kev nickells

HARDCORE TIL I DIE

Kev Nickells unearths the abject and disavowed history of happy hardcore and finds a resistance hidden in plain sight.


This is an article about Happy Hardcore music. Or Hardcore Techno. Or Hardstyle. Or any number of other finite articulations of the branch of music that grew out of the early-90’s rave phenomenon. A gloss: at some point no one wanted to write about Hardcore, and it kind of disappeared from popular consciousness, usurped by things like Drum ‘n’ Bass. While that axis—and following it through to 2-step, Grime, Dubstep etc.—have had plenty of serious articles written about them, Hardcore’s just kind of disappeared. Except it didn’t disappear in 1995 and it’s still going strong in 2014. Widely reviled, generally mocked and not considered “serious” music (perhaps least of all by the people buying the records and going to the clubs), Hardcore’s tenacity has seen it persist in dance culture for the best part of 2 decades.

The idea here was to write something about the Hardcore subculture—except Hardcore isn’t a “sub” culture, in terms of being small—it’s fucking massive. Except in being massive—selling out clubs in the tens of thousands and pushing out CDs in ludicrous 6-10 hour boxes—Hardcore has managed to stay “underground” in a way few subcultures have. A minimum of press, very little media support and yet events sell out in their tens of the thousands, and year after year the CD mill grinds out ludicrous box-sets. Its staying power is about hiding in plain sight, its continued appeal is about cultural resistance and alienation and, overwhelming, Hardcore Til I Die is the 21st-century’s greatest manifesto for the ignored but not ignorant working class.

Terms of Engagement

There are problems with writing about things that aren’t written about often. The line to be toed is also a balancing of ethics and affection. To large degrees, Hardcore is its own explanation—it’s fast and mildly absurd music which largely operates as something to stomp your chops off to. But here I wish to say that the sort of people who are part of the scene—whether punters or DJs—mostly come from communities who are often derided in the popular press and ignored or debilitated as cultural producers in the academic sphere. People who live on council estates, people disengaged with conventional education, people in minimal-prospect jobs who want to get mullered and dance their tits off of a weekend. I mean working class people, and I also mean white working class people. I also mean the sort of people who are not merely precluded from mainstream acceptance but also (and contra- much of “underground” culture) give very little in the way of fucks. This article, then, professes complicity in that implied criticism—it benefits Hardcore little to have this written down and disseminated. But here’s the thing—as a cultural event, Hardcore remains largely unwatched—and therefore unguarded—in popular consciousness. To persist as a self-organised community—and a financially profitable one at that—and retain its underground status, to hide in plain sight, in a time of apparently everything being available for mainstream abuses, is politically audacious; that this avoidance of the mainstream eye is uncontrived by the Hardcore makes it both indicative of how strong working class culture is and how entirely revolting the working classes are considered by culture’s arbiters.

Hardcore: History and Historicity

The early history bit is relatively easy, and pretty well covered by Simon Reynolds’ ’ardkore continuum, as currently available in the essays section of thewire.co.uk. To recapitulate: in the late ’80s to early ’90s, ravers were taking a shitload of happy pills. The music reflected this. Raving went from a shoddily-organised bunch of goons in a field to something more militant—to the extent that ’94’s Criminal Justice and Public Order act (effectively giving police an easier ride to break up raves) galvanised a youth culture more readily inclined towards taking drugs till the sun comes up into taking part in very visible protests in London’s Hyde Park. That is, the political actions to suppress culture politicised a great many people who would otherwise not have taken part in direct, explicitly political actions. It’s a watershed moment. Groups of people interested in music rarely mobilise over papers in Parliament. Anglo-American “spirit of ’68” stuff was largely about broad disaffection, not particular legislation. Punk sprung, rancid-Phoenix like on the fumes of the ’78 bin strike but articulated anger in an open, un-specific way. Rock against racism was a particular issue; rock against disco was thinly-veiled homophobia and misogyny—both protesting a particular cause but not a specific act of legislation.

