Recorded between Kingston and Cambridge over the course of 2003, Boston Jerk was my attempt to create a critical ethnographic recording, a sonic version of my dissertation — or, as I put it in the liner notes, “the synthesis to my analysis.” Below you’ll find the full audio, the liner notes, and a brief explication of each track. Boston Jerk is also available via cdbaby, iTunes, or Spotify.
Boston Jerk describes a few different things. For most Jamaicans, it refers to a small town on the northeast coast of the island, famous for its jerk-style cooking. As a Bostonian (though I am, technically, a Cantabridgian), I found it funny that Boston Jerk would be a familiar phrase in Jamaica. I know plenty of folks in the Boston area who would qualify for such a title. While spending six months in Jamaica last year [i.e., 2003], I decided to claim the name for myself in an attempt to foreground my position as an outsider and my desire to be critical about what I see and experience, regardless of where I am. After all, who else but a jerk would come to Jamaica intending to produce “Jamaican” music (with a little up-north flavor)? Who but a jerk would come “from foreign” and try to say something new about Jamaican music, culture, and society? Who but a jerk would wear a fake-dreads hat?
Boston Jerk also refers to the sonic concoction that emerges from my Jamaican experience. I’ve done my homework on reggae music and I’ve had my ears open for a while now (at least since high school dances at CRLS, which — in the early 90s anyway — were consistently dominated by dancehall), and my production style and vocal style reflect my study of reggae music and the rich Kingstonian soundscape that became my world from January to June of 2003. I’ve tried to re-present this soundscape, in my own way, on this album. Thus, one hears the sounds I heard (and recorded), remixed: stray dogs do the Diwali, taximen chant back to base, crickets and cocks get their freak on, and TV quiz-show teens shout, “Halle Berry,” as quickly as they answer, “God.”
The full-fledged songs here serve as reflections on life in Jamaica (and beyond). Sometimes I made the beats, while my collaborators recited their pre-composed rhymes or came up with new ones on the spot. Sometimes the track was a more organic collabo — check Dami D’s dictaphone sketch for an example. Writing and recording songs together was one of my primary research methods, allowing me to learn a lot more about another artist’s musical sensibility than a cold interview might offer. It built friendships, too — which also lessens any prospect of a chilly conversation. Throughout the album, I’ve included interview segments (over beats) in order to add another layer of meaning to the music. These are the DJs’ own thoughts about their art and life — and their reactions to some tough questions. The sequencing of the album is also rather deliberate: as the album progresses, I try to add more and more layers of meaning on top of each other, in the hope that the juxtapositions, tone-shifts, contradictions, and ironies will produce the kind of internal critique that seems necessary for thoughtful, reflective art at this moment.
Consider this the synthesis to my dissertation’s analysis. Whereas when writing I seek to separate lines of influence, when making music I move to merge. It’s a unity thing, y’know. Boston Jerk represents my genuine attempt to bring many voices into dialogue and many perspectives to bear on each other — not to mention rhythms. My hope is that, overall, it makes for a rich listening experience. As always, I’m out to challenge assumptions, critique bullshit, affirm hope, move asses, and send out love. Speaking of which–
Nuff love to: My Fam, esp. Nick&J&Alison&Mom&Warren&Cousins, Aunts, and Uncles; to which, I should also add Becca&Charlie&Fern&Leila&Grandparents, Cousins, Aunts, and Uncles; plus, friends far and near — Andrew, Ben Z, Amy&Ron, Liz V, Alex&Sharon&Jake&Sharon&Liz&Tony&Sabrina, Clay&Chris, Dylan, Luke, Kabir, Keith, Mr.6, Brad, Greg&Mike, Jascha&Mike, Shilpa, Mike C, Mike F, Ben W, Bobbo, Ron R, Orlando P, Mt.Auburn friends, Harvard friends, Cambridge friends, Boston friends, Madison friends, Jamaica friends, many of whom deserve more specific mention, namely — Dami D (you di realest, mi bredda), Wasp (yes, scientist, big tings a come), Raw-Raw (sick ill spitta), Rashorn (bless-ed), Kazam, Trevor, Marvin, Howard, Wayne, M Bizzle (someday we’ll do something, fo’ shizzle), Twelve Tribes, Kush, and the drivers and dispatchers of Express Taxi (big ups from 74 Hope Road, Ackee 7).
