Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Hip Hop (Part 2 of X): Subverting the tools is cool

HipHop (Part 2 of X) : Subverting the Tools is Cool

other people do the person x and y did this or that track...this isn't one of those articles..

Digital Watches Mark The Beginning…
The moon landing set the seed of the expanding future in our parents minds of outer space and endless possibility of technology. It truth though it seemed to have no relevance on earth other than B-movie plots about giant slugs. The science fiction was confined mostly to the public imagination and private government spending and research. A generation or so later we fast forward to the 80’s and the children aren’t looking up at the skies dreaming like their parents did. Instead they are looking at the game Pong on a TV screen – transfixed by it’s simple glow – it was like Stanley Kubricks monolith had landed among the apes once again.

The 80’s was pivotal because young people around the world began to own electrical shit that wasn’t a powertool and things were branching out quite alot since the digital watch creeped into the 70's. We weren’t building outside the mind with engines and cars and architecture – now we began to build concepts and models that weren’t in stone or glass or paint – they were in 1’s and 0’s and we couldn’t even physically touch them. Computers and digital watches with big red led faces and a whole pantheon of consumer goods hit the stores – the future was back with a vengeance. It was now possible to make electrical and computer gear cheaper and that meant mass uptake. Television and media programming helped the birth of a new language and phenomenon containing silicon, storage, memory and other digi-related nouns. The children of the 80’s saw no reason for this surge of technology to stop and they were right. The birth of the digital age? The era of electricity? …..

Like so many sociological changes it must be mass change by definition. The chaos unleashed by letting loose the peoples of the world on this technology was a glorious thing. Only by trying all the permutations of these new tools would we even begin to find out what was possible. Do you think the first person to refine iron imagined the uses it would be put to – it ended up defining an age.

Now although we are all quite happy (my readers at least) with the concept of using an invention for something it’s not meant for that doesn’t mean everybody is happy about that. Those in power always own the current culture and they have built it using the tools and the social realities they understand. They have put money into radio being sent out in a certain way, running big studios with analog desks, charging for sending information back and forth….you get the picture….the music and the film industries seem to be the perfect example of this. Youth being youth don’t give a shit how their parents did things and thankfully this bucking at tradition keeps culture from falling into a big black hole called entropy. It’s important we try all the permutations and as there are billions of us it’s not too hard to do.

Subverting the Tools?
So the revolutionaries, the new breed – how do they come into the mix and change things? What do you mean subverting? What about hip hop man? Okay…I promise I’ll get there ;)

  • 1835, Samuel Morse proved that signals could be transmitted by wire. It gives birth to the morse code industry which is then killed off in 1877 by a rival – the telephone. Same mechanism different concept about encoding signals.
  • 1877 : Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877. He thought it was going to be useful for recording contractual agreements as they would be clearer…, of course it kick started the music industry and he only joins in because his competitors threaten to overtake him.
  • 1940’s cassette tape invented and soon after two French mentalists (Pierre Shaeffer and Pierre Henry) experiment with playing it backwards and forwards aswell as chopped up and looped – ‘musique concrete’. Definitely not normal behaviours but such irreverence to the medium gave birth to all sound ‘chopping’ of today.
  • 1946: ENIAC - the first electronic digital computer, is switched on and in 1957 Lejaren Hiller and Leonard Isaacson got a computer to compose a piece of music then played by a string quartet.
  • 1951: Sun Studios in Memphis, guitarist Willie Kizart dropped his amp and busted a speaker cone. The result was an "unruly hum" as heard on Rocket 88 by Jackie Brenston and the Delta Cats – it’s the beginning of distortion as a legit sound and not an engineering mistake. Culture decides – fucked up sounding is like my life so leave the noisy bit in please….Hendrix lights up the 70’s using distortion – redefining guitar.
  • 1981: Kraftwerk develop bespoke instruments from random computer gear not intended for music such as mainframes , calculators and retrofitting rhythm devices to research gear.
  • 1989 Internet invented (or ‘running’) Web and hypertext itself. Originally, TBL just wanted to help physicists publish and share their works. Little did they know blah blah..
Good or should I say ‘Functionally Healthy’ subcultures fuck with the existing tools of the mainstream or current culture. They play with it like a child and sometimes they go 'WAh!!" and break it. The inventors can never imageine what the children will really do. People invent things from other things. They have to – it’s what’s around. They take back the power by subverting and bending existing innovations to create their own subculture. They can't invest in new technologies because they don't have the cash - they have to use what is already around.

