I was delighted to get an email last week from a former student, Sophie Weiner, who was working on a piece for the Village Voice about the Brooklyn Folk Festival. She contacted me because she was seeking a quotation about why rap could be considered a form or modern folk music, and she thought, rightly, that I might have a considered opinion on the matter.
I was doubly delighted by this question. You see, this question is practically a word-for-word restatement of discussion question in the History of Rock Class I’ve been teaching at Berklee. Over several semesters, I’ve come to understand some interesting things about the contours of the responses the question elicits. So I was happy to field it.
Here’s what I told Sophie —
Our class discussion is stimulated by a quotation from Pete Seeger who once argued that “folk magazines make a mistake not to print the best new rap songs.” Notably, although Seeger is really talking about folk music as process, when discussing this question many of my students get hung up on the question of style: “folk” is such a received category for them, if someone’s not singing along to an acoustic instrument, it couldn’t possibly be folk music. This is an association cemented in the 1960s by the folk revival — a movement in which, ironically, Seeger played a major role. Others get caught up by the commercial aspects of rap, though Bob Dylan was no less commercial, of course, and a lot of the songs Seeger popularized as folk anthems were initially commercial products, not simply unattributed ditties roaming the wilderness. Finally, some hesitate to think of rap as modern folk music because so many rap songs don’t seem to share the “progressive” messages that we’ve come to associate with folk, even though many rap songs do offer serious social critiques (if not always in such obviously recognizable form as “Blowing in the Wind”). If, however, we’re talking about a question of process — of collective recitation, reshaping, and recirculation of songs and lyrics — then yes, of course, we could consider rap a modern form of folk music. (That said, we’d have to say the same for other genres of popular music). The best contemporary example in this sense, especially if we’re going with a certain romanticized ideal, would be Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” which, like many a Seeger anthem, has become not just a general expressive resource for everyday folk but an actual protest chant.
Of course, this was much more than Sophie was asking for, but I couldn’t say less. I did, however, give her free reign in deciding what to use. (What are blogs for if not “director’s cuts”?) Not surprisingly, in the actual article, given that I am making — ahem — an academic point, Sophie focuses on the resonant connections between rap and folk:
Today, young activists are choosing as their anthems not traditional spirituals but songs by artists such as Kendrick Lamar. Wayne Marshall, an ethnomusicologist and assistant professor of music history at Berklee College of Music, says there are clear parallels between folk and rap. “If we’re talking about [the] process — collective recitation, reshaping, recirculation of songs and lyrics — then yes, of course rap is a modern form of folk music,” he says. Marshall also sees a continuity between the progressive themes of traditional folk music and hip-hop today. “Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Alright,’ like many a Pete Seeger anthem, has become not just a general expressive resource for everyday folk but an actual protest chant,” he says, referencing the multiple instances in which activists have sung the chorus at marches and actions.
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 “recording industries” instead of “music industries” 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 ‘social web’, 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 ‘mass’ 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. “Contortions to Match Your Confusion: Digital Disfigurement and the Music of Arca.” Literature and Arts of the Americas 48(1): 118-22. (PDF)
“Día de los Muertos,” a mix released in late October 2014 by Houston’s Svntv Mverte (aka Santa Muerte), a DJ duo with a name invoking “Mexico’s cult of Holy Death, a reference to the worship of an underground goddess of death and the dead,” 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 “Thievery” 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. “Who Deserves It?” 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 – 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 they’re looking into a camera than a mirror, or a smartphone. …
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.
Of course, as a technomusicological object, we also thought about how we might use the mashup to tell a specific story about musical relationships — an idea I’ve been exploring for a while under the heading of “mashup pedagogy.” Moreover, while the mashup might seem passé as a form, it’s actually an especially interesting time to study mashups based on their latest incarnation: as trial evidence!
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.
For their 4th etude of our summer adventures in technomusicology, my students produced their own YouTube montages (as I’ve discussed here and there), and, as usual, I’m smitten by the results. I even shed a few YouTubeTears in class as we screened them together. I’ve rounded them up in playlist form, but allow me to embed here several examples that are well worth a watch.
