In the early 1980s, a electro/funk single was released by Afrika Bambaataa (and colleagues) called "Renegades of Funk." Thanks to the bold production work of Arthur Baker, it would go on to become not only a major dancefloor hit, but also an enduring social statement. The track, in short, suggests a direct connection between civic art and social change. Originally designed to improve awareness of gang-related problems on the streets of the Bronx, both "Renegades of Funk" and later work by Bambaataa would soon be elevated to a grander stage and bigger social issues. His music and managerial know-how were once used, for example, to fill London's Wembley Stadium - at the time of Nelson Mandela's release from prison.
The same relationship between dancefloor hedonism and social reform was drawn even more clearly when "Renegades" was covered in 2000 by Rage Against the Machine. The band, in order to both vivify and canonize the original's message, made a now-famous video from countless spliced images of Black and Hispanic celebrities, almost all of whom played some role in the Civil Rights movement - artistically or otherwise.
These same musical and sociopolitical intentions have been taken up by a gaggle of DJs/beatmakers in Lithuania, who refer to themselves en masse as "Renegades of Bump" (RoB). A couple of weeks ago they published an impressive showcase compilation CD, “Ritmo Kovos #1″ (Beat Battle #1). The images in this post come from the official launch party, just held in Vilnius. Drawing directly on their American influences, the organizers of RoB use a Bambaataa line as their rallying call: "No matter how hard you try, you can't stop this now." It's unclear to whom those confrontational words are directed at home in Lithuania, but a sense of purpose is obvious: "It's all about the new age... it's all about the new way of bumping."
No matter how hard you try, you can't stop this now.
Respected traditions are being reworked on another continent.
A few more lines are appended to that war cry, born - at least spiritually - in the Bronx; the following sentences have little or no time for understatement and are unafraid of sweeping generalizations. "For the last few years Lithuania has been well known around the Europe as a nation that holds beat culture dear. Many artists of international renown who've visited Lithuania have been amazed by the level of involvement in alternative arts and/or music. After hearing calls from around the globe, we decided that the time has come to show ourselves. And that's precisely what we're doing with our first, nationwide beats compilation, 'Ritmo Kovos #1.'"
Fact and fiction sometimes become indistinguishable in a flurry of mythmaking.
The six tracks in this post have been chosen at random from the eighteen available for free download. The quality is consistently high and the public profile of these musicians constantly low. With so many compositions of general appeal from unknown performers, the fairest approach is determined by a roll of theoretical dice - or a quick and unbiased cutting of cards. Another six instrumentals, also selected haphazardly, would have proven just as appealing or representative.
In any case, an additional benefit of this randomness arguably comes from the fact it offers no assurance that the tracks selected are even the best. Perhaps the finest contributions to “Ritmo Kovos″ are still elsewhere... Noncommittal, vague degrees of interest, therefore, might well be rewarded with better material after a quick visit to the download site. Even marginal enthusiasm warrants a quick perusal of all the tracks - just in case. One's incentive to look further is thus increased when faith in the reviewer's subjective opinion is removed; perhaps journalistic experts and editors should be replaced by randomizers, thus increasing the likelihood of anything occurring. Potential would benefit and promise would flourish.
A sidewards glance could so easily become a committed gaze.
Consistent standards across the 18 tracks of "Ritmo Kovos" also suggest a growing/audible sense of artistic cohesion among the members of RoB. They, like Bambaataa, are now keen to bridge the gap between a feeling of joint enterprise and life outside; harmonies fostered on the dancefloor could be extended to the streets, at least in theory. "Renegades Of Bump is a community of alternative musicians and art aficionados. Although founded in Lithuania, RoB exists wherever the idea of independent music is valued. We aim to promote top-notch sounds and visual projects. If you share the same ideas [and passions] as us, then you're more than welcome to join in. There's always lots of work to be done as we try to bring all worthy independent and so-called 'underground' artists into the public eye."
The rather crude white ceramic tiling in several of these images is reminiscent of countless East European public toilets; the underground scene in Vilnius seems to be operating from some very humble beginnings. Suddenly the Bronx doesn't seem so bad, compared to various forms of waste, be they bodily or the kind that glows in the dark.
Foremost among this growing and, we hope, upwardly mobile scene are a handful of local DJs, headed by Vaiper, Harvey Clef, and Emylis. The first member of that trio is well-known in Lithuania as 50% of Shmelka and Vaiper, who have been culturally prominent for over half a decade - at least among fans of domestic hip-hop. Vaiper, over that same period, has won several national DJ and beatmaking contests, sometimes as part of the overarching S&V Despotin Fam.
The Lithuanian hip-hop/bump scene is so active, structurally wayward, and deliberately contrary that nonchalant, lazy admirers will find little to entertain them; material needs to be sought - and that takes effort. Following eighteen web-based performers from afar (none of whom appear to be signed) is not easy. What's required, therefore, at least initially, is a well-informed starting point or entrance into the general activity of RoB, followed by leaps of faith from site to site. “Ritmo Kovos" is a intelligently compiled and respectfully honed release that cannot, perhaps, be bettered as a snapshot of today's dancefloor activities, conducted beneath the rainy streets if Vilnius.
Any effort invested in following these multiple, overlapping projects will be justified. Entertainment and enlightenment are assured.
Predicting the likely evolution of these separate, though crisscrossing trajectories will also be difficult. How will they progress? The likelihood of remaining relevant in one's "renegade" behavior will always benefit from a glance cast backwards, towards analogous stories and projects of the past. Issue #1, no doubt, is for RoB to avoid the presumed irrelevance of Bambaataa as time moved on. In the words of Rolling Stone: "Afrika Bambaataa was an important rap-music pioneer who, much like Grandmaster Flash, [later] became a forgotten elder statesman as rap evolved."
Our Baltic DJs note, in their idiosyncratic English: "Bump of today and tomorrow, we’ll try to keep you covered." That final noun remains vague, in that it implies either the desire of RoB to keep members informed of events - or well defended during a gunfight. Whether the threats facing RoB are musical or martial, these artists appear to have no time for obsolescence. Enthusiasm and hope hold sway over anything resembling caution or historical perspective. Renegades of Bump, unaware of time's ability - sooner or later - to render all rebels obsolete, have recently declared: "A mere two decades ago, we needed renegades of funk; now, though, it’s time for a new challenge."
We write these final sentences mere seconds after Inter Milan have lifted high the Champions League trophy. It would appear that the members of RoB hope to maintain a similar dizzy optimism, its eyes fixed on future goals, rather than any cautious lessons of history. Whatever the dank, ceramic surroundings of their music, RoB somehow combine elements of the Bronx and the Bernabeu: they embody a NY-born swagger in the present, with the future promise of international spectacle ever present in their minds. Such plans will require "renegade" levels of risk.
Caution, Wembley Stadium, and clean caulking be damned; grander trophies await.