It might be worth noting, amidst all this talk of translation (metaphorical and literal), that a great many Spanish reggae songs are quite literally traducciones.
(& Did u know that the Heatwave dudes’ last Blogariddims mix, “An England Story,” is due to be released on CD via SoulJazz?! [that means DL it while you can, sleepers.] && further, that they’ve released a 2CD reggaeton comp in the UK)
The other entity in question is word the cat. With posts all over the map, the cat has been doing some fine work in calling attention to local and global currents and intersections. In “local” matters, for instance, take his recent mammoth textsplurt (a major blog genre for us here at w&w) on UK hip-hop, wherein, it should be noted, JA and the US vie with cockney accents over how one hears home&away, self&uvver.
Chris the cat is responsible for calling my attention (in a comment here) to Uyghur pop, one of the more delightful discoveries I’ve had in recent months on the ‘osphere. Listening to those synthesized, autotuned, near-east/far-east beats and vox (and seeing them on video), I have to admit that my very imagination of “China” changed almost immediately, accommodating itself to less of a Beijing hegemony and instead to an image that included quirky Islamic pop booming in “autonomous” Western provinces. Music is rather powerful in that way — as representation — which is one reason among many to approach our own cultural translations with some serious sensitivity (unless we’re out to thumb our noses at someone or other, a reasonable tactic at times, no doubt).
When I learned, upon further clicking, that the music was to be (re)released by none other than Sublime Frequencies, I was not terribly surprised (though the amount of info around the sounds already promised more than the label’s typical flippancy, I’m not sure whether “purer, more carefully curated form” would simply mean removing some of the sonic&textual context).
Which brings me to another point that’s been rattling around in my head: it’s not that I don’t want labels like Sublime Frequencies to do what they do. On the contrary, I really enjoy a great many of SF’s releases. Part of my pleasure no doubt stems from the way they extend/challenge my familiarity with various places and their soundscapes: years of studying hardly anything but gamelan w/r/t Indonesia serves as fine prep for the dial-flipping pop-detritus on Radio Java. (Of course, other listeners without such background are simply wished to the library. As if.)
My problem then, in some sense, has less to do with the existence and practices of said labels (and other middlemen) and more to do with the fact that they remain clustered in the US and Europe, and hence the perspectives they share tend to skew toward the same ol, same ol. In a perfect world, a world without glaring inequalities of access to the tools of production, distribution, representation, etc., every corner could offer up its own idea of the sublime frequencies of every other corner. Perspectives could meet and diverge, centers could be decentered, things could fall apart and come together in unimagined ways.
How I would love to hear a Javanese take (or three, or four, or more) on, say, the Seattle soundscape.
In a recent issue of the SEM Newsletter (March 2007, to be precise), Phil Bohlman addressed the issue of cultural translation and how it presents a paradox to ethnomusicologists — or perhaps more broadly, to those of us who mediate musical representations in myriad ways (including via links and mp3s):
Should we understand our acts of translation as encounter? Or as appropriation? Encounter, even in its colonialist history, was meant to close the gap between self and other, clearly with power skewed toward the self. Appropriation, in contrast, often led to the eventual elimination of the gap, once the other was stripped of her identity. Inescapably for ethnomusicologists, this paradox bears the weight of ethical and moral imperatives.
Such imperatives are all the more reason to take cultural translation very seriously and to search for the means and methods that respect both author and reader, both original performers and those who listen and perform at a distance.
Ruminating on this while downloading a slew of new mixes from across the musiconnoisseurosphere, I can’t help but think about certain “nu” movements on the old ‘osphere (and, simultaneously, its meatspace analogs, outlets, and sources) — movements which I find promising and yet which, especially given my own involvement, also cause me to pause in “inescapable” knee-jerk reflexivity.
These new directions in musical production, circulation, and representation have been described in various ways, some giving more pause than others. If you’ve DL’d and/or danced to “baile” funk, kuduro, kwaito, and various global hip-hop/reggae/techno offshoots in the last couple years, then you probably have some sense of what I’m referring to: in contrast to more purist spheres of consumption and circulation (say, within reggae or hip-hop or techno), which can maintain a stubborn separatism, new movements in (and of) post-colonial pop/dance music have tended to swirl together via various eclecticist, ecumenical, open-eared (and perhaps open-minded) middlemen (and women). This embrace of “other musics” is not entirely unlike that in the “world music” circuit/market more generally, except that somewhat different notions of authenticity appear to animate the activity in these distinct, if overlapping spheres.
In what we might call “trad” “world music” discourse (e.g., deriving largely from the marketing attempts of the 80s and 90s) — the language and images and ideas mediating the explorations of Paul Simon, David Byrne, and Ry Cooder, as well as such record labels as Rough Guide and Putumayo — authenticity is often conferred onto the traditional, the pristine, the timeless, the exotic, that which has been untainted by capitalism, by Western cultural imperialism more generally, etc. Whereas the recent movements on the music blogosphere that I am thinking of tend to do the opposite: never mind these false ideas about purity, they seem to say, we want our global crunk, we want hybrids and fusions, we want mirror-mirror reflections and refractions of New World and Old World, North and South, East and West, we want music concerned with the future as much as (or more than) the past, we want drum machines and synthesizers and samples, for the local is always (trans)local and the global is (always already) here.
Of course, both “world music” discourses I am discussing here remain tethered to certain notions of (foreign, if familiar) rhythm, especially those figures that light up the “African”/”American” regions of our imaginations. But let’s leave that aside for a moment. (If, however, one is looking for an interesting perspective on this issue, see, e.g., Deborah Pacini-Hernandez’s “A View from the South: Spanish-Caribbean Perspectives on World Beat” [pdf].) Moreover, we might go further and note the preference among devotees of the new “world music” for the low-fi and DIY rather than the slick and commercial — a form of authenticity that dovetails with even as it departs from previous ideas about what, say, an African musician could or could not do in the studio in order to remain sufficiently “African” for local and foreign consumers alike. The question of “production values” and access to, say, Scott Storchian tech remains a vexed vortex for determining authenticity. (And, just for the record, as I’ve said before, there is no there there when we’re talking about the a-word.)
