Music Appreciation: Global Bass

It's midnight, early August, Toronto, 2012 in a hall on the waterfront. On the stage behind large stacks of computers and gear, three large, serene dudes that go by the name A Tribe Called Red bounce up and down as they play a ferocious remix of their track "Indigenous Power" made by Monterrey, Mexico based producer Javier Estrada, along with a stream of rap, dancehall, cumbia and miscellaneous unknown vicious styles. The video projectors show a montage of cut ups of Hollywood Native cliches interspersed with traditional symbols and electric design. It's a hip-hop party, it's an "Electric Pow Wow", to use the name of the group's party night in Ottawa; it's 21st century cosmopolitanism in full effect: a perfect example of the bringing together of worlds that is Global Bass.

Global Bass (a.k.a transnational bass or sometimes tropical bass) is probably most familiar to the world via the work of UK MC of Sri Lankan descent M.I.A. and her sometime collaborator, US DJ and producer Diplo who on tracks like "Bucky Done Gun" created a wildly successful sonic collage of digital dancehall styles from around the world, topped off with an anti-globalization rhetoric that celebrated the dancehall pleasures of subaltern populations around the world. While commercially and artistically successful, MIA and Diplo have also been intensely criticized for the cultural theft of styles which do not belong to them, and for a vacuous political rhetoric which ultimately goes no further than a feelgood sentiment of opposition which fits neatly into the marketplace for all things alternative and independent.

Beneath that story however is a thriving scene or rather group of networked scenes which is both global and bassed in very interesting and ever evolving ways. At its core, global bass is two different things: first, the local production of electronic/digital dance musics around the world that are influenced by house, techno, hiphop and other styles originating in the metropolitan global North; second, the interest of a number of DJs, producers and bloggers (often all together, like Montreal's Masala), mostly in north America and Europe, who have tried to connect and globally publicize these local scenes, playing with the connections and disjunctures between them -- and remixing them. However, as time goes by, the gap between these two aspects of global bass is being increasingly eroded, as musicians from the South such as Angolan house DJ Djeff Afrozila are able to put tracks up on the ubiquitous Soundcloud or sell their music on sites like Traxsource and Bandcamp and producers such as New York's Cumba Mela collective visit and collaborate with musicians from Colombia on terms that are more like Fair Trade coffee production than the (sugar cane fields of) the record business. Often, it's impossible to say whether a House track is made in Durban, South Africa,Toronto,Caracas, Venezuela, or Chicago.

If global bass is truly a digital style, then Afrika Bambaataa's pioneering 1982 electro track "Planet Rock" is surely the inaugural moment of the style (tho respect to Francis Bebey, whose recent retrospective CD, African Electronic Music 1975-82 shows that many of the "Afrofuturisms" that global bass celebrates were already fully developed in the Cameroon by around 1980). Bambaataa appropriated German synth wizards Kraftwerk's electronic rhythms as the basis for a rap jam that referenced mathematics, Afrodiasporic histories and the cosmologies of Sun Ra and Alice Coltrane.

"Planet Rock" led to regional US drum-machine driven styles like Electro and Miami Bass, but it also rippled out to places like Rio de Janeiro where it became part of the sound known as Baile Funk or Funk Carioca, a heavy, electric percussion party music blasted out in the favelas. Despite hiphop's global reach, the traffic has tended to be been one way (US to everywhere else), but the Funk samples on MIA's best track "Bucky Done Gun" at least promise the possibility of reversal of sonic neo-imperialism, even if it's Diplo rather than Deise's Tigrona's wonderful original that gets the attention. Ironically, the MIA track was the first Funk track to be played on Brazilian national radio.

One key node in the global bass network is Jace Clayton aka DJ/Rupture's WFMU radio show and blog Mudd Up! His Gold Teeth Thief mix of 2001, is an early vision of the genre's possibilities, mixing wildly incongruous sonic styles from DJ Scud's drillcore classic "Badman Time" with Shabba Ranks, avant classical sounds from Luciano Berio and Turkish experimental composer Ilhan Mimaroglu with Wu Tang and Miriam Makeba. His radio show has featured most of the key players on the global bass scene, from youngbloods like New York's Venus X and LA's Total Freedom to South African indie pioneer Spoek Mathambo (check out his brilliant kwaito cover of Joy Division's "She's Lost Control" below).

Like many of the scene's key figures, Rupture's stance is insistently critical, refusing easy cliches of sonic unity or exoticism, but deeply curious and open to emerging styles and the difficulties and pleasures through which they make their way in the world. Indeed, sometimes global bass seems like a style to be written and read as much as heard. Berlin based DJ and remixer DJ Zhao, famed for his hard hitting percussive remixes of African and Middle Eastern pop hits, even has a Zhaoist Manifesto for global bass.

