“Music has always confounded value,” writes interdisciplinary artist and writer Jace Clayton in Uproot: Travels in 21st-Century Music and Digital Culture (FSG Originals, 2016, 22). Recounting his extensive international travels performing as DJ /rupture, Clayton presents a flow of cosmopolitan musical experiences that illustrate complex collisions between music and value around the world. Whether writing about homemade sound-systems in tropical clubs in Brooklyn, or about shellac preservation at the Arab Music Archiving and Research Foundation in Beirut, Clayton considers the technologies by which we make — and place value on — musical sounds in “a world where worth is created in radically different ways from what the market teaches us” (24).
Uproot is a narrative about the ways working musicians experience globalization. “Our music seems to sound the way global capital is — liquid, international, porous, and sped up,” the author writes (16). This homology between sound and economic processes echoes the theories of sociologists like Anthony Giddens and the late Zygmunt Bauman, both of whom argue that modern life is characterized by fluidity and fragmentation: employment is precarious, experience is mediated, and ethical decisions are full of ambiguity. These ideas clearly inspire Clayton’s narrative; that said, Uproot is not an academic publication. As Atossa Araxia Abrahamian writes at the Nation, the book evades genre, “at once travelogue and cultural ethnography, pop philosophy and memoir, a guide to contemporary music and a fanzine.”
The book begins with a discussion of the history of Auto-Tune. While Clayton’s claim that Auto-Tune was the “first truly new sound effect of the internet era” might be overstated, his distinction between “corrective Auto-Tune” and “cosmetic Auto-Tune” is useful, the first of many moments of clarity in parsing the ways we use and mis-use musical media today. “The robot voice signifies differently everywhere you go,” he writes, an observation that becomes central to the book (49). By refusing to take a deterministic stance toward technology, Clayton empowers the musicians he writes about, acknowledging the ways in which artists mold trends to their own regional and local purposes. Of collaboration with a violinist in Morocco, Clayton writes: “We may have thought similarly, yet our ‘default settings’ were so far apart as to be almost incompatible” (185).
Uproot offers intimate insights into a range of tools and techniques of production, such as compression artifacts, “refixes,” and dozens of music-making interfaces, including Clayton’s own “music software-as-art project,” Sufi Plug Ins.
Even language itself is conceived as a form of technological mediation, as when Clayton compares Arabizi — a phonetic spelling of colloquial Arabic — to the hybrid sounds of mahraganat music that the language is used to describe. Of these “wandering genealogies” that emerge from international conversations, Clayton suggests that any hybrid genre we can imagine likely already exists: “Accordions and African techno? It’s called funaná” (102). The book describes at least a dozen other music traditions and microgenres–some very old, some just coalesced–from dabke to zar, each the product of a unique fusion of vocabularies.
Clayton on Mazaher (182): “Umm Sameh, Umm Hassan, and Nour el Sabah: these three women are some of the only people in Egypt keeping zar alive.”
Clayton’s own prose style, replete with metaphor and fluent in informal language, mirrors the ethos of music production he explores in the book: eclectic, energetic, and bursting with detail. What better way to describe Auto-Tune’s effect than as liquification of sound into a “bright neon stream, as if a dial-up modem and a river have fallen in love” (53)? Clayton’s technological travelogue extends beyond aural sensation alone. This is a story of “sidewalk vendors, radios, mosque loudspeakers,” (106) but it is just as much about “jerk chicken, fish tea, goatskin soup” (73). When Clayton describes his surroundings, we can touch the orange blossoms and smell the cigarettes.
The book’s recurrent question is how DJ practices in different locations are both constrained and inspired by financial flows. In any context, Clayton argues, “[m]oney runs to the people with the least imagination” (24). Early on, he establishes this view that musical experience is priceless, more valuable than any profit derived from rhythms of supply and demand, which reward the wrong people. That said, Clayton isn’t naive about musicians’ inevitable need for income, and throughout the text, readers are asked to inhabit ethical dilemmas that artists encounter throughout the world. At one point, Clayton describes his own moral quandary when asked to perform in front of a giant Red Bull logo, a “glowing lump of techno-fascist DJ furniture.” Later, Clayton critiques the hegemony of “Red Bull patronage” and similar systems of support for artists who are desperate for funding (121). He makes clear his disdain for corporate sponsors, companies that “appear generous as they let us know that our music is literally worthless to them” (123).
A tradeoff emerges between pragmatism and idealism. Clayton pokes holes in the empty rhetoric of “authenticity” that marketers encourage and exploit, even as we sense that he hasn’t yet relinquished his belief in something essentially good about the human spirit. Listening is a powerful social practice that, in Clayton’s view, gives true meaning to music in a global economy that otherwise undervalues it. “The heavier the workaday grind to escape from, the more a party transports us” (73), he writes, suggesting that listeners extract their own surplus value.
At times, Clayton’s observations could benefit from an engagement with ethnographic methods that can help mitigate fieldwork biases. For example, although the book does involve open discussions of gendered inequalities, they are limited in scope. At one point Clayton calls attention to “macho wrangling over propriety and womanhood” among managers and producers in Agadir, Morocco (52); he describes his own futile attempt to acquire a frank interview with female singers amid the patriarchal structure there. But despite Clayton’s awareness of gendered power dynamics, he does not critique the male musicians and producers who propagate such imbalances.
When female figures do appear, they are often treated as side characters. Rihanna, for example, is presented as exemplary of the business model of “singer as mouthpiece” (50), a person for whom others do the work. Clayton isn’t wrong to call attention to the large networks of employees that work behind any celebrity brand, but it is risky to do so at the expense of female workers, especially in the midst of a book that elsewhere describes women as decoration for the musical environments in which men perform what are presumably more important tasks. “Naked girls on pedestals [who] got their bodies painted” (19), “photoshopped young women” (49) and “demure girls” (49) all set scenes for tales of male creativity. This is not to critique how some women may choose to participate in music scenes, but rather to point out that women’s concerns and perspectives are not Clayton’s focus in these passages, nor in much of the book.
