Finding Its Niche: The State Of Bassline

“I don't think it’s come back. I think it’s moved on.”

A genre seemingly in a perpetual state of threatening a resurgence, bassline is a curious cultural beast and one that is in many ways similar – in terms of common perceptions, at least – to another sound currently enjoying a hard-earned boost in popularity: grime.

No doubt, there’s plenty of common ground held by grime and bassline: tempo (both clock in at the mid-noughties holy grail of 140bpm), wonky basslines, lots of snares, lots of men, and little to no rules in terms of what it should sound like – as well as an apparent chasm between the polar appeals of freestyles recorded from a Corsa passenger seat and the big singalong hooks that hit single figure placements in the UK charts and can still draw a dancefloor in Vodka Revs. T2’s slightly hamfisted 2007 rework of chart smash ‘Heartbroken’ ahead of Ricky Hatton’s bout with Floyd Mayweather – it’s called ‘Jaw Broken’ and available to stream here, since you’re definitely interested – perhaps best sums up this dichotomy.

However, aside from the perceived aggression and hyper-masculinity (not to mention the guilty pleasure singalong tunes) that tie bassline and grime together there’s also historically been a lack of established industry infrastructure. And more often than not, that lack is exposed by sudden success – hence the dramatic rises and falls that have people talking about resurgences, rather than the cyclical process of the so-called ‘Hardcore Continuum’ that scene scribes like Simon Reynolds and Martin Clark have previously posited. Needless to say, for a sound to have a resurgence it must first have risen and fallen at least once before.

“[Mainstream hits like ‘Heartbroken’ and ‘What’s It Gonna Be?’] had a massive impact. Short term win, long term loss,” says DJ Q, who himself charted in the UK with shouty singalong ‘You Wot!’, “They helped the scene grow in popularity but in the long run those tracks messed up the scene in terms of productivity.” TRC, a bassline, grime, garage and hip hop producer from Wolverhampton, agrees that “it may have been too soon for bassline as the commercial success came and went pretty quickly.”

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It didn’t help that all of this was happening at a time of enormous flux within the music industry either. The phenomenal success of another Steel City export, Arctic Monkeys’ debut album in 2006, was to prove something of a tipping point for the UK music industry, proving as it did peer-to-peer music sharing’s ability to make the musical world a smaller place as well as minimising the distance between fans and artists in a way that social networks like Facebook and Twitter would later compound.

However, curiously, despite the generally positive effect that the Web’s globalising influence was having on other garage offshoots (most notably dubstep, itself arguably one of the first genuinely global post-Web genres), regionalism was to play a significant role in stemming bassline’s tide.

The boiling pot environment of bassline hubs like Niche in Sheffield or Sheridan’s in Dewsbury hold a status within the scene akin to Metalheadz’ Sunday Sessions at Blue Note, or grime and dubstep’s early outings at FWD>> and DMZ. Niche, like FWD>>, was influential to the point that it became accepted by many within the scene as the given name of the genre itself. However what’s interesting is that, differently to its drum & bass, grime and dubstep counterparts, bassline’s handful of mostly Yorkshire- and Midlands-based HQs were very much tied to bricks and mortar. Niche was not just the name of the clubnight, but the club itself – and that building’s sudden closure following police raids as part of Operation Repatriation in 2005 arguably served as to the scene’s later fracturing. (Owner Steve Baxendale would later rename his subsequent Club Vibe venture to Niche, but this too was short lived and shut its doors permanently in 2010).

These clubs were enclosed spaces, encouraging a pressure cooker effect on the scene’s ultra-passionate practitioners and fanbase. Bassline – not dissimilarly to grime – is typified by, if anything, its frenetic pacing and crammed sense of variety. Take the opening sways of Paleface’s Rinse:05 mix CD from 2008: the transitions from Dub Melitia’s aggy, coldly homophobic ‘Bullet VIP’ (intro sample: “Any man no like vagina fi get bullet”) into Rekless’ sweetboy resurrection anthem ‘Brighter Day’ and then Jalla’s self-explanatory ‘Shank Yaself’ are emblematic of the sound’s simultaneous, often conflicting existence within extremities. That these tunes each run solo in the mix for barely more than a minute only emphasises the defining frenzied energy of the sound, and the way in which it transferred to the scene as a whole. Forty such distinguishable tracks crammed onto a single, hour and twenty minute mix CD makes for something of an apt metaphor for the scene.

