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The Blue Notes of Sampling

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Sound and TechThis is article 2.0  in Sounding Out!‘s April  Forum on “Sound and Technology.” Every Monday this month, you’ll be hearing new insights on this age-old pairing from the likes of Sounding Out! veterano Aaron Trammell along with new voices Andrew Salvati and Owen Marshall.  These fast-forward folks will share their thinking about everything from Auto-tune to techie manifestos. So, turn on your quantizing for Sounding Out! and enjoy today’s supersonic in-depth look at sampling from from SO! Regular Writer Primus Luta.  –JS, Editor-in-Chief

My favorite sample-based composition? No question about it: “Stroke of Death” by Ghostface and produced by The RZA.

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Supposedly the story goes, RZA was playing records in the studio when he put on the Harlem Underground Band’s album. It is a go-to album in a sample-based composer collection, because of the open drum breaks. One such break appears in the cover of Bill Wither’s “Ain’t No Sunshine”, notably used by A Tribe Called Quest on “Everything is Fair.”

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RZA, a known break beat head, listened as the song approached the open drums, when the unthinkable happened: a scratch in his copy of the record. Suddenly, right before the open drums dropped, the vinyl created its own loop, one that caught RZA’s ear. He recorded it right there and started crafting the beat.

This sample is the only source material for the track. RZA throws a slight turntable backspin in for emphasis, adding to the jarring feel that drives the beat. That backspin provides a pitch shift for the horn that dominates the sample, changing it from a single sound into a three-note melody. RZA also captures some of the open drums so that the track can breathe a bit before coming back to the jarring loop. As accidental as the discovery may have been, it is a very precisely arranged track, tailor-made for the attacking vocals of Ghostface, Solomon Childs, and the RZA himself.

"How to: fix a scratched record" by Flickr user Fred Scharmen, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

“How to: fix a scratched record” by Flickr user Fred Scharmen, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

“Stroke of Death” exemplifies how transformative sample-based composition can be. Other than by knowing the source material, the sample is hard to identify. You cannot figure out that the original composition is Wither’s “Ain’t No Sunshine” from the one note RZA sampled, especially considering the note has been manipulated into a three-note melody that appears nowhere in either rendition of the composition. It is sample based, yes, but also completely original.

Classifying a composition like this as a ‘happy accident’ downplays just how important the ear is in sample-based composition, particularly on the transformative end of the spectrum. J Dilla once said finding the mistakes in a record excited him and that it was often those mistakes he would try to capture in his production style. Working with vinyl as a source went a long way in that regard, as each piece of vinyl had the potential to have its own physical characteristics that affected what one heard. It’s hard to imagine “Stroke of Death” being inspired from a digital source. While digital files can have their own glitches, one that would create an internal loop on playback would be rare.

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"Unpacking of the Proteus 2000" by Flickr user Anders Dahnielson, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

“Unpacking of the Proteus 2000″ by Flickr user Anders Dahnielson, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

There has been a change in the sound of sampling over the past few decades. It is subtle but still perceptible; one can hear it even if a person does not know what it is they are hearing. It is akin to the difference between hearing a blues man play and hearing a music student play the blues. They technically are both still the blues, but the music student misses all of the blue notes.

The ‘blue notes’ of the blues were those aspects of the music that could not be transcribed yet were directly related to how the song conveyed emotion. It might be the fact that the instrument was not fully in tune, or the way certain notes were bent but others were not, it could even be the way a finger hit the body of a guitar right after the string was strummed. It goes back farther than the blues and ultimately is not exclusive to the African American tradition from which the phrase derives; most folk music traditions around the world have parallels. “The Rite of Spring” can be understood as Stravinsky ‘sampling’ the blue notes of Transylvanian folk music. In many regards sample-based composing is a modern folk tradition, so it should come as no surprise that it has its own blue notes.

The sample-based composition work of today is still sampling, but much of it lacks the blue notes that helped define the golden era of the art. I attribute this discrepancy to the evolution of technology over the last two decades. Many of the things that could be understood as the blue notes of sampling were merely ways around the limits of the technology. In the same way, the blue notes of most folk music happened when the emotion went beyond the standards of the instrument (or alternately the limits imposed upon it by the literal analysis of western theory). By looking at how the technology has evolved we can see how blue notes of sampling are being lost as key limitations are being overcome by “advances.”

e-muFirst, let’s consider the E-Mu SP-1200, which is still thought to be the most definitive sounding sampler for hip-hop styled sample-based compositions, particularly related to drums. The primary reason for this is its low-resolution sampling and conversion rates. For the SP-1200 the Analog to Digital (A/D) and Digital to Analog (D/A) converters were 12-bit at a sample rate of 26.04 kHz (CD quality is 16-bit 44.1 kHz). No matter what quality the source material, there would be a loss in quality once it was sampled into and played out of the SP-1200. This loss proved desirable for drum sounds particularly when combined with the analog filtering available in the unit, giving them a grit that reflected the environments from which the music was emerging.

Sp1200_Back_PanelOn top of this, individual samples could only be 2.5 seconds long, with a total available sample time of only 10 seconds. While the sample and conversion rates directly affected the sound of the samples, the time limits drove the way that composers sampled. Instead of finding loops, beatmakers focused on individual sounds or phrases, using the sequencer to arrange those elements into loops. There were workarounds for the sample time constraints; for example, playing a 33-rpm record at 45 rpm to sample, then pitching it back down post sampling was a quick way to increase the sample time. Doing this would further reduce the sample rate, but again, that could be sonically appealing.

