In praise of shadows

In praise of shadows: ‘Rino’ Da Beatminerz instrumental (Next Level Recordings, 1997)

Darkness in hip-hop: the words that are currently used (possibly over-used) are ‘gritty’ and ‘grimy’ to speak about this quality, but little attention is given to what this concept might in fact mean in a musical sense. 

The focus on ‘atmosphere’ is important but again what does this mean? Atmosphere, or mood  as terms are neutral, you can have any kind of atmosphere (exuberant or melancholy, or anything in between). Subject-matter comes into it, whether for example MCs are speaking about violence, but one striking aspect of hip-hop is how the subject often seems less important than the demonstration of skill, not so much what is said, but how. This might be a minority opinion, I know other people hear it differently.

Sometimes when listening to an MC you have the feeling that the thought/connection is coming to them in the ‘moment’ and this feeling of spontaneity is what matters, as you have the impression you are listening in to their thoughts as they are being formulated, then and there, as they speak to you directly. (This is the genius in much of the work of early Nas the way he spoke with such confidence, but kept it loose, never becoming didactic).   

The question remains, though, how might this notion of darkness be conveyed in a musical sense ... (this is the track with vocals, the instrumental has disappeared since I wrote this). 

This track captures one of my favourite qualities in music, to quote Bowie, of being “rugged and naïve” – it feels unschooled and natural, willing to remain simple as a way of showing its essential heart. It is full of impact, while remaining quiet. There is technique, certainly: at approximate one-minute intervals there is an addition to the music, or a shift (the most surprising being just after 2,40” where there is a brief hollowing out and return of the tinkling sound that was there at the start). Overall this music is extremely simple, under-developed, for want of a better word (as that sounds like a criticism).

Its dominant feature is the warmth of the central low sounds, a keyboard sample maybe and the drums, but what’s interesting is the way the drums though while at the centre appear to recede in favour of the other elements. Rather than trying to be ‘hard’ and dramatic, the music has an introspective, thoughtful quality and there you find its power.

Such music is dark in the best possible sense, it feels intimate and unpretentious; interested in ambiguity and feeling, rather than making a clear statement.  

Here’s an excellent article on Da Beatminerz and The Arsonists (and more) putting their work in a broader context, “Bushwick’s Finest: Forgotten Heroes of the Brooklyn Hip Hop Underground” by Philip Mlynar published on the Red Bull Music Academy Daily site in 2014. And an audio interview with Mr Walt (from Da Beatminerz) from 2004 with Hugo Lunny via MVRemix Urban.

It starts with Mr Walt doing the intro: ‘Yo, one, two, this is Mr Walt of Da Beatminerz, baby, we’re coming fully loaded, fully loaded with static!' His little son is in the background, after his dad asks him to give his opinion about the fact that they're going to be checking out the remixes, he shouts: 'Let’s go!'

Related article: 'In a melancholy mood: writing on hip-hop quiet (instrumentals from the 90s)'


In praise of: 'Breathing' Kate Bush (Never for ever, EMI, 1980)

'I see myself on the piano as a melody,’ Kate Bush sang on Lionheart’s 'Symphony In Blue' quoted by Matt Lindsay ’30 years on: the Dreaming by Kate Bush’ The Quietus 2012

Gets inside
Through her skin
I've been out before
But this time it's much safer in

Last night in the sky
Such a bright light
My radar send me danger
But my instincts tell me to keep

(Out, in, out, in, out, in)

Backing Vocals – Roy Harper Bass [Fretless] – John Giblin Drums – Stuart Elliott Percussion – Morris Pert Synthesizer [Prophet] – Larry Fast

Genre: Art rock, baroque pop

That moment where Kate Bush hides almost, singing the word 'keep' so quietly, to the point we can hardly hear it at the beginning, just before the release when she sings the word breathing. The genius of Kate Bush has many, many facets but one aspect that I’ve been noticing recently is her imaginative phrasing, the way she emphasises or hides certain words when she sings (and this changes, depending on the performance). It’s a beautiful thing to observe and sense. As it is within such detail that we can see her gift, in its entirety.

