This beat ‘bout to get murdered
Thought this was Future when I heard it
Desiigner sounds kinda like Future. Probably you’ve noticed? Everyone else has. While some reactions are a register of genuine surprise that “Panda” isn’t a Future song (cf Uncle Murda epigraph), many are a combination of reflexive skepticism about Desiigner’s authenticity (He’s never even been to Atlanta!!)–or even the authenticity of New York as a hip hop city–alongside a sort of schadenfreude over his ability to notch a higher rated song than Future has ever managed (“Panda” hit #1 for two weeks in May 2016). This latter observation is certainly true: Southern trap god Future has cracked the Billboard Hot 100 top 10 just once, as a featured artist on Lil Wayne’s “Love Me,” and his other appearances in the top 30 are similarly collaboration. (My discussion of trap focuses here on the hip hop wing of trap. The related but not identical EDM genre also called “trap” lies outside the scope of this particular analysis.) But pointing to the chart “failure” of Future’s singles is also entirely disingenuous, as all four of his official album releases have landed in the Billboard 200 top 10, including a #1 for 2015’s DS2 and 2016’s EVOL. In other words, Future isn’t exactly struggling to be relevant, which is why the nearly reflexive journalistic pairing of “Desiigner sounds like Future” and “Desiigner’s song is more successful than any Future song” gets my critical side-eye popping. The reception of Desiigner as a fake-but-more-successful Future strikes me as a dig at trap music as an easily replicable and therefore unserious genre. Here, I’m listening closely to the ways Desiigner’s vocals sound like Future as an entry point to trap’s political work: a sonic aesthetics of dis-organized polity, of sonic blackness in a post-racial society that I call trap irony.
Sounds Like Future
Though I’ve found several instances of writers comparing Desiigner to Future, that comparison usually includes little detailed support about the Future-istic elements of Desiigner’s sound. There are a number of sonic cues in “Panda” that could lead listeners to mistake the singer for Future, but I’m going to focus on the most obvious similarity: Desiigner’s recorded vocals share timbral and affective similarities to some of Future’s recorded vocals. When critics say Desiigner sounds like Future, the vocals are likely their main point of reference, so I’ve identified five points of sonic similarity between Desiigner and Future.
- Desiigner’s voice on “Panda” is detuned, resonating slightly off pitch with the instrumental, a technique so common in Future songs that I could link to any number of examples. Here are four, all released in the last two years, as a representative sample: “Stick Talk,” “Where Ya At (feat. Drake),” “March Madness,” and “Codeine Crazy.”
- Second, Desiigner delivers his vocals with a flat affect, conveying little emotion through inflection. Listen to the sections in the video above where he repeats the word “panda” [0:33-39, 1:38-46, 2:44-52, 3:51-58]. These repetitions precede each verse and then punctuate the end of the song. Rhythmically they signal what should be a turn-up— a run of at least a measure’s worth of eighth notes just before the full beat drops. But Desiigner’s recitation is emotionless, each instance of the word sounding just like the last. Throughout the rest of the song, if a listener didn’t understand the words, it would be hard to guess what Desiigner is rapping about based on any emotive signals. Love? Aggression? Loss? The vocal performance is reportorial, dispassionate. Future adopts a similar technique in up-tempo songs. His repetition of the words “jumpman” (1:08-10) and “noble” (1:28-30) in “Jumpman” and the word “wicked” (0:13-24) in “Wicked” provide parallels to Desiigner’s recitation of “panda.” And in “Ain’t No Time,” Future delivers lines about his clothes and money as casually as he predicts his enemies ending up outlined in chalk (0:13-26); just as in “Panda,” a listener who didn’t catch the lyrics to “Ain’t No Time” wouldn’t be able to attach any particular emotional content to the song.
- Speaking of not catching lyrics, Desiigner and Future are both notoriously mushmouths: enunciation is optional. A number of online videos and fluff posts revolve around the fact that it’s hard to make out what Desiigner or Future is saying.
- Both Desiigner’s and Future’s performed voices seem to sit low in their registers, produced by opening the backs of their throats and elongating their vocal chords. For context, both artists seem to speak in the same register their recorded vocals fall in, and each is also likely to perform their vocals a little higher in a live setting.
- The bulk of “Panda”’s verses are in “Migos flow.” Named for the ATL trap trio who popularized it in their song, “Versace,” Migos flow is a triplet figure that rises from low to high, 3-1-2 (where 1 is the downbeat). The first twenty seconds of the “Versace” link above is a constant string of Migos flow. It’s pervasive throughout “Panda,” but 0:49-52 stacks two Migos flow lines back-to-back. Future’s verse on Drake’s “Digital Dash” (0:18-2:00) is a good example of an extended Migos flow.
In other words, Desiigner does sound like Future in some significant ways. But that’s not all he sounds like. Detuned vocals isn’t just a Future thing. Adam Krims theorizes this as part of the “hip hop sublime,” and it’s especially common among Southern rappers (for example, Young Jeezy sounded like Future before Future even did) (73-74). Many trap artists rap in a way that confounds efforts to understand what they’re saying; Young Thug, for instance, employs a vocal style distinct from Future and Desiigner but is equally difficult to understand. And the Migos flow, as partially demonstrated in this video, is not Future’s (or Migos’s) proprietary style. It’s been adopted by several (especially Southern) rappers, most recently in conjunction with trap. The elements I describe in the previous paragraph point to some specific ways Desiigner sounds like Future, which in turn points to ways that Desiigner sounds, more broadly, like trap.