An under appreciated limitation of the SP-1200 however, was the visual feedback for editing samples. The display of the SP-1200 was completely alpha numeric; there were no visual representations of the sample other than numbers that were controlled by the faders on the interface. The composer had to find the start and end points of the sample solely by ear. Two producers might edit the exact same kick drum with start times 100 samples (a fraction of a millisecond) apart. Were one of the composers to have recorded the kick at 45 rpm and pitched it down, the actual resolution for the start and end times would be different. When played in a sequence, these 100 samples affect the groove, contributing directly to the feel of the composition. The timing of when the sample starts playback is combined with the quantization setting and the swing percentage of the sequencer. That difference of 100 samples in the edit further offsets the trigger times, which even with quantization turned off fit into the 24 parts per quarter grid limitations of the machine.

akaiAkai’s MPC-60 was the next evolution in sampling technology. It raised the sample and conversion rates to 16-bit and 40 kHz. Sample time increased to a total of 13.1 seconds (upgradable to 26.2). Sequencing resolution increased to 96 parts per quarter. Gone was the crunch of the SP-1200, but the precision went up both in sampling and in sequencing. The main trademark of the MPC series was the swing and groove that came to Akai from Roger Linn’s Linn Drum. For years shrouded in mystery and considered a myth by many, in truth there was a timing difference that Linn says was achieved by delaying certain notes by samples. Combined with the greater PPQ resolution in unquantized mode, even with more precision than the SP-1200, the MPC lent itself to capturing user variation.

Despite these technological advances, sample time and editing limitations, combined with the fact that the higher resolution sampling lacked the character of the SP-1200, kept the MPC from being the complete package sample composers desired. For this reason it was often paired with Akai’s S-950 rack sampler. The S-950 was a 12-bit sampler but had a variable sample rate between 7.5 kHz and 40 kHz. The stock memory could hold 750 KB of samples which at the lowest sample rate could garner upwards of 60 seconds of sampling and at the higher sample rates around 10 seconds. This was expandable to up to 2.5 MB of sample memory.

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The editing capabilities made the S-950 such a powerful sampler. Being able to create internal sample loops, key map samples to a keyboard, modify envelopes for playback, and take advantage of early time stretching (which would come of age with the S-1000)—not to mention the filter on the unit—helped take sampling deeper into the sound design territory. This again increased the variable possibilities from composer to composer even when working from the same source material. Often combined with the MPC for sequencing, composers had the ultimate sample-based composition workstation.

Today, there are literally no limitations for sampling. Perhaps the subtlest advances have developed the precision with which samples can be edited. With these advances, the biggest shift has been the reduction of the reliance on ears. Recycle was an early software program that started to replace the ears in the editing process. With Recycle an audio file could be loaded, and the software would chop the sample into component parts by searching for the transients. Utilizing Recycle on the same source, it was more likely two different composers could arrive at a kick sample that was truncated identically.

waveformAnother factor has been the waveform visualization of samples for editing. Some earlier hardware samplers featured the waveform display for truncating samples, but the graphic resolution within the computer made this even more precise. By looking at the waveform you are able to edit samples at the point where a waveform crosses the middle point between the negative and positive side of the signal, known as the zero-crossing. The advantage of zero-crossing sampling is that it prevents errors that happen when playback goes from either side of the zero point to another point in one sample, which can make the edit point audible because of the break in the waveform. The end result of zero-crossing edited samples is a seamlessness that makes samples sound like they naturally fit into a sequence without audible errors. In many audio applications snap-to settings mean that edits automatically snap to zero-crossing—no ears needed to get a “perfect” sounding sample.

It is interesting to note that with digital files it’s not about recording the sample, but editing it out of the original file. It is much different from having to put the turntable on 45 rpm to fit a sample into 2.5 seconds. Another differentiation between digital sample sources is the quality of the files, whether original digital files (CD quality or higher), lossless compression (FLAC), lossy compressed (MP3, AAC) or the least desirable though most accessible, transcoded (lossy compression recompressed such as YouTube rips). These all result in a different degradation of quality than the SP-1200. Where the SP-1200’s downsampling often led to fatter sounds, these forms of compression trend toward thinner-sounding samples.

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Some producers have created their own sound using thinned out samples with the same level of sonic intent as The RZA’s on “Stroke of Death.” The lo-fi aesthetic is often an attempt to capture a sound to parallel the golden era of hardware-based sampling. Some software-based samplers by example will have an SP-1200 emulation button that reduces bit rates to 12-bit. Most of software sequencers have groove templates that allow for the sequencers to emulate grooves like the MPC timing.

Perhaps the most important part of the sample-based composition process however, cannot be emulated: the ear. The ear in this case is not so much about the identification of the hot sample. Decades of history should tell us that the hot sample is truly a dime a dozen. It takes a keen composer’s ear to hear how to manipulate those sounds into something uniquely theirs. Being able to listen for that and then create that unique sound—utilizing whatever tools— that is the blue note of sampling. And there is simply no way to automate that process.

Featured image: “Blue note inverted” by Flickr user Tim, CC BY-ND 2.0

Primus Luta is a husband and father of three. He is a writer and an artist exploring the intersection of technology and art, and their philosophical implications.  He maintains his own AvantUrb site. Luta was a regular presenter for Rhythm Incursions. As an artist, he is a founding member of the collective Concrète Sound System, which spun off into a record label for the exploratory realms of sound in 2012. Recently Concréte released the second part of their Ultimate Break Beats series for Shocklee.

tape reelREWIND!…If you liked this post, you may also dig:

“SO! Reads: Jonathan Sterne’s MP3: The Meaning of a Format”-Aaron Trammell

“Remixing Girl Talk: The Poetics and Aesthetics of Mashups”-Aram Sinnreich

“Sound as Art as Anti-environment”-Steven Hammer

Musical Objects, Variability and Live Electronic Performance

native Freq

This is part two of a three part series on live Electronic music.  To review part one, click here.

In the first part of this series,”Toward a Practical Language for Live Electronic Performance,” I established the language of variability as an index for objectively measuring the quality of musical performances. From this we were able to rethink traditional musical instruments as musical objects with variables that could be used to evaluate performer proficiency, both as a universal for the instrument (proficiency on the trumpet) and within genre and style constraints (proficiency as a Shrill C trumpet player). I propose that this language can be used to describe the performance of electronic music, making it easier to parallel with traditional western forms. Having proven useful with traditional instruments we’ll now see if this language can be used to describe the musical objects of electronic performance.

