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Sounding Out! Podcast #43: Retail Soundscapes and the Ambience of Commerce

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What is the ambient sound of commerce? Equally reviled and revered, the programmed soundscapes of retail space combine wonderful serendipity with quotidian blandness. This podcast examines field recordings from luxury megastores, suburban fast food joints, and everything in between. As it turns out, the corporate ambience of chain-store retail isn’t so far away from the high-brow ambitions of ambient music. Ambience is whatever surrounds us, and it’s embroiled within the same kinds of aesthetic, political, and economic struggles that have been recognized in architecture for centuries.

While a long line of thinkers have identified the links between retail and modernity, surprisingly few have addressed the phenomena in auditory terms. Following up on Jonathan Sterne’s 1997 inquiry regarding environmental music in the Mall of America, this podcast examines new developments in ambient sound that have accompanied the rise of e-commerce and the decline of brick-and-mortar stores. Segmentation of markets, nostalgia for the past, and the early history of recording are all addressed, as we take a listening trip through consumer culture.

The podcast presents highlights from field recordings from retail stores, accompanied by voice-over narration. Field recordings were captured with a Zoom H4n handy recorder, at Menlo Park Mall in Edison, NJ, Dover Street Market New York, Parsonage Road Target in Edison, NJ, Wal-Mart Route 27 in Edison, NJ, and Dunkin Donuts Route 27 in Edison, NJ. Also includes excerpts from Brian Eno’s “Ambient 1: Music for Airports” (1978) and Disconscious’ “Hologram Plaza” (2013).

James Hodges is a PhD student in media studies at Rutgers University. His research focuses on the relationship between promotional culture and media preservation. James is the cofounder of a media archaeology working group at Rutgers, and he runs a small cassette label for fun.

Featured image by Nicholas Eckhart @Flickr CC BY.

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

Sounding Out! Podcast #6: Spaces of Listening / The Record Shop – Aaron Trammell

Sounding Out! Podcast #18: Listening to the Tuned City Brussels , Day 3: “Ephemeral Atmospheres”– Felicity Ford and Valeria Merlini

Sounding Out! Podcast #28: Off the 60: A Mix-Tape Dedication to Los Angeles – Jennifer Stoever

Sounding Out! Podcast #28: Off the 60: A Mix-Tape Dedication to Los Angeles

CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD: Off the 60: A Mix-Tape Dedication to Los Angeles

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Off the 60: A Mix-Tape Dedication to Los Angeles

With the slight return of warmth to the East Coast of the U.S. and Tropics of Meta’s very recent release of Troy Andreas Araiza Kokinis’s fantastic history“’The Sky is Black and the Asphalt Blue’: Placing El Monte in the Early LA Punk Rock Scene” and its accompanying archival project (bring your old flyers and pics down to scan at Bridgetown DIY, 1421 N. Valinda Ave, La Puente, CA on May 3rd from 2-6 pm), we thought it was high time to bring Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman’s LA mixtape Off the 60 into the sunlight for everyone to bump with their windows down.

Off the 60 was initially commissioned as a sonic installation for the re:present L.A. Exhibition at East LA’s Vincent Price Museum from May 3 – July 27, 2012. re:present L.A. was curated by Museum Studies students at Claremont Graduate University (and coordinated by performance artist, scholar, and poet reina alejandra prado saldivar, who wrote about the experience for SO! in 2011). The exhibit sought “to explore, challenge, and depict the multiple representations of Los Angeles that responds to the present social landscapes of city” through both sight and sound.” Click these links for the exhibit’s virtual catalogue and list of participating artists. Both the liner notes and the track listing have been modified slightly from the original for publication here.

Off the 60: Liner Notes

When I began to make this mix-tape that somehow would re-present L.A. in a mere 80 minutes, my enabling fantasy was that I could make a playlist that would be my musical calling card, a sonic Rosetta Stone for “home” that would unravel the complex knot of feelings about L.A. I carry around with me, something I could share with my son, whom I am somewhat reluctantly raising as a New Yorker. You know, a musical study guide so the sounds that raised and shaped me could tell him all the things I just can’t put into words about Los Angeles, namely how much music and place are wrapped together in my memory’s DNA. Therefore, this mix deliberately dates and locates me, enabling, in the words of Ronnie Hudson’s “West Coast Poplock,” the intimate knowledge of “listening to the map.” And—there was more than a little magical thinking involved here—I thought that perhaps if I arranged these songs just so, then the barren Sleepy Hollow landscape of wintry upstate New York would transform itself into the desiccated foothills, dried river beds, and dense strip malls of Southern California. I’d turn a bend and, with a little help from the Go-Go’s and Union 13, 79 would suddenly become “the” 60.

60 freewayAnd thus the title, a tongue-in-cheek reference to J.Lo’s debut album On the 6 (1999), named after the subway line between Manhattan and the Bronx, where she grew up. Off the 60 references the freeway whose red brake lights stretch between Los Angeles and Riverside, my hometown, and the mix is just the right length for a one-way trip, provided there’s no traffic (I told you there was some magical thinking involved here!). The 60 is one of the most heavily trafficked commuter pathways in the country; I know people in Riv who will make this 60-mile drive 5 days a week, 51 weeks a year, for decades (I have also met people in Los Angeles who had never made this trip east, and who used to look askance at my 951 cell number, in the same way that my current 323 area code causes looks of consternation to New Yorkers). For many people coming of age in the Inland Empire, Los Angeles exerts a tidal pull, and we make many trips there before hitting the commuter treadmill—in family cars, in our imaginations, in movies, in books, on school busses and tour busses, in broken-down band vans, in hoopties borrowed from our friend’s uncle that may not make the return trip—and some of us make that 60-mile move West and never really come back, like me. I ended up living on St. Andrews instead of only singing about it.

