Thursday, August 21, 2008

Vox Apolostica

I feel I can only concur with Simon’s verdict about the new Girl Talk album; don’t misunderstand me – I didn’t voluntarily get myself an MP3 copy (much less pay anything for one), but was sent a CD-R copy by a PR company; I felt obliged, as you do, to at least give it a once-over. The few reviews I’ve read for it always emphasise that Gillis is a ‘party-starter’, that it is meant (“as all pop music is” being the cant line) as a music of pure pleasure, and can only be judged accordingly. The problem with this line is that I rarely hear pop music so utterly joyless as this; internet chatter characterises it as a trip into some kind of pop sweetshop, Gillis as a pop omnivore, consuming everything he can get his hands on and throwing it all into the mix, because he likes it all so much. The image that pops into my mind, as the time and sample count ticks on, is of a fat man forcing down plates of grease-dripping fried chicken or chocolate gateau, just in order to get onto the next course, a look of curiously empty misery on his face, as if he had been, as gluttons were in Dante’s Inferno, doomed to consume endlessly. The idea that one might improve pop songs by taking out the good parts and stitching them together like some aural Frankenstein’s monster might seem refreshingly lateral, but the fragments seem neutered of their power outside their original context, slaved to a logic they don’t belong to, bashing against inappropriate partners (Gillis amuses himself at one point by cutting together Ludacris’ ‘Gettin’ Some Head’ and Sinead O’Connor’s ‘Nothing Compares To You’ – oops, did someone mention misogyny?) He doesn’t seem to think that they might have been put in their original context for a reason. I don’t think we need to get all rockist about it whilst claiming that maybe some things are just better left alone (Kylie Minogue’s ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’ is an obvious example – if a mash-up was made from that, I’d consider nothing less than sacrilege; the length, the structure, the overall totality of the song is necessary to its all-conquering brilliance).

The package also contained a copy of the new Steinski retrospective, What Does It All Mean? 1983-2006, released on the same label, Illegal Art. This would be an essential release even if it were just for seeing the first official airing of ‘The Lesson’ mixes made by Steinski and Double Dee made in the early-to-mid 80s. Y’all probably know the story already: Tommy Boy run a remix contest for ‘Play That Beat Mr. DJ’; DD & Steinski drop an almost 5-minute marathon of cut-and-paste, promptly win; two more lessons follow, providing a basis for all sampledelic hip-hop (Public Enemy, De La Soul, etc.) and cut-and-paste turntablism (Coldcut, DJ Shadow, The KLF) to follow. ‘The Payoff’, alternately known as ‘Lesson No. 1’, begins the first disk, and immediately circumvents the paradox of ‘historic’ music that sounds awful when you actually hear it for the first time. It has a lightness of touch, a masterly deftness, a feel for the content, the timbres and rhythms, and their proper contrast and juxtaposition, that Gillis would kill for; and whilst he (Gillis) insists on making every musician the butt of one enormous joke, Steinski and Double Dee’s love for the music oozes through every second, their humour gentle and referential (the obvious example being the repeated sampling of Grandmaster Flash’s ‘Adventures Of Flash On The Wheels Of Steel’, the first commercially-available record of the cut-and-paste aesthetic that had emerged at the hands of DJs like Afrika Bambaataa and Grand Wizard Theodore). From the opening stutters of scratched vocal and 808 pops, the fragments of ‘Play That Beat Mr. DJ’ that surface every so often, gently bigging up its creators (“The one with the gifted fingertips/Music is his bag of tricks”), the way they sometimes entirely replace the rhythm line in addition to the melody, or stop the entire record with a depth charge of guitar feedback, or a few seconds of a capella Little Richard, a dance-instructional record or Casablanca, a scrap of Motown I can’t identify but which always has me singing inanely along, to the gong bash and the catchphrase that would become Steinski’s own (“Say children, what does it all mean?”), it’s an odyssey of joy to listen to. The other two ‘Lessons’ – ‘The James Brown Mix’ and ‘The History Of Hip Hop’ (a premature title if ever I saw one) – differ only in their ambition and source materials: ‘Lesson No. 2’ seems to draw a line between the mechanical tightness and Ecstatic ritual of Brown’s late 60s recordings and the itchy electro and hip-hop drum loops that populate the song (and, indeed, it prefigures by a few years, the Golden Age obsession with looped samples, of which Brown’s was the most popular among producers) along with a thousand other fragments (Warner Bros. cartoons, a few seconds of the ubiquitous ‘Planet Rock’, the rolling congas that cropped up in so many hip-hop recordings over the years, Sly Stone and some late 70s disco-soul); ‘Lesson No. 3’ integrates and splices an array of samples wider than the Vendee (from obscure Northern Soul records to the theme of Hernando’s Hideaway) so deftly it makes ‘The Payoff Mix’ sound almost clumsy by comparison. Amazingly, Steinski and Double Dee were, at this point, still using just two turntables (they had previously used only one, plus a mixing desk, when recording ‘The Payoff Mix’; indeed, one wonders whether it was precisely this primitive set-up that resulted in the extraordinary sense of fun and energy that runs through the mixes. There’s a roughness to the edits that lends the mixes a real immediacy, that suggests someone compiling an album with a razor; it was precisely this that made hip-hop modernist art: the edit didn’t exist before cinema and recording technology, and no art-form could ignore its implications; the principle of juxtaposition, of severing signs from their original contexts and introducing them to a new one, unleashed an alien energy in the objects concerned – an aesthetic alchemy. The way in which these mixes switch from source to source was a kind of semiotic and timbral violence analogous to the practice of scratching proliferating on hip-hop records at the time – one which, governed by its own logic – one of disjunction, ruptures – creates a new kind of propulsion. Nearly five years later, when the Bomb Squad produced Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation Of Millions…, the same split-second segues between differing sources – live recordings, looped samples, field recordings, scratched and processed vocals – would grow from this logic into a Burroughs/Gysin cut-up of ass-shaking information.

