If you haven’t heard it yet, I finally cooked down a Zunguzung Mega Mix that features all 50+ instances that have come to my attention since I first started listening for that catchy likkle tune and, with the publication of this piece back in 2007, enlisting others to lend me their ears.
The impetus for finally bringing this together is that my friend and fellow music scribe, Garnette Cadogen, was visiting Yellowman last week and told him about my work. (Garnette reported, much to my delight, that King Yellow was “touched, truly touched” by my work on his legacy.) When he requested a full mix of the “Zigzagging Zunguzung Meme,” I could hardly refuse.
So here it is, for now anyway: 54 strikingly similiar contours! (See full track list below.)
1982 — Yellowman, “Zunguzungunguzunguzeng”
1982 — Yellowman & Fathead, “Physical / Zunguzung (Live at Aces)”
1982 — Sister Nancy, “Coward of the Country”
1984 — Frankie Paul, “Alesha”
1984 — Toyan, “Hot Bubble Gum”
1985 — Little John, “Clarks Booty”
1985 — Super Cat, “Boops”
1986 — Cocoa Tea, âCome Againâ
1986 — Cutty Ranks @ StereoMars PNP Rally
1986 — BDP, “The P Is Free”
1987 — BDP, “Remix For P Is Free”
1988 — BDP, “T Cha T Cha”
1988 — Queen Latifah, “Princess of the Posse”
1988 — Masters of Ceremony, “Keep on Moving”
1988 — Sublime, “Roots of Creation”
1989 — Nice & Smooth, “Nice & Smooth”
1989 — Nice & Smooth, “Dope on a Rope”
1991 — Leaders of the New School, “Case of the P.T.A.”
1992 — Lecturer, âGal Yu Mean Itâ
1992 — Sublime, “Scarlet Begonias”
1992 — Leila K, “Open Sesame”
1993 — Us3, “I Got It Goinâ On”
1993 — K7, “Zunga Zeng”
1993 — KRS-One, “P Is Still Free”
1993 — Jamalski, “African Border”
1993 — Buju Banton, “Big It Up”
1994 — The Coup, âPimps (Freestyling at the Fortune 500 Club)â
1994 — Ninjaman, “Funeral Again”
1994 — Bounty Killer, “Kill Or Be Killed”
1995 — Buju Banton, “Man a Look Yu”
1995 — Junior M.A.F.I.A. ft. Biggie Smalls, “Player’s Anthem”
1996 — 2pac, “Hit ‘Em Up”
1996 — Captain Barkey, “Go Go Wine”
1996 — Junior Dangerous ft. Lucas, “Comin’ Out To Play”
1997 — Cru, “Pronto”
1998 — Mr. Notty, “Sentencia de Muerte”
1998 — Black Star, “Definition”
1999 — Lilâ Cease ft. Jay-Z, “4 My Niggaz”
2000 — Dead Prez, “It’s Bigger than Hip-Hop”
2000 — Daisy Dee, “Open Sesame”
2000 — Wyclef Jean ft. Xzibit and Yellowman, âPerfect Gentlemen Remixâ
2001 — Ăejo, “El Problema Ser Bellaco”
2003 — Joe Budden, “Pump It Up”
2004 — Jin, “Learn Chinese”
2005 — Looptroop, “Chana Masala”
2006 — POD ft. Matisyahu, “Roots in Stereo”
2006 — JD (aka Dready), “UK Zunga Zeng”
2007 — White Rappers, “One Night Stand”
2007 — Gwen Stefani ft. Damian Marley, âNow That You Got Itâ
2009 — Wax Taylor ft. ASM, “Say Yes”
2010 — Vybz Kartel, “Whine (Wine)”
2011 — Tifa, “Matey Wine”
2011 — Yellowman, “Zungguzungguguzungguzeng (Horsepower Productions Remix / Dub)”
2013 — Benga & Kano, “Forefather”
Notably, with the exception of Nice & Smooth, K7, and Horsepower Productions, all of the echoes of Yellowman’s tune to date have been re-sung rather than sampled. Sometimes a one-off phrase, at other times it structures the chorus. The tune twists and turns in so many ways over the course of 30 years, I find it truly beguiling. I just want to sing it all the time. That’s a good riff for you.
[Update: Only took a day before another version popped up in the comments! Thanks to Noriko Manabe and Marvin Sterling for pointing out that Rankin Taxi's "You Can't See It, and You Can't Smell It Either" -- a 2011 post-Fukushima protest song -- also contains a zunguzung allusion. Guess I'll have to re-mix the mega mix, again, at some point. Nice to have an appearance from beyond the Americas & Europe.]
I can’t leave you with just that, however, as similar threads demand to be looped in.
When we make songs, Spanish people take it and sing it different, and we don’t speak Spanish, so we don’t realise. Because of that, the Spanish artistes don’t pay us royalties and it slips right under our nose. I think the Spanish owe reggae music millions of dollars right now.
Niney may be right. It’s true that this happens all the time. Indeed, the latest example I stumbled across is classic in its overt and simultaneously reverent and irreverent reanimation of a hit reggae song. Still, I wonder whether Ricky Blaze knows about this (or, for that matter, this) and what he’d think —
Niney offers additional barbs about white people owning ska & other perversions of property. He even raises the specter of the entire genre of reggaeton owing a grand debt to Shabba Ranks’s (and hence, Bobby Digital’s / Steely & Clevie’s) “Dem Bow” — though he reduces it to a general rhythmic pattern that is hardly copyrightable. And though I could discuss dembow for days, here I want to flag another specific allegation and its recursive riffs on riffs:
Songs like Murder She Wrote is in Spanish right now and I don’t even think Sly and Robbie know.
Niney’s reference to “Murder She Wrote” is interesting, especially as the first track mentioned in this light. Of course, he’s right, to some extent. But it’s not actually true that “Spanish people” are singing the song so much; more precisely, little loops and bits of the riddim from “Murder She Wrote” have, by this point, been as deeply embedded into the aesthetic code of reggaeton (especially Dominican dembow) as “Dem Bow” itself. (& I will add that I find Niney’s comments on “Dem Bow” quite timely given that I’ve got a piece in a forthcoming Wax Poetics detailing the surprisingly mixed-up and mysterious “origin” of reggaeton’s Dem Bow. Spoiler alert: reggaeton’s favorite loop was not recorded in Jamaica.)
As it happens, not only does “Murder She Wrote” live on in a thousand DJ Scuff mini-mega-mixes, it’s about to get as big a push into the US (& global) mainstream as it has received since the early 90s thanks to none other than French Montana (featuring, natch, Nicki Minaj), who additionally riffs on the vocal melody from Chaka Demus & Pliers’ warhorse:
As odd as I find the juxtaposition of two unrelated early 90s dancehall songs here, and as squirmy as such caricatured takes on dancehall make me, “Freaks” represents an exciting moment for the lil lilting riff that so defines “Murder She Wrote” (also known as the Bam Bam riddim) — a riff which, as I’ve explored in mini-mega-mix form, is itself quite caught up in international networks of creative riffing –
I hope French’s folks licensed those samples, though, since his jam is not as likely to fly under the radar as its Puerto Rican cousins. That said, I’d love to see a case like this actually go to court somewhere. (Not really.) It’s more than clear that this stuff goes around and around and around, and hence making claims to ultimate origins (and exclusive exploitation rights) always seems a little suspect. But who knows what a judge or jury might decide.
Along those lines, the last riff on a riff (on a riff?) I want to share here is based around a story BigBlackBarry told me when I was in Kingston last month. Check this set of echoes:
As complicated as this may seem, just because Bo Diddley recorded it “first” (and who knows who he may have been riffing off) didn’t stop Willie Cobb from shaking down Dawn Penn when her rocksteady hit was rejuvenated with a mid90s twist and became a sudden crossover success.
So I’ll leave it here for now: big up the one King Yellowman for recognizing how influence and allusion work, for relentlessly riffing on the sounds around him, and for never suing the many, many souls who did him the same service and extended his echoing chant into a realm of truly remarkable reverberation.
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)âŚ
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.
Here’s another ten-years-gone re-post from the initial instantiation of my blog, back in 2003 when Rebecca and I moved to Jamaica for six months of doctoral research — and, as a side gig (if one deeply intertwined with my research), a series of digital music workshops in schools and prisons.
What I’m going to do in this case is cobble together and remix two overlapping posts by yours truly and my “companion on Hope Road” — detailing a trip to a nearby high school where we conducted one of our first workshops after moving to Kingston, exactly 10 years ago today. Mainly, what I want to share here are the ebullient sounds of students at St. Andrew High School for Girls freestyling about an upcoming teacher’s strike — and working up some first-time beats.
Howard Campbell is a teacher at St. Andrew High School for girls, just down the road from us in Halfway Tree. He is the head of the computer labs and the coordinator for all kinds of technology education at St. Andrew. We met him at the Harvard-Jamaica Association meeting where he had come with his friend Marvin, not because they were from Harvard or cared at all about a Harvard Alumni Association, but because they were educators interested in our project. In fact, it seemed that from experience both Howard and Marvin had learned that top-down organizations, such as the association we were forming and the school system in Kingston-St. Andrew were not the best way to get things done. They encouraged us to start from the teachers in the schools if we wanted to get in and start working. After seeing Wayne’s demo, Howard offered St. Andrew as a good place to start. Yesterday we went to St. Andrew for the first time.
