SO! Amplifies. . .a highly-curated, rolling mini-post series by which we editors hip you to cultural makers and organizations doing work we really really dig. You’re welcome!
Currently on the faculty and the associate technical director of California Institute of the Arts Sharon Lund Disney School of Dance, Allison Smartt worked for several years in Hampshire’s dance program as intern-turned-program assistant. A sound engineer, designer, producer, and educator for theater and dance, she has created designs seen and heard at La MaMa, The Yard, Arts In Odd Places Festival, Barrington Stage Company, the Five College Consortium, and other venues.
She is also the owner of Smartt Productions, a production company that develops and tours innovative performances about social justice. Its repertory includes the nationally acclaimed solo-show about reproductive rights, MOM BABY GOD, and the empowering, new hip-hop theatre performance, Mixed-Race Mixtape. Her productions have toured 17 U.S. cities and counting.
Ariel Taub is currently interning at Sounding Out! responsible for assisting with layout, scoping out talent and in the process uncovering articles that may relate to or reflect work being done in the field of Sound Studies. She is a Junior pursuing a degree in English and Sociology from Binghamton University.
Recently turned on to several of the projects Allison Smartt has been involved in, I became especially fascinated with MOM BABY GOD 3.0, of which Smartt was sound designer and producer. The crew of MOM BABY GOD 3.o sets the stage for what to expect in a performance with the following introduction:
Take a cupcake, put on a name tag, and prepare to be thrown into the world of the Christian Right, where sexual purity workshops and anti-abortion rallies are sandwiched between karaoke sing-alongs, Christian EDM raves and pro-life slumber parties. An immersive dark comedy about American girl culture in the right-wing, written and performed by Madeline Burrows. One is thrown into the world of the Christian Right, where sexual purity workshops and anti-abortion rallies are sandwiched between karaoke sing-alongs, Christian EDM raves and pro-life slumber parties.
It’s 2018 and the anti-abortion movement has a new sense of urgency. Teens 4 Life is video-blogging live from the Students for Life of America Conference, and right-wing teenagers are vying for popularity while preparing for political battle. Our tour guide is fourteen-year-old Destinee Grace Ramsey, ascending to prominence as the new It-Girl of the Christian Right while struggling to contain her crush on John Paul, a flirtatious Christian boy with blossoming Youtube stardom and a purity ring.
MOM BABY GOD toured nationally to sold-out houses from 2013-2015 and was the subject of a national right-wing smear campaign. In a newly expanded and updated version premiering at Forum Theatre and Single Carrot Theatre in March 2017, MOM BABY GOD takes us inside the right-wing’s youth training ground at a more urgent time than ever.
I reached out to Smartt about these endeavors with some sound-specific questions. What follows is our April 2017 email exchange [edited for length].
Ariel Taub (AT): What do you think of the voices Madeline Burrows [the writer and solo actor of MOM BABY GOD] uses in the piece? How important is the role of sound in creating the characters?
Allison Smartt (AS): I want to accurately represent Burrows’s use of voice in the show. For those who haven’t seen it, she’s not an impersonator or impressionist conjuring up voices for solely comedy’s sake. Since she is a woman portraying a wide range of ages and genders on stage and voice is a tool in a toolbox she uses to indicate a character shift. Madeline has a great sense of people’s natural speaking rhythms and an ability to incorporate bits of others’ unique vocal elements into the characters she portrays. Physicality is another tool. Sound cues are yet another…lighting, costume, staging, and so on.
I do think there’s something subversive about a queer woman voicing ideology and portraying people that inherently aim to repress her existence/identity/reproductive rights.
Many times, when actors are learning accents they have a cue line that helps them jump into that accent. Something that they can’t help but say in a southern, or Irish, or Canadian accent. In MOM BABY GOD, I think of my sound design in a similar way. The “I’m a Pro-Life Teen” theme is the most obvious example. It’s short and sweet, with a homemade flair and most importantly: it’s catchy. The audience learns to immediately associate that riff with Destinee (the host of “I’m a Pro-Life Teen”), so much so that I stop playing the full theme almost immediately, yet it still commands the laugh and upbeat response from the audience.
AT: Does [the impersonation and transformation of people on the opposite side of a controversial issues into] characters [mark them as] inherently mockable? (I asked Smartt about this specifically because of the reaction the show elicited from some people in the Pro-Life group.)
AS: Definitely not. I think the context and intention of the show really humanizes the people and movement that Madeline portrays. The show isn’t cruel or demeaning towards the people or movement – if anything, our audience has a lot of fun. But it is essential that Madeline portray the type of leaders in the movement (in any movement really) in a realistic, yet theatrical way. It’s a difficult needle to thread and think she does it really well. A preacher has a certain cadence – it’s mesmerizing, it’s uplifting. A certain type of teen girl is bubbly, dynamic. How does a gruff (some may say manly), galvanizing leader speak? It’s important the audience feel the unique draw of each character – and their voices are a large part of that draw.