Mbwekela—a term I picked up from some liner notes on a CD by TPOK Jazz, a Congolese Soukous band active from the ’50s—’90s. It means, roughly, to criticise in a coded form—to apparently speak in light and jovial forms while, for those aware of the culture and the people, an open criticism. To hide in plain sight.

Skrewdriver and the musical wing of the British far-right were forever more notorious than popular, and it’s no small mercy that the far right in the UK struggles to find mouthpieces with a level of articulation beyond wet mud. Anyway, the point—ravers protesting a specific piece of legislation, a particular incursion upon their rights is a pretty spectacular moment, a moment of the relatively junior popular movement taking direct action against Whitehall.

…Historicity

And from that momentary foray into actual politicisation—perhaps in line with late-Thatcher UK—politics1 receded from the forefront of rave’s popular being. Which is kind of where this article starts, historically. A step back before that though.

Reynolds’ ’ardkore continuum plots a narrative, written near enough contemporaneously with events, whereby rave emerges from various channels—prototypically a narrative from early 80s electronic music to hip-hop, mutating into early acid house from imported Detroit house. Around ’92-’94, Jungle and Hardcore share largely porous borders, yet to be differentiated. SL2’s “On a Ragga Tip”, an early popular appearance of rave culture in the UK, is emblematic. Within a few years, the streams of Jungle (fast becoming Drum ’n’ Bass) and Happy Hardcore were rarely to mix. “On a Ragga Tip” was very much in the early Jungle and Hardcore mode, but featured DJ Slipmatt, later a legendary figure in Happy Hardcore. The track is perhaps a nexus of the fork in the road between Happy Hardcore and Drum ’n’ Bass (neo Jungle)—at this point, Happy Hardcore isn’t quite a fully-fledged genre but a flavour of a broader rave continuum. In terms of yardsticks, it’s fair to say that Hixxy & Sharkey’s “Toytown” (’95) is the moment Happy Hardcore became its own genre (and debates about whether it was the “first” are relatively immaterial here). Up until about ’95, Reynolds is relatively benign in his discussion of Hardcore—in as far as it’s not specifically a genre in itself, divested of its relationship in a broader rave culture. After that, Happy Hardcore appears as “the other road”—Reynolds, likely for reasons of personal preference, puts Hardcore to one side, preferring the side that mutated from Jungle into Drum ’n’ Bass. A problem here is that rave culture, in spite of being cemented in the popular imagination, has generated little serious musicological discussion; Reynold’s writing on the subject plots a fork in the road between Drum ‘n’ Bass and Happy Hardcore but leaves the latter in a kind of cultural wasteland. Two decades on (!) and there’s been little serious discussion of Hardcore to match Reynold’s scant outlines, and save a few cursory offhand mentions in papers on matters like drug consumption, mental health or broad-brush “rave culture”, it’s troublesome to find anything in English specifically dealing with Happy Hardcore culture and music (which includes affiliate genres like Speedcore, Jumpstyle, Gabber etc). It perhaps says something about the Dutch that I was more than able to find plenty of apparently sagacious writing from there, illegible to monoglot me.

* For the purposes of simplicity, I don’t want to get into too much detail about the various sub-genres or affiliated genres (Scouse House, Bounce, Donk etc.) or the more European variants (Euro-house, Jumpstyle) or the finite differentiations between (say) Hardstyle and Happy Hardcore. An exhaustive survey of the families of music associated with Happy Hardcore would take up a great deal more space than is afforded here, and my purpose is more to broach cultural exposition rather than provide a musicological purview. Suffice it to say, however, that while the differences between various subsets are apparently minor, they are by no means insignificant to the punters and players thereof.

This is an article that is as much “about” Happy Hardcore as it is about its cultural dearth. About why no-one wants to write about it. About its existence as something that resists being written about. About its position as an arbiter and blazon of white working class culture, and how its marginalisation is the same as the marginalisation of working class voices, and the difficulty of writing about cultures which have a minimal interaction with critical and dialogical tools.