We should really think of the present and the future as waves that are crashing upon themselves. That’s a lot of noise and froth. Now digital technology was part of the sea. The Ying of our Digital Inventions to the Yang of the Analog World.

In the 1980’s there was a great wave called HipHop which rose to three times the height in the ocean – a culture tsunami - three waves combined to make one seriously big wave and subsequently a sea change.


WAVE 1 : MUSIC : The tempo of revelation

One other element about the beginnings of this electronic music was that it allowed artists to have their compositions run at an exact tempo – over and over again with reliability. This was a very big deal and was a massive break from the analog world of flamenco guitar players, bagpipers and rock groups where the musicians would naturally move around the tempo – if they were excited they might play faster – and of course for compositional effect they may choose to speed up and slow down.

Let’s remember that music is physical – it’s waves (and particles) coming out of those speakers all over your body and into your ear. The ability to make the tempo run at exactly 80 or 90 beats per second for the duration of the piece meant that the audience were ‘hypnotised’ in a new way – an almost scientific way. Our body has tempo’s and clocks built into it (stomach, brain, eye, heart) and when we are subjected to music for a duration of time we will naturally tend to resonate or ‘merge’ with it. Same as you do when you bob around in the sea….it’s hard to avoid.

My contention is that a constant stable tempo is a good tempo to receive ‘programming’ while a varying tempo is a good fun for an ‘exciting ride’ of emotions – yes I do mean the difference between rap and rock ‘n’roll … kinda. James Brown had moved towards the repetitive metronomic funk in the analog world with his band that were fined wages for wrong notes and then it went even further with hip hop - dissecting real and unreal grooves like wizards of stereo sound and pushing and pulling the rhythms and sound collages back and forth by a measure of milliseconds.

One of my favourite images of Lee Perry is some video footage of him in the Studio where he sticks his head up to the control room window and shouts at the drummer “Play it like a Machine Man or I kill you…Do you hear me man!?” Lee Perry knew that the hypnotic effect of dub was better achieved by keeping the tempo or ‘spell’ constant.

The smart hip hoppers get this and I remember hearing KRS-1 say that hip hop is the tempo of revelation. A good tempo for the narrator to get inside your brain. Black youth were rightly twitchy and agitated and when the tech democratisation of two turntables and a microphone allowed anyone to get involved – well a lot of people had a lot of things to say in the black community …this element in the music spoke to me…. the energy – the growls – the chaos – the truth

Check it
  • adult human heart, at rest, beats at about 70 bpm (males) and 75 bpm (females).
  • Hip hop tempo 70-110 bpm
  • House 110-140 bpm
  • Jungle 140-190 bpm. (But that’s really a half-time gig:)
  • 200 onwards – lunatics with drill samples

So hip hop is generally just above our natural ‘rest’ point and just before our shake out booty point. It’s pitched just right above your natural rest state – an incitement to get up…to be motivated…to kill inaction… to stand up – stop resting….that’s why when it hit in the US first it was the voice of revalation….the English language was being rolled and twisted and stuttered and presented back to it’s semi-owners….they didn’t understand it….the people understood it – never since the Celts and the Indians took a hold of the English language and shook some poetry into it had the medium of English speech been shaken. 1980's baby. Forget shit like Ultravox….couple of good tracks but nothing that blasted a hole as big as this….hip hop was an explosion…..a verbal explosion at the tempo of revalation…..thank the gods the voice had became much stronger and not a moment too soon….

