In her monthly column, Ruth Saxelby identifies some of the trends that are shaping modern music. In this edition, the increasing use of gun-related sounds as percussion. Illustration by Inka Gerbert.
Gunshot as political symbol and cultural signal has long had a place in popular music, from dancehall to hip hop and grime. Last month’s “war dubs” episode aside, it seems today’s young producers are reaching less for the shot itself and more for a subtler strain of gun-related sounds: reloads, clips, shell falls. When these sounds are included alongside the gunshot, they provide both the context and back-up for it. Dizzee’s “Hold Ya Mouf” and Terror Danjah’s “Cock Back” are formative cases in point flagged up by grime expert Dan Hancox. But what does it mean when these auxiliary sounds are separated from the gunshot, when they stand alone—often buried—in the fabric of today’s dance music? Is the gun an instrument now?
“Not exactly as an instrument, no,” says Night Slugs boss Bok Bok, whose onomatopoeic name was inspired by gunshot (“lol, I was young, allow me!”). “I see those kind of sounds along the same lines as most other kinds of percussive sounds: just as part of a tool kit of building blocks that can be arranged and re-arranged in various ways to create rhythm. This is what attracted me to eight-bar/early grime stuff in the first place, that feeling that all the sounds being used were just blocks on a grid that could be plugged in in any endless variety of ways.”
If these sounds are purely percussive now, it’s perhaps because they have sunk so deep into our everyday experience: from video games with authentic audio samples to rolling news broadcasts blasting unreal footage into our eyes and ears twenty-four seven. That and they’re just so easy to get a hold of: “Part of the wonder phenomenon of SFX drum-kits! Genres have been born out of creative drum-kit choices,” says Bok Bok, name-checking Wiley’s eski grime off-shoot.
On one hand, there is a whiff of anesthesia to shot-free, gun percussion usage: perhaps its traditional menace has indeed been ground down by overexposure. But maybe there’s something darker at play. Separated from the shot, could these percussive elements be seen to reflect the uneasy, invisible threat of surveillance nation? Always on guard, ready, cocked—but for what?
Back to Bok Bok: “Lately I’ve been quite conscious about specific samples choices and what they communicate. I guess we’re living in a post-war dubs type world, and I don’t really engage in that too much. So for me, if I’m gonna insinuate that kind of violence, I’d want it to be a counterweight to something. I’d want the track to really need it rather than just throwing it on.” With that in mind, here are a handful of new tracks that are using gun sounds as percussion to get at a mood that’s altogether more nuanced.
Kelela – “Cherry Coffee” [produced by Jam City]
While I could’ve sworn “A Lie”, Bok Bok’s track with LA singer Kelela, featured a couple of tiny gun clips (“Those are a clipper lighter being opened and closed; similar effect though!”), it is up to another Night Slugger to demonstrate the abstract elasticity of such sounds. Jam City’s reload sample, snuck in after the mid-point climax on the most vulnerable track on Kelela’s exquisite CUT 4 ME mixtape, works to reset the tone, as Kelela makes clear: “You’re in deep / I see what’s going on / It’s a twisted cycle you’ve confused with love.”
Lotic – “Amygdala Hijack”
Another artist playing with the reload sample is Berlin-based Texan producer Lotic, although in a wildly different way to Jam City. “Amygdala Hijack”, from his recent Fallout EP, takes the percussive usage of gun sounds to an amphetamine enhanced level. What’s funny, though, is that the unmistakable metallic jingle is almost comforting in comparison to the abrasive drums and paranoid piano.
Renaissance Man – “Journey”
Fellow Berlin ex-pats Renaissance Man, formerly of Finland, take a break from producing for Mykki Blanco to offset their sparse techno explorations with a range of reload sounds on “Journey” from their new EP, Kama. It’s a world apart from their super subtle clipping/cocking interjections on “Hard Feeling”. Here—as a cloaked voice intones, “Every journey ends,”—the menace feels clear.
Gila Monsta – “switchinupposition”
Denver producer Gila Monsta is one half of cloud rap duo Gorgeous Children, who are currently riding high at the top of Jacques Greene’s Christmas card list. On this solo joint there is but the tiniest, tinniest of ammunition sounds—a split-second shell fall—but its sharpness is just enough to celebrate the impressive weight of the bass and prowling snares.
Gobby – “Crown Royale In My Poket”
Finally, trust NYC wild child Gobby to turn the whole gun percussion trend inside out. On “Crown Royale In My Poket” from his new Mixtape from the Du Pt. 1, it sounds as if he left a replica in his jeans when he put them through the wash. The track stutters and splutters, samples distorting at every turn. Occasionally a click or clip surfaces, decipherable despite its disintegrating state. Though maybe they’re not gun samples at all; perhaps he’s just messing with us. ~
For more editions of Dis-track-ed, click here.