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A Look Back at Ten Years of Shifting Music Genres

A look back at the last ten years of music.

I became a music writer in 2003, just in time to watch ingenuity and originality gasp their last breath. It was a notable time because grime, one of the last major forward-looking musical genres to originate in the UK, was already about to go completely overground with Dizzee winning the Mercury Prize. The other great British innovation of the same period, dubstep, had been gestating for at least half a decade already, even if it was still a year or so away from making an impact beyond specialist clubs. For people who had no interest in the cutting edge of black/urban electronic dance music, it was a grim time indeed. Working as a member of staff on a mainstream music magazine at that time was a bit like a cross between Groundhog Day and the really distressing last 20 minutes of Downfall.

Every day you’d come in and the boss, with shaking hands, would say, “Everyone who wasn’t involved in putting Hot Hot Heat on the cover of the latest issue leave the room now.” Everyone would stick a Luger in their gob and spray their brains straight across the cover of NME’s New Rock Revolution issue, which had been pinned to the office wall. After lunch you’d get in from the pub to find Eva Braun dancing on a table, swigging champagne out of a bottle, declaring: “Don’t worry everyone! The Polyphonic Spree are here to save us!”

It soon became clear that every single sensible combination of sounds, beats and melodies had just been used up and now the component parts could only be stuck back together in ever more ungainly ways. It was only a matter of time before some gibbous, oxygen-thieving bell end with long hair and a beard would stick the terms indie and grime together to come up with grindie. Although in my defence, when I coined the nomenclature in 2004 it was a derisive joke in the context of the phrase: “What next? Grindie?” I didn’t realise that by the time Statik and Larrikin Love were chumming up together it would be used without any apparent irony by my colleagues at the NME and the broadsheets. If the term grindie seemed ill-advised at the time, from the lofty hindsight-enriched perspective of 2012 it looks like a colossally, bizarrely bad idea. Kind of like asbestos, or naming your wedding DJ company Jim’ll Mix It.

Despite several shockingly see-through attempts to serve us yesterday’s listeria-ridden pig slop leftovers warmed through in the microwave – new grave, urchin rock, gritpop, Thamesbeat, nu-folk, shroomadelica and Afropop – indie had one ace up its sleeve in the form of new rave. Sure, it was recombinant and loathed by serious critics and armchair dance experts who hated its day-glo, fun, inauthentic nature, but this truly exciting and DIY scene combined with a glut of rocket-powered MDMA and the initial boom in neo-electro from the Modular, Ed Banger and Kitsuné labels led to a year or two of intensely enjoyable partying. 

Even naysayers would have to admit that new rave was MDMAzing when compared to what we have now: EDM or Electronic Dance Music. Despite its utilitarian, almost sexy nomenclature, EDM is utter fucking neo-trance bilge for those who can’t tell the difference between a nightclub and the Stanford Prison Experiment. So we’re talking David Guetta, Afrojack and that cunt with the big metal rat helmet. Seriously, America, what the actual fuck? Your boys (mainly gay and/or black but still your boys) invented techno and house in the fucking 80s and you decide to wait 25 years until some spray-tanned berk from France who looks like Owen Wilson in Zoolander does this to it before you’ll dance to it? It’s a fucking disgrace.

Which brings me on to the rest of us being tardy in getting our heads round other black/urban innovations in music. In the early 90s in Memphis, DJ Spanish Fly was helping mould the crunk sound on tunes like “Trigga Man” and “Smoking Onion” and the genre had certainly arrived by the release of Lil’ Jon & the East Side Boyz’ Get Crunk, Who U Wit: Da Album in 1997. Chopped and screwed is probably even older; DJ Screw claimed to have started pitching down tracks as far back as 1990. The same goes for hyphy, backpack hip-hop and stoner rap. This year you haven’t been able to move for lazy magazine articles claiming that trap is so new it’s not even been codified yet – but in reality, even this Memphis innovation dates back to the 90s, to pre-fame Three 6 Mafia, UGK and Project Pat. I guess you could say that trill wave is a relatively recent Southern hip-hop innovation covering such notables as the amazing A$AP Rocky, the annoying Lil B and the chilly SpaceGhostPurrp. Yet, more cynical men than me have commented on the surprising amount of crossover between trill and trap. “Ayo! Motherfucking Venn diagram looks like one circle, y’all,” said one outraged cultural theorist who didn’t want to be named.

