My recent post involving a Boston sound session focused on the use of the zunguzung meme, so I didn’t discuss some of the other interesting and awesome things about the recording — and how I found it.
I’ve been turning my attention back to the story of reggae in Boston — a story that I first tried to put together a decade ago. Indeed, I resumed my search by returning to a piece I published back in 2005 in a local zine, “Reggae-Tinged Resonances of a Wicked Wicked City.” (Geez, can I really be insufferably wordy sometimes; I like to think I’ve improved on that count.)
As I was re-reading, I decided to google some of the old soundsystems to see if — praise be to Jah — some vintage sound tapes had finally made it online alongside counterparts from Kingston, New York, London, et al. In 2005 it was damn near impossible to hear any of this stuff; it seemed far more likely in 2016, as the recorded past continues to make its way, however willy-nilly, to the internet.
I CNTRL-C’d on “Evertone Hi-Power, with selectors Wheely and Robot” and was feeling lucky. And what do you know? The top return was for a 1985 Evertone session including a visiting crew representing King Jammy’s from JA! As I started reading the description, I got a strange sense of deja vu before recognizing it as the same paragraph I had just copy-n-pasted from — a paragraph I wrote a decade ago…
In the early 1980s, Boston’s reggae scene was blessed by a number of soundsystems and selectors working mostly in clubs in Dorchester, where Boston’s West Indian population has been based for decades. Echo International (which later changed its name to Capricorn Hi-Fi), with its eponymous selector, Echo, was one of the more well-known sounds in the area. Evertone Hi-Power, with selectors Wheely and Robot, ranked among the best in town and is remembered as one of the biggest soundsystems in Boston during the 1980s. They even clashed with legendary Jamaican sound, King Jammyâs, in Dorchester in 1986. Apparently, Unity Sound, with selectors Reggie Dawg and Warren, was the “gal favorite,” while Supersonic was known as the “bad boy” sound, with connections to the infamous Dog Posse. Cambridgeâs Western Front earned a reputation in the 1980s as a spot for “bad men” as well as for serious reggae music, especially from local live-bands such as the I-Tones and Cool Runnings. Aside from the Front, though, most of the top spots to hear reggae in Boston were based around Blue Hill Ave in Dorchester: Black Philanopies, Manny’s Bar, Windsor Cricket Club, 4 Aces, Carver Lodge, Kelekos, and, of course, 3 C’sâthe Caribbean Cultural Center, which opened on 1000 Blue Hill Ave in 1981 and has been hosting big reggae events ever since. Veterans of the Boston reggae scene also note the popularity of house parties during the 80s, many of which, not unlike dances in Jamaica, would often last until 7 or 8 in the morning.
It was unattributed, but how could I bother to care about that? The story is not mine, for one; I am but a humble chronicler and interpreter. More important, though, was that my text had led me to something that I REALLY WANTED TO HEAR. This was the best possible scenario. It was as if 2005 Wayne had left a trail of digital bread crumbs for 2016 Wayne. Give thanks!
Cherry on top: the session itself is gold. Great vibes, local color, and a fine dancehall session in solid 1986 stylee. It’s great to hear the deejays reworking all the musical figures that enjoyed currency in that moment, from melodic contours to slang to riddims to ways of “selecting” or playing them (e.g., turning a skanking 4/4 track into a 3+3+2 break using the volume knob/fader). If you’re into dancehall culture, the session offers a wonderful glimpse at the state-of-the-art in the mid-1980s. Reverberating from Kingston to Boston, this is the sound of an institution at work, a resonant diasporic resource, an alchemical production of live sociality from recorded sound–
If I’m hearing correctly, Jammy’s crew come in after a half-hour or so (launching with a zunguzung riff at 35:20) and then rock for a solid 1.5 hours. Before that, the Bostonians hold their own. Skilled deejays pass the mic around and offer a mix of impromptu declamations and more rehearsed routines over the big riddims of the day — and occasionally, in the name of good vibes, playing whole records/voicings in their own right (including some Jammy’s productions — a notable and explicit gesture of respect).
When one of the deejays says “Boston is a island of itself, seen?” at 8:48, it’s as if he’s *trying* to title a compilation or a book. (So much better than the title I came up with a decade ago!) Local references erupt with some frequency, especially in original routines — including a nice set of tunes over the Golden Hen riddim. It’s quite a ride even without the offkey cover of “Karma Chameleon” that I very much wish were a satire.
From my perspective, recordings like these (and I found others) stand testament to reggae’s vitality in Boston in the 1980s, at once grounded in local sociality and in diasporic networks. In that sense, they are a crucial complement to other artifacts that represent Boston’s reggae heritage, most notably the recordings made by local bands and locallabels.