Except where noted, all tracks written, produced, performed, engineered, and mixed by Wayne&Wax, featuring the following invaluable collaborations:
Dami D: vocals/lyrics/interview/melodies (Introview, A It Dat, Dami D on the Dictaphone, Highest Grade, “how real it get,” “nigga nice,” Gun Music, Outroview)
Wasp: vocals/lyrics/interview (Introview, A It Dat, Highest Grade, “nigga nice,” Gun Music, Outroview)
Raw Raw: vocals/lyrics/interview (Introview, Jamaican Radio Edit 1, “you are not god,” Anthropology, “big up the big man,” Ready for the Road, Outroview)
Rashorn Foster: vocals/lyrics/interview (Introview, “red, gold, and green g-string,” In di Dance, “sufferation or flossin’,” Everyting a Rastafari, Outroview)
Damian and Fyah Rhed: stylistic consultation (In di Dance, Bug Music)
Trevor Rhone: conversation, finished sentence (“is this real?”), wisdom, hospitality
That Canadian Woman in Mo’ Bay: critical perspective (“the three categories of dancehall songs”)
Ron “Rhombus” Ruhaak: co-production (“how real it get”), additional programming (Sexy Jesus), electro-dub hi-hat (Highest Grade)
Andrew Scannell: bass (Sexy Jesus), EQ (Ready for the Road), “advice”
Ben Zaitchik: keyboards (Highest Grade, Sexy Jesus, Ready for the Road)
Rebecca Nesson: initial production (Soggae), design, feedback, forbearance, support, love, joy
DJ Axel Foley: cuts (Highest Grade, Anthropology, Bigger than Biggie)
DJ C: rewind (Introview)
Matthew Azevedo (M Works): mastering
Jamaica: radio, television, streets, schools, yards, waterfalls, shaker-beans, crickets, dogs, cocks, and Express Taxi (876-923-6893)
Jah: thunder (“you are not god”)
A number of indistinguishable military-sounds websites: gun-shot samples, bad dreams
All vocals recorded on a Shure fucking 58.
Recorded in Wayne’s and Becca’s livingrooms: Hope Road to Harvard Square.
1. Introview (mp3)
To introduce the album, I decided to put together an overture of sorts, drawing heavily from interview recordings but also including a number of distinctive features of the Jamaican soundscape (cars, taximen, kids shouting, popping bottletops, waves, shaker-beans, etc.). I’m not sure how possible it is to follow all the simultaneous dialogue, but the fragments are arranged carefully and tell little stories on their own and sometimes in unknowing conversation with each other. One can hear me shooting questions at my DJ bredren as they answer back with openness, humility, and wisdom. I recorded interviews with all of my collaborators, asking them about their personal history, their musical history, and generally sought to understand their aesthetic position — the way that they made sense of music, made meaning from sound and practice, projected their voice, and, ultimately, understood their subject position. Music seems like a great entry point for talking about some fundamental human issues. As Raw Raw and Rashorne both put it: “Music is life.” The overall effect of the interview mash-up is meant to be a bit disorienting, to insert the listener quickly and confusingly into the vast, rich Jamaican soundscape. DJ C — a Boston-based ragga producer and eclecticist turntablist — provides the long, intensifying “rewind” that shuttles us directly into the needle-on-the-record intro of the album’s first song.
2. A It Dat (mp3)
The phrase can mean “That’s It” or “That’s a Hit.” Like many Jamaican vernacular sayings, it caught my ear several times. I finally felt compelled to build a song around it. I created the hook — built around the rhythmic placement of the phrase — and asked Dami D and Wasp, two young, talented Kingstonian DJs, to write their own verses and choruses, retaining the placement of “A It Dat” but otherwise adding their own content. The result is an infectious party jam that rides a bubbling dancehall bassline and some Diwali inspired handclaps (what can I say? Lenky mashed up the place for months with that one), all punctuated by chunky, dissonant guitar bursts. The chikka-chik scatting at the end is a nod to Prince Buster’s rousing vocal performances with the Skatellites. [Check DJ C’s wicked remix for the Mashit label. Now available as a 12″!]
3. Boston Jerk (mp3)
The album’s theme song, Boston Jerk takes my enthusiasm for the Jamaican vernacular and runs with it, milking my knowledge of patois, local slang, and local things for all it’s worth. I wanted to write a song that, in a humorous and compelling way, would explore my position as an outsider/insider in the world of Jamaican music, represent the slice of Jamaican life I lived, and send some inside-joke shout-outs to my friends back in Kingston. “More Jamaican than Kentucky-Fried Chicken” kind of says it all: if KFC is the most popular restaurant in Jamaica, what does that say about what is Jamaican and what is not? I’ve been wondering the same about hip-hop for a while now. I’m not sure how much of this song goes over the head of those unfamiliar with Jamaican speech and referents but — as with many of the vocals and spoken-segments on the album — my hope is that it at least sounds cool. or perhaps even “wicked wicked.”
