BABEL (DANCING IN TONGUES)

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‘The Construction of the Tower of Babel’, by Hendrick III van Cleve, 16th Century, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo. Click for bigger version, it’s a nice painting. Taken from Giornale Nuovo.

Hi everybody, I’ve been away off in real life (What a fucked up place to spend extended periods of time) but just wanted to stick my neck in and say a few words, and probably piss off a bunch of my friends. The goal of writing these polemical attack posts is to sort of kick the tires on our musical activities and cultural practices and to make sure that everyone is really thinking hard about why and how they’re doing what they’re doing. If you feel this as an attack on you or your music, I’d love to hear your response here in public so we can all learn something.

Gex recently posted up the Stereotyp affiliated Kubu mixtape which has some cool beats on it, below, I like the bass on the second track especially. Then Ty responded by saying “looks like Stereotyp… oh great, another Teutonic ‘barefoot baile’ advocate, what the world needs is more white european & american dudes “keeping it real” & getting sexy by going native.” And I LOLed and started writing a comment but decided to turn it into a post as it got longer and longer. Full disclosure: I am probably one of these sexy white guys that Ty is aiming at, not sure if my involvement in ukg and dancehall qualifies me but anywayyyy.

Here’s my point, more or less: I think it’s lame to use vocals in your music that are in a language you don’t really understand. That said, this is not a direct shot at Stereotyp, maybe he speaks Portuguese or whatever language the people are speaking on his mix, I actually don’t know. In vocal music, especially rap, the vibe and energy of a tune is SO MUCH about the lyrical content that putting vocals on tunes that you, or perhaps more importantly a major chunk of your audience don’t understand is just weird to me. I feel that you are using these people and their words as an idea, or a reference or a signifier in a way that’s totally disconnected from their artistic intentions.

If you, the producer can’t understand all the layers of what they’re saying and the audience can’t either then the words are just rhythmic or melodic noise, a kind of cultural texture. I feel like when it’s melodic singing then it makes a bit more sense because at least the people who don’t understand have some purely formal things to grab hold of, and melody is a kind of unconscious language of emotion and therefore there is some kind of non-verbal communication possible. But rap? Rap is words and rhythm, it’s word music.

As someone who listens to quite a lot of word music I’d argue that in the success of any given artist in any of these scenes (rap, dancehall, grime etc) the words they use, the things they say, their message, their attitude, their swagger, and their lyrical content is much more important than the formal qualities of flow or rhythm. In grime and dancehall the thing that will trigger a rewind is an artist saying something, something specific that has tremendous resonance with the audience. How they say it is important and necessary but WHAT they say is what gets them a forward. Especially in dancehall where a lot of it comes down to clashing and beefing the thing that will win a contest is some particularly clever well-timed and somehow true insult. The flow and pattern is necessary but secondary, it’s a vehicle for the message. So when the message is behind a language barrier the order is reversed – flow is in front and the message is behind, or gone.

A lot of fans will say, “Oh I don’t understand, I don’t care what they’re saying I’m just dancing along” but I actually think in taking that position you’re sort of marginalizing these people and their opportunity for artistic expression. It reduces them to being ‘the sexy and exotic other’ that we don’t understand, and don’t care to understand because we think “oh they’re probably just saying ‘dance, party, fuck’ or something like that, and that’s what we’re doing”. But what about when they’re not saying that? What about when Buju Banton is singing about shooting gays in the head over that nice easy party beat? And you’re dancing along obliviously, and because you and everyone else who doesn’t pay attention dances along then the DJ says “see look, that song always works, I’m gonna return to it” and that message gets repeated and repeated into the world. Whether you like to dance to ‘Boom Bye Bye’ or not (nastiness aside, it’s a good song) in this young new global underground dance whatever scene we’re in I think that we really need to make sure that if we’re gonna engage in a style that we’re doing it on all levels, not just formal (wow this beat pattern is great, I’m gonna put my euro synth bass on it and call it ‘global-fusion’) but on the levels of slang, culture, meaning, people, relationships, beef and history. And some may say: “But it’s too much work to learn all these languages, and I’m on the other side of the world and blee blah bleh” well then I’d say either make some friends who can teach you or maybe you should focus in on something that you can understand and try to develop some depth in it. Basically, not being a tourist is hard work but I think, worth it.


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88 Responses to “BABEL (DANCING IN TONGUES)”

  1. MikeM says:

    Awww, Rachel!!, that comment was on. fucking. point!

    “We can demand track info, translations of songs, lyrics, information about where samples were taken, etc! People should be embarrassed to not offer these things…”

    I was thinking along similar lines recently.

