I’ve realized that I neglected to mention such obviously indigenous YouTubery as dhol playalongs and keystyling vids (wherein one “freestyles” a few bars in the comments section of a hip-hop instrumental), but these clearly have their precedents in pre-online-video cultures — if far less public and “permanent” — whereas the K-pop reaction video, which Alexis “@pm_jawn” Stephens recently brought to my attention, is one of the best examples I’ve seen yet, in part because so recent and in part because so inextricable from YouTube. (And which I used to frame the “Sorry Sorry” montage I made last month.)
A reaction video is when someone records themselves watching a music video for the first time via a webcam and then uploads it to YouTube. In K-pop reaction videos, there is often a picture-in-picture showing the progress of the music video, or MV, so that the viewer can follow along with the YouTube userâs knee-jerk, often funny responses. Nothing gets more up close and personal as YouTube, because it gives you a direct visual portal into the living spaces of other fans. The popularity of the K-pop reaction video has grown alongside K-popâs ascent as an international cultural phenomenon.
Recorded all over the world and in a variety of languages, these reaction videos can themselves rack up hundreds of thousands of views — a staggeringly popular form of meta-voyeurism. (Surprising but persuasive, Alexis proposes a possible genealogical link, or at least predecessor, in the 2 Girls 1 Cup meme from a few years back.) And of course, they aspire to be as effectively performative, complete with tropes and archetypes, as the original spectacles to which they bear affective witness.
Alexis shares the following example, instructive and quintessential in a number of ways:
What immediately struck me was the self-conscious performance of fandom here — and the remarkable parallels between the mastery of codes and forms by reacting viewers and by the spectacular performers of K-pop. The particular viewer-performers above are from the UK but totally fluent in contemporary American/global slang, much of it in the form of stylized African-American vernaculars (including black men’s, women’s, and queer idioms) — indeed, about as fluent, it strikes me, as the K-pop performers themselves (who, it must be admitted, are pretty virtuoso in this regard).
Along these lines, if one frame removed, the video by G-Dragon they’re reacting to above clearly merits a multitude of reactions:
It’s amazing, dense, vivid, masterful, and playful. Clearly, it would be a mistake to reduce the pleasures of K-pop to a simple if charming form of mimesis. Rather, this is sui generis mastery of craft and gesture. Observing K-pop stars making a splash at fashion weeks around the world may offer a better angle from which to appreciate K-poppers’ distinctive synthesis of an irreducible array of signifiers, whether or not many of them are cribbed straight from the (Af-Am) hip-hop playbook.
It seems to me that K-pop’s “appropriations” demand a different frame of analysis (although, this video prolly owes MIA money) — and the reaction vids, including entire networks of African-American appreciators help complicate the picture further. (My “Sorry Sorry” montage includes a group of black college students watching the Super Junior video, with one singing and one dancing along.) In contrast to many other “global” (ie, local, non-US) hip-hop scenes, K-pop’s take on hip-hop does not begin to pretend to any alignment with the margins of society. The only authenticity operative here, it seems, is a demonstrated commitment to cultural currency. It’s purely a matter of style and swagger and savvy manipulation of global symbols, musical and sartorial and gestural &c.
And it’s pretty damn impressive.
Stepping back another frame again, there’s something perfect in how reaction videos themselves function so similarly, often mobilizing and reaffirming the same sets of codes and signs. K-pop reaction videos are an amazing and amusing performance of fandom in an age when it’s easier than ever to share that experience with others. They’re an imagined but also, notably, asynchronously witnessed form of collective joy — of the pleasure of sharing an appreciation for cultural codes and their spectacular, affective enactment (across language lines or other borders).
In some interesting ways, then, reaction videos might be understood as attempts to bridge the gap that Michael Warner contends is always there for so-called publics. For Warner, publics are necessarily constituted imaginatively and asynchronously as people engage the same circulating text, privately, and then imagine themselves as part of a collective addressed by it. Reaction videos may still be “private” engagements both in their production and reception, requiring private attention, but their publicness and persistence would seem to heighten the feeling of sharing such collective engagements with public texts. These private moments of attention become a lot more visible, perhaps even more intimate, ironically.
As such, and in contrast to publics gathered around print material, K-pop reaction communities may better resemble the “counterpublics” that, for Warner, “make expressive corporeality the material for the elaboration of intimate life among publics of strangers” [p.76].)
And without a doubt, reaction videos — which may soon transcend K-pop as a genre, if they don’t already — are a “native” YouTube genre par excellence. O Brave New World that has such people watching people watching people in it!
Appended below is the “director’s cut” (or unabridged author’s version) of a book review I wrote almost a year ago, which will soon finally see the light of day in the Journal of Popular Music Studies. The book is Mark Katz’s Groove Music, and I say enough below that I needn’t say more here, but as you’ll see, my review is quite supportive. If you’re interested in the history of the DJ, or hip-hop, or just good music writing and scholarship, I highly recommend you check this one out.
ps — here are the proofs if you like PDFs, but do see below for the full monty!
Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-Hop DJ by Mark Katz
Oxford University Press, 2012, 336 pages, ISBN: 9780195331127
With Groove Music, Mark Katz has written a definitive history of the hip-hop DJ, filling a conspicuous void in the hip-hop literature while contributing more broadly to studies of music technologiesâor perhaps better, to our understanding of how people make technologies musical. For Katz, the transformation of the turntable from a mere playback machine to a remarkably flexible and responsive control deviceâa musical instrument, no lessâstands as âthe signal contribution of the hip-hop DJ to modern musical cultureâ (5). This is quite a claim, but Katz represents, as hip-hop parlance would have it, offering historical, ethnographic, and analytical perspectives on hip-hop DJing, from roots to offshoots, with an unprecedented degree of thoroughness and attention to what matters to practitioners and audiences.
Like Joe Schlossâs authoritative works on beat-making and b-boying, Making Beats (2004) and Foundation (2009), which Groove Music should now sit alongside on shelves and syllabi, this is a lucid and deeply grounded work on a pillar of hip-hop practice and artistry informed by dozens of interviews, years of participant-observation, and deft close readings of live performances, canonical recordings, and oral histories. Groove Music fleshes out the growing (if still lagging) musicological literature on the DJ (Fikentscher 2000, Lawrence 2003, Butler 2006) by shifting focus from the relatively suave mixing of disco, house, and techno DJs to the more explicit performativity of hip-hop DJs, as embodied most audibly by the scratchâor zigga zigga as Katz sometimes glosses it.
To his credit, even while engaged in important acts of translation for his primary reading public (i.e., colleagues and students), Katz sets out to write the book that hip-hop DJs themselves would want to read. As such he commits himself to a chronological and narrative approach, and to a down-to-earth and occasionally playful prose style, peppering the text with such useful terms as âbadasseryâ (168). The book is all the better for this approach, addressing the wider publics that these stories deserve to reach.
The rhythmically stuttered introduction of âDJ Premier in Deep Concentrationâ (1989), a hallmark production of the hip-hop DJ as hands-on artistâHereâs a little story that must be toldâserves as an unremarked but undergirding imperative. While DJs such as Premier have been telling the story themselves and various works in the hip-hop literature address the subject in some detail (Chang 2005, Fricke & Ahearn 2002), no single text prior to Katz has sought to synthesize an overarching story of hip-hop DJing from its beginnings in 1973 to the present. Moreover, with the literature so focused on the foundational work of hip-hopâs hallowed trinity (Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash), little attention has been paid to the changing aesthetics and contexts of the hip-hop DJ in the decades since the formâs origins in the Bronx, especially how scratching has moved in and out of the spotlight in hip-hop and more broadly in American and global popular culture.
