“Type in Sada Baby on the computer and let them hear the difference.”
Devante gives me this advice in the midst of an escalating back-and-forth among his peers about the difference between singing and rapping. Eighteen middle schoolers lounge around two picnic tables inside our local community center for this six-week summer program. We’re still in the first week, and each day they’ve name-checked Sada Baby, a charismatic rapper from the eastside of Detroit. I’m too occupied at the moment—trying to keep the conversation from spilling into an argument—to heed Devante’s advice, so he takes matters into his own voice.
“Rapping is like this,” he tells the group while starting to nod his head to an ear-magined beat. “Oh boy, I ain’t playing no games!” Devante raps the first half-bar of “Oh Boy,” Sada Baby’s 2017 track that narrates his street exploits and threatens his rivals — often with violence to the women they might or might not love. Devante not only raps this opening line but approximates the grain of Sada Baby’s voice, at least as much as he can since his adolescent tone hasn’t yet caught up to his linebacker build. My own ear—from over 20 years as hip-hop DJ, turntablist, and vinyl enthusiast—is more Sadat X than Sada Baby. But Sada’s playful allure is audible even to me, like while bending his cadence into indecipherable sounds over the track’s intro. And he covered “Return of the Mack” into a shirtless gunplay revenge track. So there’s that, too. I can understand the affective draw he has on the young people in the room. And even if couldn’t, this wouldn’t be the last I would hear of him in Yaktown Sounds that summer.
Yaktown Sounds is an emergent space of sound making I curate in and around Pontiac, Michigan. (Pon-ti-Yak = Yaktown, get it?) A postindustrial city halfway between Detroit and Flint, Pontiac is the home of jazz drummer Elvin Jones, hip-hop group Binary Star, and perhaps the most respected battle rapper on the national scene today: JC. Since 2015, I’ve organized an evolving network of artists—usually DJs and beat makers—to make space for youth and community members to play with sound. Of course, play and sound go well together. In Yaktown Sounds, sometimes it’s elementary-age youth at the public library hitting pads and twisting knobs on MIDI controllers until they like what they hear. Other times it’s daddies and daughters scratching a record under the needle to see what comes out. The summer of 2017, I lined up a different musical artist each week from Pontiac and Detroit to visit and share their skills.
My curatory approach to this space takes inspiration from Saving Our Lives Hear Our Truths (SOLHOT), a creative, visionary, performative Black girlhood practice. In part, SOLHOT generates from a particular stance on Black girlhood sound. In Hear Our Truths (2013), SOLHOT visionary Ruth Nicole Brown theorizes Black girlhood sound and the ways it resists and improvises around neoliberal youth programming constraints that are intended to “fix” youth. Riffing off Tricia Rose in Black Noise, Brown theorizes Black girlhood as a sound nobody can organize. It bounces off adult listenings that would compress it into binary identity positions like sass/silence or into white mainstream notions of politeness and civility. What follows from this stance are not constrained, prescribed “learning environments” for youth but open, performative, imaginative spaces not always under adults’ control. This is the type of environment I try to facilitate in Yaktown Sounds.
This stance toward space and environment means vulnerability to reverberations and their affects. Reverberation, of course, is a phenomenon and technique that plays a prominent role in Black diasporic sonic expression. As Michael E. Veal writes, its affect/effect is most pronounced through Jamaican dub music: the collisions among sounds through echo, delay, and reverb. Veal’s engagement with dub and reverberation is also conceptual. In Dub (2013), he considers its echoes and ruptures “a sonic metaphor for the condition of diaspora” (197). In Sound Curriculum (2018), Walter Gershon thinks with sound to make a similar argument for reverberation and other physical, metaphysical, and aural phenomena: “Because sounds are already in motion, they are always reverberating, bouncing off of objects from sinus cavities to walls to coral to brush to air to water to stone” (56). In these instances, Veal and Gershon take up reverberation in both aural and environmental settings. Yet these ideas also apply to the spaces where youth and adults co-create together. What collides, bounces, and stays in motion? What counts as a reverberation?
