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SO! Amplifies: Die Jim Crow Record Label

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SO! Amplifies. . .a highly-curated, rolling mini-post series by which we editors hip you to cultural makers and organizations doing work we really really dig.  You’re welcome!

Die Jim Crow (DJC) is the first US record label dedicated to recording formerly and currently incarcerated musicians. The mission of DJC is to provide formerly and currently incarcerated musicians a high-quality platform for their voices to be heard. DJC sprang from Executive Director Fury Young’s communications with currently incarcerated individuals by letter and was originally slated to be a single concept album, inspired by Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and Pink Floyd’s The Wall. The project quickly grew into much more than that.

For me, death to Jim Crow means a death to stereotypes, to misconceptions of the ‘Other.’ There is no Other. The term ‘Jim Crow’ comes from a song which satirizes a slave. I see much parallel to the way our society views those incarcerated: that they are ‘lesser than;’ merely criminals. We are changing this narrative through music. – Fury Young

DJC records, produces, and releases music written and performed by formerly and currently incarcerated individuals. Prison staff and others working inside, such as volunteers or other program facilitators, refer incarcerated collaborators to DJC. Executive Director Young and Deputy Director BL Shirelle correspond by mail or digitally with these individuals to help prepare their musical contributions for in-prison recording sessions. Young, Shirelle, and other producers identify promising Project Managers inside each facility who help guide the music creation and recording process.

Music is recorded in prisons, homes of the formerly incarcerated, and Brooklyn studio revolutionsound, produced in the same studio, and then widely released through digital and physical channels. We currently have ongoing programming at 2 prisons in South Carolina and have recorded at a total of 5 prisons since 2015, 3 of which we are seeking to regain access to because of prison administration changes.

Our Board of Directors comprises 40% formerly and currently incarcerated individuals, ensuring that Die Jim Crow is steered by those who have direct lived experience with the issues informing our work. Deputy Director Shirelle is a formerly incarcerated musician acting as co-Label Manager with Young, bringing her unique set of experiences and talents to Die Jim Crow.

Over the past several years, Young has formed solid relationships built on trust with a number of formerly and currently incarcerated artists and has learned how to navigate the challenging process of gaining access to prisons to work with incarcerated individuals. As Fury told SO!’s Managing Editor Liana Silva,

Gaining access is tough. It can take months, even years to navigate through to the right people and get an Okay. Once you’re in, you’re in. But then you need to deal with censorship from the top brass and navigating through that. There are all types of unforeseen challenges that pop up when you least expect them to — but it really comes from above. In terms of recording on the inside, besides the typical band shit like “this guy’s ego is getting in the way”  or “this guy won’t play with the band,” the making music part is the fun part.

Earlier this year–March 2019–Young took a trip to Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina, the experience inspired a big shift In Die Jim Crow toward founding the non-profit label.  The journey began in New Orleans with a home recording of Albert Woodfox, who lent his voice to music for the first time. Mr. Woodfox spent 43 years in solitary confinement in Louisiana, the longest of any solitary prisoner in US history. Fury also recorded a video interview with Albert about his experiences with music while inside.

From NOLA, Fury picked up co-producer and engineer Doc (aka Dr. Israel) in Mississippi–who has been part of the DJC team since 2015– where they spent two days recording four rappers at a juvenile prison — Central Mississippi CF Youthful Offender Unit. They spent the next 10 days in South Carolina recording a total of 22 artists at a men’s and a women’s prison: Allendale CI and Camille Griffin Graham CI.  When they got home, Fury noted at a Board of Directors meeting: “This is becoming a record label.” He had already discussed it with Shirelle and senior advisor Maxwell Melvins, both DJC artists and board members, and the consensus was clear. A similar reaction was palpable at the board meeting. Stefanie Lindeman, a non-profit veteran and board member, brought up, “OK, we need to put together a three year strategic plan immediately.” And from there, Die Jim Crow Records was born.

And what will Die Jim Crow records sound like? Fury told SO! that

There’s a lot of hip hop and soul. Most of our artists are black and that is the music many of them grew up on. But as we transition into a record label and open up to new projects, we’re becoming more of a melting pot. All types of influences go into the stew. Right now we’re working on a straight hip hop EP at a women’s prison in South Carolina — kinda like a Lauren HIll/Rapsody vibe, and then a project called The Masses at a men’s SC prison — which has a full band and several emcees. They’re sorta like The Roots meets Wu Tang in a southern prison. But in other states we’ve recorded plenty of rock and even Native American chants. If you listen to the EP, you’ll get a sense of the sundry sounds.

