Marginalized 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 forum, Justyna 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.
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?
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.
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.
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
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In this podcast, Cynthia Wang shares examples taken from a soundwalk she performed at Disneyland. Disneyland has been an idealized space for the middle-class white American experience, and the aural signals and music used throughout the park encourage visitors to become cultural tourists and to share in this mindset. Here Cynthia considers the moments of rupture that disturb Disney’s controlled soundscape. Join us as we listen for a pathway out of the hyper-consumerist labyrinth of Disney. And, if you would like to learn more about this soundwalk, visit it’s website here.
Cynthia Wang is currently a PhD candidate at the Annenberg School of Communication at USC, a USC Endowed Fellow, and a USC Diploma in Innovation grant recipient (for an LGBTQ stories mapping project called GlobaltraQs). Her work is framed in critical cultural perspectives. In the past she has done research on how Asian American musicians use digital media to build community and collaborate, and how crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo provide new avenues of creative production and distribution for independent artists. Her current research seeks to bring health care into this conversation of power, examining how health professionals manage and organize their time throughout the day, using practitioner-facing methods to identify where institutional systems and processes break down through a lens of time and temporality. In particular, she is interested in how communication technologies impact the organization of time and social relations within the health care system while enacting and/or reinforcing hegemonic power dynamics. In addition to research and academic stuffs, Cynthia is also a singer-songwriter, and just released her EP album (Find it on iTunes, Amazon, or wherever else you get your music).
Featured image “Toontown Sound Makers” by Ryutaro Koma @Flickr CC BY-NC.
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Park Sounds: A Kansas City Soundwalk for the Fall – Liana Silva
Sound(Walking) Through Smithfield Square in Dublin – Linda O Keeffe
Welcome back to Unsettling the World Soundscape Project, a series edited by Randolph Jordan that looks critically and creatively at early acoustic ecology along with the writings and subsequent compositions of WSP members, assessing its continuing role for sound studies today. This series follows strongly in the spirit of “Sound Studies 2.0,” a running theme here on SO! this year that Editor-in-Chief Jennifer Stoever has described as “the movement of the field beyond the initial excitement for and indexing of sound toward new applications and challenges to the status quo.”
In the first article of the series, Mitchell Akiyama unpacked the WSP’s monumental ten-hour Soundscapes of Canada of 1974, situating the broadcast’s innovative work historically while also pointing out problems of diversity and representation that could inform how we might listen and create in the future. In this second article, Guest Editor Randolph Jordan offers some of his own highly innovative research, drawing on the notion of “unsettled listening” that he described so vividly here last summer, and focusing on how sound calls attention to territorial boundaries and contested land appropriation from Native peoples of Vancouver.
For a few months in 2013, an intense clanging sound emanated from Vancouver’s Burrard Bridge spanning False Creek. A pothole on the surface had opened up next to the metal connector sitting directly atop of the southwest concrete pillar on the shore, activated by passing traffic and intensified by the hollow concrete structures below.
By coincidence, the pothole’s acoustic profile, the “area over which it may be heard before it drops below the level of ambient noise,” was roughly equivalent to the east/west boundaries of Kitsilano Indian Reserve at its peak acreage established in 1877.
In the century to follow, the reserve would be carved up for a variety of uses and by 1965 it was gone. But in 2013, 100 years after the government – without securing official title to the land – paid the reserve’s residents to leave, the sound of the pothole set the past resonating as the rhythmic clanging reached out to draw the surrounding acoustic environments together while sounding out their roles in contesting indigenous claims to the area. Fitting, then, that the hole sounded loudest directly under the bridge on the south shore, site of newly restituted reserve lands awarded to the Squamish Nation in 2002 after the decommissioning of the railway passage that marked the original reserve’s first transgression in 1899.
The sound of bridge traffic calling attention to contested land use challenges stereotypical notions about indigeneity in the modern city by upending biases against urban noise pollution typical in early acoustic ecology and exemplified by the work of the World Soundscape Project (WSP). The pothole sound became the locus of my investigation into the value of thinking longitudinally across the Vancouver archive of the WSP, the first assignment given to me by original member Barry Truax as supervisor of my postdoc at Simon Fraser University from 2012-14. I argue that if we use urban noise as a tool for mapping out uncomfortable and subordinated histories, we can rethink the effects of such urban noise on the articulation of cultural space across the WSP archive and imagine new possibilities for future iterations of the project’s Vancouver research.
First question: what documentation of traffic noise around Burrard Bridge exists in the WSP’s three major sets of documentation in Vancouver from the ‘70s, ‘90s and 2010s? Using the Google Map I created to plot recording locations across the archive, I listened to those from which bridge traffic might have been audible. Sure enough, the sound of bridge traffic is present on the original ’73 tapes recorded nearby. In fact, the ‘73 release of The Vancouver Soundscape LP addresses these bridge recordings in a conversation between project director R. Murray Schafer and the recordists, who describe this traffic noise as a source of frustration while attempting to capture the sound of tinkling masts from the boats in the marina beneath.
Here the message seems clear: traffic noise is blight upon more valued sounds in and around the city. This position is corroborated by the very cover of the LP that features a graphic representation of a soundwave from a recording of chirping frogs interrupted by a passing car, the example of urban imbalance with which Schafer concludes the final side of the album.
