slab god, Paul Wall’s latest project, surpasses many recent rap releases via its stripped down sound, minimalistic in a non-trendy, monastic sort of way. Sonically, slab god is solemn, thoughtful and surprisingly provocative, especially in the context of Wall’s entire discography (his early material with the Color Changin’ Click, for example, was much more lighthearted and playful). Wall professed, “it’s just something that I wanted to do differently. All the music in Hip Hop right now sounds the same and I wanted to do something that didn’t sound like what was coming out right now, so that’s why I came with this.” Unlike many of Wall’s projects based mostly on freestyles, Slab god took several years to produce.
As soon as Wall recorded “Swangin’ in the Rain,” the first song arranged for slab god back in 2010, he wanted to make the whole album sonically in line with the single: “music to put in the car and bump and ride to.”
SLAB= Slow, Loud, AND BANGIN’, see: Houston Car Culture
In 2012, Wall embarked on his second beginning by releasing No Sleep ‘Til Houston, his first mixtape as an independent artist again, after departing from his eight year relationship with Atlantic Records. For Wall, that was his opportunity to get back to his roots. Committed to this conviction, he disregarded his mainstream momentum in order to “make music not tainted with outside influence from the music industry.” So, pursuant to the title No Sleep ‘Til Houston, Wall followed this self-prescribed antidote until he reintroduced himself to the city where he started, Houston, Texas.
After Wall felt reconnected, he dropped #Checkseason in 2013. Like many of Wall’s projects, it was about getting money; Wall said, “it was meant to be like a motivation mixtape. When you are on your hustle you pop it in.” And in 2014, Wall dropped Po Up Poet, which was according to Wall, titled after “a nickname one of my boys gave me because I’m always talkin’ ‘bout drankin’, po-in’ up, and leanin’.” To Wall, “the lean culture has taken over globally. There’s Brazilian rappers talking about lean. There’s German rappers talking about lean.” [ed.’s note to Paul Wall: Sounding Out! has talked about lean. See Kemi Adeyemi’s “Straight Leanin’: Sounding Black Life at the Intersection of Hip-hop and Big Pharma” (Sept. 2015)]. As a response, Wall released Po Up Poet, “to claim something for Houston.”
I met up with the enterprising Paul Wall while he was in New York City promoting slab god and had the opportunity to “grill” Wall about his new slab sonics for Sounding Out!. In what follows, Wall explains the oral transmission of slab culture, the sonic tension between regionalism and globalism, and Houston Hip Hop. Wall explored some fascinating concepts, namely, how the stimuli for slab god consisted of a jambalaya of subtropical weather and hyper-local Houston folklore along with the pursuit of fun, money, and aesthetics. He also explains how his new sound makes clear that he is a full-on “slabagogue.”
Douglas Doneson: This album took you several years to make. You recorded “Swangin’ in the Rain” in 2010.
Paul Wall: When we did the song “Swangin’ in the Rain,” immediately, it was special to me. It is my favorite song that I have ever personally made.
Another thing is that there has never been a song about rain and slabs or anything screwed up related with rain. Sometimes when it rains the radio plays the rain mix, where all the songs have a rain theme. In L.A., I recorded “Swangin’ in the Rain,” [and] it rained, and of course it never rains in L.A. I just remember thinking, man it’s a blessing these artists don’t even realize because they get free radio play every time it rains. You know what I am saying? So I was like it would be dope if there was a rap song, especially like a Houston type of themed rap song having to do with rain because it rains all the time in Houston. So shit, you get lucky with a jamming song about rain in Houston, there is going to be a lot of radio play.
After I made the song, I was like man I am going to make a whole album like this. So I went to the studio and [it] went to a folder. I have a few different types of folders. I have one where it is songs about money, another folder where it is mostly songs about drank and syrup, and another where it is mostly songs about cars, because that is what I rap about the most, getting money, driving cars, jewelry, and lean. So those are my different folders.
When “Swangin’ in the Rain” came out, I wanted to make a whole album like that: music for the car, music to put in the car and bump and ride to. If you have a journey or you have to ride across town or ride home from work or wherever, this is something I’ll want to put in. It is riding music.
DD: Who are some of the featured artists?
PW: On slab god some of the features I got are definitely a lot of H-Town collaboration on there, starting off with my boy Dead End Red, Sosa Man, Le$, Devin the Dude, Curren$y, Burner, and Snoop Dogg.
DD: I was surprised to see DJ Chose on there. Tell me more about that collaboration.
PW: I met him a while back and I did a song with him before for one of his projects. You see the passion in him; he really looks at what he is doing as art. I ain’t going to lie; we all looked at it like it was a hustle. We didn’t look at it from an artistic aspect of music; we all looked at it like this is something we do for fun and we are going to go hustle it and make some money off of what we do for fun. But with DJ Chose, you could see the way he records; his style is artistic and a little different. I had wanted to work with him for a while. This is one of those things where you’ve got to get him on the right song. You get him on the right song and he’s going to kill it. That’s what he did.
DD: As far back as I can remember, even back in the Color Changin’ Click days, your rhymes have generally been lighthearted and playful, but slab god, especially your verse on “Crumble the Satellite” is confrontational. A line that stuck out to me the most is, “and just because your shirt say it, that don’t make you trill.” What’s going on here?
