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.

'Ladies in the house say yeah,' so Prodigy says, as he saunters the Bataclan stage. Yeah, comes the expected reply. 'Check that out,' he says, feigning shock and surprise, 'We're Mobb Deep, not Common or Mos Def or some shit.'

One month before the famous Paris venue, The Bataclan was the site of terrorist attacks in November 2015, I went to see Mobb Deep's two-decade anniversary show marking the release of their Infamous record. 

During the set Prodigy stops everything to ask the support staff to change the lighting, to make it red, like the interior of a sweaty bordello - more dramatic than the previous natural-style lighting scheme, as the group goes from one hit to the next. 

Very, very early on, one of my first pieces of writing on hip-hop, published on this site, was on Mobb Deep. When writing it, I wanted this piece to be similar in style to a letter, directed to someone like me – looking in on a culture that was not hers: both faux-naïf and directive. Part of it went like this: 

If I were asked to recommend an album to a hip-hop novitiate, I’d suggest they listen to Mobb Deep’s ’The Infamous’ ... Or maybe something from Big L 

(Maybe I’d choose this one - big l Harlem’s finest vol 1 & 2 full album - for the urgent delivery ... and smarts). All this might seem perverse for two reasons; well, none of the records above provided the déclic moment for me as I started listening to hip-hop seriously (second time around) last year. None of these records were what first made me think I should spend a bit more time here with this music, making connections that made sense to me (…) Being authentic is often discussed in relation to hip-hop; this notion of the MC being real, or representing his/her life and then the fans think about this when assessing the quality of the music.

For obvious reasons then this is impossible for me to do - how could it be otherwise? So, what then appeals to me when I listen to these records? The sound, basically. This music still stands up, unlike some of the wittier, more literary, more sonically adventurous hip-hop from the same era (some of which sounds really twee to me now, even though I liked it a lot then). 

Besides, as a woman liking art that is foreign in terms of my experience is nothing new - I think one of the key aspects of being female is living this, on a daily basis to the point where your appreciation of something includes an expectation that it won’t be something you know personally. And this is no problem - not everything you like, or appreciate, needs to be a mirror. 

Here is part two of the same interview with Prodigy …

Since the 60s so many people have spoken about love being what the world needs now etcetera. I disagree, what we ‘need’ – if you favour such expression - more than anything, and especially now, is curiosity about those who are different to us, driven by respect. This is how I relate to Mobb Deep – and others in the constellation; ‘there are no stars in the New York sky
They're all on the ground …’

What interests me then, as now is how we can engage with – and even love – art that does not speak to our experience; how the genius and sheer clarity of certain voices can cut through bringing people together through the shared appreciation of art, whether it be music, or literature, or film.

Now, I know about issues relating to appropriation – and am starting to feel just a bit awkward, where is the late Prodigy in all of this, the apparent subject of this writing? But in my world-view this is the highest compliment to offer an artist, as E.M. Forster famously stated: ‘only connect’.

The scene in Howard’s End that introduced this phrase was a stolen kiss between two of the novel’s characters that becomes part of an internal monologue:

It did not seem so difficult. She need trouble him with no gift of her own. She would only point out the salvation that was latent in his own soul, and in the soul of every man. Only connect! That was her whole sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.

When I think back to the time when I started listening to Mobb Deep, again in earnest, there was no intellectualising/no theorising required: I just liked it. I liked the sound; the way it seemed like we had a direct line to the artist's brain, with all the intelligence and humour to be found there and the way this music summed up a particular moment in music, the way it typified a city and an era.

I liked the way the wordplay never seemed forced, while it expertly buttressed the immediacy of the story to be told. This notion of story-telling in hip-hop often rankles with me, especially when it becomes overly smart, arch and knowing, but within the Mobb Deep universe you had both: amazingly constructed narratives that were filled with intense feeling.

And then if you believe that hip-hop as a genre is distinctive in the way it offers a voice to the unheard, in Mobb Deep you had this, in excess – and yet this was music that could cross borders, with ease: I mean, contemporary European rap is drenched in a Mobb Deep influence.

As with the greatest art in any genre, the intrinsically specific could make sense to people with no immediate life experience that resembled what they were hearing/or seeing because it was personal, located and true - just like a diary written by someone in an occupied zone, or during war-time. At its best, Mobb Deep’s music could offer everything, at once. See, for example, 'Trife Life’ – a Mobb Deep song that initially triggered my interest for its wit, self-confidence and extraordinarily smart construction of a narrative, with suspense and momentum:

(Just love those early rhymes: 'It's just another day, drowning my troubles with a forty
That's when I got the call from this brown skin shorty
She asked me where's my crew at, said we could do whatever
She got a crew too and said that we should get together
I said, "Aight, just call me back in a hour
So I can take a shower and gather up the manpower"
Then I hung up the horn
And I thought to myself that it might be on
Cause this trick isn’t pick up the phone to call me in years (Why?)
Ever since I left the ho lonely in tears…'

It’s so exact and funny, it makes me laugh every time I hear it, you can imagine the expression on his face during the phone call and the shift from excitement to trepidation – when he remembers how it ended last time - as if it were a scene in a film. You can hear the youth in the expression, how it was pure and essential.

This could be the voice of any pretend-macho young guy who is feeling nervous in New York, Cleveland, Marseilles – any place, the world over, it is individual and universal at the same time. No games; this music is funny, in parts, while expressing deep feeling related to a specific situation: ‘complete’ – as the French say. It was that simple.

Just like a woman standing beside me at The Bataclan that night, singing and screaming and shouting pretty much every single word of every single song, despite not even being born, or maybe just a little kid in 1995, the year that Mobb Deep released The Infamous.

This young woman, just like me, probably wouldn’t feel the need to explain her preference and give it form, all she knew, and knew deep in the core of her being that there was something about this music that clicked. She liked it, it was that simple – and that complex.        

Mobb Deep’s the Infamous is as bold, as clear as The Stooges’ Funhouse : it has the same force and desire to be heard, to stake out territory. I love the simplicity of it, the complete nature of the aesthetic; there are no weaknesses, no gaps.

By simplicity, I mean simple like a meditation; or simple like anything that matters in this world, in fact. Simple like a kiss, or a decision to act; simple like a thought, a memory. The music I grew up with, the nasty guitar music of the Melbourne underground scene was similarly ‘simple’ - focussed on the impact, not showing off fancy technique. There was no need.

***

"UP NORTH TRIP" TRACK INFO

Written By Prodigy of Mobb Deep & Havoc

Recording Engineer Louis Alfred III

Mixing Engineer Tony Smalios & Q-Tip

Mastering Engineer Leon Zervos

Executive Producer Matt LifeScott Free & Mobb Deep

Recorded At Battery Studios (New York, City)

Release Date April 25, 1995

Verse One: Prodigy

It all began on the street, to the back of a blue police vehicle
Next come the bookings, the way things is lookin
It’s Friday, you in for a long stay
Gettin shackled on the bus first thing come Monday
Hopin in your mind you’ll be released one day
But knowin, home is a place you’re not goin for a long while
Now you’re up on the isle
And the position that you in got you refusin’ to smile
But keep in mind there’s a brighter day, after your time spent
Used to be wild, but locked up, you can’t get bent
Thought you could hack it, now you’re requestin PC
You’re fragile, it ain’t hard to see
Niggas like that don’t associate with me
I’d rather, get busy to the third degree
Cause the war in population’s on infinitely
If this was the street, my razor would be a mac demon
Hit you up, leave your whole face screamin’
What you in for kid - bustin nuts?
Cats heard of me in street stories told inside this trap
Who are you to look at me with your eyes like that?
Wisen up youngblood, before you make things escalate
And I would hate yo set your crooked ass straight...

Here’s a description of the making-of the track,  published in Complex, 2011 

Produced by: Mobb Deep

Prodigy: “That song is basically a song dedicated to our people going in and out of jail back then. A lot of niggas would get locked up, come back home, get locked up, and come home.

"Niggas were selling drugs and if you’re out there on the block selling drugs, you’re constantly getting caught. You can’t get away with that shit for long, especially if you’re a small-time hustler for clothes and sneaker money.

“That was probably one of the ones that we started writing in the projects at Hav’s crib. He had a couple things. Our first sampler we had was an EPS 16 plus. It was a big-ass keyboard.

"We had that for a little while, and when the MPC came out we bought that, and that was it. A little record player, a little mixer, and that’s all we needed. We had the big ass cheap speaker with the carpet on it, like block party speakers.”

Havoc: “You don’t have no job, you’re trying to eat. And it could be somebody that you got beef with, so you might have to shoot a mothafucka because you not gonna let nobody play you. So it’s just all sorts of challenges growing up in the hood. That’s just one of those songs that brought that fact out.”

Matty C a.k.a. Matt Life (Executive Producer and A&R for Loud Records): “Q-Tip enhanced the drums on that lovely. If you listen to ‘Up North Trip’ you’ll hear the snare kind of bouncing a little bit. Cracking a little more [than normal]. Tip gave it a real nice crack compared to what it originally was. He just beefed the drums up on that one.

“Tip also worked with me closely on recommending certain engineers that were great for mixes. Hav and P would always do their own drops and Hav would always—and I would always encourage him—be the producer and do the final check on his own shit.

“The way that Tip contributed to the project was so cool because he wasn’t in there trying to say, ‘Yo, I’m the mixer for this, I’m taking credit for this.’ He was doing great in his career and he had mad love for us.

"He was just in it to help out and make sure it comes out right. Obviously, he got a nice deal. But it was really just trying to see Hav come up and really steer this ship with this group of emcees that he’s got.”

To choose one to represent the whole: ‘Up North Trip’ from the breakthrough, The Infamous record from 1995. Constantly playing with contrast, starting with the use of 70s schmaltz for the samples - ‘I'm tired of giving’ Spinners From the LP "8" released in 1977 on Atlantic Records. 

Even if there is a similar territory in the lyrics, expressing one man’s despondency: ‘When the truth becomes in question standing right before your eyes moving on to something better keep the strong alive I'm tired of giving but its you that keeps me hanging on So tired of giving (so tired of giving) can't get from falling down So tired of giving can't get up from falling down’ it's far from the same kind of psychological mood.  

The track also featured 'To Be With You' by The Fatback Band, later known as Fatback - love that detail - from a 1973 single; apparently the group had 'substantial success in South America, especially in Brazil with 'Money' and 'Backstrokin'.

You can see the depth of Prodigy’s lyricism when you compare his two verses in 'Up North Trip'. The first starts by setting the scene, using a ‘once upon a time’ beginning almost and the second person to involve us in the story and intensify a sense of proximity. He addresses us directly, using ‘you’ as if the action he is about to describe is our story as well.  

Who are you to look at me with your eyes like that?
Wisen up youngblood, before you make things escalate
And I would hate yo set your crooked ass straight

All of this suggests that what is to follow is a kind of cautionary tale, but there’s a degree of venom there, attacking his audience almost: who are you to judge me?

This subject matter and approach reminds me of first-person narratives from the past, say convict narratives, where the narrator is ready to share his vile and malicious deeds to spare others the same cruel fate, and yet it’s not that easy, mono-dimensional, because he is not seeking our absolution.

In Prodigy’s final verse, the perspective is quite different: 

Then I pause... and ask God why
Did he put me on this Earth just so I could die
I sit back and build on all the things I did wrong
Why I’m still breathin, and all my friends gone
I try not to dwell on the subject for a while
Cause I might get stuck in this corrupt lifestyle
But my, heart pumps foul blood through my arteries
And I can’t turn it back, it’s a part of me

This is amazing for the depth of feeling that comes through, the self-doubt and questioning tone, as he states:

Too late for cryin, I’m a grown man strugglin
To reach the next level of life without fumblin
Down to foldin, I got no shoulder to lean on but my own
All alone in this danger zone

But rather than offering his Soul up to God, as might have been the case in one of those 18th or 19th narratives of wrong-doing and repentance, Prodigy then reiterates his criminal, or outsider mindset: ‘Time waits for no man, the streets grow worse
Fuck the whole world, kid, my money comes first.’ 

Children of the Indigo: ‘Fall through’ Mick Jenkins, prod. THEMPeople (The Healing Component, Cinematic Music Group, 2016)

Resistance at the point of listening to (new) music. Sometimes reactions can be so intense they stop you from listening further; telling you, no, this is not yours, it’s not for you - and then, other times something keeps you there with that same music, despite your instinct to leave.

It was months back now, so I can’t remember what it was that kept me at a remove when first listening to Mick Jenkins’ The Healing Component (it was probably related to the beat, so wafery/illusory like paper being burnt, the flame curling in on itself, refusing any sense of home: the same beat that provides the unstable foundations of the modern hip-hop aesthetic, where the edges are forever privileged over the centre). 

Then I heard this song and my favourite ‘Fall through’… which made me realise. 

[Intro]
I see the light
Hesitate
Hesitate
Hesitate
Hesitate

[Hook]
Don't you feel the soul?
That's the truest well
Of all the things you know, do you know yourself?
Well enough to trust the way you go
When you don't, know the way
See the light, still hesitate
See the light, hesitate

Contemporary poetic: opening up the conversation about love, politics and remembrance. 

***

To talk about the song’s mood; sometimes hip-hop artists and producers refer to their work as cinematic. Usually this means that they think that the lyrics resemble a film narrative, with a plot and characters, or that the music contains moments that could be likened to scenes in a film. Frequently this impression is enhanced by interludes, performed by actors or directed lifted from films.  

Listening to ‘Fall through’ I saw scenes – like a movie - in my imagination that were not directly linked to the lyrics (the film in my head was medieval and masculine - made up of the bodies of men - maybe based on Herzog, or the photographer Salgado), but with a different colour scheme, shades of dark blue (the children/men indigo). Perhaps I was making a connection with a half-remembered evocative soundtrack

Such images in my mind are completely absent now when listening to ‘Fall through’ – I have listened to this music so many times since then and done some reading, so there’s some distance - but I can understand how when listening to this music I could imagine this idea of a mass of people (of men) rising up, in movement, as an indistinguishable mass of bodies.

This is body music: pure and visceral, speaking to the heart, while expressing an essential truth that is carried by, expressed in, blood.

 

'I’m just tired of this shit,' Jenkins says. 'Tired of the fact that it’s happening, and tired of the fact that I have to sing about it.'

— Mick Jenkins in an interview with Complex, speaking about his song '11' (that referred to the number of times Eric Garner said, 'I can't breathe' before he died).

Okayplayer noted that this song, ‘Falling through’ was ‘a rumbling rebuke of race relations from one of the nation’s many hotbeds of police brutality and harassment.’ A perceptive comment, even if the term ‘hotbeds’ bothers me, as I'd always thought it was used with something positive (a hotbed of activity etc, though I saw the definition used it with treason so I might be wrong here). 

From a conversation with Jenkins in Interview:   

RACIAL TENSION AND POLICE BRUTALITY: 'I started to notice it when I got to Chicago, really. When I was around 11 or 12, that's when I was able to see it. In high school, there was a big let out—all the students would walk in the street, the police would try to keep students out of the street, [so] they would hit them upside the head with billy clubs trying to keep them in line. We weren't being rowdy or anything; we just weren't moving fast enough. It had been affecting me my whole life, I just never realized it. I do rap because black lives matter, but it is not the only reason.'

Quoted in Drew Millard's interview for Noisey (2014)

'Niggas didn’t think I was cool. I got beat up; I’ve been robbed at gunpoint. It’s the same shit. I’ve robbed niggas; I’ve beat up people. I was young and silly and that was the environment that I grew up in, but that’s not how I turned out and I want to represent that. There’s tons of other people who grew up right next to me in those impoverished areas and that’s just not how they turned out. I want to represent that Chicago. I like the fact that it’s two sides because even when Chance reaches out and shouts out Chief Keef it’s because we know those people, and if I don’t know Cheef Keef, I know too many people like that; who look like him, who act like him. It’s all Chicago.'

And The Fader from last year:  

'With everything going on, it’s very easy to cling to all of the negativity. I was feeling like What can I do? How do we solve these problems? I was looking at the perceived solutions like protesting and going through the government. It's also not just about racial injustices. There’s all types of injustices going on and there’s a system in place that continues to push them and we feel like we can’t really fight them on any front. I wanted bring it down to a personal level, when I say “spread love." It mirrors the message that I think Jesus had when he was on the earth. Whether you believe in Jesus or not, understanding the story of him as someone who was really meek mannered and selfless even in the face of some of the most hateful things, all the way down to being killed on the cross.'

***

Over the past day or so I’ve been seeking out articles about, interviews with Mick Jenkins and while of course there is plenty of interest, I’ve also noticed how so many writers go off on tangents, perhaps reflecting a confusion about how best to relate to him and his work (one article opens with a reference to Jenkins’ brief stint in jail; another seems more interested in writing about Jenkins at a fashion show, or something.  Most, if not all, refer to his height).

My inclusion of the above is not to disrespect my colleagues, or even imply that I may be different, but I wanted to mention this as it says something about Jenkins’ apparently ambiguous, hard to locate persona as an artist (though, I don’t think it’s that contradictory, there have always been mystics/seers in hip-hop, alongside intellectuals and Black radicals calling out to people to wake up – to ‘drink more water’ - and see the truth).   

Here is a statement of the obvious: Jenkins is a deeply thoughtful person/presence in contemporary hip-hop, who is almost painfully, aware of the significance of his role as someone with a voice. In interviews, Jenkins repeats often the instance during a murder trial when the accused quoted a rapper’s lyrics as if justifying his crime. Jenkins says it so often, he seems haunted by it. 

Comfortable operating within the realm of abstractions – water is truth; love stems from knowledge; redemption might come after the oppressor and the oppressed submerge themselves in the same waters – Jenkins has said that his primary objective is to open up the conversation about love; to speak about the healing power of love. But this love, he insists is not some kind of Hallmark variety, but one that asks people to look within first and to accept and know themselves. I was particularly struck by Jenkins' point that for many people it was difficult for them to say what they wanted, or needed and thereby made it difficult for them to love and be loved.  

As Jenkins said in an interview with Pigeons and Planes:

'When people talk about love, you really only think about the pretty parts, the romantic parts of love (...) People don’t think about things like loving themselves, and what that takes. And that you have to know yourself to love yourself, and how difficult of a battle that might be.'

The interludes on Jenkins' The Healing Component - conversations with his sister that create a bridge with the work of Lauryn Hill - were meant to show that he, Jenkins, was no expert and was just another human being, trying to make his way. His view on the significance of love was just one of many. As Jenkins explained in an interview with Billboard: 'Diving into love as a topic, you know, the [people in this room] probably don’t agree on what love is, what it looks like, and what it should look like, just because we’ve all had different experiences growing up and becoming men.' 

Jenkins has expressed his ambivalence about performing in front of largely white audiences, in that his primary feeling of responsibility is to speak of and to the Black American experience; that is, to speak to his own.

My first draft of this piece was an extended riff on ‘Fall through’ within a broader discussion the importance of mood in hip-hop and Black American Gothic: it was all very interesting with its reference to DMX and a book written by an academic, and is something I’ll return to I’m sure, at some point, but after writing it I wondered if I were doing the same as so many of the other journalists: not really listening. As Jenkins’ raps in ‘Fall through’: 'I been all around the globe, different languages they feel me they don't hear me though.' 

Note then that I’m offering this appreciation up of ‘Fall through’ – a song that I think is truly beautiful – with a degree of humility; get in contact with me with your own take on its significance, especially if you think I’ve missed it; I’d be more than happy to include your voices in the mix. This is not the final word on the song, by any stretch.

***

Hip-hop has always been concerned with the marking out of territory, status and position; the easiest reading of ‘Fall through’ includes this frame-work …

“So sticks and stones I rub them off
At this hater conjunction I’m an apostrophe, above them all
That’s why I keep my circle small
Seen so many rush as Limbaugh
Niggas talking shit that I just cannot trust at all
But trust I fall, you can trust I’ll tell you just how I trip
Before I ever power trip, brought the light like a power strip
Fuck a Powerade, we bringing water”

especially in the way Jenkins acklowledges the Chicago-based movement of hip-hop artists (Chance the Rapper, Sensei Blue …) But this is not all there is going on here. My interest in the mood of the song reflected the fact that, for me, it's the most striking element and is certainly unique, but what immediately struck me – and it did, with real force – was the extraordinary contrast between the quiet moments in the music, evoking Nature and the urgency of Mick Jenkins’ delivery. Jenkins is presenting us here with a new kind of hip-hop that is at once suggestive and intense; poetic and personal, while maintaining some mystery.  

Reading the lyrics, you can’t really see a ‘coherent’ – for want of a better word – through-line, as there is so much movement (this, I think is a positive thing, adding a kind of intensity to the music because it denies us easy scripting) though by the end of the song there is, I'd suggest, a clear message.

“[Verse 1]
Nigga had to fall on his knees for a second
Stop, dropped and rolled in the middle of this fire
And the smoke, nigga had to go and breathe for a second
Plus I needed direction, a fork in every road at like three intersections
Pray for discernment, I’m seeking his blessing
This ain’t no sermon but vermin ain’t never want to see they reflection
Come and see his reflection
Like...mirror, mirror on the wall
Who’s the most hated of them all?
Most creative of them all
Who’s post-racial, who’s the most basic?
Who despite that loved them all?”

Who is speaking here (and about whom)?

Jenkins uses the first person, so it seems to be something about his life experience, reflecting Jenkins’ uncertainty as one man among many -using the narrative trope of a choice, the fork in the road which isn’t singular, but multiple; but this certainty about perspective becomes unclear by the end of the verse. Who is he speaking of, when he says the ‘most hated' - the 'vermin' - or the man falling to his knees? 

Is he speaking of Black Americans more broadly, reproducing commonly used stereotypes that appear to be benign, but are in fact offering just another cage: ‘Who's the most hated of them all?/Most creative of them all/Who's post-racial, who's the most basic?/Who despite that loved them all?’ 

It's possible that there might be a kind of humour here, playing on the view that Black Americans may be oppressed, but still create great art (you know the athlete/artist escape route) as if that somehow evens it all out. Though I’m not sure if this is right. All of this demonstrates the intelligence of Jenkins' lyricism. On one level, it seems almost sarcastic (with this talk of the US being ‘post-racial’ ...) but then ends on the unexpected and touching line about these unknown subjects being loved.

My interest here is not to try and pin down a unitary interpretation; I like the fact that I'm not sure about what it means, or even that there are multiple meanings. I especially find his repeated use of ‘Who’ interesting, moving from who is being talked about – ‘the most hated – to the unknown one who loves them; are they not the same? This is far, far from basic.

Earlier, Jenkins speaks of ‘vermin’ not wanting to see their reflection, a strong word to use that again does little to clarify who again is the subject here. It is possible he is speaking of himself - or could it be the police forcing a man to kneel before he dies - we, or I, don't know for sure. 

“[Pre-Hook]
When autumn falls, you see the leaves (light, light)
You feel the breeze, you feel the breeze (I see the light)
Hesitate
Hesitate
Hesitate
When autumn falls, you see the leaves (hesistate)
You feel the breeze, you feel the breeze
Descendants of the realest souls
Children of the Indigo
You feel me, y’all don’t hear me though (When autumn falls, you see the leaves)
You feel me, y’all don’t hear me though (You feel the breeze, you feel the breeze)


[Hook]
Don’t you feel the soul?
That’s the truest well
Of all the things you know, do you know yourself?
Well enough to trust the way you go
When you don’t, know the way
See the light, still hesitate
See the light, hesitate”

‘Children of the Indigo’ ...

“[Outro]
’Coz I might fall through if I catch the breeze
Know you probably missed the roots, but I know you seen the leaves (seen the leaves)
We descendants of the illest souls
Children of the Indigo
’Coz I might fall through if I catch the breeze
Know you probably missed the roots, but I know you seen the leaves (seen the leaves)
We descendants of the illest souls
Children of the Indigo”

The intensity and passion brimming inside this song makes it clear, it seems to me, that the sentimental heart of this music is much more than a condemnation of police violence, or a celebration of the Chicago hip-hop scene. It is something much more profound. I can't help when listening to it, especially the question - 'Don't you feel the soul?' - to think that this music is a kind of call for people to recognise the past within the present. It is an act of remembrance. 

(Listen to Curtis Mayfield’s lines in the live version of 'We the people who are darker than blue' to see how similar they are to the Mick Jenkins worldview: ‘Get yourself together, learn to know your side/Shall we commit our own genocide/Before you check out your mind?' And then ... 'I know we've all got problems/That's why I'm here to say/Keep peace with me and I with you/Let me love in my own way.'

There's a lot more that could be written here, deciphering the spiderweb nature of Jenkins' lyrics and how it connects with the past. You could link his repeated reference to water to Nina Simone who was also drawing on a much older musical tradition. I also have a half-memory the late, great poet of the NYC hip-hop underground Capital STEEZ calling himself one of the Children of the Indigo, which is some kind of New Age notion relating to those who are apart from the crowd because of their talent or insight, but I haven't checked this).    

To fall through might then be a call to reconnect with a community and its past: in this sense the evocation of Nature, the breeze, but also the leaves of the trees has a real power to it, suggesting how Nature might offer a kind of succour, while also referring to those who have come before and are still present, waiting to be acknowledged (if those alive are willing to fall through).   

Musically Mick Jenkins’ ‘Fall through’ exists within a deep space atmosphere, the sound effects creating a silvery effect, with the vocals so, so quiet. I first connected with the music as it has such a distinctive sound – such a rare and precious sound; occasionally opening up, the bass-line meandering and never really developing in any sense, whirling around in itself and the beat seemingly always just a little bit behind the vocal-line.   

In an interview on the release of ‘Fall through’ Jenkins emphasised how this music reflected an interest in playing around with tempo and ‘melodic aspects of songs’ - or to use his words, the ‘endearing parts of songs’ that his listeners liked (singing along with it, even if they didn’t understand it). ‘It’s about not being locked into the structure, or time signature’ and ‘creating something new,’ he said. ‘Fall through’ is arguably a supremely artful take on protest music, but it is also intensely private, while reaching out.  

To conclude, I liked this description from a FACT interview that captures something of Mick Jenkins' character and temperament: 

‘Spend two days in Jenkins’ company and he will smile and laugh as much as the average person. And yet, he knows that most people assume he has a grouchy disposition. He says with a laugh that a 6’ 5” black man doesn’t really scream “comedian”; his stoic facial expression comes off as unapproachable.

'I don’t purposely project it,' he says. 'I understand how it could be perceived but it doesn’t bother me to change because that’s not who I am. My normal face, people will ask me what’s wrong. Well, nothing’s wrong. I’m just looking.' 

Paris Récit: Police attack on Théo Luhaka, Aulnay-sous-Bois

On the 2nd February, during a stop and search of one of his friends, a 22-year-old man was brutally assaulted by police in Aulnay-sous-Bois (a poor neighbourhood north of Paris) and is now in hospital recovering from rectal injuries, caused by a police baton. One officer has been charged with rape, another three have also been charged with assault: all have been suspended.

‘There was blood everywhere, on the walls,’ the lawyer defending the man commonly referred to as ‘Théo’ by the media said. During the assault, the police are said to have called Théo Luhaka a ‘negro’ (it might also have been the French equivalent for nigger) ‘bamboula’ and ‘bitch’ and spat at him. For days after the assault, the impoverished housing estates to the north of Paris erupted in anger: cars were burnt and Molotov cocktails thrown in running battles with the police. The French President, François Hollande visited Mr Luhaka in hospital, where the young man called for calm.    

For reasons that remain a little opaque for me, I’ve found it difficult to write on this subject, even though it’s such a simple story - the facts write themselves - and such a familiar one.  

I live in northern Paris, but it is a completely different world to that of Aulnay-sous-Bois. If I walk down the street about five minutes, I’m in a largely immigrant neighbourhood, but in my immediate vicinity it’s cafés filled with tourists and women wearing very long coats and pearly-white sneakers. The extreme deprivation that marks out the poor neighbourhoods surrounding Paris, places like Aulnay-sous-Bois, with its rows of anonymous housing estates is less obvious in my area (though, of course, it is here as well, as is the aggressive police presence).  

