“Type in Sada Baby on the computer and let them hear the difference.”
Devante gives me this advice in the midst of an escalating back-and-forth among his peers about the difference between singing and rapping. Eighteen middle schoolers lounge around two picnic tables inside our local community center for this six-week summer program. We’re still in the first week, and each day they’ve name-checked Sada Baby, a charismatic rapper from the eastside of Detroit. I’m too occupied at the moment—trying to keep the conversation from spilling into an argument—to heed Devante’s advice, so he takes matters into his own voice.
“Rapping is like this,” he tells the group while starting to nod his head to an ear-magined beat. “Oh boy, I ain’t playing no games!” Devante raps the first half-bar of “Oh Boy,” Sada Baby’s 2017 track that narrates his street exploits and threatens his rivals — often with violence to the women they might or might not love. Devante not only raps this opening line but approximates the grain of Sada Baby’s voice, at least as much as he can since his adolescent tone hasn’t yet caught up to his linebacker build. My own ear—from over 20 years as hip-hop DJ, turntablist, and vinyl enthusiast—is more Sadat X than Sada Baby. But Sada’s playful allure is audible even to me, like while bending his cadence into indecipherable sounds over the track’s intro. And he covered “Return of the Mack” into a shirtless gunplay revenge track. So there’s that, too. I can understand the affective draw he has on the young people in the room. And even if couldn’t, this wouldn’t be the last I would hear of him in Yaktown Sounds that summer.
Yaktown Sounds is an emergent space of sound making I curate in and around Pontiac, Michigan. (Pon-ti-Yak = Yaktown, get it?) A postindustrial city halfway between Detroit and Flint, Pontiac is the home of jazz drummer Elvin Jones, hip-hop group Binary Star, and perhaps the most respected battle rapper on the national scene today: JC. Since 2015, I’ve organized an evolving network of artists—usually DJs and beat makers—to make space for youth and community members to play with sound. Of course, play and sound go well together. In Yaktown Sounds, sometimes it’s elementary-age youth at the public library hitting pads and twisting knobs on MIDI controllers until they like what they hear. Other times it’s daddies and daughters scratching a record under the needle to see what comes out. The summer of 2017, I lined up a different musical artist each week from Pontiac and Detroit to visit and share their skills.
My curatory approach to this space takes inspiration from Saving Our Lives Hear Our Truths (SOLHOT), a creative, visionary, performative Black girlhood practice. In part, SOLHOT generates from a particular stance on Black girlhood sound. In Hear Our Truths (2013), SOLHOT visionary Ruth Nicole Brown theorizes Black girlhood sound and the ways it resists and improvises around neoliberal youth programming constraints that are intended to “fix” youth. Riffing off Tricia Rose in Black Noise, Brown theorizes Black girlhood as a sound nobody can organize. It bounces off adult listenings that would compress it into binary identity positions like sass/silence or into white mainstream notions of politeness and civility. What follows from this stance are not constrained, prescribed “learning environments” for youth but open, performative, imaginative spaces not always under adults’ control. This is the type of environment I try to facilitate in Yaktown Sounds.
This stance toward space and environment means vulnerability to reverberations and their affects. Reverberation, of course, is a phenomenon and technique that plays a prominent role in Black diasporic sonic expression. As Michael E. Veal writes, its affect/effect is most pronounced through Jamaican dub music: the collisions among sounds through echo, delay, and reverb. Veal’s engagement with dub and reverberation is also conceptual. In Dub (2013), he considers its echoes and ruptures “a sonic metaphor for the condition of diaspora” (197). In Sound Curriculum (2018), Walter Gershon thinks with sound to make a similar argument for reverberation and other physical, metaphysical, and aural phenomena: “Because sounds are already in motion, they are always reverberating, bouncing off of objects from sinus cavities to walls to coral to brush to air to water to stone” (56). In these instances, Veal and Gershon take up reverberation in both aural and environmental settings. Yet these ideas also apply to the spaces where youth and adults co-create together. What collides, bounces, and stays in motion? What counts as a reverberation?
