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Sonic Intimacy, as a Political Resource

Published onMar 17, 2022
Sonic Intimacy, as a Political Resource

One Nation NYE 1997, The Island Ilford

This essay begins at a rave; at One Nation’s New Year’s Eve party. We are in Ilford, London and it’s the 31st December 1997.

One Nation NYE 1997 [See 0-5mins]

This film, made by Tom Cordell, shows the end of year countdown.1 DJ Brockie on the decks and MC Det on the mic. As the New Year is called by Det, Brockie drops Piper (Grooverider mix), and the revellers start getting down. Panning round we see the dancers and performers on stage, and behind them shots of a multi-ethnic crowd of young women and men. This is a jungle rave in full effect. The dim light and the lasers. The euphoria, the energy of the MC’s voice and the kinetic force of collective bodies. The junglist massive grooving together, charged by the pounding basslines. People from different walks of life, ‘’avin’ it’.

This is a techno-social-sonic coming together. The rave is defined by your co-presence with sound, speakers and revellers, and that shared feeling of something bigger than you; a journey into something bottomless. You might otherwise know that coming together as the ‘vibe’, ‘groove’ or ‘buzz’ but in jungle it is known as ‘hype’. ‘Hype’ is jungle’s name for sonic intimacy.

We start with this jungle rave because it marks – physically, socially and politically – a moment of transition. Held in Ilford, the ravers dance on the borders of London and Essex, where the city meets the suburbs, new towns and market towns beyond. The venue is the Island Ilford, a repurposed 1937 ABC Cinema. One Nation is expanding, like other raves that same evening, into the holes left in the fabric of the city by changing leisure practices, de-industrialisation and social care cuts.

Our tickets are dated New Year’s Eve 1997, 7 months after New Labour came to power; 7 months after 2 decades of Tory rule. In the multiculturalist claims of the MCs and DJs we hear the organic conviviality of the dance floor – forged in those grim years unemployment, endless Northern Irish war, and Powellite racism – being formed into the D:Ream mantra ‘Things can only get better’.2

Here then we have the fag-end of Conservative prime minister John Major’s Britain, inner-city neglect, porous capitalism and tail-end social democracy before New Labour’s regeneration bulldozers move in. And as the ravers dance with the ghosts of the past, they herald the future at 160bpm. The explosive, libidinal energies of that rave hunger for something more than grimness and Blairite chic, just as they speed up the metronome for digital capitalism to come.

Sonic intimacy, as a political resource

This moment then introduces some important questions for discussion. It helps us think about the alternative cultural politics of black diasporic sound cultures; it helps us think about how those alternative cultural politics are transforming, and what is at stake in that transformation. And, in the context of racism, nationalist consolidation, increasingly stratospheric capitalism and visual-racial-computational capture, it asks why that matters?

What I want us to think about then, is about the persistence, or not, of alternative cultural politics in late modernity (generally) and black diasporic sound cultures (specifically), and to engage with the quality of that persistence. By ‘alternative’, I mean alternative to the dominant; the Darwinian/Malthusian/profiteering/racial/visual or logocentric myths of post-Copernican modernity – what Sylvia Wynter calls Man2.3

So, our task is not just to elaborate some shifts in the sounds, society, and technology of black diasporic culture for their own sake, but to do that to document and explore alternative registers to dominance, such that we might understand those alternatives better; such that we might make them live as resources, in a moment of global and ecological barbarism.4

In making that argument, I am developing the Special Issue’s frame of ‘catalytic signifiers’, towards the sonic and towards an embodied understanding of the transformation of cultural politics. As will become apparent, I hope, black diasporic sound cultures are important places to look for alternative political registers, because of the long and contradictory relationship black diasporic cultural politics has to dominant, and narrow, notions of humanity.5 That is to say, in the same breath, that they are important places to look because of the alternative ways in which black diasporic cultural politics has told stories of Black life, of humanity and of planetarity.6 That is not to say that this is the only version of alternative cultural politics that persists on the planet, but the magnitude of slavery, colonialism and capitalism as defining projects of modernity, makes it one of the most salient, persistent and vital.

