Jasmine Wee

"Black Atlantic" Music: Away from Home and Back

Our numerous readings assigned for this and the previous week provides ample evidence to prove that music has long been a product of cultural hybridity, in which sounds, instruments and styles of different regions, countries, genres and artists have been combined, altered, appropriated and/or sampled to create a new musical genre or sub-genre. A broad style of music Erik Davis dubs the “Black Atlantic”, not a genre itself but rather a broad category in which genres such as dub, reggae, drum’n’bass and other genres fall under, is one such contemporary musical phenomena that (perhaps more obvious than most genres) embodies the hybrid element of music, but with the added influence of electronic technology. The polyrhythms of Western African music were electronically recreated with digital transcodings as early as the 1970s. By the late 1980s, this led to the invention of the drum’n’bass genre and other such “aggressively polyrhythmic dance musics” that spawned all over the Western hemisphere. But of course, drum’n’bass, with its schizophrenically hyperfast tempo and (to conventional music listeners) noisy and chaotic drum loops and bass lines, could not find mainstream acceptance and were relegated largely to underground dance clubs in the United Kingdom.

As with any musical genre, drum’n’bass evolved numerous sub-genres, one of which is called “UK garage”, which Davis describes as “essentially the first homegrown dance music to spring directly from Britain’s black population.” A musical style that was only ever featured in British music from the late 1990s and which quickly died out, it takes the electronically created polyrhythmic drumming of its predecessor, slows down the tempo by just a pinch and combines it with typical hip-hop deejaying techniques (such as vinyl scratching and sampling), electronic embellishments and smooth R&B chords. The result is a chill but also extremely danceable sound that sounds more sonically related to house music than its drum’n’bass origins. One particularly successful garage duo is Artful Dodger (who are, perhaps to negate Davis’s claim of garage being a black musical genre, both white). The duo brought garage to the mainstream in 1999 with the song “Re-Rewind”, itself a remake of an original song by popular R&B singer-songwriter and frequent collaborator Craig David.

The influence of African music on Western genres is apparent and oft written about. However, the reverse—Western sounds influencing African musical genres—are less recorded and discussed, though this happens on an equally common and frequent rate as the former. Take for example the music of Lionel Loueke, a jazz guitarist/musician from Benin. His music embodies the status of globalization and cultural hybridity that has changed jazz from an exclusively American product to a worldwide phenomena with diverse, local stylings. To call him a jazz guitarist, or even afro-jazz genre guitarist, is inane because jazz itself embodies so many influences, and it is therefore wrong to limit Loueke’s music as merely “afro jazz”. Having grown up playing a bicycle chain-strung guitar before studying music formally in the Ivory Coast, then Paris and at Berklee College of Music, Loueke’s musical stylings take from swing, ballads, traditional Beninese folk music, American jazz standards and makossa, a type of danceable Cameroonian music. The title track of his latest album Mwaliko, “Ami O”, features the vocals of fellow Beninese and “world musician” Angelique Kidjo and is a stripped-down rendition of a famous traditional makossa tune. The track seamlessly combines all the aforementioned influences, but Loueke simultaneously places his music both in and outside the lineage of Afro jazz; he does not simply apply Western harmony to a non-Western rhythmic base, but rather constructs his songs with a languid, ethereal quality that creates something quite entirely different.

Nothing But The Beat- DJ cultures

In this week, I would talk about my understanding about house music and DJ. The world of DJ is fantastic. Most of DJ’s work is using B-side and capella to remix and record new beats and create loops. As David said in his interview, house music produced by DJs is all about beats that are spiritual. However, I started to think about the semiotics and cultural meaning of house music. How do those strong beats become a spiritual and meaningful language to listeners?

David Guetta is a french DJ and gains reputation both in Europe and America. He is considered as icon for the house music movement in America. Up until that point in time, US mainstream radio didn't play dance music so he had yet to make an major worldwide impact. That all changed in 2009, when David collaborated with the Black Eyed Peas to release "I Got a Feeling," which became the most downloaded song of all time in the United States with 7.5 million downloads. Immediately following he released "Sexy Bitch" featuring Akon which was also had a huge success.

House music and hip pop seem be to a perfect combination in America. However, back to 2000, the combination was not obvious. They were two different type of music genres. Hip pop is considered as a mainstream music genre, but house music is not. As Kelly Rowland said, the combination was necessary and inevitable, which brought new energy and new things to both hip pop and house music. David's work was largely done at home with electronic equipments. The semiotic of house music is underlying on its beats and its new representation for hip pop music. David said the meaning of combination of house music and hip pop was to let people to get involved with music when they put hands up, danced on the ground and forgot everyday life.

