Happy first day of Christmas-month! I hope you’ve had a lovely week. It’s starting to feel much more festive (we had snow in London yesterday), and I’m slowly closing in on my last week in the office. Exciting!
Last week’s letter was a little divisive, which is a good thing (I think). This week I’ve tried to showcase a few different sub-cultures, alongside the usual soul, jazz, and disco heaters. More on that below…
Some of the music this week comes from; Sugarhill Gang, Funkadelic, Eddy Grant, Prince, Hudson Mohawke, Skream, FaltyDL, Kendrick Lamar, Cinematic Orchestra (and Moses Sumney).
Interesting things for you to click on this week; read the Guardian’s series on culture, listen to Hypnotic Brass Ensemble’s new album Book of Sound, and watch the re-run of the Boiler Room’s Final Night in Paradise (a celebration of the closing party of the Paradise Garage).
If you have music to share (and please do share!), drop it in here in our Love Will Save the Day record pool – much appreciated.
“Youth today are too lazy to be part of a movement or tribe.”
The same type of people have existed forever. Bemoaning the lack of culture. Criticising the next generation. Either lazily shouting cultures down, or naming them to minimise their impact. Cultural nomenclature didn’t come from the cultures. It came from critics. The book Tribes: A History of British Subculture does a pretty good first hand job of explaining this cycle – dismiss, name, criticise, lionise. Rinse and repeat. It’s happened this way since the 1920s.
It can be a difficult subject to unpick and discuss. Semantics often makes it complex, with ‘culture’, ‘subculture’, ‘tribes’, and ‘communities’ used interchangeably. Then, it gets more complex when we start to add in notions of ‘the underground’, ‘the mainstream’, and ‘the avant garde’.
For the sake of this rambling note, I’m going to use my definitions. ‘Culture’ refers to a group of people who believe (roughly) in the same things, and use specific language and symbolism to identify with each other (often clothes or music). Most importantly, they share the same passion. There are lots of different cultures, and together they form the edges of a ‘mainstream’ culture. What happens on the edges informs the mainstream, and it (in my mind) either becomes a bit more palatable or watered down in order to be more populist, or the mainstream creates it’s own version handpicking bits from the edges. This is best seen in music and fashion, and the best explanation I’ve ever heard is from Meryl Streep’s character in The Devil Wears Prada(!), when talking about a blue belt (here – trust me). Culture as a whole is basically a massive patchwork quilt.
(On a similar note, wondering why the 90s made such a come back in fashion?Try Wavey Garms.)
When people talk about musicians ‘selling out’ they mean what they produce has become popular, or more palatable to the mainstream. This is a good thing, it means more people can access it, and then other artists can build on it. What happens on the edges forms the building blocks of the mainstream. This is why the ‘underground should stay underground’ argument is counterintuitive – and why Thurston Moore’s comments in the Guardian series on culture are frustrating. It’s absolutely no different to what Theodor Adorno and his elitist cronies thought about ‘high culture’ (theatre and opera) and ‘low culture’ (everything else) decades before. I agree that we should protect the underground (and help to enable it), but the underground isn’t an elitist club. It’s part of what drives all culture forwards, and helps advance society. Imagine if different disciplines or specialisms of science treated mainstream science in the same way. Culture is important, and we should treat it as such.
Luckily, other people think it’s important too. People that are part of emergent cultures, and people that strive for the culture that they’re building to be open and welcoming. People like Yorkshire experimental music promoters Golden Cabinet, for example. Who believe that “inclusivity is very important. Although some of the music we put on might seem challenging, we want everyone to feel welcome“. That is what helps drive culture forwards – inclusion, not elitism.
The effects that the edges of culture have on the mainstream can be seen vividly, and I’ve tried to include a few songs this week that demonstrate the connections between ‘sub-culture’ and ‘popular culture / the mainstream’.
In the least delicate way possible, there’s a track from The Sugarhill Gang. This has been included not as an example of a group going from niche to mainstream, but as an example of how a new group can borrow aspects of a niche culture (at that time, hip hop) and round off the edges the make it more palatable for the mainstream (to much success). Many people (I think wrongly) still refer to it as the first ever hip hop song, but they took something from a culture and bought it to the fore, and undeniably altering the mainstreamforever, and more importantly, paving the way for others to do the same too.