Riverside 60But you never know, The Riv has a deep hold on people. I closed Off the 60 with a band from Riverside, old friends of mine Chicano punk rockers the Voodoo Glow Skulls, because one second you are going to law school in Queens or Dap-Toning with Sharon Jones and the next you are back, public defending in San Bernardino or married with big fam filling a house by Mt. Rubidoux, respectively. True stories. But I am already taking a detour Off the 60, in the hopes that the music on this mix invites you to do that. Unlike J.Lo’s subway, you can’t stay on the 60 and really get to know Riverside, Los Angeles, or all the many places in between that are intertwined socially, historically, culturally and economically with both cities: Glen Avon. Corona. Chino. Diamond Bar. Rowland Heights. La Puente. Hacienda Heights. El Monte. Montebello. East L.A. Boyle Heights.

A sonic exit ramp of sorts, Off the 60 is a mix-tape in digital format, crafted in the old style: a painstaking arrangement of songs really familiar and much beloved to me, listened to obsessively throughout the process to create fresh transitions that are laden with significance—and of course, car tested L.A.-style until smooth like butter.   For Off the 60, I deliberately picked songs without the aid of Wikipedia or any of the copious L.A song lists, sitting down with just a blank page, my memory, and a sharp pencil (as I hope you can tell by many of the songs, I’m kinda old school) to come up with a set of songs that aren’t necessarily about L.A., but of it. This is a small, symbolic sample of the music that once scored my life in the Southland from the 1970s-the 2000s through the perspective of my current “home away from home” in New York. Now, in what my colleague and homegrrl Karen Tongson (another Riversidean, now turned proud Silver Lake home owner) has poignantly dubbed “remote intimacy” in Relocations (New York University Press, 2011).  And these sounds still make me feel L.A. even though I often feel like I live “a million miles away.” I hope you feel it too.

9297628099_7ab788f0a8_bThe songs on Off the 60 are arranged to speak to each other, sometimes sonically, sometimes thematically, sometimes historically (and occasionally I pull off the trifecta! Listen carefully!). I designed the mix to flow along with the narrative rhythms of a timeless (yet intentionally dated) Saturday in L.A., from waking up with the sound of Friday night still in your ears to basking in the warm afternoon—which can feel so good you almost get knocked off your game—until the purplish-orange twilight descends, with its regret and uncertainty, on into the pulsing promises of the night. Sonically blending vulnerability with hardness—and revealing both where you least expect them—I hope the songs on this mix share an overall L.A. vibe that is more than merely the sum total of the musical parts, a feeling that’s ephemeral and hard to put your finger on, but—paradoxically—one whose resonance lasts.

And because I am a sound/music scholar in addition to a product of the 714 909 951, you’ll get plenty of L.A. music history through this this mix. All the bands featured are based in L.A. or Riverside, except for two artists whom I have awarded honorary Angeleno status: Smokey Robinson and Debbie Deb. Never mind the fact Motown had already moved to L.A. by the time Robinson’s “Crusin’” was released in 1982 and he used to host one of my favorite radio shows on 92.3 in the 2000s, but these two songs have bumped out of so many cars, clubs, backyard parties and Art Leboe sets that both Smoke and Deb own some symbolic real estate in Southern California, at least in my heart.

In putting the work of so many different L.A. artists together, I challenged myself to create a coherent musical feel without placing songs from similar genres, scenes, or time periods right next to each other. I worked hard to create a sense of the diversity of the Los Angeles area without being either gratuitously culture clash-y or post-multiculti Velveeta, but using sound to make palpable both the dissonant tensions and the productive energies of everyday encounters in the city in a way that “represents” without claiming to be representative. Think of Off the 60 as a flash-sample of what you might hear while whiling away a scorching Friday night in traffic, when everybody’s got their windows open, cooling off the outside with their tunes. As a result, you’ll hear classic L.A. musical sounds in conversation—mariachi horns, surf guitar, nasally Val-Speak, fat funky synth, staccato punk growls, metal licks, downtempo samples, polyrhythmic percussion, and that power pop tone that my Vox amp calls “Cali Clean”— calling and responding across genres and decades: re-mixing, recontextualized, distorting, hyperembodying those terribly glamorous L.A. sounds, across this town, our town. Por vida.

Off the 60 is dedicated,  Art Leboe-style,  to my SGV homegirl Melissa Contreras-McGavin for always (even though she lived off the pinche 10 for so long). Mwah.

Off the 60: Track Listing–Click to Jump to Track Description

1. “This Town” by The Go-Go’s
2.
“Del-Tone Rock” by Dick Dale and his Del-Tones
3.
“La Bamba” by The Plugz
4.
“Chango” by Ozomatli
5.
“Unyielding Conditioning” by Fishbone
6.
“Blessings” by The Visionaries and the Beat Junkiez
7.
“All Day Music” by WAR
8.
“Concrete Schoolyard” by Jurassic 5
9.
“Cruisin’” by Smokey Robinson
10.
“It was a Good Day” by Ice Cube
11.
“A Million Miles Away” by The Plimsouls
12.
“I Can’t Stand it Anymore” by Union 13
13.
“Jane Says” by Jane’s Addiction
14.
“Destination Unknown” by Missing Persons
15.
“Look Out Weekend” by Debbie Deb
16.
“West Coast Poplock” by Ronnie Hudson and the Street People
17.
“Make Ya Neck Lock” by Medusa and Feline Science
18.
“This Town” by Ceci Bastida with guest Tim Armstrong
19.
“Here Comes the Sun” by Voodoo Glow Skulls

  1. “This Town” by The Go-Go’s (Beauty and the Beat, I.R.S. Records, 1981): The Go-Go’s were formed in Hollywood in 1978 by members of the early L.A. punk scene and this song reflects their lives in that moment. The Go-Go’s initially consisted of Belinda Carlisle (vocals), Jane Wiedlin (guitar, vocals), Margot Olavarria (bass), and Elissa Bello (drums). Members Charlotte Caffey (guitar), Gina Schock (drums) and Kathy Valentine (bass) were added by 1981, after founding members Margot Olvarria (bass) and Elisa Bello (drums) were fired. The Go-Go’s were the first female band writing and playing their own music to reach number one on the Billboard Charts.   This was the first record I purchased with my own money.