PW: Well, number one, I wanted to drop some bars, some quotables, where you’ve got to rewind it, [and ask] “what he say,” “he said what?” You know, some of them type of quotables. It took a little time because that’s not stuff you freestyle, that’s something you think about because it’s got to be said right and wording has to be right. It’s more work and I’m not scared of hard work. It’s more time in the studio perfecting things and getting it right.
I ain’t going to lie, I did my verse first, and I didn’t know where to take the song. I just knew the beat was jamming. When I heard the beat it kind of reminded me of “Still Tippin’” with the bass, the drums, and I always remember my boy T Farris telling me when we did “Still Tippin,’” “go in there and freestyle.” So I heard that in the back of my head and it sounded like “Still Tippin,’” so I went in there and did a little freestyle and I was talking about a bunch of random shit. My verse wasn’t a 12 or a 16 bar verse. It was like a 24 bar verse. Originally, it was going to be just me and I wasn’t even going to put a hook on it. I was going to leave it like a freestyle. But at the end when I said, “crumble the satellite,” I said you know what I’m going to call it that and then I sent it to Curren$y and Devin to jump on and both of them boys came right on with it.
DD: The title of your newest album is slab god. What is a slab god?
PW: I was going to call it Slab Life. I wanted to call it something slab related and I didn’t want to call it Slab King, because Lil’ Keke and Corey Blount are Slab Kings, so I didn’t want to say that like I was trying to take their throne. Someone gave me the nickname, they said, “you are the slab god.” I was like, you ain’t lying, I am. I done had over 20 slabs, so shit. I kept [god] with a lower case “g” because I didn’t want to be blasphemous. People are still like, “you are going to hell for that.” I’m like man, shit. I didn’t make nothing difficult. I’m not saying I’m the almighty God. I am also not saying I am the slab god. I am one of several slab gods. There are lots of other people in Houston who are slab gods. We are carrying on the culture, carrying on the torch for the slab. We are just trying to hold it down.
PW: It is a fluid list. It is always changing. New technologies come, [now] there are new Halo Oracle headlights you can get installed, but three years ago you couldn’t get that. Same with the Ghost Lights on the door; when you open the door up and the lights shine on the ground. They weren’t available two years ago. The checklist keeps getting bigger.
You’ve got to make it your own. That’s the other thing about a slab, is it’s your personal upgrade. There are definitely a few must haves like, you’ve got to have the Texan Wire Wheels Swangas, the ‘84s; there are several different sizes and variations. But you’ve got to have Swangas and you’ve got to have Vogue tires. If you don’t have Vogue tires and you just have regular black tires or something than nah, it’s no deal. You’ve got to have candy paint on it, music in the trunk, some people put tint on it, some people leave it without tint, and a front grill in the front—that’s a must.
On the older cars you put a hood ornament on it like a woman in the front or something. But on the newer cars you don’t really do that too much. We also put a fifth wheel on the back, which is just a spare tire or rim on the back, but you can’t use it, it’s not for practical purposes, it’s for decoration. We put hydraulic pumps on the fifth wheel and on the trunk, so when you hit the switch, the trunk opens up and you got neon lights showing in there with a word or phrase. You’ve [also] got [to have] speakers in there, and that’s pretty much it. Some slabs have convertible, some have a sun roof, and maybe the other thing about slabs is you’ve got to bang Screw. You’ve got to jam Screw in the slab.
DD: It seems like a lot of slab culture is passed down by oral tradition through the O.G.s and Slab Kings such as Corey Blount. In your song “Top Diine” off of slab god, you say, “Texas Ed taught me how to drive extra patient.” Who is Texas Ed?
PW: Man! He going to LOVE that you said that! [Laughs]. That’s my boy [who] I went to elementary, junior high, and high school with. “Top Diine,” I did with Happy Perez. He produced that track and we did that song four years ago or maybe five years ago, so that’s a nice one that we’ve been sitting on for a while [that] we’ve been waiting to put out. But, Texas Ed is my homeboy. We grew up together. He lived in a neighborhood next to mine. When I was in high school, he was one of the ones riding slab, so he was one of the forefathers before me who showed me how to do it.
DD: On your song “Forever Hustle” off of slab god, each line in your verse is like a new phrase ripe for Houston Hip Hop adoption. Drop a few of your favorite lines and talk to me about them.
PW: With that song I wanted to do a flip on word play. First of all, I thought that beat was just jamming so hard and I was like whatever I do to this, I better not fuck up this jamming beat. That’s really what I was thinking. But other than that it, the hook kept coming to me. I don’t know what I was going through at the time, but I heard Slim Thug say one time in a rap, “man I’m going to do this for 10 more years, I ain’t never falling off.” So, shit, that made me realize that as long as there are things I want, [and] as long as I want these things, then I’m going to have to hustle for them. There is no lottery ticket, where you never have to work again. As long as Cadillac makes cars, I’m going to want one. That’s my dream car. My dream car is whatever the newest Cadillac is. As long as they got Swangas and Vogues to put on them I’m going to be putting them on. You know what I’m saying? [Laughs].
I really wanted to do a word play- “I’ma sip mud, ‘til I’m in the mud,” “I’ma sip syrup, until I’m in the dirt.” The rhyme scheme wasn’t a normal bar for bar rhyme; I broke it up in halves and did different shit. “I’ma let the trunk wave, ‘til I’m in the grave,” and “I’ma bang Screw, ‘til I join him,” all that man, shit. It was just something different I wanted to do.
DD: Tell me about your special connection to Slab culture.
