Sleaford Mods – Key Markets
What is punk? What has punk ever been? There’s a lot of confusion on this particular topic these days, I find. There are people out there who honestly believe that punk requires distorted power chords played fast in a very short period of time. Hardcore fans think that only hardcore is punk. Pop punk fans think you need a Warped Tour berth in order to make it in punk. Kids have grown up immersed in skateboard commercials and Tony Hawk video games and so associate the sounds pioneered by Adolescents and Bad Religion as being quintessentially punk. Alternately, kids grew up crying about being “friendzoned” and bored in the suburbs and so think of The Wonder Years and The Hotelier (to get some recent examples in here) as being purely punk. The effect is the same: it requires loud distorted guitars and standard verse-chorus-verse structures, like it’s fucking Blue Oyster Cult or something.
People get weirded out when I tell them that Wu-Tang was punk. The whole thing about punk is an ethos. That’s it. It has nothing to do with the music, and that should be patently obvious to anyone who has listened to Devo, the Slits, the Ramones, and Oingo Boingo back to back. The Clash weren’t punk because they sounded a certain way, and neither were the Ramones. . Punk means doing it your own way, without any regard for what the “industry standards” are, and it often means doing it on your own, without much outside help, because the industry is centered around what already sells, not on taking risks. The Ramones banged out three chords in a garage and got together with a lot of like-minded bands to create their own movement, outside of the Eagles and disco and whatever else was popular in 1977. The hardcore bands from the 1980s got together in basements and abandoned spaces and played to people who were just like them – the fringes of society and other hardcore bands. They did so completely outside of the frame of reference of acceptable label-based music and did their own thing. The Wu-Tang Clan share a similar story. Hip-hop was getting big before 1993, but it had a certain sound that needed to happen in order to get record deals and promotion. The Wu didn’t want that sound, so they did their own thing: RZA produced dusty, chopped-up, menacing tracks over which the others spat complicated, gritty stories that felt like more literary versions of the accepted gangsta music coming out of the West Coast. They made their own sounds, crafted their own image, and forced the industry to come to terms with them. In doing so they molded the shape and sound of their genre for years to come, much as the Ramones and the Clash did in the late 1970s. In other words, the Wu? Punk as fuck. The bands who adopt an image and a sound to get record deals and Warped Tour slots? About as punk as Donny Osmond.
So, Sleaford Mods. The Nottingham-based duo are not at first glance very punk, for the reasons outlined above. They most assuredly are, however. In 2015 they make what can be tagged as hip-hop, but hip-hop in 2015 sounds unlike this. 2015 hip-hop requires 808 bass, trap rolls, aggression, menacing string stabs, and a minimalist sing-song sort of flow that comes straight outta Soulja Boy. Sleaford Mods utilize drums and bass, often cut live, crafted in a vision of hip hop seen through the eyes of English rockers. That’s pretty much it in terms of instrumentation – no samples, no semi-automatic gunfire-type hi-hat fills, no deeply booming bass. Over this stark arrangement, Jason Williamson spits off-kilter rants about capitalism, unemployment, shitty living conditions, live shows, the failures of the record industry, and how, after seeing the Von Blondies, he wouldn’t fuck around with Jack White. All of this is rendered in an East Midlands accent, like Mark E. Smith had grown up listening to rap in the Nineties. It does not sound like anything that should be on anyone’s radar, and yet, much like Death Grips, it is.
Death Grips, the leading light of the not-at-all-a-movement punk-rap movement, are noise terrorists, playing not only with their sound but also with their label and with audience expectations. Sleaford Mods keep it more working class than that delivering the goods without making it flashy or more complicated than it needs to be. Key Market is even more straightforward than their previous album, 2014’s Divide and Exit, and this proves to be both a blessing and a curse. While the no-frills arrangements allow Williamson’s personality to really come to the forefront like never before, it makes the album sound musically like an updated version of The Fall. That said, of course, there’s nothing particularly wrong with taking your cues from both hip hop and The Fall, leaving Key Markets as an exciting, bewildering album that shows off the band’s talents at blazing a new punk trail.