Some of my favorite records are the ones where a band leaps outside the bounds of their past and tries something their fans might not dig. I’m thinking of post-Until Your Heart Stops Cave In (Jupiter polarized their existing fans, while Antenna proved they were onto something new), Corrosion of Conformity’s definitively metal years (starting with Blind, but culminating in the Pepper Keenan-led Deliverance and Wiseblood), and even Kill Holiday’s swan song (Somewhere Between the Wrong is Right, on which they abandoned aggressive hardcore for an energized gothic-pop sound, by turns reminiscent of The Smiths, The Cure, and Ride). Sunbather doesn’t stray from the Deafheaven signature sound but strengthens it instead, and it reminds me of the things I love about the ill-fated albums above. Whether it was growing pains or genre strains, those bands all sacrificed something to pave the path for odd weldings and meldings of metal like this.
If Mayhem and Mogwai collaborated on a record in some other universe and someone brought it back to ours, it might sound like Sunbather. If Immortal and My Bloody Valentine melted into one smooth mound of blast beats and gauzy guitar, it might sound like Sunbather. If Emporer and Explosions in the Sky had naughty, noisy sex, it might sound like Sunbather. If Taake and Flying Saucer Attack collided head-on in midair at a thousand miles an hour in slow motion, it might sound like Sunbather.
Of course, Sunbather doesn’t and wouldn’t really sound like any of that nonsense, but the marriage of shoegazing and black metal makes a lot of sense. A match made made somewhere south of heaven, both subgenres are about meditation, contemplation, and introspection, in sharp contrast to the pomp and posturing of their rock forebears. While Deafheaven is easily among the best, they’re not the only outfit doing this misfit sound: Wolves in the Throne Room, Altar of Plagues, Light Bearer, Falls of Rauros, Panopticon, Liturgy, Krallice, and Seidr, among many others, are all bashing and bastardizing black metal into something else entirely.
When genre-specific adjectives fail, we grasp at significant exemplars from the past to describe new sounds. Following Straw (1991), Josh Gunn (1999) calls this “canonization” (p. 42): The synecdochical use of a band’s name for a genre is analogous to our using metaphors, similes, and other figurative language when literal terms fall short. Where bands sometimes emerge that do not immediately fit into a genre (e.g., Radiohead, dälek, Godflesh, et al.) or adhere too specifically to the sound of one band (e.g., the early 21st-century spate of bands that sound like Joy Division), we run into this brand of genre trouble. Even with a space seemingly cut out for them by a family of description-defying groups, Deafheaven is likely to work loose from any label applied to their sound.
Neither the bands nor the fans come up with these categories anyway. If it moves us, we don’t care what you call it. With renewed focus and fury, Deafheaven moves. George Clarke’s vocals have never sounded more shredded or sincere, and Kerry McCoy’s guitar work is driving, diving, and daring. The addition of Daniel Tracy on drums tightened the trio into an ensemble capable of new leaps, depths, textures, and sophistication. In spite of their often caustic heaviness, there’s a pop sensibility in there that can’t help but shine through.
“You might come across American black metal and see a greater tendency to humanize the terms, which may seem somewhat contradictory,” says He Who Crushes Teeth from California’s Bone Awl, “But I think an unknown goal in American black metal is to level the vocabulary and draw attention to the fact that nothing is outside of humanity” (quoted in Masciandro, 2010, p. 152). Kenneth Burke (1966) defined the human as “the symbol using, making, and mis-using animal, inventor of the negative, separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making, goaded by the spirit of hierarchy, and rotten with perfection” (p. 16). The very Burkean phrase “rotten with perfection” is an apt description of Sunbather, not only in its intent but also in its execution. “The ‘Sunbather’ is essentially the idea of perfection,” Clarke tells National Underground. “A wealthy, beautiful, perfect existence that is naturally unattainable and the struggles of having to deal with that reality because of your own faults, relationship troubles, family troubles, death, etc.” (quoted in Glaser, 2013). Balancing ambitions for more with appreciating what we have is a definitively human struggle.
“If you let go of the idea of perfection,” Anna Chlumsky once said, “a lot of beauty can happen.” Thankfully with Sunbather, Deafheaven endeavor to bring us both.
Here’s a brief peek into the making of Sunbather, which comes out June 11th on Deathwish, Inc. [runtime: 7:53]:
Burke, Kenneth. (1966). Language as Symbolic Action. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Glaser, Anthony (2013, March 11). Interview: Deafheaven. National Underground.
Gunn, Josh. (1999, Spring) Gothic Music and the Inevitability of Genre. Popular Music & Society, 23, 31-50.
Masciandro, Nicola. (ed.) (2010). Hideous Gnosis: Black Metal Symposium 1. New York: CreateSpace.
Straw, Will. (1991). Systems of Articulation, Logics of Change: Communities and Scenes in Popular Music. Cultural Studies, 5(3), 361-75.
I’m not much of a collector. I move too much to lug around vast amounts of anything except books, but in the last few years I’ve amassed an archive of Omni Magazines. For the uninitiated, Omni was the weird precursor publication to magazines like Mondo 2000 and Wired. It also serves as a bridge between the old order of science fiction (i.e., space ships, interstellar exploration, cold-war oppression, etc.) and the brink of cyberpunk (i.e., networked computers, chip implants, nanotech, etc.), the latter of which emerged during the periodical’s print run (from October, 1978 to Winter, 1995). I hoard and read Omni for the same reason I read old computer books, hacker histories, and science fiction at all, for that matter, and I’m not alone.
Besides the sheer historical function of my stacks of Omnis, which provide an archive of thoughts hardly thinkable now, one of the reasons I enjoy digging through them is the alternative futures featured in their pages. Omni often asked Big Thinkers of the time for predictions. Most of the target years for these prophecies have come and gone, so looking back to look forward is fun, funny, and informative. For instance, in the January, 1987 issue, David Byrne is among 14 thinkers asked about technology 25 years ahead, in 2007. Some of the others include Bill Gates, Timothy Leary, and George Will. In the retro-future sprit, Matt Novak’s Paleofuture, another great source of alternative futures, posted Byrne’s pessimistic predictions in 2011.
Looking back to look forward, speculating about what might’ve happened had history taken a different turn is largely the premise of steampunk. Sometimes called allohistory, sort of a retro version of design fiction, it’s all about exploring an alternative take on how things have happened. In Vintage Tomorrows (Maker Media/O’Reilly, 2013), James H. Carrott and Brian David Johnson, a historian and a futurist respectively, take their opposing backgrounds on a journey through steampunk culture. Though usual suspects China Miéville, William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and Cory Doctorow all show up in its pages, Vintage Tomorrows is less about the literature and more a global, ethnographic exploration of the whole culture. The gadgets, the costumes, and the reasons are all here in a highly readable, adventure-style form. Oh, steampunk is serious business, but fun is a big part of the focus. “Steampunk strikes me as the least angry quasi-bohemian manifestation I’ve ever seen,” says Gibson, “For god’s sake, it’s about sexy girls in top hats riding penny-farthing bicycles. And they’re all sweet as pie. There’s no scary steampunk.”
