I would like to tell a story about the voice in relation to two specific movements in dance music. The first is Jungle or, as it would later be known, Drum & Bass. I will be drawing from a particular strand of commentary regarding Jungle; it is a commentary about a form of futurism inherent in Jungle. This futurism is posited by some as the last mode of collective musical futurism - of dance floor jouissance coalescing with machinic aesthetics and human extinction. However, I would like to argue that the rush of the future did not end with Jungle but, a la the modus operandi of capitalism, re-negotiated the sonic terrain to reflect a future more inline with the current experiential trajectory. I will plot the shift of the future via close evaluation of the voice in Jungle and later dance music forms. This brings me to the second movement in dance music – Footwork. Essentially I propose that the future is not what it was. The future intrinsic in Jungle will no longer occur but the future intrinsic in Footwork is just around the corner, in fact, many facets of contemporary life are already echoes of the future world evoked by the role of the voice within the Footwork genre.
To illustrate the above proposal I will outline what the future of Jungle was. The future of Jungle was machinic - terrifyingly, intoxicatingly, and vertiginously so. It was a future of matrix mainframes and phenomenal modulations – time, sound and space. Technology afforded new horizons of experience: these technologies were digital and chemical. Advances in sampling and drum machine programming technologies created genuinely new sounds. New drugs and new forms of collectivity were crucibles for cooking up new experiences and synthetic emotions. Jungle and rave culture were, in a sense, laboratories that augmented realities and phenomena. The voice was at the center of such technological manipulations and digital augmentation. Time-stretching technology arrived; it was an effect that allowed a piece of sound to be stretched across time without losing its original tone. This technology, when applied to vocal samples, came to characterize the Jungle aesthetic and the machinic future attributed to it. A vocal sample would often be singled out from the sonic mix; the beats and other samples would drop away whilst a metallic voice stretched out and flooded the dancefloor. This isolation would often occur before a drop, a moment of corporeal, sonic and collective intensification. The time-stretched vocal characterized Jungle, it was utterly machinic, technologically synthesized and impossible to replicate by human vocal apparatus alone. Indeed, the most intimate facet of the musical palette, the voice, became more than cyborg, it became dehumanized and intrinsically machinic (in formulation and experience) with an otherworldly degree of chronological autonomy. The time-stretched vocal can be understood as a glimpse, a locus, of the utterly machinic future that Land describes in “No Future” - a future extinction of anthropoid flesh:
“Savage metronomic pulse. C N S baked and pulsing with cyberspace-virus. Motor-output feeding to technotrace-matrix. Sobbing voltages. (…) It isn’t a matter of informing the mind, but of deprogramming the body. Amongst the strobes, artificial cool, and inorganic attack beat, dark-side K-war machinery resiliently persists, luring the forces of monopolism down into free-fire zones of fatal intensity, where promiscuous anorgasmic sexualities slide across tactile space, meandering fractally into wet electric distributed conflicts continuous with their terminal consequences. Dropping endlessly tracks the passage of evaporating subjectivity on zero-degree plane of neuroelectric continuity. (…) (J)ungle hacks through blue gloom.” (Land, 2011, pp.398-399)
The drive of Land’s “No Future” is the extinction of the human, it is a passage from flesh to metal couched in Sarah Connor paranoia and Blade Runner Replicant-cold ferocity: “Metal flexes beneath vatgrown skin”. (Land, 2011,p.399) The time-stretched vocal of Jungle was a replicant growl, a near future voice that snarled “wake up! Time to die.”
