Thursday, May 12, 2011

BRK(L)N Connections: Hip Hop and Noise and Music and Technology

Tomorrow from about 7:30 at the fantastic club Superdeluxe, the leftfield rapper Killer Bong teams up with Japanoise stalwart Hair Stylistics – Masaya Nakahara, formerly known as Violent Onsen Geisha – to do . . . something. I’m not sure what. But apparently K-Bong does it pretty frequently, and has performed in the past with a lot of other noise artists. There’s a three-way collaboration coming up in July between Bong, DJ Baku, and Merzbow (more info as it comes my way).

The connection between hip hop and noise is also being mined across the Pacific, where the single hottest rap crew of the moment, OFWGKTA, made a big portion of its bones in affiliation with the underground psych blogosphere, sites like Gorilla Vs. Bear that mainly traffic in spacey drone-pop and the softer-edged, lo-fi, Occidental version of ‘noise.’ Another current example is the group Shabbazz Palaces, who make rap that’s stretchy and dubbed-out enough to sit comfortably next to neo-hippies like Peaking Lights and Grouper.

But this is deeper than any of-the-moment trend. Hip hop and experimental music have been worshipping at each other’s altar since the early eighties, a source traceable backwards not just in the self-conscious path through DALEK, Cannibal Ox, cLOUDDEAD, Kid 606, Dr. Octagon, Maquinquaye, and Bill Laswell* (*figuring out why exactly he’s terrible deserves a separate post), but all over the pop charts and the hearts of the dismissed “old school.”

Here’s Rammellzee’s epic “Exterior Street” (1985)

Yin-Yang Twins "Salt Shaker" (2003), which still basically sounds like Can. I could also have linked J-Kwon’s “Tipsy” (2007), the stupidest extremely weird song I can think of.

And Lil B’s “Motivation” (2011), with Clams Casino mining psych to give us one of the greatest tracks of all time.

Why do these aliens keep surfacing in a genre that we tend to believe we’ve tamed? More than some weird micro-trend that’s kept alive by willful eccentrics, this is the inevitable return of the repressed – hip hop may have gone pop, but at its root are the same forces that have been explored more self-consciously by “art music” in both its conservatory and basement forms. Hip hop is a product of technology as much as of music – its lineage stretches to the turntable and sampler no less than to James Brown and Lee Perry (and there’s no Lee Perry without the reel-to-reel, a.k.a. the turntable before the turntable).

While Morton Subotnick, Robert Moog, and various inventors and entrepreneurs were pushing the boundaries of audio technology, the beatmatchers and backscrathers of the Bronx were encountering and harnessing the potentials that had already been released into the world – new forms of recording, playback, amplification, and (later) sampling and synthesis. But they weren’t just going with the flow – they were breaking things, overloading them, detourning them: the “scratch” is a more radical analog to John Cage’s prepared piano (more radical because it entirely reconceived the purpose of the turntable, though this was itself a repeat of another of Cage’s accomplishments). Add to that the fact that while rapping did derive partly from Jamaican toasting, which derived, along with reggae, from American soul and R&B (and thus has at least a link with rock and roll), another major source was the patter of DJs on southern black radio stations – here again another cultural innovation driven powerfully by technology (for more on this, including some amazing transcriptions of proto-rap from the 1950s, see Roni Sarig’s Third Coast).

There's something here about the relationship between the avante-garde and the everyday. Did experimentalists like Luc Ferrari somehow prepare the way for hip hop? There are, of course, a few direct connections, particularly how much the Bronx loved Kraftwerk. And never underestimate the determination of a music nerd to self-educate, even if they're mired in abject poverty. But I've never read any indication that people like Herc were consciously aware of those developments. The more plausible, and coincidentally much more interesting hypothesis would be that hip hop and noise are parallel outgrowths of our media and technological environment, though certainly inflected by cultural differences. The consequence is that whenever hip hop gets truly self-reflective, it has a strong tendency to turn into noise and go underground. Just about as often, the pop impulse in hip hop forms a channel for the welling up of strange machine artifacts into the mainstream of American life.

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