Brittany: Girl Groups
Motown is a very interesting node for examination based on some of the principles that Professor Irvine lays out in “Popular Music as a Meaning-Sytem.” It is true that “we are always receiving and interpreting music in a larger semiotic landscape within which new music arrives” (Irvine). Like most of the music that is said to ‘define’ an era, Motown music was like nothing anyone had ever heard before—except for the fact that they had heard it before. Motown combined the musical expression of rock and roll with the sounds, styles and rhythms of ‘black’ music like jazz and gospel. This was no mistake on the part of Berry Gordy, Motown’s founder who was controversial among his own artists and at his own company. Motown billed itself as “the music of America”—and not “the Music of Black America”—for a reason: it wanted to appeal to everyone, to reach out and unite both white audiences and black audiences. It did this by simultaneously giving white America funkier music than it was used to and giving black America ‘classier’ music than it was used to. Some of the greatest acts of Motown performed in the Copacabana and collaborated with people like Dusty Springfield, Frankie Avalon and Bobby Darin; in fact, you rarely saw a black face in the audience when a Motown act performed on television. In reality all of the Motown groups were made up of poor kids plucked from street corners in the ghetto. They had refined their acts at the famous Apollo Theater in Harlem, taken posture and etiquette lessons, and to the world looked nothing like teens who had grown up around rats and cockroaches.

Motown’s most successful act commercially and financially was the Supremes (much to the chagrin of its other groups). Synchronically the group’s success was a feedback loop of commercial success and support from Berry Gordy, who upon realizing the group was succeeding with white audiences in England, Germany, France and Italy—the Beatles were even outspoken fans—put all his eggs in one basket. Dialogically, the group's success has made it impossible for any black girl group today to separate itself from the Supremes, and it could even be argued that a girl group comprised of members of any race, so long as it had three (or four) attractive members (who speak English and are American, maybe), harken to the Supremes.
For some reason this girl group trend, along with solo hip hop and rock grunge, reemerged in the U.S. in the 1990s and lasted to the early Naughts, with acts like Destiny’s Child, TLC and En Vogue dominating the airwaves. (The ‘70s and ‘80s, in my mind anyway, seem to have been largely dominated by singular female acts, such as Donna Summer, Pat Benatar and Cyndi Lauper.) As Prof. Irvine says, “The music artefact forms a node in multiple networks of relationships, many of which come from larger cultural and sub-cultural uses and values.” Much like the Supremes, Destiny’s Child had three pretty black members who had sung together for quite awhile before making it big, and were led by a member whose benefactor (Diana Ross’s lover Berry Gordy/Beyonce’s father, Matthew Knowles) undoubtedly had the interests of one of the women in mind the most. Dialogically the ‘girl group’ notion has endured in the cultural subconscious and, for some reason, continues to reach peak cultural significance when it involves women of color who, in various ways, break color boundaries.
Destiny's Child, TLC and En Vogue were dialogic descendants of the girl group archetype cemented in the 1960s...

A mash-up proves the archetype still influences musicians today


Jen Lennon
1991 and 1992 were huge years for music. Not only do you have the birth of grunge music, with Nirvana’s Nevermind and Pearl Jam’s Ten coming out in the same year, but you have instrumental albums from a Tribe Called Quest and Gang Starr, debut albums from BoyzIIMen, Jodeci and TLC, and alternative bands like Smashing Pumpkins and Blur. Massive Attack and Aphex Twin, two pioneering electronic bands also had big albums during this two-year period. And finally, Dr. Dre releases The Chronic, which sparked mainstream popularity of gangster rap and the west coast hip hop. So what was going on in the early 1990s?

Congress passed a resolution to use military force on Iraq to liberate Kuwait, better known as the Gulf War. In March of 1991, an amateur video captured Rodney King getting beaten by the LA police; the next year the police officers involved in the beating were acquitted. Jeffrey Dahmer was arrested after the remains of 11 men and boys are found in his apartment. Tim Berners-Lee announced the World Wide Web. The dissolution of the Soviet Union lead to eastern European independence. Bill Clinton won the presidency. Magic Johnson announced he has HIV, ending his NBA career; Freddie Mercury died of AIDS and didn’t tell the public he had the disease until the day before his death.

One good example of current events making their way into the music of the early 90s was Dr. Dre’s song “The Day the Niggaz Took Over” off of The Chronic. He references Rodney King, race riots, and apartheid in the first minute of the song. The influence of this song comes from the history of gangster rap in the 1980s, starting with Schoolly D and Ice-T and continued by groups like N.W.A., Public Enemy, and Boogie Down Productions. All of these groups or rappers released albums with socio-political themes and spoke to gang relations, urban violence, guns, and drugs. N.W.A.’s “Fuck the Police” came out in 1988, a few years before the Rodney King beating and subsequent trial and acquittal of the LA cops who participated. The dialogic framework was set for Dr. Dre from a genre perspective; rap was already moving in this direction of gangster rap. But the current events that occurred in the year before his album came out made a huge appearance in the songs on the record and made his sound unique to 1992. And from there, Dr. Dre became a huge influence to rappers from then to now.