Indeed, Jungle was inhuman, in Landian terms it was an echo from the future - a precog vision of when the “future connects. New drugs and music arrive. War envelops everything.” (Land, 2011, p.426). Land’s vision was steeped in the imagery and language of Cyberpunk inhumanism, morbid sex-violence error messages and coldly stoic interfaces. Jungle, for Land, was crucially inhuman, it was machinic and it was this that was important and futuristic: the dancefloor as a pre-crypt cavern, housing flesh that pulsed “amongst the chthonic switchings, cross-hatchings and spectral diagrammatics of unborn abstract machines” (Land, 2011, p.546). Jungle was a synthetic contagion, an 180bpm machinic virus incurring into the present from a seismic and abstract future. Platonic referents like soul and body were not just moribund; they were incompatible:
“Nested into the cascading tick-shelves, it propagates by contagion, implexing itself through intricate terraces, galleries, ducts and crawl-tubes, as if an extraterrestrial megamodule had impacted into the chalk-out data cliffs, splattering them with scorch-punctures and intestinally complicated iridium body-parts. As it pulses, squirms and chitters to the inhuman rhythms of ceaseless K-goth carnival, it reminds you that Catajungle was never reducible to sonic sub-genre, but was always also a terrain, a sub-cartesian region of intensive diagonals cutting through nongeometric space, where time unthreads into warped voyages, splintering the soul.” (Land, 2011, p.546)
The glimpse of a future terrain afforded by the machinic rhythms of Catajungle, was a precog vision of a future that would never happen. Much like the unrealised predictions of cyberpunk, machines did not proliferate so threateningly or obviously. There are fewer switches and dials today than ever before. Music did not become more machinic or inhuman. “Fatal Error: Abort” changed to “Opps, something went wrong.” The inhuman chronological contortions and metallic larynxed garglings of the time-stretched vocal were the zenith of dance musics machinic trajectory. Later, quivering gelatinous sub-bass, pitch rocketed soul vocals and reassuringly perceptible rhythms would usurp the cold machinism of Jungle. Disco voice boxes proliferated 00’s pop, cuddly cyborgs, half flesh acousmetres singing things we could sing too. The “shellshock and future-shock” (Reynolds, 1996) experienced whilst “strung out in xenofevers” was a shock from a future that would never come.
The above quotes are from texts of Land’s that appeared in 1995 and 1999 respectively. It is worth noting that in 1999 only 35% of inhabitants in developed world countries owned a mobile phone and approximately just 20% of the UK had access to the Internet. Land’s texts were texts from a different world, a world away from the monotonous din of social media and rolling updates that we presently exist amidst. It is here where a distinction occurs. If, as Land understood, Jungle was a vision of a machinic future that jettisoned human flesh then todays vision of a future must be aligned with our current way of life. The route from Jungle to Footwork is an elucidating passage whereby the trajectory to the future is shifted dramatically. The treatment of voice in each genre, and the differences between them, provide points from which it is possible to plot an analemma of a shifting trajectory towards a new future.
Why footwork? In a sense footwork is a precursor of the future through a fittingly technological sense, but not a machinic sense. The genre is not particularly new, it began in the 90’s in Chicago. Juke/Footwork had an innately kinetic and corporeal formulation. As Quam comments:
“As juke music received local radio play and took more of a commercial turn in the early '00s, it left dance crews in Chicago concentrating on their feet and turning to another type of track to move to. Most of the people making these tracks were former dancers themselves, so it only makes sense that their productions would follow the patterns. The steps, mapped out by claps and snares, and undergirded with rumbling bass and syncopated toms proved intoxicating: A source of adrenaline for the participants inside a circle of huddled spectators.” (Quam, 2010)
