I was delighted to get an email last week from a former student, Sophie Weiner, who was working on a piece for the Village Voice about the Brooklyn Folk Festival. She contacted me because she was seeking a quotation about why rap could be considered a form or modern folk music, and she thought, rightly, that I might have a considered opinion on the matter.
I was doubly delighted by this question. You see, this question is practically a word-for-word restatement of discussion question in the History of Rock Class I’ve been teaching at Berklee. Over several semesters, I’ve come to understand some interesting things about the contours of the responses the question elicits. So I was happy to field it.
Here’s what I told Sophie —
Our class discussion is stimulated by a quotation from Pete Seeger who once argued that “folk magazines make a mistake not to print the best new rap songs.” Notably, although Seeger is really talking about folk music as process, when discussing this question many of my students get hung up on the question of style: “folk” is such a received category for them, if someone’s not singing along to an acoustic instrument, it couldn’t possibly be folk music. This is an association cemented in the 1960s by the folk revival — a movement in which, ironically, Seeger played a major role. Others get caught up by the commercial aspects of rap, though Bob Dylan was no less commercial, of course, and a lot of the songs Seeger popularized as folk anthems were initially commercial products, not simply unattributed ditties roaming the wilderness. Finally, some hesitate to think of rap as modern folk music because so many rap songs don’t seem to share the “progressive” messages that we’ve come to associate with folk, even though many rap songs do offer serious social critiques (if not always in such obviously recognizable form as “Blowing in the Wind”). If, however, we’re talking about a question of process — of collective recitation, reshaping, and recirculation of songs and lyrics — then yes, of course, we could consider rap a modern form of folk music. (That said, we’d have to say the same for other genres of popular music). The best contemporary example in this sense, especially if we’re going with a certain romanticized ideal, would be Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” which, like many a Seeger anthem, has become not just a general expressive resource for everyday folk but an actual protest chant.
Of course, this was much more than Sophie was asking for, but I couldn’t say less. I did, however, give her free reign in deciding what to use. (What are blogs for if not “director’s cuts”?) Not surprisingly, in the actual article, given that I am making — ahem — an academic point, Sophie focuses on the resonant connections between rap and folk:
Today, young activists are choosing as their anthems not traditional spirituals but songs by artists such as Kendrick Lamar. Wayne Marshall, an ethnomusicologist and assistant professor of music history at Berklee College of Music, says there are clear parallels between folk and rap. “If we’re talking about [the] process — collective recitation, reshaping, recirculation of songs and lyrics — then yes, of course rap is a modern form of folk music,” he says. Marshall also sees a continuity between the progressive themes of traditional folk music and hip-hop today. “Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Alright,’ like many a Pete Seeger anthem, has become not just a general expressive resource for everyday folk but an actual protest chant,” he says, referencing the multiple instances in which activists have sung the chorus at marches and actions.
Do you like sound? Do you like art? How about music and media, and their aesthetics and histories? Would you enjoy telling some stories about music and media through sound art? If you’re tired of dancing about architecture and ready to do some musicking about music — and you’ve got the time and means — I hope you’ll consider joining our collective technomusicological endeavor this spring.
I’m offering Technomusicology through the Harvard Extension School once again this semester. We will meet on Thursday evenings in a computer lab in Harvard Square, and our sessions are also streamed live (along with livechat) — and recorded — for anyone taking the class online or participating more asynchronously. Our first meeting is on Thursday, January 28, two weeks from today.
I will make a few more tweaks to the syllabus before class begins, but the general shape will be the same: over the course of the term, students will produce a total of 7 short pieces (which I call “études” or studies) in particular media forms. We approach these “media forms” as historical objects: first we discuss how their aesthetics pertain to their techno-cultural circumstances; then we think about how to approach such forms as creative resources. This semester we will produce soundscapes, sample-based beats, mashups, YouTube montages, DJ-style mixes, and podcast-style audio. (I am still making up my mind about the final project.)
As always, I welcome novices as well as experienced media producers, as I believe technomusicology offers substantive conceptual and creative challenges to all comers. We embrace the affordances of music software such as Ableton Live — both powerful/flexible and surprisingly intuitive/usable — in order to produce audiovisual digital art, whether DIY and rough-and-ready or highly polished and refined.
Speaking of refinement, an important dimension of the class is the collective workshopping of our projects. Each étude is submitted as a rough and then a final draft. We spend roughly half our time auditioning and discussing each other’s work, and we aim to cultivate an atmosphere of generosity and constructive criticism in order to get the best out of everyone.
I do think some really wonderful work has come out of this class, and I hope you’ll consider becoming a contributor. You can check out previous semesters’ highlights here and here and here and here and here.
I’ll leave you with this sweet, wry bit of technomusicology. Loop and learn!