Throughout the text, Katz touches on numerous signposts, among them: the crucial feedback loop with dancers (14-16); influences from funk, reggae, and salsa (23-32); hip-hopâs ties to disco, however disputed (32-5); the urban context of the Bronx (35-42); the world of DJ-producers (121); the Bay Areaâs Filipino DJ scene, dominant in the world of turntablism (145-7); the rise of mix-and-scratch academies (230) and virtual video games like DJ Hero (237). But it is Katzâs clear periodization of hip-hop DJ history, always grounded in ethnographic analysis of the political economy, material culture, and aesthetics of the enterprise, which emerges as the key contribution of the book.
Most crucially, in chapter 2, âMix and Scratch,â Katz details the development of the turntable as a musical instrument, focusing on the mechanical and stylistic innovations by the likes of Grandmaster Flash and GrandWizzard Theodore (generally credited with inventing the rhythmic scratch). A centerpiece of Katzâs argument is his close reading of Flashâs seminal seven minute showcase, âThe Adventures Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steelâ (1982), elaborating the techniques and effects, technologies and repertories involved in the performance. Grandmaster D.STâs standout scratching on Herbie Hancockâs âRockitâ (1983) also serves as a key text in the popularization and reimagination of the turntable as instrument. Katzâs simple but profound point is that these DJs took a technology of sound reproduction and used it for âreal-time manipulationâ of sound (62). This story of transformation finally comes full circle toward the end of the book when Katz examines the rise of digital vinyl (e.g., the Serato or Traktor systems), which embodies the utter shift of the vinyl record from a storage medium to a control surface.
Other chapters divide up the history of the hip-hop DJ according to the strange and sometimes circuitous paths the tradition has taken. Chapter 3, âOut of the Bronx and into the Shadows,â addresses the question of how hip-hop, despite its beginnings as a DJ-driven phenomenon, would soon enough be synonymous with rap. According to Katz, the rise of the MC and concomitant decline of DJ, relegated to back-up band or, by the late 1980s, even replaced by DAT machines, actually served in its way to make room for new forms of hip-hop DJing. Despite the DJâs recession during hip-hopâs commercial and cultural ascent, where other hip-hop chronicles tend to depart and leave DJs in the shadows, Katz remains stalwart in his focus, turning to the expansions of DJ practice in chapter 4, both in terms of scratch technique (and Philadelphiaâs specific contribution: the âtransformerâ), as well as the art of beat-juggling. Katz carefully describes new techniques as they develop, putting them into aesthetic, functional, and socio-cultural context, noting the emergence of new contexts for DJ practice, particularly the rise of the competition circuit. Indeed, chapter 6 is entirely devoted to the forms, rituals, tools, and techniques of the DJ battle, judiciously examining points of aesthetic conflict and consensus.
Given Katzâs abiding concern with the instrumentalization of the turntable, the advent of turntablism in 1990s is an obvious watershed, and chapter 5 explores this practically autonomous and increasingly abstracted realm of hip-hop DJ practice. Katz explores the symbiosis between turntable, needle, and crossfader design, noting that while initially many of these features were ad-hoc innovations on the part of tinker-DJs and their âvernacular technological creativity,â by the mid-1990s manufacturers were taking notice and incorporating them into their products. Here, as elsewhere, weâre treated to some sharp material culture analysis: new mixers and crossfaders enabled innovative new techniques such as the âcrab scratchâ where technical limits had previously made them impossible.
In chapter 7, Katz turns to the new ubiquity and legitimacy that scratching enjoyed between 1996-2002, not in hip-hop itself, notably, but in âalmost every corner of popular musicâ (182): pop, rock, jazz, electronic music, and even the classical world. The scratch comes to mean any manner of things in a wide variety of contexts: âWith the mainstreaming of hip-hop, signifiers started to float freelyâ (180). This creates further room for experimentation, giving rise to the âcult favoritesâ the DJ albums made by the likes of DJ Shadow, Qbert, and Kid Koala, rich and remarkable works to which Katz devotes some overdue analysis.
The question of âFalling Barriersâ in chapter 8 reads as a fitting coda, bringing the story of the turntableâs instrumentalization back to its beginnings in important if unexpected ways. Contrasting the rejection of CDJs with the embrace of âdigital vinyl systemsâ allows Katz to make an insightful point about vinylâs place in hip-hop aesthetics as âprecious,â âauthentic,â âelemental,â and âfundamentalâ (218). Vinylâs tenacity as a control surface not only speaks to these values, grounded in decades-old practice, but to the ontology of the turntable as instrument: a seemingly sudden crossfade that makes total sense in retrospect.
Notably, rather than a CD insert (which would have been an enormous tangle of licensing permissions), Oxford University Press offers a useful companion website full of media referenced in the text. These may be mostly links to YouTube videos, leaving their stability in question, but itâs a rich resource all the same, especially if readers use it soon, before the inevitable link degradation.
Groove Music represents a strong monographic extension of Katzâs previous work in Capturing Sound (2004) and the recent anthology he co-edited with Tim Taylor and Tony Grajeda, Music, Sound, and Technology in America (2012). All of these works are animated by a concern with registering the plasticity of sound technologies, or how people find their own creative uses for such things. In the history of sound recording and reproduction, there may be no more spectacular example than the advent of performative hip-hop DJing, and Katz has given the tradition a fitting monument. The specter of legitimation may yet haunt the hip-hop literature, but efforts such as Groove Music help to push beyond such entrenchments precisely by taking the subject so seriously that no hint of novelty or condescension corrupts it.
Butler, Mark. Unlocking the Groove: Rhythm, Meter, and Musical Design in Electronic Music. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2006.
Chang, Jeff. Canât Stop, Wonât Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. New York: Picador, 2005.
Fikentscher, Kai. âYou Better Work!â: Underground Dance Music in New York City. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 2000.
Fricke, Jim and Charlie Ahearn. Yes Yes Yâall: The Experience Music Project Oral History of Hip-Hopâs First Decade. New York: Da Capo, 2002.
Katz, Mark. Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2004.
Lawrence, Tim. Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-1979. Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2003.
Schloss, Joseph. Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-Hop. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2004.
_______. Foundation: B-Boys, B-Girls, and Hip-Hop Culture in New York. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Taylor, Timothy, Mark Katz, and Tony Grajeda, eds. Music, Sound, and Technology in America: A Documentary History of Early Phonograph, Cinema, and Radio. Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2012.
an utterly awesome eight-year-old diva, via YouTube
This past week I’ve whipped up another couple YouTube montages in the vein of Gasodoble, Bump con Choque, and my students’ projects in last year’s technomusicology class. Unlike my previous efforts, which not too surprisingly involve reggaeton, these new mega-montages engage repertories that I don’t generally mess with: opera and K-pop.
The dear colleagues I have to blame for these excursions are two Berklee faculty, Isaiah Jackson and DJ Hatfield. I’m collaborating with them, as well as with Lori Landay (who has posted her own video here) and Darcie Nicole, to explore the possibilities for using YouTube in the classroom, as well as in our efforts as scholars — and as artists.
We’re giving a collective presentation at Berklee tomorrow morning as part of the college’s annual BTOT event (Berklee Teachers on Teaching), and I’m grateful to Isaiah — an ol’ friend, an acclaimed conductor, and a consummate gentleman — and the others for letting me interlope and help guide the discussion.
In a nutshell, or an abstract, here’s how we’re framing the thing –
We are all familiar with YouTube as an endless archive of weird, ordinary, awesome, and awful performances, but suppose we approach YouTube itself as a creative teaching resource. Since we can now remix video as easily as audio, YouTube performances can be edited into montages that 1) tell vivid stories about contemporary music culture; 2) stand as artworks in their own rights; and 3) supply valuable insights to students seeking to understand the role of social media. This session will explore the ways in which everyday audio/video software and global publishing sites now render visible and audible a staggering variety of musical performances. Participants will learn how they can harness new tools for examining the state of musical arts.
