I’m a little late sharing the good news of the John Wizards, a producer-singer duo from South Africa who put together my favorite recording of this year. But given that even some of my most musically voracious friends have still not heard them, I’m clearly not too late. So let me put it like this: John Withers and Emmanuel Nzaramba deserve some of your time. We’ve already given them a lot of ours.
In a year with nuff great releases from smallbatch labels & independent artists (see: exhibits A, B, & C), John Wizards’ self-titled debut most captured my ears — and lent itself to realtime, and virtual, sharing with friends — and so I feel a need to sing its praises more publicly.
Let’s start where they do, the opening track, “Tet Lek Schrempf” –
A careful but whimsical opening, the track gestures in almost overture-ish fashion to the diverse musical corners the album eventually winds its way into. Beginning with something reminiscent of Soothing Sounds for Baby, by 0:45 we dwindle into a slowing-then-speeding piano arpeggio, eventually mirrored and replaced by a plucky synth lead and, at 1:05, a rollicking triple-duple beat. By the time we hear “Greetings from John Wizards!” at 1:45, we’ve arrived yet somewhere else, with live-ish sounds evoking birds and crowds and a warbling melodic loop. Along with an increasingly menacing, bubbling bassline, these occupy the foreground for about a minute before shoved aside by a bluesy, wailing guitar line, teetering on the edge of schlock. When the guitar jumps an octave at 2:52, the whole thing comes to screaming life, synthclaps splattering, like that’s exactly what we’ve been waiting for. As we lurch toward the end with the brief appearance of an acoustic riff that seems (in a moment of good judgment) second-guessed before yielding again to the electric wail, we get a good glimpse at the music’s meticulous construction — a sly moment of subtraction amidst all the accretion and allusion.
John Wizards’ restless approach to form and sui generis stylistic synthesis make them pretty irresistible even for a recovering-rockist listener like myself. Sure, there’s something very rock band at work here — plenty guitfiddle, pretty chord changes — but it’s balanced by a wealth of electronic signposts and presence, from the waveform drums & synths weaving through every track, to the occasional Shangaan electro-esque freakout, even down to the misleadingly low-fi demotape disco / bedroom bubblegum vibes of “iYongwe.” John Wizards pack an enchanting number of ideas into their music, but never too many, and always executed with care and panache.
Another fine example is “Lusaka by Night,” including the video’s parallel, playful imagery –
Much as I attempt to listen independent of biography and other narrative frames, the strikingly peripatetic quality running through the music seems consistent with the group’s official backstory –
John Wizards might have started in Maputo. It also might have started in Cape Town. It certainly owes a debt to Dar es Salaam.
These are the three places that band leader and producer John Withers either travelled through or lived in, and he feels have had a marked influence on his musical output. They also happen to be cities in which Emmanuel Nzaramba, John Wizards’ Rwandan singer has lived too.
John met Emmanuel while he was working as a car guard, outside a coffee shop in Cape Town. Emmanuel noticed the guitar strapped to John’s back, and they began to talk about music. Emmanuel had moved from Rwanda to Cape Town to become a musician, and John told him that he had been writing music requiring vocals. They didn’t get around to recording that time: Emmanuel quit his job, lost his cellphone, and moved to a new place and lost contact.
A year later (2012) John moved house and had got together some new songs and by chance ran into Emmanuel again: they were living in the same street. John invited him to his place to listen to reggae band The Congos, It turned out that he didn’t like them, but he did like some of the new songs John had written. He would listen to them once or twice, and start singing. The outcome of these evenings can be heard on their debut album.
It’s a compelling story, to be sure (except for that bit about not liking the Congos!). Tailormade for today’s vexed representational struggles and mixed modes of reception, the narrative seems to anticipate congealed frames of reference, playing into the enduring importance to audiences of place and experience, especially when we’re talking about Africa, even as it seeks to evade the cliches of cosmopolitanism and authenticity. It helps, then, that John Wizards’ music itself says as much — and more — about the serendipity and movement so central to their myth of origins. Narrative aside, this is great music which deserves to be heard far and wide. But can we put narrative aside?
