Last year I published a couple reviews that land somewhere between the realm of ethno/musicology and music criticism — a netherworld I obviously like to explore. One piece engages with the multimedia work of Arca; the other with a cheeky French rap video. One appeared in an academic journal devoted to Latin American art and literature; the other in a museum in Europe alongside an installation of the video and other critical commentary (and then, in an actual book). See below for links and excerpts.
Marshall, Wayne. 2015. âContortions to Match Your Confusion: Digital Disfigurement and the Music of Arca.â Literature and Arts of the Americas 48(1): 118-22. (PDF)
âDĂa de los Muertos,â a mix released in late October 2014 by Houston’s Svntv Mverte (aka Santa Muerte), a DJ duo with a name invoking âMexicoâs cult of Holy Death, a reference to the worship of an underground goddess of death and the dead,â opens with an ominous, arresting take on reggaeton. A moody, flickering bed of synths struggles to spring into action before the snap of slow, syncopated snares whips up a perreo-worthy dembow over a bassline so deep that its pitch seems negligible, indeterminate, a force more palpable than audible. As the low-end nearly collapses under its own weight, an upper register synth slices through the atmosphere, soaring and faltering, more Icarus than Superman. The haunting but hopeful lead flutters across a foreboding sonic landscape, ghostly trails of reverb in its wake. A bittersweet tune, it could be cloying but for its warbling, almost pathetic qualities. Instead, a poignant frailty undercuts the digital promise of perfection. The baleful melody traverses a shifting ground of textural breaks and freaky filters, shimmering as it shape-shifts. Remarkably through-composed for loop-centered music, Arca’s âThieveryâ seems as committed to repetition and rhythm as variation and development. As such, it is an excellent opening for a set, and a fine introduction to the distinctive sound of Arca, aka Alejandro Ghersi. …
Marshall, Wayne. âWho Deserves It?â Seismographic Sounds: Visions of a New World, Theresa Beyer, Thomas Burkhalter, Hannes Liechti (eds.), 54-5. Bern: Norient Books, 2015. (HTML)
… Low-fi but slick, Charni employs repetition, rhythm, and simple but delirious digital effects to furnish Banane, Waltaa, and friends with Tumblr-esque cascades of free-floating objects of desire: cash, weed, sportswear, nostalgic devices like skypagers and flip phones. Also, French fries and kebab. And faces â many faces, often close up, showcasing a crew as motley as proletarian Paris. They are so fresh that their fashion and facial gestures, in the hip register of the day, appear as flat in affect as their vintage clothes are crisp. Less like theyâre looking into a camera than a mirror, or a smartphone. …
I’ve got an article in The Wire‘s new issue devoted to “Freedom Principles” (December 2014). I was inspired by the call for submissions to thread the idea of freedom through the story of Dutch bubbling, which I think embodies it in a number of important ways.
After having the privilege to visit with some of bubbling’s pioneers and torchbearers in Aruba this September, I’m feeling as inspired — and required — as ever to give this wonderful story of translocal music culture and creativity the telling it deserves. This is a start.
I’ve also put together a “portal” of audio and video examples for the Wire’s site; check it out and sink deep into the sounds and images of bubbling!
The essay that appears in the print issue follows below. Big up Moortje, Chuckie, Coversquad, Fellow, & everyone else involved in this remarkable story! Thanks for sharing with me. Keep bubbling free!
Moortje on the decks in ~92
Is there any sound so free as DJ Moortjeâs mid-1990s track âDonnaâ, his remix of Singing Sweetâs 1992 lovers rock rendition of Richie Valensâs 1959 hit pitched to chipmunk levels and propelled by doubled-up dancehall drums in double time? With such feathers in its cap, Dutch bubbling should have long ago established the Netherlands on the global bass map. A hyperkinetic, hyperlocal, sample-centric take on dancehall, bubbling thrived in obscurity throughout the 1990s, and today it continues to enjoy a certain liberty on the margins of international reggae culture. Obscurity is but one of several key forms of freedom embodied by its almost implausible existence. Its very genesis and gestation, never mind its spectacular and strange shapes, are products of the buttressing effects of inherited traditions with liberating aesthetics, technologies with plasticity, and the social support and political economy of small scenes.
Networking Hollandâs immigrant enclaves in Rotterdam, Amsterdam and the Hague, bubbling took root in dancehalls where African-Antillean youth could gather, socialise and dance. Notably, the music of choice for first and second generation migrants from Aruba, Curacao and Suriname was supplied not by these islands or the Netherlands, but by Jamaica. At clubs such as Voltage in the Hague or Imperium in Rotterdam, dancehall reggae provided a soundtrack for couples to rub-a-dub, schuren (thatâs Dutch for rub), or, in the parlance of the day, bubble along with sensuous, polyrhythmic Jamaican music that sounded at once Caribbean and global, ancestral and utterly modern. Bubbling — or bobbeling — channelled the energies of a new youth culture that gave people united by their experience in postcolonial Dutch society a common platform for creativity and community, especially as DJs and dancers together pushed tempos beyond reggaeâs comfort zone and twisted dancehall into a shape that became more recognisable as a local innovation.