The other two Steinski and Double Dee mixes on this first disk were made some years later, when they reformed temporarily for special projects – ‘Jazz’, a remix of Afrika Bambaataa and Jazzy Five’s ‘Jazzy Sensation’ (Tommy Boy’s first rap release), which doesn’t contain much of the original (Steinski remembers, in the sleevenotes, Double Dee ruefully remarking “You know we’re never going to make a legal record, you know that, don’t you?”), but does have kazoo orchestras, ultra old skool hip-hop, scraps of aged be-bop and swing, what sounds like Arabic funeral music, and a succession of increasingly hilarious and clipped soundbites (“Let’s go back to something we really like doing.” “Yeah, like robbing and stealing?”) The following ‘Voice Mail (Sugar Hill Suite)’ is a work of astonishing prowess and overwhelming fun – a collage of the entire catalogue of Sugar Hill Records, the label responsible for the record that began it all, the 10+ minutes of ‘Rapper’s Delight’. Since you ask, I’m not familiar with even the majority of the laminated fragments caught in its stream (I recognised Grandmaster Flash, The Funky 4+1, The Fatback Band and what I thought might be Washington DC’s Trouble Funk), an entire era’s energy compressed into just over 5 minutes (it seems fitting that Double Dee and Steinski went to the trouble of getting another DJ to provide the persistent and almost irritable scratching that shifts and re-shifts its layers and incandescent scraps. It’s obvious that the pair were, at the same time as claiming their heritage, laying claim to a legacy – the sheer density, hyperactivity and timbral warping suggest jungle, acid and post-Warp techno, all music essentially descended from the trauma of their own seismic data-bombs.

Much of the rest of the disk, conducted by Steinski solo and with several collaborators, pale somewhat in comparison – ‘The Motorcade Sped On’ and ‘It’s Up To You (Television Mix)’ graft soundbites onto more unvarying percussion tracks, which, whilst they line up very well (the Mario Savio clip on the latter, taken from the Berkeley Free Speech Movement demonstrations, is especially powerful). As the CD, and the Nineties, wears on, and Steinski got more to grips with contemporary mixing technology – laptops, Ableton, Pro-Tools – the pieces become considerably better, enough so to make you think he were going through a renaissance – more streamlined and seamless, as digital technology is wont to make music, but more compelling – they seem to be more ‘his own work’ than piratical excursions through musical history. ‘Is We Going Under?’, a “ghost remix” of a Boom Boom Satellite track with vocals by Chuck D, recalls the sheer headlong propulsion of Fear Of A Black Planet-era PE, while the other highlight, ‘Number Three On Flight Eleven’ is a haunting meditation on 9/11, its crackle-wreathed voices (captured from emergency services calls conducted from the eponymous doomed aircraft), moving through clouds of dark-ambient drone, recalling the work of Scanner more than Coldcut.

