Sometimes, it’s nice to be wrong. And in many ways, Kodwo Eshun’s More Brilliant than the Sun – Adventures in Sonic Fiction was as wrong as possible. A loving testament to the possibilities of futuristic Black Electronic music, (my words not his) the vast majority of the sonic possibilities heralded in this book hit a brick wall shortly after it was published: both Drum & Bass and Underground Hip-Hop became too insular and joyless and their slack was quickly picked up by UK Garage and more commercially minded rap respectively.
Even the most dedicated backpacker has to admit that the immediate future Eshun imagined didn’t happen. In many ways, the aughts were a decade where commercial and earthly concerns eclipsed conceptual futurism: think ATL dance trends, the increasing self-parody of Gangsta pop and Grime’s lyrical nihilism overshadowing its production. What goes around comes around, and the past five years have proven nothing if not that things come in cycles: from Lil Wayne and Gucci Mane’s spaced out personas to Los Angeles and London’s subterranean Bass obsessions to Odd Future’s punk-rock shattering of rap tradition, signs of creative life have been multiplying in both underground and in more subversive commercial artists. Clear Channel regulation may have choked off the strain of music Eshun advocated in 1998 but the decline of the record industry and rise of the internet have seen similar ideas resurface, making this an optimal time to take a look back at some of the ideas More Brilliant than the Sun espouses.
Don’t expect dry or academic writing: dropping knowledge like George Clinton teaching Advanced Placement Funk 103, Eshun’s prose is as dense as it is intriguing, littered with his own inventive terminology, half-way between Hip-Hop slanguistics and theoretician code. Half the knowledge is in the language, as Eshun delights in using the same cryptic poetics as the musical artists he’s inspired by — like a Kool Keith or Ghostface rhyme, his paragraphs are tough to parse but the rewards are significant. Thematically, the book assembles an alternative canon that feels increasingly relevant: ignoring genre (Hip-Hop, Techno, Jungle, Electro, House, Dub.) in favor of a holistic vision of Afro-Futurist music tied together by a sense of history and a desire for progression rather than sonic signifiers such as rhyme, rhythm or tempo. In other words, this book is all about that 97’ next shit, Black music at it’s most technically and conceptually advanced.
Unfortunately, rap in 1998 was hitting its commercial zenith and the underground was becoming increasingly alienating: the idea that the avant-guard was the be-all and end-all of black music was a tough position to hold, even from the safety of London, itself moving from Jungle’s sullenness to Garage’s good times. Ultimately, the book makes a solid argument for its worldview however: RZA, Kool Keith, Tricky, Muggs, Goldie, Drexyca, Lee Perry, Sun Ra and The Bomb Squad may not sound anything alike, but connecting the dots between these artists makes at least as much sense as tying them down to their more earthbound contemporaries. Where Eshun goes wrong is in catching them at the tail end of their productivity: none of the active musicians listed above would have much impact post-98 and their direct followers would be found lacking in both commercial and critical impact. If the aughts are to be defined by El-P, Wiley, Mala, Flying Lotus, Madlib and MF Doom, it’ll at least partially be in retrospect: the artists I remember getting the lion’s share of attention are R Kelly, Jay-Z, G-Unit, The Diplomats and Birdman.
Which means Eshun’s bashing of “trad Hip-Hop” almost completely misses the mark, both as prediction and criticism. After all, it’s through the Diplomats’ low-concept wordplay rather than Aesop’s hieroglyphics that the new generation of wordsmiths found inspiration to go to space. More Brilliant than the Sun thus works a lot better when it’s imagining new possibilities rather than wagging the finger at what Eshun considers boring – 12 years since it was published, much of Jungle’s promise has come to fruition via Dubstep and underground Hip-Hop is once again ascendant, but it’s taken a while for us to get here and it’s never a good idea to dismiss a large section of music. After all, I doubt anyone would have imagined that a 1998 Hot Boy would evolve into a Martian. Ignore the stern lectures from the Professor however and there’s still a treasure trove of information here.
The book remains a fun and useful read for musicians and critics alike: unless you count yourself among the most omnivorous of listeners, there’s almost certainly an artist covered that you won’t have known about and by providing an extremely open context, Eshun allows for readers to make sense of it all in their own way. Like Dr. Octagon? Try 4-Hero. Love Coltrane? Perhaps Rza will make sense to you after this book. More Brilliant than the Sun – Adventures in Sonic Fiction is dedicated to “The Newest Mutants” and while the development time may have taken a little longer than we’d all have wished (at least on this side of the Black Atlantic), the book will serve as a useful guide for those wishing to connect the dots between their Roots and Phutures. Although I’m not still sure if that chapter on Dr. Octagon makes any sense.