Tag Archive | New York

Learning to Listen: The Velvet Underground’s “Once Lost” LPs

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Start a band3 (1)Welcome back to Start a Band, our two-part series on Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, focusing on what the band’s sonic provocations mean for sound studies today. Last week, we heard from Jake Smith, who introduced us to a way of thinking about the Velvets that emphasized the “haptic” qualities that emerge so often while listening to them. Following that idea, Smith took us on a kind of journey from the skin to the musculature and the viscera through a deep analysis of key songs in their catalog — “This is your body on the Velvet Underground.”

This week, we’re delighted to welcome to Sounding Out! a writer whose work we’ve been eager to feature for a long while — Tim AndersonAssociate Professor of Communication and Theatre Arts at Old Dominion University. Tim has written extensively on popular music and sound, and is currently a leader of the Sound Studies Scholarly Interest Group at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, one of the scholarly groups associated with the SO! Thursday stream. It’s such a pleasure to present this sensitive and personal account of the Velvet Underground — and of learning to listen.

- NV

Lou Reed and Andy Warhol as the respective definers of audible  and visual cool for misfits and undergroundlings for the last five decades.

Lou Reed and Andy Warhol as the respective definers of audible and visual cool for misfits and undergroundlings for the last five decades.

Reports of Lou Reed’s death came on a Sunday. Even though he was 71, it was still a shock. To many present-day friends and colleagues Reed’s  Velvet Underground are a band that they understand are important, but just don’t get. In the case of an artist like Lou Reed, an artist who never had a top ten charting single and only two gold albums, you could see their point.

Still, I obsessed. Rattled from my travels in Washington, DC, I called my wife and we talked about his music for about an hour or so, after which I took a long walk to the Washington Mall. It was a sunny fall day, October 27, 2013, and I walked past the Smithsonian with its prominent memorials, such a clean space for so much past, some of which the nation has buried and  some of which we don’t even bother to think about. The deceased have always done the most important work in our nation’s capital.

The day after,  I really don’t remember doing much. I took a train home, read everything I could online about Reed, and thought a lot about his records. The ones I liked —New York and The Blue Mask—the ones I learned to like —it took me years to enjoy Transformer—and the ones I loved —The Velvet Underground and NicoWhite Light, White HeatThe Velvet Underground and VU. Those four records, more than any records I can remember, altered me, many of my friends in my teens and in college, and almost every rock musician I admired in the 1980s. Velvet Underground records were simply foundational. Writing about Reed’s death, rock critic Greg Kot summed up the Velvet’s influence by claiming that they were “as influential as The Beatles” and if you named “just about any left-of-centre band or artist since the ‘70s”, some of whom like R.E.M., U2 and Talking Heads “became mainstream giants”all of them would “acknowledge a deep debt to the Velvet Underground.”

This influence is the reason that the collective mourning of such a marginally popular figure swelled to such a crescendo. However, to paraphrase the words of one of Reed’s most storied rivals, Lester Bangs, on the death of John Lennon, this was not the mourning of a person. Most of us never met Lou Reed. Instead, we were mourning ourselves. To lose Lou Reed was tantamount to losing the author of a proverbial urtext of a kind of secret rock language that has been passed down since the late 1960s on how to be cool. It was a language of composed of style, gestures, and reactions. It was one that was filled with a fun that was not of the obligatory “hey-dude-let’s-party!” party. The Velvet’s overdriven guitars repeatedly underscored that teenage kicks included other aesthetic pleasures such as contemplation and melancholy.  Most importantly, the Velvet Underground offered a language of listening passed down from one rock underground to another.

Because pop fans of all stripes must learn how to be a fan, learning how and what to listen to is a taste-defining social exercise. Simon Frith once explained that, for him, “one aspect of learning how to be a rock fan in the 1960s was, in fact, learning to prefer [original records made by black artists of the 1950s] to covers [made by white artists of the same era]. And this was, as I recall, something that had to be learned [by Frith]: nearly all the records I had bought in the late 1950s had been the cover versions” (Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music, 1996). In my case, learning to listen also meant learning what to listen to while listening to The Velvet Underground, a process involving peers, record clerks, friends, musicians and reviews.

R.E.M.'s 1983 LP release of "Murmur" on cassette

R.E.M.’s 1983 LP release of “Murmur” on cassette

As a young rock fan who began first collecting cassettes —that’s right, cassettes —this process would begin through an obsession with R.E.M.’s Murmur, a cryptic, odd inscrutable cassette with no lyrics, a black and white picture and layers of reverb. The copy I found had been severely discounted in a ma and pa record store in Globe, Arizona. In Summer 1983 I read a rave review in a copy of Rolling Stone and at 14 had purchased a cassette unlike anything I had ever heard; I wasn’t sure I enjoyed it. Why did so many reviewers seem to fall over themselves about this record? To solve this puzzle, it meant learning how to listen to music invested in tone rather than ostentatious chops. It meant paying attention to drones rather than solos. It meant following those features to Velvet Underground records after peers, record clerks, friends, musicians and reviews made a point that Murmur reminded them a bit of VU records.

