Caspar Melville - It's A London Thing
Dubber Hi, I’m Andrew Dubber. I’m Director of MTF Labs, and this is the MTF Podcast. Now, some years ago, I was a professor in a media and cultural studies department at a UK university, teaching, among other things, on a music industries degree course. And when that’s your focus, you tend to cross paths with other professors in media and cultural studies departments at UK universities who teach, among other things, on music industries degree courses. It’s not an enormous subset of the academic world. And so as a result of this selective professional socialising and collaboration, I know and work with Caspar Melville. Caspar’s a senior lecturer in Global Creative and Cultural Studies at SOAS, which we’ll talk about and unpack, but what I really want to discuss with him is his recent book, ‘It’s a London Thing: How Rare Groove, Acid House and Jungle Remapped the City’.
Dubber So, Caspar Melville, thank you so much for joining us for the MTF Podcast today. So you are, as I mentioned, a senior lecturer at SOAS. Let’s start with that. What’s SOAS?
Caspar Well, SOAS is a part of the University of London. The acronym SOAS stands for School of Oriental and African Studies. Now, we call ourselves SOAS now because we’re all very uncomfortable with the term oriental. And, of course, there’s an inbuilt discomfort with the whole thing about SOAS because SOAS, which originates in the early twentieth century, was a school for training civil servants of the empire, or sometimes known as a school for spies. It was the place where the British government sent their civil servants to learn local languages of the places that they were going to go out and administer in Africa and in the Far East and the Near East and Malaya and Singapore. Places like that. So that’s the history of the institution.
It has been affiliated with the University of London for I’m not quite sure how long, and now it’s a university. It’s in Bloomsbury, right near the UCL and the Institute of Education, which has actually been absorbed into UCL now. So it’s in the university intellectual part of London, around Russell Square, Bloomsbury area.
Dubber Right. But you’re not teaching spies how to speak Mandarin.
Caspar I don’t think I am, no. I’m in the School of Arts. I’m a slightly square peg in a round hole in the sense that the School of Arts at SOAS… It wasn’t originally an arts and humanities based institution. So the core of it, after it had been training imperial civil servants, was politics, development. Those kinds of questions. Specialists in water. Languages, very important. Out of this developed an art stream. So people who were particularly… They were ‘Africanists’ - African specialists, but they had a particular interest in music. There were people in Korean studies, in what they call area studies. This is not a discipline, but you study a particular area. They banded together and they set up a music department, and then there was a history of art department. Similarly, local area expertise. China, Korea, Africa. Usually older forms. Traditions, you might call it. And this banded together in the School of Arts, which was formed maybe ten years ago.
I’ve been at SOAS for about eight years, and I came in to teach something called Creative and Cultural Industries. So this was SOAS recognising that while the ethnomusicology and the history of art were really important, there was a missing link, partly to do with media and cultural studies and partly to do with recognising that all of this is caught up within a set of industrial systems and processes. Obviously, the internet and the digitisation of culture which came in the 2010s was happening all around, and there was a sense that they wanted to recognise that. So they brought me in - it was partly under pressure, I think - to think more about careers.
As you know, having been an academic, this idea of “Well, what am I going to do when I finish my course? What job does it lead to?” is quite a big component of the academic market, and they wanted to answer that question a little bit more straightforwardly by suggesting that the kind of course that I teach, which is actually called Global Creative and Cultural Industries, is for postgraduate students, many of whom are already working somewhere in the arts - maybe in arts management, in arts policy, or they are a musician or an artist of some kind - and they want to think about how they can build a career, and that’s part of the kind of thing that I teach. And there’s certain skills components. So I teach a class in podcasting. I do a work internship programme which allows students either to go and work for a short period of time, do a placement somewhere, or develop their own entrepreneurial project - a website, an event, record an album - and think reflectively about themselves as a cultural worker. So it’s that kind of element.
I’m part of something now called the Centre for Creative Industries, Media and Screen Studies, which is a slightly expanded unit. I work with a professor who is a professor of film studies, but who has similarly moved from thinking about film only as an aesthetic object - she’s an African film expert - to thinking about film as part of a global information market. How is it distributed? How does it get made? How can you make a living doing it? Can you make a living doing it? All of these kinds of questions. So that’s where I sit, rather… I quite like being uncomfortable. Having been trained in cultural studies, it’s built in that you’re always going to be somewhat not fully within one discipline. You’re going to work in an interdisciplinary way, which is both exciting but can also feel somewhat unanchored.
Dubber Yeah. There’s always a long answer to “What is it that you do?”, I find…
Caspar Well, it’s like “The long or the short one? I’m not sure. Probably the long one.”.
Dubber Well, yeah. It’s not a one-word job description like lawyer or a doctor, is it?
Caspar No. Or a sociologist or a… Hence these incredibly long titles for these classes and a lot of students writing in saying “That sounds really interesting. Can you explain what it actually is? What will I be? What will be on my certificate when I come out of here?”. And these are all slightly difficult to answer questions, which I think indicate a big change in the university sector but also in the job sector, which is there is no one job you’re going to go and get.
Caspar It’s not about applying for one job. It’s really, as you know very well, given the nature of your career - what do they call it? Portfolio, career - with precarity somewhere in the background but also with the freedom to follow your interests.
Dubber Yeah. I think it’s actually more foreground, generally speaking.
Caspar Well, yeah.
Dubber But the entrepreneurial aspect of this is interesting because I used to say to my students “Anybody who aspires to a job in the music industry lacks ambition.”. It’s one of those things where most people who do these sorts of courses, they go out and start things for themselves. They don’t tend to end up in the mailroom sending out CDs to newspapers. They start projects that are important to them. Like you say, they record albums. They start podcasts. They build websites. They make things that are very self-starting. To what extent is that sustainable, do you think?
Caspar Oh, well, to go alongside your advice about “You’re lacking ambition if you just want to work in the music industry.”, I tend to fall back on telling my story. And I wanted to encourage students who realise that this is not the first time in history where it’s been difficult to get a job coming out of university. I’m a child of the eighties. Margaret Thatcher, what she did to Britain… There were no jobs in the early eighties when I was coming out of school. But also, similarly, we didn’t aspire to have jobs. There was a very strong sense that you could go and make your own culture. Obviously, I was surrounded by club culture, which was a paradigm of the idea of young people doing things for themselves, managing to make a living.
Is it sustainable? What I say to the students and what I actually believe is that you need to be realistic about your desire to make money doing exactly what you want and balance that with… I know these days they call it a side hustle or something like that, but I waited tables for fifteen years while I was a music journalist. I never made money as a music journalist or a radio DJ or even a club DJ. Not proper money, enough to pay the rent, so I waited tables. I worked as a barman.
Not only do I think that’s a wise thing to do, is to have a job which pays you like that, I think it’s good for you. I think it’s a good thing to do. And in the life that I’ve led in the media - I’ve been a magazine editor. I’ve been on boards. I’ve been in the upper-class/middle-class world. In academia, as well - you can really tell the difference between people who’ve had those kinds of jobs and people who haven’t. The kind of things that you learn from doing a job you don’t particularly like, particularly in the service industries or - I don’t know - delivery driver, whatever it is, it puts you on a level par with everyone else in the world who have to work for a living, teaches you some really important things, and keeps you humble. No matter how creative you are, how brilliant you think you are, the world does not owe you a living and nor does it have to pay you to be an artist. You have to earn that.
Dubber But the end of the lesson is “But you can end up being a respectable professor in a…”.
Caspar Well, I’m very lucky to have a full-time job, a permanent job, in academia, and it is quite rare and getting rarer. Academia has done a good job of turning out people with lots of skills but not providing the infrastructure. It’s not provided the support, the jobs for those people. And academia is increasingly reliant on temporary, precarious work. SOAS as an institution and I think many others are trying to address that. It’s really moved quite high up the agenda not to rely on temporary teachers and non-permanent staff to do a lot of the teaching load, but there are economic reasons why that’s the case.
So I am lucky in that way, and I should connect this to some of the great work which is being done on the creative industries at the moment by people like Dave O’Brien. There’s a book that’s just come out called ‘Culture is Bad for You’ which is based on some research with hundreds of workers in the cultural sector, and one of the narratives that comes out from the generally white, middle-class men who run the show is “Oh, I’ve been so lucky. Look at me. I’ve just been so lucky. I’ve never been that ambitious, but look where I am.”, and I have to acknowledge that that’s also true of myself in that sense.
