February 20th, 2009

Buried Treasure, Excavated Sizzle

The haunting echoes of r&b and garage ephemera are hallmarks of Burial’s music. Myriad, minute vocal snippets, tossed-off castaways in a sea of murky radio remembrances, reanimated as deeply expressive fragments, pitched around, recontextualized rhythmically and harmonically and vibewise. This is a poignant poetics, sometimes jaw-droppingly so, as the producer projects an alarmingly “human” voice despite denaturing the originals so audibly. (Reminding me of my reactions to Mouse on Mars’ excursions in synth-bent emoting, evoking an obviously artificial but affective fragility — but that’s the topic for another post perhaps.)

Prolly the best example in Burial’s oeuvre is “Archangel” which, as noted here, sources its suggestive vox from a couple amazingly fleeting moments (ad libs even!) in a semi-successful but forgotten r&b jawn.

Beyond Burial’s own distinctive remixing of the recent past, the approach has become more broadly adopted across contemporary electronic/sample-based production, especially by dubstep producers wielding similarly semi-obscure (and sometimes truly obscure) reggae samples. Burial falls into this camp too, with recent dancehall recordings — like their r&b and garage counterparts — serving as suggestive sonic signposts of post-millennial/colonial London.

As /Rupture noted via this insightful bit of sample spotting @ the lockitdown blog, Burial sampled Sizzla’s “Just One of Those Days” (aka, “Dry Cry”), his BIG CHUNE from 2003, for 2006’s “Broken Home.”

Living in Kingston in 2003 I bore repeated witness to the power of Sizzla’s massive one-drop revival album, Da Real Ting, so Burial’s allusion jumped out at me way back when his first album dropped. One of the things I found so striking and beguiling about Burial’s use of a phrase from “Just One of Those Days” was the way he displaced its original emphases by shifting its place in the meter by but an eighth-note.

So, while the original sounds like

whose FAULT no ONE but mySELF

in the Burial track, it goes

WHOSE fault NO one BUT myself

This may seem like a subtle distinction, but that’s what makes it great. Indeed, that’s what makes it better, to my ears, than a rather similar attempt at transformation: e.g., what strike me as the baldly (and badly) manipulative efforts of Zomby for “The Lie,” which takes the following Sizzla lyric

I was born in a system that doesn’t give a fuck about you nor me, nor the life of our kids

and turns it into

I was born in a system that doesn’t give a fuck about you nor me, nor the lie

WHICH. MAKES. NO. SENSE. & totally undermines Sizzla’s critique.

Is this supposed to be a sly and suggestive gesture? If so, it comes up woefully short. I think it rubs me the wrong way, interestingly, a lot more than than, say, Kanye West’s equally brazen use of Chaka Khan’s “Through the Fire” to propel “Through the Wire” (which I find funny and surprisingly compelling) — and I think this difference emerges largely for ideological reasons, which are inextricable from aesthetics (or, in other words, my idiosyncratically but also historically / culturally / socially / politically situated reception of the poetics at work in these tracks), despite that some may want to make room for “strictly” musical considerations in these rarefied conversations.

Now, obviously I enjoy Zomby’s production in other instances, so I don’t think this is just some simple prejudice expressing itself. Rather, it’s an attempt to work out why I find essentially the same sample-based procedure to have very different effects/affects in two different instances: whereas Burial’s subtle, muddled invocation of Sizzla invites a range of responses, Zomby’s strikes me as simply distortionary, rubbing against accumulated affective resonance in an awkward, hamfisted way. When we’re talking about handling such materials as beloved, if dated, reggae and r&b — so treasured and variously remembered and embodied — I guess I prefer a more sensitive touch.

Or, in other words, the happy medium is the massage.

12 Comments

  • 1. uncarved.org blog »&hellip  |  February 21st, 2009 at 11:35 am

    […] wayneandwax.com » Excavated Sizzle. […]

  • 2. Cold Sweat  |  February 21st, 2009 at 4:38 pm

    Hey! Cheers for forwarding and linking up the Lock it Down website and “sample” post. Much appreciated. Your post is very interesting as well! I missed that Zomby “the lie” tune, completely. Will def go and check it out…

    Cold Sweat
    Lock it Down

  • 3. Em-ly  |  February 23rd, 2009 at 4:49 pm

    I’m fascinated with Burial’s work–thanks for the bit ‘o’ analysis!

  • 4. Just a net surfer  |  February 25th, 2009 at 10:11 pm

    Yes, but by repackaging Jamaican music in your post modern MA media studies/Goldsmiths’ PHD manner and idiom, and through YOUR western prism — YOU are distorting the original music and its intentions.

    Sorry, but your column is pretentious and colonises black people’s music and their intentions.

    That’s the truth, and it always has been since white middle clas academics got hold of Robert Johnson records and appropriated them for their own academic/financial ends.

  • 5. Just a net surfer  |  February 25th, 2009 at 10:21 pm

    PS That artistic filtering that westerners like yourself do with black art forms is not new — the dadaists did it, by making up “african sounding” poems , which were in fact nonsense rhymes, to “set themselves free from western conditoning”.

    Actually, what they did was pretty patronising and condescending — upper middle class German artists, standing on stage and shouting “A booga wooga booga, bimberrie kananana kkkkaaaaannnggggaaa”, whilst wearing “primitive” masks, all in the hope they would be liberated from their middle class German hang ups.

    I think a lot of white views, prisms and presentations of their “authentic take” on black music — from Ari Up’s ( a very rich German heiress BTW ) fake dreadlocks and perma tan, to a lot of dubstep middle class white artists using “too black, too strong” black power samples — does exactly the same as those ( unintentionally ) patronising Dadaists.

