In praise of: ‘The High Light Zone’​ Damu the Fudgemunk (Vignettes, Redefinition Records, 2017)

Extravagant, outlandish claim alert: this track, ‘The High Light Zone’ from DC-based producer, Damu the Fudgemunk’s two-hour opus, Vignettes might be one of the best pieces of music I have heard, in any genre released this year. If you think of hip-hop production as the assemblage of sonic elements, where the skill comes via the construction and use of contrast, this music goes against any such easy categorisation: it sounds like its flying, pure movement – to stop, start, stop and start again. And has a stunning drum sound, a killer beat.

When researching this piece, I had one key question to answer, one puzzle to solve: was this music sample-based, live instrumentation, a mix of both? I contacted Redefinition Records – the label co-founded by Damu the Fudgemunk (the artist known to his classical musician parents as Earl Davis). I asked my friends; one thought it’d be sample-based, another said the opposite, or that it was made up of live instrumentation sampled and spliced and found this clip posted on Twitter by the flautist, Seb Zillner as back-up for his hunch that showed him recording a part for the record's track 'Solitary Refinement'

But then my trying to ‘work it out’ runs counter against the experience of listening to this music, which encapsulates such energy that it leaves you feeling transcendent, perhaps even breathless at times because of the essential swing of it, the kick of it. And it is this energy that sets it apart.

Many contemporary hip-hop instrumentals mine a similar territory, it often seems to me. Whether they are following the classic prototype set down by the great masters from the 90s, or burrowing into the super-soft fractured melody-driven style so popular today, you can recognise a formula: start with a dramatic, or mood-setting vocal sample (a comedic skit, or something from the news, the voice of a famous artist to set the theme of the music) and combine three, or so elements that appear/re-appear at set intervals. There is nothing wrong with following conventions, but sometimes it can feel a bit stale.  

‘The High Light Zone’ certainly starts with a sample, but the overall effect of the music is closer to a live jazz performance, or poppy electronic music from the 80s/90s, say the extended remixes, or live performances of English groups, such as New Order – not so much for the sound, but the music’s essential exuberance.      

New Order ‘Temptation’, released in 1992, BBC Radio 1 Live in Concert

What makes 'The High Light Zone' so interesting though is that even if it might seem to be closer to other genres of music – the duration could be that of a live jazz band performance, the snazzy feel could come direct from disco – the hip-hop foundations are plain to see, mainly via the way Damu the Fudgemunk exposes the beat and then allows the music to stop completely at times.

The final two minutes of the piece where one instrument/or one part comes forward and the others recede: this resembles jazz, but whereas the expectation within that genre would be for a musician to let loose with some kind of solo, or improvisation, it's controlled/contained. Here we find the direct point of continuum with the hip-hop aesthetic. This has always been something that has appealed to me in hip-hop production, the way the manipulation of the various elements thwarts our expectations and desires, via the refusal of development and release; the various parts begin, then stop, or are repeated over and over. It’s a kind of anti-music, in essence, punk almost.

This music by 9th Wonder ‘Let me talk’ – released, I think in 2011 - offers up an extreme version of this tendency, aggressively cutting it back at points leaving total silence when you expect the music to build towards its conclusion.  

***

Damu the Fudgemunk  has cited a set of clashing, or surprising, influences for this project, name-checking: ‘David Axelrod, The Beastie Boys, Stereolab, Isaac Hayes, James Brown, Parliament Funkadelic, Peaking Lights, Chaz Bundick, Dungen, and dozens of hip hop artists” in an interview with Gino Sorcinelli

While in a 2014 interview with Passion of the Weiss, he replied to the following question

To me, the defining feature of your work – even in comparison to the other producers you’ve mentioned – is that your instrumentals are so subtly crafted. All similar yet so different. The scratches, live instrumentation and electronic effects combine to produce a layered sound on every track.

