[30 November 2003]
Six million ways to live, and just as many folks out there trying to express themselves, waiting to be heard. There are as many genres now as there used to be songsmiths. What’s a conscientious reviewer to do?
Well, for one thing, help weed the good from the naff. All these sounds, all these voices, you listen and you ask yourself: is this record necessary? If these sounds didn’t exist, would anyone miss them? Do they contain a truth that somehow informs me? Do I like the forms and patterns of the sounds themselves? All of which is to say—is this stuff any good?
Chances are, for the most part you won’t find much that changes your existence. Over the course of a life, or even a year, there are only so many weddings and birthdays and funerals, only so many days when you’ll meet the love of your life or of the weekend. Most days aren’t full of epic grandeur, but hopefully the majority offer small moments to sustain you and offer the sense that it’s all worthwhile.
And so with music: the discovery of an artist or band that you know will be with you forever, or at least for a generation or so, it happens but seldom. In between, you’re looking for glimpses, something you can relate to, enjoy under its own terms. With a new disc, sometimes it’s sufficient to play a few times, enough to enjoy and know you’ll be able to wake up the next morning and still respect yourself.
For me, the Dub Pistols offer such pleasures. They are one of a small handful of bands that you sense creating music primarily because they too want to hear what they have to play. In a sense, they are a heartwarming story of DIY. Dub Pistols music is always likely to slip beneath the mainstream radar because it is utterly without compromise. They present a sound-clash of ska and punk, dub and hip-hop, a feast of fat beats laced with slick raps, and whether you like it or not is of no concern to them.
Their new album, Six Million Ways to Live, opens with the fine vocal nuance of guest Horace Andy, primarily known for his work with Massive Attack, and less well known for his prodigious output of progeny—16 children from a variety of mothers at last count. Also less well-known is the quality catalogue of solo work that he’s produced over a couple of decades or more, work that if you’re unfamiliar with you should check out.
“Problem Is” follows, and it features a real-live ghost in the second guest-vocal slot: Terry Hall. Terry Hall, as in the Specials, Fun Boy Three, the Colourfield. That Terry Hall. The result of this particular collaboration is a ska track that both honors Hall’s past and recommends his future. Hall is a man who’s thrown enough individualistic, stylized music our way over the years that, truth be told, he should be permitted the tranquility of his retirement if he wants, should shun us forever if he feels so inclined. Which is probably what he’ll do.
Perhaps the highlight of the album is the title track, a rap tenderly crafted over a beautiful acoustic backing track. Once it’s gone, the beats and rhymes get heavier, and while those in the world of rap and hip-hop lay down hours of tracks shouting out credentials as to who’s “most street,” few, if any of them, offer a sound that so authentically replicates the urban experience as clearly as this.
I once saw Barry Ashworth spin a pre-dawn DJ set in an abandoned warehouse just south of Los Angeles Airport, a gritty urban enclave that was neatly hidden on the outskirts of the golden city. This was around the time of the last Dub Pistols release, 1998’s Point Blank, and what most clearly resonates both here and at that time is a sense of defiance in the face of decay. His are street tales told within music, not some ill-conceived boast served at the expense of the music.
Hip-hoppers out there, they ought to take note. This is keeping it real.