When I use the term cultural politics I am not talking about the culture of politics, as we might do if we were talking about activism, but about the way in which culture itself is political. When I say cultural politics I am talking about how power is negotiated through culture; through what is at stake in culture; through what is at stake in popular culture; what is the wager it holds for humanity, if you like.

I develop these notions in a book I recently published called Sonic Intimacy.7 In that book I explore this question of alternative cultural politics through a discussion of black diasporic sound cultures – namely, reggae sound systems, jungle pirate radio and grime YouTube music videos.8 In the book, I argue that reggae sound systems, jungle pirate radio and grime YouTube music videos are key constellations through which the transformation of alternative cultural politics can be evaluated. They are key, because of the ways that each is archetypal of the alternative energies of the time, namely of the 1970s and 1980s, the 1990s and 2010s.9

My argument is that the alternative cultural politics of these three key constellations – reggae sound systems, jungle pirate radio and grime YouTube music videos – was, and is, experienced through their sonic intimacy. In the case of the reggae sound system, this was called ‘the vibe’, and the vibe of the reggae sound system conveyed political demands beyond the racist state of the day.10 The vibe wasn’t written down anywhere, it wasn’t scripted or owned, but it was commonly held, it was a popular wisdom that for a good dance you needed the vibe to be right. To quote Bikey from Sir Coxsone sound system.

Sometimes at a dance ‘I don’t know what the problem is, could be the place, or could be the sound you are playing with, could be anything but you find you don’t feel right, the vibe’s not right’.11

The vibe of the reggae sound system was then composed socially, technologically and sonically. It comprised the majority black and working-class congregation (and therefore too their experiences of racism and class injustice), the technology through which the reggae was played – the speakers and so on; and the sound which cohered it all. And in the reggae sound system that was a bass heavy sound which channelled, as the poet Linton Kwesi Johnson says, the moving, the hurting black story.12

If sonic intimacy comes across initially as an esoteric idea, I hope you now appreciate that it is very far from it. Ask any raver what they like about a good night out and they will tell you about the energy, the buzz, the feeling, the vibe. It’s deeply meaningful, but at the same time not very well understood. We are more accustomed to analyse language, social structures and technology but not really the substance that flows between. And so, we miss out.

The reason why sonic intimacy might be perceived as esoteric, is not because it is, but because of the way it and its cultural politics of wisdom, wholeness and mutuality, contained in those buzzes and vibes, persist in minor relation to the dominant scripting of modernity as Darwinian/Malthusian/profiteering/racial/visual or logocentric.

At the risk of dampening any burgeoning romanticism, I just want to be clear, that while alternatives evidently flow through and between these three key constellations, none are neatly oppositional. Indeed, I am using the word ‘alternative’ deliberately to avoid such a reading. I am using the word ‘alternative’ to signal that we are not here discussing an anti-modern otherworld. Such an assessment would after all be close to a primordial ascription of black culture, and black sonics, which is, as we know, a racist caricature. Alternative then denotes sound cultures wholly within modernity, but that carry the cultural political registers of modernity’s other lives.

The following focuses this discussion on the transformation of sonic intimacy between jungle pirate radio and grime YouTube music videos.

Jungle pirate radio

Back to the rave!

If the rave was the consecrating centre of jungle culture, pirate radio was its ethereal body. There had been UK pirate radio before, of course, broadcast from ships in the 1950s and 1960s and later from illicit land-based transmitters, but jungle pirate radio was different. Jungle pirate radio refused to be folded into the commercial choice frameworks that characterised radio innovation of the day. As part of an autonomous economy of pressing houses, record stores, and transmitter fabricators, it existed to provide music otherwise denied to the massive.