What is Happy Hardcore then?

Happy Hardcore is dance music. It’s fast. It’s largely in regular time. It’s probably fair to say that there’s 3 or 4 developments which have characterised the genre, and there is a raft of associated genres and styles.* see above

Phase 1: Early Doors

Starting from the top, we have the kind of proto-Happy Hardcore—the Amen break-beats, the fast tempos, the hoover keyboards and the acid piano lines which are characteristic of early-90s rave music. In a kind of primordial soup, lines of differentiation between Acid House, Ragga Jungle and Happy Hardcore are blurry until Toytown (1995), and remain so for a while thereafter. As Drum ’n’ Bass codifies into Jungle’s offspring—characterised by a reliance upon Dub techniques, cutting up Amen/Funky Drummer breaks, rhythmic variation on the hi-hat and minimal vocals—Happy Hardcore plumps for synth basslines, regulates the beat into 4/4, pitches up vocal samples and pushes the tempo. The tempo push has a lot to do with the drugs—Happy Hardcore stuck with ecstasy as its drug of choice (and speed as the subordinate), so the tempos keep up with the heartrate-tipping amphetamines; Drum ’n’ Bass becomes more varied (drugswise), with pill-heads mixing with smokers and, by the late-90s, newly-affordable harder drugs like coke. Drum ’n’ Bass finds ways to match the variety of drugs—lugubrious dub basslines for the smokers, quick snares for the pill heads and aggressive kick drums for the coke. Happy Hardcore keeps the more malevolent elements out (of the music, at least) with an emphasis on the OTT Happy of the bright major keys and bright, synthetic digital synths. Boundaries are ambiguous, but for our purposes it’s appropriate to say that the characterisations of early, orthodoxly ‘Happy’ Hardcore are as much about the retention of the day-glo, smiley aspects of Acid House, the hard 4/4 as they are about forging an identity distinct to the more dub-influenced Drum ’n’ Bass. A point I’ll return to soon—it cannot be ignored that this period of Happy Hardcore flourished mostly in white, parochial areas (as in my home town of Weston-super-Mare), while Drum ’n’ Bass became a more urban sound, in cities like London and Bristol with a bigger mix of black and white punters.

Phase 2: Bonkers/Helter Skelter

For a lot of people my age (early 30s), this is where Happy Hardcore gets its reputation, for better or worse. The vocals get pitched up, there’s covers of well-known songs, the beats are unrelenting and the whole music loses the rhythmic spacing that its breakbeat forbears brought. Bonkers is a series of compilations which cements one aspect of the reputation—everything is fast and loud, everything bangs away at the thresholds of danceable BPMs and the vocals are overwhelmingly in the so-called “chipmonk” register. Helter Skelter is the biggest rave night in the scene, still playing aspects of earlier rave and some Drum ’n’ Bass, but mostly the bills are populated by DJs now firmly considered Happy Hardcore. Simultaneously, Drum ’n’ Bass is taking on a more broadsheet-friendly face—with some people (most notably Goldie’s Timeless, and later Roni Size & Reprezent’s New Forms) finding conventional, commercial album success. Serious magazines like The Wire are writing about Drum ’n’ Bass and offshoots into bedroom production, away from the dance-centred rave, start germinating Intelligent Dance Music (IDM).

