If you’ve not read Dan Cox and John Riordan’s Hitsville UK, you’re missing out. Like Daft Punk‘s ‘Get Lucky‘, it’s the sound of the summer.  Or like…. shit, it’s hard to pick just one song at this stage in this icy death machine of a year, so let’s split the difference and say that like ‘Lazarus‘ or ‘Adore‘ its deeper magics might just see you through the colder months too.

I picked up the first issue at Thought Bubble a couple of years back, and while it took my alcohol sodden brain a couple of readings to pick up the rhythm, the  way the first few pages alternated between rows of panels introducing new bands and those wherein the seedy, behind the scenes types (haunted producers, men who made their money in sewage who now fancy a slightly more alluring expression of power) laid out the groundwork for the plot, but when I’d locked into it I realised that I now had a whole host of new favourite characters to care about.

The rest soon followed, issues #2-4 taken in one rush, flashbacks to being a kid and finally getting your hands on the album after wearing out the single you bought from Our Price down the town centre.

There’s so much in there in this soapy story about a new British indie label – a polyphonic reaction against the Toryfied despair of life in the UK 2016, the alienated teenage appetite for destruction, some saggy dadrock longing, plus a smack to the chops to your actual modern day fascists – all adding up to a baffling but somehow familiar map of British pop, complete with itchy annotations about the seedier and more desperate events going on in the background to some of your favourite magic tunes.

There are jokes here that will become fixed points in your mental landscape (“And there’s just time to make the gig!”).  There are faces you’ll find yourself seeing in the mirror in your more wretched moments (Jack Spatz or Gwillum, depending on whether you tend to slick arrogance or despair).  There are beautiful concepts and glorious colours galore:

More than any other comic about bands or music, Hitsville UK mimics the thrill and excitement of its subject.  Somewhat perversely, this comes from its overwhelming commitment to the comic book form.  Where other comics about music feel like extrapolations of zine culture or traditional adventure stories themed around pop stars, Hitsville UK actually feels like music.  By revelling in the joys of putting weird looking characters into even weirder situations, trusting that they can keep a rush of daft words and pictures coming and that they can keep it relevant, Riordan and Cox capture something of the hyped up love buzz of being into music.  A mix of wanting to keep up with the story and wanting to feel part of the moment as it happens around you.

As such, I figured the best way to look into their dark hearts was by dusting off the old Smash Hits interview questions and seeing what the handsome boys (pictured below) made of them…

1. How well mannered are you?

John: I am incredibly mannered, in the stiff and awkward manner of a 19th century drawing room drama. This is to such an extent that at school my nickname was Captain Mannering. Dan has almost no manners as he was brought up in a seaside arcade.

2. Do you ever check your hair when passing a shop window?

Dan: I avoid all reflective surfaces. I fear the hollow eyed man who stares back at me. The bloated shadow cadaver who rots all clocks. The bastard with the seaweed tangle beard who has stolen all my clothes. The one who whispers ‘You will never be this beautiful again’.

Like Medusa it is only possible to look at John via a complex system of mirrors. I normally close my eyes when we’re together.

Hype Williams – One Nation
Clams Casino – Instrumental Mixtapes #1-3

These recordings represent the point where the tastes of the Brighton Mindless  meet with those of their Scottish counterparts.  The Brighton boys generally like to listen to recordings of ghostly mops being thrashed till they whimper, while their friends in the North prefer a mix of hip-hop and rock that can only be described using words that start with the letter “A”arty, angular, American, or just plain old arsey will usually do the trick. [1]

It was one of my Southern friend who first introduced me to Hype Williams’ One Nation, a collection of electric dreams that sometimes sounds like the work of a mind trying to think its way out of existence. If the strangely absent sound of the instruments on album opener ‘Ital’ provide a suitably morbid build-up to this concept, then the pitched down narration that runs through the second track ‘Untitled’ literalises it:

The people who are still alive when you die might hurt because you are gone. That is okay.  People love other people and usually it hurts when people we love die.  We even comfort ourselves with those stories that the dead person is… not really dead, and that is okay too.

But of course everyone dies, and you will too…

There’s something of the live band about this, a sense that these songs are happening in the moment, the work of minds and bodies that are reacting to their immediate situation. A lot of this has to do with the halting, tentative quality of the synth playing – set against the generally spacey, metronomic thud of the beat, the melodies have an uncertain quality to them, a sense that they are being recorded before they have finalised.   Consider, in contrast, the work of some of Hype Williams’ contemporaries – most Burial tracks aspire to the condition of field recordings in their attempt to chronicle the long, dark club night of the soul, while Actress tracks are more often than not are conceived like static landscapes, revealing detail through time and close examination rather than movement.  