It’s not just luck. It’s structural luck that I could blag myself into… I didn’t come out of academia. I got this job at SOAS having been a magazine editor and a journalist. I had done a PhD fifteen years prior. Didn’t have any teaching experience. Didn’t have any publications. So in some ways, it was a bit of a punt that I applied for the job, and there are elements of why I got it that I fit. And SOAS, no matter its aspirations to be very, very multicultural and forward-looking, is still… There’s a high concentration of white, middle-class people teaching there, just like me. So that’s something I’m aware of and I recognise.
Dubber The white, middle-class, middle-age male thing aside for a moment, do you think that academia benefits from employing people like us in the sense of non-traditional academics? People who have been out in the world and experienced things that can be directly passed on to students.
Caspar Oh, yeah. I do. I really do. And I think that’s one of the reasons why I’ve hung onto my job. We’ve gone through various painful restructurings and things like that. The simple fact is, the courses I teach - and it’s not just down to me being a brilliant teacher - are popular among students. They want that kind of information. They want that kind of advice. They want to see people who have worked outside the academy, and I think the academy could do a much better job of being more flexible and allowing people who aren’t lifetime academics into the institution. This would also mean those people who are lifetime academics being prepared to step out of that space and do other things. And there’s not as much fluidity there as I think there should be or could be because I’m very keen to break that clear distinction between what is often called the ivory tower and the real world. What academics call the real world as if they’re not part of it. So, yeah, I think it’s of huge value to the institution.
However, there are built-in processes of publication, of track record, of having become institutionalised, all the way from undergraduate to MA to PhD to postdoc, where you haven’t had a chance to be outside in the world. And if you did that, it’s a bit like the way women get punished for taking time off to have children and other things like that. You’ve got a break in your CV, and you have to account for it in some way. It’s not deliberate, but just the way that things are set up tends to replicate the system, which I think is not a great system.
Dubber One of the things that the system encourages is, as you say, publication, and you’ve managed to tick that box a little bit by putting out a book quite recently. Is it the kind of book that universities are quite happy to have you tick that box with, or have you gone off-piste a little bit?
Caspar Well, that’s a really good question. I don’t know. But REF, the Research Excellence Framework, which is this six yearly spasm that the universities go through where everyone has to submit work which goes to a committee, which is then adjudicated on, and then that decides how much money flows to the university - so it’s very serious - my book has just gone into that process. So I’ve no idea what people think of it at that level, and there’s something about it… It doesn’t sound like an academic book. ‘It’s a London Thing: How Rare Groove, Acid House and Jungle Remapped the City’. I’ve got references in it. I did publish it as an academic book, but it’s about things which might not be considered to be legitimate subjects, I suppose, by some people.
Dubber Well, worse than that, you committed the same crime that I committed with my ‘Radio in the Digital Age’ book, which also went through the REF process last time around, which was it’s readable.
Caspar I know. It’s funny that. I was trained as an academic, doing a PhD. And in doing a PhD, I did that typical thing where I arrived at the university and I thought “Okay. I’ve got to read everything.”. And I tried to read everything. And it was the high point of post-structuralism. It was Foucault. It was Baudrillard. There was postmodernism. It was Fredric Jameson. It was Spivak, and it was Homi Bhabha. And it was some very exciting theoretical work, some of which is incredibly difficult and some of which is very poorly written. And I then churned out a PhD which was - surprise, surprise - poorly written, incoherent in places, and was actually a lot worse of a piece of work that I might have produced outside the academy. It didn’t really fit either way. I had very nice examiners. I scraped through with changes and whatnot.
I then went a did something else. I did online journalism, and I became an editor for openDemocracy, which was this online discussion forum/newspaper thing, and then became a magazine editor, and that’s when I learned to write properly. Editing other people’s work. Thinking about an audience. Thinking about a readership.
And having come back into academia, one of the first things I did was write a book review of a book which was called… Oh, god. I can’t remember who wrote it now. But it was a book about why sociologists write so badly, basically. And his argument, which absolutely I think I agreed with, was that it’s not a coincidence. It’s that they’re trained to write badly. There’s something about the process, particularly journal articles and that whole… What you will know as well, Andrew, which is basically a scam where academics don’t get paid to write things which they don’t really want to write because they have to put all their credentials into this piece of work and spend ages getting to the point, which are then published in journals that basically very, very few people read, which cost universities a vast amount of money. A total scam, but, anyway. I wrote that piece…
Dubber Well, not only that, but it’s peer reviewed. So the people who have to review it, which also contributes to their CV, in inverted commas, is also unpaid labour.
Caspar Exactly, which is something I found out recently. I think most people in the world… Well, the people I’ve told can’t believe it. “What? You put that amount of effort…”. To write an academic journal article might take you three, six, eight months. A year. It’s that level of labour, and it goes through lots of iterations as well. And it can be very painful, and it can be rejected and all of that, and there’s no money in it. And for the reviewers, there’s no money in it. There’s prestige and reputation. Or, if you’re a really great academic like my friend Les Back at Goldsmiths who is so much my academic model, he does it out of the love of ideas, out of care, out of concern for the truth and for parity and things like that. It’s not just people bigging themselves up in that process. But there’s something fundamentally broken about it, which is partly why - not partly - I wrote the book.
I’ve only got one academic article to my name at the moment. I’ve got some book chapters, which are sniffed at in academia. REF apparently don’t like book chapters. I don’t know why. So I’ve got the one academic article, and then I thought “Well, I could sit down and write three or four more articles, but maybe what I should do is write a book, and then at least it goes to REF.”. So I’ve ticked the box which says it’s gone, and I don’t know what they’re going to do with it.
But, actually, the whole reason I got into academia or I went back to academia… I did my undergraduate degree, and then I went to America, and I lived in America for seven or eight years. I was a DJ. I did radio. I was a magazine journalist. Steeped in music, which is what is my love. But I went back to university to do an MA with the aim that I wanted to write a book, but it’s taken me twenty years to complete that cycle and to get the confidence and, I think, the writing skills that I felt I needed to write something that is clear and explicable and isn’t indigestible so that it can be read by people who aren’t academics.
And even though I wanted to publish it as an academic book… Not just for REF, but also because I want academia to know this stuff as well. I want to force them to reckon with the importance of popular art and popular culture as a valid thing to write about and a valid thing to have on the shelf. It was a dangerous dance, potentially, and some people have raised their eyebrow at me or suggested… Particularly the bits… In the book, I do throw in a few first-person stories - slightly disguised as ethnographic notes, but really they’re my memories of particular music scenes that I have experienced - as a way to try and bring it to life a little bit.
Dubber Yeah. It’s interesting how much of a parallel there is. In my radio book that I wrote, I did exactly the same thing. I did some first-person narrative recollection of listening to radio as a kid in the car with my parents and blah, blah, blah, and that sort of thing outside of ethnography is, like you say, sniffed at. But in a sense, what I was trying to do was write the book that I wanted to while still ticking the REF box a little bit. I don’t want to speak for you, but, for me, the book ended up not being the book that I wanted it to be because it wasn’t, in inverted commas, journalistic enough. It was much too academic, and it didn’t feel authentic or representative of what I wanted to communicate. Did you have the same problem, or were you just very much comfortable with one foot in both worlds?
Caspar I don’t know where you were in your career or your age at that point, but it took me… I’m fifty-four now. So I am quite old, and I came back into academia quite old, so I felt less intimidated and less anxious. And as I got my foot into teaching - something I knew nothing about, really - and enjoyed it and bedded myself in, I thought “Okay. Well, now I’ve got the opportunity to do this.”. I’ve actually written a book that I do like, and I do think that it works. It is what I wanted to say.
And partly, it’s because I am not only an academic, but I like theory. I like ideas. I find them exciting. My life has been formed partly by ideas that I’ve picked up from Stuart Hall or Paul Gilroy or even Foucault which I think are useful tools for helping to understand the world. Power/knowledge, or the nature of diaspora, or the fact that identity is a journey, not a destination, and we’re always trying to decide who we want to be and who we are, we present… Erving Goffman. The way you present yourself to the world. These, to me, are core ideas or ideas with philosophical weight that help us to peek behind the veil of the world and defamiliarize a lot of the garbage that we get thrown at us. If it’s real. Gramsci’s notion here that, basically, we’re in a struggle for the truth with ideology or with hegemonic ideas we’ve inherited. They’re so deep in our bones and our minds that we need some tools to unpick them and get behind them, and that’s what I think those academic ideas are. So I was happy writing it as an academic work.
