Wednesday, October 22, 2008

(How) can you feel it?

2008 may well be the year that house/techno gave up on ‘new’, swapping innovation for the quieter pleasures of renovation as it most of its practioners settle down to enjoy it in its mature form – a relatively stable genre music like any other.

Ask any one who’s ‘getting on in years’ and they’ll tell you – settling down tends to provoke reminiscing, nostalgia, even piety.

It’s no surprise therefore that a lot of European genres have been mining the golden years in order to produce fresh recapitulations of classic forms.

One of the fascinating things about classic deep house (as a particular form) is its bi-polar nature, sitting as it does between the gospel-inflected joyous exuberance of house proper (Kerri Chandler’s ‘Inspiration’) and a blue note melancholy designed to both provoke reflection and provide a cushion for the slings and arrows of life. In this way, deep house is split between drum codes and soaring vocals full of determined celebration and the chords and heart strings of indelible, personal pain. For me, Heard’s ‘Never No More Lonely’ is a track that captures this bitter-sweetness beautifully.

A deep house trope that attaches itself to both of ‘poles’ is the preach-a-pella, and it’s something that goes back a long way: at least – as far as my memory goes – to the version of ‘Can You Feel It’ with Martin Luther King Jr’s ‘I have a dream’ speech in it (a speech which puts a lump in my throat every time I hear it). It’s not like it’s anything new for white Europeans to appropriate such recordings, either: just listen to the KLF’s Chill Out or, even further back, Eno/Byrne’s seminal My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, for examples of such soul mining. There’s an important distinction that can be made at this point with reference to the examples above. Preach-a-pellas mostly appear in two modes, the former ripping recordings from southern gospel preatchers, the latter from the civil rights movement. It’s using the latter that, for me, is more problematic.

In 2006 preach-a-pellas re-attached themselves to European minimalist house/techno. The track that marked the moment more than any other was Efdemin’s ‘Just a Track’. I heard an unsubstantiated rumour that Larry Heard took exception to it – and I don’t entirely blame him, I can see why. Personally, I like ‘Just a Track’ and I feel that the abstraction and presentation of the preach-a-pella works well with Efdemin’s aesthetic (you can read my review of the single here). At the very least, it works – but why? Being of the ‘let there be house’ variety, this is less dodgy, but at the same time, you wouldn’t very well use a sample from a white, Catholic preacher – Ratzinger, for example. Despite his being appropriately messianic, it’s a fairly safe bet his vocals won’t end up on any German-produced tracks. The idea that they’d end up on a track from the US is laughably improbable (please prove me wrong on this).

Recently though, there’s been an absolute screaming shitload of preach-a-pellas doing the rounds – in fact, they’re as obligatory in a mix at the moment as an Akufen track was in ’02 or ‘Dexter’ and ‘Tightrope’ were in ’04. There are EPs doing the do, too: the A-side on Guillaume and the Coutu Dumonts’ new EP is a ten minute epic built around a preach-a-pella. I downloaded Luke Solomon’s interesting mix from the always excellent modyfier blog – there was Layo and Bushwacka having a crack on the second track. Ditto Even Tuell’s (really fucking excellent) mix for LWE, which includes a very moving clip toward the end. But the cake taker was Move D’s RA podcast this week, which had no less than three in the space of a ninety minute set, all of which were of the second kind – including an Obama speech (which pissed off one typically qwerty-challenged 'commentator').

The use of civil rights preach-a-pellas raises interesting and tense questions about cultural appropriation and collective memory. I think the tensions are probably irresolvable, but I’d like to make the following few contentions nonetheless:

1) Who owns the (algo)rhythms?: nobody owns house, though many people have tried. House is fundamentally a rhythmic structure, and it is open source and freely reproducible by anyone with a drum machine. This is the source of house’s incomparable plasticity and durability – the eternal, open groove. I make the strong claim that, despite the rhythm’s having a history, it is impossible to tell ‘just by listening’ where that groove was made.

2) All people participating in house (whether listening, mixing, or producing) are shaping house: past, present, future. We’re all involved, we’re all playing house. The question is not who has influence, but how much. Not only that, but such influence (and the modulations and transformations it effects) will continue (despite, and indeed because of, resistance). Recall the first point: recombination (differentiating repetitions) it’s all about.