The “Panda” beat, which comes from UK producer Menace, bears this out. Southern trap, as can be heard by surveying the songs linked above, features instrumentals with deep, tuned kick drums, usually dry 808 snares, high and bright synth lines, and punctuation from low brass and strings (0:40-1:33 in “Panda,” for the latter). This low/high frequency spread, with the mid-range mostly open, characterizes a good deal of trap music; the freed mid-range leaves more room for the bass to be amplified to soul-rattling levels without crowding out the rest of the instrumental. Also, one of the most iconic sonic elements of trap is the rattling hihat, cruising through subdivisions of the beat at inhuman rates (for instance, Metro Boomin’s hats at 0:16 in the aforementioned “Digital Dash” rattle but good when the full beat drops). Here’s the thing about “Panda,” though: those hats don’t rattle. Instead, they enter oh-so-quietly at 1:06 and bang out a steady eighth note pattern punctuated with a crash cymbal on every fourth beat until the end of the verse.
Sounds Like Trap
The missing hihats are an important piece of “Panda”’s sonic puzzle, and point to some broader observations about trap aesthetics as politics, what I’m calling trap irony. Trap music moves through society in ways it shouldn’t. The image of the trap is a house with only one way in and out, yet trap aesthetics produce a music that seems to constantly find a secret exit, a path not offered, a way around established norms. Materially, the bulk of trap music circulates through and out of Atlanta on mixtapes, beyond the purview of major record labels and, in part because it isn’t controlled by labels, at an astonishing rate—for instance, from January 2015-February 2016, Future released four mixtapes and two official albums. Moreover, trap reverberates as sonic blackness in a society whose mainstream has been explicitly peddling a post-racial ideology for nearly a decade. Trap aesthetics become trap politics.
Sonic blackness, as Nina Sun Eidsheim defines it and as Regina Bradley has expanded it, is the interplay of vocal timbre and current norms about what constitutes blackness; it’s a moving target that nonetheless shapes and is shaped by a society’s notions of race and racialization (Eidsheim, 663-64). In the case of trap, I argue that its sonic blackness is apparent in the context of post-racial ideology. Post-race politics depends on the notion that racism has ended and that race doesn’t matter anymore. In this framework, as Jared Sexton argues in Amalgamation Schemes, multiracialism, the blending of many races together until distinct racial backgrounds are purportedly indecipherable, becomes the ideal. The problem Sexton finds with multiracialism as a discourse is that it doesn’t account for the historical racial hierarchies that institutionalize whiteness as ideal; rather, multiracialism “is a tendency to neutralize the political antagonism set loose by the critical affirmation of blackness” (65).
Trap irony describes the way trap picks up recognizable markers of hip hop blackness (urban spaces, violence, drugs, sexual voracity, conspicuous consumption) so that its existence becomes an affirmation of blackness in a post-racial milieu. In fact, ironies abound in trap. Kemi Adeyemi has written about the use of lean, the codeine-based concoction of choice for many Dirty Southern rappers, as “generat[ing] productively intoxicated states that counter the violent realities of a particularly black everyday life” (first emphasis mine). LH Stallings has argued for the hip hop strip club — trap’s home away from home — to be understood as an always already queer space despite its surface heteronormativity. I’ve elsewhere used Stallings’s “black ratchet imagination” to think about party politics in the south, the way a group like Rae Sremmurd use party music as a refusal to produce and re-produce for the benefit of whiteness. The flat affect of rappers like Desiigner and Future is a similar shirking of emotional labor; where an artist like Kendrick Lamar brings fire and brimstone, Future shows up with dispassionate Autotune warble. Intoxicated but productive, heteronormative but queer, partying but political, affected but flat: in each case, we can hear trap irony navigating the complex assemblages of blackness in a purportedly post-racial society.
The last piece of the “Panda” puzzle is another trap irony, the sonification of a dis-organized polity, a bloc that doesn’t voice its interests as one. Listening to “Panda,” it’s hard to notice that the rattling hihat, integral to so much ATL trap, is missing. That’s because Desiigner vocalizes it himself. Throughout the track, he adds a handful of background vocals that trigger at seemingly random points. Unlike the flat affect of his flow, Desiigner’s vocal ad-libs are full of energy, as if he’s egging himself on. One of these vocals is “brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrah,” a tongue roll of varying lengths that replaces the missing hihat rattle. Listen back to the other trap songs I’ve linked in this essay, or check out nearly any track from trap artists like Young Thug, Rae Sremmurd, or Kevin Gates, and you’ll hear the pervasiveness of the hyped trap background vocals.
Trap background vocals, like the aesthetics, politics, and economy of trap itself, is a messy business. Desiigner’s background vocals on “Panda” move in meter and sometimes lock into a sequence, but he triggers enough different ones at unexpected moments that a listener can’t know exactly what sound to expect next nor when it will occur. Desiigner sounds like Future, which is to say he sounds like trap, which is to say he sounds like blackness, and his background vocals, which he turns up loud, are emblematic of the aesthetics and politics of trap. Trap irony means that a genre that renders blackness audible in 2016 does so not through a multiracial neutralization of the critical affirmation of blackness, but by setting loose a disparate set of recognizably black voices sounding from all directions, rattling across the soundscape, routing themselves through any path that doesn’t lead to the designated entry/exit point of the trap.