When I first talked to my publisher, they were like “Well, do you want to do a trade book, or do you want to do an academic book?”. And, first of all, I didn’t know what a trade book was. I thought “What? Is it about building or something?”. But when I figured out what he meant, I was very keen to do it as an academic book, and I wanted to do it like that, and I didn’t find it…
One of the terrible reviews I got on Amazon was from someone who said “This reads like a really bad university thesis that would have got a D.”. And there is an element where you’ve got to wade through, I suppose, for some readers. There’s lots of names in brackets, and there is some conceptual ideas at the beginning when I frame it. But, actually, partly what I wanted was to give people who weren’t academics access to those ideas to see that they were relevant, because you can write about music by just saying “We’ll listen to this banging beat. We’ll tell the biographical stories of the people involved.”, and that’s important as well, but, actually, I wanted some conceptual tools like the idea of diaspora.
What is happening in music in one particular place in the world is linked at a deep level to what’s happening in other places, and there are reasons why that linkage happens. This is where Paul Gilroy’s idea about the black Atlantic, this interconnected African diasporic culture where ideas and people and musical forms circulate, that’s a key idea because that stops us from thinking just within the national frame or just in a narrow sense of “Oh, well, let’s look at what’s happening in London because it’s somehow natural that it would happen there.”. There’s nothing natural about it. It comes through a series of political and social processes and movements.
Dubber Right. Well, let’s talk about the content of the book to a larger sense. So we’re talking about rare groove, acid house, and jungle, primarily, and their situatedness - if you like - in London. There’s a whole lot to unpack there, obviously, and you’ve spent a whole book doing that. But what is special about London? Is it, as some people say, a different country?
Caspar It’s certainly felt like that over the past few years if you think about the whole narrative of Brexit and the whole idea of Britain wanting to get great again and sever its ties with Johnny Foreigner, and it really felt like London was different. And you could tell that in the narrative because London was often put up as this elite space which gets all the funding, and the Westminster Bubble or the Islington bubble. All of that kind of stuff. And there was an element of truth to that. We’ve got a left-wing mayor. We did have Boris Johnson as mayor, but, generally, we have more left-wing politics. We have a more welcoming attitude to strangers because it’s a city full of people who aren’t from here, frankly, and that gives it a special character. So I do think there’s something quite special about the character of London.
In the book, I do trace this back to empire because London was the biggest beneficiary, and you can see that all around you, of empire and has also been the place which has therefore then received migration from the empire, which has brought the empire right into the western city in a way that wasn’t the case in London in the earlier periods. Although, different waves of immigration - Huguenots and Irish and Italians and Maltese - have always characterised what’s going on in London as well.
So one of the books that I quote says “London is not about Londoners, necessarily. You can become a Londoner.”. I think there’s a really interesting character of London. I don’t know if you’ve ever lived in London, Andrew, but you can become a Londoner much more easily than you can become British or English. In some sense, you can never become English if you’re not from England, but you can become a Londoner after about three or four months.
And the first thing you realise is it’s grim, it’s cold, it’s dirty, and people aren’t very friendly. So there’s the first set of experiences. And then you realise that, actually, under that grim surface there’s a common culture because we all have to wait for the busses together, use the same grimy tube stations and corner shops, so there’s a sort of “We’re all in it together.” thing. And then under the surface again is this incredible, slightly hidden away, slightly… You might say elitist, but it’s not quite elitist, but it’s not that easy to find. But once you do find it… You go down a grimy set of stairs and you open a door, and then you step into an amazing cultural ferment. And I’m describing club culture here, but there are all kinds of… There’s the Soho boho seedy culture. There are interesting things going on in very uninteresting looking places in a very, very large city.
Dubber Interesting. So let’s just really, really quickly… So that we know what we’re talking about, what is rare groove? What is acid house? What is jungle?
Caspar I think the way I should do it is tell it backwards. Jungle is a musical genre which emerges in London in the mid-1990s. It’s electronic music. It’s related to, and some people even argue an offshoot of, house music, which is this digitised, funky, soulful thing which was going on in New York and in Chicago and in Detroit and then brought over to the UK. But the distinct nature of jungle is that jungle also is strongly influenced by reggae. So it’s got these deep reggae basslines, and then it’s got these very fast breakbeats which refer to a tradition of hip-hop and then, beyond that, to funk, but they’re sped up digitally. So it’s digital music, it’s dance music, and it’s got this strange fusion of African American forms like house music and hip-hop and reggae and with some other elements to it as well. It’s got a scary horror soundtrack type of vibe to it as well. Quite intense music.
I was not in London when this emerged. I was in San Francisco, and I heard this music and I thought “What the hell is going on?”. It’s really quite shocking when you hear it. It’s going so fast. It’s so intense. But on the other hand, it’s quite familiar, and the familiarity, for me, was the reggae element. Reggae is really important musically, especially in London, but had been pushed aside by house music and rave music at the end of the 1980s, but it re-emerged in jungle. So, to me, it was like “Who’s making this music? What’s going on?”, and “I really want to get back to London because I want to experience this.”. So I moved back in 1997, partly to try and figure out what jungle was all about. That pushed me back to think about acid house.
Acid house was something that I had been… I was in London when it took off in London in 1987/1988. It was a profound moment of youth culture. It was a change in the music. You’ll know the music. Most people will. This very much Chicago influenced digital music, again, but which was very different from soul and funk and reggae and jazz. A new arrangement of musical elements digitally, alongside, of course, other kinds of technologies like drug technologies. Obviously, ecstasy was a huge part of that. So I wanted to tease out the relationship between reggae and acid house, and then that pushed me further back in time into rare groove.
Now, rare groove was something that, again, it happened really only in London in the UK. Only in London. In the mid-1980s was a period of time when a group of DJs, most of whom were black, but not all, DJs an older generation than the audience who knew a lot about music and had great record collections which spanned from the late 1960s all the way up to the eighties, taking in soul, funk, even African influenced music and also ska and reggae and rocksteady… And during the mid-1980s when London was rapidly deindustrialising, it was the height of Thatcherism and there was high unemployment, there were a lot of empty buildings around in London. And those empty buildings were repurposed by this group of young people who not only had the records, but they had the tech, as well, because they had access to sound systems, i.e. massive hi-fis. They knew about sound systems because of the tradition of the reggae sound system which had taken root in London in 1958 and then rapidly spread. There were hundreds of sound systems. It was carried largely through black London. Jamaican influence very strong, though not everyone involved was Jamaican. Fathers, brothers, cousins all collaborating to build their own sound systems using old wardrobes and planks and whatnot and using engineering skills.
Dubber It was very hackathon-y, wasn’t it?
Caspar Absolutely. It was absolutely hackathon, and it was sophisticated. It was so interesting. Many people were involved in the sound systems. Some of them were trained as engineers in the army and would come and lend their skills. One of them who worked with Coxsone, which was one of the great sound systems, he was an engineer at Heathrow Airport who’d put together the air traffic control system. So it was a community-based collaborative effort, primarily because black Londoners, through the period of migration from the Caribbean which starts in 1948, so-called Windrush generation, are excluded from clubs and pubs and football and the other places and spaces and rituals of British life, and British working-class life, in particular, because these black migrants were mainly working-class or didn’t have access to the middle-class world anyway, either economically or because of structural racism.
So the sound systems are really… The best way to think about them is that they’re a way of creating space and building your own mobile nightclubs. And what you then need when you’ve got a sound system, you’ve got the records, is somewhere to do them. Now, the sound systems in Jamaica in Kingston, they’re outdoors, often, because they’ve got the weather. Well, London doesn’t have that weather, so where are you going to do them? You’ll do them in all of these empty factories, old cinemas, old storehouses, old bus garages. This was the period in the mid-1980s in London where rare groove was the dominant musical form. And rare groove really isn’t a genre. It’s just a way of saying “Black music from the recent past, from the last twenty-odd years, that you probably are not familiar…”.
Dubber And deep cuts, particularly.
Caspar Deep cuts. That’s the rare bit, because this music often was not released in the UK. It didn’t make the charts in the UK. Had to come in via other routes - second-hand record stores - and then put them into these buildings, the so-called warehouse parties.
So what it seemed to me in putting all of this story together… Because I had some familiarity with rare groove. My life started, my education happened… DJs like Norman Jay and Jazzie B from Soul II Soul, who were older than me and had the tunes, educated a whole generation of Londoners - black Londoners and white Londoners - at a point when although racialised space and the riots had happened in London in 1981 - Brixton riots - and again in 1985, there was sus going on, all of these forms of over-policing which were infuriating the black community who weren’t given their rights, at the same time, this multi-culture was emerging because we’d all been to school together.