3) BUT BUT BUT: a given style within a particular structure has a specific history, and therefore carries emotionally binding and powerful memories for those attached to it. ‘Never No More Lonely’ is changed utterly if it also conjures the memory of lost friends, lost parties, lost youth. This deserves respect: people’s memories deserve dignity. When you are playing records, you are also playing (with) people’s memories.

Taking all these into consideration, we come to the point: nobody can claim sovereignty over a sound-structure, and perhaps not even over a memory. Not only that, but, in most cases, such sampling is done in a spirit of inclusion and solidarity (however weak). But nonetheless, this fad for pasting preach-a-pellas into your ‘sequencing instrument’ may also be an act of erasure, of decontextualisation, and there are dangers here. In many cases it’s a lazy evocation that seeks to conjure ‘soul’ or ‘deepness’ with a sample: as music which is supposed to be ‘funky’ because it has a James Brown sample saying ‘aint’ it funky’ or soulful because it has a sample sahing ‘I got soul’. ‘There’s a soul revival going on’ – is there? I really, really wonder about that. Blackness can easily be slipped in as a prop, a prompt. I talked about this in reference to Tiefschwarz earlier this year, here... Just add 'blackness' and 'soul', and stir…. At worst, it amounts to a kind of semiotic colonialism – but just because what it being appropriated are symbols, it doesn’t make it acceptable, for the simple fact that there are memories involved, and those are often the memories of suffering, violence and death.

Back to the start, let’s remember: deep house was about celebration (and expression), but it is also about pain (and painful reflection) – this also means thinking about the sounds they make, who they borrow from, and what that means. That’s what deepness is.


  1. it's funny, i was just discussing today with a friend over how i was finding more and more minimal tracks in my collection with an afrobeat vibe without consciously going out of my way to find them.

    i think it's definitely a case of the scene trying to recapture the funk after going down the uber mnml road for a few years. even m_nus appear to have embraced the bongo bongo spirit with barem's latest release, especially the brilliant tres de nuil.

    i guess the next logical step from here is to dust off the piano riff.

  2. You forgot to mention Oracy - another family day with the black american speech.

  3. Hmm, well considering I appear to be the only person commenting on RA on that podcast against the Obama, I can only assume that you're referring to me as the "qwerty-challenged 'commentator'". Which, to be honest, is complete bullshit as I wrote pretty standard English whilst several other people supported the speech in a rather mis-spelt fashion.

    I usually make a rule of not criticising music or podcasts on RA because I know that the producers do sometimes read it and saying something as unconstructive as "not my kind of thing" seems rather pointless. I pointed out something that frustrated me (in a not dissimilar way to the way such vocals are problematic for you, so I'm not sure why you take such a tone against me) but within a statement of heavy praise for what I do think is a remarkable mix.

    Perhaps you were talking about someone on another forum; perhaps you mixed me up with those who told me to "Dude grow up,get brains,and get a life". Either way, I would not normally respond to something so trivial were it not for the fact that I was already angry about the ability of people on the internet to be so completely disparaging about someone else based on a difference of opinions.

    If however, you were responding to me, then it seems a case of messing around with the facts to support a particular view of the public responses to these tracks. And that's just lazy journalism.

    Even if I had been "qwerty-challenged", who cares? Dispute and argument over differences in opinion have a place in Techno; catty put-downs over trivialities should not.


  4. funny that you mentioned no one would use a white catholic preacher acapella in a record...

    e-troneek funk - a blast from the past
    audio sample

    i still play this when the time is right because of its infectious groove, awesome acid stabs, and funky ass bassline.

    i believe the audio sample used is jimmy swaggart, pentecostal preacher extraordinaire.

  5. "semiotic colonialism" is a nice way of framing it. i have to admit that i was quite alienated by that efdemin track you mention, exactly on the basis of what you are saying. or perhaps the track is just borderline camp...

  6. He's not catholic, but I love starting off sets with Surgeon's "Hate is a Strong Word" featuring Jim Jones.

  7. @ mkb...

    technically british murder boys, but same difference. ;)

  8. @EB:

    Yes, you're absolutely right, on second glance.

    Sorry for being a bitch – I blame the devil.