In that summer of Yaktown Sounds, I understand Sada Baby’s aural presence as a kind of reverberation. He stayed in motion, colliding with youth judgments about what counted as rap, how a rapper’s voice should sound, and even my own aspirations for the space. These collisions were most apparent while preparing each week for our visiting artist.
Before a visit from Mahogany Jones, we watched the video for her song “Blue Collar Logic.” Landon was the first to respond while leaning back against the table, feet kicked out in front of him, and retwisting his short bronze locks:
“Can we see another one? That one wasn’t good. I didn’t think it was good. Not as good as I thought it would be. It was too much of that, uh, old time. I just think she didn’t rap enough.”
For Landon, the standard for rapping enough and not sounding “old time” was—you guessed it—Sada Baby. “He actually raps,” Landon noted while explaining. If we consider music and song not only as art but as different organizations of sound (another point from Gershon), Landon has a point. To get specific, some of Sada Baby’s songs are continuous bars of rapping — no hooks, no chorus, no rest. In “Oh Boy,” Sada Baby raps for two minutes and 20 seconds of the song, and guest artist FMB DZ raps a 40 second verse. Straight bars over a trap beat. By comparison, “Blue Collar Logic” is also roughly 3-minutes long but has a fuller song structure. Mahogany Jones raps for 1 minute and 20 seconds across two verses. In the golden era template of DJ Premier, cuts from DJ Los make up the 30-second intro, the two choruses, and the instrumental outro that lasts approximately one minute. If we do the math, Sada Baby’s track has more than double the rapping compared to Mahogany’s.
My point here isn’t to judge which organization of sound is better; there is no wrong way to organize sound. Rather, these details illustrate two very different organizations and how Sada Baby’s made up the basis for Landon’s judgment.
If Landon’s directness that “she didn’t rap enough” rings a bit harsh to our polite adult listenings, then hear Kareem slice through the group conversation after listening to hometown artist Kodac aka M80, who had just returned from a European tour:
“He don’t know how to rap.”
Kareem’s judgment was based upon what he heard as singing and rapping happening in the same song, an organization of sound he classified as “old.” When I asked Kareem what Kodac needed to do to be a better rapper — “in your opinion,” the recommendation was equally direct: “Be more like Sada Baby.”
These responses from Landon and Kareem show us something else about the movement of reverberations through this space. Sada Baby’s aural presence not only collided with youth preferences and claims about rap. As a reverberation, he was used to berate other artists whose sounds and configurations of sound were heard as “old” through youths’ generationally tuned ears.
Despite the youth-centric stance I take on spaces like Yaktown Sounds, I’m not gonna lie: the strikes and blows of these reverberations hit me too because of the relational ties I hold with these artists. They are part of my own creative community. I’ve DJed on stage for Kodac. I go to all of Mahogany’s shows. As a result, I remain vulnerable to the force of these reverberations. Owning up to that point, I am reminded of what Shakira Holt teaches us about adults and how we listen, particularly in education settings: sometimes we are not as open-eared to youth as we imagine ourselves to be — especially given the ways we have been socialized to censor and silence Black youth, even ones who live through our own cities, schools, and community centers. Though I’m two years removed from this particular iteration of Yaktown Sounds, Sada Baby continues to reverberate with/against me. He stays in motion even now, echoing through my writing as I toggle over to his Soundcloud page, press play on his songs, and wonder if I will hear something that makes me tune in differently to the young people around me.
Featured image: Screenshot from “Sada Baby–On Gang”
Emery Marc Petchauer makes beats and DJs with kids in and around Pontiac, MI. A former high school English teacher, he works as an associate professor of English and Teacher Education at Michigan State University. His scholarship has addressed the aesthetic practices of hip-hop culture and their connections to teaching, learning, and living. He also studies the high stakes test educators must pass to become certified teachers. He is online at empetch.com and on Twitter at @emerypetchauer.
