Among other recent publications, I’m especially happy to share a paper I co-wrote last year with my ol’ friend and colleague, Pacey Foster. As some of you surely know, Pace has been working for several years to collect, curate, and explicate a very special cassette archive documenting the early Boston rap scene. (Check these articles in the Boston Globe, the Phoenix, and Wax Poetics for further info — not to mention Pacey’s blog.)
Pace and I have been wanting to situate the archive — and such a project/subject more generally — for an interdisciplinary academic readership for some time, and so when we saw the call for a special issue of the Creative Industries Journal below (c/o the mighty Eric Harvey), we knew we found a great place to share some tales of the tape(s) —
CFP: Technologies and Recording Industries
Creative Industries Journal, Special Issue 8.2 (Fall 2015)
The past 15 years have proven transformative for music recording industries around the world, as digital technologies from the ground up (mp3s) and the top down (streaming platforms) have helped transform the landscape of production, promotion, distribution, retail, and fandom. Yet while these transformations have recently upended assumptions about musical practice for artists, industry workers, fans, journalists, and researchers, a broader historical perspective situates them in a legacy more than a century long. Indeed, a history of recording industries told from a media and technology perspective is one of constant flux. The introduction of new media technologies has continually reorganized the practices, regimes of value, discourses, and power relationships of the recording business.
This issue of the Creative Industries Journal seeks to address the constitutive roles of technologies in shaping recording industry practices. How have the introduction and adoption of new tools of production, distribution, promotion, or consumption facilitated changes in the creative and industrial practices surrounding popular music in a variety of global contexts? Following Williamson & Cloonan (2007) and Sterne (2014), we specify ârecording industriesâ instead of âmusic industriesâ to focus attention on the myriad creative and industrial processes related to music (or, broadly, sound) recordings, and to evade the tendency to group a variety of disparate music and sound-related industries (licensing, instrument sales, live performance) under one heading. We use the plural to assert the multiplicity and variety of recording industries that have emerged over time, which may not have anything to do with the current corporate-owned, multinational recording industry.
We respond to this call by discussing the Lecco’s Lemma radio show (and cassette archive) as an example of how DIY media technologies facilitated the emergence of a local hip-hop scene here in the 1980s. In addition to some media theory and a brief history of the cassette and its special affordances, Pace and I examine three telling anecdotes about Lecco’s Lemma — stories bearing witness to a remarkable moment of collective effort and creativity, a self-contained “recording industry” that networked a community of amateur artists and supporters.
One vignette revolves around this amazing artifact in the collection, a fascinating glimpse of Gang Starr’s Guru (aka, MC Keithy E) in his early days —
But I don’t want to offer too many spoilers here. For the low down on the incredible thing that Guru appears to have done to his recording of the broadcast above — an intervention that bears witness to the importance of the show, and of cassette technology — go ahead and read the article:
Foster, Pacey and Wayne Marshall. 2015. “Tales of the tape: cassette culture, community
radio, and the birth of rap music in Boston.” Creative Industries Journal 8(2): 164-76. [PDF]
Here’s the abstract to further whet your reading appetite —
Recent scholarship on peer-oriented production and participatory culture tends to emphasize how the digital turn, especially the Internet and the advent of the so-called âsocial webâ, has enabled new forms of bottom-up, networked creative production, much of which takes place outside of the commercial media. While remarkable examples of collaboration and democratized cultural production abound in the online era, a longer view situates such practices in histories of media culture where other convergences of production and distribution technologies enabled peer-level exchanges of various sorts and scales. This essay contributes to this project by examining the emergence of a local rap scene in Boston, Massachusetts in the mid-late 1980s via the most accessible âmassâ media of the day: the compact cassette and community radio.
And there’s lots more Lecco’s Lemma for your listening pleasure:
Despite my relative silence here this summer — about which, more soon — big tings a gwaan, especially as the fall semester rolls around.
First up, I’m thrilled to report that I leave today for Rotterdam, my first visit to Holland / the Netherlands! I’m fortunate to have been invited to participate in a conference gathered around an exhibition on Bengali film at De Nieuwe Oogst —
You might be wondering what I have to say about Bengali film, but you’ll have to ask me after the weekend is over for that. Happily, the conference organizers are using the event to stage some broader conversations about media and popular culture, and I’ve decided to take the opportunity to organize my thoughts around a topic that’s been bubbling up on my blog from time to time: Dutch club music — or more specifically, the contrasting media ecologies and aesthetic affinities between 90s bubbling and 00s dirty house / moombahton. In other words, Dutch club music from Moortje to Munchi, with a lil Afrojack along the way. Or in other words:
Look at Me Now: Dutch Club Music from Invisible Local Marginality to Invisible Global Ubiquity
Holland’s bubbling scene of the 1990s was so unremittingly anchored in local sites of realtime production and material circulation that in two decades, with few exceptions, the genre has hardly migrated beyond Rotterdam and the Hague. In marked contrast, contemporary Dutch house producer Afrojack, whose style audibly emerges from a national club music inspired by bubbling’s distinctive take on foreign but familiar forms, could credibly be counted among today’s top-tier producers of global dance-pop (if often overshadowed by US-based partners such as Diplo and Pitbull). Moreover, Afrojack’s remix of “Moombah,” slowed down several clicks by a Washington DC-based DJ named Dave Nada, has served as the basis for an emergent genre, moombahton, that enjoys a similar breadth of engagement and international circulation, but with relatively little attention to questions of Dutch origins — again, offering a striking departure from bubbling’s insistent locality and marginality. Although at a glance, then, the formal aesthetic qualities of mid-90s bubbling and today’s moombahton might have a lot in common — highly referential and resonant drum loops, Afro-diasporic signposts, a strong embrace of denatured synths and samples — a closer attention to their particular contexts and technologies of production and circulation can reveal striking shifts in the cultural politics of urban Holland, and the wider wired world, in an age of digital and so-called “social” media. Tracing the shapes and forms of Holland’s club music from bubbling’s Antillean counterpublics to the multicultural mix of participants addressed by Dutch “dirty” house and moombahton, this paper examines the distinct media ecologies that fostered the rise of such styles while considering the implications for understanding how musical media can facilitate forms of social collectivity and interaction, mobilization and disarticulation, audibility and illegibility.
See here for the full program. I’ll be giving my talk on Friday, Sept 1 at 11:45am as part of a panel addressing questions of “Urban Form.” Even more exciting (for me anyway), I’ll be DJing an afterparty on Friday night alongside Munchi himself! (not to mention State of Bengal and Nafer Loves You) It’s gonna be fun connecting all these dots! Sentello velocity indeed…
The second upcoming event I want to mention here is another DJ gig of sorts. On the evening of September 7, I’ll be performing at openLAB_03, a gathering at Harvard’s cool new experimental research unit, metaLAB, happening in conjunction with the Berkman Center’s iLaw conference.
The directors have been using the openLAB event series to present projects from Boston-area artists and share ongoing metaLAB experiments with the public. The theme of openLAB_03 is remix/curation of media archives (“broadly interpreted,” I’m told). Along these lines, they’ve asked me to reignite the Boston Mashacre/Smashacre stuff I worked up a few years ago, and I’ve decided that the next chapter in this series of sonic explorations of Boston’s sound(scape) will focus on radio transmissions.
Although I haven’t had a chance to write about the subject here yet, I’m deeply interested in how Boston’s radio landscape offers a uniquely audible picture of the city and the people who live here. The vivid, if often muted, presence of low-power and “pirate” radio stations — especially emanating from Caribbean communities — is something I’d like to explore, and accentuate, especially alongside the crushing amount of hi-fi, ClearChannel, middle-of-the-roaditude that saturates the airwaves here. In terms of aesthetic procedures, I plan on toying with degrees of distance and difference, signal and noise. To that end, I’ve been making my own “personal” (and/or public) archive of Boston radio scans, which I plan to cut up and loop and reassemble in the spirit of, e.g., my 2003 Jamaican radio edit.
Not sure yet about the title — think I’ve exhausted the (s)mashacre schtick, so maybe something like “Towers of Power” — but, at any rate, I hope something suggesting these power relations emerges in the performance. Will share in audio form here once I get a chance to bounce it all down, but please do come to openLAB_03 for the live mix if you’re in the area.
Association with the Berkman Center is always a felicitous thing, IMO, and I’m happy to report that, in addition to this latest bit of convergence, I’ve been selected to serve as one of the Berkman Center’s Faculty Associates for the 2011-2012 academic year (alongside a humbling list of luminaries).
Speaking of the academic year, the fall semester is soon to commence, and although I don’t have time (right now) to go into the long story of my academic employment situation, I’m excited to report that although my fellowship at MIT ended this spring, I’ll be continuing to teach here in the Boston area. I’m offering two courses this fall, one at Brandeis and another at UMass-Boston. I’m delighted to be teaching at both institutions, and very much looking forward to meeting the students. If you happen to know anyone at either place, please help spread the word. In brief the deets are:
1) On Monday evenings from 5:30-8:00 at UMass-Boston, I’ll be attempting to fill the very large shoes of Reebee Garofalo, who is retiring, teaching his perennial and popular course on the “Social History of Popular Music.” This is a great opportunity to dig into the question of the “popular” and how it opens into, emerges from, and informs social history. I’ll share the syllabus here as soon as I’ve got it into good enough shape. It’s being offered through the American Studies department (AMST 235).
2) On Tuesday nights from 6:30-9:20 at Brandeis I’ll be returning to the topic of “Reggae, Race, and Nation” for the department of African and African American Studies (AAAS 171a). The syllabus will not look too unlike my Global Reggae course for MIT (now on OpenCourseWare!), though I will be tweaking it a little, of course.
