Make It Nu:
Thoughts on Modernism and Rap Metal

In his forthcoming book for Repeater, Acid Detroit, Joe Molloy does a marvellous job of connecting up the dots between the city’s supposed golden eras of psychedelic — modernist, emancipatory, etc. — music with some of its more post-modern offshoots.

He deftly navigates a trajectory I’ve always mistakenly thought of as a gulf. Returning to Mark Fisher’s concept of acid communism, and Fisher’s nod to the musical legacy of Detroit — from Motown to techno — Molloy brings things right up to date in a way that I can imagine Fisher really appreciating. To my mind, this is no easy task. The fact that there is a trajectory of musical development to be followed is not to suggest it is a wholly clean and linear one…

Sketching out the twisting lines of musical development as perhaps only a Detroit local can, from Motown and techno to garage rock and hardcore, Molloy shows how it is impossible to essentialise the city’s musical history, no matter where you’re approaching it from — and that is precisely what makes the city’s music so exciting, then and now. Furthermore, by turning to the “good postmodernism” of the city’s specific hauntological tendencies, he outlines the ways that its haunting pasts are nonetheless suggestive of many bright futures. It’s a really great way of using Fisher’s whole toolbox, often seen as disjointed and contradictory, to paint a far more complex and holistic picture of how culture moves forwards in the twenty-first century.

In the final chapters, this framework leads Molloy to talk about Danny Brown, who is as much in communion with the city’s particular legacies as he is with those reverberating from further afield. Particularly on 2016’s Atrocity Exhibition, with its overt references to Joy Division and post-punk in general, Brown builds a jarring and kaleidoscopic set of bridges between experiences of alienation and drudgery, emanating out of cities and sounds that are otherwise worlds apart.

It was a strange move that meant I never actually appreciated Brown’s music until recently. I didn’t “get” Atrocity Exhibition when it first came out, though I thought I’d be into it on paper. Though I appreciated all its references, it confounded my expectations. I just wasn’t receptive to it.

But in hindsight — and very much with thanks to Molloy’s book — it is precisely its confounding nature that makes it exciting to me now. Brown’s album isn’t so much an attempt to look back, to create a collage of familiar references and sounds; if lines of affinity are drawn, it is in response to the fact that the general situation of living in an industrial city like Detroit or Manchester hasn’t changed. But this is not to suggest a particular set of material conditions is explicitly shared between the two. Beyond capitalism’s universal oppressions, the ways that these different worlds, different musical legacies, do not neatly line up allows him to produce unsettling portals between local unknowns.

For me, as an English listener, all I heard initially were homegrown references put through a Detroit meat grinder. I clearly missed the point entirely. I failed to identify that what was being straddled was not a neat musical history that crosses borders but rather certain structures of feeling, the surrounding contexts of which collide and produce a new and productive tension.

This is notable, I think. Though there is now often a rivalry between European and American lines of sonic development, given how music journalists are prone to collapsing scenes together and discounting the specific material conditions that are unique to each environ — see: DeForrest Brown Jr.’s unhitching of Detroit techno from Kraftwerk’s legacy in Assembling a Black Counter Culture, for example, in which he powerfully dismisses the suggestion that the Germans inspired techno overseas, since the figure of the robotic dehumanised labourer that Kraftwerk deploy aesthetically is surely far more familiar to the Black experience than it could ever be to four conservatoire students from Düsseldorf — Danny Brown instead moves across abjectly discordant but undoubtedly resonant structures of feeling, refusing to defer to any sense of canon or received legacy. He instead spreads himself over sonic wormholes and affirms the dissolution of sense that results.

This is, of course, similar to most readers’ experiences of JG Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition, which Brown refers to less explicitly, alluding more to Joy Division. But in being the third refraction of that abject exhibition to date, it is clear that Brown is hanging his own pictures on its walls. He installs himself as the new curator and breaks from the lineage he otherwise acknowledges in daring and exciting ways. He makes it new.

Without going too much into the content of Molloy’s book — it’s not due out for a while yet — suffice it to say that it is great and his argument very convincing, but I must admit that I am still surprised, all things considered, that it is something resembling rap metal that arises to the fore in the 2010s… In the context of Molloy’s book, it hardly seems surprising at all, but his narrative upturns the genre’s general reputation as the postmodern runt of the genre litter, lacking any of the esteem reserved for its antecedents.

