Neocolonialism, Authenticity, and the Ethics of World Music

September 17, 2010

Boima has a post on the neocolonial aspects of crate-digging that caused some furor when said crate-diggers descended on the comments section, but the result was interesting, and I’d like to weigh in on a few dynamics of contemporary global music the discussion crystalized.

The first thing that struck me was that authenticity is not the dead horse the popists beat to a pulp back in the early Oughts. Its spirit has migrated away from production — in which authenticity was ascribed to certain types of sounds and their presentation — into the realm of consumption.

The cataloging tendency tends to be a colonial one. Also, many of the DJs and label owners, perhaps because of its shared lineage with Hip Hop, have concentrated on Afro-Beat, or have given more weight to genres that are popular in the west like Rock and Funk. For African artists, these are generally styles that artists often used as tools, or influences to fuse with their own popular local styles. The reissue train has been slow to recognize larger genres in Africa like Soukous, Highlife, or Benga, unless they find an artist that has an added funk or rock influence. In the past the tendency was to look for “authentic” music that sounded more “traditional.” Are they now shying away from things that sound too … African?

Certainly a weird reversal is at work here. Previous critiques of world music accused compilers (and by extension, yuppie listeners) for exoticizing non-Western music, for fetishizing its lack of modernity, and finally, for ascribing authenticity to what was essentially constructed for Western tastes. We have moved to a new periodization. Boima criticizes compilers (and by extension, hipster listeners) not for exoticizing Africans, but for disregarding actual tastes of Africans in favor of music that sits alongside American funk and rock more comfortably. Now hybrids — music that belies a fusion of African and Western — are inauthentic for not being “African” enough. “African-ness” is no longer a pre-modern essence as it was for first-gen world music. Now it’s been filtered through the analytic lens of our best science of consumption, market research: In the words of a recent Guardian article, “African music the actual African diaspora likes.” Actual. Real. Authentic.

The “authentic listener” is even more flawed concept than the “authentic artist.” For one, it’s difficult to pinpoint why particular music strikes someone in a particular way. Does that French DJ like Afrobeat because it’s exotic or because it’s Western-sounding? Unfortunately for both marketers and sociologists, demographics never match easily with musical tastes. But there’s a bigger problem: the frame of analysis. To examine and criticize individual actors in a tiny corner of the music industry, itself but a portion of the economy, is to miss what is important and revealing about the phenomenon Boima is commenting upon.

Boima makes an analogy between these vinyl tourists and colonial extraction: “it does seem that the current mad-dash for rare African vinyl could be analogous to Europe’s 19th Century Scramble for Africa, a mad-dash for rare African minerals.” He gets raked over the coals in the comments by the diggers, who don’t exactly appreciate being associated with violent exploitation. They argue variously that they listen to a wide variety of African music, that they make little money, that they are actually helping some of the artists on their compilations. Boima is taken to task, and rightly in my view: his resort to the “authentic listener” is just a shaky defense for an argument that was falling apart even before the diggers pile on in the comments section. Even if we had a bunch of European DJs releasing benga and soukous, we could still use this argument. Whenever “non-Western” music is released to “Westerners,” it provokes anxiety for the more multicultural-minded. It even pushes left-leaning people into defending things you wouldn’t think they would: property, nation, the buying and selling of culture, “tradition,” and yes, authenticity.

What Boima gets right is his analogy. There is a connection between Westerners crate-digging in Africa and 19th Century colonialism. But to narrow in on a tiny section of Western operations in Africa, and castigate the individual operators misses the point. The heritage of imperialism, which is not the past at all, but our very real and ongoing present, is not their fault. The presence of Western music and technology in Africa, the infrastructure that enables tourists to fly there, the economic imbalances that allow a European of modest means to purchase thousands of rare records, the lack of distribution channels for commodity export on the continent — these are larger, structural factors. Even on the level of desire — for the rare, for the exotic, for the familiar, for the exotic-but-not-too-exotic, for the authentic — are conditioned and manufactured by a system that has compressed time and space, thrown disparate peoples together, and fused and warped culture in uncountable ways. The practices examined in the debate, and the debate itself, are symptoms of much larger, much more insidious processes: actually existing imperialism. The crate-diggers are in a sense enabled in their task by Leopold chopping off hands in the Congo and by Shell dumping oil into the Niger Delta. They are part of this story. But they are not the villains.

This historical perspective is obscured by another problem lurking in current world music (fuck it, that’s what it is) discourse — the version of authenticity it draws upon. The authenticity-as-essence (especially pre-modern essence) argument is pretty much dead, so we can leave that in the dustbin of shitty NPR shows. But the more ethical stance that Boima raises — the one of responsibility, of being an ethical musical tourist — is alive and well, and also problematic.

