February 7th, 2018

Música Negra to Pop Reggaeton

I think the jury’s still out on whether the so-called “Despacito effect” will translate into a sustained presence of Spanish-language hits in the Hot 100, in regular radio rotation, on top-level pop playlists (and not just reggaeton / Latin ones), and so forth. I’m sure the “YouTube factor” will continue to make these decisions increasingly less provincial, but so far, aside from Fonsi and Yankee, I’ve only otherwise heard J Balvin and Bad Bunny on the local Anglo hip-hop & R&B station.

I’d say, however, that there has been a pronounced effect on the public discourse about reggaeton / dembow / urban Latin pop, and that may prove a powerful factor in its own right. Despite that I get a kick — and maybe even wring a little hope — out of the implicit political statement of a song like “Despacito” dominating pop music under the most xenophobic president in decades, I agree that the song will not save us. And I am heartened to see so much critical conversation happening around the genre in the wake of new prominence and an expanding public.

Last week, I spoke with Riobamba and Uproot Andy — soon to launch a co-hosted monthly radio show called “Bien Buena” — about the history of dembow, and we discussed the implications of reggaeton moving from the social margins to the pop mainstream over the course of its history. This shift in the publics that reggaeton artists address, as I argued ten years back, paralleled the changing names and sounds of the genre: from “música negra” (a chant often heard on proto-reggaeton, underground mixtapes) to “reggaeton latino” (a Don Omar hit directly indexing a broader Latin American heritage), and from references to dancehall and hip-hop to suggestions of bachata, salsa, and other putatively Latin genres. In recent years, especially with the rise of the slick, “sanded down” Colombian sound — and a set of lighter-skinned stars — the genre has arguably undergone an additional process of blanqueamiento.

So I was glad to see — also last week — the issue taken up directly in the first post of a new column by Eddie Cepeda devoted to “reggaeton’s history, sociopolitical struggles, and its impact as a global force in music and culture.” (Notably, both the column and the radio show take their names from songs by El General, the Afro-Panamanian reggae en español pioneer who is as much a “godfather of reggaeton” as anyone.) Go ahead and read the whole thing, but I want to share the provocative and promising final paragraphs:

Reggaeton has come a long way from the besieged “música negra” of the caseríos. And it’s more important now than ever to tell the story of how it got here. Reggaeton’s increased visibility will undoubtedly lead to further dilution of the genre, which purists say is already coming in the form of the “sanded-down” new wave of Colombian artists leading the genre’s charge over the charts. The gradual blanqueamiento of a genre is nothing new. Jazz, blues, and disco have all suffered from similar battles – both from attempted regulation and from industry sanitization. The Larry Levans of yesteryear are replaced by the Diplos of today.

Musical commodification is never monolithic. There’s complex nuance in a genre’s growth. Reggaeton’s domination is important for Latinx visibility on a global scale, but at what price? As the genre increases in acceptance and popularity, it’s key to remember that it was considered low-class and dangerous when it was predominantly read as black. The image that reggaeton’s new wave of marketable, light-skinned stars portray sweeps its origins as “música negra” under the rug, and affirms colorism’s strong grip on Latin American culture. That’s not to say that the artists leading reggaeton’s pop surge shouldn’t be allowed to the party. But a truly inclusive understanding of Latinidad and its diverse, complex communities should represent all facets of it – especially the Afro-diasporic communities who created it.

I’m looking forward to reading more from Eddie, and I’m grateful for the nod/cite/link he provides to my chapter in the Reggaeton book. It’s a little stunning to me that the essay is now a decade old, and I’m thrilled that the story I tried to suss out remains relevant to the contemporary convo.

I’ve been wanting to share the article as a “freeDF” for years now, and this seems as good a moment as ever. So for those who haven’t read it yet and aren’t going to buy the book (but the book is good! get the book!) — you can download a PDF here:

Marshall, Wayne. “From Música Negra to Reggaeton Latino: The Cultural Politics of Nation, Migration, and Commercialization.” In Reggaeton, 19-76. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009. [PDF]

I’ve also posted the PDF at this page, where you can find the musical figures / examples from the chapter and related materials.

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January 25th, 2018

Love That Muddy Ether: Pirate Multiculturalism and Boston’s Secret Soundscape (Cluster Mag Repost)

This is a repost of an article originally published at the now defunct Cluster Mag back in December 2011. I’m grateful to Max Pearl for the platform, to metaLAB for commissioning the project initially, and to the Internet Archive for keeping it online since the mag went down. I’ve been revisiting the mix/project over the last few years as a soundscape/radio example in my technomusicology classes, and I’m now struck that it serves as a sort of memorial given that some of these signals, especially vulnerable pirate stations, have since disappeared. (FYI, I previously reposted my other Cluster Mag pieces here on the blog. Read about / listen to the Lambada mega-mix here, and see / hear about Bump con Choque here.)

wild backyard sunset

Love That Muddy Ether: Pirate Multi-culturalism and Boston’s Secret Soundscape
27 December 2011

By Cluster Mag columnist Wayne Marshall, with his own original audio collage of the Boston radioscape.

