Tag Archives: Hip hop

The Smithsonian Institution’s Object of the Day, August 13, Grand Wizzard Theodore’s Turntables

 

Two Vestax PDX-2000 turntables

In the years between the invention of the phonograph and the rise of digital audio, aural playback devices were considered to be a one-way form of communication. The media they played back was fixed and finalized, ready for passive consumption. As the inventor of the needle drop, and the primary innovator of “the scratch,” Grand Wizzard Theodore helped to shift this mindset by lifting the stylus out of the entrenched path of the groove—dropping it down on other parts of the record, shifting its direction into reverse and back again, slowing down its motion and speeding it up. Based in part on his innovations, freed from the shackles of a non-responsive medium, DJs could suddenly respond to their live audiences in real-time, and in particular to the body language of dancers, bringing pre-recorded music back into the ebb-and-flow of oral tradition.

Granted, long before the birth of hip hop, there were a handful of avant-garde composers who willfully subverted the “fixed object” status of sound recordings. Seeking to break with tradition, composers like John Cage and Pierre Schaeffer took recorded artifacts and playback devices (radios, record players, etc.) and tried to turn them into experimental musical instruments. Still, the first wave of hip hop DJs did something unique in comparison. Unlike the avant-gardists, DJs like Grand Wizzard Theodore, Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, and Afrika Bambaataa kept the groove going even after they removed the needle from the groove. Their music was danceable despite being experimental. It flowed even though it was built on rupture. It could be just-as-if-not-more-funky than the source materials it was built on. And it all began with the reinvention of the wheel—that is, the “wheels of steel”, i.e., two turntables placed in mutual musical dialogue. In taking this object out of its familiar “groove” and dropping it into another one, the record player was made amenable to an entirely new cultural and aesthetic matrix.

In the first video below, Theodore demonstrates his needle drop technique, and in the second video, he describes the genesis of the scratch. The origin story of the second video is well-known by now: After his mom reprimanded a young Theodore for playing his music too loud in the house, he stopped the turntable manually and held the record in place. Nudging the record impatiently back and forth with a rapid motion, he waited for his mother to leave the room. The sound that was inadvertently produced led eventually to the distinctive, futuristic-sounding rhythmic and timbral effect of the scratch, a sonic innovation added to the DJ’s arsenal. But it was an innovation achieved on an old and familiar technological device being used to play (for the most part) old records.

Record scratching is now part of the familiar sonic vocabulary not just of hip hop but also of electronic dance music, ranging from big beat anthems to melancholy trip hop tracks, and also mainstream pop hits like Hanson’s “MMMBop” as produced by the Dust Brothers. In taking an object once viewed as the very antithesis of “creative,” with the record player as delivery mechanism for “canned music,” and showing that in the right hands it could be just as flexible and adaptable as a standard musical instrument, a revolution of sorts was begun. And so it’s fitting that scratching itself has been adapted in so many musical settings over the years.

In the book Hop-Hop DJs and the Evolution of Technology, Andre Sirois describes DJ culture as being “founded on the notions that text and technology are manipulable.” When “hip hop DJ culture uses consumption as the starting point for production,” it “create[s] the meanings/uses of texts and hardware rather than accepting what is created by industries.” Through this “manipulation and…re-coding of recorded sound technology,” the DJ “undermines the read-only ideology of sound reproduction encoded into vinyl records and turntables,” an ideology derived “from more than 100 years of standardization and the exploitation of intellectual property rights by corporations” is subverted. There’s an obvious political dimension to this argument, where an object can be used and consumed in a way that undermines the underlying power relations through which it was created, distributed, and sold. But the object, and the conditions of its production, must be bought and “bought into” before this subversion can take place—resulting in a kind of consumerist double-consciousness that may likely have special resonance for many people of color (consider, for example, how the name “Grand Wizzard Theodore” borrows a white supremacist title only to subvert it).

