Thanks to the people at FACT for publishing this article, and a big shout out to Kode9 for taking the time to do the interview. I wanted to put up the unedited version somewhere, so for once I got myself in gear and (sort of) started a blog. The aim is to post something else soon, honest.
If you look at post-UK garage music, in London and the South East particularly, there a certain sort of fluidity going on. Young producers who want to make it big wherever the opportunity seems to lie are swinging around to target funky, the latest variant, happy to let grime and bassline slip past. Well-known artists have ventured from their niches – Marcus Nasty and a host of grime names, Paleface, even Leeds's T2 – prompting half-serious suggestions that the accompanying reports and rumours recall garage's insubordination of jungle as the new thing.
Readers might be aware that Kode9, somewhat revered in the admittedly rather reverent world of dubstep, is also involved. Going on record for DJ Rupture's WMFU radio show last year, he revealed that funky's gradual evolution at 130 beats per minute interested him more than dubstep. He also coined the recurrent observation that it sounded more like “soca meets grime” than funky house. Since then, he has made a typically unusual impression on the fringes of the genre, with DJ sets at Rinse FM's Beyond and FWD>> nights and releases such as “Black Sun” and Cooly G's forthcoming EP on his Hyperdub label.
In fairness, Steve Goodman's alter-ego has rarely been the precise byword for dubstep that certain others have tended to be. (The A-side to Hyperdub's very first release provided some early illustration, introducing vocals into an essentially instrumental scene and featuring no drum track to speak of.) He admits via email that he's “pretty tired of people taking the whole micro-segmentation of the UK scene so seriously.”
“Part of me,” he explains, “thinks that all this stuff, funky, bassline, two-step, grime, dubstep, is all part of the inter-connected, post-garage world of underground music in the UK. You don't have to like everything within one niche or another. I can't remember how I got into funky – probably listening to some sets in the little room at Fwd/Rinse at the End early in 2008. I just noticed instantly how much better the dancing and vibe was when the UK house came on, as opposed to what was happening in the big room at that time.
“The funky house scene, as far as I'm aware, was probably where the more soulful side of UKG went – I think some people used to call it urban house – when its moodier or more aggressive side went into grime and dubstep. No doubt it wasn't as interesting, for me anyway, as it is now that some grime producers have started experimenting with it. It's just a bit rawer and less tasteful, hopefully, although I think retaining the female vocal element is important.”
Here Goodman touches on the commonly circulated genesis myth of funky, which provides interest to armchair observers of the UK underground for several reasons. For one thing, there's a hint of the masculine-feminine “pendulum” shifts sometimes mooted as a natural characteristic of British dance music – although maybe the image of a disgruntled, dissenting parallel scene retreating into 'soulful' house, later to find common ground with grime, demands the analogy of something mechanically more complex. For those with sufficient faith, it's also tempting to see a rightful precedent in UK garage, the idea of which is apt to imbue funky with a somewhat tantalising appearance of potential. Clearly there are differences: the seed isn't New York garage, but more dubiously, US house's placeless, post-authentic progeny. And the by-products of jungle and rave that were available to nourish UK garage now don't flow as abundantly; indeed, some veteran critics no doubt find it less exciting that funky has grime (and dubstep) to draw on.
All the same, at this stage it is pessimistic to assume the comparison is doomed to be a totally unequal one. As Goodman has pointed out, fast-moving pirate radio is still a good thermometer of activity – and as such it is reading pretty highly, if not actually blowing its top. There's a mood of obvious optimism written all over the broadcasts of stations like Rinse.
“The pirates are supporting this stuff heavily,” he says, “and helping the scene grow. People are recording the sets and trading them online – as usual they're building their scene from the bottom up. Geeneus [the Rinse FM DJ] has been making house for quite a while and Rinse always tries to spread itself across what is fresh at the time.”
On the basis of dubstep fans' prolific online chatter, Goodman's own support seems to count for something. For some, his approval is turning around their scepticism, excluding of course those who embraced funky early on. The specific musical tangent he's created probably helps: funky-tempo Kode9 productions combine almost-halfstep beats with unconventional sonic signatures – queasy, fermenting bass and smeared lead tones that stretch out pitch-bends into a physical, stomach-in-mouth effect. The remainder of his sets is almost as distinctive, currently hyper-percussive and dubbed out to the point of a sort of monotone psychedelia. Goodman draws for material from relatively familiar names, such as Geeneus, Apple, Roska and Hard House Banton, but whether he has a few secrets up his sleeve or whether it's just the selection, it doesn't really sound like anyone else.
“For Kode9,” he describes, “it's nice to stir elements of UK house, hip-hop, grime, dubstep, techno and garage into the pot, without too many pre-conceptions about what you should or shouldn't do. As micro-scenes get older, you have all these unwritten rules and habits that define the boundaries of a scene. They kind of plague you, and block you as a producer. They become toxic. Any tactic that helps you forget these when you need to is handy.”
The Kode9 take aside, funky as a whole is hardly a monoculture yet. In some lights it seems more like a colony of nano-scenes, which given the subtlety of some of its innovations, has the effect of blurring any defining outlines from the inside. Circle, for instance, a crew loyal to smoother, US-style house, don't approve of what they call the “wonky” rhythms of certain producers (something referred to in Dan Hancox's recent FACT piece). Geeneus is essentially playing Teutonic minimal techno sets at present, although with MCs, and occasional hints at something sufficiently skippy and bass-heavy to place it spiritually in London, not Berlin.
To less-than-obsessed ears, overlap with common-or-garden varieties generally inspires indifference. But despite the central (and original) popularity of more piously derivative house culture, in a way this concern is peripheral. Anyone anxious for something novel, and obviously rooted in the UK, needs only to listen to the right tracks by the Kode9 favourites mentioned earlier, all of whom happen to have produced tracks that would presumably be described as “wonky”. Somewhere just outside this stylistic core is equally good music by the likes of Crazy Cousinz, MA1 and Perempay: self-consciously classy, dripping with pearly vocals usually, but with a definite home-grown flavour. As with some other styles of dance music – jungle and two-step come to mind again – funky's identity comes partly from incubating rhythmically unstable DNA, which a vanguard of producers exaggerate rather than temper. It feels a bit like the even grid of much four-to-the-floor music is being bashed or palpated into different shapes by percussion. As Goodman explains, the out-of-joint rhythms are where plenty of the appeal lies.
“Some of the rhythms are great: fun, danceable and infectious. There has always been a lop-sidedness to some of the best dance music to come out of the UK, something that literally knocks you off balance, makes you fall. Hence the elaborate styles people adopt to stop themselves from falling on the floor from the impact. Funky has that rhythmic twitch that all of the best house and garage has, whatever the strain. It's got this percussive, broken, war-dance vibe going for it that is really infectious. The closest comparisons that could be made, I think, are in certain older house tracks by Kenny Dope, DJ Gregory and Karizma, but obviously also afrobeat, soca, dancehall and two-step and broken beat.”
A small number of artists are deploying this element of rhythmic surprise to powerful effect. Some of those are creating something genuinely startling, often by harnessing the same sense of DIY adventure through synthesised sound that lies behind grime's instrumental highlights. (Lil Silva, who admits to trying grime, UK hip-hop, two-step and bassline before he released 'Funky Flex', is a good example.) We're not talking about an embarrassment of riches here, though, and overall there's sometimes the feeling of false starts, of turning away from the possibilities. If you want the satisfaction that comes with a superabundance of passable material, listen to something else. If you want potential, then assuming funky resolves some minor motivational questions, it has it.