Madlib: an essay on his dub mixes, Blunted in the Bomb Shelter, Chalice All-Stars, dub and hip-hop

(First published at Passion of the Weiss, 26th June, 2018)


When asked what he had learnt from J Dilla in a 2013 interview with France Inter, Madlib replied, “Stay loose. Keep it raw.” Then he said something indecipherable about drums. At a later Red Bull Music Academy event, Madlib described the value of keeping “some human mistakes in (his music),” before adding, “If it’s too perfect, I don’t want anything to do with it. If it’s too clean (…) or too polished, I don’t like it. That’s just me.”

Throughout Madlib’s three-decade career as composer, crate digger, DJ, producer, and MC, there’s always been a tense duality between messy and clean. The way the “Shame” beat on Piñata—his collaborative LP with Freddie Gibbs— is a pristine, perfectly balanced soul-based instrumental (albeit with an unexpected water effect), while “Real” is splintered with dissonant sounds is a perfect example.

Madlib projects also oscillate between polarities: his jazz-inflected work is orderly, respectful to their sources, while the Beat Konducta releases celebrate the unhinged, enacting an unruly musical eclecticism. It’s not surprising then that his dub/reggae mixes, Blunted in the Bomb Shelter (2002) and Chalice All-Stars (2010), operate within a similar space. The second of the pair, Chalice All-Stars, is now being reissued by Rappcats on vinyl.

Musicians draw on their training during live performance while aiming to be fully in the moment. Producers likewise follow their intellect, not just their instincts when creating music (even if they prefer to emphasize the “feeling” when talking about their craft). Any intellectual aspect might be shaped by preferences and be unique to them, but beat-making requires a cool head to focus on the music’s minutiae. The more analytical side of production stems from hip-hop’s foundations in DJ culture; in particular, understanding how songs work together, which is necessary to create a coherent mix.

It’s not unusual for hip-hop producers to emphasize their DJ skills, possibly to align themselves with the genre’s reggae roots and DJs who birthed the art-form in 1970s New York. Madlib sees himself as a “DJ first, producer second, and MC last.” This seems weird at first, considering his status and reputation as a producer. Yet the issue here lies in the narrow idea of what it means to be a DJ. As these dub/reggae mixes show, DJ-ing is not just about bringing the party to the people, it’s also about how music is heard.



In 2010, Madlib set himself a challenge that ended up becoming the Medicine Show series. Thirteen albums, originally planned to come out each month via his archetypal reggae moniker Madlib Invazion over a period of just over a year. Odd months were to showcase original production, the evens mixes of other artists.

Chalice All-Stars (AKA Son of Super Ape) came out in April. Its promo material had a dope-smoking theme, while the title references Lee “Scratch” Perry. The tracklist didn’t name artists, but had names like “What Are The Medical Benefits of Smoking Marijuana?” Some were more loopy, for example: “Are a Lot of Pesticides on Pot?” The accompanying text read: “All Jamaican sounds. You’re tuning to your boss D.J. Madlib. Musical disc from the flick of his wrist to make you jump and twist. Madlib control the fullest. Roots. Rock. Reggae. Good stuff, as I would say.”

This reference to Madlib as DJ is key, not only because the first few seconds of Chalice All-Stars includes the word “DJ” as part of the intro, but also because of the way it encourages us to look again at the work’s conception and form.

Before listening to Chalice All-Stars, I had been spending a lot of time with Madlib’s stranger stuff, the hard to categorize projects like The Brain Wreck Show, Rock Konducta, and the adventurous—if more conventionally melodic—Black Soul mixtape and Beat Konducta Vol. 1-2: Movie Scenes. Something about this “undefined” music clicked with me, especially since it upended any notion of Madlib’s production as straight-edge hip-hop style. I felt energized by the wild freedom the music contained.

My first take on the Chalice All-Stars mix was that it seemed a bit bland in comparison. There is not much variety in the mix. Songs come in, with the vocals providing the unifying element. Many of the singers (to my ears) sounded alike: lively in the style of Dillinger. Most, if not all of the artists were less known, with some exceptions: the aforementioned Dillinger, Jah Lion, Ranking Dread, and U-Roy. This was not a mix for a Saturday night to keep the crowd dancing, or a greatest hits. In fact, it was not very danceable at all (the songs changed too quickly). Not much was added in terms of effects, the mood was unchanging. Then I realized something…What Madlib was doing on the Chalice All-Stars mix was being a DJ, in a very pure sense; not a producer. The two roles are crucially different. Whereas a hip-hop producer’s talent can be gauged via their creation of music from divergent musical sources and making it appear seamless, a DJ’s role is to locate pieces of music that resemble each other in their original form, then place them side by side with the minimum of distraction, ergo Chalice All-Stars.

Rather than being a weakness, this now impressed me as a strength; imagine listening to music and hearing points of connection and commonality, despite their more obvious differences. Later, returning to some of Madlib’s other projects, particularly The Brain Wreck Show, I noticed the same thing. Disparate sounds and samples resembled each other in their original form.

The 2002 Blunted in Bomb Shelter release followed Trojan Records, giving Madlib the opportunity to delve into its artist roster then create a mix from its contents. According to the blurb from Rappcats:

“In 2002 some good folks who have the Trojan & Greensleeves catalog asked Madlib to make a mixtape of these classic reggae records. They sent him a huge box with every record they had. For about two months Madlib played these records, smoked trees, made hip-hop beats, and recorded with YNQ in his studio The Bomb Shelter. One night they called and said hey where’s the music, it’s overdue. Next morning this mixtape emerged from the cave.”

This mix was what I had expected Chalice All-Stars to sound like. (Here’s an artists’ tracklist). It’s radically shape-shifting and colored by the core dub aesthetic of stripping everything back to the essential elements of drum, bass, and effects. Drawing repeatedly on King Tubby, it included many of dub’s greatest artists and sounded like a classic recording from the late 1970s/early 1980s. Edges were kept messy. There was no through-line, the hand of the producer could be felt in the use of effects and external vocal samples. It was the very definition of flux and experimentation. It maintained the transcendental aspect of the dub version, while allowing for the human element to come through.

All this made it much easier for me to like it, as it corresponded with my preferences, but at the same time it bugged me a little. Until hearing it, I was so sure of my theory about Madlib as DJ and what this meant in terms of his work, and now that argument was in pieces. No complaint, as this refusal to be contained is, in the end, the only thing you can rely on when it comes to Madlib’s music. It is the only constant, his work’s core truth.

II.

(Version)

Dub traces can be heard in hip-hop, in the use of sound effects and elemental emphasis on the drums and bass. The exposure of sonic elements—the way drums are often heard in isolation or stop completely—similarly has a dub feel, but this might also reflect a debt to other black musical traditions, such as jazz or even disco.

The strongest connection between the genres are hip-hop instrumentals and the role of producers. Commonly-held perceptions of reggae, possibly shaped by the mass popularity of Bob Marley and the Wailers’ non-political songs, rely on an image of the music as cheerful and bouncy, driven by a skanking rhythm: reggae as happy, feel-good party music. Some of it is, but of equal importance (and for me, greater importance) is the abstract side of dub found in the “versions.” Dub versions are the B-sides of a single where producers offer a pared-back take on the track with vocals. These tracks were often used as a surface for the DJ/MC to “toast,” or rap over. Such music is defined by the producer’s manipulation and placement of sounds, especially the way they position the vocals, treating them with effects such as reverb and delay to create an echo.

Here, the true art lies in the way the clinical production contrasts with other elements, say vocals that express warmth and vulnerability (or instruments, such as the melodica, an instrument that adds a difficult describe emotional charge: part longing, whimsy, and desire). Silence, too, is central as the elements appear and disappear. Hip-hop instrumentals frequently operate in a similar space, balancing hot and cold; the heat of a sentimental soul sample against the chill of programmed drums.

Yet despite these similarities, the influence of dub/reggae on hip-hop has never equalled that of funk, soul, or jazz. Throughout the 1990s/2000s, hip-hop artists referred to Rastafari in their lyrics, but deep engagement with dub/reggae in a profound musical sense is next to non-existent. (Of course, there are some famous nods to reggae to counter this: see Smif-n-Wessun’s “Sound Bwoy Bureill” from 1995, the Ras Michael image borrowed by InI for their Center of Attention album sleeve).


Madlib’s “Return of the Loop Digga” from the 2000 album, The Unseen includes a skit with the producer checking out the stock of a record store. Opening it up, Madlib asks,“Would you happen to have any uhhh … Stanley Cowell? Like 1970s stuff?”

“Never heard of him.” the record store guy replies..“Has he made any hits?”

“He ain’t got none of that.”

It’s yes to Grant Green, 1958 Blue Note Records, but no to Chick Corea Atlantic 1968.

Madlib asks,“Y’all got any reggae up in this piece or something?” The manager replies, “We have no reggae in here.”

Madlib asks, “Nothing?”

“No, nothing.”

“Shit, I’m out.”

Definition/Development/Other: writing on, listening to hip-hop instrumentals

Of interest is that moment where the person seeking out new music stops, that moment when a song quells the impatience, or desire to discover one more track, one more hit. The music that interrupts the “digging,” if you prefer, across genres, eras, associated with labels, musicians, whatever the self-imposed limits might be. The music that stops the person zoning out and gives them pause, as it’s here in that moment that we can see the grain of personality.

As someone afflicted by music-compulsion-fixation, or to put it more positively, someone who listens to an enormous amount of music daily because of my restless essence and “for work,” a typical day – no correct that, a typical morning/early afternoon - might move from gospel to dub, House, disco, 80s Australian indie (if feeling homesick/sentimental) to end on classical music or jazz albums (to instil order, help me focus when I sit down to write, or provide the soundtrack for cooking dinner, folding clothes, throwing out papers, whatever the activity might be).

Always in the midst of this there will be a mix of some hip-hop instrumentals.

Some of them will be YouTube recommendations, but mostly they’ll be my choices, music to echo energy, or connect with something that interests me and I want to understand better. Often my search will be for something “simple” - music clear in its intention that doesn’t require too much thought – but equally it could be music that derives from obligation, the perceived need to listen to this artist, that release because it’s new or said to be important.

Hip-hop instrumentals then. It surprises me that their appeal has been so constant, since picking up the genre again; why aren’t I more taken by MC-led tracks, especially since I’m so “wordy” walking around the streets, doing my stuff, with all those sentences taking shape in my head? Of course I have written on a fair number of MCs, still. A large part of it is curiosity about sample-based production and admiration for its essential conceit. There is still something magical about this process of reconstruction for me, where music is created from the scraps from another’s imagination/creativity. Political too, when it’s remembered who is making this music – for the most part – and the circumstances in which it’s done.

Each story of a twelve year-old boy (and it is still a boy, unfortunately) starting out – despite all and everything - and then their total dedication to learning their craft impresses me. Geto Boys’ DJ Ready Red who recently passed away, for example, shares memories of his grandmother coming in to find his teenage self asleep with “headphones wrapped all around (him)” because he’d be “sleeping with the drum machine, or be asleep at the turntables” in Lance Scott Walker’s Houston Rap Tapes, published this year.

Stay here for a minute, though, with this process of finding samples, of making something from unconnected sonic elements, from divergent time periods and recording methods. The challenge is combining not only the sounds of the music, but the sound of the studio it was recorded in. This process mimics memory and human experience, where the present is built on half-remembered instances and memory traces of our parents and other members of our family, or community.

Much of my current listening is underpinned by a small fight against an inclination to return to music I know, to get that reassurance, or discover a “rare/unreleased” version of a song etc. This reflex is inevitable when your playlist of favourites stretches back seven-plus decades, no exaggeration, and such perspective gives you the ability to see how great so much of it still is. Hip-hop, outside the better-known acts still offers up a lot of unexplored territory, which appeals for obvious reasons.

O my America! my new-found-land, 
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man mann’d, 
My Mine of precious stones, My Empirie, 
How blest am I in this discovering thee! 
To enter in these bonds, is to be free; 
Then where my hand is set, my seal shall be. 
— John Donne, "Elegy XIX: To His Mistris Going To Bed" (1633/1654)

Instrumentals even more so. It also feels natural, this music. When I was younger and had a reasonable stereo set up and space (space, space) I was a collector of sorts (though nothing like the men who display their tens of thousands of records, something I find a little strange/obscene at times). I was someone who sought order in her knowledge and was serious in the quest. Then I sold my records one of the times I left Melbourne (I’ll never forget the record store guy checking not once, but twice if I was sure about whether or not I wanted to do this). Listening to instrumentals, trying to decipher them, uncovering the origins of the music, counting it down, skipping ahead to get a sense of the music’s internal logic is an extension of this earlier (earnest) self. Much the same could be done with an MC’s rhymes it’s true, but my desire is less, so I spend time with the music.

Because I like intellectual grids – infected after all these years living in France perhaps - when thinking about music and art, even if full of holes, here are three qualities that encourage me to listen to an instrumental the way through, or return to them: definition, development and the most appealing, of course, the catch-all “other,” which relates to the qualities of sounds and the sound in general. (This “other” is my get out of jail free card, as it will remain porous and open to multiple possibilities, it’s okay this is my story after all).

 

Definition reflects the way various elements are kept distinct in the music. I’m aware that this bias reflects my musical “education”, as the French would put it, in Australia where my teen years were immersed in nasty guitar-based music: 70s punk in all its facets, but mainly the music of my peers, my long-hair/shaven-scalp mostly male contemporaries, the antipodean/U.S. descendants of Detroit’s pre-punk exponents, The Stooges and Sonic’s Rendezvous Band and their Australian counterparts, Radio Birdman or The Saints. Such music is all about definition as impact, with the guitar/drums nexus seeking to impress and destroy, stun and overwhelm.

Subtlety, to a degree, might be found in the guitarist’s solo, or when the drummer unfurls tricky moves briefly, but this was not the principal aim. Loud, intense, sharply defined, with a melody (in parts) was preferred. Guitar and other solos were mocked, if they burst forth they needed to be clipped (releasing Angus/Ron’s spirit for it to be just as quickly rebottled). Then, my attention shifted to dub, which is sustained by definition and the search for pure sound, the best recording, just as you’d expect from a genre built by DJs, producers and engineers. Jazz is more nuanced in terms of these comments, some of it is angular and defined, but a lot of it the very opposite, focussed on creating atmospheres and seamless transitions between instrumental parts; on transmitting the spiritual nature of music in performance.

The relevance of this is that my preference is for hip-hop beats where there is space/distance between the elements, and it’s not too mushy-mellifluous. Not too much though, if a beat is only edges and exaggerated drums, it quickly palls, which leads to the other criteria: the need for development, alongside this mysterious other, the marker of the music’s voice. Note that I’m making a distinction between sounds of instruments and samples of vocalists that are allowed to run long here, I like it when the individual sounds of instruments are distinct. One of my real aversions – this certainly reflects punk origins – are instrumentals with highlighted R&B vocal cuts, all those smooth-lady type samples. If there’s that crinkly static effect, tinkly piano, a ‘60s soul voice and prominent drums, cliché-city, off it goes.

Development in hip-hop is more complex, contested. The usual purpose of an instrumental is to provide the background, the foundations for the rapper’s voice; this, you’d think then would go against the idea of the provider offering anything too complex, in that it carries the risk of obscuring the rhymes, making it messy. But from the earliest days, with all those “basic” hip-hop beats the best producers always allowed for development, or moments of brief, subtle change in the music. This then became more dramatic, with the beat switches where the instrumental would be cut in half, or into parts as the music went in a completely different direction.

Non-development, the repetition of a sample on loop whether part of a beat or the entire thing is also interesting: especially in the way it corresponds with theoretical ideas about the African origins of Black American music (something I’m still learning about, but the argument seems to be that this music follows circular, rather than linear notions of “development” and that this comes from musical traditions from West Africa). Recently I’ve also noticed producers making beats where there is no obvious development, or song structure as might have been the case in the 90s Golden Era, where the beat battles against the voice, as a wall of noise. I like this too, even if it runs counter to my argument.

Development refers to an internal logic, the way the beat is constructed. Often it's to the point that you can count it by 30 second intervals, as if it were a classic pop or Soul/R&B song. At those moments something shifts in the music, a sonic element is added, there is some kind of internal echo. Development might also mean that the music has a thematic aspect, maybe via the return to a skit at the start via a sample. Whatever it is, the music is not the same thing on repeat unless this is an intentional part of its design, as mentioned above: the music moves, transforms, keeps its energy.

As for the final “other” - as mentioned this is the most elastic of the three, on purpose. It could cover the sound quality in general, does the recording sound rich/full or tinny/hollow? Equally it might relate to the sounds themselves. Without any scientific evidence to support this in any way shape or form, I have a theory that we have our own internally coded preferences for certain sounds, as if enmeshed in our DNA. Sure, this reflects our formative listening – as I explored above – and especially that period when we’re aged 10-12 or so when it gets instilled in our system for the rest of our lives. This means that when we hear this music, or music that resembles it in some way it’s easier for us to both get it and like it.

But I think it goes deeper than this in some ways: there are certain sound qualities that we connect with, as if it makes manifest something of who we are as people. This is one of the reasons why I find all those discussions about the “best” MC/producer etc in hip-hop culture so banal; I might like this piece of music, but who says that this extremely personal preference has any relevance to another person’s listening tastes? By all means talk about relative quality, just don't make claims that it is the greatest of all time because you like it.

Speaking personally then, the instrumentals that make me stop are the ones that have a mysterious or risk-taking quality to them – not necessarily the “quiet” I’ve written about before in terms of 90s NY beats – but something exciting about the choice of the samples (odd, unexpected, beautiful), or the way they are put together. I know that sounds woolly, but it’s intended to be. You can’t break down the effect of music as if it were a mathematical problem to be solved, even though I remember seeing a writer once attempt to do just that.

Recently I was speaking with a (Gestalt-grounded) analyst who was saying how there is a new strain of sociology or anthropology which had as its starting point: the psychological space of the researcher, asking questions about how that person was feeling at that very moment they conducted that research into the experience of others. As any honest writer knows this is applicable to how we work as well; music criticism is no different.

There is some music that I’ve listened to over and over and over again during periods of my life that I later returned to and wondered how and why it spoke to me so much before. Nothing about the music had changed, including its quality: rather something inside me had, most probably a need had been met in a way I was not able to articulate. None of this means that the music has lost its value, in some respects this music remains even more precious because it is associated with that time of need.

The reason why I’m mentioning this is to again make a claim for partial, humble criticism especially relating to music, in this case hip-hop. This writing is also an extended intro for pieces I’m going to write on the work on producers/instrumentals on an intermittent basis on this site and I hope elsewhere depending on interest; the last thing I’d like is for it to be seen as a list of my all-time best (that’d make me retch). That I listen to one artist more than another says nothing about achievement, more a desire to keep some structure in a mind that goes in all directions. And as I’ve said countless times, I’m a recent arrival to this musical/cultural space, it’s not my country. I’m a student here, as the notes jotted in small note-books/diaries with names of artists/tracks written on multi-coloured Post-its all around my living-room attest. 

“Sundance” - an essay on Jeanne Lee

We’re talking about our work at a roof-top bar in the 11th arrondissement where you can see Sacré-Coeur in the distance. The woman teases me with light humour and kindness about the emphasis of my writing; she says that she plans on returning to Senegal, the country where her father was born to find work in an organisation that makes connections between Dakar and Paris. Recently she says she attended a conference about “women in jazz.” No, no, she says laughing in response to the expression on my face, it was interesting, really.

"Jazz is a music that combines so many opposites ... You have to find that balance, then you have a guideline between freedom and discipline, between rhythm and melody, between body and spirit, between mind and instinct."

"I feel the music like a dance, I think it's an important part of the music, it has to be felt like a dance."

Jeanne Lee  

 

Few jazz singers, or singers of any genre, could capture the same emotional depth with such ease, as self-described "a jazz singer, poet/lyricist, composer/improvisor” Jeanne Lee who died aged 61 in Mexico, 2000. Compassion, tenderness, levity and freedom can be heard in her voice. More than anything else, even from her earliest recordings and performances with Ran Blake in the 1960s, Jeanne Lee sounds at peace with herself.

Recently I’ve been ruminating about how our sense of our own identities as women, even as the years pass, is shaped by how we see ourselves in relation to others, how we think about ourselves in terms of how others see us (self as performance, performance as self). I am grateful to Jeanne Lee for the way she seems to have found a way through all this, as an artist she sounds free.

None of this was by chance. Lee’s artistry emanated from her conscious exploration of the limits and potential of performance and improvisation, to give voice to her musical gift and experience as an artist and as a Black woman in the United States (and Europe). Yet in the later years of her life, Lee expressed frustration that she didn’t have so many recordings to her name (a consequence of raising children, she said) and that the multi-faceted nature of her achievement had not been recognised.

Within jazz, Eric Porter writes on his insightful essay “Jeanne Lee’s voice”  - first published in Critical Studies in Improvisation / Études critiques en improvisation, Vol 2, No 1 (2006) and then People Get Ready: The Future of Jazz is Now! (2013) - critics often encouraged a binary opposition between the jazz vocalist (woman) with the jazz musician (man/artist).

Yet as Porter notes, Lee’s work upset this binary opposition in various ways. First and perhaps most importantly, Lee challenged conventions of what a singer is via her particular brand of improvisation, her use of her voice as an “instrument.” But her innovative re-interpretation of standards and the way she positioned herself as a singer within the group are also important, I’d suggest. In one interview Lee stressed that she was not an add-on, the called-in singer, but a musician of equal importance to the others on stage. She performed alongside them.

Porter writes:

"By disrupting the close relationship between jazz singing and the feminized sphere of popular vocal music, and by bringing a level of technical virtuosity to their work, (Abbey) Lincoln and Lee challenged the idea that female vocal jazz artists, while an important element of the jazz tradition, did not quite measure up to the artistry and genius of male instrumentalists and were a secondary class of performers.

That Lee was able to disrupt this dichotomous juxtaposition of female vocalist bodies with male instrumentalist minds is evident in the critical responses to her by some European jazz writers who commended her improvisational skills. As one of them put it: “Miss Lee, as far as I know, is the first to fulfil 100 percent what most jazz singers wish for in their dreams --namely a complete disregard of the former borderline between the human voice and an improvising horn.”

Two points to make here: my aim is not to “recover” Jeanne Lee as part of a feminist project, even if that might be a worthwhile task, I am not the woman, or person to write it (and besides, those who know about jazz already hold her in high esteem, obviously). Second, to understand her significance as a Black woman and artist, I’d recommend Porter’s essay, particularly for the way it situates Lee’s work within her broader cultural and political context, while being acutely alert to what makes her art so distinctive then and now.

I particularly appreciated the way Porter detailed Lee’s own perception of her work and its importance, see, for example, how in the late 1970s she referred to herself as a “voice environmentalist,” as quoted in Porter’s essay:

"I look at myself as already an environment, the environment is there and it comes through me in sound. In turn the music is created as a total environment to the audience. I’m always trying to allow the environment to manifest itself through me [. . .] when I’m working with a musician I’m trying to deal with the sound. When I want to direct the music I create a poem and then there’s a more deliberate environmental frame and we all work within that."

This self-perception corresponded with work by her contemporaries, such as Anthony Braxton and Wadada Leo Smith, who Porter writes shared a “Black Arts Movement commitment to community-building through creative educational projects while recognizing the limitations of narrowly conceived identity politics and the necessity of creative exchanges across cultural and national boundaries.”

Seeing herself and her art as part of an “environment” reflected her desire to create work that was not hierarchical, but depended on the interpretation of the audience for its meaning in a way that echoed the Fluxes ethos, and Happenings as as well as that of Black American “AACM and multi-instrumentalist Marion Brown, on whose Afternoon of a Georgia Faun Lee performed”

Porter’s essay begins with Ntozake Shange’s evocation of a 1981 performance by Jeanne Lee at Soundscape, New York:

On 52nd Street I realized Jean [sic] Lee is clothed and fed by her voice. That’s the same street my aunts and uncles were born and black on, so 52nd and 10th means something to me – like a people who come out with what they can carry: love, sweat, blood and song. Though everything we know is wonderful and rich, we, as a people, hide, to keep it safe. Jean Lee don’t. [. . .] Aretha addresses God, Billie Holiday seduced him. Tina Turner made the devil think twice/but Jean Lee is mingling among us. [. . .] She is not afraid of all this body that moves so sweet I dare you/ and isn’t this more than you ever imagined; her body is song. [. . .] We got a woman among us who isn’t afraid of the sound of her own voice. She might lay up nights, wondering how are we staying alive ‘cause we didn’t hear what she just heard/or sing it. Well. Did I hear the congregation say Amen.
She sings.
Jean Lee/She sings

Porter's analysis hinges on the striking collaboration between Lee, Andrew Cyrille and Jimmy Lyons from 1979, “In These Last Days" from Nuba released by Black Saint Records:

Porter notes how Lee’s poetry prefaced her identity as an artist, a Black woman and a mother.

 

In these Last Days

                                                                of Total

Dis-in-te-gra-tion,

                                                                 where every day

Is a struggle

                                                                against becoming

An object in

                                                                someone else’s

                                                                                nightmare:

There is great joy

                                                                 in being

Naima’s Mother

                                                                and unassailable strength

In being

               on the Way

 

Porter writes: “The words/lyrics “these Last Days/ of Total/ Dis-in-te-gration/ where every day/ Is a struggle/ against becoming/An object in/ someone else’s/ nightmare” are improvised and repeated in different registers, across varying ranges of intervals. There is particular focus on the word “struggle,” which is elongated and distorted, ultimately becoming a scream.”

But there is also optimism to be found here, as Porter notes, in the final lines when Lee mention the “great joy” to be found in her role as mother, as well as the notion of transformation.

What strikes me about Jeanne Lee’s work in the 1960s particularly is how modern (and radical) it still sounds. The poetry she performs on Archie Shepp’s 1969 "Blasé” is astounding, her debt to Abbey Lincoln can be sensed in her delivery, but the intensity and the content of her verse have no obvious point of comparison.

Spoken-word before it existed, a revolutionary poetics with a disassembled soundtrack: one woman’s lament, a deconstructed Song of Songs, held close.

Musically, it breaks convention just as you would expect from Shepp, but the drumming in particular by Philly Joe Jones stuns for its broken, unexpected counterpoint. (Note the small error in the lyrics transcription in the video: “I gave you a loaf of sugar and you took my womb till it runs.”)

II.

“Soul Eyes”

"A soul, I'm told Can be both hot and cold/So how is one to know Which way to go?/ The soul is mirrored in the eyes/But how is one to know When the whole world is full of such lies?/So darling, watch those eyes And even more, those lies/And when you see them smile/For a long, long while Then you know you've found the one/ Who'll always, always be true I know, that it is how I found you"

From Mal Waldron: Soul Eyes (BMG, 1997)

From After Hours (Owl, 1994)

III.

In an interview Jeanne Lee recalled how she first met Ran Blake at Bard College, “I met Ran the first day I was in college, I heard this sound, we were all standing in line to get our classes, we were all freshmen, the sound was Ran Blake playing the piano in the Chapel. We’ve been friends ever since.”

Winning the Apollo Theater’s Amateur Night competition led to an album contract with RCA, The Newest Sound Around and a tour in Europe, where as the New Music USA obituary quotes Ran Blake: “She created such a sensation – they called her the heir of Billie Holiday.”

But if you listen to Lee’s 1966 recording of the standard “Night and Day”

her expressive, experimental leanings can be heard, in a way that differs strongly from the classic Billie Holiday recording of 1939. There are similarities, certainly, in the phrasing (both singers emphasise words you wouldn’t expect, for example, “are” as in “you are the one”) but the differences are marked. Whereas Holiday’s performance is all about her remarkable voice, especially in that moment it becomes fragile when she sings of her “hungry yearning” for her absent love, it remains contained and extremely controlled, her signature as an artist.

In contrast, the Jeanne Lee performance is radically exposed, as she breaks down the song into parts, greatly assisted by Ran Blake's piano accompaniment. If you listen to their approximate contemporaries – Helen Merrill in 1961 or Anita O’Day  in 1959, or Ella Fitzgerald in 1956 – you can hear how different their approach is. Whereas Merrill, O’Day, Fitzgerald keep the “swing” of the song, the original speed and verve of it, the Jeanne Lee version, which was released on Free Standards: Stockholm, 1966 is slowed down dramatically, and kept expressionistic as if she is daubing colours of paint, playing with sonic fragments. It’s all about the purity of the sound, the phrasing. (Also on the album two very surprising, if sexy/sensual, covers of Beatles’ songs: “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Ticket to Ride”).

This style of singing is relatively common today, so it’s difficult to imagine how new this would have been to the audiences of the era. That said Ran Blake’s highly expressive style of playing the piano still sounds brave decades on. Listen to this similarly wonderful version of “A Taste of Honey” from the same album:

Or “Summertime” from her RCA début with Blake, The Newest Sound Around from 1961

Notice just before 1’30” when Blake kicks into it as if it were some kind of raw honky tonk piano groove, counter to the typical approach of holding back and being “respectful” (see Mal Waldron, or Tommy Flanagan or any of the other greats in this regard) to the vocalist. You would expect that this would be obtrusive, but in fact it works perfectly with Lee’s deeply harmonious vocal style, adding some definition and perhaps encouraging her also to develop more of an edge to her delivery.

Needless to say the above Lee/Blake interpretation from the “Jazz on the Screen” footage is light years away from the Sondheim/Bernstein original from West Side Story (1961).

Found in this performance are the roots of her more experimental vocal work/interpretations. Ben Ratliff wrote in his New York Times obituary that Lee had two radically different styles and that the first was “dry, slow and breathy, influenced by Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington.” Lee, in fact, cited Abbey Lincoln as an important early influence, you can hear this particularly in her performance of “Summertime” above.

As Eric Porter writes:

"One of the striking things about the album is Lee’s engagement with Abbey Lincoln’s music. Lee’s vocal inflections resemble Lincoln’s and she builds upon Lincoln’s explorations of the instrumental qualities of the voice through improvised, non-verbal vocal lines. Lee also performs at the session material written and/or included by Lincoln on her own 1961 album Straight Ahead: Thelonious Monk’s “Blue Monk,” for which Lincoln had written lyrics; the Billie Holiday/Mal Waldron composition “Left Alone”; and the title track, with words by Lincoln and music by Waldron."