  9. also @EB: I guess my swipe was poorly aimed . I do get pissed off by the generally incredibly low level of expression in the forums/comments on RA, you know the type:

    'Album o teh year WWOOORT!!'

    But this certainly wasn't the case with your comment...

    ...but why *is* the level of comments so damned low on RA? Why, given the opportunity, do people just want to express themselves as above? And how come it's virtually impossible to have a constructive, critical debate there?

  10. @pc...

    it seems to be more and more difficult to engage in any sort of debate or conversation regarding music these days without being branded a "hater" or some form of internet toughguy.

    as someone that has never had a problem speaking his mind about music, as its a huge passion of mine, i'm constantly barked at by the masses because i stir up some shit. usually, after the initial wave of chastisement passes, a thorough conversation forms, which is exactly what i was going for in the first place, but lately its just hit a point where sometimes even i don't want to get started on things because its just too much of an annoyance.

    hell, i just had a spat with some people on another blog the other day because i've been quite vocal about my dislike of these cookie-cutter minimal tracks that have proliferated the scene, and i'd like to see people move forward, not stand static and beat a sound dead.

    people don't argue on ra for a couple reasons - and one of them was already noted. the artists actually do read most of that stuff on their forums, and its gotten to a point now where there's so many people that want to get ahead in the scene that they simply bite their tongues for fear of it coming back to haunt them in the future. that being the main point, i think the second is that a lot of the ra readers, at least from my gatherings, are quite new to the electronic music scene, and are more there to act as sponges and learn, and don't really have the history or knowledge to stand on their own in any sort of musical debate.

    if you ever need a taste of good musical conversation, the discogs forums are usually quite entertaining...especially when joey beltram, dave clarke, and adam x all start bickering over owed money and who did what first. hahah.

  11. @ Eric: what you say about RA rings true...

    ...could we say then, that there's a process of RAtardation at work, caused by the combination of

    - producer/readers

    - producer/wannabes

    - newbies?

    I think that we should add to this a culture peculiar to dance music, which is this insistence on a very mushy, minimal 'inclusion', and a hatred of any form of critique.

    ...there's that, and that you're dealing with a cottage industry. It's pretty small, as widely spread as it is. And there's a lot of back slapping and circle jerking going on.

    This is also what kills big DJs: they're surrounded by 'coke and bitches' and don't have anyone tell them they suck any more (when they do).

    Added to that is that they arrive and play peaktime sets to packed clubs (who've paid to see them anyway) and that they do that AS a name anyway, means that they don't have to work for any of their floors, and so they become lazy, arrogant, out of touch and self obsessed.

    So much of mainstream dance music has become about names (and names as brands): if you look at the line up posters for the big festivals upcoming in Aus, all the DJs names are written in the signature font that they use. This is more than just a graphic design trend.

    Generally, I feel like dance music culture has become primarily visual, with a secondary focus on names as brands. It's not about the music as the music for most, and it's certainly not about freedom, utopia, openness or social transformation like the naive 90s. More like fashion, hedonism... Teleost's post about going to Fabric says it all.

    This is actually how bad clubbing has become in most places. There are tiny beacons in the best cities, but I feel (and I admit I'm a grandpa/curmudgeon) that groove-based electronic music has become disconnected from its audience. My basic argument is that most clubspaces are inimical to the development of exploratory, interesting, inventive musical cultures. Clubbing is mostly about sex, drugs and fashion, and club owners mostly care about money. So it's shitty door policies and fuckwit security staff in winter, and massive big top corporate raving in the summer - no thanks.

    Same as it ever was, but... the thing has to be to open new contexts for the music. Labyrinth did this, but look how vulnerable such events are to crackdowns.

    At the moment, the blogosphere and the headphonespace that many of us are involved with is the most promising, and the most precious. And podcasting allows people to play tracks and explore directions they mostly wouldn't be able to in a club on Saturday. This is great... anyway, now I'm ranting...

  12. "groove-based electronic music has become disconnected from its audience."

    I should be more specific about this: the venues that electronic music occurs in (nightclubs) are filled by a MAJORITY who don't know/care who the artists are. They're not there for the music. This differs vastly from indie music in Melbourne, where there are specialist venues and audiences who go there specifically for the music.