Murmur was also the first record I ever purchased that embraced what Jacob Smith so wonderfully identifies as a distinctive trait of all Velvet Underground records. For Smith, these pop records are part of a genealogy that “stress evocative timbres, idiosyncratic voices, and signature sounds over structural or lyrical complexity.” The distillation of this pop ethos onto record was one of the reasons that so many musicians whose abilities may have been limited but whose tastes tended toward the poetic found The Velvets so influential. As Jonathan Richman explained, “I didn’t start singing or playing till I was 15 and heard the Velvet Underground. They made an atmosphere, and I knew that I could make one too!” (Quoted in Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, 61). Indeed, Smith notes that the deceptive complexity of VU Records “can be found more on the level of timbre than in musical structure or instrumentation” and “lyrics often encourage a blurring of listening and touching”; his post actually reads like many of the conversations and reviews surrounding R.E.M.’s debut LP. The same could also be said of records released by other 1980s and 90s artists such as The Pixies, My Bloody Valentine, Opal, Mazzy Star, Radiohead, The Dream Syndicate, Galaxie 500, The Rain Parade, Green on Red, New Order, Joy Division, The Feelies, Spacemen 3, Sonic Youth, The Pretenders, The Sisters of Mercy, Ministry, The Jesus and Mary Chain, and The Violent Femmes, to name but a few who drew water from the Velvet Underground well.  Bands sonically inspired by the Velvets often providing feedback before solos, drummed without cymbals, and portrayed dark themes sung in monotones that sounded sophisticated and obscure.

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However, actually hearing a Velvet Underground record in 1983 and 1984 was a significant problem for newer fans, as their MGM catalog was out of print. Many understood these records to be effectively buried by label president Mike Curb’s infamous axing of the act from MGM along with seventeen others who allegedly promoted and exploited “hard drugs through music” (Tiegel, Eliot “Mgm Busts 18 Rock Groups.” Billboard, November 7 1970, 1, 70). As Lou Reed himself once noted, “it’s depressing when you’re still around and your albums are out of print.” I have often wondered if this was one of the reasons that The Velvets catalogue would have such a profound effect on so many of us. Sure, I had found a copy of Loaded, the band’s fourth official release, but its bright tones had none of the subversive menace that so many reviewers alluded to when speaking of the Velvets. Even in a mountain town in Arizona, I had a better chance of finding used copies of  The Grateful Dead’s Wake of the Flood or Blues for Allah than I did The Velvet Underground and Nico. In other cities, in other record stores, when I did find those records they were used and prices started at $15 and up. They were records I simply could not afford to listen to.

The Velvet Underground's "lost" fourth album, "VU"

The Velvet Underground’s “lost” fourth album, “VU”

All that changed after 1985, when every MGM Velvet Underground record would appear in my life for less than $25. Bill Levenson’s efforts as Polygram’s then A&R manager to reissue the buried and lost MGM catalog on Verve provided me and every other young person who had only “heard of The Velvet Underground” the chance to finally to listen to all of these records at once.  Indeed, the moment of the catalogue’s reissue was simply a sonic flood, one where sounds filled in gaps that had been cut deeply by conversations, descriptions and my own imagination. Writing at the time about these reissues and the unveiling of a lost album’s worth of material that would be titled V.U., David Fricke argued that “rock historians and fans alike owe Bill Levenson, the executive producer of V.U., a debt of thanks for resurrecting these tracks and for giving the band’s first three LPs the proper reissue they’ve long deserved. At $5.98 list price, The Velvet Underground and Nico,White Light/White Heat and The Velvet Underground are essential purchases —certainly essential listening for any study of Seventies and Eighties punk evolution. As for V.U., the Great Lost Velvet Underground Album is no longer lost. It is simply great” (Fricke, David. “The Velvet Underground – V.U.” Rolling Stone, March 14 1985).

2012 ad for another reissue of the MGM Velvet Underground catalog and Nico's first solo LP

A 2012 ad for another reissue of the MGM Velvet Underground catalog and Nico’s first solo LP

Is it too much to suggest a that the pent up desire to hear a secret history sparked by The Velvet Underground’s reissues created the 80s/90s iteration of “alternative rock”? Perhaps, but history is filled with desires asserted, accepted and denied. Indeed, most of those aforementioned 80s alternative acts I came into contact with had been performing and recording and releasing records years before 1985. However, there is no doubt that the VU reissues turned a number of ears predisposed to hearing in a certain way onto new ways of listening to the Velvets concentrated doses of moody darkness, modes that earlier Velvet Underground fans simply had little access to.

Ignoring the impact of the sonic flood of VU material that fell upon my ears during this period turns away from a specific history of listening that, while personally unique, was an opportunity available to so many of my contemporaries. Indeed, if sounds have histories because their traces persist, then listening must have histories guided partially by testimonial. To hear these histories we might ask ourselves to remember how, why, and with whom did we listen, and to trade in this information. If we did so, we might better understand how we learned to listen: especially what to listen to and why it was important. And, without these testimonials of our pasts as listeners, we just may lose sound’s crucial other half.

Featured Image: “Velvet Underground Yellow Label Mono” by Flickr user Simon MurphyThe Velvet Underground – Yellow label mono 

Tim J. Anderson is an Associate Professor of Communication and Theatre Arts at Old Dominion University where studies the multiple cultural and material practices that make music popular. He has published numerous book chapters, refereed journal articles, and two monographs: Making Easy Listening: Material Culture and Postwar American Recording (University of Minnesota Press, 2006) and Popular Music in a Digital Music Economy: Problems and Practices for an Emerging Service Industry (Routledge, 2014). His latest research project focuses on recordings, musicians, listeners and the public sphere. His website is timjanderson.weebly.com and he can be contacted at tjanders@odu.edu.

