Twenty-five years after Do the Right Thing was nominated but overlooked for Best Picture, Spike Lee is about to receive an Academy Award. At the beginning of that modern classic, Rosie Perez danced into our collective imaginations to the sounds of Public Enemy. Branford Marsalis’s saxophone squealing, bass guitar revving up, she sprung into action in front of a row of Bed-Stuy brownstones. Voices stutter to life: “Get—get—get—get down,” says one singer, before another entreats, “Come on and get down,” punctuated by James Brown’s grunt, letting us know we’re in for some hard work. In unison, Chuck D and Flavor Flav place us in time: “Nineteen eighty-nine! The number, another summer…” The track’s structure, barely held in place by the guitar riff and a snare, accommodates Marsalis’s saxophone playing continuously during the chorus, but intermittent scratches and split-second samples make up the plurality of the sounds. The two rappers’ words take back the foreground in each verse, and their cooperative and repetitive style reinforces the song’s message during the chorus, when they trade calls and responses of “Fight the power!”
Throughout the credits, lyrics and musical elements are shot through with noise: machine guns, helicopters, jet engines—even the sax, the only conventional instrument at work, seems to cede ground to these disruptions. The dancing form of Perez, unlike the other figures taking part in the performance, is silent but visible; she’s the only one who seems fully in control of the relationship between her body and the sounds. Perez’s performance of “Fight the Power” is an antidote to fantasies of masculine technological mastery: her movements, while sometimes syncopated, are discrete to the point of appearing martial—the steps are improvised but the skills are practiced; she’s ready to step into the ring.
Fulfilling Spike Lee’s request to Public Enemy to provide a theme for the movie, “Fight the Power,” made it onto the group’s iconic album Fear of a Black Planet the following year. In Anthem, Shana Redmond names the song “perhaps the last Black anthem of the twentieth century,” noting that it bridges divides like the space between America’s East and West Coasts (261-262). It does so as part of the film’s opening sequence through juxtapositions: the sound of helicopters, a signature of LAPD surveillance, crosses the New York City streetscape in stereo. On the album, however, a radically different opening sets the tone for the track. A speech by Thomas Todd taunts, “Yet our best trained, best equipped, best prepared, troops refuse to fight. Matter of fact, it’s safe to say that they would rather switch than fight.” The speaker draws out the breathy, sibilant ending of the word “switch” to create a double entendre; voiced this way, “they would rather switch” connotes both disloyalty in the “fight” and a swishy movement of the hips attributed to effeminate men. In later years, the crystal-clear sample would resurface across genres; it was the only lyrical component of DJ Frankie Bones’s “Refuse to Fight” in 1997, a track purely intended for dancing in the blissful atmosphere of the rave scene, which evacuated militancy to make room for “Peace, Love, Unity, and Respect.”
On PE’s album, the version of the song introduced by this sample strikes a stark contrast with its rendition in the film as the vehicle for an inexhaustible and defiant female dancer in a neighborhood wracked by disempowerment.
Identifying Fear of a Black Planet as “the first true rap concept album,” Tom Moon of the Philadelphia Inquirer recognizes the role of the DJ and production team in achieving its unique synthesis between melodic and meaning elements. At first he calls the sample-heavy stage for the rap performance “a bed of raw noise not unlike radio static,” but he later parses out how this “noise” actually consists of a rich informational emulsion:
an environment that can include snippets of speeches, talk shows, arguments, chanting, background harmonies, cowbells and other percussion, drum machine, treble-heavy solo guitar, jazz trumpet, and any number of recorded samples.
The underlying concept driving the album is the ominous encounter between Blackness and whiteness, which has become an object of fear and fascination throughout centuries of American culture. As the role of their anthem in the film about a neighborhood undergoing violent transformation indicates, the meeting of Black and white is not a fearsome future to come, but a present giving way to both reactionary and revolutionary possibilities. And it goes a little something like this.
In this post, I provide track-by-track sonic analysis to show how, over the past 25 years, Fear of a Black Planet has contributed to Afrofuturism through its invocation of prophetic speech and through its place on the cultural landscape as a touchstone for the beginning of the 1990s. As the first song, “Contract on the World Love Jam,” insists, in one of the “‘forty-five to fifty voices’” Chuck D recalls sampling for this track alone, “If you don’t know your past, then you don’t know your future.”
This moment continues to resonate in the present as a repository of ideas and modes of expression we still need. Along with the hypnotic efficacy of rhetoric like “Laser, anesthesia, ‘maze ya/ Ways to blaze your brain and train ya,” and Flavor Flav’s subversive humor, I argue that Fear of A Black Planet engages with Afrofuturism by using sound to instigate the kind of “disjuncture” that Arjun Apparurai called characteristic of culture under late modern global capitalism. This kind of practice thematizes Fear of a Black Planet: it uses sound to confront the boundaries of information, desire, and power on decisively African Americanist terms. PE cut through the noise with a new sound, one that still resonates 25 years later.
Sampling is an indispensable strategy on Fear of a Black Planet. Yet as Tricia Rose contends, the sound of hip-hop arises out of a systematic way of moving through the world rather than as a “by-product” of factors of production. In Capturing Sound, Mark Katz identifies Public Enemy’s sampling with “the predigital, prephonographic practice of signifying that arose in the African American community” (164). Scholars and music critics alike have dubbed this era the “golden age” of digital sampling, a moment when new technology made it possible for musical composition to rely on audio appropriated from a panoply of sources but before the financial and methodological obstacles of copyright clearance emerged in force. As Kembrew McLeod and Peter Di Cola argue in Creative License, challenges imposed by the cost of licensing fees now associated with sampling make contemporary critics doubtful that Black Planet could be produced today (14). In retrospect, the album shows us how the “financescape” of popular music has evolved out of sync with the technoscape: by placing property rights in the way of the further development of the tradition inaugurated by the Bomb Squad (PE DJs Terminator X, Hank Shocklee, Keith Shocklee, and Eric “Vietnam” Sadler).
