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Publication: cover story, The Independent Sunday Review, 2004
 

The DIY Bedroom Music Revolution: How Lady Soverign, Class A and the Animaniacs are changing the digital music world

 

Did you buy the album ‘Boy In the Corner’ by 2003’s Mercury Music Prize winner Dizzee Rascal? If you slipped the CD into your hifi system only to hear a squall of barely coherent vocals, jagged melodies and arthymical drum patterns, you’re probably not alone. Eighteen-year-old MC Dylan ‘Dizzee Rascal’ Mills’ debut was about as far removed from the glossy commercialism of Dido, Coldplay or any other of the year’s high-profile albums as it’s possible to get. What kind of music, exactly, is this? And where on earth did it come from?

Specifically, it emerged from the DIY bedroom music culture of teenage Britain, and from the wild collective imaginations the first generation in history to have grown up entirely surrounded by digital technology - from gaming consoles, computers and synthesizers to mobile phones, CD burners and MP3 players. Much of ‘Boy In Da Corner’ sounded like a kid hammering away on cheap keyboard while jabbering wildly into a microphone because that’s exactly what it was. The poster boy of a new generation of bedroom music producers, Dizzee’s Number debut single ‘I Luv U’ was written and recorded on a PC in half an hour.

A fundamental shift is occurring in British music culture in the UK, but you’d probably never guess it from the parade of starstruck clones on TV’s Pop Idol and Fame Academy. What is changing is the way music is being made and people making it. Today, any teenager with a few pounds and a good idea can be a star from their own bedroom. Digital technology has made it possible to compose and record a song on a standard PC, or a Sony PlayStation gaming console, burn the track onto a rewritable CD, pass it to DJ and hear it played on one of the UK’s hundreds of pirate stations within 24 hours, a process that previously would once have taken months. Operating outside of the established music business, here is an alternative, digitally-powered musical demimonde fired on imagination and street-savvy that has the capacity to launch artists into the top end of the charts.

By no means limited to Dizzee Rascal-style dance music, the underground he emerged from best illustrates the plug-in-and produce ‘Burner’ Generation in action – so-called because rewritable CD have become their stock-in trade.

Here, it centres around a sound so new, inventive and atomised that it doesn’t have one name but five. ‘Eightbar’, ‘Sublow’, ‘Dubstep’, ‘Eski’ and, most prominently, ‘Grime’, are all being touted as descriptors of a uniquely British music that descends from the UK Garage sound that launched Ms Dynamite, Mis-Teeq and So Solid Crew to notoriety. Made in bedrooms, transmitted across the pirate FM frequencies and at weekend raves, grime is a kind of negative-image of manufactured pop’s shiny optimism which, in its wilfully raw musical form and unvarnished lyrical content, disturbs rather than cheers. Its narratives articulate the of everyday inner-city life, where gun crime, gang trouble, STDs, teenage pregnancy, fast food, recreational drug use and an obsessional regard to branded sportswear are primary concerns.

In its music and lyrical content Grime is a ferociously inventive culture. Its exponents pen rhymes of breathtaking syntactic complexity at the same time as making music guaranteed to cause hysteria on dancefloors. Just as hip hop culture chewed up English and regurgitated an entirely new linguistic idiom, their patois-inflected language reflects the emerging <lingua franca> of multiethnic, urbanized Britain: sentences are suffixed with a rhetorical ‘ya get me?’, or ‘innit’, often both. ‘Man’ articulates a generalized notion of someone, anyone or everyone (‘mans are listening to my rhymes’), while these days, MCs no longer no ‘rap’ but ‘spit’. ‘Heavy’ is the ultimate term of approval while ‘long’ specifies ‘boring’.

So too do the characters involved define themselves fundamentally ‘street’, anti-fake and pro-‘real’. Grime’s exponents are invariably young, innercity and multiethnic - DIY garage’s newest incarnation is no more black than it is white, Asian, African or Caribbean. And behind the names that are emerging - Musical Mob, Nasty Crew, Wylie, Roll Deep, Lombardo, Medasyn, Durrty Doogz, Tynchy Stryder, Plasticman to name a few – thousands more are tapping out melodies on PlayStation’s Music 2000 game, scribbling edgy verses in their bedrooms and yelping them into a mic.

