Archive of posts tagged with "reggae"

August 6th, 2018

Listening to the Sound of Culture

Last summer I was invited by Small Axe, a journal I have long wanted to write for, to take part in a book discussion of Louis Chude-Sokei’s engrossing, ambitious The Sound of Culture: Diaspora and Black Technopoetics. I’ve enjoyed Chude-Sokei’s perspectives on dancehall, Nigerian 419 scammers, and Bert Williams for years, and I was already planning to give the new book a good read, so this was an excellent opportunity. The journal was looking for more of a “response” than a traditional review, so I decided to focus on the critical musical threads of the book and, in particular, how they might contribute to discussions in music (and sound) studies, especially for those of us concerned with histories of diaspora and race (and, yes, reggae–among other things).

My response, “Listening to the Sound of Culture,” appeared in Small Axe 55, and you can read it in context here alongside some great articles. But here is a separate PDF of the proofs for your convenience, and I will paste the introduction below to whet appetites. Read my response — then read Louis’s book!

Louis Chude-Sokei’s The Sound of Culture: Diaspora and Black Technopoetics offers an intricately nested account of the historical relationship between race and technology, or in his words, “a broader reading of the historical and cultural context that allowed those equivalences between blacks and machines to be sensible in the first place” (5). As that framing suggests, the work offers an entwined genealogy of black claims to humanity and human fears of robot uprisings, with profound implications for how we continue to imagine the boundaries of humanity. Works of science fiction and key historical vignettes serve as Chude-Sokei’s primary exegetical texts, but he notably places black music–or more specifically, sound production–at the center of his account. What makes such an approach “structurally and philosophically possible,” he argues, “is the awareness that black music–from jazz to reggae, hip-hop to electronic dance music–has always been the primary space of direct black interaction with technology and informatics” (5).

Chude-Sokei is careful to stress, therefore, that “this is not a book about music”; rather, music serves as “a thread linking the various texts and contexts, secondary only to science fiction, which itself is subordinate to the mutually constitutive dyad of race and technology” (6). More to the point, this is not a book about music because the author is more concerned with sound, which is to say, with black music as media, or as audible interaction with technology. Without dismissing other forms of black invention, Chude-Sokei contends that music represents an exceptional domain of black technological practice: “the primary zone where blacks have directly functioned as innovators in technology’s usage” and “a space where black inventiveness has rarely or successfully been questioned” (5). Hence, to focus on music “as a space of sound and sound production is to reorient our listening … toward how blacks directly engage information and technology through sound” (5).

This focus on sound brings into relief a rich and complex history of interaction undercutting the persistent myth that blacks and technology are somehow opposed, or that blacks enjoy so little access to technology that such interactions can seem “either rare or adversarial, as in the well-known folktale of John Henry” (6). Chude-Sokei cites the so-called “digital divide” as a recent reiteration of this spurious story of black technological lack, a story that withers quickly in the face of the musical record: “Funny thing about these notions of race or blacks as having been victims of a digital divide is that in the very period that term gained such currency as to have become cliché, blacks in the Caribbean, America, and Europe were busy generating the most sophisticated electronic music and technology-obsessed music subcultures in history” (6). As that jump from the Caribbean to the wider world would suggest to scholars of electronic music, this is an analysis that builds on the remarkable resonance and influence of the Jamaican soundsystem and all that follows. It is more than convenient that one vernacular name for a soundsystem is simply a sound, a term that, as Chude-Sokei is quick to emphasize, “foregrounds technology and specific cultural interactions with it” (7) not unlike a great deal of Jamaican music itself, especially dub.

While it is true that the “mutually constitutive dyad of race and technology” persists as the core subject of Chude-Sokei’s book, I would like to focus on the text’s crucial musical threads in order to highlight how The Sound of Culture reorients specific histories of music, offers new openings for musicology and sound studies, and makes a case that the power of an audible, creole technopoetics can remake our very conception of the human. If, as Chude-Sokei posits, the black diaspora has generated the “most necessary theorizing and politicizing” of where we draw the lines between humans and machines “as a product of its extensive thinking about the African slave as an automaton” (8), and if, as he elaborates, this profound philosophical work has been no more forcefully put forward than by dub reggae, then there is a great deal to listen for in this work and all it brings into the mix.

[Read the rest…]

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January 25th, 2018

Love That Muddy Ether: Pirate Multiculturalism and Boston’s Secret Soundscape (Cluster Mag Repost)

This is a repost of an article originally published at the now defunct Cluster Mag back in December 2011. I’m grateful to Max Pearl for the platform, to metaLAB for commissioning the project initially, and to the Internet Archive for keeping it online since the mag went down. I’ve been revisiting the mix/project over the last few years as a soundscape/radio example in my technomusicology classes, and I’m now struck that it serves as a sort of memorial given that some of these signals, especially vulnerable pirate stations, have since disappeared. (FYI, I previously reposted my other Cluster Mag pieces here on the blog. Read about / listen to the Lambada mega-mix here, and see / hear about Bump con Choque here.)

wild backyard sunset

Love That Muddy Ether: Pirate Multi-culturalism and Boston’s Secret Soundscape
27 December 2011

By Cluster Mag columnist Wayne Marshall, with his own original audio collage of the Boston radioscape.

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Over the last decade Boston has become a Caribbean radio hotspot. Reggae and soca seep through the unlicensed openings in the local spectrum, vibrantly occupying foreclosed frequencies. In a landscape dominated by ad-driven automated playlists angling for their share of the middle of the road, a new wave of low-power and largely illicit broadcasters imbue the local soundscape with color, carnival, perspective, and polyrhythm, all while addressing pirate publics who find themselves on the same wavelength. Or close enough. (Some static is unavoidable.)

A casual scan of high-wattage FM fails to pick up frailer signals, making Boston sound at first blush no different than any large US city. Tuning into Anglo-Caribbean FM pirates or Spanish-Caribbean AM stalwarts, on the other hand, offers another angle on the Boston soundscape and on Boston itself. What takes shape is a city that’s far from the Boston seen on TV, closer to the one seen on the T. The right numbers on the dial open windows into worlds where DJs talk about voting and disaster relief efforts when they’re not debating local sports, hyping next weekend’s parties, breaking new releases, or revisiting pull-up-worthy classics that would never find their way back into corporate playlists. Imagined community organizing, with music at its core. Dance music, rap music, here music, there music. All, undeniably, part of the sound of Boston.