Bubblingâs DJs, MCs, producers and dancers took flight from reggaeâs DJ driven and remix-oriented music culture, an imperative to revisit and revise familiar forms accentuated by hiphopâs relentless flipping of scripts. Inspired at once by hiphop sampling and reggae versioning, the practitioners of Dutch bubbling remade dancehall in their own image, manipulating samples of well-worn riddims in ways no Jamaican producers ever would. In this way, bubblingâs referential yet irreverent chop and stab approach to dancehall — more directly derivative than a reggae relick but less faithful to a riddimâs integrity — makes it an uncanny twin of reggaeton; they even share a love for the same canon of riddims: âFever Pitchâ, âBam Bamâ, âDem Bowâ and pretty much anything featuring Cutty Ranks. With a premium on transformation, skirting the line between recognition and surprise, Dutch-Antillean DJs like the pioneering DJ Moortje would take reggae B side versions and make them the basis for new performances, quite as they were intended — if not in the wildly distorted shapes Moortje and cohorts would make of them. Recording new vocals over an instrumental is one thing; combining loops from multiple riddims, some pitched to double time and some screwed to molasses, spiked with whimsical samples from the hardcore gabber of Rotterdam Termination Source or Snoop Dogg album skits, is another thing entirely.
Moortje enjoyed a critical degree of creative freedom thanks to the affordances of vinyl and turntables. Exploiting the limited but profound capacities of these playback technologies, he took the familiar records that made dancers bubble and pushed their tempos into uncharted territory by playing 33 rpm records at 45 rpm and sliding the pitch fader right up to and beyond its upper limit. Given the opportunity, Moortje would sometimes remove the turntable platter from a pair of Technics to access an internal knob controlling the pitch adjustment range, allowing him to shift 100 bpm riddims into a far more uptempo terrain.
Moortje showing me, in the sand, how he would modify the Technics’ pitch range
Later, audio software vastly expanded bubblingâs creative possibilities. Moortjeâs innovative performances planted the seed for speed bubbling, a digital development first enabled by Amiga 500 tracker software that allowed production crews like The Coversquad to take tempos upwards of 150 bpm, much to the bemusement or dismay of visiting reggae artists experiencing bubblingâs love of chipmunked and screwed vocals and drums. Commissioned by dancers requiring dramatic, sample-packed soundtracks for their choreographed, competitive routines, producers would suture audio from films and rap albums onto the breakneck bubbling beats that impelled dancers to move like marionettes doing the butterfly. Indeed, the strikingly experimental nature of bubbling productions was predicated on an intimate feedback loop with audiences who appreciated how the music had coalesced as a genuinely local style. Such a supportive setting was fostered and enjoyed by MCs like Pester and Pret, who helped to push the tempos and excitement levels as they added their own accents to the mix. With their Dutch and Papiamento lyrics chanting down Babylon or simply telling people to shake it, bubblingâs MCs further imbued the music with local resonance.
For better or worse, bubblingâs deeply idiomatic qualities may also grant the genre a certain freedom from external forces. In its heyday, it only happened live or on recordings informally circulated on cassette, meaning its heavy use of samples bypassed the attentions of the mainstream pop industry. Whether mainstream Dutch house has since effectively sublimated bubblingâs mojo is an argument for another day. And even as the musicâs artefacts finally mount up in online archives like YouTube and Soundcloud, or as musical references percolating through the releases of Fade To Mind, Mad Decent, or Planet Mu, bubblingâs baseline weirdness might yet guarantee that its signature sound will always be free.
I reviewed Tropicalia: Ou Panis Et Circencis, a re-issue of the classic salvo in Brazil’s tropicalia movement, for Issue 367 of The Wire (September 2014). Happily, this one’s also a nice chunky review; nice to get a little leeway on the wordcount for a verbose dude like yours truly. Here’s a director’s cut of sorts, somewhere between the semi-final and final version.
Tropicalia: Ou Panis Et Circencis
Soul Jazz Records CD/LP
A charming but sardonic cha cha for Christopher Columbus, a rock anthem quoting Latin liturgy as it bears witness to the hungry poor and the bloodstained tables of the rich, a dada-esque word puzzle that possibly alludes to Batman, a dreamy bossa nova telling listeners to eat ice cream and learn English (in Portuguese) — these are just a few points of contrast and conversation threaded through an album that aspired to no less than naming and giving voice to a new cultural movement, and succeeded spectacularly.
âWe were âeatingâ The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix,â remembers Caetano Veloso in his memoir Verdade Tropical, invoking a foundational imperative to cannibalize — culturally, that is — proposed in the 1920s by modernist poet, Oswald De Andrade. Taking to heart Andradeâs call for Brazilian artists not to imitate but to devour whatever they encounter, in the late 1960s the tropicalistas would initiate a cultural turn by their brave commitment to a voracious aesthetic at the height of a military dictatorship that would later arrest and exile both Gil and Veloso (who would return years later as luminaries, with Gil eventually serving as Minister of Culture in the 2000s under Luiz InĂĄcio Lula Da Silva).
In the decades since its resonant debut, much ink has spilled over tropicalia’s significance, and listeners outside of Brazil have been introduced to the music via retrospectives released by Soul Jazz, Luaka Bop and others. Still, the albumâs singular expression of the movement has yet to enjoy widespread reception on its own terms. Clocking in at just under 40 minutes, with segues and sequencing, Tropicalia wants to be heard as a unit, in a single setting, or over and over.
As if responding to the dearth of access to physical copies for so long, Soul Jazz is only releasing the album in physical form and with faithful, facsimile repackaging, including the original art (an inclusive, symbol-laden, family-style photo), unusual approach to song credits, and dramaturgical liner notes from the back of the record sleeve. They do so with reason. As with other concept albums of the day, Tropicalia was produced as a total package and placed remarkable emphasis on acknowledging the contributions of all involved while underscoring the collaboration at the heart of the project. Beside the song titles sit the songwriters’ (first) names, followed by the performersâ names in parentheses. Writing and performing each other’s songs, and honoring as they blur the distinct voices of the group, Veloso, Gil, et al, appear more as a true collective — a movement, even — than a conventional group.
