WARNING – this post is super long…like 4000 words or something. So grab a tea or whatever…
“I’m singing for the love of it, have mercy on the man who sings to be adored” – Josh Ritter – Snow Is Gone
At some point, I will look at more practical matters as far as the creation and the production of music goes. But mostly, the questions and thoughts I have about music are of the more philosophical bent. I think maybe this is because I have made music for so long that the actual process is almost instinctive. To explain how I make a track is like explaining how I breathe – both easy and impossible to do. When I have the urge, I will dive into the practical side and see what comes up, but for the most part, it is the other side of the creation process that interests me.
Not the how, but the why.
It is also true that I find writing easiest when I have some idea or notion that I want to put forward. If I think about writing a blog about how to cut up a breakbeat, it feels to me like work. Whereas the other questions feel like an exploration, and I want to write about them partly to see what others think, and partly because writing clarifies my thoughts. This is well know to writers (and to therapists), and I have always found it to be true. Likewise, teaching helps the teacher learn – when you have to explain something, you gain a greater understanding of the thing you have to explain. It exercises the mind, it breaks down the complications, and it hones the edge of your thoughts. So writing about this stuff is a benefit for both you and I. At least in theory, ha ha!
Let me start with a caveat: When dealing with the philosophical aspects of the creation of any art, there are many questions, but I think there are no universally correct answers. There are only opinions, and because art is personal, those opinions differ from one person to another. There is no right and wrong, just what is right for you or wrong for you as an individual. I am not debating a fixed theology here, just what makes for better art for the artist.
Having explained all that, we finally arrive at the heart of the matter. It is one of the most important, if not the most important question you have to ask yourself as an artist. And strangely, very few of us ask it. Stranger still, even fewer are honest about the answer, even with themselves. The question is this:
Why do it?
Its such a small question, so small that it slips past us without noticing. I didn’t truly ask it for myself until after Kniteforce crashed in 1997, and yet I had been creating music for over 6 years by that time. It’s crazy really, especially when you consider that the answer to that question is so massively important. The answer will shape your music, and in the end it will define you as both a person and an artist. If you don’t know the answer, the direction you are heading in will be much less clear.
Those of you reading this that Dj, or produce, or are involved in any aspect of the rave scene, should stop reading here for just a minute and think about it. Be totally honest with yourself. Why do you do it? Why do you struggle with this thing? (if you don’t struggle with it, you are doing it wrong lol)
You don’t have to tell anyone the answer, and there are certainly answers that would be frowned upon by some – although not by me. I am not here to judge, and having spent a good deal of time reading both religion and philosophy, I am certainly not here to say your reasons are right or wrong, low or high. My question is simply one to make you consider a) what you want to get out of being an artist, and b) how to satisfy and achieve your aim.
Lets start with the obvious, most often used reason people give when asked why they make music, especially with hardcore or D’n'B. Its the one you hear all the time, the only acceptable answer…”I do it for the love of the scene / music”.
It’s an easy answer, but one that doesn’t really come close to the truth. Put another way, it is certainly a part of the reason for everyone, but its rarely the only reason. More often, I think its because people love the scene, but they also want to be loved by the scene. I can only go from my experiences, but I certainly didn’t start making music for the love of music itself. If any of you have read my book, you will know that I had no interest in music when I was at school – I had no desire to understand chords and notes and composition. I did not want to learn a musical instrument, unless you count turntables. Which I don’t – because although it takes a phenomenal amount of skill to scratch and mix etc, you cant play a song with scratching. Unless you are Kid Koala – I will wait…
There were lots of reasons why I started making music, the main one being because I could. Also because I knew someone who had a studio. And because I was in the right place at the right time. Because it was something to do. Because I wanted to be cool. Because I thought it would impress people. Because I was self conscious and wanted to prove to others I was good at something. Because it interested me. And lastly, because I loved the scene. All of these things at once, priorities always shifting, some stronger than others. I fell into making music via Smart E’s, and those were my reasons when I started. None of them are particularly concerned with the actual creation process, but what of that?