My recent post involving a Boston sound session focused on the use of the zunguzung meme, so I didn’t discuss some of the other interesting and awesome things about the recording — and how I found it.
I’ve been turning my attention back to the story of reggae in Boston — a story that I first tried to put together a decade ago. Indeed, I resumed my search by returning to a piece I published back in 2005 in a local zine, “Reggae-Tinged Resonances of a Wicked Wicked City.” (Geez, can I really be insufferably wordy sometimes; I like to think I’ve improved on that count.)
As I was re-reading, I decided to google some of the old soundsystems to see if — praise be to Jah — some vintage sound tapes had finally made it online alongside counterparts from Kingston, New York, London, et al. In 2005 it was damn near impossible to hear any of this stuff; it seemed far more likely in 2016, as the recorded past continues to make its way, however willy-nilly, to the internet.
I CNTRL-C’d on “Evertone Hi-Power, with selectors Wheely and Robot” and was feeling lucky. And what do you know? The top return was for a 1985 Evertone session including a visiting crew representing King Jammy’s from JA! As I started reading the description, I got a strange sense of deja vu before recognizing it as the same paragraph I had just copy-n-pasted from — a paragraph I wrote a decade ago…
In the early 1980s, Boston’s reggae scene was blessed by a number of soundsystems and selectors working mostly in clubs in Dorchester, where Boston’s West Indian population has been based for decades. Echo International (which later changed its name to Capricorn Hi-Fi), with its eponymous selector, Echo, was one of the more well-known sounds in the area. Evertone Hi-Power, with selectors Wheely and Robot, ranked among the best in town and is remembered as one of the biggest soundsystems in Boston during the 1980s. They even clashed with legendary Jamaican sound, King Jammy’s, in Dorchester in 1986. Apparently, Unity Sound, with selectors Reggie Dawg and Warren, was the “gal favorite,” while Supersonic was known as the “bad boy” sound, with connections to the infamous Dog Posse. Cambridge’s Western Front earned a reputation in the 1980s as a spot for “bad men” as well as for serious reggae music, especially from local live-bands such as the I-Tones and Cool Runnings. Aside from the Front, though, most of the top spots to hear reggae in Boston were based around Blue Hill Ave in Dorchester: Black Philanopies, Manny’s Bar, Windsor Cricket Club, 4 Aces, Carver Lodge, Kelekos, and, of course, 3 C’s—the Caribbean Cultural Center, which opened on 1000 Blue Hill Ave in 1981 and has been hosting big reggae events ever since. Veterans of the Boston reggae scene also note the popularity of house parties during the 80s, many of which, not unlike dances in Jamaica, would often last until 7 or 8 in the morning.
It was unattributed, but how could I bother to care about that? The story is not mine, for one; I am but a humble chronicler and interpreter. More important, though, was that my text had led me to something that I REALLY WANTED TO HEAR. This was the best possible scenario. It was as if 2005 Wayne had left a trail of digital bread crumbs for 2016 Wayne. Give thanks!
Cherry on top: the session itself is gold. Great vibes, local color, and a fine dancehall session in solid 1986 stylee. It’s great to hear the deejays reworking all the musical figures that enjoyed currency in that moment, from melodic contours to slang to riddims to ways of “selecting” or playing them (e.g., turning a skanking 4/4 track into a 3+3+2 break using the volume knob/fader). If you’re into dancehall culture, the session offers a wonderful glimpse at the state-of-the-art in the mid-1980s. Reverberating from Kingston to Boston, this is the sound of an institution at work, a resonant diasporic resource, an alchemical production of live sociality from recorded sound–
If I’m hearing correctly, Jammy’s crew come in after a half-hour or so (launching with a zunguzung riff at 35:20) and then rock for a solid 1.5 hours. Before that, the Bostonians hold their own. Skilled deejays pass the mic around and offer a mix of impromptu declamations and more rehearsed routines over the big riddims of the day — and occasionally, in the name of good vibes, playing whole records/voicings in their own right (including some Jammy’s productions — a notable and explicit gesture of respect).
When one of the deejays says “Boston is a island of itself, seen?” at 8:48, it’s as if he’s *trying* to title a compilation or a book. (So much better than the title I came up with a decade ago!) Local references erupt with some frequency, especially in original routines — including a nice set of tunes over the Golden Hen riddim. It’s quite a ride even without the offkey cover of “Karma Chameleon” that I very much wish were a satire.
From my perspective, recordings like these (and I found others) stand testament to reggae’s vitality in Boston in the 1980s, at once grounded in local sociality and in diasporic networks. In that sense, they are a crucial complement to other artifacts that represent Boston’s reggae heritage, most notably the recordings made by local bands and locallabels.
So while I’m here, allow me to share a couple selections from two reggae bands working in Boston at this time. Many of these bands included Jamaican musicians living in Boston, and nearly all seem to bring a reverent, faithful, yet distinctive approach to the music.
