(Afterword: Coldcut member Matt Black was interview by Space Age Bachelor magazine on October 17th, 1997. You can listen to the original transcript and audio for this interview here.)
Coldcut: The Yin and Yang of DJ Culture
Few careers have been so illustrious as that of Coldcut. ‘Been there, done that’ might be the best way to summarize the goings-on of this London-based pairing of an ex-Art teacher, Jonathan More, and computer programmer, Matt Black. The past resume lists the invention of the term ‘remix’ (ie. Eric B and Rakim’s “Paid In Full”), the launch of Yazz’s and Lisa Stansfield’s careers, an unfilling major label phase that produced two albums and probably my favorite ambient ballad ever, a cover of the classic French tune sung by Edith Piaf and Bing Crosby amongst others, “Autumn Leaves.” It is, however, the next leg of Coldcut’s career that is most impressive. In the mid-nineties, the pair started the Ninja Tune record label — a label that, with the exception of some classic early material by DJ Food, initially struck me as the bane of the trip-hop world. Early releases from Funki Porcini, Herbalizer, and London Funk All-Stars all highlighted thip-hop’s need to depend on a schtick and the boring results of music made by heads for heads. I might have been wrong though, or perhaps my expectations have lowered. I’m now convinced Ninja Tune is likely the best weird beat label of the nineties, far surpassing the conservative releases of Mo’ Wax and the more neanderthal, though fun releases of Skint or Big Beat. The latest crop of Ninja Tune releases — Animals On Wheels, DJ Vadim, even last year’s Funki Porcini — consistently impress, while the offshoot label, N-Tone, is arguably more impressive still, with Neotropic and the phenomenal Journeyman album. Well, what about Coldcut? For whatever reason, they took a backseat to Ninja Tune for a while, and it is only now, four years after their last album with a major, that they’ve put out their first Ninja Tune album, Let Us Play. Not to be outdone, the album comes with a bonus CD-Rom that features 8 videos to go with their songs.
Ninja Tune is more than just a name. It’s an ethos, a way of thought. In a recent interview, DJ Vadim drew analogies between turntable scratching and kung-fu. The Ninja Tune logo was for a long time that balanced circle, representing yin and yang. Yin and yang is about balance, about two forces in the universe, acting in opposition to one another. The idea of balance, then, is the most prevailing theme in my interview with Coldcut’s Matt Black. Like Coldcut’s work, Black goes from one extreme of optimism to the other extreme of pessimism. Says Black on this embrace of extremes, “I think that’s the only sane view to have really. It’s like technology. It’s either the greatest force that Big Brother has ever had to control us down to more tightly set rules, cogs in the machine, where one could never have the freedom to vibrate loose without the big boys being aware of it. Or it’s the answer to our problems, and it will connect people and empower people, allow people to communicate and educate and create. And that will result in a kind of huge renaissance of the spirit, and that will take us to the next step of evolution. Those are two equally valid views, and one can find as much evidence for the one as the other. And that’s probably what is meant by yin and yang. One never totally finds Heaven. Or the Nazis will never rule forever. They’ll always get overthrown as the cycle turns around. It is possible to have some personal freedom and happiness in times of great unrest and problems.
“All the terrible things that have happenned in History are equally balanced by the incredibly magnificent march of evolution and the species. It is possible that we are the only intelligent lifeform in the universe, and maybe it is our destiny to take it to the next stage and reach the stars, and cross the universe.”
HIGH TECHNOLOGY FOR ALL
Let Us Play and the latest Coldcut single, Timber, are probably the greatest testament to technology of any release you’ll get this year. Likewise, for the Ninja Tune Stealth tour that came through Vancouver in the Fall of 1997. On the tour, two large screens showed amazing cut-and-paste video footage, or instead showed live footage of the DJ’s hands as he worked the turntables. For every DJ kid, who likes to press up against the DJ booth to learn the tricks of the trade, this was a rare treat. Watching Kid Koala, who was on the tour along with Coldcut and DJ Food, and the speed of his hands and precision on the turntable was something else. Right down to their press releases and their packaging, Coldcut and Ninja Tune are admirable for their ability to maximize the technology at hand. At the least, you’re getting more bang for the buck. The Timber CD-rom is priced just like any other single, but comes with seven tracks, and five videos. Coldcut not only get their tracks remixed, but expand the realm of the remix to include the reworking of the videos. Pioneers in cut-and-paste audio, like Emergency Broadcast Network, Lucky People Centre, and Protean Vision Quest, take part. The liner notes claim that ‘video can now be jammed or scratched with as easily as sound.’
