yet to me, I just heard techno with an added low-end pressure to give a track that “British” quality.
This is an opinion I have since abandoned, but was articulated with stunning similarity by Martin Clark, the ex-music journalist responsible for providing States-bound fans like myself with play-by-play of the rapidly changing trends within dubstep. Writing in response to my questions regarding what he thought of this generation of producers, he responded, “ I worry with the current crop, which as I say I do think are creative and have potential, that en masse a lot of it is basically collapsing back to techno. Some of the lead guys in this scene I've heard just play outright techno in sets. I hear some of them say "oh no, but we do it in a UK way," which is a heuristic for "bassy", but the tracks mostly don't have any rudeness to them, in fact I think these guys are aiming quite away from that rude, drop mentality, towards much more 'sophisticated' percussive styles.”
We’ll get to that oh-so-HCC worry of rudeness vs. sophistication later on, but it’s an opinion that struck home not just for myself, but also with Oscar Henson (Facta) when I cited it in a later chat we had last December. He responded diplomatically, saying “I know Martin has always been pretty unconvinced by the more techno-leaning end of this music. I personally think he's written off some pretty incredible music in the process (I've told him this).”
I remember at the time that Facta’s lamenting of the great music that gets ignored when one does not feel compelled to keep track of things--and I should note Clark in no way is sticking his head in the sand as he cited both tunes he did love ("Partials!!") in our chat and continues to release new music via his Keysound imprint--feeling a wave of déjà vu. For back in 2010 when the 140BPM hegemony of dubstep had dropped down to the far more versatile 130 range, Clark wrote a piece entitled “Meta-Scenius” for his Blackdown blog. Responding to a quote from Reynolds agreeing with a Lisa Blanning article about Night Slugs and the dismal “interzone” of proto-post-genre musics that lack any “defining characteristics” due to the music itself being a “mixture” of genres rather than a synthesis, Clark made the following counter-claim:
The problem is, in the absence of a new, inebriating new movement that reveals itself in those familiar “disorientating” patterns, I’m not sure it’s fair as a consequence to write off the rest, the delocalised “interzone” as Simon calls it. Why? Because the interzone has made some startlingly amazing individual records this year and collectively they sum to a vintage year, well, for me at least. The problem is this new, delocalised structure doesn’t fit with previous patterns of tight, focused scenes. So if you went looking for that and that only, you probably didn’t find it.
Locating his argument firmly within the HCC, Clark raises the hypothetical question over the inability of the HCC to produce a new singularity. He then identifies the year’s dynamics within grassroots and underground scenes whose interests shifted from grime to road rap and funky to house and dubbage. These shifts represented “ agents of the nuum re-connecting back into the “dark matter” in the nuum galaxy: the two vast established international scenes rap and house” However, for the time being, “there’s an inherent conservatism inbuilt in plugging yourself back into the formulas of house or rap that makes it hard to simultaneously deliver the wot-do-u-call-it? Intoxication.”
The above quotes are rife with HCC-associated speak like “dark matter” and “wot-do-u-call-it” of which I’ll explain its historical context later on. But the piece takes a prescient left turn only sentences later when he penned the following graf that is perhaps more relevant now than it was when written back in 2009: “Yes maybe this space has no defining characteristics but that’s its strength not its weakness. If people are looking for the next “wow” moment, a long line in singular “wow” moments, isn’t the biggest wow of them all that this one hasn’t come packaged as before? That in a hyperconnected, delocalised world of fast musical idea-exchange that the new singularity wouldn’t come packaged as before? That it’s not even a singularity at all, but a plurality?”
Making the requisite nods to the way that scenes were once locally isolated movements and how advances in communications technology had disrupted the patterns of boom-and-bust development most salient in the nineties and which had given the HCC its defining qualities, he then makes the following observation: “Yes maybe this space has no defining characteristics but that’s its strength not its weakness. If people are looking for the next “wow” moment, a long line in singular “wow” moments, isn’t the biggest wow of them all that this one hasn’t come packaged as before? That in a hyperconnected, delocalised world of fast musical idea-exchange that the new singularity wouldn’t come packaged as before? That it’s not even a singularity at all, but a plurality?” While acknowledging that within a nuum context, a “new seismic shift” is still very possible, he also hedges his best by noting that “as the cost and friction of propagating ideas tends to zero, that we’ll see new structures to the landscape of how new music evolves around us.” He concludes the piece by listing a baker’s dozen of tracks and albums from that year before asking the impassioned question, “how can you not see both the collective quality and the interconnectivity here?”
