March 27th, 2014
Over at Complex, David Drake offers up a supercut that “trac[es] the lineage of the Migos flow” — that is, the 8th note triplets that underpin “Versace” and have been making waves across the rap world.
For Drake, the recent, remarkable spread of the so-called “Migos flow” offers compelling evidence that, even as it may rankle all manner of commenters, the Migos’ Quavo is no less than “the most influential rapper of 2014“:
part of the reason Quavo has become so influential is because his rapping isn’t overly concerned with the intricacies of lyricism. Instead, he’s imprinted a very specific rhythmic pattern on hip-hop’s psyche. By finding a flow that stood apart and emphasizing it, he shifted the way rappers rap.
This is a contentious claim, and the technomusicologist in me loves that Drake has gone the extra mile to put together some audible evidence to convince the skeptics — a video montage that speaks for itself. So don’t take my word for it, or Drake’s, just peep the supercut:
As you’ll note, the montage not only depicts the undeniable post-Migos spread of the flow, it also includes a series of clips that predate Migos and show how the flow has been around for quite a while, especially in Southern hip-hop but even all the way back to a memorable turn in Public Enemy’s “Bring the Noise”!
Such an audible genealogy is certainly convincing, and even the pre/proto-Migos examples don’t necessarily lessen Drake’s argument about Migos’ role in popularizing the flow for 2014. (As something of a sidenote, it’s interesting that this sort of cross-rhythm is also a consistent presence in recent juke/footwork tracks from DJ Rashad and cohorts. That’s one helluva hemiola!)
That said, I’m not totally persuaded that, as Drake further contends
No single rap artist has so completely popularized a single, distinct flow.
I suspect we could pick out a few examples from the 80s or 90s or 00s, but even in the last few years — as Drake himself notes — something like Lil Reese’s / Chief Keef’s trademark stuttered, splattered, staccato syllables would seem to offer a similar example. It may be true that that flow has had less “reach” than the Migos flow, relatively speaking, but it’s still a remarkable spread. Rihanna’s “Pour It Up” was maybe the most obvious example of copping that flow and making it “pop,” but echoes continue in “Drunk In Love” and other recent recordings. Moreover, far as I can tell, that Chicago drill flow has less of a history than 8th note triplets, which have been a staple flow — if not for entire verses — for a couple decades, especially if we look to, say, Bone Thugs’ early oeuvre.
But perhaps I need to make a supercut to make my point ;) Better yet, sign up for my Technomusicology class this summer and you can do it as homework!
March 24th, 2014
Today marks five years with Charlie in the world. That’s five years full of her sweetness and smiles and sensitivity and boundless love.
As Becca recently recounted, a few months before Charlie was Charlie, we were very afraid that we had lost her. I’m still struck by the sadness of the thought of that little life-that-could-have-been lost, even in the abstract, but to imagine that we would have had to live without Charlie the concrete, the joyful and kind and utterly delightful kid we’ve gotten to know over the last five years, well, that’s just unthinkable.
So, to our dear Charlie, who we are so happy to have in the world, and who may or may not one day see this bloggy birthday card…
Here’s looking at you, you adorable dandelion gatherer, foraged flower muncher and pizza devourer, wearer of wonderful hats and funnier faces, jam enthusiast and sourdough steward, all around cutiepie and light of our lives, you just keeping being sweet little you <3 <3 <3 <3 <3
March 17th, 2014
It all started with a provocative turn of phrase and a successfully solicitous blog post, and now some 13k words and 5 years later, I’m delighted to report that my epic essay on “Treble Culture” has finally been published! It’s been a little frustrating to watch something I completed a long time ago — and which is so concerned with the contemporary moment — languish through the incredibly lengthy academic publication process, but I’m very glad it’s finally ready to be shared & circulated.
In brief, the essay examines so-called “treble culture” (vis-a-vis bass culture) — or the apparent ascent of mobile listening and music made for it — in three ways: 1) by assembling an anecdotal ethnography of the remarkable public life of trebly broadcasts; 2) by offering a long view of the treblification of music; and 3) by considering ways that musical aesthetics, especially at the level of production / composition / mastering but also (always) listening, have themselves been involved in embracing and reshaping how music sounds in the latest epoch of its technological mobility.
As a research project that I largely crowdsourced via this blog and my Twitter account, I need to offer my deeply unattenuated thanks here to all the dear interlocutors who helped push the piece into unforeseen corners of our bass-impoverished sonic and cultural worlds. I feel it is a duty to all of you, and to wider publics, to exercise my authorial prerogative and offer the proofs here for your reading pleasure. So without further ado, I give you
Marshall, Wayne. “Treble Culture.” In The Oxford Handbook of Mobile Music Studies, Vol. 2,
eds. Sumanth Gopinath and Jason Stanyek, 43-76. New York: Oxford University Press,
I’m happy to note that my chapter helps to kick off volume 2 of a 40 essay (!) collection of writings about music in the age of mobile technologies. Congrats to the editors, Sumanth Gopinath and Jason Stanyek, for bringing this behemoth to completion! I’m honored to be a part of such an ambitious undertaking alongside so many sharp contributors. And I hope readers of “Treble Culture” will have an opportunity to check out the rest of the contents too.