First off, check out the dubby stylings of Zion Initiation, as released by a small local label in 1979:
And don’t miss this ambitious video (on location in Paris?!) from the I-Tones. Fronted by the Luke “White Ram” Ehrlich and featuring Chris Wilson on guitar (a Jamaican ex-pat who would later run Heartbeat Records), the I-Tones were one of the biggest reggae bands in town in the 1980s. A song like “Walk On By” shows how their sound was grounded in reggae’s abiding love for sweet pop and R&B. (According to the YouTube page, Ram was not thrilled about the sax solo!) Gotta love that falsetto.
Will share more as the project develops, but do drop a line if you’d like to add anything. Just scattering some digital breadcrumbs here, seen?
Among other recent publications, I’m especially happy to share a paper I co-wrote last year with my ol’ friend and colleague, Pacey Foster. As some of you surely know, Pace has been working for several years to collect, curate, and explicate a very special cassette archive documenting the early Boston rap scene. (Check these articles in the Boston Globe, the Phoenix, and Wax Poetics for further info — not to mention Pacey’s blog.)
Pace and I have been wanting to situate the archive — and such a project/subject more generally — for an interdisciplinary academic readership for some time, and so when we saw the call for a special issue of the Creative Industries Journal below (c/o the mighty Eric Harvey), we knew we found a great place to share some tales of the tape(s) —
CFP: Technologies and Recording Industries
Creative Industries Journal, Special Issue 8.2 (Fall 2015)
The past 15 years have proven transformative for music recording industries around the world, as digital technologies from the ground up (mp3s) and the top down (streaming platforms) have helped transform the landscape of production, promotion, distribution, retail, and fandom. Yet while these transformations have recently upended assumptions about musical practice for artists, industry workers, fans, journalists, and researchers, a broader historical perspective situates them in a legacy more than a century long. Indeed, a history of recording industries told from a media and technology perspective is one of constant flux. The introduction of new media technologies has continually reorganized the practices, regimes of value, discourses, and power relationships of the recording business.
This issue of the Creative Industries Journal seeks to address the constitutive roles of technologies in shaping recording industry practices. How have the introduction and adoption of new tools of production, distribution, promotion, or consumption facilitated changes in the creative and industrial practices surrounding popular music in a variety of global contexts? Following Williamson & Cloonan (2007) and Sterne (2014), we specify “recording industries” instead of “music industries” to focus attention on the myriad creative and industrial processes related to music (or, broadly, sound) recordings, and to evade the tendency to group a variety of disparate music and sound-related industries (licensing, instrument sales, live performance) under one heading. We use the plural to assert the multiplicity and variety of recording industries that have emerged over time, which may not have anything to do with the current corporate-owned, multinational recording industry.
We respond to this call by discussing the Lecco’s Lemma radio show (and cassette archive) as an example of how DIY media technologies facilitated the emergence of a local hip-hop scene here in the 1980s. In addition to some media theory and a brief history of the cassette and its special affordances, Pace and I examine three telling anecdotes about Lecco’s Lemma — stories bearing witness to a remarkable moment of collective effort and creativity, a self-contained “recording industry” that networked a community of amateur artists and supporters.
One vignette revolves around this amazing artifact in the collection, a fascinating glimpse of Gang Starr’s Guru (aka, MC Keithy E) in his early days —
But I don’t want to offer too many spoilers here. For the low down on the incredible thing that Guru appears to have done to his recording of the broadcast above — an intervention that bears witness to the importance of the show, and of cassette technology — go ahead and read the article:
Foster, Pacey and Wayne Marshall. 2015. “Tales of the tape: cassette culture, community
radio, and the birth of rap music in Boston.” Creative Industries Journal 8(2): 164-76. [PDF]
Here’s the abstract to further whet your reading appetite —
Recent scholarship on peer-oriented production and participatory culture tends to emphasize how the digital turn, especially the Internet and the advent of the so-called ‘social web’, has enabled new forms of bottom-up, networked creative production, much of which takes place outside of the commercial media. While remarkable examples of collaboration and democratized cultural production abound in the online era, a longer view situates such practices in histories of media culture where other convergences of production and distribution technologies enabled peer-level exchanges of various sorts and scales. This essay contributes to this project by examining the emergence of a local rap scene in Boston, Massachusetts in the mid-late 1980s via the most accessible ‘mass’ media of the day: the compact cassette and community radio.
And there’s lots more Lecco’s Lemma for your listening pleasure:
Last year I published a couple reviews that land somewhere between the realm of ethno/musicology and music criticism — a netherworld I obviously like to explore. One piece engages with the multimedia work of Arca; the other with a cheeky French rap video. One appeared in an academic journal devoted to Latin American art and literature; the other in a museum in Europe alongside an installation of the video and other critical commentary (and then, in an actual book). See below for links and excerpts.
