No Substitute

I recorded and produced No Substitute in the fall of 2002 while working as a substitute teacher in the Cambridge Public Schools, gearing up for my move to Jamaica. As should go without saying, the track-by-track descriptions below reflect my thinking at the time. I have resisted editing them to maintain the document’s original expression.

December 2002

1. the grind

the intro track begins with the opening of a door and the gleeful entrance of two students as they discover they have a substitute teacher. from there my interest in soundscape (the way that sound informs one’s sense of place, one’s mood, one’s level of awareness) and musique concrete (music composed of sounds recorded in the “real” world — for inspiring recent examples, see matmos, herbert, and dr.dre) take over: i grab a few sounds — books landing on desks, the janitor bell, a random outburst about the seating arrangement — and slowly churn them into a dancehall-based rhythm (the first of many jamaican influences on the album). frequently, i hear sounds in the world and want them to repeat, to morph, to structure themselves somehow — in short, to become music. with a minidisc recorder, a microphone, a laptop, and a little imagination, i can capture (or, to be more precise and less violent, copy) the sounds around me and take them in new musical directions. thinking of sound in this way encourages me to simply listen more closely, to pay more attention to the world, than i used to. (see “cipher by the pool” for another example, or some of my puppet macbeth music, which includes songs made from dinner sounds, knocking on wood, and the buzz from my refrigerator.) the dancehall rhythm suddenly shifts into a figure instantly recognizable, at least for most junior high students, as the neptunes’ beat for the clipse’s “grindin'” — a rhythmic meme that has infected, as far as i can tell, urban youths everywhere, and seems poised to rest alongside milk and giz’s “top billin'” as a highly memorable hip-hop break. rarely did i conduct a class that was not accompanied by a kid banging out this beat on a desk or conduct a digital music workshop without a request to “make the grindin’ beat.” as further testament to the beat’s spread, the books and bells cut out to reveal a talented seventh grader (re)creating the beat, in perfect replica, by stomping her feet, slapping her arms, and snapping her fingers — a virtuoso performance definitely calling for the class’s “ooooaaaah.”

2. no substitute

more sounds recorded in the cambridge public schools. being a substitute teacher certainly has its moments, but it can just as often be a headache. i found that music, especially freestyle rap and laptop beats, could captivate kids, win them over, and often serve as an effective bargaining chip. you can hear the enthusiasm when i offer to demonstrate how to make music on a computer, but you can also hear my inability to finish the next sentence. interestingly, as heard in the calls to “shut up” and “be quiet,” such an offer immediately turns some students (and often the cool kids at that — important folks to get on your side) into police. the beat here is another example of jamaica’s dancehall reggae getting into me. i spent the last year listening to a lot of dancehall, figuring out its conventions, predilections, and styles, and attempting to produce within its genre constraints. i really grew as a producer during the month i spent in kingston this summer. makonnen and multicast were stimulating artists to work with, and hip-hop (a close cousin of dancehall) provided much common ground for us. this song, like much of multicast’s music, is a hip-hop/dancehall hybrid. the beat is pretty standard dancehall, though the tamboura melody is my own touch. the rap, however, although occasionally showing some dj swagger, is more indebted to hip-hop’s sense of flow, not to mention its solipsistic tendencies. though it may sound simply self-celebratory or non-sequitorial, it does contain several philosophical points, hiding wu-tang style amid clusters of rhyme.

3. shits and giggles

i have to thank steve laronga for sharing this gem of wisdom. supposedly, steve is paraphrasing mark twain, which i find believable. others have told me dave eggers made a similar statement. it doesn’t much matter. it’s funny, and that justifies its existence. i’m not sure i’ll ever be able to empathize, but there’s something crassly poetic about the sentiment. the sound was captured at the UW union terrace overlooking madison’s lake mendota one late spring evening as we sipped post-gamelan beers and watched the sun set. the honking riff comes from a single sax sample that i have arranged melodically. such a sample is technically illegal (as is most of my music) but absolutely untraceable.

4. the pledge

not all schools in cambridge begin each day with the pledge of allegiance, but those with stern disciplinary codes do. i like the enthusiasm of the pledgers here (two girls, one boy), who are perhaps more excited about propelling their voices through the halls and classrooms than revering old glory. more than their verve, i like the way that they recite the phrases as if they were pure sound, almost without any sense of meaning. consider, for example, the classic mis-intonation at the end of the first sentence, as if it were punctuated: “of the united states of america. and to the republic for which it stands…” consistent with my own historical experience as a second grader saluting the flag, the latter phrase escapes the end of the first sentence, emerging instead as the expectant recipient of “one nation, under god.” i really like the sound quality, too — a particular grain of amplification that could only be produced by an elementary school intercom: thin, yet abrasive. finally, the pledge is capped ironically with the spanish aside, “cuidate” (take care), spoken by one parent to another. the silence is my cue.