  1. “Del-Tone Rock” by Dick Dale and his Del-Tones (The B-Side of “Let’s Go Trippin’,” Deltone Records, 1961): Dick Dale was born in Boston, Massachusetts and came to Southern California in 1954—Orange County, but we’ll let that slide—where he was one of the innovators in the “Surf Music” genre that many still associate with Los Angeles. “Del-Tone Rock” was the B-Side of the alleged first surf song ever, “Let’s Go Trippin.’” An avid surfer, Dale sought to imitate with his guitar the sounds that he heard while riding waves—and he pushed his equipment to the max while doing so (Fender guitars, another Southern California staple, designed several custom guitars and amps for Dale and still sell a “Dick Dale Custom Shop Stratocaster” model). My dad once got in trouble for sneaking out to see Dick Dale play a “stomp” at the Riverside Armory in 1963. I saw him play at the Dragonfly in 1996.

  1. “La Bamba” by The Plugz (Electrify Me, Plugz Records, 1979): The first rock and roll version of this Mexican folk song was of course recorded by Richie Valens of Pacoima in 1958—he was first known as “Little Richard of the Valley”—and his life and music inspired countless musicians after his untimely death at age 17 in a plane crash in Clearlake, Iowa. The Plugz’ punk-rock version both pays homage to Valens and signifies on the outsiderness of his music career—his manager insisted he whiten his surname by changing it from Valens to Valenzuela, for example. The Plugz formed in 1977 in East Los Angeles and their version of “La Bamba” was recorded with the original line-up: Tito Larriva (lead vocals/guitar), Charlie Quintana (drums), and Barry McBride (bass/backing vocals). The Plugz were staples in the early LA punk rock scene, but they challenged its Hollywood-centricity with a sound that also had firm roots in Chicano garage rock from bands like Thee Midnighters. I first heard The Plugz on the soundtrack to Repo Man, and I can’t tell you how many batteries I went through fastforwarding from “El Clavo y Cruz” to “Hombre Secreto” and back again.

  1. “Chango” by Ozomatli (Ozomatli, Almo Sounds, 1998): Ozomatli was formed in Los Angeles in 1995, after meeting through their affiliation with the Peace and Justice Center. A multiethnic, multiracial collective that, at the time “Chango” was recorded was comprised of Wil-Dog Abers (bassvocals), Ulises Bella (clarinet, guitar, tenor saxophone, vocals), Chali 2na (MC), Cut Chemist (DJ), Raúl Pacheco (guitar, vocals), Justin Porée (percussion), Asdru Sierra (trumpet, vocals) and Jiro Yamaguchi (tabla, cajón, other percussion, vocals), Ozomatli is unabashedly and proudly political through and through: in their lyrics, in their brilliantly miscegenated music—described by Bella and Yamaguchi as “that crazy blend that’s going on between that cacophony of sound” on the streets of L.A. (NPR, 2007)—and in the shows they choose to perform. Ozomatli famously played their cumbia-funk-hip hop-salsa-merengue jams in front of the 2000 Democratic Convention in Downtown Los Angeles and continued to record after the LAPD shut them down and began to shoot rubber bullets, tear gas, and pepper spray paint balls at the peacefully gathered crowd (the footage opens their second record Embrace the Chaos). I included this particular song to also give props to the way in which Ozo has politicized collective dancing—and dances their politics—I have seen them play in many diverse venues from the Cal Plaza to the Warped Tour and I have never seen them fail to move the crowd in more ways than one.

  1. “Unyielding Conditioning” by Fishbone (Give A Monkey A Brain and He’ll Swear He’s the Center of the Universe, 1993): One of the best (and most virtuostically versatile) bands from Southern California, hands down, Fishbone was formed by high school buddies John Norwood Fisher (bass, vocals), Kendall Jones (guitar), Phillip “Fish” Fisher (drums), Angelo Moore (vocals, saxophone, and theremin); “Dirty” Walter A. Kibby II (vocals, trumpet); and Christopher Dowd (keyboards, trombone, vocals) in South Central Los Angeles in 1979. Their coming together is a very 1970s L.A. story; everyone but San Fernando Valley local Moore was bussed from Compton to the overwhelmingly white high school, an 100 mile round trip that you can hear in their music. If you have never heard of this wonderful fusion band—everything from heavy metal to ska to funk to soul to punk—but find that this song sounds teasingly familiar, consider even just the LA-area bands that have stood on these giant’s shoulders: the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jane’s Addiction, No Doubt, the Skeletones, the Voodoo Glow Skulls, Hepcat. While it has always burned me up that Fishbone has never seen the level of fame that many of these acts have—too bad you can’t pay the rent with respect—I refuse to talk about them as a failure, especially not as an act who has unceasingly worked so hard to portray Los Angeles they live in story and sound. In a recent interview with the Japanese Metropolis, Norwood Fisher stated: “you know we came from gang-related neighborhoods, so for me the violence of punk made sense. There was a big cross-cultural surge, everybody was listening to everything—mod and ska and new wave—everybody could enjoy it, and for a moment it didn’t matter what color you were.” To create that “one moment,” Fishbone has never stopped telling the stories of the numerous moments where it does matter—the tensions embodied in “Unyielding Conditioning”—and that is why I will always love them. By the way, these veteranos still tour so please support Fishbone whenever they come to home to play.

  1. “Blessings” by The Visionaries and the Beat Junkiez (Galleries, Up Above Records 1998). This virtuostic Los Angeles hip hop super group in the tradition of multicultural, multiracial Angeleno musical collectives like WAR and Ozomatli, blends the MC talents of Visionaries 2 Mex, LMNO, Lord Zen, Dannu, Key Kool, and DJ Rhettmatic with the legendary turntablist crew the World Famous Beat Junkies (who were formed in Orange County in 1992 by J-Rocc) and whose members over the years have included Rhettmatic, Curse, Melo-D, D-Styles, Red-Jay, Havik, Tommy Gun, & What?!, Symphony, DJ Babu (also of Dilated Peoples) and Mr. Choc. The cream of the backpack crop, this group was the sound of L.A. underground positivity for myself and so many artists, writers, and musicians I knew in the 2000s. Not to mention that this amazing downtempo beat also reminds me of dancing with my best girls at turn-of-the-millennium late night chill spots all over the city—after long days grinding hard, working toward our Ph.D.s in American Studies and Ethnicity at USC—life-affirming spots like the Little Temple, Carbon, Bounce Rock Skate, the Dub Club, the Root Down, and Nappy at the Roots at the Fais Do Do.

