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Wookie: Civilization and its Discos – Part 1 (2000)

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Kodwo Eshun
London – Hyperdub HQ

Originally published in 2000

Back in April 2000, months before Wookie’s Battle was on the racks garage tastemakers like Andy Lewis and DJ Spoony were already praising the song to the skies. ‘There’s only 5 copies,’ Lewis said to me solicitiously, adding ‘I don’t even have one myself.’

I finally got to hear it on a pirate station in early May. Usually a pirate dj will expertly mix the latest tracks without telling you any titles whatsoever. This time the dj stopped the mix, detailed his struggle to find a copy, then dropped the needle.

Why this coercive reverence, this mood not experienced since ’96 era Metalheadz when Photek releases would arrive with an intimidating aura of pre-acclaimed greatness?

Partly it’s the song’s singularly solemn mood. By crossbreeding ex -Nu Colours singer Lain’s John Bunyanesque lyrics with Wookie’s severe groove, Battle becomes militant gospel, a modern Pilgrims Progress for faithless 2 Steppers everywhere, a slowstep anthem for Jesus Loves You Children of England Army.

With it’s cold synth vapour and stark syntharmonic stomp, Battle beats out a rhythmatic tattoo of Christian footsoldiers trudging through the trenches, garage ravers crippled by start the century doubts and despairs.

On Don’t Give Up, Basement Jaxx closed in on the same post-millenial anxieties while didactic 98 garage anthems like Amira’s Hold Your Head Up and Brasstooth’s Celebrate Life draw on motivational ideals of self healing to get through tough times. Now in its 6th remix, Celebrate Life actually breaks down to a stern lecture, castigating the garage hardcore for ‘the wrong kind of thinking’ beseeching them to ‘use this day as a chance to start again.’

But Battle goes further by asserting the unspoken spirit of stylish spirituality that underlies these hymns to self-realization. Garage’s aspirational spirituality intensifies the postwar Anglo-Caribbean continuum of the fashionable and the sacred that reverses traditional white Protestant asceticism. If you’re up and about on a late Sunday morning in Hackney or Peckham, Brixton or Willesden, you can see smartly dressed Anglo-African, Black Atlanticist and Afropean teenagers driving or strolling to church service with their parents.

Their painstaking style transfers smoothly into a nightime world where Christians become truesteppers, dancing religiously-ie with the conviction of the convert- at Sunday raves, 21st Century ghettofab dandies barely breaking sweat, holding themselves with supreme self-composure.

If Battle sounds like a freak, that’s because, sonically speaking, it is. It’s far from the sleek n shiny R’n’B inspired tracks you hear at Sunday sessions in South London. Listen again and you realise Lain’s lyrics sever the spiritual from the aspirational while Wookie’s music bridges them. Battle evokes an evangelical asceticism where style and soul are once again separate worlds, at odds with each other.

Since ’96, one tendency of UK Garage has paralleled Timbaland/Neptunes/Sheksepere Briggs/Rodney Jerkins/Soulshock and Karlin/Trackmasters style upscale R n B. Wookie started out like this, with his debut track, an early 99 X-Men bootleg of Whitney Houston’s boyfriend indicting smash It’s Not Alright (But it’s OK), a 12 he now calls ‘an advert’ for his sound.

His mixes for Angie Stone, Gabrielle, Attica Blues and Bini Martini continue this luscious direction but his own tracks-Down on Me, Scrappy, Riddim- scrupulously purge all traces of R’n’B from 2 Step. They also steer clear of Dee Kline/Oxide and Neutrino/So Solid Crew/ Teebone/Reservoir Dogs/Ibiza Records’ ferocious rejection of vocal garage.

This post ’98 tendency’s hostility to the older post 96 Sunday scene implies a resurgent loyalty to the streets. Part generational, part attitudinal, these producers now form a hardcore garage/future rave strain blazing through UK Garage. All this years major tracks fall into one of these 2 mutually antagonistic camps.

Ensconced in Soul II Soul’s Camden studios, Wookie’s indifference to these dynamics is as internal as it is positional. With no female voice and no emceeing, no luscious drum processing and no Dem 2 style honeycombs of vowel percussion, a Wookie solo production strips garage of R’n’B smoothness AND hardcore moodiness, the elements 2 Step intensifies in order to insult/repel/ward off the delibidinising intelligence of musical connoiseurs.