With that in mind, here’s an excerpt from my dissertation advisor Barry Brummett’s talk, “Jumping Scale in Steampunk: One Gear Makes You Larger, One Duct Makes You Small,” delivered on October 3, 2012 at our own The University of Texas at Austin [runtime: 4:34]:
You might think collecting outmoded, outdated magazines is silly, that looking back to look forward seems completely wrongheaded, but, as Henry Jenkins points out in the foreword to Vintage Tomorrows, Christopher Columbus sailed west to get east. Looking back to find paths not taken can yield interesting results. New lands await.
After years of trying to play the Hollywood game, Shane Carruth is finally back with a new film. That news on its own is enough to send cinema nerds scrambling for seats. Upstream Color, which Brian Rafferty at WIRED aptly calls, “beautifully baffling,” and about which Steven Shaviro tweeted, “wrenching, nearly impalpable. Left me dazzled, tongue-tied. Sort of the Martian riposte to Terence Malick? I don’t even..,” is definitely worth the wait. Carruth, who previously dazzled us with the self-produced, garage sci-fi thriller, Primer (2004), spent the years since trying to get a script called A Topiary made, which, even with the support of no less than Steven Soderbergh, never received the funding it needed. He was on hand at the Music Box Theater in Chicago last night and answered questions between screenings of his two films. Reluctant to offer up spoilers and background on the underlying elements of the story, he was additionally thwarted by the audience from doing so. Carruth did say that after all the time he wasted on A Topiary, he’s sold on the independent route he’s been following.
Where Blade Runner (1982) uses memory as the basis for identity, gifting its android Replicants with an implanted past thereby giving them a sense of self, Upstream Color manipulates its characters’ lack thereof. Not knowing exactly what happened to you means not knowing exactly who you are. Both Kris (Amy Seimetz, who, among other things, was previously in Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture; 2010) and Jeff (Shane Carruth, who also co-starred in Primer) have experienced a trauma they don’t recall, and their spotless minds do not yield eternal sunshine. Their missing memory strips them of their subjectivity, which is then built back up again in incomplete layers, juxtaposed with suspicion, worry, and paranoia. It’s an allegory and a love story, but don’t go in trying to figure it out.
The hollow, breathless feeling I always choke down at the climax of Primer was evident throughout Upstream Color. If the grammar of Primer is mechanical, spurred on by engineers spending their off hours tinkering in the garage, then Upstream Color is organic, revealing itself through rote ritual, hypnotic motion, and passages from Walden. Where Primer was wordy, stacked with dialogue and guided by Aaron’s answering-machine voiceover, Upstream Color is primarily nonverbal, a collage of scenes, snatches of dialog, subtle sounds, and spacious music. As a composer, Carruth gave props to my favorite score of all time, Cliff Martinez’s Solaris (2002). Though both are beautifully sparse yet eerily unnerving, his own soundtrack for Upstream Color owes little to Martinez (Clint Mansell’s 2009 Moon score has cornered that debt).
Carruth promised not to keep us waiting another nine years for his next film, saying he’s hoping to start production on his next project, called The Modern Ocean, this summer.
Here’s the official trailer for Upstream Color [runtime: 2:10]:
In late May of 1980, Joy Division had planned their first tour of the United States. Planned, that is, until just a few days before they were board the plane, Ian Curtis committed suicide. Life had been a few notches higher than hectic for Curtis for the months before the planned tour. He was juggling a family (Debbie and their one-year-old daughter Natalie), a girlfriend (Annick Honoré), and a band on the verge (they’d just recorded their second record, Closer, and were all set to tour the world), not to mention his epilepsy getting the better of him both on and off stage. They’d had to cancel several shows in England, and he’d already made an attempt on his life on April 6. All of the above would have been heavy load even without the disorder. Something had to break.
Even with his life’s story on film with the Anton Corbijn-directed Control (2007) and many books written, there remains so much mystery around Ian Curtis. “He seemed able to surrender control of his life as if it was nothing to do with him at all,” his widow Debbie writes of him at the time of his overdose (p. 115). Indeed, he wasn’t much in control as the band went straight back to doing shows. “Ian went straight from his suicide attempt to a gig at Derby Hall, Bury, on 8 April 1980,” Debbie writes. He only sang two songs at that fabled show, which ended in an outright riot. Something, nay, many things had to break.
Just four years earlier on June 4, 1976, the Sex Pistols played another much-fabled show in Manchester to a few dozen people and even more empty chairs (the scene in the movie 24-Hour Party People supposedly has it about right). Supposedly everyone there left that show dead-set on starting a band. There’s even a book about it: I Swear I Was There: The Gig That Changed the World by Dave Nolan (Blake Publishing, 2006). In attendance were Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto (of the nascent Buzzcocks, who organized the gig but weren’t ready to play), Kevin Cummins (photographer who took many great pictures of the British punk and post-punk scene, including the one above), Mark E. Smith (The Fall), Mick Hucknall (Simply Red), Tony Wilson (TV personality and future Factory Records owner), Paul Morley (writer; chronicler of the Factory scene for NME; future co-counder of The Art of Noise), Rob Gretton (future manager), Martin Hannett (future producer), Morrissey (duh), and Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook (who of course went on to immediately start the band that would become Joy Division). Peter Hook gets all of this down in his newly released Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division (!t Books, 2013), and like Debbie Curtis, he was right there when it all went down, albeit facing a different facet of there.
“Inside Joy Division” is an apt subtitle for this story as Hook was as inside as one gets. Playing high on the bass, as apparently Ian liked it, Hook’s bass-lines are some of the most distinctive in rock music of any kind. Hook’s prose in the book is even-handed, heartfelt, and hilarious. He’s open about what he remembers and what he can’t, and he struggles throughout with the mystery surrounding Curtis. As troubled and tortured as he was, Curtis always said he was okay, and everyone believed him to the very end. A lot of it was apparently written right in his lyrics, giving them an eerie hindsight prescience. Debbie, Annick, Tony, Martin, Rob, Steve, Bernard, Peter–no one near him believed he was singing about himself. It was his art.
Like Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, and Darby Crash, Ian Curtis was the stormy center of an iconoclastic young band. They were all “serious young men with important things on their minds,” as Tim Keegan describes Joy Division in The First Tim I Heard Joy Divsion/New Order (see below). All of these singers left behind a legacy of longing, but Peter Hook’s book helps explain the groupthink that may have contributed to their early deaths. It’s tragic and truthful, complex and comedic, and essential reading for any fan of the band.
As many did at the Sex Pistols gig above, everyone has that moment with a band. Scott Heim has set out to capture them–poignant and palpable–in his The First Time I Heard... series. The Joy Division/New Order entry boasts tales from members of Lush, The Jesus & Mary Chain, Maps, Rothko, Stereolab, Swervedriver, The Wedding Present, Bedhead, Silkworm, and Jessamine, as well as writers such as James Greer (once of Guided By Voices himself), Daniel Allen Cox, Sheri Joseph, Mark Gluth, and Sylvia Sellers-Garcia, among many others.
