Caterpillars and Concrete Roses in a Mad City: Kendrick Lamar’s “Mortal Man” Interview with Tupac Shakur
I’ve been hesitant to write about Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly (TPAB) because there are layers to the shit. Sonic, cultural, and political layers that need time to breathe and manifest. Some of those layers are pedagogical. For example, Brian Mooney brilliantly paired the album with Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye to help students work through themes of Black consciousness and self-love. Mooney’s lesson plan garnered Lamar’s attention and a recent visit with Mooney students. Lamar’s open grappling with art and blackness throw him into heavy debates about his worth as a cultural and even literary icon. Yet Lamar’s formula of introspective angst – the use of battling his own demons to shed light on broader American society – pulls me to think about how Lamar and TPAB fit into a long standing trajectory of Black folks’ self-examination in art as a frame for larger critiques of racial politics in American society.
I’m drawn to TPAB’s outro of the final track of the album “Mortal Man.” “Mortal Man” sonically invokes Lamar’s struggle to assume a position as a gatekeeper of a branch of hip hop that focuses on Black community and self-actualization. The track includes a sample from a 1994 Tupac Shakur interview with Swedish music journalist Mats Nileskär. Lamar positions himself as the interviewer, asking a different set of questions that engages Shakur about walking the fault lines of fame, fortune, and Black consciousness in this current cycle of hip hop. The construction and execution of the interview revisits the lines between hip hop’s collective and generational responsibilities via Lamar and Shakur’s interaction. Their conversation moves from creative (and creating) political protest to larger philosophical questions within hip hop: self-consciousness, mortality, and death. Lamar parallels his angst with Tupac using his voice, with Tupac himself heralded as hip hop’s martyred t.h.u.g. with a conscience. In this contemporary moment where Black men’s mortality and worth is attached to being a thug and a problem, Lamar poses Shakur in “Mortal Man” as a keystone for connecting popular scripts with cultural expectations of Black masculinity and agency in the United States.
The song “Mortal Man” launches the interview. The track can be considered a double sample – it uses Houston Person’s cover of Fela Kuti’s song “I No Get Eye for Back.” Lamar’s voice is clear but the background track soft and subdued, forcing the listener to pay full attention to Lamar’s voice, which interrogates what it takes for one to be loyal or respected in mainstream America. Percussion (bass kicks, acoustic drums, soft piano chords) and bass guitar chords annotate Lamar’s solemn lyrical delivery. A horn and woodwind medley – lead by Houston’s tenor sax playing – punctuate Lamar’s chorus:
When the shit hit the fan, is you still a fan?
When the shit his the fan, is you still a fan?
Want you to look to your left and right, make sure you ask your friends
The instrumental accompaniment is soft and steady, suggesting Lamar’s question is a continuous negotiation or checklist for one’s proclamation of loyalty and respect. Lamar’s repetition of “when the shit hit the fan is you still a fan” addresses his fanbase and the followers of other notable Black cultural and creative leaders. They, like Lamar, are usefully flawed – whether by accusation or self-proclamation – and use their flaws to further their cause. Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Moses, Malcolm X, and Michael Jackson all exhibited social-cultural and political agency for (Black) folks. Yet they also suffered scrutiny and disregard because of their personal lives or less-than-respectable experiences.
I am especially intrigued by Lamar’s reference to Malcolm X as “Detroit Red,” a nickname X had as a young hellraiser before his conversion to Islam. Lamar’s reference to X in his youth here speaks to larger questions of respectability, Black youth, and protest. Detroit Red is young, flawed but influential, similar to Lamar and other young Black folks leading protests in this contemporary moment. Lamar’s roll call suggests a struggle with the question of authority, both as a creator of Black culture and how his music implies a larger struggle of contemporary Black agency and angst. Interviewing Tupac brings Lamar’s struggle to a head, evoking Shakur’s voice as a culturally recognizable authority of hip hop’s commercial progress and cultural process. The trope of a flawed nature as a departure point for creative expression and agency is a theme that runs throughout TPAB and the rest of Lamar’s musical catalogue.