Young has already recorded and released a high-quality EP with these musicians and recorded a significant library of unreleased music.

Over the next few years, DJC will continue to grow through re-releasing and repackaging existing content, cultivation of current and new artists, and development of new projects, as well as live shows, events, and tours. DJC will release 1 EP and 1 mixtape per year. The first release will be the Die Jim Crow LP, accompanied by a book and feature film documentary in 2022. By November 2020, DJC will release The Masses EP. On May 1, 2020, DJC will re-release the Die Jim Crow EP, release the “First Impressions” single and video from the EP, and begin the “Single of the Month” initiative, putting out both prerecorded songs and new works.

Die Jim Crow is currently engaged in a Kickstarter campaign for their project through 8 pm tonight, Monday 28, 2019– click here to donate to launch the label and/or read (and hear) more about the project!

Featured Image: Some of the artists Die Jim Crow has worked with in GA, OH, IN, CO, PA, CA, NY, NJ, MD, KS, AL, TX, and LA. (L-R each row): Johnnie Lindsey, Leon Benson, Malcolm Morris, Maxwell Melvins, Michael Austin, Dexter Nurse, Valerie Seeley, Spoon Jackson, Tameca Cole, Michael Tenneson, Mark Springer, Obadyah Ben-Yisrayl, Cedric “Versatile” Johnson, Lee Lee, Anthony “Big Ant” McKinney, Ezette Edouard, Pastor Anna Smith, BL Shirelle, Carl Dukes, Norman Whiteside, Sedrick Franklin, Charles “C-Will” Williams, Apostle Heloise

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SO! Amplifies: The Electric Golem (Trevor Pinch and James Spitznagel)

SO! Amplifies. . .a highly-curated, rolling mini-post series by which we editors hip you to cultural makers and organizations doing work we really really dig.  You’re welcome!

On March 24th, 2019 the record release party for The Electric Golem’s 6th CD Golemology was held at the Loft in Ithaca, New York. The Electric Golem is an avant-garde synthesizer duo featuring Trevor Pinch and James Spitznagel, that has been in existence for about ten years.

Trevor Pinch is a local sound artist and professor at Cornell University. He is an STS (Science and Technology Studies) and Sound Studies scholar. As a key thinker of STS, Trevor is the coproducer of theories about Sociology of Scientific Knowledge, Social Construction of Technology (SCOT), and the role of users in technological history and innovation. However, Trevor’s interest in dates back much farther; he built his first modular synthesizer when he was a physics student in London in the 1970s.

The other half of The Electric Golem, James Spitznagel, is a multi-media artist who uses the iPad as a musical instrument and to create digital paintings. While he has played many roles in the music and culture industries—guitarist in a rock band, record store owner, art gallery and guitar shop investor, and even business manager for the Andy Warhol Museum—he moved to Ithaca to focus on producing abstract art: digital paintings and experimental, improvisational music. Being an energetic and enthusiastic person who has unrestrained fantasies, James finds that everything around him can be his inspiration.

Pinch and Spitznagel formed the group after Spitznagel read Analog Days: The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer (by Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco) and realized Pinch also lived in Ithaca. Spitznagel simply looked his name up in the phone book and called him up: “I go, ‘is this Trevor Pinch?’ He said, ‘yes.’ I said, ‘well, you don’t know me, but I just read your book and I love it.’”  And then they got together for a beer and have been best friends and collaborators ever since.  Once Spitznagel heard about Pinch’s homemade synthesizer, he asked Trevor to try to make something together and it turned out to be a fascinating mixture of analog–Trevor’s synth, Moog Prodigy, and a Minimoog–and James’s digital instruments.

