But I’m especially happy to welcome BBrave to town as he’s the only one I’ve yet to meet IRL.
I suspect Benjamin “BBrave” Lebrave needs no introduction here at W&W, but for those who don’t know, Benjamin is the force behind Akwaaba Music, an independent label devoted to African music of the post-Fruityloops era, or as he puts it “syncopated music made on computers all across the African continent.” Carefully and lovingly curated by Benjamin, a champion for genres and artists from West to East Africa, South to North, Akwaaba has served since 2008 as a crucial international platform for emerging artists, including acts as varied as Just a Band or FOKN Bois.
Akwaaba’s latest offering is a blistering rap album, Burkin BĂ˘, from Burkina Faso’s Joey Le Soldat, who pushes social critique with wicked flow over jagged electronic soundbeds that recall the Bug’s distorted dancehall. The lead single boasts an arresting video too; should slay in London or anywhere grime resounds –
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 userâ€™s knee-jerk, often funny responses. Nothing gets more up close and personal as YouTube, because it gives you a direct visual portal into the living spaces of other fans. The popularity of the K-pop reaction video has grown alongside K-popâ€™s ascent as an international cultural phenomenon.
Recorded all over the world and in a variety of languages, these reaction videos can themselves rack up hundreds of thousands of views — a staggeringly popular form of meta-voyeurism. (Surprising but persuasive, Alexis proposes a possible genealogical link, or at least predecessor, in the 2 Girls 1 Cup meme from a few years back.) And of course, they aspire to be as effectively performative, complete with tropes and archetypes, as the original spectacles to which they bear affective witness.
Alexis shares the following example, instructive and quintessential in a number of ways:
What immediately struck me was the self-conscious performance of fandom here — and the remarkable parallels between the mastery of codes and forms by reacting viewers and by the spectacular performers of K-pop. The particular viewer-performers above are from the UK but totally fluent in contemporary American/global slang, much of it in the form of stylized African-American vernaculars (including black men’s, women’s, and queer idioms) — indeed, about as fluent, it strikes me, as the K-pop performers themselves (who, it must be admitted, are pretty virtuoso in this regard).
Along these lines, if one frame removed, the video by G-Dragon they’re reacting to above clearly merits a multitude of reactions:
It’s amazing, dense, vivid, masterful, and playful. Clearly, it would be a mistake to reduce the pleasures of K-pop to a simple if charming form of mimesis. Rather, this is sui generis mastery of craft and gesture. Observing K-pop stars making a splash at fashion weeks around the world may offer a better angle from which to appreciate K-poppers’ distinctive synthesis of an irreducible array of signifiers, whether or not many of them are cribbed straight from the (Af-Am) hip-hop playbook.
It seems to me that K-pop’s “appropriations” demand a different frame of analysis (although, this video prolly owes MIA money) — and the reaction vids, including entire networks of African-American appreciators help complicate the picture further. (My “Sorry Sorry” montage includes a group of black college students watching the Super Junior video, with one singing and one dancing along.) In contrast to many other “global” (ie, local, non-US) hip-hop scenes, K-pop’s take on hip-hop does not begin to pretend to any alignment with the margins of society. The only authenticity operative here, it seems, is a demonstrated commitment to cultural currency. It’s purely a matter of style and swagger and savvy manipulation of global symbols, musical and sartorial and gestural &c.
And it’s pretty damn impressive.
Stepping back another frame again, there’s something perfect in how reaction videos themselves function so similarly, often mobilizing and reaffirming the same sets of codes and signs. K-pop reaction videos are an amazing and amusing performance of fandom in an age when it’s easier than ever to share that experience with others. They’re an imagined but also, notably, asynchronously witnessed form of collective joy — of the pleasure of sharing an appreciation for cultural codes and their spectacular, affective enactment (across language lines or other borders).
In some interesting ways, then, reaction videos might be understood as attempts to bridge the gap that Michael Warner contends is always there for so-called publics. For Warner, publics are necessarily constituted imaginatively and asynchronously as people engage the same circulating text, privately, and then imagine themselves as part of a collective addressed by it. Reaction videos may still be “private” engagements both in their production and reception, requiring private attention, but their publicness and persistence would seem to heighten the feeling of sharing such collective engagements with public texts. These private moments of attention become a lot more visible, perhaps even more intimate, ironically.
As such, and in contrast to publics gathered around print material, K-pop reaction communities may better resemble the “counterpublics” that, for Warner, “make expressive corporeality the material for the elaboration of intimate life among publics of strangers” [p.76].)
And without a doubt, reaction videos — which may soon transcend K-pop as a genre, if they don’t already — are a “native” YouTube genre par excellence. O Brave New World that has such people watching people watching people in it!