On Berber Auto-tune star Saadia Tihihit (49-50): “Like Justin Beiber or any child groomed to be a media star, Saadia Tihihit occupies a place at least initially defined more by the commercial strategies of those around her than by any desire for artistic autonomy.”
Comparably, Clayton’s conception of music and global inequality is sometimes uneven. Drawing stark divisions between the “civilized” and otherwise, he resorts to clichéd language when he writes of “backwater Uzbekistan” (31) and “war-torn Africa” (81). When he describes towns and villages near Casablanca where “ancient rhythms of life still hold sway” (33), he reproduces exoticizing tropes of African music. Elsewhere in the book, Clayton addresses musical accusations of fetishism, stating: “I know that Africans and blacks have been fetishized for centuries now, perhaps millennia. Who cares? You simply exist in all your complexity and let them deal with it. Fetishism is so vague” (84). He also critiques what he calls the “spectacle of a so-called ancient culture” (99) that is often at the heart of “world music” scenes, but then describes Appalachian musical performance as “the old-timey way with banjos and fiddles and washtub percussion” (32), opposing these practices against technological advancement, a false dichotomy that ethnomusicologists work to complicate, if not avoid.
Clayton brings these issues to a head during the book’s extensive discussion of “world music” as a marketing category. His commentary on the conundrums of appropriation surrounding figures such as Paul Simon, M.I.A., and Moby feels familiar, but he surpasses the usual analysis of these common case studies with more personal insights into “world music,” beginning with crate-digging excursions at record shops with deep international selections, such as the now-defunct RRRecords in Lowell, Massachusetts. Clayton contrasts his own on-foot exploration of foreign sounds with what he calls “World Music 2.0,” an internet-driven network of musical discovery based around the commodification of information and attention, in which middlemen reign supreme. His ambivalence is exemplified by this claim: “At its worst, World Music 2.0 offers the clubland equivalent of a package vacation. At its best, it propels some of the most exciting music in the world” (104-105).
The book’s ideas occasionally undermine themselves, but there is no question that the author ultimately intends to advocate for people on the margins. As Max Pearl has noted at the LA Times, Clayton consistently defends lo-fi, lo-tech, and lo-res sonic expression — that which is “distorted, homespun, libidinous” (80) — as valuable in its own right. Further, Sukhdev Sandhu has suggested at the Guardian that the book’s attention to homologies between “the movement of sounds and of migrant bodies” serves to recognize the struggles of global refugees and affirm their humanity.
Among Uproot’s many mentions of transport, readers never receive a clear statement about what, precisely, the relationship between music and motion is, or how exactly value emerges from that pairing. Rather than a weakness of the book, however, maybe such equivocation should be taken as an accurate reflection of the nebulous circumstances in which many of us find ourselves — creators and listeners who are regularly uprooted, usually at the mercy of those whom the money follows. Faced with this precarity, let Clayton’s enthusiasm for all sounds ground you.
Uproot is accompanied by an online Listening Guide that includes audio and visual examples of music from the book: http://www.uprootbook.com.
Elizabeth Newton is a doctoral candidate in musicology. She has written for The New Inquiry, Tiny Mix Tapes, Real Life Magazine, the Quietus, and Leonardo Music Journal. Her research interests include musico-poetics, fidelity and reproduction, and affective histories of musical media. Her dissertation, in progress, is about “affective fidelity” in audio and print culture of the 1990s.
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Our Punk Sound series implicitly argues that sound studies methodologies are better suited to understanding how punk works sonically than existing journalistic and academic conversations about musical genre, chord progressions, and/or genealogies of bands. Alexandra Vasquez’s sound-oriented work on Cuban music, for example, in Listening in Detail (2014) opens up necessary conversations about the “flashes, moments, sounds” in music that bear its meanings and its colonial, raced, classed, and gendered histories in material ways people can hear and feel. While retaining the specificity of Vasquez’s argument and the specific sonic archive bringing it forth, we too insist on “an ethical and intellectual obligation to the question: what do the musicians sound like” (12) and how do folks identifying with and through these musical sounds hear them?
In this series, we invite you to amplify varied historicized “details” of punk sound–its chunk-chunk-chunk skapunk riffs, screams, growls, group chants, driving rhythms, honking saxophones–hearing/feeling/touching these sounds in richly varied locations, times, places, and perspectives: as a pulsing bead of condensation dripping down the wall of The Smell in Downtown LA (#savethesmell), a drummer making her own time on tour, a drunk sitting too near the amp at a backyard party, a queer teenager in their bedroom being yelled at to “turn it down” and “act like a lady[or a man]”. . .and on and on. Today’s essay is by Tamra Lucid. Here, Tamra offers her thoughts on how both technique and expression reinforce a gendered understanding of music. When punk sound plays with extremes, how can artists who feel trapped by these polemics resist?
–Aaron SO! (Sounding Out!) + Jenny SO! (Sounding Out!)
“Don’t touch that!” a virtuoso guitarist had once told me when as a kid I reached for his guitar. The same phrase would later be delivered by a punk guitarist at a gig where I offered to replace a string broken during his performance. As noted in the book Girls Rock , women are often told not to touch these sacred instruments (18). I remember thinking that guitar was as complex as a car engine and as dangerous as a circular saw. Technique and theory are meant to liberate musicians (so that their dexterity can follow wherever imagination and inspiration may lead), but when experiencing gender discrimination from instructors and fellow instrumentalists, technique and theory can seem antagonistic. In this essay I show how the elite and virtuoso focus on technique and theory has catalyzed punk musicians to cultivate the raw, expressive, qualities of punk sound. Yet, paradoxically, I point out how movements toward a raw and visceral sound constitute a cage of their own, alienating an equally radical and virtuoso community of women in the punk scene. How do these sonic contours in the 1990s riot grrrl scene tell a story about injustice and community building through sound?
