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Culture Jamming and Game Sound: An Interview with foci + loci

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Sound-Improv-New-Media-ArtGuest Editors’ Note: Welcome to Sounding Out!‘s December forum entitled “Sound, Improvisation and New Media Art.” This series explores the nature of improvisation and its relationship to appropriative play cultures within new media art and contemporary sound practice. Here, we engage directly with practitioners, who either deploy or facilitate play and improvisation through their work in sonic new media cultures.

For our second piece in the series, we have interviewed New York City based performance duo foci + loci (Chris Burke and Tamara Yadao). Treating the map editors in video games as virtual sound stages, foci + loci design immersive electroacoustic spaces that can be “played” as instruments. Chris and Tamara bring an interdisciplinary lens to their work, having worked in various sonic and game-related cultures including, popular, electroacoustic and new music, chiptune, machinima (filmmaking using video game engines), and more.

As curators, we have worked with foci + loci several times over the past few years, and have been fascinated with their treatment of popular video game environments as tools for visual and sonic exploration. Their work is highly referential, drawing on artistic legacies of the Futurists, the Surrealists, and the Situationists, among others. In this interview, we discuss the nature of their practice(s), and it’s relationship to play, improvisation and the co-constituative nature of their work in relation to capital and proprietary technologies.

— Guest Editors Skot Deeming and Martin Zeilinger

1. Can you take a moment to describe your practice to our readers? What kind of work do you produce, what kind of technologies are involved, and what is your creative process?

foci + loci mostly produce sonic and visual video game environments that are played in live performance. We have been using Little Big Planet (LBP) on the Playstation 3 for about 6 years.

When we perform, we normally have two PS3s running the game with a different map in each. We have experimented with other platforms such as Minecraft and we sometimes incorporate spoken word, guitars, effects pedals, multiple game controllers (more than 1 each) and Game Boys.

Our creative process proceeds from discussions about the ontological differences between digital space and cinematic space, as well as the freeform or experimental creation of music and sound art that uses game spaces as its medium. When we are in “Create Mode” in LBP, these concepts guide our construction of virtual machines, instruments and performance systems.

[Editor’s Note: Little Big Planet’s has several game modes. Create Mode is the space within the game where users can create their own LBP levels and environments. As player’s progress through LBP’s Story Mode, players unlock and increasing number of game assets, which can be used in Create Mode.]

2. Tell us about your background in music? Can you situate your current work in relation to the musical traditions and communities that you were previously a part of?

CB: I have composed for film, TV, video games and several albums (sample based, collage and electronic). Since 2001 I’ve been active in the chipmusic scene, under the name glomag. Around the same time I discovered machinima and you could say that my part in foci + loci is the marriage of these two interests – music and visual. Chipmusic tends to be high energy and the draw centers around exciting live performances. It’s immensely fun and rewarding but I felt a need to step back and make work that drew from more cerebral pursuits. foci + loci is more about these persuits for me: both my love of media theory and working with space and time.

TY: I’m an interdisciplinary artist and composer. I studied classical piano and percussion during my childhood years. I went on to study photography, film, video, sound, digital media and guitar in college and after. I’ve primarily been involved with the electroacoustic improv and chipmusic scenes, both in NYC. I’ve been improvising since 2005, and I’ve been writing chipmusic since 2011 under the moniker Corset Lore.

My work in foci + loci evolved out of the performance experience I garnered in the electroacoustic improv scene. My PS3 replaced my laptop. LBP replaced Ableton Live and VDMX. I think I felt LBP had more potential as a sonic medium because an interface could be created from scratch. Eventually, the game’s plasticity and setting helped to underscore its audiovisual aspect by revealing different relationships between sound and image.

