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


wha gwaan, etc.

as i mentioned last post, i didn't get a chance to hit any dances on this most recent whirlwind trip to kingston. but as always, i did have my ears and eyes open.

one thing that did catch my ears right away was the latest re-lick of the "mad mad" riddim. readers of this blog will know that the "mad mad" is a minor obsession of mine because of the way that, like other big riddims, it can illustrate in an intensely audible manner the stylistic shifts over the last 4 decades of jamaican music (and 2 decades of hip-hop). other listeners out there might know the "mad mad" as the "diseases" riddim, or the "johnny dollar," or the "golden hen"--named after versions of the riddim made popular by michigan & smiley, roland burrell, and tenor saw, respectively.

what caught my ear about this latest version of the "mad mad" is that is it clearly a part of the "golden hen" lineage, as defined by its instantly recognizable horn-line. other than that, the new version--which i believe the radio DJ referred to as the "dutty rub" riddim--falls, production-wise, into the new camp of rootsy/one-drop riddims (e.g., drop leaf, anger management, lion paw, etc.) that are currently enjoying such favor in the dancehalls. (and that's another thing my ears picked up: these "new roots" tracks, some of them a year old now, still have the place on lock, and young singers such as i wayne, fanton mojah, bascom x, and their bredren remain big favorites. the uptempo bashment stuff is still big, but it's no longer hegemonic as it was a year or two ago. and there is clearly some excitement inna JA about this so-called renaissance.) i have been hoping that along with this "return to roots" we will see a return to some of the classics dem, and i think it's just a matter of time before we see a whole slew of digital, post-dancehall (if you will) re-licks of the big studio one riddims that are to dancehall producers what tin pan alley songs were to beboppers.

the only voice i recognized on the "dutty rub" was elephant man's. (i only caught two tracks.) of course, ele has voiced on the "mad mad" before, but only on dubplates--far as i know--so it will be exciting to see how many of the newer crop of DJs and singers get to make their stamp on it. i'll also be curious, of course, to see who decides to make links to earlier versions, especially to memorable melodies such as yellowman's zunguzung meme.

the other thing that my ears took in was the reigning ubiquity of hip-hop on the island. of course, there were the latest jams from 50 cent and such, but one thing that struck me was how certain older tracks/artists remained a part of the soundscape--biggie smalls in particular. while at hellshire beach i observed a crowd of young men going crazy for "notorious" (from 1999's born again), and later, cruising through barbican, i overheard a cut from 1994's ready to die. clearly, hip-hop is not merely a fad, merely pop in jamaica--it is something that people have been seriously engaging for a minute. of course, this is not news to anyone who attends dances in kingston or picks up the latest mix-tape.

and speaking of mix-tapes, it's clear that the hip-hop format for bus(t)ing new artists and new tracks has been fully embraced by the digital-denizens of kingston. paralleling young jamaican video artists' use of found footage (the war in iraq being a particularly popular source of images to counterpose with the ghetto) and video game graphics, among other things, young mixtape makers are increasingly incorporating not simply the classic sounds of jamaican soundsystems (e.g., screaming selectors, big-ups from bigman-DJs, gunshots, and low-fi mixer effects) but everything from silly fruityloops sounds to the latest hip-hop beats to sizzla's signature "HAAA!" or killa's "CROSS..." to--the clear new favorite--clips from the twins of twins' highly popular dancehall parodies.

for those who don't know the twins of twins yet, they've been working as song-writers, performers, and dub-mediators for a while now, but they seem to be blowing up of late with their mixtape series (which i believe is now up to volume 5), in which they imitate and skewer a number of jamaican personalities and musicians as well as american pop stars. the social commentary and cultural critique that results is usually pretty sharp and often hilarious. sure, the set-ups are not the most original--r.kelly and mutabaruka are likely to disagree about sexual mores and michael jackson is not going to be black or man enough for most jamaicans--but they are well-executed. and the youth dem love it. i heard a 16-year-old kid recite verbatim what must have been a ten-minute long segment, reproducing the various voices as well. what i loved most about the twins of twins style is the way that they deconstruct various stereotypes by indulging in them to a ridiculous extent. i'd like to think this fosters a kind of critical media reception even when the jokes themselves tend to reinforce machismo, homophobia, and xenophobia, among other "national values."

at any rate, the stuff is flying around the kingston soundscape right now and samples from the twins of twins tapes make truly effective, and ubiquitous, drops for mixtapes these days (as heard in the twins of twins clips above, all of which come from a "cd-master" mix i copped at hellshire beach). on the cassia park mixtape, one hears carefully selected twins-of-twins drops ("the following artistes are rated 'g' for gangster"; "badmind make this song here not come to the fore") and, significantly, a number of hip-hop-gen kingstonians waxing local over recent hip-hop instrumentals--sometimes very recent ones, as on the "candy shop" versions. here's a clip, featuring wasp over the "dreams" beat (well before the game's song entered serious rotation in the states). and check this twins-drop into an appropriate capleton track--and one that, significantly, draws a major line in the sand between hip-hop (e.g., busta and usher) and real righteous reggae, rasta. (love the way king shango stutters through the beginning of the first verse, almost flabbergasted by the use of the n-word.)

the twins of twins approach to comedy--especially their celebrity roasts--clearly emerges from a wider fascination with jamaica's stars and their various feuds, which are frequently recounted, often in hilarious detail. while we took a break from the video shoot, dami d entertained us with his re-enactment of a tension- and comedy-filled buju-ninja encounter.

[can you guess which is buju and which is ninjaman?]

