Being a die-hard fan of some types of music can sometimes mean you’re one step away from being initiated into a cult. Music often endorses a lifestyle choice, more so than any other form of art can encourage. There are clear networks surrounding other artistic mediums but somehow the pull of music seems stronger. Maybe it’s in the ritualistic aspect of performance, but I think the main appeal is due to its abstract nature. You can project your own ideas and thoughts onto some forms of music without being told exactly what to think, while still feeling as if you’re in tune with a particular collective.

This notion refers more to the idea of a group of people, a tribe if you like, rather than a particular geographical location. These collectives are not so much movements that reflect hype, but musical family trees. The ones that have the most appeal are the ones which promise longevity. Instead of exhibiting a sense of urgency, they hold a long-term perspective that takes in much more than their current surroundings. The collective mindset can manifest itself in so many ways through marketing, creative process, musical theory or through political or philosophical beliefs.

The most interesting collectives reach far beyond genre. The civil rights movement’s Last Poets and the Brazilian Tropicalia movement
stem from less abstract roots. These are more grounded in reality than their afrofuturist counterparts who do exactly what they say on the tin. Their aesthetic transcends space, time and politics and stretches from Sun Ra in the late 30s to George Clinton’s P-funk in the 70s, to Afrika Bambaataa in the 80s, to neo-soul Soulquarians in the 90s, to OutKast and Janelle Monae today. The roots haven’t just remained underground; they’ve permeated the mainstream.

Take Kanye West’s approach to his latest album as an example of taming the ego. The creative process of My Beautiful Dark
Twisted Fantasy
has been described as an example of ‘communal development’. Such lovely use of diplomatic phrasing is not generally attributed to Kanye, but what makes it more than a non-charitable Hip-Hop Live Aid? Maybe it was just lots of famous people coming together to make music. Whatever it was, West managed to put his mammoth sense of self worth to the side for at least a little while. He maintains it was a wholly collaborative project. No one was brainwashed into the sect of Kanyeism, which itself sounds like a real cult. The music will outlast West when he finally checks out of this mortal coil, as reiterated by Underground Resistance’s Mad Mike Banks; “Your work, your art or whatever passes through you […] lasts way longer than the human
does.”

Although you can forgive some for assuming jazz legend Sun Ra is some sort of messianic figure – to many he is – the Sun Ra Arkestra is living proof of the immortality of his ideas. Having lived together and owned a small shop in Philadelphia called Pharaoh’s Den, they are still touring years after the death of their leader, constantly bringing in fresh talent. Their collective consists of members in their late 70s to musicians in their early 20s. What you see and what you hear can be interpreted as organised chaos, which beautifully encapsulates and celebrates the idea of collaboration and freedom as not being mutually exclusive.

It’s crazy that instrumental music, which is what most of the collectives mentioned here deal with primarily, has the ability to communicate subliminal messages. It clearly has the power to motivate people in some way shape or form, so much so that they dedicate their entire way of life to its cause. Maybe they’re not quite sure what it all means; they just know they want to be part of it.

This is a thread that runs through Underground Resistance, the Detroit techno team that run a tight spaceship of artists. Despite the fact that they have a recommended reading list on their website, completely unrelated to their actual output, they aren’t trying to coerce you into anything politically, but instead are trying to get you to understand the essence of the collective itself. If anything their campaign is an invisible one. Head honcho Mad Mike Banks remains an elusive character who refuses to be photographed in public. They’re shrouded in mystery, using militant language in interviews and on their website. They don’t state explicitly what they’re about because it’s open to interpretation, but you get a sense of it through their music and their conduct.

But this theme doesn’t just concern itself with the actual music, but the ugly, commercial side as well. Surely if any label is to work it needs to have some sort of collective consciousness. To state the bleeding obvious: strength in numbers. When collectives have full creative and commercial control they can really go further than any major that lacks a shared mentality. This has been proven by a number of labels. Brainfeeder, Underground Resistance, Southern Lord, Ninja Tune, Rise Above, Stones Throw and Ipecac are by no coincidence all front runners in their fields and are run by musicians in close contact with the artists they release. Their success comes from their involvement and conviction, which can only be attributed to a shared belief in what they
do.

There are similarities between artists within the Brainfeeder and Underground Resistance families, but it would be musical blasphemy
to try and describe them in the same way. They’ve got their own spectrum within their own collective; they just happen to come under a single identity. It’s branding and musical franchising in the most sincere way possible. This idea of a commune might get a bit sickly after a while, with all the reciprocal back scratching and the incestuous tours, but you end up with brilliant showcases and joint tours which are good value for money and feel genuinely significant.

At the risk of straining to try and find some local relevance in this topic, I think Sheffield exhibits this collective approach. There are pockets of musical collectives dotted all over the city, from hardcore to dubstep, and many musicians collaborate across the genres to draw parallels between all forms. There’s a clear focus on promoting each other rather than competing, a mindset that can only be healthy no matter what medium. Undoubtedly, Sheffield has this hive mind mentality, but there is no Sun Ra figure guiding everyone towards intergalactic enlightenment. It would be hilarious and unnecessary if someone did put themselves forward to take on this esteemed role, but still, rather a peaceful, eccentric ‘prophet’ than Jim Jones. Any takers?

Imogen DeCordova.