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


welcome back

(a rare sight: royalty ready for war)

google is a strange beast. when i posted a student's reaction to damian marley a month or so ago, i had no idea that i would suddenly be getting upwards of fifty hits per day on account of it. [note: in the day since i started composing this blog, the post in question slipped from the 1st to the 8th page of returns, only further confirming the strangeness of google, and perhaps making this follow-up a little late.] i've been meaning to compose a more proper post on "jamrock" since then, as my student's email is a pretty scathing indictment. considering the number of hits the diss was getting, i thought that perhaps i should provide a more balanced perspective. can't give jr. a straight gong now, can we?

no, we can't. especially when, when it comes down to sonic force, welcome to jamrock is an undeniable hit. an almost perfect product: neo-retro riddim, haunting ini kamoze sample, dubby production (though largely via samples), sirens, unrelenting 'reality' lyrics, wicked flow, bad voice (and not bad meaning bad), rastafarian righteousness--and to top it all off, a video filled with the arresting images of sufferahs' jamaica. (big up, ras kassa.)

at the same time, when we get over the exhilaration of the musical experience (or, more likely, drift through associative frames while listening), we're faced with a bunch of negative cliches in sensuous form. marley breaks no new ground here. the content differs little from, say, that of the poor people's governor. DJs and singers have been describing the harsh realities and celebrating the strengths of jamaica since before it was called reggae. sure, marley's doing it differently, and even 'originally' at times (speaking in terms of style, not substance), but hardly. what distinguishes him at this moment is a glossy production, a strong performance, and good promotion.

part of the problem is that, unfortunately, ultimately he's a marley. not that that's a bad thing in itself. not at all. but his reception is impossible to extricate from bob's legacy, which both helps and hinders him. it helps him in the international market, and it helps him in terms of access to resources. it hinders him, however, given the tendency everywhere to suspect (even as we imagine) that talent truly is transmitted through our genes, and the tendency in jamaica to suspect that brownings are full of shit when they critique the very system from which they benefit. (which is one reason that bob fell out of favor in jamaican dancehalls well before his death.)

there's no denying that a tenacious correlation between wealth and color continues to divide and plague jamaica. this is what my student was getting at (or what was getting at her) when she suddenly became incensed by what she saw as an uncritical reception of damian marley. in certain ways, i would agree that her critique goes a bit too far, and she admitted herself that it was written in something of a cathartic state. i thought it worthy of "publication," though, precisely because of the emotion it expressed. clearly there's a lot of ambivalence in her position as a member of the jamaican elite (whether she likes it or not, going to brown places her there), and this comes across in what amounts to a fierce critique of her peer group. for her, and for me, and i suspect for many others, "jamrock" comes a little too close to romanticization. i mean, sure, the thugs dem do what they got to, but damn, a lot of people get caught in the crosshairs.

can't knock the hustle, though, right? only where's the line between faithfully reminding the world that people are forced to do-what-they-gotta-do to survive and glorifying what too often slides quickly into rapacious behavior? are the youths to be fed, clothed, and encouraged? or are they to be paraded on video and billboards, selling an image of jamaica that is not really so easily divorced from its attraction as a tourist destination or a media production center? let's not forget that jamaica is a place that explicitly markets and sells its image in various forms. for better and worse. simulation for too many. reality for too many, too.

considering that the same social problems that bob was chanting down remain a trenchant subject of rasta's/reggae's social conscience, it seems troubling that the status quo not only obtains but that the sheen of rebel music now glows so gleamingly from within the establishment. does damian's dedication to the poor--if that's what we hear in this song--make up for the level of privilege that he has enjoyed and continues to enjoy? does it get us any closer to dismantling the system that creates and maintains such insidious hierarchies and inequalities?

another thing that my student, and other critics, react to is the whiff of hubris that comes off the marley boys. most of bob's devotees worldwide are more than ready to hear echoes of the legend and to see his legacy continue in such ready vessels as his spit-and-image-and-dreads children. (those who claim, however, to like "jamrock" more than anything bob ever recorded need not go to hell, but definitely must listen to more than that legend comp.) to be fair, the marley boys are in something of a spot: lacking the life experience that so fueled bob's fire, they are caught chanting down a system from which they now benefit. and i'm not sure that the pragmatic angle represents the most visionary position. perhaps worse than their inescapable, quasi-bourgeois subject position (the ol' authenticity of positionality at work), they're also saddled by the air of divinity that continues to accrue around their father's music and myth. the best (and by best i mean worst) example of the marley-hubris that i witnessed recently was in the video for julian marley's "harder days." there's a scene in which julian stops at a red light, is approached by a red-and-green-bedecked youth in a wheelchair, and cures the young cripple with a mere touch of the hand (see 2:40 to 3:00). jeeeeez-us!

and still, despite these cringe-worthy moments and the overall pap-factor of "harder days," it's a pretty catchy tune. gets stuck in my head frequently, truth be told. and "welcome to jamrock," for all its similarities, is even better. if for no other reason than that it means a lot to a lot of people in jamaica (and beyond) for reggae music to spread and succeed, i have to give the tune my blessing. since it's such a hard tune, that won't be too difficult. trust me, i'll be juggling it alongside the kamoze original, the biggie mashup, and all the good versions that are undoubtedly to follow.

