January 6th, 2008

What Chew Know About Down in the Hole?

I’m not really a TV watcher. Really. I mean, sure, I’ve watched something like 2000 videos on YouTube over the last couple years (and I don’t think that even counts videos embedded in blogs, etc.). But I probably watch OldTube only a couple hours a week at best — like if, say, a big Bawstin game is on (and even then I’m usually tagging along with Becca’s great enthusiasm for sports, which well outstrips mine).

That said, I’ve spent 50 hours of the last couple months catching up with The Wire. After having read enough raves from enough trusted filters (while vigilantly avoiding any spoilers), I finally decided that I needed to be on board for the fifth and final season (which premiered tonight, non-demand). I have to say that I agree wholeheartedly with the show’s boosters. It’s an utterly engrossing series and, almost improbably, lives up to all the hype.

Earlier today Julianne Shepherd said about The Wire, “This is the most important work of visual literature of my lifetime! How can you not react to that total awesomeness?!” I concurrr. And I like the idea of the series as a work of “visual literature.” It has repeatedly been characterized as Dickensian, and I think that’s apt — not just for the way that David Simon, et al., offer such a detailed, vivid, and only kinda cartoonish portrait of the bleak houses of Bmore, but, obviously, because it’s also a serial, which makes it especially fun to watch all at once. (Waiting a week per episode is going to be tough after Netflicking the first four seasons.)

Since I’ve called it “only kinda cartoonish” I should probably reaffirm that the most striking aspect of the series is, as has been remarked again and again, its verisimilitude. The cops talk like cops, the corner boys like corner boys, the dockworkers like dockworkers, etc. It’s all very convincing and richly textured, drawing one in and suspending one’s proverbial disbelief (what’s to disbelieve when it seems so ‘real’?).

The Wire has faced some criticism, however, precisely because the response to the show, broadly speaking and from various quarters, has so affirmed its trueness to life. A recent piece in The Atlantic, for instance, finds the show too bleak, more bleak than life really is (for the author and his consultants anyway), and hence finds the show’s pessimism to undermine its verisimilitude: “This bleakness is Simon’s stamp on the show,” argues Mark Bowden, “and it suggests that his political passions ultimately trump his commitment to accuracy or evenhandedness.” Along these lines, and in that article, sociologist Elijah Anderson notes that “decent people” are underrepresented in the show, which, he contends, instead portrays underclass black life in Bmore as all too defined by the code of the streets. (Others have noted that the women in the show lack the fullness and range of the male characters, which is a valid criticism too.) W/r/t bleakness, however, I’m inclined to agree with my friend Marco: it doesn’t seem exaggerated. To put it another way: shit is real. (Or sure seems so.) And I mean shit literally too.

W/r/t to verisimilitude, though, for me — and maybe you saw this coming — what most frequently trips me up (or really, tripped me up, since it has largely been corrected since the early seasons) is the use of music in the show.

Notably, The Wire pretty much exclusively employs music in what film scholars/scorers would call a diagetic manner: that is, any sound you hear, the characters hear too. It’s “source music,” emitting from a particular source in the world that you’re watching. Tracks blast from cars and boomboxes and club systems; they don’t creep up on you like sneaky violins and woodwinds to manipulate your emotional response to what is happening. They serve as set pieces. As such, the music offers another level of detail to the show’s attempts at verisimilitude. Or at least that’s what I expected to hear. So I was surprised, during Season 1, to hear Mos Def and Common and other (let’s face it, bourgie) hip-hop songs playing in the Bmore ‘jects. Don’t get me wrong. I like those guys, but they’re not exactly offering thug motivation, knamean. (& I know I’m not the first to note this disconnect, but having avoided detalled commentary on the series in order to avoid spoilers, I didn’t read through long threads on the placement of music in the series prior to formulating this critique.)

To their credit, the producers of the show came around and remedied such diagetic distractions. In later seasons one hears music better matched to the settings: e.g., Fiddy and Jay-Z, a little Sean Paul for good measure (even some Vybz Kartel). Up to the time music, gangsta music, popular music. The soundtrack suddenly started to rise to the level of thoughtful detail of the rest of the show. Omar’s Latino pardner bumped reggaeton in his ride. Jimmy McNulty, the Pogues. And finally, sometime in season 3, Baltimore club music made a few key appearances: a house party here, a club scene there, a couple kids bumping along to the distinctive beat in their ride. In Season 4, Bmore club (as esoteric knowledge) even serves as a cunning tool for marking ignant interlopers from NYC. Season 4 also saw the introduction of homegrown hip-hop, a scene apparently spurred by the series, which has put (C)harm City on the map in recent years in a manner rivaled only by, well, Baltimore’s club music itself.