These topics are near and dear to my heart & work, and I feel fortunate (if a little undercompensated — twice the teaching for 20% the pay!) to be able to continue thinking and talking about music, popular culture, and social history & theory for a “living.” Nice work if you can get it. Do help me out by directing good students my way!
Hope to see some of y’all at some of these things. And I promise to fill you in on my Summer of Relative Silence very soon. Also, I’ve got some pieces of writing to share. Soon come, patient readers, soon come.
This Saturday I’ll be at Cornell, speaking on a panel alongside some esteemed colleagues. The subject at hand is, more or less, the animating force behind this blog in recent years: “(post-)regional dance musics and their transformation through the internet” —
The students organizing the event have an ambitious agenda for digging deeper into this stuff. They envision Saturday’s panel as “a way to introduce, contextualize, and start a dialogue that really hasn’t existed in (with a few exceptions) academic circles.” That said, I’ll be curious to see whether the turnout is largely students or whether some scholar-colleagues will join us as well. Although some of the speakers are (aspiring) academics, I’m told that our profiles as bloggers were central to the invitation, “an interesting statement on the role of the internet in the circulation of these regional styles.”
The organizers tell me that they hope this weekend’s event will pave the way for two future shows involving some of Chicago’s best and brightest. (Their wishlist includes DJ Rashad, DJ Deeon, DJ Clent, Jammin’ Gerald, and Traxman). Nick, one of the organizers, adds: “Admittedly, the shows are super Chicago centric, but this is what I’ve played the most and what I’m the most familiar with (I’m from Cincinnati, Ohio). Working on planning some stuff next semester and bringing some other folks up.”
Sounds like a plan to me. I’m happy to be a part of the conversation, and I’m thrilled to chat with some smart participants/observers who’ll bring to the (round)table years of experience in and research on such crucial sites as Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore, Atlanta, and New Orleans. No doubt you all know blogging brethren like Gavin Mueller, a perennially sharp critic of world2.0 and longtime ghettotech interpreter, but I’m also looking forward to meeting Al Shipley, the guy who’s writing the (kickstarted!) book on Bmore club, as well as Matt Miller, scholar of bounce and other dirty southness, and, last but not least, Ghettophiles‘ Neema Nazem, who first came to my attention as an acid-tongued but well-meaning interventionist in London’s burgeoning love affair with juke.
Oh, and did I mention there’s a party Saturday night featuring the mighty Dave Quam on the decks? YES.
I don’t have much more to add for now. Longtime readers should know that my pantheon of everyday heroes in recent years is remarkably populated by some central players in this story: courageous (if often faceless) kids dancing up a storm at school, at home, on the street, & on the screen —
So, yeah. There’s rearing; and then there’s rearing —
Slightly older kids, well enculturated & irrepressibly motivated, can tend to take things to the next level, bumping body parts with acrobatic abandon and lighting rooftops (and laptops) on fire —
Devotees of dancehall reggae and reggaeton will no doubt recognize elements of perreo and daggering in the “choque” (alt. “choke” or “shoke”) — named after the collisions so central to the dance. (One bump on each beat = 95 bumps per minute!) As one choque song goes, and there are many of them, the dance might be conceived as “perreo con toque.” Musically speaking, all the big choque songs (whether by La Combinacion, Son de AK, Element Black, Los de Tura, etc.) are basically reggaeton productions, if by reggaeton we mean Spanish-language, reggae-inflected rap over beats constructed piecemeal from mid-90s dancehall riddims — a stab of guitar from Murder She Wrote, a Fever Pitch hi-hat, kicks and snares resampled so many times they’ve taken on a new character, thick and crunchy, perfect for soundtracking the crashing of hips. In this way, we might appreciate an aesthetic symmetry between the ways the dance and the music both sample from as they explode well-worn forms.
Notably, however — and clearly departing from perreo and daggering in this way — the choque has a strong and, for many, surprising (or even subversive) “equal opportunity” character. As seen in the video above (and in many others), after doing some “leading” of their own, the men take turns being “led” (i.e., smashed on) by the women. Moreover, as I’ll discuss below, the choque also appears to lend itself to a fair amount of same-sex coupling — a rather rare sight in dancehall or reggaeton (especially male-to-male). But despite (or perhaps because of?) how clearly the choque is indebted to Caribbean forms — both musical and embodied — the video above has been received and recoded, again and again, as “African.”
When I first “stumbled upon” and reshared that video (via @culturedoctor, aka Sonjah Stanley Niaah), it wasn’t just called “Best Dance Ever. Watch it.” — it was called “Best African Dance Ever. Watch it.” And while I have no doubt that Africanists and Caribbeanists and scholars and enthusiasts of all stripes could hold an animated debate over what constitutes an “African” dance, whether here or there, and how much it hinges on aesthetics and history and politics — or, per Sonjah, whether “there is ground for analyzing inter-dependent genealogies” — I’m not so interested in hashing out that particular argument as I am in teasing out how ideologies of race and nation and sexuality, as routed through the charged site of Africa, play out in the public spheres gathered around YouTube and the myriad places, online and off, where a video like the one above can be discussed or re-embedded.
Comments on the various instantiations of the video reveal a remarkable resonance produced by the familiar movements and milieu. (It’s actually rather striking how little of the YouTube discourse around the song&dance mention the music at all.) This everyday but spirited rooftop jam clearly activates viewers’ social, global, and racial imaginations (to name a few). Some claim the dance for themselves, folding it into a capacious sense of identititity, others distance themselves from the scene and all it opens into —
All manner of associations and explanations are proffered —
Remarkably, debate continues despite that the uploader — who was, incidentally, not the first: this copy has nearly 20X as many views — finally “corrected” the title after several commenters correctly ID’d it as a Colombian scene/song (i.e., “Choque” by Son de AK).
People remain keenly interested in, skeptical of, and, indeed, ignorant of the video’s provenance. Some insist it is African African. Of course, even once we locate it in the Americas, that hardly means it’s not “African.” Note that Sonjah refers to the dance as a product of “the African community in South America,” an interesting (and, of course, political) way to describe it — as opposed to say, “Colombian” or “Afro-Colombian” or “Buenaventuran” etc. — and, I hasten to add, not necessarily an identititity that the kids in the video would oppose.
But pan-African commitments do not always lead to the tightest coalitions, for local cultural mores can produce fissures. It’s clear, for instance, that certain Jamaican viewers, even as they observe strong links to their own dear practices (“Dagga dat”!), find themselves repelled by certain practices that, no pun intended, give them pause (“dat cyaah gwaan a yaard”) —
And I think he was further convinced, and a little dismayed and bemused, when I shared some other choque videos I had turned up:
That video led me to a couple more, where the action is set in front of and then inside a home, and (thus?) it gets a little more intimate:
As you might imagine, given how YouTube has become ground zero for gay slurs, the comments on these videos get pretty hyperbolic. Indeed, trawling for interesting responses, I came across some classic chatroom Spanglish invective:
My friend and colleague, Michael Birenbaum Quintero, a self-identified “ethnomusicĂłlogo gringolombiano” who has been working in Colombia (and specifically in Buenaventura) for many years now, and is well acquainted with the choque phenomenon, offered another interpretation. He told me this sort of display — dancing in front of one’s house with a small soundsystem — is a commonplace practice in Buenaventura, including same-sex partnering. It may be homosocial, but it is not necessarily homoerotic — and according to MBQ such activity is rarely seen that way. Rather, and perhaps ironically (for some outside observers), this sort of galavanting is, more often than not, a means of showing off for girls. (But tell that to YouTube.)
Moreover, and this is something I hadn’t picked up on, MBQ noted that there’s a fair amount of subtle deflection in the dancing between men: rather than a square crotch-to-ass thrust, the guys are more likely to swivel hips at the last moment, so the bumping of sides is more frequent.
This is not always so, however, as some fellow Buenaventuran fellows demonstrate:
Then again, here they are again (and again), with opp-sex partners, so go figure:
And here’s a great example of two girls from Buenaventura, at what appears to be a family party, showing how the dance can be a lot more athletic than erotic —
Clearly, specific cultural frames and contextual understandings structure the meanings of choque, even as translocal elements (reggaeton, daggering, skinnyjeans) undeniably inform both local engagements and global circulation / fascination / revulsion. That said, it’s worth noting that the reason the choque became the phenomenon that it did — inspiring local and regional artists to record songs about and for it — is precisely because of all the kids in Buenaventura and ChocĂł dancing with abandon out in the street, up on the roof, and, eventually, on YouTube. This has made the choque more popular than ever, and it has invited contributions and appropriations of all sorts.
For one, thanks no doubt to YouTube, it has long since traveled beyond Buenaventura and Colombia: uploaded in September 2009, this video finds a Dominican couple doing the “baile de choque” (as well as jerkin’s “reject”) to some local dembow beats:
Closer to home, some recording artists have attempted to court crossover success by translating the choque for audiences outside of Colombia’s Afro-Pacific communities. As noted on the Masala blog a few months ago, Element Black and Bloke 18 premiered an upscale take on the tune, complete with HD video:
note the mambo outro
According to MBQ, although hailing from Buenaventura, Element Black appear to be targeting the regional capital, Cali, with this production. The most obvious cue is the participation of Cali-based group Bloke 18, but as MBQ told me via email, there are other signs to be read here: for one, whereas “videos for Pacific-focused music tends to have a generally darker demographic like that of the Pacific itself,” in this video we see “much lighter-skinned, upper-class-CaleĂ±o-looking models”; moreover, MBQ contends that “the fact that the more virtuosic aspects of the dance (e.g. head to butt headbutts) don’t appear” suggests that they wanted to “make it easier for Cali dancers,” a strategy seemingly buttressed by the use of mambo / merengue in the production. (But then, MBQ adds: “This is more that post-Ilegales No Pare Sigue Sigue neo-merengue mambo stuff than merengue, but it’s probably important that merengue is generally associated with the upper classes in Cali.”)