In 2011, when asked by NPR’s Ira Flatow about sampling as an art form, Hank Shocklee pointed out that, “as we start to move more toward into the future and technology starts to increase, these things have to metamorphosize, have to change,” further insisting that this means, “everything should be fair use, except for taking the entire record and mass producing it and selling it yourself.” Realizing how sampling entails not just the use of sound but its transformation, he stakes out a radical position on intellectual property, noting that the law tends to protect record companies rather than performers:
Stubblefield, [the drummer], is not a copyright owner. James Brown is not a copyright owner. George Clinton is not a copyright owner. The copyright owners are corporations… when we talk about artists, you know, that term is being used, but that’s not really the case here. We’re really talking about corporations.
Driven by such a skeptical orientation to the notion of sound as property, Fear of a Black Planet is both unapologetic and unforgiving in its sonic promiscuity. It weds a dizzying repertoire of references from the past to a sharp political critique of the present, embodying the role of hip-hop in transforming the relationship between sound and knowledge through whatever means the moment makes available.
A different Spike Lee joint (Jungle Fever, 1991, with a soundtrack by Stevie Wonder) enacts the spectacle behind the title track on Fear of a Black Planet. Interracial sexuality, as one of many dimensions of living together across the color line, is the most explicit “fear” a Black Planet has in store, but two tracks undercut the flawed notions of white purity at the heart of the issue.
Chuck D dismisses the concerns of an imaginary white man at the start of each verse: “your daughter? No she’s not my type… I don’t need your sister… man, I don’t want your wife!” He subsequently shifts focus to the questions of “what is pure? who is pure?” what would be “wrong with some color in your family tree?” and finally, whether it might be desirable for future generations to become more Black, owing to the adaptive value of “skins protected against the ozone layers/ breakdown.” Chuck’s line of questioning assuages the anxiety that the imagined white interlocutor might feel in order to address more fundamental planetary concerns, like environmental degradation. In addition to staging a conversation in which a Black man enjoins a white man to listen to reason, the structure of the track involves Flavor Flav in a parallel dialogue. Flav replies to each of Chuck’s initial reassurances the same playful counterpoint: “but suppose she says she loves me?” He keeps posing the hypothetical in one verse after another, despite Chuck D’s repeated insistences that he isn’t interested in white women, suggesting that “love,” an irrational but undeniably powerful motivation for interracial encounter, is just as compelling as a putatively rational browning of the planet’s people. “Pollywannacracka” riffs on the same subject with hauntingly distorted vocals and a chorus that includes a mocking crowd calling the Black woman or man who desires a “cracka” out their name (the drawn out refrain is the word “Polly…”) and a teasing whistle. These derisions reduce the taboo topic of interracial liaisons to the stuff of schoolyard taunts while playing out tense confrontations among Black men and Black women in between the verses.
Black Planet also presented PE the first opportunity to reconstruct their reputation after former manager, Professor Griff, made anti-Semitic comments–“Jews control the media”—in an interview. PE takes the public’s temperature on “Incident at 66.6 FM,” which reiterates snippets from listeners calling in to radio broadcasts; most of the callers represented excoriate the group but a few defend them, including erstwhile DJ Terminator X, who shouts himself out.
This inward-facing archive acquires more material on the album’s most self-referential track, “Welcome to the Terrordome.” The song elliptically places the scrutiny the group has faced in perspective through allusions that are rendered even more involuted through repetition and internal rhyme: “Every brother ain’t a brother… Crucifixion ain’t no fiction… the shooting of Huey Newton/from the hand of a nig that pulled the trig.” The brother who allegedly ain’t one was David Mills, the music journalist who publicized Griff’s comments.
Noting Chuck’s rather transparent analogy between this betrayal and the myth that the Jewish community was responsible for killing Jesus, Robert Christgau, in Grown Up All Wrong, concludes that “the hard question isn’t whether ‘Terrodome’ is anti-Semitic—it’s whether that’s the end of the story” (270-271). It isn’t. “War at 33 1/3” redraws these same lines by advising that “any other rapper who’s a brother/Tries to speak to one another/Gets smothered by the other kind,” hearkening back to the earlier song’s assertion not all skinfolk are kinfolk. The song samples speech from Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan that frames the titular “war” as a rhetorical contest.
The most collaborative jam on the album, co-written by Rage Against the Machine’s Zack De La Rocha, “Burn Hollywood Burn” enacts an acerbic critique of media representations of Blackness against the most party-perfect hooks on the album, including a sampled crowd repeating the three words of the refrain like a protest chant, a timeline provided by a pea whistle, and a horn sample looped for the gods.
Sustaining a militant ideal of Black masculinity in defiance of Hollywood’s Stepin’ Fetchit and Driving Miss Daisy scripts (both referenced by name), featured MCs Ice Cube and Big Daddy Kane occupy the track’s. Their forward-leaning posture demands they be taken seriously, like Chuck D, rather than coming off as whimsical and indulgent like Flavor Flav. Yet PE’s sound would be unrecognizable without Flav’s flavor to carry out the call-and-response structure of their performances. Flav voices a skit on the final verse of “Burn Hollywood Burn” in which he is invited to portray a “controversial Negro” as an actor; he asks if the role calls on him to identify with Huey P. Newton or H. Rap Brown, but to his chagrin, the invitation calls for “a servant character that chuckles a little bit and sings.” Contemporary audiences might associate Flavor Flav with the latter based on his reality TV persona, but the comic wit he brings to PE knowingly undermines strident posturing and demands that the audience listen more closely.
Despite the comparatively trivial content of his lyrical presence on most tracks, Flav enhances the repertoire of knowledge at work across Fear of a Black Planet, deepening its cultural frame of reference and accentuating different elements of its sonic structure. On “Who Stole the Soul,” for example, after Chuck says, “Banned from many arenas/ Word from the Motherland/ Has anybody seen her,” Flav repeats after him, “Have you seen her,” emphasizing the allusion to ”Have You Seen Her?” by the Chi-Lites. Then, before Chuck has finished his next line, Flav repeats himself, stylizing the question “Have You Seen Her” with the same melody used by the Chi-Lites. Ingeniously, Flav modifies the allusion that Chuck makes in verbal form by using the timing and melodic structure of his repetition to produce a new timeframe within the existing track, doubling the ways in which this line alludes to a prior work.
