Genre tags are often taken as necessary evils. “Hey, don’t put it in a box – it doesn’t need to be labelled” complains the hypothetical musician, knowing full well that their recent press release described their record as indie-soul meets IDM, or whatever, because these crude descriptors form one of the few ways to communicate to potential listeners why they might be interested. If musicians stop describing their music in genre terms altogether, it seems to follow that journalists/fans/record labels/commentators will just pick up the slack anyway. Given this apparent inevitability, the musician is left with a few options. They can shrug and tentatively deploy a mishmash of labels, metaphors and other language in an attempt to best approximate their unique sound. Or they can embrace a genre name wholesale and, in the sheer act of doing so, reframe their aesthetic, reorient the listener, and bring the language of promotion into the margins of composition itself.
The latter seems to be local composer Josten Myburgh’s approach with his new venture FRIENDSFRIENDSFRIENDSFRIENDSFRIENDS, having just released its self-titled debut album through Ivory Tower Records. He unassumingly describes the project as hip-hop. On the one hand, yes, it is. The record features interpolations of rap, it contains beats, and these elements permeate seven electronically produced tracks. But to describe it as hip-hop, rather than a record built (in part) from hip-hop source material, is a bold and perhaps winking gambit that presupposes either the meaninglessness of genre names, hip-hop’s capacity for endless and radical reinvention, or both.
Believe it or not, all this talk of language failing music is nevertheless a prelude to me trying to relay what FRIENDSx5 sounds like. First up, to ensure your hip hop expectations are swiftly debunked, opener ‘UH (part 2)’ pummels you with several minutes of gushing, churning noise. It’s like being blasted in the face by a fire-hose. It’s almost a comically brutal way to start a record, and the apparent sense of humour is affirmed when the noise makes way for the casual, titular grunt: “Uh.” Underneath we hear some gentle but insistent granular textures, and the repeated grunt makes way for the second verse of Nas’ 2002 track ‘Get Down.’ Interestingly, Myburgh opts for the clean version of the vocal a capella. The track goes on, free of drums or melody, underpinned by those atonal granular waves that eventually swell into a wonderfully nasty crescendo. Only a few minutes into the album and it’s one curious surprise after another.
If you came hear looking for beats, ‘Chocolates’ rewards your patience with a shuffling groove, overlaid with (admittedly pretty abstract) bell, synth and noise loops. Vocals come courtesy of the Notorious B.I.G, the track ‘Machine Gun Funk’ to be precise. Eventually, the beat drops out and angelic soprano vocals take over.
If FRIENDSFRIENDSFRIENDSFRIENDSFRIENDS does one thing, it keeps you guessing. Despite maintaining a fairly consistent, minimal and variably abraisive aesthetic (recalling the likes of recent ascendants Death Grips and clipping.) your ear never knows what’s around the bend. It could be silence, clattering metal percussion, MaxMSP-style spectral wanderings or the stuttering voice of a bygone rap superstar. Luckily, the record does more than one thing; it’s not an exercise in novelty. The 11-minute epic “Lock it Down / i c**‘t w*** / stressedoutfuckedup” is a mind-expanding trip that succeeds in shaking you up without seeming self-indulgent. ‘In Shambles,’ meanwhile, is a brief and utterly beautiful slab of destroyed, slowed, verbed-out jazz mining the same spooky seam as The Caretaker. ‘Selfish’ is fragmented free-jazz meets noise-beats (meets Slum Village vocal) that brings to mind Flying Lotus and Madlib at their most freewheeling and freaky.
Given all these fairly genre-compatible reference points – from Death Grips to FlyLo – one might wonder why “hip hop” struck me as so contentious a label in the first place. On the one hand, these comparable artists have all pushed and blurred the boundaries of the genre in their own way. On another hand, the same musical confluences are emphatically complicated by Myburgh’s detours into pure noise, screeching sine tones and ambient/sample-based composition that evokes Steve Reich more readily than Steven Ellison. Which leads to the third hand, the inalienable influence of context – knowing that Myburgh is a white, Perth-based composer emerging from academia and whose life barely overlapped with Biggie’s. They are worlds apart, yet bound up in these compositions. One is inevitably tempted to wonder the extent to which “hip hop” resides in formal qualities, or conversely, whether it’s more rooted in community, in shared struggle, in collaboration with others along the same musical lineage. What is Myburgh’s stake in the movement? What is the movement’s stake in him?
None of this is to decry FRIENDSx5 as recklessly appropriative, or to call it out as “inauthentic.” Whatever it is, it’s authentically that, though it’s undeniably a strange beast, hard to place. Who – in the end – are the many “Friends” alluded to by the project and album’s name? Are they the hip hop heroes who, despite the disparities of geography, time and politics, Myburgh nevertheless admires and is comforted by? Are they the peers with whom Myburgh shares this fascination? Are they the myriad influences that clash and dance and melt together to characterize this project, forming an unlikely alliance? Perhaps they’re all of these things, none, or more. In any case, I’m glad to have made their acquaintance.