Two of Dust To Digital’s recent releases, Rev Johnny L Jones The Hurricane That Hit Atlanta and the book and CD bundle Ain’t No Grave, a bio of Appalachian preacher Brother Claude Ely are two parts of a lineage. If Brother Claude Ely is the raw material, red raw vocal chords stripped by screaming, Jones is a mark further along that lineage, watered down - but not to its detriment - where sermons are songs (in the conventional sense) with electric guitars.
Asked about why they started calling him ‘The Hurricane’, Jones says: “The hurricane starts off slowly, slowly slowly, and as long as there’s the process, the faster, the faster, the faster she gets, and when she gets a certain speed, that’s when she’s dangerous.”
Listening to the two in sequence, this idea of a snowballing force is better applied to Brother Claude Ely than Jones, but it’s the idea that connects them: the sermon as a cumulation of dynamic energy. The final track on the CD with Brother Claude Ely is a 40 minute long sermon on how “lingerin’ could be your doom”, which swells from a fairly vanilla reading to loud, fierce preaching, exploding in its final minutes into a terrifying, rhythmic screaming, where an extra syllable is added on every beat - “that thing that was keeping me from the Holy Ghost-ah” - that snags, picking you up and pulling you downstream, past where the words cease to be clearly distinguishable; past the content to the pure propulsive rhythm of the voice stretched to a base squall.
Johnny L Jones isn’t so exhaustingly intense - he’s not after putting the fear of God in you so much as he is after using song as a means of worship. All the same it contains that dynamic, tempered and vocally refined so it retains the richness and melodiousness of his voice, and leaning more on a call and response than a syllabic marker, but it’s there, and it lulls and rolls you past rationalism and reason into the hands of God, just like Brother Claude Ely is terrifying enough to make you put up your hands in surrender and book yourself in for a baptism.
"Sound itself is queer." I was struck by this quote from Drew Daniel of Matmos while flicking through a video of a Q&A I did with them at Mutek last year (the Mutek people have kindly just put it online, a series of four interviews from the 2010 edition that they're putting up in the run up to this year's event). Queerness is what exceeds values and structures, he explained. So if sound qua sound exists outside language and and the usual hierarchies of taste, then is sound queer?
While Drew Daniel was riffing on this idea (22 minutes into the interview) I was in the presenter's chair with one half of my brain pre-occupied with thinking of the next question to throw back at him. But nearly a year on it resonated with ideas that have been rattling around my head in the meantime. Right now I happen, oddly enough, to be listening to disco genius Patrick Cowley's "Menergy". Disco was able to evoke desire precisely because it could be so direct and, hey, crude. From pop to metal to rave to noise, music can be so complex, chaotic and endlessly fascinating because in formal terms it is so cognitively simple and sensorially direct compared to other artforms. I'm not well-placed to comment on the idea of queerness in sound – check the clip for Drew's more eloquent thoughts – but this kind of thinking, exploring how way sound escapes objective analysis and exists outside most conceptual frameworks, at least gets us a little closer to why music has such power.
Daphne Oram (1925-2003) was a pioneering British composer and electronic musician. She was the creator of Oramics, a synthesis technique which used visual images to create electronic sounds. She is credited with creating the very first piece of commissioned electronic music for the BBC in 1957 (the score for Amphitryon 38) and was instrumental in the formation of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, becoming its first director in 1958.
Leaving the BBC less than a year later, Oram founded her own electronic music studio where she produced the electronic soundtrack to the 1961 horror film The Innocents, as well as various concert works and compositions. After her death in 2003, the British improvisor and instrument builder Hugh Davies inherited her archive of papers and tapes. Following Davies's death in 2005 the collection was accessioned by Goldsmiths, University of London.
