Been working on a review of ethnomusicologist Michael Veal’s recently published book on dub (it’s called Dub [BUY!]), which I will share with y’all before too long; meantime, as I jot down some excerpts, I thought I’d share some of my favorite passages — insightful thoughts and neat narratives and such.
To wit, a nice summation of different directions in Jamaican pop circa the 70s:
The sylistic evolution of Jamaican popular music along both local and transnational lines was a complex and intertwined process; in terms of the aesthetics of production, however, reggae developed in two general directions during the 1970s. One direction was represented by musicians like Marley, Peter Tosh, Toots and the Maytals, Jimmy Cliff, and others: these were the figureheads anointed by the multinational record industry to introduce Jamaican popular music to the international audience. For this reason, their music was often recorded at better-equipped studios outside of Jamaica and was marked by high-end production values, more sophisticated chord progressions than were the local norm, and rock/pop stylizations such as electronic synthesizers and lead guitar solos. As with most pop music, there was a strong emphasis on singing, and specific songs tended to be associated with specific performers. Song lyrics tended toward themes of social and political justice filtered through the religious vision of Rastafari. The biblical undertones of this vision translated onto the world stage as a universalist sentiment that struck a chord with post-World War II American and European rock audiences.
Although it came to sell significantly abroad, another direction in which reggae developed was represented by musicians producing music largely aimed at the local Jamaican audience, associated during the 1970s and early 1980s with producers like Bunny Lee, Linval Thompson, Joe Gibbs, Junjo Lawes, and the Hookim brothers. How did the music differ from that of performers like Marley and Tosh? DJs — vocalists who rapped over rhythm tracks — were becoming nearly as popular as singers inside of Jamaica; in terms of song lyrics, however, the difference was not always so pronounced. The Rastafari-inspired lyrical themes were shared by both camps, such as those addressing African repatriation, the benefits of ganja (marijuana) smoking, the heroism of Marcus Garvey, quotations of Scripture, or the divinity of Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie. Certain topics tended to be more prevalent in the local sphere, such as the ever-present “slackness” song (generally sung by DJs) focusing on sexual topics, the “lover’s rock” genre of romantic reggae (which actually had roots in the music of Jamaican immigrants in England), the songs addressing the political violence that was engulfing Jamaica, or songs relating to current events in general. One clearly important difference between local and international reggae was in their respective sites of consumption. As opposed to attending the concerts staged abroad by musicians like Marley and Tosh, most Jamaicans enjoyed music in dancehalls and at outdoor dances at which recorded music was provided by mobile entertainment collectives known as sound systems.
Possibly the clearest difference between the two types of reggae was in the sound, and it is the sound of Jamaican reggae that I primarily address in this book. In contrast to the music aimed at the international market, the production values and seemingly “virtual” construction of much of the music aimed at Kingston’s sound system audiences probably seemed downright errant to many American, European, and upper-class Jamaican listeners at that time, whose listening tastes were conditioned by the naturalist values of much rock and roll and soul music. This music, in contrast, drew attention to itself as a _recording_ in a particular way. These Jamaican singers did not always conform to the chord changes of a song, and sometimes even sang in a different key altogether from the musicians. Vocalists didn’t even always sing; many times they casually rapped over the rhythm tracks as if they were carrying on a conversation in spite of the music underneath. The vocals also sometimes seemed strangely discontinuous; no sooner would a singer complete a stanza of a song, before a different vocalist (usually a DJ) began shouting over the music in apparent disregard of the original vocalist; the varying fidelity made it clear that these vocalists did not record their parts at the same time. The music also seemed oddly mixed. The bass sounded unusually heavy and the equalization strangely inconsistent, as the sound veered back and forth from cloudy and bass-heavy to sharp and tinny. The individual instruments didn’t play continuously, but zipped in and out of the mix in a strangely incoherent manner. At a dance or on the radio, it seemed as if you could hear the same rhythm track for hours on end. …
Essentially, the artist-based marketing of Jamaican musicians in the Euro-American audience by multinational corporations did not prepare one for the often bewildering complexity of a music that, in its natural context, was multiply elaborated by a multitude of voices moving between the fluid sites of stage, studio, and sound system. Even within Jamaica, popular music has moved in and out of phase with radio networks, with music producers and radio programmers sometimes holding strongly contrasting ideas about what constitutes acceptable or appropriate broadcast quality and/or content. It was these rougher qualities that were sometimes deemed in need of “smoothing out” by multinational record labels, in their attempt to market reggae internationally. As such, they are largely absent from the Jamaican music most familiar to non-Jamaicans. Ironically, however, the same musical choices that made local Jamaican music sound so “pre-professional” to mainstream Western ears were simultaneously visionary and deliberate. The approach Jamaican producers and recording engineers took to the production of music would make a subtle, structural, and long-term impact on world popular music in subsequent years, providing openings for new practice in the areas of form, structure, harmony, orchestration, and music production. It illustrates that postindependence Jamaica has been an important source of material and sound concepts for the international music industry, with reggae itself being, in the words of Louis Chude-Sokei, “a vehicle for the dissemination of larger ideas about sound, oral/aural knowledge, and technical innovation. (4-6)
I’d say that’s a clear and informative summary as well as a sly, persuasive argument that makes dub the kernal, the center, the impetus even, of what comes to be known as dancehall — and then of “world popular music” more generally (which I wouldn’t really disagree with, though the process was a messy and multinodal one). Veal seems to elide over eras a little easily here, and he sets up value judgments (only to knock them down) from a norm residing well within the (how imaginary?) world of “mainstream Western ears” (I know why he does this — he’s writing a book for musicologists and works in a “music” department — but I wonder if we should continue doing this sort of thing); despite a few quibbles, however, I find it a cogent passage. In just a few paragraphs, Veal imparts a much deeper sense of what reggae is than most people tend to have — (Isn’t it remarkable how often reggae gets tagged with the “all sounds the same” pejorative? A classic confession of cultural ignorance.) — and provides an orientation to dub’s significance for the wider musical world.