Theory and technique become a cage when they are used by sexist cliques, such as the heavy metal scene, which sought to maintain hegemony over local scenes and resources. For the gatekeepers, there are many benefits to this form of discrimination–women are encouraged to act as doting fans rather than joining bands. As a teenager I saw many young women told by male musicians that their only permissible roles were those of sex object or fan. Early in my musical career when I put out an ad searching for band mates some male musicians would call just to laugh at me.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s when canons of punk tone and composition ironically became defined by an athletics-like dedication to speed, precision and endurance, riot grrrl bands were criticized for their primitive skills. However, by removing the barriers to self-expression that this emphasis on technique and theory created, many people, not only female or female identified, were empowered to create music similar to performance art. As Liam S. Ruin of the Columbia, South Carolina hardcore band Shirley Temple of Doom (1993-1996) said in an interview I conducted with them for this essay: “I still think emphasis on technique is gross and ableist and boring and obvious.”
In this time of sonic reform, some scenes came to prize sincerity over skill. Here, a new canon of theory and technique evolved–another cage. Some related to the riot grrrl scene found themselves accepted by their community while receiving praise for abandoning a commitment to simplicity. For example Associated Newspapers News North West previewed a gig by Sleater Kinney in Manchester, UK by describing them as “too musically competent to be a Riot Grrrl band.” Likewise, the female hardcore bands Girl Jesus and Free Verse (though politically aligned with riot grrrl) found little support in a scene that viewed them as a threat. It was as if the language of technique and theory was the language of oppressors, and using it implied submission to the status quo. The directness of purpose which had liberated so many artists, became a new kind of cage for others.
As a roadie for Girl Jesus, I witnessed the immediate dismissal (including groans of disappointment) they suffered when confronting male bands at gigs many times. Despite these jeers I also saw the way their ferocious music and performance, anchored by guitarist Gina Rush’s use of middle eastern scales, Shell Davina’s unique and unusual drumming style, and Grit Maldonado’s flamenco-like bass lines, reduced many male bands to discouraged silence and listless performances. I remember thinking that riot grrrl, or what was left of it in 1993, would welcome such a powerful example of female creativity. The feeling of competence I felt as Girl Jesus approached each gig with confidence in their music and technology helped me to reinvent myself, encouraging me to graduate quickly from roadie to musician.
Gina Rush carefully chose her amps and had them modded by an expert. Shell used a vintage drum-kit that would make any collector drool. But these distinctions were rejected by the riot grrrl audience who found them elitist and classist. Though Girl Jesus was a band of working class lesbians they were treated the same way as male bands in the scene. As Shell reported in an article entitled “Queercore: Ready to Face the Market” by Brent Atwood in the May 6, 1995 issue of Billboard Magazine: “As a female band, we expected a strong network of women in music to stick together. Instead we found a lot of competition.” She also pointed out: “We’ve had more club owners be sexist to us than homophobic.” Despite their embrace of technology and technique, two domains that code as masculine, Girl Jesus nurtured into existence two of the more popular riot grrrl bands in mid-90’s Los Angeles, Patsy and my own band Lucid Nation, which began by rehearsing in Girl Jesus’s garage using their equipment. The name of Girl Jesus’s first cassette demo succinctly captured the problem: “Afraid of Our Own.”
A similar trajectory was found by the all female hardcore band Free Verse, whose first record “Access Denied” was released by the indie label Brain Floss Records. Free Verse began in Lawrence, Kansas in 1995 and in 1998 relocated to Seattle. Lucid Nation toured nationally with Free Verse in the summer of 1998. The experience was similar to what I observed as a roadie for Girl Jesus. Male bands who looked down upon female musicians with disdain were stunned by their display of skill and ferocity. However, when we played in Olympia, Washington, the riot grrrl community cowered against the back wall, clearly uncomfortable. On the road we smiled ruefully over the irony of masculinist male bands becoming fans while female fans who shared our politics turned their backs. This created a conundrum for Free Verse. Although they were able to deliver a feminist message to scenes and individuals who were hostile to feminism, they could not enjoy the community of like minded women who identified as riot grrrl.
Over time, Free Verse earned enough respect that they were able to open for leading bands from a variety of scenes. From Hardcore bands like The Blood Brothers to indie stars like Sleater Kinney. From queer core bands like The Need and The Butchies to riot grrrl supergroup The Cold Cold Hearts. Though Free Verse were chosen to participate in the Northwest Coalition For Human Dignity’s anti-racism tour October 2002, a tour sponsored by Ms. magazine and featured in ROCKRGRL magazine, the band was never able to achieve the following or recognition of the bands they shared bills with, information about them is hard to find on the internet today.
Liam S. Ruin, now one of the guiding lights of the new Riot Grrrl Intersectional movement, provides a more intimate look at how the pressures of technique and theory influenced Shirley Temple of Doom: “Not really any RG [riot grrrl] activity in Columbia SC. Um, Slant 6 played there once. Our scene was extremely nuclear. We played with our friend’s bands, The Trema, Erector Set, Guyana Punch Line. We were pretty much all in each other’s bands or dating each other or whatever. Making it up as we went along. Jessica saw me in the halls at school wearing a Pearl Jam shirt and told me ‘you’re way too cool to be listening to shitty bands.’ She made me a mix cd that was mostly D.C. Emo and Hardcore but it had Bratmobile, Bikini Kill and L7, too. Then she lent me her bass. I practiced with Joy Division and Heavens To Betsy covers till I could play along. We started a band with her boyfriend. Half of our band were really into Straight Edge H/C and the other half were into Huggy Bear, Fugazi, NOU, etc.”
