My UK bass music feature in Interview Magazine (spring 2009) here
Below is an excerpt of the 'Signal The Future' series.
With his photography, Georg Gatsas offers a larger public access to social spaces that have been occupied by a certain community. In the early years of the twenty-first century he moved in musical circles in New York which, as he put it, did not want to be described as anti-folk. Since then, this young Swiss photographer has made London dubstep the focus of his interest. As he points out, what he found in New York no longer exists - the city has changed, scenes have moved on or disbanded, and there have been social changes in the city's neighbourhoods. The very presence of any such phenomenon - for lack of a better word - in the world of Georg Gatsas is a sure sign of its imminent demise. The fact that such transformation is more than just a passing fad - by definition a changing thing - is important to Gatsas. Cultural progress goes hand in hand with economic and political progress. And so Georg Gatsas publishes his photographs not only within the world of art, but also in such public spaces as newspapers, magazines, the internet, album covers and even on London Underground billboards.
Gatsas' latest interest, dubstep, emerged on the streets of south London - in Croydon, Camberwell and Brixton - about ten years ago. Rooted in 1960s Jamaican dub, which developed from the use of sound systems capable of an extremely heavy emphasis on the bass line, dubstep is a computer-generated electronic sound that has been described by i-D magazine as a claustrophobically cold industrial beat melted with scalpel-sharp rhythmic precision and a mystically meditative warmth. It is a physical sound which relies on a good sound system making it irresistible that everything else is blocked out. Georg Gatsas' pictures show self-absorbed "dancers" utterly in thrall to the music, immersing themselves completely in the sounds that assail their ears and the inaudible deep vibes that penetrate their bodies, translating them into the dance style with the self-explanatory name "eyesdown" that has emerged in the UK. Everyone is alone and introspective, creating a collective solitude that becomes a communal experience. The club walls are black and the only light is the occasional flash of white, interrrupted by pale blue sequences. In the end, the lights go up again - and the symbiotic bass-driven dance is over. The revellers tumble out onto the dark, deserted streets of gritty south London, maybe grab a bite to eat from some corner stall - and the community bonded together by music scatters into the night.
Like the dancers, the musicians are in their early twenties - many of African, Caribbean or Asian descent. Whereas their parents generation still lived far from the metropolitan centres of Europe or segregated in neighbourhoods with others from the same region, their children have found common ground in a music that not only accepts different roots, but actually thrives on the creative potential generated by diversity and crossover. This sound as political movement draws its power not from the refusenik stance of rejecting contemporary values, but from something new that it invents itself. The musicians adopt stage names such as Ikonika, The SpaceApe, Cooly G or Bok Bok and call themselves producers, because they control the marketing of their creative output themselves and found their own labels instead of being dependent on big-name companies. They sell their music on vinyl, mainly through the internet.
Georg Gatsas has photographed the producers mostly on the street - because that is where their music comes from, and because the street provides the appropriate background. The encounters between him and the producers bear witness to their mutual trust. The harsh flashlight of his reflex camera underscores the focus on this single, present, almost intimate moment. Behind the faces of a music movement, however, there are already signs of history casting its shadows - the shadows of historical location. Gatsas shoots his pictures of the dancers in clubs with a Yashicas T5 instant camera. Here, too, he is guided by the moment. Because he uses his camera sparingly, the dancers do not feel observed, and the images - artefacts and documents in one - retain their freshness.
Georg Gatsas turns the bass-driven frequencies of the music, no matter how they are recorded ond transposed, into images of intimate instantaneity that show how young people express themselves, and how fragility morphs into a self-assurance that, for all its forcefulness, respects others and otherness. In this spirit, we can only hope that time will do justice to the title of this work: Signal the Future.
Simon Maurer, 2011, curator Helmhaus Zurich, Switzerland
From The Epicentre Of The Bass Quake
Afro-Caribbean immigrants brought the first bass wave along with them to London in the 1950s and 60s. Many in the black diaspora delivered the messages of Ska and Reggae via sound systems and imported vinyl singles from Jamaica, which are still the most important medium for bass music today. Sophisticated sound effects ruled supreme with the rise of Dub und Dancehall in the 1970s and 80s. These styles were followed by Jungle, UK Garage, Two Step, House and Drum ‘n’ Bass around the turn of the millennium – which in turn paved the way for the Rave culture that was to become an integral part of the music scene.
Meanwhile Grime, Dubstep and Funky are soaking up the acoustic legacy of preceding generations like a sponge – this time without any hierarchical cultural divide or hype, straight from the streets of South London, places like Croydon, Brixton and Camberwell. This music is dynamic, confident, and is constantly redefining itself: hybrid Dancefloor, impossible to ethnically categorise, thuds with deep bass vibrating in the equality of the present. The producers are usually not much older than 20, and all have their own distinctive styles. They bring their own unique mix of influences, their individual way of working and their own idiosyncrasies into play.
Some tracks are characterised by atmospheric soundscapes or minimalist arrangements; at other times the music features hard metallic beats or pulsating bass lines. Grime stands out as a gritty offshoot of US und UK Hip Hop; Funky regards itself as a bastardised version of House and Dubstep. Independent scenes have meanwhile burgeoned in larger English cities like Bristol. One name that has climbed to the top of the pack is Joker, whose trademark “purple” sound infuses Dubstep beats with his own interpretations of R ‘n’ B fragments.
What is the common denominator of all these new sounds? In the words of Kode9, a producer, DJ and professor for sonic theory who runs the Hyperdub label, “the only constant is sub bass.” Melissa Bradshaw, who has interviewed numerous members of the bass generation, adds that “various music styles are emerging right now that can’t be neatly classified into subgenres. But another thing they all have in common is that they derive their influences from the streets of the UK’s cities. You could call England’s new sound ‘street music’.” The new sound spreads via blogs, forums and print media. London’s biggest pirate station, Rinse FM, and Mary Anne Hobbs’ weekly radio show on BBC One play a pivotal role as well. There is also a fairly limited number of vinyl releases on small independent labels, with Hyperdub, Tempa, Tectonic, Deep Medi and DMZ being the most significant. They often explore surprising new territory, such as Silkie’s recently released debut album “City Limits Volume I”. Producers usually cut the latest tracks directly onto dubplates (a one-off disc made of vinyl or acetate, which is similar to shellac) and DJs spin them in clubs straight away; most of them never go on sale at all.
But that’s not the only reason rave kids, label owners, producers and DJs flock to the weekly FWD club night in London’s Shoreditch area and the DMZ night at the Brixton’s Mass every few months – every producer works with sub-bass frequencies that are near or below the limit of human hearing and are therefore hardly noticeable on a home stereo, but clearly perceptible on a good club sound system. These events dispense with lighting techniques altogether, and clubbers abandon themselves completely to the acoustic experience on a pitch-black dance floor. Visual aspects and club culture are secondary; the new generation of UK ravers has returned to the roots of bass culture, when it was all about music, sound and a sense of community.
Georg Gatsas, published in WoZ 41, October 8, 2009