Caterpillars and Concrete Roses in a Mad City: Kendrick Lamar’s “Mortal Man” Interview with Tupac Shakur
I’ve been hesitant to write about Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly (TPAB) because there are layers to the shit. Sonic, cultural, and political layers that need time to breathe and manifest. Some of those layers are pedagogical. For example, Brian Mooney brilliantly paired the album with Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye to help students work through themes of Black consciousness and self-love. Mooney’s lesson plan garnered Lamar’s attention and a recent visit with Mooney students. Lamar’s open grappling with art and blackness throw him into heavy debates about his worth as a cultural and even literary icon. Yet Lamar’s formula of introspective angst – the use of battling his own demons to shed light on broader American society – pulls me to think about how Lamar and TPAB fit into a long standing trajectory of Black folks’ self-examination in art as a frame for larger critiques of racial politics in American society.
I’m drawn to TPAB’s outro of the final track of the album “Mortal Man.” “Mortal Man” sonically invokes Lamar’s struggle to assume a position as a gatekeeper of a branch of hip hop that focuses on Black community and self-actualization. The track includes a sample from a 1994 Tupac Shakur interview with Swedish music journalist Mats Nileskär. Lamar positions himself as the interviewer, asking a different set of questions that engages Shakur about walking the fault lines of fame, fortune, and Black consciousness in this current cycle of hip hop. The construction and execution of the interview revisits the lines between hip hop’s collective and generational responsibilities via Lamar and Shakur’s interaction. Their conversation moves from creative (and creating) political protest to larger philosophical questions within hip hop: self-consciousness, mortality, and death. Lamar parallels his angst with Tupac using his voice, with Tupac himself heralded as hip hop’s martyred t.h.u.g. with a conscience. In this contemporary moment where Black men’s mortality and worth is attached to being a thug and a problem, Lamar poses Shakur in “Mortal Man” as a keystone for connecting popular scripts with cultural expectations of Black masculinity and agency in the United States.
The song “Mortal Man” launches the interview. The track can be considered a double sample – it uses Houston Person’s cover of Fela Kuti’s song “I No Get Eye for Back.” Lamar’s voice is clear but the background track soft and subdued, forcing the listener to pay full attention to Lamar’s voice, which interrogates what it takes for one to be loyal or respected in mainstream America. Percussion (bass kicks, acoustic drums, soft piano chords) and bass guitar chords annotate Lamar’s solemn lyrical delivery. A horn and woodwind medley – lead by Houston’s tenor sax playing – punctuate Lamar’s chorus:
When the shit hit the fan, is you still a fan?
When the shit his the fan, is you still a fan?
Want you to look to your left and right, make sure you ask your friends
The instrumental accompaniment is soft and steady, suggesting Lamar’s question is a continuous negotiation or checklist for one’s proclamation of loyalty and respect. Lamar’s repetition of “when the shit hit the fan is you still a fan” addresses his fanbase and the followers of other notable Black cultural and creative leaders. They, like Lamar, are usefully flawed – whether by accusation or self-proclamation – and use their flaws to further their cause. Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Moses, Malcolm X, and Michael Jackson all exhibited social-cultural and political agency for (Black) folks. Yet they also suffered scrutiny and disregard because of their personal lives or less-than-respectable experiences.
I am especially intrigued by Lamar’s reference to Malcolm X as “Detroit Red,” a nickname X had as a young hellraiser before his conversion to Islam. Lamar’s reference to X in his youth here speaks to larger questions of respectability, Black youth, and protest. Detroit Red is young, flawed but influential, similar to Lamar and other young Black folks leading protests in this contemporary moment. Lamar’s roll call suggests a struggle with the question of authority, both as a creator of Black culture and how his music implies a larger struggle of contemporary Black agency and angst. Interviewing Tupac brings Lamar’s struggle to a head, evoking Shakur’s voice as a culturally recognizable authority of hip hop’s commercial progress and cultural process. The trope of a flawed nature as a departure point for creative expression and agency is a theme that runs throughout TPAB and the rest of Lamar’s musical catalogue.
The musical accompaniment to the “Mortal Man” song fades out and against a backdrop of silence Lamar begins to recite what he states is an unfinished piece. He begins, “I remember when you was conflicted,” which implies he is talking to himself or talking to someone else. The background silence that leads to Lamar and Shakur’s conversation is as telling as the conversation itself, sonically alluding both to Lamar’s ‘quiet’ struggles of self-affirmation and the possibility that someone other than the audience is listening. The quiet is Lamar’s moment of clarity; the listeners are with him at his most vulnerable moment. He uses the silence to focus attention on himself and without the ‘outside noise’ of others’ beliefs and impressions of his music and purpose.
