April 10th, 2007

Stage Show Excerpt & Counter Canonical Discourse

If we’re listening for the presence of Jamaica in hip-hop (and hence in NY/US/worlwide), we could attend to such a thing on any number of levels: 1) the occasional 3+3+2; 2) the influence of dub engineering on hip-hop mix aesthetics (e.g., echo, layering, lowend); 3) double-time, flip-tongue, fast-chat flows; 4) accents, cliches, Rasta mantras, and various textual/lyrical references (incl cover songs and interpolated hooks); 5) actual allusions via musical motifs, sampled and sung (a la the Zunguzung meme) —

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Another way to get at such a thing would be to take stock of the specific reggae records that have become staples in the crates of hip-hop DJs — the sorts of sides one hears, almost as a matter of course, at hip-hop events across the US. With the exception of the odd Bob Marley joint, these records are mostly dancehall reggae, esp from the early 90s and around the turn of millennium (see, e.g., this tracklist). This alternate oeuvre offers an interesting representation of reggae, departing significantly from the core repertory for, say, reggae selectors (in the US or elsewhere, bashment or roots). In that sense, given the difference with respect to what might be thought of as a more authoritative position on reggae, hip-hop’s reggae selects a special slice of the genre — and speaks volumes about hip-hop.

It also says a lot about canons. What makes the reggae selector’s reggae canon, for example, any more legitimate (or revealing about reggae’s character) than the hip-hop DJ’s reggae canon? What might hip-hop’s take on reggae tell us not only about hip-hop but about reggae? What would we lose by overlooking hip-hop’s “counter canon,” if you will? I’m not crazy about the term — or about perpetuating canonization — but what I like about the idea of the “counter canon” is the way it decenters canon’s commonplace claim to truth about greatness, calling attn instead to the role of perspective, to (contextual) differences in aesthetic values, to the subjective rather than objective nature of what comes to define a genre.

I’m not prepared to offer an in-depth treatise on hip-hop’s reggae “counter canon” on this humble blog at the moment, but I bring all of this up in order to throw it out there — I suspect there are parallels to other dialectical if asymmetrically interpenetrating formations (to coin a phrase), and I’d love to hear some ideas along those lines — and because last night’s gig proved no exception.

Typically Zebo, Hess, and Chump tend to keep it pretty hip-hop-centric on Monday nights, if with the occasional dip into reggae, bmore, and general clubb eclectica. For my guest visit, tho, they decided to devote the night to reggae. Although I was impressed with the range and depth of the reggae selections they pulled out, including plenty of tracks I’d never heard, I was also happy to hear lots of the classics I figured I would hear (and which I therefore left out of my own set — for the most part — lest I be scooped): Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam,” Chaka Demus & Pliers’ “Murder She Wrote,” Mad Cobra’s “Flex,” Shabba Ranks’s “Ting-a-Ling,” and so on.

Toward the end of my set, which otherwise mixed 80s digi dancehall (via Jammy’s, Tubby’s, Winston Riley, George Phang) and a fair number of early 90s classics (Super Cat, Cutty Ranks, Buju, Shabba), I started dropping in some more recent reggae/hip-hop remixes, which perhaps point to another (emerging) area of activity in all of this overlap. If nothing else, they offer yet another way to play reggae to a hip-hop crowd, familiar acapella as anchor.

During one mini-set within my set — jugglin riddimcentric as reggae mixes often do — I dropped a number of tracks on Dave Kelly‘s relatively recent Stage Show riddim. If the dancehall tracks themselves weren’t already replete with references to contemporary hip-hop (check Cham’s verse, e.g.), I segue into a couple remixes putting hip-hop pellas ‘pon top. So after the official voicings by Cham, Assassin, and Spice & Pinchers, you’ll hear Ross Hawg — whose been cooking up a slew (stew?) of specials along these lines — walking it out, followed by DJ C mekking you know why we ot, as Junior Reed puts it. At the end of the segment I couldn’t resist dropping a DJ Funk-produced juke remix (via) of that ubiquitous Mims track, which lasts almost as long as the preceding dancehall/hip-hop medley. Sound for thought —

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12 Comments

  • 1. rupture  |  April 11th, 2007 at 11:14 am

    nice post W&W, but i feel like it’s incomplete… i’d love to hear yr thoughts on potential answers to the questions raised here!

