This Gang Starr classic, from 1998’s Moment Of Truth album, has a pun for a title.
If you heard the phrase before reading it, you might come away with one meaning: a reference to Robin Hood stealing from the rich to give to the poor, as laid out in the song’s chorus. “Squeeze the juice out of all the suckers with power/And pour some back out so as to water the flowers”. My blog post will look at the emergence of various further meanings from the title, to investigate if it demonstrates an African-American style of communication called Signifyin(g).
I think I first bumped into this term in Vijay Iyer’s writings. Signifyin(g) is about indirect, allusive ways of conveying meaning. Although it is “so shared in [African-American] culture as to long ago have become second nature to its users”, for non-acculturated people like me it’s hard to get a grasp on. After doing some reading about it to contribute to a paper on Ahmad Jamal I presented at the SMI/ICTM postgraduate conference this January, I noticed that “Robbin’ Hood Theory” might form a neat teachable example of Signifyin(g). All the quotes in this piece are from Ingrid Monson’s Saying Something (which is about Siginifyin(g) and similar processes in jazz music) and Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s The Signifyin(g) Monkey.
“Black people frequently ‘enounce’ their sense of difference by repetition with a signal difference.” (Claudia Mitchell-Kernan, quoted by Gates)
The repetition Mitchell-Kernan mentions is the reuse of (often pop culture) material; in the Gang Starr song title, it’s the reference to the legend of Robin Hood. Pastiche, allusion, intertextuality are other terms used for this re-appropriative aspect of Signifyin(g).
As well as this repetition or appropriation, Signifyin(g) involves a “signal difference” which often marks out “two discursive universes” of black and white (Monson).
Robin Hood clearly belongs to a white “discursive universe” – English folk culture and mass culture, and the idea of the European middle ages. Is there a “signal difference” that marks a different, black discursive universe? Yes, of course: the use of black pronunciation and slang in “Robbin’ Hood”.
What does this do? Well, Gates also called Signifyin(g) “ironic reversal with signal difference.” Reversal means that the appropriated material – Robin Hood – is given an ironically reversed meaning. The reversal here is the switch from “Robin Hood – stealing from the rich” to “robbin’ hood[s] – stealing from the poor”, referring to economic exploitation and systematic deprivation in urban ghettos.
Now we have two disparate meanings, one marked as white by its cultural background and one as black by slang and pronunciation, and with opposed meanings. Now things get interesting…
Gates’ classic book on Signifyin(g) as a literary technique investigates the Signifyin(g) Monkey tales – a genre of black folk verse about a trickster monkey who gets into and out of trouble because of his Signifyin(g) talk. Gates discusses how Signifyin(g) involves “a measure of undecidability within the discourse, such that it must be interpreted or decoded by careful attention to its play of differences.”
The Gang Starr title is a neat example, I think, because we can see some of this play of differences. When lyricist Guru juxtaposes a bandit hero against the exploitation of ghettos, we can infer that he is making a case for “Robin Hood”-type action against rich exploiters. But because of the ambiguity and indirectness, we as listeners have to participate in constructing this meaning. (Very much comparable to how people participate in a groove by playing, vocalising, or dancing along.) We’re challenged from a number of angles by Guru’s title: it asks, do we feel similar to, sympathetic to or distanced from people who speak in slang and inhabit “hoods”? if sympathetic, how do we feel about them taking outlaw action? do we think Robin Hood and black ghetto-dwellers have a similar justification for breaking the law? if not, is it because of their different races, or because heroism is a fiction? do we enjoy the appropriation of a white culture hero to make this point?
Through challenge and an ambiguity that allows space for multiple meanings, “the hearer is thus constrained to attend to all potential meaning carrying symbolic systems in speech events–the total universe of discourse.” (Mitchell-Kernan)
That’s me done for today. You should definitely check out Ingrid Monson’s and Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s books if you find this interesting. They have many more examples and quotes.
I hope to be back soon enough with another post. If it’s not some bass playing thing, maybe it will be something about the very use of the phrase “black music” (which obviously has a lot of currency on this blog), because the Jazz Studies Reading Group that I help run is reading two chapters about how music relates to identity and race. Due to the fact that, so far, I write all these blog posts based off readings and recordings rather than face-to-face interactions or interviews with black people, I think it wouldn’t be too hard to find problems with my cavalier use of the term. Anyway, we’ll also likely be reading Monson’s book in the coming months. If you’d like to come to our meetings in Dublin, email us at the address in the image.
Thanks for reading. Feedback is always much appreciated!
