I interviewed J. Randall (of Agoraphobic Nosebleed fame) about his new online label, Grindcore Karaoke, for Invisible Oranges.
Originally, I was playing with the idea of interviewing him for my blog here but knew that wouldn't really work out because nobody reads this blog. Then I thought about Cosmo and I asked him if I could do the interview for IO and he was down. He liked the interview so I might do some more stuff for him in the future.
To me, the most interesting part of the interview is when J starts talking about lyrics and spreading ideas. He says "A lot of bands, they’re pretty one-dimensional. Their lyrics, the ideas are almost an afterthought. The fucking riff rules right now. No one’s saying fucking anything anymore."
Adbuster's article on hipsters comes to mind now when I think about the metal/hardcore/punk scene at large. "We’ve reached a point in our civilization where counterculture has mutated into a self-obsessed aesthetic vacuum," says the article. "So while hipsterdom is the end product of all prior countercultures, it’s been stripped of its subversion and originality." The underground metal/punk scene has not escaped this cultural void.
My punk friend Jthan told me once that "punk is an undead scene." It strikes me as true. The vitality is gone but the club of wayward 20-somethings with poor relationships with their parents still remains. The music isn't a rallying point for people so much as it is an accessory. Style rules over substance.
Lyrics in punk songs embody attitudes now much more than they do systems of belief to be shared. J was right: if Biafra or Rollins or McKaye were up-and-coming today, they'd be all over twitter and the internet trying to get their message out. Biafra would be calling people out and naming names too. He still does.
The ghost of Hardcore's past still haunts us today. With the recent gamut of new "power violence" bands, Infest has been exhumed, stripped, and made meaningless through mindless references and repetition. The message is gone. "Where's the unity" is more of a catchphrase now than an actual call to unite. Infest is more of a patch to be shown off than a band to be understood on their own terms.
J contrasted Hardcore and Hip-Hop in the interview, saying "Hip-hop, it’s beats, but it’s lyrics, too. But with hardcore, you can get away with not sharing a fucking idea." There's another relevant contrast between the two scenes that I think is worth mentioning: promotion. In the world of Hip-Hop, artists are constantly competing for attention and trying to raise their status through as many means as possible. Hip-Hop is shamelessly about trying to make it big.
I went to a Wu-Tang concert a couple months ago. I had never been to a Hip-Hop show before and was surprised when I saw the artists on stage throwing out free CDs and merch to the crowd. On a promotional level, this makes perfect sense: these guys are literally putting their music into the hands of potential and actual fans, who may spread it around to their friends. Giving away a free t-shirt is like putting an ad into the world at very low cost.
Additionally, Hip-Hop artists release free mix-tapes all the time, freely available to download online. Lil Wayne's career is based on the success of such mix-tapes.
Punks are a lot more conservative about their releases. Splits and EPs are released on vinyl 7"s or tapes, which require antiquated hardware to play. The scene literally isolates itself this way. Of course, releasing music in a physical form does serve some economical purposes for bands, like providing a source of revenue for touring and other band expenses. But what is touring but a promotional vehicle?
What I'm getting at is this: if the music is going to remain relevant, the current scene status quo needs to change. The way we do things is outdated and encourages groupthink and stale music. Bands should re-evaluate their existences and think about what they stand for and how they're going to get that message out to people. Outsiders shouldn't be shunned so much as they should be converted. Punk needs to be a movement again, not just an exclusive club for people with tattoos and piercings who dress in black. Where's the diversity?
As far as Grindcore Karaoke's role in all of this is: with the signal-to-noise ratio way out of whack today, having a recognizable name like J. Randall play a gatekeeper/tastemaker role does a lot to help find the "signal." A little name recognition can go a long way in the constant competition for attention on the internet. Perhaps J's new "label" (which is more of a PR firm/showcase for bands) is one of the first in a new wave of free online Indie Vanity Labels curated by people with vision for what this music and scene can be. That'd be cool.