Justin D Burton is Assistant Professor of Music at Rider University, and a regular writer at Sounding Out!. His research revolves around critical race and gender theory in hip hop and pop, and his current book project is called Posthuman Pop. He is co-editor with Ali Colleen Neff of the Journal of Popular Music Studies 27:4, “Sounding Global Southernness,” and with Jason Lee Oakes of the Oxford Handbook of Hip Hop Music Studies (2017). You can catch him at justindburton.com and on Twitter @justindburton. His favorite rapper is Right Said Fred.
“The (Magic) Upper Room: Sonic Pleasure Politics in Southern Hip Hop“–Regina Bradley
“Tomahawk Chopped and Screwed: The Indeterminacy of Listening“–Justin Burton
With the premier last month of Lemonade, her second visual album, Beyoncé didn’t make the world stop so much as she make it revolve: around her, around her work, around black women. For all of the limitations of pop music as a medium (it’s inherently capitalist, for one) and Lemonade’s various feminist strategies (“Formation,” with its “Black Bill Gates” language, can be heard as a black parallel public to white corporate feminism), the album nevertheless re-centered mainstream media attention on black women’s cultural and creative work.
As the conversation about Lemonade revolved around black women and black feminism, two white men pop critics writing for major publications responded with “So What About The Music?” articles. The description to Carl Wilson’s Slate piece asks “But how is it as strictly music?,” and Kevin Fallon’s Daily Beast piece asks both “But is the music any good?” in the title and “But is the music worth listening to?” in the dec. Each time, the “but” sounds like the antecedent to its implied mansplainy consequent “actually…” And just as “but actually” recenters men as authorities and experts, these three questions decenter features prioritized in black women’s pop performance traditions, and in Lemonade itself. As posed in these two articles, the “so what about the music?” question frames “music” so narrowly that it both obscures or at best trivializes what the album does musically. Wilson and Fallon’s essays are good examples of how not to listen to Lemonade.
I want to read Wilson and Fallon carefully so we can think about when this question makes for both technically correct and ethically/politically responsible theory and criticism, and when it makes for technically incorrect and ethically/politically irresponsible theory and criticism. My aim here isn’t to argue that Wilson and Fallon are bad people. My focus is the definition or concept of “music” that’s at the heart of the method they use in these two articles (and methods are bigger than individual writers). In more academic terms, I’m asking about research ethics. If, as Wilson’s and Fallon’s articles prove, the “so what about the music?” question can be a power move that establishes the critic’s or theorist’s authority, how can we–especially the mainstream we–ask about the music parts of pop music without making that power move?
Firstly, both articles apply fairly conventional European fine art aesthetics to the album. Wilson invokes pre-Enlightenment European aesthetics to argue that the “reality show aspect” of the album is somehow aesthetically inconsistent with great pop music. Prior to the 17th century, it was commonly thought that the status of a work’s form or medium ought to correspond to the status of its representational content: painting, the most highly regarded art form, should have subject matter of equal stature–gods and royalty. Wilson’s claim that “the other distraction is the way that the album’s central suite of music interacts with tabloid-style gossip (and a certain elevator video clip) about Beyoncé and her husband Jay Z” echoes that centuries-old sentiment, a sentiment which is about as alien to Lemonade’s aesthetic as, well, Boethius is.
Fallon begins his article with a genuflection to Prince (as does Wilson), scrunches its nose at the gossipy lyrical and narrative content, and then twice scoffs at the very idea of a visual album, “whatever that is,” as though we in the West don’t have precedents for this sort of Gesamtkunstwerky (the total artwork combining music, visuals, and lyrics) thing going back to Wagner and the Florentine Camerata (the collective attributed with inventing opera in the 17th century). He does talk more extensively about the sounds and music than Wilson does, but given the rapid turnaround he also faced, there’s not a lot of close listening to specific musical figures, performances, or compositional techniques, mostly just a survey of the different genres on the album.
Wilson says that the cheating story detracts from the album’s musical quality because it’s an unoriginal narrative:
a drama of jealousy, betrayal, and reconciliation, one of the most ancient and common of human experiences, and of songwriting fodder…that issue of thematic freshness may render some of the songs here less distinctive and invigorating than Beyoncé was.
I find this an odd criticism to level at a pop album, or even an artwork. Nobody would say that West Side Story or Romeo & Juliet were aesthetically diminished because they recycled that tired old theme of jealousy, betrayal, and (failed) reconciliation. Moreover, as Angela Davis argued in Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, these themes of jealousy, betrayal, and reconciliation are the foundation of black feminist pop music aesthetics in a personal-is-political kind of way. Both articles force a contextually incorrect definition of “politics” onto the album, one which sees the most intimate details of relationships, sex, and kinship as merely personal and apolitical. Fallon, for example, says “there’s no doubt that the music on the album is far more personal than it is political.” Both critics fail to consider it in terms established in black women’s pop performance traditions.
Even in Wilson’s attempt to focus strictly on the music, he spends most of the time talking about visuals and lyrics. He hears a wide range of sonic references in Lemonade, from Dolly Parton to Donna Summer to the Lomax recordings to calypso. But he thinks this makes it sound derivative: “as an aural album, Lemonade is a little less fascinatingly singular and eccentric than Beyoncé” (Wilson). Fallon makes an almost identical remark in his article: “Lemonade doesn’t hurl itself toward any genre in a statement of artistry. Instead it masters… um, all of them, but in turn doesn’t make the same powerful statement of Beyoncé’s artistic mission, like her last album did.” Contrast this with the way Jonathan Shecter talks about Diplo’s post-genre eclecticism as “fresh and cutting-edge,” part of an “ongoing artistic evolution.” As philosopher Christine Battersby has argued, the habit of thinking that flexibility is a sign of innovation when attributed to white men, but a sign of regression when attributed to anyone else, is a habit that goes back to the 19th century. It’s not surprising that Beyoncé gets dinged for the same thing that garners Diplo praise: in her case, what Fallon calls “the most daringly genre-hopping music she’s ever produced” is evidence of unoriginality, whereas in Diplo’s case post-genre eclecticism is evidence of his ability to distinctively transcend provincialism. Even when Wilson’s article does manage to talk about sounds and music, it trivializes Beyoncé’s other artistic achievements on the album.
