Nothing Was the Same – part I

“So, you ask, when does the Hip-Hop Generation begin? After DJ Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaata. Whom does it include? Anyone who is down. When does it end? When the next generation tells us it’s over….It’s but one version, this dub history–a gift from those who have illuminated and inspired…”

– Jeff Chang, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop

via Wikipedia

via Wikipedia

I have been listening to Drake’s latest studio album, Nothing Was the Same, a LOT. I’ll be honest, right now NWTS is constituting a large majority of my weekly and even daily music consumption. After the first few listens, I started noticing the album’s samples of classic Golden Era hiphop songs and I began formulating my little hiphop-hypothesis (aka
hip-hop-eth-is) that Drake was tipping his hat towards the hiphop greats while simultaneously composing himself into their company, into the hiphop canon.

In fact, he doesn’t really do this. Or rather, he is largely saluting the Wu-Tang Clan. All three samples of rap songs from the mid-90s are from Wu-Tang’s first two albums, and two of the three are actually samples of the same song, Wu-Tang’s 1997 “It’s Yourz,” which appears in Drake’s “Wu-Tang Forever” and then again in the immediately following “Own It” as tracks 4 and 5. Turns out my hypothesis was based on a faulty aural ID of the sample–probably from both songs–as the sample of T la Rock and Jazzy J’s “It’s Yours” (1984) that turns up on Nas’s 1994 “The World Is Yours.” (Put simply, I thought Drake’s producers were sampling Nas, not Wu-Tang. Guess I wasn’t looking at the track listing.)

Here is where my research falters. I didn’t research deeply into these songs’ producers to see where they were or whether they worked together or what they were thinking. I use “Drake” as a synechdoche for all of the people who collectively create the music called Drake’s. But neither Wikipedia nor WhoSampled had any indication that Wu-Tang’s use of the shouted phrase “it’s yours!” which constitutes the chorus on “It’s Yourz,” released in 1997 in New York City, referenced or had any legal relationship to the shouted “it’s yours!” on Nas’s track from three years prior, which came out on his debut Illmatic in 1994, also in New York. I find this strange.

On NWST I also recognized the sample of Wu-Tang’s C.R.E.A.M. in “Pound Cake/Paris Morton Music 2,” and that makes 3 samples of Wu-Tang, among the album’s other assorted samples of pop, soul, and hiphop tracks. Not the broad Golden Era homage I had in mind.

And yet, it’s still noteworthy that Drake et al is sampling rap from the ’90s, including Nas or not. As Tricia Rose writes in Black Noise, “sampling in rap is a process of cultural literacy and intertextual reference” (89). Of course sampling “is about paying homage” (79), but it also “locates these ‘past’ sounds in the ‘present’” (89), allowing an artist like Drake to position himself in music history and highlight how earlier music circulates in the lives and musics of contemporary artists. In this way rap artists arrange for themselves their own portraits of musical history, the history of themselves. Drake arrays himself alongside contemporaries and predecessors, a group that has included Whitney Houston, Aaliyah, Kendrick Lamar, Lil Wayne, Nicki Minaj, Wu-Tang Clan, Curtis Mayfield, 2-Chainz, and Timbaland.

Rappers sampling rappers is noteworthy because early rap couldn’t sample rap–there wasn’t any yet. Bambaata sampled Kraftwerk; “The Message” boasts a funk bass line under a disco beat. Sampling has always been one method by which hiphop artists intertextually situate themselves within living traditions of American, African-American, and world musics.

Three-and-a-half decades on, contemporary rappers have a rich repository of hiphop musics, including rap and R&B, to sample from, besides earlier and other contemporary forms. So Drake’s opener on NWTS, “Tuscan Leather,” can sample Whitney Houston alongside Curtis Mayfield–nodding both to the music that was on the radio when Drake and in fact I were kids, as well as the music our parents’ generation heard. Mayfield joins other soul and funk greats like James Brown and Otis Redding, along with so many other artists from the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, in forming the backbone of hiphop beats.

In more recent rap, hiphop’s traditional sample base has expanded to include more contemporary references. Mayfield is sampled heavily on Kanye West’s debut The College Dropout, released in 2004, an album which also references Lauryn HIll, and that was already 10 years ago. Now, in 2014, we’re into the generation where J. Cole samples a track from West’s debut, West’s “The New Workout Plan,” on Cole’s “Work Out” from 2011. My 18-year-old students from a few years ago knew who Aaliyah from Drake’s 2010 “Unforgettable,” which samples Aaliyah off of her 1994 R. Kelly-produced Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number, whose title track is sampled in Outkast’s “May-December,” off of their 2004 Speakerboxxx/The Love Below–or maybe my students never noticed the sample but recognized Aaliyah’s name from Kendrick’s line on Drake’s “Buried Alive Interlude” that, “Only that nigga was missing was Aaliyah,”  or Drake’s quick eulogy–“Since I saw Aaliyah’s precious life go too soon”–on “We’ll Be Fine,” both off Drake’s 2011 Take Care.

