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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

hip hop borborygmi

What is more exciting than discovering knowledge one did not even know one lacked? It's late, as you can see from the time of this entry, but it's worth staying up a few minutes longer to capture the moment.

I've always been fascinated by words that are names for things I did not know were nameable. Take borborygmus for instance, or the plural, borborygmi. It's the term for audible stomach grumblings. But if you did not already know the word, did it ever occur to you that there was a word for it? Or how about protasis and apodosis? Those are the names for the if-clause and the then-clause in an if-then statement. Who knew?

I get the same rise out of discovering the sources of hip hop samples in songs that I did not even realize were sampling in the first place. And yes, reader, I just happened upon one of those discoveries, so kick back while I drop some science on you.

Back in 1990, like you, I bought A Tribe Called Quest's first album, People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. Who can forget the sense of whimsy and caprice that characterized the Tribe's work at a moment when West Coast gangstaism was already lurching forward on its path to worldwide hegemony? I'm not dissing the West Side; I'm just recalling the cultural backdrop for the Tribe's arrival on the hip hop stage.

Their debut album is one of the last great omnivorously-sampled albums, before the costly regime of clearances became the norm. Some of their samples were easily identifiable but unexpected for rappers at that time, as when they sampled Lou Reed's Take a Walk on the Wild Side on their track Can I Kick It?

But it was not until this very moment, in the wee hours of the morning, that I happened upon another Tribe source. Earlier this week I copied a greatest hits compilation of Roy Ayers to my hard drive, and there it is, playing right now: Running Away by Roy Ayers is the source text for the Tribe's Description of a Fool, the final track on their debut album. I'd say, Mystery solved, but I had not known that I did not know what I did not know. Now that's what I call science.

[New contest: win mad props from the Minister of Information for proposing a name for the act of discovering previously unknown hip hop samples.]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are several important neologisms here, and this blog may be the right place to introduce them to the world.

First, you talk frequently about "sampling", which is of course the well-known term for taking snippets of music from elsewhere and incorporating them into the hip hop track. My concern about "sampling" is that it speaks to a fundamental weakness in this project. It is as if these DJs and spinmeisters were at a gourmet buffet and taking a little bit of this and a little bit of that, just "sampling" the musical banquet. You consistently point out that this process is frequently more sophisticated, that there is a productive intertextuality between "source texts" and the modern product: true enough. Sometimes this is intentional, sometimes wonderfully accidental, and sometimes it just doesn't work - there are those songs where you suspect that the "sample" is not a clever revision of an older track, but nothing more than a desperate appropriation by some stoned producer in the wee hours of the morning with a track due to Sony by 9am, taking whatever riff he can find in the Rolling Stones or Funkadelic catalogue and stealing it. Whatever - sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't; I'm not so concerned about intentionality here, except that "sampling" evokes this very problem of cursory engagement with the whole musical canon.

So, let's call it "squirreling" - squirrels, of course, collect nuts from trees and take them back to their niche where they treasure them. Imagine, then, some bad-ass East Coast and West Coast squirrels, plundering the acorns and chestnuts of the musical world, creating their own little collection, which they then feast on. So, for example, one might say, "The RZA did some mad squirrelling on the latest Jarman soundtrack."

A "sample" (noun) will thus become a "nut".

Now, you asked a specific question in your blog. You ask for a name for the act of discovering previously unknown hip hop samples (or, as we would now say, "discovering where the artist squirrelled his or her nuts from"). I'll come to that. But first, what about this experience you had with A Tribe Called Quest? How can you describe that delightful experience of intertextuality, the subversive play between the signifiers producing a type of joy? You must see where I'm going with this. It is "Jayzssance" (pron. 'J-zee-ssance'). Based, of course, on "Jouissance", Jayzssance is the giddy thrill we get from the intersection of the old and the new, resulting in a bliss, one that transcends both normative notions of music (the solidity and autonomy of genre, for example) and expectations of what music can do. You might say, "That crazy squirrelling had me in a state of sheer Jayzssance."

But the act of discovery itself? I would propose the term "vinyl". Vinyl is, in many ways, the ur-source of sampling and what originally allowed sampling on the turntable. So the word echoes with its own particular hip hop history. To vinyl (a verb) means to discover a previously unknown source, as in "Listening to A Tribe Called Quest, I immediately recognised Lou Reed but it was ages before I vinyled Ayers". Or, "I tried vinyling the orchestration for Dr Dre's latest piece and I have no idea." There will be those who simply mistake the verb "to vinyl" for "to recognise", but we should correct them, and point out that its original and ancient meaning (invented here, today) means to discover a hithertofor unknown nut.

