Why is the new sound of the electronic underground drawing from the machines that characterize modernity?
Now is a good time to take the pulse of what exactly is happening with the new wave of grime, or “grime 2.0.” As someone who’s listened to grime long enough to know that grime fans are sticklers to the nth degree, let me clarify my terms. The new wave of grime refers to something very specific: an advent in the sound of instrumental grime happening over the last year and some months, going rapidly into the present, showing no signs of ceasing. There is wonderful instrumental grime happening right now—made by the likes of Butterz, No Hats No Hoods, the Rinse camp—that doesn’t really fit within this category, as it defines a pretty specific sound defined by a pretty specific attitude toward experimentation.
Whereas what we can ever so loosely call the “first wave” of grime was the creation of a template and the definition of the parameters for that template’s subsequent growth, i.e., square wave synth riddims, heavy-as-concrete gunshot funk, and a blissfully nihilistic sense of melody, this “new wave” of grime is characterized by a deconstruction, or even reconstruction of this template. This development fits into the greater trend of deconstruction in many corners of the dance music universe—going back to beats now ossified in history and unzipping them, pushing weird silences, echos, and melodies in unexpected directions—that’s being pushed forward most notably by Mark Fell and Matt Steel (SND together), EVOL, Lorenzo Senni, Burial, Demdike Stare, Actress, Zomby and Lee Gamble. Annie Goh’s guest podcast for DJ Your Body’s show on Berlin Community Radio is an essential document for this musical phenomenon.
New wave grime’s manifestation of this deconstructive impulse can be described as follows. It takes primarily the last twenty years of music as fair game for reference points or samples. If you look at Keysound’s genre-defining compilation This Is How We Roll—an essential release from the movement—from last year, or Boxed LDN’s two compilations from this year, it’s interesting to note how little any of it stuff sounds like what you’d hear on pirate radio in the early 2000s. It’s more a collage of everything that you think of as “dance music” as integrated into this exploratory, open-ended sound which has yet to reach a point of real definition or ossification into a single formula.
In fact, it’s interesting to notice how little almost all new wave grime sounds like what we think of as “grime.” Rabit’s mixes are collages, drawing regularly on American rap and atmospheric sound design. Beneath’s music draws heavily from late 90’s UK bass culture, and it’s wonderful—check his EP for PAN. Mr. Mitch creates tunes for a gushing THC wonderland in space, reminiscent of the drippy and colorful world of the cartoon Adventure Time. Dullah Beatz brings trap and Atlanta mixtape rap signifiers to the table in thrilling fashion, constantly using a trademark Rick Ross sample, making music that can sound a little like dancehall and formally grind and pound like metal (check his mix for Boxed). SD Laika retools grime with a spatious, cement-evoking sonic palate. Fatima al Qadiri is an essential figure here, although she is hard to call “grime 2.0” because she is so much doing her own thing—her Desert Strike EP and her new LP Asiatisch similarly approach grime from a certain experimental remove and put it toward heavily politicized, globalization-oriented conceptual work. Visionist brilliantly follows Zomby’s lead in creating moody, spaciously constructed tracks that bang like grime, but maintain a pervasive, serene melancholy that registers as soundtrack music, almost. That’s another pervasive aspect of this new wave: a lot of the tunes sound like soundtracks to vague dramas, little bits and pieces of plot only being dreamily hinted at. Strict Face also does this pronouncedly, making some of the weirdest music of the movement—his tunes are variegated, discontinuous slips into a complex and odd world.
Because new wave grime is evolving and intentionally evasive of sounding the same as itself, it's hard to describe and therefore easy to unintentionally pigeonhole. So, rather than draw up clunky, blanket definitions, I want to work with two themes consistently at play in the new wave of grime: appropriation of the sounds of industrial machinery and war, and the relationship between atmosphere and feeling.
Appropriation of the sounds of industrial machinery and war
Logos’ Fact mix is the tour de force of industrial erotics in new wave grime.
Erotics doesn’t describe only things like porn. It means the zone of desire in all of its complexities. The desire to hear something again, the attraction, the pure euphoria of music, its catharsis: there is something erotic in this, undeniably. This is especially present in the music I’m talking about here. It harnesses these discordant, aggressive, industrial and militant sounds toward driving, repetitious effect and pure stimulation. Seratonin hits with each clang and smash, and it begins pumping steadily as the sounds persist.
Indeed, this is not novel to new wave grime. This, to some degree or another, has always been a part of grime’s sound. Listening back to classic tracks that never made it to digital, released only to white label, I found something in almost all the tracks which fit this category. But now it’s reached a whole new level of saturation. The threshold has been pushed. Kanye West’s Yeezus should be seen as concomitant with this rise of industrial sounds in dance tunes. What is it about this sound that resonates with us so much, so purely, and so fundamentally right now?