Boxed in by an opposition between the West and the Rest that they wanted neither to deny nor accept, the tropicalistas developed a pointedly diverse sound by drawing as much on resilient local accents as international codes. âWe wanted to participate in the worldwide language,â Veloso recounts, âboth to strengthen ourselves as a people and to affirm our originality.â Eschewing homogenous fusion for a chunky syncretism, the music on Tropicalia moves with conviction from psych rock fantasia to tweaked bossa nova, cheeky mambo to treacly ballad, sometimes within the span of a single track.
Elsewhere, using a Dylan inspired mix of plainspokenness and oblique metaphor, Os Mutantesâ âPanis Et Circensisâ explicitly needles the complacent middle class during a moment of crisis and possibility: âI unfurled the sails on the masts in the air / I set free the tigers and the lions in backyards / But the people in the dining room / Are busy being born and dyingâ. After a couple minutes of haranguing the bourgeois, the hurdy-gurdy dirge slows to a stop, as if the power went out and the record stopped spinning. Seconds later, the âbusy being born and dyingâ line returns as a mantra chanted over a galloping, Beatles-esque backbeat complete with twittering trumpets. The music gathers speed until it crashes with a hard tape splice into the mundane din of clinking glasses and inane chatter over muted strains of Blue Danube.
Occasionally the lyrics and sonic signposts are less veiled — as when Gil and Veloso ironically sing the praises of CristĂłvĂŁo Colombo âwho, to our delight, came with three caravelsâ. Then thereâs the pathetic pomp of the final track, âHino Do Senhor Do Bonfimâ, a nationalistic anthem which eventually brings the album to a close with eerie moans, the cavernous knocks of a distant cannon, and silence. It doesn’t take a weatherman to know which way a military dictatorship might interpret such a work of smoking agitpop.
I reviewed RolĂȘ – Novos Sons Do Brasil, a new compilation from Brazil’s Mais Um Discos, for Issue 365 of The Wire (July 2014). Given my prolix proclivities, I was glad to get a little longer leash (i.e., wordcount) for this one. Nice to be able to stretch out a bit — and dig in — given how short record reviews tend to be. I was also especially happy to get the phrase “Carne vale, my ass” into print!
RolĂȘ – Novos Sons Do Brasil
Mais Um Discos
As prior Mais Um compilations have also trumpeted new waves, it’s striking that so many of these forty-three tracks spanning ten Brazilian states sound deeply familiar, even on first spin. In terms of sound — of musical forms and signs — little here seems new. The recordings were made recently, sure, but as far as the musicâs references, nearly every track grins like a cat with a carnival feather dangling from the side of its mouth. Carne vale, my ass. The so-called new sounds of Brazil are still fully in thrall to the time-honored Brazilian tradition of anthropofagia, or cultural cannibalism.
If you enjoyed Luaka Bop’s retrospective takes on tropicalia and MPB (MĂșsica Popular Brasileira), much here will resonate as an extension of that mongrel approach to Brazilian and international influences alike. Stewing together such bottomless local wellsprings as samba, bossa nova, capoeira, and tecno brega with rock, cumbia, electro, and afrobeat, the compiled acts give voice to the fecundity of the present momentâs access to the recorded past.
The compilation is organized into two parts, the second half allegedly devoted to “post baile-funk” dance music though it features as many live ensembles and mid-century styles as the first disc includes samples and synths. Moreover, a lot of the tracks on “Disc Dois” could have been made before funk cariocaâs national and global diffusion and hardly seem to register its influence. But several fun, bass-propelled productions manage to capture the spirit, if not the sound, of the funk ball: Lurdez da Luz’s “Ping pong” channels Missy Elliott while teasing a berimbau sample; distorted cuicas drive another sort of musical feijoada on Thiago FranĂ§a’s off-kilter, one-minute interlude, “Picardia”; pandeiros float above the digital thump of DJ Mam’s smoothly recalibrated take on classic carioca forms, âCuz Cus De CanĂŽâ; and it’s fitting to hear US producer but longtime Rio-resident Maga Bo contribute a dancehall reggae romp in which the Jamaican presets have been replaced with local inputs, a slowly building track that puts vocals front and center all the while threatening to usurp their pride of place with growling bass.
Whether or not they meet the conceit of âpost baile funkâ dance music, other tracks here merit your time. Joined by no less than Tony Allen on drums, Meta Meta’s “Alakoro” is a jittery jam with angular, interwoven riffs and starkly rendered instrumentation. Bixiga 70’s “Kalimba” engages soukous and afrobeat with its latticework guitars, horn blasts, and propulsive drumming, only to nod to cumbia and classic rock a few minutes in. Itâs somewhat startling to hear such straightforward, synth-driven cumbia as Sistema Criolina’s “Pequi week bar,” but there it is, and itâs not bad.
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.)
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 userâs 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-popâs 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!
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., âAutonomous Sensory Meridian Responseâ — 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 YouTubeâs 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.
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:
âŠ 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 âŠ
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, itâs a touchy thing. âŠ But Iâve 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.
Blue Gardens, the new release on Keysound Recordings, is the brainchild of a new musical talent who goes by the name E.m.m.a. Simply put, it’s some of the best music — and one of the more coherent albums and promising debuts — I’ve heard in years.