Building from this first moment of discovery, The Electric Golem’s music is electronic, experimental, and totally improvised. Typically, the pieces of music last twenty minutes to half an hour and expresses their interaction with the machines and with each other in the studio. James is much more controlling of the tone and rhythm, and patches the sound as he goes along, whereas Trevor is much more about making spontaneous weird sounds. They complement each other and the creation process is usually by random and spontaneous, as Spitznagel describes: “I didn’t tell Trevor what to do or what to play, but I said, here’s the piece of music I’ve written. He just instinctively knew what add to it.” Reciprocally, “he might just play something that I go, oh, I can weave in and out of the ambient sound he’s putting there.”

Trevor Pinch, Electric Golem at Elmira College, 2012

For the duo, the process of producing music becomes a shared experience with their listeners. The music is ever changing and evolving. In addition, unexpected drama adds vitality to the palette. “The iPad might freeze up or synthesizer might break somehow,” Spitznagel notes, “that’s happened to us, but we carry on. Like Trevor looks at me and says, it’s not working there. Or, I look at him and go, I have to reboot my computer, it’s not working. But, those times actually inspire us to try new things and go beyond what we are doing.” James explained. Their inspiration comes from the unknown, which just emerges from their practice. “Generally, this sort of music is completely unique to Electric Golem.” Trevor concluded.

The name “Electric Golem” comes from a series of books with Golem in the titles that Trevor collaborated on with his mentor Harry Collins. “The golem is a creature of Jewish mythology,” Pinch and Collins wrote in The Golem, What You Should Know about Science, “it is a humanoid made by man with clay and water, with incantations and spells. It is powerful, it grows a little more powerful every day.  It will follow orders, do your work, and protect you from the ever threatening enemy.  But it is clumsy and dangerous.  Without control, a golem may destroy its masters with its flailing vigour” (1).  Noting Trevor’s association with the concept of the Golem, Spitznagel added the “Electric” twist not just as a metaphor for their sound but also because “it’s kind of like a retro name.” The Electric Golem mushroomed from there, and in the past decade they have had many invitations and bookings to play out, receiving the first recording contract from the Ricochet Dream label, and have played with a bunch of notable musicians, such as Malcolm Cecil of Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, Simeon of Silver Apples, and “Future Man” (aka Roy Wooten), and they haven’t stopped there.

According to Pinch, the key feature of The Electric Golem’s music is its ability to encompass different moods. “I think Electric Golem has become good at one thing: its changing and transitioning from one sort of mood of music to another. And we have become quite good at those transitions. I think people would say that’s what they kind of like about us.” These sorts of slow transitions construct a unique texture of sound that can be quite cinematic, so much so that in 2012, the Electric Golem performed the accompaniment to the silent movie A Trip to the Moon, a special Cornell cinema event. Overall, as improvised experimental music, it is sometimes challenging to listen to, with no regular rhythm or reliable melody. Trevor produces warm, rich drones from the analog side that contrast with the sharper digital rhythms that James programs. In short, the Electric Golem varies between these two affects but the music goes far beyond the representation of emotional states; sometimes it conjures up the feeling of the vastness of space and time.

Experimental music, is a collaboration and negotiation process between instruments and their users.  No matter if analog or digital, instruments have autonomy; they are non-human actors with their own agency to some extent. As Trevor Pinch intimates, “I understand the general sort of sound that can be produced, but the particular details of how it will work out, you don’t really know, that’s much more spontaneous, you have to react to that.”  Instruments can often be uncontrollable–making their own sounds—so that Electric Golem must respond in kind. “So, it’s sort of like higher level meta-control versus actually doing what you’re doing in response to the instrument that combines together,” Trevor describes, “which I think is the secret to controlling these sorts of instruments.” It is incredible that Pinch and Spitznagel know each other so well—and each know their instruments so well–that they can improvise for long periods with no trouble. Trevor says: “Follow the use of these instruments! Follow the instruments! They are not essentialized. They are just stabilized temporarily.”

On the whole, The Electric Golem shows an artistic form which breaks the traditional paradigm, deconstructs and then reconstructs it, seeking to free sound from the instruments. Their music is beyond pure melody and rhythm, beyond the expression of existence, expressing more of an aesthetic state of transcendence. They challenge what music is, and what musical instruments are; they challenge divisions between the identities of engineer and musician. Electric Golem’s music co-constructs art and technology and binds them together; art, for them, is a mode of presenting technology, and vice versa, technology is a pathway through which art can flourish.

