London-based producer/WhoSampled head of content Chris Read interview published at okayplayer.com

Right from the very start, hip-hop has always held within it a contradiction related to sampling, secrecy and artistic self-exposure. DJs soaking off the labels of records to evade prying eyes of their competitors, as Chris Read, Head of Content at WhoSampled says, co-existed with compilations such as Ultimate Breaks and Beats (or before that Octopus Breaks) breaking down the genre to core elements.

This public dimension of the producer’s craft has only become more pronounced in the internet era. “It’s impossible to live your life outside the reality of the world we live in now,” Read says. “Whether it’s making music or playing sports, there’s always going to be a body of people out there who will want to discuss and analyze what you do.”

The UK-based WhoSampled site, founded in 2008 by Nadav Poraz, has as its tagline “exploring the DNA of music”. With its collection of 462,000 songs and 156,000 artists alongside content provided by 17,000 contributors worldwide the scope of the project is vast.

Each month the site notches up two million visitors curious to discover music they may, or may not recognize, with others drawn into the “web of musical connections” the site provides. In Read’s description: “It’s discovering stuff you like, but don’t know you like yet via its connection to something you already know you like.”

With such a reach, the site’s approach is necessarily eclectic. The frontpage when I last looked featured a D’Angelo mixtape; a piece exploring the “varied catalogue of Herbie Hancock” and an analysis of samples used on the Baby Driver movie soundtrack. The deep impact of sampling on pop culture means top searches for the month are just as likely to include Katy Perry, or a track performed by an X Factor contestant, as a hip-hop classic.

For a long while, Chris Read was best-known as the “rap mega-mix guy,” he tells me with a laugh when we met in the dark recesses of a restaurant in a plush East London hotel – soundtrack: Childish GambinoOtis Redding — because of a phenomenally successful mixtape The Diary he put out ten years ago. The mixtape charted hip-hop’s history, from 1979-2007, via more than 800 tracks — in order of release.

Read more here

At Merricks Beach

That enveloping darkness of the night, as if it were black material punctured by stars. She says to me, ‘Come here now, don’t be afraid; I’m here with you.’ We walk down to the beach, the modest bay beach where no houses, or developments can be seen, the sand is grey with dark-brown flecks of wooden twigs, the gnarled roots of the shrubby bushland is all around us.

‘Come on,’ she says to me, walking ahead of me, avoiding the low-hanging branches of the ti-tree, the branches with shaggy bark falling off at all kinds of angles,

‘Come on, now,’ she walks onto the empty beach. The air is warm; it is late summer. In the far distance we can see the island, lights blinking intemperate.

‘Just get a taxi, come over whenever you want.’

That night the guys from the local pub most probably came over, from the neighbourhood of Greek shoe-repair shops, Lebanese take-aways and the Italian show-rooms of shiny white furniture, ‘Come over whenever, I’ll be awake – catch a cab, I’ll pay.’

Maybe that night in that rented house without central heating, the oven was left open to provide some heat, maybe the guys were still awake – eyes bleary from the beer – talking with my sister in the kitchen, as I slept on the floor of the corridor wrapped in one of her boyfriend’s woollen jumpers, tied around my body like a swaddled baby. Maybe I fell asleep to the sounds of her laughing with her mates in the kitchen, as the morning light came.

Maybe I fell asleep with that acrid smell of damp and cigarettes that always seemed to hang to the walls, or with one of the many cats she’d adopted, or found on the street somewhere nuzzling up against my body. This sister of mine born two days after Christmas, named after a saint whose face was illuminated in the darkness by candles, whose face was – as my mother used to say – like a pane of glass with all the various emotions passing over it like water. 

O my heart, o my heart, shies from the sorrow

Last night as I tried to sleep, my heart pounded in my chest, as if the space there were being hollowed out by the movements of a blunt knife. My sister turns to me, before we get to the beach, a lit cigarette in her hand is orange like embers,

‘Come on now,’ she says. ‘Do not be afraid. I’m with you.'

Here I am, here I am/Waiting to hold you

Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power exhibition, Tate Modern London

‘The ghetto itself is the gallery.’

Emory Douglas, Black Panther Party Culture Minister

Before seeing this exhibition, based on the name alone, I was expecting a show turned up to peak volume; not that there is a problem with this, as someone who adores noise, the blacker the better, but wondered if it might operate on the level of radical pastiche.

