Remix Redux: Transformative Appropriation

Scholars, researchers, and journalists have had a tumultuous relationship with Hip-hop in general and the cultural practice of remixing specifically (McLeod, 2002). Some, seemingly refusing to contend with Hip-hop at all, trace the practice back to the collages of the Dadaists, the détournements of the Situationists, or the cut-ups of Burroughs and Gysin. Regardless, there’s no denying that Hip-hop brought sampling, scratching, and manipulating previously recorded sounds to a global audience. Along with allusion, quotation, and interpolation, sampling is now standard among the tools of the modern media maker (McLeod & DiCola, 2011). It’s one more option in what Joanna Demers (2006) calls “transformative appropriation, the act of referring to or quoting old works in order to create a new work” (p. 4).

Even so, some use such appropriation as an opportunity to either critique or dismiss the idea of originality altogether. In 1985, Eleanor Heartney complained that “we have finally reached the stage where the very notion of artistic originality is suspect” (p. 26). Others want to spread the practice out, to see it everywhere. As Simon Reynolds puts it, appropriately citing the worst misuses of the concept yet,

“We use the old to make the new and the new is always old.” Much the same idea crops up in Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist, a sort of self-help manual for modern creatives. Kleon moves quickly from “every new idea is just a mashup or a remix of one or more previous ideas” to insisting that “you are the sum of your influences” and that “you’re a remix of your mom and dad.”

Remix TheoryEverything is not a remix, and putting two things together does not a remix make. To say that all such combinations, appropriations, and amalgams are remixes is to lose sight of what makes remix a unique concept of its own. Eduardo Navas remedies this line of thinking with a nuanced, discursive approach to remix culture. In his Remix Theory: The Aesthetics of Sampling (Springer, 2012), Navas lays out a systematic way to think about the cultural history and controversial layers of remix, grounded in the “concrete form of sampling,” and focusing on “conceptual strategies used in different forms of art, media, and culture” (p. 6). These include photography, art, and, of course, music. The latter form of remix being rooted in Jamaican dub and defined by three actions: extending, selecting, and reflecting.

Extending the break is the original form of Hip-hop remix, but those roots reach back not only to Jamaica but also to Jazz. When the written melody ended, Jazz players would improvise over the chord changes to keep the dancers moving (Byrne, 2012), just as the original Hip-hop DJs did in the park. Selective remix is just what it sounds like: a new composition created by adding and subtracting elements from the original piece, heightening or downplaying its salient aspects. Reflexive remix extends, adds, and subtracts but also allegorizes the original composition. That is, it is its own thing, but also maintains the original’s “spectacular aura” (Navas, 2012, p.66) and displays “distorted reflections” (Hebdige, 1979, p. 26) of its source material. It is allusive, revealing its sources through a warped, funhouse mirror. In more general terms, Navas contends that remix is the cultural adhesive that holds our current culture together. Remix Theory is as erudite as is is readable and deftly demonstrates how remix applies far outside its origins.

Groove MusicTaking a more specific tack, Mark Katz’s Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-hop DJ (Oxford University Press, 2012) explores all of the practices of the Hip-hop DJ including remix. With his stethoscope firmly pressed against its chest, Katz listens closely to what Rob Swift calls “the heartbeat of Hip-hop culture.” Groove Music is as definitive a cultural history of sampling, scratching, and remixing you’re likely to find. The art of the DJ proves that it ain’t all final on black vinyl, but Katz has it all down in black and white. From the early 1970s to the early 21st century, it’s all in here. Groove Music along with Joseph Schloss’s Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-hop (Wesleyan, 2004) and Katz’s previous book, Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music (University of California Press, 2004), will get you a long way to understanding the cultural production of music in the 21st century.

For the most part, Hip-hop DJs and producers don’t think about remix the way that scholars, researchers, or journalists do. Heartney (1985) continues, “Appropriation is culture with an omnivorous appetite, gobbling up every image that wanders across its path” (p. 28). While any DJ might agree with that, their reasons will vary. Are they always making a statement with their sampling choices? Nah, sometimes certain sounds just sound dope together (for one example, see Schloss, 2004, pp. 147-149). As Steinberg (1978) puts it, “there is as much unpredictable originality in quoting, imitating, transposing, and echoing, as there is in inventing” (p. 25). Indeed, cutting and pasting pieces of the past together can yield work as original as any other act of creation.

But you don’t need me to tell you that.

References:

Byrne, David. (2012). How Music Works. San Francisco: McSweeney’s, p. 21.

Demers, Joanna. (2006). Steal This Music: How Intellectual Property Law Affects Musical Creativity. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.

Heartney, Eleanor. (1985, March). Appropriation and the Loss of Authenticity. New Art Examiner, 26-30.