Philosophers of the liberal tradition such as Charles Taylor and Lionel Trilling argue that authenticity relies on a kind of relational stance towards others, one of mutual recognition and sincerity. Without getting too theoretical, these positions rely on a long tradition of thought about the liberal subject — self-contained, self-directed, individualist, tolerant. If I am a good liberal subject, and you are a good liberal subject, then we can find a way to behave ethically, authentically, towards each other, and make the world a better, more civil place through recognizing each other as legitimate beings. But if I don’t recognize you, if I “fetishize” or “exoticize” you, or improperly represent your cultural artifacts, I’m acting unethically. You see this argument pop up all the time; one of the commenters, “wills,” states

if we continue to fetishize the psychedelic African past at the expense of a more mature, nuanced relationship with the present (and other eras), we might end up stuck in graceland (or on some blog).

There’s no shortage of advice on how the proper relationship you should have with African music. The problem is, no one knows what it means. How do you listen to something in a “mature” and “nuanced” way? How is releasing a compilation of Afrobeat “fetishizing” and making an mbalax remix of Akon not? These words are what Adorno would call the jargon of authenticity — they are essentially meaningless, erected only to set arbitrary boundaries. As a good dialectical materialist, Adorno has no patience for this stuff about mutual recognition and ethical stances. The liberal subject position assumes that we have ultimate control over our actions, which leaves out the history that inflects and conditions so much of who we are and what we do, the travels we take, the art we consume and how we react to it, the blog posts we write. We are not independent, self-contained actors in the world; we move through larger structures that determine more than we care to admit. And so any critique of transnational production or consumption, especially if you want to politicize it (as you should) has to discuss this, and not haggle over the tastes of individuals. The “colonial tendency” is both ours and not ours — it is there, we must acknowledge it, but attempting to ameliorate it in ourselves while ignoring actual imperialism just makes imperialism function more smoothly. Our responsibility is not to our taste — it is to ending the neocolonial project.

This starts at home.

M.A. Thesis

July 26, 2010

Finally made my master’s thesis, “‘Straight Up Detroit Shit’: Genre, Authenticity, and Appropriation in Detroit Ghettotech” available on the blog. It’s been floating around the internet for a while, but might as well make this one-stop shopping for all your things me.

M.A. Thesis

Mexican Music Metal Mashups

June 17, 2010

Pushingit was kind enough to identify Track 13 of Latino Mix D.F. as “El Sonidito” by the Mexican group Hechizeros Band. A nagging mystery finally solved!

He also forwarded me a “cover” by the German heavy metal group Rammstein:

I’ll admit I was fooled — and incredibly perplexed — for the first few seconds. It’s actually a well done mashup (of course), and there are a lot more in this vein: metal concerts and videos with the music replaced by Mexican styles.

Here’s Guns ‘n’ Roses playing cumbia:

Metallica playing norteno:

Korn playing banda:

There are dozens more stretching back to 2007 (a sort of YouTube heyday in retrospect). They’re cheekily labeled “covers” and, Doors and Susan Boyle versions notwithstanding, seem to really hone in on metal. So why? Perhaps contrast. Whereas metal presents itself as serious and dark, the Mexican genres are sonically (if not lyrically) lighter, made for dancing. A sprightly accordion part seems on the other end of the spectrum from a distortion-fueled guitar solo. And yet, it’s the similarities that make some of these work so well: full band set-ups, lots of instrumental breakdowns, percussion solos, machismo, and huge, wild drunken crowds. Generically far removed, but as social worlds, closer than we might think — a point these videos drive home.

And they do cut both ways:

Latino Mix D.F.

June 14, 2010

La Roma Graffiti

One of my favorite activities to do in any city, alongside visiting museums and sampling the local cuisine, is sniffing out mix CDs. Mexico City is awash in street markets, and practically any street market anywhere you go will have at least one vendor plying idiosyncratic sounds (this is true of D.C. too, but I have yet to do a go-go post. Maybe when I get back). Yesterday I took a long-planned trip through the market at the eastern end of the more upscale Avenido Obregon flea market for this very end.

The more upscale market had what appeared to be legit CDs, lots of new age stuff, to appeal to the clientele mas fresa. At the end, the market takes a turn away from antiques and arts&crafts towards the more mundane and quotidian: baby clothes, produce and meat, street food, and yes, bootleg movies and music. However, most of the bootleg stands simply provide standard popular music at a cheaper scale — MP3 CDs stocked with a chunk of the Nine Inch Nails catalog, copies of Shakira CDs, and tons and tons of compilations of 80s hits (corporate pop of the 1980s exercises an astounding hegemony over the world’s musical consciousness). In short, more major label Anglo pop and rock than anything, along with a lot of corporate Latin pop.

