Archive of posts tagged with "rock"

May 5th, 2010

version a version (riddim meth0d repost)

[Ok, while I’m grinding on non-bloggy things, let me keep things moving here by offering up another from the riddimmeth0d vaults. I’m happy to report that I’ve since discovered more info about the origins of “Bird In Hand” here, which points out that the female singer on “Milte hi aankhein dil huwa” (from the 1950 film Babul, directed by Raj Kapoor) is not Geeta Dutt as I initially reported but rather Shamshad Begum. I also want to note that just about three years ago, my mashup of the Lee Perry recording and its filmi inspiration worked its way into a podcast by Mick Sleeper (mp3) devoted to odd remixes of Perry’s odd remixes. Finally, given the recent uptick around Dutch club music thanks to the moombahton movement, I’m pleased to note that the second track here employs a classic bubbling loop. This post was initially published on 27 April 2006.]


worldclass warblers talat mahmood and geeta dutt

several months ago, matt woebot called attention to another amazing instance of far-flung musical connections. in this case, a filmi melody turning up in a lee perry-produced dub track. i myself had always wondered about the odd, haunting melody of “bird in hand” (on return of the super ape), but like many listeners i suppose i chalked it up to that ol’ wacky jamaican creativity or assumed it was amharic or something. recorded in 1978, the song foreshadows reggae’s embrace of the bollywood sound by a cool twenty-five years.

even more remarkable, whereas contemporary dancehall producers tend to simply sample lata and conjure the east with tabla patches, here we have an amazingly faithful engagement on the part of the singer, versioning the melody like alton ellis doing sam cooke and drawing out suggestive vocables (ma-ri-wa-a). (woebot’s post points to more info, but one of the more explanatory pages is down so i’ve linked to it though the waybackmachine here. [update: actually, I’m afraid that page is no longer viewable at archive.org b/c it “has been blocked by the site owner via robots.txt”; I can’t seem to find it on Mick Sleeper’s site either; shame.])

as you might have anticipated, i couldn’t resist mashing the two versions together, hearing – as on “big gyptian” – one complement (and perhaps compliment) the other, filmi singers over dread riddims. (properly speaking, i guess what i’ve done is more like “blending” – no pellas, mang – but, importantly, via digital cut’n’play.) i’ve arranged the two so as to play up their relationship, lining them up and juxtaposing them toward the end, letting the versions share a chorus before their forms (which, despite all the melodic fidelity, are far from identical) diverge too much. i also pitch- and time-shifted the filmi song slightly, playing it a little higher and a tad faster so as to better ride the upsetters’ deep one-drop.


wayne&wax, “a bird in hand is worth two a yard”

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[as is par for the course, the filmi version itself is full of far-flung musical connections. note, for example, the tango-derived piano figure in the opening.]

/ .. / .. /


del shannon and max crook’s musitron

as i was cooking up my segment of our lemon-red mix, i was suddenly inspired to include del shannon’s “runaway” (well mixed’n’mashed, of course). given that it seems a less than obvious choice (see comment #3), why did i think this was a good idea? i’m not totally sure. i suppose that some aesthetic doors had been opened for me by bmore’s affinity for oldies as well as hip-hop’s recent embrace of doo-wop. (indeed, as it turns out, not only has bobby vinton been sampled and frankie lymon channeled but, apparently, shannon’s “runaway” has itself been tapped recently – pressed into service for the crossover-courting comeback of NYC’s kulcha don. ) but the main reason i even had the song ready to remix is because i recently picked up a bunch of 60s pop to play at moms’s birthday party. (where people – mostly aunts – were getting down to some golden oldies, boy.)

given the degree to which i’m tampering with it, i was delighted to learn that “runaway” is itself quite a product of electronic technologies. (you can read a detailed account of the story of the song on del shannon’s site.) for one, the track’s famous keyboard solo also happens to be one of the first appearances of a synthesizer (the musitron!) on a pop/rock’n’roll record. second, and significant, del shannon’s voice – which i have chipmunked here (along with the entire song) – was itself pitch-shifted for the original! so all you oldies fans who always wondered how he hit those alvin-esque high notes can now revel in the knowledge that del actally recorded the song in a lower range to a slowed-down accompaniment:

Upon his return to Detroit, producer Harry Balk listened to the tapes only to hear that Shannon was singing too flat. Balk liked the song’s potential and suggested to his partner, Irving Micahnik, that Shannon be flown back to New York to re-cut the vocals. Again, Shannon was nervous and singing flat. Having spent a lot of money on studio time and expenses, Balk and Micahnik were very concerned. Balk and Big Top Records president Johnny Beinstock turned to the owner of Bell Sound for help and advice. The owner developed a machine, the size of a desk, that would enable the tapes to be sped up and slowed down. This allowed Balk to speed up Shannon’s vocals to nearly one-and-a-half times it’s original speed to bring him into key. “We finally got Del on key, and it sounded great, but it didn’t sound like Del,” explained Balk. “We mixed it anyhow, and it came out wonderful. (source)

and i was quite pleased to discover that my chipmunked, boston-bounced, merengue-mashed remix not only seems in line with the original both technologically and aesthetically, but also – considering del shannon’s frank admission of alluding to “stealing” other people’s music – philosophically and ethically:

