Archive of posts tagged with "sampling"

February 24th, 2011

More SoundClowning Around

Thanks for the continued conversation re: the limits to your love. I enjoy plotting to create better possible futures with y’all, and I <3 how the discussions here get amplified and “shopped” around. Ahem~



To keep the discussion moving (for I really don’t want the iron to cool too much, lest we lose our fire entirely), I want to talk about a couple interesting uploads I came across this week on SoundCloud.

Briefly, let me preface by noting that I’ve found it pretty remarkable throughout SoundCloud’s relatively short existence that I rarely if ever run across an example of flagrantly unauthorized filesharing. Some users occasionally upload other people’s tracks without explicit consent but more typically as a form of decentralized (and courted) promotional activity than in a yes-you-can-find-that-on-YouTube fashion. To me this seemed like evidence of a good faith approach, wherein SoundCloud was taking a gentle, supportive hand to remixed, DJ-mixed, and otherwise recontextualized music (including as part of field recordings) and balancing that strong stance toward fair use by vigorously removing any blatant examples of bald, untransformative filesharing.

Of course, December’s wave of automated take-downs let the air out of any dream of a concerted, coherent, or particularly robust defense of fair use on SoundCloud at the corporate level. Nevertheless, users of SoundCloud continue — both unintentionally and purposefully — to challenge terms of service, copyright law, practices of attribution, and notions of ownership. I’d like to examine here one example from each camp: the accidental and the intentional. (And, given the fraught status of each, we’ll see how long before this blogpost becomes yet another web2.0 graveyard.)

Here’s one that I would characterize as unintentional, though as I’ll explore, the lines get blurry:

Five Seconds Of Every #1 Pop Single Part 1 by mjs538

Pop archivist and professor Hugo Keesing, building on the work of radio DJ Mark Ford (post-post update: see here for a detailed parsing of the tape’s twists and turns), spliced together the audio “embedded” in the player up there, just below his portrait in triplicate. It’s a piece he named Chartsweep back when in the pre-Napster 90s, an hour-plus collage comprising short, recognizable samples of every #1 hit in the US from 1956 to 1992 (according to Billboard/Whitburn).

Apparently, the montage, which may or may not have been made from reel-to-reel recordings and/or 45s (see some mythology here [and again, here]), circulated informally and anonymously among radio heads for many years before someone finally solved the mystery and tracked down Keesing. [Though to update again, according to this, the piece was “heard in national syndication, annually, by millions and millions of listeners,” so obviously, and interestingly (given this week’s amnesiac reception), it has enjoyed a massive audience in the past.]

Keesing discusses the project, and his background, in this interview with Jon Nelson. Allow me to excerpt a bit to show how the assemblage, which Nelson says he “couldn’t help but think of as art,” emerges both out of Keesing’s capacious love for popular music and his embrace of mashup poetics, if you’ll permit the anachronism, as a form of multimedia pedagogy:

The concept and term “Chartsweep” both originated in the late 60s with a syndicated radio show called “The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” I listened to it on WOR-FM in New York and recorded portions of it on an old Wollensack reel-to-reel tape recorder. As you know, the ‘sweep presented segments of every Billboard #1 single starting with “Memories Are Made of This” (Jan 1956). I don’t recall where it stopped, but it was around 1968/69. Six years later I began teaching an American Studies course at the University of Maryland called “Popular Music in American Society.” To provide a setting for each class I dusted off the concept, took it back to January 1950, added a number of songs based on Joel Whitburn’s re-definition of #1 songs, and continued where the original had stopped. I added each new #1 until fall, 1991 when I stopped teaching the course. “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss” was the 900th. At the start of each class I played a portion of the ‘sweep that corresponded to the years we were covering that night. To accompany the tape I made 35mm slides of either the original sheet music, 45 rpm record sleeve or something similar, so that students could see as well as hear the pop music history. Copies of each night’s tape went to the undergraduate library. I assume that an enterprising student or two made their own copies and it is a copy of a copy of a copy that remains in circulation. That’s the story in a nutshell.

But, of course, the saga continues. In the last week Chartsweep has risen to “viral” prominence after a complicated — and possibly incestuous — round of re-posting and re-blogging and re-posting and re-blogging. Although uploaded to SoundCloud just two days ago, as of this writing, the two parts have cumulatively garnered nearly 150k plays!

Key to this unprecedented explosion of exposure is, of course, the unauthorized uploading of Chartsweep to SoundCloud, the special affordances of which — namely, embeddability and scalability — make it a lot easier for Keesing’s collage to travel and be heard and shared than if it were simply residing as mp3s on a server here or there.

Precisely because Chartsweep has been around for years, enjoying a more modest audience and addressing a narrower public, the piece’s performance on the so-called platforms of web 2.0 could prove instructive as we dispute what constitutes fair use, and what doesn’t, in an age of “automated diminishment.” At the moment, it remains to be seen what — and whether/when — Audible Magic will have to say about all the unauthorized samples it sniffs in this.

The samples are sitting there, clear as day. Here’s part 2, stretching from Men At Work’s “Land Down Under” (itself embroiled in silly copyright wrangling) to the fitting closer, Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You”:

Five Seconds Of Every #1 Pop Single Part 2 by mjs538

Now, Chartsweep It may not be the sort of thing you’d like to listen to all the time, and it’s certainly not a replacement for any, never mind all, of the songs it includes. I feel little need to explain why this sort of thing has the right to exist. The answer to that question is audible and obvious. Indeed, just a glance at the reactions Chartsweep elicits, whether at SoundCloud or on blogs, turns up a great variety of ways that such a transparently derivative and transformative work can reveal, uniquely even, all manner of things about pop and charts and us. Among other things it nicely demonstrates, as one commenter notes, “This is so awesome…you can actually hear the British Invasion happening in 1964″ (emphasis mine).

But what about questions of attribution and fair use and ownership not with regard to the maker of the montage but the uploader of the audio? It’s notable that mjs538 provided no information about who put the piece together — or anything else. Indeed, he even gave it a misleading (and erroneous) new title, “Five Seconds Of Every #1 Pop Single.” But despite these possibly suspect procedures, plenty of listeners recognized Chartsweep immediately, and some — like DJ Empirical — felt compelled to leave a comment providing proper attribution. (The confusion here seems to stem from a case of lazy reblogging and meta-data erasure by the very same affective laborer, Matt Stopera, who (re)posted it here — where he oddly indicates that it was “Made by” Ubuweb, who have merely done the simple, if awesome, [& actually, slightly misleading] service of re-archiving the audio and interview — and who also re-blogs stuff like “The 30 Best Pictures Of Asians Wearing Engrish Shirts” — clearly a man of taste and honor.)

Can we imagine a better set of practices for sharing Chartsweep with a new set of publics? I suspect we can. Would as many people have heard it this week if such a system were somehow automated? Doubtful, at least at this point. Does that matter?

These thorny questions echo in the second example I’d like to discuss here…

Earlier this week, Detroit techno pioneer Kevin Saunderson took to his website, Facebook, eager amplifiers like Mad Decent and Resident Advisor, and, yes, SoundCloud, in order to clown a couple Italian producers who centrally employ an obvious sample of Saunderson’s 1987 classic, “The Sound,” without giving credit (or publishing for that matter) where due. In response, Saunderson is giving away digital copies of the original track while posting a copy of the offending track to SoundCloud — for free, without Supernova’s permission, and in 82mb wav file splendor (not that it’s such a splendiferous track, a rather wan paint-by-numbers production rightly derided in comments as “beatport minimal” and “ableton techno”).

Here’s the story according to Saunderson (& hear the original here, if you don’t want to download it c/o his righteous largess); note the nuance in Saunderson’s position here — this is hardly copyright extremism:

I recorded “The Sound” back in 1987 and released it on my own KMS Records label. It was a massive hit at New York’s Paradise Garage and in Chicago and of course Detroit. Once it hit the UK it became one of the earliest Detroit anthems right acround Europe, a huge underground record across the globe – a true desert island techno track. It is such a special record to me because it was one of my first really successful productions and I hope that you all will enjoy this free, fresh digital download of my original 1987 version.

