The Hidden Camera
By Jim Dorling
The recent success of the film Trainspotting may have finally fixed Britain's underground acid-house scene into American popular awareness, but the scene still offers precious little for the casual observer to consume. Instead of Never Mind the Bollocks--or any of the other icons salvaged from the wreck of the last British underground scene--we have a homogenous stream of 12-inch DJ singles; instead of the confrontational images of the Pistols and the Clash in action we have dreads and bald heads bent over mixers. The new dance culture has developed a little trick to keep itself underground: nothing it produces is of much use to anyone not totally immersed in the scene. If you don't believe me try doing all your Christmas shopping at Gramaphone this year--limited edition white-label freestyle breakbeat singles for everybody.
For the acid-house scene total immersion was the key, the way to escape the bleak reality of post-Thatcher Great Britain. Politics seemed futile and punk had been co-opted--time to get dosed up and dance the night away. Like punk before it, rave culture spawned a variety of hybrid styles: digital hardcore, ambient, trip-hop, and jungle. Jungle, or drum 'n' bass, which emerged in 1993, was the most radical departure. Formally, it rejected the rhythmic simplicity of the techno- and house-derived beats, turning to the stripped-down high-hat and snare of late-70s Jamaican dub for primary inspiration, cranking the beats up into a jittery, high-speed percussive assault with booming bass. Stylistically, jungle (also called hardstep) is dark, aggressive, and cold, in stark contrast to the orgasmically upbeat acid house and happycore. Socially, jungle retained the credo of immersion but rejected psychedelic escapism in favor of a new demand to "get real." In clubs like London's AWOL (an acronym for A Way of Life) and in title graphics and vocal samples, jungle has picked up on the fatalism of west-coast g-funk, which prides itself on making an uncensored record of the bleak reality of inner-city life.
The gestures and attitudes of a violent criminal underworld in urban America have been appropriated by a relatively harmless underground dance scene in London. In June Simon Reynolds wrote "Slipping Into Darkness," an article about the advent of jungle at London's AWOL club, in The Wire, a British magazine about avant-garde music. A month earlier Marc Spiegler had written an article for New City called "Ka-Boom! You're Dead" about a gang shooting outside of the River North dance club that led to its immediate closure.
Spiegler observed: "Seasoned clubgoers know the signs: the packs of men ringing the dance floor; hard unflinching stares thrown out above gold chains, tempting you to stare back; the visceral tension that infects the space like a nasty flu..."
Wrote Reynolds: "Overall the balefulness quotient has increased.... I spot a gang of sharp stylists, eyes masked behind sunglasses, standing erect and statuesque in the middle of the dancing throng. Their faces are frozen, their arms folded across the chest, B-boy style..."
They're doin' it in London and in Chicago too. Everybody's male-heterosexual-stare-down-voguing. These descriptions read like two different takes on the same scene, though Reynolds's is naive and Spiegler's jaded. Reynolds enjoys the luxury of romanticizing such threatening gestures, as their implications are radically less serious in London than in Chicago. Of a total 677 murders in all of England and Wales in 1994 (the most recent year for which figures are available), only 9 were attributed to gang violence. Of a total 930 murders committed in Chicago in 1994, 420 were attributed to gang violence.
Bored with rave's trippy escapism, jungle inhabits a glossy Hollywood "reality," where Tarantino gangsters prowl Blade Runner dystopias. British jungle artist Rupert Parke, aka Photek, is hip to this irony--he says his new EP, The Hidden Camera, is about "misinterpreting things and finding misleading angles." The packaging--which in jungle more than most music clues us in to how we should interpret the content--shows a series of seven blurry video surveillance screens, with time and date readouts, set into brown marble panels, placing us in the position of the night watchman in Mike Leigh's Naked, guarding an office building that Johnny, the bitter, wisecracking protagonist, calls a "postmodern gas chamber." The nervous snare-drum paradiddles, bottomless bass, and hollow synths of the title track flesh out the paranoia implied by the cover art; in fact the whole record plays like the audio version of radical social theorist Mike Davis's Beyond Blade Runner: Urban Control--The Ecology of Fear: "Video monitoring of Downtown [LA's] redevelopment zones... constitutes a virtual scanscape...a seamless continuity of surveillance over daily routine."
But The Hidden Camera is really just a meticulous forgery. The first track, "K.J.Z.," confounds our expectations for a dance record as the distinctly rich tones of an upright bass drift over real cymbal splashes and rim shots--but it turns out what we've heard is Elvin Jones turned into a drum machine in a display of sampling virtuosity. The cover photos, seemingly taken from a security station's battery of surveillance monitors, appear after careful inspection to have all been shot with a single hand-held camera. (We are tipped off to this subterfuge by the superimposition of Photek's logo into the first video image.) Parke readily admits as much, and this is not a dismissal of the work; the idea that nothing at all may be "real" about The Hidden Camera works to entangle us in the uncertainty of the night watchman, blinking at his screens and wondering what that sound was.
There is something disturbing, though, about the way Photek so stylishly constructs this grim reality. In one of the video images a figure holds a gun; a few minutes into the title track we hear the metallic click of a clip being loaded into a firearm. In these moments Photek indulges jungle's fascination with American gangsta rap and film violence--the same fascination demonstrated in the gestures Reynolds observed on the floor of AWOL. The artfully tense video images of junglists in Puffa jackets standing around empty parking structures lose their edge when compared to the unposed video image in Spiegler's New City article of a man fending off three opponents with an aluminum bat during the fighting that broke out after the shooting at Ka-Boom! If part of the appeal of underground jungle music from England is to get us out of ourselves for a moment and in touch with the exotic other, it's not working, because by looking at Photek we've circled right back to Chicago, which is the exotic other for British junglists. Real life in urban America exceeds jungle's simulation of what is dangerous, unlivable, and therefore fascinating.
Jungle's talk of "getting real" does not imply a move toward political activism, deemed ineffectual by rave culture--the goal is still to be immersed, not in a warm, fuzzy euphoria but in this cold "reality." Junglists are like the addicts described by William Burroughs in Naked Lunch: "Junkies always beef about The Cold as they call it, turning up their black coat collars and clutching their withered necks...pure junk con. A junky does not want to be warm, he wants to be cool-cooler-COLD. But he wants The Cold like he wants His Junk--NOT OUTSIDE where it does him no good but INSIDE so he can sit around with a spine like a frozen hydraulic jack...his metabolism approaching Absolute Zero."
Booming PAs and throbbing bass bins bring the cold in from mercury-vapor-lit, video-monitored streets of postindustrial cities and onto the dance floor, where it pounds down polite conversation and opens up the higher frequencies to Mr. Freeze stares from skrewface stylists. It is precisely because there is nothing at stake in junglists' appropriation of gangsta attitude that they have been able to turn it into "a way of life." Here such gestures culminate in a spasm of violence like the one that closed Ka-Boom!; in London they can maintain their hard-ass, frozen-spine attitude indefinitely. As the French say, the erection is always better than the orgasm.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Album cover.