PW: For one, it is something that is ours in Houston. There are other places like Austin [and] we generally say Texas, but there’s a lot of places in Texas where they don’t ride slab. There’s not too many people in Dallas that ride slabs, maybe outside Austin, maybe San Antonio, and maybe a few other places; a couple of people in Madisonville, and some of the smaller towns, but as a whole, we try to say Texas, but it is really more of a Houston thing.
The greatest things to me in the world are the most local things. You know when you go to certain areas of the world and they got that cuisine? There is nothing like eating a cheese steak in Philly, there is nothing like going to Louisiana and eating some creole food or Cajun food, and there is nothing like going to Texas and eating some Tex-Mex. With these types of things the localized aspects of it are always the best. It’s something that we got that’s our own and the fact that the rest of the world don’t ride makes it even more special to me because if everyone else did I wouldn’t want to because it was just be something everybody else is doing. That sense of Texas pride is instilled in you when you come from Texas. Texas history from when you were in school, to “everything is bigger in Texas,” to all the companies that come from Texas that are so Texas proud like Blue Bell, and stuff like that. Everybody is so Texas proud. They just teach you that sense of pride in Texas, so our car culture is no different.
The Screw music is another thing that’s ours that came from Texas so, it’s part of that culture and goes right along with the slab culture, so it’s like something I take a lot of pride in because its comes from where we are from, so I want to represent it that much more, you know what I am saying?
Sometimes I might be riding somewhere and there might be somebody, like an old person who don’t like my car and they might give me a dirty look or something and that makes me smile because it reminds me that this is not for everybody and this is something that is just ours. Like my album, I know this album is jamming, so if somebody says they don’t like it then hey it might not be their type of music, or maybe they hate it, or maybe they listened to the wrong album, but I know it’s not because I ain’t do my thing right. Same thing with my car, I know my car looks good. I’m not saying that it’s the best. There are definitely things I should improve, but I know my shit is clean. So if someone else don’t like it then that just means it’s not for them, or they are just a hater, or whatever, but that’s cool because it’s for me, you know what I’m saying?
DD: In an interview you recently did with Devi Dev on KHOU Houston, Texas, you state, “the best artists ever in the world have always been true to their local culture, local style, and local sound.” However, a lot of music critics claim that one reason Houston artists have a hard time popping off is because they won’t let go of their close connection to their culture, isolating themselves from audiences outside of Texas. How has this so-called language barrier affected you?
PW: What the critics have said has been one of the main obstacles of Texas artists achieving super main stream success. We’ve achieved mainstream success but not to a level of a Jay-Z or where Lil’ Wayne is now. We got to where Lil’ Wayne was 10 years ago, you know what I’m saying? We all made it to that level. But none of us made it to the level where Lil’ Wayne is at now! Partially, they are right because [of] Texas culture, a lot of people don’t have any clue what we are talking about. Therefore, when they hear us talking about it, its gibberish or it’s another language, so people are ignorant to what we are saying, when really we might be dropping some hella-fied metaphors, and similes, and bars that are real lyrical. People don’t take it like that because they hear the accent; they hear the slang references, or the culture references that are different than their culture so they just look at it as being bullshit. For instances, if Tupac came out right now and was rapping Russian, I don’t think he’d be looked at as the greatest rapper ever because most people wouldn’t understand what he was saying. But since he spoke in English, we understood what he was saying. So our culture is like speaking Russian.
DD: I love how you brought that up. You transport the Houston sound to other regions. I’m fascinated with your trip to Poland to work with Kazcor. How’d that come about?
That’s dope you asked me about that. Kazcor will be excited about that. This is my dream job. Growing up in Houston, a lot of us never left the neighborhood. I have friends who still, have never left the North Side of town or the South Side of town. You don’t drive past the Galleria, the Galleria is as far as you go. [DD note: Gu raised his hand and indicated he rarely leaves his neighborhood. Everyone laughs] The first time he left the South Side is probably when we went out of town somewhere. There’s a lot of people like that so, that’s how we are brought up in Houston. We just stick to our own area and that’s it and the only reason we’d travel to the other side of town is to go to AstroWorld or something.
The Polish flag and the Texas flag are a lot similar. The only difference I think is the star. So I always wondered if my fan base in Poland was big because the flag is kind of similar. We find excuses or reasons to associate with people for whatever reason. So anyway, a guy I know grew up in Russia, but he moved to Chicago, then he moved to Milwaukee, and then when the recession hit, he and his family moved back to Poland. They went to their family business, which was the slaughter house business and he was just homesick one year for Christmas and was like man, “I am homesick and you were my favorite rapper, so I am going to bring you to Poland and do a concert.” He wasn’t a concert promoter or nothing like that. He wanted to have a dope concert and he was homesick. So I went out there and for me being able to travel around the world to different places like that is a once in a lifetime opportunity, especially when I’m going to these places and literally, I know people who haven’t crossed I-10 in their life; the only time they crossed I-10 was to go downtown to court.
Poland is dope. Some parts of Europe, they speak English, but in Poland, nobody spoke English. It was not an English speaking country; English wasn’t their first language, English wasn’t their second language, [and] English wasn’t their third language. But man, I was inspired by their Hip Hop scene over there. The first time I went, Kazcor, had beef at the time with another rapper, and he performed right before me, and his whole performance was like 50 Cent at Summer Jam, bringing out a blow up doll, doing skits, all related to his beef with another Polish rapper. I was like damn; the beef history of Hip Hop is traveling. I was inspired by that.
