Sunn O)))’s performance last week at Brooklyn’s Masonic Temple may be the loudest show I’ve ever seen. I saw a Ramones show in the late eighties that might have come close, though that music mostly took place in an upper midrange that Sunn O))) doesn’t visit much. The median sound for Sunn O))) is a low chord, pitched below standard tuning, that blows through the crowd like a humid wind and stays in your body like that liquid they make you drink before you go through the CAT-scan machine. Standing in front of the stage on Tuesday night felt like a teen-age dare. How long could I stand to have my organs palpated? How could I tear myself away? Would the volume loosen up kinked muscles? Sterilize me? The intense physicality of Sunn O)))’s music makes it seem like any number of things might be happening to you and only a forensic reconstruction will reveal exactly what did happen.
Tonight’s guest at Beat Research is my friend & colleague at MIT, Ian Condry, author of Hip-hop Japan (Duke U Press, 2006). He’ll be joining us this eve to celebrate the translation of his book into Japanese, and he’ll do so by offering a set that traces the broad contours of Japanese hip-hop.
I hope he’ll play a few tracks like Seeda’s “6 Milion Ways,” a song featured on a mixtape he made this summer, which pushes my hip-hop/reggae crossover buttons with its Sleng Teng bassline and Cutty Ranks chorus —
You can get a taste of Ian’s research on this page, which includes a brief history of hip-hop in Japan along with audio and video samples, but I highly recommend the book. Allow me to quote a few passages to give you a sense of Ian’s analysis, which seeks to get beyond the dichotomies (global/local, authentic/non) through which we tend to appraise such things as hip-hop outside the US —
In contrast to symbols of cultural globalization, such as Coca-Cola, Disney, Nike, and McDonald’s, which take their cues from huge multinational corporations, hip-hop in Japan draws attention to an improvisatory working out of a cultural movement in the language and among peer-groups of a particular generation of youth. (12) …
Borrowing from Cornel West (1990), I argue that Japanese rappers are engaged in a “new cultural politics of affiliation,” that draws inspiration from African American struggles while generating distinctive approaches to race and protest in Japan. Race forms a part of Japanese hip-hop, but it operates in the context of an identity politics different from that in the United States. When Japanese artists proclaim that they are yellow b-boys, they are not asserting a pan-Asian identity, but rather drawing attention to their specific location in a differently configured racial matrix. In this, they suggest the possibilities for a transnational cultural politics of race that improvises on their understanding of hip-hop’s core values. (20) …
West’s perspective emerges from a different context, but the lessons for a study of black culture in Japan are profound. In particular, the application of his ideas exposes the limitations of searching for the local or the Japanese in overseas hip-hop. Indeed, although I use the term black culture, we should bear in mind that the term is shorthand for a complex range of practices, ideas, and discourses, never meaning any one single thing. Similarly, highlighting the local features of hip-hop in Japan risks reproducing images of the Japanese people while underplaying the ways in which Japanese emcees are engaged in critiquing mainstream standards of what it means to be Japanese, among other artistic and political goals. … I would argue that many uses of hip-hop in Japan attempt to produce a kind of political affiliation, but that the politics must be situated in the spaces and contexts in which they are performed. This reorients our attention away from questions of whether the Japanese “get it” or “don’t get it” when it comes to race and hip-hop, and instead draws us toward questions of what Japanese hip-hoppers are doing with the music in their own worlds. (29)
Come on out to the Enormous Room tonight to hear some of this fascinating stuff in motion. Ian will be playing from 10:30 – 11:30 and Flack and I will pick up the slack. 567 Mass Ave, 9-1, FREE.
BTW, I gotta report that we have a very exciting autumn at Beat Research. Check the allstar lineup!!!!!!
Got an email last week from a French netlabel called, of all things, ZUNG ZENG, which, apparently & admirably, “aims to release dub and electronic music under Creative Common licence.” Cue promo —
The first dubtek release (digital only) is out now : the AIR CUT EP by Force Quit (Marseille/FR)
It’s downloadable for free from our website www.zungzeng.net
I checked it out, and a few of the tracks really sizzle and pop. Worked some into my set on Monday at Beat Research to good effect, at both 140bpm and somewhere around 100. But of course, for obvious reasons, I was most intrigued by the label’s name. Their rep, Ramon, was happy to indulge my curiosity:
Of course i can tell you about the name
By this netlabel, we aims to release eclectic and original electronic music based on the power of jamaican grooves.