Of course, I have my own favorite examples in this regard, from Kutiman’s collages to the works that I and my students have cooked up, but I was excited to partner with other faculty, with their own realms of expertise, to see how the technique of using montage to represent a song or dance’s social life, as made visible by YouTube, might play out in other musical and cultural domains.
The first (mega)montage I’d like to share reveals the remarkably sustained “virality” (i.e., the ability to find new hosts) of a tune composed more than 200 years ago. Isaiah suggested that I take on Mozart’s well-worn soprano aria, “Queen of the Night,” as the sort of musical text so resonant that surely a staggering number and variety of performances would reside on YouTube.
Sure enough, Isaiah picked out (and annotated!) about 30 instances for me to consider, a small selection all told, but a fine cross-section of contexts, modes of performance / reception, and arrangements. Notably, one of these selections, which I didn’t actually use, was itself a mega-montage of some 40 different renditions. (In that regard, it’s worth noting that the amateur montage is something of a native YouTube genre in its own right, though as Lori will explain tomorrow, as a cultural form “Soviet” montage has been ascendent for some time.)
I’ve been chatting with Isaiah about what has emerged from this exercise, asking how a text so, well, old could continue to enjoy so lively a social life — only glimpses of which are revealed by trawling YouTube — even into the media-suffused 21st century. And despite clearly calling for a certain virtuosity (which some deliver and some do not), one significant detail that Isaiah noted about the story behind this favorite aria from The Magic Flute is that it was composed precisely to inspire such a desire to sing along (or hum or whistle). Apparently, Mozart’s friend Emanuel Schikaneder, who wrote the libretto and played the role of Papageno in the production’s first run, encouraged him to make the aria short and punchy, the sort of thing that would be popular at “the Lodge,” as Isaiah put it (they were both Freemasons). In this sense, Mozart’s aria might be thought of as a proto pop song, written to be short and catchy and popular. It sure looks and sounds that way according to YouTube.
To my eyes and ears, the montage, which aside from a slightly extended coloratura section essentially sticks to the original (brief) length of the composition, vividly reveals how the aria spans professional and amateur contexts, gender and age, virtuosity and cringeworthiness, various modes of reception (e.g., note which examples contain applause), drama and humor, private and public settings — the sort of versatility that helps to secure a certain longevity. Despite pre-dating “participant culture” theory by a few centuries, surely this is a spreadable song for the ages!
The other montage I worked up may be more familiar in some ways, if you keep up with YouTubey dance memes, but I find it no less interesting or revealing when it comes to grappling with YouTube and what it shows us about music culture in the contemporary moment. DJ Hatfield’s central text is a song — and, crucially, accompanying dance — called “Sorry Sorry,” performed by the popular K-pop “boy band” Super Junior. (And yes, there are already other fan-produced montages of it floating around.) Like lots of other popular song+dance routines (e.g., Crank Dat), one can search for “Sorry Sorry” on YouTube and discover a plethora of examples, from solo routines at home to large numbers performing their mastery of the popular steps in public.
Pointing me to just over 20 examples — again, a small slice of what’s up — DJ led me down a K-pop rabbithole, wherein I found residing alongside each other a marvelous variety of instances: slick commercial productions from Korea and ambitious spoofs from Mexico, goofy karaoke sessions, dead serious tutorials, all manner of home- and school-based versions, breathless TV broadcasts, anime remixes, toy robots, and of course, Filipino prisoners. (You just haven’t made it as a dance meme if the CPDRC hasn’t immortalized the choreography in all their orange splendor.) You can even see the choreographers of the dance, two guys from Los Angeles, strutting their stuff in their own darkened dance studio version. It’s really quite a rich set of instantiations, raising on old question for me: what’s the text and what’s the paratext? (EL QUĂ?!). Take a look yourself –
One genre that I couldn’t resist including here, and which may also deserve the status of “YouTube native,” is the K-pop reaction video. Apparently, watching people watching people on YouTube on YouTube is a thing. Special thanks to longtime W&W interlocutor Alexis Stephens, aka @pm_jawn, for bringing this phenomenon, which really deserves a post or two of its own, to my attention. The K-pop reaction video gave me a way to frame the whole montage that was just too meta to resist.
What makes the example especially interesting to DJ — and notably what doesn’t show up as much on YouTube as the dance routine per se — is that, back in 2009 or so, the particular hand-rubbing gesture for “Sorry Sorry” entered the greater gestural lexicon. People would do that hand-rub gesture anytime they apologized! Such quotidian moments don’t show up especially well on YouTube, but one other interesting example of the dance’s “migration” connects to DJ’s work on music in Taiwan. As you’ll see at the end of the montage, a Taiwanese artist named Suming incorporates the gesture into a video for his song “Kapah” that mashes up a variety of traditional and popular Taiwanese (and other) gestures and references.
There’s a great deal to be teased out here, obviously, and it’s our collective hope to do some of that tomorrow morning while also gesturing (sorry sorry) to other possibilities and uses of YouTube, whether we’re thinking (or singing or dancing) as scholars, teachers, artists, choreographers, or toy robots.
Been thinking about “native” YouTube genres, or genres which, in their way, are “native” to the platform, having necessarily emerged on YouTube — new forms and conventions, in other words, essentially made possible by YouTube’s existence and special features (especially, but not limited to, unprecedented access to an endless archive, thanks to massive uptake and network effects).
Lots of forms and practices that might seem novel to YouTube have been around as amateur / fan / folk / underground culture forever, which is why it may be instructive to ask not only about what is now more spectacular or obvious or invigorated (though those are all good queries), but what is also necessarily new (i.e., native). This would help us get a better idea of this juncture’s interplay between creative process, media ecology, and tech affordances/constraints.
I liked how several of my students’ YouTube montages from last fall — in seeking to plumb a song’s social life as depicted, richly if always incompletely, on YouTube — revealed certain YouTubey genres alongside and amidst the sundry contexts of meatspace (homes, buses, studios, stages) and their associated, overlapping genres (personal, public, pedagogical, performative and so on). Things like, say, Sponge Bob or Barack Obama belting cut-n-paste pop jams –
In addition to productions like these, native genres to YouTube would also have to include the likes of YouTube Poop, which, as the name suggests, is fairly obvious (if meta/dada) in its YouTubeness.
A lot of these examples are, tellingly, pastiches or other remixes — not surprising, given 1) wealth of access and 2) ease of editing — but native genres on YouTube are not limited to that mode. Something like the “Harlem Shake,” for instance, in centering on a shareable/viral syntax rather than a particular gesture or sign, suggests a class of YouTubey forms that are distinct from, say, the latest neighborhood dance step to jump from the corner to all corners (though those are also, as I’ve explored before, very much themselves YouTube abetted now).
In search of other native genres, I tried a little poll yesterday on Twitter, and I was treated to at least one class (or maybe more) of arguably native YouTube genres that have little if anything to do with remix or pastiche. One particularly interesting rabbithole, or more like a vacuumtube (if not quite a 9 hour suck), led me into a world of looooong non-musical sound clips on YouTube.
S/o Young Heraclitus / Dreamboat Slim for promptly pointing me to a video given the alluring billing of “Vacuum Cleaner Relaxation White Noise Sound Sleep Colic” and tagged with such canny search engine optimization as –
Mask Tinnitus, Sleep Aid, Enhance Privacy ,Block Distractions, Pacify children and pets, Soothe Migraines, Increase Focus
Lessen Stress vacuum cleaner sound
vacuum cleaner noise
sound of vacuum cleaner
noise of vacuum cleaner
Included in the description, you might be glad to hear, was a link to a page where one can download a 109mb 717 minute mp3. The page helpfully reads: “1 Man, 12 Hours of Vacuuming” and “You’ll get an MP3.”
