Monthly Archives: July 2015

Rhythms through recycling


Elsewhere on Leaf Collecting,   I repeated a quote I heard in the mid 1980s from music broadcaster Peter Easton: that if you didn’t like Public Enemy you needn’t concern yourself further with hip-hop music, since Public Enemy were the most creative artists in the genre. His advice was shared by other journalists at the time and followed by many more people than  me:   how could any protest-inclined music fan resist an album entitled It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back?

In those earlier days of hip-hop, any variation between tracks tended to be a variation in the musical samples, as the most recognisable part of the track was usually the old tune which had been “recycled”. For example, the use of Spandau Ballet by P.M. Dawn on “Set a Drift on Memory Bliss”, or of Stevie Wonder on Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise”.

The stronger examples recycled other people’s music more subtly. Public Enemy used shrieking backdrops which were widely copied, but some variation came from the more mellow samples chosen by De La Soul and Arrested Development. However, in those 25 years since Public Enemy, it has often struck me how little the genre seems to have developed: lines still shouted, abrupt and staccato and frequently hard to follow, crashing rhymes, propelled by bursts (usually sampled from elsewhere ) of guitar, keyboards and percussion.

Because the musical element of hip-hop is therefore constricted and familiar, mainstream attention has regularly focussed on the superficial elements of what the rapper is saying. How threatening to white people? How sexually overt? How politically challenging? How many references to guns and drugs? How materialistically flamboyant?

Ken Hollings’ programme for Radio 4, Cutting Up the Cut-Up, seemed particularly apposite in the week when Kanye West’s appearance at Glastonbury prompted further argument about the merit and status of hip-hop music.  In the event, Hollings made few points about the sampling of music. He emphasised the literary origins of the “cut-up”, dating back to the Dadaists and William Burroughs,  and concentrated on the spoken word, although one of his contributors did refer to a record by a group called the Black Helicopters which used samples of Kenneth Williams’ voice. I’m sure there have been further examples of imaginative use of sampling by musicians which could have been used. I have a definite memory of a record in the 1990s which inventively used the sounds of striking billiard and snooker balls as a rhythmic backing. And of course there was “19”,  Paul Hardcastle’s now forgotten hit single which used extracts from a US newsreel or documentary.  The information about the youth of US soldiers in Vietnam seemed pertinent at that time of fear of war against the USSR.

The Glastonbury performance of Kanye West, supposedly one of the major pop/rock music acts on the planet, seemed to consist of repeated vocal shouting over chunks of sound recorded from  earlier black artists, like Ray Charles, Curtis Mayfield and Nina Simone, and without any accompanying musicians on stage to provide performance variation.  Perhaps just another reminder that the artists who are the most celebrated and most commercially successful in any form are not necessarily the most artistically creative.

Prompted by an article by Dorian Lynskey in the Observer as well as the pre-Glastonbury hyperbole around West, I listened to the young pretender Kendrick Lamar. The print edition of the Observer accorded him the status of “rap’s moral messiah” although my ears heard more similarities with West than significant innovation. However, Lynskey’s article  did draw my attention to a couple of other artists who did sound more interesting,   Ka and Shabazz Palaces. Quieter rap deliveries in their cases, plus more subdued and subtle musical  backing.

If I ever have nostalgia for the days of Public Enemy, Lynskey also introduced me to Run the Jewels.  They sound very much like the heirs of the earlier group and have been praised by their member Chuck D.   Run the Jewels’ performance at Glastonbury, although less publicised than West’s, provided rather more evidence that hip-hop music still has artistic merit.


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Taking it from the top


Recently veteran music promoter Harvey Goldsmith publicly stated his alarm at the dearth of pop/rock music acts famous enough to headline big festivals like Glastonbury.

This has certainly become a problem at Glastonbury itself. Frequently in recent years the organisers have depended for their headliners either on older acts who have been regularly performing (Rod Stewart, Neil Young, U2, the Rolling Stones) or on older acts who have recently reformed (Blur, the Specials). Similarly worrying signs can surely be read this year both in the facts that the Who, 50 years old and with only half their original members extant, are headlining for the second time in eight years, and that for the second time a spurious fuss has been generated in the media about whether a hugely successful black American rapper and corporate executive qualifies as an appropriate headliner (Jay-Z in 2008, this year Kanye West).

