10 March 2016

Frequency Range, II

The second, and last, part of my 20-plus years of locale-specific bass musics travelogue. Last time I dealt with my years living in the American south. This time we head to parts north...

Chicago, 1993-4: What's That Sound?

At the time, I had no idea of what it was I was kept hearing -- something I occasionally hear booming from jeeps as they passed through the block. Hilariously uptempo, threaded on very tight loops of sped-up, stuttering vocal phrases, extremely minimal with only incremental shifts and modulations. At one point, I happened across it on local public access TV, some talent-show program with a bunch of southside high-school kids dancing to it -- slow, rolling bodily undulations passing from head to toe and back again, from limb to limb. I didn’t hear the music all that frequently, when I did it was only from a distance, and it seemed to have come and gone within a season of two. In retrospect, I thought maybe I was hearing an example of Baltimore's "dew doo" beat making an inland incursion, but years later (see last entry below) would realize that what I'd been hearing were local "ghetto house" tracks.*

Chicago, 1993-4, Pt. II: Jungle and Drum'n'Bass

U.K. import tangent, number two. Simon's already weighed in on jungle in a pair of posts, so I’ll gladly defer to authority on the matter.

The first time I heard jungle, via a mixtape I'd picked up, I had no idea what I was hearing -- was startled and bemused by the rush and clatter of the accelerated BPMs.** By the third spin, the music had not only clicked with me, but I had decided it was among the most immersively gorgeous music I’d ever come across. The undertow of the bass was what pulled me in, the way it moved at a fraction of the pace of the drums, provoking the sensation of being pulled into a temporal flux.

Baltimore, 2003: Baltimore Beats

Ten years after having relocated to Chicago, circumstances landed me in an 18-month stint in Baltimore. A couple weeks in I'm driving around one Friday evening and punching around for a weekend mix show on the radio brings something unexpected my ears. Punchy, popping breaks, over which are spliced an odd assortment of vocals from tunes both recent and vintage -- from Lil Jon to to the Marvelettes. I found myself thinking, "This must be some seriously homegrown isht, here." In the following months, I came across a few cd-r mixes by DJs from further up the east coast that sported a few Baltimore clubcuts. Within a year "Baltimore club" beat was getting attention, before finally (after I'd left Baltimore to return to Chicago) becoming a Big Hipster Clubrat Thing.

Personally, I loved the breaks, the musical sparsity and bleak atmosphere of the music -- the striped down, floor functionality. Something about it took me back to the mystery music I’d heard back in Chi a decade previously. I would eventually learn or realize that it had a long Baltimorean evolution, one threaded on the "dew doo" beat that I mentioned last time (sometime referred to by a few locals as "knucklehead" music). But where was the bass? Mostly left unarticulated, implied, carried by the visceral punch of the beat. And the way DJs like K-Swift and Blaqstarr would take a bit of vocals, double and loop it so that the two parts were going in and out of phase with other (a la Steve Reich's "It's Gonna Rain") was quite delirium-inducing.

Chicago, 2007-8: Juke & Footwork

At which point the mystery music I had heard on the southside of Chicago many years earlier. This one I probably don’t have to explain, since the “footwork” style of beat has very much gone global. If anything, it was what cemented for me the idea that there was (to borrow one of Simon's terms) a booty-bass "nuum" -- one that developed from different American cities and provinces over decades, styles traveling from one place to another, being adopted and expanded on to suit local dancefloor preferences, eventually leaking elsewhere and the cross-pollicating cycle to progress further.

With Chicago juke and footwork, you hear that nuum reaching yet another phase, this time with the bpms kicked up to frantic speeds, weaving drum patterns and bass punctuations that were often geared to offer some bewilderingly off-kilter rhythmic counterpoint. At which point I vaguely recall some quote by John Cage many years ago, something to the effect of a future in which dancers making music for other dancers. Yeah, that could be considered the core idea behind dance music from disco onward; but with juke and footwork, it was catapulted into hardcore competitive sport mode.

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* How styles and trends circulated (or didn't) around Chicago in those pre-internet days could be a bit tricky. What played on the west side might not go over so well on the south side, or vice versa. This might make sense if have some sense of the immense sprawl of the city, and its multi-faceted geography of economic and cultural segregation. As it was, the early '90s saw the waning of the hegemony of the classic House sound as the sound side's hip-hop scene belatedly began to expand.

** My initial confusion may have had something to do with the fact that a number of stateside critics at the time tended to use the terms “hardcore,” “jungle,” and “drum & bass” fairly loosely, interchangeably, if not inaccurately.

And as far as the beats-to-bass ratio is concerned: Ever been to a club and watched someone try to dance to jungle by following the drums? Not a pretty sight.

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