“Rocket 88” (Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats)

Astrofuturism, as described by De Witt Douglas Kilgore, is a 1950s configuration that manifests American destiny in the intellectual space between a dying colonialism and the utopian promise of a raceless future. It is fundamentally a White discourse. Afrofuturism also takes root in the 50s (the key founding figure is almost always Sun Ra) and explores the (outer) space between a certain afrocentrism and its total ironization (Underground Resistance, for instance). It is fundamentally an African American discourse. Recorded in 1951, “Rocket 88” is both astrofuturist and afrofuturist in orientation. It emphasizes the derangement of the senses, motion, speed, and an open space for “cruisin’” as preconditions for achieving escape velocity (“joy”). It further figures the “futuramic” Olds car/rocket as a techno-prosthesis, and the backing track sounds the soul of the machine (think of Brenston’s horn as the car horn, and the blown-out guitar distortion as the V8 engine). Old jalopies make funny “noise,” the singer insists, but this. . . . this is a flat out racket.

 

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“Batterram” (Toddy Tee)

The coverage of the Michael Brown and George Floyd protests were almost breathless. What’s new with this iteration of popular uproar? Is it the “bottoming out” that finally leads to racial progress? The further militarization of the police? Rather than seek out an event in today’s headlines, the contiguities are more sobering. Toddy Tee’s grudging 1985 homage to Daryl Gates’ police tank—“it’s coming”—could be taken as both a warning to crack dealers and a protest over police violence and the suspension of the fourth amendment in black and brown neighborhoods. And it would be just fine as that. But there’s also the mayor’s decision to “legalize something that works like that.” Operating during the early height of the War on Drugs, the Batterram was used to strike in indiscriminate discriminatory ways. The police are like “F Troop,” knocking on random doors trying to entrap residents. But these circumstances are a dime a dozen with law-and-order governors and police departments inheriting equipment used during recent wars. According to one protestor from Ferguson, Missouri, the city “could be any town in the world.” Absolutely true, but more often not. As the places add up—Dearborn Heights, Sanford, Los Angeles, etc.—the patience wears thin. Both the media’s hopeful exhaustion and a healthy dose of neighborhood utopianism.

 

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“Message From a Black Man” (The Temptations)

Plea for white self-reflection on color question vacillates between advocacy of colorblindness and Black pride (there-is-no-difference versus get-out-of-my-way). Given this uncertainty, overly optimistic assessment of the struggle’s endpoint: “The laws of society were made for both you and me.” Correction: the laws are designed to designate you and me, citizen and subject. Always, in liberalism, a foundational distinction, remaining.

 

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“Not in Our Name” (Liberation Music Orchestra)

In memory of Charlie Haden, written on 14 July 2014.

The Not in Our Name Project (NION) diagnosed the American imperial order in 2002 as a spatiotemporal problem: Afghanistan-Iraq-the West Bank in a continuum of U.S.-inflected terror/policy decisions and Japanese American internment alongside the detainment and interrogation of Arab Americans post-9/11. And a similar strategy shaped the project’s self-definition and the enumeration of role models: abolitionists, the Underground Railroad, Vietnam War draft resisters, and the refusal of Israeli reservists to serve in the Occupied Territories. The Saul Williams-penned “Pledge of Resistance” commits “to make common cause with the people of the world” and stops short of calling for a general strike by refusing, as a group, to “supply weapons and funding” for foreign wars. Yet this all came to an end in 2008 with the disbanding of the project’s “national office and related infrastructure.” In some ways, everything here was on the verge of getting it on. (George Clinton, by the way, would have your “funky mind” freed “out into another reality.” And as Clinton knew, other realities have been and are already here as one continually imagines (and practices) being the “people.”) Charlie Haden’s and Carla Bley’s Liberation Music Orchestra deals with the NOIN’s central bifurcation problem—(dis)owning one’s nation-state—through difference. A Latin-inflected tune involving passages with synchronized horns, the key sonic decision is to allow each instrument a solo. The duration of each solo sometimes runs against type, and the instruments involved straddle the (non-) traditional, with the tuba solo as the most extreme example. Much like the album’s cover photograph, we can be both under the banner and at the helm of an organization’s varying structure through time. Haden, then, knew this as well: the Liberation Music Orchestra’s personnel may change, but it’s an inclination requiring stamina, adjustment, multiple voicings, and perpetual practice/praxis.

 

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“Strawberry Letter 23” (Shuggie Otis)

One would probably want to worry about the numbering and disregard the LSD theories about the song for the moment. What makes #23 special? Nothing in particular, it seems. Letters are co-authored (anticipating another), and their meaning(s) resonate in unintended ways. All of this makes imagination (the sense of traveling toward an other) both impelling and dispersed. But: this experience comes from #22. So, #23, like the repeated descending arpeggio (with initial pull-off), is a missive about trax as ground(s) for flight. Only “sit[ting] in[side]” for a few moments, at ease: freedom as disposition (and to be spent).

 

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“C.R.E.A.M.” (Wu-Tang Clan)

C.R.E.A.M.: “cash rules everything around me.” Laid back, groovy sample goes round and round, demonstrating no exit from the money nexus. All sides of town the “New York Times-side” or, better, the Wall Street Journal-side. Inspector Deck: “Living in the world no different from a cell.” Late in the track, the sample pauses, opening a hole. Escape route implied but can only be conceptualized from the within (no outside position for too easy moralizations….cf. The O’Jays’ “For the Love of Money”).

 

 

 

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“What’s Going On” (Marvin Gaye)

Solidarity with the “mother” and the “brother,” and a conversation with the (Black?/White?) figure of the “father,” to whom it is recommended: “only love can conquer hate.” But whose hate? White supremacists or those with “picket signs”? Deeply ambiguous referents either signal a deceleration of youth protest or call for White understanding or both. A track, then, that everyone likes, featuring a double dispersal of the political.

 

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“Funkentelechy” (Parliament)

Funk’s not about freedom of speech since that enterprise is grounded on the possibility of future dividends (or “possible funkability” funded by “high finance”). Rather, funk is always fully realized and can “be scored everyday”; and it’s surely not “domestically produced” or given, but a given, free of charge. More succinctly, funk is a predisposition without a constitution and an affirmation of a possible being decoupled from sovereignty. This would be the freedom which can never be granted or purchased, and the dissolution of any (self)governance is premised on everyone “hav[ing] change for funk” or, more directly, untethering pleasure from self-care.

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“Black with N.V. (No Vision)” (Black Sheep)

From the second wave of the Native Tongues posse, Black Sheep’s critique of structural racism exceeds “conscious rap’s” occasional investment in a christian notion of “talent.” (The contrast between this standard of value and the brutal irony of “native” should be maximized here for refreshing reading.) First verse’s address to white people key: it’s not about retribution but redistribution of “opportunity.” Otherwise: it’s N.W.A.-time, what with all this labor on being “without pay.” As the less threatening option, being in “touch” with the superordinate group is the ground for reason. An early articulation of a “get yours” approach, but there’s an avoidance of petit-bourgeois aspirations; opportunity is: “a life for me/and generations to come within tranquility.” For a disposition in repose.

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