linkthink re: hip-hop, reggae, the US, jamaica, and anything else wayne wants to wax on



from september 16 to november 18, you can check out an exhibit called self-sufficient at the city hall annex gallery (344 broadway, cambridge). the theme of the exhibit is "site/non-site" and it features a number of works that reflect on this theme: videos revealing the vehicle-assisted production of paintings show alongside the paintings themselves (you have to see this one--it's a bit tough to describe); personal biospheres, which will later be "adopted" and worn around town, hang in the gallery for folks to try out; and a large black cube, whose contents one can only see (and manipulate) on the web, sits cryptically in the corner.

the (((re:sound))) project finds its place in the exhibit as an on-site display of text, images, and sound representing "renegade soundsystem culture" and an off-site "renegade soundsystem party" that will take place on october 16, featuring performances by yours truly, local fields, sosolimited, dj flack, hrvatski, duotone, and dj c. in good ol' rave style, in order to find the party one will need to tune in to 89.3 FM, which will only be broadcast in the union square area of somerville between the hours of 8-10 on the night of the event. the broadcast will reveal the location of "the map point," where one can obtain "the map." cheaters can check this site on the day of the event, but participation in the union square pirate radio broadcast is strongly encouraged. also, a week earlier, on october 8, there will be an interactive listening event at the gallery during which DJ C will spin some tunes, DJ Flack will demo some of his flash/video music, and I will deconstruct and reconstruct beats from around the world.

(((re:sound))) was inspired by, and takes as its subject, the "renegade sound system" parties that took hold in kingston in the 60s, the bronx in the 70s, and london in the 80s. it also attempts to make sense of boston's contemporary scene within this context. the folks putting together the exhibit--a group of somerville-based artists called circlesquare--asked me to contribute some text for the panels describing each of these scenes. i found it to be quite a challenge--and a good exercise--to describe each of these rich, complex scenes in a single paragraph. for one thing, i'm wary of oversimplifying or romanticizing these historical moments. to add to the challenge, at the time of writing i was down the cape, so i had to construct these "blurbs" off the top of my head, which proved to be another good exercise. as i am continually reminded these days, the ability to express an argument or a narrative in the most concise manner reflects one's command of it.

so, that said, i decided to share my blurbs with the general public because i do think they represent good little summations of what was going on in these moments and what was significant about them. my own interests and background reveal themselves here no doubt. you will note, for instance, that i underscore the jamaican connections across these moments and that my take on the rave scene reflects my lesser knowledge of that phenomenon. (i'll catch up soon enough, though. gotta get through generation ecstasy first, for one.) anyway, hope you enjoy.

Kingston in the 1960s

When they began to appear around Kingston in the 1950s, sound-systems typically comprised a set of large, powerful speakers, a turntable or two, and a microphone. In the 1960s sound-systems rose to prominence in downtown Kingston and forever transformed Jamaican music and culture. Kingston’s burgeoning urban population, in particular the lower-class denizens of “downtown,” flocked to the dances put on by such entrepreneurs as Clement “Coxsone” Dodd and Duke Reid. The intense competition between sound-systems led to a number of innovations, technical and musical. Speakers, for instance, which were often custom built by and for an individual sound-system, attained new heights of loudness, clarity, and frequency separation (i.e., bass, treble, and mid-range). King Tubby, an engineer/producer who went on to become one of the leading producers of dub, made his name as the operator of a sound-system with impeccable sound projection. This was the era when the pull-up (rewinding a well-received record to the beginning and starting it again) and talk-over (using a microphone to talk, rap, or sing over a record, or send “shout-outs”/“big-ups”) emerged as common practices. Soon dub-plates (instrumental versions of popular songs) and “specials” (unique records made to promote a particular sound-system) appeared, making it possible for a sound to distinguish itself in a competitive field. The practice of removing a record’s label to hide its identity—something hip-hop DJs would do in the 70s—also started in 60s Jamaica. The first records played on sound-systems were American R&B records, especially the boogie-woogie-driven songs of Fats Domino and Louis Jordon. Before long, partly in an attempt to gain an edge over local competitors, sound-system operators got into the recording business, cutting tracks with Jamaican artists. Audiences loved these early attempts at Jamaican R&B, despite their sometimes awkward imitations of northern style. Before long, a more Jamaican sound emerged from these experiments and R&B gave way to ska, which eventually morphed into rocksteady, reggae, dancehall, etc. Having severed colonial ties with Britain, at least nominally, the 60s were the years of independence in Jamaica, and the sound-system dances and the music emerging from them expressed both excitement about new social and political possibilities and frustration with lack of real change for the majority. Sound-system dances served as counter-cultural spaces for contesting the status quo, for asserting an Afro-Jamaican aesthetics, and for affirming the lives of lower-class “sufferers”—the urban poor not served by the promises of independence. The dances were spaces for individual and collective expression: people dressed up, invented and perfected new steps, chatted ’pon the mic in local language, and attempted to transcend the everyday struggles of ghetto life. The sound-systems’ powerful presence infused Kingston’s social spaces with a palpable and undeniable force. Sometimes banned or “locked-off” as “night-noise,” sound-systems nevertheless persevered, winning converts “uptown” and nurturing a local music industry that would reverberate around the world with the international reach of Bob Marley and the many artists, from Yellowman to Sean Paul, who followed in his trail. The techniques of reggae production and performance (e.g., dub-style, selecting/DJing, and toasting/rapping) have infused the world’s popular musics, and the technologies of the sound-system have spawned similar counter-cultural and popular movements, from hip-hop to rave.

