I was delighted to get an email last week from a former student, Sophie Weiner, who was working on a piece for the Village Voice about the Brooklyn Folk Festival. She contacted me because she was seeking a quotation about why rap could be considered a form or modern folk music, and she thought, rightly, that I might have a considered opinion on the matter.
I was doubly delighted by this question. You see, this question is practically a word-for-word restatement of discussion question in the History of Rock Class I’ve been teaching at Berklee. Over several semesters, I’ve come to understand some interesting things about the contours of the responses the question elicits. So I was happy to field it.
Here’s what I told Sophie —
Our class discussion is stimulated by a quotation from Pete Seeger who once argued that âfolk magazines make a mistake not to print the best new rap songs.â Notably, although Seeger is really talking about folk music as process, when discussing this question many of my students get hung up on the question of style: “folk” is such a received category for them, if someone’s not singing along to an acoustic instrument, it couldn’t possibly be folk music. This is an association cemented in the 1960s by the folk revival — a movement in which, ironically, Seeger played a major role. Others get caught up by the commercial aspects of rap, though Bob Dylan was no less commercial, of course, and a lot of the songs Seeger popularized as folk anthems were initially commercial products, not simply unattributed ditties roaming the wilderness. Finally, some hesitate to think of rap as modern folk music because so many rap songs don’t seem to share the “progressive” messages that we’ve come to associate with folk, even though many rap songs do offer serious social critiques (if not always in such obviously recognizable form as “Blowing in the Wind”). If, however, we’re talking about a question of process — of collective recitation, reshaping, and recirculation of songs and lyrics — then yes, of course, we could consider rap a modern form of folk music. (That said, we’d have to say the same for other genres of popular music). The best contemporary example in this sense, especially if we’re going with a certain romanticized ideal, would be Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” which, like many a Seeger anthem, has become not just a general expressive resource for everyday folk but an actual protest chant.
Of course, this was much more than Sophie was asking for, but I couldn’t say less. I did, however, give her free reign in deciding what to use. (What are blogs for if not “director’s cuts”?) Not surprisingly, in the actual article, given that I am making — ahem — an academic point, Sophie focuses on the resonant connections between rap and folk:
Today, young activists are choosing as their anthems not traditional spirituals but songs by artists such as Kendrick Lamar. Wayne Marshall, an ethnomusicologist and assistant professor of music history at Berklee College of Music, says there are clear parallels between folk and rap. “If we’re talking about [the] process â collective recitation, reshaping, recirculation of songs and lyrics â then yes, of course rap is a modern form of folk music,” he says. Marshall also sees a continuity between the progressive themes of traditional folk music and hip-hop today. “Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Alright,’ like many a Pete Seeger anthem, has become not just a general expressive resource for everyday folk but an actual protest chant,” he says, referencing the multiple instances in which activists have sung the chorus at marches and actions.
I reviewed Tropicalia: Ou Panis Et Circencis, a re-issue of the classic salvo in Brazil’s tropicalia movement, for Issue 367 of The Wire (September 2014). Happily, this one’s also a nice chunky review; nice to get a little leeway on the wordcount for a verbose dude like yours truly. Here’s a director’s cut of sorts, somewhere between the semi-final and final version.
Tropicalia: Ou Panis Et Circencis
Soul Jazz Records CD/LP
A charming but sardonic cha cha for Christopher Columbus, a rock anthem quoting Latin liturgy as it bears witness to the hungry poor and the bloodstained tables of the rich, a dada-esque word puzzle that possibly alludes to Batman, a dreamy bossa nova telling listeners to eat ice cream and learn English (in Portuguese) — these are just a few points of contrast and conversation threaded through an album that aspired to no less than naming and giving voice to a new cultural movement, and succeeded spectacularly.
âWe were âeatingâ The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix,â remembers Caetano Veloso in his memoir Verdade Tropical, invoking a foundational imperative to cannibalize — culturally, that is — proposed in the 1920s by modernist poet, Oswald De Andrade. Taking to heart Andradeâs call for Brazilian artists not to imitate but to devour whatever they encounter, in the late 1960s the tropicalistas would initiate a cultural turn by their brave commitment to a voracious aesthetic at the height of a military dictatorship that would later arrest and exile both Gil and Veloso (who would return years later as luminaries, with Gil eventually serving as Minister of Culture in the 2000s under Luiz InĂĄcio Lula Da Silva).
In the decades since its resonant debut, much ink has spilled over tropicalia’s significance, and listeners outside of Brazil have been introduced to the music via retrospectives released by Soul Jazz, Luaka Bop and others. Still, the albumâs singular expression of the movement has yet to enjoy widespread reception on its own terms. Clocking in at just under 40 minutes, with segues and sequencing, Tropicalia wants to be heard as a unit, in a single setting, or over and over.
As if responding to the dearth of access to physical copies for so long, Soul Jazz is only releasing the album in physical form and with faithful, facsimile repackaging, including the original art (an inclusive, symbol-laden, family-style photo), unusual approach to song credits, and dramaturgical liner notes from the back of the record sleeve. They do so with reason. As with other concept albums of the day, Tropicalia was produced as a total package and placed remarkable emphasis on acknowledging the contributions of all involved while underscoring the collaboration at the heart of the project. Beside the song titles sit the songwriters’ (first) names, followed by the performersâ names in parentheses. Writing and performing each other’s songs, and honoring as they blur the distinct voices of the group, Veloso, Gil, et al, appear more as a true collective — a movement, even — than a conventional group.
Boxed in by an opposition between the West and the Rest that they wanted neither to deny nor accept, the tropicalistas developed a pointedly diverse sound by drawing as much on resilient local accents as international codes. âWe wanted to participate in the worldwide language,â Veloso recounts, âboth to strengthen ourselves as a people and to affirm our originality.â Eschewing homogenous fusion for a chunky syncretism, the music on Tropicalia moves with conviction from psych rock fantasia to tweaked bossa nova, cheeky mambo to treacly ballad, sometimes within the span of a single track.