Here’s another good one, one which tells you again about the kind of book Dub is:
All the talk of circuits, knobs, and switches can distract one from the fundamental reality that what these musicians were doing was synthesizing a new popular art form, creating a space where people could come together joyously despite the harshness that surrounded them. They created a music as roughly textured as the physical reality of the place, but with the power to transport their listeners to dancefloor nirvana as well as far reaches of the cultural and political imagination: Africa, outer space, inner space, nature, and political/economic liberation. Nevertheless, this book will focus on those knobs and the the people who operated them, in order to develop an understanding of the role of sound technology, sound technicians, and sound aesthetics within the larger cultural and political realities of Jamaica in the 1970s. (13-14)
then there’s this sharp statement on the prominence of bass in JA pop and the stylistic transition from rocksteady to reggae, a moment that has needed more elucidation than most periods in reggae history:
Ever since the R&B and ska years, when sound system operators pushed their bass controls to full capacity in order to thrill and traumatize their audiences and have their sounds heard over the widest possible outdoor distances, the electric bass had grown in prominence in Jamaican music. The first Fender bass had been introduced into Jamaica around 1959 by bassist/entrepreneur Byron Lee and by the rock steady period, Jackie Jackson had emerged to define the instrument’s role more precisely. As rock steady began to slow down into what became known as reggae, it was this instrument that became the key to the new style. Structurally, reggae was partly common practice harmony and song form, and partly a neo-African music of fairly rigid ensemble stratification in which the fundamental ingredients were an aggressive, syncopated bass line, a minimalist (but highly ornamented) drum set pattern, and a chordal instrument (usually guitar and/or piano) playing starkly on each offbeat eighth note, elaborated by a syncopated “shuffle organ” emphasizing the offbeats in sixteenth-note double time. The “one drop” became standardized into a minimalist pattern in which the bass drum emphasized beats 2 and 4, the snare (playing mainly on the rim) alternately doubled the bass drum or improvised syncopations, while the hi-hat kept straight or swung eighth note time. There were also several other popular patterns and variations, such as the popular “steppers” rhythm in which the bass drum sounded on each beat while the snare played interlocking syncopations, or the “flying cymbal,” which imported the offbeat hi-hat splash of disco music and fused it with the one drop.
Although rock steady is generally considered to have “slowed down” into reggae, it actually accelerated (via the double-time shuffle organ) and decelerated (via the half time drum and bass) simultaneously. It also tightened considerably, as rock steady had at times retained some of the ensemble looseness of ska. Because of this juxtaposition of downbeat and offbeat, along with the tighter ensemble texture, the net effect of “roots” reggae (as it came to be known) was simultaneously of midair suspension and firm grounding, of density and spaciousness, of weightiness and weightlessness. (32)
Well put, I’d say.
& this is an interesting, and insightful, interpretation of the role the DJs played in breaking apart notions of song, thus suggesting (or indeed, “prefiguring”) some of dub’s profound approach to form:
… the process of stripping songs down to their essential components must be understood as substantially intertwined with the practice of deejaying; while studio engineers were beginning to use the mixing board to open songs up from the inside, their work was clearly prefigured by the deejays who destroyed song form from the outside. Rapping, chanting, and shouting their laconic improvisations often irrespective of harmonic or formal changes, and asking their selectors to “pull up” (stop and restart the record) at every opportunity, the deejays were rudely and creatively disrespectful of song form. Ultimately, the aesthetic of fragmented and superimposed vocalizing that would become such an important part of dub music could be thought of as at least partially inspired by the performance style of the sound system DJs and selectors. (56)
and this pithy bit on (musically-mediated) notions of “Africa” is well worth repeating:
Drum & bass was thus one of many instances in which musicians of African descent began to deconstruct and Africanize the Western popular song according to whatever ideas prevailed about which musical choices constituted “Africa” in their particular location.
despite the de-emphasis on Africa as a lyrical trope (although this also began to reverse in the early 1990s), the emphasis on dance music has allowed ragga to become arguably _more_ polyrhythmic than the one drop orientation of roots reggae, drawing simultaneously on Jamaica’s neo-African drumming traditions and the accumulative logics of digital sampling as influenced by hip-hop. In fact, the interaction between Jamaican music and hip-hop since the 1980s has been as dynamic as its earlier interactions with jazz, soul, rhythm and blues, and funk.
If those weren’t enough to get any reggae enthusiast reading, take Veal’s conclusion that dub’s “Afro-inflected humanizing, communalizing, and spiritualizing of new forms of sound technology is almost surely its most profound contribution to global popular music” (260). It’s a strong contention and one that Veal largely supports in his detailed study. The best part of the book is no doubt the middle section, which features interview-supported readings of some of dub’s greatest engineers/producers and the recordings they made, accounting for technological, social, and sonic matters. But more on that in a few days, when I post my review (which won’t appear in print, I’m afraid, for about a year).
