Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Lyrics music dancing

A recurring conversation I have had with my friends who like to talk about music (fans, journalists, scholars, djs, producers, instrumentalists, and everyone else)... is about lyrics and dance music. I keep meaning to write about it more, and this recent post by the always-interesting Jay Smooth's on lyrics and music (and capitalism, which he doesn't really get to, but i might later), made me think about it some more.

 My first thought on this exchange is that I wonder if the non-lyrical rapping they are both talking about may be more dance music oriented "put your hands in the air!" type rapping. Stuff that hypes up a crowd but leaves them room to sing along and to dance along. Not to say that dance music can't have good/complex/virtuosic lyrics, but that lack of lyrics may signal that it's dance music. I wonder if his definition of hip-hop is ignoring the dance music element and the relation between lyrics and dance music.

I'm struck by the idea that that the rapper Jay is talking about said lyrics don't make money. It seems like he (the rapper not Jay) may be wrong, in the big picture, but I wonder about what his horizons are. Maybe dance music scenes  FEEL more successful if you are still a local. Successful in the "room full of high energy folks having a blast" kind of way, rather than people standing and listening and relating to what you're saying, or buying your records from afar. Dancing scenes can build a kind of community, a local scene, that everyone wants to be a part of, and you can be popular in that scene, if it's small enough, in a way that pays off to you every day in small ways. I'm going partly on my experience of Jamaica here, so I'd love to hear others' opinion on it. But I wonder if the "local fame" aspect of that non-lyrical rapping feels more successful than waiting for royalties and the delayed payoff of fame in the larger world. Especially if you aren't getting those later payoffs!

But this is maybe where capitalism comes in. Because capitalising on dance music isn't really about royalties. As far as I know, the live social experience is what the most people make an effort for - whether you charge entrance, or charge for drinks at the event, or sell people objects like t-shirts or other fashion that they can wear to the event or afterwards.. those things have historically (in the US and elsewhere) generated more money than royalties.  Because royalties focus on musical recordings, objects, and not on the social experience.

But I want to back up and talk more about lyrics because there's a bigger issue Jay raises when talking about lyrics as being so important to hip-hop. It has to do with how he's assuming what matters about hip-hop - what the key experiences that make up hip-hop are. And a larger issue is that there are other kinds of music which have provided those key experiences, to a similar population as hip-hop fans, but that don't get the same kind of public attention and journalistic/scholarly attention as hip-hop, and I think the lyrics issue has something to do with it.

I think it was Chrissy Murderbot who laid it out the clearest to me in conversation. He said it as someone connected to the Chicago house scene (a dj and a scholar himself), and he spoke up for an analysis rooted in the Midwest USA's experience of music. He said that the public discourse about hip-hop, including academic work on hip-hop, focuses on the coasts but generalizes from "hip-hop" to "black music" in a way that leaves out the midwestern experience. House & Techno functioned, in the midwest of the US, the way that rap did on the coasts. It was black (urban?) music, that reinforced and celebrated black identity.
So house & techno may have been popular among black folk in the midwest the way rap was on the coasts, but the music had a different balance of sonic elements. However those music worked to represent and celebrate communities, I think they didn't do it primarily through lyrics. Lyrics are not the central part of house and techno. Not to say there are never any words, but the focus isn't on lyricism per se. So what does that mean for understanding of music, of race, and of social creativity?

It seems like the focus on hip-hop on the coasts (and I know I'm leaving out the South, which is due mostly to my ignorance of Southern popular culture and I'd love to know more) naturalizes an assumption about the importance of lyrics to music, and maybe to black culture, or popular culture.  I have noticed a tendency for people who talk about music with lyrics, to spend the majority of their energy on the meaning and importance of lyrical content, and spend a lot less on the musical meaning and importance, including not really analyzing the way the music interacts with people's bodies (there are some exceptions these days, but it's still a small group, I think).

This suggests a couple of things.

First, many people have a hard time talking about music as dance music being anything but hedonism.  Dance music and the action of bodies moving together in space, to music, has been undertheorized and under discussed. Maybe especially in hip-hop, where discussions sometimes include talk about b-boying (and b-girling), but don't usually spend a lot of time on the way hip-hop is music that people dance to.