Many students did the mega-montage thing, and they selected quite a range of songs and routines to explore this way. Their subjects run the gamut from predictably enduring songs such as “Imagine” or “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to more recent upstarts such as “Let It Go” and “Thinking Bout You” to such YouTubey phenomena as “Canon Rock” and routines inspired by K-pop and the collectively-sourced cultural products built around Vocaloid software to tango warhorses. Wow!
A few videos merit a little more contextualization, so here they are with the students’ explication:
This is a video montage of “Bar Bar Bar,” the popular song by K-pop band, Crayon Pop. K-pop is largely characterized by bubble gum tunes and catchy lyrics, and “Bar Bar Bar” is no different. However, the song has somehow managed to rise above the rest of the K-pop scenery, taking Korea by storm and causing a multitude of different dance covers to surface in the past year . The various groups shown here range from Korean police departments to taekwondo teams in Korea, and this montage attempts to offer a vivid perspective into one aspect of the pop culture minutiae that permeates through Korean life today.
Kokoro x Kiseki is an original Vocaloid mix of two versions: Kagamine Rin’s and Kagamine Len’s. In Len’s version, he usually sings over a recording of Rin, but not vice versa. In some parts of this montage, it is possible to hear just Rin’s version, just Len’s version, as well as the mix of the two versions.
Due to the nature of this being a Vocaloid song, there is heavy emphasis on the accompanying video. Though there are some vocal and instrumental covers of the song, the majority creative works kept the original song but changed the video. In the different videos, people got creative with using their own drawings to make an animation, making slideshows of pre-existing art and playing with timing, cosplaying and acting out the story of the song, translating the song, and playing with camera angle and various other features of the Miku Miku Dance (MMD) program. There is an official dance for this song, so the dance is the same in the videos that use the dance, but the smoothness of the dance, the camera, and the backgrounds and costumes are noticeably different.
In this video montage, I focused on showing the different videos that people have uploaded onto Youtube. The song’s lyrics tell a linear story, so I wanted to keep the flow of the story of the song. I achieved this by keeping the video clips with their respective section of the song and by giving the videos their own space in the limelight. The only video that I showed multiple times throughout the montage was the Official Live version. The Live performance of a Vocaloid song is impressive, and I felt that letting it flit through the montage follows the story of Kokoro x Kiseki.
Since the majority of videos used the original song, it was not very difficult to sync the videos to make a smooth song. The difficulty in creating this montage was choosing which frame to switch videos because this song is riddled with pickups. Depending on what followed the pickup, I alternated between changing videos on pickups and on downbeats. The instrumental/vocal covers also used the original song, so even if they weren’t perfectly synced 100% of the time, they always met back at the start of new phrases. I decided not to forcibly sync the covers with the original song because it would be destroying the artistic license of a human musician.
Aside from the videos with creative animations, MMDs, cosplays, and covers, there are some videos there that are more featured for the translation. The few that I incorporated into this montage are Vietnamese, Spanish, and English subs, which give a small view at how popular and widespread this particular song is.
The seeds for this Etudé were actually planted last summer. Specifically though, the La Cumparsita (“The Little Masked Parade”) obsession of mine erupted last November during a minor email contention between my friend and teacher, a tango expert from Buenos Aires, and her teaching partner, a US born tango expert. During the discussion the original snapshot of the lyrics caught my fancy because they revealed to me the dark internality that is the thread running through Argentinian/Uruguayan Tango. While Uruguay claims the song as its own and has made it their national anthem, it is intrinsic to traditional Tango as practiced worldwide. Tango was an expressive outlet for the lower classes dwelling in the underside of Buenos Aires and Uruguayan society. It was not a fashionable or high brow entertainment to begin, and this song, La Cumparsita, really exemplifies a rather destitute and bluesy pastime originating from a night life and its creative expressions of peoples of color in Argentina and Uruguay.