Appended below is the “director’s cut” (or unabridged author’s version) of a book review I wrote almost a year ago, which will soon finally see the light of day in the Journal of Popular Music Studies. The book is Mark Katz’s Groove Music, and I say enough below that I needn’t say more here, but as you’ll see, my review is quite supportive. If you’re interested in the history of the DJ, or hip-hop, or just good music writing and scholarship, I highly recommend you check this one out.
ps — here are the proofs if you like PDFs, but do see below for the full monty!
Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-Hop DJ by Mark Katz
Oxford University Press, 2012, 336 pages, ISBN: 9780195331127
With Groove Music, Mark Katz has written a definitive history of the hip-hop DJ, filling a conspicuous void in the hip-hop literature while contributing more broadly to studies of music technologiesâ€”or perhaps better, to our understanding of how people make technologies musical. For Katz, the transformation of the turntable from a mere playback machine to a remarkably flexible and responsive control deviceâ€”a musical instrument, no lessâ€”stands as â€śthe signal contribution of the hip-hop DJ to modern musical cultureâ€ť (5). This is quite a claim, but Katz represents, as hip-hop parlance would have it, offering historical, ethnographic, and analytical perspectives on hip-hop DJing, from roots to offshoots, with an unprecedented degree of thoroughness and attention to what matters to practitioners and audiences.
Like Joe Schlossâ€™s authoritative works on beat-making and b-boying, Making Beats (2004) and Foundation (2009), which Groove Music should now sit alongside on shelves and syllabi, this is a lucid and deeply grounded work on a pillar of hip-hop practice and artistry informed by dozens of interviews, years of participant-observation, and deft close readings of live performances, canonical recordings, and oral histories. Groove Music fleshes out the growing (if still lagging) musicological literature on the DJ (Fikentscher 2000, Lawrence 2003, Butler 2006) by shifting focus from the relatively suave mixing of disco, house, and techno DJs to the more explicit performativity of hip-hop DJs, as embodied most audibly by the scratchâ€”or zigga zigga as Katz sometimes glosses it.
To his credit, even while engaged in important acts of translation for his primary reading public (i.e., colleagues and students), Katz sets out to write the book that hip-hop DJs themselves would want to read. As such he commits himself to a chronological and narrative approach, and to a down-to-earth and occasionally playful prose style, peppering the text with such useful terms as â€śbadasseryâ€ť (168). The book is all the better for this approach, addressing the wider publics that these stories deserve to reach.
The rhythmically stuttered introduction of â€śDJ Premier in Deep Concentrationâ€ť (1989), a hallmark production of the hip-hop DJ as hands-on artistâ€”Hereâ€™s a little story that must be toldâ€”serves as an unremarked but undergirding imperative. While DJs such as Premier have been telling the story themselves and various works in the hip-hop literature address the subject in some detail (Chang 2005, Fricke & Ahearn 2002), no single text prior to Katz has sought to synthesize an overarching story of hip-hop DJing from its beginnings in 1973 to the present. Moreover, with the literature so focused on the foundational work of hip-hopâ€™s hallowed trinity (Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash), little attention has been paid to the changing aesthetics and contexts of the hip-hop DJ in the decades since the formâ€™s origins in the Bronx, especially how scratching has moved in and out of the spotlight in hip-hop and more broadly in American and global popular culture.
Throughout the text, Katz touches on numerous signposts, among them: the crucial feedback loop with dancers (14-16); influences from funk, reggae, and salsa (23-32); hip-hopâ€™s ties to disco, however disputed (32-5); the urban context of the Bronx (35-42); the world of DJ-producers (121); the Bay Areaâ€™s Filipino DJ scene, dominant in the world of turntablism (145-7); the rise of mix-and-scratch academies (230) and virtual video games like DJ Hero (237). But it is Katzâ€™s clear periodization of hip-hop DJ history, always grounded in ethnographic analysis of the political economy, material culture, and aesthetics of the enterprise, which emerges as the key contribution of the book.
Most crucially, in chapter 2, â€śMix and Scratch,â€ť Katz details the development of the turntable as a musical instrument, focusing on the mechanical and stylistic innovations by the likes of Grandmaster Flash and GrandWizzard Theodore (generally credited with inventing the rhythmic scratch). A centerpiece of Katzâ€™s argument is his close reading of Flashâ€™s seminal seven minute showcase, â€śThe Adventures Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steelâ€ť (1982), elaborating the techniques and effects, technologies and repertories involved in the performance. Grandmaster D.STâ€™s standout scratching on Herbie Hancockâ€™s â€śRockitâ€ť (1983) also serves as a key text in the popularization and reimagination of the turntable as instrument. Katzâ€™s simple but profound point is that these DJs took a technology of sound reproduction and used it for â€śreal-time manipulationâ€ť of sound (62). This story of transformation finally comes full circle toward the end of the book when Katz examines the rise of digital vinyl (e.g., the Serato or Traktor systems), which embodies the utter shift of the vinyl record from a storage medium to a control surface.
