Not My Theory

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).

cw-robin-hood-disney-1

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!

Poster February 2018 Tweaked

6 Bassline Strategies

I had the privilege recently of writing bass grooves for two awesome bands, Zaska and Mescalito. When I pondered over the lines I’d composed, I noticed certain techniques recurring. Today, I’ll briefly explain each technique. Plus I’ll link to a nice example of it in the reggae, funk, jazz or hip hop repertoire.

(If you want to hear the actual lines I wrote, come see Mescalito on March 24th in the Opium Rooms supporting Vernon Jane, or on April 14th in Sweeney’s, or see Zaska’s single release on April 23rd in the Sugar Club!)

1. Space

Silence can be one of the most attractive features of a cyclical bass groove. A gap, whether for half a beat or a full bar or more, lets other parts emerge, particularly drum hits. (Cutting off a bass note right on a snare backbeat is a cliche example.)

A short gap works as punctuation, giving the groove more of a shape, and therefore, it seems to me, more physical catchiness/danceability. For example, the “Stalag” riddim (which you may know as the groove for Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam”), here underpinning Tenor Saw‘s hit “Ring The Alarm”…

 

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The “Stalag” bassline

Here’s another awesome 1-beat-ish gap in a reggae groove (beat 3 in the 2nd bar):

 

 

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Robbie Shakespeare’s line on “Computer Malfunction”

Longer spaces have a call-and-answer effect, as in this afrobeat groove…

 

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Leaving space for call-and-response (I’m not certain that this is really where the 1 is, by the way…)

2. Funky Melodic Cells

Like any other musical part, a strong bassline should be melodic. In a funky context, though, the tendency is usually towards blues melody rather than diatonicism. Out of the pool of blues notes I discussed a while back, a few 3- or 4-note cells emerge that are by far the strongest for constructing basslines. For example, 1 2 b3, 1 6 b7, 5 6 8 9, and the definitive cell for funk basslines, 1 5 b7. A catchy hook (i.e. with an intriguing rhythm) made from one of these cells can easily be a strong enough bassline to carry a tune.

 

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The opening bass riff on “Not For Nothing” uses the 1 6 b7 cell

 

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The basic groove (coming in around 0:32) played by Hunter on 8-string guitar, using the 1 5 b7 cell

Here’s an example of a hook-y bassline built off the 1 2 b3 cell followed by a sequenced, retrograded version (that is, the first three notes are then transposed up a fifth and reversed in order).

 

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Slap riff from A Certain Ratio’s “Waterline” (0:21)

More important than the motivic derivation, though, is the space in every 2nd bar which is used for call-and-response (in the form of improvised fills). Check out that nasty double-tracked slap sound too.

Contour

Another important aspect of that line is the clear direction of movement – up and then down, quite simply. A clear, uncomplicated contour like that strengthens the riff. For instance, the ascending bassline off the classic Scofield/Metheny collaboration…

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The A section groove for “Everybody’s Party”, with an ascending contour in each bar

As an aside, I would bet that this groove and the Dave Holland groove were both originally notated using 8th notes where I have 16th notes. Jazz musicians like reading 8th notes. It’s purely a notation decision with little or no musical impact, but I think 16ths are a more accurate reflection.

Octave Jumps

Steve Swallow’s bassline ascends a minor pentatonic scale before jumping from the b7 (Eb) back down to the root (F). We can imagine a variation of the where the scalar ascent continued, so instead of a jump down a minor 7th we would have a step-wise movement to the higher F:

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Steve Swallow’s groove without the octave displacement at bar 2

The played line uses octave displacement of what would otherwise be step-wise movement. Another example of this is Marcus Miller’s nifty elaboration of the classic “Red Baron” groove (composed originally by Billy Cobham).

 

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Octave displacement of step-wise movement

The Meters’ “Funky Miracle”, here sampled by DJ Premier for an early Gang Starr track, features both a (pentatonic) stepwise melody and then its octave displacement.

 

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Octave displacement of expected high Ab

Even simpler than octave displacement of step-wise movement, is a plain leap of an octave. This James Brown sample (1973’s “Blind Man Can See It”) has a downwards octave leap to the tonic note:

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Sampled bassline used in “Funky Technician”

(Note also the clear contour and the use of space, albeit with the note ringing out rather than silence.)

Here’s an upwards octave leap from the IV note. (Fred Wesley and the Horny Horns’ “Four Play”, sampled by DJ Premier.)

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What a rugged groove! Premier’s sub-bass and scratching helps of course.

5. Circularity Via Pick-Up

Emphasising the cyclic nature of a groove creates a hypnotic, trancy effect. One way is to use a phrase that starts before beat one. I read somewhere that landing on, rather than starting from, the downbeat is a characteristic of African-derived music. That’s surely a huge generalisation, but it does tie in well to how bebop improvisation and alternate paths are based on directionality towards target chords.