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Fade to Black, Old Sport: How Hip Hop Amplifies Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby

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When I heard of people flocking to recreate “Gatsby Dress” costumes for Halloween 2013, I couldn’t help but ponder the seemingly-perpetual cultural allure of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, particularly its latest cinematic incarnation in spectacular Baz Luhrmann-style. More than a little of the momentum of the recent revival, however, had everything to do with the film’s soundtrack–executive produced by Jay-Z (who also executive produced the film)–that drew heavily on hip-hop.   This sonic move was not without controversy, however, sparking intense debate when the film was released in May 2013.  Take this line from Vice Magazine’s UK music blog Noisey (from a post snarkily entitled “Who Let The Great Gatsby Soundtrack Happen?”) that describes Kanye West and Jay-Z’s Watch the Throne album, from which many of the film’s songs are taken, as “a record that couldn’t be further removed from West Egg than a pauper trying to gain access to a Gatsby soiree.” This statement reveals more about this particular listener than it does about either the record or the film, which are intimately connected through the labor of Jay-Z and what I theorize here as a “sonic hip hop cosmopolitanism.”

I’ll admit that when I was first hip to The Great Gatsby my junior year of high school, I thought it was boring and couldn’t stand Tom or Daisy Buchanan or their rich white folk problems. I rooted for Jay Gatsby but couldn’t for the life of me understand why he was so sprung over Daisy, who wanted her daughter to be a “beautiful little fool” (17).  But as I got older, I found myself returning to the novel time and time again, coming back to Gatsby like a forlorn lover and reconsidering what Jay Gatsby’s character represents: unrequited love, American idealism,  (capitalistic) hustle, and (white) masculine performance. However, I’ve always been part of the camp that secretly hoped Gatsby was a black man passing for white, yearning for a life – and a woman – out of his grasp no matter how much “new money” he acquired.

It was not until Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation of Gatsby that I realized how hip (hop) Gatsby really could be.

jay z Gatsby

Image from Vulture’s “Quiz: Jay-Z Lyric or Line From The Great Gatsby?”

Luhrmann’s modernization of classic literary texts is not new; Romeo + Juliet (1996) got me through high school readings of Shakespeare’s play in ways Sparknotes could not. While Shakespeare’s words remained intact, the scenery and aura of the play burst to life on the big screen. Luhrmann uses in that film sonic cues of contemporary (youth) popular culture to make Shakespeare’s characters relatable. Verona is a hip, urban hub of violence that vibrates to grunge and pop artists such as Garbage, Everclear, and Quindon Tarver instead of mandolins and harps. The grittiness of grunge rock signifies the grittiness of Verona street life while Quindon Tarver’s angelic voice signifies the innocence and vulnerability of (first) love.

But Luhrmann’s Gatsby takes it up a notch, looking to hip hop culture as a bridge between the roar of the 1920s and the noise of the present.  Aside from the literal presence of hip hop sound – mostly snippets from Jay-Z and West’s Watch the Throne – the materiality of hip hop sound also serves to update the Gatsby narrative. Consider how Gatsby’s parties are loud and bass-filled with a live jazz band. The loudness of the party and “surround sound” stereo sound of the film amplifies the vibrancy of the Jazz era while drawing in the audience with a contemporary interpretation of live parties seen and heard in contemporary hip hop culture. “The question for me in approaching Gatsby was how to elicit from our audience the same level of excitement and pop cultural immediacy toward the world that Fitzgerald did for his audience?” Luhrmann told Rolling Stone. “And in our age, the energy of jazz is caught in the energy of hip-hop.”

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The film itself is stunning: vividly colored with panoramas and ground shots of New York City, Luhrmann’s film draws in an audience possibly unfamiliar with Fitzgerald’s novel. The film utilizes the more traditional jazz aesthetic that captures the novel’s initial element, but invokes hip hop to span a generational divide and update the (black) cool factor of the film. Indeed, both jazz and hip hop best signify black cool and its commodification into mainstream white America. For example, Norman Mailer’s discussion of the white hipster and Jazz aficionado as a “white Negro” is also tantalizingly useful in thinking of Gatsby as a black man passing for white. His affinity for Jazz and throwing jazzy parties incites the probability of Gatsby’s racial and social background. The film uses sound to create a hybrid of timeless black cool, while highlighting the presence of African Americans’ contributions to American culture. Hip hop’s birthplace and the portal for many immigrants into America, New York is arguably America’s most mythological city, grounded in both white and African American culture memory as such. Jay-Z’s own mythic rise to fame, wealth, and power in New York City–exemplified in some lines from 2009’s “Empire State of Mind,” “Yeah I’m out that Brooklyn, now I’m down in TriBeCa/ Right next to De Niro, but I’ll be hood forever/ I’m the new Sinatra, and since I made it here/I can make it anywhere, yeah, they love me everywhere”– grounds the film’s rags-to-riches mystique.

In addition to such extradiegetic associations,  the film’s soundscape itself enthralls, with brassy, lively instrumented notes of jazz – which carried the sonic narrative of the 1920s – sounds of the hustle and bustle of urban spaces, particularly New York City, and hip hop. The film’s soundscape presents a hybrid of sonic black identities – jazz and hip hop – and uses their blended aesthetics to speak to the continued framework of black popular culture as a gauge of Americanism. In other words, the marginalized perspective is used to decide whether or not something is authentically American or not.

