I have had a couple of ideas floating round in my head for a while about bass music and my relationship to it. I may come back to add to this list, for example with reflections on the consumerism that seems omnipresent in clubbing culture and what can be done about it.

Aside from the enjoyment I got in writing this, I wanted to flesh these criticisms out in the hope that it would help me get over my (music) writer's block. This was a partial success. Some of these criticisms I can actually act upon, like collaborating more with music production. Others I cannot, and I just have to accomodate myself to reality. In any case, my writer's block has more to do with me not allowing myself to enjoy what I often consider to be a selfish activity, and that's on me.

Anyway, here we go.

(PS: apologies for the awful title, it was the best I could come up with in 10 seconds without blandly calling this "Reflections on bass music".)

It's kinda violent...

I recently got interested in tunes that sample Cutty Ranks "Limb by Limb" (the DJ SS remix, "Kill Dem" by Breakage and Jaime xx and Ms Dynamite singing the riff in "Again" by Clipz - let's not talk about the DJ Guv take). It's an absolute banger, but fuck me are the lyrics grim or what:

Limb by limb we a go cut dem down

Send fi the hacksaw, take out dem tongue

This isn't an isolated case, even if it's a particularly egregious example.

You might be getting defensive at this point and thinking "Yeah, but they don't really mean it, it's just a different way of expressing yourself, don't judge bro". And yes, sure, in most cases I would agree that it's just posturing, but it has consequences. The beef between dancehall producers Mavado and Vybz, excellently told by George the Poet in his podcast, is a case in point. The violence between fans, incited by the lyrics in their songs, got to such extremes that the Jamaican government intervened. That sort of environment obviously has consequences, and in 2018 Mavado's son, Dante Brookes, brutally killed Lorenzo Thomas, reportedly trying to severe his head but giving up because the machete was too blunt.

Even if it is just posturing, the question is why posture at all? And if so, why do it like that? You can sing or rap about anything, including forgetting your wallet in Mexico or the police checking your documentation, so why choose to talk about smoking MCs or killing soundboys? (I don't think I ever felt more white than just now when I wrote "soundboy".)

Of course, this is just one segment of bass music, which also includes many messages of "peace and love" and what have you. But I'm interested in it because, well, I like it. I think it's cool when I hear someone repeat "Murder dem" on repeat, despite it going against my values of non-violence (cemented by my recent reading of George Lakey). Why is that?

I can think of a personal and literal answer to this question - because such messages, like those in gangster rap, are generally disapproved of and so it's a way for me to "rebel" (more on this later). I can also think of another explanation for the violent messages in bass music: the violent contexts in which it and so much other black music was born and still lives in. (Please do not interpret this as me saying that black communities are inherently violent: I believe this violence was largely imposed on these communities by colonialism and its legacies.) Perhaps this violence is an integral undercurrent to a music that I find cool? Perhaps I'm talking out of my arse and have no references to anyone else who thinks this?

EDIT (1st of July 2024): I realised that George the Poet has done an incredible job of describing and explaining violence within black music, a much better job than I could ever do. Check out the episode "Vibrations" but also the entirety of his podcast because it truly is the best thing since sliced bread.

Too many man

The six interviewees of the Discuss podcast: men.

The entire line up of the last Kompass DnB night I played: men.

The producers of Critical Sounds 200th release: all men.

I don't think it's controversial to say that bass music, more than most other electronic music and especially DnB, is male-dominated, whether it is the producers, the DJs who spin their tunes, the promoters or the crowd. Quite simply, I think this sucks and it doesn't have to be this way. I don't believe there is anything inherent to bass music that means that womxn should be so under represented. I think it's mostly a question of habit and inertia, though I've also heard enough downright sexist and transphobic comments to know that explicit discrimination is also part of the problem.

That being said, the forest is not the trees. There are some absolutely wicked womxn producers, from Nia Archives to Flava D, B-Complex to Changing Faces and passing through the legends like DJ Rap and Storm. I have to give a special mention to gyrofield, who, in my opinion, quite figuratively shits on all the competition without even flinching. I'm also happy to see more queer individuals and collectives in the DnB scene as well as programmes like EQ50 (started / run by DJ Flight if I'm not mistaken?) I'm which aim to empower womxn.

I mention this because my experiences of raves in Belgium is that they are even more male dominated than elsewhere. Perhaps I haven't gone to the right nights, since I tend to seek out (almost always male) DJs whose tunes I like instead of queer and female friendly nights out, where I might not know the DJs. The latter are generally not DnB friendly though, and I don't want to choose. I want to listen to Mr Happy on repeat while surrounded by people who don't look like me. Is that so much to ask?

Experiencing bass music can be alienating...

What do I mean by alienation? Here's a definition:

the feeling that you have no connection with the people around you or that you are not part of a group

Two musical experiences have led me to think that bass music is inherently alienating: a jam and capoeira. The jam was a new year's eve party where everyone had been asked to bring their own instruments. It must have lasted about 5 hours and it was a communal experience, with people suggesting songs, musicians dropping in and out and the music evolving effortlessly. Even though I did not know anyone there (and, low key, my winter blues were particularly acute), I felt connected to the group. I've experienced a similar feeling of connection in the rodas of capoeira. Everyone forms a circle, and if you're not "fighting" then you're either playing an instrument or singing. Everyone is involved.

