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Book Review

Bass, Mids, Tops

Team Lit

Joe Muggs’ first book shares a life shaped by subculture and sound. Viewed through an immersive, ethnographic lens, Joe’s pursuit of the sublime through bass forms a visceral account of a collective appetite for breakneck beats.

Subculture is hard to write about, because its natural linguistic form is the sprawling conversation: babble and chatter, yelled asides on dancefloors, evolving conversations through weeks of partying. Which is why the social, cultural history in Bass, Mids, Tops is told not through snipped up quotes as in most oral histories, but through rambling conversations. If your attention span is short, you can dip in, just as you dip in and out of conversations at a party. Each time, you meet a person, maybe only fleetingly, but that’s enough. Each dip in is a tiny bit of immersion in the culture.

Excerpt from Bass, Mids, Tops

Of course it’s not just “bass music” that uses the power of bass. And it’s not new. Hearing the reverberation of the 32-foot pipes of a cathedral organ through the vaulted spaces purpose built to amplify them can be a sublime experience in the most instant, visceral sense – alongside the genuine sense of awe at how perfectly the instrument design and architecture are designed to enthral and control the individual. Imagine you’re a medieval peasant used only to the sights and sounds of your own land: think how vast the chamber of the cathedral and the controlled power of the organ and choir would seem, and how tiny they would make you feel; how subservient to the powers that had put it all there, as they rearrange your innards with sound. The overtone chanting and vast deep horns of Tibetan Buddhism create a similar sense of being brought into contact with something superhuman, and thus of supernatural experiences. There’s now a whole emerging discipline of “acoustic archaeology” which tries to estimate what sonic experiences people might have had in ancient temples, burial chambers and cavern complexes – with more and less plausible speculation about how low vibrations, from chanting, gongs and other sources might have affected supplicants and worshippers.


This isn’t intended as a definitive history, though. Quite the opposite, in fact: it’s deliberately partial, arbitrary and conversational, not trying to impose any grand theory or narrative onto its subject matter.

But there is something much more specific that we think of as “bass music”, too. There is the boom in the “boom bap” of classic hip hop, the 808 kickdrum in electro, Miami bass and all the hybrid regional and diasporic rap beat and booty bass forms which emerged in the last 30+ years – and of course there’s Caribbean soundsystem culture which put the emphasis on the low end going right back to the 1950s. More specifically still, there’s the creative and social nexus where all of these things meet with disco, electronic experimentation and psychedelic bohemianism – which all happened in its most concentrated form in Britain. The low-end experimentation that took its cues from the music that came over with the Windrush generation of Caribbean immigrants and their children, injected its influence into the cultural circulatory system of the nation, and from there sent genre after new genre out into the world. Unmistakeably British, unmistakeably hybrid, an ever-growing dysfunctional family of sounds that the DJ and producer Skream once referred to as “mongrel music”.

This is what this book is about. Broadly speaking it’s a story of that Caribbean influence as it’s created new forms, starting in the late 1970s with lovers rock and post-punk – two very different styles of music that nonetheless were both very British, and both underpinned by that deep soundsystem bass – and going all the way through to the sounds of the 2010s emerging in the wake of grime, dubstep, new wave house, Afrobeats and UK rap. This isn’t intended as a definitive history, though. Quite the opposite, in fact: it’s deliberately partial, arbitrary and conversational, not trying to impose any grand theory or narrative onto its subject matter. Underground music, club music, soundsystem music are by their natures hyper-social – formed from interlocking networks of crews and movements, each one comprised of individuals whose cultural perspective is formed from thousands upon thousands of hours immersed in crowds, sounds, words and bass. Information, style, knowledge, innovation are all transferred through this seething network, via meandering late-night chat, MCs’ catchphrases, rumours, babble and jokes. Moving at the speed of life. The artistic moment – if “art” is even sufficient as a term for something so ingrained into life – is extended through hours, nights, weekends, summers, something new always being added to the mix just as you think you have a handle on it. Understanding comes not from explanation but from life-long experience, from meeting the people that make up this mass.

Bass, Mids, Tops will be published by Strange Attractor Press on 13 December 2019.


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