Welcome to week four of our February Forum on “Sonic Borders,” a collaboration with the IASPM-US blog in connection with this year’s IASPM-US conference on Liminality and Borderlands, held in Austin, Texas from February 28 to March 3, 2013. The “Sonic Borders” forum is a Virtual Roundtable cross-blog entity that will feature six Sounding Out! writers posting on Mondays through February 25, and four writers from IASPM-US, posting on Wednesdays starting February 6th and ending February 27th. For an encore of weeks one through three of the forum, click here. And now, Tara Betts drops some science, Sounding Out! style. –JSA
When underground hip-hop artist P. Blackk released Blackk Friday (2011), several reviewers insisted that he sampled political activist Angela Davis. Oddly enough, one of the reviews from The Meara Blog, featured the video for “Brainz,” the song in question–and the video clearly showed that the sampled track was in fact not Davis but activist and lawyer Kathleen Cleaver. Why the automatic assumption that any black woman sampled from the 1960s is Davis? Why the collapsing and erasure of so many distinct and powerful voices?
Davis, Cleaver, and Assata Shakur are arguably the three most iconic women of the Black Power Movement, but they largely go unrecognized in mainstream history. Erasure by omission represents how many historical sources are resistant to identifying their specific contributions to grassroots organizing, intellectual life, and politics, while the male leadership of the Black Power Movement is often mentioned by name. So, the inclusion of Davis, Cleaver, and Shakur in songs by hip hop artists P. Blackk, John Forté, and Common simultaneously amplifies the distinctiveness of their voices while signaling conscious choices by younger male artists to align themselves with the political thinking espoused by these radical women in politically-rooted, layered tracks–even as these samples inadvertently reveal the mainstream public’s tendency to treat black female activists as interchangeable. Both in their moment and in its sampled echoes, these women resist being grouped into an amorphous group of misconstrued black people, and these tracks highlight that.
In “Brainz,” P. Blackk samples a 1968 speech by Cleaver. In the track, the basic bassline reverbs beneath the emcee’s repeated hook. He begins the song with the “huh” sound that many emcees use to amplify enthusiasm, start rhyming, and alert whomever is listening that the words are about to arrive. Blackk repeats certain phrases and utilizes internal rhyme as he makes observations about the choices people should make to care for themselves, their children, and their communities. The most original slant rhyme emerges in the second of two verses, replicated here:
It’s funny how we love chains and whips
when we were bound by em.
and we hate rock’n’roll and it was found by us.
You can’t hate what’s beautiful. I’m black and I’m proud,
but that ain’t got nothing to do with my pants sagging down.
Society is pimping you.
I’m just a man who’s a little more sensible.
I used to be invisible, now I’m invincible.
Not the stereotypical,
and I’m doing my thing in a game with no principles.
Knowledge and power, all I need, yeah, that’ll do.
The difference between me and my peers is gratitude.
Younguns is dumb too and too cool,
but it’s uncool living in a city that’s gun-ruled.
Here, P. Blackk most closely echoes how Cleaver expresses a sense of embracing and affirming black beauty while still acknowledging flawed educational systems, materialism, the origin of rock music, intergenerational disconnects, and gun violence. As a member of the Black Panther Party, wife of Eldridge Cleaver, attorney and professor, Cleaver has been a spokesperson for African American struggles. When the chorus simply repeats “real n-gga wit a brain,” P. Blackk is claiming the term that is still an affront to middle class people reaching for the civility of assimilation. He is insisting that some people are afraid of their intelligence and growing awareness as marginalized people and what actions that might entail. This fear of a nascent threat was at the root of resistance towards the slogan “Black is Beautiful” in the 1960s.
The Cleaver sample comes at the end of “Brainz,” and in the music video appears in its entirety on a projection screen and against P. Blackk himself, decked in a white shirt and bow tie, as he “lectures” students in a darkened classroom. As different black historical figures, including the likes of Marcus Garvey, Rosa Parks, Angela Davis, Ralph Abernathy, George Jackson, and James Baldwin, are projected on the screen behind Blackk, the instrumental audibly drops much lower so the only voice heard is Cleaver’s.
[Cue to 3:05 for Kathleen Cleaver]
The footage from which her sample is taken has background sound such as others talking and a chant with cadences that were often heard at black political protests; these can be faintly heard along with the audible buzz of varied speaking voices in the crowd that surrounding Cleaver. She was not onstage nor the main focal point of the larger event, but P. Blackk’s re-framing places her at its center. When one considers the position of Davis and Cleaver as esteemed and radical activists and professors, it’s not surprising that P. Blackk video positions him as an educator, like these women, to further reinforce the point of Cleaver’s words.