Jay-Z performs at Obama Pre-Election Rally 2012 in  Columbus, Ohio, w/ Bruce Springsteen, Image by Flickr User  Becker1999

Jay-Z performs at Obama Pre-Election Rally 2012 in
Columbus, Ohio, w/ Bruce Springsteen, Image by Flickr User Becker1999

Hip hop aesthetics bridge old New York with the current New York as a foundation of Americanness. Gatsby bridges the old adage of New York as a space of opportunity with the familiar New York adage that Harlem-born and Mt.-Vernon-raised P. Diddy drops in Jermaine Dupri’s “Welcome to Atlanta,”  “if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere,”a call back to Sinatra’s “New York, New York”  that is also echoed by Jay-Z  that forms a foundational trope of the film and the novel.  A particular striking example of the merging of these adages is a scene in the novel where Nick and Gatsby are on their way to the city. They pass a car with black passengers and a white chauffeur:

As we crossed Blackwell’s Island a limousine passed us, driven by a white chauffeur in which sat three modish negroes, two bucks and a girl. I laughed aloud as the yolks of their eyeballs rolled toward us in haughty rivalry.

“Anything can happen now that we’ve slid over this bridge,” I thought; “Anything at all” (69).

While the novel does not describe a sonic accompaniment to Carraway’s observation of the black folks in the limousine, there is an inherent understanding of the “modish” fashion of the black folks as jazzy, as cool. In the film, there is an audible sound associated with the black folks. They are sipping champagne and listening to Watch the Throne. Although visibly symbolic of the 1920s – dressed in zoot suits and flapper dresses – the aural blackness associated with the scene suggests a merger of jazz and hip hop cool and cosmopolitanism.

Gatsby-Rolls

Still from The Great Gatsby (2013)

In order to understand how hip hop updates the struggle for realness, entitlement, and respectability in the Gatsby film, it is important to return to the major sonic influence of the literal hip hop sound in the film: Jay-Z and Watch the Throne.  Jay-Z’s work on the album raises questions of how hip hop culture impacts not only the American dream but the aspirations of mogul-dom seen and heard in the film and novel. Christopher Holmes Smith’s discussion of hip hop moguls in Social Text (Winter 2003) is particularly useful in teasing out the implications behind the hip hop mogul and such figures’ social-cultural responsibility to their respective communities. Holmes Smith argues:

The hip-hop mogul bears the stamp of American tradition, since the figure is typically male, entrepreneurial, and prestigious both in cultural influence and wealth.  The hip-hop mogul is an icon, therefore, of mainstream power and consequently occupies a position of inclusion within many of the nation’s elite social networks and cosmopolitan cultural formations (69).

Jay-Z’s status as a hip hop mogul – serving both as a creative talent and corporate backer – lends credence to thinking about hip hop as a space of entitlement and a site of  struggle to attain that entitlement.  It is from this perspective that I think of Gatsby as a hip hop figure/mogul: his working class background, hyper-performance of white privilege, materialistic pursuit of wealth for visibility, and desperate need for approval as “authentic.” To borrow from rapper Drake, Gatsby “just wanna be successful.”

 Mark Anthony Neal’s discussion of Jay-Z as a hip hop cosmopolitan figure in Looking for Leroy (2013) further enables an understanding of how Jay-Z lends his (sonic) hip hop cosmopolitanism to sonically navigate between hip hop’s working class aesthetics and his own sense of entitlement because of the way he mobilized those working class experiences to become wealthy. While the film does have performances by artists who are not considered hip hop – i.e. Lana Del Rey, Jack White, and Florence+the Machine – Jay-Z’s use of his own raps, including tracks from the Kanye West collaboration Watch the Throne suggests a “sonic hip hop cosmopolitanism”  complements any sense of the film as a case study of white entitlement.  Tracks like “100$ bill,” “No Church in the Wild,” and “Who Can Stop Me” both prop up and tear down Luhrmann’s visual rendition of Fitzgerald’s critique of the uppercrust of America as corruptibly entitled.

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Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby is an intriguing and useful tool through which to analyze the (in)consistencies of race and cultural authenticity in the United States. Both jazz and hip hop exist in the interstitial spaces that lie between black cultural expression and white entitlement to those expressions. Luhrmann uses hip hop’s sonic and cultural aesthetics to pump up the capitalistic and all-American narrative of “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” narrative in Gatsby by also declaring, “get yours by any means necessary.”

Featured Image adapted from Flickr User  kata rokkar

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!

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The Noisiest City on Earth? or, What Can the 2012 Manhattan Noise Complaint Maps Really Tell Us?

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“It’s a city, not a cemetery. You can’t tell everybody to go around wearing earplugs.”

Ex-New York City Parks Commissioner Henry J. Stern, quoted in “Many Pleas for Quiet, but City Still Thunders”

In 1905, a New York Times article declared New York City “the noisiest city on Earth.” More than a century later—this summer, to be exact—The New York Times ran a series on noise in New York City titled “What? The Long War on Loud” that proved that this city is still trying to figure out its relationship to sound. (One of the gems of that series? “New York’s War on Noise” timeline.) As a displaced New Yorker, some of my most vivid memories of the city are aural.  Although New York City isn’t the only loud city out there, there are many reasons it’s called “The City That Never Sleeps”—and sound has a lot to do with it, depending on which neighborhood you call home.

