the new wave of producers shattering london’s underground club scene
From Palmistry's skeletal dancehall to Endless club's disparate collective of underground sounds, a generation of London's DJs and producers have created an antidote to the city's homogenous, mainstream club scene.
Palmistry's debut LP, Pagan, is easily one of the most sensational albums of the year. Not surprising really, as Palmistry, aka Benjy Keating, has been making sensational music for a few years now.
Benjy was born in Ireland. His parents ran a Christian church, he ended up living in South East London ("Daddy was a pastor / Mummy was a pastor / Son was a pagan," are the lyrics to the album's title track) and for a time was working as a mental health nurse. He made friends with a group of producers and DJs, Lexxi, Felicita, Blaze Kid, Uli K, Kamixlo, Triad God, and his work as a producer quickly matured; cue singles, features, guests spots, and now there's Pagan, released on Brooklyn label, Mixpak. An album that stands as a fitting cenotaph for a moment in music in London.
One of his earliest standout tracks, Catch, was skeletal and snakelike, ghostlike maybe, if there was a ghost of dancehall and reggaeton, forced back from beyond the grave to haunt a closed-down Brixton nightclub. Catch strips those dancehall sounds down to their base sonic elements leaving only a bouncing, electric bassline, a clipped drumbeat, a shimmering synthesizer; Benjy's heavily autotuned and tweaked vocals sing emotively over-and-over: "I'll catch you when you fall". The simple emotional power and delivery of the lyrics, alongside its sonically inventive novelty, made it stand out.
Pagan sticks to roughly the same setup and formula as Catch. Furrowing the same emotive, musical mood across its 13 tracks. There's an unknowable heartsickness and yearning that sits at the centre of Pagan, which places it a step apart from what you might traditionally think of as a dancehall, the musical style that it owes a most obvious formal debt to. It's this dissonance, between form and content, that is so beguiling. Club Aso, the album's first single, maybe also its stand out, has a softness and slowness that pushes it beyond that initial, obvious musical reference to dancehall; there's a rare vulnerability in the minimalism of whispered autotune and half-caught lyrics and it's gliding almost-beatlessness.
Palmistry shares a similarity to Burial in a roundabout way in that they both rework club music as an echo of itself, recraft the communal euphoria of movement, ecstasy and joy as a way of reaching towards isolation, loneliness, tenderness; juxtaposing the uplifting with the melancholy, stabs of major key synth introspection.
So, Pagan is great, no surprise. What was surprising though, was that it was singled out for superlative praise in bastion of Patrician good taste and long form journalism, The New Yorker.
As pleasing as it was, to see this underground UK musician get repped in The Big Apple, it felt a bit weird and incongruous for a record crafted from echoes of London's club sounds to find such admiration in The New Yorker; for me, it feels too hyper-specifically London-esque, a record birthed and grown amongst London's unique cultural muddle. Of course, great music is universal, and Benjy's music as Palmistry owes much to that universalism; Ireland, via Jamaica, via South London, everything get's recontextualised through his vision, filtered through his talent as a producer.
But I don't know, Benjy's music, to me at least, feels too specifically off-centre to find a place even north of The River or south of the South Circular. For someone who has watched his career grow, it seemed like the last place he was going to turn up. Or maybe not. Since Bieber dropped What Do You Mean? with Skrillex and Diplo, alt takes on Jamaican sounds have had a steady drip-drip into the mainstream. In the wake of their collaboration's playful pop inventions, pop's biggest hitters have been falling over themselves to recalibrate island music into anodyne versions ready for a global audience, in the process shearing off its rough, unpalatable edges.
Not that it's a new thing, pop slurping at the subcultural trough, turning outsider sounds into music to eat brunch to; into club music destined and designed for the kinds of clubs that wouldn't actually let the people who pioneered the genre of music in.
Benjy isn't alone though. If you scratch beneath the surface, there's a whole wave of producers pushing these similar forms, similar beats, similar angles, into wild new directions. Which is why the praise lavished upon Palmistry and his label Mixpak in the New Yorker felt so odd (though so good). Palmistry is simply the most accessible, most strikingly original, cipher for the scene in London, that's roughly grouped under the banner of the club night Endless, and the Bala Club group of producers and rappers. Many of whom had been working together for a while.
