After a month in which populist racist politics have swept to power in the UK, Australia has suffered terrifying ongoing wildfires, and a new conflict in the Middle East is looming, I feel in need of a feel-good story.
London grime MC JME has found a new way to make underground music work. I haven’t even heard his new album yet, which is why it’s so exciting.
Think of any fresh artistic medium or clever product incentive dreamt up by a record label, and JME probably trumped it in 2019. While some labels boast about limited editions, his new album existed as an edition of one on his hard drive while he toured its songs. He turned up at cinemas and record shops throughout last year, showing videos, performing tracks and doing Q&As, before you could actually own the album. Grime MC did emerge on CD and LP at the end of the year, but even those have now sold out.
Some artists fetishise anonymity or claim to be off the grid; JME has no public email or manager, and signed off Twitter for a calendar year. Media theorists talk about Walter Benjamin and the aura of the physical medium; JME explores it by writing tour dates on a chalkboard in a promo video.
“I wanted to give people tangible experiences,” was the slowburn strategy behind Grime MC, which is reviewed in Soundcheck this issue by Richard Stacey. The whole project was a DIY operation. “I can post out thousands of CDs myself,” JME said in an interview in the Halfcast Podcast. “It’s just normal bro, that’s what you should do… get a Drop & Go card from the Post Office, just put £500 on there, go to the Post Office, drop the parcels, give them your card.”
JME articulates the differences between music online and on record so acutely that it’s tempting to just fill these two columns with his observations. “The internet is one big room,” he says of the modern experience of carrying the world around on your phone. On music streaming platforms or YouTube, ubiquitous megastars sit next to young voices or obscure operators who just want to catch your ear one time. “All music shouldn’t exist at the same time,” he argues. Instead, different forms of music have their own particular context, network, feel: “These things should live in different places.” When it comes to social media, and the way discourse is nurtured by the internet, he laments how “every conversation has the same ending point” – a major reason that politics in the UK is so fucked and probably why JME turns the user comments for his videos off. Whether it was art, business or both, the rigorous logic and total commitment of JME’s Grime MC campaign makes most underground music projects look provisional and compromised by comparison.
I wonder if Wire would approve. As they explain to Dan Barrow in this month’s cover feature, in their 40-plus years of music making, the quartet have consistently strived to undermine the expectations and conventions of post-punk, of their audience, and most importantly, of their own influential catalogue. By reworking fragments of their songs, rarely playing the old hits in the old way, they strive to preserve the uniqueness of the present moment. As I write, I’m listening to Document & Eyewitness, their 1981 live release, where they defied audience demands by playing mostly new or obscure material, and introduced an element of meta-theatre by performing at times behind a sheet. The album itself even brutally edits out the heart of the song “12XU”, on the part of the LP recorded at the Electric Ballroom in Camden, North London.
Like JME, Wire strive to make the experience tangible, even if it’s not what the audience think they want. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to finally hearing Grime MC someday. Derek Walmsley
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Issue 432 February 2020 £5.95 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, Britt Brown, Philip Clark, Byron Coley, Lara C Cory, Julian Cowley, Raymond Cummings, Laina Dawes, Geeta Dayal, Katrina Dixon, Phil England, Josh Feola, Phil Freeman, Francis Gooding, Kurt Gottschalk, Louise Gray, James Hadfield, Andy Hamilton, Adam Harper, Jim Haynes, Ken Hollings, Maya Kalev, Kek-W, Biba Kopf, Matt Krefting, Neil Kulkarni, Sam Lefebvre, Dave Mandl, Howard Mandel, Marc Masters, Noel Meek, Bill Meyer, Brian Morton, Joe Muggs, Daniel Neofetou, Louis Pattison, Emily Pothast, Edwin Pouncey, Chal Ravens, Tony Rettman, Simon Reynolds, Bruce Russell, Sukhdev Sandhu, Claire Sawers, Dave Segal, Stewart Smith, Daniel Spicer, Richard Stacey, Greg Tate, Richard Thomas, Dave Tompkins, David Toop, Rob Turner, Zakia Uddin, Val Wilmer
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