Dec 292009

“Science fiction doesn’t predict the future, it determines it, colonizes it, preprograms it in the image of the present.” – William Gibson

“Electric circuitry confers a mythic dimension on our ordinary individual and group actions. Our technology forces us to live mythically.” – Marshall McLuhan

More Brilliant Than The Sun: Adventures In Sonic Fiction is an interesting, even important book, but Kodwo Eshun either reads too much Deleuze & Guttuari, or smokes too much weed – none of it doing his writing much good. Clay-feet language machinery runs smoothly at times only, doing his nomadic thinking a great disservice. Too many neologisms will fuck up your digestive system.

I applaud Eshun’s attempt to bring new textual styles to the table, but try breaking through to new worlds too quickly, and contact with the Mothership will be lost. Expeditions will get stuck in orbit, in a postmodern loop, isolated from the everyday life of the planet. The text masturbates itself. Author hubris is evident. You need to keep contact with the oceans of ancient times and stay connected to the traditions of the older tribes. At times you get the impression that his cathedrals of poetical fragments, fractals and fractures have been raised only to cover up for lightweight ideas; jewels glimmering falsely, like tinfoil bling much less brilliant than the sun.

Typically, the pieces that works the best are those about music whose thinking and mythological structure is already quite developed: Underground Resistance, Drexciya, Parliament-Funkadelic, Lee Perry. Around them his writing works well, actually.

Music can not avoid telling stories and generating concepts. A seemingly empty genre like minimal techno is about nothingness; about meditation and architecture; like dub it’s about creating space. It is music full of ideas. This is one of the strongest points of Eshun’s book. The thinking is already in the music. It doesn’t need academics. George Clinton invented sampladelia, and he didn’t need Heidegger to do it. When Lee Perry talks about the death of the individual (although in different terms) he didn’t get that concept from reading Foucault. It’s right there in the music.

(p. 106) “The producer is now the modular input, willingly absorbed into McLuhan’s ‘medium which processes its users, who are its content. (…) Cyborging, to borrow the words of Norman Mailer, ‘takes the immediate experiences of any man, magnifyies the dynamic of his movements, not specifically but abstractly so that he is seen as a vector in a network of forces.’”

What is the essence of HipHop? Where did its birth take place? Generally one might say: it’s black music, that refers back to the history and culture of black people. Or perhaps: it’s opressed people’s music everywhere, that refers to their specific history in a similar way. That rings true. But Eshun adds a posthuman perspective that says that the human being isn’t the sole source of creativity. Musical equipment – two turntables, the cheap-ass mixer, the time-bending sampler, the drum machine, Roland Space Echo – also have a parental role in the birth of Hip-Hop. Techno music is, of course, even more radical in this sense (think about electro and the 808 or acid house and the 303). On page 102 Eshun writes:

“HipHop updates blaxplotation’s territories; it represents the street. By opting out of this logic of representation, Techno disappears itself from the street, the ghetto and the hood. Drexciya doesn’t represent Detroit the same way Mobb Deep insist they represent Staten Island (sic!).”

Eshun loses me a bit here. Bedroom producers might have made some innovative works in the world of techno music (Drexciya, AFX, etc.), but they would be nothing without the scene, the electro and acid clubs and parties, that is – the streets. That’s what’s given them energy. The streets are essential: it’s where people meet. And as long as we have community, we will have some sort of representation. We can never leave the streets. But we can leave the industry, the inner-city clubs, the traps of fame and professionalism.

(p. 103) “Cybotron’s Techno City, like all these possibility spaces, is Sonic Fiction: electronic fiction, with frequencies fictionalized, synthesized and organized into escape routes. (…) Which is why you should always laugh in the face of those producers , djs and journalists who sneer at escapism for its unreality, for its fakeness; all those who strain to keep it real. (…) Sonic Fiction strands you in the present with no way of getting back to the 70s. Sonic Fiction is the first stage of a reentry program which grasps this very clearly. Sonic Fictions are part of modern music’s MythSystems. Moving through living space, real-world environments that are already alien. Operating instructions for the escape route from yourself. Overthrow the Internal Empire of your head. Secede from the stupidity of intelligence, the inertia of good taste, the rigor mortis of cool. You’re born into a rigged prison which the jailors term Real Life. Sonic Fiction is the manual for your own offworld break-out, reentry program, for entering Earth’s orbit and touching down on the landing strips of your senses.”

(p. 85) “Electro is an E-Z learn induction into the militarization of pop life, the sensualizing of militarization, the enhanced sensorium of locking into the Futurhythmachine.”

(p. 119) “From arcadegames to the Net to simulation games, civil society is the low end research-and-development unit of the military. Techno has the nomad’s edge over HipHop’s hypervisible trooper forever crucified in the crosshair of the gunsight.”

The urban prairies of a downsized and crime-ridden Detroit gave musical scientists a perfect backdrop for experiments in cold, weightless futurism, in a way similar to how Kraftwerk had laid the foundation for a new consciousness among the generation growing up after the Second World War. A new powerful music was needed to fill the catastrophic vacuum. Detroit answered Kraftwerk’s coldly bitter and beautiful anthem We Are The Robots by saying: “We are the aliens” (work and alienation: two reoccuring themes in electronic music).