I finally found what I was looking for: the mixtape booth. Using a DVD player hooked up to an amp, a guy was playing samples of various mixes with homemade white paper sleeves to a couple prospective buyers. I sidled up and scoped out the CDs — mixes ranging from 80s pop to 90s alt rock to duranguense and even some Chicago house. The proprietor/DJ was trying to find mixes to appeal to a young woman with a handful of trance mixes, and it wasn’t long before I heard what I wanted. The CD started with a bewildering montage of Proyecto Uno hits before moving into terrain just as manic.”Latino Mix” was the name.

After he had served his other customers I told him I wanted the CD that had the “no pare, sigue sigue” on it. He actually wanted to make sure I wanted that one, telling me that the mix is more for exercise because it’s too fast for parties, and attempting to steer me to some disco mixes. He’s probably right — this is a manic trip through a lot of Latin tribal house, deconstructed cumbia elements, tropical polyrhythms (bubbling fans should find a lot to love here), and pitched-up banda. It’s actually quite expertly done, and I’m putting it up for your enjoyment. I left off the last eight tracks, which are actually a different mix of more commercial trance sounds.

Latino Mix D.F. (55.72 MB – 19 tracks – 40:30 min)

No tracklisting por supuesto, but if your knowledge runs deeper than mine, do help in the IDs. In particular, Track 13 is a synthy slice of carnival that I’ve heard many times on D.C.’s tropical station that I would love to know the name of.

The DJ-Hide-Yr-Face Pose: An intervention

May 26, 2010

Attn: Hip photogs — retire this pose! Is there something about “dubstep” that says “Hide your face”?


Bok Bok


Matt Shadetek

Chicago Scenius

May 18, 2010

Footwork crews battle at a community center in Chicago.

via jeffdenapoli's flickr

There is one thing I can say in this interview…all I got to say is, a lot of people used to come to guitar center when it was on 81st and Cicero. My actual R-70 was a display model. When I bought it, it was the last one there, I didn’t buy it new, I bought it used. So a lot of people in the world already programmed those sounds. You never knew who touched that R-70….but to the time I’d like to thank y’all for putting your work in…but you just couldn’t do what I did!

From Dave Quam’s interview with RP Boo,which is not on his blog at the moment, but was fortunately saved in my RSS reader. Dave’s been doing some sustained excavating of Chicago’s ghetto house/juke/footwork history, and it’s no simple task. Obscure underground releases rub up alongside circuitous oral histories, interwoven with memories of past slights and fantasies of future success. One difficulty I’ve encountered in similar work I’ve done in Detroit is the challenge of breaking scenes down into constitutive individual artists. This is, of course, the typical way music history is told — genius makes breakthrough, alters course of music 4-EVA.

This individualistic hard-working ideology is as pervasive as ever, and there is no doubt important developments in terms of individual records, unique personalities, and lots of thankless time struggling in the studio. But scene histories rooted only in individual artists fail to capture the whole picture. Not only are they inaccurate, but once the myth becomes reality and certain individual artists are cherry-picked by a globalized audience, putting out artist albums, their work often falters. Their genius was never completely their own. RP Boo may be the inventor of the footwork tom skitter, but a lot of people in the world already programmed those sounds.

Me and Rashad have always been cool but a lot of guys get us mixed up. I’m more of an originator when it came to samples. Rashad is the type of person to where I can come up with an idea and he can feed off of it. He can take an idea and turn it into a different version. He’s like a grimy version of what I am. I’ve been quiet for two years, and a lot of these cats out here right now are hungry, they are fucking hungry because they are waiting to see what I’m gonna do. Every time I do something that’s what they feed off of. They’re like pilot fishes, the pilot fishes are the ones that follow the shark and eat up his leftovers.

Inidividualized histories play down this type of collaboration which is often crucial to underground production. Independent artists struggle to make ends meet. They share their resources, material — acid house pioneers literally passing around drum machines — and creative. DJ Assault’s classic work, which helped to crystalize a specific Detroit sound, was really the dialectical tension between Assault (the grimy one) and his collaborator, Ade (the musical one). As increased wealth beckoned (particularly in the form of DJ gigs), Ade was cut out of the partnership. By most accounts from Detroiters, both men’s productions suffered. They fed off each other until they each fed off somewhere else. Music scenes are ecosystems that require the mutuality of shark and pilot fish to last.