With regard to naming this new world music, one might simply gloss the constellation of genres as “urban dance music” or “global urban dance music” or some such neutral descriptor (as I and some ethnoid colleagues have done in framing our panel proposal for SEM 2007). Some have attempted to give it flashier names, hearing something of a global “ghetto” archipelago. (The number and spatial dispersion of myspace musicians identifying as “ghettotech,” for instance, is quite striking — and they’re not all tongue-in-cheek, or at least in the same way [same cheek?].) Still others nod to nu-metal, nu-rave, etc., to proclaim (or claim) a contemporary “nu world” movement. A brief, imagistic quotation from MIA describing her upcoming album for the Guardian would seem to point at, if not to shape, such a position: ‘Shapes, colours, Africa, street, power, bitch, nu world, brave.’ That last word, of course, despite perhaps a nod to Aldous Huxley, prompts us to wonder (or perhaps simply accept?) how much courage is involved in marketing the “nu world” to the New World (i.e., US consumers).
As the Bohlman quotations with which I began suggest, there is a fine line between encounter and appropriation, between, if you will, the half decent and the mad decent. As such, I’m deeply interested, being a middleman of sorts myself (for better or worse), in the ways we might understand the ethics of blogging about, mixing, zsharing, and otherwise mediating new world music (or whatever u wanna call it). Might we think about such activities as translations? If so, what is gained and what is lost?
Thinking about this should not necessarily give so much pause, however, that we stop uploading and downloading and DJing and dancing, and so toward that end, allow me to recommend some good outlets along the lines I’ve been tracing out above. There are the usual suspects of course — such globe-trotting champions of “other music” (and, yes, [always also] “self music”) as /Rupture and Maga Bo and Benn Loxo and their ilk — as well as these dudes, sin duda. Ghislain Poirier’s myspace page, for instance, currently describes his own distinctive, voracious, low-end theory as “Cosmopolitan ninja bass & chunky digital dancehall”! (I like that.) But let’s take this opportunity to note some other, perhaps lesser known, but quite chunky cosmopolitan ninjas in their own right –
Montreal’s Masalacists, for example, have been producing a stunningly consistent and stimulating set of mixes and podcasts and parties around the idea of global dance music, including some deeply detailed posts filled with outgoing links for more info & more music. Sometimes it seems — and this is where we get into the murky waters of translation — as if they give shape not simply to Montreal’s imagination of the world, but Montreal’s imagination of itself, the sound of Quebec undergoing the kind of demographic and cultural changes that have reshaped so many metropoles in the post- and neo-colonial era.
Similarly, London’s DJ Vamanos, who recently cooked up a guest mix for Masala and who kindly welcomed me to London by taking me to an excellent documentary on Cuban hip-hop at the ICA, seems to express in his posts, shares, and mixes that London is (eagerly) coming to polyglot terms with its imperial legacies and contemporary diversity and, moreover, that Britishness might accommodate itself to less provincial notions of self and home.
Of course, there are other ways to read and hear these things too.
When I first saw the name “Vamanos” — a misspelling of Spanish’s first person plural imperative, “vamonos” (i.e., “let’s go”) — I have to confess that I winced a little. For all the efforts at understanding a foreign cultural context, the name seemed to bespeak a certain ignorance, or perhaps the sort of irreverence through which certain idiot-savvy bloggaz attempt to mask their more cynical efforts. I have since come to appreciate it, however, as explicitly marking an inherent distance. It reminds me of similar (mis)spellings on the proto-reggaeton mixtapes of DJ Playero, for example, which might title one side “non stop reegae” and another side “raagga mix to mix” —
– whether ignorant or irreverent, the names make the same point that Playero’s dembow / melaza mixtapes make: they gesture directly and unmistakably to dancehall reggae while noting, quite obviously, that there is an act of translation underway. New contexts demand new texts.
And then, of course, there’s the slightly awkward URL for Señor Vamanos’s site: ghettobassquake, tapping into the “ghettocentric” discourses I noted above. As much as I appreciate the class and race politics of identifying with and championing the music of the poor, glorification of the ghetto is a vvvv tricky thing. These days I can’t get beyond this scene in my attempts at hermeneutical understanding of the complexities and contradictions swirling around such a project (even if one thinks it through a little more than John Brown).
Obviously, this is murky territory. Let me conclude, then, by pointing to one more interesting, and aptly named, node in the network: the Netherlands’ Murk, who recently cast his 3rd pod (or something like that) in a series that has explored — not unlike some of Dr.Auratheft’s work — a kind of EU-era, post-911 (anti?)orientalism. “Ranging from dub to hiphop, dancehall, breakcore and tekno,” as Murk describes it, Jihadcore
includes scraps of Mutamassik, Filastine, Appa, Tomatito, Sizzla, Elephant Man, T.O.K., Seeed, Nettle, Dead Prez, Timbaland, Sly & Robbie, Calibe, freesound.org, jury-rigged DIY beats and several mysteriously labelled Moroccan & Egyptian CD-R’s.