Shirley Temple of Doom, despite reflecting a riot grrrl like platform in their lyrics received little attention from the riot grrrl community. Eventually the band collapsed due to internal tensions regarding technique–as if the rhetoric of extremes around technique and expression had become an expertly baited, misogynist trap. As Liam informed me: “The guys in the band were very technical and pushed me to play more technical bass lines but honestly, I get bored with proficiency. I’ve heard what guitars are supposed to sound like. I wanna hear what they’re not supposed to sound like. We split because of ideological differences. I got really into visceral bass-feels and wanted to sound like a disaster, and they wanted to be on Victory Records.”
How did the cage of technique and expression, evolve in a style of music that advanced freedom as its guiding praxis? Early on, rock musicians were considered unskilled when compared to classical, jazz and country musicians. Later, virtuosity became central to rock music as bands like Yes, Led Zeppelin, and Pink Floyd, sought radical sounds to accommodate an aesthetic cultivated by Cannabis and LSD. As What’s That Sound? An Introduction to Rock and It’s History puts it: “Rock musicians now had a responsibility to create sophisticated music using whatever means were available.” Soon after this turn to virtuosity, guitarists like Eddie Van Halen became the Paganinis of their time, displaying jaw-dropping finger speed and impressive knowledge of scales and musical theory.
Later, punk rock crashed the party. First in the hands of the MC5 and The Stooges, and then the New York Dolls, The Ramones, the Sex Pistols and many other bands, rock music turned again towards primitive and cathartic sincerity. Musical virtuosity was literally spit upon. The Ramones famously told The Clash that they needn’t worry about improving their musicianship before playing live because “as you’ll see tonight, we suck.” Ferocity replaced dexterity. Nihilistic and cathartic lyrics displaced idealistic flights of fancy. Punk quickly developed its own criteria to indicate mastery of the genre. Bands like Fugazi and F.Y.P. typified a performance style that required frenetic motion while preserving the lockstep rhythm and hand speed, if not the musical knowledge and experimentation, of the earlier virtuosos. Then riot grrrl arrived, freeing a generation of punk women who were uncomfortable with the athletic performance style of these bands. For example, one of L.A.’s favorite riot grrrl bands Crown for Athena would perform at times with one member of the band sitting on the stage singing while clinging to the pant leg of another who stood immobile and emotionless. Frenetic performance and blazing chord speed was no longer a requirement for legitimacy on the punk stage.
Riot grrrl liberated me from the odious trial of confronting sexist music teachers, store clerks, booking agents, and record companies. I learned from the movement that I could get by with simple barre chords. I could use cheap and borrowed gear and I didn’t have to worry about great tone. One of the bands I admired, Foxfire, a band of female high school students from Los Angeles, used an oven pan instead of a snare drum. Riot grrrl bands emphasized community by booking shows with each other and with activist groups like Food Not Bombs. We made our own labels to distribute each other’s records. When Lucid Nation opened for Bikini Kill at Terraza Jamay in Montebello, Kathleen Hanna took tickets at the door.
As my musical skills developed I found myself feeling restricted by the aesthetics of riot grrrl. Beginning with Lucid Nation’s DNA record (2000) we began exploring cliches of what we called “butt rock,” now more popularly known as classic rock. While we attempted to master the techniques of classic rock our intent was to deconstruct them by introducing unexpected twists of sound (like chaotic analog synth and noise pedals) and lyrics containing feminist perspectives. At this point, we had moved on to other scenes, for example, the melange of Peace Punks, Black Panthers, and riot grrrls at Koo’s Cafe in Santa Ana, CA. We played hemp rallies and non-riot grrrl political events like fundraisers for Big Mountain and other Native American causes.
Eventually I developed a fascination with improvisation inspired by freestyle rap and augmented by the writing of Gertrude Stein and the recordings of Jack Kerouac. By the time our most successful album was released, the improvised Tacoma Ballet (2002), I prized musicianship and encouraged experienced collaborators, like Patty Schemel of Hole on drums and Greta Brinkman of Moby’s live band on bass, to bring to bear the breadth and depth of their musical knowledge. I was delighted that Rick King of Guitar Maniacs in Tacoma allowed us to use his highly valuable collectible gear such as a 1967 Gibson Flying V and an array of legendary vintage pedals when we recorded the album. I was proud when Patty said in an interview about Tacoma Ballet: “…there are always ideas that I have–interesting beats and such–that I could never incorporate into Hole or any other project. In Lucid Nation I got to incorporate all my weirdness.” Though Tacoma Ballet made it to #1 on the New Music Weekly Chart of College and Secondary Market Radio Stations in December 2002 it received very little attention in riot grrrl circles. I found myself silenced again, not by advocates of technique, but by a community who valued raw expression.
Of course, in 2002 riot grrrl was less popular than it had been a decade before–it mostly consisted of isolated zine writers and bands. Still, those who remained in the scene ignored Tacoma Ballet despite its success. When I asked them why, they explained that although they admired our work and the songs spoke to their experience, our band just wasn’t riot grrrl. I was told that the skills and awareness of musical history displayed on the record were too self conscious, that I had become ambitious, or as more than one zine writer said, I had sold out. Since I made no money on that record despite the attention it got, and we couldn’t tour behind it since the music was improvised, I found it hard to understand how such a purely artistic lark could be viewed as selling out. I didn’t sell out, my increased respect for theory and technique just felt wrong when viewed from the perspective of the riot grrrl canon.
