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).


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

Book Review: Origins of the Popular Style

I’d been meaning to read Origins of the Popular Style by Peter van der Merwe (published 1989) for quite a while. It’s a musicological look at the origins – European and African – of 20th century styles like popular song, jazz, blues and rock’n’roll. I finished it a few days ago.

Basically, author Peter van der Merwe has turned around my ideas on the development of black music, including ideas I’ve written about on this blog. Today, I’ll first of all look at these revelations.

After that, I’ll evaluate the book’s approach and style.

So, first up, what are the big ideas? Number one is the complex connection between British folk music and blues. Van der Merwe is great at matching up variants of a song or song type, on different staves, so you can identify bar-by-bar how they changed over time and in passing between cultures. This reveals how blues song forms slowly evolved. For instance, the “4 bars of verse, 8 bars of refrain” structure of “Good Golly Miss Molly” and “Long Tall Sally” are traced back through the early blues “Tight Like That” then to Mississippi John Hurt’s “Frankie” to the hillbilly song “Josie”, itself a variant of a Scottish folk song, “Tattie Jock”.

As well as stanza shapes, melodic skeletons can be traced back to Europe. So, a prison work song like this one recorded by Alan Lomax, as stereotypically African-American and rootsy as one can imagine….

… uses a melodic skeleton from 15th century France, known as “Le Petit Roysin”.

An example that amazed me was the use of the flat 7th in blues. This note often features beautifully on the V chord of blues songs, for example at 0:30 in Barbecue Bob’s “Going Up The Country” (you can also hear it in both the improvised harmonies and the main line of the prison song above, e.g. at 0:50). I had always assumed that it was an African-derived use of the 7th harmonic of the root. This book neatly points out that it is a feature of British song known as the English cadence. But this is not to discount the African lineage. Van der Merwe is at pains to show how similarities between two different cultures reinforce each other during cultural interchange. He makes that point about, for instance, the originally separate British and African tradition of songs of complaint. I think it applies well to the merging of separate African timbral and British folk music derivations of the flat 7th.

Another aspect with much emotional resonance for me, the lyrics of blues songs, also turned out to have more British ancestry than I realised. For example, “One Kind Favour” (here in a seriously great boogie version by white hippy blues experts Canned Heat) is a  compilation of floating couplets of English lyric and poetry.

Moving on, the second major discovery for me in this book was about jazz and blues harmony. Van der Merwe paints a convincing picture of 32-bar popular songs (which became jazz standards) being the end result of harmonic/melodic trends initiated by great Romantic composers. To over-simplify, melody became more and more independent of harmony, by granting the 3rd, 7th and 6th greater modal power. A classic example is “Mack The Knife”. The melody is completely built off the 6th, which becomes a chord extension over standard major harmony (e.g. the 9th of the V7 under “und die tragt” at 0:31).

One of the great insights of the book is that such techniques pioneered by Liszt and Schubert became too vulgar for “serious” or “art” music in the middle of the 19th century but thrived in the trashier end of Victorian music: music-hall, salon music, arrangements for amateurs, dance music, etc. (The book names all of this “parlour music”). From there, they went directly into the jazz standards.

The biggest surprise for me in “Origins of the Popular Style” was the origin of blues chromatic parallel cliches. I’m talking about the descending 6ths used by almost all blues guitarists, discussed in this article, and the descending minor thirds that permeate music as disparate as Chuck Berry, Skip James and Thelonious Monk, discussed here. Very simply, these are Romantic-era innovations that became cliches of parlour music, and from there, ragtime and early jazz and blues.

That descending 6ths figure? Here it is in 1841 (at 2:16, in the bottom right of the score on the video).

Last year when I first discovered the extent of these parallelisms in jazz and blues, I thought they were a basically African-derived phenomenon, of treating chords or chord fragments as “timbre-harmonic” units – sounds prized for their physical quality rather than harmonic function. So I’m really glad that this book opened my eyes. Now I would say the parallelisms are European material that fitted the African timbre-harmonic conception and so gained a new life, and completely new and sophisticated meanings, in African-American music.

A third idea from the book is blindingly obvious and yet blew my mind – that many folk and blues songs have a “mode” or melodic basis of as few as two notes! This is an extremely refreshing perspective for anyone with classical or jazz training. Van der Merwe is really strong on analysing melodies and dealing seriously with the simplest of tunes, sometimes irreverently comparing them with Western art music. For instance, placing Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony beside “Oh! Mr. Porter” as two examples of a pentatonic mode.

And how well does he treat African music? Well, for one thing he’s clear about the unparseable variety of musics found on that continent and the impossibility of tracing African-American techniques to particular African styles (because of the cultural destructiveness of slavery).

Beyond that, though, the author impressed me with some insights into African-derived style. He mentions “the “false trail” introduction, in which the listener is presented with a rhythm which turns out, once the main beat is brought in, to be something quite different from what it seemed at first.”