Today’s post reflects my growing interest in popular music since reading this book. It’s also vague and idealistic, you’ve been warned. I mention economic issues but I won’t claim to have solutions.
Traditionally, musicians playing originals would make money selling records and touring. Nowadays, musicians invest in their recordings and marketing hoopla, and earn it back performing. Very many are stretched to their limit – at a conference recently I heard a PR/tour assistance professional in the trad field describe how bands are now obsessing over sleep, diet and careful living in order to keep their bodies in shape to tour constantly. Yet jazz and pop degree courses implicitly push original music, self-promoted and toured, as the default music career.
My issue is that recordings these days go into a black hole called the Facebook feed. To grow an audience, bands have to become content makers, emphasising regularity and predictability. This is not conducive to quality performances, originality, emotion or depth. It is conducive to box-ticking and nice visuals.
(Feel free to contest my narrative in the comments!) For a while, though, I’ve been thinking about a change of perspective that might illuminate ways forward.
I realised that what I love as much as “music itself” is situations where a groove and call-and-response are happening. (This article details that insight.) My change of perspective is to view ourselves as instigators and participants in these situations – even when at a remove, i.e. via recording, or sampling.
What’s interesting about this is it instantly opens up a wide purview of possible situations to target – ones that you wouldn’t think of when in the mode of “how do I promote my latest album?”
Some examples of grooving situations….
What if I wanted my music to be DJed for dancers? I’d have to investigate what nights and people are active right now, and what they’re spinning. Maybe my music would be remixed so I’d have to investigate the people who can do that. It would have to be released on vinyl of course. I could ask my vinyl DJ mates if they ever play Irish tracks in their sets.
What if I wanted people to rap over my music? Well, if it was to be sampled I’d have to think about the production quality, instrumentation and vibe of the tracks producers have already sampled. And perhaps how ephemerality, mistakes and looseness can be defining qualities of a great sample. I’d probably want to get into some of the sounds coming out right now too. If it was live, I’d have to think about working with very repetitive grooves, maybe using cues. And of course I’d need to call up my beatmaker friends and check hip hop nights and collectives to find the talent.
What if I wanted people to perform my songs at their gigs? A whole other set of challenges – catchiness, emotional power, simplicity, technical interest. Maybe I could get someone to write lyrics for me.
What if I wanted my music playing at a sweet house party? Time to explore what (say) stoners like… shivery timbres, echoes, rugged muffled grooves, vibey vocals, maybe. And just as important, to find what Youtube playlists they put on these days.
More random thoughts… what if I wanted to be blasted at loud volumes from cars? What if I wanted to be played at computer gaming sessions? What if I wanted dance teachers/classes to buy my records?
There’s one situation which is definitely grooving but which doesn’t illustrate my point: it’s musicians playing each other hip new music on car journeys or while hanging out. I love those listening sessions but, unlike my other examples, hip jazzy recorded music is the tiny market that many of us have been aiming for all along.
I used the word market there. Is my so-called “realisation” just about appealing to a market, i.e. selling out? Well, all my examples point out something that may be more important than the bare definition of market as “those who’ll buy x”. It’s community, of course. All these cases involve getting to know what’s going on and who’s who in a scene.
A related objection: aren’t these commercialised scenes of little interest to an art musician? Well, for me, deep groove and the identity-melding of call-and-response are as important as high-art ambition. (My heaven is the unification of both… I was listening to this old pop hit yesterday.) Plus, Paul Gilroy suggests that when black music culture spreads along capitalist lines of distribution, it may transcend and transform that very system. For one thing it educates and elevates its listeners to be more than atomised consumers. If I could get paid to do that kind of work, I’d be happy. (If I thought it was done well.)
This perspective isn’t incompatible with being a pure jazzer either. On-the-ball musicians in Dublin already focus on situations and community by playing regular gigs in nice venues targeted at a core of mainstream jazz fans, using Facebook as a tool not as the main goal.
My main point is that we should think of the situations where we want our music to be listened to, and try make them happen in the real world. Rather than merely force our work into the desolation of tech-corp-controlled social media. The disinterest some musicians might feel in, say, studio production or distribution channels could be alleviated by recognising a goal that these activities have in common with “pure playing” – to make people feel good together from the vibe of our music.
What do you think? Is it all pie-in-the-sky? I’ll be writing a follow-up piece real soon to talk about how the jazz jam session, reggae dance hall and hip hop cipher – all classic examples of grooving situations – specifically used competitiveness and common repertoire to nurture communities and develop styles.