Shannon, too, was ahead of his time, being one of the first white boys to sing falsetto on record. “I learned falsetto from The Ink Spots’ ‘We Three,'” Shannon would explain in a 1989 interview. “I eventually got hooked on Jimmy Jones’ ‘Handy Man’ in ’59 and would sing that at the Hi-Lo Club. I always had the idea of ‘running away’ somewhere in the back of my mind. ‘I wa-wa-wa-wa-wonder, why…’ I borrowed from Dion & The Belmonts’ ‘I Wonder Why.’ The beats you hear in there, ‘…I wonder, bam-bam-bam, I wa-wa…’ I stole from Bobby Darin’s ‘Dream Lover.’ We all steal from the business you know. When ‘Runaway’ went to #1, people stole from me. That’s the way the record business is played.” (source)

well said. ahem:

wayne&wax, “runaway imagination”

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[as you can see, i’m mixing the chipmunked “runaway” with loops from the merengue-mix of lil jon’s “get low” as well as additional percussion courtesy of a bubblin’ loop, “Beat-005” (itself a far-flung thing, filtering dancehall/soca through dutch happy hardcore) and a few boston bounce layers, namely that swingin’ hi-hat and syncopatedly-snappin’ snare.]

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April 26th, 2010

This Totally Made My (Vampire) Week

Ezra Koenig, the brainy singer from the brainy band Vampire Weekend, did me the awesome service of bigging up this here brainy blog in the latest issue of Rolling Stone (Issue 1103, 29 April 2010). One upshot is that I actually went out and bought something with Black Eyed Peas on the cover.

It’s also the first time I’ve purchased an issue of Rolling Stone since Kurt Cobain bodied himself. (I actually had a subscription back in the grunge days.) Rolling Stone ain’t exactly what it used to be (exhibit BEP), and I suppose it’s always been pretty MOR (even when selling counterculture), but it also runs some occasionally classic music criticism and longform exposés. Plus, as our Vice President might say, it’s still a pretty BFD.

I also get my name on the same page as ?uestlove and Russell Brand, so yeah, pretty cool. Here’s a scan of the bottom righthand of p.91:

I’d like to return the favor in some way — not that VW needs my help or anything, having had the best selling album in the country when Contra came out earlier this year.

I have to admit I’ve been struggling to say something about Ezra & co’s music — in part because I haven’t really had enough of a chance to sit with it, & in part because, despite the obvious resonance with stuff I’m interested in, I tend not to listen so much to “rock.” But bands like Vampire Weekend or Tanlines (who’ve been ringing in my ears since seeing them slay at SXSW) are slowly drawing me back into music-with-guitars precisely because of the way they’re engaging with the world beyond indie whiteness. Also, how could a band with a song called “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” (two of my favorite things), or who make “reggaeton homages” not endear themselves to me?

In the continuing absence of an adquately brainy analysis of Vampire Weekend of my own (which is trickier to perform, I must confess, now that @arzE and I are Twitterquaintances), I will instead point W&W readers — including any newcomers via RS/VW — to some of the smartest responses to Contra I’ve had the pleasure to read:

Most of these address the obvious if unavoidable issue of appropriation (and the privilege it seems to index). This is something I’ve obviously thought a lot about on this blog, if more often with regard to other spheres of nu-world music. I have to say that I found Bob Christgau’s question-of-an-answer to the question of whether VW should borrow from classic African pop, or not, pretty persuasive: “There’s no way any American pop band could equal it. But try to emulate it? Really, why the hell not?”

Plus, this old Columbia student paper piece, pre-big-break, is pretty charming and convincing re: VW’s self-knowingness (“African preppy”), their genuineness about Afrobeat, and, well, tbh, some serious similarities to me, a dude who also taught public school and performed “witty rap riffs” (sometimes at the same time) right after attending an Ivy League college, all while geeking out on all the music I could get my ears around, Afrobeat included, and increasingly “sampling” it — in my case, literally — and making my own things from it, and refashioning myself in the process.

Along these lines, I recommend this interview with Afropop.org in which the band go further into the backstory of their encounter with & embrace of African music. Hearing that those Orchestra Baobab reissues, which I myself picked up and jammed on a few years back, influenced the band, I’m tempted to become an annoying, facile critic and call this post-worldmusic, but let’s not go there. I’m so post post by this point, aren’t you? Still, you knomesayin.

Finally, if, like me, you come from a place (regardless of your grungy past) suspicious of “rock” “bands” and “guit” “ars” you couldn’t find a better way into VW than Toy Selecta’s demented Contra Melts.