The musical accompaniment to the “Mortal Man” song fades out and against a backdrop of silence Lamar begins to recite what he states is an unfinished piece. He begins, “I remember when you was conflicted,” which implies he is talking to himself or talking to someone else. The background silence that leads to Lamar and Shakur’s conversation is as telling as the conversation itself, sonically alluding both to Lamar’s ‘quiet’ struggles of self-affirmation and the possibility that someone other than the audience is listening. The quiet is Lamar’s moment of clarity; the listeners are with him at his most vulnerable moment. He uses the silence to focus attention on himself and without the ‘outside noise’ of others’ beliefs and impressions of his music and purpose.
Although the interview takes place over 20 years earlier, Tupac’s answers are clear and ‘live.’ Shakur’s initial voice is pensive and calculating – he sounds like he is thinking through his responses as he speaks – but later sounds more relaxed, laughing and talking louder and faster. The decreasing formality of Shakur’s answers suggests his increasing comfort with the interviewer as well as confidence in his own answers (and ultimately in sharing his beliefs). Lamar’s use of Shakur’s voice serves as the ultimate form of crate digging, using an obscure (or rare) radio interview sample to create his own voice in hip hop. Lamar’s engagement with Shakur serves memory as a cultural archive and as a cultural production. He not only preserves Shakur’s legacy in his own words but uses Shakur as a departure point for how to blur acts of listening for hip hop fans in a digital age.
The act of listening takes center stage for the interview. The interview is presented as an informal sitdown, reminiscent of what takes place during studio sessions: artists share new material and garner advice from veteran artists. Both rookies and veteran artist listen for new perspectives and listening for suggestions to approach a topic or track. Listening here shows Lamar’s awe and respect of Shakur’s perspective and artistry but also hints at how his conversation with Shakur is ultimately a conversation with himself. Lamar starts the conversation with an unfinished piece about his angsts regarding commercial success and how it conflicts with his creative process. He then moves on to asking Shakur about how he grapples with his creative and political consciousness. The listening work taking place here is critical and archival: without Lamar’s (and Lamar’s audience) interest in Shakur’s creative process his voice loses authority and ultimately its power.
Tupac’s sonic ‘resurrection’ signifies his lasting effect in hip hop while serving as a springboard for Lamar’s own pondering about the purpose of his music and the burden of its success. Unlike the visual representation of Shakur via hologram at the 2012 Coachella Music Festival, Lamar’s use of Tupac’s sonic likeness offers an alternative entry point for engaging Tupac’s work outside of his rapping. For example, much of Shakur’s social-political work takes place in his poetry i.e. his collection of poetry The Rose that Grew from Concrete. Further, the ‘thingness’ of the hologram, a physical and technological manifestation of hip hop fans’ and artists’ revering of Tupac’s image and death, makes me think about the type of work the hologram was expected to perform as compared to the sonic ‘ghostliness’ of Tupac’s voice on Lamar’s track. If, as John Jennings suggests, the hologram manifested Tupac as a “ghost in the machine,” how does Tupac’s voice work as a ghost in the machine? On a visceral level hearing Tupac’s voice in conversation with Kendrick Lamar stirs feelings about whether or not he is dead or alive and his immortality as a hip hop icon.
Where the Coachella hologram visualized Tupac Shakur spirit, “Mortal Man” sonically evokes his spirit and the connection between his (im)mortality and storytelling. Lamar says: “Sometimes I be like. . .get behind a mic and I don’t what type of energy I’ma push out or where it comes from.” Shakur responds “because the spirits, we ain’t really even rappin’, we just letting our dead homies tell stories for us.” Listening to Shakur’s use of “we” out of historical context – the interview took place in 1994, 21 years before “Mortal Man” – suggests that Tupac himself is among the dead. He is a “dead homie” and telling a story that Lamar himself is trying to relay to his audience and himself. Yet the lingering possibility of Tupac’s mortality – most embodied in Tupac’s silence after Lamar’s discussion of the significance of a caterpillar to the album – is a powerful moment of protest. Shakur’s quiet and Lamar’s attempt to “call him back,” signifies a period in the conversation. Lamar is left to fend for himself, fighting a “fight he can’t win.” There is also the possibility that his exchange with Shakur is “just some shit he wrote,” an unfinished idea and story that he is still figuring out. Lamar’s rendering of Tupac’s voice makes me think about the DJ Spooky statement “the voice you speak with may not be your own.” Tupac’s ghostly voice and Lamar’s search for his own voice blend to present Tupac as a mouthpiece for not only himself but Lamar.