So while I’m here, allow me to share a couple selections from two reggae bands working in Boston at this time. Many of these bands included Jamaican musicians living in Boston, and nearly all seem to bring a reverent, faithful, yet distinctive approach to the music.
First off, check out the dubby stylings of Zion Initiation, as released by a small local label in 1979:
And don’t miss this ambitious video (on location in Paris?!) from the I-Tones. Fronted by the Luke “White Ram” Ehrlich and featuring Chris Wilson on guitar (a Jamaican ex-pat who would later run Heartbeat Records), the I-Tones were one of the biggest reggae bands in town in the 1980s. A song like “Walk On By” shows how their sound was grounded in reggae’s abiding love for sweet pop and R&B. (According to the YouTube page, Ram was not thrilled about the sax solo!) Gotta love that falsetto.
Will share more as the project develops, but do drop a line if you’d like to add anything. Just scattering some digital breadcrumbs here, seen?
Among other recent publications, I’m especially happy to share a paper I co-wrote last year with my ol’ friend and colleague, Pacey Foster. As some of you surely know, Pace has been working for several years to collect, curate, and explicate a very special cassette archive documenting the early Boston rap scene. (Check these articles in the Boston Globe, the Phoenix, and Wax Poetics for further info — not to mention Pacey’s blog.)
Pace and I have been wanting to situate the archive — and such a project/subject more generally — for an interdisciplinary academic readership for some time, and so when we saw the call for a special issue of the Creative Industries Journal below (c/o the mighty Eric Harvey), we knew we found a great place to share some tales of the tape(s) —
CFP: Technologies and Recording Industries
Creative Industries Journal, Special Issue 8.2 (Fall 2015)
The past 15 years have proven transformative for music recording industries around the world, as digital technologies from the ground up (mp3s) and the top down (streaming platforms) have helped transform the landscape of production, promotion, distribution, retail, and fandom. Yet while these transformations have recently upended assumptions about musical practice for artists, industry workers, fans, journalists, and researchers, a broader historical perspective situates them in a legacy more than a century long. Indeed, a history of recording industries told from a media and technology perspective is one of constant flux. The introduction of new media technologies has continually reorganized the practices, regimes of value, discourses, and power relationships of the recording business.
This issue of the Creative Industries Journal seeks to address the constitutive roles of technologies in shaping recording industry practices. How have the introduction and adoption of new tools of production, distribution, promotion, or consumption facilitated changes in the creative and industrial practices surrounding popular music in a variety of global contexts? Following Williamson & Cloonan (2007) and Sterne (2014), we specify ârecording industriesâ instead of âmusic industriesâ to focus attention on the myriad creative and industrial processes related to music (or, broadly, sound) recordings, and to evade the tendency to group a variety of disparate music and sound-related industries (licensing, instrument sales, live performance) under one heading. We use the plural to assert the multiplicity and variety of recording industries that have emerged over time, which may not have anything to do with the current corporate-owned, multinational recording industry.
We respond to this call by discussing the Lecco’s Lemma radio show (and cassette archive) as an example of how DIY media technologies facilitated the emergence of a local hip-hop scene here in the 1980s. In addition to some media theory and a brief history of the cassette and its special affordances, Pace and I examine three telling anecdotes about Lecco’s Lemma — stories bearing witness to a remarkable moment of collective effort and creativity, a self-contained “recording industry” that networked a community of amateur artists and supporters.
One vignette revolves around this amazing artifact in the collection, a fascinating glimpse of Gang Starr’s Guru (aka, MC Keithy E) in his early days —
But I don’t want to offer too many spoilers here. For the low down on the incredible thing that Guru appears to have done to his recording of the broadcast above — an intervention that bears witness to the importance of the show, and of cassette technology — go ahead and read the article:
Foster, Pacey and Wayne Marshall. 2015. “Tales of the tape: cassette culture, community
radio, and the birth of rap music in Boston.” Creative Industries Journal 8(2): 164-76. [PDF]
Here’s the abstract to further whet your reading appetite —
Recent scholarship on peer-oriented production and participatory culture tends to emphasize how the digital turn, especially the Internet and the advent of the so-called âsocial webâ, has enabled new forms of bottom-up, networked creative production, much of which takes place outside of the commercial media. While remarkable examples of collaboration and democratized cultural production abound in the online era, a longer view situates such practices in histories of media culture where other convergences of production and distribution technologies enabled peer-level exchanges of various sorts and scales. This essay contributes to this project by examining the emergence of a local rap scene in Boston, Massachusetts in the mid-late 1980s via the most accessible âmassâ media of the day: the compact cassette and community radio.
