how do you crack the mainstream without selling out?
While JME and Skepta are repping a statement of independence and holding two fingers up to the money-men, people are accusing Jamie XX of trading in credibility for corporate pounds. When exactly do you get the label “sell out”?
"No label, No pr, No publisher, No manager, No pa, No stylist, No Instagram, No meat, No dairy, No egg & No Fluoride". Nix the veganism and toothpaste preference and JME's Twitter bio gives a succinct manifesto for Boy Better Know (BBK). A statement of independence, the sentiment runs deep through the record label that he and brother Skepta founded with Wiley in 2005. Going it alone has served them well. Skepta charted last year with That's Not Me and gave a career-defining Glastonbury performance. He leads the way as BBK carve out a chunk of the mainstream - while keeping their integrity intact and the till receipts to themselves.
Meanwhile, every billboard and spare bit of wall in East London (and I imagine further afield) has been plastered, with adverts for Jamie XX's album In Colour for a while now. After defining a genre with The XX, he has teased with a little production work here and a few remixes there. All the while continuing where he, Romy Madley-Croft and Oliver Sim left off, writing some of the best pop music going in a style that is distinctly his. In Colour goes big on the 90s rave culture that has always informed his sound. The album has been celebrated by critics, being awarded 9.6 by Pitchfork - the music review site's highest rating this year.
But not everyone is joining in with the adulation. On a handful of dance music blogs and forums, In Colour has gone down like a fur coat at a PETA convention. Executive Editor of Noisey, Sam Wolfson, points out that some dance 'heads', have accused Jamie XX of cherry-picking from rave culture to make three-minute, Radio 1-friendly pop songs. He's even been labelled the Sam Smith of dance music. Ouch.
Hanging over him is one of the most feared pejoratives in the arts: "sell out". It's a label that has attached itself to many before him. The crime of "selling out" is simple: having built up credibility with a cadre of underground work, the artist trades in that credibility - like chips at a casino - for corporate pounds. Look no further than Iggy Pop and his appearance in a string of car insurance adverts.
"Selling out" is underpinned by a fundamental hypocrisy: you had us believe you were x but you have acted like y. Defend yourself from that with your fists full of dollars. The dance music "heads" - some of the most puritanical online critics - set impossibly high standards. But that's half the fun. These "heads" - you find them at the back of the club analysing each snare, kick and hi-hat - believe their knowledge is indivisibly superior to anyone having fun on the dance floor. They position themselves as judges who dole out a retributive justice: they trusted the acts and those acts sold that trust down the river to the corporates. In return, the heads do their best to chip away at something else: the act's integrity and status as "cool".
But if you believe that "pop" is as valid an art form as any other, there is a snobbery to this. Jamie XX has drawn on various genres so why not borrow as a form the three-minute pop song? Extrapolate the sentiment out to young artists and the results can be heavy-hitting. We all need to pay the bills.
The logical conclusion to this puritanism is that "real" artists only make art for themselves. Which, when you think about it, is oxymoronic. An audience is an essential component for art. Without one you're a person in a room with a pen or a paintbrush or a piano. To claim the audience is incidental doesn't hold much water: curating your audience, thinking about who your art is for and who's NFI, is part of the process. It's strange to try to claim it's all for you.
Arguably, we live in an age where this point is redundant. Haven't we all accepted that money makes the world go round?
I know photographers who photograph products and writers who write press releases on the side of their main output. Famous directors shoot adverts from time to time, decent actors appear in awful films and Marina Abramovic just about got away with her turn in that Jay Z video. We all have bills to pay. But it's talent that provides a firm rudder when sailing your reputation through the seas of public opinion.
There, surely, we have it: it's fine to take money, as long as you also do what you do very well. We all get the reputation we deserve. But before you crack on with painting murals for office lobbies or knocking out copy for airline magazines, there's still the question of Skepta.
A man of principle, standing tall, not taking orders, acting of his own accord and getting ultimate pay and respect. You stand for nothing, you fall for anything; black on black on black; on stage with Drake one day, back in Tottenham the next. Keep it real; feet planted firmly on the floor; roots unforgotten.
It's not the most obvious link to make but what Skeps is doing, Robin Hood did first. Hood was the ultimate rebel. The reputation we have created for him remains seductive in our own imagination - and the artist doing it for themselves is a not-too-distant cousin. The truth is, Skepta and many before him have benefitted from drawing from this idea of Robin Hoodness. George Orwell, the old Etonian BBC man who claimed to be an avid critic of the establishment. The Sex Pistols, Lady Gaga, KLF and Banksy. The romance of operating outside the system supplies the audience with a vicarious kick: for a moment, we are them, unbridled, unshackled, boundless; freed from every authority figure we have ever had.
None of the above give this impression by accident. Malcolm Mclaren, The Sex Pistols manager, was a maestro at marketing bands and a student of the "situationism", which informed their carefully choreographed stunts. The KLF burned a million quid and gained monumental coverage and a place in history for it: almost on a par with what that neo-Madonna meat dress at the 2010 VMAs did for Lady Gaga. Meanwhile, Banksy knows better than anyone the value of appearing as an outsider.
Then there are people like Bill Cunningham. In the documentary Bill Cunningham New York the photographer is shown to live the life of a hermit in a rent-controlled apartment on the Upper West Side, surrounded by boxes of meticulously filed contact sheets. He has never accepted a penny from The New York Times, which has published his shots of street fashion weekly since he began shooting them decades back. He feels that, to do so, might compromise his integrity. A cynic could ask why he took part in the documentary if external factors were so detrimental to his creative process. But Cunningham's behaviour is far too obtuse for any serious argument that the function of his principles is to maximise attention or gain. JD Salinger, who lived as a recluse following the success of Catcher in the Rye, stands out as another example, as does Harper Lee.
These are rare figures. Cunningham really does seem oblivious to his audience, while Salinger and Lee - who is back in the spotlight with the publication of her second novel along with question marks over the consent given by the 89-year-old deaf and blind author - were positively adverse. Lee said she only published one novel because "I wouldn't go through the pressure and publicity I went through with To Kill a Mockingbird for any amount of money," and, more simply, because "I'm scared".
So, back to Skepta. Don't get me wrong, what he and JME have done is admirable. They seem driven from the core by a white-hot independence. With every attempt to extinguish it, their self-belief burns brighter still. Two fingers to the money men and another to them haters.
If you're lucky enough to do what you do without having to concede, that's great. Keep doing it. If not, don't sweat. We all have to pay those bills. The part about being good still rings true, though. For me - a penniless and somewhat mediocre writer - Oscar Wilde's dictum often provides solace: "If you live within your means, you lack imagination."
Text Oscar Quine
Artwork Christopher Dombres