Having missed his one chance to see Joy Divsion before Curtis died, Philip King describes seeing New Order for the first time a few months later: “My memory of the show was the band looking very numb and solitary as though they were all on their own separate islands, having to deal with their grief on their own–and there being a very conspicuous space, center stage, where Ian Curtis would have stood.” The song “Ceremony” stands in that liminal space between Joy Division and New Order, between the presence and absence of Ian Curtis. Joy Division only performed the song live once just a week before Curtis died, and it became New Order’s first single. Illustrating that middle, and the lasting influence of both bands, here’s Radiohead doing a rather Pixiefied version of “Ceremony” [runtime: 5:01]:
Like that song, The First Time I Heard Joy Division/New Order illustrates the how important the Ian Curtis mythos is to the experience of these two bands but also how much it’s just about rocking out to great music.
I’ve got the spirit, but lose the feeling.
— Joy Division, “Disorder,” Unknown Pleasures
Chris Ott describes Joy Division’s music as “potent as any drug: overwhelming, stupefying, and certainly addictive” (p. xvi), and Simon Reynolds cites Unknown Pleasures as one of the trinity of “postpunk landmarks” from 1979, along with Talking Heads’ Fear of Music and Public Image Ltd’s Metal Box (p. 164; to which I would add Gang of Four‘s Entertainment!). Joy Division’s odd conventions are among the “hallmarks of indie sound” (Reynolds, 2007). One can hear their punky proto-goth in everything from Low, Codeine, Radiohead, and Godflesh to the more obvious Bedhead, Bloc Party, and Interpol — the latter of whose resemblance prompted my friend Max Bristol to quip, “Joy Division is a band, not a genre.” Joking aside, their legacy still lingers.
Listening to Joy Division as much as I have over the years and particularly in the past few weeks, a few key things about them emerge. As most of the above witnesses and writers are quick to point out, their chemistry is undeniable. As large as the presence and subsequent absence of Ian Curtis looms, Joy Division was the distinct product of these four guys. Think about most other truly great bands: They are something beyond their sum. It wouldn’t be what it is otherwise. Another thing that becomes evident is that they were still growing. Joy Division only recorded two full-length records and a handful of singles. Some of them are rock n’ roll romps reminiscent of Chuck Berry, some of them are Sex-Pistols punky, some of them hint at the goth/industrial bent that others would later pick up, and some of them are something else entirely. Their sound just wasn’t quite developed yet. With that said, it’s also obvious that they are one of the greatest groups to ever do it. There’s no mystery about that.
Astor, Tom (Producer), Gee, Grant (Director), & Savage, Jon (Writer). (2007). Joy Division [Motion picture]. United Kingdom: Hudson Productions.
Corbijn, Anton (Producer/Director), & Greenhaigh, Matt (Writer). (2007). Control [Motion picture]. United STates: 3 Dogs & a Pony.
Curtis, Deborah. (1995). Touching from a Distance: Ian Curtis and Joy Division. London: Faber & Faber.
Eaton, Andrew (Producer), Winterbottom, Michael (Director), & Boyce, Frank Cottrell (Writer). (2002). 24 Hour Party People [Motion Picture]. United Kingdom: Revolution Films.
Heim, Scott (ed.). (2012). The First Time I Heard Joy Division/New Order. Boston, MA: Rosecliff Press.
Hook, Peter. (2013). Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division. New York: !t Books.
Nolan, Dave. (2006). I Swear I Was There: The Gig That Changed the World. London: Blake Publishing.
Ott, Chris. (2004). 33 1/3: Unknown Pleasures. New York: Continuum.
Reynolds, Simon. (2006). Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984. New York: Penguin.
Reynolds, Simon. (2007). Bring the Noise: 20 Years of Writing about Hip Rock and Hip-hop. London: Faber & Faber.
Full disclosure: I have an essay in the forthcoming collection The First Time I Heard My Bloody Valentine.
The figureheads of an entire subgenre of modern rock music, My Bloody Valentine is the only band in history to make a career out of not releasing a record.
Following the likes of Glenn Branca, Band of Susans, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Phil Specter, and Alan Moulder, as well as the core sound associated with Alan McGee’s Creation Records, My Bloody Valentine became a genre unto themselves with their second full-length record. Released on November 4th, 1991, Loveless was Kevin Shields’ self-proclaimed masterpiece and few have disagreed with that designation. Its sultry vocals buried in layers of guitars launched a thousand imitators as it became one of the most influential records of the 1990s.
After Loveless came out, The Stone Roses waited five years to release a great follow-up record and everyone hated it. The Britpop of the era hadn’t been much for following-up on its initial brilliance. As of last night, My Bloody Valentine has finally tried. They’ve delayed this record so many times that most of us doubted it would ever happen, yet according to the server load on their website last night, they found what the world was waiting for.
It’s difficult to say what any of us expected from a follow-up, but wearing out the Reload button on our web browsers probably wasn’t one of them. Regardless, mbv is apt. It’s noisy and beautiful in the way that all of their records are, and in that way that only they can seem to do.
It’s also still sinking in. Upon a day or so of listening, I can definitely say that I like it. I’m glad it’s here. It seems choppier and less seductive than Loveless, perhaps less love than Loveless. It’s thornier, worn down, weary, and gives less of a fuck. One thing’s still for damn sure: No one does this sound better than My Bloody Valentine.
For example, here’s “In Another Way” from mbv, which I could listen to all day [runtime: 5:32]:
In the meantime, Loveless has been lauded, applauded, imitated, reissued, copied, covered, and worshipped. In 2007, Athens, Georgia’s Japancakes did an all-instrumental cover album of the whole thing. Here’s their version of “Only Shallow” [runtime: 8:57]:
As if anticipating the stars’ alignment, a couple of other MBV-related projects have emerged more recently. A little over a week ago, Japan’s High Fader Records released a Loveless tribute album called Yellow Loveless, which is much, much better than similar send-ups usually are. Tokyo Shoegazer’s two covers sound damn well indistinguishable from the originals, Lemon’s Chair stay true to their two entries as well, Shonen Knife evoke the girl-group roots of shoegazing pop on their version of “When You Sleep,” and the mighty Boris do a slowly crushing but primarily faithful rendition of “Sometimes.” Goatbed stray the furthest from the original “Loomer,” making it almost all their own. But the real gem here is Sinobu Narita’s “Blown a Wish,” which takes the original to dreamy new heights. Here’s Yellow Loveless in full [runtime: 1:01:25]:
In a slightly more experimental vein, Bullet for My Bloody Valentine is an hour-long drone-fest released late last year that makes its source material sound downright poppy. As described on the project’s Bandcamp page, the record is made up of “tracks taken from My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless and Bullet For My Valentine’s The Poison slowed down, the best bits cut out and layered on top of each other to create some sort of droney noise album.” It sounds nothing like either record, and it’s actually quite nice.
So, MBV fever is at an all-time high, but it’s hard to say if mbv will be judged well considering its predecessor and the decades in between. I for one aim to ignore the inevitable backlash that’s been germinating for the twenty-one year wait and enjoy the new My Bloody Valentine record. Finally.