[yup, that's ninja in the second pic, saying something like, "buju--me nah wan deal wit no fuckery," after buju had instructed his yard-men to let loose the dogs on ninja and his uninvited entourage.]

one thing my ears did not catch in kingston was any reggaeton. i find this kind of odd considering both reggaeton's popularity on the US pop charts (which exert quite an influence on jamaica's soundscape) and its aesthetic overlap with dancehall. perhaps it's a matter of time. or perhaps the language barrier will prove to be too much. (jamaica, despite its proximity to and historical links with cuba, panama, belize, etc., seems to have an almost invisible spanish-speaking population.) i'm not sure. but i know that when i tried to play daddy yankee for dami d and some friends, they didn't recognize it, despite the fact that i can't turn on 94.5 without hearing it these days (or that the most common google search bringing people to my syllabi in the last three months is some combination of "daddy yankee" "gasolina" "translation").

ditto for grime: heads weren't feeling dizzee, wiley, kano, et al., though they were into the forward/pow refix once they heard busta on it. (on a related note, i sent down a copy of dizzee's "boy in da corner" last year and it was received cooly. i was a little disappointed my bredren couldn't appreciate the "black atlantic" links or hear the way contemporary black london sounds--in a way--so damn jamaican, but i think they found it to be a little too weird for their tastes. the time may come yet. soon as jay-z brings the live-o hardcore worldwide, which seems like a matter of time.) they did, however, call for a pull-up on "original nuttah," which i played after the grime got little rise. (jungle still hasn't got a proper airing in jamaica.) they definitely heard this as the jamaican-london ting done well. my friends also dug the MIA video for "galang," though mostly because they thought she was cute.

the final observation i'd like to discuss here is the remarkable resonance of city of god in kingston. despite being an independent/foreign film (which are not popular in jamaica), i heard various folks mention it on a number of occasions. clearly it has been circulating and people find its representation of ghetto life to be pretty compelling. (i wouldn't be surprised if we start to see clips from the flick interspersed with scenes from downtown kingston in some upcoming videos.) the appeal of sameness in representations of ghetto-life is one of the main reasons that jamaican youth are so drawn to hip-hop. (why grime wouldn't appeal also for this reason is another question, though again, it may be largely about exposure.) i still remember a hip-hop-inflected jamaican youth telling me that he was out to demonstrate that TG=QB [that's tivoli gardens and queensbridge for the acronym-challenged]. so far, so good. no one would deny that hip-hop and reggae are "ghetto musics," par excellance--at least in terms of how they've staked their claim to representing a certain slice of life. but if jamaicans are slow to feel the flow of their reggaeton bredren, i'm not sure that funk carioca will ever rock the bailes in kingston.


jerky video

(amilcar [in the orange shirt] and his crew set up)

two weekends ago i had the privilege to travel to kingston once again. although my visit happened to overlap with some further traction on the prison project, my principal reason for being there was to film a music video for my song boston jerk.

having long since embraced the ways that participating in the jamaican music industry could provide insights into how it works and what music means to people inna JA, i jumped at the chance to make a video with one of kingston's upcoming video-artists, amilcar beckford.

amilcar is a video/film director who has lately made a name for himself as the man behind the video-mashups shown on jamaican television as the "guiness remix" show. (guiness has a serious presence in jamaica, so their sponsorship of this show is significant.) according to amil, he takes dancehall videos, chops them up, overlays hip-hop beats and various visual/audio effects and re-presents them to the cableTV massive. i was excited--but not surprised--to learn that some of the more innovative uses of digital video technology were coming out of kingston. of course, pushing the limits of new (and old) technologies has long been central to the jamaican (reggae) aesthetic. when i met amil a few months ago, he wowed me with some of his digital mashups, regaled me with stories of working with all the big artists in jamaica, and, having heard an impromptu performance of "boston jerk," suggested making a video for it in kingston. it was an offer i most definitely could not refuse.

alongside other young digital artists such as alan tennant (aka, endless, who, along with dami d and raw-raw, makes a cameo in the boston jerk video), amilcar is emerging as a new voice in jamaican film and video--and just at the right moment. video in jamaica is exciting right now not simply because of the way young, digitally-savvy artists are pushing the technology and creating a dancehall video aesthetic, but because it is a new (and rapidly growing) mass medium in jamaica, allowing for independent artists to get their music out there. whereas radio in jamaica is, like radio in the US, hopelessly locked up in payola and thus inaccessible for upcoming artists, video is wide open. there are now several cable video stations in jamaica, including RETV and hypeTV, and increasingly the public stations are offering video shows as well. as long as one puts together a video with a modicum of 'professional' production values--quite feasible in the age of digital camcorders and finalcut--these stations will play it, thereby gaining national exposure for one's song, one's image, and, usually, one's crew. in many ways, it's a better foot in the door than waiting outside a big studio all day hoping to get on the next hot riddim.

video has thus emerged as an alternative channel for jamaican music, and the various productions i got to see and take home ('pon DVD--you done know) really jump off the screen with a homegrown vibrancy rarely seen in more "commercial" productions today. it helps, no doubt, that many of these artists choose to place themselves in the poignant context of kingston's ghettos. the video for raw-raw's "garisons," for instance (which, i am told, currently has JA viewers enraptured), takes as its primary backdrop tower street prison, aka, GP, or general penitentiary. people pointed out to me that his was the first video filmed in front of this towering symbol of the jamaican justice system. it definitely gives his calls for clemency--for "all of the garisons who living in jail" (jah cure included)--an added emotional resonance. and adonai's "the ghetto" lovingly features little kids busting the latest dance moves, brethren respecting their sistren (a little 'community-policing scene' shows a man stopping his friend from slapping a woman's backside), and seemingly the whole community vibing on a sunny day and celebrating the streets and yards they call home.

