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 ;)
January 12th, 2014
an utterly awesome eight-year-old diva, via YouTube
This past week I’ve whipped up another couple YouTube montages in the vein of Gasodoble, Bump con Choque, and my students’ projects in last year’s technomusicology class. Unlike my previous efforts, which not too surprisingly involve reggaeton, these new mega-montages engage repertories that I don’t generally mess with: opera and K-pop.
The dear colleagues I have to blame for these excursions are two Berklee faculty, Isaiah Jackson and DJ Hatfield. I’m collaborating with them, as well as with Lori Landay (who has posted her own video here) and Darcie Nicole, to explore the possibilities for using YouTube in the classroom, as well as in our efforts as scholars — and as artists.
We’re giving a collective presentation at Berklee tomorrow morning as part of the college’s annual BTOT event (Berklee Teachers on Teaching), and I’m grateful to Isaiah — an ol’ friend, an acclaimed conductor, and a consummate gentleman — and the others for letting me interlope and help guide the discussion.
In a nutshell, or an abstract, here’s how we’re framing the thing –
We are all familiar with YouTube as an endless archive of weird, ordinary, awesome, and awful performances, but suppose we approach YouTube itself as a creative teaching resource. Since we can now remix video as easily as audio, YouTube performances can be edited into montages that 1) tell vivid stories about contemporary music culture; 2) stand as artworks in their own rights; and 3) supply valuable insights to students seeking to understand the role of social media. This session will explore the ways in which everyday audio/video software and global publishing sites now render visible and audible a staggering variety of musical performances. Participants will learn how they can harness new tools for examining the state of musical arts.
Of course, I have my own favorite examples in this regard, from Kutiman’s collages to the works that I and my students have cooked up, but I was excited to partner with other faculty, with their own realms of expertise, to see how the technique of using montage to represent a song or dance’s social life, as made visible by YouTube, might play out in other musical and cultural domains.
The first (mega)montage I’d like to share reveals the remarkably sustained “virality” (i.e., the ability to find new hosts) of a tune composed more than 200 years ago. Isaiah suggested that I take on Mozart’s well-worn soprano aria, “Queen of the Night,” as the sort of musical text so resonant that surely a staggering number and variety of performances would reside on YouTube.
Sure enough, Isaiah picked out (and annotated!) about 30 instances for me to consider, a small selection all told, but a fine cross-section of contexts, modes of performance / reception, and arrangements. Notably, one of these selections, which I didn’t actually use, was itself a mega-montage of some 40 different renditions. (In that regard, it’s worth noting that the amateur montage is something of a native YouTube genre in its own right, though as Lori will explain tomorrow, as a cultural form “Soviet” montage has been ascendent for some time.)
I’ve been chatting with Isaiah about what has emerged from this exercise, asking how a text so, well, old could continue to enjoy so lively a social life — only glimpses of which are revealed by trawling YouTube — even into the media-suffused 21st century. And despite clearly calling for a certain virtuosity (which some deliver and some do not), one significant detail that Isaiah noted about the story behind this favorite aria from The Magic Flute is that it was composed precisely to inspire such a desire to sing along (or hum or whistle). Apparently, Mozart’s friend Emanuel Schikaneder, who wrote the libretto and played the role of Papageno in the production’s first run, encouraged him to make the aria short and punchy, the sort of thing that would be popular at “the Lodge,” as Isaiah put it (they were both Freemasons). In this sense, Mozart’s aria might be thought of as a proto pop song, written to be short and catchy and popular. It sure looks and sounds that way according to YouTube.
To my eyes and ears, the montage, which aside from a slightly extended coloratura section essentially sticks to the original (brief) length of the composition, vividly reveals how the aria spans professional and amateur contexts, gender and age, virtuosity and cringeworthiness, various modes of reception (e.g., note which examples contain applause), drama and humor, private and public settings — the sort of versatility that helps to secure a certain longevity. Despite pre-dating “participant culture” theory by a few centuries, surely this is a spreadable song for the ages!