The visionary quality of Juan Atkins and UR would not come forth as naturally in New York or Los Angeles. Techno doesn’t abandon the streets, but its mode of representation is different. Instead of fighting over old turfs, techno creates new spaces. While HipHop constantly refers to and rewrites its history, electronic music aims for “an empty future waiting to be populated.”

“UR realised that their was little point in ‘exposing the reality’ of social deprivation and inequality – why bother, when that reality was already depressingly well known? Instead they used fictions to diagram the way in which social reality as it is experienced is a second-order effect of more abstract processes: a war between programmers and fugitives, between overground normality and underground gnosis, between a history given over to atrocity and exploitation and an empty future waiting to be populated.

UR started at the end of the 1980s, at the very moment when the End of History was being proclaimed. They immediately understood that, when the Cold War ended, political struggle would get even colder and cultivated an estranging, alienating distance.”

(from The Wire, number 285, nov, 2007)

HipHop being born in New York surely has something to do with its intense mix of cultures (and especially a Jamaican influence – that is after all where the battles, the DJ:s, the MC:s and the soundsystems were imported from). A comment on BLUNT RAPPS adds another important social aspect to our story of modern music (by way of a book by Tricia Rose):

“kids of that period and location were geared towards a manufacturing based economy, whereas they found themselves in what is called post industrialized society. So you get Herc being trained as an auto mechanic in vocational school messing around with his father’s system, Flash similarly schooled making his own cross fader, stuff like that. It’s easy to see that hands-on interest in fucking around with (often obsolete) technology linking to futurism and space rap and electro, currents which have apparently stayed in the ether ’til today. Also tempting to link it to PE’s soundscapes as a representation of a political landscape, or NWA’s as a geographical/political one, as in the same refusal to be left for dead in the ass-end of the system”.

This social angle is needed to balance Eshun’s powerful hybrid of musical myths and conceptual hubris. It’s up to us to expand upon these perspectives, and especially in praxis.

Nov 302009

Back in the Motown days, we used to wear tailored suits. That was the thing to do in Philly. Even in the Ghetto, you’d buy the best suits or have them tailor-made. We was broke as hell, but that was the thing. It was like the clean, pimp style. But seeing how fictitious that was, we welcomed a change. So when kids started wearing hole-y jeans and T-shirts, we’d grab a towel and wear it like a diaper. When it changed again and it had to be clean again, we bought $10,000 leather-winged outfits, spacemen costumes and a half a million dollar Mothership. If it had glitter, we had to make it glitter to the point that nobody had ever done it before.

Then that was getting old after we’d been on tour for ever, so we got the camouflage stuff. We pretty much started that on the One Nation Under a Groove album. We went into the army/navy surplus stores and stuff was like three dollars for a pair of pants. $3.50, $2.50 for shirts. We loaded everything outta there. In a good six months, that shit was up to $30 or $40. Now it’s a couple of hundred dollars to get a good army suit.

The history of Funkadelic begins where Hendrix left of: distorted guitars, orange-purple soundscapes, black cosmology, LSD-weltschmertz, burning american flags, bombed out city centers – but with one forward-looking, crucial difference; they added the Funk, the continuous groove, the steady heartbeat of the Mothership.

The easiest way to break down P-funk? Psychedelic Rock crossed with Funk. This gives Funkadelic their unique flavour, that is why they appeal to both dirtbag rockers and californian gangbangers, that is why their music has met success both amongst American college-nerds and party-goers in the Brazilian favelas. While the original funk was developed under the disciplinary regime of James Brown, the Detroit bastard child was generally to fucked on acid when they were in the studio to accomplish something substantial. Skippable experiments drenched in bad acid and bad hippie wisdom is one of the weaknesses of the p-funk-catalouge. They also had the bad habit of including ballads on their releases, an area which they unlike James Brown did not master. Clinton’s half-baked Frank Zappa-imitations (Jimmy’s Got A Little Bit Of Bitch In Him) are also misplaced, since Clinton’s own sense of humour transcends Zappa by lightyears. To bow down to an inferior is not a good look.

The bitches’ brew that Funkadelic initially served their followers had ingredients echoing both the immanent theology of the likes of Meister Eckhart and Thomas Müntzer and the darker side of that took over after The Summe Of Love. “The Kingdom Of Heaven Is Within” is howled repeatedly on the intro to their first LP. On America Eats It’s Young they even include a text from The Church Of The Process, a congregation founded by ex-Scientologists that worshipped both God and Satan and believed the world would end any minute now. A.S. Van Dorston writes in his brilliant The Afro-Alien Diaspora, that it “seems unlikely that George Clinton took the Process Church seriously for long. Everything he did showed that his songs were meant to benefit everyone in a positive way.” The iconoclastic imagery of Clinton was larger than one church, it was an all rebellious, playful mythology that was riding on the bad acid-vibes of Hendrix and fellow noise-bringers. Dorston continues that