  1. “All Day Music” by WAR (All Day Music, United Artists, 1972) The title song from their first album after changing their name from “Eric Burdon and WAR,” “All Day Music” is a musical manifesto of sorts for the multiethnic 7-piece funk/soul band that came together in 1969 in Long Beach (although the core of the band had been together since 1962 as The Creators). The new line-up was comprised of Howard Scott (guitar, percussion, vocals), B.B. Dickerson (bass, percussion, vocals), Lonnie Jordan (organ, piano, percussion, vocals), Harold Brown (drums, percussion, vocals), Harold Brown (drums, percussion, vocals), Papa Dee Allen (conga, bongos, percussion, vocals), Charles Miller (flute, sax, percussion, vocals), and Lee Oskar (harmonica, percussion, vocals). The gentle strains of this song always take me right back simultaneously to the parks I have loved in in Los Angeles—Pan Pacific Park, Lincoln Park, MacArthur Park, Elysian Park, and Echo Park.

  1. “Concrete Schoolyard” by Jurassic 5 (Jurassic 5, TVT/Interscope, 1998) Jurassic 5 formed like Voltron back in 1994, from the wreckage of two earlier hip hop groups,Rebels of Rhythm and Unity Committee, and was made up MCs Charles Stewart (Chali 2na), Dante Givens (Akil), Courtenay Henderson (Zaakir), Marc Stuart (Mark 7even), and disc jockeys Mark Potsic (DJ Nu-Mark) and Lucas Macfadden (Cut Chemist)—both Cut Chemist and Chali 2na were also in Ozomatli until 2000. J5 cut their teeth at L.A.’s legendary “Good Life,” a South Central health food store owned by B. Hall that became an influential hotbed of rhyme in the early 1990s, hosting a “no cursing” open-mic night that nurtured innovative acts like J5, Medusa, the Pharcyde, and the Freestyle Fellowship. While I didn’t make it to Leimert in time for The Good Life, I loved Thursdays at Project Blowed, the next incarnation of the hip hop workshop held at filmmaker Ben Caldwell’s community arts, multimedia, and performance space, KAOS Network, which he founded in 1990. It is still held every Thursday night at 43rd Place and Leimert Blvd., and will be celebrating its 20th Anniversary on 12/29/14. Follow @Blowdians for the latest.

  1. “Cruisin’” by Smokey Robinson (Where There’s Smoke, Motown/Tamla 1979) Smokey Robinson was already quite famous as a Motown originator by the time he scored this throwback hit at the end of the disco era. Motown had been based in Los Angeles since 1972, and this song—an instant classic in the Lowrider Oldie genre co-written by Robinson and fellow Miracle Marv Taupin—shows just how much L.A. had impacted the label, especially Latino car culture. Now a staple on Art Laboe’s “Killer Oldies,” a long-running Los Angeles radio show famous for playing “Oldies but Goodies” by special request. Give your loved one a musical shout out by calling 800-681-2121 M-F between 7pm-Mid and Sun 6pm-Mid PST.

  1. “It was a Good Day” by Ice Cube (The Predator, Priority Records, 1993) Born O’Shea Jackson in Compton, Ice Cube took on his famous moniker when he joined old school rap group CIA in the mid-1980s (the group sang backing vocals on “Cabbage Patch”—remember that?) and then became a member of legendary hip hop group NWA in 1986. He went solo upon NWA’s break up in 1989 and produced club bangers for a good many years. I almost picked “Bop Gun” for this compilation—I love the George Clinton reference and the way it so perfectly captures the best vibes of the 1990s—but there is a world of LA knowledge embedded in the way in which the minor key sample from the Isley Brothers’ beautiful 1977 hit “Footsteps in the Dark” subtly undercuts Ice Cube’s Southern California fantasy that it could only be this song. Not to mention the long afterlife of “Good Day”: while I usually shy away from gross generalizations, I think I am safe to say that everyone who grew up in the L.A. region in the 1990s has a special love for this song. It is the day by which many of our good days are judged. People have such enduring love for the song that someone at the blog Murk Avenue spent many many hours using context clues to determine once and for all that this legendary good day was in fact, January 20, 1992. While you may have missed its twentieth anniversary, it’s not too late to order up the blimp for the 25th in 2017.

  1. “A Million Miles Away” by The Plimsouls (Everywhere At Once, Geffen, 1983) Formed in Paramount, from the ashes of the power pop/punk trio The Nerves in 1978—who performed the killer original version of “Hanging On The Telephone,” covered more famously by New Yawk’s Blondie—the classic line up includes singer, guitarist and songwriter Peter Case, drummer Louie Ramírez, guitarist Eddie Munoz and bassist Dave Pahoa. Their first break came when Long Beach promoter Stephen Zepeda signed the group to his Beat Records label for a five-song EP called Zero Hour, whose title song received a lot of KROQ airplay. Their second crack at fame occurred when they were hired as the “club band” in the film Valley Girl (1983), which my little sister and I watched over and over again, thanks to ON Television and lax babysitters.As a result, this song was the soundtrack to some of my earliest LA dreamings, and it—plus a very young Nicolas Cage as the rough guy from “over the hill” in Hollywood—gave punk rock boys permanent real estate in my heart.

  1. “I Can’t Stand it Anymore” by Union 13 (East Los Presents. . ., Epitaph Records, 1997) Formed in Boyle Heights in 1992, and influenced by punk rock, hardcore, metal, and their shared Mexican—Central American upbringing, the original lineup on this recording consisted of Edward Escoto on vocals, José Mercado and Ben Sandoval on guitars, Jerry Navarro on bass, and Louie Villareal on drums. I eventually spent so much time with these guys, in vans and in clubs on both sides of the border, that even though I haven’t seen them in years, I still think of Union 13 like family—even more so after they played a show in my backyard in Riverside and they got into a friendly familial brawl in the front. 