Oh, and here’s a recent video, starring the RZA ~

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April 13th, 2010

the lion seeps tonight (riddim meth0d repost)

[Well, the Riddim Meth0d domain has finally kicked the bucket, scattering our posts to the great Internet Archive in the ether, or elsewhere. I’m going to continue rehashing here certain posts that seem to merit the treatment. In that vein, here’s another bit of resurrected mashup poetics for you. I’m happy to report that the example below has found its way into a chapter I’m contributing to a forthcoming book, Pop-Culture Tools for the Music Classroom, edited by Nicole Biamonte. This was initially published on 13 April 2006.]

the story of solomon linda’s “mbube” (known to many more as the weaver’s “wimoweh” and the tokens’ “the lion sleeps tonight”) is a tortuous one.

recently, the award of longstanding royalties to the linda family and an article in the NYT has renewed interest in the story’s embodiment of issues of appropriation and just compensation. i’d also recommend reading rian malan’s rolling stone exposé, which tells the story in no small detail, not afraid to name names and indict various actors. not everyone will agree with malan’s perspective (esp. re: pete seeger’s complicity), but the narrative arc malan traces certainly provokes a complex – and, one hopes, careful – consideration of all the problems swirling around this case.

as a musical analog to these prose provocations, i decided to mashup four versions of the tune: solomon linda’s 1939 original, the weavers’ 1951 adaptation, yma sumac’s 1952 cover, and the tokens’ 1961 smash hit. what i like about the mashup is that, as i’ve noted before, it draws our attention to certain correspondences – and differences – in musical form and performance style. it shows us, for example, how seeger’s and the weavers’ version is both faithful to and far from linda’s and the evening birds’ performance. it does the same for the subsequent versions. (i was somewhat surprised, for instance, to discover that yma sumac’s version so closely followed the weavers’ that it not only contained the same number of measures, but it also ended with a big brassy chord on measure 87! – a feature i have retained to end the mashup with the bombast it merits.) above all, i like the way the accretion of new versions in this mash seems to symbolize and embody the accretion of meanings, money, and – depending on where you stand – injustice that have piled up over time and over dozens of repeat performances. it’s a bit of a musical mess, which seems appropriate.

i don’t want to say much more at this point, lest i forestall other interpretations. after all, as i attempted to argue last saturday, musically-expressed ideas about music should communicate, in some ways, more directly than speech about music. so i’ll leave you with the sounds and with a graphical representation of my edit(s).

wayne&wax, “the lion seeps tonight”

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a technical note: among other manipulations, i have “warped” the songs so that their tempos match, i have pitched-up the tokens’ version to bring it – more or less (i didn’t fuss with microtones) – in the same key as the others, and i have arranged the songs so that to a large extent their forms correspond (in order to highlight the similarities and differences via simultaneous performance). also, overall i have attempted – in something of a critical-creative move – to “discipline” the subsequent versions to the linda original, as a musical “corrective” of sorts, or a mashup intervention, if you will. such explicit “tampering” is intended to underscore that my approach here is ultimately more artistic than scientific.

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September 29th, 2009

But How’s It Sound on Your Cellphonn O))) ?


check the tech rider!

With regard yet again to bass feeling, but especially the way that loud, low frequencies operate at a seemingly (sub?)atomic level, vibrating us like a set of “permeable membranes through which forcefields can pass,” note this evocative passage from Sasha Frere Jones’s review of a recent Sunn O))) concert:

Sunn O)))’s performance last week at Brooklyn’s Masonic Temple may be the loudest show I’ve ever seen. I saw a Ramones show in the late eighties that might have come close, though that music mostly took place in an upper midrange that Sunn O))) doesn’t visit much. The median sound for Sunn O))) is a low chord, pitched below standard tuning, that blows through the crowd like a humid wind and stays in your body like that liquid they make you drink before you go through the CAT-scan machine. Standing in front of the stage on Tuesday night felt like a teen-age dare. How long could I stand to have my organs palpated? How could I tear myself away? Would the volume loosen up kinked muscles? Sterilize me? The intense physicality of Sunn O)))’s music makes it seem like any number of things might be happening to you and only a forensic reconstruction will reveal exactly what did happen.

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August 18th, 2009

Re-Meet the Beatles, *Really* This Time

Last night at Beat Research the employees of Cambridge-based video game makers Harmonix swarmed the E Room with their friends, their gadgets, and their various musical side projects. They put on quite a show, and to a packed house! Video killed the radio star, but Rock Band might make some rock stars yet.

Harmonix is in the news right now as they gear up to release the newest edition of Rock Band. Devoted to the Beatles, the game has been generating a lot anticipation and a lot of commentary. The Fab Four — by which I mean Paul, Ringo, Yoko, and Apple Corp. — are remarkably and, in some cases, notoriously strict controllers of their music and brand. Case in point: their recordings are still unavailable via iTunes. So the fact that they signed on with Harmonix speaks significantly to their belief in the potential of the game — and, it goes without saying, their ability to maintain close control.

This emerges, alongside countless other fascinating bits, in a recent NYT magazine article, in which Harmonix founder and CEO Alex Rigopulos claims no less than to be on the brink — and at the helm — of a new era in THE music industry:

… last month Harmonix announced that it will license software tools and provide training for anyone to create and distribute interactive versions of their own songs on a new Rock Band Network, which will drastically expand the amount and variety of interactive music available. Already the Sub Pop label, which released the first Nirvana album, has said it plans to put parts of its catalog and future releases into game format. The Rock Band Network is so potentially consequential that Harmonix went to great lengths to keep its development secret, including giving it the unofficial in-house code name Rock Band: Nickelback, on the theory that the name of the quintessentially generic modern rock group would be enough to deflect all curiosity. After a polite gesture in the direction of modesty, Rigopulos predicted, “We’re really going to explode this thing to be the new music industry.”