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
It’s been ten weeks now that we’ve all been kicking back in our Wranglers. allowing Lil Nas X’s infectious twang in “Old Town Road” to shower us in yeehaw goodness from its perch atop the Billboard Hot 100. Entrenched as it is on the pop chart, though, “Old Town Road”’s relationship to Billboard got off to a shaky start, first landing on the Hot Country Songs list only to be removed when the publication determined the hit “does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.” There’s a lot to unpack in a statement like that, and folks have been unpacking it quite consistently, especially in relation to notions of genre and race (in addition to Matthew Morrison’s recommended reads, I’d add Karl Hagstrom-Miller’s Segregating Sound, which traces the roots of segregated music markets). Using the context of that ongoing discussion about genre and race, I’m listening here to a specific moment in “Old Town Road”— the line “can’t nobody tell me nothin”—and the way it changes from the original version to the Billy Ray Cyrus remix. Lil Nas X uses the sound of his voice in this moment to savvily leverage his collaboration with a country music icon, and by doing so subtly drawing out the respectability politics underlying Billboard’s racialized genre categorization of his song.
After each of Lil Nas X’s two verses in the original “Old Town Road,” we hear the refrain “can’t nobody tell me nothin.” The song’s texture is fairly sparse throughout, but the refrains feature some added elements. The 808-style kick drum and rattling hihats continue to dominate the soundscape, but they yield just enough room for the banjo sample to come through more clearly than in the verse, and it plucks out a double-time rhythm in the refrain. The vocals change, too, as Lil Nas X performs a call-and-response with himself. The call, “can’t nobody tell me nothin,” is center channel, just as his voice has been throughout the verse, but the response, “can’t tell me nothin,” moves into the left and right speaker, a chorus of Lil Nas X answering the call. Listen closely to these vocals, and you’ll also hear some pitch correction. Colloquially known as “autotune,” this is an effect purposely pushed to extreme limits to produce garbled or robotic vocals and is a technique most often associated with contemporary hip hop and R&B. Here, it’s applied to this melodic refrain, most noticeably on “nothin” in the call and “can’t” in the response,
After Billboard removed the song from the Hot Country chart in late March, country star Billy Ray Cyrus tweeted his support for “Old Town Road,” and by early April, Lil Nas X had pulled him onto the remix that would come to dominate the Hot 100. The Cyrus remix is straightforward: Cyrus takes the opening chorus, then Lil Nas X’s original version plays through from the first verse to the last chorus, at which point Cyrus tacks on one more verse and then sings the hook in tandem with Lil Nas X to close the song. Well, it’s straightforward except that, while Lil Nas X’s material sounds otherwise unaltered from the original version, the pitch correction is smoothed out so that the garble from the previous version is gone.
In order to figure out what happened to the pitch correction from the first to second “Old Town Road,” I’m bringing in a conceptual framework I’ve been tinkering with the last couple of years: the produced voice. Within this framework, all recorded voices are produced in two specific ways: 1) everyone performs their bodies in relation to gender, race, ability, sex, and class norms, and 2) everyone who sings on record has their voice altered or affected with various levels of technology. To think about a produced voice is to think about how voices are shaped by recording technologies and social technologies at the same time. Listening to the multiple versions of “Old Town Road” draws my attention specifically to the always collaborative nature of produced voices.
In performativity terms—and here Judith Butler’s idea in “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory” that “one is not simply a body, but, in some very key sense, one does one’s body” (521) is crucial—a collaboratively produced voice is a little nebulous, as it’s not always clear who I’m collaborating with to produce my voice. Sometimes I can (shamefully, I assure you) recognize myself changing the way my voice sounds to fit into some sort of, say, gendered norm that my surroundings expect. As a white man operating in a white supremacist, cisheteropatriarchal society, the deeper my voice sounds, the more authority adheres to me. (Well, only to a point, but that’s another essay). Whether I consciously or subconsciously make my voice deeper, I am definitely involved in a collaboration, as the frequency of my voice is initiated in my body but dictated outside my body. Who I’m collaborating with is harder to establish – maybe it’s the people in the room, or maybe my produced voice and your listening ears (read Jennifer Stoever’s The Sonic Color Line for more on the listening ear) are all working in collaboration with notions of white masculine authority that have long-since been baked into society by teams of chefs whose names we didn’t record.