Phase 2 (continued)

This turn of Drum ’n’ Bass towards recognisable, validated-by-the-mainstream commercial success belies an important difference with Happy Hardcore. While Drum ’n’ Bass still lived overwhelmingly in the inner-city club nights, it became more visible to the mainstream. There was a cultural push towards recognition, culminating in it appearing in the background for adverts. Happy Hardcore, meanwhile, was largely inoculated from that. Happy Hardcore never made a push towards being taken seriously—it is, was, and ever shall be united around its own ridiculousness, the feminised high-pitch vocals and major key themes. But moreover, there’s the question of how the music was disseminated—in this era, Happy Hardcore proliferated in tape packs—glorious, garishly packaged dubs of DJ sets from raves. In the school currency I found Happy Hardcore in, no one ever seemed to own an original tape. But if they did, the tapes didn’t have barcodes. No barcode meant that, no matter how many were sold, they weren’t viable for any charts in the UK. Self-conscious or not, it’s an important economical-political statement—Happy Hardcore refused to enter the mainstream by refusing its means of quantification. DJs bought 12″s in marginal amounts, punters traded tape dubs in their thousands but they might as well have been selling plant pots for how unaware the British chart-compilers were. There’s that quote about the master’s house again—resistance, in Happy Hardcore’s sense, meant defining and maintaining a community of interested parties, not epiphanically reaching out to the unconverted.

This, in turn, reveals an important aspect of working class culture(s) and the lie of meritocracy—entry into the market, and the accretion of success, always has (in classic Marxist terms) meant entering the marketplace on the market owner’s terms, using the market owner’s tools. Happy Hardcore isn’t inherently a working class thing but it blossomed there, on the council estates, out of necessity. Resisting the mainstream didn’t mean opposing the mainstream, it meant looking after its own community—word-of-mouth collectivism. The absence of political content in the music (more on lyrical content later) isn’t the same as absence of political action. And how middle class a criticism it is to say “how do you know how good something is if you can’t see it?” Hiding in plain sight, again.

Phase 3: HTID as Lazarus

Towards the turn of the century, pre-millenial jitters kick in. Raves are poorly-attended and thin on the ground. The generation that first took over the rave scene from the ’80s onwards start settling down, or can’t handle the drugs any more. Garage, 2-Step and Grime start making their way to the ascendancy, and Drum ’n’ Bass (quite frankly) had disappeared fully up its own arse. Those who weren’t into that sort of thing headed towards Europe, with the cognescenti picking up on more European styles (for instance, Tresor’s brand of techno) or defaulting to the then-omnipresent Ministry of Sound and parochial handbag house. Oh, and there was Big Beat. By God, that was fucking awful. Against the backdrop of the grinding misery of Thatcher/ism, Happy Hardcore was perfectly balanced nihilism in optimism’s clothing. The Labour era was by no means a bright new dawn but the chilling despair was temporarily alleviated. And Hardcore sort of vanished. People weren’t talking about it, raves weren’t happening. Record stores started closing down, and tapes—the earlier lifeblood of Happy Hardcore—were stocked nearly nowhere.

The era this covered is roughly ’99-’02. Attributions of the decline are multiple, of course, but it’d take a much more comprehensive survey than this to point the finger confidently. Vague and unsatisfying as it is to say, Happy Hardcore just kind of went into hiding.

Phase 3 (continued)

Broader than dance music, and further afield than just the UK, these were the last days of the old music industry. Of course, it’s still here, and it’s a massively profitable bastard at the top while even more purgatorial at a smaller level, but its manifestation has vastly changed. Enter the Internet, shortly followed by HTID.

Speculation on how or what happened is, again, non-exhaustive. But what happened around the turn of the century is well documented—the rise of Napster and Myspace. The ins and outs and goods and bads of that—democratising or debilitating—are many. On the one hand, increased access to platforms allowing dissemination of music to non-local audience was a massive boon for a handful. On the other, by 2014, making sale of music the solitary means of profit is dead in the water for the independent or less-commercial musician. For Happy Hardcore, it meant that where tapes were once the token of exchange, now there were downloads. Archives of old tapes started appearing. Radio stations, like happyhardcore.com, allowed wide access for the cost of an Internet connection. And slowly, Hardcore was back on the map again. The generation that were too young for the first wave of raving discovered Happy Hardcore through the Internet, and suddenly events were happening.