Perhaps my ambivalence reflects tiredness about how this story keeps repeating and nothing gets done, alongside broader feelings of suspicion about how news stories of police violence against black men (and boys) play out in the dominant culture, whether it’s Aulnay-sous-Bois, Baltimore or the juvenile jails of the Northern Territory, Australia. (And it is gendered, non-white women are also victimised, of course, but the images we see repeated on the news tend to be of men being hurt, beaten, suffocated or shot)

In the end, I wonder about the value of broadcasting this brutality, without an exploration of the broader context, or statement of explicit political demands. Does the widespread dissemination of images of non-white people being hurt serve to further reinforce racist stereotypes, I wonder, while inflicting further harm on the victimised via the denial of their basic right to privacy? Surely, in the end, this right to be private, to decide how we are seen and perceived by others, is what makes us human.  

And even though it’s rarely said, I also wonder if this dissemination of imagery of violence against non-white people reflects a ghoulish perversity that has a long history, stretching back to the plantation and killing fields of Colonial Australia. Often people, usually white, say racism towards non-white people reflects ‘fear of the other’. It's not always this, racism in its most brutal form enacts a desire to humiliate, to insist upon another person that they are less than human, nothing more than bodies.

For a period of time, my Facebook feed was filled with images of black men being shot by police in the United States, which appeared to be updated on a daily basis by activist groups. (There was one video that didn’t get much attention, but shocked me deeply of a man being shot execution style in an Ohio street by a police officer; in such an ordinary street, in the middle of the day). And I started wondering about the value of all of this.

How effective was it in a political sense to keep seeing these images of people being killed, or handcuffed and shoved to the ground, I thought then, does it raise awareness in a way that leads to reform, prosecution and convictions of the perpetrators, or maintain the status quo (while significantly adding to the stress felt by minority communities in the US)?  

Now this perspective might seem strange coming from a journalist, but it is this professional background that motivates this reaction. In a news-room you quickly learn how and why certain stories rise to the top, usually it comes down to the maxim: ‘If it bleeds, it leads ….’

You also see how quickly stories and victims are forgotten. One of the older journalists used to talk to me about ‘old news’ saying that it had as much interest as ‘yesterday’s fish and chips’ (something that is foul, inedible). Within a few weeks, there is a chance that the abuse of Théo will for many people here in France be seen as old news. Let’s hope I’m proven wrong.

The counter to this point of view is that such videos raise awareness in the general community; well, firstly who is this general community? None of this is news to me, or people with any kind of political consciousness, nor is it news for members of the affected groups. Whose interests are being served here and at what cost?  

In the end, I wonder why this shocking/extreme/brutal representation of racism is privileged by the media above all the other forms of race-based oppression. I have been educating myself about the economics of racism, past and present, in the United States and find this equally disturbing, if not more. But this colder version of race-hate doesn’t get the same kind of airtime on the nightly news and the question is why.  

This is the reason why I haven’t written about the brutalisation of Théo and the death of Adama. I have been watching, though, just like I have been watching the way the police stop and search non-white people in my neighbourhood, and especially the way the police touch the crotches of the young men as they pat them down.

And the way vans full of police in riot gear seem permanently stationed down on Boulevard Barbès, dozens and dozens of police kitted out like over-sized plastic action heroes, their shoulders and knees covered in black like beetles, waiting, just waiting …    

For more background on all of this, have a look at this very strong piece of reporting on the death of Adama Traoré in police custody, again in a small town to the north of Paris in July last year and attack on Théo Luhaka by Iman Amrani and Angélique Chrisafis, published in The Guardian a few weeks ago. 

Ambrosia for Heads interview: BROOKZILL! (Prince Paul, Ladybug Mecca, Don Newkirk, Rodrigo Brandão)

BROOKZILL!: a hybrid musical project, part Brazilian street samba/part Brooklyn, NYC “old school” - defined by travel and transcendence, mapping out connections to discover that the heartbeat of both musical traditions starts in the same place.

Recorded over a 10 year period in Atlanta, Brazil, New York, Throwback to the Future is imprinted with the personality of its makers: Ladybug Mecca, Digable Planets MC with her effortless cool; the high-energy enthusiasm and eclecticism of “producer extraordinaire” Prince Paul; producer and musician Don Newkirk, with his strong Funk sensibility; and the gravel-voiced Brazilian MC, Rodrigo Brandão.

Listening to BROOKZILL! reminds me of a French verb that has no direct translation in English: dépayser which means “to feel disoriented” (or “have a change of scenery“). Lost in the English translation, though, is an idea embedded in the French that refers to taking your country out of you. As the spirited BROOKZILL! collaboration makes clear, there is definite joy and freedom to be found when there are no distinct borders or markers setting out the path. Most of Throwback To The Future is in Brazilian Portuguese (the first language of Brandão, and also Ladybug Mecca, who was raised by Brazilian musician parents in the U.S) with no translations provided. Sounds come and go, drawing on various traditions, creating surprising intersections, familiar and strange at the same time. Certain tracks are playful, with wry references to Hip-Hop; others are dark, sombre and mysterious.

None of this is meant to suggest Throwback To The Future is a tacky, exploitative version of musico-tourism; quite the reverse. In many respects the BROOKZILL! record is defined by its seamless fit, while also offering up a home-coming for Ladybug Mecca, who pays homage to her Brazilian heritage in a way that seems deeply personal.

During a recent interview with Ambrosia For Heads, Ladybug Mecca explained that the BROOKZILL! project was ‘about unity – bringing two worlds together that can transcend anything.’ She continued: “Lyrically we touch on subjects such as personal growth, love and transcendence, celebration of loved ones who have passed (but) unity summarizes it best.”

BROOKZILL!’s Throwback To The Future, with its unexpected guest-artist list (which includes Count Bass D, Del The Funky Homosapien, DJs Kid Koala & Mr. Len, Gil Scott-Heron’s long-time collaborator, Brian Jackson, and a number of Brazilian musicians, including some who had previously performed with Pharaoh Sanders) links the U.S. Hip-Hop underground with Brazilian music, while upsetting fixed notions of what a Hip-Hop-inspired project can or should be.

Stream Throwback To The Future by BROOKZILL!.

Ambrosia For Heads: Paul, you’ve said that this project is all about capturing “the essence” of the two musical genres – Hip-Hop and different forms of Brazilian music – can you develop this more?

Prince Paul: You know, a lot of times, especially nowadays people focus more on what a musician looks like, they go, “Yeah, I got this fabulous record out – with a video!” Everything is visual, everything is marketing and promotion. What we’re doing more or less is stripping this record back to the essence: the drum and the beat, which is both in Brazilian music and in Hip-Hop music and back to melodies and vibes and feelings.

The music is definitely the driving force: the melody, the lyrics, the feeling of the drums … It’s soulful, catchy, the music captures your spirit and soul in the moment and that’s where we have taken this.

All the tracks (on Throwback To The Future) have a melody, a vibe and a feel to them. I tried to make one of those records where you can close your eyes and go on a journey and see where it takes you, as opposed to: “Oh man, I’m gonna skip that track, oh man, this one’s horrible.” [Laughs] I tried to make everything feel and vibe a certain way and that to me the essence of both genres.

Ambrosia For Heads: How would you compare the Hip-Hop beat and the beat in different forms of Brazilian music?

Prince Paul: Rodrigo?

Rodrigo Brandão : Okay, I would say the 4/4 rhythm of Hip-Hop is like the bread of a sandwich. You can put anything inside that beat and it’ll fit, you know. If you do it the right way, it’ll fit. It’s the same with Brazilian music because if you do it properly you’ll see the African heritage, so the poly-rhythms of African music then translated to the Brazilian continent, which is a country but the size of a continent … The Hip-Hop beat is universal and I see that as the bread of a sandwich, and what we’re putting into the sandwich is what’s making it unique and very different.

Ambrosia For Heads: P-Funk is a key influence for BROOKZILL!, Newkirk, could you talk about this more?  

Don Newkirk: I think that music from that era set the tone for hip-hop in general – that was the soundtrack, you could say, that the early Hip-Hop artists pulled from when they, or when we, started making Hip-Hop: it was that music from the ’70s; the Funk scene, James Brown, Parliament, Funkadelic.

Ambrosia For Heads: Could you break it down more, with reference to “Mad Dog in Yoruba” as there seems to be a strong connection there.

Don Newkirk: Definitely, especially with “Mad Dog [In Yoruba]” – the song is a great example of that influence: the horn arrangements, the groove itself, the drums. It all connects. The break element, that song is like a musical break, you know a B-Boy break almost.

When we started doing the horns, Paul was like, “Yeah that’s the vibe right there.” I think that certain things are ingrained so much in your subconscious it just comes out of you. “Mad Dog” is a good example of the B-Boy element, the Funk element from the ’70s. We didn’t set out to do it like that, it wasn’t like: “Let’s make this.’ After we made it we realized how much it borrowed from that vibration of the ’70s.

Ambrosia For Heads: It also has an Afro-beat vibe, linking with what Rodrigo was saying before.

Don Newkirk: Yeah, definitely. One thing I learned after Paul and I had the opportunity of working with the great Bernie Worrell – R.I.P. Bernie –  music in general is relative. It doesn’t matter if it’s classical or funk. There’s always a relation in there, what you’re seeing in the Afrobeat and the Brazilian vibration, the Afro-Cuban beat like Rodrigo says everything starts with the drums, starts with the rhythm: it all goes back to African rhythms basically.

Prince Paul Drops a Mixtape Highlighting Digable Planets’ Ladybug Mecca (Audio)

Ambrosia For Heads: The interplay between the MCs on this track is striking, can you talk more about this, Rodrigo, Mecca.

Rodrigo Brandão: Ladies first.

Ladybug Mecca: My verse is more rooted in the Hip-Hop genre, there’s not one particular subject matter, it’s touching on anything that came to mind. Rodrigo and I vibed so well, we were like brother and sister from the moment we met. It was just easy for us to conceptualize records and to throw it back and forth in the true Hip-Hop form. It just came very naturally for us.

Ambrosia For Heads: For those who might not know the language, what are you rhyming about?

Rodrigo Brandão: What I can say, basically, what I can say about this whole project is – we didn’t look to achieve a certain sound, or certain style, we just let it flow. After we looked at the baby to put on a name on it. Have you heard of Eshu?

Ambrosia For Heads: [Pauses] No, I don’t think so.

Rodrigo Brandão: He is probably the most powerful of all gods (in Yoruba culture), he has the power to do whatever he wants and change whatever he wants real quick, so this song in a very abstract and non-intentional way describes the power and the size of actions of Eshu. The track is about him and his power.

Ambrosia For Heads: Gil Scott-Heron’s main collaborator through the 70s, Brian Jackson features on “Nascido No Ceu” how did he get involved?

Rodrigo Brandão : Brian Jackson is one of those icons, you listen to your whole life. When you actually have a chance to interact with him, he’s just a dude, he’s your brother, like the coolest man ever. People like him should be the power in the world. If you have the chance to kick with them, to vibe with them, you just take it. Brian Jackson is one of those unsung heroes. His music with Gil Scott-Heron is so timeless.

He’s pretty much the fifth member of the group, the first show that we did at SOBs in New York, it was just the four of us, and Brian Jackson on stage.

Ambrosia For Heads: Was there any conscious design behind the way the musical elements were used in that song?  

Prince Paul: Rodrigo touched on it and Newkirk, not just this track but the overall feeling of the album, we just played music for the sake of making it, which is pretty foreign nowadays. People go into the studio with a goal in mind, we were like let’s just make music so we gave Brian Jackson no direction. It was, take the music, whatever you feel is right.

A lot of the elements and the music is what the musician feels, just about the only direction I would give anyone is,”That! Repeat that verse! Do that stab over in this area.” [Most of the time] it was whatever they felt that was how we went with it. That translates to the whole album, it’s your soul speaking to the instrument. And that’s what I really think is the beauty of it. It’s like when we do interviews, people ask us to describe whatever, it’s really hard, because it just is. [Laughs]

Prince Paul Pushed More Boundaries With His Prince Among Thieves Film (Video)

Ambrosia For Heads: Can you talk about the recording process now, as the project took 10 years. And can you provide an overview of the record, do all the tracks use live performance, are some sample-based only, or a mix of both?

Prince Paul: I would say it's inspired by being sample-based. The melodies you hear, me and Rodrigo would sit down and go, “We like that. That’s the kind of vibe we want for this song. Let’s move it into that mode.”

Going back to the title, Throwback To The Future I have to reference doing things now and the way things used to be done. The easiest way to [complete the album] would have been like “I’m going to send you some beats and we can swap back and forth over the Internet, whatever.”

But we made a conscious decision to be in the same place at the same time so the distance is what made the process so long. Rodrigo comes to New York to my studio, we get the skeleton of it together, man, we go to Brazil with Newkirk to get the musicians, we go back to Atlanta. We go to Brooklyn to mix it, you know. [Laughs] Wanting to keep the tradition of us being together, it took a minute; when you’ve got families and life kicks in, you look up and it’s 10 years later.

Ambrosia For Heads: Newkirk has said it was very “old school” in that 95 % of the recording sessions had all four members in the same room, why is this important for a record like this?

Don Newkirk: I think it’s important for all records. The nature of music is communal; people are meant to be in the same room together. People used to hang out around a camp fire, or smoke a peace-pipe or sit on the plains of Africa with some drums and just go at it, have fun. Music is a communal effort, man.

As time went on [musicians] got more and more segregated, not just vibrational but that too. The creation of music became segregated and it’s an oxymoron when you think about it, because music is supposed to be something that brings people together. People come together and feel good, or feel whatever it makes you feel, it takes you on a journey …

That’s how we used to do it when we were younger. That’s why the further back you go in music the more feeling you start to pick up, it doesn’t even matter the genre. I don’t care if it’s Hip-Hop or R&B, there was more feeling because there was people in the room sitting there vibing and then there is an almost an angelic force when people are in unison, in a vibration it’s like a lot of angels and ancestors come in and inspire you.

That just doesn’t happen when you’re by yourself. It’s hard for me to work like that. I can’t just send people tracks, or people send me tracks and then write a song, you miss the full intention of it. You miss the complement of someone else’s words, or notes, or melodies.

Ambrosia For Heads: Mecca, could you describe the role Brazilian music played in shaping your delivery –  remembering that you were raised by two Brazilian musician parents?

Ladybug Mecca: Portuguese was my first language and when I entered an American school, I started to learn English, but it’s interesting that I would still speak a combination of English and Portuguese as a young person and even in my teenage years. I think the use of both those languages naturally would affect my art and the way my thought process works, how to express an observation or feeling.

I don’t know how to put it into words … my use of space and pauses in my delivery is one way of saying how [this background] affects me.

Ambrosia For Heads: There’s a kind of private quality, a holding back and control in your work that reminds me of Brazilian singers.

Ladybug Mecca: [Pauses] That’s the first time I’ve heard that kind of comment. It’s very possible as for most of my life, the first music I ever heard was traditional old school Brazilian music, my father had a radio that was tuned in to Brazilian music. It was a constant for us. There definitely has to be a direct relationship.

Digable Planets Reflect On Their Travels Through Time & Space And They’re Still Light Years Ahead

Ambrosia For Heads: Could you choose a Brazilian singer who has a strong connection with what you do?

Ladybug Mecca: I would say Clara Nunes. I vibe with her a lot, everything about her story resonates with me.

Prince Paul On Which Grammy Album He Got No Credit For, Magic Of Gravediggaz (Audio)

Ambrosia For Heads: To close, “Todos os Terreiros” is surely the key track in terms of the record’s Hip-Hop/Brazilian hybrid sound…

Prince Paul: If anything shows the way Rodrigo and I worked it’d be that song. He’d come in and say, “This is what I’m thinking, these are the sounds I want to use.” I’d sit there and think, “Mmm, how am I going to work this in with head-nodding?”

One good thing about Hip-Hop and you can see this historically, you can put any genre in that 4/4 beat and it bangs, but this one I was actually scratching my head going, “Let’s see if this will work.” [Laughs] I said, “Yo, I’m going to do the opposite of what this rhythm calls for, because it’s melodic and soft which is nice, so let’s throw in some boom bap in there.” That’s the result of the two worlds coming together.

That track is all over the place, meshing spacey synth sounds and traditional Brazilian sounds and throwing in some occasional boom bap drums – with which, for me, you can never lose. It could be a wedding march and if you throw in some boom bap on it, it works.

Ambrosia For Heads: What are your future plans, I see you’re planning some tours.

Prince Paul: Our plan is to travel the world. And if we were able to travel outside the atmosphere and into the universe [laughing] we’d go there too.

Paris-based Australian journalist, Madeleine Byrne writes on music and politics. To read more of her work, included extended interviews/essays, and other Hip-Hop related writing, visit her website

The Commandant’s Daughter (Travelling South)

Females guilty of disobedience of orders, neglect of work, profane, obscene or abusive language, insubordination, or other turbulent or disorderly or disrespectful conduct, shall be punished by the superintendent with close confinement in a dark or other cell, until her case shall be brought under consideration of the Principal Superintendent.

Rules & Regulations, 1829, Cascades Female Factory, South Hobart

 

I am doing my best during this visit to be quiet and observe. I use silence as a way of keeping distance and protecting myself; in conversations with my father, for example, to avoid complications, or any situation that my son calls ‘awkward’.

To achieve this, I take on an earlier persona that is very familiar to me, from my years of growing up and young adulthood in Melbourne; a part of me I name ‘The Governess’ or ‘The Abolitionist’ - nineteenth century, inevitably, so grave; seen to be disapproving, stern and perhaps lacking in feeling outside her moral quest. The woman who can be depended on to remember the titles of obscure books or records, dates and the endless cycle of historical ‘cause and effect’ when required, furnishing fact-based knowledge that can be useful in arguments.

One of those women from the Colonial era, her skin becoming paler as a result of the moment of being photographed, or because of the contrast with her sober clothes, hair flattened and darkened hard against her scalp.

All this reminds me of a portrait owned previously by my grandfather, perhaps bought in Vienna, the man my father says was a ‘tyrant’ but also a great aesthete with an expansive knowledge of European high culture. I recall how my mother spoke about her girlhood as spent hiding out in hollowed out trees, where the dirt at her feet was coloured grey, and the branches all around her …

Trying to remember her, where the ants pricked at her bare feet, so white in the shadows. I’m crying now as I feel her absence.

 

On the way to Port Arthur, the bus driver tells us the story of the Commandant’s daughter, who ‘escaped’ (is that the right word to use here; she went missing; left?) one afternoon and how her nanny was punished as a consequence: three days in solitary confinement. I think about this forgotten woman punished for the wrongdoing of another.

At Port Arthur, my father, son and I try to find the cell where the servant was imprisoned, with no success. We don’t have enough time. We also try to find a stone table where – the bus driver told us – the prison doctor carried out experiments on inmates that resembled the ‘research’ carried out under the direction of Eduard Wirths at Auschwitz. The bus driver told us that there were ghosts in this space, in this place. (Later I try to fact-check either of the above stories, but find nothing online to prove or disprove them).

Our visit is a little rushed, there is so much to see. We walk up the hill to the Separate Prison, built in 1849 – that at the time of construction was seen to reflect ‘modernity’ in nineteenth century penology, in that ‘harsh physical punishment within the prison was rejected in favour of punishment of the mind. Flogging gave way to solitary confinement.’

Outside a sign asks visitors to be silent so that we can imagine how it felt to be jailed here. This sign appealed to me, as this silence I thought was also asking us white Australians to show some respect at this ‘sacred site’ in our country’s history; a prison, that although considered enlightened - a ‘Model Prison’ - drove its inmates insane.

A prison with its own innovative brand of cruelty (see the masks, silence and isolation) that might symbolise the particularly Australian penchant for torture, seeing that we as a people have inflicted official forms of torture, under the rubric of punishment and control, on the young; the weak and vulnerable; the poor, the non-citizen and non-white repeatedly since 1788.

‘This is so familiar,’ I say to my father after reading that the Separate Prison inmates were referred to by the number of their cell, never by their names. I say how asylum seekers imprisoned at Curtin, or Woomera were likewise never named. Camp guards there used numbers that included a reference to their ship of arrival when speaking of the immigration detainees, or the ‘residents’ as they were sometimes called.

‘This is worse,’ my father replies. ‘As here it’s the number of the cell, the building, nothing that relates to them as an individual.’

For these prisoners, kept in total silence (guards wore felt slippers and used sign language to avoid making any sound) spending 23 hours a day in their single-occupant cell, the mark of their identity referred to the prison building. Prisoners in this sense merged with the stones, the walls that imprisoned them.

At the Separate Prison, my ten-year-old son dashes about, rushing around the white-washed halls, in and out of the cells and then to the pulpit of the Chapel (my father takes a photo of him there). Prisoners were let out of their cells for one hour a day - when outside they were hooded - to exercise, or go to Chapel, where they were held in individual cubicles facing forward to hear the sermon like soon to be butchered cattle.

According to a Port Arthur Historic Site fact sheet, to revolt against the system prisoners ‘would insert their words to ‘talk’ to their fellows under the cover of hymn singing’.

‘Come here, come here,’ my son pulls at us. ‘Come here.’ He leads us to the prison’s punishment area, known as ‘the dumb cell’ that today has a small light-bulb flickering illumination, but where in the past prisoners were kept for periods of up to 30 days in total darkness and silence, locked into a pitch-black space behind four heavy doors. I imagine how it must have felt to hear the first door locked, the second, the third …

The jail exhibit mentions that the Separate Prison’s ethos continues at ‘Supermax’ prisons, such as the ‘Katingal’ unit inside Long Bay Correctional Centre in Sydney, which had surveillance cameras, electronically operated doors and no windows, but was closed in 1978 after human rights complaints. Today, Australia’s remaining ‘Supermax’ area is at Goulburn – a place named the High Risk Management Unit (HRMU), but the prisoners call HARM-U.

 

The Governor’s House is a ruin now, but if you look down from the small hill, there is a beautiful garden with a fountain. The guide at Port Arthur says how the two axes of the prison were symbolised by the Commandant’s House on one hill, on the facing side, and the Church on the other, keeping watch over the inmates. When walking down the elegant incline of the garden, my father comments how seeing this garden, so well-tended with the delicate roses, makes him think of Nazi concentration camps – civilisation and barbarity.

At Sachenhausen, Buchenwald, Dachau and Auschwitz where the officers forced inmates to play music (one site refers to the repertoire including ‘marches, camp anthems, salon music, easy-listening and dance music, popular songs, film and operetta melodies, opera excerpts, and classical music such as Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony’).

“Black milk of morning we drink you at night
we drink you at dawntime and noontime we drink you at dusktime
we drink and drink
There’s a man in this house who cultivates snakes and who writes
who writes when it’s nightfall nach Deutschland your golden hair Margareta
your ashen hair Shulamite we scoop out a grave in the sky where it’s roomy to lie
He calls jab it deep in the soil you lot there you other men sing and play
he tugs at the sword in his belt he swings it his eyes are blue
jab your spades deeper you men you other men you others play up again for the dance”

— 'Death Fugue' Paul Celan, trans. Jerome Rothenberg

Nigel, the bus driver, with his brown hair sticking low from his head like broken wires, cheeks coloured by rosacea, maintains a steady monologue the length of the journey from Hobart to Port Arthur, cracking jokes and telling stories of cannibalism to the small group of tourists (my father, my son and I; two other Australians and five Chinese people, three of whom sleep the entire journey). My father says: ‘Bus drivers on tours always have this kind of patter’.

Imagine the situation, Nigel says, you steal something out of desperation, out of poverty, remember this is the time of the Famine (this convict in his telling is Irish) you come to Hobart you work, but you’re depressed, there’s nothing to do, missing your wife and children so you drink, you commit another crime and are sent to Port Arthur. Imagine this life, he says, the sadness of it.

And yet, another guide at Port Arthur – a man with a very loud, forceful voice he seems to be speaking against the elements, against the wind - cautions us against thinking that the Port Arthur convicts were ‘misunderstood victims’. He says: they were, in fact, ‘bad, bad men’ ... ‘the worst of the worst’ for whom being lashed was a mark of honour (he provides detail abut how a flogging cut through the skin to the bone). He urges us to remember that Port Arthur offered a way out to these men from the ‘mean streets’ of London, from the North of England.

As at Port Arthur if you wanted to improve your circumstances you could. You could learn a trade, and many did. There was a library, he gestures to the upper walls of the ruined Penitentiary building, with hundreds of books: not just religious books, all kinds of books. This chance to redeem yourself, the guide says, was even more marked for the boys sent here. Those boys sent to Point Puer, who were kept separate from the male inmates - ‘for obvious reasons’ - and kept there on the island, he gestures across the expanse of water. I feel cold in my inappropriate clothing. Those boys, the guide at Port Arthur says, were offered a new start in this country, impossible to imagine if they stayed in England. (According to the Port Arthur Historic Site website, three thousand boys were sent to the prison at Point Puer between 1834 and 1849 – the youngest inmate was nine years-old).

On the way to Port Arthur, before launching into a never-ending, gory tale of convict Alexander Pearce’s multiple escapes from Sarah Island, out there on Tasmania’s wild, wild West Coast, who at one point of the narrative was watched by Aborigines amazed to see this white man eating the corpses of ‘his mates’ (especially remembering how for them food was everywhere in the bush) Nigel refers to the Four Corners documentary on Don Dale I watched the night before, linking this modern-day atrocity with how children were treated at Port Arthur.

A few days later in Melbourne, on our way to our first decent coffee of the morning at a local café, I carry a newspaper that has a photo of Dylan Voller, his face covered in a ‘spit-mask’ shackled by his ankles and wrists to a ‘mechanical restraint’ (a metal chair where the 17 year-old will be immobilised for around two hours after reports that he threatened to self-harm, while being held at a prison in Darwin that had previously held adult prisoners).

On seeing Voller’s photo, his face hooded, his body shackled, my son, bouncing down the South Yarra street, after noting the expensive imported cars (‘Look Mum a Lamborghini, another Mercedes …’) calls out: ‘Port Arthur, Port Arthur!’

 

‘How’s that, that bit alright?’

‘There ya go. Yep no, worries. Alright you keep chilling out yeah?’

Dylan Voller replies: ‘Yeah’

‘We’ll come back and revisit this, yeah? We don’t wanna keep you in here.’

(Guards instructing)

‘Alright. You’re doing well.

 

I watched the August 2014 CCTV footage from Don Dale Youth Detention Centre of a 14 year-old boy (Jake Roper) trying to open the door to his isolation cell in the Behavioural Management Unit with a broken light-bulb and then screaming out in his distress after being locked up for 15 days on my phone at the Best Western hotel in Hobart.

The door to the boy’s cell that had no running water, no natural light, no fan or air conditioning, we are told, was left open by mistake that afternoon. The boy enters the main area, outside the other cells where another five children (aged 14-17) are also being kept.

He calls out: ‘I’ve been in the back cells for how long bruz?!’

The guard replies: ‘Have you had time out or not?’

‘Yeah, but I’ve been fuckin’ stuck in here for how long?!’

Four guards behind the reinforced door watch the child lose control, bashing against the walls and breaking windows; as do the other five children, some of whom are seen literally trying to climb up the walls, or repeatedly scratching their names onto the concrete walls. Two boys are locked in one of the cells, unable to walk around because of the lack of space.

‘That door’s not going to hold,’ one guard says.

‘He’s supposed to be getting out next week,’ says another.

Some can be heard laughing, during the 36 minute recording, others add: ‘Fuckin’ idiot’ and ‘He’s an idiot, bro.’ More laughter.

‘If he tries to get in, poke him back through,’ says one. You can hear the child banging against the walls, smashing windows. ‘Go grab the fuckin’ gas and fuckin’ gas them through fuckin’ get Jimmy to gas them through here.’

The distressed child is tear-gassed, as are the other children for eight minutes. ‘I can’t fuckin’ breathe,’ the child says.

‘That’ll learn you,’ says a guard in response.

One guard adds: ‘Now he’s shitting himself.’

At one point a guard says: ‘Let the fucker come through because while he’s comin’ through he’ll be off balance, I’ll pulverise, I’ll pulverise the little fucker. Oh shit, were recording hey.’ The six boys dressed only in shorts, are then taken outside by guards in protective masks where they are handcuffed and shoved face down in the dirt to be washed down by a firehose. Don’t put it in my face, one of the children says, I can’t breathe.

Adapted from Australia's Shame by Caro Meldrum-Hanna, Four Corners ABC, broadcast 25 July 2016

 

One of the first things I did after returning home was to go to the Melbourne Museum’s Indigenous Bunjilaka exhibition with a friend and my son who ran around, between the displays while telling us that people in the photographs weren’t ‘Aborigines’ (because they were too pale-skinned) to then receive a quiet lesson from me on Australia’s history. My friend was impressed when my little boy knew the word ‘segregation’ when talking about racism and my work in the United States, I felt proud as well, of course.