I went to a comprehensive school. Two thousand kids. Basically about half white and half black. A few Asian kids. And we had to get along, or not get along, and there was a lot of fighting and there was a lot of tension. But for those of us who wanted to seek something different or who were animated… Speaking as a white person, I was animated by a strong commitment to anti-racism. It was pick a side time in London, and I wasn’t going to pick the side of the racist skinheads at my school, obviously, and I was going to align with my black friends, and music provided a way to do that.
And then the warehouse came along and said “This can be your space.”, because you couldn’t get into clubs in Soho very easily. Groups of boys couldn’t get in. Groups of black boys definitely couldn’t get in. It was always tricky negotiating the forms of regulation of those spaces. Suddenly, none of that mattered. The bouncer was your own age. If you could find the place… And London was full of this empty space. It’s not like that anymore. If you go and visit London now, if you’re at the Tate Modern and you just walk a bit east, you will pass Shakespeare’s Globe, this historic theatre. Neither of those were there. There was no lighting. They were just empty dock spaces. Nobody even knew where they were, even though it’s not that far from places you’re familiar with. It was this empty space. This is where Foucault’s idea of the heterotopia, a space which isn’t really a space… It’s not really on a map. Nobody knows who runs it. And because of that, it afforded this generation, the rare groove or warehouse party generation, a chance to really build their own culture. And that was such a clear influence on rave that I felt that was part of the story as well.
And one of the reasons I included acid house in the story is because I feel very ambivalent about acid house. I went to raves. I loved raving up to a point, but I had criticisms about it. Point one - and we can get onto those - musically, aesthetically, anything that’s completely based on drug-taking is bound to end up in a bad trip. But also the priority that rave was given in the story of club culture, as if raves were the first time people got together in unlicensed space to listen to loud music, and that clearly wasn’t the case. Rave didn’t create club culture. It gave it a huge boost, and one of the obvious things it did was it got white men onto the dance floor where hitherto they had been very reluctant to go. But that is not true of black men or black women. And it was a moment, but it was a moment that I felt really needed to be connected and contextualised alongside these other musical scenes.
Dubber Is there any discourse about “Well, that wasn’t a London thing. That was a Manchester thing.”, the acid house?
Caspar Oh, no. There’s a massive discourse about that, and I sort of allude to it in the book. There’s a funny debate which goes on amongst ravers where… Between the Manchester… The northerners, let’s say, the mardy northerners and the Cockneys. They call us the Cockneys. And there’s this dispute about “Well, who did it first?”.
I do tell and retell the story - which I call a myth, although it’s true - of these four white London geezer DJs, these working-class boys, who’d gone out to Ibiza, who went to Amnesia. DJ Alfredo hipped them to having a wider musical mix than they were used to and blending together pop music and Balearic alongside Chicago house music, and taking ecstasy all at the same time in this warm weather. And then they came back to London, and they each started a club, and it was very influential. That’s all true.
Simultaneously, it’s happening in Manchester. It’s got different components. It’s much more related to a switch amongst white youth taste from indie to dance music, which was happening at the Haçienda, was happening under the influence of ecstasy. Very, very significant, but those books have been written. Dave Haslam writes about that, and many others.
So I’m not trying to give London priority. What I do want to say is that there’s a context for understanding it in London. It wasn’t the first time, like I said, dancing to loud music was happening in the city. House music was coming into London in all kinds of routes before the acid house moment that I’ve just described. Often played by black sound systems where the music was put in the larger context of hip-hop, electro, and other forms of electronic black avant-garde music, which wasn’t defined by taking ecstasy and was part of the overall way in which these genres develop and change and shift, and many people were happy with that.
There’s nothing wrong with this. It’s a good idea to allow popular music to change. Particularly, one of the reasons it needs to change is to evade capture by the market. Although, it’s obviously within the market as well, and we shouldn’t romanticise it as being something pristine and outside capitalism, but there is a tendency for the music industry and the market to grab hold of key genres and suck the life out of them. But that’s okay because the club genre has already shifted somewhere else.
Dubber We’ve talked a fair bit about DJs and dancers and venues and spaces and not a lot about the recording artists. Were there key recording artists in these genres?
Caspar Oh, god, yeah. I think it’s different with each of them, which is fascinating to me. So taking rare groove. You’ll be familiar with the idea of rockism in pop music writing, and the music industry in general, which imagines the key issue is the band, and the band who have a career, who are possibly geniuses like The Beatles. They exist over time. They do live shows. They produce albums. That’s the model. That model can be applied to rare groove, up to a point.
So you’ve got figures like James Brown within rare groove, who’s absolutely pivotal. He’s a key songwriter. He’s a key producer. He’s a key band leader. He’s a key rhythmic genius who instils these ideas into his band who then go off… They go and work in lots of other genres. One generation of his band leaves because they’re pissed off not getting well paid, so he brings in Bootsy and Catfish and reinvents the J.B.’s. So there’s a story there. Stevie Wonder. A whole series of great artists.
But the other thing about rare groove is what matters to rare groove is the danceability of the track, not specifically the band or the album. These units matter much less because, in the end, it’s the DJ playing something off a record to an audience. You don’t know who the band is. And a lot of the rare groove canon is music that was underrated or forgotten or generically was too… Didn’t fit easily within the way in which the American music industry is divided up racially, between soul and folk music, for example. If you mess with those generic boundaries, you might fail. And then that music was rediscovered in a new context.
And I would say that if you went to a rare groove party, eighty percent of what you hear, you wouldn’t know who it was by. And when you did find out, you’d be like “Oh. That’s the African Music Machine. That’s The Mighty Ryeders.”, so it’s like you’ve… There’s just hundreds and hundreds of bands who were great that no one’s ever heard of until they start being recovered first by DJs and then by the labels who were employing DJs to put together compilations. And that whole world of the reissue and the looking back and the Awesome Tapes From Africa and that whole world emerges out of that curatorial aspect of rare groove. So in that sense, of course the producers, the…
When you buy the record, you can pour over who’s playing the bass, who’s playing the drums, who produced the record. Key figures like Charles Stepney emerge or Gamble and Huff or… Some of these key… You start getting a picture of the incredible depth and creativity of the black American recording industry of that period, some of which was successful, some of which was completely forgotten and not loved in America.
So when it came to acid house, a completely different set of questions emerged. The first thing is, this was not music that sounded anything like music of the past. There was no band. There wasn’t that setup of drum, bass, keys, guitar, vocalist that you would expect. You couldn’t hear any of that. It was clearly music made with machines. Possibly music made by machines. There was awareness at some level that the music was made by someone, but that someone wasn’t a musician, primarily. They were a quote-unquote producer. It was someone who had put the stuff together themselves. We became aware of this because we knew about hip-hop, and we knew that within hip-hop, the actual sound tech was made by someone playing around with digital technologies. With drum machines, samplers, and bits of other people’s music. But that wasn’t what was going on here because in hip-hop, you can recognise the reference points of the previous music, but here you couldn’t because the sounds were… Actually, what were foregrounded was the sound of the machine itself.
So the most famous element of the acid house sound, of course, is the wobbly 303. The Roland 303, which is a little bass emulator, was being used in a way not to, as it can, sound like a bass line being played, but to sound like a machine. This strange, wobbly sound, which DJ Pierre, who came up with this, says is an accident. He was just playing around, not knowing how to use this bit of kit which he had got second hand. Didn’t have the manual, didn’t have any training, and just found a sound which he thought sounded cool, sounded futuristic, and that squelchy, weird, [imitating sound] sound which underpinned that particular moment of acid house, laid over thumping digital beats which don’t sound like a drummer, and they’re not meant to. They sound like machines pulsing.
So this threw into disarray any kind of idea of a band or a musician. When you’re in the acid house moment in the club, you can’t tell the difference between one track and the next. They’re mixed together by DJs who are deliberately blending these things together, so you actually are not aware of even a track. The whole thing becomes some kind of large, ongoing soundscape. Plus, you’re very disoriented by dry ice, often strobe lights, and whatever you’ve taken to go along with your acid house experience. And for a very large proportion of the crowd, that was ecstasy, which deranges you in lots of other ways. So it completely broke that fandom connection. That “Oh, I love this tune.” connection. That kind of familiarity thing which drives pop clubs and often discos and things like that.