The point is, time flies. 2004 was 10 years ago and 1994 was 20. In 1994, I was 8. So was Drake. Aaliyah was 16 (ergo the statutory-rape-ness of her relationship with producer R. Kelly). Kendrick Lamar was 7. Nas’s Illmatic, Biggie’s Ready to Die, Outkast’s Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, and Common’s Resurrection all came out that year–that’s why Nas and Outkast had twentieth reunion tours this year: nostalgia. Nostalgia sells. These cycles put us in rap’s third or fourth generation, if such distinctions aren’t the fictions Jeff Chang warns us they are. Christopher Wallace would’ve been 42 this year and Aaliyah would be 36. Nas is 41 and Andre 3000 is 39, even if he plays a 24-year old Jimi Hendrix in the new biopic All Is By My Side. History is more like a circle than a line, or a rhythm that you hear in the corner of your mind, still echoing from the tape deck long shut off in the dash of the quiet, waiting car. “[T]he thing (the ritual, the dance, the beat) is there for you to pick up when you come back to get it,” that is, when it “‘cuts’ back to the start” (Snead qtd. in Rose 69). Hiphop history lives in the cut.

Nothing_Was_the_Same_cover_1

via Wikipedia

References

Wikipedia: “Nothing Was The Same,” “Tuscan Leather,” “Wu-Tang Forever [Drake album],” “Own It,” “Connect,” “Poundcake/Paris Morton Music 2,” “Wu-Tang Forever [Wu-Tang Clan album],” and more.

WhoSampled.com: “Drake ft. PARTYNEXTDOOR Own It samples Wu-Tang Clan Its Yours,” “Nas The World Is Yours samples T La Rock and Jazzy Jay It’s Yours,” “Drake feat. Young Jeezy Unforgettable samples Aaliyah feat R. Kelly At Your Best (You Are Love),” “Wu Tang Clan Its Yourz,” and more.

WhoSampled.com Blog. “Drake–Nothing Was The Same: The Samples.”

Andrew Martin, “A History of Drake’s Obsession with Aaliyah.” Complex.com.

Print

Chang, Jeff. Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. Picador (2005): New York.

Rose, Tricia. Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Middletown (1994): Wesleyan University Press.

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Homely Genres and the Michael Brown Autopsy Report

first page of the Michael Brown autopsy report, via St. Louis Post-Dispatch

first page of the Michael Brown autopsy report, via St. Louis Post-Dispatch

On Tuesday night, as I was checking my Twitter feed just before sleep, the autopsy report on Darren Wilson’s shooting of Michael Brown was released. How strange, to see this boy’s death described in the vague and also explicit detail of a bureaucratic, quasi-medical discourse. Someone had sat down and written this. I wondered who.

Now that I look at it again I see it was written by Wendell Payne, Medicological Investigator. Oddly, it does not seem to be dated, even though the first words of the prose narrative are “At 1330 hours.”

My immediate response was to screenshot each page, because, as Kanye once said, “They gonna take this off the internet real quick.”

The document contains a lot of information that we already knew, that Michael Brown lay in the street for hours while the crowds gathered, the panic rising—but here they are conveyed in the clear, firm language of the government:

There I was met by numerous officers of the St. Louis County Police Department and they directed my attention to the deceased who was located in the middle of the roadway with his head pointed west and his feet east….The deceased was lying in the prone position.

The deceased was cool to the touch. Rigor mortis was slightly felt in his extremities.

In the freshman composition class I teach we are researching “homely” genres, those genres people write in every day without even thinking about it as writing: e-mails, text messages, facebook posts, but also professional genres like case files, medical reports, and broadcast scripts, not to mention application forms and essays, tax forms, letters to contest parking tickets, and so forth.

What homely genres have you written in lately?

The term “homely” comes from Carolyn Miller’s seminal 1984 article “Genre as Social Action,” in which Miller consolidates previous rhetorical and discursive study of genre and lays the foundation for a given genre to be analyzed, beyond its language, format, or situation, “on the action it is used to accomplish.”