The rise of Boston pirate radio suggests a yet existing promise for local, open, peer-level communication. As Tim Wu recounts in The Master Switch, the early days of radio witnessed effusive utopian odes to the medium’s ability “to inspire hope in mankind by creating a virtual community” (39), as if “a great social interconnectedness via the airwaves would perforce ennoble the individual, freeing him from his baser unmediated impulses and thus enhancing the fellowship of mankind” (38). Radio’s proponents were inspired by its remarkable, ethereal powers of communication and by its low barriers to entry: a mail-order kit was sufficient. “It was amateurs, some of them teenagers, who pioneered broadcasting,” writes Wu. “They operated rudimentary radio stations, listening in to radio signals from ships at sea, chatting with fellow amateurs” (34). During its infancy in the 1920s, radio was essentially “a two-way medium accessible to most any hobbyist” whereas today, Wu notes, at a moment when radio is “hardly our most vital medium,” it is practically “impossible to get a radio license, and to broadcast without one is a federal felony” (39).

Due to its nature, radio has always been a local medium, but the degree to which content has been locally determined has shifted with the winds of commerce and technological change. In the earliest days of the medium, with no ability to connect to other stations or broadcast further, “radio stations made a virtue of the necessity to be local” (40). During the ’30s and ’40s, the development of AT&T’s national network and ad-driven model created what Wu calls an “irresistible incentive…to control and centralize the medium” (76), not to mention the emergence of national broadcasting companies like NBC and CBS. Later, with the advent of television quickly capturing national advertising campaigns, the pendulum swung back as radio once again found its local calling, fostering an explosive DJ-listener feedback loop that would fuel the ascent of rock’n’roll. Since at least the 1970s, however, the prevailing trend has been toward corporate consolidation, especially after the profound de-regulation of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, with the rise of such industry giants as Clear Channel Communications (which owns close to 900 stations nationwide).

It didn’t have to be this way. As Wu points out, “the FRC had a real choice of whether to back more low-power stations, or fewer high power stations” (83), but long ago the Federal Radio Commission (now the FCC) chose to carve up the airwaves in a manner that favored big commercial broadcasters, freeing up “clear channels” for stations that transmitted across large distances while penalizing small stations who dared interfere. This official enclosure of the ether forestalled radio’s future as an open and democratic medium. While recent legislative efforts to make more room for (noncommercial) low-power FM broadcasting might give hope to some, I wonder whether radio’s lost community promise might yet be heard in the imperfect and decidedly commercial noise of DJs yelling over dancehall loops about the dress code for the big holiday bash.

For all its promise, Boston’s burgeoning Caribbean radio scene faces serious constraints. Even illicit radio stations have operating costs, and that can bring odd bedfellows to the block party—ambulance-chasing lawyers, for instance—while otherwise shaping the public soundscape in unpredictable ways. Based in and around Dorchester, the longtime center of Boston’s multilingual Caribbean community, Anglo-Caribbean FM pirates often attempt to cast a wide net even with their limited reach. (Only half-joking, one local DJ told me that a station transmitting from Codman Square can hardly be picked up in Dudley Square, just 3 miles away.) “If you know somebody that’s Spanish,” announced a well-meaning DJ over the air one afternoon, pausing to clarify, “somebody that, you know, doesn’t speak English — whatever their language is — tell ‘em to tune in, man: Monday through Friday, 12pm to 4pm!” And yet, even such occasionally awkward improvisations and arrangements are clearly attempts, and organic ones at that, to address a local public — often one in search of a local station that actually speaks its language, shares its accent, knows its songs.

Dorchester, Mass. via

At least half a dozen such stations are operating today in Boston, and the results are audibly vibrant, if not always so audible — especially the farther one gets from Dorchester. (It can be pretty hard to pick up certain stations in Cambridge, where I live, depending which side of town you’re on.) To share a suggestive slice of Boston’s secret and ever-shifting radio soundscape, I’ve put together a thirty-minute collage drawn from my own “pirated” archive of Boston’s so-called pirates (as well as licensed broadcasts). Boston Pirate Party is an attempt to offer a more direct, if obviously very mediated, representation of Boston’s airwaves. As such it extends my previous projects concerned with this town’s sound, the Boston Mashacre and Smashacre (as well as my Jamaican Radio Edit, a similar piece recorded in Kingston); ironically, and to its credit, Boston Pirate Party offers a far more accurate representation of the sound of Boston than any collection of music recorded by people who happen to be from here.

This project commenced with an invitation from Harvard’s metaLAB this summer. The basic structure of the mix—triggering of loops + FX—was performed live at Open_Lab3 on September 7, 2011. It contains about 125 sonic slices all told, cut from a total of 1.3 hours of ambient recordings I made on August 24th and 29th while sitting in my car, parked at home in Cambridge. There are a few longish samples (10-15 seconds) to help provide context and to give emphasis to the pirates and AM stations, but mostly one-shot samples and auto-scan fragments I’ve managed to forge into little loops. There’s a fair amount of static, hum, distortion, and other audible indices of power. Low-power FM and AM are both fraught with signal loss, whether fuzzy or muddy. The conspicuous and shifting noise-signal ratio also registers the distance of my vantage point, the limits of listening from across the river.

I have attempted to give a sense of the gamut in as compact yet contextual a way as possible, but I’ve also taken deliberate liberties, playing further with these contrasts and questions of quality in order, again, to bring the low-power to the fore. Since the initial performance, I have replaced certain recorded audio excerpts—notably, some of the murkier I captured—with full-color 320k mp3s. With this recurring procedure, I provide a series of surrealistic close ups through the fuzz, utopian eruptions on the staticky crawl down the dial. So, sometimes you hear it as I actually heard it in my car in Cambridge; sometimes you hear it the way I imagine it could sound. To put it another way, I employ this technique to highlight the issues of distance and power I’ve attempted to describe here — and to effect their transcendence.

And what exactly do you hear beyond static and signal? Among other things: Irish jigs and avant jazz, MOR rock fragments and bachata loops, Rick Ross grunts, reports of accidents in Ecuador and raids on Santeria barbershops, Boston-accented Wall Street numerology, a Brazilian-accented “Boston,” Junior Rodigan’s sui generis Iranian-Londonian-Jamaican-Bostonian brogue, an inevitable (and apt!) instance of the “Lambada,” Christian cheerleading, ads for things that end in “punto com,” ignorance and nonsense and “gar-bajh” of stunning variety, and a wicked lot more than you might expect.