My fave tracks are ones like “Shoot the Curl” or “Marina” with their sweetly curdling tunes and clicky soca, where melodies accrue & break & creak & whirr against a solid but shifting Carib-UK backbeat.
Honorable mention to the first single and the album’s one vocal cut, âJahovia.” It’s great to hear Rebel MC riding the rhythm inna a classic reggae-rave fashion while E.m.m.a.’s newfangled textures let you know this is something else. Wicked video too, since somehow, synaesthetically speaking, the music already sounds like washed-out technicolor reels, full of sharp hue-turns —
Plus, you gotta love the array of influences E.m.m.a. pulls into the mix —
âAmerican Nostalgia, Point Break, American high schools, bubble gum, picture houses, Coney Island, Hollywood, proms, Long Island, picket fences, boardwalks, Baroque tonality, Wendy Carlos, Delia Derbyshire, Jeff Wayne, Westerns, sci fi, spaghetti western soundtracks, Encarta â96: genuinely these are in my mind,â she explains. âI just think the idea of the monopoly the Encarta encyclopaedia had on knowledge is ridiculous in the context of the present day. Iâm not ashamed to say itâs my muse.â
And while I really should work to find more words to describe this music I’ve been enjoying so much, I like how it speaks for itself. And how E.m.m.a. does too. Plus, Joe Muggs sorta said it all already —
In essence, E.m.m.a. takes the rugged grooves of UK pirate radio, and adds an extra layer of melody and harmony which connects them back into the much longer history of synthesizer music as well as into a broader, vaguer realm of the imagination. Her synth timbres touch on sci-fi kitsch, Kraftwerk, early video games, the experimental home-listening techno of the 1990s, while the melodies they play have a suspended, dissipating quality, as if caught from a dream just at the point of waking.
Her beats, too, have an uncanny quality, generally touching on several points in UK soundsystem history â garage, rave, grime, the 2008-10 urban house sound of âUK funkyâ, the more undefinable sounds of âpost-dubstepâ â sounding familiar but not quite placeable in time. Despite the oddness of this, and despite its clear scholarliness in its sourcing of underground sounds, it’s a welcoming album, one which should be heard well beyond the usual circle of bass music fans. A haunting dream but one well worth getting caught up in.
I’d like to leave it there, but I want to take the opportunity to let this post stand as a long overdue bigup for Martin Blackdown‘s Keysound label, consistently representing as it reimagines the sound of London. His program with Dusk on RINSE is, rightly, an international fave. I’ve had a few posts about their music & label sitting in my draft folder for literally years; and I’m remiss for not better publicly registering my enthusiasm for projects like Margins Music (which is, IMO, a 21st century London classic).
It may be high time to dust those drafts off. But I couldn’t resist the opportunity to get the good word about Keysound’s latest & greatest. Martin & Emma both bring big ears to what they do, and mine are grateful for it. Yours will be too.
Thanks to Todd Burns for the keen editing, making things nice and concise. Per usual, I’m going to take the opportunity to use my blog to run an author’s cut, or an unabridged version. A couple missing paragraphs below help flesh out the picture, especially regarding the Afro-Jamaican roots — and, hence, pan-Caribbean / Afrodiasporic resonance — of the dancehall riddim that started it all. A phrase like “Steely & Clevieâs post-Poco riddim” might seem like a slightly cryptic reference without this particular passage (i.e., paragraph #4 below); but maybe people thought I was calling it post-colonial, which is also true.
I’m also happy to report that a forthcoming issue of Wax Poetics will feature an article I wrote entirely about the (once mysterious) origins of reggaeton’s bedrock riddim on the unlikely outpost of Long Island, heavily featuring Boom’s manager Pucho Bustamante (who I interviewed a few years ago on MySpace). Will let you know soon as that one’s ready to read!
For now, head over to RBMA for their slick version, see below for the full monty, & check out this video I whipped up (also at the RBMA site & embedded below) to see & hear how the various versions all relate. If you want to get even more dembow in your ears, there’s lots to find around the web, but here are a couple of mixes I’ve made that focus on it: Dembow Legacies, Dembow Dem.
Without further ado, let’s loop —
In the world of sample-based music, few recordings have enjoyed so active an afterlife as the Dembow. A two-bar loop with unmistakably familiar kicks and snares, it underpins the vast majority of reggaeton tracks as an almost required sonic signpost. Thanks to crossover jams like Lornaâs âPapi Chuloâ and Daddy Yankeeâs âGasolina,â the Dembow has spread its distinctive boom-ch-boom-chick to glossy Latin pop, raw electro-chaabi in Egypt, transnational moombahton, and Indonesian dangdut seksi, to name a few.
With such remarkable resonance and staggering frequency of appearance, the Dembow would seem to deserve a place alongside such well-worn loops as the Amen break, the Triggerman, the Tamborzao. All these brief but inspired moments âon tapeââand all of them rolling drum rhythmsâafter having been sampled and looped and diced and spliced by hundreds and hundreds of digital-age producers, have proven so crucial to the sound of entire genres that they have taken on names, and lives, all their own.
There are a few things, however, that make the Dembow an unusual member of the sample canon. For one, the recording most often identified as the origin of the sample is not actually the source of reggaetonâs favorite loop, not exactly anyway. Itâs true that Shabba Ranksâs anti-gay, anti-imperialist anthem âDem Bowâ may as well be patient zero for the infectious rhythm that still carries the songâs name, but samples of the track accompanying Shabbaâthe riddim in reggae parlanceârarely actually turn up in reggaeton. Jamaican studio duo Steely and Clevie deserve credit for the bouncy beat they boiled down for Bobby Digital, but not as the creators of a intensely re-used sound recording. Rather, their riddim planted the seed that would grow into what we now call Dembow.