There’s music from Hessle Audio co-founder Pearson Sound. Hessle was (originally) a tiny label from Leeds formed by three friends to put out ‘post-dubstep’ / ‘modern electronica’ / ‘new techno’ (delete as appropriate). Along with galvanising and growing the electronic music scene up t’North, they also (arguably) launched the career of James Blake, who went on to write and record for international megastars.
There’s an early song from Hudson Mohawke, who (along with Lunice) resurrected trap / ‘dirty south’ hip hop. He went on to then write beats for Kanye West and Drake. He started out making music in his bedroom (in Glasgow), and he produced a number of brilliant albums before his TNGHTcollaboration. You may never have heard of him, but he was (and is) part of an important culture.
It would be wrong to write about this without making a reference to dubstep. What began in Croydon has metamorphosed into something far beyond what anyone ever expected. Like it or not, the sub-bass, half-step sounds of Leofah, Skream, and Kode9 morphed into one of the pillars of modern US music –EDM.
There’s also music from Jam City, an alumni of London label Night Slugs. Jam City went on to release music on Fade 2 Mind in New York (an affiliate of Night Slugs), and he produced Kelela’s glorious debut album. You can still trace the sounds of that album back to some of the first releases on Night Slugs. There’s a strong bond between Night Slugs, Fade 2 Mind, and GHE20G0TH1K, the influential night that launched the careers of NGUZUNGUZU, and many people involved in that night are also part of influential streetwear / fashion labelHood by Air. These are labels and nights on the extreme edges of culture, but their impact on the mainstream cannot (and should not) be underestimated.
Finally, the most recent example of a subculture having a profound impact on the mainstream is magazine Love Injection building a case (and lots of support) to throw out New York’s antiquated (and frankly racist) Cabaret Law. A small set of people embedded with the Brooklyn electronic scene, altering government regulation that has actively restricted nightlife and entertainment for an entire city. Huge news.
To think that there is no more youth culture is to be blind-sighted and ignorant. These are just a few examples of what drives mainstream culture. Anything with an air of authenticity can be traced back to a culture. Sure, once you stop looking (or maybe if you can’t be bothered to look), then you’ll lose the thread – and then it’s hard to find again. But it’s important that we keep looking for and supporting emergent cultures. It’s what keeps the mainstream fresh. We don’t need more acoustic covers of old songs – we need inspiration, new ideas, things to bubble up.
The next big culture to bubble up? Jazz. From South London. But you already know that 😃 .
As always, if you’ve read to here, thanks for indulging me ♥️.
- The Sugarhill Gang – Rappers Delight
- Fatback Band – Yum Yum (Gimme Some)
- Marcos Valle – Estrelar
- Cortex – Troupeau Bleu
- Soil & “Pimp” Sessions – Darkside
- Johnny “Hammond” Smith – Los Conquistadores Chocolates
- The Crusaders – Sweet N’ Sour
- Funkadelic – One Nation Under A Groove
- Eddy Grant – Walking on Sunshine
- Prince – Stare
- Jam City – How We Relate to the Body
- NGUZUNGUZU – Foam Feathers
- Hudson Mohawke – Chimes
- Pearson Sound – Thaw Cycle
- Dionne Warwick – Caravan
- Skream – Summer Dreams
- Kode9 – 9 Samurai
- Romare – The Blues (It Began in Africa)
- Atjazz – African Healing Dance
- FaltyDL – Paradox Garage
- Paul Johnson – Welcome to the Warehouse
- Pal Joey – Spend the Night (Fredo revisited)
- Dennis Ayler – Ms Chambers
- Kendrick Lamar – untitled 06 06.30.2014.
- Red Astaire – Follow Me
- Moo Latte – James in Heaven
- Rejjie Snow – Late Again
- Alain Goraguer – Le Bracelet
- Sleepless – Ponder
- The Cinematic Orchestra (feat. Moses Sumney) – To Believe
See you on the dance floor.
Love Will Save the Day