For anyone interested in hip-hop history Brian Coleman needs no introduction, he is the author of Check the Technique: Liner Notes for Hip-Hop Junkies (Random House/Villard, 2007) and Rakim Told Me: Hip-Hop Wax Facts, Straight from the Original Artists (Wax Facts Press, 2005). Over the past decade he has written extensively about hip-hop for publications such as Scratch, URB, Wax Poetics, Boston Phoenix, XXL, The Source, and NY Press. He has lived in Boston since 1988 and has played funk and hip-hop over the airways through his show on WZBC. Tonight we get a rare treat as he will DJ a live set culled from his massive record collection. About his set, Brian says: “My playlist, as just selected: LISTEN TO THE MUSIC! A Random Pantload of Ill ’80s Hip-Hop Instrumentals. Subheadline: a Tribute to Leccos Lemmo, the Dub Hop Show and the man called Magnus. [the latter was solidified after meeting Pacey Foster for lunch yesterday].”
As an extra special treat the amazing producer edIT (Glitch Mob, Alpha Pup, Planet-Mu) will be in town from LA tonight dropping a set at Beat Research as part of his “Certified Air Raid Material” tour. As an original member of both LA’s Konkrete Jungle crew and the DubLab radio show (under the monikor Con – Artist) edIT has been involved with bringing out the experimental side of hip-hop and bridging it with the world of electronic dance music since back in the day. Last time he came through BR he brought the beats hard and funky and left the place a heaving sweaty mess — ring the alarm, you have been warned.
Oct 8 :: Filastine
Filastine creates music and live sets that bend genre, charting a new sonic map by synchronizing mutated hiphop with other street rhythms and international obscura. Filastine recently dropped his debut full length record, Burn It, to much critical acclaim, followed by a few vinyls on labels Soot and Shockout, and a new split mix CD with DJ/Rupture. In less than a year Burn It has been licensed and re-released three times, by French label Jarring Effects, Japanese label ROMZ, and the anonymous Crimethinc.
For the last year Filastine has brought his soundclash to clubs, squats, festivals, and underground spaces across the globe, from Buenos Aires to Reykjavik, Osaka to London, and all points in between, delivering the beats with laptop, midi triggers, loudspeaker, and percussion mounted on a shopping cart. Recently Filastine played both at a festival in Casablanca in front of twenty thousand people, and in a plastic hut on the coast of Japan for twenty people. He enjoyed both equally. With zero industry hype or promo budget his tracks have made it onto radio from BBC1 in the UK to pirate radio stations across South America.
Oct 15 :: Maga Bo
Maga Bo is a DJ/producer working with an international collision of styles, sounds, location recordings from all continents and beats that have yet to be classified. A study in the digital contortions of hip hop, ragga, breakbeat and jungle drum ‘n’ bass.
His sound is a divine (s)mashup of batucada, rai, capoeira, bhangra, and skewed electronic beats in a borderless conundrum of gritty street sounds, found and modified rhythms and melodies from Brazil, Morocco, Senegal, India and beyond. DJing and producing tracks with a portable laptop studio, he has worked and performed in North and South America, Africa, Asia, and Europe.
Oct 22 :: Sarah Nehama and Verbnine
Sarah Nehama has been an important presence in the Boston soundscape for some time now, sharing her deep collection of Arab pop and other eclectic sounds. She’s bound to have a bagful of goodies on-hand for her Beat Research performance. As an added treat, Verbnine — former resident of Spectrum with DJ Flack and DJ C — will be dropping a set prior to his return to Israel.
Oct 29 :: Halloween Party w/ DJ RNDM and DJ C !!
Beat Research regular DJ RNDM and former resident DJ C will be on-hand to bring out the fun and spooky vibes. You can be sure to expect both tricks and treats from these deft DJs.
Mobb Deep’s Prodigy alleges he was set up by the “hip-hop cops.” Listen >>>
Pull quotes —
The hip-hop cops, they all over us, son.
When they locked me up, they tried to get me to set up 50 Cent. … They told me to plant stuff in his car and they’d let me walk.
We gotta put cameras in our car. … And when they pull you over, you press record. … How much it cost to buy a car? It costs a lot of money, so you might as well take a few extra thousand and put some cameras in there, man.
These niggas don’t know, they only making me stronger. Like, they really crazy. Locking Prodigy up? Are you crazy? You know what you doing by doing that? You’re making me Malcolm X right now. I’m about to really go in right now. It’s on right now, y’knomesayin?
The hip-hop cops, they told me straight up and down, last time they pulled me over. They was like, “Yo, son, get used to seeing us. We’ve been assigned to you. So get used to seeing us.”
But you know what? That’s illegal. That’s called profiling. That’s called racial profiling. They profiling us ’cause we black rappers, y’knomesayin. And we rich. And we making money. So they profiling us, and that’s illegal. They’re not allowed to do that, y’knomesayin. Like, straight up and down, I don’t care what kind of “task force” they’ve got. It’s illegal for you to profile people just because they rich and they black, y’knomesayin.
…locking me up for 3 years? They don’t understand how strong they making me right now, yo. Like, my team is about to go crazy on the street. Mark my words.
You know I’m getting to work. I’m about to shoot, like, 15 videos right now. I’m about to go in right now. Like, these niggas have no idea what they’ve done right now for me, y’knomesayin. Like, straight up and down, I see things so clearly right now, it’s a motherfuckin rap, son. Like I’m tryna tell people, whoever’s listening: stop fuckin puttin rims on your car, stop buying all this fuckin faggot-ass jewelry that they stealing from people in Africa anyway, and just put cameras in your car. … Think about your safety, think about surveillance, and fuck that. … Protect yourself.
There’s about to be a whole lot more wakin up. I’m about to shake this motherfucker up. Watch this. … Get ready, son. It’s on.
& not just b/c the Sox have convincingly emerged from the 20th century “Curse of the Bambino” triumphant and dominant, but also b/c we’re gonna be gettin down at BR with two of Boston’s best DJs: virtuoso rekkid blenda, dj rndm, and Boston Bounce originator and Beat Research founder, DJ C !!