And then even if you drilled into it a little bit, like maybe you sidled up to the DJ and had a look over their shoulder to have a look at the label, chances are you’d either find a white label there, which is an unreleased piece of music with something scribbled on it, or even if it was a commercial label, what would it say? Bam Bam. The Night Writers. Just a bunch of new words which didn’t seem to relate directly to any particular person or anyone. You didn’t have a sense of the person behind the music, and it’s only with investigation that I’ve done that I’ve been able to figure out there are actually real people behind this. There’s Frankie Knuckles, and there’s The Belleville Three making the techno. There are real people, but they very deliberately hid themselves. They were not involved in the global record industry in terms of marketing. You didn’t see their pictures on record sleeves. There wasn’t a great sense of who these people are. It took the media a long time to catch up with what acid house really was, and it was always treated as what mattered was what was happening on the dance floor or in the rave, not so much the person who produced the music.
This is what allowed the DJ to partly intervene there and become the key mediator, and the first most famous stars of acid house and house music were the DJs. And initially, in England, it was actually the British DJs who became famous. The Danny Ramplings and the Paul Oakenfolds. And it was only latterly that the audience caught up with the fact that they were basing what they were doing on the model of people like Frankie Knuckles, Larry Levan at the Paradise Garage, or Tony Humphries or… This generation have latterly become well known and famous. Jeff Mills and all the rest of those brilliant practisers.
Dubber And I guess the other part of this would be that it’s quite hard to portray this kind of music-making on something like Top of the Pops.
Caspar Oh, well, absolutely right. And acid did start appearing on Top of the Pops in various guises. The first influence of acid house was the way it started to influence pop music. You’ve got bands like S’Express, Mars, who used slightly acid-y type sounds which were around in the ether but plugged them into a slightly more conventional idea of a band. S’Express weren’t really a band, but they pretended to be a band for the purposes of Top of the Pops. Or sometimes you’d get a singer, like a Kym Mazelle or one of these great Chicago vocalists would appear with a couple of dancers, but it wasn’t really clear who was the person who’d actually made the music.
And that kind of anonymity I think was a productive thing in one sense because it broke this commercial relationship which has been established between the audience and the band and the catalogue and the album and allowed the scene itself a lot of space to develop. Lots of these producers put out loads of music under different names and didn’t feel that they had a problem experimenting. They weren’t sure this stuff was going to sell. It wasn’t really about that. It was about “Is it going to make the dance floor move?”.
Dubber I guess 808 State would have been an outlier in this because they were very much a band, weren’t they?
Caspar Personally, I don’t know if they were a band in the sense that were they people who played musical instruments and then added an electronic element to it, or were they producers? I don’t know that. Although, they did appear on Top of the Pops. I know A Guy Called Gerald was involved with them as well in the early days. And, of course, they had some big hits.
What happened in Manchester which is different from London, is, as I think I referred to before, that the acid house thing fused with the indie rock thing. So then you’ve got bands like The Shamen and these other bands who’d been stalwarts of indie guitar rock who then were converted to acid house. Of course, Happy Mondays and the whole Madchester so-called baggy scene, which refers to their baggy clothing and the kind of baggy attitude that they had. And that was the moment where you got a fusing of these two different… The indie-rock tradition with the acid house tradition.
That didn’t happen in London because we didn’t have an indie rock tradition in London. Even pale, skinny, white boys like myself liked black music in London, and I didn’t know anyone, and white people or black people, who liked rock music or… To such an extent that I first heard Led Zeppelin when I was in my mid-twenties in America, and the people playing it to me could not believe that I didn’t know it inside out in the way that they knew it because they were so into this idea of British music being exemplified by that kind of thing, but we were in a completely different bubble.
Then, to follow the point up to jungle, obviously, the producer - in terms of the person who’s actually behind the production of the music - becomes absolutely critical in jungle as it was in acid house. That’s actually the moment which changes the relationship from band to it’s then a producer comes in to try and create a record in collaboration with a band, to the producer being the person who originates everything about the music. And oftentimes, in jungle, that person is a DJ already. So you’ve got Shy FX, or you’ve got Jumpin Jack Frost, or you’ve got Fabio and Grooverider. These guys started off as DJs and then become producers and set up labels and start knocking out music. There are some producers who were not originally DJs. Someone like Andy C or… Some of these guys who had come from the peripheral suburbs of London, been drawn into the black music world via rave, then tried their hand at producing and then came in that way.
Then you get new figures that the scene are based around, and within jungle, the key presence who hasn’t been there before is the MC. The vocalist. The chatter. And that is a practice which is derived from reggae sound system culture which is very strong within the sound system, although not all sound systems have chatters. Some of them don’t, but the ones that did, like Saxon, where a British reggae vocal style was developed in the early 1980s… But when house came along, that disappeared from the club scene. And, in fact, rare groove didn’t have that either. Rare groove didn’t use MCs because it was so much about the records. The musicians and the records from that period.
So early raves… If you had someone come on the mic in early rave, they’d pretty much just be saying “Get on one. Let’s get radio rental.”. That sort of thing. In ’92/’93 with the emergence of hardcore, which is a… Acid house splits into multiple sub-genres. That period is usually called hardcore, or ‘ardcore, without the H. That’s what Simon Reynolds calls it. “’Ardcore. You know the score.”.
A lot of this is coming through pirate radio, and, again, the main human, the main figure in pirate radio is this person who’s on the microphone talking. And how are they talking? They’ve got a weird… Not a weird. A very beautiful experimental combination of Jamaican Patois, Cockney slang, comments about football and fashion and hip-hop references, all mashed together in this new code-switching style. The sociologists call it code-switching, don’t they? Because black Londoners traditionally have been able to speak in a number of different ways already because they can speak in proper English like their parents often spoke, as they were trained to speak like that in Jamaica, in the British schools in Jamaica, but they can also speak in extremely yardie Patois. They can do Cockney if they’ve grown up in the East End. If you listen to someone like Dennis Bovell, the great dub producer, he can do every kind of accent under the sun, plausibly. Anyway.
So within the jungle scene, you’ve got the re-emergence, because of reggae sound systems, of this British vocalist, this vocal style, who was there to orchestrate the dance. To interact between the producer who’s made the music, the DJ who’s playing it, the dancing crowd, in this call and response type of activity. And those figures, like MC Det and Skibadee and Shabba and the Ragga Twins, most of whom got their initial music training in sound system culture, emerged strongly in the jungle scene.
And it’s what upset a lot of ravers about jungle because they did not want their high disturbed by the re-emergence of this strong black voice which was pulling the whole thing back more towards carnival, more towards a Jamaican aesthetic which… At the same time as black crowds started coming back into rave spaces, who pretty much… Rave was kind of mixed at the end of the eighties, but then it became whiter. Just empirically, in terms of who was going to raves. A complex issue about why that happened.
In the book, I talk about a number of different factors, one of which is that, contrary to what a lot of people seem to believe, the taking of synthetic Class A drugs - as we call them in the UK - is not that common in black club culture. Smoking weed, yeah, but not that kind of heavy chemical thing. And as rave developed into hardcore, it did get incredibly druggy, to the point where people were well out of control. There was people lying on the dance floor. There were teenagers crouched inside the bass bins. I saw this at a club called Labyrinth in Dalston. Quite upsetting, in some ways. These young kids who are really, really out of it, taking some combination of amphetamines, LSD, ecstasy, been cut with all kinds of rat poison and other things. So that’s one aspect of it.
Another aspect is the music itself became harder, more industrial, more like industrial forms of rock music influenced by Belgium and Holland and other parts of Northern Europe and moved further away from a black diaspora aesthetic, musically. And I think just as important is there were so many other musical options at that period of time. Early nineties. This is the high point of hip-hop. This is the emergence of new soul. There’s acid jazz that’s kicking off. There’s great soul clubs. There’s great dancehall. So there were lots of other options for black clubbers. Not so much for white clubbers because, really, they didn’t have access to a lot of those black underground scenes, but they did to the rave. So the rave basically went overground and became this mainstream, slightly predictable, rhythmically lacking in diversity, and the same kind of beat throughout the whole night with some peaks and troughs for people to come up and down on. And jungle just messed with that whole thing. Rhythmically blew that apart. Chucked away the 4/4 basic format by having breakbeats and these deep basslines and brought back this cadre of DJs.