On his own, Flav’s performances on Black Planet laugh through the pain of urban dystopia, the. concentrated poverty, premature death, and alienation from the amenities of citizenship he explores in “911 is a Joke” and “Can’t Do Nuttin’ For Ya Man.” “911” is especially notable for coupling Flav’s cynical appraisal of life and death in the hood to repetitive verse structures, a tight rhyme scheme consisting mostly of couplets, a chart-ready beat (the song reached #1 on the Billboard Hot Rap Singles list), and an unforgettable quatrain as the hook: “Get up, get, get, get down/911 is a joke in your town/ Get up, get, get, get get down/Late 911 wears the late crown.”
The notion of getting down to misery is disturbing, but that’s all you can do. The track ends with a particularly macabre sample: the laughter of Vincent Price, the same heard at the harrowing conclusion of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” “Can’t Do Nuttin’ For Ya Man,” on the other hand, ends with Flav’s raspy laughter. While “911” ironizes the withdrawal of public resources from “your town” amid concentrated poverty, this song sends up the misfortunes urban denizens bring on themselves. The funky tune profanes the serious concerns of a man who’s fallen into a life of crime, offering no Chuck D-style self-help just “bass for your face.”
Mark Anthony Neal has called the generation that came of age in the 1990s the “Post-Soul” generation, and the many funk and soul references on Fear of a Black Planet, from the preceding sounds to the rallying cry of “Who Stole the Soul,” connect the first hip-hop of the 1990s to the prior generation of Black music. Repetition with difference allows the group to maintain a dialogue between their precedents in socially conscious popular music and the new intervention they intend to make. If “Fight the Power” signals the dawn of new era, so does the largely-forgotten “Reggie Jax,” the downtempo freestyle on which Chuck D coins the term “P-E-FUNK.”
Chuck’s neologism, which he introduces by spelling it out, “P-E-F-U-N and the K,” is a performative citation linking PE’s brand of hip-hop to the P-Funk of the 1970s: perhaps the defining expression of Afrofuturism in popular music. The morphology of “P-E FUNK” is highly novel, infixing a new element within an existing word and also facilitating the flow between the terms by enunciating their assonant sounds. This tactic for naming the fusion of hip-hop and P-Funk allows PE to continue a pattern initiated by their predecessor Afrika Bambaataa, whom they sample on “Fight the Power,” by inserting themselves into a particular artistic genealogy (traced by Ytasha Womack in Afrofuturism) animated by George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, and the mind-expanding antics of Parliament/Funkadelic.
The intense polyrhythmic edifice of Fear of a Black Planet link past to (Afro)future, engaging in a radically heteroglossic practice of treating sound as information. Deploying the sound of knowledge and the knowledge of sound in the service of envisioning the world as it is, the album charts a dystopian itinerary for the 1990s that we need to comprehend how we arrived at the present. Rather than worrying that a Black Planet is something to fear, we might consider the lessons that emerged from past efforts to cope with developments already underway. If we listen to Flavor Flav and find that coping strategies are futile, at least we can party. And if we were right to call Chuck a prophet, then the dawn of the Black Planet he warned us about—characterized by neoliberal governance, gentrification, and boundaries that demand to be crossed—is a moment when the avant-garde tactics of Afrofuturism are becoming important to everyone. Citizens of Earth: Welcome to the Terrordome.
andré carrington, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of African American Literature at Drexel University. His research on the cultural politics of race, gender, and genre in popular texts appears in journals and books including African and Black Diaspora, Politics and Culture, A Companion to the Harlem Renaissance, and The Blacker the Ink: Constructions of Blackness In Comics and Sequential Art. He has also written for Callaloo, the Journal of the African Literature Association, and the Studio Museum in Harlem. His first book, Speculative Blackness: The Future of Race in Science Fiction, is being published by University of Minnesota Press.
Featured Image: Still from “Fight the Power” video, color altered from b & w by SO!
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Straight Outta Compton… Via New York — Loren Kajikawa
Fear of a Black (In The) Suburb — Regina N. Bradley
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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Off the 60: A Mix-Tape Dedication to Los Angeles
With the slight return of warmth to the East Coast of the U.S. and Tropics of Meta’s very recent release of Troy Andreas Araiza Kokinis’s fantastic history“’The Sky is Black and the Asphalt Blue’: Placing El Monte in the Early LA Punk Rock Scene” and its accompanying archival project (bring your old flyers and pics down to scan at Bridgetown DIY, 1421 N. Valinda Ave, La Puente, CA on May 3rd from 2-6 pm), we thought it was high time to bring Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman’s LA mixtape Off the 60 into the sunlight for everyone to bump with their windows down.
Off the 60 was initially commissioned as a sonic installation for the re:present L.A. Exhibition at East LA’s Vincent Price Museum from May 3 – July 27, 2012. re:present L.A. was curated by Museum Studies students at Claremont Graduate University (and coordinated by performance artist, scholar, and poet reina alejandra prado saldivar, who wrote about the experience for SO! in 2011). The exhibit sought “to explore, challenge, and depict the multiple representations of Los Angeles that responds to the present social landscapes of city” through both sight and sound.” Click these links for the exhibit’s virtual catalogue and list of participating artists. Both the liner notes and the track listing have been modified slightly from the original for publication here.
Off the 60: Liner Notes
When I began to make this mix-tape that somehow would re-present L.A. in a mere 80 minutes, my enabling fantasy was that I could make a playlist that would be my musical calling card, a sonic Rosetta Stone for “home” that would unravel the complex knot of feelings about L.A. I carry around with me, something I could share with my son, whom I am somewhat reluctantly raising as a New Yorker. You know, a musical study guide so the sounds that raised and shaped me could tell him all the things I just can’t put into words about Los Angeles, namely how much music and place are wrapped together in my memory’s DNA. Therefore, this mix deliberately dates and locates me, enabling, in the words of Ronnie Hudson’s “West Coast Poplock,” the intimate knowledge of “listening to the map.” And—there was more than a little magical thinking involved here—I thought that perhaps if I arranged these songs just so, then the barren Sleepy Hollow landscape of wintry upstate New York would transform itself into the desiccated foothills, dried river beds, and dense strip malls of Southern California. I’d turn a bend and, with a little help from the Go-Go’s and Union 13, 79 would suddenly become “the” 60.