The other montage I worked up may be more familiar in some ways, if you keep up with YouTubey dance memes, but I find it no less interesting or revealing when it comes to grappling with YouTube and what it shows us about music culture in the contemporary moment. DJ Hatfield’s central text is a song — and, crucially, accompanying dance — called “Sorry Sorry,” performed by the popular K-pop “boy band” Super Junior. (And yes, there are already other fan-produced montages of it floating around.) Like lots of other popular song+dance routines (e.g., Crank Dat), one can search for “Sorry Sorry” on YouTube and discover a plethora of examples, from solo routines at home to large numbers performing their mastery of the popular steps in public.
Pointing me to just over 20 examples — again, a small slice of what’s up — DJ led me down a K-pop rabbithole, wherein I found residing alongside each other a marvelous variety of instances: slick commercial productions from Korea and ambitious spoofs from Mexico, goofy karaoke sessions, dead serious tutorials, all manner of home- and school-based versions, breathless TV broadcasts, anime remixes, toy robots, and of course, Filipino prisoners. (You just haven’t made it as a dance meme if the CPDRC hasn’t immortalized the choreography in all their orange splendor.) You can even see the choreographers of the dance, two guys from Los Angeles, strutting their stuff in their own darkened dance studio version. It’s really quite a rich set of instantiations, raising on old question for me: what’s the text and what’s the paratext? (EL QUÉ?!). Take a look yourself –
One genre that I couldn’t resist including here, and which may also deserve the status of “YouTube native,” is the K-pop reaction video. Apparently, watching people watching people on YouTube on YouTube is a thing. Special thanks to longtime W&W interlocutor Alexis Stephens, aka @pm_jawn, for bringing this phenomenon, which really deserves a post or two of its own, to my attention. The K-pop reaction video gave me a way to frame the whole montage that was just too meta to resist.
What makes the example especially interesting to DJ — and notably what doesn’t show up as much on YouTube as the dance routine per se — is that, back in 2009 or so, the particular hand-rubbing gesture for “Sorry Sorry” entered the greater gestural lexicon. People would do that hand-rub gesture anytime they apologized! Such quotidian moments don’t show up especially well on YouTube, but one other interesting example of the dance’s “migration” connects to DJ’s work on music in Taiwan. As you’ll see at the end of the montage, a Taiwanese artist named Suming incorporates the gesture into a video for his song “Kapah” that mashes up a variety of traditional and popular Taiwanese (and other) gestures and references.
There’s a great deal to be teased out here, obviously, and it’s our collective hope to do some of that tomorrow morning while also gesturing (sorry sorry) to other possibilities and uses of YouTube, whether we’re thinking (or singing or dancing) as scholars, teachers, artists, choreographers, or toy robots.
January 6th, 2014
If raggamuffin hip-hop never gets tired for you either, I’m happy to report that yet another juicy mix of fliptongue stylistics over dusty breaks and jeepbeat bass has come to my attention —
Originally cooked up in 2010 by one Matt Nelkin, and now re-upped with special edits for your DLing & DJing pleasure, “Boombap Riddims” pays tribute to more or less the very same moment in time that inspired my & Pace’s digging in the crateses for Cluster Mag.
Beyond enjoying soaking up the heavy ragga vibes, I was happily surprised to hear yet another instance of that ol’ zunguzung tune suddenly rear its head as Rev. Baddoo’s “Bop Scuche” comes into the mix. I can’t find complete discographical info on it (or a YouTube even), but it likely dates to around 1993 — definitely a hot moment for the riff, with echoes via Us3, K7, KRS-One, and Jamalski — and the production & distribution c/o none other than Bobby Konders & Massive B makes a lot of sense for yet another NYC-based vector for Yellowman’s viral chune.
Big up Mr.Nelkin on the tuff mix, and thx to anyone who can help me pin down the date of “Bop Scuche”!
While I’m on topic, I also want to share a recording that seems rather illuminating for hearing Boogie Down Productions’ seminal ragga-rap in context. Listening to Colonel Mite’s “Bless the Selector,” recorded in London the same year that BDP were proclaiming the Bridge to be over and the P to be free (1986), I can’t help but be struck by the verbal / stylistic overlap. It’s pretty clear, to these ears anyway, that KRS was manipulating the very same repertory of dancehall gestures (“come inna a dance”) as his compatriots across the pond. In other words, BDP were essentially producing a NYC-tinged version of contemporary dancehall. But do tell if you disagree —
December 17th, 2013
Been thinking about “native” YouTube genres, or genres which, in their way, are “native” to the platform, having necessarily emerged on YouTube — new forms and conventions, in other words, essentially made possible by YouTube’s existence and special features (especially, but not limited to, unprecedented access to an endless archive, thanks to massive uptake and network effects).