Elsewhere, using a Dylan inspired mix of plainspokenness and oblique metaphor, Os Mutantesâ âPanis Et Circensisâ explicitly needles the complacent middle class during a moment of crisis and possibility: âI unfurled the sails on the masts in the air / I set free the tigers and the lions in backyards / But the people in the dining room / Are busy being born and dyingâ. After a couple minutes of haranguing the bourgeois, the hurdy-gurdy dirge slows to a stop, as if the power went out and the record stopped spinning. Seconds later, the âbusy being born and dyingâ line returns as a mantra chanted over a galloping, Beatles-esque backbeat complete with twittering trumpets. The music gathers speed until it crashes with a hard tape splice into the mundane din of clinking glasses and inane chatter over muted strains of Blue Danube.
Occasionally the lyrics and sonic signposts are less veiled — as when Gil and Veloso ironically sing the praises of CristĂłvĂŁo Colombo âwho, to our delight, came with three caravelsâ. Then thereâs the pathetic pomp of the final track, âHino Do Senhor Do Bonfimâ, a nationalistic anthem which eventually brings the album to a close with eerie moans, the cavernous knocks of a distant cannon, and silence. It doesn’t take a weatherman to know which way a military dictatorship might interpret such a work of smoking agitpop.
What can I say? It’s been a chockfull summer. Mostly with farming and teaching, but also, I’m happy to note, with writing and talking about music as well. And while I’ve found the time to do some “dancing about architecture,” I’m afraid I’ve been a little slack when it comes to linking/re-posting it here. So here are some items from the last few months that I’d like to call attention to if you haven’t already seen & heard em. (FYI, I’ve also been reviewing albums for The Wire, but I’ll be reposting those separately.)
First, I’m excited to report that I was asked by the nice ppl at Mixpak Records to pen an essay for Popcaan’s debut album, Where We Come From. Writing reggae liner notes is something I’ve always dreamed about doing, and I was thrilled to sit with this stellar set of chunes for a few months before it went out to the world. Here’s a little teaser, but definitely click through to read the wole ting — and do give the album a good listen, it’s well worth the time!
In turns uplifting and haunting, reverent and rude, Where We Come From gives voice, as the best reggae does, to the contradictions of life in a society rife with inequities and yet so rich. Whether odes to the ghetto or the good life, Popcaan’s lyrics bring realist portraits and utopian visions into dynamic tension. Songs about struggle and sex and happiness occupy the same space because they do. …
Like his predecessors in crossover without compromise, Popcaan appeals to listeners outside of Jamaica precisely because he brings a distinctively Jamaican voice to the proceedings. In a world gone global, Popcaan occupies that sweet space of possibility where a deeply local accent communicates to outernational listeners. With his patois lyrics, plainspoken and poetic, his own takes on the latest slang, and his vowels stretched in that Portmore twang, Popcaan is unapologetically uberlocal in address. But since dancehall is itself a globe-spanning style and symbolic code, Popcaan’s performances are also pitched to the world. For all the downhome detail, nuff translatesâand plenty comes across in universal terms: hustle for the money, too damn evil, everything is nice.
Speaking of hustle for the money (and it shall appear?), the Popcaan essay dovetails with a conversation I had recently with Afropop Worldwide for their “Money Show,” which explores the role of money (or not) in music scenes spanning Ghana, Kenya, Colombia, Jamaica, and South Africa. The topic turns to Jamaica at around the 45 minute mark:
Ethnomusicologist Wayne Marshall says reggaeâs success can be attributed to its many divergent (even contradictory) forms and meanings. âThe genre offers a flexible palette for a wide range of ideological positions,â he explains, âfrom Pan-Africanism and other forms of transnationalism to utterly provincial nationalism, from peaceful and respectful postures to aggressive machismo and militancy, from tolerance to its own forms of oppression.â So whether itâs the image of Bob Marley as a revolutionary avatar, the liberated body politics of dancehall music, or simply the flows of culture enabled by the sprawling networks of English empire, something has made reggae stick in a number of unlikely locales.
âYou can find local reggae scenes just about anywhere in the world: Germany, Japan, New Zealand, South Africa, Native American reservations, you name it,â Marshall continues. âIt really is remarkable that reggae has inspired local scenes all over the world, especially since Jamaica is such a small place.â
This is, admittedly, an exaggerated example, and itâs hard to imagine anyone enjoying it save from a certain ironic distance. But itâs noteworthy â if not mindblowing â that someone uploaded it at all, and it speaks volumes about the political economy of contemporary music circulation. The intense compression artifacts may or may not be intentional â whether anti-piracy technique or incidental product of crappy software defaults. It reminds me of Jonathan Sterneâs contention that the MP3 puts the listener on a Â«sonic austerity programÂ». Illustrative because so extreme, the warped sound of this clip is deeply familiar to the MP3 generation â like cumulative tape hiss or dusty record crackles for older ears. Due to better bandwidth, the death of DRM, hi-qual darknets, and more liberal leaking practices, such distortions already strike us as Â«artifactsÂ» in the archaeological as well as audio sense.
In the wake of Rupert Murdoch buying Myspace and ânukingâ the imeem streaming service in 2009, ethnomusicologist and blogger Wayne Marshall, a longtime annotator of the microtrends popping up every second on any number of online streaming platforms, wrote an extensive blog post, spurred by the very real fear that âentire media ecosystemsâ might suddenly âsuccumb to the sudden slash and burn of corporate logic, which cares little for what we might celebrate as cultural vitality.â Iâve been using the word âplatformâ throughout this article as linguistic shorthand to describe a variety of streaming services, but as Marshall notes, the term can disguise as much as it describes. YouTube and other services use âplatformâ as strategic PR, Marshall contends, to cover up the much more precarious technological and political realities that underpin their use. Calling YouTube and other streaming services âplatformsâ creates the image of an elevated space on which one might communicate to a large audience, strategically eliding the fact that uploads can vaporize at any point, often without warning.
