On Twitter yesterday, beats producer dEbruit exclaimed ‘WONKY YOURSELF! MERDE QUOI! IF MY MUSIC WAS WONKY I WOULD FIX IT IN A SEC! RINGO STARR IS WONKY! NOT ME!’ Nowadays it seems that railing against the epithet ‘wonky’ is itself the hallmark the musical culture some people call ‘wonky’. Of course, as everyone should know, the ‘wonky’ he refers to isn’t really to be taken as a style or genre of music but as a ‘theme’, a feeling, an aesthetic, a mode of appreciation (and I use the word ‘mode’ in both its English and French senses). Tracks that fit the ‘wonky’ theme can come from any genre: hip hop, post-dubstep, funk, electronic, whatever – and besides, the word is not meant as a pejorative characterisation of ‘incorrect’ or ‘deformed’ music, but a fond shorthand describing the unconventional rhythmic, metrical and textural elements that have deservedly become so popular in recent years. As with terms like ‘punk’ and ‘queer’, ‘wonky’ is a word that could even be turned from an insult into a badge of difference, subversion, innovation and free-thinking creativity.
Still, this is a very fine point, and names that can come to categorise musics will certainly have a homogenising, maybe even damaging effect on any creative milieu that bubbles over with innovation. It’s never long before a mode of appreciation becomes the mode of appreciation, before what was once fluid coagulates and becomes fixed, and composers and listeners stop using their imaginations. (By the way, if you’re reading this because you googled ‘making wonky beats’, then you oughta be ashamed of yourself – go home, turn your ears and brain back on and listen, improvise, create.)
Well, there’s certainly nothing about dEbruit’s music that needs fixing. Despite his ‘glitchy’ use of samples and a punk-like moniker which combines the French words for ‘debris’ and ‘[unwanted] noise’, every beat, pitch and sample is masterfully put in exactly its right place, down to the tiniest, almost imperceptible fraction of a split second. Unquantised music is not simply a matter of leaving beats outside the metronomic grid, positioning them slightly away from their conventional places or forcefully warping or shattering the beat into a state of rhythmic-metrical anarchy. As I’ve said before, when it’s at its best it’s a delicate balance between strict rhythm and free rhythm that only a master craftsman can achieve. Push the notes too far away or let rhythmic-metrical coherency go slack, and you’re lost. Be too conservative with your positioning and you’re not having as much fun as you could be. Like tightrope walking, it’s finding a place to stand on a thin line, midway between earth and Heaven, and the higher up you are, the greater the thrill.
dEbruit consistently pushes his beats to the very edge of disorder, residing in a zone where we’re a demisemiquaver away from chaos, where a tiny extra note or a few more milliseconds’ delay would cause the entire groove to capsize. It remains, or rather becomes, exceptionally danceable, and yes, it’s thrilling. If this is ‘wonky’, don’t fix it.
My obsession with dEbruit began back in July, shortly after Let’s Post Funk was released. Since then I’ve heard nine new tracks and if anything, Frenchman and recently-turned Londoner Xavier Thomas has got even better at what he does, which is actually far more than master the art of complex unquantised beats. Armed with a handful of succulent synth presets, a hard-working oldskool drum machine, an amazing ear for inventive harmony and melody, an unusual but viable approach to large-scale form and a library of dance and folk music samples from every corner of the globe all bouncing around a four-track with a squeaky clean production that hides nothing up its sleeve, dEbruit creates a style that’s both attractively coherent and broad in its achievements. So simple and yet so complex.
On Monday, his Heart Beats 4 Haiti was released, an EP drawing on samples of Haitian music like Zook and Kom-pa for which the proceeds go to UNICEF’s Haiti appeal. You can get the mp3 or FLAC release here and please do – great beats, great cause, simply no excuse. It opens with the jubilant ‘Changement’, a typical hand-clapping dEbruit party interspersed with passages of excitable delay. Listen out for how dEbruit subtly changes the length of his samples as the track continues, creating the sense of forward momentum that’s become one of his specialities. ‘Battement’, where cut-up Haitian folk guitar meets a full-bodied horn section complete with squealing trumpet, is yet another contender for best dEbruit track so far. Its resonant, long-decaying TR-808 kick drum and hissing hats are reminiscent of this Jerk craze, but it’s joined by conga-like drums in your left and right ears to create something even friendlier.
In ‘It’s Bigger Than Kom-Pa’, dEbruit’s trademark trumpet-like synth belts out another jaw-droppingly rapid fire bassline while barely recognisable samples scratch out a ecstatic melody in the upper frequencies. ‘Souvenir’ has a slightly melancholy tone, and uses some unusually full-textured samples. A particular highlight sees a thick saw-wave bass pick up the melody implied by the guitar in the previous sample collage. Heart Beats 4 Haiti is some of dEbruit’s most complex and adventurous material, but it doesn’t sacrifice the sweet groove or the hands-in-the-air melody he always delivers. Again, not only is this release thoroughly worthwhile, but you'd be helping Haiti, so just get it. (By the way, anyone in or near London interested in the debate surrounding what sorts of help Haiti needs might want to go to this meeting tonight.)
dEbruit’s Spatio Temporel EP came out a week before and it’s also among his greatest releases. This time the samples come from all over the world, but Sub-Saharan Africa is a particular focus. ‘KO Debout’ creates melody and harmonic accompaniment from samples of individual notes from an African ‘thumb piano’, a centuries-old family of instruments that go by many different names throughout Africa and are used both in large ensembles and by lonely shepherds to pass the time. It’s joined by cheering crowds, a duet of warm processed vocals and a busy wah-wah bass. ‘Persian Funk’ has been pretty popular, appearing on loads of mixes including Pipedown’s Favourites of 2009. Perhaps it’s the slow sense of additive momentum permeating the whole track instead of just the opening thirty seconds, perhaps it’s the upward climb of the oscillating vocals, perhaps it’s the strangely decorated swung bassline, or perhaps it’s the deep electro God voice that stops everything to say ‘yo’, it’s a great package.
‘149 Dalston Airline’ surrounds a complex bass part, rich parallel synth-trumpet harmonies and Yoruba vocals with a perfect storm of agogo, rapid drumming and handclaps, while the uptempo finale ‘Nigeria What?’ draws on the florid African guitar styles that more and more people are coming to love.
Finally, dEbruit’s outstanding remix of R&B singer Ginuwine’s 1996 single ‘Pony’ has also been kicking around. Here it is apparently in some sort of Rusko context, with the beginning of Spatio Temporel’s ‘K O Debout’ coming in at the end:
Maybe the greatest thing about dEbruit’s sound is the overflowing warmth and vivacity riding alongside the technical innovation and achievement. This is cool without cynicism or darkness, without abstraction from worldly culture, a welcoming, extroverted cool that holds nothing back, wearing a smile on its face that’s knowing but not ironic. What with UK Funky, Joy Orbison, the resurgence of melody represented by the ‘Purple’ of Joker and Guido and all the interest in non-European dance styles, I think (I hope) that this is a turn UK dance music is taking.