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(RSS) Weird Music Wednesdays


Weird Music #8: Algorithms we live by

For those of us who find it difficult to do go about our everyday tasks without the assistance of a computer, it’s a constant struggle to maintain a safe distance from technology and convince ourselves we could operate without it. Recently, however, I have had my doubts — especially because of my love of music.

Many music aficionados hold that their refined tastes and extensive knowledge of music are entirely their own work, but how can this claim hold water in the digital age? Can one really live a fruitful and wholesome life as a music-lover without a heavy reliance on technology?

The answer, I think, is a cold, resounding “No.”

In days (quite far) past, where a love of music meant being involved in a community, going to shows, and interacting with musicians, there may have been some room for argument; but in the present day, the point seems almost moot. Listening to music depends on what equipment you have. Storing music depends on what device you have. And discovering, acquiring and sharing music with others all depends upon which of the many online music services you deem fit to use.

When it comes to these online music sites, I want to draw particular attention to Spotify — a service that seemed innocent and neutral enough, but one that houses many hard truths for any proud music lover. At first look, Spotify seems to be merely a database of music, an immeasurable library of known and unknown music ripe for the searching. But upon closer scrutiny, it seems the user experience is overwhelmingly driven by user data collection and recommendation algorithms.

Spotify utilizes what is called “Collaborative Filtering,” a complicated process explained by Spotify Engineer Erik Bernhardsson that amounts to little more than correlating separate user ratings and listening habits, and structuring the user’s experiences based on this data. This includes not only the music you are recommended, but also the content of the Spotify radio stations, as well as the specific content of advertisements you are played.

Many other music services use this type of algorithm. Pandora, Last.FM, iTunes and other services are all based upon the idea of “Synthetic Personalization,“a concept developed by linguist Norman Fairclough, whereby large corporations rope in individuals that use their service by providing an “individualized” experience — but in reality one that is mass produced for all users through algorithms.

So what does this mean for the average music lover? It means that one’s personalized experience with these services is merely a very deceptive and effective business model and marketing strategy. It means the formerly glorious process of discovery has been replaced by algorithms feeding you songs you are statistically more likely to appreciate.

I don’t want to sound like some Luddite who’s entirely opposed to using these services — just make sure to leave some time to explore your interests for yourself.


Weird Music #7: Blimey...It’s Grimey!

In the United States, listeners typically perceive a divide between electronic and hip-hop music scenes — an opposition of cultural values and aesthetic preferences. Several artists have attempted to cross this gap throughout the years, ranging from the fusion of Kanye West’s “Yeezus” to the second-rate patchwork that makes up every Lil Jon-EDM DJ collaboration ever. These attempts have the feeling of novelty, yet somehow always fail to initiate a tradition of collaboration between the scenes. But in the U.K., this divide does not exist. Grime, one of Britain’s most prominent native genres, creates a seamless unity of the two styles.

Grime was born in east London in the early 2000s, when young rappers started spitting over fast-paced electronic beats made on laptops in their bedrooms.

It’s easiest to understand Grime’s overall sound through a comparison to American hip-hop. Both are drum-centric, but while hip-hop is mainly confined to 4/4 time-signature territories, Grime is much more rhythmically open.

The rapping styles are also entirely different. Grime MCs are more aggressive than American rappers in lyrical content, speed, vocal tone and delivery style, making them more intimidating than Waka Flocka at his most rowdy. Hip-hop is music you can move to. Grime, on the other hand, is fight music — it is the soundtrack to a foot-chase through east London.

Hip-hop always has a strong sense of place, whether that place is the neighborhood street, the city or the club. The distorted bass and dark synths of Grime, however, sounds like nothing on earth, and makes the genre far more sonically unpredictable.

It’s difficult to place Grime anywhere in a linear chain of influences. Some characteristic Grime tracks, such as Wiley’s “Eskimo,” eskimo feature the Caribbean rhythms of Jamaican Dancehall, the syncopated unpredictability of U.K. Garage, and the destructive, distorted synths of the U.K.‘s Jungle and Drum & Bass. In other tracks, dark atmospherics and half-tempo stomps of early Dubstep make an appearance. Looking back, it’s hard to tell who influenced whom, but Grime has been unquestionably vital to the progression of U.K. bass music throughout the past decade.