Bronx in the 1970s

The Bronx-based park-parties that gave birth to hip-hop can be seen as a direct transmission of Jamaican sound-system style to New York. Jamaican immigrant Clive Campbell, a.k.a. Kool Herc, grew up in Kingston before moving to the Bronx in 1967 at age twelve. When he began to DJ his first parties in the mid-70s, he drew on the techniques and technologies of the sound-system. When Bronx audiences failed to respond to reggae, Herc substituted funk, soul, and disco records, inspiring b-boys, or break-dancers, by extending the brief rhythmic “breaks” of these tracks. The isolation and extension of the “break”—which Herc accomplished by alternating between two versions of the same record on two turntables (a trick inspired by Jamaican sound-system practice)—may be Herc’s and hip-hop’s greatest gift to the world of popular music. By turning these percussive solos into infinite loops, DJs such as Herc essentially created new compositions on the spot. The sample-based collages that hip-hop producers have favored since the early 80s represent a further extension of this technique, and DJ-based forms of all sorts, from ragga-jungle to the most mainstream electronica (not to mention pop and rock groups looking for a “modern” sound), have drawn on this approach for manipulation of pre-recorded sound. Herc also modeled his “shout-outs” and exhortations—a kind of proto-rapping, which MCs later elevated to an art in itself—on sound-system selectors’ talk-over toasts, enhancing the Jamaican cadences with rhymes and rhythms drawn from various African-American traditions. On the technological side, Herc became known for his unbeatable speakers, the “Herculoids,” which provided not only loud sound, but a clear separation of treble, bass, and mid-range frequencies, making for the most powerful musical presentation around. Soon his dominance would be contested by such luminaries as Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash—both, significantly, of West Indian heritage—who extended Herc’s imported methods, inventing scratching, beat-juggling, and other turntable techniques that now comprise the basic vocabulary of hip-hop DJs. The hip-hop parties of the late 70s, like their Kingstonian antecedents, constituted entrepreneurial ventures, community events, and counter-cultural interventions for the urban poor. Using the resources at hand (e.g., consumer electronics) and the spaces available (from parks to gyms to clubs), young people in the Bronx transformed a post-industrial wasteland into a vibrant place and, in the case of Afrika Bambaataa’s Zulu Nation, channeled inter-gang strife for creative competition. Before long the movement spread to and merged with similar happenings in other boroughs, and soon to other cities in the U.S. and every country in the world. Today, sound-system events in Kingston are as likely to bear the influence of hip-hop style as the early Bronx parties of the 70s were to include dancehall practices.

London in the 1980s

As one of the major locations for the Jamaican diaspora, England—and London in particular—have long been familiar with sound-system technologies and techniques. Ska and reggae had been embraced by British youth since the early 60s, although the late 70s—especially the advent of punk and “two-tone”—represented a more intense level of (inter-racial) musical engagement. Rave culture emerges partly from the influence of Jamaican-style sound-systems, many of which were operated by first- or second-generation Jamaicans living abroad. Later (in the early- to mid-90s), an infusion of Jamaican style would lead to the creation of ragga-jungle, which persists as a style and subculture today alongside its cleaned-up cousin, drum’n’bass. Musically, however (at least in the mid- to late-80s), rave style was more closely related to Chicago house—especially the “acid” house produced with the Roland TB-303 synthesizer—and Detroit techno, two disco-derived forms developed in black, underground, and, typically, gay clubs. Tracks such as Strings of Life by Derek May provided the uptempo, climactic template for the increasingly “industrial” sound of rave music, propelled more and more by the ubiquitous and distinctive “hoover” synth and the common use of “dance” drugs such as ecstasy. At least in the early days, raves took place in warehouses and other large, abandoned spaces on the outskirts of London. Scavenger-hunt-like directions were given out to thwart the authorities, who occasionally shut-down raves, seized musical equipment, and sometimes arrested participants. As collective events on a grand scale, raves created the feeling of community for middle-class youth, countering the alienation and cynicism so common in modern urban life. P.L.U.R.—an acronym for “peace, love, unity, respect”—became the ideal, if cliché, embodiment of rave philosophy. By the mid-90s, raves had spread worldwide, and rave culture—alongside such international forms as reggae and hip-hop—remains one of the more popular and surprisingly coherent (i.e., shared from place to place) global musical and cultural styles.