No one does radio (by which I mean, audio storytelling) like Benjamen Walker. You may know him from his incarnations as the host of Your Radio Nightlight, Too Much Information, or Theory of Everything, which has recently become one of the flagship programs in PRX‘s new podcast network, Radiotopia.
I feel very lucky to count Ben as a friend. His incisive sense of humor consistently cuts to the chase of the kinds of things we find ourselves concerned about in this modern world, or should be. His commitment to running down good stories and telling them with audio aplomb is downright inspiring. Man oh man, the stories he could tell…the stories he does tell!
So I’m thrilled to report that Benjamen has made one of the best episodes of his life with “1984.” To put it plainly, this is a monumental work of media history, largely sourced from YouTube (but also via vintage TV Guides, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, & his own rich trove of alienated adolescent experience). “1984” is a deeply engaging examination of, as Benjamen puts it, the year, not the book.
I found myself totally entrained and entertained listening to it, and you will too. Benjamen masterfully interweaves and teases out trenchant themes as US society tries to come to grips with the advent of the hyperreal and media politricks in precisely the year that George Orwell freighted with such significance. Borrowing Orwell’s central narrative conceit of the diary is a stroke of genius on Ben’s part, but it’s the dazzling execution of his vision that is most impressive. Imagine Marclay’s The Clock stretched out over a calendar year with grainy advertisements and newscasts in place of Hollywood film fragments.
Here’s how Benjamen frames it:
In 1984 your host was twelve years old, and like Winston Smith he kept a diary for the citizens of the future. For this special installment of Benjamen Walkerâs Theory of Everything we travel back in time and give this diary a soundtrack. TV commercials, radio spots, movie clips â all from 1984 (the year, not the book). Along with personal memories of making the transition to middle school the show focuses on four of the most important people of year: Ronald Reagan, Michael Jackson, Steve Jobs, and Clara Peller.
Do yourself a favor and make some time for this one. Ben brings the beef, no doubt.
There’s been a lot of news in the past week about the legal kerfuffle between the Beastie Boys and a company called GoldieBlox, which markets science/engineering toys aimed at girls (and their parents) seeking something beyond the standard pink princess fare.
Apparently, GoldieBlox has successfully leveraged the “viral” qualities of the net to project their “disruptive” brand, and the latest example does so spectacularly well, via a parody of the Beastie Boys’ well-worn, decades-old, silly misogynist ditty, “Girls.”
In fact, my first encounter with GoldieBlox’s version of “Girls” arrived via word of mouth (i.e., Gchat), just the way viral videos are supposed to. My wife shared the link with me, as we ourselves are constantly struggling with the balance between giving our daughters lots of options for growth and play, on the one hand, and indulging their seemingly irrepressible desire to parade around as princesses on the other. As that type of dad, I couldn’t help but myself be smitten by the ad —
So, I was as surprised as anyone to learn about the legal battle currently underway over this parody of a parody (if, in the initial instance, an ambiguous one). Obviously, GoldieBlox’s “Girls” is derived from the Beasties’ “Girls,” but it’s a complete re-recording, marshaling certain familiar elements — the riff, the refrain, and certain text/melodic lines — not all unlike the ways the Beasties themselves cribbed and borrowed and reassembled their own song out of prior performances.
Redolent of a schlocky musical and cultural past — and perhaps helping to give the song some of its parodic edge — the Beasties’ “Girls” makes audible nods to both the Isley Brothers and Bo Diddley. Beginning around 0:40 in the following video, you’ll hear Diddley play on guitar the very same riff the Boys coax out of their wonky synth:
And this mashup underscores pretty convincingly how much “Girls” is inspired by the Isley’s “Shout,” with parellels in terms of song syntax, repeated refrain, and even a few striking melodic parallels (e.g., “say that you love meâŠ” == “to do the dishesâŠ”):
What should we make of the Beastie Boys taking two songs deeply inspired by African-American religious ritual — the ring-shout in the case of the Isleys, and Diddley’s hand-clapping & foot-stomping “communion service” — in order to make a rearguard, if possibly parodic, song about women? On what grounds should the Beasties be allowed the privilege of doing something so derivative/transformative, while GoldieBlox should not?
For many, it would seem, the crucial point turns not on questions of musical borrowing and re-signification but rather, on the Beastie Boys’ stated wishes to keep their music out of advertisements, as articulated in their open letter —
make no mistake, your video is an advertisement that is designed to sell a product, and long ago, we made a conscious decision not to permit our music and/or name to be used in product ads.
This is especially poignant given that Adam Yauch (aka MCA) made this same wish explicit in his will.
But then, GoldieBlox isn’t actually using the Beasties’ music. Or are they? It’s a question — and not an easy one to resolve. (For any of us, or for a judge or jury for that matter.) They’re certainly not using the Beasties’ recording, or even a sample from it. Why should we determine that the Beasties’ should be able to stop others from re-assembling the same pieces that they themselves assembled without licensing/permission in the first place? Should GoldieBlox respect the Beasties’ wishes?
What about, say, James Newton’s wishes? An avant-jazz flutist, Newton famously insisted that the Beasties’ use of a sample of his flute performance on “Choir” for the Beasties’ “Pass the Mic” constituted copyright infringement, but a court ruled that the snippet was too short to constitute a part of his composition, and since the Boys had licensed the recording from Newton’s record label (for a paltry $1000), they were allowed to go ahead and use it despite lacking Newton’s permission.