In “A Song for Assata,” from Like Water for Chocolate (2000), Common retells some of the events detailed in Assata: An Autobiography, but his sample reinforces why her activism was so important to Common and others like him. Her looped voice concludes his song, incredulously repeating the question, “You askin’ me about freedom?” In the sample Shakur explains how she knows more about what freedom is not, which is similar to a comment that Shakur made in Gloria Rolando’s documentary Eye of the Rainbow: Assata Shakur and Oya. Shakur then defines how freedom allows one to be one’s self, and the definition is faded down and the last of the soaring music rises slightly. When this fade occurs, we have a few examples of what Shakur imagines what freedom could potentially be, but it also leaves a sonic pause where listeners might contemplate how they define freedom for themselves.
The choice to fade out a sample says so much about not just the message that it (and Common) hopes to convey, but also reveals narratives that have been enforced consistently through institutions and time. I read the fade out as sonically emphasizing “the struggle,” rather than the intellectual present of an activist speaking; it limits her to the role of an representing the past. In dream hampton’s documentary Black August, Malcolm X Grassroots Movement organizer Meron Haile Selassie elucidates how women like Shakur are idolized:
Historically, the black liberation movement and actually all movements, let’s be honest, have fallen short of trying to incorporate the role of women, what women need, and how we incorporate anti-sexist theory and anti-sexist work in our general liberation movement. And when the woman that we put on the poster every single year, Assata Shakur, is someone that these artists revere and talk about yet but they’re somehow unable to see an Assata Shakur in the woman they’re dating that’s a painful realization.
In other words, even in black history and social movements, some women are canonized and celebrated and others are disregarded, which is not a far cry from the well-worn debate of using the word “b-tch” or “ho” and insisting that this namecalling does not address all women. Such overlooking and fading out is a subtler silencing of women.
John Forte’s “Drift On” works against the narrative of the fade-out in “A Song for Assata.” In “Drift On,” from his album The Water Suite (2012), Forte lyrically articulates the feeling of being distant from someone; however, it is the brief sample of a few seconds from Angela Davis that reinforces the possibility of redemption during and after confinement. Forté begins singing the hook over a guitar-like loop that functions almost like a chord, and his soft singing of the chorus contrasts with his solemn rhyming lines and the firm solemnity of Davis’ brief sample midway through the song. A little more than a minute before “Drift On” ends, Davis speaks:
many people recognize that they can refashion themselves. They can rehabilitate themselves. They can live a life of the mind.
Davis stresses the words “they,” “refashion” and the third, final “can” spoken in this sample. Her tendency to stretch and soften particular nouns and verbs in speaking is a consistent pattern in Davis’ public speech, achieved by rhetorical devices such as metanoia– the immediate restatement of a phrase–and amplification. When Davis speaks in this manner, she makes listeners pay attention to the “they” whom she refers to as intellectually capable, but it also stresses “possibility” and redemption of the self.
It is important to note that the artists sampling these iconic Black women are men. Although women such as Me’shell Ndegeocello, and Terri Lyne Carrington and Diane Reeves have sampled Angela Davis on successful records, these records were not necessarily considered hip hop, which has consistently relied on men’s voices to create a radical impression in music, like Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” Public Enemy long relied on voices like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., but happens to (and with) women’s voices? Including these voices in hip hop shows that women do exist as thinkers, activists, and speakers, even if the exposure is being exercised by artists who are men.
However, each song extends the narrative of each woman in a different manner than they constructed for themselves. P. Blackk stops admonishing, advising, and insisting on pragmatic Afrocentrism so he can to listen to Cleaver explain why black beauty was finally being embraced in the 1960s. Cleaver, in her 1968 speech, eschews white standards of beauty to embrace herself, which P. Blackk uses to connect self-hatred in the past and self-destructive behavior in the present. Common ends “A Song for Assata” with Shakur so she can share some of her thoughts on freedom after the song relates major events from her life based on details and paraphrased lines from poems in Assata: An Autobiography. Forté uses the sample of Angela Davis to further a narrative that reveals how the prison industrial complex diminishes perceptions of the humanity and the intellectual capacity of prisoners in “Drift On.”