Let me say first that I dig the mix, as well as the first two in the series. I especially like how Murk lets us hear how those utterly occidental genres (if we’re gonna think in Huntingtonian terms), reggae and hip-hop, serve as global filters for the nu-oriental. At the same time, there’s something weird (once again) about the mixture of serious engagement on Murk’s part (which is no doubt required to beef up them bellydance beats) and what seems like flippancy. What makes the CD-Rs in question “mysteriously labelled”? Is it because they’re in Arabic? Just wondering. I wouldn’t know how to tell from Murk’s text whether they were actually somehow substantively mys/mis-labeled or whether Murk is mucking around (critically?) with the notion of ignorance and the sometimes seemingly impassable distance of foreign language and culture. Maybe that’s how he wants it, suggestive like the music. Which is fine. But how about some pictures of said CD-Rs, how about the story of how they passed into one’s hands, how about attempting to tell us a little more about the poetics informing the mix?
I’m not asking that all of us in our various guises and roles and such simply become ethnomusicologists. (Far from it — though that’s the subject of another post.) But I’d like to see more of us consider the kinds of questions Phil Bohlman so trenchantly puts to us –
Should we understand our acts of translation as encounter? Or as appropriation?
Sorry for the silence. It’s that time of spring — all mango-con-chili in the park and classes to finish up and articles & anthologies to tie together and whatnot. More soon, tho, I promise.
Meantime, for an early summer bubble fix, I meem you Cajmere’s classic Chicago house, maximinimal, proto-juke joint, which was apparently a big chune in the Bmore scene way back, and moreover, is a living, breathing, downright YouTubospheric phenom, vying with the Wu-Tang in Philly and who knows what else & where –
// 2011 update //
imeem got nuked a long time ago (and all I got was that lousy orange ad), so here’s a YouTube –
Those of you familiar with WHRB, Hahvid’s student-run radio station, will no doubt be familiar with its semester-end “orgy” ritual: as students go back (or begin) to read up on a term’s worth of material for their exams and papers, the radio station broadcasts marathon sessions devoted “to a single composer, performer, genre, or subject.” Back in the day, as a member of the jazz dept, I convened a John Zorn orgy, during which I got a call from a guy who said his dog was enjoying it very much but he was not. Can’t please everyone.
But who could possibly balk — dog or human — at 23 (almost) straight hours of the best damn music blogga podcast going? If you’re in the Boston area, or if you’re a streaming type, you can catch the full Blogariddims series in orgy form beginning tomorrow night and hosted by Greg “Beat Diaspora” Scruggs. Here’s the deets –
11 hours (wed 5/16, 10 pm to thur 5/17, 9 am)
+ 12 hours (thur 5/17, 8 pm to fri 5/18, 8 am)
= 23 hours of the entire blogariddims podcast in order of appearance
Below is the “paper” I “gave” at EMP and IASPM last month. Longtime readers may notice samples from things I’ve written here and there, and I should note — apologize even — that this is, as one might expect, the awfully cursory sort of overview that a mere 20 minutes and about as many musical examples (barely) permits. Do read the following, then, as but a draft of a more measured, more textured cultural and social history — a zigzagging story about the migrations and manifestations of a well-traveled musical figure. I will continue to version these texts and sounds no doubt, on the blog and — before too long we hope — in a book. As always, I appreciate all the helpful & encouraging feedback I’ve received, my dear readers, colleagues, and interlocutors (e.g., here and here). Your words and ideas and mp3-shares echo through these stories I’m spinning, as I hope you can hear, and no doubt they’ll continue to reverberate. But without further ado —
Follow Me Now: The Zigzagging Zunguzung Meme
by Wayne Marshall (April 07)
What can we learn about hip-hop and reggae, about the US and Jamaica, about race and nation and place and migration, about music, from the movements of a musical meme? To put it more concretely, what might Mos Def mean when he says, at the beginning of Black Star’s 1998 lead single, “Definition” –
We might be tempted to dismiss Mos Def’s accented invitation — “follow me now” — as a bit of ethnic filigree, especially in a moment — the late 90s — when the sounds and images of Jamaica, including Bounty Killer’s signature “Lawdamercy,” had accrued as much cultural cache as ever, offering alluring mirror-mirror images of black heroes and gangsters and lovers and sufferers, as vividly portrayed, for example — perhaps too vividly — in the contemporary Hype Williams feature, Belly. And especially in a place like Brooklyn, a place which had been deeply reshaped by Jamaicans in the last few decades of the 20th century. We might be tempted, then, to ignore such accents, such foreign but familiar phrases. Why take Mos Def at his word when so many other MCs, across the boroughs and further afield, have often donned the trappings of Jamaicanness, often via some cliché or other? The melody that directly follows the call to follow, however, compels us to attend a little more closely. When we’re asked in this manner, implored even, to follow Mos Def, it’s not simply to follow his lyrics and flow, impeccable and engaging as they may be, it is also to follow him in song.
Like any torch bearer of tradition, Mos Def expects that we’re noting, or at least feeling, the deep degree of intertextuality at work in the song, an articulation of texts and times and places enabled by a set of indexical musical figures. Mobilizing the power of musical memory, he invokes two well-worn late 80s hip-hop melodies, both of them associated with seminal recordings by Boogie Down Productions — and both from tracks which themselves sampled and adapted other resonant melodies infusing the New York soundscape. Black Star deploy such familiar figures in mourning and in warning. They bemoan the violence that had recently claimed the lives of two of the genre’s shining stars, Tupac and Biggie — two rappers who themselves, in memorable, widely-heard recordings, alluded to the same melody that Mos Def connects to KRS-One.
As with dead prez’s resonant, radical use of the riff shortly thereafter –
– Black Star’s homage to BDP’s “Remix for P Is Free” on a song addressing the deaths of Biggie and Tupac thus represents more than a capricious, if canny choice in the service of what otherwise might be taken for a little resonant retrofitting. For a lot of hip-hop artists and aficionados, BDP’s Criminal Minded stands as foundational — as the first, or at least loudest, shot fired in the gangsta rap revolution, and hence as responsible, in part, for pushing the genre into a realm of Scorcese-noir crack-rap, offering the kind of bleak, brutal, and often cartoonish stylings (in spite of constant claims to the real), which remain central to hip-hop today and which seemed to spin out of control in the late 90s, culminating in a stunning set of events whereby life appeared to imitate art.