Other chapters divide up the history of the hip-hop DJ according to the strange and sometimes circuitous paths the tradition has taken. Chapter 3, â€śOut of the Bronx and into the Shadows,â€ť addresses the question of how hip-hop, despite its beginnings as a DJ-driven phenomenon, would soon enough be synonymous with rap. According to Katz, the rise of the MC and concomitant decline of DJ, relegated to back-up band or, by the late 1980s, even replaced by DAT machines, actually served in its way to make room for new forms of hip-hop DJing. Despite the DJâ€™s recession during hip-hopâ€™s commercial and cultural ascent, where other hip-hop chronicles tend to depart and leave DJs in the shadows, Katz remains stalwart in his focus, turning to the expansions of DJ practice in chapter 4, both in terms of scratch technique (and Philadelphiaâ€™s specific contribution: the â€śtransformerâ€ť), as well as the art of beat-juggling. Katz carefully describes new techniques as they develop, putting them into aesthetic, functional, and socio-cultural context, noting the emergence of new contexts for DJ practice, particularly the rise of the competition circuit. Indeed, chapter 6 is entirely devoted to the forms, rituals, tools, and techniques of the DJ battle, judiciously examining points of aesthetic conflict and consensus.
Given Katzâ€™s abiding concern with the instrumentalization of the turntable, the advent of turntablism in 1990s is an obvious watershed, and chapter 5 explores this practically autonomous and increasingly abstracted realm of hip-hop DJ practice. Katz explores the symbiosis between turntable, needle, and crossfader design, noting that while initially many of these features were ad-hoc innovations on the part of tinker-DJs and their â€śvernacular technological creativity,â€ť by the mid-1990s manufacturers were taking notice and incorporating them into their products. Here, as elsewhere, weâ€™re treated to some sharp material culture analysis: new mixers and crossfaders enabled innovative new techniques such as the â€ścrab scratchâ€ť where technical limits had previously made them impossible.
In chapter 7, Katz turns to the new ubiquity and legitimacy that scratching enjoyed between 1996-2002, not in hip-hop itself, notably, but in â€śalmost every corner of popular musicâ€ť (182): pop, rock, jazz, electronic music, and even the classical world. The scratch comes to mean any manner of things in a wide variety of contexts: â€śWith the mainstreaming of hip-hop, signifiers started to float freelyâ€ť (180). This creates further room for experimentation, giving rise to the â€ścult favoritesâ€ť the DJ albums made by the likes of DJ Shadow, Qbert, and Kid Koala, rich and remarkable works to which Katz devotes some overdue analysis.
The question of â€śFalling Barriersâ€ť in chapter 8 reads as a fitting coda, bringing the story of the turntableâ€™s instrumentalization back to its beginnings in important if unexpected ways. Contrasting the rejection of CDJs with the embrace of â€śdigital vinyl systemsâ€ť allows Katz to make an insightful point about vinylâ€™s place in hip-hop aesthetics as â€śprecious,â€ť â€śauthentic,â€ť â€śelemental,â€ť and â€śfundamentalâ€ť (218). Vinylâ€™s tenacity as a control surface not only speaks to these values, grounded in decades-old practice, but to the ontology of the turntable as instrument: a seemingly sudden crossfade that makes total sense in retrospect.
Notably, rather than a CD insert (which would have been an enormous tangle of licensing permissions), Oxford University Press offers a useful companion website full of media referenced in the text. These may be mostly links to YouTube videos, leaving their stability in question, but itâ€™s a rich resource all the same, especially if readers use it soon, before the inevitable link degradation.
Groove Music represents a strong monographic extension of Katzâ€™s previous work in Capturing Sound (2004) and the recent anthology he co-edited with Tim Taylor and Tony Grajeda, Music, Sound, and Technology in America (2012). All of these works are animated by a concern with registering the plasticity of sound technologies, or how people find their own creative uses for such things. In the history of sound recording and reproduction, there may be no more spectacular example than the advent of performative hip-hop DJing, and Katz has given the tradition a fitting monument. The specter of legitimation may yet haunt the hip-hop literature, but efforts such as Groove Music help to push beyond such entrenchments precisely by taking the subject so seriously that no hint of novelty or condescension corrupts it.
Butler, Mark. Unlocking the Groove: Rhythm, Meter, and Musical Design in Electronic Music. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2006.
Chang, Jeff. Canâ€™t Stop, Wonâ€™t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. New York: Picador, 2005.
Fikentscher, Kai. â€śYou Better Work!â€ť: Underground Dance Music in New York City. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 2000.