Boston today

The soundscape of contemporary Boston is vibrant, if somewhat fragmented—perhaps reflecting the city’s sordid history of (class- and race-based) segregation. The puritanical “blue laws” also have something to do with the lack of a developed local scene, as clubs are forced to close earlier than in many major cities and few public spaces are either suited or available for performances. One finds a great deal of variety across Boston’s soundscape, but little unity or momentum, even within subcultural scenes. On any given night one can find great hip-hop, reggae, soca, salsa, jazz, indie rock, drum’n’bass, punk, metal, worldbeat, or a variety of other genres. There is also quite a bit of cross-fertilization between these scenes: the reggae and hip-hop crowds melt together, electronic dance musics often stand side-by-side, latin dance genres often occupy the same spaces, and a growing number of eclecticists draw on all of these styles to create their own local gumbo. Nevertheless, the reggae scenes of, say, Cambridge and Dorchester rarely mix, and Boston has yet to put itself on the map as a place with its own “sound.” A strong collection of college radio stations provide good alternatives to the so-called “clear-channels” of mainstream programming, and a host of small clubs and pubs provide decent, intimate performance spaces for small scenes with loyal followings. With a young, highly-educated, and diverse population, plenty of resources, and no end of talent, there would seem to be quite a bit of potential in Boston. It remains to be seen whether this potential can coalesce in the same way as happened in 60s Kingston, 70s Bronx, or 80s London. As these cases suggest, it might behoove Bostonians to embrace the various musical and cultural strands that constitute our distinctive local mix. The world is in Boston. Can Boston show this to the world?


in an ownership society, sample with attitude

the recent ruling on sampling in the sixth district court demonstrates the tenacity of outmoded ideas about music, art, technology, and intellectual property.

the ruling refuses to acknowledge and adapt to common cultural practice--the way that DJs play, producers sample, and listeners select and juxtapose from the materials around them. it's absurd to me that artists doing-what-they-do should have to worry about paying exorbitant fees or getting sued for not "clearing" their samples. of course, it's absurd to me that someone would try to sample and loop four-bars of a former hit song to make a current hit song and think they don't have to share the wealth--once they choose to participate in, and reap the occasional benefits of, the system.

but that's not even what NWA did. in public-enemy-bomb-squad fashion, NWA took a short sample of a funkadelic distorted guitar riff, slowed and pitched it down, and buried it in a dense sonic collage, where it adds rather subtly to the track's overall texture. but the sample-sniffers turned it up, and there are some rich men who stand to become much richer if they can sue for copyright infringement of the back catalogue that they've been investing in ever since de la had to pay off the turtles. (interestingly, many sources cite the de la case as having established the very thing this latest ruling purports to establish: that all samples must be cleared.)

unfortunately, this appeal overturns a previous ruling which was much more sensible and in-tune with an understanding of how sampling works, how music works, and how technology works.

allow me to quote from the people over at downhillbattle.org, who are laboring valiantly and creatively to make the music industry a "fairer" place. they do a fine job of summarizing the appeal court's findings and the implications thereof:

In the case, the court found that NWA violated copyright law when they sampled 3 notes of a guitar riff from Funkadelic's "Get off Your Ass and Jam" for their song "100 Miles and Runnin'". The ruling reversed a district court finding that because "no reasonable juror, even one familiar with the works of George Clinton, would recognize the source of the sample without having been told of its source," sampling clearance should not be required.
       In doing so, the court broke from decades of established sample practice by ruling that all samples, regardless of how heavily manipulated or unrecognizable they may be, are subject either to "clearance" (obtaining permission for use of the sample, usually in exchange for money), or litigation. In an instant, this act made the majority of sample based music illegal.

(you can read further about why sample rights matter here. you might check out illegal-art.org while you're at it.)

the people at downhillbattle, who also were responsible for the grey tuesday protest of the right for danger mouse's grey album to exist--and more importantly, for people to be able to share it with each other as well as implicitly endorse its sample-based approach--have organized yet another protest. (<--check it out.) this time the show of solidarity has a creative bent.

they've put up a soundfile of the sample in question and are telling participants to, without bringing any other sounds into the mix, "slice it, layer it, loop it, stretch it, filter it, smack it up, flip it, and rub it down." in order to better demonstrate the range of sample-based techniques and the degree to which a sampled source can become completely unrecognizable (and thus somewhat incidental--or at least ambiguous in its ability to be "owned"), they also encourage people to "process the sound in creative, unconventional and excessive manners, stretching the relationship between the finished result and the source material." finally, they ask that people keep the tracks down to 30 seconds.

i joined in the fray, contributing a lil' ditty i'm calling sample with attitude. after cutting the original sample into 7 pieces, all shorter than one second, i processed the samples in various ways, and arranged them into a little caribbean click-hop. it's amazing what one can do even with such a seemingly "determined"/limited sound as that three-note electric guitar riff. in some cases, i cut samples so short--a mere blip of a sound--that they became, in essence, short sine waves, or basic sonic building blocks. (ultimately, any piece of music can be reduced this way.) i pitched some bits down to create a kick drum, pitched some up for clicky percussion, and arranged other fragments into chords and melodic fragments, adding echo, reverb, flangers, and other effects. i ended up with a very different kind of thing than, say, my man DJ C, who contributed this number.

