Various VariousRiddim Box: Excursions In The UK Funky Underground
The British underground genres of the 2000s often seemed to be about marking out their own territory. To simplify a little bit, Grime represented a major musical break with the past – an aggressive punky middle finger up at the garage establishment that had sneered at its distorted beats and hype MCs. Meanwhile, Dubstep in its earliest phases was a retreat from other scenes into the darker corners of the underground, where the relationships between musical elements could be re-assessed away from the demands of fashionability and overt populism.
Post-2005, however, both those styles have been reaching out and forging links with other styles – and in the midst of this climate of inter-connectivity came the rise of UK Funky, a genre which is entirely about re-establishing links between London's pirate/underground sounds and what came before. This compilation, by virtue of being mostly instrumental, provides a very interesting mapping of those connections: a laying bare of the rhythms and production tics that define the loose rule-sets of Funky.
It's particularly instructive to see a number of familiar names here: not only Zed Bias and MJ Cole from the UK Garage generation, but the likes of Seiji from the Broken Beat scene and even Switch (in his Solid Groove guise) and Radio Slave from the international House music establishment. All of these have responded to Funky's reinvigoration of House rhythms by turning in spectacularly crisp and energetic pieces. In some cases this means showing connections to older styles – Zed Bias’s instrumental of his and Omar's “Dancing”, for example, is laced with House classicism, reminding the young whippersnappers that the Afro-Latin-Caribbean syncopations of Funky are not new in themselves.
Others, though, sound remarkably modern: Radio Slave's remix of Viennese duo Stereotyp & Al Haca manages to impressively nail the harsh snares and laser-zaps of tougher Funky tracks, creating a highly impressive seven minutes of robo-Dancehall fusion, while Cole’s “Volcano Riddim” puts a hi-def gloss on the string-synth patterns of classic Grime. The Solid Groove remix of “Sunship” is right out on its own, with hints of rolling Junglism, abrupt burps of Acid and “Diwali Riddim”-style claps perfectly supporting Warrior Queen's Ragga vocals.
Nothing the old guard do, however, can outshine the core producers of Funky. Hard House Banton’s “Sirens” sounds better now than ever, its bringing out of the musicality in police sirens deeply subversive, and its pulsing bass harking back some two decades to Joey Beltram’s “Energy Flash”, even as the sophistication of its hovering chords and subliminal sounds make it sound hyper-modern. Lil Silva’s “Pulse Vs Flex” pulls the same trick with sirens, this time making them sing in harmony over a raw rhythm that turns early Grime into a suspenseful gallop, miles from any standard idea of House music. And DVA’s Hyperdub classic “Natty” still sounds spectacularly weird, as sophisticated and disorienting as anything else here, its bounding rhythm not House, Dancehall, Grime or anything else but completely of itself.
Sometimes it's hard to tell whether what you're hearing sounds new, old, or like it's coming from some parallel world where party music has always sounded like this. D-Malice’s remix of DJs Spen and Technic could almost have been released on Nu Groove in the late 80s, so deft is its use of very simple synth and drum sounds, while Grievous Angel’s “Move Down Low” remix makes you think there must always have been a genre of Industrial Soca House, so familiar-sounding is it. Kode 9’s “Black Sun” and those DVA and Solid Groove tracks are mutant electronic Funk completely out on their own. And the instrumentals of Donae’o’s “African Warrior” and Ill Blu’s remix of Shystie, both thickly laden with triumphal melodies, have been underground anthems in the last couple of years, yet they have the feel of classics that have been around a lot longer than that.
So Funky is both retro and futurist, it can sound like classic House, warped Grime, good-time Dancehall or something entirely abstracted from all of the above. It's hard, hearing any given track, to nail what defines Funky, but listen to all these on the trot and the picture emerges: it's not any one of these sounds, but the connecting lines between them. This album is not representative of the style as it is generally heard: in a DJ-led genre, its unmixed format loses some of the energy of, say, a Marcus Nasty set, and the lack of vocals other than Dancehall chat is a moderately disconcerting given that it’s a scene that has brought singers back to centre stage. However that’s not what this collection is about – it's about exposing the instrumental skeleton, the structure that makes Funky what it is. As such, and as a listening experience in its own right, it's impeccably put together, and a great taster of a genre which is as-yet undefined: always an exciting thing to behold.
MJ Cole - Volcano Riddim