Tony Flack and I have brought DJ C back to town to engage in some actual classroom-based Beat Research. He’s gonna be visiting Tony’s “Beat Research” class at MassArt this week, as well as my “Digital Pop: From Hip-hop to Mashup” class at Brandeis University on Tuesday and my Electro-Class at Harvard Extension School on Wednesday. My classes are both going to be turning to dubstep this week, listening to it in the context of the post-hardcore / jungle / d’n’b / garage / grime genealogy (what some would call the nuum). Dj C’s been riding this wave of breakbeat-infused/inspired and dubwise music for well over a decade, and so I can’t think of many people who would be better to talk about — and demonstrate! — some of the distinctive musical features of these genres.
Since both of my classes have an important hands-on dimension (producing tracks in the genres that we’re studying in historical and cultural context), I asked Jake if he might shed some light on how to craft those distinctive “wubbity wubbity” bass lines that have so powerfully propelled some of the biggest dubstep tunes in the last few years. Well, C — aka Jake, aka Mr.Mashit — has outdone himself, preparing (and posting!) an informative tutorial, “Bass Research,” on the Mashit blog.
That’s an extraordinarily generous gesture on his part, and I want to take the opportunity not only to thank him publicly and point readers that-a-way but to call for other producers out there to share their own tips and tricks in similar ways. (E.g., I’ve done a little of this, but not very recently; YouTube is full of how-to videos; sites like this offer a wealth of info; etc.).
I’ve had some trouble in the past convincing collaborators to share their knowledge in this way. That knowledge, some would say, constitutes a serious competitive advantage. But I’ve been showing students everything I know for years without thinking twice about it. The fact is, at bottom, that no two people are gonna make the same music, regardless of what techniques or tools they have in common. People who are too shook to trade secrets clearly lack confidence in their own ability to craft original beats. That’s silly. We all have unique musical backgrounds and affinities and imaginations to draw on, and the tools or techniques we use will only determine the sound to a certain extent. So, I’m sayin: share, share alike!
The advent of digital technologies for producing and circulating music, ideas, and software has created profound new possibilities for real music industry to take the place of a corrupt, teetering music industry (i.e., the kind of hogs who stifle the oinks of the world). Let’s network, y’all.
And now, in closing, allow me to move from universal impulses to more provincial concerns, which is to say: GO SOX! GO SOX! GO SOX!!!!!!!!!1111111111
the curse has been our collective albatross, an ontological imperative to live in dread.
& I have to say that, in the wake of this season’s march to the championship, that dread is completely, utterly gone. Watching the Red Sox at this point is practically (ok, not quite) like watching the Patriots. Srsly, it’s quite amazing how different it feels to be a Sox fan, not to mention to witness the NYT claim that the Red Sox are the new Yankees.
I really don’t want that to happen, though. I don’t want the feeling of overcoming a curse and clawing our way to winning to be replaced by guilt about payrolls and ambivalence about the club’s character. And like the fans quoted here, I sure don’t want A-Rod on our team —
In Denver, as the Red Sox celebrated their fresh World Series title on the field, a few hundred fans stood behind the third-base dugout and gave them some off-season advice. They shouted, â€œDonâ€™t sign A-Rod.â€ Earlier, the fans had chanted the R-rated version of â€œA-Rod stinks.â€ Mike Lowell, Bostonâ€™s third baseman, can become a free agent, too, so the fans also chanted, “Give Lowell the money.”
But enough stinkin thinkin for now; now is the time for ebullience. In other words,
“Hipster hedonism takes many forms,” wrote Ned Polsky in reply to Norman Mailer’s hipster manifesto of 1957. “Some hipster groups,” Polsky continued, “have everything to do with motorcycles, whereas others have nothing to do with them.”
Similarly, but more in the abstract, in his genealogy of the hipster, “Hip and the Long Front of Color” (1989), Andrew Ross notes that “Hip is a mobile taste formation that closely registers shifts in respect/disrespect toward popular taste.”
Ingrid Monson provides a more specific historical view of these various shifts in hipster style in her 1995 essay, “The Problem with White Hipness,” while attempting to find some unifying themes across time&space:
The idea of hipness and African American music as cultural critique has, of course, detached itself over the last fifty years from the particular historical context of bebop, circulated internationally; it has inspired several generations of white liberal youth to adopt both the stylistic markers of hipness, which have shifted in response to changes in African American musical and sartorial style, and the socially conscious attitude that hipness has been presumed to signify.
Each in their own way, and all together, Polsky, Ross, & Monson thus help us to think through the contemporary “problem” (or problematique, as ebog would have it) whereby the ontology of the so-called “hipster” seems to have had its connotations loosed from Mailer’s sense of the term — that is, an existentialist rebel attuned to the Negro’s “Messianic mission,” as contemporary critic Jean Malaquais sniped. At this point, at least for some, the hipster simply mediates novelty. From such a perspective, there’s nothing much wrong, beyond a certain superficiality, with being a “hipster” — and I appreciate the critique that the term itself has become an overused stereotype that may obscure far more than it reveals. (Srsly, for all the folk I know who might fit facile descriptions of hipsterism, I can’t say that I would call any of them a “hipster.” Stylee, sure. Hipster, no.)
Indeed, some “dirty pigeons” (thx, ebog) so clearly reject any significations of negrophilia and embrace cultural notions of whiteness to such an extent that poptimistic music critics feel a need to pull their card. Dirty pigeons look even dirtier when white, it seems.