However, while these environments allowed for this kind of rapid development, with fresh ideas and approaches in a constant rub up alongside one another, it also closed things off to an extent from the south of the country, and London in particular.

Paleface recalls “playing out in Swansea, Liverpool, Colchester, Southampton, Cardiff, Bristol and many other cities that would not be considered key places for the music to thrive – and most of the nights were packed,” but notes that the sound “didn’t seem to take in London.” Dexplicit, the producer behind the ‘Forward Riddim’ that served as the instrumental to Lethal Bizzle’s chart-breaking ‘POW!’ as well as bassline staples such as ‘Bullacake’ and Might Be’, cites an incidental divide between the capital and those other cities in which the genre was thriving. “Bassline was a sound that the northern and midlands cities could stand proud behind and call their own,” he tells us, “they had an amazing club scene which was full of DJs producers and artists from those cities, whereas [other] scenes like grime, garage and funky typically comprised of musicians from the capital.”

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Finding Its Niche: The State Of Bassline

Bassline was a sound that the northern and midlands cities could stand proud behind and call their own…

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London was indeed in the throes of its own parallel love affairs with grime and UK funky. However grime at least was being picked up in other major cities across the UK and outside of the capital, despite its own microclimatic approach (take JME, Big H, Skepta et al’s Meridian Crew, named after the Meridian Walk estate, as an example) – and had MCs from Wiley to President T proudly reciprocating and namechecking cities north of the Watford Gap in their bars too.

Bassline, though, was not penetrating the capital: “I personally think that, at the time, bassline was present in every area barring London,” says Paleface. “I think it was a case of out of sight, out of mind,” offers DJ Q, who was at the time holding down a fortnightly show in the capital on BBC Radio 1Xtra, “you couldn’t get away from bassline up north: it was everywhere. [But] with it not being made in London there was no reason for it to be in London, so I think that’s why it struggled.”

Perhaps owing to his time spent growing up in London, Paleface sees this relative failure to engage the UKG-receptive crowds of London as critical to bassline’s initial late-noughties decline: “For me, without the endorsement of London, the sub genre would struggle to blossom like others did such as UK funky, dubstep and grime.”

Fellow Londoner Dexplicit agrees that the concentrated location of the scene-shaping bassline DJs and producers themselves had a large influence on the sound’s uptake, or lack thereof, outside of those areas: “There were pockets of people who loved bassline in London and other cities too, but it wasn't as popular as the cities where the majority of the bassline DJs lived.” The scene’s lacking infrastructure, according to Paleface – who migrated up north from south London to get more involved in the bassline scene – exaggerated this regional disconnect too. “Music that was dominant within the scene at the time wasn’t available on vinyl. Some was but it was very limited: [my own label] Northern Line, Reflective Records, Studio Beats and a few other labels were putting out what was current in the clubs,” he explains, “which meant that unless you had direct contact to producers there would be no way of obtaining the material.”

In some ways, then, the slingshot effect of the handful of chart hits bridging 2007-08 went some way to disrupting this staid setup. A slash and burn effect, if you like, that tore down the scene’s foundations but left a more fertile, receptive audience to be built upon in the years to come.

For some, including TRC, who says he owes his whole career to bassline, commercial success and mainstream visibility helped to open doors that they otherwise may never have come across. “I had a lot of songs on both of the Ministry of Sound [Sound of Bassline] comps, which helped me branch out into avenues I hadn't been involved in before,” TRC tells us, but maintains that he’s also “carried on making bassline since things quietened down.”

Additionally the heavy-handed, some would argue targeted and reductive, policing of the club scene – not dissimilarly to the Metropolitan Police’s Form 696, which effectively served a pin to grime’s broadening appeal in its home city – forced bassline from the intense confines of its flagship clubs and into the more incubatory environ of the Web. This would be a sound to be picked up on and incorporated by a new generation of interpolators further down the line.

Indeed, given the experiences of scene figureheads such as DJ Q and TRC who have stuck with the sound and learned from past mistakes made scene-wide, this time around popular appeal will be built on more sturdy foundations. “’POW!’ didn't get radio support in the same way that the big vocal bassline tunes did, but it did have a similar effect on the people in the scene making the music,” says Dexplicit, with crystal hindsight, “it gave everyone a sense that this stuff could actually chart.”