  1. “Jane Says” by Jane’s Addiction (Nothing’s Shocking, Triple XXX Records, 1988): This band came together in Venice in 1985 out of the remains of Psi-Com, the first LA-area band of Queens transplant Perry Farrell (government name Peretz Bernstein) and included Dave Navarro (guitarist), Eric Avery (bass), and Stephen Perkins (drums). Both this song and the band were named after the struggles of Farrell’s drug addicted roommate, Jane Bainter, whom he lived with on Wilton Street in Hollywood in the early days of the band’s history. My first history with this song begins with high school subjection coupled with a lustful yearning for the sound of the bohemian unknown; I remember my best friend was almost suspended for wearing a Nothing’s Shocking T-Shirt to school because it featured plaster casts of naked women with their hair on fire—“but the female body is beautiful” I remember her saying, as she reluctantly turned the shirt inside out. The second is of moving to Los Angeles and living in Koreatown, on the fabled St. Andrews street mentioned in the song, and though the intensity of my feeling sfor this band had long since faded, “Jane Says” would pop into my head at least once a day as I headed out to hit the red line, find a coffee shop, walk past the Wiltern on my way to the Sav-on, or grab some Pho 2000 in the middle of the night. And I would stop, look up at the gently waving palm fronds, and remember that no matter what was going on in my life—high drama, money struggles, the mundanity of getting older—“at least I live in Los Angeles.”

  1. “Destination Unknown” by Missing Persons (Spring Session M, Capitol Records, 1982) Missing Persons, a new wave staple on the radio and MTV in its infancy, were founded in 1980 in Los Angeles by Warren Cuccurullo (guitar), Dale Bozzio (vocalist), Terry Bozzio (drummer) and later Patrick O’Hearn (bass) and Chuck Wild (keyboard). While this song is much lesser known that “Walking in L.A.”—which I still get asked about occasionally out here on the East Coast. . .”is it true?” . . .um, once and for all, “NO!”—I think it really captures a particular alternative New Wave sonic alterity that scholar, poet, and Highland Park native Wanda Alarcon describes in an SO! post entitled “Last Night a DJ Saved My Life” as having told her “there were options out there. . .and that was all I needed to survive—to save my queer soul.” Sometimes not knowing your destination can be truly liberatory.

  1. “Look Out Weekend” by Debbie Deb (single on Jam Packed Records, 1984) While the bad ass Deborah Claire Wesoff-Kowalski (known of course as Debbie Deb) was born in Brooklyn and raised in Miami, she is an honorary Angelena as far as I am concerned. Her music was the soundtrack to many an Aqua Net set as my friends and I teased our bangs to untold heights to hit Roller City 2001, or later to attempt to rule the dance floor (and work out our Riverside-ness) at Hollywood’s Florentine Gardens—a basketball gym-sized dance floor replete with go-go dancers, a taco bar on the patio, a dress-to-impress crowd and a broad spectrum of ground effects in the parking lot. We loved it so much we claimed the sound of Miami freestyle as “L.A. Disco.” To this day, when I throw on Deb at a party, I can’t help but smell Drakkar Noir and the scent of burning eyeliner pencils—well, how do you soften it to make your Cleopatra-eyes?. Then, as now, I used Deb’s pounding beat, synth stabs, and tough girl vocals to armor myself for life’s increasing challenges—to transform “Oh, what now?” into that world-famous and oh-so-necessary L.A. challenge “So now what?” And I thank her profusely for that.

  1. “West Coast Poplock” by Ronnie Hudson and the Street People (Single on HouseJam Records, 1982) In this multi-layered song by early Los Angeles B-Boys, Ronnie Hudson and the Street People, you can hear the echoes of earlier hits—lyrical shout outs to “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugar Gang (1979) and Zapp and Roger’s “So Ruff, So Tuff” (1981) as well as a killer hook borrowed from Booker T. and the M.G.’s “Bootleg” (1965)—and some really excellent futureshocks of the many L.A. acts to later sample it in songs like Mixmaster Spade and the Compton Posse’s “Genius is Back” (1988), N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton” (1988), Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg’s “Nuthin’ But a G Thang” (1992), and Tupac and Dr. Dre’s much beloved monster hit “California Love” (1994). But you can also listen for the way its soundscape takes you back to the days when pop-locking ruled the scene so hard that Ronnie Hudson made a special version called “East Coast Poplock” to take the moves created by Don Campbell, a commercial art student at L.A. Trade Tech, all the way to the other coast.

  1. “Make Ya Neck Lock” by Medusa and Feline Science (Undaground Crewed, Project Blowed, 2002). Another amazing fusion artist who should not be an LA-area secret, Medusa (also known as Baby NeNe, Triple Kahlua, Sister Monet, Medusa, Microfro, and that “cool-playa-pimp nigga Sean”)began her long Los Angeles reign as a 16 year old pop-locker with the Groove-Atrons and honed her rhyme talents at The Good Life Café (and later Project Blowed) in Leimert Park, along with Freestyle Fellowship,Yo Yo, J5 and the Pharcyde. Medusa, along with her live back-up band and hip hop crew Feline Science—which includes a DJ, drummer, bassist, keyboard, percussionist, guitar and background singers—has reigned supreme on the L.A. club circuit for many years, most famously transforming the Fais Do-Do on West Adams into her own personal queendom called “Nappy at the Roots”—a fecund female and queer-friendly performance space for innovative acts that fused musics from across the city like Quetzal, Wozani, and Burning Spear—where she always brought down the house. I can vouch—I was a devoted subject for all of the years I lived in L.A.

  1. “This Town” by Ceci Bastida with guest Tim Armstrong (Veo La Marea, EMI, 2008). Ceci Bastida has been an integral part of the transborder music culture circulating between Tijuana and Los Angeles since age 15, when she joined what would become one of the most classic Rock en Español bands, Tijuana NO!, as a singer, keyboardist and songwriter. While with TN!, Ceci collaborated with bands like Fishbone and Manu Chao. After leaving the band in 2000, she played with Julieta Venegas’s band for seven years, whereupon she started her solo turn, from which this track is taken, a bi-lingual, multi-genre revisioning of the Go-Go’s 1980s Valley soundscape, one that reminds listeners that the founder of the Go-Go’s was actually Chicana punk rocker Margot Olvarria (who was eventually kicked out of the group for refusing to conform to the band’s shift from punk aggression to power pop harmonies). I’ll forgive her the guesting by Rancid’s Tim Armstrong, because I love this song so much, especially its movements from English to Spanish to Spanglish, its deft juxtapositions of sounds and musical styles, and the way it manages to be celebratory and confrontational all at once. It’s might be our town, but it’s still “so ruff, so tuff out here, baby.”