3. Would you describe your work as a musical practice or an audio-visual performance practice?

FL: We have always felt that in game space, it is more interesting to show the mechanism that makes the sound as well as the image. These aspects are programmed, of course, but we try to avoid things happening “magically,” and instead like to give our process some transparency. So, while it is often musical, sound and image are inextricably linked. And, in certain cases, the use of a musical score (including game controller mappings) has been important to how our performance unfolds either through improvisation or timed audiovisual events. The environment is the musical instrument, so using the game controller is like playing a piano and wielding a construction tool at the same time. It has also been important in some contexts to perform in ‘Create Mode’ in order to simply give the audience visual access to  LBP‘s programming backend. In this way, causal relationships between play and sound may be more firmly demonstrated.

4. There are many communities of practice that have adopted obsolete or contemporary technologies to create new, appropriative works and forms. Often, these communities recontextualize our/their relationships to technologies they employ. To what extent do you see you work in relation to communities of appropriation-based creative expression?

CB: In the 80s-90s I was an active “culture jammer,” making politically motivated sound montage works for radio and performance and even dabbling in billboard alterations. Our corporate targets were selling chemical weapons and funding foreign wars while our media targets were apologists for state-sanctioned murder. Appropriating their communications (sound bites, video clips, broadcasting, billboards) was an effort to use their own tools against them. In the case of video game publishers and console manufacturers, there is much to criticize: sexist tropes in game narratives, skewed geo-political subtexts, anti-competitive policies, and more. Despite these troubling themes, the publishers (usually encouraged by the game developers) have occasionally supported the “pro-sumer” by opening up their game environments to modding and other creative uses. This is a very positive shift from, say, the position of the RIAA or the MPAA, where derivative works are much more frequently shut down. My previous game-related series, This Spartan Life, was more suited to tackling these issues. As for foci + loci, it’s hard to position work that uses extensively developed in-game tools as being “appropriative,” but I do think using a game engine to explore situationist ideas or the ontology of game space, as we do in our work, is a somewhat radical stance on art. We hope that it encourages more players to creatively express their ideas in similar ways.

TY: Currently, the ‘us vs. them’ attitude that characterized the 80s and 90s is no longer as relevant as it once was because corporations are now giving artists technology for their own creative use. However, they undermine this sense of benevolence by claiming that consumers could be the next Picasso if they buy said piece of technology in their marketing—as if the tool is more important than the artist/artwork. Little Big Planet is marketed this way. On the whole, I think these issues complicate artists’ relationships with their media.

Often our work tends to be included in hacker community events, most recently the ‘Music Games Hackathon’ at Spotify (NYC), because, while we don’t necessarily hack the hardware or software, our approach is a conceptual hack or subversion. At this event, there were a variety of conceptual connections made between music, hacks and games; Double Dutch, John Zorn’s Game Pieces, Fluxus, Xenakis and Stockhausen were all compared to one another. I gave a talk at the Hackers on Planet Earth Conference in 2011 about John Cage, Marcel Duchamp, Richard Stallman and the free software movement. In Stallman’s essay ‘On Hacking,’ he cited John Cage’s ‘4’33″‘ as an early example of a music hack. In my discussion, I pointed to Marcel Duchamp, a big influence on Cage, whose readymades were essentially hacked objects through their appropriation and re-contextualization. I think this conceptual approach informs foci + loci’s current work.

[Editors’ note: Recently celebrating its 10th anniversary, This Spartan Life is a machinima talk show that takes place within the multiplayer game space of the First Person Shooter game Halo. This Spartan Life was created by Chris Burke in 2005. The show has featured luminaries including Malcolm McClaren, Peggy Awesh, and many more.]

8570574546_a047ca71f6_b5. You mention the ontological differences between game spaces and cinematic spaces. Can you clarify what you mean by this? Why is this such as important distinction and how does it drive the work?

CB: We feel that there is a fundamental difference in the way space is represented in cinema through montage and the way it’s simulated in a video game engine. To use Eisenstein’s terms, film shots are “cells” which collide to synthesize an image in the viewers mind. Montage builds the filmic space shot by shot. Video game space, being a simulation, is coded mathematically and so has a certain facticity. We like the way the mechanized navigation of this continuous space can create a real time composition. It’s what we call a “knowable” space.

6. Your practice is sound-based but relies heavily on the visual interface that you program in the gamespace. How do you view this relationship between the sonic and the visual in your work?