But surely whitey must have done something with all these astounding influences when they crossed over into the mainstream? Damn straight – he invented witch house. (Full disclosure, joking aside: I think Gatekeeper, Mater Suspiria Vision and Salem are great… well, I think some of Salem’s records are great at least. Which is cool, because I’m 95 percent sure that the King Night album is what I was listening to the last two times I saw them play “live”.) People on the blogosphere (aka the dole) tried their hardest to give this extremely short-lived fad a different – but essentially much worse – name. Alternatives suggested included such peaches as drag, goth crunk, juke gothThe Ice Planet Goth, crunkin’ gothnuts, post-ghost, boo hausghost modern, Happiness is a Warm Goth and Bela Lugosi’s swag. However, there will be a particularly hot and irritating corner of hell reserved for the Brooklyn band Creep and the Pitchfork journalist who tried to up the ante by calling the whole thing rape gaze.

Weirdly, despite arguably being the most sonically progressive and inventive mainstream genre of the last ten years, R’n’B doesn’t really seem to have thrown up any particularly memorable or clearly defined sub-genres. Much to the dismay of fans of Usher and Ciara, the indie kids and hipsters have been getting in on the act to bring you PBR&B or R-Neg-B, a smacky, bro-friendly take on 80s/90s smooth music, with Gayngs, Destroyer and the Weeknd being the best and worst of the bunch, designed to give the bromantic a broner, which then may require the attention of bromide. Or a court-sanctioned brostraining order preventing you from going within 100 metres of her house.

On much safer critical ground we have reggaeton, a Hispanic/Jamaican dancehall hybrid which is ideal for people who are half my age, weigh 50 percent less and are wearing 50 percent fewer clothes than me to dance to.

Probably the most dominant of the new genres has been dubstep, which has firmly pierced the mainstream to the extent that not even a CD single by Military Wives gets released without a Chase & Status mix. Perhaps it’s predictable then that there have been many offshoots including blubstep (Boo hoo! It’s James Blake), pubstep (Oi! Oi! It’s Magnetic Man) and clown shoes (Wub! Wub! It’s Skrillex) and whatever that thing that Jamie xx does is called. Weirdly, no genre’s critical respectability has improved like that of heavy metal over the last decade. After the atrocity of nu metal, funk metal and deathcore in the late 90s, dronewar metal, djent, metal gaze, transcendent black metal, green metal, occult rock, NWONWOBHM and horrortronix have righted the balance with viking metal being good fun at least. We’ve only really been let down by the real ale-fart smelling, UKIP-compliant, cowardly xenophobia of heritage metal and the post-enjoyable post-metal.

Elsewhere, the class system is as entrenched as ever with cakeeating aristocrats and the upper middle classes (hypnagogic pop), the students (chill wave) and the lumpen proletariat (glo-fi) all having different names for the same genre, which is not dissimilar to listening to Hall & Oates on a Walkman with a head injury while throwing orange-tinted Polaroids of your 1982 summer holiday to Morecambe into a swimming pool. The rest of the feral underclass had shit gaze, which, oddly, didn’t trouble the charts much.

Probably the most inventive, ground-breaking genre of the last decade outside of dance music is, weirdly in some respects, also the most backward-looking. Hauntology applies some of hip-hop’s plundering and recombinant ethos to forgotten strands of British audio-visual culture such as school TV programmes, health and safety films, Radiophonic Workshop electronica and modular synth-rich library music.

All in all, what does it all mean? I’m not sure but there’s no space left for me to talk about bands who use a triangle instead of the letter A in their names, and for that small mercy alone I’m thankful.

Illustration by Daniel David Freeman.

Read more from our 10th Anniversary Issue:

What an Omnishambles

Never Pitch Any Of These Things To Us Again

Warren Ellis Files a Report from the Year 2022