Genre names are needed for conversations and debates. More importantly, they’re necessary when searching for a particular style of music on the internet. I discovered dubstep for the first time when someone sent me a tune by Burial on Last.fm. Later I was desperately looking for artists on the internet with a similar sound by typing the term dubstep into Google. What I got was Rusko, Deadmau5, Skrillex and overproduced dubstep remixes of popular songs, pretty much the opposite of what I was looking for. Now, if I had typed in “post-dubstep”, things would’ve looked differently. The problem with the term “post-dubstep” is that it indicates that dubstep is over. Dubstep is far from that. The genre only exists since about a decade and it’s constantly changing and re-inventing itself. First and foremost this change manifested itself in late 2009 when The xx released their debut. They use silence as an instrument and from that moment everything was about to change. But why is silence so important, what does it have to do with arthouse and what the funk is arthouse anyway? Let’s get one thing straight, arthouse isn’t a genre we came up with, just for the sake of it. We’re not making something up that doesn’t exist, the term didn’t come out of nowhere. There is tons of evidence for the existence of a new genre, so in the following paragraphs we will explain the history, etymology sound and geographical relations. By the end it’s your decision, whether you’ll stick to your authoritarian “It’s all just music” anti-thinking or if you’ill acknowledge the fact that there is currently something very interesting going on in the music scene.
DEFINITION + Arthouse: Arthouse describes the fusion between post-dubstep and alternative R&B. It can also be seen as an umbrella term for both genres. Artists: The Weeknd, The xx, AlunaGeorge, Rhye, Black Atlass, Active Child, DropxLife, Julian, JMSN, Evy Jane, Jamie Woon, Jessie Ware, Jai Paul, James Blake, the list goes on…
+ Post-Dubstep: ”A word used to describe music that takes the basic idea/sound of dubstep and takes it in a new direction, often making it more experimental and mixing it with elements of idm, hip hop, and trip hop, see also future garage and wonky” - Urban Dictionary
+ Alternative R&B A progressive and experimental approach to R&B. It’s more complex and forward-thinking than commercial R&B.
SOUND The first question that arises is, isn’t alternative R&B and arthouse the same thing? Clearly not! You can’t say that artists like Jamie xx, James Blake, Blawan, Deadboy, Eliphino or Sibian & Faun make alternative R&B, simply because they take elements out of it. There is a difference between alternative R&B and music that is influenced by R&B. We’re talking about music that is influenced by R&B. “Okay fine, so let’s just call it all post-dubstep, why do we need another term like arthouse?”. Because there is a pattern, because it makes sense, because it works, because the term post-dubstep is invalid as previously explained. The amount of producers that take elements from dubstep and alternative r&b is ridiculous. Take a look at this:
James Blake - CMYK // Aaliyah & Kelis sample Joy Orbison - Hyph Mngo // Janet Jackson samlple James Blake - Bills, Bills, Bills // Destiny’s Child sample Blawan - Getting Me Down // Brandy sample Deadboy - Here // Destiny’s Child sample Ghost Mutt - Thouroughbred // Destiny’s Child sample Jamie xx - Far Nearer // Janet Jackson sample Sibian & Faun // Ashanti sample Joy Orbison - Sicko Cell // Ne-Yo, & Drake feat. Page sample French Fries - One Thing // Amerie sample Mele - Digits // TLC sample Deadboy - Fireworks // Drake sample Kastle - Technique // Kelis sample Debruit - Pony // Ginuwine sample Eliphino - More Than Me/ No More // Lauryn Hill sample Hugo Frederick - Family Affair // Mary J Blige sample Girl Unit - Every Time (Kingdom Edit) // Ciara sample Prince Club - Love Jackson // Janet Jackson sample
The list goes on and on and on, but let’s just stop here, I think you’re getting my point. When it comes to vocals that are beyond getting sampled and chopped up, the sound becomes less clubby more dark, melancholic, haunting, depressing, introverted, nostalgic, minimalistic and even dramatic. Best examples are The Weeknd, The xx, Rhye, James Blake and Evy Jane. The best way to describe the sound is how Burial described his own one in an old interview:
”It’s more about when you come back from being out somewhere; in a minicab or a night bus, or with someone, or walking home across London late at night, dreamlike, and you’ve still got the music kind of echoing in you, in your bloodstream, but with real life trying to get in the way. I want it to be like a little sanctuary. It’s like that 24-hour stand selling tea on a rainy night, glowing in the dark. It’s pretty simple.”
