I turned my head for a minute and Eminem dropped this single “Berzerk” from his forthcoming record. The song illustrates everything I love about Hip-hop. It’s not that I miss the era he’s referencing here (I don’t), it’s that he’s referencing things: All kinds of things. Mathers’ use of allusion is masterful, and it’s one of the reasons I study rap in the first place.
Eminem’s sense of humor and of himself is firmly intact. “Berserk” boasts guest shots from and references to “So Whatcha Want?”, Royce da 5’9″, Rick Rubin, Billy Squier’s “The Stroke,” Public Enemy, N.W.A., Kendrick Lamar, Ad Rock, and Kid Rock. It’s a celebration of roots: from rap and rock to the city block [runtime: 4:20].
More than anything else, Em gets his Beastie Boys on here. Because they, more than anyone else, encompass all of the things going on in this song. Rubin employs his standard formula, which he once described as “reduction” rather than “production.” It’s heard on early LL Cool J records like “Rock the Bells” (1985), Run-DMC tracks like “Rock Box” (1983), “King of Rock” (1984), and the Run-DMC/Aerosmith collaboration “Walk This Way” (1986), and reprised on Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” (2003). But the Beasties’ Licensed to Ill (1986) is the best exemplar. Rubin stripped everything down to just the boom bap: 808s, John Bonham drums, big guitar riffs, and the noises and voices of the boys. The result was resonant and irresistible — and it still works.
The new record, The Marshall Mathers LP2 comes out next week.
The once quotable KRS-One once said, “The essence of Hip-hop truly is the transformation of existing objects and forms.” In Rhymin’ and Stealin’: Musical Borrowing in Hip-hop (University of Michigan Press, 2013), Justin A. Williams takes KRS at his word and starts from the fundamental assumption that Hip-hop comes from putting together pieces of the past. Whether or not sampling and remix are legitimate cultural practices shouldn’t even be a debate anymore, and, thankfully, Williams’ concerns go much further than that.
Citing Serge Lacasse, he draws an important distinction between sampled and nonsampled quotation (the former being the straight appropriation of previously recorded material, and the latter being like the variations on a theme found in jazz: performed not cut-and-pasted), and in Chapter 4 “The Martyr Industry,” he tackles the haunting of Hip-hop by its fallen emcees, writing,
Rappers who sample martyrs such as Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. add to the creation of new identities, tributes that often become part of new narratives within the imagined community of hip-hop culture (p. 109).
In that chapter, Williams cites songs by Nas and Jay-Z who were both contemporaries of Tupac and Biggie. In Chapter 5, “Borrowing and Lineage,” Williams goes on to cover Eminem and 50 Cent, neither of whom were famous recording artists until after Tupac and Biggie passed the mic. Their collaborations with the dead emcees align them with the fallen rappers. Williams also does an adept job of illustrating how the concepts of lineage, continuity, and community come not only from the songs but from the fans and the press.
Williams’ approach is interdisciplinary, drawing not only from the usual cultural studies and aesthetics but also from musicology and history, as well as the evolution of technology. All of this makes Rhymin’ and Stealin’ a unique and informative read on a shelf otherwise crowded with similarities.
Not that Edwards’ language isn’t precise — it is — the focus is on technique though, not analysis. Shit like Shock G’s Humpty Hump voice being an impression of the Warner Brothers Frog, which is itself an impression of Bing Crosby; using the impermanence of a verse to experiment with it; and trying out bars that don’t or barely rhyme: That’s what this book is about.
Continuing the care he took in part one, Edwards asks advanced wordsmiths for advice on rhythm, melody, pitch, timing, enunciation, percussion, playing characters, rhyme schemes, and rhyme patterns. Among the experts included are Cage Kennylz, Royce Da 5’9″, Brother Ali, Buckshot, The Pharcyde, Del the Funky Homosapien, Souls of Mischief, Freestyle Fellowship, Q-Tip, One Be Lo, Planet Asia, Sean Price, and my dude Aesop Rock, among many others. It’s a who’s who of lyrical prowess opened with a foreword by Gift of Gab.
