Arts Aug29 2018,
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London

Dean Blunt – A Look Inside A Musical Outsider

European Echo’s biggest Dean Blunt fans, Owen Tanner and Peter Riddell, discuss their favourites from his discography – often seen as a struggle to navigate – in order to shine a light on the mysterious, compelling and prolific artist, and show that there’s something in there for everyone.

Dean first started releasing music in the duo Hype Williams with Inga Copeland. Since then he has worked on many projects under many names and collaborated with artists such as GAIKA, Lil Yachty, Arca, A$AP Rocky, James Ferraro, Yung Lean and Joanne Robertson. His discography is both immense and diverse. Broadly, his style has moved from abstract, perhaps even escapist, hypnagogic jams as Hype Williams, on to dark realist portraits of current political or sociological situations as Dean Blunt. Recently, he has spearheaded the Babyfather trio, flirting with grime aesthetics and UK rap alongside bandmates DJ Escrow and Gassman D. From interpretations of witty, abstract lyrics to bass heavy bangers, we believe that everyone can appreciate at least one aspect of Dean’s music.

In this piece we lay out our favourite releases and why we love them.

Black Metal

 

In Dean’s words, “Black Metal basically is like an essay and the thesis/heading is like “appropriate Yeezus: appropriation, reappropriation and the empowerment of the post-black male” and the idea is how in America the black man uses existing white images and claims them as his as a form of empowerment so black Cobain and black ‘this’ and black ‘that’ which is not actually really progressive. So this idea of American racial progression is completely backwards because you are just appropriating something and calling it your own, that’s something that’s already died. The real progression is picking something up that is undefined and is new, and that’s what Black Metal is” (Rinse FM interview).

If what he set out to do was make a record that was hard to define he succeeded. He contrasts lush, guitar heavy lo-fi music with hard masculine lyrics often interpolated from pop-rap such as French Montana. His vocal style ranges from slow rapping to testing the fragility of his singing voice, and the entire thing comes across as hauntingly beautiful, bare and, most of all, fragile. The instrumentation especially has this skeletal feel – there are many layers of melody and harmonies but at the same time, there is a childlike naive style in the way that some of the songs are constructed, for example in the drum beats which are often simply “kick, snare, kick, snare”, or samples that are simply lifted without any manipulation and looped.

The record’s lyrics explore themes of anonymity, wanting to be left alone, narcissism and breakups. What I would say ties it all together is the masculinity that Dean approaches these topics with. I think this is a really interesting aspect of the record, the contrast between how he sings “strapped up with my nina” on ‘MOLLY AND AQUAFINA’ and what these words actually mean, for example. The fragility of masculinity is something that Dean has talked about a lot before, for example in the Boiler Room’s Black Lives Matter UK panel discussion, and I think it’s something that he was exploring quite deeply in Black Metal. The anger within the lyrics about girls (e.g. “Feelings coming on, but the bullshit got too long, yeah”) demonstrate this hesitance to confront emotional vulnerability. He talks about crime “Feds closing in on me, everyone knows it’s me, what else can I do but hide?”. The genius of a lot of these lyrics is their vagueness, leaving the listener to focus and form their own views of what he is saying.

Highlights: ‘Lush’, ‘100’, ‘Hush’, ‘Mersh’

 

BBF hosted by DJ Escrow – Babyfather

BBF, arguably one of Blunt’s most enthralling projects, is testament to his chameleon-like musical sensibilities – an instrumental collage of despondent down-tempo, grime, voice breaks, snippets from conversations and cheap cell phone ringtones paint the narrative. On top of being one of the few official Hyperdub-released projects with Dean on, it also fully realises the character of Babyfather, denoting it as one of Blunt’s most transparent projects to date.

The whole experience frames a patchwork of voices and skits, each one expressing something different to the next, but ultimately building up a narrative collectively – each clip feels entirely appropriate and meaningful, even the patience testing ‘Stealth’ interludes which reveal a more humorous side to the album. The looping of a male voice (sampled from a 2000 Craig David acceptance speech) opens the album over a pristine harp instrumental. Indeed, this isn’t music to listen to on the radio – Babyfather cement BBF hosted by DJ Escrow as an established art piece from the offset, painting an abstract yet evocative picture of urban space – orange drenched evening streetlights, grey skylines and rain, noise, people, crime – is it this everyday monotony that should make us proud to be British?