For a fast primer on the genre, I recommend Grime progenitor Wiley’s album “Playtime is Over.” Then, once you have truly prepared yourself, definitely pick up Dizzee Rascal’s Mercury Prize-winning “Boy in Da Corner,” which steps outside the traditional format of Grime, but is fantastic nonetheless. If lightning-fast, hardly comprehensible raps aren’t your thing, Grime has a pretty lively instrumental tradition as well. Check out Logos, Terror Danjah and SX for good examples of the beats without the battle raps.

Grime offers a wide variety of content within the genre, making it a great source to dig through for music to set fire to your musical life.


Weird Music Wednesdays #6: Wu-Tang Clan and the Great Hip-Hop Swindle

In today’s music business, artists must take steps to protect their necks against early release, copyright infringement and other musical pitfalls.

That’s why the legendary hip-hop group Wu-Tang Clan will be producing only one copy of their next studio album, eventually selling it in an extravagant silver box for a multimillion dollar price.

In a recent interview with Forbes, frontman RZA said the group intends to reinstate the idea of music as “a piece of art” or “a collector’s item,” and thus, the album will be taken on a tour of museums and galleries where fans can pay an admission fee — about 30 to 50 dollars — to listen to the album inside the venue.

This isn’t the first time artists have resorted to extreme measures to make their bread off sales. One of the first instances of successful non-traditional music sale was Radiohead’s “In Rainbows,” offered on the band’s website for whatever price the buyer wished to pay. More recently, Jay-Z struck a massive deal with Samsung, in which the phone giant paid for a million copies of his album “Magna Carta Holy Grail” that users of the Galaxy series could download for free.

Depending on how successfully the marketing campaign goes, people will most likely pay to listen to the album based solely on its status as a media spectacle, regardless of the quality of the album. Furthermore, numerous psychology studies claim consumers unconsciously evaluate higher priced items as of higher quality, so the album may be received in a better light.

The Wu’s scheme may actually be quite genius; that is, of course, assuming the album doesn’t leak. There are numerous checkpoints along the way — from production, to mastering and pressing — where the album could make its way into public circulation. If this happens, the project is destined to fail.

Still, while the strategies of Radiohead and Jay-Z were dependent on making music more readily available to consumers, the Wu’s venture hinges on arbitrarily charging music lovers an exorbitant price just to hear the thing. If the Wu-Tang had a really incredible album on their hands, a “piece of art” as RZA claims, they would most likely opt for a traditional release rather than preventing and delaying the album from being appreciated by the general public as they currently are.

I would advise against anyone getting reasonably excited about this “legendary” album and remember that — in the wise words of the Wu themselves — cash does, in fact, rule everything around us.


Weird Music Wednesdays #5: What the hell is Vaporwave?

Do you remember the early days of digital? The Windows 95 era? The time of GeoCities, low-quality Casio synthesizers and hyper-technological visions of the future? Right now there’s an Internet subculture that’s obsessed with reshaping and repurposing these digital artifacts of our internet past, and it’s called Vaporwave.

The best way to get a feel for vaporwave aesthetics is to do a Google image search for “Vaporwave,” or to look at this music video for Yung Lean’s “Hurt.” It seems to be based upon heavily modified and exaggerated versions of late 80s/early 90s Internet culture, and the music of Vaporwave accompanies this fittingly.

Artists within the genre chop up bits of smooth jazz, lobby music, and other sickeningly glossy and soulless corporate music and slow them down, add reverb, or otherwise mangle them until they are far beyond recognition. Electronic auteur Oneotrix Point Never — producer of “R Plus Seven,” one of last year’s best albums — is a good example of a Vaporwave-inspired sound-palettes. But don’t stop there; check out artists like Vektroid, James Ferraro and Fatima al Qadiri if you want other weird and wild examples of Vaporwave.

What ties all these artists together, besides sonic influences from the early age of computers?
A recent article in Vice categorized Vaporwave as a subversive culture whose goal is “undermining the iron grip of global capitalism,” and given the movement’s constant mocking of early corporate web pages, this interpretation makes sense.

Regardless of any underlying social or political doctrine, Vaporwave surely seems more concerned with making us think about our collective history. Through the re-use of the futuristic imaginings of yesteryear, Vaporwave is getting us to reflect on where we are today, how far we have come from the days of “you’ve got mail!” and where we’ll be in another decade.


Weird Music Wednesdays #4: Madlib’s mad, mad world

A few days ago, “Cocaine Piñata” — the collaborative effort by beat-auteur Madlib (also known as Otis Jackson, Jr.) and hard-boiled gangsta rapper Freddie Gibbs — was finally released, and, in my opinion, marks one of the best hip-hop records in a very long time. “Piñata” is unrivaled in its sheer production value and is honed down to a sharp sonic edge which doesn’t pull punches on a single track.