Arthouse is all about atmosphere. The often melancholic atmosphere is created by using silence as an instrument. Burial, Mount Kimbie, James Blake and The xx are all perfect examples for that. Even the more “clubbier” arthouse producers have a simple and minimalistic approach to making tunes. Here two quotes on the importance of silence:
1. “We’re young, not deaf – Casely-Hayford know it, Press Free Press know it, Jayne Helliwell knew it, and The xx know it. They are part of a generation that understands the strength of silence and the power of whispering – that if you say something quietly, people have to lean in closer. Their music has become shorthand on TV shows, idents and events for a very specific kind of brooding, worried youth…While previous youth cultures have proclaimed to have the answers, the generation that The xx hint at are taking their time with the questions. ” Source: http://dummymag.com/features/2010/09/07/what-have-the-xx-ever-done-for-us/
2. “. And so there’s something genius about the way that Blake’s work is premised on an aesthetic of recurrent silence, the counterintuitive result being that the 40 minutes you spend listening to his album may be the only part of your day where you experience silence at all. To listen to James Blake is not just to hear something new, in the sense that the music here marks a clear and creative evolution from any of Blake’s identifiable influences, but also to hear something new, in the sense that Blake knows how to make his listeners receptive to his music through the strategic use of silence.” Source: http://www.slantmagazine.com/music/review/james-blake-james-blake/2396
HISTORY The first time post-dubstep and alternative R&B collided was when The xx released their debut album back in 2009. Thanks to Jamie xx the record has a strong Garage influence. Ruth Saxelby described it in the most accurate way in her article “What have The xx ever done for us”:
“The xx have garage in their blood. You don’t need to second-guess their record collections (you can grab any of Jamie’s superlative mixes for that) – it’s there, in the sumptuous loneliness of VCR, the coiled epic space of Intro, the grinding delicacy of Islands. They’re the most important British band of our times, because they understand instinctively to the codes, expressions and sonic spaces of urban Britain and spontaneously create a new language. Their heritage is the anonymous broadcasts of pirate radio and unsigned whites, but they don’t just react – they move it on, they take it out, take it deep.”
As for their strong R&B influence Pitchfork described it in the best way in their album review of “xx”:
“Strongly influenced by modern R&B— the group made hay with an early cover of Womack & Womack’s “Teardrops”, while UK copies of xx come packed with their version of Aaliyah’s “Hot Like Fire”— the xx use a drum machine to complement their copiously tidy compositions. Unlike contemporary R&B fetishists Hot Chip or Discovery, who have clearly spent long hours internalizing Timbaland, the Neptunes, and other radio cognoscenti, the xx incorporate more abstract elements of the genre: a liberal use of bass tones and an unwavering focus on sex and interpersonal relationships.”
In 2010 Mount Kimbie released “Crooks & Lovers”. Although the album doesn’t have a direct R&B influence, like “xx” and “Untrue” it’s another very important release for the development of arthouse. The most accurate description of Mount Kimbie is calling them “Burial on anti-depressants”. And like The xx and Burial, Mount Kimbie use silence as an instrument to create atmosphere. As you can tell it’s all very well connected. 2011 was the most important year for the development of arthouse. James Blake, Jamie Woon and SBTRKT released their debut albums, while Jamie xx remixed Gil Scott-Heron’s “I’m New Here”. More importantly The Weeknd’s “House of Balloons” trilogy and Frank Ocean’s “nostalgia: Ultra” came out. Those releases reanimated R&B and set a foundation for everything that is going to happen in 2012. There is a new breed of artists emerging mixing the sounds of post-dubstep and alternative R&B together. Those artists are the class of 2012, making arthouse the sound of 2012. I’m talking about AlunaGeorge, Rhye, Evy Jane, Black Atlass, JMSN, Hoüses, DropxLife, Jessie Ware and many more. Arthouse is soon going to “reach its climax” when Usher is going to release his next album (assuming that it’s as good as his recent single), this album, The xx’s second album as well as Jai Paul’s will change the game of R&B. Arthouse will most likely become mainstream. The eurotrash-Guetta-beat-making will die out and the sound of 90s and early 00s R&B will have a revival. All the new arthouse acts that are now in their beginning stages will release more material this year as well, all of this will make arthouse the sound of 2012. It’s inevitable.