all in all, i have to give the song a forward. but it's important to me to register my ambivalence, too. all of this enters into the experience of hearing and responding to the song. when i weigh my feelings at the end of the final echo, i feel good about it. i feel traction in the right direction, even if it's relative (and even if it's according to the narrative in my own head--but what else would it be?). thinking critically about reggae (and not critically meaning negatively), it's reggae's insistence on forward movement that gives it so much of its appeal, such power, such resonance. hence, it is when reggae appears to be looking backward that i--as a sympathetic, invested, and passionate participant/observer--grow disappointed. reggae so often is insistently progressive. militant in its optimism, its determination, its one-way telos: forward ever, onward, don't stop. yet i fear that reggae's handful of regressive tendencies--most of which consist of reproducing the very oppression that it so compellingly chants down--are holding it back, and many of us with it. cliches tend to keep us in the same place. they are, by definition, the same ol' same ol'. what's more, positive cliches can be as bad as negative ones when they encourage kneejerk support of unexamined positions. better to present people with new and challenging perspectives in order to help them to see the world more clearly, to see through myth and ideology and prejudice. reggae has done this for a long time, sometimes, despite the paradox of it all, through a stance of utter righteousness. (it was and is, after all, opposing a corrupt system and unjust status quo.) but again, we can observe a fine line between righteousness and self-righteousness. and who's to decide really? unless we keep the consensus about what-to-be-righteous-about pretty broad, we risk perpetuating structures of domination.

i talk about 'it' and say 'reggae' here--and not 'reggae-artists' or 'DJs' or 'Jamaicans'--because reggae is at this point a force unto itself, a thing bigger than any individual artists (or storytellers). it is a force comprised of the cumulative energy released by jamaican-shaped vibrations--vibrations that have carried jamaica's unique and inspiring story of itself and its struggles, its inventions and achievements, to the world. the narrative is always in formation, of course, revised and appended by DJs and singers, critics and audiences, academics and entrepreneurs--but the weight of history proves a solid foundation. i'm not here to tell anyone else about what reggae means, though. i'm here to tell you what it means to me. and i suspect, and hope, that some might find my impressions resonant and my arguments compelling. so mek we reason, since, thankfully, rastafarians have rescued the value of a good argument from the fatally-flawed enlightenment project. "welcome to jamrock" is, if nothing else, a conversation-starter, and that's a sign of value, fi true.


sound class!

sound class is a vivid, well-informed, and concise (30 min!) documentary about the history of the soundsystem from its beginnings in 1950s jamaica to its contemporary influence on the sonics and styles of music worldwide, including hip-hop, UK garage, next-wave ska, and various DJ- and remix-based musics. filled with original and "found" footage, the DVD tells the story beautifully and pursues the connections between reggae and hip-hop in a deeper manner than i have seen anywhere else (except maybe jeff chang's book). nuff big men represent for the film: u-roy, coxsone, jammy's, bobby digital, sly dunbar, steelie and cleevie, sean paul, kool herc, flash, and other luminaries and "founding fathers"--not to mention members of the specials and so solid crew on the UK side. their testimony is interwoven in a wonderful way, often making close connections between their perspectives--especially towards the end of the film where the focus is on the reggae-hip-hop connection.

sound class is a fantastic introduction to the history of jamaican music, and i love that it really drives home the legacy of JA music and musical practice for the world. it would make an excellent teaching tool, and i'm only sorry i didn't come across it sooner. (thanks to jj for sending me a copy!) unfortunately, the DVD doesn't appear to be available very widely at this point. currently, far as i can tell, the only way to get a copy is to get yourself a one-year subscription to tokion magazine, at which point they'll send you a free copy.

trust me, though: it's worth the price (which is only $25 if you're in the US). check out the tokion site, at any rate, as they've got some cool content to peruse, including the interview with herc from the film, an interview with sami-t from mighty crown, and--in the tokionFM section--mixes by masters-at-work, prefuse73, afrika islam, and a wicked congotronics video!

big up tokion, and everyone involved, for this production. don't sleep, y'all: cop a copy today!


JA prison-project revisited

for this weekend's iLaw conference, charlie put together the most current summation of the prison-project to date. he does a nice job recounting the ups-and-downs of its
history and showing where it has the potential to go.

charlie's case-study presentation is noteworthy also because it brings to light an old blog-entry of mine from 2003 which had been taken down, and remained offline until now, because of security concerns. with the forward progress of the project, those concerns are no longer relevant. give thanks.


on the table

inspired by dan charnas and his worthy attempts to make sense of black-jewish relations, our man joe twist weighs in--pithy as usual, and i mean that in a good way. i'm glad to see this kind of openness to talking about difficult issues, and i'm even gladder to see the conversation continue.

in a related post of sorts, jeff chang does an admirable job speeching about what it means to be an asian-american (studies graduate) today.

keep your eyes peeled for my take on the struggles and responsibilities of all us third-generation irish-italian-portuguese-scottish-americans with hip-hop/jamaican tongues, jewish in-laws, marxist-buddhist-postmodernist leanings, and too much education.


mirror mirror :: modern blackness

(rex of rexes, chancellor of chancellors, conquering scholar of the tribe of UWI)

reading through rex nettleford's classic work on jamaican identity, i came across the following, which seems to anticipate deborah thomas's study by some 35 years:

'Out of many, one people' becomes, then, little more than a pithy epigram for speeches of exhortation and official brochures, when it was really intended to describe and inform the spirit of multi-racialism and cultural integration among the Jamaican people. The black majority may find little cause to feel that multi-racialism has anything to do with them when 'multi' conjures up a complex in which they hold an inferior position on grounds of class which in turn dovetails with race origin. (178)

sounds like the makings of modern blackness to me. props to nettleford for his vision, and of course, props to thomas for digging so deeply into what nettleford gestures to.


riddim networks

my man pace is doing some interesting stuff with the data from reggaeriddims.com. although i'm more a qualitative than quantitative kind of guy, i can definitely see the way this kind of approach can point out interesting relationships, patterns, etc. and i like that pacey calls for ethnographic perspectives to help tease out the meanings behind the maps.

plus, it makes for such pretty pictures (especially when they're not all scrunched up).


bigger than "shabba!"