4. Taximan (mp3)
This track, aside from the bass drum, is composed entirely from recordings made in taxi cabs in Kingston. If you don’t own a car, taxis — sometimes shared “route” cabs — are the primary mode of transportation in Kingston (with buses — licensed and not — a close second). While living there, my partner Becca and I found a dependable service called Express Taxi and probably took 3 or 4 cab rides a day for the majority of our stay. Almost immediately I was struck by the style of the drivers’ calls and responses to each other and by their interplay with the dispatchers back at base (all of whom are female). Each driver has a number and a distinctive call to go along with it, though some have other nicknames (e.g., Lazy, Chucky, Indian). Everytime a call went out, several drivers would clamor for it over the radio, chanting their numbers or nicknames like a DJ at the dance: 3-4 3-4 3-4!! 92929292! zero-2 zero 2! I had to represent this sonic experience, so I recorded several rides and then sampled voices, beeps, and clicks. A big thanks to the drivers and dispatchers of Express Taxi from 74 Hope Road, Apartment Ackee 7! Check Express if you ever need to get around in Kingston – 876-923-6893.
5. Dami D on the Dictaphone (mp3)
Dami D was an absolutely crucial mediator of my experience in Jamaica. I met Dami during the summer of 2002 while I was working with M Bizzle and the Multicast crew on some ol’ yard hip-hop. Dami’s a wicked singjay with a great spirit. Not only was Dami my most frequent collaborator, he was my best friend and he introduced me to countless characters around Kingston and “carried” me to the weekly dance in Cassia Park on the regular. In gratitude and fellowship, Becca and I gave Dami a dictaphone on his birthday so he could record his constant flow of ideas. One of the ideas Dami caught was the beat and melody to Highest Grade, an obligatory ode to Jamaica’s finest ganja. This is a recording of him playing the recording for me and getting a phone call in the middle. It didn’t matter, though: I got enough to reconstruct the beat.
6. Highest Grade (mp3)
When I asked Dami why he decided to write about the topics that he writes about, he told me: “Well, you’ve got your gal tunes, your weed tunes, your reality tunes…” Dami insisted that we record a weed tune, and that sounded good to me. I wanted the tune to be as reggae as possible, so I encouraged Dami to draw on his own sense of dancehall style and I did my best to realize his ideas. The beat sketch from Dami’s dictaphone became the bass-heavy form you hear here. Dami wrote the chorus and recorded a high voice and a low voice on it to give it a nice, full effect. I asked him to help me write my verse in order to make the stylee dancehall as could get. Finally, Dami recorded some melodic ideas at the end, which Ben Zaitchik later replicated on keyboard (as Dami requested). I decided to leave the singing in, though, as I like the quality of the voice. Although Wasp does not smoke weed, he insisted to be on the tune once he heard the riddim and the chorus. An inventive DJ with scores of ideas, he quickly came up with a wickedly funny, and pointed, first verse. Dami follows with his signature singjay style, and I chime in at the end, enjoying a chance to do some laid-back, flip-tongue DJing. The outro features a smooth, understated scratch solo by DJ Axel Foley and a tekked-out hi-hat by Honolulu’s own Rhombus.
7. How Real It Get (mp3)
When I asked Dami again — this time with a microphone — why he decided to write about the topics that he writes about, he told me what you hear on this song. I really like the way that, despite his somewhat strict categories, he really develops them and explains the power of a s”you have to just be versatile in your own likkle form: DJ about everything you see…” The beat during the first half of the song is a chilled-out techno-version of an R&B jam I produced for Dami while in Kingston. The same form (with the sounds changed) provides the beat behind Anthropology. The second half is a remix by Rhombus, who takes it in a totally new direction. Dami’s advice seems to shift accordingly, and I like the way the music supports his words, often rather serendipitously, throughout the track. I especially like the way he seems to ride the rhythm at the end with his mumble-tumble big-up. Tuff, my youth.
8. Jamaican Radio Edit (mp3)
As Raw Raw says, the radio in Jamaica presents a variety of music and people listen to the radio often. You see me? I wanted to represent the wide range of music one encounters on the Jamaican airwaves. (I was especially struck by the chill — though sometimes strangely manic — mood of Sunday mornings, full of American post-war pop and classic soul ballads.) I sampled the radio several times, and this edit is drawn completely from an 11 minute recording I made on Sunday, the 9th of February. I love the strange juxtapositions and thematic links. I was struck by the way that some connections emerged as incidental but remained musically effective, like the easily misread soul stirrings of “have a little faith, just a little faith” when sandwitched between low-fi Jamaican church fragments — all of which suggested an ideal segue for my brazen venture into the world of CCM, or Contemporary Christian Music. Off the creezy, fo sheezy.