Incidentally, I think the epic “performance” may simply be a 15 minute-or-so loop, but I haven’t studied it so closely; that said, I did have it on for a good hour yesterday. At low volume, I found it remarkably compelling.
Anyway, before you download, you might want to check it out on YouTube:
I should have suspected, I suppose, but it turns out there are LOTS of videos in this vein. The vid above leads, via YouTube’s recommendation engine, to any number of similar or indistinguishable efforts (especially at low volume). This 8 hour piece claims to be a “remix” but I have no idea what that means:
Truth be told, there’s a veritable plethora of epic ambient videos freely available on YouTube for your very own epic ambient experience, which, based on the descriptions and comments, mainly seems to be sleep. These include such evergreens as “Airbus 320 Cabin Sounds – 12 Hours – Take Off and Complementary treats served” or “The Sound of a Air Conditioner.” But for my money (i.e., earballs), you just can’t beat “Sucks 9 Hours” (tagged: Hood Fan Sound, Range Hood, Ventilation Fan, Cooker Hood, Extractor Hood, ASMR), though “The Sounds of a Box Fan 8hrs” (also available in mp3) is a close second –
This particular form’s nativity is, of course, directly related to one relatively big affordance: the unprecedented access to time that YouTube now provides. People, especially the non-Warhol sort, just didn’t typically make 7-12 hour films very frequently prior to the advent of unlimited time on YouTube. So one emerging “native” dimension of vernacular video we might lay at YouTube’s feet is the sudden desire to exploit the “platform” as something other than a visual medium — but not just as a jukebox, rather as a long duration white noise machine (or pink, if you prefer).
But another arguably “native” dimension here — at least in terms of popular practice — is this particular use of sound, via YouTube, to produce physical/psychological/psychosomatic effects. Many of the videos like those above, you may notice, are also tagged with ASMR — i.e., âAutonomous Sensory Meridian Responseâ — which Joshua Hudelson describes in a post on Sounding Out! as “a pseudo-medical designation whose native soil is YouTube.” (h/t @pm_jawn)
For Hudelson, ASMR videos “traverse the gap between the sonic and the haptic.” Notably, for all its “nativity,” this blurring across sensory registers as well as cultural domains / listening contexts, and this particular use of YouTube as source of pleasure and therapy, makes for an uneasy and sometimes rather dissonant experience. According to Hudelson,
The slow-paced, low-volume respite that Whisper videos offer is made all the more necessary by the fact that viewers must go online to watch them. This paradox is amplified by YouTubeâs advertisements, which will sound especially abrasive because viewers tend to turn the volume up while listening to Whisper videos.
While this discordance may be more acute in the “Whisper video” genre Hudelson examines, than, say, low-volume and interminable ambient noise clips, it does suggest that native genres on YouTube are not exactly “at home” there even if that’s where they reside. In other words, just because something is native to an ecosystem doesn’t mean it will enjoy ideal symbiosis.
Which is certainly one insight to emerge from this vacuumhole.
But what else am I overlooking/hearing/touching? Let me know. I’m all earballs.
Thanks to Todd Burns for the keen editing, making things nice and concise. Per usual, I’m going to take the opportunity to use my blog to run an author’s cut, or an unabridged version. A couple missing paragraphs below help flesh out the picture, especially regarding the Afro-Jamaican roots — and, hence, pan-Caribbean / Afrodiasporic resonance — of the dancehall riddim that started it all. A phrase like “Steely & Clevieâs post-Poco riddim” might seem like a slightly cryptic reference without this particular passage (i.e., paragraph #4 below); but maybe people thought I was calling it post-colonial, which is also true.
I’m also happy to report that a forthcoming issue of Wax Poetics will feature an article I wrote entirely about the (once mysterious) origins of reggaeton’s bedrock riddim on the unlikely outpost of Long Island, heavily featuring Boom’s manager Pucho Bustamante (who I interviewed a few years ago on MySpace). Will let you know soon as that one’s ready to read!
For now, head over to RBMA for their slick version, see below for the full monty, & check out this video I whipped up (also at the RBMA site & embedded below) to see & hear how the various versions all relate. If you want to get even more dembow in your ears, there’s lots to find around the web, but here are a couple of mixes I’ve made that focus on it: Dembow Legacies, Dembow Dem.
Without further ado, let’s loop –
In the world of sample-based music, few recordings have enjoyed so active an afterlife as the Dembow. A two-bar loop with unmistakably familiar kicks and snares, it underpins the vast majority of reggaeton tracks as an almost required sonic signpost. Thanks to crossover jams like Lornaâs âPapi Chuloâ and Daddy Yankeeâs âGasolina,â the Dembow has spread its distinctive boom-ch-boom-chick to glossy Latin pop, raw electro-chaabi in Egypt, transnational moombahton, and Indonesian dangdut seksi, to name a few.
With such remarkable resonance and staggering frequency of appearance, the Dembow would seem to deserve a place alongside such well-worn loops as the Amen break, the Triggerman, the Tamborzao. All these brief but inspired moments âon tapeââand all of them rolling drum rhythmsâafter having been sampled and looped and diced and spliced by hundreds and hundreds of digital-age producers, have proven so crucial to the sound of entire genres that they have taken on names, and lives, all their own.
There are a few things, however, that make the Dembow an unusual member of the sample canon. For one, the recording most often identified as the origin of the sample is not actually the source of reggaetonâs favorite loop, not exactly anyway. Itâs true that Shabba Ranksâs anti-gay, anti-imperialist anthem âDem Bowâ may as well be patient zero for the infectious rhythm that still carries the songâs name, but samples of the track accompanying Shabbaâthe riddim in reggae parlanceârarely actually turn up in reggaeton. Jamaican studio duo Steely and Clevie deserve credit for the bouncy beat they boiled down for Bobby Digital, but not as the creators of a intensely re-used sound recording. Rather, their riddim planted the seed that would grow into what we now call Dembow.
Like other popular riddims the duo produced in the early 90s, especially Poco Man Jam (to which Dembow is audibly indebted), the track accompanying Shabbaâs rally-cry draws on the deep rhythms associated with Pocomania, a neo-African Jamaican religion with practices and aesthetics that run parallel to other post-slave cultures across the Caribbean. The driving boom-ch-boom-chick that emerges between the steady kick on each beat and the polyrhythmic play of the snares, can also be threaded through rumba, salsa, soca, bachata. Itâs at the heart of whatâs been called jazzâs âSpanish tinge,â known variously as the cinquillo or the habenera. This may help explain the broad appeal of these particular Jamaican recordings, why Puerto Rican hip-hop producers moved more or less wholesale into making Spanish dancehall, and how reggaeton so quickly swept across dance scenes across the Americas and beyond. Shabbaâs âDem Bowâ was a big chune in the wide world of reggae, and not just because of its bullish stance, colorful lyrics, and catchy chorus.
But rather than samples of Steely & Clevieâs riddim resounding from trunks across the Spanish-speaking world, and rather aptly given reggaetonâs transnational roots, the set of sounds most often identified as the Dembow per se (as opposed to just the generalized rhythm which, confusingly, is also sometimes called Dembow), is a version cooked up by Jamaican and Panamanian collaborators laboring on Long Island, NY in the early 90s to create reggae en espaĂ±ol anthemsâand succeeding.