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Over the last decade Boston has become a Caribbean radio hotspot. Reggae and soca seep through the unlicensed openings in the local spectrum, vibrantly occupying foreclosed frequencies. In a landscape dominated by ad-driven automated playlists angling for their share of the middle of the road, a new wave of low-power and largely illicit broadcasters imbue the local soundscape with color, carnival, perspective, and polyrhythm, all while addressing pirate publics who find themselves on the same wavelength. Or close enough. (Some static is unavoidable.)

A casual scan of high-wattage FM fails to pick up frailer signals, making Boston sound at first blush no different than any large US city. Tuning into Anglo-Caribbean FM pirates or Spanish-Caribbean AM stalwarts, on the other hand, offers another angle on the Boston soundscape and on Boston itself. What takes shape is a city that’s far from the Boston seen on TV, closer to the one seen on the T. The right numbers on the dial open windows into worlds where DJs talk about voting and disaster relief efforts when they’re not debating local sports, hyping next weekend’s parties, breaking new releases, or revisiting pull-up-worthy classics that would never find their way back into corporate playlists. Imagined community organizing, with music at its core. Dance music, rap music, here music, there music. All, undeniably, part of the sound of Boston.

The rise of Boston pirate radio suggests a yet existing promise for local, open, peer-level communication. As Tim Wu recounts in The Master Switch, the early days of radio witnessed effusive utopian odes to the medium’s ability “to inspire hope in mankind by creating a virtual community” (39), as if “a great social interconnectedness via the airwaves would perforce ennoble the individual, freeing him from his baser unmediated impulses and thus enhancing the fellowship of mankind” (38). Radio’s proponents were inspired by its remarkable, ethereal powers of communication and by its low barriers to entry: a mail-order kit was sufficient. “It was amateurs, some of them teenagers, who pioneered broadcasting,” writes Wu. “They operated rudimentary radio stations, listening in to radio signals from ships at sea, chatting with fellow amateurs” (34). During its infancy in the 1920s, radio was essentially “a two-way medium accessible to most any hobbyist” whereas today, Wu notes, at a moment when radio is “hardly our most vital medium,” it is practically “impossible to get a radio license, and to broadcast without one is a federal felony” (39).

Due to its nature, radio has always been a local medium, but the degree to which content has been locally determined has shifted with the winds of commerce and technological change. In the earliest days of the medium, with no ability to connect to other stations or broadcast further, “radio stations made a virtue of the necessity to be local” (40). During the ’30s and ’40s, the development of AT&T’s national network and ad-driven model created what Wu calls an “irresistible incentive…to control and centralize the medium” (76), not to mention the emergence of national broadcasting companies like NBC and CBS. Later, with the advent of television quickly capturing national advertising campaigns, the pendulum swung back as radio once again found its local calling, fostering an explosive DJ-listener feedback loop that would fuel the ascent of rock’n’roll. Since at least the 1970s, however, the prevailing trend has been toward corporate consolidation, especially after the profound de-regulation of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, with the rise of such industry giants as Clear Channel Communications (which owns close to 900 stations nationwide).

It didn’t have to be this way. As Wu points out, “the FRC had a real choice of whether to back more low-power stations, or fewer high power stations” (83), but long ago the Federal Radio Commission (now the FCC) chose to carve up the airwaves in a manner that favored big commercial broadcasters, freeing up “clear channels” for stations that transmitted across large distances while penalizing small stations who dared interfere. This official enclosure of the ether forestalled radio’s future as an open and democratic medium. While recent legislative efforts to make more room for (noncommercial) low-power FM broadcasting might give hope to some, I wonder whether radio’s lost community promise might yet be heard in the imperfect and decidedly commercial noise of DJs yelling over dancehall loops about the dress code for the big holiday bash.

For all its promise, Boston’s burgeoning Caribbean radio scene faces serious constraints. Even illicit radio stations have operating costs, and that can bring odd bedfellows to the block party—ambulance-chasing lawyers, for instance—while otherwise shaping the public soundscape in unpredictable ways. Based in and around Dorchester, the longtime center of Boston’s multilingual Caribbean community, Anglo-Caribbean FM pirates often attempt to cast a wide net even with their limited reach. (Only half-joking, one local DJ told me that a station transmitting from Codman Square can hardly be picked up in Dudley Square, just 3 miles away.) “If you know somebody that’s Spanish,” announced a well-meaning DJ over the air one afternoon, pausing to clarify, “somebody that, you know, doesn’t speak English — whatever their language is — tell ‘em to tune in, man: Monday through Friday, 12pm to 4pm!” And yet, even such occasionally awkward improvisations and arrangements are clearly attempts, and organic ones at that, to address a local public — often one in search of a local station that actually speaks its language, shares its accent, knows its songs.