We’ll start with a DJ set. While not necessarily an instrument, a performed DJ set is a live musical object comprised of a number of variables. First would be the hardware.  A vinyl DJ rig consists of at least two turntables, a mixer and a selection of vinyl. A CDJ rig uses two CD decks and a mixer. Serato and other vinyl controller software require only one turntable, a mixer and a laptop. Laptop mixing can be done with or without a controller. One could also do a cassette mix, reel to reel mix, or other hardware format mixing. Critical is a means to combine audio from separate sources into one uniform mix.  Some of the other variables involved in this include selection, transitions and effects.

Jenn Lush (Home Bass), FORWARD Winter Session 2012, Image by JHG Photography (c)

DJ  Lush, FORWARD Winter Session 2012, Image by JHG Photography (c)

Because DJ sets are expected to be filled with pre-recorded sounds, the selection of sounds available is as broad as all of the sounds ever recorded. Specific styles of DJ sets, like an ambient DJ set, limit the selection down to a subset of recorded music. The choice of hardware can limit that even more. An all-vinyl DJ set of ambient music presents more of a challenge, in terms of selection, than a laptop set in the same style, because there are fewer ambient records pressed to vinyl than are available in a digital format.

Connected to selections are transitions, which could be said to define a DJ. When thinking of transitions there are two component factors: the playlist and going from one song to another. The playlist is obviously directly tied to the selection; however, even if you select the most popular songs for the style, unless they are put into a logical order, the transitions between them could make the set horrible.

One of the transitional keys to keeping a mix flowing is beat matching. In a turntable DJ set the beat mapping degree of difficulty is high because all of the tempos have to be matched manually by adjusting the speed of the two selections on the spinning turntables. When the tempos are synchronized, transitioning from one to the other is accomplished via a simple crossfade. With digital hardware such as the laptop, Serato and even CDJ setups, there is commonly a way to automatically match beats between selections. This makes the degree of difficulty to beat match in these formats much lower.

Effects, another variable, rely on what’s available through the hardware medium. With the turntable DJ set, the mixer is the primary source of effects and those until recent years have been limited to disc manipulation (e.g. scratching), crossfader, and EQ effects. Many of the non vinyl setups and even some of the vinyl setups now include a variety of digital effects like delay, reverb, sampler, granular effects and more.

With these variables so defined it becomes easier to objectively analyze the expressed variability of a live DJ set. But, while the variables themselves are objective, the value placed on them and even how they are evaluated are not. The language only provides the common ground for analysis and discussion. So the next time you’re at an event and the person next to you says, “this DJ is a hack!” you can say, “well they’ve got a pretty diverse selection with rather seemless transitions, maybe you just don’t like the music,” to which they’ll reply, “yeah, I don’t think I like this music,” which is decent progress in the scheme of things.  If we really want to talk about live electronic performance however we will need to move beyond the DJ set to exemplify how this variable language can work to accurately describe the other musical objects which appear at a live electronic performance.

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Joe Nice at Reconstrvct in Brooklyn NY on 2-23-2013, Photo by Kyle Rober, Courtesy of Electrogenic

Take for example another electronic instrument: the keyboard. The keyboard itself is a challenging instrument to define; in fact I could argue that the keyboard is itself not actually an instrument but a musical object. It is a component part of a group of instruments commonly referred to as keyboards, but the keyboard itself is not the instrument. What it is is one of the earliest examples of controllerism.

On a piano, typically fingers are used to press keys on the keyboard, which trigger the hammers to hit the strings and produce sound. The range of the instrument travels seven octaves from A0 to C8, and can theoretically have 88 voice polyphony, though in typical that polyphony is limited to the ten fingers. It can play a wide range of dynamics and includes pedals which can be used to modify the sustainabilty of pitches. With a pipe organ, the keyboard controls woodwind instruments with completely different timbre,  range, and dynamics; the polyphony increases and the foot pedals can perform radically different functions. The differences from the piano grow even more once we enter the realm where the term “keyboard,” as instrument, is most commonly used: the synthesizer keyboard.

The first glaring difference is that, even if you have an encyclopedia of knowledge about keyboard synthesizers, when you see a performer with one on stage you simply cannot know by seeing what sounds it will produce. Pressing the key on a synthesizer keyboard can produce an infinite number of sounds, which can change not just from song to song, but from second to second and key to key. A performer’s left thumb can produce an entirely different sound than their left index finger. Using a keyboard equipped with a sequencer, the performer’s fingers may not press any keys at all but can still be active in the performance.

Minimoog Voyager Electric Blue, Image by Flickr User harald walker

Minimoog Voyager Electric Blue, Image by Flickr User harald walker

When the keyboard synthesizer was first introduced, it was being used by traditional piano players in standard band configurations, like a piano or organ, with timbres being limited to one during a song and the performance aspect being limited to fingers pressing keys. Some keyboardists however used the instrument more as a bank for sound effects and textures. They may have been playing the same keys, but one wouldn’t necessarily expect to hear a I IV V chord progression. Rather than listening for the physical dexterity of the player’s fingers, the key to listening to a keyboard in this context was evaluating the sounds produced first and then how they were played to fit into the surrounding musical context.

Could one of these performers be seen as more competent than the other? Possibly. The first performer could be said to be one of the most amazing keyboard players in the piano player sense, but where they aren’t really maximizing the variability potential of the instrument, it could be said they fall short as a keyboard synthesizer performer. The second performer on the other hand may not even know what a I IV V chord progression is and thus be considered incompetent on the keyboard in the piano player sense, but the ways in which they exploit the variable possibilities shows their mastery of the keyboard synthesizer as an instrument.

Well, almost.

While generally speaking there isn’t a set of variables which define the keyboard synthesizer as an instrument, if we think of the keyboard synthesizer as a group of musical instruments, each of the individual types of keyboard synthesizers come with their own set of fixed variables which can be defined. Many of these variables are consistent across the various keyboards but not always in a standard arrangement.

As such, while the umbrella term “keyboard” persists it is perhaps more practical to define the instruments and their players individually. There are Juno 60 players,  ARP Odyessy players,  MiniMoog players, Crumar Spirit players and more. Naturally an individual player can be well versed in more than one of these instruments and thusly be thought of as a keyboardist, but their ability as a keyboardist would have to be properly contextualized per instrument in their keyboard repertoire. Using the MiniMoog as an example we can show how its variability as an instrument defines it and plays into how a performance on the instrument can be perceived.