While new music hardware and software have helped level the field in ways that were not possible in the 90’s, the cage of expression and technique continues to govern a new world of highly individuated scenes. EDM continues to fetishize the drop. Live performers need no longer be concerned about vocal pitch or knowledge of vocal harmony. Hardware like the Digitech VLFX, available on Amazon for under $200, corrects pitch and provides easy and automatic harmony vocals. In this device, music’s ability to create unexpectedly cathartic experiences has been diminished, while the simple mimicry of technique has been elevated.
Perhaps new regimes of data are to blame. Specific canons of theory and technique function as points of data that help define marketing audiences. After all, bands often succeed by conforming to the sonic norms of their given scene. For this reason, there is a tension between conservation and innovation. An artist must conserve as much of their scene’s identity as possible while finding subtle ways to innovate. Today, anyone can share their music on the internet regardless of traditional criteria. Despite this, a desire for acceptance and success continues to pressure musicians into accepting limitations to their creativity like technique and expression.
Cover image is of Tamra Lucid and by TheInfinite314 @Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA.
Tamra Lucid is an executive producer of Viva Cuba Libre: Rap is War the award winning documentary about Cuban hip hop legends Los Aldeanos, a producer of Edward James Olmos Presents Exile Nation: The Plastic People, and associate producer of The Gits documentary. Writing from her riot grrrl zines was reprinted in A Girl’s Guide To Taking Over The World: The Zine Revolution by Karen Green and Tristan Taormino,and in Hilary Carlip and Francesca Lia Block’s Zine Scene. Tamra blogs for Exterminating Angel Press and for Reality Sandwich where her most recent project has been a series of interviews with water protectors and filmmakers at Standing Rock. She’s a founding member and primary singer of Lucid Nation.
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I’m fortunate to have quite a few friends with eclectic musical tastes, who continually expose me some of the best, albeit often obscure, sources for inspiration. They arrive as random selections sent with a simple “you’d appreciate this” note attached. Good friends that they are, they rarely miss the mark. Most intriguing is when a cluster of things from different people carry a similar theme, converging to a need on my part for some sort of musical action.
A few years back I received a huge dump of gigabytes of audio and video. Within it were some concert footage and performances this friend and I had been discussing; I consumed those quickly in an effort to keep that conversation going. Tucked amidst that dump however, was a copy of the movie Liquid Sky. I asked the friend about it because the description of the plot–“heroin-pushing aliens invade 80’s New York”–led me to believe it wasn’t really my thing (not a big fan of needles). Although my friend insisted I’d enjoy it, it took me several months if not a whole year before I finally pressed play.
Even though Liquid Sky was not my favorite movie by any measure, it was immediately apparent to my ears why my friend insisted I check it out. The film’s score was performed completely on a Fairlight CMI, capturing the synthesized undercurrent of the early 80’s New York music scene, more popularly seen in the cult classic Downtown 81, starring Jean Michel Basquiat. While the performances in that movie are perhaps closer to my tastes, none of them compare to one scene from Liquid Sky that I fell in love with, instantly:
The song grabbed me so much, I quickly churned out a cover version.Primus Luta “Me & My Rhythm Box (V1)”
While felt good to make, there remained something less than satisfying about it. The cover had captured my sound, but at a moment of transition. More specifically, the means by which I was trying to achieve my sound at the time had shifted from a DAW-in-the-box aesthetic to a live performance feel, one that I had already begun writing about here on Sounding Out! in 2013. Interestingly, the inspiration to cover the song pushed me back to my in-the-box comfort zone.
It was good, but I knew I could do more.
As I said, these inspirations tend to group around a theme. Prior to receiving the Liquid Sky dump, I had received an email out of the blue from Hank Shocklee, producer and member of the Bomb Squad. I’ve been a longtime fan, and we had the opportunity to meet a few years prior. Since then he’s played a bit of a mentoring role for me. In the email he asked if I wanted to join an experimental electronic jazz project he was pulling together as the drummer.
I was taken aback. Hank Shocklee asking me to be his drummer. Honestly, I was shook.
Not that I didn’t know why he might think to ask me, but immediately I started to question whether I was good enough. Rather than dwell on those feelings, though, I started stepping up my game. While the project itself never came to fruition, Shocklee’s email led me to building my drmcrshr set of digital instruments.
A year or so later, I ran into Shocklee again when he was in Philadelphia for King Britt’s Afrofuturism event with mutual friend artist HPrizm. By this time I had already recorded the “Me and My Rhythm Box” cover. Serendipitously, HPrizm ended up dropping a sample from it in the midst of his set that night. A month or so later, HPrizm and I met up in the studio with longtime collaborator Takuma Kanaiwa to record a live set on which I played my drmcrshr instruments.Primus Luta x HPrizm x Takuma Kanaiwa – “Excerpt”
Not too long after, I received an email from NYC-based electronic musician Elucid, saying he was digging for samples on this awesome soundtrack. . .Liquid Sky.
The final convergence point had been hanging over my head for a while. Having finished the first part of my “Toward a Practical Language series on Live Performance” series, I knew I wanted the next part to focus on electronic instruments, but wasn’t yet sure how to approach it. I had an inkling about a practicum on the actual design and development of an electronic instrument, but I didn’t yet have a project in mind.
As all of these things, people, and sounds came together–Liquid Sky, Shocklee, HPrizm, Elucid–it became clear that I needed to build a rhythm box.
What stands out in Paula Sheppard’s performance from Liquid Sky is the visual itself. She stands in the warehouse performance space surrounded by 80’s scenesters posing with one hand in the air, mic in the other while strapped to her side is her rhythm box, the Roland CR-78, wires dangling from it to connect to the venue’s sound system. She hits play to start the beat launching into the ode for the rhythm machine.