Given the panoply of reference points and stylistic curveballs, could John Wizards’ relative obscurity in an ocean of new music have anything to do with the difficulty of finding a bin? In 2013? On one hand, I find that hard to believe. On the other, I suspect that the question of genre — and its enduring social and infrastructural contours — continues to shape circulation and reception of musical media fairly profoundly, even well into the digital era.
Personally speaking, I owe it to Gamall, the discerning dude behind Backspin Promotions — and to the fact that I blog and tweet and sometimes actually review new music for other publications — for bringing John Wizards to my attention. Gamall’s always on top of new electronic releases, affiliated with such stellar, dependable outlets as Hyperdub, Editions Mego, and Planet Mu — the latter of which, perhaps surprisingly, is responsible for bringing the John Wizards to the wider world. As such, John Wizards have been inserted into a rather particular musical ecosystem, and some of Gamall’s promo copy has been pretty straightforward in creating distance from certain frames of reference:
… a unique sound that many have compared to Vampire Weekend in reverse (African music looking outwards taking in European influences). Don’t be confused and think this is some kind of world music project though – it isn’t …
It’s telling that the few times I’ve seen John Wizards come across my radar have been via the likes of Catchdubs and Obey-City, two producers/DJs generally more drawn to the (wide) world of club music than tempo-hopping, shape-shifting, bedroom-studio guitarry stuff. So maybe this tack is working after all. I won’t be surprised to see a well-deserved late surge for John Wizards in years-end Best Ofs.
Suggesting that this approach to spreading the group’s music will continue, their second single arrives this week accompanied by two remixes which transpose the dubby, ethereal “Muizenberg” into different genres — new channels to surf.
Far as newness goes, though, the newest thing here is the synthesis, not the synths. There’s no reason that electronic music audiences shouldn’t be receptive to a stunning take on the world of sonic possibility grounded in southern African soundscapes. Drum machines and squealing, squelching synths are not, by any stretch, new to African music. In this sense, John Wizards offer one of various points of entry into a long, loopy history of musicians using technology to constantly reinvent the Sound of Africa.
Could this be a controversial thing to say about a duo comprising a heavy-handed white-dude producer and a black vocalist? As John Withers put it in an interview with Pitchfork (so, yeah, it’s not like these guys aren’t making the rounds — and good for them for that) —
If you’re white and playing an African style, even in Africa, it’s a touchy thing. … But I’ve got no real problem with people drawing on anything — if the music is nice, the music is nice.
I’ve got to agree with that. John’s and Emmanuel’s music is nice indeed. May it touch you too.
There’s been a lot of news in the past week about the legal kerfuffle between the Beastie Boys and a company called GoldieBlox, which markets science/engineering toys aimed at girls (and their parents) seeking something beyond the standard pink princess fare.
Apparently, GoldieBlox has successfully leveraged the “viral” qualities of the net to project their “disruptive” brand, and the latest example does so spectacularly well, via a parody of the Beastie Boys’ well-worn, decades-old, silly misogynist ditty, “Girls.”
In fact, my first encounter with GoldieBlox’s version of “Girls” arrived via word of mouth (i.e., Gchat), just the way viral videos are supposed to. My wife shared the link with me, as we ourselves are constantly struggling with the balance between giving our daughters lots of options for growth and play, on the one hand, and indulging their seemingly irrepressible desire to parade around as princesses on the other. As that type of dad, I couldn’t help but myself be smitten by the ad —
So, I was as surprised as anyone to learn about the legal battle currently underway over this parody of a parody (if, in the initial instance, an ambiguous one). Obviously, GoldieBlox’s “Girls” is derived from the Beasties’ “Girls,” but it’s a complete re-recording, marshaling certain familiar elements — the riff, the refrain, and certain text/melodic lines — not all unlike the ways the Beasties themselves cribbed and borrowed and reassembled their own song out of prior performances.