Generally speaking, as readers of W&W will know, I support that sort of relatively unbridled approach to transformative re-use. Songs are shared things, and if you don’t want someone to play or sing along, hold them close and sing them quietly in the corner. Once something is out in the open, in public, via commercial or even non-commercial circulation, it becomes available for sharing and reinterpretation. Courts and lawyers and some artists like to draw hard and fast lines between folk culture and commercial culture, but these are usually little more than language games having to do with claiming ownership, not stable definitions of cultural domains. (Sometimes, they’re struggles over power and money, which are not to be diminished, though they are hardly at play in this case between some rich musicians and a successful start-up.)
When did “Girls” escape the Beasties’ creative control? Perhaps as soon as it was commercially released and massively distributed. In its own way, the Beastie’s “Girls” was, in the first instance, itself an advertisement — an ad for an album, an ad for concerts, an ad for a sophomoric act that the Beastie Boys took to the world and to the bank.
All that said, it’s still a little odd for the likes of the EFF to step into the fray, and to argue for fair use simply because they agree with Glodieblox’s putative politics. Clearly, commercial instances of parodic fair use have been upheld before — s/o Luther Campbell & Henry Louis Gates — but it’s always a matter of convincing some judge/jury about the lines people want to draw around musical ownership. Toward that end, I think considering the big musical picture here helps.
I mean, just imagine the chilling effect on other renditions of “Girls”! In a world of personal branding, where do we draw the line between commercial and non? Between advertisement and not?
Tell this guy Bro Chuy he’d better not “go viral” —
Or this girl for that matter —
And someone should really warn these squirrels not to attempt to monetize their questionable “parody” —
For my part, as a dad, I’ll be sure to teach my daughters how to reverse engineer our favorite Beastie songs as soon as the girls are ready for some serious digital music trickery.
Old friends Old Money Massive have released the best damn rap album I’ve heard in lightyears.
Obvi, we’ve been fans at W&W since “African Kids” — and I’m happy to have had a little hand in bringing Old Money to Boston a couple times. They’ve been leaking flames in the form of tracks & videos for daze, but I’m beyond thrilled that they finally brought their bracing vision to the world in the shape of a restless but deeply coherent “mixtape” (along with assorted transmedia objects, as I’ll note below).
There’s a lot I could say about the sui generis afropessimystic futurism they’ve encrypted for this zipfile, but just go ahead and listen for yourself, and be sure not to skip the bumboclaat intro —
If you need a little more of a hermeneutical angle, their official bio offers hints —
Ahmad Julian and Andre Oswald are Old Money, a New York based rap, production and DJ duo of Jamaican and Guyanese origins. Their music incorporates the sounds of contemporary Africa such as UK Funky, Dancehall, Kwaito, Kuduro and Hip-Hop while remaining rooted in traditions of pan-African philosophy. In this way, their output remains dynamic and cutting-edge, while also taking on a mystical bend â influenced by fringe spiritual orders like the Nuwaubians, the Moors, NOI, and The 5 Percenters, as well as science fiction novels by author Octavia Butler.
But you can also get the gist from ish like this, the vivid video for “Rumble In Tenochtitlan” —
Very helpful and generous of the duo, their “Certified Space Trade Mix” — with matching Dr.Bronner’s inspired t-shirt! — provides a broader, and at once more specific, sense of the musical and philosophical background underpinning their sound:
Finally, a great interview over at Dazed Digital (including a brief, funny, and much appreciated shoutout to yours truly) offers further angles to consider while you nod along to the beats. Here’s the pulliest of pull quotes, a good glimpse into what shapes Old Money’s aesthetic —
Dazed Digital: You were brought up in the Bronx and Brooklyn. How did growing up in the boroughs of hip hop’s birth influence you?
Ahmad Julian: Tremendously, though I’d say it influenced us more so in the past than it does now, at least musically speaking. Of course, certain things stay with you â a certain awareness, a certain paranoia, how you carry yourself, sartorial choices, vernacular, etc. But at this point I’d say equally important as far as influence goes would be the internet and our travels, which have enabled us to connect dots where we might not have otherwise. All of this, hopefully, comes through in the music.
Fire in the dark, seen. Gwaan catch the spark already. Blackstar Galactica been boarding…
Remember when I asked — rhetorically and remixically — whether there were limits to your love for Soundcloud? Well, it took a little over two years, but the super smart sample-sniffers over at Audible Magic have apparently finally decided that one of the two mashups I made by way of commentary / limit-testing should be removed for possible copyright infringement. Here’s the notice I received today:
When one clicks through to options, note that there is no recourse for anyone who does not own the copyright or have permission. In other words, there is NO FAIR USE in this world. Soundcloud does not want to be in the business of adjudicating the lines of transformative use; it wants to be in the business of datamining and other forms of monetizing all the activity on the part of users which makes the site what it is: yet another popular privately-owned public space.
I won’t go into all the lurid details yet again. I’ve said enough about Soundcloud’s practices & policies, as have others. But I promised “to keep you posted” on this little experiment, so I had to share this development here.
I can protest all I want. I can include lines like the following in my description: “I contend, especially for the purposes of critical commentary and educational applications, that this constitutes a ‘fair use’ of all materials.” But the bots won’t care, and I doubt the humans will either. Best I can do, if I really care about this audio residing on Soundcloud (which I don’t), is to upload again, perhaps with a little more sonic camouflage.
No need to bother with that. The limit has been reached. That said, I’ll be curious to see when/whether the “content protection system” (a rather Orwellian ring to it, no?) figures out that the removed mashup’s mirror-image twin, the “Feisty version” — the better/weirder, and the more popular of the two, as it happens — is still just sitting there, brazenly violating copyright–
Plus, I’m happy to note that the Blakey version is still available, with helpful visual tracking, c/o Vimeo:
Finally, my commitment to never paying Soundcloud for their “service” remains strong as ever. We’ll see how long my account lasts over there. Considering that I neither hold the copyright nor have permission for ANY of my uploads (which I suspect is the case for the majority of users), despite all of them bearing rather audible marks of my creative labors, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them disappear one by one. Get em while they’re there, and when they’re not, come get them here.