john eden recuperates maxi priest.

nice one. now who's next? shaggy?


meme, i-self, and i

jeff chang tagged me on the music dork meme that's going around, so here goes:

total volume of music files on my computer: approx. 24 GB--and far fewer songs than jeff, since a lot of them are wav files for playing with live in da club; haven't jumped on the ipod train yet, so the majority of my CDs remain unripped.

last CD i bought was: congotronics, konono no.1--i may be late on this one, but i'm glad i finally picked it up. great stuff.

song playing right now: "double barrel" by dave and ansel collins--gotta love that jamaican jive intro, especially if you're an ol' special ed head.

five songs i listen to a lot these days:
1) run DMC, ft. yellowman, "roots, rap, reggae"--a totally bizarre attempt at rap/reggae fusion way before sean paul decided to rhyme 'dro' and 'mo'
2) david banner, "play"--my favorite of the whisper-crunk batch; pretty pornographic stuff (if less phallocentric), but those kraftwerkian squelches get me everytime
3) el gran combo, "ojos chinos"--ever since tego turned me on to this melody with his interpolation on "dominicana" i've been loving the original
4) ghislain poirier vs. dizzee rascal, "stand up tall"--ghis takes the fucked-up-ness of grime grooves up a notch on this one; some serious neck-snap
5) keith fullerton whitman, "stereo music for acoustic guitar, bucla music box 100, hp model 236 oscillator, electric guitar, and computer - part two"--gorgeous, beguiling stuff; multiples is a masterwork of modern soundsculpture

next up...

larisa [reply]
matt [reply]
pace [reply]
kevin [reply]

tag--you're it.


a likkle more science

another friend who was at the trial provides a few more illuminating thoughts and points re: the scientist case.

first, he confirms that scientist didn't lose the case on the basis of the issue of the originality of dub music. no, that originality, apparently, was established conclusively--which i think we can all agree is a good and reasonable decision. rather, scientist lost on the basis of who owns the rights to the music, and the court decided those rights rest with the producer. this is not surprising, considering that that's the way it has always been in jamaican music.

also, apparently jammy testified about the business arrangements at tubby's studio. and because jammy was higher on the business chain than scientist at tubby's, his testimony carried some real weight. as an engineer mixing dub versions, scientist was (in jamaican music-industry terms) really no different than a singer or studio instrumentalist--neither of which currently have substantial claims on music in JA.

finally, if scientist had won the case, it would have forced a serious reorganization of the entire jamaican music industry. all of the creators of "version-based" music (engineers, DJs, etc.) would now have claims against producers.

this last point is definitely the one that i'm most interested in, though i think it's fair to point out that these arrangements in the jamaican music-industry are not very different from those in the american music-industy. i'm not sure why instrumentalists, DJs, vocalists, and engineers haven't staked a stronger claim to the music they helped produce. so often, there is little to negotiate in these matters, though, as a daily wage and the opportunity to succeed are enough to tempt one to submit to business-as-usual. even so, this doesn't mean that the status quo should stay so.

when it comes down to it, this is just another case of those with capital exploiting the labor of others. i hope that someday a case will come along and challenge the current system so that the proceeds of such amazing music can be shared more equally. obviously, this is tricky business, but it's not rocket science. let's leave the rocket science to the scientists (and afro-futurist musicians) and establish some fairer business practices.


even more science

(scientist, jammy, and tubby in the lab)

from a colleague who was at the trial [with some comments by me]:
"The trial was interesting. [Michael] Veal's job was basically to prove that what Scientist did was actually original music (the dub remixes etc). He was very persuasive, and is a very sharp guy in general. [note: Veal is currently working on a book on dub and has published a bio of Fela] The judge then ruled that the jury accept that what Scientist did was original music. [word.] Then it boiled down to who owned it, and that was where it all foundered. No written records, several key figures murdered (Junjo Lawes, King Tubby...). Greensleeves brought up King Jammy...to testify that Scientist wasn't the owner...a lot of nit-picking -- who owned or provided the blank tapes that were used in such-and-such a remix session? Who had the keys to the studio, Scientist, or Junjo, or Jammy? Was Scientist remixing on his own that day in 1980, or for hire, for Tubby? In the end the jury must have decided that Scientist couldn't prove he owned the dubs. Junjo had 'sold' the rights (probably without ever owning them) to Greensleeves."

well, that answers a bunch of my questions. and it seems reassuring, in some sense, that the court was able to recognize scientist's crucial, original musical contributions. too bad that it comes down to a bunch of nit-picking and legal wrangling. the jury was left to decide the issue without regard for musical contribution, which seems wrong to me--let's not forget that the greensleeves guys attempted to argue that scientist's claims on the material as an "engineer" were "ridiculous." but that's the system we're stuck in.

just another reason to chant down babylon.

we got it right here, pt. 2

like we just don't care.



yes i said yes i will yes

happy bloomsday!

(portrait of the artist)

read a little ulysses out loud for good measure. have a gorgonzola sandwich for lunch. if you're in dublin, hit the trail!


the jews and the abstract truth

well, not so abstract, but dan charnas's latest post on black-jewish relations rings with truth.

queer shoulder to the wheel

thanks to alan for continued inspiration. as i've said before, alan ginsburg must not die. fortunately, his words are eternal.

if only we all were so brave as to put our queer shoulders to the wheel (no homo), i think the world would be a better place. (big up to kid k for being explicit about his politics as a DJ: see in particular the note on X13.)

much as i like to fight for truths and rights worldwide, never mind starting from yard: it's clear that america needs to shake its aching pelvis, too. what's the problem, people? or to put it more directly, what's the deal? for real, they only fuckin'.

original tree-hugger, beat-bugger, dream-smuggler, seen?