Endless and Bala Club, led by producers Lexxi and Endgame, respectively, roughly contains Uli K, Kamixlo, Blaze Kidd, Nkisi, Bladee, Felicita and the aforementioned Palmistry as well as video artist Daniel Swan, and to a looser extent menswear brand Cottweiler, who they all rep. They pop up on each other's records, mixtapes, radio shows, and club nights. Musically they sprawl, they share a sensibility more than share a unifying form. They even popped up in Arena Homme +, in a story shot by David Sims, with Lexxi gracing the covering, holding a bunch of roses.
It's a scene that's in some ways uniquely, sonically, London, in its hybridity, but also uniquely London in that it's part of a London that's under threat and disappearing, which seems to be the dominant London narrative right now.
The squeezing and corporatisation of space, which manifests itself primarily in club and squat closures, squeezes the space left available for anything resolutely underground, uncommercial or different. The centre slowly swallows the fringe, the place habitable for creative practices that might need that room to grow recedes, because their artistic merits are hardly of the immediately money spinning variety.
So it's a scene that was born from a club scene that finds homes in margins, odd and temporary spaces. Endless, fronted by producer Lexxi, primarily began and housed in a studio in Bermondsey's Penarth Centre, a beautifully crumbling complex of art spaces, studios, churches, workshops in the long shadow of Millwall's New Den. Penarth is a hidden gem of the kind you're hard pressed to find, the kind that even five years ago, seemed to be everywhere. A little hidden utopia of the bring your own sound system, close out the outside world, lose yourself, find yourself, kind of utopia.
The kind of utopia that felt like the right kind of home for the scene. Endless is maybe best described as a kind of genre-free experiment in the possibility of disparate noises to grind up against other in unexpected, funny (and fun) ways and still sound contiguous; rap, rave, metal, tropical, global funk, bass. There is a relentlessness to it, as showcased on the recent Bala Club Comp Vol. 1, or on Lexxi's debut EP, 5TARB01, which he's just dropped on the just launched Endless label.
Between these groups they feel most like a fissure between mainstream contemporary club culture of the £10 spirit-and-mixer East London variety (where you could probably never away get away with such plunging relentless musical aggression) and nightlife's possibility to create new forms of expression. If the mainstream these days either venerates the analogue for its purity, or utilises the laptop as a tool for clinical smoothness of mixing and beatmatching that tries to make the necessary gaps invisible, then Kami, Lexxi, et al, utilise the digital as a tool for inserting those stylistically non-linear ruptures into sets. It's something you can only really get away with in the kind of space with a BYOB license and no closing time.
Kami's Paleta is the scene's stand out anthem so far, which encapsulates the sound in under three minutes of restless tropical hardcore; baile funk retuned for London's fringes, art school parties in light industrial warehouse favelas. Ecudorian rapper Blaze Kidd, who most of these people have done production work for, rhymes in Spanish, his mixtapes marry reggaeton with grime's coldness, or Endgame, whose production work retune dancehall via industrial iciness and rhythmic complexity.
Lexxi's 5TARB01 feels like the next step, across five tracks, summing up in Lexxi's own production the ethos and spirit of the clubnight and scene; which you could surmise as prying at the extremes to see what jewels you can uncover. Little concession to a boring stylistic unity or purity, in an uncanny way, it sits just outside of what you expect it to sound like, or do next, but in a sublime way, it makes total sense in its lunges and dives.
Which is I think where we draw Palmistry back in, that between all these producers, and the fact they are all more-or-less mates and more-often-than-not working together, there's an honesty in the fact than none of them really sound too-alike, or sound too contrived, they operate on different extremes, which loops back together in a way. There's a solidarity that comes from operating on the outside. As they're maturing, they're getting better at finding those jewels at those extremes, uncovering those moments of sonic ecstasy and bliss.
That honesty, that uncontrived nature, that DIY cliquey-FUBU-thing feels like an antidote to the majority of the basicness and boredom that passes for current club culture (and club influenced music) in London. Which is why it's endearing to see it getting picked up, if a little out of context in The New Yorker.
Text Felix Petty