“I wanna hear form, I wanna hear structure.” In its insistence on listening closely to the world around us and paying attention to the music that comes out of particular social and physical infrastructures, this quote from London-based music producer Actress neatly sums up the main argument of Dhanveer Singh Brar’s book Teklife, Ghettoville, Eski: The Sonic Ecologies of Black Music in the Early 21st Century. As Brar’s book contends, we should not only listen to the form and structures of music, but also the form and (infra)structures that shape these musics and their production.
Published as part of a Goldsmiths Press series on sound studies, Teklife, Ghettoville, Eski also sits at the intersection between black studies and urban studies. It investigates how “new styles of sonic production [have] marked out the transforming geographies of race and class in the city.” It does this by looking at three distinct but related musical projects, one in Chicago and two in London, each of which are “shadowed by a Jamaican ghost in the machinery”: the genres footwork and grime, and Actress’s 2014 LP Ghettoville.
The book’s investigation revolves around “quotidian practices of experimental assembly, the production of sonic ecologies, and their surrounding social atmospheres.” For Brar, when thinking about sound and its production in cities, terms such as “space” feel too abstract. An ecology, on the other hand, is something “produced within and against an environment.” It allows us to look at the social and physical infrastructures that have impacted this music and, importantly, it also ensures that the individuals and groups involved in the production of this music are recognized as having agency, as performing creative acts that aren’t predetermined outcomes of particular environments.
Brar grew up in Slough, a suburban town that sits just outside of London, and was exposed to jungle (a 1990s UK dance music genre which combines rapid breakbeats with dub-inspired basslines) when he was 14, around the time he was also becoming acquainted with genres such as ragga, dancehall, and hip hop. Teklife, Ghettoville, Eski is an attempt to think not only about the music which he has been a fan of since his teens, but also find a way to radicalise our view of black electronic music production; in particular, by drawing attention to the way that it has been and remains a method to produce agency within and against the physical and discursive structures that have pathologized and racialized the “urban masses.” In tracing these basslines, melodies and breakbeats, he traces the agency that black communities in the USA and UK have generated and expressed in the first decades of this century through music.
The following conversation with Brar brings the sonics he analyses in the book — characterised by purposeful breaks, collaborative music production, quotidian observation, pirate radio, etc. — into contact with broader issues within contemporary urban life, situating these sonics as poetic protests for the sort of life constantly (and purposefully) left out of city plans.
NB: In the subtitle of your book you use the term “sonic ecologies”, could you start by giving an overview of what you mean by this term?
DSB: As a term, what I think ecologies does is give enough of a sense of both a combination of a locationality, and the activities of people within and in relation to a given place, but also the ways in which the sonic experiments that are produced there are of that place because the people are responding to the environment and their situation. But the music is not necessarily fixed, it can obviously travel and move and mutate. “Ecologies” allowed me to begin in a time and place, in a situation, but also to move beyond that time and place. And I think that’s part of the imperative of the music I discuss: to both situate and locate, but also not to fix and not to predetermine or prefigure where the music can go.
NB: This somewhat relates to another interesting position you take in the book where you don’t cover lyrics at all. You use the term “phono-materiality” to explain how certain sounds or textures can be said to carry a message. Could you speak about that term and why it was important to you to focus on the affective quality of sound itself?
DSB: I was trying to work out a new way to write and think about music. I’m not talking about musicology here, which I wasn’t engaged with at all, but I found the music writing that I had read up to that point kind of frustrating because either it was focused on lyrics or would overdetermine the structural analysis of everything around the music, but not really deal with the music itself.
I was beginning to think about jazz and blues, because obviously in jazz, the “lyric” tends not to be present as such. And so I was interested in the question, “this music’s clearly full of content, but how do you write about it?”
Someone who was teaching me at the time told me to go and check out this poet called Amiri Baraka who writes about music. So I went and read Baraka and I thought it was outstanding. The same teacher then told me to read this new book by Fred Moten, In The Break, and his writing about Baraka, and discover his approach to sound and writing. And on the first page of In The Break, you get the term phono-material. And I thought, “that’s interesting. What does that mean?” And then slowly, after years of trying to unpack it and think about it, it became a kind of way to say you’re talking about sound.
For a while, people were telling me to check out affect studies, but I found that dissatisfying because I didn’t want to remove the material world from the thinking about sound, but neither did I want to overdetermine it. So I followed the idea of the phono-material, particularly in relation to black diasporic music. It became a way to deal with the sound on its own terms, but not divorce it from or reduce it to its material conditions. The act of an artist or group of artists creating that sonic experiment is an attempt both to reflect on and mediate those material conditions, so you have to keep that level of openness in play.