    speaking quite broadly, i’d say that reggae embraces & embodies the notion of versions (‘riddimcentric as reggae mixes often do’) which is less ’bout the original DNA and more about fantastic mutations, novelty; whereas hiphop has a more hierarchically-attuned historical sensitivity built in. (e.g. the crate-digger as librarian/historian, the omnipresent invocation and pruning of hiphop’s roots, etc. )
    the genre police in reggaelandia are much more hazed out and/or forgiving as well: Sizzla can sing over an acoustic guitar and it’s reggae, Lady Saw can rap thru a vocoder over an atonal 3-3-2 techno pulse at 150bpm and it’s reggae.

    yesterday i was listening to one of the GREAT Brooklyn reggae pirate FM stations (99.9fm, broadcasts evenings) and they were on a mad late 80s riddim fest, with lots of classics, but also lots of healthy complex chaos ontop — talking, chatting, lazer sounds, ads, new voicings on old riddims, etc, all wrapped up in the waves of radio static and crackle that come from a pirate forced to compete with corporate signal-pushers. A sharp historical consciousness was there, but it was anything but a canonical one.

    (i love canons & counter-canons, btw, and my current vinyl digging is TOPSECRET but investigating a certain line of early 90s/late80s hiphopreggae mutation that proves to be of enormous interest to me. found some gems in Bristol…)

    at length! /j

  • 2. Birdseed  |  April 11th, 2007 at 11:28 am

    Great mix! Whoever claimed DJing was the art of telling stories was spot on.

    I’ve only ever read a little ethnology, but I’m guessing that the “countercanon” concept was created by someone connected to or inspired by Cultural Studies? It would fit into the entire “the working class reappropriating commercial music for their own ends” sentiment, which is also where the problem lies I think. Because what you’re saying makes sense in some contexts, usually when it’s a power-weak party analysing the oeuvre of a power-strong party, but I would definitely, definitely be wary of generalizing it.

    I don’t think it’d be bold to say, for instance, that the mainstream european “countercanon” of reggae is way inferior to any informed understanding of the genre. To the average Swede, Reggae consists of Bob Marley’s “Legend” compilation, Ziggy Marley, UB40, Eddy Grant, “Sunshine Reggae” by Laid Back, two Inner Circle hits, Shaggy and possibly some Maxi Priest. And a bunch of awful pop-reggae covers. It’s collected, and canonised, in compilations like this. I doubt anyone would go around calling that a relevant countercanon that can teach us a lot about reggae!

    The concept would also serve to legitimise the truly unpleasant way in which western “experts” canonise so called world music, leaving out dynamic and interesting genres in favour of exotic-sounding, creatively dead music performed by servile old men, preferrably in the safe production hands of some westerner. But I’ve written way too much about that to want to thrawl through that mess again. :)

    In fact, I’d go so far as to question the positive nature of most strong-on-weak readings and most mainstream-on-underground readings. Plenty of great music has been messed up by money-rich outsiders who just can’t keep their grubby hands and unconcious input away. The few exceptions I can think of involve great reverence and great knowledge… Most prominently, Northern Soul’s countercanon of the black music in the sixties is full of brilliant material and really does teach you absolute tons about soul music.

  • 3. wayneandwax  |  April 11th, 2007 at 12:04 pm

    “Incomplete”? Yes, quite! Let’s see if some “potential answers” don’t emerge in this comment thread, however.

    For instance, to grapple with Birdseed’s contention that Europe’s pop-lite reggae comps offer something of an “irrelevant” countercanon (and, btw, I simply “invented” the term, tho I’m sure it’s been proposed elsewhere, and, yah, I guess I’m connected to / inspired by Cultural Studies), I would venture that we actually do learn a fair amount about reggae from such a thing — not to mention about Europe and its relationship to and imagination of Jamaica/blackness/etc. We may not learn much about reggae aesthetics as practiced or invested in by stakeholders in Jamaica (who themselves, of course, often disagree vigorously about canon, if less concerned with policing what is or is not reggae), but we do learn about how (and which) reggae circulates outside of Jamaica and how it is promoted to certain audiences/markets. So it depends on what we mean by “learning about reggae” — I’d contend that “understanding” reggae has as much to do with understanding its meanings and resonances and representations outside of Jamaica as a-yard. (And that’s not to say that I don’t find it problematic when reggae is “defanged,” so to speak, in order to make it palatable to white upper/middle-class consumers who don’t want to hear their complicity with the shitstem chanted down.)