Hebdige, Dick. (1979). Subculture: The Meaning of Style. New York: Routledge.

Katz, Mark. (2012). Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-hop DJ. New York: Oxford University Press.

McLeod, Kembrew. (2002). The Politics and History of Hip-hop Journalism. In Steve Jones (ed,), Pop Music and the Press. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, pp. 156-167.

McLeod, Kembrew & DiCola, Peter. (2011). Creative License: The Law and Culture of Digital Sampling. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, p. 55.

Navas, Eduardo. (2012). Remix Theory: The Aesthetics of Sampling. New York: Springer.

Reynolds, Simon. (2012, October 5). You Are Not a Switch: Recreativity and the Modern Dismissal of Genius. Slate.

Schloss, Joseph G. (2004). Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-hop. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Steinberg, L. (1978). The Glorious Company (of Horse Thieves). In J. Lipman & R. Marshall (Eds.), Art About Art, (pp. 21-32). New York: Dutton.

Until the End of the World, 2012

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.

Dave Allen, Hank Shocklee, and me at SXSW, 2012.

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.”

Page Hamilton and me backstage at The House of Blues.

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.

Mike Daily and Aesop Rock at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland, Oregon.

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 Price Mic 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]:

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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].

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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.

Cloud Gate

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.

Documenting Hip-hop: Ice-T’s The Art of Rap

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.

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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.

Here’s the trailer [runtime: 2:33]:

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Reading Hip-hop: No Nostalgia Needed

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.

References:

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.

2011: Are You Going to Eat That?

It’s December and time to reassess the year, and 2011 is a joy to revisit. It was easily my best year ever personally. I signed a book deal, spoke at several conferences with some of my best friends, got engaged to a wonderful woman, built some new bikes, redesigned my website (finally), and finished coursework and comprehensive exams on my way to a Ph.D., among other things.

This year was crazy, from the death of Steve Jobs and Occupy Wall Street to the ramping up of some sort of political happening. I also saw, listened to, and read a lot of good stuff. Here is the best of the media I consumed this year:

Album of the Year: Hail Mary Mallon Are You Going to Eat That? (Rhymesayers):  Hail Mary Mallon is the melding of word-murdering minds Aesop Rock and Rob Sonic and the laser-precise cuts of DJ Big Wiz, all three Def Jux alumni and no strangers to the raps and beats in their own rights. In the interest of full disclosure, these dudes are my friends. To be perfectly honest, if they were wack they wouldn’t be.

These three have been touring and clowning together for years in different guises, and it’s obvious when you hear how well they play together. Are you Going to Eat That? is the dopest record out this year.

Production-wise, “Mailbox Baseball” sounds like an Iron Galaxy outtake, while “Grubstake” evokes the stripped down reduction—all 808s and sparse scratches—of a salad-day-era Rick Rubin. Aes and Rob pass the mic like the Treacherous Three. “Table Talk” is a 21st-century “High-Plains Drifter.” But don’t get any of this twisted: this is not a throwback, it’s a leap forward.

It’s all good (“Breakdance Beach” is dope, though it does get grating upon repeated listens), and the skills are barn-razing and bar-raising. Whether it’s Hannibal Lector or Cannibal Ox, Hail Mary Mallon prove that rap will eat itself.

Here’s their video for “Meter Feeder” [runtime: 3:47] directed by Alexander Tarrant and Justin Metros:

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Close Second: Radiohead The King of Limbs (Waste): “I’m such a tease and you’re such a flirt…” The most important band in the world has returned with another cure for the malaise of the age. Pick one: They’ve saved rock and roll, killed rock and roll, and still emerged from the muck of the music industry well ahead of the curve. Everyone in media keeps them under the microscope to see how they will win. Again. Lean in, here’s the secret:

Radiohead makes great records.

And they do it consistently. They’re also quite adept at parsing the patterns on the horizon of the mediascape, but that wouldn’t matter if their records weren’t good. Damn good.

The King of Limbs is no exception. It’s more mellow than the sparsest parts of Amnesiac, but not nearly as insular. It might be their most even record. Thom Yorke’s voice, which I have to admit used to grate on me as often as it moved me, has gotten mature enough to carry the toughest of tunes. He is the voice of Radiohead, literally and figuratively (no small task either way), and he handles it with confidence and control.

Radiohead was never as joyfully abrasive as Sonic Youth or The Flaming Lips, but The King of Limbs reminds me of the releases of the former’s A Thousand Leaves and the latter’s The Soft Bulletin. All three records are still weird in their ways, but they’re also far more subtle than the previous work of their creators. Radiohead have always been masters of subtlety, and with The King of Limbs, they’ve earned their Ph.D. It’s such a tease and such a flirt.