Just when you thought there were already too many books on Hip-hop, these two essential texts come out, showing two more directions in which Hip-hop truly is about transforming and transcending.
Scholars, researchers, and journalists have had a tumultuous relationship with Hip-hop in general and the cultural practice of remixing specifically (McLeod, 2002). Some, seemingly refusing to contend with Hip-hop at all, trace the practice back to the collages of the Dadaists, the détournements of the Situationists, or the cut-ups of Burroughs and Gysin. Regardless, there’s no denying that Hip-hop brought sampling, scratching, and manipulating previously recorded sounds to a global audience. Along with allusion, quotation, and interpolation, sampling is now standard among the tools of the modern media maker (McLeod & DiCola, 2011). It’s one more option in what Joanna Demers (2006) calls “transformative appropriation, the act of referring to or quoting old works in order to create a new work” (p. 4).
Even so, some use such appropriation as an opportunity to either critique or dismiss the idea of originality altogether. In 1985, Eleanor Heartney complained that “we have finally reached the stage where the very notion of artistic originality is suspect” (p. 26). Others want to spread the practice out, to see it everywhere. As Simon Reynolds puts it, appropriately citing the worst misuses of the concept yet,
“We use the old to make the new and the new is always old.” Much the same idea crops up in Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist, a sort of self-help manual for modern creatives. Kleon moves quickly from “every new idea is just a mashup or a remix of one or more previous ideas” to insisting that “you are the sum of your influences” and that “you’re a remix of your mom and dad.”
Everything is not a remix, and putting two things together does not a remix make. To say that all such combinations, appropriations, and amalgams are remixes is to lose sight of what makes remix a unique concept of its own. Eduardo Navas remedies this line of thinking with a nuanced, discursive approach to remix culture. In his Remix Theory: The Aesthetics of Sampling (Springer, 2012), Navas lays out a systematic way to think about the cultural history and controversial layers of remix, grounded in the “concrete form of sampling,” and focusing on “conceptual strategies used in different forms of art, media, and culture” (p. 6). These include photography, art, and, of course, music. The latter form of remix being rooted in Jamaican dub and defined by three actions: extending, selecting, and reflecting.
Extending the break is the original form of Hip-hop remix, but those roots reach back not only to Jamaica but also to Jazz. When the written melody ended, Jazz players would improvise over the chord changes to keep the dancers moving (Byrne, 2012), just as the original Hip-hop DJs did in the park. Selective remix is just what it sounds like: a new composition created by adding and subtracting elements from the original piece, heightening or downplaying its salient aspects. Reflexive remix extends, adds, and subtracts but also allegorizes the original composition. That is, it is its own thing, but also maintains the original’s “spectacular aura” (Navas, 2012, p.66) and displays “distorted reflections” (Hebdige, 1979, p. 26) of its source material. It is allusive, revealing its sources through a warped, funhouse mirror. In more general terms, Navas contends that remix is the cultural adhesive that holds our current culture together. Remix Theory is as erudite as is is readable and deftly demonstrates how remix applies far outside its origins.
Taking a more specific tack, Mark Katz’s Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-hop DJ (Oxford University Press, 2012) explores all of the practices of the Hip-hop DJ including remix. With his stethoscope firmly pressed against its chest, Katz listens closely to what Rob Swift calls “the heartbeat of Hip-hop culture.” Groove Music is as definitive a cultural history of sampling, scratching, and remixing you’re likely to find. The art of the DJ proves that it ain’t all final on black vinyl, but Katz has it all down in black and white. From the early 1970s to the early 21st century, it’s all in here. Groove Music along with Joseph Schloss’s Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-hop (Wesleyan, 2004) and Katz’s previous book, Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music (University of California Press, 2004), will get you a long way to understanding the cultural production of music in the 21st century.
For the most part, Hip-hop DJs and producers don’t think about remix the way that scholars, researchers, or journalists do. Heartney (1985) continues, “Appropriation is culture with an omnivorous appetite, gobbling up every image that wanders across its path” (p. 28). While any DJ might agree with that, their reasons will vary. Are they always making a statement with their sampling choices? Nah, sometimes certain sounds just sound dope together (for one example, see Schloss, 2004, pp. 147-149). As Steinberg (1978) puts it, “there is as much unpredictable originality in quoting, imitating, transposing, and echoing, as there is in inventing” (p. 25). Indeed, cutting and pasting pieces of the past together can yield work as original as any other act of creation.