Although the interview takes place over 20 years earlier, Tupac’s answers are clear and ‘live.’ Shakur’s initial voice is pensive and calculating – he sounds like he is thinking through his responses as he speaks – but later sounds more relaxed, laughing and talking louder and faster. The decreasing formality of Shakur’s answers suggests his increasing comfort with the interviewer as well as confidence in his own answers (and ultimately in sharing his beliefs). Lamar’s use of Shakur’s voice serves as the ultimate form of crate digging, using an obscure (or rare) radio interview sample to create his own voice in hip hop. Lamar’s engagement with Shakur serves memory as a cultural archive and as a cultural production. He not only preserves Shakur’s legacy in his own words but uses Shakur as a departure point for how to blur acts of listening for hip hop fans in a digital age.
The act of listening takes center stage for the interview. The interview is presented as an informal sitdown, reminiscent of what takes place during studio sessions: artists share new material and garner advice from veteran artists. Both rookies and veteran artist listen for new perspectives and listening for suggestions to approach a topic or track. Listening here shows Lamar’s awe and respect of Shakur’s perspective and artistry but also hints at how his conversation with Shakur is ultimately a conversation with himself. Lamar starts the conversation with an unfinished piece about his angsts regarding commercial success and how it conflicts with his creative process. He then moves on to asking Shakur about how he grapples with his creative and political consciousness. The listening work taking place here is critical and archival: without Lamar’s (and Lamar’s audience) interest in Shakur’s creative process his voice loses authority and ultimately its power.
Tupac’s sonic ‘resurrection’ signifies his lasting effect in hip hop while serving as a springboard for Lamar’s own pondering about the purpose of his music and the burden of its success. Unlike the visual representation of Shakur via hologram at the 2012 Coachella Music Festival, Lamar’s use of Tupac’s sonic likeness offers an alternative entry point for engaging Tupac’s work outside of his rapping. For example, much of Shakur’s social-political work takes place in his poetry i.e. his collection of poetry The Rose that Grew from Concrete. Further, the ‘thingness’ of the hologram, a physical and technological manifestation of hip hop fans’ and artists’ revering of Tupac’s image and death, makes me think about the type of work the hologram was expected to perform as compared to the sonic ‘ghostliness’ of Tupac’s voice on Lamar’s track. If, as John Jennings suggests, the hologram manifested Tupac as a “ghost in the machine,” how does Tupac’s voice work as a ghost in the machine? On a visceral level hearing Tupac’s voice in conversation with Kendrick Lamar stirs feelings about whether or not he is dead or alive and his immortality as a hip hop icon.
Where the Coachella hologram visualized Tupac Shakur spirit, “Mortal Man” sonically evokes his spirit and the connection between his (im)mortality and storytelling. Lamar says: “Sometimes I be like. . .get behind a mic and I don’t what type of energy I’ma push out or where it comes from.” Shakur responds “because the spirits, we ain’t really even rappin’, we just letting our dead homies tell stories for us.” Listening to Shakur’s use of “we” out of historical context – the interview took place in 1994, 21 years before “Mortal Man” – suggests that Tupac himself is among the dead. He is a “dead homie” and telling a story that Lamar himself is trying to relay to his audience and himself. Yet the lingering possibility of Tupac’s mortality – most embodied in Tupac’s silence after Lamar’s discussion of the significance of a caterpillar to the album – is a powerful moment of protest. Shakur’s quiet and Lamar’s attempt to “call him back,” signifies a period in the conversation. Lamar is left to fend for himself, fighting a “fight he can’t win.” There is also the possibility that his exchange with Shakur is “just some shit he wrote,” an unfinished idea and story that he is still figuring out. Lamar’s rendering of Tupac’s voice makes me think about the DJ Spooky statement “the voice you speak with may not be your own.” Tupac’s ghostly voice and Lamar’s search for his own voice blend to present Tupac as a mouthpiece for not only himself but Lamar.
At surface level Lamar resurrects and interviews Tupac Shakur because of regional ties to West Coast hip hop and a nearly standard declaration in rap of Shakur’s influence and fandom. He is arguably the most celebrated and iconic figure in hip hop. Shakur’s untimely death and open struggles with seeking balance between fame and personal responsibility mold him as hip hop’s shining prince. Shakur’s family ties with the Black Panther Party – a member of the Panthers once called him an “eternal cub” – positioned him to use hip hop as a mouthpiece for contemporary Black protest. But Shakur’s branding of protest and hip hop was messy, in part because of a working understanding and maneuvering of his image as controversial and commercially successful.