During these sessions Lee also recorded "Straight Ahead” – the title track of Lincoln’s foundational 1961 album, the song written by Lincoln, Earl Baker and Mal Waldron. Porter writes:

"Lincoln’s work on Straight Ahead represented a critical moment in her flight from the musical and ideological baggage associated with material available to jazz singers. During the late 1950s and early 1960s Lincoln made an effort to move away from romantic ballads that spoke of abusive and dysfunctional heterosexual relationships; she began performing material which described healthier relationships between men and women, provided varying degrees of social commentary, and demanded a more “instrumental” approach to singing. Moreover, Lincoln’s shift in material also spoke to her commitment to the mutual liberation of black men and women in the political context of the black freedom movement."

Jeanne Lee was explicit about her creative debt to Lincoln and respect for her work, as quoted in Porter's essay: 

"The person who left the most impression on me in terms of life-situations as well as what she was doing with her voice was Abbey Lincoln. From the credibility of her craft and her own reality and not so much as a “style.” It was like using the energy as a painting. Billie Holiday too, but she comes from another era, Billie has the same kind of thing musically, but Abbey advances that type of understanding, [. . .] Abbey is more human, it’s not just a woman who’s a victim of her role. Again speaking about Lincoln, Lee said: “this woman made it possible for me to have faith in the fact that I am a poet and I did not have to sing standards in order to be a jazz singer. I could find a way of putting my own perception into musical terms”

***

Personnel: Allan Praskin, clarinet (B2) Perry Robinson, clarinet (B2) Mark Whitecage, alto clarinet (B2) Jack Gregg, bass Steve McCall, drums Gunter Hampel, flute, piano, vibraphone, alto and bass clarinet Sam Rivers, soprano and tenor saxophone, flute Marty Cook, trombone (B2) Ensemble tracks recorded by George Klabin, Sound Ideas Studio, New York, February 1974.

No words, only a feeling
No questions, only a life
No sequence, only a being
No journey, only a dance

Here is some more from Ben Ratliff’s New York Times obituary:

"Because Ms. Lee performed in two radically different styles, her singing was difficult to categorize. One of her voices was dry, slow and breathy, influenced by Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington.

In 1961 she and a classmate from Bard College, the pianist Ran Blake, performed as a duo at the Apollo Theater's Amateur Night contest. They won, and the album they later recorded, ''The Newest Sound Around'' (later reissued on CD as ''The Legendary Duets''), has remained a cult favourite.

In jazz standards and Thelonious Monk tunes on the album, Ms. Lee and Mr. Blake subtracted swing, but added intellectual coolness, abstruse piano harmonies and vocal influences from Holiday and Washington; the record is a series of minimalist dreams. (In 1989 she and Mr. Blake recorded a duet album in the same style, ''You Stepped Out of a Cloud.'')

In her other vocal style, Ms. Lee approached words as sounds; this voice was harsh and booming, and she used her teeth, lips and tongue to wring drama out of each syllable, presaging singers like Diamanda Galas. In the mid-1960's she was a multidisciplinary artist, writing music with members of the Fluxus school like Alison Knowles and Dick Higgins, and gradually becoming more aligned with the rest of the late-1960's avant-garde in jazz."

While it is true that some of Jeanne Lee's work in the 70s particularly played with conventional song construction, I don’t recognise the “harsh and booming” quality that Ratliff refers to above as being a key element of Jeanne Lee’s work, if anything there is a lilting softness which reoccurs in various ways. See, for example, the wonderfully playful “Angel Chile” from her Conspiracy record (Earthforms Records, 1974).

Or what might be my favourite piece of music of hers, “Your Ballad” from the same album:

Where to begin with this music, with its capacity to hold on to apparent opposites and make them cohere, the simple joy and excitement that plays against deep contentment, music that is slow and leisurely and impatient at the same time: the sweetness of it all.

Added to this are the various personalities of the instruments providing the foundations for Lee’s remarkable vocal performance. The ponderous and heavy nature of the bass line and I’m not sure which part it is, most probably the alto clarinet, but it sounds like horns that suggests partial movement, but instead circles as if waiting for direction from the vocalist. Then just before two minutes in it stops to build once more; something similar occurs three minutes later. There is such beauty in this music, each time I hear it it touches my heart.

There are too certainly too echoes of the standard “Lover Man” in this song, the un-sung melody of “where can you be?“which Lee recorded with Ran Blake on her first album, in a typically personal style:

To finish, here is a live performance of Jeanne Lee from 1970, performing with her husband and musical collaborator Gunter Hampel:

(This essay is dedicated to the memory of my late mother and my sister, neither of whom listened to jazz. Jeanne Lee’s music has recently helped me in my efforts to come to terms with their absence ... and to all those seeking solace in music)

Related article: Mal Waldron ‘Left Alone’ (Mal Live 4 to 1, Philips/Japan, 1971; Left Alone ‘86, Paddle Wheel, 1986; w/ Archie Shepp, Left Alone Revisited, Enja Records, 2002) & Abbey Lincoln published 8 July, 2018

for other pieces of writing on Mal Waldron, Archie Shepp and jazz, follow the tags

"I'm always trying to keep pushing myself:" an interview with Roc Marciano

First published in Passion of the Weiss

Roc Marciano saves his sharpest darts for wax. In conversation, the Hempstead Long Island MC wastes few words, offering up extremely focused replies to all questions. He's not unfriendly or hostile, as much as he's ultra-pithy, always getting the heart of what he is trying to express without any excess.   

None of this comes as a surprise when you think about the music that Roc Marci has released, starting with his 2010 Marcberg that ushered in his MO of putting out largely self-produced projects defined by his singular vision.

In this universe, not much happens lyrically – Marciano’s trademark style depends on the layering of images, super dense wordplay. The rhymes are obscene, poetic and violent, yet frequently marked by a kind of nostalgia, while enacting codes of the street.

Tracks like “Bedspring King” on the latest Rosebudd’s Revenge 2: The Bitter Dose marks out new territory, thick as it is with the narrator’s lust and maybe more subtle emotion, operating in a way that resembles “Pray 4 Me” (on the first RR). 

It’s rare for musicians to be 100% comfortable speaking about their work in an abstract way; they’re musicians for a reason, not theorists or writers. Their music speaks for them. In this sense Roc Marciano’s reticence is also to be expected, and yet despite his persona and the hyper-controlled nature of his rap style (barely shifting from his trademark monotone), there is an exuberance about his music as well.

Take, for example, “Herringbone” from the first Rosebudd’s Revenge, with its dramatic build and unexpected beat-switch that completely transforms the track’s mood. This experimentation and interest in breaking with convention is a key aspect to Marciano’s art and one of the reasons why he is a key influence for so many younger MCs/producers.

Interview (part 1) with Out Da Box TV, 2012

You often don't have drums or have minimal drums in your tracks. Why is this? 

Roc Marciano: For me as an MC I enjoy the space. Sometimes the drums, you know, the program I feel like it takes over the groove and doesn’t allow me the same space. A track with no drums gives me the space to do more.

I want to talk to you about "Tent City," could you talk about it in more detail? It's an extremely intense track. 

Roc Marciano: “Tent City” yeah, I just knew when I found it, immediately I knew I wanted to do something with it, I thought the sample was real ill with the horn in the background, and I was reading Miles Davis when I was making the album so a lot of the horns are sticking out, they’re like the most important sounds. It’s like a mixture of soul and jazz, I really enjoyed making that track.

It’s a totally different sound for a hip-hop song, were you conscious of the fact you were doing something so new?

Roc Marciano: Nah, not really, I mean usually I’m just doing what I want to do I don’t really care if it’s new or not, I’m always trying to keep pushing myself and trying to find more inspiration, doing the same thing is boring, so it’s interesting to find stuff like that.

You seem to be quite intuitive the way you work, you often use the word “organic” when describing your work process and said once you “don’t like to force music.” What did you mean by that?

Roc Marciano: I don’t like to make music “just because,” you know, ‘cause I get bored. I have to feel it, I’m always looking for stuff, you know, that makes me want to be creative, it’s not just me it’s also the music, we’re doing it together, so that when I get music that touches me it makes the process a lot smoother.

It’s still primarily sample-based, isn’t it, you’re not using live instrumentation?

Roc Marciano: No, I’m not but I’d like to start. I’m going to use live instrumentation in the future.

I saw in an interview that you said you’d love to work with musicians. You mentioned Funkadelic, Ohio Players and Isaac Hayes as inspirations. All these great artists from the '70s. Talk to me a little bit more about that. 

Roc Marciano: Well, you know, I really admire those musicians, those artists made some music that’ve done a lot to inspire me, so I feel like to pick it up where they left off that’d be a great thing. That’s some of the greatest music ever made in my opinion, I would love to be able to follow in their foot-steps.

Something else I really like about your work is that you place the samples in a really creative way, the vocals are really low in the mix a lot of the time and there’s a very, very strong contrast between the vocals and the music. You’re also often leaving the samples quite raw, they’re not mixed to merge with each other. How conscious is all of this when you’re making your music?

Roc Marciano: I’m conscious … I’m just enjoying what I’m doing, when you hear it that way it’s mainly me creating music, you know and still having fun, I try to make sure that I’m still having fun. Me doing it the way I want to do it allows me to keep having fun.

When you’re listening to Funkadelic, and artists like this, are you thinking about how they positioned the sounds in their music?

Roc Marciano: Yeah, yeah that’s pretty much what I am doing. I don’t want to mess up anything, my goal is to work with the sounds from the samples. I feel that what they were doing was already live and dangerous enough, all I’ve got to do is get in the middle.

Can you speak to me about the song “C.V.S” on the latest Rosebudd’s Revenge?

Roc Marciano: My guy Don Cee made that beat, I feel like that’s a continuation of what I was already doing, it’s a progression, when I heard it I was like that’s definitely going to fit in with what I’m doing. I think that track is real ill.

Let’s talk about the producers who have worked on the album with you. The guys from Arch Druids have come back to work on this. You’re quite a loyal collaborator, you have guys you work with repeatedly, they have been working with you a long, long time. What is it about those producers that you admire so much?

Roc Marciano; I mean we all see eye to eye with what we’re trying to do musically and we’ve been working together for so long, over the years, they’re like brothers you know, it’s like you continue to make music with your family, you know, you’re in your comfort zone you get better results that way.

You’ve also got Action Bronson, Knowledge the Pirate on the album. Do they feel close to you like family as well?

Roc Marciano; Yeah, definitely but not only that it’s cause it’s fun, everyone is where they’re at because that’s where they belong, like I was saying earlier it’s organic.

Your music often has dramatic shifts in your music, often about half way through a track it completely changes direction. What are you aiming for here?

Roc Marciano: To keep it fun, I don’t want to bore the listener, it’s already hard to keep it entertaining when it’s just one man and one voice, so to keep it entertaining you have to have all those elements in it to surprise you, so it’s not just my voice over and over and I’m not just rapping and rapping through the whole project.

Could you speak about Alchemist? You’ve done lots of work together and I read how he’s been important as a supporter keeping you going when you at one point were thinking about stopping music. How has he influenced you and your work?

Roc Marciano: I always just thought that Al was dope, you know what I’m saying. He’s a good friend, not to mention, but you know he’s just super ill. I knew of him before we started working on Reloaded, I was always just a fan, you know, I admire his work ethic, he’s a beast.

Some time back you chose five beats/hip-hop tracks that were your favorites, all were from the late 80s/early 90s (Ultramagnetic MC’s “Ego Trippin’”, EPMD’s “It’s My Thing”, Main Source’s “Just Hangin’ Out”, Pete Rock/CL Smooth’s “They Reminisce Over You T.R.O.Y” and Notorious B.I.G’s “Who Shot Ya?”). How would you compare your style with that of the Golden Era MCs from New York?

Roc Marciano: Probably in terms of the lyricism, you know the way I focus on the lyricism, with my lyrics I’m pushing the culture forward lyrically you know on from what the guys in the ‘90s were doing, in the Golden Era that was considered to be a big part of making music.

You’ve said that you think it’s important to update your style from what the MCs were doing back then, what do you mean by this?

Roc Marciano: Pushing it forward, making it better and better and to improve, so that’s pretty much what I mean by updating it, by updating it you are constantly improving it. It’s like an operating system on a computer, even though you buy a new computer it’s constantly updating the operating system so the computer runs better. I feel like that’s what I do with the music myself, you know, the style and production and choice of samples, just keep improving.

What’s interesting about your lyricism is that you have lots of images, you layer them and focus on setting the scene, not really story-telling so much. You’ve talked about how you’d love to work with DOOM and mentioned Kool Keith as an influence. Have those two MCs inspired your lyricism?

Roc Marciano: I would definitely say Kool Keith, I’m a fan of DOOM, I caught on to DOOM late, I was already doing what I was doing. As far as Kool Keith, he’s definitely somebody who inspired my style. DOOM I was like as soon as I heard his music, yeah, this dude is ill.

Kool Keith has a similar style to you in some ways, in terms of layering lots of words that rhyme together that are kind of absurd or surreal. What do you think?

Roc Marciano: Yeah, yeah, I always thought that Kool Keith was pushing the feeling of being in an uncomfortable state and I liked that.

What do you mean by an “uncomfortable state”?

Roc Marciano: Not doing the same thing over and over, if you keep doing the same thing, if you keep picking the same beat over and over that dates, a lot of people are like that beat’s hard - that’s hard, that’s hard, well that (attitude) dates. I would like people to hear songs and be like that’s kind of strange, what’s that? That’s what I mean by being uncomfortable.

Which song from Rosebudd’s Revenge 2 would you say conveys that feeling?

Roc Marciano: Most of the album from “Tent City” to “Kill You” to “C.V.S” so many, it’s not like every day hip-hop you know what I’m saying? A lot of it is strange, risky, edgy.

Thinking about New York now, the city is extremely important for you in terms of your work and what you do, you grew up in Hempstead, Long Island you have said you can hear it in my music, it’s in my blood, growing up there it was a place with a lot struggle and a lot of love. Can you talk about where you grew up and how it connects with your work?

Roc Marciano: Well, I grew up in Hempstead, Long Island. It’s a hard question to answer ‘cause I feel like wherever you come from it’s going to be a huge influence, it’s like your culture. It’s pretty much all I know so that’s why it feeds into my music. It’s like anybody else’s hometown would influence their art.

You’ve said that this place had a rich culture, what do you mean by this?

Roc Marciano: Everything, from the people from Long Island hip-hop culture, from Eric B and Rakim, Public Enemy, De La Soul, you know what I’m saying, and just the people it was like a melting-pot of people from all these different places, especially in my area, it was definitely interesting, very rich.

You’ve said that you’d love to work with Ghostface Killah. What is it about his work that impresses you so much?

Roc Marciano: It’s super ill, man, you know, super ill – from the stories, some of my favorite bodies of work come from that brother, Supreme Clientele, Iron Man, you know, he’s a monster of an artist.

When you were asked who you would like to do a full album with, you said Cormega …

Roc Marciano: Yeah, definitely I’ve always been a big fan, we have worked together, and we’ve got more work that’s yet to come out, definitely somebody I’ve always admired as a lyricist, it seems pretty natural to me.

One thing that’s really great on the latest Rosebudd’s Revenge is the way the songs are placed side by side, how they work together. When you are creating a record what’s running through your mind in terms of what you want to achieve?

Roc Marciano: Just to make a great body of music that’s always the plan, it never changes, no theme or concept would ever change the aim to make an album that sounds good from beginning to the end.

You often say how important it is for you to develop as an artist and to progress, how do you think that this record is a development in terms of the first Rosebudd’s Revenge?

Roc Marciano: As I say I think everything’s improved from the beats to the rhymes, everything is improving.

In a melancholy mood: On hip-hop quiet and instrumental music

In 1933, Junichiro Tanizaki published "In Praise of Shadows," an essay that recognized “beauty (lay) not in the thing itself, but in the patterns of the shadows, the light and the darkness that one thing against another creates.”  The Japanese novelist celebrated what he called an “Oriental” (see Japanese) love for art, architecture that bore the “marks of grime, soot and weather … that call to mind the past that made them.”

Central to Tanizaki’s argument was that Westerners through their art and approach to life sought to “expose every bit of grime an eradicate it,” while Japanese people believed that beauty in art came from its “relation to life,” while embodying the fact that “our ancestors forced to live in dark rooms” discovered that beauty came from the “glow of the grime.”
  
Darkness as a word and concept is often associated with hip-hop, usually in terms of the musical genre’s lyrical content. My interest here is to develop the idea of darkness, or shadows in the Tanizaki sense, in terms of music, using three instrumentals from the 90s by Onyx, Miilkbone and The Speedknots as examples of an aesthetic that I’ll call hip-hop quiet.      

Tanizaki’s essay made a big impression on me when I read it many years ago and then stayed in my mind as I started listening to hip-hop again, seeking out artists that I had frequently never heard of, largely by chance online. Most of my attention was given to generally little-known, obscure instrumentals by East Coast artists from the 90s.  Something about this music touched me, especially its emphasis on mood and the way it upset expectations. In a culture that so often celebrates display and boasting, this music was introspective, private and (often) had a sweetness to it.

“Japanese music is above all a music of reticence, of atmosphere,” Tanizaki wrote. “When recorded, or amplified by a loudspeaker, the greater part of its charm is lost. In conversation, too, we prefer the soft voice, the understatement. Most important of all are the pauses.”

Certainly, this introspective quality is not confined to these instrumentals, running alongside them are examples from better-known producers [from Pete Rock, Nujabes, J Dilla, for example] who created music of delicacy, refinement and grace in the same period or later. Yet, the fact that these instrumentals exist in a kind of parallel universe, are not widely known or appreciated is central to their appeal in this context. 

The music of the celebrated producers, moreover, is marked by the character of their makers; it has a confidence and logic, or design behind it, so that you can recognize the artist’s voice immediately when you hear the music. In contrast, the output of these frequently forgotten producers is lo-fi, naïve, basic in its technique while operating in a hard to define space within the culture and as music. 

Madlib, possibly, is a producer with feet in both camps; interested in keeping his beats “unfinished,” conscious of the power of keeping elements unfiltered and material, and yet there is a self-awareness (and often humor) in his music that makes it different in tone. 

When speaking of this ‘quiet,’ I’d prefer to keep it open to interpretation, other than to note that this music for me is defined by emptiness and mystery. Emptiness in the Buddhist sense of no form, no clear organizing pattern that corresponds with our expectations about musical development, enacted via the use of stasis and repetition.    

One of the most interesting aspects of hip-hop production is the way individual sounds are often more important than melody or development. This reflects a debt to jazz, where the interplay between the individual and the group is made manifest in a focus on sounds in isolation, distorting them, twisting and shaping them to return to the key refrain. Jazz solos are one instance when this happens.        

To understand the mechanics of hip-hop then you need to strip away the elements, to break it down, as we will see here in these instrumentals they’ve already done much of the stripping away for you. The music also represents non-movement, a refusal to connect in a way that might offer comfort to the listener. In effort to explore this further, let’s consider three instrumentals to see how their bare aesthetic creates a unique sound, as examples of hip-hop quiet.

I. Onyx, “Last Dayz,”  (produced by Fredro Starr; Def Jam Records, 1995)

Take Onyx’s, “Last Dayz” from 1995, for example. The repeated vocal sample transforms into a sound in an unknown language, similar to how in UK electronic act Burial’s 2007 song “Near Dark’’, a warping of sampled words takes place, weaving in and out of almost naked drums. This brings us back to the quality of emptiness. Perhaps you could make connections with minimalism, but to me that word lacks the emotion this instrumental conveys. 

Particularly striking is the contrast between the qualities of the sounds—the harsh vocal sample compared to the reassuring swirl and comfort of the bass-line, the stop-start effect between them that operates like a conversation. Then, around two minutes in, the sample shifts to a single-note, as if it were an exposed heartbeat.  

How are we meant to understand the way the beat stops and then restarts, broken and then returning to the center? The beat is following its own poetic logic, exposing an emptiness at its core. To appreciate how this instrumental operates in its own space, listen to the track with vocals: 

Underneath the bombast of the lyrics, all the while you can hear the instrumental providing its own essential mystery, or emptiness.

II. Miilkbone, “Keep it Real” (produced by Mufi: Capitol Records, 1995)

At its heart sample-based music has the potential to upset traditional notions of success. A commercial failure can become prized, simply for it’s rarity; an obscure sample can reawaken an interest in—and even reinvent the artistry of— musical trash from the past. The music is shown respect by the very fact that it has been returned to, reborn. 

Little-known samples operate as a code between producers and fans, separating those who recognize their esoteric sources from those who don’t. Fans striving to pick out even the most niche samples their favorite producers deploy turn sample-hunting into a serious pastime. The fact that samples can't be named (even though they are easily found on-line via the many websites devoted to sample-hunting) due to copyright infringement fears adds another dimension to the mix. For all these different reasons these sounds exist in this kind of non-space. 

All of this explains how Miilkbone—the white rapper from New Jersey, with a knack for spoof-like album titles (his LP Da' Miilkrate from 1995 was followed up by U Got Miilk? six years later)—can produce something of ongoing cultural worth.

Challenging Complex magazine's designation of it as one of hip-hop's best “one hit wonders”, Miilkbone's “Keep It Real” has continued to shape hip-hop musical culture well into the twenty-first century. Produced by Mufi, the track’s distinctive mood has kept it alive.

Central to the singular nature of this instrumental is Mufi's skilful and imaginative use of a sample from “Melancholy Mood,” the 1983 recording by the Marian McPartland Trio. Have a look at the fan comments below the video, it's very sweet to see the two worlds colliding here.

As with the Onyx instrumental, the elemental simplicity of “Keep It Real” is what makes it so powerful. The music is carried by a lack of adornment; the sounds in their pure form can breathe. Much of the self-conscious fanciness that dominates in so much contemporary “soul-based” production—where producers rustle up multiple interlocking elements to show off their finesse (often drowning out the sample's essential lyricism or the MC's delivery in the process)—is side-stepped.

This quiet is also found in the sharp contrast of the beat’s sounds. There’s the insistent and jagged horn sample, the piano on a constant repeat. They create a false naïveté to the music, which is affecting. Simplicity and reticence are often the markers of great beauty. Again, the strange kind of non-momentum is present—that stop-start—so the song often seems to be on the cusp of development. 

This music contains its own entire universe. When you hear the instrumental with Miilkbone over the top, the music retains its own internal space as if completely uninterested in interacting with, or buffering, the MC.

In terms of the instrumental's ongoing significance and recognition, Big L and Jay-Z reinvented it on the Stretch and Bobbito show the same year it was released. It has been used in a BET awards ceremony and by various MCs.

Most importantly though, almost two decades later Freddie Gibbs repurposed the beat in his 2010 track 'The Ghetto' (produced by Melvin L. Dinkins) on his album, Str8 Killa No Filla with no apparent changes. Gibbs' repeatedly chants the song's title—“The Ghetto,” over and over— echoing the original jagged sample embedded in the instrumental. Gibb’s subject matter, the sample, and overall sound of Mufi’s beat becoming one.  

By using this sample Gibbs and his producer are asking us to listen to the two tracks together; his and the earlier Miilkbone cut, to encourage a kind of echo, or commentary. 

III. The Speedknots, “The Zone” (produced by Stress/War: Bloody Hook Records, 1998) 
 
As with the other instrumentals featured here, 'The Zone' has a powerful feeling - carried by the sound of seagulls, or other birds and is extremely gentle. 

This music is the epitome of hip-hop quiet: self-contained, reticent and mysterious, with little or no development. It starts suddenly three seconds in, with all the effects brought in at the same time, then follows an almost mathematical precision of 30 second intervals. At 1 minute 30 there is an incredibly brief stop when you'd expect it to build and it doesn't, and then at 2 minutes there is a perfect pop-break, quick like a hiccup or intake of breath (at 2 minutes 20 it deepens but doesn't move and then there is the 'pop' again three minutes in).     

In Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-Hop Joseph Schloss explores the idea of “ambiguity” in hip-hop production. Schloss relates ambiguity to the “idea of code, that certain forms of communication must be shielded.” He writes: “Ambiguity is a factor in this process because the best codes are those that do not even appear to be transmitting information at all; they have a secondary meaning that serves to draw attention away from the code’s central message.”

Earlier, Schloss explains that the very nature of creating sample-based music out of music that already exists encourages a kind of doubling, where the listener appreciates the sounds in their original form and then how they are recreated. He writes that the, “aesthetic goal of the hip-hop producer is not to resolve these ambiguities [the fact that the music is live and also not live], but –quite the contrary—to preserve, master, and celebrate them.”

Ambiguity here refers to an unclear meaning or to multiple meanings in an intellectual sense. And yet none of the above instrumentals are ambiguous in the sense that they have more than one meaning. They do not make you think, they make you feel. Central to this is the stop-start of the beat alongside a strong emotion of longing; none of this makes this music soft or sentimental, quite the reverse. 

Not so long ago, I read a commentator argue that he felt that the intellectual component of Black American culture is often downplayed and dismissed. This surprised me as someone who returned to hip-hop after listening to jazz for many years. As any jazz fan knows, the intersection between the mystical/the intellectual/the political is central to the genre, from the 60s onwards, with no issue or complication. 

Thinking about these instrumentals in terms of their quiet, their emptiness and darkness, is one way of recognizing their achievement, while making connections with other cultural moments, whether it is an essay on Japanese aesthetics or Spiritual Jazz, or whatever it might be. And yet, there is something unique about these instrumentals, indelibly located in a time and place, which makes them timeless.   

I-Control (Audio Collage): an essay on Alchemist's 'French Blend', parts 1 & 2 

(First published at Passion of the Weiss, 22nd January 2017)

One of the most striking aspects of Alchemist’s French Blend, parts 1 & 2, the albums riffing on a Francophone theme that he released at the end of 2017 is the way the Los Angeles producer gets something essential about French/Parisian culture.

Outsiders looking in on France, especially those who have gleaned their knowledge of the country from B&W ‘60s movies, imagine the French capital to be a place where cafés are filled with intellectual types speaking about semiotics while smoking cigarettes: it is. (Remember books by Marx and Hegel are sold at news kiosks in Paris and 11-year-old children memorize Molière in junior high).

Yet, as fans of Nouvelle Vague auteurs, such as Jean-Luc Godard know well - see, for example his 1967 film Weekend that combines social satire and nonsense   (or the famous party scene in Pierrot Le Fou from 1965 that has the characters deadpanning advertising slogans, philosophy and politics). French art and culture tends to spin fixed dichotomies, enjoying the displacement; it can be restrained/elegant/austere, but also silly, its greatest masterpieces whether in literature, music or cinema focus on the power and the passion, while delighting in detail, even if slight and trivial.

Such blurring of apparent contradictions flows into other spheres as well; it is hard to imagine another country where a a revered President (François Mitterrand) who was seen as a great intellect and built imposing monuments to his greatness and the greatness of French culture might also regularly consult with a psychic who gave him advice on the timing of international meetings. 

Stretching back to the depths of the French chanson tradition, the country’s most important and self-revelatory form of popular culture, say into the ‘60s/’70s you find something similar going on. With Charles Aznavour’s pained nostalgia for love lost on one hand and Nino Ferrer maniacally looking for his dog on the other. The signature style of the country’s most famous singer/songwriter Serge Gainsbourg, moreover, is defined by his manipulation of apparent contradictions, with many of his songs from the same period embodying a spirit of play (‘Couleur Café’) and desire marked by ambivalence, which manifests as self-disgust or cruelty and contempt (‘Manon’). 

Alchemist’s cover art for the French Blend series is the first sign that the Gangrene producer/MC might be seeking to mix things up. French Blend part one has an image of a smiling man who looks like the French singer Claude François in bright yellow/orange; the second has abstract shapes, in an almost Escher formation. On closer inspection you can see chopped up images of a bed, a mixing desk and Sylvester the cat.

(Time spent trying to work out the significance of Sylvester, the character best-known for his lisp and chasing Tweety Bird and Speedy Gonzales, hasn’t led to any real insight on my part. And then after publishing this essay, I rewatched La Haine. In the film the three main characters debate which of the three cartoon characters are the toughest to decide on Sylvester because he's a 'black brother').   

Alchemist’s two-decade-plus career similarly contains such sharp tonal shifts, moving from the classicism of his early production with Prodigy on H.N.I.C, part 2 from 2008 to the recent Gangrene partnership with Oh No that is built on the innovative use of foreign samples.

In 2017, Alchemist put out seven releases; the Fantasy Island EP with Jay Worthy; The Good Book, Volume 2 (2017) (with Budgie) and an EP with Canadian producer, Lunice called Moving Parts as well as a number of limited edition vinyl “45s under the Craft Singles rubric.  Of interest here are the four instrumental albums: Rapper's Best Friend 4 and three projects with a Francophone focus: the French Blend records and Paris x LA x Bruxelles in September.

Released via Red Bull Music Academy/Konbini Radio, Paris x LA x Bruxelles saw Alchemist team up with a crew of 12 French-language rappers and was subtitled “one producer, three cities, 12 MCs, 1 mixtape, 1 concert.” On its release I wrote the following comment in an article for Ambrosia For Heads: “For those who don’t speak French, there’s still a lot of interest to be found in this record. Perhaps not understanding the words even adds another dimension to the listening experience, in that the often gruff style of the Francophone MCs is taken as just another element in the mix” while noting its ludic spirit of experimentation.

When asked what he thought about crowds in Paris in a 2015 interview the day after a show at La Bellevilloise with Brand New Hip Hop, Alchemist replied this way: 

“Amazing, I miss DJ-ing, best crowd, man, the rowdiest liveliest crowd, they call that sh*t ‘turning up, right?’ Paris invented that sh*t man, France invented getting ‘lit’ or ‘turning up’ that would be coined in France because they are the rowdiest, liveliest crowd on the f*cking face of the earth at least for me and the music I make. Every time I come around it’s like ‘Woah! Man, you did the right thing!’ Maybe other people feel that way across the world, but they don’t show it (the same way). I don’t know if it’s the drinks here, or the smoke, but they show me extreme love, man and that’s a good feeling.” 

He also commented on French hip-hop scene saying he was aware of it “vaguely (through his travels)” and respected it for its autonomous, underground spirit. Some time back he had produced a song with Mobb Deep/113 'L’école du crime that came out on an earlier Franco-American collaboration album in 2005, The Basement and featured US MCs such as Cappadonna, Royce da 5’9” alongside Pete Rock, The Beatnuts and Slum Village.  