At 8am we had a class of 4th formers (10th grade). We were to do a demo with them in this period and then a workshop with them from 10-11 in the computer lab. When Wayne got Fruityloops up on the screen and started talking, the class was polite and paid attention. Once he hit the first kick drum, they began to look really interested. And as soon as he put up a little hip-hop beat and then turned it into the grindin’ beat, they were hooked. (Side note: from Cambridge to Kingston, it seems that kids everywhere are loving the grindin’ beat and banging it out on their desks. Way to go Neptunes.) They started dancing in their chairs when he showed them how to make some dancehall. Next he made a song with the class, getting a few brave souls to make some noises and sing a bit and putting it together into a dancehall rhythm:
[2013 Wayne here just pointing out the obvious reference here to "In Da Club," another ubiquitous song at this time.]
At 9 they reluctantly left for their next class, seemingly a combination of a particular attachment to Mr. Campbell, interest in what Wayne was doing, and dislike of whatever they would have to do for the next hour.
At 10, girls piled in and sat one or two to a computer. Wayne managed to hold their attention for a few minutes to repeat some basics. And they got started. I was glad I had watched Wayne so much and messed around on Fruityloops myself because there were too many questions for Wayne to handle by himself. Girls went at different paces and made every kind of music from dancehall to techno. As they would run into trouble, Wayne would go to them and give them a few pointers to keep them moving in a good direction. At 11 they were all still going strong. Howard came and told us that it was their lunch period, but if we didn’t mind, they could stay. We didn’t mind. Most of them stayed through most of their lunch period and came away with some pretty good little songs.
Cue 2003 Wayne:
the workshop proved to be quite productive, if a little cacophonous at times. (half a dozen computers blasting beats together in a small room can create quite a sound clash, to use the local term; headphones are helpful). through their own predilections, and the contingent curve-balls of the creative process, the girls came up with some diverse stylings. “catherine’s rock rhythm” (as she titled it), probably takes its name from the “dirty-guitar” sample that, unfortunately, is missing here since i seem to be missing it in my own sound bank (i am converting it to mp3 on my laptop today, away from the school). nevertheless, it puts a strong foot forward with its bouncy bed of techno–not the most popular genre here but one in which a couple of girls decided to create.
sydoney and zelieka collaborated to create a rhythm that, while borrowing from the neptune’s ubiquitous grindin’ beat (in the third and fourth bars of each six-bar, AABBAA phrase), almost defies category with its future-funk, electro-slanted hip-hop.
and “shanika’s hip-hop beat” is, quite honestly, one of the illest things i have heard in a while. not bad for a first try!
we went home to have lunch and do laundry. at two o’clock we headed back to the school to do another demo–this one for an afterschool music club, which seemed like an appropriate audience. howard told us on the way down hope road that a buzz was already passing through the school, accelerated in part by my famous name. we had some time to see the grounds before the music club meeting, so howard showed us around. most impressive was a front courtyard where girls were hanging out and waiting to be picked up from school.
one group of girls stood in a circle under a tree, coaxing a makeshift rhythm out of an empty coke bottle and an igloo thermos. they were DJing, laughing, dancing and exhorting each other. it was an absolutely wonderful moment of improvisation and collective music-making. as howard (with his video camera), i (with mic and laptop), and becca (with her digital camera) moved in for some samples, it was clear that this cipher was no rehearsal. these girls were not only creating extemporaneous raps in DJ-style, they were humorously riffing on the topic of the hour: the imminent teachers’ strike and the small holiday the students would enjoy.
as the girls waited for the beat to begin again (having located another empty coke bottle), one called out for them to freestyle, dubbing the day “freestyle friday” — a reference to a popular segment during a music-video program on BET. the seamlessness of this reference in the context of the girls’ play is another testament to the fluidity of cultural forms here: hip-hop and other american exports are absorbed and spun back out, sometimes more and sometimes less like a copy. today was no copy. the girls may have assimilated the hip-hop term for in-the-moment rap, but their form was strictly dancehall. [Indeed, though I didn't realize it at the time, they were closely riffing on a beloved Shabba ranks routine.]
hear the distinctive 3+3+2 dancehall beat, the staccato, end-rhyme style of the vocals, the chorus of gun-shot-big-ups that follow the first good rhyme, the “booyaka” refrain — more onamatopoetic gunfire — that cracks everyone up. listen closer for the topicality of the text: “ting-a-ling-a-ling / school bell nuh ring / go and mek the teacher buy the bling-bling.” the call to give the teachers some money to buy jewelry and other nice things [but also basics, like "dumpling"] is at once a crack at those not providing for their teachers and a good-natured ribbing for the teachers themselves (who are either impoverished or greedy by implication). and lest one think these students are disappointed about school being cancelled, they dispel any such notions with a “no school” celebratory chant.
back to Bec for a sec:
“No school, no school!” was the main refrain and the main topic of conversation. Why? A nation-wide teacher’s strike is scheduled for Monday and Tuesday as a demonstration of dissatisfaction with the wage increase that the teacher’s union and the government have negotiated. Here, as in the U.S. but on a more extreme scale, the teachers are drastically underpaid and their work undervalued. Howard takes the problem quite seriously and is an active participant in organizing some form of peaceful resistance. He is clearly a caring and beloved teacher. He supports programs like ours as a way to move education forward in Jamaica. He is just the sort of person one would want to see standing up for the rights of teachers because it is teachers like him who demonstrate how much a teacher’s work is worth.
And I’ll pile on just a little more:
many of the students were worried about the strike, including a number of them pursuing a rumor that howard, a clear favorite at st. andrews, would be resigning. as various girls ran up to greet him after school, howard assuaged their fears and pointed out that, although he may be “on strike,” as they could see, he was still at school, and well into afterschool hours. as we continued walking through the grounds, on our way back to the computer lab, we came across a girl practicing piano in a large performance hall that stands in the middle of the campus. i got a little of her rendition of beethoven’s moonlight sonata on my laptop, a chord of which ended up in the song i created with music club, who decided to do their own little version of sean paul’s terribly popular, “gimme the light.” [n.b.: fairly horribly harmonized -- or not at all, really -- on my part]
after the demo, which was received positively, complete with (in true jamaican style) some fairly formal and very charming thanks from the music club’s spokesperson, i went back to the lab to collect the tracks that the students had created in the morning so that i could post them on the blog. at four o’clock on a friday afternoon, the lab was full of girls making music, most of them new. very promising indeed.
Almost incredibly, it was ten years ago today that I put my first blogpost online, less than a week into a six month stay in Kingston for doctoral research, accompanied by my better half — my partner on Hope Road, as I ultimately dedicated the dissertation — who blogged along with me. Written in plain ol’ HTML — if I had known about the recently launched Blogger, I would have jumped on it — and posted to a domain that I let lapse long ago (but which is all archived here), it began bloggily enough:
it is my intention to keep a daily, or near daily, weblog of my thoughts, experiences, and other media that i record or create while in jamaica. not only is this a great way to force myself to articulate some things on a regular basis, but i hope that by sharing ideas, sounds, and images with a larger audience i can invite others to get in on the conversation.
A great deal of that first post is, frankly, hard for me to read (probably for you too — don’t feel obliged). And not just for the typical reasons of feeling like a different person and cringing at my naive former self. No, it’s just some really awful writing, almost the whole way through. Not only is it rather muddled (if, ok, a first post and an attempt to condense several days of activity and months of preparation), it’s riddled by doubt and qualification, on the one hand, and by smugness and narcissism on the other. Shit, maybe my writing is still like that, but I think I’ve been able to get away from some truly bad grad-school habits over the years, especially the endless hedging and explication. It’s funny that even then I was consciously struggling with these issues –
to some extent i am striving to expunge jargon from my vocabulary and to speak and write in clear, simple prose. on the other hand, i am swayed by the feeling that i can express myself more succinctly and precisely with these newly accented words of critical/cultural/post- studies. words which tend to sound either vague or big to the uninitiated. words like discourse and liminal.
LOL. I can’t even tell if I’m being sarcastic there at the end. Despite the cringeworthy moments, I have to remind myself that I was writing in a strange hybrid style mixing personal fieldnotes and public-facing presentation — not only unorthodox from the perspective of field research but with little aside from gonzo journalism as a guide (not that I was trying to do that either). It was a risky voice to assume at the time, and it’s still a dangerzone I find myself inhabiting here and on Twitter and every other (semi)public forum where private/unguarded/frank talk mingles with more carefully crafted performances.
I’d be remiss not to note that the way I ultimately got myself through that awfully awkward phase was, fairly simply, by keeping up a “near daily” regimen of putting my words together and putting them out there for anyone to see — just as I had promised to do. But I shouldn’t exactly say “got myself,” since it was the engagement and encouragement from friends and strangers that made these posts into something more than notes to myself. As folks found the blog and left comments and sent me emails, a deeply fulfilling and remarkably fast feedback loop began to emerge (especially in comparison to academic conventions and tempos). Over the years, such a discipline — in combination with a real community of co-readers (reading me but also reading the world along with me) — has helped me to find a voice that feels less awkward and more authentic. I’m grateful there’s a record of all of that, even if earlier versions of myself are sometimes, as they say, not a good look.
forever <3 that tam becca knit me tho
In lieu of reposting much prose from my initial post here, I’d like instead to highlight some short recordings I posted, mostly attempts to record and represent our new soundscape but a couple whimsical collages too and snippets that, looking back, seem to capture some little moments pretty vividly.