Before we entered the exhibit my friend gave my son a tiny Aboriginal Land Rights flag badge that he could wear on his jacket. My son replied that he was worried if he wore it, it might damage his clothes.

‘Ah, the Black Prince,’ my friend said when I mentioned the name of Brian Martin the first Commissioner appointed to Royal Commission into the Detention of Children in the Northern Territory that was announced within the 24 hours of the Four Corners report’s broadcast (Martin later resigned over perceived ‘conflicts of interest’ to be replaced by Mick Gooda, former Australian Human Rights Commission Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner and Margaret White, a former Supreme Court of Queensland justice).

My friend mentioned Martin’s judgement in a 2009 case in Alice Springs, where five white Australian men – the so-called ‘Ute 5’ - were convicted of ‘manslaughter by negligence’ for a case where the men drove their utility vehicle into a camp of Aboriginal people at Todd River, shouting out racist epithets (calling the campers ‘niggers’ and ‘black bastards’ according to two witnesses) and brutally kicked one man, Kwementyaye Ryder, causing his death.

During his sentencing, Martin repeatedly referred to the fact that the young men, aged between 18-23 were all of ‘good character’. The fact that they had gone at one point to get a replica of a Colt 45, which they shot into the air, causing the campers to scatter meant very little (and there was ‘no sinister purpose’ behind them returning with the pistol, he said: ‘You only wanted to have fun by firing it and making a loud noise as you drove around.' In general, Martin claimed, the men were simply ‘hooning’ as their counsel claimed, or ‘lairising’).

‘Of otherwise good character,’ my friend repeated.

For my friend who has spent the past two decades working closely with the families of people who have died in prisons and police custody, the announcement of the Royal Commission meant very little. At no point had the government done the most basic thing needed, my friend said, there was no call for the end of solitary confinement for juvenile detainees.

No statement as to how the children would have any redress, as a result of the inquiry. No mention of the racist assumptions underpinning the shocking rates of incarceration among Australia's Indigenous communities; no talk of how the investigation might cover other jurisdictions with similar problems.

Earlier, my friend searched out a photo of Dylan Voller on his phone – the child whose abuse from the age of 13 within the prisons of the Northern Territory was displayed to the world on the Four Corners program, his mother says that her son had been in and out of the system from the age of 10, or 11  – smiling with his sister. ‘See, this is a nice photo of Dylan, see this photo, this one here.’

 

At the Cascades Female Factory Historic Site, the few ruins of the convict prison and later asylum where women were interned in Hobart – we go there together, my son and I by bus in the cold weather, along the streets with no trees – I see that there is a display in a glass case. I look closer and see that the convict has the same name as my late mother. I look closer:

Byrne Ann

Tried: Kildare 20 March 1849

Embarked: 7 years

Arrived: 29 September 1849

Roman Catholic neither read nor write

 

Transported for: felony gold watch & chain. Gaol Report: convicted before, quiet, single. Stated this offence: stealing a gold watch & chain from Mr Wilson at Kildare (previous conviction) discharged for linen. Single.

Surgeon’s Report: Bad.

Ann Byrne was aged 23, five foot 3 inches and a third, with a fresh freckled complexion, with a round head and dark hair; a high forehead, dark eyebrows, light hazel eyes, small mouth and a large chin, according to the official report.

Weeks later I’m trying to find notes, or photographs on my phone that I took that day to describe her, unsure if I have confused ‘Ann Byrne’ with other women sent to the Factory, who were branded ‘insolent’ and punished for this; women who were separated into three distinct ‘classes’ and punished if they spoke with members of another class. Women who gave birth at the Factory, women who grew old within its walls and the women who died there.

Detroit Project

Not so long ago the UK newspaper, The Guardian published a story about an American artist ‘bringing a Detroit family home’ (to the Netherlands). Unsurprisingly the sarcastic Brits commenting BTL enjoyed the ambiguous headline. What, they asked, the artist had adopted an entire Detroit family and took them home, as if they were pets for Christmas? 

No, the artist and newspaper subs were forced to reply (and later change the headline): the artist had moved a ‘family home’ from Detroit which was then rebuilt in Rotterdam. 

When thinking about this so-called ‘Detroit project’ I thought about this artwork and how deep the association between Detroit, decay, dispossession (what some call 'ruin porn') is now among outsiders and how all other aspects of the living city - and the people who live there - are overlooked in the process. 

If I'm honest, when I think of Detroit I have zero visions in my mind. And yet the city intrigues me, mainly because such intractable (musical) genius has emerged there, despite or maybe because of what one of the interviewees here described as ‘the struggle’. This idea sustains me.  

If I think about the music that matters to me personally - Alice ColtraneStevie Wonder (circa 1972-1980) ...

and when I was younger, Patti Smith, The Stooges - everything of real importance musically from the US somehow seems to come from Detroit. Interestingly, this then continued with hip-hop, in that the track that brought me back to the genre was Black Milk's 'Everyday Was' from his landmark 2014 record If there's a hell below ...

When I first heard that piece of music, it was as if air divided in my chest.  

First up/featured is the gifted MC Nametag Alexander who burst into my consciousness with one of my preferred hip-hop tracks of the past few years, 'Hookless' (feat Mahd, prod. by Nameless).

Then there's an interview with Detroit record label boss, Jay 'Pauly' Lovejoy from BenOfficial Music; a composite interview - a Detroit mix - between Nappz Julian, Maj James and NateOGDetroit and to finish a very cool conversation with Loe Louis from Detroit's Laswunzout - one of the seminal, pioneering hip-hop acts from the city that soldered the so-called Detroit sound.* 

Hope you like it. 

*Been around enough hip-hop journalism/culture to note the competitive edge - it should be noted that none of this is a 'hot picks'/a top-5 (flashing lights, flashing lights) or anything else: my mind doesn't work that way, some of this is friend-related, some of it is related to chance. 

Changa Onyango Interview, Community Mediation Baltimore after first acquittal in Freddie Gray police officer trial

‘Apathy is the word I'd use,’ Mr Changa Onyango replied via email when asked how people in West Baltimore responded to the decision that saw Officer Edward Nero cleared of all charges. ‘The people don’t hold out hope for justice in any tangible ways any more. Mainly they were happy to see that the world give them a nod for 15 seconds.’

Twenty-five year old West Baltimore native Freddie Gray died on April 19th after suffering a ‘high-energy injury’ an autopsy report said came from the sudden deceleration of the police van in which he was travelling, shackled and handcuffed, but not restrained by a seat-belt. As a result of his injuries – a severed spine and crushed voice box - Mr Gray fell into a coma and died a week after his arrest.

Baltimore’s former Police Commissioner Anthony Batts said the officers stopped three times: first, to put Mr Gray in leg-irons, second to ‘deal with Mr Gray’ and then to put another prisoner in the van. He also acknowledged that: ‘We know our police employees failed to get him medical attention in a timely manner multiple times.’ After a medical examiner’s report ruled Mr Gray’s death a ‘homicide’ six police officers were indicted on charges ranging from reckless endangerment, manslaughter to 2nd degree depraved-heart murder.

Last December a jury failed to reach a verdict regarding one police officer. During the most recent May hearing, Officer Nero was cleared of all charges (two counts of second degree assault; misconduct in office and false imprisonment). Legal commentators claim that the reasons for the acquittal provided by Judge Barry Williams might indicate a higher chance of a conviction in the remaining cases, especially in that he argued Officer Nero’s role was ‘secondary’ so he was not responsible for the fact that Mr Gray was not restrained properly.

The case of the officer driving the van, Caesar Goodson, begins next. He faces 30 years in jail if convicted of a murder charge. Considering the evidence that show Mr Gray’s injuries were caused by the van’s sudden stop and a proven history of ‘rough rides’ in police vans in Baltimore, many believe that the case against Goodson is strong.

And yet, as Mr Onyango explained this raises difficult issues for the local community. ‘A lot of people see it as a color issue or race issue and one of the key defendants is black. People don't want to see at the end that their protesting etc ends up sending a black person to jail - cop or not.’ Caesar Goodson, the driver of the police van, is African-American.

During the first Freddie Gray trial, Mr Onyango organised a series of open mics across the city so people could speak and be heard. ‘A big part of the violence (following Freddie Gray’s funeral on April 27th) happened because people had no place to fellowship. Churches weren’t open,’ he said. ‘There was nowhere you could take refuge from all the negativity. Having places open their doors and posting a sign up that says..."no judgement zone...speak your piece" was a way for us to be cultural relevant in our response.’

With more than 20 years experience working in West Baltimore, Changa Onyango is the Executive Director of Community Mediation and also helped set up two other non-profits in the city: OBI and Group Harvest. He explained the importance of his work this way:

As a mediator I facilitate tough conversations when people have a hard time getting themselves heard. The main thing we do is modelling the active listening skill in the context of conversation. We know through research that the best chance for peace is when both sides feel heard and understood. We train volunteers to do the mediations and we use local spots like conference rooms or churches to have the mediations in the community. Our mediators are trained not to input information or restate peoples position.. we only reflect, listen... listen, reflect. Its the key to people feeling like they own the solution. 

OBI is a non-profit that provides training to local boys and was founded after Mr Onyango travelled ‘around the country doing the training for other groups on contract through the United Way and Youthbuild USA’. While Group Harvest ‘came as a collaboration between myself and Rodney Powell who is now an administrator in Connecticut public schools.’

As he explained: ‘We decided to create a company that would go around and teach teachers through professional development workshops and also engaged directly with students to help build climate that over time could change the culture of student teacher relationships.’

In a series of YouTube videos, Mr Onyango has offered up some interesting perspectives on the best way to motivate young people via a concept of ‘leverage’ without returning to harsh discipline, or physical punishment that can entrench a sense of disengagement. He describes how he tries to motivate his own children to strive for better, while reinforcing a spirit of collaboration, rather than a winner take all mentality.

I asked him to speak about this more:

‘My theory is there are three main ways to motivate people; the first being to influence their preference the second being to introduce a logical idea and the third being violence. If children are people then we have to use one of these three to get them to make decisions that are in line with what we think they should do. If children are not people and they are instead property, then we can just pick them up and manoeuvre them however we wish.’

He continued: ‘I don't wish to treat my children as property so I have had to retrain myself to treat them as humans regardless of their size I've had to retrain myself to respect their logical processes and to introduce to them the reasons behind my decisions and actions as well as the reasons behind what I wish for them to do. I've also have to convince myself to be okay with the fact that this will not always work. In our society external influence is pervasive. In poor families it's even more so.’

The neighborhood where Freddie Gray lived in West Baltimore faces a series of issues, Mr Onyango explained. One of the most important being the lack of good quality housing. This problem is not new. Indeed, Freddie Gray’s mother won a court settlement after laboratory tests in the 1990s found Gray and his two sisters had double the level the State of Maryland defines as the minimum of lead poisoning. The lead came from squalid walls of the home where they lived. While a 2014 Maryland Department of Environment report found that more than 2,600 children in Baltimore had dangerous levels of lead in their blood.

‘West Baltimore is a very complicated set of circumstances. There's a lot of history that still effects and informs policy at high levels as well as individual decision-making at the lowest levels. There is still plenty of bigotry and hatred between disparate groups,’ Mr Onyango said. ‘The roots if you follow them deeply enough usually go back to resources and territory or property. Everyone wants to build a legacy and in America there's really only a few ways to do it.’ And yet, ‘the problem with trying to build a legacy (...) is that you must own the means of production. In this case that means of production is usually space.’

‘Baltimore is one of the highest concentration of dissing franchise black folk in terms of real estate meaning that the ratio of people who own is extremely low,’ he explained. ‘The fact is that this was intentional and very evident, yet no effort has been made to reverse the very real and lasting effects so this is the biggest reason that the hate endures.’

In conclusion, Mr Onyango said: ‘Poor education, Black Afluenza, discriminatory hiring practices, and media stigma are all also real contributors to the current climate,’ but in the end, the ‘housing/space ownership dilemma is the biggest piece of the puzzle for Baltimore.’

To find out more about Community Mediation Baltimore, go to http://communitymediation.org/

Thank you Omi Muhammad for organizing this interview.

Marco Polo Interview

When asked to identify the key element of his aesthetic, Toronto-born New York-based hip-hop producer Marco Polo answered simply: ‘the drums.

Drums are always the centre of my beats; they’re always hard-hitting, aggressive: you feel them, cause that’s how I was brought up as a fan of producers like DJ Premier, Large Professor. It’s all about the kicks and the snares, you know. And then of course the musical elements too: it’s a vibe. To answer your question, I think what defines my beats, what people probably know, it’s my drums.’

Having worked with many of the greats since coming to New York in 2003 (Pharoahe Monch, Rakim, Masta Ace, Large Professor, Torae among others) and also new generation voices, Marco Polo has marked out a defined niche within the hip-hop genre; that builds on the past, while creating a sound that is distinctively his own.

What immediately strikes you about Marco Polo’s music is its impact; there is something complete - or totalising - about it. Whereas many hip-hop producers allow space between the elements, letting in an airiness or lightness of tone (or irony) Marco Polo’s music is about how the elements come together in a united front. There is an intensity to this music that rarely lets up.

***

In a 2015 article a Guardian journalist made the rather outlandish claim that Marco Polo was keeping the New York hip-hop sound alive - or to be more accurate, he claimed that Marco Polo 'defined' the sound of New York hip-hop. While this journalist's statement is something I'm sure Marco Polo would never agree with, it's interesting to compare his production with one of his key influences, DJ Premier (who many believe is the sound of New York hip-hop). 

For Marco Polo, DJ Premier is a key influence and inspiration: 'the king of drums ... (who) set the bar for drum programming’. But there are definite differences between the two producers. Most of the time, DJ Premier’s music is driven by a hard beat, but his arrangements appear to be sparse (appear to be are the key words here). The music is so pure so that the elements can be heard in isolation and the structure is exposed via a highlighting of each part: the drums/the MC/samples/the DJ scratching over it. When listening to this music you can recognise and appreciate the work’s inherent logic: its elegant classicism.

In contrast, Marco Polo’s production style often feels like a ‘wall of sound’ with elements working together, moving in different patterns and directions, backed up by the emphatic beat. This approach reminds me of a 70s rock aesthetic (though Marco Polo stressed that ‘at the end of the day I’ve got to bring it back to hip-hop, it can’t be too rock n’ roll’) or perhaps some of the wilder funk exponents from that era.

Marco Polo is best known perhaps for an early track featuring Masta Ace, 'Nostalgia' released on his first Port Authority record in 2007 (Soulspazm/Rawkus Records) -

a gentle paean to greats from the past, with a soft pitter-patter of a beat that stops and starts up again, following the rhyme of the MC. The fact that Marco Polo is forever associated with this track is a little surprising as since then he has marked out much darker territory, not only in his two producer-led efforts but also his work for MCs. Indeed, his oft-repeated statements regarding his ambitions, or what the sound of true hip-hop is for him, usually include the words dark, soulful and grimy.

In 2007, Marco Polo's Port Authority album offered an exhaustive roll-call of well-known names (the aforementioned Masta Ace; O.C.; Large Professor; Oddisee; Kool G Rap; Supastition; Sadat X ...) 

The overall impression gleaned from the record was its statement of supreme confidence from the then 28 year-old (Marco Polo was born in Canada in 1979) who had only turned up in the City a few years previous and a showing of his virtuosic skill. Six years later, in 2013 Marco Polo returned to this terrain with a follow-up record called Port Authority 2that included a similarly daunting number of MCs - 40 from across the United States. An obvious question to ask was why he kept returning to this imagined location, Port Authority, what kept bringing him back there.

Marco Polo: The Port Authority bus terminal is a hub in New York City, pretty much in Times Square if you were to take a Greyhound bus anywhere from Canada or outside New York it’d end up at the Port Authority. And when I first moved to New York I took the bus from Toronto and that’s where I ended up so that was my first impression of the city when I walked out onto the bus station. Now it’s much better, but before it used to be super grimy around there, with a lot of homeless people and hustlers; it was a pretty ‘lively’ couple of blocks surrounding that station, so it was a fitting introduction to New York.

It’s cleaned up around it (now), but any place where you have tourists and foreigners showing up, you’re going to have the scum of the earth waiting for you to do bad things, like hustle you for a couple of bucks, or sell you weed. I’m sure it’s the same in any city, when you go to the bus terminal you got to keep an eye out for shady characters, you know (laughs).

Port Authority 2 similarly featured an impressive group of MCs - Talib Kweli; Masta Ace; Rah Digga among many others and included a reunion of Pharaohe Monch's earlier group, Organized Konfusion and a track dedicated to a late member of Gang Starr, 'G.U.R.U' that featured Kweli and Dj Premier, while featuring a raft of DJs scratching over the beats (DJ Revolution, Shylow, DJ Linx, DJ Romes and DJ Premier himself). 

I asked him about 'mood' when putting these two albums together and how important it was to think about the records in their entirety.

Marco Polo: Very important, I grew up with albums that had a theme to them, with leads and segues. You want to make something that flows. The great albums of my time all had that, like De La Soul and Prince Paul. Prince Paul is credited as the one who invented the interlude. It was cool, something different it’s not just music with spaces between, it puts you in a zone. It’s like listening to a story. Even Pete Rock on his Soul Survivor record he had all these amazing beats that would fade in, like ten seconds and fade out between songs. They were like crazy beats and you’d be like, ‘Man I want to hear someone rapping on that, I want to hear it longer.’ And it’d be gone.

It’s really important. Listen to Doctor Dre, his work literally sounds like movies; he’s got the intros and voice-overs. I was really lucky to have Michael Rapaport who is a great actor and a huge hip-hop fan to narrate them. It was amazing, it makes it cool, when you listen to something top to bottom, it puts you in the zone.

MB: Listening to that record I noticed there was a lot of scratching on it, it was a really important element of that record. Would you say it was a key, unifying driver in Port Authority 2?

Marco Polo: Absolutely, it’s part of hip-hop; one of the key elements of hip-hop. I’m a fan of scratching, or scratch hooks on songs. I’m a big fan and I’m blessed because I’ve got some of the world’s best DJs at my disposal: Revolution and Shylow. Shylow does pretty much 90 per cent of my cut hooks and he’s a master of it. It’s really important to incorporate this in the music. Sometimes you get the rapper to come up with a vocal hook and sometimes you get the DJ to do scratches; let’s do cuts. The song’s called this, okay find rappers who say that. It’s a whole mission to dig for acappellas. Yeah, you got to show love to the DJ.

Once again, DJ Premier and Marley Marl cause they were cats cutting up lines and stuff on records back in the day. Something about that that I’m just drawn to.

MB: I think it adds a real beautiful texture to the record because of the way it adds to the track construction; I mean the scratching comes in at different moments for emphasis. When do you use scratching in a song?

Marco Polo: (pauses)

MB: Is it like a sample that you place in a song to provide emphasis, or drama?

Marco Polo: Yeah, you can use it however you want to use it. Most of the time, we’re using scratches to make the chorus of a song, the hook. But sometimes, there are really no rules: it could be a bridge, or part of a verse when the rapper wants you to scratch to connect to a line he’s saying. We just try to be creative with it, cause literally at this point everybody has done everything.

You record it over the beat just like a sample, that’s essentially what it is – a sample of a rapper’s voice or something whatever he decides to scratch.  

Since then Marco Polo has produced for a number of important acts - including Pharaohe Monch, providing the music for three of his tracks on the 2014 release PTSD. What follows is a record of our phone discussion that covers Marco Polo's ongoing respect for Masta Ace; his collaboration with A-F-R-O (his next release) a focus on how he makes his beats; his current love for 70s prog-rock and how proud he is of his production work on Monch's classic album, PTSD.  

 

This week Marco Polo is leaving for a six-country European tour with his long-standing friend and collaborator Masta Ace who is promoting his sixth solo album The Falling Season, supported by MC Stricklin (one of the members of the group, eMC with Masta Ace himself).

Back in 2003 when Marco Polo was working as an engineering intern at The Cutting Room recording studio in Manhattan – doing what he has described as ‘grunt work-fetching coffee, cleaning up, answering phones- (before landing) a gig as an Assistant Engineer/Manager’ - a chance meeting with Masta Ace jumpstarted Marco Polo’s career as a producer.

Marco Polo: He came through for a session with The Beatnuts and I gave him a beats CD and he picked two beats, one that became a song called ‘Do it Man’ - a song on his album called A Long Hot Summer (2004). At the time he wasn’t able to compensate me so what we worked out was that we would do a trade, in trade he recorded the song for me that people know as ‘Nostalgia’ - which 100% the song people know me for in the underground, close to five million views and on my first producer album Port Authority (Soulspazm/Rawkus Records).

Since then we’ve definitely worked on some stuff, a few songs here and there he was on my Port Authority 2 – I worked on the eMC album, but more importantly he asked me to come on the road with him when he travelled and DJ for him. And after this tour we’re going to work on an album together – a Masta Ace/Marco Polo album, which I’m very excited about.

MB: My friends who are into hip-hop have a huge amount of affection and respect for Masta Ace’s work over the years, how would you describe the value and importance of what he does?

Marco Polo: With Masta Ace, one of the things that make people all over the world – not just the US market – gravitate towards him is his ability to lay down a lot of emotion and amazing story telling in a simple way when he rhymes. He’s not beating you in the head with complex rhyme patterns, you know like in an Eminem style, but at the same time he’s Eminem’s biggest influence. Masta Ace has this way of talking to you in a personal way that is very simple, so people are able to feel it, you know.

And also in terms of his beats selection: Masta Ace has got a very good, picky ear when it comes to beats. He’s just amazing at making albums and connecting it all. This is what has kept him relevant after all these years, as opposed to a lot of guys from his era who have disappeared or not been able to be that consistent: Masta Ace is that dude. Twenty years – thirty years – and he’s still making music that people want to listen to and that’s very difficult to achieve.

KIC Beats was unable to do the tour; it is to promote Masta Ace’s album, The Falling Season (and will also feature) Stricklin, another dope MC. We’ve done this show many times all over the world, so it’s going to be like a reunion for us, rocking together again.

Following the European tour, Marco Polo will release an album he produced for the teen wonder A-F-R-O …. ‘Yeah, me and A-F-R-O have an ep, it’s about seven songs, maybe eight songs, it’s called A-F-R-O Polo - it’s done, we’re just mixing and mastering it now. I hope in the next few months it would be put out for people to hear.’

 

MB: Can you talk a little about the project; what was it that interested you in working with A-F-R-O?

Marco Polo: I didn’t even know that A-F-R-O existed, the only reason I knew of him was RA the Rugged Man, I work with him and he brought A-F-R-O to my studio and told me about him and said, ‘Yo he’s dope. You’ve got to check him out.’ RA the Rugged Man discovered A-F-R-O through a contest he had for MCs and A-F-R-O won, RA the Rugged Man flew A-F-R-O to New York and basically brought him round to a bunch of producers that he wanted A-F-R-O to work with and I was one of them.

Luckily he ended up in my studio and we just had good chemistry and we recorded more than just a couple of songs. We had a great time. I love his energy. He’s an incredible rapper. But what I love about him is he’s so young and he’s so culturally respectful to the roots of hip-hop. It’s different for a kid at 19 to be on that vibe these days because things evolve. He speaks to a lot of people who remember the golden era. We had a great time and yeah, the ep came out really nice. I’m excited for people to hear it.

MB: Is there anything particularly different in terms of what you’ve done with this ep?

Marco Polo : Production-wise I don’t think it’s anything super different; it’s definitely a little bit more raw. You know there’s a lot of break-beats, a couple of songs we made in the studio, I made the beat and he’d just rhyme. I would pick drums that he liked and then I’d make a beat. There were some beats I had already made; it was just kind of like having fun until it all made sense. It’s not like I’m experimenting, you can still expect the typical hard-hitting Marco Polo production, with A-F-R-O on it.

 

Let’s focus now on what Marco Polo is talking about when he speaks of his ‘hard-hitting'production style. On YouTube there are a number of videos where Marco Polo talks through his production techniques. In one he breaks down his work on Pharoahe Monch’s track. ‘The Jungle’ from the 2014 album, PTSD.

Starting with a ‘bunch of sounds’ (acoustic guitar, choir, clavinet and bass …) Marco Polo says how each - when played in isolation - is ‘so cheesy’ (perhaps the worst of them sounding as if it came from a pretty awful guitar-solo, he likens it to ‘some Bon Jovi-ass sounding guitar’) but when layered ends up creating a very distinctive mood: simple and threatening. Marco Polo adds how quantising the beat can be ‘your enemy’ in that it can make the music sound ‘stiff’ and that he always tries to make the bass notes come in late to provide a funky, natural feel. Then he refers to what he calls ‘the stabs’ - the repetition of certain notes in a track, which are, in fact, the defining element of his aesthetic.

In the video, he also adds how he loves the ‘movement of breaks’ - I found this comment interesting, so I asked him to explain this more.

Marco Polo: Basically, you know (pauses) one of the biggest challenges … Okay so let’s simplify this for readers who aren’t producers. A break-beat is essentially a part of a song a drummer played, a human being playing an instrument, so it’s going to have human elements to it in the timing so it’s not going to be perfect. It’s not going to be like a computer with a metronome, it’s going to have a feel to it because it’s a human playing it, so it’s going to be a bit more funky, it’s going to be late, or early or off. All of this things essentially give it a natural, human groove because it’s a human playing it.

So when producers think about break beats you’re essentially breaking up a human made rhythm for two or four bars so it gives you a really natural feel, as opposed to when you chop up sounds and program them on a computer because then you’re in the hands of a piece of machine to make your rhythm and depending on how good you are as a programmer it can be really stiff and not sound natural. What separates the good producers from the great is the ability to take these machines and computers and make these beats that feel human, right.

That’s the challenge, so if you eliminate the part when you program the drums yourself and you just loop the break-beat, you’re ahead the game rhythm wise by having something that just feels more natural. 

In the end, it’s important to use breaks because it makes my beats, or anyone’s beats sound more natural and less stiff and robotic. But when you use them you’re repeating a human rhythm in one, two, three, four bar loops you know capturing the human inconsistency of a human playing drums, as opposed to chopping up individual kicks and snares and relying on technology to make it sound natural. There’s lots of producers who can take individually edited kicks and snares and make it sound natural when they’re using MPCs or machines and some are not so good, so the way around it is looping a breakbeat that is part of a record where it’s just the drums playing.

MB: This idea of the movement is it to make it sound more fluid?

Marco Polo: Yeah, it’s basically to make it sound more funky, more natural.

MB: I think you’ve talked about the importance of creating a live band sound, now this is something I’ve come across repeatedly where producers talk about this being one of their key goals – almost to reproduce how it sounds to, you know, hear a jazz band or a funk group from the 70s, say – why is that so important? It seems a bit contradictory. 

Marco Polo: For me, it’s not really about trying to create the sound of a band, it’s to put a bunch of sounds together that make sense, you know; that feels natural, that feels like it was meant to be. It’s like adding different moods and textures. It’s challenging cause if you’re a sample-based producer like me where you’re taking all these different sources from vinyl, or it could be MP3s, or whatever. You’re taking parts of music that were recorded in different studios, different time eras, with different equipment, so how do you make all this make sense so it doesn’t sound like a fucking mess. That’s the art of sample-based production it’s finding a way to take all these different textures and sounds to make them gel together, to make a new composition and a new idea. For me that’s one of the most challenging and yet rewarding and fun things about making beats. I think a lot of people like that about me they see me taking so many different sources from songs in different keys, different tunings and you have to make it all work. I love it, that’s like my favourite part.

MB: I noticed that in one of your videos, from ‘Making the Beat’ video series (on his production work for Torae’s ‘Double Barrel’ in 2009) you said choosing six samples from six completely different records is the challenge, the essence of what you do, is that right, is that what you’re saying now?

Marco Polo: Yeah, something like that. I don’t always do that. Sometimes if I’m making a beat and I’m like it would be cool to have a horn sound, I’ll go through my jazz records and find something and see if it will work. It’s tricky, cause you’re finding songs that are completely not the same tempo, or different keys, so yeah essentially putting in that extra work to find those types of sounds it’s like the icing on the cake for a beat to be complete for me, the little details.