They had their own producers out there; rappers, rap scene, rap culture, and DJs and none of them were at all familiar with what was going on in America. It’s not like you know, when Texas is popping now its popping out there, if Atlanta music is popping, its popping out there. It’s not even like if it’s popping, a few months later it’ll be popping there. No man, whatever was going on in America, they didn’t even know who they were. When I would talk to people, I’d be like [have you] heard of this person or that person? They’d say, “nope.” I was inspired that they were completely out of touch with what was going on in Hip Hop in America but, yet and still Hip Hop in Poland was thriving, healthy, and they had their own award shows.
DD: Another example of you bringing the Houston sound to another region is you Screwed and Chopped the album Haunted Cities, by California based rock-rap group The Transplants. Whose idea was that?
PW: I met Skinhead Rob and Travis Barker in the Atlantic offices right when I signed to Atlantic. Of course I knew who Blink 182 was, but I met both of them and they were both cool as a fan. After that, I started researching more of their music and got familiar with it and it was dope.
Skinhead Rob was the one who was like, “man, why don’t you do a Screwed and Chopped version of this? There never been anything like this done before.” First of all, if something has never been done, I’m already like “yep, I’ll do it.” And it was also jamming, so we were on the same level. It was easy to do. So when Skinhead Rob put that play in motion, I was like, hell yes. I am proud of that one, man.
DD: On slab god you mention Jacka. I was wondering who that is and if you feel comfortable talking about him.
PW: For sure. He’s a rap artist from the Bay. He was in a group called the Mob Figaz. My boy Husalah is on the album too, he’s in the group Mob Figaz. Jacka got killed a few months ago, this year. He was a real close friend of mine. Before I had even met him, I was a big fan of him. Matter of fact, my boy Skinhead Rob turned me onto him. Skinhead Rob turned me on to a lot of underground music. He turned me on to Mac Dre, Andre Nikatina, the Mob Figaz, Jacka, Husalah, Mitchy Slick, and to a lot of West Coast artists.
But, Jacka, I still remember meeting him, when the All Star Game was in Houston, 2006 Super Bowl. I remember meeting Jacka; somebody in the club saying in the microphone, “shout out to the Jacka, Mob Figaz in the house.” I was like, “what? Where is he at? I got to meet him.” I just asked somebody who I knew from the Bay, I was like, “bro, is Jacka in here? Where he at?” He said that’s him over there. So I went up to him and was like, “bruh, I fuck with your shit.” Because I really did jam his music like that. I think he was taken back like, “man are you for real or are you just like saying this?” And I said, “nah, bruh.” I was quoting lyrics and quoting lines, dropping bars, like I really fuck with you. He was literally one of my favorite rappers, especially at the time and still now.
I get stuck in my personal zone where I only listen to a few artists, and he was one of them for sure. He just was a good person and that’s how we met [and] over the years we did other things, shows, songs, we got an album together, it hasn’t come out yet, but we’ve been working on that. We really have two albums together.
Something I always admired about him was how he preached gems in his music. In his music, he’ll drop a spiritual gem that will make you reevaluate your relationship with God and in his raps he would inspire people to be better. And one thing that I always loved about him, anytime I ever would be with Jacka he would always have me feeling like I could conquer the world. He was a hell of a pep talker and a lot of people I know who knew him say the same thing. That was my boy. He got killed [and] I just wanted to do a song for him, dedicate it for him, let the whole world know, and more specifically, put people in Texas on to him because he reminds me of a Z- Ro type of artist. Z- Ro will say God related things or spiritual things to help better yourself sometimes [and] you’ll be like damn this boy Z- Ro is deep. And that’s just kind of how the Jacka is.
DD: Is there anything else you want to share with us?
PW: slab god is in stores now. Houston Oiler is on the way.
Featured Image: Paul Wall, his slab, and the white cup, Photo by Mike Frost
Douglas Doneson writes about Houston rap music. He has written for The T.R.O.Y. Blog, Complex, Noisey, and God is in the TV.
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Sounding Race in Rap Songs explores the production of musical identity in hip hop’s first two decades as a commercial genre. Although I don’t ignore lyrics or visual imagery, my main purpose is to analyze rap music as music, to understand how specific artistic decisions contribute to racial meaning in particular songs. My methods revolve around the study of how producers manipulate breakbeats, also commonly known as “breaks.” Initially understood as short, percussion-heavy passages that appear in many songs recorded in the 1960s and 1970s, breaks have been central to hip hop from the music’s earliest days in the South Bronx when DJs began isolating and looping them on their turntables to the delight of dancers. Since then, producers have tried out new approaches to working with breakbeats: hiring studio musicians to re-record them; programming drum machines to imitate them; and using sampling-sequencing technology to capture and rearrange them.
Throughout the book, I describe how producers use breaks and give rise to musical-racial codes that can be manipulated to project a variety of identities and attitudes. The following excerpt from the third chapter of Sounding Race, explains how the style of beat making popularized by the New York-based Bomb Squad (Public Enemy’s production team) provided a blueprint for pioneering west coast gangsta rap group N.W.A’s depiction of Compton, California. By layering multiple loops into a dense, cacophonous mix, N.W.A transposed Public Enemy’s “too black, too strong” sound onto the world of Los Angeles’s postindustrial streets.