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Minimoog, Image by Flickr User Francesco Romito

The first variable worth considering when evaluating the MiniMoog is that it is a monophonic instrument. This is radically different from the piano; despite one’s ability to use ten fingers (or other extremity) only one note will sound at one time. The keyboard section of the instrument is only three and a half octaves long, though the range is itself variable. On the left-hand side there is a pitch wheel and a modulation wheel. The pitch wheel can vary the pitch of the currently playing note, while the modulation wheel can alter the actual sound design.

As a monophonic instrument, one does not need to have both hands on the keyboard, as only one note will ever sound at a time. This frees the hands  to modify the sound being triggered by the keyboard exemplified via the pitch and modulation wheels, but also available are all of the exposed controls for the sound design. This means that in performance every aspect of the sound design and the triggering can be variable. Of course these changes are limited to what one can do with their hands, but the MiniMoog also features a common function in analog synths, a Control Voltage input. This means that an external source can control either the aspects of the sound design and/or the triggering for the instrument.

Despite this obvious difference from the piano, playing the MiniMoog does not have to be any less of a physical act. A player using their right hand to play the keyboard while modulating the sound with their left, plays with a different level of dexterity than the piano player. The right and left hand are performing different motions; while the right hand uses fingers to press keys as the arm moves it up and down the keyboard, the left hand can be adjusting the pitch or modulation wheels with a pushing action or alternately adjusting the knobs with a turning action. Like patting your head and rubbing your belly, controlling a well-timed filter sweep while simultaneously playing a melody is nowhere near as easy as it sounds.

At the same time playing the MiniMoog doesn’t have to be very physical at all. A sequencer could be responsible for all of the note triggering leaving both hands free to modulate the sound. Similarly the performer may not touch the MiniMoog at all, instead playing the sequencer itself as an intermediary between them and the sound of the instrument. In this case the MiniMoog is not being used as a keyboard, yet it retains its instrument status as all of the sounds are being generated from it, with the sequencer being used as the controller. Despite not having any physical contact with the instrument itself, the performer can still play it.

Minimoog in Live DJ Performance, Image by Fluckr Users Huba and Silica

Minimoog in Live DJ Performance, Image by Fluckr Users Huba and Silica

Taking it one step further – if a performer were to only touch a sequencer at the start of the performance to press play and never touch the instrument, could they still be said to be playing the MiniMoog live? There is little doubt that the MiniMoog is indeed still performing because it does not have the mechanism to play by itself, but requires agency to illicit a sonic response. In this example that agency comes from the sequencer, but that does not eliminate the performer. The sequencer itself has to be programmed in order to provide the instrument with the proper control voltages, and the instrument itself has to be set up sonically with a designed sound receptive to the sequencer’s control. If the performer is not physically manipulating either device however, they are not performing live, the machines are.

From this we can establish the first dichotomy of electronic performance; the layers of variability in an electronic performance can be isolated into two specific categories: physical variability and sonic variability. While these two aspects are also present in traditional instrument performance, they are generally thought to not be mutually exclusive without additional devices. The vibrato of an acoustic guitar is only accomplished by physically modulating the strings to produce the effect. With an electronic instrument however, vibrato can be performed by an LFO controlling the amplitude. That LFO can be controlled physically but there does not have to be a physical motion (such as a knob turn) associated with it in order for it to be a live modulation or performance. The benefit of it running without physical aid is that it frees up the body to be able to control other things, increasing the variability of the performance.

In a situation where all of the aspects of the performance are being controlled by electronic functions, the agency in performance shifts from the artist performing live, to the artists establishing the parameters by which the machines perform live. Is the artist calling this a live performance a hack? Absolutely not, but it’s important that the context of the performance is understood for it to be evaluated. Like evaluating the monophonic MiniMoog performer based on the criteria of the polyphonic pianist, evaluating a machine performance based on physical criteria is unfair.

Daniel Carter on horn during Overcast Radio's set, Photo courtesy of Raymond Angelo (c)

Daniel Carter on horn during Overcast Radio’s set at EPICENTER: 02, Photo courtesy of Raymond Angelo (c)

In the evaluation of a machine performance, just as with a physical one, variability still plays an important role. At the most base level the machine has to actually be performing and this is best measured by the potential variability of the sound. This gets tricky with digital instruments, as, barring outside influences, it is completely possible to repeat the exact same performance in the digital domain, so that there is no variation between each iteration. But even such cases with a digital sequencer controlling a digital instrument,  with no physical interaction, are still a machine performances; they just exhibit very little variability. The performance aspect of the machine only disappears when the possibility for variability is completely removed, at which point the machine is no longer a performance instrument but a playback device as is the case with a CD player playing a backing track. The CD player if not being manipulated physically or by an external control is not a performance instrument as all of the sound contained within it can only be heard as one fixed recorded performance, not live. It is only when these fixed performances are manipulated either physically (ie a DJ set) or by other means, that they go from fixed performances to potentially live ones.

Mala and Hatcha in Detroit, Image by Tom Selekta, catch him on Soundcloud

Mala and Hatcha in Detroit, Image by Tom Selekta

From all of this we arrive at four basic distinctions for live electronic performances:

• The electro/mechanical manipulation of fixed sonic performances

• The physical manipulation of electronic instruments

• The mechanized manipulation of electronic instruments

• A hybrid of physical and mechanized manipulation of electronic instruments

These help set up the context for evaluating electronic performances, as before we can determine the quality of a performance we must first be able to distinguish what type of performance we are observing. So far we’ve only dealt with a monophonic instrument, but even with its limitations can see how the potential variability is quite high. As we get into the laptop as a performance instrument that variability increases exponentially.

This is part two of a three part series.  In the next part we will begin to exemplify the laptop as performance instrument, using this language to show the breadth of variability available in electronic performance and perhaps show that indeed, where that variability continues to be explored, there is merit to the potential of live electronic music as an extension of jazz.