While listening to an Element Black mixtape I turned up, it occurred to me that mambo (as well as reggaeton) was working as a sort of platform in itself — as a means to project and promote one’s act, to invite the participation of a readymade public (i.e., one already addressed/amassed by mambo). It seems telling that there are multiple choque mambos circulating with their name on it. Then again, is mambo the platform, or does “choque” itself create a new scaffolding?
Perhaps inspired by the same crossover dreams, another act drummed up a (blanqueado?) salsa version:
Given the choque’s “African” connotations, there are consequences — in terms of social, cultural, and financial capital — for facilitating the circulation of choque beyond Colombia’s Pacific coast. While I can’t speak further to its reception in Cali, I have noticed a few videos portraying the choque in BogotĂĄ, where it is definitely received ambivalently, not least because the suggestive dance has been embraced by (putatively) non-Afro-Colombians — most scandalously of course, by highschool kids and even younger.
Indeed, the following footage of uniformed students in BogotĂĄ doing “EL NUEVO BAILE PARA JOVENES” (as the description phrases it) became the focus of an alarmist “national” news story —
Despite, then, what we might observe — and some would celebrate — as a certain set of cultural mores on display in choque videos, discourses of shame and scandal persist, at least in certain quarters. (One gets the sense, looking across these various videos and their metatexts, that these dances are ok, y’know, on the coasts, but not in the center!) Or maybe it’s just another lame excuse for the moralist media to replay the same supposedly salacious imagery again and again and again:
Resonant (and in conversation) with mediatized youth dance scenes the world over, the choque stands as another site of cultural and social contest. The myriad comments on choque videos using terms like “mierda” or “porquerĂa” alongside racist and heterosexist epithets merely serve to confirm, among other things, that as with its kindred genres (perreo, daggering, wining, freakin’) the choque can do a whole lot of cultural work at once. Whether teaching kids how to be in their bodies and cavort with their peers (sometimes a lot more innocently and playfully than critics let on), or pushing against longstanding biases, the choque vividly embodies the inevitable collisions in a post-slave, post-colonial, and multicultural society like Colombia.
And, indeed, despite vitriolic debates on YouTube and the fanning of populist fears on TV news, a large part of the choque’s cultural work may already be done. As MBQ also noted in our email exchange:
As for the upward mobility of choque, I recently saw on a friend of mine’s Facebook page a video of a middle-class white mother of about 40 and her 20something son in Buenaventura unironically dancing choque together.
If I were writing my mega-essay on reggaeton today, I’d want to make a lot more space for the Dominican Republic’s local take on the genre. Generally referred to as dembow (rather than reggaeton) — or dembow dominicano, to signal a certain national(istic) distinction — the Dominican artists and producers working in the style essentially proceed as if the reggaeton boom never happened, as if Luny Tunes’ once hegemonic synth-romps never held sway.
Instead, the same building-blocks that were in place in Puerto Rico in the 90s, back when Puerto Ricans were themselves often calling the genre dembow, remain the basic resources for new performances and recordings. And whereas Playero and the Noise had to wrest their cut-and-paste collages out of clunky if cherished hardware, today’s digital domain means its easier than ever for some kid to grab a snare here, a hi-hat there, a beloved synth-stab, etc. Consequently, dembow dominicano is catching grassroots fire, on the internet, on the island, and in the diaspora.
I’ve blogged a little about the offshoot style known as jerkbow and about the mini-mixes of DJ Scuff, one of the premier producers and party-rockers of the scene — in particular, in order to show that “reggaeton” (or whatever we want to call it) is, despite pronouncement after pronouncement, far from “dead” — but I think it’s time to take a deeper dive into some Dominican dembow rabbitholes, since I’ve just returned from a little virtual spelunking. (And in case you missed it in a recent post, here’s a link to DJ Effresh’s dembow roundup from last spring, and here’s a link to a followup from later in the year.)
An article on dembow’s origins nods to Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and Panama before rehearsing the genre’s local history, including nods to Dominican contemporaries of Playero’s such as DJ Boyo, who notes that they were listening to the same sources that inspired their PR brethren:
But before long the localized mashup emanating from San Juan clearly made its mark in DR, and productions there have more closely resembled PR’s dancehall bricolage than, say, Panama’s direct emulation. While a small, steady dembow scene appears to have persevered in the intervening years, Nova points to the “viral” success of Boyo’s âLa Gorda Buduscaâ (w/ PR vocalists Maicol y Manuel) and, later, Doble T & El Crow’s âPepeâ as initiating a new turn for the genre — an era of unprecedented popularity and widespread participation.
One of the hallmarks of dembow dominicano in its resurgent form — certainly as typified by “Pepe” — is how much it marks itself as homegrown, especially in the videos made to promote the songs, artists, producers, and associated brands. The internet, especially YouTube, has been central to this development, though Nova is careful to connect the easy distro of web2.0 to previous alternative distribution and promotion methods, namely hand-to-hand “piracy” (which is how Playero’s early tapes circulated as well).
Indeed, according to Nova, dembow’s remarkable popularity in DR today is especially striking because it has managed to dominate the soundscape without traversing the traditional media route. Another article, focusing on the role of the internet in the dembow scene, begins thusly:
Se escucha por todas partes. Es el ritmo de moda. Ha dejado sin efecto la teorĂa de que para sonar en la radio o en las discotecas los cantantes deben pagar âpayolaâ o ser una figura consagrada de la mĂșsica. No es asĂ.
[You hear it everywhere. It’s the rhythm of the day. It has invalidated the theory that to be heard on the radio or in clubs artists must pay “payola” or be a consecrated figure of music. Not so.]
And it ends by noting that the grassroots popularity of the music, as evidenced by millions of YouTube views as well as the sheer ubiquity of the beat in meatspace, has, in turn, forced established media outlets, especially radio and TV, to embrace the genre. Nova quotes radio disc-jock Sandy VĂĄsquez (aka Sandy Sandy), who says that radio has to keep up with what’s hot on the streets and in the clubs, lest the kids just switch the station:
Si notamos, los temas primero se han pegado en las calles (lamentablemente para la industria, pero gracias a los discos pirateados), en las discotecas e indudablemente en el Internet, y luego la radio se ha visto obligada a sonarlos para entrar a la competencia, porque sino la juventud te cambia de dial.
One overriding point in the series is that dembow has emerged as a national style, a national music. It would seem that dembow has been nationalized — and is felt as deeply Dominican, at least by its legion devotees — in the same way as, say, the Congolese made “rumba” their own. The occasional use of the term “dembow criollo” (which I mainly find as a recurring cut-and-paste reference around the net) — as in calling DJ Boyo (or Bollo?), “el padre del Dembow criollo” — would seem to suggest a certain sense of local hybridization. Perhaps the clearest statement of this outright identification is a recent posse cut that brings together upwards of 15 of the scene’s biggest stars. It is titled, simply, “Yo Soy Dembow”:
Eagle-eared, reggae-loving listeners will no doubt pick out snatches of some of the most popular dancehall riddims of the 1990s, including Bam Bam / Murder She Wrote / Fever Pitch, Dem Bow / Pocoman Jam, Drum Song / Hot This Year, Stalag, and others — not to mention a nod or two to some iconic hip-hop beats (the “Mardi Gras” break, the beat from Slick Rick’s “Mona Lisa”). This is par for the course for dembow dominicano, or for PR’s proto-reggaeton — both of which (re)cycle through this set of sonic signposts ad infinitum.
Listeners less versed in the twisted transformations of Shabba’s “Dem Bow” into reggaeton’s dembow might be a little perplexed by this turn. Jamaicans in particular would no doubt be bemused by such a statement. “I am they bow,” it seems to say, at least to Jamaicans. We’ve gone from Nando Boom translating Shabba directly into Spanish and calling on audiences to “put up your hand if you’re not a bow” to artists themselves proclaiming “I am dembow”!
Of course, those questions are extra-local and academic to say the least. At this point, in the Dominican Republic, as in Puerto Rico, “dembow” simply translates as “this awesome music of ours with that great beat.” It’s no surprise that leaders of the new school such as Pablo Piddy have recorded several songs with dembow in the title, among them the self-consciously nationalizing “Quisqueyano Dembow.”
The video for Piddy’s “Si Tu Quiere Dembow” is a fine example of the genre’s largely rough-hewn, real-walk aesthetic, complete with contact numbers for bookings and other opportunities:
But while it’s a fully nationalized style, and pretty “throwback” in sonic profile, dembow artists and audiences simultaneously insert themselves into today’s global flows. The “jerkbow” stuff is, of course, one clear example of this, looking toward LA, but others nod to JA, giving glimpses of how, perhaps unsurprisingly, contemporary dancehall style — especially sartorial taste and dance moves — can comfortably fit pon top of yesteryear’s dancehall riddims:
Of course, for all its distance from reggaeton, Dominican dembow shares a great deal with it — everything except the slick industrial integration and accordant aesthetics, pretty much. Like reggaeton prior to its formal commercialization, dembow is pretty raw stuff, carrying DIY production values, issuing from “the street” (i.e., the underclass), and pushing plenty of bourgeois buttons. So you probably won’t be surprised, if you’re familiar with the arguments around reggaeton (and its forbears, dancehall and hip-hop), that the articles have already invited a couple comments dismissing any value the music might have and, indeed, calling for an outright ban on the genre:
juanito: Esa musica es la musica que insita a la violencia PROHIBANLA y YA!….JOder!
luis: esa musica entre comilla lo unico que trae es reverdia una reverdia pendeja poner los niĂ±os mas malcriaos de los que son gran musica no la ponga y ya denle banda a eso
Moreover, as this Chosen Few-produced posse cut shows, lots of DR’s dembow stars are also happy getting down with comtemporary reggaeton style (that is, “con adornos de mĂșsica electrĂłnica“). I’m sure, despite having a decent and distinctive thing going, that they see no good reason to cut themselves off from new avenues to promote themselves and sustain, or expand, what they’re doing:
As a sort of middle-ground, and perhaps a sign of things to come, Secreto’s “Pa Que Te De” manages to have its cake and eat it too, juxtaposing high-res imagery and production values with dembow’s signature low-fi sonic palette (including samples from “Murder She Wrote” and an awesomely pitched-around synth-stab from “Hot This Year”):
But for my clickthroughs (since g0d knows how one could spend money on this stuff), I’ll take a goofball homemade vid any day:
orthogonal image copied from some website or other
I’ve been working on this monstruo post since last January, and hinting at it here and there, making it feel all the more urgent to finish though I haven’t had the time to tie it up. And yet, what has made finally publishing this post so hard is also what makes finishing it all the more pressing: the seemingly unending array of reasons to be suspicious and cautious toward the so-called “platforms” of the net.