The reason I have decided to give this track away for free is because of a situation that recently developed involving the unauthorized sampling of “The Sound” by Italian producers Giacomo Godi & Emiliano Nencioni (Supernova) in their release “Beat Me Back” on Nirvana Recordings. It came to my attention that they are licensing and selling, with considerable success, this track which is nothing more than a continuous loop of the main hook from “The Sound.”

For me to hear ‘Supernova’ taking an extended loop of “The Sound” and claiming that this is their own original composition and production is both dishonest and disrespectful. My first thought was that they were perhaps naïve, but as they have apparently been recording together since 2002 this seems unlikely. In any event this is completely unacceptable, we cannot continue to let this kind of wholesale rip off go unchallenged and tolerate “artists” who completely sample recordings, add nothing of their own and then release the results as their own work.

I have a huge affection for sampling, it’s how some of the most inspiring and ground breaking tracks of our times were created. We’ve pretty much all sampled records at some time, and cleared the sample so we can use it on our releases, but it is just not cool to take someone else’s music, create a big old loop of it and then put your name on it and try to have success entirely off the back of another artist’s efforts. This really has got to stop. For this reason, I have uploaded the Godi/Nencioni version of “The Sound” to Soundcloud so that you all can download this for free if you so wish. These producers and their record label should not be profiting from my back catalogue… this is not their track to sell.

Here it is (and do note the title!), though I recommend clicking over to SoundCloud to check the convo happening there (and over at RA too):

The Sound rip off/now called Beat Me Back By Supernova, what the hell by Kevinsaunderson

As of this writing Saunderson’s instantiation of “Beat Me Back” at SoundCloud has been listened to over 10k times and downloaded almost 2k times. I can only hope that the original will enjoy a lush new life despite the strange circumstances of its revival. It’s definitely vexing that someone like Saunderson — who can be credibly described as an architect of the very sound, the very aesthetic conventions (never mind specific bassline), that Supernova are working in — might find himself so rudely excluded from deserved techno dividends in the age of Beatport. And I quite support the sort of public gesture he’s making.

I also look forward to hearing, if anything, what happens to something like this on SoundCloud. Will Supernova sue? Will they settle? Will SoundCloud / Audible Magic intervene first? It’s tricky terrain, to be sure. But I suspect there are plenty of “brave” lawyers ready to leap into the breach.

But before this seems like another round of ammunition for the copyright wars, I want to return to the importance of nuance and context when we make efforts to distinguish between fair and unfair uses of musical recordings. While I am sympathetic to Saunderson (and would happily help him make his case), I don’t think it’s so simple as to say that any track built on a loop in this way is necessarily subject to the kinds of ownership claims he’s making. In contrast, I can think of any number of hip-hop tracks that are similarly loop-based and yet still stand as undeniably “original” and perhaps even deserving of commercial (and, of course, non-commercial) lives of their own.

As it happens, this very example offers a fine test case, for Supernova are not the first to build a track around a central sample of “The Sound.” Way back in 1988, just months after “The Sound” started hitting clubs across the burgeoning post-disco diaspora, New York’s Todd Terry enlisted its distinctive bassline for one of his trademark sample-laced burners, “Back to the Beat” —

Listening to the three versions alongside each other, we’re invited to think about whether “Back to the Beat” > “Beat Me Back” — or, more precisely, what makes one loop hackish (and hence disrespectable) and another inspired (and thus tolerated). Note how this commenter on another instantiation attempts to tease out what Terry has borrowed from what he has created:

Of course, the amazingly amazing and idiosyncratic bassline was sampled from Reese & Santonio’s Detroit classic “The Sound” just as the the choirish sound has Kraftwerk circa anno? 1986 and “Electric Cafe” written all over it. However, the heavy rhythm, the eclectic melange of samples from everythere and – yes – the stuttering quality is very characteristic of Todd Terry productions.

I really appreciate the way a sense of community norms — however local or contested they may be — undergirds a comment like this, and it’s that sort of community-wide interpretation and peer-level censure (or approval) that should be at the heart of how we collectively regulate public culture in an age of click-and-drag remediation.

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December 23rd, 2010

Nuh Gimme So-So Bunch

Notably — at least for this enthusiast of Jamaican culture bubbling through the American mainstream — to help stage Lil Wayne’s big comeback, producer Bangladesh contributed another a-milli-esque banger, in this case opting to deliciously substitute Harry Belafonte’s well-worn Jamaicanisms for Phife Dog’s more obscure ragga filigree

What’s funny — and telling, in a lost-in-translation-but-who-cares sorta way — is that the centerpiece of the song is a sample of the part of Belafonte’s recording that departs oddly, and some would say wrongly, from the Jamaican folk song that is its source. A chorus chanting six foot, seven foot, eight foot, bunch! underpins Weezy’s relentless show-and-prove show, but as the Honorable Doctor Louise Bennett Coverly — better known as Miss Lou — would explain, bananas don’t come in feet, they come in hands. Or as she puts it, they don’t have toes, they have fingers!

You have to hear how Miss Lou puts it herself. If you aren’t familiar with the pioneering work of Miss Lou, you should know, at least, that she’s a towering figure in Jamaican culture, more responsible than perhaps anyone else for recuperating the distinctive twists and turns of Jamaican creole English, aka patois / patwa. (Miss Lou’s legacy on this count includes her legitimation of alternate spelling and pronunciation practices.) Not only was Miss Lou a walking, talking, singing vessel of Jamaican folklore, she also created a body of patwa poetry that has been committed to memory by generations of Jamaican children and which includes my favorite poem about reggae (even though it was written in 1966, before reggae hit the town).

Just hear how she tells the story of “Banana Boat Song” and coaxes a sympathetic call&response from her adoring audience (note: after thinking aloud about it — what year it was? — Miss Lou guesses it was the 1960s when she and Belafonte first sang the song together, but given that Calypso came out in 1956, she must have meant the 50s):

Louise Bennett, “Banana Boat Song” (from Lawd…Di Riddim Sweet)
[audio:http://wayneandwax.com/wp/audio/misslou-BBS.mp3]

The only thing is I did teach him to say “6 hand, 7 hand, 8 hand” and him a say “6 foot, 7 foot” [laughter]. My dear! So I said, after it became famous now, I think, great. Singer of Jamaican folk songs. I say, “Harry, but what about this foot ting? Banana don’t have toe, y’know. Di banana have fingers.” Him say, “yes.”

Notably, Belafonte did apparently eventually correct his rendition. By the time he’s performing the song on the Muppet Show in 1978, we’re back to “hand” —

But the classic version, as heard on the old 78, as famously re-animated in Beetlejuice, and now again given new life by Bangladesh, most definitely says “foot” —

And, so, funny enough, the one part that Belafonte gets bizarrely backwards is the part that Bangladesh and Weezy fasten onto. This makes sense: it sounds like a proud, strong-backed boast in Belafonte’s rendition, fit for full-throated brag-raps and ennobling folkloric worksongs alike.

What’s especially interesting then, about Miss Lou’s exegesis, is that it’s not so much about the correct body part to describe clusters of bananas, it’s about the central meaning of the song itself. The workers may be strong and proud; they came to work, not to idle. But they’ve been working all night and they’re exhausted. They waaaaaaan go home, and they want the bossman and the tallyman to take it easy on them as they make the final, daybreak round of a backbreaking night.