This resonance has been seized upon in hip hop, in particular, when it comes to the turntable-as-object. As the stylus moves across the spiraling groove of the vinyl record, both linear and repetitive, it enacts a form of movement that echoes Black American history, where progress in civil rights has been repeatedly offset by the reincarnation of past travesties, reborn in new guises. On a more mundane level, it also echoes the back-and-forth interplay between consumption and production in hip hop, the disembedding and reembedding of found sounds in the music, the push-and-pull of rhythmic syncopations that define the music and its funky forebears, and the fuzzy line between innovation and repetition that’s at the heart of the creative process. These and other circular structures, movements, and aesthetics have long played a central role across the multiple pillars of hip hop: from call-and-response vocal interplay to the DJ riding the wheels of steel; from looped breakbeats to emcees battling in a cypher; from dancers’ uprocking and downrocking, executing headspins and backspins, to the rounded bubble letters of graffiti artists; and finally, in the very name of hip hop itself (“When you say hip, I say hop!”). There could be no better visual metaphor for all of this than Grand Wizzard Theodore’s turntables—objects than helped spawn a whole new process of music-making, a process rooted in the give-and-take interplay between music-as-artifact and music-as-oral-tradition.

Written and compiled by Jason Lee Oakes, Editor, RILM

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Chang, Jeff. “Needle to the Groove: Snippets from an Omnidirectional History.” In The Record: Contemporary Art and Vinyl, edited by Trevor Schoonmaker, 116–119. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.

The article recounts the accidental invention of “the scratch” by Bronx DJ Grand Wizzard Theodore, going on to survey the DJ’s power to conjure alternative worlds of space and time–worlds where sound, not geography or chronology, binds the universe. These worlds, however, are endangered by the culture industry and its ownership (in many cases) of the sonic raw materials used to transform time and space, a claim to ownership that is constantly and creatively subverted by collectors, crate diggers, and DJs.

 

D’Arcangelo, Gideon. “Recycling Music, Answering Back: Toward an Oral Tradition of Electronic Music.” In Proceedings of the International Conference on New Interfaces for Musical Expression, 55–58. Hamamatsu: NIME, 2004.

This essay outlines a framework for understanding new musical compositions and performances that utilize pre-existing sound recordings. In attempting to articulate why musicians are increasingly using sound recordings in their creative work, the author calls for and shows examples of new performance tools that enable the dynamic use of pre-recorded music such as record scratching and sampling. By using two variable speed turntables connected by a mixer, hip hop DJ began blending recording songs in seamless continuity. Blending and mixing gave way to scratching, or backspinning a record in rhythm. This gave DJs a way to put more of their own musical selves into the playback, featuring their rhythmic skills. Grand Wizzard Theodore is attributed with inventing scratching in 1975. Similar practices emerged concurrently in the New York art world around the same time in the work of conceptual artist Christian Marclay. If recorded sound creates fixed musical experiences that sit in our memory like non-biodegradable plastics, then the digital sampler is a kind of music recycling machine that breaks down, digests and processes these memories for reuse. This points the way to a new form of give and take in creative influence. The sampler has been a first step in re-establishing the process of call and response, familiar from oral traditions, in the all-electronic medium.

 

Jam, Billy. “Creator of the Scratch.” Hip Hop Slam. Accessed August 9, 2019. http://www.hiphopslam.com/articles/int_grandwizardtheo.html

An interview with the hip hop DJ credited with the invention of the scratch. For someone who lives for scratch music, visiting legendary DJ Grand Wizzard Theodore (GWT)–the creator of the scratch–at his Bronx, New York home could only be compared to an Elvis Presley fan making a pilgrimage to Graceland to visit the King of rock ‘n’ roll in his day. Like many of the great pioneers of hip hop that created the genre on these Bronx streets three decades earlier, GWT was not rich from a culture that he helped shape and form. But unlike many of his contemporaries from hip hop’s seminal years, who are embittered by the fact that they live in comparative poverty/obscurity while contemporary “hip hoppers” are making millions off something they created, GWT is not at all bitter. In fact he is a warm and humble man who is gracious to be a part of a cultural movement that he never thought would spread from the streets of the Bronx to every other corner of the world.