Even Closer Third: Ume Phantoms (Modern Outsider): If ever a band were poised for the next level, Ume has been teetering there headlong for the better part of the past few years. Phantoms is the kind of record that neuters naysayers and emboldens enthusiasts. Lauren, Eric, and Rachel are some of the friendliest folks you’re likely to meet, but on stage they are ferocious. While Eric (bass) and Rachel (drums) are the stable and able drivetrain, Lauren (guitar and vocals) is the high-octane, internal combustion engine, careening ahead on the edge of control. Theirs is pop music in the sense that it’s explosive. Their live shows are where the real, volatile magic happens, but Phantoms captures their energy serviceably. For further evidence, here’s the video for “Captive” from Phantoms directed by Matt Bizer [runtime: 4:01], the most shared video on MTV.com:

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Runners Up: Wolves in the Throne Room Celestial Lineage (Southern Lord), Seidr For Winter Fire (Flenser), Cloaks Versions Grain (3by3), Jesu Ascension (Caldo Verde), Big Sean Finally Famous (GOOD Music), Knives From Heaven s/t (Thirsty 3ar), Pusha T Fear of God/Fear of God II: Let Us Pray (GOOD/Decon/Re-Up), Random Axe s/t (Duck Down), IconAclass For the Ones (deadverse), Crack Epidemic American Splendor (self-released), Deafheaven Roads to Judah (Deathwish), Panopticon Social Disservices (Flenser), Graveyard Hisingen Blues (Nuclear Blast).
Most Overrated: Opeth Heritage (Roadrunner), Kanye West & Jay-Z Watch the Throne.

Live Show of the Year: Deftones, June 4, 2011, Austin Music Hall, Austin, TX: Say what you will, but it’s absolutely unfair to lump Deftones in with bands they have next-to-nothing to do with (e.g., Limp Bizkit, Korn, Tool, et al). Deftones are as sophisticated as they are heavy and as beautiful as they are aggressive, as much like the Cure as they are Clutch. Their live show confirms all of this and more.
Runners Up: Mogwai, May 16, Stubbs, Austin, TX; Wolves in the Throne Room, September 27, Red 7, Austin, TX.

Comedian of the Year: Louis CK: No one else comes close.

Event of the Year: South by Southwest: SXSW is always a blurry blast, but this year was especially good. I got the opportunity to speak at Interactive and run around with friends seeing great music the rest of the time. You know who you are. Here’s to next year.
Runners Up: SF MusicTech Summit, Geekend Roadshow Boston.
Most Overrated: TEDxAustin.

Book of the Year: James Gleick The Information (Pantheon Books): James Gleick always brings the goods, and The Information is no exception. This is a definitive history of the info-saturated now. From Babbage, Shannon, and Turing to Gödel, Dawkins, and Hofstadter, Gleick traces the evolution of information theory from the antediluvian alphabet and the incalculable incomplete to the memes and machines of the post-flood. I’m admittedly biased (Gleick’s Chaos quite literally changed my life’s path), but this is Pulitzer-level research and writing. The Information is easily the best book of the year.
Runners Up: Insect Media by Jussi Parikka (University of Minnesota Press), The Secret War Between Downloading and Uploading by Peter Lunenfeld (The MIT Press), The Beach Beneath the Street by McKenzie Wark (Verso), remixthebook by Mark Amerika (University of Minnesota Press), Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work! by Douglas Coupland (Atlas & Co.).
Most Overrated: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (Crown).

Educator of the Year: Howard Rheingold: Howard’s homegrown Rheingold University started this year and quickly established an impressive online curriculum. I took the first class and joined the very active alumni in continuing our co-learning with Howard’s help. It was through this group that I got the opportunity to speak to David Preston’s Literature and Composition class — one of the best experiences I’ve had in education.

Site of the Year: Shut Your Fucking Face and Listen: My man Tim Baker and his band of ne’er do wells have put together a site that’s as hysterical as it is historical. Mostly focused on music, they veer off on pop culture tangents and mad rants that are always more entertaining than their subject matter. Get up on that.

TV Show of the Year: Breaking Bad (AMC): I have Tim Baker from SYFFAL to thank for this one. This show doesn’t just rearrange the furniture in the standard TV drama’s livingroom, it tosses it on the lawn and sets it on fire. I’ve only made it through the first three seasons, but my guess is that by the end of the recently inked fifth and final, this will be hailed as one of the greatest shows ever to creatively corrupt the television medium.
Runners Up: Party Down (Starz); Lie to Me (Fox).

Movie of the Year: The Muppets (Disney): I haven’t laughed so consistently through a movie since maybe first seeing Doug Liman’s Go in the theater. It’s not flawless (maybe one too many metacomments and one too many eighties references), but it is downright entertaining from titles to credits. So good to see a chunk of your chlidhood revived so well.
Runner Up: Tree of Life (Plan B).