Download Wayne’s radioscape audio collage, Boston Pirate Party, here.

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October 18th, 2016

Still Bubbling After All These Years

I’m headed back to Amsterdam this week to attend the ADE where I’m excited to be a part of the screening of a new documentary on bubbling. Check out your boy the beatboxing talking head!


the film will have English subtitles, and hopefully will be widely available before long

I can’t say how humbled and happy I am to have encouraged and abetted local Dutch efforts to tell the amazing story of bubbling, a story of global reggae’s local resonance that first grabbed my attention almost exactly 11 years ago thanks to a “random” blog comment!

I’m especially proud to have helped make the case that the story of bubbling — often dismissed as marginal, shameful, frivolous — represents an important, instructive chapter in the national narrative of the post-colonial Netherlands and, indeed, that this plucky DIY social dance culture forged by Afro-Antillean immigrants and their children indelibly shaped the globally-resonant (and lucrative) sound of Dutch house and pop, including the international hits produced by Afrojack.

While I’m thrilled to see how this narration of bubbling history plays to a local crowd this week, I’m also glad that the film serves as a tribute to the two pioneers of the genre, DJ Moortje and MC Pester. The two collaborated to throw some seminal parties in the early 90s, with Moortje bringing the bumping-but-avant DJ creativity and Pester making everything live and local (and political) with his vocals. A few recordings of these parties, such as the inaugural Bandje 48 (the first 47 were pure DJ mixtapes), would then circulate on cassette — sometimes for money, often informally — and take on an afterlife of their own. The film looks not only at the origins of bubbling in this collaboration but also examines Moortje’s and Pester’s falling out and eventual reunion, and I’m delighted to share a stage with them and hear more about the beginnings of this remarkable scene and sound.

The film is, incidentally, named after a triumphal reunion earlier this year — and a recording of it, the elusive “Bandje 64” that never came together in the good old days — showing both Moortje and Pester in classic form; the idea that I might have contributed, by insisting on the importance of this story, to finally bringing these two together again is humbling indeed:

It’s impossible for me to listen to recordings like this and not hear bubbling as kindred to other scenes that coalesced around creative, localized hybrids of reggae and hip-hop in the early-mid 90s — reggaeton, bhangra, jungle — and I guess part of what I bring to the story is an ability to place bubbling into crucial comparative and historical frameworks. (If you like Playero 38, you’ll probably like Bandje 48.)

Related to that global, historical framework, I’ll also be giving a keynote talk on Friday called “Respect the Architects: The Caribbean Roots of Modern Day Pop Music” and you can trust that I’ll be making all of these connections and more. Here’s the teaser; come by / tune in if you can!

Over the last decade, but especially in recent years, the dance rhythms of the Caribbean have become prominent–indeed, even foundational–features of pop, hip-hop, and EDM. Wayne Marshall, who teaches music history at Berklee College of Music and Harvard University, will place this phenomenon in historical context by showing how Afrodiasporic rhythms have long provided the pulse in global popular music, connecting the dots from ragtime to reggaeton, Bo Diddley to trap, and dancehall to “tropical house.”

Nuff respect to the architects, Moortje and Pester, to all the others who built on their foundations, and to everyone involved in continuing to tell the story of bubbling. So much more remains to be said, heard, witnessed, and reckoned. Here’s to all of that–

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January 7th, 2016

Boston Is a Island, Seen?


s/o thephoenix (rip) for the img

My recent post involving a Boston sound session focused on the use of the zunguzung meme, so I didn’t discuss some of the other interesting and awesome things about the recording — and how I found it.

I’ve been turning my attention back to the story of reggae in Boston — a story that I first tried to put together a decade ago. Indeed, I resumed my search by returning to a piece I published back in 2005 in a local zine, “Reggae-Tinged Resonances of a Wicked Wicked City.” (Geez, can I really be insufferably wordy sometimes; I like to think I’ve improved on that count.)

As I was re-reading, I decided to google some of the old soundsystems to see if — praise be to Jah — some vintage sound tapes had finally made it online alongside counterparts from Kingston, New York, London, et al. In 2005 it was damn near impossible to hear any of this stuff; it seemed far more likely in 2016, as the recorded past continues to make its way, however willy-nilly, to the internet.

I CNTRL-C’d on “Evertone Hi-Power, with selectors Wheely and Robot” and was feeling lucky. And what do you know? The top return was for a 1985 Evertone session including a visiting crew representing King Jammy’s from JA! As I started reading the description, I got a strange sense of deja vu before recognizing it as the same paragraph I had just copy-n-pasted from — a paragraph I wrote a decade ago…

In the early 1980s, Boston’s reggae scene was blessed by a number of soundsystems and selectors working mostly in clubs in Dorchester, where Boston’s West Indian population has been based for decades. Echo International (which later changed its name to Capricorn Hi-Fi), with its eponymous selector, Echo, was one of the more well-known sounds in the area. Evertone Hi-Power, with selectors Wheely and Robot, ranked among the best in town and is remembered as one of the biggest soundsystems in Boston during the 1980s. They even clashed with legendary Jamaican sound, King Jammy’s, in Dorchester in 1986. Apparently, Unity Sound, with selectors Reggie Dawg and Warren, was the “gal favorite,” while Supersonic was known as the “bad boy” sound, with connections to the infamous Dog Posse. Cambridge’s Western Front earned a reputation in the 1980s as a spot for “bad men” as well as for serious reggae music, especially from local live-bands such as the I-Tones and Cool Runnings. Aside from the Front, though, most of the top spots to hear reggae in Boston were based around Blue Hill Ave in Dorchester: Black Philanopies, Manny’s Bar, Windsor Cricket Club, 4 Aces, Carver Lodge, Kelekos, and, of course, 3 C’s—the Caribbean Cultural Center, which opened on 1000 Blue Hill Ave in 1981 and has been hosting big reggae events ever since. Veterans of the Boston reggae scene also note the popularity of house parties during the 80s, many of which, not unlike dances in Jamaica, would often last until 7 or 8 in the morning.

It was unattributed, but how could I bother to care about that? The story is not mine, for one; I am but a humble chronicler and interpreter. More important, though, was that my text had led me to something that I REALLY WANTED TO HEAR. This was the best possible scenario. It was as if 2005 Wayne had left a trail of digital bread crumbs for 2016 Wayne. Give thanks!