But you don’t need me to tell you that.
Byrne, David. (2012). How Music Works. San Francisco: McSweeney’s, p. 21.
Demers, Joanna. (2006). Steal This Music: How Intellectual Property Law Affects Musical Creativity. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.
Heartney, Eleanor. (1985, March). Appropriation and the Loss of Authenticity. New Art Examiner, 26-30.
Hebdige, Dick. (1979). Subculture: The Meaning of Style. New York: Routledge.
Katz, Mark. (2012). Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-hop DJ. New York: Oxford University Press.
McLeod, Kembrew. (2002). The Politics and History of Hip-hop Journalism. In Steve Jones (ed,), Pop Music and the Press. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, pp. 156-167.
McLeod, Kembrew & DiCola, Peter. (2011). Creative License: The Law and Culture of Digital Sampling. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, p. 55.
Navas, Eduardo. (2012). Remix Theory: The Aesthetics of Sampling. New York: Springer.
The last few years have been hectic, and 2012 kept it moving in a big way. I’ll get to my personal stuff in a bit, but first, here are the people, events, music, and media that shaped my year.
Encounters of the Year: I had the honor of breakfast with longtime mentor and friend Howard Rheingold at SXSW this year. Howard has offered me endless advice and encouragement over the years online, and it was a true treat to chat with him face-to-face over a meal.
Also at SXSW, I was invited by my good friend Dave Allen to sit on a panel about music technology with Rick Moody, Jesse von Doom, David Ewald, and Anthony Batt, all of whom I am proud to now call friends. I’ll never forget the look on Rick’s face when I asked him to say grace at lunch that day.
We also ran into Hank Shocklee who was doing a panel discussion adjacent to ours. As the architect of the Bomb Squad, who produced such frenetic noisefests as Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Fear of a Black Planet, as well as Ice Cube’s Amerikkka’s Most Wanted, Hank has been a hero of mine since high school. He hung out and conferred with us like we were all old friends.
Comebacks have really made a comeback this year.
— Seth Cockfield via Twitter, December 3rd, 2012.
Speaking of Public Enemy, I caught “The Hip-hop Gods Classic Tourfest Revue” at The House of Blues in Chicago on December 5th. I hadn’t seen P.E. since 1991, and I’ve only seen them on package tours like this (once in 1990 with Digital Underground, Kid N’ Play, Queen Latifah, and The Afros, and twice in 1991, once with Sisters of Mercy, Gang of Four, Warrior Soul, and Young Black Teenagers, and again with Anthrax, Primus, and Young Black Teenagers). This time around it was them, X-Clan, Monie Love, Leaders of the New School, Wise Intelligent, Schoolly D, Son of Berzerk, and Awesome Dre. Chuck did a lot of talking and Flav did a lot of goofing, but the few songs that they did–both old and new–were absolutely on point.
Earlier in the year, I barged into Helmet’s dressing room at The House of Blues in Chicago to meet Page Hamilton. In my defense, I was looking for Ume‘s room, and once inside, I asked Page where it was. Before I left, I got Lily to take a picture of us together because people always say we look alike, to which Page quipped, “Yeah, but I’m 105 and you’re, like, 29.”
Coup of the Year: Death Grips: As Christopher R. Weingarten explores in his “Artist of the Year” story on Spin.com, Death Grips showed how to use technology to get what you want, and then disappear before anyone knows what happened. They duped the internet, a major label, and their fans and became one of the most talked-about artists of the year. It goes, it goes, it goes…
Music of the Year:
I’ve clearly had a Gunplay problem this year:
Other than Gunplay mixtapes and my usual prog/post-rock fare (e.g., Radiohead, Mogwai, The Mars Volta, Eno, Baroness, Followed by Ghosts, God is an Astronaut, etc.), these are some releases I relished:
Erik Blood Touch Screens (Erik Blood): How much reference to previous work is the right amount? Thomas Kuhn called the dialectic between tradition and innovation the “essential tension,” and Erik Blood has found the perfect middle. To call Touch Screens unoriginal would be to admit you didn’t listen to it. Yes, this is stuttery, gooey, taffy-like pop in the vein of Brad Laner and Kevin Shields, but Blood puts these things together with that third thing, the thing that comes from more than just nailing the essential tension.