II.

“Well, people who know me, the ones who come around, they know I do collages. I cut sh*t up out of magazines and just do weird sh*t in the off hours when people are writing rhymes. It’s like I have Tourette’s syndrome – you know where you don’t sit still? I think I have that. I do a lot of collages and I approached this album like that, it’s art, it’s music whatever, it’s all the same.

Over time, it was more of an instrumental project I was doing. I was just piecing sh*t together and then it just kept morphing and taking a shape of its own. I was spending late nights just piecing more little bits on top, the same way you do with a collage and then it just felt like it was worthy. There were certain parts where I felt people could rap and it really was a puzzle over time. I had no idea where it was going to take me.”

Alchemist

“Alchemist talks “Russian Roulette” experimentation, says beats aren’t good enough for featured emcees” Hip Hop DX, July 9, 2012, interview by MelanieC 

One site referred to the French Blend projects as sampling ‘Francophone funk.’ This seems off-mark to me, as the groove is deconstructed and subtle on French Blend when there. Besides, France is not known for its funk music (or any longstanding Black musical tradition, even jazz while it has an almost spiritual connection in France took its power from the appreciative audiences, rather than the local musicians; noting of course the few exceptions).    

Rather than dipping into a kind of French funk imaginary, what motivates Alchemist most is playing around with language and ideas. This work is more of a punk sonic mash-up along the lines of Crass, Meat Beat Manifesto, Consolidated or Mark Stewart and The Maffia albeit without the (often revolutionary) Leftist politics.

Those musicians from the ‘70s-‘80s were continuing a radical tradition dating back to Russian collages at the turn of the 20th Century and saw their collages as a radical, oppositional act. In contrast, the dominant mood of Alchemist’s French Blend series is absurdist and theatrical, more like a radio play than music in the conventional sense. Another point of reference might be the kind of impressionistic radio plays broadcast on public radio (in Australia, for example, the now-shelved Night Air program that ran on Radio National there). His interest is not so much to disrupt and disturb, but rather transport you to a different cultural space, which might also reflect something personal of the artist as well.    

Added to this, it is apt that Alchemist uses the collage effect because there is a long history linking the practice with France. See, musique concrète and this informative article from FACT magazine on Pierre Schaeffer, dubbed “the godfather of sampling,” who created challenging work he characterised as “research into noises” throughout the 30s and 40s while working for the French public broadcaster, RDF. 

Something of real interest here in the hip-hop context is the placement of the vocal samples. Unlike the standard formula of opening or ending with a vocal sample, Alchemist on occasion repeats them, or echoes them via light-hearted connections between the tracks and languages. For example, on the first French Blend the track, “Cotelettes d’agneau” starts with a sample of an American voice - is it Action Bronson from his TV letter of love to French food and wine (that has in other incarnations also featured Alchemist), From Paris with Love ? - saying, “We’re chillin’ in Paris, I got lamb chops …” (this song title means ‘lamb chops’ in French). At one point a woman says, in French, she’s “crazy about this music.” The music itself is repetitive, swooning; the kind of sleek music you could imagine being played in a TV movie to indicate suspense or discovery.   

One of my favorites, also from the first “French Blend is La Selection Outro du Disc Jockey” with its extravagant layering of voices. First, the sexy-woman DJ saying the song title and the male voices singing the same words in a jolly descending scale, set against a swirly synth effect transplanted from ‘60s pop. This makes me laugh each time I hear it as there are two radio stations here in Paris, FIP and Nova, that are famous not only for their eclectic playlists, covering all genres, but also their female presenters who with their sultry, theatrical voices over-state, over-enunciate just for effect as they do the back announcements.   

Sometimes the point of the various collage elements remains elusive. “Etoile” (Star) might be referring to the métro station near the Arc de Triomphe and Champs Élysées, however. the connection with an English-accented woman reading part of a weather report (in English) suggests that this might be an imagined location, rather than a real place. On the second album there is a track called “Clignancourt Metro,” which suggests another Paris link, but no such station exists. (There is a Porte de Clignancourt métro station is the far north of the city. This is a surprising place for the LA producer to mention as this area is a kind of transit location, known for its vast flea market, but also large numbers of people sleeping rough on the streets. It’s a pretty seedy neighborhood).

One highlight is “Tintement Bébé” – the song’s title is difficult to translate, but likely refers to the mobiles put on prams to keep babies entertained, though tintement alludes to a high-pitched sound, a tinkling or jingle. This track combines a man intoning lyrics that make little sense, stagey disco elements, an echo effect and one of the key refrains, found all over hip-hop, as a direct borrow from soul about loving “music forever and ever.”

Barrière d’enfer” (Gate to/of, hell) also from the first album is impressive the way it combines an ethereal effect, drums borrowed from ‘70s musical arrangements (see: Michel Berger’s Message personnel” as sung by Françoise Hardy) and high-pitched sounds straight out of a Spaghetti Western soundtrack. Such a description might sound messy, but it works basically because it sounds like the Alchemist, the only difference is that is has been transposed to a different linguistic and cultural context.

French Blend, part 2 is much more American in feel and content, with repeated U.S. samples instead of the French and a harder edge. The French connection is primarily maintained via the track titles, see: “Le Mécanicien” and “Vivre Et Mourir.” The second title means “To live and to die” though as with the others this feels a bit Google-translated, maybe it was meant to be “Live and Let Die” in a homage to the Paul McCartney/ Wings anthem: this would be appropriate considering the epic nature of both. 

Not so long ago, Alchemist put up a short documentary on his work with Dutch MC Kempi on his Twitter feed linked to the Rap N Glorie EP that came out on vinyl in April 2017. In an interview, he explained how it feels to be working in a language that is not his own.

“I don’t know what the lyrics are, or nothing,” he said. “That’s probably good to get that perspective cause probably a lot of the world is that, you know what I mean? Just pffft, you know, so I’m sitting back and I’m hearing melodies, or rhythms that are dope to me. That’s universal.”

There’s something extremely interesting about this, in the way that sounds that only exist as far as they have potential to be transformed. Common associations with language, with feeling and meaning as cultural markers become secondary to the process of creation/reinvention. Whether it’s his reworking/re-imagining of French sources, or his earlier international sorties (Russia, Israel) alluded to via his album titles, there is something invigorating about all of this, pushing hip-hop in a direction that has rarely been seen, if ever, before. 

Creativity First: an essay on producer/composer Paul White

There’s something appropriate about the fact that producer/composer Paul White was born and still lives in London’s South (Lewisham); a part of the city brimming with immigrant voices, open-air markets selling fish, batteries and kitchen utensils, rich with Blakean echoes.

The great Romantic poet and mystic, William Blake (1757-1827) lived in Deptford, not so far from Lewisham. As a child, Blake would regularly go for six-mile walks in this untamed, bucolic part of the capital. At the age of four, it is said that Blake saw God’s head appear in a window and then as an eight-year-old on one of his walks in south London saw the prophet Ezekiel under a “tree filled with angels.” 

(Blake’s first biographer, Alexander Gilchrist writes: “Sauntering along, the boy looks up and sees a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars.”)

During one of our two phone conversations in August/September, Paul White often speaking in a very quiet voice, his sentences full of pauses, interspersed with bursts of enthusiasm, I asked if there was any significance in the fact that many of the samples used for his production work with Detroit MC Danny Brown came from English artists. “Do you feel that you’re drawn to a particular sound that comes from the UK,” I asked.

Paul White: “I don’t think so, not necessarily, it’s a feel. I’m drawn to something that is totally different: someone being themselves and experimenting, that’s what I can really relate to. Something so wild and so free, that’s how I try and create.” Then referring to his “Ain’t it funny” beat from Brown’s 2016 Atrocity Exhibition (Warp), he added: “It was just wild, so free and expressive. That was one of my most favourite beats. I was so chuffed that Danny picked it.”

For many, Paul White’s work is inextricably linked with “Danny” (Brown). Especially since White’s often startling production work on Atrocity Exhibition where he produced 10 of the 15 tracks radically re-imagined what a Hip-Hop record might sound like.

Throughout our conversations I sensed that White was keen to draw my attention to the vast eclecticism of his music, spanning as it does the high-energy machinations with Brown, but also the super-smooth soul of Golden Rules, the 80s pop inflection of his collaboration with Open Mike Eagle - Hella Personal Film Festival (Mello Music Group, 2014) and his current live-performance based solo works.

Being free to take risks is central to not only White’s practice, but also self-image as an artist, which coincides with a dislike of rigid categories. “I hate labels,” White told me. “Life can’t be explained in words, I know we have to use words to describe things, but I think this is why I talked about energy in the past.” He continued: “I like to live my life according to that idea, rather than thinking that everything is split into genres or putting things in boxes, as otherwise this inhibits you, stops you from going to other places.”

What follows is an analysis of White’s musical aesthetic (layering, a love for untamed, natural sound and interest in musical tension) and also a lesson Madlib "taught" him. 

White shares his recollections of working with Yasiin Bey, Freddie Gibbs, Golden Rules partner, Eric Biddines and Danny Brown. (Open Mike Eagle and Guilty Simpson are also important, but escape inclusion because of limited space). When speaking with me, White was particularly enthusiastic about the project he was then in the final stages of mixing, although he was unable to share any of the tracks. Expected to come out early next year, he says that it is his most personal release yet.

Earlier, I suggested a link with Blake. With Paul White being from my point of view an extremely English artist; but this “Englishness” must be one that allows for the High Romantic/psychedelic swoon of getting lost in the moment, see his love of Ambient music, alongside the deep influence of African artists, from the east, west and south.

 

I.

“My first exploration of electronic music on my own was totally Ambient. I’m a mood-based person and fascinated by people, why we feel the way we feel. Music stirs such deep feelings in us, so this is my place: feelings, emotions, psychology and deep atmospheres and worlds you can create that can totally change your mind-space.”

— Paul White, interview with the author

In February this year, on the 25th anniversary of Aphex Twin’s Ambient Works 85-92  an article published in FACT asked White to describe the importance of the album on his development as an artist. White explained how as a 16/17 year-old into Nirvana, Rage Against the Machine, Smashing Pumpkins, Wu-Tang, his first reaction was, “Wow, what is this?!”

“I couldn’t get over the first two tracks [‘Xtal’ and ‘Tha’]. I listened to those two tracks relentlessly. I had a tape and back then you’d make a whole side of a tape with just a song, record it over and over. I think I did that with the first two tracks from this album. It’s not that the rest of the album wasn’t good, but these two tracks were so good I had to keep going back to them. This is also the time when I started experimenting with going out, discovering acid, and this album was the most perfect soundtrack for it. You couldn’t get any better comedown music.”
Before that I’d just been writing songs on guitar and piano. A lot of the music I wrote then was Ambient based, it was all atmospheres. I wasn’t writing Hip-Hop yet. I started writing trance and happy hardcore with another guy I’d met at the BRIT School but stuff I did on my own was all trying to be like Aphex Twin, like that first album: tons of pads and lush drawn out notes, MIDI beats going off in the background. I loved drum and bass and I could hear that in his music. And there were also breakbeats, which I understood from Hip-Hop. I bought my first synth and sampler at the time too.

Listening to Paul White’s work, I noticed how he often used “layering” in his music, across different genres. How a single note would appear at a certain point and just rest there, to create depth and intensify the mood. Within Hip-Hop production – and Soul and Jazz … - individual sounds have an essentially dynamic quality: repeating, interacting, changing form.

In White’s music you find a single note – or series of sounds that have a unified effect - just resting there. This seemed to go against expectations, this stillness in the music separate from everything else and intrigued me.

In the interview with FACT White explained how Aphex Twin introduced him to the importance of atmosphere, of creating “worlds for people to go into.” Not only that there was something about the music that sounded “British in a sense. I couldn’t pinpoint how but it felt like it was from your home … It felt like home, really warm.”  

 

MB: “Thinking about this idea of layering in music then, where a sound is brought in and kept there for an extended period. I see it visually, almost as if the sound were like a stream of light. If you think of the song “Get your head around this” (feat. Trim, Watch the Ants EP, One-Handed Music, 2013)

the song construction is quite formal, conventional and then on the hook you have a sound, or to be more accurate a layer of sound/s that adds enormous depth.

Paul White: In terms of layering, I love harmonies; I love atmospheres.  I think you’re right it comes from Ambient music where you can develop different themes. Layering can intensify emotions and feelings and make things richer; then you can add themes and subtract themes. You can add more atmosphere, subtract atmosphere. A lot of things work on a subconscious level when you are creating music, I think. You go into this weird zone you’re not even quite conscious of, then suddenly you come back and think, Wow, where did I just go? Maybe layering is part of that journey.

I’m fascinated by sound. The layering part of it just comes from that, the different feelings and textures you can create from that. In my studio, I’ve got quite a few different toys that can produce different sounds and that’s important to me, to have different colours, different palettes.

MB: When looking closely at song construction, I often notice that at say 30 second or one-minute intervals a Hip-Hop producer brings in a new sound, or sample, it’s similar to a classic Jazz composition or a Pop song. I was thinking the layering effect may have a similar significance for you, it adds intensity, but also is part of how you build your songs.  

Paul White: Sure, sure, yeah. I like song-based music, even though I’ve written beats over the years, the layering thing reflects where I come from which is writing songs with a guitar. I love song structures, and this is one thing I’ve been getting into more recently, trying to write songs again. It’s all about taking yourself on a journey and hopefully taking listeners on a journey. Some of my favourite music is Prog-Rock and Jazz and Jazz-Fusion, long pieces running anything from three minutes to 20 minutes. What I like about Prog is that you get all these different aspects of music in one song.

This is what has drawn me to sampling and this comes from Krautrock as well, all the different sections you get in a song. Probably my favourite band ever is Weather Report, again they go everywhere they take you in so many different directions, largely because you’ve got all these different instrumentalists - a whole band. Maybe subconsciously I’m trying to be as many different people as I can even though it’s just me. I can be the drummer, play the guitar and match the feeling, even though I don’t have a band.

MB: It’s interesting this focus on different elements, when you have one instrument, or element that’s exposed. Sampling or sample-based music is all about this, isn’t it?

Paul White: It’s funny you say that, I’m just mixing my album, my solo album. A lot of problems I’ve had in the past is mixing engineers wanting everything to sound quite smooth, but I love sound jumping out and leaping out. It’s taken a couple of weeks working with this mixing engineer for him to really get that that’s what works best for my music. I love things poking out, I love something kind of odd to just jump out at you and grab your attention. It all probably relates to life, without sounding too corny, some things jolt you, life is never just smooth.

Hopefully my music can then reflect a more genuine experience. The music I love reflects genuine life experience, you can hear something of the musicians’ life and their journey and their souls in the tracks. I’m a big fan of things jumping out, I don’t like things to be too smooth. That’s where you find the excitement.

I’m quite an extreme person. I did quite a lot of extreme sports as a kid. Even though I’m quite calm on the surface, I’m quite a high-energy person; so, I think comes from deep down, this aspect of my personality probably.

MB: I’d like to focus in on some things you’ve said there, as much of it really connects with me. For example, I really love the materiality of Hip-Hop. The producers I respect understand that sound doesn’t have to be made even. There’s something political, I think and interesting about this as well. Let’s focus in on this idea that you mentioned of sound jumping out at you, can you think of one of your Hip-Hop tracks that reflects this? This idea of not taming the sound.

Paul White: I mean, I just got to shout out Madlib for that. Madlib is a massive influence on my beats and his music to me was never smooth; things would jump out, there’d be this angular style. Nothing was smooth, he’d have these wild sounds that would leap out, so his music would sound totally alive. He didn’t try to do smooth mixes either. He showed a lot of producers that you didn’t have to have a glossy, shiny studio like Dr Dre. You can write these really raw, gritty songs that you not spend too much time on it.

It’s creativity first, that’s what I love about someone like Madlib. You can just throw ideas down. It’s not about making it sound smooth, or perfect – and my music sounded better for it, sounded better off raw. Madlib made me feel okay about doing that. I think he has influenced a lot of people in this regard, letting people feel that it’s okay to go wild. He taught me that for sure.”

 

To understand White’s capacity for reinvention, listen to this original and remix of the Golden Rules’ tune “Never Die” – the first version of the track appeared on their debut release Golden Ticket (Lex Records, 2015)

And then the remix, which features Freddie Gibbs, alongside Eric Biddines and Yasiin Bey (this remix is off-the-wall monstrous-sublime).

MB: “The original and remix of “Never Die,” I’ve spent a lot of time listening to them and thinking about how different they are to each other, can you speak on this?  

Paul White: (pauses) The initial one was quite quick there is no real meaningful story behind that … It’s got this great guy on it Jamie Woon – an amazing British composer and singer, we got him to sing the chorus on that. I felt to me a straight-up, smooth old school Hip-Hop beat.

At that time, I was trying to experiment with live performance and experimentation, so the remix was a challenge for me. I took the sample and played around with the vocal. Music is often about challenges for me. I said to myself to play the music around the vocal so took a lot of instruments and played some keys over the top and remember feeling quite pleased, thinking this is going to work, this experimenting with something that’s half Hip-Hop, half live. “Never die” is quite rare, as it’s in-between: the old me and the new me. It reflects a certain time.

I remember trying to make sure I got it right. Once you’ve got the basic groove and the harmonies right, I just experiment with it. There’s never any end goal ever (laughs). Music is a sacred place where I don’t feel pressures, I can be totally in the moment.

MB: The first one as you say is a kind of classic Soul-based Hip-Hop track and the remix is this epic piece of music. I haven’t heard many Hip-Hop tracks like this, with the orchestration and all the elements, it’s amazingly different.

Paul White: I need to listen to it again, I’ll get it on Soundcloud, I haven’t listened to it for a while. It’s all about being epic, the original one was never one of my favourites as it’s a bit too straight-forward, I never really like things that are too straightforward; I’m glad I did it, but preferred the remix. Just found it now … (he starts to play the song).

I’m going to listen to it, oh yeah, the crazy drums – the Djembe.

MB: Towards the end, it becomes quite strange.

Paul White: Oh yeah, and I sang on it as well. I forgot about that.

MB: It’s really got that layering of sound thing happening. I don’t think it’s ironic, but it’s really over the top.

Paul White: Yeah, it’s true it’s out there. Yeah, the Djembe was a big part of it that’s the Djembe I got in Gambia. That’s an important part of it and the slightly jazzy piano. It’s a mix of everything; my love of Jazz, my love of Hip-Hop rhythm, my love of African rhythm and then at the end. It’s insane, which I quite like.

MB: It’s appealing because you’ve got these huge stars on it and the music is just going nuts.

Paul White: Sure.

MB: You talk about the playful aspect, but it’s kind of funny in a way. It has a quality of freedom about it. In the original it’s very respectful of the MCs, they’re very central and then the remix it’s something else.

Paul White: Listening to it now, I see what you mean. Music must be free, that’s probably the most important word. Music needs to be free, untamed. I find it very hard to stick to briefs, if I must do something, it won’t work (laughs).

MB: Thinking about the MCs now, Eric (Biddines from Golden Rules) is interesting. I like the sound of his voice. He’s got a very different sound.

Paul White: Yeah, yeah.

MB: Could you just talk about your experience working with him and then Yasiin Bey and Freddie Gibbs, who was added to the remix?

Paul White: Eric is half of Golden Rules, obviously. He’s one of the best guys ever, I really like him, just as a person. He’s like me, I think. He’s playful, he ticks all the boxes for me. He’s an amazing lyricist, his lyric-writing is just great. His delivery is fun and free. He can rap, he can sing. We’re like kindred spirits, I think. He’s one of the guys I’ve met over the years that it feels incredible natural working with.

Yasiin Bey, we recorded him in a studio in London. He was great, he was really professional, just got in the booth, I think we did about three takes. He did a great job, came in and he left.

We sent over the song to see if he liked it and he did. It was one of those landmark experiences to see him nodding his head and loving the beat. What was really nice was his question, who is the other guy rapping? This was really big of him, as I could tell Eric you know Mos Def was asking who you were. That contact with Yasiin came through management, as did Freddie Gibbs.

(Freddie Gibbs) was supposed to be on the album, but he delivered the verse a bit late. We decided it’d be better on a remix anyway because the rest of the album isn’t like him, so thought it’d be perfect to have his verse on the remix. It’s the only song I’ve done with three MCs on it, it was nice to have the three different sections to play with, musically. It’s probably why the song is a bit manic, a bit crazy as it’s three different people, with three different backdrops and then you squeeze me in in the chorus and then at the end. So, it’s like you’ve got four personalities in that one song (laughs).”

 

III.

MB: Can you talk about the tech you use to create these distinctive atmospheres you’re speaking about?

Paul White: It can be anything, you can use anything. You can use what you’ve got in a free, open, crazy way. I’ve got enough things to make it playful. I’ve got enough tools to enable me to try anything I want, effects or plug-ins on Pro Tools. It’s about not being tame with it, about really pushing things in unconventional ways. There’s a good and a bad side to the way I write. It’s so spontaneous. I don’t learn things, maybe I do subconsciously, but I don’t deliberately learn things at work to then repeat them ever. I never, ever have.

Every time you start you’re coming from a start of play.  As long as you approach it in that fun, experimental way, it really doesn’t matter what you use.

MB: Do you use a lot of compression?

Paul White: I used to a lot. I think a lot of people do. If you compress things a lot it makes it sound better and crushes all the sounds together, so you don’t have to spend so much time mixing and balancing the sounds, cause when you compress everything really hard it balances everything by itself. It can be really creative, but I’m trying to use it less and less and less now.

Bruce Swedien who mixed all the biggest Michael Jackson records (to read more on his career, working with Quincy Jones and mixing Jackson’s Thriller have a look at this article). He mixed everybody. He always talks about how he hates compression. The person who made arguably the best-sounding record of all time says he hates compression because it levels everything out. There is a real danger of losing natural life. My goal is to never, ever use compression – that is my goal, but as long as it’s used in a creative way, you can create sonic textures from compression …

MB: Does it dull the quality of the sounds?

Paul White: For instance, if you’ve got a whole drum-kit what sounds great about it is the life and the loud peak of the kick-drum, but a lot of the effect might be really subtle, because the drum sounds are so short. Often people would be surprised by how many records you listen to and the kick-drum is so loud that they’re not noticing, but it creates a hell of a lot of energy because the sounds are so short. If you compress that you’re going to kill that attack and energy, you’re going to make it quieter.

You’ve got to be really careful about getting rid of signs of life in your music by using compression. But again, I’m a massive fan of no rules, you can do anything with anything.

MB: How about quantizing?

Paul White: No, I never quantize, never. I hate quantizing. In all of my beats, I don’t use metronomes. I don’t use grids. I don’t use quantizers: nothing. I hate grids, I hate any kind of time reference telling me to keep to a time, I don’t do that. I’ve only started doing this a tiny, tiny bit recently when recording live drums, simply because it can be convenient when recording into a computer, but no for the beats and everything else, no.

I usually go through extremely long processes because I never use a metronome. You’ve got a button you can tap, depending on how fast you’re doing it that will say roughly the BPM and then you’ve got a four-bar loop, most people set up a metronome (he sings the rhythm) to know where the one is every time, I never know that, so I’d hit record and play the live drums and pray that when it looped back round it’d stay in time perfectly. I must admit it often takes me loads of goes to get that initial groove right, but I always found it so much funkier and life-like this way.

Music has to be a total representation of life, otherwise I don’t see the point, so using grids and metronomes, I don’t believe in any of that.

MB: I remember that some people judged RZA for not quantizing his beats, I’m not sure if that was something distinctive about him back in the ‘90s. Is this considered to be a maverick thing to do these days?

Paul White: I think the beat thing got really funny for a while. Again, I don’t want to come across like a dickhead, because I could offend people with what I’m going to say but it became so cool to have these loose beats, to have these unquantized beats so what people would do, and again there’s nothing wrong with it, but they would record a beat and quantize it and then they’d manually on the screen shift things in and out to make it sound out of time. It’s kind of cool, but I never understood why you’d spend all that time shifting things about, but that’s just me. Each to their own.

Some people produced great results like that, I know Dilla did that. It can be amazing. For me, I want to get a creative idea out and then move on very, very quickly. It’s a funny one when people spend a lot of time trying to make it sound out of time, what’s the point? Just play it out of time.

MB: I remember seeing a comment below your video about the quality of the post-production. It’s interesting because you constantly refer to your preference for performance, for live music – being spontaneous – but at the same time there is this great care when it comes to the final stages. Have you anything to share in terms of your approach to the post-production process?

Paul White: (pauses) It has to be the right journey. I like to keep it interesting. The journey has to be right. A lot of the post-production is making sure that every sound that pops out has meaning and is there for the right reasons. This new album, I’m really trying to make sure that the mix is right in that regard. I write the initial idea quite quickly and then spend time making sure that every sound represents a feeling and journey perfectly.”   

 

*** 

MB: "What about the tension in all this, though? There are all these moods and atmosphere in your work and then you’ve got the drum sound often hidden away almost. In Hip-Hop, traditionally it’s been all about the drum sounds; the drums are so central. What do you think about this bringing a kind of tension to your work?

Paul White: I think tension in music is a really important part of it. Music theory talks about this a lot, tension and release. Different intervals in music, say if you’re playing the piano – moving from C to E, you’re moving up a third, and different intervals between notes create a certain tension. Music is all about reflecting human emotion, tension is an important part of this, just like the release is as well. I think I’ve often focussed more on the tension than the release (laughs).

That’s probably why me and Danny Brown get on so well. We don’t resolve. Like a lot of Classical Music, there’ll be a journey you start somewhere and come back. I don’t think you can always come back, so I just go off. It’s all about excitement and stimulation.

Everybody wants to be non-offensive, that’s one of my most hated terms for music, “non-offensive.” I can’t stand that.

MB: It’s something I’ve noticed across your different records and projects, this interesting placement of the different sounds, say for the drum sound it’s never or rarely a dominant boom bap sound ever, maybe I’m wrong here.

Paul White: No, you’re right.

MB: Often the high treble sounds are privileged. This creates a strange psychological space, it’s very interesting to me.

Paul White: It’s really something I don’t think about; it’s a very natural thing. Often when I listen to my mixes, yeah, I will have things balanced in maybe different ways that’s not the conventional mix of sound. It’s not intentional, it’s just the way my ears work. Maybe I’ve got really strange ears (laughs) the way I hear sound.

Part of the magic is recording sound, the song-writing process, playing instruments, exploring melody and different sonic effects and then you’ve got the beautiful world of arranging it all, that’s one of my favourite parts if not my favourite. I think this way of listening definitely comes from my Ambient days, listening to Aphex and Brian Eno and Boards of Canada.

Atmosphere is the most important thing, I mean I love beats and I love drums, but I want to take you on a dream journey more than you grit your face up and go, Ah this is a tough beat. It’s much more important for me to take people on a journey. It’s lovely constructing worlds inside a computer and as I say, it’s all very natural. I’ll just zone out into another world, put things together and not think about it too much.

 

MB: You know I was reading the fan comments below the video for ‘When it rain’ by Danny Brown and the listeners were picking up the link with Ambient music, they were talking about him signing to Warp and these sorts of things. Can you make that link between the two now with the track, it has some interesting samples in it too.

Paul White: I think that’s the biggest connection. The sample I used was from a woman called Delia Derbyshire, who was a really incredible, incredible electronic experimentalist, music pioneer who worked at the BBC Radiophonic workshop. I can guarantee that Aphex Twin would have been interested in those guys.

I see these artists as having the same lineage, in that they are all really, really interested in experimenting with, pushing electronic sound. Delia Derbyshire was manipulating reel-to-reel tape, slowing things down, doing every kind of sound manipulation you can imagine and that was exactly what Aphex Twin was doing, doing all this incredible sound manipulation. I’m nowhere near as in-depth, they are on a genius level of sound manipulation. I wouldn’t have the patience, but I definitely see the lineage between those two.

There’s also a raw energy about it and that’s where I fit in. I mean, I love that raw energy as well, I get attracted to that sonic atmosphere and landscape, but that was probably a beat I wrote in about fifteen minutes, I immediately got attracted to it, whacked it into a drum machine. I wrote it very, very quickly, about four years ago and then Danny picked it. I’ve sent Danny hundreds and hundreds of beats, now it might run into the thousands, some of those beats I might have given him years ago and then during the album process he’ll go back and start listening to them. That was one of my favourites, I was really pleased that he picked that one.

MB: It’s a stunning song. One of the fans referred to it as ‘aggressive belly-dancing music’ I thought that was cute.

Paul White: (laughs) It’s always fascinating to see how people take to your work. I think that is one of the most beautiful things. I’d never want to say to anybody: no, no, the music was about this and this was the background and it’s about this thing, as if putting it into a box. I think that is what is so beautiful about music and art, people interpret it how they want and take it into their lives. I think that is almost the most magic part about music. I don’t think anybody is ever wrong, I’d never argue with an interpretation.

MB: Madlib used the same sample on "Real" from Piñata (Madlib Invazion, 2014) did you know about this, did it have any impact on your work?

Paul White: No, as I said I made that beat years before the Madlib record even came out, maybe he made it on the same day (adds emphasis) and I never even knew (laughs). I made that beat maybe five or six years ago, probably around 2003. I was a bit disappointed but not surprised when I heard Freddie Gibbs doing it with Madlib, because it’s an amazing sample. If anyone is going to muck around with it, it would be Madlib (laughs). It’s cool we’re on the same path. We like the same stuff.”

 

IV.

African New Wave

In 2014, Paul White released Shaker Notes an idiosyncratic album infused with musical influences from the African continent, but making it all seem natural within the electro context. To read more about this, check out White’s selection of five African albums that influenced this project, published in Stamp the Wax

MB: How does your unusual placement of drums connect with your interest in the music of different African artists, is there any link there?

Paul White: My dad has always played a lot of African music, we played it a lot around the house. And one of the first festivals I went to as a kid was WOMAD. One of my fondest memories as a kid was going to this festival with him and seeing all of these incredible musicians from all over the world, but the music that struck me the most were these master African drummers that would come over. There’d be a stage of about 20 of these artists and it’d just blow my mind - the energy of it all.

I used to love Baaba Maal, Ali Farka Touré … I’ve actually got African heritage as well, my great-grandad was from Sierra Leone, so my granddad was Black, his family came from Sierra Leone. I don’t know if that’s part of it, somehow to be drawn to this music.