Kayne West, I like him, but from what I hear, his style comes from listening to old tapes back in the day. … He studied the style. Basically I would say he studied the style but he didn’t copy me, I just gave him a source of reality. The man was fucking smart! I’m not gonna knock his hustle because it’s nothing to knock! He was just fucking smart. It’s a style of Chicago and that’s all it is. If you can feed off one, you run with it. If you can patent it, OK cool! I have no business about it. But when it comes time to it we still have different styles, and if I went into the rap business I could take a sample, and fuck him off the first one! But what is it? I’m not here to compete. I’m here to let it be known and share what it is.

Kanye, as pop star and celebrity, perhaps the apogee of the autonomous individualism type, is implicated in this. RP Boo gave him a source of reality, and he was fucking smart enough to take it beyond Chicago, a city in which he no longer lives. Boo won’t knock Kanye’s hustle, his ability to take production innovations outside a local scene to global pop artists. But Kanye is no longer part of Chicago — he can exist in a landscape in which Chicago does not register, although the city’s imprint may have influenced his technique (Kanye himself has credited NYC’s RZA and L.A.’s Dr. Dre as influences). Boo works a different register. He is here to let it be known and share what it is, to instantiate the energies and creative force of Chicago’s streets, channel them, to feed and let others feed off of categories labeled, by outsiders, ghetto house, juke, footwork. “The tracks back then didn’t have a name for it…it was just considered local artist’s music….and it never had a name back then.” They aren’t genres, not genres-as-marketing categories. Those reifications come later, when the music and the figures involved become export commodities. “It was just more of a saying of what the dancing or what the atmosphere of the party was like.” The genres are not sounds — they are social worlds themselves, assemblages of DJs, producers, hosts, dance crews, cameramen, promoters, hustlers, partiers formed through local infrastructure, global economics, and idiosyncratic technology. Structures of feeling. Atmospheres. This is the hardest part of writing this history: finding the subject.

of course they fucking do

March 14, 2010

Top Whatever of ’09

January 7, 2010

Ok, I hate choosing favorites and I’m not a big fan of lists either, but you don’t really care about my personal problems, right? I’m also going to avoid any kind of pithy synopsis about what 2009 “meant” or how it “stacked up” musically. Let’s wait until the corpse is cold before we start making our diagnoses, eh?

As is increasingly true, I continue to listen to more and more music made in the past than is coming out during the present. So many delicious dance record nuggets I had yet to encounter! I was also involved in some popular music history classes (teaching and taking), so there was plenty of remedial jazz and rock ‘n’ roll listening to do as well. Nevertheless, 2009 had some contenders, listed below in no particular order.