I was raised Catholic. By adolescence I was alienated from the church and felt coerced into participating. By high school I had serious doubts about this whole Christian thing, this whole monotheism thing, this whole god thing. In college I renounced the whole shebang: Christ, Religion, God, Spirit, etc. In the years since I’ve had the chance to come back around to some, if not all of these concepts, as long as understood under a less dogmatic lens than that of the contemporary Catholic Church — or similarly single-minded institutions. Out of nowhere, the ol’ transcendentalist minister and public intellectual, Ralph Waldo Emerson called out to me from a $1 Dover Thrift Edition. I read Self-Determination and was only mildly roused, though I found some of his advice rather helpful. Take this aphorism: “The power men possess to annoy me, I grant them by a weak curiosity.” Righteous. I wish I had that one on my tongue in Jamaica. When I read Emerson’s address to the 1838 graduating class of the Harvard Divinity School, I was inspired. Emerson preached that these outgoing men of god should be as godly men as god was man. Whereas the church made miracle monster, Emerson implored the graduates to remember the rain and the clover blowing in the wind. Here was a man who seemed to stand for the good, the universal, the empathetic, the truly religious — as in something that binds us to each other. I was inspired to attempt another hip-hop translation of another author’s text (as I have done with Kafka, Hemingway, and Ginsberg). You can read Emerson’s address here. My lyrics in the first verse (and the now-missing third verse, which didn’t make the cut) draw from two paragraphs in particular. He was banned from campus as a result. I hope neither to be stoned nor flamed. This is a sincere and serious, if cheeky, theological exploration and argument. I couldn’t resist adding some humor and a hot beat. WWJD? Get jiggy with it. Can I get a ‘Amen’? (The coda, by the way, comes from a nightly high-school quiz show on one of the two Jamaican public television stations. Tellingly, the students shout “Halle Berry!” as quickly as they answer, “God.”)
10. You Are Not God (mp3)
Here Raw-Raw explains his reasons for writing a song that is highly critical of the police. In his song, “Anthropology,” Raw-Raw focuses on the corruption of public servants and officials and the fear-inducing brutality of the police. When I asked him what motivated him to compose such a rant against the Babylon bwoy dem, he answered, “It’s them behavior.” Raw-Raw explains that one cannot earn respect unless one is respectful. Contrary to what some blue-suit bwoy might expect, his unquestioning respect is due to no one but God. The thunder clap at the beginning of the track was recorded in Spalding, a small village in Manchester — one of Jamaica’s central parishes — where I conducted a digital music demo for a large group of fourth graders. (See the blog here.)
11. Anthropology (mp3)
This beat began, believe it or not, as a synth-heavy backing for a Dami D song called “Never Let Go.” I did several remixes of the track, inserting different sounds where the synths were. For one remix, I took the tempo down about 30 beats per minute, added some congas, hip-hop drums, and a haunting piano/bass sample that cascades down Dami’s chord changes. Raw-Raw is a sick vocalist, who describes his own style as “futuristic.” His flip-tongue style, melodic contours, catchy hooks, bad man attitude, and observant eye caught my attention the first time I heard him flow. Raw-Raw uses this track to meditate on the psychological and sociological effects of feeling at the mercy of babylon’s bullies. He rides the track expertly, navigating the strange tonality of the progression with a beautifully dissonant melody, which is complimented on the other side by DJ Axel Foley’s colorful cuts. For my verse I tried to stay topical and make it as relentless as possible.
12. Big Up the Big Man (mp3)
At the end of my interview with Raw-Raw, he had to add some big-ups, which included everyone from his mother to his son — Vivangko Tuffachino — to the big men holding it down across Kingston’s poorest and most violent areas. Here Raw-Raw shows his respect for the badman, a figure with a lot of resonance in Jamaica, where politicians are often seen as simply hanging on the highest rung, or operating in a parallel universe to the dons. The music is a beat I originally built for a Wasp song. I slowed it down, added a hip-hop beat on top of the dancehall riddim, and inserted plenty of breaks to highlight the rhythms of Raw-Raw’s speaking voice.