At surface level Lamar resurrects and interviews Tupac Shakur because of regional ties to West Coast hip hop and a nearly standard declaration in rap of Shakur’s influence and fandom. He is arguably the most celebrated and iconic figure in hip hop. Shakur’s untimely death and open struggles with seeking balance between fame and personal responsibility mold him as hip hop’s shining prince. Shakur’s family ties with the Black Panther Party – a member of the Panthers once called him an “eternal cub” – positioned him to use hip hop as a mouthpiece for contemporary Black protest. But Shakur’s branding of protest and hip hop was messy, in part because of a working understanding and maneuvering of his image as controversial and commercially successful.
The “Mortal Man” interview signifies sound’s ability to usefully bridge past and present social, cultural, and political moments. Lamar’s sonic evoking of Tupac Shakur demonstrates hip hop as a space of Black youth political protest. Lamar uses sound to render hip hop temporality and re-emphasize Black popular culture as a departure point for recognizing contemporary Black angst. The shrinking mediums of spaces available to indicate why and how #BlackLivesMatter position the sonic as a work bench for engaging race relations in a deemed post-racial era. The “Mortal Man” interview serves as a blueprint for connecting hip hop to longstanding conversations about Black protest as a (messy) cultural product.
Featured image: “Shot by Drew: Kendrick Lamar” by Flickr user The Come Up Show, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Regina Bradley recently completed her PhD at Florida State University in African American Literature. Her dissertation is titled “Race to Post: White Hegemonic Capitalism and Black Empowerment in 21st Century Black Popular Culture and Literature.” She is a regular writer for Sounding Out!
REWIND!…If you liked this post, you may also dig:
I Been On: BaddieBey and Beyoncé’s Sonic Masculinity — Regina Bradley
Como Now? Marketing “Authentic” Black Music— Jennifer Stoever
CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD: The Edison Soundwalk
SUBSCRIBE TO THE SERIES VIA ITUNES
ADD OUR PODCASTS TO YOUR STITCHER FAVORITES PLAYLIST
Join Media Frank Bridges as he takes a soundwalk around the premises of the Thomas Edison Center in Menlo Park New Jersey. Bridges touches upon how the space tells a story of the dense contradictions witihin Edison’s work. He considers how the sounds of construction, museum tours, gramophones, ghosts, and more collect and collide in the history of the Thomas Edison Center.
Frank Bridges is a Doctoral Candidate at The Rutgers University School of Communication and Information. He is also a part-time lecturer, musician, and graphic designer. His research interests are the DIY and Internet-based production and distribution of music, and visual communication with a focus on semiotic analysis and street art.
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
Sounding Out! Podcast #10: Interview with Theremin Master Eric Ross – Aaron Trammell
CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD: Sounding Out! Podcast #32: The World Listening Update – 2014 Edition
SUBSCRIBE TO THE SERIES VIA ITUNES
ADD OUR PODCASTS TO YOUR STITCHER FAVORITES PLAYLIST
Listen in as Eric Leonardson and Monica Ryan celebrate World Listening Day 2014 by reflecting on the work of R. Murray Schafer and the World Soundscape Project. Interviewees Professor Sabine Breitsameter of Hochschule Darmstadt (Germany) and Professor Barry Truax of Simon Fraser University (Canada) discuss the impact of Schafer’s ideas and offer commentary on contemporary threads within the field of Acoustic Ecology. How does does Acoustic Ecology help us to think through today’s complex environments and how can listeners like you make a difference?
Co-Authors of this podcast:
Eric Leonardson is a Chicago-based audio artist and teacher. He has devoted a majority of his professional career to unorthodox approaches to sound and its instrumentation with a broad understanding of texture, atmosphere and microtones. He is President of the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology and founder of the Midwest Society for Acoustic Ecology, and Executive Director of the World Listening Project. Leonardson is an Adjunct Associate Professor in the Department of Sound at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Monica Ryan is an instructor and audio artist from Chicago. Currently her work explores spatialized sound recording and playback techniques along with interactive sound environments. She teaches in several institutions in Chicago, including The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Columbia College.
Tom Haigh is a British post production sound mixer, composer, and phonography enthusiast, now residing in Chicago. As a staff engineer at ARU Chicago, he works with clients in advertising, media, and independent film.
Featured image: Used through a CC BY license. Originally posted by Ky @Flickr.