In that summer of Yaktown Sounds, I understand Sada Baby’s aural presence as a kind of reverberation. He stayed in motion, colliding with youth judgments about what counted as rap, how a rapper’s voice should sound, and even my own aspirations for the space. These collisions were most apparent while preparing each week for our visiting artist.
Before a visit from Mahogany Jones, we watched the video for her song “Blue Collar Logic.” Landon was the first to respond while leaning back against the table, feet kicked out in front of him, and retwisting his short bronze locks:
“Can we see another one? That one wasn’t good. I didn’t think it was good. Not as good as I thought it would be. It was too much of that, uh, old time. I just think she didn’t rap enough.”
For Landon, the standard for rapping enough and not sounding “old time” was—you guessed it—Sada Baby. “He actually raps,” Landon noted while explaining. If we consider music and song not only as art but as different organizations of sound (another point from Gershon), Landon has a point. To get specific, some of Sada Baby’s songs are continuous bars of rapping — no hooks, no chorus, no rest. In “Oh Boy,” Sada Baby raps for two minutes and 20 seconds of the song, and guest artist FMB DZ raps a 40 second verse. Straight bars over a trap beat. By comparison, “Blue Collar Logic” is also roughly 3-minutes long but has a fuller song structure. Mahogany Jones raps for 1 minute and 20 seconds across two verses. In the golden era template of DJ Premier, cuts from DJ Los make up the 30-second intro, the two choruses, and the instrumental outro that lasts approximately one minute. If we do the math, Sada Baby’s track has more than double the rapping compared to Mahogany’s.
My point here isn’t to judge which organization of sound is better; there is no wrong way to organize sound. Rather, these details illustrate two very different organizations and how Sada Baby’s made up the basis for Landon’s judgment.
If Landon’s directness that “she didn’t rap enough” rings a bit harsh to our polite adult listenings, then hear Kareem slice through the group conversation after listening to hometown artist Kodac aka M80, who had just returned from a European tour:
“He don’t know how to rap.”
Kareem’s judgment was based upon what he heard as singing and rapping happening in the same song, an organization of sound he classified as “old.” When I asked Kareem what Kodac needed to do to be a better rapper — “in your opinion,” the recommendation was equally direct: “Be more like Sada Baby.”
These responses from Landon and Kareem show us something else about the movement of reverberations through this space. Sada Baby’s aural presence not only collided with youth preferences and claims about rap. As a reverberation, he was used to berate other artists whose sounds and configurations of sound were heard as “old” through youths’ generationally tuned ears.
Despite the youth-centric stance I take on spaces like Yaktown Sounds, I’m not gonna lie: the strikes and blows of these reverberations hit me too because of the relational ties I hold with these artists. They are part of my own creative community. I’ve DJed on stage for Kodac. I go to all of Mahogany’s shows. As a result, I remain vulnerable to the force of these reverberations. Owning up to that point, I am reminded of what Shakira Holt teaches us about adults and how we listen, particularly in education settings: sometimes we are not as open-eared to youth as we imagine ourselves to be — especially given the ways we have been socialized to censor and silence Black youth, even ones who live through our own cities, schools, and community centers. Though I’m two years removed from this particular iteration of Yaktown Sounds, Sada Baby continues to reverberate with/against me. He stays in motion even now, echoing through my writing as I toggle over to his Soundcloud page, press play on his songs, and wonder if I will hear something that makes me tune in differently to the young people around me.
Featured image: Screenshot from “Sada Baby–On Gang”
Emery Marc Petchauer makes beats and DJs with kids in and around Pontiac, MI. A former high school English teacher, he works as an associate professor of English and Teacher Education at Michigan State University. His scholarship has addressed the aesthetic practices of hip-hop culture and their connections to teaching, learning, and living. He also studies the high stakes test educators must pass to become certified teachers. He is online at empetch.com and on Twitter at @emerypetchauer.