The second disk, ‘Nothing To Fear’, consists of an hour-long mix Steinski made for Coldcut’s Capital FM radio show, Solid Steel – the lengthy format allows Steinski to stretch out, subtly generating atmosphere, creating more considered cross-cuts and layering of fragments; the cuts still come thick and fast, but the sections are so much longer than his earlier mixes, the play of information – the timing of jokes, the proper placement and switching of samples (not needing, in this format, to cram all of his ideas into 3-4 minutes); he has the chance to drag out and tweak particular combinations of textures (although each of the 28 sections here are shorter than most of ‘The Lessons’). It would be neither useful nor possible to describe it all here, but it’s nothing less than an absolute, brilliant joy to listen to, even without recognition of nearly any of the samples (there is a nice moment in section 20, ‘I Like It Like That (Scratch One Mix)’, where he scratches Chuck D’s cry of “bass!” from ‘Night Of The Living Baseheads’ into a fractured shower of half-syllables.) Where Girl Talk’s much-trumpeted 300 samples seem to exist purely as always-already reified products to be rearranged, Steinski cracks these sounds open, to bring us to understand why they were loved in the first place.


Blogger Seb said...

RE: Girl Talk... I quote Beavis & Butt-head: "How can you have the stuff that's good without the stuff that sucks?"

It's of no small significance that Gillis is not a musician, has no knowledge of theory performance or composition; the numbing, psychotic hedonism of his music is clearly the product of someone who only ever related to the art as a consumer.

Steinski & Double-D's work is at least more enjoyable, if only because they let moments linger long enough to allow the listeners to immerse themselves more than toe-deep. But the creative instinct behind it doesn't seem any different to me. I think Gillis loves the music he cuts up as much as Steinski, but it comes out diarrhetically because Gillis was raised on MTV, internet porn, and Xtra-Jumbo Slurpees.

Steinski also lacks a certain desperation, or at least spooked quality present in all the best sample-oriented music. I'd refer to K-Punk's take on the inherent dyschronia of Black Atlantic culture: that hip-hop is an extension of the oral history, a scrapbook of irreparably fractured memories and moments that have to be passed forward in spite of their scarring. So the flurry of disparately-sourced sounds on a Public Enemy album isn't just a dense production headfuck, it's also an attempt to create a coherent cultural narrative out of scattered shrapnel.

August 22, 2008 at 7:15 AM  
Blogger Murphy said...

RE: Kylie being 'unmashupable'

See Paul Morley's adoration for the (live performance) mash-up of 'Can't Get You Out Of My Head' and 'Blue Monday', featured in the 'Raiding the 20th Century' mix by DJ Food, right at the end.


August 23, 2008 at 7:38 AM  
Blogger Murphy said...

or just

August 23, 2008 at 7:39 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

Seb: OK, you may be slightly right about Steinski, but his what he and Double Dee were doing, and their feelings about the music seems more... innocent, more playful, like they're actually having fun, where Gillis just sounds like he's under some hedonic compulsion, like a fat man who doesn't know when to stop eating, just keeps on carving through the plates, a look of misery on his face.

Murphy: I had no idea that even existed - if you've read 'Words And Music' it makes total sense ('Blue Monday' being one of the central works of the 20th C., according to Morley.) I have to admit, I really quite like this, but it is an extremely well-done splicing, almost a versioning of the song, rather than the crude creatures with which 'the mash-up' is associated.

August 24, 2008 at 11:05 AM  
Blogger Seb said...

Girl Talk is, one way or another, a pretty disgusting excuse for a musician - not totally unlike someone who'd call themselves an MLB All-Star just because they'd wallpapered their room with baseball cards. The truly horrifying thing to contemplate is... what if, for Gillis, what he's doing IS fun?

August 25, 2008 at 3:24 PM  

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