  • Jamie Foxx – Blame It [link]. Dreamy, catchy, funny pop that proves that while T-Pain’s rewards may be getting shallower, he’s still got some tricks up his sleeve. I had an intense, very drunken late-night argument over whether this song advocates date rape. I voted no.
  • Shit Robot – Simple Things (Work It Out) [link]. DFA had a good year as usual, and this stood out for me — an evil acid house creeper in the Sleazy D tradition. And vocals about the anxiety of the modern condition (another acid staple) by Ian Svenonius!
  • The Hasbeens – You & Me [link]. Even if Clone were only a reissue label, it’d be one of my favorites. Instead, they also release new acts that are seamless companions to their mission to excavate the weird dark edges of italo, electro, house, and techno, sans ironic winking. Great video too.
  • A.B.A. – White Girl Clothes [link]. Jerk ain’t THAT special, although it’s got some good tracks and a lot of energy. This is one stands out in its flagrant playing with significations of whiteness that, for me, indelibly mark the genre.
  • Uproot Andy – Brooklyn Cumbia. This boy’s got some chops! Great sax line, and an upkey piano riff that can kickstart any mixtape (including the second ZZK comp)
  • Dam-Funk – Toeachizown. Excessive amounts of brittle icy synths, stiff idiosyncratic drums, and Prince fetishism. Yes, there is a lot of “eccentric drugged-out producer-hermit” baggage in the marketing of this, and it’s inconsistent, but it also seems so generous in its excesses that I can’t help loving it.
  • Ghostface – Wizard of Poetry / Raekwon – OBFCL2. These guys are both so good at what they do, so comfortable and confident. Ghostface is increasingly drawn to R&B-flavored love stories, while Rae provides everyone the throwback they’ve been clamoring for for a decade.
  • Azari & III – Hungry For the Power. But for the keyboards, I almost mistook this for vintage male-diva house. It’s not. It might be better.
  • Gucci Mane feat. Plies – Wasted [link]. Everyone’s probably sick of this song by now, a fate I anticipated from the first time I heard this on Chicago’s Power 92. Gucci is funny and all, but is enough credit being given to his producers? This isn’t a beat that begs for attention like Timbaland or something, but it is some of the best, most anthemic dirty south trunk music I’ve ever heard.
  • Gang Gang Dance – Bebey (DJ /Rupture and Matt Shadetek Mix) [link]. 2009 was the year I realized that DJ /Rupture wasn’t about musically connecting dots on a map. In the grand techno tradition, he wants to make sounds from other worlds. Last year he pulled it off better than he ever has — maybe 2009 was the year he realized it too?
  • Black Meteoric Star – Black Meteoric Star [link]. Like John Carpenter making acid house. Which is of course a VERY GOOD THING.
  • Mario feat. Gucci Mane & Sean Garrett – Break Up [link]. Weird, druggy, menacing, wrong-sounding. And a monster R&B hit. Kinda keeps my faith in America alive.
  • Footwork [link]. The music is so inseparable from the culture of teenage dance battles that it’s almost impossible to find online outside a few scattered YouTubes and iMeems. Not on the radio, not on iTunes, not even really on mixtapes. Yet it’s world-rending power is so compelling I can’t believe I moved from Chicago without trying to track down a few of these kids.
  • Lil Wayne – No Ceilings. Still the best, though the collabs drag this down a bit. Wayne needs a mixtape of him over the year’s best beats every year. There should be a national foundation for this operation.
  • Black Point feat. Del Patio – Watagatapitusberry [link]. Dominicano post-reggaeton club music that became a Souljah-Boy-style treasure trove of video versions. Not sure how big this is, but could get a lot bigger.
  • Wale – Pretty Girls [link]. I moved to DC in 2009, so I was fortunate that the hometown hero had a hot single out — equal doses ’70s power ballad and go-go polyrhythms. Easy on the synths, guys.
  • A million mambo remixes of Michael Jackson. He died. Everyone mourned. Many made remixes. The merengue de calle ones were some of my favorites. This one is my number one.
  • R. Kelly – Pregnant [link]. The R doing what he does best — singing an absurd conceptual seduction record completely straight-faced. There will always be a large place in my heart for this kind of thing.

Anything I miss?

Xmas Mix 2009

December 13, 2009

Ok, it’s become practically a yearly tradition — though for how much longer? I guess there are literally thousands more holiday tunes to sift through, but returns diminish… Yet I hate to disappoint. Here’s this year’s Xmas mix: Enjoy & Happy Etc Etc!

Xmas Mix 2009 (MP3 ZIP)

1.Sun Ra – It’s Christmas Time
2. Alton Ellis – Christmas Coming
3. Corporal Blossom – White Christmas
4. Pet Shop Boys – All Over the World
5. Headlights – Kicker of Elves
6. Marvin Gaye – Purple Snowflakes
7. La Playa Sextet – Navidad Negra
8. Martin Mull – Santafly
9. Doctor Octoroc – Carol of the Belmonts
10. Aventura – Dame La Mano Paloma
11. Belton Richard – Please Come Home For Christmas
12. Quad City DJs – Whachugot4Xmas
13. Torres Brothers – Nutcracker Suite (Dance of the Funky DJs)
14. Barrington Levy – Flash Your Dread
15. Morphine – Sexy Christmas Baby Mine
16. Pierre Barouh – Ce Jour la…
17. Horace Andy – Christmas Time
18. Sonora Matancera – Rumba Navidad
19. The Enchanters – Mambo Santa Mambo
20. James Brown – Go Power at Christmas Time
21. Trinity – Silent Night (Version)
22. The Blue Hawaiians – We Four Kings
23. Michael Doucet – Auld Lang Syne

You can find the previous years’ mixes here: Xmas 2007 Xmas 2008

Merengue de Calle in Hipster Crosshairs

December 11, 2009

Maluca – El Tigeraso.

Tasteful cod-mambo produced by Diplo (or is that “with production by Diplo”? hmmm….) with equally tasteful video. Ahem. Most telling part: 2:00 in, a band of “ethnic” chicas (maybe actually Dominican?) acting the face for the white producer. I am not opposed to musicians from the core experimenting with musics from the periphery out of hand, but this isn’t really pushing things forward. Swap the typical merengue bass for a slightly acidic synth. Of course, the audience for this is likely one that doesn’t know or care much about the source material, which is often far more wildly experimental.

Christmas is coming, anyone feel like buying me a gift?