The Sounds Of New Atlantis: Daphne Oram, Radiophonics And The Drawn Sound Technique will include a presentation by Dan Wilson tracing the evolution of the philosophies behind Oramics, and Daphne Oram's progress in reconciling the physical and metaphysical aspects of sound; a biographical sketch in the form of a presentation by Jo Hutton, looking at Daphne Oram's role at the BBC in developing electroacoustic music and radiophonic art in Britain; a joint presentation by Mick Grierson and Chris Weaver on the evolution of the Oramics machine, its potential significance as one of the first British computer music systems, and the plans for its future conservation, plus a video presentation by Graham Wrench, the former RAF radar engineer responsible for building the first prototype of the Oramics machine. London Cafe Oto, 7 April, 8pm, £4.
The Oram Collection website, run by this month’s salon guests. Includes scanned archived press cuttings.
Daphne Oram An Individual Note Of Sound Music And Electronics, introduced by Oram as a “sniffing the air in all directions to see whether we can catch a scent or two of intriguing interrelationships between electronics and music”. Out of print, but PDF available here.
The Story Of The BBC Radiophonic Workshop, 2008 article from Sound On Sound, complete with photos and diagrams of how the Oramic system worked, plus Graham Wrech: The Story Of Daphne Oram’s Optical Synthesiser.
BBC tribute to Daphne Oram, notable for the embedded audio interview with Oram from 1972.
Oramics, a short film by Nick Street, which gives a glimpse of the original Oramics synthesizer from 1957.
The Alchemists Of Sound, BBC4 documentary about the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Available on Maldoror42 YouTube channel in six parts.
Daphne Oram obituary from 2003.
Regular contributor to The Wire Ken Hollings’s essay on the broader topic of “The British Space Programme As Musical Exploration – The Untold Story” from 2010, which takes a sideways look at the history of British electronic music, including Daphne Oram.
This weekend, from 12 noon on Saturday 19 March 2011 until midnight on Sunday 20 March, Resonance FM is holding a live, on air fundraiser to raise money to keep the best radio station in the world up and running. A whole slew of unique, collectable and plain beautiful objects and experiences are available for auction. Notable items include a 90 minute bass guitar lesson with Led Zep's John Paul Jones, two weeks in Annapurna Eco-Village, Nepal with all creature comforts provided, one month's entry to London venue and Wire fave hangout Cafe Oto, signed Chris Watson Records, Bob Cobbing posters, red wax from Anish Kapoor’s recent Royal Academy retrospective, a one hour sitar lesson with Baluji Shirvastav, and much more. You can find details of all the lots and how to bid at resonancefm.com/auction.
As for The Wire's offering this time around – it's a rare, art-edition release of a one-sided LP by The New Blockaders and Nobuo Yamada. It's packaged in a weathered metal box and affixed with heavy duty bolts. A must for any hardcore noise lover. Pics below. Tune in this weekend for all the auction-action.
I'm saddened and shocked to hear of the sudden death of original UK mic-man David Emmanuel, aka Smiley Culture, after a police raid at his house. I'm not going to add much to the other tributes elsewhere, but I'll gently point you in the direction of an excellent mix exploring the fast-chat era of the UK reggae deejays, of which Smiley was a crucial part. The Lyric Maker mix by John Eden (of the Uncarved blog) and Paul Meme (Grievous Angel) is a great introduction and, most importantly, a crucial selection of Cockney and JA chatters.
I came a little late to Rephlex's recent compilation of late 1980s/early 90s recordings by UK crew The Criminal Minds, but over the last couple of weeks it's completely blown me away. The comp spans their early hiphop recordings through to the vital Eureka! moment of the breakbeat and a little way beyond. There's so much to take in: the density of the music, the abrasive grain, like tarmac grazing your flesh, the cheap thrills of messing around with samplers, and a gawky sense of yoof-telling-the-truth about tough times in the UK (which actually seems more resonant in these recessionary times than, say, five years ago). The friction comes as hiphop meets the brutal torque of hardcore and early rave, with just about enough lyrical flow to stop the whole machine from overheating. The energy, physically and mentally, is amazing, several notches up from much of what emerges from the UK underground these days.