Fricke, Jim and Charlie Ahearn. Yes Yes Yâ€™all: The Experience Music Project Oral History of Hip-Hopâ€™s First Decade. New York: Da Capo, 2002.
Katz, Mark. Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2004.
Lawrence, Tim. Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-1979. Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2003.
Schloss, Joseph. Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-Hop. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2004.
_______. Foundation: B-Boys, B-Girls, and Hip-Hop Culture in New York. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Taylor, Timothy, Mark Katz, and Tony Grajeda, eds. Music, Sound, and Technology in America: A Documentary History of Early Phonograph, Cinema, and Radio. Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2012.
If raggamuffin hip-hop never gets tired for you either, I’m happy to report that yet another juicy mix of fliptongue stylistics over dusty breaks and jeepbeat bass has come to my attention —
Originally cooked up in 2010 by one Matt Nelkin, and now re-upped with special edits for your DLing & DJing pleasure, “Boombap Riddims” pays tribute to more or less the very same moment in time that inspired my & Pace’s digging in the crateses for Cluster Mag.
Beyond enjoying soaking up the heavy ragga vibes, I was happily surprised to hear yet another instance of that ol’ zunguzung tune suddenly rear its head as Rev. Baddoo’s “Bop Scuche” comes into the mix. I can’t find complete discographical info on it (or a YouTube even), but it likely dates to around 1993 — definitely a hot moment for the riff, with echoes via Us3, K7, KRS-One, and Jamalski — and the production & distribution c/o none other than Bobby Konders & Massive B makes a lot of sense for yet another NYC-based vector for Yellowman’s viral chune.
Big up Mr.Nelkin on the tuff mix, and thx to anyone who can help me pin down the date of “Bop Scuche”!
While I’m on topic, I also want to share a recording that seems rather illuminating for hearing Boogie Down Productions’ seminal ragga-rap in context. Listening to Colonel Mite’s “Bless the Selector,” recorded in London the same year that BDP were proclaiming the Bridge to be over and the P to be free (1986), I can’t help but be struck by the verbal / stylistic overlap. It’s pretty clear, to these ears anyway, that KRS was manipulating the very same repertory of dancehall gestures (“come inna a dance”) as his compatriots across the pond. In other words, BDP were essentially producing a NYC-tinged version of contemporary dancehall. But do tell if you disagree —
There’s been a lot of news in the past week about the legal kerfuffle between the Beastie Boys and a company called GoldieBlox, which markets science/engineering toys aimed at girls (and their parents) seeking something beyond the standard pink princess fare.
Apparently, GoldieBlox has successfully leveraged the “viral” qualities of the net to project their “disruptive” brand, and the latest example does so spectacularly well, via a parody of the Beastie Boys’ well-worn, decades-old, silly misogynist ditty, “Girls.”
In fact, my first encounter with GoldieBlox’s version of “Girls” arrived via word of mouth (i.e., Gchat), just the way viral videos are supposed to. My wife shared the link with me, as we ourselves are constantly struggling with the balance between giving our daughters lots of options for growth and play, on the one hand, and indulging their seemingly irrepressible desire to parade around as princesses on the other. As that type of dad, I couldn’t help but myself be smitten by the ad —
So, I was as surprised as anyone to learn about the legal battle currently underway over this parody of a parody (if, in the initial instance, an ambiguous one). Obviously, GoldieBlox’s “Girls” is derived from the Beasties’ “Girls,” but it’s a complete re-recording, marshaling certain familiar elements — the riff, the refrain, and certain text/melodic lines — not all unlike the ways the Beasties themselves cribbed and borrowed and reassembled their own song out of prior performances.
Redolent of a schlocky musical and cultural past — and perhaps helping to give the song some of its parodic edge — the Beasties’ “Girls” makes audible nods to both the Isley Brothers and Bo Diddley. Beginning around 0:40 in the following video, you’ll hear Diddley play on guitar the very same riff the Boys coax out of their wonky synth:
And this mashup underscores pretty convincingly how much “Girls” is inspired by the Isley’s “Shout,” with parellels in terms of song syntax, repeated refrain, and even a few striking melodic parallels (e.g., “say that you love meâ€¦” == “to do the dishesâ€¦”):
What should we make of the Beastie Boys taking two songs deeply inspired by African-American religious ritual — the ring-shout in the case of the Isleys, and Diddley’s hand-clapping & foot-stomping “communion service” — in order to make a rearguard, if possibly parodic, song about women? On what grounds should the Beasties be allowed the privilege of doing something so derivative/transformative, while GoldieBlox should not?
For many, it would seem, the crucial point turns not on questions of musical borrowing and re-signification but rather, on the Beastie Boys’ stated wishes to keep their music out of advertisements, as articulated in their open letter —
make no mistake, your video is an advertisement that is designed to sell a product, and long ago, we made a conscious decision not to permit our music and/or name to be used in product ads.