we got it right here

it makes sense that we have a kingston here--it being an english town originally, and massachusetts sharing some colonial history with the anglo-caribbean.

but how'd we get a jamaica plain?--'jamaica' (or 'xamayca') being the arawak word for the island itself, or for "land of wood and water." (that goes for queens, too.)


the outrage continues (on both sides)

a couple weeks ago i received the following forwarded message from a friend in jamaica. i didn't post it at first since i wasn't sure it was real or not. in the current climate of intolerance on both sides, it's quite possible for rumors, exaggerations, and fabrications to circulate. and the implication that joey budafuco is now promoting reggae shows definitely raised my eyebrows. (turns out, it's not that joey buttafuoco.) at any rate, the content was by no means incredible:

> From: Kirk Bonin
> Subject: Re: Buju Banton In South Beach Memorial Weekend!!!
> Date: Wed, 25 May 2005 08:47:16 -0700
> To: "Ms. Tracii McGregor"
> Please remove me from any list having to do with
> this artist or any Jamaican artist actually.
> Kirk Bonin iTunes Music Store
> Manager, Artist/Label Relations
> On May 25, 2005, at 5:05 AM, Ms. Tracii McGregor
> wrote:
> > For Immediate Release:
> >
> >
> > International Reggae Star Buju Banton to Host
> > Star-Studded Welcome to Miami Bashment & Headline
> 2ND Annual VP Records Memorial Day Concert
> >
> > (New York/Kingston/Miami - 25, May 2005) Gargamel
> > Music, Inc. is pleased to announce that
> international Reggae artist Buju Banton aka Gargamel will host
> the official "Welcome to Miami" pre-concert bash to be
> > held Saturday, May 28th at Pure Night Club in
> downtown Miami. On Sunday, May 29th, Buju will headline the
> VP Records Memorial Day Concert at Bayfront Park, his
> > first US performance in over a year.
> >
> > "Miami has waited a very long time to see Buju
> Banton on this stage," says Joey Budafuco, President of
> > Rockers Island, the company responsible for
> producing both high profile Reggae music events. "We are
> proud to be the first promoters to bring the Voice of
> > Jamaica back to America so he can continue
> delivering his uplifting music to the people." Performing
> > alongside Buju Banton at this year's show: Beenie
> Man, Capleton, Luciano, Sizzla, I-Wayne, Assassin and
> Edwin Yearwood. [...snip...]

the email, and some additional commentary (i.e., a press release by the offended), has now generated at least one genuine article (appearing, not insignificantly, in a black british news source), which has been picked up by a few caribbean sources. that it seems not to be circulating more widely perhaps speaks to people's weariness about the issue. the story set off yet another conflagration over at versionist.com, complete with bible quotations. while at the same time, though seemingly for another reason (i.e., someone objecting to anti-gay sentiments in sanchez's terribly catchy song, "frenzy"), the bloodandfire board also erupted into a flame(r)-war of sorts, in which some posters, including a local colleague of mine, burn fire on that which reggae songs and (limited?) interpersonal relationships have convinced them is an abomination while other posters plead for tolerance and others bemoan the whole stupid conversation. i think maybe more folks on all sides need to read elena oumano's piece from a few months back. shedding balanced and expansive perspective on the issue, elena tempers the conversation with information--hopefully without forestalling forward movement.

and maybe that's what this latest flare-up is about. but i'm not sure. feels more like going around in circles, only more frequently than we used to. is anyone actually learning anything in this exchange? are opinions changing? on a massive scale?

jamaican lit-critic and dancehall-defender carolyn cooper seems to think so. in her recent book, sound clash, cooper argues that all the noise about homophobia in (and out) of jamaica in the last few years has less to do with entrenching attitudes than the palpable imminence of cultural transition. she sees the public discussion, ever since buju's "boom by by" (cooper emphasizes the original spelling of the title to argue for its less-than-literal significations), as moving in a positive direction, as least insofar as "Jamaican society has been forced to confront openly the taboo subject of homosexuality" (p.167). an interesting possibility, for sure. at the same time, she advises that "The DJ must learn to censure herself or himself, otherwise someone else will do the censuring" (p.158). this gets a little close to condoning the dominant position (when does community consensus become tyranny of the majority?) and giving up on a vanguard position (or rearguard, as it may be) vis-a-vis the status quo, but it appears to be a pragmatic position that many DJs are taking. i have made a similar argument myself, at least in terms of how DJs will have to consider their options as they "market" themselves outside of jamaica.

other aspects of cooper's argument deserve attention here as well, as i think they represent a number of common, if somewhat specious (in my opinion), views. for one, she affirms the longstanding assertion that "homosexuality in sub-Saharan Africa is not socially constructed as normative" (p.165). but where in the world is homosexuality constructed as normative? some parts of san francisco? the cambridge city council? not many places, i'd say. this line of reasoning about cultural difference tends to overlook that, despite such "mainstream" moments as the red sox getting queer eye makeovers, a great many americans and jamaicans tend to agree in their condemnation of, discomfort with, and/or confusion about sexual practices that deviate from what they feel are traditional, heterosexual norms. thus, the following paragraph, in which cooper reproduces some well-worn notions about jamaican views of homosexuality, could easily be written substituting "America" and "Americans" for "Jamaica" and "Jamaicans":
In Jamaica, homosexuality is routinely denounced because it is perceived as a marker of difference from the sexual/cultural "norm." Further, many Jamaicans vigorously object to being labeled as "homophobic." Claiming their sexuality as "normative," they reject the negative connotations of the "phobia" in homophobia. For them it is homosexuality that is the morbidity--not their culturally legitimated aversion to it. (p.162)

not sure what exactly is so distinctively jamaican here, save perhaps that few americans are as vocal about their dislikes as jamaican artists and audiences. the online discussion among the international (and wired) reggae community demonstrates that there is at least as much sympathy as opposition to "the jamaican stance" on homosexuality. sometimes it seems strange to be making so much noise about jamaican homophobia when there's plenty of intolerance to deal with right here at home. toward that end, i think we need more work in the cultural realm, and less in the purely critical realm. although i've weighed in on this issue before in prose form, i still think my most persuasive argument is soggae.