And there’s lots more Lecco’s Lemma for your listening pleasure:
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 recently added a few “new” instances of ye olde zunguzung meme to the list, each helping to tease at this knotty tapestry we’ve been weaving.
First, thanks to the attentive ears of NYC-based Puerto Rican electronic act BalĂșn, we discover that PR-based Nuyorican reggaeton pioneer Ivy Queen once wove a zunguzung allusion rather seamfully into her verse at ~1:52 in the Noise 6 excerpt here:
The reference appears as one would expect it might: as yet another of many, many nods to reggae and hip-hop knit together in the “Spanish reggae” (i.e., proto-reggaeton) of San Juan’s distinctive mid-90s underground scene. Indeed, the production is deliciously typical if you like connecting musical dots: it opens with the well-worn sample from ESG’s “UFO” (possibly a reference to Kane and, by 1996, who knows who else), then layers on a detuned loop of the “Method Man” riff while Ivy comes in chanting “Noise! Clan!” like “Wu! Tang!” before unloading a barrage of laser-precise syllables. At this menacing tempo, Ivy’s doubletime fliptongue bars — a clear stylistic nod to raggamuffin flows — manage to sound like the elder cousins of the Migosflow they are.
So with this allusion Ivy Queen joins such compatriots as Mr. Notty and Ăejo — and no doubt other reggaetoneros whose references have thus far eluded my dragnet. At this point, far as I know, she’s the first on record — in reggaeton — repping reggae with the zunguzung.
Like many other carriers of the meme, Ivy Queen invokes the tune at precisely the moment when she directly addresses the audience — no doubt something she also did in numerous live “freestyle” sessions in San Juan and Nueva York — which brings us to our next example(s)…
The second example — or perhaps, second-umpteenth — reveals how zunguzung works as a distinctive resource for live reggae performance practice, something that Ivy Queen’s reference registers in its desire to serve as functional address, as live and direct. In this sense, the session “tape” below can be heard alongside the myriad zunguzung deployments in other sound sessions, especially in the mid-80s.
In this case, and in Boston no less, we hear how zunguzung figures in state of the art toasting practice circa 1986. The tune cycles in and out of the performances, one of several stock figures on the tips of deejays’ tongues (alongside “call the police,” “money move,” and other allusions to allusions that don’t have proper names). And yet, zunguzung also emerges here as a powerful and special signal, a musical trigger nearly always hitting with the weight of a forward / pullup / wheel, or a chorus.
In this session featuring Jammy’s sound on a visit to town, I count no fewer than a baker’s dozen zunguzungs over the course of the 1.5 hour excerpt (and that’s omitting the repetitions when used as a chorus). That’s 13 distinct moments in the session — roughly, every few minutes — when the zunguzung erupts into presence, often stopping the music in its tracks.
Shifting shape as it goes by, the melody serves to big up the “Boston posse” as well as “all Yardies” — and as is so often the case with the zunguzung, the deejays here use it as a special means to enlist audience participation, crooning at listeners to push up a hand “if you love Jammy” or “beca’ you’re expensive.” The strong responses of both performers and audience to each of the zunguzung’s invocations bear consistent witness to the signal force of this tricky likkle earworm:
See, e.g., ~0:43, 4:00, 21:00, 26:40, 28:20, 38:30, 48:20, 51:20, 58:55. 1:11:20, 1:13:40, 1:17:25, 1:20:35 — or, better, just listen to the wole ting. Vibes nice, enuh.
The final addendum is perhaps more of a “footnote,” less interesting to this zigzagging genealogy given that it’s a novelty production nodding to Tupac rather than, say, grassroots media invoking Yellowman and dancehall tradition. On the other hand, as I’ve also pointed out, the ways the riff grows distant from being a reference to reggae culture is, in some sense, perhaps as interesting as its explicitly intertextual resonance in reggae, hip-hop, and kindred genres.
In 2011, the remarkably well-produced satire act Baracka Flacka Flames released a version of 2pac’s “Hit Em Up” and (inadvertently) invoked our familiar contour —
I gotta admit, though — research aside — for my money/time, “I Run the Military” is far superior:
My students have been hard at work in this spring’s session of Technomusicology at the Harvard Extension School (which I’ve just realized marks 10 years since I first started teaching there!), and I’m eager to share some standout projects.
We recently turned to the mashup as a media form to grapple with, thinking about the particular convergence of technologies that enabled its emergence (Napster, MP3, AcidPro) as well as the range of aesthetic approaches that mashups seem able to support.
So here are several stellar mashups made by this spring’s budding technomusicologists.
First, a mashy mini-mega-mix of nine varied renditions of the Spider Man theme!
How about a musically-inspired mashup of “Short Change Hero” by The Heavy and music from Mega Man?