Redolent of a schlocky musical and cultural past — and perhaps helping to give the song some of its parodic edge — the Beasties’ “Girls” makes audible nods to both the Isley Brothers and Bo Diddley. Beginning around 0:40 in the following video, you’ll hear Diddley play on guitar the very same riff the Boys coax out of their wonky synth:
And this mashup underscores pretty convincingly how much “Girls” is inspired by the Isley’s “Shout,” with parellels in terms of song syntax, repeated refrain, and even a few striking melodic parallels (e.g., “say that you love me…” == “to do the dishes…”):
What should we make of the Beastie Boys taking two songs deeply inspired by African-American religious ritual — the ring-shout in the case of the Isleys, and Diddley’s hand-clapping & foot-stomping “communion service” — in order to make a rearguard, if possibly parodic, song about women? On what grounds should the Beasties be allowed the privilege of doing something so derivative/transformative, while GoldieBlox should not?
For many, it would seem, the crucial point turns not on questions of musical borrowing and re-signification but rather, on the Beastie Boys’ stated wishes to keep their music out of advertisements, as articulated in their open letter —
make no mistake, your video is an advertisement that is designed to sell a product, and long ago, we made a conscious decision not to permit our music and/or name to be used in product ads.
This is especially poignant given that Adam Yauch (aka MCA) made this same wish explicit in his will.
But then, GoldieBlox isn’t actually using the Beasties’ music. Or are they? It’s a question — and not an easy one to resolve. (For any of us, or for a judge or jury for that matter.) They’re certainly not using the Beasties’ recording, or even a sample from it. Why should we determine that the Beasties’ should be able to stop others from re-assembling the same pieces that they themselves assembled without licensing/permission in the first place? Should GoldieBlox respect the Beasties’ wishes?
What about, say, James Newton’s wishes? An avant-jazz flutist, Newton famously insisted that the Beasties’ use of a sample of his flute performance on “Choir” for the Beasties’ “Pass the Mic” constituted copyright infringement, but a court ruled that the snippet was too short to constitute a part of his composition, and since the Boys had licensed the recording from Newton’s record label (for a paltry $1000), they were allowed to go ahead and use it despite lacking Newton’s permission.
Generally speaking, as readers of W&W will know, I support that sort of relatively unbridled approach to transformative re-use. Songs are shared things, and if you don’t want someone to play or sing along, hold them close and sing them quietly in the corner. Once something is out in the open, in public, via commercial or even non-commercial circulation, it becomes available for sharing and reinterpretation. Courts and lawyers and some artists like to draw hard and fast lines between folk culture and commercial culture, but these are usually little more than language games having to do with claiming ownership, not stable definitions of cultural domains. (Sometimes, they’re struggles over power and money, which are not to be diminished, though they are hardly at play in this case between some rich musicians and a successful start-up.)
When did “Girls” escape the Beasties’ creative control? Perhaps as soon as it was commercially released and massively distributed. In its own way, the Beastie’s “Girls” was, in the first instance, itself an advertisement — an ad for an album, an ad for concerts, an ad for a sophomoric act that the Beastie Boys took to the world and to the bank.
All that said, it’s still a little odd for the likes of the EFF to step into the fray, and to argue for fair use simply because they agree with Glodieblox’s putative politics. Clearly, commercial instances of parodic fair use have been upheld before — s/o Luther Campbell & Henry Louis Gates — but it’s always a matter of convincing some judge/jury about the lines people want to draw around musical ownership. Toward that end, I think considering the big musical picture here helps.
I mean, just imagine the chilling effect on other renditions of “Girls”! In a world of personal branding, where do we draw the line between commercial and non? Between advertisement and not?
Tell this guy Bro Chuy he’d better not “go viral” –
Or this girl for that matter —
And someone should really warn these squirrels not to attempt to monetize their questionable “parody” –
For my part, as a dad, I’ll be sure to teach my daughters how to reverse engineer our favorite Beastie songs as soon as the girls are ready for some serious digital music trickery.