But rap metal’s haunting of the twenty-first century is increasingly hard to ignore. The last few years alone have led to repeated reappraisals of that moment. Deftones’ White Pony feels like a hallowed classic these days, which feels rare for an albums from that time. Korn, too, have become a sort of cherished meme, because who can deny that the “Freak on a Leash” video is iconic. More personally, I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few years trying to reckon with the hold that Limp Bizkit still have on my heart, despite themselves, and their recent return has led me to write about how their comeback record sucked but also how they captured a peculiar zeitgeist around the turn of the millennium, which I don’t think is that well understood even today.

This vague preoccupation, which I feel like I don’t have the knowledge to fully articulate, has brought Molloy’s book back to mind, after I first read it a few months back. The way he threads together different histories, to make something even as aberrantly postmodern as nu metal seem like it has psychedelic potential (in Danny Brown’s hands at least), makes me want to know more about how this apparent revival is understood in the US today.

Of course, this may even feel like quite a leap in itself. It may appear lazy and loose to shove Danny Brown under the “rap metal” umbrella. He is clearly influenced by horrorcore and a few of rap metal / nu metal’s less fully-formed antecedents, but it’s a big tent for someone so singular to exist under…

But then I came across a more recent piece of the puzzle…

Earlier today, I came across HEALTH’s remix of Korn’s recent single “Worst is on Its Way”, featuring Danny Brown and Meechy Darko. The original single version of the track is nothing much to shout about. It functions well enough as a trip down memory lane with 2022 polish, but HEALTH’s more minimal take on the production, reducing Korn’s roaring guitars to haunting shimmers with the lethargic beat adding a motoric drag, reminiscent of classic Nine Inch Nails, changes the song into a strange beast that is no longer at home within any particular genre. But rather than sounding like a horrible mash-up, it works very well.

It feels like an attempt to rearticulate that previously mismanaged structure of feeling, and though paying dues to a band like Korn that many remember so fondly, it refuses to let the original track sit comfortably in its de facto position as a throw-back. Indeed, unlike Limp Bizkit’s recent attempt at a renewed relevancy, it seems like Korn, whilst perhaps understandably a little too comfortable in their sound at this point, are leaving it to a new generation to remix them and once again make them “nu”.

HEALTH’s remix brings together a series of threads that have long been hinted at but perhaps never been made explicit. Danny Brown’s relationship to post-punk and nu metal is largely referential in much of his material, without hitching itself to either genre explicitly. But this track is a true cross-generational collaboration.

Is that for the better or for the worse?

I’m left wondering if this coming together is something of a step forward, towards a new coalescence, a new recognition of a shared structure of feeling, allowing the spectre of nu metal to once again materialise after a decade of various musicians treating the seemingly dead genre as ripe for salvage. (Oneohtrix Point Never’s 2015 album Garden of Delete is the first to come to mind, with Brown’s Atrocity Exhibition following not long after; and both were notably put out on Warp Records.)

Or perhaps this more explicit connection to old idols is a misstep. Will it only serve to once again collapse the material conditions and structures of feeling that nu metal’s popularity arguably obscured? Nu metal’s negativity burst through into the mainstream, soundtracking a distinctly suburban discontent (at least that is how it felt in the UK), and perhaps because of this it failed to make contact with any sort of political project, as so many of its antecedents did explicitly. Does the appearance of Brown and Darko on this remix suggest an alterative reading? Another history? Another future? Not just a white appropriation of black angst but a properly sonic solidarity?

I’m not sure I know either way. Maybe this is all an overexertion of energy in an attempt to crystallise something half-thought and half-formed. And maybe, for that reason, I’m not the right person to offer up a take here.

Joe: any thoughts on this? Is it possible to make nu metal, as the quintessential postmodern genre of the Y2K period, newly modernist? Is Danny Brown capable of properly taking rap metal and making it nu? Or is that just an old nu metal kid’s reductive attempt at understanding what’s happening in the present moment?

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