Zung Zeng is a shortcut from the famous king Yellowman track’s “Zungguzung Guguzung Guzeng” which is for us an iconic ragga tune with simple but so efficient riddim.
Using a transformed existing name is a way to follow the “remix (or re-use) tradition” that takes place in Jamaican music history and in electronic music in more general.
Music can be composed/produced from scratch, but it can be made by transforming and adding existing materials and we like both ways.
In other words, we’re open to sampling and we affirm that by taking our name from something existing and well known.
I hope this basic description helps you. I know it’s just a little but (as you probably noticed) i’m really bad in writing..
Please, feel free to ask me anything else if you need..
And so I followed:
Thanks for the info about the name; your writing is fine! I’m very curious about your choice of that Yellowman track in particular, as it has been the subject of some research of mine for many years now. Was there any reason that you picked that song? Just liked the name? Have you messed around with the Zunuguzung/Diseases/MadMad riddim?
To which —
Why do we pick this song name?
Of course because we love the song and especially the riddim. But also because of the name that is very uncommon and have no sense (for us at least i mean)
So for the madness of the name too.
(and the name of this song sounds really “raggamuffin” i think, so that’s good for a name)
I’m not sure how grateful the folks at ZUNG ZENG are to learn that they’ve been proceeding with a valid interpretation of the term, but they sure seemed psyched that I played their tracks at the club. I told Ramon to let me know if they ever take a swing at their namesake source material.
As the treble/bass culcha conversation continues here and there, we keep coming around to the words & work of Kode9 / Steve Goodman. It became increasingly clear, esp as we wait for his book to come out (yo MIT Press, get at a Fellow!), that I should ask him if he’d answer a few building questions, as artist and/or theorist, producer and/or scholar. He was nice enough to shoot back “some quick thoughts.” They appear below, with my questions in boldface. If anyone else has opinions to offer, I am — as they say — all ears. (Thx also to Derek Walmsley for his questions, referred to below, that have spurred my own — and for, presumably, letting me run that great photo above.)
* Listening to music via mobile devices appears increasingly common, and has been an aspect of street/public culture especially remarked on in the UK/London. Don Letts recently told the Guardian that, “It’s disturbing when I see kids on buses, listening to music on their phones, and it’s just going: tsk, tsk, tsk, tsk, with no bass. Bass culture is Jamaica’s gift to the world and technology is, kind of, ruining that. Bass is sexy. Women respond to bass.” Knowing something of your own interest in bass, both as a scholar and as a producer/DJ/labelhead, I’m very curious about your take on this phenomenon and its phenomenological implications.
Well while I can definitely relate to where Don Letts is coming from, thats not my point of view regarding mobile devices. While I share a concern with the bass poverty of new media and clubs etc., the fact is that music has never been more ubiquitous, coming through so many different technical channels. Clearly there is a politics of frequency going on when these technical devices are designed, just like there is “expert decision” making going on behind the supposedly psycho-acoustic criteria involved in perceptual coding of mp3s that favours certain average frequencies over others. There is a politics of frequency that permeates the whole technical ecology of sound recording, storage and playback devices. And I’m the first person to complain about crap sub bass response on your average club sound system. But I think something much more interesting is going on with kids using the mobile phone speakers as mobile sound systems. The potentials of young people carrying sound reproduction (and increasingly production) devices around with them at all times I think is more significant than the fact that they are trebly. . .the becoming trebly of mobile culture is perhaps part of the cost of sounds ubiquity – bass is heavy – i.e. its not so portable. I think that sonic culture is in transition right now, and this kind of ubiquity is going somewhere quite unpredictable and i don’t think you get half of that picture by just complaining about lack of bass, as much as I do generally complain about that.
* If bass (pressure) is, in some basic sense, about mobilization, about moving masses/massives, does something fundamental about this socio-cultural circuitry get lost when frequencies drop off? Or does perhaps the representation of bass (in higher frequency ranges) or the imagination of bass (on the part of listeners) serve to compensate?