there’s no mistake that the early music was hard. In stark contrast to their later cartoonish space-freak image, the band looked and sounded as earthy as the dirt on the cover art for Maggot Brain. Funkadelic were bad motherfuckers. They shared management and stages with the other ‘bad boys of Detroit’ – Ted Nugent & the Amboy Dukes, MC5, and The Stooges. Their management even cooked up a marriage between George and Iggy Pop as a publicity stunt. Iggy was probably relieved that it was never followed through. ‘He could have been my wife’, tittered Clinton. (…) Funkadelic’s unique relationship with white rock ‘n’ roll started when they had borrowed amps from Vanilla Fudge. They were so pleased with the high volume that they immediately got their own. Like Jimi Hendrix and Sly and the Family Stone, they reclaimed rock music as their own. (…) By 1970′s Free Your Mind And Your Ass Will Follow, Funkadelic sounded as if they had absorbed some of MC5′s aggression and The Stooges’ decadent nihilism. They continued their critiques of capitalism and booty-liberation theology, but instead of the blues, Free Your Mind‘s title track showcased lysergic-drenched noise, with Bernie Worrell’s slavering, distorted three-note organ riff similar to Velvet Underground’s Sister Ray.

With time, the hard-work funk ethics of James Brown came more and more into play, and the psychedelic distortion and acid noise of the first albums took the back seat as the line between Funkadelic’s and Parliament’s identities blurred. The albums got more concentrated and funkier, and funkier, reaching a pinnacle with One Nation Under A Groove in 1978. As the album name suggests, the lyrics and concepts had moved closer to black nationalism (a course that took a later generation of black musicians a lot further. It is also interesting to note that the evangelic SF imagery is a central element not just in the Parliament’s completely masterful Mothership Connection, but also in the mythology of Nation Of Islam – and The Church Of Scientology).

As the eghties drew nearer, the P-Funk-army got more involved in the war against disco, which shows up in both confrontative song titles and in the music itself (it was getting polished). Funk was becoming more and more difficult to play. The times were changing. Cocaine replaced acid, and the quality of music declined. In the disco-era, what else could you do but sell your soul to the placebo syndrome and start smoking death instead of sweating away death under the powerful groove from A Fully Operational Mothership.

The pioneering work of the funk-tribes had however been accomplished. With Uncle Jam Wants You they passed the legacy onto the next generation. Not long after, Uncle Jam’s Army of pioneering hip hop-DJs was formed in Los Angeles, with Egyptian Lover sent out on a mission to once again reclaim the pyramids. On his solo release Computer Games from 1982 Clinton passes the torch to Afrika Bambaataa with the chant “like Planet Rock, we just don’t stop“: Planet Rock was released the same year, and a new world of music was born. Another generation took over. Once again black music was taken out of the clubs, into the urban landscape. Once again the sound in the parks was rough and raw, not smooth and polished. A rich foundation had been layed for the future of funk, and hiphop-producers gathered the ammunition needed for the oncoming battle. The apocalyptic Bring-The-Noise-eclecticism of Funkadelic was essential in The Bomb Squad‘s revolutionary Wall Of Sound-technique, while the beautifully bouncing booty-bass and slick arrangemnets of Parliament lives on in the productions of Dr. Dre, DJ Quik, Organized Noize, and many others.

Ever since the mothership of Parliament-Funkadelic went under the radar in the disguise of The P-Funk All-Stars, Clinton hasn’t been the same, and releases bearing his name have mostly been thrown together without class. Atomic Dog was, of course, the shit, but besides that he has rarely shined like in the seventies. Two moments are worth the mention, though.

Just out of jail, and with both Dr. Dre and George Clinton on his side, U Cant C Me is as relentless and triumphant as we ever saw Tupac Shakur. This is one of his hottest tracks, much owing to Clinton’s idiosyncratic adlibs and Dre’s gloriously perfected p-funk (the beat is so large that it doesn’t matter that its skeleton is identical to Snoop Doggy Dogg’s Who Am I). When the Clinton spaces the funk out on Synthesizer from Outkast’s critically-hugged-to-death Stankonia it’s another beautiful moment. But in recent years, solid contributions have been missing, and you would suspect that Mr. Clinton have been paying more attention to the crack-pipe than to the microphone. A friend even had the nerve to inform me of his demise some years ago, a piece of bad news that a quick googling could refute; in fact, he had a new album out. And he put in his input on that Wu-Tang Clan-album.

How does he do it? Perhaps George Clinton is a perpeteum mobile, an alien, cyborg machine that “just don’t stop“, defying physics and AA meetings. In a way the essence of Funk: bodies defying the laws of gravity, shaking, getting it on, grooving for hours and hours and years and years. It’s mind-blowing to see sixty-year-olds like James Brown blasting the same shit on stage as forty years ago. Funk aint slack. You gotta sweat if you wanna have fun. If you want your spot in the sun, you gotta be on some hot shit. On the other hand, if you got funk, you got style.

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