 

Katz, Mark. Groove Music: The Art and the Culture of the Hip-Hop DJ. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

It’s all about the scratch in this book about the figure that defined hip hop: the DJ. Today hip hop is a global phenomenon, and the sight and sound of DJs mixing and scratching is familiar in every corner of the world. But hip hop was born in the streets of New York in the 1970s when a handful of teenagers started experimenting with spinning vinyl records on turntables in new ways. Although rapping has become the face of hip hop, for nearly 40 years the DJ has proven the backbone of the culture. Here the author (an amateur DJ himself) delves into the world of the DJ, tracing the art of the turntable from its humble beginnings in the Bronx in the 1970s to its meteoric rise to global phenomenon today. Based on extensive interviews with practicing DJs, historical research, and personal experience, a history of hip hop is presented from the point of view of the people who invented the genre–from the 1970s beginnings of DJ Kool Herc and Grand Wizzard Theodore, to 21st-century Concertos for Turntablists and Academies of Scratch. More specifically, the author focuses on what he calls the “performative DJ”: those who not only select recordings but manipulate them in real time for audiences. Interviews are included with figures such as Grand Wizzard Theodore (the man credited with inventing turntable scratching) and DMC-winning turntablist DJ Qbert. DJs step up to discuss a wide range of topics, including the transformation of the turntable from a playback device to an instrument in its own right, the highly charged competitive DJ battles, the game-changing introduction of digital technology, and the complex politics of race and gender in the DJ scene.

 

Sirois, André. Hop-Hop DJs and the Evolution of Technology: Cultural Exchange, Innovation, and Democratization. New York: Peter Lang, 2016. Smith, Sophy. Hip-hop Turntablism, Creativity and Collaboration. Farnham: Ashgate, 2013.

Armed only with turntables, a mixer, and a pile of records, hip hop DJs and turntable musicians have changed the face of music. However, whilst hip hop has long been recognized as an influential popular culture both culturally and sociologically, hip hop music is rarely taken seriously as an artistic genre. This book values hip hop music as worthy of musicological attention and offers a new approach to its study, focusing on the music itself and providing a new framework to examine not only the musical product, but also the creative process through which it was created. Based on ten years of research among turntablist communities, this is the first book to explore the creative and collaborative processes of groups of DJs working together as hip hop turntable teams. Focusing on a variety of subjects–from the history of turntable experimentation and the development of innovative sound manipulation techniques, to turntable team formation, collective creation and an analysis of team routines–the author examines how turntable teams have developed new ways of composing music, defining characteristics of team routines in both the process and the final artistic product. This author also introduces a new turntable notation system and methodology for the analysis of turntable compositions, covering aspects such as material, manipulation techniques, and structure, while also outlining the impact of individual musicians such as Grand Wizard Theodore, Grandmaster Flash, DJ Flare, and DJ QBert.

Explore over 120 records on Grand Wizzard Theodore or turntablism in RILM’s catalogue

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The refugee as epic hero

 

K’naan’s 2005 debut album, The dusty foot philosopher, can be viewed as a modern-day epic poem that draws on his experiences in Canada’s Somali refugee community.

The album employs many classic epic tropes—including the sea voyage, the exile, the battle with adversaries, the mystical qualities of the heroic figure—and adapts them to the conventions of hip hop culture. Just as the epic poem embodies the core values of the society from which it originates, so The dusty foot philosopher functions as a paradigm of the experiences and challenges of the refugee, one of globalization’s defining figures.

This according to “The survivor’s odyssey: K’naan’s The dusty foot philosopher as a modern epic” by Ana Sobral (African American review XLVI/1 [spring 2013] pp. 21–36).

Today is World Refugee Day! Above and below, the video for Strugglin’, a song from the album.

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Filed under Literature, Politics, Popular music

Competitive krumping

 

Krumping, a 21st-century incarnation of break dancing, embodies both competitive and spiritual dimensions that manifest in the circle harkening back to the African American ring shout. Krumping is a type of serious play that combines aspects of street fighting, moshing, spirit possession, and even striptease, wherein dancers may confront anger, pain, and sadness.

In krumping competitions, one dancer sits in a chair while the other performs to the seated opponent with boastful moves of intimidation. Though the dancers are not allowed to touch each other, they get as close as they can—close enough to feel their opponent’s breath and sweat, to make their blood burn and boil. As a locus of spirit possession, krumping competitions become contests of physical and emotional revealing.