These three hip hop songs align with a continuum of specific radical women during a time when there are few women getting consistent recognition in the genre of hip hop music, so it marks a curious point of departure where women can be part of conversations in a musical genre where they are not frequently prominent as vocalists. This sampling practice also places men and women in conversation–activists, artists, and listeners–in a manner that reflects strength, certainty, and a sense of coming together with specific political ideas in a manner that, importantly, does not erase intellectual, or sonic, difference.
Tara Betts is the author of the poetry collection Arc and Hue, a Ph.D. candidate at Binghamton University, and a Cave Canem fellow. Tara’s poetry also appeared in Essence, Bum Rush the Page, Saul Williams’ CHORUS: A Literary Mixtape, VILLANELLES, both Spoken Word Revolution anthologies, and A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry. Her research interests include African American literature, poetry, creative writing pedagogy, and most recently sound studies. In the 1990s, she co-founded and co-hosted WLUW 88.7FM’s “The Hip Hop Project” at Loyola University while writing for underground hip hop magazines, Black Radio Exclusive, The Source, and XXL. She is co-editor of Bop, Strut, and Dance, an anthology of Bop poems with Afaa M. Weaver.
The point that had lingered with me after first reading Jonathan Sterne’s essay “The mp3 as Cultural Artifact,” was the idea that the mp3 was a promiscuous technology. “In a media-saturated environment,” Sterne writes, “portability and ease of acquisition trumps monomaniacle attention . . . at the psychoacoustic level as well as the industrial level, the mp3 is designed for promiscuity. This has been a long-term goal in the design of sound reproduction technologies” (836). A technology, promiscuous? I did not have to look far to find support. Like germs, I could find copies of mp3s that I had downloaded from Napster in 2000 scattered across generations of my old hard drives. Often they were redundant, too – iTunes having archived a copy separate from my original download.
But, for Sterne, mp3s are also socially promiscuous. They accumulate in the hard drives of the working class and are shared, almost anywhere, through the branching left/right wires of iPod earbuds. Since the popularization of the mp3, there have been new opportunities to share how we listen with others. This is promise of the mp3, and the reason it forms such a key point of scholarly meditation.
MP3: The Meaning of a Format (Duke University Press, 2012) finds Sterne revisiting many of these key themes, with a larger focus on the genealogical beginnings of the mp3 technology. While many of the book’s chapters are extrapolations of prior work Sterne has done regarding the genealogy of listening practices, this work concerns itself less with the 19th century, and more with the 20th century. Perhaps this is related to some of the methodological decisions Sterne has made in planning the book – in seeking out the genealogical origins of the mp3, Sterne worked from archives and manuals described in interviews by engineers who were fundamental to the technology’s production. As such it finds much in common with Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco’s Analog Days and Dave Tompkins’ How to Wreck a Nice Beach but incorporates the genealogical methods regarding sonic technology present in Sterne’s earlier work The Audible Past and Emily Thompson’s The Soundscape of Modernity. In MP3 Sterne positions himself as a critical cultural studies scholar working between the humanities and sciences, focusing specifically on the mp3 due to its social and technological relevance today. The critical is key here as MP3 is truly a work devised to underscore the economic connections between the construction of our selves as “hearing subjects” and the media industries.
Certainly, the mp3 can still be considered a promiscuous technology, but it is corporate capitalism that had failed to recognize the extent to which it relies on technological promiscuity to support its infrastructure. This focus, ironically, displaces the mp3 as the main object of Sterne’s analysis. It highlights instead the pathological logic of corporate capitalism, and the ways that this rationality has mutated, now, in the wake of mass replicable, malleable, and iterative digital culture. In other words, the mp3 is endemic to a much larger plot, wherein the culture industries adapt to their own deus ex-machina. The naive development of the mp3 by the motion picture industry is a large part of the story here, but it is only a small bit of a much larger whole. The real story involves understanding how a handful of vested corporate interests have shaped the ways that we interpret and understand what listening is. In MP3 Sterne addresses one of the great questions of sound studies: What are the politics of listening? Or, which individuals and institutions have a vested economic interest in questions of how we hear?
Sterne recalls this drama in three parts, each unfolding in a somewhat autonomous fashion, but unified in so far as they explore the economic interests behind the scientific construction of “hearing subjects.” In the first part, Sterne is at his best exploring AT&T’s (and the affiliated Bell Laboratories’) role in funding psychological, physiological, and cybernetic research on hearing. In the second, Sterne explains how this early research has been applied to the visual and technical abstraction of sound in the 1970s. And, in the third part of this genealogy, he explains how these analogs were made digital, specifically the corporate politics which went into the construction of the mp3 standard. Throughout this surprising and detailed trajectory, Sterne makes the invisibility of corporate interests apparent and explicit.