Here’s what Vol 2 — and the volumes more generally — are all about:
The two volumes of The Oxford Handbook of Mobile Music Studies consolidate an area of scholarly inquiry that addresses how mechanical, electrical, and digital technologies and their corresponding economies of scale have rendered music and sound increasingly mobile-portable, fungible, and ubiquitous. At once a marketing term, a common mode of everyday-life performance, and an instigator of experimental aesthetics, “mobile music” opens up a space for studying the momentous transformations in the production, distribution, consumption, and experience of music and sound that took place between the late nineteenth and the early twenty-first centuries. Taken together, the two volumes cover a large swath of the world-the US, the UK, Japan, Brazil, Germany, Turkey, Mexico, France, China, Jamaica, Iraq, the Philippines, India, Sweden — and a similarly broad array of the musical and nonmusical sounds suffusing the soundscapes of mobility.
Volume 2 investigates the ramifications of mobile music technologies on musical/sonic performance and aesthetics. Two core arguments are that “mobility” is not the same thing as actual “movement” and that artistic production cannot be absolutely sundered from the performances of quotidian life. The volume’s chapters investigate the mobilization of frequency range by sirens and miniature speakers; sound vehicles such as boom cars, ice cream trucks, and trains; the gestural choreographies of soundwalk pieces and mundane interactions with digital media; dance music practices in laptop and iPod DJing; the imagery of iPod commercials; production practices in Turkish political music and black popular music; the aesthetics of handheld video games and chiptune music; and the mobile device as a new musical instrument and resource for musical ensembles.
And here’s what my 13k+ words look like in cloud formation —
March 12th, 2014
The Summer of Love is way behind us, as is the Second Summer of Love, & perhaps the Third and Fourth. The Summer of Technomusicology, however, will soon be here!
I’m thrilled to report that I’ll be offering my favorite class to teach in the world right now, as premiered last year at Harvard U, this July-August as an intensive 7-week course at the Harvard Summer School. If you’re planning to be in town and around, it should be a good chance to make some conceptually cogent, historically situated, and, we hope, aesthetically engaging media.
Here’s a taste of what we did last year. So if that whets the appetite, you can access the syllabus and look into registering via this page:
For your browsing ease, here’s the syllabus as it presently stands; please note that this is preliminary, and items may shift between now and the summer:
MUSI S-190r: Technomusicology
Instructor: Wayne Marshall
Course reference number: 33209
This course uses hands-on media production to examine the interplay between music and technology. Using audio production software, we will explore new techniques for telling stories about music and media by composing a series of études, or studies in particular media forms.
Readings, discussions, and projects focus on significant forms and their histories, including soundscapes, mashups, montages, DJ-style mixes, and radio sound design. Students will develop a fluency in the history of sound studies while cultivating competencies in audio and video editing, sampling and arranging, mixing and remixing, and, in framing their projects, descriptive and poetic forms of writing.
Class sessions comprise a mix between discussions of relevant readings and audio works, software demonstrations, and in-lab project-centered work. Readings and listening/viewing selections will be available via the course website or the WWW.
ASSIGNMENTS / GRADING
1) Attendance & class participation – 25%
2) Études (6 in all) – 60%
3) Final Project – 15%
In general, études should be between 2-5 minutes, and will be due, along with a brief prose gloss and/or other forms of annotation, on the Monday of the week after each has been assigned.
Week 1 /
Intro to Technomusicology, Sound Studies, & Soundscapes
Sterne, Jonathan. “Hello!” In The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction, 1-31. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2003.
Suisman, David. “The Musical Soundscape of Modernity.” In Selling Sounds: The Commercial Revolution in American Music, 240-72. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.
Schafer, R. Murray. “The Music of the Environment.” In Audio Culture, ed. Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner, 29-39. New York and London: Continuum, 2004.
Gould, Glenn. “The Prospects of Recording.” In Audio Culture, ed. Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner, 115-26. New York and London: Continuum, 2004.
Feld, Steven. “A Rainforest Acoustemology.” In The Audio Culture Reader, ed. Michael Bull and Les Back, 223-240. Oxford and New York: Berg 2003.
_______. Rainforest Soundwalks (liner notes). EarthEar 1062. 2001.
Étude #1: Compose a soundscape collage from your own local recordings. Include brief description of subject, methods, and poetics.
Week 2 /
Histories & Aesthetics of Radio
Wu, Tim. “Radio Dreams.” In The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires, 33-44. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.
Marshall, Wayne. “Love That Muddy Ether: Pirate Multiculturalism and Boston’s Secret Soundscape.” Cluster Mag. December 2011.
Étude #2: Compose a radio collage, focusing on a particular dimension/station/time of the Boston/Cambridge airwaves. Include brief description of subject and methods.
Week 3 /
Mashup Poetics & the Ethics/Aesthetics of Sampling
Sterne, Jonathan. “The MP3 as Cultural Artifact.” New Media & Society 8:5 (2006): 825–842.
Katz, Mark. “Listening in Cyberspace.” In Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music, 158-87. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.
Marshall, Wayne. “Mashup Poetics as Pedagogical Practice.” In Pop-Culture Pedagogy in the Music Classroom: Teaching Tools from American Idol to YouTube, ed. Nicole Biamonte, 307-15. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2010.
