Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Hot Right Now vs Back in Time: DJ Fresh Review

So. You're DJ Fresh. You just had a UK number one single, making history by taking both dubstep and drum and bass to the top of the chart for the first time. You did it with a song that combines some of the core elements of both genres with a classic pop song structure and by teaming up with a powerful singer-songwriter with a solid background in UK dance music, Sian Evans of Kosheen, who helps you neatly crossover into pop territory while deflecting too many accusations of selling out. Things are looking good. Surely you go to repeat that approach again?

You have two DnB tracks in the works. This is your genre, which you've been working in for well over a decade, and both of them have the bright sound and catchy progression and hook that could easily get another hit. You just have to get the lyrics and singer right once more.

Here are two singers. One of them is a singer songwriter with a huge back catalogue in dance music as well as her own multi-genre songs, with countless high-profile and acclaimed collaborations with huge dance producers including BT, Orbital and Tiesto. She is Kirsty Hawkshaw.

The other is part of Jay-Z's stable Roc Nation and her back catalogue is limited to a scattering of typical US r'n'b cameo appearances and former potential entrant for the Eurovision Song Contest. She is Rita Ora.
Both of these singers have strong voices and both are also lyricists in their own right. Kirsty clearly has more credibility with the established dance scene but Rita is making some inroads into the monstrosity that is US R'n'B/pop. Both of them would be collaborations too good to pass up and either one of them could provide the next hit. As it turns out, you get to work with both! Surely nothing can go wrong? Well actually something did if you're a fan of credible, no-idiotic dance music.

DJ Fresh and Rita Ora took their song "Hot Right Now" to a UK number one in February 2012, after a much hyped up release on Ministry of Sound and to much media attention, helping launch Ora's career into the big time and giving her recognition in the UK she had lacked. On the other hand, the song "Back In Time" by Fresh and long-time collaborator Adam F under the Liquid Kaos alias, which was co-written by and featured Kirsty Hawkshaw, got a Beatport release at the end of January and did not receive a mainstream release until March. This release was on the long established Toolroom Records, but to almost no fanfare and received almost no hype.

Where to begin with this release schedule? Putting two vocal drum and bass songs by the same producer out within weeks of each other is already a stupid idea. Promoting one heavily and letting the other flounder in relative indifference is even more idiotic. DJ Fresh barely even mentioned "Back in Time", not putting it on Twitter or Facebook (Adam F did) the song only coming to my attention due to Kirsty Hawkshaw tweeting about it. This seems to indicate that Fresh had barely any interest in the song's success.

This is an enormous shame, because "Back in Time" is so far one of 2012's underrated gems. As if I couldn't keep mentioning them enough, there are two dnb artists I love above all others : John B for his trancey sounds and commitment to melody, and early 2000s Kosheen for their strong songwriting and vocals. "Back in Time" sees Fresh, Adam F and Kirsty Hawkshaw pulling off both of these elements. The production bonds a simple but thick bassline to a solid and fast dnb beat which forgoes some of the frantic breakbeats of dnb in order to let the synths and vocals drive the rhythm of the song. And what a groove! The characteristic angelic vocals of Hawshaw are not floating over this groove, they ARE the core of it, supported by a syncopated synth stab in the vocals and straighter and more rapid 8th-note supersaw stabs that keep the song's energy going throughout, pausing only for an epic trance style breakdown that is so perfectly placed in the track. The lyrics here manage to actually tell a meaningful story of love that has passed, with the singer trying to resist the lure of nostalgia, but seemingly failing to do so, and the lyrics sound incredibly regretful to my ears. The male voice of Stamina MC supports Hawkshaw's lyrics in the chorus by providing a response and this adds slightly more depth to this, perhaps suggesting that both partners are lamenting the break up of what was. The video seems to add credence to this theory - I strongly suggest you watch this one. It's simple, but it manages to both complement the speed of the drum and bass AND the tone of the lyrics effectively and without pretension. This song and video are, as far as I'm concerned, a massive triumph for the musicians concerned. What's more is that it should have been both a hit and a gateway to more refined but melodic drum and bass for a much larger audience than it has actually reached, and I consider this a gross misstep for Fresh and Adam F. Watch the video for "Back in Time"below.