I’ve already fallen behind on my goal of reblogging our ’03 Jamaica Blog in sync with this year’s calendar. But since I don’t plan on re-running every single post (and since you can still see them here), I haven’t built up too huge a queue yet. Speaking of queues, the following re-post is one of my favorites from our time in Jamaica, expressing vividly — including a handy visual aid! — our deeply frustrating encounters with Jamaica’s bloated bureaucracy. Given the topic, I shouldn’t make you wait any longer. Here goes…
i left my pro-tools system in cambridge because i thought my laptop would be sufficient for organizing sound and creating music here and because the system would have been way too much to carry (the mixing board itself is not big, but the computer it runs on is). during my second week here, however, it became clear that the pro-tools system would be indispensable to my efforts. there is a good amount of interest on the part of many artists down here to collaborate with me, which, as far as i’m concerned, creates some rather ideal circumstances for trying to understand the musical choices that people make and why.
late last week, upon his return to cambridge, charlie fed-exed me a large suitcase containing the pro-tools mixing board, the computer, mouse, and keyboard. we received a note saying that it was being held at customs at the airport, that we needed to bring a number of mysterious forms with us, and that charges would begin to accrue if we did not pick up our package within one week. remembering our awful experience running back and forth between various ministries to get our visas extended, becca and i were prepared for the worst. we made sure to call both fed-ex and customs ahead of time to make sure we would have everything in order and would not be sent home from the airport (an expensive cab ride that we would rather not have to repeat). we were told that all we needed was the notice itself, some identification, and plenty of cash (“be prepared,” was, i believe, the way they phrased it).
we took a taxi to the airport and went to the customs office, but it turned out that we needed to go to a separate fed-ex facility a bit down the road. upon reaching the building, we were waved into the parking lot by a man in a bright white-shirt gesticulating rather frenetically. not knowing whether he worked there or not, but assuming by his clothing and his officiousness that he did, i handed the papers to him, which he was grabbing out of my hands at any rate. he flipped through the pages, already printed in triplicate, and mumbled things like, “oh, this is very bad,” “you will have some trouble,” “you will need three copies of this,” and so on. it soon became apparent that he did not work there but was offering to help me out, bypassing official channels (he introduced me to a “customs official,” who was dressed similarly, but had a badge, and who claimed that if i attained a c-79 form inside he could get me my package within a week — not a promising agreement). to be honest, i was not sure whether these guys were telling me the truth or just trying to get some money from me. it seemed totally plausible that they could guide me through the bureaucracy and get me my package faster, but at the same time i didn’t want to be taken for a sucker, especially when such valuable belongings were at stake. taking my papers back, i told them i would try my hand inside, but thanks for the help. they said i would be back. they were right.
we went into the building and joined the queue. a security guard approached us and told us that we would indeed need three copies of the first form. no one had told us this when we called, of course. and where could we get copies made? outside, he told us. of course. at this point, i became deeply distrustful of the entire place, feeling that everyone was in collusion, but i wanted to get my computer, so i went back outside while becca stayed in line. after a few i-told-you-sos and a few JA$20 coins, the man went off to make the copies for me (through the back of the same building), leaving me with his customs-officer partner. the freelance “officer” again offered his services. i complained about the system here: the impenetrable and illogical bureaucracy, the corruption, the chaos of it all. he told me matter-of-factly, and a bit pridefully, that there was no avoiding the system. fair enough, but i was not about to support its messy outgrowth if i did not have to. i got my copies and walked back toward the building, knowing full well that i may have to come back out and swallow my own pride.
i rejoined becca in the queue, which had not budged. the customs office was small: two window-partitioned cubicles, a long desk opposite them, a small desk wedged between a cashier’s window and a room with a mirror-plated door, and, across from this, another door opening out into a large, cardboard-box-filled warehouse. the path that i would take through this small room over the next hour was stupefying in its zig-zag pattern, its redundancy, its absurdity. this is bureaucracy at its worst: too many people doing too little and exercising every bit of power they have at every opportunity. i went to each spot at least once, had to present my passport at nearly every checkpoint, and never knew whether people were dealing with me on the up-and-up. i understand that such a system of checkpoints and paperwork is in place to limit the possibility of theft or the smuggling of contraband into the country. nevertheless, i feel the need to illustrate the surreality of the experience, which made last week’s travels, or travails, between the ministries of labor and national security seem like a cup of tea. so pardon the detail. (see becca’s diagram for an intricate pictorial representation, whose colors paint the experience as more cheerful than it was, of our customs house wanderings.)