And this time, they had a slogan. Hardcore Til I Die, the name given to a label/promotions outfit, encapsulates the rebirth of Happy Hardcore. While they’re by no means the sole people putting on raves (True Hardcore or Raver Baby would be the other notable outfits, though there are promotions up and down the country), it’s the sentiment, that in spite of being an no-longer-new form of music, the crowds will remain Hardcore ’til they die. The music doesn’t change so much, but the devotion does—no longer competing with its own novelty or competition with a bifurcated rave scene, and long past any concerns about popular acceptance, Happy Hardcore becomes a kind of Gnostic, hermetic culture, devoted to its own propagation alone—a propagation, I’ll argue, which is about preserving authentically working class culture with minimal concern for career trajectories beyond its own continuation.

The music of this era is slightly less garish than the Bonkers era but no less intense. Vocals come down a few pitches—still in the super-human higher registers but just this side of chipmonk. Production material changes—CD decks over 12″s for the DJs, digital patches supplementing batteries of old-school synths and the democratising affect of easily-available sequencing software means that broke kids can get involved. Fundamentally, there’s a surety—songs are still thinly-veiled metaphors for drugs but there’s less reliance on attention-grabbing or giant-slaying novelty (for which see DJ Vibes’ “Hey Jude” on Ravers’ Choice, ’97).

Phase 4: institution (a posteriori)

So far, we’re up to around the middle of the last decade—a period where Happy Hardcore has gone well down and re-risen. From there on, it starts approaching institutional status. In spite of being a joke music in the late-90s, Happy Hardcore remains one of the longest-standing, continually active genres from the rave fallout. Characterising this era is tricky (as we’re still living it), but perhaps the most notable thing is how professional it is—Hardcore in the Sun combining the old-school rave vibes with the distinctly late-20s, mildly sensible idea of the package holiday deal. But note it’s professional in organisational terms, self-promoting and utilising self-owned media platforms—building on DIY principles over and above any efforts to curb the excesses or appeal to outside forces or, heaven forbid, “go mainstream”.

Politics

First, the thorny bit. Hardcore is a white genre. By which I mean, it mostly appeals to white people. There’s nothing in explicit terms or even discrete terms which suggests a conscious reason for this—mostly, content is about getting fucked—but still it’s notable that raves are largely full of white folk. But it’s important to note what sort of white folk. My home town, Weston-super-Mare, is an overwhelmingly white area. It’s a deprived town, formerly a popular tourist destination and lacking in local jobs or meaningful transport links to nearby Bristol. If you talk to most people in Bristol, they’ll say Weston’s full of “chavs”. This is a matter of inside and outside, which is not so much a metaphor for economic difference as it is a direct expression of the direct affects geographical location has upon a population. Chavs is a term with two meanings for me—growing up, it meant the violent pricks who gobbed on old ladies. When I spent more time in Bristol, I realised “chavs” meant something new—the people from outside of urban hipness—analogous to the proles, plebs and pagans of “outside” the polis from the per-Socratics to present. Happy Hardcore was a very Weston thing, and I didn’t realise until moving to Bristol that it wasn’t a “substitute” for meaningful culture but that it was the culture, the actual living culture, of council estates and deprived white areas. So when I say Happy Hardcore is a “white” music, I mean it’s specifically a music for the areas which are legion in the UK—lots of social housing, no jobs and a largely static population scraping around in cafes, pubs and dole offices waiting for the next excuse to get mashed. Of course, social deprivation and cultural desolation is by no means the exclusive preserve of decaying white seaside towns but it’s important to register that the denigration of the working classes is felt by an enormous number of geographically isolated white people.