It is deeply interesting to me that so many commenters on my earlier post seem to feel that hipster has lost its race-y meaning. Clearly the whiter-than-white indie rock hipster formation is part of what gives us this sense of a “deracinated” hipster. But Sasha’s provocative piece on “musical miscegenation” (or a certain lack thereof) reminds us of the dialogic relationship between the hipsters who, on the one hand, embrace the signs of blackness in a way that would seem rather consistent with hipsters of the past and those who, on the other, seem to do the exact opposite, to retreat into whiteness, as I’ve called it in the past (& Sasha also employs the term retreat in his critique, notably).
If we see Sasha’s critique of lily-white indie rock as articulating the two sides of the hipster coin, diverging manners of engaging with (or retreating into) racial stereotypes, then we see the way that even that form of hip which seems to reject the symbols of African-American culture is still, in its own twisted ways, bound up with the romantic, raci(ali)st caricature of black masculinity and sexuality that so seduced Norman Mailer into thinking that middle-class whites using the right slang and seeking “the good orgasm” were existential rebels a half-century ago. Rock’n’roll, right, SF/J?
Against all of this hairsplitting, Mailer’s essay remains illuminating. It’s quite amazing how much some of its sentiments still resound with contemporary hipster discourse, even if, as many commenters here have protested, being a hipster today seems, in many cases, to have very little to do with a “fascination with / appropriation of” black culture. But as far as I’m concerned — that is, in my attempt to clear my good name understand the circulation of nu-whirled music — those issues of fascination and appropriation are still very much in the foreground. As is blackness (as a lens into an engagement with the exotic). And the way that I’m trying to articulate that side of the hipster coin is to pose a question about, as I’m currently calling it, “the postcolonial hipster” and in particular the resonance of what we might conceive as “global ghettotech.”
the face of ghettotech (RIP)
A quick search on MySpace returns 42 pages worth of artists or groups identifying as (at least one third!) “ghettotech.” And while the majority of those drop-down menu picks may be simply cheeky or whimsical, there are certainly a good number among them that attempt to wave the banner of ghettotech in some earnestness. (Contrary to popular discourse about hipsters, I think that “ironic distance” is actually kinda overhyped as a mode of reception.) Even if somekinda earnest, we have to ask, what the hell does ghettotech mean to all these people? Is it the same thing it meant to Disco D, the popularizer of the term (according to this primer)? Is it the same thing it means in Detroit or Chitown or Bmore or elsewhere where the term is less likely to be used than, say, the far less ghettotastic, “club music” or “dance music” or “booty music”? I doubt it.
Although my own coinage, “global ghettotech” as a term seems to identify a certain sphere of circulation and a certain (in this case, actually ironic) celebration of the ghetto therein. The irony in the celebration is not a distanced form of appreciation, but a product of the glaring (material) contradictions between those who are celebrating and those who are celebrated.
In a timely, reflexive reflection on the rise and fall of kuduro (at least in the hype machine), Guillaume comes right out and talks about the “hipster blogosphere” as the site for these exchanges, these representations of “hard ass” music. (He also calls himself a “white nerd,” which is an important part of all of this, no doubt. And there’s no way I can duck that label.) It is telling that a commenter at the low-bee forum Guillaume points to, asks of kuduro: “could this possibly be the next world bass bashment after baile?” And that sort of says it right there, or at least draws the connections quite clearly. Moreover, a lot of the discourse around kuduro on that forum marks the search for “NEW SOUNDS” and “staying ahead of the curve” as crucial to hipness in a constantly differentiating economy (of cool, of hot, of sounds and ideas), hence creating new niches for exchange value, as Nabeel points out. Returning to Ross, we find some resonance in the following characterization: “Hip is the site of a chain reaction of taste, generating minute distinctions which negate and transcend each other at an intuitive rate of fission that is virtually impossible to record.” In this sense we certainly see how the hipster mediates (and seeks out) novelty. But the novelty here is, I contend, not simply about newness. It’s about black newness (or is it new blackness?) — coded, often enough these days, as bass.
So I wonder whether the ghettobassosphere is not in some sense feeling the same as Sasha: let’s leave behind (or chant down) whiteness and all it represents, let’s embrace bass, space, and syncopation and all the things we could be if middle-class white women weren’t our moms (to paraphrase Charles Mingus).
This sort of critical move, which can no doubt be read as progressive in certain respects, also gets us into some tricky turf, at least vis-a-vis the historical hipster’s problem with primitivism. As Monson contends,
Whether conceived as an absence of morality or of bourgeois pretensions, this [hipster] view of blackness [as transgressive], paradoxically, buys into the historical legacy of primitivism and its concomitant exoticism of the “Other.”
Sasha’s conclusion then, a winking reference to the etymology of rock’n’roll and the “risk” that came with it, brings us right back to what Monson calls, in reference to Mailer’s celebratory tract of 1957, “the bald equation of the primitive with sex and sex with the music and body of the black male.” And though I’m not accusing Sasha of perpetuating these stereotypes too blatantly (and indeed, I think we should go easy on Sasha and applaud him for painting in bold, broad strokes), there’s no avoiding the resonance, the lurking essentialism, no matter how explicitly we may decry or attempt to avoid it.
This relationship between the primitive, blackness, and desire gets rather directly to what seems like a major part of the contemporary problematique of white hipness: the internet permits new “engagements” with the “Other” that are so thoroughly mediated (by discourse, by distance, by comcast) that the sense of “risk” which once animated hipsters heading up to Harlem has become really quite virtual, and hence, hardly constitutes a risk, or transgression, at all.