“Most of [the shoegazers] couldn’t rock their way out of a paper bag,” once quoth Simon Reynolds. Not so with Erik Blood. There’s as much Loop here as there is Main, as much Anton Newcombe as there is Courtney Taylor-Taylor. I also hear some Can and Neu!, which Blood claims he likes but doesn’t consider an influence. “Though I guess everything one hears is an influence,” he concedes. I could listen to the last half of “Amputee” all damn day. “That’s the idea,” he told me. Blood broadcasts these soundtracks from some unplaceable future, some unknown space out of time.
With a pornography-related concept and a cover reminiscent of H. R. Giger’s painting for Dead Kennedys’Frankenchrist poster, Touch Screens is guaranteed to offend some. Don’t be scared, especially if you like your valentines bloody and your Warhols dandy.
JK Flesh Posthuman (3by3): To explicate the pedigree of Justin K. Broadrick would require a book-length exploration, but let’s try to nick the surface. He was a founding member of Napalm Death, invented and inverted genres in Godflesh, and happily drones in headphones in Jesu—not to mention stints in final, Head of David, Fall of Because, Ice, God, Techno Animal, Greymachine, and Pale Sketcher, among others. Now Broadrick revives his JK Flesh moniker to make some noise that doesn’t fit under any of his other active names. The sounds on Posthuman land between the lines and demonstrate that the disc deserves its own designation. Sure, there are echoes of past projects, especially Greymachine and Pale Sketcher, but this record has a soul of its own. A soul that deserves to be played very loud. These songs need to stretch out, to reach out, and to touch someone. “Idle Hands” sounds like some bastardized, end-of-the-world Hip-hop (apocalypse-hop?), the title track is the theme song to a spy movie with an all-android cast, and the other ones will satisfy your need for a soundtrack to entropy and the heat-death of the universe. No one knows what that would sound like better than Justin Broadrick.
Neurosis Honor Found in Decay (Neurot Recordings): Among the many burgeoning subgenres of post-metal, there is one band that is consistently named as a starting point: Neurosis has been bending and rending metal, punk, crust, sludge, drone, doom, ambient, folk, and other odd musical categories since 1985. Their latest, Honor Found in Decay (Neurot Recordings, 2012) more than illustrates both why they’re the godfathers of this sound and what exactly it is that all of their progeny are still trying to achieve.
On their tenth studio outing, the Oakland sextet gathers together pieces from their storied past to pull off a defining document of their sound. Honor Found in Decay is that rare record that serves the seasoned fan as well as the newbie. It continues their long and fruitful recording relationship with Steve Albini. The ten-plus-minute dirges are here (e.g., “At the Well,” “My Heart for Deliverance,” “Casting of the Ages”). The growling and wailing are in tact (e.g, “Bleeding the Pigs,” “Raise the Dawn”). The bulldozer grooves are as deep and wide as ever (e.g., “We All Rage in Gold,” “All is Found… In Time”). Like all of their releases since 1992’s Souls at Zero, this is nothing less than a monolithic affair.
Not that it doesn’t move them forward, but Honor Found in Decay feels like a summary of sorts—much like The Cure’s Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me and Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief were. And like those two bands, Neurosis has plenty to summarize: They’ve always pushed themselves in new directions and they’ve kept fans and critics guessing at every turn. Honor Found in Decay is just as complex and dynamic as the collective history that created it. It’s as lush as it is loud, as heavy as it is heady, and as mysterious as it is majestic. Your expectations will be immediately reached and quickly wrecked.