McGranahan, Liam. “‘It Goes Beyond Having a Good Beat and I Can Dance to It’: Mashup Aesthetics and Creative Process.” In Mashnography: Creativity, Consumption, and Copyright in the Mashup Community, 35-70. Ph.D. dissertation, Brown University, 2010.
Schloss, Joseph G. “Elements of Style: Aesthetics of Hip-hop Composition.” In Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-hop, 135-168. Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2004.
Taylor, Timothy D. “A Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery: Transnational Music Sampling and Enigma’s ‘Return to Innocence.’” In Music and Technoculture, ed. René Lysloff and Leslie C. Gay, 64-92. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2003.
Étude #3: Make a mashup using 2 (or more) related recordings. Include notes discussing thematic and/or musical linkages (i.e., poetics).
Week 4 /
Video Montage in the Age of YouTube
Gillespie, Tarleton. “The Politics of ‘Platforms.’” New Media & Society 12:3 (May 2010): 347-364.
Tagg, Philip. “The Milksap Montage”
“Harvest Song from Bulgaria”
Marshall, Wayne. “The Montage Is the Method”
“Megamontage Is the Method”
“Bump Con Choque”
Étude #4: Create a video montage that illustrates a particular story of musical circulation and/or relationship.
Week 5 /
DJ-style Mixing & the Mini-Mega-Mix
Katz, Mark. “Mix and Scratch—The Turntable Becomes a Musical Instrument: 1975-1978.” In Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-hop DJ, 43-69. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Fikentscher, Kai. “‘There’s Not a Problem I Can’t Fix, ‘Cause I Can Do It in the Mix’: On the Performative Technology of 12-Inch Vinyl.” In Music and Technoculture, ed. René Lysloff and Leslie C. Gay, 290-315. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2003.
Étude #5: Produce a brief DJ-style mix guided by some logic of musical, cultural, and/or historical connection between the recordings involved. Make efforts to use blends, cuts, and other edits strategically. Include notes explaining aesthetic choices and narrative (i.e., poetics).
Week 6 /
APIs & Algorithmic Remixes
Seaver, Nick. “On Reverse Engineering: Looking for the cultural work of engineers.” Anthropology and Algorithms (Medium.com).
Lamere, Paul. “Where’s the Pow?” Music Machinery.
The Echo Nest Lab
Echo Nest Remix
Étude #6: Create a remix of a music video using commands and features made available by the Echo Nest’s API.
Week 7 /
Sound Design & Final Projects
Mitchell, Jonathan. “Using Music.” Transom.
Mitchell, Jonathan. “Sound Design from Hell.” Third Coast Library.
Rosenthal, Rob and Kathy Tu. “The Fighter Pilot.” How Sound.
Final project: Using the contemporary techniques of radio sound design, put together a brief tour of your études from the semester, highlighting whichever projects you choose and, when possible, making linkages to the readings and themes we’ve discussed.
Final Projects Due: August 8
Here are our collected works, in progress:
March 10th, 2014
For whatever reason, I’ve now become the guy that your crazy internet uncle (in my case, El Canyonazo) now forwards emails about Jeff Goldblum remixes. The latest, which appeared delightfully unsolicited in my inbox last week, samples his unnervingly odd laugh from Jurassic Park (which someone else has turned into a 10 hour version if that sort of thing is your thing) to great effect over some trappy beats. Deservingly, it’s got over 600k plays after just a month —
Why do I deserve this? Probably for, at various points in the last several years, linking to the two transformative takes on Jeff Goldblum I embed for your convenience below. You can thank me later, if you haven’t already.
That last one is still criminally underwatched, so I don’t mind sharing it here again.
Do keep me abreast, all you crazy uncles out there!
February 12th, 2014
Picó Picante is always a nice nice time, but this Friday they’ve really stacked the decks —
All these DJs are stellar and longtime friends & colleagues, and among other things, Jubilee has a poppin new EP out on Mixpak Records, and Dev/Null just posted a helluva 2 hour session devoted to atmospheric jungle from ’94-95 (which clearly presaged so much drum’n’bass that would follow) —
But I’m especially happy to welcome BBrave to town as he’s the only one I’ve yet to meet IRL.
I suspect Benjamin “BBrave” Lebrave needs no introduction here at W&W, but for those who don’t know, Benjamin is the force behind Akwaaba Music, an independent label devoted to African music of the post-Fruityloops era, or as he puts it “syncopated music made on computers all across the African continent.” Carefully and lovingly curated by Benjamin, a champion for genres and artists from West to East Africa, South to North, Akwaaba has served since 2008 as a crucial international platform for emerging artists, including acts as varied as Just a Band or FOKN Bois.
Akwaaba’s latest offering is a blistering rap album, Burkin Bâ, from Burkina Faso’s Joey Le Soldat, who pushes social critique with wicked flow over jagged electronic soundbeds that recall the Bug’s distorted dancehall. The lead single boasts an arresting video too; should slay in London or anywhere grime resounds —
But BBrave’s DJ sets are more focused on dance music per se, as opposed to head nodding beats, pivoting around hiplife, azonto, kuduro, afrohouse, tarraxinha, coupé décalé, zouglou, and the like. Here’s 8+ hours if you’d like a taste ;)
And don’t miss Benjamin’s most recent column in the Fader, a Q&A + mixtape c/o kindred spirit, none other than “Mr. African Hip-Hop” Thomas “Jumanne” Gesthuizen, which also includes a gracious s/o to this here humble blog. Thanks, Bbrave — we look forward to finally welcoming you to town!
