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.