The issue has, of course, come into more intense relief than perhaps ever before with the last weekâs commotion around Wikileaks and the way that what many of us understand as, in some sense, âpublicâ “platforms” hosting âfreeâ “speech” have been exposed as anything but public or free. But we’ve been following this plot for some time now, with ephemeral but irrepressible songs&dances serving up so many canaries in the coalmine. In other words, the so-called platforms falling out from under Wikileaks are the same ones that have been shifting beneath our footworking feet for years. Once again grassroots popular culture — as animated by music in particular — stands as a harbinger for a brave, new, and rather unstable future.
Clearly, mere vigilance will not suffice. New media literacies, even, only go so far. My aim here, then, is to reaffirm (with the support of many smart thinkers) that for those of us who see, hear, and feel a lot of promise in the participatory publics and creative, critical cultures that coalesce around certain websites and protocols, there is real need for action — toward bringing the most popular platforms to heel with regard to users’ demands and expectations of fairness, for one, but more importantly, toward a collective investment in self-determined and self-controlled architectures, where we can share in the value we ourselves create through the network effects of a critical massive.
While I don’t think I’m saying anything terribly new here, as my reliance on the writers below attests, I do think music plays a remarkable role in these matters and can offer an instructive, persuasive thread through this tangled web. Moreover, I’m interested in synthesizing various debates in recent technology and media studies for the music-centered conversation (esp for participants and practitioners — namely, many of you who read this blog).
IMEEM, IâM SAYIN
For some time now, my research has felt increasingly like sorting through a disturbed graveyard, names and dates scraped off tombstones, everything scattered if not missing.
Weâve all seen blogs and blogposts and videos disappear, often thanks to specious legal challenges. Even more troubling, weâve seen entire media ecosystems, such as imeem or Jamglue, succumb to the sudden slash and burn of corporate logic, which cares little for what we might celebrate as cultural vitality.
Many imeem users were shocked and dismayed when MySpace, after acquiring the site in a copyright-hobbled firesale (for reportedly under $1M), suddenly nuked it without warning. They promised post-facto to let users “transfer” their media over to the misguidedly redesigned MySpace Music, but this turned out to be true only for the sort of corporate-owned content that proved to be imeemâs downfall (in the form of unauthorized uploads impossible to monetize to the satisfaction of certain record labels). The substantial amount of independently produced and remixed music on imeem, which is what drew me and so many there in the first place, simply disappeared into the e-ther.
Whatâs striking is how much more vibrant imeem was as a musical-cultural space than MySpace Music or Facebook could ever be — precisely because it was so unruly. For some time, it stood as a remarkable platform for musically-organized social networks, musically-animated public conversations, and the peer-based, non-commercial sharing of worlds upon worlds of music.
I mean it when I say imeem was amazing: I often found myself drawn into a veritable maze of media there. As a somewhat self-contained (but outwardly connected & embedded) media ecology, it managed to become a willynilly archive for all kinds of audio (YouTube now largely fills this function, of course), and it networked a variety of vibrant publics (e.g., juke publics, Trini publics, West Indian publics, Caribbeanist publics, nu-whirled publics, and so on).
Unfortunately, especially from a research/advocacy perspective, unlike the more widely mourned and archived Geocities, no one seems to have mirrored imeem â or even get decent screenshots. More recently, a similar site, Jamglue, which also offered users the ability to (re)mix tracks online, joined imeem in the web2.0 scrapheap (though that metaphor fails to capture the utter lack of scraps left behind). At least in this case, there was a little notice, leaving me enough time to get some screengrabs. A glance at the number of jerkin mixes and tracks in circulation at the time of the site’s shuttering, most of them home-produced, is impressive:
This disappearance of archives, of crucial contextual data, is a product of “preferred” protocols as dictated by Big Copyright. Flash-based media are not so easily archived. (Had torrent technology triumphed in the battle over critically-massive streaming media, we likely wouldn’t be having the same problems.) And the sort of ad-hoc archiving that perseveres in an age of flash-media — save something here, fave something there — will hardly help us to reconstruct some of the most important information we lose when sites like imeem go under (whether data or “metadata”). Even if many of us take the trouble to download an FLV file or rip some other format from it, that’s hardly the same sort of preservation as one that would keep intact the broader contextual framework for any particular instantiation of audio or video. When platforms go poof, a lot more disappears than awesome dance vids.
Following a host of media scholars, we might productively (if provisionally) think of all this contextual data — interfaces, playlists, connections, conversations, and records of embeds and changes and the like — and to the careful cultivation it calls for, as constituting a particular site’s ecology (which, of course, is itself embedded in other ecologies, not to mention situated in various topographies). Thinking about media in terms of âecologiesâ or âtopographiesâ can help us to understand the implications of the so-called “architectures of participation” that increasingly structure social connectivity and cultural production. Such biological and spatial metaphors suggest modes of interplay as well as types of terrain, as shaped by particular affordances & constraints.
It is instructive to note how the distinctive design and address of Fotolog, for example, facilitated the efflorescence of flogger culture in Argentina and beyond. No less a spokesperson than the de facto leader of the floggers, a tomgirl photogenic who calls herself Cumbio, has discussed the signal differences of certain socially-networked media-sharing sites, and how they can seem inviting in certain ways, or not:
âFacebook asks your religion, your eye color, your relationship status,â she explains, âWe donât ask any of those things. We floggers just accept people as they are. We say, âShow yourself.â And we accept you.â
Floggers may be an extreme example in this regard; after all, they’re named after their preferred platform for a reason. But given such a clearly constitutive relation, we might wonder about the implications, say, for a substantial shift away from Fotolog (in Argentina, at least) in the wake of increasing inroads by Facebook:
Given the important irruptions of the public sphere that floggers staged in Argentina and across Latin America, we might find a statistical plunge like that worrisome. When we talk about disappearing platforms, we’re also talking about disappearing people. And in reflecting on various kinds of âdisappearing peopleâ on the net, from bloggers to floggers to subjects of extraordinary renditions that never get leaked, I inevitably start thinking of this as a serious collective action problem.
For some time, including rather explicitly on this here blog (sheesh — that post is nearly 4 years old!), weâve been bearing witness to, and bemoaning, the effects and losses associated with this relocation of public culture to the corporate net. But we haven’t done much at all to change the status quo.
âIS OUR CHILDREN LEARNING?â
After my âSkinny Jeans and Fruity Loopsâ talk last year, the ever-sharp Chrysaora asked me the silly but poignant question above. At the time, she was working at MITâs Center for Future Civic Media, and my concerns about public music-and-dance culture on the web clearly resonated with the underlying issues theyâve been exploring there. My answer was, simply, no. Savvy as they clearly are, I donât generally see a lot of young people (or older folks, really, myself & peers & forbears included) employing what we might call a strategic approach to culture on the net; rather, it would better be described as tactical.
But alas, moving relatively unhindered from imeem to the next thing, or ignoring âwatermarksâ from demo/unauthorized software — essentially privileging, as I’ve put it elsewhere, “participation, immersion and immediacy” — is not what activist-artists usually have in mind when they talk about “tactical media.” The sort of tactics we behold on web2.0 may represent a form of subversion, in a sense, but they hardly constitute an intervention.
As I attempted to trace out in the “Sounds of the Wide, Wired World,” what we see and hear on the net offers ground for celebration. And yet, the audible and visible aesthetic traces of our compromised ability to freely share the fruits of collective creativity also remind us that we’re building our cultural heritage on shaky foundations. They may even highlight what Siva Vaidhyanathan, in his forthcoming The Googlization of Everything, would call a “public failure.”
Clearly, this predicament is far from ideal. “Kids these days” enjoy an effervescent, exciting, but deeply compromised public culture. Which, among other things, gives the lie to facile celebrations of “millennials” or “digital natives” as inherently or naturally equipped to navigate this brave new world. Take, for example, David Parry’s warnings about assuming far more digital literacy on the part of our students (and brothers and sisters and sons and daughters) than is warranted:
I do not mean here to suggest all of that nonsense about digital natives versus non-digital natives; indeed I am actually suggesting something quite the opposite: students are not digital natives who possess some unique set of skills whereby they can magically manipulate the network and gadgets to do whatever they want with outstanding acumen, rather that students are for the large part unreflective about the way they use these network technologies, and what is more are unreflective about the ways in which their use (or our use) has already been historically determined and shaped, an unreflective response which gives up power and control over to these systems.