Jungle pirate radio was broadcast from sheds, disused flats, squats and hired premises, but it is most associated with tower blocks. Pirate radio transmitters were placed on the rooftops of local authority housing because FM signals do not travel well through solid objects such as dense city housing.

It is not hard then to make the connection between jungle pirate radio and the welfare state, but jungle pirate radio did not just sprout from social democratic housing, it was a mutualist undertaking too. In terms of its social organisation, jungle pirate radio comprised the DJs and MCs, but so too the technicians responsible for transmission, and sometimes the caretaker and residents who could facilitate access to the roof or phone into the station should the Department of Trade and Industry (the DTI) pull up below. The DTI was the government department responsible for enforcing broadcast legislation.

As Miley from Defection FM explained to Select Magazine in 1993:

The thing is, we’ve got 20 years of family life behind us in this area. Everyone knows everyone. If a car pulls up outside that looks like it might be the DTI, someone’s old girl will’ve rung us up before they’ve open the car door.13

Defection 89.4FM was one of the earlier jungle pirates, and like Kool and Weekend Rush, it broadcast from Hackney’s Nightingale Estate.

Figure 1 – Nightingale Estate c.1992, still from BBC2 Radio Arena14

Jungle pirate radio was a pleasure infrastructure, humorous in its defiance and defiant in its humour, and at Defection 89.4FM this politics was incorporated into the logo which pirates used to mock the DTI itself.

Figure 2 – Defection FM logo15

Figure 3 – Department of Trade and Industry logo

Locked into 89.4 Defection FM. We’re now with DJ Wicked.

Defection FM 89.4 [Listen to 10.00-12.00mins]

We are listening to is an exciting moment in musical history. The sound that comes to be called jungle is emerging from hardcore, techno, hip hop, reggae and dub, and at the same time the different taste and racial geographies of the Thames Basin are coming together. These social and sonic movements are being channeled, held and sustained by an ethereal form of hype emanating from jungle pirate radio transmitters.

On this evening in 1992, thousands of radios are locked in forming an intimate co-presence - a connectivity between the station and listeners; and a sense of oneness – the massive fervently and commonly held. In a fractured and sped up society, jungle pirate radio is the unifying force through which listeners in different places (physically and socially) feel they are known and heard by others.

Untidy and error prone; imperfect, redolent of stutters, mumbles and background noise; the MC’s voice is sometimes barely audible over the music. That patterning generates presence. It generates intimacy. It affirms the messy vernacular of everyday life, opening listeners to the station and to each other. Something impossible for the disembodied voice of BBC radio unity.16

The feeling of hype, of a system on the edge, of a fire lit under a single point in time, is not only down to the music, the MCing and the mixing, because the hype that you have just heard is also composed through jungle pirate radio’s wider sonic, technological and the social relations. It is established through technicians’ search for transmission sites, climbing onto roofs with the anticipation of broadcast and the risk of being caught. It is generated through the DJ’s experience, the excitement of being called in, feeling like you “just won the FA cup” (alluding to association football in England), getting ready to play, going to the station, hiding your records, climbing in the lift, getting on the decks, and playing all that back to the city.17 Home after a night out, hype is tuning in, phone-ins, feeling the rave in the living room. It is the call-and-response. It is the rush from the bass of a stereo that doesn’t have bass. Your body recalling the dance through aural signals that are no longer registered on the surface of the skin.

In a landscape of isolated micro-environments – bedrooms, cars and living rooms – hype is the shrinking of distance from a stranger’s metropolis to London Town; a patchwork of 10-25km radius jungle transmissions; and the extension of empathy from yourself, to the junglist massive.

Flicking the dial to Kool FM 94.6 MC Dett is now hype’s conductor.

