gone by dawn

After an absurdly long time, I’m emerging from a long period of writer’s block. My politically motivated polemical mode remains unchanged, and as James Brown once eloquently put it, “racism is like Henry Ford’s cars, there’s a new model every year”. There is good news: two recent Baltimore ‘club’ mix CDs have left the perimeter of that town. Morphius Urban, a ‘division’ of this independent label/distributor, have got a deal with Club Kingz Records. Longstanding Baltimore wax technician Rod Lee is behind this Club Kingz operation (sorry, no Web site for those folks yet) and the two CD releases are like a painless invasive procedure. The first is DJ Lil Jay’s Operation: Playtime. This 15 or 16 year old rips through 31 tracks like a viral contagion. There’s no doubt that the Baltimore sound has changed since the mid ‘90s, when the Unruly and Hardhead labels released one bomb after the next, nevertheless, its renegade spirit is alive and well.

The genius of B’more club music lies in the artists’ use of threadbare, worn out samples, the likes of which are akin to early Todd Terry records, and make them sound as if these folks invented the sampler. “Work It” by DJ Manny employs the nearly unusable snippet from LNR/ Thompson & Lenoir’s “Work it to the Bone”, the sine qua non of ‘classic’ Chicago house. If that sample had fallen to the bottom of the Mariana trench, the deepest part of the Atlantic ocean, I think DJ Manny got too close to the thing. He was permanently altered by the ghosts and memories that are now inside his echo, distortion, and reverb. He brings it back to Balto and, like Coleridge’s ancient mariner, is compelled to tell his story again and again. And he rocks with a fierce repetition—he cuts the sample open, allowing envious voyeurs a peek at something they barely understand. No way ‘round it. This track contains everything that makes Baltimore club an irreducibly Black musical genre. Sure, there are white people who’ve released monstrous jams on various labels in the Balto scene. As with hip-hop, there will, of course, be white artists in what emerged from the poor/working class young Black men’s sense of nobodiness. As Audre Lorde wrote: “we were never meant to survive”.

Baltimore music is a nearly perfect instance of how white supremacy functions in contemporary electronic music. I’d rather not ‘name names’. because that strategy only causes anger and resentment However, some will emerge lest this writing were to exist at different level of abstraction. Now that the minimalist ‘movement’ has become increasingly embraced by art institutions, not to mention journals such as Leonardo and Computer Music Journal, it’s clear that artists considered worthy of inclusion within the academy are often writers themselves, they make ‘IDM’, they are relatively radical in their sonic approach, and with the exception of Paul D. Miller, these artists are white men. Do you imagine that DJ Manny, or DJ Deeon, Michael ‘Swishahouse’ Watts will be seen within academic and art institutions in the US or Western Europe? Of course not. Yet, I would argue that the aforementioned artists have all make radically experimental music. Balto music has the freakish energy of a downed power line in a thunderstorm, and underground screwed & chopped mixes are radical contemporary electronic music.

It came as no surprise to see the Aryan-esque cover of the DE:9 record on NovaMute. Again, this is not intended as a personal attack, rather it’s an attempt to identify cultural artifacts, music in this case, that are symptoms of white supremacy. Because the genesis of house has been narrated ad nauseam, it’s crucial to see where and why Black pioneers are located within the terrain of electronic music. Who has been chosen, by some cluster of A&R people to become ‘stars’? The music industry moves at a tremendous speed, thus it is crucial to remain vigilant about how race functions within this somewhat incestuous sphere.

We could, instead, look at what electronic music is built only for the dancefloor, that which is relatively danceable, and finally, music never intended for any dancefloor. Baltimore club is a good example ‘floor only’ music, and , It will never just doesn’t make it into the sphere of post-structuralist discourse in the way that, say, Ryoji Ikeda does. Does this seem like a convoluted argument? I can make it simpler: Where are people of African descent located in the hierarchy of electronic music (excluding hip-hop—for now). Needless to say, this reveals the submerged discourse of cultural division, manifested often in the crude ‘high/low’ notion. Peter Stallybrass and the late Allon White wrote about the relation of high and low in the sphere of culture. More specifically, they argued that high culture relied completely on low, or popular, culture. This is not the place to tease out the complexity of their thought. It is necessary to consider how high and low culture operates in music discourse. My recent example: Ryoji Ikeda.