To consider as potential genres such homely discourse as the letter of recommendation, the user manual, the progress report, the ransom note, the lecture, and the white paper, as well as the euology the apologia, the inaugural, the public proceeding, and the sermon, is not to trivialize the study of genres; it is to take seriously the rhetoric in which we are immersed and the situations in which we find ourselves. (Miller)

After the release of the autopsy report that night, the tweets came out fast and furious. Was the report fabricated? Lying? Was the medical examiner biased?

These questions matter, but they won’t be answered by this report. But this report is important: very, very important. Miller writes that “as a recurrent, significant action, a genre embodies an aspect of cultural rationality.”

That is: this autopsy report tells us about the logics and movements of our culture. It gives a text, an example of a genre–that is, the medical autopsy report produced by a police force–what is natively labeled “Narrative Report of Investigation”–an artifact about which we can ask, “Who wrote you, and for what audience? How were you circulated? Who typed you, printed you, held you, e-mailed you, handed you off? Who leaked you? And, in your original function, what were you supposed to accomplish?”

When I read the report last night, I gasped. I covered my mouth. I was horrified. But that is not the report’s intention, because I am not its audience. This genre wants everything to seem normal–or at least, accounted for. And it is, accounted for, for the most part. The report describes how Michael Brown was arrayed in the street according to the compass rose, it describes what he was wearing and what he objects were near him, like his flip-flops, and it describes his nine (9) gunshot wounds, and his “abrasions.”

detail from Michael Brown autopsy report, via the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

detail from Michael Brown autopsy report, via the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Stamped below this description, in the bottom margin of the page, in red ink: NOT FOR SECONDARY RELEASE.

What is not known is how exactly Officer Wilson’s weapon discharged nine times into the dead man’s body, only that “during the struggle the Officers weapon was un-holstered. The weapon discharged during the struggle.” The report continues:

The deceased the ran down the roadway. Officer WILSON then began to chase the deceased. As he was giving chase to the deceased, the deceased turned around and ran towards Officer WILSON. Officer WILSON had his service weapon drawn, as the deceased began to run towards him, he discharged his service weapon several times.

As this is preliminary information it was not known in which order or how many time the officer fired his weapon during the confrontation.

Let’s pause with the language. Officer WILSON has a name, but Michael Brown does not. In this report, Michael Brown is a zombie, a “deceased” who can run away from a skirmish and then run back towards the officer who has already discharged his weapon at least once. He must be a zombie, this deceased, because what kind of person charges a police officer whose weapon is drawn and which weapon has already fired at least once, when they were tussling while the officer was still inside his squad car?

This is genre functioning, that tiny, crucial decision to call the dead person not by their name but by “the deceased.” A question for further research might be whether medical examiner reports of people who were not shot by police officers are also called “the deceased.”

last page of the Michael Brown autopsy report, via St. Louis Post-Dispatch

last page of the Michael Brown autopsy report, via St. Louis Post-Dispatch

The last line of the report notes, “Any additional information will follow in the usual supplemental manner.”

The usual manner. This is the power of this genre: to usher its subject matter, that is the state-sanctioned murder of an unarmed teenage boy, into a file in a filing cabinet to which other documents can be added and consulted and called forth and held secret from the press and marked “Not for Secondary Release,” this stream of documentation and memo and language and mostly correct spelling and grammar and headers and signatures and case numbers that say everything is accounted for and is being handled and nothing is wrong in the universe where the correct papers have been filed.

Of course, everything is wrong. Everything is wrong! I can use all caps and expletives and images and links and embedded tweets all day long, but nothing in this blog post can make that report seem as abnormal as it makes itself, its own existence and the “preliminary information” it contains normal, filed, stamped, sealed, delivered, accounted for.

Last class I asked my students to read a blog post and then copied them my own homework by mistake, and none of them e-mailed me to say the link seemed weird. Only when I went into our discussion board and saw student after student comment how confusing it was, did I check the link and see I’d had them read about ancient greek rhetorician Aspasia of Miletus by accident, that the title was not the title on the syllabus or even on the link, let alone that the content was nonsensical in the context of our class. But words pass by our eyes and we are so used to them being there we don’t even ask what they are or why they’re there or who wrote them or what they are supposed to do, we just accept that this is the language that fills the homework and these are the papers in the Brown, Michael file.

These papers, this stream of memos, this is the stuff of colonial land treaties and apartheid laws and illegal wars and vast coverups of abuse: a series of memos pushed by paper pushers, filed by paper filers, read but not really read, injustice furthered again in that “genteel bureaucratic way” that injustice has of reinstantiating itself.

There is more to say, there always is, but this is a blog post, and blog posts are supposed to be short. Til soon.