The possibility of opening up the Rock Band platform for all manner of artists and labels (not that they’re offering to do that exactly) is definitely an exciting one, and the release of the Beatles game will no doubt prove a major marketshare expansion for Harmonix. What struck me throughout the article, however, was not so much the implications for (the?) music industry, but rather, the bizarre contradictions that emerged around questions of control (of the Beatles’ “property”) and, simultaneously, an acknowledgment that the Beatles are inherently (and increasingly) a fan-produced phenomenon.

Paul seemed to voice this recognition most clearly when he says that a Beatles edition of Rock Band “reflects where the Beatles are at,” since, as he puts it —

We are halfway between reality and mythology.

I suppose I’d agree with that (and/or this). But this recognition of the Beatles’ mythologization seems pretty ironic alongside the band’s cautious and occasionally litigious actions with regard to “unauthorized” uses of their music. The article describes the deep degrees of tricknological secrecy and protectiveness applied to the project c/o Giles Martin, the audio engineer son of fifth-Beatle and legendary producer George Martin and Harmonix’s point of contact with the Beatles’ master recordings.

Mainly Martin worked in the less-iconic Room 52 down the hall, next to the men’s room. Apple’s preoccupation with security meant that the high-quality audio “stems” he created never left Abbey Road. If the separated parts leaked out, every amateur D.J. would start lacing mixes with unauthorized Beatles samples. Instead, Martin created low-fidelity copies imprinted with static for the Harmonix team to take back to the States — in their carry-on luggage. They were just good enough to work with until the game coding could be brought back to Abbey Road and attached to the actual songs.

I found the references to “amateur D.J.”s and “unauthorized samples” — even though it’s unclear whether these are Martin’s or the author’s words — pretty interesting to read against McCartney’s quote above. In other words, THX 4 THE MYTHOLOGY BUT DONT DO ANYTHING UNAUTHORIZED K? Or, you’re welcome to re-meet the Beatles, but don’t try to re-mix them.

One wonders what would be the harm of “amateur” DJs “lacing” mixes (now there’s a verb) with “unauthorized” Beatles samples. I mean, as “amateur” products such mixes would not circulate in the same market at the Beatles, or any market for that matter. Moreover, however craptastic their new contextualizations, they could never lessen the power of the original songs. And what harm would fantastic remixes be? Could such critically-acclaimed and popularly shared projects as the cease-and-desisted (but only kinda) Grey Album, or DJ BC’s The Beastles, actually degrade or dilute the Beatles brand? Detract from their mythology?

How is one supposed to participate in the Beatles’ mythology anyway — a mythology which, like all myth, can only be collectively produced and maintained — if one needs “authorization”? This paradox brings us to one of the oddest, and perhaps most disturbing and incoherent, quotations in the piece:

McCartney sees the game as “a natural, modern extension” of what the Beatles did in the ’60s, only now people can feel as if “they possess or own the song, that they’ve been in it.”

Only now? You mean that when I bought those CDs and sang-along with friends and family and learned to play your songs on guitar and tried my hand at remixing a few tracks … you mean that all that time I’ve yet to inhabit or possess your songs. Shucks. I guess I’ll have to get the game.

This is all a little maddening for those of us who insist on our rights to work with and riff on public culture — especially public culture we hold dear. (And I do hold the Beatles’ oeuvre quite dear, in case you didn’t know.) Few things could be more public than the Beatles’ repertory, which, to paraphrase John, might be more popular than Bible hymns. In the face of all of this, I have to stand by a bit of insight I came by some years ago: if Michael Jackson can own the Beatles’ music, so can I.

McCartney is either disingenuously hyping this product with a quote like that or, I just don’t know — maybe the author distorted the sentiment somehow. I can’t swallow that Paul actually believes playing Beatles Rock Band is truly the first or only way to “possess” or “own” or “be in” his & his bandmates’ songs. I think we either do all of these things anytime we engage seriously with a song, in the many ways that may happen (listening, singing, playing, tweaking), or we never do, even those of us who write songs.

Musician and writer Ethan Hein, who himself recently posted about Rock Band and inhabiting songs, also seemed a little irked by McCartney’s comment. His retort? “You know what really makes me feel like I possess a song? If you let me remix it.” The last few words of that sentence link to a meditation on sampling which includes a pretty resonant paragraph with regard to the ownership of songs; allow me to quote Ethan at a little length —

When I was an angry, confused teenager, I let myself be convinced that ideas are property, that it’s possible to steal them and thereby harm their owner. I listened to strongly opinionated musicians and critics hold up originality as the main criterion of artistic worth. Then I got out into the world and did a lot of playing and interpreting and composing of my own, and at the end of the day I’ve come to feel that to assert ownership of a song is like trying to assert ownership over a person or an animal or a place. You can have a close relationship with a song, you can be present at its birth and you can give it nurture, but once it grows up, you can’t control it. Why would you want to?

