2011: Brad LaBonte
In 2011, it was almost exclusively dance, hip hop and pop music for me. In particular, U.K. bass music. The scene has reached a critical mass in the years since dubstep became bloated and funky failed to fill the void. Formerly distinct sounds now blend together in productions and in DJ sets. Techno, grime, American hip-hop, electro, funky, old-school dubstep, classic house, throwback disco, and lots of other genres all co-exist. In itself, this would be meaningless — freeform as a concept is nothing new, and DJs like Optimo have been crossing genres in a dance context for years. What is new is that everything seems firmly grounded in the futurist rush of the hardcore continuum. The continuum idea is generally flimsy, but most of these U.K. artists and their American counterparts are undeniably participating in a culture built around pirate radio and a particular aesthetic, and within that culture, these guys seem to truly be pushing forward and breaking barriers.
Rinse FM is ground zero for much of the movement, so I figured that I’d start by listing and providing links to my favorite Rinse shows from the past year. Then, another list of some favorite albums and tracks. Lists, baby!
Bok Bok and Girl Unit
This was a cover show for Skream, and Bok Bok and Girl Unit took full advantage of the later time slot’s looser language restrictions. The standard Night Slugs show elevates house and grime to Belgian techno or industrial energy levels, only with its power derived from the space that creeps between the hits. Add profane ghetto-tech slogans to that formula and you get this show.
The juke intersection with the hardcore continuum has been clear for some time, but it’s still a thrill to hear don DJ Rashad on the same station as Oneman and Loefah.
Jackmaster and Spencer
If anything, the current scene clearly appreciates the past, to the point where a label like Numbers can reissue Pierre’s Pfantasy Club’s 1987 track “Mystery Girl.” While I feel that such past-worship has an uneasy pace within ostensibly forward-looking music, it’s great to hear guys with taste select classic Detroit cuts.
Week-in, week-out, Oneman comes up with some incredibly inventive mixes, and his recent, full-on incorporation of American hip hop has greatly expanded his options. The joy in his sets is infectious: Flocka, Aaliyah, Sean Price, Juicy J, Prince, 112, and the latest from Joy O, French Fries and the rest, all stirred into a coherent aesthetic. If I’m near a computer between 11-1 GMT on a Sunday, I’m listening to Oneman.
This one speaks for itself. Youngsta doesn’t break genres in ways that Oneman or Bok Bok do, but he owned and continues to own this sound. Dude is a monolith.
Two monsters from the Night Slugs label, which continues to release the sleekest, most instantly pleasurable dance floor cuts in the scene. Any of the label’s releases could have made this list, but my votes go to Kingdom’s “Let You No” and Pearson Sound’s refix of Hardrive’s “Deep Inside.” These tracks completely nail the label’s balance between stripped down futurism and maximum hardcore damage. Also, this track is a shoe-in for next year’s list if it ever gets released.
Is there any current dance artist with more across-the-board cred than Levon Vincent? Techno purists, house enthusiasts, vinyl fetishists, and bass heads all eagerly anticipate his sporadic releases. Vincent’s quality control is staggering — every release is a must-own. The huge synth line in “Man or Mistress” sounds like an alien intelligence interpreting a classic acid line. What I’m saying is, Vincent isn’t human.
In 2011, Blawan further demonstrated that he has his chunky, percussive sound on lockdown. The amazing thing is how broadly that sound can be applied. From dark techno bangers for his Karenn project, to the combustible acid stomp of “What You Do With What You Have,” to this jaw-dropping spin on Brandy’s “I Wanna Be Down,” the man has set the bar so high that he risks disappointment by simply failing to push things forward. Along with Kingdom and Girl Unit’s Ciara edit and Oneman’s show, the track makes clear the purity of the scene’s American R&B influence.
Bad-ass modern Clone electro. Nuff said.
Twenty Eleven was a breakout year for Hessle Audio, with the release of the 116 & Rising compilation and Ben UFO’s fantastic Rinse mix. My favorite track from the label this year, “Inna Daze,” is some dark, dark ish. It’s sampled, repeated scream is ostensibly euphoric, but there’s a hint of danger underlined by the whipsaw beat. Were the scream not echoed into the ether, the track would be downright frightening.
Great concept, great execution. Incessantly looped newspaper headlines can be interpreted in multiple ways: a commentary on media saturation; a plea for sustained focus (do not forget, The King of Pop is Dead); a demonstration of how text can transform into pure data; the news cycle interpreted through recursive beat structures; etc. Something over which the ol’ brain can mull.
The East Coast vogue house sound worked its way into the bass scene this year, and no one does this modified vogue/bass sound better than French Fries. I probably prefer the unreleased “Yo Vogue” and “What to Do,” but “Champagne” is nothing to sneeze at. No sneezing, b****.
There was plenty of heavy, heavy hyper-produced modern electro from Jon Convex and Boddika this year, both solo and under their Instra:mental banner. “When I Dip” extracts maximum tension simply by dropping the last “dip” from “When I dip, you […]” It sounds silly, and it is, but the track’s sheer aggression completely wins the day.
And it’s not hard to select the best music moment of the year: when the bottom drops out and the phased synth enters “Soul What.” Many DJs repeatedly wrung out its maximum impact, and yet those 20 seconds never got old.
Beyonce’s 4 was a huge disappointment; I guess artistic growth means moving beyond endlessly creative bangers like “Video Phone” and “Diva.” “Countdown,” however, is red meat for those into far-out pop R&B. The track is relentless. It combines “Was Dog a Doughnut?” synths, “Crazy in Love” horns, post-punk snare hits, dancehall drum breaks, and near-inconceivable harmonies, and it holds everything together through belted, almost after-thought lyrics about a rich couple that likes to hang out.
The best records I heard this year are also the darkest and, except for Beyonce, the most popular on the list. The flipside of luxury rap, Take Care seems designed to prove that wealth not only fails to stave off misery, but, for Drake, might be its sole cause. At several points, he claims to be enjoying himself. The beats and overall tone belie the claim. This isn’t original or even interesting ground, but there’s a coldness that, when coupled with standard self-aggrandizement, truly stuns. Drake breaks down Kanye’s annoying, self-conscious, confused bluster into two elements: raw emotion and disarming nihilism. The difference is evident in the album titles: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Take Care. One tries too hard, the other intrigues. It’s a term of endearment and a kiss-off, with both directed toward those loved and used. The fact that Drake is hugely popular, that Justin Bieber covers a song as melancholy, detached, and straightforwardly paranoid as “Trust Issues,” is mind-boggling.
Remove Drake’s humanity and you’re left with The Weeknd. Nothing but drugs, money, jet-setting, strippers, and meaningless sex, all wrapped in gauzy, deceptively lo-fi production. Phrases and choruses bury themselves in your brain: “All that money / The money is the motive / Girl, put in work”; “I always want you when I’m coming down”; “I’m the drug in your vein / Just fight through the pain”; “The clocks don’t work, you don’t gotta check the time.” At certain points and on certain tracks, the vocals are overkill, but even then, all they can do is lend a hint of remorse to unsavory activities. The Weeknd is an antidote to, or at least a uniquely depressed version of, thug-posturing — if anyone wants to live these songs, at least they’ll know that doing so won’t provide any joy. Despite the Drake connection, I have to believe that The Weeknd’s music is far too seedy and claustrophobic to attain true mainstream success. I’ll keep my fingers crossed, though.
By Brad LaBonte