In studio production terms, a voice’s collaborators are often hard to name, too, but for different reasons. For most major label releases, we could ask who applied the effects that shaped the solo artist’s voice, and while there’s a specific answer to that question, I’m willing to bet that very few people know for sure. Even where we can track down the engineers, producers, and mix and master artists who worked on any given song, the division of labor is such that probably multiple people (some who aren’t credited anywhere as having worked on the song) adjusted the settings of those vocal effects at some point in the process, masking the details of the collaboration. In the end, we attribute the voice to a singular recording artist because that’s the person who initiated the sound and because the voice circulates in an individualistic, capitalist economy that requires a focal point for our consumption. But my point here is that collaboratively produced voices are messy, with so many actors—social or technological—playing a role in the final outcome that we lose track of all the moving pieces.
Not everyone is comfortable with this mess. For instance, a few years ago long-time David Bowie producer Tony Visconti, while lamenting the role of technology in contemporary studio recordings, mentioned Adele as a singer whose voice may not be as great as it is made to sound on record. Adele responded by requesting that Visconti suck her dick. And though the two seemed at odds with each other, they were being equally disingenuous: Visconti knows that every voice he’s produced has been manipulated in some way, and Adele, too, knows that her voice is run through a variety of effects and algorithms that make her sound as epically Adele as possible. Visconti and Adele align in their desire to sidestep the fundamental collaboration at play in recorded voices, keeping invisible the social and political norms that act on the voice, keeping inaudible the many technologies that shape the voice.
Propping up this Adele-Visconti exchange is a broader relationship between those who benefit from social gender/race scripts and those who benefit from masking technological collaboration. That is, Adele and Visconti both benefit, to varying degrees, from their white femininity and white masculinity, respectively; they fit the molds of race and gender respectability. Similarly, they both benefit from discourses surrounding respectable music and voice performance; they are imbued with singular talent by those discourses. And on the flipside of that relationship, where we find artists who have cultivated a failure to comport with the standards of a respectable singing voice, we’ll also find artists whose bodies don’t benefit from social gender/race scripts: especially Black and Brown artists—non-binary, women, and men. Here I’m using “failure” in the same sense Jack Halberstam does in The Queer Art of Failure, where failing is purposeful, subversive. To fail queerly isn’t to fall short of a standard you’re trying to meet; it’s to fall short of a standard you think is bullshit to begin with. This kind of failure would be a performance of non-conformity that draws attention to the ways that systemic flaws – whether in social codes or technological music collaborations – privilege ways of being and sounding that conform with white feminine and white masculine aesthetic standards. To fail to meet those standards is to call the standards into question.
So, because respectably collaborating a voice into existence involves masking the collaboration, failing to collaborate a voice into existence would involve exposing the process. This would open up the opportunity for us to hear a singer like Ma$e, who always sings and never sings well, as highlighting a part of the collaborative vocal process (namely pitch correction, either through training or processing the voice) by leaving it out. To listen to Ma$e in terms of failed collaboration is to notice which collaborators didn’t do their work. In Princess Nokia’s doubled and tripled and quadrupled voice, spread carefully across the stereo field, we hear a fully exposed collaboration that fails to even attempt to meet any standards of respectable singing voices. In the case of the countless trap artists whose voices come out garbled through the purposeful misapplication of pitch correction algorithms, we can hear the failure of collaboration in the clumsy or over-eager use of the technology. This performed pitch correction failure is the sound I started with, Lil Nas X on the original lines “can’t nobody tell me nothin.” It’s one of the few times we can hear a trap aesthetic in “Old Town Road,” outside of its instrumental.
