In 1991, Sonic Youth and Nirvana toured Europe with filmmaker Dave Markey in tow. They documented the rise of a perverted new punk, its fragmented clatter into a mainstream spotlight that had previously left it buried in the dirt and shadow. Nirvana had just released Nevermind on DGC. Sonic Youth were touring on their first Geffen record Goo. They called the documentary 1991: The Year Punk Broke and watched, later, the title become the truth.
In 2011, The Weeknd released House of Balloons. Frank Ocean did Nostalgia, Ultra. Tri Angle Records found permanence in their ghosted beats, and here at the Bloglin we wrote a Top 50 list that ended up over 20% R&B-inflected. The influence was unmistakable, the shock of history repeating itself: Twenty years later, we’re watching another genre break. Except this time, it’s not going through the clouds…it’s digging back into that underground dirt.
From the looping, chilly distance of Balam Acab and Autre Ne Veut to the funky warmth of Toro Y Moi and undulating edits on Nguzunguzu‘s A Perfect Lullabye mix, underground artists are embracing R&B like a long-lost sister, contorting and mashing and paying homage across track after track. On the surface, the coupling seems inevitable: R&B dominates the Top 40, and we’re an underground culture increasingly obsessed with what happens up above. But why did it happen now? How did 2011 end up being, so unequivocally, the year R&B broke?
We’ve got a few ideas.
9. Because It’s (Almost) Happened Before
“I think it’s fascinating how Top 40 sounds are being blended into underground sounds in a way that many underground purists might have thought unthinkable,” says Daniel Jones of Gucci Goth and Electronic Beats, “but in fact it’s not such a new phenomenon.” According to Jones, we’ve been mashing up genres for decades: The Birthday Party and their country/blues punk aggression, Daniel Miller’s pop re-imaginings with Silicon Teens, post-punk’s initial funk/disco influence. It’s just what happens when artists filter familiar sounds, sounds they’ve grown up with, sounds that feel more natural than breathing, through the more disparate influences of their psyches.
And R&B’s popped up in pockets already, albeit less obviously. “When you go back to the 80s,” DJ and producer Mike Textbeak says, “R&B production was bleeding over in scenes too. Check the drums and bass production on Skinny Puppy circa Cleanse Fold & Manipulate and VIVIsectVI.” Then check 90s trip-hop. The influence wasn’t nearly as blatant or pervasive, but R&B did, like now, run a strong parallel with other concepts punctuating bits of the underground: House, techno, Amen breaks, Hallelujah samples. It just took 20 years for the perfect storm of elements to create a full-scale resurgence. After all, if something epitomizes that much of the modern culture, why not re-appropriate it?
8. Because We Had Nothing to Lose
2011: Also The Year of Why Not. From witch house to Rebecca Black, seapunk to post-post-post-dubstep, Scanner Jammer to online raves, so much of art had a “might as well” vibe. If it sounded like a good idea at the time, it was at least worth the shot, especially in situations where neither money nor notoriety were of much concern. The Weeknd initially hid behind a cloak of anonymity, Balam Acab’s Wander/Wonder certainly didn’t have any grand illusions about making a million and even more above-ground artists like Katy B and SBTRKT knew people would give the sound a chance, if only because we’ll give anything a chance, at least once.
R&B this year feels both familiar and fresh to our sensibilities, an exciting puff of air in the onslaught of dark, dark, dark, same, same, same — and if there’s truly nothing new under the sun, then there’s certainly nothing to lose by mashing two or more old sounds together. After all, lots of R&B has been copping from the underground for years; we might as well return the favor. Why not.
7. Because the Technology Was There
And it’s just kept getting better. It’s easier now than ever to create a bedroom R&B project that doesn’t sound like it came from any bedroom at all. Those slick beats and buttery vocals that were previously the province of big studios with even bigger budgets — they’re achievable now with, like, three programs, some technical know-how, a ton of intuition and a little patience.
We’ve unmasked the mystery of solid production in recent years; the natural response this year, especially for artists who’ve toiled in lo-fi out of necessity, is to create some of the sleekest sounds you’ve ever imagined. Oh hello, R&B.
6. Because the Internet Exists
We’ve both blamed and praised this clump of numbers for just about every social circumstance of the past decade, but alas: It’s got a rooster in this fight too. “Kids nowadays are just exposed to way more scenes via the Internet,” Jones says. “It’s harder to be insular than it was in the past.”