Lots of people were super unhappy about this new powerful voice. They had been in the mind games business long enough to know this was a powerful tool. They didn’t understand the language of the music and the lawyers didn’t really know how to legislate for the chopping up and sampling of the existing copyrighted funk tunes and rare grooves that were ‘liberated’. The content of the lyrics were confrontational – voices that have been quashed always shout when they can first make sound again. …and like a loud sound in a public place everyone turned their head to look.

The scene and ideologies galvanised people – the lexicon and approach spread and before you know it…..the ripples reached the UK and then into even further unchartered territory – the lost lands of Cowdenbeath… imploring relatives to bring back books on graffiti from their trips to New York….the ripple went far and it changed the ocean..

Stravinsky succinctly reminds us not to be precious with owt:

"the danger lies not in the borrowing of clichés. The danger lies in fabricating them and in bestowing on them the force of law, a tyranny...."

I remember hearing Public Enemy’s ‘Nation of Millions’ and ‘Fear Of a Black Planet’ for the first time and the human drama was as visceral as Mozarts requiems. What have I heard in the UK that’s done the same for me? Asian Dub foundation and after that on the polticial voice rising there wasn’t much….but now everyone has ‘settled’ in the West we are now discovering that we are still unhappy and can’t quite put the finger on it….oh yeah – we are all born into a world already carved up…;)

The new houses are often built using the bricks of the old for reasons of pragmatism – it’s what was lying around. And for hip hop events that meant old records, bits of electronics, street sound samples and big sound systems cobbled together from multiple speakers.

There was also a counterpart to the gig or party that the music had going on which was the graffiti ‘happening’…where one day from nowhere a massive mural/piece would appear from nowhere throwing the whole context of an area into another dimension….it could have been a moving train or the side of a burnt out building. Andy Warhol is his biggest wet dream wishes you could have conspired poetic events such as these…..instead he fannied around safely indoors replicating expensive colours on top of expensive materials and fabrics. Graffitti writers nicked the paint and worked at night by torchlight and spoke with a visual style that the overstudied and frazzled Warhol could never plug into.

These burners could never be sold and after a while the graffitti writers got into business although the mainstream was onto it already. Beat Street and all kinds of movies helped graffiti blow up everywhere.

It’s a fact that you have to burn to want to do graffiti – it’s not easy – the proportions, the paint running, the speed of operation and the fact that it’s against the law and the stopwatch doesn’t last long from the first fence climbed into the yard makes. When you are not allowed to take part in the development of the way the cities and countries look architecturally then the under classes will always just do their thing on top of it….

In fact it tends to be a feature of democratic states with fascist undertones (US…..northern Ireland, Spain…Paris etc….graffiti/burners/murals are common in all of these places …and now in Eastern Europe things are on the rise with excellent graffiti writers doing their thing – the context just as poetic as any…’s the resistance trying to lift the spirits of the people ….the democratic bit means that you don’t get executed for the graffiti….although Mayor Kotsch in New York was close to passing the law;)

It’s clear that graffiti (Greek for ‘writing’) as manifest in the Hip Hop culture saw the age old tradition of rebellious defacing of property updated to new heights – these pieces were not just the simple complaints of citizens with a a scrawl on a Colleseum wall – these we moving trains of steel covered on sometimes more than 2 cars – a huge rainbow going through the city…. Or Spitting demons on the side of a liquor store, cartoon characters from the nations youth were twisted and distorted on huge walls. The kids were having ‘their way’ with the mindset of the people.

Wildstyle graffiti was the epitome of this visual subversion and it was the most covert of codes - a complicated construction of interlocking letters often completely undecipherable to non-writers.

My uncle brought that book back from America and it was hot – he must have been connected OR things had went so mainstream that he picked it up at K-Mart or Macies more like. It was 1984 Henry Chalfant and Martha Cooper, - Subway Art. It’s even got big gatefold pullout sections!