Marshall, Wayne. 2015. “Contortions to Match Your Confusion: Digital Disfigurement and the Music of Arca.” Literature and Arts of the Americas 48(1): 118-22. (PDF)
“Día de los Muertos,” a mix released in late October 2014 by Houston’s Svntv Mverte (aka Santa Muerte), a DJ duo with a name invoking “Mexico’s cult of Holy Death, a reference to the worship of an underground goddess of death and the dead,” opens with an ominous, arresting take on reggaeton. A moody, flickering bed of synths struggles to spring into action before the snap of slow, syncopated snares whips up a perreo-worthy dembow over a bassline so deep that its pitch seems negligible, indeterminate, a force more palpable than audible. As the low-end nearly collapses under its own weight, an upper register synth slices through the atmosphere, soaring and faltering, more Icarus than Superman. The haunting but hopeful lead flutters across a foreboding sonic landscape, ghostly trails of reverb in its wake. A bittersweet tune, it could be cloying but for its warbling, almost pathetic qualities. Instead, a poignant frailty undercuts the digital promise of perfection. The baleful melody traverses a shifting ground of textural breaks and freaky filters, shimmering as it shape-shifts. Remarkably through-composed for loop-centered music, Arca’s “Thievery” seems as committed to repetition and rhythm as variation and development. As such, it is an excellent opening for a set, and a fine introduction to the distinctive sound of Arca, aka Alejandro Ghersi. …
Marshall, Wayne. “Who Deserves It?” Seismographic Sounds: Visions of a New World, Theresa Beyer, Thomas Burkhalter, Hannes Liechti (eds.), 54-5. Bern: Norient Books, 2015. (HTML)
… Low-fi but slick, Charni employs repetition, rhythm, and simple but delirious digital effects to furnish Banane, Waltaa, and friends with Tumblr-esque cascades of free-floating objects of desire: cash, weed, sportswear, nostalgic devices like skypagers and flip phones. Also, French fries and kebab. And faces – many faces, often close up, showcasing a crew as motley as proletarian Paris. They are so fresh that their fashion and facial gestures, in the hip register of the day, appear as flat in affect as their vintage clothes are crisp. Less like they’re looking into a camera than a mirror, or a smartphone. …
As published in issue 377 of The Wire (July 2015), here’s my joint review of two recent books about soundsystem/DJ culture, each of them impressive efforts of deep documentation and deliberate framing even as each takes a rather different approach to the project. Together, they further round out our understanding of the soundsystem as global form and local culture.
Legions of Boom: Filipino American Mobile DJ Crews In The San Francisco Bay Area Oliver Wang Duke University Press, 232 pp
Sonidero City: Exploring Sound Systems In Mexico And Colombia
Mirjam Wirz & Buzz Maeschi (Editors) Motto, 224 pp
The sound system has been a paradigm of musical experience for over half a century, but only recently has a global picture begun to emerge. While such legendary sites as New York, Chicago, Kingston and London boast substantial literatures devoted to the genesis and development of disco, hiphop, house and reggae, the amazing stories of how record-wielding disc jockeys and discerning, dancing audiences reshaped the musical and social lives of, say, Rio de Janeiro, Rotterdam or Cairo are only just coming to light. Oliver Wang’s Legions Of Boom and Mirjam Wirz’s Sonidero City offer welcome contributions to this emerging world history, bringing rich portraits of the San Francisco Bay Area’s mobile DJ crews, Mexico’s sonidos, and Colombia’s picós into the mix.
At a glance, the two texts provide rather different portraits of mobile sound system scenes. While one is written in academic but accessible prose, collegially situated in the domain of popular music studies, the other is nearly wordless and self-published, a collection of hundreds of poignant and telling images. But both stand as impressive, textured documents that should be of interest to anyone curious about how sound systems take on local colour and meaning.
Of all the local scenes that have gathered around the live playing of dance records, few outside the pantheon have enjoyed so detailed and attentive a treatment as Legions Of Boom gives to the Bay Area’s mobile DJ crews of the late 1980s and early 1990s, a scene centred around disco-derived, blend-oriented continuous mixing and underpinned by a burgeoning Filipino community. Wang’s account strikes a careful balance between oral history and analysis, grounded in ethnography while also working to interpret and elaborate the significance of the story. He chronicles the rise and fall of the scene, charting its course from suburban garage parties to spectacular large scale showcases to the emergence of scratch DJs who would one day play a part in the scene’s dissolution. The Bay Area has, of course, long been on the map thanks to such Filipino turntablist luminaries as Q-Bert, Shortkut, and Mix Master Mike, and Wang’s book gives their sudden appearance on the world stage crucial context, explaining how “the scratch scene’s roots grew in soil first tilled by the mobile crews”.