I’ve been following @emancan (aka, Emanuel Vinson, more recently recrowned as +) on Twitter for a few years now. In his early 20s, Emanuel is about as #based as it gets: persistently positive, open and encouraging, and utterly frank, especially when it comes to sources of inspiration or bullshit he needs to speak to from his rather centered place in the world (also, Chicago).
He’s an inspiration in his own right, especially the ways he models good personhood and self-propelled, generous, utterly independent artistry. Changing the game, indeed — at least a boy can dream.
His latest album, dove, has been a while in the making, and it’s really great. Pretty much a distillation of everything I just said and more, executed to heart-on-sleeve rugged-edged perfection.
The “Gourmet Oyster Mushroom Kit” I got for my $25 pledge arrived in the mail about a month ago. After following the simple instructions — mostly, misting a few times a day — tiny mushrooms began to emerge after just a couple days. In less than a week, they grew to full size, and we savored them sauteed with garlic and broccoli rabe, tossed with a little linguine. Check the progression–
Growing mushrooms at home is something we’d love to be able to do with more frequency. Since we happen to generate a good amount of spent beer grains and coffee grinds, all we really need to do is master the inoculation process. Oysters are easy because they aggressively colonize the medium, preventing less desirable organisms from taking over. Apparently, there are other good contenders too (like shiitakes), and we look forward to giving it a go on our own this winter.
The other cool thing about growing some oyster mushrooms in our own kitchen is that I recognized them readily the next time we went for a walk in the woods!
Thanks to the loGROcal dudes for getting us started, and congrats on successfully kickstarting their venture down in Austin!
Whether or not you read Western notation, it’s easy to follow along with the animation (indeed, it makes a good score-reading exercise just to watch the bouncing notes). And there’s something simply amazing about seeing, as you’re hearing, the music unfold in all its vertical and horizontal glory.
The one for “So What” is definitely the winner for me, perhaps because it includes most of the ensemble. It’s so engaging to watch the different, deeply familiar parts unfold on the page –
Cohen adds apologies to Jimmy Cobb, the drummer and the one member of the ensemble left out, but he couldn’t source notation for the drum part. (Classic Eurocentric lacuna there, no fault of Cohen’s.) It would be nice if some drum geek were to draw one up for it! Imagine eventually mapping thousands of jazz recordings this way, perhaps even automatically, a la Melodyne. It would be a stunning archive, at any rate, and an incredible resource for entertaining edification.
Western notation appears nice and precise, but I don’t find it all that beguiling to look at. As such, Cohen’s animations may not not achieve the game-console dazzle & quirk of the Rites of Spring graphical score I linked to last spring, but there’s dazzle enough in the musical performances to justify watching them through.
“Confirmation” and “Giant Steps” are more minimal than “So What,” but awesome in their own right –
If you’re a Boston/Allston/Cambridge neighbor who cares about the local and global implications of secret state surveillance, please join Prof. Charlie Nesson, me, & other interested locals next week for an evening of structured discussion about the implications of Snowden’s disclosures & the role of whistleblowers:
A few more details –
The evening will take place at the Allston Ed Portal, located at 175 N. Harvard St, Allston, next to Harvard Business School and the Harvard athletic fields and stadium. (Intersection of N. Harvard St. and Western Ave. On MBTA bus routes 66 and 86. Event parking available at 219 Western Ave., adjacent to the Ed Portal.) Refreshments and a light dinner will be provided.
The event will consist of small-group discussions led by Professor Nesson with a focus on building community and thoughtful discussion. We will explore the unfolding debate around secrecy, leaks, security, and ethics in a format meant to leverage the power of dialogue as a tool for learning. Come to engage in conversation about the pertinent questions raised by the disclosures of Edward Snowden.
