“The state moves by stealth to gather information.”
– Nat Hentoff
“I’m not British. I’m not British at all. The British told me that.”
– Dean Blunt
There’s a sound that I can’t hear. It’s a high-frequency, around 17.4 kHz. I can’t hear it because that frequency of sound (and anything above it) is typically only audible to people under 25. It’s the result of a phenomenon called presbycusis, a term used for this progressive, age-related form of hearing loss.
In 2005, Howard Stapleton adopted this frequency for an invention he called The Mosquito, an ultrasonic alarm designed to “disperse unwanted youth gatherings” and “combat vandalism,” as the company puts it. Because the sound is only audible to those under 25, UK business owners — including even McDonald’s — can flick on The Mosquito alarm to repel potential vandals while retaining the patronage of the 25+ crowd who can’t hear it. Adults are sneaky fucks.
But teenagers are sneaky fucks, too. Within a year, the sound was repurposed by teens as a ringtone called TeenBuzz. If they received a text in the classroom or at the dinner table, it’d emit the 17.4 kHz frequency. And no adult could hear it.
Dean Blunt is familiar with repurposing. For a recent art exhibition at the artist-run Cubitt Gallery in London, he hung a repurposed stock photo called “Business Colleagues Sitting at a Table Affectionately Smiling at Each Other,” framed. The photo — tagged by Fotosearch with keywords like “only young adults,” “multiethnic,” and “african american ethnicity” — was slightly vandalized with spray paint in the bottom-left corner (which recalls the also-vandalized Foxtons Mini Cooper model cars that Blunt had sold earlier this year).
And playing throughout the exhibit? Not Dean Blunt, not Babyfather, not Hype Williams, not drone, ambient, or incidental music. It was the 17.4 kHz frequency, courtesy of none other than The Mosquito alarm, installed in a nearby cage with a Union Jack sticker on it.
Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that alarms and sirens, those piercing signifiers of emergency and surveillance, are given such prominence on BBF Hosted by DJ Escrow, the debut album by Babyfather (ostensibly a trio of Dean Blunt, DJ Escrow, and Gassman D). But what is surprising is how they’re treated. Typically when Blunt is repurposing something — whether it’s a logo, brand, cultural phenomenon, or sound — it becomes flattened and redistributed in the vortex of his cut-and-paste, sketch-like aesthetic, with added value, added connotations, added nonsense either suffocating it until it can barely signify anymore or enlivening it to a degree that only our bodies can make sense of. Everything but the burden. But here, the sirens aren’t flattened and redistributed; they just sound like the annoying, disruptive sounds that they are. As our host DJ Escrow puts it, “You hear the sirens, yeah? The sirens is a real ting. Man hear the sirens every fucking night. Man’s tryna do my ting, and I hear the fucking sirens.”
Where The Mosquito alarm uses ultrasonic violence to demarcate space, the kind of sirens here are designed to induce disorientation to exploit the mind’s limitations and thresholds, to force itself oppressively upon bodies under the guise of security. BBF, in this light, becomes the tar in the streets patching up the effects of time, the new strain clouding the lungs, both a street fable and a sensory prayer. It becomes the story of that inner-city kid growing up with black skin, the redemption of that desperate class-based hustle, the surreptitious consequences of the violence in our language and in our actions and in our heads. It becomes the cases of champagne on the floor, the Styrofoam cups, the weed in the air, the balloon filling up with nitrous (presumably the first sound on BBF). It becomes the pouring of liquor, not for your dead homies, but “on your head.” It becomes the surveillance camera tracing movement, the degeneration of society and of the ear, the London borders, closed and inaccessible.