Contextually, it’s far more performance art than music performance. There isn’t much evidence from the clip that the CR-78 is any more than a prop, as the synthesizer lines indicate the use of a backing track. The commentary in the lyrics however, hone in on an intent to present the rhythm box as the perfect musical companion, reminiscent of comments Raymond Scott often made about his desire to make a machine to replace musicians.
My rhythm box is sweet
Never forgets a beat
It does its rule
Do you want to know why?
It is pre-programmed
Rhythm machines such as the CR-78 were originally designed as accompaniment machines, specifically for organ players. They came pre-programmed with a number of traditional rhythm patterns–the standards being rock, swing, waltz and samba–though the CR-78 had many more variations. Such machines were not designed to be instruments themselves, rather musicians would play other instruments to them.
In 1978 when the CR-78 was introduced, rhythm machines were becoming quite sophisticated. The CR-78 included automatic fills that could be set to play at set intervals, providing natural breaks for songs. As with a few other machines, selecting multiple rhythms could combine patterns into new rhythms. The CR-78 also had mute buttons and a small mixer, which allowed slight customization of patterns, but what truly set the CR-78 apart was the fact that users could program their own patterns and even save them.
By the time it appeared in Liquid Sky, the CR-78 had already been succeeded by other CR lines culminating in the CR-8000. Roland also had the TR series including the TR-808 and the TR-909, which was released in 1982, the same year Liquid Sky premiered.
In 1980 however, Roger Linn’s LM-1 premiered. What distinguished the LM-1 from other drum machines was that it used drum samples–rather than analog sounds–giving it more “real” sounding drum rhythms (for the time). The LM-1 and its predecessor, the Linn Drum both had individual drum triggers for its sounds that could be programmed into user sequences or played live. These features in particular marked the shift from rhythm machines to drum machines.
In the post-MIDI decades since, we’ve come to think less and less about rhythm machines. With the rise of in-the-box virtual instruments, the idea of drum programming limitations (such as those found on most rhythm machines) seems absurd or arcane to modern tastes. People love the sounds of these older machines, evidenced by the tons of analog drum samples and virtual and hardware clones/remakes on the market, but they want the level of control modern technologies have grown them accustomed to.Controlling the Roland CR-5000 from an Akai MPC-1000 using a custom built converter
The general assumption is that rhythm machines aren’t traditionally playable, and considering how outdated their rhythms tend to seem, lacking in the modern sensibility. My challenge thus, became clearer: I sought out to build a rhythm machine that would challenge this notion, while retaining the spirit of the traditional rhythm box.
Challenges and Limitations
At the outset, I wanted to base my rhythm machine on analog circuitry. I had previously built a number of digital drum machines–both sample and synthesis-based–for my Heads collection. Working in the analog arena allowed me to approach the design of my instrument in a way that respected the limitations my rhythm machine predecessors worked with and around.
By this time I had spent a couple of years mentoring with Jeff Blenkinsopp at The Analog Lab in New York, a place devoted to helping people from all over the world gain “further understanding the inner workings of their musical equipment.” I had already designed a rather complex analog signal processor, so I felt comfortable in the format. However, I hadn’t truly honed my skills around instrument design. In many ways, I wanted this project to be the testing ground for my own ability to create instruments, but prior experience taught me that going into such a complex project without the proper skills would be self defeating. Even more, my true goal was centered more around functionality rather than details like circuit board designs for individual sounds.
To avoid those rabbit holes–at least temporarily, I’ve since gone full circuit design on my analog sound projects–I chose to use DIY designs from the modular synth community as the basis for my rhythm box. That said, I limited myself to designs that featured analog sound sources, and only allowed myself to use designs that were available as PCB only. I would source all my own parts, solder all of my boards and configure them into the rhythm machine of my dreams.
The wonderful thing about the modular synth community is that there is a lot of stuff out there. The difficult thing about the modular synth community is that there’s a lot of stuff out there. If you’ve got enough rack space, you can pretty much put together a modular that will perform whatever functionality you want. How modules patch together fundamentally defines your instrument, making module selection the most essential process. I was aiming to build a more semi-modular configuration, forgoing the patch cables, but that didn’t make my selection any easier. I wanted to have three sound sources (nominally: kick, snare and hi-hat), a sequencer and some sort of filter, which would all flow into a simple monophonic mixer design of my own.
For the sounds I chose a simple kick module from Barton, and the Jupiter Storm unit from Hex Inverter. The sound of the kick module was rooted enough in the classic analog sound while offering enough modulation points to make it mutable. The triple square wave design of the Jupiter Storm really excited me as It had the range to pull off hi-hat and snare sounds in addition to other percussive and drone sounds, plus it featured two outputs giving me all three of my voices on in two pcb sets.
Filters are often considered the heart of a modular set up, as they way they shape the sound tends to define its character. In choosing one for my rhythm machine the main thing I wanted was control over multiple frequency bands. Because there would be three different sound sources I needed to be able to tailor the filter for a wide spectrum of sounds. As such I chose the AM2140 Resonant Filter.
The AMS2140 PCB layout, based on the classic eMu filter
I had no plans to include triggers for the sounds on my rhythm machine so the sequencer was going to be the heart of the performance as it would be responsible for any and all triggering of sounds. Needing to control three sounds simultaneously without any stored memory was quite a tall order, but fortunately I found the perfect solution in the amazing Turing Machine modules. With its expansion board the Turing machine can put out four different patterns based on it’s main pattern creator which can create fully random patterns or patterns that mutate as they progress.
