I Was There When Acid House Hit London and This Is How It Felt
Remembering the era of Pet Shop Boys, New Order, Armando, yuppies in Italian sports cars, squatters reading Burroughs, vampires in train stations, and stupid smiley-face stickers on every surface.
I was on the Tube. It was 1988. I was miles away from my country, heading at a terrific speed toward London's West End. The train crackled and bumped. The night fell. The lights of a strange city rushed by. I was alone and looking at a clutch of young black men on the other side of the swaying car. They were dressed in expensive leather jackets, torn jeans, and sharp black shoes. Each had hair that was sculpted by greasy chemicals into a fantastic, wavy jet-black shape. They looked like something out of the American past—the Detroit not of techno but of Motown. One had a ghetto blaster. Its speakers filled the car with a tune by the Pasadenas, "Tribute (Right On)." The men on the train looked like the men singing the funky, brassy tune coming from the ghetto blaster. Later, I determined that the Pasadenas were the first popular expression of a British underground music that was leading to acid jazz, to the neo-soul moment, to black Britain's fidelity, to the funk sounds and stage magic of post-jazz black America.
Later, while in London's Soho, I saw and heard an amazing thing. You must imagine this in slow motion: An Italian sports car (fat wheels, shark-eyed headlights, sleek shape) cruises down a busy street. Behind the wheel is a yuppie, and blasting out of the state-of-the-art (this is 1988) speakers is Coldcut's "Stop This Crazy Thing." The high-tech bass rolls with the gleaming rims. The track has three main components: hiphop scratching and sampling, a dash of go-go percussion, and dancehall vocals provided by Junior Reid ("One Blood"). I'd eventually categorize "Stop This Crazy Thing" as proto-triphop and see full-blown triphop as UK's solution to the rapping problem. For some reason, white and black Britons had no problem singing like black Americans (Rick Astley, Soul II Soul, Loose Ends, and so on), but rapping like black Americans sounded false. With singing, you could be inauthentic; with rapping, you could not. For example, UK's first hiphop star, Derek B (he died in 2009 from a heart attack), couldn't free himself from the embarrassing fact that he rapped like a black American, and yet everyone knew he didn't talk like a black American. The London crew Demon Boyz came up with one solution to this problem: rap with some Jamaican toaster flavor—Roots Manuva would later be the most famous flower of this solution. The other solution was to make hiphop without any rapping: triphop.
Back in London, not far from Chinatown, I put on my Walkman and began listening to Capital FM. The pop tunes burned brightly and quickly. I heard Neneh Cherry's bizarre "Buffalo Stance," Bros's grisly "Drop the Boy," and Pet Shop Boys' bombastic "Left to My Own Devices." To my surprise, Trevor Horn, the producer of "Devices" (Horn and Nile Rodgers virtually produced the 1980s), built the huge tune on a stable house beat and bass. This was "Jack Your Body" in a pop state. House had become that big in the UK. It was powering Pet Shop Boys, a group that had successfully crossed the pond (the same was not true for Bros, and the failure cost lead singer Matt Goss his mind) to the top of the pop charts: "Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat."
I wanted to share my findings with my crew, my hiphop friends from high school, but I was far from the sunny patios and garden sets of Chisipite—a neighborhood in Harare, Zimbabwe. Now that I was in the capital of our colonial universe, I knew almost no one and found it almost impossible to meet new people—new people with whom I could discuss the music of the future.
A year before I left for London, my crew convened at Harold's house in Chisipite. The day was coming to an end, a meal was being prepared in the kitchen, and we sat outside on the patio. According to our way of seeing things, Harold's garden set (chairs, table) was more American than British—meaning it was made from plastic rather than iron. The garden set at my place was defiantly British—white iron chairs with puffy waterproof seats, a table with iron legs and a glass tabletop, and all of this colonial iron-ness was set beneath a pergola covered by vines. Because Harold's garden set was clearly more American, we preferred to meet at his place to discuss the new developments in American music. But there was another reason we frequently met at Harold's: His Sinclair computer had a drum-machine program.