Both articles rely on some gendered and racialized interpretive habits to address the song’s aesthetic value, lyrical content, and Beyoncé’s artistry. But what about their discussion of the music?
These same racialized, gendered habits tune Wilson and Fallon’s listening and mask the sonic dimensions of Lemonade that don’t fit their narrow concept of music. Both critics make a conceptual move that separates musical practice from black feminist practice. Fallon uses some parentheses and a “but…?” question to put rhetorical and grammatical space between Lemonade’s black femininity and its musical and sonic features: “(By the way, it’s powerful, and feminist, and unapologetically black, and transfixing, and gorgeous, and assured, and weird, and confusing, and dumb, and groundbreaking.) But hey: Is the music any good?” This framing defines “the music” as something distinct and independent of the album’s black femininity, as though black women’s and black feminist musical traditions didn’t infuse the album’s music…or, to the extent they do, they don’t count as “music.”
Wilson makes an identical move. Following the white liberal feminist aesthetics that influence lots of contemporary post-feminist pop, Wilson’s piece locates treats the black feminist message primarily in the video. “In video form…it’s more evident that [Lemonade] is equally the cyclical story of generations of black women dealing with men and balancing their struggle for R-E-S-P-E-C-T (as well as S-E-X) against the violations and injustices of race and gender.” He sees the politics in the visuals, but doesn’t consider the sounds as having anything to say or do about that story and that struggle.
This approach isn’t limited to well-meaning but ignorant white men pop critics: even bell hooks’ now (in)famous essay on Lemonade looks at but doesn’t listen for its politics. She argues that it is a “visual extravaganza” whose “radical repositioning of black female images does not truly overshadow or change conventional sexist constructions of black female identity.” Locating the politics entirely in Lemonade’s visuals, hooks’s essay treats black feminism as something contested solely in terms of images. (And divorcing the images from the sounds fails to consider the fact that the sounds impact how viewers interpret what they see.)
This is the wrong method to use for thinking about Lemonade and Beyoncé’s work as a whole (and pop music in general). Sounds on this album don’t operate independently of black femininity, black women’s performance traditions, or individual artists’ black feminist politics. On the one hand, thinking with Daphne Brooks and Regina Bradley, it’s more accurate to say that Beyoncé’s sound game has generally led the way and been more politically cutting-edge than her visual game. On the other hand, sound can also be what does the heavy lifting for patriarchy and other systems of domination, as I argue here. Separating the music itself out from the political content misrepresents what music is and how it works. And it is a particularly gendered misrepresentation: critics are not so eager to separate Kendrick’s sounds from his politics. In both white and black philosophical traditions, dominant concepts of politics and the political are normatively masculine (just think about the gendered public/private distinction, for example), so from these perspectives feminine and feminized sounds don’t feel or seem “political.”
But in these two cases the divorce between music and politics is also what lets white men pop critics have authority over black feminist music. If they can distill Lemonade down to its “solely musical” aspects, then they can plausibly present themselves as experts over generic, depoliticized sound, sounds disconnected from knowledges and values tied to particular lived experiences and performance traditions. Problem is, in the same way that there is no generic ‘person’ without a race or a gender, there is no generic, depoliticized sound. As Jennifer Stoever has argued, even though Western modernity’s occularcentric epistemology obscures the sonic dimensions of white supremacist patriarchy and the subaltern knowledges developed under it, sounds nevertheless work politically. Digging deep into the music on Lemonade or any other pop song does not involve abstracting the music away from every other aspect of the work and its conditions of production. Digging deep into the music part of pop music means digging deeper into these factors, too.
When Regina Bradley, Dream Hampton, Laur M. Jackson, Zandria Robinson, and Joan Morgan talk about how Lemonade makes them feel, what affects and knowledges and emotions it communicates, they are talking about the music–they just work in a tradition that understands music as something other than ‘the music itself’ (that is, they don’t think music is abstracted away from visual and cultural elements, from structures of feeling common to black women with shared histories and phenomenological life-worlds). As I have tried to show in my own work, the sounds and musical performance are central to Beyoncé and Rihanna’s work because they engage traditions of black women’s and black feminist knowledges. Aesthetic practices develop and emerge as types of implicit (i.e., non-propositional or non-verbal) knowledge, knowledge created in response to lived experiences in a particular social location. Aesthetic practices can communicate and perform knowledges that reinforce systems of domination, and they can also communicate and perform subordinate knowledges that map out strategies for survival amid domination. Dominant institutions (like the music industry) and people from dominant groups (like Iggy Azalea or Eric Clapton) separate the aesthetic practice from the implicit knowledges that make it meaningful, and thus neutralize those knowledges and make the aesthetic practice fungible and co-optable. Talking about “the music itself” or “solely music” does the same thing: it is a form of what philosophers call epistemic violence.