Video of the Year: “Yonkers” by Tyler, The Creator: Written, directed, produced, rapped, and eaten by Tyler himself. I’ve already spouted my feelings about OFWGKTA elsewhere.
Runners up: Pusha-T featuring Tyler, The Creator “Trouble on My Mind,” Big Sean featuring Chiddy Bang “Too Fake,” Hail Mary Mallon “Meter Feeder” (embedded above).

So those are a few of the things that caught and held my attention this year. What were yours?

A Tribe Called Quest: Beats, Rhymes, and Strife

A Tribe Called Quest has trudged through many of the clichés of fame and ego and somehow managed to keep their classic status untarnished. The first time I heard Q-Tip was on De La Soul‘s 3 Feet High and Rising (Tommy Boy, 1989). I was instantly a fan, and A Tribe Called Quest was immediately placed on my radar. These four dudes, Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and Jarobi (A, E I, O, U, and sometimes Y) all met in high school. Their first release, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (Jive, 1990) was little more than an excellent companion piece to De La’s debut, but there was definitely something different about it. There was a playful sophistication about the beats and the rhymes that was barely evident in such stellar hits as “I Left My Wallet in El Sgundo” and “Bonita Applebum,” but that permeated their career. While I think their sophomore effort The Low End Theory (Jive, 1991) is their best record, People’s Instinctive Travels… remains one of my most-listened-to golden era albums (“Go Ahead in the Rain” is my jam!).

A, E, I, O, U...

Quest really hit their stride on The Low End Theory. Number two on the mic, Phife Dawg stepped up and started to shine on this one as well. “Buggin’ Out” is his undisputed arrival as an emcee. Many will debate whether Low End or Midnight Marauders (Jive, 1993) is the classic Quest album, but no one is likely to argue that it was down hill from those two.

A good documentary on a niche topic as such finds itself in a tight spot. One one side, its topic must attract enough of an audience to sustain it. On the other, it must tell them things they do not already know. Michael Rapaport makes his big-screen directorial debut with Beats, Rhymes, and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest (Rival Pictures, 2011), and he successfully negotiates said tight spot. Having been a Quest fan since day square, I’m fairly knowledgeable about their history. I collected every magazine article I could find about them in the early days (It didn’t take long for that to be an intractable task, but I still have the clips), but I found this documentary enlightening about every era of their past: the humble, high-school beginnings, the birth of the Native Tongues, the departure of Jarobi for culinary school (I always wondered what happened to the wavering vowel), the petty squabbles, the comeback, and the one album still left on their 1989 Jive Records contract. I got chills several times and verbally expressed surprise at others. It’s not only a good documentary, it’s a good movie.

As it turns out, internal beef and misunderstandings were the reasons A Tribe Called Quest fell off. Phife moved to Atlanta before the recording of their third record Beats, Rhymes, and Life (Jive, 1996), and he was the first to say that the chemistry was dead. To make the long story brief, they got back together for the “Rock the Bells” tour in 2008 for all the wrong reasons. Even their boys De La Soul said they didn’t want them to continue, citing an on-stage lack of love. Quest is all about love, and if it isn’t there, it isn’t them.

Don’t let it get twisted, it ends well: all beef squashed, Q-Tip rockin’ it solo, Ali Shaheed Muhammad still makin’ beats, Phife doing well, and Jarobi cooking good food. Props to Rapaport for bringing their story to the screen. Go’head witcha self.

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Here’s the trailer for Beats, Rhymes, and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest [runtime: 2:22]:

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Boombox Apocolypse: From Mixtapes to Mash-ups

The turntable is easily the most iconic cultural artifact associated with Hip-hop, but the advent and adoption of the boombox had as much to do with its spread and tenacity. Before raps were on the radio, they were on the tapes. Think of the turntable and the microphone as the senders and the boombox and the cassette as the receivers: without recording and playback, Hip-hop wouldn’t have lasted long. The already choked socioeconomic conditions from which it sprang could’ve buried it like so much tape hiss. Two recent books explore the technology of Hip-hop beyond the turntable.

Never put me in your box if your shit eats tapes. — Nas

When Hip-hop migrated to the middle spaces between the coasts and big cities, it did so via cassettes. Mixtapes were such an integral part of its spread that I felt weird when I first bought a “Rap” CD (The same could be said for any other underground movement of the time: punk, hardcore, metal, etc.). When it was shared and heard, it was done so on scratchy cassettes. Sometimes these tapes were played in cars, home stereo systems, and Walkmans, but they were more importantly played in giant boomboxes, each occasion allowing producers taking advantage of different aspects of sample-based recording (for a full discussion of these differences, see Schloss, 2004). Unlike today’s iPods, the presence of the boombox was also a public presence. Just as we gather around some screens and stare at others alone, we once gathered around the speakers of boomboxes. When I got my first Walkman and stopped lugging around my Sony boombox, it was a blessing to my back and the sanity of those around me (most notably my parents), but boomboxes remain a part of the iconography of Hip-hop.