And yet, as important a reminder as this is, the critique of naive kids and their crummy tactics can also go too far, as in the elitist screeds of Andrew Keen, Mark Bauerlein, or Jaron Lanier. As pointed out in a pointed critique in Pop Matters, such rants tend to miss out on a lot of what does drive this stuff — the sort of thing I’ve celebrated here again and again, the stuff of music as social life:
The implication of Lanierâs argument is that people are motivated to create only by rewards rather than by the pleasure of creation or participation itself, an assertion belied by Web 2.0 voluntarism. âIn the open culture future, your creativity and expression would also be unpaid, since you would be a volunteer in the army of the long tail. That would leave nothing for you.â
Nothing, that is, except the pleasure that stems from creative work itself, the solidarity that derives from participation, the satisfaction of contributing useful social labor, and the expanded potential for recognition expressed in non-monetary terms.
This calls attention to the importance of understanding what motivates people to do what they do (and hence opens up important space for ethnography). The question of motivation came into fine focus, at least for bloggers, with last February’s so-called “musicblogocide” (which also extended to such seemingly unlikely targets as insouciant teen fashion blogs).
Among those that moved, some offered poignant testimony about what they do and why they take umbrage at having their platform unjustly pulled out from under them. Allow me to quote Masalaâs manifesto-like response to Blogger in some length:
– At Masala we believe that music, like culture and art at large, is a mix of influences and is largely derivative. No artist is creating anything from scratch. We also believe that if the copyright laws (DMCA) prevent culture and music from circulating and being reinterpreted and mix, weâre moving towards a monolithic culture (to the economic benefit of a few).
– The music weâre promoting here is the incarnation of this idea. Itâs often music made by young people wired to the world through internet or 1st, 2nd or 3rd generation immigrants. People who are inventing themselves through and with the world theyâre living in, trying to connect their local tradition and history with what they receive from the outside.
– We believe that by posting MP3s on this blog, weâre encouraging people to broaden their horizons, be curious and open minded about other peoples music and in the case itâs possible, (and itâs often not possible), to buy the music, support the artist and the people who made it possible to circulate.
– Donât believe the hype, every download is not a theft or one less sale. Music lovers have a pretty limited bank account. But do support art when you can! Recording music industry is shifting and doesnât make as much money as they used to and on the other hand, the music industry at large is doing ok (publishing, shows, merchandising, sponsorship etc.).
This resonates righteously with Larisa Mann’s (aka, DJ Ripley’s) notion of “saving the world” (a phrasing that also evokes archives), by which she means to underscore how music blogs, regardless of the platform on which theyâre hosted, are an important part of the cultural ecology of popular music and the forms of sociability that grow up around it —
Masalacism is a perfect example of music-making, in that the blog is part of the conditions for my favorite music, it creates the possibility of audience for/creation of music variously rooted in geographically and socially distant scenes.
I’m talking about music as a social practice, not music as a recording or a particular moment frozen in time or on paper. Masalacism makes music involving actors from all over the world, it draws them together and opens lines of communication between people, places, scenes, who might not get to know of each other in any other way. This is some of the best music-making there is, in my opinion. I love the specific &local, juxtaposed with other specific & local, to make a kind of conversation between localities and experiences, when music does this well, it also does this for the bodies &minds of people involved, bringing them into conversation or dance with each other, physically or mentally or both. Which is part of saving the world, kind of, or at least getting us there.
How do we save a world that can disappear behind a URL redirect in the blink of an eye? In the long term, we need to build better platforms; in the short term, we need to proceed with far more suspicion when that term gets so loosely thrown around.
In a recent article, Tarleton Gillespie discusses the politics of ‘platform’, arguing that the term serves as an effective bit of rhetorical judo to do the delicate job of knitting together the multiple constituencies of sites like YouTube — among them, the uneasy triad of professional content producers, advertisers, and end-users (that’s us, pretty much, though I hate being called a user, esp when I’m actually a product). For Gillespie, “This is where the discursive work is most vital.” He continues,
Intermediaries like YouTube must present themselves strategically to each of these audiences, carve out a role and a set of expectations that is acceptable to each and also serves their own financial interests, while resolving or at least eliding the contradictions between them. … Curiously, tropes like âplatformâ seem to work across these discourses â in fact, the real value of this term may be that it brings these discourses into alignment without them unsettling each other.
More specifically, Gillespie notes that
The term âplatformâ helps reveal how YouTube and others stage themselves for these constituencies, allowing them to make a broadly progressive sales pitch while also eliding the tensions inherent in their service: between user-generated and commercially produced content, between cultivating community and serving up advertising, between intervening in the delivery of content and remaining neutral.
And yet — and you saw this coming? — for Gillespie, portraying itself as a platform “is a claim that arguably misrepresents the way YouTube and other intermediaries really shape public discourse online.” Gillespie’s use of the term “intermediaries” is important, for he argues that sites like YouTube, or in his own words “a handful of video platforms, search engines, blogging tools, and interactive online spaces,” have become — for better or for worse (for better and for worse?) — “the primary keepers of the cultural discussion as it moves to the Internet.”
Hosting the public conversation on private, commercial “platforms” is problematic for any number of reasons. One of the primary ones — and the one most salient for me — being that our shared culture (especially in the form of recorded sound and video), and all the discourse in and around it, is not only constantly vulnerable to cooptation and exploitation — worrisome as those are — but to outright disappearance. This is problematic from an archival/heritage perspective as well as for anyone interested in contemporary practices, politics/publics, and the chilling effects constraining the creation and circulation of the (peer-to-peer) popular culture of the 21st century.
Without needing to get so romantic about it (e.g., invoking das volk), we would do well to consider the framing offered by Yochai Benkler in chapter 8 of Wealth of Networks, which concerns the power of peer-production: âFrom the perspective of liberal political theory,” writes Benkler, “the kind of open, participatory, transparent folk culture that is emerging in the networked environment is normatively more attractive than was the industrial cultural production system typified by Hollywood and the recording industry.” He is quick to caution, though, that, “We cannot, however, take for granted that the technological capacity to participate in the cultural conversation, to mix and make our own, will translate into the freedom to do so. The practices of cultural and counter-cultural creation are at the very core of the battle over the institutional ecology of the digital environmentâ (277).
It should probably go without saying that the biggest threat to continuing the “cultural conversation” on our own terms is the hammer of copyright being wielded by Big Media companies — and more recently, in the case of Wikileaks, by the US government — to force compliance from the corporations who are hosting more and more of our socially-networked digital culture. In Benkler’s words: âthe tension between the industrial model of cultural production and the networked information economy is nowhere more pronounced than in the question of the degree to which the new folk culture of the twenty-first century will be permitted to build upon the outputs of the twentieth-century industrial modelâ (300).
Allow me to quote him at a little more length (as appropriate for Yochai ;) —
In this battle, the stakes are high. One cannot make new culture ex-nihilo. We are as we are today, as cultural beings, occupying a set of common symbols and stories that are heavily based on the outputs of that industrial period. If we are to make this culture our own, render it legible, and make it into a new platform for our needs and conversations today, we must find a way to cut, paste, and remix present culture.
On the other hand, lest technoptimism run away with the spoon, in a provocative article about what he dubs our emergent “network culture,” Kazys Varnelis contends that if âappropriation was a key aspect of postmodernism, network culture almost absentmindedly uses remix as its dominant processâ (150). The effect is to invite the tentacles of capital into everything we do, via legal capture and a certain subtle, insidious consumerism:
But such peer-to-peer production also faces challenges. Chief among these is new legislation by existing media conglomerates aiming to extend the scope of their copyright and prevent the creation of derivative work. Even if advocates of the free circulation of cultural goods are successful in challenging big media, it is still unclear if the burgeoning fan culture is critical, or if it only re-inscribes, to a degree that Guy Debord could not have envisioned, the colonization of everyday life by capital, with debates about resistance replaced by debates about how to remix objects of consumption. Furthermore, the possibility of consumers not only consuming media but producing it for the (new) media outlets suggests the possibility of new, hitherto unanticipated forms of exploitation.
FREE CULTURE, FREE LABOR
In an attempt to debunk the all too uncritical embrace of web 2.0 rhetoric in the tech conversation, Trebor Scholz charges that:
âA fine example of the Web 2.0 Ideology,â writes Scholz, âis immaterial free labor,â which he calls âa fairly unpopular and very complex subject.â But he gives it a shot:
The Web makes people easier to use. By âsurfingâ it, people serve their virtual hosts and they are not unhappy about it. Online, service platforms rather than products are offered, and users are encouraged to participate, communities become the brand.
Itâs precisely this scare-quotable way of âsurfingâ the net that inspires Astra Taylorâs recent critique of the myriad ways weâre actually âserfing the net.â For Taylor, the key bit of deception is with the word âfree,â namely that it excites both the technoptimistic âfree cultureâ kids as well as the rapacious capitalists eager to have “pirates do the work of mass marketers, while industry pretends to defend the very artists they have exploited for so long”:
Where free is concerned, weâre typically told that âthe kids,â impatient and entitled, want their culture this instant and will not pay a dime, so theyâve embraced piracy. But the young pirates arenât really leading a mass insurrection; theyâre a symbol or a scapegoat employed to obscure a larger struggle about culture and valueâand in whose pocket that value accumulates. The owners of social networking sites may be forbidden from selling individual songs posted by members, but the companies themselves, including user content, can be turned over for a hefty sum: almost $900 million for Bebo and far more for YouTube. Google doesnât see the mammoth archive of books it currently hopes to digitize as a priceless treasure to be preserved; itâs a trove of content to sprinkle with banner ads. Google, as Chris Anderson points out many times, succeeds because of an almost unfathomable economy of scale; each free search brings revenue from targeted advertising and fodder for the data miners: each mouse click is a trickle in the flood. Technology writer Nicholas Carr and others call this âdigital sharecroppingâ: Itâs not that the production or distribution of culture has been concentrated in the hands of the few â itâs the cultureâs economic value. Somebodyâs got a massive financial interest in free, and itâs not the people uploading footage of kittens to Vimeo.