Sterne also hints toward several powerful economic rationalities that have guided the construction of the mp3. Key among these insights is the monetization of cybernetic discourse, or the incorporation of the human body within a scientific understanding of technical systems. In order to engineer an efficient technical system, the capacities and limits of how we interact with (or serve as parts of) these systems must be taken into account. Sterne refers to this mode of engineering as “perceptual technics,” and he goes to great lengths to explain it.
Basically, at the turn of the 20th century, AT&T had taken a keen interest in the science of how people listen because they wanted to maximize the amount of simultaneous conversations broadcast through a single telephone wire. More conversations meant the purchase of fewer wires, and therefore greater profits. Eventually, drawing on the research of the oft-cited Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver (within SO!: What Mixtapes Can Teach Us About Nois and Pushing Record; and soundBox: Mapping Noise), AT&T recognized an economic problem of technical efficiency within their wires – there was too much ambient noise. Because of this, AT&T sought to limit the audible signal transmitted from one phone to another. This would allow for more signals (and therefore conversations) to be transmitted through the same wire. Physiological research provided clues that some frequencies were more audible than others, so engineers worked to compress audio signals to reflect this scientific abstraction of hearing.
The reduction of listening–as an embodied practice–to the quantification and control of the audible spectrum, is, in other words, the history of compression. Which, according to Sterne, should be understood as the true meaning of the mp3. While the mp3 format, like the CD or cassette, may become obsolete, technologies of compression will not. Sterne argues convincingly that most advances in compression technologies have been guided by the invisible logic of corporate capitalism. It is this exact tendency of compression–to make things smaller and more efficient–that threatened to undo the entire project of corporate and branded music distribution in the year 2000, via platforms like Napster. Sterne is well aware of this irony throughout MP3, and uses the final chapter to discuss, briefly, the moment of cultural transformation that is defined by file-sharing and mass distribution.
Bringing things full circle with a somewhat stoic conclusion about the democratic potentials of this moment, he remarks: “The end of the artificial scarcity of recording is a moment of great potential. Its political outcome is still very much in question, but its political meaning should not be” (224). Sterne points to the globalization and ubiquity of mediated listening as a sign that things may not have changed much even though mass networked society at one point promised freedom from a commodity form which privileged things like “liberal notions of property, alienated labor, and ownership” (224). He argues that even the music industries shall persevere, mostly because people have a sublime attraction to listening and music. In other words: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. There are few moments of liberation to be found within MP3; it is instead a drama of the status quo where the conspirators of corporate capitalism succeed in spite of themselves.
The disparity in Sterne’s tone, when juxtaposing the nefarious and efficient dispositifs of capitalism with an untroubled and authentic construction of music is striking to say the least. And although Sterne is clear to explain that he locates his scholarship as work on a container technology (the mp3) and not its content (the music), this is a somewhat unsatisfying distinction as an embodied practice, such as listening, must take both into account. And while I agree that the mp3 reflects the promiscuity of corporate capitalism, is this challenged by the plethora of ideological nuance coded into song lyrics and arrangements? Do the corporate ideologies of the music industries flow beyond the container of the mp3 into the music itself? Is there any crosstalk, or overlap between these historical constructions? In other words, what are the limits to theorizing a container technology, and how much does the discursive path of the mp3 sculpt the content of what we listen to?
Despite, or perhaps, because of the rather dystopic scene that Sterne alludes to at the end of MP3, it falls nicely in the space between Sound Studies and Critical Information Studies. It bridges humanistic scholarship on embodied listening practices with a critique of the economic interests that have funded much of the scientific research relating to the phenomenology of sound. To that end, MP3 reveals much about the social construction of hearing and the ways that the familiar mythology of audio fidelity has been produced, discussed and exploited by several communication industries. Even though the mp3 may have been eclipsed by industry as the main object of inquiry in the eponomously titled MP3, Sterne succeeds admirably in detailing the promiscuity of corporate capitalism in the listening practices of our everyday lives.
Aaron Trammell is co-founder and Multimedia Editor of Sounding Out! He is also a Media Studies PhD candidate at Rutgers University.