I’'ve watched these two resources below and they are solid and have been for years…ones for your favourites…tell em this article sent ye…



The paths to dancing before break dancing took the streets were :

1.Ballet -> jazzdance -> then solo improv’s where you might express your inner whatever. It cost a lot.
2. Life with a gypsy troupe doing flamenco and Indian dances, being hounded by the police and doing dramatic stuff round campfires.
3. ‘Ethnic’ Dance. Don’t get me started.
3. Tap Lessons from your Granddad.
4. HipHopRoute : Straight to a lino shop and then down your mates and expressed your inner whatever.

Those weird moves that came into being….all the shudders, and sine waves through the body and the ‘robot’ and the repeated movements were like the movements of the times….the tech mindset had entered dance….which made sense when you think about how ‘things’ end up in dance…

Waving your arms around your head and making a whooshing sound like a nonce happened because of the branches on trees swaying to our ancestors who mimicked it ……makes sense that the tech’ should enter dance at some point … wasn’t the trees now it was moves like ‘helicopter’, ‘colt 45’, ‘jackhammer’ and ‘drill headspin’. The floorwork of breaking, which is most like gymnastics, seemed to concentrate on the urban machine shapes while the dance moves of those popping and locking crew on the west coast were digital, electronic and spage age like : robot(tin), Strobing, Ticking, (energy)Waving, animation popping, gliding

Do you think the inventor of the strobe light thought that dancers would try and make it look like they were under a strobe light that wasn’t there – artificially cutting visual frames to appear stuttered under normal lighting… way – chaos was in delicious effect and the dancers were having it….the jazz and ballet dancers shat themselves and quickly aligned to include ‘street’ dance into the syllabus…..they might as well have called it tech dance.

My opinion on breakdancing…I think that breaking now in 2006 concentrates way too much on floorwork gymnastics and not enough on being the funkiest bastard in the universe….and that’s why my allegiance lies with the California poppers and lockers …… plus I’ve hurt myself in the past doing floor stuff way too many times. Check these typical break-dance injuries! My favourite times in hiphop clubs was never around when the best DJ was playing it was when a crew out of nowhere starts to get down in the club……breakdancing can occur anywhere and when it does….it’s unbeatable. …the ballet is nice but breakin is the shit.

The world of dance had changed overnight….finally the techno in our minds and our society melted into dance moves….. the progression of dance moved one step further from jazz -> breaking.

It is the role of the sub-culture to subvert the mechanisms of the upper culture – it’s homely term is called ‘stirring the pot’ and the military term is storming the castle using the enemies guns against them. It comes out in all different ways in history ….. and in 1980 it happened as Hip Hop on three fronts of music, dance and graphics.

It had a synergy with all three elements happening at the same time and it’s impact is still felt today. It’s a spirit – I often think the punk bands have a bigger connection with the spirit of hip-hop than some of the current hip hoppers do….

Hip hop is almost a methodology rather than a genre.
Hip Hop’s genesis was about reinvention of tech and language for empowerment.
Young Black America spoke with poignancy at the right time and the right tempo of revelation for it to sink in right. Things changed overnight.

....and here it is in 2006 - i recorded a record called Elemental with a buddy 4D in sanfrancisco. We used an ipod as our hard-drive and did it in a kitchen on a laptop. New orleans had revealed just how the government felt about black folks when in a crisis and the rappers that came through the kitchen had no real problem in getting heat....we didn't do rehearsals - it was ... here's the beat and go....that's punk, that's jazz, that's hip hop and the truth of the matter is on the record - yes this is a plug but it's a righteous one. We hope to do some shows in the summer.

people - if you got to the end of this then's been on my mind you know?


1 comment:

Tom Kerswill said...

Hip-hop just above our resting heartbeat? Yes, the "incitement to get up and motivated" thing makes a lot of sense.

Asian Dub Foundation and co fit into this, and the politics of ADF, Public Enemy, and so on, are an integral part of the listening experience. Is that why listening to 50 cents et. al. makes me slightly uneasy - because in fact the lyrics contain little that is subversive or political, and yet we're expecting it to be saying something?