Bass, Mids, Tops: An Oral History of Sound System Culture
University of Birmingham (UK)
University of Oxford (UK)
Knowing how the world enjoys blackness, and seeing what happened to George [Floyd], we—black people—get the feeling that people want our culture, but they do not want us. In other words, you want my talent—but you don’t want me. . . . You cannot enjoy the rhythm and ignore the blues (Clara Amfo speaking on BBC Radio 1, Tuesday 2nd June 2020).
Since this book arrives in the wake of the Windrush Scandal, Black Lives Matter protests in Bristol and now Boris Johnson’s inflammatory remarks regarding the Last Night of the Proms, we must hope that the voices and stories amplified by Bass, Mids, Tops reach a wide audience. It does not deal with reggae sound systems in the same way as Henriques (2011) but is instead concerned with a constellation of UK genres that have their roots in black British sound system culture. In a perspicacious Foreword, Mykaell Riley suggests that this oral history is not only about the enjoyment of bass weight but also about “something truly unique to the UK” (11) that is at once personal, cultural and political. Refreshingly, instead of eulogising bass itself in the manner of recent scholarly monographs (Goodman 2010; Jasen 2016), the book comprises twenty-five interviews with a diverse array of people involved in the development of UK bass culture. As Joe Muggs notes in his Introduction, he “can’t claim peer-reviewed rigour” (20), but his transcripts will certainly be of interest to researchers concerned with rare groove, acid house, jungle, drum ‘n’ bass, garage, dubstep, grime and UK funky.
At this point some readers might ask whether Joe Muggs is overshadowed by Simon Reynolds. The short answer is not really. Although his book is inevitably haunted by Reynolds’ controversial hardcore continuum, from the outset Muggs is keen to distance himself from a “definitive history” and linear narratives. He stresses that the book is “quite the opposite, in fact: it’s deliberately partial, arbitrary, and conversational . . . an attempt to look at multiple interwoven continua: life stories, genre stories, sound stories, all happening at once” (14). Despite this, the interview transcripts are arranged into a roughly chronological order, beginning with Dennis Bovell (writer and producer for the lovers rock anthem Silly Games), Norman Jay (a key figure in the rare groove era), Adrian Sherwood (of Dub Syndicate), Youth (Martin Glover, of Killing Joke and The Orb), Tony Thorpe (Moody Boyz), Rob Smith (Smith & Mighty), George Evelyn (Nightmares on Wax) and Nicolette (vocalist for Shut Up and Dance and Massive Attack). This is followed by four interviews with key figures from the jungle and early drum ‘n’ bass era, namely Dego (of 4hero and Reinforced records), DJ Storm (the self-professed “mum” of Metalheadz), Jumpin Jack Frost (who Muggs casts as “the archetypal jungle DJ”) and Krust. The short-lived garage years are represented by Sarah Lockhart (who worked in A&R long before the establishment of FWD>> and her time at Rinse FM), Noodles (of Groove Chronicles along with El-B) and Zed Bias. This last interview segues into Muggs’ conversations with the dubstep producers Skream and Mala, before Kromestar is used as another link (with grime, represented by Terror Danjah). Notwithstanding this domino sequence, the book then starts to seem less teleological during the final sweep of interviews (with T.Williams, Cooly G, Toddla T, Samrai, Barely Legal and Shy One).