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EDITOR’S NOTE: This post, a personal essay concerning an endangered archive of radio recordings in Detroit by University of Michigan Professor Derek Vaillant, has been temporarily embargoed due to a security concern regarding a specific location discussed in the post. It will be restored as soon as possible, with additional details from the author. — Special Editor Neil Verma
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!
I founded the Detroit Sound Conservancy in 2012 in order to preserve what music producer Don Was has called “the indigenous music of Detroit.” I also did it to preserve my own archive of Detroit sound related artifacts – oral history interviews, recordings, vinyl records, cassette tapes, 8-tracks, posters, t-shirts, buttons, articles, clippings, books, magazines, zines, photos, digital photos, notes, jottings, and other miscellaneous ephemera — knowing that if I could not help preserve the materials of an older generation of musicians, producers, DJs, writers, collectors, and fans, my personal archive and passions would not weather the storms (literal and figural) of the early 21st century – PhD or not. After a year or so of organizing virtually from Boston where I had found academic work teaching media & rhetoric, the DSC had its first major success with an oral history project for Detroit music, funded through Kickstarter. Donations allowed us to throw a great party in Boston, form the non-profit, and push me home to work on the DSC full time.
The results of the move have already manifested themselves. This summer we had a successful conference at the Detroit Public Library — the first of its kind — dedicated to Detroit sound.We will hold another next year on May 22 dedicated to the key role of Michigan in general, and Detroit in particular, in the emergence of the modern soundscape. We plan to have the call for papers out this fall.
In addition, we currently have an organizing/promotional night called #RecordDET at a downtown coffee shop called Urban Bean so that we can continue to both record interviews and playback the sounds / stories we are learning from. So far we’ve interviewed a retired disco / house DJ, a record retail and radio veteran, and two blues historians and musicians.
The long-term goal is to use the stories and sounds to propel us into a more sustainable future for Detroit’s sonic heritage. Recent local floods have reminded Metro Detroiters just how vulnerable we are and continue to be. We must preserve or our sonic dreams will perish.
I imagine the DSC as the sonic dream weaver. As one of our inspirations, the Black Madonna in Chicago, says: We still believe.
Carleton Gholz (PhD, Communication Studies, University of Pittsburgh, 2011) is the Founder and Executive Director of the Detroit Sound Conservancy, a lecturer in Communication at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, and President of the Friends of the E. Azalia Hackley Collection at the Detroit Public Library.
Last February, Chrysler premiered during the Super Bowl its “Imported From Detroit” campaign with a stunning 2-minute ad that showcased Detroit to the soundtrack of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself.” Helen Freund and David K. Li at The New York Post called Eminem the star of Super Bowl XLV’s ads. MyFOXDetroit.com mentioned how the people of Detroit showed their love for the ad on social media. Jeff Karoub and Mike Householder from The Associated Press said the ad “sent shivers of pride through the battered city.” Although the ads are, ultimately, about cars, they also sell us stories of the Motor City.
The commercial starts with scenes from a grey day in Detroit. We see streets, factories, and street signs. The voice-over helps weave a story of a working-class city: “What does this city know about luxury? What does a town that’s been to Hell and back know about the finer things in life?” From the vantage point of a Chrysler, we see shots of Detroit as it drives through the city and the suburbs. At the end, Eminem, a Detroit native, parks the Chrysler 200 in front of the Fox Theater and walks in to finda choir singing along to “Lose Yourself.” Ultimately, the video is a declaration of pride in American craftsmanship but also a statement of the strong will of an American city with working-class roots; this is emphasized when Eminem looks straight at the camera and states, “This is the motor city. And this is what we do.”
Although I tend to be critical of the messages advertising sends viewers, this commercial drives chills up my spine every time because it shows pride in an American city. However, what moved me to write this post was one of the most recent ads from the “Imported from Detroit” series. The commercial for the Chrysler 300 (2012 model) uses a sample of Bobby Blue Bland‘s “Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City” (Dreamer, 1974) from Jay-Z’s 2001 hit “Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love)” (found on his album The Blueprint). The commercial starts with a panoramic view of Detroit, followed by the Chrysler 300 emerging from an underpass. The camera moves on to shots of different areas of Detroit as well as people on the street and street signs (for example, one of the signs we see is the sign for 8 Mile). Also, whereas most car commercials show cars without license plates, this ad proudly display the cars’ Michigan tags.