By the early 90s, Philip Smartâs HC&F studio was the premier spot for producing dancehall hits, Jamaica notwithstanding. A native Kingstonian who apprenticed under King Tubby, Smart moved to New York in the mid-70s and launched HC&F in 1982 enlisting as house musicians such fellow expatriates as Dennis âThe Menaceâ Thompson, the sole musician credited with âDub Mix II,â better known today as the Dembow riddim, or in Panama, the Pounda. Initially crafted as an instrumental for Panamanian vocalist Nando Boomâs âEllos Benia,â a close translation of Shabbaâs âDem Bow,â Thompson captured the rhythmic essence of Steely & Clevieâs post-Poco riddim while adding some digital timbales and other touches for extra sabor at the prompt of Ramon âPuchoâ Bustamante, the Panamanian manager of Nando Boom who helped engineer the reggae en espaĂ±ol movement. The wordless version that would soon play backing track to hundreds of Puerto Rican rap parties was not actually released until two NYC-based Jamaican deejays, Bobo General and Smiley Wonder, recorded their own single over the riddim, âPounder,â with the dubbed-out instrumental as a quickly coveted B-side. (âA bad custom of the Jamaicans,â Bustamante once told me.)
When instrumental CDs such as Pistas de Reggaeton Famosas include a âDem Bowâ trackâand they always include at least oneâthe track labeled as such is nearly always based on the drums Dennis the Menace laid down for Nando Boom at HC&F. Likewise, do a search for âdembow loopâ on YouTube or 4shared, and youâll hear the same echoes there too. By this point, the instrumental has been looped, compressed, remastered, and reconstituted dozens of times over. But the lineage is audible, and it makes Dennis and companyâs Dembow one of a few recordings, like the Funky Drummer or the Apache break, which has provided the basis for hundreds if not thousands of other tracks.
The story of the Dembow and its legacy gets even more complicated, since beyond a relatively small circle of reggaeton producers and connoisseurs, when most people say Dembow, they refer to its rhythmâthe boom-ch-boom-chick patternâmore generally. And in practice, reggaeton producers have been chopping up dancehall riddims and recombining them with a greater interest in split-second allusion than faithful reproduction. While wholesale loops of Dembow do sometimes appear, reggaeton drum tracks tend more often to comprise samples drawn from a small storehouse of treasured timbres: a handful of reggae riddims which have animated Spanish-language dancehall for decades. Bam Bam, Fever Pitch, Drum Song, and yes, Dembow, are all common sources, but the ingredients could come from almost anywhere if they sound right. Reggaetoneros swap sample sets like playing cards, and a willy-nilly archive of reconfigurable samples traverses the North and South American Hulkshare-osphere like a reggaeton robotics kit. For lots of listeners and producers, any of the snares from these well-worn riddims, or any snare with similar properties, could suffice to say Dembow.
A line can be drawn from Steely & Clevie, though Smart and Thompson and Bustamante, to what we call Dembow today, but for all that collective, transnational effort, the foundation for this single recordingâs remarkable resonance was most crucially fashioned in mid-90s San Juan by proto-reggaeton pioneers like DJ Playero and The Noise. On their seminal underground mixtapes, these Puerto Rican producers took a hip-hop hatchet to dancehall riddims, chopping up favorite drum loops, baselines, and riffs to create dynamic, reference-laden collages of contemporary club beats for local rappersâ double-time, flip-tongue, street-level lyrics. Over the course of Playero 38 or The Noise 6 one hears a constantly shifting bed of beats composed of signature samples from Bam Bam, Fever Pitch, and the like. Dembow was such a staple source that the entire genre for a time, after being known as underground but before reggaeton, was simply called dembow.
Crucially, around the turn of the millennium, the Dembowâand Puerto Rican reggae en espaĂ±ol more generallyâwas transmuted and extended by DJ Blass. With the rise of Fruity Loops and other software, techno-inspired bleeps, presets, and arpeggios could be sutured to Dembow snares for a killer club-ready concoction. Blassâs mixtapes like Sandunguero and Reggaeton Sex changed the sound of what would soon be crowned reggaeton while maintaining important links to predecessors. Namely, by chopping well-worn loops into discrete kicks and snares, Blass could nod to the riddims that dancers, vocalists, and audiences had come to love while shaping the sounds into his own lean patterns. Blassâs influential techniques carry forward into the productions of the duo who finally took reggaeton to the pop charts and the Anglo mainstream, Luny Tunes.
If you listen to the track Luny Tunes produced for their biggest hit, âGasolinaââor most of their other pistasâyouâll hear snare samples swap every four measures, embodying in their own subtle but audible manner the loop-switching practices of Playeroâs proto-reggaeton. Revising the Dembow as something more general, more flexible, and in its way, less Jamaican than it had been, Luny Tunes honored reggaetonâs rhythmic and timbral heritage while opening it up to a new variety of textural, harmonic, and melodic gestures, especially âpan-Latinoâ sounds. When Wisin y Yandel reprise Shabbaâs chorus for their club-friendly, bachata-steeped, Luny Tunes-produced update of âDem Bowâ in 2003, the phrase has little to do with imperialism or sexual orientation and everything to do with the backbone beat and criss-crossing snares that compel people to perreo, or do the doggystyle dance so synonymous with the genre.
In the decade since reggaeton galloped into the mainstream, the Dembow has been Cubanized, Colombified, Peruvinated, watered-down, dressed-up, and recomposed to fit a thousand new contexts. Recently, the rhythmâand to a lesser extent, the riddimâhas even made inroads into the more frequently foursquare world of EDM via Dave Nadaâs moombahton, where Dembow comes full circle in a strange and surprising way. Nada famously invented moombahton by slowing down Dutch house tracks to please a house of reggaeton-loving teens, but the reason this worked was precisely because Dutch house had itself absorbed Caribbean rhythms via bubbling, a short-lived but influential local club scene clustered around Rotterdam, Amsterdam, and the Hague. Producing personalized soundtracks for dance battles, first- and second-generation kids from Curacao and Suriname made hyperspeed, bricolage remixes of the same dancehall riddims that had Puerto Rican youngsters going nuts across the Atlantic.
Slowed down once again and rebranded as moombahton, Nadaâs wildly successful experiment introduced the Dembow to new listeners across the networked world, especially after producers like Rotterdamâs Munchi heard ways to move beyond screwed house remixes and connect the burgeoning genre to its Puerto Rican cousins. Munchi was initially drawn to the genre because of his love of Dembow and reggaeton and the possibilities moombahton offered to revisit these irresistible rhythms: âThe idea was so simple,â Munchi wrote to me, describing moombahton as âTHE chance for reggaeton to get out of its hole.â Having nearly abandoned the stagnant genre, Munchi noted that âIt felt so good that I could make âreggaetonâ again.â And while no one would confuse Munchiâs genre-busting work with reggaeton per se, no one could deny the genreâs presence in his tracks.