Dorchester, Mass. via

At least half a dozen such stations are operating today in Boston, and the results are audibly vibrant, if not always so audible — especially the farther one gets from Dorchester. (It can be pretty hard to pick up certain stations in Cambridge, where I live, depending which side of town you’re on.) To share a suggestive slice of Boston’s secret and ever-shifting radio soundscape, I’ve put together a thirty-minute collage drawn from my own “pirated” archive of Boston’s so-called pirates (as well as licensed broadcasts). Boston Pirate Party is an attempt to offer a more direct, if obviously very mediated, representation of Boston’s airwaves. As such it extends my previous projects concerned with this town’s sound, the Boston Mashacre and Smashacre (as well as my Jamaican Radio Edit, a similar piece recorded in Kingston); ironically, and to its credit, Boston Pirate Party offers a far more accurate representation of the sound of Boston than any collection of music recorded by people who happen to be from here.

This project commenced with an invitation from Harvard’s metaLAB this summer. The basic structure of the mix—triggering of loops + FX—was performed live at Open_Lab3 on September 7, 2011. It contains about 125 sonic slices all told, cut from a total of 1.3 hours of ambient recordings I made on August 24th and 29th while sitting in my car, parked at home in Cambridge. There are a few longish samples (10-15 seconds) to help provide context and to give emphasis to the pirates and AM stations, but mostly one-shot samples and auto-scan fragments I’ve managed to forge into little loops. There’s a fair amount of static, hum, distortion, and other audible indices of power. Low-power FM and AM are both fraught with signal loss, whether fuzzy or muddy. The conspicuous and shifting noise-signal ratio also registers the distance of my vantage point, the limits of listening from across the river.

I have attempted to give a sense of the gamut in as compact yet contextual a way as possible, but I’ve also taken deliberate liberties, playing further with these contrasts and questions of quality in order, again, to bring the low-power to the fore. Since the initial performance, I have replaced certain recorded audio excerpts—notably, some of the murkier I captured—with full-color 320k mp3s. With this recurring procedure, I provide a series of surrealistic close ups through the fuzz, utopian eruptions on the staticky crawl down the dial. So, sometimes you hear it as I actually heard it in my car in Cambridge; sometimes you hear it the way I imagine it could sound. To put it another way, I employ this technique to highlight the issues of distance and power I’ve attempted to describe here — and to effect their transcendence.

And what exactly do you hear beyond static and signal? Among other things: Irish jigs and avant jazz, MOR rock fragments and bachata loops, Rick Ross grunts, reports of accidents in Ecuador and raids on Santeria barbershops, Boston-accented Wall Street numerology, a Brazilian-accented “Boston,” Junior Rodigan’s sui generis Iranian-Londonian-Jamaican-Bostonian brogue, an inevitable (and apt!) instance of the “Lambada,” Christian cheerleading, ads for things that end in “punto com,” ignorance and nonsense and “gar-bajh” of stunning variety, and a wicked lot more than you might expect.

Download Wayne’s radioscape audio collage, Boston Pirate Party, here.

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January 11th, 2018

¡Antigua Vaina!

This mix amplifies the resonances between the music of 19th century composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk and the bedrock rhythm of reggaeton and a great deal of recent pop music — a/k/a, dembow. As much a tribute to Gottschalk’s faithful fantasias as to the numerous architects of dembow aesthetics, we hear in their juxtaposition how one particular Afrodiasporic beat has served as foundation for social music and dance across the Americas and across time. While it is tempting to interpret the recent ascent of dembow and other 3+3+2 “electronic tresillo” rhythms as part of a new wave of Afro-Caribbean influence on pop and club music, Gottschalk’s parlor proto-dembow of the mid-19th-century reveals this recent prominence as less a sea change than an old tide washing ashore once more — and, moreover, that the US is no exception in this pan-American history, no island unto itself.

This mix may be a novel confection, but the music here is more than a BRAND NEWWW NOW TING. It’s an ancestral wellspring. Not ¡NUEVA VAINA! but ¡ANTIGUA VAINA! — an ancient thing. Get hip already–

w&w, Louis Dembeau Gottschalk (¡Antigua Vaina!) [MP3 13:46 31mb]

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tracklist:

Bamboula: Danse des Negres, Op. 2 (1849)
The Banjo (Grotesque Fantasie), Op. 15 (1854)
Ojos Criollos: Danse Cubaine, Op. 37 (1859)
Danza, Op. 33 (1857)
Souvenir de la Havane, Op. 39 (1859)
Souvenir de Porto Rico: Marche des Gibaros, Op. 31 (1860)
b/w “Panameña” (Colon/Lavoe, 1970)

Historical Context

170 years before “Despacito” made the dembow as ubiquitous as ever, an 18-year-old composer and piano virtuoso from New Orleans deployed the same Afro-duple rhythm to score a remarkable international hit of his own. Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s “Bamboula” took the Parisian salon scene by storm, and among others, Chopin sang his praises as the most impressive musician the United States had produced. Subtitled “Danse des Negres,” the composition was inspired by the songs and dances of Place Congo, or Congo Square, a public site where free and enslaved Africans would gather on Sundays to participate in a market and in collective singing and dancing. These gatherings began during French rule and continued for decades under the Spanish before New Orleans became US territory, and Place Congo remained a rare site where African and Afrodiasporic drumming and dancing were permitted even into the Anglo-American era.