Other releases that stayed in the speakers and headphones include Deftones Koi No Yokan (Reprise), Baroness Yellow & Green (Relapse), The Mars Volta Noctourniquet (Warner Bros.), Sean PriceMic Tyson (Duck Down), and mixtapes by Waka Flocka Flame, Gucci Mane, Chief Keef, Alleyboy, and A$AP Rocky. Along with Gunplay (see above), Skweeky Watahfawls, Johnny Ciggs, Fan Ran and the whole Gritty City Fam are the finds of the year. Here they are with The Jam of the Year, “Hunnid Dolla Bills” [runtime: 5:23]:
Video of the Year: Killer Mike “Big Beast” featuring Bun B, T.I., Trouble, & El-P: If this video doesn’t move you in some way, you’re probably dead. First of all, the pairing of Killer Mike on the mic and El-Producto on production is a match made somewhere south of Heaven: It’s dark, it’s evil, it’s raw, and it’s hard as fuck and the record they just did, R.A.P. Music, proves it many times over. Next, we have this straight bananas lead track “Big Beast,” including sick verses by Bun B. and T. I. that will remind you why they’re both Hip-hop legends, and a catchy chorus by Trouble. Then, we have this face-eating, car-chasing, enthusiastically violent video that has them all doing some ill shit (that’s El-P in the mask) directed by Thomas C. Bingham and produced by CFILM1 in partnership with Adult Swim. Like I said, check your pulse [runtime: 9:23].
Movie of the Year: Looper.Rian Johnson is one of my favorite people on Twitter (his day-long stories about his beef with Jason Reitman are hysterical), and he’s finally made his Philip K. Dick movie. Time-travel is a trope I never tire of, and it’s used masterfully here, as in it stays out of the way of the story. Looper features stellar performances by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Paul Dano, and Jeff Daniels, but the real surprise was the young-but-amazing Pierce Gagnon. Watch out for that one.
Book of the Year: Nick Harkaway Angelmaker: A Novel (Knopf): Nick Harkaway’s second novel is a surrealist noir novel like no other. Angelmaker is heady and heavy, but Harkaway’s prose is giddy in its grasp. It’s a little bit steampunk, a little bit spy novel, a little bit mystery, and a whole lot of fun. As an added treat, I also got to interview him earlier this year, during which he told me of his writing, “…I suppose I have a tendency to use movie shapes — like the Classic Myth Structure George Lucas used for Star Wars — because they’re dramatic and recognisable and they keep you on track. Writing the kind of books I write, with lots going on, you need not to get lost. Structure helps. A story spine is vital. And so is knowing what the voice is, the tone. With those, you can go all over the map and come home safe, and you know it, and your reader gets that confidence in you and settles, so you can take liberties and amaze them. The less secure they are, the less likely they are to go with you when you do something unusual — and that unusual thing is often why you’re there, so that’s bad. They close the book. And once they do that, you have a hell of a time getting them to open it again.” Unlike several other books I read this year, that’s not a problem I had with Angelmaker.
Skateboard Video of the Year: Girl and Chocolate’s Pretty Sweet: You know nothing else came close.
Documentary of the Year: The Unbookables (Fascinator Films): The Unbookables are a loose band of comedians (emphasis on “loose”) handpicked by Doug Stanhope.This movie documents their 2008 tour of the middle of the country, from my own Austin, Texas through Kansas City, Missouri to Peoria, Illinois. The cast of characters (emphasis on “characters”) includes Brendon Walsh, Sean Rouse, Andy Andrist, Norman Wilkerson, Brett Erickson, Travis Lipski, James Inman, and Kristine Levine. The unfortunate star of the show is James Inman. If nothing else, this film documents how reckless behavior can bring people together as well as single one of them out.
The first gig is at Nasty’s in Austin, and one of my own University of Texas colleagues gets the narrative rolling by leaving drugs around for Inman to find, like an Easter Egg hunt with negative repercussions. I was at Nasty’s that night, and everyone killed. It was proof of both why these guys are The Unbookables and why they’re such revered comedians. Night two was a “chicken wire” show at Beerland during which chicken wire is draped in front of the stage and the crowd throws fruit at the comics while they attempt to tell jokes. True to its heritage, the show was a complete trainwreck with mostly just the comedians pelting each other with fruit. Few jokes were told as everyone just made fun of Inman.
