Moving to Other Beats:
Politics of Rhythm, Worldwide Hip Hop, and the Computer Game, HeavenSeven11
By Parangari Cutiri a.k.a. Anne-Marie Schleiner
I call rhythm any repeated sequence(s) of auditory beats, notes, sounds, movements or visuals. Parangari Cutiri, (a.ka. Anne-Marie Schleiner, the author), does not shun rhythm. But experimental music, so called “ernste musik” –serious music, has in last half century ostracized rhythm, (although the American academy, following musiethnocology, will study exotic percussion instruments like gamelan). Since WWII, European musicians associate rhythm with fascist military marching music, with brainless mobs of undifferentiated bodies, with becoming one with the mindless masses. (Daniel Hjorth) (Their anti-fascist, anti-populist position can be compared to art critics like Theodore Adorno of the Frankfurt School’s reaction to WWII.)
By extension of this logic, popular music, pop music, seduces mindless bodies to bop their floppy heads to a different coercive beat, the drum and melodies of radio and MTV hits imprinted on brain neurons through repetition, broken up by repeated advertisements and catchy advertising jingles. Capitalism’s consumerist global disco infiltrates every private home and car. This Orwellian scenario echoes Marshall McLuhan’s regression to the oral dark ages, a retreat from the brainy analytical distance of the printed word of the Gutenberg galaxy, full in effect. (Although the Gutenberg galaxy imposed the printed word and the Law in support of colonial and mercantile exchange systems which set the stage for the current dominant phase of capitalism—Foucault via Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter)
John Cage’s studies of Buddhism, Dada art and his friendship with Duchamp influenced his composition of music that listens to the sounds to be found during so called “silence,” including unnoticed beats like the rushing of blood through the heart and the constant in and out of breath. An insect, with a lifespan of only a day, beating its wings at a fast high-pitched frequency to human ears. Freeway traffic ebbing and flowing resonantly like the tide. A CD skipping to an irregular rhythm caused by the accidental scratch of sticky food particles on its surface.
Blood beats and insect beats and machine beats and music beats emerging from interconnecting vibrating “autopoetic” body masses/systems with different heads nodding to different tempos dancing to somewhere. Despite the co-option of rhythm for military or commercial ends, heads are nodding to other beats, or the beats are host to contrary effects among subjects with resistant/other potential. Even though they were often intentionally separated from other tribe members who spoke the same language, African slaves in America would chant droning repetitive rhythmic songs while working. These songs sometimes relayed secret information about the “underground railroad” of safe houses, rivers and roads to freedom in the North. (Maybe similar sounding to the American prisoner chain gang songs sung later by mostly African-American prisoners—listen to the first track on the “Oh brother, where art thou?” film soundtrack.) Rhythm for these slaves functioned as a host medium for encrypted message relay. In a portion of a Bill Moyers’ documentary series on the history of the English language, oral historians trace the origins of rap poetry to the oral mastery of “the preacher man”, and further back to the oral traditions in many African tribes. The status of a manipulator of language and rhythm was/is high in African America.
London-based Kodwo Eshun in his writings and interviews refutes the black soul vs. white technology opposition, (and by common racist analogy body and intellect), a tactical move similar to Donna Haraway's cyborg feminist refusal of female soul vs. male machine. Allying himself with the “Afrofuturist” science fiction writers, he describes a symbiotic relationship between “black music” and technology. The music of Grandmaster Flash, the New York inventor of scratching, and Sun Ra and Reggae dub was “research” for future music and technical innovations. Scratching is not only another form of rhythm, it is a kind of morphing that innovatively prefigures transformational digital film special effects later developed with computers:
“Scratching is more like a transformation sequence, more like the audio parallel of The Thing maybe, or American Werewolf, Altered States, where you see the human transformed into a werewolf, and just before they finally become werewolf you suddenly get a glimpse of the human, then it flashes away again.”
In his book Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, German media historian Friedrich Kittler, with a seeming disdain for popular music, (despite my once personal observation of his admiration for the guitar), dismisses New York DJs’ scratching as “common and everyday”. But in his research on Edison’s invention of the gramophone, he applies a useful acronym, TAM—for time access manipulation. (Unlike modern turntables, gramophones were originally capable of both recording grooves of new sounds and playing them back.) Kittler writes of time access reversal: “Time axis reversal, which the phonograph makes possible, allows ears to hear the unheard-of: the steep attack of instrumental or vocal sounds moves to the end, while the much longer delay moves to the front.”