all this considered, i'm amped to see what my video will do when played alongside these other productions. no doubt amil will do a fantastic job with it. (he's editing currently--feverishly, i'm told.) and i have a feeling that it could go over pretty well, which has as much to do, i think, with amil's execution as with the reason he was inspired to make it in the first place. as amil agreed while we discussed storyboards, the song is so dense with references to jamaican places and pursuits that it essentially tells itself, and its intensely local flavor, as projected in my weird insider/outsider tongue, rarely fails to entertain a jamaican listener. moreover, the critical/comedic vibe of the song gives it a tone that, one hopes, differentiates it from previous white-folks naively doing the jamaican thing.

it was clear, at any rate, that amilcar got the joke, and i was really impressed by his vision for the video. in many cases, he actually went futher than i would have gone. i mean, sure, i put on a fake-dreads hat in order to pose for pictures that play-up my position as a "jerk"--not to mention make fun of anyone who would ever wear a fake-dreads hat--but i wouldn't have suggested that i or anyone else should wear one in the video. amilcar, however, had other ideas. he decided to really play-up the tension between stereotypes of jamaica and "real" jamaica. so he outfitted one of his right-hand men (who happens to be the son [yes, one of many] of aston "family-man" barrett) in a dreads-cap and bongo, and dressed up another crew member to look like a real country bwoy, complete with straw-hat and guitar. he also made sure to find me a truly garish hawaiian-shirt, beach towel, and a straw-hat of my own in order to contrast images of me as the protoypical tourist with the "real" me, who knows better. i'm not sure that onlookers at hellshire beach necessarily knew better, though, and i had to swallow my pride, play the role, and hope i wouldn't get bokkled in the process.

along with amil's eye for a good prop, he also located a number of perfect locations. on our way back from hellshire beach, we stopped at a KFC in portmore to film some takes in front of jamaica's most popular fast-food joint, including a scene where i get thrown out of the restaurant by a security guard. filming this scene turned out to be perhaps the most surreal moment of the weekend, as i found myself rapping and dancing on the lawn in front of KFC, while cars, minibuses, and other passers-by on the main road gawked at this funny white-boy trying to do the thundaclap. i promised to throw myself into the shoot for the weekend and embrace and enjoy the moment, so i obliged amil's calls for additional takes and did my best to put on a good show. it was clear that the film crew, my bredren who were along for the shoot, and various motorists were enjoying it immensely. let's hope the fun/funny vibe comes through in the video.

we also got some good shots at devon house, with me awkardly attempting to climb a mango tree and, later, having a whole heap of mangoes fall on my head. in another scene, i waited at a bus-stop in new kingston and then jammed into a minibus along with all of the extras. the final shoot, which was another supremely surreal moment, took place at an estate in kingston's foothills, where amil staged a pool party--a reggae/hip-hop video cliche if ever there was one--and, with dami d's help, found several beautiful young women to dance around me as i rapped my way through the song for the thirtieth time that weekend. again, it was a bold idea, and not something that i would have choreographed myself, but i trust that amil can make it look right (rather than, say, exploitative) and make it fit the overall vibe of the video.

the house was a perfect spot for such a scene, lending it a real uptown-vibe and, hopefully, raising questions about social spaces in kingston ("hope road to TG...you see me"). here's the view from the gate:

and here's the house (yeah, it's a likkle on the small side, don't?):

in addition to their dedication, hard-work, and professionalism, one thing that really impressed me about amil and his crew was their creativity and their willingness to throw themselves into the video for the production's sake. one good example of this is the jerk-drum that amil rounded-up and then spray-painted red, gold, and green to continue our pursuit of an over-the-top "authentic" look. and, you guessed it, family man's son played the "rasta jerkman"--a glaring paradox to any jamaican viewer, and, hopefully, another way to mek the video deconstruct itself.

clearly, the song--and the album more generally--seeks to celebrate as it sends-up various aspects of jamaican society and culture. i was really pleased that amil shared my vision for the song and brought a boldness to the production that i would not have attempted on my own. of course, that's why he's the director and i'm the guy dancing in front of KFC.

if you're looking to shoot a video down in jamaica, give amil a link [abnormalproductionz (at) yahoo (dot) com]. he's a talented guy with a dedicated crew and i think we'll be seeing a lot more from him in the next few years. he's got ambitions to move into feature-length films as well, and i can only imagine that those will dazzle. personally, i can't wait until this new wave of digital dancehall directors comes to a theater near me. meantime, i've got some shit on DVD to hold me over, like the cassia park gang--including dami d, wasp, and man-of-the-moment fanton mojah--doing a ten-minute "medley" video. (with so many songs on the same riddims, a "juggling" approach to videos makes a lot of sense, and it really works, too.)

[incidentally, all of this stuff definitely needs to get on the net: holler if you know of some good internet video platforms.]

overall, i think the shoot went extremely well, and i'm eager to see the results. you can be sure that i'll share it here soon as it's ready. it was great to get back to kingston, if only for a couple days, never mind to roam the city with a full entourage. in my next post i'll focus on a number of other (less self-centered) observations i made while there. though i didn't have much time to hit the dancehalls, i heard and saw some things that got my head spinning all over again, including--it was only a matter of time--the latest incarnation of the mad mad.


forward movement

(GP, you see me.)

as reported in today's gleaner, the prison project moves forward. finding kevin wallen as an ally down in kingston has been the best move we've made yet. firmly and personally committed to the cause of rehabilitation in jamaica's prisons, he's one of the most solid guys i've ever met. for years now, kevin has furnished the prisons with computers and other technology (out of his own pocket), provided training and moderated weekly soul-baring sessions with groups of dedicated inmates, and supported ex-cons as they try to make their way again in the world. we've been lucky to have kevin in our corner for the last year or so, as he has facilitated our support for the new computer lab at tower street and has been a strong spokesman for the program in his radio shows on Roots FM. on top of all that, he's also running a hot, new monthly showcase of singers and poets. let's hope the progress continues.