At least in the club setting, what gets lost is a certain sensual relation between the dancer and their body, the sense of the materiality of their bodies, that they are just another vibrating object in the room. What I think is conceptually powerful about bass culture is that it reminds the arrogant human race that they are really mostly composed of non-organic matter, are not self-enclosed individuals but permeable membranes through which forcefields can pass and interfere with your insides. I think there is a extent to which bass culture educates dancers about their bodies, literally vibrating parts they didnt know they had.
The thing is, the mobile phone sound system – what are its precursors – transistor radios on buses? ghetto blasters? well not really I don’t think – there is something new about the mobile phone sound system which maybe has not fully materialized yet. . .i.e. that it is potentially a production and a reproduction devices, as well as a transmitter – like a junior pirate radio micro-transmitter. So my problem is not with tinny playback devices in situations where there traditionally there was never much bass playback. . .my problem is more with the squeezing out of bass in music performance venues/clubs/festivals etc. Now obviously there is a feedback from a youth culture used to hearing their music as purely in the mid-range of frequencies, and you can hear that e.g. in the brittle production of grime, but thats still a very bass heavy music.
* With regard to “bass you can hear” (as you said to Derek Walmsley, since subbass is, as you put it, “not even a sonic thing”) have you yourself tailored, or are you aware of other producers tailoring, tracks knowing that they might often be listened to sans bass? Is the “fuck off” riff-based craze, “across different dance music genres,” an inherent/inevitable product of treble culture?
I’d say its got some relation to mid-culture and the way riffs resonate with alchohol, drugs, your average club sound system, and radio compression
* If, as you note, “you can’t underestimate the impact having to play on shit sound systems has on a music culture, and it’s aesthetic decisions, and what it feels it needs to do to translate into as many environments as possible…” — how do producers reckon with the commonplace that their tracks may be largely listened to on mobile phones and tinny laptops, never mind “shit sound systems”?
Well I think tracks get EQd and mastered with this in mind, to make the tracks brighter than you might think is necessary or comfortable to listen to in the studio.
* Is bass (increasingly) a luxury?
Certainly in the club world. Even when commercical clubs buy in Function 1 sound systems, they are usually not tuned up properly so you are not feeling anything under 70 Hz.
It’s a special week in W&Wland! Not once, but TWICE, I’ll be playing alongside one of my favorite local turntable heroes: DJ Axel Foley. I’ve been jamming with Keith for years now, and it’s always great fun. He provided scratches for several tracks on Boston Jerk back in 2003, and he’s been a recurring guest in Electro Class, where he’s offered an incredible demo of the history of scratching, from the baby scratch to the crab. (Some of you may have seen him replay this routine for some visual-wizardry c/o Jesse Kriss. If not, you should.)
Tonight, Axel will be our guest at Beat Research; & Friday, I’ll be guesting at his weekly gig at Grafton Street in Harvard Square, where Keith gets to indulge his penchant for funky disco and boogie jamz galore. As it happens, I’ll already be in the Square on Friday for a symposium on the New Literary History of America edited by Greil Marcus & Werner Sollors, so I’m hoping I can turn the gig into something of an afterparty for some of the heavyhitters gathered at Hahvid this weekend. We’ll see; Keith and I will be dropping some heavy tracks at any rate.
For now, I’ll leave you with a fun clip of Axel, me, Pace, and VJ Dziga jamming under a highway in Somerville this summer —
I’ve really been enjoying all the feedback I got on my “treble culture” post. One idea that’s been especially interesting is the seemingly common notion — repeated & affirmed by many commenters — that we tend to imagine/assume bass even when we don’t hear it.
I suspect that this phenomenon may be at work more frequently than we think. Indeed, I suspect that even when we’re in the presence of a good enough system to “hear” bass, it’s hardly bass at all if we’re not feeling it. Comments from Nina and Beni emphasized this point, but nothing brought it home quite like last night’s Mos Def & Talib Kweli concert at the House of Blues.