13. Ready for the Road (mp3)
This one’s a real badman tune. I’m not sure how many non-Jamaicans will understand all the words here, but there is some pretty graphic and threatening language. I have to confess that I am ambivalent about putting out such sentiments. Of course, badman tunes are a genre unto themselves in dancehall (as in gangsta rap), and my policy while in Jamaica was to let my collaborators have a large say in the production, enabling me to learn as much as I could about their musical sensibilities and aesthetics. Being the producer, I always have the ultimate say in the matter, or at least the ability to add my two cents. I decided to let Raw-Raw do his thing, especially since it sounded so good. (Like a lot of hip-hop and reggae devotees, I often find myself struggling with a song that sounds good yet really offends me. Sometimes good music makes it easy to ignore content and focus on sound.) Still, I decided to add my perspective by playing up the Spaghetti Western angle, adding an Ennio Morricone-inspired whistle over the droning guitar. Ben Zaitchik added some great texture with his keyboard skills. And I experimented with some improvisational filtering to tweak the guitar sample. You can hear this especially at the end when the sample filters itself into oblivion. (Or does it?…)
14. Bigger than Biggie (mp3)
When I listened to the end of “Ready for the Road,” the final snippet caught my ear as something loopable, on which I could build another beat. I thought it would make a nice segue effect, and I think it works. The beat turned out to have an anthemic quality to it, which was perfect for the “bigger than biggie, deader than tupac” rhyme I had been working over in my head. And DJ Axel Foley’s thick cuts take it up yet another notch. I wanted to drop a little battle/critique rhyme but in a new way. I decided a little iconoclasm — e.g., taking shots at some legends — would be a provocative way to do so. Also, ever since a high school student told me that Tupac is most certainly still alive because Makaveli spelled backwards is “I’m alive,” I’ve wanted to say something that called out people on their ridiculous myth-making. To be honest, I’ve never really felt Tupac. (Ok, I liked “Trapped” and “Brenda’s Got a Baby,” but that was in ’91.) The whole thug thing makes no sense to me, oppositional or not. And to glorify so much negativity seems pretty irresponsible. Anyway, as the verses lay out, I’m not really pissed at these guys in particular. (I mean, Biggie Smalls is the illest. No question.) But I am annoyed at people who get on the mic and say some bullshit just to sell records. And I’m annoyed at other people for swallowing it up. Jamaicans idolize 50 Cent as much as Americans and Japanese, but that doesn’t make it sensible. 50 Cent is about as conservative as it gets, bullet-proof vest and all. Hip-hop’s oppositional streak has gone all complacent, complicit with the glamorous pull of wealth [conspicuous consumption as witchcraft?] and the endorsement of the status quo (which, I might note, serves only a small minority). That’s why I wanna be…
15. Dog Gone Diwali (mp3)
The Diwali was the biggest riddim of 2003, hands down. It put at least three songs on the US pop charts — Sean Paul’s “Get Busy,” Wayne Wonder’s “No Letting Go,” and Lumidee’s “Never Leave You (Uh-oh)” — and ruled Jamaica’s dances and airwaves for a minute. It was as ubiquitous as the Neptunes’s “Grindin'” beat the year before. It was also different from the average dancehall song’s 3+3+2 in that the first half of the measure sounded more like a house or techno or soca or reggaeton beat with its emphasis squarely on the first two beats. I analyzed Lenky’s riddim, programming my own version of it as precisely as I could, which revealed layers of sound that I had not consciously noticed before. For a while I had been planning to do something with the sound of dogs, which are a permanent fixture of Kingston’s soundscape, especially at night. I cut up dozens of samples of dogs barking (mostly those that lived in earshot of my apartment) and selected the ones that would best fit into the Diwali form. This is the result — a strange piece, for sure, but a deeply Jamaican one, if I don’t say so myself. Everybody now: “Shake…that…thing…Miss…Anabella.”
16. Red, Gold, and Green G-String (mp3)
Here Rashorne, whose style I first caught at the Twelve Tribes of Israel HQ across the street from our apartment at 74 Hope Road, explains his party track, “In di Dance.” I decided to put as “commercial” or “jiggy” sounding a beat as I could under it, just to underscore the pop influence on Rashorne’s style. He explains that the dance is a place where one can relax, where the vibe is peace, love, and unity, where righteousness reigns, but where, as he says, people “haffi have some fun same way.” so they dress up and get down. Since Rashorne is a member of the Twelve Tribes of Isreal, the party features Rastafarian themes. Thus, the men sport red, gold, and green underpant and the ladies red, gold, and green g-strings. At bottom, it’s about celebrating community. Sounds like a party to me.
17. In di Dance (mp3)
Rashorne’s style sounds to me like a cross between an old school (i.e., 80s) reggae style and a contemporary hip-hop sensibility. He indulges in raspy shouts, occasional screams, and vocal gymnastics of various sorts and he slips into a rap flow from time to time. Rashorne came over one day with two of his bredren and we worked to put together a riddim that would fit a song he had been working on. After wrestling a bit over style issues — “it’s gone too hip-hop again,” I was told a few times — we finally settled on the deep club bounce that underpins “In di Dance.” I was surprised when Rashorne got on the mic and started delivering lyrics that also seemed a little too hip-hop. I was surprised that he would spend his verses talking about Lincoln Navigators and fat bankbooks and his choruses talking about dancing and chanting down Babylon. Again, I decided to let him have his say, and I’ve done my best to realize the song for him. I think it bumps. I’ve done plenty of further reflecting on this song, the experience of recording it, and the way it raises certain issues about music and community in Jamaica. (It first appeared in a blog and later in a paper [and now a chapter, as well as an article].)