Gottschalk’s oeuvre bears early witness to the popularity of certain Afrodiasporic rhythms that have become central to the entire world’s popular dance music. Fifty years before ragtime would popularize “syncopated” dance music and revolutionize the world of popular music and publishing, and 150 years before dancehall’s and reggaeton’s global pop insurgence, Gottschalk’s representations and “souvenirs” of the folk/dance music of New Orleans, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Haiti, et al., offer a wonderful sort of musical record — before audio recording was possible. In this sense, I’ve been using Gottschalk’s music in my classes to discuss the epistemological issues associated with recovering the musical past, and I like to compare him with the likes of Lomax, Gershwin, perhaps even a Diplo — as well as to Dvorak, Chopin, or Ellington for that matter.

His efforts were certainly received among his publics and contemporaries as of-a-piece with other attempts to use folk sources as the basis for art music. In some way, a composition like Bamboula is as close as we can get to hearing Congo Square — or at least echoes of the songs and rhythms that animated the dances there. The question of what Congo Square sounded like is what Ned Sublette, in The World That Made New Orleans, calls “the city’s great musical riddle” (121). It was in Sublette’s work, in fact, where I first began to learn about the significance of Gottschalk to American musical history (i.e., American in the broadest sense — not, as I joke with my students, the “greatest” sense). Incidentally, Sublette specifically invokes Gottschalk to discuss this great riddle. Allow me to quote Ned’s punchy prose at some length:

Congo Square occupies a central place in the popular memory and imagination of New Orleans. At the core of it is the city’s greatest musical riddle: what did it sound like? Since we don’t have recordings, we don’t exactly know. But we have some knowledge of the instruments that were played at Congo Square.

And I think I have a pretty good idea of at least one rhythm that was played there.

… It’s a simple figure that can generate a thousand dances all by itself, depending on what drums, registers, pitches, or tense rests you assign to which of the notes, what tempo you play it, and how much you polyrhythmacize it by laying other, compatible rhythmic figures on top of it. It’s the rhythm of the aria Bizet wrote for the cigarette-rolling Carmen to sing (though he lifted the melody from Basque composer Sebastián Yradier), and it’s the defining rhythm of reggaetón. You can hear it in the contemporary music of Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico, to say nothing of the nineteenth-century Cuban contradanza. It’s Jelly Roll Morton’s oft-cited “Spanish tinge,” it’s the accompaniment figure to W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues,” and you’ll hear it from brass bands at a second line in New Orleans today. At half speed, with timpani or drum set, it was a signature rhythm of the Brill Building songwriters, and it was the basic template of clean-studio 1980s corporate rock. You could write it as a dotted eighth, sixteenth, and two eighths. If you don’t know what I’m talking about yet, it’s the rhythm of the first four notes of the Dragnet theme. DOMM, DA DOM DOM.

It’s the rhythm the right hand repeats throughout “La Bamboula (Danse des Negres),” Op. 2, a piano piece composed in 1848 to international acclaim by the eighteen-year-old Domingan-descended New Orleanian piano prodigy Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1830-70). A stellar concert attraction of his time, and, in this writer’s opinion, the most important nineteenth-century U.S. composer, Gottschalk’s legacy is inexplicably neglected today in his home country. As a toddler, he lived briefly on Rampart Streetm about a half mile down from Congo Square, at a time when the dances were still active, and he would have, like other New Orleanians in the old part of town, been familiar with the sound of the square. Some have suggested that Gottschalk was not trying to evoke the sound of Congo Square literally in the piece. But I think Gottschalk was telling us something: when they danced the bamboula at Congo Square, they repeated that rhythm over and over, the way Gottschalk’s piano piece does, the way reggaetón does today–and over that rhythm, they sang songs everyone knew.

Frederick Starr identifies the basis for the main theme of Gottschalk’s “Bamboula” as a popular song of old Saint-Domingue, “Quan’ patate la cuite,” which Gottschalk learned from Sally, his black Domingan governess. Was Gottschalk, a programmatic composer, drawing a sound portrait of a dance at Congo Square? And might he be inadvertently telling us that the singing, drumming, and dancing circles put popular melodies into their own rhythms and style? (121-125)

Sounds a lot like reggaeton, dembow, and dancehall to me! And not just in conceptual terms — i.e., invoking familiar melodies over cherished rhythms. What is especially striking is that the rhythmic figures in question are, in essence, one and the same: that ol’ 3+3+2, especially in the form of a tresillo (A) or habanera / tango pattern (B) and/or as the slightly embellished, 5-strike form (C) that became a signature rhythm in ragtime (and appears in so many other styles since, including as a common 4th or 8th measure turnaround in reggaeton productions).