Say word. At that, I’ll leave you with perhaps my favorite Beatles mashup. Good luck removing this from the world! Or figuring out who “owns” it —

Oh, and props to Harmonix and the Beatles. I bet the game is gonna be great. SRSLY!

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June 30th, 2009

Songs as Shared Things


charlie sporting a hat bearing the name of his boat, a name inspired by some songs

No doubt most readers of this blog are aware that my father-in-law, Charlie Nesson (aka eon), is also very much IN LAW. And he’s been making the news a lot recently, mainly for defending (pro bono) Joel Tenenbaum against the RIAA who are suing him for mucho dinero for alleged copyright infringement in the DLing/sharing of 7 songs via a peer-to-peer filesharing network. The case is newsworthy in its own right, especially given that just last month Jammie Thomas, a Native American single mother of four, was ordered to pay the RIAA nearly 2 million dollars for 24 songs. The case has also become remarkable, however, because of what are widely viewed as Charlie’s unorthodox tactics.

Most of the commentary, in fact — whether by journalists or blawggers (get it?) — can’t resist throwing words like “crazy” and “reckless” around. They focus on Charlie & team’s procedural no-nos and, in the case of lawyer-blawggers (whether on the copyright or copyfight side), they all advise the pursuit of a fairly narrow legal strategy based on their interpretation of the crucial facts of the case (i.e., whether or not there is actual, admissible evidence as to whether or not the allegedly infringing distribution occurred).

I concede that it’s not all that crazy to wonder about Charlie’s strategy and tactics alike (though I do think that worrying for Joel seems disingenuous — the kid’s gonna be ok, whatever happens). There’s something unnerving to many that Charlie appears to approach Joel’s case as a rhetorical focal point — as well as a pedagogical opportunity — to stage a public conversation about copyright and closedness, or about openness and fairness and the re-empowerment of p2p justice, in the Internet age (and, especially, with concern to “digital natives“). Then again, while all this crazytalk continues to percolate, I just want to remind people that Larry Lessig’s cyberlaw classic, Code, bears the following dedication: “FOR CHARLIE NESSON, WHOSE EVERY IDEA SEEMS CRAZY FOR ABOUT A YEAR”

Now, even if that holds true, it doesn’t mean that Charlie doesn’t receive the strongest criticisms from those near and dear to him. Much as the case has been fascinating to me (and much as I cheer him on, for various reasons), there’ve also been plenty of times when I found his approach to the case rather oblique. But, and I suppose Larry had some of these moments while at the Berkman Center way back when, I’ve also found myself coming around to Charlie’s ideas, especially when one takes in the big picture — when one minds the forest rather than the trees. So when Charlie asked me (for a second time) whether I’d be willing to be offered up for expert testimony in the case, I agreed — but only after getting a clear enough sense of how he thought my ethnomusicological perspective might be directly relevant to the trial.

Last week I sent my expert report to Charlie, and Team Tenenbaum submitted a motion (a little late?) to have my report and testimony admitted to the proceedings (or something like that — legalese is not a slang I sling). You can download a pdf here, but I want to cut’n’paste the substance of the report into this post as I think it may be of interest to you, good reader — and moreover, according to Ray Beckerman, potentially useful in some RIAA trials (if not, in Ray’s opinion, Joel’s). As much as I find legal notions of “truth” to be weird, the following passages do resonate as true for me, increasingly so in fact (as I’ll explain below, after the text).

Songs as Shared Things

Songs have always been shareable and shared. People, young and old, share songs with each other – by singing or playing them – in a variety of ways and settings, through a variety of technologies and media or other manner of accompaniment (as well as a capella). Songs as recordings are not fundamentally different in this respect. Since the advent of recorded media, people have shared songs in this form as well: played for each other in private and public settings, on personally distributed mixes (mixed tapes / CDs), and, in the age of mp3s, as files sent via email, IM (instant message), torrent, third-party hosting site, or any manner of online sites and services.

Ironically, today songs are most often shared via a video site, YouTube, which has become a de facto public audio repository. This development and the explosion of music-centered blogs and forums offer evidence, in the form of pervasive and popular practice, of how musical recordings are treated as public culture, things which people send to friends, family, and colleagues, point to and comment on, and remix in the course of their everyday lives.

To click on a YouTube link in order to access a song (or to send such a link to a friend) would hardly be considered an illegal action on the part of the millions of people who do so each day, and yet the action is hardly different from the Defendant’s use of a filesharing network to access the seven songs in question just a few years ago. Those songs are [links & YouTube stats added 6/30]:

* Bad Religion – American Jesus [448 results]
* Green Day – Minority [1,870 results]
* Incubus – New Skin [266 results]
* Incubus – Pardon Me [991 results]
* Nirvana – Come As You Are [4,190 results]
* Outkast – Wheelz of Steel [21 results]
* Sublime – Miami [65 results]

If one searches for any of these songs on YouTube today, one finds numerous instances of each, sometimes numbering in the dozens or even hundreds. Notably, beyond merely presenting the songs, the users who upload the videos frequently add their own elements, personalizing the songs in order to share them with peers and other potential viewers: they add new images, both still and video (including found footage and self-produced material); transcribe and caption the lyrics; sometimes, they edit or remix the audio itself, especially in the case of hip-hop songs (e.g., Outkast) – an interactivity consistent with cultural practice in hip-hop more generally.