Like other popular riddims the duo produced in the early 90s, especially Poco Man Jam (to which Dembow is audibly indebted), the track accompanying Shabbaâs rally-cry draws on the deep rhythms associated with Pocomania, a neo-African Jamaican religion with practices and aesthetics that run parallel to other post-slave cultures across the Caribbean. The driving boom-ch-boom-chick that emerges between the steady kick on each beat and the polyrhythmic play of the snares, can also be threaded through rumba, salsa, soca, bachata. Itâs at the heart of whatâs been called jazzâs âSpanish tinge,â known variously as the cinquillo or the habenera. This may help explain the broad appeal of these particular Jamaican recordings, why Puerto Rican hip-hop producers moved more or less wholesale into making Spanish dancehall, and how reggaeton so quickly swept across dance scenes across the Americas and beyond. Shabbaâs âDem Bowâ was a big chune in the wide world of reggae, and not just because of its bullish stance, colorful lyrics, and catchy chorus.
But rather than samples of Steely & Clevieâs riddim resounding from trunks across the Spanish-speaking world, and rather aptly given reggaetonâs transnational roots, the set of sounds most often identified as the Dembow per se (as opposed to just the generalized rhythm which, confusingly, is also sometimes called Dembow), is a version cooked up by Jamaican and Panamanian collaborators laboring on Long Island, NY in the early 90s to create reggae en espaĂ±ol anthemsâand succeeding.
By the early 90s, Philip Smartâs HC&F studio was the premier spot for producing dancehall hits, Jamaica notwithstanding. A native Kingstonian who apprenticed under King Tubby, Smart moved to New York in the mid-70s and launched HC&F in 1982 enlisting as house musicians such fellow expatriates as Dennis âThe Menaceâ Thompson, the sole musician credited with âDub Mix II,â better known today as the Dembow riddim, or in Panama, the Pounda. Initially crafted as an instrumental for Panamanian vocalist Nando Boomâs âEllos Benia,â a close translation of Shabbaâs âDem Bow,â Thompson captured the rhythmic essence of Steely & Clevieâs post-Poco riddim while adding some digital timbales and other touches for extra sabor at the prompt of Ramon âPuchoâ Bustamante, the Panamanian manager of Nando Boom who helped engineer the reggae en espaĂ±ol movement. The wordless version that would soon play backing track to hundreds of Puerto Rican rap parties was not actually released until two NYC-based Jamaican deejays, Bobo General and Smiley Wonder, recorded their own single over the riddim, âPounder,â with the dubbed-out instrumental as a quickly coveted B-side. (âA bad custom of the Jamaicans,â Bustamante once told me.)
When instrumental CDs such as Pistas de Reggaeton Famosas include a âDem Bowâ trackâand they always include at least oneâthe track labeled as such is nearly always based on the drums Dennis the Menace laid down for Nando Boom at HC&F. Likewise, do a search for âdembow loopâ on YouTube or 4shared, and youâll hear the same echoes there too. By this point, the instrumental has been looped, compressed, remastered, and reconstituted dozens of times over. But the lineage is audible, and it makes Dennis and companyâs Dembow one of a few recordings, like the Funky Drummer or the Apache break, which has provided the basis for hundreds if not thousands of other tracks.
The story of the Dembow and its legacy gets even more complicated, since beyond a relatively small circle of reggaeton producers and connoisseurs, when most people say Dembow, they refer to its rhythmâthe boom-ch-boom-chick patternâmore generally. And in practice, reggaeton producers have been chopping up dancehall riddims and recombining them with a greater interest in split-second allusion than faithful reproduction. While wholesale loops of Dembow do sometimes appear, reggaeton drum tracks tend more often to comprise samples drawn from a small storehouse of treasured timbres: a handful of reggae riddims which have animated Spanish-language dancehall for decades. Bam Bam, Fever Pitch, Drum Song, and yes, Dembow, are all common sources, but the ingredients could come from almost anywhere if they sound right. Reggaetoneros swap sample sets like playing cards, and a willy-nilly archive of reconfigurable samples traverses the North and South American Hulkshare-osphere like a reggaeton robotics kit. For lots of listeners and producers, any of the snares from these well-worn riddims, or any snare with similar properties, could suffice to say Dembow.
A line can be drawn from Steely & Clevie, though Smart and Thompson and Bustamante, to what we call Dembow today, but for all that collective, transnational effort, the foundation for this single recordingâs remarkable resonance was most crucially fashioned in mid-90s San Juan by proto-reggaeton pioneers like DJ Playero and The Noise. On their seminal underground mixtapes, these Puerto Rican producers took a hip-hop hatchet to dancehall riddims, chopping up favorite drum loops, baselines, and riffs to create dynamic, reference-laden collages of contemporary club beats for local rappersâ double-time, flip-tongue, street-level lyrics. Over the course of Playero 38 or The Noise 6 one hears a constantly shifting bed of beats composed of signature samples from Bam Bam, Fever Pitch, and the like. Dembow was such a staple source that the entire genre for a time, after being known as underground but before reggaeton, was simply called dembow.