Hearing Miss Lou provide the context makes one hear even the exclamation on “bunch” as less a matter of celebration and more of consternation — “Banana Boat Song,” she explains, is a good ol’ workaday kvetch:

That is a banana loading song, and you sing it when it coming on to morning time and the poor men — mostly they were men — working at this loading of the banana boat, the whole night, and when you coming out at like four o’clock in the morning, dem waan go home. And they wanted the smallest amount of bananas they can get. And you know the six-hand little? Of course, those stay. Seven-hand. Eight-hand. Bunch!? Nine. Ten. Bunch!?! Cooyah. Noh gimme so-so bunch, me no horse wid bridle. [laughter]

Now, Miss Lou’s explanation might itself merit some explication, at least for those who aren’t quite up on their patois proverbs or banana facts. About the horse and the bridle: this is a colorful and humorous worker’s plea, eager to intervene before he gets too heavily weighed down. He’s cool (cooyah) with the reasonably-sized stems, the smaller sets of clusters, the six-hands and seven-hands and so forth. But not a bunch! And certainly not a bunch like that, not so-so bunch. If he were a horse with a bridle maybe he could handle such a load, but poor overworked human that he is, a whole bunch at this point strikes him as unfair — and worthy of some patois-peppered protest.



The use of so-so here marks a significant way to voice the resistance of an Afro-Jamaican laborer. As this Dictionary of Jamaican English elaborates, so-so(h) is possibly derived from a Yoruba term (sho-sho). Of course, tellingly and a little confoundingly, it sources the very line Miss Lou quotes from the “Banana Boat Song” as an example of usage:

SO-SO

Now, if all that six-hand, seven-hand stuff is still not clear, we can look to, say, early twentieth-century accounts of the burgeoning banana industry for some good technical prose. In his 1914 work, Conquest of the Tropics: The Story of the Creative Enterprises Conducted by the United Fruit Company, Frederick Upham Adams provides the basic lowdown on counting clusters while specifically big-upping Jamaica and black Jamaican workers (who, we should note with a nod to reggaeton, were also crucial, as migrant workers, to the operation of plantations across Central America):

…A bunch of bananas consists of a stem, hands, and fingers. Each hand has from ten to fifteen fingers. A bunch of bananas is thus known to the trade as a “five-hand stem,” “a six-hand stem,” and from that up to the nine or ten-hand stems, which are average commercial limit, though Costa Rica has produced stems containing as high as twenty-two hands — a veritable giant of tropical fecundity.
.
In Jamaica the bananas range from five to nine hands to the bunch, with an occasional one exceeding this grading, but the individual fingers are smaller than those which grow in the humid lowlands of the Central American coast. But they are good bananas, wholesome and marketable. The Jamaican negro is the workman who has made possible the wonders which the United Fruit Company has achieved in Central America, and Jamaica can lay just claim as the birthplace of the banana industry.

And now, dear readers, as they say inna Jamaica, you done know.

It may not matter much to that Wayne and his flights of fancy, but it does to this one.

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October 24th, 2010

Feeling the Unheard

The following text is the comment I delivered as the discussant for Steven Feld’s presentation this past Friday at Sensing the Unseen, a year-long seminar at MIT seeking “to join more familiar attention to material culture with an innovative focus on immaterial culture” in order to explore, in a variety of ways, the realm of the unseen.

Acoustemology is a profound and useful idea. It serves as a crucial corrective, of course, to a prevailing ocularcentrism that this series, Sensing the Unseen, also seeks to critique. It is an especially attractive concept to those of us consistently enraptured, intellectually and otherwise, by the worlds of sound, whether “humanly organized” or not (to invoke musicologist John Blacking’s famous attempt to distinguish music from sound per se). But it should come as a welcome proposal for anyone interested in thinking about, recovering, or foregrounding other sensorial ways of knowing.

Dr. Feld‘s work as a soundscape recordist and composer is equally important, calling attention to an effect of ocularcentric privileging with regard to the production and valuation of academic knowledge — that is, the assumed inferiority of audio mixes to written texts. With his documentary sound art, and the rigorous, vigorous explications that often accompany them, Dr. Feld has helped create space for such efforts within the conservative world of academic publication, though they remain second-class works to be sure.

Feld’s work prefigures, and provides a foundation for, important strands within the burgeoning transdisciplinary field of sound studies, which has opened up sonocentric inquiry to new methods, perspectives, and lexica. For ethnomusicologists long seeking to participate in broader conversations about music and sound across disciplinary boundaries, this is a welcome turn. And indeed, Dr. Feld’s own interest in this realm was motivated precisely by a concern that, as he once put it, “ethnomusicologists were artificially separating the patterning of sound called ‘music’ … from the full human and environmental world of sound.”

An attention to sound, to its shapes and forms and ecologies, creates openings for moving beyond a specialist language that too often erects a hard wall between music and related cultural studies. Building on Schafer’s concept of the soundscape, Feld’s work has helped to midwife the term, to expand and refine it, and to make it available — if even today he calls it “boring” and “vague” — to those outside of music studies, not least in anthropology, his home discipline. As several prominent ethnomusicologists, writing in the Annual Review of Anthropology recently proposed:

Soundscape opens possibilities for anthropologists to think about the enculturated nature of sound, the techniques available for collecting and thinking about sound, and the material spaces of performance and ceremony that are used or constructed for the purpose of propagating sound. (Samuels, Meintjes, Ochoa, and Porcello 2010:330)

Perhaps even more promising, just as the idea of the soundscape can open up sonocentric inquiry beyond music departments, the recording, remixing, and release of particular soundscapes invites an even broader participation, a more public engagement, drawing in a variety of actors and audiences interested in sound, especially as recording, editing, storing, and sharing sonic data becomes easier and easier, and the skills to do so increasingly become part of a commonplace orientation toward interacting with a world of multimedia.

A recent explosion in grassroots efforts to produce “soundwalks” and “soundmaps” of various sorts, especially in cities, stands as one realm of emergent public engagement with the world of sound and its relationship to one’s sense of place. Whether we see the phenomenon as trickle-down theory or not, it is clear that attending closely to sound, and representing soundscapes, are emerging as increasingly common practices in our brave new world where most everyone carries around pocket-sized devices able to record and upload sound (along with locative data).

But amid optimistic signs, there are important challenges to consider. Not least of which, given the attempt in this forum to stage an inclusive conversation about sensorial experience, is the possibility that a move toward sound studies and soundscapes simply replaces one unisensory bias with another. Steve Goodman, for instance, in his recent book Sonic Warfare (MIT Press 2010) argues that, as he puts it, “the evangelism of the recent sonic renaissance within the academy” must be tempered by an attention not only to what he calls “bad vibes,” or the deployment of sound as repellent force and the use of music in torture, but by an acknowledgment of the profoundly synaesthetic experience of sound. Goodman offers his own corrective by concentrating on sound as vibrational force and giving emphasis to ultrasound and infrasound, dimensions of sonic experience which cross the threshold from the heard to the felt, and which thus exceed, as he puts it provocatively (especially for music and sound scholars), “the narrowband channel of the audible” (9).

Acknowledging sound’s power as vibrational force presents quite a quandary for something like soundscape composition. In rendering a soundscape, there is of course an attempt to present specific sound worlds as emplaced. But audio recordings, especially when experienced via everyday playback technologies, are limited in their capacity to replicate the physical experience of sound as embodied vibration in a material space. This impasse suggests perhaps that, if one is to worry about something like schizophonia, one might as well worry about something like schizo-hapto-phonia, the separation of sound from an emplaced and embodied experience of vibrational force. Such ontological, and hence epistemological or acoustemological, challenges could be taken, however, as just that: as offering openings for new theoretical and methodological approaches, new conversations across disciplinary and procedural orthodoxies.

It makes me wonder, as a brief aside, whether those of us working in the realm of soundscape might consider the ways that video productions, never mind the still unfulfilled promise of haptic simulations, might aid us in such a daunting task as representing the ways that sound informs what we know about ourselves and our surroundings.

