Youth culture came in for criticism in 2011, but is this the year that the underground comes back swinging? Sian Rowe says if you can’t find anything to turn you on in 2012, you’re looking in the wrong places
When our guardians of culture write last year’s entry in the big book of history there will be, after the Arab Spring and Occupations, a small footnote that reads: “In 2011, the youth scene was declared boring. Really boring. Suckers.”
“There doesn’t seem to be a lot of artists out there any more,” ranted Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie, complaining that “serious young people” with things to say were looking elsewhere, rather than the “lightweight” music industry. “A field of dullards who are the artistic equivalent of grocery store generic brands,” moaned The New York Times, while The Guardian coined “The New Boring” to describe today’s tediously MOR charts. “Things were better in my day,” sighed anyone who’d once had a hit and was mounting a comeback, as discussed by Simon Reynolds in his much-quoted book Retromania. In art, Frieze Magazine noted that ages “Four and thirty-four were the new twenty-something”; that it was young-thinking older people that were reacting to anything targeting the younger generation.You know it’s bad when even the Evening Standard – paper of choice for those avoiding each others’ armpits on the London Underground – asks, “Where are the new punks?”
Where indeed? But instead of all this griping, could we be asking the wrong questions? Frankly, if you can’t find anything to excite you at the moment, with society in upheaval and culture in turmoil, you’re just doing it wrong.
A “new punk” – or rave, or mods-vs-rockers, or whatever – probably won’t happen; but why should things happen in the same way they did in the past?All the genres that used to define the way we dressed and danced and talked and thought have broken down to the point where an electronic bass cadet like Skrillex can make the cover of Rock Sound magazine yet still be loved by midwestern college kids; meanwhile, the UK’s still-thrilling grime scene continues to work its way in and out of the mainstream (softened in the charts, hard on stage) and future-thinking producers like Jamie XX get their kicks manipulating legendary artists and labelmates like Gil Scott-Heron (and even Adele).
The power to categorise is no longer in the grip of industry and music critics.
– Fatima Al Qadiri, artist / musician
Senegalese-born, Kuwait-bred New Yorker Fatima Al Qadiri, who also records under the name of Ayshay, drew on juke, hip hop, dubstep, electro-tropicalia and even 90s Gregorian trance for her work Genre-Specific Xperience, which debuted at the New Museum in NY at the end of last year. “The globe becoming more inter-connected reflects a new reality for ‘genre’,” she explains. “Music proliferation is adapting to the internet’s capacity to document and share, where the power to categorise is no longer in the grip of industry and music critics.
”Love him or hate him, an artist like Skrillex has a way of messing with our preconceptions of how things should sound – older dance fans moan about him, unaware of how similar they now sound to those who once decried their techno, drum & bass or whatever as artless. Very different but also genre-irreverent is Rustie, of Glaswegian party-crew Numbers, who was behind one of last year’s most exciting albums, Glass Swords. The Warp release reinvented some of dance music history’s tackier and less-admired offshoots, stitching them together into a Day-Glo, white-knuckle ride that divided older, chin-stroking fans of the veteran label (“What the fuck is this?”) from people actually out on the floor or at parties (“What the fuck IS this?!”).
“Many of the Rustie tracks could have been released a long time ago, but over time it developed into the sort of extreme steroids vibe it has now,” laughs Spencer, one of the founders of Numbers. “And all the better for it I think. There’s certainly a lot of sensory overload going on at the moment, but equally as that goes on there will be a creative backlash and we’ll be back at minimal again in no time.“
I’m excited for 2012–there’s lots going on for us and last year was better than the one before, so maybe this one will be better still.” He cites upcoming releases from young artists like Kool Clap, Redinho and Kodiak, “along with all the other releases we can’t talk about yet.”
As DJ/producer Skream explained in an online interview with music website The Quietus last year, there’s a balance to be struck between obsessively knowing your stuff and simply enjoying where it’s going. “There’s plenty of kids now who don’t have a clue about that, who all think it started with the Caspa & Rusko FabricLive CD. And fair enough, they don’t need to know about all that stuff,” he said when asked whether he was fed up of talking about dubstep’s founding myth. “It’s like, if a kid doesn’t know all their history, some geek on a forum will be like, ‘You’re not true to the sound.’ But why do they need to care about it? It’s a bit like someone just turning 17 or 18 now and going out to their first techno night, and someone going, ‘Oh what, you don’t know who Jeff Mills is?’ You kind of just know it or you don’t.”
Elijah and Skilliam Butterz run the Butterz label and host a late-night show on Rinse FM. In the past year they’ve released artists including Trim, P Money and Swindle & Silkie. For 2012, Elijah promises new tunes to keep everyone guessing –that “sound and look nothing like the releases last year” – as well as a regular Butterz night at Cable in Bermondsey, south London. He thinks grime will have another big one, having started well with the January return of Wiley’s legendary night Eskimo Dance. “If another couple of those happen this year, it will be a great look for the MC side of the scene,” he says. “Albums are due from big players like P Money, Trim, Skepta, JME and Newham Generals, so there will be a lot of great music. We do need one of those big tracks that every DJ has to play regardless of genre…I’m confident it will happen!”