I focussed on one particular group in London. They weren’t the only group, but are what I call the Brixton acid mob, who were these guys who’d all grown up together - Fabio, Grooverider, Dave Angel, Colin Dale - who had gone through reggae, started with reggae. They’d all been rare groove DJs. They were funk DJs. They got converted to rave at the end of the eighties. Their black crowd were not into it. Their black crowd were conservative. Rare groovers were conservative. I was a rare groover, and I was publicly against house music. Too simplistic, too mechanical, not soulful enough. But I did sneak off to the rave clubs and found something else going on there. I went to Paul Oakenfold’s club Spectrum at Heaven. I went to some other clubs which were doing different… Like Clink Street, which was this rave which started to… It had a scruffy sound system aesthetic, and it was like a warehouse party, but it was hard acid. It was like avant-garde music. It was like avant-garde art, in a way.
There were lots of different constituencies and various kinds of antagonisms, but these forward-thinking guys - Fabio and Brian G, Jumping Jack Frost - who were converted to acid at the end of the eighties became huge DJs on the out of London rave circuit. And then a few years later, jungle appears. This is not a coincidence because they brought back to the fore aesthetic ideas which were latent in what they’d always been doing. So when I asked Brian G “Where did jungle come from?”, he pointed to that period of early hardcore where a lot of the music was… It was almost infantile in its simplicity. It kept sampling the soundtrack to children’s TV programmes or Margaret Thatcher going “Ooh, have an E.” or… It was playful and childish. And he says “Well, the white producers had turned back to what they were doing when they were kids, in a way, but that wasn’t what we were doing. So for black producers, we turned back to reggae and we turned back to hip-hop. Been a few years that we hadn’t connected those things, so we brought that back into the dance, and it was another upheaval.”.
But, again, this is, for me, and I think for a lot of the people who went to this stuff… The rare groove period drove a lot of people into looking for second-hand records and rediscovering bands and the great catalogues of Roy Ayers and Donald Byrd and these characters. But, for me, from then onwards in acid and jungle, I wasn’t interested in going to buy the music. Lots of people were, and went to the specialist record stores and whatnot. I didn’t really care about that. It was just the fact that I felt once you were in the dance, you were there. It wasn’t about getting the music, listening to it at home, becoming an expert on that. It was about the experience of being in that place. And the jungle MC, one of the most common things they say is “Inside the place!”. It’s about honouring and celebrating the moment that you’re all in that place together, just before the bass really drops and everyone loses their shit.
Dubber Speaking of dropping the bass and so on, are there always continuities between musical sub-genres, and particularly in dance? So I’m thinking jungle to drum and bass, dubstep, or rare groove, northern soul. Are those connections and continuities always there, or does something come along and do “Okay. No. We’re going to do something completely different now.”, and “Stand by. You haven’t heard this before.”?
Caspar It’s a really good question. Well, for me, I would say that I think it’s all the same thing. I use the term black music. I think you could equally use the term jazz, or you can use the sociological term Afro-diasporic music. There is something continuous, and even in terms of how it evolves and changes and brings brand new things in, which repeat patterns which have been there ever since Congo Square or even before that. Congo Square, I’m referring to in New Orleans in the nineteenth century or even earlier than that where a drum culture was allowed to emerge amongst slave and post-slave cultures on a Sunday in this place where rhythmic patterns from West Africa and other parts of Africa were remembered in some way, those that had managed to be carried in the bodies of those people who had been so painfully and violently extracted from their homes, and combined with new kinds of things.
So one thing that’s always clear is that new technologies offer new options, new possibilities. Jazz is only enabled to happen - jazz as we understand it - because of the excess of musical instruments that were flopping around in that area after the Spanish-American War, the Mexican War of Independence. Armies offloaded all of their drums and pipes and snares and cornets to people who picked them up and learnt how to use them. Applied a rhythmic sensibility, which is part of the continuity, really. I don’t want to be in a position to argue that black music is only rhythmic music and doesn’t have melody and harmony, which is obviously nonsense, but there’s something about the experiment with rhythm and the playing of rhythms off against each other which is, after all, what drum and bass is. That’s the way I’ve described it. But drum and bass doesn’t invent drum and bass. Drum and bass was a term that was used to describe roots reggae. The essential nature between the drummer and the bass player in a band like The Meters or the James Brown band is what drives it forward, and that goes all the way back.
So, yes, there are continuities. It’s not that those continuities… This is the key thing that I take from the arguments of the cultural studies scholars like Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy. It’s not carried in the blood of black people. It’s not biological. It is cultural. And it’s a set of traditions and attitudes to culture, to what’s valuable, and to technology which have defined a diasporic way of going about things in the world. Which is to say, if you haven’t been given access to formal education, to formal museums, universities, law courts, access to all of that, you have to make do with what you’ve got. And you are inclined, if you’ve suffered from a system whose rules systematically oppress you, not to necessarily follow the rules as they are supposed to be followed.
This is something I took from an interview that Paul Gilroy did with Toni Morrison about the essential nature of diasporic creativity, which is to do with, on the one hand, not looking like you’re trying too hard, disavowing technique, and picking things up and doing things with them that were not necessarily anticipated by the people who designed those things or the rules set down. So when Dennis Bovell goes into a studio with trained engineers and producers in the 1970s who are used to producing rock music and he’s trying to produce reggae, and they say “Oh, look at your monitors. Everything’s up in the red. You’d better turn it down. It’s distorting.”, and he says “Well, no, it’s not. Listen. It’s not distorting. It’s just going beyond the level that you’ve been told is the appropriate level, but that’s not right. I have every reason to doubt the truths which are embedded in your system.”. This is my interpretation of what he’s saying. And I think that’s the common thread that runs through all of these things.
As new technologies emerge, those new possibilities, and even the limitations… Think of the limited palette of the production in grime, for example. This strange, narrow, cold sound which comes from using cracked versions of digital audio software, inspired by video games which have been played on crappy little speakers. So something which shouldn’t sound right or be thought of as good has been turned into something highly valued and innovative, and that continues to this day.
And right now, probably around here, there’s some thirteen-year-old kid sitting in the estate down the road messing around with something but applying to it the rhythmic traditions. I like to call it kinetic intelligence. I think embedded in the ability to dance or the ability to be a great footballer or the ability to make a great beat is the recognition that rhythm isn’t the lowest form of musical communication. It may indeed be the most important bit of it. And Afro-diasporic music never forgets that, whereas European art music forgot that a long time ago. And many forms of rock music and other kinds of commercial pop music either forget it, or if they remember it, they remember it because they were inspired by, for example, hip-hop, which is the blueprint of pop at the moment in the world, isn’t it?
Dubber Is it as cyclical as it seems to be? For instance, broken beat was a really big thing for me, and it’s twenty years, and it’s coming back in a really big way. There’s new Kaidi Tatham stuff coming out. There’s big retrospectives. Bruk…
Caspar IG Culture is all over the place.
Dubber Absolutely. And trip-hop. Same thing. Twenty years, here it is again. Is that true of all of these things? Do we just go “What was happening twenty years ago? Let’s put that back on the front of the shelves.”?
Caspar Well, that’s a great question, and I’m sure you’ve got as interesting an answer to this as I have, Andrew. But I think there’s a slight difference here. And I, as a lover or a consumer of, an enjoyer of, trip-hop and dubstep and broken beat, none of those genres… Those genres have been produced by a cadre of producers, really. A group of experimental producers who’ve got together, and it’s really great that they’ve done that, and they’ve worked on new musical ideas and developed a scene. And that scene did have an audience of a kind, but it wasn’t that tightly connected to an audience. It didn’t have a social being. It had a being which was in the studios, in those circuits of expertise, and therefore it wasn’t protected from the way in which fashions just move on.
Dubstep came and went in London. It really did. Now, some of the key figures, Mala and many of these others, what did Mala do having developed dubstep in Mass in Brixton, amongst other things? Forward>> in these other clubs. He went on a journey himself. He went to Cuba and made an album which fused Cuban beats with dubstep, and then he did some other things. Done some African stuff as well. He’s put himself on a music journey of which dubstep arguably was the beginning rather than the end. There’s no one who’s - as far as I know - passionately engaged with dubstep, in a way.
And at the same time, dubstep was part of this really strange - talking about cyclical things - the cyclical way in which black American music is sold back to white Americans via a process of it coming through Europe. Perhaps you might even call it being laundered through Europe. We know about the British Invasion bands. What they did with the blues and Muddy Waters and that. And then acid house, exactly the same thing. And it’s then delivered back to the US as EDM by who? Daft Punk. David Guetta. And then who becomes the king of dubstep? Skrillex. And that process is what would leave people - let’s call it the underground, although there’s a lot of romance tied up with that - saying “Oh well. You can have that. Take dubstep. We’ll do something else.”, so there’s no longer a need for it.