So, asking “but what about the music?” is a way to dig into those implicit knowledges to show where much of this epistemic work is happening. And that’s good analysis that isn’t (necessarily) epistemically violent. It demonstrates what Stoever calls “an ethical responsibility to hear African American cultural production with…assumptions about value, agency and meaning” (31) that are appropriate to them. But you can also ask “but what about the music?” in a way that abstracts away from these implicit knowledges. That’s what Wilson’s and Fallon’s pieces do, and that’s why they’re both epistemically violent and objectively poor methods of musical interpretation. But we can and do better when we write about and theorize the music part of pop music. And, to riff on Mariana Ortega’s argument in her article on the type of epistemic violence she calls “loving, knowing ignorance,” doing better means listening to and with black women, black women’s music, and black feminist aesthetics. You can’t divorce music or listening from politics; listening better can and will follow from practicing more just politics.
Robin James is Associate Professor of Philosophy at UNC Charlotte. She is author of two books: Resilience & Melancholy: pop music, feminism, and neoliberalism, published by Zer0 books last year, and The Conjectural Body: gender, race and the philosophy of music was published by Lexington Books in 2010. Her work on feminism, race, contemporary continental philosophy, pop music, and sound studies has appeared in The New Inquiry, Hypatia, differences, Contemporary Aesthetics, and the Journal of Popular Music Studies. She is also a digital sound artist and musician. She blogs at its-her-factory.com and is a regular contributor to Cyborgology.
I Been On: BaddieBey and Beyoncé’s Sonic Masculinity-Regina Bradley
Listening to Sounds in Post-Feminist Pop Music-Robin James
slab god, Paul Wall’s latest project, surpasses many recent rap releases via its stripped down sound, minimalistic in a non-trendy, monastic sort of way. Sonically, slab god is solemn, thoughtful and surprisingly provocative, especially in the context of Wall’s entire discography (his early material with the Color Changin’ Click, for example, was much more lighthearted and playful). Wall professed, “it’s just something that I wanted to do differently. All the music in Hip Hop right now sounds the same and I wanted to do something that didn’t sound like what was coming out right now, so that’s why I came with this.” Unlike many of Wall’s projects based mostly on freestyles, Slab god took several years to produce.
As soon as Wall recorded “Swangin’ in the Rain,” the first song arranged for slab god back in 2010, he wanted to make the whole album sonically in line with the single: “music to put in the car and bump and ride to.”
SLAB= Slow, Loud, AND BANGIN’, see: Houston Car Culture
In 2012, Wall embarked on his second beginning by releasing No Sleep ‘Til Houston, his first mixtape as an independent artist again, after departing from his eight year relationship with Atlantic Records. For Wall, that was his opportunity to get back to his roots. Committed to this conviction, he disregarded his mainstream momentum in order to “make music not tainted with outside influence from the music industry.” So, pursuant to the title No Sleep ‘Til Houston, Wall followed this self-prescribed antidote until he reintroduced himself to the city where he started, Houston, Texas.
After Wall felt reconnected, he dropped #Checkseason in 2013. Like many of Wall’s projects, it was about getting money; Wall said, “it was meant to be like a motivation mixtape. When you are on your hustle you pop it in.” And in 2014, Wall dropped Po Up Poet, which was according to Wall, titled after “a nickname one of my boys gave me because I’m always talkin’ ‘bout drankin’, po-in’ up, and leanin’.” To Wall, “the lean culture has taken over globally. There’s Brazilian rappers talking about lean. There’s German rappers talking about lean.” [ed.’s note to Paul Wall: Sounding Out! has talked about lean. See Kemi Adeyemi’s “Straight Leanin’: Sounding Black Life at the Intersection of Hip-hop and Big Pharma” (Sept. 2015)]. As a response, Wall released Po Up Poet, “to claim something for Houston.”
I met up with the enterprising Paul Wall while he was in New York City promoting slab god and had the opportunity to “grill” Wall about his new slab sonics for Sounding Out!. In what follows, Wall explains the oral transmission of slab culture, the sonic tension between regionalism and globalism, and Houston Hip Hop. Wall explored some fascinating concepts, namely, how the stimuli for slab god consisted of a jambalaya of subtropical weather and hyper-local Houston folklore along with the pursuit of fun, money, and aesthetics. He also explains how his new sound makes clear that he is a full-on “slabagogue.”
Douglas Doneson: This album took you several years to make. You recorded “Swangin’ in the Rain” in 2010.
Paul Wall: When we did the song “Swangin’ in the Rain,” immediately, it was special to me. It is my favorite song that I have ever personally made.
Another thing is that there has never been a song about rain and slabs or anything screwed up related with rain. Sometimes when it rains the radio plays the rain mix, where all the songs have a rain theme. In L.A., I recorded “Swangin’ in the Rain,” [and] it rained, and of course it never rains in L.A. I just remember thinking, man it’s a blessing these artists don’t even realize because they get free radio play every time it rains. You know what I am saying? So I was like it would be dope if there was a rap song, especially like a Houston type of themed rap song having to do with rain because it rains all the time in Houston. So shit, you get lucky with a jamming song about rain in Houston, there is going to be a lot of radio play.
After I made the song, I was like man I am going to make a whole album like this. So I went to the studio and [it] went to a folder. I have a few different types of folders. I have one where it is songs about money, another folder where it is mostly songs about drank and syrup, and another where it is mostly songs about cars, because that is what I rap about the most, getting money, driving cars, jewelry, and lean. So those are my different folders.