Crucially, around the turn of the millennium, the Dembowâand Puerto Rican reggae en espaĂ±ol more generallyâwas transmuted and extended by DJ Blass. With the rise of Fruity Loops and other software, techno-inspired bleeps, presets, and arpeggios could be sutured to Dembow snares for a killer club-ready concoction. Blassâs mixtapes like Sandunguero and Reggaeton Sex changed the sound of what would soon be crowned reggaeton while maintaining important links to predecessors. Namely, by chopping well-worn loops into discrete kicks and snares, Blass could nod to the riddims that dancers, vocalists, and audiences had come to love while shaping the sounds into his own lean patterns. Blassâs influential techniques carry forward into the productions of the duo who finally took reggaeton to the pop charts and the Anglo mainstream, Luny Tunes.
If you listen to the track Luny Tunes produced for their biggest hit, âGasolinaââor most of their other pistasâyouâll hear snare samples swap every four measures, embodying in their own subtle but audible manner the loop-switching practices of Playeroâs proto-reggaeton. Revising the Dembow as something more general, more flexible, and in its way, less Jamaican than it had been, Luny Tunes honored reggaetonâs rhythmic and timbral heritage while opening it up to a new variety of textural, harmonic, and melodic gestures, especially âpan-Latinoâ sounds. When Wisin y Yandel reprise Shabbaâs chorus for their club-friendly, bachata-steeped, Luny Tunes-produced update of âDem Bowâ in 2003, the phrase has little to do with imperialism or sexual orientation and everything to do with the backbone beat and criss-crossing snares that compel people to perreo, or do the doggystyle dance so synonymous with the genre.
In the decade since reggaeton galloped into the mainstream, the Dembow has been Cubanized, Colombified, Peruvinated, watered-down, dressed-up, and recomposed to fit a thousand new contexts. Recently, the rhythmâand to a lesser extent, the riddimâhas even made inroads into the more frequently foursquare world of EDM via Dave Nadaâs moombahton, where Dembow comes full circle in a strange and surprising way. Nada famously invented moombahton by slowing down Dutch house tracks to please a house of reggaeton-loving teens, but the reason this worked was precisely because Dutch house had itself absorbed Caribbean rhythms via bubbling, a short-lived but influential local club scene clustered around Rotterdam, Amsterdam, and the Hague. Producing personalized soundtracks for dance battles, first- and second-generation kids from Curacao and Suriname made hyperspeed, bricolage remixes of the same dancehall riddims that had Puerto Rican youngsters going nuts across the Atlantic.
Slowed down once again and rebranded as moombahton, Nadaâs wildly successful experiment introduced the Dembow to new listeners across the networked world, especially after producers like Rotterdamâs Munchi heard ways to move beyond screwed house remixes and connect the burgeoning genre to its Puerto Rican cousins. Munchi was initially drawn to the genre because of his love of Dembow and reggaeton and the possibilities moombahton offered to revisit these irresistible rhythms: âThe idea was so simple,â Munchi wrote to me, describing moombahton as âTHE chance for reggaeton to get out of its hole.â Having nearly abandoned the stagnant genre, Munchi noted that âIt felt so good that I could make âreggaetonâ again.â And while no one would confuse Munchiâs genre-busting work with reggaeton per se, no one could deny the genreâs presence in his tracks.
For his part, Nada himself has occasionally sampled the actual Dembow riddim for his moombahton productions (though he wouldnât say which ones), but like many others, Nada more often recreates his own Dembow-indebted patterns using a variety of drum sounds and samples. âI’ve used it in the past to help dirty up a few tracks. I’ll mangle the sample and bury it though.â
Moombahton may have already enjoyed its moment in the social media sun, but there are other corners of the so-called global bass scene where that old boom-ch-boom-chick still resounds. âThe post-tropical flight from Caribbean percussion at the end of the mini-Moombathon craze has left a large side of EDM dembowless lately,â says Rizzla, whose soca and reggaeton influences help to keep Caribbean polyrhythms in the metropolitan mix. Rizzla trawls 4shared and Hulkshare for Dembow tracks and samples but reports that, âMost of the time I use sampled individual drums and reconstruct a Dembow with variations I make myself.â
Dubbel Dutch describes a similar process for his own productions: âI personally have never sampled the Dembow riddim but have used various rhythmic cousin ‘Dembow’ loops in my productions. Most of these I’ve found via reggaeton sample packs downloaded from 4shared while searching for Mexican tribal and perreo tracks.â Bearing witness to the sonic priorities of digital bass culture, Dutch confesses that, âAdmittedly, my awareness of certain loops has even preceded my knowledge of their origins.â Accordingly, he repurposes cherished dancehall loops without being parochial, which actually places him squarely in the reggaeton tradition: âOne of my favorite âDembow’ loops comes from the Fever Pitch riddim. That one keeps popping up at various speeds in a lot of my tracks. It manages to work flawlessly at just about any tempo, whether it’s a Dutch bubbling track or an 80 bpm reggaeton beat, which is sort of a rare quality for any loop to have.â
Not unlike their sample-raiding peers in reggaeton, then, producers such as Rizzla, Dubbel Dutch, and Uproot Andy tend toward an inclusive idea of what constitutes the Dembow riddim, complicating simple narratives of a single sampleâs afterlife. âI’d say the Fever Pitch (aka Rich Girl) âDembowâ loop is a better possible candidate,â Dubbel Dutch argued, âfor an Amen or Think type breakbeat.â
For Uproot Andy, who recently released Worldwide Ting, which he calls âan hour long celebration of the Dembow in all kinds of contexts, some natural and some forced,â even such tributes are necessarily mongrel in their make-up: âThe opening track is a song I just made called the âWorldwide Dembowâ and itâs sort of an homage to the Dembow rhythm, it samples Pablo Piddy, a Dominican dembow artist, saying âsi tu quiere dembow,â and the tune is basically a reimagining of Drum Song riddim (melodically), and Fever Pitch riddim (rhythmically), although it doesn’t actually sample either of them, but pretty much picks apart the elements and recreates them with more synthetic sounds.â
Uproot Andyâs reference to Dominican dembow bring us full circle for this lively, and living, story of a loved loop. No place today can lay stronger claim to bearing the Dembow flame than the Dominican Republic, where a rejuvenated version of San Juanâs proto-reggaeton, in all its referential richness, manages to move kids on the streets (and YouTube) and, increasingly, to move into the pop sphere as well.