It’s funny you say that, and I really appreciate you taking the time to analyze it and be an educated listener and consumer. I think if everyone did analyze the things they digest whether its visual or auditory, the art would improve. But having numerous styles in one track comes from me listening to so many different producers, and just being very ambitious, you know? I want to make everyone who influenced me proud. Because I feel like I learned so much from them, I looked up to then. It’s definitely driven by props. I just wanted to do something that impressed them. That’s why I may do some things that sound familiar, or revisit some ideas that I think people will appreciate. Make sense?

Prodigy, Mobb Deep (1974-2017) 'Up North Trip' (The Infamous, Loud Records, 1995)

Prodigy, the hard-nosed Queens rapper who kiln-fired New York hip-hop into a thing of unhurried attitude and stoic elegance as half of the duo Mobb Deep, died Tuesday in Las Vegas. He was 42.
— Jon Caramanica, New York Times, June 20, 2017
My handicap took its toll on my sanity
My moms got me at the shrink at like 13
And doctors called the cops on me
’Cause I be throwing IV poles and they ignore me
I’ve gotta try to calm down and breathe
I can only hold it but for so long — put me to sleep.

Reading Umberto Eco’s Travels in Hyperreality – Harcourt Brace & Company, 1986, trans William Weaver   

Two days ago, I made my way down Avenue de Clichy to the northern edge of Paris, where I collected the documents needed for my son’s entry to middle-school; this part of the city has always appealed to me, partly for its raffish edge (the bars/restaurants with all the chancers, scroungers, the kinds of outsiders you might find in a Lou Reed song, circa 1978).

Grimy, but it’s also an extremely physical, a sensual urban space – partly because of the very many trees that provide cover, dappling the concrete in shadows – but largely because of the constant movement of people. This is not an elegant environment, but rather an ‘uncontrolled’ space that reminds me of Zamalek in Cairo – it has the same faded grandeur, very dusty - a place I visited when I was a teenager with my parents, perhaps because of the unkept forgotten architecture; the way the residents live in tiny spaces, in darkened rooms that look out on to the street.

This part of Paris could be any southern city, somewhere where there are warm nights, subtropical: densely populated and insalubrious. Close to the final intersection that marks a redevelopment site, or sites, I saw this ‘hut construction’ filled with some books, kept together with thick black tape.

I moved forward to take a photograph of the ‘hut’ on my phone. A man suddenly was standing beside me, with an impatient feel, so I stated the obvious – and said what I was doing, that I was taking a photograph. I then went on to ask the obvious, ‘Can we take these books?’ You can, he said, and walked away. Umberto Eco’s Travels in Hyperreality in English translation.

The collection of essays, written for newspapers mainly includes a piece that I have since learnt was deeply influential on activists wanting to disrupt the messages put out by the media, ‘Towards a Semiological Guerrilla Warfare’ .  

‘The mass communication universe is full of … discordant interpretations; I would say that variability of interpretation is the constant law of mass communications. The messages set out from the Source and arrive in distinct sociological situations, where different codes operate,’ Eco wrote.

Such thinking is now commonplace – almost reified, it often seems via the simplistic stances of mass media versions of Identity Politics. Back in 1967, though, this idea that the way someone interprets a message was context-based – or as it became known later, identity-based – was new. When I was studying journalism decades after this essay was published, it was still open for debate, with some believing that the media had the power to directly shape and form opinion in a unified fashion, as if the message was similar to a syringe inserting information/viewpoint directly into the public’s consciousness.

There is much to appreciate in this collection, a highlight for me was his 1979 essay, more like a piece of reportage, on an Afro-Brazilian rite of the Candomblé, ‘Whose side are the Orixà on?’ It is very vivid, full of detail and recreation of an experience with people desperate to fall into a trance and thereby lose themselves for a moment.

Much of it is funny as well, with a wry touch, especially the beginning section where Eco asks himself questions about the value of the real and the fake, as he visits a series of wax museums in the United States and the Hearst Mansion, where he writes what offends is the ‘voracity’ of the selection, what is distressing is the 'fear of being caught up in venerable beauties, which unquestionably has its own wild flavour, its own pathetic sadness, barbarian grandeur, and sexual perversity, redolent of contamination, blasphemy, the Black Mass.'   

