Musicology – rap’s expansion of popular aural territory (Rose)


“Rap music is a technologically sophisticated and complex urban sound. No doubt, its forebears stretch far into the orally influenced traditions of African American culture. But the oral aspects of rap are not to be understood as primary to the logic of rap nor separate from its technological aspects. Rap is fundamentally literate and deeply technological. To interpret rap as a direct or natural outgrowth of oral African-American forms is to romanticize and decontextualize rap as a cultural form. It requires erasing rap’s significant sonic presence and its role in shaping technological, cultural, and legal issues as they relate to defining and creating music. Retaining black cultural priorities is an active and often resistive process that has involved manipulating established recording policies, mixing techniques, lyrical construction, and the definition of music itself.
The lyrical and musical texts in rap are a dynamic hybrid of oral traditions, postliterate orality, and advanced technology. Rap lyrics are a critical part of a rapper’s identity, strongly suggesting the importance of authorship and individuality in rap music. Yet, sampling as it is used by rap artists indicates the importance of collective identities and group histories. There are hundreds of shared phrases and slang words in rap lyrics, yet a given rap text is the personal and emotive voice of the rapper.” (p.104)

“Sampling technology and rap producers’ commercially profitable use of sampled sounds have seriously challenged the current scope of copyright laws (which are based on notated compositions) and raised larger, more complex questions regarding fair use of musical property and the boundaries of ownership of musical phrases.
Rap’s use of sampling technology, looped rhythmic lines, coupled with its significant commercial presence also raises questions about the relationship between industrial imperatives and their impact on cultural production (for example, formulas that streamline the sale of music as commercial radio’s four-minute song cap or rap’s reuse of previously recorded music). Or are there cultural explanations for the musical structures in rap’s use of electronic equipment?
At the same time as rap music has dramatically changed the intended use of sampling technology, it has also remained critically linked to black poetic traditions and the oral forms that underwrite them. These oral traditions and practices clearly inform the prolific use of collage, intertextuality, boasting, toasting, and signifying in rap’s lyrical style and organization. Rap’s oral articulations are heavily informed by technological processes, not only in the way such oral traditions are formulated, composed, and disseminated, but also in the way orally based approaches to narrative are embedded in the use of the technology itself. In this contentious environment, these black techno-interventions are often dismissed as nonmusical [-p.99] effects or rendered invisible. These hybrids between black music, black oral forms, and technology that are at the core of rap’s sonic and oral power are an architectural blueprint for the redirection of seemingly intractable social ideas, technologies, and ways of organizing sounds along a course that affirms the histories and communal narratives of Afro-diasporic people.” (pp.98-99)

Rose offers these quotes before continuing:

“The organizing principle which makes the black style is rhythm. It is the most perceptible and the least material thing.”
– Leopold Sedar Senghor

“Rhythm. Rap music is so powerful because of rhythm.”
– Harmony

Rose again: “Rap’s rhythms – “the most perceptible, yet least material elements” – are its most powerful effect. Rap’s primary force is sonic, and the distinctive, systematic use of rhythm and sound, especially the use of repetition and musical breaks, are a part of a rich history of New World black traditions and practices. Rap music centers on the quality and nature of rhythm and sound, the lowest, “fattest beats” being the most significant and emotionally charged.[…] The arrangement and selection of sounds rap musicians have invented via samples, turntables, tape machines, and sound systems are at once deconstructive (in that they actually take apart recorded musical compositions) and recuperative (because they recontextualize these elements creating new meanings for cultural sounds that have been relegated to commercial wastebins). Rap music revises black cultural priorities via new and sophisticated technological means. “Noise” on the one hand and communal countermemory on the other, rap music conjures and razes in one stroke.
These revisions do not take place in a cultural and political vacuum, they are played out on a cultural and commercial terrain that embraces black cultural products and simultaneously denies their complexity and coherence. This denial is partly fueled by mainstream cultural adherence to the traditional paradigms of Western classical music as the highest legitimate standard for musical creation, a standard that at this point should seem, at best, only: marginally relevant in the contemporary popular music realm (a space all but overrun by Afrodiasporic sounds and multicultural hybrids of them). Instead, and perhaps because of, the blackening of popular taste, Western classical music continues to serve as the primary intellectual and legal standard and point of reference for “real” musical complexity and composition. For these reasons, a comparative look at these two musical and cultural forces is of the utmost importance if we are to make sense of rap’s music and the responses to it.” (p.99)