On De La Soul’s 1996 album Stakes Is High, which at times approaches a similar attempt at downright, downhome intervention as Black Star’s debut, the group sets the tone by opening with a collage of interview fragments, as various respondents recount the first time they heard Criminal Minded, framing the album’s 1987 release as a kind of Kennedy Assassination for the genre — a singular, unforgettable, transformative event, marking a new and less innocent era. Notably, while foreshadowing the album’s sad and sardonic critique, the skit takes on a celebratory, nostalgic tone –
One of the voices we hear here is Mos Def’s. And the warmth in his recollection is revealing. Black Star’s invocation of Boogie Down Productions’ melody is not a cynical move. It’s a tribute — radical but reverent. And it propels itself and projects its meanings by channeling not just hip-hop’s past, but the contemporary sound of New York, a sound which, strikingly, can be represented at this point — “to the fullest,” we might add, nodding to B.I.G. — in such a creole tongue.
If this seems striking in 1998, how striking then that Black Star’s “Definition” essentially covers a track that had been recorded, if in another borough, over a decade before? To put it more directly and suggestively, isn’t it remarkable that as early as 1987, Boogie Down Productions could represent the Bronx with such a Jamaican voice — the same Bronx, mind you, where a decade before they were throwing Jamaicans into garbage cans (to paraphrase Kool Herc via Jeff Chang) — and, moreover, represent it in such a manner at a time of intense, interborough rap rivalry, as in the feud between BDP and Queensbridge’s Juice Crew. But there’s little question about the success of such a sonic strategy: KRS-One’s posse-inflected, rude bwoy / b-boy stance and dancehall-derived routines were clearly working, and doing no little cultural work in the process. His recycling of the tune but a year later suggests that it struck a chord:
The resonance of such sounds bears witness to a seismic social and cultural shift in New York City during the 80s and 90s, a product of continuing migration from Jamaica as well as the coming of age of many second-generation Jamaican-Americans. Orlando Patterson describes the surprisingly slow, if perhaps inevitable, cultural shift that followed on the heels of these changes in New York’s social fabric — a reshaping of the city’s demographic profile which has been examined extensively by sociologists such as Mary Waters and Philip Kasinitz. Patterson writes,
Reggae spread to the United States as a result of a second mass migration of the Jamaican working class [the first was to England], which began with the liberalization of American immigration laws in the early 1960s. A new kind of West Indian migrant now entered America, not the relatively well-educated, highly motivated petty-bourgeois migrants of previous generations, but the working-class and lumpen-proletarian people from the Kingston slums. Eventually, the reggae music these new migrants brought over with them, along with their disk jockeys and dance halls (as well as their gangs, the notorious posses), were to influence black American youth, but what is interesting is how long it took to do so.
A recording like Criminal Minded, so replete with references to reggae, would seem to offer some confirmation of this cultural process reaching a critical stage, though, in circular fashion, it may also have played no little role in further promoting the already quite fearsome profile of Jamaicans in New York — a reputation largely earned by the ruthlessness of the posses, drug- and gun-running gangs loosed from their ties to Jamaican political patronage by the cocaine trade. Though their reputation was in many ways deserved, as Laurie Gunst details in Born fi Dead, the images of savage, black foreigners were eagerly taken up by the press and eventually by Hollywood, leading to such arch villains as Screwface, the dreadlocked, cannibalistic, psychopathic foil to Steven Segal in Marked for Death, never mind the dreadlock- and mesh-marina-sporting alien in Predator, who, lest one suspect this reading a stretch, actually squares off against dreadlock-wearing Jamaican posse members, representing — one can only surmise — yet another form of invasive, predatory alien, in the Danny Glover-starring sequel to Schwarzenegger’s box-office hit.
In stark contrast to the threat of harassment that beset Jamaicans in the early 70s, the powerful, new significations of Jamaicanness in the 1980s could be a young immigrant’s saving grace. In his memoir, Gunshots In My Cook-Up, Guyanese-born hip-hop journalist Selwyn Seyfu Hinds recalls getting into a confrontation one night while walking through the streets of Brooklyn. As he and his friends are surrounded by a menacing group of teenagers, he decides on a telling strategy to evade a beat-down: “I was scared shitless,” he recounts,
The kind of fear when your Adam’s apple swells up and seems liable to burst out your throat. So I did what most recently arrived Caribbean kids in that era would do in such a situation . . . I began talking with a Jamaican accent.
‘Wha ya deal wit? Mi nah wan no trouble, seen?’
See, Jamaicans had a rep in those days. Still do. Jamaican kids in Brooklyn were thought of as fearsome, aggressive, not to be fucked with lightly. For the rest of us Caribbean folk, donning the trappings of that reputation when convenient was a welcome ability.
In a similar fashion, employing Jamaican language, reggae melodies, and the battle style of Jamaican soundsystems represented an explicit, and fairly successful, aesthetic choice — a musical-cultural tactic — for a young KRS-One seeking to distinguish himself and his crew from rival rappers. As he tells it (to Brian Coleman):
Oh, man, the damage we used to inflict on these groups, it was just crazy. We’d go into these clubs and they’d set up the battle and I would just start rhyming, and it wasn’t just the Jamaican lyrics. It was how we battled. We battled like a Jamaican sound system. You played one record, then you’d rewind, and the crowd would go crazy.