In this regard, one especially laudable aspect of Dr. Feld’s work in soundscape composition is his explicit embrace, rather than disavowal, of the artistic and aesthetic choices that one must make in assembling such things. As he has stated elsewhere, “The idea is to turn my ear-witnessing into an invitation for your ear-witnessing.” As with any mode of communication or signification, an inevitable subjectivity haunts the encoding and decoding process, lingering over both the act of recording in an originary, emplaced point in time and space, and the act of listening in another one altogether. The inherently and perhaps more obviously fraught epistemological status of sound recordings therefore would seem in some ways an essential, unavoidable, and yet also utterly useful attribute.

Even before he began working in more explicitly “creative” ways, bringing together, as on Bufo Variations, soundscape recordings and musical interpretations thereof or interactions therewith, Feld’s editing aesthetics already audibly foregrounded an underlying poetics. The layering of sonic vignettes, the use of reverb, sudden cuts, and other post-production procedures, whether remarked on or not, would seem to offer an appropriate response to inevitable questions about framing, about the unavoidable hands-on aspects of working in sound –- questions which may seem more salient in audio and multimedia work, but which of course raise themselves with regard to any sort of academic or artistic production.

Feld’s approach thus seems to speak to a special and longstanding problem in music studies, which Charles Seeger liked to refer to as the “musicological juncture”: the yawning gap between communicating about one system of human communication (music) through another (speech). Seeger’s vigilant warnings about the shortcomings of linguocentrism in music scholarship and his attempts to think through precise models for talking about music -– not to mention new technologies for representing music, such as the melograph –- represent important precedents for the advocacy and use of music-technologies to reconcile some dilemmas presented by this impasse. Feld has himself helped many of us to think through this juncture, in part by reformulating Seeger’s distinction in an influential essay penned some 25 years ago, proposing that music represents an “instantaneously apprehensible metaphorical expression of one symbolic order” while speech about music constitutes “metaphorical expression of another order that reflects secondary interpretive awareness, recognition, or engagement” (Feld 1984:95).

I’d like to close then by noting how much I’ve myself been guided by Dr. Feld’s elucidation of this difference, and the orientation toward working-in-sound it engenders. On one hand, this has led me to think about, and to make, DJ mixes and mashups akin to “musically expressed ideas about music.” On the other, it has motivated me to attend closely to the interplay between the sounds, humanly organized and otherwise, of particular places, and the senses of place they inform.

It was while doing doctoral research in Kingston, Jamaica that I began making soundscape recordings, influenced by the work of Dr. Feld and others, but also — and especially when it came to editing them — by sample-based hip-hop, the tradition from which I learned most of my audio editing tricks. In addition to interviews with Jamaican performers, I also recorded dogs and roosters, radio transmissions and taxi drivers. The products of my recordings, beyond the dissertation itself, ended up as an addendum of sorts, as it seemed impossible to position them as the work itself. This also, however, granted me a great degree of creative license.

In some contrast to Dr. Feld’s soundscape work, then, but, I’d like to think, deeply resonant with his ideas about acoustemology–not to mention his interest in the sound worlds of taxi drivers–I’d like to end my comment today with a sound collage I made comprising nothing but audio I recorded in the many, many cab rides I took around town. Noting how important sound was to these taxi operations–not just the communicative and expressive beeping, but the calls and responses between the cabbies and their dispatchers–I wanted to pay tribute to the importance of the sonic in their worlds, but I also felt compelled to render this world according to the aesthetics of dancehall reggae, which so strongly seemed to animate, as it drew on, Kingston’s soundscape. And so I worked up something akin to a “Taximan” riddim over which the cabbies might declaim like reggae deejays over the beat, especially considering how much their competitive verbal and expressive styles seemed to parallel sound clashing performers. This sort of approach, of course, brings us well beyond thinking of soundscape recordings as serving a documentary function, but the way it registers my playful, heavy hands is precisely part of the point.

W&W (ft. Express Taxi Co.), “Taximan”
[audio:http://wayneandwax.com/music/taximan.mp3]

Thanks for listening.

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April 29th, 2010

Moombahton, Munchiton, & Related Reggaetony Ear Candy


a moomba, apparently — no relation to afrojack, i don’t think

Reggaeton doesn’t die, it just continues to fragment and reconstitute in a thousand different ways. (Sorry about the passive language there — I don’t think reggaeton has viral/memetic agency, but I still find myself using that sort of shorthand/emphasis even when what I want to think about primarily is how particular people in particular places&times do something with the “genre”.) In this case, I’m not just talking about Dominican dembow or jerkbow, but other, equally odd revivalist fusions. I mean, it’s practically a personalized genre at this point!

First case in point: a couple weeks ago I got an email from a guy named Munchi, connecting dots and introducing prototypes —

There is this new thing going on that just has started but has huge potential. You see, I love Reggeton. But the things that came out these years (Regge-Pop) weren’t even Reggeton. I still have those great tracks on my mp3 in the time when Reggeton still was Reggeton. Althought there is a movement going on in my home country (Dominican Republic) where they use the Dembow with chopped up vocals or just make a party track, but that itself seems to be destroying the Dominican Hiphop market. Since everyone sees that the money is in the Dembow party tracks. But that is a whole other story. This type of Reggeton is just like those oldskool Playero songs.

This is a good thing but i dont see Reggeton getting out of the hole it is right now with this movement.

However, like i said there is a new thing.
You see i live in Holland and here we have Bubbling.

Holland always had its own thing i guess and with the Dutch House going strong at the moment, you certainly cant miss the Bubbling influence in it. Then of course when a couple of years ago Baltimore Club came out of nothing destroying every club in Holland ”Samir’s Theme” that influence got in it also. It evolved, just like the raggamuffin to bubbling and then dutch house (with the other genres of course). Puerto Rico and Panama had their own evolved version with Reggeton.

Now we come to the States, where the Dutch House thing is pretty big right now. Like the rest of the world. I don’t know about Reggeton but I guess it still gets played over there.

Those 2 genres met eachother there.

Dave Nada played Afrojack’s ”Moombah” (Huge Dutch House Track) & Sidney Samson’s ”Riverside” at 108 BPM. Almost Reggeton speed (96 BPM). He saw that the crowd loved it and he made the Moombahton EP.

This was just a month ago.

And I came across it and when I heard it, I couldn’t believe what i was hearing. The idea was so simple, yet THE chance for Reggeton to get out of its hole.

Eventhough that i love Reggeton, there are so many genres that are new and interesting to me. It’s all so inspiring and i want to make them all. So i haven’t been making Reggeton besides Dembow.

Yet when i heard this I immediatly made a Promo CD.
I worked the whole night and got 5 tracks.

You see Dave Nada had this fantastic idea, and with the Dutch House hype there is at the moment, its perfect. The genre is in its beginning, i dont know which way taht its going to go. I hear the Uncle Jesse rmx of whatyoudoin and i hear alot of percussion work. I hear people making the same as the original Dave Nada idea with just editing and slowing down dutch house. I also heard a juke moombahton rmx of Moombah which was fantastic. And what i did was make a house at a 108 speed with Reggeton samples. Also mixing it with cumbia/baltimore club/baile funk/merengue/miami bass/dominican dembow.

It felt so good that i could make ”Reggeton” again, with the inspiration i used to have while making it. I can see this becoming big. It has alot of odds for it, but im not even talking about that.

You see, like i mentioned before it all started with Raggamuffin. 2 different genres that evolved out of that in two different worlds are meeting eachother again after a long journey. And i think they will be stronger than ever.

Here are some links for you to check out:
http://soundcloud.com/davenada
www.nibootoo.net
http://soundcloud.com/unclejesse410/n-a-s-a-watchadoin-dj-alvaro-remix-uncle-jesse-moompatron-edit

This all happened today/yesterday, and im stoked.
I can’t wait to see this evolve and grow to something.
Let me know what you think and I hope to hear from you.

He included the five song EP, and I’ve been bumping it. (He also followed up with a buttload of bubbling videos, which I’ve not yet had the time to peruse. But, as Dave & I get grindin on that dreampipe of a book, I’ll be digging in.)

