Lovebug Starski gave me license to DJ. A legend before my time, he had his hip-hop bona fides certified when he was shouted out on Notorious B.I.G.’s 1994 single “Juicy,” alongside totemic DJs Ron G, Brucie B, Kid Capri, and Funkmaster Flex, all of whom were misusing vinyl, backspinning and cutting once-precious records. I remember him bounding with ease and joy between two Technics turntables at Scratch DJ Academy’s old headquarters off West 8th Street in the early Aughts. He told us — students, bedroom DJs, and hobbyists looking to refine our skill sets — to never mind if we bumped the table from time to time. Crowds respond to energy, not perfection.
Jace Clayton’s Lovebug equivalent was a cassette of Japanese noise music he ordered after stumbling on a photocopied catalog of extreme music as a teenager in Boston in the Eighties. He describes the purchase in his forthcoming memoir, Uproot: Travels in 21st-Century Music and Digital Culture, as sounding like “rabid forces tearing down a house, or attempting to build one with cracked power tools and constantly splintering lumber.” He recounts warming to these discordant sounds because they didn’t tell him “how to listen or what to listen for.” But they did offer a lesson he has applied over two decades and through 36 different countries as soundsmith DJ /rupture. “Japanese noise taught me that experiencing the world via music or travel is supposed to be strange.”
Today, Clayton is known for stitching together ragged swatches of global sounds like Moroccan Berber music, Egyptian mahraganat, Colombian cumbia, Jamaican dancehall, English jungle, and Chicago drill, applying stuttering percussion and distortion to achieve a rough-hewn texture. Seated at the sleek kitchen table in his airy East Harlem apartment on a recent Saturday morning, we chat about his unconventional sensibilities. “I’m a stubborn, proud black DJ,” he retorts, playfully, when I ask about his apparent lack of interest in jazz and neo-soul. A mason jar of water rests before him; watching over our conversation from the wall behind him is a green poster advertising some past April 14’s opening-night gig.
How do dancefloors respond to his setlists, which are uniformly unconcerned with euphony or locale? “I’m interested in resistance,” he says, reminding me of his moniker. “In a way, the club is a very codified space, with lots of these weird rules in it. Well, we don’t always have to dance.” I chuckle. My Yale University radio show of six years is titled There Ought to Be More Dancing. He continues, “When you take away the beat and then have noise, the question becomes, what do we do with this?”
Uproot chronicles Clayton’s exploration of this question. His knack for telling choose-your-own-adventure stories through sound is well-known — from his career-launching 2001 mixtape, Gold Teeth Thief, to 2013’s The Julius Eastman Memory Depot (his reimagining of the midcentury black composer’s scores) — and it translates cleverly to the page. In the book’s third chapter, “How Music Travels,” he tracks the movement of a song by Matt Shadetek, an American producer and frequent collaborator. Writing with the familiarity of a friend and the clarity of an Apple Genius Bar tech, Clayton animates the song’s journey from its genesis in Shadetek’s German flat and fervent reception at DJ sets to its licensed inclusion in the Madden NFL video game and “refix” treatment by a Brooklyn reggae crew — and all the way to its appearance on a skinny kid’s cellphone dance video, which spawned the “Craziest Riddim” viral dance video craze. For Clayton, this trajectory represents the triumph of far-reaching auxiliary cords over the amplified clout of major-label sounds. Or, as he puts it in Uproot, “Lossy compression is our gain.”
That his journey finding, framing, and fashioning songs has coincided with the transition from the analog to the digital gives Uproot additional heft. Clayton hails “the low and mighty MP3,” offering a concise and compelling history of audio compression and its trimmed detritus. Unlike many haughty vinyl purists, he doesn’t lament the sounds lost to make mammoth files digitally portable, instead calling attention to how subjective the process is. Uproot includes a fascinating mini-history: Scientists at Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute developed and refined the MP3’s algorithm using Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner” as a test case. Vega, listening to the compressed version, noted a slight deflation of bass compared to the original, but the scientists refused to believe her. Clayton concludes, convincingly, that “listening is always subjective” and that “social prejudices in the tech milieu filter down into the code itself, even when the coders do not believe this to be possible.”
Clayton tells me he saw this firsthand during his years living and making music in Spain. His collaborations with artists in the country’s substantial Moroccan music scene were hampered by what he explains were the “deeply unsatisfying and deeply Western presets” of music software programs. In response, Clayton created Sufi Plug Ins, a free suite of software he developed with presets for North African musical scales, a user interface written in the Berber language, and snippets of Sufi poetry serving as the mouseover text for nobs and faders. He intends for users to experiment without constraint, he writes, “to wield…tools incorrectly and blow our minds.”
It’s a mindset apparent throughout the book, which grew out of essays he’d written over the years. Uproot traces that freedom, found through staticky sounds emailed and files shared, through “hastily executed, unlicensed” user edits — in which sound is consumed off-label, and not as prescribed. “You can really get to these interesting moments of creative catharsis,” he says, back at the kitchen table. He offers me a paradigm-shifting insight: “In any genre this idea of formal perfection or formal virtuosity is always facing the past. [It’s] perfect by these pre-existing standards.” With Uproot, he’s charted a way forward.
Uproot: Travels in 21st-Century Music and Digital Culture
By Jace Clayton
288 pp., FSG Originals
Out August 16