It must have been frustrating following the career of Hype Williams. With memory of life prior to the internet feeling increasingly foggy, any fact which isn’t a quick Wiki search away begins to be treated with the utmost contempt. How dare you not divulge accurate information? What do you mean you’ve joined the nation of Islam? How the fuck did you both meet watching Oasis at Knebworth?
Details of the project’s inception are shrouded in mystery; supposedly an art relay project, each incarnation taking hold of the helm for five years. This particular manifestation was domineered by the elusive artists Dean Blunt and Inga Copeland, although neither of those names turned out to be genuine. To this day the backgrounds of both artists remain relatively unknown, with just fragments of dubious claims emerging – such as Dean Blunt actually being an ex-boxer.
The music itself became notorious for its post-modern bricolage; steeped in irony, with the line between fact and fiction, sample and composition, utterly blurred. Loosely associated with the post-hypnagogic underground, Hype Williams filtered the history of electronic music, movie dialogue, and long forgotten pop through a stubbornly lo-fi, crackled facade, adding dub dynamics and pitch shifted vocal trickery. The sound – like their persona – consistently evaded clarity, revelling in the distortion of perception. As Chal Raven noted whilst writing for Dummy back in 2012, “No amount of quasi-academic scrutiny can reveal the “answers” to Hype Williams. The music is its own armour.”
It’s a curious contradiction; the elusive nature of Hype Williams seemed to run against a vital internet mantra – ‘share everything’ – yet conversely, so much of the groups identity seemed utterly dependent upon digital culture. From crediting the artwork of their album Black Is Beautiful to Danny Dyer, to releasing an output of such gargantuan size that it would put Mark E Smith to shame. This hyper exposure to culture – as well as a hyper production of their own – makes them a quintessential embodiment of the digital avant-garde. With an over-saturation of music within our daily lives, what unavoidably emerges is a state of demystification. In the case of Hype Williams, the duo managed to re-achieve a sense of mystique through relentless dishonesty.
Prior to the release of their two most widely available albums – under the Hype Williams moniker – the duo had already forged one of the most potent articulations of their sound. 2010’s Untitled comes across as if it were formed from an impromptu jam session, the track Untitled 4 building steadily around a central trudging drum procession, with a seasick drone growing increasingly erratic. Meanwhile the albums opener, Untitled 1, miraculously achieves a kind of vitally modern, ambient pyschedelia; an ambience that stems from the manic bombardment of endless information.
They followed Untitled with two more full lengths as Hype Williams, though neither were truly able to achieve a similarly bizarre concoction. Both 2010s What Happens When People Stop Being Polite, and Star Gettin’ Real and 2011s One Nation felt largely lost within a foggy miasma, unable to take a truly worthwhile form. In 2012 However, the duo released the album Black is Beautiful, under the names Dean Blunt and Inga Copeland. Though Black is Beautiful shares much of the woozy demo-esque sound that defined both One Nation and What Happens When…, where the album differs is its altogether bolder feel. The project in no way harnesses or tames the ardent experimentalism, but manages to make it all the more impressionable. The misshapen, battered footwork of 12; the garbled flow of 9, which sits atop a kaleidoscopic Casio jam, sounding simultaneously cheap and cosmic; or the LCD laced digi-dub of 10, with Copeland seemingly attempting a ritualistic incantation, whilst wildly mutating synths screech and wheeze in the background.
Black is Beautiful marked the dissolution of Hype Williams, and the emergence of Dean Blunt as solo auteur. On his mixtape The Narcissist – later re-released as The Narcissist II, with alterations on the tracks – Blunt’s baritone first truly emerges, largely becoming the musics foreground. The Narcissist II and his 2013 debut album, The Redeemer, offer dual perspectives on the same destructive relationship; one in the midst of the carnage (Narcissist) whilst the other delivers some form of reflection (Redeemer).
Both The Narcissist II and The Redeemer have been compared to a play or soap opera, with The Narcissist II being flat out cinematic – journo cliche, I know. It provides a voyeuristic scurrying through various dimly lit city flats, conjuring images of couples bellowing at each other, whilst lower floor neighbours screech in dismay at chaos unfolding above. The music of The Narcissist II is a sludging, beaten ‘n’ bruised R&B. A kind of knackered soul persists, the genre worn thin and drained of euphoria, a narcotic induced hysteria taking its place. Documenting the bitter demise of a relationship, The Narcissist II is relentlessly pessimistic. A dour, rain drenched account of modern romance, identifying the point at which extreme passion teeters over towards acts of jealous violence. Despite the turmoil and anguish seeping out of each faulty synth stab and shattered vocal, in the title track we find a song destined to achieve classic status. The devastating interplay between Copeland and Blunt; its melodicism submerged in an ocean of tape hiss; a symphony of sirens ebbing in and out of this deeply unflattering private affair.