It was the only drum machine in Chisipite. And this fact gave Harold enormous power and prestige in our crew and high school (Oriel Boys). True, it was not the best drum machine in the world (what we would have done to get our hands on a DMX); true, it did not get us anywhere close to the terrific BOOM that made Art of Noise's "Beat Box" a hiphop classic. But it was useful for learning how to program a hiphop beat. With a Sinclair, you could imitate the structure, though not the sound, of Kurtis Blow's "AJ Meets Davy DMX," Roxanne Shante's "Bite This," and Craig G's version of Tears for Fears' "Shout."
At the time of the meeting (1987), our crew—the Rock Box Crew, which favored Run-D.M.C. over the Fat Boys (for some forgotten reason, the b-boys in our neighborhood believed that hiphop had only two paths: one presented by Run-D.M.C. and one by the Fat Boys, you had to choose) and also aligned itself with the Rock Steady Crew instead of the New York City Breakers (the movie Beat Street had everything to do with this alignment)—was in its final year. By 1988, we would be nothing more than a memory. So a crew (five young men: Adidas sneakers—a Run-D.M.C. requirement—tube socks, hooded tracksuit tops) in its twilight sat there in the twilight of the day. A great tree whose leaves were animated by a vespertine breeze was above us, and an elderly maid (white Bata tennis shoes, red eyes, white uniform) served us Cokes and packets of crisps from a tray.
The members of my crew: Masimba (a little on the chubby side), Tawengwa (tall, bearing a resemblance to the lead singer of the Gap Band), Ndoro (a dashing warrior), and Harold (imagine a handsome Skeletor). Masimba was our technician—he figured out how to scratch, mix, and transform a tape-to-tape player into a mini recording studio. Tawengwa had the money and bankrolled projects—his father ran a famous bus fleet. Ndoro covered the popularity and the good-looks department. Harold, of course, owned the ideal garden set and the drum machine. I possessed the American experience—I spent a good part of my childhood in the District of Columbia and had even visited New York City, the birthplace and mecca of hiphop.
The matter on our minds that evening—the reason we convened under the susurrant leaves—was to discuss a track that the popular DJ Peter Johns had exploded on Radio 3, the station devoted to American and British music (Radio 2 played only African pop, Radio 1 was dedicated to news and education), Steve "Silk" Hurley's "Jack Your Body." We all liked the track well enough, but we weren't sure if it was more than a flash in the pan, a mere dance craze that was sweeping the world and soon to part from this world. Was there more to house music than the jacking of the body? We were not impressed with jacking.
A recent issue of New Musical Express informed us that some sort of house thing was happening in Chicago and it was influencing the new music in Detroit. Our proof was Model 500's "No UFOs." Released in 1985, it had a house beat instead of an electro beat. This was revealing because we knew that Juan Atkins was the mind behind Cybotron and Model 500. Cybotron had released the electro masterpiece "Clear" in 1982. But by 1985, things had changed. The electro beat of Cybotron was replaced by a house beat. Where did this house beat come from? Chicago. We figured that much out. And so this was our general understanding: There was a moment when hiphop and techno were both electro. For both forms of music, this was a transitional moment from disco. For techno, it was a transition from the disco of Moroder; for hiphop, the disco of Nile Rodgers. The catalyst for the transition in both cases was Kraftwerk. After the Krafterwerked electro of "Planet Rock," you got "It's Yours" (true hiphop). After the electro of "Clear," you got "No UFOs" (true techno).
So this house music happening in Chicago was for sure having a big impact on the techno music happening in Detroit. But did it have any staying power? Our main source of information on the American underground, NME (we had to comb through hundreds of articles on rubbish rock bands to find tidbits on the new music), suggested that house was not going anywhere soon.