MB: Your talking about these sounds, there’s obviously differences in sound quality in terms of the recordings as well, are you using lots of technology to try and equalise them. What kinds of post-production work do you do to make them at the same level?

Marco Polo: You know I have a couple of programs that I use on my laptop where I will do some processing, whether it’s making them louder, or eq-ing them or adding some reverb, so I will do some of that. I’m a big fan of delays and time stretching specifically is probably the most important one cause if you’ve got a horn sample that’s a 120 BPM and my beat is 90 then you know I have programs or I use the MPC to time stretch the horn to match the tempos. There’s definitely a lot of things I do to make things work; just I don’t think about things, it’s first nature to do it. Absolutely, when you’re working with different sources I have to put in work to make it make sense.

MB: It’s this constant challenge and balance, isn’t it, between using technology and using material that’s already been ‘found’ then trying to make it sound natural, it’s interesting.

Marco Polo: Yeah, talking like that it sounds like a lot of work, I guess it is. For me it’s just like what I do. It’s first nature, you know.

MB: Returning to your beats now, I think you were saying how you like to layer a beat, so you’ve got the kick and the snare, and then you’ve got a hi-hat from another record, a splash of percussion from another record, is that a fair representation of how you construct a beat, layering it from different sources?

Marco Polo: Yeah, it’s always going to be like that. I mean there’s no set way I have to make a beat. I usually start with drum sounds, but lately I’ve been challenging myself to start with the sample first just cause I like to throw curve-balls into my routine so I’m not always doing the same thing. Yeah, essentially it’s very rare to get the drum sample and the musical sample from the same record, it’s definitely possible if you have a sample with parts that will open up, but it’s rare.

So for the most part I’m taking kicks and snares and all these pieces are coming from different records, so that’s essentially what’s happening.

MB Is that something a bit distinctive in terms of what you’re doing?

Marco Polo: No, everybody does that. I might do a little bit more, or be drawn to certain sounds a bit more. You know all producers, what they do over a certain time is that they start accumulating a library of sounds they like to use again and again in their beats you know. Certain producers will have drums that they’ll use a lot so that when you hear a beat, you’ll go, that’s a 9th Wonder beat, that’s a DJ Premier beat. You’ll kind of know, it’s similar, you know cause you’ve heard it before that’s you essentially making your own signature sound. Over the years I definitely have signature drums and other sounds that I use. I try not to use them all the time, but I go to them because a) I know they work and it’s part of who I am as a sound.

MB: One thing you’ve been talking about recently is creating your own samples - using live musicians, recording them and sampling them – is this something you’re going to be doing more and more of, can you talk more about this?

Marco Polo: Yeah, sure. I have somebody I’m working with, a musician who is amazing. He plays guitar and all types of stuff and once in a while we’ll get together and we’ll just compose music – not beats, music, essentially things I would sample. It’s a real learning process. I’ve done a bunch of stuff with him. I have music that we’ve made. I’ve recorded some guitarists from Italy, guys who play jazz guitar and they’ll come to the studio and play tons of guitar – at no tempo - and I’ll record it and I’ll stash all these sounds. If I have a day where I have to make a beat where I can’t be using any copyrighted materials, it has to be original then I have all these sources to use that won’t be a problem, so I’m definitely doing that.

But it’s not my main focus. At the end of the day I’m not stressed about samples, I just try to make something that I love and worry about everything else later. But I am incorporating live musicianship and making more beats myself where I’m composing everything myself using programs and playing chords, trying to make stuff sound like samples. It changes. One day I’ll be in that mood, the next I’ll be like I want to hear something off vinyl. It all depends on how I feel when I wake up.

MB: Is all this also being motivated by sound quality, are you able to control the sound quality better if you record it yourself?

Marco Polo: I can definitely control it, but the thing is … The problem with technology is as much as they try to make things sound vintage, it’s never really going to be perfect. The reason why things sound so good on vinyl from the 60s and 70s is cause they’re using classic recording studios, with old gear that just had a warm vibe to it. It’s almost impossible to duplicate it. They’re trying to make stuff to emulate these old consoles, plug-ins and compressors. They come close, but it’s really difficult to make stuff that sounds like from that era. People can do it very well, but the average person cannot. So for me I definitely do my research to work out what people do to make instruments sound dirty, vintage and warm and have all those things you’d get off a record. I’m getting pretty good it at but it’s definitely every day I’m learning new tricks.

 

Many, if not most of the most important hip-hop producers have a certain thing for music from the 70s. One critic has claimed that it could be that many of those producing music in the 90s and since, for example, were young children growing up listening to their parents playing music from that era, so such music has a sentimental alongside musical import for them. While producers themselves often cite the sound quality from 70s era recordings as a reason for the fascination; noting how the recordings have a warmth lacking in more recent releases. 

During the interview there was a funny moment where I confidently asked Marco Polo about the link between his instrumental version of 'Astonishing' (here's the record version) released on his Port Authority 2 in 2013 and featured Large Professor, Inspectah Dec, OC and Tragedy Khadafi - and Ghostface Killah's 'Nutmeg' (relased on his 2000 album, Supreme Clientele) following a fan comment, linking the two. It turned out there was no, zero, conscious connection, even though Marco Polo kindly said that perhaps it sounds like the kind of beat Ghostface might have graced, might have favoured if it had been at his disposal, or offered to him. 

Apart from the linked high-pitched 'pow' sound on both, there is a connection and this is to a 70s cinematic/Blaxploitation soundtrack feel found on both records; often I think that Marco Polo's beats could have been on some kind of histrionic Italian horror flick from the 1970s, where the lead actors freeze in horror, repeatedly (or walk around sets in long flowing white dresses, not saying very much). It's a mood thing, a taste preference that distinguishes his work. Other than that there are certain techniques that link his production ethos with the era and this includes what he refers to as 'the stabs'. 

MB: From first listen, and especially when listening to the instrumental versions, take for example ‘Astonishing’ - what really struck was what I felt to be an influence of 1970s rock and electronic music from that era. While when you were talking about ‘The Jungle’ you talked about the importance of ‘stabs’ - repeated notes – and for me this connects your music with 70s rock, The Who (for example the track ‘Who are you’) …

Marco Polo: Yeah, definitely.

MB: If I were to say what makes your work distinctive, I’d say it’s this influence. What do you think about that comment?

Marco Polo: (pauses) It’s 100 per cent right. I have so many beats (laughs) I tell my boy Shylow, I need to retire the stabs. I’m just drawn to it, the repetitive notes, the same note over and over. It just has this vibe to it, I’m just drawn to it. I love it. It’s aggressive; it’s grimy. It’s hip-hop, you know.

One of the biggest, most commercial successes for hip-hop is something like Dr Dre's ‘Still Dre’ that incorporates the piano stabs. It’s like a rhythm – a hard, simple rhythm. It’s very easy for me to make beats like this and when I hear the samples, I’m very drawn to them. It’s a very accurate statement. I’m actually making efforts to move away from that because I’ve done it so much, yeah. But in a heartbeat I can go back and make a beat with stab sounds, I love it (laughs).

I mean ‘the stab’ - I don’t even know if it’s a real term; I just call it the stab cause that is what it means to me – but you can find it in all genres. You can find it in RnB music, in rock, in soul. But I am influenced by early music, I grew up in a household where my dad was playing 70s rock all the time. I’m influenced by everything really. I just love music, so.

MB: You’ve talked about Cream being played in your house when you were growing up …

Marco Polo: Absolutely - Disraeli Gears

MB: Cream and Miles Davis; it’s a funny combination …

Marco Polo: That’s my Dad, and it’s a blessing he was so open-minded. Even him playing those different things when I was growing up, I didn’t understand it then but it was so cool. (His Dad is also credited with introducing him to the first hip-hop record that really clicked with him: A Tribe Called Quest's 'Bonita Applebum').

The moment you say you just listen to one thing, you losing out; especially as producers, you’re playing yourself. If you just listen to soul, you’re playing yourself. The other genres of music will open you up to new sounds and it will make your production way more versatile, different and you can go to different zones and feelings.

Lately I’ve been going through a progressive rock phase where I’m finding progressive rock records. This shit is crazy, I love it and it’s also going to change your sound by going in different genres.

Some people like to stay in their zone, but for me I like to change it up. I don’t want people to get bored of my beats and go, oh it’s another Marco Polo beat. I want it to be like, ‘What the hell is that?’ Cause that’s how it used to be with cats like DJ Premier, he’d use all kinds of different samples, but the way he chopped them was unique and you’d be like, ‘What the hell is that?’ It’d make you scratch your head, ‘Where did he find that? What is that?’ I want people to do the same with my beats, I want them to have no idea what’s happening, or where I got them.

MB: Are you talking about English prog rock, or?

Marco Polo: It’s not specific to a country, I’ll look up that genre and do research. It could be bands from the UK, it could be bands from Italy, from Finland, from Sweden, from Germany, from the United States. Whatever falls in that genre, and if I’m uneducated or unaware, I’ll educate myself.

God bless the Internet, cause it’s really helpful these days cause you can just go and learn. You can find a kid in Spain who loves prog rock and will list all these albums he loves. It’s like going to the library. I look these groups up, I find the music and I learn about it. And man, a lot of it’s bad. But once in a while you’ll find that gem and it’s worth it.

MB: What interests you about the music though?

Marco Polo: The weird chord progressions; the sounds, the recording, the drums the vocals. The thing about progressive rock or that symphonic stuff is it could be so many things, it could be synthesisers from the 70s to a crazy flute player on acid, just going crazy over drums and a bass-line. And it’s still got a bit of funk to it, you know. I don’t like things that sound too rock n roll for hip-hop. I’m never going to be down with that. It’s still got to have a funk and soul and interesting musicality to it. 

Widely acclaimed by the music media and fans alike, Pharoahe Monch’s PTSD is a genre-defining release, while so distinctive it could not be mistaken for the work of any other artist. Marco Polo produced three tracks on the album: ‘The Jungle’; Rapid Eye Movement’; and ‘Time2’. I asked Marco Polo to talk about these tracks and also explain how it was working with Pharaohe Monch.

Marco Polo: First of all I’m glad you brought it up because I love all three of those songs I did on that album. I’m proud of all three. Having a song that has Pharaohe and Black Thought over my beat, that was a dream come true. Two of the best emcees in the history of hip-hop trading verses, I’m just so proud of those three songs. All three of them.

Pharoahe is not what you’d call ‘a normal (guy)’ - he’s not average. He’s above average; I always joke he’s like an alien, he’s not from this planet that is how good he is at MC-ing and his thought process is not from this universe, it’s on another level and I’ve been blessed to experience it in the studio, seeing him rhyme, the stuff he writes and how he puts it together. You know it’s just a saying, he’s not from this planet, he’s that far advanced and amazing and skilled as an MC.

He is different. Like I remember when I was recording the verses to Time2 and he was doing this stuttery thing and I stopped him, I was like, ‘Yo, it’s too weird.’ I almost tried to get in the way of his genius. It was such a learning lesson cause he was like, ‘Nah, let it be what it is.’ I didn’t understand it. It was like my brain wasn’t ready for what he was doing. Now when I listen back to it, I’m like Oh my God, I tried to stop this incredible verse where he’s basically rapping like someone is having a hard time talking, or stuttering. It’s the second part of the verse on Time2. It’s crazy. He’s incredible (laughs).

And I love all three of those beats they’re so different from each other.

MB: ‘Rapid Eye Movement’ is so beautiful, it’s a phenomenal track. It does sound like a band to me, the way you’ve got this rolling drum, I think it is, which has this really 70s feel. The actual beat itself is really complex.

Marco Polo: Once again, it’s kind of like the stabs: the real repetitive sound (sings it). I’m a big fan of repetition like a lot of the best hip-hop production is something repeating over and over again. I don’t think hip-hop beats should have too much going on in them for the most part. It gets distracting. You want to create something that hypnotises you and you get in the zone and once you’ve hit that you add the finishing element.

Most of that beat is repetitive piano stabs and the drums and there’s a change that repeats and then goes back to the part with the repetitive piano. That whole record sounds dusty, it’s an interesting beat for me because there is no real melody; it’s a bunch of cool sounds and really hard drums. 

Hip Hop Forum digital magazine Interview: MC Sha Rock

Had the great honor of speaking with MC Sha-Rock, the first female emcee in hip-hop culture and original member of the Funky Four last week for Hip Hop Forum digital magazine.

In this interview she takes us back to what it was like being there at the birth of hip-hop, being part of the first ever performance by a hip-hop group on Saturday Night Live, how she developed her distinctive style - so beloved by DMC of Run DMC and her role at the new Universal Hip Hop Museum being set up in the Bronx.

Thank you so much MC Sha-Rock for everything you have done and continue to do to keep hip-hop culture alive.  And have a look at this rare video from 1980 featuring Sha-Rock, with the Funky Four ...

Nothing better; this is a glorious performance - at once innocent and wry, ironic, highly skilled (everything, almost that I love about hip-hop).

HHF: Thank you so much for talking with us at Hip Hop Forum,  MC Sha-Rock. It’s a great honor to speak with you – one of the most important pioneers in the hip-hop movement; the first female emcee in hip-hop and one of the inventors and founders of fly-girl and b-girl culture. Share with us now how it all started for you …

Sha-Rock: Well, at the whole onset of the hip-hop culture you had to start off as a b-girl as that was what was going on at the time. You had the music, the culture and the sounds of certain breakbeats that were playing so I started off as a b-girl first. Then I winded up getting a flyer for people who wanted to audition for a group; and at the time the group was not the Funky Four, but it was the Brothers Disco.  They were trying to form the Funky Four group. So I auditioned for the Brothers Disco in 1977-1978 and I became not only the first female emcee of hip-hop culture, but also the first female emcee in an all male group, so my activity started before as a b-girl and then I transitioned to an emcee as part of an all male group.

HHF: What was it like in the Bronx at that time?

Sha-Rock: The atmosphere was crazy cause you’re talking about the inception of the culture as we know it. You may hear people like DJ Kool Herc, who is the Father of Hip-Hop, you know he might say that hip-hop started in 1973, but to be honest with you if you’re talking about the people: the hardcore emcees who were rhyming to more than just one rhyme, I mean we were going for more than 16 bars, more than 18 bars (for us it started later). We’d rhyme until the next emcee who was part of your group would pick up where you left off.

For us in New York City we were creating an era, we didn’t know what we were doing. We were young kids, with little or no resources in the South Bronx where the radio wouldn’t play rap music. They really frowned on hip-hop music and the type of music we were listening to. We were breakdancing and going around to different parks and different school yards. The radio didn’t respect it at that time, so you’re talking about a culture that was building up from the b-girl and b-boy to the DJ – the way a DJ would cut a record, from Flash to Theodore to DJ Breakout and Baron …

There was so much going on at that time, with all the elements of hip-hop; it was like a phenomenon. But at the time we didn’t know what we were doing. All we knew was this is what we looked forward to on Friday and Saturday. We were able to get our street cred from just being out there in the parks and we were like celebrities in our own prospective area at that time.

So when you’re talking about 1979 when the world was then able to hear rap music, that was the era when rap music was no longer contained to the streets and the parks, it had then moved into the clubs into people’s households and bars, with the Sugarhill Gang or when we the Funky Four did the first record in 1979. We changed the game as to how hip-hop was portrayed by letting the world in and it was no longer contained in the Bronx, or Manhattan or New York.

HHF: You just mentioned DJ Kool Herc, I know you’ve talked about him before as being a really important person in terms of your development as a hip-hop artist.

Sha-Rock: Well, Herc would play the breakbeat, or DJ Breakout or Baron, or Grandmaster Flash would play the breakbeats of a song. Say James Brown had a song out they wouldn’t play the whole song, they’d just play the breakbeat and then you’d start b-boying and b-girling.

Herc played a significant role in hip-hop and also in b-boying and b-girling because he played the type of music that allowed the b-girls and the b-boys start breakdancing because you couldn’t do that in the clubs that played disco music.

Herc was the one who really allowed the b-boy and the b-girl to express themselves in a manner that respected that dance element of hip-hop culture. A lot of people don’t know who Herc is, but we do owe him much respect and much honor because he gave us that avenue, he gave us that vehicle for us to do what we loved and that was breakdancing and listening to the breakbeats.

HHF: So this audition to join the group that’d become the Funky Four was in 1977, right?

Sha-Rock: Yes, late 77, early 78. I auditioned and at the time, I don’t know if the Brothers Disco was looking for females, all I know is that I heard Melle Mel on tape. I never heard any other females who were out there, but I thought I could do just as good as the guys did because I was influenced by James Brown. I was influenced by Nikki Giovanni. I was influenced by Gladys Knight and the Pips and the Jackson Five. So once I heard (other emcees) rhyming on tape I thought I could do the same, or even better – not knowing that I was about to make history and become the first female emcee of hip-hop culture.

HHF: And you were so young, you would have been a teenager at this time …

Sha-Rock: Yeah, I was like 16 years old just coming from junior high school to high school.

**

HHF: Can you remember the first rhyme you wrote?

Sha-Rock: The first rhyme that I wrote was: ‘I’m Sha-Rock and I can’t be stopped/For all you fly-guys I will hit the top.’  That rhyme has become synonymous (with me) and was on the t-shirt, ‘I’m Sha-Rock and I can’t be stopped’ that was photographed in 1980. That was one of the first rhymes that I wrote and always used to solidify who I am, and who I was at the time.

I was like a celebrity in my own area but I was humble as this was something I loved to do like the other guys who was out there with me at the time, the Funky Four. We were a group that set the standards. Lots of people have heard of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, but the Funky Four were like the unsung heroes of hip-hop at that time.

We created a lot of different styles and contributions to the culture. We were the first rap group that was on national TV. We were from the streets; we weren’t a group that had been put together in 1979 like some other groups were. We were from the streets in New York City, together rocking in the parks and the schoolyards and the youth centers, even before we made a record.

HHF: Let’s talk then about the Funky Four and the line-up …

Sha-Rock: I was part of the original Funky Four. The original Funky Four consisted of myself, Raheim – who went over to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five later on –  K.K. Rockwell and then Keith Keith. We were the original Funky Four.

I winded up leaving the group for a month or two and then I came back to the group – I became the plus one more. During that time there was just two members they added Li’l Rodney C and Jazzy Jeff. Once I came back I became plus one more, but I was originally part of the first group.

HHF: Thinking about your music, I noticed in an interview you said that something special about the Funky Four the group’s ‘rhyming and harmonizing’. What do you mean by harmonizing?

Sha-Rock: Well, harmonizing back then was when we’d take (the tune) from a sitcom from TV, say you have ‘Gilligan’s Island’ you may have a commercial. Take a commercial or a sitcom and whatever the music was, we’d change it into a rap style and we’d harmonize, go back and forth and do chants and go back and forth in the group: not singing but harmonizing in a tune that maybe was on TV at that time.

For me, I used to rehearse my rhymes because when I said it I wanted people to be mesmerized by my voice. I wanted them to leave the party and say Sha-Rock is a dope emcee, I’m going to come back and see her again. What I would do was practise my delivery in the mirror and I would write my rhymes and say them in a way that people can understand but also relate to it, so they felt they were a part of my rhymes. They felt they were a part of me.

That was the whole idea back then to include the people who came to see you. You had to make them feel that they were a part of your life. They were part of your rhyme. They were part of hip-hop. That’s what I learned growing up as one of the pioneer emcees, it was never about me, it was never about the group, it was making sure that people who paid their two dollars or their three dollars to come see you, when they left, they said, I’m going to come back next week because I, Sha-Rock is the dopest emcee, or the Funky Four is the dopest group here in New York City.

It was about making sure the people who came to see you was included in what you were doing. It wasn’t about you. It was about them. It was about making sure they came back, because unfortunately unlike today we didn’t have the music, the songs all around us. Nowadays when you have rappers, or emcees their songs are being played on the radio, when they go on concert people know their songs; so they’re hyped, they’re dancing up and down, cause they know their songs. They have it easy now. They have the best of both worlds.

When I was starting out you had to prove yourself to your audience. You had to prove yourself to the hip-hop community because they were not playing our songs on the radio. So we were young entrepreneurs with little or no resources. How you got your street cred was being the best you could be for your audience. They were crucial. If you wasn’t making the cut, they wouldn’t come and see you. It wasn’t easy for us then, because we didn’t have that outlet of  radio playing our songs.

When they really did start playing hip-hop songs on the radio in 1979 it was only a select few that would get on the radio. They wouldn’t play two, or three rap songs at one time. As a hip-hop emcee you had to prove yourself on the street cause you didn’t have  the opportunity to get heard on the radio.

HHF: But maybe though you were also closer to the community because of this …

Sha-Rock: Absolutely, absolutely.

**

On the 14th February, 1981 The Funky Four plus one performed on Saturday Night Live – thereby making history as the first rap or hip-hop group to appear on US national television …

Sha-Rock: When we did ‘Saturday Night Live’ – Deborah Harry of the legendary group, Blondie – could have chosen any of the rap groups in New York City because she was very aware of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, but what she did was went she sought out us, simply because there was a female member in the group. She wanted the world to be able to see that – yes, you might have seen the Sugarhill Gang, but this (the Funky Four) was a group on the streets of New York City, one of the baddest groups in New York city – if not the baddest – but they also had a female. They wanted the world to see on a whole different level that this is a female that was rocking back in New York City and a pioneer.

I can commend her for this, because what she did was expose us to more than just the community or Tri-state area, she exposed us to the world. And we made history and we maybe didn’t know this until a decade later by becoming the first hip-hop group on TV,  and not just the first hip-hop group the first original hip-hop group that wasn’t only a rap group.

HHF: I watched the SNL video today, it’s a great performance. The DJ, was that the regular DJ you had for most of your performances?

Sha-Rock: Yeah, DJ Breakout.

HHF: Another Funky Four video I found is you guys doing ‘Rappin’ and Rockin’ The House’ shot at the Kitchen in 1980. That’s a beautiful performance, so sweet and controlled: perfect. Do you remember that show?

Sha-Rock: Yes, I do remember it. You see this is the thing. The Funky Four was the only group that were performing in those types of places (like the Kitchen in Manhattan). You’re talking about a whole new genre of music that we were breaking in that era. These were punk rockers, these were punk rockers who were listening to all different types of punk rocker songs and whatever. When we brought hip-hop to them, they were loving it because we were known for bringing a whole new style of music to punk rockers, they can incorporate and have fun at the same time. We was the first group to bring hip-hop to different genres of people, who would not normally listen to rap music.

We always wanted to perform for that genre of people, because they loved it. They felt it. They’d jump up and down and be mesmerized. It’s a good feeling when you know you’ve been accepted by other cultures and other genres of people who normally wouldn’t listen to this type of music. That was a good feeling we knew we were being accepted by this crowd of people, who would follow us all over the place. We’d pack out the Ritz, we’d pack out the Kitchen – all these venues in Soho,  downtown Manhattan.

In order to be good you needed to play in these venues and we’d go down there all the time, you know, go down to the Village.

HHF: Still many decades on, the music is still great. Let’s talk about ‘That’s the Joint’ which is probably your most famous track. Talk a little about the musicians who played with you.

Sha-Rock: Okay, so what we did, well this is what hip-hop is all about. Every song you hear – let’s just say ‘Rappers Delight’ by the Sugarhill Gang, that song is called ‘Good Times’ (by Chic) a song we were rapping to that song on the streets of New York prior to the Sugarhill Gang. That was the song that was part of the hip-hop community that every emcee was rocking to, what Sylvia Robinson did at Sugar Hill Records she heard the song, put the Sugarhill Gang together and put out the song and it became a hit.

Everyone who was part of Sugar Hill Records used the same band because ‘That’s the Joint’ was the hottest song out at the time – I’m talking about the original music – we took the song and made it a hip-hop song. A lot of times, a song that maybe an R&B artist did, and then a hip-hop person came along it ended up selling more records than the actual, original artist did.

Now the Sugarhill band was very good at imitating what the original artists did. They would change it a little bit, the beats to make it sound different. But the Sugarhill Band was a good band to make the music and make it sound exactly how we wanted, or a little better. The Sugarhill Band created all the music.

HHF: Talking about labels, you first released a record with Enjoy Records in 1979. As far as I understand it this was the record put out by a hip-hop group in the US ..

Sha-Rock: Yes, yes. Funky Four plus one. So we’re talking about Bobby Robinson he owned Enjoy Records, he asked around who is the hottest group in New York City? Now of course Grandmaster Flash was out, but he was told to go to the Funky Four plus one, so he approached our manager and said he wanted to do a record with us.

We used a friend of ours, by the name of Pumpkin who was a drummer (to play on the record).  The rhymes we used were rhymes we normally used on the street of New York, we used them every day. It only took us like an hour or so to do the record; simply because we already had our rhymes. Everybody in the group knew when to come after the next person.

And Pumpkin, what he did was he did the same thing on the drums and did it in one take. We didn’t have to go back and forth. Everything was done live in a little studio at the back of Bobby Robinson’s record shop; recorded in one take and boom! It was a hit. The Funky Four plus one ‘Rappin’ and rockin’ the house’ was the first longest-running rap record in the history of hip-hop.

HHF: Is there anything else you’d like to add about this time?

Sha-Rock: For me this was the golden period, the inception of hip-hop and set the standards of what hip-hop is supposed to be, or what Mc-ing and the elements. It was the blueprint of it all. For me I think and for a lot of emcees who were there you have the best of both worlds. You see how it was back then and see how it is now. I’m fortunate enough I have both; other women can’t speak on what it was like from the 70s, hooking up the equipment and carrying the crates, you know and not getting the money for what you did (cause that wasn’t an issue at that time).

It was just rocking for the love of your peers who are coming to see you.

When people say you should have made the money, look at what it is (as a business) today that doesn’t bother me because when I leave this world, the best thing that I got was the joy and the knowledge of what it was and what it should be and what I helped create as an emcee and as a pioneer and as a woman in the culture of hip-hop.

That’s my payola. I can talk about what it was and how it was and how it should be and what it’s meant to be.

HHF: In an interview you’ve talked about a ‘code of ethics’ in hip-hop culture, is that what you’re referring to now; hip-hop as a way of being, a way of living?

Sha-Rock: Yeah, I am. My thing is that a lot of times, people say the emcees of today, the rappers of today don’t respect the culture. They don’t do this and that. My thing is that we’re not here to judge the youth because unless you teach, unless you inform how do you blame them for not knowing anything? You have to give them options, you have to let them know. You have to inform. You have to educate and then you let them decide on how they’re going to move around. We as elders of hip-hop culture should never – how do I say it? – point fingers at the youth of today. Unless you out there educating and informing them as to what the culture was built on then you have something to say.

If you give them tools to work with, let them decide on how they’re going to move: until then you can’t judge them cause they know not what it was, or what it was meant to be. Not saying you have to conform to what it was, but if you have a general knowledge of what it is it makes you a better artist. Then all you have to do is adapt and incorporate to take it to  a whole another level, instead of staying in that one box. It gives you a better understanding of where you’re going and how you can have longevity.

HHF: Are you talking about knowledge of the different elements of hip-hop culture?

Sha-Rock: Yes, I’m talking about everything; I’m talking about graffiti, I’m talking about MC-ing; I’m talking about b-girls and b-boys, I’m talking about all elements. In order for you to understand what hip-hop was built on, the culture, it’s good to have an understanding of where it comes from. Even when you’re talking about breakdancing and all that stuff, all that was being done prior to hip-hop culture. What we did we just enhanced it to a whole another level. If you can expound on that and where it come from it can only make you a better artist, a better graf artist, make you a better b-girl, b-boy, emcee.

If you have the elements and the formation of everything and how it came into play. You can then have longevity in the game and adapt to what is going on now, or try to have that song or dance move or specific art-form that twenty, thirty or forty years down the line people can go back and remember your worth.

Or they can say a rhyme you did, or play a song on the radio whenever it is thirty, forty years down the line people can say:  ‘That’s my joint, that used to be my joint.’ If you are an artist, you want to make a song that will stand out many years from now, so if you can learn from other people and learn how you got to where you are: it’s a good thing to incorporate this knowledge of what it was before.

**

HHF: Now you featured in the classic movie, Beat Street from 1984 with two other female emcees (Debbie D and Lisa Lee) doing the track ‘Us Girls’ can you talk about how this came about?