“We just need to sort of remix television,” says Black. “That’s partly what we’re trying to do with our live shows. Like people complain about children not being able to read and not being very literate, and getting all their information from the television. And although television programming is pretty terrible most of the time, it can be an incredible tool for communicating information, and actually lots of kids these days do know a fuck lot about the world. They may have not experienced it directly, but their knowledge and the information that they’re dealing with is actually much greater than that of the generation before.
“And we’re trying to show that a small, independent company can actually make entertaining products, and do what you want to do creatively at the same time, and make a living by that. And I think when that gets applied to television in terms of audio/visual construction in the way that it has been to DIY music ethic that will really be a step forward.”
Of course, Coldcut is wealthier than most in the music community, yet still they are independent, and the technology they have at their fingers is almost accessible to everyone. The possibilities of the new computer techology are stupefying. Sure, the latest Pentiam II is going to run you a few thousand dollars, which isn’t exactly cheap, but compared to before it makes it that much easier to run the show yourself. Recording and filmmaking have for so long been prohibitively expensive, but now it’s open access. The capabilities of image editing and sound editing will make it increasingly hard to ever trace a sound, and recording techniques will be redefined as has already occurred with the rise of digital, non-linear editing. Says Black, “Analogue/digital — the mixture is typical of the yin and yang, and the thrill that one gets from mixing up the opposites. Digital editing is so fantastic in terms of arranging your head into a non-linear type place, but analogue can actually force you to think in a more structured way. Sometimes with digital, there’s too many possibilities. Sometimes with analogue, there’s just one that’s the result of the errors. Sometimes with digital it’s more clinical and pure sound without any artifacts at all. They’re both just tools, and they can build onto each other. The more tools you’ve got, then they can better amplify the effects of the other tools. So if you’ve got some raw materials, you can work in so many different ways. So the thing is to step beyond saying, ‘I think CDs are crap and only vinyl is good quality,’ and just look at what you want to do, and see what will let you do that. And there will be a way, as long as you keep an open mind to the availability of stuff without closing off.”
Like the invention of the camera that forced painters to rethink their medium, so too are the current technological advances going to force old mediums (and yet to be discovered mediums) to be reconsidered. “We actually won a little argument with the people who do the charts over here,” says Black. “Because they initially wanted to exclude the album from the album charts, because it came with a free CD Rom. So we negotiated with them, and put one audio track on the CD-Rom, and that satisfied them. And it actually cleared the way for the requirements for other mixed mode and multimedia products in terms of the music business charts, which are very important.
“I think people want something more. They don’t want stuff like Mini-Discs and DATs, because it’s just the same thing, just music, on yet another format. Especially when lots of people got the vibe now, and they’ve perceived correctly that actually CDs aren’t all they were cracked up to be, in terms of quality and there’s a bit of backlash against it. I think the only thing one can do is to try and provide people with a lot more than they were getting before, some more dimensions stacked together to see if one can actually fulfill the hype of generating richer entertainment products.”
There is a worrisome element to all this though, in my opinion. I’ve never been part of the faction that condemns music videos. On the contrary, the transformation of both audio and visual that they’ve led to is phenomenal. What worries me, however, is linking too closely the audio with the visual. I’ve always considered music to be potentially the most abstract of all art forms. In a cinematic context, I don’t mind seeing it placed in a visual context, but still I think music floats freest when it’s left on its own. If the record industry ever evolved to the point where people expect videos and interactive toys to come with the product, rather than as a mere bonus, it will be awfully frustrating for those who strive merely to make the best music possible. At the risk of sounding like a purist, which I might very well be, I think forms are too carelessly mixed together. And the other factor in these bonus CDs is time. Personally, I feel flooded already. I don’t even have the time to make my own music, so I can’t imagine idly messing about with other people’s music, other people’s CD-Roms. There’s something fearful to me about the possibility that with the current possibilities I would need hundreds of years just to work my way through so many of the software options that sound interesting to me. It is all so much. I’m not sure how I even manage to breathe anymore.
