GK finds reasons to be proud and optimistic in Joe Muggs & Brian David Stevens history of UK Bass culture
Like PIL didn’t write a love song, this isn’t a book review, even though i’ve only been reading it for a week or two I can safely say that “Bass Mids Tops” is magnificent. The reasons I can say that are three-fold; firstly it’s brilliantly written, meticulously researched and beautifully photographed. Second, the central message of the book can be summarised as “UK soundsystem culture completely changed the face of the world of music and we should shout it from the rooftops”. That message – powerfully articulated in the introduction and at the book launch by academic & former Steel Pulse member Mykaell Riley – is that stepping back and looking across the last 50 years of UK Bass culture, the achievements are quite staggering. The third reason comes from a direct quote in the interview with Youth from chapter 4:
And I think that’s the underlying political message of dub and underground musical cultures: to dissolve these boundaries of difference, which we somehow perceive that aren’t really there. And celebrate the diversity of them , and enjoy that as well. As a result the Britain we live in is one of the most progressive countries in the world – it has some of the most tolerant, compassionate people, and a multicultural community and make up that’s the envy of the rest of the world. For all that there’s plenty of bad and injustice, we’ve achieved a lot of harmony too. And I think that can be directly put down to having shared diverse musical cultures and celebrated and lived as communities together.
I know that the book was researched over a period 10 years and it feels as though that interview almost certainly took place before 2016. In recent years to many people it’s felt like the UK described by Youth is being swept away in a flood of cheap divisive rhetoric peddled by chancers and charlatans. It’s felt like the place we find ourselves in, on the 31st of January 2020, is proof positive that the snake oil salesman have won, that progressive attitudes are in retreat and we can only look inwards. But, for me, two things now seem clear a) That the UK described by Youth hasn’t gone away in the blinking of an eye and b) Current circumstances make it more than important than ever that we celebrate the message and spirit of dub and underground cultures, (I should say that i’m acutely aware that the history of diversity in this country is a very complicated one indeed, and would strongly recommend Akala’s excellent “Natives” for a detailed survey of very many of the issues).
Nevertheless for the moment we’re in “Bass Mids Tops” seems to be very apposite indeed. The book is structured as an oral history, a series of conversations with pioneers of UK music culture, with one common thread – Bass. The conversations are cut much longer than is usual, and it gives the interviewees and the topics room to breath. The cast list is phenomenal; producers, DJs, and innovators that made a huge impact on music fans all over the world. The threads in the interviews zig zag across genres and time. Mykaell Riley makes the point that when Stormzy stood on the Glastonbury stage in 2019 and cited a vast list of names it illustrated the history that bought him to that place: Grime to Dubstep to Hip Hop, to Garage to Drum n Bass to House to Techno to Dub to Punk, to Funk to Soul & Reggae. The stories told in this book make clear the connective tissue between all of those genres. When you read, and indeed hear, the creators talk about the methods and the cross pollination of the different scenes, so many boundaries seem to collapse.
The writing in the book is, as you might expect, absolutely first rate. Anyone who’s ever dipped their toe in the water of dance music in the UK will have read some of Joe Muggs work, his writing is always acutely perceptive and terrifically entertaining. By way of an example the description of Norman Jay in the 2nd chapter perfectly distills the essence of why Jay is the DJ all selectors revere:
…there’s just something about his DJ sets that reminds you of the ecstastic possibilities of music, whether rare or ultra familiar generations old or brand new. Whether it’s rudeboy ska or high tech drum n bass. The Jackson Sisters ‘I believe In Miracles’ or David Bowie ‘Kooks’, he has an unerring ability to place a track in context, to bring out all its musical detail and danceability, to divest it of cliche, hokiness or predictability.
The images of creators and soundsystems captured by Brian David Stevens are arresting and singular. The speaker rigs are the central plank of the oral history, the different and cross generational tales reverberate against one another and around the nation – Dennis Bovell & Norman Jay in London, Rob Smith & Krust in Bristol, Nicollete in Cardiff via Scotland & Nigeria, George Evelyn & Toddla T in Yorkshire – there are scenes and tales in every corner. And the stories in “Bass Mids Tops” are the things that those of us who are feeling despondent at the moment need to remember. We need to remember that this is still the place that Youth described, that this is the place that invented Lovers Rock, Drum n Bass, Dubstep and Grime, this is a place with a diverse and inclusive musical heritage, that this is a place with alternative parties in every town. It’s that nation I’m pretty proud of.
“Bass Mids Tops” is published by Strange Attractor