The Redeemer may very way be Blunt’s greatest achievement to date – an album spoken of in hushed tones among certain circles. Throughout, Blunt deceptively adopts the role of dishevelled crooner. A semi-competent mimicry of the heartbroken troubadour, his voice overreaching and cracking at regular intervals, it being impossible to discern between yet another sly divergent tactic and feelings of genuine heartache. The Redeemer may toy with the confessional singer songwriter archetype, but its fragmented – wholly disjointed – narrative stubbornly evades any cliches associated with “the breakup album”, able to inject absurdist humour within deep spats of lethargic depression.
Despite The Redeemer’s title – obviously suggesting a shift in morals or desire for personal growth – surface level perception has never really been at the height of Dean’s goals. There are unavoidable questions that demand positing. Is this relationship genuine? If so, what about his account? Blunt is as much playing with the form (breakup/emotionally redemptive album) as he is attempting to find emotional catharsis through his art. The Redeemer – though equally open to melodrama – is a more solemn affair than The Narcissist II, the instrumentation stripped bare, Blunt’s voice withering to a hazy drool.
Sonically the instrumentation deceptively mimics the more confessional tone, with fake midi strings sitting across various samples, Joanna Robertson adding finger picked guitar work – all building up these seemingly more honest songwriting tropes. What is perhaps most endearing about the project is its scope and ambition relative to its actual technical ability and resources. The desire to say something grand or epic, despite not having the tools at hand – which an acclaimed/famous composer would have access to. This also comes across on the accompanying mixtape/album Stone Island, a release supposedly made entirely in a Russian hotel room. The most breathtaking example would be on track 6, which samples an iconic portion of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, adding almost absurd levels of drama to Blunt’s forlorn narrative.
Despite the acclaim Blunt had achieved by this point, he was dismayed to discover the reach of his art. “I made this stuff so black people would be impressed”, he confided to The Wire, “I didn’t know white people were gonna get in on it. But it’s mostly a bunch of sexless guys that buy my records.” The subject of race has always been a crucial aspect to Dean’s art, but on both 2014’s Black Metal and his work as Babyfather, it became its most prominent topic.
Black Metal was themed around the black appropriation of dead white tropes, with Blunt believing this to be a regressive act, as those who are truly radical should venture into something new and undefined. It may then seem odd to discover that the albums first half is comprised of nothing but white tropes – musically anyway. Chiming, sun-kissed indie; rustic folk explorations; Blunt continuing to develop the string laden balladeer persona; its only when we arrive at the mid section when we start to delve further into genres like dub or hip-hop – although even then they’re given titles like Punk or Country. In regards to his decision behind all this, well… as always with Dean, its difficult to decipher within interviews whether he’s providing helpful context or further blurring the picture. What the album does do is bring in to question a number of key issues young black artists face, issues to do with wider appropriation and pressures to assimilate rather than investigate your own culture. But unlike a thinkpiece or social realist art piece, the album isn’t simply providing a straightforward critique of real world issues, rather exploring these themes in an engulfing surreal environment.
The last two years have found Blunt drifting towards a far more overtly hip hop sound, coming into full fruition on 2016’s “BBF” Hosted By DJ Escrow. More pirate radio transmission than album; mixtape-like in it’s fluctuation in sound; grime beats sit side by side with brutalist noisescapes, whose layers of corrosive static leave a molten mess in their wake. The utterances of DJ Escrow give shards of narrative, a hopeful MC worn down the pressures of inner city life; meanwhile Blunt’s detached flow reveals a thinly veiled rage. The near instrumental Deep – with production aid from Arca – threatens an inevitable combustion; lysergic synths wail, replicating a woozy bent out of shape string section; an oppressive atmosphere, Escrow intersecting with desperate lines, doom laden utterances, a claustrophobic insistence that he’s “in too deep.” His most politically engaged, radical release, “BBF” was considered a novelty endeavour by some; understandable given his reputation as a prankster, but there’s a crucial lesson to be learnt with Blunt… he might sometimes be taking things seriously.
Words by Eden Tizard