And thus the title, a tongue-in-cheek reference to J.Lo’s debut album On the 6 (1999), named after the subway line between Manhattan and the Bronx, where she grew up. Off the 60 references the freeway whose red brake lights stretch between Los Angeles and Riverside, my hometown, and the mix is just the right length for a one-way trip, provided there’s no traffic (I told you there was some magical thinking involved here!). The 60 is one of the most heavily trafficked commuter pathways in the country; I know people in Riv who will make this 60-mile drive 5 days a week, 51 weeks a year, for decades (I have also met people in Los Angeles who had never made this trip east, and who used to look askance at my 951 cell number, in the same way that my current 323 area code causes looks of consternation to New Yorkers). For many people coming of age in the Inland Empire, Los Angeles exerts a tidal pull, and we make many trips there before hitting the commuter treadmill—in family cars, in our imaginations, in movies, in books, on school busses and tour busses, in broken-down band vans, in hoopties borrowed from our friend’s uncle that may not make the return trip—and some of us make that 60-mile move West and never really come back, like me. I ended up living on St. Andrews instead of only singing about it.
But you never know, The Riv has a deep hold on people. I closed Off the 60 with a band from Riverside, old friends of mine Chicano punk rockers the Voodoo Glow Skulls, because one second you are going to law school in Queens or Dap-Toning with Sharon Jones and the next you are back, public defending in San Bernardino or married with big fam filling a house by Mt. Rubidoux, respectively. True stories. But I am already taking a detour Off the 60, in the hopes that the music on this mix invites you to do that. Unlike J.Lo’s subway, you can’t stay on the 60 and really get to know Riverside, Los Angeles, or all the many places in between that are intertwined socially, historically, culturally and economically with both cities: Glen Avon. Corona. Chino. Diamond Bar. Rowland Heights. La Puente. Hacienda Heights. El Monte. Montebello. East L.A. Boyle Heights.
A sonic exit ramp of sorts, Off the 60 is a mix-tape in digital format, crafted in the old style: a painstaking arrangement of songs really familiar and much beloved to me, listened to obsessively throughout the process to create fresh transitions that are laden with significance—and of course, car tested L.A.-style until smooth like butter. For Off the 60, I deliberately picked songs without the aid of Wikipedia or any of the copious L.A song lists, sitting down with just a blank page, my memory, and a sharp pencil (as I hope you can tell by many of the songs, I’m kinda old school) to come up with a set of songs that aren’t necessarily about L.A., but of it. This is a small, symbolic sample of the music that once scored my life in the Southland from the 1970s-the 2000s through the perspective of my current “home away from home” in New York. Now, in what my colleague and homegrrl Karen Tongson (another Riversidean, now turned proud Silver Lake home owner) has poignantly dubbed “remote intimacy” in Relocations (New York University Press, 2011). And these sounds still make me feel L.A. even though I often feel like I live “a million miles away.” I hope you feel it too.
The songs on Off the 60 are arranged to speak to each other, sometimes sonically, sometimes thematically, sometimes historically (and occasionally I pull off the trifecta! Listen carefully!). I designed the mix to flow along with the narrative rhythms of a timeless (yet intentionally dated) Saturday in L.A., from waking up with the sound of Friday night still in your ears to basking in the warm afternoon—which can feel so good you almost get knocked off your game—until the purplish-orange twilight descends, with its regret and uncertainty, on into the pulsing promises of the night. Sonically blending vulnerability with hardness—and revealing both where you least expect them—I hope the songs on this mix share an overall L.A. vibe that is more than merely the sum total of the musical parts, a feeling that’s ephemeral and hard to put your finger on, but—paradoxically—one whose resonance lasts.
And because I am a sound/music scholar in addition to a product of the 714 909 951, you’ll get plenty of L.A. music history through this this mix. All the bands featured are based in L.A. or Riverside, except for two artists whom I have awarded honorary Angeleno status: Smokey Robinson and Debbie Deb. Never mind the fact Motown had already moved to L.A. by the time Robinson’s “Crusin’” was released in 1982 and he used to host one of my favorite radio shows on 92.3 in the 2000s, but these two songs have bumped out of so many cars, clubs, backyard parties and Art Leboe sets that both Smoke and Deb own some symbolic real estate in Southern California, at least in my heart.
In putting the work of so many different L.A. artists together, I challenged myself to create a coherent musical feel without placing songs from similar genres, scenes, or time periods right next to each other. I worked hard to create a sense of the diversity of the Los Angeles area without being either gratuitously culture clash-y or post-multiculti Velveeta, but using sound to make palpable both the dissonant tensions and the productive energies of everyday encounters in the city in a way that “represents” without claiming to be representative. Think of Off the 60 as a flash-sample of what you might hear while whiling away a scorching Friday night in traffic, when everybody’s got their windows open, cooling off the outside with their tunes. As a result, you’ll hear classic L.A. musical sounds in conversation—mariachi horns, surf guitar, nasally Val-Speak, fat funky synth, staccato punk growls, metal licks, downtempo samples, polyrhythmic percussion, and that power pop tone that my Vox amp calls “Cali Clean”— calling and responding across genres and decades: re-mixing, recontextualized, distorting, hyperembodying those terribly glamorous L.A. sounds, across this town, our town. Por vida.
Off the 60 is dedicated, Art Leboe-style, to my SGV homegirl Melissa Contreras-McGavin for always (even though she lived off the pinche 10 for so long). Mwah.
