This is a journey into sound. Or into a sound, a lone sample with a crowded story. It’s currently squeebing out of radios under cover of “That’s the Way,” credited to DJ Clue?; it merely “features” Ma$e and Foxy Brown. Well, you know: Authorship is complicated, Postmodernism blah blah blah. But I’m more interested in whether you can know the color of the sound.
Clue? is a black man, Foxy a young black teenager, and Ma$e, if I’m not mistaken, is the young Harlem nigga with the golden sound. The song gets played on “urban” radio. Of course the world ain’t black and white, and ditto sounds; this song will be heard, bought, and danced to by a rainbow coalition of pop-hop consumers. But front not: if we can talk about race, sound, and color at all, this song’s a black sound.
It’s built from a sample so familiar it’s become just one of those samples, like “Flashlight” or “The Funky Drummer.” The sample’s been licensed a couple dozen times in the last few years alone, by nobodies and ghetto supastars alike— these are just the times someone called a lawyer.
What we’re gonna do now is go back. How far back? Way back. Looking at the list the lawyers sent me, something striking emerges: for 18 years, everyone who’s used this sample is an African American, with two telling exceptions. The first is Mariah Carey, the suburban songstress of the complex complexion and Afrocentric fantasy life. This makes her the exception that proves the rule. Steady representing with black dancers and Puffy, even hiring ODB to rhyme how he and Mariah go back like babies and pacifiers— she’s the Long Island wigga with the platinum sound.
The second exception turns out to be even more remarkable: “Doin’ Damage in My Native Language” by Zimbabwe Legit, a straight-up African outfit who looped the sample under a primer of their Shona dialect.
There the lawyers’ list ends (or begins), stopping short of the oldest bite I remember, 1982’s “It’s Nasty (Genius of Love)” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. But go back one more year, to the source of that squiggly keyboard and synth-bass, and the sound turns white: “Genius of Love” is by Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth of Tom Tom Club, products of palefaced Downtown bohemia. Calculating its contribution to future hip-hop, their one great song is a cultural treasure. And what it treasures is black sounds, calling out names of heroes such as “Clinton’s musicians such as Bootsy Collins,” and eventually just chanting “James Brown, James Brown.”
Even aside from “Genius of Love,” 1981 was a big year for race and mixing. For one thing, “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” scratched off the stumbling early format of rap— disco house bands with talkative guys— and revealed the strategies which would shape not just hip-hop but electronica. Flash’s outsourced party on plastic didn’t just blow up the joint; it carried the news for a generation of both block-rockin’ and bedroom auteurs who traded instruments for a sampladelic vision of history as a melting pot you could funk to. Who needs a band when the beat just goes? A reviewer might have written “an undeniably awesome feat of tape editing and rhythmic ingenuity.”
In fact, a reviewer did. But he was talking about a different record from that year: My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, by white boys Brian Eno and David Byrne, composed largely of field recordings from the ambient sonic life of West Africa spliced over polybeats. We can bet that Byrne was playing his newly discovered Luaka bop for the rhythm section of his main band Talking Heads— Frantz and Weymouth. Not a coincidence.
So maybe the sound I’m so curious about— black, white, African, American— goes back to My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Except maybe not the album, maybe the 1954 book from which Byrne and Eno heisted their title. Just as a Memphis white boy was starting to sing black, a Nigerian author named Amos Tutuola was publishing his serial folktale of a bush so dense civilization couldn’t penetrate it, filled with the towns of ghosts— where a kid, abandoned by his family, wanders lost for 24 years. He is so sad that he loses music altogether, except in one scene where a ghost gets him blunted. “I forgot all my sorrows and started to sing the earthly songs which sorrow prevented me from singing about since I entered this bush.”
I might leave it at that— it’s a nice last line. But a current version of the story, 60 seconds in the bush of ghosts, is driving me crazy.
It’s a Volkswagen commercial titled “Synchronicity”: a couple drives through an urban landscape bumping some soothing rainy-day electronica inside their vacuum-sealed cabin. They begin to notice how the doings of the street match up with the song they’re hearing. After a few seconds, it becomes clear the street sounds are causing the song in the car: A guy sweeping the sidewalk appears as a scratchy rhythm, streetlights blink out a bleepy keyboard, a bouncing basketball sets the bass kick.
It’s either the most radical piece of music crit I’ve seen in ages, or the least self-aware moment this side of Britney Spears begging her beau to hit her, baby, one more time. Here’s the thing: the couple in the car are white, extremely very J.Crew white. And the vast majority of people on the street, in the rain, are African Americans. It’s New Orleans, but it might as well be Harlem World.
What the commercial knows is that sounds do have colors. In fact, it admits exactly what any number of kids and critics will try to deny— that hip-hop and electronica are both race musics. Moreover, they have a fucked relationship. The people on the street are the music, busy being the sounds— and that’s hip-hop. The couple in the car simply receive the music, digitized and denatured in their rolling isolation chamber— and that’s electronica. The daily life of the city is translated into a soundtrack for day-trippers.
It’s actually a perfectly lovely song, by some guy named Master Cylinder: the kind of kraftwerk that German car companies know we know about, signifying a precision-engineered techtopia. But warmer, as befits a wagon for the folk. The commercial’s supposed to be a perfect moment, when everything in the world is in sync. This is supposed to make us feel good, in touch, integrated. And we will all buy Volkswagens— here in our cars, we feel safest of all, we can lock all the doors, it’s the only way to live.
But the commercial’s too smart for its own good. As the relationship between the two musics becomes visible to the couple, the couple becomes bemused and then freaked out. Finally it’s so intense that the driver has to kill the song. The sounds disappear— suddenly the street is silent. “That was interesting,” he says; they exchange a look, take a corner, and drive on out of that bush, and the electronica track rises again, quieter now, unattached to anything outside the car, cut loose from its roots, perfectly white noise.