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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A Tough Love: “Beyoncé,” Mutuality, and the Dirty South

In a previous post, I discussed some of the lyrics on R. Kelly’s new album, “Black Panties,” alongside the words of Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams in his essay “The Body’s Grace.” Looking at the lyrics to “Marry the Pussy” alongside similar lyrics in songs like Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” and Miguel’s “How Many Drinks,” I noticed a similar ability to disguise male desire and male need in the trappings of celebrating women. Each of these three songs is about what a male agent wants, and each of these three songs denies or obscures the agency of the women they’re sung about or to. But in making women (or women’s body parts) the objects of desire, these songs lull critics into thinking they are pro women, so that Jezebel calls “Marry the Pussy” a “magnificent ode to pussy,” and another source I can’t find calls rapist R. Kelly’s album “sex-positive.”

still from "No Angel" -- Bey's homage to  Houston

still from “No Angel” — Bey’s homage to Houston

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9th Wonder Knows How to Talk to College Kids

9th Wonder at U of M

Two Thursdays ago I had the pleasure of attending a lecture by producer 9th Wonder here at the University of Michigan. While I knew him as the producer behind rap group Little Brother and a co-teacher of the “Sampling Soul” course with Mark Anthony Neal at Duke, the filled auditorium I arrived to attested to his fame as a producer who’d also worked with many of the biggest names in hiphop and R&B.

Two elements of 9th’s talk struck me immediately. Tunes were already playing when we arrived, with what turned out to be 9th Wonder’s Serato projected from his laptop to the screen behind the podium. So the first thing I noticed was how this talk not only incorporated music into its very fabric but also modeled producing as a function of technology and passion both. The other striking element here, evident from the moment 9th began his talk with a discourse on his own sports fan-dom–complete with the confessions that he had to take a spin around the Big House and that he bought a “Buck the Fuckeyes” t-shirt–was his calculated and charismatic approach toward college students. The man knew his audience.

These two pedagogical techniques–modeling and pathos, we might call them–continued through a wonderful talk in which 9th Wonder used the story of his own exposure to music as the narrative backbone for the history of hiphop itself. He compared Motown to Young Money with the qualification that Motown wasn’t “so top heavy,” with Wayne, Nicki and Drake “up here” and everyone else, let’s be honest, down below. He solicitated responses and laughs from the audience, and his remarks were tailored to our contemporary experience of pop culture, with the occasional admonition. In speaking about “Yo! MTV Raps,” the first hiphop-based show on TV, he explained, “If you missed it, that was it.” With the internet, you just go Google the thing. But he seemed nostalgic for those analog days: that scarcity of product “made hiphop live forever, it made music have a longer shelf life. It made us talk to each other. It made us make friends.”

His talk was peppered with music: “This was the first rap song I ever heard.”

Discovering sampling was like “a wormhole.”

The Native Tongues era was “the most progressive moment in hiphop ever,” and Q-tip’s great innovation was to say, “I’m not gonna sample James Brown, I’m gonna sample jazz.”

“This is what I ran into,” 9th explained. “This is what hiphop is.” On the screen behind him, we could see him search through his music collection, pulling out songs with labels like “Workshop Samples” and “Michigan lecture.” He told the story of a kid in the Bronx called Clive Davis throwing a party in 1973 and inventing hiphop by honing in on “the best part of the record, which is also known as the break.” On the screen above us, 9th clicked “Loop,” updating Kool Herc’s technique for the digital age. “And he would chase the break. That’s a loop. Cats would come out and dance–he called it break dancing.”

There was a note of tragedy, sometimes, in the lecture. Sometimes facetious, like when 9th played “Fallin in Love” by Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds and confessed, “That’s probably the one that just hursts the most,” or Debarge’s “Stay with Me”- “They just took the whole shit, man.”

But other times he seemed upset by the implicit purpose of his task, to rehabilitate hiphop’s image from our side of the screen. “Hiphop is bigger than just your radio and TV screen,” 9th said. “There was a time when we had our poets,” like Rakim, but those days have lapsed. “As Black folk,” he lamented, “we tend to give things away.”

