The drug ketamine has long skulked around dance music's fringes, but has it found its synergy with wonky's disembodied beats?
Quite the most intriguing meme I've, er, bumped into recently has been the alleged link between ketamine and wonky, an offshoot of dubstep that has got all the dance-bloggerati burbling with excitement in recent months. Now that really awakes my interest (academic interest, I should say – my consciousness-mangling days are far behind me), because it's been a long time since there was a drug/music synergy of real consequence in UK post-rave culture, one where a particular chemical actually seemed to be driving the direction of a style of music and shaping the vibe on the dancefloor.
I'm not suggesting that wonky producers make their tracks under the influence, or are even consciously targeting the K-head contingent. But sometimes a music will find its drug regardless of its creators' intentions. Look at Detroit techno: the famously sober and straight-edge Derrick May had no idea that Strings of Life would sound so sublimely right on ecstasy. Indeed the Detroit producers, elegant aesthetes all, were horrified when their music became the soundtrack for pill-gobbling drug monsters in Britain.
Of course, it could all be just rumour. Then again, "wonky" does happen to be street slang for ketamine (see also "wonky donkey", which plays on the notion that the drug is used by veterinary surgeons as an anaesthetic for horses). And how about the fact that Zomby is the name of the genre's leading producer, while "zombies" is the most common description of K-heads made by people who deplore the drug's effect on the vibe in clubs? Just coincidences, maybe. Still, even if it is a myth, like the connection between jungle and crack you heard a lot about in 1993, it's a revealing one. Rumours are social facts in themselves.
A ketamine/wonky connection would certainly explain a lot. Those groggy, stumbling beats, for a start (K has long been infamous on the US rave scene as an anti-dance drug, a chemical that killed rave energy), not to mention wonky's combination of intense physicality (that w-w-w-wobbly bass) with a sensation of disembodiment. The drug is classed as a "dissociative anaesthetic". As one K-user put it: "It makes you feel anaesthetised to your worries. You forget about your normal life and everything is euphoric."
That would fit the way that wonky breaks with dubstep's darkness, its whole "tension and dread of urban life" shtick, and replaces it with a kandy-kolored kartoon vibe (hello dere, machine elves!). An expert writes: "At low doses the user may feel euphoric, experience waves of energy, and possibly synaesthesia – sensations such as seeing sounds or hearing colours."
Listen to Zomby tunes like Spaceman and Aquafresh (off his recent 7-track EP for Hyperdub) and it's like someone's taken the monochrome diagram that is dubstep's rhythmic grid and scrawled woozily all over it with fluorescent marker pens.
That said, the link with ketamine seems to go back to dubstep itself. I recall online discussions last year about how the squat party scene (long notoriously rife with K-heads) was increasingly dropping its standard fare of psychedelic trance and acid techno in favour of dubstep. There have been debates on dubstep messageboards about whether or not the music and ket go together like a dream, with some fans indignant at the notion and others gushing the combo's praises. Some of the testimonials can get pretty florid:
"The heaviness of ketamine is magic with sub-bass. The dissociation that it gives fits perfectly with the dark, mechanical feeling of the music. And the psychedelic neon-like effects of the drug fits perfectly with the alien feeling of dubstep. In fact, I find that dubstep is the exact same feeling that ketamine gives: a tension between wilderness and mechanization, a tension between being hollow and being holy…. . There's a quote from Fight Club that describes exactly what I'm trying to say: 'Lost in oblivion. Dark and silent and complete. I found freedom. Losing all hope was freedom.'"
Another enthusiast was more blunt:
"K IS MADE FOR DUBSTEP. GET WONKY. TUCK IN."
But you'll get other dubstep fans (often original, first-wave ones) complaining bitterly about K-heads scuzzing up the vibe at their club nights. A clothes store in Bristol, the UK's second city of dubstep and a place where the drug seems to be particularly prevalent, has even been selling a T-shirt that bears the slogan "Dubstep Against Ketamine".
Of course, ketamine has been an established presence on the UK, European and American club scenes for a long time, regardless of genre. There has been talk before of "ketamine house" and of a connection between the popularity of K and the more wigged-out strands of German minimal techno. In the K-hole, "movement becomes extremely difficult", which might explain the way that some minimal (or mnml, as cognoscenti cutely abbreviate it) has shed much of its feeling of propulsion. Ricardo Villalobos was a pioneer here with tracks like Dexter, whose pendulous canopies of synth-gloop ripple at a rate much slower than the drum track, instilling a mood of ecstatic desolation. With this kind of minimal, it's as though the linear axis of the music (movement through time) fades in importance and the vertical axis (spatiality of production, thickness of texture) becomes dominant. A similar thing seems to be going on with wonky.
K is nothing new, then, but as the news stories linked above indicate, there's reportedly been a marked increase in its use on the British club scene recently. At online messageboards you'll find clubbers voicing complaints such as this: "K heads are a fucking nightmare. They fall into everything, break stuff, don't move out of the way of incoming traffic, slobber over bouncers which just infuriates them and generally FAIL at any level of dignity. And just look at you in confusion when you ask them to do anything, especially wipe their face. Looking like a brain-dead dribbling zombie with your mouth wide open and a crusty white polo is not a good look."
Beyond the statistically monitored rise in usage and the anecdotal evidence, it's also true that certain drugs become "It drugs": their effects come to define the mood of an era, affecting people who never actually take the substance in question. Amphetamines defined punk and postpunk; there was a talk-talk speediness, a brittle, irritable feel of intellectual unrest to British music culture at that time (which is why I picked Totally Wired as a title for the companion volume to Rip It Up). LSD, via not just the sounds but the album covers and poster art and clothing styles, affected far more people in the Sixties than ever actually took acid. Ecstasy, likewise, set the tone for much of the Nineties. The fact that K has been a fixture on the clubland drug menu for a good while wouldn't necessarily prevent it from being suddenly promoted to "It drug" status. MDMA (and its close relative MDA) had been in existence for decades before taking off and becoming the zeitgeist drug. Sometimes chemicals are "waiting" for the social conditions to be ripe and for the exact right sound that synergises with their effects to arrive.
What about wonky as music? I'm digging the dubstep-aligned sector of wonky-Zomby, Joker, and others associated with the Hyperdub label. But a lot of the other stuff that gets called "wonky" has more to do with underground hip-hop than dubstep. And a lot of it just sounds like second-rate J Dilla.
Or worse, it's an exaggeration of J Dilla that goes past the master's sublime balancing act of wrongness-as-rightness and topples into the category of plain defective – from the sprained-in-both-legs rhythms (headz talk about "unquantised beats", which means that producers deliberately opt not to program their drums with the metronomic precision that is the rule in most pop music) to the degraded/corroded sounding electronic textures (see Hudson Mohawke clip above).
This sort of wonky is a bit like trip-hop meets 8-bit (chip-hop, anyone?). Quite arresting, at first, but over the long DJ mix haul, rather grating: less head-nod, more headache. To make it through a whole club night of this I probably would need some kind of anaesthetic.
Posted by Simon Reynolds
Thursday 5 March 2009