And though the producers have gone so far as to compile an album featuring tracks by DJ Technics, Mullyman, Diablo, and other locals, they’ve decided for the 5th season — against my highest hopes — to use a version of the Tom Waits penned theme song, “Down in the Hole,” as sung by Steve Earle (who plays a recurring character on the show) rather than, as I had fantasized, commissioning a Bmore remix of the Waits original (which remains my favorite version).

And so, to fulfill my own fantasies, I put together this quick’n’dirty number —
wayne&wax w/ Tom Waits, “What Chew Know About Down in the Hole”
[audio:http://wayneandwax.com/wp/audio/what-chew-know.mp3]

That’s it for now. Just wanted to let y’all know: I’m watching with ya. There won’t be any plot talk here (I still hate spoilers), but I’m always happy to talk themes. Plus, you can find all the Wire talk you want at places like Heaven and Here, where David Simon himself occasionally leaves a comment. Maybe me too.

25 Comments

  • 1. Gabriel Heatwave  |  January 7th, 2008 at 8:39 am

    i’ve spent the last few months watching (and LOVING) all four seasons, and enjoying both the way music is always part of the scene rather than overdubbed and the way this aligns different characters with the music they choose to listen to – not necessarily cleverly but nicely still. was planning to blog about it soon as well in fact – i hadn’t noticed the disconnects in the early seasons, maybe i wasn’t paying too much attention then, but it struck me that the barksdale gang are almost always bumping ‘classic’ hip hop – jay-z, fifty, snoop etc – while it’s their younger, newer-on-the-scene rivals (marlo’s people), who talk about bmore club music and listen to it in their cars and clubs. i was especially intrigued by the appearance of the Blackout dancehall riddim (when fruit goes clubbing with patrice) with what seems to be american rappers on it – it’s an uptempo 120bpm riddim, so presumably stuff like this has been incorporated by the bmore scene? it’s nice also how the older characters (prop joe, the half blind guy who nearly snitches on omar) are always on their oldtime jazz and funk as well, and i also really enjoyed prez’s two johnny cash moments…

  • 2. wayneandwax  |  January 7th, 2008 at 11:02 am

    Likewise, I was surprised to hear “New Millennium” (Mad Antz) coming out of someone’s car. Just to be precise, though: Bmore club first surfaced in the show with Barksdale’s people — it was playing at the house party that Cutty attends when he’s trying to be a soldier again, and it was playing again in the club when Avon first gets out of prison. Later we hear it in some of Marlo’s soldiers’ car, and of course we see Chris’s clever notion that NY interlopers don’t know anything about it (which Snoop takes a minute to grasp).

    I was suprised in watching #51 yesterday to hear a classic Eric B and Rakim joint playing outside while Marlo was holding court. Not sure whether to think of that as implausible or not.

  • 3. Boima Tucker  |  January 7th, 2008 at 7:36 pm

    !

  • 4. jace  |  January 7th, 2008 at 8:44 pm

    i’m like you, went thru the 1st 4 seasons on DVD, the only american TV i really watch (although not having a tv helps me not to watch it). i feel like the producers up their music game as the series goes on.

    My favorite moment of FAILED VERISIMILITUDE: last episode of Season 1, Bubs the Junky appears wearing a $150 shirt from Barcelona designer Custo.

  • 5. Gabriel Heatwave  |  January 8th, 2008 at 4:14 am

    yeah true i meant to mention the cutty club scene as a counter example, had forgotten about the avon one though… there’s also this other time when marlo’s in a car that’s playing what i first thought was a jamaican riddim but on closer listening sounds like nothing i’ve heard before, again with an american-sounding mc on it, i might record that and the blackout thing, be interested to find out what they are

  • 6. Gabriel Heatwave  |  January 8th, 2008 at 4:16 am

    oh yeah, loving your title tune remix as well :-)

  • 7. wayneandwax  |  January 8th, 2008 at 6:22 pm

    I’d be curious to hear those clips, Gabriel. I don’t quite recall those moments, closely as I’ve been listening. There were definitely a few things that I couldn’t spot, tho, for sure.

    As for the fancy failure, Jace, I’ve learned never to be too surprised by what a good scavenger can lay his hands on. Barcelona haute couture in Bmore does seem a lil improbable, tho, dunnit.

  • 8. Boima Tucker  |  January 9th, 2008 at 2:50 am

    I don’t know if this adds or takes away from the Baltimore representation, but they mentioned GO GO in season 1 when I think it was Stringer meeting with a cat from DC. That at least shows they made an attempt at local music representation early on.