NB: Let’s talk about the break. It has a double meaning here because it’s the term for the drum pattern that underpins a lot of the music you’re discussing. But then, as you discuss, with Fred Moten the break is a diasporic experience of a historical break. And for diasporas, that break is a very physical separation from a particular place, a homeland. Maybe you could describe it as the historical experience of trauma? Would you agree with that? How do you explain bringing together this musical term with the conceptual term?
DSB: I wouldn’t necessarily use the term “trauma”. I was interested in the relationship between a historical experience of violent separation from a set of conditions, and the violent insertion into another set of conditions. What relationship is there between that process and the culture that’s created out of it? And particularly the culture that seems to use the sonic as one of its primary materials? So in what sense does that historical, political and social experience of break get re-transposed and worked through and worked out in a cultural experience? And then how is that cultural expression fed back into an understanding of this historical experience? I think the music is more than a counter-trauma. That’s reducing it. I think it’s far more complicated than that.
NB: Because it’s also like an act of creation as well, right? One of the things which I think is interesting in the book, especially when thinking about grime and its origins in pirate radio stations, is that there you’re also talking about policing within the city. The act of creating a pirate radio station is a very practical way of trying to avoid policing, not only physical policing, but also the policing of copyright and the broader legal framework. The creative mode there is about being antagonistic to the system it’s in, and also appropriating space.
DSB: I think that’s certainly the case with grime, but I think it’s the condition of a lot of the musics I write about. From the outside looking in, you have a social population which from the view of the state, the law and, say, “legitimate citizens”, is seen as either a victim of a set of circumstances and therefore disabled by its circumstances, or that population is seen as carrying a set of pathologies which predetermine the fact that it’s in those circumstances and makes it unproductive and liable to criminal activities. But if you look at this musical activity on its own terms, it involves an immense amount of self-organisation, not only to create the music but also to get it out into the world, and on its own terms.
This demonstrates not only organisation but also the ability to develop a set of infrastructures that sustain the music, and at the heart of it is this impulse to reflect on the world around you through the making of sound. Whether the artists are conscious of doing that or not, and I think that many of them are, what they’re doing is responding to or reflecting on the world around them. It’s an act of thinking. There’s a thinking in sound, because you have to have sat there and thought, “why do I want to situate or place this sound in relation to that sound, then place this sound in relation to that? Why do I think this sounds interesting? And why do I think others might appreciate or enjoy it?”
NB: Could you expand on your reasons for not wanting to employ typical urban studies terminology such as “space”?
DSB: I don’t know enough about the field in its entirety, but a couple of people gave me an education in the set of debates that might have interested me. One was a good friend and collaborator, Louis Moreno. If you’re really interested in urban studies and its intersection with electronic music, he’s a good person to go and read, particularly his writing on Detroit. It challenges a lot of the conventional narratives in that area. The other was AbdouMaliq Simone, who I got really interested in because of the way he composes and presents his idea of urbanism.
Through reading AbdouMaliq, I got to know a lot about Katherine McKittrick’s writing and thinking, which in many ways is much closer to some of the concerns that I have. Her critique of ideas of “space” is something that really influenced me when I decided not to use that term. For me, the problem I have with the term “space” is similar to the problems I have with “affect”, in that it doesn’t have much purchase on the activities of living, breathing people. It seems far too detached from what’s going on. It’s looking down on things rather than trying to be in amongst the action. For want of a better phrase, I had a sort of poetic dissatisfaction with the term. McKittrick’s idea is that “space” is an empty vessel which is then filled with content, whereas an ecology is something that is produced in and against an environment.
NB: To make this conversation a little more concrete I picked three tunes related to the book for us to discuss. The earliest one I picked was Doc Scott’s “It’s Yours” from 1994. Because it’s a jungle track, the obvious reference point to this from your book is the break.
DSB: Jungle is often known as music that has this frenetic activity, but this shows you that jungle was very precise, highly composed music. It’s a composed frenzy, in a sense, but it’s also sensual. It’s got a real bottom-end swing to it. The way it plays with low-end frequencies really compels you. It has a lot of erotics, even though it’s supposed to have this kind of machinic quality.
NB: I feel like some of the intensity of jungle doesn’t come from its frenetic quality but its heaviness. You can really hear that that bass has been produced for the sound systems and cavernous, industrial warehouses that the music was being DJ’d in.
DSB: Simon Reynolds has a really neat line, he calls it “two-lane music,” so it has these two speeds going at the same time, and that’s where the energy of jungle actually comes from, the contrast between those speeds.
NB: Next, this grime instrumental from Rebound X, “Rhythm ‘N’ Gash”, which is much more oriented around the melody and suits how people were likely listening to this music: on their phones or in their bedrooms.
DSB: Grime is commonly thought of as this moody, muscular music, but here it’s very soulful. You can hear that Rebound X is really an R&B head.