One borrowed sonic weapon among many, the distinctive little melody that propels “Remix for P” would have offered charged connotations to borough audiences. The tuneful couplet that imbues “Remix for P” with some of its cool and deadly, cocky swagger, was by that point a well-established melodic resource in dancehall reggae. By mid-decade, it had underpinned choruses and allusive interjections in a number of recordings — including several songs which were, in so many words, international hits (at least in that they were played in nightclubs in New York, London, Miami and other centers of Jamaican migration). At the musical and social events where KRS-One no doubt honed his Jamaican accent in an ironic reversal of Kool Herc’s attempts at assimilation and translation a decade before, the young MC would have heard any number of dancehall artists recycling the recognizable phrase — or versioning it, as they say in Jamaica. By 1985, the short, singsong melody had already animated performances by Super Cat, Frankie Paul, Ranking Toyan, Sister Nancy, and, of course, Yellowman, who, despite his proclivity for t(h)iefing melodies, as they also say in Jamaica, appears — at least to my searching ears — to have been the first to put it on wax. (Note that King Yellow changes the contour of the tune on the live version from an AA to an AB, the form which most subsequent rehearsals take).
Quite closely related to New York hip-hop’s engagement with the sounds of Jamaica, an engagement bearing witness to a cultural currency tied to social shifts in the city, Puerto Rican hip-hop producers and vocalists also increasingly incorporated reggae riddims and melodies into their own productions and performances. The embrace of reggae in Puerto Rico, today marketed to the American mainstream and the world (and especially to pan-Latin audiences) as reggaeton, originally could be heard informing a similar sort of cultural politics as we note in New York.
Sometimes called melaza, or molasses (signifying as sugar does), sometimes called underground (marking its economic position as well as a connection to hip-hop), and sometimes called dembow (after the Shabba Ranks song that producers such as Playero and DJ Negro jacked for beat after beat), Puerto Rico’s rap-reggae fusion, especially in the mid-90s, was also promoted, in song, as música negra, as black music — no small statement in a place that identifies as 80% “white” on the US census. The blackness of Puerto Rican reggae-rap was not only proclaimed by vocalists representing, “en la casa / para la raza,” but was expressed indexically via direct musical quotations. In addition to producers sampling the hip-hop and dancehall hits of the day for their dense, collage-like pistas or tracks, Puerto Rican vocalists made their own musical connections by reworking the same well-worn melodic contours that appealed to Super Cat and Sister Nancy, Buju Banton and Bounty Killer, as well as KRS-One. That the Zunguzung meme could be found in several seminal hip-hop tracks only affirmed its resonance in this sense, especially among Nuyoricans —
Hence we might hear the invocation of Yellowman’s melody in these examples embodying a musically-propelled cultural politics. Representing in suggestive, sonic form what Juan Flores calls the “cultural remittances” of “transnationalism from below,” such articulations challenge longstanding notions about the relationship between home and away, Puerto Rico and diaspora, and thus offer what might be heard as audible harbingers of the rediscovery of Puerto Rican negritude and a reconciliation of Puerto Rican national identity. As Flores argues:
while traditionally the translocal Puerto Rican sensibility was characterized by the emigrant longing for the beauties of the long-lost island, in some rap texts and among street youth it was the urban diaspora settings of the Bronx and El Barrio that became places of fascination and nostalgia.
And yet, while we might hear such an articulation of cultural politics in Puerto Rican invocations of the Zunguzung meme, even as artists in question mobilize the melody in the service of braggadocio or somewhat aggressive forms of flirtation, other appearances of the melody — in particular in recent stateside, commercial hip-hop — appear to suggest ways that such critical connotations can grow muted in the same way that reggae figures more generally seem to have been absorbed into hip-hop’s lexicon.
As the Zunguzung meme becomes, for certain performers and audiences, just another reference to the hip-hop canon, we hear how reggae paradoxically disappears into hip-hop’s vocabulary by virtue of its very centrality and ubiquity. This is partly KRS-One’s fault, for he so successfully infused his influential recordings with reggae borrowings that they almost immediately became more familiar than foreign. But it is no doubt also in part the fault of Biggie and Tupac, whose uses of the melody were likely more widely heard than any others and yet made no overt reference to Jamaica. On Junior M.A.F.I.A.’s “Player’s Anthem,” which centers on whether one loves “hip-hop” and if so whether one will grab or rub certain body parts to prove it, Biggie seems primarily to be invoking hip-hop tradition — that is, KRS-One’s seminal allusions — and of course, Tupac employs the melody, in turn, to demean and threaten Biggie.
Some years later, looking for the perfect hook, Joe Budden re-animated the well-worn musical meme on “Pump It Up,” though, notably, he employs only the A phrase of the melody rather than the more common AB version, perhaps suggesting sonically some distance from earlier examples. As we might expect, the echoes of Yellowman’s catchy phrase grow even fainter in Jin’s “Learn Chinese” (2004), a recording released not long after (and which makes direct reference to) Budden’s “Pump It Up.” “Learn Chinese” represents not just another node along the “Zunguzung” network but yet another degree of slippage from the tune’s reggae roots. The invocation of the melody is preceded in the song by the young MC’s admission of having “Biggie Smalls posters all over the walls,” suggesting a likely knowledge of Biggie’s use of the melody, but not necessarily confirming a connection to other, earlier instantiations. And the most recent example of what we might call an unknowing invocation of Yellowman’s melody comes to us via VH1’s and EgoTrip’s White Rapper Show. Asked to produce a club banger with Just Blaze, the producer of Joe Budden’s successful Zunguzung interpolation, aspiring rappers Shamrock, Sullee, and 100 Proof, make direct reference to “Pump It Up” in order to push the song along, if a little flatly —
Perhaps we can hear an even clearer, if different, sense of slippage as the Christian rock band POD, featuring Hasidic singjay Matisyahu, employ the phrase to proclaim themselves warriors chanting down Babylon –
Regardless of whether the melody connects back to Yellowman and Jamaica for artists and audiences — which I maintain is an important question, but one that I’ve yet to ask any of these performers — there is plenty we can say about the way such a phrase functions. It is rather remarkable, for instance, how often the invocation of the meme serves to direct, to instruct, to implore — a product of accretionary meanings, no doubt, but perhaps also related to the very processes of musical memory, of invoking a set of sonic symbols that can subconsciously compel listeners to follow along. At times this can feel like a coercive marshaling of musical memory, as if something automatic emerges in that moment of recognition, of sympathetic vibration. One feels forced to respond, to hum along or nod along or push up a hand, a finger, a gun salute.