Now you can see what neighborhoods are allegedly noisiest, and where all that noise comes from. Brooklyn designer Karl Sluis created the 2012 Manhattan Noise Complaints maps (click for full image), in which Sluis correlated the data on 311 noise complaints made during the year 2012 (40, 412 complaints, to be exact) that he obtained from the NYC Open Source site with Manhattan’s geographical coordinates. He used circles of various sizes to a) create an aural tracing of the island of Manhattan, sitting in a sea of turquoise blue b) showcase the number of complaints in an area. The bigger the circle, the larger the number of complaints.

Screen Capture of  Karl Sluis's 2012 Manhattan Noise Complaints maps (click for interactive image)

Screen Capture of Karl Sluis’s 2012 Manhattan Noise Complaints maps (click for interactive image)

The maps Sluis has created are helpful for visualizing the complaints on a broad scale, but they paint an incomplete picture of what noise means in New York City. The demographics of each neighborhood are absent from each map, a slight that can perhaps be traced to the 311 data available, but in order to better understand how New Yorkers define “noise” those stats must be included. Both Sluis and John Metcalfe from The Atlantic Cities discuss notable findings, but neither takes into account the fact that some of the areas with a higher concentration of noise complaints are not just densely populated but densely populated with racial and ethnic minorities. Indeed, comparing the maps’ noisy hotspots to a map of Manhattan racial demographics reveal how urban racial dynamics intersect with ideas about sound and power: who can make sound, who must be chastised for making noise, who can complain and whose complaints are actually being heard.

"Unnecessary noise prohibited" by Flickr user Ricky Leong, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

“Unnecessary noise prohibited” by Flickr user Ricky Leong, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Mapping noise complaints gives a spatial dimension to noise, and it renders noise palpable, in a way. Sluis points out, “Noise complaints reveal the concentration of activity in the city as well as many smaller stories, such as the construction of the Second Avenue subway line, idling buses on the Upper East Side, and the homes of the loudest dogs (or the least patient neighbors).” He reminds us that the data comes from complaints and not necessarily decibels; in other words, it represents local ideas of what counts as sound and what counts as noise.

While Metcalfe correctly describes the thousands of 311 complaints about noise from 2012 as “the entire year’s expression of mass annoyance,” Sluis’s map does not go far enough toward figuring out whose annoyance, exactly.  We must remember that annoyance oftentimes stems not just from physical reactions to noise but rather one’s perceptions about noise, what  Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman deems “the listening ear.” How we hear others, Stoever-Ackerman argues, is not as natural as it seems. For example, whom we deem as noisy may stem from our community, our parents, and/or social conditioning. Accounting for race/ethnicity in noise maps will show how the listening ear conditions neighbors to categorize and react to certain sounds.

For the purpose of this analytic exercise, I compared Sluis’s maps and the Center for Urban Research, CUNY Graduate Center’s  2010 map of block-by-block demographic changes in New York City, in order to illustrate how population density and racial/ethnic demographics play a role in concentrated pockets of noise complaints.  Drawn from 2010 census data, the CUNY map clearly delineates neighborhoods and color-codes the groups in each neighborhood per block: blue for whites, green for Latino, orange for black, purple for Asian, and grey for “Other.” Although the Center for Urban Research, CUNY Graduate Center’s maps cannot be superimposed on Sluis’s maps, they help give a general idea as to where neighborhoods are located in addition to racial demographics.

Manhattan below 110th Street in 2010, courtesy of the Center for Urban Research, CUNY Graduate Center

Manhattan below 110th Street in 2010, courtesy of the Center for Urban Research, CUNY Graduate Center

Manhattan above 110th Street 2010. Courtesy of the Center for Urban Research, CUNY Graduate Center

Manhattan above 110th Street 2010. Courtesy of the Center for Urban Research, CUNY Graduate Center

From the maps illustrating changing race/ethnicity patterns, I gathered what neighborhoods were predominantly white (West Village, Lincoln Square, Yorkville, Upper West Side), predominantly Latino (Washington Heights, East Harlem) predominantly black (Central Harlem, parts of Hamilton Heights), and predominantly Asian (Chinatown, blocks of the Lower East Side). When one compares Sluis’s overall noise map of Manhattan to the racial demographic maps of Manhattan, what stands out is that the major circles of noise complaints are also places where there are different racial and ethnic groups mingling (for example, Times Square) or places that are populated by mostly minorities (Hamilton Heights).  Whereas Sluis flattens out the noise complaints, demographic stats point to the racial/ethnic contours of each neighborhood. Sluis’s maps focus on number of complaints; unfortunately this assumes everyone complaining is the same and that everyone making the noise is the same—a level aural playing field if you will. Bringing demographics into the equation underscores how not all complainers are equal and how not all complaints carry the same heft.

The city may be noisy, but “noisy” is relative. Sluis’s map shows some predictably noisy areas for those of us familiar with Manhattan’s soundscape (Union Square, Times Square) but it also draws attention to other areas not as predictable in the mainstream imagination (East Harlem South, Hamilton Heights). However, the maps by the Center for Urban Research, CUNY Graduate Center help us better understand the context for the high or low number of complaints in certain areas. For example, one of the biggest circles on Sluis’s general map of Manhattan is located in the Hamilton Heights/Washington Heights area; the Center for Urban Research, CUNY Graduate Center’s map of Manhattan above 110th Street show that these areas are densely populated by blacks and Latinos/as. This is key information because it reminds viewers that this neighborhood is a lot more ethnically diverse than other neighborhoods with a smaller number of complaints. It brings to mind: what role does race play in these complaints, in terms of those who complain and those who are the focus of the complaints? Although more people might mean more complaints, the prevalence of complaints like “loud talk” in East Harlem (Spanish Harlem) are nevertheless connected racialized ideas about people of color being “loud.” This doesn’t assume that the people complaining are white, but that they are complaining about groups that are characterized as loud, noisy, rowdy.

