Though he's lived in Manhattan nearly 15 years, British music writer Simon Reynolds has championed UK underground sounds like grime and jungle long before we Yanks caught wind of them. Following his groundbreaking tomes on rave culture (Generation Ecstasy) and post-punk (Rip It Up and Start Again), Reynolds' latest book, Bring the Noise (Faber), collects 20 years' worth of his journalism and criticism, focusing on the relationship between white alternative rock and black street music.
XLR8R: Why does Bring the Noise focus on the relationship between white underground rock and black street music?
Simon Reynolds: Well, it's probably the single most important motor of change in rock history... to the point where rock history wouldn't have even happened without these white-on-black relations of fascination, projection, appropriation, mutation, etc. But if it has been the motor of change, then right now that engine is sputtering. Hip-hop is where the problems start... You have figures like The Beastie Boys and, more recently, The Streets, but just looking at The White Rapper Show from earlier this year, you can see how difficult it's been for whites to take on hip-hop and take it anywhere new. If they just copy it, they're redundant; if they white-ify it, then it's no longer accepted as hip-hop.
Is electronic dance music a bridge between those two worlds?
I thought it was. Especially jungle–this wasn't the reason I was so into it, but certainly one of the many things in its favor was that it seemed to be a totally multicultural youth subculture and perhaps heralded a new post-racial Britishness (which did blossom later with 2-step garage).
You argue that indie rock and hip-hop seemed to have reached a deadlock.
Indie rock has been rearranging the same stale shards of archival sound into slightly fresh mosaics for almost as long as I can remember. Really, it goes back to where Rip It Up winds up–the back-to-the-'60s move made by alternative rock in the mid-'80s. There's been various bands that pushed the envelope–Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine and, most recently, Animal Collective–but the bulk of it has been doing this retro-recombinant thing. Hip-hop just seems to have run out of ideas. Sonically and lyrically, it's like a treadmill at the moment. Who was the last truly original persona to emerge in rap? People go on about Lil Wayne, and he's great, but he put out his debut album in 1999!
In a recent interview, you mentioned the possibility that "it's not a specific genre but (it's) music as a whole that has ceased to be at the driving center of the culture." Why?
[It's] just a palpable absence of vibe, of a sense that it's the place to be. You can feel it in the writing about music; there's this air of inconsequentiality, a lack of conviction. No one is making big claims for anything. There seems to be more buzz, more energized chatter, in other areas of culture like art. The fact that Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney have to break bread–or biscotti–with Starbucks in order to shift their new albums just seems to be humiliating for all of us involved in this music thing!