A:
B:
C:

Indeed, the words that may have underpin “Bamboula” as a Place Congo chant themselves appear to engender this 5-strike rhythm:

The word bamboula here, notably, sits at the crux of the dembow rhythm. You could imagine J Balvin saying it instead of “Beyoncé” or “C’est comme-ci … c’est comme-ça” or Wyclef subbing it in for “Bonita … Mi Casa” or Lionel Richie putting it in place of “Fiesta … Forever.” In other words, this figure’s been around, still underpins so much, and as such offers a wonderful way to counterpose seemingly disparate songs and styles.

And that’s how we arrive at this mix, at least conceptually. The technical aspects are another concern entirely. I’ll offer some discussion of those dimensions below for anyone who’d care to read further.

Technical Notes and General Poetics

I’ve sought to bring these two bodies of work — Gottschalk and dembow — together on each other’s terms as much as possible, honoring at once (while also inevitably violating) the aesthetic priorities of programmatic classical and reggae/ton.

Let’s talk about the violations first: in order to match up Gottschalk’s music with dembow loops, I have had to remove nearly all of the rubato elements — i.e., expressive tempo dynamics — from the performances of his work. I suppose I could have attempted to impose rubato effects on the drum loops, but I actually believe that the grooves that inspired Gottschalk were unlikely to feature as many timing variations as he builds into his compositions and his modern interpreters bring to bear on them — correctly so, given that many of these pieces invite such a capriccio treatment, leaving timing decisions to the whims of the performer. So I decided to “flatten” out this aspect of Gottschalk’s music, turning elastic tempos into entraining, locked-in dance grooves. (I also shifted the various tempi of his compositions so they all roll along at a rather reggaetony 100bpm.) This, of course, required meticulous, Ableton-abetted “warping” at the level of nearly every measure (and sometimes every beat), and it probably took up the largest chunk of time of any of the procedures involved in the production of this mix.

I have also, rather than honoring the full integrity of his composition, employed selective fragments of Gottschalk’s works — namely, the parts of his compositions that feature tresillo-style figures. This “sampling” strategy seems, to me, consistent both with reggae/ton practice and with Gottschalk’s own tendency toward a certain level of pastiche, quotation, and recontextualization.

Moreover, the drums here — that is, the dembow loops (including two of the most common “Dem Bow” pistas and a handful of Sly & Robbie loops, many titled “DembowLoop5,” etc.) — are as important and as prominent in the mix as the piano. This is a duet of sorts, and so I am necessarily bringing a strong reggae/ton presence to the proceedings, including the use of airhorns, sirens, winking samples, and other classic mixtape / DJ drops, as well as drums that punch aggressively through the texture.

On the other hand, I have attempted to honor and employ some of the affordances of classical music in the mix, and this includes manipulations of the dembow drum loops. For one, I have attempted to be mirror some of the intensity dynamics in Gottschalk’s music by lowering and raising the volume of the drums at appropriate times. More radically, I have chopped, layered, and rearranged the various drum loops to the point where they closely match and complement the rhythms of Gottschalk’s pieces. The drums in this mix sometimes sound less like loops than through-composed elements. In this sense, I am frequently following Gottschalk’s lead, even as I submit his music to a somewhat quantized groove.

While Gottschalk’s rhythmic vitality is what I’m mainly looking to harness and highlight here, the degree of melodic variation and harmonic transformation in his music offers a refreshing contrast to the more repetitive melodies and reduced harmonic structures of reggae and reggaeton. Notably, and usefully, Gottschalk often builds these variations in a manner that mirrors the additive and subtractive layering in a reggaeton track. This provides an opportunity to underscore, beyond their Afro-duple rhythms, other things these genres have in common despite the fair distance between them in terms of time and aesthetics.

Gottschalk’s works and reggaeton productions both tend toward clear demarcations of regular, sectional development. In reggaeton, this has tended to be marked with shifting snare samples, reflecting an earlier practice of swapping out favorite loops during maratón rap sessions. In the classical forms Gottschalk was working in — if often such permissive / vague forms as fantasie or caprice — we hear this approach more in terms of sectional melodic variation and harmonic development. Together in the mix, these parallels work strikingly well — as well, I think (and hope), as the fundamental rhythmic overlap that inspired this entire exercise.

Implications and Reflections

Formally speaking, Gottschalk favored fantasies and caprices, especially for his lively piano pieces, and I myself have made some capricious choices that I hope are in the spirit (both of Gottschalk and of reggae/ton). One of these involves bringing in an excerpt of Willie Colon’s and Hector Lavoe’s “Panameña” toward the end of the mix — a decision that posed substantial technical / aesthetic difficulties. (Because each piece takes a slightly different approach to re-harmonizing the song, I’ve settled on a slightly sour, “woozy chipmunk” attempt to make them mostly line up.)