"Classic New York: noise, smoke" by Flickr user Will, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“Classic New York: noise, smoke” by Flickr user Will, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

These noise maps, when put into conversation with demographic data, also indicate what areas are priorities in urban planning—the sounds of gentrification. The visualizations of the complaints by section (under the main map), combined with CUNY’s maps, are even more telling because they break down the number of complaints by category. The aforementioned northern tip of Manhattan, for example, is also where many of the complaints are concentrated. At a glance, loud parties, loud people, and loud car stereos seem to be the major complaints in those areas, according to Sluis’s visualizations. Meanwhile, noises of “urban growth,” such as construction and jackhammers, are less prevalent in these areas, whereas they are more prevalent below Central Park North, in now mostly-white neighborhoods.

Sluis’s maps of the 311 noise complaints data allow readers to see differences in terms of neighborhoods: who complains the most? what do they complain about? However, one thing to keep in mind is that first question: who makes the complaints. This is where the data falls short. Can it be assumed that those who are calling about the noise are mostly people who live in the neighborhood? Are Upper Manhattan neighbors less or more tolerant of noise? The answers to these questions, although they’re not found in Sluis’s map, point to how ideas of who is noisy or who can make noise are at play here.

I do not mean to downplay the usefulness of Sluis’s map. I instead call for the necessary addition of key missing factors to future noise maps in order to give us a more complex picture of noise complaints in Manhattan and elsewhere. Although it may not be possible to gather who the 311 callers are, including factors such as race and class may lead to very different noise maps.  For example, what would a noise map of Manhattan look like if researchers brought income into the equation? Income inequality, especially in Manhattan where that imbalance is starkly on display, matters for the purpose of sound mapping. The more affluent neighborhoods are also the ones with less complaints and are the ones that are mostly inhabited by whites. Wealthier communities are more spread out and have more ability to couch themselves from noise, not to mention that it probably takes fewer complaints to get a response.

"Marcus Garvey Park Drum Circle, Harlem, NYC" by Flickr user j-No, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“Marcus Garvey Park Drum Circle, Harlem, NYC” by Flickr user j-No, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Gentrification is another factor: what kind of analysis could we do if we considered what neighborhoods have been gentrified in the past ten years? It is possible that as whites move into neighborhoods where people of color have historically lived, suddenly they find them noisy—hence, complaints. It is fitting to consider, for example, the tension between an established group of drummers in Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem and the inhabitants of a new highrise (characterized as “young white professionals”) who wanted the 30-years and running drum circle shut down, as reported in The New York Times in 2008. Moreover, if we accounted for the history of zoning in the neighborhoods that have the most or the least complaints it would add another layer of analysis to the data.  Are some of these neighborhoods used as entertainment zones, for example? Is it easier to open up bars there than elsewhere in the city?

With these questions in mind, the maps go from beautiful renditions of data, to opening up a bigger conversation about the arbitrariness of noise. The demographical and sociological context of these noise complaints must accompany the raw data, especially when it comes to sound. The analysis also points to the source of the data: 311 calls. I wonder if this is the only way that people in Manhattan (and New York City at large) are dealing with noise. I’m sure that after a century of being “the noisiest city on Earth,” folks have gotten creative about it.

Featured image: ” Stranger 10/100 Johano” by Flickr user MichaelTapp, CC BY-ND 2.0

Liana M. Silva-Ford is co-founder and Managing Editor of Sounding Out! She is also known professionally as the Writer Whisperer.

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

“I’m on my New York s**t”: Jean Grae’s Sonic Claims on the City -Liana Silva

The Noise You Make Should Be Your Own–Scott Poulson-Bryant

Sounding Out! Podcast Mini-Series (#16): Listening to The Tuned City of Brussels, Day 1: “Noise”

 

“I’m on my New York s**t”: Jean Grae’s Sonic Claims on the City

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SO IASPM7Hellooooooo, Cyberspace!  Are you ready to rock??? Welcome to our February Forum on “Sonic Borders,”  a collaboration with the IASPM-US blog in connection with this year’s IASPM-US conference on Liminality and Borderlands, held in Austin, Texas from February 28 to March 3, 2013. Expertly organized by Sounding Out!’s Managing Editor Liana Silva and IASPM’s Web Editor/Webmaster Justin Burton (and curated for SO! by yours truly), the “Sonic Borders” forum is a Virtual Roundtable cross-blog entity that will feature six Sounding Out! writers posting on Mondays beginning today and running through February 25, and four writers from IASPM-US, posting on Wednesdays starting February 6th and ending February 27th. We envision plenty of excitement and cross blog commenting from authors, audiences, and IASPM-US conference attendees. Consider this your ticket to the show, so please come on in and mix it up!

And what will we be talking about across our platforms? The “sonic borders” between sound studies and popular music studies. . .where their methods, objects of study, and approaches overlap, where they rub raw, where they challenge the people on either side to do do better, and where they meet to generate some of the finest scholarship in the contemporary humanities.

And who will you be hearing from over here at Sounding Out!?: Liana Silva, SO! regular Regina Bradley, Marcus Boon (York University, The Wire), Daphne Brooks (Princeton), Tavia Nyong’o (NYU), and Art Jones (film-maker, photographer, artist, mixer, raconteur, School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).