The last few years have been hectic, and 2012 kept it moving in a big way. I’ll get to my personal stuff in a bit, but first, here are the people, events, music, and media that shaped my year.
Encounters of the Year: I had the honor of breakfast with longtime mentor and friend Howard Rheingold at SXSW this year. Howard has offered me endless advice and encouragement over the years online, and it was a true treat to chat with him face-to-face over a meal.
Also at SXSW, I was invited by my good friend Dave Allen to sit on a panel about music technology with Rick Moody, Jesse von Doom, David Ewald, and Anthony Batt, all of whom I am proud to now call friends. I’ll never forget the look on Rick’s face when I asked him to say grace at lunch that day.
We also ran into Hank Shocklee who was doing a panel discussion adjacent to ours. As the architect of the Bomb Squad, who produced such frenetic noisefests as Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Fear of a Black Planet, as well as Ice Cube’s Amerikkka’s Most Wanted, Hank has been a hero of mine since high school. He hung out and conferred with us like we were all old friends.
Comebacks have really made a comeback this year.
— Seth Cockfield via Twitter, December 3rd, 2012.
Speaking of Public Enemy, I caught “The Hip-hop Gods Classic Tourfest Revue” at The House of Blues in Chicago on December 5th. I hadn’t seen P.E. since 1991, and I’ve only seen them on package tours like this (once in 1990 with Digital Underground, Kid N’ Play, Queen Latifah, and The Afros, and twice in 1991, once with Sisters of Mercy, Gang of Four, Warrior Soul, and Young Black Teenagers, and again with Anthrax, Primus, and Young Black Teenagers). This time around it was them, X-Clan, Monie Love, Leaders of the New School, Wise Intelligent, Schoolly D, Son of Berzerk, and Awesome Dre. Chuck did a lot of talking and Flav did a lot of goofing, but the few songs that they did–both old and new–were absolutely on point.
Earlier in the year, I barged into Helmet’s dressing room at The House of Blues in Chicago to meet Page Hamilton. In my defense, I was looking for Ume‘s room, and once inside, I asked Page where it was. Before I left, I got Lily to take a picture of us together because people always say we look alike, to which Page quipped, “Yeah, but I’m 105 and you’re, like, 29.”
Coup of the Year: Death Grips: As Christopher R. Weingarten explores in his “Artist of the Year” story on Spin.com, Death Grips showed how to use technology to get what you want, and then disappear before anyone knows what happened. They duped the internet, a major label, and their fans and became one of the most talked-about artists of the year. It goes, it goes, it goes…
The Return of Aggro Rag Freestyle Mag: While Mike Daily has been perpetually busy over the twenty-two years since he ruled the BMX zines, he brought Aggro Rag back out for one last issue before the zine gets anthologized in book form on new year’s day, 2013. The come-back issue boasts interviews with fifteen flatland undergrounders like Mark McKee, Aaron Dull, Gary Pollak, Chris Day, Jim Johnson, Derek Schott, Gerry Smith, and Dave Nourie. Being “The Hip-hop Issue,” the zine also features interviews with Dark Time Sunshine, Sole, and a review of Death Grips’ Money Store.
Daily even asked me to contribute an interview with my friend Aesop Rock, which you can read right here. Big props to Aes for bringing sketchy back this year with Skelethon, giving wack(y) haircuts on tour, sporting the hobo beard™. The steez is on lock.
Music of the Year:
I’ve clearly had a Gunplay problem this year:
Other than Gunplay mixtapes and my usual prog/post-rock fare (e.g., Radiohead, Mogwai, The Mars Volta, Eno, Baroness, Followed by Ghosts, God is an Astronaut, etc.), these are some releases I relished:
Erik Blood Touch Screens (Erik Blood): How much reference to previous work is the right amount? Thomas Kuhn called the dialectic between tradition and innovation the “essential tension,” and Erik Blood has found the perfect middle. To call Touch Screens unoriginal would be to admit you didn’t listen to it. Yes, this is stuttery, gooey, taffy-like pop in the vein of Brad Laner and Kevin Shields, but Blood puts these things together with that third thing, the thing that comes from more than just nailing the essential tension.
“Most of [the shoegazers] couldn’t rock their way out of a paper bag,” once quoth Simon Reynolds. Not so with Erik Blood. There’s as much Loop here as there is Main, as much Anton Newcombe as there is Courtney Taylor-Taylor. I also hear some Can and Neu!, which Blood claims he likes but doesn’t consider an influence. “Though I guess everything one hears is an influence,” he concedes. I could listen to the last half of “Amputee” all damn day. “That’s the idea,” he told me. Blood broadcasts these soundtracks from some unplaceable future, some unknown space out of time.
With a pornography-related concept and a cover reminiscent of H. R. Giger’s painting for Dead Kennedys’Frankenchrist poster, Touch Screens is guaranteed to offend some. Don’t be scared, especially if you like your valentines bloody and your Warhols dandy.
JK Flesh Posthuman (3by3): To explicate the pedigree of Justin K. Broadrick would require a book-length exploration, but let’s try to nick the surface. He was a founding member of Napalm Death, invented and inverted genres in Godflesh, and happily drones in headphones in Jesu—not to mention stints in final, Head of David, Fall of Because, Ice, God, Techno Animal, Greymachine, and Pale Sketcher, among others. Now Broadrick revives his JK Flesh moniker to make some noise that doesn’t fit under any of his other active names. The sounds on Posthuman land between the lines and demonstrate that the disc deserves its own designation. Sure, there are echoes of past projects, especially Greymachine and Pale Sketcher, but this record has a soul of its own. A soul that deserves to be played very loud. These songs need to stretch out, to reach out, and to touch someone. “Idle Hands” sounds like some bastardized, end-of-the-world Hip-hop (apocalypse-hop?), the title track is the theme song to a spy movie with an all-android cast, and the other ones will satisfy your need for a soundtrack to entropy and the heat-death of the universe. No one knows what that would sound like better than Justin Broadrick.
Neurosis Honor Found in Decay (Neurot Recordings): Among the many burgeoning subgenres of post-metal, there is one band that is consistently named as a starting point: Neurosis has been bending and rending metal, punk, crust, sludge, drone, doom, ambient, folk, and other odd musical categories since 1985. Their latest, Honor Found in Decay (Neurot Recordings, 2012) more than illustrates both why they’re the godfathers of this sound and what exactly it is that all of their progeny are still trying to achieve.
On their tenth studio outing, the Oakland sextet gathers together pieces from their storied past to pull off a defining document of their sound. Honor Found in Decay is that rare record that serves the seasoned fan as well as the newbie. It continues their long and fruitful recording relationship with Steve Albini. The ten-plus-minute dirges are here (e.g., “At the Well,” “My Heart for Deliverance,” “Casting of the Ages”). The growling and wailing are in tact (e.g, “Bleeding the Pigs,” “Raise the Dawn”). The bulldozer grooves are as deep and wide as ever (e.g., “We All Rage in Gold,” “All is Found… In Time”). Like all of their releases since 1992’s Souls at Zero, this is nothing less than a monolithic affair.