Global ghettotech projects old loci of authenticity outward: foreign black is the new black. And in this sense the lens through which we hear something like kuduro emerges inevitably from the cultural / economic logic that makes African-American music global, as well as, I suspect (unfortunately), the (post/neo)colonialist logic that carries forward some rather old, if perhaps not outmoded, modes of reception — the ways we hear and make sense of such new, whirled music as funk carioca, kuduro, and the next flavor of the month.
Sure, this is about (the insidious distinctions of) connoisseurship and perhaps there is no getting past that (indeed, expressing a taste for Bourdieu itself stands as a form of distinction within an academic economy of ideas and status), but I really would like to think that what I am doing here on this blog, even when I’m boosting an Argentinian mashapero or an African-American DJ, is much more than engaging with the “hipster” economy — that somehow my own (hopefully explicit and reflexive) exercise of taste on this blog, not to mention as a DJ or professor, has more to do with calling attention to critical blindspots and ways of reading (or not reading) contemporary culture than with a kind of unreflective circulation of the new (black) that largely serves to boost my own status. Call me naive, but don’t call me a hipster.
Getting down to the nitty gritty, this is about class (as Carl Wilson notes w/r/t Sasha’s piece), and hence race, and — crucially — about the digital divides of the internet: the paradox of an unprecedented degree of access to the sort of exotic cultural symbols (from baile pics to grainy youtube vids) that some “hipsters” employ as cultural capital, coexisting with an actual, racialized, class-based process of gentrification in which the very objects of affection / fascination / appropriation are being forced out of the same local spaces that now provide wifi connections for hipsters to do some DLing on the DL. As I wrote in a comment to my hipster post:
The coexistence of this celebration and embrace of difference against a social reality in which, for all the signifiers of cosmopolitanism around us (esp in, say, Brooklyn, or London), the forward march of gentrification continues apace, makes for a vexing paradox: in other words, our post-colonial neighbors are cool enough to download at a distance, but we don’t really want to live together (or do other things together, as Sasha would have it).
— or as Ross concludes: “Hip is the first on the block to know what’s going on, but it wouldn’t be seen dead at the block party.”
To close (for now), I have to admit that even if the idea of “race” is (perhaps) receding in importance for newer generations, or if hip today signifies yet some recognition of “the far from ideal conditions and circumstances under which racial integration [is still] beginning to feel its uncharted way” (to revise Ross), given the enduringly racialized lines of class inequality in the US (= the other side of the white privilege coin) — never mind the way things look when we extrapolate from the “West” to the “Global South” — I find that Ned Polsky’s bracing conclusion, responding to Mailer, remains rather relevant for a cultural moment that puts 50 Cent on a pedestal / virtual auction block (whether he gets money or not in the transaction is, I’d wager, fairly inconsequential):
Even in the world of the hipster the Negro remains essentially what Ralph Ellison called him — an invisible man. The white Negro accepts the real Negro not as a human being in his totality, but as the bringer of a highly specified and restricted “cultural dowry,” to use Mailer’s phrase. In so doing he creates an inverted form of keeping the nigger in his place.
“To swing with the rhythms of another is to enrich oneself — the conception of the learning process as dug by Hip is that one cannot really learn until one contains within oneself the implicit rhythm of the subject or the person.”
“(And yet crazy is also the self-protective irony of the hipster.”
“the nihilism of Hip proposes as its final tendency that every social restraint and category be removed”
“the organic growth of Hip depends on whether the Negro emerges as a dominating force in American life”
Readers of this here blog surely need no introduction to Mr.Bo. He’s been making waves for a while now with his world-whirling, genre-busting mixes — not to mention his excellent series, “Sambacana,” devoted to the wide whirled of Brazilian music. Given that mixing urban music of the world has become, oddly and delightfully enough, somewhat commonplace these days, one of the things that makes Maga Bo special is that he not only downloads globally, he works locally, collaborating with vocalists and instrumentalists from Rio to Dakar to Casablanca and thus bringing the exciting and exacting realm of face-to-face, interpersonal, intercultural communication into what all too often is a disembodied, static kind of engagement with other music.
Nothing like a good breakbeat to serve as glue. He’s been posting videos lately too!
Dang. I think Simon just referred to my blog as “hipster chatter.” Them’s fightin words, Reynolds.
I mean, I’m sayin, I only own one belt and maybe 3 pairs of sneakers, tops.
For serious tho, I’m very curious to know what constitutes hipsterism — for Simon and for others — at this moment in time. What makes a hipster a hipster? What value does the term retain if we begin playing fast and loose with it, if we begin labeling a rather wide variety of practices and perspectves as hipster-ish?
It’s clear that the value of hipster today is one of racial/class critique — that is, we usually use it to describe a certain kind of privileged (i.e., white) fascination with / appropriation of black culture. (Of course, how that applies to “chatter” about jumpstyle — which is about as far from “blackness” as we can get — is another question.) The term hipster has become, almost exclusively I think, a pejorative. (Are there any self-identified hipsters out there? I don’t think so.) And the meanings of hip and hipster have clearly changed quite a bit over the past 50 years, as Joe Twist pointed out a little while ago (see also).
I wonder about these questions not just for navel-gaze-ish, anxious reasons, but for intellectual and activist reasons too. I wonder about both what is problematic and what might be productive / progressive about hipster engagement, hipster practice, hipster ideologies. Indeed, this is something I’m really trying to wrap my head around at the moment, for I’m working on a paper that deals with what I’m calling “Global Ghettotech and the Postcolonial Hipster” — basically, trying to make sense, with some self-reflection no doubt, of the circulation of nu-whirled music in the blogosphere and beyond.