And what topics do you have a front row ticket for? Some real New York shit. Django. Body-regenerating vibrations on the dance floor.  Cabaret, jazz, and funk/soul, plus musical memory, dance, performance art, race, gender, sexuality, and politics. Sound gatherings in Pakistan.

Feel free to camp out and shine your cell phone lights at each day of our Forum, because we’re turning it up to 11 over here at Sounding Out! and IASPM-US!—Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman, Editor-in-Chief

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If you had to guess whether the singers of the following lyrics were male or female, how would you fare? Click on the lyrics to hear the song and find out who’s the rap artist.

“We gon’ hold it down for Illadel for life
Came through made a name, nigga nailed it tight
An’ now we shine, been knew, shit, it was about time
Switched from streets, the beats, platinum lines
Used to struggle in the hood just to brodie the mic
Took the fame ’cause they ain’t give it us, now we excite
The biggest crowds an’ they screamin’ loud, “Philly the shit”

“They hear Brooklyn, and we up to no good
Well, here we come, so there goes your neighborhood
Timbos scuffed up, sess bein’ puffed up
Mess with the wrong one, kid, you get ruffed up”

“My city do it best, whether it’s East or West
We feelin’ good fine, love it when it’s summertime
Detroit in summertime, summer time in Detroit,
Detroit in summertime, summertime in Detroit”

Although it is somewhat unfair to judge the gender of a rapper by the lyrics of a song, it is commonly thought that if a rapper is talking about the city, they are more than likely a man.  Are there borders in hip hop around the content that men or women can address?

Case in point: several years ago I wrote a paper on representations of the city in hip hop songs. It gave me the opportunity to look closely and write extensively about some of my favorite hip hop artists and songs. However, most of the songs I tackled in the paper, actually most of the songs that occurred to me, were written and sung by male rappers. When I realized this, I couldn’t believe my oversight. Surely there had to be female rappers invoking the city in their songs. Men couldn’t be the only ones claiming the city. So, over the years I have been on the hunt for songs by female emcees that talk about the city. (I recently started a Spotify playlist, but several of the songs I have come across are on mix tapes that don’t show up on Spotify. If you have any suggestions you’d like to add to this collaborative playlist, please add them or mention them in the comments!)

"Jean Grae" by Flickr user ultra5280 under Creative Commons 2.0 License

“Jean Grae” by Flickr user ultra5280 under Creative Commons 2.0 License

One of the female emcees that stands out most is Brooklyn-based Jean Grae. Born in South Africa in 1976, she moved to the United States with her parents shortly after she was born and grew up in New York City. In a 2006 interview with Robert Walsh for the academic journal Callaloo, Jean Grae reminisces about how hip hop culture was inescapable for a teen in New York City in the early nineties:

It was a thing when kids finally realized that you could put out your music yourself and you didn’t have to wait around and get signed. It was possible to learn for yourself and be able to put out music on your own or on an underground level. It was kind of unavoidable to be a part of it, I guess. (216)

After a brief stint as a DJ, she opted for rapping, as she was already writing (even if not necessarily rhyming). She took a hiatus from the hip hop scene in 2008 but later that year returned to performing and finally released a new mixtape named Cookies or Comas in 2011.

In hip hop, cities are often represented as masculine–what with the number of male rappers dropping stories about how things go down on the street–and Jean Grae complicates that representation.  In Jean Grae’s version of Busta Rhymes’ “New York Shit,” she opens a door to thinking about female rappers and urban space, and her sonic intervention into Busta Rhymes’ narrative in his version of “New York Shit” illustrates how female rappers claim the city as well. I read her track as an act of urban homemaking: rapping about the city (and subverting the male voice that initially sung on the track, Busta) becomes a practice to claim the city as her home.  In fact, it is not just through her lyrics but also through her voice that Jean Grae makes her presence felt.

Jean Grae’s version of “New York Shit,” a collaboration with rapper Talib Kweli, is an alternate version of Busta Rhymes’ hit track “New York Shit” from his 2006 album The Big Bang, although both songs use the same sampled loop and constantly repeat the phrase “New York Shit.”

The track that “New York Shit” samples is from the opening of a 1976 song titled “Faded Lady” from The Soul Sensation Orchestra (featuring Douglas Lucas and The Sugar Sisters, who sing together throughout the whole song). The song itself tells the story of a “faded lady” who seems to have lost her hopes, dreams, and connection to the world around her.  “New York Shit,” both the Busta Rhymes and the Jean Grae/Talib Kweli version, samples approximately the first 13 seconds of the song, so that in their version the voices are erased; all that is left is the even thump thump of a drum, a bass, and a guitar, with the clash of a top hat and the bass in between, finally rising up to a climax with what sounds like a flute or clarinet until it drops back into the thump thump. The loop invokes the soundtracks of blaxploitation films, several of which were set in urban locations. The sample choice then places “New York Shit” in an urban soundscape.

Busta’s original song weaves images of New York as the birthplace of hip hop, as the location of great sports teams, and expensive taste around this soulful, smooth loop. The chorus of the song (“If you’re from New York, stand up right now, If you’re from New York, hands up right now”) calling forth New Yorkers. In the song, Busta also pays homage to some of the big names in hip hop who come from New York: Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Notorious BIG, Big Pun, Jam Master Jay, while the video includes cameos from people like Q-Tip, RZA, Slick Rick, and Big Daddy Kane.  In this way, the song celebrates their contributions to hip hop, but also recreates a narrow, gendered view of who is part of that musical history.