Avenue-de-Clichy_Louis-Aquetin.jpg

'Avenue de Clichy' Louis Anquetin, 1887

Avenue de Clichy, 2017

Avenue de Clichy, 2017

Paris Récit: Strasbourg-Saint-Denis

Just a few minutes, before the stop Strasbourg-Saint-Denis, a young woman

Dressed in a T-shirt that shows the word Belfast sits down beside me, reading Nabokov’s Pale Fire, page 38-39, ‘She was my darling: difficult, morose -- But still my darling …’

So, he asks me: ‘What happened with that friend of yours you couldn't reach, that one in the US ...'  It ended up being okay, I guess you could say that, um; it turns out he was depressed - he's fine now.

You can understand, you can understand – just imagine, just imagine … How it would be.

‘Maybe, though me, I’d much prefer it,’ he says, so says Fousseyni. ‘Better than how it is here, with all the hehehehehehehehehe …’   

Scrunching up his face, he repeats: ‘Hehehehehehehehe’  

Giggling once more, this man from Mali does his best impression of the fake-laugh of a white Frenchwoman, la blanche in all her hypocritical duplicity.

‘Come on, now Fouss, here, in Paris you can breathe;

they leave you be. It’s not like when you’re out on the street you’re being shot by the police,

it’s not like in the Etats-Unis.’  

Mmmm, Fouss pauses, scrunches his face once more, says, mmmm.

He’s not so sure.

Says he’d much prefer it over there, in the US, at least over there in the US, it’s direct,

It’s in your face, the racism and all that bullshit, and all that crap and nastiness is made explicit, it’s something you can see.

Strasbourg-Saint-Denis

Groundlessness (Pema Chödrön's 'When things fall apart') & Tim Buckley's 'Hallucinations'

Even though I’m challenging myself to think differently about my life, why highlight one moment over another, I ask myself; why hold onto one experience as being transformative, rather than another especially if this way of thinking encourages a certain narrative.

Earlier tonight, when listening to music and feeling moved by the music, I had a sensation somehow connected to diffuse memories of something I couldn’t recognise, perhaps something related to Australia. I wanted to hold onto the feeling, locate it, but was unable to and this inability to do so made me feel sad. I wanted to take hold of this feeling, and my longing for this place, or something related to one of my earlier lives (I wanted to remember the enormous skies, where the sunset paints the world above you in ridiculous extravagant hues – shards of pink, orange at times and darker colours too - and the aberrant wildness of the ocean beaches; that sensation of space, even in the cities where most of the people live).

That sensation – of sensing something and it remaining outside your grasp, inherently elusive – says something of what it is to be alive, to be human; it’s something we all share. It reminds me of an idea that I really loved when I first encountered it, carrying it around with me as if it were a charm, a rabbit’s foot on a key-chain perhaps (during one of those troubled times, if not the most troubled time). ‘Groundlessness’ in Buddhism refers to the fact that nothing is fixed, in life – in our experiences – but also in ourselves, we are constantly changing, shifting. Nothing is fixed. So it is too for our thoughts, our desires, our fixations.  

The first book by the North American Buddhist nun, Pema Chödrön that I bought, When things fall apart is small, the size of my hand, with a white cover that is creased, with pen marks (perhaps written by a child).

Immediately I fell in love with Chödrön’s writing and her perspective. Many people have this view of Buddhism as a happy-clappy (smiley-face) singing-thing where all the sins of the world are forgiven by people sliding through their lives with beatific smiles, well, that’s not quite accurate, let’s say. Buddhism, in its purest form, is tough and centred on discipline, while sustained by compassion for ourselves and others and the desire not to cause harm, or add to the harm that already exists. But it’s also about being honest with who we are and the nature of our lives; many, if not most, of the teachings tell of flawed protagonists bewitched by various ‘vices’ and the teachers themselves admit their own failings. It’s not as if you get to a point where you see the light and suddenly transform into some kind of angel.  

