To talk about the gender of musical genres is like discussing the sex of the angels. Still, if what we hear is vigorous, solid, and aggressive, we can't avoid thinking the style is masculine; if, on the other hand, what tickles our ears is sinuous, harmonic, and maternal, we tag it as feminine. Normally, they come hand in hand: the feminine gives way to the masculine, and vice versa. Music critic Kodwo Eshun says that, among the black youths in London, the virility of 70s roots reggae gave way to the sensuality of lovers’ rock in the eighties, because it was impossible to dance to Burning Spear with your girl: the only thing you could do was do some kind of mock combat moves, imitating martial arts movies. According to him, lovers’ rock focused on the woman's body instead. And in dance music, which is made with the body in mind, we've seen how many styles have shifted their focus between sexes: renegade producers from testosterone-fuelled drum'n'bass moved over to oestrogen-laden speed garage, in order to get the girls back on the dance floor. Or the other way around: the voluptuousness of 2step was replaced with the masculine tension of grime, almost at gunpoint. Well, this “Pretty Ugly” uses UK funky as raw material, which is like the female counterpoint to dubstep. DVA, otherwise known as Scratcha DVA on his Rinse FM Grimey Breakfast show, has made an album for the ladies (and the womanisers), which will no doubt attract flocks to the dance floor.
It's curious that, with only a few ingredients, DVA manages to get a sound which, on this album, branches out in many directions. Which is what makes his debut on Hyperdub great, in spite of some flaws. Three elements caught our ear: the rhythms, the keyboards and the vocals, mainly female. As said, the syncopated beats are mostly UK funky, with a distinct Caribbean flavour. Not Latino Caribbean, or Jamaican, where it's all about the grinding. I mean the soca beat, from Trinidad, a sweeter and more sensual rhythm, but equally insistent, where bodies flow without bumping into each other, even more so after it's gone through the British sieve: the cadence is joined by a bit of house and a pinch of London broken beat hi tech. With precisely those ingredients, DVA rose to fame with a roller called “Natty”, the second UK funky release on Hyperdub, originally dedicated to dubstep (the first was Cooly G). Electronic and tropical dance music with a carnival break, which returns here on the vocal track “Just Vybe”. Also worth a mention is “Reach The Sun”, which starts with a lot of keyboard noise and becomes hypnotic and sensual as it unfolds, thanks to the vocal mini-fragments. The tune is ideal for starting a house set with good taste and elegance. The second element drawing our attention is the use of keyboards. We could say our man knows his way around them. “Polyphonic Dreams” continues with the UK funky syncopation, combining it with some spectacular keys sounding like a laser sword fight. Who would have said years ago that the Notting Hill Carnival and a Star Wars fighter-plane combat would have anything in common? There are also some more subtle touches, like “The Big 5ive”, with a whiff of Yellow Magic Orchestra at their android-jazziest.
And last of all, of course we have the vocals. All female, except “Madness”, sung by Vikter Duplaix and reminiscent of what N.E.R.D. did ten years ago. The vocal tracks, seven out of twelve, are by vocalists who have been appearing on Scratcha's show on Rinse. AL's intervention is juicy, talking about infidelity with detail and perplexity: “I know that bitch is here / playin’ in my bed / as if I lost her head / and now I stop and stare / ‘cause my man is lyin’ there”, over a spacious and funky beat, in the vein of Super_Collider, “Raw Digits” era. The slower tempos are surprising, too, like “Firefly”, with Zaki Ibrahim, a neo-soul track with a swollen, jumpy rhythm, in the vein of Sa-Ra Creative Partners.
In general, the album sounds great when the songs flow, modulate, and breathe: space is vital for this kind of music. DVA knows the elements he's playing with all too well, and he uses them to create spacious music on most of the tracks, and the most eclectic way possible. That's where he wins. He only loses when he puts too many sounds in the tunes, as, because he only uses keyboards, it all becomes redundant. For instance, “33rd. Degree” is a procession track, solemn, like Kode9's “Nine Samurai”, but the layers and layers of keyboards suffocate it, where solemnity needs silence. A brass sample would have been good, some epic percussion, or a similar detail. But, all in all, this is an album the young dancing people will enjoy.