[DJ Brockie and MC Det 1996, start to 3mins] [credit:]

Det sends a shout out to ‘all the massive locked in …’. DJ Brockie drops the intro to ‘16 Track Ting’. Det continues, ‘… especially those who voted us best radio station of 1995, watch the ride. The original style. Shout out to all those who are getting cotch time to stick a tape in …’. The intro is building. ‘… Maximum moves out to the guvnor. Hold tight Smurff. Goes out to the Ragga Twins. Hold tight Flinty. Hold tight Deeman … Absolutely rolling 94.5’. A sample signals the drop. Boom! Riding that sensation, moving lower, Det’s toast flows between drums and bass. ‘Steppa in a place time to brock wild, listen DJ Brockie with the true jungle style. Step back in a place, my DJ! …’. Det moves out as the sample accentuates the bassline. ‘For the ladies for the guys, big tings are gwan, as were nicing up the land, big tings are gwan …For the Sunday night slam going out to all those that just don’t give a damn’. Snares. The next break. ‘Waking up your spine’. Det switches to double-time, riding the drums. ‘How much more can you take?’18

Deja Vu FM, Waterden Road

By the late 1990s, the urban terrain is changing. The high-rise council blocks integral to pirate radio transmission are being demolished. Tony Blair’s Labour has come to power, promising to rescue the inner city from decay – razing council estates and former industrial land for private developer rentier profit. The roll call of pirate shoutouts to vernacular black hubs of Greater London - Clapton Park, Pembury, Packington, Holly Street and Stonebridge - are now debris in a capital flow. The record shops, bars, clubs and rave venues that comprised the mutual and also entrepreneurial arm of the junglist massive are being gradually replaced with online possibilities, decoupling place from culture through everywhere-but-nowhere content delivery.

That didn’t happen overnight, UK garage and the first wave of grime were still steeped in jungle culture, but from 2008, YouTube and new generation of mobile phone’s fitted with cameras and sound recorders, provided the possibility for young people, brought up with jungle’s ethics of sharing and mutualist production, to share their music with the world.

It is 2003. We are at Deja Vu's cramped second storey studio on Waterden Road (today laid beneath the Olympic Park, Stratford regeneration). Dizzee Rascal is on the mic in the company of Crazy Titch, Wiley, Maxwell D, Lady Fury, God’s Gift, Demon, Tinchie Stryder, D Double E and Sharkie Major heralding a scene which will come to be known as grime. The camera moves across the scene and as Wiley’s eyes catch it, the viewer comes to realise that this performance has been conditioned by its presence.

Conflict DVD - Crazy Titch vs Dizzee Rascal clash [Listen 8.26-9mins]

Made by A-Plus and released on DVD, the Conflict video documents a foundational moment for the grime scene.19 But the video is also historic because it shows a moment of transition in which pirate radio becomes digested by YouTube. While this famous DVD of Deja Vu pirate radio station is part of grime insider folklore, it only later becomes public knowledge after it has been uploaded to YouTube. What we are watching then is pirate radio sound culture at odds with the dominant energies of the city, and a DVD culture linked to those energies through autonomous record stores, turned to the informatic temporalities of YouTube, which indeed become its media archive.

It is from this moment that grime artists growing up with YouTube and its surrounding media ecologies come to see the economies, social practices and temporalities of their scene through their intimacy with YouTube, and equate ‘doing the numbers’ on that platform, not the first pirate radio slot or sound system appearance, as the benchmark of success.

This is a significant shift in the intimate relation between black diasporic music cultures and their technologies. Grime artists coming of age in this period did not launch their careers on pirate radios or in clubs – the police’s campaign against grime nights is also well-documented20 – but through mobile phones and YouTube. Stormzy recalls:

I know a lot of grime artists started off on pirate radio, but I missed that era, I was way too young. I was MCing in the playground, spitting lyrics over mobile phones – Sony Ericsson, Walkmans, W810s, the Teardrop Nokia phones, all of that. Vital equipment! I never even had a DJ set where a DJ’s playing vinyl and I’m spitting.21

Over only a few years, between 2003 and 2008 black diasporic culture then shifted its Twentieth Century affinity for analogue sound technology to a Twenty-first Century compulsion for digital and networked music videos. What this entailed was the mainstreaming of capitalism through the alternative infrastructures, technologies and relations of the massive. The form of mutuality that has long existed in black diasporic sound culture, was co-opted into systems of prosumption that capitalised precisely on the forms of cooperation that had persisted beneath profiteering. Rituals of journey, purchase, selection and placing a record on the turntable were reduced to a click.