Unlike the complexity of Western classical music, which is primarily represented in its melodic and harmonic structures, the complexity of rap music, like many Afro-diasporic musics, is in the rhythmic and percussive density and organization. “Harmony” versus “rhythm” is an oft-sited reduction of the primary distinctions between Western classical and African-derived musics. Still, these terms represent significant differences in sound organization and perhaps even disparate approaches to ways of perception, as it were. The outstanding technical feature of [-p.100] the Western classical music tradition is tonal functional harmony. Tonal functional harmony is based on clear, definite pitches and logical relations between them; on the forward drive toward resolution of a musical sequence that leads to a final resolution: the final perfect cadence. The development of tonal harmony critically confined the range of possible tones to twelve tones within each octave arranged in only one of two possible ways, major or minor. It also restricted the rhythmic complexity of European music. In place of freedom with respect to accent and measure, European music focused rhythmic activity onto strong and weak beats in order to prepare and resolve harmonic dissonance. Furthermore, as Christopher Small has argued, Western classical tonal harmony is structurally less tolerant of “accoustically illogical and unclear sounds, sound not susceptible to total control.” Other critical features of classical music, such as the notation system and the written score – the medium through which the act of composition takes place – separate the composer from both the audience and the performer and sets limits on composition and performance. This classical music tradition, like all major musical and cultural developments, emerged as part of a larger historical shift in European consciousness.” (pp.99-100)

“Rhythm and polyrhythmic layering is to African and African-derived musics what harmony and the harmonic triad is to Western classical music.” (p.100)

Like many groundbreaking musical genres, rap has expanded popular aural territory. Bringing together sound elements from a wide range of sources and styles and relying heavily on rich Afrodiasporic music, rap musicians’ technological in(ter)ventions are not ends in and of themselves, they are means to cultural ends, new contexts in which priorities are shaped and expressed. Rap producers are not so much deliberately working against the cultural logic of Western classical musics as they are working with and among distinctly black practices, articulating stylistic and compositional priorities found in black cultures in the diaspora.” (p.105)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold mine) Tricia Rose ‘Soul Sonic Forces: Technology, orality, and black cultural practice in rap music.’ pp.96- Eds Ron Sakolsky and Fred Wei-han Ho Sounding off! music as subversion/resistance/revolution. Autonomedia (and Contributors): New York. 1995


More urban change questions


More interesting questions about humans and cities and nature…

“What is the relationship between humans and nature? How does this question play out in the specific micro-environments of cities?” (p.71)

Ref: Nicholas Low, Brendan Gleeson, Ray Green and Darko Radovic (2005) The Green city: Sustainable homes, sustainable suburbs. Routledge, Abingdon and New York; and UNSW Press, Sydney

urban change questions


These questions are posed in the context of sustainable urban development, but I think them both interesting and relevant to fictional concerns (perhaps especially those of urban fantasy and fiction more generally?):

“Ultimately,” write, “the green city will reflect a rather different future for work. On this topic there are some very large questions: can a future of cities competing against one another in world markets be reconciled with a benign future for the environment? What are the limits of competition and how can they be enforced? Does economic growth itself have limits? How can growth be steered into environmentally benign forms of production? What forms of governance are required to regulate world markets in order to guarantee social security and environmental conservation? How do culture, place and climate influence work patterns, and consequently the physical accommodation of work?” (p.132)

Ref: Nicholas Low, Brendan Gleeson, Ray Green and Darko Radovic (2005) The Green city: Sustainable homes, sustainable suburbs. Routledge, Abingdon and New York; and UNSW Press, Sydney

Delivering justice in film


OK, so this article dates back 15 years or so, but Steve Greenfield and Guy Osborn analysed popular representations of justice in film and some of their points remain interesting (and could be applied to more recent films and literature). They wrote:

The courtroom has long been used as a vehicle for drama. It is an arena in which dramatic tension can easily be built, and with the added ease of constructing grand soliloquy and speech. This trend is echoed in film portrayals and advocacy offers the chance for an actor to display great oratory. Historically, the classic law film has revolved around a formal and serious courtroom drama with clear identification of the search for justice. Prime examples of the genre include Young Mr Lincoln ,To Kill A Mocking Bird, Inherit the Wind, and through to more contemporary examples such as Suspect, The Verdict and Philadelphia. In addition, films such as Brothers in Law and My Cousin Vinny have ploughed the comedic quality of lawyers and legal process. The exploration of law has further moved towards the ethics of lawyers in films such as Devil’s Advocate, and the internal workings of the law practice; The Firm. In previous work we have also identified certain common characteristics of the main participants which have spanned a range of films over a period of time. Interestingly judges have tended to have a rather limited role within legal films with the major roles occupied by the lawyers, although Let Him Have It and And Justice For All provide examples of judges occupying a more central role.” (p.36)

“In a contemporary sense, the most obvious examples of external (to the courtroom) justice are those films that deal with the concept of street justice – sidewalk law enforcement. There is an obvious link to the western with the latter-day sheriff being represented by the homicide detective. The issue is not to enforce the rule book of arrest but to ensure that perpetrators pay for their crimes even if this includes an element of summary ‘smoking gun’ justice. The key is the perceived guilt and unworthiness of the offender who may escape formal justice, in the courtroom, through evidential problems or technicalities.” (p.37)

“Non-police legal vigilantes are not new to film, The Star Chamber shows how a disillusioned judge played by Michael Douglas is invited to join a clandestine group of judges who dispense their own brand of justice in ‘messy’ cases. Their method of remedying deficiencies in the legal system is to employ hitmen to dispense ‘real’ justice. The theme of disillusionment and helplessness in the face of an inert legal system is carried on in Criminal Law where Gary Oldman turns from lawyer to vigilante to pursue a wealthy client who he has been acquitted but who Oldman later discovers to be guilty. Apart from extra legal and police vigilantism, the closest we get to civilian direct action, given the antipathy towards mob justice, are the vigilante movies which portray the (usually lone and sometimes ex-police officer) wronged individual who decides that it is payback time in response to a personal incident, e.g. Deathwish. What then of such vigilantism in the post modern surveillance society of the future?” (p.39)

“Perhaps more than any other institution, the courtroom has been put into crisis by postmodern conditions. Politicians and preachers have always known that the truths that matter are those which can be made to work in specific conditions, educators have always known that their curriculum includes and excludes according to the balance of power that can be achieved in the conditions of its writing, but courts, whose immediate effects are emphatically real (imprisonment or freedom, uprisings or stability) are premised upon the achievability of an objective truth and the effectiveness of rationality, as a human universal, as a means of achieving it. When both truth and reasoning are contingent rather than objective, the legal system experiences crisis. Tabloid television and the Rodney King video was surely the nadir of tabloidism, is part of that crisis, part symptom, part cause, partly a move toward coping with it, partly a move toward continuing it, but inescapably part of it.” (pp.43-44)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold mine) Steve Greenfield and Guy Osborn (1999) Film, law and the delivery of justice: The case of Judge Dredd and the disappearing courtroom. Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 6(2) 35-45

Horst Kornberger on Harry Potter and Narnia


Horst Kornberger offers the following opinion on Harry Potter (I haven’t decided what I think about his comments yet, but it’s one opinion!):