Toward that end, I would be grateful to any readers who care to add their two cents to the discussion. Allow me to pose a few possibly provocative questions:
1) Do you think I’m a hipster?
2) Do you think you’re a hipster?
3) Do you think Simon Reynolds is a hipster?
4) What is a hipster — and is hipsterism an unmitigatedly bad thing?
Curious to hear what people think, and the reasons why —
Been enjoying the ASA conference in Philly for the last few days. Our panel on Thursday went pretty well, I think. We actually seemed to have some coherence across our papers and although we had a rather compromised a/v situation (holding a Shure 58 to laptop speakers don’t really cut it in a ballroom), I think my own attempts to incorporate all sorts of YouTubery actually worked.
Interestingly, my engagement with / analysis of the YouTubosphere® seems to have been the part of my paper that left the greatest mark, at least according to the feedback I’ve received. It seems sorta elementary to me that YouTube would be a rich site for con/textual readings, but maybe that’s because I’m a blogga and have been doing that sort of thing for a while now. Not sure. But allow me to share a few of my more YouTubological® paragraphs here. Hope they’re of interest to the non-academics who read here too. (Btw, yet again I’ve discovered, while talking to colleagues at this conference, that there are a lot more academics reading my blog than I usually imagine. All you lurkers could leave a comment from time to time, y’know. I like to have a sense of who’s reading; it really does inform the way I write.)
Music’s centrality in the formation of American racial ideologies is amplified by the “new media” spaces of digital public spheres. In a world of globalized media, US-produced and US-inflected texts still dominate, in particular those musically-propelled products which perhaps carry US racial ideologies more explicitly than others (hip-hop and reggaeton certainly come to mind). In the circulation of music videos — especially karaoke-style versions of the most popular, or “viral,” videos — cross-racial performances appear more visible than ever, offering with their mix of exhibitionism and voyeurism, intimate glimpses of desire and distance, love and theft. The YouTubosphere thus stands as a new and perhaps unprecedented public stage for dramatizations of race and nation. Tellingly, a great many videos show people lip-syncing and dancing in front of a mirror, whether an actual (but unseen) mirror or the mirror provided by one’s computer screen when the web-cam is rolling. In such performances, there emerges a sense of possibility, of new projects and subjectivities in formation, even as one also sees, no doubt, the legacies of blackface minstrelsy once again come to the fore.
It speaks volumes that the most viewed video on YouTube features a white stand-up comic performing the “evolution of dance,” beginning with some moves cribbed from Elvis and riffing on Vanilla Ice and Eminem, among others.
Offering a rather virtuosic survey of US dance forms, the video speaks profoundly to what Ralph Ellison, in “Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke,” refers to as the “whiteness of blackness,” or conversely what we might see and hear as the “blackness of whiteness.” The video, or at least the most popular copy of it, has been watched over 60 million times. Interestingly, just as music has driven peer-to-peer technology and exchange, increasingly, with the rise of p2p video, the marriage between the sonic and the visual appears to be driving music culture in an unprecedented manner. The relative popularity of dance videos on YouTube is quite striking. The site has seemingly fostered, for instance, a renaissance of local and regional African-American dances, from Detroit jit to Chicago juke, Memphis buckin to Harlem’s “Chicken Noodle Soup” and “Aunt Jackie.” Notably, such videos are more often made for local consumption and conversation, but global access to YouTube means they circulate much more widely and in unexpected ways, appearing on “hipster” blogs from New York to Brussels and engendering new, if still problematic, engagements with African-American music and culture outside the communities where such practices arise.
Significantly, with regard to the Latin American YouTubosphere, reggaeton has served as the primary musical-cultural engine animating renewed discussions around race, class, gender, nation, and morality. Heated arguments ensue when various nationally-bound racial formations interact with this US-accented, transnational circulation of texts. In the production and sharing of, commenting on, and creative engagement with music videos, reggaeton’s suggestive embodiment of various racialized, gendered, and nationalized subject positions offers a charged cultural resource for the performance and parody of self and other. International and intranational debates on message-boards and comment-threads frequently demonstrate — contrary to the mainstream media’s celebration of reggaeton as the sound of pan-latinidad — that the genre’s contested racial and national character supports fracture and disarticulation as well as gestures to cultural and political solidarity.
I’ve gotta thank /jace, with whom I’ve been trying to wrap my head around some of this stuff, for pointing out the role of the (unseen) mirror in a lot of YouTube dance videos. He mentioned to me not long ago that someone asked him why so many of these videos take place in bedrooms or bathrooms or locker-rooms, and aside from the fact that these are obv private spaces and thus facilitate the kinds of intimate performances on display (despite, yes, their ultimately extremely public nature), the reason people would video tape themselves in such contexts is fairly elementary, he noted: we often dance in front of mirrors (even in clubs, innit) — that’s where/how we craft&refine our self-presentation, via this magic feedback machine.
I found that insight rather important — in part b/c the mirror has long been a resonant metaphor for me. In my dissertation, for example, I borrow/refigure Rex Nettleford’s foundational Mirror Mirror notion in order to explore the mimetic back-and-forth between reggae and hip-hop. I like how mirror metaphors can open up into notions of mimesis, but also of distortion (e.g., funhouse mirrors), and how the mirror image seems to occupy that liminal space between self and other. Eric Lott, in his generous comment on the panel, suggested that I might pursue the metaphor further, thinking about how YouTube’s mirrored forms of public performance might relate to the Lacanian concept of the “mirror stage,” including / emphasizing the double-meaning of “stage.” Seems like fertile territory, perhaps — except that it means, I s’pose, that I have to read Lacan again (or at least his interpreters).