Cherry on top: the session itself is gold. Great vibes, local color, and a fine dancehall session in solid 1986 stylee. It’s great to hear the deejays reworking all the musical figures that enjoyed currency in that moment, from melodic contours to slang to riddims to ways of “selecting” or playing them (e.g., turning a skanking 4/4 track into a 3+3+2 break using the volume knob/fader). If you’re into dancehall culture, the session offers a wonderful glimpse at the state-of-the-art in the mid-1980s. Reverberating from Kingston to Boston, this is the sound of an institution at work, a resonant diasporic resource, an alchemical production of live sociality from recorded sound–

If I’m hearing correctly, Jammy’s crew come in after a half-hour or so (launching with a zunguzung riff at 35:20) and then rock for a solid 1.5 hours. Before that, the Bostonians hold their own. Skilled deejays pass the mic around and offer a mix of impromptu declamations and more rehearsed routines over the big riddims of the day — and occasionally, in the name of good vibes, playing whole records/voicings in their own right (including some Jammy’s productions — a notable and explicit gesture of respect).

When one of the deejays says “Boston is a island of itself, seen?” at 8:48, it’s as if he’s *trying* to title a compilation or a book. (So much better than the title I came up with a decade ago!) Local references erupt with some frequency, especially in original routines — including a nice set of tunes over the Golden Hen riddim. It’s quite a ride even without the offkey cover of “Karma Chameleon” that I very much wish were a satire.

From my perspective, recordings like these (and I found others) stand testament to reggae’s vitality in Boston in the 1980s, at once grounded in local sociality and in diasporic networks. In that sense, they are a crucial complement to other artifacts that represent Boston’s reggae heritage, most notably the recordings made by local bands and local labels.

So while I’m here, allow me to share a couple selections from two reggae bands working in Boston at this time. Many of these bands included Jamaican musicians living in Boston, and nearly all seem to bring a reverent, faithful, yet distinctive approach to the music.

First off, check out the dubby stylings of Zion Initiation, as released by a small local label in 1979:

And don’t miss this ambitious video (on location in Paris?!) from the I-Tones. Fronted by the Luke “White Ram” Ehrlich and featuring Chris Wilson on guitar (a Jamaican ex-pat who would later run Heartbeat Records), the I-Tones were one of the biggest reggae bands in town in the 1980s. A song like “Walk On By” shows how their sound was grounded in reggae’s abiding love for sweet pop and R&B. (According to the YouTube page, Ram was not thrilled about the sax solo!) Gotta love that falsetto.

Will share more as the project develops, but do drop a line if you’d like to add anything. Just scattering some digital breadcrumbs here, seen?

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January 5th, 2016

Zunguzungunguzung-again

I recently added a few “new” instances of ye olde zunguzung meme to the list, each helping to tease at this knotty tapestry we’ve been weaving.

First, thanks to the attentive ears of NYC-based Puerto Rican electronic act Balún, we discover that PR-based Nuyorican reggaeton pioneer Ivy Queen once wove a zunguzung allusion rather seamfully into her verse at ~1:52 in the Noise 6 excerpt here:

The reference appears as one would expect it might: as yet another of many, many nods to reggae and hip-hop knit together in the “Spanish reggae” (i.e., proto-reggaeton) of San Juan’s distinctive mid-90s underground scene. Indeed, the production is deliciously typical if you like connecting musical dots: it opens with the well-worn sample from ESG’s “UFO” (possibly a reference to Kane and, by 1996, who knows who else), then layers on a detuned loop of the “Method Man” riff while Ivy comes in chanting “Noise! Clan!” like “Wu! Tang!” before unloading a barrage of laser-precise syllables. At this menacing tempo, Ivy’s doubletime fliptongue bars — a clear stylistic nod to raggamuffin flows — manage to sound like the elder cousins of the Migosflow they are.

So with this allusion Ivy Queen joins such compatriots as Mr. Notty and Ñejo — and no doubt other reggaetoneros whose references have thus far eluded my dragnet. At this point, far as I know, she’s the first on record — in reggaeton — repping reggae with the zunguzung.

Like many other carriers of the meme, Ivy Queen invokes the tune at precisely the moment when she directly addresses the audience — no doubt something she also did in numerous live “freestyle” sessions in San Juan and Nueva York — which brings us to our next example(s)…

///

The second example — or perhaps, second-umpteenth — reveals how zunguzung works as a distinctive resource for live reggae performance practice, something that Ivy Queen’s reference registers in its desire to serve as functional address, as live and direct. In this sense, the session “tape” below can be heard alongside the myriad zunguzung deployments in other sound sessions, especially in the mid-80s.

In this case, and in Boston no less, we hear how zunguzung figures in state of the art toasting practice circa 1986. The tune cycles in and out of the performances, one of several stock figures on the tips of deejays’ tongues (alongside “call the police,” “money move,” and other allusions to allusions that don’t have proper names). And yet, zunguzung also emerges here as a powerful and special signal, a musical trigger nearly always hitting with the weight of a forward / pullup / wheel, or a chorus.

In this session featuring Jammy’s sound on a visit to town, I count no fewer than a baker’s dozen zunguzungs over the course of the 1.5 hour excerpt (and that’s omitting the repetitions when used as a chorus). That’s 13 distinct moments in the session — roughly, every few minutes — when the zunguzung erupts into presence, often stopping the music in its tracks.

Shifting shape as it goes by, the melody serves to big up the “Boston posse” as well as “all Yardies” — and as is so often the case with the zunguzung, the deejays here use it as a special means to enlist audience participation, crooning at listeners to push up a hand “if you love Jammy” or “beca’ you’re expensive.” The strong responses of both performers and audience to each of the zunguzung’s invocations bear consistent witness to the signal force of this tricky likkle earworm:

See, e.g., ~0:43, 4:00, 21:00, 26:40, 28:20, 38:30, 48:20, 51:20, 58:55. 1:11:20, 1:13:40, 1:17:25, 1:20:35 — or, better, just listen to the wole ting. Vibes nice, enuh.

///

The final addendum is perhaps more of a “footnote,” less interesting to this zigzagging genealogy given that it’s a novelty production nodding to Tupac rather than, say, grassroots media invoking Yellowman and dancehall tradition. On the other hand, as I’ve also pointed out, the ways the riff grows distant from being a reference to reggae culture is, in some sense, perhaps as interesting as its explicitly intertextual resonance in reggae, hip-hop, and kindred genres.