Native Frequencies at the Trocadero 2013, Featured Image Courtesy of Raymond Angelo (C)

Primus Luta is a husband and father of three. He is a writer, technologist 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  show RIPL. As an artist, he is a founding member of the live electronic music collective Concrète Sound System, which spun off into a record label for the exploratory realms of sound in 2012.

tape reelREWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:

Experiments in Agent-based Sonic Composition–Andreas Pape

Evoking the Object: Physicality in the Digital Age of Music--Primus Luta

Sound as Art as Anti-environment–Steven Hammer

 

 

Pretty, Fast, and Loud: The Audible Ali

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Sound and Sport2Aaaaaaaaaaaaand NOW. . .in SO!‘s corner. . .writing for this month’s “Sound and Sport,” we have the scholar. . .the poet . . .the “Wordsmith of the Web” Taaaaaaaaaara Betts!  In today’s post, she shares how listening influences her creative process AND knocks us out with an analysis of the importance of Muhammad Ali’s voice to his sports career and historical legacy.  For an instant replay of last month’s post, click Melissa Helquist‘s “Goalball: Sport, Silence, and Spectatorship.”  Next month’s rematch will feature Josh Ottum‘s research on sound and skateparks. But now, let’s get ready to ruuuuuuuummmbbble! –J. Stoever-Ackerman, Editor-in-Chief

Plap of glove against glove

Shush of scuffle and slide.

Rebuildin’, repeatin’, rebuildin’

All this repeatin’, getting’ up again & again

Discipline, routine and I keep

doing new things to prepare

my mind, my body, so my pretty

mouth keeps up with all my rhymes.

–Tara Betts, from “Repeatin’” (scene 8, The GREATEST!)

The recent Peggy Choy Dance Company production of “The GREATEST!: A Hip Dance Homage to Muhammad Ali” in April 2013 gave me cause to rethink the key events in Muhammad Ali’s life, particularly his burgeoning political awareness in the 1960s. As I wrote the libretto for the performance—which combined athletic dance performance with images, poems, and quotes from Ali—I kept thinking about how Ali had one of the most recognized, quoted, and distinct voices ever heard in the boxing world.

the greatestIn the libretto, I tried to capture the nuances of black vernacular and the southern hallmark of Ali’s hometown, Louisville, Kentucky (he was sometimes referred to as the “Louisville Lip”), vocal sounds that signify an African American experience.  Is there a southern drawl? A bass-filled bravado? There are certain words that sound fuller and cut short based on the vernacular that was spoken during the time period of Cassius Clay and well into his evolution as Muhammad Ali.  While many of the materials that I visited for inspiration and historical context were books, to capture the look, feel, and speech of the 1960s and 1970s, I had to crate-dig for some vinyl.

A copy of a 1963 spoken word album I Am The Greatest!: Cassius Clay  and the 1997 documentary film When We Were Kings served as two such sources. Both recordings represent an audible Ali, at once a man whose iconic voice sounded as familiar to me as people who I’ve known personally and a historical figure whose vocal grain content embodied his shifts in political consciousness. The difference between Clay’s 1964 recording and the samples woven into the When We Were Kings soundtrack is more than the changes that  gradually developed  over time.  These recordings reveal how Ali’s confidence is constructed around creating an affirming, critical identity, rather than merely promoting his athletic prowess.  At first, he merely sounds cocky; later he sounds as if he is fighting for a group of people that he wants to inform, serve, celebrate, protect, and uphold.  My libretto was deeply impacted both by the sonic continuities in Ali’s voice across time and space, as well as its audible shifts.

The champ ain’t nobody but me!

Pretty, fast & loud, I’ll shake the world,

with a lion’s might.

My children will lift

their fists and fight

–Tara Betts, from “‘By Any Means necessary: If they met in Harlem’’” (transition from scene 14, The GREATEST!)

Before Cassius Clay joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali, he recorded a spoken word album on the Sony label in 1963. I Am The Greatest! was released in 1964 before Clay’s two key fights with Sonny Liston and Ali’s eventual victory for the heavyweight crown. The album included original liner notes from modernist poet Marianne Moore and New York Post sports journalist Milton Gross, but it was telling that comedy writer Gary Belkin and Cassius Clay were the co-authors of the spoken word material—which is more comedy than poetry or interviews.  Belkin was a comedy writer for well-known comedians such as Carol Burnett and Sid Caesar, and the comedy show Car 54, Where Are You? So, Belkin was clearly accustomed to writing sketch comedy, but Clay was used to being humorous outside of a recording studio with a staged audience.

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Overall, Clay’s delivery seems to be slower–both less fluid and more staged– than his impromptu recitations at boxing-related events outside the recording studio.  Clay seems to anticipate that sound effects such as roaring crowds and clanging bells will be inserted into the tracks, so he over-enunciates and pauses.    Each track begins with a bell ringing as if boxing round is about to begin, and there are eight “rounds,” probably because Clay insisted that any fight with Liston would be shorter than eight rounds. As I listened, I wondered if Ali  was comfortable recording this album or if he considered it simply another way to promote and market one of the world’s best known boxers?   To my ear,  it lacked some of the speed and ease I associate with Clay’s speech in other settings.   In the boxing world, his speeches mentally challenged his opponents and entertained crowds.  The recording studio left less room for spontaneity, fluidity, and even the visual interplay of sound with his quick motion.

Cassius Clay in the studio recording I Am the Greatest! with Sam Cooke, Image from newblackman.blogspot, courtesy of Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Cassius Clay in the studio recording I Am the Greatest! with Sam Cooke, Image from newblackman.blogspot, courtesy of Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The eight rounds/comedic sketches lean heavily on Ali’s signature boisterous braggadocio in his loud, deliberate voice, using canned laughter and other voices setting up Clay to talk about his excellence. Otherwise, they are a grab bag of influences and sound effects.  These other voices and sounds create an artificial environment  that is not the same as being surrounded by boxers, trainers, and others in the athletic arena.  In fact, these sounds and the sources sound quite different from Clay himself.  “Round 1: I Am The Greatest” and “Round 2: I Am The Double Greatest” are accompanied by violins that sound more like a serenade than a classical composition.  In “Round 4: ‘I Have Written A Drama,’ He Said Playfully,” a lute plays in the beginning that hints at a spoof of a Shakespearean-style drama about defeating dragons complete with affected British accents, including one actor speaking with the theatrical lisp.  The knight “Cassius of Clay” enters with the audible clanking of armor.