    What has to be admitted is that the enthusiast market for house/techno is small. That, and it lends itself to being played in the club context.

    ...but, to recap: the people who are actively involved in most scenes are forced to present their music in an environment that is inimical to its creative development.

    ...but I will also freely admit that 'exploratory dance music' is the last thing punters want when they've paid their money and popped their pill. They want boom boom. And they shall have it.

  13. Regarding RA comments: what frustrates me most is the people who come out with these completely unthinking, generic criticisms (the phrase "disappeared up his own arse" regarding Hawtin or Villalobos comes to mind). It often seems like it's impossible to show pleasure in a type of music without being regarded as a certain type of person who WOULD like that music, and likewise with dislike. I mean the amount of people on that Move D thread who felt the necessity to go on about how wonderful and "deep" it was seems just a placing of themselves as not a generic "bad minimal person".

    I must say this (and my earlier perhaps disproportionate rant, for which I apologise!) is partly coming from a position of having had a few rough nights out recently that have taken their toll on me. Hopefully after Ricardo at Fabric in a few weeks I'll have my faith restored somewhat, like it was by Prosumer not long ago...

  14. On the nightclubs front, I went to a techno/dubstep night in Oxford and Wednesday. For most of the excellent warm-up set by the resident DJ there were just four of us dancing, all of us sober. As soon as Appleblim came on the floor flooded with over-dressed girls and boys trying to have sex with each other and to look cool doing this bizarre dancing which seemed to be entirely postured.

    I'm pretty sure most of them didn't know who Appleblim was, just that if they like him, they're cool. I suppose this is a different problem than at Fabric: people were mainly drunk, the crowd was young, studenty and (from what I could tell) not actually into Techno at all. It sort of puts the idea of people who "just" like Luciano etc. into perspective a bit...

  15. ...and the funny thing is, it's the overwhelming presence of the larger group (there for the cool name) which might dissuade the latter from going.

    I feel like a lot of electronic music enthusiasts (caveat: the ones I know who are getting older/children/serious jobs/sick of coming down) don't go out that much any more.

    ...interestingly though, the most stable clubs are the gay clubs. They're still just as they were. Reason? People are there to pull, and people on the pull are mostly drinking.

    On this tip: would there be Panoramabar without Berghain? And even there, what percentage of people are really there 'for the music', 'for the DJs'. Perhaps house music is just the unintended consequence of a lot of horny people out to pick up...

    This doesn't delegitimise clubbing (in all its manifold motivations), but it does help understand that groove-based electronic music has had to function in a fraught environment - compare this to the dedicated acoustician designed auditoriums, government funding and corporate sponsorship of classical music. It's actually amazing how tenacious the groove is.

  16. I just don't think many of the recent preach-a-pella producers contemplate the finer points of appropriation when producing these tracks. I suspect they think more about how those tracks will chart in Berlin at the moment. This is just a form of fashion, after all; and dance music has never been afraid of appropriation...except for the odd losing control filter sweep.

    Or if they do aprpeciate it, perhaps it's with a cynical grin and a nod to the emptiness of their chosen lifestyle.

  17. Great post. I would like to encourage DJs to, in this case, NOT let the producers do the talking for them but instead do some "talking of their own." I have had this nagging feeling that even DJs I like have, as of late, had nothing to say and are saying it. So while I find it strangely appealing to see more personal and theoretical ruminations bubbling up into DJ sets, it is painful to see this done tactlessly.

    As a DJ/punter, I have always felt awkward playing/dancing to Green Velvet's "Preacher Man" in public even though I'm from Chicago and I've seen that preacher on TV quite frequently. - Preacher Man as a track speaks directly to the African American experience - and I'm not African American. So it's hard to
    not feel self-conscious about rocking out to this track. It's like singing the Jefferson's theme song in a crowded room - it just doesn't look good.

    For me, to some degree, UR's "Transition" sits right on the border. I think it's an amazing track but it was always borderline for me. Fortunately, Hawtin laid claim to this one so there was no point in me playing it. I think even Hawtin felt a need to validate his use of the track and wrote UR a letter regarding his use of the title and track in his Transitions mix CD.