The tracks on One Nation are similar to those on Ghettoville or Rival Dealer in that they provoke the sense that you’re listening to something that is almost not there, but where those other artists strive through this effect primarily through tricks of texture and structure that elide the distinction between different sonic elements, Hype Williams do so through a mix of texture and performance that maintains their distinction.

To state it another way: ‘Come Down to Us’ and ‘Skyline’ sound like places that you may or may not have come into contact with, while the songs on this album sound like interactions that may or may not be happening now, in real time.  This approach isn’t necessarily superior to ones deployed by Burial or Actress, whose distinct approaches I’ve come painfully close to blurring into each other here, for shame – their work is perhaps more immersive than Hype Williams’, but while you catch site of various Others on the edge of your perception while dealing with their work, listening to One Nation feels a lot like an encounter with a specific Other. [2]

Sometimes, this Other seems tranquil about its own potential absence, such as on the aforementioned ‘Untitled’ track, but my personal favourite run of tracks comes near the end of One Nation, at the point where ‘Mitsubishi’ immerses distressed, backmasked sighs into its in-out backing track, before exploding out into the wild whistle call of ‘Jah’, which recalls Archie Hind’s description of the death twitches of freshly killed cow in The Dear Green Place, “the possible moment of consciousness, when the head loosened and the animal took that last great breath through the chittering windpipe.” [3]

Stripped of the rap vocals for which they were (mostly) originally composed, the tracks on Clams Casino’s three Instrumental Mixtapes create a similar effect.  

Strangely, given their origins as rhythms for rappers to ride, Clammy Clams’ production has perhaps more in common with the soundscapes of Burial or Actress than it does with Hype Williams’ snap and echo. Clams Casino beats tend to rise and fall as part of the instrumentation around them, with the snap of the drums sounding like the thud of a human heartbeat, an intimate part of the ragged exhalation that accompanies it.

Take, for example, the song ‘Hell’ from the third mixtape, which sounds so much louder and more distorted here than it did when A$AP Rocky and Santigold sang and rhymed on top of it, and which nevertheless has a gentle, organic feeling to its rise and fall – an effect not entirely dissimilar to the one produced by Hype Williams’ ‘Mercedes’. [4]

Other tacks like ‘Palace’ (from the second Intrumental Mixtape; also originally composed for A$AP Rocky) and ‘Numb’ (from the first Mixtape; otherwise unreleased) literalise this organic effect by drawing out samples of human voices beyond their usual span, and making killer beats out of human breath.  Listen to these songs on your headphones while commuting to work on a hungover Monday morning and you’ll find yourself looking over your shoulder to find out who’s been whispering away at it – and trust me, I’m speaking from experience on this front! 

The texture of these mixtapes matches the fleeting, performative quality of One Nation for the sense of fleeting individual mortality that’s evoked.  And if it seems unlikely that such fragile records should draw so many rappers to them, just listen to the remix of Janelle Monae‘s ‘Cold War’ from the first Instrumental Mixtape and ask yourself what you hear. Me? I hear the sound of a lone voice, calling out in the darkness, demanding a response…

Click here to read the footnotes!

Having spent 2011 and 2012 listening to so much new, free hip-hop that I almost lost track of who I was and where I laid my head (in case you were wondering: a man who writes about comics on the internet; Glasgow), I made a decision early at the start of 2013 to cut back a bit.  While this means that someone like the Bottie Beast is probably better placed to give you an overview of what’s going on with hip-hop right at this point in 2014, it also means that I’ve had a decent amount of time to really dig into the albums and songs I did check out over the past few years.

With an album like Ab-Soul’s Control System,  it’s just as well that I had time to spare because otherwise I might not have got my head around how good it really is.

As the member of the Black Hippy crew who does the most to live up to the back half of that description, Ab-Soul risks being obscured by some of the more traditionally appealing rappers in his posse. Schoolboy Q’s perfectly titled Habits and Contradictions provided an early warning that the current era was going to belong to the TDE crew, and Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city received so much praise that it kicked off a discussion about what rap fans mean when they label something a classic.

Still, now that the smoke has started to clear – well, shit, as I type this Q’s Oxymoron is currently setting fire to my speakers but let’s deal with that in a separate post – it’s Control System that’s stayed with me.  Ab’s too stoned and too subtle to make an album full of straight bangers, but there’s something about the raw fluidity of his rhymes that just gets to me.  The way he can get stuck on a series of punishing homonyms for most of a verse before switching his flow up to effortlessly hit series of breathlessly off-kilter punchlines suggests the movement of a mind that’s still in the process of making itself up.  This sits in stark-contrast to Lamar’s ever-more impressive verbal gymnastics: the power of good kid, m.A.A.d. city lies in the fact that it always seems like Kendrick knows what he’s doing, while the genius of Control System is that it makes you feel like you’re thinking these thoughts for the first time every time.

The cracks in Ab-Soul’s voice have as much to do with this as words he’s speaking.