Lots of forms and practices that might seem novel to YouTube have been around as amateur / fan / folk / underground culture forever, which is why it may be instructive to ask not only about what is now more spectacular or obvious or invigorated (though those are all good queries), but what is also necessarily new (i.e., native). This would help us get a better idea of this juncture’s interplay between creative process, media ecology, and tech affordances/constraints.
I liked how several of my students’ YouTube montages from last fall — in seeking to plumb a song’s social life as depicted, richly if always incompletely, on YouTube — revealed certain YouTubey genres alongside and amidst the sundry contexts of meatspace (homes, buses, studios, stages) and their associated, overlapping genres (personal, public, pedagogical, performative and so on). Things like, say, Sponge Bob or Barack Obama belting cut-n-paste pop jams –
In addition to productions like these, native genres to YouTube would also have to include the likes of YouTube Poop, which, as the name suggests, is fairly obvious (if meta/dada) in its YouTubeness.
A lot of these examples are, tellingly, pastiches or other remixes — not surprising, given 1) wealth of access and 2) ease of editing — but native genres on YouTube are not limited to that mode. Something like the “Harlem Shake,” for instance, in centering on a shareable/viral syntax rather than a particular gesture or sign, suggests a class of YouTubey forms that are distinct from, say, the latest neighborhood dance step to jump from the corner to all corners (though those are also, as I’ve explored before, very much themselves YouTube abetted now).
In search of other native genres, I tried a little poll yesterday on Twitter, and I was treated to at least one class (or maybe more) of arguably native YouTube genres that have little if anything to do with remix or pastiche. One particularly interesting rabbithole, or more like a vacuumtube (if not quite a 9 hour suck), led me into a world of looooong non-musical sound clips on YouTube.
S/o Young Heraclitus / Dreamboat Slim for promptly pointing me to a video given the alluring billing of “Vacuum Cleaner Relaxation White Noise Sound Sleep Colic” and tagged with such canny search engine optimization as –
Mask Tinnitus, Sleep Aid, Enhance Privacy ,Block Distractions, Pacify children and pets, Soothe Migraines, Increase Focus
Lessen Stress vacuum cleaner sound
vacuum cleaner noise
sound of vacuum cleaner
noise of vacuum cleaner
Included in the description, you might be glad to hear, was a link to a page where one can download a 109mb 717 minute mp3. The page helpfully reads: “1 Man, 12 Hours of Vacuuming” and “You’ll get an MP3.”
Incidentally, I think the epic “performance” may simply be a 15 minute-or-so loop, but I haven’t studied it so closely; that said, I did have it on for a good hour yesterday. At low volume, I found it remarkably compelling.
Anyway, before you download, you might want to check it out on YouTube:
I should have suspected, I suppose, but it turns out there are LOTS of videos in this vein. The vid above leads, via YouTube’s recommendation engine, to any number of similar or indistinguishable efforts (especially at low volume). This 8 hour piece claims to be a “remix” but I have no idea what that means:
Truth be told, there’s a veritable plethora of epic ambient videos freely available on YouTube for your very own epic ambient experience, which, based on the descriptions and comments, mainly seems to be sleep. These include such evergreens as “Airbus 320 Cabin Sounds – 12 Hours – Take Off and Complementary treats served” or “The Sound of a Air Conditioner.” But for my money (i.e., earballs), you just can’t beat “Sucks 9 Hours” (tagged: Hood Fan Sound, Range Hood, Ventilation Fan, Cooker Hood, Extractor Hood, ASMR), though “The Sounds of a Box Fan 8hrs” (also available in mp3) is a close second –
This particular form’s nativity is, of course, directly related to one relatively big affordance: the unprecedented access to time that YouTube now provides. People, especially the non-Warhol sort, just didn’t typically make 7-12 hour films very frequently prior to the advent of unlimited time on YouTube. So one emerging “native” dimension of vernacular video we might lay at YouTube’s feet is the sudden desire to exploit the “platform” as something other than a visual medium — but not just as a jukebox, rather as a long duration white noise machine (or pink, if you prefer).
