In William Gibson's novel All Tomorrow's Parties, set a few decades into the future, one businessman explains: “We started picking [alternative subcultures] before they could ripen. A certain crucial growing period was lost, as marketing evolved and the mechanisms of recommodification became quicker, more rapacious. Authentic subcultures required backwaters, and time, and there are no more backwaters...”
What, if anything, do subcultures -- local music scenes, for example -- mean in the age of the internet? The quick answer: Local scenes generate intensities, and one of the main ways they do this is by creating a safe-space where folks can wild out & push limits with the support of a community that trusts them.
My first point of reference is Toneburst, a Boston-based arts collective founded by some friends and I. For several years in the late 90s we staged 'experimental audio & visual adventures'. Almost inadvertently we birthed a musical scene, one that people still reference. Just last month in Berlin a former Toneburst-goer recognized me and started reminiscing about the good ole days...
Local scenes generate intensities, and one of the main ways they do this is by creating a safe-space where folks can wild out & push limits with the support of a community that trusts them.Performers outnumbered audience at our first events. But -- crucially -- we weren't in it for the money or recognition. We had beats to spin, lyrics to spit, installations to mount, video-mixing technologies to explore. Looking back now, I realize that we had essentially cleared out a space for ourselves in one of Gibson's backwaters. We created an artistic safe-space where everyone was free to develop their artistic vision, and encouraged to explore and take it in new directions, to talk about ideas, test stuff out without fear of mistakes or pressure towards sameness or need to operate alongside the established lines of what was possible in the Boston music scene.
Toneburst DJs like myself or DJ C could have gotten gigs at drum&bass or hiphop or reggae nights, but we would have had to play it straight -- and leave at home some of our favorite records--, and weren't interested in shoehorning our activity to fit the aesthetic rules of the current Boston scene. Put in other words: I've DJed all over the world from Japan to Croatia to the United Arab Emirates -- but none of that would have been possible if I had to bend my styleideas to fit the few platforms offered by Boston in the late 90s.
Toneburst -- ourownplatform, constructed with love and hard labor from the ground up -- gave me the room I needed to cut my teeth and develop a real style.
Boston's a closed, segregated city. Even in the arts. We were all frustrated by Boston's utter lack of spaces to enjoy experimental electronics, and also frustrated by the very close-minded hiphop & dance music scenes. In a sense we responded to that: our events were multi-media, open-ended, polygenred. Untidy in the way that any creative space must be.
The word spread. By the end, Toneburst parties regularly drew crowds of 500-1000 people. The backwater had ripened.
So hHow do you to create a backwater? You can't, it's just there, cells dividing and mutating and subdividing in puddles only tangentially connected to the mainstream of media and culture.
Closeness helped Toneburst thrive. It's one of the main factors making contemporary music scenes like grime in London or Houston rap so lively. Physical proximity; the engagement sparked by riff-raff and random encounters; the subtle sense of responsibility shared by users of a city, of a neighborhood, city block, of a club or warehouse for a night: these strengthen a backwaters, and can't be provided by online communities. There's scarce sense of shared responsibility online, that strange expanding land without memory, where last week happened months ago.
“I've been rapping for a year and a half, my life is real” - The Game ´Don't Need Your Love'
Fast forward to now. Fall 2005. The militarized and increasingly irrational post 9/11 political climate makes the 90s seems like an idyllic childhood summer, free of real or imaginary threats. Scroll over to London, England. Policed and surveilled, haggard and dynamic and perpetually impatient, London also happens to be home to the fastest-moving contemporary backwater. It's called grime. “Marketing evolved” mused Gibson's suit, “and the mechanisms of recommodification became quicker, more rapacious.”
Grime music is a heavily mutated form of U.K. garage. Young, mostly poor, mostly black MCs rhyme over fractured futuristic beats at speeds that leave American rappers breathless. It is possible to buy polyphonic grime ringtones for your cellphone--featuring a tune only otherwise available on 500-copies of white label vinyl stocked by three or four London shops.Pundit journalists call it internet music since the only way to buy or hear the stuff outside of London is to order over the web or browse a growing pool of grime blogs--many of them authored by local participants in the London scene. (The pundits are wrong. If anything, grime is cellphone music.)
Several backwaters now come equipped with high-speed internet connections. Pirate FM transmitters atop failed modernist housing blocks in East London simultaneously stream audio to the internet. Self-produced DVDs where teenage MCs battle in the basement of someone's mother's house as a friend captures it all on digital video, edited later on bootleg software downloaded from a P2P filesharing service. A 16-year-old grime producer contacted me because I mentioned his EP in a recent online interview. He found me by Googling himself, and wants to send me his latest tunes via MSN Instant Messenger.
Grime is a local community whose tech-savvy has combined with the fiery physical core to capture a global fanbase.
Compare it with breakcore, the twisted younger brother of drum&bass and hardcore techno. Breakcore record sales regularly outpace grime's. Lots of kids are making and buying it. Yet grime receives worldwide underground and overground attention; breakcore remains in the dark. Why? Both scenes create punky DIY music that's weird and aggressive and anti-authoritarian. Their greatest contrast is spatial. Geographically, the breakcore scene is incredibly dispersed. Small regular parties (and shops) exist all over the world: France, Japan, Belgium, US, Brazil, Germany, Canada... but there is no central hotspot. Global media and worldwide fans need concentrated heat to care, they need a single backwater to focus on. Following a diffuse scene is hard work...
A city is yours when you know your way around it. Can play it. Like a musical instrument. And a small scene can spark a whole world: just look at the black and Puerto Rican youth in the Bronx late 70s, whose creative outbursts -- rap music, graffiti, breakdancing: hiphop -- have hemorrhaged into one of the world's most powerful machines for transmuting style and image into power and cash. If a backwater gets big enough to move serious money, control eventually escapes its creators.
Create a ruckus, rapped Method Man, where you at.
- Jace Clayton
Jace Clayton's essays have appeared in The Wire and The Washington Post. The former Bostonian produces music and performs internationally as DJ /rupture. He maintains a blog called Mudd Up!: www.negrophonic.com/words