apparently over forty people submitted tracks in the first three days, and they're still coming in steadily. perhaps responding to the call for pushing the bounds of the sounds, many of the submissions have fallen on the abstract side of the sample-based/electronic music fence. personally, i tend to like the pieces that are more beat-based, more recognizably related to popular genres, but also less recognizable as originating in the funkadelic sample. of the current pool, i recommend the cool runnings of joseph scott's 100 miles, the 80s-ish romp by random spurting, and the twisted national anthem contributed by victor stone.

when listened to as a group of several dozen different tracks, the pieces illustrate quite powerfully the range of sample-based techniques and the distance between final products and original source(s). this kind of illustration--raising attention to the immense creativity demonstrated by sample-based artists as well as the often unfair strictures of copyright law--motivated me several years ago when i was writing my master's thesis on the relationship between copyright litigation and sample-based hip-hop production. in one chapter, which charts the evolution of dj premier's style over the course of the 1990s, i sought to demonstrate the way that lawsuits such as this one forced certain sample-based producers, such as premo, pete rock, and jay dee, to remain more-or-less underground--and, moreover, to become even more entrenched in their position and approach, to the point where sample-based beats (and in particular those sample-based beats which, either via vinyl pops-and-clicks or other tell-tale signs, sound sampled) became, in the minds of many, a powerful signifier of "real" hip-hop. for producers who have major label money to spend--e.g., puffy or kanye--sampling remains a crucial, if costly, approach as well, especially since their underground peers have established the street-cred of jacking-for-beats.

yet another way to respond to this recent ruling--or, for those who have been on the side of the samplers for a minute, to continue the fight--is to teach the opposite lesson of the court: that sampling is good, clean fun. when i teach young people how to make music, i teach them to sample. i show them how to use .wav editors that enable one to extract tracks from any CD, or to convert any audio files one can find, and then to cut, chop, slice, dice, loop, flip, dip, trip, trick, tweak, and freak the sounds however one wants to. i demonstrate the simple beauty of a one-bar loop and the boundless possibilities of arranging new melodies and rhythmic figures from tiny sonic fragments. far as i'm concerned (though i don't want to imply that hip-hop and jazz play by the same rules), the joys of dropping a classic break over a nostalgic riff are no different than the pleasures of, say, a trumpeter finally copping a favorite lick from louis armstrong (or, better, doing so in the style of miles davis), composing a new melody over the rhythm changes, or "quoting" from an old folk song or pop tune in the middle of a solo.

in an age where digital technologies give ordinary people the tools to become creators, encouraging self-development and democratizing the ability to produce and project new representations of self and community, this ruling suggests that our society is rather slow to seize on this potential and, accordingly, to change our ideas about how things are done. it's alarming, and it's sad. it's prohibitive and chilling. clearly, some people are not ready to relinquish ownership of things that they don't really deserve to own.

so it's not surprising that the verdict comes from nashville, tennessee, one of the music industry's traditional and established centers. an outpost of the ownership society if there ever was one. significantly, as is the case in many of these cases, george clinton and funkadelic don't benefit at all from this ruling. they don't own the rights to their own music, you see--well, at least to the music in question. clinton has released his own reasonably-priced and specially-prepared CDs full of samples in order to make some money himself in this trade as well as to aid struggling, sample-based artists. (reggae drummer sly dunbar has done the same thing, though on a grander scale. a couple months ago he told me that he was tickled when he saw that an english group had credited him with playing the drums on a track where they employed one of his loops.) the absurd logic that tells the musicians who created the sounds that they can't own them, but that someone else can, inspired me long before danger mouse treaded sacred ground to make a song based entirely on beatles samples. i planned to call it: if michael jackson can own the beatles' music, then goddammit so can i. (still haven't got around to that one, though.)

judges and lawyers need to become more reasonable in their rulings and more sophisticated in their understandings of the way people make music today. otherwise it becomes a matter simply of who can pay. and, besides being unjust in a society where wealth is distributed with terrible inequity, that simply leads to a lot of commercial crap. at any rate, it's kind of a moot point. a downhill battle, so to speak. people sample. all the time. and it's only getting easier and more acceptable, more commonsensical, and more natural as a cultural practice, as a part of the way people think about music and the way they interact with it.

all the same, an illustration such as the one being staged at downhillbattle.org may yet sway those who don't yet get it.

all us hip-hop folk been down.