Up where they are, tempo-wise, Munchi’s tracks work well alongside Dave Nada‘s bangers and Chief Boima’s techno rumbas, and they flow well from slightly slower dancehall and reggaeton tracks. Like dembow or bubbling at their core, we hear a mix of styles indexed and flexed, suffused with some of the most cherished sounds and patterns casting about. And yet, for all their nods to the back and the side, they sound as here and now as anything. Which is to say, they sound inspired —

    >> Munchi, “La Brasilena ta Montao”

    >> Munchi, “Metele Bellaco”

I also kinda love that someone can be sent on a beatmaking binge like this. I suppose the same thing that Dave Nada put his finger on when he slowed down some Dutch house and sent a bunch of Latino highschoolers into frenzy is also vibrating over in the Netherlands (for Dominican kids especially?).

Or in California for college-going Colombian kids who grew up in Chelsea, Mass?

That’s what I have to surmise, reminded of some related sounds this past week when two Twitter frens tweeked out over the “Candy Flip Riddim”. The maker of that track, a guy named Johnny, first came to my attn last October via email from the moderator of dancehall.mobi, who pointed me to another track of his on YouTube, “Dembow Dynamics,” knowing that I’m a big fan of all things dembow. The email simply read:

I’m not sure if you guys do promo stuff but let me know if you like the sound. DIGITAL REGGAE for the world!

When I wrote to Johnny to ask about the track, he mentioned that a friend had played the track at a couple parties in Lawrence, MA, and “people were seriously diggin it.” Having done some beatmaking workshops up in Lawrence and neighboring Lowell, where I think I learned more about reggaeton than the kids learned about anything from me, I was intrigued to hear more about reggae/ton parties in Lawrence. Per Johnny:

Lawrence is the dancehall capital!!! (Strangely, I noticed that in Boston, reggaeton was bigger at spanish parties, yet in Lowell/Lawrence it was dancehall). I’m sure you probably heard of him, but if you haven’t, definitely check out Dj Styles on myspace. I remember in high school people would literally play the music straight from his page at parties, it was like the radio for Spanish people around Boston haha.

Although Johnny’s tracks could use a little help in the mastering realm (which I learned pretty quickly when trying to play them in a club setting — and which, yeah, kinda goes without saying in this brave new world of DIY/p2p music industry), I dig the mix of references in them and the way he mines the reggaeton oeuvre in the same way that reggaeton mines dancehall and hip-hop (and trancey techno too) for its own suggestive palette. Like Munchi’s experiments, Johnny’s music seems to express a return to roots (of a sort — DJ Blass is a root, right? rhizomatically speaking?) while offering an audible sense of reinvention.

I also found his description for “Dembow Dynamics” pretty interesting/provocative, especially the level of disclosure:

I want to sex dembow. This song is my representation of the night when dembow becomes a living female. My second credible riddim.

It’s funny how people say reggaeton is “dead” when in fact its creativity that’s dieing. Dembow is in my fucking SOULLLLLLLL!!!@!@!!!@!!!

I got shit from 7 different tracks:

Notch – Hay Que Bueno
Ranking Stone – Quiero Hacertelo
Don Chezina – Tra
Yaviah – Wiki Wiki
Unda Wata Riddim
Playero 41
Wisin & Yandel – Por Mi Reggae Muero

Those are directly in the track. other influences would include:

Dancehall, Diplo of course, Dj Blass, Electronica, SALSAAAAAAA, and whatever else I forgot.

Taking all these together, it’s striking how this sort of sound, shared among a few producers, can seem to voice a zeitgeist, to stand in for a multitude, when the evidence is emanating from 2-3 “bedrooms.” Funny how we can imagine a wider community of practice abstracted from but a few examples. (Or is that my tendency alone?) It makes me wonder how limited one’s claims about the meaning of this sort of “phenomenon” must be. But the fact alone of resonance — of, say, Moomahton especially, based on the rapid bloggy uptake and effusive, inspired acts like Munchi’s — seems to speak volumes about a broader (dare I say?) structure of feelings modulating with the music.

I hesitate to subsume this under the banner of global ghettotech or, as seen this week, “global ghetto house.” While there are global-ghettoey cross-currents here, as borne witness by Munchi’s and Johnny’s references to Bmore and Diplo, we might better attend to the far more specific genealogies that Munchi and Johnny draw, not to mention awesome myths of origins like Dave Nada’s. That the palette of what we’re calling here reggaeton (sometimes anachronistically) can go from largely based on hip-hop and dancehall to including a panoply of styles not limited to techno, (Dutch) house, electro, bachata, cumbia, and funk carioca, does seem to suggest that the old signposts have shifted.

The goalposts too?

[Update: Toy Selecta rightfully objects to me leaving raverton out of the constellation. He’s been mining the same turf for two years now, and raverton certainly fits into the picture here. Beyond simply rounding out the picture, Toy’s toying with reggaeton arguably made space for the likes of moombahton, finding favor at the Fader long ago. As it happens, just this week Toy unleashed his latest raverton opus, which I highly recommend.]

[Update II: Talk about timing, I see via Catchdubs that Munchi has posted a whole heap of other productions in this vein to his SoundCloud page. The Flashing Lights blog also includes a bunch of descriptions of several tracks, which go further into the sources & influences in the mix.]

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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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February 18th, 2010

That Which Cannot Be Bought Or Sold Or Destroyed

I was excited to find in my inbox today a link to a brand new LP by one of my favorite artists from whom I hadn’t heard much in a while: the mighty Mutamassik! It’s called That Which Death Cannot Destroy and the liner notes very plainly state that it “cannot be bought or sold.” My man Brian Coleman framed it as follows:

I guess she’s just completely fed-up with the music industry so doesn’t even bother trying to sell stuff, just offers it out and lets the karmic wheel spin. So definitely pass the word along to anyone and everyone you know who would be down with what she’s doing – personally I think it’s amazing stuff.

I do too, and I’m happy to help with the karmaloop. Consider the word passed along; the link too

      >> Mutamassik, That Which Death Cannot Destroy

Before the sounds of the Middle East became de rigueur sampling materials for hip-hop, Mutamassik was exploring ways of fusing various sounds and styles into a compelling, challenging whole, shards a-flying all the while. It’s no surprise that she and /Rupture got together for some un?(w)holy matrimony.

Let’s celebrate Mutamassik’s ongoing industry and willingness to share by enjoying and spreading her music, “motivated by funk and apocalypse” (click to enlarge) —


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January 18th, 2010

dem bow legacies (riddim meth0d repost)

[Since we’re talking about reggaeton again, and about the absence/return of dembow, it seems like a good moment to repatriate the following riddimmeth0d post from early 2006. The post, a complement to an article on reggaeton I wrote for the Boston Phoenix, features a mix which uses the dembow drumloop to string the songs together, most of which represent the sound of the genre during its mid-decade heyday. For more mixxage along these lines, see also: Dem Bow Dem, a mix of “Dem Bow” cover versions (as opposed to songs which only gesture to the dembow rhythmically or timbrally). This was initially posted on 19 January 2006, almost 4 years ago to the day!]

to accompany my piece on reggaeton (with sidebar!) in this week’s phoenix, i’ve put together a mix intended to demonstrate just how deep the dem bow runs through contemporary reggaeton (as well as to establish some sonic links to jamaican dancehall and to other styles).

the sonic-social-symbolic connections here are multiple, myriad. though one can try and try to convey them in prose, sometimes hearing them is really the best way. and that’s what the riddim method‘s all about (for me anyhow): letting the music do the talking.

so let’s get to the sounds in question, but permit me just a couple of notes to orient your attention to what you’ll be hearing.