This is especially poignant given that Adam Yauch (aka MCA) made this same wish explicit in his will.
But then, GoldieBlox isn’t actually using the Beasties’ music. Or are they? It’s a question — and not an easy one to resolve. (For any of us, or for a judge or jury for that matter.) They’re certainly not using the Beasties’ recording, or even a sample from it. Why should we determine that the Beasties’ should be able to stop others from re-assembling the same pieces that they themselves assembled without licensing/permission in the first place? Should GoldieBlox respect the Beasties’ wishes?
What about, say, James Newton’s wishes? An avant-jazz flutist, Newton famously insisted that the Beasties’ use of a sample of his flute performance on “Choir” for the Beasties’ “Pass the Mic” constituted copyright infringement, but a court ruled that the snippet was too short to constitute a part of his composition, and since the Boys had licensed the recording from Newton’s record label (for a paltry $1000), they were allowed to go ahead and use it despite lacking Newton’s permission.
Generally speaking, as readers of W&W will know, I support that sort of relatively unbridled approach to transformative re-use. Songs are shared things, and if you don’t want someone to play or sing along, hold them close and sing them quietly in the corner. Once something is out in the open, in public, via commercial or even non-commercial circulation, it becomes available for sharing and reinterpretation. Courts and lawyers and some artists like to draw hard and fast lines between folk culture and commercial culture, but these are usually little more than language games having to do with claiming ownership, not stable definitions of cultural domains. (Sometimes, they’re struggles over power and money, which are not to be diminished, though they are hardly at play in this case between some rich musicians and a successful start-up.)
When did “Girls” escape the Beasties’ creative control? Perhaps as soon as it was commercially released and massively distributed. In its own way, the Beastie’s “Girls” was, in the first instance, itself an advertisement — an ad for an album, an ad for concerts, an ad for a sophomoric act that the Beastie Boys took to the world and to the bank.
All that said, it’s still a little odd for the likes of the EFF to step into the fray, and to argue for fair use simply because they agree with Glodieblox’s putative politics. Clearly, commercial instances of parodic fair use have been upheld before — s/o Luther Campbell & Henry Louis Gates — but it’s always a matter of convincing some judge/jury about the lines people want to draw around musical ownership. Toward that end, I think considering the big musical picture here helps.
I mean, just imagine the chilling effect on other renditions of “Girls”! In a world of personal branding, where do we draw the line between commercial and non? Between advertisement and not?
Tell this guy Bro Chuy he’d better not “go viral” –
Or this girl for that matter —
And someone should really warn these squirrels not to attempt to monetize their questionable “parody” –
For my part, as a dad, I’ll be sure to teach my daughters how to reverse engineer our favorite Beastie songs as soon as the girls are ready for some serious digital music trickery.
I’ve been following @emancan (aka, Emanuel Vinson, more recently recrowned as +) on Twitter for a few years now. In his early 20s, Emanuel is about as #based as it gets: persistently positive, open and encouraging, and utterly frank, especially when it comes to sources of inspiration or bullshit he needs to speak to from his rather centered place in the world (also, Chicago).
He’s an inspiration in his own right, especially the ways he models good personhood and self-propelled, generous, utterly independent artistry. Changing the game, indeed — at least a boy can dream.
His latest album, dove, has been a while in the making, and it’s really great. Pretty much a distillation of everything I just said and more, executed to heart-on-sleeve rugged-edged perfection.
West Coast examples of raggamuffin rap only appear briefly toward the end of our mix, so it’s great to have the picture fleshed out a little more. Here’s the hook —
Back when Shabba and Super Cat were killing the game in the early â€™90s, the influence of dancehall could be felt throughout hip-hop. While East Coast rappers with Caribbean backgrounds like KRS-One and Heavy D collaborated with dancehallâ€™s heavyweights themselves, artists from the West Coastâ€”where the connections to Jamaica were less apparentâ€”had to get a little more creative. Hence, the faux raggamuffin deejay styles on records by NWA, DJ Quik and other gangster rap acts of the day.
While I’ve got you here, I thought I should share something of an author’s cut of the Cluster Mag article, which had to be about half the length that I wanted it to be. At one point in the article, there appears a rather brief history of Jamaican soundsystem culture, accompanied by the disclaimer, “To make the very long story unforgivably short…”
Well, what else are blogs for? Here’s the longer version for any of you who care to read. For me, the little leaps of logic involved in the beginnings of reggae and rap really do deserve explication and emphasis –
Playing records to people, interactively, sounds totally commonplace today, because it is. But at the time that â€śsoundsystemsâ€ť in Kingston started holding dances backed not by bands but by savvy selectors with hot and hit records and powerful speakers, that sort of thing was hardly seen outside of sock hops or the first French discothĂ¨ques. As they later did with the recording studio itself, Jamaicans were in the process of making the jukebox a live instrument, which required some little leaps of logic and a lot of ingenuity.