Compare this to going to a DnB rave. You're in a crowd full of strangers, in the dark, probably not sober, staring at one dude (because it is usually a dude) standing on a raised platform or a fuck off spaceship like structure, like demi-god towering above mere mortals, pressing buttons only loosely related to the music coming out of the inhumanly loud speakers. Sure, there will be those "crowd reaction" moments when there's a tune that everyone loves and a rewind is dictated by popular demand, but this is maybe 1% of your time there. And sure, you're probably going there with mates and (hopefully) feeling connected to them, but, compared to other musical experiences, it is not designed for connection. As someone who's done quite a few solo raves, I've not always found it easy to strike up a conversation either (or, more honestly, I've found many smoking room conversations quite unsatisfying). That's when clubbing is not downright dangerous, particularly for women, though thankfully I've noticed a lot of welcome improvements in that direction in Brussels.

My point is that your typical bass night is not designed to be a communal experience in the same way smaller, cosier musical experiences can be. That's fine, and it obviously doesn't have to be that way if you're designing your own bass music night. I just think that it's something worth keeping in mind.

... as is producing it

Speaking from my experience: 99% of my electronic music production involves me, alone, in front of a computer for hours at a time until my brain turns slightly mushy. I do not leave a production session feeling connected to anyone or thing, and in fact I need a readjustment period of at least 30 minutes before I can socialise properly again.

I do have a limited control over this. I could make an effort to be less anal about my productions, since I am usually quite stubborn about my ideas, and collaborate more with others. I could also get involved in a collective. But there is one aspect which is impossible to change, and that is the alienation involved in using a tool, i.e. a computer, that you are unable to build yourself or even conceive its creation. This is unlike a flute, kalimba or tambourine, which I may not be able to make myself, but I can at least make an educated guess and make shit versions of these with little help.

"Hold on Gobs" I hear you protest. "I also don't know how to make, repair or maintain a car, washing machine, boiler, projector, LED screen, phone, running machine, electric bike, solar panel, Instagram,Tiktok, let alone produce the food that's on my plate or purify the water from my local river."

Well, yeah, exactly. Modern life is inherently alienating and disempowering since we are (made to be) reliant on tools that are not designed with us in mind (think social media and the rise in anxiety). We can barely understand these tools, let alone create them, yet we need them to live with others and not become social pariahs. Producing music on a computer may seem a trivial example in light of this, but it's still something that troubles me.

(Aside: This of course brings me to the question that bugs any activity that I do, which is: "Is it collapse proof?" The answer with bass music production is obviously "No". However, I don't think all is lost, see below re my idea for a "Apocalyptic Jungalist Collective".)

In opposition to this, I recently started reading more about "low tech". Roughly speaking, these are technologies that are useful, accessible and sustainable. I like the low tech movement because it's an effort, largely absent in modern society, to think critically about technology and what need(s) it is satisfying, instead of moulding ourselves to adapt to technology. If I applied the philosophy of low tech to bass music, I would start the "Apocalyptic Jungalist Collective", where we remade jungle classics like Original Nuttah on bongos. God, that would be fun...

Though most technology is not designed to be human, and we should not just accept this as the norm, we can also adapt to it. I was struck listening to Krust on the Discuss podcast by the way he approached music production. He sees the studio as a temple. When he goes there and makes music, he's paying respect to everyone who came before him, to all the influences flowing into his productions. This strikes me as a healthy approach to unhealthy, inhuman tools and one I might entertain in the future.

But let's ignore all of that for a second and come back to the fact that I mostly produce electronic music on my own. This should not in itself be alienating. I recently came across this passage in Ursula Le Guin's "The Dispossessed" (no, I will not shut about it, fuck off):

Music is a cooperative art, organic by definition, social. It may be the noblest form of social behavior we’re capable of. It’s certainly one of the noblest jobs an individual can undertake. And by its nature, by the nature of any art, it’s a sharing. The artist shares, it’s the essence of his act.

When I experience an amazing song or life-changing book, I do feel a connection with the artist. I am grateful they exist(ed) and that they created this art. However, I do not mirror this experience when I create something. These words, for example. I write, words or music, because I want to. I realised, while writing this, that I assume that my taking pleasure in other people appreciating my art must be selfish, egotistical and therefore "bad Gobs, bad!". This isn't helped by the fact that what I create is unashamedly personal, because I don't know how to do otherwise. I therefore mostly feel embarrassed about sharing my creations. Here, as with so much of my life, I do not wish to disturb anyone. Perhaps this is because the way we "share" art these days does not feel like genuine sharing. Artist and audience are more often than not separated by a screen and a dollar sign. Despite this, I still hope that people will somehow chance upon my work and experience the same gratitude I feel towards other artists. Having that gratitude expressed to me seems like a double-edged sword - yes it's nice, but I don't want to rely on it to keep going.

Why do I make and enjoy bass music?

I recently read a comic book vulgarising Pierre Bourdieu's "The Distinction" that got me thinking more objectively about the social context of my musical tastes: why is it that I like bass music and not, say, indie rock, or classical music? I must admit that I read the book quite quickly, so I've already forgotten how Bourdieu characterises social classes or which class I "belong to", but here are some quick thoughts that it inspired:

However, external circumstances can only explain my tastes up to a point. They cannot explain why playing "It Comes at Night" by Taxman at my last gig gave me goosebumps but "Rumble" did not. Nor can they justify why I love Bop more than my own mother (and I love my mother very much). My love for bass music was, in some sense, my first encounter with the spiritual, the unexplainable, the exquisitely irrational. While I enjoy the intellectual masturbation you see here, these criticisms are but a lovers' tiff, if not a quarrel whose sole purpose is to entertain.

So fuck it, I'm going to couple rib shattering reeses with feet blistering breaks for as long as I enjoy it. Gobs out.