AT: What sounds [and sound production] were used to help carry the performance [of MOM BABY GOD]? What role does sound have in making plays [and any performance] cohesive?
AS: Sound designing for theatre is a mix of many elements, from pre-show music, sound effects and original music to reinforcement, writing cues, and sound system design. For a lot of projects, I’m also my own sound engineer so I also implement the system designs and make sure everything functions and sounds tip top.
Each design process is a little different. If it’s a new work in development, like MOM BABY GOD and Mixed-Race Mixtape, I am involved in a different way than if I’m designing for a completed work (and designing for dance is a whole other thing). There are constants, however. I’m always asking myself, “Are my ideas supporting the work and its intentions?” I always try to be cognizant of self-indulgence. I may make something really, really cool but that ultimately, after hearing it in context and conversations with the other artistic team members, is obviously doing too much more than supporting the work. A music journalism professor I had used to say, “You have to shoot that puppy.” Meaning, cut the cue you really love for the benefit of the overall piece.
I like to set myself limitations to work within when starting a design. I find that narrowing my focus to say…music only performed on harmonica or sound effects generated only from modes of transportation, help get my creative juices flowing (Sidenote: why is that a phrase? It give me the creeps)[. . .]I may relinquish these limitations later after they’ve helped me launch into creating a sonic character that feels complex, interesting, and fun.
AT: The show is described as being comprised of, “karaoke sing-alongs, Christian EDM raves and pro-life slumber parties,” each of these has its own distinct associations, how do “sing alongs” and “raves” and our connotations with those things add to the pieces?
AS: Since sound is subjective, the associations that you make with karaoke sing-alongs are probably slightly different from what I associated with karaoke sing-alongs. You may think karaoke sing-along = a group of drunk BFFs belting Mariah Carey after a long day of work. I may think karaoke sing-alongs = middle aged men and women shoulder to shoulder in a dive bar singing “Friends In Low Places” while clinking their glasses of whiskey and draft beer. The similarity in those two scenarios is people singing along to something, but the character and feeling of each image is very different. You bring that context with you as you read the description of the show and given the challenging themes of the show, this is a real draw for people usually resistant to solo and/or political theatre. The way the description is written and what it highlights intentionally invites the audience to feel invited, excited, and maybe strangely upbeat about going to see a show about reproductive rights.
As a sound designer and theatre artist, one of my favorite moments is when the audience collectively readjusts their idea of a karaoke sing-along to the experience we create for them in the show. I feel everyone silently say, “Oh, this is not what I expected, but I love it,” or “This is exactly what I imagined!” or “I am so uncomfortable but I’m going with it.” I think the marketing of the show does a great job creating excited curiosity, and the show itself harnesses that and morphs it into confused excitement and surprise (reviewers articulate this phenomenon much better that I could).
AT: In this video the intentionally black screen feels like deep space. What sounds [and techniques] are being used? Are we on a train, a space ship, in a Church? What can you [tell us] about this piece?
AS: There are so many different elements in this cue…it’s one of my favorites. This cue is lead in and background to Destinee’s first experience with sexual pleasure. Not to give too much away: She falls asleep and has a sex dream about Justin Bieber. I compiled a bunch of sounds that are anticipatory: a rocket launch, a train pulling into a station, a remix/slowed down version of a Bieber track. These lead into sounds that feel more harsh: alarm clocks, crumpling paper…I also wanted to translate the feeling of being woken up abruptly from a really pleasant dream…like you were being ripped out of heaven or something. It was important to reassociate for Destinee and the audience, sounds that had previously brought joy with this very confusing and painful moment, so it ends with heartbeats and church bells.
I shoved the entire arc of the show into this one sound cue. And Madeline and Kathleen let me and I love them for that.
AT: What do individuals bring of themselves when they listen to music? How is music a way of entering conversations otherwise avoided?
AS: The answer to this question is deeper than I can articulate but I’ll try.
Talking about bias, race, class, even in MOM BABY GOD introducing a pro-life video blog – broaching these topics are made easier and more interesting through music. Why? I think it’s because you are giving the listener multiple threads from which to sew their own tapestry…their own understanding of the thing. The changing emotions in a score, multiplicity of lyrical meaning, tempo, stage presence, on and on. If you were to just present a lecture on any one of those topics, the messages feel too stark, too heavy to be absorbed (especially to be absorbed by people who don’t already agree with the lecture or are approaching that idea for the first time). Put them to music and suddenly you open up people’s hearts.
As a sound designer, I have to be conscious of what people bring to their listening experience, but can’t let this rule my every decision. The most obvious example is when faced with the request to use popular music. Take maybe one of the most overused classics of the 20th century, “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen. If you felt an urge just now to stop reading this interview because you really love that song and how dare I naysay “Hallelujah” – my point has been made. Songs can evoke strong reactions. If you heard “Hallelujah” for the first time while seeing the Northern Lights (which would arguably be pretty epic), then you associate that memory and those emotions with that song. When a designer uses popular music in their design, this is a reality you have to think hard about.