 “To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, 
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.” 
― William BlakeAuguries of Innocence

There’s such a sweet fragility in that half-heard word. It captures that moment of doubt, softer perhaps than fear that is felt before a decision is made, ‘to nullify (your) life’ .. or to breathe. This is especially effective here as it contrasts with the building, declamatory ‘I’ve been out before/but this time it’s much safer in …’

‘Breathing’ - the song that Bush described as her ‘little symphony’ is all about the contrast in different kinds of movement in music forward and backward (out/in) that manifests expressions of confidence and uncertainty. All of this is then upended by the magically strange section at 3 minutes: the post-apocalyptic dream-scape, that evokes the world after a nuclear Holocaust. She moves from the intimate to the abstract.

Originally, I thought the song was an expression of the intense feeling of longing, all mixed up with desire that you might have for someone you love, perhaps your mother, your beloved and the grief that is felt when they are no longer with you. It is, in fact, written from the point of view of a foetus (in the video Bush dances in an enclosed space of diaphanous material to represent a womb).    

Bush has said that her inspiration for the song came from ‘a documentary she had seen about the effects of nuclear war, while the tone of the song was inspired by Pink Floyd's The Wall (side three in particular).’ The wonder of the song lies in the intimate detail and the personalised delivery – something as far removed from notions of anti-Nuclear campaigning, as could be imagined - and the way Bush represents the idea of breathing ‘your mother in, your beloved in/breathing her nicotine …’ 

‘Breathing’ closed Bush’s third solo album Never, for Ever that came out in 1980 (the album began with the over-the-top cleverness and theatrics of ‘Babooshka’ – and Kate in a revealing Clan of the Cave Bear outfit, strutting, her angular movements lodging themselves in the imaginations of curious teenage boys the world over …)

Never for Ever was the first album that Bush had full production control and is still impressive many decades on for its creative risk-taking that at no point feels forced: the personality of the artist is the unifying element, alongside her constant cultural referencing: 

Bush’s literary and cinematic influences were again to the fore. “The Infant Kiss”, the story of a governess who is frightened by the adult feelings she has for her young male charge (who is possessed by the spirit of a grown man), was inspired by the 1961 film The Innocents, which in turn had been inspired by The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. ”The Wedding List” drew from François Truffaut’s 1968 film The Bride Wore Black.”Delius (Song of Summer)” was inspired by the 1968 Ken Russell TV movie Song of Summer, which portrays the last six years of the life of English composer Frederick Delius, when Eric Fenby acted as his amanuensis. Fenby is mentioned in the lyrics (“in B, Fenby”).
— Wiks

‘Delius (Song of Summer)’ strikes me as particularly influential in terms of the light-electronic alternative acts that have emerged since the 2000s in its delicate swoon and the way it’s mixed together ...

The album also included the superb anti-war song, ‘Army Dreamers’ (that includes extremely sweet-gentle and ironic male backing vocals, again upending expectations).     

Never for Ever was Bush’s first album to reach the number one slot on the UK charts and the first solo record by a British female artist to reach this status; moreover, it is the first studio album of any woman to achieve this, rather than compilations. Bush said that the album title alluded to contradictory and conflicting emotions, which pass, as she said: ‘we must tell our hearts that it is 'never for ever', and be happy that it's like that’.

Reviews for the album have a kind of grudging tone, something you often see in appraisals of the work of artists who are women (the Allmusic review saying, for example: ‘Bush's dramatics and theatrical approach to singing begin to solidify on Never for Ever, and her style brandishes avid seriousness without sounding flighty or absurd’ ...  an 'appreciation' from Sputnikmusic is even worse, concluding that the record was ‘no masterpiece’ but that it showed Bush’s work was ‘improving in all the right ways.’ … ah, merci monsieur).   

The album is also important in terms of Bush's artistic development in the way it demonstrated her interest in new tech; this is taken from an article in the NME:

As soon as I met the Fairlight,” Bush admitted in 1985 about the digital sampling synthesiser, “I realised that it was something I really couldn’t do without because it was just so integral to what I wanted to do with my music.” The possibilities are obvious on ‘Never For Ever’, the most lush of her albums to that point, where dreamy Minnie Riperton soul (‘Blow Away’) meets berserk vamping rock (‘Babooshka’). Its finest moment is the haunting ‘Breathing’ with Bush facing up to the burgeoning nuclear crisis as weapons move into Greenham Common. “What are we going to do/We are all going to die” is as direct as she ever gets, and has all the more grim power for that.