(while i'm reminded of it, john perry barlow's declaration of the independence of cyberspace remains a resonant text for any contemporary--i.e., digital age--discussion of intellectual property. check it out if you haven't read it yet.)


it's bigger than whitey on the moon

inspired by an article, or two, at freezerbox about the oil industry's growing interest in the space program, as well as by dead prez's militancy and irresistable low-end and gil scott-heron's wit and enduring relevance, i put together a mash-up that i'm calling it's bigger than whitey on the moon. (<--click here to listen.)

my mix takes scott-heron's whitey on the moon, a bongo-supported tirade against the space program and the government's misplaced priorities and racist policies, and places it over the beat to dead prez's (it's bigger than) hip-hop, a bass-driven tirade against hip-hop's late-90s, solipsistic blind-spot with regards to political oppression. (i've linked to samples from amazon to facilitate comparison and encourage appreciation of the originals. do yourself a favor if you haven't already and pick up a CD or two of gil scott-heron's and dead prez's music.)

these songs diverge by 30 beats-per-minute in their original versions, so i slowed-down the gil scott piece by 20 bpm and sped-up the dead prez beat by 10 bpm, finding a happy medium at the trot of 86 bpm. because the gil scott piece follows a real-time pulse that ebbs and flows with his poem, i "warped" it in such a way as to create a "steadier" pulse, essentially keeping gil in step with dead prez's unwavering, miami-infused brooklyn crunk. (the simultaneous flexibility and immobility of the dead prez groove serves to evoke their militant and pragmatic stance over and above--or perhaps better, below--the content and form of the vocals, where southern swagger swings against northern urbanity.)

similar to the way alan ginsburg's america--written in 1956--retains an eerie applicability to the america of today (which made it fun, and easy, to translate), gil scott-heron's critique remains trenchant. as the government continues to divert resources to ill-conceived (and horribly executed) military actions and corporation-driven occupations, america's homeland is not only less safe than ever, it remains a mess, full of social problems that the masses' taxes could begin to remedy if leveraged in a more constructive manner. start from yard, as they say in jamaica. alexander zatichik's revelation of the oil lobby's support for a mars mission that would open up the red planet for fossil-fuel extraction sheds frightening light on bush's recent call for an invigorated space program. the specter of halliburton and company again looms over a multi-billion dollar, government-funded (which is to say, taxpayer funded) venture. as long as a majority of americans (at least as decided by the increasingly out-of-step electoral college) endorse the increasingly entrenched plutocracy that the US government has become, a growing number of people will have to live in abject poverty, in fear of attack, and without healthcare. of course, this is nothing new to certain groups in this country--blacks, for instance. the continued, and perhaps increasing, resonance of gil scott-heron's poem calls for our attention. dead prez's beat, one hopes, helps to grab it.

i like the way a mash-up can, by simple (and sometimes not so simple) juxtaposition, breathe new life into well-worn sounds and suggest some rather interesting arguments. one of the first mash-ups to really drive this point home for me was oops! slim shady did it again. by layering the eminem acapella over the britney instrumental the (anonymous?) mash-up artist highlights the degree to which eminem's song is a highly-crafted pop song, which sort of deflates his edgy b-boy stance (not that he's not willing to do so himself, as evidenced by the hilarious coda of my band, among other moments). still, this mash-up uses simple, stark irony to subvert eminem's critique of teenybop by showing how easily his performance fits against britney's swedish beatmaster's schlock. similarly, i love the way that this mash-up signifies on 50's club anthem, suggesting that there's little difference, say, between the sentiments of "i'm into having sex / i ain't into making love" and "i want to fuck you like an animal." ya mon. pump up har pum-pum. just don't hope for a second date.

at any rate, other examples abound. i think that most of these tracks, including it's bigger than whitey on the moon, argue persuasively for their right to exist. copyright law as currently applied is strictly against such "unlicensed" creations, but the world is a richer place for them. some mash-ups are obvious parodies, and thus should be covered under "fair use"; others make compelling statements that signify or build on their source materials in a novel manner. at bottom, they are fun, and people will continue to make them, if only for their own amusement--and that of their friends. between digital and vinyl culture, the cat's out of the bag as far as copyright and music are concerned. as music-making software continues to proliferate, turntables continue to outsell guitars, and the garage-band generation comes of age, i expect that the mash-up--among other sample-based creations--will emerge as a popular form of democratized art and personalized consumption. we just need more judges raised on hip-hop and reggae. soon come, though.

(psst-psst. interested in staying current with the mash-up world? sign-up here.)

