Zomby looks back to the future.
I was 10 in 1992. So, to answer the rhetorical question posed on an M.I.A track a few years back and reexamined on the debut full-length by British master dubstep-cum-wonky producer Zomby, where I was in ’92 was probably out in my backyard playing with G.I. Joes. According to the rare interviews with the recondite Zomby, the future bass fiend was 14 in ’92, too young to gain admission into the thriving UK rave scene, but old enough to be completely taken by the vibrations and auras percolating out of the reclaimed factory space of those illegal parties.
Anyone who has gone through puberty can testify that the age difference between being 10 years old and 14 years old is as vast as the distance between the Earth and the Sun. Similarly, the U.S. and the UK experience of electronic dance music is sweepingly disparate. U.S. dance music was routinely ignored by polite society if it couldn’t be absorbed into the dominant culture, whereas the UK became gripped in panic over the latest youth proclivity for late-night drugging, the street crime that followed the former, and the decidedly anti-capitalist bent of heterotopian rave communities. At the same time as Zomby caught D-Force and Foul Play on pirate radio as a developing lad, I was in suburbia glimpsing only fragments of house music through the occasional radio play of Bizarre Inc., C+C Music Factory, or Inner City on the radio, interspersed with formulary mainstream record label runoff like Richard Marx, New Kids on the Block, or Timmy T.
I enjoyed it all, of course, because I was ten. But in the ensuing years of adolescent objection, I found myself veering away from breakbeats and arpeggios in favor of the grinding guitars of grunge, metal, and rock-based-industrial. Something perverse within the American condition, supplemented by a junk food diet of Rolling Stone and MTV (not to mention a perhaps unconscious reactionary anti-drug, anti-gay, anti-minority cognitive dissonance) caused me to reject the innate rebellion of dance music as disposable and trite, pre-destined for roller-rinks and in-crowds. It was a culture apart from one I was expected to request entry. Europe, on the other hand, found total redemption from the chains of the dasein of late capitalism’s perpetual ennui in staccatos contrasted with whole notes, strobes, amen brothers, rippling vocal tides shouting “selecta”, and late, late nights out as zombies adrift in the somnambulance of waking life’s dreadful limitations.
At the time, music journalists wrote off the scene and particularly the music itself as superficial, unfocused, unrefined, insular, and at times wantonly uncouth. The rapid pace of genre-swapping and scene erosion within what techno scribe and theorist Simon Reynolds has dubbed the hardcore continuum caused many to dismiss the music as fad-hopping bollocks, fueled by youth with no interest in developing the music enough to withstand the litmus test of time. With the perfect hindsight of history, it now appears that the tables have turned. The music of my teenage rebellion seems like rock hegemony. Pearl Jam, Metallica, and Skinny Puppy all seem like contrived and plodding relics, whereas 2 Bad Mice, Mr. Fingers, and 4hero still sound fresh, enduring, and timeless.
The point of this long aside is that Zomby’s debut album Where Were U in ’92? has already been branded as a retro artifact by both those who’d warmly welcome a nostalgia trip and those who could never understand why someone might want to revisit ’92 ‘ardkore in the first place. My argument is that a) those styles are still vital, particularly when not viewed through American rock-goggled lenses, and b)Where Were U in ’92? is more of a love letter than a flashback and thus cannot be carelessly dismissed as a genre experiment.
Far from the unexpected departure many are labeling it, Zomby’s latest is fully informed by his series of undeniably riveting short players for Hyperdub. It is bass music, just made with the old equipment rather than laptops. The wobbly sub-bass on “Euphoria” and “Tears in the Rain” should be familiar to any one with Kode9 or Skream, even if they couldn’t tell their Shep Pettibone from their Shanks & Bigfoot. “Pillz”, on the other hand, computes an offbeat Antipop Consortium-style malfunctioning synth riff which rushes on a grime beat. It’s a killer track and all the signs point more to parody than homage. “Is you rollin’?", a female voice asks of the uncredited male rapper, before concluding “Girl, he get dumb." Even still, it captures its desired energy acutely.
Zomby’s disc seems to try its damnedest to replicate a mixtape, or at least the atmosphere of a mix tape. While it’s easy to get distracted by the titular year in question, the aim of the artist seems to be directed more at evoking the sensation and the sense of possibility in ’92 rather than anything specific. The songs aren’t posed towards becoming singles. They’re mostly pretty short (only one track clocks in at over four minutes) and are either mixed seamlessly into one another or abruptly truncated in the midst of headrush momentum. Some tracks are even so sample-specific that appear to be more remix than original (or even mashup). “Float” exacts the whole of the melody line from Bizarre Inc.’s “Playing with Knives”, while “U R My Fantasy [Street Fighter II Theme Mix]” is essentially a version of the nearly identically named “You are my Fantasy” by Baby D. “Daft Punk Rave” takes on a more recent tune (Daft Punk’s “Technologic”) and crunks it down a couple dozen BPM and riffs on it for minute or so to make the kid robot vocal of the original into the opening of a Shut Up and Dance song. And then as quickly as it appears it’s on to the next.
Of course, the reference points are still all over- diva squeals, recurrent Caribbean voices beckoning “rude boy” or “Zomby dub”, house synth-stabs, the return of the vanished funky break, and the requisite sound effects from Street Fighter II. It’s a mostly wonderful brew, even if it seems slightly pale in the shadow of it reference points. What it provides best, though, is a lucid rearview mirror vista onto a scene that the music press was far too immature to understand.