Music World: Donk
University of Liverpool, United Kingdom
This review explores the VBS.TV documentary on the UK electronic dance music style known as "donk". The genre is referred to by a number of names including Scouse house, bouncy house, bouncy techno, bounce or donk. The term bounce will be used throughout the review as the term donk has a pejorative dimension. The style is an offshoot of hardcore techno, which has had a number of variants popular in the North of England. The tunes are around 150 bpm with a four-on-the-floor kick drum, whilst the eponymous "donk" itself is a layered sound or stab that occurs on the offbeat, or "and" of each beat. Synthesised musical parts in the tunes are akin to European techno, a stylistic template that has more in common with the sonic palette of 2 Unlimited than that of Basic Channel. Some bounce releases feature vocals, or rapid-fire MC'ing in an unashamedly UK regional accent.
The focus of the documentary is mainly the Blackout Crew, although other UK MCs and producers are featured. Blackout Crew's 2008 single Put a Donk On It may have only reached number 91 in the UK charts, but the official video had well over five million hits on YouTube, and consequently attracted "mainstream" media attention. The genre is little known outside of the North West and North East of England. Indeed, in the North West of England the style is mainly popular in the satellite towns between Liverpool and Manchester such as St Helens and Wigan, and towns to the north of Manchester such as Bolton, Burnley and Blackburn. The documentary is on initial viewing quite funny, until the realisation sinks in that it is a heavily biased, stereotype-laden snipe at the leisure practices of the white northern working class.
The documentary begins by exploring Blackout Crew's origins in a Bolton youth centre. Notably, considering the multi-cultural makeup of most of the towns named above, the only representatives of ethnic minorities filmed in the documentary are the managers of the youth centre (and a promoter later in the video). Northern hardcore and its sub-styles have never been of much interest to young black or Asian clubbers. The black respondents' comments in the video are subtitled despite being perfectly comprehensible; indeed this patronising use of subtitles occurs randomly throughout the video.
The next sequence takes place in Burnley, introduced by a series of visual tropes intended to convey a sense of acute urban deprivation. The presenter briefly interviews an ex-MC and questions him on local drug use, this respondent seems to have been included solely as he has been to prison. After some more clichéd camera shots the next respondent offers a more positive view of the town than the earlier montage suggested, despite being repeatedly questioned on the area's alleged propensity for violence. A bounce producer DJ Greenie is subsequently interviewed; he responds to questions about the scene's drug use by coyly stating a comparison to the film Human Traffic, inferring the use of ecstasy. Greenie is questioned on the centrality of steroids to the donk scene, to which he responds, "Wigan Pier's full of big lads on steroids". In the next sequence the documentary follows Blackout Crew to a gig in Scarborough. The documentary crew film some sequences outside the venue, one is an interview with a promoter who discusses the problems of booking the band outside the style's heartlands, describing the Southern audience as "more urban, more sophisticated in a sense". The narrative then returns to Bolton, signified by a montage featuring a pie shop, a tanning salon, a tattoo studio and a barbershop. After more interviews the focus shifts to a Blackout Crew performance at Wigan Pier, but not before another montage including a camera shot of a local newspaper headline proclaiming Wigan Thug Beats Mum To Be and yet more shots of fast food shops. Footage of young males being checked for weapons with a hand-held metal detector is included to connote a threat of violence.
The next sequence sums up the overall tone of the documentary, despite the friendly interviewees and carefree enthusiasm of the Pier's crowd, the documentary team can't resist sniping at the provincial working class audience, "As the night went on hundreds more fake-tanned, steroid-pumped donk enthusiasts filled the floor, tongues blue from drinking WKD". As the Blackout Crew perform, the presenter then comments that the music starts to sound like being trapped in a nail factory, before paraphrasing Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, "What you see here is the beating heart of donk, the heart of donkness, oh the horror, the horror". To bookend the video the documentary team return to Bolton the next day to interview one of the Blackout Crew MCs.