18. Sufferation or Flossin’? (mp3)
In my interview with Rashorn, I felt compelled to ask him about the possible tensions between Rastafari, which tends to equate materialism with Babylon and oppression, and dancehall and hip-hop, which these days seem to serve as running advertisements for capitalism itself. Clearly, Rashorn is able to reconcile any such tension for himself, and I remain curious about the way that his position compares to other Rastafarians. Rashorne believes that music is music, and he implies that it can serve a higher purpose regardless of its lyrical content. To focus the debate, I posed the question: “And it doesn’t matter if it’s about sufferation or flossin’?” — which seems to me to put its finger on two conflicting subjects, one the traditional focus of reggae, one the contemporary focus of hip-hop. For Rashorne, it doesn’t matter. Everything he does or says is in the name of Rastafari. No contradiction. Seen?
19. Everyting a Rastafari (mp3)
Although Rashorne and I might not agree on whether conspicuous consumption and righteous living are compatible, I still felt compelled to give his songs the most sympathetic, sensitive, and powerful production I could muster. I do not claim to endorse my collaborators’ viewpoints. By facilitating their expression, I hope to understand more about why people make the aesthetic decisions they make in particular contexts. I hope to make some compelling music. And, by bringing my own perspectives to bear on the tracks (either in the production itself or in the frame the album creates) I hope to engage in a sophisticated conversation about some complicated stuff. When Rashorne sings, “Everyting I do a jus Rastafari / Everyting I say a jus Rastafari,” I believe him. Between Rashorne’s rousing performance and the stark beat, I think this track has some real power to it. Since coming back to Boston, I’ve been hearing a lot of (dancehall) reggae mixed alongside jungle, drum ‘n’ bass, and other related styles. DJ C tells me that some people have said a “North American ragga rennaissance” is in progress. Having experimented with these sounds for several years now, I was excited to have a new form for the distinctive sound of double-time breakbeats. For some reason, hip-hop and dancehall still resist these jittery rhythms, though blokes in England have been toasting over them for a decade now. I think the ragga-inspired breaks add a real dynamic push to the song, whipping up the kind of fervor such a devotional text calls for. Now that’s righteous.
20. Bug Music / Is This Real? (mp3)
I recorded the bug sounds — some real night noise, if you will — in Ocho Rios, during a brief, north coast vacation from Kingston. They seemed to have such an amazing texture and rhythmic quality on their own that I wanted to try and capture it and re-present it. My first take was much more minimal than this one, which took on much more reggae style with the consultation of Damian and Fiya Rhed of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. We were looking for a proper riddim for rashorne and the “natural” sounds caught their ears. From there, they recommended that I add various markers of reggae style, from the upbeat guitar to the bubbling bassline and the one-drop drums. As always, I did my best to realize their ideas, though it still ended up filtered through my own particular aesthetic. The conversation you hear is between me and Trevor Rhone, one of Jamaica’s most talented writers and actors, and, at the time, my landlord. Trevor and I were discussing, as an exercise of the imagination, the story of someone like me, though not me, who came to Jamaica and underwent a process of personal growth. Thus, the third person. Of course, the subject matter being so close to me gave me the opportunity to explore some of my thoughts about my own experiences. So what you hear here is a somewhat abstract monologue — properly peppered by Trevor’s encouragement — in which I ultimately propose that, although one might occasionally be disappointed, shocked, or saddened by what one experiences, it is important to incorporate that experience into one’s outlook and move on, hopefully emerging with a less than cynical attitude. Life is sorrowful, sometimes, and I do my best to recognize that, come to terms with it, and not get too mired in negativity. I recognize that this track, with its realist musique concrete (i.e., the bugs), its strange third-person/first-person flip, and the echoed fragment at the end, verges closer to the surreal than the real, and that’s all right. The lines between life and art, fact and fiction, expression and production are pretty blurry, at least in my experience.
21. The Three Categories of Dancehall Songs (mp3)
While staying in a beautiful cottage outside of Montego Bay with Becca and my friend Andrew, I had the opportunity to run into someone with a rather interesting perspective on Jamaican music. The woman you hear critiquing dancehall’s mores on this track is originally from Canada, though when I met her she had been living in Jamaica for over a year. According to her, she was living with a “Rastaman” and enjoying the simple, but hard, life of an ordinary Jamaican. She noted that people looked at her as if she was crazy when they saw her washing clothes in her yard — the sight of a white woman washing clothes being a rather rare thing. She was rather outspoken when it came to dancehall culture, finding faults with its originality and its morals. I have to admit that I don’t agree with her about the originality question: I am of the remix/version/mashup generation and recycling musical materials seems like second nature to me. I have to admit, on the other hand, that I am sympathetic to her complaints about some of dancehall’s common themes. I realize that I’m a bad relativist by taking any kind of stance on anyone else’s morals, and many people might think that I have no right to say shit about Jamaican affairs. Start from yard, right? I basically agree with that, with the qualification that my yard is the world and the assumption that I always start with myself. Not everyone will agree with my right to declare such a thing, but I could care less about borders and categories. I find the bling-bling thing to be pretty disappointing, as if hip-hop (and dancehall) have become commercials for capitalism itself, extolling the pleasures of conspicuous consumption and spreading a materialist ideology through the ostentatious display of luxury goods. Finally, I find dancehall DJs’ denunciations of oral sex totally bizarre not only because it seems contradictory in relation to other songs and (probably) to actual practice but because it just seems so damn puritanical. I mean, c’mon already. Sexy Jesus! Sexy Jesus!
