Monday, April 23, 2007

Pop goes what?

I spent the past weekend in what I considered to be great weather, until I returned back to my beloved Montreal only to find that it had transformed into wonderful spring. My trip was to Seattle and the Experience Music Project's 6th annual Pop Conference to present a paper, alongside the talented Mr. Dave Stelfox, entitled "'Screwing up the world': Hip Hop Slows Down And Makes Do In Houston, Texas."

I've been forcing people to listen to plodding hip hop and R&B for quite some time, insisting that everything really does sound better slow. Dave and I had a bit of a time of it trying to figure out how to bring together a journalist (him) and an academic (me) to cook up something that might explain the whys and hows of a genre of music that, upon first listen, defys explanation. If I may say so myself, after much consternation, we did a good job.

There were some spectacular papers at the conference. I'll prolly tell all of you about them when we sit down and have a glass of wine on a terasse. Soon.

Until then, here's Dave's and my abstract:

Michel De Certeau speaks of divining "ways of using the constraining order of place.” In the case of Houston, not only do we find oppressive heat, the city’s hometown rap scene also comes under similar pressure. Texan hip hop is squeezed between the east and west coasts. The "art of being between" and the "unexpected results" of which De Certeau speaks, are evidenced here—in the form of gorgeous tonalities and deep, vulnerable strains, all created by taking regular hip-hop and simply slowing it down.

Far from being an underground phenomenon, slowed music represents a genuine “alternative mainstream” culture, enjoying massive audiences throughout the Southern states. A rudimentary, yet dazzlingly effective way to recontextualize existing records in a truly original way, it also lays claim to this region’s own special place in wider hip hop culture. Taking into account the spatiality of these recordings, this paper will explore what happens when the world turns slow.

DJ Screw, originator or slowed or “Screwed” remixing, becomes not simply a turntablist, but a revolutionary. The desire is not to rework a track, but to let it breathe, to open it up. The integrity of the song is maintained—it is the same product as before, but the way that it is experienced changes. It's filtered through heat, through drugs (don't think that the screwed and chopped style isn't also a manifestation of the codeine cough syrup so popular in Houston), through America, through hip hop, until it begins to "function in a different register." If Paul Virillio believes that speed is the essence of American life, screwed tunes present a response.

The legendary story of DJ Screw's accidental discovery of the transformative power of slowness is a profound act of "making do." That screwed music has become a genre now entering the mainstream demonstrates the momentum of a movement, or a need, as opposed to a considered idea. The existence of hundreds (if not thousands) of Screw's mixtapes is evidence of this need to make do. Screwed and chopped music, as representative of a reaction to a space and place is essentially an example of just doin' it because they are, they can and they do.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

So it goes

I was about to leave the house to engage in a wonderful combination of working out and doing taxes, when I decided to check the news and discovered that Kurt Vonnegut had passed away. It sort of shocked me in a way that the death of an 84-year-old human being I never knew really hasn't in quite a long time. That's an awful sentence, but I don't really know how else to express the sentiment.

I think that Vonnegut was the first writer that really made me feel smart. My grade nine history teacher--a man I thought was quite possibly the smartest man alive, and perhaps still very well might be--told me about Vonnegut. I then remember reading Breakfast of Champions and feeling like I was in on some secret society of hilarious smart people. It was as if I snuck in through the back door and, after finding me out, the hilarious smart people let me stay. I sped through book after book, devouring Galapagos, obsessing over Slaughterhouse Five.

In around grade eleven, I read an announcement for a talk by Vonnegut at the Metropolitan United Church in Toronto. I was super excited, and, of course, had more luck convincing my parents to let me go and see a real live author than my normal desperate requests for permission to see hardcore punk bands. They even let me drive the car into the city for the occasion.

I remember sitting next to my boyfriend at the time--he was equally impressed with Vonnegut--hanging on the man's every word. Incidentally, at the end of Vonnegut's talk, which was interrupted every fifteen minutes or so for a smoke break, members of the audience were allowed to ask questions. My boyfriend lined up dutifully, but the fellow right before him was given the pleasure of asking the last question.