  1. “Here Comes the Sun” by Voodoo Glow Skulls (Who Is This Is?, Dr. Strange Records, 1994) Founded in La Sierra (an unincorporated area in Riverside County), Inland Empire Chicano punk-ska-metal band the Voodoo Glow Skulls have been at it since 1989. The “classic” line-up has a trio of brothers at its heart: Frank Casillas (Vocals), Eddie Casillas (Guitar) and Jorge Casillas (bass), with a pulse provided by Jerry O’Neill (drums), and the unique warped mariachi-1950s rock bop horn sounds provided by Joe McNally (trumpet), Joey Hernandez (sax), and Brodie Johnson (trombone). Confession: I have known Joe since elementary school and Brodie since he was a high school metal head and you can still read their bio I wrote for Epitaph 1996 here (and they say the Internet is ephemeral!). Even though I have some personal rough water under the bridge where VGS is concerned—an ex, and that’s all I am gonna say—I haven’t stopped loving this song, a speeded-up Beatles cover that embodies the tensions, excitement, danger, and hope in California’s eternal promise of new beginnings.

Jennifer Stoever is co-founder and Editor-in-Chief  for Sounding Out! She teaches African American literature and sound studies at Binghamton University and was a former Fellow at the Society for the Humanities at Cornell University (2011-2012). You can catch her full CV at http://jenniferstoever.com/

Featured image borrowed from Flickr user Daniel Orth.

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Fear of a Black (In The) Suburb

Sounds of the City forumEditor’s Note:  This month Sounding Out! is thrilled to bring you a collection of posts that will change the way you hear cities. The Sounds of the City series will prompt readers to think through ideas about urban space and sound. Are cities as noisy as we think they are? Why are cities described as “loud”? Who makes these decisions about nomenclature and why?

We kicked things off two weeks ago with my critical reading of sound in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, a play about African Americans in Chicago that still rings/stings true today. Guest writer Linda O’ Keeffe took readers last week on a soundwalk of Smithfield Square in Dublin, Ireland and specifically of the Smithfield Horse Fair, in order to illustrate how urban renewal disrupts city soundscapes and how sound reclaims those spaces. Next week CFP winner Lilian Radovac will share with us a photoessay on the sound installation Megaphóne in Montreal.

Today’s post comes from regular writer Regina Bradley whose post reminds us of the recent verdict of the Michael Dunn case, the “loud music case” when he shot 17-year-old Jordan Davis at a gas station. She discusses the dichotomy of urban and suburban in the context of sound (noisy versus quiet) and hip hop.

Edited on Feb 17, 2014 at 9:35 am EST: the first published version of this post did not acknowledge Nina Sun Eidsheim as the coiner of the phrase “sonic blackness.” We have added a reference in the post to recognize the work Eidsheim has done in theorizing this concept.Managing Editor Liana M. Silva-Ford

***

In a recent Chase credit card commercial a white woman pulls up to a gas station and pumps gas into her minivan while blasting loud music. Her windows rattle and the toys of her children vibrate to the beat. After pumping gas, the woman hops into her car, puts on a pair of shades, and bounces to the beat like a “cool mom.” In the context of the commercial, the white suburban mother is not threatening. The commercial reminds me that Jordan Davis’ life ended at a gas station in Jacksonville, Florida. His loud hip hop music was not cool; in fact, he and the music are perceived to be threatening.

The woman in the Chase commercial borrows what is instantly recognizable as sonic black (masculine) cool. Nina Sun Eidsheim, in her article “Marian Anderson and ‘Sonic Blackness’ in American Opera”, theorizes sonic blackness as the racialization of sounds that listeners perceive to be coming from a black body. Borrowing from her concept, I extend sonic blackness as the sound that are perceived as black that enter spaces where physical blackness could be readily refused. Of particular interest for this essay is the connection between black mobility, urban space, and sound. I focus particularly on hip hop as a mobile form of sonic blackness whose origins are based in the city. Hip hop reinforces conceptualizations of contemporary blackness as urban. In this context, sonic blackness collapses the absolute binaries in which blacks are frequently forced to exist, i.e. urban and rural, working class and middle class, silence and noise.  Yet when it is situated in hip hop, sonic blackness can also be considered a disruption of suburbia, a dominant trope of white privilege at the end of the 20th century. Using examples from the contemporary cartoon show The Boondocks, I posit that the show’s use of hip hop underscores how the white suburban soundscape is constructed in contrast to black urban sounds.

Screen Shot Leave It to Beaver ending credits

Screen Shot Leave It to Beaver ending credits

America’s popular imagination portrays the suburbs as white, middle class, and quiet. Constructions of the suburbs in recent history have not strayed far from the idealistic neighborhoods of the 1950s and 1960s portrayed in shows like Leave It to Beaver. Take for example the inclusion of gated communities as the upper echelon of suburbs and white privilege seen in The Real Housewives of Orange County (which opens with the viewer ‘walking through’ opened gates into the Orange County community).  I’d like to emphasize the connection between whiteness and quiet, as privilege in these types of spaces is present but often not visible or audible. Suburbs are the result of urban industrialism, anxiety of close association with an increasing minority community, and the need to sustain a romantic ideal of the American dream. A suburb’s physical parameter is a middle-class manifestation of manicured lawns, gates, and homeowner associations. At the level of sound, the suburbs’ class privilege is represented as the hum of lawn mowers, chirping birds, and screeching breaks of school buses. As Steve Macek points out in Urban Nightmares: The Media, The Right, And The Moral Panic Over The City, suburban sensibilities cling to an idealistic notion of a physically and sonically constructed white ambivalence to racial and class anxieties associated with cities.  Any dysfunction associated with whiteness is quietly tucked away from public view.