The origin of Footwork is its hyper-kinetic bi-pedal blur dynamic, the footwork battle. Yet upon listening to the genre this is not apparent. I have introduced many friends to the genre and more than once I have heard remarks such as “there is no rhythm” or “you can’t dance to this”. These glib comments from first impressions warrant thought. It is an important but complex aspect of the genre as it is distributed today. Indeed, the genre as it is known in Europe is strictly an import, it is an exciting new sound from a city few have visited and a scene even fewer have experienced first hand. The origin of footwork created an aesthetic, but the relevancy of such an aesthetic piques at the point whereby we think of the music as it is heard when divorced from its genesis. It is, perhaps, ironic that when new listeners first experience footwork that last thing imaginable is dance. Reynolds comments quite explicitly that the experience of first hearing Footwork, the impossibility of dance and the rhythmic befuddlement, is similar to the impact of Jungle:
“Outsiders hearing footwork for the first time are often reminded, like I was, of the shock of the new impact of jungle in the nineties: music so imposingly percussive it pulls irresistibly at your body, even as its split level tempos and contorted track structures frustrate all your acquired rhythmic reflexes. Unless you belong to the local scene, footwork tends to work as a head-trip; you’d trip if you actually tried to move to these jagged anti-grooves. Like early jungle, most footwork is literally just drums and bass – a hectic pummel of rolling toms and clacking knitting-needle snares – plus some diced ’n’ sliced samples, with seemingly zero hand-played instrumental elements. Keyboards are strictly for stretching a sample – a horn, a voice, a snippet of orchestration – across the octaves, then tapping out jittery hyperkinetic patterns, effectively turning each source-sound into just another component of a giant drum kit.” (Reynolds, 2013. p.714)
However, the distinction here is subtle. We must not presuppose the shock of the new to be analogous to advances in technology or machinic aesthetics. The “hectic pummel” of “hyperkinetic patterns” is a compositional strangeness, not a sonic, material or modal strangeness. It is the unfamiliar arrangement of traditional dance music components that makes footwork so strange, prescient and deeply connected to the future as it looms given the contemporary trajectory. Of course dance music, perhaps more than any other genre, has an inbuilt propensity to remix, re-compose and appropriate. But mostly there is some form of sonic holding fort, playing the role of auditory compass or rhythm reflex metronome. Think back to the ‘Experimental’ Dance Music of the 90’s. Admittedly, the majority of tracks were make-overs, just a few select offerings (in particular from Autechre) pushed to evolve from pre-existing Dance Music DNA. The cause of “the shock of the new” that Reynolds attributes to footwork is not due to technological advances (not in the same way Jungle owed much of its sound to technological advances in music processes and sampling). Neither is it due to new drugs and collective experience; whilst weed and ecstasy are widely referenced in footwork tracks these drugs are by no means new. Furthermore, competitive dance battles are hardly arenas in which to embark upon experimentation with newly designed drugs. On top of the previous two points we must remember a third, over arching, fact: that footwork has been around since the 90s and only recently exported from Chicago. In particular by Mike Paradinas or Planet Mu Records, whose Bangs & Works compilations are still reference points in genre discussions. Lately Hyperdub has also released records by some of the most established names from the original Chicago scene; DJ Rashad, DJ Spinn and RP Boo.
I propose that the relevancy of footwork is born from two particular aspects. Firstly, its creative environment and practical application, a corporeal interaction between dancers; dancers’ dialogues and battles. Secondly, its sparse nature, stripped back aesthetic, and unfathomable lyrical and rhythmic connections. Each of these aspects is exemplified through voice. Indeed, “Footwork’s approach to vocal sampling is what defines its aesthetic” (Herrington, 2013, p.67)