As the dusk deepened, as moonlight began filling the garden, as the swallows dove and darted about the elegant msasa trees, we talked about go-go, a music centered in Washington, DC. We were interested in the beat, because it had been used so effectively on a track by the b-girl crew Salt-N-Pepa, "My Mic Sounds Nice." It was Masimba, our technician (and also a brilliant popper—his robot had no match in Harare), who pointed out the connection: "Nice" had the same rolling, percussive beat as Chuck Brown's go-go tunes (we obtained Brown's music from a Filipino named Raul Fernandez—his father was president of Colgate Zimbabwe, and so the friendship was useful not only for beats but also for getting toothpaste during shortages). Masimba also pointed out that Trevor Horn, a member of Art of Noise (the reason he was of great interest to us was he also produced Malcolm McLaren's extraordinary hiphop experiments), had used the go-go beat on Grace Jones's "Slave to the Rhythm." However, go-go interested us much less than the other forms of music emerging in black America. The reason? Its beat was made by an actual band. Go-go was real people playing real instruments. This sort of thing seemed barbaric to us. Why would you smack a drumhead with your hand when you could program a beat with the tips of your fingers? Why blow air from your lungs into some piece of metal when you could simply (and sans spittle) sample the J.B.'s? Our crew looked only forward. Hiphop for us was nothing but the future of music. The Rock Box motto from 1985 to infinity: Tomorrow is a brighter day.
Crowded London is not a friendly town. I lived in the Docklands. My flat was on the fourth floor of a doomed building and had a view of the many developments in the area. Margaret Thatcher's sorcery was transforming the working-class neighborhood into a neoliberal financial district. Everywhere: massive construction sites, looming and smoothly swerving cranes, and glass corporate towers rising from the ground. Old buildings were being demolished, and poor old ladies who had lived here all of their lives had nowhere to go, so they walked around the streets in a daze, handkerchief-covered heads hit on all sides by the din of the construction.
Walking around the streets of this rapidly changing neighborhood (to get an exact sense of this place and time—its sounds, its activity, its chaos—I highly recommend watching Ken Loach's film Riff-Raff), I came across stickers of smiley faces, lots of them. They were everywhere, spreading like a virus. I soon discovered their source and meaning: The stickers represented a new stage in the movement of house music—acid house.
One day, I bought a small stack of acid house records from a stand in Camden Market. I listened to them, read about the movement in the music papers, and got a rough picture. If there were some way of returning to Harare and reconvening the crew (at the time, I was the only one who had left the country to attend college), I would have explained that acid house was indeed house music, but in the condition of a virus. It actually came from Chicago, from cats like Phuture and the great Armando, but it had taken on a life of its own in the streets of London. Acid removed the sensuousness of house and left you with the naked squiggly sounds of a Roland TB-303 sequencer. I suspected that drugs were needed to fully enjoy this music, because only drugs could make you forget how repetitive it was. The same spare beat, the same hi-hat taps, the same squiggly bass line. Anyone could make it; the Roland TB-303 was cheap, and recording a track and distributing it didn't require a challenging investment. And this, I'd conclude for my crew, is the real greatness of acid house. No spending hours practicing an instrument, no expensive electronic equipment, no need to come up with big ideas. All you had to do was just do it.
Acid house achieved pop status with S'Express's horrible "Theme from S'Express." The better pop expression of it, however, was New Order's "Fine Time." (New Order were great translators of street happenings—in 1983, for example, they translated electro into an excellent pop tune, "Confusion.") New Order's "Fine Time" gave the minimalist form narrative force and a clever ending—bleating sheep. You did not need drugs to enjoy it; the tune was already addictive.
At the time, the Docklands had a new light rail system called the DLR. It was different from the main line in many ways. To begin with, the DLR was automated. You paid a robot, and a robot transported you to your destination. It made perfect sense that the neoliberal paradise was serviced by robot labor—robots do not bitch and strike. One evening, while heading to my flat on the DLR, I listened to Armando's "Land of Confusion," the best acid track ever made. The moment: the automated music in my Sony-covered ears as the automated train flew above the construction sites of future capitalism. Some of the sites were huge and filled with lights. I was a spaceman looking into an imploding galaxy.