TY: LBP has more potential as a creative medium because it is audiovisual. The sound and image are inextricably linked in some cases, where one responds to the other. These aspects of interface function like the system of instruments we (or the game console) are driving. Since a camera movement can shape a sound within the space, the performance of an instrument can be codified to yield a certain effect. This goes back to our interest in the ontology of game space.

7. Sony (and other game developers) have been criticized for commodifying play as work – players produce and upload levels for free, and this free labour populates the Little Big Planet ecology. How would you position the way you use LBP in this power dynamic between player and IP owner?

CB: We are certainly more on the side of the makers than the publishers, but personally I think the “precarious labor” argument is a stretch with regard to LBP. Are jobs being replaced (International Labor Rights definition of precarious work)? Has a single modder or machinima maker suggested they should be compensated by the game developer or publisher for their work? Compensation actually does happen occasionally. This Spartan Life was, for a short time, employed by Microsoft to make episodes of the show for the developer’s Halo Waypoint portal. I have known a number of creators from the machinima community who were hired by Bioware, Blizzard, Bungie, 343 Industries and other developers. Then there’s the famous example of Minh Le and Jess Cliffe, who were hired by Valve to finish their Half-Life mod, Counterstrike. However, compensating every modder and level maker would clearly not be a supportable model for developers or publishers.

Having said all that, I think our work does not exactly fit into Sony’s idea of what LBP users should be creating. We are resisting, in a sense, by providing a more art historical example of what gamers can do with this engine beyond making endless game remakes, side-scrollers and other overrepresented forms. We want players to open our levels and say “WTF is this? How do I play it?” Then we want them to go into create mode and author LBP levels that contain more of their own unique perspectives and less of the game.

[Corset Lore is Tamara Yadao’s chiptune project.]

8. What does it mean to improvise with new interfaces? Has anything ever gone horribly wrong during a moment of improvisation? Is there a tension between improvisation and culture jamming, or do the two fit naturally together?

CB: It’s clear that improvising with new interfaces is freer and sometimes this means our works in progress lack context and have to be honed to speak more clearly. This freedom encourages a spontaneous reaction to the systems we build that often provokes the exploitation of weaknesses and failure. Working within a paradigm of exploitation seems appropriate to us, considering our chosen medium. In play, there is always the possibility of failure, or in a sense, losing to the console. When we design interfaces within console and game parameters we build in fail-safes while also embracing mechanisms that encourage failure during our performance/play.

In an elemental way, culture jamming is a more targeted approach, whereas improvisation seems to operate with a looser agenda. Improvisation is already a critical approach to the structures of game narrative. Improvising with a video game opens up the definition of what a game space is, or can be.

T&C Pompidou1

All images used with permission by foci + loci.

foci + loci are Chris Burke and Tamara Yadao.

Chris Burke came to his interest in game art via his work as a composer, sound designer and filmmaker. As a sound designer and composer he has worked with, among others, William Pope L., Jeremy Blake, Don Was, Tom Morello and Björk. In 2005 he created This Spartan Life which transformed the video game Halo into a talk show. Within the virtual space of the game, he has interviewed McKenzie Wark, Katie Salen, Malcolm McLaren, the rock band OK Go and others. This and other work in game art began his interest in the unique treatment of space and time in video games. In 2012, he contributed the essay “Beyond Bullet Time” to the “Understanding Machinima” compendium (2013, Continuum).

Tamara Yadao is an interdisciplinary artist and composer who works with gaming technology, movement, sound, and video. In Fall 2009, at Diapason Gallery, she presented a lecture on “the glitch” called “Post-Digital Music: The Expansion of Artifacts in Microsound and the Aesthetics of Failure in Improvisation.” Current explorations include electro-acoustic composition in virtual space, 8-bit sound in antiquated game technologies (under the moniker Corset Lore), movement and radio transmission as a live performance tool and the spoken word. Her work has been performed and exhibited in Europe and North America, and in 2014, Tamara was the recipient of a commissioning grant by the Jerome Fund for New Music through the American Composers Forum.