On a completely different side of music came the birth of grunge with bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden. Grunge is loosely defined as a subgenre of alternative rock, which fuses punk, heavy metal, and alternative sounds. From punk, grunge takes a raw sound and lyrical concerns. From heavy metal, grunge uses slower tempos, dissonant harmonies, and complex instrumentation with lots of band members. Lyrically, grunge songs tended to skew toward angst, disillusionment with society and culture, discomfort with social prejudices, social alienation, and desire for freedom. A lot of the influence for grunge music came from the genres I mentioned before, but also the Seattle music scene of the 1980s. Seattle had its own little musical world going on where bands followed other local bands, some were rivals and some played together at times. Soundgarden and Pearl Jam were known to be really good friends and even collaborated on the Temple of the Dog song “Hunger Strike”. This collaboration has an interesting history because several member of Pearl Jam were in a former band together, Mother Love Bone with a lead singer who was roommates with Chris Cornell of Soundgarden. The lead singer died of a heroin overdose, leading to the eventual birth of Pearl Jam, but also a period in time of depression for Cornell and the members of Mother Love Bone. Eddie Vedder, the singer for Pearl Jam, was brought in from a tape he sent them from LA when they were looking for a new lead singer, and he had some issues with his father’s death to work through. All of these guys were working together and had personal themes of their own that were coming out in songs on the separate band’s albums, but they came together for this one song on this Temple of the Dog album, which ended up being sort of an homage to their friend who had died, but also has pretty clear lyrics about famine and injustices in food distribution and doing a hunger strike in solidarity with social injustice. Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and Soundgarden went on to enormous success and influenced tons of modern alternative acts today.

Grunge artists seemed to take the turmoil of the early 1990s and internalized it and put their own meaning on events, pulling from the cultural encyclopedia and their own experiences, to write songs about bigger themes and disillusionment as opposed to referencing specific actions like Dr. Dre did about Rodney King. But it’s interesting to look at two completely different musical genres and see that themes that they wrote about were similar: mistrust, alienation, violence, injustice, and hopelessness.

Yvonne Junya Yuan
From the perspective of semiotics, music, as a type of cultural symbol, must needs to be meaningful. And in the process of creation, dissemination and receiving process, music needs to comply with the statute of the “code”. Although the interpretation procedure of the significance of music is split between the encoder and decoder, the explanation is lying in the composer (encoder) and the listener (decoder), as long as people endow it with meaning which requires explanation, the two sides have to rest on the “code”.
In fact, the examples are not uncommon in traditional folk music. African tribes, for instance, always use "drum language" to convey messages, and Chinese minorities used to communicate by instruments like jew’s harps and strings. Both the sender and receiver observe the mutual semantic code to communicate with each other, however not simple language code, but a combination of “intrinsic referring” and “extrinsic referring”. According to Jean-Jacques Nattiez, intrinsic referring means that the signifier is referring to something within the piece of music, that is to say, the structural relationship between music notes. For example, a particular musical phrase with a descending line is repeated within the course of a piece. But at the finale the phrase is repeated with an ascending line, creating a powerful effect by deviating from the expectation that was created by the previous descending repetitions. On the other hand, the extrinsic referring means that the signifier is referring to something outside itself to specific things, to people or places, to times or events, to movements or processes, or to various states of feelings.
The prerequisite is the widely recognized sound pattern within the cultural and political environment, which is influenced by the particular national, population-specific social customs, cultural practices and cultural factors. This code is often called the "cultural code". This "cultural code" has a strong cultural belongingness which cultural outsiders could hardly interpret. Roland Barthes once said that the meaning of symbols or signs depends on cultural conventions.
Here I would like to bring about the psychedelic rock. The style of rock music is inspired by psychedelic culture and attempts to replicate and enhance the mind-altering experiences of psychedelic drugs. It often uses new recording techniques and effects and draws on non-Western sources such the ragas and drones of Indian music. The Beatles, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Acid Mother Temple are some of the pioneers. As an outcome of the Hippie Movement, psychedelic rock was emerging as genre among folk rock and blues rock bands in US and UK and was popular in the mid and late 1960s. The music is characterized by the loud sound enough to wake the dead, the extremely fast rhythm and shrill guitar sound. Fuzz, distortion, and loop are the frequently used techniques to potrait the hallucinogenic feelings and scenes. Unlike heavy metal rock, psychedelic rock doesn’t have the fixed form, often full of improvisational performances.