Lensman Lyle Owerko set out to document this aspect of the culture with The Boombox Project: The Machines, the Music, and the Urban Underground (Abrams Image, 2010), which is not only a visual history of early Hip-hop street technology, but an oral one as well. Everyone from the usual suspects like LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys, Adisa Banjoko, and Malcolm McLaren, to the less-than-usual like DJ Spooky, The Clash, Chad Muska, and David Byrne display and discuss their boomboxes.

The Boombox Project illustrates that the reception of Hip-hop is as important as its inception, and that the boombox played a major role in its early days. It was the site and the sight of the sound in the streets. Here is the book trailer for The Boombox Project [runtime: 0:40]:

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From mixtapes to mash-ups, Hip-hop is the blueprint to 21st century culture (This is the crux of my Hip-hop Theory — much more on that soon). What used to be done via mixers, faders, and turntables is done via software, iPods, and the internet. In the hands of the indolent and uncreative, sampling is dull at best and disturbing at worst — but so is guitar-playing. The tools are neutral. It’s what you do with them that counts. Can I get a witness?

Yes! No one has explored this undulating landscape more than Aram Sinnreich. His Mashed Up: Music, Technology, and the Rise of Configurable Culture (University of Massachusetts Press, 2010) is one half theory, one half practice and establishes an argument that sampling is the latest legitimate form of musical expression, an argument that seems silly to both sides of the debate. Busting a sextet of binaries, Sinnreich makes quick work of complex terrain, mixing media theory and musicology, as well as copyright and counterculture. Mashed Up is the most complete book I’ve seen on our current culture of convergence.

In honor of the boombox, indulge me for a few more minutes and check out this video from The Nonce. It’s “Mix Tapes” from their 1995 debut World Ultimate (Check for cameos from members of Project Blowed) [runtime: 3:34]. Dope:

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References:

Oworko, L. (2011). The Boombox Project: The Machines, the Music, and the Urban Underground. New York: Abrams Image.

Schloss, J. G. (2004). Making Beats: The Art of Sample-based Hip-hop. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Sunnreich, A. (2010). Mashed Up: Music, Technology, and the Rise of Configurable Culture. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.

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Apologies to the late, mighty Hangar 18 for stealing their title for this post.

Hip-hop Then & Now: Chuck D, Common, and Joan Morgan Come to The University of Texas at Austin

On February 10th, 2011, Chuck D, Common, and Joan Morgan assembled in the brand new Student Activity Center at The University of Texas campus in Austin. It was an evening comprised of in-depth discussion, astute analysis, and the usual gripes.

If you know me, you know that Public Enemy is one of my all-time favorite groups regardless of genre. Their It Takes a Nation of Million to Hold Us Back (Def Jam, 1988) is not only what I consider the best record ever recorded, but was crucial in my lifelong fandom of Hip-hop (my own first book is named after a Chuck D lyric from the record). Chuck and P.E. were essential to my getting through high school and undergraduate studies.

Common has been one of my favorite emcees since I first heard Resurrection (Relativity, 1994) in the early 1990s. Not only was he the first rapper out of Chicago that I heard (peace to E. C. Illa), but he seemed to be keeping the Native Tongues torch burning bright at a time when they were fumbling (no disrespect; they got their grip back). He has taken risks, pushed boundaries, and remained successful where others follow trends or fall off.

Joan Morgan is a bad ass. She’s been doing Hip-hop journalism since before it had a name. Her presence and insights in this talk were invaluable, and I wish we’d had more time to hear from her (I’m hoping to interview her for the site at a later date; fingers crossed). Her angle is vehemently feminist, nuanced with knowledge, and tempered with truth. When Nicki Minaj became the topic of discussion, she was one of the few people I’ve heard speak on the Regis Philbin incident. That story should’ve been in everyone’s face, but it was invariably buried.

If nostalgia is the longing for a past that never existed, then the SAC Ballroom was full of just that. Joan asked if the crowd thought that Hip-hop was better “then” than it is “now,” and most of the hands in the room went up. I find this very troubling. I was one of the few, including our three honored guests, who actually there “then” (I heard students around me say that they didn’t know who Chuck D was until they looked him up after hearing about this event). I continue to argue that Hip-hop is better now. Sure, everything that came out then was that next new shit. The genre was young and finding its way (I would also argue that it still is), so there was plenty that hadn’t been done or heard yet, whereas now those styles have been done and heard. But for every Public Enemy and Common, there was an MC Hammer and a Vanilla Ice. Go back and listen to the average record from 1984, 1986, 1988, 1990, 1994 — pick a year: Most of them sound dated and not near as complex and interesting as the worst thing out today. Sure, there are exceptions, but as a whole, Hip-hop is better now. It just is. Thinking that you missed the best of it is problematic on many levels.