When “Swangin’ in the Rain” came out, I wanted to make a whole album like that: music for the car, music to put in the car and bump and ride to. If you have a journey or you have to ride across town or ride home from work or wherever, this is something I’ll want to put in. It is riding music.
DD: Who are some of the featured artists?
PW: On slab god some of the features I got are definitely a lot of H-Town collaboration on there, starting off with my boy Dead End Red, Sosa Man, Le$, Devin the Dude, Curren$y, Burner, and Snoop Dogg.
DD: I was surprised to see DJ Chose on there. Tell me more about that collaboration.
PW: I met him a while back and I did a song with him before for one of his projects. You see the passion in him; he really looks at what he is doing as art. I ain’t going to lie; we all looked at it like it was a hustle. We didn’t look at it from an artistic aspect of music; we all looked at it like this is something we do for fun and we are going to go hustle it and make some money off of what we do for fun. But with DJ Chose, you could see the way he records; his style is artistic and a little different. I had wanted to work with him for a while. This is one of those things where you’ve got to get him on the right song. You get him on the right song and he’s going to kill it. That’s what he did.
DD: As far back as I can remember, even back in the Color Changin’ Click days, your rhymes have generally been lighthearted and playful, but slab god, especially your verse on “Crumble the Satellite” is confrontational. A line that stuck out to me the most is, “and just because your shirt say it, that don’t make you trill.” What’s going on here?
PW: Well, number one, I wanted to drop some bars, some quotables, where you’ve got to rewind it, [and ask] “what he say,” “he said what?” You know, some of them type of quotables. It took a little time because that’s not stuff you freestyle, that’s something you think about because it’s got to be said right and wording has to be right. It’s more work and I’m not scared of hard work. It’s more time in the studio perfecting things and getting it right.
I ain’t going to lie, I did my verse first, and I didn’t know where to take the song. I just knew the beat was jamming. When I heard the beat it kind of reminded me of “Still Tippin’” with the bass, the drums, and I always remember my boy T Farris telling me when we did “Still Tippin,’” “go in there and freestyle.” So I heard that in the back of my head and it sounded like “Still Tippin,’” so I went in there and did a little freestyle and I was talking about a bunch of random shit. My verse wasn’t a 12 or a 16 bar verse. It was like a 24 bar verse. Originally, it was going to be just me and I wasn’t even going to put a hook on it. I was going to leave it like a freestyle. But at the end when I said, “crumble the satellite,” I said you know what I’m going to call it that and then I sent it to Curren$y and Devin to jump on and both of them boys came right on with it.
DD: The title of your newest album is slab god. What is a slab god?
PW: I was going to call it Slab Life. I wanted to call it something slab related and I didn’t want to call it Slab King, because Lil’ Keke and Corey Blount are Slab Kings, so I didn’t want to say that like I was trying to take their throne. Someone gave me the nickname, they said, “you are the slab god.” I was like, you ain’t lying, I am. I done had over 20 slabs, so shit. I kept [god] with a lower case “g” because I didn’t want to be blasphemous. People are still like, “you are going to hell for that.” I’m like man, shit. I didn’t make nothing difficult. I’m not saying I’m the almighty God. I am also not saying I am the slab god. I am one of several slab gods. There are lots of other people in Houston who are slab gods. We are carrying on the culture, carrying on the torch for the slab. We are just trying to hold it down.
PW: It is a fluid list. It is always changing. New technologies come, [now] there are new Halo Oracle headlights you can get installed, but three years ago you couldn’t get that. Same with the Ghost Lights on the door; when you open the door up and the lights shine on the ground. They weren’t available two years ago. The checklist keeps getting bigger.
You’ve got to make it your own. That’s the other thing about a slab, is it’s your personal upgrade. There are definitely a few must haves like, you’ve got to have the Texan Wire Wheels Swangas, the ‘84s; there are several different sizes and variations. But you’ve got to have Swangas and you’ve got to have Vogue tires. If you don’t have Vogue tires and you just have regular black tires or something than nah, it’s no deal. You’ve got to have candy paint on it, music in the trunk, some people put tint on it, some people leave it without tint, and a front grill in the front—that’s a must.
On the older cars you put a hood ornament on it like a woman in the front or something. But on the newer cars you don’t really do that too much. We also put a fifth wheel on the back, which is just a spare tire or rim on the back, but you can’t use it, it’s not for practical purposes, it’s for decoration. We put hydraulic pumps on the fifth wheel and on the trunk, so when you hit the switch, the trunk opens up and you got neon lights showing in there with a word or phrase. You’ve [also] got [to have] speakers in there, and that’s pretty much it. Some slabs have convertible, some have a sun roof, and maybe the other thing about slabs is you’ve got to bang Screw. You’ve got to jam Screw in the slab.
DD: It seems like a lot of slab culture is passed down by oral tradition through the O.G.s and Slab Kings such as Corey Blount. In your song “Top Diine” off of slab god, you say, “Texas Ed taught me how to drive extra patient.” Who is Texas Ed?
PW: Man! He going to LOVE that you said that! [Laughs]. That’s my boy [who] I went to elementary, junior high, and high school with. “Top Diine,” I did with Happy Perez. He produced that track and we did that song four years ago or maybe five years ago, so that’s a nice one that we’ve been sitting on for a while [that] we’ve been waiting to put out. But, Texas Ed is my homeboy. We grew up together. He lived in a neighborhood next to mine. When I was in high school, he was one of the ones riding slab, so he was one of the forefathers before me who showed me how to do it.