When Clement â€śCoxsoneâ€ť Dodd was working as a migrant laborer in Florida in the 1950s, he attended lots of parties. And while picking oranges, he was also picking up plenty of the 45s running the local jukeboxes. Back then, there were two main sources for the soundtrack of the party: canned jukebox or live band. Returning home to Kingston, Coxsone decided to combine the two: to play records as live performance. He started with a PA at his parentsâ€™ pharmacy, bringing in customers with the slick sounds of Southern R&B. Before long Coxsoneâ€™s Downbeat soundsystems were operating across Western Kingston and beyond, vying with Duke Reidâ€™s Trojan as keeper of the best downtown dancehall sessions. Soon after, he opened up Studio One, where the feedback loop between what dancers liked and selectors played could be made even tighter. Eventually, through the magic of dubplates and multitracks, selectors could rinse instrumental versions of popular tunes while, inspired by African-American radio disc jockeys, jive-slanging â€śdeejaysâ€ť such as King Stitt and U-Roy toasted in a local, cosmopolitan tongue. It didnâ€™t take much longer, if another little leap of logic, for these masters of ceremony to become recording stars in their own right: in 1970, U-Royâ€™s first â€śtalkoverâ€ť singlesâ€”a trio of rocksteady-repurposing noveltiesâ€”held the top spots on Jamaican radio for months.
This interactive approach to playing commercial dance records is, of course, essentially the same insight that would engender disco right around the same time, and which carries forward via house, techno, and their EDM ilk as perhaps the dominant paradigm of modern musical experience. It is also the same insight that sparked hip-hopâ€”quite directly, in fact.
As the story goes, hip-hop was born on a summer night in 1973 in a rec-room on the ground floor of 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, an apartment building in the West Bronx, when Clive Campbell, better known as Kool Herc, hosted a party with his older sister Cindy. Born and raised in Kingston, Campbell was well familiar with the importance of a customizedâ€”and loud and clearâ€”sonic experience. For the party, Herc borrowed a powerful PA from his father, a soundman for local R&B acts, and played the role of selector, hand-picking and cueing up records, as well as MC, using a mic to praise partygoers with rhyming routines, and to hype the musical selections, make announcements, and encourage dancing.
Like any good DJ, Herc sought to respond to the demands of his audience. Given the context, this entailed embracing certain soundsystem techniquesâ€”especially the license to manipulate a recording in realtimeâ€”while departing from what one might have heard at a dance in Jamaica. Despite borrowing liberally from soundsystem culture, Herc didnâ€™t play reggae at the party. Among his peers, Jamaican music and style had yet to undergo the cool recuperation that eventually followed Bob Marleyâ€™s success and, more important in New York, the violent dominance of the drug trade by Jamaican gangs, or â€śposses,â€ť in the mid-80s. Just as Herc made an effort to swap his Jamaican accent for a Bronx brogue, he played soul, funk, and driving disco tracksâ€”especially records with stripped-down, percussion-led breaksâ€”in place of reggae anthems.
Herc and Cindy began throwing parties regularly, and the audience steadily grewâ€”as did Hercâ€™s crew, including dedicated MCs like Coke La Rock and a coterie of flashy dancers. Running out of room at 1520 Sedgwick, Herc relocated to nearby Cedar Park where, repurposing what little civic infrastructure remained in a place haunted by the politics of neglect, electricity from a utility pole powered the soundsystem. In contrast to clubs, where cover charges and age restrictions kept teenagers out, the â€śpark jamsâ€ť were active incubators, stylistically and socially, of a new kind of public youth culture. In this way, Hercâ€™s burgeoning audience, some driven West by gang violence in the South Bronx, helped essentially to co-produce a remarkable phenomenon: a vibrant party scene where local culture thrived as DJs, MCs, and dancers wrested new forms out of the resources at hand.
Hip-hop was so tied to realtime social gatherings in its early years that the idea of committing such performances to tape and selling them as commodities required some imagination. Recordings of parties were made, of course, and tapes circulated informally and even quasi-commercially, but it was not until a seasoned and savvy record executive, Silvia Robinson of Sugar Hill Records, saw potential in the form that the rap song emerged as such, six years after Hercâ€™s back-to-school jam on Sedgwick Ave. Most of hip-hopâ€™s biggest names at that time were not easily convinced, or drawn away from the relatively lucrative party circuit, so Robinsonâ€™s first attempt was more a studio simulation than a faithful rendering of contemporary party practice. Assembling a ragtag crew of aspiring rappers as the Sugar Hill Gang, Robinson released a 15-minute single called â€śRapperâ€™s Delightâ€ť stitching together popular routines drawn from such prominent MCs as Grandmaster Caz over a replayed loop from Chicâ€™s â€śGood Times,â€ť then a current favorite among hip-hop DJs. Despite its unusual length for a pop single, as a passably genuine artifact of hip-hopâ€™s sprawling party style, â€śRapperâ€™s Delightâ€ť became a massive hit on urban radio, selling millions of copies and offering the wider world its first exposure to hip-hop. (Multiple Jamaican acts recorded reggae-fied versions of the song before the year was out.)
