How Hate5six Captures the Hardcore Universe

Hardcore is like many other subcultures in that its acolytes love to fight about the scene’s unspoken laws. (That’s something you wouldn’t expect of people involved in hardcore: they actually love rules.) As hate5six has become one of the community’s most popular social platforms, it’s also become a venue for debates about what’s hardcore and what’s not—about how an insular scene can be both accessible and authentic. Fans argue bitterly in Singh’s comment sections about “crowd killing,” an extreme form of moshing, and whether vaccine mandates are too conformist; there are also, inevitably, those who resent Singh for making hardcore more open to “tourists.” I recently watched Singh’s footage from a Tampa hardcore festival at a Jewish community center, in January, which included a clip of a vocalist giving a defiant speech against the fans who would find the mid-Omicron mosh pit irresponsible: “All those motherfuckers that aren’t here, you’re a fucking bitch.”

When I asked Singh about that moment in Tampa, he seemed hesitant to jump into the debate. With the caveat that he wouldn’t film “a white-power band or something like that,” he likened his role to that of an observer. But Singh’s point of view is in fact integral to hate5six. In the summer of 2020, when live music was wiped out by the coronavirus, Singh took to recording Black Lives Matter uprisings in the streets; his footage of Philadelphia police trapping and tear-gassing protesters was used in an investigation by the New York Times. He has used his platform for the campaign to prove the innocence of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a Black journalist from Philadelphia who was found guilty, in 1982, of killing a police officer—a charge which Abu-Jamal and his community have always contested. Some hate5six viewers have told Singh to ditch the politics but keep the music. This struck him as ridiculous: politicized rage was always the point.

Likewise, what animates hate5six videos is their woozy subjectivity. The world of hate5six is immediately recognizable by Singh’s perspective and humor, by the idiosyncratic choices he makes as he records. In many ways, his is an apt approach for covering the mayhem of a hardcore show: at a given moment, the most interesting thing in the room might be a guitar squealing onstage, or it might be a guy tearing another guy’s shirt off in the crowd, or people making out in the back. Singh’s lens zips back and forth—zooming in on a soloist for emphasis or catching mosh-pit high jinks—revealing an invisible balletic order that binds them all.

But he remains insistent that nothing, not even his videos, can replace the experience of being there. “Sometimes, when I see these arguments, my internal thought is, Just get off the fucking Internet and go to a show,” Singh said. “Just go to a show!”

I met Singh a few months ago at First Unitarian Church, one of the home bases of the Philadelphia hardcore scene, for a lineup of four regional bands. The surroundings immediately seemed familiar, and I realized that the church was the setting of a video I had seen on Instagram—one I remembered because it showed the typically reserved Singh grabbing the shirt of a kid trying to climb scaffolding. (“Have fun, don’t kill Philly’s pride and joy,” he captioned the video.) “For people from Philly, the church represents the beauty of underground music—you don’t expect there to be a show in a church basement,” Singh told me. He said that he’s heard from devoted hate5six viewers in Europe who can recognize the venue in his videos just by seeing the carpet.

Before the music started, Singh showed me the grip he’d 3-D-printed and programmed for switching between cameras during live streams, designed to help him maintain the heroic one-man output of hate5six. It became clear that the D.I.Y. impulses of engineering and punk find harmony in Singh’s work. For instance, he built an algorithmic voting system into his Web site so fans can choose the next video to be released. (I called him after the show to ask about the first set he’d ever saw at First Unitarian, and I heard the sound of typing as he searched his database—it was Floorpunch’s, in 2007.) Singh also has a funny, if incongruous, habit of slipping into startup-speak. “A big part of what I do with hate5six is streamlining, finding bottlenecks and reducing them,” he told me.

The first band up was a quartet of sinewy white guys from Philadelphia who call themselves Cycle of Abuse. They began sound-checking, and Singh climbed onstage and assumed his position behind them. The vocalist, a high-cheekboned Chalamet type, began chanting in a hoarse bark. Suddenly, there was a wave of backward movement as the crowd cleared the space at the front: the pit was open. A person in a Minion costume and a surgical mask exploded among the moshers, arms and legs flailing; just a few feet away, a guy held up his toddler, who was wearing earmuffs and nodding along. To those who don’t usually partake in hardcore, the floor in rooms like this one—fists and sweat flying—might be intimidating, but Singh’s obelisk-like presence amid the action is a reminder that what seems like chaos is actually ordered by a lattice of principles. What’s thrilling about these spaces is not how dangerous they are but the unlikely feeling of safety you find in the middle of it all.

A sense of kinship was in the air at the church, as were the usual stale resentments and factionalisms. Attendees wore slogans like “negative hardcore” as they thrashed to Cycle of Abuse, which self-styles with the anachronistic moniker “beatdown hardcore.” The lead singer of another band, Departed, wore a shirt that read “I am not here to make friends.” A sense of generational angst permeated the space. “Wake it the fuck up,” some veterans scolded, though to me the crowd seemed plenty awake.

When the band Punishment got onstage, Joe McKay, the lead singer, launched into a startling speech about rifts in Philadelphia hardcore when the band was first coming up. Over a towering guitar riff, he thundered his allegiance to the headlining act, The Bad Luck 13 Riot Extravaganza. “It was those guys that were fighting the Nazis,” he roared, referring to a period, in the nineteen-nineties, when neo-Nazi punks from the suburbs started to infiltrate concerts in Philly. These are hardcore’s best moments—when the ethos that often leads to dogmatic line-drawing instead erupts into a passion for the genre’s radical history. The bass came in, the crowd lurched, and the pit reopened. As Punishment’s set got underway, I looked over at Singh and saw, for the first time, his stoicism breaking. He grinned behind the camera, his black hair bobbing along to the beat. ♦

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