Easily the best piece of writing I’ve come across on Kate Bush’s work, Never for ever comes from Matt Lindsay ’30 years on: the Dreaming by Kate BushThe Quietus 2012. It’s full of fantastic research and persuasively argues for the importance of this record, as a transition towards a more autonomous juncture in Kate Bush's career and the way it gestured to her musical future. Here is his comment on ‘Breathing’ …

Bush’s melodramatic ivory tinkling is woven into a throbbing musical backdrop. Gabriel’s trusty synth wizard Larry Fast on Prophet 5, the ‘atomic instrumentation’ of Pink Floyd’s The Wall (side 3 apparently, ‘Hey You’ in particular) and 10cc multi-tracked vocal wash are all subsumed into Bush’s striking originality: a uniquely female perspective sculpted from male sources. Breathing’s bold studio craft was a strong indication of things to come.

Again, from Matt Lindsay:

(Bush) was also enamoured with the colossal ‘gated reverb’ drum patterns, without cymbals, Gabriel was cultivating with engineer Hugh Padgham at London’s Townhouse Studios. As with the Fairlight, this would become a salient feature of 80’s rock, perhaps most associated with Phil Collins’ In The Air Tonight (1981). Collins had learned the technique while working on Gabriel’s Melt album and had gone as far as recruiting the singer’s producer, Hugh Padgham. This suggests a kind of forward thinking MOR phalanx during this period. At the time only Tony Visconti’s pioneering work on Bowie’s Low (1977) was this drum sound’s only real precedent. (Visconti was briefly considered for production duties on The Dreaming before Bush assumed full responsibility).

Check out this extremely touching live performance from Kate Bush of ‘Breathing’ – her skill shows through her ability to be so heavily invested in the moment, it’s almost as if you can touch her soul, while she maintains distance (until that lovely smile at the end).

In praise of: Moonlight (dir. Barry Jenkins)

Walking through the métro, the word came to my mind and repeated itself, as if insisting to be known until I recognised it: tenderness. That now celebrated scene where the man cradles the boy - a black American Pietà – against the nineteenth century inkiness of the Atlantic Ocean.

In this scene where the man and child are one: ‘I hated my mother, too’ (and the camera shoots from below, as if we are there, with them, watching from a close distance).

And then the tiny child, tenderly, carefully carrying an over-sized pot full of boiling water, which rumbles acoustically into the bath, surrounded by cracked tiles. His arms are so thin, as if he were the vulnerable child, forever outside your protection (the child that haunts my nightmares, any mother’s nightmares). The child you cannot keep safe.

Or the back of the battered teenage boy’s neck as he submerges himself in the water to stem the bleeding. Blood stuck with white paper from injuries inflicted by another who had expressed love for him the night before (quietly, shyly without words in front of the ocean).

To speak about this film, there are choices.

Like so many others, I was deeply affected by Barry Jenkins’ film, Moonlight.

At times, it was as if something turned inside me. In those moments, I couldn’t help but bring the story back to me and my life. That child could be my son, hiding out there (in the darkened room). Even though they share nothing at all, other than their age.

The teenager, awkwardly carrying his books close to his chest in a pathetic protective gesture, reminded me of someone I used to know (who, though many years older, could be his brother). Even though they share nothing at all, other than a fleeting expression on their faces. 

Often the most affecting scenes in Moonlight were left under-developed. Take, for example, the moment when Little dances at an after-school class. The camera is positioned so we can only see glimpses of his happiness, the bodies of other children obscuring the child’s movements.

In the hands of a lesser artist, this moment could have been ‘transformative’ – the moment when Little finally realises what it is to be free. Instead, here, we can barely see the dancing child, hidden by the moving bodies of anonymous others. 

The portrayal of Chiron’s mother (played by Naomie Harris) is another source of interest for me. Another more literal director would have dutifully provided the back-story, listed the various traumas that led her to neglect her son and become an addict, Jenkins refuses to do this. And this refusal makes this film political, while also making it true.  

Jenkins understands the power of bringing attention back to the filming process itself and this was why I wasn’t surprised to read that his favourite film director is Claire Denis – the great artist of contemporary French cinema who infuses her films with an intense corporeality (and sensuality) making the creation of cinema seem to be ‘physical work’ – never natural …

At the beginning, when Little is trying to escape his persecutors the camera moves raggedly behind him, hand-held as if forcing us to feel something of the terror of the little boy, so desperate to escape. (But as we are behind him, we are unable to see his face).

