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The Broad Church: Why Underground UK Bass Music Should Embrace Art at the Grassroots

The meteoric rise of UK Bass music in the last couple of years has been nothing short of spectacular. From initial mainstream popularity to obscurity and back again, the various associated genres and sub-genres have vacillated between fringe and forefront; mainstay and memory. Whilst any righteous head might disagree with this initial assessment—and not without good reason—a common, mutually agreed reference point might be the shared understanding that bass music sounds have landed well within the mainstream and now have an established presence there.

It would be hard not to attribute at least some of this to the explosion of Grime, witnessing its transformation in recent years from the rough and tough underground sound of London’s disenfranchised urbanites, to a genre cloyingly and disingenuously embraced by Matt Hancock of the Conservative Party. Acts like Stormzy, Skepta, Wiley, Slowthai amongst many others have enjoyed international success (any controversies notwithstanding), both from within Grime and on the crossover, and they’ve brought many of the stylings along with them and into the public consciousness. This is without even mentioning the powerful presence of Drill and Trap which has further calcified and consolidated transatlantic cultural ties between the UK and the US.

As much is to preface an important question, which has been a recurring theme in recent personal discussions with artists and figures in the scene: Why, especially at the grassroots, are we not further embracing an inclusive, multidisciplinary approach to bass music and the arts?

This is not to undermine the significant work done by a number of collectives around the world—my experiences in Vancouver and Berlin introduced me to collectives like SHAHdjs and No Shade respectively, with both groups promoting multidisciplinary attitudes, with the latter more explicitly advocating intersectional approaches to the arts. This, however, ought to be viewed as a template, rather than a representation of the vision commonly associated with established labels, especially within UK Bass music.

It seems that as we’ve collectively, and oftentimes consciously, moved away from the dominant hierarchies of top-down, big label power relationships that we’ve subconsciously retained their models and practices, as if to attempt to emulate their success. Platform capitalism has often smothered value under the guise of promoting artist integrity and freedom, which isn’t practice exclusive to labels—promoters, streaming services, venues and a host of intermediaries have been subsumed into this model, partly collapsing the long tail and transforming our interaction with music into a matter of engaging with a set of algorithmically defined nodes of interest, which form part of a broader network of valuable infometrics for the aforementioned platforms.

It is not just that the above is in some way spiritually ‘wrong’, but that it is also not a practical or optimal model to sustain labels and movements at the grassroots; in a scene that looks, or, rather, ought to look to nurture emerging talents, there is an obvious disjunct between this ideal and the persistence of big label thinking. There is a sense in which famine and/or gatekeeping mentalities stymie creativity, outreach and wellbeing in a scene that is reliant on, and enjoyed for, its boundary pushing and relentless sonic creativity.

It is a well known trope within arts and music that barriers are often raised, even just by virtue of an individual or group being new, or that they might embrace styles and sounds not considered in the accepted range of aesthetics. The remedy to this involves simple heuristics, but requires significant dedication and an uphill battle, especially in the UK, where the value placed in culture of all kinds, especially as determined by the government, has seen notable recent decline underscored by brazen disdain, with the government’s line on retraining causing uproar and a subsequent rethink in rhetoric.

A concerted effort, then, has to be made in order to forge stronger ties between artistic communities, pooling resources to create spaces of empowerment, enjoyment, spontaneity and freedom. It’s not sufficient to only support from afar, or to offer token gestures of support, with many decrying, for example, the emergent culture of social media gamesmanship, to which we are all party in some way—we must recognise the latent potential of unity in the scene, in sharing our spaces, our time, our feedback, our resources, whether social or capital in nature. These ideas are all shared with a keen understanding that, for many, in a precarious society made all the more so by recent events, it is harder than ever to rear enough time, energy or resources to rally together.

This is without mentioning the barriers, whether covert or overt, placed on a number of intersecting communities such as the LGBTQ+ community, particularly considering ongoing discussions about Grime and Drill’s historically contentious record on homophobia in particular. In certain senses we might see this as analogous to the relationship with the same communities within Hip Hop, Rap, Trap and Drill cultures in the US. Removing these barriers, both from within and without the communities, is theoretically easier in the first instance, perhaps not so simple in the second; this is especially pertinent within the changing landscapes of media during the Covid pandemic, the more obnoxious, empty facets of which have revealed themselves in a news cycle that offers little novelty.

Firstly, the UK Bass music community ought to take a zero tolerance approach to bigotry and hatred however this might manifest—this is not an endorsement of the largely problematic phenomenon of cancel culture, (which is, itself, undeniably politicised by the right) but it bears mentioning that Conducta’s response to the not-so-recent Mind of a Dragon allegations was exemplary, and more recent allegations made against Octavian and Black Butter’s decision to stop working with him have set some important moral precedents in their respective scenes. With a personal background in development I am very conscious that taking a sufficientarian approach to building the scene is precisely that—sufficient but not adequate. Removing barriers created by hatred ought to be viewed as a temporary obstacle, the real legwork comes in: forming communities, platforming and supporting lesser known talent, sharing spaces and resources in a reciprocal way and creating/maintaining spaces, whether virtual or physical, that enable others and in providing fair critique to help raise the collective standards of our communities.