Clay reveals a shift in tone when he sings on the last two tracks. He begins with “Stand By Me”–a cover of Ben E. King’s classic song/then recent hit–with fervor.  In the last song, “The Gang’s All Here,” Clay follows some of the words of Tin Pan Alley lyricist Theodora Morse set to Sullivan’s tune from Pirates of Penzance.

Clay tries to pick up the energy lost by his less-than-enthusiastic singing. “Is Memphis with me? Is Louisville with me? Is Houston with me. Ain’t I purty?” Each question is answered with a crowd enthusiastically shouting a “Yeah!” Here Ali relies on his enthusiastic, improvised rhymes, departing from the song’s traditional lyrics to include himself in a song that does not come from an African American writer or the Black experience.

The same country that refuses to let people eat

or use the bathroom in the same places

wants ME to go and get killed?

What does THAT sound like?

—-Tara Betts, from “The Same Country” (scene 15, The GREATEST!)

Almost 35 years later, there are clear sonic differences between Cassius Clay’s  debut on Sony and the soundtrack to When We Were Kings, the 1997 documentary of the 1974 heavyweight championship between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali.  This retrospective record is decidedly more centered on black experiences and black voices that speak musically, politically, and spiritually, particularly about the Black presence in Islam.  There are no comedic monologues, sketches or Greek choruses; it sonically represents Ali after his conversion to orthodox Islam, after his friendship with and separation from Malcolm X, and after his opposition to Vietnam.  Every spoken part on this album affirms the multiplicities of a Black presence in blues, R&B, and songs recorded live on the African continent; the huffs and rhymes are cheered for by a live African audience. As I listened to When We Were Kings, I could hear Ali’s comfort and his freedom of movement, audibly in contrast with his other album.

WWWK

When We Were Kings records his time in Kinshasa, Zaire where he trains and eventually fights George Foreman.  It does not simply focus on Ali’s voice, but is sonically rich with music, interviews with people who witnessed that fight and those who knew Ali personally; the soundtrack reflects these interconnections in its continuous uninterrupted flow. The role of these sounds endeavors to document what was heard in Zaire in 1974, but it also includes Ali in the surrounding sonic environment as one person who becomes a focal point for the musicians and speakers who also articulate black identity on the record.

The first thing I heard was Ali’s voice:

I’m gonna fight for the prestige, not for me, but to uplift my little brothers who are sleeping on concrete floors today in America, black people who are living on welfare, black people who can’t eat, black people who don’t know no knowledge of themselves, black people who don’t have no future. I want win my title and walk down the alleys and sit on the garbage cans with the wineheads…

This opening sample of Ali sets the soundtrack’s tone, and kicks off the only hip hop song on the album, a sonic shift that signals a new generation/genre in black music in 1997, more than 30 years after Ali’s  spoken word album as Cassius Clay.  Ali’s quote also informs listeners that the emphasis of this album has little do with comedy, especially since the soundtrack draws from nonfiction, rather than setting Clay/Ali in fictionalized sketches.   The focus is on black people and their struggles.

In the first song, emcees look back and tell the story of “The Rumble in the Jungle” but the verses also hail Ali as a hero. When The Fugees, A Tribe Called Quest, and Busta Rhymes rap over a fairly standard bassline, their presence on this soundtrack is an important signal of Ali’s influence and the recurring engagement between artists and Ali during his athletic heyday such as James Brown.   In Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop (2005), Afrika Bambaataa points out repeatedly how Brown became a consistent presence in hip hop when New York radio stations simply refused to play his music, particularly in the 1970s.  After decades of infusing a variety of soul singers and Brown’s stylistic turns on “the one” and messages of black pride into the genre of hip hop, the presence of “The Rumble in the Jungle” on this soundtrack completely makes sense. As more than a wellspring for samples throughout the large, growing body of hip hop music, Brown was also embodying and representing black consciousness in music with a Black voice, much in the same way that Ali utilized Black speech. In some ways, Ali’s couplets predate rap lyrics and perform in a similar manner; Bambaattaa cites him as an influence, along with Malcolm X.

James Brown and many others flow seamlessly into the event and its soundtrack in a way that reflects the immediacy and proximity of these events. The “Black Woodstock” of the Zaire 1974 music festival that accompanied Ali and Foreman’s fight set the tone and soundtrack in real life, not just in the documentary.  In fact, the festival itself was documented in the 2008 release Soul Power directed by Jeff Levy-Hinte. At this point, it’s clear that there is a continuum for hearing  the connections between black voices across oceans and continents.

Following “Rumble in the Jungle,” the record samples  Ali and Drew “Bundini” Brown (Ali’s assistant trainer and cornerman), snippets taken directly from the documentary footage. Brown is a slower, more deliberate speaker; he uses rhyme like Ali. He talks about the fruit returning to the root and Ali claiming his crown back home.  For African Americans to return to Africa post-slavery, this trip and clip sonically reinforce the cultural significance of Ali’s trip. Such pilgrimages fortify the idea that black people have a homeland, a continent, and a cultural continuum, much in the same way that this soundtrack constructs.

“Ali, Bombaye!” in a sea of faces just like mine,

my brothers, my parents, my cousins.

I want to go home and tell the people

in the streets this is what we come from,

what we could be.

—-Tara Betts, from “The Hard Road to Zaire’” (scene 21, The GREATEST!)

When African girls chant to celebrate Ali’s arrival, they reassert how this is a homecoming for Ali, a welcome and a reconnection that fuels Ali’s determination.  The chants seem to encourage the first sample of Ali when he issues his threat: “When I get to Africa we gon’ get it on cause we don’t get along. I’m gonna eat him up…” This sample segues into James Brown’s “The Payback” as it was performed before the fight, then another chant performed by Mobütu, named after Zaire’s controversial leader, Mobutu Sese Seko.