Across the various versions we’ve heard here, we’re not only drawn into the feelingful realm of musical memory by the melody, we’re frequently simultaneously told to do something, as if the artists take advantage of the opportunity, of the moment of sudden resonance: “bubble for me,” they say, “push up your hands,” “grab your dicks,” “grab your glocks,” “hold your head,” “do your thing.” Cultural politics dovetails here with body politics, and sometimes with the body politic itself — as in the case of Cutty Ranks, who demonstrates during a performance at a political rally in 1986, how the melody could be pressed into the service of politics qua politics, of electoral politics, of “party” politics, if you will; indeed, of People’s National Party politics –
I’m afraid this overview only scratches the surface of meanings and narratives we can read from these myriad instances, but I think it provides nonetheless an intensely audible example not only of the musical, cultural, and social connections between hip-hop and reggae and reggaeton. In a more general sense, it also tells us something about why music echoes across time and place, and, indeed, how music can inform and texture our notions of time and place. Listening to the Zunguzung meme as it reappears again and again, accruing new meanings in new contexts and recalling (or not recalling) the connotations of previous occurrences, we hear how music can draw and redraw the lines of community, compelling us to follow along, sometimes whether we’d like to or not.
An Ever Growing Timeline of the Zunguzung Meme:
[Update (May 2010): I've added an additional 14 instances (!!!) which people have brought to my attn, especially via comments below, in the 3 years since I posted this piece. Now that's distributed research! Thanks so much to all, and keep em coming!] [Update (March 2011): I've continued to add instances as they bubble up; I've now lost count of how many additions I've made since initially publishing this post!][Update (April 2013):The list is now up to 50+ appearances, and I've finally replaced the mini-mix audio below with a longer and more complete record -- more like a mega-mix!]
1982 — Yellowman, “Zunguzungunguzunguzeng”
1982 — Yellowman & Fathead, “Physical / Zunguzung (Live at Aces)”
1982 — Sister Nancy, “Coward of the Country”
1984 — Frankie Paul, “Alesha”
1984 — Toyan, “Hot Bubble Gum”
1985 — Little John, “Clarks Booty”
1985 — Super Cat, “Boops”
1986 — Cocoa Tea, “Come Again”
1986 — Cutty Ranks @ StereoMars PNP Rally
1986 — BDP, “The P Is Free”
1987 — BDP, “Remix For P Is Free”
1988 — BDP, “T Cha T Cha”
1988 — Queen Latifah, “Princess of the Posse”
1988 — Masters of Ceremony, “Keep on Moving”
1988 — Sublime, “Roots of Creation”
1989 — Nice & Smooth, “Nice & Smooth”
1989 — Nice & Smooth, “Dope on a Rope”
1991 — Leaders of the New School, “Case of the P.T.A.”
1992 — Lecturer, “Gal Yu Mean It”
1992 — Sublime, “Scarlet Begonias”
1992 — Leila K, “Open Sesame”
1993 — Us3, “I Got It Goin’ On”
1993 — K7, “Zunga Zeng”
1993 — KRS-One, “P Is Still Free”
1993 — Jamalski, “African Border”
1993 — Buju Banton, “Big It Up”
1994 — The Coup, “Pimps (Freestyling at the Fortune 500 Club)”
1994 — Ninjaman, “Funeral Again”
1994 — Bounty Killer, “Kill Or Be Killed”
1995 — Buju Banton, “Man a Look Yu”
1995 — Junior M.A.F.I.A. ft. Biggie Smalls, “Player’s Anthem”
1996 — 2pac, “Hit ‘Em Up”
1996 — Captain Barkey, “Go Go Wine”
1996 — Junior Dangerous ft. Lucas, “Comin’ Out To Play”
1997 — Cru, “Pronto”
1998 — Mr. Notty, “Sentencia de Muerte”
1998 — Black Star, “Definition”
1999 — Lil’ Cease ft. Jay-Z, “4 My Niggaz”
2000 — Dead Prez, “It’s Bigger than Hip-Hop”
2000 — Daisy Dee, “Open Sesame”
2000 — Wyclef Jean ft. Xzibit and Yellowman, “Perfect Gentlemen Remix”
2001 — Ñejo, “El Problema Ser Bellaco”
2003 — Joe Budden, “Pump It Up”
2004 — Jin, “Learn Chinese”
2005 — Looptroop, “Chana Masala”
2006 — POD ft. Matisyahu, “Roots in Stereo”
2006 — JD (aka Dready), “UK Zunga Zeng”
2007 — White Rappers, “One Night Stand”
2007 — Gwen Stefani ft. Damian Marley, “Now That You Got It”
2009 — Wax Taylor ft. ASM, “Say Yes”
2010 — Vybz Kartel, “Whine (Wine)”
2011 — Tifa, “Matey Wine”
2011 — Rankin Taxi & Dub Ainu Band, “You Can’t See It, and You Can’t Smell It Either”
2011 — Yellowman, “Zungguzungguguzungguzeng (Horsepower Productions Remix / Dub)”
2013 — Benga & Kano, “Forefather”
A Mega-Mix of the Zunguzung Meme –
A couple remixes I cooked up are now available (again) for listening and/or other forms of consumption — and in context at that!