The “Mortal Man” interview signifies sound’s ability to usefully bridge past and present social, cultural, and political moments. Lamar’s sonic evoking of Tupac Shakur demonstrates hip hop as a space of Black youth political protest. Lamar uses sound to render hip hop temporality and re-emphasize Black popular culture as a departure point for recognizing contemporary Black angst. The shrinking mediums of spaces available to indicate why and how #BlackLivesMatter position the sonic as a work bench for engaging race relations in a deemed post-racial era. The “Mortal Man” interview serves as a blueprint for connecting hip hop to longstanding conversations about Black protest as a (messy) cultural product.
Featured image: “Shot by Drew: Kendrick Lamar” by Flickr user The Come Up Show, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Regina Bradley recently completed her PhD at Florida State University in African American Literature. Her dissertation is titled “Race to Post: White Hegemonic Capitalism and Black Empowerment in 21st Century Black Popular Culture and Literature.” She is a regular writer for Sounding Out!
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I don’t intend to discuss the “Blurred Lines” case in this post. There are plenty of folk already committing thoughts on the ruling. While the circumstances of the recent Thicke/Williams/Gaye case are not explicitly about sampling, they are indicative of the direction sample/copyright litigation can go in the future. When samples from a composition infringe upon the copyrights for the song, it is dangerous territory. Rather than focus on those dangers however, I’d like to exemplify possibilities of a more open (and arguably the intended) interpretation of copyright laws, by doing something I should have done seven years ago – put out my project Heads (dropping on April 1st, 2015).
My position has not changed from previous writings on sample laws – transformative sampling produces original work. My intent here is to present an artist’s statement on Heads that illustrates how transformative sampling and derivatives of it require broader interpretation; they should be legally covered as original compositions.
I’ve kept Heads in the vaults since 2007 while continuing from its artistic direction, all the while doing little tinkerings to convince myself it wasn’t done yet (it was). I had been pursuing analog technologies I swore would be the finishing touches it needed, to convince myself it wasn’t ready yet (it was). Then I lost 4TB of files in a quadruple hard drive killer power surge. The last Heads masters were among the 500GB that survived.
The project was born in response to comments made by Wynton Marsalis, dismissing hip-hop and denying its connection to the legacy of black music.
It’s mostly sung in triplets. So what? And as for sampling, it just shows you that the drummer has been replaced by a loop. The drum – the central instrument in African-American music, the sound of freedom – has been replaced by a repetitive loop. What does that tell you about hip-hop’s respect for African-American tradition? – Wynton Marsalis
I was offended as both a hip-hop and jazz head, so I set out to produce a body of work that showed the artistic originality of sampling and tied the practice to black musical traditions.
Prior to the analog experiments, I was modeling a series of digital Open Sound Control (OSC) instruments based on the monome, starting with a sampler but expanding into drum machines synthesizers and other noise makers. Together I called them the Heads Instruments. 95% of the composition work on Heads began with these instruments, all of which were built around the concept of sampling.
The title Heads, comes from the musical head, which is a fundamental part of the jazz tradition. The head is the thematic phrase or group of phrasings that signify a song; heads can be comprised of melody, harmony and/or rhythm. Jazz musicians use the head as a foundation for improvisation, a traditional form including the alternating of head and solo improvisations . Often times in jazz, the head comes from popular songs re-envisioned through improvisation in a jazz context, such as John Coltrane’s famous refiguring of “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music. In addition to being covers, these versions are transformations of the original into a different musical context. The Heads Instruments were designed specifically as instruments that could perform a head in a transformative manner.
Hip-hop attacks itself. It has no merit, rhythmically, musically, lyrically. What is there to discuss? – Wynton Marsalis
I was a bit annoyed at Marsalis, just how much is illustrated by the opening track of Heads, “Tony Wynn,” eponymously named after the contemporary jazz saxophonist, who, like Marsalis, feels that hip hop is not music. In it a character berates his friend for bringing up Wynn’s position. On the surface the song talks trash, but musically it makes layers of references.
First, the song’s format (down to the title) is a nod to the Prince tune “Bob George.” In his song, Prince parodies a character berating a girlfriend for being with Bob George. The voice of the character in “Tony Wynn” and some of his comments come straight from Prince’s song, but the work as a whole is not a direct cover of “Bob George.”