Even though “Panameña” is in a different key than Gottschalk’s Souvenir de Porto Rico, I couldn’t resist putting them together as both cite the same Puerto Rican folk song, an aguinaldo often sung as “Si Me Dan Pasteles.” The reference appears in the montuno section of “Panameña” where it serves as a potent invocation of Puerto Rican identity amidst a broader message of pan-Latinidad. As Lavoe sings,

yo canto guajira
yo canto danzón

le canto un bolero
canto un guaguancó

pero no me olvido
del aguinaldo
pero nunca olvido
el aguinaldo

The sonero’s sentiments are affirmed as the chorus responds with a distinctively Boricua refrain, “lo le lo lay” — honoring Puerto Rican musical forms alongside the Cuban and pan-Latin forms that Lavoe cites.

One thing that I hope my mix does, which is one thing that I believe Gottschalk’s music does, is to extend this idea of the deep, audible, palpable connectedness of the Caribbean and Latin America — of the diaspora and the creolized New World — so that it also includes the United States, not as an outlier or an exception but as one node among many in a network, at once a source and a destination, a distinctive set of social and cultural contexts which are, nonetheless, enmeshed in hemispheric and trans-Atlantic connections.

Among other things, this mix is, then, a proposal that we hear the US’s own Afrodiasporic heritage as alongside and inextricable rather than exceptional — and inextricable because of the echoing legacies that are a consequence of slavery and the creole societies that follow in the wake.

This is, finally, simply, a souvenir, of Moreau and dembow both — for me and for anyone else with whom it resonates as something to think, sing, or even dance along with.

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December 11th, 2017

Further Adventures in Technomusicology

And on we go!

Having conducted a few more sessions of Technomusicology this past spring and summer — about which, more below — I’m happy to report that I’ll be offering the class again next semester, Spring 2018, at the Harvard Extension School.

As always, anyone is welcome to join us if you have the time, inclination, and means to do so. (Be in touch if you have questions about any of those things.) I’ve been tweaking the class like any good remixer, in collaboration with students and TAs, and at this point I believe we’ve collectively refined it down to a compact set of creative, conceptual projects that also offer a varied introduction to the study of sonic media in the age of audio. Or as I put it in my most recent reframing:

In this course we make audio and video art that examines the interplay between music and technology since the dawn of sound reproduction and especially in the digital age. Embracing new technologies ourselves, we use popular, powerful music software (Ableton Live) to explore new techniques and idioms for storytelling by composing a series of etudes, or studies in particular media forms. These etudes can accommodate novice experimentation or virtuoso programming while offering shared conceptual ground to all. Students develop a familiarity with the history of sound media while cultivating competencies in audio and video editing, sampling and arranging, mixing and remixing, as well as in critical listening, writing, and discussion.

But the proof is in the pudding. So allow me to share some of this year’s work. In this case, I’m embedding collections of this year’s “Musical Supercuts” — musically-guided, YouTube-sourced montages that help us to understand the contemporary social lives and archival presence of specific musical works and dances. As always, this year’s supercuts run quite the gamut, touching on classical modes, jazz tropes, meme-tastic rock songs, and Vine-era dance crazes. Together they reveal amazing, gleaming iceberg-tips of musically-gathered sociality riding the waves of YouTube’s algorithms, and sometimes lurking in the corners–

Notably, one of these supercuts — one of two about “All Star” as it happens — has reached nearly 350k views [update: as of Feb 2018, it’s creeping up on 700k!], which I believe now stands as the new record for views/listens of one of our class etudes. It’s difficult to predict which of our productions will, in turn, address their own publics, and it’s always fascinating to see which etudes prove remarkably “sticky” or “spreadable” (as well as which ones enjoy a certain algorithmic obscurity).

Since I’ve been asking students to produce YouTube-sourced montages for several years now, I was delighted to see Beyonce get into the act recently with the video for her “remix” of J Balvin’s “Mi Gente.” Alongside an effort to donate any proceeds to hurricane and disaster relief, Beyonce also infuses her support for the song — and the implied message of solidarity with “my people” — with a montage that seemingly shows dozens and dozens (hundreds?) of people already dancing along(side each other?)–

Alas, while it’s certainly plausible, there’s no clear way to tell that these various dance videos were all set originally to “Mi Gente.” Nor is there any documentation linking back to the sources. It might have made a stronger gesture of solidarity for a video that’s now been watched almost 55 million times to link back to its sources (as I ask my students to do), but it certainly “embeds” and “embodies” the idea quite powerfully at any rate — another example of how such “supercuts” can tell stories with social, cultural, and even political import, not to mention how they enjoy a certain currency in this day & age.

///

Of course, I’m revising the syllabus once again for next semester, and while the main series of projects will remain essentially the same (though I always tweak parameters and instructions) — i.e., we’ll still make soundscapes, sample-based beats, mashups, DJ mixes, supercuts, podcasts — I’m considering a new etude that grapples with the growing practice of using commercial (or not) video/film as sound sources for whimsical remixes that highlight core aesthetic qualities and other matters of import or interest as they condense and loop the source materials. This is quite different from a supercut, though the two forms can overlap. I don’t know what to call it yet, but I’m thinking of such clips as–

These remind me of some of the fun experiments in re-scoring you can find on YouTube, but they add the concrète element of being musically-inspired sample-based works — and often with an intense focus on a particular visual form. In that sense, they also relate to some of the work of Kutiman (especially his city-centric “mixes”), who has long stood as an influence in our class for the ways he initially approached YouTube as a musical palette.