In the Q&A session I asked what he teaches when he has a whole semester and as he ran through a syllabus that included “two weeks on just Wu-Tang Clan,” a new framing appeared: “1968-1997, from the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., to the assassination of B.I.G.” That struck me as the greatest tragedy of all–not the corporatization or the musical generations forgotten to time but the easy framing of a movement by the deaths of two great poets, orators, lyricists.

When 9th played a song his head bobbed and the heads of the audience members moved along with him. A student sitting beside me got a flashback glimpse of eager young me with my hand raised, dying to be called on. At the end of his talk, 9th Wonder bolted to attend the rapper buddy back in NC. “He doesn’t know I’m coming,” he called, as he ran up the stairs. “Don’t tweet that.”

Watch the Throne, Givenchy, and the Ethics of Luxury Sampling

So, I finally got my hands on a copy of Jay-Z and Kanye’s collaborative album Watch the Throne (2011), I’ve been listening to it all weekend, and I gotta write about it. If Kanye’s previous album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was like dropping E with your best friend you’ve had a crush on since you were a little kid, Watch the Throne is like doing mounds of coke with your best friend you’ve been jealous of and competitive with since y’all were kids, then going to a party full of people richer than you, getting smashed, and walking home through the city streets with your arms around each other singing camp songs into the dark, expensive night.

Since his last solo album, Kanye’s vision of luxury has deepened–not just aurally and lyrically, but visually, too–and branded. While it’s no secret that Watch the Throne is about luxury, I’ll let you listen to the lyrics on your own time. Today’s post is about visuals: in the music video for “Otis,” Jay and ‘Ye dismantle a Maybach– you know, Maybachs on backs on backs–and Ricardo Tisci of Givenchy art directed the CD, the tour, and a few videos, “Otis” included. The CD materials for WTT aren’t as beautiful as MBDTF’s, but it’s not Tisci’s fault. MBDTF has a fold-out packaging in rich red with gold lettering that seems designed with its holiday-season release in mind. After the banning of its miscegenation-themed cover art, an original oil painting by George Condo, buyers ultimately had the choice of one of five other original Condo paintings as their peekaboo cover image. Inside the packaging, the CD booklet folded out into a square poster of the Condo painting on one side. On the inside, in bright gold lettering, all of the album’s credits and permissions. For a guy who made name through innovative samples, a task that’s too often wrought with legal troubles and debt for artists, these gold letters screamed that Kanye had every singer, rapper, producer and sample on his album that he wanted, and he paid for it all, straight-up.

MBDTF Ltd. Edition Vinyl

By the time WTT rolls around, Kanye’s provedhis piece. Gold letters behind him, he’s onto gold covers now, that is, the gold-plated cover art for the album designed by Ricardo Tisci, the head designer for luxury house Givenchy. On the pack page of WTT’s album booklet, Tisci is credited as “Creative Director.” And while folks kept hounding Kanye for touring in a leather skirt and a t-shirt with a picture of himself as a tiger on it, it only takes a quick flip through the WTT CD booklet to realize that that’s a Givenchy shirt designed for this album by Ricardo Tisci. So who’s laughing now?

Also in the booklet is the screen-printed American flag that adorns the wall above the dessicated Maybach in “Otis” — a fibrous, pop-art looking thing that reminds us from the booklet’s inside cover that what’s happening here is uniquely amazing because it’s uniquely American: rags-to-beyond-riches, hiphop style. (As Jay-Z writes in Decoded, hiphop tells the story of “something bloody and dramatic and scandalous that happened right here in America” (18).) Unlike in the MBDTF literature, WTT’s booklet is all business: certainly no lyrics, some custom Givenchy art, and two tight pages of permissions in a basic sans-serif typeface with Gothic lettering for the song titles. But it’s still all there. Contains samples from. Contains samples from. Additional creative input by. Used with permission. Used with permission. Appears courtesy of. Used with Permission. All rights reserved.