That matters for how we understand hip-hop in society,  because far more people dance to hip-hop than are usually accounted for in the analysis. There's just sort of "audiences" and "parties" and "clubs." And what happens on the stage, or at the center of the dancefloor might get some attention, but everyone else is left out as if they are passive receptacles for music and culture. Those of you who have heard my talk about my experiences and research in Jamaica should guess by now I see  so-called "audiences" as active participants in music-making, both in terms of creative input that affects what kinds of recordings and live experiences exist, and also in terms of making music meaningful to society.

So because most people don't talk about dancing audiences as having any musical (as well as political or social implications), one of the broadest human interactions with hip-hop is not really accounted for. If it was included, and if dancing was taken seriously (and not just virtuosic performance, but social dancing), it might alter our understanding of hip-hop's political and cultural significance in several ways.

Second, it seems to me that house and techno are historically black music with a serious role to play in black (American) identity. House & techno are not exclusively black, of course (even from the start).. and over time (in ways that I think have still to be properly studied), the music spread to more  communities. But it does a disservice to any understanding of black american culture, or of music and race (however defined) to leave out house and techno.
Some implications of inclusion would be:
since I'm thinking more about technology these days, I also wonder what that does to popular understanding of the relationship between blackness and technology and futurism. Techno, especially, sonically and practically is associated with sounds of technology and machinery, and with technological skill. Also it sometimes evoke visions of the future, of being forward-looking and futuristic. Some folks have talked and written and performed this, but it could use a lot more attention.

Focusing more on house & techno might also suggest more about religious and ritual functions of dance and popular music - some house music ("uplifting house") has a gospel flavor, and incorporates musical and lyrical themes that are explicitly or implicitly religious.
Also, given that there is also more explicit gay presence in house and techno, incorporating house & techno into understanding of blackness and black music might alter how many people talk about the interplay between race and sexuality.
Also since the gender politics of house and techno look, on the surface, to be somewhat similar, in terms of who explicitly is represented and how, we could think more about the implications for understanding who gets to be seen as representatives of culture and subculture, who is recognized for have attributes or skills.
But of course there are endless more implications. One I'm just starting to think about is how dance scenes really require space, physical space - and take up space through amplified audio - which really brings in questions of physical property, peoples rights to use and control and claim physical spaces. NOt that music performance never needs space, but focusing on, say, recordings, lets you stay in studios, radios and the internet, while focusing on dancing crowds keeps attention on how someone got access to warehouse, a club, what zoning laws were or weren't enforced that allowed a street party, etc etc.

The other side of this is thinking about what happens if we incorporate house and techno and other dance musics into our understanding of society and politics. I'm not saying that raves or warehouse parties are necessarily explicitly political, but anything that lots of people are involved in has a political implication - if we just ask why are they putting their energy there and not elsewhere? Hedonism is not enough of an answer.

And maybe sometimes hedonism is more of an answer than we might think. What it means to have fun together, to get sweaty together, to lose ourself in music and the moment and the crowd, or with a partner... not to get all semi-apocyphal-emma-goldman on you, but there is a point. If political activities --or more seriously, political movements-- don't incorporate fun and think seriously and politically about pleasure, I think they are likely to miss out on mass participation.


  1. a couple of off-the-cuff thoughts:

    "it seems to me that house and techno are historically black music with a serious role to play in black (American) identity..." - try for starters.

    "The other side of this is thinking about what happens if we incorporate house and techno and other dance musics into our understanding of society and politics" - cf the evolution of UK rave culture during the late 80s - Thatcherism, events that led to the CJB, etc. I'm useless for decent references of the sorts of leads you'd be after, but am sure folk have written about this from several angles.

    Also worth cross-referencing this against how the rise of 'corporate clubbing'/superstar DJ phenomenon/etc came out of this - a whole "when it changed" schism developed, before which you'd hear a much greater diversity of genres under what I knew as "rave" in the UK. FWIW, seemed to me that the money from dance music in the UK seemed to come from licensing tracks to compilations (also, cross-reference with how many US house/techno innovators got ripped off on UK licensing deals - albeit ones that gave them the international exposure and eventually recognition in their home country...)

    OK, that's three - and I'm tired!
    Notice our paths might cross in NYC this weekend. Be great to chat about this f2f if we happen to bump in to each other :)


  2. Well the answer to the initial question, am I making a distinction between "lyrical" rappers and those who make fun, danceable party music, the answer is no not at all. :)

    Lots of rappers do party anthems with no deep lyrical complexity or pressing subject matter while still being "lyrical" in the sense I meant it here..