Like an aborted excursion on Hope Road, cut short by sudden rain–
Or the sounds of kids playing at the primary school across the street — quite a delightful part of our daily soundscape:
Or the stray dogs that liked to hang out in the yard behind our apartment and bark and howl, often pathetically, at night — not quite as delightful, but an inescapable part of the sound of Kingston:
A few weeks later I chopped up the barking and whining for “Dog Gone Diwali,” a humorous attempt to cut-and-paste some very local sounds into a riddim that was at that moment totally ubiquitous and which I wanted to better understand by recomposing (this was the spring that Sean Paul’s “Get Busy” ran the world, though I swear “Sufferer” was the more popular Diwali voicing inna JA):
Along those lines, my initial post also included an odd bit of dancehall concrĂ¨te, a piece I whipped up in front of and with the help of a live audience at an ICT conference Rebecca and I attended in the hope of making some contacts to help with our volunteer work in prisons and schools. This was a little schtick of mine back then — making a little ditty out of the sounds people would make in front of my laptop — sometimes with great results, sometimes more meh, but usually at least producing an interesting memento of sorts, e.g.:
Over the course of this spring I hope to revisit a number of the more interesting posts from our likkle Jamrock fieldwork adventure. If they’re not too embarrassingly full of qualifiers and parentheticals, I might even run one on occasion as a full re-post here. I don’t think any readers, even longtime friends of W&W, should be too annoyed. I mean, really, it’s been ten years!
In honor of the late, great Aaron Swartz, pictured above, I’m making an overdue effort to get some of my own works out from behind walls of various sorts and into the open. (This is always my practice, but sometimes there’s more of a lag than I’d like.) I can’t say that I ever met Aaron, despite no doubt crossing paths in Cambridge over the years. But I have so many friends who counted him a friend, his loss resonates on a personal level as well as an intellectual one. Of course, I was well aware of Aaron’s work and keenly curious about the JSTOR case as it proceeded, and like many others I find myself disgusted and galvanized by the tragedy of his persecution and death.
While there is a general effort, if not concerted movement, among academics to take the opportunity to make their own articles openly accessible in tribute to Aaron, aptly enough the PDFs I want to share here are in their own ways deeply concerned with the (un)fettered and often creative circulation of texts, files, media, ideas, riffs — whatever you want to call em. In these particular two cases, mashups and remixes.
The first piece is something I wrote many years back but only published in book form more recently. “Mashup Poetics as Pedagogical Practice” grows out of a series of talks I was giving at the time, offering an aesthetic explication of mashups while also posing the form as one we might embrace for teaching and publishing alike. Obviously, it’s something of a technomusicological manifesto, building on earlier riffs about musicking about music and offering examples from my own bloggy oeuvre. Indeed, I did a little something along these lines in the mix I made to accompany the second PDF I’d like to share. But first, here’s a link & a cite:
Wayne Marshall, “Mashup Poetics as Pedagogical Practice.” (PDF) In Pop-Culture Pedagogy in the Music Classroom: Teaching Tools from American Idol to YouTube, ed. Nicole Biamonte, 307-15 (Scarecrow Press, 2010).
The second PDF I want to share was co-written a couple years back with Jayson Beaster-Jones, an anthropologist who knows a heckuva lot about the Indian music industry and the role of “remix” therein. We casually started cooking up the article over coffee at UChicago — and later up on Devon Avenue — some 6 years ago, so this was really quite a welcome fruition of a longstanding project (which I first blogged about way back in July 08). For helping to bring this into the world, I’d like to thank another dear colleague, Nilanjana Bhattacharjya, an old ethno-friend and the co-editor of the special issue of South Asian Popular Culture in which our article appeared:
Wayne Marshall & Jayson Beaster-Jones, “It takes a little lawsuit: The flowering garden of Bollywood exoticism in the age of its technological reproducibility.” (PDF) South Asian Popular Culture 10(3) : 1-12.
You may know the story of how DJ Quik sampled an obscure Bollywood song for Truth Hurts’s “Addicted” and got Dr.Dre sued for a cool $500M, but you might yet be surprised by some of its twists and turns. While the song has been written about quite a bit, especially as an example of US orientalism and illicit appropriation, for our article, Jayson and I wanted to focus on the meanings generated by each new iteration of the song, attending to content as well as context, and placing our emphasis on cosmopolitan agents making creative and, yes, charged choices about musical representation. As we write in our conclusion, we can’t bring ourselves to care nearly as much about rich guys suing rich guys than we do about all the amazing and wonderful stuff that people do in the midst of it all.
Here’s the abstract:
The Hindi film song âThoda resham lagta haiâ [It takes a little silk] written by the music director Bappi Lahiri for the film Jyoti (1981) was a long forgotten tune before being rediscovered in 2002 by American music producer DJ Quik. Based around an unauthorized 35-second sample of the recording, the Truth Hurts song âAddictiveâ famously inspired Bappi Lahiri to sue Quikâs associate Dr Dre (executive producer of the song), Aftermath Records, and Universal Music (Aftermathâs parent company and distributor) for $500 million. Beyond Lahiriâs claims of cultural imperialism, obscenity, and outright theft, DJ Quikâs rearrangement of the song was, in turn, adopted by music producers, including Lahiri himself, in a wide variety of international genres. This paper tracks the use and reuse of the melody in Indian, American, and Jamaican contexts, focusing on the songâs remediation for new audiences. Yet even as this well-traveled tune evokes different historical and local meanings, it evokes an eroticized Other in each context, including its original context.
And I’m pleased to note that while I only have a measly “supplemental materials” page for the mashup article, for our piece about the peregrinations of an apparently addictive melody, I’ve cooked up the obviously obligatory mega-mix!
In addition to hearing all the recordings we reference in the article, and a few more, you’ll also hear a variety of details that — for space concerns alone — must go unremarked in our essay but will not go unheard in the mix: surprise appearances by Lady Saw and Tanto Metro and Snoop Dogg (via England, the Netherlands, and Belgium, respectively); and a host of seemingly spontaneously generating remixes made by dhol-drum and sample-pack wielding desi artists across the globe (s/o to the Incredible Kid for helping source some of these!). Polytonality and recontextualization reign supreme as the riffing and remixing runs rampant. Mirrors reflecting in mirrors, it’s an all Other everything party. Legal briefs buried beneath transduced outhereness.
Among other things, I like how the mix can show how strong a stamp Quik put on the song — or/and how in Bappi’s own attempt to capitalize on its popularity, he modifies his own composition to resemble Quik’s while attempting to upgrade it with distorted but deadening drums and heavily reverbed vocals that pale in comparison to Lata’s legendary warble. I also like how it registers — with its variable levels of compression and inconsistent metadata — the very state of circulation, the shape media take when they travel unlikely distances, the footsteps of my digital sleuthing. “Real audio” becomes a Baudrillardian phrase when ripping clips from Kannada filmi vendor sites.
While more or less chronological, and so attempting to provide an audible sense of the chains and ripples of influence, toward the end of the mix I get especially playful with genealogy. When one starts tracking a melody in this way, one gets glimmers in unexpected places. I swore that I heard the familiar tune drifting in and out of a moombahton track by Max LeDaron (remixed by DJ Melo) — and indeed, I had been mixing it with versions of “Thoda Resham Lagta Hai” and “Addictive” for months when I asked LeDaron if it was an intentional nod; according to him, it wasn’t an intentional homage, but he was struck by the resemblance and willing to cop to subliminal influence. (Can’t locate our Twitter exchange at the moment, but there’s this. [updated 1/16])
The other playful inclusion is more likely a stretch of my musical imagination, but I’ll leave it to your ears (with some suggestion on my part, as abetted by Ableton). It seems somehow more unlikely that a synth-stabbing Belgian would have seen Jyoti in 1987 than an African-American Angelino in 2001. Then again, if it’s true that the “typical elements” of the New Beat sound as heard on Nux Nemo’s “Hiroshima” include “the samples and the ethnic influences,” then, more than just hearing things, I may actually be hearing things. At any rate, to my ears, and perhaps evermore to yours, it will have to be a part of the strange and lively social life of a striking little contour and the rich complex of resonances around it.
Oh, and here’s the tracklist in all its mangled metadata glory, bearing artifacts and effects of circulation — and my own idiosyncratic paths to acquisition — that in their own ways also register in the audio:
08 Thoda Resham Lagta Hai
01 – Do It (‘Til You’re Satisfied)
04 Bollywood Riddim
02 – Addictive [Explicit]
02 Addictive Indian Mix
Kaliyon Ka Chaman
Unknown – 14. Kaliyon Ka Chaman
Dj Leikers vs.Dj doll – Kaliyon kachaman(Bubbling)
06 Kaliyon Ka Chaman
Ee Deshadalli Karunaadu
04 Bollywood Riddim
12 Soca Taliban
03 Max Le Daron – El Caramilo Diabolico (Dj Melo Remix)
El Caramillo Diabolico 2011
Since it seems befitting for a story with no real beginning to also have no ending, here’s to further circulations and recontextualizations. More FreeDFs to follow soon!
Update! [2/27] — I totally forgot that I uploaded some figures we had originally planned to run with the article but then scrapped because of the ridiculous permissions-culture that we would have had to navigate. Instead I’m posting them here with no permission from anyone. Fair use, mofos!
I’m headed back to Rotterdam a week from today — to continue the bubbling research, of course, but also, expressly, to take part in a hip-hop festival called Street Science.
Among the various performances & screenings & discussions & battles, I’ll be speaking as part of a panel on Sunday the 15th concerned with “Diversity in Styles” in the wide world of hip-hop (and, I think, global dance/club/rap music more generally, given how the lines blur). Looking forward to that — especially to getting some European/Dutch perspectives on such questions.
I’ll leave you with a brief bit of audio I once cooked-up for pm_jawn’s radio show by the same name — a little concatenation of two classic NWA samples that lets Dr. Dre make the drop drop –
Summer vibes really on lock all a sudden, eh? Boston tropical and ting! (In fact, the main reason I’m finally getting around to writing this post — best intentions notwithstanding — is on account of IT IS TOO HOT TO SLEEP.)