Or perhaps you’ve really been waiting to hear (and just never knew it) how Gloria Gaynor sounds over a thumping four-four and, alternately, how Kelly Clarkson rocks over some ol’ disco beats — a time-spanning mashup of anthemic feminism!
Ok, it’s true: what we all needed to hear was a mashy history, including commercial and amateur versions, of the genealogy connecting Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” to its go-go source, Chuck Brown’s “Bustin Loose”:
Well, that’s an edifying earful if I don’t say so myself! Here’s to my talented and dedicated students; stay tuned for some inspired, edutaining YouTube montages to follow!
Finally, if this sort of endeavor piques your curiosity and you’d like to join us on our next technomusicological journey, I’ll be offering the class next as a special, intensive 7 week session from June-August via the Harvard Summer School.
What can I say? It’s been a chockfull summer. Mostly with farming and teaching, but also, I’m happy to note, with writing and talking about music as well. And while I’ve found the time to do some “dancing about architecture,” I’m afraid I’ve been a little slack when it comes to linking/re-posting it here. So here are some items from the last few months that I’d like to call attention to if you haven’t already seen & heard em. (FYI, I’ve also been reviewing albums for The Wire, but I’ll be reposting those separately.)
First, I’m excited to report that I was asked by the nice ppl at Mixpak Records to pen an essay for Popcaan’s debut album, Where We Come From. Writing reggae liner notes is something I’ve always dreamed about doing, and I was thrilled to sit with this stellar set of chunes for a few months before it went out to the world. Here’s a little teaser, but definitely click through to read the wole ting — and do give the album a good listen, it’s well worth the time!
In turns uplifting and haunting, reverent and rude, Where We Come From gives voice, as the best reggae does, to the contradictions of life in a society rife with inequities and yet so rich. Whether odes to the ghetto or the good life, Popcaan’s lyrics bring realist portraits and utopian visions into dynamic tension. Songs about struggle and sex and happiness occupy the same space because they do. …
Like his predecessors in crossover without compromise, Popcaan appeals to listeners outside of Jamaica precisely because he brings a distinctively Jamaican voice to the proceedings. In a world gone global, Popcaan occupies that sweet space of possibility where a deeply local accent communicates to outernational listeners. With his patois lyrics, plainspoken and poetic, his own takes on the latest slang, and his vowels stretched in that Portmore twang, Popcaan is unapologetically uberlocal in address. But since dancehall is itself a globe-spanning style and symbolic code, Popcaan’s performances are also pitched to the world. For all the downhome detail, nuff translatesâand plenty comes across in universal terms: hustle for the money, too damn evil, everything is nice.
Speaking of hustle for the money (and it shall appear?), the Popcaan essay dovetails with a conversation I had recently with Afropop Worldwide for their “Money Show,” which explores the role of money (or not) in music scenes spanning Ghana, Kenya, Colombia, Jamaica, and South Africa. The topic turns to Jamaica at around the 45 minute mark:
Ethnomusicologist Wayne Marshall says reggaeâs success can be attributed to its many divergent (even contradictory) forms and meanings. âThe genre offers a flexible palette for a wide range of ideological positions,â he explains, âfrom Pan-Africanism and other forms of transnationalism to utterly provincial nationalism, from peaceful and respectful postures to aggressive machismo and militancy, from tolerance to its own forms of oppression.â So whether itâs the image of Bob Marley as a revolutionary avatar, the liberated body politics of dancehall music, or simply the flows of culture enabled by the sprawling networks of English empire, something has made reggae stick in a number of unlikely locales.
âYou can find local reggae scenes just about anywhere in the world: Germany, Japan, New Zealand, South Africa, Native American reservations, you name it,â Marshall continues. âIt really is remarkable that reggae has inspired local scenes all over the world, especially since Jamaica is such a small place.â
This is, admittedly, an exaggerated example, and itâs hard to imagine anyone enjoying it save from a certain ironic distance. But itâs noteworthy â if not mindblowing â that someone uploaded it at all, and it speaks volumes about the political economy of contemporary music circulation. The intense compression artifacts may or may not be intentional â whether anti-piracy technique or incidental product of crappy software defaults. It reminds me of Jonathan Sterneâs contention that the MP3 puts the listener on a Â«sonic austerity programÂ». Illustrative because so extreme, the warped sound of this clip is deeply familiar to the MP3 generation â like cumulative tape hiss or dusty record crackles for older ears. Due to better bandwidth, the death of DRM, hi-qual darknets, and more liberal leaking practices, such distortions already strike us as Â«artifactsÂ» in the archaeological as well as audio sense.