It’s safe to say that the following eight years have not thrown up the type of singularity that the 00s saw in the forms of grime and dubstep and the nineties witnessed through hardcore, jungle and d&b, and UKG and 2-Step. I’ve chosen this Clark piece as the launchpad for a journey in two different temporal directions that will help us to better understand the HCC and how it continues to play a role in the music emanating from the UK and beyond today. While I disagree with his assessment of how things have worked out in the following years, his writings for his own blog and Pitchfork’s Grime/Dubstep column between 2006 and 2011 provide an invaluable near-real-time accounting of dubstep’s eventual implosion and the many lines of flight that it fueled. More importantly, as his quote about the plurality shows, he has a real sensitivity for picking out patterns and trends well before they’re adopted and diluted by the music journalist mainstream and at the end of the day, unlike Reynolds and his acolytes, he resists wholly discounting a whole meta-scene while acknowledging the rapidly changing foundations upon which the nuum was constructed are largely relics of the past.
2010 was a truly unique year in UK music as while figures like James Blake helped bring a new international audience to dubstep (kinda), the genre itself was already a year into its “Brostep” stage with a Diplo-backed Rusko as its figurehead while yet to experience the actually seismic influence of Skrillex who, despite big-upping Croydon at the Grammys, is arguably the reason why the fifteen-year-old I recently tutored looked at me with shock when I told him dubstep originated in London. What we’ve seen in the intervening years between then and our present moment has not so much been the emergence of new structures, but the rehabbing and reconfiguration of existing genres and musical structures in wholly new ways. Much like Clark making his impassioned plea for readers to see a connectivity that for him was clear as day, I’ve been truly shocked by the decidedly lazy way most journalists now write about the dozens of artists who remain stylistically distinct from one another while drawing from similar sources for inspiration, employing certain shared musical tropes incubated amongst themselves, and regularly sharing labels, bills, and social media love with one another--including but not limited to Airhead, Alex Coulton, Asusu, Batu, Beneath, Bruce, Chevel, Duckett, Eomac, Facta, Forest Drive West, Gantz, Gaunt, Giant Swan, Hodge, K-Lone, Kailin, Kowton, L.SAE, Leif, LOFT, Lurka, Laksa, Mosca, O$VMV$M, Paleman, Pangaea, Parris, Pearson Sound, Peverelist, Piezo, Ploy, Simo Cell, Tessela, Via Maris, and W3C, just to name a few.
I conducted nearly a dozen interview for this piece, speaking with seven of the above producers alongside critics like Clark, Jeremy Gilbert, and Joe Muggs. One that particularly stood out was my conversation with Facta, who at once echoed many of my own theories while providing a more informed context for how this music is currently being written about and used by other DJ’s. Speaking with the producer about the suspicious lack of press around what I and others have considered being some of the most exciting developments in dance music, he noted that "we don't really have an identity around us - whoever 'we' are." He continued, noting that "there's a definite feeling amongst the producers in this scene that they don't really want to be likened to one another too much," concluding that due to the lack of articulation on behalf of the artists, "what we're doing ends up being subsumed into either techno or bass music."
Extrapolating on why that’s the case while further commenting on Clark’s comments, he explained: “I do agree with him that people end up playing too much safe and straight techno in their sets. I'm not saying that this music can't cross over with techno, or that some of it probably just is techno. And of course a lot of us are naturally getting more into techno as we get older, so it's not (necessarily) a cynical thing to get bookings or shift units (although this definitely comes into play). In people’s productions, people try aggressively to sound new and forward thinking but don't commit in the same way in their DJ sets. I've definitely been guilty of it.” It’s a nuanced assessment as it dictates the ways in which production and DJ’ing have become separate entities in a way that just wasn’t the case ten years ago when you had dubstep DJ’s making dubstep dubplates for dubstep nights like FWD>> and DMZ. In fact, as became excruciatingly clear over the course of my assorted interviews, the only people apparently concerned about genres were the critics with whom I spoke. Be it Parris’s proclamation that the idea of genre has been irrelevant for the past five or six years or Batu’s explorations at the margins of house, techno, grime, and whatever else strikes his fancy.
I often joke that the most popular genre today is “everything,” based on the fact that that’s the most common answer I hear when inquiring what type of music someone is interested in. But we seem to forget that this desire to not be defined by one style of music is not limited to listeners, something Batu echoes when he rhetorically asks, “I mean, in an age where we have access to so much amazing music who wants to just listen to one genre?” And more to the point, who wants to just create in one genre?