February 7th, 2014
Back to the native genre beat for a moment…
I’ve realized that I neglected to mention such obviously indigenous YouTubery as dhol playalongs and keystyling vids (wherein one “freestyles” a few bars in the comments section of a hip-hop instrumental), but these clearly have their precedents in pre-online-video cultures — if far less public and “permanent” — whereas the K-pop reaction video, which Alexis “@pm_jawn” Stephens recently brought to my attention, is one of the best examples I’ve seen yet, in part because so recent and in part because so inextricable from YouTube. (And which I used to frame the “Sorry Sorry” montage I made last month.)
Here’s Alexis on the phenom —
A reaction video is when someone records themselves watching a music video for the first time via a webcam and then uploads it to YouTube. In K-pop reaction videos, there is often a picture-in-picture showing the progress of the music video, or MV, so that the viewer can follow along with the YouTube user’s knee-jerk, often funny responses. Nothing gets more up close and personal as YouTube, because it gives you a direct visual portal into the living spaces of other fans. The popularity of the K-pop reaction video has grown alongside K-pop’s ascent as an international cultural phenomenon.
Recorded all over the world and in a variety of languages, these reaction videos can themselves rack up hundreds of thousands of views — a staggeringly popular form of meta-voyeurism. (Surprising but persuasive, Alexis proposes a possible genealogical link, or at least predecessor, in the 2 Girls 1 Cup meme from a few years back.) And of course, they aspire to be as effectively performative, complete with tropes and archetypes, as the original spectacles to which they bear affective witness.
Alexis shares the following example, instructive and quintessential in a number of ways:
What immediately struck me was the self-conscious performance of fandom here — and the remarkable parallels between the mastery of codes and forms by reacting viewers and by the spectacular performers of K-pop. The particular viewer-performers above are from the UK but totally fluent in contemporary American/global slang, much of it in the form of stylized African-American vernaculars (including black men’s, women’s, and queer idioms) — indeed, about as fluent, it strikes me, as the K-pop performers themselves (who, it must be admitted, are pretty virtuoso in this regard).
Along these lines, if one frame removed, the video by G-Dragon they’re reacting to above clearly merits a multitude of reactions:
It’s amazing, dense, vivid, masterful, and playful. Clearly, it would be a mistake to reduce the pleasures of K-pop to a simple if charming form of mimesis. Rather, this is sui generis mastery of craft and gesture. Observing K-pop stars making a splash at fashion weeks around the world may offer a better angle from which to appreciate K-poppers’ distinctive synthesis of an irreducible array of signifiers, whether or not many of them are cribbed straight from the (Af-Am) hip-hop playbook.
It seems to me that K-pop’s “appropriations” demand a different frame of analysis (although, this video prolly owes MIA money) — and the reaction vids, including entire networks of African-American appreciators help complicate the picture further. (My “Sorry Sorry” montage includes a group of black college students watching the Super Junior video, with one singing and one dancing along.) In contrast to many other “global” (ie, local, non-US) hip-hop scenes, K-pop’s take on hip-hop does not begin to pretend to any alignment with the margins of society. The only authenticity operative here, it seems, is a demonstrated commitment to cultural currency. It’s purely a matter of style and swagger and savvy manipulation of global symbols, musical and sartorial and gestural &c.
And it’s pretty damn impressive.
Stepping back another frame again, there’s something perfect in how reaction videos themselves function so similarly, often mobilizing and reaffirming the same sets of codes and signs. K-pop reaction videos are an amazing and amusing performance of fandom in an age when it’s easier than ever to share that experience with others. They’re an imagined but also, notably, asynchronously witnessed form of collective joy — of the pleasure of sharing an appreciation for cultural codes and their spectacular, affective enactment (across language lines or other borders).
In some interesting ways, then, reaction videos might be understood as attempts to bridge the gap that Michael Warner contends is always there for so-called publics. For Warner, publics are necessarily constituted imaginatively and asynchronously as people engage the same circulating text, privately, and then imagine themselves as part of a collective addressed by it. Reaction videos may still be “private” engagements both in their production and reception, requiring private attention, but their publicness and persistence would seem to heighten the feeling of sharing such collective engagements with public texts. These private moments of attention become a lot more visible, perhaps even more intimate, ironically.
As such, and in contrast to publics gathered around print material, K-pop reaction communities may better resemble the “counterpublics” that, for Warner, “make expressive corporeality the material for the elaboration of intimate life among publics of strangers” [p.76].)
And without a doubt, reaction videos — which may soon transcend K-pop as a genre, if they don’t already — are a “native” YouTube genre par excellence. O Brave New World that has such people watching people watching people in it!
February 6th, 2014
Last month, Nico and Charlie each made their own sourdough starters — the yeast + bacterial cultures that have been used to leaven bread since…leavened bread (which predates sliced bread, by the way).