Inman’s shady behavior continued through the gigs in his then-home Kansas City. He almost ditches the others as they get fired from the first show of the weekend there thanks to one of Travis Lipski’s tamest jokes. Tensions mount, Kristine Levine joins the crew, and the plot spirals out of control as our heroes reach Peoria. Luckily Brett Erickson is there to save the day.
There’s obviously a lot more to it than I’ve detailed above, but it’s not all worth mentioning. With that said, The Unbookables is a gruesome glimpse into the world of touring stand-up comedy, and it’s damn worth checking out. Props due to all involved — except Inman, of course.
Move of the Year: Austin to Chicago: Continuing the family trade, my girl Lily got into grad school at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, so we packed up and moved from the Tattooine of Austin to the Hoth of Chicago. Thanks to Zizi Papacharissi, I joined the adjunct faculty at The University of Illinois at Chicago. This will be the biggest, coldest city I’ve ever lived in, but we’re certainly enjoying it so far.
Many thanks to Chris Noble at Level Magazine, for which many of the reviews above were originally written throughout the year. Thanks to Tim Baker over at SYFFAL for turning me on to Gunplay and the Gritty City Fam. Mad thanks to Michael Schandorf, Adriane Stoner, and Zizi Papacharissi for making the transition to Chicago a smooth one. Onward.
Though he rarely gets his due outside of hardcore heads, Ice-T has always been one of Hip-hop’s best storytellers. Songs like “6 ‘N the Mornin'” (1987), “Colors” (1988), and “Drama” (1988) set the bar high for poetic narrative. These songs were gritty tales from the streets of L.A., “gangsta rap” before it was so-called (back then Ice-T called it “crime rhyme”). Now he’s set out to tell the story of Hip-hop itself in the documentary Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap (Indomina, 2012).
In addition to his pedigree as an emcee, Ice-T also knows every veteran of the game. On the selection of rappers in the film, he told Soul Culture (embedded below; runtime: 6:48), “I just went through my phonebook, that’s all it was. It wasn’t an intent to cut out the young kids or anything. I just said I’m going to do a movie (and) I can’t offer money. I can only get favors, so let’s call my friends. And I called up the people I toured with.” That explains a lot of the inherent omissions of a documentary of this nature. With that said, the film is a fun collection of thoughts from a range of Hip-hop luminaries. What it lacks in depth, it more than makes up for in breadth.
There is a literacy to Hip-hop. “It’s just like a language,” says DJ Premiere, “You have to know how to listen to it… And if you don’t know how to listen to it, it doesn’t make sense.” The Art of Rap is similar in that it helps to already have a knowledge of the history of the culture, its major players, and their relationships with one another. For instance, when fellow West Coast rapper Ras Kass asks if Ice is getting an interview with Xzibit for the film, Ice says he can’t find him. Ras calls XZibit at his house down the street, and Ice-T makes it his next stop. Or when he’s up in Eminem’s studio. After talking with Eminem at length, Ice is chopping it up with Royce Da 5’9″, and Em comes in rapping Ice-T’s “Reckless” from Breakin’ (1984).
When Ice-T sits down with many of these folks, it’s obvious that they’ve been friends and colleagues in this for years–especially people like Ras, Dr. Dre, Snoop, Ice Cube, Rakim, Redman, MC Lyte, Q-Tip, and Lord Jamar. With others, Ice doesn’t even step in front of the camera (if he’s even there; it’s especially noticeable during the Kanye West spot). The Art of Rap gives one glimpses of the heavies in the game, but knowing a bit of their backstory helps those glimpses go together.
Of course, Hip-hop has been explored in previous documentaries. Peter Sprier’s The Art of 16 Bars (QD3, 2005), DJ Organic’s Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme (Bowery Films, 2000), and Doug Pray’s Scratch (Palm Pictures, 2001) provide a decent overview of the complexity of this art form. But Ice-T brings a special touch to the film. He knows almost everyone in this movie in a way that other documentarians of same do not.
If you lack the interest or the time to read some of the great books written about the genre and culture, Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap won’t school you completely, but it’s a fun companion piece to your further knowledge. As always, Ice-T tells the stories well.