‘The Construction of the Tower of Babel’, by Hendrick III van Cleve, 16th Century, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo. Click for bigger version, it’s a nice painting. Taken from Giornale Nuovo.
Hi everybody, I’ve been away off in real life (What a fucked up place to spend extended periods of time) but just wanted to stick my neck in and say a few words, and probably piss off a bunch of my friends. The goal of writing these polemical attack posts is to sort of kick the tires on our musical activities and cultural practices and to make sure that everyone is really thinking hard about why and how they’re doing what they’re doing. If you feel this as an attack on you or your music, I’d love to hear your response here in public so we can all learn something.
Gex recently posted up the Stereotyp affiliated Kubu mixtape which has some cool beats on it, below, I like the bass on the second track especially. Then Ty responded by saying “looks like Stereotyp… oh great, another Teutonic ‘barefoot baile’ advocate, what the world needs is more white european & american dudes “keeping it real” & getting sexy by going native.” And I LOLed and started writing a comment but decided to turn it into a post as it got longer and longer. Full disclosure: I am probably one of these sexy white guys that Ty is aiming at, not sure if my involvement in ukg and dancehall qualifies me but anywayyyy.
Here’s my point, more or less: I think it’s lame to use vocals in your music that are in a language you don’t really understand. That said, this is not a direct shot at Stereotyp, maybe he speaks Portuguese or whatever language the people are speaking on his mix, I actually don’t know. In vocal music, especially rap, the vibe and energy of a tune is SO MUCH about the lyrical content that putting vocals on tunes that you, or perhaps more importantly a major chunk of your audience don’t understand is just weird to me. I feel that you are using these people and their words as an idea, or a reference or a signifier in a way that’s totally disconnected from their artistic intentions.
If you, the producer can’t understand all the layers of what they’re saying and the audience can’t either then the words are just rhythmic or melodic noise, a kind of cultural texture. I feel like when it’s melodic singing then it makes a bit more sense because at least the people who don’t understand have some purely formal things to grab hold of, and melody is a kind of unconscious language of emotion and therefore there is some kind of non-verbal communication possible. But rap? Rap is words and rhythm, it’s word music.
As someone who listens to quite a lot of word music I’d argue that in the success of any given artist in any of these scenes (rap, dancehall, grime etc) the words they use, the things they say, their message, their attitude, their swagger, and their lyrical content is much more important than the formal qualities of flow or rhythm. In grime and dancehall the thing that will trigger a rewind is an artist saying something, something specific that has tremendous resonance with the audience. How they say it is important and necessary but WHAT they say is what gets them a forward. Especially in dancehall where a lot of it comes down to clashing and beefing the thing that will win a contest is some particularly clever well-timed and somehow true insult. The flow and pattern is necessary but secondary, it’s a vehicle for the message. So when the message is behind a language barrier the order is reversed – flow is in front and the message is behind, or gone.
A lot of fans will say, “Oh I don’t understand, I don’t care what they’re saying I’m just dancing along” but I actually think in taking that position you’re sort of marginalizing these people and their opportunity for artistic expression. It reduces them to being ‘the sexy and exotic other’ that we don’t understand, and don’t care to understand because we think “oh they’re probably just saying ‘dance, party, fuck’ or something like that, and that’s what we’re doing”. But what about when they’re not saying that? What about when Buju Banton is singing about shooting gays in the head over that nice easy party beat? And you’re dancing along obliviously, and because you and everyone else who doesn’t pay attention dances along then the DJ says “see look, that song always works, I’m gonna return to it” and that message gets repeated and repeated into the world. Whether you like to dance to ‘Boom Bye Bye’ or not (nastiness aside, it’s a good song) in this young new global underground dance whatever scene we’re in I think that we really need to make sure that if we’re gonna engage in a style that we’re doing it on all levels, not just formal (wow this beat pattern is great, I’m gonna put my euro synth bass on it and call it ‘global-fusion’) but on the levels of slang, culture, meaning, people, relationships, beef and history. And some may say: “But it’s too much work to learn all these languages, and I’m on the other side of the world and blee blah bleh” well then I’d say either make some friends who can teach you or maybe you should focus in on something that you can understand and try to develop some depth in it. Basically, not being a tourist is hard work but I think, worth it.