I’m still working out what the remaining etude of the course will be, and I’m open to any ideas along these lines — or others! Holler if you’ve got any. Novel technomusicological objects always welcome.

///

Finally, while it is beyond the scope for me and for this class, I remained impressed and inspired by such works as the following, a new visualization of Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge by Stephen Malinowski, who has created a number of deeply engrossing graphical animations of scores. He describes his choices for the new Beethoven piece here, but I think you get the picture as you watch (which is one of the main points of a technomusicological approach, IMO)–

I love how the different architectures of musical patterning jump out at the viewing-listener in a piece such as this. The possibilities for illustrating musical figures and relationships this way are endless. (In some sense, I’ve been exploring ways to do it via Ableton.) I’ve occasionally thought about ways to bring coding into our technomusicological endeavors, but that would seem to require an entirely different set of skills than the hands-on audio-visual remixing we currently employ as central method.

A big ol’ bravo to Stephen, to Beyonce, my students, and many, many others for imagining new technomusicological forms and functions. No doubt future semesters’ etudes are making the rounds as baby-memes at this very moment. Keep your ears peeled, and keep us posted if you spot a new native that demands our attention.

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August 24th, 2017

Everything You Wanted to Know About Despacito — and More!

despacito-vid-grab

“Despacito” has proven to be an amazing platform for Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee, Justin Bieber, reggaeton, and now … me.

Since April, I’ve been contacted by people looking for an explanation of how this song has proven so spectacularly successful, and whether I wanted to or not, I found myself having to think about it over the last several, surprising months. I’ve given quotes to reporters from Abu Dhabi, Montreal, and Texas —

The song — indeed, the phenomenon — has proven an excellent vehicle for thinking about reggaeton, “tropical” pop, and pop culture in the age of YouTube — 3 things I obsess over — and so when I brag-plained on Twitter last week about how “Despacito” has impacted my inbox, it ironically resulted in being asked to write a big ol’ piece myself about the song for NY Mag‘s Vulture. It seemed like a great opportunity to bring together the different angles from which I’ve been listening and watching, so I jumped at the chance.

Having penned my original “reggaeton longread” for the Boston Phoenix back in January 2006 (though I guess this is a contender too), it was a pleasure to return to the form and try to share some deep context with a larger audience than my academic work. So far, I’m pleased as perreo at the favorable reaction it has garnered. Check it out:

          vulture-article

///

While I’ve got you on the line — and while I’m here writing a rare blogpost — allow me to share a few related pieces.

First, I want to remind readers that I’ve spilled many more words than 3500 here and there on reggaeton, and if you’re up for, say, 10k words on the history of the genre, you can consult my chapter in our book.

You can also hear me speak around that many words about reggaeton — and offer plenty of A/V examples — in this lecture I presented at Berklee a few years back:

Second, I’m happy to appear this week as an ethnomusicological expert bigging up Munchi and connecting dots between reggae, reggaeton, and Dutch house in the this piece in the Washington Post that attempts to size up the legacy of moombahton.

Third, as I discussed in the “Despacito” piece, the song features a common chord progression, theoretically allowing one to mix and mash it with any number of previous pop songs. To demonstrate this, I mashed it up with the Cranberries’ “Zombie,” mainly using the instrumental guitar passages from the latter. I was happily surprised by how good “Despacito” sounds with a little grungy guitar, and it was also striking how much their poppy dynamics complement each other, stylistic differences notwithstanding.

See what you think (and thanks to Remezcla for the signal boost!); if you like it enough, here’s an MP3:

In order to make this work, I had to grapple with the audio in Ableton — and more than usual. It called to my attention a surprising fact about “Despacito”: it skips a beat (or a beat and a half, or so) twice during the song, before Bieber’s hook (which, without a pause, should land right on measure 21) —

despacito-pause

This is an odd feature for a digital-age dance number, and while some have speculated that it is the magic key to the song, I think it’s more likely an “accident” resulting from the post-hoc splicing in of the Biebz.

Couldn’t mash the song up with “Zombie” without fixing this irregularity. So I did a nerdy thing; I fixed it:

despacito-fixed

It occurs to me that this may have bugged an occasional listener or dancer, or perhaps even caused an occasional trainwreck for a beat-matching DJ. If so, here you go–

w&w, “Zombiecito” (MP3 9.3mb)

Pasito, a pasito, y’all.

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December 4th, 2016

Another Crunk Genealogy Turns 10

crunk ain't dead

Hard to believe, but my ol’ mix, Another Crunk Genealogy, was published 10 years ago today. It’s been up all this time (along with the other 49) — and indeed, I welcome any newcomers to peruse the detailed notes and FruityLoops demos here — but I’ve just posted it to Soundcloud to let it circulate that way too.