MB: In some ways, I’d say this is a key element in terms of your work, across the records – this influence. I feel a bit uncomfortable saying ‘African’ - is it primarily West African, say Malian or music from elsewhere, from Nigeria? Is there a particular kind of African music that you’re drawn to?

Paul White: Well, I love Malian music, but no I just connect with music I like, it doesn’t matter where it’s from.  But I’ve still got loads of family from Sierra Leone, so I guess most of the music I’ve listened to is from West Africa.

I actually got lucky and went to Gambia a couple of years ago, my ex-girlfriend was there for a little while and I had a really magic opportunity of studying for a week with a master Djembe player who made his own drums. I had an amazing time with him. I’ve always loved rhythm, my Dad is a drummer – not professionally, but as a hobby, he used to play in a couple of bands when I was a kid. There was always rhythm being tapped around the house. I find rhythm very natural, when I get on a drum-kit, I find it the most natural thing.

Maybe it is for all of us, I mean as children everybody taps and hits things; there’s rhythm everywhere, but there is a deep spiritual aspect to it. A lot of African music is about dance, this is something I really noticed in Gambia as well. It was all and one the same thing. In every drum group there is a dance group. One of the first things this guy taught me was the signal of how to start and to stop, to indicate to the dancers what was going to happen.

It’s not coming from any kind of ‘making money’ place it’s coming from a beautiful spiritual place.

MB: Talk to me a bit more about this experience in Gambia, is there any concrete connection you can make with the music you made after this visit?

Paul White: Well, I brought back a big Djembe (laughs), number one. The guy made me my own massive, amazing Djembe, so that’s in my studio and have been used on many recordings since. It was the experience and the spirit that I brought back mainly. It’s this pure, joyous spiritual connection with music and the Earth and the spirit, really; it was a good reminder to get out of this Western world that is just so money-driven.

It just felt magic for me personally to be in Africa, I’ve been to Morocco previously, but this is a very different Africa. It was very special for me to be so close to Sierra Leone, I really wanted to go. It felt quite natural for me being there, the spirit and the energy of the people felt so lovely. Just playing with that guy was pretty special because he immediately saw my passion for music pretty quickly and we went through most of the stuff he wanted to teach me very, very fast and he actually started to teach me some of the local music from the tribe where he came from, his individual tribal rhythm he played that was personal to them. And that just felt incredibly special. The whole trip was incredibly, incredibly inspiring. We drummed until the sun went down and there’d be nine, or ten children dancing around.

All these kids playing around and jumping around, it was a magic experience. I’ll never forget it. It reminds you of what music is about. I’ll always think back to that time I had there."

 

(Coda:

Paul White: “It was when I was about 19 or 20 when I started to really buy records that was when I moved on from my song-writing-Ambient-Trance phase, doing things all at the same time and started to really dedicate myself to making beats and sampling. I sold all my synths and bought an MPC and spent hundreds and hundreds of pounds on records and really, really started digging which I think is an amazing musical education.

That’s the great thing about Hip-Hop, people can get critical about sampling but if you’re going out digging for records, I can’t think of a better musical education cause you’re buying every kind of genre. As soon as you start digging you get inspired by music from all over the world.

I was just looking for samples, I wasn’t even looking for great songs. Most of the music was rubbish, but there often was a great sample, or a great sound. I really value that education, which is buying every genre and just feeling it. I’d mix a Turkish sample with a Bollywood sample with a funk sample with a Prog-Rock sample, all in one song. 

You’ll hear that a lot in my album, The Strange Dreams of Paul White from 2009, I used to delight in chopping up music from all over the world and putting it together so there were all these currents and emotions across all these different genres and you can feel it. This is something that Hip-Hop taught me, that is what Hip-Hop is for me; it’s all genres, it’s Country music and Folk music, it’s Jazz and Funk and Rock music, Latin music – everything.

MB: When you’re listening to these records are you listening for specific sounds, or are you listening for qualities, what is the process like when choosing which element to sample?

Paul White: It’s probably about the emotion in the playing. It’ll either be the emotion in the playing, or something about the sonic quality itself, it could be anything from sampling a kick-drum to the whole guitar part. You're listening to an old 70s record with all these effects you just don’t hear nowadays from an analogue mixing desk, for example. It’s often a mix of the two.

I try not to look for loops, often what I do is write the drums first, I’d never just sit down from scratch and just listen to a record and try and find the best part, even though I have done this. I usually sit down first and pull the record out and chop up different drum hits and make a drum pattern first and then listen to records with my drums playing in the background. I’d never ever listen to a record and go, oh I’m going to take this and then build on that. I like to have an element of me first and then start building on top of it.

Music is magical in that sense, you can hear it when someone plays a guitar part with so much passion, or listening to a synth part it makes me think what was that person going through that day, did they just get married, did they just get a divorce? Was their child born the night before? You can feel that in the music, that’s what attracts me, I think.

MB: I liked it when you said that ‘it’s the emotion in the playing’ that brings us back to your passion for live performance, doesn’t it?

Paul White: Yeah, sure.

MB: It’s something very personal.

Paul White: Yeah, totally, yeah).   

Prodigy, Mobb Deep (1974-2017)/’Up North Trip’ (The Infamous, Loud Records, 1995)  

Prodigy, the hard-nosed Queens rapper who kiln-fired New York hip-hop into a thing of unhurried attitude and stoic elegance as half of the duo Mobb Deep, died Tuesday in Las Vegas. He was 42.
— Jon Caramanica, New York Times, June 20, 2017
My handicap took its toll on my sanity
My moms got me at the shrink at like 13
And doctors called the cops on me
’Cause I be throwing IV poles and they ignore me
I’ve gotta try to calm down and breathe
I can only hold it but for so long — put me to sleep.

'Ladies in the house say yeah,' so Prodigy says, as he saunters the Bataclan stage. Yeah, comes the expected reply. 'Check that out,' he says, feigning shock and surprise, 'We're Mobb Deep, not Common or Mos Def or some shit.'

One month before the famous Paris venue, The Bataclan was the site of terrorist attacks in November 2015, I went to see Mobb Deep's two-decade anniversary show marking the release of their Infamous record. 

During the set Prodigy stops everything to ask the support staff to change the lighting, to make it red, like the interior of a sweaty bordello - more dramatic than the previous natural-style lighting scheme, as the group goes from one hit to the next. 

Very, very early on, one of my first pieces of writing on hip-hop, published on this site, was on Mobb Deep. When writing it, I wanted this piece to be similar in style to a letter, directed to someone like me – looking in on a culture that was not hers: both faux-naïf and directive. Part of it went like this: 

If I were asked to recommend an album to a hip-hop novitiate, I’d suggest they listen to Mobb Deep’s ’The Infamous’ ... Or maybe something from Big L 

(Maybe I’d choose this one - big l Harlem’s finest vol 1 & 2 full album - for the urgent delivery ... and smarts). All this might seem perverse for two reasons; well, none of the records above provided the déclic moment for me as I started listening to hip-hop seriously (second time around) last year. None of these records were what first made me think I should spend a bit more time here with this music, making connections that made sense to me (…) Being authentic is often discussed in relation to hip-hop; this notion of the MC being real, or representing his/her life and then the fans think about this when assessing the quality of the music.

For obvious reasons then this is impossible for me to do - how could it be otherwise? So, what then appeals to me when I listen to these records? The sound, basically. This music still stands up, unlike some of the wittier, more literary, more sonically adventurous hip-hop from the same era (some of which sounds really twee to me now, even though I liked it a lot then). 

Besides, as a woman liking art that is foreign in terms of my experience is nothing new - I think one of the key aspects of being female is living this, on a daily basis to the point where your appreciation of something includes an expectation that it won’t be something you know personally. And this is no problem - not everything you like, or appreciate, needs to be a mirror. 

Here is part two of the same interview with Prodigy …

Since the 60s so many people have spoken about love being what the world needs now etcetera. I disagree, what we ‘need’ – if you favour such expression - more than anything, and especially now, is curiosity about those who are different to us, driven by respect. This is how I relate to Mobb Deep – and others in the constellation; ‘there are no stars in the New York sky
They're all on the ground …’

What interests me then, as now is how we can engage with – and even love – art that does not speak to our experience; how the genius and sheer clarity of certain voices can cut through bringing people together through the shared appreciation of art, whether it be music, or literature, or film.

Now, I know about issues relating to appropriation – and am starting to feel just a bit awkward, where is the late Prodigy in all of this, the apparent subject of this writing? But in my world-view this is the highest compliment to offer an artist, as E.M. Forster famously stated: ‘only connect’.

The scene in Howard’s End that introduced this phrase was a stolen kiss between two of the novel’s characters that becomes part of an internal monologue:

It did not seem so difficult. She need trouble him with no gift of her own. She would only point out the salvation that was latent in his own soul, and in the soul of every man. Only connect! That was her whole sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.

When I think back to the time when I started listening to Mobb Deep, again in earnest, there was no intellectualising/no theorising required: I just liked it. I liked the sound; the way it seemed like we had a direct line to the artist's brain, with all the intelligence and humour to be found there and the way this music summed up a particular moment in music, the way it typified a city and an era.

I liked the way the wordplay never seemed forced, while it expertly buttressed the immediacy of the story to be told. This notion of story-telling in hip-hop often rankles with me, especially when it becomes overly smart, arch and knowing, but within the Mobb Deep universe you had both: amazingly constructed narratives that were filled with intense feeling.

And then if you believe that hip-hop as a genre is distinctive in the way it offers a voice to the unheard, in Mobb Deep you had this, in excess – and yet this was music that could cross borders, with ease: I mean, contemporary European rap is drenched in a Mobb Deep influence.

As with the greatest art in any genre, the intrinsically specific could make sense to people with no immediate life experience that resembled what they were hearing/or seeing because it was personal, located and true - just like a diary written by someone in an occupied zone, or during war-time. At its best, Mobb Deep’s music could offer everything, at once. See, for example, 'Trife Life’ – a Mobb Deep song that initially triggered my interest for its wit, self-confidence and extraordinarily smart construction of a narrative, with suspense and momentum:

(Just love those early rhymes: 'It's just another day, drowning my troubles with a forty
That's when I got the call from this brown skin shorty
She asked me where's my crew at, said we could do whatever
She got a crew too and said that we should get together
I said, "Aight, just call me back in a hour
So I can take a shower and gather up the manpower"
Then I hung up the horn
And I thought to myself that it might be on
Cause this trick isn’t pick up the phone to call me in years (Why?)
Ever since I left the ho lonely in tears…'

It’s so exact and funny, it makes me laugh every time I hear it, you can imagine the expression on his face during the phone call and the shift from excitement to trepidation – when he remembers how it ended last time - as if it were a scene in a film. You can hear the youth in the expression, how it was pure and essential.

This could be the voice of any pretend-macho young guy who is feeling nervous in New York, Cleveland, Marseilles – any place, the world over, it is individual and universal at the same time. No games; this music is funny, in parts, while expressing deep feeling related to a specific situation: ‘complete’ – as the French say. It was that simple.

Just like a woman standing beside me at The Bataclan that night, singing and screaming and shouting pretty much every single word of every single song, despite not even being born, or maybe just a little kid in 1995, the year that Mobb Deep released The Infamous.

This young woman, just like me, probably wouldn’t feel the need to explain her preference and give it form, all she knew, and knew deep in the core of her being that there was something about this music that clicked. She liked it, it was that simple – and that complex.        

Mobb Deep’s the Infamous is as bold, as clear as The Stooges’ Funhouse : it has the same force and desire to be heard, to stake out territory. I love the simplicity of it, the complete nature of the aesthetic; there are no weaknesses, no gaps.

By simplicity, I mean simple like a meditation; or simple like anything that matters in this world, in fact. Simple like a kiss, or a decision to act; simple like a thought, a memory. The music I grew up with, the nasty guitar music of the Melbourne underground scene was similarly ‘simple’ - focussed on the impact, not showing off fancy technique. There was no need.

***

"UP NORTH TRIP" TRACK INFO

Written By Prodigy of Mobb Deep & Havoc

Recording Engineer Louis Alfred III

Mixing Engineer Tony Smalios & Q-Tip

Mastering Engineer Leon Zervos

Executive Producer Matt LifeScott Free & Mobb Deep

Recorded At Battery Studios (New York, City)

Release Date April 25, 1995

Verse One: Prodigy

It all began on the street, to the back of a blue police vehicle
Next come the bookings, the way things is lookin
It’s Friday, you in for a long stay
Gettin shackled on the bus first thing come Monday
Hopin in your mind you’ll be released one day
But knowin, home is a place you’re not goin for a long while
Now you’re up on the isle
And the position that you in got you refusin’ to smile
But keep in mind there’s a brighter day, after your time spent
Used to be wild, but locked up, you can’t get bent
Thought you could hack it, now you’re requestin PC
You’re fragile, it ain’t hard to see
Niggas like that don’t associate with me
I’d rather, get busy to the third degree
Cause the war in population’s on infinitely
If this was the street, my razor would be a mac demon
Hit you up, leave your whole face screamin’
What you in for kid - bustin nuts?
Cats heard of me in street stories told inside this trap
Who are you to look at me with your eyes like that?
Wisen up youngblood, before you make things escalate
And I would hate yo set your crooked ass straight...

Here’s a description of the making-of the track,  published in Complex, 2011 

Produced by: Mobb Deep

Prodigy: “That song is basically a song dedicated to our people going in and out of jail back then. A lot of niggas would get locked up, come back home, get locked up, and come home.

"Niggas were selling drugs and if you’re out there on the block selling drugs, you’re constantly getting caught. You can’t get away with that shit for long, especially if you’re a small-time hustler for clothes and sneaker money.

“That was probably one of the ones that we started writing in the projects at Hav’s crib. He had a couple things. Our first sampler we had was an EPS 16 plus. It was a big-ass keyboard.

"We had that for a little while, and when the MPC came out we bought that, and that was it. A little record player, a little mixer, and that’s all we needed. We had the big ass cheap speaker with the carpet on it, like block party speakers.”

Havoc: “You don’t have no job, you’re trying to eat. And it could be somebody that you got beef with, so you might have to shoot a mothafucka because you not gonna let nobody play you. So it’s just all sorts of challenges growing up in the hood. That’s just one of those songs that brought that fact out.”

Matty C a.k.a. Matt Life (Executive Producer and A&R for Loud Records): “Q-Tip enhanced the drums on that lovely. If you listen to ‘Up North Trip’ you’ll hear the snare kind of bouncing a little bit. Cracking a little more [than normal]. Tip gave it a real nice crack compared to what it originally was. He just beefed the drums up on that one.

“Tip also worked with me closely on recommending certain engineers that were great for mixes. Hav and P would always do their own drops and Hav would always—and I would always encourage him—be the producer and do the final check on his own shit.

“The way that Tip contributed to the project was so cool because he wasn’t in there trying to say, ‘Yo, I’m the mixer for this, I’m taking credit for this.’ He was doing great in his career and he had mad love for us.

"He was just in it to help out and make sure it comes out right. Obviously, he got a nice deal. But it was really just trying to see Hav come up and really steer this ship with this group of emcees that he’s got.”

To choose one to represent the whole: ‘Up North Trip’ from the breakthrough, The Infamous record from 1995. Constantly playing with contrast, starting with the use of 70s schmaltz for the samples - ‘I'm tired of giving’ Spinners From the LP "8" released in 1977 on Atlantic Records. 

Even if there is a similar territory in the lyrics, expressing one man’s despondency: ‘When the truth becomes in question standing right before your eyes moving on to something better keep the strong alive I'm tired of giving but its you that keeps me hanging on So tired of giving (so tired of giving) can't get from falling down So tired of giving can't get up from falling down’ it's far from the same kind of psychological mood.  

The track also featured 'To Be With You' by The Fatback Band, later known as Fatback - love that detail - from a 1973 single; apparently the group had 'substantial success in South America, especially in Brazil with 'Money' and 'Backstrokin'.

You can see the depth of Prodigy’s lyricism when you compare his two verses in 'Up North Trip'. The first starts by setting the scene, using a ‘once upon a time’ beginning almost and the second person to involve us in the story and intensify a sense of proximity. He addresses us directly, using ‘you’ as if the action he is about to describe is our story as well.  

Who are you to look at me with your eyes like that?
Wisen up youngblood, before you make things escalate
And I would hate yo set your crooked ass straight

All of this suggests that what is to follow is a kind of cautionary tale, but there’s a degree of venom there, attacking his audience almost: who are you to judge me?

This subject matter and approach reminds me of first-person narratives from the past, say convict narratives, where the narrator is ready to share his vile and malicious deeds to spare others the same cruel fate, and yet it’s not that easy, mono-dimensional, because he is not seeking our absolution.

In Prodigy’s final verse, the perspective is quite different: 

Then I pause... and ask God why
Did he put me on this Earth just so I could die
I sit back and build on all the things I did wrong
Why I’m still breathin, and all my friends gone
I try not to dwell on the subject for a while
Cause I might get stuck in this corrupt lifestyle
But my, heart pumps foul blood through my arteries
And I can’t turn it back, it’s a part of me

This is amazing for the depth of feeling that comes through, the self-doubt and questioning tone, as he states:

Too late for cryin, I’m a grown man strugglin
To reach the next level of life without fumblin
Down to foldin, I got no shoulder to lean on but my own
All alone in this danger zone

But rather than offering his Soul up to God, as might have been the case in one of those 18th or 19th narratives of wrong-doing and repentance, Prodigy then reiterates his criminal, or outsider mindset: ‘Time waits for no man, the streets grow worse
Fuck the whole world, kid, my money comes first.’ 

Children of the Indigo: ‘Fall through’ Mick Jenkins, prod. THEMPeople (The Healing Component, Cinematic Music Group, 2016)

Resistance at the point of listening to (new) music. Sometimes reactions can be so intense they stop you from listening further; telling you, no, this is not yours, it’s not for you - and then, other times something keeps you there with that same music, despite your instinct to leave.

It was months back now, so I can’t remember what it was that kept me at a remove when first listening to Mick Jenkins’ The Healing Component (it was probably related to the beat, so wafery/illusory like paper being burnt, the flame curling in on itself, refusing any sense of home: the same beat that provides the unstable foundations of the modern hip-hop aesthetic, where the edges are forever privileged over the centre). 

Then I heard this song and my favourite ‘Fall through’… which made me realise. 

[Intro]
I see the light
Hesitate
Hesitate
Hesitate
Hesitate

[Hook]
Don't you feel the soul?
That's the truest well
Of all the things you know, do you know yourself?
Well enough to trust the way you go
When you don't, know the way
See the light, still hesitate
See the light, hesitate

Contemporary poetic: opening up the conversation about love, politics and remembrance. 

***

To talk about the song’s mood; sometimes hip-hop artists and producers refer to their work as cinematic. Usually this means that they think that the lyrics resemble a film narrative, with a plot and characters, or that the music contains moments that could be likened to scenes in a film. Frequently this impression is enhanced by interludes, performed by actors or directed lifted from films.  

Listening to ‘Fall through’ I saw scenes – like a movie - in my imagination that were not directly linked to the lyrics (the film in my head was medieval and masculine - made up of the bodies of men - maybe based on Herzog, or the photographer Salgado), but with a different colour scheme, shades of dark blue (the children/men indigo). Perhaps I was making a connection with a half-remembered evocative soundtrack

Such images in my mind are completely absent now when listening to ‘Fall through’ – I have listened to this music so many times since then and done some reading, so there’s some distance - but I can understand how when listening to this music I could imagine this idea of a mass of people (of men) rising up, in movement, as an indistinguishable mass of bodies.

This is body music: pure and visceral, speaking to the heart, while expressing an essential truth that is carried by, expressed in, blood.

 

'I’m just tired of this shit,' Jenkins says. 'Tired of the fact that it’s happening, and tired of the fact that I have to sing about it.'

— Mick Jenkins in an interview with Complex, speaking about his song '11' (that referred to the number of times Eric Garner said, 'I can't breathe' before he died).

Okayplayer noted that this song, ‘Falling through’ was ‘a rumbling rebuke of race relations from one of the nation’s many hotbeds of police brutality and harassment.’ A perceptive comment, even if the term ‘hotbeds’ bothers me, as I'd always thought it was used with something positive (a hotbed of activity etc, though I saw the definition used it with treason so I might be wrong here). 

From a conversation with Jenkins in Interview:   

RACIAL TENSION AND POLICE BRUTALITY: 'I started to notice it when I got to Chicago, really. When I was around 11 or 12, that's when I was able to see it. In high school, there was a big let out—all the students would walk in the street, the police would try to keep students out of the street, [so] they would hit them upside the head with billy clubs trying to keep them in line. We weren't being rowdy or anything; we just weren't moving fast enough. It had been affecting me my whole life, I just never realized it. I do rap because black lives matter, but it is not the only reason.'

Quoted in Drew Millard's interview for Noisey (2014)

'Niggas didn’t think I was cool. I got beat up; I’ve been robbed at gunpoint. It’s the same shit. I’ve robbed niggas; I’ve beat up people. I was young and silly and that was the environment that I grew up in, but that’s not how I turned out and I want to represent that. There’s tons of other people who grew up right next to me in those impoverished areas and that’s just not how they turned out. I want to represent that Chicago. I like the fact that it’s two sides because even when Chance reaches out and shouts out Chief Keef it’s because we know those people, and if I don’t know Cheef Keef, I know too many people like that; who look like him, who act like him. It’s all Chicago.'

And The Fader from last year:  

'With everything going on, it’s very easy to cling to all of the negativity. I was feeling like What can I do? How do we solve these problems? I was looking at the perceived solutions like protesting and going through the government. It's also not just about racial injustices. There’s all types of injustices going on and there’s a system in place that continues to push them and we feel like we can’t really fight them on any front. I wanted bring it down to a personal level, when I say “spread love." It mirrors the message that I think Jesus had when he was on the earth. Whether you believe in Jesus or not, understanding the story of him as someone who was really meek mannered and selfless even in the face of some of the most hateful things, all the way down to being killed on the cross.'

***

Over the past day or so I’ve been seeking out articles about, interviews with Mick Jenkins and while of course there is plenty of interest, I’ve also noticed how so many writers go off on tangents, perhaps reflecting a confusion about how best to relate to him and his work (one article opens with a reference to Jenkins’ brief stint in jail; another seems more interested in writing about Jenkins at a fashion show, or something.  Most, if not all, refer to his height).

My inclusion of the above is not to disrespect my colleagues, or even imply that I may be different, but I wanted to mention this as it says something about Jenkins’ apparently ambiguous, hard to locate persona as an artist (though, I don’t think it’s that contradictory, there have always been mystics/seers in hip-hop, alongside intellectuals and Black radicals calling out to people to wake up – to ‘drink more water’ - and see the truth).   

Here is a statement of the obvious: Jenkins is a deeply thoughtful person/presence in contemporary hip-hop, who is almost painfully, aware of the significance of his role as someone with a voice. In interviews, Jenkins repeats often the instance during a murder trial when the accused quoted a rapper’s lyrics as if justifying his crime. Jenkins says it so often, he seems haunted by it. 

Comfortable operating within the realm of abstractions – water is truth; love stems from knowledge; redemption might come after the oppressor and the oppressed submerge themselves in the same waters – Jenkins has said that his primary objective is to open up the conversation about love; to speak about the healing power of love. But this love, he insists is not some kind of Hallmark variety, but one that asks people to look within first and to accept and know themselves. I was particularly struck by Jenkins' point that for many people it was difficult for them to say what they wanted, or needed and thereby made it difficult for them to love and be loved.  

As Jenkins said in an interview with Pigeons and Planes:

'When people talk about love, you really only think about the pretty parts, the romantic parts of love (...) People don’t think about things like loving themselves, and what that takes. And that you have to know yourself to love yourself, and how difficult of a battle that might be.'

The interludes on Jenkins' The Healing Component - conversations with his sister that create a bridge with the work of Lauryn Hill - were meant to show that he, Jenkins, was no expert and was just another human being, trying to make his way. His view on the significance of love was just one of many. As Jenkins explained in an interview with Billboard: 'Diving into love as a topic, you know, the [people in this room] probably don’t agree on what love is, what it looks like, and what it should look like, just because we’ve all had different experiences growing up and becoming men.' 

Jenkins has expressed his ambivalence about performing in front of largely white audiences, in that his primary feeling of responsibility is to speak of and to the Black American experience; that is, to speak to his own.

My first draft of this piece was an extended riff on ‘Fall through’ within a broader discussion the importance of mood in hip-hop and Black American Gothic: it was all very interesting with its reference to DMX and a book written by an academic, and is something I’ll return to I’m sure, at some point, but after writing it I wondered if I were doing the same as so many of the other journalists: not really listening. As Jenkins’ raps in ‘Fall through’: 'I been all around the globe, different languages they feel me they don't hear me though.' 

Note then that I’m offering this appreciation up of ‘Fall through’ – a song that I think is truly beautiful – with a degree of humility; get in contact with me with your own take on its significance, especially if you think I’ve missed it; I’d be more than happy to include your voices in the mix. This is not the final word on the song, by any stretch.

***

Hip-hop has always been concerned with the marking out of territory, status and position; the easiest reading of ‘Fall through’ includes this frame-work …

“So sticks and stones I rub them off
At this hater conjunction I’m an apostrophe, above them all
That’s why I keep my circle small
Seen so many rush as Limbaugh
Niggas talking shit that I just cannot trust at all
But trust I fall, you can trust I’ll tell you just how I trip
Before I ever power trip, brought the light like a power strip
Fuck a Powerade, we bringing water”

especially in the way Jenkins acklowledges the Chicago-based movement of hip-hop artists (Chance the Rapper, Sensei Blue …) But this is not all there is going on here. My interest in the mood of the song reflected the fact that, for me, it's the most striking element and is certainly unique, but what immediately struck me – and it did, with real force – was the extraordinary contrast between the quiet moments in the music, evoking Nature and the urgency of Mick Jenkins’ delivery. Jenkins is presenting us here with a new kind of hip-hop that is at once suggestive and intense; poetic and personal, while maintaining some mystery.  

Reading the lyrics, you can’t really see a ‘coherent’ – for want of a better word – through-line, as there is so much movement (this, I think is a positive thing, adding a kind of intensity to the music because it denies us easy scripting) though by the end of the song there is, I'd suggest, a clear message.

“[Verse 1]
Nigga had to fall on his knees for a second
Stop, dropped and rolled in the middle of this fire
And the smoke, nigga had to go and breathe for a second
Plus I needed direction, a fork in every road at like three intersections
Pray for discernment, I’m seeking his blessing
This ain’t no sermon but vermin ain’t never want to see they reflection
Come and see his reflection
Like...mirror, mirror on the wall
Who’s the most hated of them all?
Most creative of them all
Who’s post-racial, who’s the most basic?
Who despite that loved them all?”

Who is speaking here (and about whom)?

Jenkins uses the first person, so it seems to be something about his life experience, reflecting Jenkins’ uncertainty as one man among many -using the narrative trope of a choice, the fork in the road which isn’t singular, but multiple; but this certainty about perspective becomes unclear by the end of the verse. Who is he speaking of, when he says the ‘most hated' - the 'vermin' - or the man falling to his knees? 

Is he speaking of Black Americans more broadly, reproducing commonly used stereotypes that appear to be benign, but are in fact offering just another cage: ‘Who's the most hated of them all?/Most creative of them all/Who's post-racial, who's the most basic?/Who despite that loved them all?’ 

It's possible that there might be a kind of humour here, playing on the view that Black Americans may be oppressed, but still create great art (you know the athlete/artist escape route) as if that somehow evens it all out. Though I’m not sure if this is right. All of this demonstrates the intelligence of Jenkins' lyricism. On one level, it seems almost sarcastic (with this talk of the US being ‘post-racial’ ...) but then ends on the unexpected and touching line about these unknown subjects being loved.

My interest here is not to try and pin down a unitary interpretation; I like the fact that I'm not sure about what it means, or even that there are multiple meanings. I especially find his repeated use of ‘Who’ interesting, moving from who is being talked about – ‘the most hated – to the unknown one who loves them; are they not the same? This is far, far from basic.

Earlier, Jenkins speaks of ‘vermin’ not wanting to see their reflection, a strong word to use that again does little to clarify who again is the subject here. It is possible he is speaking of himself - or could it be the police forcing a man to kneel before he dies - we, or I, don't know for sure. 

“[Pre-Hook]
When autumn falls, you see the leaves (light, light)
You feel the breeze, you feel the breeze (I see the light)
Hesitate
Hesitate
Hesitate
When autumn falls, you see the leaves (hesistate)
You feel the breeze, you feel the breeze
Descendants of the realest souls
Children of the Indigo
You feel me, y’all don’t hear me though (When autumn falls, you see the leaves)
You feel me, y’all don’t hear me though (You feel the breeze, you feel the breeze)


[Hook]
Don’t you feel the soul?
That’s the truest well
Of all the things you know, do you know yourself?
Well enough to trust the way you go
When you don’t, know the way
See the light, still hesitate
See the light, hesitate”

‘Children of the Indigo’ ...

“[Outro]
’Coz I might fall through if I catch the breeze
Know you probably missed the roots, but I know you seen the leaves (seen the leaves)
We descendants of the illest souls
Children of the Indigo
’Coz I might fall through if I catch the breeze
Know you probably missed the roots, but I know you seen the leaves (seen the leaves)
We descendants of the illest souls
Children of the Indigo”

The intensity and passion brimming inside this song makes it clear, it seems to me, that the sentimental heart of this music is much more than a condemnation of police violence, or a celebration of the Chicago hip-hop scene. It is something much more profound. I can't help when listening to it, especially the question - 'Don't you feel the soul?' - to think that this music is a kind of call for people to recognise the past within the present. It is an act of remembrance. 

(Listen to Curtis Mayfield’s lines in the live version of 'We the people who are darker than blue' to see how similar they are to the Mick Jenkins worldview: ‘Get yourself together, learn to know your side/Shall we commit our own genocide/Before you check out your mind?' And then ... 'I know we've all got problems/That's why I'm here to say/Keep peace with me and I with you/Let me love in my own way.'

There's a lot more that could be written here, deciphering the spiderweb nature of Jenkins' lyrics and how it connects with the past. You could link his repeated reference to water to Nina Simone who was also drawing on a much older musical tradition. I also have a half-memory the late, great poet of the NYC hip-hop underground Capital STEEZ calling himself one of the Children of the Indigo, which is some kind of New Age notion relating to those who are apart from the crowd because of their talent or insight, but I haven't checked this).    