N.W.A and its former members have been in the news recently thanks to the biopic Straight Outta Compton. Yet one aspect of the group’s development downplayed in the film is the way that its members formulated their identities in relation to east coast rap. In the mid-1980s, New York was the undisputed center of the industry, and its influence on L.A.-based acts is easy to see and hear. Ice Cube’s first group C.I.A. ( Cru’ In Action) used a nasal, hocket style approach to rapping cribbed directly from the Beastie Boys 1986 album License to Ill. And the cover of N.W.A’s first album N.W.A and the Posse, features numerous group members posing with the giant clock necklaces made famous by Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav. In similar fashion, the beat Dr. Dre produced for “Straight Outta Compton” (the title track to their breakout 1988 album) followed the Bomb Squad’s potent formula for signifying militant blackness. —Loren Kajikawa
The following is an excerpt from Chapter Three “‘Let Me Ride’: Gangsta Rap’s Drive Into The Popular Mainstream,” of Loren’s Kajikawa’s Sounding Race in Rap Songs, with thanks to The University of California Press. Any notes have been included in the text to conform to Sounding Out!‘s style sheet.
We [Public Enemy] were in Vegas and they [N.W.A.] were on tour with us, and I had just got the vinyl in. That’s what this is all about. Because Run-DMC and LL Cool J gave me energy. And if our energy happened to be transferred to N.W.A., then that’s what this whole thing is for.” Chuck D as quoted in Brian Coleman, Check The Technique: Liner Notes For Hip-Hop Junkies (New York: Villard Books, 2007), 354.
According to Chuck D, Public Enemy’s musical style directly influenced Dre, and he recalls giving the first two copies of It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back to Dr. Dre and Eazy-E prior to the album’s official release. The recorded evidence supports Chuck D’s recollection. For many of the tracks on Straight Outta Compton, Dr. Dre seems to have borrowed from the “loops on top of loops” style of Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad.
In fact, when Ice Cube left N.W.A. in 1989, he hoped that Dre would continue to make beats for his solo project. When this proved impossible due to Dre’s contractual obligations to N.W.A., Ice Cube began collaborating with the Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad, which served as the production unit for his album Amerikkka’s Most Wanted (1990). N.W.A.’s breakthrough was finding a way to put a distinctive spin on these influences, and the artistic strategy that they arrived at for their first Ruthless Records release was designed to put themselves on the map—both literally and figuratively.
Rather than shout out the multiplicity of neighborhoods where their members were actually from (as they had done in “Panic Zone”), N.W.A. chose to center their identity around Dr. Dre and Eazy-E’s hometown of Compton, California. The sound of Compton as Dr. Dre imagined it, however, drew on musical practices and artistic decisions similar to those found in Public Enemy’s “Rebel Without a Pause.” To construct the rhythmic foundation of “Straight Outta Compton,” Dre looped the breakbeat from The Winstons’ “Amen Brother” (1969), one of the most sampled beats in hip hop, that also served as the foundation for dozens of songs in the UK’s “jungle” (aka “drum and bass”) genre.
Like other heavily sampled breaks from this era, the one-measure loop features a syncopated interlocking of snare and bass hits that is reminiscent of James Brown’s “Funky Drummer (featuring Clyde Stubblefield’s famous beat). As if he were following the Bomb Squad’s exact formula, Dr. Dre layered a drum machine (Roland TR-808) over this break.
The 808 was programmed to add its characteristic bass boom to the first two drum kicks of the “Amen” loop, and to tick off a 16-count hi-hat pulse with a closing hi-hat clasp on the downbeat of every other measure. The “Amen” break and the two hi-hat parts, provide the rhythmic foundation around which Dr. Dre places numerous other repeating sounds. Two other ingredients stand out in this beat: a guitar ostinato and a low drone on what sounds like a baritone sax or trombone (or perhaps a downwardly pitched sample of another instrument). The guitar ostinato, which plays straight eighth-notes on E-flat except for a one step descent to D-flat on the “and” of every fourth beat, churns out tight 1-measure units of sound.
The horn drone (also on E-flat) has a raw, muddled quality, and casts an ominous cloud over the track.
By combining these layers with the dense percussion track, Dre created a tightly packed funk groove with many sonic similarities to Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad. Like “Rebel Without a Pause,” the track to “Straight Outta Compton” features tight 1-measure loops stacked on top of one another to create a thick and intense groove.
Except for the drone, most of the elements in the track have a punchy feel, full of rhythmic stabs and staccato attacks, including the automatic gunfire that Dre samples to follow Ice Cube’s reference to an AK-47 assault rifle. Due to the “noisiness” of the beat, the way sonic space seems filled to maximum capacity, the members of N.W.A.—similar to Public Enemy’s Chuck D and Flavor Flav—practically yell their verses, as if they must raise their voices in order to be heard over the cacophony. Even before the actual words to “Straight Outta Compton” are digested, the sound of the track and the group’s vocals evoke the palpable tension of imminent conflict, which reinforces the theme of violent confrontation in the song’s lyrics. For the chorus of “Straight Outta Compton,” Dr. Dre strings together a series of samples with rapid-fire precision. The sound of screeching car tires from Davy DMX’s “One for the Treble” is followed by turntable scratching; the scratching leads directly to a choppy sample of the words “City of Compton” from Ronnie Hudson’s “Westcoast Poplock,” which is then followed by more scratching. The whole chain of musical events is deployed over the breakbeat from Funkadelic’s “You’ll Like It Too,” which Dr. Dre splices into the beat just for the chorus. The rapid cutting from one sample to the next exemplifies the “rupture” Tricia Rose identifies as fundamental to hip hop’s post-industrial aesthetic in Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (39).