In the wake of Rupert Murdoch buying Myspace and ânukingâ the imeem streaming service in 2009, ethnomusicologist and blogger Wayne Marshall, a longtime annotator of the microtrends popping up every second on any number of online streaming platforms, wrote an extensive blog post, spurred by the very real fear that âentire media ecosystemsâ might suddenly âsuccumb to the sudden slash and burn of corporate logic, which cares little for what we might celebrate as cultural vitality.â Iâve been using the word âplatformâ throughout this article as linguistic shorthand to describe a variety of streaming services, but as Marshall notes, the term can disguise as much as it describes. YouTube and other services use âplatformâ as strategic PR, Marshall contends, to cover up the much more precarious technological and political realities that underpin their use. Calling YouTube and other streaming services âplatformsâ creates the image of an elevated space on which one might communicate to a large audience, strategically eliding the fact that uploads can vaporize at any point, often without warning.
The fifth etude in our summer session required students to cook up short DJ mixes that follow a particular musical thread across time and space. As readers will know, I’ve made a fewofthese over the years, and I’m obviously enamored of such an audible form of storytelling about music culture in the age of digital sampling.
Of course, not every etude made it up on Soundcloud thanks to its algorithmic/automatic pre-screening according to a draconian and short-sighted copyright regime — sensors are the new censors, innit — but several are still standing, spinning, and shining there. Allow me to share a few.
Here’s a ton of Ashley’s Roachclips:
And here are several iterations of Barry White’s “I’m Gonna Love You Just a Little More Baby”:
Variations on Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, perhaps?
Or echoes of Nina Simone’s âFeeling Goodâ?
How about a big playback for “The Big Payback”?
Finally, in quite an inspired, creative departure, here are some Polynesian war/rugby chants sutured onto remixed dubstep instrumentals:
No one does radio (by which I mean, audio storytelling) like Benjamen Walker. You may know him from his incarnations as the host of Your Radio Nightlight, Too Much Information, or Theory of Everything, which has recently become one of the flagship programs in PRX‘s new podcast network, Radiotopia.
I feel very lucky to count Ben as a friend. His incisive sense of humor consistently cuts to the chase of the kinds of things we find ourselves concerned about in this modern world, or should be. His commitment to running down good stories and telling them with audio aplomb is downright inspiring. Man oh man, the stories he could tell…the stories he does tell!
So I’m thrilled to report that Benjamen has made one of the best episodes of his life with “1984.” To put it plainly, this is a monumental work of media history, largely sourced from YouTube (but also via vintage TV Guides, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, & his own rich trove of alienated adolescent experience). “1984” is a deeply engaging examination of, as Benjamen puts it, the year, not the book.
I found myself totally entrained and entertained listening to it, and you will too. Benjamen masterfully interweaves and teases out trenchant themes as US society tries to come to grips with the advent of the hyperreal and media politricks in precisely the year that George Orwell freighted with such significance. Borrowing Orwell’s central narrative conceit of the diary is a stroke of genius on Ben’s part, but it’s the dazzling execution of his vision that is most impressive. Imagine Marclay’s The Clock stretched out over a calendar year with grainy advertisements and newscasts in place of Hollywood film fragments.
Here’s how Benjamen frames it:
In 1984 your host was twelve years old, and like Winston Smith he kept a diary for the citizens of the future. For this special installment of Benjamen Walkerâs Theory of Everything we travel back in time and give this diary a soundtrack. TV commercials, radio spots, movie clips â all from 1984 (the year, not the book). Along with personal memories of making the transition to middle school the show focuses on four of the most important people of year: Ronald Reagan, Michael Jackson, Steve Jobs, and Clara Peller.
Do yourself a favor and make some time for this one. Ben brings the beef, no doubt.
I’m happy to report that the semester has been going swimmingly. Sorry for the dearth of posts here, but I’ve been rather engaged with reading, for one course, across a vast and dense literature on music, race, & nation while exploring, in another, the history and potential of music’s (and sound’s) deep entanglement with technologies of transduction & reproduction.
As we barrel almost unbelievably toward the end of the term, we’ve managed to produce a pretty striking set of technomusicological etudes. While two big assignments remain (a video montage and a DJ mix), the students have produced soundscapes, radio collages, sample-based beats, and mashups. Impressed and entertained by them all, I want to share a few exemplary pieces to give people a (musique) concrete sense of what we’ve been up to. We recommend listening with headphones.
First, a couple entries from the soundscape assignment (including requisite if brief prose descriptions):
Sunday afternoon shopping [for soy sauce!] at the Boston Chinese Supermarket (C-mart).