    Here’s an idea, just to throw it out there: How about a translation Wiki? There seems to be a groundswell of multiculturalism in this room, why not leverage it?

    Also, Matt, I think you’re right. We should be demanding more quality lyrical content. While I prefer more intellectual, positive lyrics, I wouldn’t assume to tell people what to say. I believe in freedom of speech. But I think we can demand high QUALITY in that content.

  2. james gyre says:

    @matt – “Compare all the ragga jungle bootlegs to something like Original Nutta by Shy Fx”

    word. that track and others like it come from a parallel universe where drum n bass are interesting. always looking for old school ragga mixtapes/tracks of value… suggestions?

    @gavin – “it’s interesting that a bunch of DJs and electronic musicians are so ANTI these practices — weren’t they traditionally the defenders of free sample use?”

    when i told her about this thread, laura brought this up. to expand a little on what matt said above, i think this is the next step.. the pendulum effect. really no one here seems to suggest one can’t sample, appropriate or play a track they don’t understand. what’s being called into question is what of the new work expanded by all of us antinational postcultural copy?righton! anarchomusiqistas do we think is worthwhile, what will we puch, and what will we push pack on.

    i for one, am through with the camp/hipster value of unapologeticly misogynist/materialistic gangsta rap tunes. even stuff i hear through some of the dutty artz crew makes me go hmmm…

  3. james gyre says:

    oops again… that should read “what will we push”, not “puch”… and i forgot to add a nice discussion surrounding some of the issues i mentioned “pushing back on” is here which includes some of yinz. it doesn’t quite get to the bottom of jeezy/gucci/weezy issues i was talking about, but…

  4. Birdseed says:

    I meant “culturally detached” from the culture that produced the music. Obviously you’re attached to “a” culture.

    Nevertheless, I find your certainty on that issue a bit disconcerting. I think you’re dodging the issue of your own influence as a taste maker, with your DJing and your record label. You act as a filter between the producers of the music and your audience. The music might be able to worm itself around you should you disapprove of it, but the collective of DJs and bloggers (who you’re trying to convince here) have a great amount of pushing and stopping power, taken together.

    My take is that this power should be used to convey a reasonably true picture of the music we’re presenting, not a bowdlerised one. And that the power to tell the story should as closely as possible be used to reflect the story as understood by the original audience. Last thing I want to do is take power away from the people whose music I’m pushing.

  5. Ty says:

    there´s this cool new label, DUTTY ARTZ! I picked up their first release. It´s a 12″ record. On one side there a bootleg remix of Shy Fx ‘Original Nuttah’ and on the other side Matt Shadetek did 2 bootleg remixes of reggae artists – Sizzla & Tanya Stephen. (without their permission or consent, right?)

    just sayin´…

    put yr wax where yr mouth is?

  6. ripley says:

    Birdseed, contrast

    “Doesn’t lack of understanding and “bad” mimesis drive creativity forward better than the worried ability to be able to copy perfectly?”

    with “a reasonably true picture of the music we’re presenting, not a bowdlerised one”

    in neither case do I accept the ranking of better/worse.

    But mostly I think one of the points of this discussion is what the criteria for TRUE-ness is.

    and Gavin I like the way you raise the point about samples as commodities issue but part of the problem –a problem in terms of grappling with who is owed what– is that music (in all its fractal glory) is always more than a commodity, it is experience, a relationship and communication. So the ethics involved are hard to analyze in the abstract…

    But also the techie world would be quick to emphasize that other things could be considered commodities (like attention, reputation, etc), which would require a different attitude towards music’s role in the way artists could flourish.

  7. LowLiFi says:

    I think everyone has made great points about this. I think the problem with most music nowadays is that its all about style and not about substance. Using dub and reggae/dancehall, or middle eastern/arabic music and having no clue about the actual background to the lyrics or music is really becoming overdone and destroying and stereotypifing the music of origin. I hate to use the word of a Musicologist, but “appopriating” is not strong enough a term to be used. If you are truly just DJ’ing a song and using “ethnic” sounds for flare, why not invest the time to learn more about what you are “appropriating” and actually gain some knowledge?

  8. rachel says:

    this post wont leave my mind! Scattered thoughts:

    yeah im thinking more about this, and while i really wish djs would share more and we had a really amazingly interactive international scene, there’s a billion limits (i counted) to this idea of ‘ethical consumerism’ I brought up ..

