Call it lazer bass, future blap, turbo crunk, or "Pikachu’s cunt," but beware of a new electronic hip-hop hybrid about to detonate a dancefloor near you.
It’s summer 2007, and it’s a hot day in Montreal. Typical of the season, impromptu street parties are afoot. And, as everyone in this laid-back town can attest, there’s no better accompaniment to sunshine and sidewalk boozing than beats. Buzz is growing around a “secret” outdoor show, and by nightfall almost 1000 sweaty folks have gathered on the derelict grounds below an overpass on the border of Montreal’s young artist haven, Mile End.
A small sea of tight jeans, fedoras, and neon prints plastered to caps and hoodies has amassed, ready to witness the heavy bass of Megasoid, a duo comprised of producers Rob Squire (formerly known as Sixtoo and now known as Speakerbruiser) and Hadji Bakara (of indie rockers Wolf Parade). The pair precariously balances a pile of analog and digital gear on the roof of a clunky minivan parked under the overpass, flanked by large speakers poised to drop serious bass into the thick humidity of Montreal’s summer air.
And drop it does. When the pair’s tweaked-out lazer sounds and distorted bass transform the already-perfect “Get Ur Freak On” (by Missy Elliott) and “Made You Look” (by Nas), people dance like it’s the Apocalypse–their last chance to party with total abandon.
Bass Here Now
In the year and half since, Megasoid’s “under the bridge” show has become legend in the Montreal music scene. Squire and Bakara were on to something contagious and subterranean, something that was about to erupt. Mainstream hip-hop had become stale, uninventive, and predictable in its arrangement. Club techno was returning to its “ravey” side, taking a hard right turn from Montreal’s traditionally minimal aesthetic. And while the phenomenon of melding the two kinds of music was nothing new–everyone from Jeff Mills to Diplo has mixed hip-hop and techno together–DJing and remixing these somewhat divergent sounds had become altered irrevocably with the possibilities of new technology.
Beyond just using software like Ableton Live to remix tracks, a new crop of artists had begun fusing hip-hop’s and dancehall’s lyrical fire and insistent boom-bap with techno’s heavy kicks, glitchy noise, and 8-bit synths. They threw in some mad, inhuman time signatures and birthed quite a post-modern mélange of sound, culture, and technology–a sound that New Yorker music critic Sasha Frere-Jones dubbed “lazer bass” in his scene-surveying article last March.
The French (Canadian) Touch
The scene is still in its infancy, explains French-Canadian DJ and producer Ghislain Poirier. “It blew up last year,” he offers, but with the caveat that “there’s not enough thought behind it for it to last long. We’re all just into a similar sound right now. It’s a vague association of producers in just [a few] cities, and now it’s come to light.”
In Poirier’s native Montreal, the scene coalesces around two parties: his own Bounce Le Gros and Megasoid’s monthly Turbo Crunk party. The names themselves–"fat bounce" and aggressive techno-rap on overdrive–have proven to be good descriptors of the DJ/producers’ sound, which involves tweaking popular hip-hop acapellas over experimental, off-kilter hip-hop-speed beats, and sometimes augmenting them with rappers and dancehall MCs. Megasoid is the backbone of the Montreal scene, often performing with collaborators in the Turbo Crunk posse, including rising lazer-basser Lunice, whose music has morphed from sample-based, Dilla- and bossa nova-inspired stuff into minimalist hyphy. "Megasoid makes the marriage of Detroit techno and hip-hop impossibly entertaining," Squire explains. "We're more and more concerned with heavy bass."
Poirier, who has a background in leftfield beats (he released on Toronto label Intr_Version and Chocolate Industries before linking up with Ninja Tune for his latest album, No Ground Under), has also been central to the formation of the bass scene. His Bounce Le Gros night at Montreal club Zoobizarre mashes together all manner of dancehall, reggae, and hip-hop, and draws an entirely diverse crowd to a low-ceilinged cave of a joint that, as Poirier says, “you can pack full of sweaty people ready to party without much notice.”
As Poirier notes, the future-synth bass explosion is not just a Montreal thang. Across the ocean, Glasgow, Scotland is another rumbling hotbed, nurtured by a crew of a dozen or so known as LuckyMe, which includes producers Rustie (who also record for Hyperdub, Stuff, and Warp), Dom Sum, and Hudson Mohawke and Mike Slott of Heralds of Change, who hail from Dublin. The crew throws a bangin’ monthly called The Baller$ 5ocial Club at Glasgow School of Art, broadcasts a radio show on samurai.fm, and designs its own brand of streetwear called Oddities on top of performing near and far. LuckyMe has its own record label, too; its first release was Hudson Mohawke’s leftfield beat cruncher EP, Ooops, a psychedelic take on hip-hop and grime whose only downfall is being perennially “out of stock.”
While much of this sound revolves around tricky synths and throbbing, wobbling bass, these guys still don’t sound alike. Rustie veers toward off-kilter, perverse, and dark joints like videogame dubstep number “Inside Pickachu’s Cunt” and the fragmented electronic hip-hop of 2007’s groundbreaking “Jagz the Smack.” Mike Slott leans toward more beautiful, Dilla-inspired boom-bap-crunch and ’80s synths, as on “Amanallah” and his recent collabos with New York vocalist Muhsinah.