Glastonbury is a cultural law unto itself and has created its own peculiar problems. Through 20 years of TV coverage and accompanying sponsorship it has chosen to enlarge relentlessly to the extent that its website is able to list nearly 100 separate performance areas, with about half a dozen included in the national TV coverage. It is presumably that TV dedication which has made it important to have well-known crowd-pleasers performing during the day just as at last thing at night. So one year an influential and popular 1960s/1970s musician (Paul Simon) appears in the Sunday afternoon “legends” slot, while in another an influential and popular 1960s/1970s musician (Stevie Wonder) appears not as a Sunday afternoon “legend” but as a Sunday night “headliner”.

It was a startling coincidence to find my personal musings on this topic overtaken by a real-life case study when the last-minute cancellation by the Foo Fighters of their Friday night headline performance at this year’s festival led to, yes, a media drama  about  who “could replace” them.  To me, with the event already a guaranteed commercial and media success, it seemed that no special measures were needed and that the solution was obvious: to promote the top three or four acts one further place up the bill and fill the empty lower slot from one of the dozens of acts available elsewhere on site.  As it turned out, the organisers followed part of that obvious solution, but not all!

Questions about who constitutes a suitable headline act are less pressing for other outdoor cultural events. The “boutique” festivals, to use the popular term for the those like  Green Man,  Wilderness,  LatitudeFestival No. 6 and End of the Road , have shorter histories with none of the same accreted cultural resonances, and aim for a smaller audience. Therefore, they appear comfortable to have less stellar names as the leading acts on their pop/rock stages, artists like St Vincent, Hot Chip, Bjork, Ben Howard, Alt-J, Belle and Sebastian, Metronomy and  Sufjan Stevens, who would be lower down the pecking order at Glastonbury.

This obsession with creating a list of which something must always be clearly on top is the consequence of the perceived need to feed a media which runs permanently 24 hours a day, but which has notoriously developed a short attention span and limited interests.

TV news bulletins themselves have always started and finished with headlines, but in recent times they have made much more of their own “top story”. This particular event or issue is usually and uncoincidentally  the one which their rival channels are also leading on. It usually describes a domestic rather than a foreign event, unless a foreign event involves UK citizens or politicians, or is a war or terrorism or catastrophe story which involves violence “which some viewers may find distressing”. Sometimes it is not something new at all but activities based around an anniversary of a past event. All elements which the modern news producer seems to feel will hold the modern news audience’s attention. Despite a world of continually changing events,  the “top story” often retains its status for hours or even days on end. As in “let’s return to our top story…”

Films in the cinema, on DVD and on TV have long been a reliable filler for every type of publication. More films are released to the cinemas per week now than in previous decades, which will lead to anguished discussion over how to allocate time and space.  This is probably the cause of the ubiquity of stars (in the sense of asterisks rather than celebrities) in film reviews: it helps the industry in advertising which in turn repays the media in aiding them judge a film’s importance – in that week of release, at least.

Around the start of this century, the Scottish Herald newspaper included films in a weekly, Thursday, arts magazine. The film section had both a star system and a “film of the week” which was allocated the greatest space. Over several months, I noticed that the “film of the week” was not always one which gained the most stars, in other words was not necessarily judged to be of the greatest artistic merit. How, then, could it be “film of the week”? I wrote to the newspaper about this conundrum and did get an explanation: that the “film of the week” was the one which was attracting the greatest popular interest.  Which almost certainly meant: it was the one which the film industry was publicising most to the media that week.

My sober conclusion after this far from scrupulous analysis? If only the TV news presenters  might use language less dogmatically, with perhaps more frequent use of the plural or the phrase “one of”? In other words, “one of the headliners…”, “our top stories are…” ?  Or if only I remember my own earlier post  that today most media professionals are well as audience are much younger than I am and have grown up with an entirely different set of rules and practices.



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