“Many men wish death up on me/ blood in my eye dog and I can’t see/ I’m trying to be what I’m destined to be/ and niggas tryna take my life away” –50 Cent, “Many Men (Death Wish)”
After hearing about the murder of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed teenager who was shot to death by George Zimmerman in a gated community in Sanford, Florida on February 26, 2012, I grappled with the urge to grab my godsons, nephews, cousins, brothers, and husband and never let go. I grappled with the Du Boisian question of the color-line, redressing it to consider “what does it feel like to be not only a problem but a target?” With these thoughts in my mind, I especially grappled with listening to the audio records of the 911 calls documenting the death of Trayvon Martin, just released late Friday March 16thby the Sanford police department.
I have mixed reasoning as to why I listened to the tapes. Part of me was just being nosy, but there was a deeper, far reaching curiosity stemming from my southern roots. As a Georgia girl, I was raised by Georgia men. My grandfather vividly recounted horrific stories of lynchings and beatings that happened “at the hands of persons unknown.” My mindset, like that of many, shifted to thinking about Trayvon’s death as a lynching. These tapes gave sonic urgency to a historically silent crime. In a word, Trayvon’s desperate screams gave voice to the countless men and women before him who died at the hands of white vigilantism.
As I listened to the distraught callers—and Trayvon’s final screams and pleas for his life—my mind became a mosh pit of emotions. Pissed, my mental playlist shuffled to 50 Cent’s “Many Men (Death Wish).”
I imagine Trayvon walking as the haunting piano and strings at the start of “Many Men” accompany his steps. He anxiously questions Zimmerman– “Why are you following me?” – in a similarly anxious way as 50 Cent can be heard asking “what’s taking homie so long, son?” and the shot rings out. As Trayvon screams and falls, the hard hitting boom fills the silent void. His lifeless body lays face down in the dirt, a lone piano softly signifying vulnerability as 50 Cent’s chorus starts: “many men wish death upon me/blood in my eye dog and I can’t see/I’m trying to be what I’m destined to be/and niggas tryna take my life away.” Situating Trayvon Martin’s final moments in a song by 50 Cent is discomforting, yet speaks to the reality and imaginative scripts of black masculinity as violent. The physical gunshot to Martin’s chest echoes the allegorical shots heard in the “Many Men” track and those in songs like Notorious B.I.G.’s “Who Shot Ya,” as another example, simultaneously blur and re-enforce black death as fantasy and normative. The 911 calls documenting Trayvon Martin’s death heard in concert with 50 Cent’s song sonically reify (gun) violence as a dominant discourse of black male identity. Indeed, Trayvon, I know who shot ya and gave you a death wish. I cannot, however, understand why.
The sonic surveillance of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman’s run-in—documented by the numerous accounts of neighbors who heard something but did not go outside—presents a juxtaposition of expected black male identity with the vulnerability of a horrified child forced into a criminalized space of black masculinity. In Zimmerman’s 911 call–listen via the Huffington Post here–he nonchalantly and at time heavily sighs about Martin’s blackness and its associated threat – “he’s black,” “he looks suspicious,” “he’s up to no good.” The passivity of Zimmerman’s voice reflects his bridging of (young) black masculinity as threatening. The panicked callers’ voices, however, represent reprieve and reinstate Trayvon’s humanity. The Trayvon Martin 911 recordings, then, are a mixtape of his final moments, sampling the voices of the various callers to construct Trayvon’s fatal narrative. Ultimately, the callers give voice to the vulnerabilities that Trayvon was deemed unable to evoke or possess by default as a black male.
I use the word “mixtape” here to argue that the frequencies of trauma in which the (white) listener situates Trayvon Martin’s death must be heard within a larger understanding of sound as a commodified and racialized space. Ultimately, the recordings of Trayvon’s death are a sonic reflection of a long history of white America’s treatment of black bodies as capital. In negotiating the black (male) body as a commodity – which is historically and culturally significant – sounding the black male body as a commodity contextualizes this moment of expected black masculine performance for nonblack listeners. It needs to be noted how pathological black masculinity is profitable and mutually invested in by black men and white consumers alike. Briefly referring back to 50 Cent, he performs and is validated by the violence his narrative possesses. He knowingly invests in the exaggeration of his experience – he really was shot – and builds his image upon that paranoia. In In the Break, Fred Moten discusses the sonic commodification of blackness as “not what the commodity says but that the commodity says or, more properly, that commodity in its ability to say, must be made to say” (9). Situating black rappers’ narratives and, extensively, black men’s narratives as a commodity speaks to how the ambiguity of such narratives relegate blackness to a position of profitable, essentialized discourse. Moten suggests sounding blackness as a commodity is an effort to address these ambiguities, linking the privilege of speaking and constructing black (masculine) narrative, not content, as culturally and capitalistically recognizable and significant.