To fall through might then be a call to reconnect with a community and its past: in this sense the evocation of Nature, the breeze, but also the leaves of the trees has a real power to it, suggesting how Nature might offer a kind of succour, while also referring to those who have come before and are still present, waiting to be acknowledged (if those alive are willing to fall through).   

Musically Mick Jenkins’ ‘Fall through’ exists within a deep space atmosphere, the sound effects creating a silvery effect, with the vocals so, so quiet. I first connected with the music as it has such a distinctive sound – such a rare and precious sound; occasionally opening up, the bass-line meandering and never really developing in any sense, whirling around in itself and the beat seemingly always just a little bit behind the vocal-line.   

In an interview on the release of ‘Fall through’ Jenkins emphasised how this music reflected an interest in playing around with tempo and ‘melodic aspects of songs’ - or to use his words, the ‘endearing parts of songs’ that his listeners liked (singing along with it, even if they didn’t understand it). ‘It’s about not being locked into the structure, or time signature’ and ‘creating something new,’ he said. ‘Fall through’ is arguably a supremely artful take on protest music, but it is also intensely private, while reaching out.  

To conclude, I liked this description from a FACT interview that captures something of Mick Jenkins' character and temperament: 

‘Spend two days in Jenkins’ company and he will smile and laugh as much as the average person. And yet, he knows that most people assume he has a grouchy disposition. He says with a laugh that a 6’ 5” black man doesn’t really scream “comedian”; his stoic facial expression comes off as unapproachable.

'I don’t purposely project it,' he says. 'I understand how it could be perceived but it doesn’t bother me to change because that’s not who I am. My normal face, people will ask me what’s wrong. Well, nothing’s wrong. I’m just looking.' 

Paris Récit: Police attack on Théo Luhaka, Aulnay-sous-Bois

On the 2nd February, during a stop and search of one of his friends, a 22-year-old man was brutally assaulted by police in Aulnay-sous-Bois (a poor neighbourhood north of Paris) and is now in hospital recovering from rectal injuries, caused by a police baton. One officer has been charged with rape, another three have also been charged with assault: all have been suspended.

‘There was blood everywhere, on the walls,’ the lawyer defending the man commonly referred to as ‘Théo’ by the media said. During the assault, the police are said to have called Théo Luhaka a ‘negro’ (it might also have been the French equivalent for nigger) ‘bamboula’ and ‘bitch’ and spat at him. For days after the assault, the impoverished housing estates to the north of Paris erupted in anger: cars were burnt and Molotov cocktails thrown in running battles with the police. The French President, François Hollande visited Mr Luhaka in hospital, where the young man called for calm.    

For reasons that remain a little opaque for me, I’ve found it difficult to write on this subject, even though it’s such a simple story - the facts write themselves - and such a familiar one.  

I live in northern Paris, but it is a completely different world to that of Aulnay-sous-Bois. If I walk down the street about five minutes, I’m in a largely immigrant neighbourhood, but in my immediate vicinity it’s cafés filled with tourists and women wearing very long coats and pearly-white sneakers. The extreme deprivation that marks out the poor neighbourhoods surrounding Paris, places like Aulnay-sous-Bois, with its rows of anonymous housing estates is less obvious in my area (though, of course, it is here as well, as is the aggressive police presence).  

Perhaps my ambivalence reflects tiredness about how this story keeps repeating and nothing gets done, alongside broader feelings of suspicion about how news stories of police violence against black men (and boys) play out in the dominant culture, whether it’s Aulnay-sous-Bois, Baltimore or the juvenile jails of the Northern Territory, Australia. (And it is gendered, non-white women are also victimised, of course, but the images we see repeated on the news tend to be of men being hurt, beaten, suffocated or shot)

In the end, I wonder about the value of broadcasting this brutality, without an exploration of the broader context, or statement of explicit political demands. Does the widespread dissemination of images of non-white people being hurt serve to further reinforce racist stereotypes, I wonder, while inflicting further harm on the victimised via the denial of their basic right to privacy? Surely, in the end, this right to be private, to decide how we are seen and perceived by others, is what makes us human.  

And even though it’s rarely said, I also wonder if this dissemination of imagery of violence against non-white people reflects a ghoulish perversity that has a long history, stretching back to the plantation and killing fields of Colonial Australia. Often people, usually white, say racism towards non-white people reflects ‘fear of the other’. It's not always this, racism in its most brutal form enacts a desire to humiliate, to insist upon another person that they are less than human, nothing more than bodies.

For a period of time, my Facebook feed was filled with images of black men being shot by police in the United States, which appeared to be updated on a daily basis by activist groups. (There was one video that didn’t get much attention, but shocked me deeply of a man being shot execution style in an Ohio street by a police officer; in such an ordinary street, in the middle of the day). And I started wondering about the value of all of this.

How effective was it in a political sense to keep seeing these images of people being killed, or handcuffed and shoved to the ground, I thought then, does it raise awareness in a way that leads to reform, prosecution and convictions of the perpetrators, or maintain the status quo (while significantly adding to the stress felt by minority communities in the US)?  

Now this perspective might seem strange coming from a journalist, but it is this professional background that motivates this reaction. In a news-room you quickly learn how and why certain stories rise to the top, usually it comes down to the maxim: ‘If it bleeds, it leads ….’

You also see how quickly stories and victims are forgotten. One of the older journalists used to talk to me about ‘old news’ saying that it had as much interest as ‘yesterday’s fish and chips’ (something that is foul, inedible). Within a few weeks, there is a chance that the abuse of Théo will for many people here in France be seen as old news. Let’s hope I’m proven wrong.

The counter to this point of view is that such videos raise awareness in the general community; well, firstly who is this general community? None of this is news to me, or people with any kind of political consciousness, nor is it news for members of the affected groups. Whose interests are being served here and at what cost?  

In the end, I wonder why this shocking/extreme/brutal representation of racism is privileged by the media above all the other forms of race-based oppression. I have been educating myself about the economics of racism, past and present, in the United States and find this equally disturbing, if not more. But this colder version of race-hate doesn’t get the same kind of airtime on the nightly news and the question is why.  

This is the reason why I haven’t written about the brutalisation of Théo and the death of Adama. I have been watching, though, just like I have been watching the way the police stop and search non-white people in my neighbourhood, and especially the way the police touch the crotches of the young men as they pat them down.

And the way vans full of police in riot gear seem permanently stationed down on Boulevard Barbès, dozens and dozens of police kitted out like over-sized plastic action heroes, their shoulders and knees covered in black like beetles, waiting, just waiting …    

For more background on all of this, have a look at this very strong piece of reporting on the death of Adama Traoré in police custody, again in a small town to the north of Paris in July last year and attack on Théo Luhaka by Iman Amrani and Angélique Chrisafis, published in The Guardian a few weeks ago. 

Ambrosia for Heads interview: BROOKZILL! (Prince Paul, Ladybug Mecca, Don Newkirk, Rodrigo Brandão)

BROOKZILL!: a hybrid musical project, part Brazilian street samba/part Brooklyn, NYC “old school” - defined by travel and transcendence, mapping out connections to discover that the heartbeat of both musical traditions starts in the same place.

Recorded over a 10 year period in Atlanta, Brazil, New York, Throwback to the Future is imprinted with the personality of its makers: Ladybug Mecca, Digable Planets MC with her effortless cool; the high-energy enthusiasm and eclecticism of “producer extraordinaire” Prince Paul; producer and musician Don Newkirk, with his strong Funk sensibility; and the gravel-voiced Brazilian MC, Rodrigo Brandão.

Listening to BROOKZILL! reminds me of a French verb that has no direct translation in English: dépayser which means “to feel disoriented” (or “have a change of scenery“). Lost in the English translation, though, is an idea embedded in the French that refers to taking your country out of you. As the spirited BROOKZILL! collaboration makes clear, there is definite joy and freedom to be found when there are no distinct borders or markers setting out the path. Most of Throwback To The Future is in Brazilian Portuguese (the first language of Brandão, and also Ladybug Mecca, who was raised by Brazilian musician parents in the U.S) with no translations provided. Sounds come and go, drawing on various traditions, creating surprising intersections, familiar and strange at the same time. Certain tracks are playful, with wry references to Hip-Hop; others are dark, sombre and mysterious.

None of this is meant to suggest Throwback To The Future is a tacky, exploitative version of musico-tourism; quite the reverse. In many respects the BROOKZILL! record is defined by its seamless fit, while also offering up a home-coming for Ladybug Mecca, who pays homage to her Brazilian heritage in a way that seems deeply personal.

During a recent interview with Ambrosia For Heads, Ladybug Mecca explained that the BROOKZILL! project was ‘about unity – bringing two worlds together that can transcend anything.’ She continued: “Lyrically we touch on subjects such as personal growth, love and transcendence, celebration of loved ones who have passed (but) unity summarizes it best.”

BROOKZILL!’s Throwback To The Future, with its unexpected guest-artist list (which includes Count Bass D, Del The Funky Homosapien, DJs Kid Koala & Mr. Len, Gil Scott-Heron’s long-time collaborator, Brian Jackson, and a number of Brazilian musicians, including some who had previously performed with Pharaoh Sanders) links the U.S. Hip-Hop underground with Brazilian music, while upsetting fixed notions of what a Hip-Hop-inspired project can or should be.

Stream Throwback To The Future by BROOKZILL!.

Ambrosia For Heads: Paul, you’ve said that this project is all about capturing “the essence” of the two musical genres – Hip-Hop and different forms of Brazilian music – can you develop this more?

Prince Paul: You know, a lot of times, especially nowadays people focus more on what a musician looks like, they go, “Yeah, I got this fabulous record out – with a video!” Everything is visual, everything is marketing and promotion. What we’re doing more or less is stripping this record back to the essence: the drum and the beat, which is both in Brazilian music and in Hip-Hop music and back to melodies and vibes and feelings.

The music is definitely the driving force: the melody, the lyrics, the feeling of the drums … It’s soulful, catchy, the music captures your spirit and soul in the moment and that’s where we have taken this.

All the tracks (on Throwback To The Future) have a melody, a vibe and a feel to them. I tried to make one of those records where you can close your eyes and go on a journey and see where it takes you, as opposed to: “Oh man, I’m gonna skip that track, oh man, this one’s horrible.” [Laughs] I tried to make everything feel and vibe a certain way and that to me the essence of both genres.

Ambrosia For Heads: How would you compare the Hip-Hop beat and the beat in different forms of Brazilian music?

Prince Paul: Rodrigo?

Rodrigo Brandão : Okay, I would say the 4/4 rhythm of Hip-Hop is like the bread of a sandwich. You can put anything inside that beat and it’ll fit, you know. If you do it the right way, it’ll fit. It’s the same with Brazilian music because if you do it properly you’ll see the African heritage, so the poly-rhythms of African music then translated to the Brazilian continent, which is a country but the size of a continent … The Hip-Hop beat is universal and I see that as the bread of a sandwich, and what we’re putting into the sandwich is what’s making it unique and very different.

Ambrosia For Heads: P-Funk is a key influence for BROOKZILL!, Newkirk, could you talk about this more?  

Don Newkirk: I think that music from that era set the tone for hip-hop in general – that was the soundtrack, you could say, that the early Hip-Hop artists pulled from when they, or when we, started making Hip-Hop: it was that music from the ’70s; the Funk scene, James Brown, Parliament, Funkadelic.

Ambrosia For Heads: Could you break it down more, with reference to “Mad Dog in Yoruba” as there seems to be a strong connection there.

Don Newkirk: Definitely, especially with “Mad Dog [In Yoruba]” – the song is a great example of that influence: the horn arrangements, the groove itself, the drums. It all connects. The break element, that song is like a musical break, you know a B-Boy break almost.

When we started doing the horns, Paul was like, “Yeah that’s the vibe right there.” I think that certain things are ingrained so much in your subconscious it just comes out of you. “Mad Dog” is a good example of the B-Boy element, the Funk element from the ’70s. We didn’t set out to do it like that, it wasn’t like: “Let’s make this.’ After we made it we realized how much it borrowed from that vibration of the ’70s.

Ambrosia For Heads: It also has an Afro-beat vibe, linking with what Rodrigo was saying before.

Don Newkirk: Yeah, definitely. One thing I learned after Paul and I had the opportunity of working with the great Bernie Worrell – R.I.P. Bernie –  music in general is relative. It doesn’t matter if it’s classical or funk. There’s always a relation in there, what you’re seeing in the Afrobeat and the Brazilian vibration, the Afro-Cuban beat like Rodrigo says everything starts with the drums, starts with the rhythm: it all goes back to African rhythms basically.

Prince Paul Drops a Mixtape Highlighting Digable Planets’ Ladybug Mecca (Audio)

Ambrosia For Heads: The interplay between the MCs on this track is striking, can you talk more about this, Rodrigo, Mecca.

Rodrigo Brandão: Ladies first.

Ladybug Mecca: My verse is more rooted in the Hip-Hop genre, there’s not one particular subject matter, it’s touching on anything that came to mind. Rodrigo and I vibed so well, we were like brother and sister from the moment we met. It was just easy for us to conceptualize records and to throw it back and forth in the true Hip-Hop form. It just came very naturally for us.

Ambrosia For Heads: For those who might not know the language, what are you rhyming about?

Rodrigo Brandão: What I can say, basically, what I can say about this whole project is – we didn’t look to achieve a certain sound, or certain style, we just let it flow. After we looked at the baby to put on a name on it. Have you heard of Eshu?

Ambrosia For Heads: [Pauses] No, I don’t think so.

Rodrigo Brandão: He is probably the most powerful of all gods (in Yoruba culture), he has the power to do whatever he wants and change whatever he wants real quick, so this song in a very abstract and non-intentional way describes the power and the size of actions of Eshu. The track is about him and his power.

Ambrosia For Heads: Gil Scott-Heron’s main collaborator through the 70s, Brian Jackson features on “Nascido No Ceu” how did he get involved?

Rodrigo Brandão : Brian Jackson is one of those icons, you listen to your whole life. When you actually have a chance to interact with him, he’s just a dude, he’s your brother, like the coolest man ever. People like him should be the power in the world. If you have the chance to kick with them, to vibe with them, you just take it. Brian Jackson is one of those unsung heroes. His music with Gil Scott-Heron is so timeless.

He’s pretty much the fifth member of the group, the first show that we did at SOBs in New York, it was just the four of us, and Brian Jackson on stage.

Ambrosia For Heads: Was there any conscious design behind the way the musical elements were used in that song?  

Prince Paul: Rodrigo touched on it and Newkirk, not just this track but the overall feeling of the album, we just played music for the sake of making it, which is pretty foreign nowadays. People go into the studio with a goal in mind, we were like let’s just make music so we gave Brian Jackson no direction. It was, take the music, whatever you feel is right.

A lot of the elements and the music is what the musician feels, just about the only direction I would give anyone is,”That! Repeat that verse! Do that stab over in this area.” [Most of the time] it was whatever they felt that was how we went with it. That translates to the whole album, it’s your soul speaking to the instrument. And that’s what I really think is the beauty of it. It’s like when we do interviews, people ask us to describe whatever, it’s really hard, because it just is. [Laughs]

Prince Paul Pushed More Boundaries With His Prince Among Thieves Film (Video)

Ambrosia For Heads: Can you talk about the recording process now, as the project took 10 years. And can you provide an overview of the record, do all the tracks use live performance, are some sample-based only, or a mix of both?

Prince Paul: I would say it's inspired by being sample-based. The melodies you hear, me and Rodrigo would sit down and go, “We like that. That’s the kind of vibe we want for this song. Let’s move it into that mode.”

Going back to the title, Throwback To The Future I have to reference doing things now and the way things used to be done. The easiest way to [complete the album] would have been like “I’m going to send you some beats and we can swap back and forth over the Internet, whatever.”

But we made a conscious decision to be in the same place at the same time so the distance is what made the process so long. Rodrigo comes to New York to my studio, we get the skeleton of it together, man, we go to Brazil with Newkirk to get the musicians, we go back to Atlanta. We go to Brooklyn to mix it, you know. [Laughs] Wanting to keep the tradition of us being together, it took a minute; when you’ve got families and life kicks in, you look up and it’s 10 years later.

Ambrosia For Heads: Newkirk has said it was very “old school” in that 95 % of the recording sessions had all four members in the same room, why is this important for a record like this?

Don Newkirk: I think it’s important for all records. The nature of music is communal; people are meant to be in the same room together. People used to hang out around a camp fire, or smoke a peace-pipe or sit on the plains of Africa with some drums and just go at it, have fun. Music is a communal effort, man.

As time went on [musicians] got more and more segregated, not just vibrational but that too. The creation of music became segregated and it’s an oxymoron when you think about it, because music is supposed to be something that brings people together. People come together and feel good, or feel whatever it makes you feel, it takes you on a journey …

That’s how we used to do it when we were younger. That’s why the further back you go in music the more feeling you start to pick up, it doesn’t even matter the genre. I don’t care if it’s Hip-Hop or R&B, there was more feeling because there was people in the room sitting there vibing and then there is an almost an angelic force when people are in unison, in a vibration it’s like a lot of angels and ancestors come in and inspire you.

That just doesn’t happen when you’re by yourself. It’s hard for me to work like that. I can’t just send people tracks, or people send me tracks and then write a song, you miss the full intention of it. You miss the complement of someone else’s words, or notes, or melodies.

Ambrosia For Heads: Mecca, could you describe the role Brazilian music played in shaping your delivery –  remembering that you were raised by two Brazilian musician parents?

Ladybug Mecca: Portuguese was my first language and when I entered an American school, I started to learn English, but it’s interesting that I would still speak a combination of English and Portuguese as a young person and even in my teenage years. I think the use of both those languages naturally would affect my art and the way my thought process works, how to express an observation or feeling.

I don’t know how to put it into words … my use of space and pauses in my delivery is one way of saying how [this background] affects me.

Ambrosia For Heads: There’s a kind of private quality, a holding back and control in your work that reminds me of Brazilian singers.

Ladybug Mecca: [Pauses] That’s the first time I’ve heard that kind of comment. It’s very possible as for most of my life, the first music I ever heard was traditional old school Brazilian music, my father had a radio that was tuned in to Brazilian music. It was a constant for us. There definitely has to be a direct relationship.

Digable Planets Reflect On Their Travels Through Time & Space And They’re Still Light Years Ahead

Ambrosia For Heads: Could you choose a Brazilian singer who has a strong connection with what you do?

Ladybug Mecca: I would say Clara Nunes. I vibe with her a lot, everything about her story resonates with me.

Prince Paul On Which Grammy Album He Got No Credit For, Magic Of Gravediggaz (Audio)

Ambrosia For Heads: To close, “Todos os Terreiros” is surely the key track in terms of the record’s Hip-Hop/Brazilian hybrid sound…

Prince Paul: If anything shows the way Rodrigo and I worked it’d be that song. He’d come in and say, “This is what I’m thinking, these are the sounds I want to use.” I’d sit there and think, “Mmm, how am I going to work this in with head-nodding?”

One good thing about Hip-Hop and you can see this historically, you can put any genre in that 4/4 beat and it bangs, but this one I was actually scratching my head going, “Let’s see if this will work.” [Laughs] I said, “Yo, I’m going to do the opposite of what this rhythm calls for, because it’s melodic and soft which is nice, so let’s throw in some boom bap in there.” That’s the result of the two worlds coming together.

That track is all over the place, meshing spacey synth sounds and traditional Brazilian sounds and throwing in some occasional boom bap drums – with which, for me, you can never lose. It could be a wedding march and if you throw in some boom bap on it, it works.

Ambrosia For Heads: What are your future plans, I see you’re planning some tours.

Prince Paul: Our plan is to travel the world. And if we were able to travel outside the atmosphere and into the universe [laughing] we’d go there too.

Paris-based Australian journalist, Madeleine Byrne writes on music and politics. To read more of her work, included extended interviews/essays, and other Hip-Hop related writing, visit her website

The Commandant’s Daughter (Travelling South)

Females guilty of disobedience of orders, neglect of work, profane, obscene or abusive language, insubordination, or other turbulent or disorderly or disrespectful conduct, shall be punished by the superintendent with close confinement in a dark or other cell, until her case shall be brought under consideration of the Principal Superintendent.

Rules & Regulations, 1829, Cascades Female Factory, South Hobart

 

I am doing my best during this visit to be quiet and observe. I use silence as a way of keeping distance and protecting myself; in conversations with my father, for example, to avoid complications, or any situation that my son calls ‘awkward’.

To achieve this, I take on an earlier persona that is very familiar to me, from my years of growing up and young adulthood in Melbourne; a part of me I name ‘The Governess’ or ‘The Abolitionist’ - nineteenth century, inevitably, so grave; seen to be disapproving, stern and perhaps lacking in feeling outside her moral quest. The woman who can be depended on to remember the titles of obscure books or records, dates and the endless cycle of historical ‘cause and effect’ when required, furnishing fact-based knowledge that can be useful in arguments.

One of those women from the Colonial era, her skin becoming paler as a result of the moment of being photographed, or because of the contrast with her sober clothes, hair flattened and darkened hard against her scalp.

All this reminds me of a portrait owned previously by my grandfather, perhaps bought in Vienna, the man my father says was a ‘tyrant’ but also a great aesthete with an expansive knowledge of European high culture. I recall how my mother spoke about her girlhood as spent hiding out in hollowed out trees, where the dirt at her feet was coloured grey, and the branches all around her …

Trying to remember her, where the ants pricked at her bare feet, so white in the shadows. I’m crying now as I feel her absence.

 

On the way to Port Arthur, the bus driver tells us the story of the Commandant’s daughter, who ‘escaped’ (is that the right word to use here; she went missing; left?) one afternoon and how her nanny was punished as a consequence: three days in solitary confinement. I think about this forgotten woman punished for the wrongdoing of another.

At Port Arthur, my father, son and I try to find the cell where the servant was imprisoned, with no success. We don’t have enough time. We also try to find a stone table where – the bus driver told us – the prison doctor carried out experiments on inmates that resembled the ‘research’ carried out under the direction of Eduard Wirths at Auschwitz. The bus driver told us that there were ghosts in this space, in this place. (Later I try to fact-check either of the above stories, but find nothing online to prove or disprove them).

Our visit is a little rushed, there is so much to see. We walk up the hill to the Separate Prison, built in 1849 – that at the time of construction was seen to reflect ‘modernity’ in nineteenth century penology, in that ‘harsh physical punishment within the prison was rejected in favour of punishment of the mind. Flogging gave way to solitary confinement.’

Outside a sign asks visitors to be silent so that we can imagine how it felt to be jailed here. This sign appealed to me, as this silence I thought was also asking us white Australians to show some respect at this ‘sacred site’ in our country’s history; a prison, that although considered enlightened - a ‘Model Prison’ - drove its inmates insane.

A prison with its own innovative brand of cruelty (see the masks, silence and isolation) that might symbolise the particularly Australian penchant for torture, seeing that we as a people have inflicted official forms of torture, under the rubric of punishment and control, on the young; the weak and vulnerable; the poor, the non-citizen and non-white repeatedly since 1788.

‘This is so familiar,’ I say to my father after reading that the Separate Prison inmates were referred to by the number of their cell, never by their names. I say how asylum seekers imprisoned at Curtin, or Woomera were likewise never named. Camp guards there used numbers that included a reference to their ship of arrival when speaking of the immigration detainees, or the ‘residents’ as they were sometimes called.

‘This is worse,’ my father replies. ‘As here it’s the number of the cell, the building, nothing that relates to them as an individual.’

For these prisoners, kept in total silence (guards wore felt slippers and used sign language to avoid making any sound) spending 23 hours a day in their single-occupant cell, the mark of their identity referred to the prison building. Prisoners in this sense merged with the stones, the walls that imprisoned them.

At the Separate Prison, my ten-year-old son dashes about, rushing around the white-washed halls, in and out of the cells and then to the pulpit of the Chapel (my father takes a photo of him there). Prisoners were let out of their cells for one hour a day - when outside they were hooded - to exercise, or go to Chapel, where they were held in individual cubicles facing forward to hear the sermon like soon to be butchered cattle.

According to a Port Arthur Historic Site fact sheet, to revolt against the system prisoners ‘would insert their words to ‘talk’ to their fellows under the cover of hymn singing’.

‘Come here, come here,’ my son pulls at us. ‘Come here.’ He leads us to the prison’s punishment area, known as ‘the dumb cell’ that today has a small light-bulb flickering illumination, but where in the past prisoners were kept for periods of up to 30 days in total darkness and silence, locked into a pitch-black space behind four heavy doors. I imagine how it must have felt to hear the first door locked, the second, the third …

The jail exhibit mentions that the Separate Prison’s ethos continues at ‘Supermax’ prisons, such as the ‘Katingal’ unit inside Long Bay Correctional Centre in Sydney, which had surveillance cameras, electronically operated doors and no windows, but was closed in 1978 after human rights complaints. Today, Australia’s remaining ‘Supermax’ area is at Goulburn – a place named the High Risk Management Unit (HRMU), but the prisoners call HARM-U.

 

The Governor’s House is a ruin now, but if you look down from the small hill, there is a beautiful garden with a fountain. The guide at Port Arthur says how the two axes of the prison were symbolised by the Commandant’s House on one hill, on the facing side, and the Church on the other, keeping watch over the inmates. When walking down the elegant incline of the garden, my father comments how seeing this garden, so well-tended with the delicate roses, makes him think of Nazi concentration camps – civilisation and barbarity.

At Sachenhausen, Buchenwald, Dachau and Auschwitz where the officers forced inmates to play music (one site refers to the repertoire including ‘marches, camp anthems, salon music, easy-listening and dance music, popular songs, film and operetta melodies, opera excerpts, and classical music such as Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony’).

“Black milk of morning we drink you at night
we drink you at dawntime and noontime we drink you at dusktime
we drink and drink
There’s a man in this house who cultivates snakes and who writes
who writes when it’s nightfall nach Deutschland your golden hair Margareta
your ashen hair Shulamite we scoop out a grave in the sky where it’s roomy to lie
He calls jab it deep in the soil you lot there you other men sing and play
he tugs at the sword in his belt he swings it his eyes are blue
jab your spades deeper you men you other men you others play up again for the dance”

— 'Death Fugue' Paul Celan, trans. Jerome Rothenberg

Nigel, the bus driver, with his brown hair sticking low from his head like broken wires, cheeks coloured by rosacea, maintains a steady monologue the length of the journey from Hobart to Port Arthur, cracking jokes and telling stories of cannibalism to the small group of tourists (my father, my son and I; two other Australians and five Chinese people, three of whom sleep the entire journey). My father says: ‘Bus drivers on tours always have this kind of patter’.

Imagine the situation, Nigel says, you steal something out of desperation, out of poverty, remember this is the time of the Famine (this convict in his telling is Irish) you come to Hobart you work, but you’re depressed, there’s nothing to do, missing your wife and children so you drink, you commit another crime and are sent to Port Arthur. Imagine this life, he says, the sadness of it.

And yet, another guide at Port Arthur – a man with a very loud, forceful voice he seems to be speaking against the elements, against the wind - cautions us against thinking that the Port Arthur convicts were ‘misunderstood victims’. He says: they were, in fact, ‘bad, bad men’ ... ‘the worst of the worst’ for whom being lashed was a mark of honour (he provides detail abut how a flogging cut through the skin to the bone). He urges us to remember that Port Arthur offered a way out to these men from the ‘mean streets’ of London, from the North of England.

As at Port Arthur if you wanted to improve your circumstances you could. You could learn a trade, and many did. There was a library, he gestures to the upper walls of the ruined Penitentiary building, with hundreds of books: not just religious books, all kinds of books. This chance to redeem yourself, the guide says, was even more marked for the boys sent here. Those boys sent to Point Puer, who were kept separate from the male inmates - ‘for obvious reasons’ - and kept there on the island, he gestures across the expanse of water. I feel cold in my inappropriate clothing. Those boys, the guide at Port Arthur says, were offered a new start in this country, impossible to imagine if they stayed in England. (According to the Port Arthur Historic Site website, three thousand boys were sent to the prison at Point Puer between 1834 and 1849 – the youngest inmate was nine years-old).

On the way to Port Arthur, before launching into a never-ending, gory tale of convict Alexander Pearce’s multiple escapes from Sarah Island, out there on Tasmania’s wild, wild West Coast, who at one point of the narrative was watched by Aborigines amazed to see this white man eating the corpses of ‘his mates’ (especially remembering how for them food was everywhere in the bush) Nigel refers to the Four Corners documentary on Don Dale I watched the night before, linking this modern-day atrocity with how children were treated at Port Arthur.

A few days later in Melbourne, on our way to our first decent coffee of the morning at a local café, I carry a newspaper that has a photo of Dylan Voller, his face covered in a ‘spit-mask’ shackled by his ankles and wrists to a ‘mechanical restraint’ (a metal chair where the 17 year-old will be immobilised for around two hours after reports that he threatened to self-harm, while being held at a prison in Darwin that had previously held adult prisoners).

On seeing Voller’s photo, his face hooded, his body shackled, my son, bouncing down the South Yarra street, after noting the expensive imported cars (‘Look Mum a Lamborghini, another Mercedes …’) calls out: ‘Port Arthur, Port Arthur!’

 

‘How’s that, that bit alright?’

‘There ya go. Yep no, worries. Alright you keep chilling out yeah?’

Dylan Voller replies: ‘Yeah’

‘We’ll come back and revisit this, yeah? We don’t wanna keep you in here.’

(Guards instructing)

‘Alright. You’re doing well.

 

I watched the August 2014 CCTV footage from Don Dale Youth Detention Centre of a 14 year-old boy (Jake Roper) trying to open the door to his isolation cell in the Behavioural Management Unit with a broken light-bulb and then screaming out in his distress after being locked up for 15 days on my phone at the Best Western hotel in Hobart.

The door to the boy’s cell that had no running water, no natural light, no fan or air conditioning, we are told, was left open by mistake that afternoon. The boy enters the main area, outside the other cells where another five children (aged 14-17) are also being kept.

He calls out: ‘I’ve been in the back cells for how long bruz?!’

The guard replies: ‘Have you had time out or not?’

‘Yeah, but I’ve been fuckin’ stuck in here for how long?!’