wayne&wax, “dem bow mix” [mp3] (40 min / 48 mb)
[audio:http://wayneandwax.com/riddimmeth0d/wayneandwax_el-mix-dembow.mp3]

it almost makes no sense to make a “dem bow mix” of reggaeton songs since the vast majority of reggaeton songs appear to feature some element of the inspiring, originary riddim. (and i’m not exagerrating when i say the vast majority.) thus, to make a reggaeton mix is to make a dem bow mix, and vice versa. that’s how inextricable the two are. the dem bow is reggaeton’s rhythmic DNA, a constant feature of the genre’s rhythmtexturtimbre, performing a function somewhere between ‘amen’ and clave. rather than boiling the blood of copyrighters, such use should prove a demonstration of the degree to which a vast world of derivative works can emerge from the creative sampling of recorded music, but which would not be possible – or conceivable even – without an utter disregard for, disrespect for, and disagreement with (american “international”) copyright law.

in the mix i’ve posted here, you’ll hear many appearances of dem bow, including more subtle, textural uses of the percussive loop as well as riddims that really foreground it. moreover, just for good measure, i often add an additional layer of the dem bow (in various versions) to thread pieces together, though a close examination will reveal the riddim already lurking in most of the tracks i’ve selected here. finally, as might be expected, i’ve also cooked up a couple specials and some little segments that i hope prove interesting.

i begin with the dem bow riddim itself (an “original” instrumental version, technically, as one would find on any one of a number of reggaeton “beats” CDs), overlayed with some clips from the BBC/”the world” radio program which aired last summer and featured some interview clips and beatboxing boom-chicking from yours truly. i like the way the mainstream media “hype” comes across here, complete with mis-pronunciations (“reggae-tawn”) and slight exaggeration. from there, we move into shabba ranks’s “dem bow,” the hit which propelled the dem bow riddim to NY, PR, and beyond. i don’t really want to get into the implications here of an entire genre essentially emerging from something that draws such stark lines in the sand, but suffice it to say that shabba’s thematic focus on “dem bow” is consistent with a lot of reggae (and some reggaeton): it’s anti-gay, anti-oral-sex, anti-imperialist.

the latter point – shabba’s pro-black stance against colonial(ist) oppression – points us to an interesting, and often overlooked, irony: that the dem bow is closely related to another dancehall riddim, the poco man jam, created by steelie&clevie in 1990, essentially “re-licked” (and tweaked) by bobby digital for shabba’s “dem bow,” and associated with and juggled alongside each other ever since. of course, “poco” in this case refers to the afro-jamaican religion, pocomania (alt. pukkumina), but i can’t help hearing a strong resonance with another meaning of poco. reggaeton’s relationship to race is something that has gone pretty unexamined in all of this coverage, so that’s another dimension – linked as it is to circumstances in the post-colonial americas – which i attempted to address, if only briefly, in my article for the phoenix.

after the dem bow/poco man section (including tunes by gregory peck, cutty ranks, and super cat), we hear panamanian founding-figure el general performing “son bow,” his traduccion of shabba’s “dem bow,” and from there, we get into the real deal: some PR-reppin’ from tony touch to kick it off, followed by some early, ruff-n-ready sounds from ivy queen. once we get into the reggaeton songs, we essentially thread our way through various “big chunes” that employ the dem bow, making a couple detours as we go: we hear how reggaeton producers nod to contemporary hip-hop as we segue from “el tiburon” to the busta rhymes song that seemingly inspired its chord-progression (as well as a dubplate-version by kingston-based DJ scrum dilly); there’s a section devoted to “juggling” over what we might think of as the gasolina riddim (for luny tunes appear to approach their riddims much like, say, lenky approached the diwali and steelie&clevie approached the poco man); and finally we close with two mini-mixes, the first devoted to bachataton or reggaetonchata or whatever they’re calling the increasingly common mixture of reggaeton and bachata (actually, i think they’re calling it reggaeton, and genres like bachata may be in serious danger of being eaten by reggaeton), the second devoted to some salsa-drenched remixes, including one of my own, connecting el gran combo’s “ojos chinos” to the tego song that alludes to it.

that – and the tracklist below – should be enough to give you a handle on all of this (si no ya lo tienes). ojala que hope you dig. if you do, go out and get yerself some reggaeton today. (i recommend these.)

wayne&wax, “dem bow mix” [mp3] (40 min / 48 mb)
[audio:http://wayneandwax.com/riddimmeth0d/wayneandwax_el-mix-dembow.mp3]

tracklist:

Dem Bow intro: BBC “The World” excerpts
Shabba Ranks, “Dem Bow”
Gregory Peck, “Poco Man Jam”
Cutty Ranks, “Retreat”
Super Cat, “Nuff Man a Dead”
Shabba Ranks, “Dem Bow”
El General, “Son Bow”
Tony Touch, “Pa’ Que Tu Lo Sepa”
Ivy Queen, “Yo Soy La Queen”
Tony Touch ft. Nina Sky, “Play That Song”
Wisin & Yandel, “Rakata”
Alexis, Fido, & Baby Ranks, “El Tiburon”
Busta Rhymes, “Break Ya Neck” (w&w dembow mix)
Scrum Dilly, “Nah Go Stray (dubplate)” (w&w dembow mix)
Hector “El Bambino,” “Dale Castigo”
Daddy Yankee, “Dale Caliente”
Daddy Yankee, “Cojela Que Va Sin Jockey”
Ivy Queen, “Marroneo”
Daddy Yankee, “King Daddy”
Tony Touch ft. Lisa M, “Toca Me La”
Daddy Yankee, “Gasolina”
Don Omar ft. N.O.R.E., “Reggaeton Latino (remix)”
Don Omar, “Dile”
K Mill, “Metele Perro”
Ivy Queen, “La Mala”
Pitbull, Master Joe, & O.G. Black, “Mil Amores”
Ivy Queen, “Te He Querido, Te He Llorado”
Tego Calderon, “Metele Sazon”
Tego Calderon, “Dominicana”
El Gran Combo, “Ojos Chinos” (w&w dembow mix)
Daddy Yankee, “Sabor A Melao”
Dem Bow outro (Shabba Ranks vs. El General)

pocoman nuh bow. dem jam, seen tu sabes?

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January 12th, 2010

Hurban Renewal

Ok, back to reggaeton. So, once again, back to questions of vitality and vocality. Or, how it’s doing and for whom & from whence it speaks.

the reggaeton crash
one way of looking at the “reggaeton” “crash” (and recovery?)

I was tickled to see Birdseed name reggaeton genre of the year for 2009, fully contra Gavin’s provocative post about the genre’s crash. If one is not persuaded by Birdseed’s praise of reggaeton’s post-dembow turn to synthy club beats (right alongside, let’s note, its longtime main sources: hip-hop and dancehall), the real proof in the pudding is Dominican dembow, but more on that below…

First, a couple other items relating to reggaeton’s urbanity, if you will. This is gonna get a little meta, but my post about Gavin’s post resulted in a post by Marisol which got cross-posted to Racialicious, where it generated an intense and interesting conversation about Calle 13, reggaeton, and transnational racial politics, among other things. Marisol’s central argument riffs off something I wrote in my response to Gavin:

Wayne makes a good point that “música urbana” basically functions as a (seemingly sexier and less scary euphemism) for reggaeton’s old moniker of “música negra.” So it’s interesting to me that reggaeton’s resident blanquito has appointed himself the gatekeeper of said race music. … I’m curious about the work that placing a blanquito at the center of “música urbana” does. For sure it makes the music palatable to the a wider audience, as so many blanquitos have crossed-over “race musics” in the past. But I think the work that Calle 13 very clearly does is “fuel fantasies about reggaetons inherent latinidad,” as Wayne points out in his chapter “From Música Negra to Reggaeton Latino” in Reggaeton (Duke UP). There is something appealing to the many music critics who have profiled the group in their brand of Latin World music, something in stark contrast with the repetitive samples and versioning of Black music that is central to many other reggaeton acts.

I recommend that anyone interested in reggaeton and race read the entire exchange.

