Saturday, 2 August 2014

The Art of Not Quite Falling Apart: Why Seemingly Disparate Music is Great for the Same Reason

MF Doom would seem to have nothing to do with The Libertines. Likewise, The Libertines and Four Tet. However, in my opinion there is one theme which unites all three of the artists which I've just mentioned. This theme is also the thing which makes each of them great.

When Four Tet's Fabriclive mix was released in 2011, it came as a surprise to some that he devoted almost the entirety of the mix to little known UK garage gems from a decade previously. Usually known for his genre hopping sets (this was a man whose DJ Kicks mix had included both Curtis Mayfield and So Solid Crew for chrissakes), it seemed unusual for him to restrict himself to one sound. However, in many ways it made perfect sense. In his output as Four Tet, the man known to his mother as Kieran Hebden has progressively produced music more and more indebted to various strains of UK dance music over the past decade or so. Far greater than this however, is the influence of the broken rhythms of UK garage and jungle on his output. The off kilter beats of UKG, with its shuffling hi-hats and irregular kick drums, are clearly reflected in the highly syncopated drum tracks of his work. That Hebden has worked closely with jazz drummer Steve Reid can come as no surprise to anyone who has ever listened to a Four Tet record.

Hebden's best productions tread a very fine line - his beats are often so syncopated it sounds as if everything could rattle loose at any moment. One element of syncopation is groove; this is a term used to describe a slight offset of rhythm tracks from the exact beat or half-beat. Without groove, productions can sound lifeless and robotic. Four Tet pushes groove to the maximum, achieving  highly irregular drum patterns which are often offset by mesmerising pretty melodies.

This approach to cadence and rhythm is followed in a different way by MF Doom, whose rap style sounds as if it is always on the point of tripping over itself. The emphasis in his syllables is often placed away from the beat in the instrumental track, and even when it's on the beat, it's not quite on the beat. This doesn't mean that DOOM isn't a technically gifted rapper however, it takes a lot of skill to actually pull this off in the booth without sounding kind of pathetic. And lumbering though his deep voice may sound, the cadence is actually surprisingly fast; how a man so large can spit so many syllables in such a short space of time is beyond me. Listen to Meat Grinder an try to match the vocal flow the beat. It's incredibly difficult to reconcile but somehow sounds just right, a real white knuckle ride between the strikes of the rhythm. Generally the use of syncopation in hip hop is an important part of the genre; rhythm is really nothing without it. Stories of producers such as J Dilla programming beats without using quantising (the process whereby human played beats are snapped to a discrete set of points on a musical timeline before groove is reapplied) abound. DOOM's style then is just an exaggeration of this feature of the genre.

Unfortunately DOOM's flow is something that often doesn't translate particularly well live. Even when he's not sending impostors to perform in his place (no, really), gig reports are often scathing. I personally saw him in Birmingham a few years ago and although I love his recorded music, his live show was a shambles. DOOM didn't even appear bothered; it was as if he just wanted to get the whole thing over with, get his money and go home.

This in fact gives MF DOOM two things in common with The Libertines, who have admitted that their recent Hyde Park gigs were staged solely for the filthy lucre. The gigs themselves were by all accounts pretty shambolic, with mumbled lyrics and snuffed guitar solos a key feature. That they claimed to have rehearsed only for an hour prior to such an occasion is only true to form. This has always been part of the Libertines shambolic charm. Whether they were burgling each other's houses or making records that sounded as if they were tossed off in an afternoon between drinking sessions (they probably were), verging on the edge of (Baby)shambles was always exactly what they were about. Their ability to walk this line is why their Hyde Park gigs rapidly sold out, and it's the lack of this ability in their members other projects which means they're largely ignored. I didn't even know that Carl Barat's dreadfully dull Dirty Pretty Things had disbanded in 2008, or that Doherty's truly shambolic Babyshambles had released an album last year, until I began researching this piece. Perhaps it's the ability of the pair to anchor each other in the middle ground that means they can walk the tightrope that they do, a kind of musical Julian Barrett and Noel Fielding if you will.

With this in mind, you might think that a collaboration between the other two artists in this piece would itself fall into shambles, surely the syncopation of Four Tet combined with the arrhythmia of DOOM's vocals would be too much for one record to stand? Apparently not, as Four Tet's remix LP of DOOM and Madlib's Madvillain project attests. Somehow this meeting of minds too manages the art of not quite falling apart.