The music in both of these ads acts as a way of reminding us about Detroit (the first a song by a Detroit native, the second a song that makes us think about cities), but the music also calls into question the luxurious excess of the automobile. The ads try to draw attention away from the automobiles and toward the working-class community that keeps Chrysler running; they emphasize their ties to the Motor City. However, as Angie Schmitt points out in her blog post “The Hypocrisy of Chrysler’s ‘Imported from Detroit’ Campaign,” the ads betray the viewer:
Chrysler is selective about the Detroit it celebrates. Absent is the ruin that now accounts for a large share of the city. Invisible is the crushing poverty, constantly present in the urban landscape. The driver in the most recent installment, traveling out from the center of Detroit to its suburbs, is in control of his fate (thanks to his snappy ride) in a way few in the region really are.
Despite the defiant sentimentality of its ads, Chrysler, as well, is selective about its commitment to the city of Detroit.
Although the ads are visually stunning (but many of the ads produced by Wieden+Kennedy advertising company are–just look at their roster of clients and click on some of the brands), the ads also stage a conflict between race and class through the soundtrack. What is the message these commercials are trying to communicate through their music and their cars? On the one hand, they affirm the presence and reemergence of an American car company, one of the major car companies that was hit hard in the most recent U.S. recession. On the other hand, the ads use a discourse of class (also race) to sell a luxury product. The commercials want to connect Chrysler to Detroit’s working-class identity, and the soundtrack is supposed to act in service of that through the choices of artists and music.
A good example of this is the John Varvatos “Attitude” ad for Chrysler (less popular than the Eminem ad and the more recent Chrysler 300 ad).
Varvatos is a designer from Detroit, located in New York. The commercial shows us Varvatos at the Dope Jams record store in Brooklyn, on his way to his Manhattan studio. The voiceover tells us the key to his success is that he was “surrounded by the perfect combination of rock and roll and heavy industry.” The working-class theme is emphasized in this commercial, especially in the last line uttered by the narrator: “that’s what a blue collar attitude can do in a white collar world.” (It also creates a dichotomy where New York is the “white collar world” to Detroit’s “blue collar attitude.”) Unfortunately, the ads commodify class struggles and class values. The ads use working-class values to appeal to the consumer.
Music is not far removed from the automobile industry in Detroit. The Motor City not only exports cars, but is also an exporter of music. Suzanne Smith, in her book Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit (2000), traces the development of Motown within the sociocultural context of Detroit in the 1960s. She explains how the automobile industry in Detroit benefited from African American labor, meanwhile excluding them from “controlling the means of production” (15). On the other hand, Smith also points out that Motown profited from the introduction of the transistor radio in 1953, for drivers could now listen to music in their cars. Motown execs were very aware of the new market that this would provide them. “Both the musical form and the audio fidelity of Motown hits such as ‘My Girl’ and ‘Shop Around’ were well suited and often produced with a car radio audience in mind” (123). The ads remind us how listening to music has become part of the experience of driving–and how that was not coincidental.
Ultimately, these ads remind us of how sound can act as a door into the social and cultural context surrounding the cars. However, I want to leave my readers with a thought: the ads are also about Detroit. If car ads require, in general, remarkably non-specific setting, Chrysler goes in the opposite direction and makes it all about the location. The ads, although problematic, remind us of the power and importance of place, whether in its Detroit ads or in its Portland, Oregon ad or its Los Angeles ad. If Jay-Z and Bobby Blue Bland sing “ain’t no love in the heart of the city,” these Chrysler ads show that the city has plenty of love to give.
Liana M. Silva is co-founder and Managing Editor of Sounding Out! She is also a PhD candidate at Binghamton University.