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Improvisation and Play in New Media, Games, and Experimental Sound Practices — Skot Deeming and Martin Zeilinger

Sounding Out! Podcast #41: Sound Art as Public Art — Salomé Voegelin

Sounding Boards and Sonic Styles — Josh Ottum

Ritual, Noise, and the Cut-up: The Art of Tara Transitory

Tara-Transitory-3-web

Sound and AffectMarginalized bodies produce marginalized sounds to communicate things that escape language. The queer body is the site of sounds that engage pleasure, repression, rage, isolation, always somehow outside of dominant language. Sound Studies tells us that we should trust our ears as much as our eyes, justifying our trust in sound, and of the resonating body. Affect Theory goes further, saying that all senses play into a body that processes input through levels of response, experience, and anticipation. Affect is the vibrational space that is both bodily memory and anticipation. So where do sound and affect meet in queer bodies? How do marginalized peoples use sound and the body to express liberation, objectification, joy, and struggle?

Our writers in Sound and Affect tackle these questions across a spectrum of the marginalized experience.  I opened the series by offering the concept of the tremble, a sonic form of affect that is necessarily queer in its affective reach. Then, Kemi Adeyemi, sloooooooowed thingggggggggs doooooooooownnnnn so to hear the capitalist connections between the work expected of black bodies and the struggle for escape from this reality through the sonic affects, temporal shifts, and corporeal elsewhere of purple drank. Last week,  Maria P. Chaves Daza explored the connection between voice, listening, and queer Chicana community formation: through space, across time, and with laughter. In the final post of the Sound and Affect forumJustyna Stasiowska brings the noise in a discussion of the trans body and the performance work of Tara Transitory.   —Guest Editor Airek Beauchamp

Ritual is another word that needs a new definition… Ritual, as I use the term, refers to an artistic process by which people gather and unify themselves in order to confront the challenges of their existence. –Anna Halprin

The shivering on your skin gradually builds like a soft electric shock that presses you down to the floor. The whole experience feels like an earthquake, with vibrations pricking through bone into organs. The affective tonality of the performance puts the body in a state of alarm, where listening turns into self-observation. Your perception is immersed in sensing the materiality of a room filled with other bodies, all attuning to the low frequencies resonating with the architecture of space, trying to maintain equilibrium. You refocus away from the artist to yourself and the rest of the audience, realizing the depth of your feelings of total connection.

This transcendence comes through dissolving the boundaries of the body and the vibrational disturbance of one’s kinesthetic sense of self in a room, or proprioception. As One Man Nation, Tara Transitory creates noise during her performances to offer out-of-body experiences for her listeners, a ritual where the unity of body and self dissolves. Using samples gathered through field recording and sounds from her midi controller, 64button monomer, and contact microphones on the tables and floor, Transitory catches her body moving and interacting with the instruments, amplifying the process of making sound in the here and now.

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Tara Transitory Performing

Transitory’s artistic praxis enables me to explore the ways in which the body creates and receives noise. I define noise here as the unwanted and always-present materiality of (mis)communication. Transitory explores the body as a site of noise and disruption, working to disrupt the false narrative of unity pervasive in Western concepts of gender. Using cut-ups, noise, and ritual, Transitory exposes the falsehoods of gender norms and repositions the body as a locus of possibility that allows for transgression and what Angela Jones and Baran Germen have called “queer heterotopias.”

Queer Heterotopias and the Rituals of Self

Morning rituals like taking pills and brushing teeth produce the tiny noises of becoming one’s self, or at least molding one into a presentable self. Repetition is a key element, making the process seem effortless and automatic. As Judith Butler discussed in Gender Trouble, everyday movements, gestures, actions, and ways of using and presenting one’s body are framed by gender categories. Butler also demonstrated that gender is a performance made of repeating gestures and movement that are prescribed to male and female genders.