While narrating according to the scene’s chronology and its participants’ testimony, Wang also considers more abstract questions, such as what it means to be a scene (and not, he insists, a subculture), how the lack of mass media access encouraged peer to peer interactions, and why class and gender are often elephants in the rec room. Wang devotes two central chapters to the scene’s “preconditions” by which he refers to such “internal” factors as “the allure of social status, the aura of work as a DJ, and the appeal of homosociality” (and the consequent reproduction of masculinity), as well as to such “external” “soft infrastructure” as the social networks connecting crews and audiences: “peer-run student and church groups, middle-class parents and relatives, and Filipino community groups”. He also gives an apt amount of space to the remarkable degree of collective labour involved in producing a single mobile DJ event, never mind an entire scene.
Wang develops his account of the scene over a series of chapters, each framed with an event flier that serves as a focal point for a particular moment in time and dimension of the scene. These help to give a vivid picture of the do it yourself material culture at the heart of the mobile DJ scene. For all its crucial images, however, as an annotated oral history at its core, Legions Of Boom is a book centred on the words of the scene’s participants and Wang’s insightful perspectives as a scholar, a journalist, and a DJ.
In contrast, Sonidero City puts images front and centre in its representation of sound system culture in Mexico and Colombia. Mirjam Wirz presents herself as a photographer, a humble explorer inspired by the world of sound system cumbia to go on a “spontaneous research undertaking”: “I headed out onto the streets, talked to people, visited living rooms, courtyards, and dance events, and captured with the camera whatever the trail led me to”. Indeed, there is little in the way of framing in the book save for that of the photographs themselves. As for those, they are often powerful, ranging from documentary snapshots of audiences and sonideros in action to more intimate, artful portrayals of individuals and their cherished artifacts: luridly painted speaker boxes, handwritten signs and well worn vinyl, yellowing stationery and posters. On their own, many shots are arresting, carrying a sense of intimacy and eye for detail; in the aggregate, they produce a sensuous, variegated picture of sound system communities in Mexico City, Monterrey and Barranquilla.
Sonidero City includes a small booklet offering context and credit, including an annotated index of every image in the book as well as some suggestive fragments. Wirz rehearses a big picture history of cumbia but turns quickly to the more recent, local histories of cumbia as working class sound system culture in Mexico, where sonidos have reshaped cumbia and salsa as hip-hop did funk, reggae did R&B, and disco did soul, and in Colombia, where soukous has served as musical muse and raw material for local reinvention. The booklet effectively intersperses brief histories with interview excerpts as well as a transcription of a sonido talkover session (with cumbia lyrics in capital letters), a direct but playful representation that speaks volumes without explication: “THINKING OF YOU, THINKING OF YOU, LOVING YOU – here goes for Angelo, the Incorrigible… Curly from Moctezuma and his old lady, because Susanita is old. LOVING YOU…”
I recently added a few “new” instances of ye olde zunguzung meme to the list, each helping to tease at this knotty tapestry we’ve been weaving.
First, thanks to the attentive ears of NYC-based Puerto Rican electronic act Balún, we discover that PR-based Nuyorican reggaeton pioneer Ivy Queen once wove a zunguzung allusion rather seamfully into her verse at ~1:52 in the Noise 6 excerpt here:
The reference appears as one would expect it might: as yet another of many, many nods to reggae and hip-hop knit together in the “Spanish reggae” (i.e., proto-reggaeton) of San Juan’s distinctive mid-90s underground scene. Indeed, the production is deliciously typical if you like connecting musical dots: it opens with the well-worn sample from ESG’s “UFO” (possibly a reference to Kane and, by 1996, who knows who else), then layers on a detuned loop of the “Method Man” riff while Ivy comes in chanting “Noise! Clan!” like “Wu! Tang!” before unloading a barrage of laser-precise syllables. At this menacing tempo, Ivy’s doubletime fliptongue bars — a clear stylistic nod to raggamuffin flows — manage to sound like the elder cousins of the Migosflow they are.
So with this allusion Ivy Queen joins such compatriots as Mr. Notty and Ñejo — and no doubt other reggaetoneros whose references have thus far eluded my dragnet. At this point, far as I know, she’s the first on record — in reggaeton — repping reggae with the zunguzung.
Like many other carriers of the meme, Ivy Queen invokes the tune at precisely the moment when she directly addresses the audience — no doubt something she also did in numerous live “freestyle” sessions in San Juan and Nueva York — which brings us to our next example(s)…
The second example — or perhaps, second-umpteenth — reveals how zunguzung works as a distinctive resource for live reggae performance practice, something that Ivy Queen’s reference registers in its desire to serve as functional address, as live and direct. In this sense, the session “tape” below can be heard alongside the myriad zunguzung deployments in other sound sessions, especially in the mid-80s.