However, the sonic picture Busta Rhymes paints is one that is devoid of women. Before the loop starts, Busta Rhymes’ voice emerges from the quiet: “DJ Scratch you’re sick for this one,” which acts as the signal for a chorus of male voices. Some of them whoop, some of them whistle, and some of them sing. Eventually they make way for Busta Rhymes to serenade listeners with his tales of New York life. His voice sounds gruff and aggressive, a contrast with the smooth vibe of “Faded Lady.” In fact, it seems as if the “faded lady” of the title is not just faded but erased–the women in the city become the faded ladies whose erasure makes possible for this problematic representation of urban space.

Enter Jean Grae.

"talibjeangrae" by Flickr user  HDShootsPhotos under Creative Commons License 2.0

“talibjeangrae” by Flickr user HDShootsPhotos under Creative Commons License 2.0

In 2006, she and Talib Kweli released their version of “New York Shit” in a mixtape titled Hip Hop Docktrine: The Official Boondocks Mixtape which responds to Busta Rhymes’ sonic tribute to New York. (It also appeared on the mixtape Talib Kweli Presents Blacksmith the Movement.) Busta Rhymes’ song comes immediately to mind when listening to Jean Grae’s sixteen bars, especially when she starts with “Some of y’all forgot what New York is,” and in that vein it is hard not to hear Jean Grae’s track as a response to Busta Rhymes’.

Whereas Busta Rhymes’ song is ushered in by a chorus of disparate men’s voices, Talib Kweli and Jean Grae’s version starts with Talib Kweli’s introduction, followed by Jean Grae’s rapping. Talib Kweli’s introduction tricks the listener into thinking this version is just an echo of the original by Busta Rhymes (especially since the loop is virtually unchanged) until Jean Grae pops up by responding to Talib Kweli’s “I went for mine” with her “Go for yours, man.” The back-and-forth of the male and female voices, laid upon the same loop, acts as a subversion of Busta Rhymes’ male New York chorus.

But Jean Grae’s rapping is the most subversive element of the song. Jean Grae’s first line, “I’m on my New York shit,” calls forth Busta Rhymes’ song, even in her tempo. However, her verses take a swift turn from what Busta Rhymes puts forth in his song; at first listen, Busta Rhymes’ snappy, aggressive repetition of the phrase “New York [plus noun]” at the end of each verse is absent from Jean Grae’s rapping. Her voice seems to float on top of The S.S.O. loop, picking up speed when the loop reaches a climax, and dropping an octave or two (and slowing down a tad, too) when the climax of the track drops and loops back to the beginning.  The resulting effect is that Jean Grae’s voice merges with the soulful flow of the song whereas Busta Rhymes’s voice is at war with it. Through her voice, Jean Grae disrupts Busta Rhymes’ sonic portrayal of a men’s-only New York. In fact, by subverting the vocal pattern Busta Rhymes sets up in the original version, Jean Grae creates a space in this New York hip hop narrative for female rappers to claim New York City as their own.

"New York City at Night" by Flickr user Alyssa L. Miller under Creative Commons License 2.0

“New York City at Night” by Flickr user Alyssa L. Miller under Creative Commons License 2.0

In her verses, Jean Grae depicts a New York that is not glamorous or glitzy, like the one in Busta Rhymes’ song. Instead she talks about a “cement jungle,” and men who “struggle to their feet”; she also invokes the perils of gentrification when she talks about the Starbucks that pop up around the block (an indication of the white middle class coming to the neighborhood). But what catches my ear from this song is that Jean Grae mentions toward the end of her bars, “I just want to write and give back to the city that I’m a factor of.” Writing and rapping become a way for Jean Grae to practice her New York citizenship, an act of urban homemaking.

Even though Jean Grae busts her way into this narrative of urban masculinity, she is still a lonely female voice in the “New York Shit” repertoire. According to Wikipedia, there are several versions of the song, but Jean Grae is one of only two women to take on “New York Shit.” (Brooke Valentine has a version titled “H-Town Shit,” but I am limiting myself to the versions that look at New York City.)  In that sense, Jean Grae’s female voice doesn’t necessarily fill a void in hip hop but rather points to it. On the other hand, her voice can be read/heard as highlighting a tradition of women rapping about the city. Whereas many rap songs invoke cities and urban locations, oftentimes these are portrayed as the sites of male dominance, normalizing a sonic cityscape that consists solely of men However, Jean Grae’s vocal track resists to that sonic cityscape, and that resistance too is an act of urban homemaking by virtue of claiming her space.

I continue to look for more tracks by female rappers and MCs that talk about U.S. cities, and this post has brought to mind more questions that I need to address. For example, what does it mean for a woman to rap about the city? Are there certain themes that echo throughout the songs (or throughout certain periods or subgenres)? Are there certain samples that are repeated? Do the sounds vary from city to city? These are questions that can be addressed by looking at a broader sample, but a close reading of one track can go a long way into thinking through these issues. Female rap artists like Jean Grae remind listeners that, to signify on Jay-Z, there is love in the heart of the city.

Featured Image of Jean Grae performing in New York City on August 26, 2006, Courtesy of Flickr User MrMoneda

Liana M. Silva is co-founder and Managing Editor of Sounding Out!

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