For his part, Nada himself has occasionally sampled the actual Dembow riddim for his moombahton productions (though he wouldnât say which ones), but like many others, Nada more often recreates his own Dembow-indebted patterns using a variety of drum sounds and samples. âI’ve used it in the past to help dirty up a few tracks. I’ll mangle the sample and bury it though.â
Moombahton may have already enjoyed its moment in the social media sun, but there are other corners of the so-called global bass scene where that old boom-ch-boom-chick still resounds. âThe post-tropical flight from Caribbean percussion at the end of the mini-Moombathon craze has left a large side of EDM dembowless lately,â says Rizzla, whose soca and reggaeton influences help to keep Caribbean polyrhythms in the metropolitan mix. Rizzla trawls 4shared and Hulkshare for Dembow tracks and samples but reports that, âMost of the time I use sampled individual drums and reconstruct a Dembow with variations I make myself.â
Dubbel Dutch describes a similar process for his own productions: âI personally have never sampled the Dembow riddim but have used various rhythmic cousin ‘Dembow’ loops in my productions. Most of these I’ve found via reggaeton sample packs downloaded from 4shared while searching for Mexican tribal and perreo tracks.â Bearing witness to the sonic priorities of digital bass culture, Dutch confesses that, âAdmittedly, my awareness of certain loops has even preceded my knowledge of their origins.â Accordingly, he repurposes cherished dancehall loops without being parochial, which actually places him squarely in the reggaeton tradition: âOne of my favorite âDembow’ loops comes from the Fever Pitch riddim. That one keeps popping up at various speeds in a lot of my tracks. It manages to work flawlessly at just about any tempo, whether it’s a Dutch bubbling track or an 80 bpm reggaeton beat, which is sort of a rare quality for any loop to have.â
Not unlike their sample-raiding peers in reggaeton, then, producers such as Rizzla, Dubbel Dutch, and Uproot Andy tend toward an inclusive idea of what constitutes the Dembow riddim, complicating simple narratives of a single sampleâs afterlife. âI’d say the Fever Pitch (aka Rich Girl) âDembowâ loop is a better possible candidate,â Dubbel Dutch argued, âfor an Amen or Think type breakbeat.â
For Uproot Andy, who recently released Worldwide Ting, which he calls âan hour long celebration of the Dembow in all kinds of contexts, some natural and some forced,â even such tributes are necessarily mongrel in their make-up: âThe opening track is a song I just made called the âWorldwide Dembowâ and itâs sort of an homage to the Dembow rhythm, it samples Pablo Piddy, a Dominican dembow artist, saying âsi tu quiere dembow,â and the tune is basically a reimagining of Drum Song riddim (melodically), and Fever Pitch riddim (rhythmically), although it doesn’t actually sample either of them, but pretty much picks apart the elements and recreates them with more synthetic sounds.â
Uproot Andyâs reference to Dominican dembow bring us full circle for this lively, and living, story of a loved loop. No place today can lay stronger claim to bearing the Dembow flame than the Dominican Republic, where a rejuvenated version of San Juanâs proto-reggaeton, in all its referential richness, manages to move kids on the streets (and YouTube) and, increasingly, to move into the pop sphere as well.
In the mixes of DJ Scuff and countrymenâor, say, just about anything in the Dominican dembow Soundcloud groupâthe Dembow (as such) is on constant, quicksilver rotation with chops and stabs from Bam Bam, Fever Pitch, Poco Man Jam and the like. But once again, enthralled as Dominican dembow may be with such well-worn samples, its restless producers also emulate the voracious and pliant approach of their mid-90s muses, Playero and the Noise. So a classic hip-hop break like Think, or even funk cariocaâs Tamborzao, might make it into the mix. But no matter how wide the circle of references, the name of the genre bears witness, at bottom, to the fact that Dominican dembow is built on a commitment to some relatively old riddims and some far older rhythms.
For Linton Kwesi Johnson, the UK-based dub poet and bass culture theorist, the same dancehall riddims so central to the Dembow variations were popular precisely because they can sound at once modern and traditional. âOn one hand, this music is totally technological,â he notes, âon the other the rhythms are far more Jamaican: they’re drawn from Etu, Pocomania, KuminaâAfrican-based religious cults who provide the rhythms used by Shabba Ranks or Buju Banton. So despite the extent of the technology being used, the music is becoming even rootsier, with a resonance even for quite old listeners, because it echoes back to what they first heard in rural Jamaica.â
Uproot Andy offers a similar take: âIf reggaeton took the rhythm and ran with it, Dominican dembow brings it strictly back to the roots.â
Here’s what you’re seeing/hearing in the video above:
first, shabba ranks’s “dem bow” produced by steely & clevie (for bobby digital)
then, nando boom’s “ellos benia” produced by dennis the menace (for philip smart & pucho bustamante)
then, the instrumental of the boom track, released as “dub mix II” on b-side of “pounder” by bobo general & sleepy wonder
then, a commonly circulating version of the dembow riddim (“original”), audibly related to the dennis the menace instrumental, if a bit beefed up and boiled down
finally, a return to “dub mix II” to hear how dennis the menace added subtle dub effects to his track — sounds which never turn up in reggaeton productions because of the way the loop circulates as a digital (re)sample rather than a vinyl b-side
Wow, this is quite an amazing piece of work. Stephen Malinowski collaborated with Jay Bacal to make an animated graphical score of Stravinsky’s controversial classic. I love tracking music this way, far more interesting than a static and graphically impoverished waveform. Now that’s what I call technomusicology!
Malinowski and Bacal have carefully pegged shapes and colors to elements of orchestration and pitch, which makes it even more edutaining! Very cool to see all those tone clusters in action. Pitches have been matched to a twelve color wheel, and each shape corresponds to a family of instruments–
ellipse: flutes (also cymbals and tam-tam)
octagon: single reed (clarinet, bass clarinet)
inverted ellipse/star: double reeds (oboe, English horn, bassoons)
rectangle: brass (also, with “aura,” timpani, guiro and bass drum)
See the YouTube instantiations for an FAQ and more info, but I’m embedding parts 1 & 2 here for your viewing pleasure –
Thanks again to my eloquent interlocutors, all of whom had colorful stories & trenchant perspectives to share, and to the Together panel people — especially Sara Skolnik and Ethan Kiermaier — for making it happen. And thx to everyone who attended the panel, tuned in, and/or wish to help continue the convo.
Remember when I asked — rhetorically and remixically — whether there were limits to your love for Soundcloud? Well, it took a little over two years, but the super smart sample-sniffers over at Audible Magic have apparently finally decided that one of the two mashups I made by way of commentary / limit-testing should be removed for possible copyright infringement. Here’s the notice I received today:
When one clicks through to options, note that there is no recourse for anyone who does not own the copyright or have permission. In other words, there is NO FAIR USE in this world. Soundcloud does not want to be in the business of adjudicating the lines of transformative use; it wants to be in the business of datamining and other forms of monetizing all the activity on the part of users which makes the site what it is: yet another popular privately-owned public space.
I won’t go into all the lurid details yet again. I’ve said enough about Soundcloud’s practices & policies, as have others. But I promised “to keep you posted” on this little experiment, so I had to share this development here.
I can protest all I want. I can include lines like the following in my description: “I contend, especially for the purposes of critical commentary and educational applications, that this constitutes a ‘fair use’ of all materials.” But the bots won’t care, and I doubt the humans will either. Best I can do, if I really care about this audio residing on Soundcloud (which I don’t), is to upload again, perhaps with a little more sonic camouflage.
No need to bother with that. The limit has been reached. That said, I’ll be curious to see when/whether the “content protection system” (a rather Orwellian ring to it, no?) figures out that the removed mashup’s mirror-image twin, the “Feisty version” — the better/weirder, and the more popular of the two, as it happens — is still just sitting there, brazenly violating copyright–
Plus, I’m happy to note that the Blakey version is still available, with helpful visual tracking, c/o Vimeo:
Finally, my commitment to never paying Soundcloud for their “service” remains strong as ever. We’ll see how long my account lasts over there. Considering that I neither hold the copyright nor have permission for ANY of my uploads (which I suspect is the case for the majority of users), despite all of them bearing rather audible marks of my creative labors, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them disappear one by one. Get em while they’re there, and when they’re not, come get them here.
I’m happy to announce that I’m headed to the Big Apple this Friday for a couple awesome engagements.
First, at midday on Friday (12:10-2:50, to be precise), I’ll be guesting in ethnomusicolleague Ben Tausig’s class at the New School this semester, MP3: A Global Perspective. Our topic on Friday will be the history of filesharing, which I’ve weighed in on here and there. If you’re not aware, Ben is pretty cool. When not teaching about MP3s or designing crossword puzzles, he works on sound in Bangkok.
The class is open to whatever lil public it might address! Come find us at 66 west 12th street, room 002.