So this brings me to "Hot Right Now". This started life as an instrumental under the name "Ultramagnetic" and Fresh gave a preview of this tune when he did a Producer Masterclass for Computer Music Magazine way back in 2010 so it was clearly a track in need of a vocalist for some time. In it's early stages Fresh described the song's chord progression as something he couldn't get out of his head, and indeed this one is quite an earworm.

It's a more aggressively club and radio friendly track than the more restrained straightforward "Back in Time" and relies on a massive organ like synth locked in with the bass to bring the loudness. Square wave arpeggios, vocoded talking by Fresh himself and some minimally used pads help to fill the track out, and it is once again the vocals, backed up by which complement the drums to drive the track along and prevent it from losing that dnb energy, a cardinal sin for tracks at 170+ bpm. Rita Ora does a decent job at belting these lyrics out, showcasing some of the power of her voice. Unfortunately the weakness of this vocal performance is that this recording is audibly highly processed and doesn't bring anything particularly distinctive, reminding the listener almost immediately of the polished but soulless factory pop r'n'b that comes out of the US these days.

This is emphasised further by the lyrics, which are so simplistic and cliche that it's almost beyond belief. Some have speculated that the broad content of the lyrics is a covert dig at people who are just suddenly into Fresh now that he's had a hit and I can sort of see this point, as these have got an arrogance behind them that I almost respect given his long history with this genre. However any actual meaning is squandered by just a few phrases - the verses use of meaningless warbles with very clear autotuning on them ("Eh oh eh oh eh eh, eh oh eh oh oooh") the repetition of the phrase "Put your hands up" which hasn't been original since about the mid seventies, and the refrain in the bridge which does both ("I'm let me see the club get hotter, hotter, I wanna see your hands up higher higher, I don't need close shouts oh oh oh oh, Can I get a wo-o-o-o-oah!").

By the time these have sunk in the unadventurous performance, overuse of autotune, blandness of subject matter and the horrible overused cliches leave you with the feeling that you're listening to a song that would have been rejected by Beyonce Knowles or Rihanna. I don't really blame Rita Ora for this, as a quick search reveals that she didn't write them, with Fresh co-writing this track with UK-based songwriting group The Invisible Men. Clearly the path of least resistance was taken here - why try to spice up the British and US pop worlds with some credible combination of pop and underground sounds when you can just squander the richness of the UK electronic music scene by importing as much of the overdone and lifeless sound of US dance-pop as you can and go for the easy radio hit? I'm not sure how much I can criticise them for this given that it so obviously worked.

This song is immediately catchy and I can imagine it being a very strong track in a nightclub the first time you hear it. But this is a song best enjoyed with your brain switched off. There's no depth to it, and although it may not be a dark, gritty neuro track, it's sound is practically safe as houses in the more bright and colourful electro-inspired drum and bass world of 2012. Even the video is pedestrian, despite looking considerably more expensive than that for "Back in Time": watch it below.

As such, I know which one of these songs I'll be coming back to in years to come. "Back in Time" is not a world-changing track but it has a character and soul to it that a lot of dnb, even vocal dnb, does not have. "Hot Right Now" is a step in the opposite direction and is such a lazy pandering to the lowest common denominator that a few years down the line it will be even less memorable than some of the US pop it tries so desperately to imitate. The clear gulf in quality of songwriting, effectiveness in tone and distinctiveness of the tune between these songs and the even greater gulf between their relative success makes me instinctively reach for the term "sell out" to describe DJ Fresh. I hate using terminology like this because it makes me sound pompous, but this is the road he is now on. He has blatantly squandered a large part of his credibility in exchange for pop success, failed to live up to the standards of productions like "Gold Dust" and "Louder" and all but discarded one of his own productions that could have been a strong seller and a standout track.

Further down this road lies the possible transition to being the UK's answer to David Guetta. He might be saved, as long as he doesn't do something stupid like release a lazy, middle of the road electro house track with a rapper on it.

Oh dear.

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