First the beat was dequantized: unsnapped from the tyranny of the grid. Then it was obliterated: broken down and denatured almost until the point of unrecognizability. In the former case, I’m thinking of course of UK dubstep, wonky et al. In the latter, mainly footwork and a recently emergent branch of “instrumental” hip-hop that, for the time being at least, remains nameless.
On second thought, perhaps that “instrumental” doesn’t belong in scare quotes after all. Because it’s not just the lack of vocals that characterizes this kind of music, but the use of the Monome, Roland SP-404, and other similarly tactile MIDI controllers and digital samplers. What these instruments do is allow for the reintroduction of a certain kind of mutant organicism into the production/performance process.
Not everyone’s interested, of course. For a lot of people, electronica still means precision. That’s true even of an MPC magician like AraabMuzik, I think. When I saw him play live recently, the music was so relentless, so utterly mind-and-body numbing in its regularity, that I found myself retreating into a side-room after only about 20 minutes: that was all I could take. But look at this. Or this. Artists like Melbourne’s Galapagoose, L.A.’s aaronmaxwell, and Brighton’s Warm Thighs have taken the sampler and used it to extricate hip-hop from the groove — or at least to drastically modify our relationship with it anyway.
As with footwork, in each case it’s not that there’s no beat anymore: our expectations in relation to it have just been radically compromised. The music stutters and jerks. It becomes impossible to guarantee when the next beat will fall. This is hip-hop that feels cracked, fractured, decomposed, degraded. And it comes as no surprise, therefore, that — despite the technical reliance on digitalism — all the above artists have associated themselves with the analogue values of the New Tape Culture. If ever a music was deserving of the name “broken beat,” it’s this one.
What’s particularly intriguing about Galapagoose, however, is that he (real name Trent Gill) has invested in his instrument(s) of choice at every possible level. He doesn’t just use it in his capacity as a producer and performer; he programs software for it too. “The monome is quite an oddity in the world of computer music controllers,” he explained in a recent interview:
[By] itself it does nothing, comes with little software that’s officially supported, and in general you’ve got to figure it out yourself. I think this is what draws me to the device — that nature of open-endedness alongside an encouragement to learn to program and build your own tools. By building my own software tools I’ve been able to create an instrument for live performance that’s both incredibly engaging for the audience and simultaneously lends itself so well to improvisation and experimentation. I don’t think the device necessarily enforces these practices but it was undoubtedly the thing that opened my mind to the possibilities and forced me to learn to code. The incredible tactile response really does make it feel like you’re playing an instrument though and this is certainly a necessity for my playing style.
Sure enough, live, Galapagoose is a virtuoso. On record, however, it’s all been toned down.
On the back of three promising EPs and a bunch of remixes and other side projects, Commitments is Gill’s debut full-lengther, released on Daedelus’ label Magical Possibilities (Daedelus is, of course, another well-known exponent of the monome). It’s got real highlights. In their smoothness, “Don’t Break the Spell,” “Weight,” “Unintended Consequence,” and the deconstructed Sinatra of “One Who Can’t Move” all find Gill in similar territory to the bizarro loungetronica of fellow Aussie Jonti. “Rhizome” takes a similar sort of vibe and lets it build to a sputtering, synthtastic climax. Here, as on the loping, wonky punch of “Winkler,” Gill is at his best when he hits hardest. But even this comes off bland next to the live show.
It’s a common dichotomy actually. Think of Coltrane’s middle-period studio-recordings next to their live equivalents, of My Bloody Valentine’s live experiments with volume next to the softer edges of the albums, of the meekness of more or less anything in the dub-continuum on record compared with the bass materialism of the club.
My Favorite Things (Coltrane), Loveless (MBV), and Hard Normal Daddy (Squarepusher) are all great records, of course. There’s no necessary reason to aim for the same thing on record as you do in concert. But it’s a delicate balancing act. The tendency to sacrifice sonic ingenuity and radicalism at the alter of craft or care is very real. Commitments is meant to seem artful, considered, composerly, I think. All perfectly admirable goals. But to these ears at least, the more broken Gill gets, the better he sounds. It’s in that direction I’d like to see him push in the future. And if his latest release is anything to go by, perhaps he’s of a similar mind.