Later that night (much later — like, 10pm-4am) I’ll be tag-teaming the decks with another dear colleague (and, as it happens, recent New School grad), Chief Boima, at Bembe in Brooklyn. Extending the family affair, Brooklyn Shanti (who has a new EP out on Dutty Artz) will be playing host. Should be hot like toast.
Consider it another mode of file-sharing (esp since Boima uses Serato and I Ableton), but with particular and powerful attributes: realtime, face-to-face, only in that moment and space, quite #rare and #based.
Plus, it’s Boima’s birthday, so trust vibes will be nice. We’ll be keeping things rootsy for the most part, a bit more old school than new, but these traditions are very modern traditions and the lines get plenty blurred (especially by remixes). Boima offers the following track as a “sonic preview”; for my part, I might have to dig into some of the deeeeep repertories I’ve been teaching about over the last couple weeks.
It’s always a treat to play in the city that never sleeps. Lookin fwd to seeing some ol New York frens — and maybe making new ones.
Here’s another ten-years-gone re-post from the initial instantiation of my blog, back in 2003 when Rebecca and I moved to Jamaica for six months of doctoral research — and, as a side gig (if one deeply intertwined with my research), a series of digital music workshops in schools and prisons.
What I’m going to do in this case is cobble together and remix two overlapping posts by yours truly and my “companion on Hope Road” — detailing a trip to a nearby high school where we conducted one of our first workshops after moving to Kingston, exactly 10 years ago today. Mainly, what I want to share here are the ebullient sounds of students at St. Andrew High School for Girls freestyling about an upcoming teacher’s strike — and working up some first-time beats.
Howard Campbell is a teacher at St. Andrew High School for girls, just down the road from us in Halfway Tree. He is the head of the computer labs and the coordinator for all kinds of technology education at St. Andrew. We met him at the Harvard-Jamaica Association meeting where he had come with his friend Marvin, not because they were from Harvard or cared at all about a Harvard Alumni Association, but because they were educators interested in our project. In fact, it seemed that from experience both Howard and Marvin had learned that top-down organizations, such as the association we were forming and the school system in Kingston-St. Andrew were not the best way to get things done. They encouraged us to start from the teachers in the schools if we wanted to get in and start working. After seeing Wayne’s demo, Howard offered St. Andrew as a good place to start. Yesterday we went to St. Andrew for the first time.
At 8am we had a class of 4th formers (10th grade). We were to do a demo with them in this period and then a workshop with them from 10-11 in the computer lab. When Wayne got Fruityloops up on the screen and started talking, the class was polite and paid attention. Once he hit the first kick drum, they began to look really interested. And as soon as he put up a little hip-hop beat and then turned it into the grindin’ beat, they were hooked. (Side note: from Cambridge to Kingston, it seems that kids everywhere are loving the grindin’ beat and banging it out on their desks. Way to go Neptunes.) They started dancing in their chairs when he showed them how to make some dancehall. Next he made a song with the class, getting a few brave souls to make some noises and sing a bit and putting it together into a dancehall rhythm:
[2013 Wayne here just pointing out the obvious reference here to "In Da Club," another ubiquitous song at this time.]
At 9 they reluctantly left for their next class, seemingly a combination of a particular attachment to Mr. Campbell, interest in what Wayne was doing, and dislike of whatever they would have to do for the next hour.
At 10, girls piled in and sat one or two to a computer. Wayne managed to hold their attention for a few minutes to repeat some basics. And they got started. I was glad I had watched Wayne so much and messed around on Fruityloops myself because there were too many questions for Wayne to handle by himself. Girls went at different paces and made every kind of music from dancehall to techno. As they would run into trouble, Wayne would go to them and give them a few pointers to keep them moving in a good direction. At 11 they were all still going strong. Howard came and told us that it was their lunch period, but if we didn’t mind, they could stay. We didn’t mind. Most of them stayed through most of their lunch period and came away with some pretty good little songs.
Cue 2003 Wayne:
the workshop proved to be quite productive, if a little cacophonous at times. (half a dozen computers blasting beats together in a small room can create quite a sound clash, to use the local term; headphones are helpful). through their own predilections, and the contingent curve-balls of the creative process, the girls came up with some diverse stylings. “catherine’s rock rhythm” (as she titled it), probably takes its name from the “dirty-guitar” sample that, unfortunately, is missing here since i seem to be missing it in my own sound bank (i am converting it to mp3 on my laptop today, away from the school). nevertheless, it puts a strong foot forward with its bouncy bed of techno–not the most popular genre here but one in which a couple of girls decided to create.
sydoney and zelieka collaborated to create a rhythm that, while borrowing from the neptune’s ubiquitous grindin’ beat (in the third and fourth bars of each six-bar, AABBAA phrase), almost defies category with its future-funk, electro-slanted hip-hop.
and “shanika’s hip-hop beat” is, quite honestly, one of the illest things i have heard in a while. not bad for a first try!
we went home to have lunch and do laundry. at two o’clock we headed back to the school to do another demo–this one for an afterschool music club, which seemed like an appropriate audience. howard told us on the way down hope road that a buzz was already passing through the school, accelerated in part by my famous name. we had some time to see the grounds before the music club meeting, so howard showed us around. most impressive was a front courtyard where girls were hanging out and waiting to be picked up from school.
one group of girls stood in a circle under a tree, coaxing a makeshift rhythm out of an empty coke bottle and an igloo thermos. they were DJing, laughing, dancing and exhorting each other. it was an absolutely wonderful moment of improvisation and collective music-making. as howard (with his video camera), i (with mic and laptop), and becca (with her digital camera) moved in for some samples, it was clear that this cipher was no rehearsal. these girls were not only creating extemporaneous raps in DJ-style, they were humorously riffing on the topic of the hour: the imminent teachers’ strike and the small holiday the students would enjoy.
as the girls waited for the beat to begin again (having located another empty coke bottle), one called out for them to freestyle, dubbing the day “freestyle friday” — a reference to a popular segment during a music-video program on BET. the seamlessness of this reference in the context of the girls’ play is another testament to the fluidity of cultural forms here: hip-hop and other american exports are absorbed and spun back out, sometimes more and sometimes less like a copy. today was no copy. the girls may have assimilated the hip-hop term for in-the-moment rap, but their form was strictly dancehall. [Indeed, though I didn't realize it at the time, they were closely riffing on a beloved Shabba ranks routine.]
hear the distinctive 3+3+2 dancehall beat, the staccato, end-rhyme style of the vocals, the chorus of gun-shot-big-ups that follow the first good rhyme, the “booyaka” refrain — more onamatopoetic gunfire — that cracks everyone up. listen closer for the topicality of the text: “ting-a-ling-a-ling / school bell nuh ring / go and mek the teacher buy the bling-bling.” the call to give the teachers some money to buy jewelry and other nice things [but also basics, like "dumpling"] is at once a crack at those not providing for their teachers and a good-natured ribbing for the teachers themselves (who are either impoverished or greedy by implication). and lest one think these students are disappointed about school being cancelled, they dispel any such notions with a “no school” celebratory chant.
back to Bec for a sec:
“No school, no school!” was the main refrain and the main topic of conversation. Why? A nation-wide teacher’s strike is scheduled for Monday and Tuesday as a demonstration of dissatisfaction with the wage increase that the teacher’s union and the government have negotiated. Here, as in the U.S. but on a more extreme scale, the teachers are drastically underpaid and their work undervalued. Howard takes the problem quite seriously and is an active participant in organizing some form of peaceful resistance. He is clearly a caring and beloved teacher. He supports programs like ours as a way to move education forward in Jamaica. He is just the sort of person one would want to see standing up for the rights of teachers because it is teachers like him who demonstrate how much a teacher’s work is worth.