(what's bigger than whitey on the moon? the moon, for one.)


carnival in brooklyn

(nice view.)

the biggest difference between last weekend's carnival in brooklyn and the carnival in cambridge the week before is the sheer scale of brooklyn's annual west indian festival. 2-3 million people were expected on eastern parkway last monday--apparently 4 mil showed up back in '01--and there were at least many hundreds of thousands there this year. (i haven't been able to find an official count. how does one officially count such a thing anyway?) the multitude included representatives of every island in the caribbean, with folk from the larger islands--jamaica and trinidad in particular--out in force. there was little doubt on this day that the flatbush area of brooklyn is, as selwyn seyfu hinds puts it in gunshots in my cook-up, "the Caribbean capital of the world" (24).

together with becca, andrew, and joe schloss (who's making beats, an ethnomusicological take on sample-based hip-hop production, just came out), i walked down the parkway beginning at grand army plaza, the final destination of the parade. caught in many a bottle-neck, we very slowly made our way through the crowd--probably covering about three miles in three hours--and still the people seemed to extend down the parkway as far as one could see. the crowds gathered on either side of the street, shaded by the trees lining the parkway. the road was reserved for dancers, elaborate costumes, enthusiastic parade-goers (who jumped the barriers and joined in), and giant trucks full of speakers and parade elite. (apparently, wyclef jean--this year's grand marshal--got down and walked around, pressing flesh like a good diplomat.)

at one point the crowd became a bit of a danger to itself. as we were sitting on the curb watching the festival go by, a stampede suddenly materialized, sweeping us off the curb and into the yards of nearby buildings for shelter. it was an intense and frightening moment. people pushed, ran, and shouted, ducking and looking around. and then it was over as quickly as it started, with no explanation. we never heard a shot or figured out what triggered the sudden mass movement. i guess it wouldn't take much, though. brooklyn's festive labor day parade has been consistently marred by violence. i heard later that someone was stabbed on monday, and learned as well that later that evening there was a shooting on flatbush ave. moreover, people in nyc and in the US more generally are pretty on-edge since 9/11, even if brooklyn's west indian festival seems a rather unlikely target. let's face it, despite all the wild but vague terror alerts raised by the bush administration, al qaeda had rather specific--and politically-pointed--targets when they struck three years ago: the world trade center, the pentagon, the white house. no surprises there. no surprise either to see anti-bush signs on the trucks going by: the president has done little to serve the caribbean community.

(carnival--and transit workers--for kerry? against bush, at least.)

each side of the street was filled not only with onlookers and people flossing in their national colors (or someone else's national colors--i mean, anyone can sport a pair of pumas), but with vendors selling west indian food, bob marley t-shirts, and bootleg CDs (2 for $5) and DVDs ($5 a piece, including some flicks that haven't yet opened in theaters--don't ask me how). for a cool fin, i picked up a nice compilation of dancehall instrumentals new and old plus the new roots album, which i had been holding out on after reading several lukewarm reviews. (sorry ?uest and company: i did buy the other six on the up-and-up, though.) seeing this kind of widespread availability of CDs and DVDs, inclduing some astoundingly timely releases--such as a DVD of last week's boston carnival--reminds me of walking into a roxbury computer lab a few years ago to see a kid watching the newly released minority report on his computer, with chinese subtitles to boot. seems to me that when something called "piracy" becomes common cultural practice, accepted as a kind of status quo, we need to reconsider using a criminal label to refer to it--unless of course one wants to leverage the oppositional role represented by the pirate. i definitely ran into many a jamaican in jamaica who invoked the island's long history of piracy to defend their current internet-assisted acquisition methods. (trust me: nuff peer-to-peer pirates in jamaica.)

another contrast from last week's carnival in boston was the overall predominance of the jamaican presence in brooklyn. trinidad--who had the strongest showing back in cambridge--came in a close second, but there was no doubt--especially in the vicinity of massive b's massive soundsystem on wheels--that jamaica was represented to the fullest on this day. walking up flatbush ave on our way to grand army plaza, one could see more teams of proud jamaicans than any other bedecked group.

(the dancers in the street, pictured below, are decidedly trini, but note the number of jamaicans repping in the crowd:)

i should note that there was also a substantial and impressive showing from guyana and panama--especially from the black/english/jamaican side--and several smaller islands, including st. vincent's, st. lucia, and st. kitts. most of the english-speaking islands were well-represented. there was a palpable, or at least visible, absence of spanish caribbean folk--especially on the road. of course, this is the "west indian" festival, which tends to mean anglo-caribbean (i.e., the islands formerly colonized by the british).

i was glad to have a chance to take in the sights and sounds of caribbean brooklyn last weekend. the BK is an important site for my investigation of the intertwined histories of hip-hop and reggae. and being in the flatbush area demonstrated the undeniable caribbean presence on the city's soundscape. most of the cars driving around were bumping reggae, and hot 97 was playing some old school dancehall on sunday night. i recently read a great little anecdote that illustrates pretty well the influence and power of jamaican-ness in brooklyn--an influence that can be heard throughout hip-hop's history, but especially beginning in the late 80s, following a wave of immigration, posse presence, and continued integration into new york's social fabric. allow me to set-up and excerpt the story: selwyn seyfu hinds recalls getting into a confrontation one night while walking through the streets of brooklyn; as he and his friends become surrounded by a menacing group of teenagers, he decides on a revealing strategy to evade a beat-down:

...I was scared shitless. The kind of fear when your Adam's apple swells up and seems liable to burst out your throat. So I did what most recently arrived Caribbean kids in that era would do in such a situation...I began talking with a Jamaican accent.
       "Wha ya deal wit? Mi nah wan no trouble, seen?"
       See, Jamaicans had a rep in those days. Still do. Jamaican kids in Brooklyn were thought of as fearsome, aggressive, not to be fucked with lightly. For the rest of us Caribbean folk, donning the trappings of that reputation when convenient was a welcome ability. (27)

i think that explains pretty well, at least in part, why jamaican accents became such a common, if not crucial, aspect of new york hip-hop in the late eighties and early 90s. the fu-schnickens, the boot camp click (black moon, smif'n'wessun/cocoa brovaz, heltah skeltah, originoo gun clappas), biggie, busta, black star/mos def, and others give shape and form in their music to the west-indian-accented experience that life in brooklyn has become (and has been for some time). i need to get back soon to take in more sights and sounds and talk to more people about what brooklyn was like in the late 80s and early 90s. a good oral history of this period has yet to be compiled. somebody needs to give rebecca levine some dough so she can finish her project. i got a chance to chat with becca last weekend, and she definitely filled in some gaps for me in her description of the neighborhood and its parties circa 1983-1995.

even though i'm looking to see more, there were plenty of amazing sights to be seen in brooklyn last monday, including several groups dancing on stilts. unfortunately, the dance doesn't translate in a still photo, but here's a pic anyway.

(yep. nuff amazing sights.)

soon come back, brooklyn, y'ear?


carnival in cambridge

last weekend was boston's annual caribbean carnival. most of the festivities took place in dorchester, which boasts a large, vibrant caribbean population, with jamaicans, trinidadians, and hatians comprising the largest national groups. leading up to the weekend, down around blue hill ave, there were dances and concerts and costume-contests. saturday was the big day, starting in the morning with a j'ouvert and continuing through the day with a parade and plenty of dancing, eating, and drinking up and down MLK blvd.

i spent sunday afternoon hanging out on river street in cambridge, watching the same floats and costumed-troupes make their way from the charles river up to central square. a few bands, including a spirited, acoustic delegation representing panama (who may have had the best music of the day: a straight-up caribbean percussion jam), marched up the road as a group, unaccompanied by any large vehicles. most troupes, however, were sandwiched between two large trucks: a flat-bed truck in front to carry the sound-system and the selector(s) and to motivate the marching dancers with the biggest "road tunes"; and a moving-truck to bring up the rear and carry extra costumes and other props.

(these guys aren't messing around. check out the on-board generator below!)

(carnival for kerry?)

(selecta on wheels! note the sponsor: remittances are for real.)

(some stack, e?)

as the trucks slowly rumbled down the street, one could gradually feel the bass increase, big and round and warm. the soundsystems literally shook the houses on river street as they passed. they took their time, too, stopping regularly to let the dancers do their thing in one-spot, letting the more elaborately costumed folks spin around in full display, and generally rolling along at a cool 2 miles an hour, if that.

(dancers doing their thing during a stop.)

i was struck by the strength of the caribbean presence in my backyard once again, though at this point i shouldn't be. incidentally, a new york times article published on the same day (last sunday) noted some remarkable, and rather relevant, statistics about caribbean migration (as a subset of "foreign-born black" migration) and, in particular, about the growing caribbean presence in the US, including boston: "In the 1990's, the number of blacks with recent roots in sub-Saharan Africa nearly tripled while the number of blacks with origins in the Caribbean grew by more than 60 percent, according to demographers at the State University of New York at Albany. By 2000, foreign-born blacks constituted 30 percent of the blacks in New York City, 28 percent of the blacks in Boston and about a quarter...in Montgomery County, Md., an analysis of census data conducted at Queens College shows."

people were out representing fi true, waving their flags and shaking their things. caribbean youths who blend into the african-american community during the rest of the year displayed their colors with pride. i saw flags representing small and big islands alike, and vendors were ready to sell badges of all nationalities to anyone interested in joining the party.


it was a pan-caribbean event, to be sure. plenty of jamaican flags, plenty of spanish spoken too. but the prevailing presence was without a doubt trinidadian, which is not surprising considering that t&t is really the home of caribbean carnival. the other islands look to trini as a model for their own burgeoning carnivals. on this day, the trinidadians clearly had the most flags, the largest marching troupes, the most elaborate costume designs, and the biggest truck-borne soundsystems.

(note the flag poking out behind the vendor: red with a black swath.)

(where's tobago? can you spot the trinidadian flag in the pic above?)