This according to “The multiringed cosmos of krumping: Hip-hop dance at the intersections of battle, media, and spirit” by Christina Zanfagna, an essay included in Ballroom, boogie, shimmy sham, shake: A social and popular dance reader (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009, pp. 337–53).

Above and below, excerpts from Rize, a documentary from 2005.

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Filed under Black studies, Curiosities, Dance

“Once upon a time in Shaolin”

 

 

In 2007 the innovative young Wu-Tang Clan producer Cilvaringz took an incendiary idea to his mentor RZA. They felt that the impact of digitization threatened the sustainability of the record industry and independent artists, while shifting the perception of music from treasured works of art to disposable consumer products.

Together they conceived a statement that would unleash a torrent of global debate–a sole copy of an album in physical form, encased in gleaming silver and sold through an auction house for millions as a work of contemporary art.

The execution of this plan raised a number of questions: Would selling Once upon a time in Shaolin for millions be the ultimate betrayal of Wu-Tang’s fans? And could anyone ever justify the selling of the album to the infamous Martin Shkreli? Opinions were sharply divided over whether this was high art or hucksterism. Was it a subversive act of protest, an act of cultural vandalism, an obscene symbol of greed, or a profound mirror for our time?

The album’s journey from inception to disruption proved to be an extraordinary adventure that veered between outlandish caper and urgent cultural analysis, a story that twists and turns through mayhem and mischief while asking questions about our relationship with art, music, technology, and ultimately ourselves.

This according to Once upon a time in Shaolin: The untold story of Wu-Tang Clan’s million dollar secret album, the devaluation of music, and America’s new public enemy no. 1 by Cyrus Bozorgmehr (New York: Flatiron Books, 2017).

Above and below, the album in question.

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Hip hop teen dance films

Hip hop teen dance films flourished in the 2000s. Drawing on the dominance of hip hop in the mainstream music industry, films such as Save the last dance, Honey, and Step up combined the teen film genre’s typical social problems and musical narratives, while other tensions were created by interweaving representations of post-industrial city youth with the utopian sensibilities of the classic Hollywood musical.

These narratives celebrated hip hop performance, and depicted dance as a bridge between cultural boundaries, bringing together couples, communities, and cultures, using hip hop to construct filmic spaces and identities while fragmenting hip hop soundscapes, limiting its expressive potential.

These attempts to marry the representational, narrative, and aesthetic meanings of hip hop culture with the form and ideologies of the musical film genre illuminate the tensions and continuities that arise from engagement with musicals’ utopian qualities.

This according to “Space, authenticity and utopia in the hip-hop teen dance film” by Faye Woods, an essay included in Movies, moves and music: The sonic world of dance films (Sheffield: Equinox, 2016, pp  61–77).

Above, a scene from Save the last dance; below, a scene from Honey.

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Filed under Dance, Film music, Popular music

Meshell Ndegeocello, pushing boundaries

 

The complexity and range of Meshell Ndegeocello’s hip-hop works extend largely from her willingness to push boundaries—but in pushing sexual and gender boundaries, Ndegeocello declines to traffic in singular dimensions. Danyel Smith has described her as “an African American, woman, lesbian, musician, and mother” who thrives on “pondering the riddles that accompany all her selves.”

In Berry farms Ndegeocello addresses a female lover: “Can you love me without shame?” Giving way to the bass groove, she aggressively concludes: “Yeah, you like to mess around!” She goes on to suggest that her girlfriend prohibits them from sharing honest, enduring love for fear of public scorn because they are lesbians and because she desires the material things her “boy” can give her.

“You know how we like material things,” she observes, reminding us of the dominant perception that most black women effortlessly and willingly sacrifice substantive self-fulfillment for social approval and material gratification. The discursive modes of many of the tracks on Cookie: The anthropological mixtape strike an unambiguously combative chord with this perception by elaborating the tensions of same-sex female desire, fulfillment, and repression.

This according to “‘You sell your soul like you sell a piece of ass’: Rhythms of black female sexuality and subjectvity in Meshell Ndegeocello’s Cookie: The anthropological mixtape” by Nghana Lewis (Black music research journal XXVI/1 [spring 2006] pp. 111–30).