In this tasty space, life takes many different forms: the entrance music that occupies its own territory 0:00-0:20; 2:36-end); people conversing on their wants and needs in Cantonese (0:21 – 0:40; 2:10-2:22); living lobsters/crabs breathing in tank [with running water] waiting to be picked, killed and consumed (0:45-1:15; 2:23-2:35); frozen dumplings resting in ice cases (1:22-1:26), listening to the check-out machine busy reading barcodes (starting 1:27 through 1:53, transposed); butchers cleaning, peeling and chopping off fish head using their fine/scary collection of life-taking tools (1:46 – 2:09).
All is intertwined and yet at the same time irrelevant. One eats to live, others live to be eaten. Together we breathe.
This recording encompasses the tragedy I face in procrastination â enjoyment of the meaningless which ends as soon as it metamorphoses into the meaningful. This tragedy is composed of five chapters. At first, the frustration with the ominous âpaperâ becomes not only overwhelming, but overwhelming to the point that I must abandon work with a very definitive âfuck this paper.â I venture outside into Harvard Square where meaningless interaction forms a melody. âHeyâ defines the relationship I have with the grand majority of my acquaintances â an acknowledgement of each otherâs existence is all we share. However, âheyâ leaves me craving for real social interaction, and I do summon a friend upon stumbling on a musical gem in the Harvard Square âpit.â However, reality freezes the real pressure I have found in The Square. I am reminded that the ominous paper is still, in fact, in need of being submitted, and I am forced to retract into my study lair. âWhy, why, whyâ is procrastination always halted when it gets good? The answer: itâs procrastination, itâs temporary. Oh, the tragedy that is procrastination.
The second pair of examples comes from the week we devoted to (Boston) radio collages, and each offers a rather interesting portrait of a particular slice of the local airwaves:
This soundscape/radioscape takes all of its material from a cheap radio clock in a bedroom in Cambridge, MA. The sounds were collected at about 2:00 PM on a weekday afternoon.
The goal in creating a weekday afternoon radioscape of Boston is to represent Boston radio at a time that I’ve always considered to be the least interesting time of day for radio. Because it lacks the audience that rush hour in the morning and evening (and to some extent lunch hour as well) draw, radio in the afternoon does not cater to a specific audience other than those who happen to be driving, are listening to radio as they work, or have nothing better to do for one reason or another. The music tends to be generic and fairly random, the talk shows discuss mundane topics in order to save more important thoughts for the busier hours, and there is no concerted effort to create a certain ambience, as in evening radio.
Strangely enough, though, this all serves to loosen radio to a certain extent, encouraging hosts to let their hair down a bit, and allowing each station to be a little less authoritarian in their choices of music. While listening to the radio for easy entertainment or interesting concepts may be difficult in the afternoon, listening with a critical ear at this times can become immensely entertaining. It is that strange combination of humor, flair, mediocrity, and commercialism that I am trying to convey in this piece, representing most of the material I found while striving to keep the pace entertaining for the listener, who doesn’t have the comfort of being at the control. I used a lot of layering, blending, and automation to splice events together convincingly, as well as some other effects like looping, delay, reverb, and mixing in cleaner recordings of songs in order to give a little surrealism and extra realism to the sound, which was limited by the reception of the radio.
The piece starts out with quick flipping through a few channels, then settles in with a couple of announcements about the time and place. The first section mainly moves back and forth between songs on different channels, but as we go on, new characters are and themes are introduced, such as talk radio, advertisements, a discussion about receipts, a sportscast and the ever-present (in New England) Dunkin Donuts. Finally, we close with a “goodbye” and a contrast between upbeat folk-classic music that evokes a kind of “simple gifts” feel characteristic of old-time New England and some inspirational words in Spanish. And maybe one last quip about Dunkin Donuts and their great coffee.
The voice is often used as a symbol of personal interaction. In early descriptions of radio, the feeling of such interaction and indeed of intimacy through the radio was often dependent on speech and the voice. In this exercise, I have edited short clips of radio recordings taken on October 14 and 15 in Allston, MA. The resulting mix produces a simulated radio world that is all talk, all voices speaking in different registers, different levels of excitement, and different languages. The listener’s relationship to the various voices depends on many markers of identity – religious, political, linguistic, sports, etc. This collage is thus a reflection on the limits of radio voices to convey intimacy.
Our third assignment required students to get into the aesthetics of sample-based hip-hop, combining samples of their choice with two classic breakbeats I provided (the Funky Drummer and Apache). Here’s a few fun standouts (including one dubsteppy excursion):
On the surface, this piece is a hip hop beat that goes on for a couple of minutes, and this is probably all that’s really apparent when listening. In some ways, it’s all that really needs to be apparent; when putting this together I was trying to make a new piece out of the materials that I sampled from a few other songs, but there is some thought that went into the choices of material. The beat takes sounds from the Funky Drummer and Apache breakbeats, cut up and made into new rhythms: pretty standard. The harmonic and melodic material, though, all comes from a couple of songs by Billy Joel and Elton John. For some reason, maybe because they’re both rock/pop pianists, I’ve always considered Billy and Elton to be two sides of the same coin, so I wanted, at least intellectually, to put them together in one piece. I don’t really feel like the interaction is audible, mostly because I limited myself to just one or two samples each from two songs by Elton and one by Billy, cut down to the point where they are really just a note or two in most cases and often edited until they don’t resemble the original at all (for instance, slowed and deepened until a medium-high synth sounds almost like dubstep) but I still like the idea of them both being in there.