I’m very happy to share some new work that involves quite a bit of collaboration: two articles and a truly epic mega-mix devoted to the rich, ruff-and-ready sound of raggamuffin hip-hop — aka, dancehall-derived flows over breakbeat-based beats (ca. 1987-94). It’s a distinctive and special repertory, near & dear to me and my co-curator, Pacey Foster, and as longtime readers of W&W will discern, it’s a sound that emerges directly from the circumstances I examine in my dissertation.
It was my dissertation, in fact, which led to this latest article over at Cluster Mag, a contribution to their new Party issue (launching in full next week). This summer’s spate of reggae-laced hip-hop tracks led Cluster editor Max Pearl to ask if I could bring some context to the phenomenon, and I was more than happy to oblige. You can find it here:
While the Cluster piece includes a theorization and historicization of hip-hop and reggae as quintessential party musics, I was especially happy to delve into raggamuffin hip-hop as a particular, peculiar, and powerful example of the two genre’s longstanding interplay.
Pace and I have been geeking out over these records since we met a decade ago, and we were scheming on a raggamuffin hip-hop megamix well before we even had an outlet for it. Pace’s collection goes deeeeep, especially when it comes to Boston rap rarities and party-break white labels, and of course my “dissertation archive” (as I like to call my CD and MP3 collection) helped to flesh things out.
One other exciting part of this collaboration is that we’ve arranged to simultaneously publish a piece on the mixtape per se (and less on the social history and party theory) over at the blog of IASPM-US, which issued an admirable “call for mixtapes” earlier this year, and cross-posted at Ethnomusicology Review‘s Sounding Board. For that piece, we’ve labored to discuss why we believe so strongly in the DJ mix as a form of sound scholarship. Since Pace and I both wear academic hats as well as DJ caps, we’re eager to share this work with an academic readership in addition to the hip, whipsmart Cluster massive and, not least, to all of you, dear readers of W&W DOT COM:
So, please go read the pieces, spread the links around, tweet and comment up a storm, and, of course, don’t neglect our 94 minute, 48 track mega-mix! And make some time for it — if you don’t get all the way to the end, you’ll miss some jaw-dropping raggamuffin rap c/o Slick Rick the Ruler, who despite his Jamaican heritage seems to have gone-in on the patois-patter but this one precious time. Here it is –
Old friends Old Money Massive have released the best damn rap album I’ve heard in lightyears.
Obvi, we’ve been fans at W&W since “African Kids” — and I’m happy to have had a little hand in bringing Old Money to Boston a couple times. They’ve been leaking flames in the form of tracks & videos for daze, but I’m beyond thrilled that they finally brought their bracing vision to the world in the shape of a restless but deeply coherent “mixtape” (along with assorted transmedia objects, as I’ll note below).
There’s a lot I could say about the sui generis afropessimystic futurism they’ve encrypted for this zipfile, but just go ahead and listen for yourself, and be sure not to skip the bumboclaat intro –
If you need a little more of a hermeneutical angle, their official bio offers hints —
Ahmad Julian and Andre Oswald are Old Money, a New York based rap, production and DJ duo of Jamaican and Guyanese origins. Their music incorporates the sounds of contemporary Africa such as UK Funky, Dancehall, Kwaito, Kuduro and Hip-Hop while remaining rooted in traditions of pan-African philosophy. In this way, their output remains dynamic and cutting-edge, while also taking on a mystical bend â€“ influenced by fringe spiritual orders like the Nuwaubians, the Moors, NOI, and The 5 Percenters, as well as science fiction novels by author Octavia Butler.
But you can also get the gist from ish like this, the vivid video for “Rumble In Tenochtitlan” –
Very helpful and generous of the duo, their “Certified Space Trade Mix” — with matching Dr.Bronner’s inspired t-shirt! — provides a broader, and at once more specific, sense of the musical and philosophical background underpinning their sound:
Finally, a great interview over at Dazed Digital (including a brief, funny, and much appreciated shoutout to yours truly) offers further angles to consider while you nod along to the beats. Here’s the pulliest of pull quotes, a good glimpse into what shapes Old Money’s aesthetic –
Dazed Digital: You were brought up in the Bronx and Brooklyn. How did growing up in the boroughs of hip hop’s birth influence you?