Sha-Rock: At the time I was under contract at Sugarhill Records, Debbie D and Lisa Lee were not under contract, so they were holding an audition down at the Roxy, a club down at 18th street in New York so a lot of hip-hop people would go. It was really a skating-rink but they hold hip-hop functions. Harry Belafonte was holding auditions for Beat Street – so I’d gotten a flyer. Debbie D was a soloist and Lisa Lee was part of the Afrika Bambaataa camp. Me and Lisa was pretty tight, I was under contract to Sugar Hill Records but also part of the Funky Four group.

But we were going through a break-up with Sugar Hill Records, so I didn’t know if Sylvia (Robinson) would let me be part of the movie. There were many people trying to be part of the movie: one of the ladies there said us three girls are the best female emcees in New York City and we really want to be in the movie. So we got called down that Tuesday, we went to audition and Harry Belafonte said we want you to be in the movie, he said sign it here and we’ll let you know what’s going on. But I said I’m part of a record label, but the other girls are not so I might have a problem being in the movie if I have to sign, what do I need to do?

He said, who are you signed to? I gave him Sylvia Robinson’s information and said, can you call her and see whether or not she’ll allow me to do it? So I was nervous cause the rest of the girls , they weren’t under contract so I was thinking, man they’re going to get in the movie and I won’t be able to be in the movie. I guess Harry Belafonte worked it out with Sylvia Robinson, before I knew it he told me I could to it.

The agreement they made was that they would use the Furious Five and they were going to write the hook for Beat Street – so that’s how I was able to do it and that’s how the Furious Five got to do it, how Melle Mel was able to do the theme song, it was me putting Harry Belafonte putting him in touch with Sylvia Robinson.

HHF: Let’s now talk about your style, your delivery. As you know you’ve got some serious fans: say, DMC from Run DMC who has talked about the way he loved the way you used the ‘echo chamber’ on your voice and how hearing you ‘changed (his) life’.

Sha-Rock: Right, right …

HHF: While DJ Grand Wizard Theodore has celebrated you for the way were able to ‘tell a story that we can all visualise ..’ Thinking back, what were you most trying to achieve in terms of your style and content?

Sha-Rock: As I said before, and I want to give a shout-out to DMC for him to say that – as a multi-platinum selling artist and as guy … Most guys these days and back then would never give a female props, simply because you were in contest with the males and no male wanted to say a female was just as good, or better than them.

When he said that I was happy, but it’s a gift and a curse cause he’s saying I was better than a lot of males out there. For someone of his status to come out and say that was the ultimate. What he was saying was that I was the first to use the echo chamber, the echo chamber was an instrument that would repeat the word you said. If I said, ‘yes, yes y’all…’ It’d repeat what I said, ‘yes, yes y’all.’ My manager, Jazzy D would hit the echo chamber to make it precisely timed so everything would connect, sharp. So what DMC is talking about is when he heard my voice on a cassette tape, I guess he was going to school up in Manhattan, my voice used to be on tapes with the Funky Four and float around every borough of New York City.

So when it was time for him and Run to make their album, he told Davy D that he wanted to sound exactly like me using the echo chamber. I never knew this until he made a tape and wanted me to have it so I could get my props, as Sha-Rock from the Funky Four plus one to say that I inspired him when making the Tougher than Leather album to add on the echo chamber.

He’s basically talking about my delivery and my rhyme and how I used the echo chamber for my rhymes to be on point and take my rhyming skills to a whole different level.

HHF: DMC also liked the content about what you rhymed about too; he said loved the fact you rapped about everyday subjects that were relevant to young people: taking the subway, going to school, sneakers … everyday stuff, talking about your life.

Sha-Rock: Basically we talked about stuff in our era, we talked about basic teenager stuff and what was going on in your community, or your surroundings at that time. As a person,  you’d brag and you’d boast about you was an an emcee, or as a female, without being derogatory. You’d say stuff that was more like you’d like people say, hmm but it wasn’t too derogatory.

With the Funky Four we did tell stories, me I told stories about my everyday life. You’d brag on: you could do this, or do that, or I’m the best female in this town, I’m the best emcee. You’d basically be bragging on what you did, to show your audience that you were the best of the best, but still show the respect to the next person who was rhyming.

You’d be like, ‘They’re good, but I’m still the best.’ That’s what I used to rap about but at the same time being respectful to the next female, still saying, ‘I’m the best.’ People loved it back then because even though you were bragging about yourself, it was kind of true. You’d just boast about you as a person; that’s what emcees did, they’d tell a story and incorporate different aspects of their lives and put everything together.

HHF: Now just to finish, can you talk about your role as the Chairperson of Women in Hip-Hop for the Universal Hip-Hop Museum that’s being developed now. Can you talk to me about the Museum itself, I went online and saw the site (http://www.uhhm.org/): it’s going to be a virtual museum, but also have a site in the Bronx, is that right?

Sha-Rock: Yeah, it’s going to be in the Bronx, what we’re trying to do is have the Old Courthouse in the South Bronx, that is the location we’re trying to secure. It’s going to have a virtual element, people will be able to see people like Kurtis Blow talking like he is right there with them. You’re going to have material from artists back in the day and from today. The Bronx is where hip-hop started, but this museum is not just about the Bronx it’s about artists from all over the world. We want people to understand this, when the museum opens up it’s not only about the Bronx and New York City, it’s about the history of artists from everywhere.

The Bronx is the best place to have it, because it started there, but it’s the Universal Hip Hop Museum.

HHF: And what are you doing as the Chairperson of Women in Hip-Hop?

Sha-Rock: My basic duties is to preserve the history of women in hip-hop, so this is one of the things I’m very adamant about, I’m proud to be part of a project of this caliber because I think that a lot of men and women don’t understand that women have been at the forefront of hip-hop since the inception. A lot of people say women started in the 80s cause they just know Salt n Pepa, or MC Lyte or Roxanne Shanté. Those women have brought a lot to this culture and did a lot for the music industry and should be commended for leading the way and carrying on the hip-hop culture, but there have also been women at the front-line from day one.

It’s very important that when we have the history and culture of hip-hop that we preserve the history of women past, present and future. This is why I’m very adamant that we maintain all the history, from the Nicki Minajs to the Sha-Rocks; to the Roxanne  Shantés to the Iggy Azaleas, regardless of what people say these are people who still contribute with their music to hip-hop. It’s important for us to preserve the history for many years to come.

When you talk about it, and this is no disrespect to the guys, a lot of the time it’s like they were in it all by themselves moving this culture forward and that’s not true. The women were on the front-lines and they still have a role moving the culture forward. My job is to celebrate women, to celebrate all women around the world who have contributed to hip-hop culture and we will preserve their history in hip-hop; that’s what it’s all about.

HHF: I noticed in June this year there’s going to be an event in New York linked to this, ‘Women in Hip-Hop’ is that right?

Sha-Rock: Yes, I’m holding an event under the Universal Hip Hop Museum on June 3rd through to June 5th. The first night is going to be a celebration at the Alhambra Ballroom in Harlem, in New York City on Friday night.

We’re expecting women from around the world to come and support each other in hip-hop, whether you’re a b-girl, or a graf artist, or an emcee, or if hip-hop has touched your life in any way. Those three days are you for you to come to celebrate with us.

It’s not all the time we get this chance to do this, I’m very adamant that we need to be in the house together celebrating each other, as women. The first night is a celebration. The second day, June 4th is a forum, we have people like Angie Stone from the first female group from the South, the Sequence, she’s going to speak and perform. We’re going to have lots of different women who are going to come together and celebrate women. And we’re going to be looking for the new school as well, women in hip-hop today to come out and celebrate with us as well.

At the forum we’re going to have speakers come out and talk about the industry, the entertainment industry and their experiences. The third day we have a women in hip-hop picnic, where people will come out and celebrate in a park and we’ll have fun, cause that’s what hip-hop is about, having fun with no worries; no nothing and women coming together.

We will show the world that this needs to be done every year, for women in hip-hop: us getting together, making sure we celebrate each other in hip-hop. We are women from the front-line who carry hip-hop in our hearts to this day.

HHF: Total respect to you MC Sha-Rock for speaking with Hip Hop Forum today and wishing you well for all your work keeping hip-hop history and culture alive. Thank you for your time.

Sha-Rock: You’re welcome. Thank you.

To  learn more about MC Sha-Rock – including the book she wrote about her life in hip-hop, Luminary Icon – have a look at her official site http://mcsharockonline.com/

For information about the Universal Hip Hop Museum, go to http://www.uhhm.org/

In a melancholy mood: writing on hip-hop quiet (instrumentals from the 90s)

Onyx  'Last Dayz', Miilkbone 'Keep it Real' (prod. by Mufi), The Speedknots 'The Zone' (prod. by Stress & War)

'When I asked Samson S. if he would sample a song because of what it represented to him, he was unequivocal in his response:

'Not based on that fact alone. I don't care how much that record meant to me, if it's not poppin' .... I go on straight sound, man. You know, 'Do I like it?, Does it sound good to me?' that type of deal. I don't really get all up into this mystical shit'. 

Samson S. cited in Making Beats: the art of sample-based hip-hop, by Joseph G. Schloss (Wesleyan University Press, 2004), interview 1999, p.147

***

To understand the mechanics of hip-hop you need to strip away the elements, break it down and then hold back some more. For many years I listened to King Tubby ... 

and Augustus Pablo,  marvelling at the way the sonic elements were used; how at certain points they would recede and then come forward, but that there was a totalising vision or aesthetic where you could hear the imprint of the producer.

(Once I was told that in early dub recordings you could hear not just the sound of the producer, but also the sound of the particular studio where it was recorded in Jamaica). 

Inevitably then, I came  back to listening to hip-hop with the same sensibility.

But what interests me most in hip-hop is a kind of emptiness. Rather than focussing on the elements, I appreciate the way this music represents a no-movement - a stasis. I developed this idea in my essay on Black Milk

What impresses me is the way the producers take pleasure in the simplicity of the repetition; keeping it unadorned. Take, for instance, this instrumental by Onyx,  'Last Dayz' from 1995 ... 

Everything about this is extraordinary for me; from the repeated vocal sample that becomes nothing more than a sound in some unknown language. Something you can see continue in the much later work of Burial, for instance 'Archangel'from 2007. 

Returning then to this quality of emptiness, what I would like to call hip-hop quiet. Perhaps you could call it a form of minimalism, but for me this word is inadequate because it lacks the feeling that comes through.

Start with that female vocal sample and the beat - I think I recognise the word (melody) but I'm not sure and the static sound that has come to represent 'warmth' or history, but has now become so over-used it verges on being a cliché. 

Particularly striking to me is the contrast between the qualities of the sounds: the harsh vocal sample compared to the reassuring mystical swirl and the comfort of the bass-line, alongside the stop-start effect that operates almost like a conversation. And then at one point, around 2 minutes in the sample shifts to a single-note, as if it were an exposed heartbeat.  

How are we meant to understand the way the beat stops? And then restarts; broken and then returning to the centre; how are we meant to relate to something that remains  separate to what we expect?  Here the music is following its own poetic logic, making manifest a kind of emptiness at the core.

To appreciate how this instrumental operates in its own beautiful space, listen to the track with vocals: 

With all its fabulous bombast, offering a kind of apocalyptic vision (albeit strangely censored on the YouTube video version). And underneath it all the while you can hear the instrumental providing its own essential mystery.

II.

Miilkbone, 'Keep it Real' (produced by Mufi: Capitol Records, 1995)

Challenging Complex magazine's designation of it as one of hip-hop's best 'one hit wonders', Miilkbone's 'Keep it real' has continued to shape hip-hop musical culture well into the 2000s ... and this is where it gets interesting.

At its heart sample-based music has the potential to upset traditional notions of success, whereby a so-called musical failure - in a commercial sense - can become prized, as within this milieu something forgotten is more appealing just because it's unknown. 

Little-known samples operate as a kind of code between producers and fans; those who can hear it, those who recognise it. And the music is also shown respect by the very fact that it has been returned to, reborn.

The fact that samples can't be named (even though they are easily found on-line via the many websites devoted to this) because of copyright infringement fears adds another dimension to the mix. For all these different reasons these sounds exist in this kind of non-space.   

It is for this reason Miilkbone - the white rapper from New Jersey, with a knack for spoof-like album titles (his lp Da' Miilkrate from 1995 was followed up by U Got Miilk? six years later) - can produce something of ongoing cultural worth.

Produced by Mufi (on my initial search I couldn't find anything online about him, other than very basic credits, 'an old school producer from Capitol Records ...' on my second, more recent look I found more info on him: he was quite well-known at the time, working with big-name artists) this instrumental is another example of hip-hop 'quiet' for me. Indeed, its distinctive mood is what has kept it alive.

(Central to this is Mufi's highly skilful and imaginative use of a sample from 'Melancholy Mood' the 1983 recording by the Marian McPartland Trio, of course: have a look at the fan comments below the video, it's very sweet to see the two worlds colliding here).   

As with the earlier Onyx instrumental, what I like about this is its elemental simplicity: the way the music is carried, or not, by a lack of adornment. The sounds in their pure form are allowed to breathe.

Also avoided is much of the self-conscious fanciness that dominates so much 'soul-based' production in hip-hop these days, where producers rustle up multiple interlocking elements in an effort to show off their finesse (often drowning out the sample's essential lyricism, or the emcee's delivery in the process).

This quiet is also to be found in the sharp contrast of the sounds: the insistent and jagged horn sample, is it? and the piano on a constant repeat. There is a certain false naïveté about this music, which I appreciate, in that simplicity and reticence are often the markers of great beauty. 

Again, I notice the strange kind of non-momentum - that stop-start - and the way it often seems on the cusp of development, with the quietest sample, in the background, acting like a bridge that goes nowhere.    

This music contains its own entire universe. When you hear the instrumental with Miilkbone over the top, the music retains its own space as if completely uninterested in interacting with, or buffering, the emcee.  

In terms of the instrumental's ongoing significance and recognition, Big L and Jay-Z reinvented it the same year on the Stretch and Bobbito show; it has been used on a BET awards ceremony and by various emcees.

Most important though, almost two decades later, Freddie Gibbs re-applied the music in his 2010 track 'The Ghetto' (produced by Melvin L. Dinkins) on his album, Str8 Killa No Filla with no apparent changes. Gibbs' repetition of song's title, 'The Ghetto' echoes the original jagged sample - the location/subject and the sample/sound becoming one.  

Without getting too abstract or meta, I wonder if by using this sample Gibbs - and his producer - is asking us to listen to the two tracks together; his and the earlier Miilkbone, to encourage a kind of echo, or commentary. 

This is fascinating for me the way hip-hop constantly re-applies this notion of layering and echo, obviously via the sampling - hidden, or in this way explicit - or the track construction itself and then through direct acts of homage such as this. 

III. 

The Speedknots, 'The Zone' (produced by Stress/War: Bloody Hook Records, 1998)  

One US friend (Mike Jordan) told me: 'Speedknot is street slang for when someone hits you real hard that swelling/ bump that pops up on your head ..' and then told me that there'd been another rap group from Chicago with a similar name.  

Another friend (Sim Telfer), from Australia, tracked down the release on Discogs and said 'there may be more info via the record label 'Bloody Hook Records' and the Producer 'Stress'...' On Discogs it said that 10 had the 12-inch release from 1998, while another 105 people wanted it; the last copy sold was in November, 2014 and the bids ranged from: ' €175.54 to  €263.31 the median being  €219.42'. 

Other than that nothing* can be found about this amazing piece of music, or the producers. They have been lost into the ether, or at least lost in the recesses of the Internet. 

(*Nothing, well this isn't entirely true: it might or might not be that Stress is a well-known Swedish producer who started creating music at the age of 14 and was later signed by Jay Z's Roc-Nation. I could spend some time searching down information, but prefer not to - I don't feel like being a teacher.

Instead I much prefer the idea that the forgotten producer is someone with a certain stutter - and rapid eye movement, even when awake - hiding out in his mom's basement somewhere in New York City: something like this perhaps. Someone posted 'The Zone' on YouTube two weeks ago, I checked out the boombap-linked Facebook page thinking it might give up some clues: no, nothing).

As with the other instrumentals featured here, 'The Zone' has a powerful feeling - carried by the sound of seagulls, or other birds and is extremely gentle. 

This music is the epitome of hip-hop quiet: self-contained, reticent and mysterious. It could provide the soundtrack for a few scenes from a Hitchcock film, spliced and transferred to the new era, where people record videos of buildings above their heads on their phones - in that half-light before everything turns dark (to then rapidly delete them afterwards). 'The Zone' is music of buildings and cars and city streets re-imagined by someone holding onto memories of a sea that he has never seen, perhaps other than on TV.  

There is no development in any sense in this music: it starts suddenly, three seconds in with all the effects brought in at the same time and then follows an almost mathematical precision, following 30 second intervals (almost). At 1 minute 30 there is an incredibly brief stop when you'd expect it to build and it doesn't, of course, and then at 2 minutes there is a stunning perfect pop-break, quick like a hiccup or intake of breath (at 2 minutes 20 it deepens, but doesn't move and then there is the 'pop' again three minutes in).     

Joseph Schloss in Making Beats: the art of sample-based hip-hop explores 'ambiguity' in hip-hop production, linking it with 'signifyin(g) following the argument developed by Gates in 1998. Ambiguity, Schloss relates to the 'idea of code, that certain forms of communication must be shielded'. 

“Ambiguity is a factor in this process because the best codes are those that do not even appear to be transmitting information at all; they have a secondary meaning that serves to draw attention away from the code’s central message.”

— Joseph Schloss, Making Beats (2004, p.160)

Earlier Schloss writes that the very nature of creating sample-based music, out of music that already exists encourages a kind of doubling, where the listener appreciates both the sounds in their original forms and then how they have been recreated. He writes that the 'aesthetic goal of the hip-hop producer is not to resolve these ambiguities (the fact that the music is live and not live, ed's note), but - quite the contrary - to preserve, master, and celebrate them'.

Ambiguity in this schema refers to an unclear meaning, or multiple meanings in an intellectual sense. And yet for me none of the above instrumentals are ambiguous in the sense that they have more than one meaning. They do not make me think, they make me feel something. For me this music embodies mystery; reticence and uncertainty.

Central to all of this is the stop-start of the beat, alongside a strong emotion of longing.  None of these elements makes this music, sweet, soft or sentimental .. quite the reverse.              

(Just before I was ready to leave this writing on 'The Zone'I found one of the track's producers - War (Bixby) who it seems was also a member of The Speedknots, as always by chance, when I saw he self-identified on some YouTube comments).    

EU Turkey Refugee Transfer Deal, March 2016

In early September last year, newspapers all over the world published the shocking photograph of a dead Syrian boy, of Kurdish descent, Alan Kurdi, with his tiny body dressed in a red T-shirt, blue shorts, lying face down in the water.

The reaction to the photograph was immediate. With world leaders expressing their shock and dismay; and donations to one NGO – that was set up to lead rescue operations in the Mediterranean - increasing its donations 15-fold in the 24 hours after the photograph was published.

Britain’s Chief Rabbi said: ‘‘For far too long we have related to these suffering individuals as if they are people living on Mars …. That desperately sad and tragic image has moved our hearts. (The image) has brought us to our senses and we must respond adequately.’

But what did this photograph represent to the millions who saw it? Did it represent an urgent need to stop people making the dangerous journey by boat to Europe? Or did the widespread reaction horror at the boy’s death signal a broader desire for Europeans to do more for those fleeing warzones – and in particular Syria?

There is much talk in Europe about the so-called refugee crisis. There is no doubt that thousands losing their lives. According to the International Organisation of Migration, almost 4,000 people died trying to cross the Mediterranean in 2015, with most dying making the crossing from north Africa to Italy. A further 800 died in the Aegean crossing from Turkey to Greece.

While we might all agree that these deaths need to stop, what isn’t so clear is the best way to do this.

On the 18th of March, the European Union signed a deal with Turkey that will change EU refugee policy dramatically. Under a new plan all people travelling to Greece, who are found not to be refugees will be returned to Turkey immediately. What will happen to these people after that point is not spelled out, although the European Union has guaranteed that it will fund any further operations.

And yet the agreement also states that for each Syrian returned to Greece another Syrian – presumably a refugee - will be resettled in the EU.

According to the United Nations Human rights agency, the UNHCR, an estimated 91 per cent of the people coming to Greece from Turkey come from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq – so presumably a large number of them will have grounds for protection.

In return, Turkey will receive three billion euros before the end of March – to aid ‘health, education, infrastructure, food and other living costs’ for refugees in their territory (and another three billion euros up until the end of 2018).

Discussions are also now underway to lift visa restrictions into the EU for Turkish citizens and there is a reinforced commitment to ‘re-energise the accession process’ that might lead to Turkey joining the European Union in the future.

What struck me in the announcement was the confused terminology relating to the largely Syrian arrivals. The document begins with the bold statement: ‘All new irregular migrants crossing from Turkey into the Greek islands as of 20 March 2016 will be returned to Turkey.’

But then mentions that these people will be returned in accordance with EU and International law and avoid ‘any kind of collective expulsion’. To avoid this mass expulsion, so-called ‘migrants’ will be allowed access to the asylum process, but it is not clear what will happen to those found to be refugees.

Will they be resettled in the EU – it appears yes - but how will that be arranged? And if they are to be resettled in the EU, surely this very possibility still offers an incentive for people to make that dangerous journey.

The statement allowed that this was just a ‘temporary and extraordinary measure’ that is ‘necessary to end the human suffering and restore public order’.

There is no doubt that the European Union needs to act. More than 1 million immigrants arrived by sea in 2015, with almost a further 34,900 arriving by land. Compare this to the previous year’s figure: in 2014, 280,000 people entered Europe by land and sea. And Europe – following the recent, bloody terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels - is not in the mood for accepting hundreds of thousands people fleeing warzones.

There is no reason to judge Europe for this: any other country would react the same way. But as an Australian this talk of mass returns of people to a third country, in this case Turkey is very familiar and a development of concern.

Don’t forget that Turkey too is undergoing a period of upheaval and has not shown its capacity to either treat refugees and asylum seekers – or its own population – with a respect for human rights.

Added to this: Greece has struggled with its role as the first point of entry for many migrants. It is not clear how the human rights of the asylum applicants will be guaranteed – even though now there is an added pressure on the Europeans to return them elsewhere.

Some years ago I travelled to Malta and Greece to report on these very issues. I travelled to Malta, a tiny island, and visited open-air camps where people slept in tents and a former school, where bright green mould covered the walls. (In Greece I couldn't enter any centres, though I did go to a 'prison' complex in Athens).

I spoke with local officials, people working for major NGOs, police and border guards. First-hand, I saw how ill-equipped both countries were to cope thousands of asylum seekers. Neither country had a developed immigration system, or refugee assessment agencies. Local lawyers were doing their best, but it was ad hoc and often arbitrary and chaotic.

There is an enormous difference in terms of development in the EU; northern countries such as Sweden or Norway inevitably have much better assessment systems compared to the poor countries on the edges of Europe. And as a result of these fundamental flaws in Greece – made worse by the 2008 crisis - asylum applicants were either detained for long periods of time, or as I saw in Athens, living on the streets.

But there is another broader ethical problem connected to this new EU-Turkey plan – and this reflects the emphasis upon deterrence. Key to this initiative is the idea that when people see the mass returns to Turkey, others will change their minds. This has long been the key driving force behind Australian policy that sees all boat arrivals sent to poor countries in the region, such as Nauru and Papua New Guinea.

Notions of deterrence rapidly paint the seekers as somehow inherently guilty, as as at its base is the idea that seeking protection within the European territory is something to be discouraged - something to be deterred.

There is also another problem. To date, EU states have been extremely reluctant to resettle refugees via the official UNHCR program. Worldwide only a small number of countries accept refugees for resettlement. These are Australia, the United States, Canada and a few Nordic countries.

According to the UNHCR figures for 2014, the US tops the list in that it resettled just over 69,000 refugees; Canada comes next with around 15,000 and then Australia with 6,000. Then there are much lower figures for the remaining countries: Germany, Sweden and Norway, New Zealand. Note this, though: the figures for two of the richest countries in the EU in 2014, the United Kingdom accepted fewer than 1,000 UN identified refugees and France around 700 people.

I remember speaking with the UNHCR representative in Malta about this, and he said that getting European countries to accept refugees via the ‘official’ channels was the hardest part of his role.

Let me make this clear, though unlike some on the Left I do not believe that ‘open borders’ and the free movement of people, without any restrictions is the way forward. Of course, I see the hypocrisy of the current system, where people from rich countries have this freedom of movement, while people fearing for their lives remain trapped.

And yet, as Germany has now discovered ‘opening the borders’ - especially now in this tense time in European history - is not the right path. My concern is that any sudden and dramatic decision, as found in the EU-Turkey agreement, often brings further problems with it (for example, pressures to outsource even more to private companies with a punitive mindset).

Moreover, if the European Union has been unable to manage this issue within its own borders - in European countries, such as Greece, Malta and Italy, it's hard to imagine how they will be able to guarantee due process and human rights outside them. Perhaps, though this is the point.

December 28th ruling not to indict police officers: Tamir Rice case

Soon after Christmas, Timothy J McGinty – the Cuyahoga County prosecutor overseeing the investigation of the police officers involved in the Tamir Rice case spoke of empathy. Or to be more accurate, he spoke of his efforts to understand how the 12 year-old child may have felt in the two seconds before he was shot and killed by Officer Timothy Loehmann. 

“If we put ourselves in the victim’s shoes, as prosecutors and detectives try to do, it is likely that Tamir — whose size made him look much older and who had been warned that his pellet gun might get him into trouble that day — either intended to hand it to the officers or to show them it wasn’t a real gun.”

Embedded in this sentence – in the uncertain language, passive mood and shift in perspective (if we are trying to understand how Tamir felt, why are we being told how he looked, or that he had been warned that 'his pellet gun might get him into trouble'?) - is core unease, a kind of tension.

McGinty gestures towards empathy, but is unable to break out of his natural reflex to see the events from the point of view of the white police officer. The previous sentence read: 'At the point where they suddenly came together, both Tamir and the rookie officer were no doubt frightened.'

So in this historic moment, the 'frightened' adult officer, Timothy Loehmann who used lethal force against a child, within two seconds of arriving on the scene and who had been rejected by three previous police departments and received a damning appraisal of his professional conduct, the report noted his inability to 'follow simple directions (and) dismal handgun performance' were somehow equal. The adult man with a real weapon and the boy with a toy gun were united by their fear.

Prosecutor McGinty then continues to offer his assessment of events: 

“As they raced the mile toward the rec center, the police were prepared to face a possible active shooter in a neighborhood with history of violence. There are in fact memorials to two slain Cleveland Police officers in that very park. And both had been shot to death nearby in the line of duty. Police are trained that it takes only a third of a second to draw and fire a weapon at them — and therefore they must react quickly to any threat. Officer Loehmann had just seen Tamir put an object into his waist as he stood up in the gazebo and started walking away. A moment later, as the car slid toward him, Tamir drew the replica gun from his waist and the officer fired. Believing he was about to be shot was a mistaken — yet reasonable— belief given the high-stress circumstances and his police training. He (Officer Loehmann, not Tamir Rice, ed.) had reason to fear for his life.”

(Notice also how McGinty refers to the black victim by his first-name only and the white officer via his title and surname). 

“Every time I think about this case, I cannot help but feel that the victim here could have been my own son or grandson. Everyone who investigated this case feels the same way. All of our children go to parks and rec centers. No parent follows their 12-year-old around all day to make sure they don’t get into mischief. That is why this case taps such profound emotions in us all. The Rice family has suffered a grievous loss. Nothing will replace Tamir in their lives.”

McGinty expresses apparent empathy for the Rice family; although the lack of precision, how could Tamir Rice be both his son and grandson? And reference to Rice's apparent 'mischief' make me wonder how genuine it is.

His next line returns to the perspective of the police: 'The police officers and the police department must live with the awful knowledge that their mistakes – however unintentional – led to the death of a 12-year-old boy. ' Mistakes, however unintentional ...

Perhaps my focus on McGinty's statement might seem surprising, even cold. We are talking about a child here, a 12 year-old boy, killed in a public park, shot to death by a police officer while playing with a toy gun. We are talking about a son and brother: a boy, whose distraught sister was handcuffed by the police and then shoved into the patrol-car, unable to comfort, to render assistance to her brother who at that point was still alive (the police waited four minutes before returning to Tamir to see if he needed medical assistance).