As Stringer Bell said to Avon Barksdale, “We making so much goddamn straight money, man, the government come after us, man, ain’t shit they can say” (The Wire s3e6, 2004).

So, my point is, Kanye’s last two albums point to an interesting new development in sampling ethics, which have grown and heaved over the last decades as the legal profession has run them raw. We’ve seen the Lil Wayne response, which is to rap over whatever he wants, then release it for free as a mixtape; the Tyler the Creator response, who doesn’t even sample–he wants other folks to sample him. And then, fittingly, the Kanye response: big, brash, and willing to shell out for what he wants. This is luxury sampling ethics, samples bought and paid for, further elucidation of Mychal Denzel Smith’s claim that “For Jay-Z [and, I’d add, Kanye], wealth is revolutionary”–and this is the part where I string together a bunch of WTT song titles, so brace your dork-o-meters–’cause it’s a New Day, they’ve Gotta Have It, these tracks were Made in America, and Who Gon Stop Me? Not Otis (nor the keepers of his estate).

Beyond the “Ghetto University”: Visions of an Organic Black Pedagogy in Kanye West’s “The College Dropout”

She need her daddy, baby please–

Can’t let her grow up in that ghetto university.

– Kanye West, “All of the Lights” (2010)

Educated fools, from uneducated schools.

-Curtis Mayfield, “(Don’t Worry) If there’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go”

On the surface, Kanye West’s 2004 debut album The College Dropout presents two contrasting visions of education. The first is the mainstream college atmosphere West chronicles rejecting throughout the album: “My freshman year I was going through hell, a problem/still I built up the nerve to drop  my ass up outta college” (West, “Get Em High”). The second is the education gained on the streets, what West in a later album names the “ghetto university”: “Sittin in the hood like community colleges/This dope money here is lil’ Trey’s scholarship” (West, “We Don’t Care”). This dualistic portrait of education seems to correspond to sociologist Elijah Anderson’s description of the “decent” and “street” families who populate his study of urban Philadelphia, Code of the Street. In his work, attitudes toward education are a central axis on which a person’s value orientation of decent or street can be plotted: decent folk value education, while street folk eschew it.

However, I want to suggest that in his debut album, Kanye West advocates for a third way that rejects the conformity and assimilation of college and the defeatism of street life. In his lyrics, Kanye expresses an urge to leave college for his own version of success. In “Get Em High,” quoted above, he continues on: “My teacher said I’m a loser, I told her why don’t you kill me/I give a fuck if you fail me, I’m gonna follow/my heart…to the plaques or the stacks.” And in “School Spirit,” a similar sentiment: “Told ’em I finished school, and I started my own business./They say ‘Oh you graduated?’ No, I decided I was finished./ Chasin’ y’all dreams and what you got planned/Now I spit it so hot, you got tanned.” But it’s in West’s music, not his lyrics, that the content of his real education is exposed.

In her Black Nose: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America, Tricia Rose argues that hiphop’s practice of sampling is a digital manifestation of longstanding Black cultural practices that privilege the curation and remix of available sounds into a new creation that is continuous with the old. She writes, “Rap production resonates with black cultural priorities in the age of digital reproduction” (75). Positioning the birth of hiphop as an artistic recovery in the face of the social and political traumas of the 1970s and ’80s, Rose sees rap’s attention to “flow, layering and ruptures in line” (Jafa qtd on 38) as Afrodiasporic prioritization of repetition and polyrhythmy reasserted in the face of postindustrial collapse. To Rose, “sampling in rap is a process of cultural literacy and intertextual reference” (89). Sampling “is about paying homage…It is also a means of archival research, a process of musical and cultural archaeology” (79). Recycling older musics in contemporary contexts “affirms black musical history and locates these ‘past’ sounds in the ‘present'” (89). In Rose’s attention to literacy, research and history we see the basis for a pedagogy based on learning Black culture through sampling.