The voices in footwork are cacophonous and fleeting. “Over There (Getting It)” by DJ Spinn &DJ Manny can be seen as a vocal manifestation of the contemporary attention bombardment. Our attentions, desires and emotions are constantly being harangued and forcibly engaged by media today. Text messages, voice mails, social media updates (such as Facebook and Twitter) engulf and fragment our attentions: more of this is the future. This future is not machinic or removed, rather it is fleetingly intrusive, human. Today, the future is a future of constant emotional erosion and attention attrition, as Berardi states: “Semiocapital puts neuro-psychic energies to work, submitting them to mechanistic speed, compelling cognitive activity to follow the rhythm.” (Berardi, 2010) It is precisely this tension that footwork manifests as an echo of the near future, it is a future that is more human yet more machinic than anything that could be put to words or sang. Footwork’s unique vocal aesthetic is not the dread laden machinism of Jungle, nor is it the novel speed sampling saturation of Breakcore, Footwork is somehow more human, but too human, engaging too much and never enough. Tony Herrington comments on “Over There (Getting It)” by DJ Spinn &DJ Manny:
"To get all philosophical on it, Footwork's use of sampling embodies the latest technologised iteration of a vernacular form of semiotics in which black music articulates then subverts the mendacity of western language systems which are insufficient to express true lived experience. Or to get all musicological about it, in the hands of a producer like Spinn, grounded in Chicago’s urban music traditions, Footwork puts the blues back into machinic music" (Herrington, 2013, p.67)
For all the cacophonous wizardry, tenebrous rhythmbabble and beat-dropping sleight of hand contrariness Footwork maintains an intense humanism. “"On "Over There (Getting It)" dance circle exhortations are clipped and looped into lines of richocheting sibilants and consonants - rather than denuding these inner city voices of personality, this has the opposite effect, amplifying their humanity by exposing their lack of agency. (…) Spinn’s sampling of them feels deep and empathetic.” (Herrington, 2013, p.67)
The contemporary relevancy of Footwork is to be appreciated in the midst the cognitive environment in which it is taken up today. Predominantly, Footwork is taken up by fans (like myself) with little to no experience of footwork dance battles or the Chicago environs of the genres origin. I imagine that majority of Planet Mu and Hyperdub releases will be bought for personal, isolated, consumption. The environment is one of global distribution, constant connections and myriad distractions, what Berardi calls “Organic limits”, Footwork’s vocal sampling and alarming rhythmic interruptions find hungry receivers amidst the cognitive stress. Vocal fragments and stealth beats cut through the blizzards of semiotic activators that we are subjected today; an anagrammatically, algorithmically delivered humanism shoots through the cloying meshwork of techno-capitalist emo-compression and time colonization.
The quaint discernibility of Jungle’s overt machinism turned out to be a no-future for flesh and machine. The very jouissance afforded by the rhythmic and lyrical indecipherability of Footwork is an index to our contemporary desire. Footwork contains a cognitive camouflage. It reflects a desire to covertly synch up, to connect without the cognitive drain of comprehensible systems, networks, and narratives. Escape through numbers, but numbers you cannot count. Footwork is a contemporary Tic-Talk. The words, signs and meanings “have to come from somewhere, from a matrix, a culture, even if the clusters seem to rip everything apart they MUST HAVE BEEN COUNTED at some stage, before dissimulating themselves and scattering again.” (Barker quoted in Land, 2011, pp.621-622). Footwork offers a covert script, that runs and dances in the background of conditioned neurological pathways - a sporadic sonic intensity derived from bipedal corporeal communiqués. The vocal acrobatics of Footwork, the “stammerings, stutterings, vocal tics, extralingual phonetics, and electrodigital voice synthesis are (…) laden with biopolitical intensity” (Barker, 1992) precisely because they bypass the emo-cognitive restraint mechanisms of Semiocapital.
Barker, 1992. Plutonics, Vol. 10, No.12.
Franco Berardi Bifo, 2010. Cognitarian Subjectivation. Available at http://www.e-flux.com/journal/cognitarian-subjectivation/. Last accessed. 07/09/2013
Reynolds, S. 2013. Energy Flash: A Journey Through Rave Music and Dance Culture (Revised Edition). Faber and Faber. London.
Reynolds, Slipping into Darkness. 1996, The Wire 148 June 1996. Available at: http://thewire.co.uk/in-writing/essays/the-wire-300_simon-reynolds-on-the-hardcore-continuum_4_hardstep_jump-up_techstep_1996_ (last accessed 19/09/2013)
Land, N. 2011. Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987-2007. 1st Edition. Urbanomic / Sequence Press.
Dave Quam, 2010. The Evolution of Footwork. Available here: http://www.residentadvisor.net/feature.aspx?1235. Last accessed 06/09/2012
Tony Herrington, 2013, The Wire 347 January 2013.