The reasons for making music changes over time. They change with circumstance and with experience. By the time Smart Es was successful, I had different reasons for making music.
I think sometimes, without even knowing it, you make art because of who you want to be, or what you need, rather than as a demonstration of who you are. Its an expression of desire on various levels, for acceptance within a group, or for money, or for fame, or so that people will like you, maybe even love you. These things are what we crave anyway, they are part of our genetic makeup, and art is both a way to express these feelings and a way to achieve what we desire.
Smart Es taught me first hand that musicians get idolized, and that can change your outlook as well – you can start wanting the attention, the adoration given when playing for a crowd – and at its basest level, the advantages that come from that situation. To say I made music just so people would like me is untrue, but its true to say I wanted to be liked, respected, desired, and to feel like I was worth being liked, respected and desired. If you are shaking your head about this, bear in mind that much of the art ever made since the beginning of time was done out of love or lust for someone or something and as a way to gain the acceptance of that person or group. Otherwise, it is usually from grief and loss. The point is that its an expression of our emotional state.
I also wanted money. It was great to be paid, and I loved my small time of being rich. But like the acceptance from the scene or from strangers, the money was only a temporary sign of the approval I sought. You can throw in silver discs and chart placement and any other external marks success as well. Those things were nice to receive, but once you really start to focus on your art they don’t really mean anything. Its all just physical stuff, and no amount of that can help your emotional state. I think any true artist might get swayed by these things, and sometimes they are not bad things to be swayed by. But there is a line between wanting to tell the world a thing, and telling the world something so that the world loves you. For me, once I had the money or fame or acceptance, and once I had given back to the scene, I still felt the drive to make music. Why was that? I had received the things I needed.
Of course a large part of the reason I made the music was simply that I liked making music. I didn’t love it. It wasn’t an art for me. This is because at that time, I was part of a group, and I didn’t engineer the music myself, I merely helped create it by bringing ideas and suggestions and samples. I loved the rave music and the rave scene – it was my life – but I didn’t love making the music. Not then. That came later.
You might be thinking I was too young to distinguish these things at the time, and I was. It is only long after the years have gone by that I can be honest about my motivations. It is essential to understand yourself – whole religions have been built around this concept. While I doubt I will ever reach any great level of enlightenment, I know from experience that honesty with yourself is key to moving forward. And moving forward is a defining interest for me. So there was a fundamental change between between the person in Smart Es, and the person that ran Kniteforce.
Let me be clear – I don’t judge myself or others for wanting money, fame, or whatever else from the music industry. These are things we want anyway, regardless of what we do in our lives. And I am painting a picture with large brush strokes – of course there are thousands of reasons for making a piece of music. I am just touching on obvious human desires, and saying that we all strive for certain things in our lives because it is part of our biological make up. We are social creatures, and we strive to be loved and liked in all things, work and play. And in art we are even more vulnerable because it is often our strongest desires that feed our creation, and these desires are desperate to come out in our work. It would be nice to pretend we are all interested in art because we are morally superior, pure of thought, and enlightened. It would be great if we all made music to push boundaries and make the world a better place. But I think for a huge part of it, that is wishful thinking. I think a huge amount of the best art comes from places of pain, desire, anger, lust and any other deeply felt desire or emotion. It might not be “pure” but there is nothing wrong with that.
But art DOES give back. And sometimes, you get those things you wanted. What then?
