Thursday, 27 August 2015

DJ Squeeky presents Tom Skeemask - 2 Wild for the World (1998)

Just the other day I happened to slip upon a patch of oil left over and not yet cleared up after stripping down and cleaning my numerous hand guns and assault rifles, and falling against the computer I found myself accidentally online and unintentionally logged on to a bulletin board dedicated to the children's television show Doctor Who. Naturally I made attempts to sign out but, already confused, I found that I had instead been drawn into a section of the forum dedicated to music, and specifically to a thread purportedly set up for fans of hip hop and rap, although it would be fairer to describe it as a thread for forum members owning one or two rap albums. It took only seconds to locate the first claim of there having been no decent rap music recorded since the first Wu-Tang Clan album, because it's all that Puff Daddy and commercial rap like Lil' Wayne, and Public Enemy were great, and in fact It Takes A Nation of Millions is probably the best rap album ever - and yes, I know I'm going out on a limb with such a bold, unpopular statement - and we don't like that commercial rap because we only like the underground stuff which you probably won't have heard of because it's underground and not commercial like Puff Daddy and that bass music, whatever it's called; the Fugees were good too, and that Will Smith is a great entertainer...

Luckily I had already returned my firearms to the rack in Junior's room, because I really, really felt like emptying a clip into the fuckin' screen, lemme tell ya...

This was about rap for people who don't actually like rap - rap deemed more adventurous and underground than the Puff Daddy commercial rap because it appeals to fans of Radiohead and really interesting groups of that sort, because it's progressive and exciting and not actually much like rap, which is all too commercial and made by angry black men talking about guns and money and saying some really sexist stuff too, like that so-called Fat Joe. Alex Petridis in the Guradian pointed out that Fat Joe has a song called Shit is Real which just goes to show what a stupid, uneducated fellow he is. Shit is Real - I mean come on, it's hardly William Blake now is it snurf snurf...

So that was how I came to experience a sudden and overpowering need to cleanse my soul with some real rap, as distinguished by its copious swearing, threatening behaviour, actual beats, and fixation on real shit of flavours rarely experienced by folks with fucking cLOUDDEAD records; and as is appreciated by people who listen to rap. This will undoubtedly resemble sneering, but fuck it - if you don't like rap just go ahead and say it, but don't claim otherwise whilst referencing some shit that came out a quarter of a century ago as representative of the last time it was good enough for you to bother listening. Piss off and take your friggin' Buck 65 twelves with you back to fuckin' Starbucks.

Tom Skeemask is, for what it may be worth, the real deal. He says stuff you really might not want to hear, but which might do you good to hear; and whilst he may not be the greatest rapper in the world, he really ain't that bad, and if there's any suggestion that maybe he doesn't mean it, or that he's just saying this stuff so as to appear like some commercial rap big shot - you know, like that Puff Daddy, well - he's probably not that hard to track down, so please feel free to go ahead and tell him to his face. It's violent and territorial because sometimes life is violent and shitty and unhappy, and territory is the only thing some people have at the lower end of the economy.

This is southern rap - hard words spat out at machine gun tempo and a hot, slow Memphis vibe timed to the pace of life in the hotter states, places in which the weather obliges you to move around real slow for the best part of the day. It's closer in spirit to Eightball & MJG than any Hypnotize Minds thing - electric piano, lush guitar licks, and a bass so deep you can only hear it in cars, it being designed to scare the shit out of whoever you happen to drive past at snail's pace with your window down. DJ Squeeky lays down the tracks and Tom Skeemask tells it like it is, and there isn't much more to say about it because it speaks for itself, what with being the real thing and all.

I feel better now.

Thank you, Tom Skeemask.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Terror Squad (1999)

Terror Squad are probably best remembered for Lean Back, a massive club hit taken from an album with at least one eye on said clubs, not to mention radio, MTV, sound systems within cars that go up and down, and the ears of men with diamond encrusted teeth drinking Babycham from the fannies of pole dancers. True Story of 2004 was, generally speaking, a decent album, an achievement in itself given that Terror Squad had more or less imploded following the death of Big Pun back in February 2000. Like I say it's a decent album, but the real stuff was always to be found here, on the first one. This version of Terror Squad featured Big Pun plus his trusty sidekicks Triple Seis and Cuban Link, with the three of them representing a lyrically solid - in fact pretty much unbeatable - core to what was, I suppose, the Latino NWA, if we really have to go there.

In all seriousness, whilst Prospect and Armageddon may not quite have quite been first division, it didn't really seem to matter so much with Fat Joe and those other three on the team. The sum of the parts was great, although it should probably be kept in mind that, with this being an album of six guys who had cut their proverbial teeth battling lesser talents, threatening behaviour was always going to be the arena in which they would excel; so what I mean to say here is that for all True Story being a decent album and one that didn't really sound anything like we expected it to sound, what you actually want from a Terror Squad album is less club, and more in the line of disgruntled gentlemen explaining what's going to happen when they catch up with you and you don't have the money right.