“Tony Wynn” is undeniably influenced by the Minneapolis sound, that eclectic late 1970s and early 80s scene that blend of funk, rock, and synthpop, but how the track arrives there is complicated. It does contain a Prince sample, but not from “Bob George.” The sample is played in a transformative manner, chopping a new riff different from the source material. It also includes a hit from another song, a sample of only one note, yet one identifiable as signature. The drums are ‘played’ in what could be described as the Minneapolis vibe. You can also hear a refrain that mimics yet another song. All of these sampled parts create a new head, to which I added instrumental embellishments with co-conspirator Dolphin on bass, synth, and the killer Prince-esque guitar solo.
The track represents a hodgepodge of Prince influences, but because those influences are so varied, none can be individually identified as the heart of “Tony Wynn.” Furthermore, at the bridge all of the samples get flipped on each other, some re-sampled and performed anew. Nothing can be pinned down as an infringement on technicalities, without taking into account the full context of the transformation. While “Tony Wynn” is heavily influenced by Prince, it is not a Prince song.
Rap Rap Rap
The second track on Heads,”Rap Rap Rap,” features Murda Miles and Killa Trane. I chose its title and head to reference the 1936 Louis Palma song “Sing Sing Sing,” made popular by the Benny Goodman Band. Coming out of the big band era, the song is closer to a traditionally composed Western standard, the heavy percussions however distinguish it. While you will find no samples of sound recordings from any version of “Sing Sing Sing” in “Rap Rap Rap,” it still represents the primary sample head used.
The opening percussive phrases are influenced by rhythmic hand games—an important but often overlooked precursor to hip hop discussed in Kyra Gaunt’s The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes from Double-Dutch to Hip-Hop. Here the rhythm sets the pace before charging into the head with a swing type of groove as the two featured artists, Murda Miles on trumpet and Killa Trane on sax, call out the head. What distinguishes these horns however, is that they are both sample based.
The song’s head is still based on “Sing Sing Sing,” but for the dueling horn parts the samples come from the recordings of Miles Davis and John. While Davis and Coltrane played together at a fair number of sessions, these samples come from two divergent sources from their individual catalogs. I chopped, tuned and arranged them for performance so that they could play in tune with the head.
The opening half of “Rap Rap Rap” sees both sticking to the head with little flourishes, but at the half way mark, the accompaniment changes to a distinct hip-hop beat still firmly rooted in the head. The two horns shift here as well, trading bars in a way that nods to both jazz and rap. The phrasing of the sample performance itself mimics a rapping cadence here, bridging the gap between the two traditions.
The head for next track “La Botella” (The Bottle), uses a popular salsa motif as the head, accentuated by a son influenced percussive wall of sound. The percussions vary from live tracked percussions to percussion samples to percussive synthesis. I performed many of the percussive sounds utilizing the Heads Instruments sequencer, which lends itself to the slightly off—while still in the pocket—swing.
The format of this particular head allowed for an expanded arrangement, through which I nod to the Afro-Cuban influence in the African American tradition, from jazz to hard soul/funk to rock and roll. Son evolved from drumming traditions that have their own forms of the head. There is a duality in these two traditions that pairs a desire for tightness with a looseness in spirit, and this tension continues into musics influenced by them. The percussions on “La Botella” carry that duality. The collective drums sound as an instrument, while each individual drum can be aurally isolated.
The actual samples in the song come from vocal bits of The Fania All-Stars, but the true Fania mark I emulate on “La Botella” is the horn section. They sound nowhere near as good—let’s just get that out of the way—but the role they play comes directly from the feel of a classic Fania release. Could the horns actually be attributable to a single source? I doubt it, but more importantly, they operate only as a component of the song itself, placing this inspiration in a different musical context.
“Sound Power” fully embraces ‘sound’ as a fundamental musical object. Sounds in and of themselves can be understood as heads. The primary instrument I used on “Sound Power” is the sound generator of the 4|5 Ccls Heads Instrument. 4|5 Ccls is an arpeggiator modeled after John Coltrane’s sketches on the cycle of fifths. I tend to think of such sounds in relationship to the latter Coltrane years when he was using his instrument as a sound generator, clustering notes together and condensing melody.
Similarly, arpeggiators group notes into singular phrases which can be interpreted as heads. The head on “Sound Power” does not push the possibilities to the extreme, as Coltrane did; it remains constrained within a rhythmic framework. However, it shows the power of sound as fundamental. All of the drums, percussive elements, bass and harmonies flow from the head, accentuated by heavyweight vocal chops from the Heads Instrument scratch emulator.