And, with much of Blunt’s recent art and music influenced by his upbringing in Hackney (“Buy British” sloganeering, the London cityscape lit up like Christmas, UK flags plastered everywhere), BBF becomes “about” London as much as it is a product of it. But Blunt’s interest in territory, in space, also plays out in more sensual ways. His live shows often manipulate space by clarifying it (house lights), smudging it (fog machines), and processing it (strobe lights, plays on darkness/lightness), with the extreme ends of his music — the sub-bass and the oppressive noise — finding their own physical embodiments. On BBF, this interest in space can be felt in the disjointed sighs between songs, in the lopsided interludes, even in Blunt’s hyper-localized rapping. While his lexicon is coded, his syntax disconnected, and his sense-making sometimes inscrutable, Blunt’s underlying style could perhaps be best described as spatial. His odd, pointed cadences are exacerbated by lateral entryways and long pauses between lines, with a stream of rap tropes and side-door slang finding unexpected expression in the crevices of its post-genre flexing. Blunt’s not a master of wordplay, and he’s certainly not trying to be a good technical rapper. But his flow, his delivery, is entrancing.
On “Motivation,” Blunt raps, ““Everybody’s here when I get it/ But ain’t nobody here when I hit it/ Forget it.” He then pauses for 20 seconds, before delivering the final line: “You’re never gonna get it, boy.”
It’s only 20 seconds, but you can fit worlds in that gap.
“The Ig Nobel Prizes honor achievements that make people LAUGH, and then THINK.”
– The Ig® Nobel Prizes
“The best art has humor in it. You can’t take yourself too seriously.”
– Dean Blunt
Let’s talk about a dead guy.
In February 2010, British fashion designer and enfant terrible Alexander McQueen made headlines — for killing himself. He had consumed a lethal cocktail of drugs, slashed his wrists, and then hung himself. He was found dead by his housekeeper, with a nearby laptop showing search results for suicide information and a note scribbled on the back of a book (The Descent of Man) that read: “Look after my dogs. Sorry, I love you.”
A week before his death, McQueen had taken to Twitter to announce the passing of his mother. His mental state was in question by the media, who based their suspicions on tweets like “why people ignore the ugly things in life but within this they are missing the beauty that lies under the rotten fruit!!!!!!!!!!!!” and “from heaven to hell and back again, life is a funny thing. beauty can come from the most strangest of places even the most disgusting places.”
Even more curiously for the media was a pair of tweets that referenced the same phrase. Days before his mother’s death, McQueen cryptically tweeted “Hells Angels + Prolific Demons.” After her death (and soon before his own), he offered a bizarre variation: “sunday evening been a fucking awful week but my friends have been great but now i have to some how pull myself together and finish with the […] HELLS ANGLES & PROLIFIC DEAMONS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
What many had thought was a disturbing hint of his suicidal thoughts was revealed a month later to be an allusion to his latest collection, one that was “imprinted with the angels of Sandro Botticelli and the demons of Hieronymus Bosch.”
It was, in other words, just a reference.
But is a reference always “just” a reference? For Blunt, even a seemingly innocuous reference can bring about new worlds, new ways of feeling or understanding. His references take us through seemingly endless rabbit holes, pushing us to the far reaches of the internet (a.k.a. “nowhere”); and part of what makes Blunt’s references so compelling is that they’re often inexplicable, imagined gestures pointing to out-of-focus objects, destabilized concepts, and vague characterizations that are rarely ever explicitly politicized or explained. They exist not in a vacuum, but in suspension between worlds, between moods, between bodies. And in these suspended states, in these lingering moments of float-game/flesh-state elusions, exist dialectical opportunities for meaning and non-meaning.
Because, after all, what does it mean or not mean when BBF features song titles like “HELLS ANGLES” and “PROLIFIC DEAMONS”? What does it mean/not mean when a quote from Ronald “Slim” Williams about Rich Gang is altered in a press release to describe BBF and attributed to British actor Idris Elba? What does it mean/not mean when we find out that some of the album’s primary lyrics (“Don’t panic” and “Shawty fell in love with a hustler,” the latter of which opens the same verse on two back-to-back tracks) are actually from French Montana’s “Don’t Panic”? What does it mean/not mean when he’s appropriating lyrics from Neil Young, Nas, and Bad Brains in the same song (“N.A.Z.”), which may or may not be sung by Jstar Valentine? What does it mean/not mean when a sampled voice repeats “This makes me proud to be British” nearly 100 times on the opening track, one that’s even reprised two more times on the album, as if the hollowed-out shell of a sentiment weren’t already emptied of meaning?