In case anyone missed the memo, Big Pun was a fairly generously built gentleman - the Big qualifier being in no sense either ironic or symbolic - who some have identified as the greatest rapper of all time. Personally I'm not convinced he had the range in terms of subject for such a title, but on the strength of being able to stick a load of words together in delivery of promises and threats simultaneously both terrifying and hilarious, I'm not sure there was ever anyone better, or that there ever will be; so yes, he was definitely a giant in his field, and his presence alone makes this disc essential listening. Accordingly most of the album sounds like it was recorded with sepiatone film in a barber shop in one of the scarier corners of the Bronx, probably with some guy called either Beansie or Jimmy No Nose hanging around in the corner and due to get it sometime during the next three minutes. The sound, pulled together by the Alchemist, various Beatnuts and others, resembles faintly claustrophobic loops of Godfather or Goodfellas soundtrack pinned to the carbonate with a pleasantly solid bass set to the pace of walking quickly away from a crime scene before discreetly tossing a firearm once you've wiped the prints. It really does feel like that, and as such it's sort of exhilarating, which would be something to do with adrenaline and a dense lyrical barrage that never really lets up.

Well, I suppose maybe it does sag a little towards the end of the disc, the point at which it sounds like someone noticed how all the songs had thus far been about punching, hitting, shooting, stabbing, or keeping your mouth shut and doing your time - all metaphorically speaking of course - so there was maybe room for a few numbers about shagging, about how much the lads enjoy a pint followed by a spot of how's your father. I don't know - rappers talking about sex has always been a bit of a grey area with me, and here it's just kind of boring, maybe even a bit creepy following the succession of pugilistically themed tracks. Still, that's only a couple of numbers, and the whole holds together well providing you enjoy shitting your pants. I seem to recall the mags of the time greeting this one with a round of non-committal shrugs, which I suppose is typical.

High points make up most of the album, but the stand out is probably the terrifyingly cinematic War, showcasing Triple Seis and with hindsight highlighting what a tremendous loss both himself and Cuban Link were, following their estrangement in the wake of Pun's passing. I don't really know what the beef was between them and Joe, but it's a real shame it had to end that way.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Lack of Knowledge - Grey (1983)

To launch immediately into this week's dubiously relevant preamble,  I seem to have developed a passing allergy to industrial music, or at least to some of that which tends to be saddled with the term for the sake of argument. It was a facebook encounter with one of those noisy cassette types of yesteryear. We used to write to each other all the time, and he now believes unions have too much power and that Margaret Thatcher saved the country - as he put it himself. This seems entirely consistent with an emerging pattern of former avant-garde oscillator-twiddling industrial types turning into the enemy in later years, although I'm beginning to wonder if the seemingly contradictory dynamic of this development results from a misconception on my part, having once equated experimental musicians with the tradition of artistic and intellectual libertarianism as once represented by the Surrealists, for one example; when perhaps it is more the case that so many sonic pioneers have been artistically out there and on their own principally because beneath it all they're mostly ultra-conservative, deeply misanthropic loners, and even more terrified of change and the big bad world than your average Daily Mail reading shut-in. The ironic posturing, mimicking harsh or totalitarian positions perhaps wasn't always so ironic as it seemed at the time. Perhaps that tape was called Face the Firing Squad because actually they really like firing squads, regarding them as an efficient and entertaining means of dealing with lefties and trouble makers blah blah blah Ayn Rand blah blah...

Well, whatever the case, this week I'm in the mood for something far, far removed from the realm of self-important fifty-year old men logging on to see how their Monsanto stock is doing whilst composing another whining I coulda been a contender missive on the subject of a thirty-year old cassette of mains hum with a picture of Peter fucking Sutcliffe on the cover; and Grey is a long way from that. It's also a four track 7" EP which is some way outside of my usual parameters, but I listened to the album, and although excellent, it just made me want to listen to this again.

Lack of Knowledge had a heavily industrial aesthetic - black and white photographs of tower blocks, gas stations, chain-link fencing and so on - but it was something with which they were grappling, artistically speaking - as opposed to just sneering about industrial squalor being texturally interesting whilst lounging around tossing playing cards into an inverted top hat. This came out on Crass Records and is as such as good a refutation as any of the notion of the label ever having peddled the droning monochromatic tedium for which it is remembered by people who probably weren't there.

Happily, there was never much ambiguity as to the nature or general identity of the enemy with anything on the Crass label, and Lack of Knowledge distinguished themselves by going at it from quite a different angle compared to at least a few of their contemporaries. Musically they weren't really about songs so much as pieces of music comprising different movements in an almost classical or progressive sense, so there's a dynamic, but nothing so commonplace as verses or even a chorus. Oddly, this structure isn't really the first thing you notice, or at least wasn't the first thing I noticed, because musically what you generally have are variations on a fairly intense, driving, and melodic sound somewhere between Joy Division's Dead Souls and New Model Army, but without all the fighting and burping noises. It sounds like nothing else released on Crass Records.