Previously those aspiring to work in the music biz chose a profession - singer, rapper, producer - and stuck to it. But like Dizzee Rascal, the Burner generation can function as their own unitary composer/performer/distributor outfit, a evolution enabled by technology. The bedroom has become rehearsal room, studio, pressing plant and in some cases, radio station all in one.

For years the bedroom was were teenagers listened to their music. Now they’re making it there too, which is probably very bad news for music and dad. But when was teenage music ever expected to keep the peace?

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Lady Sovereign

For 18-year-old MC Lady Sovereign it began, as music careers so often do, in front of the bedroom mirror. Only there was no tennis racket as surrogate guitar; instead there was a can of hairspray.

‘Four years ago I was in my bedroom MCing in front of a mirror with a can of hairspray for a microphone,’ the tiny Londoner says. ‘I was listening to the MCs pirate, and I thought, ‘let me have a go at this’.’

A diminutive ingénue with hands stuffed into her pockets, you could easily imagine Lady Sovereign – born Louise Harman in 1985 - quivering before Simon Cowell or Pete Waterman in desperate anticipation of hollow praise. She twirls her hair round a finger, chews gum loudly and flashes bright, excited sepia eyes all over the East End café where we meet.

But four years on, Sovereign’s coronation as a key MC in the male-dominated Grime demimonde is complete: she’s worked prominent London pirates as well as Radio 1, regularly performs for crowds of thousands at raves, and starred alongside a trio of other MCs on the recent single ‘The Battle’ by grime outfit Medasyn. Her fiendishly catchy debut single ‘Blah Blah’ arrives this year. She’s arguably the biggest star you’ve never heard of. ‘Times are changing,’ she theorises. ‘You don’t hear acoustic instruments in urban music no more. It’s all about being an MC.’

Initially, the spur for career choice was Ms Dynamite – the 22-year-old the Brit- award winning singer who was an underground celebrity before winning the pop game. Dynamite was a new kind of star – street-tough, honest, entrepreneurial and naturally gifted in an world of manufactured pop puppets.

‘When I heard Ms Dynamite’s track “Booo!’ in 2001 it inspired me to push myself forward,’ Sovereign says. ‘I hadn’t heard a female MC before that. She’s real. Her presence, her image, the way she does everything. She opened so many doors for us girls. A lot more are coming through – MC Shystie, Lady $tush, Miss Reckless.’

But high-street fame wasn’t Sovereign’s motivation. Rather it was, ’to have people hear my music, understand what I’m saying, agree with what I’m saying.’ A high-aspiring self-starter, Sovereign put the spare time she had on her hand after being excluded from school to good use, penning rhymes in the bedroom of her mum’s house and subtly PRing herself through email and the internet. At her dad’s house she schooled herself in Fruity Loops, a PC-based music application, mastering its complexity in a fortnight. ’It’s very easy to use,’ she explains. ‘Plus I’m always on the net. If you type in my name on Google there’s are pages and pages of Lady Sovereign. Forums, chatrooms, I didn’t make no fuss about it; I just did it really.’

Sovereign’s brand of notoriety may seem virtual, operating as it does without the ‘official’ endorsement of institutions like Top Of The Pop and mainstream music media. Yet, using new digital channels on information exchange and influence, it taps a culture that valorises a far more substantial notion of what’s ‘real’. A one-woman stance against the fakery of all forms, Lady Sovereign chronicles a perspective onwhat it is to be young and misunderstood in 2003 that you won’t read about in Heat magazine or hear on Fame Academy.

‘I don’t agree with the show,’ she tuts. ‘Maybe if they had an Urban Idol, or an MC Idol. But not manufactured - MCs are real: they write their own stuff, they rap about what they know, the stuff around them. Pop Idol is about manufacturing people. I could never have someone write my rhymes or change my image. It’s fake…’

Eighteen-years-old, talented, determined self-determining, it seems Lady Sovereign’s day of hairspray MCing are over for good.