Four guards behind the reinforced door watch the child lose control, bashing against the walls and breaking windows; as do the other five children, some of whom are seen literally trying to climb up the walls, or repeatedly scratching their names onto the concrete walls. Two boys are locked in one of the cells, unable to walk around because of the lack of space.

‘That door’s not going to hold,’ one guard says.

‘He’s supposed to be getting out next week,’ says another.

Some can be heard laughing, during the 36 minute recording, others add: ‘Fuckin’ idiot’ and ‘He’s an idiot, bro.’ More laughter.

‘If he tries to get in, poke him back through,’ says one. You can hear the child banging against the walls, smashing windows. ‘Go grab the fuckin’ gas and fuckin’ gas them through fuckin’ get Jimmy to gas them through here.’

The distressed child is tear-gassed, as are the other children for eight minutes. ‘I can’t fuckin’ breathe,’ the child says.

‘That’ll learn you,’ says a guard in response.

One guard adds: ‘Now he’s shitting himself.’

At one point a guard says: ‘Let the fucker come through because while he’s comin’ through he’ll be off balance, I’ll pulverise, I’ll pulverise the little fucker. Oh shit, were recording hey.’ The six boys dressed only in shorts, are then taken outside by guards in protective masks where they are handcuffed and shoved face down in the dirt to be washed down by a firehose. Don’t put it in my face, one of the children says, I can’t breathe.

Adapted from Australia's Shame by Caro Meldrum-Hanna, Four Corners ABC, broadcast 25 July 2016

 

One of the first things I did after returning home was to go to the Melbourne Museum’s Indigenous Bunjilaka exhibition with a friend and my son who ran around, between the displays while telling us that people in the photographs weren’t ‘Aborigines’ (because they were too pale-skinned) to then receive a quiet lesson from me on Australia’s history. My friend was impressed when my little boy knew the word ‘segregation’ when talking about racism and my work in the United States, I felt proud as well, of course.

Before we entered the exhibit my friend gave my son a tiny Aboriginal Land Rights flag badge that he could wear on his jacket. My son replied that he was worried if he wore it, it might damage his clothes.

‘Ah, the Black Prince,’ my friend said when I mentioned the name of Brian Martin the first Commissioner appointed to Royal Commission into the Detention of Children in the Northern Territory that was announced within the 24 hours of the Four Corners report’s broadcast (Martin later resigned over perceived ‘conflicts of interest’ to be replaced by Mick Gooda, former Australian Human Rights Commission Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner and Margaret White, a former Supreme Court of Queensland justice).

My friend mentioned Martin’s judgement in a 2009 case in Alice Springs, where five white Australian men – the so-called ‘Ute 5’ - were convicted of ‘manslaughter by negligence’ for a case where the men drove their utility vehicle into a camp of Aboriginal people at Todd River, shouting out racist epithets (calling the campers ‘niggers’ and ‘black bastards’ according to two witnesses) and brutally kicked one man, Kwementyaye Ryder, causing his death.

During his sentencing, Martin repeatedly referred to the fact that the young men, aged between 18-23 were all of ‘good character’. The fact that they had gone at one point to get a replica of a Colt 45, which they shot into the air, causing the campers to scatter meant very little (and there was ‘no sinister purpose’ behind them returning with the pistol, he said: ‘You only wanted to have fun by firing it and making a loud noise as you drove around.' In general, Martin claimed, the men were simply ‘hooning’ as their counsel claimed, or ‘lairising’).

‘Of otherwise good character,’ my friend repeated.

For my friend who has spent the past two decades working closely with the families of people who have died in prisons and police custody, the announcement of the Royal Commission meant very little. At no point had the government done the most basic thing needed, my friend said, there was no call for the end of solitary confinement for juvenile detainees.

No statement as to how the children would have any redress, as a result of the inquiry. No mention of the racist assumptions underpinning the shocking rates of incarceration among Australia's Indigenous communities; no talk of how the investigation might cover other jurisdictions with similar problems.

Earlier, my friend searched out a photo of Dylan Voller on his phone – the child whose abuse from the age of 13 within the prisons of the Northern Territory was displayed to the world on the Four Corners program, his mother says that her son had been in and out of the system from the age of 10, or 11  – smiling with his sister. ‘See, this is a nice photo of Dylan, see this photo, this one here.’

 

At the Cascades Female Factory Historic Site, the few ruins of the convict prison and later asylum where women were interned in Hobart – we go there together, my son and I by bus in the cold weather, along the streets with no trees – I see that there is a display in a glass case. I look closer and see that the convict has the same name as my late mother. I look closer:

Byrne Ann

Tried: Kildare 20 March 1849

Embarked: 7 years

Arrived: 29 September 1849

Roman Catholic neither read nor write

 

Transported for: felony gold watch & chain. Gaol Report: convicted before, quiet, single. Stated this offence: stealing a gold watch & chain from Mr Wilson at Kildare (previous conviction) discharged for linen. Single.

Surgeon’s Report: Bad.

Ann Byrne was aged 23, five foot 3 inches and a third, with a fresh freckled complexion, with a round head and dark hair; a high forehead, dark eyebrows, light hazel eyes, small mouth and a large chin, according to the official report.

Weeks later I’m trying to find notes, or photographs on my phone that I took that day to describe her, unsure if I have confused ‘Ann Byrne’ with other women sent to the Factory, who were branded ‘insolent’ and punished for this; women who were separated into three distinct ‘classes’ and punished if they spoke with members of another class. Women who gave birth at the Factory, women who grew old within its walls and the women who died there.

Detroit Project

Not so long ago the UK newspaper, The Guardian published a story about an American artist ‘bringing a Detroit family home’ (to the Netherlands). Unsurprisingly the sarcastic Brits commenting BTL enjoyed the ambiguous headline. What, they asked, the artist had adopted an entire Detroit family and took them home, as if they were pets for Christmas? 

No, the artist and newspaper subs were forced to reply (and later change the headline): the artist had moved a ‘family home’ from Detroit which was then rebuilt in Rotterdam. 

When thinking about this so-called ‘Detroit project’ I thought about this artwork and how deep the association between Detroit, decay, dispossession (what some call 'ruin porn') is now among outsiders and how all other aspects of the living city - and the people who live there - are overlooked in the process. 

If I'm honest, when I think of Detroit I have zero visions in my mind. And yet the city intrigues me, mainly because such intractable (musical) genius has emerged there, despite or maybe because of what one of the interviewees here described as ‘the struggle’. This idea sustains me.  

If I think about the music that matters to me personally - Alice ColtraneStevie Wonder (circa 1972-1980) ...

and when I was younger, Patti Smith, The Stooges - everything of real importance musically from the US somehow seems to come from Detroit. Interestingly, this then continued with hip-hop, in that the track that brought me back to the genre was Black Milk's 'Everyday Was' from his landmark 2014 record If there's a hell below ...

When I first heard that piece of music, it was as if air divided in my chest.  

First up/featured is the gifted MC Nametag Alexander who burst into my consciousness with one of my preferred hip-hop tracks of the past few years, 'Hookless' (feat Mahd, prod. by Nameless).

Then there's an interview with Detroit record label boss, Jay 'Pauly' Lovejoy from BenOfficial Music; a composite interview - a Detroit mix - between Nappz Julian, Maj James and NateOGDetroit and to finish a very cool conversation with Loe Louis from Detroit's Laswunzout - one of the seminal, pioneering hip-hop acts from the city that soldered the so-called Detroit sound.* 

Hope you like it. 

*Been around enough hip-hop journalism/culture to note the competitive edge - it should be noted that none of this is a 'hot picks'/a top-5 (flashing lights, flashing lights) or anything else: my mind doesn't work that way, some of this is friend-related, some of it is related to chance. 

Changa Onyango Interview, Community Mediation Baltimore after first acquittal in Freddie Gray police officer trial

‘Apathy is the word I'd use,’ Mr Changa Onyango replied via email when asked how people in West Baltimore responded to the decision that saw Officer Edward Nero cleared of all charges. ‘The people don’t hold out hope for justice in any tangible ways any more. Mainly they were happy to see that the world give them a nod for 15 seconds.’

Twenty-five year old West Baltimore native Freddie Gray died on April 19th after suffering a ‘high-energy injury’ an autopsy report said came from the sudden deceleration of the police van in which he was travelling, shackled and handcuffed, but not restrained by a seat-belt. As a result of his injuries – a severed spine and crushed voice box - Mr Gray fell into a coma and died a week after his arrest.

Baltimore’s former Police Commissioner Anthony Batts said the officers stopped three times: first, to put Mr Gray in leg-irons, second to ‘deal with Mr Gray’ and then to put another prisoner in the van. He also acknowledged that: ‘We know our police employees failed to get him medical attention in a timely manner multiple times.’ After a medical examiner’s report ruled Mr Gray’s death a ‘homicide’ six police officers were indicted on charges ranging from reckless endangerment, manslaughter to 2nd degree depraved-heart murder.

Last December a jury failed to reach a verdict regarding one police officer. During the most recent May hearing, Officer Nero was cleared of all charges (two counts of second degree assault; misconduct in office and false imprisonment). Legal commentators claim that the reasons for the acquittal provided by Judge Barry Williams might indicate a higher chance of a conviction in the remaining cases, especially in that he argued Officer Nero’s role was ‘secondary’ so he was not responsible for the fact that Mr Gray was not restrained properly.

The case of the officer driving the van, Caesar Goodson, begins next. He faces 30 years in jail if convicted of a murder charge. Considering the evidence that show Mr Gray’s injuries were caused by the van’s sudden stop and a proven history of ‘rough rides’ in police vans in Baltimore, many believe that the case against Goodson is strong.

And yet, as Mr Onyango explained this raises difficult issues for the local community. ‘A lot of people see it as a color issue or race issue and one of the key defendants is black. People don't want to see at the end that their protesting etc ends up sending a black person to jail - cop or not.’ Caesar Goodson, the driver of the police van, is African-American.

During the first Freddie Gray trial, Mr Onyango organised a series of open mics across the city so people could speak and be heard. ‘A big part of the violence (following Freddie Gray’s funeral on April 27th) happened because people had no place to fellowship. Churches weren’t open,’ he said. ‘There was nowhere you could take refuge from all the negativity. Having places open their doors and posting a sign up that says..."no judgement zone...speak your piece" was a way for us to be cultural relevant in our response.’

With more than 20 years experience working in West Baltimore, Changa Onyango is the Executive Director of Community Mediation and also helped set up two other non-profits in the city: OBI and Group Harvest. He explained the importance of his work this way:

As a mediator I facilitate tough conversations when people have a hard time getting themselves heard. The main thing we do is modelling the active listening skill in the context of conversation. We know through research that the best chance for peace is when both sides feel heard and understood. We train volunteers to do the mediations and we use local spots like conference rooms or churches to have the mediations in the community. Our mediators are trained not to input information or restate peoples position.. we only reflect, listen... listen, reflect. Its the key to people feeling like they own the solution. 

OBI is a non-profit that provides training to local boys and was founded after Mr Onyango travelled ‘around the country doing the training for other groups on contract through the United Way and Youthbuild USA’. While Group Harvest ‘came as a collaboration between myself and Rodney Powell who is now an administrator in Connecticut public schools.’

As he explained: ‘We decided to create a company that would go around and teach teachers through professional development workshops and also engaged directly with students to help build climate that over time could change the culture of student teacher relationships.’

In a series of YouTube videos, Mr Onyango has offered up some interesting perspectives on the best way to motivate young people via a concept of ‘leverage’ without returning to harsh discipline, or physical punishment that can entrench a sense of disengagement. He describes how he tries to motivate his own children to strive for better, while reinforcing a spirit of collaboration, rather than a winner take all mentality.

I asked him to speak about this more:

‘My theory is there are three main ways to motivate people; the first being to influence their preference the second being to introduce a logical idea and the third being violence. If children are people then we have to use one of these three to get them to make decisions that are in line with what we think they should do. If children are not people and they are instead property, then we can just pick them up and manoeuvre them however we wish.’

He continued: ‘I don't wish to treat my children as property so I have had to retrain myself to treat them as humans regardless of their size I've had to retrain myself to respect their logical processes and to introduce to them the reasons behind my decisions and actions as well as the reasons behind what I wish for them to do. I've also have to convince myself to be okay with the fact that this will not always work. In our society external influence is pervasive. In poor families it's even more so.’

The neighborhood where Freddie Gray lived in West Baltimore faces a series of issues, Mr Onyango explained. One of the most important being the lack of good quality housing. This problem is not new. Indeed, Freddie Gray’s mother won a court settlement after laboratory tests in the 1990s found Gray and his two sisters had double the level the State of Maryland defines as the minimum of lead poisoning. The lead came from squalid walls of the home where they lived. While a 2014 Maryland Department of Environment report found that more than 2,600 children in Baltimore had dangerous levels of lead in their blood.

‘West Baltimore is a very complicated set of circumstances. There's a lot of history that still effects and informs policy at high levels as well as individual decision-making at the lowest levels. There is still plenty of bigotry and hatred between disparate groups,’ Mr Onyango said. ‘The roots if you follow them deeply enough usually go back to resources and territory or property. Everyone wants to build a legacy and in America there's really only a few ways to do it.’ And yet, ‘the problem with trying to build a legacy (...) is that you must own the means of production. In this case that means of production is usually space.’

‘Baltimore is one of the highest concentration of dissing franchise black folk in terms of real estate meaning that the ratio of people who own is extremely low,’ he explained. ‘The fact is that this was intentional and very evident, yet no effort has been made to reverse the very real and lasting effects so this is the biggest reason that the hate endures.’

In conclusion, Mr Onyango said: ‘Poor education, Black Afluenza, discriminatory hiring practices, and media stigma are all also real contributors to the current climate,’ but in the end, the ‘housing/space ownership dilemma is the biggest piece of the puzzle for Baltimore.’

To find out more about Community Mediation Baltimore, go to http://communitymediation.org/

Thank you Omi Muhammad for organizing this interview.

Marco Polo Interview

When asked to identify the key element of his aesthetic, Toronto-born New York-based hip-hop producer Marco Polo answered simply: ‘the drums.

Drums are always the centre of my beats; they’re always hard-hitting, aggressive: you feel them, cause that’s how I was brought up as a fan of producers like DJ Premier, Large Professor. It’s all about the kicks and the snares, you know. And then of course the musical elements too: it’s a vibe. To answer your question, I think what defines my beats, what people probably know, it’s my drums.’

Having worked with many of the greats since coming to New York in 2003 (Pharoahe Monch, Rakim, Masta Ace, Large Professor, Torae among others) and also new generation voices, Marco Polo has marked out a defined niche within the hip-hop genre; that builds on the past, while creating a sound that is distinctively his own.

What immediately strikes you about Marco Polo’s music is its impact; there is something complete - or totalising - about it. Whereas many hip-hop producers allow space between the elements, letting in an airiness or lightness of tone (or irony) Marco Polo’s music is about how the elements come together in a united front. There is an intensity to this music that rarely lets up.

***

In a 2015 article a Guardian journalist made the rather outlandish claim that Marco Polo was keeping the New York hip-hop sound alive - or to be more accurate, he claimed that Marco Polo 'defined' the sound of New York hip-hop. While this journalist's statement is something I'm sure Marco Polo would never agree with, it's interesting to compare his production with one of his key influences, DJ Premier (who many believe is the sound of New York hip-hop). 

For Marco Polo, DJ Premier is a key influence and inspiration: 'the king of drums ... (who) set the bar for drum programming’. But there are definite differences between the two producers. Most of the time, DJ Premier’s music is driven by a hard beat, but his arrangements appear to be sparse (appear to be are the key words here). The music is so pure so that the elements can be heard in isolation and the structure is exposed via a highlighting of each part: the drums/the MC/samples/the DJ scratching over it. When listening to this music you can recognise and appreciate the work’s inherent logic: its elegant classicism.

In contrast, Marco Polo’s production style often feels like a ‘wall of sound’ with elements working together, moving in different patterns and directions, backed up by the emphatic beat. This approach reminds me of a 70s rock aesthetic (though Marco Polo stressed that ‘at the end of the day I’ve got to bring it back to hip-hop, it can’t be too rock n’ roll’) or perhaps some of the wilder funk exponents from that era.

Marco Polo is best known perhaps for an early track featuring Masta Ace, 'Nostalgia' released on his first Port Authority record in 2007 (Soulspazm/Rawkus Records) -

a gentle paean to greats from the past, with a soft pitter-patter of a beat that stops and starts up again, following the rhyme of the MC. The fact that Marco Polo is forever associated with this track is a little surprising as since then he has marked out much darker territory, not only in his two producer-led efforts but also his work for MCs. Indeed, his oft-repeated statements regarding his ambitions, or what the sound of true hip-hop is for him, usually include the words dark, soulful and grimy.

In 2007, Marco Polo's Port Authority album offered an exhaustive roll-call of well-known names (the aforementioned Masta Ace; O.C.; Large Professor; Oddisee; Kool G Rap; Supastition; Sadat X ...) 

The overall impression gleaned from the record was its statement of supreme confidence from the then 28 year-old (Marco Polo was born in Canada in 1979) who had only turned up in the City a few years previous and a showing of his virtuosic skill. Six years later, in 2013 Marco Polo returned to this terrain with a follow-up record called Port Authority 2that included a similarly daunting number of MCs - 40 from across the United States. An obvious question to ask was why he kept returning to this imagined location, Port Authority, what kept bringing him back there.

Marco Polo: The Port Authority bus terminal is a hub in New York City, pretty much in Times Square if you were to take a Greyhound bus anywhere from Canada or outside New York it’d end up at the Port Authority. And when I first moved to New York I took the bus from Toronto and that’s where I ended up so that was my first impression of the city when I walked out onto the bus station. Now it’s much better, but before it used to be super grimy around there, with a lot of homeless people and hustlers; it was a pretty ‘lively’ couple of blocks surrounding that station, so it was a fitting introduction to New York.

It’s cleaned up around it (now), but any place where you have tourists and foreigners showing up, you’re going to have the scum of the earth waiting for you to do bad things, like hustle you for a couple of bucks, or sell you weed. I’m sure it’s the same in any city, when you go to the bus terminal you got to keep an eye out for shady characters, you know (laughs).

Port Authority 2 similarly featured an impressive group of MCs - Talib Kweli; Masta Ace; Rah Digga among many others and included a reunion of Pharaohe Monch's earlier group, Organized Konfusion and a track dedicated to a late member of Gang Starr, 'G.U.R.U' that featured Kweli and Dj Premier, while featuring a raft of DJs scratching over the beats (DJ Revolution, Shylow, DJ Linx, DJ Romes and DJ Premier himself). 

I asked him about 'mood' when putting these two albums together and how important it was to think about the records in their entirety.

Marco Polo: Very important, I grew up with albums that had a theme to them, with leads and segues. You want to make something that flows. The great albums of my time all had that, like De La Soul and Prince Paul. Prince Paul is credited as the one who invented the interlude. It was cool, something different it’s not just music with spaces between, it puts you in a zone. It’s like listening to a story. Even Pete Rock on his Soul Survivor record he had all these amazing beats that would fade in, like ten seconds and fade out between songs. They were like crazy beats and you’d be like, ‘Man I want to hear someone rapping on that, I want to hear it longer.’ And it’d be gone.

It’s really important. Listen to Doctor Dre, his work literally sounds like movies; he’s got the intros and voice-overs. I was really lucky to have Michael Rapaport who is a great actor and a huge hip-hop fan to narrate them. It was amazing, it makes it cool, when you listen to something top to bottom, it puts you in the zone.

MB: Listening to that record I noticed there was a lot of scratching on it, it was a really important element of that record. Would you say it was a key, unifying driver in Port Authority 2?

Marco Polo: Absolutely, it’s part of hip-hop; one of the key elements of hip-hop. I’m a fan of scratching, or scratch hooks on songs. I’m a big fan and I’m blessed because I’ve got some of the world’s best DJs at my disposal: Revolution and Shylow. Shylow does pretty much 90 per cent of my cut hooks and he’s a master of it. It’s really important to incorporate this in the music. Sometimes you get the rapper to come up with a vocal hook and sometimes you get the DJ to do scratches; let’s do cuts. The song’s called this, okay find rappers who say that. It’s a whole mission to dig for acappellas. Yeah, you got to show love to the DJ.

Once again, DJ Premier and Marley Marl cause they were cats cutting up lines and stuff on records back in the day. Something about that that I’m just drawn to.

MB: I think it adds a real beautiful texture to the record because of the way it adds to the track construction; I mean the scratching comes in at different moments for emphasis. When do you use scratching in a song?

Marco Polo: (pauses)

MB: Is it like a sample that you place in a song to provide emphasis, or drama?

Marco Polo: Yeah, you can use it however you want to use it. Most of the time, we’re using scratches to make the chorus of a song, the hook. But sometimes, there are really no rules: it could be a bridge, or part of a verse when the rapper wants you to scratch to connect to a line he’s saying. We just try to be creative with it, cause literally at this point everybody has done everything.

You record it over the beat just like a sample, that’s essentially what it is – a sample of a rapper’s voice or something whatever he decides to scratch.  

Since then Marco Polo has produced for a number of important acts - including Pharaohe Monch, providing the music for three of his tracks on the 2014 release PTSD. What follows is a record of our phone discussion that covers Marco Polo's ongoing respect for Masta Ace; his collaboration with A-F-R-O (his next release) a focus on how he makes his beats; his current love for 70s prog-rock and how proud he is of his production work on Monch's classic album, PTSD.  

 

This week Marco Polo is leaving for a six-country European tour with his long-standing friend and collaborator Masta Ace who is promoting his sixth solo album The Falling Season, supported by MC Stricklin (one of the members of the group, eMC with Masta Ace himself).

Back in 2003 when Marco Polo was working as an engineering intern at The Cutting Room recording studio in Manhattan – doing what he has described as ‘grunt work-fetching coffee, cleaning up, answering phones- (before landing) a gig as an Assistant Engineer/Manager’ - a chance meeting with Masta Ace jumpstarted Marco Polo’s career as a producer.

Marco Polo: He came through for a session with The Beatnuts and I gave him a beats CD and he picked two beats, one that became a song called ‘Do it Man’ - a song on his album called A Long Hot Summer (2004). At the time he wasn’t able to compensate me so what we worked out was that we would do a trade, in trade he recorded the song for me that people know as ‘Nostalgia’ - which 100% the song people know me for in the underground, close to five million views and on my first producer album Port Authority (Soulspazm/Rawkus Records).

Since then we’ve definitely worked on some stuff, a few songs here and there he was on my Port Authority 2 – I worked on the eMC album, but more importantly he asked me to come on the road with him when he travelled and DJ for him. And after this tour we’re going to work on an album together – a Masta Ace/Marco Polo album, which I’m very excited about.

MB: My friends who are into hip-hop have a huge amount of affection and respect for Masta Ace’s work over the years, how would you describe the value and importance of what he does?

Marco Polo: With Masta Ace, one of the things that make people all over the world – not just the US market – gravitate towards him is his ability to lay down a lot of emotion and amazing story telling in a simple way when he rhymes. He’s not beating you in the head with complex rhyme patterns, you know like in an Eminem style, but at the same time he’s Eminem’s biggest influence. Masta Ace has this way of talking to you in a personal way that is very simple, so people are able to feel it, you know.

And also in terms of his beats selection: Masta Ace has got a very good, picky ear when it comes to beats. He’s just amazing at making albums and connecting it all. This is what has kept him relevant after all these years, as opposed to a lot of guys from his era who have disappeared or not been able to be that consistent: Masta Ace is that dude. Twenty years – thirty years – and he’s still making music that people want to listen to and that’s very difficult to achieve.

KIC Beats was unable to do the tour; it is to promote Masta Ace’s album, The Falling Season (and will also feature) Stricklin, another dope MC. We’ve done this show many times all over the world, so it’s going to be like a reunion for us, rocking together again.

Following the European tour, Marco Polo will release an album he produced for the teen wonder A-F-R-O …. ‘Yeah, me and A-F-R-O have an ep, it’s about seven songs, maybe eight songs, it’s called A-F-R-O Polo - it’s done, we’re just mixing and mastering it now. I hope in the next few months it would be put out for people to hear.’

 

MB: Can you talk a little about the project; what was it that interested you in working with A-F-R-O?

Marco Polo: I didn’t even know that A-F-R-O existed, the only reason I knew of him was RA the Rugged Man, I work with him and he brought A-F-R-O to my studio and told me about him and said, ‘Yo he’s dope. You’ve got to check him out.’ RA the Rugged Man discovered A-F-R-O through a contest he had for MCs and A-F-R-O won, RA the Rugged Man flew A-F-R-O to New York and basically brought him round to a bunch of producers that he wanted A-F-R-O to work with and I was one of them.

Luckily he ended up in my studio and we just had good chemistry and we recorded more than just a couple of songs. We had a great time. I love his energy. He’s an incredible rapper. But what I love about him is he’s so young and he’s so culturally respectful to the roots of hip-hop. It’s different for a kid at 19 to be on that vibe these days because things evolve. He speaks to a lot of people who remember the golden era. We had a great time and yeah, the ep came out really nice. I’m excited for people to hear it.

MB: Is there anything particularly different in terms of what you’ve done with this ep?

Marco Polo : Production-wise I don’t think it’s anything super different; it’s definitely a little bit more raw. You know there’s a lot of break-beats, a couple of songs we made in the studio, I made the beat and he’d just rhyme. I would pick drums that he liked and then I’d make a beat. There were some beats I had already made; it was just kind of like having fun until it all made sense. It’s not like I’m experimenting, you can still expect the typical hard-hitting Marco Polo production, with A-F-R-O on it.

 

Let’s focus now on what Marco Polo is talking about when he speaks of his ‘hard-hitting'production style. On YouTube there are a number of videos where Marco Polo talks through his production techniques. In one he breaks down his work on Pharoahe Monch’s track. ‘The Jungle’ from the 2014 album, PTSD.

Starting with a ‘bunch of sounds’ (acoustic guitar, choir, clavinet and bass …) Marco Polo says how each - when played in isolation - is ‘so cheesy’ (perhaps the worst of them sounding as if it came from a pretty awful guitar-solo, he likens it to ‘some Bon Jovi-ass sounding guitar’) but when layered ends up creating a very distinctive mood: simple and threatening. Marco Polo adds how quantising the beat can be ‘your enemy’ in that it can make the music sound ‘stiff’ and that he always tries to make the bass notes come in late to provide a funky, natural feel. Then he refers to what he calls ‘the stabs’ - the repetition of certain notes in a track, which are, in fact, the defining element of his aesthetic.

In the video, he also adds how he loves the ‘movement of breaks’ - I found this comment interesting, so I asked him to explain this more.

Marco Polo: Basically, you know (pauses) one of the biggest challenges … Okay so let’s simplify this for readers who aren’t producers. A break-beat is essentially a part of a song a drummer played, a human being playing an instrument, so it’s going to have human elements to it in the timing so it’s not going to be perfect. It’s not going to be like a computer with a metronome, it’s going to have a feel to it because it’s a human playing it, so it’s going to be a bit more funky, it’s going to be late, or early or off. All of this things essentially give it a natural, human groove because it’s a human playing it.

So when producers think about break beats you’re essentially breaking up a human made rhythm for two or four bars so it gives you a really natural feel, as opposed to when you chop up sounds and program them on a computer because then you’re in the hands of a piece of machine to make your rhythm and depending on how good you are as a programmer it can be really stiff and not sound natural. What separates the good producers from the great is the ability to take these machines and computers and make these beats that feel human, right.

That’s the challenge, so if you eliminate the part when you program the drums yourself and you just loop the break-beat, you’re ahead the game rhythm wise by having something that just feels more natural. 

In the end, it’s important to use breaks because it makes my beats, or anyone’s beats sound more natural and less stiff and robotic. But when you use them you’re repeating a human rhythm in one, two, three, four bar loops you know capturing the human inconsistency of a human playing drums, as opposed to chopping up individual kicks and snares and relying on technology to make it sound natural. There’s lots of producers who can take individually edited kicks and snares and make it sound natural when they’re using MPCs or machines and some are not so good, so the way around it is looping a breakbeat that is part of a record where it’s just the drums playing.

MB: This idea of the movement is it to make it sound more fluid?

Marco Polo: Yeah, it’s basically to make it sound more funky, more natural.

MB: I think you’ve talked about the importance of creating a live band sound, now this is something I’ve come across repeatedly where producers talk about this being one of their key goals – almost to reproduce how it sounds to, you know, hear a jazz band or a funk group from the 70s, say – why is that so important? It seems a bit contradictory. 

Marco Polo: For me, it’s not really about trying to create the sound of a band, it’s to put a bunch of sounds together that make sense, you know; that feels natural, that feels like it was meant to be. It’s like adding different moods and textures. It’s challenging cause if you’re a sample-based producer like me where you’re taking all these different sources from vinyl, or it could be MP3s, or whatever. You’re taking parts of music that were recorded in different studios, different time eras, with different equipment, so how do you make all this make sense so it doesn’t sound like a fucking mess. That’s the art of sample-based production it’s finding a way to take all these different textures and sounds to make them gel together, to make a new composition and a new idea. For me that’s one of the most challenging and yet rewarding and fun things about making beats. I think a lot of people like that about me they see me taking so many different sources from songs in different keys, different tunings and you have to make it all work. I love it, that’s like my favourite part.

MB: I noticed that in one of your videos, from ‘Making the Beat’ video series (on his production work for Torae’s ‘Double Barrel’ in 2009) you said choosing six samples from six completely different records is the challenge, the essence of what you do, is that right, is that what you’re saying now?

Marco Polo: Yeah, something like that. I don’t always do that. Sometimes if I’m making a beat and I’m like it would be cool to have a horn sound, I’ll go through my jazz records and find something and see if it will work. It’s tricky, cause you’re finding songs that are completely not the same tempo, or different keys, so yeah essentially putting in that extra work to find those types of sounds it’s like the icing on the cake for a beat to be complete for me, the little details.

MB: Your talking about these sounds, there’s obviously differences in sound quality in terms of the recordings as well, are you using lots of technology to try and equalise them. What kinds of post-production work do you do to make them at the same level?