Broken beat, a slightly different thing. Broken beat seems, to me, a kind of… It’s a certain slightly avant-garde take on hip-hop which was always in a tension with the dance floor because breaking… The breakbeats, yeah. But broken beat is quite tough to dance to, so it requires a certain… And if you don’t have a big dance crowd, it’s hard to maintain people’s attention and interest. And so, again, it lives in the studio. It lives in the discussion forums. And it’s great that it does, just like Japanese noise or whatever. Some of these genres just live in the minds of the creators and every now and then pop their heads up. So I think that, in that way, those musical ideas will circulate and will come back. Of course. In fact, they’re there in all of our pop music. And a lot of the people who cut their teeth on those kinds of scenes, they go on to produce Kylie Minogue and Taylor Swift albums and… I don’t even know the names of a lot of these people, but I know that’s what they’ve done, just like many of the jungle people on the more cinematic side, like Photek, went to score movies in Hollywood like, of course, they were always designed to do. So there’s a circulation there.
In terms of the genres, I know there’s this whole debate we perhaps don’t want to open up about “Is the genre dead?” and whatnot. But I do think that to sustain longevity as drum and bass has done, jungle/drum and bass, is because it’s a dance floor genre and they’ve built this network of global dance floors where that still goes off. Sardinia, Dubai, Australia. An interesting group of expat enclaves, I would say, and there’s a political argument you could make there. It hasn’t got a grip or a hold over the black audience in London very much, but so what? Because that audience is doing something else.
And I do think that in terms of the cyclical nature of things, the innovation does still tend to come from unexpected places, people with few options, and people who are prepared to just put energy and effort… You could tell why grime was going to happen because you saw loads and loads of black school kids spitting bars at each other on the bus, recording it into their phones, and you were like “Well, this is going to lead to something.” because that never happened in the eighties which is why UK hip-hop in the eighties was pretty rubbish, but it had happened in America.
So when you see people doing that, or footwork… These people are practising their moves because they don’t have much else to do. And drill, which is a kind of controversial version of grime with supposedly violent and all about drugs and feuds and whatnot, and there is a story about that, but musically it’s cutting edge. Things are happening there which are making broken beat and dubstep look like what they are, which is middle age genres, frankly, which work very well on the internet. And that’s fine for them to live there, but whether they come back to life on the dance floor or in actual physical space… It depends whether they can either capture a dance audience for it, or what grime did was almost open up an audience for almost… It’s almost like black theatre. People standing around in playgrounds and gathering together in groups to swap lyrical flows, which keeps it alive and keeps it moving forward.
Something like a trip-hop, I think we can happily feel that that was a great moment in music that doesn’t need to return. It did its work. It pulled together two hitherto separated things. Basically, a hip-hop sensibility with a folky, ethereal female vocal vibe. Loved it. I absolutely… Portishead. It’s classical music, as far as I’m concerned, and gave Bristol its moment. Of course, Bristol has loads of drum and bass and stuff as well. So we’ll see.
At the moment, it’s jazz that’s running the show. But if you go to a jazz show in London, you’re going to hear broken beat, you’re going to hear dubstep influences, you’re going to hear funk, you’re going to hear ravey references, but you’re also going to hear saxophone and tuba solos. So it’s all there. It’s just put together in a slightly different format. But they found an audience. They’ve built a young audience for it, and that’s what’s going to keep it alive in a way that these other genres, as the people who love them reach middle age, just fade away a little bit. And I think we should let them fade away.
Dubber Yeah. I was going to ask you to what extent are you across the most contemporary of music scenes to the extent that you can find parallels, but ‘sufficiently’ is what it sounds like.
Caspar Well, no. I don’t listen to a lot of pop music. I’ve spent the whole of lockdown talking about those rare groove albums. I’ve spent the whole of lockdown going back over my record collection and listening to the tracks which I’d overlooked in the past because they weren’t the dance floor track and found so much great music.
One of the great convenient things that’s happened is I’m in the middle of London. And London, even under lockdown, is having an enormous outpouring of creative music at the moment. They’re calling it the jazz revival or the new jazz or whatever it is, but, in fact, what it is is a new twist on improvised instrument-led music, actually, which I’ve never seen before in London.
In the old days, the great musicians were not Londoners. They were people who came through London. They were usually Americans, or they were Fela Kuti’s band. There was an Afro-jazz thing. British musicians were always lagging behind. Our institutions didn’t teach jazz properly or making non-western art forms of music on your instruments very well. But suddenly, we’ve got a generation now being led - very excitingly - by young, female, black instrumentalists who are playing trombones, trumpets, tubas, but they’re making it in the context of the history of the music which has mattered here. So you can hear the hip-hop in it. You can hear references to soul jazz, jazz-funk, spiritual jazz, the radical jazz of the sixties, Afrobeat, grime, but done in a way… It’s not just tasteful. I wouldn’t like to use that word because that sounds dismissive. But done with great taste and great respect for these traditions, some of which have been forgotten, some of which were reviled, like jazz-funk.
I’m a great advocate for jazz-funk, and one of the things I love about it is the way that formal jazz and formal jazz musicians hated it so much and always conceived it as a sell-out, an aim to the market. “They’re just selling out because this is what the market wants.”. Whereas, I conceive it as a reconnection with the dance audience, which I think was a really important thing that they did in the seventies. So a Herbie Hancock, who has had the best-selling jazz album ever and should be rewarded for that because it’s absolutely fantastic - ‘Head Hunters’ - he got people dancing to jazz, and he’s a key figure in this London jazz scene alongside Fela Kuti, alongside reggae.
And because of the changing racial demographics in London, which is that now the London black population is no longer a majority Afro-Caribbean - it’s African, and West Africa in particular. Nigeria. Ghana. Loads of people from Cameroon. Lots of French-speaking black African families in London as well. People from Somalia - there’s been a shift to… And African music and highlife and those influences have also come back into the music at the same time. So it’s literally happening all around me. At the moment, it’s not happening all around me, sadly, but for the past few years in jam sessions, in small places, in quite cheap venues, even in warehouse parties, again.
So there’s a renaissance of the kinds of things that we saw in rare groove in terms of young people taking control of their own space and making the music, but suddenly they are technically brilliant musicians. Who can imagine seeing a group of nineteen-year-olds pogoing to a tuba solo? It’s not something I ever thought I’d see in a million years, and then it’s happening right now. Now, that level of player like Theon Cross have now gone to the next level. He famously did South by Southwest this year as a 3D avatar because he wasn’t able to go in person, and he’s selling out venues of eight/nine hundred people. Ezra Collective, Nubya Garcia, they’re going to become superstars.
But the beauty is they’re in their early to mid-twenties, some a bit older, Shabaka Hutchings, but they’ve got twenty or thirty years ahead of them to make music, and they’re composing… It’s all original music. They’re composers. They’re producers. They’re making their own videos. I suspect they own their own masters. The deals they’re making with labels are informed by what grime went through in the early 2000s where record companies signed up a hundred grime artists and dropped ninety-nine of them within two years and almost killed grime as a genre, and then grime grew up and realised that they need to control their own destiny and they could use the internet and all those digital tools that you and I talk about. And even if you try to raise a note of scepticism, I actually do believe these are democratising technologies, and they’ve put a lot of power into the hands of people who make the music who want to connect to their audience. So I think we’re seeing that happening as well.
Dubber And academia is a great place to respectively indulge the enthusiasms of your youth. To what extent is that why we do this?
Caspar I can’t imagine a better scenario for myself, and I want to advocate to other people that academia is a good place to pursue this kind of thing if you want to because… When I decided to stop being a journalist and do academia, it was because I wanted to spend the majority of my time thinking about the same set of things and learning and researching things which fascinated me. The reason I wanted to be a music journalist was because I wanted to meet and talk to people I admired who did things I was in awe of, and that remains the case now.
And teaching about it as well is exciting because… I’m teaching people who don’t know who Margaret Thatcher is. Because my students are a very international crowd - I’ve got lots of Chinese students, students from Japan, students from Angola - they don’t know what punk is, never mind knowing who Jesse Saunders is or knowing what was happening at the warehouse or knowing the backstory to things that they do like, because everything they like is… Not everything, but most of it is still within this world which has got a fascinating backstory and a fascinating context. So I found that really inspirational.
I learn loads from them because they keep me hip to the music that they want to write about. And one of the great things about the internet is while I’m marking their essays, I can instantly go to YouTube and pull it up and listen to it, and I’d say the same about Spotify. Every time I hear someone mention something that sounds great, I’m onto Spotify. I’ve stuck it on a playlist. I can listen to it several times over, get to know it, and if I like it, I’ll go to Bandcamp and buy it. And that seems to me actually quite a good way of doing things.