As grime producer Tricks says, “You can upload your stuff, send it out and anyone in the world can hear it”, but importantly this anyone is often an empty figure.22 Although redolent with images of street life and local affiliation, as the autonomous hubs of pirate radio stations were replaced by algorithms, grime YouTube music videos were increasingly for elsewhere. This is a shift for the unloved, from the city that embraces you back, to the cold rush of online likes.

The wisdom, feel and energy of British cities still flows through grime and indeed drill videos. Indeed, the atomised hype of jungle pirate radio heralded the viscosity, endorphins, blue light, and paper-thin permanence of YouTube music culture. YouTube grime videos are still the production of a lived city, for a sound culture that is not easily ethnically owned. They are too the knowledge of elsewhere, sonically traced and digitally produced, where contemporary interlocutors are known increasingly through Google Analytics, and detached spectators are fed on decontextualised images of the racialised and saleable selves.

With grime YouTube videos, we now see the sound more than we hear it. This is a recalibration of sonics, a recolouring of the sound, a re-sensitising of affect as the sonic matrix is absorbed into the visual field. Music we used to know through sound (that videos made strange), comes to be known through videos (that makes audio alone seem strange). This, as Berland notes, is a form of “cultural cannibalization”, in which the [sound] becomes “digested lifetimes ago… consumed by the image, which [is] singing”.23

The MC’s voice is heard but now mainly seen. Listeners no longer have to guess which MC is which, as they did with the original pirate radio broadcast. The recall of intonation, pitch, meter and content is a lost art. Those high stakes arguments held between friends over who is who on an audio track, are given visual clarity.

The identity of the rappers, the racial and gendered codes of their bodies and their somatic movement start to vibrate, calibrating the hype and the intensity of their word play, registering more definitely a phonic materiality shaped by, but also exceeding, racism and neoliberal marginalisation. The open sonics that called across the city are folded back into the visual and racial regimes they formerly exceeded. As the excessive belligerence of the police towards the rap artists Giggs showed, the visual coding of his early (and indeed seminal for the genre) YouTube video Talking the Hardest stuck to his body in ways not possible when (as with jungle) blackness and (by racist association) criminality is an assessment of sonics alone.

Inevitably then, YouTube grime artists start to understand their expression on these terms too, learning social roles, performing social scripts for the camera. “They learned to be in front of the camera” says grime DVD pioneer Rooney Keefe.24 In this way, the possibility for the ‘grottiest’ tune, where sound comes before ethic affinity, is tightened… but not eliminated – grime remains a multi-ethnic genre in that sense, and sound still exceeds the visual/logocentric field.

The question I want to end with, a decade after grime’s embrace of YouTube is, does sonic intimacy retain a privileged status as the carrier of alternative human and planetary politics in late modernity? A great time perspective would answer yes, and so too might a perspective which focuses on the registers of humanity present in the voice, and the voice of a black artist, but it is also the case that it has been radically transformed, and on the very terms by which it is free, those transformations matter. This transformation matters because it is through black diasporic sound culture that we have heard and activated, can still hear and activate, the alternative flows and imaginings of human life.

These flows are not ‘catalytic’ as such. They do not collect, metabolise and propel a set of social energies. Rather, the vibes, hypes and grimes discussed are entangled, thick and processual collections of techno-social-sonic relations. These are also not signifiers, as least not in the visual use of that term. Rather they are felt and intimate, more of time than space. That intimacy is sonic-first and visual-second, or at least it was, because as jungle pirate radio gives way to grime YouTube music videos a shift occurs. Signification is now foremost, the sonic secondary, and a new era of catalytics potentially ushered in.

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