Arguments could be made about the politics behind this; the way women (and perhaps film directors who don’t fit the typical mould) understand that the act of seeing, and being seen, is never neutral. It is embodied, it is enacted. Arguments could be made.

Jenkins’ other cited reference is the Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-wai.

Knowing this, that final scene between the adult men, after a long separation, takes on nuances carried in memories from other cinematic love stories set in Hong Kong, in Buenos Aires ... The debt lies not just in Jenkins’ act of homage to the Wong Kar-wai aesthetic, but also his awareness of how powerful unspoken emotion can be (as the essence of a romantic sensibility as portrayed in art).   

Remember that lingering shot on Kevin’s face in the diner where the colour of the wall echoes the colour of the man’s skin and the way the camera just rests there for longer than expected, gently. The expression of Kevin’s face is full of emotion, but we are aware that he is being seen.

Or the fact that it was a sugary song from a jukebox that was put forward as the reason for the late-night phone call that forced Black to wake.     

Alternate versions: ‘Happily divided’ Sebadoh (Bubble and Scrape, 1993)*

For me this song by Sebadoh – the ‘representative’ lo-fi, independent US group from the 1990s, perhaps – is the perfect example of a song that has a united front, but still makes space for subtlety and nuance, largely because of the ambiguous lyrics that move me each time I hear them.

In much recent music I hear a kind of faux-simplicity and conscious under-development, via an emphasis on highly sibilant sounds and absence of the lower registers (where is the bass-line, hidden there somewhere maybe) but too often the vocalist and/or lyrics undermine this impulse towards the essential; often becoming preachy, or didactic. Where is the space of the listener here? 

Music gains its power, like any non-representative art-from, via its ability to make us feel. I don’t look towards music as a potential teacher (though I know this is not the case for everyone, many say how they were ‘educated’ in the best possible sense by Public Enemy, so be it). 

Yesterday I listened to a record by a neo-soul artist with an abundance of talent and noticed how the producers seemed to be influenced by the philosophy of a kind of anti-production style, just like the lo-fi pioneers … The problem for me, though, lay in the way the under-stated music was weakened by the explicit nature of the lyrics and position of the singer.

Make some spaces, leave gaps, I kept thinking, cut it back to allow the darkness, and ambiguity in. Not all human experience benefits from a harsh light, make space for the shadows. I want to hear your uncertainty, all those things you don’t know, but feel or sense.

Oppression, sadness and all kinds of suffering work on a bodily level, as sensations and are felt as humiliation and the shame associated with being weak, it can’t be explained via maxims and slogans (and can’t be named using the words of the academy, we need to find new tools to dismantle the master’s house ….)

Here are the lyrics to this song that come close to poetry for me:

Of these times, it’s well we make the most
Boredom fabricated as you’re going down each other’s throats
And I’m so excited, happily divided
Smashing all my windows
Rocks falling in the yard
Pretending that you’re bigger than you really are
Pretending you’re bigger than you really are
Happily divided
Yeah, you’re big, only when your numbers grow
All dressed up with nowhere to go
So excited
Happily divided

On the studio version, the sway of the understated beat and the low vocals are perfectly in-synch in terms of mood, but what I love – among other things – is the constant feeling of no-release, the music appears to build, but doesn’t (no room of show-off guitar solos here). This frustration is perfectly in keeping  with the sarcastic tone of the lyrics, ‘I’m so excited …’

The section just under a minute in touches me, and could be my favourite lyrics of all time: ‘Smashing all my windows
Rocks falling in the yard
Pretending that you're bigger than you really are …’

That moment when the backing vocals come in offering a surprising warmth – as if the vocalist is not alone, even if it sounds like his voice (he is echoing himself) - and the crinkly sounds of the guitar in the background provide a wonderful contrast, in keeping with the atmosphere of the song before and after.

‘Pretending … that … you’re bigger … than you really are …’

Not so long ago I found this recording of ‘Happily divided’ from a radio session in Holland, which is beautiful for the guitar track and the way the vocalist plays around with the delivery. Be careful, if listening on headphones, as the added musical excursions (those seconds of experimental piano) gave me a bit of a shock when they came in.

*In praise of shadows – Tanizaki; In praise of darkness – Borges …