    The “world music” canon(s) offer another fascinating node in all of this — is it effectively defined by Putumayo? Rough Guide? Sublime Frequencies? Paul Simon / David Byrne / Peter Gabriel / Ry Cooder? The emerging global music blogosphere? Cosmopolitan/postcolonial hipsters? Ethnomusicologists? Rather than legitimizing any one canon over another, I think it might be more useful to see them in conversation and contest. It comes down to context in the end, but the (seemingly) increasingly translocal interactions nicely symbolized by reggae and the internets also suggest that contexts interpenetrate in complex ways these days too.

    As for the narratives you propose, Jace, vis-a-vis hip-hop purists and reggae versionists, for all the truth in them (certainly resonating with my own experiences and calling to mind cratediggers and 7-inchers alike), I’d also submit that one finds plenty of (moldy fig-esque) reggae purists and hip-hop omnivores/ecumenicists. So whether we can identify genre-wide proclivities in this manner is unclear to me, especially, once again, given the degree of mutual influence a gwaan.

    (& in terms of your TOPSECRET digging project — you need to talk to my man Pace; dude’s been mining that turf for a minute. And me too! That moment of crossover is quite central to my dissertation — soon and henceforth, I hope, to be referred to as “my book.”)

  • 4. rupture  |  April 11th, 2007 at 10:15 pm

    w- to follow you onto the “world music” canon node, i think that its particularly tricky to talk intelligently about such a thing at all — by definition, its quite an unstable thing.

    ‘world music’, i would argue, doesnt describe any type of sound or production value or genre or geography, rather it’s a reflection (unintended, in most cases) & manifestation of cultural distance.
    when i think of ‘world music’, i picture the section at Tower Records / HMV / whatever chain megastore one happens to find oneself in. which makes sense, b/c

    ‘world music’ is an accurate description of Western audience market niches (with Peter Gabriel appealing to the over-40s who wear casual slacks and Sublime Frequencies appealing to the under-40s with an indie rock lean, Rough Guide for the concerned tourists aged 18-40, etc.)

    but as soon as one actually starts caring about whether a ‘world music’ song is this or that genre or comes from this or that region, the entire vocabulary of describing the music shifts and ‘world music’ is no more. tar baby style — collapsed distance and sticky hands.

  • 5. wayneandwax  |  April 11th, 2007 at 11:10 pm

    Couldn’t agree more. I guess I usually use the term with all that in mind. & that’s sort of what I’m thinking that a reappraised (and contextualized / vectorized) notion of canon can tell us too. So it could work for any repertory (or some set of repertories), no matter how oddly lumped together or perniciously constructed or fantastically imagined. (And, yeah, it strikes me that repertory is a rather odd and perhaps inappropriate term to use here, but in lieu of saying performances / recordings / practices / genres / soundscapes…)

    I’ve been trying to get at this very thing (at least in my thinking and tagging) by “worlding,” if you will (or is it just weirding), that which “we” would not (typically) call world (the other side of the coin to making mundane the exotic). Take, for instance, Chicago juke. Not the first candidate for “world music” that would spring to mind, for a number of reasons. But then, how do we discuss its appearance on French and Italian blogs, its adoption by Belgian and Swiss producers, its sampling of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” or some UK grime tune? (Not that this is different from hip-hop or house or rock or any other US genres circulating globally.) At any rate, I’d like to hope it’s clear to most people that world music either means “(all) music in the world” or it means some sorta spiced-up easy-listening crap you buy at Starbucks. But I’m afraid that’s not the case for a lotta latte sippers.

  • 6. wayneandwax  |  April 11th, 2007 at 11:44 pm

    btw, I’ve plugged it here before, if subtly, but allow me to say again that Phil Bohlman’s Very Short Introduction to World Music is a really great, sensitive, lucid exploration and history of the subject. Plus, it fits in your backpocket.

  • 7. ripley  |  April 12th, 2007 at 12:02 am

    I’d put a word in for the Swedes and scandinavian countercanons of some jamaican music though. I’ve found some truly amazing rocksteady compilations put together by swedes, together with obsessive liner notes… and my prize 2 years ago was finding, in a reggae shop in Tampere, Finland, two hand-printed (photocopied) books that transcribed interviews conducted by the authors – finnish men – in english – with folks who ran reggae sound systems in jamaica in the 1980s – priceless from the perspective of love or study!