Given all this talk of serfing, itâs no surprise that feudal metaphors appear to be proliferating in critical discourse about the current state of the net. Matteo Pasquinelli offers up âdigital neofeudalismâ to call attention to the alarming trend whereby the utopias of the net have shifted âfrom self-organised media to generic activism on corporate platforms with their closed code and protocols,â a provocative parallel to Jodi Deanâs critique of activism in an age of âcommunicative capitalism.â For Pasquinelli, digital neofeudalism describes
the polarised scenario where few landlords owns the whole infrastructure of communication (hardware layer, protocol layer, meta-data layer, social network layer) and face a multitude of cognitive workers forced to âcreativityâ.
profit is the income made selling commodities, rent is the income made by a monopolistic exploitation of spaces. In feudal times, it was the exploitation of land cultivated by farmers, in the internet age itâs the exploitation of the immaterial spaces cultivated by cultural producers, prosumers and the notorious Free Culture.
And while I’m not nearly as cynical and I might take issue with Pasquinelli’s use of music as an example — I’m not sure the situation is “squeezed” for more musicians now than a decade ago; the myth of a middle-class of musicians better off under Big Music is one that really needs debunking — taking a big picture view, with the idea of a hamstrung 21st century (popular, p2p) culture in the balance, this is a necessary and bracing critique.
Itâs a little dispiriting, to say the least, that this harrowing specter was raised at least a decade ago. In an article called “Free Labor” (pdf | html), first published back in 2000, Tiziana Terranova argues that, if I may update her argument a bit, the kids on web2.0 “are not working only because capital wants them to; they are acting out a desire for affective and cultural production.” For Terranova, “Free labor is the moment where this knowledgeable consumption of culture is translated into productive activities that are pleasurably embraced and at the same time often shamelessly exploited.”
She also speaks to the particular predicament of such collectively produced fields as fashion and music:
If knowledge is inherently collective, it is even more so in the case of the postmodern cultural economy: music, fashion, and information are all produced collectively but are selectively compensated. Only some companies are picked up by corporate distribution chains in the case of fashion and music; only a few sites are invested in by venture capital. However, it is a form of collective cultural labor that makes these products possible even as the profit is disproportionately appropriated by established corporations.
Recently, a number of artists, writers, bloggers, etc., in sectors like fashion, are picking up on this, um, thread. And clearly, a large number of artistsdesign workers also agree with this perspective, feeling more and more like assembly-line workers in a precarious world of rapid deskilling, reskilling, and unsatisfying work.
I like the Rasta term ‘politricks’ for its slip-tongued critique: in a Babylon system, politics is rigged so better to turn to (and invest in) culture, to various practical toolkits for dealing with, persevering under, and triumphing over Babylonian fuckery. But what happens when that culture to which we’ve turned gets folded back into what Peter Tosh dubbed the shitstem? And where does a total retreat leave us? (All too often, it seems to pave the road not for independence but for exploitation.)
The irrepressible DailyMotion so embodied by youthful (net-abetted) dance crazes tells me, again and again, that the genie’s out of the bottle. They can’t shove it back in. But they can try to build a bigger bottle. And call it a platform.
THE FUTURE OF MUSIC âŠ AND HOW TO STOP IT
Against this creepy, creeping context, some suggest that âweb 3.0â might well be conceptualized as a âgrand retreat back to our own servers.â
But will this vision of an interconnected independence prevail, or will it be a ZuckerBorgian colonization of the net as we know it? Given what Iâve sketched out above, the specter of a âsecond Internetâ should be a scary one–
Facebook, with the private information of over 350 million members, now constitutes what Wired magazine has called a “second Internet.” By encouraging members to bring their Facebook settings with them onto the rest of the Web, Zuckerberg hopes to take this new Internet, with its pretensions to privacy, and place it at the foundation of the old one.
While Zuckerberg’s ambition to reduce the experience of the Internet to a more human scale should be applauded, his site, despite its recent openness, prevents users from transferring their information to other social networks — a restriction, considering the huge time and effort many members put into their profiles, akin to prohibiting homeowners from packing up their houses and moving elsewhere. Moreover, with the site’s huge database of personal information and its hopes to profit from highly targeted ads, Facebook creates its own surveillance problems. If anything, Zuckerberg looks, in some distant but discernible way, like the Robert Moses of the Internet, bringing severe order to a chaotic milieu.
Facebook’s OpenGraph indicates that they’re moving away from the walled garden approach toward simply being one’s portal to the web (like AOL 2.0), but the fact is, there’s an increasing amount of self-censorship in the ever-expansive realm of Facebook. And that’s not great for the kind of unruly culture that many of us prize.
As far as silver-linings go, the Robert Moses reference above makes me wonder: if Facebook is the Cross-Bronx Expressway of the Internet, what sort of hip-hop will emerge from under its overpasses and beyond its walls? What kinds of cultures will thrive in the corners of the net, unhindered by auto-takedowns and the prying eyes of parents and employers?
This degree of dominance, Facebook’s increasing mediation of the internet itself, opens up the idea that Facebook resembles a utility and perhaps, as danah boyd argues, it should be regulated as such:
If Facebook is a utility — and I strongly believe it is — the handful of people who are building cabins in the woods to get away from the evil utility companies are irrelevant in light of all of the people who will suck up and deal with the utility to live in the city. This is going to come down to regulation, whether we like it or not.
Iâd advocate turning social networks into public utilities to better hew it towards the Bill of Rights, but not in a country that passes the Patriot Act. Weâll have to wait until the revolution comes to nationalize Facebook. And by that point, lots of people wonât even be able to afford the internet.
But why expropriate when we can innovate? That’s what Mark Andrejevic suggests with regard to YouTube — or more to the point, suggests that YouTube, as a commercial venture, may never become the platform it promises to be:
The objective is data-driven control: the channeling of usersâ own activity to further a goal arrived at neither through shared participation not conscious deliberation: that of increasingly accelerated consumption. âŠ That the offer of a platform for ânon-estrangedâ production might threaten this goal constitutes the contradiction at the heart of YouTubeâs marketing plan, and helps explain the ambivalence and even hostility of commercial content providers toward âamateurâ content. They want the user-generated data without the user-generated content. If sites like Hulu start to gain large and loyal followings, they may well succeed, and in so doing demonstrate that the more appropriate infrastructure for a site like YouTube may not be commercial, but collectively owned and operated.
It’s been all too easy to let corporate enterprise host our collective culture. We didn’t know some of these things were possible, and we didn’t necessarily have the critical capital to bring such things into being. But this is a devil’s bargain we’re making. Certainly we can do better. The network effects of critical mass constitutes a great proportion of the value that we bring to these sites (user-generated data, as opposed to user-generated content, pace Andrejevic). But when will our critical mass become a truly critical mass?
At least in the near term, one way, among many, to address the issue of control (and hence stability/sustainability) is what some have called “virtual rights management” (and hence, activism, architecture, self-determination). Along these lines, see, e.g., the Berkman-related Project VRM (and Doc Searls’s emphasis on internet geology), as well as the Mine! Project (about), or the badly-named but well-meaning Diaspora, or the fledgling Poyozo. If any of these gain serious steam, they can create a serious opening.
While we’re at it, as Kevin Driscoll asked many months ago, who wants to start a broadband collective?
To return to the words of Jace Clayton, let us commence our grand retreat —
NO SURRENDER, NO DELETE
Or, as he put it elsewhere and with regard to something else:
The key is openness. Together we can make everything last.
Next week I begin teaching my second course at MIT. It’s a new syllabus, though it draws on certain materials I’ve used before. In contrast to previous offerings, however, this will be the first time I teach a class with a primary focus on reggae outside of Jamaica — on what I’m calling here “global reggae” or “reggae as transnational culture.”
No doubt we’ll encounter a good number of themes resonant with the inextricably related subject of global hip-hop. But I’m also keen to identify particular dimensions of reggae’s transmission and transformation abroad that might, for significant reasons, diverge from the reception and refiguring of hip-hop around the world. We’ll let you know ;)
Meantime, if you happen to know any MIT students to whom this sort of course would appeal, by all means point them this-a-way. And if you spot any conspicuous absences in the syllabus below — a work-in-progress, as always — please do point them out, make recommendations, & feel free to offer critiques, supplements, and blessings.
21F.035 / 21M.539 Topics in Culture and Globalization
Global Reggae: Reggae as Transnational Culture
Mellon Fellow in the Humanities
Foreign Languages and Literatures
Music and Theater Arts
Tuesday/Thursday 12:30-2:00 pm
Reggae is incontestably one of the most popular musics in the world. Despite its origins in the working-class urban culture of the relatively small country of Jamaica, reggae artists have powerfully projected their voices outward (in part via the imperial networks of the UK and USA) and one can hear reggae today in almost any corner of the globeânot just Jamaican reggae, but local versions and fusions with nearly every other conceivable genre. Reggae precedes the global reach of its progeny, hip-hop, but, in its dancehall guise, it has also in turn piggybacked on hip-hopâs own impressive international spread. As remix approaches and massive sound systems have become increasingly common worldwide, reggae stands as a remarkably influential template for world music, electronic dance music, and popular music more generally. Itself constituted by international flows of music and musicians but increasingly produced outside of Jamaica, reggae thus offers a rich resource for the examination of todayâs global circulations of music and media.