But another arguably “native” dimension here — at least in terms of popular practice — is this particular use of sound, via YouTube, to produce physical/psychological/psychosomatic effects. Many of the videos like those above, you may notice, are also tagged with ASMR — i.e., “Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response” — which Joshua Hudelson describes in a post on Sounding Out! as “a pseudo-medical designation whose native soil is YouTube.” (h/t @pm_jawn)
For Hudelson, ASMR videos “traverse the gap between the sonic and the haptic.” Notably, for all its “nativity,” this blurring across sensory registers as well as cultural domains / listening contexts, and this particular use of YouTube as source of pleasure and therapy, makes for an uneasy and sometimes rather dissonant experience. According to Hudelson,
The slow-paced, low-volume respite that Whisper videos offer is made all the more necessary by the fact that viewers must go online to watch them. This paradox is amplified by YouTube’s advertisements, which will sound especially abrasive because viewers tend to turn the volume up while listening to Whisper videos.
While this discordance may be more acute in the “Whisper video” genre Hudelson examines, than, say, low-volume and interminable ambient noise clips, it does suggest that native genres on YouTube are not exactly “at home” there even if that’s where they reside. In other words, just because something is native to an ecosystem doesn’t mean it will enjoy ideal symbiosis.
Which is certainly one insight to emerge from this vacuumhole.
But what else am I overlooking/hearing/touching? Let me know. I’m all earballs.
December 4th, 2013
I’m a little late sharing the good news of the John Wizards, a producer-singer duo from South Africa who put together my favorite recording of this year. But given that even some of my most musically voracious friends have still not heard them, I’m clearly not too late. So let me put it like this: John Withers and Emmanuel Nzaramba deserve some of your time. We’ve already given them a lot of ours.
In a year with nuff great releases from smallbatch labels & independent artists (see: exhibits A, B, & C), John Wizards’ self-titled debut most captured my ears — and lent itself to realtime, and virtual, sharing with friends — and so I feel a need to sing its praises more publicly.
Let’s start where they do, the opening track, “Tet Lek Schrempf” –
A careful but whimsical opening, the track gestures in almost overture-ish fashion to the diverse musical corners the album eventually winds its way into. Beginning with something reminiscent of Soothing Sounds for Baby, by 0:45 we dwindle into a slowing-then-speeding piano arpeggio, eventually mirrored and replaced by a plucky synth lead and, at 1:05, a rollicking triple-duple beat. By the time we hear “Greetings from John Wizards!” at 1:45, we’ve arrived yet somewhere else, with live-ish sounds evoking birds and crowds and a warbling melodic loop. Along with an increasingly menacing, bubbling bassline, these occupy the foreground for about a minute before shoved aside by a bluesy, wailing guitar line, teetering on the edge of schlock. When the guitar jumps an octave at 2:52, the whole thing comes to screaming life, synthclaps splattering, like that’s exactly what we’ve been waiting for. As we lurch toward the end with the brief appearance of an acoustic riff that seems (in a moment of good judgment) second-guessed before yielding again to the electric wail, we get a good glimpse at the music’s meticulous construction — a sly moment of subtraction amidst all the accretion and allusion.
John Wizards’ restless approach to form and sui generis stylistic synthesis make them pretty irresistible even for a recovering-rockist listener like myself. Sure, there’s something very rock band at work here — plenty guitfiddle, pretty chord changes — but it’s balanced by a wealth of electronic signposts and presence, from the waveform drums & synths weaving through every track, to the occasional Shangaan electro-esque freakout, even down to the misleadingly low-fi demotape disco / bedroom bubblegum vibes of “iYongwe.” John Wizards pack an enchanting number of ideas into their music, but never too many, and always executed with care and panache.
Another fine example is “Lusaka by Night,” including the video’s parallel, playful imagery –
Much as I attempt to listen independent of biography and other narrative frames, the strikingly peripatetic quality running through the music seems consistent with the group’s official backstory –
John Wizards might have started in Maputo. It also might have started in Cape Town. It certainly owes a debt to Dar es Salaam.
These are the three places that band leader and producer John Withers either travelled through or lived in, and he feels have had a marked influence on his musical output. They also happen to be cities in which Emmanuel Nzaramba, John Wizards’ Rwandan singer has lived too.