The historical meaning of a subculture is continually recreated as time goes on. Unfortunately, I believe that the subversiveness and artistic value of some of my favourite game and music scenes are now being claimed by sexist and reactionary forces (associated with what we vaguely call the “alt-right”).
These game scenes now harbour tons of anti-politically-correct provocation and memes. This feed of forum posts repurposed for their humour illustrates the tone. One of the DOOM scene’s most prominent modders is under a cloud for racist jokes.
Here’s a musical example reflecting a narrow-minded take on the essence of 90s hardcore hip hop. Some cool lines in verse 3, but preceded by “You want some faggot shit dancing like a bitch”. Warm nostalgia is mixed with ideas of manhood as violent, and femininity as weak, perhaps corrupt, “America rubs its pussy to dead children”.
(By the way, I want to say that hatred and shocking violence in rap lyrics is not at all a clear-cut issue, as it comes from a long tradition of creative nihilism that has had its moments of brilliance. These lyrics in the video, though, are long on the nihilism and short on the creativity.)
The expressiveness and hard work, the fascination, the rebelliousness, the fellowship, etc. found in underground scenes, should be used for good. I think it’s on us to disentangle the good from the misguided and ignorant in our own relationships with media and cultures we love.
Today I want to see who I was when I first soaked up 90s underground culture in the form of video games. I’ll do this by analysing my creative reaction at the time – making my own games. Of course, I already know that my younger self is going to seem privileged and sheltered. More interesting will be seeing how I incorporated my interest in black music in these designs, because that gives me perspective on my present-day obsession with it. And I’ll think a bit about the worldview behind these game styles.
Into the time machine!!
Doped Quake (2001, Quake mod, Kevin Higgins & Paul Cuffe):
This crude joke mod has some interesting features as well as some super-problematic depictions. Basically, myself and a friend, aged 13-14, broke the the game’s combat in order to replace three monsters with humorously “reskinned” versions. The joke is “drug-taking” (which neither of us had any experience of at the time). The edited monsters represent a stoned ‘Nam vet, a coke-sniffing tracksuited “knacker”, and an alcoholic derelict. The “knacker” embodies my own class hatred of the time – “knacker”, for non-Irish readers, being an offensive term for both members of the Traveller minority group in Ireland, and working-class people. The other two depictions are scarcely better, although the inclusion of the ‘Nam vet shows how detached all of this was from my (Irish suburban) reality.
So, the joke is naive and the representations are horrific. But I kind of like how this was made. It’s a very cheeky appropriation of game technology which was only five years gone from the cutting edge. It throws away the ostensible whole point of the game – defeating monsters – for a joke. The new graphics are made in the most basic way, reminiscent of photoshopping a meme. (The “stoner”‘s bare chest, which represents the only significant effort in the whole enterprise, is a graphic I’d made previously to represent myself in multiplayer gaming sessions). The animations of the three figures are completely recycled from animations in the original game. The massive joint was originally a gun, the puff of smoke was a graphic I originally made to represent a bullet impact.
There’s no representation of black culture in this game but it does show a bourgeois teenager’s naive interest in subculture and subversion which has stayed with me – my MA paper in Amsterdam two years ago was called “Blues Is Subversive”.
THEGAM4.BAS (2004, text adventure, Kevin Higgins):
The programmers among you can read the terrible, mostly cribbed, code of this game here. It plays out in text with no graphics, accepting commands in the form of “take plank” or “talk to man”. The writing style is copied from Stephen King and Terry Pratchett, with a hint maybe of George Orwell and Roald Dahl. The first interesting thing is the characters:
The love interest is a young woman who I imagined as mixed-race, although she’s not described as such.
There’s a touch of homophobia and classism in places e.g. this description of being beaten by builders: “you are mercilessly trounced over a period of two hours by grunting men in grubby vests with pipe-wrenches.”
There’s a kindly, stoned junkie who speaks in an African-American accent despite not being described as black (he’s maybe a bit of a Magical Negro, beneficent and otherworldly due to his drug use). Again, my kid’s fascination with drugs is evident.
Authority figures (state security official, factory owner) are evil. They can be violently killed in one-on-one fights.
I was comfortable with premeditated killings (and in the game), which are described succinctly but graphically. Interestingly, the female character is not present in any violent scenes. I had enough awareness of feminism at the time that I at least avoided a damsel-in-distress story.
There’s a sequence where a busker starts to play funk “manically”, with the music described in technical terms like “dorian mode” which I was only just learning in my bass lessons. A nearby policeman reacts to the music by putting on a black accent, upon which he is rebuked by his colleague. Black music was obviously part of my identity but still seemed offbeat and quirky, not fully compatible with white middle-class dignity.