As a product of the Vice media group the documentary has a pre-ordained agenda to be mildly controversial and to come across as edgy gonzo journalism, hence the underlying fixation with drugs, violence and urban deprivation. This subtext is reinforced by the connotations supplied by the montage sequences and the chosen edits. The documentary team are given a consistently friendly welcome and open access to the scene by all - whether practitioners or clubbers - yet still choose to mock the northern working class whenever possible. This isn't a highbrow dance music style, but then again neither are grime or funky (UK Garage sub-styles), which are generally treated with some degree of reverence by the British media, possibly as these styles initially emanated from the South of England and have greater perceived (sub) cultural capital. Other related media coverage demonstrates this bias. The Guardian newspaper included a brief feature on donk in 2008 (by a Vice contributor) which had the headline, "Bouncy techno meets terrible rapping? Welcome to Donk. Keen on sportswear? Prone to taking your shirt off in clubs? Donk is made for you" (McDonnell 2008). In a promotional article in the Metro newspaper the producer discusses the making of the VBS documentary:
The most shocking element was just how massive most of these dudes were. They all had their tops off and the drugs are paramount. They take ecstasy, steroids, a bit of cocaine and then blue or red alcopops. We've been making a load of films recently, including one about cannibals in Liberia, but there were bits of donk that were just as scary —like being the only sober ones among 3,000 ravers on steroids and ecstasy (Capper cited by Day 2010).
The documentary says much about the predominantly middle-class media's attitude to white working class Britain and specifically London-based media's attitude to the north of England. The selection of material, the content of the montages and the editing reinforces entrenched stereotypes concerning the North of England and white working class leisure. The documentary is augmented by a Vice article on the making of the programme, which is noticeably more scathing than the documentary. For example, in a passage describing Burnley the writer states the following hyperbole:
What used to be a prosperous cotton-mill town is now decimated by the terminal decline of industry, with entire square miles of housing steel-boarded-up, repossessed and marked for demolition by the local council. Unemployment is all-consuming, violence is a popular pastime—as is the rampant theft of expensive copper pipes from condemned houses to sell as scrap to pay for heroin and crack. It's practically a ghost town these days, but instead of headless cavaliers with chains clanging around their wrists and ankles, there are gaggles of toothless, skeletal smackheads waddling around in skid-mark-stained tracksuit bottoms. Actually, scratch that—it's more zombie town than ghost town (Hodgson 2009).
Obviously, Burnley isn't that bad, although if you look for that kind of social deprivation it can be found in many urban centres. Crack and heroin use are not exclusively northern pastimes and neither is violence. Another example of tabloid journalism in the Vice article is the following statement describing the crowd in Wigan Pier:
The crowd was a mixture of skimpily dressed, emaciated rave bunnies and some of the most gruesome thugs you'd ever come across—blokes whose faces had been permanently disfigured by a lifetime of being pummeled by fists every weekend, who've probably washed down massive doses of steroids with gallons of Stella for breakfast every morning since they were 11 years old (Hodgson 2009).
Although the VBS.TV documentary is aimed at popular consumption, it does raise issues of academic interest other than media representation. There is potential for further academic research on the various dance music subcultures that have blossomed in the north of England outside of the metropolitan centres. An example of an interesting piece of previously published work on northern dance music culture is Ingham's (1999) Listening Back from Blackburn: virtual sound worlds and the creation of temporary autonomy. This is a brief but fascinating study of the warehouse party scene that blossomed in the Blackburn area in 1989-1990. Northern Soul has now achieved a mythic status and has received some academic attention, but the audience demographic was very similar to that of bounce nowadays, as were the audience demographics for the other hardcore house and techno variants that preceded bounce in the same geographic area. Linking these styles historically could be socially and culturally revealing.
Day, James. 2010. "Donk is the crazy dance sensation taking over the north-west of England". Metro, 31 March: <http://www.metro.co.uk/metrolife/819812-donk-is-the-crazy-dance-sensation-taking-over-the-north-west-of-england>.
Hodgson, Jaimie. 2009. "Put a Donk on it". Vice: <http://www.viceland.com/int/v16n2/htdocs/put-a-donk-518.php>.
Ingham, James. 1999. "Listening back from Blackburn: virtual sound worlds and the creation of temporary autonomy". In Living through Pop, ed. A. Blake, 112-128). London: Routledge.
McDonnell. John. 2008. "Bouncy techno meets terrible rapping? Welcome to Donk". Guardian Online. 29 July: <http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/musicblog/2008/jul/29/bouncytechnomeetsterribler>.