Starting basslines on a pickup in this way is not a very common technique, but here’s a nice example:

 

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Paul Jackson’s line on “God Make Me Funky” (drops around 0:50)

6. Circularity Via Dynamic Balance

This is a concept I picked up from Steve Coleman’s writings, but I’m not at all qualified to say much about it. As I see it, it’s a characteristic of African-derived rhythms such as clave… basically, the quality of having points of rest alternating with points of tension in a syncopated rhythmic cycle, producing forward motion (“dynamic”) and also a self-contained, universal circularity (“balance”). Hmmm, my prose is not really up to the task here! Anyway, do we find clave-like rhythms in the funk repertoire? Of course we do, in these classic basslines:

 

Gonna sign off here! Hope you picked up some groove wisdom from all of that. Like, follow and share!

Manifesting

[I edited this piece on 27/01/2016 to make a stronger start by moving some stuff to the end.]

Today I want to focus on an idea from my first post. I claimed that Gang Starr’s 1993 hip hop track “The Planet” celebrates the process of making music and developing skills. This idea of an African-American “processual” aesthetic stayed in my head. Recently I realised what it was missing: how respect for creative work applies to creative work happening right now – in the moment and “in time” to the beat.

Hip hop and jazz and jazz both value a performer opening their imagination and voicing ideas while staying cool (represented by controlled time feel and timbre). In jazz this is called spontaneous composition. Although rap is usually much less free than jazz soloing, it nonetheless privileges the idea of improvisation. Many features of rap are clearly improvisers’ techniques: routines and cliches which give the rapper time to think, repeating of words or lines as if correcting a mistake, and free, intuitive association of thoughts or sounds.

I believe that hip hop values in particular the willed act of in-the-moment creative expression. This is clear in the spoken introductions prefacing so many classic tracks. They are a ritual hyping up of the upcoming creative act. For example…

Burnt Batch’s “Artform” features a beautiful spoken intro and outro that lays out the song’s purpose: to “explain this artform of hip hop”.

It invokes two qualities of virtuosic improvisation: transportive/visionary power, “take me on another journey”, and unexpected switches of scale, “in a twisted world where everything is in the palm of your hand”. The speaker’s voice creates a great vibe by using the pitching, although not the strict rhythm, of rap. Still, his timing is very intentional, as in the hesitant “You know what I mean it’s like… takin’ a trip… you ain’t comin’ back” finishing right before the bass-heavy beat enters with a snare drop and a sublime laid-back kick on the downbeat at 0:24. It’s a lovely build-up.

These intros represent and stylise the social function of cheering on the performer. This is a facet of call-and-response, an archetypal feature of African and African-American music. A clear example of that is the chorus chant in Freestyle Fellowship’s “Cornbread”.

T-Spoon Iodine calls out “Aceyalone I hear ya” to the main performer, reacting and spurring him on. By the way, this brilliant rap has many indicators of improvisation – free association, leaps of imagination, playing with sounds, filler lines, etc. – whether or not it was spontaneous.

Big L, in this radio performance, claims that he is improvising “I  don’t know how I’ma do this” even though the actual rap is pre-written. It’s just one of a few stock phrases he uses to build up to his rap – and a good demonstration of the idea of improv in hip hop.

His tone of voice and even facial expression change when he switches to full-on rapping. This mental transition, and the “here it comes” feeling, are integral parts of the performance – as are the exclamations and contributions of the others in the studio. I believe that in this aesthetic, there is a unification of intention, invention, utterance and audience reaction. There is no word in standard English that covers all of these (“expounding” and “holding forth” have no connotation of creativity) – but later we’ll see what terms rappers themselves have used.

Let’s not forget that I’m looking at a little slice of music history here. Actually, I should put my hand up and say first of all that categorising and defining aspects of black music that I only know from records puts me at risk of making the similar mistakes, and perpetuating the same racialised dynamics, that plagued many white blues/jazz commentators. I try stay aware of that!

Anyway, my point was that these techniques have a different meaning today than in the mid-90s, because they’ve been assimilated into mass culture. The chorus of Jurassic 5’s pleasant but backwards-looking “What’s Golden” (2002) uses a typical crowd-interaction/call-and-response chant as a convenient stand-in for classic hip hop: “We’re taking it back to yes-y’allin’“. What was a behaviour becomes more like a sign.

And I should also make clear that these African-derived techniques have become transplanted into other cultures. For instance I saw an all-white, all-European jazz band in JJ Smyth’s last week that made exuberant use of call-and-response, when drummer Eric Ineke punctuated bassist Ronan Guilfoyle‘s solo phrases with detailed rhythmic comments.

So with that said, and having looked at the hyping introductions, let’s examine celebration of improvisational thinking in the actual lyrics. I isolated two types of tropes: metaphorical descriptions of the in-the-moment creative act; and mind-blowing imaginative leaps. The metaphors celebrate improv with heroic comparisons, while the flights of fancy celebrate it by demonstrating mastery of it.

