I often riff that 1980s Village Voice writing is the scholarly roots of hip-hop studies. The paper’s archives are full of gems. This is often the case because of the close proximity writers had to hip-hop artists and creators on account of being in the same nightlife and social scenes. No need to theorize about hip-hop practices from afar. You can ask creators about ideas, aesthetics, and approaches directly.
Here are some excerpts from old pieces I’ve been digging recently.
Greg Tate’s cover story from 1989 starts with an excerpt from Frederick Douglass’ autobiography. The excerpt is Douglass reflecting on how white listeners in the north can hear so-called slaves songs as evidence of contentment and happiness. Tate is setting us up for Basquait, but it’s this part where RAMMELLZEE weighs in about Basquiat that gets me.
Jean-Michel is the one they told you must draw it this way and call it black man folk art, when it was really white man folk art that he was doing. That’s what he draw… white man folk art. He does not draw black man folk art because they told him what to draw… They called us graffiti but they wouldn’t call him graffiti. And he gets as close to it as the word means scribble-scrabble. Unreadable. Crosses out words, doesn’t spell them right, doesn’t even write the damn thing right. He doesn’t even paint well. You don’t draw a building so that it will fall down and that’s what he draws, broken-down imagery.
Like so often when RAM spoke, there are little slips and slights in what he says that you might just chalk up to phrasing. But they usually give way to so much more if you take them seriously or connect the dots. Like the notion of “drawing a building.” A writer draws on a building. An architect draws a building. His phrasing opens up when I think about what writer STAFF says in Spraycan Art about a particular piece by DOC. He notes the significance of the arrows in the piece all pointing inward upon the piece itself.
DOC was supposedly destroying himself with that piece because all the arrows pointed inward. He was saying that at ground zero everything is destroyed, obliterated.
RAM’s take on Basquiat is something similar. It’s about the piece arming itself, maybe against co-option, maybe against longevity beyond the artist’s will – an agentic kind of self-destruction.
A gem from Richard Goldstein’s 1980 article “In Praise of Graffiti: The Fire Down Below.”
Entering a graffiti zone — and these now include schoolyards, stairwells, and selected intersections — is like reading a newspaper. A writer can tell who has been there, which parts of the city are represented, how long since the site has been buffed, and whether there are any startling innovations — “isms” — he wishes to incorporate.
Goldstein’s comparison to reading a newspaper is right on for at least two reasons. One, it allows him to situate graffiti (or urban stylized lettering) within a specific set of reading practices for a specific community. That’s how most meaningful reading practices work, including reading the Village Voice. Two, he is writing those words in an actual newspaper. He makes the argument – in praise of graffiti – by comparing it to the very object readers were holding in their hands. That’s clever.
I love this technical, wordy attempt at describing what goes into making the beat of a rap record. It’s from a 1986 pofile of Rick Rubin.
The Beastie song that Rubin’s working on now, “It’s the New Style,” is one of the few without a chanted chorus, but the song has peaks and breaks of tension created by the way Rubin and Ett work the mixing board. Each of the board’s 24 tracks contains a separately recorded percussion element, which repeats a phrase dozens of times. Rubin and Ett press buttons to make each cowbell, high hat, snare, and bass-drum track pop in and out at the precise moment. The mixing board itself acts as polymorphic drumset, which allows an enormous amount of freedom to alter a song. That, combined with Rubin’s instrumental contributions, adds up to control over the content of his records. Thus, he can encourage his performers to “get ill” because he’s at the board doctoring them. In a fly-by-night business, what other producer takes a year to complete a rap album?
I can’t imagine what the writer would have done if the story had been about Public Enemy and he was staring at the Bomb Squad using all 24 channels of the mixing board on a single track.
Reading: My promiscuous reading habits have led me through some post-human work over the past year. As I’ve said before, I remain interested yet skeptical for how those ideas take up race, gender, and more. This nugget had my head nodding this week:
Tracing material objects’ trajectory around the classroom…does not, by itself, lead to transformation (p. 249).
The excerpt comes from Nicholas and Campano’s article “Post-humanism and literacy studies” in Language Arts. That’s essentially my issue with both post-human ideas and how they are applied most often in education scholarship, for what I can see right now. Yet, I remain interested.
Writing: This has been the month of final edits. Up this week was final edits on an English education piece coming out in a special issue of English Teaching: Practice & Critique. It’s the big brother to this shorter piece from the youth/community/beatmaking work I do that came out on Sounding Out! last month.