The dog daze arrived just in time, tho, for I’m delighted to report that this very evening, FRIDAY JUNE 22, on only the second or so night of summer, I’ll have the pleasure of plumbing some seasonal depths by playing what has become, hands down, my favorite dance party in town: PicĂł Picante. And alongside no less than my pardner-in-beatresearch, DJ Flack, & other local luminaries —
Can’t wait! Nuff props to Pajaritos for making the space. It’s really an honor to finally get behind the decks (if while triggering a laptop) to rock the reliably great crowd they rally. You’ll find few sessions in Boston as welcoming and warm. Expect plenty reggae/ton from me. Time to get some dembow into dem bones!
The second gig I want to mention here isn’t actually mine at all, but it’s well worth your consideration — and as it happens, it’s being put on c/o two good friends: Pacey “Library of Vinyl” Foster and local author Elijah Wald (who, I’m pretty tickled to say, was a student in my global hip-hop course this spring).
Elijah is a real polymath and a serious scholar, and when he sets out to write about something — whether the blues or narcocorridos — he sure digs deep. His last book, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock’n'Roll, is an indispensable history of US popular (dance) music during the first half of the twentieth century, no less worth your time for its polemical title (which is really more of a subtext).
I’m pleased to note that Elijah’s new book bears at least as provocative a title as the last, especially for those of us who grew up a little closer to hip-hop than r’n'r —
This new tome, hot off the presses, is the subject of Elijah’s talk this Sunday night at Pace’s place (accompanied by germane musical selections by the vinyl-librarian himself), the first of what I hope will be many such “salons” Pacey hosts at his awesome East Cambridge loft. Here’s the deets:
“The Dirty Dozens: From Mississippi Blues to Gangsta Rap”
A talk/listening session with Elijah Wald, author of “The Dozens: A History of Rap’s Mama”
Sunday, June 24, 8-10 PM
Library of Vinyl Experience @ The Chicken Loft (above the “Live Poultry Fresh Killed” sign)
613 Cambridge St., Cambridge, MA. 02141
$5 Tickets at Brown Paper Tickets
Snacks and beverages will be available. Also copies of the new book.
Limited to 30 People! Get your tickets now to reserve your spot.
DJ Pace will be spinning dirty classics before and after the talk. Friend the new Library of Vinyl on Facebook for information about this and future events.
And here’s a little about the book, including some pretty killer blurbage:
A century before gangsta rappers took dirty rhyming to the top of the charts, Mississippi barrelhouse pianists were singing lyrics as hardcore as anything in the rap canon. In fact, they were singing some of the same lyricsâthe nasty insult rhymes known as âthe dozens.â A form of verbal dueling popular in rural fields and on urban streets, the dozens is one of the basic building blocks of African American vernacular virtuosity, and has overlapped into pop songs, comedy routines, instrumental cutting sessions, and rap freestyle battles.
Tracing back to African ritual poetry, the dozens is part of a vast tradition of unashamedly sexual verse that consistently flourished in African diaspora communities but rarely surfaced on record or in print, except in heavily censored or bowdlerized versions. Some popular rhymes have endured in oral culture since the nineteenth century, turning up in the work of artists as disparate as Jelly Roll Morton, Zora Neale Hurston, George Carlin, and Flavor Flav.
“This book is sexy… and poignant, smart and a piece of history.”
“This impeccably researched study of the classic black insult game may be the funniest work of serious scholarship ever published.”
–Terry Teachout, Artsjournal
“The Dozens are in very good hands here. Wald gives them the detailed, broad, and serious consideration they have long deserved.”
–Tricia Rose, author of Black Noise and The Hip Hop Wars
Maybe I’ll see you or your mom there?
Finally, I just want to remind that we’ve got our next session of Beat Research coming up next week, and buay is this one gonna be a doozy!
Click on that flyer above for an “invite” and check the video promo below c/o D’hana, aka Chubrub –
Not much more to add here. But get yourself ready for a full-on live performance from LE1F, plus a set from Boston’s own Micah, and yeah, we really couldn’t be more thrilled to host the first appearance of ZOMBIE NU LIFE. (Pretty sure Rizzla DJ is my favorite people-mover on the planet right now.)
Ok, rounding things out, here’s the 3rd review/polemic in the 3-part series I’ve been running here (see parts 1 and 2). This one’s the most recently published, hardly a year old! (That’s not bad for lag, as these things go.) On the surface, it’s a review of 2010’s Anthology of Rap (Yale); but again, while offering specific commentary on the text in question, I also take the opportunity to weigh in on some trends in music scholarship — in particular, with regard to ye olde juncture of writing-about-music.
My own take appeared last June in the Journal of Popular Music Studies‘ newly launched “Amplifier” section — a venue for short pieces that break from the traditional mold in published music scholarship. Yes, my own piece is relatively traditional as a book review, but, I’m also happy to report that it’s a far shorter piece than the other two reviews I’ve ran here in recent weeks. So this time I’ll let you get to the kicker — another good one, IMO — all on your own.
JPMS 23(2): 190â194 / June 2011
This journal aims to encourage âwriterlyâ approaches to our various encounters with popular music. And sensibly so. After all, despite some recent and relatively modest multimedia enhancements, this is a space primarily for words.
A writerly tack embraces the peculiar challenges of bridging what Charles Seeger referred to as the âmusicological juncture,â or the inevitable slippages more folksily described as âdancing about architectureâ: in other words, the problems inherent to translating sonic material and embodied experience into written text. As the quip about dancing implies, many seem to think that such a project dooms itself to reducing, recoding, and reifying its subject. But if such outcomes are, in their way, unavoidable, better to acknowledge the mediation and embrace the medium. To press our words to rise to the occasion, and dance. Or more modestly, we think there is space for such discourse, and we want this space to offer some.
Against this ideal, the recent publication of The Anthology of Rap (Yale University Press, 2010), edited by Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois, offers a timely reminder of what can get lost in the translation from popular musicâwith all the p-word entails, from commerce to contextsâto words on a page. Admittedly, the enterprise of representing rap music as lyrics abstracted from recorded performances or any particular encounter with themâindeed, as poetryâgoes well beyond questions of âwriterlyâ approaches. But it also presents a sort of limit case. In an effort to perform a kind of alchemy on hip-hopâs texts, the anthology highlights, by their very absence, how crucial dimensions of popular music as actually encountered demand a special sort of textual recognition.
From the so-called âgrainâ of the voice to the inextricable entrainment of a lyricâs sonic shape and setting to the meanings these things take on in different times and places, the texts (in the broadest sense) of popular music beckon for language that registers as it grapples with questions of form and force, interpretation and affect. It may be unsurprising that a collection edited by two professors of English, seeking to read rap as an âestimable body of contemporary poetryâ (xxxiii), would downplay the genreâs sonic dimensions. But in justifying their project, the authors go so far as to assert that rapâs poetics can be examined with no reference to matters of sound.
The Anthology of Rap exhibits a pervasive and often bald logocentrism even as it bears subtle and consistent witness to rap as a fundamentally musical phenomenon. In his foreword, Henry Louis Gates concludes that âthe words are finally the best reason for the beatâ (xxvi). He marshals this rhetorical flourish to affirm the larger goal of the anthology: positioning rap, as Gates puts it, in the ânew vanguard of American poetryâ (xxvi). Gatesâs primary strategy here is to ennoble rap by linking its rhymes to the African-American oral traditionsâthe dozens, signifyin(g)âthat Gates built his own career around recuperating and recoding. But, tellingly, in order to draw us into the narrative, Gates highlights a number of crucial, performative qualities that resist easy render to the page. Recalling what arrested him as a young man watching his father recite Stagolee stanzas, Gates calls our attention to âall that a virtuosic performer possessed: an excellent memory, a mastery of pace and timing, the capacity to inflect and gesture, the ability to summon the identities of different characters simply through the nuance of their voicesâ (xxii). Clearly, all of these aspectsâmany of which we might include in the realm of the musicalâare indispensible aspects of a performanceâs poetics, and yet the anthology, its editors, and Gates himself all ask us, implicitly and explicitly, to set them aside.
A bias toward the words of rap, and against its music, rears its head throughout the editorsâ introduction, whether theyâre casually referring to rapâs âfundamental literary and artistic natureâ (xxix)âsee what they did there?âor asserting, with no support other than their own authority, that lyrics constitute âthe most enduring partâ (xxxiv) of hip-hop songs and that, moreover, lyrics âgenerally retain much of their resonance and meaning when isolated from their musicâ (xxxv). O rly? Sounds scientific enough, I suppose. Adding insult to injury, the editors have the audacity to employ âthe musicâ synecdochically: âThe parody of rap as doggerel does not touch truly on much of the musicâ (xxii). In its way, of course, such a slip registers the musicâs refusal to recede from our imaginative engagements with hip-hop.
For all this rationalization, the collection suffers from a central and ultimately unacknowledged paradox. âThis anthology treats rap as a literary form,â write the editors, âalbeit one primarily experienced as musicâ (xxxv). Thereâs a lot riding on that âalbeitââa lot that never truly gets addressed. Instead, sleight of hand is meant to suffice: âFar from denying rapâs value as music,â they defend, âreaders stand to gain a renewed appreciation for rapâs music by considering the poetry of its lyricsâ (xxxv).