In this case, and in Boston no less, we hear how zunguzung figures in state of the art toasting practice circa 1986. The tune cycles in and out of the performances, one of several stock figures on the tips of deejays’ tongues (alongside “call the police,” “money move,” and other allusions to allusions that don’t have proper names). And yet, zunguzung also emerges here as a powerful and special signal, a musical trigger nearly always hitting with the weight of a forward / pullup / wheel, or a chorus.
In this session featuring Jammy’s sound on a visit to town, I count no fewer than a baker’s dozen zunguzungs over the course of the 1.5 hour excerpt (and that’s omitting the repetitions when used as a chorus). That’s 13 distinct moments in the session — roughly, every few minutes — when the zunguzung erupts into presence, often stopping the music in its tracks.
Shifting shape as it goes by, the melody serves to big up the “Boston posse” as well as “all Yardies” — and as is so often the case with the zunguzung, the deejays here use it as a special means to enlist audience participation, crooning at listeners to push up a hand “if you love Jammy” or “beca’ you’re expensive.” The strong responses of both performers and audience to each of the zunguzung’s invocations bear consistent witness to the signal force of this tricky likkle earworm:
See, e.g., ~0:43, 4:00, 21:00, 26:40, 28:20, 38:30, 48:20, 51:20, 58:55. 1:11:20, 1:13:40, 1:17:25, 1:20:35 — or, better, just listen to the wole ting. Vibes nice, enuh.
The final addendum is perhaps more of a “footnote,” less interesting to this zigzagging genealogy given that it’s a novelty production nodding to Tupac rather than, say, grassroots media invoking Yellowman and dancehall tradition. On the other hand, as I’ve also pointed out, the ways the riff grows distant from being a reference to reggae culture is, in some sense, perhaps as interesting as its explicitly intertextual resonance in reggae, hip-hop, and kindred genres.
In 2011, the remarkably well-produced satire act Baracka Flacka Flames released a version of 2pac’s “Hit Em Up” and (inadvertently) invoked our familiar contour —
I gotta admit, though — research aside — for my money/time, “I Run the Military” is far superior:
One of my biggest inspirations for assigning students to make YouTube-sourced montages is the fact that musical supercuts are already an ordinary practice, whether we’re talking about the best Nae Nae Vines or, say, all the footage of Elvis doing “Hound Dog” one can find.
In that sense — and I think this is consistent with the technomusicological enterprise — our practice is informed by digital folk culture, if you will, not simply academic theory, and our products are meant to themselves circulate as a form of online art, hopefully to some of the same communities, audiences, and individuals who serve as the subjects of our work.
Beyond that goal, YouTube montages also serve to archive some of this wonderful stuff in an age when we can’t necessarily take its permanence for granted. Along those lines, let me take the opportunity to note that my anxious critique about “Platform Politricks” I posted here five years back, was recently given new life — a new platform even!? — thanks to this recent piece by Ann Powers in which I serve as a sort of protagonist:
The advent of streaming was a game-changer for someone like Marshall, a connoisseur of older and emerging music surviving beyond mainstream. Material that once could only be found through diligent fieldwork — whether that meant connecting directly with far-flung communities or digging like crazy in record store bins or basement library stacks — was now immediately accessible, and framed by lively exchanges that often included the music-makers themselves. Streaming was changing music scholarship, as well as the day-to-day pleasures of any curious listener who could now instantly pursue a new fascination.
All that said — and you should read the rest if you have the time — I’m really writing here to share some stellar mega-montages from this spring’s technomusicology class. Without further ado, allow me to present a few favorites.
In the standout montage this semester (though I may be biased by the number of hours I spent in front of an NES), one student painstakingly assembled a collection of renditions of The Legend of Zelda “Overworld Theme” in 25 different styles! Complete with titles and framed with rare footage, this montage shows a striking, collective “nerduosity” at work in the ongoing social life of this enduring 8-bit earworm — particularly, the remarkable profusion of Brady-Bunch-style multitracked one-man-band freakouts:
Another student decided to plumb the depths of YouTube’s most popular video, “Gangnam Style” (currently at 2.3 billion views). In the process of auditioning 150 spin-offs and ultimately selecting 60 versions of the song/video to mash together, he discovered a fairly amazing thing: together, these “parodies” have 5-6 billion views, outpacing the incredibly popular original. As the student wrote–
Clearly, Gangnam Style created a platform of its own atop the YouTube platform, inspiring videographers the world over to ride the Gangnam wave to YouTube fame. But the viral genius of the video exceeded the easy-to-learn horse dance, as novel as it was. Psy unknowingly created a video framework for portraying style of any kind. Instead of Gangnam Style, it was now London Style, Klingon Style, Farmer Style; Oregon Ducks Style, Skyrim Style, Motorcycle Style, Filipino Style, Gandalf Style, the list goes on. By framing his video with the English word “Style”, Psy triggered a global video meme, powered by a viral platform. Anyone and everyone could use his common platform to spoof their culture or lampoon another.