Off the 60: Track Listing–Click to Jump to Track Description
1. “This Town” by The Go-Go’s
2. “Del-Tone Rock” by Dick Dale and his Del-Tones
3. “La Bamba” by The Plugz
4. “Chango” by Ozomatli
5. “Unyielding Conditioning” by Fishbone
6. “Blessings” by The Visionaries and the Beat Junkiez
7. “All Day Music” by WAR
8. “Concrete Schoolyard” by Jurassic 5
9. “Cruisin’” by Smokey Robinson
10. “It was a Good Day” by Ice Cube
11. “A Million Miles Away” by The Plimsouls
12. “I Can’t Stand it Anymore” by Union 13
13. “Jane Says” by Jane’s Addiction
14. “Destination Unknown” by Missing Persons
15. “Look Out Weekend” by Debbie Deb
16. “West Coast Poplock” by Ronnie Hudson and the Street People
17. “Make Ya Neck Lock” by Medusa and Feline Science
18. “This Town” by Ceci Bastida with guest Tim Armstrong
19. “Here Comes the Sun” by Voodoo Glow Skulls
- “This Town” by The Go-Go’s (Beauty and the Beat, I.R.S. Records, 1981): The Go-Go’s were formed in Hollywood in 1978 by members of the early L.A. punk scene and this song reflects their lives in that moment. The Go-Go’s initially consisted of Belinda Carlisle (vocals), Jane Wiedlin (guitar, vocals), Margot Olavarria (bass), and Elissa Bello (drums). Members Charlotte Caffey (guitar), Gina Schock (drums) and Kathy Valentine (bass) were added by 1981, after founding members Margot Olvarria (bass) and Elisa Bello (drums) were fired. The Go-Go’s were the first female band writing and playing their own music to reach number one on the Billboard Charts. This was the first record I purchased with my own money.
- “Del-Tone Rock” by Dick Dale and his Del-Tones (The B-Side of “Let’s Go Trippin’,” Deltone Records, 1961): Dick Dale was born in Boston, Massachusetts and came to Southern California in 1954—Orange County, but we’ll let that slide—where he was one of the innovators in the “Surf Music” genre that many still associate with Los Angeles. “Del-Tone Rock” was the B-Side of the alleged first surf song ever, “Let’s Go Trippin.’” An avid surfer, Dale sought to imitate with his guitar the sounds that he heard while riding waves—and he pushed his equipment to the max while doing so (Fender guitars, another Southern California staple, designed several custom guitars and amps for Dale and still sell a “Dick Dale Custom Shop Stratocaster” model). My dad once got in trouble for sneaking out to see Dick Dale play a “stomp” at the Riverside Armory in 1963. I saw him play at the Dragonfly in 1996.
- “La Bamba” by The Plugz (Electrify Me, Plugz Records, 1979): The first rock and roll version of this Mexican folk song was of course recorded by Richie Valens of Pacoima in 1958—he was first known as “Little Richard of the Valley”—and his life and music inspired countless musicians after his untimely death at age 17 in a plane crash in Clearlake, Iowa. The Plugz’ punk-rock version both pays homage to Valens and signifies on the outsiderness of his music career—his manager insisted he whiten his surname by changing it from Valens to Valenzuela, for example. The Plugz formed in 1977 in East Los Angeles and their version of “La Bamba” was recorded with the original line-up: Tito Larriva (lead vocals/guitar), Charlie Quintana (drums), and Barry McBride (bass/backing vocals). The Plugz were staples in the early LA punk rock scene, but they challenged its Hollywood-centricity with a sound that also had firm roots in Chicano garage rock from bands like Thee Midnighters. I first heard The Plugz on the soundtrack to Repo Man, and I can’t tell you how many batteries I went through fastforwarding from “El Clavo y Cruz” to “Hombre Secreto” and back again.
- “Chango” by Ozomatli (Ozomatli, Almo Sounds, 1998): Ozomatli was formed in Los Angeles in 1995, after meeting through their affiliation with the Peace and Justice Center. A multiethnic, multiracial collective that, at the time “Chango” was recorded was comprised of Wil-Dog Abers (bass, vocals), Ulises Bella (clarinet, guitar, tenor saxophone, vocals), Chali 2na (MC), Cut Chemist (DJ), Raúl Pacheco (guitar, vocals), Justin Porée (percussion), Asdru Sierra (trumpet, vocals) and Jiro Yamaguchi (tabla, cajón, other percussion, vocals), Ozomatli is unabashedly and proudly political through and through: in their lyrics, in their brilliantly miscegenated music—described by Bella and Yamaguchi as “that crazy blend that’s going on between that cacophony of sound” on the streets of L.A. (NPR, 2007)—and in the shows they choose to perform. Ozomatli famously played their cumbia-funk-hip hop-salsa-merengue jams in front of the 2000 Democratic Convention in Downtown Los Angeles and continued to record after the LAPD shut them down and began to shoot rubber bullets, tear gas, and pepper spray paint balls at the peacefully gathered crowd (the footage opens their second record Embrace the Chaos). I included this particular song to also give props to the way in which Ozo has politicized collective dancing—and dances their politics—I have seen them play in many diverse venues from the Cal Plaza to the Warped Tour and I have never seen them fail to move the crowd in more ways than one.
- “Unyielding Conditioning” by Fishbone (Give A Monkey A Brain and He’ll Swear He’s the Center of the Universe, 1993): One of the best (and most virtuostically versatile) bands from Southern California, hands down, Fishbone was formed by high school buddies John Norwood Fisher (bass, vocals), Kendall Jones (guitar), Phillip “Fish” Fisher (drums), Angelo Moore (vocals, saxophone, and theremin); “Dirty” Walter A. Kibby II (vocals, trumpet); and Christopher Dowd (keyboards, trombone, vocals) in South Central Los Angeles in 1979. Their coming together is a very 1970s L.A. story; everyone but San Fernando Valley local Moore was bussed from Compton to the overwhelmingly white high school, an 100 mile round trip that you can hear in their music. If you have never heard of this wonderful fusion band—everything from heavy metal to ska to funk to soul to punk—but find that this song sounds teasingly familiar, consider even just the LA-area bands that have stood on these giant’s shoulders: the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jane’s Addiction, No Doubt, the Skeletones, the Voodoo Glow Skulls, Hepcat. While it has always burned me up that Fishbone has never seen the level of fame that many of these acts have—too bad you can’t pay the rent with respect—I refuse to talk about them as a failure, especially not as an act who has unceasingly worked so hard to portray Los Angeles they live in story and sound. In a recent interview with the Japanese Metropolis, Norwood Fisher stated: “you know we came from gang-related neighborhoods, so for me the violence of punk made sense. There was a big cross-cultural surge, everybody was listening to everything—mod and ska and new wave—everybody could enjoy it, and for a moment it didn’t matter what color you were.” To create that “one moment,” Fishbone has never stopped telling the stories of the numerous moments where it does matter—the tensions embodied in “Unyielding Conditioning”—and that is why I will always love them. By the way, these veteranos still tour so please support Fishbone whenever they come to home to play.