Only in the relatively recent past – within the last century – have songs, in the “fixed” media form of audio recordings, been so strongly regulated as pieces of property whose use by others might be strictly limited. An examination at the level of cultural practice – that is, how songs as audio recordings have been used by people – demonstrates that even in such “fixed” form, songs have continued to serve as a commonplace site of sharing and creative interaction (also known as remixing). This becomes particularly evident in the use of playback technologies such as turntables as creative instruments in their own right (aiding the emergence of hip-hop and disco in the 1970s), an approach powerfully extended by the tools of the digital age.

Historicizing the Musical Commodity

The notion of the song as commodity is a relatively recent one, enabled by a certain technological confluence (the advent of recordable media and mass production), and it seems to be fading relatively quickly in the face of a new technological confluence (the digital). As musicologist Timothy Taylor writes in an award-winning article on “The Commodification of Music at the Dawn of the Era of ‘Mechanical Music’”: “the music-commodity has to be understood as always in flux, always caught up in historical, cultural, and social forces” (Taylor 2007: 283).

The album as a commodity form is a particularly illustrative example of this socially and culturally situated flux. The age of the album – roughly, the late 60s to the late 90s – was a fleeting moment, again enabled by a particular set of technologies (the advent of the long-player record, or LP, followed by the cassette and CD). While early album-oriented artists approached the LP form as an artistic opportunity, leading to the emergence of the “concept album,” by the late 90s album offerings were far more typically collections of “filler” material, propelled by a hit or two, sold at exorbitant prices (e.g., $18.99) to customers with no alternatives. At this point, the album is, in most cases, an anachronism, either an indulgent and/or exploitative exercise. Notably, internet vendors such as iTunes or eMusic and other distribution methods (including blogs and filesharing networks) have reinstated the primacy of the single track as the prevailing unit of popular music.

Reasonable paid alternatives to free downloading have only become available recently, and even then rather unevenly with regard to what is available and in what form. The defunct torrent tracker, Oink – and its ilk – offer(ed) higher quality files, better documented, uncrippled by DRM software, and of a far greater variety than one can find via any of the legally-permitted online music vendors.

Listening as a Transformative Use

Listening is an active process, a rich domain of interpretation and imagination, manifesting differently – according to personal idiosyncrasies and cultural mores alike – for each person and in each moment. As anthropologist Steven Feld explains in the oft cited “Communication, Music, and Speech about Music” (Feld 1984), the listening process is, when one considers all that is potentially involved, an enormously complex phenomenon very much centered on the particular listener in question. According to Feld, listening as an act of “musical consumption” involves, among other things: the dialectics of the musical object itself (text-performance, mental-material, formal-expressive, etc.), the various interpretive moves applied by the listener (locational, categorical, associational, reflective, evaluative), and the contextual frames available at any moment (expressive ideology, identity, coherence).

All of this activity is inextricably social in character, regardless of the musical object in question. As Feld notes, “We attend to changes, developments, repetitions–form in general–but we always attend to form in terms of familiarity or strangeness, features which are socially constituted through experiences of sounds as structures rooted in our listening histories” (85).

While grounded in communication studies and musical semiotics in Feld’s study, such an interpretation – centering the socially-situated hearing subject rather than the musical object (whether live performance or mp3) – is also consistent with a great deal of literary and media theory from the past thirty years, from Roland Barthes’s infamous 1977 “Death of the Author” to Henry Jenkins’s contemporary theories about spreadability and value.

With some exceptions, commenters on Ray Beckerman’s and Ben Sheffner’s blogs, as well as on an Ars Tecnica post about the submission of my report, are generally dismissive of the text above — some of them without even reading it. They regard it as another distraction in a trial that has become, for them, more a media circus than anything. Some of those who engage it on the merits think it’s extremely far-fetched to argue that songs are inherently personal(ized) and social — hence publicly shared things — or that listening might legitimately be understood as a truly transformative process. I wonder whether readers of this blog agree?

Let me say in closing — as something of a supplement to my report — that I have been more and more persuaded in the days since filing that what I wrote is, certainly for the purposes of the court, true. Exhibit A, if you will, is the astounding level of activity centered on YouTube in the wake of Michael Jackson’s death. As I wrote in a post published yesterday,

How do we get a grasp on the actual immensity of the event? What do we know, for example, about MJ’s YouTube views? — & not only on the thousands of instantiations of his songs and videos that fans have uploaded but even on the handful of tracks that sampled his songs and also have become shrines of sorts?

It would not be a terribly controversial contention, I don’t think, to say that YouTube — the #2 search engine, period — was/is the go-to place for listening to and sharing Michael Jackson songs (and their musical kin). And that goes for most songs/recordings. YouTube has become a de facto, if willy-nilly and ephemeral, audio archive for the world of music. I’m pretty convinced that if Joel — or someone like him (someone like you?) — wanted to listen to those 7 songs (or any others) on his computer today, he’d more likely look them up on YouTube (or some similar site) than seek them out on a filesharing network. And that’s something that a jury of his peers might well take into consideration.