Chuck mentioned the fact that fans now have access to the past in a way that the fans of then never did. This is a key insight. Technology curates culture. You cannot assume that the next generation doesn’t know about something from the past. They might not grasp the historical context of say “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy, “Wicked” by Ice Cube, or even “Fuck the Police” by N.W.A., which were uncompromising responses to volatile times in our nation’s history, or to grasp what it was like to hear The Low End Theory, Straight Outta Compton, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) — or It Takes a Nation of Millions… for that matter — when they dropped. But you can’t assume they haven’t heard them or seen the videos. It’s all out there.

On the other hand, Common blamed technology for the lack of creativity and “feeling” in current Hip-hop. This argument troubles me as well. It’s a non-argument that leads to an infinite regress. Hip-hop’s detractors claim that sampling — whether with turntables or sequencers — isn’t really making music. They claim that at best it’s lazy and at worst it’s theft. No one at this talk would agree with that, but it’s the same argument. Saying that technology takes away the human element and therefore the feeling of music or that it makes it too easy thereby giving someone an unfair advantage is the same thing as claiming that sampling isn’t a viable way to make music in the first place. It’s all about what you do with it. Heads know better.

These are not new issues, and I was hoping we’d moved past them. Hip-hop — then and now — is still the most interesting thing happening in music. I will always love H. E. R.

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Here’s a handheld video (no cameras were allowed) of the Q&A session with Common, Joan Morgan, and Chuck D in the SAC [runtime: 8:13]:

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2010: Everything is Amazing and Nobody’s Happy

For my requisite year-end wrap-up I ganked the title from Louis CK’s recent appearance on Conan. This was a year of reassessing our relationship with technology, and that’s part of Louis’ aim in the clip (embedded below[runtime: 4:12]; with thanks to Linda Stone). I rounded up most of the books on the topic for 21C Magazine, and I don’t feel any closer to figuring it out (It’s really not something to figure out).

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Anyway, here’s my list:

Record of the year: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy by Kanye West. As pedestrian as it might seem, I have to give it to Mr. West. He may be a douchebag, but if he is, he’s the most talented, honest douchebag ever, and this record proves it over and over again. It’s not flawless, but it’s easily the best of 2010.

Runners up: High on Fire Snakes for the Divine, The Sword Warp Riders, Camu Tao King of Hearts, Deftones Diamond Eyes, Brian Eno Small Craft on a Milk Sea, School of Seven Bells Disconnect from Desire, Peter Gabriel Scratch My Back, Blonde Redhead Penny Sparkle, Antipop Consortium Fluorescent Black, Black Milk Album of the Year, and 65daysofstatic We Were Exploding Anyway.

Verse of the year: Nicky Minaj on “Monster.” This seven-minute posse jam includes Jay-Z, Kanye, Rick Ross, and Bon Iver (for whatever reason), but Nicky’s sixteen makes them all look straight silly. As good as this album is, hers here is easily the best verse on the whole thing.

Live show of the year: Atari Teenage Riot. I was supposed to see Atari Teenage Riot in Seattle at a club called DV8 on December 15th, 1997, but broke up with my girlfriend of six years and just drank with friends instead. I remember the date also because it was my birthday.

I finally got to see them in Austin at Red 7 on September 27th, 2010. the show was well worth the thirteen-year wait. I lost my freshly-purchased ATR t-shirt attempting to delete myself in the pit, but I got it back thanks to ATR’s nice fans. Start the riot!

Finds of the year: Cloaks and Yelawolf. The noisiest dubstep out (Thanks to Justin Broadrick for the tip) and another Alabama boy does good. Enough said (Thanks to El-P for the tip). Hollerrrrr!

Event of the year: Geekend 2010. Yeah, SXSW was fun (thanks to Dave Allen, Ume, Frosty, Jah Furry, and Bruce Sterling), but Geekend was better.

Movie of the year: Inception. You all know nothing else came close.

Book of the year: Program or Be Programmed by Douglas Rushkoff. Ignore it at your peril.