And I’ll pile on just a little more:
many of the students were worried about the strike, including a number of them pursuing a rumor that howard, a clear favorite at st. andrews, would be resigning. as various girls ran up to greet him after school, howard assuaged their fears and pointed out that, although he may be “on strike,” as they could see, he was still at school, and well into afterschool hours. as we continued walking through the grounds, on our way back to the computer lab, we came across a girl practicing piano in a large performance hall that stands in the middle of the campus. i got a little of her rendition of beethoven’s moonlight sonata on my laptop, a chord of which ended up in the song i created with music club, who decided to do their own little version of sean paul’s terribly popular, “gimme the light.” [n.b.: fairly horribly harmonized -- or not at all, really -- on my part]
after the demo, which was received positively, complete with (in true jamaican style) some fairly formal and very charming thanks from the music club’s spokesperson, i went back to the lab to collect the tracks that the students had created in the morning so that i could post them on the blog. at four o’clock on a friday afternoon, the lab was full of girls making music, most of them new. very promising indeed.
Ok, it’s more of a playlist, but now that I’ve got your attention…
Today in my other class, Music 97c (Music in Cross-Cultural Perspective), I threw a few limit cases at my students, inviting them to think about where people draw lines between music and non-music and why it’s worthwhile to acknowledge these as we seek to develop a deeper understanding of the diversity — but also the unity — of world musical practice.
One of our readings for this week takes on this project with full steam and inspiring empathy. John Blacking’s “Humanly Organized Sound,” a classic of the literature and the opening salvo in a profound larger work, How Musical Is Man?, seeks to understand what exactly constitutes musical capacity. Concise and provocative, the title of the chapter has become a useful shorthand definition of “music” for me and many others, if while drawing a possibly unnecessary and unfounded species-specific line around the phenomenon — but that’s a central part of the question.
“Humanly organized sound” is a very flat and encompassing way of defining music and its value to people. Among other trenchant points, Blacking wonders why the broadly distributed learned abilities to take part in musical happenings he observes in, say, Venda culture are oddly denied even as they’re exploited in the so-called West: in the US and UK, he notes, one hears on the one hand of exceptional musical geniuses and virtuosi and, on the other, of folks who learn to describe themselves as tone-deaf or left-footed. But at the same time, the near total suffusion of public and private spaces with music in these societies takes for granted — indeed targets — a baseline capacity for perceiving sonic order and interpreting it as music with meaning or message.
Against this background, having endured a little too much talk about who’s “primitive” and who’s made the most “progress,” Blacking minces no words, and his anti-elitist (indeed, anti-elite) politics ring clear:
Does cultural development represent a real advance in human sensitivity and technical ability, or is it chiefly a diversion for elites and a weapon of class exploitation? Must the majority be made “unmusical” so that a few may become more “musical”?
Recalibrating our sense of musicality in this manner demands, Blacking continues, that as good ethnomusicologists (aka, the scholars formerly known as comparative musicologists),
We need to know what sounds and what kinds of behavior different societies have chosen to call “musical”; and until we know more about this we cannot begin to answer the question, “How musical is man?”
Well, we now know a lot more about such matters, though to what extent that knowledge has redirected or reformed the prevailing ideologies of musical talent and value here in the US is another question. The fact that “Music in Cross-Cultural Perspective” remains a requirement of music majors at my present institution is itself a testament to the beachhead ethnomusicology has made and to the work that remains to be done.
At any rate, though this doesn’t directly speak to Blacking’s concerns as outlined above, here’s the first ontologically unstable sound object I played in class –
The description of the video reads as follows:
David Cope used his Experiments in Musical Intelligence program to compose Zodiac, twelve short works for string orchestra in the style of Vivaldi. This is Taurus. The video is also algorithmically created.
One might not fancy the rendition above all that much, if begrudgingly accepting that it resembles Vivaldi. Some might find it too computery to sound “human” — unnatural violin attacks like glimmers in a replicant’s eyes. But few would deny that it was in some sense a piece of music.
Arguably, Cope’s software’s opus is “humanly organized sound” in at least a couple ways: 1) a human organized the thing that organized the sound; and 2) human listeners perform acts of pattern recognition. In another way, of course — ie, having been generated by some lines of code — it is not. There is a degree of non-human input/output that unsettles. But should we care if we can’t pass a musical Turing Test? If human listeners — not to be confused with dolphins — organize the patterns of sound that reach our ears, why not call it music?
Well, by that reasoning, this would be music too:
But since we can’t really ask a hermit thrush or a line of code whether what they’re doing is “music” (at least not without being suspicious of the answer), we would do well to consider examples of patterned “non-musical” sound directly produced by humans.
For instance, this ol’ gem of the ethnomusicological canon:
If you’re not familiar, that’s James Koetting’s 1975 recording of postal workers cancelling stamps at the University of Ghana post office. The important gloss here is that although the workers were obviously whistling tunes (in this case a hymn by a Ghanaian composer) and banging out rhythms, the idea that they were making “music” instead of simply doing their job would have, according to Koetting, seemed quite strange to them and their co-workers. “It sounds like music and, of course it is,” writes Koetting,
but the men performing it do not quite think of it that way. These men are working, not putting on a musical show; people pass by the workplace paying little attention to the “music.”
Another example along these lines —
For certain devout Muslims, Koranic recitation (as well as call to prayer) is not to be confused with music. Indeed, for some (though Islam is a wide, wide world), “music” is haram, prohibited, an indulgence that distracts from virtuous worship. That said, a strong investment in sounding practices is more than audible here; it is practically crucial. To refit the Koetting prose above: This man is reciting, not putting on a musical show. But yeah, for many, to quote Koetting directly: “it sounds like music.”
This example led to a brief digression into a sound object about sound objects: a Radiolab segment which takes as its subject the tonal dimensions of spoken languages. The first 4.5 minutes result in host Jad Abumrad entertaining more or less the same question as our class: “What exactly is music, really?”
When speech — or anything else not performed as music per se — somehow, as a suddenly dialectical sound object, becomes music, has it also in some sense, then, passed beyond understanding? Beyond a certain degree of communication? From one metaphorical register to another, more ambiguous one? Is this implication of irreducible multivalence what makes “music” so odious, so haram, to some?
I raise the question of musical communication because it animates the other piece we read today, which will lead me to my final set of examples (though these aren’t about the same sort of ontology exactly). Steven Feld’s “Music, Communication, and Speech about Music” is a dazzling and humbling examination of how rich, complex, and slippery — or in Feld’s words “changeable” and “emergent” — the listening experience almost always is (not to mention the processes of communication it entails).
To illustrate the various, simultaneous, non-hierarchical “interpretive moves” we make as we listen, Feld offers the admittedly charged but usefully provocative “Spangled Banner Minor” by Carla Bley & her band. I’ve been working with this article and this piece for a while now, and let me tell you: it works every time.
Of course, I couldn’t resist pairing Bley’s recording with a more recent example, which you might say inverts the effect, rendering Michael Stipe’s ĂŒber-emo anthem far more shiny-happy than the wildly (and suprisingly?) popular original. I’m talking about “Recovering My Religion” of course, the Melodyne-assisted remix of REM’s 1991 hit which has raised hackles among the hey-kids-get-off-my-CD-tower crowd, but which is, especially for those of us who had the original tune brutally committed to memory by remarkably repeated exposure, a really striking twist of tone and, accordingly, message and meaning.
As fun and interesting as I think these philosophical/ontological questions about music(ness) can be — and as much as I subscribe to Blacking’s and Feld’s commitment to radical, relativist-universalist studies of music as social life — when it comes down to it, I think maybe humanly re-organized sound is what really pushes my buttons. But we’ll save that distinction for another date.