Marco Polo: You know I have a couple of programs that I use on my laptop where I will do some processing, whether it’s making them louder, or eq-ing them or adding some reverb, so I will do some of that. I’m a big fan of delays and time stretching specifically is probably the most important one cause if you’ve got a horn sample that’s a 120 BPM and my beat is 90 then you know I have programs or I use the MPC to time stretch the horn to match the tempos. There’s definitely a lot of things I do to make things work; just I don’t think about things, it’s first nature to do it. Absolutely, when you’re working with different sources I have to put in work to make it make sense.

MB: It’s this constant challenge and balance, isn’t it, between using technology and using material that’s already been ‘found’ then trying to make it sound natural, it’s interesting.

Marco Polo: Yeah, talking like that it sounds like a lot of work, I guess it is. For me it’s just like what I do. It’s first nature, you know.

MB: Returning to your beats now, I think you were saying how you like to layer a beat, so you’ve got the kick and the snare, and then you’ve got a hi-hat from another record, a splash of percussion from another record, is that a fair representation of how you construct a beat, layering it from different sources?

Marco Polo: Yeah, it’s always going to be like that. I mean there’s no set way I have to make a beat. I usually start with drum sounds, but lately I’ve been challenging myself to start with the sample first just cause I like to throw curve-balls into my routine so I’m not always doing the same thing. Yeah, essentially it’s very rare to get the drum sample and the musical sample from the same record, it’s definitely possible if you have a sample with parts that will open up, but it’s rare.

So for the most part I’m taking kicks and snares and all these pieces are coming from different records, so that’s essentially what’s happening.

MB Is that something a bit distinctive in terms of what you’re doing?

Marco Polo: No, everybody does that. I might do a little bit more, or be drawn to certain sounds a bit more. You know all producers, what they do over a certain time is that they start accumulating a library of sounds they like to use again and again in their beats you know. Certain producers will have drums that they’ll use a lot so that when you hear a beat, you’ll go, that’s a 9th Wonder beat, that’s a DJ Premier beat. You’ll kind of know, it’s similar, you know cause you’ve heard it before that’s you essentially making your own signature sound. Over the years I definitely have signature drums and other sounds that I use. I try not to use them all the time, but I go to them because a) I know they work and it’s part of who I am as a sound.

MB: One thing you’ve been talking about recently is creating your own samples - using live musicians, recording them and sampling them – is this something you’re going to be doing more and more of, can you talk more about this?

Marco Polo: Yeah, sure. I have somebody I’m working with, a musician who is amazing. He plays guitar and all types of stuff and once in a while we’ll get together and we’ll just compose music – not beats, music, essentially things I would sample. It’s a real learning process. I’ve done a bunch of stuff with him. I have music that we’ve made. I’ve recorded some guitarists from Italy, guys who play jazz guitar and they’ll come to the studio and play tons of guitar – at no tempo - and I’ll record it and I’ll stash all these sounds. If I have a day where I have to make a beat where I can’t be using any copyrighted materials, it has to be original then I have all these sources to use that won’t be a problem, so I’m definitely doing that.

But it’s not my main focus. At the end of the day I’m not stressed about samples, I just try to make something that I love and worry about everything else later. But I am incorporating live musicianship and making more beats myself where I’m composing everything myself using programs and playing chords, trying to make stuff sound like samples. It changes. One day I’ll be in that mood, the next I’ll be like I want to hear something off vinyl. It all depends on how I feel when I wake up.

MB: Is all this also being motivated by sound quality, are you able to control the sound quality better if you record it yourself?

Marco Polo: I can definitely control it, but the thing is … The problem with technology is as much as they try to make things sound vintage, it’s never really going to be perfect. The reason why things sound so good on vinyl from the 60s and 70s is cause they’re using classic recording studios, with old gear that just had a warm vibe to it. It’s almost impossible to duplicate it. They’re trying to make stuff to emulate these old consoles, plug-ins and compressors. They come close, but it’s really difficult to make stuff that sounds like from that era. People can do it very well, but the average person cannot. So for me I definitely do my research to work out what people do to make instruments sound dirty, vintage and warm and have all those things you’d get off a record. I’m getting pretty good it at but it’s definitely every day I’m learning new tricks.

 

Many, if not most of the most important hip-hop producers have a certain thing for music from the 70s. One critic has claimed that it could be that many of those producing music in the 90s and since, for example, were young children growing up listening to their parents playing music from that era, so such music has a sentimental alongside musical import for them. While producers themselves often cite the sound quality from 70s era recordings as a reason for the fascination; noting how the recordings have a warmth lacking in more recent releases. 

During the interview there was a funny moment where I confidently asked Marco Polo about the link between his instrumental version of 'Astonishing' (here's the record version) released on his Port Authority 2 in 2013 and featured Large Professor, Inspectah Dec, OC and Tragedy Khadafi - and Ghostface Killah's 'Nutmeg' (relased on his 2000 album, Supreme Clientele) following a fan comment, linking the two. It turned out there was no, zero, conscious connection, even though Marco Polo kindly said that perhaps it sounds like the kind of beat Ghostface might have graced, might have favoured if it had been at his disposal, or offered to him. 

Apart from the linked high-pitched 'pow' sound on both, there is a connection and this is to a 70s cinematic/Blaxploitation soundtrack feel found on both records; often I think that Marco Polo's beats could have been on some kind of histrionic Italian horror flick from the 1970s, where the lead actors freeze in horror, repeatedly (or walk around sets in long flowing white dresses, not saying very much). It's a mood thing, a taste preference that distinguishes his work. Other than that there are certain techniques that link his production ethos with the era and this includes what he refers to as 'the stabs'. 

MB: From first listen, and especially when listening to the instrumental versions, take for example ‘Astonishing’ - what really struck was what I felt to be an influence of 1970s rock and electronic music from that era. While when you were talking about ‘The Jungle’ you talked about the importance of ‘stabs’ - repeated notes – and for me this connects your music with 70s rock, The Who (for example the track ‘Who are you’) …

Marco Polo: Yeah, definitely.

MB: If I were to say what makes your work distinctive, I’d say it’s this influence. What do you think about that comment?

Marco Polo: (pauses) It’s 100 per cent right. I have so many beats (laughs) I tell my boy Shylow, I need to retire the stabs. I’m just drawn to it, the repetitive notes, the same note over and over. It just has this vibe to it, I’m just drawn to it. I love it. It’s aggressive; it’s grimy. It’s hip-hop, you know.

One of the biggest, most commercial successes for hip-hop is something like Dr Dre's ‘Still Dre’ that incorporates the piano stabs. It’s like a rhythm – a hard, simple rhythm. It’s very easy for me to make beats like this and when I hear the samples, I’m very drawn to them. It’s a very accurate statement. I’m actually making efforts to move away from that because I’ve done it so much, yeah. But in a heartbeat I can go back and make a beat with stab sounds, I love it (laughs).

I mean ‘the stab’ - I don’t even know if it’s a real term; I just call it the stab cause that is what it means to me – but you can find it in all genres. You can find it in RnB music, in rock, in soul. But I am influenced by early music, I grew up in a household where my dad was playing 70s rock all the time. I’m influenced by everything really. I just love music, so.

MB: You’ve talked about Cream being played in your house when you were growing up …

Marco Polo: Absolutely - Disraeli Gears

MB: Cream and Miles Davis; it’s a funny combination …

Marco Polo: That’s my Dad, and it’s a blessing he was so open-minded. Even him playing those different things when I was growing up, I didn’t understand it then but it was so cool. (His Dad is also credited with introducing him to the first hip-hop record that really clicked with him: A Tribe Called Quest's 'Bonita Applebum').

The moment you say you just listen to one thing, you losing out; especially as producers, you’re playing yourself. If you just listen to soul, you’re playing yourself. The other genres of music will open you up to new sounds and it will make your production way more versatile, different and you can go to different zones and feelings.

Lately I’ve been going through a progressive rock phase where I’m finding progressive rock records. This shit is crazy, I love it and it’s also going to change your sound by going in different genres.

Some people like to stay in their zone, but for me I like to change it up. I don’t want people to get bored of my beats and go, oh it’s another Marco Polo beat. I want it to be like, ‘What the hell is that?’ Cause that’s how it used to be with cats like DJ Premier, he’d use all kinds of different samples, but the way he chopped them was unique and you’d be like, ‘What the hell is that?’ It’d make you scratch your head, ‘Where did he find that? What is that?’ I want people to do the same with my beats, I want them to have no idea what’s happening, or where I got them.

MB: Are you talking about English prog rock, or?

Marco Polo: It’s not specific to a country, I’ll look up that genre and do research. It could be bands from the UK, it could be bands from Italy, from Finland, from Sweden, from Germany, from the United States. Whatever falls in that genre, and if I’m uneducated or unaware, I’ll educate myself.

God bless the Internet, cause it’s really helpful these days cause you can just go and learn. You can find a kid in Spain who loves prog rock and will list all these albums he loves. It’s like going to the library. I look these groups up, I find the music and I learn about it. And man, a lot of it’s bad. But once in a while you’ll find that gem and it’s worth it.

MB: What interests you about the music though?

Marco Polo: The weird chord progressions; the sounds, the recording, the drums the vocals. The thing about progressive rock or that symphonic stuff is it could be so many things, it could be synthesisers from the 70s to a crazy flute player on acid, just going crazy over drums and a bass-line. And it’s still got a bit of funk to it, you know. I don’t like things that sound too rock n roll for hip-hop. I’m never going to be down with that. It’s still got to have a funk and soul and interesting musicality to it. 

Widely acclaimed by the music media and fans alike, Pharoahe Monch’s PTSD is a genre-defining release, while so distinctive it could not be mistaken for the work of any other artist. Marco Polo produced three tracks on the album: ‘The Jungle’; Rapid Eye Movement’; and ‘Time2’. I asked Marco Polo to talk about these tracks and also explain how it was working with Pharaohe Monch.

Marco Polo: First of all I’m glad you brought it up because I love all three of those songs I did on that album. I’m proud of all three. Having a song that has Pharaohe and Black Thought over my beat, that was a dream come true. Two of the best emcees in the history of hip-hop trading verses, I’m just so proud of those three songs. All three of them.

Pharoahe is not what you’d call ‘a normal (guy)’ - he’s not average. He’s above average; I always joke he’s like an alien, he’s not from this planet that is how good he is at MC-ing and his thought process is not from this universe, it’s on another level and I’ve been blessed to experience it in the studio, seeing him rhyme, the stuff he writes and how he puts it together. You know it’s just a saying, he’s not from this planet, he’s that far advanced and amazing and skilled as an MC.

He is different. Like I remember when I was recording the verses to Time2 and he was doing this stuttery thing and I stopped him, I was like, ‘Yo, it’s too weird.’ I almost tried to get in the way of his genius. It was such a learning lesson cause he was like, ‘Nah, let it be what it is.’ I didn’t understand it. It was like my brain wasn’t ready for what he was doing. Now when I listen back to it, I’m like Oh my God, I tried to stop this incredible verse where he’s basically rapping like someone is having a hard time talking, or stuttering. It’s the second part of the verse on Time2. It’s crazy. He’s incredible (laughs).

And I love all three of those beats they’re so different from each other.

MB: ‘Rapid Eye Movement’ is so beautiful, it’s a phenomenal track. It does sound like a band to me, the way you’ve got this rolling drum, I think it is, which has this really 70s feel. The actual beat itself is really complex.

Marco Polo: Once again, it’s kind of like the stabs: the real repetitive sound (sings it). I’m a big fan of repetition like a lot of the best hip-hop production is something repeating over and over again. I don’t think hip-hop beats should have too much going on in them for the most part. It gets distracting. You want to create something that hypnotises you and you get in the zone and once you’ve hit that you add the finishing element.

Most of that beat is repetitive piano stabs and the drums and there’s a change that repeats and then goes back to the part with the repetitive piano. That whole record sounds dusty, it’s an interesting beat for me because there is no real melody; it’s a bunch of cool sounds and really hard drums. 

Hip Hop Forum digital magazine Interview: MC Sha-Rock

Had the great honor of speaking with MC Sha-Rock, the first female emcee in hip-hop culture and original member of the Funky Four last week for Hip Hop Forum digital magazine.

In this interview she takes us back to what it was like being there at the birth of hip-hop, being part of the first ever performance by a hip-hop group on Saturday Night Live, how she developed her distinctive style - so beloved by DMC of Run-DMC and her role at the new Universal Hip Hop Museum being set up in the Bronx.

Thank you so much MC Sha-Rock for everything you have done and continue to do to keep hip-hop culture alive.  And have a look at this rare video from 1980 featuring Sha-Rock, with the Funky Four ...

Nothing better; this is a glorious performance - at once innocent and wry, ironic, highly skilled (everything, almost that I love about hip-hop).

HHF: Thank you so much for talking with us at Hip Hop Forum,  MC Sha-Rock. It’s a great honor to speak with you – one of the most important pioneers in the hip-hop movement; the first female emcee in hip-hop and one of the inventors and founders of fly-girl and b-girl culture. Share with us now how it all started for you …

Sha-Rock: Well, at the whole onset of the hip-hop culture you had to start off as a b-girl as that was what was going on at the time. You had the music, the culture and the sounds of certain breakbeats that were playing so I started off as a b-girl first. Then I winded up getting a flyer for people who wanted to audition for a group; and at the time the group was not the Funky Four, but it was the Brothers Disco.  They were trying to form the Funky Four group. So I auditioned for the Brothers Disco in 1977-1978 and I became not only the first female emcee of hip-hop culture, but also the first female emcee in an all male group, so my activity started before as a b-girl and then I transitioned to an emcee as part of an all male group.

HHF: What was it like in the Bronx at that time?

Sha-Rock: The atmosphere was crazy cause you’re talking about the inception of the culture as we know it. You may hear people like DJ Kool Herc, who is the Father of Hip-Hop, you know he might say that hip-hop started in 1973, but to be honest with you if you’re talking about the people: the hardcore emcees who were rhyming to more than just one rhyme, I mean we were going for more than 16 bars, more than 18 bars (for us it started later). We’d rhyme until the next emcee who was part of your group would pick up where you left off.

For us in New York City we were creating an era, we didn’t know what we were doing. We were young kids, with little or no resources in the South Bronx where the radio wouldn’t play rap music. They really frowned on hip-hop music and the type of music we were listening to. We were breakdancing and going around to different parks and different school yards. The radio didn’t respect it at that time, so you’re talking about a culture that was building up from the b-girl and b-boy to the DJ – the way a DJ would cut a record, from Flash to Theodore to DJ Breakout and Baron …

There was so much going on at that time, with all the elements of hip-hop; it was like a phenomenon. But at the time we didn’t know what we were doing. All we knew was this is what we looked forward to on Friday and Saturday. We were able to get our street cred from just being out there in the parks and we were like celebrities in our own prospective area at that time.

So when you’re talking about 1979 when the world was then able to hear rap music, that was the era when rap music was no longer contained to the streets and the parks, it had then moved into the clubs into people’s households and bars, with the Sugarhill Gang or when we the Funky Four did the first record in 1979. We changed the game as to how hip-hop was portrayed by letting the world in and it was no longer contained in the Bronx, or Manhattan or New York.

HHF: You just mentioned DJ Kool Herc, I know you’ve talked about him before as being a really important person in terms of your development as a hip-hop artist.

Sha-Rock: Well, Herc would play the breakbeat, or DJ Breakout or Baron, or Grandmaster Flash would play the breakbeats of a song. Say James Brown had a song out they wouldn’t play the whole song, they’d just play the breakbeat and then you’d start b-boying and b-girling.

Herc played a significant role in hip-hop and also in b-boying and b-girling because he played the type of music that allowed the b-girls and the b-boys start breakdancing because you couldn’t do that in the clubs that played disco music.

Herc was the one who really allowed the b-boy and the b-girl to express themselves in a manner that respected that dance element of hip-hop culture. A lot of people don’t know who Herc is, but we do owe him much respect and much honor because he gave us that avenue, he gave us that vehicle for us to do what we loved and that was breakdancing and listening to the breakbeats.

HHF: So this audition to join the group that’d become the Funky Four was in 1977, right?

Sha-Rock: Yes, late 77, early 78. I auditioned and at the time, I don’t know if the Brothers Disco was looking for females, all I know is that I heard Melle Mel on tape. I never heard any other females who were out there, but I thought I could do just as good as the guys did because I was influenced by James Brown. I was influenced by Nikki Giovanni. I was influenced by Gladys Knight and the Pips and the Jackson Five. So once I heard (other emcees) rhyming on tape I thought I could do the same, or even better – not knowing that I was about to make history and become the first female emcee of hip-hop culture.

HHF: And you were so young, you would have been a teenager at this time …

Sha-Rock: Yeah, I was like 16 years old just coming from junior high school to high school.

**

HHF: Can you remember the first rhyme you wrote?

Sha-Rock: The first rhyme that I wrote was: ‘I’m Sha-Rock and I can’t be stopped/For all you fly-guys I will hit the top.’  That rhyme has become synonymous (with me) and was on the t-shirt, ‘I’m Sha-Rock and I can’t be stopped’ that was photographed in 1980. That was one of the first rhymes that I wrote and always used to solidify who I am, and who I was at the time.

I was like a celebrity in my own area but I was humble as this was something I loved to do like the other guys who was out there with me at the time, the Funky Four. We were a group that set the standards. Lots of people have heard of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, but the Funky Four were like the unsung heroes of hip-hop at that time.

We created a lot of different styles and contributions to the culture. We were the first rap group that was on national TV. We were from the streets; we weren’t a group that had been put together in 1979 like some other groups were. We were from the streets in New York City, together rocking in the parks and the schoolyards and the youth centers, even before we made a record.

HHF: Let’s talk then about the Funky Four and the line-up …

Sha-Rock: I was part of the original Funky Four. The original Funky Four consisted of myself, Raheim – who went over to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five later on –  K.K. Rockwell and then Keith Keith. We were the original Funky Four.

I winded up leaving the group for a month or two and then I came back to the group – I became the plus one more. During that time there was just two members they added Li’l Rodney C and Jazzy Jeff. Once I came back I became plus one more, but I was originally part of the first group.

HHF: Thinking about your music, I noticed in an interview you said that something special about the Funky Four the group’s ‘rhyming and harmonizing’. What do you mean by harmonizing?

Sha-Rock: Well, harmonizing back then was when we’d take (the tune) from a sitcom from TV, say you have ‘Gilligan’s Island’ you may have a commercial. Take a commercial or a sitcom and whatever the music was, we’d change it into a rap style and we’d harmonize, go back and forth and do chants and go back and forth in the group: not singing but harmonizing in a tune that maybe was on TV at that time.

For me, I used to rehearse my rhymes because when I said it I wanted people to be mesmerized by my voice. I wanted them to leave the party and say Sha-Rock is a dope emcee, I’m going to come back and see her again. What I would do was practise my delivery in the mirror and I would write my rhymes and say them in a way that people can understand but also relate to it, so they felt they were a part of my rhymes. They felt they were a part of me.

That was the whole idea back then to include the people who came to see you. You had to make them feel that they were a part of your life. They were part of your rhyme. They were part of hip-hop. That’s what I learned growing up as one of the pioneer emcees, it was never about me, it was never about the group, it was making sure that people who paid their two dollars or their three dollars to come see you, when they left, they said, I’m going to come back next week because I, Sha-Rock is the dopest emcee, or the Funky Four is the dopest group here in New York City.

It was about making sure the people who came to see you was included in what you were doing. It wasn’t about you. It was about them. It was about making sure they came back, because unfortunately unlike today we didn’t have the music, the songs all around us. Nowadays when you have rappers, or emcees their songs are being played on the radio, when they go on concert people know their songs; so they’re hyped, they’re dancing up and down, cause they know their songs. They have it easy now. They have the best of both worlds.

When I was starting out you had to prove yourself to your audience. You had to prove yourself to the hip-hop community because they were not playing our songs on the radio. So we were young entrepreneurs with little or no resources. How you got your street cred was being the best you could be for your audience. They were crucial. If you wasn’t making the cut, they wouldn’t come and see you. It wasn’t easy for us then, because we didn’t have that outlet of  radio playing our songs.

When they really did start playing hip-hop songs on the radio in 1979 it was only a select few that would get on the radio. They wouldn’t play two, or three rap songs at one time. As a hip-hop emcee you had to prove yourself on the street cause you didn’t have  the opportunity to get heard on the radio.

HHF: But maybe though you were also closer to the community because of this …

Sha-Rock: Absolutely, absolutely.

**

On the 14th February, 1981 The Funky Four plus one performed on Saturday Night Live – thereby making history as the first rap or hip-hop group to appear on US national television …

Sha-Rock: When we did ‘Saturday Night Live’ – Deborah Harry of the legendary group, Blondie – could have chosen any of the rap groups in New York City because she was very aware of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, but what she did was went she sought out us, simply because there was a female member in the group. She wanted the world to be able to see that – yes, you might have seen the Sugarhill Gang, but this (the Funky Four) was a group on the streets of New York City, one of the baddest groups in New York city – if not the baddest – but they also had a female. They wanted the world to see on a whole different level that this is a female that was rocking back in New York City and a pioneer.

I can commend her for this, because what she did was expose us to more than just the community or Tri-state area, she exposed us to the world. And we made history and we maybe didn’t know this until a decade later by becoming the first hip-hop group on TV,  and not just the first hip-hop group the first original hip-hop group that wasn’t only a rap group.

HHF: I watched the SNL video today, it’s a great performance. The DJ, was that the regular DJ you had for most of your performances?

Sha-Rock: Yeah, DJ Breakout.

HHF: Another Funky Four video I found is you guys doing ‘Rappin’ and Rockin’ The House’ shot at the Kitchen in 1980. That’s a beautiful performance, so sweet and controlled: perfect. Do you remember that show?

Sha-Rock: Yes, I do remember it. You see this is the thing. The Funky Four was the only group that were performing in those types of places (like the Kitchen in Manhattan). You’re talking about a whole new genre of music that we were breaking in that era. These were punk rockers, these were punk rockers who were listening to all different types of punk rocker songs and whatever. When we brought hip-hop to them, they were loving it because we were known for bringing a whole new style of music to punk rockers, they can incorporate and have fun at the same time. We was the first group to bring hip-hop to different genres of people, who would not normally listen to rap music.

We always wanted to perform for that genre of people, because they loved it. They felt it. They’d jump up and down and be mesmerized. It’s a good feeling when you know you’ve been accepted by other cultures and other genres of people who normally wouldn’t listen to this type of music. That was a good feeling we knew we were being accepted by this crowd of people, who would follow us all over the place. We’d pack out the Ritz, we’d pack out the Kitchen – all these venues in Soho,  downtown Manhattan.

In order to be good you needed to play in these venues and we’d go down there all the time, you know, go down to the Village.

HHF: Still many decades on, the music is still great. Let’s talk about ‘That’s the Joint’ which is probably your most famous track. Talk a little about the musicians who played with you.

Sha-Rock: Okay, so what we did, well this is what hip-hop is all about. Every song you hear – let’s just say ‘Rappers Delight’ by the Sugarhill Gang, that song is called ‘Good Times’ (by Chic) a song we were rapping to that song on the streets of New York prior to the Sugarhill Gang. That was the song that was part of the hip-hop community that every emcee was rocking to, what Sylvia Robinson did at Sugar Hill Records she heard the song, put the Sugarhill Gang together and put out the song and it became a hit.

Everyone who was part of Sugar Hill Records used the same band because ‘That’s the Joint’ was the hottest song out at the time – I’m talking about the original music – we took the song and made it a hip-hop song. A lot of times, a song that maybe an R&B artist did, and then a hip-hop person came along it ended up selling more records than the actual, original artist did.

Now the Sugarhill band was very good at imitating what the original artists did. They would change it a little bit, the beats to make it sound different. But the Sugarhill Band was a good band to make the music and make it sound exactly how we wanted, or a little better. The Sugarhill Band created all the music.

HHF: Talking about labels, you first released a record with Enjoy Records in 1979. As far as I understand it this was the record put out by a hip-hop group in the US ..

Sha-Rock: Yes, yes. Funky Four plus one. So we’re talking about Bobby Robinson he owned Enjoy Records, he asked around who is the hottest group in New York City? Now of course Grandmaster Flash was out, but he was told to go to the Funky Four plus one, so he approached our manager and said he wanted to do a record with us.

We used a friend of ours, by the name of Pumpkin who was a drummer (to play on the record).  The rhymes we used were rhymes we normally used on the street of New York, we used them every day. It only took us like an hour or so to do the record; simply because we already had our rhymes. Everybody in the group knew when to come after the next person.

And Pumpkin, what he did was he did the same thing on the drums and did it in one take. We didn’t have to go back and forth. Everything was done live in a little studio at the back of Bobby Robinson’s record shop; recorded in one take and boom! It was a hit. The Funky Four plus one ‘Rappin’ and rockin’ the house’ was the first longest-running rap record in the history of hip-hop.

HHF: Is there anything else you’d like to add about this time?

Sha-Rock: For me this was the golden period, the inception of hip-hop and set the standards of what hip-hop is supposed to be, or what Mc-ing and the elements. It was the blueprint of it all. For me I think and for a lot of emcees who were there you have the best of both worlds. You see how it was back then and see how it is now. I’m fortunate enough I have both; other women can’t speak on what it was like from the 70s, hooking up the equipment and carrying the crates, you know and not getting the money for what you did (cause that wasn’t an issue at that time).

It was just rocking for the love of your peers who are coming to see you.

When people say you should have made the money, look at what it is (as a business) today that doesn’t bother me because when I leave this world, the best thing that I got was the joy and the knowledge of what it was and what it should be and what I helped create as an emcee and as a pioneer and as a woman in the culture of hip-hop.

That’s my payola. I can talk about what it was and how it was and how it should be and what it’s meant to be.

HHF: In an interview you’ve talked about a ‘code of ethics’ in hip-hop culture, is that what you’re referring to now; hip-hop as a way of being, a way of living?

Sha-Rock: Yeah, I am. My thing is that a lot of times, people say the emcees of today, the rappers of today don’t respect the culture. They don’t do this and that. My thing is that we’re not here to judge the youth because unless you teach, unless you inform how do you blame them for not knowing anything? You have to give them options, you have to let them know. You have to inform. You have to educate and then you let them decide on how they’re going to move around. We as elders of hip-hop culture should never – how do I say it? – point fingers at the youth of today. Unless you out there educating and informing them as to what the culture was built on then you have something to say.

If you give them tools to work with, let them decide on how they’re going to move: until then you can’t judge them cause they know not what it was, or what it was meant to be. Not saying you have to conform to what it was, but if you have a general knowledge of what it is it makes you a better artist. Then all you have to do is adapt and incorporate to take it to  a whole another level, instead of staying in that one box. It gives you a better understanding of where you’re going and how you can have longevity.

HHF: Are you talking about knowledge of the different elements of hip-hop culture?

Sha-Rock: Yes, I’m talking about everything; I’m talking about graffiti, I’m talking about MC-ing; I’m talking about b-girls and b-boys, I’m talking about all elements. In order for you to understand what hip-hop was built on, the culture, it’s good to have an understanding of where it comes from. Even when you’re talking about breakdancing and all that stuff, all that was being done prior to hip-hop culture. What we did we just enhanced it to a whole another level. If you can expound on that and where it come from it can only make you a better artist, a better graf artist, make you a better b-girl, b-boy, emcee.

If you have the elements and the formation of everything and how it came into play. You can then have longevity in the game and adapt to what is going on now, or try to have that song or dance move or specific art-form that twenty, thirty or forty years down the line people can go back and remember your worth.

Or they can say a rhyme you did, or play a song on the radio whenever it is thirty, forty years down the line people can say:  ‘That’s my joint, that used to be my joint.’ If you are an artist, you want to make a song that will stand out many years from now, so if you can learn from other people and learn how you got to where you are: it’s a good thing to incorporate this knowledge of what it was before.

**

HHF: Now you featured in the classic movie, Beat Street from 1984 with two other female emcees (Debbie D and Lisa Lee) doing the track ‘Us Girls’ can you talk about how this came about?

Sha-Rock: At the time I was under contract at Sugarhill Records, Debbie D and Lisa Lee were not under contract, so they were holding an audition down at the Roxy, a club down at 18th street in New York so a lot of hip-hop people would go. It was really a skating-rink but they hold hip-hop functions. Harry Belafonte was holding auditions for Beat Street – so I’d gotten a flyer. Debbie D was a soloist and Lisa Lee was part of the Afrika Bambaataa camp. Me and Lisa was pretty tight, I was under contract to Sugar Hill Records but also part of the Funky Four group.

But we were going through a break-up with Sugar Hill Records, so I didn’t know if Sylvia (Robinson) would let me be part of the movie. There were many people trying to be part of the movie: one of the ladies there said us three girls are the best female emcees in New York City and we really want to be in the movie. So we got called down that Tuesday, we went to audition and Harry Belafonte said we want you to be in the movie, he said sign it here and we’ll let you know what’s going on. But I said I’m part of a record label, but the other girls are not so I might have a problem being in the movie if I have to sign, what do I need to do?

He said, who are you signed to? I gave him Sylvia Robinson’s information and said, can you call her and see whether or not she’ll allow me to do it? So I was nervous cause the rest of the girls , they weren’t under contract so I was thinking, man they’re going to get in the movie and I won’t be able to be in the movie. I guess Harry Belafonte worked it out with Sylvia Robinson, before I knew it he told me I could to it.

The agreement they made was that they would use the Furious Five and they were going to write the hook for Beat Street – so that’s how I was able to do it and that’s how the Furious Five got to do it, how Melle Mel was able to do the theme song, it was me putting Harry Belafonte putting him in touch with Sylvia Robinson.

HHF: Let’s now talk about your style, your delivery. As you know you’ve got some serious fans: say, DMC from Run DMC who has talked about the way he loved the way you used the ‘echo chamber’ on your voice and how hearing you ‘changed (his) life’.

Sha-Rock: Right, right …

HHF: While DJ Grand Wizard Theodore has celebrated you for the way were able to ‘tell a story that we can all visualise ..’ Thinking back, what were you most trying to achieve in terms of your style and content?

Sha-Rock: As I said before, and I want to give a shout-out to DMC for him to say that – as a multi-platinum selling artist and as guy … Most guys these days and back then would never give a female props, simply because you were in contest with the males and no male wanted to say a female was just as good, or better than them.