As you can see in that picture above, the speaker stacks at the HoB are pretty damn serious (see the arcing array rising from the stage). Corporate sheen aside, I can’t remember being in a club with a system that pumped like that. The highs and mids could have used some teasing out — 30 years in & soundmen still haven’t figured out how to mix hip-hop unmuddily? — but the “lows” were perfect. It feels a little odd to call them “lows” actually, since rather than hearing the bass frequencies I felt like I was being inhabited by them, body cavities vibrating in sympathy. There’s no way I could translate this physicality for you — YOU HAVE TO BE THERE, simple as that — but this little video, and the crushing distortion produced by the bass therein, gives some sense — if a kind of bizarro, fractured representation — of what it was like.
I’d love to hear more thoughts on this, if anyone has any.
I’ll leave you with an apropos photo c/o Botswana brethren, Ruff Riddims. Seeking to push their sound out, they’ve been building their own speaker boxes, which are as beautiful (and, I’m told, as awesome) as the studio they built last year. Moemedi, aka Red Pepper, says they’re going to build four more like these, for the other side of the flatbed!
& if you think that’s impressive, here’s what Mr. Ruff himself told me yesterday:
Ruff: today I started molding bricks for the new night club that I dream of building me: bredrin, you’re an impresario! Ruff: we have 200 bricks so far me: 200 bricks so far! Ruff: yes and 4000 is where we must reach me: brick by brick! that’s some real industry right there Ruff: I told the guys helping me that, a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step and they where very motivated and laughed too. me: i’m sure they can see by the studio and soundsystem that you mean business Ruff: the thing is the building where the club is now is sold and so we need a place to party so I will build one me: necessity is the mother of invention
What I’d give to feel some Botswana bass bouncing off 4000 bricks!
The Story Behind The Story Behind The Roxanne Shante Story
By Wayne Marshall and Jeff Chang
If a rapper claims to be a killer, no one cares. If she says she has an education, they send in an investigative reporter, or at least someone who purports to be.
Oh don’t we love gotcha journalism. But who’s really getting got here?
Two weeks ago, the New York Daily News ran a story in which legendary rapper Roxanne Shante says she forced Warner Bros through a contractual clause to pay for her education, earning degrees from Marymount Manhattan College and Cornell University.
Yesterday, lawyer and “pro-copyright” blogger Ben Sheffner published his piece of gotcha journalism, claiming that not only did Warner not have direct contracts with Shante, but that she hadn’t finished her coursework at Marymount Manhattan and never enrolled in Cornell.
Perhaps most annoying to Sheffner was that “the story was endlessly blogged and tweeted, heralded as an example of a heroic triumph by a girl from the projects over her evil record label.”
Commenters around the web have praised the Slate piece as a fine bit of investigative reporting by a disinterested journalist. Here’s our gotcha: he’s not disinterested, and the investigative reporting wasn’t all that investigative.
First, his “disinterest”: his Slate piece contains, at the bottom, what seems like a standard statement of disclosure: “While an attorney in private practice in the early 2000s, he represented numerous AOL Time Warner entities, including several Warner Music Group companies, on issues unrelated to Roxanne Shanté.” Yup, he was defending the “evil record labels,” even then.
And still is. His bio on his blog states that he is an attorney currently employed by NBC Universal, and his job description includes — we presume — looking sometimes at exactly the kind of artist contracts Shante would have signed.
By his own writing, he is not really a disinterested observer. The bio reads:
Ben Sheffner is a copyright/First Amendment/media/entertainment attorney and former journalist. Ben is currently working as a production attorney in the NBC Universal Television Group. Preiously [sic], he worked as an associate at O’Melveny & Myers LLP, as Senior Counsel, Content Protection Litigation at Fox, and as Litigation Counsel at NBC Universal. From July-November 2008, Ben served as Special Counsel on Senator John McCain’s presidential campaign where, among other responsibilities, he handled the campaign’s copyright, trademark, and other IP issues.
Clearly, Sheffner’s interest in this story, which motivated his questionable “investigation,” grows out of his ongoing efforts to protect the interests of his former and current (and future?) employers and, more generally, to advance the pro-copyright, pro-corporate side of the intense public conversation around the present state and future of the music industry.
Sheffner has backed the same interests in his coverage on his blog and for other online outlets, on the two cases involving the RIAA and alleged copyright-infringing filesharers that have, to date, gone to trial. He’s pretty much in the pocket, as they say.
