Primer: Sinogrime

In and around the futuristic dance music quasi-genre you’ve never heard of

Sinogrime is a music non-genre. It first sprung into existence as the title of a mix by Kode9, the godfather of dubstep and Hyperdub label founder. He made his Sinogrime mix in 2005, just as he was preparing his first of seven (and counting) trips to China to peddle his particular brand of future sound waves directly from the heart of the rising economic giant [VPNs on please].

Kode9 – Sinogrime Minimix

The mix brings together tracks made from 2002-3 by a handful UK grime producers then at the furthest avant edges of the London underground – Wiley, Jammer, Wookie, Wonder, Geeneus – all incorporating vaguely ‘Chinese’ sounds, such as traditional instruments and samples from vintage kung fu films. Wiley’s ‘Shanghai’ is the standout Sinogrime track, incorporating a synthetic, techno-retro Chinese melody within grime’s surrounding musical superstructure.

But the faux genre term disappeared as soon as it emerged. According to music critic Dan Hancox, ‘Sinogrime is a sub-genre that barely ever existed, a momentary glitch in the supposedly predictable sonic geography of London dance music. Around 2002-3, with garage crumbling and the cement still drying on grime as a genre, a few producers in E3 suddenly lurched further east than they ever had before. This is the sound of Shanghai tower blocks and the millennial promise of a new superpower, refracted through the scuffed windows of Crossways Estate in Bow. From the outset grime's sonic palette defined it as the most futurist of genres - a steel sword cutting cleanly through UK hip-hop's wooden edifice – but it rarely sounded as futurist as this.’

Lexdray City Series Volume 42 – Welcome to Shanghai (Mixed by Kode9)

A search for ‘Sinogrime’ today yields little besides a loosely curated Reddit playlist. Yet the term’s conceptual underpinnings continue to inform moves from Kode9 and Hyperdub. Kode9 has maintained an avid interest in China, making a point to tour through semi-annually since 2005, sometimes bringing other forward-looking producers from the Hyperdub universe along with him. He made the mix above, Welcome to Shanghai, ahead of his previous spin through in December 2014. One of Hyperdub’s highest-profile releases of late, Fatima Al Qadiri’s Asiatische, released that same year, was explicitly positioned by the artist as a meditation on China as ‘other’, an exotic outside whose sounds (synthesized zithers abound) are continually subsumed within the colonial matrix of Western cultural appropriation.

Fatima Al Qadiri – ‘Szechuan’

Kode9 has memorably referred to Hyperdub as more of a ‘virus’ than a label, its musical output an alternative life form mutated from dub and reggae in the high-speed centrifuge that was Britain’s late ‘90s rave culture. A keen theorist of sound and power, Kode9 as curator has consistently pushed Hyperdub’s agenda as a sonic indicator of social exchange along specific geopolitical lines. ‘Sinogrime’, from its inception, signified UK’s future music frontier groping blindly Eastward, a preemptive appropriation of Chinese sounds anticipating culture following the inexorable economic trend of China’s rise. Hancox again: ‘In looking east beyond [Canary Wharf’s] 50 stories to China, Sinogrime producers were engaged in socio-political prophecy, taking grime's aspirational, acquisitional tendencies and sending them east on a journey beyond Britain's deflating post-industrial bubble. Sinogrime reflects the current, gradual shift in superpowers from west to east, incorporating China, and rejecting America: in terms of the US, it's notable that grime has always been not hip-hop.’

Wiley - ‘Shanghai’ (Swimful’s 青浦 remake)

What about the other side of the equation? China was initially only a referent for Sinogrime, but it has now become its sole locus, as producers from within the country utilize its native sounds to create an autonomous, local identity. One of the most prominent new producers creating a sort of semi-conscious Sinogrime sound bank is Shanghai-based UK transplant Jamie Charlton, aka Swimful. In a recent interview, Charlton describes his reimagining of Wiley’s ‘Shanghai’ into an explicit city anthem. He expands on his fealty to Shanghai: ‘I'd much prefer to be well respected in China first and foremost than in the West… Something that fucks me off is like, when people put (UK) on my poster; they don't realize that on every single social media outlet I've had for the past four years, it's had Shanghai on it. Shanghai is the place where I wanna make music and do my thing. So, it's kinda sad when people are like “oh he's from the UK.” I've always kinda repped Shanghai.’

Howie Lee – Mù Chè Shān Chū

One last artist to mention in the imaginary Sinogrime catalogue, stretching the term to its breaking point: Howie Lee. The Beijing-born producer received his MA in Sound Art from the University of the Arts London in 2013, and has since parlayed his international experience and UK club education into an expanding role as an internationally buzzed producer and a mentor to an emerging generation of bedroom beatmakers in China. (Check out our profile of Howie in the March issue of Time Out Beijing.)

Howie and other producers on his label, Do Hits, present the final form that Sinogrime can take: a corpus loosely falling within the sonic confines of UK bass (dubstep, grime, garage, and all their viral mutant forms), incorporating Chinese sounds (more zithers) in a way that doesn’t point to China as a frontier from the perspective of the outside, but rather speaks from within. Sinogrime, probably a meaningless term, injects China’s voice into the metaphorical global mix as a player, not merely a sound bank to be played.

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