I don’t simply wish to paint Hardcore as a hedonistic culture of “we’ve got no money so let’s get fucked”—the old cliché of the dumb proles dancing away the misery. The pertinent thing for me is that plenty of cultures are entirely vacuous—the last 30 years of rock music, more or less, have been vapid repetitions of nothing but its own validity as capital and its own position as capitalised. When Hardcore is spoken of in popular media (if indeed it’s spoken about!), it’s in terms of being “music for chavs”—with scant exceptions (some relatively superficial articles in Vice recently lauding its unpretentiousness). From the outside, it’s a music that is populated by, and made for, all the people that society doesn’t like. From the inside, it’s a group of people putting on events, getting people dancing and making some awesome music. There are two flavours of denigration applied to Hardcore—blindsiding and ignoring (see the utter dearth of serious articles) or cod-social criticism (viz, “it’s music for chavs”); typically the latter comes with quasi-intellectualised broadsides against the music (see musicology brief2 below).

Lyrics — A line from Reynold’s ’ardkore continuum which struck me as halfway there: “Certainly, sex as the central metaphor of dancing seems remoter than ever … ” He offers something of a gestalt, “one-body” metaphor but in Happy Hardcore, for me, it’s always been about distended and doubled metaphors—metaphors for love as metaphors for drugs. “You’re my XTC” (Gammer & Whizzkid, 2009) perhaps being the more transparent end of that, but U R my Phantasy (Sy & Unkown, 2006), with the play on pharmacy/fantasy (and good old fashioned deliberately slack spelling), or plenty of gospel-esque sentiment (“Lifting me Higher”, Dougal and Gammer, 2010) reconditioned to the service of dancing and drugs. And straight up ecstasy/amphetimine sentiments of pushing forward—”More and More” (DJ Hixxy, 2009), for instance. Fundamentally, it’s a music where lyrical content is subordinated to the tune—and the tune is always about keeping the beats pounding and keeping the crowds moving. In a sense, Hardcore is a totally egalitarian, socialist music—the sorts of aspirations towards mainstream legitimacy were avoided during the period when Drum ’n’ Bass was getting broadsheet attention, and Hardcore’s always avoided and eschewed anything other than a total dancefloor pragmatism.

A few points to emphasise here: the omission of Hardcore from the annals of popular music is indicative of a socio-cultural element of denigration-by-ignorance; that the music is largely listened to, and made by, white working class folk and garners the popular impression of being “music for chavs” exemplifies precisely the political dimension which hardens Hardcore’s resolve—that no talking heads are willing to engage the music or culture on its own terms or that it’s a “comedy music” exemplify precisely the position of the working classes in the UK, a very post-Labour position—the position of cultural acceptability is afforded only to those working class people who appeal to precisely the banal and stupefying, self-liquifying repetition of cultural capital. Working class people in popular culture are jokers, loveable rogues or people who appeal to bleached-dull middlemass values. Hardcore being so bodily focussed—dancing and drugs—leaves it outside of popular interests of asinine sentimentality. By contrast to most pan-class renderings of the working class—say, Eastenders—Hardcore eschews notions of depraved family lives or helpless animalistic self-destruction.

I’ve tended to prefer referring to the genre as Happy Hardcore (as opposed to the generally-preferred “Hardcore” umbrella) for good reason—it’s a music of positivity, of collectivism, of coming together and communality. In a sense, the popular narrative (again, think Eastenders) that working class folk are hopeless animals at the mercy of sentiment-ridden irrationality, spirited but ultimately doomed is rejected in favour of something more appealing to the actual lives of working class people. That appeal should be articulated carefully—rather than a blind optimism it ought to be rendered as a libertine expression of open values. Raves are amazing places, no-one cares where you’re from so long as you’re there to dance and have a good time. The heavy emphasis on drugs isn’t an appeal to “bad boy” mentalities (as with much of rock music) but a libertinal (and libidinal) acceptance that folk will do what they want to do. The absence of a legislating ethical narrative is precisely a comment upon the nefarious, machinistic control narratives which appear in most other aspects of popular culture. From feminism we learn that society and capital endlessly repeat legislating, restrictive narratives upon bodies (particularly the bodies belonging to female-identified people). Hardcore is far from the crucible of feminist liberation (it would be fair to say that it repeats patterns of “men do the producing, women do the uncritical consuming”) but it at least contains the germ of bodily liberation—and in practise raves are often venues for self-expression regardless of fashion-body constructs of propriety. For which read: wear what you like, dance yourself ridiculous and don’t give a fuck about what anyone thinks.