Not that it doesn’t move them forward, but Honor Found in Decay feels like a summary of sorts—much like The Cure’s Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me and Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief were. And like those two bands, Neurosis has plenty to summarize: They’ve always pushed themselves in new directions and they’ve kept fans and critics guessing at every turn. Honor Found in Decay is just as complex and dynamic as the collective history that created it. It’s as lush as it is loud, as heavy as it is heady, and as mysterious as it is majestic. Your expectations will be immediately reached and quickly wrecked.
Other releases that stayed in the speakers and headphones include Deftones Koi No Yokan (Reprise), Baroness Yellow & Green (Relapse), The Mars Volta Noctourniquet (Warner Bros.), Sean PriceMic Tyson (Duck Down), and mixtapes by Waka Flocka Flame, Gucci Mane, Chief Keef, Alleyboy, and A$AP Rocky. Along with Gunplay (see above), Skweeky Watahfawls, Johnny Ciggs, Fan Ran and the whole Gritty City Fam are the finds of the year. Here they are with The Jam of the Year, “Hunnid Dolla Bills” [runtime: 5:23]:
Video of the Year: Killer Mike “Big Beast” featuring Bun B, T.I., Trouble, & El-P: If this video doesn’t move you in some way, you’re probably dead. First of all, the pairing of Killer Mike on the mic and El-Producto on production is a match made somewhere south of Heaven: It’s dark, it’s evil, it’s raw, and it’s hard as fuck and the record they just did, R.A.P. Music, proves it many times over. Next, we have this straight bananas lead track “Big Beast,” including sick verses by Bun B. and T. I. that will remind you why they’re both Hip-hop legends, and a catchy chorus by Trouble. Then, we have this face-eating, car-chasing, enthusiastically violent video that has them all doing some ill shit (that’s El-P in the mask) directed by Thomas C. Bingham and produced by CFILM1 in partnership with Adult Swim. Like I said, check your pulse [runtime: 9:23].
Movie of the Year: Looper.Rian Johnson is one of my favorite people on Twitter (his day-long stories about his beef with Jason Reitman are hysterical), and he’s finally made his Philip K. Dick movie. Time-travel is a trope I never tire of, and it’s used masterfully here, as in it stays out of the way of the story. Looper features stellar performances by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Paul Dano, and Jeff Daniels, but the real surprise was the young-but-amazing Pierce Gagnon. Watch out for that one.
Book of the Year: Nick Harkaway Angelmaker: A Novel (Knopf): Nick Harkaway’s second novel is a surrealist noir novel like no other. Angelmaker is heady and heavy, but Harkaway’s prose is giddy in its grasp. It’s a little bit steampunk, a little bit spy novel, a little bit mystery, and a whole lot of fun. As an added treat, I also got to interview him earlier this year, during which he told me of his writing, “…I suppose I have a tendency to use movie shapes — like the Classic Myth Structure George Lucas used for Star Wars — because they’re dramatic and recognisable and they keep you on track. Writing the kind of books I write, with lots going on, you need not to get lost. Structure helps. A story spine is vital. And so is knowing what the voice is, the tone. With those, you can go all over the map and come home safe, and you know it, and your reader gets that confidence in you and settles, so you can take liberties and amaze them. The less secure they are, the less likely they are to go with you when you do something unusual — and that unusual thing is often why you’re there, so that’s bad. They close the book. And once they do that, you have a hell of a time getting them to open it again.” Unlike several other books I read this year, that’s not a problem I had with Angelmaker.
Skateboard Video of the Year: Girl and Chocolate’s Pretty Sweet: You know nothing else came close.
Documentary of the Year: The Unbookables (Fascinator Films): The Unbookables are a loose band of comedians (emphasis on “loose”) handpicked by Doug Stanhope.This movie documents their 2008 tour of the middle of the country, from my own Austin, Texas through Kansas City, Missouri to Peoria, Illinois. The cast of characters (emphasis on “characters”) includes Brendon Walsh, Sean Rouse, Andy Andrist, Norman Wilkerson, Brett Erickson, Travis Lipski, James Inman, and Kristine Levine. The unfortunate star of the show is James Inman. If nothing else, this film documents how reckless behavior can bring people together as well as single one of them out.
The first gig is at Nasty’s in Austin, and one of my own University of Texas colleagues gets the narrative rolling by leaving drugs around for Inman to find, like an Easter Egg hunt with negative repercussions. I was at Nasty’s that night, and everyone killed. It was proof of both why these guys are The Unbookables and why they’re such revered comedians. Night two was a “chicken wire” show at Beerland during which chicken wire is draped in front of the stage and the crowd throws fruit at the comics while they attempt to tell jokes. True to its heritage, the show was a complete trainwreck with mostly just the comedians pelting each other with fruit. Few jokes were told as everyone just made fun of Inman.
Inman’s shady behavior continued through the gigs in his then-home Kansas City. He almost ditches the others as they get fired from the first show of the weekend there thanks to one of Travis Lipski’s tamest jokes. Tensions mount, Kristine Levine joins the crew, and the plot spirals out of control as our heroes reach Peoria. Luckily Brett Erickson is there to save the day.
There’s obviously a lot more to it than I’ve detailed above, but it’s not all worth mentioning. With that said, The Unbookables is a gruesome glimpse into the world of touring stand-up comedy, and it’s damn worth checking out. Props due to all involved — except Inman, of course.
Move of the Year: Austin to Chicago: Continuing the family trade, my girl Lily got into grad school at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, so we packed up and moved from the Tattooine of Austin to the Hoth of Chicago. Thanks to Zizi Papacharissi, I joined the adjunct faculty at The University of Illinois at Chicago. This will be the biggest, coldest city I’ve ever lived in, but we’re certainly enjoying it so far.
Many thanks to Chris Noble at Level Magazine, for which many of the reviews above were originally written throughout the year. Thanks to Tim Baker over at SYFFAL for turning me on to Gunplay and the Gritty City Fam. Mad thanks to Michael Schandorf, Adriane Stoner, and Zizi Papacharissi for making the transition to Chicago a smooth one. Onward.
Though he rarely gets his due outside of hardcore heads, Ice-T has always been one of Hip-hop’s best storytellers. Songs like “6 ‘N the Mornin'” (1987), “Colors” (1988), and “Drama” (1988) set the bar high for poetic narrative. These songs were gritty tales from the streets of L.A., “gangsta rap” before it was so-called (back then Ice-T called it “crime rhyme”). Now he’s set out to tell the story of Hip-hop itself in the documentary Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap (Indomina, 2012).
In addition to his pedigree as an emcee, Ice-T also knows every veteran of the game. On the selection of rappers in the film, he told Soul Culture (embedded below; runtime: 6:48), “I just went through my phonebook, that’s all it was. It wasn’t an intent to cut out the young kids or anything. I just said I’m going to do a movie (and) I can’t offer money. I can only get favors, so let’s call my friends. And I called up the people I toured with.” That explains a lot of the inherent omissions of a documentary of this nature. With that said, the film is a fun collection of thoughts from a range of Hip-hop luminaries. What it lacks in depth, it more than makes up for in breadth.