Yeezus marked a weird moment in pop because the record was so fundamentally unpalatable, largely due to this aggressive industrial, militant sound, so characterized by the bliss of the sounds of machines working. It is the opposite of something like Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, where all the imperfections of technology are hidden. Here they are brought to the forefront. For the album, Kanye gathered a who’s-who of new bass music producers (a handful of which were very freshly popular)—TNGHT, Evian Christ (who has followed up on this sound with his recent, terrific Waterfall EP), Arca, Hudson Mohawke, Brodinski, and Gessafelstein—as well as more established figures like Rick Rubin, Daft Punk, 88-Keys, and No ID, curating their actions toward something avant-garde and harsh. The result is something of blockbuster proportions, evoking the kind of simultaneously euphoric and emotionless sentiments of a Michael Bay film or the Transformers series, but through a distracted, voracious, and experimental lens. The record has a broken computer-funk quality that is comparable to a lot of this new wave of grime.
The music-historical reference points du jour for the evocation of machine sounds in new wave grime is to be found in Industrial music, particularly with its harmonization of sex and violence, and techno music, going all the way back to Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson and Juan Atkins (three Detroit techno originators.) Two quintessential examples of the erotics of technology’s sounds in music are The Normal’s “Warm Leatherette” and Cybotron’s “Clear.”
The Normal’s classic industrial track seems to be a real antecedent for Logos’ truly brilliant record for Keysound last year, Cold Mission. One can hear a lineage of the same kind of architectural, straight-lined, and lit up synths throughout that entire record. Even closer to the present, the synths we hear on the album also directly link, definitely more directly, to eski grime, a variation of the genre based in negative space, an industrial palette of sounds, and, well, colder textures, invented by Wiley with his song “Eskimo.” For those not familiar with his work, Wiley plays a weird, brilliant and goofy Godfather role in the history of grime. He’s been essential, insanely prolific, and delightfully weird from the beginning, responsible for classic 12” after classic 12” as well as Treddin’ On Thin Ice (2004), a formative album for the genre.
An essential reference point for this kind of usage of metallic percussion sounds is Jam City’s work, particularly his contemporary masterpiece Classical Curves and his entry for Night Slugs’ Club Constructions series. The nonhuman hits are truly like lifeblood here, suggesting a meditation on a bizarre singularity between human and machine undeniably connected to the extreme pervasiveness of modes of living directly tied to the technological. Indeed, looking back again, listen to Kraftwerk, whose Man Machine is an essential referent for trying do decode this dynamic as well. There is a history of this. But no saturation has reached the threshold that the music that I’m talking about here has.
The sounds of metal clangs, hits, and smashes we hear in new wave grime are abuses of the sounds of everyday metropolitan life. It’s a belching post-injection/ingestion of the sounds of production, of gross commercialism, of everything we experience in post-modernity on a daily basis.
There is something like an essential rhythm-and-bass template new wave grime follows, with bangs and hits trudging along at a bowzer-like pace, artillery flexing as percussion and synthetic bass gunk often setting the undertone. But the crux of these tracks doesn’t lie in how ingeniously they make these elements bang, although they certainly can. Rather, this music’s strongest quality lies in how each song offers a feeling-based, dramatic environment in which to live for a few minutes. I think of Untold’s series of singles for his Hemlock imprint, Change in a Dynamic Environment: these tunes create an environment, or an atmosphere, that keeps grime’s inherently danceable, joyous and mean lurch and swagger, but reappropriates it, redirecting it toward the conjuring of detailed and colorful worlds. These are songs to live in. They evoke a viscosity of feeling that seeps into you, animating you in odd ways. What makes this all the more exciting is that, again, we are talking about a club environment—the context for these tunes is that they’re meant to be danced to. While my descriptions of the previous paragraph might evoke more sound art-y tenets, staleness and purely cerebral involvement are left at the door here. This is incredibly physical music.
Consider Rabit’s “Red Candles,” perhaps the best example of this affective yet physical effect. It is completely instrumental, but I feel a need to hear it in a club, played loud. Imagine how syrupy the room would become. Standing still or even dancing—if placed a certain way in a set I can see it happening—to this tune would be like murking through honey and pollen, with a fissured psychological edge haunting on the periphery.
Or take Mr. Mitch’s “Tree,” another favorite off of the new Boxed compilation. It’s undeniably a banger—most highschoolers would probably dig this, unlike a few of the other things on there—but its bangerness does not lie in a murder-dripping horn sample or in an anthemic clap pattern. Rather, it’s in the spatiality it creates, in the scene that it provides the soundtrack to, dipping the listener in.
Listening to a Glacial Sound or an Oil Gang mix, you can tell that they’re asking the question: “what can we do with the grime template?” These mixes travel through a mélange of sonic worlds, affects and environments, with different pacings, senses of spatialities, and dramas, as do tracks by all of the artists I’ve thus far mentioned. It’s a soundtrack, a trend I’ve identified, but a soundtrack to what? Perhaps it’s up to the audience to decide.
Alexander Iadorla isn't a man, he's a machine, and also on Twitter - @aliadarola
Want more? Here's our interview with Zomby, a documentary on why the police are shutting down UK Grime nights in London, and an interview with Coolio.