John met Emmanuel while he was working as a car guard, outside a coffee shop in Cape Town. Emmanuel noticed the guitar strapped to John’s back, and they began to talk about music. Emmanuel had moved from Rwanda to Cape Town to become a musician, and John told him that he had been writing music requiring vocals. They didn’t get around to recording that time: Emmanuel quit his job, lost his cellphone, and moved to a new place and lost contact.
A year later (2012) John moved house and had got together some new songs and by chance ran into Emmanuel again: they were living in the same street. John invited him to his place to listen to reggae band The Congos, It turned out that he didn’t like them, but he did like some of the new songs John had written. He would listen to them once or twice, and start singing. The outcome of these evenings can be heard on their debut album.
It’s a compelling story, to be sure (except for that bit about not liking the Congos!). Tailormade for today’s vexed representational struggles and mixed modes of reception, the narrative seems to anticipate congealed frames of reference, playing into the enduring importance to audiences of place and experience, especially when we’re talking about Africa, even as it seeks to evade the cliches of cosmopolitanism and authenticity. It helps, then, that John Wizards’ music itself says as much — and more — about the serendipity and movement so central to their myth of origins. Narrative aside, this is great music which deserves to be heard far and wide. But can we put narrative aside?
Given the panoply of reference points and stylistic curveballs, could John Wizards’ relative obscurity in an ocean of new music have anything to do with the difficulty of finding a bin? In 2013? On one hand, I find that hard to believe. On the other, I suspect that the question of genre — and its enduring social and infrastructural contours — continues to shape circulation and reception of musical media fairly profoundly, even well into the digital era.
Personally speaking, I owe it to Gamall, the discerning dude behind Backspin Promotions — and to the fact that I blog and tweet and sometimes actually review new music for other publications — for bringing John Wizards to my attention. Gamall’s always on top of new electronic releases, affiliated with such stellar, dependable outlets as Hyperdub, Editions Mego, and Planet Mu — the latter of which, perhaps surprisingly, is responsible for bringing the John Wizards to the wider world. As such, John Wizards have been inserted into a rather particular musical ecosystem, and some of Gamall’s promo copy has been pretty straightforward in creating distance from certain frames of reference:
… a unique sound that many have compared to Vampire Weekend in reverse (African music looking outwards taking in European influences). Don’t be confused and think this is some kind of world music project though – it isn’t …
It’s telling that the few times I’ve seen John Wizards come across my radar have been via the likes of Catchdubs and Obey-City, two producers/DJs generally more drawn to the (wide) world of club music than tempo-hopping, shape-shifting, bedroom-studio guitarry stuff. So maybe this tack is working after all. I won’t be surprised to see a well-deserved late surge for John Wizards in years-end Best Ofs.
Suggesting that this approach to spreading the group’s music will continue, their second single arrives this week accompanied by two remixes which transpose the dubby, ethereal “Muizenberg” into different genres — new channels to surf.
Far as newness goes, though, the newest thing here is the synthesis, not the synths. There’s no reason that electronic music audiences shouldn’t be receptive to a stunning take on the world of sonic possibility grounded in southern African soundscapes. Drum machines and squealing, squelching synths are not, by any stretch, new to African music. In this sense, John Wizards offer one of various points of entry into a long, loopy history of musicians using technology to constantly reinvent the Sound of Africa.
Could this be a controversial thing to say about a duo comprising a heavy-handed white-dude producer and a black vocalist? As John Withers put it in an interview with Pitchfork (so, yeah, it’s not like these guys aren’t making the rounds — and good for them for that) —
If you’re white and playing an African style, even in Africa, it’s a touchy thing. … But I’ve got no real problem with people drawing on anything — if the music is nice, the music is nice.
I’ve got to agree with that. John’s and Emmanuel’s music is nice indeed. May it touch you too.
November 27th, 2013
There’s been a lot of news in the past week about the legal kerfuffle between the Beastie Boys and a company called GoldieBlox, which markets science/engineering toys aimed at girls (and their parents) seeking something beyond the standard pink princess fare.
Apparently, GoldieBlox has successfully leveraged the “viral” qualities of the net to project their “disruptive” brand, and the latest example does so spectacularly well, via a parody of the Beastie Boys’ well-worn, decades-old, silly misogynist ditty, “Girls.”