Sometimes the transcripts become bogged down with details that are interesting but rather trivial. Similarly, the endnotes provide useful track details and demonstrate that Muggs is a true anorak, someone who is utterly devoted to archiving musical heritage. Intermittently, however, the reader can glimpse some heavier themes pertaining to gender, race, timbral politics and subcultural capital. In the first instance, DJ Storm (Jayne Conneely) explains that she always has to “work that little bit harder” as a woman in a scene that is still overwhelmingly male: “we’ll always turn up on time and look well-presented because we’re women. It’s a shame that we’re not always given the chances we deserve” (192). Elsewhere, Sarah Lockhart recalls the “intimidating” atmosphere of record shops with a collector mentality and stresses that she “didn’t like that it was just boys” at FWD>> (253). On the other hand, Nicolette Love Suwoton appears to embrace longstanding associations between low-frequency sound and maleness when she states that “my voice is so feminine and the bass has a more masculine energy, if you like, so I love that contrast” (145). The timbral articulation of difference is indeed another recurring theme that emerges from the transcripts. Although there is some consensus among the interviewees that the acid house era represents a brief period of total unity (with “people from all kinds of backgrounds, colours, nationalities, all coming together” (207), to use Jumpin Jack Frost’s words), George Evelyn laments the advent of “the Italian piano house thing” and the way that “bass took a back seat in some clubs” (131). For Tony Thorpe, these “‘progressive”’ timbral developments “killed the unity, the family kind of thing . . . it’s like they forgot about black music and just went ‘Oh we’re making money now, fuck that”’ (95). History repeats itself. Much later on in the book, Tesfa Williams talks about trying to establish himself as a house producer and feeling the need to obfuscate his own identity as a black artist through his T.Williams moniker: “the market is predominantly white male . . . my first name is African and I knew people would associate whatever with that and that might cause barriers as well” (392). The transcripts also demonstrate that UK bass culture has often been characterised by infighting (e.g. Zed Bias on the infamous “garage committee”) and closed-minded snobbery (especially when hijacked by hipsters). One of the most telling anecdotes of all arrives in the interview with Terror Danjah. Hungry to reach a new, youthful audience having been at Coachella 2011, Terror Danjah (Rodney Pryce) worked on an anthemic track titled Full Attention with the vocalist Ruby Lee Ryder—one featuring the cardinal sin of a tear-out bass dubstep drop. Kode9 (Steve Goodman) was confused and unable to hide his disappointment. But as Terror Danjah tried to explain, “this is for the people who don’t understand, I’m not known now . . . the people who bought Planet Mu knew, like people that are connoisseurs, sipping their wine like [comedy posh voice] ‘Yas it’s Terror Danjah’. But the kids don’t know who I am!” (317). We might conclude that insularity and fear of selling out creates a unique set of problems.
Although Muggs’ material is rich and evocative, some nit-picking is now required. Given the specific focus of his book, I think that including “UK” in its title would have been a good idea. It would also have been useful to see the precise date of each interview at the start of every transcript. More generally, the book would have benefitted from better proofreading and copy editing—its pages are littered with typographical errors and missing words, and there also seems to be an obvious factual mistake in the Nicolette chapter (the title of the Massive Attack track she features on is “Three” not “Seven”). My main criticism, however, concerns Muggs’ distrust of academia and critical interpretation. This scepticism is by no means unfounded, and Muggs may well have Goodman/Kode9 in mind when he writes that “you could pick musicians who help you make a very specific political point, or rave tracks that illustrate your chosen crypto-Lacanian-post-pomo-contra-Frankfurt fashion in cultural criticism” (19). But as the interviews make clear, sound system culture is political in every sense of the term, and Riley’s excellent Foreword could have been matched by an essay-length Afterword by a bass music scholar (Monique Charles and Christabel Stirling come to mind, for instance). Overall, the book is stimulating and frustrating in equal measure. As Riley stresses, “formal education about music is vital” (11), and if this “very specific strand of British popular music” (12) is to become a mainstay of undergraduate curricula then I fear that critical, peer-reviewed scholarship is a necessary evil. Nevertheless, Muggs should be congratulated on gathering fruitful source material for this kind of work.
 Riley also reflects on his work with the Reggae Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO) in the 1990s: “It was a political statement, it was challenging the system . . . asking questions about what music is about in the UK” (11). Additionally, it should be noted here that Riley is currently leading an oral history project of his own with the Black Music Research Unit at the University of Westminster.
 For an important critique of Goodman’s impersonal vibrational ontology, see Kane (2015).
 The hardcore continuum debate involving Jeremy Gilbert, Mark Fisher and Simon Reynolds can be found in the inaugural volume of Dancecult.
Goodman, Steve. 2010. Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear. London: MIT Press.
Henriques, Julian. 2011. Sonic Bodies: Reggae Sound Systems, Performance Techniques, and Ways of Knowing. New York: Continuum.
Kane, Brian. 2015. “Sound Studies Without Auditory Culture: A Critique of the Ontological Turn”. Sound Studies 1(1): 2-21. <http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/20551940.2015.1079063>
Jasen, Paul. 2016. Low End Theory: Bass, Bodies, and the Materiality of Sonic Experience. London: Bloomsbury.