    Keep in mind "lyrics" has a particular meaning in this hip-hop context, it's often used as a broader umbrella term for showing that you are a skillful emcee.. and that's about displaying virtuosity in the *musicality* of your rhymes, the flow/rhythm/cadence/onomapoetics of what you compose and deliver, and how it interacts with the beat, as much as its about wordplay/"consciousness"/depth of subject matter etc.

    And the mindset Flocka's representing (as I read it) would dismiss the value of creating community/local fame etc. just as surely as he dismisses being "lyrical".. as having no value except as a means to life's one true end, getting money.

    So basically I'd say no, the dichotomy you're setting up here between lyrical and danceable is a totally different path than the one I was on.

    As far as the path you are on here, I think we are mostly in agreement. I'll paste in some quotes from an old blog post of mine (from 2004):

    "Why has everyone become so attached to this fairy tale that hip-hop was all about "socially conscious" lyrics in its early days? That it was only when rap went commercial that everyone started bragging and boasting and kicking party rhymes? And that those party rhymes are inherently less valuable?

    Anyone who is at all familiar with hip-hop's history knows that is a bunch of baloney. It is a lie that not only distorts our history, it demeans the art form and all of its pioneers by assuming that hip-hop is not important or valuable as a musical form.. that its value derives only from the content of its lyrics, the subject matter it chooses to address.

    I've said it before, and I'm sure I'll have to say it 1000 times again: this is the biggest lie that's ever been told about hip-hop.

    Hip-hop is important because it is great music. All the "conscious" anthems these writers exalt would never have mattered one iota if they were not delivered within a musical form so compelling that it forced the world to listen.

    Hip-hop's influence has extended far beyond the music, but it's always been the music that made everything else possible. And that music can be equally valuable no matter what topic the emcee chooses to discuss. "Ante Up" and "Who Shot Ya" are every bit as important to me as "The Message" and "Dear Mama." Because they speak to me musically in ways that no concrete verbal expression ever could.

    That is the essential power of music, and hip-hop's pioneers knew this. They understood there is no greater purpose, no goal more noble for any man, than a commitment to rocking the party. It's a shame that after 30 years, so many people still haven't figured that out. They all must lead such drab and grooveless lives.."

    I didn't stress the shared community aspect of musical experience in that quote, but it's a big part of what I was talking about for sure. For the first 7-10 years of hip-hop's existence there wasn't even such a thing as a "hip-hop song," hip-hop only existed in the form of the party. And many heads consider the move towards commodifying that community experience in song form, which was ushered in by outside interlopers looking to cash in (Sylvia Robinson etc), as the beginning of hip-hop's demise.

  3. Hey thanks for commenting!

    I get you, in terms of where you are coming from w/r/t lyricality. I get the feeling I'm responding to the academic folks I was reading who are not necessarily hip-hop practitioners.. and I think I didn't catch a distinction between "lyrics" and "lyrical" where the second word sounds to me like it includes sonic, acoustic and rhythmic aspects that aren't text-based. I use "flow" to describe that stuff I think.

    RE: Flocka's not being interested in local fame. I'm don't know in his case, but my experience with some folks in Jamaica is that while pretty much everyone talked about being big "international" they had different grasps on what that meant in terms of presentation and in terms of how one 'feels' famous. Lots of Jamaicans are famous overseas without anyone knowing at home, without generating buzz when they walk around - and lots of folks are locally famous and have a much smaller international audience but sound like they think they are huge everywhere (of course people hype themselves, but still). At the same time I'm pushing this a bit because of wanting to engage with discourses on hip=hop that are outside hip-hop, where people are kinda over-eager to condemn certain things as bad because they are commercial/money-oriented. A lot of times I think it's kind of a bourgie "let's not talk about money/survival let's be artists above all that" attitude.

    But when I think of myself as a musician/dj and participant, I got all kinds of negative stuff to say about artists (and their art) being too fixated on money..

    And hey, I really like what you're saying, that "hip-hop only existed in the form of the party." That's a great way to put it, because it really encompasses the full experience with all the participants in the moment. The issue of commodification is super interesting - I'm planning to post more on that soon!

  4. oops pardon the couple of typos in there :) (onomaTOpoetics, etc)