Within the covers of this book, with its subtitle, ‘heart advice for difficult times’ I found something perfectly suited to my temperament and where I was at that moment (overwhelmed by fear and feelings of being lacking, inadequate unworthy for the task facing me). The tone of the work was playful at times, but straight. What resonated with me was the idea that we needed to be still, simply be there with what faced us, not to try and escape it in diversions and distractions (even though this tendency is something we, or I, will never fully be free of: I’m always trying to escape).

We just needed to be still, there with the experience. I loved the austere tone of this, non-judgmental, but reminding us that we need to face what we fear the most (and in various forms of the traditional teachings suggesting that we speak politely to our fear and be grateful for its presence in our lives).

Fear is a universal experience. Even the smallest insect feels it. We wade in the tidal pools and put our finger near the soft, open bodies of sea anemones and they close up. Everything spontaneously does that. It’s not a terrible thing that we feel fear when faced with the unknown. It is part of being alive, something we all share. We react against the possibility of loneliness, of death, of not having anything to hold on to. Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.
— 'Intimacy with Fear', When Things Fall Apart

Coda:  

Tim Buckley: ‘Hallucinations’ (Goodbye and Hello, Elektra, 1967)  

Thoughts on terrorism and campaigns against police violence

Unsurprisingly the most persistent question following the series of terrorist attacks in France that killed 234 people over an 18-month period up until the Bastille Day assault in Nice last year, has been, ‘Why France?’ All kinds of answers have been put forward, most often with the answer given reflecting the political perspective of the person responding.

Social oppression, racism; the country’s policy of secularism (that banned the veil and all forms of religious identification in public schools), the country’s colonial past that continues to inform, or infect, policy in former colonies in West Africa, where France is fighting Islamist forces; its involvement in bombing campaigns in Syria.

Problem with this, though, is that the above suggests that there is a logically coherent argument motivating the mostly European-born jihadists committing these crimes. Knowledge of the men’s chaotic personal lives, shifting allegiances, and often sudden conversion to the cause undermines this premise. Family ties, for example having a close family member already involved in the jihad, alongside a criminal background seem to matter more. European-based jihadist groups closely resemble gangs, where men often with a history of crime or violence are recruited to the cause that is put forward as a path to salvation and renewal.  

Still, the question remains: why France? Those organising the attacks appear to believe that France (out of all the European countries) is vulnerable to the chaos it wants to unleash through its campaign of terror; the idea being that the country’s three million Muslims might be potential recruits, if/when the French State enacts repressive policies against them, and that the country is weak because of its sentimental self-image as the bastion of human rights.

Of interest, here, is the way the jihadists chose their target based on its perceived weaknesses. This is basic psychology writ large: the conman targets the vulnerable person based on how they think that person will react, while twisting the victim’s sense of a positive self-identity (the opportunist says that he loves a woman’s ‘sweet nature’ to get her to give him more, complimenting her and flattering her ego to exploit her).

Yesterday, a white police officer – Betty Shelby – was acquitted of a manslaughter charge of an unarmed black man, Terence Crutcher who was shot when standing with his hands above his head in Oklahoma last September. The reactions as you would expect were furious, often focussing on the fact that the officer was a ‘white woman’. But despite all the political actions, the street marches and opinion pieces written, this is just another case where a police officer has avoided jail time (or avoided being charged, or having a case brought against them).

From an outsider’s perspective, despite all the activity – and media coverage – little seems to be changing in the US regarding police violence. There are strong community-based campaigns, calling for police to wear body cameras, for the institution of accountable civilian reviews and independent police liability insurance (see this national campaign that started in Minneapolis, Insure the Police), but people are still getting shot and police officers allowed to go free, or not even be charged.