1) Mick Sleeper continues his deeeeeep Scratch Perry podcast with an episode collecting a number of remixes of Scratch recordings, including my mashy take on “Bird in Hand,” which brings together a classic from Return of Super Ape and the Bollywood song from which, perhaps a little implausibly, it obviously / audibly took its inspiration. Hear it in context here.
2) Boston’s best toypiano studio wiz, Twink, has put together an entire CD of remixes of his quirky, brittlesweet symphonies, including — alongside fixes and twitches by the likes of Mochipet — my own attempt at a hopped-up, Dutch-bubbling, Boston-bouncy dubble dub. (Buyable.)
Thx to Mark Calaguas for a few more notches in the Zunguzung tree, including a slippery interpolation by Ninja Man on “Funeral Again.” And, get this, two uses by Nice & Smooth — in the same way, and on CONSECUTIVE TRACKS (?!) on the same album: “Nice & Smooth” and “Dope on a Rope.” Interestingly, they just rap over Yellowman’s repeated vocal loop, using it as another voice in the texture, something which didn’t really become common in hip-hop until the chipmunk funk of RZA and Kanye, et al. — and then still seemed avant-garde at times. I think this is partly possible because Yellowman is just chanting some enchanting nonsense (which would be true for many listeners even if he were rapping in patois). But it’s a pretty avant-garde move in its own way, especially to employ the loop on two songs in a row, as if it’s the funky drummer or some shit.
These latter uses, though, remind me of a very similar contemporary deployment & on a downright document of its day, “Zunga Zeng,” a hip-house, club/dance crossover jawn by ex-Latin-freestyle crooner Louis “Kayel” Sharpe (aka, K7), which, atop a digital sample of Yellowman’s catchy chorus, features some bizarre turns of phrase, flips of tongues, and uses of words. To wit:
Y yo te hablo
Como te gusta
I talk to ya
Just like you like it
Te toco eso
Como te gusta
A ragga Rasta!
Just like you like it
// dissertation snip //
Before embarking on a solo career, Kayel was one-third of the group TKA, a “Latin freestyle” trio, releasing the kind of synthesizer-heavy, electro-propelled dance pop and syrupy ballads that, as performed by acts such as Expose, the Cover Girls, and Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam, found large audiences in New York, New Jersey, and Miami. … In an interview with DJ Johnny Budz, Kayel himself calls TKA’s style “dance pop music,” but he also draws his musical genealogy more precisely when asked about hip-hop’s contributions, “Hip-Hop is the mother sound of Freestyle and R&B, and I grew up listening to that kind of music.” Indeed, the hip-hop influence, not to mention a healthy dose of dancehall, emerge much more audibly in Kayel’s work as a solo artist. K7’s debut, Swing Batta Swing, was a certified gold record, largely due to the popularity of “Come Baby Come,” a track that, with its gruff-toned, call-response vocals and catchy nonsense syllables — ba-dang-da-dang-da-dang-da-dada-dang-dang — was clearly informed by, and piggy-backed on the popularity of, the crossover-oriented dancehall (e.g., Shabba Ranks) which was finding traction in U.S. “urban” and pop markets at around the same time. A description in the All Music Guide affirms the perception of K7 as an act bringing together these stylistic threads: “New York City native K7 had success in the mid-’90s with his fusion of rap, dancehall, and dance.” The group’s Yellowman-sampling second single, “Zunga Zeng,” would have been widely heard as both an album cut and a minor club-anthem. Yellowman’s decade-old refrain would not have seemed at all out of place for the increasingly polyglot pop emerging from New York City at this time.
“Zunga Zeng” not only gives us a window into the continued penetration of reggae into the American pop vocabulary, it also demonstrates the particular production values of its day. Although we hear group harmonies and a prominent synthesizer melody, this is not the freestyle music of TKA. The sole synth-line, a high-pitched, wheezy melody, connects the production to the “G-Funk” that had come increasingly to define L.A.-based hip-hop and found widespread favor on Dr. Dre’s multi-platinum outing, The Chronic (1992). Although the beefed-up breakbeats — enhanced with synthesized drums and a booming bass reminiscent of the Roland TR-808 — underlying “Zunga Zeng” point to Dre’s production style as well (in particular, to the albums for N.W.A. and Eazy-E, whose “Nobody Move”  also featured a sampled Yellowman refrain), the influence from West Coast hip-hop ends there. Despite its pop-sheen, the rest of the production fits easily alongside contemporary, N.Y.-based hip-hop, especially those songs, such as Naughty By Nature’s “O.P.P.” (1991), which also enjoyed some radio-play and sales-chart success. Between the “dusty,” well-worn breakbeats and the saxophone loops and more fragmentary jazz samples (recalling sample-based producer Pete Rock), “Zunga Zeng” typifies a particular kind of sample-heavy hip-hop production. Coming at the tail-end of hip-hop’s “Golden Age” when, still unbridled by the chill of copyright litigation, sampling practices ran rampant, such tracks often dazzle in their dense mix of musical signifiers. In this context, a Yellowman sample represents yet another layered reference in a rich world of recorded music ripe for such “plundering.” And yet, despite the leveling effect of such a motley mix, the choice to sample from a reggae song, and from “Zungazung” at that, represents a significant strategy. What we hear in K7’s music is a condensation of New York’s varied soundscape, but “Zunga Zeng,” as a pop-savvy song, does more than merely distill the city’s “sound”: it mobilizes a set of resonant figures, with reggae firmly (if distortedly) in the center, in order to strike a chord with contemporary listeners.