also, just thought i'd point reggae-related-readers to the many blogs of erin macleod of montreal. erin teasches a class on west indian literature, writes about reggae (and occasionally other stuff) for the montreal mirror, and puts up her own reflections on things jamaican (and things that simply sound like fun) from time to time. her recent piece on sound-systems in montreal provides a great window into that local scene.

check erin's work alongside dave stelfox's breaking ranks mp3 blog, and you've got nuff music and musings to digest.


i-est of the i

ok. y'all gotta gimme another day or so before i can get up a proper reflection on last weekend's whirlwind trip to kingston. just too much to do as we barrel toward the end of the semester. still, since i get precious little time to write these days, and since i wrote something relevant to the whole boston jerk project the other day, i thought i'd share it here to keep appetites whet.

i was asked by tina ramnarine, an ethnomusicologist based in london and engaged with the caribbean, to submit a reflection on my entry into the jamaican music scene, on my role in producing and circulating jamaican music, and on the politics of my riddimological interventions. tina is doing some really cutting-edge work--and it was she who encouraged me to write the extensive, reflective review of louise meintjes's book--so i was happy to collaborate with her once again. it was a fun piece to write and something that i've wanted to work on for some time. a longer version of this will likely appear as an appendix to my dissertation. this version--or some part of it--will appear in a forthcoming book on music and the caribbean diaspora by tina. look out for it.


I first traveled to Jamaica in the fall of 2001 as part of a team organized by Harvard Law School to observe a rehabilitation program in Kingston’s prisons. Asked to play the role of “musicological consultant,” I eagerly boarded a plane that took me to Norman Manley Airport, where we were picked up by a bus and driven straight into Tower Street, a.k.a., GP, or General Penitentiary--Kingston’s largest, most overcrowded, and most violent prison. It was a unique introduction to Jamaican society and culture, fi true. As I sat in the van and looked around, I saw men in mesh-marinas milling about, smoking ganja, and looking just as curiously at me. We were treated that morning to a concert put on by a group of inmates who had earned themselves distinction as men devoted to the rehabilitation process and as accomplished musicians. A band comprising a drummer, bassist, guitarist, and keyboardist accompanied various singers and groups who performed in the vast array of styles that fill Jamaica’s soundscape: roots reggae, dancehall, gospel, r&b, pop, rock, dub poetry, Rastafarian chants, syrupy ballads, and various hybrids. Introducing the rehabilitation program to a bunch of (presumably resource-rich) foreigners through music was clearly an explicit, and effective, strategy. I felt like yet another tourist being seduced by Jamaica’s music, and in spite of my critical proclivities I found myself admiring the expression and emotion of the performances, even when a voice went out of tune or a Paul Simon cover failed to impress.

It was not the music at Tower Street, however, that drew me into what would become a serious engagement with Jamaican culture and society. It was the hip-hop playing in cars, clubs, and just about everywhere I turned. As someone with his ears tuned to hip-hop’s global resonance, I was struck by the music’s ubiquity in the land where reggae is king. I was introduced to a young producer named Makonnen who, before I left, handed me a CD containing “underground” recordings by young Kingstonians who rapped in patois over the latest hip-hop beats--some of which had only been released in the U.S. the week before. The CD also featured a number of songs by an upcoming DJ named Wayne Marshall, which explained why the customs officials were laughing at my passport. My namesake had been making a name for himself by recording witty, localized versions of popular hip-hop tracks. I laughed at his translation of Ludacris’s “Area Codes,” which substituted Jamaican phone numbers for American ones, and my head spun at the rapidity of circulation and the possibilities for appropriation and identification presented by hip-hop’s reception in Jamaica.

Shortly thereafter, I abandoned “hip-hop in Germany” as a dissertation topic for “hip-hop in Jamaica” and set about getting up to speed with the world of Jamaican music. Fortunately, I had a lifetime of encounters with reggae to provide me with reference points as I began to wade through the dense reggae literature, so full of names and dates and “big chunes” that I had never heard of. I had heard of Bob Marley, of course, and the usual roots suspects: Toots and the Maytals, Jimmy Cliff (via The Harder They Come), Burning Spear, Black Uhuru, etc. I had heard or heard of many of these acts through their regular tour-stops in Boston. I had been turned-off, however, by a Jimmy Cliff concert where the audience of drunk, white yuppies went wild for a less-than-rousing cover of “Hakuna Matata” from The Lion King. Of course, I revered Bob Marley as much as any music-lover, though my acquaintance with his work did not extend much beyond the Legend compilation. My familiarity with reggae was much stronger when it came to dancehall. I remembered fondly our high school dances at Cambridge Rindge and Latin, where the student DJs inevitably segued from r&b and hip-hop to dancehall at a certain point in the evening. As Mad Cobra’s “Flex” or Chaka Demus’s and Pliers’s “Murder She Wrote” blasted across the cafeteria, my peers transformed into a mass of gyrating bodies, winin’ and grindin’ like they knew they were supposed to when reggae came on. As a devotee of hip-hop, I knew Shabba and Super Cat, having seen their videos during BET’s “Rap City” and “Yo! MTV Raps.” From the occasional coverage of contemporary dancehall in hip-hop magazines, I knew that Beenie Man and Bounty Killer were the big men of latter-day dancehall. And as I reached back further into memory, I became more and more aware of how much reggae had infused hip-hop over the years. I remembered the patois stylings of KRS-One, Special Ed, Shinehead, Das EFX, Fu-Schnickens, Smif’n’Wessun, and many more. The deeper I dug into Jamaican music, the more I realized that the links between hip-hop and reggae ran deep—deeper than Kool Herc’s translation of sound-system style for his Bronx peers, deeper than the early 90s crossover moment, and deeper than the latest Stateside successes of Shaggy and Sean Paul. I decided that Jamaica would make at least as interesting a place to study hip-hop outside the U.S. as Germany, and I made plans to spend some time there as soon as I could finish my coursework and take my exams.

