Wriggling Off the Precipice

The experimental hip-hop group clipping. have a new E.P. out. It’s called Wriggle. The group’s M.C. Daveed Diggs has recently become nothing short of a Broadway celebrity lately since winning a Tony for his role in Hamilton. The man is a phenom, an insane talent on the microphone. There’s no question about this. Diggs’ more usual fare with clipping. is, however, of a somewhat different fare. As I’ve put it previously, he’s far more Marquis de Sade than Lafayette, and clipping. fit right in with the insurgence of “industrial hip-hop” we’ve seen over the past few years that also includes the likes of Death Grips. Here’s the title track and lead single from the new E.P.

There’s a sense of audio punishment here. Squeaks and squeals and buzzes and merciless poundings that quickly and deliberately launch into a kind of sensory overload that scrambles the brain but you still can’t bring yourself to turn off. Why would one subject themselves to such pain? Because frankly we already have to just to survive under late capital, neoliberalism, hyper-consumerist whatever we wish to call it and we are better off having our art reflect how warped, stunted and broken we all are because of it.

There is an artistic precedent for what clipping. are doing in this track of course. People familiar with some of the more urbane corners of British electronic music may recognize the beat for “Wriggle” as coming from this song:

That’s Whitehouse’s “Wriggle Like an Eel,” from 2003’s Bird Seed. Whitehouse – sonically violent, profane, and named after an English anti-obscenity campaigner – was in existence on and off from 1980 until 2008, when the project’s driving figure William Bennett decided to retire it. The band came about as a response to other industrial acts “softening” their sound, as many of them had started to do by the 1970’s. Bennett essentially wanted something that deepened the extremity. This song, and their music generally, was a punishing overload in so many senses. And it suits what a project like clipping. are trying to achieve remarkably well.

Neither clipping. nor Death Grips have really invented a genre here, though they render it extremely well. What is worth exploring, however, is why their sound, why this specific admixture that arguably goes back as far as both industrial music and hip-hop respectively go, is finding a wider audience at this moment in time.

About ten years ago there seemed to be an increased interest in the “hidden” crossover between hip-hop and post-punk during the 1980’s. That narrative was and is an important one, mitigating against static, essential racialized notions for each genre. The new popularity of industrial hip-hop is in some ways a deepening of this reclaimed narrative.

Mundane, cause-and-effect timelines for music dominate far too much. Punk is seen as evolving from its “spirit of ‘77” variant into hardcore and street punk before somehow reemerging as pop punk in the mid-1990s. Hip-hop’s story is that it rather naturally evolved away from the jagged panic of Public Enemy and the Bomb Squad into the sampled funk swagger of west coast acts like N.W.A and Dr. Dre.

Both timelines rather easily justify each genre’s current iterations charting at any given time. Both also erase the forks in the road of musical evolution, when different possibilities were on the table. Granted, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the west coast sound in hip-hop or hardcore punk. They are in their own ways musically and socially significant. But to view either in a linear fashion is to view them as inevitable, to strip the intervention of artists themselves from the historical equation.

Industrial was in many ways not so much an alternate genus from punk as it was a deepening of the movement’s exploration of the era’s pain, borne of the same increasingly jobless idleness stringing through decaying cities. Of course this was the same raw social material that hip-hop was playing with. Sonic results often brought with them the insistence that the recently obsolete, the technological detritus, yesterday’s worlds of tomorrow, could tell the most contemporary stories. Listen to the beats of “Renegades of Funk” placed in their 1983 context and you can hear what I’m talking about.

There is a certain irony to something sounding like “industrial music” arising right when heavy industry in Britain and the United States starts to go into decline. Jeff Chang wrote in Can’t Stop Won’t Stop that if the blues in cities like Detroit and Chicago was shaped by the rhythm of the assembly line, then hip-hop would take shape in an atmosphere of “no work.” The same can arguably be said of just about any music made during the late 70’s or early 80’s, but some took the ethos and ran with it with far more self-awareness than others.

Of course the Bomb Squad really distilled and solidified these aesthetic tendencies, and Public Enemy was arguably the lodestone of its influence. This was not “industrial hip-hop” in any kind of strict sense, but it did put certain terminating tropes of post-industry panic at the center of hip-hop itself for a while. The sound was really seized upon and deepened yet again by many others in the hip-hop community who heard in its mania a key link in the crisis facing young people – acts like Techno Animal, the Beatnigs and then Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, Meat Beat Manifesto, Consolidated. This doesn’t even touch the narrative possibilities that arose when the same raw materials took yet another left turn into the Bristol sound and trip-hop. Or the way acts like El-P and Dalek have kept it alive in the 21st century, keeping the door open for Death Grips or clipping.

Why go through all of this? Why recount the basics of a style’s history just to locate and contextualize one song? Is the song itself that significant? In a way, but not merely in its own right. Again, what does it mean for these kinds of sonic memes to find relevance repeatedly throughout the timelines of not one but two genres, and in such a way that each one manages to find each other time and again?

Part of the answer is methodological: that the weird, leap-over-leap dialectics of musical and aesthetic evolution challenge the iron linearity of capital’s historiography. That historiography is particularly out of date when the neoliberal ethos has knocked the center out of monolithic experiences of time and history. Gone are the days when we can rely on the steady albeit soul-crushing predictability of a regular job at the office or assembly line or loading dock that, for all its drudgery, might actually provide us with something resembling a decent life.

Now, our lives are pulled between multiple frayed temporalities, two or three jobs if we’re lucky and the strain of trying to figure out how to wrap too little money around too much month. The irony is that, with heavy industry no longer playing the central role in the cultures of Britain or the U.S. in the way they once did, with the accumulation of capital becoming both more a flexible and more profitable process than ever, these more pliable rhythms have seeped even deeper into our individual lives. The alienation is more profound, the grip of anxiety tighter, the manic anger even greater when we instinctually grasp what is being done to us. Unitary progress is something that late capitalism needs to project as much as it relies on the fractured reality beneath it. But it is not easy to maintain in the days since 2008.

During the rebellion in Ferguson, a young protester – African-American of course – was asked how he would justify the burning of a 7-11. He replied that if he and his friends had jobs they’d be striking. Because they didn’t (and he was absolutely tapping into a certain reality of unemployment of Black America when he said this) burning the stores was a way to hit back at the structures that not only were shooting them dead in the streets, but denying them a basic path out of poverty.

There is – obviously – a libidinal valence to this. It is something buried in the back of our brains that most of the time we’d rather not let out. The internalized rhythms of industrial discipline that have nowhere to go when the jobs cease, be that at the end of the day or just indefinitely. Far too often, music, poetry, performance and other kinds of creativity are the only conduit for these urges. It’s why art isn’t a side issue to matters of radical social change. It may also be why the noise of an imploding electronics factory may be the soundtrack of our age.

If capitalism is performative, then the revolution will be a masterpiece.“Atonal Notes” is Red Wedge editor-in-chief Alexander Billet's blog on music, poetry and performance. Follow: @UbuPamplemousse