Break/Flow/Escape/Capture: The Energy and Impotence of the Hardcore Continuum
The 1990s saw the emergence in London and some other English cities of a series of highly innovative styles of electronic dance music. These genres, all of them expressing very clearly the aesthetic priorities of the ‘black Atlantic’ (Gilroy, 1993a; Rose, 1994), were remarkable for their demonstrable formal radicalism, and for the extent to which they achieved – albeit for relatively brief periods – the elusive synthesis of widespread popularity and genuinely experimental aesthetics. Although earlier antecedents can be traced, this sequence of innovations is generally taken to have begun at the moment when producers began to fuse the tonalities and textures of so-called ‘hardcore’ techno with sonic elements characteristic of Jamaican dancehall and American hip hop. Hardcore techno was a fast, linear style deploying abrasive timbres, mainly ‘dark’ minor tonalities and four-to-the-floor house rhythms,1 in a distinctively northern European interpretation of the softer and more melodic – but equally glacial – forms of ‘techno’ originating from Detroit producers such as Juan Atkins and Derrick May. What the new wave of producers brought from hip hop was most obviously the deployment of breakbeats – short, relatively complex and staccato percussive figures, traditionally sampled from drum breaks on old funk and soul records – as the primary rhythmic building blocks of tracks. What they brought from dancehall was a tendency to speed up these basic units to generate a distinctively insistent soundtrack which, by literally shortening the space between beats, compressing their rhythmic complexity into intense machinic bursts, seemed to phallicise or simply de-eroticise their effects, producing a highly aggressive, deliberately rough and ragged soundscape which was well adapted to listening and dancing situations in which stimulants (amphetamine, cocaine), rather than psychedelics, empathogens (for example,
MDMA) or alcohol were the main chemical agents.2 The resultant style was referred to simply as ‘hardcore’, although ‘breakbeat hardcore’ quickly became differentiated from ‘happy hardcore’, the latter style eschewing the aggressive and increasingly paranoid aesthetic which was emerging around the breakbeat in favour of simple beats, intense speeds and tonalities evoking nursery rhymes and children’s TV themes,3 and coming quickly to be associated with an exclusively white working-class audience.