There is a literacy to Hip-hop. “It’s just like a language,” says DJ Premiere, “You have to know how to listen to it… And if you don’t know how to listen to it, it doesn’t make sense.” The Art of Rap is similar in that it helps to already have a knowledge of the history of the culture, its major players, and their relationships with one another. For instance, when fellow West Coast rapper Ras Kass asks if Ice is getting an interview with Xzibit for the film, Ice says he can’t find him. Ras calls XZibit at his house down the street, and Ice-T makes it his next stop. Or when he’s up in Eminem’s studio. After talking with Eminem at length, Ice is chopping it up with Royce Da 5’9″, and Em comes in rapping Ice-T’s “Reckless” from Breakin’ (1984).
When Ice-T sits down with many of these folks, it’s obvious that they’ve been friends and colleagues in this for years–especially people like Ras, Dr. Dre, Snoop, Ice Cube, Rakim, Redman, MC Lyte, Q-Tip, and Lord Jamar. With others, Ice doesn’t even step in front of the camera (if he’s even there; it’s especially noticeable during the Kanye West spot). The Art of Rap gives one glimpses of the heavies in the game, but knowing a bit of their backstory helps those glimpses go together.
Of course, Hip-hop has been explored in previous documentaries. Peter Sprier’s The Art of 16 Bars (QD3, 2005), DJ Organic’s Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme (Bowery Films, 2000), and Doug Pray’s Scratch (Palm Pictures, 2001) provide a decent overview of the complexity of this art form. But Ice-T brings a special touch to the film. He knows almost everyone in this movie in a way that other documentarians of same do not.
If you lack the interest or the time to read some of the great books written about the genre and culture, Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap won’t school you completely, but it’s a fun companion piece to your further knowledge. As always, Ice-T tells the stories well.
Maybe it’s apt that I don’t remember, but I somehow came across Tom Phillips‘ “treated Victorian novel,” A Humument (Tetrad Press, 1970), nearly a decade ago at San Diego State University. Phillips took William Mallock’s A Human Document (Cassell Publishing, 1892) and obscured words on every page, leaving a few here and there to tell a new story. It’s part painting, part drawing, part collage, part poetic cut-up, and all weirdly, intriguingly unique (You can view full pages from the book at its website).
Phillips claims that he picked A Human Document because of its price-point (“no more than three pence,” he said), but Mallock’s “novel” is oddly suited for Phillips’ repurposing. The original novel is a scrapbook of sorts of journal entries, correspondence, and other ephemera left behind by two deceased lovers. Mallock wrote of these scraps in his introduction that “as they stand they are not a story in any literary sense; though they enable us, or rather force us, to construct one out of them for ourselves” (p. 8). N. Katherine Hayles (2002) characterizes this introduction as “uncannily anticipating contemporary descriptions of hypertext narrative” (p. 78).
Tom Phillips is not the only nor the first to do such a work. According to Wikipedia,
Several contemporary writer/artists have used this form to good effect. Doris Cross appears to have been among the earliest to utilize this technique, beginning in 1965 with her “Dictionary Columns” book art. d.a. levy also worked in this mode at about the same time. Ronald Johnson’s Radi Os is a long poem deconstructed from the text of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Tom Phillips’ A Humument is a major work of book art and found poetry deconstructed from a Victorian novel. Similarly, Jesse Glass’ Mans Wows (1981), is a series of poems and performance pieces mined from John George Hohman’s book of charms and healings Pow Wows, or The Long Lost Friend. Jen Bervin’s Nets is an erasure of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Janet Holmes’s The ms of my kin (2009) erases the poems of Emily Dickinson written in 1861-62, the first few years of the Civil War, to discuss the more contemporary Iraq War.
@shaviro At St Marks bookstore. Realized that I no longer fetishize books as objects in the slightest (which I used to do). Prefer etexts now. (Tweeted August 24th, 2012)
The move to digital texts, which is gaining more and more zeal by the day, has put the not only the fetishization of books as objects in jeopardy but also seemingly the want or need for them at all. It’s not that repurposed books are a last-gasp marketing ploy by the publishing industry—like pretty CD packages with bonus DVDs or 3D movies are—but that there is a reason to fetishize them. As Jonathan Safran Foer (see below) put it, “When a book remembers, we remember. It reminds you that you have a body. So many of the things we may think of as burdensome are actually the things that make us more human.”
Books are only metaphors of the body. — Michel de Certeau
With that said, Austin Kleon stole like an artist and created a best-seller using only markers and copies of The New York Times. His Newspaper Blackout (Harper Perennial, 2010) takes Tom Phillips’ methodology to its basic tenet: poetry as erasure.
Taking a step up instead of down, Jonathan Safran Foer opted for literal subtraction, creating a textual sculpture. Foer treated his favorite novel, The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz (Penguin, 1963), by cutting out words, creating Tree of Codes (Visual Editions, 2010).
Giving due credit to his forebears, Foer told The New York Times, “It was hardly an original idea: it’s a technique that has, in different ways, been practiced for as long as there has been writing — perhaps most brilliantly by Tom Phillips in his magnum opus, A Humument. But I was more interested in subtracting than adding, and also in creating a book with a three-dimensional life. On the brink of the end of paper, I was attracted to the idea of a book that can’t forget it has a body.” Foer also acknowledges the project’s constraints as well as the power of his source material, adding,
Working on this book was extraordinarily difficult. Unlike novel writing, which is the quintessence of freedom, here I had my hands tightly bound. Of course 100 people would have come up with 100 different books using this same process of carving, but every choice I made was dependent on a choice Schulz had made. On top of which, so many of Schulz’s sentences feel elemental, unbreakdownable. And his writing is so unbelievably good, so much better than anything that could conceivably be done with it, that my first instinct was always to leave it alone.
For about a year I also had a printed manuscript of The Street of Crocodiles with me, along with a highlighter and a red pen. The story of Tree of Codes is continuous across pages, but I approached the project one page at a time: looking for promising words or phrases (they’re all promising), trying to involve and connect what had become my characters. My first several drafts read more like concrete poetry, and I hated them.
As opposed to the anyone-can-do-it tack of Kleon, Foer took the tools and text at hand and made something truly new. Like A Humument before it, Tree of Codes is a unique object worthy of thoughtful consideration. As DJ Scratch once said, “The reason we respect something as an art is because it’s hard as fuck to do.” Taking elements of others’ work and making it your own is one thing. Taking the whole damn thing and completely transforming it into something else is art.
Here’s the making-of video for Tree of Codes [runtime: 3:34]:
de Certeau, Michel. (1984). The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Foer, Jonathan Safran. (2010). Tree of Codes. London: Visual Editions.
Hayles, N. Katherine. (2002). Writing Machines. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Heller, Steven. (2010, November 24). “Jonathan Safran Foer’s Book as Art Object.” The New York Times.
Kleon, Austin. (2010). Newspaper Blackout. New York: Harper Perennial.