In 2011, the remarkably well-produced satire act Baracka Flacka Flames released a version of 2pac’s “Hit Em Up” and (inadvertently) invoked our familiar contour —

I gotta admit, though — research aside — for my money/time, “I Run the Military” is far superior:

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December 22nd, 2014

The Freedom of Dutch Bubbling

I’ve got an article in The Wire‘s new issue devoted to “Freedom Principles” (December 2014). I was inspired by the call for submissions to thread the idea of freedom through the story of Dutch bubbling, which I think embodies it in a number of important ways.

After having the privilege to visit with some of bubbling’s pioneers and torchbearers in Aruba this September, I’m feeling as inspired — and required — as ever to give this wonderful story of translocal music culture and creativity the telling it deserves. This is a start.

I’ve also put together a “portal” of audio and video examples for the Wire’s site; check it out and sink deep into the sounds and images of bubbling!

http://www.thewire.co.uk/in-writing/the-portal/dutch-bubbling-portal

The essay that appears in the print issue follows below. Big up Moortje, Chuckie, Coversquad, Fellow, & everyone else involved in this remarkable story! Thanks for sharing with me. Keep bubbling free!


Moortje on the decks in ~92

Is there any sound so free as DJ Moortje’s mid-1990s track “Donna”, his remix of Singing Sweet’s 1992 lovers rock rendition of Richie Valens’s 1959 hit pitched to chipmunk levels and propelled by doubled-up dancehall drums in double time? With such feathers in its cap, Dutch bubbling should have long ago established the Netherlands on the global bass map. A hyperkinetic, hyperlocal, sample-centric take on dancehall, bubbling thrived in obscurity throughout the 1990s, and today it continues to enjoy a certain liberty on the margins of international reggae culture. Obscurity is but one of several key forms of freedom embodied by its almost implausible existence. Its very genesis and gestation, never mind its spectacular and strange shapes, are products of the buttressing effects of inherited traditions with liberating aesthetics, technologies with plasticity, and the social support and political economy of small scenes.

Networking Holland’s immigrant enclaves in Rotterdam, Amsterdam and the Hague, bubbling took root in dancehalls where African-Antillean youth could gather, socialise and dance. Notably, the music of choice for first and second generation migrants from Aruba, Curacao and Suriname was supplied not by these islands or the Netherlands, but by Jamaica. At clubs such as Voltage in the Hague or Imperium in Rotterdam, dancehall reggae provided a soundtrack for couples to rub-a-dub, schuren (that’s Dutch for rub), or, in the parlance of the day, bubble along with sensuous, polyrhythmic Jamaican music that sounded at once Caribbean and global, ancestral and utterly modern. Bubbling — or bobbeling — channelled the energies of a new youth culture that gave people united by their experience in postcolonial Dutch society a common platform for creativity and community, especially as DJs and dancers together pushed tempos beyond reggae’s comfort zone and twisted dancehall into a shape that became more recognisable as a local innovation.

Bubbling’s DJs, MCs, producers and dancers took flight from reggae’s DJ driven and remix-oriented music culture, an imperative to revisit and revise familiar forms accentuated by hiphop’s relentless flipping of scripts. Inspired at once by hiphop sampling and reggae versioning, the practitioners of Dutch bubbling remade dancehall in their own image, manipulating samples of well-worn riddims in ways no Jamaican producers ever would. In this way, bubbling’s referential yet irreverent chop and stab approach to dancehall — more directly derivative than a reggae relick but less faithful to a riddim’s integrity — makes it an uncanny twin of reggaeton; they even share a love for the same canon of riddims: “Fever Pitch”, “Bam Bam”, “Dem Bow” and pretty much anything featuring Cutty Ranks. With a premium on transformation, skirting the line between recognition and surprise, Dutch-Antillean DJs like the pioneering DJ Moortje would take reggae B side versions and make them the basis for new performances, quite as they were intended — if not in the wildly distorted shapes Moortje and cohorts would make of them. Recording new vocals over an instrumental is one thing; combining loops from multiple riddims, some pitched to double time and some screwed to molasses, spiked with whimsical samples from the hardcore gabber of Rotterdam Termination Source or Snoop Dogg album skits, is another thing entirely.

Moortje enjoyed a critical degree of creative freedom thanks to the affordances of vinyl and turntables. Exploiting the limited but profound capacities of these playback technologies, he took the familiar records that made dancers bubble and pushed their tempos into uncharted territory by playing 33 rpm records at 45 rpm and sliding the pitch fader right up to and beyond its upper limit. Given the opportunity, Moortje would sometimes remove the turntable platter from a pair of Technics to access an internal knob controlling the pitch adjustment range, allowing him to shift 100 bpm riddims into a far more uptempo terrain.


Moortje showing me, in the sand, how he would modify the Technics’ pitch range

Later, audio software vastly expanded bubbling’s creative possibilities. Moortje’s innovative performances planted the seed for speed bubbling, a digital development first enabled by Amiga 500 tracker software that allowed production crews like The Coversquad to take tempos upwards of 150 bpm, much to the bemusement or dismay of visiting reggae artists experiencing bubbling’s love of chipmunked and screwed vocals and drums. Commissioned by dancers requiring dramatic, sample-packed soundtracks for their choreographed, competitive routines, producers would suture audio from films and rap albums onto the breakneck bubbling beats that impelled dancers to move like marionettes doing the butterfly. Indeed, the strikingly experimental nature of bubbling productions was predicated on an intimate feedback loop with audiences who appreciated how the music had coalesced as a genuinely local style. Such a supportive setting was fostered and enjoyed by MCs like Pester and Pret, who helped to push the tempos and excitement levels as they added their own accents to the mix. With their Dutch and Papiamento lyrics chanting down Babylon or simply telling people to shake it, bubbling’s MCs further imbued the music with local resonance.

For better or worse, bubbling’s deeply idiomatic qualities may also grant the genre a certain freedom from external forces. In its heyday, it only happened live or on recordings informally circulated on cassette, meaning its heavy use of samples bypassed the attentions of the mainstream pop industry. Whether mainstream Dutch house has since effectively sublimated bubbling’s mojo is an argument for another day. And even as the music’s artefacts finally mount up in online archives like YouTube and Soundcloud, or as musical references percolating through the releases of Fade To Mind, Mad Decent, or Planet Mu, bubbling’s baseline weirdness might yet guarantee that its signature sound will always be free.

