Break It Down: Mark Fisher on DJ Rashad’s Double Cup
Mark Fisher—the noted blogger known as K-Punk and the author of Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?—triangulates the leading footwork producer’s new album via Burroughs, animated gifs, and G-funk.
Timestretched Amen breakbeats, rave-euphoric vocals: on Double Cup, Rashad pays his dues to the hardcore continuum, but the traces of jungle and rave here only accentuate how different footwork is to nineties British dance music.
Footwork has been greeted with the fanfares that usually accompany the arrival of an avant-garde dance music. These contradictory responses— footwork’s being written of as something that you can’t dance to at the same time as it is dismissed as a functional music, something that would only be properly appreciated by those dancing to it—is a sure sign that we are in the presence of something which scrambles the defaults of rearview hearing.
But footwork is new in a strange way. It’s not historically new: it dates back to the nineties. And what’s uncanny, unheimlich, about footwork is that practically everything in the sonic palette is familiar. Most of the sounds on Double Cup feel like they could have come from the 20th century, even if they have actually been produced in the 21st.
So, wherein resides footwork’s newness then? In a fascinating blog post, Tristam Adams identifies exactly what makes footwork new: its compositional innovations. To bring this out, Adams contrasts footwork to jungle. Jungle’s newness was in large part a consequence of the widespread availability of digital sampling technology, which facilitated both new sounds and new ways of treating sound (time-stretched breakbeats and vocals). Beyond this, though, I’m not sure that the way Adams constructs the comparison between jungle and footwork is quite right. Adams hears jungle as more ‘machinic’ than footwork—but what was exciting about jungle to many of us at the time was that that it gave a whole new sense of what machinism was. Jungle’s machinism was delirious; it was, in Kodwo Eshun‘s immortal phrase, a rhythmic psychedelia, composed from whorls, twists, and vortexes of sound; there were none of the rigid mechanoid lines of techno. Jungle was dark, but also wet, viscous, and enveloping.
It’s here that the contrast with footwork can most be heard—and felt. To those whose ears and nervous systems were mutated by jungle in the nineties, footwork can initially sound strangely desiccated—like the dry bones left after jungle’s digital ocean has receded. ‘UK bass music’ is an almost wilfully bland term, but it does point to the element which gave every genre from jungle to UK garage and dubstep their consistency: a viscous, glistening bass sound. This is conspicuously absent from Rashad’s sound. Instead of functioning as a dark liquid element on (or in) which other sounds could be suspended, Rashad’s bass is a surging and reclining series of stabs and jabs that heightens and lowers tension without ever releasing it.
This leads on to another difference from jungle and the broader tendencies in nineties digital culture. Where jungle, like nineties CGI, used digital technology to smooth out some of the hard lines that had been characteristic of early computer sound and imagery, footwork has deliberated opted for angularity. Charlie Frame’s comparison of listening to Rashad with “gazing at an animated GIF that grows ever more absurd with each iteration,” captures very precisely footwork’s jerky repetitions. Perhaps the appeal of the animated GIF and of footwork are both tied up with way that they reject the dominant aesthetics of digital culture now. Think of the way that the elastic architectures of nineties animatronics gave way to the dreary photorealism of contemporary animation. Now, novelty is to be found in the refusal of communicative capitalism’s false promises of smoothness. If the nineties were defined by the loop (the ‘good’ infinity of the seamlessly looped breakbeat, Goldie’s “Timeless”), then the 21st century is perhaps best captured in the ‘bad’ infinity of the animated GIF, with its stuttering, frustrated temporality, its eerie sense of being caught in a time-trap.
That frustrated, angular time—and the enjoyment of it—is at the heart of footwork. The genre can sound like an impenetrable thicket of rhythms if the thing you lock onto first is the most distinctive thing about footwork: the coiling spasms of super-dry snares. Lock into the floaty synth pads and the vocals, however, and footwork comes on as strangely mellow. In this respect, footwork can then be heard as an extrapolation of elements of nineties G-funk. An earlier Hyperdub sound—the dayglo wonky of Joker—had mined G-funk for its absurdist pitch-bent synths. What footwork takes is some vocal styling (the rap that is so often subject to its stuttering repetitions), but also a certain mood. G-funk differentiated itself from standard gangsta posturing by the way it dissolved the hard ego of the rapper into clouds of Chronic. Beneath the busyness of capitalist realism—and its demands that we never stop selling ourselves—was another mode of being, where time diffused slowly as exhaled smoke. Beyond the phallic machismo, there was a different libidinal economy, defined by a superficially paradoxical combination of deep yearning and a desire to remain absolutely in the sunlight-saturated moment, liberated from the urgencies of business. This is all the more poignant because a gangster’s work is never done, his enemies don’t sleep, and chilled-out bliss could be terminated at any moment by gunfire. To the G-funk celebration of smoking, Rashad adds other affective toners: the lost-in-the-moment exhilaration of the raver, and R&B’s wistful regrets/lascivious moaning. The overall result is, in terms of mood and affect, oddly reminiscent of cool-era jazz—there is the same ambivalence, the same evocation of an harsh yet alluring urban environment, the same combination of sadness and confidence, the same articulation of longing and bliss.
Then there is the tic-talk of the voices themselves—the way they are made to stammer and circle around themselves. It’s as if there is a cross-contamination, a human-machine (psycho)pathology, the machines infecting the human voices with glitches, the humans passing on Freudian slips, parapraxes, to the machines. Rashad’s plaintive machinism reminds me of nothing so much as the hallucinatory intensity of the “I Love You” section of William Burroughs’ The Ticket That Exploded: “On my knees I hoped you’d love me too. I would run till I feel the thrill of long ago. Now my inspiration but it won’t last and we’ll be just a photograph. I’ve forgotten you then? I can’t sleep, Blue Eyes, if I don’t have you. Do I love her? I love you I love you many splendored thing. Can’t even eat. Jelly on my mind back home. ‘Twas good bye deep in the true love. We’ll never meet again, darling, in my fashion.”
Burroughs’ early cut-up and fold-in texts, with their analysis and decoding of emotional manipulation via media and their understanding of pornography as a control apparatus, now read like extraordinarily prophetic anticipations of the present moment. As with Burroughs, there is a double pathos in Rashad’s work. First of all, there is a pathos at the level of the affects in the voices themselves; and the way that the voices are orphaned from their supposed origins means that there is a overwhelming sadness even if the feeling expressed is ostensibly joyful. It’s the same kind of depersonalized sadness we might feel if we happened upon lost photographs of an unknown person’s holiday, long ago. Then there is another pathos that arises from the way that the voices are made to repeat and stutter; the sadness of recognizing a speaking animal (ourselves) in the grip of automatisms, repetitions, drives. Rashad articulates the impasses of our 21st century condition with a precision and a compassion that few others can match. More importantly, he suggests that—against all the odds—we might still be able to dance our way out of the time-traps and identity prisons we are locked in. ~
DJ Rashad’s Double Cup is out now via Hyperdub. Mark Fisher’s new book Ghosts of My Life is published this December via Zer0 Books.
Published October 22, 2013. Words by Mark Fisher.