Rose quotes Hank Shocklee of Public Enemy who “offer[s his] lack of training as an explanation for the innovative nature of [his] approach” (81). Shocklee says, “In dealing with rap, you have to be innocent and ignorant of music.” But “we have a better sense of music, a better concept of music, of where it’s going, of what it can do” (qtd in Rose 81-82). But Rose rejects Shocklee’s claims of his own ignorance. Instead, she argues, Shocklee

…is really referring to the differences between formal Western and black musical priorities as they are worked out, often contentiously, in the creative realm…Shocklee’s innocence is his lack of Western formal training….He, too, employs “knowledge” and musical strategies, not innocent (value-free) ones, but strategies commonly found in black musical traditions that often involve different cultural priorities. When he claims that to understand or deal with rap music you must be innocent, he suggests that a commitment to formal Western musical priorities must be abandoned…(82)

If we extend Rose’s assessment of Shocklee’s “innocence” as a rejection of “Western musical priorities,” we might see in Kanye West’s The College Dropout a similar false ignorance. By narrating his experience as a “college dropout” over a remixed soundtrack of Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield and Luther Vandross, Kanye articulates a new cultural canon in the place of the White canon he abandoned when he left school.

Take, for example, “Jesus Walks,” a nearly perfect amalgamation of two seemingly dissimilar tracks–a gospel song and a soul ballad–against whose juxtaposition West triangulates an experience that refuses to settle into neatly religious or secular categories. The basis of “Jesus Walks'” beat is a looped sample of Arc Choir singing “Walk With Me”; the choir provides “Jesus Walks” with its familiar theology: “Jesus walk with me, with me, with me.” But West’s influences do not end there. With a very short vocal sample of the word “Nigga,” West directs us in his music–and, if we are reading closely, his album credits*–to Curtis Mayfield’s “(Don’t Worry) If there’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go.” Since the vocal sample here is so small, Rose is helpful here when she characterizes sampling choices as a “paying homage” and a “(re)locating these ‘past’ sounds in the ‘present.'” With a single word from Curtis, West affirms the continuity of African American experience and roots his production of knowledge in the wisdom of an honored predecessor.

Aretha Franklin, “Spirit in the Dark”

But the real portrait of a pedagogy rooted in what Rose calls “black cultural practice” is on West’s track “School Spirit.” The recycled chords of Aretha Franklin’s original “Spirit in the Dark” have barely sounded when West calls out, “School Spirit, motherfuckers!” I hear his triumphalism as a revised, “Look Mom, I got an A!” In Franklin’s original, she sings of “getting the spirit in the dark.” She asks, “Tell me sister, how do you feel? …Do you feel like dancin’? Then get up and let’s start dancin’.” The song encourages its listeners to move to the Spirit within them, to pay no heed to what outsiders think. She instructs us to “Rise, Sally rise, put your hands on your hips, and cover your eyes….with the spirit in the dark.”

While Franklin sings of eschewing conformity and “gettin’ the spirit in the dark,” West paints a portrait of college students as zombies in a conformist dance of Greek life. “Alpha, step. Omega, step,” he raps. “Kappa, step. Sigma, step.” n a move reminiscent of Rose’s vision of rupture and continuity, West doctors Franklin’s vocals so that she sings under him of “People moving…in the dark.” It’s clear that for West, the “dark” was college. The end of Franklin’s “Spirit in the Dark” dissolves into a choral frenzy over speeding piano and banging tambourine. West manages to parody on her original even as he honors it; “School Spirit” concludes with mock Black Fraternity rituals: “I feel a woo comin’ on, cuz, I feel a woo comin on, cuz. Woo! There it was.” In his sample of Aretha Franklin–and his triumphal repurposing of her “spirit” with a potent blend of homage and parody–West projects a new model of education based in the study and citation of African-American cultural texts.

*And we know now, after the release of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, that West hopes we are reading his credits. For this (currently) penultimate album, credits and guest artists are printed on the inside of a fold-out poster in gold. Straight A’s.