    I think a lot of what these modern dubstep artists do — is a million miles from the origins of the music they appropriate.

    Just like hillbilly bluegrass and country rockabilly artists produced music so very similar to bloack music — but inescably, it was a million miles from the delta blues music they stole.

    Who got paid, Robert Johnson or Hank Williams?

    Who got paid — chicago blues “obscure” artists — or Bill Hailey?

    Who got paid — bo diddley or the rolling stones?

  • 6. Just a net surfer  |  February 25th, 2009 at 10:25 pm

    PPS I am sorry if my posts seem critical — they are not meant in a mean sprited/flaming/sniping manner, rather, I hope they might contribute to the debate.

  • 7. wayneandwax  |  February 25th, 2009 at 10:44 pm

    seem critical? that’s a good one.

    look, i’m fine with you adding your perspective here, though you could at least identify yourself if you’re gonna throw flames, and you could spend a little more time engaging with my representation of jamaican music (or “black music” more generally) before you hurl such a blanket indictment at me. i know nothing of goldsmith. perhaps you confuse me with someone else. (also, i would never self-identify as a “westerner”; nor as “white.”)

    your critique comes across as if you didn’t even read my post, which is — indeed — critical of particular forms of appropriation. i stand by my statement that the reggae songs sampled by dubstep producers (nuff of whom are black, btw) are “treasured and variously remembered and embodied.” but it seems that you want to insist on a singular way of treasuring, remembering, and embodying. fortunately, you can only speak for yourself.

    there’s plenty of pretension inherent to this endeavor, granted. and i do sometimes write with ten-dollar-terms, though i try to mix up the aca-speak with the other vocab in my head (hip-hop slang, patois poetics, interwebbese, poco español). it’s silly to call what i’m doing here akin to colonization. this is just a likkle blog, dude. i couldn’t significantly shape “black people’s music and their intentions” if i tried. if anything, i simply hope to challenge the ways that readers of this humble blog think about and discuss “black music” — with the intent of better understanding how modern racial ideologies, which powerfully reproduce themselves in musical discourse, work to make possible the kind of ongoing systemic exploitation you describe.

    if you’re down with that project, cool. but i’m not interesting in having the “debate” you’re stumbling to articulate in your comments. i’ve been over that ground too many times already. agreeable as i am to some of your analysis, i think you draw the lines between black and white far too starkly for us to have a productive conversation. for that, we’d have to share some ground. i’m not interested in taking the low road. seen?

  • 8. Just a net surfer  |  February 26th, 2009 at 12:32 am

    Contrary to what you think — I am not taking a snide swipe at you — but the whole dubstep /techno ambient dub from Germany and Switzerland et al, is fetishising black music to an extraodinary ( and alienated, constipated ) degree.

    I mean, how much more can those middle class white dubstep heads and Berlin dub anoraks get ( read : exploit ) out of repackaging reggae soundsystem endless bass frequencies? How does then squeezing those carefully studied and anal–ysed bass lines out of a sterile computer — make those (stolen and anorak studied ) bass lines original?

    It all gets a bit silly, like Swedish hip hop or Japanese upper middle class jazz — the finished product is “so close” to the original form, like a photocopy in fact, — but really, so very very very far away from the original form.

  • 9. wayneandwax  |  February 26th, 2009 at 1:03 am

    Color me defensive then, I guess. I just couldn’t help reading “YOU” and “YOUR” as addressing me — never mind the slurs against academics or this seemingly unambiguous sentence: “Sorry, but your column is pretentious and colonises black people’s music and their intentions.”

    Anywaaaaay, I’m not sure that worrying about studied Swedes or Japanese jazzbuffs is worth anyone’s time or effort. The very spurious notions that any of those folks might entertain about racial authenticity via certain musical tropes are the same ones that you prop up with your own discussion of distance (miles away) and originality. If it “gets a bit silly” even to engage in such forms of appropriation / fetishization, surely it’s at least as silly to so vehemently chant them down. Why bother?

    I think the more interesting questions are those we might ask about how such performances of blackness (if that’s what they are) function in the local contexts you name (Sweden, Japan, Germany). Rather than only hearing this as global theft (from black to white, south to north, etc.), we might also hear in this local love (among other things, but can’t resist the nod to Lott), a cultural politics contingent on specific histories of selves/others in relation to local/regional/national social formations as well as such international forces as American racial ideologies. In this vein, Ian Condry’s Hip-hop Japan does an admirable job of getting beyond the authenticity/appropriation binaries.

    Maybe the “extraodinary ( and alienated, constipated ) degree” to which these producers “fetishize” reggae — does this imply that one can mildly fetishize something? how’s that work? — makes their derivative music more original than, say, an exact copy? Some people might say that of Kraftwerk vis-a-vis James Brown. On the other hand, some have argued that Jamaican covers of r&b songs were “so bad that they were unwittingly original.”

  • 10. mrk  |  March 4th, 2009 at 5:10 pm

    thing is, the zomby track samples this :
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t3x-9gAUwps&feature=related
    and not that sizzla track directly…
    he’s pretty much sped the original up and added a dubsteppy kick though.

  • 11. wayneandwax  |  March 4th, 2009 at 6:25 pm

    That’s very interesting, mrk. Thx for the tip.

    But while that second-hand sample source may explain the odd truncation, I can’t say that it makes me like what Zomby’s done any more. Indeed, it maybe makes it seem even more sloppy conceptually.

    But I don’t mean to be a prescriptive prick, really. Just sharing my responses.

  • 12. homoludo » Mash of &hellip  |  March 15th, 2009 at 8:38 am

    […] and wax was writting recently about Zomby’s of this vocal here  . Quoting from […]

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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