A few years after the ’73 release, however, Hildegard Westerkamp and Bruce Davis wrote the catalog page for the original set of tapes in which they refer to the traffic sounds as a “noisy, broad wash” that “frames the delicate rigging tinkle of the moored boats.” This is a more aesthetically motivated take on urban din that Westerkamp explores to creative effect in her 1986 piece Kits Beach Soundwalk. A decade after that, Robert MacNevin wrote in the catalog notes for his recording under the bridge that the rhythm of the traffic was part of the “very beautiful” fabric of this sonic tapestry that included the masts swaying in the breeze. This shift in attitude also played into the presentation of the archive on the ’96 Soundscape Vancouver CD. Now under the direction of Barry Truax, this second release featured a selection of soundscape compositions that celebrated all manner of urban sounds as interesting in their own right.
It was very difficult to ascertain whether or not the traffic sounds in these recordings were in any way connected to potholes on the surface. Yet hearing Vancouver’s urban sound through the shifting perspectives of the WSP’s contributing members provided a framework for assessing the value of their work. So I turned to the next question: how might hearing urban noise like bridge traffic, as “staged” by the WSP, contribute to listening to the area in a way that can unsettle its appearance of stability and reveal the tense histories of contestation that have defined it since the time of first contact through to the present day?
On the issue of cultural politics we find less progress across the two official Vancouver releases. Both make some mention of indigenous presence in the land and tie these references to their concerns over urban noise pollution. The ’73 LP opens with the sound of the ocean primordial, lapping against the shore, with wind and birds following in short order. Amidst these, the voice of a Squamish man begins speaking in his native tongue, soon interrupted by an emerging seaplane flying low overhead, ushering in the era of Vancouver’s incorporation as a city and the ensuing industrial development. Only someone who understands the spoken language here will know if the WSP’s narrative runs counter to the story being told by the Squamish man, for no translation is offered either in the grooves or within the jacket.
Well-intentioned though they were, the WSP’s problematic construction of machine noise as despoiler of the wilderness is made worse by putting the only voice given to indigenous peoples in the service of this didactic construction. In so doing they contribute to relegating urban indigenous presence to a thing of the past rather than accounting for the consistent and continuing presence of First Nations communities in the city – a luxury they afford to the Greek and Chinese communities later on the disc when these are presented as vibrant and living parts of Vancouver’s modern fabric in a track entitled “The Music of Various City Quarters” (a multicultural gesture they would move away from on the trip across Canada that Mitchell Akiyama unpacked in the previous post in this series).
Similarly, in a brief documentary about Vancouver’s changing sounds on the ’96 release, Westerkamp comments on the intrusive presence of the air conditioning system in the Museum of Anthropology on the U.B.C. campus, marring visitors’ experience of “some of B.C.’s most fascinating Native artifacts.” Westerkamp’s respect for indigenous culture comes through clearly enough. Yet the WSP’s presentation of local indigeneity takes a step backward here as the living voice speaking a dying language heard in ’73 has given way to just plain old dead people in ’96, best contemplated in the quietude of Arthur Erikson’s high modernist design for the building.
The WSP might just as easily have critiqued this space as an example what Schafer has called the “glazed soundscape” in which sound is cut off from the world visible through large windows, an architectural situation that emphasizes the disconnection between the indigenous culture on display within and the living Native presence in the city outside the museum walls. The fact that the building’s design heightens the perception of the ventilation sound is, like the pothole on the bridge, an example of how urban noise can be heard to mark out indigenous displacement in the city.
Standing under the bridge on the 40th anniversary of the 1973 recordings, and the 100th anniversary of the reserve payouts of 1913, I imagined the pothole as a recasting of the church bell as marker of territorial boundaries, sounding out the colonial encroachment of municipal infrastructure upon 19th Century reserve lands well into the 21st. And so in a multimedia work on the site, I dub the bridge the “Bell Tower of False Creek” for its power to unsettle ideas about the role of urban noise in articulating culture in the modern city, and I wonder what shape the next WSP release might take.
The key lies in deeper consideration of the intersection of soundscape composition and the WSP archive as mutually enriching sites of practice. The positive move on the ’96 release came in actively putting the ‘90s archival recordings in dialogue with the ‘70s material, creatively exploring longitudinal relationships in ways that move in the direction of the post-Foucauldian thrust for artists and researchers to “use archives in a more self-conscious way” as Jaimie Baron puts it (3). Yet they stopped short of “actively promot[ing] a critical attitude towards [the materials] and their uses within the institutions” from which they originate, a key characteristic of archival collage identified by William Wees (47).
The time is right for a critical investigation of the ways in which the WSP’s own construction of the archive itself has delimited its possible uses and how they have controlled the staging of its content these past four decades. In so doing, they might also become more culturally astute in assessing how their biases against certain kinds of urban sound have shaped their presentation of the cultures that live within earshot.
Randolph Jordan wanted to be a rock star. Now he teaches cinema and the humanities at Champlain College and Concordia University in Montreal. Draw your own conclusions. After completing his Ph.D. in the interdisciplinary Humanities program at Concordia in 2010 he took up a two-year postdoctoral research fellowship in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University. There he investigated geographical specificity in Vancouver-based film and media by way of sound studies and critical geography, research that will inform the last chapter of his book An Acoustic Ecology of the Cinema (now under contract at Oxford University Press). If you can’t find him hammering away at his manuscript, or recording his three young children hammering away at their Mason & Risch, look for him under Vancouver’s Burrard Bridge where he spends his “spare time” gathering and shaping film and sound material for his multimedia project Bell Tower of False Creek. Or visit him online here: http://www.randolphjordan.com
All images provided by the author, unless otherwise noted.
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Listening to Disaster: Our Relationship to Sound in Danger — Maile Colbert
Unsettled Listening: Integrating Film and Place — Randolph Jordan
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.
Throughout 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.
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.
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.
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.
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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