- “Blessings” by The Visionaries and the Beat Junkiez (Galleries, Up Above Records 1998). This virtuostic Los Angeles hip hop super group in the tradition of multicultural, multiracial Angeleno musical collectives like WAR and Ozomatli, blends the MC talents of Visionaries 2 Mex, LMNO, Lord Zen, Dannu, Key Kool, and DJ Rhettmatic with the legendary turntablist crew the World Famous Beat Junkies (who were formed in Orange County in 1992 by J-Rocc) and whose members over the years have included Rhettmatic, Curse, Melo-D, D-Styles, Red-Jay, Havik, Tommy Gun, & What?!, Symphony, DJ Babu (also of Dilated Peoples) and Mr. Choc. The cream of the backpack crop, this group was the sound of L.A. underground positivity for myself and so many artists, writers, and musicians I knew in the 2000s. Not to mention that this amazing downtempo beat also reminds me of dancing with my best girls at turn-of-the-millennium late night chill spots all over the city—after long days grinding hard, working toward our Ph.D.s in American Studies and Ethnicity at USC—life-affirming spots like the Little Temple, Carbon, Bounce Rock Skate, the Dub Club, the Root Down, and Nappy at the Roots at the Fais Do Do.
- “All Day Music” by WAR (All Day Music, United Artists, 1972) The title song from their first album after changing their name from “Eric Burdon and WAR,” “All Day Music” is a musical manifesto of sorts for the multiethnic 7-piece funk/soul band that came together in 1969 in Long Beach (although the core of the band had been together since 1962 as The Creators). The new line-up was comprised of Howard Scott (guitar, percussion, vocals), B.B. Dickerson (bass, percussion, vocals), Lonnie Jordan (organ, piano, percussion, vocals), Harold Brown (drums, percussion, vocals), Harold Brown (drums, percussion, vocals), Papa Dee Allen (conga, bongos, percussion, vocals), Charles Miller (flute, sax, percussion, vocals), and Lee Oskar (harmonica, percussion, vocals). The gentle strains of this song always take me right back simultaneously to the parks I have loved in in Los Angeles—Pan Pacific Park, Lincoln Park, MacArthur Park, Elysian Park, and Echo Park.
- “Concrete Schoolyard” by Jurassic 5 (Jurassic 5, TVT/Interscope, 1998) Jurassic 5 formed like Voltron back in 1994, from the wreckage of two earlier hip hop groups,Rebels of Rhythm and Unity Committee, and was made up MCs Charles Stewart (Chali 2na), Dante Givens (Akil), Courtenay Henderson (Zaakir), Marc Stuart (Mark 7even), and disc jockeys Mark Potsic (DJ Nu-Mark) and Lucas Macfadden (Cut Chemist)—both Cut Chemist and Chali 2na were also in Ozomatli until 2000. J5 cut their teeth at L.A.’s legendary “Good Life,” a South Central health food store owned by B. Hall that became an influential hotbed of rhyme in the early 1990s, hosting a “no cursing” open-mic night that nurtured innovative acts like J5, Medusa, the Pharcyde, and the Freestyle Fellowship. While I didn’t make it to Leimert in time for The Good Life, I loved Thursdays at Project Blowed, the next incarnation of the hip hop workshop held at filmmaker Ben Caldwell’s community arts, multimedia, and performance space, KAOS Network, which he founded in 1990. It is still held every Thursday night at 43rd Place and Leimert Blvd., and will be celebrating its 20th Anniversary on 12/29/14. Follow @Blowdians for the latest.
- “Cruisin’” by Smokey Robinson (Where There’s Smoke, Motown/Tamla 1979) Smokey Robinson was already quite famous as a Motown originator by the time he scored this throwback hit at the end of the disco era. Motown had been based in Los Angeles since 1972, and this song—an instant classic in the Lowrider Oldie genre co-written by Robinson and fellow Miracle Marv Taupin—shows just how much L.A. had impacted the label, especially Latino car culture. Now a staple on Art Laboe’s “Killer Oldies,” a long-running Los Angeles radio show famous for playing “Oldies but Goodies” by special request. Give your loved one a musical shout out by calling 800-681-2121 M-F between 7pm-Mid and Sun 6pm-Mid PST.
- “It was a Good Day” by Ice Cube (The Predator, Priority Records, 1993) Born O’Shea Jackson in Compton, Ice Cube took on his famous moniker when he joined old school rap group CIA in the mid-1980s (the group sang backing vocals on “Cabbage Patch”—remember that?) and then became a member of legendary hip hop group NWA in 1986. He went solo upon NWA’s break up in 1989 and produced club bangers for a good many years. I almost picked “Bop Gun” for this compilation—I love the George Clinton reference and the way it so perfectly captures the best vibes of the 1990s—but there is a world of LA knowledge embedded in the way in which the minor key sample from the Isley Brothers’ beautiful 1977 hit “Footsteps in the Dark” subtly undercuts Ice Cube’s Southern California fantasy that it could only be this song. Not to mention the long afterlife of “Good Day”: while I usually shy away from gross generalizations, I think I am safe to say that everyone who grew up in the L.A. region in the 1990s has a special love for this song. It is the day by which many of our good days are judged. People have such enduring love for the song that someone at the blog Murk Avenue spent many many hours using context clues to determine once and for all that this legendary good day was in fact, January 20, 1992. While you may have missed its twentieth anniversary, it’s not too late to order up the blimp for the 25th in 2017.