    As gavin said .. ghettotech as a raw material, just like everything else from the global south. we can spice it up (soy coffee icecream bars made from shade grown organic coffee fairly traded from Ethiopia = remixed kuduru-dancehall made from original samples of tracks heard in the poorest ghettos of kingston and luanda, proceeds split equally, with full translations and attached photo-essay) it can get self congratulating and laughable.. We can be ethical consumers, educate ourselves as much as possible, have friends around the world, etc. But it won’t change the fact of the ultimate disparity of privilege between place of origin and consumer.

    And wtf we arent even dealing with a real market here.. so how does being an ethical producer / consumer even work in an internetty propertyless globeosphere…. We are more likely to spend $ on merch, cover charges, drinks, etc than actual music. (er.. sorry guys, I don’t actually buy your music) Unless global artists come here, they’re prolly not gonna see any $$ difference and actual distribution links are rare

    And what about those ppl outside metro area party scenes? (which are at least kinda mixy, tho way more mixed race and culture wise than class / education wise) There’s prolly no link of capital at all. I like birdseed’s point that we are tastemakers. That goes for concerts, distribution patterns, and it also goes for influencing peeps all over the US (or OECD country of choice) hip kids in Idaho are prolly downloading and throwing say, bhangra dance parties w/o even the possibility of the interaction we have (& w/o DJ Rekha in thr city)

    Also, b/c of our power we are creating & spreading a new myth or idea about mama Africa* (or the carib, etc). One that may be more visible than how the people were reppin want to be seen. I’m uncomfortable with the ghetto-ization of world music in this scene… Sure its necessary to know what is going on in the world, war, famine, suffering, but when we put it forth as the aesthetic of these places, who is that serving? Us for being such caring global citizens? Us for being so real, so street? Maybe they’ll get another ngo, but what does it do for attracting the global investment these emerging economies need?

    Oh, another thing, about the buju banton point, it seems a little off. To me the point of translations, knowing background, etc isn’t to police out any homophobia or sexism (tho I prolly wont enjoy stuff if I know its horrible, im a girl w/ 2 mommies!!! – facts that define me and my perspective) Rather its to not be totally ignorant and engage the music and the people and story behind it.

    *Or as boima suggested, the correct form of blackness…?

  9. Rupture says:

    lots of good points here, Rachel.

    re: “wtf we arent even dealing with a real market here” – its interesting, but the glossy Peter Gabiel/Graceland style of World Music is a huge market!! albeit one catering to older folks who still buy CDs & pay expensive concert/festival fees to see the upper-echelon of touring WM artists.

    but yeah, on our level, the only real money is to be had by touring or playing local shows. Many many ‘other’ musicians, from favela funksters to ethiopian troubadours, make good money by playing local shows, oftentimes there’s little economic incentive to ‘globalize’ for them. Why drag yourself around Europe to shows that often pay worse and are less lively than hometown gigs?

    (I’ve played w/ Marlboro in Europe and then seen what his jams are like in Brazil… where the crowds are massive and know all the words…)

    i love the way this post is echoing and echoing!

  10. scntfc says:

    @mattm, rachel and everyone: regarding track info, lyrics, sample sources, etc: i’ve been doing a mix project for a few years now (available here: http://www.massmvmnt.com/massdstrction …sorry for pimping my own shit but i think its relevant), that attempts to deal with this issue. each mix is a remix of the elements of the previous one. think of it as audio archeology: you’re able to hear a vocal snip in mix 4, and go back to mix one to hear the entire acapella. the end result is that listeners are given the opportunity to explore the origins of the sampled bits they hear.

    the next step i’ve been planning is to add a visual element, so as the mix plays, sample related information would be represented visually. i’m still developing how to do this technically, but the ideal is to be able to improvise both audio and video live. in the end i just hope to provide a little education along with the entertainment.

  11. […] discussions spurred by Matt Shadetek and /Rupture quoting him feel like the culmination of a couple years of critical discourse, clumsy […]

  12. rachel says:

    yeah i dunno.. are we a market? the glossy peter gabriel thing is certainly not catering to us (yet?) tho theres a lot of crossover (amadou and mariam?) Ive talked to some ex-putumayo guys about how world music sales arent suffering as much as general sales, which makes sense for a huge number of reasons.. so theres huge potential. And what happens when we age? Will our disposable incomes lead us to buy more or will we continue our webby ways?

    You guys (the music makers) would know way better than me… plus with all these grad students, would it be hard to get numbers and stats and start to quantify what we are dealing with, (link me up!) b/c its really hard to talk about it sometimes.. is it just social (vs. capital) machinery we are dealing with?

  13. “er.. sorry guys, I don’t actually buy your music”

    This fact, while tangential, I think is pretty relevant to this debate. You and everyone else. If most people knew the realities of trying to do this stuff, making music, trying to sell it, tour, etc you would have a different perspective. It sucks.

