Pull up the tune: the politics of time, space and the rewind

By Imogen Malpas.

It’s 2am in the bowels of a London musical establishment. The ceiling is sweating, all around you clothes are coming off, and the sound system is rattling your vital organs. Then the DJ cues up the next tune and things start to get crazy: just as the bassline kicks in and the crowd starts to roar, the music stops dead and the high-pitched sound of the rewind cuts through the noise as the track starts again to even louder screams from the inhabitants of the dance floor, who, by this point, are levitating in both mind and body at least in part from the sheer energy of the room.

For the non-club-goers among you, welcome to the rewind: the act/art of stopping a song, taking it back to the beginning – pull up – and starting it again. Doesn’t sound like much work? That’s like saying it’s not much work to have a conversation with hundreds of people at the same time. The rewind is an element of DJ practice that allows the performer and the audience to speak to one another, and if you’ve ever been on the dancefloor when it happens, you’ll know that timing, energy, and mood is crucial: easy ‘til you try it. Done right, the rewind changes everything – it’s like applying a spark plug to everything at once. People scream. The crowd goes wild with joy. It feels a bit like church. Done wrong, it’s a self-indulgent mess when the DJ is too caught up in their own ego to care about if the crowd is having fun or not. But as Harold Heath points out, a tune should only get a rewind if it’s that good – and everybody knows it.

In his all-encompassing article on the history of the rewind, ‘Wheel It Up: History Of The Rewind,’ Laurent Fintoni writes that the rewind is “the great equalizer”, smashing the wall between performer and listeners as the crowd surges up to the speakers and an entirely new energy flow roars into being. The rewind has an almost mind-bending power to chop up the linear flow of spacetime and bring back the moment to be re-lived as many times as the crowd asks for (and it can be a lot of times). By the way, nobody is ever going to agree on who performed the first rewind: legend says that in 1967 Kingston radio operator Ruddy Redwood was given a dub plate without the vocal from Treasure Isle studio. When he took this “accidental instrumental” to the dance, the crowd quite simply lost it. Rumour has it that it was played for half an hour without a break, rewound every time the people demanded.

But the rewind doesn’t just shake up time and space in the club. It has a history that reverberates all the way across the Atlantic to the Caribbean, where it flourished among the dance halls of 1960s Jamaica before travelling in the minds and suitcases of Jamaican immigrants to Britain. This is the origin story of soundsystem culture: born in Jamaica, homegrown in the UK, now the proud mother of drum & bass, dub, garage, grime, drill… and showing no signs of slowing her extraordinary birth rate.

image showing record player, dancing feet, plant frond, sound waves, speaker, wifi symbol, and sunglasses
Art by Fred Seddon

This landscape is complex to navigate, and I was lucky enough to have as my guide the polymath that is Mykaell Riley – former vocalist of Grammy-award-winning Steel Pulse, longtime music writer and producer, and director of the Black Music Research Unit at Westminster University (and that’s about a quarter of what he’s up to). His current brainchild is the Bass Culture Research project, a three-year multidisciplinary exploration of the impact of Jamaican and Jamaican-influenced music on British culture. For Riley, the rewind is not just about an individual moment in the club, but about a deeper relationship between culture, artistic output and translation: the need to go backwards in order to capture something that’s essential for moving forwards. He explains that as early as 1968, in reggae culture, the final mix of a track began a new and curious existence: the moment in time when it was released suddenly became re-accessible, as artists began to journey back to tracks and give them new lives through their own musical interpretations. Everyone thought the track was over, when really, it was only just beginning. Today, we might call this a remix: grabbing something from the past and bringing it into the future, with the audience coming along for the ride. Modern-day sample culture, Riley argues, goes all the way back to that period, a time when a paradigm was established which the rest of the world is still learning from now.

Tapping into that residual memory can be incredibly powerful; we’ve all heard a new track that samples an old one and immediately draws us back into our memory bank. Whole generations still gravitate towards certain chord progressions. But this is where things start to get complex. These artists making musical jumps backwards and forwards through time and space did so within the context of their cultural heritage, allowing the original music to constantly inform what they were making with it. But the technology we use today – that allows us to make these jumps with almost unbelievable ease (if you’ve ever tried to show your grandparents Spotify or YouTube, you’ll know what I mean) – is starting to erode the vital relationship between time, culture and music. We are becoming unmoored. Riley faces these fears head on. “Have we got to a point where the whole idea of the rewind is happening at such a pace that it has less resonance and impact on the listener? It still has that magic, yes, but it’s less effective, so we stay with it less: and everything is slightly more transient.”

It might seem easy at first glance to dismiss this as mere technophobia, but the problem runs far deeper. Without anchoring the music that we rework, add to, and take from in its cultural context, we risk unravelling the process of cultural integration that was and is so very vital to British music. The simple fact is that today’s UK pop scene wouldn’t exist without the legacy of black artists. From the ska scene in the 1970s and its overwhelming influence on punk culture, to jungle and garage emerging from the two-tone and reggae movements in the 1990s, popular British music since the Windrush generation has emerged from the kitchens of black Caribbean soundsystem culture. But at some point, that music started being presented as a stand-alone dish that had been cooked up by white artists. “We recognise pop as a major expression of cultural creativity from white British youth,” Riley explains, “when in fact pop has always borrowed from black culture, but without being acknowledged. So a DJ could grow up in the UK and be remixing dubstep and not know what that has to do with reggae. Students have actually said to me – what has [dubstep] got to do with reggae?”

