Tuesday, September 13, 2011

On the Libidinal Economy of Hip Hop, Continued

Caveat lector.

Kanye West as Obscene Superego


Schadenfreude as Obscene Superego

In the comments to Ben Gabriel’s essay, Toward a Reading of Post-Kanye Hip Hop @ The New Inquiry, user “pomoradio” poses the all too obvious, but nonetheless necessary question: 

 “So what do we lose by shedding the hater-troll dynamic?” 

Firstly, I think what we gain in hip hop’s Post-Kanye turn is the libidinal economy of schadenfreude (pleasure in the pain of others) in its purest reification.  In Zizekian terms, we gain the obscene Freudian Superego injunction to “Enjoy!”—where “the cruel and sadistic ethical agency bombards us with impossible demands and then gleefully observes our failure to meet them” (Zizek).  Patrick Harrison in the comments to Ben’s essay puts it this way:

“Listening to Kanye West makes me want to buy a bunch of expensive shit I can't afford with credit cards.”

Secondly, and more importantly, I think what we lose in the shedding of the hater-troll dynamic is the Symbolic mediator of the socialized Ego. The sublimation of this Ego (as culture) keeps the unholy matrimony of the Id (as drive) and the Superego (as desire) at bay, through a minimum veil of Symbolic appearances which are not “merely” appearances—in that although the Symbolic ego does not “exist” in reality, it nevertheless makes reality “consist.”

From this wellspring of the Symbolic—the structural basis of language and culture—arise poetry and the beatific impulse to create; and not just for calculated profit, but for the sake of mending the mediated fabric of the human life-world itself through meaning.  Although it's double, the socialized Ego via the Symbolic functions as a necessary bulwark against the trauma of capitalist excess, jouaissance, and the ”Real” of speculative capital, which by its disruptive nature occludes and dismantles the very possibility of meaning in favor of calculation.


Ego Ideal, or "Knowing the Ledge"

Prior to Kanye, the rapper’s transgression against his haters functions as a form of antagonistic identification with the Symbolic ego, which mediates hip hop as a cultural and social organization.  In Lacanian terms, the rapper is informed by the “Ego Ideal” of the Symbolic, or “the agency whose gaze I try to impress with my ego image, the big Other who watches over me and propels me to give my best, the ideal I try to follow and actualize.” (Zizek)

The Ego Ideal in hip hop is the result of a hermeneutic horizon that Rakim describes as “knowing the ledge,” where the reality principle of black disenfranchisement functions as the grounds for hip hop as a generative cultural movement.  It serves as the ontological basis for the structural antagonism between the "inauthentic hater" and the "authentic b-boy" with aesthetic style, in a game of appearances where Symbolic cultural capital (via “signifying,” props, and respect) is created and exchanged over and above that of the disruptive “Real” of quantitative monetary capital.

Who is authentic or inauthentic, the b-boy or the hater, is here of little consequence in the ontological sense.  The one can only exist by virtue of his antagonism with the Other; they are locked in a perpetual game of appearances and aesthetics one-upsmanship, which in it's wake creates its own universe of signifiers and meanings:  in essence, a culture.

Hip hop here is a life-world that exists not only in spite of, but precisely because of, it's exclusion from neoliberal capital, via what Jeff Chang describes as "the politics of abandonment".  


Aesthetic Style vs Performative Swagger

This inevitably begs the question—what is the difference between aesthetic style and performative swagger?

I see aesthetic style as establishing, at the very least, a minimum of Symbolic distance between the signifier and the signified.  It’s that space (-) between re-presentation, where the one who swaggers is not yet overdetermined by his swagger. However, as soon as we enter the stage of swagger as being performative (and as performative being), the distance between signifier and signified collapses into the “Sign”—namely that of capital—and it’s liquidation of bodies and the Symbolic life-world into speculative dollar value, where money as Image is paradoxically the only thing that “matters.”

With the Post-Kanye turn away from a cultural aesthetic style towards a performative swagger informed by capitalism, the agency of the inauthentic hater disappears, along with the structural antagonism which informs the illusory but necessary “reality principle” of the Symbolic ego as social mediator in hip hop culture.  Capital liquidates the cultural life-world of hip hop once the disruptive "Real" of money enters into the equation.

With this structural shift, the consummation between the innocent yet evil Id (which is nothing but drive), coupled with the injunctions of the Superego (as obscene father figure of desiring Capital), comes full circle—we find ourselves in the realm of Kanye West and “[His] Beautiful, Dark Twisted Fantasy,” where hip hop as history and cultural movement disintegrates into capitalist solipsism.  The "politics of abandonment" becomes the "politics of containment," and the internalization of capitalist struggle qua "Get Rich or Die Tryin'" takes primacy in hip hop culture,  over and against the culture itself.


The Jouaissance of Thug Life

I argue in my essay about Dr. Dre (via Joshua Clover) that beginning with N.W.A. and their antithetical mode of excess/their instantaneous “get mine” credo, what we have is a mode of transgression that not only rebels against the socialization of the Symbolic Ego Ideal (against “knowing the ledge”), but a simultaneous reification of the obscene capitalist Superego, which goads one to “Enjoy!” and overindulge in the jouaissance of capitalist utopia.