The intro to “Come Clean” marks a turning point in the album. The first four tracks present are technical feats to illustrate the point. “Come Clean” doesn’t slack off. Musically this track is the closest to the “Blurred Lines” case; notably, other than the intro, it contains no sample. It’s head, however, comes from the Jeru the Damaja song “Come Clean” produced by DJ Premier. I did an extensive breakdown on the technical details of “Come Clean” on Avanturb a few years ago; my online installation shows how (and for how long) I have been contemplating this track. But to paraphrase the sample here, the true power of music is helping the listener realize the breadth of their own existence in this universe. My use of the song is very intentional, and I deliberately change its themes for the album.
For “Come Clean,” I worked with percussionists Zach and Claudia who studied in the Olatunji line of drumming. They noted the physical timing challenges getting used to the song’s unique head, but, once they locked in, the head held its own. That exemplifies the power of this means of composing – new original ideas which can push music’s possibilities.
As an artist, I advocate for the interpretation of copyright laws so that someone cannot sue because three notes of a song appear in one they own, or because a sound from the recording the record company convinced the artist to sign over to them for pennies was repitched and played into a melody. I know that arriving to music via these methods can push the traditions further, everything copyright laws were written to encourage. If we don’t change the way we think about copyright, the ability to create in this manner will be lost in litigation.
Primus Luta is a husband and father of three. He is a writer and an artist exploring the intersection of technology and art, and their philosophical implications. He maintains his own AvantUrb site. Luta was a regular presenter for Rhythm Incursions. As an artist, he is a founding member of the collective Concrète Sound System. Recently Concréte released the second part of their Ultimate Break Beats series for Shocklee.
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Throughout the month of March, nerdcore MCs Mega Ran (Raheem Jarbo) and Sammus (Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo) will be embarking on the “Rappers with Arm Cannons” Tour. Both artists independently based their monikers on two of the most notable video game characters to possess arm cannons, (Mega Man and Samus respectively), but they have since collaborated on several songs and a SoundScan charting Castlevania project, as well as sharing the stage at numerous concert venues and conventions, and releasing individual albums and videos that have received international attention and critical acclaim. Now three years later the two teachers-turned-rappers have decided to take their show on the road alongside rapper and sound engineer Storyville (Matthew Weisse), who has recently joined forces with Mega Ran to release their February 2015 album “Soul Veggies.”
While at first glance the name of the tour appears a bit tongue-in-cheek, it calls necessary attention to the growing presence of Black nerdcore artists like Mega Ran and Sammus who cast their experiences as people of color against the backdrop of nerd and geek culture. In Mega Ran’s case, this has meant writing verses about his struggle to make sense of his Black nerd identity while growing up amongst a very rough crowd in Philadelphia. For Sammus, being a rapper with an arm cannon has largely meant reconciling her ideas about the lack of diverse representations of Black women in notable movies, games, and cartoons among other media forms.
Both Mega Ran and Sammus began making beats on the Playstation game MTV Music Generator. Since that time Sammus has brought together the production styles of Kanye West, Daft Punk, Björk and various video game composers to produce beats that are rich with video game synths and uniquely chopped samples. Mega Ran has similarly drawn on his love of hip hop artists, such as Redman, Nas, and Busta Rhymes as well as music from video games such as Mega Man, Final Fantasy VII, and River City Ransom.
On Tuesday, March 10th, the tour stopped at Cornell University’s Just About Music center where SO! Editors J. Stoever And Aaron Trammell sat down with the trio for a very frank and open discussion on how to survive and thrive as independent artists in the new music economy. Here’s a choice sample of that conversation:
The tour began on March 5th in NYC and will continue through March 19th with final stops in Austin, TX at this year’s South-by-South-West (SXSW). For full details on tall of the dates visit http://sammusmusic.com/shows-tour-dates/
Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo is a PhD student in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Cornell University. Since completing a senior thesis on digital music software, tacit knowledge, and gender under the guidance of Trevor Pinch, she has become interested in pursuing research in the emergent field of sound studies. She hopes to combine her passion for music with her academic interests in technological systems, bodies, politics and practices that construct and are constructed by sound. More specifically she would like to examine the politics surrounding low-income community studios, as well as the uses of sound in (or as) electronic games. In her free time she produces hip hop beats and raps under the moniker Sammus (based on the video game character, Samus Aran, from the popular Metroid franchise).
Making Music at Studio X: The Identity Politics of Community Studios-Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo
SO! Amplifies: Regina Bradley’s Outkasted Conversations-Regina Bradley