Arguably most unusual of all, Lack of Knowledge's shunning rock tradition extended to the lyrical content as much as to that which it narrated. The lyrics - if you really want to call them lyrics - are printed in the fold-out cover, reading more like short stories than anything, there being no concession to conventional song structure, rhyme, or anything of the sort; and these are nevertheless sung and with some passion. The stories - or scenarios might be a better term - are brief dystopian tales of life in an oppressive police state, borderline science-fiction but unfortunately nothing like so far-fetched as they should be given the kind of shite our governments tend to get up to when they know there's either no-one looking, or there are sufficient numbers of people like my former pal ready to cheer them on. The sum of the parts is astonishing and possibly unique in the history of modern music, sort of like what you might have had if Joy Division had been a bit less depressing and had recorded a talking book; and weirdly it works.

Doors burst open, and machine gun death rains in on the betrayed conspirators. The remaining few confess their crimes, and when justice is done, they die. They die but the hope lives on.

One criticism I've seen made of records on the Crass label is that they have a certain didactic quality which some find off-putting, a certain utilitarian naming of names, as opposed to slapping a picture of Peter Sutcliffe's garden shed on the front and saying oooh isn't it interesting and subversive how no-one realises that they're looking at Peter Sutcliffe's garden shed. Lack of Knowledge elude this pitfall by illustrating their anti-authoritarian point in cinematic fashion rather than spelling it out by means of the in-house style of having a dog bark at a swarm of angry bees. This gives their music a tremendous and raw emotional impact. In fact, thirty years later I still find it difficult to listen to these four tracks without getting a bit of a lump in the throat, because it's surprisingly uplifting to know that whilst there are some evil, manipulative fuckers out there running the world, we are none of us alone; and Grey represented the real thing, or as close to the real thing as a vinyl record gets - something political and genuinely revolutionary.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Deviation Social - Compilation Tracks 1982-85 (2010)

Deviation Social were by their - or rather his - own admission, hardly prolific, releases being limited to a couple of cassettes and a lonely 7" selling more as a vague trickle than anything invoking images of hot cakes, but nevertheless they - or rather he - seemed to be a name for a little while back there, sneaking in under the radar of general weirdy music in the spirit of Throbbing Gristle just before somebody suddenly decided that it was not only all industrial but that it was a movement. I refer specifically to Throbbing Gristle because, aside from anything, more or less every fanzine review described Deviation Social as their tribute band. Whilst it's true that Arshile Injeyan's influences were worn pretty much on the sleeve, also incorporating SPK and the like, the Gristle-isms are more apparent in the presentation which, if lavish, spoke of the customary Porridgey fixations whilst insisting that Deviation Social were a multi-media enterprise rather than a pop band, because you know how we all used to have such trouble telling the difference between Abba, the Rollers, Racey, and some bloke stood on a stage holding a skull whilst talking about Charles Manson through an echo delay. Well, we were all young once, so never mind.

Having been predisposed to appreciate a Throbbing Gristle tribute band, I would have loved to have got my hands on one of those tapes, but I was still at school at the time, my income being pocket money and the wages of a paper round. The first cassettes I ever sent for through the post were paid for by getting my mum to write out a cheque, and so sending for stuff from America always seemed like it might be taking the piss somewhat, what with the currency and everything. Still, I got there in the end, seeing as we now live in the age of nothing quite staying past tense forever, and I suppose it was worth the wait for this stuff to rematerialise on lovely thick slabs of vinyl.

So there's a track called She Wants To Be With Manson, and the previously mentioned pretence of being a corporate art assault unit rather than merely some bloke with a few effects pedals, and there's the tediously inevitable recurrence of the number twenty-three; but, you know - musically Deviation Social weren't significantly more a karaoke Gristle than any number of other bands of the time, at least no more so than Gristle were themselves karaoke Hawkwind. There's a reliance on unsettling tapes of speeches made by bad guys, which - let's face it - was a trick pulled by everyone and their fucking milkman at the time, but Deviation Social definitely had the makings of being their own distinct entity in these tracks, and might have been remembered as such had they just been a bit more prolific. There's not much in the way of tunes here, at least not tunes for the sake of tunes, and there are a lot of grating electronics and effects without the disadvantage of Porridge reducing everything to an exercise in studied irony. Deviation Social was, roughly speaking, power electronics before power electronics became a formula, and oddly some of it also reminds me of very early Devo.

This isn't the greatest, most original record you will ever buy, but you could do a lot worse, and it's still a mystery how Deviation Social seem to have been generally overlooked, not least in a world in which people still bother with utter pish like Sleep Chamber.