We can imagine him looking at that piece and going, “Aw shit. Now I’m gonna have to give those kiddie actors a college clause — no way!” Then firing up his word-processing program and emailing Slate’s editors.
OK, so Shante didn’t have Warner pay for her education directly — and perhaps we’ll never know if one of the subsidiary labels made such an agreement with her because Pop Art’s contracts were supposedly lost in a flood. Cold Chillin’s file with Warner, according to Sheffner, didn’t have that level of detail. (Makes sense the file might be incomplete — they ended up at odds with each other after the big judgment against Biz Markie over his sampling case.)
Here’s what WB’s counsel wrote to Sheffner: “If Cold Chillin’ guided this artist’s compensation to education expenses that would certainly be a worthy one.” Then Sheffner makes what seems to be his main point right after that: “None of the half-dozen music industry sources contacted by Slate for this article had ever heard of a record label making an open-ended commitment to finance an artist’s education.” Gotcha!
But what of her education? Sheffner makes a big point of alleging Shante did not receive her Ph.D. and is not listed as a practicing doctor. Gotcha again! (Sheffner seems to fetishize this “Doctor” thing. Maybe he’s sharpening his knives for Dr. Dre next?) But according to her, Shante has received her BA and MA degrees. Her passionate message in her talks to hip-hop youths across the country is about the importance of education. Clearly much more of the story here is begging to be told.
Most importantly, Shante said she attended college under another assumed name — not even her birth name — because of a domestic violence situation. Sheffner didn’t follow up on, we think, a reasonable, relevant, and obvious lead here. If she was right, he must have known at that point the story might have required real investigative reporting. Yet Slate’s editors didn’t put the brakes on the story even at this point. Instead, the piece ran with Sheffner’s slander that she failed to “substantiate such claims.”
So what did we learn here? One, Warner Brothers didn’t, but perhaps someone in the industry did fund Shante’s education. Two, Shante may not have a Ph.D.
We think that’s all pretty thin for a so-called exposé.
Too bad this couldn’t be settled with battle rhymes. We all know who’d win that one.
I’m in the process of working up a short essay on the topic of “treble culture” for a volume on “mobile music.” I’m hoping that some of my awesome readers/interlocutors might lend me a hand (and/or ear). There are two main areas in which I am interested:
1) the rise of “treble culture” and the crucial relation to music technologies (incl mobile devices)
2) the effects of “treble culture,” esp as, ironically, a means of filtering “bass culture”
With regard to the first point, I’m hoping to offer a historical overview of the attenuation of bass frequencies in consumer/commercial music culture with the successive advent of particular player/media technologies. In particular, I intend to trace, alongside an increase in audiophilia and high fidelity, a steady march toward consumer-end devices that have different priorities and have, in effect, progressively moved us toward a rather trebly everyday engagement with music. There are plenty of technologies which have contributed to this “rolling off” of bass frequencies. Here’s a partial list; if you can think of other notable factors/tech (esp particular devices and their quirks), please make a note in the comments:
* vinyl records, esp 78s, 45s, and 33 rpm LPs (the 12″ single, with its deeper grooves, offers an exception) * early AAD CD transfers, which often didn’t account for the bass boost in record-player pre-amps * lo-fi speakers, portable radios, boomboxes, headphones, cellphones, etc. (recognizing a wide degree of difference across brands & platforms) * audio compression (in the studio, but also for radio, in clubs, etc.) * MP3 (and other file format) compression
With regard to the second, I’d like to explore the cultural/phenomenological significance of this trend — what is gained & what is lost, besides certain frequencies — using some ethnography and interview data. In this sense, I’m interested both in listeners’ perspectives and experiences (how frequently do you encounter, or practice, treble culture?), as well as producers’ (from savvy 80s hip-hop heads pushing stuff “into the red” to compensate for attenuated bass to the more recent mid-freq emulation of bass in bassline, niche/electro/blog house, etc.). Please feel free to share any and all thoughts on this. It seems to me that “treble culture” is increasingly broadcast across our city soundscapes. Tell me about the kids on the bus, walking down the street, outside the club, huddled around computer speakers. I’d love to offer more cross-cultural/geographical context than my own curious ears and eyes have witnessed.