The everyday routine of Transitory’s life, therefore, in a specific socio-political context, can seem unnatural and marginalized. Taking drugs every day changes the meaning of an action, whether the drugs are hormonal, supplemental, medicinal, or recreational. Still, the “natural,” as most queer theorists show, exhibits power only through the framing of social categories as transparent, creating an illusion of normalcy. However, while this post-structuralist perspective seeks an antidote to the normalization of cultural schemes, it does not make clear what to do after destroying society’s illusion. Deconstructionist perspectives produce a constant grating sound coming from the friction between the conceptual framing of body and the materiality of fleshly gender performance.

In other words, what didn’t make the cut?

Cut-up spaces

As proposed by Brion Gysin and William Burroughs in The Third Mind, the cut-up method, an early analog method resembling sampling, involved artists cutting up pieces of text and reassembling the pieces in a new form. This technique, used across different media, enables artists to create a self outside the limits of the body. In Burroughs’ Invisible Generation,  he describes creating a “cut-up” using a tape recorder. Recording, cutting up the tape, then reassembling it for playback allows the listener and the artist to become aware of a specific socio-cultural programming that Burroughs presents as method of policing the self. However, remixing and repetition also opens spaces to reprogram our-selves. The tape recording cut-up becomes a multisensory stimulant used to create an other self through de- and re-construction. Furthermore, the body, working as a membrane, becomes transformed through the repetition of these new sounds; sound affects listeners simultaneously at the level of cognition as well on the level of the body as a corporeal listening apparatus.

Lady Jaye Breyer P-Orridge on the left and Genesis P-Orridge on the right. Photo from the documentary movie,

Lady Jaye Breyer P-Orridge on the left and Genesis P-Orridge on the right. Still from the documentary movie, “The Ballad of Genesis And Lady Jane.”

Genesis Breyer P-Orridge and Lady Jaye also explored the concept of the body itself as a cut up medium in their Pandrogeny project. They underwent the process by cutting up each other’s gestures and behaviours through mimesis and cutting up parts of their bodies by undergoing plastic surgery in order to create a third being. The cut up material that they used is DNA, which they refer to as the first recording.” They used the pronoun “We” even after Lady Jaye left her body (passing away in 2007), so the third being is not just a shared body, but a connection of minds and spirits across the divisions of gender and body. Making a cut-up of the body enabled them to create an other, a combined Genesis and Lady Jaye, the pandrogyne self, the WE that is now Genesis and Lady Jaye. Pandrogyny is, in their project, a unified being presented as the double self in the negation of gender. It is a performance aimed to create a space for the connected consciousness, the third mind within a physical space of the body.

Tara Transitory uses a different method of “cut-up,” focusing on vibrational exchange among bodies to create communitas—or common public– specific to ritual in order to disenchant the geopolitical connection of body and gender. Transitory’s “cut-up” aims to create a body in transition, which connects with other bodies through the amplification of noises the body produces. Her work uses vibration to establish communication across genders, within a body or between bodies in a state of flux.

The last day before the end of the world.  Somehow I feel my life has been up till now very fulfilling and I really cannot think of what more I want, or what I need to do before the end.  My only plan is to take my first pill of estrogen at 2359 tonight Bangkok time, the beginning of the apocalypse of my testosterone. –Tara Transitory, Ritual.

Originally from Singapore, Transitory works as One Man Nation, documenting and developing communities in Europe and Asia. Her project International //gender|o|noise\\ Underground consists of mapping and documenting lives of trans women in Asia and Europe and creating performances using noise. She, with Miriam Saxe Drucki-Lubecki, also took part in establishing a monthly trans/queer left- field music party in Granada called Translæctica. Translæctica has grown to other countries, with editions (in Paris, Bankok, Saigon), and includes lectures, workshops and film screenings mixed with electronic music. As posted on Translæctica’s Facebook page, the goal behind the event is to present “the idea of a new world as one borderless living space, with all the shifts and transformations and their irreversible impact on local/original cultures.” It connects local and international artists and activists to create an ever-evolving community without borders.

