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October 5, 2001

++ Click-Hop, Microsound And The Delicate Balancing Act Of The Virtual Genre

++ We were standing outside 111 Minna, where XLR8R and Ubiquity records were presenting a night of breakbeat, future jazz and deep house. The night was early; not much was going on inside yet. A few people smoked cigarettes, and the rest of us stood around kicking the curb, talking about New York rents, Japanese blue jeans and English house music. You know, a pretty typical Friday night. Out of nowhere, Billee Sharp, who should've been minding the door, piped up. "What's "click-hop?" she asked the group of us assembled there. Uh oh, I thought. The others looked vaguely puzzled as they drew on their cigarettes, but I knew exactly where this was going.

See, Billee, one of the organizers of a monthly literary event called the Bored Collective, is married to Jonah Sharp, one of the Bay Area's most talented techno producers. Jonah recently recorded a track for Ursula Rucker's brilliant album, Supa Sista. And I, well --

"Some reviewer called Jonah's track on Ursula's album 'click-hop,'" said Billee, amused. "What the hell is that?"

See, I was getting to that.

++ Jonah's contribution to the album -- a collection of Rucker's spoken-word narratives over neo-soul backing from the likes of King Britt and 4Hero -- was a dry, clicky, very digital hip-hop track that sounded like it had swapped out the drum parts for bursts of static and white noise, a strategy popularized for house and techno on Mille Plateaux's Clicks and Cuts compilations. In my article for XLR8R, I referred to the song as "minimalist click-hop," a term I hoped would suffice as shorthand for Sharp's blending of genres.

But genres are tricky business, especially at a time when they seem to be multiplying faster than guppies in a cloning lab. Armed with increasingly powerful and inexpensive production tools, and tied into creative networks like never before, artists are exploring hybrids and mutations of traditional genres at a prodigious rate. Some of these aren't really genres at all, but rather a sort of descriptive umbrella to characterize some shared tendency.

Clicks and cuts, as far as I'm concerned, is one of these. The term belongs to Mille Plateaux, who recognized a common element across a wide range of electronic producers -- gritty static and the crackling of maxed-out CPUs -- and minted a term to grace two compilations showcasing the form (I contributed liner notes to the second installment, where I tried to introduce some of these ideas about the limits of genre). That those albums were comprised of work specially commissioned for the project, in some cases from artists with largely unrelated styles or working methods, suggests that "clicks and cuts" is not necessarily a phenomenon that evolved on its own. By those criteria, it's not really a genre per se, although the term has come into play by a wide range of writers and fans grasping for a recognizable way to describe these releases. This is part of the natural feedback loop of culture, and I've got no problem with it.

Some of these mutated forms turn into true genres -- artforms with their own distinctive signatures and rules. This year's breakaway star, 2-step, or UK Garage, is a mutation of Speed Garage, itself a hopped-up merger of house and R&B that was hyped as the UK's next big thing a few years back, but never went anywhere. And only a year or two out of the gates, 2-step is already fracturing into configurations so inbred they're almost fractal: breakstep, dubstep, nu-step, and a whole host that will doubtless disappear faster than last month's bootleg Destiny's Child remix.

++ I'm a big fan of genre qua genre. I think classifying things is fascinating. I think you can learn as much about a piece of music by how it differs from a similar piece, as by what it does on its own. This is doubly true for dance music, where every track is, in some sense, a variation on a common theme. Every house anthem, every techno track, every drum 'n' bass mash-up is a version of the essential house or techo or drum 'n' bass template. Some of these veer asymptotally close to the non-existent original; the trick here is to see how close you can get without going cookie-cutter. When too many identical tracks start coming out (cf trance, tech-house, tech-step -- the latter a subgenre of drum 'n' bass), the genre is forced to adapt or die off. There's an alternate impulse -- to take the genre's template as a given, but see how far you can venture from the "ideal" and still make it recognizable. That was Squarepusher's original project, and lo and behold, it spawned its very own offshoot called (sometimes scornfully, sometimes fawningly) drill 'n' bass.

I even took my own stab at the game of genre, coining the term MicroHouse for an article I wrote for The Wire in which I attempted to delineate a substrain within house and tech-house music, one especially popular among German artists. There, I chose to use the term as a descriptor. I wasn't making grand claims about this particular style, but imposing a new word was the easiest way of saying not only what these artists all had in common, but also how their tracks differed from other forms of house music. I'm well aware, though, that genre can be a pissing match -- and that's one of the reasons artists and fans can get so annoyed by the seemingly arbitrary proliferation of genre terms. It seems like the critic is trying to usurp the artist's role as creator, and rob her of her autonomy, by imposing a form. Simon Reynolds has certainly taken a lot of flak for his coinage of terms like post-rock and neurofunk, but I think he's done us all a service: "post-rock" gave people a new way of talking and thinking about rock music at a time when it was going through profound shifts not only stylistically but also culturally and economically. (I could also just be biased; as Simon wrote to me in an email after my MicroHouse piece appeared, "We coiners have to stick together and resist the genrephobes!")

