So far my lockdown experience can be summarized through the apathetic sensation of suddenly remembering that you (a) have headphones on and (b) have been blaring music for the past three hours. At the moment I’m probably listening to way more music than I usually get around to in a year, however presumably as a result of this music has stopped being something I get actively excited about and more something I intermittently pay attention to while scrolling through the same three or four websites waiting for content to appear. My taste has always been deeply stagnant (even if for the longest while I’ve never wanted to admit as such), but I’m currently facing this realization head-on each day during the drawn-out hours between the six-one and the nine o’clock news. There’s something inherently comic about this sensation – Soundcloud seems to think that I’m into intense workout playlists when I actually just need 230BPM speedcore mixes to motivate me to get up from the couch I’ve slept on for the past month. Just in the same way that Alex G remarked that as he got older it was “no longer three chords” that excited him, the longer I spend holed up within a 2km radius of my house the less likely I am to pay attention to (or even seek out) new music. However, since time no longer exists whatever enthusiasm I held in music when I actually had serotonin seeps out – leading us to this moment in time.
‘Headroof’, a collaboration between Welsh producer and “sound artist” Elvin Brandhi, rappers Hakim and Swordman, percussionist Omutaba, and producers Oise and Don Zilla is one of the few albums that shocked me out of my lockdown-induced apathy. On my first listen of the 37 minutes of auto-tuned Evangelical field recordings and warped beats I felt genuinely stunned – as if I was some pretentious University of Warwick student who just stumbled upon jungle for the first time. As Lewis Gordon aptly pointed out within his Resident Advisor review, this album plays heavily with negative space – “melodies or beats are often implied” and the musicians are perfectly okay with creating an ominous silence. The atmosphere evoked by “Headroof” feels deeply menacing, with the one Bandcamp review describing it as sounding like “the auto-tuned sound of knives melting and reconstituting as demented beats”. The album seemingly forgoes typical musical knowledge (to the point where it verges on being genuinely overwhelming at first listen), yet this initial confusion is exactly why I feel so drawn towards this project. Sure it may feel as if you need to rewire your brain to fully appreciate the feelings evoked by tracks like ‘KALOLI’ and ‘ETTIQUETTE STOMP’, but the act of having to do so feels oddly liberating at a moment when everything feels the same and 4AM ‘Dr. Phil’ reruns start to become something you look forward to.
My attitude towards “exciting” (for lack of a better word) music can be perfectly summarized through Questlove’s first reaction to J Dilla’s off-kilter drum patterns – “are you allowed to do that?”. Even in so-called “alternative” circles, it’d be an understatement to say that our work is governed by implicit, unspoken rules – you’re expected to sing and talk like an American, stay within the confines of Western scales, and keep the BPM below 180 at all costs. Another record linked to Nyege Nyege Tapes that breaks these unstated standards is ‘Uingizaji Hewa’, the chaotic debut LP from Tanzanian producer DUKE. DUKE specializes in so-called “hip hop singeli”, a slowed-down version of the hyperactive and frenzied genre that’s defined the Tanzanian underground. At risk of sounding like that one scarily racist music editor at The Guardian, singeli is a beautifully unrefined genre – absorbing traditional styles of Tanzanian music and spitting them back out in loops and samples at speeds of upwards of 300BPM.
DUKE personifies the anarchic attitude of singeli perfectly, sampling everything from radio jingles to ambient studio noise without breathing space in a combination that seems mindblowing for uninitiated listeners. The lead single ‘Naona Laaah’ is chaos personified (to the point where friends thought it was a parody), featuring MCZO shouting his lungs out over a beat that shouldn’t make sense but somehow works. Whenever I listen to ‘Uingizaji Hewa’ I’m reminded of Mark Fisher’s remark that if one took “any record released in the past couple of years” and played it back to the people of 1995 “it’s hard to think that it will produce any jolt in the listeners. On the contrary, what would be likely to shock our 1995 audience would be the very recognisability of the sounds”. Singeli is a genre that would scare the shite out of a hypothetical 1995 audience and that’s exactly why I love it.
As we’ve probably established by now I hate writing (yet continue doing so), but I especially hate writing about music. Whenever I tried to finish the above paragraphs on ‘Headroof’ and ‘Uingizaji Hewa’ I was struck with a weird, oddly specific insecurity – what if I was coming off like that one scarily racist music editor at The Guardian I was slagging off five minutes ago? I’ve no illusions about not being out of touch (after all I live in the middle of nowhere, will probably not be found in a nightclub most weekends, and mainly find music through the internet) – however I’m constantly paranoid that terminal uncoolness when it comes to fun music will eventually manifest in misguided words and Pharell Williams op-eds. Through my limited research of singeli I was struck by a comment that the genre was hated by the mainstream as those who produce singeli are viewed as “incapable of making ‘western’-like or pop music” and as “provocative, unkempt, and dangerous”. This remark reminded me of early gabber, another genre I love that intentionally utilized tacky and unappealing aesthetics to ward off the “hipstery tastemaker gatekeeper crowd” (as my friend put it). As this friend went on about the various ways that early gabber got annoying hipsters to feck off I was struck by the fact that I was probably closer to the arsehole hipsters than I wanted to admit. I hold a genuine love for the music I write about but I’m constantly scared of becoming another Ben Beaumont-Thomas or Dimitri Kneppers and that’s why it takes me so long to actually finish these silly blog posts.
One of the main things I’ve actually learned from this lockdown is how hopelessly addicted to Twitter I am. The minor gratification I get from seeing a tweet get more than three likes doesn’t necessarily make up for the fact that I haven’t seen a live football match (my main source of enjoyment) in over a month but I don’t get much serotonin either way so I’ll take whatever I get. Another topic Mark Fisher (the only writer I will quote from memory on this blog ever) was obsessed with was the world of “communicative capitalism” and how we are libidinally engineered by it. As Matt Colquhoun succinctly summarized in his book ‘Egress’, Mark would “repeatedly note, [that] in the decade since the launch of the first iPhone in 2007, communicative capitalism has seeded a biological basis for itself by infiltrating and materialising our hard-wired necessity to communicate with one another and by monopolising the modern technological means of doing so.”. This argument was always quite interesting to me – after all if this was the case my generation would basically just be a case study of what happens when you’re libidinally engineered from birth and surely that observation could lead to some godawful blog posts at some stage.
I never consciously open Twitter – it’s always opened at impulse, to the point where whenever I uninstall the app I find myself touching aimlessly at the empty space it used to occupy on my phone’s home screen. The interactions I have on there with people (slowly watching them become mutuals as they like my posts, making snarky replies every blue moon, and awkwardly trying to maintain conversations in the DMs) are in no way actual social interaction yet during this lockdown my brain has tricked myself into feeling they somehow count. I often find myself referring to characters I know from Twitter as “friends” when talking to less-online people even though I literally only interact with them as the result of an all-seeing algorithm deciding to put my words in their feed to keep them within the app. I’ve gotten concerningly emotional about random interactions on the app while drunk and there’s something about that feeling that’s just genuinely absurd to think about. In a way I’ve been preparing for this lockdown for my whole life (I mean fiteclub is apparently quite apt at the moment) and that freaks me out a little. My personality and writing are defined by being scarily active on a stupid app, but until I can watch St. Pauli get hammered through a dodgy, constantly-buffering livestream I may as well just revel in whatever serotonin I get out of that dumb app and my weekly attempts to explain why I like pretentious music. I know I need to stop living behind screens but there’s feck all I can do for the moment so I may as well pretend to understand deconstructed club music.