Elsewhere in the statement, McGinty spoke of the case as if it were a natural event – lacking human agency: 'Given this perfect storm of human error, mistakes and miscommunications by all involved (emphasis added) that day, the evidence did not indicate criminal conduct by police.'

But Rice's death was not an act of nature, outside human control. This death, although familiar, was far from natural. It was against nature – against the natural order of things, no matter how frequent such violence might be in the United States.

More than that Officer Loehmann had a choice. The police officer was not a victim of a 'perfect storm' of uncontrolled external forces, or his fear; this was not a Greek tragedy or a nineteenth century novel where a hapless hero is propelled by 'mistakes' made by others or himself. He had a choice. In a very powerful piece for the New York Times, 'Tamir Rice and the Color of Fear' Brit Bennett analyses the notion of 'reasonable fear' that informed the prosecutor's case. (Throughout the year-long 'investigation' leading towards the Grand Jury judgement not to indict the officers, prosecutor McGinty made no secret of his belief that the two officers should not face court).

Bennett writes of the trouble with 'empathy' and focus on fear:

“How do we determine reasonability? Who determines whether a fear is “objectively reasonable,” as coined in the report, as if reason can be completely impartial? According to the prosecutor’s report, a reasonable fear does not have to be an accurate one. “A reasonable belief could also be a mistaken belief,” the report outlines, “and the fact that it turned out to be mistaken does not undermine its reasonableness.” (…)

The report also dismisses the relevance of whether Rice heard the police yell for him to show his hands. The officers testified that the cruiser window was rolled up, but the prosecutor’s report states that “even assuming Tamir could not have heard Loehmann’s warnings given from inside the car, Loehmann felt he had no choice in the instant he used deadly force.” The report reiterates the circular argument used by the Supreme Court to define reasonability: A fear is considered reasonable if another reasonable person would fear it.”

And that 'reasonable person' usually resembles those being investigated, in this case white police officers who also received surprising advantages in the legal process; being allowed to provide written statements to the court, rather than being cross-examined. While legal, this is not standard practice.

But I wonder why such emphasis is being placed on these subjective notion of fear. Why not focus on whether sufficient efforts were taken by Officer Loehmann to avoid the use of extreme force? Why not focus on whether or not Officer Loehmann assessed the situation appropriately, with all due care given to the avoidance of causing harm? Ohio is an 'open carry' state which means that even if Rice had a real gun, rather than a toy, or was an adult he had not committed a crime. Keeping this in mind, that carrying weapons in Ohio is legal, why was Officer Loehmann so frightened that he thought he might die? Hadn't he received training on how to respond to civilians carrying guns in public spaces?

McGinty refers to the belief that the two officers believed that they were approaching an 'active shooter' situation, but this is not only illogical, but bizarre; Tamir Rice had a toy, which for obvious reasons could not shoot bullets. Moreover, Officer Loehmann shot Rice two seconds after arriving on the scene, from a close proximity. If he seriously believed he was entering a life-threatening situation, why didn't he keep his distance, take the time to assess the situation and then act? 'Any fear feels reasonable in the moment,' Brit Bennett writes. 'And if black bodies are inherently scary, white fear will always be considered reasonable.'

Something that continues to surprise me personally is the emotional charge behind white racism, where the perpetrator of the crime seeks out the status of victim. Whether it is in a colonial context, or modern-day US, those committing the violent acts desperately cling to the role of victim, while seeking sympathy from others. We are encouraged to empathise with them, with their confusion and their fear and then excuse whatever they did because of these misguided, or mistaken (or even completely illogical, groundless) fears. This impulse fascinates me, especially since it is so heartfelt.

Rare is it for white supporters of Officer Loehmann to imagine how such bluster must feel for the surviving family of Tamir Rice and his mother, Samaria, who continues to fight for justice, despite personal attacks. In an interview with Ebony from June last year, Samaria Rice said how 'Tamir is getting me up every morning because I’m still waiting on answers. I still don’t know what happened. I don’t want anyone to have to suffer like this. I want to be a part of making change. Whatever we have to do, I’m willing to do. I believe that we are in a war. We are in a war. They are out here killing us and whatever I can do to bring awareness to that ...'

Many months ago, I read that Samaria Rice and her surviving children were for a time homeless. No longer could Tamir's mother bear living so close to the park where her son had been so brutally killed. This stopped me cold. And reminded me how after each death, after each statistic – and all the outrage, or shameful justifications on behalf of those supporting the perpetrators – there is family, still alive and still grieving.

This essay was re-published in the Australian journal, Arena (Feb-March, 2016)

Supastition Interview

In this interview Supastition talks about racial politics in the US ('Black Bodies'); childhood memories of the Ku Klux Klan marching through his North Carolina home-town; Nina Simone, the role of interludes and why hip-hop is more than just a game.    

***

Behind the rap-stereotypes of shining cars and female body-parts (the subaltern's distorted Capitalist dreaming), there is another world of emcees/producers who understand what they are doing as part of a continuum and expression of culture.

And it's here that you find a kind of yearning. Artists wanting to be heard, alongside a complaint that they have been forgotten, or overlooked. This defines hip-hop as a genre, perhaps you could even say this is its sentimental core. Whereas many, if not most rock stars express desire, turning it outwards towards another girl, another planet; in hip-hop, the archetypal MC is seeking respect, asking to be recognised. How explicit the need is. 

One of the best examples of this cultural interplay is North Carolina-born, but now Atlanta-based MC Supastition. Honesty and sincerity is something essential to his art. It shines through. 

What follows is a record of our almost hour-long conversation, where Supastition described how his most recent record Gold Standard (Reform School Music/World Expo Records, 2015) is a new start of sorts, but also other subjects too; such as the importance of interludes in his music and his take on how it feels to be an established artist in a music genre that has an unquenchable thirst for the new.

MB: With Gold Standard, it's got various producers on it, but what really struck me was that it had a very confident sound; a very distinctive record compared maybe to some of your earlier releases; were you aiming to get a particular sound with that release?

S: I've done a lot of releases and I really feel that with Gold Standard, well, it's the one I can kind of boast and be proud of - for a lot of years, a lot of things weren't working out the way I wanted them to, but with Gold Standard it is one of those records where everything came together. I had a plan to do a tour, of 70 plus shows and I started working with a producer by the name of Praise, so I had the fire under me. So with that record it sounded a lot more confident and it's not as pessimistic as a lot of my other releases.

MB: It's really interesting you used the word confident, because the words I wrote down (when listening to it) were 'straight, confident, consistent (and) unified' - maybe compared to some of your other records. From the first track to the final track (you get a sense) it's the same artist, the same sound, even if you're working with different producers. I mean, were you inspired by any other particular hip-hop album when you were putting it together?

S: When I was putting it together, I was listening to a lot of albums that really strike me as inspirational like Little Brother's The Listening; Blu and Exile's Below the Heavens and the Brother Ali/Jake One record Mourning in America, Dreaming in Color. One thing I like about them is that they all have a consistent vibe from beginning to end. I think out of my albums that fans like, like The Deadline it has a similar vibe, even though I'm working with different producers, I want a cohesive sound. I learned that you can't just choose a lot of hot beats and make a lot of dope songs with them, that don't make a great album, that just makes great songs, I wanted to put together an album and have everything laid out. I had all the production set aside before I even got started writing the songs and I think that helps a lot too.

MB: I think it's interesting you referred to The Deadline because that's probably the other record that I'd compare Gold Standard to, where, you know the first track is completely, you know 'I'm here; I'm ready to be heard' that kind of thing, and I felt like Gold Standard had the same feeling, you know it had no doubts, or uncertainty, it's pushing that sound of – as you say maybe – like a new beginning, but it's also very political as a record. You've talked about your interest in 'concept albums' before, would you say this is a concept album and if it is, in what way?

S: Yes, it's a loose concept album, I wouldn't say it's a concept album in the sense in all songs pertaining to one particular subject, but for this record it is – Gold Standard just the title is saying that there are a lot of people in the music industry that basically brag and boast about a lot of things, but they have nothing to back it. With this record, I'm saying I've been here professionally since 2002 and after ten plus years in the industry I feel confident that speak about what I see. That's why you have songs like 'Gold Standard' and 'Know my Worth'. The concept behind it is, just be confident and proud of who you are. I'm not a twenty year old rapper any more, I'm confident and cool being a married man, a great father, a great friend and a dope rapper.

MB: (laughs) ok, and I think the track 'Unorthodox' wouldn't you say it's playing into this theme of providing a statement of who you are and what your history is, would you say that's the key track for that?

S: Exactly, I definitely think 'Unorthodox' is a great example of that. 'Unorthodox' is one of those records where I say, critically I didn't always the acclaim, you know when I release an album I already know they're going to give this album a 3.5, because I really don't have the name to get classic album rating, I don't have promo behind me, but on that track I'm saying I don't care if the critics understand me or not. I'm making records for the fans, you know.

MB: I understand that, but it does seem that things are shifting – Dr Dre has included in his radio show, is that right?

S: Yes, he has a radio show that he does online where he plays different music and some people from Aftermath pick out the sound and the songs they play, so having Dr Dre include it and hearing that some of the people at Aftermath are big fans of the Gold Standard record, having people like Dr Dre and DJ Premier and Da Beatminerz supporting the record, it just makes you feel really, really confident and appreciated, you know. A lot of times when I lived in North Carolina and you'll hear a lot of other North Carolina artists say the same thing, we didn't really get support from radio as a whole, a few people supported us, but basically we had to go to other places abroad, outside the US or other states to feel genuinely appreciated.

MB: The track that they played was 'Know my Worth' right …

S: Right, 'Know my Worth'

MB: This is a gorgeous track, isn't it? You're working with a female emcee, Boog Brown ..

S: Yes, that's my home-girl, Boog Brown ..

MB: She's fantastic, I thought what she added to that track was not so much the lyrics, but the way she raps, is just phenomenal, isn't it? Can you talk a little bit about her?

S: Boog Brown is a very, very dope emcee. She's originally from Detroit, but she lives in Atlanta now. We've known each other for a while, I was a big supporter of her, early in her career, I just thought she was an incredible emcee – not just a female emcee, but an incredible emcee and I always tried to put people onto her music. A few years back she did an album with Apollo Brown, called Brown Study and I was featured on a track called 'Friends like these' and we've always stayed in contact and been supportive of each other, so when I was doing this record I realised I'd never had a female emcee on any of my albums and I was like, why not get Boog Brown on to speak about what it's like to be in this industry as a female where people don't know your worth, or under-value you, so I wanted a female perspective on this as well.

MB: I think it works on a gut-level too, it's not just what she's saying, it's how she's saying it too. She's really fantastic, I mean, if we keep referring to this idea of being confident, she shares that quality, you know. She's really present, I guess is the word I'd use to explain it.

 

The first track I heard from Supastition's album was 'Black Bodies' ...

With its distinctive repetitive-swirl sample - that manic Soul-based loop that has come to define a lot of contemporary hip-hop production, this time provided by Supastition's long-time collaborator, Praise* - 'Black Bodies' represents a new form of protest music.

*check out this great video interview with Praise.

When I first heard the name of the movement 'Black Lives Matter' I thought it was a bit weak, avoiding as it does any direct mention of those killing scores of unarmed African-American people, mostly young men and teenagers (the police), but now I can understand the logic behind it.

Rather than focussing on those perpetrating the violence, the aim is to state the apparent obvious and by doing this force non-Black people to recognise a basic truth: that African-American people in the USA share the same essential humanity as non-Black people. In the interview, Supastition stressed that his objective with 'Black Bodies'  was not to write a 'Fuck the police' song, but to try and put the current police violence in a broader context.    

MB: Okay, let's go to the first track from the record that I heard, 'Black Bodies' and obviously I was interested in it for the theme as well as the music. I mean you are originally from North Carolina, Greenville, is that correct?

S: Yes

MB: So as you know, there has been some horrific race-based violence both the police and a white supremacist in North and South Carolina recently, I mean, how do you feel when you see this on the news. You've produced this very powerful track about black bodies, obviously you produced it before the violence, but how do you personally feel when you see these kinds of things happening so close to where you come from?

S: The thing with me is it's not anything new, cause growing up in the South, growing up in North Carolina, I remember in Greenville, North Carolina you used to see the Ku Klux Klan march through town, you know things like that. I was in school and white people would call me nigger, you know different things like that, it's just what you would see growing up, you'd go to a store in a small town and people wouldn't want to serve us, or want us in the store; or we'd walk into a restaurant and everybody would look at us like we were crazy. It's something people don't speak about, I'm not from a major city in North Carolina. Greenville, North Carolina is kind of like a college town, a small town, so I'm used to a small town mentality and how people look at you, so when I see stuff like that (the violence) in North and South Carolina, well there's always been a lot of things happening like that. It's one of reasons why – I mean I love that place – but it is one of the reasons why I'd never want to live there, because there are so many things behind the scenes.

So when I created 'Black Bodies' you know, I didn't want to create a song because everybody else was doing a song, particularly I held my back and waited because I wanted things to die down and as we decided to release the song I realised it was always going to be relevant because these situations keep happening. There's always an unarmed black person getting killed somewhere around the world. I had read an article talking about when the US because a moral authority, a lot of the situations in the US where they basically bully people with the acts of genocide and different acts of that nature and I just wanted to dig a bit deeper in 'Black Bodies'. I didn't want to do a 'Fuck the Police' song, you know because when it comes to me if something happens to me or my family, first thing I'm going to do is call the police. You can go a lot deeper – look at the history of America, the judicial system, systematic oppression, it goes through a lot of different things.

MB: I definitely agree. But let's slow it down a bit here, because what you said was really quite shocking before, you're not so old, so when you're talking about the Ku Klux Klan and the racism you experienced growing up, are we talking the 70s or the 80s, or?

S: This is the 80s – the mid to late 80s.

MB: Oh God.

S: I remember being at school and getting suspended because a white guy called me nigger and we ended up fighting. This was like junior high school for me. A lot of people from small towns it's their mentality and a lot of times, these cities and towns are so segregated; a lot of people in my town had never seen (people different to themselves); they only knew blacks, whites and Hispanics. The first time I brought my wife to my home town and my wife is Asian, she is from Laos and I remember the first time bringing her and people were referring to her as being Chinese and I remember thinking these people hadn't had much exposure to different cultures. It was one of the reasons why I wanted to move away from small towns like that.

MB: Obviously this is very striking and shocking for me, I mean I come from Australia so I'm not so naive, I've grown up with a huge amount of awareness of race-based violence in my own country, but the idea of the Ku Klux Klan marching through the town in the 1980s is mind-blowing, I mean they had absolutely no shame, even at this time in the 80s, I'm amazed.

S: Yeah, there were a lot of things going on. We are technically still in the South – as a child I didn't really understand it. They had the white hoods on and the robes, but it would be in the newspapers – you know, announced, the Ku Klux Klan will march through Greenville on this date and different things like that.

MB: It's insane.

S: Once you look back, when you're older and understand it, it amazes you. I can't believe I witnessed and lived through all this stuff was still going on at that time. A lot of people think it ended in the 60s and the 70s, but all this goes a lot deeper than that.

“MB: The thing that is very interesting for me is your choice of the title ‘Black Bodies’ because it’s maybe the media, certainly the police and people in authority often see people of colour as just being bodies, rather than being human. When you were thinking about that title, what ideas did you have when you chose that title for the track?

S: The inspiration is just like you said it’s the way people don’t see African-Americans as being people, a lot of times (white) Americans treat dogs and animals better than they treat African-Americans, they have more compassion for animals than us. And it’s something that I’ve noticed when you look the news and you see people dying in America they don’t show dead bodies laying on the ground, when they show countries in Europe and places like that they don’t show bodies on the ground, but when they show African nations and people dying and starving they show actual dead bodies, the people, it’s almost as if they are de-sensitised. This is one of the reasons why I wanted to call that track ‘Black Bodies’ because when you notice this, if you look at it a lot of times they have massacres in Africa, you’ll see it on the news, the bodies laying there. It’s like they’re being treated as if they’re less than human sometimes. They would never show – any massacre that happens in America, they never show dead bodies laying on the ground.”

MB: You're absolutely right. I know this from having worked in newsroom, they just wouldn't receive the same 'feeds' of the dead bodies, in Paris, or wherever it may be. Are there any particular books, or writers you've read that have offered some interest or inspiration in terms of this thinking of yours?

S: A lot of different books;  I mean there are so many different books. I read books from all over and absorb knowledge, you know, sometimes you've just got to sit down, turn off the internet and pick up a big book. A lot of friends recommend books for me that I should check out, when we were on tour, Blueprint gave me a big list of books he likes to read …

MB: Just coming back to the location of it, the North/South Carolina connection are there any other things you'd like to add, I mean one of the reasons why I was interested in speaking with you was the fact that you're from the place where so much of this violence has gone on recently; I mean, Walter Scott being shot by a police officer in the back, when he was running away, is there anything else you'd like to add to this?

S: There's not very much more to add, I mean I just wish people would have more compassion and like I said in the song, 'Black Bodies' these police officers, they not held to the same standard as the average guy, I mean people talk about black on black crime, when someone gets killed in the neighbourhood, but these guys (the police) are not held to the same standard – they hold a position of service and so when we see this happen, it's a big disappointment, I mean we think you're supposed to be there to protect us, if we can't trust you, who can we trust?

...

Sometimes you hear a track and it draws you in; something about it connects with you in a way that is difficult to express. Supastition's 'Best Worst Day' from 2013's The Blackboard record is like that for me. (For days after listening to it on repeat, it remained with me; it was as if I could still hear it playing out in the recesses of my memory as I went about my everyday life).

“When I woke up today I felt incredibly refreshed feeling more blessed than ever with no head full of stress I was comfortable but calm in my warm spot didn’t even abuse the snooze button on my alarm clock sun’s shining through the burgundy drapes my lady wasn’t next to me, I guess she’s working today I’m accustomed to looking her in the face at 7 AM one particular person you see day out and day in anyway ..”

'Best Worst Day’ was an idea that had been floating around in my head for years. I could never find the perfect beat  that matched the idea that I had. I wanted something heavenly and atmospheric to deliver the story. This is a hip  hop version of the movie ‘Sixth Sense’ where I spend a day not knowing that I had already passed away. Originally,  the song was going to be similar to Ice Cube’s today was a good day but I decided to add a few twists to make it more  interesting. I love the art of storytelling and this came out the way that I envisioned it. I first heard the beat on the  Dirty Art Club instrumental album and asked them if it was cool for me to record a song to it. Madwreck (who has  mixed or produced on every album of mine) gave it the thumbs up along with his partner, Matt Cagle.' 

Supastition, writer's note for 'Best Worst Day'

That 'perfect beat' Supastition is referring to is glorious, sublime. But more than this what works so well in this track is the way the producers (Dirty Art Club) sensitively echo the movement of the song; so that at the start, around 33 seconds when he refers to the sunlight and then to his wife (a person who has a very important presence in his art, as a recurring point of tender reference) the music opens up, expands somehow, with great delicacy. It's very beautiful. 

And then again later almost exactly two minutes later, when he refers to hearing his music on the radio ... 

“I stepped outside wondering how could this day have gone
wrong
but then a Chevy passed by with my song on
the local radio station they had my song on
that’s when I knew something was horribly wrong, homes
‘cause they don’t play no local music if it’s homegrown
a motherfucker gotta be dead or long gone,
shot up or murdered? wait… what!
I jetted back in the store, I’m searching for the Charlotte
Observer
feeling faint, nauseous, and nervous
no wonder why nobody even noticed me, paid attention, or
turn heads
I started panicking as I was thinking back again
stiff as a mannequin like “yo, this can’t be happening”
picked up the paper and the caption read after my name
in bold black lettering… local rapper slain. damn”

... a similar feeling happens again. (You can sense the happiness of that moment in the music).  Such production where the music both reinforces and comments on the music is a wonderful thing.

At the end there is this very other-worldly interlude where Nina Simone, referring to herself as 'one' in a very regal (and slightly strange) manner, with her plummy vowels, speaks about how she wants to be recognised in her own country.

In an interview with his late friend Praverb, Supastition said: 'I’m all about lyrics and wordplay, man. I listen to cats like Royce, Elzhi, Phonte, Brother Ali, Shad, and brothers like that. If you’re still rhyming ‘hat’ with ‘scat’ and simple shit like that then I just can’t get inspired by that. That’s music for the lyrically challenged!' Before adding: 'At the same time, you gotta be able to make a decent song too.'

Here in this track we can see the skill of Supastition's wordplay, via the half-rhymes and repetition of consonants, or repetition of words with the same number of syllables; in the movement backwards and forwards, the clever use of tempo to provide contrast. Here, too, with the Nina Simone interlude at the end we can see something else that I believe is a defining element of his art: that is the use of interludes in a highly literary, rather than purely musical, manner. 

MB: Can you talk to me about the producers who worked on Gold Standard?

S: The main producer on Gold Standard is Praise he's from the DMV area (DC/Maryland/Virginia area), he had worked with Pharoahe Monch and Torae, Skyzoo and people like that. A good friend of mine before he passed away, Praverb said that there is this producer you've got to work with, check him out, he's amazing. He sent me a link to his music and I thought this guy is incredible, before we could actually set up songs, Praverb passed away so Gold Standard is dedicated to him. Praise is the main producer and probably going to be the main producer for a lot of my upcoming projects too. Rik Marvel who is from Germany, originally from North Carolina, but he lives in Germany now. He's real dope. Veterano - he's from Cali. Jonny Cuba, Ollie Teeba from the UK as well. My man Croup from Germany as well. I try to stick with my usual suspects, keep it in-house. Also MoSS, he's an incredible, incredible producer he's worked with lots of different artists – DJ Premier, Elzhi, Joe Budden, lots of people like that. One of the main things I like to do is with with new talent that a lot of people aren't chasing yet. People I think are dope.

MB: Tell me how you work, for example, with Praise when you're putting together a track …

S: With Praise, usually he'll make a bunch of different tracks and send them to me and then I'll go through them one by one. In previous years, there'd be producers who'd put out 20 or 30 beats and they'd send them out to all their rapper friends, or artists they're trying to sell beats to, basically like a buffet and everybody is trying to get to it before the stuff is gone, so by the time I'd get to it I'd get the left-overs and I'd feel like I'm making a record from the left-overs, but with Praise or Croup, they specifically make beats tailor-made for me and then together we'd work it out. I like working like that. I mean, would you rather have a short-order cook, or would you rather have a chef that prepares meal for you?

MB: Croup, I mean he goes quite a way back with you, doesn't he? I remember he did an amazing interlude, if I remember right, 'Crazy' ...

S: Yeah, Croup did the entire Honest Living ep he produced every track on that, he also produced 'Adrenalin' on The Deadline so we've been working together since 2003/2004 – he's been really active, he paved the way in that personal approach in the industry.

MB: One thing that really strikes me in your music, across your records, is that you're really quite thoughtful in the way you use samples, in terms of spoken-word samples. I mean, say for instance in the middle and at the end of 'Black Bodies' … Can you talk to me about this, is it something you come up with, or the producer comes up with, who is behind these spoken-word samples?

S: Usually I go through them, I listen to different audio and interviews and different records and go through them and I piece them together the same way my favourite records from the 80s and 90s piece them together. I used to love the way Pete Rock records, Pete Rock/CL Smooth records, would bring in random samples. A lot of times I go through and find something related to the topic that the song is on, find a beat that will match up with it. I think it just provides better transitions when you're going through; rather than the song fades out and the next song starts … I just think that gets old after a while. You just add to it, by finding different things to complement it. I take the time. I'm glad you noticed that, because I'm not sure a lot of people did; I always try to add some random samples …

MB: I think it is probably – I mean you've obviously got great wordplay etc – but I think it is most distinctive aspect of your work. It's something that is quite striking and I think, well, you've referred to Pete Rock here, but what I would say is the difference is that Pete Rock's sample/interludes are driven by the music, while I think what really comes through in your work is that you're driven by the idea, or the words (in the sample). It's quite lyrical. Do you think that that's a fair comparison; you use the word random, but it doesn't sound random, it sounds well thought out.

S: Yeah, it's definitely thought out, when I say random I mean I go through random records – interviews and try to find something that fits …

MB: It seems to me that they're used more for commentary, rather than for their musical content. Do you think that's a fair point?

S: Yeah, yeah, definitely. It's to fill in the gaps and make the transitions between the songs better. It's almost like I do a song like 'Black Bodies' and the next song is dedicated to my wife, like I can't just go from one to the other. A lot of the times, sonically the tracks don't go together, so it's like a dj doing shows or mix-tapes, they always try and choose songs that go well together, with albums it's difficult to do that, so you need an interlude or vocals to make the transition go better.

MB: I know you've said in interviews that you're inspired by hip-hop artists who, I mean in one interview you said; 'I'm all about lyrics and word-play …' and you mention a series of emcees, when you're using these samples it strikes me you're working in the same way, it's quite literary and word-driven. When you're thinking about your art, do you still think that the words are everything, or the most important part?

S: Yeah, definitely, it always going to be the lyrics first. For me it's about the words first and foremost, because I'm a writer. It's always about that – lyrics, word-play, story-telling, concepts; it's everything to me. I want when people pick up a Supastition record for that to be the first thing that they want to hear, what am I going to say next, or what am I going to say that's thought-provoking. If I'm telling the story about my life, I like to deliver it in a way that no-one else can.

MB: Well, this brings me to the track that really impressed me, 'The Best Worst Day' – I think the reason why I loved it so much is that it's so clever the way it's put together lyrically, but the producer as well, he's using music to offer support to what you're saying. I mean it's quite exciting, really the way the two elements work together. 

S: The Best Worst Day was actually, if you've heard the instrumental it's from the Dirty Art Club – two producers out of Charlotte, North Carolina. They put out an instrumental album, I heard the instrumental and I thought, look that's a dope song, a dope concept I want to use and this is the perfect beat for it. They were like, cool and they sent me the instrumental for it. I was sitting there and I wanted to do something like the hip-hop version of 'The Sixth Sense' – I wanted to think what it'd be like if I was walking around and people couldn't see me. In my mind, I'm in a store and thinking somebody is racist because they're not giving me service (laughs) or I'm with my girl and thinking she's got attitude, you know what I mean (laughs) in reality. I'm not there; I've passed away. And then when I realise, it's the shock that I feel, like I go through all these events and I don't realise I've passed away until I heard the local radio station playing my song because at that time when I was living in Charlotte the local radio didn't play anybody from the city until you passed away. It's a kind of bitter-sweet thing, it's like hey man, I'm finally on the radio, but hey wait, I had to die to be appreciated (laughs), you know. The follow-up to that is 'The Day After' on the Gold Standard record; 'The Day After' is what happens after I passed away and everybody loves me now. Basically it's the sequel – I think those tracks should be listened to back and back.

MB: It's light-hearted in a way, but it's also got a real punch to it in the lyrics but it's got that feeling of not being recognised and if you listen to a lot of your tracks it's about that isn't it, not being recognised. It's got a real emotional aspect to it as well, I'd say.

S: Yes, it's definitely got that too (…)

MB: Thinking more generally about hip-hop, do you think this is a kind of pressure people on the industry put on themselves, when they refer to hip-hop as being a young man's game, or when they focus on these amazing prodigies like Big L or Nas in the history of hip-hop who were so young when they started. Do you think that there is something in the culture of hip-hop that makes people feel a bit pressured?

S: Definitely it's considered a young man's sport, if you're 28, you're considered old. It's almost like it's treated like a sport, when you hit 30, it's like you're over the hill in hip-hop, but I think a lot of that comes from the fact that there is no contemporary category. The demographic is mostly for young minds. I think it goes down to urban culture in general, where everything is trendy and it's much the same for hip-hop. People are into certain things for a certain while. If you look at hip-hop and dj-ing people love it for a particular time and then overall it became a thing of the past (b-boying and things like that). I think the music from myself or people influenced by the boom-bap/jazz hip-hop we feel like our time is limited, so we have to do as much as we do.

And in urban culture too there is no appreciation for history if you look at the African-American culture a lot of people don't appreciate the people who came before them, they'll disrespect their elders. It's like, cool you've paved the way, but we'll take it from here. A lot of times in hip-hop that's how we feel, we've reached a certain age or a certain point and they're telling us we're too old, but I think hip-hop isn't a sport, it's a thinking game. I mean you can't be the President of the United States at 25. You've got to have your thoughts and life experience together and I think with hip-hop as you get older you should get better, you should be more appreciated because you're a better thinker and you've lived a lot more.