During the Kniteforce years (1992 – 1997) my reasons for making music became a little purer, a little more precise, and a little more useful to my life. I had never had a lot of self confidence, but I had faked that for so long with Smart Es that I was good at pretending to be confident – and as the old Chinese saying goes, “what you practice, you become”. I felt with Smart Es that I had really just been very lucky. I still feel that way. But Kniteforce was all on me. There was some luck, and some help from friends, an enormous amount of work, but the fruit of that labour was mostly mine. Kniteforce was my plan, and I put it into place. The business side of this turned my lack of real confidence into a genuinely beneficial and honest appreciation of my own abilities. I began to trust myself, and it gave me a stronger sense of self worth. The beginning of Kniteforce mirrors the beginning of me as an artist, rather than a person who just made music because he could. I started to make music because I loved it, rather than from any outside needs. And I found that I wasn’t strictly a musician, and it wasn’t only the music element that I loved. I fell in love with the entire creation process, as well as the actual industry I was functioning in. I loved learning how to do things – I struggled with it too – but I keenly remember the first time I actually understood how a sampler was used. It was like new doors in my mind opened, and I began to travel different, unknown paths. Likewise when I started designing the sleeves. I felt I was creating a whole world from beginning to end – the concept of the release, the sound, the art on the sleeve, the whole thing. And I went from “person who made music for various reasons” to “person who had a musical mission”. What was that mission? I didn’t know lol. But I was heading towards it using only instinct, even if I was doing it blind.
With Kniteforce, I began to want to create something really new, more for myself than for any other reason. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. I also wanted to show the world, “Look at me – I can do this. I am good at it. I am the best at it”. I didn’t need to be recognized in the street – I wasn’t interested in that side of “fame” (for want of a better word). I had experienced that with Smart Es, and despite its benefits, it made me profoundly uncomfortable. I felt like a phony. With Kniteforce I wanted other musicians, Djs, and producers, (as well as the buying pubic) to recognize my work, but more importantly, I wanted my work to deserve that recognition. I guess you could say my wants had gone from being very basic and crude, to being a little more focused and a little bit purer. Not much, but a bit. I was firmly under the assumption that if I just made a good enough record, a clever enough pice of art, that success and happiness would follow. If I could just put the emotions I was feeling into it, if I could just get the sound exactly right…
Then a strange thing happened. Some of the music I made almost without effort did very well, even though I wasn’t especially proud of the work and hadn’t invested any deep emotional desire into it. Six Days springs to mind – neither Jimmy nor I were very happy with the track, but a lot of people loved it and it was a huge success. The people that loved this track really felt something for it. How could that be, when I did not share that feeling? It wasn’t that I thought it was a bad track, I actually thought it was a very good track. It simply wasn’t a personal track, it wasn’t one where I invested my own feelings or paid any heavy price to create it. And other pieces of music I made failed, despite how much love and care I put into them. While I enjoyed the success of Six Days, I found that my mind was more concerned with why other tracks, ones that I felt were better, had NOT done as well. This made no sense to me. I didn’t know it, but I was at a crossroads. Part of me loved making tunes that other people loved…but the larger part of me wanted to make tunes that I loved and that meant something personal to me, regardless of sales. While I still made both, I think I had started to understand that art functions best when it comes from a pure place, and when it helps the artist, and everything else was really just a distraction. In the end, sales are irrelevant. Because I was fooling myself – I didn’t need other peoples approval or acceptance any more, I needed my own, and that is a totally different thing. If I didn’t feel the track I had made was brilliant, no amount of sales would change that opinion. And if I made a track I was deeply satisfied with, I didn’t really care if everyone hated it lol.
I had finally started to become an artist.
In a way, this is the very definition of an artist, as opposed to a business man. An artist is interested in the progression of his art, over and above what makes him money or gets him fame.
I do not say an artist is a better person than a business man. I do not think either goal is better or worse than the other. A business man wants to make money, because it makes him happy. An artist wants to improve himself through his work, because it makes him happy. Both are entirely selfish things. They can sometimes go together, hand in hand, but this seems to happen very rarely. I also don’t think we really have a choice. I did not consciously decide I was going to be an artist. It was just how I developed, it was where my feelings took me, and where I ended up. You cant force yourself to care about things, you either do, or you don’t.
On the other hand, I do think we can consciously decide how we will progress in our lives. So at that time I tried to make successful music that was also pushing me emotionally forward. Some of this worked, some didn’t. But it was a compromise that I didn’t know I was making. I gradually became aware that I was happier making music when I felt I was putting myself into it without external considerations. Maybe happier is the wrong word, because actually it was emotionally draining and incredibly frustrating. It was simply the thing I had to do. So I concentrated more on my complex Luna-C tracks than on the successful Jimmy J & Cru-l-t tracks. And while there were many reasons for Kniteforce falling to pieces, thats got to be a part of it, don’t you think? What if I had spent all my time trying to make big anthem tunes, instead of concentrating on the things that interested me more?