What this means is profoundly unclear, especially as the previous page finds the editors willingly enlisting unwieldy Eurocentric critiques of rap as âunmusicalââa surprising and needless concession: âThe very qualities that leave rap open to criticism as musicâheavy reliance on 4/4 beats, limited use of melody and harmonyâare precisely what make it such an effective vehicle for poetryâ (xxxiv). Would a hip-hop waltz be better? Perhaps something in 7/8 time? Is a âlimited use of melody and harmonyâ really an accurate or fair description of the staggering variety of rapâs tonalities and omnivorous musical borrowings? The editorsâ eagerness to throw rapâs music under the bus raises flags, to say the least. Indeed, this is one place where the bookâs inherent conservatism betrays itself: Bradley and DuBois seek to admit hip-hopâs spectacular vernacular into the hallowed halls where people teach poetry. To do so, they embrace, rather than subvert, the elitist politics of canon. But a paramount part of hip-hopâs poeticsâand a central reason for the genreâs resiliency and appealâis a refusal to measure up to old models (aka, âall that jazzâ). Following an imperative to flip the script, hip-hop artists, producers, and entrepreneurs have consistently opened doorsâwhether aesthetic or commercialâon their own terms, smashing canons in the process.
Moreover, while rap is doubtless a verbose genre at heart, even a casual survey of listening habits reveals that devotees and even casual listeners attend to a great deal more than rapâs lyrics, sometimes ignoring lexical content altogether to focus on the beats or flows, on the timbres and textures and rhythms of a recording, all of which crucially contribute to a songâs poetics. The editorsâ subordination of musical wholes to an abstracted logos is not only misguided, itâs irresponsible, playing back into the hands of rapâs rarefied critics rather than elucidating hip-hopâs poetics on their own terms.
It is especially ironic to find prose neglecting, if not dismissing, the musical dimensions of a musical genre in a book that carries a clear agenda of validation. Legitimacy has been a hobgoblin haunting much of the academic literature on hip-hop. Such a stance may have made sense at a certain time, when hip-hop was roundly attacked in public media even as it made its commercial ascent, and it may yet make sense in certain contexts (English and music departments come to mind). But itâs a revealing and distracting preoccupation, saying more about the academic contexts in which young scholars seek sanction to teach hip-hop in their classes than, say, the wider world, where hip-hop pervades popular culture. Rap conquered the world some time ago, and as it happens, universities are demonstrably eager to offer and promote large-enrollment courses centered on the genre. Tricia Rose called her groundbreaking book Black Noise for a reasonâand began chapter 3 with the revealing tale of encountering some racist, and familiar, opposition from the chairman of Brownâs music department: “Well, you must be writing on rap’s social impact and political lyrics, because there is nothing to the music” (62). But she wrote that bookâand had that conversationânearly twenty years ago. Hip-hop has moved on, and so should we.
At a launch event in Cambridge last November, Bradley asserted that the anthology âcan help sustain a culture that already sustains itself.â This seems disingenuous, or at best, wrong. As Rose herself told me as an aspiring hip-hop scholar some ten years ago, hip-hop needs no help from academics. If anything, the academy could use some help from hip-hop. And while we might read the anthology as an attempt to stage such an intervention, we might better see it as a telling symptom of the ways that elite institutions such as universities and university presses inform the shape of our own cultural production. Looking for a silver lining, at the same event Jamaica Kincaid praised the anthology as a âsanctifyingâ projectâan interesting choice given the etymological linkage between canonization and sainthood. As Kincaid elaborated, however, what she meant by this was that this rather humanities-style elevation of rapâs lyrics to the level of poetry works as a humanizing gestureâfor âthe people and the situation,â as she put it, though she also said she didnât want to âfreight the thing.â
Obviously, itâs plenty fraught already. Still, Iâd like to be a good relativist of sorts. Itâs a wide world after all. And I donât mean, in turn, to disrespect or dismiss a valid listening position on the part of the anthologizers: that one important set of meanings of popular music do stem from abstractions and analyses of song texts. Clearly, to the editorsâ ears, and in their minds, the beats stand in the background, or, ironically, as the ground itself, âthe perfect sonic climate for poetically sophisticated lyrics to flourishâ (xxxv). But respecting the editorsâ right to read rap as they will, and understanding their approach in relation to the political economy of scholarly production and academic promotion, does not mean that one cannot also remain a strong advocate for popular music scholarship that cares more about the power of music and the power relations shot through our various engagements with it, than in further consolidating power and prestige for certain kinds of academic labor.
The longstanding attempt to legitimize hip-hop for our colleagues and patrons distracts from more meaningful research, the sort of work that takes hip-hopâs artistic (or, if you must, âliteraryâ) merits for granted, and then proceeds to ask other questions about how its poetics function (and, necessarily, how theyâre anchored in sonic and social experience). If such work could also aspire to be writerly, to dance on the page in a manner commensurate with its subject, perhaps one of hip-hopâs âgolden ageâ idealsârap as âedutainmentââcould finally find some real footing in the academy. Until we make that space for ourselves, weâre doomed to reproduce a certain wackness.
Like some of the obscure, amazing devices & recordings & stories Dave seeks out and recombines in his inimitable way, I had heard for years about the “vocoder book”; and I was more than pleased when it finally arrived — and delivered on a decade’s (or, really, lifetime’s) work putting together some rather odd-fitting puzzle pieces. I’ll let Dave mix it up for you (via the teaser for his talk on Thurs) –
Invented by Bell Labs in 1928 to reduce bandwidth over the Trans Atantic Cable, the vocoder would end up guarding phone conversations from eavesdroppers during World War II. By the Vietnam War, the “spectral decomposer” had been re-freaked as a robotic voice for musicians. How To Wreck A Nice Beach is about hearing things, from a misunderstood technology which in itself often spoke under conditions of anonymity. This is a terminal beach-slap of the history of electronic voices: from Nazi research labs to Stalin gulags, from World’s Fairs to Hiroshima, from Churchill and JKF to Kubrick and Kinski, The O.C. and Rammellzee, artificial larynges and Auto-Tune. Vocoder compression technology is now a cell phone standard–we communicate via flawed digital replicas of ourselves every day. Imperfect to be real, we revel in signal corruption.
Dave’s writing is deeply by textured by hip-hop, and so much else. I wish everyone could so pursue their own muses and speak in such tongues and find their voice as he has. I argued as much in a review I wrote of the book for Current Musicology a couple years back. Indeed, I took the opportunity to recommend that more academics read and teach books like Dave’s (or at least Dave’s book — not sure what else is like it) — and that we also challenge ourselves and our students to write with less care for convention and more attention to voice and narrative. I guess I’m just a hopeless humanist / postmodernist or something (but both of those things sound kinda wack to me too). More likely, as with Dave (I venture), I might lay the blame at hip-hop’s altar, where cultivating and appreciating distinctive voices are time-honored forms of worship and devotion.
Anywayyy, ironically, the prose in my review seems pretty strait-jacketed itself, despite what I critique and what I endorse. Maybe I’m just not able to do it. Or maybe there are unhelpful institutional pressures making us all write like computers, and not very funky ones. Either way, all one can do is try to refreak the machinery.
I’m going to post my review below for those who’d like to read it. It’s been “published” for a while, but that hardly makes it public in any significant way. I’m happy to report that I managed — or attempted anyway — to bring Dave’s book into conversation with Steve Goodman’s (aka Kode9’s) Sonic Warfare, another recent text that made a strong impression on me. The two books’ subject matter overlaps to a striking degree, but the writing is very different. Even so, while I may not be as big a fan of Steve’s prose, I do think his book is profound and provocative, issuing important challenges to scholars of music and sound and really to anyone who fancies themselves a listening agent.
But if you’re in town, go see Dave talk this Thursday at 5pm in room E14-633 at MIT. For my part, much as I love the vocoder stuff, I sorta wish he was talking about his current project — a really promising “natural history of Miami bass” that takes the phrase sustained decay and runs absolutely wild. I heard a preview at EMP which predictably knocked off socks, even without working A/V.
One more thing: I understand the piece below as one of a trio of reviews where I take the opportunity to critique the disciplines and institutional elitism that seem to produce writing about music which, in my mind, too often fails to rise to the occasion. (I’m saying: if you’re gonna dance about architecture, you better be a damn good dancer.) Some of these reviews are more supportive, some are more critical. I do, for the most part, attempt to be generous as a reviewer. At any rate, I’ve been wanting to share them, together, for a while. So look out for the other two to follow soon.
At first glance, Dave Tompkinsâs How to Wreck a Nice Beach and Steve Goodmanâs Sonic Warfare would seem to have a lot in common. Both books feature the creative âabuseâ of military technology by musicians, an abiding appreciation for Afro-sonic futurisms, prose styles at times so idiosyncratic as to be arcane, and brief but key appearances by William Burroughs. Both also depart, whether implicitly or explicitly, from the general preoccupation with form still guiding the musicological status quo. This formalist bias affects both how we tend to listen as well as how we write. Instead, these books, each in their own way, propose novel and provocative modes of grappling with and making sense (or nonsense) of music and sound.
In contrast to the lionâs share of academic writing about music, these texts eschew too straightforward a tack. They take shape in a manner often as unpredictable as their strange and slippery subjects. Goodmanâs work, while principally written for other scholars, proceeds in a seemingly non-linear manner, using non-chronological dates to mark each brief chapter, suggestively (but often without explication) yoking each unitâs theme to a particular historical moment. His lexicon is at times dense, at other times playful, bearing the marks of British cultural studies, continental philosophy, and Afrofuturism. Writing for a more general audience, but in perhaps an even more abstruse register, Tompkins generally proceeds chronologically while worm-hole hopping, juxtaposing chapters on military experimentation with those on musical innovation, an estranging effect that serves to heighten the topicâs unexpected intersections of Cold War technology and hip-hop. Neither author talks much about pitch content, harmony, or song form; in place of musical transcription, we encounter viruses and anarchitectures, robots and dinosaurs.