Trayvon’s political agency is invested in the violence placed upon his body by public scrutiny as a black man before there is any vulnerability as a child. Thrust instead into the position of ‘suspicious’ black man in a predominately white middle-class gated community, Trayvon the child bears the public scripts of expected black masculine performance, which are both visual and sonic. These expectations of popular culture and public opinion distort Trayvon’s sonic imprint, rendering him unable to vocalize and physically relay his desperate need for help.
As Mark Anthony Neal points out in a his March 19th New Black Man post “Hearing Trayvon Die” linking hearing Trayvon Martin’s death to a scene of a grieving Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright) from the 2008 film Cadillac Records, in which Waters’s pain is heard but not seen: “part of the reason that Jeffrey Wright’s howling had to be experienced off screen is that we have little understanding of Black males, as vulnerable, in pain, under duress, in terror and confronting death.” The impact of the lack Neal describes emphasizes the necessity for a sonic imposition of such vulnerabilities. In this case, the agency of this need is heightened by the audience being forced to listen to Trayvon’s frantic screams for help on tapes, thus humanizing him before racializing his body.
Yet it is Trayvon’s alleged screams – which I undoubtedly believe ARE his screams– that also sonically invoke his humanity. On the recording, heart-wrenching screams for help are silenced by the forceful pop of a gunshot, the silence signifying multi-layered historical and cultural indicator of Trayvon’s worth as a black boy in American society. Trayvon’s screams vocalize the agonizing silent demise of the murdered black boys before him. . .Oscar Grant. . .Amadou Diallo. . .Emmett Till. His screams are an echo of Frederick Douglass’s Aunt Hester’s screams, recorded in his 1845 Narrative, acknowledgement of the cruelty and continued viability of longstanding—even foundational—racial prejudice and violence that exists within the contemporary ‘postracial’ American agenda.
Moreover, Trayvon’s scream also concisely signifiy the ongoing “upheaval” and chaotic existence of black men that Moten suggests “pressures the assumption of the equivalence of personhood and subjectivity” (1). Trayvon’s screams amplify a tragic dimension of what I theorize as “sonic cool pose,” where black masculinity is only cool if accompanied – instrumentally, lyrically, and otherwise – with violence. In this regard, the sonic signifiers that mark death—like the gunshots and screams that introduce 50 Cent’s “Many Men,” for example—are Trayvon’s. Both built upon the traumatic condition frequently faced by men and boys of color, Trayvon and 50 Cent’s lived experiences can be heard as sonically interchangeable despite obvious differences in class position. Through sound and the American popular imagination, black manhood is virulently fluid. There is a universal, stereotypical understanding that black masculinity resorts to identical markers of lived experience. This awareness is especially heightened and dominant in sound, where 50 Cent’s shooting on the corner parallels Trayvon’s shooting in a gated townhome community.
The release of the 911 audio of Trayvon Martin’s death is a powerful intervention in maneuvering black masculinity and violence in American (popular) culture. There is a delicate and simultaneous reading of the recordings as a sonic realization of black masculine violence and a fetishizing of a violated black male body. The sounds they contain amplify a continued American investment and interest in the black pathological narrative while doubly intervening as an alternative reading of such negotiations of black manhood. Whether sounded across a courtyard in a gated suburban neighborhood in Sanford, Florida, or on the streets of South Jamaica, Queens—or in the isolation booth in a recording studio—these frantic and desperate screams are sonic imprints of his social-cultural relevance. They may bleed into one another, but they won’t fade away.
R.N. Bradley is a PhD candidate in African American Literature at Florida State University. She writes about African American literature, race and pop culture, Hip Hop, and her own awesomeness. She earned her BA in English from the Unsinkable Albany State University (GA) and a MA in African American and African Diaspora Studies from Indiana University Bloomington. Her dissertation project looks at negotiations of white hegemonic masculinity and race consciousness in 21st century African American literature and popular culture. You can read her work atAllHipHop, Newsone, TheLoop21, or her monthly column “The Race to Post” over atPopMatters. Scholar by day, unapologetic Down South Georgia Girl 24/7/365. Catch up with her awesomeness via twitter:@redclayscholar and her blog Red Clay Scholar (http://redclayscholar.blogspot.com).