Turkey is sometimes known as the crossroads of the world, and here, the shape (Dilli DĂŒdĂŒk) and electronic sounds (Ăakk?d?) of Turkish popular music mix with the rhythms (Funky Drummer) and jazzy lines (Apache) of Western samples. Their interaction makes a dense sonic fabric, and there is some tension scattered throughout, but ultimately, the two pairs of samples serve to reinforce and advance each other.
I decided to be quite liberal with the Funky Drummer sample provided to us, and chopped it down to individual sounds. I then put this on a new drum rack and treated it with a filter delay, reverb, and a couple other elements to create a dub-like effect. The tempo and syncopation is reminiscent of most dubstep tracks, with a BPM of 140 and the snare falling on the third beat. The melody and vocals of the track come from chopped samples of the 1970’s Angolan protest song ValĂłdia by Santocas. Samples are treated with various filters and reverb as well as sidechained to the kick drum via a compressor. We hear a looped verse, “Bem longe/ OuvĂ aquele nome/ InesquecĂvel/ dos filhos de Angola” (Far away/ I heard that name/ Unforgettable/ to Angola’s children).
And one last example, a rather esoteric mashup from one of the grad students in the course:
Here’s a mash-up of a Brazilian maracatĂș (“SerĂĄ” by Siba e a Fuloresta) and an unaccompanied Cretan rizitiko song performed by Vasilis Stavrakakis. Instead of mashing two pieces of similar tempo, I decided, inspired by the a capella intro to “SerĂĄ,” to liberally chop up the unmetered Cretan song and manipulate it in various ways (pitch changes, overlapping punches, the creation of drones) to frame and comment on various musical events in the Brazilian song. Aside from a small gap inserted near the beginning, “SerĂĄ” is basically intact; the challenge was to isolate and reconfigure phrases, both short and extended, from Stavrakakis’ performance to give the impression of a melodic, harmonic, and phrasal dialogue with Siba, the chorus, and the brass band. I especially like how, though the melodic trajectories of the two songs are similar, they often treat the second and sixth degrees of the scale in opposite ways (minor second and major sixth from Crete, major second and minor sixth from Brazil). This adds a nice pinch of tension without spoiling the soup (at least to my modally biased ears), and points to the manufactured nature of the operation.
It’s been a real thrill to hear what these talented students have cooked up this term. The best of these productions really speak for themselves. And that’s the point: how can we make audible stories about audition in the age of technological reproducibility? Toward that end, I was delighted to stumble across these thoughts just yesterday:
I think of the Marshallâs taxicab soundscape, how it captures not only the sonic communications of Jamaican cab drivers, and the broader dancehall soundscape in which they live, but also something of the musicologist himself. Itâs just an essay transduced. What if students and academics were to pursue the craft of phrasing and editing sound, photographs, and film with the same doggedness with which we pursue the written word, aiming for the same sophistication that we do in our written texts? What would anthropology sound, look, feel like then?
“It’s just an essay transduced”! I like that. Gonna run with it — or take it for a ride? On that note, let me leave you with an intentionally schizophonic video mashup of my “Taximan” piece (as discussed here) set to soundtrack a trip down the Palisadoes to Norman Manley International Airport, where I chat a bit (in my own odd wavering accent) about Sunday radio in Jamaica (an old fave topic) with the driver:
Funny as it may be, I’m pretty sure Run DMC’s “Roots, Rap, Reggae” (featuring Yellowman) is the first “reggae” song I ever knew. As an occasionally awkward and awfully chintzy attempt at reggae via New York, it’s an odd introduction in nuff ways. On the other hand, there are a couple moments in the song, especially during Yellowman’s verses, which make it a really excellent primer.
One such moment is King Yellow’s wonderfully concise (if slightly defensive) assertion that “reggae music is not so strange” (which served as an apt epigraph to my dissertation). But it’s a different line that I want to draw your attention to here.
At another point in the song, Yellowman offers the following definition:
Reggae music is rapping to the beat
Of course, that makes a lot of sense in a song with Run DMC, as if Yellowman wants to assure listeners that reggae really is not so strange — in fact, from a certain perspective, he suggests, it’s essentially the same thing as hip-hop. This is hardly pandering on his part, certainly by the mid-80s, when a great deal of reggae was just that: rapping over beats.
