Blackdown – Urban Journals

Blackdown, aka Martin Clark, is one the UK’s better known urban music journalists. With an obvious passion for his chosen subject, he has seen the (d)evolution of garage into hybrids like “dubstep” and “grime”.

With the growing popularity of the post-garage movement and the confusion toward the interchangable terms that seem to go with it, an email conversation between the Blackdown Sound Boy and myself took place over the last couple of months to try and get to the bottom of these beats.

Kodama: Tell us a little bit about yourself. Is your background journalistic, or are you purely a passionate punter?

Blackdown: I’ve been writing about urban culture, specifically garage and the hybrids that have come out of it, for five years. I’ve written for Mixmag, Jockey Slut, The Face, The Guardian, Touch, Deuce, Knowledge, RWD and Muzik magazines amongst others. I’ve got a journalism degree but am a music fan too. I think both are important as a writer.

Through my writings I’m curious in tracking both where the genres and hybrids are musically evolving to, but also what they say about urban culture, the different people who live this culture and their values. I’ve [also] just finished co-A&Ring an artist-lead grime compilation called Run the Road for 679 recordings.

K: Tell me more about your compilation, “Run the Road”.

B: Run the Road was the idea of the A&R at 679 records UK (home to The Streets, Kano and more). He brought me in to help and we worked on it together over 2004. It was inspired by underground grime CD/DVD compilations like Lord of the Decks, Lord of the Mics and Conflict.

While these compilations increasingly look like they will become seminal, they were not well known or available outside of the London underground. Run the Road aimed to paint a credible picture of the artists that have made 2004 such an innovative year for the evolving dancehall, garage and hip hop hybrid that is grime. From urban anger to conscious vibes, introspection to tribal exclamations, we looked to cover the full spectrum of emotions grime is capable of.

K: A large part of your writing focuses on MC driven tunes. Do you think an MC is more capable of representing the people and culture within the UK, or can an instrumental track have an equally powerful impact on you?

B: The divide between instrumental and vocal music is interesting, and an issue I’ve held different views on at different times.

Instrumental records are powerful because in theory they can appeal to a wider audience. Shorn of words – with all their specific cultural references – they could connect with a variety of different tribes/groups/races etc. Instrumental music can also be very emotive and moving.

But given the big dance and urban music movements of the last 15 or so years, I’m less excited by instrumentals than before. Although in theory they can connect with disparate groups, for various reasons (genre insularities, limited marketing, the sheer volume of music out there etc) they seldom do.

There is no question that vocal music represents people and culture far more than instrumental music. Each sentence drips with cultural references, local intonations and tribal identifiers. Compare an instrumental 175 bpm drum & bass tear out with a 135 bpm grime onslaught. There is no comparison. While d&b is far faster, the emotional impact of the angry word outguns the instrumental. Allthough an instrumental can move someone with a general emotion, a lyric can convey very specific and exciting ideas that abstraction can not.

Given a great grime lyricist, like Dizzee Rascal, Wiley or Kano, the possibilities for wordplay, cultural insight, energy dissipation or simple expression of emotion make the word, especially the east London grimey word, far more exiting than the instrumental right now. (And I say that full well knowing we are in an era of very exciting instrumentals. Go get some Target, Danny Weed, Wiley, Wonder, Terror Danjah, Kode 9, Digital Mystikz or Loefah for proof.)

K: Before MCing became about namechecking and aggression, where do you feel the lyrical energy was building from? Was it a struggle by those who did not have much in life to create something more: an outlet for their frustration?

B: Lyrics in British urban music have been around as long as there has been British urban music. They’re indivisible and inseparable. The only progression you can document is the relative emphasis placed by different scenes/cultures on lyrics. Rave and the jungle movement that evolved out of it, for example, made MCs more of a foil than a focus. They are DJ-lead cultures. Grime, a sound which followed it, is an artist-lead culture and as such allows more room for lyrical expression. Where any particular lyrical energy comes from – you’d have to ask individual MCs about their own situation and what motivates them, though struggle, status and frustration are all part of it. But at least now there’s a forum and medium for their self-expression.