I don’t know exactly what it all means, but I also don’t think it matters. What I do know is that when I hear Dean Blunt’s music, I’m often at a loss for words — or at least at a loss for rational thinking. His music shakes my foundations, disrupts my preconceptions, plays with my ability to synthesize meaning. His music — which is actually sometimes other people’s music — makes me trip on language itself, and that’s one of the best things about him. Part of being a fan means accepting the possibility that you might not know what to think after hearing it — music for anyone who’s ever said “Wow, I have no idea what that was, but I think I loved it.” Genre here becomes irrelevant, the references as “random” as you want them to be, and the experience always indelible.
Not even Dean Blunt (which, as a reminder, isn’t even his real name) really matters as an “individual” artist in this generalized outline. Blunt seems to play with identity and mediums because it allows him to curate spaces and senses and references without the baggage of ego and a defined purpose, making him as much the fog enveloping the venue as the guy he sent to pick up his NME award, as much the distorting sound system as the man who read his war report. And yet, the dominant accusation is that Blunt is an aggressive prankster, which would then ultimately make us the “victims.” But maybe we are the aggressors, lashing out because we feel vulnerable in the challenging contexts that he builds, because we don’t know exactly how to react to his unique humor/satire/parodies, because we don’t fully understand what is meant by his obfuscated music, assuming anything is meant at all.
Which brings us, finally, to the even more enigmatic DJ Escrow, who plays a much larger role in driving what is “meant” by the album. He’s our host, but he’s no performative mixtape hype artist like DJ Holiday or DJ Scream or DJ V-Dub. He acts more like a DJ from a London pirate radio show, which itself connects the album to a network of unlicensed, black-run stations that have been instrumental in spreading “MOBO” (Music Of Black Origin) throughout the UK. Aside from two rapping moments, one in which he talks about how “basic” his flow is (“Platinum Cookies”) and the other during arguably the album’s beautiful apex (“Deep”), Escrow mostly exploits his role for extended philosophical monologuing on everything from self-responsibility and the rap game to street representation and unification, with “real-time” shout-outs to an unknown audience, London area-code drops, and a thick Caribbean patois, framing the music geographically and politically (“Fuck Trident, yeah? Fuck MI5, fuck MI6”) while acting as a conveyer of wisdom, a transmitter of information. Because, in its own oblique way, much of this album deals with the handling of information: the concealment of information (secrecy), the gathering of information (stealth), the access to information (security), the transmission of information (communication), the body of information (discourse).
But the human body is not simply a container for information, and all of Blunt’s projects have played to our body’s irreducible, complex terrain of desire and pleasure. It continues on BBF with more drifting aesthetics, arch poetics, and sensual appropriations that far overtake any thematic projections. Dwelling in any given Blunt-ian moment has never implied the sanctification of it, and he often ensures this by slipping in and slinking out before anything can fully congeal, preserved only in his disappearance. It can sometimes feel like a challenge, like a test, to willfully swim in a sea of obscure references and incoherence, but I think of it as an opportunity for multiple definitions, for thoughtful inquiry. Sure, maybe we could call BBF a commentary on private and public spaces, on access, on vandalism; maybe we could call it responsible street survival in the face of rhetorical politics, a critique of neocolonialism, the pushback against the coded battle of “war by other means.”
But I call it Heavenly Reach.
Babyfather has created this space for us. Detonating chests. Wrecking lungs. Popping veins. BBF may leave us with terrible cotton mouth, but the tap water tastes fucking amazing. It’s like liquid gold. And I feel it in my chest now.