Thus, the music and lyrics for “Straight Outta Compton” depict the city as a place of extremes, where things happen fast and change is sudden and complete. It is a place where one is either equipped to deal or left behind. In this way, Dr. Dre exploited the spatial characteristics encoded in Public Enemy’s music to depict Compton as place. The sonic characteristics that animated Public Enemy’s militant blackness were rerouted and effectively transposed onto N.W.A.’s depiction of Los Angeles gangstas.
Loren Kajikawa has served on the faculty at the University of Oregon’s School of Music and Dance since 2009. His main area of research and teaching is American music of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and he offers a variety of courses in music history, ethnomusicology, and musicology. Kajikawa’s writings have appeared in American Music, Black Music Research Journal, ECHO: a music-centered journal, Journal of the Society for American Music,and Popular Music and Society, among others. His recent book Sounding Race in Rap Songs (University of California, 2015) explores the relationship between rap music’s backing tracks and racial representation.
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In April 2015, ten American Indian extras walked off the set of Adam Sandler’s new film The Ridiculous Six, a spoof on the classic Magnificent Seven (1960), in protest over the gross misrepresentation of Native cultures in general, and in particular over its insults to women and elders. Allison Young, a Navajo actress who participated in walking off, stated, “Nothing has changed. We are still just Hollywood Indians.” Young is referencing a long history of the film industries’ construction of stereotypical American Indians by non-natives created to entertain non-natives.
Within this long history exists a rare film, Kent Mackenzie’s 1961 The Exiles, re-restored and re-released in 2008 by Milestone Films. The Exiles is one of the few 20th century films that feature urban American Indians; it follows three main Native narrators from dusk to dawn as they experience the joys and struggles of urban life. Without an official score, this black and white docudrama places sound against haunting 35 millimeter black-and-white images of a downtown Los Angeles landscape. This mis-en-scène creates what Mackenzie (the white screenwriter, director and producer) asserts is “the authentic account of 12 hours.” The voiceovers of Homer Nish, a Hualipai from Valentine, Arizona who recently moved to Los Angeles after fighting in the Korean War; Yvonne Walker, originally from the White River Apache reservation in San Carlos, Arizona who first moved to the city to work as a domestic; and Tommy Reynolds, who is identified only as Mexican-Indian and is portrayed as a comedic playboy and the life of the party; narrate the intimate, day-to-day lives of urban American Indians.
In this post, I consider what we can hear if we pay close attention to how the director incorporates the narrators in a kind of Indigenous soundscape. Mackenzie’s soundscape bring together voices as well as music. The collage of sounds traces the journeys of American Indians to and from Los Angeles in the mid-twentieth century. The sonic connections in The Exiles provide a cacophony of histories of forced movement, transit, and re-making spaces as Indigenous at the same time that it perpetuates important historical silences. I borrow Chickasaw scholar Jodi A. Byrd’s term from The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism (2011), cacophony—or “discordant and competing representations” and experiences— and apply it to the sounds that inform the indigenous space represented through the film.
The narrators are part of a large population of American Indians who moved from rural reservations to urban centers after WWII. Due to the federal government’s mismanagement of Native tribes’ land and resources, and the genocidal abandonment of treaties made with tribes, the late 1950s and 1960s were times of dire economic and social conditions on reservations. The influx of Native Americans to cities also came because of assimilation campaigns in boarding schools, military service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ “Termination Era” policies (1940s –1960s) that intended to terminate the state’s bureaucratic relationships with Native tribes. Relocating Native populations from reservations into cities where work was available year-round was a key aspect of the Termination Era policies. According to Norman Klein (The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory), areas near downtown Los Angeles, including Bunker Hill where the film is primarily shot, were multi-racial neighborhoods in economic decline and therefore became relocation sites for American Indians. Importantly, both Klein and Mackenzie are silent about the prior forced removal of Tongva on that very same location that began in the 1840s.
The audio track of The Exiles contradicts the stereotypical American Indian sounds featured in Hollywood movies. The film’s contemporary mainstream Hollywood releases included sounds such as the whooping sounds of “hostile Indians” in John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), the broken English spoken by the “Apache” in Delmer Daves’ Broken Arrow (1950), and stereotypes played out in John Sturges’ Magnificent Seven (1960). In the soft Southwestern Native lilt of Yvonne’s voice, the way that Homer and others add “you know?” to the end of almost every sentence they utter, alongside the rhythm of the casual banter and tenor of the men’s laughter, I hear a potential sonic archive of American Indians that talks back. For example, in a short clip when Tommy and his friends enter Café Ritz, an Indian bar, Thomas calls out over the loud rock and roll music as he passes people at the bar. Tommy shifts easily between English (“What’s happening there, man?”), Spanish (“Gracias amigo, ¿cómo estas?”), and Dine (“Yá’át’ééh. E la na tte?”). Careful attention to the cinematic soundscape provides access to voices of discontent and resiliency, practices of building and maintaining multilingual multi-tribal Indian spaces, and the flow of American Indians between reservations and multiple cities.