I learned three things shortly after arriving in London. One, beds do not make themselves (I returned to my flat from my first day in the town to find my bed was unmade—it took a moment to realize I no longer had a maid). Two, never use bleach to clean clothes that are not white. And three, the other residents in my building were squatters. One of these squatters, however, became something of a friend. He had the height, posture, and face of Colin Newman, the frontman of the band Wire, and lived one floor above me—the final floor of the building. I first met him while we were climbing the stairs to our flats. We chatted, he invited me to his free place for a beer, he loaned me the book that was at the center of his being, William S. Burroughs's Junkie. (I returned the novel without finishing it.)
Eventually, late one night, this squatter took me to a party in North London. The party was in a three-story building. Each of its floors was dedicated to a type of underground music. The first floor, dancehall; the next floor, hiphop; and the top floor, acid house. The squatter went straight to the top. The space was dark, smoky, and filled with people who were way too high and far too lost in the repetitive world of the anonymous acid house tracks. Occasionally, the DJ would break the electronic monotony and play something remarkable, something with real substance and beauty: A Guy Called Gerald's Afro-futurist "Voodoo Ray," Inner City's lush techno groove "Big Fun" (at the time, Inner City's "Good Life" was in heavy rotation on Capital FM), or Derrick May's groundbreaking "Strings of Life."
The squatter joined the acid ether. I made my escape to the second floor, the hiphop level. Here, the DJ cut and mixed the Cookie Crew's "Born This Way" (the duo was British but rapped with American accents; the beats, however, were produced by none other than Daddy-O of Stetsasonic, the crew that wrote hiphop's manifesto for sampling, "Talkin' All That Jazz"), Slick Rick's dreamy and bubbly "Hey Young World," and the Jungle Brothers' eerie "In Time," a proto-Afrocentric track that introduced me to Q-Tip, the future leader of A Tribe Called Quest. "In Time" was definitely the track of that night; the DJ played it three times. And when it played (warped Arabic horns, dark and enigmatic prophesies), the party people just nodded their heads as if they were hearing something that was too deep for dancing.
Eventually, the squatter came down to my level.
He'd met an old friend on the acid floor and now wanted to leave with him to do something somewhere. His friend was a thin, ghostly pale, and mad-looking man in his early 50s. They clearly wanted to do heavy drugs. I asked the squatter if he could at least show me how to get back to the Docklands. He recommended that I just go with them to his friend's place, and after he would take me home. I had no choice. I did not know this part of town. I left the party with the squatter and the junkie.
As we walked down the street, the junkie would pick up discarded beer cans, shake them, listen carefully, and if he heard a little splashing, drink the remains without a second thought. Only one of the junkie's hands had a glove.
At the flat, I sat on the only chair in the living room and waited. The two were in the flat's only bedroom, the door closed and their voices muffled. The only book in the living room was on the floor, under a dirty window. It was huge and concerned the human anatomy. I picked it up and opened its pages—the skull, the muscles, the heart, the lungs, the liver, the intestines. The junkie had reduced the entire world to this one thing: the human body. The sun was rising in the window. The book was beginning to bore me. The bedroom was now dead silent.
Alone in the streets, I somehow managed to find a subway station. A map near its entry showed me the way to my line. I entered the station, walked down a very long series of steps, and then came across a scene that seriously spooked me. Both platforms in the station were filled with goths. Everyone dressed in black—black pants, black shoes, black dresses, black lipstick, black nails. Everyone looked like a vampire. The "undead, undead, undead" seemed to be fleeing the light of the morning. I was the only human there. My vulnerable body surrounded by these blood lovers. Where did they come from, this flock of goths? Finally, a train arrived. It contained other humans. I jumped on and left the terminal to hell. Three months later, I left London for America, the land of my future.