While the album deserves its own celebratory piece, I’d like to focus more on the previous output of one of the men responsible for the album’s success: Madlib.

Madlib is a legend. For a man who crafts his music almost entirely from fragments of other tracks, he has created a sonic fingerprint for himself. His music is usually given away by shuffling, off-kilter drum rhythms, warm, cohesive mixing and idiosyncratic and creatively manipulated vintage samples.

Madlib’s sound, unrivaled in hip-hop production, set the scene for many current artists. In 1999, Madlib recorded “Soundpieces: Da Antidote,” a collection of quality boom-bap beats and lyrically solid raps by Wildchild. Madlib then moved in the opposite direction, recording the trippy, spaced-out album “The Unseen,” an unhinged psychedelic journey deep into Madlib’s mind and his unending crates of vinyl. He teamed up with the equally legendary beat-smith J Dilla in 2003 on “Champion Sound,” where producers took turns rapping over each other’s beats, then coming together with cryptic rapper MF DOOM in 2004 to produce the classic “Madvillainy” — a must-have for anyone who considers himself a fan of good music.

But Madlib’s output shouldn’t just be reduced to the beat’s he’s made for others to rap over. He’s also put out an number of beat tapes, instrumental albums and singles definitely worth checking out.

His Beat Konducta and Medicine Show series found him travelling the globe through vinyl — even pushing out entire beat-tapes sampling Bollywood music, film scores, African folk music, Brazilian music and more. ““Shades of Blue,”“:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QHMrJNZaatE a chilled-out instrumental jazz-hop album, uses high-quality samples given to him by notable jazz label Blue Note. Most recently, Madlib has collected rock ‘n’ roll and krautrock samples and made beats for his Rock Konducta series — also worth checking out.

Madlib doesn’t stop, with a repertoire encompassing an insurmountable mountain of weird and wonderful music. My suggestion is this: if you happen to have a few hundred hours to spare, start digging around in Madlib’s discography yourself. You’re guaranteed to find something interesting and extraordinary.


Weird Music Wednesdays #3: Drums please

Everyone has a musical weakness. For some, it’s a certain song or band. For others, it’s the timbre of a particular instrument, the idiosyncratic tone of an individual singer’s voice, or something as simple as a specific chord structure. My weakness is the sound of drums.

My childhood was as stereotypical as any drummer’s childhood could get. I banged on pots and buckets, tapped on school desks with pencils, played in the school orchestra and finally formed a band. My parents even enrolled me in formal lessons — though I quit after two sessions because I wasn’t fast enough.

Even in college, in moments of academia-induced concentration or stress, I find myself unthinkingly tapping out patterns and cadences with my fingers. The compulsion to punch out rhythms has been a part of me for as long as I can remember, and I can’t see it going anywhere anytime soon.

My music preoccupation stems from this percussive neurosis. I’m ashamed to say that I fell for the booming kick-drums and rattling snares of EDM trap music before the ill-fated “Harlem Shake” movement bit the dust. I went through a “jungle” phase — the genre’s heavy, rapid-fire drum breaks set my sound-system afire on many late nights.

Most recently, I’ve recently been binging on “footwork,” a hyperactive electronic style from Chicago featuring drums somewhat randomly produced by a drum machine. People grill me about these likings, asking incessantly about their appeal, but all too often the rebuttal escapes me. The pleasure this music gives me is incommunicable, and I can say but one thing: “Just listen to those drums, man.” People usually get what I’m trying to say.

Where other instruments come and go in fads, drums remain. Drums were among the first instruments used by humans. People have used drums to signal war, to intimidate, to glorify, to set tempo and to fuel dance. Drums hold a large amount of power over us.To hit a drum and play a rhythm is to dominate — to give structure to an otherwise unstructured environment. It’s a mysterious connection, one that I don’t pretend to understand.

When I listen to a song like M-Beat’s “Incredible,” and compare it to something by the Afro-Cuban All Stars, it’s easy for me to recognize the musical differences between the recordings. But on an affective level, there are striking similarities in the feelings that are brought forth by drum-driven songs like these. I like to think that this isn’t just a psychological oddity specific to me, but rather that it helps me to connect with the roots of humans’ connection with music itself.