In each of these instances, the failure to collaborate results in the failure to achieve a respectably produced voice: a voice that can sing on pitch, a voice that can sing on pitch live, a voice that is trained, a voice that is controlled, a voice that requires no intervention to be perceived as “good” or “beautiful” or “capable.” And when respectable vocal collaboration further empowers white femininity or white masculinity, failure to collaborate right can mean failing in a system that was never going to let you pass in the first place. Or failing in a system that applies nebulous genre standards that happen to keep a song fronted by a Black artist off the country charts but allow a remix of the same song to place a white country artist on the hip hop charts.
The production shift on “can’t nobody tell me nothin” is subtle, but it brings the relationship between social race/gender scripts and technological musical collaboration into focus a bit. It isn’t hard to read “does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music” as “sounds too Black,” and enough people called bullshit on Billboard that the publication has had to explicitly deny that their decision had anything to do with race. Lil Nas X’s remix with Billy Ray Cyrus puts Billboard in a really tricky rhetorical position, though. Cyrus’s vocals—more pinched and nasally than Lil Nas X’s, with more vibrato on the hook (especially on “road” and “ride”), and framed without the hip hop-style drums for the first half of his verse—draw attention to the country elements already at play in the song and remove a good deal of doubt about whether “Old Town Road” broadly comports with the genre. But for Billboard to place the song back on the Country chart only after white Billy Ray Cyrus joined the show? Doing so would only intensify the belief that Billboard’s original decision was racially motivated. In order for Billboard to maintain its own colorblind respectability in this matter, in order to keep their name from being at the center of a controversy about race and genre, in order to avoid being the publication believed to still be divvying up genres primarily based on race in 2019, Billboard’s best move is to not move. Even when everyone else in the world knows “Old Town Road” is, among other things, a country song, Billboard’s country charts will chug along as if in a parallel universe where the song never existed.
As Lil Nas X shifted Billboard into a rhetorical checkmate with the release of the Billy Ray Cyrus remix, he also shifted his voice into a more respectable rendition of “can’t nobody tell me nothin,” removing the extreme application of pitch correction effects. This seems the opposite of what we might expect. The Billy Ray Cyrus remix is defiant, thumbing its nose at Billboard for not recognizing the countryness of the tune to begin with. Why, in a defiant moment, would Lil Nas X become more respectable in his vocal production? I hear the smoothed-out remix vocals as a palimpsest, a writing-over that, in the traces of its editing, points to the fact that something has been changed, therefore never fully erasing the original’s over-affected refrain. These more respectable vocals seem to comport with Billboard’s expectations for what a country song should be, showing up in more acceptable garb to request admittance to the country chart, even as the new vocals smuggle in the memory of the original’s more roboticized lines.
While the original vocals failed to achieve respectability by exposing the recording technologies of collaboration, the remix vocals fail to achieve respectability by exposing the social technologies of collaboration, feigning compliance and daring its arbiter to fail it all the same. The change in “Old Town Road”’s vocals from original to remix, then, stacks collaborative exposures on top of one another as Lil Nas X reminds the industry gatekeepers that can’t nobody tell him nothin, indeed.
Featured image, and all images in this post: screenshots from “Lil Nas X – Old Town Road (Official Movie) ft. Billy Ray Cyrus” posted by YouTube user Lil Nas X
Justin aDams Burton is Assistant Professor of Music at Rider University. His research revolves around critical race and gender theory in hip hop and pop, and his book, Posthuman Rap, is available now. He is also co-editing the forthcoming (2018) Oxford Handbook of Hip Hop Music Studies. You can catch him at justindburton.com and on Twitter @j_adams_burton. His favorite rapper is one or two of the Fat Boys.
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
Vocal Anguish, Disinformation, and the Politics of Eurovision 2016-Maria Sonevytsky
Cardi B: Bringing the Cold and Sexy to Hip Hop-Ashley Luthers