But it’s not merely a question of easy access and the (open) social norms & values we see expressed in YouTube / internet practice (and, yes, there are plenty of dubious “values” expressed in these spaces too). What’s even more instructive about the Michael Jackson example — or any song/dance meme, for that matter — is how songs no longer reside in some pure, protectable commodity form, if they ever did. Songs today quite clearly reside on the internet, in that peer-to-peer space connecting me to you. Simply by observing YouTube practice, which this blog(ger) has spent a great deal of time doing, we bear witness to the profound degree to which music (as songs, dances, melodies, drum breaks, and other forms) is always already social, personal(ized), and constantly transformed in the process.

This (social) fact of music industry — i.e., the work that music does, the social and cultural activity it animates — has serious implications, of course, for THE music industry. As I argued on a few occasions last year,

the phenomenon of widely-distributed (or,
in p2p parlance, “shared”) music video represents a crossroads not
just for _the_ music industry, but for music _industry_ itself — that
is, the cultural work that music does.

In this regard, I think Kevin Driscoll could serve as a good expert witness as well; his master’s thesis, especially the history of mixtapes –> YouTube narrative, strikes me as a deeply persuasive account of the technological-social migration of hip-hop practice — and youth culture more generally — into new media.

The big question is, I suppose, whether Joel’s judge and jury will also agree that such testimony is germane to the case. As one of Joel’s peers, dear reader, your opinion is relevant too.

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May 26th, 2009

B-Boy = Book Boy, and Other Uprock Narratives

Some bookish things to report, including the latest re: Reggaeton — namely, that tomorrow, Wednesday May 27 (which happens to be my born day), I’ll be appearing alongside co-editor Raquel Rivera on WNYC’s Soundcheck.



The show airs live at 2pm EST. I believe it’s carried by a number of NPR stations nationally, or can be listened to online. If you’d like to hear something like the /Rupture radio show but a little more NPR-ish this is your best bet.

[Late update: I couldn’t make the trek to NYC today after all, so it’s just gonna be my capable compañera-de-libro, Raquel. Check (and comment on) the segment here.]

There are two other new music books I’m excited about & I think you maybe shouldbe too —

1) Joe Schloss’s Foundation is an ethnography and history of b-boy culture just out on Oxford University Press. Joe is a good friend, a fellow hip-hop ethnomusicologist, and one of the most lucid and sensible thinkers about hip-hop I know. Check the technique from a recent review by Adam Mansbach

Both the coherence of b-boy culture and its under-the-radar status, Schloss argues, can be attributed to the form’s relative lack of commodification. Graffiti exploded onto the gallery scene in the early ’80s; rap records were selling millions of copies by 1979. B-boying proved more difficult to package. It was a process, not a product, so it escaped back underground, relatively unscathed.

The unmediated nature of b-boying also accounts for the dearth of scholarship on the subject. According to Schloss, writers are accustomed to analyzing the artifacts hip-hop offers the market; lamentably, this “puts the theory in the hands of the scholar” and “relieves [him] of the obligation to actually engage with the community.”

Schloss’s approach is quite different, and the result is the best work ever produced on b-boying, and one of the finest books yet to emerge from the swiftly proliferating ranks of hip-hop scholarship. In researching “Foundation,” the author spent five years attending every b-boy event in New York City; not only did he interview the craft’s leading practitioners, he apprenticed himself to them, learning the dance physically, intellectually, and spiritually.

Once a cornerstone of all hip-hop expression, the mentor-apprentice relationship is another victim of the culture’s marriage to mass media. Many graffiti writers, for example, claim that the biggest change their art form ever underwent occurred when professional photographers began documenting it; this allowed neophytes to learn style from photos instead of masters.

But in b-boying, apprenticeship is alive and well. “The vast majority of serious b-boys and b-girls in New York,” Schloss tells us, “have studied directly with the elders,” pioneers who have been “refining their aesthetic for upwards of three decades . . . and are barely even in their 40s.”

The second book is perhaps a little more eye-catching (though I quite like the Foundation design) —

2) Elijah Wald, a true pop-musical polymath, has a new book out (also on Oxford U, as it happens), bearing the provocative title, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music. Elijah, who is also a friend and who I’ve had the pleasure of chatting with at several music conferences (much to my edification), offers up a meticulously researched, funny, and sometimes surprising account of the history of US pop from the late 19th into the late 20th century, taking apart a number of myths and filling large lacunae while proposing a rather grand narrative of his own.

Here’s how he describes the work, and his rockist/poptimist motivation to write it, in an email I received today —

it began to bother me that virtually all pop music history has been written by roots, jazz and rock fans–people like me–who tend to take pride in our unique tastes and despise mainstream pop. And we tend to write the history of what we like rather than the history of what happened. So this is an attempt to give a clearer picture of how pop music evolved, looking at changing dance styles, technologies, and the lives of working musicians and regular listeners from the dawn of ragtime to the dawn of disco–with some fun stories to back it all up.