It sent me back to what I knew of UK hiphop in the rave and immediately pre-rave era. UK hiphoppers couldn't win: put on a US accent and you sound like a fake, rap in a UK accent and it sounded ridiculous. George Mahood, ex of Big Daddy Magazine, pointed me in the direction of the Aroe & The Soundmakers' two comps of UK hiphop, the Crown Jewels Volume 1 & 2. Mindboggling as these comps are, with incredible rarities and one-offs from some seriously obscure crews, it's frustrating that they're essentially mixtapes. Surely this era is ripe for rediscovery now? Estuary English even has a real nice flow to it, for me at least (do excuse the pun). It's high time a UK record label stepped up to the plate and properly compiled and documented the music of this era.
Sub-bass! Gunshot’s album Patriot Games pictured them sitting intently facing each other in a circle, holding mics, as if they're about to become blood brothers, or head off on some kind of a suicide mission. Nuclear war is referenced everywhere, in titles and samples from the movie War Games – perhaps surprising, as by 1993 and with the Berlin Wall a fast-fading memory, the UK wasn't in imminent danger of apocalypse (check out Gunshot's "World War Three", where the "Three" sample is from De La Soul. You can almost see the daisies wilting in the radioactive fallout). But that threat of apocalypse is echoed elsewhere, in The Criminal Minds' 2000 AD-style artwork and titles like "A Taste Of Armageddon" (whose samples are ripped from the darkside of the charts: Duran Duran's doomy, fatalistic bad-romance ballad "Save A Prayer" and Adamski's "Killer").
It's not reportage but a form of gothic – I can't find a single reference to the Gulf War (still fresh in the memory) anywhere in Patriot Games, but instead the album seems stuck in some kind of extended Cold War shellshock. You get a sense of lingering militarism everywhere – of US military bases in mainland Europe, of political subservience and impotence, of Chernobyl blowing up and blowing the bad dust in. Both groups reference a "reign of terror" (Gunshot sampling that line from TCM’s original track), but it's never clear who is doing the reigning.
Another theme which TCM and Gunshot share is the Old Bill. The police versus the people was another hidden war in the UK, with the silent majority happy with the boys in blue, who it later turned out were involved with low-level torture (in Northern Ireland), miscarriages of justice (the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four) and corruption. Blacks accounted for only around 5% of the population in the 1980s, so if you were white you were probably relatively sheltered from the stop-and-search and regular harassment which led to riots in Brixton and Tottenham in the early 80s.
The police references in Gunshot and TCM are to "Illegal Procedure", "Rough Justice", "Interception Squad" and Flying Squad – forces within forces, a police state which still maintains a semblance of normality. Gunshot kick against this by bigging up pirate radio and, in a skit which begins the album, tuning into the police frequencies. There's an echo here of Bomb The Bass's "Beat Dis", Tim Simenon's chart-topping sample/scratch fest which gave a kick start to both hiphop and house in the UK, with its barked introduction/call to arms "keep this frequency clear".
In Gunshot's great scheme of things, the effect of police harassment and living in fear is anomie – not the kind of psychology you usually associate with hiphop. MC Mercury's first line in "25 Gun Salute" could be straight outta Gravediggaz: "from the brink of madness comes one...". He trumps this in ”Social Psychotics“: "it's like I've got 12 voices singing in my head". Another Mercury line, "psychotherapy is needed for Bexleyheath" (the latter a Kent suburb of London), sounds faintly absurd, but accurately illustrates a particular kind of British small-town mentality where it's quietness and conservatism and your mum and dad who eventually fuck you up.