The following summer, I returned to Kingston to spend a month conducting “preliminary research.” I arranged to live with Makonnen and his mother, sleeping on a couch in the small room he used as a home studio. We were visited daily by a number of DJs and singers who came over to vibe with Mak’s beats, to hear the latest hip-hop he had downloaded, and to record demo versions of their latest tunes. In this way I met several young Kingstonians who had devoted their lives to music and who had grown up as much with Tupac and Biggie as with Beenie and Bounty, never mind Bob. My entry into this scene was greatly facilitated by my ability to build reggae riddims and hip-hop beats, which I had been doing for the previous five years, and to rap, which I had been doing since about age 13. On many occasions I watched as my rapping worked a kind of social alchemy. It was clear that by rapping in what seemed to Jamaican observers to be an “authentic” and “original” manner that I was able to demonstrate a depth of engagement--not to mention cultural cachet, since many of these young men attempted, in vain, to sound like an American rapper--that immediately changed people’s perceptions of me. “The man sound real,” was a common response to one of my tirades of rhythmically-right-on syllables.

By rapping and producing riddims with Jamaican artists, I developed relationships that no mere observer could ever develop. Although I was often dismayed by my new collaborators’ affinity for lyrics that focused on violence, conspicuous consumption, and objectification of women, I attempted to meet them on their own terms, showing by example rather than passing judgment, and maintaining in my own lyrics the critical-comical, self-reflective stance that I learned from “Golden Age” hip-hop. In some ways, I had less to prove as a white American rapper than these youths did as black Jamaican rappers. To many, it seemed more incongruous, and perhaps inauthentic, for them to be rapping in a Brooklyn accent than for me to be rapping at all. (I had not yet picked up enough patois to bother the purists, perhaps.) As an ethnographer, I had been steadily recording my collaborators’ tastes and “influences,” which were utterly catholic: from Bob Marley, of course (always first, even if not really an audible presence in contemporary Kingston), to Nat King Cole, Nas, Celine Dion, Admiral Bailey, and just about any other pop, rap, or reggae artist you could name. For most Jamaicans, such an ecumenical approach to music comes rather easily--just flip the radio dial to behold a musical diversity unheard on the corporate-consolidated radio of the U.S. At times, however, people draw stark lines of community around sound and sentiment. I witnessed these tensions firsthand when, along with Makonnen and a musician named Kazam, I visited the house of Buju Banton and participated in the following exchange, which I recorded in my blog (thus the lower-case letters, which I employ to differentiate my blogs from other forms of writing):

whereas mak was deep into hip-hop, kazam played guitar and spoke glowingly of sam cooke, nat king cole, whitney houston, and shakira. at one point, i was standing on the porch while kazam played guitar. buju, his back toward us, ate dinner. kazam got his courage up, made his quiet strumming more audible, and began to sing a song he had written. (he told me later that he had walked past buju's place many times as a youth and vowed that one day he would go in and sing for the dj.) when kazam finished the song, buju, who had yet to turn around, addressed him:

buju: "who are your influences?"
kazam: "influences?"
wayne : "that's the same question i asked him."
buju: [turning] "that's the same question you asked him?" ... [to kazam] "you sound like a white punk-rocker. who you like? green day?"
kazam: "i like everything. bob marley first."
buju: "you sound like you're from southern california."
wayne : "if he sounds like a white punk-rocker from california and makonnen sounds like a puerto-rican rapper from the bronx, what do you make of that?"
buju: "i'd say they're both pretty strange."

kazam was pretty devastated by the exchange and i was pretty annoyed at buju's lack of kindness. kazam muttered to himself for a while, including such phrases as, "music has color. yeah." i did my best to convince him that he'd laugh about it someday.

What most struck me about this exchange was the way that music could so powerfully represent one’s community relationships. While Kazam sought to express a kind of universalism, no doubt inspired by Bob Marley, Buju sought to police the boundaries of Jamaican expression, invoking a racialized norm from which, at least in Buju’s mind, Kazam and Mak both departed. From my perspective, the rift seemed to run along generational lines, with Jamaica’s “hip-hop generation” embracing sounds and styles that, while foreign for older Jamaicans, constituted a familiar and compelling set of resources for the expression of a new kind of Jamaican-ness, one that did not abandon a stance of “modern blackness,” as Deborah Thomas puts it, but expanded it through trans-national articulations of sameness.

Having developed these relationships in the late summer of 2002, I returned in January of 2003 and spent a solid six months living on Hope Road (just a few blocks from the overly commodified Marley museum, which I could never bring myself to visit), where I turned my apartment into a recording studio and invited my friends over for recording sessions. Here we would negotiate the very sonic signifiers that seemed to connote such things as Jamaican-ness and American-ness, blackness and whiteness, reggae and hip-hop, a “local” sound and an “international” sound. I attempted to observe as I participated and, as a good producer, to do my best to realize my collaborators’ visions even as I attempted to bring my own creative and critical ideas to bear on our co-productions. I produced gal tunes and gun tunes, weed tunes and reality tunes, party songs and Rasta manifestos. And when it was time to collect all of these together, I presented the tunes alongside interview segments with the same artists, songs of my own that I composed upon returning to the U.S. and reflecting on my experiences, and collages composed from recordings of Jamaica’s varied soundscape, making riddim-centric compositions out of stray dogs, taxi transmissions, radio fragments, waterfalls, crickets, and cocks. I invested hours and hours into making my collaborators sound as good as I could, and I attempted to make the riddims signify on the songs: a badman tune with a Spaghetti-Western backdrop, an ode to conspicuous consumption over beats that bling-bling with shiny timbres. In my own songs, I attempted to make jokes and wry observations about Jamaican mores, from fundamentalist Christianity to homophobia to the national love of KFC. I called the album Boston Jerk to pun on a Jamaican phrase and acknowledge my position as a critical outsider. When I shared the final product with my collaborators, I was relieved that they and their friends not only approved of the project but were surprised and impressed by its scope. They were, of course, also hopeful that it would bring them some recognition, some opportunities to advance their careers, and some shot at the mobility so sought after by so many Jamaicans.