So we go back to the original question – why do it? I mean, really? Why? Making music from the heart is difficult and often unrewarding – at least financially. It can be harmful to personal relationships, and it makes you into a total weirdo who’s main concern is finding exactly the right sample rather than eating enough food or having a shower lol.
There have been periods of time when I didn’t make music, and I felt fine about it. There have been times when I made music for money reasons – and almost every one of these resulted in disaster, or at best, stunted work. Other times I made music for the love of it, and created something truly pure, and no one noticed. Once, I did that, and everyone noticed (My Angel) and it was a remarkable thing. That release was the perfect blend of a track I feel is pure and came from deep within me, and also sold really well.
Why doesn’t that happen more often? Is it my own fault? Is it even a fault? Am I not reaching the right level of emotional commitment or something? What are these urges that make us sacrifice so much for something that rarely matters to anyone but a handful of people? To this day, I don’t have an answer to that question. After as much analysis as I have done, all I have is tentative ideas and uncertainties, and a few small guidelines that I follow. You might find them useful, you might not, but here they are:
1. I can probably never know why I make music. All I can know is there is something in me that wants to come out, and music is the way I release that thing. When I do it right, I know it in my heart. That is the thing I am searching for, that piece of knowledge that only I can recognize. That is the reason I do it. There is no word to express what it is, and no explanation would ever make sense to anyone else anyway.
2. It doesn’t really matter what your motivation is, as long as it is your motivation, not one you have taken on because of an external or physical need such as money. Unless what you desire most in the world is money – in which case, your motivation is as pure as anyone else’s, as long as you don’t try to start making music to show how emotionally broken you are lol. Do you see what I am saying? Its not the motivation that matters, it is about whether you are willing to understand why you are doing it, and then follow it through honestly without deviating from your chosen course. I cannot make a piece of music just for money or fame. Not because I am so pure, but because I simply don’t work like that, its not in me, not anymore at least. Maybe in the past, maybe in the future, but not now. If I try to do that, all my ideas get mixed up and I stumble into a place which I don’t understand, and in which I don’t belong.
3. Be yourself. I have massive admiration for people like Scott Brown or Darren Styles…but I am neither of them, and I never will be. It’s not how I am built, and in trying to be like either of them, I would simply be a poor imitation of either, or more likely, nothing at all. The difficulty is understanding what you are, so that you can progress from there. Taking inspiration from other artists is a beautiful thing. Copying them to learn a skill is an important tool for progression. But trying to be like them in essence is a sure path to failure, it’s as foolish as dressing up like a horse and then thinking you are one.
4. Be aware that these things change. I have changed in the last year, in fact. Since making the Breaking Free album, I have felt an ambition that had been dormant in me for a very long time. The ambition to become a stronger part of the scene, to make better music that is more accessible, to have an “anthem”. One could say this was a step back, but I don’t think it is. I have been out in the wilderness for the last few years, trying different things, trying to understand myself and my music, and I have learned a huge amount about myself, the industry, and my place in it. I am better equipped, and my mind is sharper than it has been since the Kniteforce era. Writing my book made me re-evaluate my own work, and I find myself making plans. I am not the same artist I was a year ago, I am a better one. Because I understand my motivations. They are much purer than they were, but more powerful for it. I have no need for the fame or the money, but I do want to make something that pushes hardcore forward. To do that, I need to be a little less esoteric, and a little more streamlined in what I am doing.
I think thats all I have to say on this subject right now. As ever, these writings are more to think about than to be taken as rules to live by. There are no rules, except the ones you give yourself. And there is no right or wrong here – you can say everything I just wrote is bullshit, and I wont argue with you. It may be bullshit for you – but its not for me. I think it bears thinking about though, whatever you decide.