Weird Music Wednesday #2: Hip-hop's new jumpers

Throughout the past year, a dude by the name of Young Thug has been creeping his way into the limelight, and it’s pretty hard to figure out why. He wears skinny jeans and has tattoos covering his lanky frame. His rapping style falls somewhere between yelping and Auto-tuned burbles, and his lyrics are laced with bizarre personal revelations.

The point is, Thug should be a difficult sell to mainstream hip-hop audience, but the critical acclaim of his mixtape “1017 Thug,” as well as the commercial success of tracks “Danny Glover” and “Stoner,” seem to say otherwise. It’s not clear how Thug is managing to do this, but he’s not the only unorthodox rapper getting popular in the street rap circuit.

Stars in the trap-music scene have come to conform to what I would call the “Flockaveli” archetype, referring to the seminal 2010 album of brutal brilliance by Atlanta’s Waka Flocka Flame. Massive minor-key beats, viciously minimalistic lyrics, raw aggression, physicality, masculinity and often misogyny quickly became standard. “Flockaveli” helped redefine how rappers conceptualized “hardness” and greatly impacted the style that up-and-coming trap stars emulated.

But compare Flockaveli to some of the music being made today by the heavy-hitters in Chicago’s drill scene, made famous, or infamous, by 18-year old rapper Chief Keef. Take, for example, Glory Boys affiliate Lil Durk and his stellar track “Dis Ain’t What U Want,” which pairs typical hood-rap lyrical elements with emotion-heavy auto-tuned singing — an undeniably strange combination. Baton Rouge’s Kevin Gates has a similar schtick, recounting stories from the ‘hood through highly introspective fare.

Finally, of course, we get to Atlanta, the center of the street-rap universe. Besides Thug, a number of different artists have been using melodic rapping to explore deeper themes than their predecessors. I point you to Rich Homie Quan’s hit “Type of Way,” in which Quan raps about typical ‘hood issues, but with a minor-key melody that conveys a sense of melancholy.

So how is it that these guys are making it in the rap world? How are a bunch of sensitive crooners getting plays while hard-headed knockers like Waka Flocka are grinding along in the background with no substantial amount of attention? It seems the climate is changing.

Hip-hop fans are becoming more accepting of alternative hood-rap archetypes and more interested in the exploration of alternate issues. They want music for all situations, not just for making the trunk rattle as you cruise down the road. And given that the street-rap genre has always been lambasted for it’s lack of depth, this is a fantastic development.


Weird Music Wednesdays #1: Weird Genres

I recently happened upon on an internet page entitled “Lists of music genres.” It included, of course, “rock,” “pop” and “country,” but as I progressed deeper and deeper into this list of all lists, I began to pick out smaller, more obscure types.

There was “lowercase,” a style of minimalist ambient music which involves minute sounds and extended stretches of silence.

The list included “aquacrunk,” (also known as “wonky”), a short-lived electronic movement that does not involve Lil Jon in a fish tank.

And we can’t forget “complextro,” a name given to a certain approach to electro-house that inexplicably sounds a lot like the rest of electro-house.

Popular culture has developed an obsession with dividing up the musical world into arbitrary little pieces and calling them genres. What practical utility do all these genres, sub-genre, and sub-sub-genres serve?

Whether we admit it or not, genre divisions have a central role in how music is marketed to consumers. It helps define an audience. It gives consumers something to latch onto, something to look for on the CD rack at Best Buy and some order to how they organize the iTunes Store. But this technique only applies to genres with more established consumer bases — there is no such market for the likes of teutonic thrash metal. No advertising agent worth their salt will market a musician under an obscure sub-genre tag with no sticking power.

Many artists see genres as both a blessing and a curse. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard an artist deny the standard genre they’ve been put in and say they want to avoid categorization and, by default, restriction. For these artists, genres form a neat palate of stylistic elements that musicians can use and borrow from as they please, often rendering the genre tag mostly useless.

The existence of genres helps us to chop up the musical world, to mentally group it and label it. It’s human nature to analyze and categorize in every area of life. It’s this attitude that lies as the root of the point-and-shoot genre classification frenzy we find ourselves in today. The Internet has accelerated this process, making it possible for bloggers and writers to christen full fledged sub-genres out of regional scenes and small movements. You may remember the “chillwave” craze in 2009 fronted by Washed Out and Neon Indian. You may also remember that nobody knew what that genre was by late 2010.

While it’s tempting to don the sorting hat and put a given artist or song in a genre bin, it is important to remember that in the real world, genres don’t really exist in the way that we think of them. They are an artificial and often inaccurate way of looking at things, and if we put too much stock in them, we may be led astray.



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