Wayne Marshall

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September 4th, 2014

Fresh Jamaican Catch-Up

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 translates—and 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:

Also on the reggae tip, I make a brief appearance in an article by Max Pearl on Polish Reggae, to wit:

Ethnomusicologist Wayne Marshall says reggae’s success can be attributed to its many divergent (even contradictory) forms and meanings. “The genre offers a flexible palette for a wide range of ideological positions,” he explains, “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.” So whether it’s 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.

“You can find local reggae scenes just about anywhere in the world: Germany, Japan, New Zealand, South Africa, Native American reservations, you name it,” Marshall continues. “It really is remarkable that reggae has inspired local scenes all over the world, especially since Jamaica is such a small place.”

Remember “treble culture“? I’m pretty sure it’s still alive and well, and I rounded up some examples for Norient to give people a sense of some of treble culture’s sounds and contexts. Here’s a taste, but click through for all 5:

This is, admittedly, an exaggerated example, and it’s hard to imagine anyone enjoying it save from a certain ironic distance. But it’s noteworthy – if not mindblowing – 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 – whether anti-piracy technique or incidental product of crappy software defaults. It reminds me of Jonathan Sterne’s contention that the MP3 puts the listener on a «sonic austerity program». Illustrative because so extreme, the warped sound of this clip is deeply familiar to the MP3 generation – 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 «artifacts» in the archaeological as well as audio sense.

Finally (for now), I also make a brief appearance in a lengthy, strengthy article by Eric Harvey about the “Past, Present, and Future of Music Streaming” (and don’t miss the cool flashy version):

In the wake of Rupert Murdoch buying Myspace and “nuking” 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 “entire media ecosystems” might suddenly “succumb to the sudden slash and burn of corporate logic, which cares little for what we might celebrate as cultural vitality.” I’ve been using the word “platform” 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 “platform” 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 “platforms” 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.

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January 29th, 2014

Desperately Seeking Dembow: Wayne & Wax Poetics

I don’t know if you dear readers get tired of hearing about dembow, but I sure don’t. That said, if my boom-ch-boom-chick narratives start to seem as monotonous a march as some allege with regard to the dembow beat itself, do let me know. Well-worn paths notwithstanding, I’m happy to share this latest riff on a loopy history I’ve been trying to put together for many years, especially since it was the result of some protracted detective work, including actual purchasing of vinyl (s/o Deadly Dragon), interviews conducted via MySpace, and a whole heap of Spanglish-spelunking through Panamanian plena chatroom rabbitholes and other lively niches of the net.

First things first, go over to Wax Poetics to read the article in its full multimedia glory:

      >> “Digital Rhythm: The loopy origins of dembow and reggaeton’s knotty dancehall roots”

I’m pleased to have placed the piece there, as Wax Poetics is a publication I’ve admired for a long time, but especially because the story of the dembow’s origins is, crucially, a story about a particular physical record, an actual piece of vinyl, a deeply generative slab of “wax” that thousands of producers have molded into their own shapes and forms since it first issued from a Brooklyn-based distributor in 1991.

It’s also a record that, hard to believe, I was unable to locate and listen to back when I was writing my epic chapter for our reggaeton book. At the time, though, close listening was leading me in the right direction, as indicated in footnote #55 (p.72):

Significantly, it appears (to my ears) that the most common versions of the Dem Bow riddim circulating in Puerto Rico may in fact be sampled from Nando Boom’s “Ellos Benia,” produced by Dennis “the Menace” Thompson, rather than directly from Shabba Ranks’s “Dem Bow” (though elements from the Bobby Digital version crop up as well).

While my ears had more or less figured out the identity of the actual samples traveling under the Dembow banner, I still didn’t know the story of how, or who, or when or where, someone first got their hands on the instrumental, which didn’t appear on any Nando Boom records (and never appears as a naked loop in “Ellos Benia”). Maybe most mysteriously, I hadn’t been able to figure out why Panamanian enthusiasts seemed to refer to the same riddim as the Pounda, or sometimes Ponda (a transformation / transliteration not unlike such Puerto Rican variations as Dembo or Denbo).

When I first read about the Pounda on Panamanian websites, the way people described it, I thought it might simply be a local way of naming “Dem Bow” not unlike the way that, say, the instrumental from Dirtsman’s “Hot This Year” — better known to reggae aficionados as a re-lick of the classic Drum Song riddim — sometimes masquerades as “El Chespa Riddim” in tribute to the stuttering repetition of Dirtsman’s “dress back!” in the vocal version: chespa, chespa ches, chespa, chespa ches, chespa! And because I couldn’t locate an actual record called “Pounder,” my best assumption, given what I’d read, was that it was simply another name for the same riddim Puerto Ricans call Dem Bow. Which it is. (What it is not, however, is the same version propelling Shabba’s influential performance on “Dem Bow.”) But I had no idea what that would have happened.

The identity of the Pounda, and its relationship to the loop people call Dembow, seemed crucial to understanding the transnational history of reggaeton. And though I felt I had done my best by the time of publication, it still nagged at me. Moreover, this missing link continued to complicate the fraught retellings of reggaeton history. Take, for example, this quintessential collection of lore from a 2009 article on reggae in Panama:

By some reports, Jamaican dancehall first arrived in Puerto Rico in the suitcases of visiting musicians from Panama. Another story has the Panamanian producer Ramón “Pucho” Bustamante collaborating with a Jamaican to create a salsa-infused variant of “dem bow” called “pounda,” then handing it over to Puerto Rican producers. While the truth is likely less clear-cut than either yarn, the debate over who started reggaeton, or rather, how Puerto Rican artists discovered “dem bow,” rages on outside shows and on countless Internet message boards today.

Indeed, as a gringo gawker, but a devotee and champion of all this music, it was largely these online debates that served as a key set of texts for the meta-narrative I was trying to tease out, my story of the stories people tell about reggaeton. I would come across fascinating debates and tantalizing fragments hinting at a history still largely uncovered, or certainly unpromulgated —

EL PONDER REALMENTE ES UN RITMO JAMAIQUINO, HAY COMO DOS ESTILOS DEL MISMO Y DEL MISMO AÑO QUE UNO ES EL DEL ESTILO QUE LLEVA LA CANCIÓN “PENSIÓN” DE NANDO BOOM Y EL OTRO DEL ESTILO QUE LLEVA “DEM BOW” DE SHABBA RANKS QUE ESE FUÉ HECHO POR STEELIE & CLEEVIE POR VP RECORDS. PERO EL PONDER DE “DEM BOW” DE SHABBA RANKS FUÉ EL MÁS FUERTE EN ESE TIEMPO Y LAS DOS DE NANDO BOOM CON LA BASE RÍTMICA HECHA POR DENNIS FUERON LAS QUE MÁS APOJEARON HASTA EN CANADÁ QUE LAS OTRAS EN INGLÉS. ——————– pAnAmAiCaN jAm

To get to the bottom, I had to go beyond reading Spanish wiki entries and their discussion pages, and even beyond Panamanian reggae discussion forum rabbit holes and email follow-ups with their authors. I had to track down one of the record’s producers on MySpace and, ultimately, at least for my peace of mind, I had to get my hands on a real, physical copy of the record, since there were no online instantiations of a song called “Pounda” or “Pounder” — never mind its instrumental b-side (given the distinctive label, “Dub Mix II,” I would later discover).