While social media pundits love to say the Internet makes simple work of blocking unnecessary information, the opposite is actually true. Thanks to the immediacy of Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Soundcloud, Spotify sharing, et cetera, et al, we’re exposed to piles of foreign information before we even have the chance to create those blocks. We can eventually whittle our worlds down to the barest little vacuum if we choose, but new ideas always get through in fits and starts. You may have started 2011 only peripherally aware of R&B as a major modern touchpoint; you may have not cared or chosen to ignore it; but if you were aware of it, then certainly a trusted blogger/musician/artist/friend was aware of it too. “I think the newer dark scene, myself included,” says Jones, “has played a part in promoting new strains of hip-hop and R&B as being just as artistically valid and interesting as the more linear stuff they might like.” Voila. The vacuum gets less vacuous.
And as social media continues to redefine what it means to interact with other people, artists continue to find support in specialized global communities that encourage experimentation. “What’s going on here is cultural clumping,” Textbeak says. “The underground themes of overlap that were so valiantly destroyed by Clear Channel, grunge, rave and eventually emo have now been allowed through true Internet free-spirited free artistry to bleed back together into some truly creative work.” Which is to say: We have access to everything, whenever we want it. We have no boundaries…and no excuses.
5. Because We’re Inspired as Hell (and Maybe a Little Bored)
It’s a weird cycle: Global communities breed inspiration breeds over-stimulation breeds boredom breeds…more inspiration. The bevy of information flying at us from all corners of the Internet creates a sort of cultural paralysis; when there are so many things to notice, how can you notice anything at all? Every song, every image, every video, every everything starts to feel the same. A constant blur of white noise.
So more and more, artists find themselves looking to “unnatural connections”, as Textbeak calls them. “Modern R&B is so prevalent that it seems to be a given that it would invade all the scenes,” he explains. And once you start down the path of forcing strange bedfellows, it’s sort of tough to stop. R&B is so rhythmic, so pliable, it’s almost destined for the mash-ups: Tri Angle Records’ quintessential fogged beats, Frank Ocean’s crooning ambience, tUnE-yArDs neon glitches, the spaced-out Ford & Lopatin. There’s no limit to what can be done with it, and it was just a matter of time before someone got inspired (or bored) enough to catch on.
4. Because We Needed An Escape
It’s been a dark couple years, man. Between political discontent, economic nightmares, fear-mongering and almost-revolutions — not to mention whatever personal mini-traumas we endure just for, like, existing — it’s a wonder anyone’s managed to get out of bed at all. Last year, we expressed that hell with piles of chilly goth and witch house. But this year, we were sick of wallowing. It was time to let go.
“I’d say that R&B, especially 80s, is automatically seen as fun music,” Textbeak says. “The 80s was so carefree in media appearance that it makes for a perfect substrate to pervert or even expand upon.” And when the world feels unforgiving, when the daily de rigeur is Occupy and vanished jobs and Arab Spring; when we feel disaffected from bone to pore, the fun of R&B, perverted or not, is precisely the key to emerging from the wreck. Underground culture naturally gravitated toward it because of the comfortable familiarity, the levity…and most of all, its warm and embracing sense of escape.
3. Because Everyone Wants to Make Music To Have Sex To
And if they tell you they don’t, they’re lying.
2. Because the Timing Was Dead On
Here’s the thing: If the theories are true and we do actually move in 20-year nostalgia cycles, we’re barely to the throes of 1992. We just came out of all that 80s glitter and dark regret. We’re feeling disenchanted but inspired, the underground is shifting in ways still unseen, there’s this war and these deaths and we don’t know much about this Clinton guy, but R&B is the mainstream’s biggest darling.
Which, I mean…sounds an awful lot like right now.
Of course, back then you were either too young to register it or way too angry to care. And if you were angry, you were angry about all the things the Top 40 represented: Money, power, greed, conformity. The genre necessarily rankled the senses because it sounded like The Man. Like fucking power suits and paychecks.
But distance is the great equalizer. Strip a song of its context and you’re left with nothing but the intended emotion, the production and rhythm, what it means to you in that moment. And so we ultimately came back to R&B because the trend cycle forced us there…and because it’s the sound we remember from childhood or teenager-dom, when everything was a touch brighter. It’s only now that we can appreciate the genre on a multi-faceted level, with an entirely new context and set of experiences to guide it.
1. Because It Just Did
Alright. Enough already. Music writers love to dissect a trend until it falls to total shreds, and while I’ve spent the last 1700+ words doing exactly that, let’s stop for a sec. There’s something magical about the happenstance of all this. How we’re consciously watching a new thing evolve, like a game of cosmic telephone: One artist tries sometimes, which inspires another artist to try something similar, and another, and another, until the newest sounds are mere shadows of how the whole process started.
And before you say yes dear, that’s how music works, think about this: The underground embrace of R&B isn’t just breaking boundaries, it’s changing the way we think about music hierarchies. And if it’s changing the way we think about music hierarchies, it’s changing the way we think about music. And we’re watching this happen, all of us, right now. So pay attention. Like Textbeak says: “It’s a sign of the consciousness of the new artistic global underground waking up.”- Rue Sauvage