In the pre-WWII era, the song was recorded throughout the world by classical, jazz, opera, and popular music artists, swing bands, and orchestra’s. I have tried to pull from my own research into the song: the ripped collection of videos as well as those recordings and amusing or exciting interludes that best exemplify most of the era’s this song has run through, as well as some really old Tango dancing by Rudolf Valentino (who was really quite passionate about Tango dance) from the film, The Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse and taken from a video that mashed up Rudy’s moves with the Italian pop singer Mina’s over the top production of the song from 1968.
I also include some very nice dancing by Tango artist Chicho, dancing with a lot of ornamentations with his partner to a recording of a live band. A little later in my clips, I cut in Mina’s production film as she is singing the last verse of lyrics from the popular version, an ending to the effect of, to paraphrase: “the sun no longer shines the same on the abandoned bedroom, and even our dog stopped eating because you left and finally ran away from me, on seeing me so miserably alone.” An amusing farce indeed! Since it matched up to the Mina versions eventual cheesy guitar passage, I added Gene Kelly’s solo stepping to the song, from Anchor’s Aweigh. On a humorous note, I close it out with a scene from Some Like It Hot, when Daphne (Jack Lemmon disguised as a woman) forgets and starts taking the Tango lead from his/her would-be suitor and the orchestra plays an interesting version of La Cumparsita.
I took advantage of the many pauses and lurches inherent to the song and made single audio layer with plain cuts of the phonographs playing 78’s and a 45 rpm of the song. I did the same with the cuts between the live Tango orchestra’s of Alfredo De Angelis and Juan D’Arienzo. I did not need to do any fading or layering until at the end of Mina singing the farcical passage after which the song starts again with a real twanging 60’s guitar and a rock beat. That is when I fade it out and in comes Gene Kelly dancing a relatively soft shoe tap dance to the song. I enter the song from that scene of Anchor’s Aweigh since it matches with Mina’s rock passage, and that then easily lends to the rather interesting version from Some Like It Hot.
The text below was written in spring 2007 and delivered at EMP and IASPM. Since its initial publication, I have learned of many additional instances of the “zunguzung” meme, often thanks to readers. I will continue to update the tally at the end of the post, and searching “zunguzung” on this site will lead to other posts about the various shapes and forms of this zigzagging figure.
Follow Me Now: The Zigzagging Zunguzung Meme
by Wayne Marshall (April 07)
What can we learn about hip-hop and reggae, about the US and Jamaica, about race and nation and place and migration, about music, from the movements of a musical meme? To put it more concretely, what might Mos Def mean when he says, at the beginning of Black Star’s 1998 lead single, “Definition” —
We might be tempted to dismiss Mos Def’s accented invitation — “follow me now” — as a bit of ethnic filigree, especially in a moment — the late 90s — when the sounds and images of Jamaica, including Bounty Killer’s signature “Lawdamercy,” had accrued as much cultural cache as ever, offering alluring mirror-mirror images of black heroes and gangsters and lovers and sufferers, as vividly portrayed, for example — perhaps too vividly — in the contemporary Hype Williams feature, Belly. And especially in a place like Brooklyn, a place which had been deeply reshaped by Jamaicans in the last few decades of the 20th century. We might be tempted, then, to ignore such accents, such foreign but familiar phrases. Why take Mos Def at his word when so many other MCs, across the boroughs and further afield, have often donned the trappings of Jamaicanness, often via some cliché or other? The melody that directly follows the call to follow, however, compels us to attend a little more closely. When we’re asked in this manner, implored even, to follow Mos Def, it’s not simply to follow his lyrics and flow, impeccable and engaging as they may be, it is also to follow him in song.
Like any torch bearer of tradition, Mos Def expects that we’re noting, or at least feeling, the deep degree of intertextuality at work in the song, an articulation of texts and times and places enabled by a set of indexical musical figures. Mobilizing the power of musical memory, he invokes two well-worn late 80s hip-hop melodies, both of them associated with seminal recordings by Boogie Down Productions — and both from tracks which themselves sampled and adapted other resonant melodies infusing the New York soundscape. Black Star deploy such familiar figures in mourning and in warning. They bemoan the violence that had recently claimed the lives of two of the genre’s shining stars, Tupac and Biggie — two rappers who themselves, in memorable, widely-heard recordings, alluded to the same melody that Mos Def connects to KRS-One.