I have Marlon Bishop to thank for putting me back on the trail again, which is ironic since he contacted me while researching an article he was writing on reggae in Panama for none other than Wax Poetics. At any rate, Marlon’s reasonable inquiry about the Pounda riddim sent me back into the chat forums, which eventually led me to the Deadly Dragon guys, who actually had the record in stock. And of course, when I listened to it, and it contained precisely the same sounds propelling Nando Boom’s “Ellos Benia” and appearing as “Dembow Original” on CDs like Pistas Famosas de Reggaeton, it came as a revelation.

Also revelatory, and useful for confirming some things, was getting to talk with none other than “Pucho,” aka Ramon “Pucho” Bustamante (a name bearing witness to his Jamaican heritage, recalling Jamaica’s first prime minister). We had an illuminating exchange via MySpace, and I’ll never forget his funny opinion about Jamaica’s riddim tradition, or as he put it, “UNA MALA COSTUMBRE DE LOS JAMAICANOS” —

And that’s all she wrote. Or, at least, that’s all I’ve written so far. You might think that a 24,000 word essay might suffice, but apparently not. And as another way to share an amazing story, I’m grateful to have been able to put the pieces together. Thanks to everyone, from Pucho to pAnAmAiCaN jAm, Marlon to Wax Poetics, for aiding me in my not-so-quixotic quest. Always room for another dub!

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January 6th, 2014

Cyaan Stop Won’t Stop

If raggamuffin hip-hop never gets tired for you either, I’m happy to report that yet another juicy mix of fliptongue stylistics over dusty breaks and jeepbeat bass has come to my attention —

Originally cooked up in 2010 by one Matt Nelkin, and now re-upped with special edits for your DLing & DJing pleasure, “Boombap Riddims” pays tribute to more or less the very same moment in time that inspired my & Pace’s digging in the crateses for Cluster Mag.

Beyond enjoying soaking up the heavy ragga vibes, I was happily surprised to hear yet another instance of that ol’ zunguzung tune suddenly rear its head as Rev. Baddoo’s “Bop Scuche” comes into the mix. I can’t find complete discographical info on it (or a YouTube even), but it likely dates to around 1993 — definitely a hot moment for the riff, with echoes via Us3, K7, KRS-One, and Jamalski — and the production & distribution c/o none other than Bobby Konders & Massive B makes a lot of sense for yet another NYC-based vector for Yellowman’s viral chune.

Big up Mr.Nelkin on the tuff mix, and thx to anyone who can help me pin down the date of “Bop Scuche”!

///

While I’m on topic, I also want to share a recording that seems rather illuminating for hearing Boogie Down Productions’ seminal ragga-rap in context. Listening to Colonel Mite’s “Bless the Selector,” recorded in London the same year that BDP were proclaiming the Bridge to be over and the P to be free (1986), I can’t help but be struck by the verbal / stylistic overlap. It’s pretty clear, to these ears anyway, that KRS was manipulating the very same repertory of dancehall gestures (“come inna a dance”) as his compatriots across the pond. In other words, BDP were essentially producing a NYC-tinged version of contemporary dancehall. But do tell if you disagree —

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November 8th, 2013

Zunguzung Variations: Singer-Songwriter Edition

Here’s something primarily for longtime readers of W&W, or for random devotees to Yellowman’s timeless tune. As you all know, the melody from “Zunguzungunguzunguzeng” — aka “the Zigzagging Zunguzung meme” — has traveled widely. And I’ve been on the case ever since I first began hearing its echoes everywhere (which really started for me back in 2003).

This summer I was invited to join a songwriting group in which all participants would compose one song each month according to that month’s “prompt” — some set of aesthetic criteria, broadly defined (i.e., pertaining to specific musical or textual cues or tending toward the impressionistic). The crew was assembled under the odd banner of Underwear Everywhere (I still don’t know why), and it mostly included pop/rock-leaning musicians, if with a wide range of influences and styles.

I have to confess that I only myself managed to generate a single song during the 6 months that the experiment lasted. In the first month, I rose to the challenge of producing some “Novel Sounds” — or, according to the prompt:

Pick a favorite book and use the title as the title of the song as well as inspiration. … Use 3/4 time for part or all of the song.

In my case, I decided to take flight from the opening pages of one of my favorite books of the last decade, Michael Taussig’s My Cocaine Museum. For curiosity’s sake — and boy is my version curious! — I share here with you my strange shanty:

Anyway, back to the point of the post: I was myself given the privilege of providing the prompt in June, and I just couldn’t resist asking the group to contribute ditties somehow incorporating my favorite little melody. Or as I put it to them —

This month’s songwriting conceit is that everyone should use a little melody that I’ve been chasing around the world for many years now. As you’ll hear in this mega-mix I made, the “Zunguzung” tune turns up in dozens and dozens of songs — sometimes to support the chorus, sometimes as a one-off allusion, and with varying degrees of fidelity to the Yellowman original(s). Here’s the mix —
wayneandwax.com?p=7340

Even (especially?) as it plays a little Heisenbergian game with my research, it’s really fun to hear the results. I’m especially charmed by how that familiar strain sounds on accordion, or ethereal and circus-y synths, or sung in a New Wavey style. These sorts of transpositions are not typical for a tune that mainly travels via reggae, hip-hop, and their offspring, but they speak just as strongly to the catchiness and flexibility of Yellowman’s lilting phrase. Hope you enjoy the subtle and not-so-subtle appearances of an old friend across these varied versions. I sure did!

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October 4th, 2013

To Make an Unforgivably Short Story Longer…

Thanks to all for passing around the raggamuffin hip-hop articles & mix. As it happens, the cosmos smiled on our cross-platform publication by arranging for a rather resonant listicle to appear at the bredrin-blog LargeUp just the next day: a Toppa Top 10 devoted to “Raggamuffin Gangster Rap“!