[I was tickled to hear this track show up on Ghislain Poirier‘s Lemon-Red Mix, “Dirtier than Clean” in 2005.]
22. Soggae (mp3)
I also agree with the woman from Mo’Bay about dancehall’s overblown homophobia. It’s something that seems to bother some people and not others, and I am told that there’s a “culture war” over this very issue (more or less) in the US right now. Personally, I don’t think its my business to limit another person’s freedom to engage in consensual sex with anyone else. Moreover, while attending stage shows in Jamaica, I was consistently annoyed at how many artists used the whole “bun batty-man” thing as a performance crutch, an easy “forward.” It’s the kind of move that coerces everyone in the audience to play along — similar to “if you love your mama, let me see your lighter!” The title was taken from an actual sign advertising a dance in Jamaica. One day, while waiting on a minibus in Half-Way Tree, Becca and I looked up to see this unlikely title on one of the brightly colored signs that adorn telephone poles across the island. As it was Carnival season, the sign promised a lively mix of Trinidadian Soca and Jamaican Reggae, or “soggae.” Get it? We couldn’t believe that someone would have the gall or the stupidity to throw a “Soggae” party and expect Jamaicans to show up. (Though, I hear they didn’t.) It was just too great an irony. Around the same time, Becca’s sister, Leila, started a T-shirt campaign at Duke University to express a message of tolerance — “fine by me” — in an overwhelmingly intolerant environment. (Duke had been labelled one of the most gay-unfriendly schools in the nation.) The T-shirts took off, and I was inspired to write a song that promoted the campaign and took a critical stance on Jamaican homophobia. Of course, such a heavy topic called for some appropriately light-hearted humor.
23. Cock Music (mp3)
Another prominent feature of the Jamaican soundscape is the sound of cocks crowing — and not just during the morning. I recorded these livestocky sounds in the middle of the day as Becca, I, and my friend Andrew were returning from Winnifred Beach in Portland, which has to be the most beautiful beach I have ever been to. I like to hear music in the everyday sounds around me, and the closer I listen, the more I hear. The sounds these birds were making were amazing. What a range — and what strangely cyclical rhythms. I let the inherent relationships of the cocks’ crows define the form of the piece, and I amplified some strangely evocative ambient sounds also caught on tape to provide a bit of additional tonality. You can hear my crunchy footsteps at the beginning of the track. I couldn’t resist the provocative title, or the suggestive placement after “Soggae.”
24. Nigga Nice (mp3)
While collaborating on Judgment Day with Dami D, Raw Raw, and Wasp (see blog), we got into a conversation about censorship and Jamaican radio. According to Wasp and Dami, one can say a great many things on Jamaican radio, including “nigga,” but name a gun — such as an AK or a 9 — and you’re banned. On the one hand, the discouragement of “gun-tunes” makes some sense in a society riddled by gun violence. On the other hand, the allowance of the word “nigga” and the exclusion of words such as “fuck” and “pussy” — Wasp’s other examples — illustrates a slightly more interesting process of judgment at play here. I thought it was pretty fascinating that the Jamaican censors would deem a word like “nigga” acceptable. Beyond acceptable, Wasp said it was considered a “good word” and that DJs would be “happy” to play instances of it recited on record. This says something about the different conception of race in Jamaica — a country that is 90% black and yet still suffers from a shade-based power imbalance. The Jamaican elite remains by and large a light-skinned club, the legacy of slavery’s skin-privilege and well-entrenched wealth. “Nigga” is also interesting because, at this point, it is understood in Jamaica primarily as hip-hop slang and lacks much of the negative or at least ambivalent connotations it has here in the States. I still remember feeling a bit stunned when, during a performance for a bunch of white tourists at Beaches Boscobel, Dami called me up onstage to join him and some other Jamiacan DJs, asking the crowd: “You wanna hear this nigga rap?”
