Post-Dubstep Aesthetics

I’m taking a stylistic leap today to look at David Kennedy aka Ramadanman aka Pearson Sound, a visionary UK dubstep/house producer who came up around 2010.

His music shares the obsessions of this blog: timbre and syncopated rhythm. But obviously it’s quite removed from Delta blues or bebop where I’ve previously found those qualities. Kennedy doesn’t focus much on the overtones of a human voice or guitar string, but rather on digitally manipulated drum sounds. He’s not turning syncopations into improvisational melodies, but rather layered, interlocking drum parts.

So, today I’ll explore the techniques (sampling and digital effects) and structuring of Kennedy’s 2011 track, Don’t Change For Me. Then I’ll argue that the concepts he uses – emotional distance, physicality, coolness via disguised or seemingly thrown-away emotional peaks – connect deeply to African Diaspora aesthetics found in blues, hip hop and jazz. Kennedy is a white Englishman in his 20s, but has a long-time fascination with New York hip hop as well as black London-based artists like Dizzee Rascal and LTJ Bukem, representatives of a British Afro-Carribean musical lineage rooted in Jamaica.

Kennedy’s sound is built from chopped up from vocal and drum performances. In both cases the sampling process leaves obvious traces. The vocals become lyrically unintelligible. The drum sounds are highly coloured by the loud cymbal and resonating drum kit in the original break, whose tones remain in the chopped kick and snare hits. This is the classic sound of jungle music. The most-used sample in jungle is the ‘Amen’ break, but “Don’t Change…” uses one of the ‘Think’ breaks from Lyn Collins’ “Think“. (Thanks to Chris Guilfoyle aka Exit Introvert for his knowledge!)

Further colouration comes from pitch shifting the samples. At 0:56 all the drum sounds are subjected to a cool upwards pitch bend, and I think all the vocal samples (starting at 1:38) are sped up a bit.

Kennedy’s main sound-sculpting tool is a foundational technique of dance music: resonant filtering. He often uses it to create transitions, for instance at 1:36 where the drums are muffled for the vocal entry, or during the fade-out where different layers each get their own low-pass filter settings (so that, e.g. the snares are much more dampened than the hats at 4:50). A very clear musical use of different filter settings is the intro to Kennedy’s “Quivver“. Or, in his awesome “Blimey“, a high-pass filter with ascending cut-off frequency is used as a structural gesture to clear away the beat at 3:13. I use the word “gesture” because filter manipulations don’t have musical information like a melody or drum groove does – instead their meaning is in where, when and how they are used, just like pointing or waving your hand.

Kennedy has made a signature sound out of combining filtering and delays. The knocking, clacking percussion in “Don’t Change…” from 0:05 is, I suspect, made by filtering delayed echoes of the original high hat pulse; at 0:53 the snare hit is echoed in sixteenths with a descending filter cut-off frequency; at 4:50 a two-note snare drum rhythm echoes every 3 sixteenth notes while its filter resonance is manipulated to provide a timbral lead line for the outro. Both “Blanked“and “Untitled” start off with this signature combination of delay and filtering.

Like those songs, “Don’t Change For Me” uses delays to generate rhythms. At 0:28 a crunchy drum/cymbal sample is echoed in quarter notes, and at 0:46 a slap-back delay creates a flammed effect on the drums (as if each hit is quickly played twice). Together, the pitch shifts, delays and filter manipulations give a rather “live” feeling of a human consciousness influencing the music moment to moment.

The song’s is structured around layered drum loops at 137bpm. Each is quite simple, but they come together in pleasing ways. For example, the kick and cymbals are first apart, then together, then apart, in the first two bars.

2-Bar Drums Groupings

This two-bar length is the basic breath/cycle of the groove, with off-beat energy in the middle always resolving to the fat distorted kick sound on beat 1. The snares in the second bar form groups of 3 that target both the and of 3 (a classic snare placement in drum’n’bass) and the next bar’s distorted-kick downbeat. The overall groove is lurching and staggering, floating in the space between those downbeats – which I guess is how people would dance to it.

Kennedy is actually creating simulated physicalities: his percussion sounds simulate drums of various sizes and constructions; the occasional reverbs (e.g. 0:14 on the cymbals, or 1:10 on the snare) simulate reverberant rooms; the syncopated rhythms and their shuffly, intricate interplay simulate funky human movement. An acoustic virtual reality of morphing spaces and objects, for people to dance through. There is an intentional lack of melodic or lyrical content. The music is purposely incomplete unless the listener engages their body or at least their kinesthetic imagination. (Vijay Iyer is my inspiration for this idea.)