When Ali concludes the soundtrack, he interrupts chants of “Ali, Bombaye!” with huffs and a brief exhortation of knocking you out, “sucker.” These last words fade into a snippet of African chant.  This constructs a very different narrative that looks back at Ali’s career, long after the younger Clay established part of his image with hyperbolic bravado.  Ali has cultivated a Pan African, global, political awareness that includes black people in America from his hometown in Louisville, KY to across the globe.

Hearing Clay and Ali–their continuities and their differences–gave me an insight into the familiar voices of some of my older relatives (and their blues records), and it also helped me channel that voice in poems of my own. It allowed me to imagine how hyperbole helped encourage Ali to energize and cheer himself on, so much that others began rooting for him as well. It did not matter what arena he was in, Ali would use his voice, his fists, and his will to conquer it.  As I wrote the libretto, I thought about how I might unearth that determination in a way that respectfully embodied his tone, cadence, vocabulary, and ebullience. One of the definitions of greatness relates to the defeat of time and distance, and in the words that I wrote about Ali, I found that  listening to him, and hearing his significance grew over time, helped him transcend both.

Every mile, every turn of the rope brings

me closer to telling him he’s nothing.

I hate every minute of training,

but I say

Don’t quit.

Suffer now

and live your life

as a champion.

I am a myth, and a man,

of my own making.

–Tara Betts, from “The Hard Road to Zaire” (scene 21, The GREATEST!)

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 anthologiesand 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.  In April 2013, she published the libretto “THE GREATEST!: An Homage to Muhammad Ali” (Winged City Press) written for the  live performance directed by Peggy Choy


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Sound + Vision: Andy’s Mick

Andy Warhol – Mick Jagger 1975, Image by Flickr User Oddsock

Hello Internet! It’s great to be here in cyberspace! Are you ready to rock? Today’s dispatch from our Spring Series, Live from the SHC, finds Cornell’s Society for the Humanities Fellow Eric Lott  jamming it out on the relationship between the early 70s sound and vision of one Sir Mick Jagger. If you happen to be thinking that Monday morning at 9:00 a.m. is the least rock and roll time slot possible, just remember that’s when Jimi Hendrix gave “The Star Spangled Banner” the business at Woodstock. To give earlier installments by Damien Keane, Tom McEnaney, and Jonathan Skinner a listen, click here.  As May comes to a close and the “Sound: Culture, Theory, Practice, Politicsfellows reluctantly break up the  A.D. White House house bandlook for our final two dispatches from Jeanette Jouili and Society Director Tim Murray. Until then, we’ll keep turning it up to 11 here at Sounding Out! –JSA, Editor in Chief (and 2011-2012 SHC Fellow)

After we left the Carlyle I told Jerry I thought Mick had ruined the Love You Live cover I did for them by writing all over it—it’s his handwriting, and he wrote so big.  The kids who buy the album would have a good piece of art if he hadn’t spoiled it. –Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol’s complaint in his Diaries captures the almost cartoonish play for artistic control between himself and Jagger in the 1970s—between painter and singer, portrait artist and subject (Jagger and the other Stones biting each other), the visual and the verbal (“he wrote so big”!): between sight and sound in the realm of popular music.  Warhol was no stranger to sound artistry, of course, from his work with the Velvet Underground to the everyday taping he did with his portable cassette recorder, the machine he called his “wife.”  But Warhol as visual conceptualist returns us to a moment when, through album art and other commercial iconography, the visual domain shaped our sonic experiences perhaps more immediately than it does in these digital days.  At the recent EMP conference in New York, I raised the question of the visual/conceptual from the perspective of sound, looking and listening to how the modalities were conjoined during an excellent and rather brief (and nowadays mostly scorned) passage of Jagger time in the middle 1970s: Jagger in his thirties.

Andy Warhol designed cover for Sticky Fingers (1971)

A funny thing happened after Exile on Main St. in the early 1970s: the Rolling Stones became a New York band instead of a London and L.A.-based one, and their frontman Mick Jagger, always an outlandish presence, became a swishier one.  The manner in which this happened owes a lot to their encounter with Andy Warhol.  From his cover designs for Sticky Fingers (1971) and Love You Live (1977) to the Stones’ renting of his Montauk house to rehearse for their 1975 tour to conspicuous late-70s hanging out together at Studio 54 and New York dinner parties of the rich and not so fabulous, it’s clear the Stones, or at least Jagger (and for sure his wives, Bianca and Jerry Hall), steered ever closer to Warhol’s orbit.

Good writing about the Stones’ New York phase has recently begun to appear, including Cyrus Patel’s 33 1/3 book on Some Girls (2011) and Anthony DeCurtis’s liner notes to that record’s 2011 deluxe re-release; Ron Wood’s Ronnie: The Autobiography (2008) opens with the band’s famous promo stunt playing on the back of a flatbed truck rolling down lower Fifth Avenue on 1 May 1975 to advertise their upcoming tour.

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But the influence on them of the Andy aesthetic has gotten far less attention, at least in pop music criticism (the Warhol Museum mounted a show, Starfucker: Andy Warhol and the Rolling Stones, in 2005, full of great stuff).  In particular, Warhol’s 1975 Ladies and Gentlemen black drag queen series, and the draggy portrait series of Jagger done at the same time and in the same way, attest to their mutual influence on each other.  The gain for the Stones was exponential: a new persona for a new decade and indeed a new town.

Andy’s Mick, Image by Flickr User Shreveport Bossier

The persona as influenced by Warhol arrives at the nexus of drag, hustling, and stardom, and Jagger in the 70s can be seen to be addressing and/or capitalizing on all three.  Warhol’s Ladies and Gentlemen was originally referred to as simply the Drag Queen series.  As Bob Colacello tells the story in Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up, some Factory workers were sent to the Times Square gay bar The Gilded Grape to hire several hustlers there to sit for some Warhol Polaroids for fifty dollars a pop.  (They later quipped that they were used to doing a lot more than that for fifty bucks.)  As was his practice at the time, Warhol transferred these images to silkscreen for mechanical reproduction, over (or under) which he painted in unusually expressive fashion, at times applying collages of torn paper as well.  Geometries of color in these pictures war with the photographic image; they signify on race as well as the drag queen’s everyday glamour and its defensive-aggressive thrust-and-parry.  In any case, Times Square hustlers of color became stars in Andy’s hands.  At this point the title was changed to Ladies and Gentlemen—perfect, since his subjects in the works can be thought of as both—and it may be that the title was taken from the 1974 Stones film of their celebrated 1972 tour, Ladies and Gentlemen, the Rolling Stones (it’s worth recalling lest we be tempted to discount such a film that almost everyone in a broad swath of the New York milieu saw it—in Just Kids (2010), for example, Patti Smith writes of seeing the film with Lenny Kaye and then going off to CBGB to catch a set by Television).  What is certain is that Warhol at this same moment was giving Polaroids he had taken of Jagger in Montauk the exact treatment he gives the drag queens in Ladies and Gentlemen.