As with dead prez’s resonant, radical use of the riff shortly thereafter —
— Black Star’s homage to BDP’s “Remix for P Is Free” on a song addressing the deaths of Biggie and Tupac thus represents more than a capricious, if canny choice in the service of what otherwise might be taken for a little resonant retrofitting. For a lot of hip-hop artists and aficionados, BDP’s Criminal Minded stands as foundational — as the first, or at least loudest, shot fired in the gangsta rap revolution, and hence as responsible, in part, for pushing the genre into a realm of Scorcese-noir crack-rap, offering the kind of bleak, brutal, and often cartoonish stylings (in spite of constant claims to the real), which remain central to hip-hop today and which seemed to spin out of control in the late 90s, culminating in a stunning set of events whereby life appeared to imitate art.
On De La Soul’s 1996 album Stakes Is High, which at times approaches a similar attempt at downright, downhome intervention as Black Star’s debut, the group sets the tone by opening with a collage of interview fragments, as various respondents recount the first time they heard Criminal Minded, framing the album’s 1987 release as a kind of Kennedy Assassination for the genre — a singular, unforgettable, transformative event, marking a new and less innocent era. Notably, while foreshadowing the album’s sad and sardonic critique, the skit takes on a celebratory, nostalgic tone —
One of the voices we hear here is Mos Def’s. And the warmth in his recollection is revealing. Black Star’s invocation of Boogie Down Productions’ melody is not a cynical move. It’s a tribute — radical but reverent. And it propels itself and projects its meanings by channeling not just hip-hop’s past, but the contemporary sound of New York, a sound which, strikingly, can be represented at this point — “to the fullest,” we might add, nodding to B.I.G. — in such a creole tongue.
If this seems striking in 1998, how striking then that Black Star’s “Definition” essentially covers a track that had been recorded, if in another borough, over a decade before? To put it more directly and suggestively, isn’t it remarkable that as early as 1987, Boogie Down Productions could represent the Bronx with such a Jamaican voice — the same Bronx, mind you, where a decade before they were throwing Jamaicans into garbage cans (to paraphrase Kool Herc via Jeff Chang) — and, moreover, represent it in such a manner at a time of intense, interborough rap rivalry, as in the feud between BDP and Queensbridge’s Juice Crew. But there’s little question about the success of such a sonic strategy: KRS-One’s posse-inflected, rude bwoy / b-boy stance and dancehall-derived routines were clearly working, and doing no little cultural work in the process. His recycling of the tune but a year later suggests that it struck a chord:
The resonance of such sounds bears witness to a seismic social and cultural shift in New York City during the 80s and 90s, a product of continuing migration from Jamaica as well as the coming of age of many second-generation Jamaican-Americans. Orlando Patterson describes the surprisingly slow, if perhaps inevitable, cultural shift that followed on the heels of these changes in New York’s social fabric — a reshaping of the city’s demographic profile which has been examined extensively by sociologists such as Mary Waters and Philip Kasinitz. Patterson writes,
Reggae spread to the United States as a result of a second mass migration of the Jamaican working class [the first was to England], which began with the liberalization of American immigration laws in the early 1960s. A new kind of West Indian migrant now entered America, not the relatively well-educated, highly motivated petty-bourgeois migrants of previous generations, but the working-class and lumpen-proletarian people from the Kingston slums. Eventually, the reggae music these new migrants brought over with them, along with their disk jockeys and dance halls (as well as their gangs, the notorious posses), were to influence black American youth, but what is interesting is how long it took to do so.
