‘CRITICAL BEATS #3– TRADITION AND INNOVATION’ @ Stratford Circus, London 24/02/12

So this week I made the short trip from Brighton to London to attend a talk on electronic music aesthetics at Stratford Circus, hosted by hipper-than-hip music magazine The Wire. Chaired by Steve ‘Kode9’ Goodman, and a panel consisting of Simon ‘Retromania’ Reynolds, Joe Muggs and The Wire’s own Lisa Blanning, this was certainly an exciting, informative, but ever so slightly daunting experience for me. Although I’ve come across a small amount of lofty academic writing on contemporary music, I don’t think I’ve ever heard Adorno and Marxist concepts, and dizzying phrases like ‘generational polarization’ and ‘hyper-localization’, being bandied about in music discussion quite so casually before. So much for the break from my university studies, then.

At first I felt some creeping skepticism in relation to all of this – and I can’t help but think of how many artists would find such a studious, intellectually-stuffy approach fairly laughable. But having almost reached the end of my undergraduate experience, I do think it would be easy to suggest that serious study of contemporary music feels like a rather undernourished, untapped area in academia. Whereas film, television and media studies seem to have permeated modes of thought at most higher education institutions, the study of modern music in any meaningful sense seems to sit on the fringes, if at all (although Goodman's position at the University of East London does serve as a clear exception to this). In fact I do think that closely scrutinizing musical trends could at times be a more effective cultural tool for entering into discourses on sociological, aesthetic – and perhaps even political – trends, than might immediately be achieved through film and television studies. For instance, serious reflection on the changing face of dance music culture over the last twenty plus years – with all it’s complex links to taste, community and even criminality - would probably tell us far more about the changing face of modern Britain than say, insight into the semiotics of Eastenders, or studies in the shifts of focus for the Hollywood studio system might.

Lasting over two hours in length, the talk threw open countless modes and angles of thought for approaching dance music culture - neatly reflecting on what an expansive beast it seems to be in 2012. As you could probably anticipate on a talk partly interested in modes of tradition in electronic music, it didn’t take long for attention to shift to the good ole days. Joe Muggs quickly reminisced on dance music’s classless, raceless, MDMAzing golden (or crystal?) age; a rather romantic image of the early nineties as an era where sonic innovation was oozing out of all manner of soundsystems and bassbins – and feverishly beamed across the nation by the pirate stations – is conjured up. To be fair, although this is a rather obvious reference point it is a vital one, and served as a useful way of thinking about communication between the old and the new throughout the discussion. Muggs later made reference to how he sees dubstep’s ‘gnarly wobble’ as being infested with some of that 90s rave/jungle ‘craziness’. To me this seems to take some of the formal debates into wider contexts about how energy flows and shifts over time. The ‘wobble’ has undoubtedly been a definable textural innovation in electronic music over the last decade, but what Muggs seems to raise here is that the reaction of the raver – which can perhaps be boiled down to that overwhelming desire to lose all inhibition and go fucking mental at the point of the 'drop' – can be contextualized within the wider history of electronic music. Of course Reynold’s linear theory of the UK hardcore continuum, for which more can be read about here, is a really useful way of thinking about these transferences of energy, and served as another important critical undercurrent throughout the evening.

I’m not sure of how much this has been discussed elsewhere, but I thought Muggs raised a really interesting point about the lack of comparable ghettoisation in the UK compared to countries such as France and the USA. He sees this as leading to the multiracial, more ambiguously class conscious scenes that have emerged from the UK, stressing the lack of geographical divide between estates and affluent areas when contrasted, for instance, to the more rigid ghettoes of inner city America. This feels vital when thinking about grime – which to me has never seemed that interested in focusing on class or race divid - while still being very much aware of where it’s come from. I was also much more on the side of Muggs and Blanning who seemed quite quick to distance themselves from Reynolds suggestions that grime had in some way failed in its aims and is now in a period of retreat. For a start, to move away from reflections on the MCs, grime instrumentals still seem as important as ever. Blanning namechecked Teeza’s track ‘Bounce’ towards the end – I hadn't previously heard it and I’m glad she brought it up because it’s an absolute monster of an instrumental.

Of course it seemed inevitable that Zomby was going to get mentioned at some point and I think he ended up cropping up in discussion more than any other individual artist. I’ve got to confess I still have a tough time identifying what is quite so special about Zomby. As easily my favourite  Zomby cut had been ‘Natalia’s Song', I couldn’t help but have my opinion of him ever so slightly tarnished by all that hoo-har surrounding the origins of the track. But to step away from the sonic side of things, Blanning made a really interesting point about Zomby’s crazed, rampant Twitter activity attracting an audience that would perhaps have previously had little interest in him. Through this, Zomby, a figure shrouded in mystery, infamy and skunk smoke, perhaps with the three in equal measure, becomes an unavoidable character on the scene. With the trailblazing success of Skream & Benga’s lads-on-tour personas, and the inescapable rise of Skrillex – coupled with the downright terrifying declaration by Simon Cowell that ‘DJs are the new rockstars’ – it seems personality and individualism in dance music may be as important now as it has ever been.

Being far, far from an expert on the dance music universe, I also left with a host of unfamiliar names for me to go away and check out (I felt very out the loop whenever footwork jungle mixes got mentioned… so I’ve quickly amended that). It certainly made a change to Question Time for some panel-based viewing on a Thursday night, and was a refreshingly serious and measured reflection on the state of current electronic music. Still not quite sure how Adorno fits into all of it, but perhaps I’ll save that for another time.  


  1. hmmm thanks for an interesting read. i also travelled up from brighton for critical beats. i found it quite thought-provoking but i'm coming at things from a slightly different direction. i set some thoughts down at http://aftertherave.blogspot.com/2012/03/whose-hardcore-continuum.html

  2. thanks for reading, always good to gauge different directions and what not.. i'll be sure to give your post a read.