Today is Ndegeocello’s 50th birthday! Below, the song in question.

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Kanye West’s influential departure

808s & heartbreak was a jarring departure from Kanye West’s previous work, and, although its initial reception was mixed at best, it has proven to be the most influential album of his career both as a performer and a producer.

Written and recorded in haste on the heels of his mother’s death and a breakup with his fiancée, 808s features chilly synth textures, brittle drum machines, and West’s blatantly auto-tuned singing throughout. With the help of T-Pain, who, ironically, had come to be mocked for his extensive use of auto-tune, the album made the pitch-correction technology relevant again.

Another unexpected source of inspiration was found in Phil Collins—both in terms of his vocal style and the gated reverb drum sound that he invented in the 1980s. Trapping and snuffing out overtones with a signal processor, the noise gate made the programmed beats of the iconic Roland TR-808 drum machine sound both vivid and lifeless.

The album’s distinctive sound has since filtered into contemporary hip hop and R&B, and the only thing more influential than its sound is its tone: bitter, confused, self-pitying, defensive, and accusatory. 808s & heartbreak made sullen solitude fashionable, with many a male R&B star now presenting himself as a misunderstood antihero, reenacting the public breakdown that West staged without a net.

This according to “The coldest story ever told: The influence of Kanye West’s 808s & heartbreak” by Jayson Greene (Pitchfork 22 September 2015).

Today is West’s 40th birthday! Above, performing Love lockdown, the album’s lead single; below, the full album.

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HipHop Academy Hamburg

HipHop Academy Hamburg’s rappers, dancers, and beatboxers use hip hop as a platform of integration, shaping feelings of belonging and perceptions of dual identities.

The Academy’s 2013 production DISTORTION examined migrant descendants’ places in Germany and provoked audiences to contemplate the new faces of the nation. This symbiosis of hip-hop and contemporary dance performed macro- and micro-political integration, illuminating how the boundaries of German national identity are disrupted by the presence of interculturality.

This according to “Ich fühle mich Deutsche: Migrant descendants’ performance of integration through the Hamburg HipHop Academy” by Emily Joy Rothchild, an essay included in Transglobal sounds: Music, youth and migration (New York: Bloomsbury, 2016, pp. 155–76).

Above and below, excerpts from DISTORTION.

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Filed under Curiosities, Dance, Pedagogy, Popular music

Pranksta rap

beastie boys

Humor provides a means of navigating the race and gender politics of hip hop culture in several ways.

The Beastie Boys (above), a trio of white Jewish rappers, have relied heavily on humor to mark their outsider status while mitigating claims of racial inauthenticity.

The triumphant career of Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott shows how her humor—especially when aimed at the rapper herself—has functioned as an artistic expression of old-school legitimacy and as a means of empowerment for a businesswoman in the male-dominated music industry.

While the proliferation of hip hop parody relies on racial and gender stereotypes for much of its humor, it also offers outsiders the possibility to negotiate otherwise prohibitive social differences from within hip hop culture.

This according to “Pranksta rap: Humor as difference in hip hop” by Charles Hiroshi Garrett, an essay included in Rethinking difference in music scholarship (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014, pp. 315–337).

Below, Missy Elliott performs Work it, her classic send-up of sexual stereotypes.

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Black Grooves

Hosted by the Archives of African American Music & Culture at Indiana University, Black Grooves is a review site that aims to promote black music by providing monthly updates on interesting new releases and quality reissues in all genres—gospel, blues, jazz, funk, soul, and hip hop, as well as classical music composed or performed by black artists.

Reviews of selected new discs and DVDs are featured, with occasional attention to books and news items. An extra effort is made to track down releases by indie, underground, foreign, and other labels that are not covered in the mainstream media. While the primary focus is on African American music, related areas such as Afropop and reggae are also covered.

This post is part of our series celebrating Black History Month. Throughout February we will be posting about resources and landmark writings in black studies. Click here for a continuously updated page of links to all of our posts in this category.

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Filed under Jazz and blues, Popular music, Resources