A recording like Criminal Minded, so replete with references to reggae, would seem to offer some confirmation of this cultural process reaching a critical stage, though, in circular fashion, it may also have played no little role in further promoting the already quite fearsome profile of Jamaicans in New York — a reputation largely earned by the ruthlessness of the posses, drug- and gun-running gangs loosed from their ties to Jamaican political patronage by the cocaine trade. Though their reputation was in many ways deserved, as Laurie Gunst details in Born fi Dead, the images of savage, black foreigners were eagerly taken up by the press and eventually by Hollywood, leading to such arch villains as Screwface, the dreadlocked, cannibalistic, psychopathic foil to Steven Segal in Marked for Death, never mind the dreadlock- and mesh-marina-sporting alien in Predator, who, lest one suspect this reading a stretch, actually squares off against dreadlock-wearing Jamaican posse members, representing — one can only surmise — yet another form of invasive, predatory alien, in the Danny Glover-starring sequel to Schwarzenegger’s box-office hit.
In stark contrast to the threat of harassment that beset Jamaicans in the early 70s, the powerful, new significations of Jamaicanness in the 1980s could be a young immigrant’s saving grace. In his memoir, Gunshots In My Cook-Up, Guyanese-born hip-hop journalist Selwyn Seyfu Hinds recalls getting into a confrontation one night while walking through the streets of Brooklyn. As he and his friends are surrounded by a menacing group of teenagers, he decides on a telling strategy to evade a beat-down: “I was scared shitless,” he recounts,
The kind of fear when your Adam’s apple swells up and seems liable to burst out your throat. So I did what most recently arrived Caribbean kids in that era would do in such a situation . . . I began talking with a Jamaican accent.
‘Wha ya deal wit? Mi nah wan no trouble, seen?’
See, Jamaicans had a rep in those days. Still do. Jamaican kids in Brooklyn were thought of as fearsome, aggressive, not to be fucked with lightly. For the rest of us Caribbean folk, donning the trappings of that reputation when convenient was a welcome ability.
In a similar fashion, employing Jamaican language, reggae melodies, and the battle style of Jamaican soundsystems represented an explicit, and fairly successful, aesthetic choice — a musical-cultural tactic — for a young KRS-One seeking to distinguish himself and his crew from rival rappers. As he tells it (to Brian Coleman):
Oh, man, the damage we used to inflict on these groups, it was just crazy. We’d go into these clubs and they’d set up the battle and I would just start rhyming, and it wasn’t just the Jamaican lyrics. It was how we battled. We battled like a Jamaican sound system. You played one record, then you’d rewind, and the crowd would go crazy.
One borrowed sonic weapon among many, the distinctive little melody that propels “Remix for P” would have offered charged connotations to borough audiences. The tuneful couplet that imbues “Remix for P” with some of its cool and deadly, cocky swagger, was by that point a well-established melodic resource in dancehall reggae. By mid-decade, it had underpinned choruses and allusive interjections in a number of recordings — including several songs which were, in so many words, international hits (at least in that they were played in nightclubs in New York, London, Miami and other centers of Jamaican migration). At the musical and social events where KRS-One no doubt honed his Jamaican accent in an ironic reversal of Kool Herc’s attempts at assimilation and translation a decade before, the young MC would have heard any number of dancehall artists recycling the recognizable phrase — or versioning it, as they say in Jamaica. By 1985, the short, singsong melody had already animated performances by Super Cat, Frankie Paul, Ranking Toyan, Sister Nancy, and, of course, Yellowman, who, despite his proclivity for t(h)iefing melodies, as they also say in Jamaica, appears — at least to my searching ears — to have been the first to put it on wax. (Note that King Yellow changes the contour of the tune on the live version from an AA to an AB, the form which most subsequent rehearsals take).
Quite closely related to New York hip-hop’s engagement with the sounds of Jamaica, an engagement bearing witness to a cultural currency tied to social shifts in the city, Puerto Rican hip-hop producers and vocalists also increasingly incorporated reggae riddims and melodies into their own productions and performances. The embrace of reggae in Puerto Rico, today marketed to the American mainstream and the world (and especially to pan-Latin audiences) as reggaeton, originally could be heard informing a similar sort of cultural politics as we note in New York.