incidentally, an article in the jamaica-star that mentions the badly-named event that served as partial inspiration for "soggae" (and is one of the few records of it happening--wish i took a picture of that sign), begins by discussing the rude reception staceyann chin was given when she tried to recite some of her poetry at a kingston night club a couple years ago. i was living in jamaica at the time that this happened, and although i was not at the event i was pretty surprised that an audience of jamaicans, despite their training at numerous shows to burn fire on anything faintly gay, would so denounce a fellow jamaican, and a famous one at that. sure, jamaican audiences are notoriously hard to please, and poor performances can easily result in someone being hit with a bottle (though stale bread seems like a nice substitute). but jamaican audiences are also difficult to top when it comes to national pride, so considering chin's accolades and recognition a farin, it is surprising that knee-jerk fiyah couldn't be put aside, especially at a club that caters to an uptown crowd.

at any rate, i'm pleased that this article brings these threads together because i see in the work of staceyann chin another powerful way to confront the stereotypes and tired performance styles that have locked jamaican music into a kind of stubborn pose. this week staceyann launches her new one-woman show "off-broadway" in new york. i am told by a friend and creative-consultant on the show that it is fantastic and that the previews have been quite promising. we're headed down to the big apple this weekend to catch it for ourselves. i wonder whether jamaica will change its tune if it sees that there is plenty to love about its queer heritage.

as far as iTunes and jamaican music go, no need to worry: apparently, they still offer plenty of reggae for download, buju included. babylon's not stupid, though a little self-censure might be in order, seen?


more science!

reading through david katz's solid foundation for a dissertation chapter this week, i turned up a number of details relevant to the recent trial and debates (1 2 3) about scientist's right to the music he mixed in the early 80s. (for those who aren't familiar with it, katz's book is a rich oral history of reggae, telling the story in great detail drawn largely from the dozens and dozens of interviews katz has conducted. as jeff's and brian's books do for hip-hop, katz's text provides a treasury of first-hand discussion from the architects of reggae.)

with regards to scientist's suit, katz's book offers a fair amount of description of the sessions-in-question, not to mention other details about scientist's role more generally, not to mention junjo's. i offer you some illuminating passages:

first, linval thompson, on junjo's entry into the music business:
Linval Thompson, a close associate and one of the first producers to work with the [Roots] Radics, says Junjo came to music from an entirely different area. 'I really brought Junjo into the business,' he says definitively. 'He just see me in the road and want to follow me around, want to come with me to the studio. He wasn't no musician, he was a guy on the street, working for the politician, if you understand what I'm trying to say. (p.305)

further, here's cocoa tea, on junjo's "contributions":
Tea remarks that, although he became one of Junjo's top artists, Junjo himself had little involvement with the creation of Tea's material. 'He just put the money up,' Tea insists. 'First time I was going to the studio he was there, but after that it was people like Steve and Bellow, Junjo's two right-hand man, whe do all of the business.' (p.337)

now, don't get me wrong. i'm not saying that paying for the session is not an essential contribution, but should it really amount to ownership? you could buy as much studio time as you like but without artists and engineers, you've got nothing. we should recognize that junjo assembled a great team, "produced" some fine music, and secured a great distribution deal through greensleeves, but c'mon: share and share alike.

for a little contrast, here's scientist, on his "contributions" at channel one:

'I tightened up things at Channel One. I was the one who pioneered that drum-and-bass sound down there with Viceroys [We Must Unite] and Michigan and Smiley, "Diseases" rhythm.' (p.324)

finally, here's katz on scientist's musical contributions more generally:

Scientist took dub into a whole other dimension in this era [the early 80s]. He had a way of isolating Flabba Holt's bass, as heard on albums such as Scientist Meets The Roots Radics; he also made use of the test-tone in a highly creative and artistic manner, as heard on Scientist Meets The Space Invaders. 'If you ever watch Voyage To The Bottom of the Sea, you hear a kind of test tone, and you hear a echo behind it,' Scientist explains. 'That's where I got that from.' Scientist Rids the World of the Curse Of The Vampires, supposedly mixed at Midnight one Friday the 13th in 1981, not only had plenty of EQ manipulation, ghostly echoes of drumbeats and squealing tape-winding effects, but was also given a liberal dose of shrieking zombie sounds. On the wonderful series of LPs he mixed for Junjo Lawes, Linval Thompson, Roy Cousins, Al Campbell, Mikey Dread, deejay-turned producer Jah Thomas, Blacka Morwell and others, Scientist created what many believe are the last true 'classic' dub albums cut in Jamaica, most making use of the talented Roots Radics.(p.323)

note the level of detail. and that's just scratching the surface of the talent and labor scientist invested in these projects. of course, it should be noted that despite his more "traditional" contributions, flabba holt probably also lacks any kind of claim to these recordings at this point. which also makes no sense. another thing that emerges in scientist's quotations above is how readily jamaicans will acknowledge their influences, their sources of inspiration, their version-ees: there's simply a more common and sensible recognition of the degree to which creativity always plays off other creations, which is not to say there's no conflict over it (see below)--though we have to wonder whether that's due to the glaring structural inequalities of the compensation system.

so, why didn't scientist's lawyers do their homework? seems there's a pretty good case to be made here. maybe someday someone will mek the judges dem know wha really gwaan.

