As Basic Rhythm, London composer Anthoney Hart (also the mind behind ambient noise project Imaginary Forces) rewired the pulsing constellation of UK rave sounds with a pointillist hand, isolating and repurposing fragments of grime, garage, hardcore and jungle into fractured, impressionistic collages and establishing more cerebral applications for bass music's body high activating sounds.
Hot off the heels of last year's The Basics, Red, White & Zero is Hart's first under new alias East Man, and it might be his most ambitious yet. Though its contents predate Hart's work as Basic Rhythm, it carries like-spirited experimentation into a new arena under the East Man banner, this time integrating a grab bag of features from hungry grime MCs to further complicate a holistic underground chemistry set with a potent cocktail of verbal gymnastics, simultaneously showcasing his acumen as a versatile beatmaker.
Just as Basic Rhythm challenged expectations with sparsely designed compositions that picked their raw materials liberally from adjacent scenes, East Man teases an authoritative everyman take on East London and promptly pulverizes it with a diverse multitude of experiences, logging features from Darkos Strife, Eklipse, Irah, Killa P, Kwam, Lyrical Strally, and Saint P. So even if the bars of its individual dirges fly out from a diaristic "I," their collection signals a unified "we."
It's all hammered home in the opening "East Man Theme," its lone spoken sample repeated like a rallying mission statement in the buffering jumble of bass, synth chirps and a simple record scratch: "So we're East Man, yeah? Listen." At a time when grime finds fast commercial applications in artists like Skepta and Stormzy, this is an album that flashes back to more humble beginnings and makes complex a genre that is routinely essentialized by benign authorities like music critics and more hegemonic forces like the local police alike.
Underground music emerges in response to dire circumstances, and East Man's features acknowledge it in kind. Killa P's "Mission" is haunted by panted lines about "Dead people / Bullet in the head people"; Eklipse articulates the concealed weapons and genocide that lurk around the corner at any mention of security on "Safe"; the sense of violence pervades the amphetamine-fuelled ragga vibes of Irah's contributions on "War"; and the histrionics of mid-album skit "Drapesing" have youth retelling a mugging they carried out on a woman at a tube station and the jail time they got slapped with — when a speaker asks them if a job would keep them out of trouble, they respond with speculation and distrust: "I don't know."
At times a bleak and anxious portrait, it's hardly a pornographic depiction of decay, as the voices of Red, White & Zero are more inclined to explore their disenfranchised positions as blank slates. In a lengthy introduction, cultural studies professor Paul Gilroy compares the scene to the adaptability of weeds that grow up between concrete and greenery, writing, "These shocking sounds can be a part of healing and repair while staying faithful to the pressures that forged them."
For East Man, grime isn't just a scene, it's a movement that resists both the oppressive hand and the fantastical temptations of the dominant culture. Here, chest-thumping, braggadocios claims to opulence are replaced with statements of resilience and sprezzatura: in a breathless flow over techy, fluttering beats in the chorus for self-improvement statement piece "Cruisin'," Darkos Strife glides: "Life can be quite difficult but I still keep it movin'."
Hart's beats are characteristically abstract throughout, pulses skittering and wobbling into dynamic left turns, but they're more subdued here; instrumentals like "Stratford" feel more like exercises in interlude tension building than a statement piece. Still, Red, White & Zero is packed with adrenaline, but in line with the project's perspective, as it traces a variety of regional experiences and vernaculars, it simply leaves the real mind altering up to the capable hands and velocities of the MCs in the drivers' seats. (Planet Mu)