But we can extend his definition even further — back to the pre-reggae days of ska and rocksteady even, to the early days of soundsystems and mic-wielding deejays, when Yellowman’s “talkover” forbears were rather profoundly revising what it means to make music in the age of its technological reproducibility.
I’m hardly the first to propose that the conceptual and artistic innovations that emerge from Jamaican soundsystem practice, especially during the late 60s, deeply inform musical production and practice throughout the late 20th century and well into the 21st. Even so, I often find that this remains an underappreciated revolution. So it’s a lesson I’ve been trying to impart in my own classes, guest lectures, and other talks for some time.
Toward that end, I’m once again grateful to Roifield Brown for helping me to make these points — and make them more publicly — thanks to his solicitous interviewing and careful editing. Roifield’s latest episodes in his podcast series include some of my thoughts on these matters — pertaining both to the initial rise of deejays in Jamaica and to how Kool Herc transmitted & transmuted these practices to help bring hip-hop into being:
Of course, it’s hard to just talk about New York in this regard and leave out London. UK soundsystem formations — from faithful to faithfully mutated — are key to understanding the resonance and reverb of Jamaican soundsystem culture, and there are few who’ve done as stellar and vibrant a job of representing that side of the story as London’s Heatwave.
You could say that I’m grateful to them too — as a teacher, researcher, and as a listener. I’ve been using their classic mix An England Story in my classes for years now. There’s simply no better resource for audibly apprehending the links that run through reggae, rave, jungle, garage, grime, and so on. So I’m pleased to note that the Heatwave has produced a fine supplement for me, my students, and unenrolled enthusiasts too: the SHOWTIME! DVD.
The DVD is gathered around a historic stageshow that the Heatwave presented last summer, bringing together an epic posse of UK bashment luminaries. Interspersed between the lively show segments are illuminating interviews with some pioneers of the scene, many crucial in forging a distinctly Jamaican-British accent. (I myself might have like to see & hear a little more from the hip-hop and grime scenes, which are represented thickly on the mix, but I can appreciate and respect the focus on reggae here.) As for further explicating the significance of the DVD and what it means, I’m going to leave that to the ever-sharp Dan Hancox, who published a deeply contextualized review just this week.
I showed some scenes from the DVD a few weeks ago in the latest incarnation of my global hip-hop class, and I can’t resist sharing an excerpt here featuring none other than Wiley, probably the UK’s most relentless, restless exponent of JA-indebted production over the last decade —
“They must have installed it in me,” he says, referring to the ways that reggae (or, rapping to the beat) insinuated itself into him — and notably naming Yellowman as prime perpetrator (perpetuator?).
Installed! I really love that. What seems at first like a bit of mispeaking actually proves entirely eloquent. He’s talking about enculturation, yes, but the slip of install for instill also says something about reggae as conceptual framework, reggae as software, reggae as operating system, reggae as memory.
Last month I spoke over Skype with Roifield Brown, a British-Jamaican producer working on a series of podcasts and a short film devoted to the international influence of Jamaica’s distinctive shapes and forms, or in his words: How Jamaica Conquered the World. It’s no doubt one of many many tributes to the likkle but tallawah nation in this 50th anniversary of independence from direct colonial rule.
The series will devote attention to sports and style and other dimensions of Jamaican culture inna outernational sphere, but obviously music — namely, reggae and its roots and routes — exerts irresistible force over such a project. With a promising list of shows planned, Roifield’s already spoken to some great commentators (including, I’m told, a two-hour conversation with Clevie just last week), and he’s in the midst of finishing the first few, including a segment on ska and rocksteady featuring yours truly, doing my best to tell the story of the emergence of Jamaican pop:
Wait for the mini-megamix of Dawn Penn re-rubs at the end!
I love that Roifield is putting this together himself and using everyday tech like Skype to make it possible. Sure, there’s already nuff documentation out there on Jamaican music and culture, but as long as there’s too much to know, we may as well keep asking questions, telling stories, making media, and filtering the best forward (while maintaining the richest archive we can). I’m sure Roifield’s series will offer some crucial contributions to the wider set of stories about Jamaica’s powerful presence in the world.
It helps, to be sure, in putting together these little radio-like shorts, that Roifield also happens to be a demonstrably wicked producer of tracks himself (sometimes under the name Daddys Boy). When he first got in touch I followed a few links to the garridgey roller below and proceeded to hound him for a hi-bit version, though I started rocking an ol 128k right away just because I had to — and to a strong response here in Boston! Not bad contemporary resonance for a track cooked up years ago —