Without sounding too extreme, I wonder, though if it might be time to think like the organisers of the European-based terrorist campaigns, not in terms of using violence, of course, but focussing more on the weaknesses/motivators of white racism that allows the cycle of police violence in the United States to continue unchecked.

For starters, to think of campaigns that could upset the dominant desire of the majority population to have a positive self-image (see the way various forms of historic forms of race-based oppression, most obvious in colonial/post-colonial contexts sought the veneer of respectability and benevolence, as they would say in Australia, the policies of protection and assimilation were ‘for their own good’). And secondly, to start thinking about money.

Could boycotts, for example, be enacted that targeted cities with high-levels of police violence – allowing for some protections, or financial support for citizens living there who might be affected? Might international campaigns be set up to ‘shame’ cities in the United States - including a ban on tourism, just like the divestment campaigns against South Africa - until they guarantee basic levels of safety to the people living there?

Everything in politics comes back to financial interests; that’s all that matters. Groups are heard because they have financial interests that intersect with those who govern. For this reason, the current activism against police violence, with its emphasis on educating the wider community and peaceful marches, seems to be too reactive – and just a little too nice.

It is true that the police officers could be motivated by racism or commit these crimes because of poor training, but it’s more than likely that they are killing people because they know that there will be no significant consequences, personal/professional … or financial. As any journalist knows, you have got to follow the money: I wonder how things might change, if a similar kind of logic was applied to the activism trying to stop police violence; to cut off the income - so to speak - that allows the current status quo to continue as is, unimpeded.  

In praise of: Koala, L’Orange (Mello Music Group, 2016) w/ref to 2015 Kool Keith project  

Have to confess that this ep, released by L’Orange had already half won me over on the basis of the title alone, easily pleased one might say. (Even if koalas are the least hip-hop animal you could imagine - dozing all day on their eucalypt high and then emitting a very deep, low-level grunt when they wake, unless it is music of this kind that maps out your hip-hop headspace).

L'Orange's Koala is a tender and thoughtful album, built on an original premise. Providing the foundations – all the key squeaky, high-pitched vocal sounds/samples – is the music of Joanna Newsom, and her 2010 record Have one on me, in particular.

Below the YouTube video are the following comments from the artist:

'Koala is a personal tribute to love and love lost- a fragile meditation on depression and passion. Solidarity in solitude, we are not alone.'

Even if we break,
we are rebuilt with gold
to show that we are not defined
by our construction.
We can wear
our cracks
on our arms and faces
proudly.

(Oh my). Koala is dedicated to Keely Latterner. I contacted L'Orange for a comment regarding this and he replied: 'Joe Latterner (Kon Sci)'s wife passed away late last year. He was my mentor and friend when I was growing up. He was a big influence on me and I can say I would not be where I am musically without him.'

***

Now, I’m not sure if this statement I’m going to make is 100 % correct, but I can’t think of another hip-hop album that has taken this approach of offering up work as a homage to another contemporary artist. Certainly, hip-hop is all about making references (to musical forebears; to well-known lyrics; to cultural stances; to shared norms). 

Often these acts of ‘homage’ are a musical version of an Oedipal struggle, where the sons are out to kill (or replace/undermine) the fathers, but L’Orange’s work is light years away from the classic macho brag-rap, staking out territory about who’s number one. 

And has no connection to any form of referencing that we are so familiar with, drawing on the achievements of past masters: the idea of making connections with a living artist, to offer up his work as if it were part of a conversation is intriguing. In this music, L'Orange is relating/responding to the work of another artist, subtly drawing attention to its qualities, while creating something new in its place: the essence of hip-hop. (And, of course, it matters that this artist is a woman, as well, you know … never mind).

For me, though, this record is original in a musical sense first and foremost. I particularly appreciate the way this music offers up so many fresh drum sounds – even if it’s been labelled, ‘genre: Boom Bap’ on one site - and the way the elements slip/slide and fade into each other. There is something new in this, something enlivening and something necessary. As I wrote when listening to it for the first time, it’s a ‘glorious piece of Romanticism spliced’.