There are a huge number of metaphors for rapping. One important type is physical metaphors, most obviously of violence. “I’ma hit ya with the blow of death” from Rakim’s “Microphone Fiend”, or “I wake you with hundreds of thousands of volts” from Rakim’s “Lyrics of Fury”. Rap may be viewed as  a “slang blade” (Binary Star, “Slang Blade”) or a “rappin’ sword” (EPMD, “You Gots To Chill”), or a gun, “be prepared for the mental head shots” (Company Flow, “Vital Nerve”). Also physically-derived are the many verbs used for the intentional creative act I’ve been discussing: bust, kick it, flip shit, flow, hit, drop…

One rapper was a master of these verbs and he is Guru of Gang Starr. It’s no coincidence that he popularised jazz-rap and collaborated with top jazz players: he obviously prioritised the aesthetic of spontaneous composition. Check out the incredible amount of terms for the creative act in his early track, “Manifest”:

I profess

I manifest

I select a clear message

I go for glory

I narrate, relate and equate, dictate and debate

I’m kickin’ clout

Right about to spin it

I instill

I impress upon you

Let me uplift and shift my gift

To ignite, excite and delight

I’m about to let off

I convey

I give you lyrics to live to

Guru was also conscious of the effect of using all these words in the first-person present tense: to say “I speak” is to prove the truth of the words, collapsing the distance between word and reality. Guru intentionally played with truth and “realness”, I think.

Another class of metaphors are those about unleashing, or threatening to unleash, hidden energy – an essential component of black cool, Questlove claims.

“Wanna rhyme one time, to release the steam”

“Because I float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”

“My rhymes are hungry plus they haven’t been fed” – “You’re A Customer” – EPMD

“I come in peace to release the effect of my voice” – 2 Deep – Gang Starr, Step In The Arena (holy shit that is such a good line it gives me goosebumps… check it out in context, it’s at around 2:47)

“Grab the microphone and let your words rip” – “Check The Rhyme” – A Tribe Called Quest

“Your optics will not be able to detect/The deadly hypnotical gases” – “Releasing Hypnotical Gases” – Organized Konfusion

Releasing hidden energy isn’t a common trope, but it’s important to me because it crops up in a few of my absolute top-rated tracks. For instance, this line by Pharoah Monche of Organized Konfusion, comparing his rapping to a volcano, is one of the heaviest I’ve ever encountered.

“…I strike/Sight beyond sight, sound beyond sound/Which comes from below the magma, the granite, the ground/The surface will separate, dispersing harmful ashes”

(Notice the utterly virtuosic shift of perspective in one line from deep in the earth to where the listener stands on top of it, and the tricky switch-up – like a fighter or dancer’s – of the phrasing “Which comes from”, prepared by the abstraction of the previous line.) That, and the first line of his verse, “I am the one who is one with all things”, are powerful expressions of what Amiri Baraka called “the classic African sensibility… everything that exists… is part of, connected as, the same thing”.

These head-melting shifts of location, context and/or scale are a trope too: agility of imagination. E.g. Gang Starr’s “Comin’ for Datazz”:

“True indeed I believe in taking my words’ power/Across the seas and deserts through the trees and grass, and if you ain’t on point then we coming for that ass”

Just like Monche, Guru creates a progression of locations homing in on the listener. This tricky thought switches context from foreign lands and oceans to the here and now. Nas pulls a similar stunt in his classic “N.Y. State Of Mind”: “Don’t put me in your box if your shit eats tapes”, bringing the message home to the listener’s cassette player.

So what kind of conclusion can we draw from surveying these tropes and aesthetic tendencies? Well, I’m reminded of a thing Vijay Iyer said in the Banff International Workshop in Jazz & Creative Music in 2012: Great Black Music contains within itself the codes for transformation: of yourself, your community, and your surroundings.

Transformation of everyday situations by manifesting a rhyme happens to be the final hip hop trope I want to mention.

“Rhymes attract the crowd once I got em down pat” – “Slave To My Soundwave”, Lord Finesse

“When I rock street kids rejoice” – “Mostly The Voice” – Gang Starr

What I’ve picked up from thinking through all this, is a view of creativity as a social act of generosity and courage – bringing joy to a situation by unleashing, and trusting in, subconscious powers. Two kinds of discipline are involved: the woodshedding discipline of internalising patterns that can be used later in the moment; and the performance discipline of trusting in imagination and controlling sound and time feel, which comes down to being connected to your body and to the present moment.

I hope you enjoyed the read and that you picked up some new ways to listen to rap lyrics and improvise, and to think about creativity. Please comment!

[Here are two paragraphs that were originally at the start of the piece, about the politics of technology.]

Writing comments is unpaid labour, or so it was suggested on The Quietus yesterday. Is blogging similarly a donation of work to corporations monetising ad clicks? Do they deserve it for the services they provide?

I guess it comes down to whether you broadly agree with the way our technological world has gone. From a musician’s perspective, the internet reduced investment in recorded music. In return it’s given us free music to listen to, which can be handy. Vijay Iyer hopes that the spontaneous emergence of deeply organised structures from apparent disorder is the future of music. But honestly, I haven’t seen this yet on the internet – though I appreciate how Youtube, Google Drive and Facebook let me swap musical ideas with bandmates.