    I think it’s very likely that there will be many less people involved in these kind of debates in the future because it’s just so economically punishing to be a committed participant. As the economics of the music business continue to shift, the space for doing the kind of non-commercially motivated music that we do and are talking about are disappearing faster than the polar ice shelf. What we will see is a million more dilletantes and after-work djs, bloggers etc and a big slide in the quality of work getting done and in the level of commitment and knowledge. I feel it myself, while trying to earn money it’s a real struggle to continue the level of intense music practice that I have over the past eight years and it increasingly feels less and less worth it.

  14. rachel says:

    yeah, i feel you in strugglin to earn $$ while tryin to do good. Esp coming from a non-profity background, where everyone also expects me to work for free. its hard. but the trick is in finding and managing new ways to to cash in. And i am for volunteerism, a free and open source future , etc – all the stuff thats led us here. But I do spend $$ to go to ghettotechish shows, so plz dont hate.

  15. Matt Shadetek says:

    rachel: yeah that wasn’t meant to be an attack at you. Just pointing out, if anyone thinks we’re getting rich doing this shit, they’re way wrong. There’s actually way more lucrative things I would be doing with my time/skills if I had any type of economic survival instinct.

    If you find or manage any new ways to cash in, let me know, seriously.

  16. Rupture says:

    matt- yeah, little money, but if there’s “a big slide in the quality of work getting done” then there’s an even bigger increase in the number of people making music which leads to more choice, more competition, more moments of unexpected brilliance/insight, etc.

    Knowledge is increasing too… before these internets, how many Anglophone DJs knew about kuduro, funk carioca cumbia, etc? Now each month there’s more info + knowledge + public discussion in various languages about these scenes.

    …I dont need to mention the context & history provided by audioblogs (ahem, like this one)

    Music that i’d heard about but couldn’t track down before I had internet (say, narcocorridos when i was living in Boston) is now out there.

    even grime — Simon Silverdollar used to send me tapes of it, but now we’ve got a great archival source : http://grimetapes.com/

    for those who want to dig & learn, the tools are plentiful

    for music fans, now is the best time ever, hands down.

    these debates will continue & increase; most of the commenters aren’t making money in music, its just something they enjoy thinking about/listening to.

  17. ripley says:

    I know enough people who really really want to make music their whole life that I have sympathy for the full-time professional musician, or those who want to be one.

    but at the same time, I have a lot of love for people for whom music is integrated into their daily life but isn’t a job. people who are fans, who love music, who make it with their friends or people they cross paths with.

    Actually, that’s me i guess, so I’ll defend my own musical practice. One of the things that makes me happy is that because my livelihood is NOT dependent on music I can focus on making music I love the best, rather than music that also sells enough to pay my rent. that calculus is almost beyond me (and actually, as a female dj particularly what I wear and how I present myself could also figure in to whether I get paid in ways that are creepy). Also, I could never be a part of Surya dub and have us bring some of the great artists we are bringing, if I also had to pay myself properly out of the tiny pot we share. So my part-timing funds other folks..

    it’s another take on authenticity, isn’t it – the “committed participant.” but math is still complicated: how much time spent on music, how much time spent worrying about money, how much time spent on other aspects of one’s life. How much time spent on one’s own, vs others.

    I don’t see a “slide in quality” i think it’s more an increase in quantity. But like rupture, i think the broadness means more interesting possibilities, new ideas, crosspollinations.

    not to say that I don’t want artists to make a living.. but i kinda want new mechanisms for artists to make a living.
    european-style artist stipends/grants? the dole? corporate sponsorship? enforced scarcity through drm or mystique or unique objects or live performance? paypal or micro-credit cell phone payments or ringtones?

  18. lone wolf says:

    even as a native speaker, this post rings true for me about english-language music as much as it does other languages/slanguages.

    i maintain some pretty idiosyncratic boundaries for tracks i will / won’t play for an audience. i regularly scour english-language tracks for homophobic lyrics because kids are getting killed and killing themselves over it. full stop.

    yet, i find my boundaries much more fuzzy when it comes to gun lyrics. paraphrasing what someone else wrote somewhere (sorry for the authorless appropriation), shouldn’t i be equally harsh to tracks that promote the murder of young black men?

    perhaps this editorial conundrum is a manifestation of the simultaneous tolerance of violence and repression of sexuality long practiced in the US (the nation of my birth) ?

    (ps. fascinating conversation. i’m happy to see my whole blogroll representing! y’all took the rest of the words outta my mouth already.)