White suburbia sustains its desirability because it is a physically and sonically segregated space. Yet white suburbia is also the site of black Americans’ most recent migratory efforts. In ways that northern cities signified opportunity for blacks in the early 20th century, the ideals of racial progress and class in the late 20th century have shifted to U.S. suburbs. Thoughts of the middle class in the black imagination amplify the suburb as a utopic space because of its initial lack of access. The suburb becomes the mountaintop of racial access and privilege.

"A Raisin in the Sun 1959 2" in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons

“A Raisin in the Sun 1959 2” in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Consider the premise for Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun. Hansberry examines in the play the high stakes of home ownership in a ‘good neighborhood.’ The Lee family leaves the Southside for the opportunity at a better life and more space for their growing family. As Liana Silva-Ford pointed in her discussion of A Raisin in the Sun two weeks ago, the Lee family’s decision to move into the Clybourn Park neighborhood disrupts the suburb as a space of white privilege and annotates the cusp of the emerging Civil Rights Movement. Additionally, visual demonstrations of black protest that reach suburban areas are annotated by sonic markers of struggle i.e. the sound of attacking guard dogs, police officers screaming at protestors, spraying fire hoses, and screams and moans of black bodies under attack. The audio-visual representation of the struggle of integration collapses the notions of white suburbia as a site of ‘perfect peace.’ The above referenced sonic markers also destabilize classifications of black trauma as restricted to urban spaces like the inner city, which is believed to embody blacks’ realities.

"Damen - Boondocks" by Flickr user Ian Freimuth, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“Damen – Boondocks” by Flickr user Ian Freimuth, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

 

Where Hansberry’s interrogation of space and access in Raisin in the Sun is an initial foray into constructions of white privilege vis-à-vis suburban communities, Aaron McGruder’s 21st century suburban space of The Boondocks pivots on the romanticized ideas of blacks in middle class spaces derived from the 1950s and 1960s. The show introduces viewers to patriarch Robert (Grandad Freeman) and his two grandsons, Huey and Riley Freeman, who have left the south side of Chicago for the white suburb of Woodcrest. McGruder incorporates sonic markers of race and class that collapse suburbs as white only spaces. Aside from lighthearted lounge music style piano riffs during dialogues that indicate whiteness, McGruder incorporates sonic elements of hip hop that interrupt white suburbia. Elements of sonic registers of hip hop, like heavy bass kicks and songs like “Booty Butt Cheeks” or “Thuggin’ Love,” disrupt the quiet of the Woodcrest community.

The clash of hip hop’s loudness with Woodcrest’s quiet demeanor is best demonstrated in the episodes “The Story of Thugnificent” and “The Block is Hot.” In “The Story of Thugnificent,” rapper Thugnificent decides to move to Woodcrest. His presence is heard before it is seen, a caravan of cars with bass systems playing “Booty Butt Cheeks” before he actually appears on screen. Thugnificent’s arrival is striking as he introduces hip hop as a literal and sonically disruptive element of black working class cultural expression. The disruption is celebrated, however, because of Thugnificent’s allure as a rapper. He gets a pass that Grandad Freeman questions because he sees Thugnificient as a threat to what he perceives to be as a delicate existence of his blackness in a white community.

Grandad Freeman’s vehement opposition to embrace “the homie” Thugnificent destabilizes notions of policing as a one-sided scare tactic by whites. Yet to repel Thugnificent’s physical and sonic presence, Grandad resorts to hip hop and records a diss record that demands Thugnificent to leave Woodcrest. The diss record parodies the sonic notes of a rap battle: Grandad starts the track with ramblings of “yeah” and “uh.” Where these terms are used in a rap battle to try to “catch the beat,” Grandad’s use of these words is an offset attempt to try to find something to say. The result of Grandad and Thugnificent’s rap battle on wax is a rise in physical violence against senior citizens in Woodcrest. The awkwardness of Grandad’s diss track parallels not only a generational dismissal of hip hop as an outlet of protest but the sonic awkwardness of hip hop being the voice of protest for a suburban space.

"Fight the Power" single cover, by fair use under US copyright law

“Fight the Power” single cover, by fair use under US copyright law

In the episode “Block is Hot,” a nod to rapper Lil Wayne’s same titled track (although he nor the song are mentioned anywhere in the show), Huey Freeman blasts rap group Public Enemy’s pro-black and anti-police brutality anthem “Fight the Power” to remind his neighborhood he is a black nationalist. He is also dressed in a black hoodie and black timberland boots. Huey is undeniably hip hop in a privileged white space. Huey’s physical apparel, a nod to the Black Panther party and the hip hop fashion affinity for wearing the color black is amplified by “Fight the Power.” Huey’s posturing can also be read as a homage to Radio Raheem from Spike Lee’s 1989 film Do the Right Thing because like Radio Raheem, Huey lugs around a large boombox to play “Fight the Power.” Particularly striking is the overlap of the urban hip hop masculinity Raheem signifies with Huey’s own hip hop posturing in Woodcrest. While Raheem remains in the ‘hood, Huey doubly signifies hip hop’s migration from the city into suburban areas as well as his own migration to Woodcrest from Chicago. Huey uses hip hop as a site of social-political resistance and as a way to remain attached to his urban roots. Blasting “Fight the Power” shows how Huey remains conscious of white privilege in Woodcrest. He recognizes the need to identify black agency – even if it is only emphasized through sound – while reflecting on the “new” suburb as a racially ambiguous space.

The most jarring use of sound to reflect on the racial politics of the new suburb is the shooting of Uncle Ruckus by police officers. The ricochet of the bullets can be heard against cars and other inanimate objects but the bullets miss their target, Ruckus. The gun shots mark an interruption of the suburban soundscape. Gun shots, sonic signifiers of power, death, and trauma, are also markers of black violence as an urban phenomenon. However, negotiations of power shift to speak to reclamation of white privilege in sonic and physical spaces . The gun shots inflicted upon black bodies in suburban spaces could also be read as a subversion of gun shots heard in hip hop. While the sound of a firing gun in the hip hop imagination is expected and acceptable, gun shots in white suburbia are disruptive and displaced because they contest its appearance as a quiet and respectable space. Further, the sonic significance of the bullets riddling everything around Ruckus is the messiness of the hit-or-miss surveillance of black bodies, particularly black men, as necessary in privileged white spaces.