It is at these points that we are most reminded of the album’s cover art – London’s skyline, depicted with a golden sunset and gleaming skyscrapers, footed by a Union Jack hoverboard, which raises immediate contradictions. The whole thing screams tacky, yet also feels compelling and serious in nature, and most of all, political. It is also the only image that was released alongside the album. The CD comes in a cheap plastic case with little to no information – the vinyl comes similarly in a black sleeve with the cover art on one side with little to no other information. Here Blunt stays true to his character using plain demo-style packaging to distribute his release – in this respect we are once again left in the dark contextually by Blunt and the medium truly is the message.

Like almost all of Blunt’s work, this narrative reflects more of an atmosphere than a coherent storyline. Here Dean alongside DJ Escrow and Gassman D play the part of an arrogant yet despondent MC ‘babyfather’, a London local surrounded with pressures – gang violence, drugs and his ‘babymother’ as a few examples of Blunt’s cynical yet very honest portrayal of this individual and his surrounding environment. This is reflected through the mixture of Escrow’s signature downtrodden delivery as well as the high-pitched voice of DJ Escrow – presented most reflectively in the track ‘Deep’;

Man run him over cause he wanna talk shit

I feel it in my chest now:

All the pain

Can’t get the vest out

It’s been too long, G

These moments of clarity and cohesion are sparse – but on the flipside they contextualise the less obvious moments like the intro and the grinding harsh noise heard on ‘PROLIFIC DEAMONS’ and ‘Flames’. With Arca on production, ‘Deep’, along with a handful of other tracks, feels like a break from the cellphone-recorded, despondent and, on a surface level, meaningless ramblings scattered throughout the album. This is also very apparent on ‘Motivation’s exuberant and bustling instrumental. Here Blunt fully allows himself to play the part of MC and cements himself as a talented and thoughtful hip-hop artist.

BBF hosted by DJ Escrow is a lexicon of sound and noise that successfully encapsulates the subculture that it aims to present. Puzzling as it may seem, time spent with this album will ensure boundless rewards and a deeper understanding of Blunt’s own psyche as well as his own understanding of the social, political and musical inspirations beneath the record’s surface that he has absorbed. It’s truly a protest album for an era of postmodernism.

Highlights: ‘Meditation’ (ft Arca), ‘Motivation’, ‘Escrow 2’, ‘Deep’

 

The Redeemer – Dean Blunt

The Redeemer shows Dean Blunt in a contrasting light – at his most open and vulnerable. Although being about so much, The Redeemer is considered to be a breakup album from the point of view of Blunt and running around 44 minutes in length and comprised of 19 short tracks, our journey is tantalisingly brief. The album also features wide-ranging and diverse samples (Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac, Puff Daddy and Biggie Smalls all make appearances), that seem to fall into place so well despite almost being carbon copies of their original sounds within classical, indie, and avant-garde instrumental passages, and of course Blunt’s own soulful crooning.

The use of samples is actually a particularly distinct part of Blunt’s relationship with music and writing – stating in a Hype Williams interview for Scion AV that ”[Music] just brought back memories and I think that’s my relationship with it”indeed, the whole experience feels like a journey into both Blunt’s iPod and personal writings as we explore the ins and outs of his experience with this past lover.

In ‘I Run New York’, a short neoclassical intro sets the tone for the grandiose instrumentals that will back Blunt throughout the entirety of the album, and, in line with themes of memory association, this track is a straight rip of K-Ci & JoJo’s All My Life. On the one hand this could be used to discredit Blunt’s approach to songwriting. On the other hand, one could see this as a re-interpretation of what it means to write music – in an internet age of playlists and MP3’s one could surely see this idea as feasible within the context of the albums very personal narrative.

This displays a quiet confidence considering that Blunt has little to prove to the listener and instead focuses on representing himself as accurately as possible on this album. Similarly, he also uses voicemails during instrumental interludes to once again give the listener insight into the relationship.