Van der Merwe also mentions African “tapering” melodies that settle towards a powerful low “floor” note. “Devil Got My Woman” is a perfect example.

All in all, van der Merwe is not a specialist in African music, but his ideas seemed sound to me. And this is a general trend in the book. He doesn’t have academic rigour, (notably, he doesn’t work in a university or have qualifications as far as I can find) but everything he says is on-the-ball and backed up by examples. This position as outsider scholar frees him up to make bold but attractive generalisations. Out of many examples:

“Most African languages have… a fixed melodic relation between syllables…. This makes ordinary speech musical, and greatly narrows the gap between speech and song.”
“With most classical tunes, if you get a note wrong you spoil the whole. This is not true of the great folk tune patterns.”
“Bad taste, in the arts, is always a sort of failed good taste.”

Van der Merwe’s thinking style, based on bold, sometimes surprising connections, added a lot to the appeal of the book for me. Probably because I have a similar generalising, transcendental (“this thing is really that thing!!!”) thinking style.

Well, I better stop soon. All in all, this book gave me new ways to interrogate so-called Classical music and deepened my understanding of jazz and blues history. The lesson I learned is that connectedness and interchange are much stronger forces than we imagine.

Paradoxically, even though this book revealed a stronger European contribution to black music than I had expected, it still deepened my respect for the black music tradition. This is because I got a glimpse of how absolutely massive and sophisticated jazz and blues are. The mind-blowing achievements of 20th century greats like Parker, Ellington, Basie, Monk, etc., etc. were built off a subtle and complex body of work resulting from many decades, indeed centuries, of previous musicians’ experimentation and transformation.

After thinking about this development process, more and more I’m learning not to look for “roots” of African-American brilliance. Techno, hip hop, funk, bebop, swing, blues, etc. feature African stylistic retentions, but these were consciously developed and improved by black musicians. There is no mystical essence of African-American music filtering down from a forgotten past. Instead, African-derived approaches are constantly being reconsidered and recast to make new music.

To finish, let’s take a van der Merwe-influenced look at this jazz classic.

What do we have?A simple melody likely built off a folk skeleton. (Another famous Rollins track, “St. Thomas”, actually is a folk melody from England via the Caribbean.) Parlour music harmony such as extended dominants and use of the chromatic 5 b5/#4 4 voice movement. Almost banal reliance on the AABA form of popular song. Yet all of these materials are completely transcended by the sophisticated, part-ironic, bluesy, Signifying approach – and the remorseless swinging – that I don’t think could have been matched by any white band at the time.

Truck on Down and Dig Me, Jack

Today’s (tonight’s) post will be a quick one because I spent my time on another idea that didn’t work out! I’m gonna talk about Louis Jordan, one of the all-time great African-American entertainers, who (this isn’t just my opinion) doesn’t get his due in jazz circles. Specifically, I want to try investigate coded meanings in his songs and lyrics.

Louis Jordan was a famous hit-making bandleader who churned out dozens of singles in the 40s and 50s. They’re in a distinctive style, with heavy piano basslines, powerful swing/shuffle grooves, bluesy harmonised vocals, lots of blues vocabulary in general, and sax and piano solos.

Jordan’s persona as a singer is also distinctive – he is hip, ironic, and uses a lot of jive talk and witty rhymes. His music has been called proto-rap and proto-rock’n’roll, and Chuck Berry, Little Richard and James Brown were all influenced by him. I really like a lot of his music, for one thing because it grooves and has great riffs and solos, but also because of the humour and double entendres in the lyrics.

I’m going to speculate that Jordan covertly attacked white oppression in his songs. But let’s start with an obvious double entendre from 1946 just to see how he works.

So, to put it bluntly, this song is about the sexual potential of underage girls, as you may have guessed from the title. The innuendo is transparent, but by placing himself in the moralising position of warning males away from girls who are too young, Jordan somewhat lightens the effect. It’s still a creepy song by today’s standards! Not one of my favourites.

“Blue Lite Boogie” (1950) is not so bad, because Jordan plays up the humour and pathos of his persona, the guy who’s too old and uncool for a really hip party, “I was like a chaperone”. But the undercurrent of teenage sexuality can still be pieced together. The partygoers are “bobby-soxers” doing “the boogie real slow with the blue light way down low”. They are too young to drink, seeing as the police find only “ice cream and lemonade” after a raid. Plus the atmosphere of the tune is so blue it borders on the debauched! But I quite like that nasty vocal harmony.