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
Sounding Out! Podcast #7: Celebrate World Listening Day with the World Listening Project– Eric Leonardon, Monica Ryan, and Tom Haigh
SO! Amplifies: Eric Leonardson and World Listening Day 18 July 2014– Eric Leonardson
Sounding Out! Podcast (#18): Listening to the Tuned City of Brussels, Day 3: “Ephemeral Atmospheres”– Felicity Ford and Valeria Merlini
I’m happy to introduce the final post in Guest Editor Justin Burton‘s three part series for SO!, “The Wobble Continuum.” I’ll leave Justin to recap the series and reflect on it a little in his article below, but first I want to express our appreciation to him for his thoughtful curation of this exciting series, the first in the new Thursday stream at Sounding Out!. Thanks for getting the ball rolling!
Next month be sure to watch this space for a preview of sound at the upcoming Society for Cinema & Media Studies meeting in Seattle, and a new four part series on radio in Latin America by Guest Editor Tom McEnaney.
— Neil Verma, Special Editor for ASA/SCMS
I’m standing at a bus stop outside the Convention Center in downtown Indianapolis, whistling. The tune, “Braves,” is robust, a deep, oscillating comeuppance of the “Tomahawk Chop” melody familiar from my youth (the Braves were always on TBS). There’s a wobbly synthesizer down in the bass, a hi hat cymbal line pecking away at the Tomahawk Chop. This whistled remix of mine really sticks it to the original tune and the sports teams who capitalize on racist appropriations of indigenous cultures. All in all, it’s a sublime bit of musicality I’m bestowing upon the cold Indianapolis streets.
Until I become aware of the other person waiting for the bus. As I glance over at him, I can now hear my tune for what it is. The synthesizer and hi hat are all in my head, the bass nowhere to be heard. This isn’t the mix I intended, A Tribe Called Red’s attempt at defanging the Tomahawk Chop, at re-appropriating stereotypical sounds and spitting them back out on their own terms. Nope, this is just a guy on the street whistling those very stereotypes: it’s the Tomahawk Chop. I suddenly don’t feel like whistling anymore.
As we conclude our Wobble Continuum guest series here at Sounding Out!, I want to think about the connective tissues binding together the previous posts from Mike D’Errico and Christina Giacona, joining A Tribe Called Red and the colonialist culture into which they release their music, and linking me to the guy at the bus stop who is not privy to the virtuosic sonic accompaniment in my head. In each case, I’ll pay attention to sound as material conjoining producers and consumers, and I’ll play with Karen Barad’s notion of performativity to hear the way these elements interact [Jason Stanyek and Ben Piekut also explore exciting possibilities from Barad in “Deadness” (TDR 54:1, 2010)].
Drawing from physicist Niels Bohr, Barad begins with the fact that matter is fundamentally indeterminate. This is formally laid out in the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which notes that the more precisely we can determine (for instance) the position of a particle, the less we can say with certainty about its momentum (and vice versa). Barad points out that “‘position’ only has meaning when a rigid apparatus with fixed parts is used (eg, a ruler is nailed to a fixed table in the laboratory, thereby establishing a fixed frame of reference for establishing ‘position’)” (2003, 814).
This kind of indeterminacy is characteristic of sound, which vibrates along a cultural continuum, and which, in sliding back and forth along that continuum, allows us to tune into some information even as other information distorts or disappears. This can feel very limiting, but it can also be exhilarating, as what we are measuring are a variety of possibilities prepared to unfold before us as matter and sound become increasingly unpredictable and slippery. We can observe this continuum in the tissue connecting the previous posts in this series. In the first, Mike D’Errico tunes into the problematic hypermasculinity of brostep, pinpointing the ways music software interfaces can rehash tropes of control and dominance (Robin James has responded with productive expansions of these ideas), dropping some areas of music production right back into systems of patriarchy. In the second post, Giacona, in highlighting the anti-racist and anti-colonial work of A Tribe Called Red, speaks of the “impotence” visited upon the Tomahawk Chop by ATCR’s sonic interventions. Here, hypermasculinity is employed as a means of colonial reprimand for a hypermasculine, patriarchal culture. In sliding from one post to the other, we’ve tuned into different frequencies along a continuum, hearing the possibilities (both terrorizing and ameliorative) of patriarchal production methods unfolding before us.