We’ve seen this happen elsewhere. You might be familiar with the genre tropical house – from the title of an auto-generated Spotify playlist if nothing else – and with its connotations of generic club nights and mostly white bikini-clad models on the cover of YouTube playlists, it’s the epitome of a genre that seems to have arisen out of nowhere in particular and is now the command of your typical white male DJ (think Kygo). Yet, as Georgina Quach writes, tropical house takes many of its most significant elements directly from dancehall, a Jamaican genre born from the country’s electrifying youth culture and inextricably linked with forms of resistance articulated by its most disenfranchised residents. The ‘tricky stuff’ – cultural baggage, sexually liberated lyricism, unpalatable beats – have simply been smoothed away, whilst the rest is synced up with the mainstream. Nice and easy.

For Riley, unsurprisingly, this isn’t good enough: the myriad contributions of black culture must be contextualised and credited before all else. “Unless we can honour those contributions, we’ll be moving towards the breakdown and the loss of everything that we’ve gained, and homogeneity will be the order of the day,” he warns. The problem is that this process of acknowledgement – which is complex and requires the active attention of the listener – is precisely what tech makes so easy to avoid. Homogeneity and passivity are perhaps the hallmark of the YouTube and Spotify playlists through which so many people now discover music, and with their nondescript cover images and crowd-pleasing selections, there’s no space for context. Because of the effort involved and the comparative rarity of the release, a remix used to allow musicians and listeners to develop a relationship with both the original and its new form. Now, with a library of half a million songs in each of our pockets, that relationship has been permanently disrupted. Time and context have become meaningless, says Riley, because “the world now has access to time travel, so we’re jumping through time with no real relationship with time as a consequence.” 

The rise of the algorithm has only hastened this breakdown. For Riley, “even the word ‘rewind’ is now used totally out of context, disconnected from its cultural source: it’s just a term that will describe a particular collection of tracks assembled by an algorithm from a playlist.” (Consider Spotify’s Summer Rewind: now compare it with the scene described at the beginning of this piece.) What’s more, the algorithm’s convenience makes it all too easy to forget what its existence signifies: a loss of choice. It’s a black box into which culture, time, politics and – crucially – self-determination are inexorably sucked, and ‘songs to listen to by the pool’ are popped out. It’s an incredibly subversive procedure dressed in exceptionally insipid clothes: the more boring and generic it seems, the more dangerous it’s likely to be. “You may not even be aware of the extent to which your knowledge and choices have been curtailed,” warns Riley. As we go forward in time and in tech, it’s a curtailment that is only increasing.

Who is it that stands to benefit from all of this? We might find the answer to that question by asking another: Why are artists and their peers, whose performances were being violently shut down by the Met police, headlining Glastonbury two years later? For the media, it’s proof that if you work hard enough at your craft, you can overcome even the most disadvantaged of backgrounds. For Riley, it’s because of money. As grime made its way out of the underground scene, streaming data patterns started to show that its main listener demographic was, unexpectedly, white youth. Suddenly, a genre that had been cold-shouldered by big labels for its ostensible association with violence started to look a lot like a cash cow: as festival lineups across the country began to be populated with grime artists, ticket sales shot up. “That change can only happen if it has been sanctified by the system,” Riley explains, “[and if] the data changes again, these artists would be sacrificed on the altar of money.” This is the descent of music into cash-driven data analytics lining the pockets of the big dogs of the music industry: music “without personality, without history, without provenance.” 

So what happens if this keeps happening? It’s about more than music: the future of British cultural integration is at stake. Multiculturalism is at a fragile moment in our country’s history, and without crediting the culture that helped build us, there’s nowhere to go but backwards – into an unravelling of all that has been fought for. “If you assume it’s all yours,” says Riley, “you’re not recognising what you are pulling together, and there will be a disconnection.” It’s within our power to slow this process, but only if we as a generation make the effort to consciously acknowledge the reference points embedded within black culture that, like a constellation, pull together to define not only the British music scene but modern Britain itself.

Bibliography

Fintoni, L. (2015). Wheel It Up: History Of The Rewind. [Blog] Cuepoint. Available at https://medium.com/cuepoint/wheel-it-up-history-of-the-rewind-21fdcff243d9

Heath, H. (2018). Reload! A History Of The Rewind. [Blog] DJ Techtools. Available at https://djtechtools.com/2018/08/31/reload-a-history-of-the-rewind/

Quach, G. (2019). Sampling, Stealing and Influence: Music and Cultural Appropriation. [Blog] The Oxford Student. Available at https://www.oxfordstudent.com/2019/03/08/sampling-stealing-and-influence-music-and-cultural-appropriation/

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