Nico began hers the simple, local, wild way: just take some flour — in our case made from Western, MA wheatberries we milled at home — and add water, more or less in equal parts (to make a thick batter), then give it a stir or two every day and sometimes a little more flour or water.
Charlie’s was similar in composition but included a spoonful of beer trub, harvested from the bottom of a carboy of a recent batch of ale — to give it a sure kick of (commercially-cultivated) yeast and to see whether it might otherwise effect the process (of fermentation) or the product (the bread).
They also both contained what Charlie — and then all of us — began referring to as “finger yeast,” which we think may contribute another key source of wild microbes. Here they explain the process, with some gentle prodding (and some useful prompts c/o Christina Agapakis, synthetic biologist, science blogger, and infamous maker of “human cheese” [who blogged about us here!]):
Perhaps predictably, Charlie’s culture got off to a quick start as the “beer yeasts” went (back) to work doing what they do: munching carbs and belching air and alcohol. Within a day Charlie’s starter was bubbling away and smelling boozy. The yeast still seemed to want to make beer! And despite making things quite bubbly very quickly, the beer yeast seemed to be making a thinner and, ironically, less vigorous starter. Nico’s took a little longer to grow, but after 3 or 4 days of stirring and feeding, it began to build steam, and it more quickly took on the sour notes — rather than beer notes — we were hoping for. When fed, it would also puff up a lot more than Charlie’s, which was more likely to pool.
Eventually, both starters got to a place where they seemed ready for a test run — sufficiently sour and ready to go to town on some fresh flour — so we baked a loaf from each of them a week or so ago in order to compare and taste our homemade sourdough.
Our bread recipe was a synthesis of some variations on a few approaches we’ve been trying for the last few months: Peter Reinhart’s, Chad Robertson’s (and Michael Pollan’s remix), and Jim Lahey’s popular “no knead” recipe (which, crucially, helped us first get our feet wet, or hands sticky). Notably, though they’re all different in various ways, all involve a long/delayed fermentation and relatively little kneading.
Our own approach mixes as it departs from them all. We’re totally into starters and soakers and long fermentations and low kneading and hearty country loaves, but we’re hardcore about ingredients: we’re using 100% whole wheat flour (a lot of so-called whole wheat loaves are actually 70/30 or 50/50, with plenty of refined white flour to up the gluten ratio to better trap air and make the bread bubbly & springy); we’re also making “lean” breads (as opposed to “enhanced” with fats or sweeteners) and we’re trying not to use any active dry yeast — just flour + water + (homegrown) microbes + salt. It’s a challenge — for many, it’s long been a holy grail — but it feels elemental. And rewarding. Even when a loaf comes out flat, it still has amazing depth of flavor.
After mixing up their own soakers (water + flour, to help soften the bran and begin enzymatic processes) and starters (essentially, 60 grams of their cultures + 200g flour + 150g water) the night before, and letting them each go to work for 12 hours, they woke up and mixed their final doughs the next morning.
I baked the loaves for the girls while they were at school, scoring each one with a first initial, and they came out just lovely — and were even tastier than they were beautiful.
We’re still not sure why Charlie’s didn’t get as nice an oven-spring as Nico’s — may have been the beer yeast, or the hydration, or my kneading (which needs improvement). But both she and Nico — and Becca and I — were very happy with the results.
We’re looking forward to future experiments with microbes — maybe future videos too. It’s been fun to learn about all this stuff together, and we hope some people might want to copy our experiments and share theirs with us. We’ll do our best to keep you posted on future things a-brewin’.
In that vein, while we’re here, I should note that — indeed, as is speculated with regard to the intertwined history of brewing and baking — Nico and Charlie had already made their first homebrews before their first starter cultures and loaves of bread. They began with a base of cracked & milled (but not malted) spelt, water, sugar, and preserved fruit, mixed to their own proportions —
Rather than going totally wild with the microbes, though, in this case they each used some trub to get things started. And I can attest, as the sole guinea pig several days later, that their very-small-batch beers (micro-micro-brews!) were not bad: a bit odd, a tad flat & a touch sourish, but nonetheless, beery.
Here’s to feeding ferment.
January 29th, 2014
I don’t know if you dear readers get tired of hearing about dembow, but I sure don’t. That said, if my boom-ch-boom-chick narratives start to seem as monotonous a march as some allege with regard to the dembow beat itself, do let me know. Well-worn paths notwithstanding, I’m happy to share this latest riff on a loopy history I’ve been trying to put together for many years, especially since it was the result of some protracted detective work, including actual purchasing of vinyl (s/o Deadly Dragon), interviews conducted via MySpace, and a whole heap of Spanglish-spelunking through Panamanian plena chatroom rabbitholes and other lively niches of the net.
First things first, go over to Wax Poetics to read the article in its full multimedia glory:
>> “Digital Rhythm: The loopy origins of dembow and reggaeton’s knotty dancehall roots”
I’m pleased to have placed the piece there, as Wax Poetics is a publication I’ve admired for a long time, but especially because the story of the dembow’s origins is, crucially, a story about a particular physical record, an actual piece of vinyl, a deeply generative slab of “wax” that thousands of producers have molded into their own shapes and forms since it first issued from a Brooklyn-based distributor in 1991.