5. america … see also lyrics page

this rap is nearly a line-by-line translation/adaptation of alan ginsberg’s “america,” my favorite of his poems. i once read ginsberg’s poem to a high-school summer school class — history for all the kids who flunked it. they loved the poem, or at least respected its passion and honesty. perhaps what rings most true about the poem for me is its ambivalence, its irony, its sense of humor. i tried to capture this sentiment, though it is voiced with a good amount of concern and pissed-off-ness as well. in some cases i borrow lines verbatim, and i love the thematic seamlessness with which they sometimes fit and the dissonance when they don’t. in other cases i have departed tangentially from the poem, though rarely for long, in order to explore something more germane to this moment and my understanding of it. i particularly like the way that one can change “them russians…them russians…and them chinamen…and them russians” to “them arabs…them arabs…and them chinamen…and them arabs” without skipping a beat. it’s remarkably easy to switch evil empires every few decades. even funnier is how the chinese remain on our radar. the flow is as influenced by ginsburg as it is aesop rock, saul williams, and other hip-hop / beatnik / bohemian sentence-spinners. and “hearing each minute as music / and choosing to view the uncertainty of life with slight amusement” is just about the best summation of my most recent thinking about the meaning of life, a question i still pursue with elan, even if that simply means asking it in an interesting or funny way. (props to liz vladeck who actually went to such a summer camp. and, yes, i know that alan ginsberg is dead. but not really, as long as we recite, invoke, and enjoy him.)

6. minor scott key

a dark and hopefully comic take on the ol’ british drinking song, complete with wild style drums, a crazy hi-hat, sine wave synths, and some satellite-ish beeping.

7. gimme my pencil

an absurd little exchange from school, preceded by some totally unself-conscious music-making — something kids generally do much better than adults.

8. miami airport (laptopklavierstuck)

a loop that actually sounds cool (as in temperature) to me, which is a strange association with miami. but the airport always has this no-lights-on atmosphere and is, of course, well air-conditioned. i came up with this ditty on my laptop on my way home from kingston this summer. i played the electric piano solo on the keys of my laptop, and it may sound like a computer solo, but it’s great to have such improvisatory freedom on a portable computer. the german title for “laptop-keyboard-piece” gives it a proper musicological air. musically, it reminds me of something tortoise might hint at.

9. flower-petal plucking

my first r&b joint. i spent a lot of the last year listening to top 40 hip-hop, r&b, and pop, and i consistently find myself challenged, surprised, and moved by its rhythms, timbres, and textures — not to mention melodies. this song is over the top, i know. what can i say? i just decided to go for it. it was fun to create, and i am consistently surprised by the great response it gets from people, whether or not they hear it purely as a joke. i know i have a long way to go as far as singing goes, but people just don’t sing enough. singing is such an important and powerful thing. it is something i will work on. i figure people can watch me learn and that might be valuable. i will try not to make the ride too painful.

10. recess is over

this opens with another brilliantly funny school moment, punctuated by an out-of-the-blue challenge to rap. in counterbalance to hip-hop’s more typical, overly egotistic show of invulnerability, i set out to write a self-deprecatory rant, which grows sillier as it goes. the tone of the rap, as it flips in the middle and goes on the offensive, is complimented by the stern-sounding sample of a school disciplinary figure.

11. do i look like i can rap?

a freestyle for seventh graders, whose first question upon learning that i rap is nearly always, “do you curse?” my answer: when it seems appropriate. when freestyling, especially for kids, i try to be topical (that is, refer to things in the room and happening in the moment) and disciplined (that is, avoiding cliches and, for youngins, swears), though i do fall into some nonsensical solipsism. still, i think i recover well enough. well enough for these seventh graders anyway, who quickly grow silent and attentive.

12. safari honeymoon nightmare

what a difference a year makes. this song, like many others on waste management, truly suffered from my ignorance about multitrack recording and mixing. i’ve given this song another life by cleaning up all the samples, adding new things, perfecting patterns, and rerecording the vocals with new mixing skills and another year of performance and practice under my belt. the story is adapted from hemingway’s “the short happy life of francis macomber,” and joins “buggin'” (on waste management, from kafka’s “metamorphosis”) as another attempt to transform a piece of literature into a rap narrative.