And a few more details, specially pitched to Allston residents, c/o Allstonian All-Star, Brent Whelan —
I am writing to let you know about an event at the Harvard Ed Portal this Wednesday evening, Nov. 20, which might interest you. The evening is organized by my good friend Prof. Charles Nesson of the Harvard Law School, and will examine the topic of “Whistle-blowers.” More especially, discussion will focus on Edward Snowden’s recent release of confidential espionage and security information. Participants will be invited to sit on juries to decide his ‘guilt’ or ‘innocence’ with regard to broader principles of justice.
Prof. Nesson is a founder and director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, a world-renowned research institute for questions of ownership and access to the internet. He will help stimulate discussion along with fellows from the Berkman Center and the Law School.
Though it continues the series of Harvard faculty events at the Ed Portal, this evening will be a first step in creating something new: Allston X at the Ed Portal. Rather than one-way presentation of information or knowledge, as in classic lectures or the new Ed X on-line course model, Allston X hopes to create a face-to-face interactive discussion-based model that would off-set the top-down model of information flow. In this way Wednesday’s event should be an exciting prototype for future efforts to deepen and improve the on-line educational model.
The evening starts at 7:00 pm and will run till 8:30. There will be refreshments and lots of stimulating talk. I hope you will come.
Once again it’s that time! I’ll be guesting at Boston’s Best Dance Night™, Picó Picante, this Friday–
Picó is always the ideal occasion to break out treacly dancehall pop covers, classic reggaeton, salsa remixes, and azonto jams, among others, so, yeah, pretty much always ready for that.
And readers of W&W need no intro to headliner DJ Ripley — Riddim Methodist, PhD, & Dutty Artizt extraordinaire. But maybe you haven’t heard her latest?
A preview, perhaps, of what might be in store Friday night, given Picante proclivities and all, but Ripley reliably keeps her sets unpredictable. So it’s bound to be a fun one, twists and turns galore.
Here’s something primarily for longtime readers of W&W, or for random devotees to Yellowman’s timeless tune. As you all know, the melody from “Zunguzungunguzunguzeng” — aka “the Zigzagging Zunguzung meme” — has traveled widely. And I’ve been on the case ever since I first began hearing its echoes everywhere (which really started for me back in 2003).
This summer I was invited to join a songwriting group in which all participants would compose one song each month according to that month’s “prompt” — some set of aesthetic criteria, broadly defined (i.e., pertaining to specific musical or textual cues or tending toward the impressionistic). The crew was assembled under the odd banner of Underwear Everywhere (I still don’t know why), and it mostly included pop/rock-leaning musicians, if with a wide range of influences and styles.
I have to confess that I only myself managed to generate a single song during the 6 months that the experiment lasted. In the first month, I rose to the challenge of producing some “Novel Sounds” — or, according to the prompt:
Pick a favorite book and use the title as the title of the song as well as inspiration. … Use 3/4 time for part or all of the song.
In my case, I decided to take flight from the opening pages of one of my favorite books of the last decade, Michael Taussig’s My Cocaine Museum. For curiosity’s sake — and boy is my version curious! — I share here with you my strange shanty:
Anyway, back to the point of the post: I was myself given the privilege of providing the prompt in June, and I just couldn’t resist asking the group to contribute ditties somehow incorporating my favorite little melody. Or as I put it to them –
This month’s songwriting conceit is that everyone should use a little melody that I’ve been chasing around the world for many years now. As you’ll hear in this mega-mix I made, the “Zunguzung” tune turns up in dozens and dozens of songs — sometimes to support the chorus, sometimes as a one-off allusion, and with varying degrees of fidelity to the Yellowman original(s). Here’s the mix – wayneandwax.com?p=7340
Even (especially?) as it plays a little Heisenbergian game with my research, it’s really fun to hear the results. I’m especially charmed by how that familiar strain sounds on accordion, or ethereal and circus-y synths, or sung in a New Wavey style. These sorts of transpositions are not typical for a tune that mainly travels via reggae, hip-hop, and their offspring, but they speak just as strongly to the catchiness and flexibility of Yellowman’s lilting phrase. Hope you enjoy the subtle and not-so-subtle appearances of an old friend across these varied versions. I sure did!