As it happens, I was asked recently to write another dictionary blurb, an entry for Calle 13. Trying to sum up an act like Calle 13 is difficult even with the 9000 or so words tossed around on that Racialicious post, but I only had 200. In light of the conversation at Racialicious, I found Calle 13’s polarization of the reggaeton audience (never mind of their peers in so-called música urbana) difficult to leave out. Here’s what I came up with (exceeding word limit a little) —

Calle 13 is a Puerto Rican hip-hop group comprising two step-brothers, René Pérez Joglar (b. 23 February 1978), better known as Residente, the group’s acid tongued vocalist, and Eduardo José Cabra Martínez (b. 10 September 1978), aka Visitante, a producer who brings together a diverse sonic palette using synthesizers, samples, and live instrumentation while drawing from reggaeton, cumbia, electro and a variety of other genres. The group hails from San Juan, named after street on which Residente grew up. Prior to their debut album, they garnered attention with “Querido F.B.I.,” a blistering critique of the assassination of Filiberto Ojeda Ríos, longtime leader of the pro-independence movement. Distributed freely over the Internet, the song made Calle 13 a household name in Puerto Rico. Brimming with sarcasm and satire, Calle 13 initially posed as an alternative reggaeton group working within as they subverted the genre’s conventions; in recent years they have distanced themselves from reggaeton, preferring the broader label, música urbana. Thanks especially to Residente’s irreverent, sexually explicit and “vulgar” lyrics and pointed political statements, Calle 13 courts controversy, especially among Puerto Rican elites, as they enjoy a remarkable degree of commercial and critical success, including almost a dozen Latin Grammys. Their popularity notwithstanding, Calle 13’s reception as the poster boys of música urbana has been colored by resentment over their whiteness, class privilege, and disproportionate acclaim.

I still have time to edit this, incidentally, so if you feel strongly about the word choice or what gets put in vs. left out, I’m all ears.

Curiously, a few years before “música urbana” became the new industry term, the media had already announced the dawn and dusk of the “hurban” era — a term given to the new formats adopted (and, before too long, dropped) by such radio franchises as La Kalle, centered on reggaeton but also including Spanish-language rap, r&b, NYC-based bachata and other styles that could be confidently classed as hispanic-urban. I corresponded recently with a student working on a paper about the rise and fall of “hurban,” or as they described the project:

I am currently interested in the mass proliferation of “hurban” media outlets during 2004-2006, and their eventual demise from mainstream radio. Basically, I hope to analysis why “mainstream” Reggaeton, a la N.O.R.E.’s Oye Mi Canto and Daddy yankee’s Gasolina, has “fallen off,” so to speak, of the mainstream U.S. media circuit.

So if you can answer some of these questions, that would be so helpful:

Why do you think Reggaeton and the “hurban” radio station phenomena failed to hold a spot in the mainstream media? Was it a backlash from Anglo-audiences, who were quick to jump on the catchy Reggaeton bandwagon but soon decided they did not really understand the music? Or was it a feeling from the young Latino demographic that the music “sold out” to corporate interests?

Or, was it simply the repetitive nature of the music (use of dem-bow, “copycat” artists, similar lyrics) no longer attracted the same attention?

Do you think there will be a resurgence of Reggaeton in the mainstream pop music circuit?

These are interesting questions, if familiar. I was happy to hazard some answers, though once again, I’d be eager to hear from people who have other evidence or narratives to offer. Here’s what I replied:

I think one thing that needs to be put into context is how much the “hurban” marketing angle was a relatively contained (if well hyped) experiment on the part of major media conglomerates like Clear Channel and Univision. If we understand it as an exercise in top-down, corporate branding — as opposed to grassroots demand, regardless of the extent to which it sought to tap into that — then it becomes easier to explain the sudden abandonment of the format when it failed to meet high expectations.

Another thing to note is that the question of the rise and fall of “hurban” is separate from the question of reggaeton’s fleeting heyday in the Anglo mainstream; hurban format stations were not pitched at Anglo listeners. On the other hand, reggaeton’s receding from mainstream urban radio and MTV (where it maintains a marginal presence, but a presence all the same) and the failure of the “hurban” format might have the same root cause(s), as you imply. My sense is that a certain lack of interest in reggaeton/hurban was less about an Anglo lack of comprehension or a Latino disenchantment with the corporatization of the genre, and more with a sense of saturation and sameness: at the height of reggaeton’s (mainstream/media) popularity, radio DJs and major record labels were pulling from a relatively small pool of hits and artists, and the Luny Tunes sound was so dominant — and momentarily successful — that it crowded out other approaches. I think a lot of people just got bored.

That said, it’s worth noting that reggaeton — or whatever one wants to call it (and it’s telling that “música urbana,” not so different from “hurban” as labels go, has become the latest umbrella term for the music) — continues to offer a fair amount of variety to listeners willing to seek it out. I’m not sure what it will be called the next time there is a resurgence of Spanish-language dance-pop in the mainstream pop circuit, but I’m quite confident that we’ll hear that sort of thing again. The underlying reasons for reggaeton’s mid-decade explosion — burgeoning Latino demographics in the US, savvy music entrepreneurs, a timely stylistic overlap with contemporary club music — are factors that remain very much in play.

In the other corner of reggaeton’s big tent, across from the slick commercial stuff that fills-out Birdseed’s YouTube queue and aspires to radio spins and TV airings (and, yes, YouTube views) — the stuff that Jace more or less dubs music for airports — is Dominican dembow, an exceedingly local (if also diasporic / virtual) reanimation of reggaeton’s former (and formative) sound. In a somewhat surprising and awesome move, the DR’s hip-hop scene has embraced PR’s mid-90s underground aesthetic — the stuff of Playero and The Noise mixtapes — fullup of samples from classic (that is, early-mid 90s) dancehall riddims like Bam Bam and Drum Song, rubikscube beats shuffling the same snares, hats, and hits into an endless array of colorful configurations.

The poster child track for Dominican dembow is the bizarre and unforgettable “Pépe.” But I highly recommend the mixes by DJ Scuff (the first of which includes samples from “Pépe”) —

I’m particularly struck by how these productions resonate with Marisol’s questions about sampling & reggaeton’s racial politics — questions raised, notably, not just by DR dembow but by PR’s ‘regreso’ acts as well):

Is it time to think of sampling practices within reggaeton as an overtly political act? Is sampling consciously hailing an audience and interpolating the performer and audience in a specific genre?

I often wonder how much these theories about sample-riffic music and memory/signification require particularly active, engaged, and perhaps cognocentric (?) modes of listening, though we might posit — especially with the sorts of samples recycled in (proto/regreso) reggaeton / Dominican dembow (i.e., largely, short percussive sounds with distinctive timbres) — that there are modes of embodied (and perhaps even what Adorno would call regressive) listening that also, in their own ways, involve forms of musical memory. At any rate, that this practice is happening at the producerly level is remarkable in its own right.

Along those lines, I want to note that the 2nd DJ Scuff video embedded above contains a sample of the infamous DR-diasporic YouTube hit, “Watagatapitusberry” (about which, start with Marisol’s post from last October). One reason this is interesting is that it folds a track with no overt sonic references to reggaeton directly into the dembow diaspora. It makes me think that, in some ways, we may as well think of “Watagatapitusberry” and “Pépe” and even DR kids posting jerkin videos as all of-a-piece. We needn’t call that piece reggaeton (which marks another moment, another layer of activity, perhaps), and I don’t think música urbana says it any better.

More important than giving all this seemingly related activity a name is to note that the efflorescence of shared referents and practices, all this artful work of technological reproduction (to refix Benjamin for our labor/leisure effacing age), continues unabated outside the corporate mediasphere (that is, if things like YouTube can exist outside of that; I’m not sure they can). This vibrant shared and co-produced culture thrives on overlapping publics networked by language, diaspora, dance, Facebook, and filesharing. This is the point that I try to underscore whenever I get asked about the so-called reggaeton crash — if we only look to corporate radio, to the formal commercial sphere, for measures of music’s vitality, we may well overlook the lion’s share of what’s happening. Que fue indeed.