The best part of the talk was when Vonnegut discussed literature. I have repeated his explanation of what makes good books good ad nauseum, to every literature class I've taught. Anyone who saw Vonnegut speak probably has heard this, but I'll repeat it here for those who weren't so lucky.

Drawing intersecting X and Y axes on an old, rickety freestanding blackboard, Vonnegut labelled the X as representing the range of negative to positive events and the Y as representitive of time. He then announced that, in order to evaluate meaningful literature it would require him to graph them on the board. He began with "Cinderella".

Cinderella, you see, starts with the title character in somewhat of a bad state of affairs, lower down on the graph. She then has the magical opportunity to go to the ball, which improves her lot substantially. Then, at the stroke of midnight, all is lost, so the line dips back down. Fortunately, we find out that the prince will search his kingdom for the girl whose foot fits a shoe left behind as his beloved rushed out the door. Upon locating the beautiful Cinderella, the story ends with the line of the graph travelling up towards infinity.

Now, let's take a look at, say, Kafka's "Metamorphosis". The story opens with an introduction to main character Gregor Samsa, an insurance salesman who lives with his parents. Perhaps this might be someone's idea of a good time, but for the majority of people, this might not figure so highly on the graph. Samsa wakes up one morning and finds he's been transformed into a hideous bug. We don't really need to continue too much longer to conclude that we're looking at a graph that plunges downwards, infinitly.

Okay. What about Hamlet, say? The tale of everyone's favourite Danish prince begins with a visit by the ghostly apparition of Hamlet's father, detailing his death at the hands of Claudius. Hamlet is then charged with avenging his father's murder. How does one graph this chain of events? Good? Bad? Seems like it might be best to run the line down the middle. How about the relationship with Ophelia? Good? Bad? Killing Polonius? Good? Bad? Is revenge wrong? Does Hamlet go to heaven? Hell? The whole darned play is ambiguous, leaving us with a straight line across the middle of the graph.

Hamlet, suggested Vonnegut, demonstrates what makes good literature meaningful. We, as readers, are stuck living lives in which we've got no real idea whether the graph should be drawn up or down. Life is ambiguous.

Though a humanist, Vonnegut ended his discussion by saying that if, at the end of life, he should find that the whole God thing wasn't a fiction, he'd ask the following question: "What was the good news and what was the bad news?"

I hope he's finally got his answer.

Monday, April 09, 2007

So I did it

As indicated by the title of this blog, for better or for worse, I tend to agree to things that sound like fun. I agreed to dj Bounce le Gros for exactly that reason. Then it sunk in--I've agreed to dj Bounce le Gros.

After much hand-wringing and nervousness, I actually did dj for the first time in a while, and it wasn't a complete fuck up. Ms. Sarah, who told me I need to have a little more "performance based art" in my life (and less "thought based obsession", I'm sure) woulda been proud.

Thanks to everyone that helped me prep and those who came--it was very kind of y'all! Also, thanks to Ghislain for giving me the opportunity to play my favourite dancehall tunes really loud for a crowd that always seems ready and willing to dance. Shame there's only one Bounce le Gros left!

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Review that wasn't printed, yet is relevant at the mo

Ghislain Poirier
Bounce le Remix, Vol 2
What is there to say about Ghislain Poirier except that he's a gem and, thank goodness, he's ours. Montrealers who religiously flock to see the scruffy Mr. Bounce le Gros know what to expect, and the man never dissapoints. This remix record is hardly an exception--no matter what Ghislain seems to touch, it comes out ridiculously, painfully danceable, and he seems to be having a ridiculously fun time doing it. Sparse, weird, and, dare I say, smart booty shakers abound here, and the list is not without a few surprises. It's an energy that's so infectious that allows for a beyond kicking-it-up a notch energetic remix of Bunji Garlin to be the type of thing that I leave on friend's answering machines.
Erin MacLeod