Site of the year: 900 Bats. Aesop Rock, Alex Pardee, Alexander Tarrant, Chrissy Piper, Colin Evoy Sebestyen, Coro, DJ Big Wiz, Jeremy Fish, Justin Metros, Kimya Dawson, Nick Flanagan, and Rob Sonic, among others are behind this rogue burst of creative energy. Jeremy Fish did the illustrations for the site, and Alex Pardee supplied the logo. The site was named for the 900 bats that were killed by renovation workers at Bala Fort in Alwar district who put them on fire to avoid disruption in work. Boooo…

Speaking of, mad thanks to my mans Aesop Rock, dälek, and Aaron Berkowitz for helping me coordinate what would have been the party of the century. Sorry it all fell apart at the last minute. Instead, I spent the end of my fortieth trip around the sun with the fam. It’s all good.

Video of the Year: “Miracles” by Insane Clown Posse. The clip that spawned a thousand “think” pieces, leave it to ICP to remind us that we all need to take pause and realize how amazing our world is. As Violent J puts it, “Magic everywhere in this bitch.” Belie’e dat [runtime: 4:23].

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Rappin’ is My Radio: New Books on Rap Poetics

One of my favorite Hip-hop studio tales is from the recording of “Brooklyn’s Finest.” The story goes that Jay-Z and Biggie were sitting in legendary D&D studios in New York City listening to Clark Kent’s beat, a pen and a pad on the table between them. “They’re both looking at the pad like, Go ahead, you take it. No, you take it,” says Roc-A-Fella co-founder Biggs, “That’s when they found out that both of them don’t write.” That is, neither of these emcees write any of their rhymes down. They write, edit, and recite straight off the dome. Their method isn’t freestyling per se, but it’s still quite amazing.

Insight like this into the creative processes of Hip-hop is rare, but becoming more prevalent as the culture is recognized for what it is: the last salient, significant musical and cultural movement in history — and one that is now global in scale (Omoniyi, 2009). A few years back, Brian Coleman‘s book Check the Technique (Villard, 2007; née Rakim Told Me, WaxFacts, 2005) set out to fix this by providing liner notes to classic albums. “…it’s about talking to the artists themselves about their work as musicians, as creators.” he explains. “It seems to me that when you talk about music a lot of times, people tend to view the image of a group or at least the end product of their art, an album, as the most important thing. I think that the process of making them what they are as a group is as, if not more, important.” No question.

The books assembled here focus on language use, a tack that is often taken for granted in studies of Hip-hop (Alim, 2009), but one that is central to the culture and the music. Michael Eric Dyson (2004) puts it thusly:

Rap is a profound musical, cultural, and social creativity. It expresses the desire of young black people to reclaim their history, reactivate forms of black radicalism, and contest the powers of despair and economic depression that presently besiege the black community. Besides being the most powerful form of black musical expression today, rap projects a style of self into the world that generates forms of cultural resistance and transforms the ugly terrain of ghetto existence into a searing portrait of life as it must be lived by millions of voiceless people. For that reason alone, rap deserves attention and should be taken seriously (p. 67-68).

Enter How to Rap: The Art and Science of the Hip-hop MC (Chicago Review Press, 2009) by Paul Edwards. This book is a collection of discussions with hundreds of emcees of all stripes about inspiration, techniques, writing, freestyling, flow, content, style, subject matter, etc. More specific topics like rhyme schemes, metaphors, rhythm, delivery, and collaboration are covered, and with a chapter each on working in the studio and performing live, contextual considerations are given due time as well. Comments, advice, and insight on all of the above from nearly everyone in Hip-hop who matters (including our dude Cage Kennylz) from every school and era that matters. Is your favorite emcee in here? Mine is. Here’s Sean Price on the art of flow:

Like Bruce Lee said, if the water is in the jug, it becomes that jug. If the water is in that bowl, it becomes that bowl. That’s how I approach it (p. 64).

It’s not all koans and riddles though. For instance, here’s Clipse’s Pusha-T on Jay-Z and writing in your head:

Anything that you’ve ever heard of anybody saying about seeing Jay-Z in the studio, what does he do? He mumbles to himself, he walks around, he mumbles to himself, he walks around, he mumbles to himself, then he’s like OK, I got it. It’s not like, stroll into the booth and [record immediately]–he plays with the idea. Paper and pen is nothing but comfort, to me it’s nothing but being comfortable and being able to look at it, digest it, and say OK, this is how it’s supposed to [go]. But if you can train your mind to do it without that, that’s dope (p. 144).

The next few pages go on to explain the reasons one might want to learn to write in one’s head, and techniques for doing so. How to Rap covers every technique in this way. Weighing in at over 300 pages and introduced by a Kool G. Rap-penned foreword, this is seriously the handbook emcees have been waiting for.