Dubber That’s a healthy relationship with contemporary music. But I’m interested in the… Because you mentioned a couple of key maybe even trigger words, which are ‘democratising’ and ‘emancipatory nature’ basically of stuff that I like, which is the cultural studies default position of…
Dubber Yeah. Particularly in graduate and post-grad research, of “I’m now going to write a forty thousand word dissertation on what’s so great about things I like.”. But is there anything that you can look at, this body of work that you’ve examined, and go “Well, that’s not very good. That’s not right. They shouldn’t have done this.”, or “This is something I should be critical about.”, rather than just celebrating the hands across the water solidarity of it all?
Caspar No, it’s a really good point. And it’s something to always bear in mind, of course. We want to be critical thinkers. The danger when you’re writing about things you love - and I say it to my students all the time - and you call it unique and you call it earth-shattering and you make all kinds of claims for it which are not substantiated… And that is a danger. I’d say two things. One is, when it comes to writing about rare groove, for example, I was taking the first baby steps. I found one other article that mentioned rare groove in academia. So in some ways, there’s a prior step to being critical, which is just to get the information out into the world. Secondly, I think the point is that these things are in motion. And there are points at which they can be emancipatory, full of possibility, and other points where they can fail to deliver on that or be captured by all kinds of other forces.
I have a bit in the book about what happened to rare groove, and the point was rare groove ran its course. It relied on scarcity, and it relied on the fact that the audience were being exposed to something that they actually didn’t know anything about, and it was incredibly exciting. And, of course, when you actually scratch the surface of what that stuff is it reveals the wonderful geniuses behind that music as well. But after a few years, it becomes an enclosed system with a certain canon, just like all kinds of things do. It becomes boring. It becomes predictable. It becomes elitist. It becomes conservative. Will Straw says this about all music scenes, which I think is a really important thing to remember. They’re inherently conservative. Look at northern soul. Conservative to the point where you’ll almost get shot if you play a record which is outside of the defined limits of the canon or had been too commercially successful or has got a synthesiser in it. I talked to DJ Bob Jones about this. It’s fascinating. So there’s inherent conservatism, which I think is important to remember so it’s not just all happy-clappy.
There was a key thing I wanted to argue with, and this is why I included acid house in the book. I enjoyed raving, sure. Part of it was the drugs, sure. There’s only a certain amount of that you can do without losing it, and many people did lose it. But there’s lots of it I hated in terms of the music, and also I hated the way it was historicised. Because it became such the key moment in club culture for so many people, writers that I admire - people like Simon Reynolds. People like Jeremy Gilbert. Even Tim Lawrence, up to a point. These are people who’ve written really great stuff about this - seem to treat acid house as if it was something unique and something special outside of this continuum that I’ve been talking to you about, this Afro-diasporic continuum.
And there was this particular idea which Simon Reynolds came up with. The Hardcore Continuum, he called it, and he talked about this continuity which was there from the beginning of acid house all the way through late jungle, and it was… What it seemed to me was this was a misrepresentation or a reading of black music which extracted from it those elements of black music which white critics who had grown up venerating punk and experimental forms of rock music found most familiar or most attractive, and they lifted that out and separated from the bits of black music that they really don’t like. Naff jazz-funk. Soul music. Luther Vandross, right? To me, Luther Vandross is totally part of the story I’ve just told. To me, Luther Vandross is connected to acid house and lives within that world as well, even though for some people it’s boring, sell out, predictable, sappy, embarrassing. It’s not Afrofuturistic enough. And I reject that, and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to put acid house in the book, and not so much reclaim it for the Afro-diasporic tradition but to show how it should be situated as a few short years within a much bigger story. And if you want experimentalism, if you want avant-gardism, you can find that in blues. You can find it in Marley and griot music, in terms… You can find it everywhere you look. It didn’t just happen in this one narrow period.
And, actually, rave very quickly… Having gone to, let’s say, Cream in Liverpool at some time in the whenever it was in the mid-nineties, or Home, this dreadful commercial superclub in the middle of London, and just listening to fundamentally boring music which was still… The point I’m trying to get across is things need to be situated in their time and place. Stuart Hall’s idea of the conjuncture really matters because something which is revolutionary at one period is not revolutionary at another period, necessarily. It might only be a couple of years apart. The possibilities it raises are not necessarily going to be fulfilled. In fact, they probably won’t be because, as we know, when we think about capitalism, it has a great ability to fold back into itself all of the critique which is generated on the fringes. It’s actually part of its logic.
Dubber Yeah. And the reverse is also true because you can become very, very nostalgic about something that you were very sniffy about at the time, so you re-narrativise what your experience was.
Caspar Absolutely. And I still feel the lure of credentialising, and everyone… I feel this for UK jazz at the moment. I’m really worried about UK jazz because of the way in which people can jump on it, lay claim to it. There’s talk at the moment about “Should UK jazz acts ally with brands?”, because this is a big thing that happens in the music scape, isn’t it? And some people are saying “No. That’s selling out.”, and other people are saying “No, no. The problem is that there is no sustainable economy within UK jazz outside of the public funding it’s received. But that’s a success story for a certain kind of public funding over the last ten or fifteen years, but it’s very vulnerable. How is it going to achieve autonomy? Maybe allying with Nike or some designer is the way to go.”.
The way I would think about it is that not only are all music scenes born within capitalism, so there is no safe space to stand outside it, but actually, this Afro-diasporic tradition we’ve been describing is one of the best ways to get a sense of what it’s like to live within capitalism, especially if you have lived within racial capitalism as a not white person. So it’s partly produced by the experience of those people who live within capitalism because the music industry is capitalism. In fact, it might be capitalism in its most raw and obvious form. So there’s no safe space, nor should there be, and we shouldn’t try and… As world music slightly did try and do this, didn’t it? Suggest that there was a world of music and production and labels which lived somehow outside in some sort of golden world of ethnomusicological truth and authenticity.
I don’t think the music I’ve been describing is that concerned with those kind of questions. It’s more concerned with producing… Let’s not be too reticent to use words like love and art. Access to something profound, something awesome, something different from your everyday experience, something that might provide some possibilities for you in your life. It won’t set you free, necessarily, but it might provide you… Free your mind and your ass will follow, as George Clinton said. There is a relationship between the kinds of things that you can get from the kinds of cultural scenes I’m talking about - I think there is - and generating the possibilities for improving the world or building it differently. But it doesn’t necessarily deliver those any more than all the talk about the democratisation of the internet necessarily delivers a democratic internet because the forces that are trying to enclose it, limit it, conceal it, or just make things so damn convenient that you just use Amazon because you can’t be bothered to enter your bank details in every other one’s site betray those possibilities.
Dubber Caspar, thanks so much for your time. It’s been really, really interesting. I’ve got so many things that I want to go further, and I’m aware of the constraints of people’s patience for my enthusiasms about things, so we should probably wrap it up there.
Caspar It’s been so fascinating talking to you. Thanks for your questions, Andrew. I know that you and I share a lot, and being asked those pointed questions, the ones you’ve asked me, are really at the heart of the dilemmas which come with all of this. Academia, over-celebration, nostalgia for something you didn’t like in the past, all of that. So I really appreciate your questioning. Your kind but sharp questions.
Dubber Cheers. Thanks, Caspar.
Caspar Thanks, mate.
Dubber That’s Dr Caspar Melville, senior lecturer in Global Creative and Cultural Studies at SOAS and author of ‘It’s a London Thing: How Rare Groove, Acid House and Jungle Remapped the City’, and that’s the MTF Podcast. I’m going to link to the book in the post, and you can find Caspar on Twitter, @CasparMelville. I’m Dubber, @dubber on Twitter, and MTF Labs is @mtflabs and on the web at www.mtflabs.net.
And, of course, while it’s always nice to talk about music scenes on the podcast, we don’t always talk about music scenes. We talk about AI, business management, urbanism, cybersecurity, wine, astrophysics, intellectual property, nuclear research, creativity, cartography, and Batman, and that’s just the last ten episodes, of which this is number 117. So feel free to go digging through the back catalogue for more interesting conversations with really brilliant people from the MTF community. Thanks as always to the team - Sergio Castillo, Mars Startin, Jen Kukucka, and Run Dreamer - and to 2050 and airtone for the music. Thanks to you for listening. Have a great week, and we’ll talk soon. Cheers.