When he said that I was happy, but it’s a gift and a curse cause he’s saying I was better than a lot of males out there. For someone of his status to come out and say that was the ultimate. What he was saying was that I was the first to use the echo chamber, the echo chamber was an instrument that would repeat the word you said. If I said, ‘yes, yes y’all…’ It’d repeat what I said, ‘yes, yes y’all.’ My manager, Jazzy D would hit the echo chamber to make it precisely timed so everything would connect, sharp. So what DMC is talking about is when he heard my voice on a cassette tape, I guess he was going to school up in Manhattan, my voice used to be on tapes with the Funky Four and float around every borough of New York City.

So when it was time for him and Run to make their album, he told Davy D that he wanted to sound exactly like me using the echo chamber. I never knew this until he made a tape and wanted me to have it so I could get my props, as Sha-Rock from the Funky Four plus one to say that I inspired him when making the Tougher than Leather album to add on the echo chamber.

He’s basically talking about my delivery and my rhyme and how I used the echo chamber for my rhymes to be on point and take my rhyming skills to a whole different level.

HHF: DMC also liked the content about what you rhymed about too; he said loved the fact you rapped about everyday subjects that were relevant to young people: taking the subway, going to school, sneakers … everyday stuff, talking about your life.

Sha-Rock: Basically we talked about stuff in our era, we talked about basic teenager stuff and what was going on in your community, or your surroundings at that time. As a person,  you’d brag and you’d boast about you was an an emcee, or as a female, without being derogatory. You’d say stuff that was more like you’d like people say, hmm but it wasn’t too derogatory.

With the Funky Four we did tell stories, me I told stories about my everyday life. You’d brag on: you could do this, or do that, or I’m the best female in this town, I’m the best emcee. You’d basically be bragging on what you did, to show your audience that you were the best of the best, but still show the respect to the next person who was rhyming.

You’d be like, ‘They’re good, but I’m still the best.’ That’s what I used to rap about but at the same time being respectful to the next female, still saying, ‘I’m the best.’ People loved it back then because even though you were bragging about yourself, it was kind of true. You’d just boast about you as a person; that’s what emcees did, they’d tell a story and incorporate different aspects of their lives and put everything together.

HHF: Now just to finish, can you talk about your role as the Chairperson of Women in Hip-Hop for the Universal Hip-Hop Museum that’s being developed now. Can you talk to me about the Museum itself, I went online and saw the site (http://www.uhhm.org/): it’s going to be a virtual museum, but also have a site in the Bronx, is that right?

Sha-Rock: Yeah, it’s going to be in the Bronx, what we’re trying to do is have the Old Courthouse in the South Bronx, that is the location we’re trying to secure. It’s going to have a virtual element, people will be able to see people like Kurtis Blow talking like he is right there with them. You’re going to have material from artists back in the day and from today. The Bronx is where hip-hop started, but this museum is not just about the Bronx it’s about artists from all over the world. We want people to understand this, when the museum opens up it’s not only about the Bronx and New York City, it’s about the history of artists from everywhere.

The Bronx is the best place to have it, because it started there, but it’s the Universal Hip Hop Museum.

HHF: And what are you doing as the Chairperson of Women in Hip-Hop?

Sha-Rock: My basic duties is to preserve the history of women in hip-hop, so this is one of the things I’m very adamant about, I’m proud to be part of a project of this caliber because I think that a lot of men and women don’t understand that women have been at the forefront of hip-hop since the inception. A lot of people say women started in the 80s cause they just know Salt n Pepa, or MC Lyte or Roxanne Shanté. Those women have brought a lot to this culture and did a lot for the music industry and should be commended for leading the way and carrying on the hip-hop culture, but there have also been women at the front-line from day one.

It’s very important that when we have the history and culture of hip-hop that we preserve the history of women past, present and future. This is why I’m very adamant that we maintain all the history, from the Nicki Minajs to the Sha-Rocks; to the Roxanne  Shantés to the Iggy Azaleas, regardless of what people say these are people who still contribute with their music to hip-hop. It’s important for us to preserve the history for many years to come.

When you talk about it, and this is no disrespect to the guys, a lot of the time it’s like they were in it all by themselves moving this culture forward and that’s not true. The women were on the front-lines and they still have a role moving the culture forward. My job is to celebrate women, to celebrate all women around the world who have contributed to hip-hop culture and we will preserve their history in hip-hop; that’s what it’s all about.

HHF: I noticed in June this year there’s going to be an event in New York linked to this, ‘Women in Hip-Hop’ is that right?

Sha-Rock: Yes, I’m holding an event under the Universal Hip Hop Museum on June 3rd through to June 5th. The first night is going to be a celebration at the Alhambra Ballroom in Harlem, in New York City on Friday night.

We’re expecting women from around the world to come and support each other in hip-hop, whether you’re a b-girl, or a graf artist, or an emcee, or if hip-hop has touched your life in any way. Those three days are you for you to come to celebrate with us.

It’s not all the time we get this chance to do this, I’m very adamant that we need to be in the house together celebrating each other, as women. The first night is a celebration. The second day, June 4th is a forum, we have people like Angie Stone from the first female group from the South, the Sequence, she’s going to speak and perform. We’re going to have lots of different women who are going to come together and celebrate women. And we’re going to be looking for the new school as well, women in hip-hop today to come out and celebrate with us as well.

At the forum we’re going to have speakers come out and talk about the industry, the entertainment industry and their experiences. The third day we have a women in hip-hop picnic, where people will come out and celebrate in a park and we’ll have fun, cause that’s what hip-hop is about, having fun with no worries; no nothing and women coming together.

We will show the world that this needs to be done every year, for women in hip-hop: us getting together, making sure we celebrate each other in hip-hop. We are women from the front-line who carry hip-hop in our hearts to this day.

HHF: Total respect to you MC Sha-Rock for speaking with Hip Hop Forum today and wishing you well for all your work keeping hip-hop history and culture alive. Thank you for your time.

Sha-Rock: You’re welcome. Thank you.

To  learn more about MC Sha-Rock – including the book she wrote about her life in hip-hop, Luminary Icon – have a look at her official site http://mcsharockonline.com/

For information about the Universal Hip Hop Museum, go to http://www.uhhm.org/

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

Onyx  'Last Dayz', Miilkbone 'Keep it Real' (prod. by Mufi), The Speedknots 'The Zone' (prod. by Stress & War)

'When I asked Samson S. if he would sample a song because of what it represented to him, he was unequivocal in his response:

'Not based on that fact alone. I don't care how much that record meant to me, if it's not poppin' .... I go on straight sound, man. You know, 'Do I like it?, Does it sound good to me?' that type of deal. I don't really get all up into this mystical shit'. 

Samson S. cited in Making Beats: the art of sample-based hip-hop, by Joseph G. Schloss (Wesleyan University Press, 2004), interview 1999, p.147

***

To understand the mechanics of hip-hop you need to strip away the elements, break it down and then hold back some more. For many years I listened to King Tubby ... 

and Augustus Pablo,  marvelling at the way the sonic elements were used; how at certain points they would recede and then come forward, but that there was a totalising vision or aesthetic where you could hear the imprint of the producer.

(Once I was told that in early dub recordings you could hear not just the sound of the producer, but also the sound of the particular studio where it was recorded in Jamaica). 

Inevitably then, I came  back to listening to hip-hop with the same sensibility.

But what interests me most in hip-hop is a kind of emptiness. Rather than focussing on the elements, I appreciate the way this music represents a no-movement - a stasis. I developed this idea in my essay on Black Milk

What impresses me is the way the producers take pleasure in the simplicity of the repetition; keeping it unadorned. Take, for instance, this instrumental by Onyx,  'Last Dayz' from 1995 ... 

Everything about this is extraordinary for me; from the repeated vocal sample that becomes nothing more than a sound in some unknown language. Something you can see continue in the much later work of Burial, for instance 'Archangel'from 2007. 

Returning then to this quality of emptiness, what I would like to call hip-hop quiet. Perhaps you could call it a form of minimalism, but for me this word is inadequate because it lacks the feeling that comes through.

Start with that female vocal sample and the beat - I think I recognise the word (melody) but I'm not sure and the static sound that has come to represent 'warmth' or history, but has now become so over-used it verges on being a cliché. 

Particularly striking to me is the contrast between the qualities of the sounds: the harsh vocal sample compared to the reassuring mystical swirl and the comfort of the bass-line, alongside the stop-start effect that operates almost like a conversation. And then at one point, around 2 minutes in the sample shifts to a single-note, as if it were an exposed heartbeat.  

How are we meant to understand the way the beat stops? And then restarts; broken and then returning to the centre; how are we meant to relate to something that remains  separate to what we expect?  Here the music is following its own poetic logic, making manifest a kind of emptiness at the core.

To appreciate how this instrumental operates in its own beautiful space, listen to the track with vocals: 

With all its fabulous bombast, offering a kind of apocalyptic vision (albeit strangely censored on the YouTube video version). And underneath it all the while you can hear the instrumental providing its own essential mystery.

II.

Miilkbone, 'Keep it Real' (produced by Mufi: Capitol Records, 1995)

Challenging Complex magazine's designation of it as one of hip-hop's best 'one hit wonders', Miilkbone's 'Keep it real' has continued to shape hip-hop musical culture well into the 2000s ... and this is where it gets interesting.

At its heart sample-based music has the potential to upset traditional notions of success, whereby a so-called musical failure - in a commercial sense - can become prized, as within this milieu something forgotten is more appealing just because it's unknown. 

Little-known samples operate as a kind of code between producers and fans; those who can hear it, those who recognise it. And the music is also shown respect by the very fact that it has been returned to, reborn.

The fact that samples can't be named (even though they are easily found on-line via the many websites devoted to this) because of copyright infringement fears adds another dimension to the mix. For all these different reasons these sounds exist in this kind of non-space.   

It is for this reason Miilkbone - the white rapper from New Jersey, with a knack for spoof-like album titles (his lp Da' Miilkrate from 1995 was followed up by U Got Miilk? six years later) - can produce something of ongoing cultural worth.

Produced by Mufi (on my initial search I couldn't find anything online about him, other than very basic credits, 'an old school producer from Capitol Records ...' on my second, more recent look I found more info on him: he was quite well-known at the time, working with big-name artists) this instrumental is another example of hip-hop 'quiet' for me. Indeed, its distinctive mood is what has kept it alive.

(Central to this is Mufi's highly skilful and imaginative use of a sample from 'Melancholy Mood' the 1983 recording by the Marian McPartland Trio, of course: have a look at the fan comments below the video, it's very sweet to see the two worlds colliding here).   

As with the earlier Onyx instrumental, what I like about this is its elemental simplicity: the way the music is carried, or not, by a lack of adornment. The sounds in their pure form are allowed to breathe.

Also avoided is much of the self-conscious fanciness that dominates so much 'soul-based' production in hip-hop these days, where producers rustle up multiple interlocking elements in an effort to show off their finesse (often drowning out the sample's essential lyricism, or the emcee's delivery in the process).

This quiet is also to be found in the sharp contrast of the sounds: the insistent and jagged horn sample, is it? and the piano on a constant repeat. There is a certain false naïveté about this music, which I appreciate, in that simplicity and reticence are often the markers of great beauty. 

Again, I notice the strange kind of non-momentum - that stop-start - and the way it often seems on the cusp of development, with the quietest sample, in the background, acting like a bridge that goes nowhere.    

This music contains its own entire universe. When you hear the instrumental with Miilkbone over the top, the music retains its own space as if completely uninterested in interacting with, or buffering, the emcee.  

In terms of the instrumental's ongoing significance and recognition, Big L and Jay-Z reinvented it the same year on the Stretch and Bobbito show; it has been used on a BET awards ceremony and by various emcees.

Most important though, almost two decades later, Freddie Gibbs re-applied the music in his 2010 track 'The Ghetto' (produced by Melvin L. Dinkins) on his album, Str8 Killa No Filla with no apparent changes. Gibbs' repetition of song's title, 'The Ghetto' echoes the original jagged sample - the location/subject and the sample/sound becoming one.  

Without getting too abstract or meta, I wonder if by using this sample Gibbs - and his producer - is asking us to listen to the two tracks together; his and the earlier Miilkbone, to encourage a kind of echo, or commentary. 

This is fascinating for me the way hip-hop constantly re-applies this notion of layering and echo, obviously via the sampling - hidden, or in this way explicit - or the track construction itself and then through direct acts of homage such as this. 

III. 

The Speedknots, 'The Zone' (produced by Stress/War: Bloody Hook Records, 1998)  

One US friend (Mike Jordan) told me: 'Speedknot is street slang for when someone hits you real hard that swelling/ bump that pops up on your head ..' and then told me that there'd been another rap group from Chicago with a similar name.  

Another friend (Sim Telfer), from Australia, tracked down the release on Discogs and said 'there may be more info via the record label 'Bloody Hook Records' and the Producer 'Stress'...' On Discogs it said that 10 had the 12-inch release from 1998, while another 105 people wanted it; the last copy sold was in November, 2014 and the bids ranged from: ' €175.54 to  €263.31 the median being  €219.42'. 

Other than that nothing* can be found about this amazing piece of music, or the producers. They have been lost into the ether, or at least lost in the recesses of the Internet. 

(*Nothing, well this isn't entirely true: it might or might not be that Stress is a well-known Swedish producer who started creating music at the age of 14 and was later signed by Jay Z's Roc-Nation. I could spend some time searching down information, but prefer not to - I don't feel like being a teacher.

Instead I much prefer the idea that the forgotten producer is someone with a certain stutter - and rapid eye movement, even when awake - hiding out in his mom's basement somewhere in New York City: something like this perhaps. Someone posted 'The Zone' on YouTube two weeks ago, I checked out the boombap-linked Facebook page thinking it might give up some clues: no, nothing).

As with the other instrumentals featured here, 'The Zone' has a powerful feeling - carried by the sound of seagulls, or other birds and is extremely gentle. 

This music is the epitome of hip-hop quiet: self-contained, reticent and mysterious. It could provide the soundtrack for a few scenes from a Hitchcock film, spliced and transferred to the new era, where people record videos of buildings above their heads on their phones - in that half-light before everything turns dark (to then rapidly delete them afterwards). 'The Zone' is music of buildings and cars and city streets re-imagined by someone holding onto memories of a sea that he has never seen, perhaps other than on TV.  

There is no development in any sense in this music: it starts suddenly, three seconds in with all the effects brought in at the same time and then follows an almost mathematical precision, following 30 second intervals (almost). At 1 minute 30 there is an incredibly brief stop when you'd expect it to build and it doesn't, of course, and then at 2 minutes there is a stunning perfect pop-break, quick like a hiccup or intake of breath (at 2 minutes 20 it deepens, but doesn't move and then there is the 'pop' again three minutes in).     

Joseph Schloss in Making Beats: the art of sample-based hip-hop explores 'ambiguity' in hip-hop production, linking it with 'signifyin(g) following the argument developed by Gates in 1998. Ambiguity, Schloss relates to the 'idea of code, that certain forms of communication must be shielded'. 

“Ambiguity is a factor in this process because the best codes are those that do not even appear to be transmitting information at all; they have a secondary meaning that serves to draw attention away from the code’s central message.”

— Joseph Schloss, Making Beats (2004, p.160)

Earlier Schloss writes that the very nature of creating sample-based music, out of music that already exists encourages a kind of doubling, where the listener appreciates both the sounds in their original forms and then how they have been recreated. He writes that the 'aesthetic goal of the hip-hop producer is not to resolve these ambiguities (the fact that the music is live and not live, ed's note), but - quite the contrary - to preserve, master, and celebrate them'.

Ambiguity in this schema refers to an unclear meaning, or multiple meanings in an intellectual sense. And yet for me none of the above instrumentals are ambiguous in the sense that they have more than one meaning. They do not make me think, they make me feel something. For me this music embodies mystery; reticence and uncertainty.

Central to all of this is the stop-start of the beat, alongside a strong emotion of longing.  None of these elements makes this music, sweet, soft or sentimental .. quite the reverse.              

(Just before I was ready to leave this writing on 'The Zone'I found one of the track's producers - War (Bixby) who it seems was also a member of The Speedknots, as always by chance, when I saw he self-identified on some YouTube comments).    

EU Turkey Refugee Transfer Deal, March 2016

In early September last year, newspapers all over the world published the shocking photograph of a dead Syrian boy, of Kurdish descent, Alan Kurdi, with his tiny body dressed in a red T-shirt, blue shorts, lying face down in the water.

The reaction to the photograph was immediate. With world leaders expressing their shock and dismay; and donations to one NGO – that was set up to lead rescue operations in the Mediterranean - increasing its donations 15-fold in the 24 hours after the photograph was published.

Britain’s Chief Rabbi said: ‘‘For far too long we have related to these suffering individuals as if they are people living on Mars …. That desperately sad and tragic image has moved our hearts. (The image) has brought us to our senses and we must respond adequately.’

But what did this photograph represent to the millions who saw it? Did it represent an urgent need to stop people making the dangerous journey by boat to Europe? Or did the widespread reaction horror at the boy’s death signal a broader desire for Europeans to do more for those fleeing warzones – and in particular Syria?

There is much talk in Europe about the so-called refugee crisis. There is no doubt that thousands losing their lives. According to the International Organisation of Migration, almost 4,000 people died trying to cross the Mediterranean in 2015, with most dying making the crossing from north Africa to Italy. A further 800 died in the Aegean crossing from Turkey to Greece.

While we might all agree that these deaths need to stop, what isn’t so clear is the best way to do this.

On the 18th of March, the European Union signed a deal with Turkey that will change EU refugee policy dramatically. Under a new plan all people travelling to Greece, who are found not to be refugees will be returned to Turkey immediately. What will happen to these people after that point is not spelled out, although the European Union has guaranteed that it will fund any further operations.

And yet the agreement also states that for each Syrian returned to Greece another Syrian – presumably a refugee - will be resettled in the EU.

According to the United Nations Human rights agency, the UNHCR, an estimated 91 per cent of the people coming to Greece from Turkey come from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq – so presumably a large number of them will have grounds for protection.

In return, Turkey will receive three billion euros before the end of March – to aid ‘health, education, infrastructure, food and other living costs’ for refugees in their territory (and another three billion euros up until the end of 2018).

Discussions are also now underway to lift visa restrictions into the EU for Turkish citizens and there is a reinforced commitment to ‘re-energise the accession process’ that might lead to Turkey joining the European Union in the future.

What struck me in the announcement was the confused terminology relating to the largely Syrian arrivals. The document begins with the bold statement: ‘All new irregular migrants crossing from Turkey into the Greek islands as of 20 March 2016 will be returned to Turkey.’

But then mentions that these people will be returned in accordance with EU and International law and avoid ‘any kind of collective expulsion’. To avoid this mass expulsion, so-called ‘migrants’ will be allowed access to the asylum process, but it is not clear what will happen to those found to be refugees.

Will they be resettled in the EU – it appears yes - but how will that be arranged? And if they are to be resettled in the EU, surely this very possibility still offers an incentive for people to make that dangerous journey.

The statement allowed that this was just a ‘temporary and extraordinary measure’ that is ‘necessary to end the human suffering and restore public order’.

There is no doubt that the European Union needs to act. More than 1 million immigrants arrived by sea in 2015, with almost a further 34,900 arriving by land. Compare this to the previous year’s figure: in 2014, 280,000 people entered Europe by land and sea. And Europe – following the recent, bloody terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels - is not in the mood for accepting hundreds of thousands people fleeing warzones.

There is no reason to judge Europe for this: any other country would react the same way. But as an Australian this talk of mass returns of people to a third country, in this case Turkey is very familiar and a development of concern.

Don’t forget that Turkey too is undergoing a period of upheaval and has not shown its capacity to either treat refugees and asylum seekers – or its own population – with a respect for human rights.

Added to this: Greece has struggled with its role as the first point of entry for many migrants. It is not clear how the human rights of the asylum applicants will be guaranteed – even though now there is an added pressure on the Europeans to return them elsewhere.

Some years ago I travelled to Malta and Greece to report on these very issues. I travelled to Malta, a tiny island, and visited open-air camps where people slept in tents and a former school, where bright green mould covered the walls. (In Greece I couldn't enter any centres, though I did go to a 'prison' complex in Athens).

I spoke with local officials, people working for major NGOs, police and border guards. First-hand, I saw how ill-equipped both countries were to cope thousands of asylum seekers. Neither country had a developed immigration system, or refugee assessment agencies. Local lawyers were doing their best, but it was ad hoc and often arbitrary and chaotic.

There is an enormous difference in terms of development in the EU; northern countries such as Sweden or Norway inevitably have much better assessment systems compared to the poor countries on the edges of Europe. And as a result of these fundamental flaws in Greece – made worse by the 2008 crisis - asylum applicants were either detained for long periods of time, or as I saw in Athens, living on the streets.

But there is another broader ethical problem connected to this new EU-Turkey plan – and this reflects the emphasis upon deterrence. Key to this initiative is the idea that when people see the mass returns to Turkey, others will change their minds. This has long been the key driving force behind Australian policy that sees all boat arrivals sent to poor countries in the region, such as Nauru and Papua New Guinea.

Notions of deterrence rapidly paint the seekers as somehow inherently guilty, as as at its base is the idea that seeking protection within the European territory is something to be discouraged - something to be deterred.

There is also another problem. To date, EU states have been extremely reluctant to resettle refugees via the official UNHCR program. Worldwide only a small number of countries accept refugees for resettlement. These are Australia, the United States, Canada and a few Nordic countries.

According to the UNHCR figures for 2014, the US tops the list in that it resettled just over 69,000 refugees; Canada comes next with around 15,000 and then Australia with 6,000. Then there are much lower figures for the remaining countries: Germany, Sweden and Norway, New Zealand. Note this, though: the figures for two of the richest countries in the EU in 2014, the United Kingdom accepted fewer than 1,000 UN identified refugees and France around 700 people.

I remember speaking with the UNHCR representative in Malta about this, and he said that getting European countries to accept refugees via the ‘official’ channels was the hardest part of his role.

Let me make this clear, though unlike some on the Left I do not believe that ‘open borders’ and the free movement of people, without any restrictions is the way forward. Of course, I see the hypocrisy of the current system, where people from rich countries have this freedom of movement, while people fearing for their lives remain trapped.

And yet, as Germany has now discovered ‘opening the borders’ - especially now in this tense time in European history - is not the right path. My concern is that any sudden and dramatic decision, as found in the EU-Turkey agreement, often brings further problems with it (for example, pressures to outsource even more to private companies with a punitive mindset).

Moreover, if the European Union has been unable to manage this issue within its own borders - in European countries, such as Greece, Malta and Italy, it's hard to imagine how they will be able to guarantee due process and human rights outside them. Perhaps, though this is the point.

December 28th ruling not to indict police officers: Tamir Rice case

Soon after Christmas, Timothy J McGinty – the Cuyahoga County prosecutor overseeing the investigation of the police officers involved in the Tamir Rice case spoke of empathy. Or to be more accurate, he spoke of his efforts to understand how the 12 year-old child may have felt in the two seconds before he was shot and killed by Officer Timothy Loehmann. 

“If we put ourselves in the victim’s shoes, as prosecutors and detectives try to do, it is likely that Tamir — whose size made him look much older and who had been warned that his pellet gun might get him into trouble that day — either intended to hand it to the officers or to show them it wasn’t a real gun.”

Embedded in this sentence – in the uncertain language, passive mood and shift in perspective (if we are trying to understand how Tamir felt, why are we being told how he looked, or that he had been warned that 'his pellet gun might get him into trouble'?) - is core unease, a kind of tension.

McGinty gestures towards empathy, but is unable to break out of his natural reflex to see the events from the point of view of the white police officer. The previous sentence read: 'At the point where they suddenly came together, both Tamir and the rookie officer were no doubt frightened.'

So in this historic moment, the 'frightened' adult officer, Timothy Loehmann who used lethal force against a child, within two seconds of arriving on the scene and who had been rejected by three previous police departments and received a damning appraisal of his professional conduct, the report noted his inability to 'follow simple directions (and) dismal handgun performance' were somehow equal. The adult man with a real weapon and the boy with a toy gun were united by their fear.

Prosecutor McGinty then continues to offer his assessment of events: 

“As they raced the mile toward the rec center, the police were prepared to face a possible active shooter in a neighborhood with history of violence. There are in fact memorials to two slain Cleveland Police officers in that very park. And both had been shot to death nearby in the line of duty. Police are trained that it takes only a third of a second to draw and fire a weapon at them — and therefore they must react quickly to any threat. Officer Loehmann had just seen Tamir put an object into his waist as he stood up in the gazebo and started walking away. A moment later, as the car slid toward him, Tamir drew the replica gun from his waist and the officer fired. Believing he was about to be shot was a mistaken — yet reasonable— belief given the high-stress circumstances and his police training. He (Officer Loehmann, not Tamir Rice, ed.) had reason to fear for his life.”

(Notice also how McGinty refers to the black victim by his first-name only and the white officer via his title and surname). 

“Every time I think about this case, I cannot help but feel that the victim here could have been my own son or grandson. Everyone who investigated this case feels the same way. All of our children go to parks and rec centers. No parent follows their 12-year-old around all day to make sure they don’t get into mischief. That is why this case taps such profound emotions in us all. The Rice family has suffered a grievous loss. Nothing will replace Tamir in their lives.”

McGinty expresses apparent empathy for the Rice family; although the lack of precision, how could Tamir Rice be both his son and grandson? And reference to Rice's apparent 'mischief' make me wonder how genuine it is.

His next line returns to the perspective of the police: 'The police officers and the police department must live with the awful knowledge that their mistakes – however unintentional – led to the death of a 12-year-old boy. ' Mistakes, however unintentional ...

Perhaps my focus on McGinty's statement might seem surprising, even cold. We are talking about a child here, a 12 year-old boy, killed in a public park, shot to death by a police officer while playing with a toy gun. We are talking about a son and brother: a boy, whose distraught sister was handcuffed by the police and then shoved into the patrol-car, unable to comfort, to render assistance to her brother who at that point was still alive (the police waited four minutes before returning to Tamir to see if he needed medical assistance).

Elsewhere in the statement, McGinty spoke of the case as if it were a natural event – lacking human agency: 'Given this perfect storm of human error, mistakes and miscommunications by all involved (emphasis added) that day, the evidence did not indicate criminal conduct by police.'

But Rice's death was not an act of nature, outside human control. This death, although familiar, was far from natural. It was against nature – against the natural order of things, no matter how frequent such violence might be in the United States.

More than that Officer Loehmann had a choice. The police officer was not a victim of a 'perfect storm' of uncontrolled external forces, or his fear; this was not a Greek tragedy or a nineteenth century novel where a hapless hero is propelled by 'mistakes' made by others or himself. He had a choice. In a very powerful piece for the New York Times, 'Tamir Rice and the Color of Fear' Brit Bennett analyses the notion of 'reasonable fear' that informed the prosecutor's case. (Throughout the year-long 'investigation' leading towards the Grand Jury judgement not to indict the officers, prosecutor McGinty made no secret of his belief that the two officers should not face court).

Bennett writes of the trouble with 'empathy' and focus on fear:

“How do we determine reasonability? Who determines whether a fear is “objectively reasonable,” as coined in the report, as if reason can be completely impartial? According to the prosecutor’s report, a reasonable fear does not have to be an accurate one. “A reasonable belief could also be a mistaken belief,” the report outlines, “and the fact that it turned out to be mistaken does not undermine its reasonableness.” (…)

The report also dismisses the relevance of whether Rice heard the police yell for him to show his hands. The officers testified that the cruiser window was rolled up, but the prosecutor’s report states that “even assuming Tamir could not have heard Loehmann’s warnings given from inside the car, Loehmann felt he had no choice in the instant he used deadly force.” The report reiterates the circular argument used by the Supreme Court to define reasonability: A fear is considered reasonable if another reasonable person would fear it.”

And that 'reasonable person' usually resembles those being investigated, in this case white police officers who also received surprising advantages in the legal process; being allowed to provide written statements to the court, rather than being cross-examined. While legal, this is not standard practice.

But I wonder why such emphasis is being placed on these subjective notion of fear. Why not focus on whether sufficient efforts were taken by Officer Loehmann to avoid the use of extreme force? Why not focus on whether or not Officer Loehmann assessed the situation appropriately, with all due care given to the avoidance of causing harm? Ohio is an 'open carry' state which means that even if Rice had a real gun, rather than a toy, or was an adult he had not committed a crime. Keeping this in mind, that carrying weapons in Ohio is legal, why was Officer Loehmann so frightened that he thought he might die? Hadn't he received training on how to respond to civilians carrying guns in public spaces?

McGinty refers to the belief that the two officers believed that they were approaching an 'active shooter' situation, but this is not only illogical, but bizarre; Tamir Rice had a toy, which for obvious reasons could not shoot bullets. Moreover, Officer Loehmann shot Rice two seconds after arriving on the scene, from a close proximity. If he seriously believed he was entering a life-threatening situation, why didn't he keep his distance, take the time to assess the situation and then act? 'Any fear feels reasonable in the moment,' Brit Bennett writes. 'And if black bodies are inherently scary, white fear will always be considered reasonable.'

Something that continues to surprise me personally is the emotional charge behind white racism, where the perpetrator of the crime seeks out the status of victim. Whether it is in a colonial context, or modern-day US, those committing the violent acts desperately cling to the role of victim, while seeking sympathy from others. We are encouraged to empathise with them, with their confusion and their fear and then excuse whatever they did because of these misguided, or mistaken (or even completely illogical, groundless) fears. This impulse fascinates me, especially since it is so heartfelt.

Rare is it for white supporters of Officer Loehmann to imagine how such bluster must feel for the surviving family of Tamir Rice and his mother, Samaria, who continues to fight for justice, despite personal attacks. In an interview with Ebony from June last year, Samaria Rice said how 'Tamir is getting me up every morning because I’m still waiting on answers. I still don’t know what happened. I don’t want anyone to have to suffer like this. I want to be a part of making change. Whatever we have to do, I’m willing to do. I believe that we are in a war. We are in a war. They are out here killing us and whatever I can do to bring awareness to that ...'

Many months ago, I read that Samaria Rice and her surviving children were for a time homeless. No longer could Tamir's mother bear living so close to the park where her son had been so brutally killed. This stopped me cold. And reminded me how after each death, after each statistic – and all the outrage, or shameful justifications on behalf of those supporting the perpetrators – there is family, still alive and still grieving.

This essay was re-published in the Australian journal, Arena (Feb-March, 2016)