In other respects, these books could hardly be more different, especially with regard to tone and language. But reading them, especially together, makes for a refreshing exercise. By investing in and projecting their own idioms so strongly, both offer something sorely lacking in music and sound studies: theory that dances.
Tompkinsâs book is a study of the âdouble lifeâ of the vocoder, which, for those who arenât aware, is âperhaps the only crypto-technology to serve the Pentagon and the roller rinkâ (20). A vocal encryption process that enjoyed a second life as a musical effect, the vocoder attained a sort of audible ubiquity in the dance-pop of the 1970s and 80s, appearing on hundreds of records and spanning such disparate genres as progressive rock and electro-funk. Appropriately, in rendering this amazing story, the author himself becomes a cryptologist. Because Tompkins is not an academic and not beholden to its disciplines, he hardly writes like one. But despite publishing regularly in such outlets as the Wire, Vibe, and the Village Voice, he doesnât exactly write like a journalist, either. He writes like Dave Tompkins. âThe best hip-hop writer ever born,â blurbs similarly lauded hip hop historian Jeff Chang, only half-joking, on the back of the book. Tompkins describes writing the book as something that he felt he âowedâ to hip-hop, and he has clearly absorbedâand made his ownâhip-hopâs love of language, of whimsy and slippage, orthogonal riffs and sudden twists, personified things and dehumanized folk. In some cases, itâs not clear that anyone but Tompkins will understand how certain non-sequiturs actually follow. Plenty of readers will be frustrated by passages that defy comprehension. I recommend granting him some poetic license and going happily, dizzily along for the ride.
Tompkins manages something that few music writers do: to rise to the occasion, to meet what Charles Seeger called âthe musicological junctureâ head-on, to make words make sense about soundâor, when such a task seems utterly impossible, to sing along in noise and nonsense. The bookâs title embodies this fundamental problem as well as Tompkinsâs tack. How apt that the phrase, a machine-mangled version of âhow to recognize speech,â also happens to describe what happened, as coordinated via trans-Atlantic vocoder duets between Roosevelt and Churchill, at Normandy or Iwo Jima. This is one of dozens of landmine-like puns that Tompkins finds scattered across IBM techniciansâ notebooks, in wartime cables, and on obscure electro-funk jams. Is it only a coincidence that one of early hip-hopâs deftest musicians, Pumpkin, bears a nickname that was also a misheard word in a Churchillian vocoder transmission (224)? Most likely, but Tompkins doesnât miss a chance to make the connection for us in a cheeky caption (and the bookâs margins are crawling with such side-commentary).
Or take, for example, though no single passage can stand for the sprawling range of his style, the following description of Peter Frampton performing his talk-box anthem, âDo You Feel Like I Do,â in the concert immortalized as Frampton Comes Alive (1976):
Imagine ice cubes and Doritos cracking up inside your head. Replace that with Madison Square Garden losing its voice. Replace larynx with guitar. Listen to teeth. Calcareous conduction. Frampton opens mouth, drool catches light and there it is, a word, or at least the shape of one. âEeeeel.â (131)
Without sacrificing the sort of economy on display here, Tompkins seems to squeeze into the book every bit of signification he can, enlisting chapter titles, subheadings, captions, epigraphs, and all manner of marginalia along the way. The creative use of oblique epigraphs in particular illustrates how Tompkins approaches his craft and burdens the reader. They are figurative, funny, and sometimes fictional. (On page 281, for instance, he offers a âmisheardâ lyric from a Mobb Deep recording.)
Research and reading are interpretive endeavors, and Tompkinsâs kitchen-sink style, where jokes and personal anecdotes sit alongside archival documents and vinyl plates, serves to remind readers that, as with vocodered vocals, it helps to know what goes in to understand what is coming out. In this sense, it is fitting that the author interweaves stories of his youth, and of myriad odd encounters with the vocoder and other talking machines, into the narrative. Indeed, the idiosyncratic inflections that give the book its distinct shape and tone seem, to this reader, among the textâs most important (and hopefully influential) features. Tompkins interweaves the personal, the popular, and the geopolitical, as if all are of equal importance. Tompkins does an admirable job of cross-fading all the crosstalk about this machine and how it affected so many peopleâs lives, including his own. After a while one starts to suspect that the vocoder was invented so that Tompkins could write this book.
While the vocoder never recedes from earshot, Tompkinsâs investigation takes the reader to many unexpected places. Among other things, readers receive: 1) an overdue and alternative narrative of early hip-hop that centers on New York, Los Angeles, and the seemingly peripheral but fascinating site of North Carolina, where Tompkins grew up and where we learn a lot about rapâs early circulation and reception; 2) a secret history of late twentieth century robot-enraptured pop culture, connecting Neil Young and Herbie Hancock, Georgio Moroder and Laurie Anderson, Detroit techno and Disneyâs Dumbo; 3) some truly astounding and unexpected musical genealogies and circulations of material culture, like how a vocoder-ed imitation of a record executive saying âfreshâ became the most scratched syllable of all time (250-5), or how ELOâs machine ended up in the hands of Man Parrish, âthe gayest vocoder expert to make a hip-hop ode to the Bronxâ (212). The book also includes what must have felt like an obligatory afterword on Auto-Tune (302-3), the popular software plug-in often mistaken for the vocoder but actually a distant cousin, which itself emerged from Cold War science to help people sing like machines.
It is easy to be glib about crooning cyborgs, but Tompkins offers a more nuanced portraitâa gallery, actuallyâof how humans dance with technology, of the deep drive so many of us feel to transform, with a little mechanical help, our voices, our realities, and ourselves, often from an early age. Or, as he puts it, âTalking to fans is as much a part of growing up as interrogating ants with a magnifying glassâ (268). In the end, the book is less about machines than human characters: Alan Turing and Afrika Bambaataa, Homer Dudley and Michael Jonzun, and Tompkins, his late brother, and his childhood friend, Nate. One of the most interesting and touching parts of the text is the penultimate chapter, a profile of vocoder devotee and pioneer Rammellzee, the sui generis hip-hop iconoclast who passed away earlier this year. It reads as a fitting coda to everything.
Although he synthesizes an impressive amount of odd informationâmuch of it encyclopedic and hitherto uncompiledâTompkins burdens readers additionally by taking a great deal of knowledge (or perhaps just Google-ability) for granted, allowing him at times to say what he wants, rather than, perhaps, what he should. This represents another way that the author departs from certain scholarly norms. (Thereâs no glossary, either.) But donât get your cables twisted: despite few genuflections to standard scholarly procedure, there is a great deal of evidence throughout that Tompkins has done his share of research, especially when it comes to combing archives and interviewing everyone from retired World War II-era scientists to classic rock icons to hip-hop vocoder freaks. (To their credit, the hip-hop guys he talks toâBambaataa, Grandmaster DXT, Rammellzeeâare all convincingly unsurprised to learn about the vocoderâs crypto-military provenance.) This book was a decade in the making, but it reads more like a lifeâs work.
Finally, and this is not to be underappreciated: the book itself, published by Stop Smiling Books, is a beautiful thing. Elegantly laid out and lavishly illustrated, with photographs and drawings appearing on nearly every page, the book is best appreciated as a chunky hardcover, despite that it might be funâwhenever the e-text arrivesâto hear it read by a robot.
In Sonic Warfare Steve Goodman, a lecturer in Music Culture at the University of East London, calls the vocoder âthe upside to the militarization of everyday lifeâ (166). It is one of the few optimistic notes in the book. The rest of the text examines all the downsides, with particular attention to the role of soundâand sonic technologiesâin producing what Goodman calls, after Mike Davis (2000), an âecology of fear,â a sonically triggered state of agitation and foreboding, produced under an increasingly global regime of âmilitary urbanismâ and the looming threat of preemptive capitalism foreclosing possible futures. On the way, Goodman proposes some radical ways of approaching how we theorize sound, the transmission of culture, and the power of popular music. Sonic Warfare is an occasionally paranoid, consistently provocative text, all the more so because of how it takes explicit aim at prevailing frames of musicological inquiry.
Unlike Tompkinsâs book, which mounts an implicit critique of contemporary music writing, Goodmanâs includes direct salvos at music and sound studies. If, as he relates, the Italian futurists proposed an âassault on the harmonic orderâ (6), Sonic Warfare might be said to launch a similar campaign. Goodmanâs route to a critical position vis-Ă -vis musicologyâs âharmonic orderââits lingering biases toward musical form, semiotics, and phenomenologyâis not via recourse to sound, seeking to flatten longstanding hierarchies between pitch content, rhythm, timbre and the like, but through a focus on frequency and an exploration of what he calls âunsound.â Vibrating at or beyond the peripheries of the audible and the tactile, unsound includes infrasound (lower than 20 Hz) and ultrasound (higher than 20 kHz), as well asâ in a bit of poetic licenseâthe âunactualized nexus of rhythms and frequencies within audible bandwidthsâ (xv). It may come as little surprise that many of the weapons surveyed in Sonic Warfare target this synaesthetic threshold of the heard and the felt. The way that sound and unsound can physically affect bodies means that, for Goodman, they operate at the level of affect, a âsubsignifyingâ realm. He is primarily concerned, then, not with âsound as textâ but rather âsound as forceâ (10). For those in music or sound studies who might bristle at an approach so concerned with what âimpresses on but is exterior to the sonic,â Goodman throws a small but sharp dart, referring almost dismissively to âthe narrowband channel of the audibleâ (9)!