Missy Elliott’s hit of 2002, “Work It”, is hip hop vocals appropriating TAM techniques back to voice from turntable. The song is a cannibalistic feedback loop between voice, technologically manipulated voice, and original voice again. Missy E sings backwards and clips words to produce a style that mimics analog and digital TAM:
“Put your ting down flip it and reverse it. Mee nye mip nyim mip nyip.”
Hip hop’s well-known 1970’s and 1980’s origins are the streets of the black American ghetto. (Hip hop is not only beats and rhymes, but also break dancing and graffiti.) Early groups like NWA, (Niggers with Attitude), and Public Enemy used their lyrics and music to oppose racist cops, racist stereotypes in Hollywood and the American media. They rapped about worsening inner-city conditions of poverty and social injustice. Later, even more commercialized and apolitical “gangster rappers” speak to the problematic and hostile conditions faced by African Americans.
Teardrops and closed caskets, the three strikes law is drastic
And certain death for us ghetto bastards
What can we do when we're arrested, but open fire
Life in the pen ain't for me, cause I'd rather die
But don't cry through your despair
I wonder if the Lord still cares, for us niggaz on welfare
-2-pac—my bloc 1995
More recently, hip hop has spread to other ghettos worldwide, to ghettos in Senegal and other former French African colonies, (and from there to Marseilles), to squats in Italy and Spain, to the streets of Columbia, to Cuba, to Brazil. Hip hop has become means of empowerment and a way to voice frustration for many poor, marginalized young people. Global hip-hop artists may start back at minimal basics of voice and handmade beats when more costly production means are inaccessible. Hip hop also seeped into other (non-black) ghettos within the U.S. In San Jose, California, Mexican-American and Asian-American teenagers gather in a downtown Latin community center for spoken word open mic sessions and break dancing circles.
“I’m the worst thing since Elvis Presley to do black music so selfishly and use it to get myself wealthy” Eminem
Ironically aligning himself with the big white thief of black music, the most (in)famous white hip hopper openly acknowledges his debt to Dr. Dre, (originally of N.W.A.), who has produced some of his music, and who gave him the big break that propelled him towards fame and fortune. In Stuttgart, Germany, home of Mercedes and currently one of the wealthiest cities in Germany, a hip hop scene for the last ten years has produced the most popular German hip hop groups like the Fantastische Vier, (Fantastic 4), Massive Tone, and Freundeskreis. On the (Mercedes) bus benches of Stuttgart I have seen more 2pac graffiti than anywhere else.
I don’t want to perform a deft maneuver to erase the discomfort, Parangari Cutiri, white American author, recipient of a privileged university education, and programmer of a hip hop game, feels. S/he created the game in a Baroque palace in the Schwabisch countryside, supported by an artist residency. Music and art (memes) cannot/should not be incarcerated within their origins in fixed cultural groups, (to incarcerate music styles within a specific ethnic identity would also be a kind of racism). But when they mutate out of these boundaries there should be awareness (and more) by the “thieves” of the complex power dynamics involved in appropriation. I found a post about a net art piece called “rent-a-negro” on the empire list useful for thinking about race relationships in later Foucaultian, fluid, (but not irresponsible) terms: Danny Butt writes “We are always white, brown, black, male, female, wealthy, poor, educated, *in relation* to another person. This difference or solidarity creates a power dynamic.” Danny Butt is of the opinion that speaking in too broad generic terms about racism erases individual responsibility:
“the rhetorical move he(another poster from the empyre list) makes here is to my mind actually "the problem": shifting discussion from particular power relationships (say, between whites and negroes) to abstract, "universal" phenomena (say, "racism"). It's a move which attempts to take us as subjects out of the relationship: to seek a space where we *don't need to think about race* because we are not complicit in its power relationships, we are not "essentialising", "oppressing", or doing any bad, racist things.…
Subject: [-empyre-] race, net-art, strategy
Empire Danny http://www.dannybutt.net
Stuttgart originating (and multiethnic) hip hop group Freundeskreis plug themselves back into the nest of power balances among nationalities and ethnic groups in their 1997 song “Leg dein Ohr auf der Schiene der Geschichte” (Put your ear on the track of history) Their lyrics compare tragic events in various parts of the world that coincide chronologically with similar less tragic events in Germany.