  19. Kiddid says:

    RE: “er.. sorry guys, I don’t actually buy your music”

    …it’s a real struggle to continue the level of intense music practice that I have over the past eight years and it increasingly feels less and less worth it.

    Matt-Hang in there. I know you don’t know me and I don’t really know you but I dig what your doing and involved with. Sometimes I feel I’m hangin from a string and it always helps to get some encouragement from others (even if said encouragement comes from a man without a face). Artists that don’t suffer are not doing their jobs!

  20. carlos says:

    Boima–

    Sorry to take so long to holler back. Real world nitty gritty, you know…

    Anywho, I like your rainbows and the issue you’re taking on in your comments is one I’m struggling with myself. I feel like negotiating the progress of the Fareed Zakaria/Thomas Friedman post-American flat Lexus world with a hatred of inequality and exclusion is as hard as drawing a succinct conclusion from the debate here.

    re: Rupture highlighting this post’s echoing– seriously! I can’t get it out of my head, and my position shifts kind of radically day to day. Strength in flexibility!

  21. MikeM says:

    Granted, the new distribution system is here to stay. New economic models obviously need to be developed. But there is still a bit of responsibility needed on the side of the consumer, especially the music lover. I’m not saying I buy everything, but I definitely make an effort to support artists I’m feelin’.

    I buy from digital stores mostly now. I use visa gift cards, so I can buy from the DRM free sites of my choice, and don’t need to worry about people stealing my credit card info. $50 to a card, and when I finish it up, I get another.

    But one thing I think about a lot is the need for a system where the demand is for the music itself, not some sideshow aspect of the music. For example: If musicians are making money off touring, then more resources are going to be put towards developing performances than music.

    I think the artist stipend/grant system that Ms. Ripley mentions are one good idea. Something akin to a benefactor program like for painters.

  22. Kiddid says:

    This post is slowly drifting off course, but on the “new mechanisms for artists to make a living/musician stipends/sponsorship” tip, in the last 6 months the people over at Calabash Music have been trying to raise money to create a peer-to-peer system of financing recordings for musicians. Sounds like an idea worth exploring…

    http://www.ideablob.com

    http://www.tuneyourworld.com

  23. So I was due to record a mix for a long time. I think I didn’t record a proper mix for almost a year now. I hope you don’t mind Matt, but I thought I would call it ‘Dancing In Tongues’ and I wanted to post it here first. The tracklisting is in the comment section of the mp3:

    http://www.zshare.net/audio/167837645e7bc42e/

  24. […] in my inbox today that served to rekindle several thoughts simmering in my head since Shadetek went babelfishing – Analysing the Musically Sensuous Society for Music Analysis Autumn Study […]

  25. DJ Flack says:

    I have been following this discussion since it started and it has been very interesting for sure. If you are still taking comments I would like to bring it back to the original post.

    What the world needs is creative people making art with and for their friends who they know and trust and that is exactly what Stereotyp was doing. He and Joyce Muniz (who raps on most of the mix that inspired the original rant) have been working together for years and years in fact she spends part of her time in Vienna and Berlin. Just because you don’t know what she is saying doesn’t mean that Stereotype doesn’t and your friend’s “barefoot baile” comment only points to his own prejudice about their collaboration.

    In regards to DJing, I totally agree that if you find out something you are spinning has really messed up lyrics it should be taken out of circulation (no matter how dope) beyond that, if it feels right play it. Some basic contextual research is important but there will always be a limit to understanding an artist’s intention. I will keep playing De La Soul even though I never understood what their “eye patch” metaphor was supposed to mean and I will keep playing Bhangra because it brings joy to the dance-floor even for those, like myself, who don’t understand the lyrics – My hunch is that its cool but if someone is offended (or inspired) by the lyrical content I want to know about it. Personally, I will always enjoy spinning instrumentals the most because so many amazing emotional journeys of pure rhythm and sound are cut short by the specificities (and geographical boundaries) of human language.

  26. hey Flack,

    Thanks for the specificity. I don’t know Stereo too well, though my friends do. As I tried to make clear I wasn’t reacting to him and his mix as much as to the misinformed response to it. Nonetheless I do think that the response we’ve seen here has proved that this was something worth discussing, even if the jumping off point was off point.

    I also agree about the limiting factor of language, it’s an interesting problem/opportunity.

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  35. zhao says:

    making the distinction between melody and rhythm is pretty much a western concept though, and one that to me is arbitrary. why is it ok to use singing in an unknown language but not ok to use rap in an unknown language? the pace and sound of rap conveys no emotional, “meta-linguistic” content??

    but besides that, i think it is an important issue to think about. but the solution, for me, is not simply ban western use of non-western language music.