we finally reached the end of the first queue, where i submit my papers, including the three additional copies i had procured (which, in fact, turned out to be quite necessary). the man behind the window checked my passport, put a number of stamps on a number of things, signed within the stamps, generated a several carbon-copy forms to add to my pile, and accepted JA$300 (about US$6) for his labor. next, i was sent to the adjacent cubicle, where i re-presented my passport and papers, which were stamped a bit more. the man behind the window collected a copy for himself (at each stage, some paperwork was generated and retained) and gave me a carbon-copy form, the famous c-79, to fill out. the same security guard who sent me back outside was very helpful in assisting me with the form. from there, i first went to the warehouse door, presenting one copy to a man who would fetch my package, and then to the other side of the room, to a small desk where a young woman once again verified my identity, took more copies, generated more forms, and sent me back to the warehouse door to get my package. there the suitcase stood in pretty good shape (much better than the dented cardboard boxes which littered the place and frightened me with the prospect that my computer had experienced similar handling). the next stop was the long desk, where someone would determine how much i had to pay to bring my computer into the country. at first, no one was there and it seemed that we may have to wait for some time, especially if the fellow had gone to lunch. fortunately, someone emerged from behind the mirror-plated door soon enough. the clerk asked me to open the suitcase so he could inspect its contents. there, under a pillow and surrounded by foam, was my computer, the mixing board, the peripherals, and, in a little stroke of genius by charlie, a copy of the no substitute cd. the clerk quickly reached for the cd, saying, “this fellow looks familiar,” giving me the chance to explain that i use this very computer to make my music, that my name is actually wayne marshall, that i’m into dancehall and rap, etc. the whole tenor of things changed after this exchange. i told him he could keep the copy of the cd, if he was nice to me, and he seemed grateful and cooperative. he totaled up the tax to JA$700, and sent me behind the mirror-glass door to get yet another new form signed by a woman inside. next, i went to the cashier’s window to pay the charge. the cashier was already listening to “no substitute” and seemingly enjoying it. a co-worker in the cashier’s office was surprised by the opening track with its dancehall rhythm and amused by the wayne&wax name. (oddly enough, wayne is quite a popular name in jamaica. i have probably met and/or heard of at least twenty to thirty jamaican waynes.) after paying i was sent back to the long desk, where my papers were validated once again by the same woman who was digging “no sub” in the cashier’s office. she did some more paperwork and then sent me back across to the second cubicle i had visited. there i was given a final carbon-copy form, which would get me through the security at the door. at each of the two security check-points i gave the guard the proper copy of the form, and my passport, and we were finally done. we got in our cab (we paid the driver to wait for us) and headed back into town in time to make our third meeting of the day.
it was a long and harrowing day. carrying around a couple heavy bags, loaded with computer equipment, tired me out and gave me a splitting headache. when we finally got home, we took cold showers, had a drink on the porch, and tried to relax a bit. we made ackee and saltfish for dinner and watched the local news. given the day’s events, i was extremely amused by an excerpt from the morning’s parliament meeting. the permanent secretary of finance, speaking on a problem with some inter-government accounting in nigeria, explained that “nigerian culture does not lend itself to good record keeping.” “sometimes,” he continued, “you cannot get an original invoice.” the irony of this statement was just too much for me at this point in the day. i cracked up laughing. i must admit that i am a little apalled by the degree to which many jamaicans — especially those working for the government or some other sprawling corporation — not only accept but naturalize the thick bureaucracy here, as if proper paperwork is innate to “jamaican culture.” as if anything is. surely, the british are responsible for these structures: how better to keep the reigns tight on colonial control than to regulate the most mundane comings-and-goings through a labyrinthine process, subject to the arbitrary exercise of power along each rung of the ladder. though the brits officially took their leave in ’62, it seems that jamaicans have adopted many of their practices and structures uncritically, sometimes with pride.
shortly after the news, i began to feel quite ill: my headache worsened, i got the chills, my joints began to ache, my nose grew congested. i was overtaken by flu-like symptoms. my worst fears kept whispering, “ackee-poisoning,” but i was pretty sure i just had the flu, or some similar stomach-bug. forced into bed before 9 pm, i spent most of the night tossing and turning, feeling my body slowly recover. i got a chance, with all my restlessness, to listen closely to kingston’s night noise. as the cars on hope became less frequent and noisy, the dogs began their all-night barking. they were joined a little before sunrise by the crowing of cocks. soon the cars began again, and by about 7, the kids were arriving at school next door, filling the air with the sounds of play. had i felt at all able to get out of bed, i would have made more recordings (the dogs were especially impressive last night). [2013 note: hear recordings of these sounds at this re-post.]
the most disappointing result of my sudden illness was that i was unable to attend a wayne marshall sing-alike competition at a nearby club. my jamaican doppleganger has made quite a name for himself with his sing-songy style, and i would have loved to see a room of people trying to judge who sounded most like the “tr-true-true” wayne marshall. talk about life in triplicate: here was the chance to see a dozen wayne marshalls! supposedly, wayne marshall himself was to attend, and i am sorry i missed the chance to bear witness to such weirdness and to meet the other mr. marshall. at some point, perhaps in the not too distant future, i will get a chance to cause a little trouble with my name, confronting wayne with his american double, and really get underway on some mobius-strip-style research. alas, last night was not the night.
ps — I’ve still never met the Jamaican Wayne Marshall in the 10 years since this post, despite no small number of mutual friends or offers to introduce us. Someone needs to rectify this! Also, can an ethnomusicoloblogger get a disambiguation page or what?
In honor of the late, great Aaron Swartz, pictured above, I’m making an overdue effort to get some of my own works out from behind walls of various sorts and into the open. (This is always my practice, but sometimes there’s more of a lag than I’d like.) I can’t say that I ever met Aaron, despite no doubt crossing paths in Cambridge over the years. But I have so many friends who counted him a friend, his loss resonates on a personal level as well as an intellectual one. Of course, I was well aware of Aaron’s work and keenly curious about the JSTOR case as it proceeded, and like many others I find myself disgusted and galvanized by the tragedy of his persecution and death.
While there is a general effort, if not concerted movement, among academics to take the opportunity to make their own articles openly accessible in tribute to Aaron, aptly enough the PDFs I want to share here are in their own ways deeply concerned with the (un)fettered and often creative circulation of texts, files, media, ideas, riffs — whatever you want to call em. In these particular two cases, mashups and remixes.