The presence of reggae signifiers in such an ephemeral yet widely heard track as K7’s “Zunga Zeng” further confirms, as it propels, the presence of Jamaican musical style in the American mainstream. As if to dispel any doubts about dancehall’s influence here, not only does “Zunga Zeng” contain a sample of Yellowman’s “Zungazung” (which includes not just the vocals, but the bass, drums, and other sounds of the original arrangement — all pitched/sped up), Kayel also peppers the recording with the same cliché interjections that also gave BDP’s music some of its Jamaican tinge, including the distinctively Jamaican stylizations of onomatopoeic gunfire (“Bo! Bo! Bo!” “Bddddrrrrap! Bddddrrrrap!”). Perhaps more telling is the appearance late in the song of the terms “ragga” and “Rasta” — two common signifiers (if empty ones in this case) of Jamaican-ness. Kayel pronounces the terms side-by-side, without any elaboration of their significance, suggesting that their employment here functions primarily — and revealingly — as a kind of play for authenticity, seeking to cement the vague but powerful sonic connections to reggae which otherwise operate at a more implicit level throughout the song. Interestingly, the references appear at a moment in the song (at around 3:00) when Kayel is otherwise rapping in Spanish, suggesting at once the foreignness of and familiarity with Jamaican language:
Y yo te hablo
Como te gusta
I talk to ya
Just like you like it
Te toco eso
Como te gusta
A ragga Rasta!
Just like you like it
This seemingly more explicit attempt to foreground the Jamaican-ness of “Zunga Zeng” seems as nonsensical (but nevertheless meaningful) as the scat-like syllables that begin the song. The collective response to these two relatively unrelated signifiers (save for their common Jamaican-ness), is, “just like you like it” — perhaps acknowledging the current vogue for dancehall style. The placement of these Jamaican terms after the translations that precede them, however, appears to create an odd equation: K7 juxtaposes “te toco eso” (trans., “I touch you there” or “I touch that [thing] of yours”) with “a ragga rasta,” which perhaps is to say, coyly, “this Jamaican-style music touches you, no?” Then again, maybe we should not make too much of this passing reference except to note that K7’s employment of such Jamaican terms appears at least to confirm their currency. After all, the song is a light bit of club fare: the lyrics are so much dance-pop doggerel — though remarkably bilingual given the American mainstream’s general intolerance of anything but English — rarely rising above such clichés as, “Move! / Come on, come on! / Hey ladies, let your bodies flow!”
Not atypical for a dance-pop (or even hip-hop) single, “Zunga Zeng” was released as an “extended mix” 12-inch including three remixes and an a capella vocal. The various remixes allow the record to appeal both to DJs in search of different, seemingly “exclusive” versions and to DJs within niche markets — such as Latin freestyle — who might not otherwise play the original version. The remixes illustrate K7’s cross-market strategy, linking stylistic features to demographic targets (e.g., mainstream/top-40 consumers, dance-floor denizens, the “Latin” market). At the same time, the multiple versions of “Zunga Zeng” also give Kayel an opportunity to demonstrate the breadth of styles that informs his sound and to make additional sonic (and thus social) connections. The “Diamond Mix” substitutes different samples but stays essentially within the same hip-hop/dance-pop style: a bluesy guitar line takes the place of the jazz fragments and sax riff, new (but again familiar) breakbeats provide the rhythmic drive, while a soul-jazz organ provides some occasional lift. On the “F.U.N Mob Remix,” orchestral “stabs” and vocal grunts flesh out the texture as yet another well-worn breakbeat (from Melvin Bliss’s “Synthetic Substitution”) serves as anchor. Occasionally, a freestyle-evoking bassline enters and some light synth percussion plays in right channel. Different from the other versions, the “F.U.N. Mob Remix” features the vocalists engaging in some call-and-response with the Yellowman sample toward the end, while a second breakbeat, on every other bar, adds to the percussive texture.
The “Top Dog Remix” is perhaps the most interesting of all. Beginning with spacey synth, followed by a programmed break and a slinky bass lick, the track quickly breaks into a synth-heavy workout, replaying, at a faster tempo than the original, the accompanimental track to Yarbrough & Peoples’ dancefloor classic, “Don’t Stop the Music” (1981). A clear and impressively faithful homage, the beat re-connects K7 to his freestyle roots via the sounds of electronic R&B, one of the major tributaries feeding the freestyle sound. On this mix, the Yellowman sample is gone in lieu of a group rendition of “zungazungungusunguzeng” since, presumably, the new texture is too dense to mix with the Yellowman sample (and its accompanying arrangement). Connecting further to the sounds of freestyle and electro (both of which frequentlt employed vocoder technology), some vocals on the “Top Dog Remix” are electronically-processed, including the chorus vocal, “I love to turn you on.” Fulfilling the tribute, there is a short bridge of sorts following the chorus, during which the texture and chord progression change substantially while a female voice sings a memorable (and, for hip-hop and R&B listeners, oft quoted) phrase from the Yarbrough & Peoples’ original: “I just wanna rock you, / all night long.” The short but faithful interpolation departs rather strongly from the rest of the song, but given the multiple references already at play here, it is easily reconciled within the intertextual world in which K7’s music revels.
On Tuesday (5/1) and Thursday (5/3), from 11am-12pm, I’ll be delivering what have become my annual lectures on Caribbean music to Orlando Patterson’s “Caribbean Societies” class at Harvard College. Tuesday’s lecture will focus on Afro-Latin traditions, while Thursday’s will turn to the history of Jamaican music, though there will be, of course, some intersections between the two. The lectures will take place in Sever Hall 103.
Coming four years after my initial lectures, during which time I’ve been able to engage a lot closer with all of these musical traditions and their social and cultural histories, this latest series of talks is bound to be better and tighter than ever. If you’d like to hear some excerpts from my talks back in 2003, though, here’s the “Jamaican” lecture in 6 short parts –