Meine Mutter presste Gebahr und liebt mich
Traegt mich an der Brust stillt und wiegt mich indess ‘ne
Mutter mit Sohn in Kambodscha den Schuss zu Spaet sah
Er waer wie ich jetzt dreiundzwanzig
My mother birthed and loved me
Carries me on her breast, calms me and rocks my cradle while a
Mother with son in Cambodia saw the shot too late
He would be like me now, 23
The French Connection is an example of Germany hip hoppers initiating dialogue with “others”. Produced by the famous Stuttgart hip hop label “0711”, (area code of Stuttgart and also hip hop dance club for many years), for each song on the CD, the French Connection pairs a German hip hop artist with a French hip artist who take turns at the mic. What is evident from the CD is that many of the “French” hip hoppers’ vocal style is distinctly “African” (from former French colonies or French African subcultures in France), whereas the German hip hoppers are almost all white and their style is well, German, or Stuttgart. (Of course all hip hop has a trace of American flavor from its origins.) Another curious example of German hip hop is the Berlin-based Puppet Mastaz. The Puppet Mastaz only perform live as anthropomorphic Sesame Street-like puppets so their visible ethnicity remains largely hidden, although they sound kind of Caribbean (in German).
Parangari Cutiri, a nerdy bee (yotch) and her collaborative hip hop game
So I the subject knowingly am entering a complex non-comfort zone that includes, in addition to the power dynamics of black, white brown, European, non-European, American, that of a woman entering a macho aggressive male dominated arena --hip hop. Although misogyny and homophobia are rampant in the lyrics of even many of the most talented hip hoppers, this does not stop MC Parangari from stealing from hip hop its aggression, and repurposing the forms of an aggressive male dominated field (like games, like hacking) for her own intents. (Elke Marhöfer) My artist persona, (one of my collection of subjects I inhabit), Parangari Cutiri, likes to make aggressive art. She made a computer game mod that contains a virus that gives its players fits of epilepsy. Her next project, called Jingle Virus, was a digital musical instrument that when played, pings the ports of corporate owned servers, a common prelude to hacking.
Somewhere in between DJ/VJ software and a turn-based computer game, Heaven711 is not intended for private play on a computer at home, and it is not an online game or net art. It is intended to be performed live with an audience in the room, (or as live with an audience as arcade games can be.) The player, while restricted to rhyming with the lyrics written into the game, has the ability to play with the choice of the ending words, changing the original meanings, sometimes accidentally, when the desired word slides by too fast. The game is in this sense a kind of Dada/hip hop poetry generating machine. During breaktimes the player can change beats, play beats backwards and at anytime s/he can “scratch”. In each level of the game, (Bogotá, Paris, Stuttgart and Los Angeles), first one player, then the second, plays the same song, allowing for creative remixing, reversioning of the same source material by different players/DJ’s. Players may also choose to abandon the structure of the game point system entirely, and play the game sounds and corresponding visual patterns, (mathematical wave algorithms programmed by Parangari Cutiri), as pure DJ/VJ software.
HeavenSeven11 is an international collaboration between Parangari Cutiri and other artists and musicians including Elke Marhoefer, M.C. Bala a.k.a. Carolina Caycedo and Lapeg a.k.a Peggy Pierrot, who have been invited to write lyrics, rap and make or sample beats. The level/song called LA, written by Parangari Cutiri in English, speaks to the bubble mentality of Americans who inhabit an isolated superpower disconnected from the effects of its foreign policies and recent military interventions in response to 911. “Perdida”, a song in Spanish by Carolina Caycedo, raps about the difficulty of daily living conditions on the streets of Bogotá, Columbia, filtered through the bittersweet memories of an émigré. The level called “Stuttgart” (in German), by Elke Marhöfer, criticizes recent German anti-war protesters for not going far enough in effectively counteracting global capitalist systems. The level “Paris” is aggressively confrontational with a clever barrage of historical Paris protest data and lewd, pro-“pubis” anti-heterosexist word plays.