In fact, Q notes, there might even be some benefit from the scene’s more haphazard early construction: “The thing about bassline is that not many people actually released songs from that era, so I’m sat on probably nearly 1000 unreleased bassline tracks by myself and other producers. Most of which sound current.” Case in point is the Huddersfield producer’s latest 12” via London-based Local Action, which has seen two almost decade-old tracks – ‘Rocky’ and ‘Poison’ – receive their first official release.

There’s yet another point of comparison to be made with grime here, if not solely in the ’05 style of the music, then in their accompanying visuals too: both Q’s VHS recorded, fish-eyed ‘Rocky’ and grime young blood Novelist’s recent Channel U-alike ‘Endz’ video spots are far flung from today’s pixel-stuffed, 4K norms but seek to convey a shared sense of authenticity through their warmer, handmade, analogue aesthetics.

But despite the myriad links, DJ Q is keen to avoid either genre being handed the role of understudy or young pretender. “No disrespect to grime but I don’t think bassline is benefiting or suffering from the whole grime resurgence at all,” he says. “It’s separate altogether.” And it’s a fair comment, according to his peers. Paleface argues that “the sound never went away,” citing both the continued success of originating producers “who were present before ‘Heartbroken’” and the new crop of producers who have been making “bassline sounding tracks [since] long before the current buzz that is floating around [with] the term bassline.”

This idea of “bassline sounding tracks” (as opposed to just ‘bassline tracks’) is interesting. Indeed TRC agrees that what’s happening with the sound shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a resurgence at all: “I don't think it’s come back. I think it’s moved on.”

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Finding Its Niche: The State Of Bassline

All I hear [now] is a load of bassline patches on 4×4 beats at a slow tempo…

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Today, post-Web, the young producers who might previously have found themselves appearing seemingly out of nowhere on gold-selling MoS compilations are practising a more amalgamous approach. Artists like Murlo, Royal-T, Champion and Killjoy are celebrated for their ability to bring together more than a decade of UK garage in all its diasporic forms – including dubstep, grime, 2-step, UK funky and bassline – into something strikingly new, with each adding their own personal flecks (or, as it were, flex).

In fact Champion is a producer strongly aware of how his heritage has come to shape the path of his career, having started DJing at the age of “about 11, playing mainly garage and bashment” before focusing entirely on grime when he started producing and then, as his DJ sets became more eclectic, “started making UK funky but with a light bassline influence.” (Interestingly, he says he really started getting to know the bassline scene after he got picked up by T2 and Addictive’s manager following his initial successes within UK funky – which was to experience its own storied decline after a nudge at the charts.)

And indeed, he has his own ideas about what people might be trying to hail as a comeback for bassline, suggesting that the original bassline sound – which he notes, “still always gets played across the country” – will simply develop now in into different forms outside of itself. “All I hear [now] is a load of bassline patches on 4×4 beats at a slow tempo,” he says. Indeed, producers such as My Nu Leng, and their other Black Butter associates, have seen great success in introducing their well documented underground obsessions to a more established genre framework – and a more established, dare we say it, mainstream crowd in the process.

What’s more is that the machinations of the industry itself are beginning to mirror this cherry-picked approach too: the strict record-release-tour-repeat type structures and major label dictated timelines are all but dead as independent upstarts continue to get a handle on the increased influence that their natural affinity for fanbase proximity has delivered them. In the past you might have pointed towards labels like XL Recordings or Domino for that kind of evidence, but today you have – and it’s no coincidence that we’re naming grime artists here – the likes of Skepta and Stormzy making good on their DIY or die boasts.

The sloping off that followed grime and bassline’s respective mid-noughties heydays remains something to be learned from, though: in music, it rarely pays to get ahead of yourself. After all, there are still plenty of music fans whose only remembered encounter with bassline will have been with Tracks’ accidentally comical ‘Mans On Road’.

But if there’s one final grime comparison beyond this need for patience and learning that’s worth making, it’s that both genres and their associated cultures – though relatively (small ‘n’) niche – continue to inspire a passion that is largely unrivalled. And it’s ultimately that kind of passion that will, if it’s going to happen, carry the bassline sound from its Niche to the world.

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Words: Will Pritchard (@Hedmuk)

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