He dwells in the rarefied spaces in and between art and academic institutions. Quite simply, DJ Deeon remains in the neighborhood in Chicago where he grew up. His tremendous influence, though barely acknowledged, will not allow him access to the domain of curators of contemporary arts. The standard response: “Those curatorial & institutional figures are not racists, they would open their art spaces to anyone” This neo-liberal confusion indicates a blindness with regard to structured and structural white supremacy. In contemporary conservative and neo-liberal discourse, there is a disavowal of racism per se, which allows these people to continue doing the work of white supremacy without a twinge of guilt. I can assure you I am not a conspiracy theorist with regards to white supremacy. I can also tell you that once you become conscious of how an age-old, highly intelligent and fast moving system of downpression operates on a global scale, you will never be able to look at anything in the same way. But this is a positive state. It overturns a lot of the cultural moorings that allow you to sleep well at night, and exposes you to what Susan Sontage calls the night side of life, where shelter from violence of every kind is rarely guaranteed.

To repeat a frustrating mantra: techno and house were invented by Black people, and that music has had an influence impossible to fully grasp. Though some might argue that searching for origins is a search in vain because there aren’t any. However if you put forward the notion that virtually all electronic music began with Chicago and Detroit, then you will be met with the opposing notion: Steve Reich, John Cage, Luciano Berio, and other modern and postmodern musicians, are the ‘founders’ of electronic music.

The result of the latter claim is to move the genealogy of electronic music towards a discourse populated by white European men. Many observers and listeners came to 20th century ‘classical’ experimental electronic music through Marley Marl, DJ Pierre, and Marshall Jefferson. Their (and I don’t need to spell out their numbers) tendency is, often unconsciously, to turn towards the standard euro-american way of comprehending Black music: as either the condition of possibility or as the ‘vanishing mediator’.

What do I mean by this? Well, let’s take Rob Acid, as just one example. The condition of possibility for his music is the Black pioneers of house and techno. Suppose those founding moments of Black secret technology could have had little to no influence. If that were the case, Rob Acid wouldn’t exist as we know/don’t know him. The same can be said for innumerable DJs/producers/artists. A A simple acknowledgement of those artists who made one’s work possible remains rare. What drives this lack of respect, even disdain, is ahistorical thought, a load bearing pillar at the center of white supremacy and as American as apple pie.

Unfortunately, Paul Oakenfold’s name is bandied about everywhere, while Juan Atkins’ name is spoken only by the disciples (who know better).
Borrowing ‘vanishing mediator’ from Fredric Jameson, I think it is clear that, despite the hagiography and worship of Juan Atkins, he remains a vanishing mediator because he had to ‘perform’ his music making, then ‘disappear’ from the media in order that Paul Oakenfold become lionized. Atkins made possible Oakenfold’s rise to success. I’m sure this is not unclear to you. It is the closest I can get to articulating the centuries long power of white supremacy, it’s tactical skill which makes a few white men wealthy and loved.

At this point (if you’re still reading) I imagine some might point to the example of Eminem & Snoop Dog, perhaps ideas like ‘music is universal’ or ‘music doesn’t belong to to one race or culture’. The latter may be true in the experiencing of passive listening, but historically it’s dead wrong. Ask yourself how you came to be listening/dancing/making electronic music. I don’t think you would answer: Christian Marclay.

Historical acknowledgement of the labor (sometimes of love) of Black people is the first step towards defacing the edifice of white supremacy. Arthur Jafa suggests, in relation to Black people and cultural production, a material/treatment split. That’s a helpful idea here. It posits that the material that Black people work on/with, is white. Black people, for the most part, do not have a means of production, therefore treatment of that material allows Black people to treat that material in such a way that it can never again be recognized. Simply consider the inventor of saxophone. He could never have imagined what someone such as John Coltrane would do with that instrument.

DJ Pierre took hold of a Roland TB 303 in the bargain bin. That he did with it things that inventors of the box never intended led to a mammoth revolution of the music world, its effects reached far beyond the U.S.. Here we can say that the 303’s current ubiquity is an example of the irreducibly Black treatment of a ‘white’ instrument. That Roland box might well have faded into obscurity. It was a commercial disaster. Once again we see the almost mystical material/treatment split as one example of the Black sublime, so low you can’t get under it, so high you can’t get over it.

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One Response to “gone by dawn”

  1. Kevin Says:

    SERIOUS TRUTH HERE. I’m so psyched to have found your blog. There is a sustained critical amnesia regarding the on-going technical innovation by Black youth in popular culture. Your DJ Pierre / 303 example is dead-on. Add it to the list: Technics 1200, TR-808, MPC-60, … the MySpace page?

    Keep it up. I’ll be reading.

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