It has been six years this week since the passing of James “J Dilla” Yancey, considered by many in hip-hop as the quintessential producer’s producer. Over the course of his career the Detroit-born beatmaker garnered production credits with artists ranging from The Pharcyde to Janet Jackson. Since his passing there has been a substantial amount of posthumous output, including a Yancey Boys album with his brother Illa J, Ruff Draft, The Shining and Jay Stay Paid. There have also been the tons of unofficial releases by artists using material from his beattapes without prior permission. An unofficial discography of projects ‘featuring’ Dilla’s work could eclipse his official one.
Dilla’s beattapes, which he shared amongst friends and associates via CDs, eventually traveled the globe via message boards years prior to his passing. His legacy became what it is, at least in part, due to the reach of these CDs, but unfortunately it has also made monetizing the work after his passing a difficult task. There were early issues between Dilla’s family and the legal estate, but for the last couple of years there has been a process established which allows for the use of tracks from his vaults. They are currently set to release The Rebirth of Detroit, which boasts unheard Dilla beats featuring the Detroit artists he came up with:
In addition to posthumous releases under Dilla’s name the estate also licenses tracks for projects by other artists. With over 4000 tracks in their possession, it stands to reason there will be plenty more Dilla in the future. Yet still there is a sense that ‘new Dilla’ will never be new again, as in the future we will only be able to look at Dilla’s past. How would his process as an artist have grown? Surely whatever he was doing before he passed sounds nothing like what he would be doing in 2012.
Fortunately, the creativity of Dilla lives on through his influence on others. In the years since his passing, that influence has gone beyond hip-hop into jazz, indie rock, classical, and electronic music; some might argue Dilla’s influence has spawned new styles or even genres of music . The LA beat scene was seemingly born in homage to him; with its off kilter drums and wild sample chops, it extends beyond the initial influence, projecting into the future a lineage which will forever trace back to Dilla. Another of those lineages takes Dilla to perhaps the least likely place for a hip-hop producer: late-night television, through the figure of Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson of The Roots.
During this time Dilla worked closely with drummer, producer, and founding member of The Roots ?uestlove. There was a musical bond established over countless studio hours which allowed for a fusion of styles between them that carried Yancey from his Jay Dee period into his J Dilla period, and which ?uestlove continues to carry to this day.
Since Dilla’s passing, ?uest has been an instrumental voice in keeping Dilla’s legacy alive. He regularly DJ’s events celebrating Dilla’s work. On all of The Roots albums except for the most recent one, there have been musical dedications to Dilla. It is when ?uest goes into the studio with The Roots, however, that the living continuation of their musical fusion can be found.
The studio is where ?uest spends a lot of his time, rehearsing The Roots for their role as the house band on the Late Night with Jimmy Fallon show; ?uest records the sessions to listen back before and after the show. On Late Night The Roots play new songs in front of a live audience five nights a week. These songs only air for ten to twenty seconds going in and out of commercials. If you run to grab something from the refrigerator you might miss them. Or, coming back you might find your head nodding to them. Not only are they original works (other than walk on music for show guests, and musical performances), they are an insight into the creative process which shaped both ?uest and Dilla.
?uest names the tracks Sandwiches, a nod to his former collaborator’s Donuts. Donuts was the last official project that Dilla worked on, quite literally on his death bed, and is considered his instrumental opus. It opened up the notion of the short-form instrumental hip-hop work, which traces its own lineage to the history of beattapes. Today, a beattape is a collection of hip-hop instrumentals released as a product through distribution channels (free or paid). In the beginning however, beattapes were physical cassette tapes (and later CD-Rs) passed around from hand to hand. Tracks from beattapes were snippets of beats often recorded right after they were made so the producer could listen to them again outside of the studio setting. They were passed amongst friends and eventually within the industry as a means of selling the producer’s beats.
Early beattapes were not meant for public consumption or as cohesive projects. It’s important to remember that at the time you didn’t finish productions in a home or project studio. Artists, labels, producers etc. would listen to a beattape and select tracks to be purchased for a project. If a beat was bought, the producer would meet the artist in a large studio with an engineer, which is where the beat went into production. The beattape at the time was not considered a final anything, but a sketch of what could become a production.
In addition, beattapes had a secondary purpose as a measure of skill and technique. They became a format for rehearsal and practice. Where a traditional instrumentalist may practice chord changes on their instrument, a beat maker makes beats and records them for easy playback later. For example, a producer could decide to sample the same record as another producer to show how they would use the sample differently. There would be no intent to turn such a track into a full fledged song (though it could happen), instead it would be recorded so they could play it back to a friend or even the producer who originally used the sample for bragging rights.