“I am in two minds about Rowling’s creation,” Kornberger writes, “particularly as literature for young children. I think the books and films are often encountered too [-p.143] early. Harry Potter is great fantasy, but a certain foundation of soul needs to be established before a child enters the gothic labyrinth of Hogwarts.
The Potter books are based on the mystery novel and the emotional suspense created by this genre. In most mystery novels we do not know who the murderer is until the very end. In the Harry Potter books, the murder is yet to come. Though we know it is the Dark Lord who is attempting to kill Harry, we do not know under which mask he is hiding. This makes the books even more harrowing for the soul than conventional mysteries.
The dark forces in the Harry Potter series are hidden and unscrupulous, and ever more brilliant as the books progress. The portrayal of evil echoes the racial ethos of the Nazi regime and procedures of black magic. All this may be exciting and highly stimulating reading for the imagination-deprived teenager, but it is not appropriate for younger readers, who need to know who is good and who is bad so they can morally orientate themselves in a story.
In fairytales, evil and cruelty are dealt with imaginatively. The wolf that devours Red Riding Hood spills no blood and the child is soon revived. But the killing in Harry Potter is real and irreversible. The blood that is spilled is ‘real’ blood that will leave a mark on a young child’s soul. The cruelty of a sinister figure like Voldemort is too convincing to be digested before a child is equipped to face him. Too young, they may fall prey to his schemes – and as the book tells you, he is eager to kill then as young as he can.
I recommend you to the advice of the world expert in all matters concerning Harry Potter and the care of the magical and endangered child: Albertus Dumbledore, Director of Hogwarts School of Magic. The wise Professor protected Harry from all contact with the shady and dangerous world of magic until he had reached the age of eleven. I take this as the story’s own explicit advice for its appropriate use: children should reach this age before being admitted to the school of sorcery.
I have said I am in two minds about Harry Potter. While I am concerned about its premature use, it nevertheless provides a good dose of fantasy for teenage consumption. It also speaks directly to contemporary myth – its popularity shows that the stories answer a dire need in our culture:  the story deprivation of contemporary childhood.
Children recognise themselves in Harry. Like the modern child he starts off deprived of imagination and magic, denied his birthright to be an adventurer in any realm other than this world. Like the modern [-p.144] child he is endowed with imaginal gifts and has been brought up by parents who are ‘muggles’ – totally unmagical folk. Most parents are ‘Dursleys,’ not only lacking imagination, they suppress it with any means at their disposal.
The imaginal part in every modern child is as maltreated by parents and education as Harry Potter is by the Dursleys, while the child’s conventional and unmagical part is as spoiled as his stepbrother Dudley – who is the very kind of insensitive and competitive bully our world seems to reward while the Harrys are locked in closets and punished for who they are.
Harry Potter exemplifies the drama of the imaginative child. This is what makes his story a modern myth. He is the hero who escapes the prison of convention, breaking though the brick walls of King’s Cross Station into a new dimension of imaginal adventure. Harry is a symbol for the imaginal child and her adventures in this world and the next – but for a young child there are smoother ways to break the brick walls of convention. A new dimension may be more easily entered through an old wardrobe hung with fur coats.”  (pp.142-144)

Harry vs The Chronicles of Narnia

Interestingly, Kornberger also compares Harry to The Chronicles of Narnia:

“C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia are a masterpiece of children’s literature. A nine year old can appreciate the imaginative treasures this series contains, and there is no need to censor their use, for the stories have a purity that will protect them from misuse. The children who are the heroes of many of the Narnia tales are aged between seven and twelve, and that seems a good indication of their age-appropriateness.” (p.144)

“Harry Potter is fantasy with mythological elements. The Chronicles of Narnia are much stronger myth, a product of exact imagination, revealing realities beyond the apparently real. The Narnia stories meet the soul on its own home ground. They speak the imaginative language of the heart and carry the power of transformation that only this language can provide.
It is this transformative capacity that Harry Potter lacks. He is a likeable hero and remains so, even as he becomes more adept in magic. He is protected by the love of his mother, but he is not touched by the love that changes the heart. He remains a somewhat superficial hero, the master of outer accomplishment and victories. He is Superboy equipped with magical powers and all the gadgets of the trade: owls and broomsticks, invisibility cloak and miraculous maps.” (p.145)

Again, I’m not yet sure what I think of these last comments, but I do find them interesting.

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold mine) Horst Kornberger (2008) The Power of Stories: Nurturing Children’s Imagination and Consciousness. Floris Books: Edinburgh