    My favorite Wire Trivia:

    My DC folks got real excited to see Slim Charles, who is a Go Go star by the name of Ghengis(?) I got a what I think is a Rare Essence recording where his deep voice is unmistakable.

    I’ve known for awhile Idris Elba was from London (and half Sierra Leonean REPRESENT!!!) but I flipped when I heard McNulty (Dominic West) talk with a British accent!

    I recently found out about Melvin William’s role in the whole series, the history of Baltimore, and what he’s trying to do these days to reform and how his role in the series reflects that.

    We need more local TV MOVEMENTS!!! By the way. I don’t know if anyone’s seen it but Spike Lee’s “Sucka Free City,” was disappointing in verisimilitude for a few of my native San Francisco friends. Although… JT the bigga figga does make an appearance! Others were excited to see the attempt and disappointed that it didn’t continue. Perhaps an attempt to mirror The Wire? Maybe it would have kept going if they would have had Too Short play an Oakland preacher!

  • 9. ghis  |  January 9th, 2008 at 12:15 pm

    Hey Wayne, I did like you. In November I had no life and watched the 4 seasons on a two weeks stretch. I was deeply into it, like a big novel. Since that, I feel I turned like a preacher and I only talk about The Wire !
    I’m trying to not see any episode of season 5 so at the end I can watch all of it in one day :)

  • 10. g  |  January 9th, 2008 at 11:49 pm

    i just started watching and i am

    so

    into

    it!!!!!!!!

    thanks for pushing me over the edge duder. we’re gonna have to talk about this thing as it goes

  • 11. Lamin  |  January 11th, 2008 at 3:01 am

    I believe the Mos Def song from Season 1 was “Ms. Fat Booty”. A song that was moderately popular around the DC metropolitan area, as it was in NY (and probably other parts of the country). I was living in Silver Spring, MD around that time. I remember WPGC giving it some spins, and even talking to some classmates about it. Mos Def’s album, which was released by a “bourgie” underground hiphop label with a major distribution deal went gold because of that single.

    As for the Common song, I don’t quite remember but I believe it’s “The Light”—which was even more popular than “Ms. Fat Booty”. I might be wrong but I think Comm even went platinum because of the radio spins that single garnered. He sold a lot of CDs for sure.

    As for the rappers being “bourgie”, I don’t have much to say there. Comm was in a Gap ad, and his last album lost me too. I will say this though; if in Season 5, if you hear Kanye’s “Stronger” or Lupe’s “Superstar” or even Kweli’s “Hot Thing” or even Common’s “The People”— that’s what the big radio stations are playing.

    And one last thing; I know it is pretty much impossible to have a show like The Wire on regular TV, especially at this time… but there’s something about a show with a predominantly black cast (dealing with real and serious issues affecting black people) on premium cable—a predominantly white, middleclass n uppermiddleclass thing—that I’m not quite sure how I feel about. I think that’s the bourgie element here, if there’s any.

  • 12. wayneandwax  |  January 11th, 2008 at 10:44 am

    Good points, Lamin. I’m afraid my memory of Season 1 is now starting to fail, so I can’t remember other examples that gave me pause as implausible. I think there were a few older joints — like the Rakim track in episode #51 — which seemed far-fetched. Then again, even pop radio channels tend to have “old school” segments these days. Overall, as I note, I think the musical programming has gotten a lot better, more carefully considered.

  • 13. raven  |  January 11th, 2008 at 12:15 pm

    Thank you for this post! It’s always fascinating to hear what those living outside Bmore think of The Wire.

    From my experience, the music in the show is in line with what I hear blasting from cars, stores & houses here in Bmore. The only glaring inaccuracy is the scant uses of mainstream RnB–which one hears a lot of (especially on fine, sunny days when peops are cruising with their windows down & singing along). 92 Q ‘the people’s station’ (knowledge of which was another test Chris & Snoop put to NYC interlopers) is an institution, broadcasting live Club music on the weekends but most of the week they play tons of RnB hits along w/ some hip hop.

  • 14. Curm  |  January 15th, 2008 at 9:58 am

    Boima, Slim Charles is played by Anwan Big G Glover who is the longtime lead vocalist for DC go-go outfit the Backyard Band. The G may also stand for Ghengus(spelling?). David Simon was about 3 years ahead of me at the University of Maryland. I have recollections of an entertaining review he wrote for the school paper of a Nighthawks (longtime DC blues and blooz-rock band) show where the ghost of a long dead bluesman appeared and began talking to him. Simon is also a big New Orleans music fan and goes down there a bit. George Pelecanos who writes for show lives in Silver Spring just near DC and is a big music fan as is another writer for the show David Mills, who went to the Univ. of Maryland and later put out the fanzine Uncut Funk.