It’s also a record that, hard to believe, I was unable to locate and listen to back when I was writing my epic chapter for our reggaeton book. At the time, though, close listening was leading me in the right direction, as indicated in footnote #55 (p.72):
Significantly, it appears (to my ears) that the most common versions of the Dem Bow riddim circulating in Puerto Rico may in fact be sampled from Nando Boom’s “Ellos Benia,” produced by Dennis “the Menace” Thompson, rather than directly from Shabba Ranks’s “Dem Bow” (though elements from the Bobby Digital version crop up as well).
While my ears had more or less figured out the identity of the actual samples traveling under the Dembow banner, I still didn’t know the story of how, or who, or when or where, someone first got their hands on the instrumental, which didn’t appear on any Nando Boom records (and never appears as a naked loop in “Ellos Benia”). Maybe most mysteriously, I hadn’t been able to figure out why Panamanian enthusiasts seemed to refer to the same riddim as the Pounda, or sometimes Ponda (a transformation / transliteration not unlike such Puerto Rican variations as Dembo or Denbo).
When I first read about the Pounda on Panamanian websites, the way people described it, I thought it might simply be a local way of naming “Dem Bow” not unlike the way that, say, the instrumental from Dirtsman’s “Hot This Year” — better known to reggae aficionados as a re-lick of the classic Drum Song riddim — sometimes masquerades as “El Chespa Riddim” in tribute to the stuttering repetition of Dirtsman’s “dress back!” in the vocal version: chespa, chespa ches, chespa, chespa ches, chespa! And because I couldn’t locate an actual record called “Pounder,” my best assumption, given what I’d read, was that it was simply another name for the same riddim Puerto Ricans call Dem Bow. Which it is. (What it is not, however, is the same version propelling Shabba’s influential performance on “Dem Bow.”) But I had no idea what that would have happened.
The identity of the Pounda, and its relationship to the loop people call Dembow, seemed crucial to understanding the transnational history of reggaeton. And though I felt I had done my best by the time of publication, it still nagged at me. Moreover, this missing link continued to complicate the fraught retellings of reggaeton history. Take, for example, this quintessential collection of lore from a 2009 article on reggae in Panama:
By some reports, Jamaican dancehall first arrived in Puerto Rico in the suitcases of visiting musicians from Panama. Another story has the Panamanian producer Ramón “Pucho” Bustamante collaborating with a Jamaican to create a salsa-infused variant of “dem bow” called “pounda,” then handing it over to Puerto Rican producers. While the truth is likely less clear-cut than either yarn, the debate over who started reggaeton, or rather, how Puerto Rican artists discovered “dem bow,” rages on outside shows and on countless Internet message boards today.
Indeed, as a gringo gawker, but a devotee and champion of all this music, it was largely these online debates that served as a key set of texts for the meta-narrative I was trying to tease out, my story of the stories people tell about reggaeton. I would come across fascinating debates and tantalizing fragments hinting at a history still largely uncovered, or certainly unpromulgated —
EL PONDER REALMENTE ES UN RITMO JAMAIQUINO, HAY COMO DOS ESTILOS DEL MISMO Y DEL MISMO AÑO QUE UNO ES EL DEL ESTILO QUE LLEVA LA CANCIÓN “PENSIÓN” DE NANDO BOOM Y EL OTRO DEL ESTILO QUE LLEVA “DEM BOW” DE SHABBA RANKS QUE ESE FUÉ HECHO POR STEELIE & CLEEVIE POR VP RECORDS. PERO EL PONDER DE “DEM BOW” DE SHABBA RANKS FUÉ EL MÁS FUERTE EN ESE TIEMPO Y LAS DOS DE NANDO BOOM CON LA BASE RÍTMICA HECHA POR DENNIS FUERON LAS QUE MÁS APOJEARON HASTA EN CANADÁ QUE LAS OTRAS EN INGLÉS. ——————– pAnAmAiCaN jAm
To get to the bottom, I had to go beyond reading Spanish wiki entries and their discussion pages, and even beyond Panamanian reggae discussion forum rabbit holes and email follow-ups with their authors. I had to track down one of the record’s producers on MySpace and, ultimately, at least for my peace of mind, I had to get my hands on a real, physical copy of the record, since there were no online instantiations of a song called “Pounda” or “Pounder” — never mind its instrumental b-side (given the distinctive label, “Dub Mix II,” I would later discover).
I have Marlon Bishop to thank for putting me back on the trail again, which is ironic since he contacted me while researching an article he was writing on reggae in Panama for none other than Wax Poetics. At any rate, Marlon’s reasonable inquiry about the Pounda riddim sent me back into the chat forums, which eventually led me to the Deadly Dragon guys, who actually had the record in stock. And of course, when I listened to it, and it contained precisely the same sounds propelling Nando Boom’s “Ellos Benia” and appearing as “Dembow Original” on CDs like Pistas Famosas de Reggaeton, it came as a revelation.