MB: It's strange though as one thing that really strikes me is the nostalgia for the past in hip-hop, you have these 18 and 20 year-old kids saying, 'Oh the 90s, the 90s, it's the golden age/the golden era etc etc' – so there's this nostalgia for the music but maybe a disrespect for the artists, would you say? It's kind of bizarre.

S: It's disrespectful … I think a lot of people don't want to admit that they weren't around for some of the best times in life, you know; it's like I was really too young to appreciate Muhammad Ali as people from that time, but there is no way I'd say he wasn't a great boxer (laughs). There's no way I can say he wasn't one of the greatest. I think a lot of time for this generation if they haven't seen it, or experienced it, it's like it doesn't exist. To be honest when I started to listen to hip-hop, the first time I heard Grandmaster Flash, Melle Mel and Treacherous 3 and stuff like that, I wasn't into it, because at that time my mom, my aunts and uncles were into disco and it sounded so much like disco and dance music and it was years later that I started to Run DMC and Slick Rick, Jazzy Jeff and I started to hear it. But I would never say that all that stuff was corny because without all that it would be impossible for me to do what I'm doing now, you know what I'm saying. I think it's real disrespectful a lot of times. But if people don't have a respect for their history or their culture, you really can't expect too much out of them, you know.

MB: At the end of 'Best Worst Day' who was speaking, I've got a feeling it is Nina Simone but I'm not sure.

S: I think it is Nina Simone actually, yeah, when she's talking about how she had to go overseas to be appreciated – yeah, that's Nina Simone. I was listening to a Nina Simone interview and this really touched me because she was originally from North Carolina as well. She was just so inspiring and I could understand that. I just wanted to be appreciated by those around me, the people I'm doing this for.

MB: Just to finish could you talk to me about Nina Simone as I saw what struck me as a funny comment that you made in an interview, someone asked who of the greats would you have liked to have worked with and Nina Simone but then added, I'm not sure if she was into hip-hop.

S: (laughs)

MB: I mean, what are you're feelings about Nina Simone is she an inspiration for you?

S: She's definitely an inspiration, I caught on to her later in life and became so engulfed in her music. When I listen to her music I can tell the transition she went through, you can hear one song and she's doing all kinds of music – not only jazz, but she's classically trained; she'll give you love and heartbreak songs, but she'll also give you positive, and conscious songs – uplifting songs, songs where she lets her hair down and talk shit and do what she has to do. Just the dynamic of Nina Simone is just so impressive, like I said her being from North Carolina as well along with people like George Clinton and John Coltrane is just so inspiring.

MB: Where was she from in North Carolina?

S: I think she was from Tryon, North Carolina – another small town.

MB: Which Nina Simone track would you choose if you had to choose one?

S: (pauses) Wow, it's actually 'Funkier than a Mosquito's Tweeter'-

 

talking about a partner and saying you're always rapping about the same old things (laughs). If you listen to that track, I don't know why nobody's ever sampled it and put it into a song, maybe I should sample it and put it into a song, that and of course 'Don't let me be misunderstood' which is one of her most popular songs.  

National Front victorious: French regional elections, 6th of December

When French President, François Hollande contacted the country’s leading politicians to invite them to march in support of Republican values after the Charlie Hebdo massacre earlier this year, there was one striking absence: Marine Le Pen. The same woman whose far-right party, the National Front, topped the country's regional elections yesterday.

Leading in half of the country's electorates, the National Front received almost 30 per cent of the national vote and is now expected to take control of two regions; the country's poorest region in the far north and the glitzy Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur. This is unprecedented.

The election was marked by a high abstention rate; just under 50 per cent of all registered voters cast their ballot (more than doubling the rate from three decades ago). And this always benefits the National Front. But this unequivocal result, coming soon after the party's first place in the European elections indicates a major shift in the French political landscape.

When French President, François Hollande contacted the country’s leading politicians to invite them to march in support of Republican values after the Charlie Hebdo massacre earlier this year, there was one striking absence: Marine Le Pen. The same woman whose far-right party, the National Front, topped the country's regional elections yesterday.

Leading in half of the country's electorates, the National Front received almost 30 per cent of the national vote and is now expected to take control of two regions; the country's poorest region in the far north and the glitzy Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur. This is unprecedented.

The election was marked by a high abstention rate; just under 50 per cent of all registered voters cast their ballot (more than doubling the rate from three decades ago). And this always benefits the National Front. But this unequivocal result, coming soon after the party's first place in the European elections indicates a major shift in the French political landscape.

Indeed, Le Monde's front page from this morning demonstrates the extent of the National Front victory. It is a map of France, with all the results coloured pink for the ruling Socialists (and other left parties); blue for the Republicans, formerly the UMP, led by former French President Nicolas Sarkozy and brown for the National Front. From the north to the south, to the east and into the centre, the map of France is almost completely shaded brown.

Back in January, the logic behind the exclusion of Le Pen from the march was simple. The anarchist cartoonists behind Charlie Hebdo despised Le Pen père et fille . Hollande was merely following usual practice here; that is, either ignoring, or blocking, Le Pen and her party in the hope that they might fade into the background.

And yet the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris that left 130 people dead and 350 injured changed everything. At the deeply moving national ceremony to remember these victims at Les Invalides, Marine Le Pen was present. Les Invalides is the symbolic heart of Paris' military past and present; a site that houses the ashes of Napoleon Bonaparte and has traditionally been used to commemorate the passing of important heads of state; fallen soldiers; police killed in the line of duty and résistants. This was the first time 'ordinary heroes' were to be commemorated there, and here the French State was making a clear point. As Patrick Garcia, Professor of History at Cergy-Pontoise told Le Figaro: ''The victims of the 13th of November were elevated to the level of military heroes.'

The Saturday after the Paris carnage, Le Pen repeated the National Front's three core demands first outlined after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January; the closure of France's borders (the party wants this to be permanent); the stripping of French citizenship from dual citizens involved in terrorism and the closure of 'Salafist' – extremist - mosques in France. The Hollande government announced its agreement with all three; while declaring a state of emergency in France that will continue until next year.

It would be easy to argue that Sunday's historic victory of the National Front will have little political influence here (how important are decisions decided in the regions in terms of a national politic?) or that it will not guarantee Marine Le Pen's success in the 2017 Presidential poll.

It would be easy, but misguided. What this election demonstrates is the truly national reach of the National Front (the six regions include Alsace in the east and also central regions, such as Burgundy and the Loire Valley). Alsace also has the second highest rate of absenteeism – after the Ile-de-France, which includes Paris.

Moreover, as Australians, the British and Americans know full well: the shocking success of parties largely considered to be fringe, or marginal not only shake up the content, but how politics is played by the mainstream parties. And this is what is happening now in France.

Back in 2002, after the National Front founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen was included in the run-off presidential election, French voters – right and left - united to support the conservative Jacques Chirac (who received 82 % of the national vote).

Today, governing Socialist politicians are calling for the same, urging candidates to withdraw or for voters to be 'strategic' in an effort to keep the National Front out of power. This suggests that they are not only rattled, but scared. The problem here is that such efforts only reinforce one of the National Front's key arguments, that is that mainstream parties are the same; and only look out for their own interests.

In January, Marine Le Pen responded to her exclusion from the Paris rally that ended up attracting more than 1.5 million people onto the streets of Paris in a characteristic fashion. What her exclusion showed, she said, was that the march was more about the political class than anything else. It was also an insult to the 25 per cent of the French population that voted National Front in the European elections in May, 2014, when the party topped a national poll for the first time.

Taking on the victim role, she said that the National Front represents the ‘invisible and forgotten’ unlike the ‘gang of four’ (the classic French political parties).

Some years earlier, in a meeting in Metz, north-eastern France, Marine Le Pen summed up her political world-view when she said her party spoke directly to ‘farmers, the unemployed, workers, the retired, people living in rural France. You are the forgotten ones, the invisible majority, crushed by a financial system gone mad,’ she said. Then she added, 'For the political class, the UMP-PS (conservative and Socialist party), when faced by their god, the triple A finance rating, you are the triple nothing.

Tom Withers (Klute/The Stupids) Interview 

Two years before his death from heroin, I walked into my uncle’s room (I was ten years old at the time). He usually had his door locked but that day it was left ajar and I could hear this song pulsing from inside the bedroom. 

When I walked in he was lying in bed, mouth open and eyes staring at the ceiling while this song was throbbing in the background. I said hello and a few seconds later his bloodshot eyes rolled slowly over to me and he rasped out something back at me. It scared me at the time so I ran out crying, and my dad told me my uncle was just sick that day. I saw him a few hours later, and he was back to his mellow self and apologized for scaring me. 

Well, sure enough, two years later he overdosed and passed away. Sometimes when I visit my grandmother’s house, I sit on the couch by the stairs, and I can still hear this song growling from his now-empty room. Such a beautiful song, one of the strange but gentle gifts my uncle left me before he passed... before heroin used him up.”

— AliKarimi comment on Youtube posted on a 1972 live recording of 'Use me' by Bill Withers

Late last year, I came across two tracks by Klute (Tom Withers) that made me think that Drum and Bass (DnB); the genre of music I had previously not given much thought to might not be so mono-dimensional after all. (To be more accurate, a friend emailed them to me when trying to wake me up, sell the genre to me; it wasn't a random occurrence). These two Klute tracks 'We are all dying' and 'Come back to me' - released on Soul:/r in 2006. 

Even now, after having listened to this music countless times, it still strikes me as a remarkably fresh: at once a combination of precision-force, carried along by the beat, and lush sentiment; the same (uneasy) combination you might find in a track by Wire re-imagined for the new century - even though Colin Newman's delivery would forever remain flat, unemotional compared to the splintered, soulful female voices found in Klute's music. 

What immediately stands out is the way the music is constructed, just like a perfect three minute pop/punk song and this is what really interests me ; the organisational intelligence that betrays the composer's hybrid origins. 

'We are all dying' starts with a moody affect, rain-like prompting  connections with B&W film noir ...

and then the beat kicks in at around 20 seconds, one minute later it drops, with this burst of intensity as a listener you gain some kind of comfort, reinforced by the arrival of the vocals at two minutes and then, finally, three minutes after the original shift there is some kind of resolution. And that repetition of the single note, providing as it were some kind of spine, is a marker of real originality. 

'Come back to me' is even more dramatic in its structure, with the sudden fall at 1 min 20 ... 

where the music is pushed along by a driving force, after an opening where all the elements start at the same level. Any listener of pop/punk music automatically understands on a gut-level how this shift works, how here in this moment there is a universal logic that somehow makes sense. 

In the end, what I like best about 'Come back to me' is the way the beat is unstable, mercurial. Often DnB uses the beat in a lazy way, it seems to me, as an immediate way to provide intensity; here, Klute plays around with it - bringing it forward, or doubling it up; for it then at other times to recede, or even completely disappear. 

All this fits with the assessment of  the US DJ/producer, Mister Shifter who said that in Klute's music you find a 'signature blend of beauty, sadness, playfulness and euphoria'. Klute's music evokes a mix of emotional imprints that keep moving. 

Madeleine Byrne: 'The reason why I really liked this music was I could hear a construction behind it, not unlike a classic punk song, or even something from the 1950s. It reminded me of something like Julie London, or something where you can hear the orchestration, the different sections of the track ... 

Tom Withers (Klute): My formative years as a musician were based around what I heard from my two older sisters. I was around what was coming out from behind their bedroom doors, what they were playing in their bedrooms. One, or if not both of them, was into Burt Bacharach and quite orchestrated, hyper-songwriting based music ... 

MB: That's why I was thinking 'lounge music' and mentioned Julie London, it's the kind of artificial pop music aspect to it ... 

TW: I'm quite a big fan of orchestrated, symphonic music; I suppose what I ended up was liking a lot of what is called 'sunshine pop' - you know, the Beach Boys, very symphonic, hyper-layered, melancholic melodies and stuff like that. In that respect, in terms of how I approach making DnB it's very musician-based and that's kind of led me to having a space of my own really, as I've ended up with this almost idiosyncratic style, drawing on the ghost of these crazy influences and stuff, concentrating more on that than dance-floor symmetry; a lot of people sit down and study exact frequencies and the timing and the arrangements that will have impact on a dance-floor, whereas I've always been more inspired by the musicality of it and replicating what is going on inside my head. 

Something like 'We are all dying/Come back to me' I specifically remember it coming out of a quite heavy bout of listening to The Carpenters, rather than it being punk-rock inspired.' 

In a 2005 interview with the site Resident Adviser Withers talked about his album, No One’s Listening Anymore:  

'I think I just wanted to build on the last one,' Withers says. 'I can’t say that with any album I do specifically, ‘this is what I’ve wanted to do’, they’re just building on the one before. I think that’s the way No One’s Listening Anymore is certainly. I’ve done a lot more concentrating on songs this time, which is what I said last time, but I’ve even more done it this time. There’s a lot more singing and there’s a lot more song-based structures.'

Song-based structures. When I spoke with Withers he disagreed with the notion that his 'computer-based music' built on his experience as a drummer in the punk/hardcore group, The Stupids; or that he consciously drew on his knowledge of other forms of music as a professional musician. 

In August this year in an interview with Louder than War, John Maher, the original drummer with the Buzzcocks referred to his interest in Klute's music ....

“What else do you listen to for pleasure?

I don’t actively search out new music. I occasionally stumble across something I like on BBC Radio 6 or whatever station I can pick up when I’m on a long distance drive. In the workshop I stream D’n’B radio much of the time. I’m a big fan of Klute (Tom Withers). When I first started travelling between Manchester and the Isle of Harris, Klute provided the soundtrack for many long road trips. I have all sorts of good associations when I listen back to Casual Bodies and Fear of People. Tom used to be a drummer in a punk band. I’m sure that sense of rhythm is what gives his particular brand of drum and bass more depth than most. I’ve been following him since the late ‘90s. He’s never put a foot wrong. Being a fan, I wore my Commercial Suicide tee-shirt (Klute’s label), when Buzzcocks played at Manchester Apollo in 2012.”

— Nostalgia For An Age Yet To Come: ex-Buzzcocks current Penetration drummer John Maher interviewed by Ged Babey, 'Louder than War' August 2015

MB: I saw that the original drummer from the Buzzcocks, John Maher, said that he was a big fan of yours, you must have been pretty happy to have read that, yeah ?

TW: It was pretty bizarre. A few years ago somebody sent me a link to a video of the Buzzcocks playing and he said, 'Look at the drummer's T-shirt' and he was wearing a Commercial Suicide - Withers' record label - T-shirt and I just thought at the time, oh it'll be one of their new members, maybe a DnB fan, or whatever, I didn't really think too much about it. It never occurred to me that it was the original guy, I mean I've been listening to the Buzzcocks since I was about 10 or 12 years old. And Maher has always kind of stood out for me as quite a good drummer because he's got this quite sort of fast pace to his drumming, a lot of stuff happening in the hi-hats, I've always seen his playing as kind of a slapdash feeling. I was always conscious of the drumming in the Buzzcocks. I listened to the Buzzcocks quite a lot actually, so when a friend of mine sent me a link to that recent interview I was quite blown away that he specifically talked about me, cause you know I can reflect on that from my perspective when someone asks what I've been listening to and you know to pick something to talk about is something that means something, rather than just chucking out something, that's caught your attention in the last couple of weeks. It's very flattering; yeah, I was very pleased. 

MB: I loved the way he talked about your music providing the soundtrack for various (car) journeys in his life; the music obviously means quite a lot to  him ...

TW: Yeah, I have met people through the years that something I've done or written has helped them through something difficult, it's been there for the soundtrack for a big part of their life and it's a strange thing to relate to really because I'm completely removed from that situation. Because it's music that I've made - it's obviously a big part of my life, but for a completely different reason. It's amazing information, but I don't know what to do with it (laughs).

MB: He (John Maher) said that the fact that you are a drummer probably gives your DnB more 'depth' - what do you think about that; do you think your experience as a professional musician, as someone who has had the experience of playing live, do you think that affects the way you create DnB ? 

TW: (pauses) I think it possibly has to do with the individual style that I've got, that just might be who I am as a person; in the same respect that drumming and punk rock as got this, oh I don't know, it's a very uncomposed style. It almost feels that I'm conducting with drums, it's like I'm playing the drums as if I were playing guitar, if you can imagine how someone strums a guitar - you move along with the main tune and riff and rhythm - I think that it's partially do with drumming, but it might also have to do with my own personal style of music-making, because it's largely untaught. I had a few drum lessons from a punk rocker when I was about 12 years-old, but that was about it. Everything else I've just sort of picked up by myself, or off mates or whatever. 

It's always been centered around being intuitive and that's the way I relate to music with software, even though I often come up against brick walls with software because a lot of it is completely counter-intuitive. 

(..) It's very immediate playing drums, that's the way I enjoy music for things to be immediate, as opposed to painstaking, theoretical stuff, like Stockhausen or something like that would do my nut in basically even though some of it's quite nice to listen to. A lot of my work is non-theoretical a lot of the time. 

MB: You've just used the word 'intuitive' I'm wondering if you could explore that a bit more ...

TW: Intuitive, I think, is being able to do things without much conscious thought. You can pick up an instrument and you can do something with it; you might take a long time to master it, but you can pick up a drumstick and pretty much do something with it, but it's not always the same with software it can become a bit counter-intuitive in the respect that it becomes overladen with features and functions and stuff like that as opposed to something you pick up and immediately express yourself. 

MB: But can you think of some technology that is intuitive for you ? 

TW: Well, you can pick up a synthesiser keyboard that has lots of knobs and sliders on it, so you can immediately plug that in and start hitting the keys; turning knobs and making weird and crazy sounds and you can explore that without having to understand anything. I think a lot of software, like computers where they have virtual interpretations of so-called real instruments, it becomes quite menu-based so you've got to start delving in deeper and for me it immediately becomes counter-intuitive, very quickly subconsciously I feel quite blocked by it. That's what I mean by intuitive versus counter-intuitive. 

MB: I understand. In an interview you said that the two forms of music you do are quite separate, you said that when you came back to writing songs after a decade, I think it was, of working purely in DnB it felt quite strange because you'd become quite used to working alone with technology, is that something you really believe ? 

I mean, we've just been talking about the music being 'intuitive', but do you really believe that the two forms of music - the punk and the DnB - are quite separate for you ?

TW: (pauses) I don't know. That is something that I have experienced ... yeah, actually I think they are for me; just thinking about it, I need to write some songs for the band and I haven't and that's because I've been concentrating on computer-music at the moment, that might be for some other deeply complex personal reasons, I don't know, but yeah for me they are different things, really: computer-based, repetitive and essentially looped music and I think, you can view a lot of music as basically that you repeat lines of a verse and then you go into a chorus and then it's apparently quite symmetrical in the way it's arranged, but it's not really. I think when you're working on things on a computer, it's laid out in grids and things become basically mathematical, that's the way computers relate to things. In that respect, I do think they are quite different. 

MB: You know like you said before, ('We are all dying/'Come back to me') are like classic Burt Bacharach songs or any of those classics like 'Cry me a River' ...  So tell me a bit more about what your sisters were listening to and what era is was, the 80s, I guess.                              

TW: That would have been in 1980, that's when I started - that's when I became indentified with music. My parents encouraged us all to listen to music and encouraged my sisters to play various instruments, because I was the youngest and the only boy I was left to my own devices until the late 1970s when I started to want to play pots and pans and want to be like Ringo Starr. My ears really turned when I started hearing my sisters play punk and this would have probably been around 77, cause they went out and bought Never Mind the Bollocks and one track in particular 'No More Heroes' by the Stranglers that was life-changing for me. 

MB: Can you tell me why it was life-changing for you ? 

TW: I guess, I don't know (pauses) for me now that era Stranglers is just really rambunctious, I don't know there's something aggressively confronting about their sound. I just remember seeing them on the Top of the Pops, playing the song just the attitude and the little bit of danger behind them. Their bass player Jean-Jacques Burnel had an outstanding bass sound, just seeing him on the stage with his black leather jacket, sneering and stuff like that, it wasn't just this sort of plastic punk thing. It wasn't childish. There was something mature about it. They are one of my all-time favourites, a classic Stranglers line-up still deeply into it, even after all these years. 

So I got dragged through punk, but they were listening to all kinds of stuff - one sister was listening to Tangerine Dream, Pink Floyd, and my other sister was listening to disco and she was the one was listening to the Burt Bacharach; just all kinds of different stuff, whether it was Stevie Wonder, or 'easy listening'. Once I took off with punk rock in 1980, I didn't listen to anything else until about 1987, really when 87/88 when punk became completely redundant to me - over a period of six months - when bands like Sonic Youth started coming around, which has no appeal for me whatsoever. 

(With Sonic Youth) it was a strange introduction of retro-ism to something that I had always thought was forward-thinking, part of that was very focussed on American hardcore which is a suburban revolution really. It's quite a different rebellious base compared to English punk, which started as an arthouse movement and then moved into a street thing. Come 88 I started a mad journey of listening to all kinds of stuff, classic rock and terrible guitar virtuoso Heavy Metal. 

MB: I read somewhere that you were listening to Joe Satriani and I thought 'that's an admission' no?

TW: (laughs) Yes, it was one of those things that even if I dug out those records I wouldn't (laughs) don't know, saying that I still appreciate Van Halen and stuff like that, I don't know ... The first couple of Van Halen records are quite good really. 

MB: (trying to be nice) I mean yeah the sound is great, I can appreciate the way the albums are produced ...   

TW: Yeah, yeah. It's a different thing to Joe Satriani. Joe Satriani and Vinny Moore, Yngwie Malmsteen and stuff like that, well, it's hideous music, really, but then I was spat out the other side with the electronic, or rave music, by which time I wouldn't say left my sisters behind but I'd gotten into my own thing. 

“For me, I’ve always “been a punk”. It did indeed feel like a return to the music after a decade of total immersion into dance/rave music culture in the early 90’s. Punk attitude in its base form goes far beyond the template that’s generally set out for it: Leather jackets, distorted guitar, Sex Pistols, Maximum Rock ‘n Roll etc. Rave culture originally felt very punk in its wreckless freedom of expression and ultra DIY attitude. Apart from that, yes, I desire punk rock, it is my wife.”

— Tom Withers, 'Stupids Interview' Crossfire April 4 2014

MB: Tell me about Ipswich in the 70s and early 80s, what kind of place was it ?

TW: Ipswich was quite a good place in a funny way, it's a suburban town but it always had a vigorous music scene, back in the 60s, Brian Eno went to art college in Ipswich before he went off to bigger and greater things (...) During the late 70s it became quite an active punk scene, quite a big stop for touring bands; everyone from the Clash, Siouxsie and the Banshees - basically everyone - came through here, I think even the Sex Pistols were booked to play here, but that tour got cancelled. 

By the time I started socialising with people in the town in 80/81 there was quite a big punk scene here. The main band being the Addicts, they are probably bigger now than they ever were; quite a popular band, so eventually with the people around here I got a band together that ended up being the Stupids. 

MB: Could you describe the success (Tom Withers' band) the Stupids had now, looking back, the fact that you were on the cover of NME and Sounds, very big magazines; how would you describe the success of the Stupids at that time ?

TW: It was very strange, really, because to look back on it now it seems all kind of inconsequential and would be extremely easy to not notice really because it came down to a period of 9 to 12 months. We were basically a high school punk band, we were quite good at what we did, the first album in particular was really good and I think that at the time in the UK there was anything like that it was all quite ploddy, miserable what they call UK 82 punk rock, which is very politicised and miserable and then along we came, very young playing really fast. It felt like a bit of electricity for those who were into it. 

So very quickly John Peel got a hold of it and started playing it. In those days it was like your instant ticket to whatever, as soon as Peel played it it was a complete stamp of approval, it just meant that you're good (laughs). There is a real sense of trust about John Peel as he had very wild and eclectic tastes; he didn't play rubbish, he didn't play anything with any kind of agenda behind it, he didn't have an ego. He didn't decide I'm going to break these guys, I like these guys, they're great. 

TW: From that initial interest from John Peel, I think we did three or four (John Peel) sessions in the end from that we kind of got a record deal with a more progressive label, who employed a publicist. We were just these kids and had a meeting with this guy giving us ideas, the process of the next nine months it just seemed to snowball, it was nuts and completely without any hype, no engineering or anything. It was the right place at the right time, we were into skateboarding, genuinely at the same time that was blowing up to being a fashionable thing. 

Cause we were young we were getting interest from Smash Hits and the poppy side of things, so we had a centre-spread in Smash Hits and the next thing is a journalist saying, did you know Bowie is talking about you ? There's an interview with Bowie in Rolling Stone where he talks about us, what are your tips, David, well my son has told me about this band called the Stupids (laughs).

It turned into this crazy thing and I suppose because we were completely unenterprising or have no aspirations, we weren't anticipating this, it went as quickly as it came basically. There was no plan behind it; no operation behind it, as quickly as the press became interested as quickly they became disinterested. I think we were disinterested in it by late 88, I'd lost interest in punk rock so it came to it's own natural conclusion really. Funny old time. 

MB: You talk about it being punk music, but isn't it more power-pop Descendents, Californian type music ?

TW: With the Stupids, I'd say we were straight up hardcore, really. It's not as poppy as the Descendents, saying that the first Descendents album was very much a call to arms for me, it was one of the first punk records that genuinely spoke to me lyrically. I don't know if you know Milo goes to college but that song, 'I'm not a loser' that was the first time lyrics that actually applied to me rather than being some kind of abstract whatever. I didn't understand what 'God save the Queen' meant at the time when I was a kid; stuff like the Descendents really spoke to me, being middle-class and from suburbia. That was the real driving force, much more than the Sex Pistols or the Stranglers; it was much more of a driving force that propelled me to feel like I can do this, I've got something to say. 

MB: And it's a young guys's music too, I mean the Stranglers are fantastic but if you're fifteen years old, it's kind of distant, no ?

TW: Well, the Stranglers were college students, they are quite intellectual, so I didn't know who Leon Trotsky was, it sounded nice the way he sang it, but I had no idea who that was when I was 10 years old (laughs). It was very highbrow a lot of their lyrical stuff. I think the Stranglers were always quite grown-up, they were angry grown-ups really. 

MB: You've talked about punk as being 'your wife' in an interview and how you 'desire' it, is that a sentiment you still hold onto as punk being central to your sense of self as a musician/artist ?

TW: Definitely - as a human being, yeah; it taught me, or it resonates with me and my nature, questioning things, the sense that you can do what you want to do without permission or whatever. Saying that, punk as a movement now is in that sense quite redundant because like everything it has developed its predictable format and punk has become a label and a fashion. I guess it always was, but there was some kind of progression with it, an attitude of community behind it. Whereas I don't think, a lot of punk is related to from a retrospective angle. I think a lot of things are now. 

MB: I really liked your story of Ian MacKaye, from Fugazi/Minor Threat, going to a Stupids gig, where he was completely shocked by the audience's response - he was so shocked because the audience was so aggressive, was that true ?

TW: Yes, yeah that is true (laughs) yeah, Ian.

MB: He is very serious about that, he doesn't like that disrespect. I was wondering if that whole DC scene was an inspiration for you perhaps when you decided to set up your own record company, Commercial Suicide Records in 2001 were you inspired by example of Dischord ?

TW: Yeah, yeah massively. Dischord is really, I think it's probably more than any other label because, well, I think DC music in terms of American hardcore resonated with me more than any other scene. From very early on I developed a penpal friendship with people over there, who came over to visit around 1983/1984. I think in 1985 I went over to visit there during what they call Revolution Summer, I don't know if it was through exposure to it, or that they are one of the few labels that have maintained their position really and not got any smaller and just stuck what they believe in for no reason other than that's simply what they believe in, not because it's some sort of stance, or a political position, just that this is what they do, I believe in that, I don't believe Dischord was a business, it was a way to release music by people they like, or respect. That is the way I relate to things on my label, Commercial Suicide, it's not about being the biggest or the greatest, it's just a means to release my music and music by other people I like and respect.

In that respect, Ian MacKaye/Jeff Nelson it's quite admirable operation, really - never backing down from what they want and having never sold out. It's very inspirational in that respect, yeah. 

MB: Maybe just to finish, I thought we could talk about some more recent music- 'We are the ones' ... and I think it's on a compilation called 'Commercial Suicide is Painless' ...

TW: Yeah (laughs)

MB: When listening to that I wrote down a few words, or phrases one was 'controlled repetition' and 'pop elements' but it also had a real punk feel for me, just wondering if you could talk about that track for me a bit, please.       