Pitchfork’s top 100 albums of 2011 was recently scrutinised for awful sales figures, but there’s a newfound confidence to independent labels as they adapt to circumstance. Upset the Rhythm and Comfortable on a Tightrope provide platforms for experimental sounds in London and Manchester, while Young Turks showcases fresh artists like Bullion and The Shining alongside major acts like the xx. Double Denim in London and Sacred Bones in New York suggest a healthy underground for rock. In Bristol, the Young Echo collective have found like minds with Punch Drunk, left_blank and Astro:Dynamics. Meanwhile, Hyperdub continues to supply a future-rush of bass, and Sex is Disgusting and SEXBEAT are keeping dirty garage-rock real (I’m out of breath now). If you can’t find anything here, blogs like DIS Magazine’s Global.wav trawl the web for new music from Ukraine to Iraq to Tanzania, while Awesome Tapes from Africa releases favourite finds from that continent
In galleries and studios, things appear to be similarly defiant of both economic misery and the naysayers. “In the UK, the arts have taken quite a beating from the current economic climate and the new government,” agrees Holly Willats, founder and editor of Art Licks, a “guide taking you steps beyond the commercial and the mainstream”. She continues: “There is a lack of funding and support for young artists, curators, non-profitmaking organisations and project spaces. This is very disheartening when you consider that this emerging scene is the next generation of art in the UK. However, they just get things done on their own initiative as a result – setting spaces and projects up themselves and getting by on very little funding, if any. I find this not only really inspiring but also very exciting… They are running these spaces purely out of their interests and, not wanting to sound clichéd, their passion.”
Despite sounding like something from a wanky business meeting, “crowdsourcing” has become a vital way of raising funds, with almost $100 million raised from fans in 2011 via fund-pledging site Kickstarter alone to support design, art, photography, documentary and music projects. Film director Matthew Porterfield’s last film Putty Hill, funded by $20,000 in donations, was selected for major film festivals in Berlin, Buenos Aires and Boston, while his follow-up I Used to Be Darker is already a Sundance pick.
It’s about passion and support. Canadian artist Grimes, who released her first three records via Montreal label Arbutus and recently signed to legendary independent 4AD in the UK, says: “I feel like if people are going to buy music, they should support new artists who are struggling to be creative and who don’t have a ton of machinery behind them. You can fucking download Patti Smith or Kiss records any time if you really want to. If you pay for it, you’re just adding to their retirement fund, which is fine.But you can probably pay less money to get music that is fresh, and support someone who is taking a huge risk putting themselves out, probably touring into oblivion and barely scraping by in the name of something they believe in.”
Inspired by the protests of 2011 and the negative depiction of young people in the press, Kieran Yates wrote Generation Vexed with author and poet Nikesh Shukla. Urban Bards, a site Yates edits, documents exciting poets and people within the spoken-word scene, much of them unsupported by the mainstream but reaching a large audience nonetheless. “I think that now more than ever, people are embracing the idea that you don’t need to hoop-jump to get where you need to be,” she says. “That free internships and going to university are not a quick fix, and don’t ensure a job at the end of the tunnel. I guess that will produce a lot more entrepreneurs, but will also fuse younger people together.” She also believes that activism, or at least a more political culture, will be key. Government cuts and rising inequality continue to stoke the fires of discontent. As the old saying goes: if you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention. “
As for real activism, I think that we are bubbling on the brink of a shift in society’s values,” she continues. “As people inevitably become more angry by displays of decadence for the Queen’s Jubilee and the London Olympics, frustrations will erupt. It’s just up to us to know how best to deal with the inevitable anger we’ll see.” For her, the most inspiring things remain the grime and spoken-word scenes. “Young MCs and poets creating an urban reportage with an urgency that really says it all about the state of where we are. That whole idea ofa conservative middle England seeing young black kids from estates as a silent, feral ‘other’ is just so laughable… because if they actually opened their eyes, they’d see they are making themselves vulnerable in front of crowds in a rave or whatever, reading off an iPhone and providing an urban narrative about the world around them at 140bpm…”
It’s interesting that politics rather than music has been the central youth-event of the last few years.
– Sam Wolfson, writer
“I think change has already started,” says 21-year-old writer Sam Wolfson, who last year wrote a Guardian article titled “The Stone Roses Didn’t Soundtrack My Generation – Please Shut Up About Them”. “I think it’s interesting that politics rather than music has been the central youth-event of the last few years. Young people aren’t radical enough. A lot of what they’re making is very radical, but too often the aim is to enter into pre-existing cultural structures. After [the storming of] Millbank, there was a big realisation that official channels were neither the most effective nor the most radical. People saw that an NUS-sanctioned march was not the only way to protest, and I hope you’ll start to see the same in culture too–well, you already do–that there is a world outside of mag covers, commercial radio and record sales where you can reach millions of young people.”
Has the generation gap really opened up again, then? Is there an old guard that just doesn’t get it any more? “I would agree to an extent,” says Numbers’ Spencer. “I guess what’s more noticeable now is the speed everything is happening. In years gone by, someone up top in a company would say ‘This is going to be big’, then six months on it starts getting big. Now it’s like something’s almost big before it’s huge… It can’t be controlled, really. I mean, the chaos just happens regardless now. You can try and organise the chaos, but you can’t control it.”
So, welcome to the age of chaos? If the future of music and culture remains uncertain in these changing times, one thing it surely isn’t is “over”. Who cares where those “new punks” are? There are better things to get excited about.