Adam Bradley’s Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip-hop (Basic Civitas, 2008) breaks down emceeing in a different, but just as useful and intriguing manner. He digs deep into the meter, rhyme, and rhythm of rap in search of its poetics. “In the hands of unskilled poets and MCs alike,” writes Bradley, “rhyme can be an impediment, and awkward thing that leads to unnatural sounds and unintended meanings. But rhyme well used makes for powerful expression; it at once taps into the most primal pleasure centers of the human brain, those of sound patterning, and maintains an elevated, ceremonial distance from regular speech” (p. 57). Emcees must stay elevated, maintain that distance, but not drift too far away.

Since rap is a battle-borne art form, emcees must continually add on with their contributions while maintaining the culture’s heritage. That is, a practitioner must make something new while still adhering to the rules. Thomas Kuhn (1977) described an essential tension in science between innovation and tradition: Too innovative and the theory is untestable, too traditional and it’s not useful. The same tension can be said to exist in Hip-hop, as if one “innovates” without regard to “tradition,” one is no longer doing Hip-hop. Where lyrical interpolations are concerned, one must not adhere too closely to the original source lest one be accused of biting. “What separates ‘biting’ and ‘enlightening’ is the difference between repetition and repetition with a difference,” Bradley writes (2008, p. 150) It’s a delicate balance to be sure, but one of which a violation is not difficult to discern.

Bradley, along with Andrew DuBois, continues his exploration of rap’s poetics with The Anthology of Rap (Yale University Press, 2010). This giant tome compiles over three hundred lyrics from over thirty years of Hip-hop. The editors shot here for diversity rather than inclusion, thereby showing rap’s poetic and stylistic breadth rather than just its sheer quantity, though the book does weigh in at just under 900 pages. It also sports an foreword by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., afterwords by Chuck D and Common, and essays that contextualize each major era of rap music. The four eras according to the editors are The Old School (1978-1984), The Golden Age (1985-1992), Rap Goes Mainstream (1993-1999), and New Millennium Rap (2000-2010). Among the undisputed legends and usual suspects, other monsters on the mic include Jay Electronica, Ras Kass, Edan, Eyedea (R.I.P., Mikey), O.C., Big L, Pharoahe Monch, Black Sheep, Brother Ali, and the homies Aesop Rock and Chino XL, among many, many others. Bradley points out in Book of Rhymes that lyrics are to be taken and judged differently when spoken as when on the page, and The Anthology of Rap gives one a chance to do the latter. It is comprehensive, definitive, and essential to be sure.

And if you don’t think people care about lyrics anymore, these are Sean Price‘s final words in Paul Edward’s How to Rap book:

I think it’s going to get back to lyrics, man, and that’s good. I’m ready for that, I can rhyme. Redman, he can rhyme, Jadakiss, he can rhyme–it’s going to get back to them [MCs] who can spit real hard-body lyrics, lyrics that count—Talib Kweli and all of them, they spit bodies. I like those dudes (p. 312).

Word is bond.

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Here’s the book trailer for The Anthology of Rap [runtime: 3:12]:

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References:

Alim, H. S. (2009). Straight outta Compton, straight aus Munchen: Global linguistic flows, and the politics of language in a global hip-hop nation. In H. S. Alim, A. Ibrahim, & A. Pennycook (Eds.), Global linguistic flows: Hip-hop cultures, youth identities, and the politics of language (pp. 1-23). New York: Routledge.

Bradley, A. (2008). Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip-hop. New York: Basic Civitas.

Bradley, A. & DuBois, A. (2010). The Anthology of Rap. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Coleman, B. (2007). Check the Technique: Liner Notes for Hip-Hop Junkies. New York: Villard.

Dyson, M. E. (2004). The culture of hip-hop. In M. Forman & M. A. Neal (Eds.),That’s the joint: The hip-hop studies reader (pp. 61-68). New York: Routledge.

Edwards, P. (2009). How to Rap: The Art and Science of the Hip-hop MC. Chicago: Chicago Review Press.

Erwin, J., Malcolm, S. A., Duncan-Mao, A., Matthews, A., Monroe, J., Samuel, A., & Satten, V. (2006, August). “Told You So: The Making of Reasonable Doubt.XXL Magazine, 10, 7, pp. 89-102.

Kuhn, T. (1977). The Essential Tension. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Onimiyi, T. (2009). “So I choose to do Am Naija style” Hip-hop, language, and postcolonial identities. In H. S. Alim, A. Ibrahim, & A. Pennycook (Eds.), Global linguistic flows: Hip-hop cultures, youth identities, and the politics of language (pp. 113-138). New York: Routledge.

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Apologies to Aesop Rock for ganking his “No Jumper Cables” lyric for the title of this piece (“Rappin’ is my radio, graffiti is my TV, B-boys keep them windmills breezy”).

[Top photo of Ras Kass by B+. Photocopy treatment by royc.]