It’s similar with sound effects. For Mixed-Race Mixtape, Fig wanted to start the show with the sound of a cassette tape being loaded into a deck and played. While I understood why he wanted that sound cue, I had to disagree. Our target demographic are of an age where they may have never seen or used a cassette tape before – and using this sound effect wouldn’t elicit the nostalgic reaction he was hoping for.
Regarding how deeply the show moves people, I give all the credit to Fig’s lyrics and the entire casts’ performance, as well as the construction of the songs by the musicians and composers. As well as to Jorrell, our director, who has focused the intention of all these elements to coalesce very effectively. The cast puts a lot of emotion and energy into their performances and when people are genuine and earnest on stage, audiences can sense that and are deeply engaged.
I do a lot of work in the dance world and have come to understand how essential music and movement are to the human experience. We’ve always made music and moved our bodies and there is something deeply grounding and joining about collective listening and movement – even if it’s just tapping your fingers and toes.
AT: How did you and the other artists involved come up with the name/ idea for Mixed-Race Mixtape? How did the Mixed-Race Mixtape come about?
AS: Mixed-Race Mixtape is the brainchild of writer/performer Andrew “Fig” Figueroa. I’ll let him tell the story.
A mixtape is a collection of music from various artists and genres on one tape, CD or playlist. In Hip-Hop, a mixtape is a rapper’s first attempt to show the world there skills and who they are, more often than not, performing original lyrics over sampled/borrowed instrumentals that compliment their style and vision. The show is about “mixed” identity and I mean, I’m a rapper so thank God “Mixed-Race” rhymed with “Mixtape.”
The show grew from my desire to tell my story/help myself make sense of growing up in a confusing, ambiguous, and colorful culture. I began writing a series of raps and monologues about my family, community and youth and slowly it formed into something cohesive.
AT: I love the quote, “the conversation about race in America is one sided and missing discussions of how class and race are connected and how multiple identities can exist in one person,” how does Mixed-Race Mixtape fill in these gaps?
AS: Mixed-Race Mixtape is an alternative narrative that is complex, personal, and authentic. In America, our ideas about race largely oscillate between White and Black. MRMT is alternative because it tells the story of someone who sits in the grey area of Americans’ concept of race and dispels the racist subtext that middle class America belongs to White people. Because these grey areas are illuminated, I believe a wide variety of people are able to find connections with the story.
AT: In this video people discuss the connection they [felt to the music and performance] even if they weren’t expecting to. What do you think is responsible for sound connecting and moving people from different backgrounds? Why are there the assumptions about the event that there are, that they wouldn’t connect to the Hip Hop or that there would be “good vibes.”
AS: Some people do feel uncertain that they’d be able to connect with the show because it’s a “hip-hop” show. When they see it though, it’s obvious that it extends beyond the bounds of what they imagine a hip-hop show to be. And while I’ve never had someone say they were disappointed or unmoved by the show, I have had people say they couldn’t understand the words. And a lot of times they want to blame that on the reinforcement.
I’d argue that the people who don’t understand the lyrics of MRMT are often the same ones who were trepidatious to begin with, because I think hip-hop is not a genre they have practice listening to. I had to practice really actively listening to rap to train my brain to process words, word play, metaphor, etc. as fast as rap can transmit them. Fig, an experienced hip-hop listener and artist amazes me with how fast he can understand lyrics on the first listen. I’m still learning. And the fact is, it’s not a one and done thing. You have to listen to rap more than once to get all the nuances the artists wrote in. And this extends to hip-hop music, sans lyrics. I miss so many really clever, artful remixes, samples, and references on the first listen. This is one of the reasons we released an EP of some of the songs from the show (and are in the process of recording a full album).
The theatre experience obviously provides a tremendously moving experience for the audience, but there’s more to be extracted from the music and lyrics than can be transmitted in one live performance.
AT: What future plans do you have for projects? You mentioned utilizing sounds from protests? How is sound important in protest? What stands out to you about what you recorded?
AS: I have only the vaguest idea of a future project. I participate in a lot of rallies and marches for causes across the spectrum of human rights. At a really basic level, it feels really good to get together with like minded people and shout your frustrations, hopes, and fears into the world for others to hear. I’m interested in translating this catharsis to people who are wary of protests/hate them/don’t understand them. So I’ve started with my iPhone. I record clever chants I’ve never heard, or try to capture the inevitable moment in a large crowd when the front changes the chant and it works its way to the back.
I record marching through different spaces…how does it sound when we’re in a tunnel versus in a park or inside a building? I’m not sure where these recordings will lead me, but I felt it was important to take them.
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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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