Mallock, William. (1892). A Human Document. New York: Cassell Publishing.
Phillips, Tom. (1970). A Humument. London: Tetrad Press.
Wagner, Heather. (2010, November 10). “Jonathan Safran Foer Talks Tree of Codes and Conceptual Art”. VF Daily.
Over forty years ago, media philosopher Walter Ong wrote that the “advent of newer media alters the meaning and relevance of the older. Media overlap, or, as Marshall McLuhan has put it, move through one another as do galaxies of stars, each maintaining its own basic integrity but also bearing the marks of the encounter ever after” (1971, p. 25). That is, a new technology rarely supplants its forebears outright but instead changes the relationships between existing technologies. During a visit to Georgia Tech’s Digital Media Demo Day, Professor Janet Murray told me that there are two schools of thought about the onset of digital media. One is that the computer is an entirely new medium that changes everything; the other is that it is a medium that remediates all previous media. It’s difficult to resist the knee-jerk theory that it is both an entirely new medium and remediates all previous media thereby changing everything, but none of it is quite that simple. As Ted Nelson would say, “everything is deeply intertwingled” (1987, passim).
Inventing the Medium: Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice (MIT Press, 2012), Murray’s first book since 1997’s essential Hamlet on the Holodeck (MIT Press), is a wellspring of knowledge for designers and practitioners alike. Unifying digital media under a topology of “representational affordances” (i.e., computational procedures, user participation, navigable space, and encyclopedic capacity), Murray provides applicable principles for digital design of all kinds — from databases (encyclopedic capacity) to games (the other three) and all points in between. There’s also an extensive glossary of terms in the back (a nice bonus). Drawing on the lineage of Vennevar Bush, Joseph Weizenbaum, Ted Nelson, Seymour Papert, and Donald Norman, as well as Murray’s own decades of teaching, research, and design, Inventing the Medium is as comprehensive a book as one is likely to find on digital design and use. I know I’ll be referring to it for years to come.
Designers can’t go far without grappling with the way a new medium not only changes but also reinforces our uses and understandings of the current ones. For example, the onset of digital media extended the reach of literacy by reinforcing the use of writing and print media. No one medium or technology stands alone. They must be considered in concert. Moreover, to be literate in the all-at-once world of digital media is to understand its systemic nature, the inherent interrelationship and interconnectedness of all technology and media. As Ong put it, “Today, it appears, we live in a culture or in cultures very much drawn to openness and in particular to open-system models for conceptual representations. This openness can be connected with our new kind of orality, the secondary orality of our electronic age…” (1977, p. 305). “Secondary orality” reminds one of the original names of certain technologies (e.g., “horseless carriage,” “cordless phone,” “wireless” technology, etc.), as if the real name for the thing is yet to come along.
These changes deserve an updated and much more nuanced consideration given how far they’ve proliferated since Ong’s time. Net Smart: How to Thrive Online (MIT Press, 2012) collects Howard Rheingold‘s thoughts about using, learning, and teaching via networks from the decades since Ong and McLuhan theorized technology’s epochal shift. Rheingold’s account is as personal as it is pragmatic. He was at Xerox PARC when Bob Taylor, Douglas Englebart, and Alan Kay were inventing the medium (see his 1985 book, Tools for Thought), and he was an integral part of the community of visionaries who helped create the networked world in which we live (he coined the term “virtual community” in 1987). In Net Smart, his decades of firsthand experience are distilled into five, easy-to-grasp literacies: attention, participation, collaboration, crap detection (critical consumption), and network smarts — all playfully illustrated by Anthony Weeks (see above). Since 1985, Rheingold has been calling our networked, digital technologies “mind amplifiers,” and it is through that lens that he shows us how to learn, live, and thrive together.
These two books are not only thoughtful, they are mindful. The deep passion of the authors for their subjects is evident in the words on every page. A bit ahead of their time, Walter Ong and Marshall McLuhan gave us a vocabulary to talk about our new media. With these two books, Janet Murray and Howard Rheingold have given us more than words: They’ve given us useful practices.
McLuhan, Marshall. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Murray, Janet. (2012). Inventing the Medium: Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Nelson, Ted. (1987). Computer Lib/Dream Machines. Redmond, WA: Tempus Books.
Ong, Walter J. (1971). Rhetoric, Romance, and Technology: Studies in the Interaction of Expression and Culture. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Ong, Walter J. (1977). Interfaces of the Word: Studies in the Evolution of Consciousness and Culture. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Ong, Walter J. (1982). Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. New York: Routledge.
Rheingold, Howard. (1985). Tools for Thought: The History and Future of Mind-Expanding Technology. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Rheingold, Howard. (2012). Net Smart: How to Thrive Online. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
If you’ve ever gotten the impression that the music industry is run by crooks, reading any part of Frederic Dannen’s Hit Men (Vintage, 1990) will more than confirm your suspicions. The false nostalgia some of us feel with the onset of the so-called digital age sees the past as something to which we need to return. A little research will dispel any delusions one might have about a golden age as far as the music industry is concerned. Nowhere is this feeling more prevalent than in Hip-hop. Ask anyone and they will tell you that it used to be better. Though if you ask them when exactly it was better, they’ll all have a different answer. Most will cite a time period that falls somewhere around 1988, as The Golden Era of Hip-hop is widely considered to be around that time.
A lot of the people who yearn for the years of yore are older. I was in high school in 1988, so one might expect me to feel that the best time for Hip-hop was during my formative years. I honestly don’t feel that way though. As my friend Reggie Hancock would say, “Wow, you’re so very well-adjusted about things that don’t matter,” but in many ways our attitudes do matter. A false nostalgia poisons progress, and Hip-hop is plagued with such attitudes. No one touched by this culture in the 1980s was left unchanged, but shit ain’t like that anymore. Nostalgia implies false or “imagined memories,” memories that are empty, devoid of significance that we fill in with what we imagine they were like. Paul Grainge (2002) points out an important distinction between nostalgia as a commercial mode and nostalgia as a social or collective mood. The former is often enabled by the latter as we drool over reissues of long lost demo tapes or clamor for reunion tour tickets. Thanks to recording technology, we live in an era when, as Andreas Huyssen (2003) put it, “the past has become part of the present in ways simply unimaginable in earlier centuries” (p. 1). With that said, the nostalgic friction that hinders the forward motion of Hip-hop is more about production and distribution, and more than any other genre of recorded music, Hip-hop led the way to the ways of today.
People say that Hip-hop is more than a genre of music–it’s a certain bounce in your stride, it’s the way you shake hands, it’s the ideas that circulate in your head. It’s the ideas that don’t circulate in your head. A philosopher might say it’s a way of being in the world. An authority on the subject, like the rapper Nas, says, “It’s that street shit, period” (Williams, 2010, p. 63).
Surely, the conception of Hip-hop as a lifestyle is part of the problem (as well as possibly part of the solution), but of all the things those folks invented in the South Bronx so long ago, nostalgia ain’t one of them. For those that bemoan the text of Hip-hop but miss the subtext, as Dan Charnas puts it, these words are not for you.