Also revelatory, and useful for confirming some things, was getting to talk with none other than “Pucho,” aka Ramon “Pucho” Bustamante (a name bearing witness to his Jamaican heritage, recalling Jamaica’s first prime minister). We had an illuminating exchange via MySpace, and I’ll never forget his funny opinion about Jamaica’s riddim tradition, or as he put it, “UNA MALA COSTUMBRE DE LOS JAMAICANOS” —
And that’s all she wrote. Or, at least, that’s all I’ve written so far. You might think that a 24,000 word essay might suffice, but apparently not. And as another way to share an amazing story, I’m grateful to have been able to put the pieces together. Thanks to everyone, from Pucho to pAnAmAiCaN jAm, Marlon to Wax Poetics, for aiding me in my not-so-quixotic quest. Always room for another dub!
January 24th, 2014
Appended below is the “director’s cut” (or unabridged author’s version) of a book review I wrote almost a year ago, which will soon finally see the light of day in the Journal of Popular Music Studies. The book is Mark Katz’s Groove Music, and I say enough below that I needn’t say more here, but as you’ll see, my review is quite supportive. If you’re interested in the history of the DJ, or hip-hop, or just good music writing and scholarship, I highly recommend you check this one out.
Bonus beats: here’s an interview Katz did with/for the IASPM blog last year.
ps — here are the proofs if you like PDFs, but do see below for the full monty!
Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-Hop DJ by Mark Katz
Oxford University Press, 2012, 336 pages, ISBN: 9780195331127
With Groove Music, Mark Katz has written a definitive history of the hip-hop DJ, filling a conspicuous void in the hip-hop literature while contributing more broadly to studies of music technologies—or perhaps better, to our understanding of how people make technologies musical. For Katz, the transformation of the turntable from a mere playback machine to a remarkably flexible and responsive control device—a musical instrument, no less—stands as “the signal contribution of the hip-hop DJ to modern musical culture” (5). This is quite a claim, but Katz represents, as hip-hop parlance would have it, offering historical, ethnographic, and analytical perspectives on hip-hop DJing, from roots to offshoots, with an unprecedented degree of thoroughness and attention to what matters to practitioners and audiences.
Like Joe Schloss’s authoritative works on beat-making and b-boying, Making Beats (2004) and Foundation (2009), which Groove Music should now sit alongside on shelves and syllabi, this is a lucid and deeply grounded work on a pillar of hip-hop practice and artistry informed by dozens of interviews, years of participant-observation, and deft close readings of live performances, canonical recordings, and oral histories. Groove Music fleshes out the growing (if still lagging) musicological literature on the DJ (Fikentscher 2000, Lawrence 2003, Butler 2006) by shifting focus from the relatively suave mixing of disco, house, and techno DJs to the more explicit performativity of hip-hop DJs, as embodied most audibly by the scratch—or zigga zigga as Katz sometimes glosses it.
To his credit, even while engaged in important acts of translation for his primary reading public (i.e., colleagues and students), Katz sets out to write the book that hip-hop DJs themselves would want to read. As such he commits himself to a chronological and narrative approach, and to a down-to-earth and occasionally playful prose style, peppering the text with such useful terms as “badassery” (168). The book is all the better for this approach, addressing the wider publics that these stories deserve to reach.
The rhythmically stuttered introduction of “DJ Premier in Deep Concentration” (1989), a hallmark production of the hip-hop DJ as hands-on artist—Here’s a little story that must be told—serves as an unremarked but undergirding imperative. While DJs such as Premier have been telling the story themselves and various works in the hip-hop literature address the subject in some detail (Chang 2005, Fricke & Ahearn 2002), no single text prior to Katz has sought to synthesize an overarching story of hip-hop DJing from its beginnings in 1973 to the present. Moreover, with the literature so focused on the foundational work of hip-hop’s hallowed trinity (Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash), little attention has been paid to the changing aesthetics and contexts of the hip-hop DJ in the decades since the form’s origins in the Bronx, especially how scratching has moved in and out of the spotlight in hip-hop and more broadly in American and global popular culture.
Throughout the text, Katz touches on numerous signposts, among them: the crucial feedback loop with dancers (14-16); influences from funk, reggae, and salsa (23-32); hip-hop’s ties to disco, however disputed (32-5); the urban context of the Bronx (35-42); the world of DJ-producers (121); the Bay Area’s Filipino DJ scene, dominant in the world of turntablism (145-7); the rise of mix-and-scratch academies (230) and virtual video games like DJ Hero (237). But it is Katz’s clear periodization of hip-hop DJ history, always grounded in ethnographic analysis of the political economy, material culture, and aesthetics of the enterprise, which emerges as the key contribution of the book.
Most crucially, in chapter 2, “Mix and Scratch,” Katz details the development of the turntable as a musical instrument, focusing on the mechanical and stylistic innovations by the likes of Grandmaster Flash and GrandWizzard Theodore (generally credited with inventing the rhythmic scratch). A centerpiece of Katz’s argument is his close reading of Flash’s seminal seven minute showcase, “The Adventures Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” (1982), elaborating the techniques and effects, technologies and repertories involved in the performance. Grandmaster D.ST’s standout scratching on Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” (1983) also serves as a key text in the popularization and reimagination of the turntable as instrument. Katz’s simple but profound point is that these DJs took a technology of sound reproduction and used it for “real-time manipulation” of sound (62). This story of transformation finally comes full circle toward the end of the book when Katz examines the rise of digital vinyl (e.g., the Serato or Traktor systems), which embodies the utter shift of the vinyl record from a storage medium to a control surface.