Barad locates the performative upshot of this kind of indeterminacy in the fact that the scientist, the particle, and the ruler nailed to the table in the lab are all three bound together as part of a single phenomenon—they become one entity. To observe something is to become entangled with it, so that all of the unfolding possibilities of that particle become entwined with the unfolding possibilities of the scientist and the ruler, too. The entire phenomenon becomes indeterminate as the boundaries separating each entity bleed together, and these entities only detangle by performing—by acting out—boundaries among themselves.
Returning to Giacona’s discussion of “Braves,” it’s possible to mix and remix our components to perform them—to act them out—in more than one way. Giacona arranges it so that ATCR is the scientist, observing a particle that is a colonizing culture drunk on its own stereotypes. Here, “Braves” is the ruler that allows listeners to measure something about that culture. Is that something location? Direction? Even if we can hear clearly what Giacona leads us to—an uncovering of stereotypes so pernicious as to pervade, unchallenged, everyday activities—there’s an optimism available in indeterminacy. As we slide along the continuum to the present position of this colonialist culture, the certainty with which we can say anything about its trajectory lessens, opening the very possibility that motivates ATCR, namely the hope of something better.
But listening and sounding are tricky things. As I think about my whistling of “Braves” in Indianapolis, it occurs to me that Giacona’s account is easily subverted. It could be that ATCR is the particle, members of a group of many different nations reduced to a single voice in a colonial present populated by scientists (continuing the analogy) who believe in Manifest Destiny and Johnny Depp. Now the ruler is not “Braves” but the Tomahawk Chop melody ATCR attempts to critique, and the group is measured by the same lousy standard colonizers always use. In this scenario, people attend ATCR shows in redface and headdresses, and I stand on the street whistling a war chant. We came to the right place, but we heard—or in my case, re-sounded—the wrong thing.
Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman’s “listening ear” is instructive here. Cultures as steeped in indigenous stereotypes as the United States and Canada have conditioned their ears to hear ATCR through whiteness, through colonialism, making it difficult to perceive the subversive nature of “Braves.” ATCR plays a dangerous game in which they are vulnerable to being heard as a war chant rather than a critique; their material must be handled with care. There’s a simple enough lesson for me and my whistling: some sounds should stay in my head. But Barad offers something more fundamental to what we do as listeners. By recognizing that 1). there are connective tissues deeply entangling the materiality of our selves, musicians, and music and 2). listening is a continuum revealing only some knowledge at any given moment, we can begin to imagine and perform the many possibilities that open up to us in the indeterminacy of listening.
If everything sounds certain to us when we listen, we’re doing it wrong. Instead, for music to function productively, we as listeners must find our places in a wobbly continuum whose tissues connect us to the varied appendages of music and culture. Once so entangled, we’ll ride those synth waves down to the low end as hi hats all the while tap out the infinite possibilities opening in front of us.
Featured image: “a tribe called red_hall4_mozpics (2)_GF” by Flickr user Trans Musicales, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Justin Burton is a musicologist specializing in US popular music and culture. He is especially interested in hip hop and the ways it is sounded across regions, locating itself in specific places even as it expresses transnational and diasporic ideas.He is Assistant Professor of Music at Rider University, where he teaches in the school’s Popular Music and Culture program. He helped design the degree, which launched in the fall of 2012, and he is proud to be able to work in such a unique program. His book-length project – Posthuman Pop – blends his interests in hip hop and technology by engaging contemporary popular music through the lens of posthuman theory. Recent and forthcoming publications include an exploration of the Mozart myth as it is presented in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus and then parodied in an episode of The Simpsons (Journal of Popular Culture 46:3, 2013), an examination of the earliest iPod silhouette commercials and the notions of freedom they are meant to convey (Oxford Handbook of Mobile Music Studies), and a long comparative review of Kanye and Jay Z’s Watch the Throne and the Roots’ Undun (Journal for the Society of American Music). He is also co-editing with Ali Colleen Neff a special issue of the Journal of Popular Music Studies titled “Sounding Global Southernness.” He currently serves on the executive committee of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music-US Branch and is working on an oral history project of the organization. From June 2011 through May 2013, he served as Editor of the IASPM-US website, expanding the site’s offerings with the cutting edge work of popular music scholars from around the world. You can contact him at justindburton [at] gmail [dot] com.
REWIND!…If you liked this post, you may also dig:
“Further Experiments in Agent-based Musical Composition”-Andreas Duus Pape