As Transitory’s name might suggest, she herself is not committed to a national identity.  Throughout her migratory experience, Transitory gathers field recordings then uses narrative to transform them. Her site-specific approach focuses on concrete, situated realities that are entangled in current political situations, where friction arises between the policing norms in Asian and European societies and her own functioning as a nomadic being in state of transition. Her performances are rituals that blur the restrictions that society conveys through noise (screams, samples from field recording, the sound of the moving body) as an affective force, creating a state of meditation and catharsis. For example, while documenting the lives of trans experience, she worked with trans women street performers from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam.

These women make fire performances to “Gangnam Style,” moving during the night from one public place to another to perform for unsuspecting audiences. Sampling the street noises and then playing them back during the performance creates a mirror for the audience; interjecting common noise into a common dance song established a specific heterotopia, shifting what might be a normal experience into something uncanny within the conventions of street entertainment.

In her performances, Transitory uses noise as an intentional activity, suspending communication, disabling the recipient from receiving information, leading to an “immersion in noise.” This immersion is similar to sensory deprivation in that it overloads the receiver with stimuli, suspending communication. Its affective force comes from invading the body with frequencies and vibrations, where one feels the body in constant movement – a state of perpetual flux. It becomes the tactic of distancing from the self, enabling the listener to create different experiences, a heterotopian space of otherness and developing new rituals for specific situations.

Angkana Khunchai

Angkana Khunchai

One Man Nation’s performances end with Traditional Laotian Molam-style music (“Mo” is an artist and “Lam” is a kind of performance art where the artist tells a story using tonal inflections) sung by Angkana Khunchai, a 1970’s pop-music singer.  The pop-ish songs are calming and soothing after the intense experience of Transitory’s performance. The text is a repetition of the words “calm down,” a therapeutic ending creating a sense of light from this cathartic performance. Transitory’s use of Molam eases re-entry into one’s everyday existence outside of the performance. The harmonies and softness of the song contrast with the harshness of noise performance as part of ritual – from transgressing the everyday and entering the liminal state that Transitory creates in her performances to better re-enter society.

Transitory’s work conjures new rituals of transcendence and distancing one-self from the body. I treat the //gender|o|noise\\ as a hacking of the everyday experience of body.  By creating a temporary heterotopia. Tara’s work reveals the tactics of hacking gender, generating a temporary space for alternative modes of existence. She creates flux in bodies and bodies in flux, thus affectively crafting heterotopic spaces, sites which are, as Brian Massumi states:

[…]an open threshold — a threshold of potential. You are only ever in the present in passing. If you look at that way you don’t have to feel boxed in by it, no matter what its horrors and no matter what, rationally, you expect will come. You may not reach the end of the trail but at least there’s a next step (“Navigating Spaces”).

The everyday processes of becoming oneself by repeating practices become rituals when performed in different contexts. This ritual is a process of creating an affect, a space of potentiality that enables the body to reshape and change, much like Transitory refits old rituals into new skin. The ritual forms applied to actions of the everyday enable us to change their meaning and our perceptions, creating a sense of the transitory nature of one’s body. Sonic rituals like Transitory’s are tactics to develop a self-conscious and creative approach to everyday activities and use them, as Anna Halprin says, to confront the challenges of existence.

Featured Image: Tara Transitory in performance mode

Justyna Stasiowska is a PhD student in the Performance Studies Department at Jagiellonian University. She is preparing a dissertation under the working title: “Noise. Performativity of Sound Perception” in which she argues that frequencies don’t have a strictly programmed effect on the receiver and the way of experiencing sounds is determined by the frames or modes of perception, established by the situation and cognitive context. Justyna earned her M.A in Drama and Theater Studies. Her thesis was devoted to the notion of liveness in the context of the strategies used by contemporary playwrights to manipulate the recipients’ cognitive apparatus using the DJ figure. You can find her on Twitter and academia.edu.