13. afroclick

here i assemble a bunch of very small samples (or “clicks”) and some percussion instruments according to the 12-beat polyrhythms of agbekor, a drumming tradition of the ewe people of ghana. out of three or four simple patterns emerges a wonderfully complex sound, one that invites listeners to experience a sense of aural illusion, as the music “changes” according to where one hears the downbeat. i taught about this music for two years in “introduction to music cultures of the world” at the university of wisconsin. i always had a great time getting students to clap out the rhythms in groups, and after teaching this four times, i learned the patterns well enough to bang them out anywhere, such as on my legs while riding the bus (a great time to practice little musical figures). what i love most about these complimentary patterns is the way they put groups of 3 against groups of 2, producing a wonderful rhythmic tension and dynamism.

14. flip and reverse it

almost as popular with middle-schoolers as the neptune’s grindin’ beat or anything by eminem or nelly, missy elliot’s little techno-trick unsingable-hook has had kids singing backwards since it came out six months ago. the students flipped when i reversed their own voices before their eyes and ears, and we were able to test and see whether missy was actually flipping and reversing herself. she is, but only the phrase “i put my thing down flip it and reverse it,” which she repeats (this is why the second student’s phrase sounds different than the first and third: for her, i looped the entire phrase, not simply the second half).

15. bodega

closely based on an actual dream i had, this strangely symmetrical and unusually violent tale haunted me on a night plagued with nightmares (becca shared this restlessness and we both blamed a particularly spicy dinner the night before). the overly obvious intro banter is an attempt to put some distance between my narration and the kind of story the rational me would like to tell. still, the dream was striking enough that i felt a need to commit it to page (this took some work — see the inside cover) and to express it musically. but please: wayne&wax does not condone robbing bodegas, especially ones that carry costume-jewelry in volume.

16. nate’s groove

in the three years i spent in madison at the university of wisconsin’s music department, i was always struck by the musical moments — sometimes delightfully discordant, usually pomo in stylistic juxtaposition, and often sounding like charles ives — that would assail one’s ears as one walked through the basement, past all the practice rooms. the day i took my minidisc recorder around was perhaps not the most serendipitously musical, but the saxophone, violin, and soprano combination i caught is pretty interesting at times. i was fortunate, however, to run into my officemate, nate bakkum, a kick-ass bassist who was studying with richard davis, a god on the upright. nate played some grooves for me and did his best to realize some impressionistic suggestions i made. this particular groove is quite monstrous, and i relished the challenge of building a beat in 7/8 time. nate’s beatbox suggestions were duly noted. to hear nate play bass in other contexts, check out the phil mosberg quartet, and see my “murder afoot” from puppet macbeth.

17. strains of bossa nova

another re-take from waste management, with the samples cleaned up and the vocals rerecorded. a dreamy fantasy about an ecstatic dancing experience. music, love, and sex as transcendence.

18. cipher by the pool

flow to a whole new degree (musique concrete would seem to be a particularly inappropriate label here). becca and i created these sounds in a swimming pool this summer. i love the range of sounds one can coax from water: splashes, smacks, plunges, gurgles, bubbles, ripples, cannonballs. my brother nick, an increasingly swift and formidable freestyle battle-rapper, steps to the number-one-son for a little trading-fours, a freestyle mode i really enjoy (admittedly, nick and i wrote our verses, but in a loose manner closer to freestyle discourse). water references and brotherly put-downs proliferate. becca comes in at the end with a warning and an imperative.

19. microdisco pseudomix

i have not given up on electronic dance music, but it does play less a role in my life since i left madison. this track is a sample of some of my more uptempo music, drawing on the styles variously called microhouse, digital disco, tech-house, click-hop, etc. (i’m thinking of folks like vladislav delay, matthew herbert, akufen.) here i mix two tracks together, but by no means did i accomplish this in real-time (thus “pseudo”). the backwards-kick break is a nod to ritchie hawtin, whose de9 is a monument to minimal techno, with an attention to slow, constant flux and a concern for texture and timbre that both captivates my brain and makes me want to shake my ass.

20. elevator click-hop

originally slated for the first track (then shelved for grindin’ with books and bells), this track would have maintained the wayne&wax tradition of beginning each album with vinyl snaps and pops — a symbolic nod to my wax, my source material (although most of my samples come from cds and sound that i record myself). i attempt yet another rhythmic variation on this well-worn sample by borrowing from dancehall again and using the techniques, the attention to very small details, of so-called click-hop, blip-hop, or glitch-hop. in the same manner, i dissect the very first song on my first album, “elevator hip-hop” (from instrumental), and rearrange it in a style that sounds a bit like a jamaican take on steve reich. play this track first to hear the album framed differently.

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