It looks as though LuckyMe has a bright future in front of them, but they’re not ones to speak too soon. After a recent set at the Pop Montreal festival, Rustie echoed Poirier’s sentiments about the tenuousness of the young scene: “This is what it’s like right now… but it could be totally different tomorrow,” he confided.
All Points West
It’s probably worth noting that each of the four central cities in the sprawling international bass scene has a decided laid-back, liberal bent. The two U.S. centers of the sound, L.A. and San Francisco, epitomize that vibe, and maybe even take it a step further, with an m.o. that’s a bit more focused on individual artists than posses.
Maybe because of that individualistic spirit, it’s even more difficult to nail down the West Coast’s sound: Everything from drum & bass to glitch to hyphy beats is represented. Lazer Sword (whose members Bryant Rutledge and Antaeus Roy are former XLR8R employees) carries the torch for San Francisco; their (mostly) instrumental synth-hop sound, keenly prefigured by their name, is in full effect on the outta-control Blap to the Future mixtape–18 remixes and edits with acapellas ripped from Busta Rhymes and Lil Wayne. (Manybrain.blogspot.com, a shared blog maintained by a number of the folks mentioned in this article, claims that the production on Blap is so thick that it “raised the bar” for mixes to follow.)
A rag-tag collective of artists has also sprouted up around Los Angeles’ Low End Theory party, the internet radio station dublab, and the Plug Research and Alpha Pup labels, who are best know for their successes in IDM and abstract hip-hop. Low End Theory, thrown by L.A. underground godfather and Alpha Pup label head Daddy Kev, has hosted everyone mentioned above as well as frequent sets from L.A.-based Edward “edIT” Ma and his crew, The Glitch Mob, who have an LP of their hyper-and-happy glitch breaks due out this year. And on the headier and jazzier side of the equation is Flying Lotus (a.k.a. Steven Ellison), whose abstract compositions are described by peers as being sexy and psychedelic at the same time (and whose Brainfeeder label is coming on strong as the next contender for the broken-bass roster of choice).
The collaborative spirit is high: everyone remixes each other's tracks, and makes tour stops at both Zoobizarre and Low End Theory. But it took a while for the connections to materialize. By phone from his studio, L.A. producer Jason Chung (a.k.a. Nosaj Thing) admits that he was surprised when Montreal’s Turbo Crunk crew invited him to play at their monthly last year, because, as Chung sees it, his music isn’t club music. “I wasn’t used to playing music that people dance to!” he exclaims. “I didn’t expect the crazy response to it but it really inspired me and so I’ve created a set for [dancier venues].”
So what’s the common ground between Chung’s sonic ideas on the West Coast and those erupting in a French-Canadian city he’d never visited before? It’s more than just a similar love for fusing hip-hop and abstract electronics–it’s how they interrelate the low-end, the slowed-down tempo, and the inventive synth sounds. And technology has everything to do with it.
“The common sound comes from us all sharing similar ideas because we have the same tools and similar vision. We embrace technology. The hardware and software provide the inspiration, but how each artist uses the tools makes it interesting," says Chung. "We share ideas on MySpace and by chatting online all the time. We’re helping each other move forward, like, ‘Hey, what do you think of this new plug-in?’ We’ll use a plug-in totally differently but we inspire each other.”
Poirier attributes the nascent scene to a sort of collective consciousness. “Sometimes the same idea happens in two parts of the world with people who’ve never spoken to each other," he says. "The same idea just happens to be there and sometimes you see links between people. Look at The Bug, who, years ago, was doing mainly noise music when I was doing mainly ambient music–and now, together, we’re doing mainly reggae stuff. It’s just change and integrating new stuff as the available technology changes.”
Lazer Sword’s Bryant Rutledge has yet another take on it. “The music we’re making in our respective scenes sounds very different from one another, but I think there’s definitely a mutual respect for one another’s output, and the general idea of risk-taking.”
Tag, You're It
Though these artists love making up funny names, they’re seriously reluctant to align themselves with any tag, whether it be lazer bass, future blap, or turbo-crunk. Getting people to talk about a new genre is fine, but more important is getting people to check out the music itself, says Chung.
“There’s just no point in being labeled because the sound is changing all the time,” Poirier concurs. “But at the same time, it’s nice to see people paying attention and making the connections.”
Bass is the Place
Lazer Sword’s Bryant Rutledge picks five blappers you must seek out.
SebastiAn - “H.A.L.” - (Ed Banger)
Blunt thuds, skittery snares, and a super-chopped vox from Paris, best played slooooowwww.
Hot Dollar - “Streetz on Lock (Megasoid Rmx)” - (unreleased)
The Jermaine Dupri signee gets a speaker-bustin’ Montreal facelift.
Hudson Mohawke - “Ooops!” - (LuckyMe/Wireblock)
HudMo takes icy, clipped synths and Tweet’s “Oops” vocal to the next level.
Lazer Sword - “Gucci Sweatshirt” - (Pish Posh)
1980s style meets 2010s production on this future-hop killer.
Rustie - “Zig-zag” - (Wireblock)
Frizzy pads, tight snares, and step-sequenced synths signal the next phase of dubstep.