No wonder dad jazz and dad house types like Gilles Peterson and Pete Tong embrace him. So how does Wookie shrug off the dead hand of maturity? The answer lies in the signature uber rave stabs of Down on Me/Scrappy, the first 12 on his Manchu Recordings label, the track which made his name by massively impacting UK garage in mid ’99.

Wookie’s Moog bassic synth stabs tuffened up the long forgotten early ’90s era of Nightmares on Wax/Sweet Exorcist style bleep n’ bass. ‘It’s funny you say that,’ confirms the 28 year old Jason Chue. ‘My musical diet up until about 1989 to 90 was purely reggae. That’s all I had in my household. It wasn’t until I was about 15, 16 that I started listening to what my friends were listening to. And Nightmares on Wax and Fingers Inc was around at the same time. That was the first different music outside of reggae that I got into.’

While b-line monsters like Azzido da Bass’s Dooms Night (Timo Maas Remix) are all low end shud-d-d-er, Down on Me welds rhythm and melody into a Moog basstone that’s concussive and catchy. In his What’s Going On remix, the b-line comes on strong, producing a bowel plumbing feeling which pululates between your stomach and your mouth.

‘I make my melodies out of bass.’ Chue elaborates. ‘I might make a tune called Talking Bass cos that’s what it sounds like my bass does, speak, in a way. I have a couple of Moog basses layered together, modulating the tone til it’s dark enough to play light on it, to play melodies on it.’

Down on Me’s ‘heavy and driving’ mood of trapped divadom stems from filtering. ‘It’s really like a delayed effect. The voice comes from a sample CD. I wanted something that was eerie and so you wouldn’t exactly know what she’s saying. Cos I don’t think she´s even saying Down on me. That’s what I get from what she’s saying. Depending on the rhythm I can make it mememe or me pause me pause me pause.’

Despite his ear for Timbaland style microfunk, Chue vehemently, even anxiously dismisses the Virginian producer’s influence. ‘I do not look to American R&B for influence. No way. No way. I see Timbaland stuff as – he`s just listened to what we’re doing over here with the whole drum’n’bass thing and just scaled it down with all those mad little beats and stuff.’

He launches into a long apocryphal story about Missy Elliot’s Birmingham relatives taking a drum n bass pirate tape back to Virginia where Timbaland ripped it for the Yank market. Scrappy adapts the stopped snare sound of Slum Village/ J-88/ The Ummah productions to get his skullsnapping ‘hard beats.’ Wookie loves producer Jay Dee’s ‘rigid’ tone. ‘Yeah, I like flat. That’s me. Every time I do a mix the engineer wants to put reverb on it. I say no take that shit off.’

Way more maximal than Jay Dee-esque minimalism, Scrappy is riddled with catchy fills, teetering on the verge of toppling-one hit hooks configured from ‘recycled loops’ played back on his sampling keyboard to make ‘patterns out of patterns.’ Like Tee Bone, Chris Mac aka Potential Bad Boy, Steve Gurley and Johnny L aka Trusteppers, Chue is a junglist defector who’s broken the beat and turned it around.

In the 80s, his father and brother ran sound systems at Carnival. They still work at Music House in North London where Rider, Dr S Gachet et al would meet to cut dubplates. In ’97 he was deep inside drum n bass, producing Brit R & B no hoper Wayne Marshall, going to Metalheadz every Sunday solidly, hanging out with DJ Hype and the rest of the Ganja Cru, playing piano on the True Playaz 12.

When Metalheadz moved to the Complex and drum n bass grew angrier, Chue, like many others gravitated towards garage. Mention Steve Gurley’s tumultuous ’98 Spirit of the Sun remix and he responds as if it’s ancient history. Which is undersatandeable since Wookie only became a garage raver in early 1999

‘A lot of people, they call me a garage producer who’s come up through the scene but I’ve only been in the scene a year and a half.’ he says calmly. ‘I used to hear tracks like 187 Lockdown like everyone else but I never used to rave to them. It wasn’t til 1998, no what am I taking about 99, start of 99 that I started going to Colisseum.’

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Copyright © Hyperdub 2001 – Reprinted with permission.

Category: Hyperdub

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Riddim.ca was founded by DJ/writer paul autonomic (aka Mr. Bump) in February 2005 as a hub for North America's nascent grime and dubstep scenes. Since then we've helped promote events across the continent and made friends around the world. Mostly dormant now, we're host to one of the web's largest collections of writing on the late-Garage dis/continuum as well as a growing collection of rare audio and scans (coming eventually).