None of this was a judgment of the curators, Mark Godfrey and Zoe Whiteley who have assembled 150 works from 1963-1983 by black American artists or the museum, but more an expression of personal confusion or alienation now that transgressive art, culture and ideas from the past are routinely transformed into commodities to be sold.

As I soon discovered, though, this often delicate and complex show was light years away from such mind-static. Introspection, restraint and a deep thoughtfulness pervaded much of the art – and its presentation - allowing us to take time to reflect and feel something of how it might have been to be alive then.

‘H20gate Blues’ Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson  (Winter in America, Strata-East Records, 1974)

Certain artworks, such as ‘Injustice Case’ (1970) by David Hammons worked on the level of the gut –

the artwork depicts Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panther Party, gagged and shackled at his 1969 trial after the judge ordered he be chained to his chair following a series of interjections. He was being tried as one of the ‘Chicago Eight’ on charges for conspiracy to cross state lines, according to the history.com site, ‘to cause a riot during the violent anti-war demonstrations in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention’. He was later tried alone for contempt charges and received a four-year sentence.

Here, Hammons printed his own body, objectifying it, transforming it into an surface, he 'coated his body (along with his clothes and hair) in margarine and then rolled his torso and limbs onto a large piece of illustration board, printing the image by pressing his body onto the smooth surface of paper, often arrayed on the floor’ – this is taken from Apsara DiQuizio's article, ‘David Hammons: Printing the Political, Black Body’. 

Because of its life-size dimensions, the essential savagery of what it depicts – chaining up a man as if he were a dog at his own trial - and the genius of the presentation/idea, this work is deeply affecting. Resembling an X-ray in an airport, the image transforms Seale into little more than a squashed/flattened body/bones in his fingers, while forcing us into the role of those conducting the surveillance. An older white man standing in front of me, shook his head when reading the description for the artwork and swore under his breath.        

There’s a lot to write about in terms of this exhibition, I kept writing notes and taking photographs of the descriptions of the works, as I was struck repeatedly by the fragments and splinters of ideas, often formulated as questions, see this from the brochure: ‘Was there a ‘Black art’ or a ‘Black aesthetic? Should an artist create legible images or make abstract work? Was a choice to be made between addressing a specifically Black audience or a ‘universal’ one?’

***

Black Light

Roy DeCarava (1919-2009) Man in window, New York, 1978 

 

'... the self as a secret entity, as a secret, hidden place.'

Note beside an artwork by Martin Puryear, 'Self' with regard to his sculpture (1978) 

One of the rooms seemed darker than the others and held a series of fragile and extremely beautiful installations by Betye Saar from the early 70s that drew on time spent in Haiti, entering the room was like going into a crypt ... On the walls, there were finely-constructed collages, often held in wooden boxes, filled with very small objects. There was something deeply private and intimate about this art that moved me.

The act of collecting and putting these objects together was a recurring theme in the exhibition; for example, the room called ‘Los Angeles Assemblage’ that included this commentary:

Los Angeles was a city experiencing great racial tension in 1962, police had entered a mosque and shot an unarmed member of the Nation of Islam. Two years later, another instance of police violence in a predominantly African American neighbourhood triggered the Watts Rebellion, which left 34 dead and properties and shops in ruins.

The artists featured in this room - Noah Purifoy, John Outterbridge, Melvin Edwards and Betye Saar - ‘created art by recycling and bringing together objects in different formations, known as assemblage’.

Of particular interest to me was the ‘Lynch Fragments’ series by Melvin Edwards, a project he started in 1963. The aggressive-looking steel objects, made up from refuse found on the streets of LA completely reversed expectations of how to represent race-based violence; here there is no victim – and no audience – but an object of torture, made from scrap metal.

Melvin Edwards (born 1937) Some Bright Morning, Lynch Fragments 1963

Christopher Knight writing in a Los Angeles Times review of a show marking the 50th anniversary of the Watts uprising quoted Purifoy as saying the following regarding the Watts Towers that he said was 'arguably America's greatest modern folk-art masterpiece.'

What if these people could look at junk another way — as a symbol of their being in the world, their being just in relationship to something.

Knight then concluded with these sentences: 'Their being in the world — battered and discarded, like the broken glass and pottery of the soaring towers but also reassembled and reborn into something beautiful, mysterious and profound.'

mysteries.jpg

Romare Bearden (1911-1988) Mysteries, 1964 

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)