West Coast examples of raggamuffin rap only appear briefly toward the end of our mix, so it’s great to have the picture fleshed out a little more. Here’s the hook —
Back when Shabba and Super Cat were killing the game in the early ’90s, the influence of dancehall could be felt throughout hip-hop. While East Coast rappers with Caribbean backgrounds like KRS-One and Heavy D collaborated with dancehall’s heavyweights themselves, artists from the West Coast—where the connections to Jamaica were less apparent—had to get a little more creative. Hence, the faux raggamuffin deejay styles on records by NWA, DJ Quik and other gangster rap acts of the day.
While I’ve got you here, I thought I should share something of an author’s cut of the Cluster Mag article, which had to be about half the length that I wanted it to be. At one point in the article, there appears a rather brief history of Jamaican soundsystem culture, accompanied by the disclaimer, “To make the very long story unforgivably short…”
Well, what else are blogs for? Here’s the longer version for any of you who care to read. For me, the little leaps of logic involved in the beginnings of reggae and rap really do deserve explication and emphasis –
Playing records to people, interactively, sounds totally commonplace today, because it is. But at the time that “soundsystems” in Kingston started holding dances backed not by bands but by savvy selectors with hot and hit records and powerful speakers, that sort of thing was hardly seen outside of sock hops or the first French discothèques. As they later did with the recording studio itself, Jamaicans were in the process of making the jukebox a live instrument, which required some little leaps of logic and a lot of ingenuity.
When Clement “Coxsone” Dodd was working as a migrant laborer in Florida in the 1950s, he attended lots of parties. And while picking oranges, he was also picking up plenty of the 45s running the local jukeboxes. Back then, there were two main sources for the soundtrack of the party: canned jukebox or live band. Returning home to Kingston, Coxsone decided to combine the two: to play records as live performance. He started with a PA at his parents’ pharmacy, bringing in customers with the slick sounds of Southern R&B. Before long Coxsone’s Downbeat soundsystems were operating across Western Kingston and beyond, vying with Duke Reid’s Trojan as keeper of the best downtown dancehall sessions. Soon after, he opened up Studio One, where the feedback loop between what dancers liked and selectors played could be made even tighter. Eventually, through the magic of dubplates and multitracks, selectors could rinse instrumental versions of popular tunes while, inspired by African-American radio disc jockeys, jive-slanging “deejays” such as King Stitt and U-Roy toasted in a local, cosmopolitan tongue. It didn’t take much longer, if another little leap of logic, for these masters of ceremony to become recording stars in their own right: in 1970, U-Roy’s first “talkover” singles—a trio of rocksteady-repurposing novelties—held the top spots on Jamaican radio for months.
This interactive approach to playing commercial dance records is, of course, essentially the same insight that would engender disco right around the same time, and which carries forward via house, techno, and their EDM ilk as perhaps the dominant paradigm of modern musical experience. It is also the same insight that sparked hip-hop—quite directly, in fact.
As the story goes, hip-hop was born on a summer night in 1973 in a rec-room on the ground floor of 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, an apartment building in the West Bronx, when Clive Campbell, better known as Kool Herc, hosted a party with his older sister Cindy. Born and raised in Kingston, Campbell was well familiar with the importance of a customized—and loud and clear—sonic experience. For the party, Herc borrowed a powerful PA from his father, a soundman for local R&B acts, and played the role of selector, hand-picking and cueing up records, as well as MC, using a mic to praise partygoers with rhyming routines, and to hype the musical selections, make announcements, and encourage dancing.