K: Dubstep owes a lot to the dub and reggae roots held firmly in Jamaica and the comparison between the soundclash sound systems and garage’s gangsta style crews has been drawn before. Do you see the muiscal climate in the UK currently going through similar struggles to be heard as perhaps reggae was years previously, or as something unique?

B: Firstly I think it’s important to draw distinction between dubstep and grime because there is a great deal of confusion and misunderstanding about the differences (especially since the Rephlex “Grime” compilations). Both share similarities as London-based dark post-garage hybrids, but they are also quite different.

If you’re making comparisons with Jamaican culture, dubstep has much more in common with ‘70s dub reggae in the way it is instrumental track-lead and celebrates sound itself. Grime has much in common with the current dancehall movement in so far as it uses riddims and is artist-lead. This started with the influence of Wiley’s “Ice Rink” riddims.

In fact one of the defining difference between dubstep and grime can be seen if you understand the difference between a “track” (a drum-lead instrumental that develops as the track progresses and using percussion, provides energy to make people dance) and a “riddim” (a musical content-lead production that provides a platform for an artist to perform. Usually more minimal, it’s the lyrics that provide the development and energy).

K: Dubplate culture seems to be a contentious issue within the grime/dubstep scenes. Bedroom DJs and punters struggle to get a hold of their favourite tracks, whilst well known DJs and producers not only have unique material, but possibly more opportunity to hear their tunes on a club system or pirate radio because of the dubplate fanatacism. You probably sit somewhere between these two groups of people – what’s your view on it?

B: Dubplate culture is an attitude to music adopted from Jamaican music by UK scenes like jungle. At its core, it’s a fundamental commitment to homegrown new music. In practice DJs source new music from local producers and cut special one-off 10” vinyl dubplates. Because they cost up to ten times more than buying a mass produced 12” from a shop, it represents a very serious commitment to a given track and a DJs quest for new and exclusive sounds. This forms a quality control mechanism.

There are obvious pitfalls to this system. DJs, on a quest to remain “exclusive” can cause very complex “politics” between the key players of a scene. Lesser DJs, who could help promote a track, don’t have access to some new music. Fans often have to wait years for a track to come out on mass produced 12”, as DJs are keen to protect their exclusives. And when tunes do make 12” the tracks are seen as less valuable, once the exclusivity of the dubplate has gone.

Nonetheless dubplate culture has spurred all of the great British urban music scenes since jungle in the early 90s.

K: The devolution of garage has seen grime take hold as its next successor. But grime owes more to drum n bass, electro and even techno than its distant UK cousin. As a style that seems intent on consistantly moving forward and even outdoing itself, where do you see things going from here?

B: It’s very hard to predict the distant future – not knowing is half the fun. All I can say is on a creative level, the immediate future looks very rosy. I’m listening to JME on Rinse FM as I type. In the space of half an hour I’ve heard riddims with no beats, with minimal 3rd beat snares, ones that use Indian loops, caustic urban dissonance, Kanye-soul loops, dancehall-esque riddims, weird electro/techno tones over post-r&b beats and even out-and-out rock riffs. And JME is spitting about his life in urban London over all of these ideas. Anything is possible right now. That’s a beautiful place for a scene to be.

There’s also a point to be made about grime “owing” other scenes. Informed musical listeners can draw comparisons between grime and other scenes they’ve already encountered. But it’s difficult yet important to explain the limits of experience and perception some of the grime scene’s key movers-even in this era of mass multimedia. London’s grime scene is still very insular and inwardly focused. Most MCs haven’t gone beyond London’s 50 mile radius. The vast majority of other scenes that exist even within London but fall outside of their cultural experience, MCs are unaware of. How many MCs could tell you about EMO, post-rock, classical, opera, straight edge, hard dance, salsa etc? You can hear these in clubs around the capital on any given night, but the vast majority of MCs from the grime scene never encounter them. MCs encounter things that are mass marketed to them, that they can download and that come from their own Anglo-Afro-Jamaican cultural heritage. But in general grime is far less dependent on or interested by its heritage than other scenes. This is why it has been able to produce such a startling array of sonic textures and structures. The rule book has been burnt.

Read more of Martin Clark’s writing here…
Blackdown Blog
Dizzee Rascal article at Hyperdub
Wiley article at Hyperdub
Dizzee Rascal comments in The Guardian

Email Martin Clark…







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