Sometimes called melaza, or molasses (signifying as sugar does), sometimes called underground (marking its economic position as well as a connection to hip-hop), and sometimes called dembow (after the Shabba Ranks song that producers such as Playero and DJ Negro jacked for beat after beat), Puerto Rico’s rap-reggae fusion, especially in the mid-90s, was also promoted, in song, as música negra, as black music — no small statement in a place that identifies as 80% “white” on the US census. The blackness of Puerto Rican reggae-rap was not only proclaimed by vocalists representing, “en la casa / para la raza,” but was expressed indexically via direct musical quotations. In addition to producers sampling the hip-hop and dancehall hits of the day for their dense, collage-like pistas or tracks, Puerto Rican vocalists made their own musical connections by reworking the same well-worn melodic contours that appealed to Super Cat and Sister Nancy, Buju Banton and Bounty Killer, as well as KRS-One. That the Zunguzung meme could be found in several seminal hip-hop tracks only affirmed its resonance in this sense, especially among Nuyoricans —
Hence we might hear the invocation of Yellowman’s melody in these examples embodying a musically-propelled cultural politics. Representing in suggestive, sonic form what Juan Flores calls the “cultural remittances” of “transnationalism from below,” such articulations challenge longstanding notions about the relationship between home and away, Puerto Rico and diaspora, and thus offer what might be heard as audible harbingers of the rediscovery of Puerto Rican negritude and a reconciliation of Puerto Rican national identity. As Flores argues:
while traditionally the translocal Puerto Rican sensibility was characterized by the emigrant longing for the beauties of the long-lost island, in some rap texts and among street youth it was the urban diaspora settings of the Bronx and El Barrio that became places of fascination and nostalgia.
And yet, while we might hear such an articulation of cultural politics in Puerto Rican invocations of the Zunguzung meme, even as artists in question mobilize the melody in the service of braggadocio or somewhat aggressive forms of flirtation, other appearances of the melody — in particular in recent stateside, commercial hip-hop — appear to suggest ways that such critical connotations can grow muted in the same way that reggae figures more generally seem to have been absorbed into hip-hop’s lexicon.
As the Zunguzung meme becomes, for certain performers and audiences, just another reference to the hip-hop canon, we hear how reggae paradoxically disappears into hip-hop’s vocabulary by virtue of its very centrality and ubiquity. This is partly KRS-One’s fault, for he so successfully infused his influential recordings with reggae borrowings that they almost immediately became more familiar than foreign. But it is no doubt also in part the fault of Biggie and Tupac, whose uses of the melody were likely more widely heard than any others and yet made no overt reference to Jamaica. On Junior M.A.F.I.A.’s “Player’s Anthem,” which centers on whether one loves “hip-hop” and if so whether one will grab or rub certain body parts to prove it, Biggie seems primarily to be invoking hip-hop tradition — that is, KRS-One’s seminal allusions — and of course, Tupac employs the melody, in turn, to demean and threaten Biggie.
Some years later, looking for the perfect hook, Joe Budden re-animated the well-worn musical meme on “Pump It Up,” though, notably, he employs only the A phrase of the melody rather than the more common AB version, perhaps suggesting sonically some distance from earlier examples. As we might expect, the echoes of Yellowman’s catchy phrase grow even fainter in Jin’s “Learn Chinese” (2004), a recording released not long after (and which makes direct reference to) Budden’s “Pump It Up.” “Learn Chinese” represents not just another node along the “Zunguzung” network but yet another degree of slippage from the tune’s reggae roots. The invocation of the melody is preceded in the song by the young MC’s admission of having “Biggie Smalls posters all over the walls,” suggesting a likely knowledge of Biggie’s use of the melody, but not necessarily confirming a connection to other, earlier instantiations. And the most recent example of what we might call an unknowing invocation of Yellowman’s melody comes to us via VH1’s and EgoTrip’s White Rapper Show. Asked to produce a club banger with Just Blaze, the producer of Joe Budden’s successful Zunguzung interpolation, aspiring rappers Shamrock, Sullee, and 100 Proof, make direct reference to “Pump It Up” in order to push the song along, if a little flatly —
Perhaps we can hear an even clearer, if different, sense of slippage as the Christian rock band POD, featuring Hasidic singjay Matisyahu, employ the phrase to proclaim themselves warriors chanting down Babylon —
Regardless of whether the melody connects back to Yellowman and Jamaica for artists and audiences — which I maintain is an important question, but one that I’ve yet to ask any of these performers — there is plenty we can say about the way such a phrase functions. It is rather remarkable, for instance, how often the invocation of the meme serves to direct, to instruct, to implore — a product of accretionary meanings, no doubt, but perhaps also related to the very processes of musical memory, of invoking a set of sonic symbols that can subconsciously compel listeners to follow along. At times this can feel like a coercive marshaling of musical memory, as if something automatic emerges in that moment of recognition, of sympathetic vibration. One feels forced to respond, to hum along or nod along or push up a hand, a finger, a gun salute.