Other chapters divide up the history of the hip-hop DJ according to the strange and sometimes circuitous paths the tradition has taken. Chapter 3, “Out of the Bronx and into the Shadows,” addresses the question of how hip-hop, despite its beginnings as a DJ-driven phenomenon, would soon enough be synonymous with rap. According to Katz, the rise of the MC and concomitant decline of DJ, relegated to back-up band or, by the late 1980s, even replaced by DAT machines, actually served in its way to make room for new forms of hip-hop DJing. Despite the DJ’s recession during hip-hop’s commercial and cultural ascent, where other hip-hop chronicles tend to depart and leave DJs in the shadows, Katz remains stalwart in his focus, turning to the expansions of DJ practice in chapter 4, both in terms of scratch technique (and Philadelphia’s specific contribution: the “transformer”), as well as the art of beat-juggling. Katz carefully describes new techniques as they develop, putting them into aesthetic, functional, and socio-cultural context, noting the emergence of new contexts for DJ practice, particularly the rise of the competition circuit. Indeed, chapter 6 is entirely devoted to the forms, rituals, tools, and techniques of the DJ battle, judiciously examining points of aesthetic conflict and consensus.
Given Katz’s abiding concern with the instrumentalization of the turntable, the advent of turntablism in 1990s is an obvious watershed, and chapter 5 explores this practically autonomous and increasingly abstracted realm of hip-hop DJ practice. Katz explores the symbiosis between turntable, needle, and crossfader design, noting that while initially many of these features were ad-hoc innovations on the part of tinker-DJs and their “vernacular technological creativity,” by the mid-1990s manufacturers were taking notice and incorporating them into their products. Here, as elsewhere, we’re treated to some sharp material culture analysis: new mixers and crossfaders enabled innovative new techniques such as the “crab scratch” where technical limits had previously made them impossible.
In chapter 7, Katz turns to the new ubiquity and legitimacy that scratching enjoyed between 1996-2002, not in hip-hop itself, notably, but in “almost every corner of popular music” (182): pop, rock, jazz, electronic music, and even the classical world. The scratch comes to mean any manner of things in a wide variety of contexts: “With the mainstreaming of hip-hop, signifiers started to float freely” (180). This creates further room for experimentation, giving rise to the “cult favorites” the DJ albums made by the likes of DJ Shadow, Qbert, and Kid Koala, rich and remarkable works to which Katz devotes some overdue analysis.
The question of “Falling Barriers” in chapter 8 reads as a fitting coda, bringing the story of the turntable’s instrumentalization back to its beginnings in important if unexpected ways. Contrasting the rejection of CDJs with the embrace of “digital vinyl systems” allows Katz to make an insightful point about vinyl’s place in hip-hop aesthetics as “precious,” “authentic,” “elemental,” and “fundamental” (218). Vinyl’s tenacity as a control surface not only speaks to these values, grounded in decades-old practice, but to the ontology of the turntable as instrument: a seemingly sudden crossfade that makes total sense in retrospect.
Notably, rather than a CD insert (which would have been an enormous tangle of licensing permissions), Oxford University Press offers a useful companion website full of media referenced in the text. These may be mostly links to YouTube videos, leaving their stability in question, but it’s a rich resource all the same, especially if readers use it soon, before the inevitable link degradation.
Groove Music represents a strong monographic extension of Katz’s previous work in Capturing Sound (2004) and the recent anthology he co-edited with Tim Taylor and Tony Grajeda, Music, Sound, and Technology in America (2012). All of these works are animated by a concern with registering the plasticity of sound technologies, or how people find their own creative uses for such things. In the history of sound recording and reproduction, there may be no more spectacular example than the advent of performative hip-hop DJing, and Katz has given the tradition a fitting monument. The specter of legitimation may yet haunt the hip-hop literature, but efforts such as Groove Music help to push beyond such entrenchments precisely by taking the subject so seriously that no hint of novelty or condescension corrupts it.
Butler, Mark. Unlocking the Groove: Rhythm, Meter, and Musical Design in Electronic Music. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2006.
Chang, Jeff. Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. New York: Picador, 2005.
Fikentscher, Kai. “You Better Work!”: Underground Dance Music in New York City. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 2000.
Fricke, Jim and Charlie Ahearn. Yes Yes Y’all: The Experience Music Project Oral History of Hip-Hop’s First Decade. New York: Da Capo, 2002.
Katz, Mark. Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2004.
Lawrence, Tim. Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-1979. Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2003.
Schloss, Joseph. Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-Hop. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2004.
_______. Foundation: B-Boys, B-Girls, and Hip-Hop Culture in New York. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Taylor, Timothy, Mark Katz, and Tony Grajeda, eds. Music, Sound, and Technology in America: A Documentary History of Early Phonograph, Cinema, and Radio. Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2012.
January 19th, 2014
The girl that made me a dad turned 6 on Friday! Amazing.
Watching Nico grow & change & stay the same, each year feels richer than that the last. What a treasure.
Here’s to another wonderful year — and many more to come.
<3 <3 <3
(ps -- Take your time, jam on, & keep swinging for the fences. You know who you are ;)