In the mixes of DJ Scuff and countrymenâor, say, just about anything in the Dominican dembow Soundcloud groupâthe Dembow (as such) is on constant, quicksilver rotation with chops and stabs from Bam Bam, Fever Pitch, Poco Man Jam and the like. But once again, enthralled as Dominican dembow may be with such well-worn samples, its restless producers also emulate the voracious and pliant approach of their mid-90s muses, Playero and the Noise. So a classic hip-hop break like Think, or even funk cariocaâs Tamborzao, might make it into the mix. But no matter how wide the circle of references, the name of the genre bears witness, at bottom, to the fact that Dominican dembow is built on a commitment to some relatively old riddims and some far older rhythms.
For Linton Kwesi Johnson, the UK-based dub poet and bass culture theorist, the same dancehall riddims so central to the Dembow variations were popular precisely because they can sound at once modern and traditional. âOn one hand, this music is totally technological,â he notes, âon the other the rhythms are far more Jamaican: they’re drawn from Etu, Pocomania, KuminaâAfrican-based religious cults who provide the rhythms used by Shabba Ranks or Buju Banton. So despite the extent of the technology being used, the music is becoming even rootsier, with a resonance even for quite old listeners, because it echoes back to what they first heard in rural Jamaica.â
Uproot Andy offers a similar take: âIf reggaeton took the rhythm and ran with it, Dominican dembow brings it strictly back to the roots.â
Here’s what you’re seeing/hearing in the video above:
first, shabba ranks’s “dem bow” produced by steely & clevie (for bobby digital)
then, nando boom’s “ellos benia” produced by dennis the menace (for philip smart & pucho bustamante)
then, the instrumental of the boom track, released as “dub mix II” on b-side of “pounder” by bobo general & sleepy wonder
then, a commonly circulating version of the dembow riddim (“original”), audibly related to the dennis the menace instrumental, if a bit beefed up and boiled down
finally, a return to “dub mix II” to hear how dennis the menace added subtle dub effects to his track — sounds which never turn up in reggaeton productions because of the way the loop circulates as a digital (re)sample rather than a vinyl b-side
Thanks again to my eloquent interlocutors, all of whom had colorful stories & trenchant perspectives to share, and to the Together panel people — especially Sara Skolnik and Ethan Kiermaier — for making it happen. And thx to everyone who attended the panel, tuned in, and/or wish to help continue the convo.
If you haven’t heard it yet, I finally cooked down a Zunguzung Mega Mix that features all 50+ instances that have come to my attention since I first started listening for that catchy likkle tune and, with the publication of this piece back in 2007, enlisting others to lend me their ears.
The impetus for finally bringing this together is that my friend and fellow music scribe, Garnette Cadogen, was visiting Yellowman last week and told him about my work. (Garnette reported, much to my delight, that King Yellow was “touched, truly touched” by my work on his legacy.) When he requested a full mix of the “Zigzagging Zunguzung Meme,” I could hardly refuse.
So here it is, for now anyway: 54 strikingly similiar contours! (See full track list below.)
1982 — Yellowman, “Zunguzungunguzunguzeng”
1982 — Yellowman & Fathead, “Physical / Zunguzung (Live at Aces)”
1982 — Sister Nancy, “Coward of the Country”
1984 — Frankie Paul, “Alesha”
1984 — Toyan, “Hot Bubble Gum”
1985 — Little John, “Clarks Booty”
1985 — Super Cat, “Boops”
1986 — Cocoa Tea, âCome Againâ
1986 — Cutty Ranks @ StereoMars PNP Rally
1986 — BDP, “The P Is Free”
1987 — BDP, “Remix For P Is Free”
1988 — BDP, “T Cha T Cha”
1988 — Queen Latifah, “Princess of the Posse”
1988 — Masters of Ceremony, “Keep on Moving”
1988 — Sublime, “Roots of Creation”
1989 — Nice & Smooth, “Nice & Smooth”
1989 — Nice & Smooth, “Dope on a Rope”
1991 — Leaders of the New School, “Case of the P.T.A.”