TW: 'We are the ones' (pauses) you know that's a hard one for me to remember because it's one of the oldest tracks I did, and I've done four or five different versions of it (laughs) it's a kind of strange track that keeps recurring for one reason or another; I've done three versions of my own and then Ulterior Motive did a remix, so there are four different versions of it. 

The words, 'We are the ones' are words I spoke into a microphone, I think it had some kind of bearing on, I think it was somewhat space-oriented, rather than community-based DnB (laughs) I don't know it's come to represent something else with me (laughs). I think there's something in that track, there's always been something in it that has propelled me to do more with it - approach it from different angles, for absolutely no reason, I don't know why; it's just one of those tracks (laughs).

MB: The compilation itself is a range of different artists, are they contemporaries of yours, or ...

TW: Yeah, everything on Commercial Suicide is Painless came out on the label that year so it's literally a compendium of what came out in 2013, I always liked the title because it was the theme from M.A.S.H (laughs) but I don't think anyone caught that. 

MB: Your most recent release is 'Savage Circle' on Metalheadz is that correct ?

TW: Yes. 

MB: Talk to me a little about this record, what were you trying to do with this one ?

TW: (pauses) When I release things it's very difficult for me to form a realisation of what it is or why things happen because it's in some ways quite chaotic, because there are different people involved. Then it takes me a bit of time to stand back and work out the meaning, or the relevance of things; that certainly happens with a lot of lyrics for the Stupids as well, I come back a year after writing them and say, I had absolutely no idea that the song was actually about that or this. It's about gaining some perspective on something that was quite a subconscious process. 

'Savage Circle' it is what it is. For me, the track 'Just what you're feeling' I never quite understood why I called it that but it for me now is a complete standout track, and I've really fallen in love with that track because before it was that's okay, but now it's a real special one for me.

TW: It's an ep I'm really proud of. It's a little bit more abstract and layered than a lot of other DnB is at the moment and in the contemporary DnB scene I think that it is needed; it is slightly abstract style. 

MB: Just to finish, talk a bit more about what you mean by 'abstract' because I found it was an intense record and had a real punch to it, so when I hear the word abstract it sounds intellectual, what do you mean by abstract ?

TW: Well, it's (pauses) DnB is most of what is coming out, week in week out, is stripped back and clean and very focussed, just stripped back, whereas my stuff is (pauses) using an analogy of a painter that throws paint onto a canvas as compared to someone sitting there with a fine brush, painstakingly making sure that every single stroke is the correct one in the right place, in the right colour and stuff like that. 

To me, I've grown my imagined picture - out of layering different stuff so from that perspective I feel it's comparatively, within the realm of DnB, abstract. When you listen to things at different times you can hear different tones coming out in different places. This is what keeps me interested, the sonic complexity; but then someone else's experience might be - as you say - seeing it as quite punchy, or whatever. 

MB: If you're making an analogy to a painter, it's like a Jackson Pollock or something. It's got an intensity, but still a lot of depth and contrast. 

TW: Yeah, yeah, I guess. My sister is the artist, so I'm relating to it on that level as an outsider, but yeah I suppose having grown up around her and her art and the way she is with it, she always wants to explore different techniques, it's that kind of you know smudging and ending up with something beautiful. 

( MB: Was this the sister who was listening to Burt Bacharach, or listening to punk ?

TW: (pauses) This was the sister who was more Tangerine Dream-y, but went to art college with the Raincoats, so I suppose she was coming from a punk rock scene too). 

Michael Valentine West Interview

Madeleine Byrne: I really, really liked your album - Code 17 Abstraction (Ana Ott, 2014) - especially ‘Kim M’ .. If you were to describe this record, what kinds of words would you use?

Michael Valentine West: Well, first, I would say, it’s not a jazz record - it’s definitely not a jazz record - there are elements that are informed by jazz, elements informed by glitch music, feedback - sonic feedback ...

MB: It’s not a jazz record, you say .. why? cause when I heard it, I thought it was definitely coming out of a jazz tradition.

MVW: It is and it isn’t - jazz can be a broad church, or it can be restrictive. One of the most famous supposed jazz musicians, always said that he hated the term 'jazz’ because it was too restrictive for what he was doing.

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Black Milk Interview

“Being invisible and without substance, a disembodied voice, as it were, what else could I do? What else but try to tell you what was really happening when your eyes were looking through? And it is this which frightens me:

Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”

— Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (Penguin Twentieth Century Classics, first published 1952)

 

Nothing is predictable about Black Milk’s music or modus operandi – and this includes his rationale for choosing ‘If there’s a hell below…’ as the album title for his most recent record. ‘When I was going through a lot of names that title just popped into my mind,’ Black Milk tells me over the phone from Detroit just days before starting his US tour. He then adds: ‘I wasn’t even listening to any Curtis Mayfield records at the time.’ 

‘You know when I’m thinking of song titles, my process is writing down a lot of different words, I’m real big on how stuff looks visually, that’s almost as important as how words actually sound, when I’m writing down titles – song titles, or album titles – anything that I have to give a name to, it’s almost as important to me how it looks on a piece of paper versus what it sounds like.’ 

Despite the obvious nod to Mayfield, the music of the 70s soul legend is largely absent on Black Milk’s album: ‘I redid the interlude on the album that comes over (at the end of) ‘What it’s Worth’ where you can hear me saying, ‘Niggers! Whities! Jews! Crackers …’ – I put an effect on my voice and tried sound as close to the actual record, but that’s the only part of the album where I reference Curtis Mayfield; other than that there are no actual Mayfield samples on the record.’

In interviews, Black Milk seems ambivalent about people taking this reference to hell too literally, as say a direct reference to his native Detroit. ‘The album is not really about hell, or being in hell,’ he says. ‘It’s about growing up in an environment that some people might think is a living hell, but finding happiness within that hell. That is what the title represented and when you listen to the music you can hear a lot of different scenarios that paint pictures of where I’m from.’

Black Milk’s most recent record offers an elegant refusal. There is no fixed point to relate to, no straight-forward autobiography, or authentic voice. The record is quicksilver slippery while remaining intensely personal: it is distant – a highly produced and artificial object, but still has an elemental force.  What immediately strikes me in the record is the use of repetition and concurrent lack of resolution and release; the lack of foregrounding of Black Milk’s vocal-line and the desire to evoke an imagined, or perhaps felt, Detroit.

Throughout our conversation, Black Milk repeats how this record is not as bleak as his previous album, No poison, No paradise (Fat Beats/Computer Ugly, 2013). It evokes a broken environment – where ‘grandma live longer than grandson’ - but it is also a place of tenderness and love. Black Milk explains, ‘Even though with the visual aesthetic and some of the sound aesthetic, the tone is dark, I wanted to have a certain energy in the music so that even if it had a dark overtone, it had some feel-good, or some vibrant colours in it, whether it is the music, the rap, or the actual beat.’

And yet the record’s achievement lies in its mood, the way the tracks segue together - and this mood is one of grey clouds and Detroit’s ‘beautiful ugliness’. It exists within the same universe as Massive Attack’s less radio-friendly offerings (Mezzanine) or Tricky’s more uncompromising solo albums (Pre-Millennial Tension or Nearly God) when asked about these UK artists, Black Milk mentioned that other than knowing they had a track called ‘Black Milk,’ he was ‘not too hip to their music and hadn’t had a chance to dig into their catalogue’ – but filtered through his key musical points of reference: hip-hop, techno and 70s soul music. 

There’s a moment in Kendrick Lamar's track 'i' from his record To Pimp a Butterfly and video that embodies the dystopian Black Milk mind-space/aesthetic: Lamar passes a number of different traumatic incidents – a Black man being handcuffed by the police; a man with a gun to his head, ready to commit suicide; a man yelling at his wife, while the children run away - passing them as if a wanderer in a modern-day Canterbury Tales, around three minutes in, everything shifts. Leaning out of a car window and then jumping to a shot of Lamar dancing in his fluorescent white T-shirt; it becomes disjointed and broken-up. 

Hard to follow, hard to understand – the words have become a spitfire delivery - Lamar spits, literally with a kind of desperation: 

“I went to war last night/
With an automatic weapon, don’t nobody call a medic/
I’mma do it till I get it right/
I went to war last night
(Night, night, night, night)/
I’ve been dealing with depression ever since an adolescent.”

The energy is basic here, formed by Lamar’s intense delivery and music that has suddenly become jittery; scattered.

Starting out fighting with some absent opponent (or is he trying to escape someone/something in the car) rolling and writhing, reaching out of the car window, a (Black) body in pain; hysterical and (apparently) out of control as he shouts out to the night.

This is light years away from Lamar’s previous celebration of California as a paradise where men from all over come for the ‘women, weed and weather’.

Towards the end, Lamar still leaning out the moving car window, looks up into the sky; his body is almost immobile –suspended, he is still: 

“Duckin’ every other blessin, I can never see the message/
I can never take the lead, I can never bob and weave/
For my nigga that be letting ‘em annihilate me/
And the sound is moving in a meteor speed

From a 100 to a billion lay my body in the street/
Keep my money in the ceiling let my mama know I’m free … ”
 

  II.

My passion is really in production, making beats and the backdrop and the music for the album, so I spend a lot of time crafting the beat and looking for the right samples that flow together with other samples and making a cohesive project. It all starts with my going to a record shop and digging and finding vinyl, different records and trying to find different samples and themes that I can bring back to the lab and to make something out of it. Once I get the production down the lyrics follow. I kind of always let the beat guide and direct the lyrics and where I want to go with the song. It’s rare that I write a rhyme before I get the track. I let the music speak first.

Black Milk

 

Black Milk first made his name producing the seminal hip-hop group from Detroit, Slum Village after the late J Dilla left to focus on his solo work. (During the interview, he became animated recalling how Slum Village’s album, ‘Fantastic, vol.2’ from 2000 is ‘still’ his ‘favourite hip-hop record of all time’).  

“MUHAMMAD: ‘I mean, considering the position – because Dilla’s the foundation of Slum Village – so you’re coming in and taking up, filling up a void, you know, obviously. There has to be a level of musicianship that comes to match it.

BLACK MILK: ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah. And I didn’t know, at the time – that was a lot of pressure for me. And because Dilla was already 10 years ahead of everybody musically, especially when it comes to beats. So it was like, ‘Alright.’ And then also I was kind of, you know, Dilla was my inspiration, so you heard a lot of his influence in my beats at the time (…) 

(J Dilla) came up to the studio a few times and I met him and we kicked it a little bit and he just basically – he heard some of my stuff and he was like, ‘Yo.’ Gave me that nod like, ‘Yeah, you on that path. You doing your thing.’ You know what I’m saying, like, ‘Keep doing your thing and you have something there.’ So after that, I heard him spit over one of my tracks. They did a song called ‘Reunion’ and that was the first time I ever heard Dilla rhyme over one of my beats. And man, that joint, that was like, you know, I was in heaven. Like, I was good after that. I didn’t have to do anything else, you know, at that time, cause Dilla was everything to me.’”

— Black Milk, interview with Ali Shaheed Muhammad/Frannie Kelley, ‘Black Milk: ‘It’s not really a cakewalk’ ‘Microphone Check’ NPR, January 08,2015

   

‘All Mighty’

Q: ‘Do you remember the first beat you created?’

Black Milk: ‘First beat …I kinda do but I kinda don’t. Even though I’m from the late 90s, early 2000s era, I still experienced the whole pause tape thing. That’s how it started off: taking two cassette tapes and trying to start one, taking one piece of a sample from one tape and loop it onto another one. I did a little bit of that. It’s definitely dedication. That’s all for the love (laughs). It went from having that to having a little karaoke machine, fucking Casio keyboard and recording that bullshit-ass cassette tapes to buying an actual W-30 Roland sampler and going to the MPC 2000 XL.
— Black Milk, interview with Bryan Hahn ‘Black Milk talks secrets to sampling, Detroit’s legacy and working with Jack White’ January 14th, 2015, www.massappeal.com

Busting up pre-existing conventions found in any form of popular music, whether it be rock or jazz let alone hip-hop ‘All Mighty’ starts with an excessive, ridiculously excessive beat that on first impression sounds like a drum-solo – smashing and crashing and bashing (more Animal from the Muppets than Max Roach) before Black Milk comes in, as he told former A Tribe Called Quest MC, Ali Shaheed Muhammed and NPR Music Editor, Frannie Kelley in January, ‘to vent’.

No concession is made for the rap when it comes in; no lowering of the beat to make space, so that together it sounds messy, but intense, with all the elements kept at the same level.

Black Milk’s tracks often have clearly defined sections and ‘All Mighty’ is an extreme example of this; first starting with the beat-induced excess and then a sharp change at about 1’15” where the music transforms into a gentle electronic reverie, with female backing vocals.

Throughout the rap is highly mannered, stopping on key words – to provide emphasis in a strange, unnatural way, stopping either before or after the word. He even includes a kind of Steve Miller reference, with the ‘ticking, ticking, ticking’ part. And then at the end is an instrumental interlude; an elegant stylistic diversion …

‘On the last couple of albums, my production has gone to a place where I create a song that isn’t just the traditional verse hook, verse hook. I like to break the songs up, break the monotony and do something more spontaneous and throw you off a little bit when you listen to it and put stuff in that you might not expect,’ he told me.

‘Now I try to mix up the format so that it doesn’t get too boring, just to give the listener something spontaneous that jumps at them and is not what they expect and that’s what I tried to do with ‘All Mighty’.

This track describes how Black Milk felt starting out: 'Trying to capture the feeling you felt/When it was just you feeling yourself/No interviews or album reviews good or bad/Just lyrics and beat that played in the back.'

Looking back on his career seems to be on Black Milk’s mind at the moment, as he often returns to this in interviews.

As he told me: 'I’ve been producing for a little while, for over ten years so now I  know at this point what people respond to and how they respond to certain themes, certain sounds and certain frequencies and feel at this point that anything you hear from me is purposefully done.

'I’m very conscious of what is going on, how things sound and the nuances of the albums I produce versus when I first started out as a new producer, in my early years when you just do stuff and everything is really raw.’

‘At this point if you hear something that’s super distorted or super jarring or super offbeat, it’s conscious,’ he continued. ‘Whether it’s super-complicated, or it’s just a four bar loop that’s really hypnotic (in that case) you might not want to change the beat at all.’

Black Milk has recently announced that he would like to focus more on production, not that he is stopping being an MC but that he wants to deepen his knowledge as an engineer. ‘No, I’m not quitting,’ he said in the NPR interview when asked if ‘All Mighty’ was a goodbye of sorts. The venting related to those days when you feel ‘Man, cats ain’t paying attention.’ Or they don’t understand,’ he explained. 

 

'What it’s worth’ 

Q: ‘What I find particularly refreshing and really different is the way you use repetition in your tracks, so that when you’re talking about breaking it up, there’s also a feeling of things not moving, for example if you listen to ‘What it’s worth’ this creates a difficult, uncomfortable feeling; is this something you think about consciously, do you think about the impact it will have as a feeling?’

Black Milk: ‘Definitely, that’s a perfect word – a feeling. Sometimes a track doesn’t have to be super-complicated, or technical, with me when I make music it’s all about a feeling. Sometimes you create a track, it can be a four-bar loop, but that loop is magic; it feels amazing so you don’t have to go out of your way to over-produce. Sometimes it happens, it depends on the sample, it depends on the song. I call it like little pieces of magic you find on a record you chop the loop up, it depends.

A track like ‘What it’s worth’ or ‘Leave the bones behind’ where I just looped the record up (it is) because I loved the moment (…) I know how it makes me feel, but sometimes with other people whether they like it or not, it’s interesting to see how people take music in, how it makes them feel – what it does to their brain, it’s always cool.’ 

In the video for ‘What it’s worth’ you see Black Milk side-on sitting on a chair, gesticulating in time with the rap – this is a bit strange, as we are unable to clearly see his face in the half-darkness and he seems constrained by the position.

A cliché certainly found in many hip-hop videos is of the MC, surrounded by other young men, usually in gritty urban contexts, making gestures with great force in time. In these clips, there is action and movement; it’s dynamic and an expression of group identity. In Black Milk’s video, he is limited in terms of his movement - he is largely still and he is alone.

(On the YouTube comments there’s a small rebellion among fans, split between those who like the video and others thinking it looks too low-budget, done on the cheap and that Black Milk should have shot the clip outside). 

In my memory, I’d created an aesthetic link between the Black Milk video and a clip that perhaps doesn’t in fact exist from Tricky, for a track from the Nearly God album; leaving that to one side, the song links strongly with the distorted love song, ‘Tattoo’ from the UK artist, almost whispering low and guttural: ‘Colour me, colour me/When you’re sitting all alone/In the middle of the floor/There’s something uncontrollable/You sit there watching the door.’

Both songs express something deeply personal, a kind of inverted masculine energy where violence is turned inward, but the threat remains ambiguous.

It makes me think of the final moments of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man where the narrator decides to lock himself up in a cellar, a place he describes as ‘the hole’ - to escape, to fully embrace his invisibility to others – but remains tormented by the chaotic, repetitive workings of his mind.

'I would stay here until I was chased out,’ the narrator decides. ‘Here, at least, I could try to think things out in peace, or if not in peace, in quiet. I would take up residence underground. The end was in the beginning.   

In the Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Frannie Kelley NPR interview in January, Black Milk was asked about the broader socio-political context in the US and how it relates to his record..

Or to be more precise, the context that is now symbolised by the video of a (white) police officer taking aim as a middle-aged African-American man ran away in South Carolina, before shooting him in the back eight times; or the killing of 12 year-old Tamir Rice in a city park in Cleveland, Ohio by a (white) police officer, with no warning – the context that is now commonly referred to as ‘Ferguson’.

“MUHAMMAD: ‘And in line of what’s happening in Ferguson or other parts of America and even the world, it’s a powerful record, man.

BLACK MILK: ‘And you know what? The album was done before the whole Ferguson thing happened. And when it did happen, I had a few thoughts like, ‘Man, this album is kind of representing all the craziness that’s going on right now. It’s kind of touching on that.’ But I didn’t want to use that as like a-

MUHAMMAD: ‘Platform?’

BLACK MILK: ‘Yeah, I don’t want to use it as a platform, but I did have those thoughts, like, man I’m kind of touching on some of those things that’s actually happening right now.”

When I mentioned to Black Milk that listening to ‘What it’s worth’ was far from easy listening, and that the repeated sample with its oppressive sibilant sound was pretty unpleasant and felt aggressive, he laughed. But this discomfort is what makes this track so effective; you feel in a musical sense, how it might feel to be trapped – finding yourself in a place, or psychological space, where you can’t escape (call it ‘hell’ if you like). 

(Here the title might have some significance too, being so similar to Buffalo Springfield’s track from 1967 entitled ‘For what it’s Worth’ – so memorably sampled by Public Enemy on ‘He Got Game’ in 1998 – that describes apparently meaningless political protests in the streets and also ‘Paranoia strikes deep/Into your life it will creep/It starts when you’re always afraid/Step out of line, the men come and take you away’).

Repetition is a key element of hip-hop production, if not the key element. (Indeed, there’s a whole conversation outside the scope of this article about the role of repetition in hip-hop, perhaps starting with James Snead’s influential essay, ‘Repetition as a Figure in Black Culture’ from 1981 …)

But usually the repetition is implicit, hidden almost and the producer’s skill lies in the fact that the arrangement of a looped sample appears seamless. The pleasure the listener gets from listening to a hip-hop record, built up from samples, lies in forgetting that it is a created artefact.

Here, the sibilant noise is so jarring that it becomes the dominant element – more important than the MC, more important than the intermittent melody in the background. That shrill noise, repeated endlessly, disrupts any pleasure of getting lost in the track, or even of identifying with the rap as something ‘natural’ and authentic.  

Repetition here acts as a barrier, as a distancing effect. As a listener you are reminded of the elements in isolation – to the materiality of the music and the fact that it is constructed. For me the music is the perfect example of alienation, refusing any release or resolution as it is static – going nowhere – and therefore perfectly embodies what Black Milk is trying to express. The lyrics of ‘What it’s worth’ focus on Black Milk’s feeling of obligation to others: 

“Yo, this life is bigger than me, feel weighed down by a hundred boulders/
Got family in my hands, crown on my head, city on top of my shoulders. ”

At one point the bass-line that had until that moment provided some kind of melody, or comfort disappears. And it is at this moment that Black Milk raps:

“Two shots to the head, two shots till we dead/
Just what this kind of life might bring/
That’s what this kind night might mean/
You clock or be glocked in, OGs here, no stopping
As long as breath’s in my lungs waving white flags ain’t never the option.”

Considering the context described before, the reference to his mom ‘looking at the time, hoping that her oldest son make it back inside’ is particularly affecting. 

Towards the end, Black Milk raps these lines: 

“And I did that, lived by a code, live for tomorrow/
Walk down the streets where empty hollows stray, sidewalks where broken bottles lay/
I did that, went from boom-bap in the day, go rap round the neck/
Double track and the deck, lay it back on cassette …”

I asked Black Milk to describe how his production approach differed from MCs working on similar themes in the 1990s (Mobb Deep, perhaps, or Nas); hip-hop musicians trying to use the rough material of their lives and transform it into art. 

‘It’s interesting to look back to where hip-hop production started and look at what it has evolved to now, 2015. I’ve been making beats since the late 90s, 98/99, so naturally coming up in that time my beats sounded like that time: boom-bap, drum-break and sample.

'Since then hip-hop has evolved a lot. Now you hear a lot more electronic sounds involved in production, you start hearing tempo slowdown, the 70 BPM, you start hearing more live instrumentation incorporated into the production versus the 90s, where it was just kick-snare and a sample.

‘Hip-hop production has evolved and I’ve been watching it also because my approach has evolved, my ideas have evolved and now I feel in 2015 and beyond there’s really no rules anymore, not just for hip-hop, but for music in general, especially if you’re an independent artist.

'There’s no set formula. There are still certain techniques, certain sounds and certain rhythms that affect the human body that you cannot deny, like four to the floor rhythm, or certain bass kicks. There are certain elements that still affect the human brain and when it hears it – that’s where I’m at as a producer: it’s the science of how people react to certain sounds and certain vibrations.’

Another key source for Black Milk’s experimental leanings and eclecticism as a producer is the city where he’s from; as NPR’s Frannie Kelley noticed it’s something that unites Black Milk with other hip-hop artists in the city, such as Quelle Chris and Denmark Vessey – that is they’re not ‘shying away from the electronic, techno, traditional elements of Detroit.’ 

“Black Milk: ‘Yeah, you know growing up in Detroit that’s just part of what you do, cause that’s all you hear. That’s all we heard in the ‘90s, you know, what I’m saying and that’s interesting too. I’ve had a few conversations about – it was a show we had – I actually have a song on the new album called ‘Detroit’s New Dance Show’. Like looking back at it now as an adult, man, that’s kind of crazy that it was a show that had kids from the ghetto meeting up at this club, you know and dancing to all this crazy Euro electronic music, Kraftwerk, and all that stuff. At the time we didn’t know what it was, but looking back at it, man, it was kind of wild. ”
 
'Grey for Summer'

Q: ‘Could you sum up Detroit in three words …’

Black Milk: ‘Sum up the city in three words, that’s kind of crazy – let me think, ah ‘the beautiful ugly’ that’s what it is. That’s what Detroit is ‘the beautiful ugly’ it’s so much beauty within the greyness, there’s so much beauty within the dark side of Detroit, it’s so much beauty in the griminess and the grit. With all of the things that people might perceive Detroit to be quote unquote ‘a bad place’ there’s so much beauty that it made out of the struggle, it’s the landscape and the environment, the weather – all of those things play a part and make Detroit a beautiful, ugly city.

Q: ‘Grey for Summer, I’m wondering if that track sums up your feelings for Detroit …’

Black Milk: ‘It definitely does. Yeah, that song represents once again, like I said, finding the happiness, the good times, those bright moments within that quote unquote hell of an environment that’s what that song represents, not just my lyrics but also all the way to the beat, the way the beat sounds like it’s raining, the sound of the melody of the piano sounds kind of gloomy but it also sounds pretty and kind of beautiful. When I made that beat, when I heard that sample the first thing that came to mind, it sounds like Detroit … beautiful ugly, happy sad.

Q: ‘You refer to Al Green being in the background in that track, yeah?

Black Milk: Yeah, I do yeah’ (laughs)

 

By chance when first thinking about this writing about Black Milk, I came across parts of a documentary about Marvin Gaye on YouTube when he was living in a small-town in Belgium called Ostende in 1981.

In it, the supremely debonair soul singer is seen going for walks in the empty streets, boxing a punching-bag in a gym, recording an amazing version of ‘I want you’ with his band, while lounging about in a tracksuit and chatting with ruddy-faced locals drinking beer in the local bar.

One of them asks Gaye, ‘Where you from? Paraguay?’

‘I’m from America,’ Gaye replies (‘Paraguay,’ he says, shaking his head).

Earlier in the documentary, Marvin Gaye’s voice-over says, ‘I’m an orphan at the moment and Ostende is my orphanage. There are places where I’d probably rather be. But I probably need to be here.’

I went to Black Milk’s show with his group, The Nat Turner Live Band, in a satellite town outside Lyon on the 28th April; when travelling out of the city on the local bus, past villages (Town Hall, Baker, Café/Restaurant) and then housing projects, surrounded by empty fields, I have to admit I was not filled with feelings of great enthusiasm.

Unlike the super-controlled – or to use his word ‘micro-managed’ - sound on his record, Black Milk on stage with his live band is energetic, highly dynamic; encouraging the audience with calls out to get into the Detroit ‘up-tempo’ stuff and also channelling Marvin Gaye, citing a line or two from his ‘Inner City Blues (Makes me Want to Holler) from 1971.     

Q: Let’s talk about precursors, is Marvin Gaye an important artist for you in terms of your work?

Black Milk: ‘I mean, almost any soul artist from the 70s you name is probably an influence on my work. I feel like I listen to more oldies than to newer music, or current music or hip-hop even: so people from Marvin to Parliament, Funkadelic, Sly and the Family Stone, and Prince later all of those guys are some of my bigger influences. I’m rooted in hip-hop, I try to be as great as I can in the style of music I do like those guys were incredible in what they did in their style of music.

Q: ‘When you think about Marvin Gaye is there any particular album you return to?

Black Milk: ‘Let me think, one of my favourite Marvin Gaye albums is not one of his albums that is really popular, it’s In our Lifetime (1981) it’s one of my favourite Marvin albums, it was one of his later albums; Marvin, for me, is the best singer of all time, hands-down. When he came along and the creativity he brought to singing and artistry and layering vocals, it makes everything expand how it’s done and still today, so Marvin is definitely one of my favourites.

‘Almost you could name any producer or band from that era, you know, most likely I’m going to be a fan of their work in some way or another – the musicians, their style of playing in the 60s and 70s influenced me not just for my studio recordings, but more for our live show, when we have a band. Me and my band, we listen to a lot of older music, we kind of learn from what those bands in the 60s and 70s did from their style of playing to their approach. We study those bands from back in the day, if a person comes out sees my live show they will notice that and experience it, it’s not just a hip-hop show. The level of musicianship is rooted to something deeper than hip-hop production scratching the surface of a band playing, it goes deeper than that.’

At the end of the interview, I pressed Black Milk to think of another hip-hop album that sounded similar to or in a like vein to ‘If there’s a hell below…’ He hesitated before suggesting Common’s ‘Like Water for Chocolate’ with a laugh - an album that came out in 1999 (even though the two albums sound nothing alike really). ‘That album was a real big influence on me also, other than that that’s the only album I can think of, especially in this day and age there are not too many rap artists that are making music that has a lot of different twists and turns.’ 

Black Milk: ‘When I go into these albums, I just do what I feel, it’s never really something that is super-strategic, or super-calculated, I just go  in into the album and let the music speak for itself and let the music guide me.

‘When I first started making music and producing a lot of my earlier stuff had a heavy Dilla, Slum Village influence on it but the more I grew, the older I got the more I learned I actually grew into my own sound and I feel like my last two albums really represent my own sound and what I do as an artist more than ever.

'I feel like my last two records sound like me, like I’ve finally found my voice. It feels good as an artist and a creator to have reached that moment, all that chipping away, you get to that one point in your brain, when you feel like, okay, this is what my music sounds like: this is me right here.’