perhaps it was better when these things, in lieu of any kind of laws in place or in practice, were simply settled musically. with no legal recourse available, sugar minott and coxsone dodd would simply stay one step ahead of the competition [note: for those unaware of the "ethnic" dynamic in jamaica, think of yellowman's "mr.chin" as a kindler, gentler, perhaps more insidious "black korea"; which is to say, there's a similiar dynamic happening there, but accented differently; note also, however, that minott dismisses such attitudes as immature--an important qualification]:

Though the advent of rockers stole the fire from Bunny Lee's flying cymbal, the Revolutionaries' habit of adapting Studio One rhythms naturally caused most offence at Brentford Road, particularly after many of Coxsone's artists defected to Channel One. Coxsone's greatest weapon in the war of styles turned out to be Sugar Minott, a man with his ear constantly on the pulse of Jamaica's dancehall scene. 'It was a living war with Channel One,' laughs Minott. 'They used to call me "Coxsone's Boy." When they made "I Need a Roof" for Channel One, I immediately knew what it was, because I'm an expert in music and rhythm [i.e., riddims] from [when] I was a kid. So I went to Coxsone and said, "Look, it's "Mean Girl." We went to buy a flask of rum, so I was hyped up, did over "I Need A Roof." Me and Tabby them was friends, but I didn't care because I was like "Channel One? I hate Chinese." That was my thing in them times--I was young that way: "I'm not singing for no Chinese." There was a next one called "Woman Is Like A Shadow." Coxsone called me and said, "I want you to sing this music, listen that tune," so I thought it was an old song from some old group that never came out and he wanted me to do it over, but I didn't know it was a Meditations song that never even came out yet. I did over "Woman Is Like A Shadow" and it came out before the original, because the original used to play on the sound. When my version drop in, the whole of Baktu was looking for me--it was a war with Channel One. Every time they try to do a Coxsone song I go and tell him, so they came and fling bottle and stone to mash Coxsone's studio. They had the force--everybody was following the Chinese. Somehow Coxsone and Joe Joe got in some fight and that was that.' Perhaps unsurprisingly, Joseph Hoo-Kim contests Sugar's version of events. (p.227)

ah, german engineering

just when you thought ableton live represented the pinnacle of german engineering, enter the volcano.

the volcano is, hands down, the best vaporizer out there--and not just for its jiffy-pop design.

much as i'm a spliff man, it's not really feasible for me to smoke the big head dem outside of jamaica (i.e., $$$). and let's face it, lung cancer is not an appealing side-effect, nor is the general heaviness that comes with a smoky high. although it's an expensive item (and hard-to-get: apparently there's quite a wait-list over at storz-bickel), one can't really place a price-tag on one's health, and the efficiency of the thing means that it pays for itself before too long. unlike vaporizer models of the past, this one's fast, easy, and very satisfying. plus, it looks so damn futuristic. gotta love those germans.

clearly, this cellophane-bag-with-mouthpiece will one day look like the brick cell-phone of herbalizer technology, but for now, it's pretty damn cool. mostly because it works so well. still, i can imagine future generations looking at pictures of the volcano and seeing it all as pretty silly and so-early-twenty-first-century. actually, it looks kind of silly right now. but that's all right. it's serving its purpose and serving it well.

danke meister storz und meister bickel! what menschen!


draft zappa

it's really a tragic shame that frank zappa died before his presidential candidacy really could take off. zappa was articulate, funny, reasonable, and--believe it or not, by his own admission--conservative. i think i could take zappa's style of conservatism, though. i think the rest of the country could too. and, hey, if a hollywood actor and a complete buffoon could each run the country for 8 years, why not a smart musician?

at any rate, zappa's debate skills and political acumen are on display in a crossfire appearance from 1986 that my younger brother recently urged me to watch. i urge you to watch it, too.

sure, the squabbling for the first five minutes or so gets pretty cloying. and sometimes it seems like zappa has it way too easy considering the idiocy of some of his interlocuters. if it's too much for you in the beginning, i suggest skipping ahead to about 6:00 or 7:00 when it starts to get interesting.

the most interesting part, though, and the most prescient, is where zappa says, at a little after 10:00, that "the biggest threat to America today is not communism--it's moving america toward a fascist theocracy." straight up, spot on. his comrades appear dumbfounded. fortunately, zappa lays it out pretty clearly.

in retrospect, it's amazing how tame the rock videos are that they're discussing considering the contemporary music-video skin-trade. and of course it's amazing that despite the current level of "permissiveness" in american popular culture, we live in more of a fascist theocracy than ever.

zappa makes lots of good points, especially after they all cool down after a break. his distinction between "erotic sex" and "titillation" on TV is a damn good one. still holds in today's media: violence is more prominent than ever, including sex scenes; erotic sex remains a rarity.

finally, the "kiss my ass" delivered by zappa at around 7:15 is at least as good--especially with the facial expression--as jon stewart's "you're as big a dick on your show as you are on any show" when he toasted tucker carlson on crossfire almost twenty years later.

many of us miss frank zappa the musician. more of us should miss frank zappa the (almost) politician.


more bush shit

from an NYT editorial today:
According to a poll, most Americans believe that the United States spends 24 percent of its budget on aid to poor countries; it actually spends well under a quarter of 1 percent. As Jeffrey Sachs, the Columbia University economist in charge of the United Nations' Millennium Project, put it so well, the notion that there is a flood of American aid going to Africa "is one of our great national myths."

The United States currently gives just 0.16 percent of its national income to help poor countries, despite signing a United Nations declaration three years ago in which rich countries agreed to increase their aid to 0.7 percent by 2015. Since then, Britain, France and Germany have all announced plans for how to get to 0.7 percent; America has not. The piddling amount Mr. Bush announced yesterday is not even 0.007 percent.