Outside of Jamaica, the response to Boston Jerk has been more varied. I have witnessed, on the one hand, how the sound of Jamaican voices and dancehall riddims carry an aura of authenticity outside of Jamaica that is practically unrivaled by any other “national” music. Hip-hop heads dig it. Jungle DJs flip for it. World music enthusiasts find the syncopations and exotic sounds they seek. In a kind of funhouse-mirror manner, considering how my performance of (African-)American-ness worked wonders in Jamaica, I have accrued a kind of cultural cachet back home based on my ability to perform Jamaican-ness. I have connected my collaborators to reggae selectors and record-label owners in the Boston area, who enjoyed the Boston-Kingston link-up and have helped to spread their names and their music. Having put the music, and a large amount of reflective text about it, on the Internet, I have been contacted by delighted listeners from England, Germany, Australia and other far-flung spots with a love for reggae and hip-hop. I have also, however, encountered occasional resistance from certain reggae lovers--almost always non-Jamaicans--who disdain what they hear as an irreverent or impure version of the music they elevate to righteous heights. For me, they represent yet another audience whose assumptions I seek to challenge. Still, I am often struck by the irony of such a position. Anyone who spends a little time in Jamaica today should realize that it has little regard for such conceptions of purity, despite the roots'n'culture emphasis on Ital living.

When it comes to music (and media of all sorts), Jamaica is one of the most omnivorous places in the world. This is not to say that boundaries are not important. My musical collaborations and academic investigations continue to explore the way music draws the lines of community in Jamaica. But I am as likely to return from Jamaica with mixtapes of the latest r&b and hip-hop hits as dancehall tunes. And young artists continue to record their patois-patter over the latest hip-hop beats in order to capture the imaginations of their peers in Jamaica and, they hope, their peers overseas. Kinda like Bob Marley singing like Curtis Mayfield over some James Brown-inspired roots riddims, innit? Or the Skatalites versioning Johnny Cash with their jazz-derived chops, see me a say? Or Welton Irie versioning the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” only months after it brought recorded rap to the world, you see me? Or Boogie Down Productions representing the Bronx to the fullest through thick patois and borrowed melodies from the day’s dancehall hits, you knomesayin’? Or Chinese-American rapper Jin resignifying Yellowman’s “Mr. Chin” while Haitian-American producer Wyclef tells us we’re gonna “Learn Chinese” or dem a go “shot the bloodclaat,” knamean? Or some Boston Jerk rapping in patois and “acting Jamaican” in order to raise the question of what that means and how music makes it mean, seen?


what's cooking, rasta?

could it be a lil' boston jerk?


just back from a crazy weekend video shoot in kingston. lots to tell. soon come.

for now, a likkle hype c/o raw-raw...

[right channel]

and dami d...

[left channel]

gun yoga: columbine neck-tie for some punks.


damn internet explorer (and yankees)

i'm afraid i don't care how many people have come here to check my academish lowercase legibles. i just lost a long blog that i had been composing about last week's signal or noise conference, and i'm too frustrated right now to rewrite it. i encourage you to read on below for more representative examples. and check the archives, yo: july in jamaica has a vibe, and january was a good month, if i don't say so myself; october and september were aiight, too.

for now, allow me to leave you with this:

(innit he just the cutest, lil masshole you ever did see?)

and this, which is entertaining enough to make me feel a little better about crashing browsers, empty clipboards, blog-software that doesn't autosave as you go, and me-not-being-careful enough. (far as beatbox-harmonica performances go, it's definitely the most virtuosic i've ever witnessed. eat your art out, senor guero. [don't ask me about the site hosting it. at least it loads quickly.])

i'm going to download firefox now. fuck a IE.

hope to have that conference reflection up before too long. meantime, you can check out another take on it at kevin driscoll's "serious" blog.


signal or noise? IP or BS?

this friday the berkman center is hosting the second iteration of its signal or noise? conference, which seeks to explore the relationship between public conceptions of art and legal conceptions of property as mediated/challenged by the advent of digital media technologies. (read a better description here.) attempting to put the digital-music revolution into a larger socio-cultural context, i'll be giving a brief demonstration of the way that musical ideas/materials--in the form of rhythms and melodies--have been circulating for some time between and within jamaica and the united states. i hope to demonstrate that the relationship between musical practice and ideas of ownership and originality is a complex one, and that these complexities (and common practices) are rarely recognized/understood by legal definitions of art-as-property. (it will be, essentially, a form of my mad mad talk, tailored for this particular forum and audience.)

it promises to be an entertaining and provocative conference. other guests/speakers include john perry barlow, the downhill battle gang, beatallica, siva "copywrongs" vaidhyanathan, and the usual-suspect berkman center all-stars. if you're in the boston area and would like to attend, you can register here.

the conference comes at a good time, as my head has been buzzing from all the recent discussion of copyright, public domain, and "intellectual property" on the SEM-list. as usual, anthony mccann has been raising a lot of good questions and generating a lot of debate and information about global copyright issues.

in particular, i thought that his reply to marc perlman's post did a good job of laying out all that is at stake when we carelessly reproduce the power-relations inherent in the concept of "IP" and fail to challenge the legal status quo:

Perlman (as excerpted by McCann): "The law governs us regardless of our own understandings. ... Insofar as we are subject to the law whether we like it or not, to create a viable and lasting alternative to the existing music-property regime, we need to come up with explicit legal definitions. This is, of course, the philosophy behind the open-source software movement ('copyleft,' GPL, etc.) and the Creative Commons licenses ('Some Rights Reserved')."