Ultimately, he contends, a ânonrepresentational ontology of vibrational forceâ (xv) can productively âsidestepâ recent preoccupations of music studies, namely ârepresentation, identity, and cultural meaningâ (9). While not naming names, Goodman professes no love for popular music studiesâ âdismal celebrations of consumerism and interminable excuses for mediocrityâ (17). (He also includes some snarky asidesâtroll bait for popular music scholarsâfor instance, when he remarks that this is not a book about âwhite noiseâor guitarsâ [xv].) While acknowledging recent work on the use of music to produce pain or torture (e.g., Cloonan and Johnson 2002; Cusick 2006 and 2008), Goodman seeks to counter âthe evangelism of the recent sonic renaissance within the academyâ by focusing on soundâs âbad vibes,â including the use of pop as torture, never mind LRAD cannons and Mosquito™ repellents. Further, he charges that any account of sonic culture must grapple with that which exceeds unisensory perception, with so-called âsonicâ experience that opens into tactile realms, for instance (9).
Barbed critiques notwithstanding, Goodman is writing from soundâs corner. While his academic training and affinities span media and cultural studies as well as philosophy, his scholarly attention has consistently been devoted to the reggae-inflected sound system culture of the Black Atlantic, especially the UK-based genealogy of styles and approachesâfrom jungle, through garage, to dubstepâfamously and controversially dubbed âthe hardcore continuumâ by critic Simon Reynolds; moreover, under the moniker Kode9, Goodman is a practicing producer of electronic dance music, a globe-trotting DJ, and the head of acclaimed record label Hyperdub. Notably, he seems to prefer metaphorical language that borrows from sound, rather than, say, as we âseeâ more typically, from ocularcentric discourse. So weâre told, for instance, that vibrational force is an important missing dimension in music and sound studies because of the âethico-aesthetic paradigm it beckonsâ (xv, emphasis mine). We also hear of things resonating and rippling, while modulation, if borrowed more directly from Deleuzean philosophy than compositional techniques, figures as a key term throughout. But while such subtle linguistic choices may stem from efforts to resist an ocularcentric framework, Goodmanâs focus on sound as physical force, as something subpolitical and pre-ideological, is intended to needle the more profound bias in music and sound studies toward an overriding emphasis on phenomenology and signification, rather than ontology and affective mobilization. For Goodman, such preoccupations miss the boat by overlooking the more elemental workings of sound. His wide-ranging and deeply synthetic projectâdrawing from philosophy, cultural studies, physics, biology, fiction, and military and musical history (81)âconstitutes an important and incisive contribution to our growing, shifting appreciation of how sound works and how it figures in the sensorium.
Opening with the 2005 sound bombing of the Gaza strip, Goodmanâs narrative would appear to be firmly situated in a certain politics, but the author also takes pains to theorize at a more micropolitical level. He seeks to understand and explicate how sound produces âvirtualizedâ fear in individuals as well as populations, whether in Palestine or elsewhere. Like the sound of an actual incoming shell, sound bombs and other sonic weapons possess power to trigger âthe same dread of an unwanted, possible futureâ (xiv). Considering military-urbanismâs âfull spectrum dominance,â an analysis of how sound worksâand how certain technologies exploit sonic forceâis imperative. For Goodman, the sonic is âparticularly attunedâ for examining âdread,â one strand of the ecology of fear, or one key dimension of the affective status quo at a historical juncture in which the âmilitarization of the minutiae of urban experienceâ turns war into an âontological conditionâ that âreconstitutes the most mundane aspects of everyday existence through psychosocial torque and sensory overloadâ (33). As an âaffective tonality,â modulated by vibrational force, fear enters the remit of sonic warfare. Thus, even while writing against a âunisensoryâ perspective (and continually returning to soundâs crucial âvisceralityâ ), Goodman finds it useful that, within the affective sensorium, âSound is often understood as generally having a privileged role in the production and modulation of fearâ (65).
Given the permeation of everyday urban lifeânot simply in warzones of the Global South but in city soundscapes of the so-called developed world as wellâby what Goodman terms the âmilitary-entertainment complex,â sonic warfare extends beyond obvious weapons such as sound bombs and nausea-inducing crowd-control devices to forms of (preemptive) sonic branding, including âpredatory earwormsâ and holosonics (186), or precisely targeted âbeamsâ of sound that might implant a commercial jingle into a moving body. With regard to the latter phenomena, Goodman dabbles in speculative fiction, imagining a future, if one in tune with contemporary capitalism, in which weâre bombarded with audio advertisements for products that donât yet necessarily exist, subconsciously building brand loyalty. Mirroring the unreliable and often occultist information about sonic weapons under developmentâwhether issuing from government reports or press accounts, or circulating among conspiracy theory enthusiastsâGoodman is refreshingly candid about the ways that dystopic projections can seep into thinking about such matters: âFor sure, a certain amount of paranoia accompanies this micropolitics of frequencyâ (188). The deployment of the Mosquito, a device used at malls and other quasi-public, commercial spaces that emits a tone so high it repels teenagers while remaining inaudible to adults, suggests to Goodman that (pun intended), âthe future of sonic warfare is unsoundâ (183).
If this all sounds rather dire, Goodman develops another side to the story of contemporary sonic dominance. Counterposed to the military-entertainment complexâs insidious deployments of sound and unsound is another set of experiments in vibrational force and affect modulation: sound systems, patterned on the Jamaican model but today dispersed globally, serving as labs for âaffect engineering and the exorcism of dreadâ (5). Considering Goodmanâs overarching concern with ecologies of fear, it is a convenient bit of resonance that a complex notion of dread is already emically embedded in reggae discourse. Goodman hears and feels the forcefulâand often subsonicâprojections of sound systems, whether playing dub reggae or funk carioca, as meeting a certain âmasochisticâ desire for the âactive production of dreadâ (27) or, in other words, âfear activated deliberately to be transduced and enjoyed in a popular musical contextâ (29). This is an innovative and suggestive reading of practices that have already been examined in great detail in the reggae literature (e.g., Bilby 1995; Stolzoff 2000; Henriques 2003; Veal 2007).
He pursues the idea of an alternative and recuperative practice of sonic dominance, and inflects it with a Black Atlantic (if not Jamaican) accent, by examining what he calls âdub virology,â a model of âaffective mobilizationââlater glossed as a way âto move the body in danceâ (157)ârather than the âmodulation of preemptive capital,â the use of sound and unsound to manipulate mood and incite creativity and commerce (155). Goodman argues, without offering much detail about the techniques in question, that âthe virologies of the Black Atlantic âŚ constitute a wealth of techniques for affective mobilization in dance,â but that, in turn, âvirosonic capital hijacks these techniques âŚ for modulationâ (162). The âcore focusâ of an audio virology is, therefore, the âdecreasing gap between mobilization and modulationâ (162).
In chapters 24-27 Goodman carefully sketches out what is entailed by an âaudio virologyâ and how such an approach is better suited than memetics for understanding how power relations infuse the contemporary circulation and transmission of culture. Given the intense uptake around memes in the Web 2.0 era, Goodmanâs intervention here is useful. If memetics carries an intrinsically cognitivist bias with its focus on information, in contrast, an audio virology âentails a nexus that synthesizes the flows of information, matter, and energy into a virulent rhythmic consistencyâ (138). Such an âassemblage,â according to Goodman (nodding again to Deleuzian philosophy), goes beyond memetics in recognizing that âreplicatorsâ are always âembedded in an ecology,â in a material environment. Memes themselves âare material processes,â pulse patterns emitted by âbillions of networked neurons.â Rather than transmission networks, Goodman suggests we think of âaffective vectorsâ and âaffective contagions,â and though he notes that we already have the fairly neutral but useful concept of affection available to us, a model of infection appeals to him as a way to âdramatizeâ the concern with power that he accuses memetics of lacking (130). Viruses, or virological models, are also important to Goodman because they pose âthreats to cybernetic control societiesâ (179), the looming threat of capitalist affect modulation.
If there is a clear politics in this book, the most specific it ever gets is anti-capitalist, but the best way to characterize it might be, more broadly, anti-colonialist. Goodmanâs perspective is informed by the anti- and postcolonial discourses running through British cultural studies and Afrofuturism alike, and his concerns move from geopolitical frames to the more subtle but perhaps more worrisome micropolitical colonization of our thoughts, our bodies, our futures. For this reason, mobilizationâand understanding soundâs relation to itâstands at times as an idealized end in itself. Goodman stops short of discussing why one would want to mobilize collective populations, however, and he takes pains to distance his analysis from obvious ideological commitments. He is far more interested in âmodels for affective collectivity without any necessary political agendaâ (175). The battle ground for Goodmanâand it is a literal field of combatâis the affective status quo, modulated by sonic weapons of all sorts. More generally, Goodman appears concerned with understanding âhow audition is policed and mobilizedâ (189), which, to his credit, is not really the sort of question that musicologists ask. He makes a persuasive case that music and sound studies would do well to turn some attention this way.
The closest Goodman comes to offering an interpretation of sonic mobilization is to suggest that bass materialist affect modulationâthat is, using palpable bass frequencies to vibrate bodiesâconstitutes a âcultural pragmaticsâ that can âmake existence bearableâ in what is increasingly, again following Mike Davis (2006), a âplanet of slumsâ (172). Theorizing across contemporary global sound system culture (âPlanet of Drumsâ), Goodman argues that they construct âtemporary bass ecologies to hijack sonic dominanceâ and to âattract and congeal populationsâ (173). But it would be naive, he contends, âto pretend that there is a necessarily politically progressive agendaâ underlying the organization of sound system parties (174). Goodmanâs overall aim here is laudable: to shift focus from questions of content and meaning and toward understanding the âmore basic power of organized vibrationâ (172). For the most part, this allows him to purposefully sidestep a great number of questions about the discursive realm. Itâs a provocative bit of bracketing, with enough barbs planted in the introduction and the footnotes to set seminar discussions ablaze.