Here’s 60 of em:
Ok, one more to call attention to, worth your consideration for its conceptual coolness. Another student decided to compose his own video montage of a Red Hot Chili Peppers song from a concert he himself attended by combining the sound-board audio that he purchased at the close of the show with 8 other concertgoers’ hand-held recordings of the performance. I’ll let him do the rest of the framing:
For my etude this week, I chose not to focus necessarily on a “viral” spread. YouTube has encouraged countless amateur recordings; there were several examples shown in class about home videos that became viral, remixed, and spread. But there are also many videos that are uploaded without the intent of going viral: many people simply upload to YouTube so that their videos can be easily shared amongst family members and friends.
I wanted to show a way that this trend, combined with music, would do sort of the opposite of a viral spread: It would actually unite and bring a community of people together. I used to upload my own videos of concerts I attended, until I realized that if I truly wanted to reflect back, there would be tons of other people uploading that same concert. So I began enjoying the concerts in the moment, and finding the recordings later. I have made several online acquaintances from finding videos filmed by complete strangers that were standing next to me, so close that you can hear me singing.
To emulate this in my etude, I gathered various recordings of the same song from the same concert: 8 different people, all unrelated, in the same arena, enjoying the same performance. I chose “Otherside” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers because I had a high quality mp3 recording of that entire night, and Otherside was the only track in the set that was under 5 minutes. I used the mp3 as an anchor for the video: the other clips still play their audio, though considerably muted.
By shifting between the different clips, these 8 strangers come together and produce a fuller view of the same event, sharing their insight and creating a bond. The result almost resembles what the band would sell as a concert dvd, all produced by amateurs with cell phones.
During the draft/workshop/revision stage, we encouraged the student to mix more of the ambient sound from each camera/smartphone into the video in order to give the audio some of the personalized texture of the video clips. The final version is quite the document:
And that’s just a sampling. If you’re looking for more, you can check out others via this playlist —
My students have been hard at work in this spring’s session of Technomusicology at the Harvard Extension School (which I’ve just realized marks 10 years since I first started teaching there!), and I’m eager to share some standout projects.
We recently turned to the mashup as a media form to grapple with, thinking about the particular convergence of technologies that enabled its emergence (Napster, MP3, AcidPro) as well as the range of aesthetic approaches that mashups seem able to support.
Of course, as a technomusicological object, we also thought about how we might use the mashup to tell a specific story about musical relationships — an idea I’ve been exploring for a while under the heading of “mashup pedagogy.” Moreover, while the mashup might seem passé as a form, it’s actually an especially interesting time to study mashups based on their latest incarnation: as trial evidence!
So here are several stellar mashups made by this spring’s budding technomusicologists.
First, a mashy mini-mega-mix of nine varied renditions of the Spider Man theme!
How about a musically-inspired mashup of “Short Change Hero” by The Heavy and music from Mega Man?
Or perhaps you’ve really been waiting to hear (and just never knew it) how Gloria Gaynor sounds over a thumping four-four and, alternately, how Kelly Clarkson rocks over some ol’ disco beats — a time-spanning mashup of anthemic feminism!
Ok, it’s true: what we all needed to hear was a mashy history, including commercial and amateur versions, of the genealogy connecting Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” to its go-go source, Chuck Brown’s “Bustin Loose”:
Well, that’s an edifying earful if I don’t say so myself! Here’s to my talented and dedicated students; stay tuned for some inspired, edutaining YouTube montages to follow!
Finally, if this sort of endeavor piques your curiosity and you’d like to join us on our next technomusicological journey, I’ll be offering the class next as a special, intensive 7 week session from June-August via the Harvard Summer School.
Gilles Aubry’s The Amplification of Souls is a meticulously composed and conceived “audio-essay” (Aubry’s term) on Kinshasa’s charismatic churches and the broader soundscape they inhabit and inflect. I reviewed the CD, along with its 80 page booklet, in Issue 371 of The Wire (January 2015).
Gilles Aubry The Amplification of Souls
ADOCS Verlag CD+8K
As speaker hum and empty plosives congeal into a stuttered mic-check for Jesus, a slight squeal suggests the looming threat of feedback. Because so many of Kinshasa’s churches are open-air affairs, the rumble of motorcycles and automobiles accompany the ambience of a band slowly tuning up and worshippers gathering. Preachers punch through the din with bursts of noise louder than anything else, the flat lines of distortion making palpable the power of their authority. Handmade PAs hit their limits as microphones bear witness to the possession of souls and of space. And then, sudden quiet save for the faint buzz of the sound system. Speakertowers of Babel from the Heart of Darkness, respectfully recorded and remixed for headphones and museums thousands of miles away.