Ahmad Julian: Tremendously, though I’d say it influenced us more so in the past than it does now, at least musically speaking. Of course, certain things stay with you â€“ a certain awareness, a certain paranoia, how you carry yourself, sartorial choices, vernacular, etc. But at this point I’d say equally important as far as influence goes would be the internet and our travels, which have enabled us to connect dots where we might not have otherwise. All of this, hopefully, comes through in the music.
Fire in the dark, seen. Gwaan catch the spark already. Blackstar Galactica been boarding…
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, â€śCome Againâ€ť
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, â€śGal Yu Mean Itâ€ť
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, â€śPimps (Freestyling at the Fortune 500 Club)â€ť
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, â€śPerfect Gentlemen Remixâ€ť
2001 — Ă‘ejo, “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, â€śNow That You Got Itâ€ť
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.
On the 243rd anniversary of the Boston Massacre (bigup Crispus Attucks!), I’m reposting the merely titular-pun-related mix of Boston-associated songs I cooked up for the Somerville Art Council back in 2005. This is also (barely) germane to the day given the currently flaring debate over Massachusetts’ official rock song. (As they say around here, I shit you not.) Not to mention, if only very tangentially, the emergence of one of the best mashups in years. (Really love how it reproduces the effect of that ol’ Eminem/Britney mashup, revealing the underlying pop sensibilities of two putative hardcore outsiders.) Without further ado, here’s the Boston Mashacre (my follow-up, the Smashacre, resides over here)â€¦
we begin with sounds of the davis square farmer’s market, with several different languages being spoken, including what sounds like a guy saying “habibi.” the percussion is an empty soda bottle that another guy was banging on his hip, quietly singing what sounded like a reggae song at the same time. confirming my impression, yet another guy–this one a farmer/vendor–walks up to him and says rather dryly, and to my incredulous ears for stumbling upon such a soundbite, “champion sound, yeah?” from there, the man with the bottle plays a classic 3+3+2, reminiscent of so many caribbean styles, and we hear car alarms and horns spin into melody. as a bus pulls up and takes off again (and “buses” was one of the most popular returns i got to the question “what are the sounds of somerville?”), the familiar strains of the standells’ “dirty water” enter the soundscape and the mix. from there, the incidental sounds of the city–which, as you can hear, are rather musical in their own way–yield to the “musical” sounds of the city. that is, we enter the realm of pop recordings, of the boston soundscape as MOR radio presents it (at least as filtered through the ears of a lifelong boston jerk who harbors a strange mix of pride, humility, and humiliation when it comes to the sounds of his city).
after the standells, the lineup moves through a number of boston mainstays and one-hit wonders, has-beens and shoulda-beens. the full tracklist is as follows:
the standells, “dirty water” (not a boston band, but they might as well be) the cars, “you might think i’m crazy” (yup, a boston band) dj c, “boston you’re my bounce” (beat research) NKOTB, “hangin’ tough” (omg! jordan is my fave lol ;-) mr. lif, “home of the brave” (so he lives in berkeley now, and what?) tracy chapman, “fast car” (used to play T stations) extreme, “more than words” (found an acapella!?!) aerosmith, “walk this way” (nice break, dudes) run DMC, “walk this way” (better break, jam master) NKOTB, “the right stuff” (williamsburg where ya at?) bell biv devoe, “poison” (girl, i must warn you: i know that BBD album by heart) the cars, “just what i needed” (uncanny how the intro mirrors BBD’s) j geils band, “angel is a centerfold” (urbody whistle now) boston, “more than a feeling” (guitars are for dorks) ed O.G., “i got to have it” (representin’ the bean harder than guru since 1991) MBTA, “davis square redline stop” (a wicked hahd-to-find recording)
listeners will notice that some of these tracks are in more fragmentary form than others. (hope not to leave anyone hanging too much, but you should seek out the originals in that case.) as with most mixes, it was the tracks’ suggestive qualities and affective resonance that i was going for–not some sense of their textual wholeness. this is however less a mix or a mashup, per se, than what might be better called a mix’n'mash. at times, i play songs on their own, though more often than not i play two or more songs at once (or instrumental versions/loops of them).
the sound and shape of the music i am making here is a product of the technology that i am using: ableton live. having the relative freedom to stretch tempos without changing pitch allows me to match a number of songs together that the average vinylist couldn’t/wouldn’t. of course, i also change pitch sometimes, purposely, either to make a harmony sweeter or to weird/chipmunk something out. generally though, at least in this case, i have preserved the original pitch/key of the songs in question, which i think makes them much more recognizable. the changes in tempo are less noticeable. you’ll notice i like the echo button, too.