DD: On your song “Forever Hustle” off of slab god, each line in your verse is like a new phrase ripe for Houston Hip Hop adoption. Drop a few of your favorite lines and talk to me about them.
PW: With that song I wanted to do a flip on word play. First of all, I thought that beat was just jamming so hard and I was like whatever I do to this, I better not fuck up this jamming beat. That’s really what I was thinking. But other than that it, the hook kept coming to me. I don’t know what I was going through at the time, but I heard Slim Thug say one time in a rap, “man I’m going to do this for 10 more years, I ain’t never falling off.” So, shit, that made me realize that as long as there are things I want, [and] as long as I want these things, then I’m going to have to hustle for them. There is no lottery ticket, where you never have to work again. As long as Cadillac makes cars, I’m going to want one. That’s my dream car. My dream car is whatever the newest Cadillac is. As long as they got Swangas and Vogues to put on them I’m going to be putting them on. You know what I’m saying? [Laughs].
I really wanted to do a word play- “I’ma sip mud, ‘til I’m in the mud,” “I’ma sip syrup, until I’m in the dirt.” The rhyme scheme wasn’t a normal bar for bar rhyme; I broke it up in halves and did different shit. “I’ma let the trunk wave, ‘til I’m in the grave,” and “I’ma bang Screw, ‘til I join him,” all that man, shit. It was just something different I wanted to do.
DD: Tell me about your special connection to Slab culture.
PW: For one, it is something that is ours in Houston. There are other places like Austin [and] we generally say Texas, but there’s a lot of places in Texas where they don’t ride slab. There’s not too many people in Dallas that ride slabs, maybe outside Austin, maybe San Antonio, and maybe a few other places; a couple of people in Madisonville, and some of the smaller towns, but as a whole, we try to say Texas, but it is really more of a Houston thing.
The greatest things to me in the world are the most local things. You know when you go to certain areas of the world and they got that cuisine? There is nothing like eating a cheese steak in Philly, there is nothing like going to Louisiana and eating some creole food or Cajun food, and there is nothing like going to Texas and eating some Tex-Mex. With these types of things the localized aspects of it are always the best. It’s something that we got that’s our own and the fact that the rest of the world don’t ride makes it even more special to me because if everyone else did I wouldn’t want to because it was just be something everybody else is doing. That sense of Texas pride is instilled in you when you come from Texas. Texas history from when you were in school, to “everything is bigger in Texas,” to all the companies that come from Texas that are so Texas proud like Blue Bell, and stuff like that. Everybody is so Texas proud. They just teach you that sense of pride in Texas, so our car culture is no different.
The Screw music is another thing that’s ours that came from Texas so, it’s part of that culture and goes right along with the slab culture, so it’s like something I take a lot of pride in because its comes from where we are from, so I want to represent it that much more, you know what I am saying?
Sometimes I might be riding somewhere and there might be somebody, like an old person who don’t like my car and they might give me a dirty look or something and that makes me smile because it reminds me that this is not for everybody and this is something that is just ours. Like my album, I know this album is jamming, so if somebody says they don’t like it then hey it might not be their type of music, or maybe they hate it, or maybe they listened to the wrong album, but I know it’s not because I ain’t do my thing right. Same thing with my car, I know my car looks good. I’m not saying that it’s the best. There are definitely things I should improve, but I know my shit is clean. So if someone else don’t like it then that just means it’s not for them, or they are just a hater, or whatever, but that’s cool because it’s for me, you know what I’m saying?
DD: In an interview you recently did with Devi Dev on KHOU Houston, Texas, you state, “the best artists ever in the world have always been true to their local culture, local style, and local sound.” However, a lot of music critics claim that one reason Houston artists have a hard time popping off is because they won’t let go of their close connection to their culture, isolating themselves from audiences outside of Texas. How has this so-called language barrier affected you?
PW: What the critics have said has been one of the main obstacles of Texas artists achieving super main stream success. We’ve achieved mainstream success but not to a level of a Jay-Z or where Lil’ Wayne is now. We got to where Lil’ Wayne was 10 years ago, you know what I’m saying? We all made it to that level. But none of us made it to the level where Lil’ Wayne is at now! Partially, they are right because [of] Texas culture, a lot of people don’t have any clue what we are talking about. Therefore, when they hear us talking about it, its gibberish or it’s another language, so people are ignorant to what we are saying, when really we might be dropping some hella-fied metaphors, and similes, and bars that are real lyrical. People don’t take it like that because they hear the accent; they hear the slang references, or the culture references that are different than their culture so they just look at it as being bullshit. For instances, if Tupac came out right now and was rapping Russian, I don’t think he’d be looked at as the greatest rapper ever because most people wouldn’t understand what he was saying. But since he spoke in English, we understood what he was saying. So our culture is like speaking Russian.
DD: I love how you brought that up. You transport the Houston sound to other regions. I’m fascinated with your trip to Poland to work with Kazcor. How’d that come about?
That’s dope you asked me about that. Kazcor will be excited about that. This is my dream job. Growing up in Houston, a lot of us never left the neighborhood. I have friends who still, have never left the North Side of town or the South Side of town. You don’t drive past the Galleria, the Galleria is as far as you go. [DD note: Gu raised his hand and indicated he rarely leaves his neighborhood. Everyone laughs] The first time he left the South Side is probably when we went out of town somewhere. There’s a lot of people like that so, that’s how we are brought up in Houston. We just stick to our own area and that’s it and the only reason we’d travel to the other side of town is to go to AstroWorld or something.