In fact, my first encounter with GoldieBlox’s version of “Girls” arrived via word of mouth (i.e., Gchat), just the way viral videos are supposed to. My wife shared the link with me, as we ourselves are constantly struggling with the balance between giving our daughters lots of options for growth and play, on the one hand, and indulging their seemingly irrepressible desire to parade around as princesses on the other. As that type of dad, I couldn’t help but myself be smitten by the ad —
So, I was as surprised as anyone to learn about the legal battle currently underway over this parody of a parody (if, in the initial instance, an ambiguous one). Obviously, GoldieBlox’s “Girls” is derived from the Beasties’ “Girls,” but it’s a complete re-recording, marshaling certain familiar elements — the riff, the refrain, and certain text/melodic lines — not all unlike the ways the Beasties themselves cribbed and borrowed and reassembled their own song out of prior performances.
Redolent of a schlocky musical and cultural past — and perhaps helping to give the song some of its parodic edge — the Beasties’ “Girls” makes audible nods to both the Isley Brothers and Bo Diddley. Beginning around 0:40 in the following video, you’ll hear Diddley play on guitar the very same riff the Boys coax out of their wonky synth:
And this mashup underscores pretty convincingly how much “Girls” is inspired by the Isley’s “Shout,” with parellels in terms of song syntax, repeated refrain, and even a few striking melodic parallels (e.g., “say that you love me…” == “to do the dishes…”):
What should we make of the Beastie Boys taking two songs deeply inspired by African-American religious ritual — the ring-shout in the case of the Isleys, and Diddley’s hand-clapping & foot-stomping “communion service” — in order to make a rearguard, if possibly parodic, song about women? On what grounds should the Beasties be allowed the privilege of doing something so derivative/transformative, while GoldieBlox should not?
For many, it would seem, the crucial point turns not on questions of musical borrowing and re-signification but rather, on the Beastie Boys’ stated wishes to keep their music out of advertisements, as articulated in their open letter —
make no mistake, your video is an advertisement that is designed to sell a product, and long ago, we made a conscious decision not to permit our music and/or name to be used in product ads.
This is especially poignant given that Adam Yauch (aka MCA) made this same wish explicit in his will.
But then, GoldieBlox isn’t actually using the Beasties’ music. Or are they? It’s a question — and not an easy one to resolve. (For any of us, or for a judge or jury for that matter.) They’re certainly not using the Beasties’ recording, or even a sample from it. Why should we determine that the Beasties’ should be able to stop others from re-assembling the same pieces that they themselves assembled without licensing/permission in the first place? Should GoldieBlox respect the Beasties’ wishes?
What about, say, James Newton’s wishes? An avant-jazz flutist, Newton famously insisted that the Beasties’ use of a sample of his flute performance on “Choir” for the Beasties’ “Pass the Mic” constituted copyright infringement, but a court ruled that the snippet was too short to constitute a part of his composition, and since the Boys had licensed the recording from Newton’s record label (for a paltry $1000), they were allowed to go ahead and use it despite lacking Newton’s permission.
Generally speaking, as readers of W&W will know, I support that sort of relatively unbridled approach to transformative re-use. Songs are shared things, and if you don’t want someone to play or sing along, hold them close and sing them quietly in the corner. Once something is out in the open, in public, via commercial or even non-commercial circulation, it becomes available for sharing and reinterpretation. Courts and lawyers and some artists like to draw hard and fast lines between folk culture and commercial culture, but these are usually little more than language games having to do with claiming ownership, not stable definitions of cultural domains. (Sometimes, they’re struggles over power and money, which are not to be diminished, though they are hardly at play in this case between some rich musicians and a successful start-up.)
When did “Girls” escape the Beasties’ creative control? Perhaps as soon as it was commercially released and massively distributed. In its own way, the Beastie’s “Girls” was, in the first instance, itself an advertisement — an ad for an album, an ad for concerts, an ad for a sophomoric act that the Beastie Boys took to the world and to the bank.
All that said, it’s still a little odd for the likes of the EFF to step into the fray, and to argue for fair use simply because they agree with Glodieblox’s putative politics. Clearly, commercial instances of parodic fair use have been upheld before — s/o Luther Campbell & Henry Louis Gates — but it’s always a matter of convincing some judge/jury about the lines people want to draw around musical ownership. Toward that end, I think considering the big musical picture here helps.
I mean, just imagine the chilling effect on other renditions of “Girls”! In a world of personal branding, where do we draw the line between commercial and non? Between advertisement and not?