The intro runs straight into track two, ‘The Pedigree’, which carries similar themes to Black Metal in the sense of feeling alienated from women because of previous experiences. Perhaps what makes the track so compelling is this low-key and thoughtful delivery; whilst being emotionally vulnerable Blunt’s deadpan vocals really convey a distinct sense of emptiness here:

For me to get to know you better

There’s something I should let you know

To me you’re just another lady

Gonna have to let me go

The lush strings and occasional guitar flourishes only seek to lightly colour Blunt’s thoughtful delivery and the track feels wholly different and unique. ‘Demon’ takes a similar approach to sound however this time featuring a bustling percussive and brassy track under sound effects such as a text to speech voice and glass breaks. This has got to be my favourite track on the album considering the rich sonic image it is able to create. Stylistically it’s hard to find a sound similar to this and Blunt’s notoriety for being mysterious and a prankster is really contextualised by this; simply, he’s not interested in making friends in the music industry. His own self-professed detachment with it all means that he has crafted his own style which shines through most distinctly on this project. Other highlights are the stunning and dizzying arpeggios of ‘Flaxen’, the rich and visceral ‘Y3’, and ‘Imperial Gold’, a soft acoustic ballad featuring frequent collaborator Joanne Robertson.

Reflecting on the album as a total piece, The Redeemer really is an indie masterpiece in so many aspects; the storytelling, the moving ethereal instrumental passages, and Blunt stepping down from his usual indecipherable pedestal right up to the listeners ear. The best performance of tracks from the project can be viewed here, live at Artists Space, and Blunt’s choice to leave the stage empty and the room lit darkly reflects the solemn tone of the album perfectly. The Redeemer is not an uplifting listen but a very quiet and relatable one and surely deserves to be recognised as an essential within Dean Blunt’s discography.

Highlights: ‘The Redeemer’, ‘Y3’, ‘Flaxen’, ‘All Dogs Go To Heaven’

419

A lot of people in Dean Blunt fan forums believe that 419 is simply a collection of Babyfather releases which could not get their samples cleared. I believe it is more well-thought-out than that, but I can see where they are coming from. The project samples everyone under the moon, from 2pac (in ‘hunt’) to Nicki Minaj (in ‘10/10 freestyle’) and Kate Bush’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ (the backbone of ‘skywalker freestyle’) and the album was released as a MEGA download (no physical formats) in June 2016, shortly after the Brexit vote, through Hyperdub’s Facebook page.

The most standout track to me on this project is ‘bubble‘ which starts with a sample from The Birthday Party of Nick Cave screaming “Hand’s up! Who wants to die?”, followed by a short spoken-word section from DJ Escrow: “They just don’t understand it, and that’s not your fault, it’s their fault! For not being on your level.” From then on it moves to an extensive sample of Mary B Blige’s ‘Be Without You’, with the repeating vocal refrain “We’ve been too strong for too long and now I can’t be without you”.

I believe that this is one of Babyfather’s most direct tracks. It was originally released on Dean’s Soundcloud as a single on the day of the Brexit vote. I feel as though Dean is undoubtedly sceptical of leave, as displayed by a lot of his satirizing of British nationalism (the driving force of Brexit) in BBF, but at the same time I think this song displays an air of contempt for both sides. To me, both of the samples echo incredibly frustrating conversations that I had with Remainers during that time. People would dismiss a Leave vote as pure ignorance or racism – “Not being on your level” – or would exaggerate the risks of leaving the EU, reducing Leave/Remain to a question of “Hand’s up! Who wants to die?”.

‘bubble’ is a good example of Babyfather as a project in general. Tracks like this are more a reflection of the reality of British views, shining the light on different perspectives, than really making a comment on them. It’s easy to forget that you are probably in some kind of bubble in Britain. In a country like ours, 419 and Babyfather brings the reality of life in Britain to my living room, that I simply wouldn’t have access to otherwise. Despite Dean’s frustration with having a white audience, I think this use of soundscapes/painting his black British experience with such realism has always been a huge appeal to me as a white fan.

At the same time, many of these tracks are just incredibly enjoyable to listen to. Dean has a relaxed, cold, masculine flow that works beautifully over some of the bass heavy, trap influenced beats like ‘10/10 freestyle’. Seeing this live I just relaxed into the music and didn’t think too deep into it and it felt so fucking good. The sound is good, it’s well produced and it’s great to dance to.

‘Nervous freestyle’ from 419 demonstrates Blunt’s production skills beautifully. The Theremin lead is one of my favourite uses of that synth period, it’s such a nice bendy psychedelic detail to contrast with the cold beat and reversed cymbals, and really makes for a nice spacy, almost ambient beat that you could fall asleep to. In ‘LOOKIN remix’ the whole group come together with some great energy and performances that definitely made a highlight when I saw them in Kamio.

Highlights: ‘bubble’, ‘LOOKIN remix’, ‘10/10 freestyle’, ‘snakeman freestyle’, ‘skywalker freestyle’

“People seem to want everything really spelled out for them.” – Dean Blunt

 


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