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May 12th, 2009

Super Freaks and the Collective Talent

I love the moment at 0:21 in this credit card commercial:

It’s obvious why, no?

MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This” — a “work” which, in addition to the song itself, includes as a part of its whole a now iconic video, known as much for its choreography as parachute pants — has become a part of the whole that is Rick James’s “Super Freak.”

Why has that happened? Because we say so, hear so, see so, know so.

Or as T.S. Eliot once put it:

No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a principle of æsthetic, not merely historical, criticism. The necessity that he shall conform, that he shall cohere, is not one-sided; what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new.

Which is not unlike what Nicolas Bourriard recently proposed (via /Jace):

These artists who insert their own work into that of others contribute to the eradication of the traditional distinction between production and consumption, creation and copy, readymade and original work. The material they manipulate is no longer primary. It is no longer a matter of elaborating a form on the basis of a raw material but working with objects that are already in circulation on the cultural market, which is to say, objects already informed by other objects. Notions of originality (being at the origin of) and even of creation (making something from nothing) are slowly blurred in this new cultural landscape marked by the twin figures of the DJ and the programmer, both of whom have the task of selecting cultural objects and inserting them into new contexts.

But what I like about Eliot saying this in 1922, more than Bourriard in 2009, is that this essential cultural process long predates mechanical and digital reproduction. It’s the stuff of poets and philosophers, as well as DJs and hackers, walkman-wearing dancers and credit card commercials. It’s just how culture works. Always has, always will. Can’t stop, won’t.

So thanks for the songs & dances, guys; now they’re ours.

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February 20th, 2009

Buried Treasure, Excavated Sizzle

The haunting echoes of r&b and garage ephemera are hallmarks of Burial’s music. Myriad, minute vocal snippets, tossed-off castaways in a sea of murky radio remembrances, reanimated as deeply expressive fragments, pitched around, recontextualized rhythmically and harmonically and vibewise. This is a poignant poetics, sometimes jaw-droppingly so, as the producer projects an alarmingly “human” voice despite denaturing the originals so audibly. (Reminding me of my reactions to Mouse on Mars’ excursions in synth-bent emoting, evoking an obviously artificial but affective fragility — but that’s the topic for another post perhaps.)

Prolly the best example in Burial’s oeuvre is “Archangel” which, as noted here, sources its suggestive vox from a couple amazingly fleeting moments (ad libs even!) in a semi-successful but forgotten r&b jawn.

Beyond Burial’s own distinctive remixing of the recent past, the approach has become more broadly adopted across contemporary electronic/sample-based production, especially by dubstep producers wielding similarly semi-obscure (and sometimes truly obscure) reggae samples. Burial falls into this camp too, with recent dancehall recordings — like their r&b and garage counterparts — serving as suggestive sonic signposts of post-millennial/colonial London.

As /Rupture noted via this insightful bit of sample spotting @ the lockitdown blog, Burial sampled Sizzla’s “Just One of Those Days” (aka, “Dry Cry”), his BIG CHUNE from 2003, for 2006’s “Broken Home.”

Living in Kingston in 2003 I bore repeated witness to the power of Sizzla’s massive one-drop revival album, Da Real Ting, so Burial’s allusion jumped out at me way back when his first album dropped. One of the things I found so striking and beguiling about Burial’s use of a phrase from “Just One of Those Days” was the way he displaced its original emphases by shifting its place in the meter by but an eighth-note.

So, while the original sounds like

whose FAULT no ONE but mySELF

in the Burial track, it goes

WHOSE fault NO one BUT myself

This may seem like a subtle distinction, but that’s what makes it great. Indeed, that’s what makes it better, to my ears, than a rather similar attempt at transformation: e.g., what strike me as the baldly (and badly) manipulative efforts of Zomby for “The Lie,” which takes the following Sizzla lyric

I was born in a system that doesn’t give a fuck about you nor me, nor the life of our kids

and turns it into

I was born in a system that doesn’t give a fuck about you nor me, nor the lie

WHICH. MAKES. NO. SENSE. & totally undermines Sizzla’s critique.

Is this supposed to be a sly and suggestive gesture? If so, it comes up woefully short. I think it rubs me the wrong way, interestingly, a lot more than than, say, Kanye West’s equally brazen use of Chaka Khan’s “Through the Fire” to propel “Through the Wire” (which I find funny and surprisingly compelling) — and I think this difference emerges largely for ideological reasons, which are inextricable from aesthetics (or, in other words, my idiosyncratically but also historically / culturally / socially / politically situated reception of the poetics at work in these tracks), despite that some may want to make room for “strictly” musical considerations in these rarefied conversations.

Now, obviously I enjoy Zomby’s production in other instances, so I don’t think this is just some simple prejudice expressing itself. Rather, it’s an attempt to work out why I find essentially the same sample-based procedure to have very different effects/affects in two different instances: whereas Burial’s subtle, muddled invocation of Sizzla invites a range of responses, Zomby’s strikes me as simply distortionary, rubbing against accumulated affective resonance in an awkward, hamfisted way. When we’re talking about handling such materials as beloved, if dated, reggae and r&b — so treasured and variously remembered and embodied — I guess I prefer a more sensitive touch.

Or, in other words, the happy medium is the massage.

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January 15th, 2009

Drop (It Like It’s Yours)

Rich Boy’s “Drop” — particularly the instrumental — struck me immediately, for a few reasons, as an obvious but original nod to Bangladesh’s juggernaut beat for “A Milli,” which is, as SFJ memorably describes it —

both heavy and barely there, built from a sub-bass kick, a thin snare, and synthetic handclaps, none of which play at the same time.

Not only does Polow’s beat for Rich Boy feature the alternating drum patterns to which Sasha alludes (in particular, a “3+1″/”turnaround” arrangement), it’s most prominent feature is the repeatedly triggered vocal fragment that sounds as if — along with the clicky claptrap that takes the place of “A Milli”‘s crunk-y-clave snare — it were sampled from Zap Mama or something. It’s some out-there, crunk’d-up ethnotechno that recalls another Rich Boy track, the Timbaland-producedGet To Poppin.”

My first and lingering impression is that it’s the best post-milli beat to date BY FAR, just as “A Milli” was the best post-“Drop It Like it’s Hot” track — at least wrt that 3+1/ON-off/turnaround pattern I’m hearing. Of course, Bangladesh added to Pharrell’s template the rhythmically triggered vocal samples, which caught on as a textural gesture in its own right, beyond the songs in question here — though it builds of course, in its whimsical way, on a longstanding trend toward incorporating vocal samples in hip-hop “instrumentals” (dating back at least to early RZA).

There are other contenders, pale in comparison. Take this bit of opportunist, orientalist weaksauce from Ludacris, which — pretty audibly to my ears — features the same sort of drum pattern, substituting Diwali-esque handclaps for the turnaround in place of thin snares. (The Diwali, incidentally, is another example of an instrumental whose distinctive groove was quickly and widely adopted as a dominant, if fleeting, template for an entire genre.)

Another clearly post-milli beat to recently rear its head is “Diva” by Beyonce. That one also sounds a little too crassly derivative to me — maybe moreso — though it’s definitely amusing to hear Beezy get all Weezy on the track. Props for that. But I just can’t co-sign on such a carbon-copy production. It sounds as if they grabbed the “A Milli” instrumental and put some bad violin & chipmunk’d vox on top. What is this, Girl Talk?

The difference, as I hear it, is that “Drop” takes the idea of “A Milli,” says “that’s dope,” and runs with it. It nods to the original but makes your neck snap in its own way. Polow’s tweaks to the form, rather than trendy, sound downright timely — and I mean that in the best possible way.

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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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