I spent a couple of weeks after getting all the pcb’s parts and hardware together, wiring and rewiring connections until I got comfortable with how all of these parts were interacting with each other. I was fortunate to happen upon a vintage White Instruments box, which formally housed an attenuation meter, that was perfect for my machine. After testing with cardboard I laid out my own faceplates, which and put everything in the box. As soon as I plugged it in and started playing, I knew I had succeeded.Early test of RIDM before it went in the Box
I call it the RIDM Box (Rhythmically Intelligent Drum Machine Box). I’ve been playing it now for over two years, to the point where today I would say it is my primary instrument. Almost immediately afterward I built a companion piece called the Snare Bender which works both as a standalone and as a controller for the RIDM Box. That one I did from scratch hand wired with no layouts.
My current live rig with the RIDM Box and the Snare Bender (on the right)
While this is by no means a standard approach to modern electronic instrument design (if a standard approach even exists), what I learned through the process is really the value of looking back. With so much of modern technology being future forward in its approach, the assumption is that we’re at better starting positions for innovation than our predecessors. While we have so many more resources at our disposal, I think the limitations of the past were often more conductive to truly innovative approaches. By exploring those limitations with modern eyes a doorway opened up for me, the result of which is an instrument like no other, past or present.
I will probably continue playing the two of these instruments together for a while, but ultimately I’m leaning toward a new original design which takes the learnings from these projects and fully flushes out the performing instrument aspect of analog design. In the meantime, my process would not be complete if I did not return to the original inspiration. So I’ll leave you with the RIDM Box version of “Me & My Rhythm Box”—available on my library sessions release for the instrument.
Primus Luta is a husband and father of three. He is a writer and an artist exploring the intersection of technology and art, and their philosophical implications.
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Heads: Reblurring The Lines–Primus Luta
Just a year ago, Soundcloud and YouTube were teeming with maximalist EDM remixes of Top 40 pop songs, like R3HAB’s early summer 2015 mix of Rihanna’s “BBHMM”. The remix is packed full of amped-up musical gestures. It drops 30 seconds in, has a huge 15 second soar from 2:30-2:45 and some loud distorted treble synth, and the up-pitched vocals underscore just how much R3HAB sped up the tempo. Fast forward a year to May and June 2016, where maximalist banger remixes are hard to find. Outside of EDM Trap, which continues to focus on the turn up (e.g., this R3HAB & Henry Fong remix of Calvin Harris & Rihanna’s “This Is What You Came For”) nobody’s really pushing songs to be more intense by amping up their tension-release structures. Instead, the remixes are simmering down; even R3HAB chills out a bit with his 2016 remix of Rihanna’s “Work,” which holds off its first drop for more than a minute, and when it does it only soars for five seconds. R3HAB isn’t the only one on the charts bringing it down a couple notches; the lyrics and the breezily tropical music in Seeb’s remix of Mike Posner’s “I Took A Pill In Ibiza” is a Dear John letter with brostep-fueled EDM, and it was huge in spring 2016. It topped the UK Singles chart, the Billboard Hot 100, and the Billboard Mainstream Top 40 chart–so it’s safe to assume it’s tracking a common and popular aesthetic.
Why have producers toned down the tension-release? There are definitely aesthetic reasons: pop presents new styles as it evolves. But there’s also an underlying political reason. In neoliberalism, our political economy (with its structure of subjectivity) requires people to take on a lot of risk. That’s what entrepreneurs do: they make a bet, and the riskier the bet, the bigger the potential reward. For example, as formerly public services get privatized, individuals assume risk that social welfare programs once insured against: college students take on tons of debt in the hope of finding a decent job, defined-benefit pensions disappear in favor of stock-market based retirement plans, and so on.
While YOLO-style maximalism celebrated that risk-taking, people just want a fucking break already. In other words, the general public has the feeling we’ve been cheated by neoliberal reforms and their promises to pay us back for what we’ve risked. We’re risk-weary. Sometimes that weariness manifests as irritability–think of the (often race-based) anger motivating supporters of Trump, Sanders, and Brexit. But sometimes that weariness just manifests as a preference for soft, gentle ease. In mid-2010s vernacular, that preference is called “chill.” As Alana Massey defines it, “chill” is the state of “being too far removed from anything that looks like intensity.” Some argue that chill is the decade’s dominant affect.
We can hear chill’s dominance in the Top 40. Soars and drops are tension-release structures closely associated with EDM. They have been integrated into the musical vocabulary of non-EDM pop styles, most prominently by songwriter Max Martin (see: Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off,” Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse”). Even as dubstep falls out of fashion, soars and drops are still all over the Top 40 and EDM remixes of pop songs. However, in mid-2016 soars and drops are much less intense and climactic than they were in 2012. Often, instead of intensifying damage to build tension and release it climactically, soars mark the beginning and end of song sections, like the transition from verse to chorus. With the tension-release flattened out, soars function more to organize the song grammatically than to express a meaning or feeling…because committing to and expressing an idea or an emotion is deeply un-chill.
Take, for example, some of the more popular remixes of Drake’s “One Dance,” which recently broke the UK record (since they started counting downloads) of 12 weeks at the top of the chart and has had a couple of weeks on top of the Billboard Hot 100. Though several of the songs on Billboard’s remix round-up for “One Dance” feature soars and drops, none of the songs are particularly maximalist, nor are the soars hugely climactic. The Koni feat. Casey Malone remix above uses tiny soar-hints to signal the end of one song section and the beginning of another; for example, around 48 seconds a tiny little soar marks the transition from verse to chorus. The main soar behaves more conventionally, but it’s super chill and doesn’t turn much of anything up. It begins around 2:20, swooshing up for five seconds only to ever-so-gently drop us for another five seconds. This drop combines the more traditional dubstep drop, which is marked by a bass, and the Max-Martin-style pop drop, which is usually marked by a vocal flourish (e.g., “Bad Blood,” “Shake It Off”). Here the combination works to soften each individual element: a decidedly buttery and un-wobbly bass is hidden under Malone’s decidedly restrained “lose con-trol” vocal. This soar has lost its sonic edge, and it affects the way we hear the drop’s lyrical content: losing control isn’t about transgression, but laid-back indifference…you know, chill. Soars and the idea of losing control usually represent risk, but in this remix they do just the opposite.
