April 11, 2013

You merely adopted the dark, Son Raw was born in it.

In a year where London frets over shuffling crazes and the Internet takes its dance music cues from the Boiler Room’s overly mediated experience rather than the real thing, Keysound’s This is how we Roll is an outlier. Defiantly local, stubbornly difficult to pin down and resolutely physical; the compilation’s 14 tracks obstinately ignore all of the concessions that have helped dance music’s recent rise in popularity among both frat boys and scenesters.

Instead, curators and incubators Dusk and Blackdown rewind the clocks to 2009, before the UK’s Hardcore continuum lost its linearity and ask “what if”: what if Funky House became more idiosyncratic rather than less so? What if Dubstep found a third way outside entropic stasis or juvenile thrashing? What if Grime’s instrumental redirection came not from the Butterz camp’s captivating color but from an icy minimalism drawn from Wiley’s Eskimo period? This is how we Roll keeps its cards close to its chest, preferring hybridity and experimentation to straight answers, but on one point it speaks with certainty – the gap between what is interesting and what is popular in dance music has never been greater… And the best stuff can be found in the darkness at the bottom of that chasm.

The roster is stacked but not with brand names. Unless you’re a devoted follower of Keysound’s monthly Rinse showcase or some of the label’s recent releases, names such as Wen, Visionist, Beneath, Double Helix, Gremino, Epoch, will mean little while newcomers Rabbit, Samrai and E.m.m.a will be complete unknowns. Bound together by a 130BPM tempo, a rhythmic shift inconsequential to listeners if significant for DJs, this hungry young collective re-imagine the past 20 years of dance music to emphasize London’s unique push-pull dynamics: black and white, light and dark, loud and quiet, broken abstraction and rolling groove.

The unifying factor is tone: a sneering moodiness mostly abandoned by their post-Dubstep predecessors in favour of bookish innocuousness. The return of the rude is welcome. After fleeing the stereotype of the sullen teenager listening to Dubstep, I think we can all agree that it wasn’t nearly as bad as the bottle service bro and the geek who got into dance music without stepping foot in a club. The best material, Epoch’s anthemic “Steppenwolf,” Double Helix’s twitchy “LDN VIP,” Mumdance and Logos’ “dizzying in reverse” and Wen, Visionist and Beneath’s collaborative mission statement, “New Wave,” chillingly evoke back alleys and city streets, keeping the atmospheres subtle and letting the low end do the heavy lifting. Even the compilation’s rare splashes of light such as Fresh Paul’s show stealing purple symphony, “Blaster” retains a foreboding mystery about it, refusing efforts to box it in. No genre names, please.

To be fair, Keysound are far from the only crew offering alternatives to London’s mainstream malaise. The aforementioned Butterz camp’s neon populism remains an equally appealing path and the roster behind new London Grime night Boxed are mining similar territory–  but none have put out a statement of purpose as complete as how we roll. Though it’s too early to predict what kind of impact this collection of tracks will have in the long run, Keysound’s latest certainly has the potential to stand tall alongside foundational compilations such as Rephlex’s Grime and React’s Darkside. In terms of quality, it already does.

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