What is 0.7 percent of the American economy? About $80 billion. That is about the amount the Senate just approved for additional military spending, mostly in Iraq. It's not remotely close to the $140 billion corporate tax cut last year.

disgusting. and don't even get me started on sudan. kristof's been beating the drum like tito puente to no avail.

the question is: when are folks going to start bombing KFCs in the motherland?

(note: that's not actually a KFC; it's the residence of the commander of robben island prison--of nelson mandela fame.)


some below the radar bullshit

this piece of news never seems really to have made it to the mainstream, but it seems especially significant at a time when the government is intimidating news sources and carrying on with their own propaganda machine unchecked. considering that several muslim americans have been dragged into the spotlight and through the mud over alleged terrorist plots, it is outrageous that the justice department fails to call attention to some of the true terrorists in our midst. white supremacists have been carrying out terrorist attacks on american soil against american citizens--including, of course, judges and their families, black folk, and innocent government cogs--for a long time now, but such activity, for some reason, remains a dirty little secret. wouldn't want to incite all those rabid anti-white-supremacists, i suppose.



rakim gold me

just finished reading brian coleman's rakim told me, and it's a pot of gold for us hip-hop scholars (check joe twist and lynne d. johnson for elaboration on a contentious term). coleman's book sets out to answer the question, "why the hell didn't hip-hop albums ever have liner notes?!!??"--and it answers many more before it's done.

although coleman does a fantastic job selecting the albums to represent--a veritable canon of "golden age" classics--and assembling what amounts to "notes" for each of them (including background on the artists, the recording sessions, and their contemporary milieu), the book's most valuable feature is the voluminous commentary direct from the artists themselves. coleman stays out of the way, asking the right questions and letting the artists do the talking. and they bless the book with a treasure trove of details.

conducting interviews with MCs, DJs, and producers while writing his "classic material" column for XXL over the last decade, coleman has assembled a "golden age" oral history of sorts, and the artists' testimony--especially the track-by-track commentary that most of them provide--sheds nuff new light on old sounds. this is a book for heads, for sure, but i think it will appeal to, and inform, a wider hip-hop audience if its gets proper distro. (props to brian for self-publishing. support an independent!)

the documentation about production choices, especially concerning sample-based pioneers marley marl and ced gee, illustrates some of the amazing serendipity and innovation that went into so many of hip-hop's classics. and the acknowledgment of the role of the engineer in these sessions--often a white dude with little knowledge of hip-hop aesthetics, leading to some rather interesting collaborative results, from the wide reverb on schooly d's "PSK" to the tape-spliced samples on EPMD's early work--furthers our understanding of the way that hip-hop music-making has increasingly blurred the lines between engineers, producers, and creators and reveals a great deal about the social contexts, the institutions (from labels to studios), and the strange studio-fellows so integral in the production of this classic material. in some cases, such as the chapter on criminal minded, the reader is treated to pages upon pages of personal recollection by the artist in question, and the revelations abound. certain assertions--for instance, that parrish produced most of EPMD's early stuff and rakim produced most of his and eric b's tracks--will no doubt fuel the fire of debate, and perhaps revise certain longstanding assumptions, for some time to come. (watch out okayplayer boards!)

i've dog-eared my copy to death, and i'm sure many of the details will work their way into the dissertation. (thanks for producing some great research, brian.) here are a few of my favorite, reggae-related gems:

* 2 Live Crew's DJ Mr.Mixx on "Reggae Joint" (from Nasty As They Wanna Be [1989]): "Reggae was just big in Miami, and all those songs we sampled on there were big hits in the reggae scene there. Luke used to play a lot of reggae stuff at his jams, with Ghetto Style DJs" (p.49).

* Producer Hitman Howie T on meeting Special Ed: "I knew Ed since he was probably about 10, because [his cousin] Jennifer lived on my block. One day she came to my house and said, 'My cousin Eddie wants to rap for you.' And because he's Jamaican, I thought he'd do some chanting/DJ type of stuff. Ed surprised me by asking me to put 'Impeach the President' on, and that's where it started" (p.101).

* KRS on "The Bridge is Over" (from Criminal Minded [1987]): "At that time there was a record by Super Cat called 'Boops' and it had the bassline I wanted, so I had the piano that was free in the studio. It was a real piano, and I played it live, one take, for the whole song. If you listen to the original there's so many mistakes, like at the beginning. That's just me tuning up, trying to get my timing together" (p.231).

* and my all-time favorite, solving once-and-for-all the mystery of what-the-hell-is-dude-saying-and-why-does-it-sound-quasi-jamaican when the D.O.C. says something like "rastafarian-sonuvagun-BLAH!" in the intro to "It's Funky Enough" (from No One Can Do It Better [1989]): "Sometimes I had a Jamaican flow on there because I had been drinking that day and when I heard the track in the booth it sounded kind of Jamaican to me. I didn't write the rap like that, it just came out like that" (p.185).

yeah, i'm going to be puzzling over that last one for a minute. but it beats being more-or-less completely in the dark as to why some cat from texas would get all bum-stiggidy-bum-stiggidy-bum-hun on the track all of a sudden: he was drunk!

but enough unauthorized samples from me, go cop a copy for yourself. you'll be glad you did.


chicken-fried retraction

(cows chillin' on the hendrix ranch)

to be fair to the fair city of austin i should retract, at least in part, the impression i registered in my last post. for one thing, it's clear that i carry certain cultural biases that prevent me from enjoying some of the town's claims to fame--in particular, its distinction as a nationally-known "live music" center. since "live music" in this case refers to alt/indie rockers and singer-songwriters--as opposed to, say, MCs and/or DJs--it's just not my kind of town. for another thing, i've had a number of experiences around town in the past couple of days that have definitely won me over.