The first piece is something I wrote many years back but only published in book form more recently. “Mashup Poetics as Pedagogical Practice” grows out of a series of talks I was giving at the time, offering an aesthetic explication of mashups while also posing the form as one we might embrace for teaching and publishing alike. Obviously, it’s something of a technomusicological manifesto, building on earlier riffs about musicking about music and offering examples from my own bloggy oeuvre. Indeed, I did a little something along these lines in the mix I made to accompany the second PDF I’d like to share. But first, here’s a link & a cite:
Wayne Marshall, “Mashup Poetics as Pedagogical Practice.” (PDF) In Pop-Culture Pedagogy in the Music Classroom: Teaching Tools from American Idol to YouTube, ed. Nicole Biamonte, 307-15 (Scarecrow Press, 2010).
The second PDF I want to share was co-written a couple years back with Jayson Beaster-Jones, an anthropologist who knows a heckuva lot about the Indian music industry and the role of “remix” therein. We casually started cooking up the article over coffee at UChicago — and later up on Devon Avenue — some 6 years ago, so this was really quite a welcome fruition of a longstanding project (which I first blogged about way back in July 08). For helping to bring this into the world, I’d like to thank another dear colleague, Nilanjana Bhattacharjya, an old ethno-friend and the co-editor of the special issue of South Asian Popular Culture in which our article appeared:
Wayne Marshall & Jayson Beaster-Jones, “It takes a little lawsuit: The flowering garden of Bollywood exoticism in the age of its technological reproducibility.” (PDF) South Asian Popular Culture 10(3) : 1-12.
You may know the story of how DJ Quik sampled an obscure Bollywood song for Truth Hurts’s “Addicted” and got Dr.Dre sued for a cool $500M, but you might yet be surprised by some of its twists and turns. While the song has been written about quite a bit, especially as an example of US orientalism and illicit appropriation, for our article, Jayson and I wanted to focus on the meanings generated by each new iteration of the song, attending to content as well as context, and placing our emphasis on cosmopolitan agents making creative and, yes, charged choices about musical representation. As we write in our conclusion, we can’t bring ourselves to care nearly as much about rich guys suing rich guys than we do about all the amazing and wonderful stuff that people do in the midst of it all.
Here’s the abstract:
The Hindi film song âThoda resham lagta haiâ [It takes a little silk] written by the music director Bappi Lahiri for the film Jyoti (1981) was a long forgotten tune before being rediscovered in 2002 by American music producer DJ Quik. Based around an unauthorized 35-second sample of the recording, the Truth Hurts song âAddictiveâ famously inspired Bappi Lahiri to sue Quikâs associate Dr Dre (executive producer of the song), Aftermath Records, and Universal Music (Aftermathâs parent company and distributor) for $500 million. Beyond Lahiriâs claims of cultural imperialism, obscenity, and outright theft, DJ Quikâs rearrangement of the song was, in turn, adopted by music producers, including Lahiri himself, in a wide variety of international genres. This paper tracks the use and reuse of the melody in Indian, American, and Jamaican contexts, focusing on the songâs remediation for new audiences. Yet even as this well-traveled tune evokes different historical and local meanings, it evokes an eroticized Other in each context, including its original context.
And I’m pleased to note that while I only have a measly “supplemental materials” page for the mashup article, for our piece about the peregrinations of an apparently addictive melody, I’ve cooked up the obviously obligatory mega-mix!
In addition to hearing all the recordings we reference in the article, and a few more, you’ll also hear a variety of details that — for space concerns alone — must go unremarked in our essay but will not go unheard in the mix: surprise appearances by Lady Saw and Tanto Metro and Snoop Dogg (via England, the Netherlands, and Belgium, respectively); and a host of seemingly spontaneously generating remixes made by dhol-drum and sample-pack wielding desi artists across the globe (s/o to the Incredible Kid for helping source some of these!). Polytonality and recontextualization reign supreme as the riffing and remixing runs rampant. Mirrors reflecting in mirrors, it’s an all Other everything party. Legal briefs buried beneath transduced outhereness.
Among other things, I like how the mix can show how strong a stamp Quik put on the song — or/and how in Bappi’s own attempt to capitalize on its popularity, he modifies his own composition to resemble Quik’s while attempting to upgrade it with distorted but deadening drums and heavily reverbed vocals that pale in comparison to Lata’s legendary warble. I also like how it registers — with its variable levels of compression and inconsistent metadata — the very state of circulation, the shape media take when they travel unlikely distances, the footsteps of my digital sleuthing. “Real audio” becomes a Baudrillardian phrase when ripping clips from Kannada filmi vendor sites.
While more or less chronological, and so attempting to provide an audible sense of the chains and ripples of influence, toward the end of the mix I get especially playful with genealogy. When one starts tracking a melody in this way, one gets glimmers in unexpected places. I swore that I heard the familiar tune drifting in and out of a moombahton track by Max LeDaron (remixed by DJ Melo) — and indeed, I had been mixing it with versions of “Thoda Resham Lagta Hai” and “Addictive” for months when I asked LeDaron if it was an intentional nod; according to him, it wasn’t an intentional homage, but he was struck by the resemblance and willing to cop to subliminal influence. (Can’t locate our Twitter exchange at the moment, but there’s this. [updated 1/16])
The other playful inclusion is more likely a stretch of my musical imagination, but I’ll leave it to your ears (with some suggestion on my part, as abetted by Ableton). It seems somehow more unlikely that a synth-stabbing Belgian would have seen Jyoti in 1987 than an African-American Angelino in 2001. Then again, if it’s true that the “typical elements” of the New Beat sound as heard on Nux Nemo’s “Hiroshima” include “the samples and the ethnic influences,” then, more than just hearing things, I may actually be hearing things. At any rate, to my ears, and perhaps evermore to yours, it will have to be a part of the strange and lively social life of a striking little contour and the rich complex of resonances around it.