Taking Facta’s observation of "nobody's ever really written a big piece trying to work out what's going on” as fuel for my own descent into three decades of British music, fandom, and criticism, I've spent nearly a year so far trying to do just that, provide an overview of just what’s going on by identifying the unifying elements amongst this loose network of labels and what Callum Laksa charmingly refers to. Unfortunately for me, to do so means tackling with a number of “big questions.” Is genre a sufficient concept to refer to a style of club-focused electronic dance music that unlike few before it, lacks a median BPM like jungle's 160 or dubstep's 140? What are the defining aspects of this music that eschews genre and scene? What does a scene even mean in an age where shared geography is no longer a requirement and communities can exist in a virtual space as does the reluctance of this particular nexus of producers to be seen as part of a shared sonic style? And what does the hardcore continuum actually mean in 2018 to the producers who are pushing the tradition of dance music into new places?
I should note I am at a distinct disadvantage in writing about this as a thirty-three-year-old American male as I lack the firsthand experience of hearing the music in real time and in person or a nuanced understanding of British music criticism. Let's just say I get that Melody Maker was the more intellectual version of the NME and both were hopeless hype-mongers, a fact that's useful to keep in mind when analyzing the media dynamics and the rise of new scenes and genres. For me, this whole story began in the music and throughout my interviews and readings, I've typically found reification of the theses I first located within the music itself. And it is with that leap of faith that I attempt a different reading in the cases where I feel confident doing so and simply do my best to present the facts where I'm not qualified to editorialize. This essay is every bit a work in progress and one written with certain pre-existing opinions that will be challenged and hopefully shaped into a way of talking about both current UK underground dance music and contemporary electronic dance music in a manner that takes stock of the preceding arguments while forging forth new ones to better conceptualize an in-flux musical plurality predicated on (possibly) infinite mutations.
As we will be chasing both music history as well as abstracting some of the conventions that too often go unchallenged, this essay will not have the benefit of proceeding in a neat and linear fashion. Rather, as we will be looking at the critical and metacritical context against which the music was often defining itself, the first part of this essay will be an overview of the HCC, the historical framing device assembled by the music critic Simon Reynolds, himself an avid participant in much of the electronic dance music he chronicled throughout the nineties and into the mid-aughts. From the "Wot U Call It?" of this title to an overview of the various musical movements and surrounding culture that make up its historical throughline (as well as those that fall outside its remit), the HCC has endured because as at the very least it does provide a tidy linguistic shorthand for a certain period and tradition of distinctly British electronic music. Having also inspired endless debates amongst a certain generation of British music critics and cultural theorists, we will survey some of the principal critiques surrounding it, many of which stem from technological and social developments that have seen a gradual deterioration of many of Reynolds' most-cherished touchstones as well as a reconfiguring of the musical landscape.
With sufficient context established, we will thus dive into the present moment and the preceding decade and change that has helped shape it directly as well as identifying older musical styles and cultures that have done so from a greater distance. Taking three labels that have emerged as this new movement's creative engine--Timedance, Mistry Muzik, and Wisdom Teeth--and the producers (Batu, Beneath, Facta, and K-Lone) behind them as gateways into the geographically and stylistically disparate musical landscape of current day UK dance music. As there is some debate over whether we are in the midst of a wholly distinct iteration in the history of UK dance or still in the ever-looming shadow of dubstep (or perhaps even jungle or hardcore), like much contemporary music, understanding how we got here requires a particular understanding of the recent past and the different social, cultural, technological, and historical forces giving form to today's ever-growing network of labels and producers.
The final third will return to more theoretical concerns, such as whethecritical theory is of any concern when discussing music, electronic, dance, or otherwise. Taking a cue from the producers we've spoken to alongside existing interviews of those we did not, we will assess how today's globalized electronic music culture makes sense of provincial permutations whose ripples can affect the greater musical horizon. We will present a more laid-back and potentially more potent reading of the HCC's influence, if any is to be found, on the most recent mutations within the UK musical DNA as well as the contemporary music critical discourse. And we will interrogate what the status of genre is in a time where little music remains uncontaminated by anything outside of its own stylistic and cultural lane. Finally, as this all got far more complicated thanks to language, we will assess the current music speak and what it denotes, or fails to, while hopefully expanding it a bit with some concepts of our own. After all, it's not simply the role of music criticism to evaluate the medium's varying physical manifestations. It must offer a greater contextual framework, especially when one is either lacking or devoid of any global significance. It's not a small or fast task, but it's one that is severely overdue. Let's just hope the writing can do justice to the music that's inspired it.