This music is moving on from hip-hop production as form and structure - that is so familiar it could be seen as grid-like - to music that expresses a sensibility that is deeply lyrical. In this regard, it reminds me of Onra’s rehash/recreation of the Chinese voice (see my recent writing on Chinoiseries part 3).

Take the opener, ‘Easily’ on Koala, the musical parts work together beautifully but also in a kind of conflict, with the beat coming in at times with the piano to disappear at other times, enacting a musical form that remains unclear, almost unfamiliar. But there’s also a deep sensuality here: an erotics of music that stems from – and celebrates – tension, while allowing the music simply to just be.  

The beginning reminds me of The Beatles' 'I am the walrus' (here is a weirdo-take that appeals to me, labelled '8-bit version'). If you listen closely to 'Easily' you can hear that the music follows a traditional form (similar to jazz); just before 30 seconds there is a shift, at 2 minutes with the return of the piano it deepens, appears to be insistent. As a piece of music, there appears to be a fine sense of order, or structure, but at the same time it carries with it a false sense of certainty, or security: the centre does not hold (and yet there is pleasure to be found here in all this movement, swimming around itself).  

***

Check out this great interview with L'Orange from ‘TinyMixtapes’ with L’Orange marking the release of his 2015 record Time? Astonishing! with Kool Keith (also released on Mello Music Group) where the North Carolina-born, Nashville-based producer speaks about the way he feels drawn to early be-bop, or ‘hot jazz’ and how his work with the legend-MC was underpinned by a ‘guardian angel-type time travel idea.’

I pitched the idea to Keith about doing a project about time traveling, because a lot of my stuff is very somber, it’s very dark, it may have some quirkiness to it and some comedy, I hope, but it’s a very dark tone, and so for this one I did want to escape that a little bit and escape myself a little bit. And doing a project with Kool Keith, there’s no way I’m going to get on the phone with him and say, “I want to do this project about a writer who drives himself mad alone in his room and dies.” You know? I’m not going to do that, so I came up with this concept that sort of came [from] this recurring dream I had where I was being followed by a time traveler who was always two minutes in front of me. I sort of became obsessed with this guardian angel-type time travel idea.

Sometimes in music, I think, the easier the concept at its core, or the easier the premise, the more you can expand on it and [have] people still be able to digest it. So I pitched this idea to Kool Keith about doing this time travel record, but what was really important to me was that we could explore the ideas about a man without time, while still allowing Keith to be abstract and indulge in his non-sequitur style and do what he invented, really. I wanted to put Keith in a position to be himself, and do the same for me…

He was feeling it, and he introduced a couple concepts about space travel tied in with that. I liked that, because the way I envisioned it was him moving purely to the future, like he ate breakfast and was like, “Alright, what am I going to do today? I’ll go to the future.” So yeah, he really embraced it.

New section on the site: Interviews & Essays

Some of you might have noticed the recent addition of a new section in the menu to the left - Interviews & Essays - well, the logic behind this is to collect my longer pieces of writing in one place. Writing on hip-hop; such as my first extended interview/essay on Detroit producer/MC Black Milk from 2015 and that of New York-based producer, Marco Polo ... or my conversation with MC Sha Rock, the first female MC in hip-hop culture.  

Also, you'll find essays on 90s instrumentals and Mick Jenkins' track, 'Fall through' from his 2016 record, The Healing Component - and my interview with BROOKZILL! (Prince Paul, Ladybug Mecca, Don Newkirk and Rodrigo Brandão) published in Ambrosia for Heads last year. Apart from the hip-hop related content, there are essays on French politics and police violence in the US and Paris and electro/DnB musicians from the UK.

Over time, I'll keep adding to this section, including pieces from the past and those to come. My hope is that those of you who are interested in reading the longer pieces, and there's quite a few out there it seems, will try out the various subjects and take a chance on something new. Mixing it up ...