This course considers reggae, or Jamaican popular music more generallyâin its various forms (ska, rocksteady, roots, dancehall)âas constituted by international movements and exchanges and as a product that circulates globally in complex ways, cast variously as Jamaican, Caribbean, Afrodiasporic, and/or black, and recast through the cultural logics of the new spaces it enters, the new soundscapes it permeates. By reading across the reggae literature, as well as considering reggae texts themselves (songs, films, videos, and images), we will scrutinize the different interpretations of reggaeâs significance and the implications of different interpretations of the story of Jamaica and its music. We will attend in particular to how reggae informs notions of selfhood and nationhood, race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality, religion and politicsâin particular places and at particular times.
Although Bob Marley still serves as the most ubiquitous symbol of reggae (and, indeed, of Jamaica), the reggae tradition and repertory go far deeper and represent a great deal to listeners and practitioners. In its shifting shapes and forms the genre has served for four decades as a potent symbol of independence and social critique, communitarian commitment as well as rugged individualism. While certain core values appear regularly in reggae, the genre also offers a rather flexible palette for a wide range of ideological positions, from Pan-Africanism and other forms of transnationalism to utterly provincial nationalism, from peaceful and respectful postures to aggressive machismo and militancy, from tolerance to its own forms of oppression. Perhaps most notably, reggae has made such scripts of personhood and nationhood available not only to Jamaicans but to people around the world who have adopted the genreâs gestures as their own.
Beginning with a consideration of how Jamaicaâs popular music industry emerged out of transnational exchanges, the course will proceed to focus on reggaeâs circulation outside of Jamaica via diasporic networks and commercial mediascapes. Attending to how the genreâs pliable but distinct forms have been, in turn, transformed in particular localities, the course will help to illuminate ongoing dynamics between the global and local. Among other sites, we will consider reggaeâs resonance and impact elsewhere in the Anglo Caribbean (e.g., Trinidad, Barbados), the United Kingdom (including British reggae styles but also such progeny as jungle, grime, and dubstep), the United States (both as reggae per se and in hip-hop), France and Germany, Panama and Puerto Rico and other Latin American locales (e.g., Brazil), Japan and Australia, as well as West, South, and East Africa (CĂŽte d’Ivoire, Tanzania, Uganda).
Bilby, Kenneth. âJamaica.â In Caribbean Currents: Caribbean Music from Rumba to Reggae, ed. Peter Manuel, 143-182. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995.
Veal, Michael. Dub: Soundscapes & Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2007. [Intro & ch. 1, p. 1-44]
Thomas, Deborah. âModern Blackness; or, Theoretical âTrippingâ on Black Vernacular Culture.â In Modern Blackness: Nationalism, Globalization, and the Politics of Culture in Jamaica, 230-62. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2004.
Jones, Simon. Black Culture, White Youth: The Reggae Tradition from JA to UK. London: Macmillan, 1988. [ch. 2, 4, Conclusion, p. 33-56, 87-118, 231-40.]
Gilroy, Paul. âBetween the Blues and the Blues Dance: Some Soundscapes of the Black Atlantic.â In The Auditory Culture Reader, ed. Michael Bull and Les Back, 381-95. Oxford and New York: Berg Publishers, 2003.
Hebdige, Dick. CutânâMix: Culture, Identity, and Caribbean Music. London: Routledge, 1987. [ch. 11-12, p. 90-117]
Sharma, Sanjay. âNoisy Asians or âAsianâ Noise?â [p. 32-60] & Shirin Housee & Mukhtar Dar, âRe-Mixing Identities: âOffâ the Turn-Tableâ [p. 81-104]. In Dis-Orienting Rhythms: The Politics of the New Asian Dance Music. London: Zed Books, 1996.
Quinn, Steven. âRumble In The Jungle: The Invisible History of DrumânâBass.â Transformations, No. 3 (May 2002): 1-12.
Watch: excerpts from Reggae In a Babylon, Babylon, Mutiny: Asians Storm British Music
Listen: âAn England Storyâ
Chang, Jeff. âMaking a Name: How DJ Kool Herc Lost His Accent and Started Hip-Hop.â In Canât Stop Wonât Stop: A History of the Hip-hop Generation. New York: St. Martins Press, 2005. [ch. 4, p. 67-88]
Kenner, Rob. âDancehall,â In The Vibe History of Hip-hop, ed. Alan Light, 350-7. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999.
Stephens, Michelle A. âBabylonâs âNatural Mysticâ: The North American Music Industry, the Legend of Bob Marley, and the Incorporation of Transnationalism.â Cultural Studies Vol. 12, No. 2 (1998): 139â167.
Watch: excerpts from Sound Class, Marked for Death, Belly, Predator 2
Putnam, Lara. âThe Weekly Reggee: The Greater Caribbean Jazz Age and Youth Dances in Limon, Costa Rica, 1930-1932.â Unpublished/forthcoming.
Giovannetti, Jorge L. âPopular Music and Culture in Puerto Rico: Jamaican and Rap Music as Cross-Cultural Symbols.â In Musical Migrations: Transnationalism and Cultural Hybridity in the Americas, ed. Frances R. Aparicio and CĂĄndida F. JĂĄquez, 81-98. New York: Palgrave, 2003.
Hansing, Katrin. âRasta, Race and Revolution: Transnational Connections in Socialist Cuba.â Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, Vol. 27, No. 4 (2001): 733 â 747.
Baker, Geoffrey. 2009. “The Politics of Dancing.” In Reggaeton, eds. Rivera, Marshall, and Pacini-Hernandez, 165-99. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009.
Fairley, Jan. 2008. “How To Make Love With Your Clothes On: Dancing Regeton, Gender and Sexuality in Cuba.” In Reggaeton, eds. Rivera, Marshall, and Pacini-Hernandez, 280-96. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009.
Behague, Gerard. “Rap, Reggae, Rock, or Samba: The Local and the Global in Brazilian Popular Music (1985-95).” Latin American Music Review 27, no. 1 (Spring/Summer 2006): 79-90.
de AraĂșjo Pinho, Osmundo. ââFogo na BabilĂŽniaâ: Reggae, Black Counterculture, and Globalization in Brazil.â In Brazilian Popular Music & Globalization, ed. Charles A. Perrone and Christopher Dunn (New York: Routledge, 2001), 192-206.
dos Santos Godi, Antonio J. V. “Reggae and Samba-Reggae in Bahia: A Case of Long-Distance Belonging.” In Brazilian Popular Music & Globalization, ed. Charles A. Perrone and Christopher Dunn (New York: Routledge, 2001), 207-219.
Neate, Patrick and Damian Platt. Culture Is Our Weapon: Afroreggae in the Favelas of Rio [ch 3, 4, 7, 8].
Goodman, Steve. Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009. [ch. 31, p. 171-5]
Watch: excerpts from Favela Rising, Favela on Blast
WEST, EAST, AND SOUTHERN AFRICA
Akindes, Simon. âPlaying It âLoud and Straightâ: Reggae, Zouglou, Mapouka and Youth Insubordination in CĂŽte d’Ivoire.â In Playing with Identities in Contemporary Music in Africa, ed. Mai Palmberg & Annemette Kirkegaard, 86-103. Nordic Africa Institute, 2002.
McNee, Lisa. âBack From Babylon: Popular Musical Cultures of the Diaspora, Youth Culture and Identity in Francophone West Africa.â In Music, Popular Culture, Identities, ed. Richard Young, 213-228. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2002.
Savishinsky, Neil J. âRastafari in the Promised Land: The Spread of a Jamaican Socioreligious Movement among the Youth of West Africa.â African Studies Review Vol. 37, No. 3 (Dec 1994): 19-50.
Remes, Pieter. âGlobal Popular Musics and Changing Awareness of Urban Tanzanian Youth.â Yearbook for Traditional Music, Vol. 31 (1999): 1-26.
Gilman, Lisa and John Fenn. âDance, Gender, and Popular Music in Malawi: The Case of Rap and Ragga.â Popular Music Vol. 25, No. 3 (2006): 369-81.
Maxwell, Ian. “Sydney Stylee: Hip-Hop Down Under Comin’ Up.” In Global Noise: Rap and Hip-Hop Outside the USA, ed. Tony Mitchell, 259-79. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2001.
White, Cameron. âRapper on a Rampage: Theorising the Political Significance of Aboriginal Australian Hip Hop and Reggae.â Transforming Cultures eJournal, Vol. 4 No 1 (April 2009): 108-130.
Baulch, Emma. Making Scenes: Reggae, Punk, and Death Metal in 1990s Bali. Durham: Duke University Press, 200 [ch. 3, p. 73-90]
That’s it, for now. There are plenty of holes that I’m aware of (anything on roots reggae in Cuba, say [update: after one day of comments, that’s been ameliorated; new readings now above!]), and surely plenty more that I’m not. Then again, I’m finding the extant literature on local reggae scenes outside of Jamaica fairly impoverished at the moment. (Nothing on Italian sound systems? Really?) The course can’t exactly be comprehensive — we only have so much time — but I would love for this post to serve as a spot for collecting some good materials. So, as they say inna di dancehall, send on!
Next Tuesday (Feb 2) will be the initial meeting of the first class I’m teaching at MIT. I’m excited about the course, a new one, which invites students to read along with me and collectively investigate what I’ve been calling music industry — that is, a broader understanding of musically-propelled cultural practice than something like “THE music industry,” with its focus on commerce, tends to demarcate — in particular as it relates to the more well-worn (if no less confusing) term, digital youth culture.
Wording aside, the subject matter should be familiar for readers of this blog. The discussions about music I try to host here are often, and perhaps also increasingly (see, all the youthful youtubery posted here in recent years), centered on the fraught and fertile intersections between musical/cultural practice, technological tools, industry and commerce, public debates, and the stories we tell about all these things.
If the subject matter is familiar to regular readers, I suspect some of the specific readings I’ve selected might be new to some — in part because some are fairly new. In sketching out the course’s — and my larger project’s — purview, I reach across various disciplinary literatures and genres (from the dry to the webby) to focus our foray on a few primary areas of inquiry: music/culture industry history; digital/media theory; and youth ethnography.