To borrow a term from Brian Eno, we ought to view genius as part of a supportive, collective intelligence and intuition, which is best encouraged through ‘fertile scenes involving lots and lots of people’. This is something he terms the ‘scenius’ and it lends a perspective… not considered, yet equally obvious: talent is best encouraged when nurtured and invested in. Beyond this reorientation and reinforcement of empowering the collective, it is imperative to create linkages and connections between artistic communities; art, music and performance are all interconnected in a multitude of ways, and through strengthening these bonds by sharing spaces, events and creative projects we create a more empowering, successful community—a more scenius community.

Central to the success of this project is communication. Simple though it may seem, communication is often in short supply, which only serves to further encourage conditions that lead to famine/gatekeeper mentalities developing. It is worth mentioning as a brief caveat here that I think there is such a thing as a healthy amount of criticism, competition and quality control that ought to take place…, but that this should fall within the remit of supporting and encouraging talent. Equally, I am not suggesting that everyone can, or even should aim to like everybody, but there is something fundamentally and mutually beneficial about supporting artists that explore and promote the same aesthetic or sonic spaces as your own. In the UK bass community and beyond, communication ought to form the core of best practice, which would encourage closer professional and personal relationships and more collaborative work generally.

I have already seen the significant merits of approaching music in this way – The 3000 Network, a platform I have had the privilege of writing for at my own pace over the years, has created a network of individuals: artists, promoters, agents, DJs, videographers, producers, writers, presenters and more, all of whom pay in with their time, effort and, that dreaded word, ‘content’, which is returned through community, support and the creation of new networks.

Similarly, the philosophy central to my involvement with llNotion Records is one of inclusion, community and solidarity across the arts, not just in music. Moving forward this will remain at the core of the organisation’s dealings, interactions and its overall distribution of resources, something which I’d implore others to consider, if they haven’t already. This is an ongoing process and should remain this way, that is, ongoing, dynamic and receptive—new challenges will inevitably present themselves and it is down to us, as the constituent parts of this scene, to be attuned to these as they arise.

Beyond communication within the scene, liaison with venues, spaces and other physical entities is of significant importance, not least because these spaces are still clearly vital in facilitating the hosting of shows, raves, exhibitions and performances that form the spine of the arts. This is an area that has seen inherent decentralisation amidst the Covid pandemic, with livestreams and online collaboration picking up the slack where in-person events might have prevailed, but it is not yet clear how this will affect venue culture in regards to the arts—my guess is not to any significant degree—but the landscape has certainly trended towards more people engaging with these media, providing another opportunity to involve and strengthen community ties in the scene.

With this in mind, forging broad, inclusive relationships in the scene also involves forging relationships with these venues and institutions, if you’re not of mind to establish your own. It then becomes a matter of working to ensure that hosted events are publicised and supported from across the arts, and that these spaces are accessible and cooperative, at a point of price and inclusivity. It is not to the scene’s health to fall into the predictable cycles of successful brand creation and price hikes, though I’m sure many would rightly acknowledge that there is a significant variation in costs to consider in different areas across the country.

The challenges that the UK’s underground bass music scenes face are manifold. From combating prejudice within our own ranks, to experiencing the government’s capital-driven decision making from the top-down, the continuation and preservation of a closely-held culture around the country is often a perplexing landscape, beset by worries of financial and circumstantial uncertainty.

The one underused tool that offers itself in spite of all these difficulties is solidarity—a unifying concept that provides the basis for cooperation and real change. For many, raves, shows, exhibitions and more provide crucial engagements with culture, as well as incalculable amounts of happiness. The same could be just as easily said for UK underground bass music which has, by all accounts, veritably changed the lives of many near and dear to me—a trend I’m sure is common around the world.

The ways in which we can help contribute towards building a healthy scene, in spite of its challenges, have been explored in some detail above. This is by no means an exhaustive list but can provide foundations for substantive change. Surmised, these steps are:

To remove barriers, both in terms of gating resources and tackling long-held prejudices;
To form communities;
To platforming and supporting lesser known talent;
To share physical spaces, virtual spaces and resources in a reciprocal way;
To provide fair critique to help raise the collective standards of our communities;

With a commitment to the above we might be able to see the vision of closer solidarity realised, along with a further flourishing of the scene in a more sustainable way, from the grassroots to the mainstream.

After all it’s all about the music, and who doesn’t love that?