Oh, and here’s the tracklist in all its mangled metadata glory, bearing artifacts and effects of circulation — and my own idiosyncratic paths to acquisition — that in their own ways also register in the audio:
08 Thoda Resham Lagta Hai
01 – Do It (‘Til You’re Satisfied)
04 Bollywood Riddim
02 – Addictive [Explicit]
02 Addictive Indian Mix
Kaliyon Ka Chaman
Unknown – 14. Kaliyon Ka Chaman
Dj Leikers vs.Dj doll – Kaliyon kachaman(Bubbling)
06 Kaliyon Ka Chaman
Ee Deshadalli Karunaadu
04 Bollywood Riddim
12 Soca Taliban
03 Max Le Daron – El Caramilo Diabolico (Dj Melo Remix)
El Caramillo Diabolico 2011
Since it seems befitting for a story with no real beginning to also have no ending, here’s to further circulations and recontextualizations. More FreeDFs to follow soon!
Update! [2/27] — I totally forgot that I uploaded some figures we had originally planned to run with the article but then scrapped because of the ridiculous permissions-culture that we would have had to navigate. Instead I’m posting them here with no permission from anyone. Fair use, mofos!
I’ll be in NYC this weekend participating in the annual EMP pop conference, always a lively gathering of people who not only care about music but care about finding the right words to talk about music. I’m pleased to be involved in two promising panels — a roundtable with the likes of Eddie Stats, DJ Rekha, Chief Boima, and Venus X on Friday; and a panel with some Cluster Mag family on Sunday.
The explosion of international sounds in the pop sphereâassociated with Pitbull, Black Eyed Peas, Shakira and M.I.A, among others–has been paralleled and driven by a mirror-underground usually simply called global bass, ghetto bass or tropical bass for lack of a better umbrella. Ghetto bass in particular implies the convergence of urban centers around the worldâNew York, Johannesburg, Rio, Bombay, Kingston, Luanda and othersâinto a single urban space–a ghetto archipelago–connected by youtube, DJ blogs, filesharing and software sequencers.
We propose a roundtable to explore the politics of this convergence, in particular tracing: 1) the connections of specific, localizable urban styles; rap, Bollywood, kwaito, Baltimore club, dancehall, baile funk, bhangra, cumbia villera, etc.âwhere they merge into this new melting pot/marketplace 2) the power dynamics of cultural appropriation, tastemaking and music discovery within this digital space–and how technology has altered (or reproduced) the dynamics of previous iterations (world music, âraceâ music, ethnomusicology, etc.) 3) the model of âpost-racialityâ as it collides uncomfortably with the realities of music production.
We believe the best way to engage these issues is not through the presentation of papers but in a dialogue between critical voices and the creative producers behind the actual events and recordings under discussion. Drawing on NYCâs status as a global metropolis par excellence (and home to flagship nights like Basement Bhangra, Que Bajo, NY Tropical, Made in Africa, Ghe20 Gothik, etc.) members of the roundtable will include (but not necessarily be limited to): Edwin STATS Houghton, Rekha Malhotra, Wayne Marshall and Venus X Iceberg.
“Music as Social Life in an Age of Platform Politricks”
The advent of socially networked media sharing sites such as YouTube and SoundCloud have facilitated an unprecedented democratization and deprofessionalization of popular music. Thanks to the relative ease and affordability of pro-grade production software and global publishing capacity, today we bear witness to an interminable flurry of new and endlessly reworked musical texts. Local and translocal scenes alike have sprung up around shared musical signifiers, software presets, and hashtags. In the wake of such striking industriousness, the conglomerate formerly known as “the music industry” is increasingly overshadowed but hardly out of the picture. For today’s cultural vitality coexists with a state of precarity as video and audio uploads routinely disappear or become muted, victims of an outmoded copyright regime and clunky audio-detection algorithms. Despite a sea change in how music is made and circulated, emerging from broadcast culture into a more decentralized, peer-to-peer process, twentieth-century business models and interests continue to shape popular music, often in subtle and insidious ways. Public culture is being remade in the age of social media (and music’s outsize role in it), but these popular “platforms” for our individual and collective creativity are far from the public resources we imagine them to be.
Before I offer an embed, allow me to cut-n-paste their poignant, soulful framing of the project and its settings & subjects —
Colony Collapse is filmed at sites of ecological friction, the fault lines of conflict between humanity and (the rest of) nature. For examples we used….
Lapindo (Sidoarjo) Mud Disaster is an eruption of scalding mud and flammable vapors triggered by a gas drilling gone awry. It has buried more than a dozen villages and blocked a major highway, and is expected to keep expanding for the next 25 years. Lapindo is located close to the home town of the the director (Tooliq) and singer (Nova).
Below a freshly shattered dam on the shoulder of Merapi mountain. This required a meeting with an important Islamic mountain shaman, who wanted to know we weren’t up to anything frivolous or disrespectful. After the vetting he sent his crew to guide and protect us, some men went upriver a few kilometers to warn us by mobile phone if a new flood was coming down.
Bantar Gebang is a landscape of trash. Garbage stretches farther than the eye can see. Mountains, rivers, and even villages where the trash-pickers live. Not something easy to summarize in words.
A supermarket nested in a mega-mall within a skyscraper. Air conditioning, shopping carts, muzak, just like any posh supermarket. But right outside is a the permanent traffic jam of Jakarta, a sprawling mega-city of at least 10 million.
Thanks to the many who graciously tolerated us filming in the midst of their disasters: be it a sea of toxic mud or just the daily commute. Extra thanks to those who hosted, drove, filmed or loaned gear. And of course it wouldn’t have been possible to complete without all of you who contributed to the Kickstarter campaign.
It’s a vivid, stunning piece of work. If you have the luxury, take Filastine’s advice and watch it in HD with some headphones or through speakers with a good subwoofer. If you don’t, no doubt there remains plenty to see and hear here —
I'm a techno-musicologist, internet annotator, imagined community organizer.
I left my <3 in the digital global, but I reside in Cambridge, MA, where I'm from. I represent like that.