25. Gun Music (mp3)
This track captures a rather surreal moment. Like “Nigga Nice,” it also comes from the making of Judgment Day. I helped to produce J-Day in a number of ways: I paid for some studio time and tapes (i.e., the more traditional “producer” role, and one that I’m not so excited about), I created an intro (according to some rather specific instructions from my collaborators — they asked me to find thunder, creepy organ, and chant, and they wanted the voice to sound “ancient,” “different,” scary,” and “white”), and also I added some sound-effects. Dami and Wasp came to my apartment one day to listen to various samples of gunfire. As I found website after indistinguishable website full of military sounds, Dami and Wasp made requests and gave me feedback about the ones that seemed best for the track. As they answered each gunshot with their own celebratory blasts — “bam bam!!” “blap! blap! blap!” “glu-glau! glu-glau!” — I was struck by the surreal call-and-response. Simulating gunfire is perhaps the most common show of approval in Jamaica and one sees hands in the air, index-and-middle fingers extended, at every dance, show, and club. I asked Dami and Wasp if I could record our search for the perfect blast, and, quite familiar with my documentarian side, they quickly agreed. I love the combination of hyperreal gunfire, exclamation, and microsoft-windows-bleeps. I had to share some of it here, but I also had to make a statement that reflects my ambivalence about working with such samples, even if the underlying message of Judgment Day is cautionary — never mind kitschy, and thus self-deconstructing. I decided to take the embrace of gun sounds to an extreme and compose an intense dancehall-inspired track out of it. I tried to emulate a number of common dancehall drum patterns, substituting guns for kicks and snares. It’s a bit scary, I realize, but the point is that it’s a bit scary. The title also refers to Talib Kweli’s “Gun Music,” where, assisted by the Jamaican-sounds of Brooklyn’s Cocoa Brovaz, the rapper tries to play the conscious-pragmatist by embracing the gun as weapon of resistance. I’m not sure I agree with that stance, though I understand it. Still, I sympathize more with a figure like Robert F. Williams on this issue than with some pseudo-gangsta rappers. (Read Radio Free Dixie, if you don’t know what I’m talking about.)
26. Gordon Town Falls (mp3)
Although it might sound like so much static to some, I composed this track primarily from sounds recorded at a small waterfall just outside of Gordon Town — a village at the foot of the Blue Mountains, just past Papine, on the outskirts of Kingston. Becca and I took a bus and a cab and a walk up there one day, escorted by a Peace-Corps acquaintance who lived there. The beginning of the track presents the sound in one piece before the dissected bits become rhythmic. Quite a fullness of sound, even if pale in comparison to the original. Capturing the true sound of a waterfall on tape would be quite an achievement. The percussion you hear — produced on a shaker-bean — also comes from this walk. These brown beanpods measure about a foot and a half, and they can be found all over the island. They are ubiquitous and they make great percussion, especially if preserved whole. Our friend had saved a couple fine specimens and he presented them to us as a gift. I had to add a bassdrum for some kick. The rhythmic framework is part-house, part-dancehall, and inspired in part by the Diwali’s combination of the two. The tempo is closer to dance music though. Although I was not even aware of “dubstep” at the time, this combination of tempo and rhythmic accent seems also to be present in that new UK genre, which itself seems like a mixing of dancehall and house/techno (with a little garage, grime, drum-n-bass, jungle, digital dub, and reggae thrown in for good measure). Synthesize!
27. Outroview (mp3)
I decided that it seemed appropriate to bookend the album with interview-and-soundscape collages. I was inspired by a friend’s description of a scene in 32 Short Films about Glenn Gould, where simultaneous dialogue occupies different spaces in the stereo field — or at least that’s what his description suggested to me. This one starts off with my collaborators telling me what they think of me. In the tradition of the dub-plate and the shout-out, I basically wanted to capture some classic “big-ups.” I knew that Dami, Wasp, and Raw-Raw all admired my flow and production, so I wasn’t worried that they would diss me, or give me a less than straight answer. Still I couldn’t have predicted the form of their answers, and you can hear me laugh when Raw-Raw, running out of things on the spot, says that he gives me a “thumbs up.” And I like the way Wasp qualifies his “wickedest rapper” to “white rapper” before telling Bubba Sparxx and Eminem to “watch themself.” (Ok, so maybe that might sound like a diss, but trust me, Wasp doesn’t mean it that way.) As opposed to the brevity of the intro, this track also gives one a slightly better sense of the contour of the interviews I conducted. I like the way, for instance, that the DJs echo each other about “Tupac and Biggie” as important hip-hop influences. I close the piece with a lingering question, one about the nature of reality, imagination, and representation. There are songs on this album whose sentiments I do not share, but I chose to defer to my collaborators’ visions, to some extent, and produce a sympathetic — if at times, ironic — rendering of their ideas. All the same, I’m not crazy about the bling-bling thing, the gunman thing, the righteous-yet-hypocrtical thing, etc. I wish that more artists could be courageous about telling their own stories. The recycling of cliches, especially those trafficking in negative imagery, seems like a creative, and moral, dead-end to me. There are so many sources of inspiration in the world, it seems like a waste to ignore them for tired themes. The kind of reflective critique I hope this album produces is meant to counter this tendency. I hope that by bringing various voices together in conversation, I have produced a work that stimulates the kind of thought and dialogue and creativity that can move us beyond cliches and into new visions for ourselves and our communities — from Boston to Kingston and beyond. Thanks for listening — and if you made it this far, thanks for reading.