With Sean Paul singing “free up yourself get outta control” as the main soar’s drop (3:00 in the video, 2:30 in the song), Sia’s latest hit, “Cheap Thrills” also takes the edge off traditional representations of risk. Firstly, the song is about rejecting economic risk as a source of pleasure and fulfillment, the kind of risk that Katy Perry sung about in 2013 when she gave a “shout out to all you kids buying bottle service with your rent money” right before the soar in “This Is How We Do.” There, the soar represents the rush those kids get from their risky behavior. That sort of thing isn’t thrilling anymore. Instead, thrills, like “feel[ing] the beat” and “dancing” come cheaply, with less economic risk–you don’t have to worry about hustling to get your rent money.
“Cheap Thrills” also avoids sonic representations of that risk: it uses vocal drops to transition between verses and choruses, but these drops aren’t preceded by the percussive cascade (at around 2:17) that constitutes the soar in “This Is How We Do” and, more importantly, Justin Bieber’s “Sorry,” which shares “Cheap Thrill’s” tresillo hook. In “Sorry,” the soars are two measures long: a treble synth rises in pitch as the percussion moves from six beats of sixteenth-note snares, to a beat and a half of pause, and then to a percussive cascade on the last half beat serves as the drop.
“Cheap Thrills” doesn’t soar at all. Or rather, it hides a very tiny soar in the vocals. At the end of the first pre-chorus, Sia shortens her phrase length and repeats two fragments where normally a full line would go: “I ain’t got cash, I ain’t got cash” leads us up to the drop, which is her vocal “I got you bay-be.” But that’s not the only way the song hides the soar in the vocals. That percussive riff that we hear at the end of “Sorry”’s soar is hidden in Sean Paul’s “bidi-bang-bang-bangs.” Those syllabifications of drum riffs mark the end of his introductory rap, and punctuate the line where Sia repeats “hit the dance floor, hit the dance floor.” That line sits at the beginning of the pre-chorus, the antecedent phrase to the soar’s consequent phrase. This part of the soar isn’t just moved to a different voice, it’s relocated to where it doesn’t normally belong. Putting the quick percussive riff at the beginning rather than at the end of the soar further deflates it. Like shifting it to the vocals from the instrumentals, the time-shift puts the soar where we aren’t listening for it so it can sneak by without raising the affective temperature.
Just like it hides its soars, “Cheap Thrills” hides its conceptual or ideological reliance on the economically rational risk that soars represent in sound. Like a MasterCard commercial, the lyrics laud the pricelessness of intangible things like interpersonal relationships and aesthetic experiences: “I ain’t got cash but I got you bay-bee,” “I don’t need no money, as long as I can feel the beat.” Sia’s narrator praises unquantifiable, non-monetizeable things: “cheap” thrills are the best kind because they’re more valuable than anything money can buy (because they’re scarce and not available to everyone). This praise substitutes one measure of economic rationality for another, soft human capital–what philosopher Shannon Winnubst calls “cool”–for hard cash, and in so doing hides the economic risk the same way the song hides its soars. The risk Sia’s narrator makes isn’t directly financial: she’s not partying with her rent money. Rather, this claim to transcend entrepreneurial risk-taking is a bet on abnormal behavior. It’s risky, in a kind of meta-risky way, to refuse to take on the kinds of risk economic and social structures compel everyone to assume. After all, you could appear lazy or unproductive, a drain on the rest of us. But you could also appear progressive, forward-thinking, and discerning–in other words, chill.
What determines the outcome of Sia’s narrator’s wager? With this bet, as with all bets, the house always wins. As I’ve written about before, unrisky, safe, ‘normcore’ behavior is at bottom a wager on whiteness. Whiteness separates good (acceptable) from bad abnormality, transcendence from pathology. “Cheap Thrills” buries sonic/affective and ideological risk so that it can appear to transcend the imperative to hustle all the time. However, as Kemi Adeyemi wrote in SO!’s “Sound and Affect” series, lean–both the drug and the aesthetic–also sonically de-escalates the “I got six jobs I don’t get tired” hustle in a way that puts black people at further physical and economic risk:
Rappers like A$AP Rocky, Schoolboy Q, Future and others create musical odes to and demonstrations of the slowed pace of lean as it provides them a break from norms of physical and affective comportment…Lean radically grounds them, in other words, in an alternative body-space-time continuum that converses with the demands the neoliberal state places on the black body.
Lean aesthetics help black artists and audiences cope with the demands Adeyemi mentions, like working six jobs and not getting tired or the endless cycle of the “work hard, play hard” grind. Even though lean’s affect is chill and woozy, it doesn’t fully eliminate risk. As Adeyemi shows, lean’s alternative “physical and affective comportment” intensifies black bodies vulnerability to physical injury (seizures) and state violence.
If chilled-out soars are pop’s compliment to hip hop’s lean aesthetic, it’s fair to say that we’re all over neoliberalism’s imperative to hustle and assume risk. But not all of us can actually escape that risk without consequence: chill isn’t a universally cheap thrill. As Sia’s song demonstrates, such cheap thrills leverage whiteness as collateral to mitigate risk. Pop’s chilled-out approach to tension-release structures like soars and drops illustrates contemporary forms of whiteness and white privilege, namely, the privilege of appearing to avoid economic rationality and risk.
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.
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Listening to Sounds in Post-Feminist Pop Music-Robin James