ROBINSON IN SPACE
Robinson In Space, an English movie from 1997 directed by Patrick Keiller and the sequel to London, is a marvellous detailing of the problems of high-technology in England. The film’s narrator and his mysterious companion Robinson (you never once see either of them, or anyone else for that matter) retrace the route of Daniel Defoe’s 1727 Tour Through The Whole Island of Britain. The style and message of the film is so subtle that it might instead be seen as an introduction and guided tour through Britain’s hi-tech industry. What is revealed is a landscape of ugly shopping malls, fetish-wear factories, massive factories that are the sort of modern establishment that costs billions but employs only a handful of people. In Liverpool, for instance, people everywhere are in a state of disarray amidst a prolonged docker’s strike, while the industry flourishes. To raise money for the dock worker’s families, shirts adapting the Calvin Klein logo were made and sold. When Liverpool striker Robbie Fowler was seen wearing one, a lawsuit from Calvin Klein became imminent. It is this sort of situation that Robinson In Space hints at without explicitly detailing. Wry comments like ‘the only thing that stands between us and revolution is Blackpool’ delivered in a cold social anthropologist manner make the film a joy to behold. In the film bio that came in the guide to the 1997 Vancouver International Film Festival, Keiller said, “Although the UK’s economy may be very unpleasant to live with, it isn’t failing. It performs rather well for its owners. The myth of economic decline has been very useful to the Tories as they have run down the public realm … We have sci-fi automation, but instead of sci-fi better life, we have unemployment, low-paid service jobs, and a lot of people who are economically inactive. This misery isn’t the result of some irreversible decline, but of political decisions which can be reversed.”
HIGH TECHNOLOGY HIGH ON HUMANKIND
In any discussion of the wondrous possibilities of technology and its role in human progress, the irony, of course, is its origins. Few consider how most high-technology was conceived. All technology begins with violence, with war. Perhaps, the futurists were on the right track, in so closely linking violence and industry. The modern calculator arose from the need to break German codes. The supercomputer was invented to simulate the first microsecond of a nuclear bomb’s detonation. The internet begins as well with the military. It’s a cold war communication system, referred to as a net, because there are a million ways to get through it, and thus it is an unblockable line of communication.
A late 1996 Coldcut single, “Atomic Moog 2000,” was then two times, even three times ironic. First of all, the track was the first Coldcut single in ages, and it literally sounded like it might have been recorded in 1987, so outdated and outmoded it sounds at first. Says Black, “It’s just a style that we love — going back to Steinski’s original records. Just using the spoken word. It has turned out to be one of our most danceable tracks, so obviously people like it in the clubs. In a way, it is not our most incredibly state-of-the-art composed track. Unlike the Jello Biafra track, which was actually made using our own random funk generating software, this one is put together in a fairly conventional way.” The beats are basic, and Coldcut act as if they’ve just reintroduced the moog, when in fact the instrument was already at the time of the single’s release one of the biggest cliches in modern music. And besides, the issue of the atomic energy and the bomb is such a 1987 idea. Suddenly, worrying about the bomb passed out of the social consciousness, as if it was a mere fashion, and it became a non-issue. This is the second irony, in that the bomb is no longer a concern, but it hasn’t gone anywhere. The threat is still real. The list of little publicized nuclear accidents and near nuclear wars blows the mind.
As Black says, “Oh yeah, the Russians have suddenly said, ‘Oh by the way loads of warheads are missing.’ I’m sure shit goes missing all the time. The boys who are buying that stuff plan to use it, I reckon, or are prepared to.”
“Atomic Moog 2000″ is itself a funny juxtaposition. Part dystopic, part frightening, it lines its spaces with the tinkly, wistful sounds of a lounge music that goes back to the blissful, optimistic period in American history of Eisenhower and Kennedy. “Well, You know those books Incredibly Strange Music on Re/Search?,” asks Black. “I bought those in Barcelona and I took them on holiday to Portugal, and Pete Lawrence of the Big Chill had a bunch of easy listening tapes, and there was a lot of that in the books, and I started thinking about it. And I thought of this term — it’s not rare groove, it’s ‘rare moog.’ When we got back I communicated this to John, and then he went off to Canada, and found an amazing shop where he bought loads and loads of the rare moog stuff. And we got loads of breakbeats which no one has else had used, and so we came back and worked that into “Atomic Moog.” So that’s the story of how it came into being. Obviously at the time the French nuclear testing was going down, and that seemed worth commenting on, really.”
The best thing I’ve heard lately is about these drug dealers buying Russian submarines to smuggle drugs. Submarines, after all, cannot be detected under water. There must be a plot for a Stephen Seagal movie in the works revolving around this very theme. Says Black, “The world is becoming a much much more dangerous place in every way. So unless we can find a bit of piece and love, I’m not altogether sure that we’re going to make it, and that would be a bit sad, considering all the potential the human race has got.”
