Katy B: Sound Of The Underground
Last month, in a viral twitter thread commemorating retrospective “UK bops”, two past hits re-emerged from the crop to much fanfare: ‘Lights On’, the Ms. Dynamite-assisted number that taught us it’s about the marathon, not the sprint, and ‘Katy On A Mission’, which broke down the psychology behind frisson.
Additionally, the techno-tinged breakbeat of ‘Broken Record’ circulated on the socials, completing a triad of songs in which subgenres cultivated (and shielded) by loyalists were sequestered by a diminutive singer with an eye on the revolving door of pop, one Katy B.
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Maybe’s it’s our collective need for a good rave; the prolonged freeze on nightlife rendering us inert, suspended in a whimsical state of being, thinking about the last time we got sweaty and loose in the basement of a seedy, non-descript club. But the shared outpouring of love for Katy B is long overdue. The Peckham singer has quietly demarcated the landscape of electronic music, her iridescent style and ability to skate over virtually any ready-made beat has been adopted en masse by mainstream singers today.
Last year saw Katy B’s peer and fellow dance music enthusiast Jessie Ware, repurpose disco, funk and Hi-NRG for a new age, her reverence for past eras matching Katy B’s lifelong passion for 90s rave culture, firmly rooted in soulful house traditions.
Lest we forget it was Katy B’s reappropriation of UK funky on ‘Lights On’ that spawned a thousand imitations, her slickly-produced ode to stealth on the dancefloor became her highest-charting release at the time: a jam so indelibly infectious, it coaxed Ms. Dynamite out of retirement. The the vocal-rap interplay between the two was God-tier, their repeated pleas with the DJ with gun-finger and hand swipe flourishes, manifesting into a kind of sacred club manifesto.
Katy B has never really committed herself to the starrier heights of pop stardom; her personal flight path disparate from her contemporaries churning out regurgitated sounds in the EDM-pop tradition. Shades of a reluctant star coloured her early years in the industry: a BRIT school alum, Katy B refined her craft with guest vocals on tracks like ‘As I’ and her cover of ‘Good Life’, becoming a staple on Rinse FM, her lilting touch on garage tracks wholesome but ultimately secondary to the male producers at the helm.
“I didn’t think anything was gonna happen, but these songs ended up getting on pirate radio and that was really exciting. I just thought, why don’t I make this music?”, she told Rolling Stone in 2011.
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‘On A Mission’ was released when electronic music was almost exclusively a phallocentric profession, but Peckham’s own, navigated the hallowed ground of dark distortion with sangfroid and a feminine cool. The Benga-produced title track ingeniously filtered club-generated moments to the mainstream: it’s injection of heavy-duty bass subordinate to Katy B’s cat-and-mouse role play, vocals contorting to match the brazenness of the syncopated beats; beckoning a call-and-response with earworm hooks that remain just as glorious today as they did on first listen.
The Mercury Prize-nominated record was a refreshing, filer-free fare, released at the turn of a new decade, before algorithms prevailed upon popular music and our consumption of it. A streamlined 12-tracks, Katy B and her trusted producers Geeneus and DJ Zinc calved out a true and authentic paean to club culture. The opener ‘Power On Me’, with its lashings of psychodrama, set the tone for a project, that in its fullness, reimagined the virtues of what a dance record could be.
Katy B never untethered emotion from the dancefloor; the dancefloor was the one place she could open the doors of her private reverie. She matched her chaotic experiences as a young twenty-something with the hedonism of cosmopolitan nightlife. Desire and longing, resentment and isolation wasn’t conveyed through saccharine ballads, but by clandestine across-the-floor glances and body-talk flirtations, enabled by a soundscape so versatile, so high-octane, it passed you by in its charged brevity, compelling you to play it again.
Katy B’s primary appeal resides in her understanding of the subculture surrounding clubbing, having grown up at the intersection of pirate radio, raves and the pluralistic underground scene that defined a pre-gentrified London.
A sonorous hit-parade, ‘On A Mission’, tackled the sub-sections of electronic music as if it was a night club with an assortment of different rooms, catering to the needs and wants of club goers. It soundtracked Friday evening frivolity, dancing until the dawn of Saturday when the come-down was in full effect, transitioning into the pensiveness of a Sunday where lingering misgivings and insecurities bubbled to the surface (‘Disappear’).
The record dissected communal night-time euphoria: the combo of wilful inebriation and a thumping bassline, the exertion that came with teasing a potential conquest (‘Movement)’ but most importantly the collective ecstasy permitted when dancing became a kind of catharsis (‘Lights On’).
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‘On A Mission’ moved beyond the wearisome tropes of mindless hook-ups, and examined dating and power dynamics (pre-Hinge!) through candid first-person diary entries.
“Standing at the bar, with my friend Olivia, we were trying our best to catch up…”, the seminal line from ‘Easy Please Me’ would have fallen flat if sung by another vocalist, but Katy B, a South Londoner through and through, possessed the kind of dry, wry vernacular that sent the line soaring with impact. Her ineffaceable girl-next-door appeal, favouring realness and an urban demeanour consistent with her origins, invigorated a scene dominated by mass-produced acolytes; on stage and in her videos, you’d see her wearing a dress with nikes, hoops on, mixing comfort and durability with street appeal. Katy B wanted to move and wanted her audience to follow suit. That remained her essential tenet.
Bar a brief foray into more commercial pop and contemporary R&B on her sophomore record ‘Little Red’, Katy B largely dodged trends in favour of finessing her club-rooted sound, playing around with tempo and mood: be it the ambient mood music of ‘Sapphire Blue’ or the glitchy bombast of the Sampha-produced ‘Play’. Her predilection for four-on-the-floor bangers remained, the George Fitzgerald-produced ‘I Like You’, a natural continuation of the garage-inflected house of her debut, it’s siren-like switch up at the climax symbolising the point of no return.
On her collaborative LP ‘Honey’, she ventured even further down the realm of electronica, shape-shifting in service of sound. She enlisted renowned electronic producers Four Tet and Floating Points on the synthetic string shimmy of ‘Calm Down’, an underrated deep cut in an underrated discography.
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‘Honey’ may not have emitted the glow of her earlier material, but Katy B affirmed her position as an artist reimagining her vision of adulthood and the autonomy it afforded, she was no longer the wide-eyed club-goer, but a woman owning her her sexuality: The Kaytranada-produced title track conveyed this risqué side, the tempo reined-in, sticky-sweet sentiments dripping with filthy carnality.
Katy B notched her first UK number one with the KDA collaboration ‘Turn The Music Louder (Rumble)’, justice for a decade spent serving us banger after banger.
And then she disappeared. Having devoted herself to radio silence, with no update bar the intermittent Instagram post and lifestyle tweet about cookery, here’s hoping Katy B is cooking up her next elegy to nocturnal life. We’ve never needed it more.
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Words: Shahzaib Hussain
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