- “A Million Miles Away” by The Plimsouls (Everywhere At Once, Geffen, 1983) Formed in Paramount, from the ashes of the power pop/punk trio The Nerves in 1978—who performed the killer original version of “Hanging On The Telephone,” covered more famously by New Yawk’s Blondie—the classic line up includes singer, guitarist and songwriter Peter Case, drummer Louie Ramírez, guitarist Eddie Munoz and bassist Dave Pahoa. Their first break came when Long Beach promoter Stephen Zepeda signed the group to his Beat Records label for a five-song EP called Zero Hour, whose title song received a lot of KROQ airplay. Their second crack at fame occurred when they were hired as the “club band” in the film Valley Girl (1983), which my little sister and I watched over and over again, thanks to ON Television and lax babysitters.As a result, this song was the soundtrack to some of my earliest LA dreamings, and it—plus a very young Nicolas Cage as the rough guy from “over the hill” in Hollywood—gave punk rock boys permanent real estate in my heart.
- “I Can’t Stand it Anymore” by Union 13 (East Los Presents. . ., Epitaph Records, 1997) Formed in Boyle Heights in 1992, and influenced by punk rock, hardcore, metal, and their shared Mexican—Central American upbringing, the original lineup on this recording consisted of Edward Escoto on vocals, José Mercado and Ben Sandoval on guitars, Jerry Navarro on bass, and Louie Villareal on drums. I eventually spent so much time with these guys, in vans and in clubs on both sides of the border, that even though I haven’t seen them in years, I still think of Union 13 like family—even more so after they played a show in my backyard in Riverside and they got into a friendly familial brawl in the front.
- “Jane Says” by Jane’s Addiction (Nothing’s Shocking, Triple XXX Records, 1988): This band came together in Venice in 1985 out of the remains of Psi-Com, the first LA-area band of Queens transplant Perry Farrell (government name Peretz Bernstein) and included Dave Navarro (guitarist), Eric Avery (bass), and Stephen Perkins (drums). Both this song and the band were named after the struggles of Farrell’s drug addicted roommate, Jane Bainter, whom he lived with on Wilton Street in Hollywood in the early days of the band’s history. My first history with this song begins with high school subjection coupled with a lustful yearning for the sound of the bohemian unknown; I remember my best friend was almost suspended for wearing a Nothing’s Shocking T-Shirt to school because it featured plaster casts of naked women with their hair on fire—“but the female body is beautiful” I remember her saying, as she reluctantly turned the shirt inside out. The second is of moving to Los Angeles and living in Koreatown, on the fabled St. Andrews street mentioned in the song, and though the intensity of my feeling sfor this band had long since faded, “Jane Says” would pop into my head at least once a day as I headed out to hit the red line, find a coffee shop, walk past the Wiltern on my way to the Sav-on, or grab some Pho 2000 in the middle of the night. And I would stop, look up at the gently waving palm fronds, and remember that no matter what was going on in my life—high drama, money struggles, the mundanity of getting older—“at least I live in Los Angeles.”
- “Destination Unknown” by Missing Persons (Spring Session M, Capitol Records, 1982) Missing Persons, a new wave staple on the radio and MTV in its infancy, were founded in 1980 in Los Angeles by Warren Cuccurullo (guitar), Dale Bozzio (vocalist), Terry Bozzio (drummer) and later Patrick O’Hearn (bass) and Chuck Wild (keyboard). While this song is much lesser known that “Walking in L.A.”—which I still get asked about occasionally out here on the East Coast. . .”is it true?” . . .um, once and for all, “NO!”—I think it really captures a particular alternative New Wave sonic alterity that scholar, poet, and Highland Park native Wanda Alarcon describes in an SO! post entitled “Last Night a DJ Saved My Life” as having told her “there were options out there. . .and that was all I needed to survive—to save my queer soul.” Sometimes not knowing your destination can be truly liberatory.
- “Look Out Weekend” by Debbie Deb (single on Jam Packed Records, 1984) While the bad ass Deborah Claire Wesoff-Kowalski (known of course as Debbie Deb) was born in Brooklyn and raised in Miami, she is an honorary Angelena as far as I am concerned. Her music was the soundtrack to many an Aqua Net set as my friends and I teased our bangs to untold heights to hit Roller City 2001, or later to attempt to rule the dance floor (and work out our Riverside-ness) at Hollywood’s Florentine Gardens—a basketball gym-sized dance floor replete with go-go dancers, a taco bar on the patio, a dress-to-impress crowd and a broad spectrum of ground effects in the parking lot. We loved it so much we claimed the sound of Miami freestyle as “L.A. Disco.” To this day, when I throw on Deb at a party, I can’t help but smell Drakkar Noir and the scent of burning eyeliner pencils—well, how do you soften it to make your Cleopatra-eyes?. Then, as now, I used Deb’s pounding beat, synth stabs, and tough girl vocals to armor myself for life’s increasing challenges—to transform “Oh, what now?” into that world-famous and oh-so-necessary L.A. challenge “So now what?” And I thank her profusely for that.
- “West Coast Poplock” by Ronnie Hudson and the Street People (Single on HouseJam Records, 1982) In this multi-layered song by early Los Angeles B-Boys, Ronnie Hudson and the Street People, you can hear the echoes of earlier hits—lyrical shout outs to “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugar Gang (1979) and Zapp and Roger’s “So Ruff, So Tuff” (1981) as well as a killer hook borrowed from Booker T. and the M.G.’s “Bootleg” (1965)—and some really excellent futureshocks of the many L.A. acts to later sample it in songs like Mixmaster Spade and the Compton Posse’s “Genius is Back” (1988), N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton” (1988), Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg’s “Nuthin’ But a G Thang” (1992), and Tupac and Dr. Dre’s much beloved monster hit “California Love” (1994). But you can also listen for the way its soundscape takes you back to the days when pop-locking ruled the scene so hard that Ronnie Hudson made a special version called “East Coast Poplock” to take the moves created by Don Campbell, a commercial art student at L.A. Trade Tech, all the way to the other coast.