The jump cuts are jarring, reminding that this is no straightforward documentary. The voice of the artist, Gilles Aubry, resounds here too. The Amplification of Souls is, according to its careful and copious framing, Aubry’s “audio-essay” on Kinshasa’s religious soundscape. Congolese charismatic churches are a laudable focus given the immensity of the phenomenon and the general indifference to it in the wider world, perhaps because megachurches and prosperity gospel seem more essentially American than African. Attempting what the artist contends is “a material-based form of cultural interpretation” the work stands as a studious, self-aware approach to sonic ethnography. Aubry’s project is so steeped in reflexivity and rigorous attention to the sounds and their contexts and meanings, it clearly seeks to pre-empt perfunctory charges of appropriation. “He doesn’t even understand what we’re saying,” says a churchgoer quoted in the liner notes, “Them, the whites, they record anything.”
What constitutes understanding here is a crucial, vexing point. A dozen minutes in, the tongues begin. The glossolalia is striking in itself, alien and arresting and enjoying an undistorted sonic clarity in contrast to the punchy preachers. It also seems to mirror the varied textures of the audio-essay itself, composed of multiple sound sources created by different people with different objectives: church services and evangelical street campaigns, radio and video, cooking and football. At one point, a burst of traditional music, full of clapping and ululation, points more toward continuities than contrasts, while the appearance of local rap and meandering Hawaiian guitar suggest other Others to be heard. All the while, Aubry’s own voice emerges in the layering of samples, their stereo spatialization, and the inevitable narrative arc that emerges from his rearrangement of such disparate sonic documents.
Presented as academic sound art, The Amplification of Souls comes with an 80 page booklet including an interview with Aubry that contains the phrase “neo-colonial representation” in its subtitle. It also boasts an essay on “The Sonic Materialities of Belief” by a musicologist and cultural anthropologist which notes, among other things, that Congolese charismatic movements themselves “appropriated” the patina, and hence the power, of noise and distortion from Pentecostal missionaries. Performed previously as a sound installation and now as an ongoing set of public performances, Aubry’s remixed recordings stand at once as an impressionistic refraction of Kinshasa’s soundscape and as the material embodiment of sounds that he would like to let speak for themselves. One way that Aubry does so is to pair his collage with a 34 minute excerpt of a spiritual deliverance service that provides a great deal more context and less composerly initiative, though the profound act of framing remains. In another show of transparency, Aubry’s original recordings of the service in full have been archived online.
Even so, what makes this anything other than churchy Congotronics? Why choose Kinshasa instead of Kansas City? Or, for that matter, Berlin? Not only does the city that Aubry calls home play host to numerous charismatic churches itself, some are even Congolese. Obviously, the specific site of these recordings is crucial to their circulation as art in Europe and the US, but it is deeply ironic that, against the coolness of Kinshasa trance traditionalists like Konono No 1, Aubry must seek out possessed Christians to locate the hot exoticism Western audiences expect. How would Kinshasa’s charismatic communities receive this project? Would it sound like understanding? Should that guide the way audiences elsewhere experience it? The emphasis on sound as material culture suggests that we’re not meant to attend to the content so much as the deracinated affects of the audio. Perhaps glossolalia itself offers an answer. Does the lexical register matter when all that we’re waiting for is the outbreak of the unintelligible?
I’m offering another semester of technomusicology this spring via the Harvard Extension School (Harvard’s open-enrollment option), beginning January 29. The class meets Thursday evenings from 5:30-7:30pm, but the course will also be available online for anyone who cares to join us from a distance (including realtime participation in classes, if you can make it).
A project-oriented approach to studying the relationship between technologies, audio cultures, and media regimes, technomusicology remains my favorite class to teach. I’m looking forward to another go-round with a new set of students who’ll bring their own interests and talents to the class and to their work. Check out some projects from the Classes of ’12 and ’14 to see & hear a wide range of examples.
Building on previous iterations, I’ve tuned up the syllabus, revising the readings and assignments; most notably, I’ve selected a new final etude: a short, sound-designed, documentary video, building on the audio production skills we’ve learned, offering a window into local sound or music culture (ideally with a focus on an individual and his or her sonic world).
I’ve also been collecting some great new examples that do wonderful technomusicological work. Here’s one that I hope will inspire a few students when we turn to mashups as critical/pedagogical vehicles:
Now that’s what I call technomusicology! Up there with the Migos Flow montage, or with the following video, which I’ve been playing in classes for years, a production that deftly pulls back the curtain on a submerged, fully flipped sample–
No doubt, there are all manner of undiscovered genres of meta-musical musicking along these lines — or orthogonal to them! I look forward to seeing — and, of course, hearing — the directions this spring’s forays into the technomusicological will take us. Do consider contributing to the collective effort if you have the time, inclination, and, yes, the means.
Or just go ahead and DIY and holler at a scholar if you cook something up you’d care to share ;)