McCann: "This position on the one hand sustains what critical legal scholars have called "legal closure", facilitating value-neutral, apolitical, asocial understandings of 'the law'. The 'it's the law, and it's there whether we like it or not' is a very conservative position, politically speaking, serving as a buffer to sustained interrogation of social, political, and historical contexts. "How is it that it happens to be this way and not some other?" that allow things to happen 'in this way and not some other'.

"Another, related, issue I would have with this position is that it ignores particular characters of social change that are associated with legislative expansion and enclosure, thereby leaving us blind to their occurrence, and consequently powerless to do anything appropriate in response. The discourses and practices of Copyright and IP are *expansionary* and *doctrinal*. They often involve systematic persuasion, indoctrination, and, where required, coercion. Giving in to the inevitability of expansion or, ignoring expansion, to the inevitability of an underlying or overarching parsonian legal consensus-of-sorts can be, for me, to chuck hope out the window and efface the agency and efforts of those who would resist, saying 'hold on, this isn't right', 'I don't agree', or 'I don't think like that'.

"As well as the accusation of American-centrism which have been levelled at open-source/EFF and the Creative Commons movements, these developments have done nothing to stem the tides of IP expansion, and have, rather facilitated the enthusiastic uptake of IP thinking even faster than might previously have been possible. In the context of capitalist, and more recently US-military expansionary dynamics in the world these are aspects of intellectual property debates that can be dealt with more carefully. Whose law? What do you mean by law? What's important and to whom? Who gets to say? Where, when, and with what effects? Saying "The law governs us regardless of our own understandings" can have the effect of quashing a lot of that analysis.

"Just remember that there are many of us out there who are very unhappy about the assumptions embedded in copyright and IP law, deeply unhappy about the politics of coercion involved in the maintenance of IP law, and hoping to make a related difference somewhere somehow in the ways that people consider these issues."

in another interesting development, someone posted a response to mccann's assertion about open-source/EFF/creative-commons "facilitating the enthusiastic uptake of IP thinking" from none other than richard stallman:

"I think I agree more or less with whoever wrote those words. So I hope he will forgive me for starting this response by correcting a possible misunderstanding about a side issue. It is incorrect to group together the EFF with open source, since they have nothing to do with each other. The EFF's purpose is to uphold civil liberties in cyberspace. Working at any level against copyright never was its aim. So I think it doesn't really belong in this discussion.

"Getting back to the main issue: it is true that neither Creative Commons nor the open source philosophy strongly opposes the basic ideas of today's overrestrictive copyright system. Both of them have inspired many people to write and share many useful works, but they don't go deeper and call into question the legitimacy of copyright law. They invite authors to choose not to exercise all the power that the system gives them, but they don't say that authors (or publishers) shouldn't have so much power in the first place.

"In the case of open source, this is no accident. Open source was started as a reaction against the ideals of the free software movement. Its specific purpose was to avoid those deeper issues.

"In the free software movement, we say it is wrong for anyone to stop you from sharing and changing software. We say that the people who do so are committing an evil, and our goal is to put an end to the evil. The useful software produced by the free software movement was, in the 1990s, serving to spread our ideals too.

"It is no surprise that some people found these ideals uncomfortable. They started a campaign to disconnect our software from our ideals, by putting another label ("open source") on the software. Their corporate-fueled voice is quite loud, and ours is often drowned out....

"If you don't like the weakness of the open source philosophy, its failure to address the ethical issues, how about helping our voice to be heard? Instead of criticizing open source for declining to make this a fight for justice, do this, you could support the free software movement because we do so.

"Meanwhile, it is useful to recognize and educate others about the bias and confusion spread by the term "intellectual property" itself. That term is the center of the propaganda campaign for harmful and unjust copyright and patent laws. Every time we talk about "intellectual property" (or its abbreviation "IP") we support that propaganda campaign.

"I have decided never use that term, except to explain why it is harmful."

continuing the conversation, mccann then provided a link to an amazing site which collects dozens of essays seeking to counter the WIPO contest soliciting the best essays that support the IP status quo. another source to check out is this site, which revolves around a call for WIPO to adopt a "development agenda" and provides a petition where one can sign in support.

interestingly, the whole SEM debate was touched off, it seems, when someone posted to the list a provocative quotation from the late, great musicologist, charles seeger:

"Perhaps the Russians have done the right thing, after all, in abolishing copyright. It is well known that conscious and unconscious appropriation, borrowing, adapting, plagiarizing, and plain stealing are variously, and always have been, part and parcel of the process of artistic creation. The attempt to make sense out of copyright reaches its limit in folk song. For here is the illustration par excellence of the law of Plagiarism. The folk song is, by definition and, as far as we can tell, by reality, entirely a product of plagiarism." (from "Who Owns Folklore? - A Rejoinder," WESTERN FOLKLORE, vol. 21, # 2, April 1962, pp. 93-101 [quotation on p. 97]; Seeger's article was a rejoinder to an earlier one by G. Legman, "Who Owns Folklore?" WF, vol. 21, # 1, Jan. 1962, pp. 1-12.)

pretty radical stuff. of course, seeger was always provocative and always authoritative in his arguments.

let's hope that friday's conference lives up to some of the excitement and energy clearly surrounding these issues. if it can provoke as much debate as a forty-year-old argument from an eminent musicologist, it will be worth the price of admission.


i'm not spatial or anything

bec's sister leila and her menschfreund sebastian (pictured above) bought an old, rundown mill house in a small town called burlington about 40 minutes from durham. the house is the last on a lane of perhaps a dozen similar structures, the former domiciles of mill workers and their families. the mill stands on a riverbank at the end of the road, just a short walk from home. but no sign of the company sto'.

about ten years ago a local preservation society had the lil' mill town declared a historical site, and they've been encouraging people to fix 'em up while maintaining their old, quaint character by offering the houses and plots of land for the reasonable price of $20-30k. of course, the fixing up in some cases will cost at least as much as the buying price. (quite a boon for lowe's, home depot, and local contractors.) in leila's and sebastian's case, there is a hell of a lot of work to do. the house hasn't been lived in for fifty years. the wood is mostly rotten, the foundation supremely shady. but the place is damn cute and no doubt has potential.