Ultimately, Goodman allows sound to guide his project. He places sound, via vibration, at the center of everything. âOne way or another, it is vibration, after all,â he notes, âthat connects every separate entity in the cosmos, organic or nonorganicâ (xiv). Although his theories of affect and rhythm are underpinned by some heady philosophical discussions, stretching from Spinoza through Deleuze to Massumi and connecting the dots between Bachelard, Lefebvre, Bergson, and Whitehead, Goodman claims to be less concerned with bringing theory to bear on sound than in the reverse. Instead, sound âcomes to the rescue of thought,â undermining the âlinguistic imperialismâ and âphenomenological anthropocentrismâ that animate âalmost all musical and sonic analysis.â But rather than resorting to a ânaive physicalism,â Goodman asserts that what is key is âa concern for potential vibration and the abstract rhythmic relation of oscillationâ (82). Using sound to unsettle theoretical frames, while synthesizing a diverse and demanding philosophical literature, Goodmanâs efforts recall more than any other recent work Shepherd and Wickeâs ambitious Music and Cultural Theory (1997), another text that could have resonated more strongly in musicological circles.
It remains to be seen whether Sonic Warfare will speak to musicologists and the increasingly transdisciplinary enterprise of sound studies. If I express some pessimism here about its potential uptake, that has more to do with the textâs unorthodox and challenging dimensions. While brimming with ideas and sharp provocations, the book sometimes seems designed to stymie comprehension. Although Goodman rarely takes anything akin to Tompkinsâ flights of fancy, his prose can be disorienting and at times nearly impenetrable. (At least thereâs a glossary for help.) Although each chapter, most of them quite short, could no doubt be read as an autonomous âsingularity,â as the author recommends (xvii), there are several chapter-spanning sections of the book sustaining arguments that, a la carte, might go unappreciated. (Chapters 15-20, for instance, elaborate on the philosophical core of ârhythmanalysis.â) His use of non-chronological but pregnant dates to mark each chapter, although interesting conceptually, also proves problematic. Many of the dates go entirely without explication, so they can seem arbitrary or orthogonal to the discussion. As much as I appreciate and would like to see greater formal experimentation in music and sound studies, too often the organization of Sonic Warfare comes to feel like a conceit of sorts, an afterthought, or an evasion of hard, connective writing.
As the asymmetry in this joint review suggests, these books also differ insofar as one, written from within and directed toward the academy, is working at the level of an overarching argument which can be summarized, debated, and re-deployed in future research, whereas the other resists any sort of boiling down or segmentation. Tompkinsâ book is an irreducible thing, not least because of its often untranslatable idiom, and I like that about it. I do not mean to privilege one or the other, nor to confer some greater degree of legitimacy on either. In the end, what makes these texts relevant to an academic readershipâto those working in music and sound studies, whom I address hereâshould have little to do with their institutional pedigree or even their form and everything to do with how they contribute to rigorous debates about the place of music and sound in our world. Do their ideas effectively invite response, revision, and/or citation? Both books have the power to continue opening up the musicological conversation, to let some new vibes in, and to shake things around a bit.
Taken together, these books should help to retune (or is that detune?) the study of music and sound. They force us to ask hard questions of ourselves: What is our subject? What is our lexicon? How do we make sense of our audible past and present without foreclosing possible sonic futures? How do we engage, or ignore, the role of sound and music in the context of creeping, global militarism? If taken up with the vigor they merit, Sonic Warfare and How to Wreck a Nice Beach may better prefigure the future of music and sound studies than many other contemporary offerings.
Bilby, Kenneth. 1995. “Jamaica.” In Caribbean Currents: Caribbean Music from Rumba to Reggae, ed. Peter Manuel, 143â182. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Cloonan, Martin and Bruce Johnson. 2002. “Killing Me Soflty with His Song: An Initial Investigation into the Use of Popular Music as a Tool of Oppression”. Popular Music 21(1): 27â39.
Cusick, Suzanne G. 2006. “Music as Torture/Music as Weapon.” Revista Transcultural de MĂşsica/Transcultural Music Review. 10:1â18.
_______. 2008. â’You Are in a Place That is Out of the WorldâŚ’: Music in the Detention Camps of the Global War on Terror.” Journal of the Society of American Music 2(1):1â26.
Davis, Mike. 2000. Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster. New York: Vintage.
_______. 2006. Planet of Slums: Urban Involution and the Informal Working Class. London: Verso.
Henriques, Julian. 2003. “Sonic Dominance and the Reggae Sound System Session.” In The Auditory Culture Reader, ed. Michael Bull and Les Back, 451â80. Oxford and New York: Berg Publishers.
Shepherd, John and Peter Wicke. 1997. Music and Cultural Theory. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Stolzoff, Norman. 2000. Wake the Town and Tell the People: Dancehall Culture in Jamaica. Durham: Duke University Press.
Veal, Michael. 2007. Dub: Soundscapes & Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.
Funny as it may be, I’m pretty sure Run DMC’s “Roots, Rap, Reggae” (featuring Yellowman) is the first “reggae” song I ever knew. As an occasionally awkward and awfully chintzy attempt at reggae via New York, it’s an odd introduction in nuff ways. On the other hand, there are a couple moments in the song, especially during Yellowman’s verses, which make it a really excellent primer.
One such moment is King Yellow’s wonderfully concise (if slightly defensive) assertion that “reggae music is not so strange” (which served as an apt epigraph to my dissertation). But it’s a different line that I want to draw your attention to here.
At another point in the song, Yellowman offers the following definition:
Reggae music is rapping to the beat
Of course, that makes a lot of sense in a song with Run DMC, as if Yellowman wants to assure listeners that reggae really is not so strange — in fact, from a certain perspective, he suggests, it’s essentially the same thing as hip-hop. This is hardly pandering on his part, certainly by the mid-80s, when a great deal of reggae was just that: rapping over beats.
But we can extend his definition even further — back to the pre-reggae days of ska and rocksteady even, to the early days of soundsystems and mic-wielding deejays, when Yellowman’s “talkover” forbears were rather profoundly revising what it means to make music in the age of its technological reproducibility.
I’m hardly the first to propose that the conceptual and artistic innovations that emerge from Jamaican soundsystem practice, especially during the late 60s, deeply inform musical production and practice throughout the late 20th century and well into the 21st. Even so, I often find that this remains an underappreciated revolution. So it’s a lesson I’ve been trying to impart in my own classes, guest lectures, and other talks for some time.
Toward that end, I’m once again grateful to Roifield Brown for helping me to make these points — and make them more publicly — thanks to his solicitous interviewing and careful editing. Roifield’s latest episodes in his podcast series include some of my thoughts on these matters — pertaining both to the initial rise of deejays in Jamaica and to how Kool Herc transmitted & transmuted these practices to help bring hip-hop into being:
Of course, it’s hard to just talk about New York in this regard and leave out London. UK soundsystem formations — from faithful to faithfully mutated — are key to understanding the resonance and reverb of Jamaican soundsystem culture, and there are few who’ve done as stellar and vibrant a job of representing that side of the story as London’s Heatwave.
You could say that I’m grateful to them too — as a teacher, researcher, and as a listener. I’ve been using their classic mix An England Story in my classes for years now. There’s simply no better resource for audibly apprehending the links that run through reggae, rave, jungle, garage, grime, and so on. So I’m pleased to note that the Heatwave has produced a fine supplement for me, my students, and unenrolled enthusiasts too: the SHOWTIME! DVD.
The DVD is gathered around a historic stageshow that the Heatwave presented last summer, bringing together an epic posse of UK bashment luminaries. Interspersed between the lively show segments are illuminating interviews with some pioneers of the scene, many crucial in forging a distinctly Jamaican-British accent. (I myself might have like to see & hear a little more from the hip-hop and grime scenes, which are represented thickly on the mix, but I can appreciate and respect the focus on reggae here.) As for further explicating the significance of the DVD and what it means, I’m going to leave that to the ever-sharp Dan Hancox, who published a deeply contextualized review just this week.
I showed some scenes from the DVD a few weeks ago in the latest incarnation of my global hip-hop class, and I can’t resist sharing an excerpt here featuring none other than Wiley, probably the UK’s most relentless, restless exponent of JA-indebted production over the last decade —
“They must have installed it in me,” he says, referring to the ways that reggae (or, rapping to the beat) insinuated itself into him — and notably naming Yellowman as prime perpetrator (perpetuator?).
Installed! I really love that. What seems at first like a bit of mispeaking actually proves entirely eloquent. He’s talking about enculturation, yes, but the slip of install for instill also says something about reggae as conceptual framework, reggae as software, reggae as operating system, reggae as memory.
Marvin’s the guy responsible for bringing me into Jamaican schools back then, including to Camperdown, where he formerly taught and where the segment below was shot. He also provided the link to RETV, which was an especially exciting institution in Jamaica in the pre-YouTube days, finally offering a platform for local videos in an MTV and BET dominated media landscape.
The video catches me toward the end of our 6-month sojourn on Hope Road, one product of which was my dissertation (which I’m planning to finally post here soon), another was Boston Jerk, and another was, as you’ll see, a rather skinny me — a downright mawga man in local parlance. Quite a trip, e?