ETYMOLOGY Timothy Hankins used the term arthouse for the first time in the context of music, in a review of James Blake’s debut album and Enough Thunder EP for The Daily Times:
“I’m going to coin a phrase and call Blake’s songs “art house R&B.” ”Blake’s music is electro-pop that is firmly rooted in R&B. His vocal stylings are smooth, inspired by Motown. Rhythmically, the songs lack the pulsing drive of R&B basslines, but they manage to have the same sway-in-your-seat quality of more standard R&B tunes.”
“Lyrically, his words match the druggy morning-after aesthetic of his songs, you can often hear Tesfaye discussing promiscuous, one-night stands and over consumption of drugs and alcohols amidst this slick, hazed art house R&B.”
The music publication Pretty Much Amazing described AlunaGeorge, Rhye and Evian Christ as artstep: 1. “the duo’s production blends the best trends of bass-inflected pop (that bubbling bass recalls recent hits from SBTRKT and Katy B and UK artstep (that stuttering, deconstructed drum machine)”
2. ”seriously, what with that hyper-minimalist backbeat that’ll have you all psyched for some artstep drum machine skittering before Rhye go ahead and turn the tables completely into orchestral, horns-and-strings indie balladry.”
3. ”Sometimes it seems like your run-of-the-mill UK quasi-ambient artstep (you can probably imagine those skittering, echoing percussion elements before you even press play…”
The term arthouse is obviously a wink to the film genre and movie theatre. Here a short definition from Urban Dictionary:
“Arthouse: A movie theatre that shows independant, noncommercial or foreign films. In the United States, most people like big, expensive movies with lots of explosions and violence. Any film that is made by people outside of the Hollywood production system, and that focuses on more subtle themes, tends to be called an ‘art film”.
Arthouse in the film industry is an antithesis to Hollywood. Post-dubstep is known to be an antithesis to so-called brostep, as well as alternative R&B is known to be an antithesis to commercial R&B, both genres also have a more artful approach to making music. When looking at artists such as The Weeknd, The xx and James Blake, it’s apparent how aesthetics and images are also very important. Therefore using the term arthouse to describe these artist’s music, aesthetic and image makes perfect sense.
GEOGRAPHICAL RELATIONS Like our contributor Yeah Sara said, music is not about time and region anymore:
“Hip Hop is not about time or region anymore as much as it is about timing and regional influences. Inspiration is coming from everywhere, from the past of ones own culture (cheezy R&B of the US 90s) or the present of foreign cultures (Grime, Dubstep of the UK). That’s why NYCs A$AP Rocky and his crew rap over drippy Houston beats. That’s why Tyler, The Creator is a rapping like a punk skater kid. That’s why Lupe Fiasco is rapping over Skrillex’ pseudo-dubstep wobble sounds. That’s why Rick Ross is successful: because we soak him in irony. We live half in the nostalgia of the mainstream, half in a transition to a digital craze.”
Even though regional influences are not that important anymore, there are a few similarities when it comes to the geographical relations of arthouse. Most of the new artists that are considered arthouse come from Canada: 1. The Weeknd, Drake (to an extent considered as arthouse), Julian, DropxLife, Rhye, Evy Jane, Black Atlass and Sibian & Faun. All of those artists have a very similar sound and aesthetic, the same goes for artists that come from the UK: 2. The xx, AlunaGeorge, Jai Paul, Jamie Woon and James Blake. The latter have a much stronger garage influence, therefore the term artstep can be used as well.