(uh-oh. representin' guyana. and gettin' down in the process. galang gyal!)

soca was the music of the day, further confirming t&t's lock on the festivities. as you can hear on this recording i made, however, soca selecta style is rather indebted to reggae selecta style. note the way the selecta here talks over the music, greeting the cambridge massive, bigging-up his organization (the t&t social club, who clearly represented this year), exhorting the dancers following in the street. (you can also hear the music become less muffled as the truck approaches our spot on the street. the whistle in the background--a staple at carnival celebrations--adds a nice touch of ambience, too.) i heard a bunch of big tunes from last year, as well as a good number of new ones. generally, the same "big chunes" are played again and again, so i heard a number of songs a number of times, among them: plenty of repetitions of rupee's tempted to touch, which, like kevin lyttle's turn me on, is finally taking over urban US radio after being a hit in the caribbean for years.

watching the floats head up to central square towards cambridge city hall, i was treated to one of the bigger ironies of the day as a song bu(r)ning chi-chi men (i.e., killing/denouncing gays) blasted from one of the trucks. listening more closely to the song, the anti-gay sentiments seem like more of a cliched afterthought--coming alongside such lines as "this is the tune ya" and "jah know the tune ya"--than a really purposeful attempt at songcraft, perhaps illustrating more a poverty of imagination than a full-blown bigotry. but that's no excuse. hearing such a song was, if unsurprising, kinda funny, considering that this is (the people's republic of) cambridge after all, where dozens of gay couples obtained marriage licenses a few months ago. but hey, we're multicultural. which is better than monocultural, even if it's wrong, too. (that last sentence is a nod to marshall sahlins, who quips, in waiting for foucault: "materialism must be a form of idealism, since it's wrong, too.")

of course, the anti-gay lyrics, put in patois and over a thundering soca-beat, were lost on most of the cantabridgian bystanders, including my mother, who was fairly shocked to find out that such a nice sounding song could have such a vicious message. the irony reminded me of living in kingston during carnival 2003 and seeing signs advertising a party (misguidedly) called "soggae"--a hybrid of soca (which is itself a hybrid of soul and calypso) and reggae. apparently, and not surprisingly, the dance was a flop. who would expect jamaicans to come out to a so-gay party? i was inspired by the ironic, mal-informed coinage to write a song about jamaican (or, i suppose, caribbean) homophobia. over a soca-inspired beat (composed by none other than my gyal), i do my best to take on a heavy subject with some light humor. you can read the lyrics here, and hear soggae here.

appropriately, the parade ended with a steel-band on wheels, representing the more traditional side of trinidad's carnival music.

despite the stark difference in sound from the booming soca sound-systems, the distinctly caribbean rhythms of calypso--that ol' 3+3+2--were still to be heard from this ensemble. (again, you can hear the band get louder as they approach. note also the motorist that beeps along, also on a 3+3+2, as he drives by.) if you don't know what i mean by 3+3+2, listen for the syncopated bass drum--boom! boom!--that grows in prominence after about 30 seconds. this same rhythmic structure--a way of breaking a duple-meter bar into polyrhythmic parts--is found across the caribbean, from soca to reggae to son to merengue, and gives the region's music much of its rhythmic dynamism.

we followed the end of the parade up to central square, where the biggest sound-system continued to provide tunes and exhortations as the crowd danced on. elephant man's big summer hit, too bad mind, got a requisite pull-up. in a recording i made, you can hear a young, eager selecta talk over the tune after the first pull-up. he lauches a bit too quickly into a call for the "scooby-doo"--a recent popular jamaican dance--in my opinion, but you gotta give him points for enthusiasm. one interesting thing about the performance of too bad mind here is that the track is sped-up significantly: from an original bpm of 124, which is already pretty fast (although similar to a number of other recent uptempo dancehall riddims), up to 132. of course, 132 bpm is not fast for soca at all, which can sometimes exceed 160 bpm on faster cuts. with this modification--easily accomplished on a CDJ machine--the song evokes soca more readily than dancehall reggae. of course, the song already resembled soca with its four-to-the-floor bass (a rhythmic structure not found in much reggae since the early 90s), upbeat tempo, major key, and 3+3+2 accents. but actually, elephant man's track is based on a jamaican gospel tune, hear my cry, by marvia providence, which has become a big hit even among the secular crowd thanks to ele's appropriation.

("scooby-doo! scooby-doo!")

mass ave was filled with people having fun. it was also filled with vendor's stands. one could buy jamaican and bajan and indian food (it wouldn't be a central-square fair without a good handful of indian-food vendors), all kinds of bootleg CDs and DVDs (i picked up a video of a passa-passa from early july), and--oddly enough--a yankees cap of any color combination you could desire (but no bosox!):

the appearance of the yankees caps alongside hats by sean john, kangol, and other urban fashion lines--but no other sports teams--suggests that the new-york insignia was seen more by the vendor (and, presumably, by perspective buyers) as a fashion statement, a symbol of all kinds of things (except, probably, the yankees): of up-northness, of urban cool, of upward mobility, etc. new york does boast the biggest caribbean population in the northeast US, if not the US outright, so it's not surprising that carib folk in boston and kingston alike would see a yankees cap as an appealing accessory--an identification with a pan-caribbean identity. i'm looking forward to brooklyn's carnival this upcoming weekend, where, ironically, i bet yankee hats will be less popular. perspective is relative, seen? how you feel like?