The music has been shaped due to the change in the infrastructural conditions of its broadcasting because it became increasingly difficult to play grime in parties, and the primary medium for playing and broadcasting grime was pirate radio and mobile phones. So the music, whether consciously or not, changes in order to be broadcast effectively on those channels. You could argue that the influence of broadcast mediums has a longer historical tendency within modern black musical forms. Motown would release the tunes which sounded better on Cadillac sound systems or whatever. Adaptation to structural conditions has always been there in music, so grime’s adaptation to the conditions of pirate radio wasn’t a new thing.
You could argue that what was important about dubstep was taking everything back to a set of core principles, especially paying attention to the bass qualities of music, but also about building your own sound systems and having your own night, like DMZ, that didn’t have a dress code, which was quite a big deal at the time. Unfortunately, dubstep ran out of steam pretty quickly, but in the early and mid-2000s, grime and dubstep refreshed and renewed the bass culture continuum. We’re still living in the conditions they created. Those movements built a social infrastructure.
When it first appeared, grime sounded so sparse and emptied out. But at the same time, it had serrated edges, like a bit of torn-up metal. It felt like the music could cut you even though it was very clean and cold at the same time, and that was what was so exciting about it. For me, it seemed to take a lot of what was in garage and jungle, and turn it inside out.
NB: Lastly, this is the Actress tune I picked from Ghettoville.
DSB: Actress sounds like he’s taken a tiny fragment of, say, the Rhythm ‘N’ Gash tune, then zoomed in on it and expanded a fraction of a second to three or four minutes. He’s got this frenzied attention to minute detail. Even though it sounds expansive, I think it’s intimate, like you’re listening in on a private affair.
NB: You have this phrase in the book, “dereliction and overabundance,” and with that quote in mind, you can really hear how Actress captures London sonically. When you get off at Kings Cross Station these days everything looks like it costs millions of pounds, but within like ten or fifteen minutes you can also see how things are falling apart. I think a lot of the UK looks like that at the moment.
DSB: There’s certainly a class that is overabundant, and the rest of us are trying to survive in what appears to be dereliction. But one of the things I try to make clear in the book is that things happen in dereliction. Things are always on the move. And what people are doing under conditions of dereliction is to try and shift those conditions, and change the terms of those conditions.
NB: I think that’s one of the main takeaways from the book. Against how the music press typically writes about this music, and similar to my reliance on a term like ‘trauma’ earlier, you reinforce the idea that to think about black music isn’t just to always think about history, but about the act of creating something in the present. It’s about producing agency and responding to your immediate environment in a way which is very productive.
DSB: I was living and working in Philadelphia for a year and I was sharing early versions of the book. I was speaking to someone and they gave me feedback on a very early version of the chapter on footwork. At the time, I was very much going with this idea that footwork was a kind of self-producing, thinking network. Then this person said to me: “you’ve got to remember that, at a certain level, Rashad [a pioneer of the footwork genre] thought this music up, he was trying to say something and we can’t forget him.” That really stuck with me and changed how I was thinking.
Although this person was also interested in the idea of a network sustaining itself, within that network there are nodes that give it a certain character and energise it. There is a creative act there. And you want to keep that tension in play. Otherwise, the way you write about it can render it far too abstract.
But then the flipside is that there is a tendency, especially within the British context, like perhaps sociology or certain types of popular music studies, or even in popular music writing, to reduce things to the narrative of the artist. And there’s an old modernist art critic in me that says the artist has no say over their work once it’s out. I’m trying to keep those two plates spinning at the same time.
NB: I picked up on this phrase you use in relation to Actress: “quotidian observation.” Do you think of Actress as being a sort of flâneur?
DSB: I deliberately did not want to use that term because, obviously it has a history, but it implies a certain kind of authority. Again, a sense of affected detachment. If you read interviews with Actress, it’s not a detachment that he has, but a way of looking. He was very much focused on the non-spectacular, I think, and the everyday that you observe through repeated walks.
NB: Like an Iain Sinclair?
DSB: I was even deliberating thinking against that tendency, too. The likes of Sinclair and others, in music you get what some refer to as hauntology, that experimentation with field recordings and history, I’d say Actress is a lot more soulful than them. He has a soulful approach to these things. And that was why I use the term quotidian observation, because what Actress was doing on Ghettoville wasn’t ethnography, obviously. It was a careful attention to a set of things you might not notice.
It’s not as if you have to be from somewhere to see it. Often, if you’ve only remained in one place your whole life you might have difficulty seeing what’s around you. Moving between places which share a similar set of resources, or have a similar set of structural frameworks, you can then begin to see things because you’re comparing, it gives you a slight refraction on what you’re looking at and what you’re observing.
NB: And then you get a different view of what home is like as well.
DSB: Exactly, exactly.