West Coast examples of raggamuffin rap only appear briefly toward the end of our mix, so it’s great to have the picture fleshed out a little more. Here’s the hook —

Back when Shabba and Super Cat were killing the game in the early ’90s, the influence of dancehall could be felt throughout hip-hop. While East Coast rappers with Caribbean backgrounds like KRS-One and Heavy D collaborated with dancehall’s heavyweights themselves, artists from the West Coast—where the connections to Jamaica were less apparent—had to get a little more creative. Hence, the faux raggamuffin deejay styles on records by NWA, DJ Quik and other gangster rap acts of the day.

Read the rest.

While I’ve got you here, I thought I should share something of an author’s cut of the Cluster Mag article, which had to be about half the length that I wanted it to be. At one point in the article, there appears a rather brief history of Jamaican soundsystem culture, accompanied by the disclaimer, “To make the very long story unforgivably short…”

Well, what else are blogs for? Here’s the longer version for any of you who care to read. For me, the little leaps of logic involved in the beginnings of reggae and rap really do deserve explication and emphasis —

Playing records to people, interactively, sounds totally commonplace today, because it is. But at the time that “soundsystems” in Kingston started holding dances backed not by bands but by savvy selectors with hot and hit records and powerful speakers, that sort of thing was hardly seen outside of sock hops or the first French discothèques. As they later did with the recording studio itself, Jamaicans were in the process of making the jukebox a live instrument, which required some little leaps of logic and a lot of ingenuity.

When Clement “Coxsone” Dodd was working as a migrant laborer in Florida in the 1950s, he attended lots of parties. And while picking oranges, he was also picking up plenty of the 45s running the local jukeboxes. Back then, there were two main sources for the soundtrack of the party: canned jukebox or live band. Returning home to Kingston, Coxsone decided to combine the two: to play records as live performance. He started with a PA at his parents’ pharmacy, bringing in customers with the slick sounds of Southern R&B. Before long Coxsone’s Downbeat soundsystems were operating across Western Kingston and beyond, vying with Duke Reid’s Trojan as keeper of the best downtown dancehall sessions. Soon after, he opened up Studio One, where the feedback loop between what dancers liked and selectors played could be made even tighter. Eventually, through the magic of dubplates and multitracks, selectors could rinse instrumental versions of popular tunes while, inspired by African-American radio disc jockeys, jive-slanging “deejays” such as King Stitt and U-Roy toasted in a local, cosmopolitan tongue. It didn’t take much longer, if another little leap of logic, for these masters of ceremony to become recording stars in their own right: in 1970, U-Roy’s first “talkover” singles—a trio of rocksteady-repurposing novelties—held the top spots on Jamaican radio for months.

This interactive approach to playing commercial dance records is, of course, essentially the same insight that would engender disco right around the same time, and which carries forward via house, techno, and their EDM ilk as perhaps the dominant paradigm of modern musical experience. It is also the same insight that sparked hip-hop—quite directly, in fact.

As the story goes, hip-hop was born on a summer night in 1973 in a rec-room on the ground floor of 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, an apartment building in the West Bronx, when Clive Campbell, better known as Kool Herc, hosted a party with his older sister Cindy. Born and raised in Kingston, Campbell was well familiar with the importance of a customized—and loud and clear—sonic experience. For the party, Herc borrowed a powerful PA from his father, a soundman for local R&B acts, and played the role of selector, hand-picking and cueing up records, as well as MC, using a mic to praise partygoers with rhyming routines, and to hype the musical selections, make announcements, and encourage dancing.

Like any good DJ, Herc sought to respond to the demands of his audience. Given the context, this entailed embracing certain soundsystem techniques—especially the license to manipulate a recording in realtime—while departing from what one might have heard at a dance in Jamaica. Despite borrowing liberally from soundsystem culture, Herc didn’t play reggae at the party. Among his peers, Jamaican music and style had yet to undergo the cool recuperation that eventually followed Bob Marley’s success and, more important in New York, the violent dominance of the drug trade by Jamaican gangs, or “posses,” in the mid-80s. Just as Herc made an effort to swap his Jamaican accent for a Bronx brogue, he played soul, funk, and driving disco tracks—especially records with stripped-down, percussion-led breaks—in place of reggae anthems.

Herc and Cindy began throwing parties regularly, and the audience steadily grew—as did Herc’s crew, including dedicated MCs like Coke La Rock and a coterie of flashy dancers. Running out of room at 1520 Sedgwick, Herc relocated to nearby Cedar Park where, repurposing what little civic infrastructure remained in a place haunted by the politics of neglect, electricity from a utility pole powered the soundsystem. In contrast to clubs, where cover charges and age restrictions kept teenagers out, the “park jams” were active incubators, stylistically and socially, of a new kind of public youth culture. In this way, Herc’s burgeoning audience, some driven West by gang violence in the South Bronx, helped essentially to co-produce a remarkable phenomenon: a vibrant party scene where local culture thrived as DJs, MCs, and dancers wrested new forms out of the resources at hand.

Hip-hop was so tied to realtime social gatherings in its early years that the idea of committing such performances to tape and selling them as commodities required some imagination. Recordings of parties were made, of course, and tapes circulated informally and even quasi-commercially, but it was not until a seasoned and savvy record executive, Silvia Robinson of Sugar Hill Records, saw potential in the form that the rap song emerged as such, six years after Herc’s back-to-school jam on Sedgwick Ave. Most of hip-hop’s biggest names at that time were not easily convinced, or drawn away from the relatively lucrative party circuit, so Robinson’s first attempt was more a studio simulation than a faithful rendering of contemporary party practice. Assembling a ragtag crew of aspiring rappers as the Sugar Hill Gang, Robinson released a 15-minute single called “Rapper’s Delight” stitching together popular routines drawn from such prominent MCs as Grandmaster Caz over a replayed loop from Chic’s “Good Times,” then a current favorite among hip-hop DJs. Despite its unusual length for a pop single, as a passably genuine artifact of hip-hop’s sprawling party style, “Rapper’s Delight” became a massive hit on urban radio, selling millions of copies and offering the wider world its first exposure to hip-hop. (Multiple Jamaican acts recorded reggae-fied versions of the song before the year was out.)

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Wayne&Wax

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.

wayne at wayneandwax dot com

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