Gunshot described what they did as hardcore rap, which resonated nicely with what was gestating in rave at the time, and they painted themselves at outsiders – "some try to ban us/for cavorting round the hardcore banner". Whether they really were outsiders or not is a moot point, considering that they were widely discussed as the next big thing in UK hiphop for many years in the early 90s. But that's not necessarily important: anomie and outsider status becomes a fuel for the UK hardcore hiphopper. UK hiphop couldn't borrow funk and soul, and it had no real coherent community, so it had to take the sense of dislocation and find merit in that. The idea of UK hiphop being reviled had some truth in it, but it also becomes a convenient foundational myth which helps sustains the intensity of the music. This is where Gunshot, for instance, join forces with Napalm Death. Like grindcore, the shock value is a way to try and jolt UK society out of complacency.
This kind of shock value feeds into the brilliantly cartoonish samples of TCM. Why did no-one think before of putting Bernard Hermann’s Cape Fear theme under a fat hiphop beat? (On "Urban Warfare" they stick the "Death March" from the Star Wars soundtrack under an even more stoopidly fun rhythm).
It's just a short step from here to the sampledelic bombast of Acen's rave classic "Trip II The Moon".
Ferreting around on YouTube and checking out Aroe & The Soundmaker's comps yielded loads of great moments, and the dividing line between hardcore and hardcore rap is so thin as to disappear entirely. These tracks are so grimy and abrasive you begin to wonder, fancifully, if it's down to the records they sampled being that much further from the epicentre of funk and soul. You can almost see gaudy record covers emblazoned with James Brown Twenty Golden Hits (Includes Funky Drummer).
But more likely the abrasive, inventive grain of the beats is because it was the sampler talking here. UK hiphop was a music of kids in bedrooms working without the benefit of soundclashes, communal events, any real heritage of funk/hiphop/soul, or even an accepted dialect to rap in. Being outsiders, self-declared or not, sent them back to their bedrooms with even more determination. The sampler is the ultimate translator for hiphop – everyone understands a ridiculous beat – and this is the one thing they could excel out.
Still in the electro zone following Dave Tompkins's The Wire salon (see The Mire passim), I find myself slipping through wormholes of sample sources, song theft and shout-out references. Today in the office we're booming Zapp & Roger's "So Ruff, So Tuff":
Which sends me back to a personal favourite, Ronnie Hudson And The Street People's "West Coast Poplock", which borrows a chunk of Zapp, and adds the iconic lyric "California knows how to party":
Documentary evidence of real-life poplocking to Ronnie H can be found here:
The Hudson lyric was later, of course, borrowed by 2pac's "California Love", which featured Zapp's Roger Troutman:
Which melded it with the sample from Joe Cocker's incredible track "Woman To Woman":
A track which itself had been sampled by the Ultramagnetic MC's late 80s track "Funky":
In a neat reversal of the usual magpie sample theft of hiphop, Zapp & Roger did their own version of "California Love" later:
This much I knew already – funnily enough from the soundtrack to the Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas computer game (whoever compiles those soundtracks has got a seriously great record collection). But what I didn't know till now, thanks to a bit of googling, was that "West Coast Poplock" itself borrowed it's main riff from Booker T And The MG's "Boot Leg":
And that track has its own hiphop history, having been borrowed by Cypress Hill:
With this dense web of connections, moving both back and forth along the timeline, "West Coast Poplock" seems something like the keystone of hiphop, a crucial multi-way node in rap history. But perhaps out there is the another track which has even more points of connection – the Higgs boson of hiphop, connecting everything to everything:
Whatever it is, my guess is that DJ Funktual in Fort Lauderdale, Florida has already found it. His long running series of ten-minute shows on YouTube breaking down who-sampled-what are compulsive viewing, and take you as close to the sheer time-shifting delight of finding these connections as anything out there:
Tags: 2pac | Booker T And The MGs | Cypress Hill | Dave Tompkins | DJ Funktual | Joe Cocker | Multimedia | Roger Troutman | Ronnie Hudson | Think pieces | Ultramagnetic MCs | Uncategorized | video | Zapp