In his massive tome, The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-hop (New American Library, 2010), Charnas charts the economics behinds the rise of Hip-hop from minor subculture to global phenomenon. It’s a far further in-depth and far more focused Hit Men, and upon reading it, anyone’s nostalgia for a better bygone era should be summarily squashed. The chapter on Ice-T’s hardcore band Body Count’s “Cop Killer” (“Cops & Rappers”) alone should be more than enough to murder any ideas that things in the music industry used to be better. Even Def Jam, that bastion and beacon of branding and boom-bap was plagued with bad management, back-handed deals, and pathetic working conditions. You’ll wonder why you ever pulled the curtain back on these wizards of your dreams.
It’s unfortunate for some and generates fortunes for others, but Hip-hop is big business. Its hard-earned lesson is this: If you don’t make money a priority, you will never have any. Mind your business lest you lose your mind. The history behind the scenes is trife, rife with broken lives and forgotten talent.
Like me, Sujatha Fernandes was transformed by Hip-hop in the 1980s. Attempting to reconcile the money-grubbing from record labels and the international solidarity felt by fans, in Close to the Edge: In Search of the Global Hip-hop Generation (Verso, 2011), Fernandes seeks the ties that bind all ethnicities behind the music and the movement. Her book is informed by her early 80s induction, all four elements of the culture, and a deep love for all of the above. Close to the Edge is about a whole world of people finding just what they were looking for. From Sydney to Chicago (including an appearance by our man Billy Wimsatt), Cuba to France, Fernandes follows Hip-hop around the world looking for the heart she feels beating so strongly in this culture.
As scholars such as Tricia Rose and Imani Perry claim, Hip-hop is fundamentally a black cultural form. It is also colonized by every other. Who better to study its effects than an expert on colonialism? Jared Ball is that dude. His I Mix What I Like: A Mixtape Manifesto (AK Press, 2011) posits an emancipatory journalism based on the trope of the mixtape. From jump, he writes, “despite tremendous shifts in image and application, African America (and by extension the rest of the country and world) continues to suffer a process of colonization subsumed within a media environment more pervasive and all-encompassing than any other known in world history and against which alternative forms of journalism and media production must be employed” (p. 3). Ball concurs, as I’ve argued elsewhere that the mixtape is Hip-hop’s unsung mass medium. As Maher (2005) put it, “there wouldn’t be a rap music industry if it weren’t for mixtapes… the development of Hip-hop revolves around [them as] a singularly crucial but often overlooked medium” (p. 138). Ball goes on to argue that the mixtape is the perfect tool for the job. He certainly mixes what he likes, and his crates are deep!
When I found Hip-hop, I lived in the hinterlands of southeast Alabama. Unbeknownst to the nostalgic youth of today, that good ol’ Hip-hop from the golden age wasn’t all over the radio. If you wanted to hear it, you had to go find it. Early on, you only found it on mixtapes. Now every region has their mixtape gurus, and one of those is Atlanta’s DJ Drama. Ben Westhoff‘s Dirty South (Chicago Review Press, 2011) tells the story of the RIAA busting into his spot with dogs and guns looking for “illegal” mixtapes, guns, and drugs. They only found the former, but that didn’t stop them from confiscating those, as well as much of his studio gear, computers, and four vehicles, two of which he never got back (talk about colonization…). I use scare quotes to describe the legality of Drama’s mixtapes because, unlike the well-known bootleggers and indolent crooks, his are made in collaboration with the artists and with label backing. “During the raid,” Drama says, “there were people [at the labels] that were like ‘Why is this happening?'” (quoted in Westhoff, p. 187).
Westhoff’s book tells this and many other stories of southern artists finding their way in an industry once dominated by representatives from the Coasts. There can be no doubt in anyone’s mind who’s paid any attention at all that the South is definitively on the Hip-hop map now. The artists are too many to name here, but Westhoff tells all their stories. He dug deep and has returned with the definitive history of the Dirty South.
A chapter on the South is one of the welcome additions to the new edition of That’s the Joint! The Hip-hop Studies Reader (second edition) edited by Murray Forman and Mark Anthony Neal (Routledge, 2011), and if you’re interested in a more scholarly look at the culture, this is your new bible. Since its release in 2004, the first edition has proven indispensable, and the update is fresh. Gone are a few outdated articles, including the error-riddled Alan Light piece (Joan Morgan‘s great piece on Hip-hop and feminism is thankfully intact), and, in addition to Matt Miller’s “Rap’s Dirty South” chapter, there are new joints by Greg Tate, Kembrew McLeod, Imani Perry, H. Samy Alim, and Craig Watkins, among several others (Tricia Rose is noticeably absent). This a one-book crash-course in Hip-hop history, theory, culture, criticism, and politics.
Speaking of one-book crash-courses, Jay-Z’s Decoded (Speigel & Grau, 2010; co-authored by dream hampton) covers everything mentioned above: The growing up with Hip-hop, its moving from around the way to around the world, taking care of the business, and many of Jay’s lyrics are also broken down herein in the style of RZA’a Wu-Tang Manual. Hell, it’s even mildly nostalgic: “The feeling those records gave me was so profound that it’s sometimes surprising to listen to them now.”
While Hip-hop nostalgia in the commercial mode is not ever likely to cease as it is so heavily marketed, and each generation tries to make the next nostalgic for what they miss, our own nostalgia as a collective mood can change. Maintaining the essential tension between tradition and innovation is paramount (Kuhn, 1977), but we have to let it go where it wants. It’s the only way to see what the next generation of Hip-hop heads will create. Reading books that take the culture seriously enough to criticize as well as celebrate is one way to see past our own biases. As El-P once told me, “I don’t hold on to too much nostalgia because I don’t have to.” That, my friends, is the joint.
Ball, Jared. (2011). I Mix What I Like: A Mixtape Manifesto. Oakland, CA: AK Press.
Carter, Sean (Jay-Z). (2010). Decoded. New York: Spiegel & Grau.
Charnas, Dan. (2010). The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-hop. New York: New American Library.
Dannen, Frederic. (1990). Hit Men: Power Brokers and Fast Money Inside the Music Business. New York: Vintage.
Fernandes, Sijatha. (2011). Close to the Edge: In Search of the Global Hip-hop Generation New York: Verso.
Forman, Murray & Neal, Mark Anthony (eds.). (2011). That’s the Joint! The Hip-hop Studies Reader. New York: Routledge.
Kuhn, Thomas S. (1977). The Essential Tension: Selected Studies in Scientific Tradition and Change. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Maher, George Ciccariello. (2005). Brechtian Hip-Hop: Didactics and Self-Production in Post-Gangsta Political Mixtapes. Journal of Black Studies, 36(1), 129-160.
Westoff, Ben. (2011). Dirty South: Outkast, Lil Wayne, Soulja Boy, and the Southern Rappers Who reinvented Hip-hop. Chicago: Chicago Review Press.
Williams, Thomas Chatterton. (2010). Losing My Cool: How a Father’s Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-hop Culture. New York: Penguin.