My favorite Electric Golem piece is called “Heart of the Golem.” What is the heart of the Golem? According to Pinch, “It is a mystery, a process of unfolding and discovery. It is somewhere where analog and digital sound meet, and an improvisation.” What the magic is remains unknown and unlimited, just like the future of the Electric Golem.

Featured Image: Courtesy of The Electric Golem

Qiushi Xu is a PhD candidate in the subject of Philosophy of Science and Technology in Tsinghua University, Beijing and in a joint PhD program in the Department of Science and Technology Studies in Cornell University, working with Prof. Trevor Pinch. Her research areas are Sound Studies, STS, Cultural Studies and Gender Studies. Her current research focuses on the sociology of piano sound and the negotiation and construction of piano sound in the recording studio (PhD dissertation), gender issues in recording industry, experimental music, auscultation and sound therapy. She holds an MA in Cultural and Creative Industries from King’s College London; a BA in Recording Arts and a BA in Journalism and Communication from the University of China, Beijing. She is also an amateur pianist, writer, and traditional Chinese painter. As a multiculturalist, she is am fascinated by different forms of art and culture in different cultural contexts.

SO! Amplifies: Memoir Mixtapes

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SO! Amplifies. . .a highly-curated, rolling mini-post series by which we editors hip you to cultural makers and organizations doing work we really really dig.  You’re welcome!

 “The mashup of the two things we all love to talk about: ourselves & music”

Memoir Mixtapes is a nonprofit literary magazine that is entirely volunteer-run. Created by Samantha Lampf, the idea for the magazine came about on a commute home from Santa Monica to Koreatown in 2018. At the time, Lampf’s life was rapidly changing. After marrying, moving to Los Angeles and changing her career path, she felt as if something was still missing. When “Silver Springs,” by Fleetwood Mac, came on the radio —  an artist her dad used to play constantly. Lampf was immediately transported to a specific time in her childhood where she experienced insomnia and depressive thoughts, saying “the music taunted me at all hours.” Soon after, she had the thought to write an essay about this song. She then began to think that many people had their own stories about songs, and Memoir Mixtapes was officially underway.

The first call for submissions was put out that night, and Lampf was unsure if she would receive more than five pieces. However, the first volume, titled “Origin Stories,” published 34 tracks. Since then, they have published eight volumes, with topics ranging from guilty pleasures to our personal anthems. Each volume consists of creative nonfiction submissions and a song (or two) to accompany each piece. The goal of the magazine is to use music as a natural provocation of emotion and memories, using music to connect with each other while reading about some of our most personal experiences.

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Danny McLaren’s “Don’t Stop me Now // Queen” from Vol. 4 “Anthems”

While Memoir Mixtapes’ primary focus is their full volume works, they also support other literature about music or memoir that might not fit into their main magazine topics. Deep Cuts, a section created for these pieces, features recordings, visual art, playlists and more. Not a writer, but still interested in the project? Consider sharing a song recommendation! All you have to do is create an account on Medium and follow the steps listed on the website for a chance to have your song featured either Monday, Wednesday, or Friday.

Memoir Mixtape’s 2019 Playlist

Memoir Mixtapes is special because it gives us a way to discuss the impact of music on our lives. Music is an integral part of birthdays, weddings, religion and many other cultural practices, yet we often understand music as a separate entity from identity — one that is universal in its message rather than individualized and personal. However, writers at Memoir Mixtapes are allowing us to listen to music as they experience and hear it, providing us with a new method of listening to songs we have our own histories with.

If music and memoir sounds appealing to you, check out the Memoir Mixtapes magazine to read, listen or submit a piece of your own — they have rolling submissions, so submit anytime!  For their tenth volume, Memoir Mixtapes is ready to talk about  “Ballads & Breakups,” or the whimsical, disastrous search for love. As their page states, “if you felt it in your heart, we want to read it.”  Calls for submissions are open now until June 30th! 

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Kaitlyn Liu is a freshman at Binghamton University majoring in English Literature with a concentration in rhetoric. Kaitlyn takes interest in writing about gender and race along with other intersectional classification systems. Kaitlyn currently writes for the opinions section for the student newspaper, Pipe Dream, as well as working as a copy editor. Outside of writing, Kaitlyn enjoys reading historical fiction and singing for Binghamton University’s oldest co-ed a cappella group, the Binghamtonics.

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