A corollary of that: if Happy Hardcore’s lyrical conceits were listed in order of popularity, “dance” and “take drugs” would be in pole position, followed by “We don’t give a fuck”. Not giving a fuck is a common sentiment, but it’s important to note a distinction in Happy Hardcore’s rendition—for punk narratives (particularly the other Hardcore), the agent is always the individual—as in “I don’t give a fuck”—whereas in Happy Hardcore the agency is collective, “We don’t give a fuck”. For the former, the speaker represents an individualistic narrative for sympathy; in the latter, the collective empathy affirms the insidedness of the culture.

On autonomy and self-organisation

The relationship of British musical cultures to socialist principles of self-organisation is fairly long-standing—from musician-owned Topic records (formed in 1939) through to art music labels like Incus (formed 1970) and the more well-known efforts towards major label autonomy starting with Punk in the late ’70s through to the indie label explosion in the early to late ’80s. The imperative is that, while the ’80s indie explosion garnered a narrativised trajectory of “start indie, sell-out to a major”, British musical culture has long since sought ways to contravene established, capitalised networks. While rave culture is easily painted as gurners and good times, that obscures the strong socialist principles behind it—namely, to get thousands of people into a field with a sound system and DJs without the authorities getting a sniff of it would surely have taken guerrilla-like levels of collective discretion and self-organisation, not to mention the momentum and passion of a great many interested parties. While 21st-century Hardcore is, relatively speaking, taking place in more legitimate venues, the post-Internet era saw Hardcore drawing on this wellspring of experience to collectively organise successful events with no access to conventional distribution networks. People from the Hardcore community own the labels, are responsible for Hardcore-centred distribution, own the few remaining vinyl pressing plants in the UK… in short, Hardcore is not so much a genre as a full-fledged financially autonomous network of self-interested parties with minimal interest in expansion beyond its own community. Where Drum ’n’ Bass found a way to work within mainstream networks (e.g., selling music to TV advertising), Hardcore developed into a cottage industry pointed precisely away from the mainstream. That it is a culture made up of, and selling to, working class people is exemplary of precisely why it doesn’t “fit” into a mainstream dialogues. In turn, the dearth of written material is perhaps indicative of how the status quo works—the perfect example of working class self-organisation and collectivism is made invisible, disappeared to the mainstream of popular culture in the UK, or worse, denigrated as “music for chavs”.

“Music for chavs”—by way of comparison, I’ll return briefly to Incus records. Established by free improvisers Derek Bailey, Tony Oxley and Evan Parker, the label specialised primarily in highly abstract Free Improvisation, a cross-pollination of jazz and the classical avant-garde which eschews rhythm, melody, structure (etc.) in favour of a free and discontinuous collaging of sounds. The crux here is that this independent label—after a fashion of obscurity—has been widely written about, discussed in serious terms by serious academics and very seriously mapped onto political notions surrounding socialist self-organisation. Hardcore has little in the way of avant-garde leanings—which is to say that dancefloor pragmatism is favoured over musicological progressivism, but which isn’t quite the same as saying Hardcore doesn’t progress. The point being that there are ways of entering into mainstream dialogue and certain modes of expression are excluded—namely, making music whose purpose is sheerly libertinal and self-expressive; where Hardcore is doubly excluded is that its “we don’t give a fuck” is a heartfelt, sincere recognition not of alienation but of unwillingness to take part, even dialectically, with its own exclusion from majority dialogues.

