Is this the sound of the future or fragments of the past coming back to haunt us? Is a remix of a classic thirty years after the fact an exercise in hauntology or a time loop closing? When hardcore came bowling out of the UK underground, it was sci-fi postulating rendered on wax, but it also reflected an inescapable reality at street level. Idealist, escapologist music that said as much about decades of inner city pressure as it did about outer space fantasies. A sweet refrain underpinned by a necessary ruffness, the elegant ballet of a break dissected 16 different ways over 16 bars, the protest pulse of the subs carrying the torch from one soundsystem culture to another.
What hardcore successfully struck on was so definably alien it set a new paradigm which has been cast back and forth in dialogue ever since. Whole scenes have risen and receded around these principles, and the constant remains – masses of bass carrying angular rhythms, unnerving echo chambers of disembodied voices and moments of staggering beauty and masterful ugliness. These principles have a universal appeal that burns bright generation to generation, never seemingly diminishing but rather fortifying with time. Sometimes a surge of inspiration finds the principles reinterpreted in head-spinning new ways, but the ethic remains the same.
Those shaky, intrepid years of lo-fi samplers and narrow band broadcasts were defined by their lack of definition. Take a punt on a rare groove lick and work out how to get the low end louder. Then everything got organised – in the face of mass appeal scenes started splintering and preferences catered to. It may not have been a force for unity, but it engendered more intensive investigation. Years of scenes, styles, subgenres, niches, furrows, corridors, avenues, detours, each more hyper-specific than the last. Eventually though, everything breaks down so much it all becomes one mass again – a constant cross-contamination between these intensely cultivated strains, creating ever more potent hybrids that simply feed back into the temporal swirl.
Hardcore has survived three decades. Will it never die? Mutate to survive, as the saying goes. There were outliers back then who remain misfits now, and it’s hard to tell whether what they’re making now is so different to what they were making then. Maybe the machines are slightly smarter, but they just find ways to rough the sound up elsewhere in the signal chain. What rings true is the sound hasn’t aged – in the right hands it still jabs at the frontal lobe and tickles the pleasure receptors with ferocious precision.
If anything the passing of time has only helped filter out the filler. True ‘ardcore evangelists have had longer to ruminate on the sound – what maximises the potency, what dulls the impact. Tempo and aggression are not the only tools to devastate a dancer – they rushed in an upward curve for years, to dubious ends. Now you might as likely be rolling at a sedantry 130 as tearing your face off at 180.
The clattering of breaks remain an imperfect vessel for these weird juxtapositions. There’s no standard backbone, no unanimous groove. Depending on the angle of the edit, the same two boom-baps can come out looking so different as to be unrelated. There might not even be any original breaks left in there. An amen begat a tramen begat the sound of a chair being thrown down the stairs. The pool of cultural codes remains open and accessible though – the call of the loom bird is not off limits, and neither are any of the unlicensed licks that hit the streets on the first sample CDs. Make the tune hot enough, you can use what you like.
Of course tired snobbery prevails amongst revivalists who would sneer at anything made after 1996 (or 1994, or 1992 – choose your flavour), but as a cultural movement hardcore (and its many wayward offspring) is as inclusive as it’s ever been. It’s about the joy of splicing, bricolage, the cheeky punt that leads to something profound. But more importantly, it’s about the culture of those who made it – an honest expression of the times, which go in cycles outside the sound not dissimilar to the ones within it.