Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Terry Lynn and the Tastemakers

Although I didn't conduct the main interview, I did get to chat with Terry Lynn, piggybacking on Mad B's fascinating conversation after I was done taking pictures.*

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Terry Lynn is in an interesting place, coming from this small, historically rough area that is also so rich in talent both artistic and sporting. She has set her sights on rather a different scene than the local dancehall one. Although that is where she began, hanging around King Jammy's in her neighborhood of Waterhouse

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(the studio was closed when we walked by, but this is a shot of the under-construction 0r never-constructed part of it.. on the left outside the frame and underneath the unfinished but there is an actual building in use. This btw is a common scene in Jamaica - half-finished buildings with rebar rusting in the air.)

but going on, before much local commercial success, to link up with international dance music producers like Phred and Diplo and the Mad Decent/bloggy club music scene. She is featured on the Major Lazer album (which I have heard on much heavier rotation in SF parties than in Kingston - no surprise of course), and more dance tunes left and right these days.

She is, I think, pinning her hopes on the tastemakers of the underground and blog-based dance music scene. This is an interesting move, because there isn't a lot of money in the electronic music scene compared to, say, the commercial industry of hip-hop.. but there is maybe a different kind of fan loyalty (although also music-critic on-to-the-next-ness), and also a different kind of artistic credibility. It's interesting especially given the general attitude I found in Jamaica towards 'underground' ness.. Which I may have over-emphasized in my last post on the subject.

The other side of it is that many Jamaican artists are so focused on promotion that they will work with nearly anyone, for free or whatever, if there is hope of exposure, they don't necessarily differentiate between underground and commercial at all.

And true, as much as underground folks like to position themselves (ourselves) as anti-commercial and counterculture, there may be less difference than we suppose, or the difference may not matter in the way we think it does. Nobody could deny that the underground is also a major source of inspiration and creativity for commercial music- judiciously sifted and recast for broader ears. And that may not be all bad - I like Britney Spears' "Toxic (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TkIytHD5v9c)" as a dance tune, and appreciate its layers of club-music/bhangra/surf/beats & breaks both for its fun sonic references and for the overall slink and bounce.

Also, in a way, (problematically) substituting 'foreign' for 'underground,' that's what happened with Bob Marley all the way back, his album retracked and re-arranged to please a broader, more rock-oriented audience. Was that wrong or right? And yes, I do mean in terms of Marley getting paid (and kick-starting the major foreign nonjamaican market for reggae), as well as artistic merit. Check Birdseed's thoughts on this dynamic as well - mostly hinted at in the phrase "discursive agenda."

There is a tradition, and perhaps a recent upsurge of vocalists seeking out tastemakers in countercultural or underground scenes (Jahdan, 77klash, Warrior Queen). It makes me happy because I often like the music more - and especially the combination of vocalists like these and production styles from dubstep, garage, jungle: darker, breakier sounds.

Some interesting questions, though. As this interview makes clear, the preoccupations of foreign and local audiences may be different. From a marketing perspective, there are lots of reasons artists make choices about what to sing about and how to sing it. But I'm also interested in how people battle over what is authentic -or to use a less loaded term than the dreadful 'authentic' - I'm interested in the dynamics of collaboration across culture and economics. What do differences audiences (and producers) want to hear from an artist? What do they pay for? Who are producers making music for? And how does that affect choices in music-making?

Less abstractly, but perhaps a crux of the matter - I wonder how long these collaborations can actually support the featured vocalists, especially those coming from such disparate backgrounds to the producers. The pressures on someone coming from so far away to mess with a world that assumes pretty different baselines for survival.. well they seem quite high.

Although it's often asserted to be so, I wonder if people actually do behave more ethically in underground scenes? My experience is that they do. I have the massive luxury of pretty much only working with people I actually like & respect. Then again, if I had to pay my rent from DJing, I don't know if I could continue that. And coming from Jamaica, where money is short and the need is intense, people may not have the space to pick and choose as much as I do. Still, exposure can lead, even indirectly, to getting paid.

Lynn may have picked especially well in terms of the Major Lazer and blog/club music posse. On the cultural side, non-Jamaicans are certainly not concerned with being 'tainted' by the 'low' aspects of Jamaican pop music. I.e. the Jamaican moral panic about oversexualized lyrics nd dancing is absent from foreign clubbers' embrace of Jamaican pop, or celebrated, or fetishized. Check Major Lazer's latest video for an example of that, and I can vouch for every one of those dance moves existing at dances I went to. So whether that is especially authentic or just especially popular, it is not getting dissed by foreign audiences. (Although American racism is just different from Jamaican classism, so there may be an element of choosing between fetishizing black sexuality vs. denigrating it.. but that's a whole other can-o-worms.) Parenthetical skipped lightly over, I can again vouch for Major Lazer's focus on what is actually popular in a lot of Kingston and Jamaica. And clearly they are reworking it for a different audience as well, sonically and visually.

And it does seem possible that here the tastemakers can make some money at the same time. Lynn might benefit from that, although I wonder whether she will as much as the people who she links with who are more embedded in the first-world economy. But maybe it doesn't matter as whether they benefit equally as long as she feels done right by?

Interestingly, Phred and phreemusic are connected to the critical copyright scene. Check their manifesto here. He's got some great future-thinking going on, although everything is a gamble these days, it warms my heart to see someone trying to link critical approaches to copyright with artists in the third world in an ethical way. And there is an exposure issue here too, since many people in the critical copyright/CC world focus on the license rather than the quality of the music, they are building rich networks of (often rich) people, that are sadly thin on good music. Part of my research goal is to learn how to forge links between what working artists really want and the broader range of legal and extralegal and social choices available to them in & outside of copyright law. Phred & Terry are going ahead with this experiment already, so big up!

*Full set of photos from the interview up here, courtesy of Mad B's (also check out her amazing shots from Colombia where she is now working. Note her vastly superior photography skills as well).

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