The Polish flag and the Texas flag are a lot similar. The only difference I think is the star. So I always wondered if my fan base in Poland was big because the flag is kind of similar. We find excuses or reasons to associate with people for whatever reason. So anyway, a guy I know grew up in Russia, but he moved to Chicago, then he moved to Milwaukee, and then when the recession hit, he and his family moved back to Poland. They went to their family business, which was the slaughter house business and he was just homesick one year for Christmas and was like man, “I am homesick and you were my favorite rapper, so I am going to bring you to Poland and do a concert.” He wasn’t a concert promoter or nothing like that. He wanted to have a dope concert and he was homesick. So I went out there and for me being able to travel around the world to different places like that is a once in a lifetime opportunity, especially when I’m going to these places and literally, I know people who haven’t crossed I-10 in their life; the only time they crossed I-10 was to go downtown to court.
Poland is dope. Some parts of Europe, they speak English, but in Poland, nobody spoke English. It was not an English speaking country; English wasn’t their first language, English wasn’t their second language, [and] English wasn’t their third language. But man, I was inspired by their Hip Hop scene over there. The first time I went, Kazcor, had beef at the time with another rapper, and he performed right before me, and his whole performance was like 50 Cent at Summer Jam, bringing out a blow up doll, doing skits, all related to his beef with another Polish rapper. I was like damn; the beef history of Hip Hop is traveling. I was inspired by that.
They had their own producers out there; rappers, rap scene, rap culture, and DJs and none of them were at all familiar with what was going on in America. It’s not like you know, when Texas is popping now its popping out there, if Atlanta music is popping, its popping out there. It’s not even like if it’s popping, a few months later it’ll be popping there. No man, whatever was going on in America, they didn’t even know who they were. When I would talk to people, I’d be like [have you] heard of this person or that person? They’d say, “nope.” I was inspired that they were completely out of touch with what was going on in Hip Hop in America but, yet and still Hip Hop in Poland was thriving, healthy, and they had their own award shows.
DD: Another example of you bringing the Houston sound to another region is you Screwed and Chopped the album Haunted Cities, by California based rock-rap group The Transplants. Whose idea was that?
PW: I met Skinhead Rob and Travis Barker in the Atlantic offices right when I signed to Atlantic. Of course I knew who Blink 182 was, but I met both of them and they were both cool as a fan. After that, I started researching more of their music and got familiar with it and it was dope.
Skinhead Rob was the one who was like, “man, why don’t you do a Screwed and Chopped version of this? There never been anything like this done before.” First of all, if something has never been done, I’m already like “yep, I’ll do it.” And it was also jamming, so we were on the same level. It was easy to do. So when Skinhead Rob put that play in motion, I was like, hell yes. I am proud of that one, man.
DD: On slab god you mention Jacka. I was wondering who that is and if you feel comfortable talking about him.
PW: For sure. He’s a rap artist from the Bay. He was in a group called the Mob Figaz. My boy Husalah is on the album too, he’s in the group Mob Figaz. Jacka got killed a few months ago, this year. He was a real close friend of mine. Before I had even met him, I was a big fan of him. Matter of fact, my boy Skinhead Rob turned me onto him. Skinhead Rob turned me on to a lot of underground music. He turned me on to Mac Dre, Andre Nikatina, the Mob Figaz, Jacka, Husalah, Mitchy Slick, and to a lot of West Coast artists.
But, Jacka, I still remember meeting him, when the All Star Game was in Houston, 2006 Super Bowl. I remember meeting Jacka; somebody in the club saying in the microphone, “shout out to the Jacka, Mob Figaz in the house.” I was like, “what? Where is he at? I got to meet him.” I just asked somebody who I knew from the Bay, I was like, “bro, is Jacka in here? Where he at?” He said that’s him over there. So I went up to him and was like, “bruh, I fuck with your shit.” Because I really did jam his music like that. I think he was taken back like, “man are you for real or are you just like saying this?” And I said, “nah, bruh.” I was quoting lyrics and quoting lines, dropping bars, like I really fuck with you. He was literally one of my favorite rappers, especially at the time and still now.
I get stuck in my personal zone where I only listen to a few artists, and he was one of them for sure. He just was a good person and that’s how we met [and] over the years we did other things, shows, songs, we got an album together, it hasn’t come out yet, but we’ve been working on that. We really have two albums together.
Something I always admired about him was how he preached gems in his music. In his music, he’ll drop a spiritual gem that will make you reevaluate your relationship with God and in his raps he would inspire people to be better. And one thing that I always loved about him, anytime I ever would be with Jacka he would always have me feeling like I could conquer the world. He was a hell of a pep talker and a lot of people I know who knew him say the same thing. That was my boy. He got killed [and] I just wanted to do a song for him, dedicate it for him, let the whole world know, and more specifically, put people in Texas on to him because he reminds me of a Z- Ro type of artist. Z- Ro will say God related things or spiritual things to help better yourself sometimes [and] you’ll be like damn this boy Z- Ro is deep. And that’s just kind of how the Jacka is.
DD: Is there anything else you want to share with us?
PW: slab god is in stores now. Houston Oiler is on the way.
Featured Image: Paul Wall, his slab, and the white cup, Photo by Mike Frost
Douglas Doneson writes about Houston rap music. He has written for The T.R.O.Y. Blog, Complex, Noisey, and God is in the TV.
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