- “Make Ya Neck Lock” by Medusa and Feline Science (Undaground Crewed, Project Blowed, 2002). Another amazing fusion artist who should not be an LA-area secret, Medusa (also known as Baby NeNe, Triple Kahlua, Sister Monet, Medusa, Microfro, and that “cool-playa-pimp nigga Sean”)began her long Los Angeles reign as a 16 year old pop-locker with the Groove-Atrons and honed her rhyme talents at The Good Life Café (and later Project Blowed) in Leimert Park, along with Freestyle Fellowship,Yo Yo, J5 and the Pharcyde. Medusa, along with her live back-up band and hip hop crew Feline Science—which includes a DJ, drummer, bassist, keyboard, percussionist, guitar and background singers—has reigned supreme on the L.A. club circuit for many years, most famously transforming the Fais Do-Do on West Adams into her own personal queendom called “Nappy at the Roots”—a fecund female and queer-friendly performance space for innovative acts that fused musics from across the city like Quetzal, Wozani, and Burning Spear—where she always brought down the house. I can vouch—I was a devoted subject for all of the years I lived in L.A.
- “This Town” by Ceci Bastida with guest Tim Armstrong (Veo La Marea, EMI, 2008). Ceci Bastida has been an integral part of the transborder music culture circulating between Tijuana and Los Angeles since age 15, when she joined what would become one of the most classic Rock en Español bands, Tijuana NO!, as a singer, keyboardist and songwriter. While with TN!, Ceci collaborated with bands like Fishbone and Manu Chao. After leaving the band in 2000, she played with Julieta Venegas’s band for seven years, whereupon she started her solo turn, from which this track is taken, a bi-lingual, multi-genre revisioning of the Go-Go’s 1980s Valley soundscape, one that reminds listeners that the founder of the Go-Go’s was actually Chicana punk rocker Margot Olvarria (who was eventually kicked out of the group for refusing to conform to the band’s shift from punk aggression to power pop harmonies). I’ll forgive her the guesting by Rancid’s Tim Armstrong, because I love this song so much, especially its movements from English to Spanish to Spanglish, its deft juxtapositions of sounds and musical styles, and the way it manages to be celebratory and confrontational all at once. It’s might be our town, but it’s still “so ruff, so tuff out here, baby.”
- “Here Comes the Sun” by Voodoo Glow Skulls (Who Is This Is?, Dr. Strange Records, 1994) Founded in La Sierra (an unincorporated area in Riverside County), Inland Empire Chicano punk-ska-metal band the Voodoo Glow Skulls have been at it since 1989. The “classic” line-up has a trio of brothers at its heart: Frank Casillas (Vocals), Eddie Casillas (Guitar) and Jorge Casillas (bass), with a pulse provided by Jerry O’Neill (drums), and the unique warped mariachi-1950s rock bop horn sounds provided by Joe McNally (trumpet), Joey Hernandez (sax), and Brodie Johnson (trombone). Confession: I have known Joe since elementary school and Brodie since he was a high school metal head and you can still read their bio I wrote for Epitaph 1996 here (and they say the Internet is ephemeral!). Even though I have some personal rough water under the bridge where VGS is concerned—an ex, and that’s all I am gonna say—I haven’t stopped loving this song, a speeded-up Beatles cover that embodies the tensions, excitement, danger, and hope in California’s eternal promise of new beginnings.
Jennifer Stoever is co-founder and Editor-in-Chief for Sounding Out! She teaches African American literature and sound studies at Binghamton University and was a former Fellow at the Society for the Humanities at Cornell University (2011-2012). You can catch her full CV at http://jenniferstoever.com/
Featured image borrowed from Flickr user Daniel Orth.
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
Sounding Out! Podcast #19: Solid Gold Summer— The Sounding Out! Crew
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Last July 27th, our pithy editorial trio decided to press “publish” on their goal to curate the best new writing about sound and its cultural, emotional, and political resonance in our everyday lives, and thus, Sounding Out! was born, screaming and kicking, into the blogosphere. Since then, we have kept our ears open and our fingers tapping the keys in order to bring you consistent, well-written, and provocative think-pieces that push the field of sound studies into productive new territory. We thank our writing crew, past, present and future for making it all happen; here’s to more great ideas, words, and recordings. We also hope that you, dear readers, have enjoyed year one as much as we have and are looking forward to lots more, because we—like L.L. Cool. J.—are dedicated to doing it (and doing it) and doing it well. In honor of our first Blog-O-Versary, we have created a collaborative podcast for your aural pleasure with songs handpicked by all of us and put together by AT. Its theme, “A Celebration of Awesomeness,” holds for you as much as us and we thank you for your ears, eyes, tweets, retweets and facebook support. We also appreciate your very thoughtful (and thought-provoking) comments. . .keep them coming! In the meantime, celebrate with us by checking out an older post you may have missed and letting your ears enjoy our downloadable editorial mixdown.
Track Listing: (Anniversary/Tony! Toni! Toné!; We’re Coming Out/The Replacements; Divine Hammer/The Breeders; Everlasting Light/The Black Keys; I Wanna Holler (But the Town’s Too Small)/The Detroit Cobras; It was a good day(remix)/Ice Cube; Electric Feel/MGMT; No One Lives Forever/Oingo Boingo; Decouvert De Soleil/Pavement; Rudie Can’t Fail/The Clash; Busted/Jens Lekman; Birthday/Sugarcubes; There is a Light That Never Goes Out/The Smiths)
- “It’s Time to End the Publishing Gatekeeping!”: SO! stands with RaceB4Race
- Listen to yourself!: Spotify, Ancestry DNA, and the Fortunes of Race Science in the Twenty-First Century
- Black Excellence on the Airwaves: Nora Holt and the American Negro Artist Program
- Blank Space and “Asymmetries of Childhood Innocence”
- Youth, Reverberations, and Detroit’s Most Charismatic Rapper
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Authors Sounding Out!
- Adam Craig
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- Elizabeth Newton
- Emma Leigh
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- James Hodges
- Jeb Middlebrook
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- Jonathan Sterne
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- Kelly J. Baker
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- Michelle M. Sauer
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- Tim J. Anderson
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