1992 — Lecturer, âGal Yu Mean Itâ
1992 — Sublime, “Scarlet Begonias”
1992 — Leila K, “Open Sesame”
1993 — Us3, “I Got It Goinâ On”
1993 — K7, “Zunga Zeng”
1993 — KRS-One, “P Is Still Free”
1993 — Jamalski, “African Border”
1993 — Buju Banton, “Big It Up”
1994 — The Coup, âPimps (Freestyling at the Fortune 500 Club)â
1994 — Ninjaman, “Funeral Again”
1994 — Bounty Killer, “Kill Or Be Killed”
1995 — Buju Banton, “Man a Look Yu”
1995 — Junior M.A.F.I.A. ft. Biggie Smalls, “Player’s Anthem”
1996 — 2pac, “Hit ‘Em Up”
1996 — Captain Barkey, “Go Go Wine”
1996 — Junior Dangerous ft. Lucas, “Comin’ Out To Play”
1997 — Cru, “Pronto”
1998 — Mr. Notty, “Sentencia de Muerte”
1998 — Black Star, “Definition”
1999 — Lilâ Cease ft. Jay-Z, “4 My Niggaz”
2000 — Dead Prez, “It’s Bigger than Hip-Hop”
2000 — Daisy Dee, “Open Sesame”
2000 — Wyclef Jean ft. Xzibit and Yellowman, âPerfect Gentlemen Remixâ
2001 — Ăejo, “El Problema Ser Bellaco”
2003 — Joe Budden, “Pump It Up”
2004 — Jin, “Learn Chinese”
2005 — Looptroop, “Chana Masala”
2006 — POD ft. Matisyahu, “Roots in Stereo”
2006 — JD (aka Dready), “UK Zunga Zeng”
2007 — White Rappers, “One Night Stand”
2007 — Gwen Stefani ft. Damian Marley, âNow That You Got Itâ
2009 — Wax Taylor ft. ASM, “Say Yes”
2010 — Vybz Kartel, “Whine (Wine)”
2011 — Tifa, “Matey Wine”
2011 — Yellowman, “Zungguzungguguzungguzeng (Horsepower Productions Remix / Dub)”
2013 — Benga & Kano, “Forefather”
Notably, with the exception of Nice & Smooth, K7, and Horsepower Productions, all of the echoes of Yellowman’s tune to date have been re-sung rather than sampled. Sometimes a one-off phrase, at other times it structures the chorus. The tune twists and turns in so many ways over the course of 30 years, I find it truly beguiling. I just want to sing it all the time. That’s a good riff for you.
[Update: Only took a day before another version popped up in the comments! Thanks to Noriko Manabe and Marvin Sterling for pointing out that Rankin Taxi’s “You Can’t See It, and You Can’t Smell It Either” — a 2011 post-Fukushima protest song — also contains a zunguzung allusion. Guess I’ll have to re-mix the mega mix, again, at some point. Nice to have an appearance from beyond the Americas & Europe.]
I can’t leave you with just that, however, as similar threads demand to be looped in.
When we make songs, Spanish people take it and sing it different, and we don’t speak Spanish, so we don’t realise. Because of that, the Spanish artistes don’t pay us royalties and it slips right under our nose. I think the Spanish owe reggae music millions of dollars right now.
Niney may be right. It’s true that this happens all the time. Indeed, the latest example I stumbled across is classic in its overt and simultaneously reverent and irreverent reanimation of a hit reggae song. Still, I wonder whether Ricky Blaze knows about this (or, for that matter, this) and what he’d think —
Niney offers additional barbs about white people owning ska & other perversions of property. He even raises the specter of the entire genre of reggaeton owing a grand debt to Shabba Ranks’s (and hence, Bobby Digital’s / Steely & Clevie’s) “Dem Bow” — though he reduces it to a general rhythmic pattern that is hardly copyrightable. And though I could discuss dembow for days, here I want to flag another specific allegation and its recursive riffs on riffs:
Songs like Murder She Wrote is in Spanish right now and I don’t even think Sly and Robbie know.
Niney’s reference to “Murder She Wrote” is interesting, especially as the first track mentioned in this light. Of course, he’s right, to some extent. But it’s not actually true that “Spanish people” are singing the song so much; more precisely, little loops and bits of the riddim from “Murder She Wrote” have, by this point, been as deeply embedded into the aesthetic code of reggaeton (especially Dominican dembow) as “Dem Bow” itself. (& I will add that I find Niney’s comments on “Dem Bow” quite timely given that I’ve got a piece in a forthcoming Wax Poetics detailing the surprisingly mixed-up and mysterious “origin” of reggaeton’s Dem Bow. Spoiler alert: reggaeton’s favorite loop was not recorded in Jamaica.)
As it happens, not only does “Murder She Wrote” live on in a thousand DJ Scuff mini-mega-mixes, it’s about to get as big a push into the US (& global) mainstream as it has received since the early 90s thanks to none other than French Montana (featuring, natch, Nicki Minaj), who additionally riffs on the vocal melody from Chaka Demus & Pliers’ warhorse:
As odd as I find the juxtaposition of two unrelated early 90s dancehall songs here, and as squirmy as such caricatured takes on dancehall make me, “Freaks” represents an exciting moment for the lil lilting riff that so defines “Murder She Wrote” (also known as the Bam Bam riddim) — a riff which, as I’ve explored in mini-mega-mix form, is itself quite caught up in international networks of creative riffing —
I hope French’s folks licensed those samples, though, since his jam is not as likely to fly under the radar as its Puerto Rican cousins. That said, I’d love to see a case like this actually go to court somewhere. (Not really.) It’s more than clear that this stuff goes around and around and around, and hence making claims to ultimate origins (and exclusive exploitation rights) always seems a little suspect. But who knows what a judge or jury might decide.
Along those lines, the last riff on a riff (on a riff?) I want to share here is based around a story BigBlackBarry told me when I was in Kingston last month. Check this set of echoes:
As complicated as this may seem, just because Bo Diddley recorded it “first” (and who knows who he may have been riffing off) didn’t stop Willie Cobb from shaking down Dawn Penn when her rocksteady hit was rejuvenated with a mid90s twist and became a sudden crossover success.
So I’ll leave it here for now: big up the one King Yellowman for recognizing how influence and allusion work, for relentlessly riffing on the sounds around him, and for never suing the many, many souls who did him the same service and extended his echoing chant into a realm of truly remarkable reverberation.