Andy Warhol’s Mick, 1975, Image by Flickr User Thomas Duchnicki

Being a drag queen is really hard work, Warhol famously wrote in The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (1975), and it is in part the connections between hard work, its celebrity remuneration, drag, and prostitution that link the Ladies and Gentlemen series with the portraits—paintings and then prints—of Jagger.  These connections link this output with Warhol himself, making the portraits a sort of displaced self-portraiture.  Their mechanics, if you will, seem homologous with drag, in fact.  Starting with the Warhol-snapped Polaroid—not, say, with newspaper photos or commercial iconography as in Warhol’s 60s silkscreens—the works depend on Warhol’s presence, which then puts the images through the silkscreening process, after which (or before it) an uncharacteristically painterly (or collagist) procedure is applied, the latter akin to make-up itself.  Where in some of the series the paint obscures the face, acting as a kind of negation or comment on the negation behind black queer hustling, in most of it the faces rise to a new form of presence or fabulousness, as if by repeating the act of drag the portraits affirm its “success.”  Warhol’s make-over of Jagger, meanwhile, both drags the singer and makes him Warhol’s: Andy’s Mick.

According to a scheme worked out by Warhol and Jagger, the latter signed the portraits so that they could promote both artists.  Which, if it doesn’t exactly make Jagger a co-author of the works, does signal his endorsement of Warhol’s vision of him.  (Indeed the Warhol Museum has a facsimile of a 1983 letter from Jagger to Warhol asking for his assistance with Mick’s autobiography—a collaboration that boggles the mind.)  As John Ashbery had it in Self-Portrait In a Convex Mirror, his multiple-prize-winning long poem of 1975:

Your [the artist Parmigianino’s] eyes proclaim

That everything is surface.  The surface is what’s there

And nothing can exist except what’s there;

It [the surface] is not

Superficial but a visible core. . .

Your [Parmigianino’s] gesture . . . is neither embrace nor warning

But . . . holds something of both in pure

Affirmation that doesn’t affirm anything.

Not a bad definition of the Warholian image, this, and in the 1970s, as the Rolling Stones entered their second decade of performance and stardom, Jagger took the lesson and ran with it.  A new self-consciousness about his own stardom enters Jagger’s (underrated) lyrics in the 70s; while self-reference is not unknown in the band’s 60s work (cf. 1968’s “Street Fighting Man”), and while one of their first hits takes on the culture industry itself (“Satisfaction”), in the 70s a new kind of meditation on rock-star celebrity enters the picture—I have seen the culture industry, and it is me: Jagger begins to write about himself as the culture industry.  And this under the sign of Warhol, I think, which is to say, with a queerly knowing intimacy informed by a sense of the artist-star as a hustler for money in what we might call image-drag.  Everything is surface, the surface is what’s there and nothing can exist except what’s there, and it’s not superficial but a visible core.

From 1973 forward, in the music from Goat’s Head Soup to Tattoo You (with It’s Only Rock n Roll, Black and Blue, Some Girls, and Emotional Rescue in between), and even more on the covers of these albums, culminating in the one for Some Girls with the Stones in drag—Andy in the Warhol Diaries: “[Mick] showed me their new album and the cover looked good, pull-out, die-cut, but they were back in drag again!  Isn’t that something?”; the Some Girls cover, though Warhol didn’t do it, really does recall his drag queens, right down to the double drag of the inner-sleeve pull-out—to say nothing of the made-up glam of the 1975 and 1978 tour performances: in all this one sees a flouncier, queerer Mick, one that Jagger nodded to in various lyrics (for that demonstration you’ll have to wait for the longer version of this piece!).  What this means in part is that the cliche we have of Jagger strutting like a neo-blackface soul man is due for revision: it’s much more precise to think of his aura as proximate to black femininity (icons like Tina Turner, say, who of course opened for the Stones), which he (re-)crafted through the adoption of a persona right out of Warhol’s colored drag queen sensibility.

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So why the now-canonical assumption of the Stones’ decline at just this moment?  Is their 70s sound discounted because of the queer reinvigoration of their visual/conceptual appeal?  (One counter to this hegemony is Ellen Willis’s fine 1974 review of It’s Only Rock n Roll, included in her Out of the Vinyl Deeps.)  Did the Stones’ sound change all that much, beyond new acquisitions of this reggae vibe or that funk riff or the other disco groove, or does the insistence on their fall come from a sense of their queening around?  Is it this—not only this, I know, I know, Mick’s such an asshole, but still—that lies in part behind the (particularly post-Life) cult of Keith?

Eric Lott teaches American Studies at the University of Virginia. He has written and lectured widely on the politics of U.S. cultural history, and his work has appeared in a range of periodicals including The Village Voice, The Nation, New York Newsday, The Chronicle of Higher Ed, Transition, Social Text, African American Review, PMLA, Representations, American Literary History, and American Quarterly. He is the author of the award-winning Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (Oxford UP, 1993),  from which Bob Dylan took the title for his 2001 album “Love and Theft.” Lott is also the author of The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual (Basic Books, 2006). He is currently finishing a study of race and culture in the twentieth century entitled Tangled Up in Blue: The Cultural Contradictions of American Racism. This post is adapted from a talk Eric gave at the 2012 EMP POP Conference in New York City entitled Andy’s Mick: Warhol Builds a Better Jagger.”

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