Like any good DJ, Herc sought to respond to the demands of his audience. Given the context, this entailed embracing certain soundsystem techniques—especially the license to manipulate a recording in realtime—while departing from what one might have heard at a dance in Jamaica. Despite borrowing liberally from soundsystem culture, Herc didn’t play reggae at the party. Among his peers, Jamaican music and style had yet to undergo the cool recuperation that eventually followed Bob Marley’s success and, more important in New York, the violent dominance of the drug trade by Jamaican gangs, or “posses,” in the mid-80s. Just as Herc made an effort to swap his Jamaican accent for a Bronx brogue, he played soul, funk, and driving disco tracks—especially records with stripped-down, percussion-led breaks—in place of reggae anthems.
Herc and Cindy began throwing parties regularly, and the audience steadily grew—as did Herc’s crew, including dedicated MCs like Coke La Rock and a coterie of flashy dancers. Running out of room at 1520 Sedgwick, Herc relocated to nearby Cedar Park where, repurposing what little civic infrastructure remained in a place haunted by the politics of neglect, electricity from a utility pole powered the soundsystem. In contrast to clubs, where cover charges and age restrictions kept teenagers out, the “park jams” were active incubators, stylistically and socially, of a new kind of public youth culture. In this way, Herc’s burgeoning audience, some driven West by gang violence in the South Bronx, helped essentially to co-produce a remarkable phenomenon: a vibrant party scene where local culture thrived as DJs, MCs, and dancers wrested new forms out of the resources at hand.
Hip-hop was so tied to realtime social gatherings in its early years that the idea of committing such performances to tape and selling them as commodities required some imagination. Recordings of parties were made, of course, and tapes circulated informally and even quasi-commercially, but it was not until a seasoned and savvy record executive, Silvia Robinson of Sugar Hill Records, saw potential in the form that the rap song emerged as such, six years after Herc’s back-to-school jam on Sedgwick Ave. Most of hip-hop’s biggest names at that time were not easily convinced, or drawn away from the relatively lucrative party circuit, so Robinson’s first attempt was more a studio simulation than a faithful rendering of contemporary party practice. Assembling a ragtag crew of aspiring rappers as the Sugar Hill Gang, Robinson released a 15-minute single called “Rapper’s Delight” stitching together popular routines drawn from such prominent MCs as Grandmaster Caz over a replayed loop from Chic’s “Good Times,” then a current favorite among hip-hop DJs. Despite its unusual length for a pop single, as a passably genuine artifact of hip-hop’s sprawling party style, “Rapper’s Delight” became a massive hit on urban radio, selling millions of copies and offering the wider world its first exposure to hip-hop. (Multiple Jamaican acts recorded reggae-fied versions of the song before the year was out.)
I’m very happy to share some new work that involves quite a bit of collaboration: two articles and a truly epic mega-mix devoted to the rich, ruff-and-ready sound of raggamuffin hip-hop — aka, dancehall-derived flows over breakbeat-based beats (ca. 1987-94). It’s a distinctive and special repertory, near & dear to me and my co-curator, Pacey Foster, and as longtime readers of W&W will discern, it’s a sound that emerges directly from the circumstances I examine in my dissertation.
It was my dissertation, in fact, which led to this latest article over at Cluster Mag, a contribution to their new Party issue (launching in full next week). This summer’s spate of reggae-laced hip-hop tracks led Cluster editor Max Pearl to ask if I could bring some context to the phenomenon, and I was more than happy to oblige. You can find it here:
While the Cluster piece includes a theorization and historicization of hip-hop and reggae as quintessential party musics, I was especially happy to delve into raggamuffin hip-hop as a particular, peculiar, and powerful example of the two genre’s longstanding interplay.
Pace and I have been geeking out over these records since we met a decade ago, and we were scheming on a raggamuffin hip-hop megamix well before we even had an outlet for it. Pace’s collection goes deeeeep, especially when it comes to Boston rap rarities and party-break white labels, and of course my “dissertation archive” (as I like to call my CD and MP3 collection) helped to flesh things out.
