November 29, 2010


Drinking and Driving

Far East Movement's "Like a G6" is as sleek as a new car, and as familiar as an obsessively maintained old one. Ten years ago, it would have been a retro move; now it sounds like the future again. (That may be why it's named after a plane, the Gulfstream G650, that isn't actually on the market yet.) It's built for speed, buffed to shine, hot-rodded from bits of hip-hop and dance records old and new.

The flat, expressionless robo=chick voice that runs through most of the song belongs to a young performer who goes by the name of Dev, from whose slightly earlier single "Booty Bounce" "G6" nabbed a lot of its hooks (the two songs share production team The Cataracs). The bit about "sippin' sizzurp in my ride like Three 6" is a nod to Three 6 Mafia and their 2000 single "Sippin on Some Syrup," of course; the little synthesizer pips — boosted from Marvin Gaye's "Is That Enough" — that sweeten up "Sippin" like Jolly Ranchers in a cough syrup cocktail seem to have calcified into the acidic streaks of treble that form the "G6" groove. Likewise, Dev's quips about "feeling fly," combined with the stuttered cut-up of her voice, riff on another Three 6 Mafia song, "Stay Fly," whose video "Like a G6"'s resembles.

The line about how "the 808 bump make you put your hands up" later in the song drops another signifying number: that's the Roland TR-808 drum machine that underscored mid-'80s hip-hop, and lives on as the low-end bump in Miami bass music that propels shock waves out of tricked-out cars. Still, "G6" has a lot more to do with the sound of another Roland machine, the TB-303, whose knobs could be tweaked and cranked to produce the wobbling, flanged-up synth tones of late-'80s acid house. (Strip the vocals off "Like a G6," and it'd sound right at home next to Phuture's genre-defining 1987 single "Acid Tracks"; the cut-and-paste technique the Cataracs use on Dev's voice was already so deeply embedded in club music in that era that it turned up in the chorus of Black Box's 1990 pop-house hit "I Don't Know Anybody Else.")

A more distant — but still recognizable — ancestor of "G6" predates even the invention of the 808. The Normal's only single, 1978's "Warm Leatherette," was inspired by J.G. Ballard's novel Crash. (The Normal was actually one person: Daniel Miller, perhaps better known as the guy who founded the still-active independent label Mute Records.) Like "Like a G6," "Warm Leatherette" is a deeply sensuous song, built on an endlessly repeated loop of stabbing electronic noises. Like "Like a G6," it imagines high-end transportation, and crackles with the promise of imminent sex and shattered glass; if there'd been a video for it, which naturally there wasn't (it was recorded for basically no money in Miller's house), it would certainly have included a ride as slick as the sporty little red number Dev slips into in the "G6" video.

"Warm Leatherette" is also about the erotics of car crashes rather than the erotics of drinking, and it's sort of hard to imagine Kev Nish of Far East Movement rapping "the handbrake penetrates your thigh." But the sound of the two songs is alarmingly similar — a single phrase repeated until it melts on your burning flesh, a lead vocal about an overwhelming experience deliberately blanched of any expression other than vaguely sexy vague menace, a handful of electronic instruments sparring as much with the space between their notes as with their percussive blurts.

"Warm Leatherette" was promptly covered by fashion diva/disco idol Grace Jones, who intoned her version even more menacingly, but surprisingly accompanied it with a live band, which in its way is as strange as hearing somebody singing "Like a G6" with a banjo would be. (Oh, dear: somebody's already done that.) Since then, "Warm Leatherette" has gone on to become something of a standard, covered by Duran Duran, Trent Reznor, and Chicks on Speed, among others. At certain parties, people even hoist drinks to it. Crash test dummies put their hands up too.