How Did Deep House Become the Pulled Pork of Dance Music?
Connecting the dots from Guy Fieri to Gorgon City.
This post ran originally on THUMP UK.
Culture, like a bowling ball chucked down Ben Nevis, or a pisshead let loose in the bowels of a Brewdog, marches forward relentlessly. Well, we'd like to think so anyway. That's the attractive narrative we're trying to will into being every time we read or write a breathless blog post about Balkan-juke or force our mates to listen to a mix of brand new jungle records made by a teddy bear from Scunthorpe or sit our mum down for some branded video content in which a DJ plays a set live from the bottom of the Marianas Trench. The reality is a little different.
Culture, really, and quite obviously, is, in the present day at least, a largely regressive and retroactive thing. We embrace the past—be it the French nouvelle vague or South American magical realism or Japanese chiptune—because a) the contemporary is abjectly fucking terrifying and b) creating anything truly, genuinely, radically new is nigh-on impossible. So we fool ourselves into buying into anything that purports to any kind of newness because doing so is a way of sustaining a myth of resistance, even if we know that that myth is no more true than the idea that buying a Diet Coke negates the effects of a Big Mac.
So, we burrow unthinkingly into the seductive safety of the near past, preferring to wrap ourselves in a cultural comfort blanket. Well, we reason as we slide over a twenty pound note in exchange for a ticket for the latest Star Wars film, anything for an easier life, eh? And that line of thinking is largely unavoidable, something each and every one of us is guilty of, because behind the laziness and the fatalism lies a fundamental truth: new things are difficult. And that's why deep house slid into the mainstream. And it's how deep house became the pulled pork of dance music, too.
Photo via Flickr
Now, just like pulled pork, there's absolutely nothing wrong with deep house. I like pulled pork, and I like deep house too. But the kind of deep house I'm referring to here is akin to the kind of pulled pork you get served at a festival where some gormless deep house duo are plodding through an hour of shoulder-shrugs-in-the-air to a disinterested audience of punters more interested in pulled pork than deep house.
Larry Heard, Moodymann, Chez Damier, that's the gourmet pulled pork that Adam Richman used to eat by the stone on Man Vs Food, the kind of pulled pork that's stewed in its own juices for a week before bathing in sticky, sweet, dark, rich glaze—a glaze you or I would happily gulp pint after pint of—and sitting in a smoker for as long as it takes. Real, actual, authentic pulled pork. The pulled pork served up by Gorgon City or Disclosure or Robin Schulz is the kind of pulled pork that's perpetually on offer in Iceland: stringy, grey, and served in a can.
Imitation, we're told for reasons that are never, and will never be, fully explained, is the sincerest form of flattery. Except, to be blunt, it isn't. While imitation might be one of life's inevitabilities, life inevitabilities—council tax bills, the common cold, feeling absurdly despondent on your own birthday—are usually deeply fucking irritating. In fact, the sheer inevitability of life itself is deeply fucking irritating, but that's by the by. What we're dealing here, in this realm in which deep house and pulled pork have become inextricably entwined, like tender young lovers during reading week, is imitation not as flattery, but as deception.
People often like deep house and pulled pork for the same reasons. They're easily consumable products that at their absolute best are served largely unadorned, both of which can, when done well, display an occasionally stunning level of complexity despite their relative simplicity. They're comforting, unchallenging things we can reach for in times of need. Feeling down? Why not wallow in an Aaron-Carl record, or top a jacket potato with some marinated pig? In fact, why not do both at the same time!
The deep house that's been floating around the UK charts and the Croatian festival scene over the last few years—the kind of deep house that sounds like it's never been in the same food truck lined park on the outskirts of Leeds as Andres or Scott Grooves—has been erroneously named to the point of parody, having about as much to do with the soulful sadness of actual deep house as Jack Vettriano's paintings do to Edward Hopper's. Yes, there's paint on canvas, or a kickdrum and a bassline, but something's been lost in translation, and the result is nothing but a piss-poor imitation masquerading as the past reassessed by the present. It is a suffocatingly dull exercise in coattail riding, and its become the dominant mode of discourse for a certain kind of dance fan here in the UK. I can smell them, and you can too, for they are the revelers reeking of a nine quid pulled pork wrap.
What's been lost is, well, pretty much everything that makes deep house, the actual deep house, the deep house you'd hear Rick Wilhite or Marcellus Pittman or Move D playing out, deep house. That's not the deep house you're hearing on The Sound of Deep House 2016 or I Love Deep House. The deep house you're hearing there, or down the gym, or in a trainer shop in an out of town shopping mall, the pulled-pork-deep-house that dominates a certain kind of festival, attended by a certain kind of person, is a strangely airy, uncannily soulless construction, an assemblage of springy basslines and tropically-twisted pads, usually topped off with refrains that linger in the memory about as long as a piece of Wrigleys does on the tastebuds.
The explosion in popularity of this faux-deep-house—described to me once by DJ Harvey as "shallow house"—and pulled pork came at roughly the same time. Cast your mind back to 2013 or so, as distant as it seems now, as oddly antiquated and ahistorical as it is, for that was when a nation, if not a continent, went wild for both. Everywhere you went Duke Dumont's "Need U (100%)" hung in the air, as heavily as the sweetly acrid stench of slow-cooked pig-product. This was what we wanted, what we needed, what we'd been quietly craving all these years: sugary pap to get fat to.
EDM had already started to eat itself in the US, and, unusually for a country that usually co-opts anything and everything American, we'd ignored it. We had, it must be said, ignored it for all the right reasons. With its pomp and circumstance, its brash flashiness and complete lack of substance, EDM was a perfect symbol of the worst of American excess. Which makes it slightly strange that while we were busy rejecting the advances of Skrillex, Porter Robinson, and Deadmau5, we were simultaneously deciding to gorge ourselves obese on the supersized slop that Guy Fieri shovelled down his engorged gullet on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.
All of a sudden, all we could think about, all we could talk about, were buffalo wings and sloppy joes. We swapped bangers and mash for biscuits and gravy, dunking our ever-fattening faces into pails of 'slaw. And as we stood there, in a field somewhere, crinkling under the midday sun, hot sauce seeping out of every orifice, quietly ignoring the overdraft-exceeded texts from Barclays, we let Route 94 and Jess Glynne soundtrack our rapid descent into absolute fucking mediocrity.
Trends come and trends go, and now you're far less likely to spend an evening in the company of a buttermilk chicken loving MK obsessive who wants to tell you all about how banging the food at Blue Marlin. The deep house thing—one of the stranger moments in recent club culture history—drifted into a bleakly forgettable nothingness, and we all decided—seemingly collectively—that we'd be better off living on kale and quark than sweet potato fries and sticky ribs.
The damage had been done: deep house, for a certain kind of person, was forever enshrined as the soundtrack for a thousand weak gags about shuffling and Huaraches. This was not how things were supposed to go, but culture, it seems, moves of it's own violation. And now, a few years on, in a world that's changed irrevocably and incredibly, we're left to pick up the pieces.
Deep house will always make me think of pulled pork. Pulled pork will always make me think of deep house.