One other exciting part of this collaboration is that we’ve arranged to simultaneously publish a piece on the mixtape per se (and less on the social history and party theory) over at the blog of IASPM-US, which issued an admirable “call for mixtapes” earlier this year, and cross-posted at Ethnomusicology Review’s Sounding Board. For that piece, we’ve labored to discuss why we believe so strongly in the DJ mix as a form of sound scholarship. Since Pace and I both wear academic hats as well as DJ caps, we’re eager to share this work with an academic readership in addition to the hip, whipsmart Cluster massive and, not least, to all of you, dear readers of W&W DOT COM:
So, please go read the pieces, spread the links around, tweet and comment up a storm, and, of course, don’t neglect our 94 minute, 48 track mega-mix! And make some time for it — if you don’t get all the way to the end, you’ll miss some jaw-dropping raggamuffin rap c/o Slick Rick the Ruler, who despite his Jamaican heritage seems to have gone-in on the patois-patter but this one precious time. Here it is –
Blue Gardens, the new release on Keysound Recordings, is the brainchild of a new musical talent who goes by the name E.m.m.a. Simply put, it’s some of the best music — and one of the more coherent albums and promising debuts — I’ve heard in years.
My fave tracks are ones like “Shoot the Curl” or “Marina” with their sweetly curdling tunes and clicky soca, where melodies accrue & break & creak & whirr against a solid but shifting Carib-UK backbeat.
Honorable mention to the first single and the album’s one vocal cut, “Jahovia.” It’s great to hear Rebel MC riding the rhythm inna a classic reggae-rave fashion while E.m.m.a.’s newfangled textures let you know this is something else. Wicked video too, since somehow, synaesthetically speaking, the music already sounds like washed-out technicolor reels, full of sharp hue-turns –
Plus, you gotta love the array of influences E.m.m.a. pulls into the mix —
“American Nostalgia, Point Break, American high schools, bubble gum, picture houses, Coney Island, Hollywood, proms, Long Island, picket fences, boardwalks, Baroque tonality, Wendy Carlos, Delia Derbyshire, Jeff Wayne, Westerns, sci fi, spaghetti western soundtracks, Encarta ’96: genuinely these are in my mind,” she explains. “I just think the idea of the monopoly the Encarta encyclopaedia had on knowledge is ridiculous in the context of the present day. I’m not ashamed to say it’s my muse.”
And while I really should work to find more words to describe this music I’ve been enjoying so much, I like how it speaks for itself. And how E.m.m.a. does too. Plus, Joe Muggs sorta said it all already –
In essence, E.m.m.a. takes the rugged grooves of UK pirate radio, and adds an extra layer of melody and harmony which connects them back into the much longer history of synthesizer music as well as into a broader, vaguer realm of the imagination. Her synth timbres touch on sci-fi kitsch, Kraftwerk, early video games, the experimental home-listening techno of the 1990s, while the melodies they play have a suspended, dissipating quality, as if caught from a dream just at the point of waking.
Her beats, too, have an uncanny quality, generally touching on several points in UK soundsystem history – garage, rave, grime, the 2008-10 urban house sound of “UK funky”, the more undefinable sounds of “post-dubstep” – sounding familiar but not quite placeable in time. Despite the oddness of this, and despite its clear scholarliness in its sourcing of underground sounds, it’s a welcoming album, one which should be heard well beyond the usual circle of bass music fans. A haunting dream but one well worth getting caught up in.
I’d like to leave it there, but I want to take the opportunity to let this post stand as a long overdue bigup for Martin Blackdown’s Keysound label, consistently representing as it reimagines the sound of London. His program with Dusk on RINSE is, rightly, an international fave. I’ve had a few posts about their music & label sitting in my draft folder for literally years; and I’m remiss for not better publicly registering my enthusiasm for projects like Margins Music (which is, IMO, a 21st century London classic).
It may be high time to dust those drafts off. But I couldn’t resist the opportunity to get the good word about Keysound’s latest & greatest. Martin & Emma both bring big ears to what they do, and mine are grateful for it. Yours will be too.