As well as making variations with filters etc., Kennedy avoids predictability with an elegant technique: the different parts have varying, (though all square) loop lengths:
2-bar cymbal and snare patterns, a 4-bar chord progression, an 8-bar vocal melody and kick drum pattern, and a 16-bar sub bass pattern.

Chords 1
The chord progression (approximate voicings) of “Don’t Change For Me”. The quarter note melody is barely audible but I’m pretty sure it’s in there.
Vocal melody.png
The chopped-vocals melody of “Don’t Change For Me”.

The kicks and sub bass patterns are created by slight variations between two halves – most obviously, the dotted-quarter-note sub bass in bar 15 which provides a satisfying release to the whole form.

16-bar drums
The 16-bar drum and sub bass form.

This 16-bar unit is used for almost all the sections: drums intro (0:42), chords (1:10), vocals (1:38), vocals w/ richer chords (2:06), bridge (2:36), vocals w/ “goblet drum-ish” percussion (3:04), etc. The only exceptions are some added bars at 2:34 and 4:00.

So we’ve looked at structure and techniques. Now for some aesthetics.

First thing to note is the coexistence of polished, abstract aspects with much rawer, more intense ones. This contrast is laid out in the intro, where clinical cymbal sounds undergo digital processing until suddenly distorted bass and slippery jungle snares kick in. Or at 2:36, soulful, bluesy vocal fragments are suddenly contrasted with an abstract rhythmic arpeggio pattern. Or, sonically, compare the wildness of the sub bass’ thudding triplets or groaning long notes to the airy, clean synth and reverb effects.

Questlove characterised black cool as “intensity held in check by reserves of self-possession”. We’ve noted rawness contained within polished structures in “Don’t Change…”. Kennedy ensures that when that intensity is glimpsed, it appears almost unintentional. One example is the sub bass pattern’s seeming arbitrariness. It’s almost like someone messing around, matching some kick drum hits and not others. (See the transcription above.) “Engagement masquerading as… disengagement”, in Questlove’s phrase. Then it strikes suddenly in bar 15 (remember this is meant to be heard on an enormous sound system). This pretend casualness giving way to maximum intensity is apparent in basketball ankle-breakers, for instance. David Kennedy uses it for the peak moment of “Don’t Change For Me” at 2:30-2:36.

All the hottest elements of tune are juxtaposed here: the dotted-quarters sub-bass variation, the sweet blues-scale trill that ends every 8 bars of vocals, and a once-off extra melody. This added melody slips in under the radar at 2:27 because Kennedy has already been adding octave-doubled notes to the chord sequence since 2:06 (they sound kind of like synth strings). He has got us used to the sound of adding voices, so we barely notice when the new, pretty tones appear at 2:27.

Chords Rich
Chord progression with extra line. Note the presence of seconds e.g. G-A in the first bar – the new line forms rather jazzy chord extensions. Again, approximate voicings.

But the really nice bit is at 2:34. Kennedy breaks his 16-bar drum/harmony pattern for an unexpected 1-bar break, which very simply continues the groups of six in the snares for three beats, then ends with a distorted bass thud on beat 4.

The break (last bar).

Meanwhile the beautiful bluesy trill continues to ring out over the lush final chord. But our attention is centred on the filtered, chewy, jingling, jungle-ish timbres of the drumline. To me, the message is “This music is basically about funky drums”. This is said via the (jazz-derived) gesture of the drum break. Then, without ceremony, we’re in a kind of “B section” stripped down to a tricky, syncopated minor arpeggiation, as the trill fades.

So, a lot of beautiful things happen in this short time – a once off melody, an awesome once-off break, a breaking of the rhythmic form, the prolongation of the song’s nicest sounds – but Kennedy defuses the drama by using only predictable elements and not breaking the flow (or introducing new information) in any of the lines. He’s pretending not to be doing much of anything. I think that’s precisely the camouflaging of one’s engagement that Questlove identified.

The vocals also have this camouflaged quality. Just as Kennedy’s drum timbres hark back nostalgically to jungle and rave, so the vocals are heavy with both soulful inflections and processing that recall emotive UK garage and house vocals. (The pitched-up sound contributes to this.) Kennedy mitigates this sentimentality by cutting the vocals up and using the bits as rhythmic stabs, so that the lyrics are unintelligible and the overwrought inflections appear in robotic stutters. Once again, raw emotion is contained by mechanical structures.

What’s the end result of all this? For me, it’s a deeply original style exhibiting technical mastery – but more importantly, this music both grooves (get on your feet and listen again if you don’t believe me) and has the emotional sophistication of nostalgic sounds affectionately subjected to ironic distancing, minimising and masking.

That’s all I’ve got today! Hope you liked this swerve into contemporary club grooves. Would really appreciate feedback on this one as I’m definitely not an expert in electronic music. Sorry for the late post and see you next Friday.