(raise the roof--before those trees give out.)

leila and sebastian have undertaken this gigantic project to give them a bit of concrete (actually, wooden) relief from their gigantic academic projects over the next couple years. an admirable undertaking for its sheer ambition--never mind that they have decided to do the home-improvement pretty much all by themselves, save for some consulting courtesy of a local contractor and an occasional donation of several days labor from family and friends (usually repaid with BBQ and beer, which is fine by me).

due to bad lighting and forgetting to take pictures, i don't have shots (yet--i think there's a documentation site in the works) of the holes in the roof, the cracked beam and sagging north side of the house, or the gaping rift in the kitchen wall. but the shape of the outhouse--which must also be reconstructed and 'preserved' (and which will make a great spot for a moonshine still)--gives a sense of the challenge that this project presents:

my best shots are perhaps those that depict the curious and ubiquitous nests created seemingly some time ago by mud wasps. though i didn't see many mud wasps while working on the house, their tracks were everywhere, making me wonder how pesty they will be when the season is right. in the following shot, you can see the way they affixed their nests to a flue that previously stood in the ceiling of the bedroom (which seems like quite a distance to travel for a mud-slinging wasp):

check the detail:

pretty creepy, in the classical sense. but you can't choose your neighbors.

speaking of neighbors, i got quite a kick out of the north carolina accent, which is not so deep-south as to prove forbidding for as avid an accent accruer as i. by the end of the week, becca was looking forward to returning to cambridge where i would be less tempted to pronounce my i's as ah's and put a vague twang on everything else. (my poor aunt who has lived in NC for six years now is verging precipitously toward ah-ing her entire vocabulary, her r's having been turned to ah's by a boston upbringing.) unfortunately, accents are generally difficult to reproduce on the page; their phonemic twists too subtle for this alphabet. even so, i am still turning over in my mind and on my tongue one very memorable phrase from the past week.

while talking to a contractor working in the same old-mill complex, we were treated to a couple stories about the "stupid" things that people do sometimes--probably prompted by an acknowledgment of all the very stupid things one can do while (re)building a house. the contractor prefaced these stories with the intriguing qualifier, "i'm not racial or anything." which one usually takes to mean, "i'm going to make some remarks that could be interpreted as racist, but i am not a racist." of course, i was amused by the way the guy mis-spoke, for it could very well be that he's not so much racist as racial(ist). of course, the two are very related and can slip back and forth between each other: the former reliant on the latter, the latter enabling the former. in the end, i'm not sure which he was, and maybe the distinction is not important. he went on to tell us about two incidents in which he saw four men in a car holding down large objects on the roof--a mattress in one case, sheets of sheet-rock in the other--with just their hands. precarious predicaments, and possibly perilous. the "racial" part of the stories was that one group of men was black, the other mexican. clearly, these identifiers were superfluous to the stories. duh--one finds stupid people of all stripes. that the contractor found it necessary to employ "racial" terms as salient identifiers--and, by implication, explanatory factors--suggests to me anyway, that he most definitely is "racial." or something.

it was innocuous enough, i suppose. but these are the very exchanges--at the level of everyday language and common sense--that reinforce the concepts that underlie racism. of course, none of us challenged him on it. just a little nervous laughter and some general agreement about the stupidity of such acts (with, of course, no affirmation of his stereotypes, aside from our taciturnity about them). you have to choose your battles, i guess. a snarky, deconstructive comment like, "ha! mexicans and blacks are so stupid!" would probably have done little to change this guy's ideas about the world, though perhaps they would have challenged his assumptions somewhat (at least about which white folks would want to hear such shit). at any rate, i decided that it would be best not to piss-off my sister-in-law's neighbors before she even moves in. ah, pragmatism.

my other favorite phrases of the week allow me to feel a little bit better about my interactions in this complex social space we call the US. they both were uttered at a salvadoran restaurant in durham where we had some hearty dinner one night after spending the day tearing-up floor boards. the first is unremarkable as a phrase, except that it symbolizes the larger exchange which i found rather interesting. our waitress came to the table and said, "como estan ustedes? que quieren tomar?" and some other things in spanish. she didn't speak a word of english to us the entire time. i really enjoyed this, not just because it allowed me to practice my limited espanol but because it seemed to express a certain kind of confidence about (spanish-speaking) immigrants' sense of place in north carolina. or at least in their own places of business in north carolina. (and apparently, the mexican/latin-american community in NC is burgeoning.) the burden was on us to fit in--not unlike, say, in a french restaurant--and it really wasn't much of a burden. it's pretty easy to point to what you want and mumble "dos dos equis." we never had a communication problem. the food was excellent. and no one drove up with a bunch of sheet-rock on the roof.

the other phrase that i've been repeating to myself came when the two troubadores who were making the rounds from table to table approached us and asked, in english, what kind of song we would like to hear.

what they actually said was, "would you like to hear a happy song or a romantic song?"

given such a provocative set of choices, we asked for a romantic song. afterwards, they played a happy song. meanwhile, daddy yankee was on the television above the bar. and i realized, looking at the flags on the wall, that el salvador obviously refers to jesus. duh. also, my fried tilapia was muy tasty, and my aching bones appreciated the dos dos equis as much as my aching head appreciated the espanol and live music.