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Class A

It’s unlikely that Japanese electronics giant Sony ever envisaged it this way, but their PlayStation gaming console, every teenager’s favourite timewaster, has achieved the unlikely to become what the guitar was to the pop boom of the Sixties– the default instrument for amateur musicians.

Several years ago Leicester trio Class A, like so many other British crews, outfits and MCs, began constructing their rudimentary forays into composition not with traditional instruments, nor in a recording studio, but on the Music 2000 Playstation game, right there in hostel lead rapper Ruuds, now 24, was living in. Their current single ‘The Clash’ - a high-octane of mix of angered, discordant rhymes syncopated with high-velocity beats - is an evolution on the rough audio sketches he made with partners Tips, 23, and DP, 24, as long as six years go.

‘Playstation is how I started,’ Ruuds explains in an East Midlands accent full of with flat vowels and patois inflections. ‘I’ve  progressed off that now and make music in a studio, but I still love music 2000. You have an idea in your head - within half an hour you have it down. It’s so easy -  there’s a beat sequencer, a bassline generator, you can create a whole song. Anyone can learn it within a couple of weeks.’

Typical of the proliferating ‘crews’ who emerged in the wake of 29-strong Battersea outfit So Solid crew, a band as well known for their crimes as for their Number Ones records, Class A formed in the titular ‘Clash’ - an adversarial MC duel – at a party celebrating rapper Tips’s release from a prison sentence for assault. Their music presents a frank lyrical accounts of violence and gun trouble that to many may corroborate Home Office minister Charles Clarke’s accusation that ‘idiot rappers’ like So Solid crew were glamourising gun culture. But the way Ruuds see it, Class A are merely pointing out the harsh truths of their immediate reality, just as landmark hip hop tracks such as Grandmaster Flash’s 1979 ‘The Message’ did:

‘This is Grime, it’s UK street music, and we’re just writing about what’s going on around us,’ he says. ‘In the Midlands as a whole there’s a lot of gun crime - I know at least 20 people who’ve been shot. Most of the people I know have been shot. It’s dangerous, man. There’re so much guns on the street.’

Unemployed and living amid a culture of petty illegality, Class A had time to play; guns mercifully proved less seductive than video games, and Music 2000 was the device that productively amalgamated music with messing about. It’s an elementary, intuitive tool: using the PlayStation’s handheld controller, samples of drumbeats, basslines and strings are sequenced across a number of recoding tracks. Its plug-in-and-play simplicity packages an entire working music studio into the size of a shoebox.

Typical PlayStation productions and typical Grime tracks are the same thing: doomy, angsty and hyperbolic. ‘It gives you different way of making song,’ notes Ruuds. ‘You’re not playing it off keyboard, so it’s a whole different way of making the song, like you’re playing a game.’  

Much of Dizzee Rascal’s music was made on the technology as rudimentary as this, suggesting its perhaps a matter of time before the first Playstation-powered Number One record arrives. Another Class A track, ‘Better Days’ liberally samples from Coldplay. This easy-to-produce music may sound trashy and ill-formed, but that’s exactly why it’s perfectly tailored for a aspirant musicmakers brought up in a hyper-accelerated culture of disposability. Music 2000 is unlikely to make a Tchaikovsky of everyone, but in the case of Class A the least, it’s made a artists heading for the charts out of criminals heading for another spell at Her Majesty’s leisure

‘I left school I got into a  lot of bother and did time,’ Ruuds reflects.’ I went down for burglary, GBH, loads of charges. But now I’m sorted out and just trying to make music. That’s what it’s all about.’

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Animaniacs.