The process by which squirelling, vinyling and Jayssance works is partly through a type of re-birth of the old music - which, of course, we will call a ReNassance. An obvious example sentence: "Pachelbel's Canon underwent a renassance in Coolio's C U When I Get There."

So, let me propose, then, a discussion topic for your readers:

"Realising the potential jayzssance in squirrelling rockabilly is the next step in Hip Hop's renassance, although most people will have a very hard time vinyling any nuts other than Elvis or Bill Haley."

12:23 PM, December 20, 2006

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I obviously meant 'Jarmusch' and not 'Jarman' in the above - although the idea of The RZA providing a soundtrack to some found footage of Derek Jarman is intriguing.

11:53 PM, December 20, 2006

Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

Dude, you are having more fun with my blog than I am.

There are two problems with 'squirreling'. 1. Squirrels do not make fine distinctions about which nuts they store. The simply want quantity. 2. Squirrels store nuts for food. But as Oscar Wilde instructed the world in the preface to The Portrait of Dorian Gray, all art is useless. That is why we love it: because it is not necessary for survival. Art, in short, cannot be likened to food stored for survival, at least not by a true ├Žsthete, which I know you are.

Calling a sample a 'nut' would suit rappers whose lyrics depend on equating their artistic abilities with their virility (much like Matthew Barney and a million other macho artists). Sampling a choice source would then be akin to 'busting a nut'.

Your second suggestion privileges Jay-Z too much. He may be able to 'sell water to a well' but if we are going to turn to an eponym, there would be many prior claims.

And I have a very good one in mind. My suggestion: Flashing, after Grandmaster Flash. No one did more to explore and expand the range of what sampling could do. I would not mind replacing the word 'sampling' with 'Flashing'.

As for 'vinyling', your final suggestion, it needs more. Is there a way to combine 'discover' with 'vinyl'? 'Discovinyling' perhaps? No, it's not quite there yet.

Let's see what other readers think.


12:03 AM, December 21, 2006

Anonymous Paul Hardcastle said...

Drunk as I am on Anonymous's neologisms, I must just take issue with Oscar Wilde. It seems possible that art, in the form of ritual dance and song, came into being because its practitioners thought it was necessary to survival, in order to propitiate the gods etc.

Anyway, the possible facetiousness of squirrelling that Anonymous notes is a concern I share. It may be worth noticing that "sampling", as it used to be known, coincided with the rise of the DJ, or selecta, as creative artist. In an age of absurdly wide choice, being able actually to make any kind of choice, even if it is merely picking products past their sell-by date off the music-history-supermarket shelf, comes to count as an artistic ability.

2:36 AM, December 21, 2006

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for your response. I think that your concerns about squirrels are fair, but also a touch misleading. Squirrels, as I have observed closely, are very careful in which nuts they choose, selecting ones that are exactly the right shape, texture and flavour; they are, in fact, probably less promiscuous in their approach to nuts than most selectas are in their approach to "samples". And, yes, nuts are essential for a squirrel. But where would Hip Hop be without "samples"? Would Hip Hop survive without "samples"? They are the nutrition of Hip Hop, feeding the heartbeat of rhythm and allowing the cognitive play of rap. To suggest that nuts are "useless" or not necessary for survival is to mistake their specific role in Hip Hop.

Of course, you can be pedantic with regards to Jayzssance, quite defeating the spirit in which the term was offered - I for one respect Jay-Z far more than I like his craft, and would much rather the term went somewhere else; but this particular play a) has to privelege somebody, and b) if it's going to be somebody, why not Jay-Z?

I do, however, entirely agree with your concerns about "vinyl". It's not quite right, is it? But I feel it's close. There is something about vinyl - with its role in the history of mixing and squirrelling and its necessary appeal to a past form - that has sufficient metonymic associations to justify the meaning you seek. But I'm not quite sure on how to use it or adapt it. "Discovinyl" sounds like an album everybody in the 1970s would have had, so that doesn't quite work.

I am reminded of The Onion's old headline, about how Hip Hop artists were running out of material to sample. If it were true, we could have called it The Vinyl Countdown.

10:57 AM, December 21, 2006


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