Getting us toward phenomenological effects, consider some of the following perspectives (all, admittedly/interestingly, “British”):
Don Letts: “It’s disturbing when I see kids on buses, listening to music on their phones, and it’s just going: tsk, tsk, tsk, tsk, with no bass. Bass culture is Jamaica’s gift to the world and technology is, kind of, ruining that. Bass is sexy. Women respond to bass.”
Kode9: “there’s a particular kind of bass sound which really fucks me off. … a kind of lowest common denominator way of getting people to move. … a complex of frequencies which works on even the shittest soundsystems. And you can’t underestimate the impact having to play on shit sound systems has on a music culture…”
K-Punk: “Both dubstep and minimal techno only achieve their full potency when played on a club soundsystem. The subtle pressure of sub-bass, the way it moves the very air itself, the hypnotic pulse of the drums, not to mention the role of the dancing crowd iself: none of this can be replicated at home, still less on iPod headphones.”
Finally, here is my (lengthy) abstract, in case it provides further food for thought:
Since the advent of the handheld radio, listeners have long adopted portable music technologies and adapted to the (often tinny) range of frequencies supported by such devices. For their part, producers have tailored their mixes in order to exploit the popularity of such technologies. From one perspective, then, the rise of personal mobile devices — especially mp3 players and cellphones — represents yet another stage in a historical continuum which includes the boombox and the walkman. There are, however, significant differences presented by the latest wave of mobile music products and practices, especially with regard to their ubiquity, their social uses, and their narrow frequency ranges. Whereas previous portable music devices certainly enjoyed some popularity, even that degree of usage stands in stark contrast to the present: today most people — in the overdeveloped world, that is — have a cellphone, an iPod, a laptop on their person, much of the time. (And cellphone usage is rising drastically in the “developing” world.) These digital devices have become, for many, the primary interfaces with sound recordings, especially in the form of mp3s, compressed music files that allow for easy circulation and storage by adding a further layer of frequency range constraint (albeit mostly out of the range of human hearing). While some bemoan the social isolation symbolized by Apple’s white earbuds, remarkably, especially among young people, these personal portable technologies also enable the sharing of music in public. It is not uncommon in major cities such as New York or London to observe a crowd of teenagers clustered around a tinny piece of plastic broadcasting a trebly slice of the latest pop hit.
Despite ongoing endeavors in audiophilia, some of the most commonly used devices for listening today — cellphones, mp3 players, laptops — were not designed with high fidelity as a priority. Rather, as size constraints and style have dominated design, certain sonic dimensions have been conspicuously left out, namely bass. So ironically, even as what Linton Kwesi-Johnson calls “bass culture” remains strong as ever through the global reach of hip-hop, reggae, and other electronically-produced dance music, we simultaneously witness a filtering of such low-end-centric genres through what we might rightly call “treble culture,” as mediated by mobile music devices and their physical limitations. The attenuation of bass is a product not just of the size of these devices but — as highlighted by the issue of bandwidth (both internet/wifi and telephonic systems) — results also from the transformation of sound into digital representations capable of being easily transmitted and stored (i.e., “lossy” encoding).
But beyond tech specs, the rise of “treble culture” calls attention to a number of crucial intersections between music, technology, society, and culture. In offering a history of treble culture, this essay will place today’s digital mobile music players alongside twentieth-century precedents, considering their relative frequency range constraints as well as their relative popularity, but it will also attend to the new practices emerging with such devices: the class issues surrounding cellphone vs. iPod use, the racially-tinged discourses around public projection of mobile sound (or “noise”), the socialization of such technologies via communal listening practices, and the representational strategies on the part of producers and engineers to compose music that “works” through such devices. Just as Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” was meant to evoke grandiosity through even the most “consumer-end” radio, the recent embrace of mid-range synth lines and square waveforms suggests a kind of zeitgeist aesthetic feedback loop, a way of suggesting bass amidst all the treble. As an utterly mundane — indeed, naturalized — and yet largely unexamined phenomenon, the advent of treble culture merits a serious and critical appraisal.
Hit me on Twitter, in the comments, etc. Tell me all about those trebly slices of life you’ve been a part of and/or a witness to. I’d love to collect some anecdotes, find some angles I hadn’t considered, flesh out my brief history, and so on.