Coldcut is part of a larger collective called Hex with whom they collaborate on a lot of their videos, and on other things such as the installation during the Fall 1996 Jam show at the Barbican Gallery in London. This latter exhibition was perhaps a little too much to bear as it abounded in phrases like ‘machines are the Gods of the future’ and the latest ‘post’ word in the lexicon — ie. Post-human. One member of the Hex collective, Rob Pepperrell, has written a book called the Post-Human Condition. Coldcut tracks like “Cloned Again” provide a suitable addendum. On this post-human tip, Black says, “It deals with the fact that the definition of what it means to be human is changing. It’s becoming more difficult to tell the difference between living things and artificial things, artificial life, and artificial intelligence research areas. To spell it out, in the future, it’s going to be very difficult to tell what is human and what is artificial. There’s people getting into body modification. The interface between humans and technology is breaking down. Which means that we have to have a radical re-think of our definitions. I love Philip K. Dick, the writer. I think he addressed quite a few of those issues, quite presciently, in a lot of his writing. What is real? How can you tell you what is real? How can you tell what is human and what is not? And if a human acts in an inhuman fashion, then they’re not really human, they’re a machine. And if an artificial construct acts in a human way, then it is a human. That’s what it comes down to, in his opinion.”
Human perception is also changing as part of all this. The amount of information we can handle, and are forced to imbibe forces us into new states of consciousness. With modern developments, such as air travel, we’re forced to reconsider time. Our bodies strain to keep up as we cross eight timezones in less than eight hours, as we defy the natural cycles of night and day. A generation has grown up with MTV and its rapid image shifts and a music that has grown noisier and noisier as all thresholds and barriers are broken. Says Black, “I think people today are conditioned with a taste for audio/visual stimulation, with a taste for excitement, and rapid input of stimulus. And that’s what we’re reaching for with the kind of cut and paste audio/visual experiments which we’re manifesting on the album. We want to blip the people to the max.”
As part of the Journeys By DJ series, in one of the most exciting episodes, Coldcut mixed up dub, Cypress Hill, Photek, Harold Budd, opera with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and Ninja Tune staple tracks such as 2 Player’s “Extreme Possibilities.” Fine as it was, it typified a problem I see within the cut-and-paste method. So many styles are breezed through, but nothing is ever given the time to be understood. DJ culture, cut-and-paste culture, however you want to term it, is breaking down from too much information, from getting to look at everything, but never getting to touch anything. Everything is juxtaposition, but nothing is symbiotic. Cut-and-point culture is forever referring to something else, always hinting at a destination that never gets arrived at. Reference leads to reference, but a structure never gets settled on. Karl Marx said it best when he said, “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned …”
But then the sentences finishes with ‘and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.’ Says Black, “We’re sort of jacking it up to a kind of super, hyper level, and thus achieve an altered state of consciousness, which will help people see loads of information for exactly what it is, which is a product of consumer society just going round faster and faster, like a person wanking machine.”
Politics in music has always frustrated me. Like many, I’ve never appreciated songs that border on preaching, that come bearing explicit in-your-face messages, and so often lack any sense of aesthetics. Any ethical campaign is just a hollow shell, if it doesn’t have aesthetics underpinning it. Cut-and-paste, however, is perhaps the first style of music that lends itself so effortlessly and so naturally to political commentary, at least the way Coldcut pulls it off. In this day and age, when news is entertainment, the dreary politics of folk music are overbearing. Cut-and-paste music, however, is perfectly suited for these days of instant news. In an aphorism, Elias Canetti writes, “No poem can be the true image of our world. The true, the appalling image of our world is in the newspaper.” The same might be argued for cut-and-paste. The cut-and-paste musician assembles fragments of the world, and reconfigures them into a world review, just as a newspaper does. I don’t think the newspaper represents the truth but rather an agenda, a list of priorities and distractions. The agenda is always going to differ from person to person, from newspaper to newspaper. The way a person edits or assembles says something profound about the personality. Says Black, “I think if you look at the artists on our label Ninja Tune, or listen to what Coldcut have released over the last ten years, then it is as identifiable as a Rolling Stones track is. You have to have the taste or the ear for dealing, or appreciating, or essaying, analysing, feeling what we are doing.”
At the time of my Coldcut interview, a decade had passed since Coldcut’s explosive and shocking debut single, “Say Kids, What Time Is It?” The single was nominated for an award, but was eventually discredited when one of the organizers declared ‘this just isn’t music’ — hence the name of their publishing company. The group’s press release states again and again that Coldcut is ahead of their time. “Say Kids” certainly was. It predated a decade that became increasingly cut and paste as part of a larger cultural trend to look backwards. ‘Ahead of their time,’ though? I’m not so sure it can be so easily said. Personally, I think the days of cut-and-paste are about to wane. There’s too many edges to cut-and-paste music, too many clear sources, too many references. I think sample culture is going to collapse from the baggage it carries, from the sheer weight of information. I do think it has performed a highly important function. In my view, cut-and-paste techniques are just a bridge to something else, and not the be-all-end-all that so many people see it as. It’s like the violence necessary to move from one structure to another.