The world of the game is a grubby dystopia with the state oppressing freedom fighter groups. I think it resonates with Liz Ryerson’s recent description of the world of 90s shooter Duke Nukem: “Because the world is broken, there’s nothing particularly comforting about occupying any of it for very long, or sad about blowing up any of it.” She also says that Duke’s enemies are “just thinly veiled stand-ins for human men. Men with power and authority.” Such men are clearly the villains of my story.
However, my fiction is not about disorienting violence and hyper-masculinity. For most of the game the player can walk in front of, and talk to, his enemies, because he doesn’t draw attention to himself. This derives from Orwell’s 1984 and also from Terry Pratchett’s Johnny series about a 12-year-old in a down-at-heel English commuter town. That is to say, it’s a British thing – and also how I navigated most interactions back then. The grubbiness of my game’s world is from Brit culture also.
Maul Ball (2004, platformer, Kevin Higgins & Stephen Roantree):
When I noticed that I didn’t have this game on my hard drive anymore, I hopped onto Google because it had ended up on freeware game sites when we released it. I was saddened to note only one search result now came up for it and that link didn’t work. Luckily, the programmer of the game, a mate of mine, uploaded it to gamedev.net, and there it still was. Phew! Cultural preservation in the digital age is no joke.
My coder friend made a very slick little game here, I just contributed to the design and made the graphics and music. What’s interesting is the suddenly up-front depiction of black culture. The hero is a black disco fan with an afro, even though this has nothing to do with the gameplay. The soundtrack is ersatz funk I made in Fruity Loops.
However, this (enthusiastic if not knowledgeable) representation of black culture is used problematically. At the time I was leaning more towards the doctrines of the “indie game” scene which, due to a laudable focus on making money, celebrates entertainment value, interesting game mechanics (I think our ball bouncing through a maze was at least a moderately interesting mechanic!) and polish. Compared to my previous subversive efforts, here I’ve washed my face and taken steps towards marketability. Check the description I wrote to entice people to play the game:
“You are disco-loving Leroy! Put on your white flares, comb your afro till it’s bigger than you and smash some zombies!”
Good marketing copy. However, it’s really appropriative, particularly the detail about the afro. Did I at the time (or do I even now) know anything about combing afros? No. Nor did I try ask anyone about it, nor did it occur to me that a black person might play the game!
As I mentioned previously, I think appropriation that attempts to, with little real engagement or study, swipe signs of identity like hairstyles, is perhaps the most egregious.
Still a pretty good game for our first attempt. I should have stuck with it and made some cash. This was a few years before indie games became massive.
Jailbreak (2005, sneak ’em up, Kevin Higgins & Stephen Roantree)
This game is a good deal more sophisticated than the previous, mostly because my collaborator had more input and worked on some pretty sophisticated technology like the prison guards’ “view cones” and pathfinding, plus a scripting system to make speech bubbles pop up. The game is also better packaged with a proper installer, and it earned decent reviews for a freebie. Some of my graphics and writing are good too. I like the menu background you can glimpse below because it subverts the action-hero masculinity I was talking about before. The hero is not the big man with the gun but the thoughtful sneaker. (This was influenced by the classic games Commandos, Deus Ex and Thief 2.)
Again, it took a while to find this game online. Thank god for freegame.cz who allowed me to “stáhnout hru” without a hitch. I’m actually gonna back up this and “Maul Ball” right now.
My representation of black music culture comes up a notch in this one. The soundtrack still isn’t great (I remember a schoolmate of mine telling me he had to turn it off to play the game) but it adds to the atmosphere and uses flickers of blues piano put through a dubbish delay.
However, the cool thing is that the loading screens for each level feature a quote from a song about escaping jail. (An idea stolen from Call of Duty 2.) All of the songs are in black genres, although, reflective of my musical knowledge at the time, 7/8 of the artists are white! Counteracting that, and acting as perhaps evidence for the transformative power of black music’s utopian politics, the quotes are (of course) to do with escaping to freedom. The final quote, which I chose for its emotional depth, tackles one of black music’s most powerful and pain-defying themes, clearly related to what Paul Gilroy calls “the slave sublime”:
“Lord I’ve been gone such a long time, I’ll be coming back home someday.”
So, I think that’s pretty cool.
It’s just a pity about the “pick up the soap” throwaway gag in the shower level, but it was 2005 and I was still in my all-boys secondary school (high school).
That was about the peak of my game-making career, after that I got more into music. Hope you enjoyed the trip and it made you think over your own juvenilia.