You can read more about it on Elijah’s site, while streaming some John Philip Sousa or, if you’d prefer, an hour of Top 40 radio from Scottsdale Arizona in the summer of 1964.

Elijah’s email also included some simple, sensible tips for those of you who are interested in supporting authors and booksellers in these strange days. I’ll leave you with these thoughts then, and the mild suggestion that you might consider doing the same for our querido librocito

Since book publishing seems to be getting shakier by the year, I
wanted to include a few ideas about what one can do to help out any book
or author one likes.

1. Spread the word–as the “mainstream” media are replaced by infinite
capillary streams, more and more of us are relying on the reports of
friends and acquaintances.

2. Call up your local library and ask them to order a copy. Libraries,
even in these days of tightened budgets, respond to readers’ requests.

3. As a dedicated browser, I always recommend that you buy from your
local bookstore (hoping that you have one), and if your local bookstore
doesn’t have the book, you can suggest that they carry it.

4. Wherever you buy the book (or take it out of the library, or
whatever), if you like it, take a moment and post a review on Amazon
and/or other online sites. Crazy as it sounds, positive reader reviews
really make a difference.

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December 2nd, 2008

Iron Chic


videyogas ::

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August 11th, 2008

Linkthink #74943: The Future Is Later


videyoga ::

-

July 3rd, 2008

linkthink #2303: Remember When Heavy Metal Was Scary

videyoga ::

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May 2nd, 2008

Disco Stew

Been a while since I did any freelancing, but I’ve got a review in the most recent Fader (#53). Mucho props to J Shep for the invitation. I’m glad I came to mind when Funky Nassau arrived in the mail.

I’ve pasted my take below, where, as I’ve done in the past, I’m publishing my original draft. Not that I’m not happy with the final version, which may be the better for it and which I’m glad is available via pdf (p.142, or 74 in Preview) but, as often happens in the editorial process, the words no longer sound quite like my voice — not least b/c I didn’t actually get a chance to interview Chris Frantz, to my dismay. But someone else did, and I’m glad they added his voice to the piece. The original is a lean 400 words — quite the trick for a prolix mu’fucka such as myself. It also contains some dry humor that, alas, ended up on the cutting room floor, analogically speaking.

The brevity of the review means I didn’t get to say as much as I’d have liked about the whole thing and that I accentuated the positive. (Why waste words when there’s nuff niceness to note?) In sum, it’s a fun and interesting compilation. I enjoyed wrapping my ears around it. No reason a lot of the tracks couldn’t play right into the current enthusiasm for all things touched by disco — reggae and nerdrock alike.

My favorite track, sin duda? Grace Jones’s “My Jamaican Guy” (12” version) — what an oddly awesome mix of sounds and styles! Synth riff juju over Sly&Robbie disco dub?! What’s not to lub?

Funky Nassau
Wayne Marshall

It sounds improbable, or like a recipe for overcooking: Island Records’ Chris Blackwell sets up a state-of-the-art studio in the Bahamas, invites New Wave / No Wave awk-rockers (Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club, Ian Dury) to come on down, adds an international club icon or two to the mix (Grace Jones, Guy Cuevas), hires a crack house band driven by Parisian-Beninian keyboardist, Wally Badarou, and reggae’s dynamic duo, the drum-and-bass production partners Sly & Robbie, and hands the boards over to influential disco DJs like Larry Levan and François Kevorkian to give the taut, crisp, subtly dubbed-out sounds a proper club mix.

It was Blackwell’s attempt to create a studio that was an island in itself, with a sound as distinctive as Studio One, Motown, or Stax. And although the results now sound dated in their own charming way (though many tracks could once again take dancefloors by surprise), the recordings made at Compass Point Studios from 1980-86 didn’t simply distill the era’s post-disco, post-punk zeitgeist, they defined it. AC/DC and the Rolling Stones may have recorded there too, but this is, as the title says, a funky compilation, representing the dance underground of the early 80s, a cosmopolitan scene bridging London, Paris, New York, and Kingston. The tracks brim with an open-minded adventurousness, drawing on the funk, reggae, hip-hop, and African pop animating these cities’ soundscapes and cooking it all down into a lean, mean disco stew. Intended for the club, many of the cuts (collected here in their 12” versions) stretch out into extended instrumentals, seven minute drum and bass workouts that can make one forget the sometimes silly, often whimsical lyrics and focus on the groove.

“Reggae’s expanding with Sly and Robbie,” sing Tom Tom Club on their immortal single, “Genius of Love,” and they hit the nail on the bloodclaat head: if nothing else, Funky Nassau affirms the central role that the “riddim twins” played in shaping late 20th century pop. A dubwise approach pervades the proceedings (nuff reverb, echo, flanging, and stereo panning). Sly’s drums sizzle and pop while Robbie’s basslines keep things grounded, making room for the avant-rockers’ flights of fancy. They achieve a remarkably consistent sound despite bringing together so many eclectic styles and idiosyncratic performers. Offering a punchy tour through early 80s international club culture, Funky Nassau arrives just in time to inspire today’s improbable soundtracks for increasingly polyglot cities.

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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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