  • 15. bent  |  January 17th, 2008 at 11:11 am

    re: cable being bougie and watched by upper class white folks.
    actually in dc the show is much loved by the kinds of folks who listen to big g and backyard band. my friend who teaches media literacy and radio skills references the shows all the time and she says the kids in her class (mainly african american poor folks) know it and love it and make connections between what on the the show and what they learn about in the class. would be surprised if the same folks watched like big love or whatever else is on hbo, but when a show is both good and reflects the reality you know, you probably gonna find a way to watch it.

  • 16. Boima  |  January 20th, 2008 at 10:38 am

    I agree with bent… Shit… I don´t even have a TV and I´m all caught up on the wire. There´s always friends´ house, blockbuster and bittorrent. These days there´s a way to watch ANYTHING. Matter of fact, I finished watching the wire season 4 after a gig in LA in my rental car waiting for my flight back up to SF while homeless dudes peered in through my window wondering if I was the one shooting up. Actually that´s hella bougie… Nevermind.

  • 17. Joshua Markovits  |  January 21st, 2008 at 5:39 pm

    I’m a student in your Global Hip Hop class and found this post after you linked pictures to your new-born daughter. Great idea remixing the tom waits theme song! I’ve liked all the various versions throughout the series, however a B-more club remix was definitely needed.

  • 18. Pete Murdertone  |  January 27th, 2008 at 2:30 pm

    I cant believe dominic west and aidan gillen (I see him w/ his kids all the time in finsbury park) arent Americans (I had never seen them before the wire)
    It is a great series, but lets keep it in perspective…its mainly because so little care is taken and effort made these days in it trounces the opposition

  • 19. Pete Murdertone  |  January 27th, 2008 at 2:32 pm

    and does anyone recall schooly d’s tale about the “big bad faggot”….thats omar lol

  • 20. wayneandwax  |  January 27th, 2008 at 3:23 pm

    I too was floored, Pete, to discover that McNulty and Stringer were Brits! That some convincing acting on their part (although I can now hear a twinge of Britishness in McNulty’s accent).

    And good point re: perspective: the TV bar is pretty low innit. Even so, this is highly satisfying, interesting longform drama.

  • 21. Pete Murdertone  |  January 28th, 2008 at 1:44 am

    aiden gillen pretty much reprised his wire character in the west end version of glengarry glen ross (brilliant btw) I guess McNultys fake brit accent he put on for the brothel sting should have clued us in (you could only sound that wrong deliberately lol)

  • 22. looj  |  February 1st, 2008 at 6:11 pm

    so wayne i’m guessing that you weren’t involved in dropping that midnight request line -> way down in the hole blend that you riddim method folks put down on the April 2006 Lemon Red Mix? shit was fire.

  • 23. wayneandwax  |  February 1st, 2008 at 6:16 pm

    that blend was all kid kameleon’s work, and, man, did it work. fire indeed. worked so well, in fact, that i almost can’t hear that skream track anymore without imagining tom waits pon top. my own turn on that madcap mix comes at the end, including the hallucinatory appearance of del shannon’s runaway against a lil jon merengue loop and some bubbling beats.

  • 24. Ben Bromfield  |  September 9th, 2009 at 11:54 am

    The season 4 theme started out as my least favorite, but then when I listened closer, I began to appreciate it more. I think it’s really thoughtful of them to have boys singing on it that are about the age of the corner boys around which the season is centered, and it has a kind of imperfectness to it (a simplistic melody, some pitchy notes, breathing issues) that adds to this effect. I was wondering if it was any of the cast members singing it. Does anyone know? One of the singers sounds like it could be the actor who plays Randy.

  • 25. w&w  |  September 9th, 2009 at 2:10 pm

    thx for the comment, ben. the season 4 theme grew on me too, in a similar way. it certainly seemed like an appropriate accompaniment to the school setting. according to this metafilter thread, the singers are not cast members but, rather, members of the Baltimore Boys choir —

    Specifically, our theme was arranged and produced by Doreen Vail, Maurette Brown-Clark and J.B. Wilkins. The young voices featured are those of Ivan Ashford, Markel Steele, Cameron Brown, Tariq Al-Sabir and Avery Bargasse. The musicians are Ronald Lindsey and Thomas Crosson. Mike Potter engineered the session.

    All of the boys are from Baltimore and Tony Small, who directs a boys choir locally, found them for us.

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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