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Pleasure Beats: Using Sound for Experience Enhancement Justyna Stasiowska 

Papa Sangre and the Construction of Immersion in Audio Games–Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo

SO! Reads: David Novak’s Japanoise: Music at the Edge of CirculationSeth Mulliken

Straight Outta Compton . . .Via New York

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Sounding Race in Rap Songs explores the production of musical identity in hip hop’s first two decades as a commercial genre. Although I don’t ignore lyrics or visual imagery, my main purpose is to analyze rap music as music, to understand how specific artistic decisions contribute to racial meaning in particular songs. My methods revolve around the study of how producers manipulate breakbeats, also commonly known as “breaks.” Initially understood as short, percussion-heavy passages that appear in many songs recorded in the 1960s and 1970s, breaks have been central to hip hop from the music’s earliest days in the South Bronx when DJs began isolating and looping them on their turntables to the delight of dancers. Since then, producers have tried out new approaches to working with breakbeats: hiring studio musicians to re-record them; programming drum machines to imitate them; and using sampling-sequencing technology to capture and rearrange them.

sounding raceThroughout the book, I describe how producers use breaks and give rise to musical-racial codes that can be manipulated to project a variety of identities and attitudes. The following excerpt from the third chapter of Sounding Race, explains how the style of beat making popularized by the New York-based Bomb Squad (Public Enemy’s production team) provided a blueprint for pioneering west coast gangsta rap group N.W.A’s depiction of Compton, California. By layering multiple loops into a dense, cacophonous mix, N.W.A transposed Public Enemy’s “too black, too strong” sound onto the world of Los Angeles’s postindustrial streets.

N.W.A and its former members have been in the news recently thanks to the biopic Straight Outta Compton. Yet one aspect of the group’s development downplayed in the film is the way that its members formulated their identities in relation to east coast rap. In the mid-1980s, New York was the undisputed center of the industry, and its influence on L.A.-based acts is easy to see and hear. Ice Cube’s first group C.I.A. ( Cru’ In Action) used a nasal, hocket style approach to rapping cribbed directly from the Beastie Boys 1986 album License to Ill. And the cover of N.W.A’s first album N.W.A and the Posse, features numerous group members posing with the giant clock necklaces made famous by Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav. In similar fashion, the beat Dr. Dre produced for “Straight Outta Compton” (the title track to their breakout 1988 album) followed the Bomb Squad’s potent formula for signifying militant blackness. —Loren Kajikawa

The following is an excerpt from Chapter Three “‘Let Me Ride’: Gangsta Rap’s Drive Into The Popular Mainstream,” of Loren’s Kajikawa’s Sounding Race in Rap Songs, with thanks to The University of California Press.  Any notes have been included in the text to conform to Sounding Out!‘s style sheet.

We [Public Enemy] were in Vegas and they [N.W.A.] were on tour with us, and I had just got the vinyl in. That’s what this is all about. Because Run-DMC and LL Cool J gave me energy. And if our energy happened to be transferred to N.W.A., then that’s what this whole thing is for.” Chuck D as quoted in Brian Coleman, Check The Technique: Liner Notes For Hip-Hop Junkies (New York: Villard Books, 2007), 354.

According to Chuck D, Public Enemy’s musical style directly influenced Dre, and he recalls giving the first two copies of It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back to Dr. Dre and Eazy-E prior to the album’s official release.  The recorded evidence supports Chuck D’s recollection. For many of the tracks on Straight Outta Compton, Dr. Dre seems to have borrowed from the “loops on top of loops” style of Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad.

In fact, when Ice Cube left N.W.A. in 1989, he hoped that Dre would continue to make beats for his solo project. When this proved impossible due to Dre’s contractual obligations to N.W.A., Ice Cube began collaborating with the Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad, which served as the production unit for his album Amerikkka’s Most Wanted (1990).  N.W.A.’s breakthrough was finding a way to put a distinctive spin on these influences, and the artistic strategy that they arrived at for their first Ruthless Records release was designed to put themselves on the map—both literally and figuratively.