Tell this guy Bro Chuy he’d better not “go viral” –
Or this girl for that matter —
And someone should really warn these squirrels not to attempt to monetize their questionable “parody” –
For my part, as a dad, I’ll be sure to teach my daughters how to reverse engineer our favorite Beastie songs as soon as the girls are ready for some serious digital music trickery.
November 25th, 2013
I’ve been following @emancan (aka, Emanuel Vinson, more recently recrowned as +) on Twitter for a few years now. In his early 20s, Emanuel is about as #based as it gets: persistently positive, open and encouraging, and utterly frank, especially when it comes to sources of inspiration or bullshit he needs to speak to from his rather centered place in the world (also, Chicago).
He’s an inspiration in his own right, especially the ways he models good personhood and self-propelled, generous, utterly independent artistry. Changing the game, indeed — at least a boy can dream.
His latest album, dove, has been a while in the making, and it’s really great. Pretty much a distillation of everything I just said and more, executed to heart-on-sleeve rugged-edged perfection.
Very rare, please listen –
November 20th, 2013
We recently enjoyed the fruits — or fruiting bodies, to be precise — of what has to be the yummiest and funkiest Kickstarter I’ve supported to date: loGROcal’s Sustainable Mushroom Farm in Austin, TX.
The “Gourmet Oyster Mushroom Kit” I got for my $25 pledge arrived in the mail about a month ago. After following the simple instructions — mostly, misting a few times a day — tiny mushrooms began to emerge after just a couple days. In less than a week, they grew to full size, and we savored them sauteed with garlic and broccoli rabe, tossed with a little linguine. Check the progression–
Growing mushrooms at home is something we’d love to be able to do with more frequency. Since we happen to generate a good amount of spent beer grains and coffee grinds, all we really need to do is master the inoculation process. Oysters are easy because they aggressively colonize the medium, preventing less desirable organisms from taking over. Apparently, there are other good contenders too (like shiitakes), and we look forward to giving it a go on our own this winter.
The other cool thing about growing some oyster mushrooms in our own kitchen is that I recognized them readily the next time we went for a walk in the woods!
Thanks to the loGROcal dudes for getting us started, and congrats on successfully kickstarting their venture down in Austin!
November 14th, 2013
You know me, total sucker for musical visualization, so I was delighted to see Dan Cohen’s Animated Sheet Music come across my radar (h/t @samim).
Whether or not you read Western notation, it’s easy to follow along with the animation (indeed, it makes a good score-reading exercise just to watch the bouncing notes). And there’s something simply amazing about seeing, as you’re hearing, the music unfold in all its vertical and horizontal glory.
The one for “So What” is definitely the winner for me, perhaps because it includes most of the ensemble. It’s so engaging to watch the different, deeply familiar parts unfold on the page –
Cohen adds apologies to Jimmy Cobb, the drummer and the one member of the ensemble left out, but he couldn’t source notation for the drum part. (Classic Eurocentric lacuna there, no fault of Cohen’s.) It would be nice if some drum geek were to draw one up for it! Imagine eventually mapping thousands of jazz recordings this way, perhaps even automatically, a la Melodyne. It would be a stunning archive, at any rate, and an incredible resource for entertaining edification.
Western notation appears nice and precise, but I don’t find it all that beguiling to look at. As such, Cohen’s animations may not not achieve the game-console dazzle & quirk of the Rites of Spring graphical score I linked to last spring, but there’s dazzle enough in the musical performances to justify watching them through.
“Confirmation” and “Giant Steps” are more minimal than “So What,” but awesome in their own right –
More like these, please!
November 13th, 2013
Once again it’s that time! I’ll be guesting at Boston’s Best Dance Night™, Picó Picante, this Friday–
Picó is always the ideal occasion to break out treacly dancehall pop covers, classic reggaeton, salsa remixes, and azonto jams, among others, so, yeah, pretty much always ready for that.
And readers of W&W need no intro to headliner DJ Ripley — Riddim Methodist, PhD, & Dutty Artizt extraordinaire. But maybe you haven’t heard her latest?
A preview, perhaps, of what might be in store Friday night, given Picante proclivities and all, but Ripley reliably keeps her sets unpredictable. So it’s bound to be a fun one, twists and turns galore.