Understanding the sounds and the silences of The Exiles as a cacophony offers a way to appreciate how the film both perpetuates stereotypes but also provides insights into the urban American Indian experience. Mackenzie’s construction of Homer Nish and American Indian men continues a myth that it is individualized behavior that keeps Indians from the American Dream. (In his 1964 masters thesis, “A Description and Examination of the Production of The Exiles: A Film of the Actual Lives of a Group of Young American Indians” Mackenzie states outright that he believes they are responsible for the mess they created). The Exiles portrays American Indian men reading comic books, listening to rock and roll, hanging out at bars instead of working, and taking rent money away from their suffering women and children to gamble. These formulaic images of Native Americans are informed by a long history of visual, literary and legal representations of American Indians that compose Indian men as either savage, infantile and emasculated. But if we listen to the banter and laughter in the bar scenes and at home, we also hear the caring intimacy of camaradrie. The cacophony of sound provides a counterbalance to the visual representations.
The Voiceover and Realism
Mackenzie uses dialogue to direct the visual and sonic narrative of the docudrama’s soundscape. Ironically, this collaborative low budget project that stretched on for three and a half years has minimal original dialogue. They could not afford sound techs on site, so the most obvious sonic evocation of realism Mackenzie explores is asynchronous sound performed in a studio months later. In Mackenzie’s master’s thesis he writes that, to construct dialogues (they often voiced their lines with a group of people around), “people would joke around a lot” while “everybody was drinking beer” (76). The filmmaker did not find that dialogue on larger budget feature films at the time were “lifelike” and believable. He writes that people
seldom spoke of important matters directly; they seldom spoke clearly or coherently when they did speak and their everyday language was full of overlaps interruption and communications through looks, gestures and shrugs. Many sentences made the end understood. …What a person said seemed less important than how he said it. (73)
Here, it becomes clear that the “realism” Mackenzie pursues is more about a style of filmmaking rather than about an authentic rendering of Native American everyday life. If he found the actors performing lines too dramatically Mackenzie states he “would blow the scene apart by asking for more casual and apparently pointless lines” (73). He created a specially mediated recording of the people, downtown Los Angeles and the time period. In other words, he pursued realism: he did not seek to fully capture real experiences.
Through interviews he guides the actors to talk about their everyday lives, their problems and their thoughts about life. Mackenzie used “improvised tracks” out of individual interviews in an attempt “to help preserve their point of view in the film.” He interviewed Homer, Tommy and Yvonne for several hours apiece, questioning and re-questioning them – not necessarily to document the subjects’ truths but “for emotional quality and general attitudes and feelings” (78). Despite his intentions, the voiceovers provide some context of the trials of everyday life and how the leads negotiated their belonging in a space far from home. Mackenzie’s realism builds a collage of soundscapes—voiceovers, background noise, music—to orchestrate a scene rather than simply document part of a 12-hour period of life.
Rock and Roll and Urban Indian Sounds
Mainstream “Hollywood Indians” are associated with a limited soundscape of drums and whoops, but Mackenzie’s use of contemporary rock and roll illustrates the complexity of the indigenous soundscape. Even though the film opens with the slow repetitive beating of the buckskin drums and a contextual opening monologue, after the drums stop it is the early surf music of Anthony Hilder and his five-piece band, The Revels, that drive many of the scenes. The music renders audible the many ways people tried to belong in new locations and within new cultures, juxtaposing the fast blast of the trumpet and guitar riffs of the Revels with the steady beat of the drum and shake of a turtle rattle.
Mackenzie continues this juxtaposition later in the film. Homer, alone on the street in front of a liquor store, opens a letter a bartender handed to him earlier in the evening. At the top of the letter is written “Peach Springs, Arizona” and tucked within the letter is a picture of an older man and woman. The camera focuses on the picture that dissolves and reemerges as a rural desert scene. The man from the picture sits beneath a tree with a girl and the woman, and rhythmically chants and shakes a rattle. There is no voice-over or dialogue; ceremonial singer Jacinto Valenzuela’s repeats a song multiple times without an English translation. The steady rattle of the dry seeds in the gourd are a sharp contrast to the pace of the Revels’ songs that saturates Homer’s earlier scenes.
Without guidance from a narrator, the scene is left to audience interpretation. The scene and its sounds could represent Homer’s sense of being displaced between times, or a homesick romanticized remembrance of family life: the moment quickly dissipates and Homer once again stands alone on a corner bathed in the streetlight. However, the music here could be a sonic connection that provides an alternative geography of indigenous space and place. Mackenzie’s collage of sound echoes the circuitous path of indigenous bodies and ideas of indigenous life in diasporas described in Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska scholar Renya Ramirez’s work in Native Hubs: Culture, Community, and Belonging in Silicon Valley and Beyond. The rattle and drum can instead signal a belonging to a community and people in a present that Homer carries within him. Through sound, Mackenzie connects Homer with his communities, traditions, and a sense of belonging regardless of spatial distance.
Mackenzie deepens this connection when he imbeds Homer in a place and community through the dancing and drumming on Hill X in the penultimate scene of the film sounds. When Homer talks about Hill X (formerly Chavez Ravine, then a site of the forced displacement of Mexican residents in Los Angeles in 1950-1952, now the site of Dodger Stadium) we hear his strategy for his own and his tribe’s collective survival. The shaking of the gourd in the desert and the dancing, singing and drumming of the 49 —lead by Mescalero singers Eddie Sunrise Gallerito and his twin cousins Frankie Red Elk and Chris Surefoot—shows a reclaiming of Los Angeles as indigenous land. Thus practices of sound and movement function as what Tonawanda Seneca scholar Mishuanna Goeman identifies as “remapping” of Indian space. Taken together with the beat of the drum, the bells and rock and roll compose the content of a Los Angeles indigenous soundscape.
