[9 August 2009]
The first thing I thought when I studied the cover of Beatdown was: “Sheesh, 37 tracks! Whatever for?” I mean, I appreciate the generosity, but do people really have the attention span in our “is Google making us stupid?” age to sit through such expansiveness without itching to behead the record somewhere at the half-hour mark? But then I had to remember that we weren’t talking about 37 tracks of the sprawling Mahavishnu Orchestra.
Beatdown, as it happens, is a polished, though unremarkable, mixed tape by London’s super DJ trio, cut from the same fabric as any, ahem, Fabric Live mix, with most tracks lasting around the respectable two-minute mark. The mix is roughly divided into three parts. The first is filthy, aggressive and throbbing, just like any grime/dubstep/breakbeat repertoire is expected to be. The immediate sensation one gets is the obvious one of being party to an amphetamine-fuelled clubnight at Ministry, I mean Fabric. Indeed, it can only be danced or zonked out to. Short on audible lyric and melody, it would be a great revelation if this near monolithic wall of pulverising sub-bass and sparse rhythm held the listener captive without him or her surfing the web or licking envelopes by track 14 (“Jahova VIP” by Rusko).
Having said that, this chapter of Beatdown offers a veritable crash course in the industrial offshoots of UK garage for those living outside Britain. Even though the likes of Dizzee Rascal, Wiley and Lady Sovereign have given chart-topping status to 140 bpm reggae beats, metal-on-metal dischords and – thanks to Rascal – toe-curling murder-mongering raps, in truth underground grime and dubstep remain as inaccessible to the casual listener as Throbbing Gristle. With Beatdown, the Perverts have done the uninitiated a favour by pairing the hardcore punching-bag cacophony of Benga’s “Stop Watching” with “Do It” by Bristol-based Joker, for whom melody is cool again. In this, Joker is following Croydon-based Skream, who seared a hole through the corrugated iron precinct of dubstep with 2005’s “Midnight Request Line”. This was a gilded crossover hit that featured a Jello-like arpeggiated synth motif. Insofar as Beatdown indicates what’s in the current underground, it also pooh-poohs critics’ concerns that this inner-city hyper-masculine sound (which in the opinion of some still doesn’t warrant a pigeonhole of its own) had hit a cave wall and was reverberating in on itself.
But there is still plenty of fodder for wet-dreaming grime purists. Beginning with Caspa’s “Rat-a-ta-tat”, Dynamite MC’s guttural “Rat-a-tat-tat-tat-tat” grates eardrums while airtight bursts of drill-like bass over a pronounced 2-step leave plenty of holes to fill. Skitz’ “Born Inna System”, propelled by sticks-like-Velcro spasms of bass, has us thinking we’re in for some Rastafarian deliverance from Babylon but instead veers into a speed rap by Buggsy. The only part of it that’s detectable, without straining one’s concentration to laughable proportions, is when he dares us to purchase a copy of the compilation “from Fabric for about five bucks”. And while Joker’s “Do It” is palatable for its staccato minor-chord arpeggio leitmotif, it’s not wanting in dubstep’s obligatory garnishes: siren assaults, gurgles, atonal and metallic chunks. Finally, DJ Prime Cuts’ “Warning”, with Dynamite MC intoning the grisly details of urban warfare before a Lee Scratch Perry-esque sample of the title, reminds us of dubstep’s indebtedness to reggae.
The second half of Beatdown is an unexpected microcosm of clubland. The variety of breakbeats, Baile funk, UK wonky techno and acid house spew forth a gem or two. The shift in sands begins with Flying Lotus’ “Roberta Flack”, which the Perverts introduce by glacially fading out the bass drone, 2-step riddim and static noise of the previous dubstep track “Jahova VIP” and fading in Lotus’ bongo-driven rhythm. Ethereal echo-doused female vocals and minimal three-chord keyboard accompaniment lend the track a chilled-out distinction like an oasis in Hades. The funk quotient gradually increases with “Roberta” dissolving and rebooting into Zomby’s cantering, melody-driven “Rumours & Revolutions”. The Perverts then transport us to Womad with Buraka Som Sistema’s “Sound of Kuduro”, an Angolan stomping herd drum-led musique concrete featuring musician-activist MIA (the track first appeared on special editions of MIA’s Kala).
By track 18 your ears will most certainly perk up. “Subio, Desceu” is a production of DJ Feadz, best known for providing beats for fellow Parisian rapper Uffie, and features MC Wesley in the chorus. The track begins with Baille-funk rhythms and childlike rapping courtesy of an unknown Brazilian MC. As synths are gradually added for color, the track quite brilliantly transitions into Mozart’s “Rondo Alla Turca”. The funk then turns acid with AC Slater’s “Jack Got Jacked” and “128 Trek”, provided by former drum-and-bass lord DJ Zinc. The concluding third of the mix pummels through swashbuckling jungle/drum & bass, of which only “Aztec” jolts the listener out of crackling drum-induced hypnosis.
Once you get passed the dreaded feeling that Beatdown is little more than Clockwork Orange “aggy”, you’ll conclude that it’s what is expected of a good club night: adrenaline in arena-sized proportions to lose your mind to, but also ample variety to prevent your senses from assimilating to the aural assault.