During most school day lunchtimes, room 3B of Gladesmore Community School in Tottenham, North London, counts not one but 12 aspirant superstars. A poster high on the walls above announces ‘Caution – Extreme Noise Levels’, which adequately describes today’s activities. Adjacent to an overheated soundsystem, the Animaniacs – MCs D-Dan, Tails, Skimzee, D-Dan, Gambles, Sway Kid, Teacher, Chaos, Ripper, Mac B, Trigger and DJ Klass-E - are huddled together in baseball caps, hoodies and school ties, busily making an adrenalised racket into three microphones. They namecheck each other, excitedly hammer out rhymes for 20 seconds or so, and then pass the mic on. This is ‘Eightbar’ in action – so called because each MC takes the mic and lays out his rhymes for eight bars, before relinquishing it to a colleague.

Over an instrumental version of Dizzee Rascal’s ‘I Luv U’, Gambles, 15, raps: ‘When I clash you’re gonna get tore/bust up your jaw, it’s gonna get sore/boy, don’t let me get raw/‘cos If I get raw there’s gonna be war.’

Each time a new track bumps into the mix, the energy levels rocket – as one they start agitating, waving their hand in the ear. Reversing the tradition of dance music, the DJ is for once not the most important man in the room. It sounds edgy, excited to the point of hysteria, and given that the music they make here may count towards module credits in their music GCSEs, it also sounds like a revolution in the making.

Tottenham’s schoolyard answer to So Solid Crew are paradigmatic of inner-city teenage aspiration in 2003. Their role models aren’t guitar heroes like Kurt Cobain, popstars like Ronan keating or even highly-paid DJs like the Chemical Brothers. Instead they’re MCs like Dizzee Rascal and East London’s emerging Wylie who’ve alchemised the rough rhyme skills and elementary PC-based music production into overground success that brings respect, money and a route out of deprivation.

‘We do it to get respect,’ says 15-year-old ‘D-Dan’ Des, a serious-minded kids whose entrepreneurialism shines as conspicuously as his diamond earstud. ‘You look at Dizzee Rascal and think, If I could do that, I’d be proud of myself. Maybe get some money and maybe get some rope [gold chains]. It might take a long time but you still gotta work at it. Dizzee Rascal took a long time to come from the underground. He gets respect. We’re all going to college after school, but we’re all gonna be together - for life!’

The Animaniacs are a project organised by Des and enabled by their teacher, Mr Greg Parker whose music technology course grew out of a lunchtime DJing tutorial. Almost instantly its popularity outstripped the available resources. ‘There are about 12 kids here everyday,’ Mr Parker notes, ‘but there could easily be a hundred of them. Most of the lads in the school want to be MCs now. These guys are dedicated; they might not be exactly the finished product, but the fact is they get to make the music they like and know the best.’

Since then money has been found from Police initiatives designed to keep trouble-prone youths occupied - even the Animaniacs themselves know they’d be their own worst enemy were it not for the music. ‘The thing about us MCing is that we won’t be getting in a lot if trouble,’ says Des, an entrepreneurial, serious-minded kid from Green Lanes. ‘It takes us off the streets.’

Initially, Animaniacs busked on Karaoke machine; today, DJ Klass-E spins grime CDs on a pair of CD turntables. They’re also beginning to produce their own tracks on Playstation and Mr Parker’s police-funded PCs. At lunch, break, and after school they’re feverishly writing the rhymes they hope will elevate them to notoriety.

‘We’re trying to get on pirate, but it’s hard,’ says Trigger, the tallest, broadest crewmember. ‘We’re making our own productions and beats, but it’s hard because we don’t have the equipment, so we come to Mr Parker. We need to do that before hit the next step.’

It may currently be difficult to see how ‘the next step’ would mean overground success on the level of, say, Justin Timberlake – after all the ghostly drum patterns and murmuring basslines of most grime tracks hardly have an equivalent appeal to the sheen of ‘Rock Your Body’ or ‘Like I love You’. Nevertheless, the drive, independence and DIY ambition that fires Lady Sovereign, Class A and the Animaniacs reflects closely the groundswell of youthful energy that was punk, Britain’s last great revolution in youth culture.

Either way, you may never look at your PC in the same way again.

© Kevin Braddock 2004


 
 
 
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