Hardcore ’til I fucking DIE

A quote I rarely miss out the chance to repeat: “That’s the position of the death drive—be inside and forget it” (Jean-Francois Lyotard). It’s a slogan, like Hardcore Til I Die that has become less a collocation of significance and more like a tattoo or blazon, seared into everything. It means different things at different times. Here, it means that Hardcore is precisely the veneration of the working classes—of collective organisation for oppressed groups who, rather than acquiescing to quasi-middle classisms, venerate themselves. Not so much a victory against oppression as a way of escaping any notion of dialectical engagement with the “outside”. Hardcore—it’s a way of life (another compilation name) is a truism of significant proportions. To eschew not just mainstream acceptance but any means of quantifying (for which read capitalising) acceptance is the mark of a subculture not afraid of its minority status but actively separatist. Its continued denigration is marked only in one direction (downwards from the broadsheet classes) The continued propensity for its punters and practitioners to say “we don’t give a fuck” is not dialectical resistance but emblematic of a culture simply and plainly disinterested in playing the game in terms other than those defined by and for itself. Just as “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”, Hardcore has built, over two decades, an enormous parallel culture in plain sight of its “outside”, resisting by creating and refuting subjugation (whether that’s critical, cultural or musical) to narratives that only ever serve to propagate mainstream, normative values.

Hardcore is not without its problems and issues—again, the issue of the lack of female-identified practitioners and its tendency towards white-centrism—but, critically, to negate its value on the basis of misgivings which are as common if not more common nearly everywhere would be to repeat the denigration of those classes whose voice is consistently ignored. The working class of the UK—the so-called chavs—are by no means the animalistic subordinates they’re classically painted as and Hardcore, as a socio-economic model, is as piquant a veneration of working class solidarity and veneration as is possible in the 21st-century. Hardcore ’til I die, indeed…

trapuntal but that its musicological affiliations—however simplified Hardcore is—are a world away from the lugubrious plodding and melodically barren sentiment of much elsewhere in popular music.

Massive shout-outs: Matilda Fox for proof-reading and being the most hardcore person I know; Russell “Alan” Hedges for pointing out the class dimension in the first place; Geo for listening to me witter on.



In typesetting “Hardcore Til I Die,” we have used an original layout sent to us by KN as a point of departure – but in an attempt at some consistency with the rest of the articles – have chosen to change a few things: Dekar, Prime and Klinic Slab have been replaced with Arnhem and Source Sans Pro, and the position and orientation of elements has been modified.

  1. Sidenote
    Quasi-empirical proofs and stratagems are immaterial to hermeneutical discussions of cultures, especially when that culture or constellation of cultures remain trenchantly averse or resistant to the sort of academic and pseudo-academic renderings which threaten to condescend lived cultural experience into cod-sociological zoology. Another way of saying the same—Saint Audre Lorde: “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Conversely, that which is resists the master’s dialogical tools will only ever be “fixed” (as in made taxidermic, paralysed, limp) by those tools. Hardcore’s inability to fit into, or be fixed by, conventional cultural ration is its resistance, its violently oscillating motilic kernel.

  2. Musicology brief
    Rare mentions of Hardcore in the popular press will often dwell on the barbarous simplicity of Hardcore. I by no means have the wherewithal to exhaustively analyse Hardcore, but a few points: there is a series of tropes to popular music which are rendered uncritically as musicological ‘goods’ – from so-called ‘real’ instruments to decent form (meaning movement in fifths, chords on the first beat of the bar and melodic simplicity). Hardcore, even in its reliance upon relentless, high-tempo 4/4 rhythms, falls outside of this – chordal form means variegated arpeggios in multiple registers, note lengths are typically short and lines follow distinct patterns. Digital manipulation of note decays mean that simple rhythms produce auditory hallucinations of slipping rhythms falling out of phase – an effect that simply isn’t felt at slower rhythms, where the brain has enough time to process the multiple lines acting concurrently. In so far as Hardcore features multiple lines acting at once, differently but to the same end, with arpeggiated chord forms, it is closer to baroque form than most canonical popular forms of music. That isn’t to say that Hardcore is precociously formalised and contrapuntal but that its musicological affiliations – however simplified Hardcore is – are a world away from the lugubrious plodding and melodically barren sentiment of much elsewhere in popular music.


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