Dilla was an active participant in this trade. His beat CDs became his calling card particularly for the techniques displayed on them. Donuts was his expansion of that beattape format. Rather than a display of short rough sketches that serve as indications of productions to come, Dilla produced intricate and layered flaunts of technique compacted into short sketches.
The most recognized technique from Donuts is the chop. The chop comes out of the stab line of techniques. A stab is a single instrumental hit played on a sampler. On the MPC line of samplers (which Dilla was famous for using), stabs could be spread across trigger pads pitch shifted chromatically allowing melodic sequences to be played using a single stab. The chop takes that a step further by using multiple samples from the same source (chops) to replace the chromatic stabs, and play melodically. What Dilla displayed on Donuts however, is not merely the chop but the variety of techniques available by which a producer can chop. Working outside the limitations of loops and stabs, new techniques like drum and instrument isolation, de-quantization, vocal stabs and more come at you, one layered technique after the other.
Many of these techniques have been canonized today, but some quality has been lost with that normalization. With de-quantization by example, overuse has practically rendered the technique cliché because its depth was reduced by its definition. De-quantization translates to simply turning off the preference in software programs or hardware beat machines that align all sound triggers to the grid of the tempo and time signature. That definition speaks nothing to what Dilla actually did with that preference off, which was impose his own humanized sense of timing onto the de-quantized patterns of the machine.
Of those that followed Dilla, most got the de-quantization part but missed his sense of time. While de-quantization has shown influence, outside of the ‘stock Dilla’ pattern, his sense of timing has been continued by only a few. At the top of that list is ?uestlove, as he is as responsible for the development of that sense of timing as Dilla is his own. The root of that development can be found in the The Soulquarians period, which can be marked as the time both artists came into their own by working together. That they would come together at all was quite serendipitous, as no player has a better sense of timing than a drummer. It was the mutual sense of timing between Dilla and ?uest that worked to produce the amazing material that resulted.
In The Soulquarians studio sessions ?uest and Dilla created a feedback loop between the drum machine and the drums. This pushed their sense of time as they fused a sonic texture for their drums, which can be heard between their productions. There is a shuffling urgency with a tick of hats between pulses that lead one into the other; the snare or clap crisp, never aggressively cracking, the kick big but not over dominant. It is sequence-based music turned into grooves that maintain the variable constraints of the sequence. They each took these elements with them in their post Soulquarians work, and after Dilla’s passing, you can frequently hear ?uest calling back to those days through his music.
Take a Sandwich like “Gross Understatement.” At the onset a drum loop with a prominent clap is layered into the snare on alternate hits, while a keyboard moves through presets until an organ sound is found. The bass noodles patiently until, with a chord, they meet. When ?uest comes in it takes a couple of bars of him pushing the drums to get everyone else to fall in on his time, but once it hits he can’t control himself, letting out a holler, “something flew out the gate.” What follows is three minutes of magic as the band jams to a grove that is the perfect cross between Dilla and ?uest.
Up until November 2011, by ?uest’s count, The Roots had created almost 1800 Sandwiches. He has released a stream of Sandwiches through his Swift FM account (the page is currently down until the site relaunches). By his own admission though, all of the Sandwiches aren’t as good as “Gross Understatement.” Out of the 2 to 23 they record each day, he says only about 1 in 19 are bangers. At 94 out of 1800 it isn’t a bad count, enough for nine albums. The only format in these tracks exist however, is as they appear on Late Night, on ?uest’s harddrive and whatever Sandwiches he decides to share. What would a studio project of this material sound like? As big of an audience as they receive on Late Nite, Sandwiches are buried in the mix of television things where it’s not easy to give them the musical attention they deserve. Perhaps in the future an official release of a project from this line will emerge. In the meantime catch them on NBC when you can and stay tuned to ?uest’s social stream.
Primus Luta is a husband and father of two (maybe three by the time this goes up). He is a writer and an artist exploring the intersection of technology and art, and their philosophical implications. He is a regular guest contributor to the Create Digital Music website, and maintains his own AvantUrb site. Luta is a regular presenter for the Rhythm Incursions Podcast series with his monthly show RIPL. As an artist he is a founding member of the live electronic music collective Concrète Sound System, which spins off into a record label for the exploratory realms of sound in 2012. Luta is currently working on completing his first book, BeatGenealogy: A History of the Electronic Beat From WWII to Now.