++ I've indulged this somewhat lengthy meditation on the nature of genre because I think we can learn a lot from paying attention to the terms we use. Genre tags can liberate, and they can constrain. Last week I wrote about the way that a certain strain of dubby, minimal techno seemed to be wearing thin, running out of options. As I mentioned then, the microsound community has been beset with a similar ambivalence: whither the genre? Is it a dead end? Is it a genre at all? And all this business with laptops and user-friendly software, was it all too easy?

I entertain these questions as I'm working on an article on the Brooklyn label 12k and its sublabel LINE. In many ways these labels are exemplary of microsound, inasmuch as it is a genre at all (the .microsound list's mission statement offers a reminder as to the tenous balancing act between genre and not-genre, where founders Sean Cooper and Kim Cascone write that ".microsound is not a 'genre' mailing list, since this proliferation [of digital signal processing tools, contributing to the rise of a wide range of methods and styles] has occurred largely without regard for stylistic boundary"). In writing the article, I'm trying to explore the ways that record labels and genres engage in a kind of dialectic push-and-pull, and so it made sense to ask Taylor Deupree and Richard Chartier, who run 12k and LINE respectively, for their assessment.

They both echoed the prevailing sentiments regarding microsound. Taylor wrote, "The state of the 'genre'" -- his scare quotes denoting the uncertan identity of the form itself -- "is definitely at a turning point, although I'd venture to say it's not only because of the amount and quality of music coming out, but also because today's listeners... are more apt to have a shorter attention span." Richard cited two recent elements contributing to this shortening: the ever-accelerating flow of information, and the advent of ever cheaper software tools -- plus, crucially, the advent of the CD-R. "As the cost of making music goes down, the greater the amount of people working at home, working on the side, etc.," theorizes Richard. "So you have a greater amount of people spending less time on creating."

++ I'm reluctant to endorse all of his theory -- after all, "amateur" musicians have been turning out brilliant music for years; one of the key tenets of DIY culture is that with a little talent, persistence and luck, amateurs have a shot at becoming professionals. But their essential points ring true: the same acceleration that's bringing us shorter and shorter cycles of retro fixation -- grunge is already making a comeback on runways this year -- is contributing to ever-shortened cycles of stylistic evolution and exhaustion.

But don't take this as a reason to despair. "Do I think microsound is finished?" asked Taylor. "Not at all. I think there's so much more to be explored, and there's a lot of great music coming out. What's happening now is no different from what happened to, say, techno -- genres reach a saturation point after a few years, and then they split into a few defined subgenres. The cream of the crop rises, and the people who weren't so interested fade away."

Something in his comments triggered a memory, and acting on my hunch, I went back to interview notes from another conversation with Taylor, seven or eight months ago. Sure enough: we'd been talking about the way that some of microsound's signature elements -- the glitch, the abraded texture -- were working their way into popular music. At the time, one of Oval's tracks was in heavy rotation in a TV commercial for Armani fragrances. "Microsound will get borrowed and mutated into other forms of music, and it won't be long before we hear glitches in a Madonna track," predicted Taylor. "I guarantee it. On the other hand, it has been very successful in terms of inspiring other genres to rethink what they are doing," and he had a point there as well -- after all, Bjork's recent album is pockmarked on all sides with the striated surfaces of digital (or, as Kim Cascone phrases it, post-digital) producers like Matmos and Opiate.

Way back in early 2001, Taylor continued, "I think it's a very healthy genre because it really is about listening. It's about sound itself, first and foremost -- the day it is no longer about listening is the day the genre is in trouble." Faced with the choice of optimism or glum exhaustion, I'll choose optimism: I've got a stack of brilliant new CDs on my desk that draw on certain elements of microsound -- no, just one element, the attention to sonic detail that has become the hallmark of our finest digital music producers -- even as they throw genre to the winds entirely. Dntel's breathtaking pop deconstruction, Life Is Full of Possibilities, and Chessie's shivering post-pop ambience, both on Plug Research. Set Fire to Flames' Sings Reign Rebuilder (130701), a sprawling collage of found sound and improv from members of Godspeed You Black Emperor! and other figures from Montreal's out-rock scene. And Takagi Masakatsu's Pia (Carpark), an album that in many ways hews to the "classic" ambient microsound of Oval, but still manages to unearth tones and textures you've never heard before. All these releases landed on my desk in just the last week, proof that in the ecology of genre, overpopulation may be a pain in the ass, but extinction is the last thing we need to worry about.

As for "click-hop"? "Just a phrase," I told Billee, "didn't mean anything." But hey, if in 10 years you see an ad on TV for Click-Hop Hits of the Oughties, don't look at me.


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