The Exiles registers contemporary American Indians in motion. Homer and his comrades reclaim Hill X as Indian land with song and dance over a century after the City of Los Angeles displaced the Tongva out of that same location. At the time of the filming, American Indians were also forced to move within Los Angeles- their homes on Bunker Hill soon demolished and replaced by high rises. Paying attention and critically re-listening to the sounds of The Exiles offers an alternative soundscape of Indigenous life.
Featured image: “chavez ravine” by Flickr user Paul Narvaez, CC BY-NC 2.0
Laura Sachiko Fugikawa holds a doctoral degree in American Studies and Ethnicity with a certificate in Gender Studies from the University of Southern California. Currently she is working on her book, Displacements: The Cultural Politics of Relocation, and teaches Asian American Studies at Northwestern University.
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Sounding Out! Podcast #40: Linguicide, Indigenous Community and the Search for Lost Sounds–Marcella Ernst
The “Tribal Drum” of Radio: Gathering Together the Archive of American Indian Radio–Josh Garrett Davis
Vocal Gender and the Gendered Soundscape: At the Intersection of Gender Studies and Sound Studies–Christine Ehrick
Inspired by how sound and memory interact, Cities and Memory is a sound program with the aim of “remixing the world, one sound at a time,” existing on the (already quite blurred) line between documentary field recording and sound art.
Its primary manifestation is an online global sound map, on which every location boasts two sounds, the “city” and the “memory.” The “city” sound is the faithful, documentary field recording capturing that place at that time, as it existed and was heard. The “memory” sound is a reimagined, remixed, reinterpreted version of that sound: everything from oral reconstructions, full-on techno tracks built around a field recording, ambient reimaginings, and all the points in between, as summarized in this roundup of creative approaches from the site. The reimagined sounds represent how sound is remembered and experienced differently by each individual, and explore what happens in that magical period between sounds being physically experienced and their being mentally processed, interpreted, and above all felt.
Starting from that basic premise, Cities and Memory has collected more than 600 sounds from around the world in just over a year, with more than 100 artists, musicians, field recordists and sound enthusiasts contributing anything from a field recording snatched on a mobile phone through to a complete musical reconstruction.
Over recent months, Cities and Memory has expanded with a series of projects each exploring a different avenue or window onto sound that has been opened up. For instance, last November saw #HamburgSounds, an ambitious project to sound map the vast city of Hamburg, Germany and to reimagine its sounds. A four-day recording session garnered enough recordings for forty sound artists each to give their take on a different aspect of Hamburg’s sounds and what they meant to them. The results were symbolically released over a 24-hour period, representing a day in the city’s life, and in the memories and imagination of its citizens. For more sounds from Hamburg, click here.
This year also saw a project using Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies cards as creative direction for reimagining field recordings. The reimagined sounds that came from more than 100 different creative strategies employed in the project were even more diverse than its locations, which covered everything from jungle in Thailand and Shanghai temples to the urban centres of Chicago, New York and London. Spectrum analysis, musical cryptograms, working simultaneously with artists in different countries, even TripAdvisor reviews(!) – every creative sonic technique in the book seems to have been used in one way or another.
The latest project, called Quiet Street, takes the form of a simultaneous digital and physical exhibition, reimagining the sounds of the city of Bath as part of its Fringe Arts Bath Festival. The physical installation presents two sides of sonic memory – first, the documentary field recording of a location in Bath, and second the reimagined, or ‘memory’ version of the sound. The audience can navigate between two sonic ‘versions’ of Bath simultaneously on different sides of the space. One side broadcasts the “city” sound from a location, the other the matching “memory” sound, a remix or reinterpretation of the field recording, time-synced so that the sets of sounds shift in and out of one another in unison. The listener chooses – by his or her own physical proximity – to experience freely the two sound worlds.
As the “city” and “memory” sounds are precisely time-synced in the installation, an additional creative challenge for the artists was to create reimagined version the same length as the source field recording. More importantly, they also needed consider not just how the reimagined sound stood on its own, but how it would live simultaneously in the same space as the field recording, creating a direct tension between “real” documentary sounds and the memory of those sounds in the same space.
The digital exhibition of Quiet Street allows the sounds to be explored through a map interface. It also allows listeners to simulate the installation experience with a series of installation mixes, presenting the field recording and reimagined sound on opposite sides of the stereo field. You can access playlists here and here as well as download the album documenting the event here.
As a curator, the most exciting thing to me is that the central idea behind Cities and Memory is so open; there are almost infinite possibilities for its application. A new angle on sound, place or memory can bring up a new project at any point, and every contributor brings their own experience and interpretation.
In the course of exploring hundreds of field recordings, examining them in detail and finding a creative angle from which to reinterpret them, I’ve developed a new appreciation not just of field recording as a practice, but of how to listen to whichever environment I find myself in. It’s given me a new perspective on sound and on music, and how utterly blurred the lines are between the two. I listen very differently to the world now. As Cities and Memory continues to grow, I hope many others will too.
Stuart Fowkes is the creator and curator of Cities and Memory, producing a large number of the source field recordings and reimagined ‘memory’ versions himself, as well as curating the project as a whole. Quiet Street runs from 22 May to 7 June at 8/9 New Bond Street Place, Bath, as part of Fringe Arts Bath, and digitally at www.citiesandmemory.com/quietstreet. Find out more about Cities and Memory and how to contribute: http://citiesandmemory.com/what-is-cities-and-memory-about/
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Toward A Civically Engaged Sound Studies, or ReSounding Binghamton–Jennifer Stoever