Groupthink Groupies, Behold the Cipher

I keep hearing about Susan Cain’s new book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. For a while I thought this book was called “The Rise of the New Groupthink,” but that’s just the sexy underside of her argument and thus the title her New York Times editor chose for her conveniently timed op-ed from last month.

In an interview, Ms. “Descartes” Cain claims that “in order to know what you really think about something or someone, you need solitude to do it, almost by definition.” As you might have inferred from my hostile tone, I find this preposterous. As a writer, and therefore a person who spends a lot of time typing alone (like right now), I’m intrigued as to why I find Ms. Cain’s claims preposterous. While I definitely have not read and do not plan on reading her book, between the op-ed and some interviews I suspect that my issue is this: while I understand Ms. Cain’s enthusiasm for solitude–indeed, my fiction-writing zone demands total, solitudinous silence–I disagree with her takedown of collaboration as creatively and intellectually unproductive. And I think her invocation of Orwell’s 1984 is ridiculous. Also Eurocentric. But let’s explore.

In my courses we do a lot of small group work. This abundance is a hangover from a summer I spent teaching English in China during college, when the point of every lesson plan was to keep our students jabbering for as long as possible. I was told that a language learner needs to say a new vocabulary word 7 times before she internalizes it. While my current students speak fluent English, they are not fluent in their critical reading, thinking or speaking skills. Class is an opportunity to redirect them to the text, to ask them to use specific language instead of vague pronouns and generalizations, to encourage them to refer to a text’s author instead of claiming, “It says.”

Often during small group work there is a lull: one group after another stops talking, though of course there is always more to talk about. In these silent moments I do my best to stay totally disengaged from my students. I stare into space, or page through my book for key quotes to return to if conversation falters when we come back together as a class. Slowly but surely, someone in one of the groups thinks of something else to say. The students realize they have to keep thinking, that I am not about to interrupt them with my own take on the text. And so more of them pipe in. Soon everyone is talking again, exploring the content of a chapter or analyzing the lyrics of a song.

Against the overlapping sounds of groups ebbing in and out of conversation, I find myself thinking of priming, a psychological concept I learned about as a senior in high school. I remember priming as a cognitive effect by which hearing a certain word–before a memory exam, for example–will increase the likelihood that a subject remembers that particular word later. I also remember reading of an experiment wherein subjects, asked to define an ambiguous word like “Mercury,” tended to vary their answers according to whether they’d been primed with evocations of planets or thermometers.

In high school Psychology class I remember feeling that priming was a kind of cheating, a sort of hypnotic trick wherein subjects did not know they were learning the right answers in advance. But now as a teacher, when I watch conversations sweep through a silent classroom like a brushfire, and I hear similar concepts and page numbers flicker between groups like flames, I do not feel that my students are cheating. Instead, I feel glad that their proximity to one another allows as many of them as possible to experience the spark of recognition at pinpointing an important idea or a telling quote.

Today, the small group work in question was to close read the third chapter title in Tricia Rose’s Black Noise, “Soul Sonic Forces: Technology, Orality and Black Cultural Practice in Rap Music.” As my students revisited this chapter, which they’d read in advance, words and phrases hung in the air: repetition, sampling, Western music, African diaspora, 808s. As conversation lulled, I scanned the chapter myself, looking for concepts my students might have missed. My eyes fell on a quote from Christopher Small describing repetition in African music (which Rose sees regenerated in hiphop):

A call-and-response sequence may go on for several hours, with apparently monotonous repetition of the same short phrase sung by a leader and answered by the chorus, but in fact subtle variations are going on all the time, not only in the melodic lines themselves but also in their relation to the complex cross-rhythms in the accompanying drumming or hand clapping…The repetitions of African music have a function in time which is the reverse of (Western classical) music–to dissolve the past and the future into one eternal present, in which the passing of time is no longer noticed. (qtd in Rose 66-67)

As I read, my students’ voices rose up again around me: first one, then two, until the whole class was talking–that is, dialoguing, arguing, learning, teaching, grappling with evidence. So I listened, glad to be the sole introvert among talkers.

What's wrong with a lil' drum circle? #OWS