It only occurred to me after the paper that I totally forgot to mention — in the litany of Af-Am dance crazes I offered — an obvious local reference: Philly’s own homegrown, the Wu-Tang!
Fortunately, I was reminded of the Wu-Tang by Alexis (of teenjeoparty), who kindly offered me some tips of things to do while in Illadelph, incl the following tidbit —
there are also all of these 18+ “rock star” parties with kids wu-tanging and listening to baltimore club and dressing outrageously that supposedly happen at the starlight ballroom and other loft/factory like that in north philly or northern liberties, but i haven’t been to one yet and i don’t know how to find out if there are any going on this weekend.
In a nice bit of unforeseen ideational circuitry, when I asked Emil last night about these “rock star” parties, he noted an interesting implication of the recent ironic adoption/appropriation of “rock” fashion and iconography by Af-Am youth: white folk cannot so easily (re)appropriate “rock star” style for themselves (say, in the way they may don the trappings of a “thug-rave” aesthetic), for if they do, rather than looking as if they were engaging in some sort of cross-racial parody/performance, they’d simply look really quite white. It’s an interesting and funny observation, and it makes me wonder about the implications of this nu-phenom.
Indeed, sometimes these days, looking around, I really wonder whether the (racial) politics of culture in this country — which we no doubt export, and fairly rapidly these days via blogs and such — is undergoing a rather profound transformation. For kids who grew up with an MTV dominated by hip-hop, rather than one on which Michael “I’m White” Jackson had to fight for airplay, the meanings of racial difference may in fact be very different — less entrenched, more playful. At the same time, as I note above with regard to the legacies of blackface minstrelsy, it can be quite tricky to figure out how much of this change is surfacy and hence how much remains the same. And beyond all that, of course, playful or not, racialized class privilege ain’t going nowhere.
Additionally apropos, I should mention that just before leaving for the conference, I got some interesting feedback on my abstract from El Canyonazo (via email):
wrt whiteness: I’m DJing at a spot in Granada (Babylon, its called, lamentably) that advertises itself as a hiphop club. We pull a huge Senegalese crowd every night. The weekend DJ is Senegalese — he plays a lot of Akon. The Senegalese come decked to the tens everynight (5950s, Tims, white Ts, fake chains), following strictly hiphop’s ethics of aesthetics. Their English isnt that good, so they dont really understand most of the lyrics, which is probably why they love the southern shit, Young Buck, Lil Wayne, Yung Juc, etc. Then theres the American white kids, school year abroad college juniors looking for a little slice of home. They want the Jay-Z, Kanye, Timbaland. Their appropriation of hip-hop garb is less blatant (they seem more aware of their own ridiculousness and therefore more a bit more restrained in blatant copycatting) but its still clear that theyre not repping their own style, but borrowing from something they learned on TV. There’s something that strikes me awkward about the whole scene: (Black) Africans and (White) Americans listening to African-American music. Neither group can wholeheartedly claim the culture as their own — both groups have one foot each inside hiphop, but a different foot. Not sure of my own point, a sloppy one nonetheless, but there’s something very “white” about the Senegalese hiphoppers. This isnt about authenticity (I know you love that word), but just looking natural, like you’re comfortable wearing your own skin. Gawkward.
Let me say first that I don’t exactly “love” the word authenticity (tho I do kinda love “gawkward”), despite the relative frequency with which I return to the concept. People always seem to read me wrong on that, as if I’m looking for the real. As I’ve said before w/r/t authenticity, I’m not really in search of any real “real” — rather, I believe that there’s no “there” there: authenticity is a construct, an imagined thing, and yet I do think it continues to play a strong role in the formation and imagination of another big construct that feels real — race. So, despite Canyon’s assertion to the contrary, when we’re talking about looking/feeling comfortable in our own skins, and we’re assessing that sort of thing in a context where we’re donning the trappings of a desired-but-ineffably-distant “other,” I suspect that notions of authenticity — as encapsulated here by the performance of African-American blackness (by whites and Africans alike) — do come into play.
Similar to my paper on Thursday, I don’t have a “properly conclusory gesture” for this here blog post, but I can’t resist finishing by embedding the video for Rich Boy’s new single, “Let’s Get Some Paper.” As I sat watching it last night, twice, in between watching the Red Sox kick some Cleveland ass with them bols Emynd and Bo Bliz, I was utterly struck by how effectively Rich Boy penetrated my usual resistance to get-the-paper pragmatics. Putting the hustle in the context of economic abandonment and police brutality as powerfully and poetically as he does, Rich Boy completely converts me. Fuck a racial politic, this is class conflict, mang. Thug motivation, knamean. Grind harder. Life ain’t gotta be this way. But still don’t nothing move but the $$$ —
The ol’ blogosphere radar has been registering lots of blips from that southmost outpost in South America. I mentioned the Frikstailers a little while back, for instance. And of course, there’s the whole cumbia rebajada movimiento, which seems to have strong routes thru Buenos Aires.
To wit: check out Villa Diamante’s mash of Calle 13 and the Frikstailers (two of my LatinAm faves!) over at MuyBastard. As he puts it, “como buen mashapero,” Diamante goes a little further with this mix, adding his own touches to the ol’ A + B formula —
Notably, MuyBastard also points us to a nice’n’noisy remix of Calle 13’s “Cumbia de los Aburridos” over at Sonidero Nacional’s space.
I say notably because that’s the same Calle 13 track I’ve been screwing with myself of late. So allow me to close this post by getting in on the sharing: here’s a screwed’n’chopped’n’dubbed versiÃ³n I’ve been improvising in some recent rebajada sets I’ve been working on —