    It is also important to consider the African American experience as a significant contributor to house and techno (as it also is to rock n' roll, blues, etc.). This fact delivers DJs and producers an edict to examine and extract elements of the African American experience as they are fundamental building blocks of the art form - inseparable. And we should do this - but it should be done with grace and taste.

    For instance, I have recently decided to publish a small zine every time I DJ (available here for your review Each zine has a theme. For this first one, I chose afrofuturism, utopias, and the renting of subwoofers as an acts unique to electronic dance music. Feel free to check it out. I'm interested in peoples thoughts. This little zine, I hope, is fun and gives the crowd a better understanding of who I am. It is also is an attempt to bring something unique to the underground electronic music experience. Techno and house music has so drastically shaped my life I feel I have a responsibility to give something back to it in someway other than beat-matching and track selection. I feel I have a responsibility to continue understanding those around me and challenging what I think I know - and to grow.

    onward. - Rob

  18. a small yet very poignant excerpt from this review of sascha dive's "deepest america"...

    Although the Berlin scene deserves a huge amount of credit in fostering one of the most vibrant and creative musical communities of our time, few people seem to be talking about the danger that the mass exodus to Prenzlauer Berg may be causing. (i.e. Too many artists beginning to speak with one voice.)

    i think that sums thing sup nicely...

  19. rob said:
    "we should do this - but it should be done with grace and taste."

    i guess the problem is - who decides if its tasteful? do we need DJs to declare their thoughtprocesses, to prove that their ambitions are honourable, to demonstrate beyond doubt that they're tasteful rather than tasteless? How do we know? It's similar to this 'tribal' trend, or the 'jazz sample' trend...or any trend that appropriates in that way. do you have to be from detroit to make a track with 'Detroit' in the vocal? I find it funny that 'Who's Afraid Of Detroit?' was such a huge hit yet the name seems to go largely unmarked...

    I've asked a lot of questions there and don't have any answers and don't really expect any. I guess the point is that it's not easy to paint the 'legitimacy' of samples/tropes in black and white (and haha - which of those is legitimate?)

    changing the topic, your zine is a great idea brilliantly executed. I loved it and i'm going to print it out when i've set up my printer. Which planet i'm on when I fill it out may depend on whether it's a saturday afternoon or a sunday morning...thanks for the mix too, I've bookmarked you in anticipation of the next one.

  20. @ Teleost:

    Nobody decides for us: we determine what is appropriate. Which means we should strive for consciousness and take some responsibility for what we are appropriating.

    Of course, appropriation.

    I'm all for 'inappropriation' too, to coin a phrase.

    But I do think that the spirit in which things are done does make a difference.

    Part of our task (as people who are prosuming the music we love and enjoy)is to reflect, discuss, open things up, take things down, propose things, wreck things, change directions and so forth.

    As I said:

    x) no-one owns the code

    y) we are all shaping and appropriating music, just by listening and sharing it.

    z) We should respect people's memories.

    I think, really, it's a matter of awareness, and that, as the signal slides through a range of context, that the value and meaning likewise slips with it.

    ...and I will say, on the Sascha Dive tip: how many of his tracks have the word 'deep' in them?

    To me this is a good example of a drained, emptied signifier.

    Does saying deep make depth happen?

    Dive's tracks are well-produced and work well, but they're de-evocative, even as they invoke... they don't evoke what they invoke.... the present Euro deep house thing is a misnomer, because it's not really house, and it's not that deep.

    Like the guinea pig: it's not from Guinea, and it's not a pig.

  21. Thank you. :) Proper history lesson.
    I really respect and appreciate the ssgs.

    I love the preach-a-pella, and the funk! Give me the funk!
    even ame's fabric disc has the "i want to hear some american poems" pella in there.

  22. in regards to the lack of debate on RA: is this really such a bad thing? for me, music is a refreshing escape from the opinionated squabbles of politics, my social life, and the workplace. while it's only natural to respond when your opinion differs from someone else's, no matter what the topic is, why anyone would strive for an optimal debating climate on a music website is beyond me.

    there are many things in life that require debate in order to progress. while music certainly relies on creative volleys between artists, verbal debate about music is, more often than not, entirely masturbatory.

  23. sorry to break the discussion,

    but ages ago someone posted this ben klock set at pulp mansion:

    I was just wondering if there was a tracklist? in particular the first song? its wow.


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