Bring The Beat Back, as the subtitle suggests, is a book about hip hop production aesthetics. At its most basic the reason for this is because of my own upbringing and experience. I grew up with hip hop, I’m a self-confessed hip hop kid, the music and culture defined my teenage years which in turn means it has become an inseparable part of who I am. In terms of the book, and the work that preceeded it, I’ve always looked at the core ideas as being a part of hip hop’s evolution because that is my base reference point.
Increasingly the ongoing research and work on the book has highlighted how sometimes this definition falls a little short. Mainly that’s because for some by saying ‘hip hop production aesthetics’ I exclude electronic music. Which is an understandable point of view. Thing is for me it doesn’t, but the language falls short. A month or so ago I was speaking with Danny Breaks, articulating some of these ideas and I mentioned how I really felt that the roots of the story I’m trying to tell are twofold: hip hop roots and electronic music roots. To again reference the book’s subtitle, Mo Wax is a clear root/starting point for my story but it’s not all of it. Just as Mo Wax got lumped with the trip hop tag, electronic musicians who got lumped with the IDM tag are equally important to the roots of this story. Hip hop production didn’t just change because of hip hop itself, it changed because of electronic music. It changed because those two things are in a way inseparable, they are one and the same.
Consciously or not at some point in my late teens I think I accepted that hip hop was electronic music. You only need to look at the roots of the music and culture, the tools used, to see that it is. Yet the way hip hop and electronic music evolved in the 70s, 80s and 90s meant that our collective understanding of each became increasingly separated. Which is ironic when you consider things like electro or the short-lived hip-house movement, or even the way so many producers from both worlds have always drawn for inspiration from, or practiced, both. Masters at Work, Spinna, King Britt, Madlib to name but a few.
And yet even today amid a sonic landscape where the differences between hip hop and electronic have almost entirely disappeared and blurred many of us still mentally separate the two.
Earlier this week I caught with Kode9. I’ve been lucky to know Steve Goodman for over ten years. We met when I was finishing university and he was starting as a professor there. We were introduced via my film studies tutor and struck up a friendship. Of the many relationships I’ve been lucky enough to establish with artists over the years, the one with Steve has been one of the most invigorating for various reasons – not least because it introduced me to the then burgeoning world of dubstep (before it even had a name) but also because he is someone who not only creates but also likes to grapple with what it all means. So anyways I originally spoke to him when I began doing the ABBC talks, nearly two years ago. The chat led me to Sam XL, and his place in helping to bring sound system aesthetics to the L.A beat scene in the second half of the 00s. It also led to some interesting ideas about the crossing over the two ‘nuums: the hardcore continuum that Steve has been a part of, and the evolution of beats and hip hop production that I’ve been investigating. Part of the talks touched on this, both through Steve’s work and links to the L.A scene and through Loefah’s conception of the halfstep template within dubstep. At some point I’ll detail that a bit more.
For now though what matters is that during our most recent chat we touched on this idea of hip hop and electronic music. Steve essentially put it to me that they are one and the same, but that we still seem to struggle with how to separate the two. And he’s right. Certainly his own work at the crossroads of hip hop and dance music in the late 00s highlights the limitations of this strange dichotomy. A few days later I spoke to Mike Paradinas, whose own work as label head for Planet Mu shares more than a few similarities with Steve’s work as the head of Hyperdub. Both are labels that have constantly sought the next ‘new’, and ironically both temporarily found it in the explosion of interest around beats in the late 00s, at a time when the excitement around dubstep and grime, which had arguably been the labels’ focus for previous years, was winding down.
One thing Mike said to me is that while hip hop can be seen and understood as a genre, electronic music doesn’t quite so easily fit that box. For him electronic music is more of a process, an aesthetic. And that’s a point worth considering. Certainly when I use electronic music in this particular post I think of it as a genre if you will, but then I also think of it as an approach and aesthetic. To a degree the tools you use are what defines your music as electronic, which as Mike joked also means that arguably a lot of modern rock is electronic music. So really it’s not a simple, clear cut case of even saying hip hop is electronic music. There are layers. There are subtleties.
Lastly a month or so ago I had the pleasure to meet and talk with German producer Comfort Fit. After explaining to him the roots of the book’s core ideas he pointed out that while he understood my angle and approach he felt that for him techno was the base reference point, not hip hop. As I explained earlier, I chose hip hop as the starting point because that’s the music that has defined me. For him it was techno and coming from that world, being a teenager into that music who has since become an artist in the current scene of hip hop/electronic music born out of the movement I’m investigating in the book, he saw the genesis of the music differently. To put it more simply: where I viewed the work of Flying Lotus et al in the late 00s as having direct roots to NYC hip hop (the original idea that spawned this whole thing), he viewed it as having direct roots in techno. And frankly I can’t argue with that. For one because disagreeing would imply ignoring my own bias. For two because as I’m trying to articulate here, it isn’t just simply about hip hop, it is about electronic music and hip hop’s place within that. And lastly because that’s an idea that echoes what a lot of people have told me in interviews, how they view the separation between hip hop and electronic music in this evolution of the production aesthetics.
As always take a lot of this with a pinch of salt. I’m merely jotting down ideas, trying to make sense of my research, ideas. I do know that this idea will ultimately be an important one for the book, and the entire project. It already was but now I’m starting to be able to articulate it, dissect it and try and make sense of it.