the first good step was getting to the intersection of 6th and lamar, which boasts three great shops: waterloo records, book people, and--let me explain--whole foods. though i had been enjoying the southern bump on the radio, i began craving other sounds, and waterloo easily whet my appetite. filled with strange, not-so-strange, and plenty of local offerings, waterloo put to shame anything that harvard square has to offer (including, forgive me, twisted village--only because that lil' shop is a little too obscure sometimes). i picked up a few CDs that seemed to promise an appropriate soundtrack for the rest of our trip: a compilation of son huasteco, whose employee-scrawled recommendation-card included an entreaty to buy one of the recently reissued RCA mariachi comps (!"el mejor mariachi del mundo" for only $5.99!), which i did, and finally the new common (for the chicago leg of our trip--cheesy as it may be, i just can't resist this kind of thematic listening; i love connecting place to sound, if largely in my imagination). across the street from waterloo, the immense and well-stocked book people ("the largest book store in texas") provided no shortage of choices for reading material. bec and i have been enjoying our selections at parks and cafes during our lazy afternoons here. she picked up two old math-y favorites: norton juster's the phantom tollbooth and edwin abbott's flatland, while i grabbed a couple music books i've been meaning to read: guy ramsey's race music and carolyn cooper's sound clash (more on those in a few days).

before digging into our new tomes, we decided to put together a little picnic lunch. we couldn't have asked for a better place than whole foods. for those who don't know, whole foods actually began in austin, so this stop was more of a local experience than one might imagine. (incidentally, today we visited its local competitor, central market, which was impressive in its own right, though whole foods has clearly one-upped it.) whole foods just opened its new flagship store here in austin, and it is truly an amazing place. now, let me say that i am usually made somewhat uncomfortable by the prices and the plenty at this place. i can remember going to whole foods in cambridge the day i returned from a stint in kingston in 2003 only to be practically sickened by the stark differences in access and quality between supermarkets in the two places. globalization seemed to be bringing beautiful fruits of the world to cambridge and leaving scrawny leftovers on the shelves in jamaica. at any rate, though i try to avoid whole foods back home--largely because of the snooty cantabridgian customers who will run you down with their half-carriages without even noticing, thinking they're at the center of the world when they're only in the center of the fucking nuts aisle--i was glad we had stepped into this one, on a friend's recommendation mind you. it was huge. absolutely immense. with section upon section, and each with more variety and more food than you could possibly imagine. and even better, being so big, there was plenty of room to maneuver. no limousine-liberals to contend with, no self-righteous rich assholes to dodge. we picked up some peaches, some fresh lemonade, and a couple of sandwiches and headed over to zilker park.

zilker park was our first destination when we arrived here on saturday, as our marrying-friends had arranged a "field day" of sorts before we all got down to partying. it's large and comprises various trails, fields, gardens, streams and springs--even a museum. a nice spot to be sure. austin's green spaces are definitely one of the city's strengths. we saw lots of people exercising, lots of birds and turtles hanging around, and far fewer fat folk than one would expect in a big texan town. which is surprising not just because of my own stereotypes about texans, but because of how easy and enticing it is to eat and drink around here.

there's something to be said about the simple pleasures of sucking down a couple cold lone star beers at jo's in soco. considering how rare it is to find a place in cambridge where you can sit outside and have a drink--ah, blue laws--we appreciated the chance to chill and soak in the afternoon sun while nursing a cold one (or two). sure, one has to deal with more cigarette-smoke than back in boston, but such are the trade-offs. in terms of food, we couldn't get enough tex-mex cooking. tuesday night we went to a spot called azul tequila. a little hole in the wall (or, really, hole in the mall), the place makes a mean mole, serves a wide variety of margaritas, and apparently offers some killer live mariachi music on thursdays and fridays (the two nights of the week we won't be here). but our favorite meal may have been at chuy's (pronounced chewy's), where we lapped up the green chile stew, which is not to be missed if you swing through austin.

chuy's was recommended to us by gary hendrix, the father of one of rebecca's office-mates, who recently acquired a 700-acre ranch just outside of austin. we got a grand tour of the place yesterday and were treated to a side of texas that we didn't know existed. contrary to our previous impression of texas as a flat desert, the hill country is verdant and, yes, hilly. and quite beautiful. the ranch sits along the bank of the pedernales river, which feeds austin's reservoir, and contains meadows, woodsy areas, an area that resembles ireland's burren (though much smaller), and plenty of cacti. mr.hendrix treated us to a freshly cut slice of prickly pear, which was not unpleasant. we also saw lots of critters on our hike around the ranch: deer, cows, lizards, frogs, fish, hawks, dragonflies. apparently, there are boars and armadillos hanging around too, though we didn't see any.

(bec and i tubing on the pedernales)

after touring the ranch and going for a dip in the river, mr.hendrix took bec and me out to lunch in nearby johnson city. he said the chicken-fried steak was not to be missed at the silver k cafe, so we took him up on it. indeed, looking back, the trip wouldn't have seemed complete without it (though i definitely couldn't eat that stuff very often). on our way back to the ranch we passed LBJ's childhood home--that's right, LBJ's hometown is named johnson city (apparently named after his family before his rise to political prominence). it was a fine way to round out our trip and enrich our overall sense of this place.

so yeah, i like this town. it's got personality. and it clearly rallies around its own sense of strange self. the folks here are friendly, and they all say y'all, which oddly enough, makes me feel at home (via hip-hop via the great migration). the popularity of t-shirts and bumper stickers imploring people to "vote for pedro" and "keep austin weird" confirmed my impression that there are some good people and good vibes to be found in austin. plus, gotta support texas's democrat cities--the big blue islands in a big red state.

so thanks for a fine holiday, austin. no doubt: i'll come back now, y'ear?