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2014: The Year Instrumental Grime Chilled Out

How a host of producers explored a meditative and melodic sound.
December 18, 2014, 3:59pm
Mr. Mitch.

""Wandering Glaciers" is called that because it literally made me feel like I'm on top of a broken polar ice cap just floating through the Arctic. It's a vivid image I get every time I listen to it". Miles Mitchell, who produces under the name Mr. Mitch, is explaining the inspiration behind the track titles of his debut album, Parallel Memories. Not all of them are quite so idyllic. Some, like "Denial", have Mitchell picturing more distressing scenarios. "The image I get from that track is of my partner and son packing their bags and heading out the door, I guess it goes with the emotion of the track but it's the same every time." So lucid were the visions the songs brought to mind that they seemed to Mitchell like memories belonging to some alternate reality.

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Parallel Memories has been one of a number of instrumental grime releases that have explored a meditative and melodic sound over the past year. Although it's possible to trace this melancholia back to early Ruff Sqwad productions, Dizzee tracks like "Do It!", Durrty Goodz's lament "Letter to Tinch" and the R&B influenced productions of DaVinche and Flukes (better known as Crazy Cousins). As the instrumental scene has come into its own, these slower tempo productions have received more play in clubs. "In the past producers made tracks for MCs to spit on, for raves, and producers who didn't do that style didn't get much of a look in. But now as producers have gone off and done their own thing they can make whatever they like," says Mitchell.

Mr. Mitch isn't the only producer who's found more creative freedom to experiment. Last month, Jack Adams and James Parker, better known as producers Mumdance and Logos respectively, started their own label Different Circles. Their first release, Weightless Vol 1, compiles a handful of beatless productions from Inkke, Strict Face, Dark0, Rabit, Murlo as well as joint track by the two. "I guess the way you'd describe a weightless grime track would be something which has very minimal percussion and has a weightless feeling, it's just a mood of grime," explained Adams in his introductory mix on RBMA. These sparse constructions are reminiscent of Wiley's "devils mixes" – drumless reworkings of past productions – which Parker cites as an influence.

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As Adams suggests the sensibility and formal aspects of these tracks are interlinked. In part, the reflective tone or mood that a weightless track elicits is an expression of the sparseness and emptiness of the production. "It's not something I do intentionally with my music, it just seems to be something that comes out of me," adds Mitchell. "That melancholic side of things is what I'm attracted to". As with his Peace Dubs mixtape, released in between the crossfire of 2013's war dubs, the two often come together quite naturally. Mitchell slowed downed and stripped away the percussion of classic grime tunes, sedating even belligerent anthems like Faze Miyake's "Take Off" and Spooky's "Spartans" to the point of being almost unrecognisable from the originals. These pacified edits felt like a momentary ceasefire amid all the oneupmanship and braggadocio.

London based producer Yamaneko also sat out the war dubs. His debut Pixel Wave Embrace, released last month on Local Action, is embossed with a sticker that reads: "Gentle can be powerful" – a kind of Buddhist proverb for grime productions. Inspired by new age and meditational musics, Yamaneko's forefronting of melody shares similarities with Mr. Mitch's Gobstopper label as well as the debut of Different Circles – but unlike the latter he doesn't hold back on percussion. "While a lot of the album focuses on the more delicate ways of withdrawing yourself from your real world, sometimes, in my experience, the best cure for thinking clearly amongst all the noise is an absolute bastard of a kickdrum," Yamaneko told Dazed.

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, like many instrumental grime productions in the past year, also draws on Japanese culture. Yamaneko takes his name from the Japanese for a species of mountain cat and based one of his tracks around the narrative structure of manga. Likewise, Dark0 has made no secret of his love of JRPGs, drawing explicitly on Final Fantasy soundtracks on his Fate EP. Fatima Al Qadiri's , traced these inspirations to their source, basing her debut around the concept of an "imagined China", the sum total of Western stereotypes and imitations of Asian culture. As her starting point she chose sino-grime, a sub-genre of grime productions that uses synth presets bearing some resemblance to classical Chinese and Japanese instrumentation. In turn, productions from Rabit, Slackk and Samename exaggerated this cultural and geographical remove; as with the panpipes of Slackk's "Three Kingdoms" and the streams of running water in the background of Samename's "Sakura".

The way in which these productions allude to or borrow from new age and meditational musics works on two levels. Firstly, the kitschness of the samples and presets, directly and indirectly, poke fun of the artificiality and Orientalism of the source material. Equally, they reclaim relaxation music from a form of commodified escapism into something more subversive, a music to drown out the penetrating noise of capitalism in our everyday lives. "Going mad with overstimulation from working, living in London and trying to understand what the fuck is going on at any given time, I started paying less attention to new tunes and tried to quiet my head with soft background music from videogames," Yamaneko explained to Dazed.

Just as a meditation tape guides you through an activity that temporarily requires a pause in productivity, videogames also focus concentration on an unproductive task. By this definition, to play videogames is a waste of time, it is a leisure pursuit that has no intrinsic goal but play itself. In this light, it is possible to situate the recent trends and sources of inspiration in instrumental grime tracks within a wider sense of discontentment and resistance to neoliberalism's erosion of time spent on recreation and reflection. It's telling that this calmer and spacious sound has emerged in part out of a need for some contrast in sets to claustrophobic and dense tracks saturated with the robotic sounds of the production line.

For Mitchell, much like Yamaneko, music has often been a medium to detach oneself from reality, to daydream to. In his own listening, Mitchell is inclined towards music that leaves room for contemplation. "I really enjoy tracks which I can get completely lost in and forget where I am," he says. It's an effect that's carried through to his own productions, as I find out after exchanging stories about drifting off to Parallel Memories on public transport. "I was listening back a track off the album on the train on the way home today. I closed my eyes and got lost in it for a bit and when I opened my eyes again I realised I was on a packed train."