Another key node is Benjamin Lebrave and his label Akwaaba. Lebrave, who grew up in Paris, France has spent considerable time travelling in various parts of the global south (Ghana and Angola in particular), and his releases (digital download only, no CDs) include key compilations of Angolan kuduro (Akwaaba sem Transporte) and Ghanian hiplife producer Appietus. Lebrave recently moved to Accra, Ghana, from where he continues to issue new, licensed music, as well as writing a brilliant column, Lungu Lungu, forFader. Sierra Leonean-American DJ and blogger Boima Tucker a.k.a. Chief Boima compiled a remarkable compilation of new Liberian hiphop for Akwaaba based on recent travels there. At the same time, Boima has been outspoken about what he calls "The Scramble for Vinyl", a neo-colonialist crate digging culture that has young people from the North dividing the African continent up into fiefdoms of mostly retro vinyl spoils. Boima's charges of appropriation have some validity, but he also addresses the almost total ignorance of or indifference of the North to cultural production in the South today.

Reconciling these things is key to the vitality of the scene. Take the recent compilationsMusic from Saharan Cellphones made by Portland, OR based Christopher Kirkley, who travelled extensively in the Sahel (the countries traditionally inhabited by Touareg and other nomad tribes inc. Mauritania, Western Sahara, northern Mali etc.), trading mp3s with locals who store and trade music on their cellphones. The sounds on the compilation are remarkably diverse, ranging from desert blues in the style made famous by Tinariwen, to locally produced hiphop and reggae.

Kirkley has taken the fascinating curation of locally produced cassette tapes on Brian Shimkovitz's popular blog Awesome Tapes From Africa a step further, revealing a set of alternative "pirate" distribution systems as much as new kinds of sounds. Recently, Kirkley followed this up with Music For Saharan Cellphone, a compilation of remixes and cover versions of tracks from the earlier compilations, adding further layers of appropriation and pledging to distribute the new tracks in the Sahel.


Cumbia is a dance music that first achieved prominence in Colombia in the 1950s. It has a subtle, loping beat and was made by big bands as well as small street ensembles featuring accordions and percussion. Over the decades, the sound spread to Mexico and more recently Argentina, where one of the key players has been Buenos Aires based label ZZK (named after a club called Zizek, named after the Slovenian philosopher of that name!). ZZK puts out mutant cumbia that has absorbed hiphop, dub and a host of other styles (check out Chancha via Cirquito's Rio Arriba for a fine example). But again ZZK is just one node in the global cumbia network (or "universal Latin" as Toronto based crew Dos Mundos call it): there is also the Chusma Crew in Berlin, Bersa Discos in San Francisco and the Cumbia Cosmonauts in Melbourne, Australia too: sometimes reflecting the diasporic movements of Hispanic populations, sometimes having more in common with say Japanese dancehall scenes and passion for the details of subcultural styles.

Another key node in the universal Latin network is Monterrey, Mexico, which first appeared on the global bass radar thanks to the productions of Toy Selectah and his idiosyncratic but explosive "raverton" style: dense, heavy, sonic halls of mirrors that still cause jaws to drop on the dancefloor. 3ball a.k.a "tribale" a.k.a. "tribale guarachero" is a minimal, percussively heavy version of that sound. Perhaps it's most exciting producer today is Javier Estrada, remixer of everything from A Tribe Called Red to The Police's "Roxanne". Aside from his incredibly prolific production and the fierce shards of sonic glee that he injects into his remixes, Estrada is notable because he makes all of his Ritmos del Mundo compilations (now up to vol. 7 and over 500 tracks) available for free as downloads via links on his Twitter account (until he's shut down -- for now).

One of the styles that Estrada works in is Moombahton, a distant mutant cousin of dubstep that is often described as slowed down house music (the name of two of the scenes key parties, Toronto's Slowed and Ottawa's 108 (i.e. 108 b.p.m.s) says it all). As with many global bass styles, the scene is a mixture of blogs such as the excellent Generation Bass, which has enthusiastically promoted transnational dubstep sounds as well as Moombahton, particular producers such as DC's Dave Nada and LA's DJ Sabo, and an ever expanding network of parties. Moombahton is clear evidence of a new economic landscape for music in which the purchasing of sound recordings is almost non-existent, participation in the production of sounds is increasingly global, and money is made principally at parties and other live events, or, for the lucky/weatlhy few, the outsourcing of subcultural sounds to advertising, the film industry and what is left of the mainstream pop music world. Moombahton is sometimes derided for what sound like "lowest common denominator" beats, but the apparent simplicity makes possible a new kind of sonic populism, somewhat akin to social media, where anyone might contribute the next new sound, and where the local engages the global, the emergent engages the dominant in highly unpredictable and transformative ways.