Across the various versions we’ve heard here, we’re not only drawn into the feelingful realm of musical memory by the melody, we’re frequently simultaneously told to do something, as if the artists take advantage of the opportunity, of the moment of sudden resonance: “bubble for me,” they say, “push up your hands,” “grab your dicks,” “grab your glocks,” “hold your head,” “do your thing.” Cultural politics dovetails here with body politics, and sometimes with the body politic itself — as in the case of Cutty Ranks, who demonstrates during a performance at a political rally in 1986, how the melody could be pressed into the service of politics qua politics, of electoral politics, of “party” politics, if you will; indeed, of People’s National Party politics —
I’m afraid this overview only scratches the surface of meanings and narratives we can read from these myriad instances, but I think it provides nonetheless an intensely audible example not only of the musical, cultural, and social connections between hip-hop and reggae and reggaeton. In a more general sense, it also tells us something about why music echoes across time and place, and, indeed, how music can inform and texture our notions of time and place. Listening to the Zunguzung meme as it reappears again and again, accruing new meanings in new contexts and recalling (or not recalling) the connotations of previous occurrences, we hear how music can draw and redraw the lines of community, compelling us to follow along, sometimes whether we’d like to or not.
An Ever Growing Timeline of the Zunguzung Meme:
[Update (May 2010): I’ve added an additional 14 instances (!!!) which people have brought to my attn, especially via comments below, in the 3 years since I posted this piece. Now that’s distributed research! Thanks so much to all, and keep em coming!] [Update (March 2011): I’ve continued to add instances as they bubble up; I’ve now lost count of how many additions I’ve made since initially publishing this post!][Update (April 2013):The list is now up to 50+ appearances, and I’ve finally replaced the mini-mix audio below with a longer and more complete record — more like a mega-mix!]
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, “Come Again”
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.”
1991 — Michie Mee & L.A. Luv, “Jamaican Funk Canadian Style”
1992 — Lecturer, “Gal Yu Mean It”
1992 — Sublime, “Scarlet Begonias”
1992 — Roxanne Shanté, “Dance To This (Dance To Cee’s Zunga Zunga Mix)”
1992 — Rev. Baddoo, “Bop Scuche”
1992 — Leila K, “Open Sesame”
1993 — Us3, “I Got It Goin’ 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, “Pimps (Freestyling at the Fortune 500 Club)”
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 — Ivy Queen, “He Regresado”
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 — Lil’ 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, “Perfect Gentlemen Remix”
2001 — Ñejo, “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, “Now That You Got It”
2009 — Wax Taylor ft. ASM, “Say Yes”
2010 — Vybz Kartel, “Whine (Wine)”
2011 — Tifa, “Matey Wine”
2011 — Rankin Taxi & Dub Ainu Band, “You Can’t See It, and You Can’t Smell It Either”
2011 — Yellowman, “Zungguzungguguzungguzeng (Horsepower Productions Remix / Dub)”
2011 — Baracka Flacka Flames, “Hit Em Up”
2013 — Benga & Kano, “Forefather”
2013 — Deekline & Ed Solo ft. Rubi Dan, “Zunga”
A Mega-Mix of the Zunguzung Meme —