I wouldn’t be calling attention to this one all these years later if I wasn’t still proud of it. I still bump this on the regular, and I’m touched by how much it has resonated with people over the years. I’ve even seen links to the blogpost in ancient dubstepforum discussions of Caribbean rhythms, where, who knows, it may have planted the seeds for even more tracks to add to the mix.

Speaking of which, this is as good a time as any to report that I’m putting together a follow-up/prequel, indeed yet *another* crunk genealogy, showing — despite my impressions 10 years back — how long and deeply these rhythms have moved people here in the USA, well before drums were audible enough for recordings, or even allowed at all. While this mix I’m celebrating today attempts to connect the rhythmic dots across space, from the Americas to North Africa to India and beyond, it mainly focuses on music produced since the 1950s, especially the last few decades, and it offers only a glimpse of the ways African-Americans have served as stewards for this Afrodiasporic heritage.

The next genealogy, then, will explore how these “tresillo” / 3+3+2 rhythms, for all their recent resurgence, served as the underpinning in the US of everything from ring shouts and spirituals to proto-hillbilly, ragtime, and early jazz and blues. So look out for a real blast from the past before too long, and thanks, as always, for listening along.

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October 18th, 2016

Still Bubbling After All These Years

I’m headed back to Amsterdam this week to attend the ADE where I’m excited to be a part of the screening of a new documentary on bubbling. Check out your boy the beatboxing talking head!


the film will have English subtitles, and hopefully will be widely available before long

I can’t say how humbled and happy I am to have encouraged and abetted local Dutch efforts to tell the amazing story of bubbling, a story of global reggae’s local resonance that first grabbed my attention almost exactly 11 years ago thanks to a “random” blog comment!

I’m especially proud to have helped make the case that the story of bubbling — often dismissed as marginal, shameful, frivolous — represents an important, instructive chapter in the national narrative of the post-colonial Netherlands and, indeed, that this plucky DIY social dance culture forged by Afro-Antillean immigrants and their children indelibly shaped the globally-resonant (and lucrative) sound of Dutch house and pop, including the international hits produced by Afrojack.

While I’m thrilled to see how this narration of bubbling history plays to a local crowd this week, I’m also glad that the film serves as a tribute to the two pioneers of the genre, DJ Moortje and MC Pester. The two collaborated to throw some seminal parties in the early 90s, with Moortje bringing the bumping-but-avant DJ creativity and Pester making everything live and local (and political) with his vocals. A few recordings of these parties, such as the inaugural Bandje 48 (the first 47 were pure DJ mixtapes), would then circulate on cassette — sometimes for money, often informally — and take on an afterlife of their own. The film looks not only at the origins of bubbling in this collaboration but also examines Moortje’s and Pester’s falling out and eventual reunion, and I’m delighted to share a stage with them and hear more about the beginnings of this remarkable scene and sound.

The film is, incidentally, named after a triumphal reunion earlier this year — and a recording of it, the elusive “Bandje 64” that never came together in the good old days — showing both Moortje and Pester in classic form; the idea that I might have contributed, by insisting on the importance of this story, to finally bringing these two together again is humbling indeed:

It’s impossible for me to listen to recordings like this and not hear bubbling as kindred to other scenes that coalesced around creative, localized hybrids of reggae and hip-hop in the early-mid 90s — reggaeton, bhangra, jungle — and I guess part of what I bring to the story is an ability to place bubbling into crucial comparative and historical frameworks. (If you like Playero 38, you’ll probably like Bandje 48.)

Related to that global, historical framework, I’ll also be giving a keynote talk on Friday called “Respect the Architects: The Caribbean Roots of Modern Day Pop Music” and you can trust that I’ll be making all of these connections and more. Here’s the teaser; come by / tune in if you can!

Over the last decade, but especially in recent years, the dance rhythms of the Caribbean have become prominent–indeed, even foundational–features of pop, hip-hop, and EDM. Wayne Marshall, who teaches music history at Berklee College of Music and Harvard University, will place this phenomenon in historical context by showing how Afrodiasporic rhythms have long provided the pulse in global popular music, connecting the dots from ragtime to reggaeton, Bo Diddley to trap, and dancehall to “tropical house.”

Nuff respect to the architects, Moortje and Pester, to all the others who built on their foundations, and to everyone involved in continuing to tell the story of bubbling. So much more remains to be said, heard, witnessed, and reckoned. Here’s to all of that–

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April 5th, 2016

Rap as Folk

Caption please...Don't Look Back #NotArt #BobDylan

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.

Read the rest, for folk’s sake.

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January 14th, 2016

Technomusicology Spring16

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.


couldn’t resist re-using this amazing flyer

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!

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January 7th, 2016

Boston Is a Island, Seen?


s/o thephoenix (rip) for the img

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 local labels.

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?

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January 6th, 2016

Tales of the Tape(s)

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:

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Wayne&Wax

I'm a techno-musicologist, internet annotator, imagined community organizer.

I left my <3 in the digital global, but I reside in Cambridge, MA, where I'm from.

I represent like that.

wayne at wayneandwax dot com

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