"Jacksonville Florida Sheriff's Office Impala" by Flickr user Dfirecop, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“Jacksonville Florida Sheriff’s Office Impala” by Flickr user Dfirecop, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The policing of black bodies in suburban spaces, especially over the past two years, begs the question of how suburban soundscapes serve as backdrops of 21st century racial anxieties and whiteness. The centrality of sound in  the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, Jordan Davis, and Jonathan Ferrell,– i.e. 911 tapes and banging on house doors – is critical in identifying race and space. Sonic markers of racial anxiety in their deaths devastatingly reemphasize the connection of race and sound in white privilege spaces. For example, Davis’ killer Michael Dunn stated to his girlfriend that he “hate[d] that thug music.” Unlike the suburban mom in the Chase commercial, Dunn is threatened by the sonic blackness and hypermasculinity associated with loud [hip hop] music. The negative connotations of hip hop as “thug music” and Davis’ mere presence as a young black man trigger a devastating response to the disruption of white privileged space.

As I work through my visceral response to Michael Dunn’s not guilty verdict for the actual slaughter of Jordan Davis, I think about the frivolity of the suburban mom in the Chase commercial and her enjoyment of loud music. The overlap of her whiteness, gender, and status as a suburbanite protect her from any inclinations of being a menace. She uses loud music as a sense of liberation – a premise for the Chase Freedom card being promoted in the commercial. Unlike Chase’s suburban mom, Jordan Davis’ use of loud music is not freeing – it contextualizes him in a rigid space of hypermasculinity and pathology that is all too often associated with hip hop culture. As I discuss previously, the traumas associated with black bodies that cannot be literally articulated take place in nonliteral spaces like sound. Utilizing sound is particularly useful in situating blackness in privileged white spaces like suburbs that displace their agency and significance because of racial anxieties associated with space and class.

Regina Bradley recently completed her PhD at Florida State University in African American Literature. Her dissertation is titled “Race to Post: White Hegemonic Capitalism and Black Empowerment in 21st Century Black Popular Culture and Literature.” She is a regular writer for Sounding Out!

Featured image: “Dead End in the Burbs” by Flickr user Vox Efx, CC BY 2.0

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Sounding Out! Podcast #24: The Raitt Street Chronicles: A Survivor’s History

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Listen in as Kevin Cabrera, Nancy Charco, Monica Gonzalez, Jesus Lopez, Javier Morales, Marcus Medina Mendoza, Cynthia Zul, Jasmine Soto, Pablo Montoya, Alex Mendoza, Marilynn Montaño, Robert Salas, and Isabel Marin guide us through the soundscapes of Raitt Street, their neighborhood in Santa Ana. If you are interested in learning more about the Raitt Street Chronicles please listen to this interview with Manny Escamilla, the archivist for the Santa Ana History Room at the Santa Ana Public Library. Also, check out the Raitt Street Chronicles website where you can find narrated photojournals by the authors of this podcast.

This podcast was made possible through different individuals and institutions dedicated to the histories of Santa Ana. The Santa Ana Public Library partnered with Cal State Fullerton’s Grand Central Art Center and the Studio for Southern California History to train teens to collect oral histories from the Townsend/Raitt neighborhood. Project mentors trained youth participants to collect, archive, and share the underreported stories of survival from one the nation’s most at-risk communities. Over the course of 12 months the participants recorded video interviews with survivors of violence. Community impactful projects like this are made possible through the generous support of foundations, corporate sponsorships, and the generosity of individuals who believe in the mission and purpose of such collaborative efforts.  This collaboration with Santa Ana Public Library has been fortunate to receive support from a Cal Humanities 2013 Community Stories grant, but additional funding and in-kind support is needed to realize this project, as well as other projects in the works, to their fullest and most positive impactful outcomes.

Manuel “Manny” Escamilla – Is the archivist for the Santa Ana History Room at the Santa Ana Public Library. He received an AA from Santa Ana College in 2006, a BA in History from UC Berkeley in 2008, and is in the first year of his MLIS at UCLA as an Inland Empire LEADS fellow.  He has interned the Emma Goldman Papers at UC Berkeley, the Special Collections Department at UCI, and the Chicano Research Center at UCLA. With the aid of a 2008 McNair Scholarship, Manny organized an independent research project at the U.K. National Archives in London.  As the archivist for the Santa Ana History Room he has concentrated on increasing the archives collection of historically underrepresented minorities and creating innovative youth outreach programming for the ‘Teen Community Historians.’ As a 2010 Eureka fellow he completed the “Our Lives Our History” project that helped youth volunteers collect 35 oral history interviews of recent immigrants from various states of Mexico. He is currently the Project Director for ‘The Raitt Street Chronicles: A Survivors’ Oral History’ and the upcoming ‘Santa Ana Civic Archive: Connecting Future Leaders to their Community’s Civic Past.’ Additionally he serves as the Programming Chair for UCLA’s Student Chapter of the Society of American Archivists and is an active member of OC REFORMA.

Since earning her PhD in History from the University of Southern California (USC) in 2002, Sharon Sekhon has explored the integration of critical local history into public discourse. Over 2003 – 2005, Sekhon was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for Multimedia Literacy at the Annenberg Center for Communication at USC. There, she worked with faculty in developing discipline-driven, multimedia scholarship and curricula. She was the Principal Investigator for the Holiday Bowl History Project, a place-based, cross institutional  online oral history project on the Holiday Bowl bowling alley in the Crenshaw neighborhood of Los Angeles. Sekhon founded the history  organization the Studio for Southern California History (Studio) in 2006. The Studio uses participatory methods to create conversations about our shared spaces across Southern California. The Studio’s work is showcased on the LA History Archive at www.lahistoryarchive.org. In addition, Sekhon has taught in the Department of American Studies at California State University Fullerton since 1999.

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