When I worked for a second hand record shop in the 1990s, the word on the grapevine was that speed garage was named in the basement of a Dickensian warren on London’s Camden High Street. Our wily dance music buyer Howard Hageman, so the story went, threw two words together on one of the 12" dividers in the overflowing racks. That name stuck, and what started as a bunch of US garage 12"s often pitched up by UK DJs became an identifiable homegrown style by 1997.
Of course, no one wants their art to be reduced to a mere word. American improvisors fought long and hard (and still do) to free themselves from the showbiz and vice associations of the name jazz. As long as I can remember, musicians have spent interviews explaining they shouldn’t be pigeonholed to one style. “Yes, Sun Ra was jazz,” says Camae Ayewa aka Moor Mother in Emily Pothast’s cover feature. “But also, Sun Ra’s definitely connected to doo-wop and soul music and the blues, so like, when are we going to hear those stories about Sun Ra?”
The pros and cons of using genres in music writing is a favoured conversation in the office, not least because there is misunderstanding on both sides of the debate: artists feel restricted by them, yet journalists find it hard to write a sentence without dropping one. Still, anyone who says you can get rid of them entirely has probably not faced the heartbreaking chaos of an endless rack of random records.
Like record dividers, genres and their names come in all shapes and sizes. Some become deeper, refined, somehow resonant as the years roll on (techno, metal); some are red hot one year and stone cold the next (deconstructed club music, wonky). Some genre names indicate not so much a style of music as a zone of activity (post-punk); many are broken and irrelevant and need to be chucked in the bin (dubstep).
When it came to this month’s Primer on Latin freestyle by Peter Shapiro, many in the scene called it simply freestyle. But there are other types of musical freestyle too, and since many artists proudly identified as Latin (including scene linchpins The
Latin Rascals) that prefix stuck.
No doubt genres are often best named by those inside a scene. Acid house has endured as an idea for over three decades, and it’s hard to resist the conclusion that the part played by artists like Phuture coining the name helped. But in contrast, the term grime was tossed around by journalists and scenesters a year or two before the artists then embraced it in defiance of the slick textures of pop.
Music writers are more like taxonomists than social historians, and that faux omniscience can miss the nuance that comes from speaking to different audiences. For those in the Bronx or Queensbridge in the early 1980s, you probably talked about hiphop culture, not rappers. In Jamaica later that decade, you chatted about dancehall, not ragga. When footwork became a sensation in the late 2000s, for many in Chicago that was the name of the dance you did to the music they still thought of as ghetto house.
But there are fascinating oral histories still to be written about, for example, why drum ’n’ bass is a grassroots term that returns periodically from dub to jungle; how musicians have called themselves hardcore from Belgian raves to Detroit basements to UK rap demos; or why two-step was the term of choice for London styles that others called jazz dance (in the 80s) or garage (the 90s). Look closely, and many genre words have an extensive prehistory that influenced their later agenda and flavour. You can find the word funk fermenting in Horace Silver, Hank Mobley and Gene Ammons jazz sides from the early 50s onwards. Punk was thrown around by Ed Sanders and Lester Bangs in the early 1970s before it finally started to stick.
Genres should never define or restrict – there are no necessary or sufficient conditions for judging their use. Instead, they are best seen as signposts to zones of activity, or perhaps identifications of momentary sensations. They are quick and dirty, and right only so far as they are useful. Just when you think you have a handle on them, it all changes, which is just as it should be. Derek Walmsley
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Issue 425 July 2019 £4.95 ISSN 0952-0686
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Words Jennifer Lucy Allan, Steve Barker, Mike Barnes, Dan Barrow, Robert Barry, Tristan Bath, Clive Bell, Abi Bliss, Marcus Boon, Britt Brown, Nick Cain, Philip Clark, Byron Coley, Lara C Cory, Julian Cowley, Alan Cummings, Erik Davis, Laina Dawes, Geeta Dayal, Katrina Dixon, Phil England, Kodwo Eshun, Josh Feola, Phil Freeman, Rory Gibb, Francis Gooding, Kurt Gottschalk, Louise Gray, James Hadfield, Andy Hamilton, Adam Harper, Jim Haynes, Ken Hollings, Maya Kalev, David Keenan, Kek-W, Biba Kopf, Matt Krefting, Neil Kulkarni, Sam Lefebvre, Dave Mandl, Howard Mandel, Wayne Marshall, Marc Masters, Noel Meek, Bill Meyer, Aurora Mitchell, Keith Moliné, Brian Morton, Joe Muggs, Alex Neilson, Daniel Neofetou, Louis Pattison, Ian Penman, Emily Pothast, Edwin Pouncey, Nina Power, Chal Ravens, Tony Rettman, Simon Reynolds, Nick Richardson, Bruce Russell, Sukhdev Sandhu, Claire Sawers, Dave Segal, Peter Shapiro, Stewart Smith, Nick Southgate, Daniel Spicer, Richard Stacey, David Stubbs, Greg Tate, Richard Thomas, Dave Tompkins, David Toop, Rob Turner, Zakia Uddin, Val Wilmer, Matt Wuethrich
Images Mustafah Abdulaziz, Sasha Arutyunova, Guy Bolongaro, Polly Brown, Lyndon French, Maya Fuhr, Georg Gatsas, Rita Lino, Sean Maung, Becky McNeel, Harris Mizrahi, Timothy O’Connell, Savage Pencil, Robi Rodriguez, Savage Pencil, Michael Schmelling, Rosaline Shahnavaz, Märta Thisner, Eva Vermandel, Sarah Waiswa, Jake Walters