Let’s move on to “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens”. This song has been covered by the white Western Swing band Asleep At The Wheel, as well as by B.B. King and James Brown! All the cover versions present it as a light-hearted number. A late version by Louis Jordan on French TV is extremely interesting for its introduction:

Important points:
– this is for a white audience
– Jordan plays up to the stereotype that black Americans like chicken. He visibly decides to switch to an exaggerated accent “And I’m sure that – you know ah lu-uv chicken.”
– he references his previous song about chickens, which could only be “This Chick’s Too Young To Fry”

I’m not well-informed enough to know a name for Jordan’s use of stereotype, but I think I recognise it. It’s an evasive maneouvre of acting out what’s expected of a black performer so as to let the white audience think they have his measure, while they actually don’t at all. And Jordan references “Too Young To Fry” which is built on innuendo, but in such a way that only someone who knew his back catalogue would understand. So, this song is getting an introduction heavy with double meaning.

What is the song about? It is sung in the persona of “us”, the “chickens”. It’s a song of protest addressed to a farmer who “shouts”, “butts in”, “stompin’ around and shakin’ the ground”, disturbing the chickens who have their own business to attend to, “We got things to do”. There are references to the farmer’s authority as manager – he does the locking up of the property – and that he menaces the chickens with a gun. A final element is that this is music for urban black people, for whom the rural countryside was a memory of even more extreme racism than they experienced in the cities.

So, I think the farmer represents terrorising white authority and the chickens black people who just want to be left alone. Interestingly, in the 70s performance, Jordan gives some genuinely disturbing shouts “oh no uh uh oh no” over the song’s ending, eyes wide as if with fear, before switching instantly to his genial smile. I’d tentatively interpret it as an angry challenge to his audience to recognise to real meaning of the song.

I have no idea if B.B. King, James Brown and Asleep At The Wheel thought about this perspective on the song. Maybe they all did.

A more light-hearted, yet more viciously ironic look at a similar theme is “Cole Slaw”. I’m certain that this song is slagging off Southern whites for their European diet and manners. It’s also an absolutely bad-ass honking horn arrangement.

The lyrics are very funny with their silly rhymes on “-aw”, yet cuttingly sarcastic, “it ain’t nothing but some cabbage raw”, “just a simple Southern treat”, “that’s good strategy without a flaw”. Frankly I think this is a simmeringly angry song. The ending confirms it, with a mocking repetition of “cole slaw” followed by dark hits on a V7 with sour bends up to its 3rd and b7th.

Okay, one more for you, which, if I’m right, is also a mocking song but with a more problematic target.

“Five Guys Named Moe” brought Jordan to the attention of white audiences and was his early breakthrough hit. It’s about a band whose members are all called “Moe” and who “came out of nowhere” to be “the talk of rhythm town”. Jordan presented this (as you see in the video) as if the “five guys named Moe” were his band. However, a quick look at Wikipedia shows that the notable Moes in the US were all Eastern European Jews. I don’t have much more to go on, but I think this song might be satirising the success of Jewish pop songwriters and musicians. The use of a moment of barbershop harmony at 0:29 is interesting. Although barbershop was probably an African-American style originally, by its 1940s revival it seems to have been coded as white. For instance, Norman Rockwell depicted it thusly in 1936:

“Sharp Harmony” by Norman Rockwell

So, Jordan was not including barbershop harmony to be hip. I have read that anti-Semitism was widespread in black communities in the first half of the 20th century, and I suspect, that, although it’s a nifty tune, “Five Guys Named Moe” might be a reflection of that. Check out Joe Jackson’s great version by the way (off his album of jump blues covers, Jumpin’ Jive, that first introduced me to Louis Jordan’s songs, featuring pumping electric bass by Graham Maby – not as swinging as the originals but an excellent effort).

To finish, a tune that I’m not really sure if I’ve figured out.

There is definitely some Signifying and double entendre going on here. For one thing, unlike his earlier hits, “Beans And Cornbread” (1949) makes references to traditional, rural black styles of work and church music. Check out the interlocking of the vocal harmony with the bluesy hollers, “I’ll be ready”. Even more countrified are the wordless vocal effects at 1:03 and 1:28. The whole outro references the call and answer of a preacher and his congregation. Jordan puts overwrought tremblings and whoops in his voice, then hams up a naive gospel ending over a corny I V I cadence. This is in contrast to the key-changing slickness of the intro. What the heck is going on?

The lyrics describe how two food items, beans and cornbread, have a fight, then “Beans” goes on a sentimental rant about how they should be friends and socialise together all the time, “Every Saturday night, we should hang out!” And a long list of foods that go together are referenced.

There’s one line that might be the key, “Beans told cornbread, it makes no difference what you think about me, but it makes a whole lot of difference what I think about you.” So, very clearly, theirs is not a friendship of equals. My tentative reading is that, basically, “Beans” represents whites who are offensively over-familiar to blacks (“Cornbread”) and who use their privileged position to insist on fraternity while ignoring injustice.

Hope you enjoyed that as much as I did. As always, please leave a comment if you have any, and also follow the blog to make sure you won’t miss my weekly posts! Till next time.


[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.