Rather than shout out the multiplicity of neighborhoods where their members were actually from (as they had done in “Panic Zone”), N.W.A. chose to center their identity around Dr. Dre and Eazy-E’s hometown of Compton, California. The sound of Compton as Dr. Dre imagined it, however, drew on musical practices and artistic decisions similar to those found in Public Enemy’s “Rebel Without a Pause.” To construct the rhythmic foundation of “Straight Outta Compton,” Dre looped the breakbeat from The Winstons’ “Amen Brother” (1969), one of the most sampled beats in hip hop, that also served as the foundation for dozens of songs in the UK’s “jungle” (aka “drum and bass”) genre.

amen brother

Like other heavily sampled breaks from this era, the one-measure loop features a syncopated interlocking of snare and bass hits that is reminiscent of James Brown’s “Funky Drummer (featuring Clyde Stubblefield’s famous beat).  As if he were following the Bomb Squad’s exact formula, Dr. Dre layered a drum machine (Roland TR-808) over this break.

Screenshot 2015-08-24 16.36.36

The 808 was programmed to add its characteristic bass boom to the first two drum kicks of the “Amen” loop, and to tick off a 16-count hi-hat pulse with a closing hi-hat clasp on the downbeat of every other measure. The “Amen” break and the two hi-hat parts, provide the rhythmic foundation around which Dr. Dre places numerous other repeating sounds. Two other ingredients stand out in this beat: a guitar ostinato and a low drone on what sounds like a baritone sax or trombone (or perhaps a downwardly pitched sample of another instrument). The guitar ostinato, which plays straight eighth-notes on E-flat except for a one step descent to D-flat on the “and” of every fourth beat, churns out tight 1-measure units of sound.

looped guitar riff

The horn drone (also on E-flat) has a raw, muddled quality, and casts an ominous cloud over the track.

By combining these layers with the dense percussion track, Dre created a tightly packed funk groove with many sonic similarities to Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad. Like “Rebel Without a Pause,” the track to “Straight Outta Compton” features tight 1-measure loops stacked on top of one another to create a thick and intense groove.

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Comparison of layers of looped sound in Public Enemy’s “Rebel Without a Pause” and N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton”

Except for the drone, most of the elements in the track have a punchy feel, full of rhythmic stabs and staccato attacks, including the automatic gunfire that Dre samples to follow Ice Cube’s reference to an AK-47 assault rifle. Due to the “noisiness” of the beat, the way sonic space seems filled to maximum capacity, the members of N.W.A.—similar to Public Enemy’s Chuck D and Flavor Flav—practically yell their verses, as if they must raise their voices in order to be heard over the cacophony. Even before the actual words to “Straight Outta Compton” are digested, the sound of the track and the group’s vocals evoke the palpable tension of imminent conflict, which reinforces the theme of violent confrontation in the song’s lyrics. For the chorus of “Straight Outta Compton,” Dr. Dre strings together a series of samples with rapid-fire precision. The sound of screeching car tires from Davy DMX’s “One for the Treble” is followed by turntable scratching; the scratching leads directly to a choppy sample of the words “City of Compton” from Ronnie Hudson’s “Westcoast Poplock,” which is then followed by more scratching. The whole chain of musical events is deployed over the breakbeat from Funkadelic’s “You’ll Like It Too,” which Dr. Dre splices into the beat just for the chorus.  The rapid cutting from one sample to the next exemplifies the “rupture” Tricia Rose identifies as fundamental to hip hop’s post-industrial aesthetic in Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (39).

Thus, the music and lyrics for “Straight Outta Compton” depict the city as a place of extremes, where things happen fast and change is sudden and complete. It is a place where one is either equipped to deal or left behind. In this way, Dr. Dre exploited the spatial characteristics encoded in Public Enemy’s music to depict Compton as place. The sonic characteristics that animated Public Enemy’s militant blackness were rerouted and effectively transposed onto N.W.A.’s depiction of Los Angeles gangstas.

Loren Kajikawa has served on the faculty at the University of Oregon’s School of Music and Dance since 2009. His main area of research and teaching is American music of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and he offers a variety of courses in music history, ethnomusicology, and musicology. Kajikawa’s writings have appeared in American Music, Black Music Research Journal, ECHO: a music-centered journal, Journal of the Society for American Music,and Popular Music and Society, among others. His recent book Sounding Race in Rap Songs (University of California, 2015) explores the relationship between rap music’s backing tracks and racial representation.

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