“Harlem Shake” (Baauer)

The controversy involving the conflict between the achievement of a culturally-specific dance and the white supremacist practice of “adapting” material really comes down to this: if people of color could really name themselves, when would this ever be a possible conflict? The irony, perhaps, is that the original Filthy Frank video has no leader but an alternation between an extremely excited Bernie/Berne dance and the Butthead hump; the meme: all iterations require a leader or, more directly, motivation to break from alienated movement. Purportedly a riffing off of Dutch House/Dirty Dutch (among other genres/techniques) with a repeated bipartite structure alternating rooted and mobile (within the measures) bass patterns. Baauer himself claims ownership of the song, which ironically backs into with the imperative sample’s source  critique: an attempted indictment of black rappers who sign endorsement deals. How about a way below this? If we are for each other, then even a citation is unfaithful to the original.


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“King of the Zulus” (Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five)

For some, a scandalous and unfortunate moment in Hot Five history, in which Armstrong explores his thematic relationship to blackface minstrelsy, “Zulus,” and other primitives. But before trying to judge this trax, there is so much to be said: the African American members of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, celebrated here, hailed from Armstrong’s neighborhood as a child—“Perdido and Liberty – Franklin Streets,” as Armstrong himself wrote to reporter Betty Jane Holder in 1952. And the Zulu Club was (and is) a mutual aid society of the type often promoted today by scholars of immigration, transnationalism, and anarchism. Armstrong also remembered the Zulus as primarily “teamsters” who “taught me the ropes” in terms of operating a street cart. By the time Armstrong was eighteen, the Teamsters were using “Equal Pay for All” as a slogan, and the organization’s New Orleans Executive Board had been integrated for more than a decade. So “Zulu” means both uplift and integration to Armstrong, and it’s important to remember this when tracking Armstrong’s appropriation of primitivism (Gene H. Anderson detects it in the trax’s “minor mode” and “dominant and tonic harmonies throughout”). Also important in judging the trax’s potentially political purposes is the fact that the reigning 1920s paradigm for jazz appreciation involved seeing the jazz performer as an “avant-garde primitivist aesthete,” to borrow John Gennari’s phrase (Blowin’ Hot and Cold 32). Just as the Zulu Club’s blackface parade, complete with floats, began in 1915 as a kind of parody or counter-Mardi Gras, so too is Armstrong’s appropriation potentially smothered in irony. Meanwhile, John Cowley’s research on this trax convincingly situates the skit at the center of the track as promoting racial solidarity between the Jamaican “country man” (a Garveyite, perhaps) and the citified Hot Five through successful soloing. This black immigrant bumpkin is as clear a type as the “Zulu,” and it’s as if the Jamaican character is reaching out to ask Armstrong, “How might I continue to make music when I am thus demeaned?” Armstrong’s response is simple: blow.


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“You Can Have the World” (Cameo)

The Booker T. Washingtonian vision to complement Reaganesque politics: hygiene, positive thinking, and the elision of the social become keys to Black success. Status (being “new”) ablates the spatial (“hell”/ghettoes) and is mirrored by clean, tight, concise funk: shimmering synths and ultra-high crescendos. The “positive tip” loves subjugation.


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“No Nose Job” (Digital Underground)

The sell-out, be it the “black girl” who wants slimming down or the white one’s desire for excess, supposedly can’t claim those “responsibilities” necessary for “race and community.” Apart from these “carnival exhibit[s],” Humpty Hump can only become brown through tanning (despite the wish to “change it”). Doctor skit pulls at the argument, demonstrating how the nature/science relationship is one of collusion, a “sedative” and a “scalpel.” Race politics, like corporate musics, still stuck in exhibit mode.


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“Earth People” (Dr. Octagon)

“Overriding” all communicative/sharing technologies, the interstellar pirate surgeon delivers “cosmophonic[ally],” submerged in the “same data same system” and translatable across all contexts. More of a trax dealing with movement, articulation, and strategy; talking trash and mocking localization, specialization, and knowledge production. Afronaut move to excise brain cancer, focusing on the “earth planet” where “nothing’s aware.” System indebted to its outside. Less of an embrace of one’s nemesis, more of a diagnosis of potentiality awkwardly trained inward. Race technology overload.


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“The Queen Chant (Li Liu E)” (Martin Denny)

While this could be taken as a typical Denny-esque track which adds, in his words, the South Pacific’s “excitement” and “languor,” it’s the latter’s oppressive and stifled listlessness (produced by island exotica music in general) that’s up for discussion here. Structured as a set of linear solos, the swaying tempo becomes a violent swinging, dizzying the (colonial) experience with, eventually, a hard bop-ish insurgency (and response). The final three solos (drums, bongos, and bass) drive it home with sharp intervals leading to high-end fade-outs—making use of muted tones all the while—marking the homeland as (originally) nothing but over-harvested and exhausted in all registers.


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“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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“Isotope” (Joe Henderson)

The variation in (atomic) number has a certain gravity and weight—of neutral or non-charges merely taking up (mental) space—which weighs heavily on the (social) scientific; it’s not totally a matter of numbers or whether majority/minority status should be instrumental but, rather, an opportunity to recalibrate and voice anew how the standard element is merely more common in particular localities. Tenor attempts a few strategies to test out spacing and position of minority embodiment: interjecting sixteenth-notes in eighth-note runs, overblowing during faster runs, and swinging without melody; and even though Tyner’s piano swings strongly, it also hesitates near its solo’s end with a three-note spike, injecting discomfort. Ending with doubled piano/tenor restatement of head—in more melodic terms—chemistry, in the form of the ceaseless experimentation without expectation, survives by de-anticipating gradualist structural development.


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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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“Rita Juanita” (Wayne Newman and the Torques)

It’s not clear how he got into this predicament, but it’s 1960 and this Louisiana singer is courting identical sisters of color, Rita and Juanita. “My head it spins because they are twins.” He loves them both, and they each love him. In order to avoid misidentifying them (and especially on the telephone), he calls them corporately, “Rita-Juanita.” Well, that solves one problem. But the singer eventually figures that a decision must be made. The girls, however, won’t accept such a choice: “You can’t love one and still be true.” Endlessly and ultimately aporetic, the trax exits by reiterating the impossible choice: “Which one shall I lose? Which one shall I choose?” This trax is in mono, but that doesn’t prevent us from recognizing its potential implication in “stereoscopic viewing,” a key invention of the nineteenth century. It’s as if the singer has taken two slightly separate images of the same person (the two related echoes in the trax), and is desperately trying to fuse them. But he cannot find his stereo Viewfinder and is thus doubled over in the agony of indecision. Relatedly, Samuel Delaney once informed a member of the Traxionary staff that both the stereoscope’s name and dream connect it to another crucial nineteenth-century invention, the “stereotype,” which was often made of papier-mâché, and allowed for the three-dimensional metal molding of printing plates. “Stereotyping” was thus originally deemed as substantially improving and correcting one’s representation or copy of reality. So back to the trax: it is possible to see that the singer is psychologically blocked precisely at the moment when he has to choose a woman of color as his main squeeze? Has he stereoscoped—and thus stereotyped—his girl, all in the name of a certain and definitive rendering? As for his motivation, surely he’s considering whether he can bring either of these girls home to meet Mom and Dad. (And remember the alternative, which is to skirt bigamy: one “Juanita” is diversity, two constitutes a girl gang.)

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