A love letter to the reload
The third millennium after Christ began with a rewind. And lo, He did look upon his works, and did wheel and come again, speaking unto the congregation: my selector!
Artful Dodger and Craig David’s Re-Rewind was not, to be fair, in the No. 1 spot on 1 January 2000. It was at this point placed 5th in the UK singles chart, behind the significantly less seminal contributions of Westlife, John Lennon, Cliff Richard, and Mr Hankey the Christmas Poo. But the platinum-selling UK garage smash captured the spirit of the age in a way that these four lesser icons did not: spending eight weeks in the top 10, either side of millennium eve.
What is easily forgotten, muddied by hazy memories of Leigh Francis’s grotesque, unfunny ‘Bo Selecta’ caricature, and Craig David’s recent comeback as Hench Instagram Uncle, is that the zeitgeist at the time of this epochal calendar change was – from the front to the back – an instructional lesson in the dynamics of DJ-MC-audience relationships, and how and when to execute a reload.
This was a remarkable Trojan* horse moment for Jamaican music culture in the UK, looking back on it now. Even for an increasingly bloated and commercial repetitive-beats-industrial-complex, where superclubs and superstar DJs were fully established parts of the pop cultural landscape, the rewind remained an arcane, often-misunderstood, often-maligned practice. House and techno types hated it, even when they weren’t watching a house or techno set – some still do. Don’t you dare disrupt the carefully measured momentum of the auteur-genius behind the decks! They’re taking you on a journey, man – so you better sit down at the back, and stop causing trouble.
When I started going to grime and dubstep nights like FWD>>, Straight Outta Bethnal and DMZ, it was precisely the egalitarianism of this crowd participation that made the atmosphere so convivial, precisely the unpredictability of hearing those one-of-a-kind new dubplates pulled that made each rave so memorable, and precisely the climactic hype of those devastating drops and wheels that made them such thrilling nights out. Skepta and Plastician even wrote a song about those very parties, Intensive Snare.
The frenzy of hands in the air, lighters flicking in the darkness, the collective yells to wheel and pull the track up. And then the abrupt intervention and the record screeching to a halt, like a tape cassette unspooling, like Wile E Coyote running off the edge of a cliff, his legs still pedalling in mid-air for a second. And you’d turn to the random dancer stood next to you and both shake your head in disbelief, grinning, taking five seconds to mop the sweat from your brow. What the fuck was that? I’ve no idea mate, absolute madness though.
Sometimes a dubplate would be so massive, and so of the moment – having recently built up a head of steam on pirate radio, or at the previous couple of raves – that it’d come back four or five times. You’d be ready and waiting, knowing from the first snatch of the glowing synth riff of Skream’s Midnight Request Line, teased into the mix, that it was about to kick off. The same went for Mala’s Anti-War Dub, or Skepta’s Duppy. None of those records ever got far. I distinctly recall MCs and ravers wagging their fingers at DJs after pulling back one of their tracks, as if to say ‘nah, come off it fam – there’s absolutely no way you’re letting that one run.’
For me the rewind was intensely bound up with the warm, community vibe at FWD>>’s only true home, the much-missed Plastic People in Shoreditch. The ceiling is low, the dancefloor is almost pitch black, and if the crowd decides the track is coming back, the track is coming back. Only once or twice did I see this go wrong, when a hyped up (or export-strength-Guinness-drunk) part of this community leaned over the decks and pulled a track on behalf of the crowd, having entirely misjudged the vibe, and the DJ’s mood. The glare on Kode9’s face, after an over-eager punter did this during one of his FWD>> sets, was something to behold. He rolled his eyes – the crowd did too – but he shook his head and got on with it. Worse things happen at sea.
This came to mind again recently, following a rather wearying Twitter outrage over Riz La Teef pulling up Sherelle’s track, unbidden, during a Boiler Room set. She didn’t look happy, but it was easily settled with an apology from one friend to the other. No one died, and it didn’t remotely ruin her sensational DJ set, but that didn’t stop some people attacking Riz from the bogus starting points that rewinds are either fundamentally bad, or a power that belongs only to the DJ.
Some people will never understand their magic. When, at the peak of grime’s popular renaissance in 2016, the Evening Standard sent their regular music critic John Aizlewood to review Skepta’s huge homecoming gig at Alexandra Palace, he earned himself widespread derision for mistaking rewinds for technical glitches. “Not everything went to plan,” he wrote, “songs were re-started.” What was more significant than a middle-aged hack’s cock-up in a crappy newspaper was the presence of a 10,000-strong, largely teenage, largely white crowd, who were entirely au fait with rewinds. That, right there, is the legacy of several decades of Jamaican sound system culture continually shaping the contours of the UK, and it’s something to celebrate.
When the crowd go wild, what else you gonna do?
(*Pun intended, take it up with my lawyers.)