  • 8. Birdseed  |  April 12th, 2007 at 2:51 am

    Three things I think you’re both missing when it comes to world music:

    Firstly, it follows very distinct discursive patterns of selection, with most of the music discussed in this blog being discounted as “westernised” or “irrelevant” to pure world music fans like Charlie Gillett. If you look at his compilations, or at the Rough Guide material, or god forbid the Putamayo crap, it all very distinctly a subsection of the music produced in the third world rather than all of it. You know the patterns yourself I’m sure – the music is not dangerous or challenging, rarely political. It’s “old”, generally inspired by some arbitrarily cut-off point in the evolution of music defined as “folk” and “genuine” and shorn of modern instruments and ideas. It’s expressely exotic, confirming our opinion of the third world as being very different.

    Secondly, it follows very distinct class patterns. The urban disenfranchised and the working class don’t get a look in, the music that’s considered good is either middle class or elite-supported “folk traditions”. The hegemony only allows the correct music and silences the voices of the dissenters… Which I guess happens everywhere but in this case World Music fans in the west actively support it, the core collaborating with the elites in the periphery to go all World System on ya.

    Thirdly, the choices made by world music record companies, fans, etc. do have an impact on the third world. The west, with its enormous resources, can determine who becomes a star and who doesn’t, and its taste is what decides what gets produced. Often in western studios, with western musicians (look at Charlie Gillett’s compos and see how many “west/south” type collaborations there are) and ultimately working towards western tastes. The musicians that do music for the west get rich, the rest are frozen out.

    Local music is the alternative, like all the genres discussed here. None of it is produced for anyone other than the same group the musicians come from, it doesn’t give a flying fuck what some geezer in somerset thinks, and it’s all brilliant and dynamic and great.

    Now you made me rewrite all that again. :)

  • 9. wayneandwax  |  April 12th, 2007 at 9:49 am

    Hmmm. These are interesting thoughts, Birdseed, and I wish I had more time to respond today. I just spent an entire quarter examining the question of “world music,” and much of what you say here has been fleshed out nicely (&critically) by ethnomusicologists. See the syllabus for a wealth of literature on the subject, and check out, for example, this piece by Steve Feld, which discusses the history of “world music”/”world beat” (and one egregious example of “ethnotechno”) in an illuminating way —
    http://www.deepforestmusic.com/dfpress_00-00-00sweetlullabyforworld.htm

    The one thing that I will say, though, is that “world music” — despite how well you describe many of its trends here (esp during the 80s-90s) — is, as /rupture notes, a shifting, tricky thing, a moving target. Recent efforts by labels like Sublime Frequencies and by bloggers who resist a lot of these entrenched notions of authenticity (while promoting other ones) are no doubt shifting the discourse while posing new, often uncomfortable questions about the endeavor. If I may point to yet another illuminating read, check out Mike Vasquez’s recent defense of SF:
    http://www.bidoun.com/issues/issue_10/08_all.html#article

    And again, in case it was too subtly linked above, this one by Marcus Boon —
    http://www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/musicsoundnoise/ethnopsyche

    [update: too funny — i notice that /jace just pointed to these today, too! ah, interwebs.]

  • 10. chris  |  April 13th, 2007 at 6:55 am

    interesting discussion.

    a (possibly) interesting parallel to this is the disputed notion of world cinema. again a signifier for otherness (double signifier actually, read cinema instead of movies) perpetuated by distributors who have identified a market for consuming highbrow difference. the issue is perhaps more contentious there, however, b/c the cinematographic apparatus is widely accepted as a product of western/mass produced modernism.

    however, in light of this it’s interesting that SF choose to use radio as both an entry point to a African and Asian soundscapes and a means of representing those (constructed) sound-worlds to consumers – something Bishop is probably overlooking when he says:

    “what we’re doing is a DIY approach to everything, not dependent on institutionalized engineering of thought about foreign cultures and how they need to be accessed through brokers of politics, communication and finance” (quoted in Boon).

    personally I’ve always been a bit put off by the form of SF releases, not because of lack of authenticity or because they are mapped and mediated by the all consuming radio ear, but because I want to be the one moving the dial and deciding what to hear. authenticity is in the ear/experience of the listener – but i secretly quite enjoy that deep forest track (and the ridiculous video), so you probably shouldn’t trust anything i say :)

  • 11. DJ C  |  April 13th, 2007 at 10:15 am

    I appologise for not contributing to the discourse on “world music” but I feel that this graphical dissertation on the number one song in America is relevant to this post none-the-less.

  • 12. wayneandwax.com » T&hellip  |  March 15th, 2008 at 3:56 pm

    […] I say something about “counter” canons? I think I like “loose” canons better. But the gist remains: that is, if we listen to […]

Wayne&Wax

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

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

I represent like that.

wayne at wayneandwax dot com

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