Recurring Themes, Part Six: Sleeper Artifacts

January 21st, 2008 | Category: Essays, Videos

“The essence of culture is found in all its artifacts.”
— Pete Robinson in Donald Antrim’s Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World

During one of our mid-session chats at the skatepark recently, my friend Greg mentioned that a lot of the older guys he skated with at various parks, guys who’d skated back in the late 70s and early 80s, started skateboarding again after seeing the Dogtown and Z-Boys documentary. I don’t know why, but this struck me as an odd phenomenon. I guess because it was a halo effect I hadn’t thought about.

Similarly, in Doug Pray’s 2001 movie Scratch, in interviews with a lot of today’s prominent turntablists, one of the questions was, “What made you want to be a DJ?” A large majority of the interviewees named Herbie Hancock’s 1983 hit “Rockit” as the defining impetus for their becoming DJs. This also struck me as odd since the main thing that stuck with me about that song was the video’s disturbing robotic mannequins (see below). “Rockit” is also a total anomaly in the Herbie Hancock canon, but it brought scratching to the mainstream with its infectious hook, based on the frenetic but rhythmic scratches of GrandMixer DST alongside Hancock’s catchy keyboards and mechanized vocals. Unbeknownst to me, it also had a major role in setting off what would become the turntablism movement — the DJ as musician.

RadI read a similar series of interviews with professional BMX riders a few years ago, and the same question was posed to the day’s top pros. Again, a large majority cited one cultural artifact as their starting point. This time, it was the 1986 Hal Needham movie Rad. Given my age, and the fact that I was already deep into BMX when Rad came out (I clearly remember going to see it the night it opened in my town in Alabama), I never thought that it would affect the sport the way it obviously did.

Along the same lines, Duane Pitre claimed Back to the Future (1985) was the reason he started skateboarding, and I’m guessing he’s not the only one.

These few examples demonstrate clearly to me that culture is about our relationships to cultural artifacts, and not necessarily their intended purposes. It’s about the effects of artifacts, and not the artifacts themselves. It’s about the ripple, not the rock.

I always cite James Gleick‘s Chaos as a turning point in my adult life. Reading that book turned me back into a reader and set me on my way to graduate school.

What cultural artifacts changed your path or had a deep impact on you?

Here is the aforementioned video for Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” (runtime: 3:25):

Further Posting:


  • Yesh! said:

    I think this is an interesting concept. Culture does depend on our relationships to cultural artifacts, but also I think in the relationship we sense, built over time, with others who have similar relationships with the artifacts.

    It seems to me that, true, the DJs there were affected by “Rockit”, but perhaps also — just as importantly — now continue to be affected by the fact that almost every other DJ they know was too. I guess it’s this accrual of personal relationships to something into a larger, group relationship to it that makes it an artifact?

    Oh, and I remember “Rockit” for the same reason you did – those crazy-ass mannequins. :)

  • William said:

    Funny that I should read this post today…

    I finally saw the “Dogtown” documentary just this past weekend and was so inspired that I dug my old Corey O’Brien board out of storage. It didn’t take me long to remember that I wasn’t that great of a skateboarder in the first place. Still, it was quite fun (and, I imagine, a strange sight for my neighbors).

  • Roy Christopher (author) said:

    Nice one, William.

    Does that board still have the Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me-era Cure logo on the griptape?

  • William said:

    You know it does (along with numerous “Unexplained” stickers, of course)!

    I still miss my Powell-Peralta “R.I.P.” board, though – I left it in the trunk of Scott Griffin’s car once, never to be seen again. If you remember, that one had some Mark Gonzales-inspired artwork on the griptape. It took me days to paint that.

  • Matt said:

    (1) Ace Frehley. Guitar. I’m by no means the only one.

    (2) Judas Priest’s “You got another thing coming” video: my gateway to heavy metal, which would occupy a tad too much of my life for the next 25 years.

    (3) Donnie Brasco (the movie) – inspired me to get into what may or may not be my current line of work (and as you know, Dan Fielding from Night Court was a definite inspiration for me getting into my old line of work).

    I’m pretty sure I saw Rad with you that day. This brings me to my top 2 movie-going experiences with Roy C. countdown:

    (2) The Negotiator, for our long streak of successfully predicting what would happen next all throughout the movie

    (1) Dead Poets Society, cause of the whole standing up on top of the seats thing.

    Good times, good times…