Finally — & this probably goes without saying — I welcome any comments, other suggested readings, etc. I will likely offer this course again in 2011 and intend to keep tweaking it. Plus, as already noted, this course emerges out of my current research project, and any help on that would be, as the digital youth used to put it, teh awesome.
21F.060 / 21M.539: Topics in Media and Cultural Studies
âMusic Industry and Digital Youth Cultureâ
Mellon Fellow in the Humanities
Foreign Languages and Literatures
Music and Theater Arts
Tuesday/Thursday 2:30-4:00 pm
Giving emphasis to the specific tools used to produce and disseminate media today, this course examines how digital technologies — especially peer-to-peer networks and so-called social media sites — are shaping and being shaped by the practices and values of the people using them. Taking into account a variety of forms and platforms, our study will focus on music as a crucial connective thread in contemporary media and culture.
The convergence of global pop, social networks, and international digital youth culture constitutes a profound shift in how we imagine and access the world around us, but one which has yet to undergo a sustained and appropriately interdisciplinary examination — in particular, an approach which attends to specific tools (e.g., YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, imeem, blogs, torrents, production software, etc.) while situating them in the broader contexts of media studies, social science approaches, and digital humanities. Reading across these perspectives, we will ask: What is music industry today? And what can it tell us about the possibilities and constraints of cultural production in our digital, increasingly networked, and perhaps âpost-scarcityâ age.
Class meetings will involve discussions of readings and various musical and video texts as well as regular demonstrations/investigations of particular technologies of production, circulation, and representation. Assignments will include documentation of collective and individual research topics, developing a hands-on familiarity with particular digital tools, conducting online ethnographic experiments, composing critical appraisals of readings and media texts, as well as a final research project which â in terms of topic, scope, and expression â will be primarily developed by individual students depending on their areas of interest.
Course Requirements and Grading Distribution:
Discussion, Attendance – 20 % – Throughout term
Response Papers / Wiki work – 30 % – Throughout term
Individual Presentations – 20 % – Week 14
Final Paper (8-10 pages) – 30 % – Due last day of class (5/13)
Part I: 20th Century Pop Culture and Music Industry 1.0
Week 1: Mass/Pop/Web Culture & Its Discontents
Middleton, Richard. 1990. ââRoll Over Beethovenâ: Sites and Soundings on the Music-Historical Mapâ (short excerpt: p. 13-16) and ââItâs All Over Nowâ: Popular Music and Mass Culture â Adornoâs Theoryâ (34-63). In Studying Popular Music. Philadelphia: Open University Press.
Andrejevic, Mark. âExploiting YouTube: Contradictions of User-Generated Labor.â In The YouTube Reader, eds. Pelle Snickars and Patrick Vonderau, 406-23. Stockholm: National Library of Sweden, 2009.
I’m excited to announce, for a couple reasons, that next week PBS will begin airing the 4-part series, “Latin Music USA.” Episode 1 (Latin Jazz, Mambo) and Episode 2 (Salsa) will air on Monday, October 12; Episode 3 (Chicano Rock, Tejano, NorteĂ±o) and Episode 4 (Latin Pop, Reggaeton) will air the following Monday, October 19. It’s an ambitious and salutary project —
Latin Music USA is a story about American music. Fusions of Latin sounds with jazz, rock, country, rhythm and blues – music with deeper roots and broader reach than most people realize. Itâs a fresh take on our musical history, reaching across time and across musical genres to embrace the exciting hybrid sounds created by Latinos; musical fusions that have deeply enriched popular music in the US for over more than five decades.
The multi-media project is anchored by a four-hour documentary series that will premiere in October 2009, during Hispanic Heritage Month, on PBS stations nationwide. Produced by a world-class production team at WGBH and the BBC, Latin Music USA invites the audience into the vibrant musical conversation between Latinos and non-Latinos that has helped shape the history of popular music in the United States. Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15th-Oct. 15th), a time to recognize the contributions of Hispanic Americans to the United States and to celebrate Hispanic heritage and culture, offers the series a perfect opportunity to further honor these influences. (via)
As if the series’ ambition and tribute to the USA’s Latin roots/routes wasn’t enough to be excited about, they’ve given me (and maybe you, dear reader) an additional reason to be enthused: Episode 4, touching on reggaeton and Latin hip-hop, features my first appearance as a TV talking head! That I get to offer some commentary alongside big dogs like Daddy Yankee and Tego Calderon, never mind the vast slate of distinguished musicians, producers, journalists, and scholars also featured in the series, is a humbling and awesome thing to report.
thx to the enormous room for the classy backdrop!
You can get a taste via a couple clips on their website, wherein I think I acquit myself ok:
I highly recommend poking around on the website. It’s quite flashy and interactive — you can browse texts, audio, and video by navigating swirling networks of places, genres, instruments, rhythms, and more. Check out, for example, the “universe” of Latin Jazz.
This series is a big experiment for PBS, a deviation from the standard programming targeting the PBS core audience (i.e., Masterpiece Theater, Antiques Roadshow). According to one of my contacts at PBS, they’re aware that the primary audience for this series (Latinos) does not typically watch PBS, and they’re hoping it will attract viewers from all over the spectrum. So, tusabes, plz help em out on their socialmedia campaign by friending, fanning, RTing, etcccc —
Special thanks to Juan Camilo Agudelo & Adriana Bosch for involving me in the project — congratulations on its completion, y’all, and all the best with reaching the vast viewership it deserves!
The Story Behind The Story Behind The Roxanne Shante Story
By Wayne Marshall and Jeff Chang
If a rapper claims to be a killer, no one cares. If she says she has an education, they send in an investigative reporter, or at least someone who purports to be.
Oh don’t we love gotcha journalism. But who’s really getting got here?
Two weeks ago, the New York Daily News ran a story in which legendary rapper Roxanne Shante says she forced Warner Bros through a contractual clause to pay for her education, earning degrees from Marymount Manhattan College and Cornell University.
Yesterday, lawyer and “pro-copyright” blogger Ben Sheffner published his piece of gotcha journalism, claiming that not only did Warner not have direct contracts with Shante, but that she hadn’t finished her coursework at Marymount Manhattan and never enrolled in Cornell.
Perhaps most annoying to Sheffner was that “the story was endlessly blogged and tweeted, heralded as an example of a heroic triumph by a girl from the projects over her evil record label.”
Commenters around the web have praised the Slate piece as a fine bit of investigative reporting by a disinterested journalist. Here’s our gotcha: he’s not disinterested, and the investigative reporting wasn’t all that investigative.
And still is. His bio on his blog states that he is an attorney currently employed by NBC Universal, and his job description includes — we presume — looking sometimes at exactly the kind of artist contracts Shante would have signed.
By his own writing, he is not really a disinterested observer. The bio reads:
Ben Sheffner is a copyright/First Amendment/media/entertainment attorney and former journalist. Ben is currently working as a production attorney in the NBC Universal Television Group. Preiously [sic], he worked as an associate at O’Melveny & Myers LLP, as Senior Counsel, Content Protection Litigation at Fox, and as Litigation Counsel at NBC Universal. From July-November 2008, Ben served as Special Counsel on Senator John McCain’s presidential campaign where, among other responsibilities, he handled the campaign’s copyright, trademark, and other IP issues.
Clearly, Sheffner’s interest in this story, which motivated his questionable “investigation,” grows out of his ongoing efforts to protect the interests of his former and current (and future?) employers and, more generally, to advance the pro-copyright, pro-corporate side of the intense public conversation around the present state and future of the music industry.
Sheffner has backed the same interests in his coverage on his blog and for other online outlets, on the two cases involving the RIAA and alleged copyright-infringing filesharers that have, to date, gone to trial. He’s pretty much in the pocket, as they say.
We can imagine him looking at that piece and going, “Aw shit. Now I’m gonna have to give those kiddie actors a college clause — no way!” Then firing up his word-processing program and emailing Slate’s editors.
OK, so Shante didn’t have Warner pay for her education directly — and perhaps we’ll never know if one of the subsidiary labels made such an agreement with her because Pop Art’s contracts were supposedly lost in a flood. Cold Chillin’s file with Warner, according to Sheffner, didn’t have that level of detail. (Makes sense the file might be incomplete — they ended up at odds with each other after the big judgment against Biz Markie over his sampling case.)
Here’s what WB’s counsel wrote to Sheffner: “If Cold Chillin’ guided this artist’s compensation to education expenses that would certainly be a worthy one.” Then Sheffner makes what seems to be his main point right after that: “None of the half-dozen music industry sources contacted by Slate for this article had ever heard of a record label making an open-ended commitment to finance an artist’s education.” Gotcha!
But what of her education? Sheffner makes a big point of alleging Shante did not receive her Ph.D. and is not listed as a practicing doctor. Gotcha again! (Sheffner seems to fetishize this “Doctor” thing. Maybe he’s sharpening his knives for Dr. Dre next?) But according to her, Shante has received her BA and MA degrees. Her passionate message in her talks to hip-hop youths across the country is about the importance of education. Clearly much more of the story here is begging to be told.
Most importantly, Shante said she attended college under another assumed name — not even her birth name — because of a domestic violence situation. Sheffner didn’t follow up on, we think, a reasonable, relevant, and obvious lead here. If she was right, he must have known at that point the story might have required real investigative reporting. Yet Slate’s editors didn’t put the brakes on the story even at this point. Instead, the piece ran with Sheffner’s slander that she failed to “substantiate such claims.”
So what did we learn here? One, Warner Brothers didn’t, but perhaps someone in the industry did fund Shante’s education. Two, Shante may not have a Ph.D.