This inevitably results in more pain than pleasure, even and especially at the expense of one’s own well-being in the absence of a "reality principle".  To put it crudely, it’s akin to an erection “which lasts for more than 4 hours,” where you can have too much of a good thing.  With capitalist utopia, you must be careful what you wish for, because you always get more than you bargain for.

This destructive mode of jouaissance in hip hop finds its first apotheosis with Tupac and the peak of the gangsta rap era circa 1996.  The collapse of the space between signifier and signified, and the loss of the Symbolic mediator of “knowing the ledge,” occurs when Tupac takes the notion of “keeping it real” to it’s logical (but irrational) maximum.  This finds its performative expression in Tupac’s “thug life” mentality, and in the East Coast equivalent of Biggie’s “Ready to Die” credo.

But at least with “thug life,” we have an episteme which functions through an existential awareness—perhaps an even all too justified paranoia (via Biggie’s “Mo Money, Mo Problems)—against the “evil of the money” that conditions the disappearance of the Symbolic distance between the affluent rapper and his gangsta rap persona.

With Kanye, the collapse between the signifier and signified takes place during a post-gangsta rap era, where pop-in-itself can show it’s true face—as the Sign of capital as Image, which finds its performative realization through swagger.  Arguably this shift indeed begins with P Diddy—immediately after the death of Biggie and Tupac, no less—as Myrna Jacobs mentions in the comments to Ben’s essay.


Hip Pop as the End of History

What MHG describes as Hip Pop—and I think this applies to all pop music in general, again via Joshua Clover—is a genre where the swagger of the individual rapper functions as a “presencing” without historical precendent.  It is the individual liberated of history and self-reflection through the utopia of capital and its injunction to "Enjoy!"

What implications does this have for hip hop as a culture and a history?  For one, it creates an episteme which is simultaneously anti-geneaological and anti-writing; that is to say, anti-historical (or as Bernard Stiegler would put it, against secondary and tertiary retention, respectively). 

What this means in practice is that the artist as an individual overdetermines his historical context in favor of a self-referential present, obfuscating hip hop’s historical genealogy, as well as occluding the possibility of writing as a form of self-reflection.  (I will argue in another post that this theme begins with Jay-Z, who refuses to write his lyrics on paper.)

Hip Pop not only speaks to a Hegelian synthesis of the hater-troll dynamic, in which the latter consumes the former in a flattened ontology of Image = swagger = Capital (precisely sans the Symbolic/cultural realm of the socialized Ego); but it also speaks to capitalism as the mode of an “End of History,”  precisely through the liquidation of culture in favor of a solipsistic individualism overdetermined by the mystification of consumption as production (i.e, a defanged hipsterdom).

The reified ideology of hip pop as presencing is supported by the ontology of modern modes of communication, via the instantaneous media available to us today.  Not only does this include television, but especially the internet—which through a dispersed mode of planned obsolescence gives the illusion of an ever-present “present” wherever it is found (but where ironically, nothing happens.)

In terms of temporality, all prior retentions or memories of the past are lost in pop’s “ever-present” mode of presencing.  This has paradoxical effects on the future, in that all protentions or predictions of the future are grounded in past experience.  With the obfuscation of past experience in favor of an ever-present presencing, protentions lose their capacity to predict “with care,” and are based solely on a calculated, speculative and spectacularized view of the future whose ground(lessness) is nothing but “hype.”


Re-presencing as Worlding

So what is called for now more than ever?  How do we move past this aporia in hip hop?  I claim that over and against the performative mode of swagger that hip hop artists should reclaim the mode of “representing,” not in the mode of an identity politics, but precisely as a “re-presencing”, taken in the Deleuzian sense of the Virtual/Actual, or the Jamesonian sense of the revolutionary/Utopic.

In order to do the work of representing, one does not merely copy what once was.  Here we must take our cue from Pusha T, who states:

The game can't go by just followin the leaders
You gotta be better than the ones who precede you
Upgrade them, upstage them
Change the whole body shape and just update them, Pagans (Pusha T, Alone In Vegas)

Thus, the only way to keep true to the original Spirit or Virtual dimension of hip hop as a genre is to “one-up” what came before it in actuality.  The term “Pagans” here is of special relevance, in that it describes a Symbolic universe where the past is not forgotten or disregarded, but “added onto” via a reflexive system of “ands” that incorporates new “gods” or artists into its midsts, that then restructures the meaning accorded to the “gods”/artists of old (akin to the way T.S. Elliot describes literary "Tradition and the Individual Talent.")

“Re-presencing” is a way to re-engage with hip hop not only as a literature, but as a  “worlding,” where the genre can re-generate itself through a multiplicity of artists who take up the mantle of its metanarrative, over and against the apotheosis of Antichrists (like Kanye, and Nas before him) who while claiming to save Hip Hop are actually hammering the final nails in its coffin.

In praxis:  firstly, we should seek a return to sampled Hip Hop, which is always-already a multiplicity of authors and history via the palimpsest of the remix; secondly, we should seek a return to written lyricism, which serves as a ground for self-reflection via secondary and tertiary retention, and libidinal production; and lastly, we should seek a return to aesthetic style, over and against performative swagger, where “Keeping it Real” is not determined by the quantitative “Real” of capitalism, but by the qualitative “reality principle” of poetic impulse.


Photo Credits:

1. http://fashionbombdaily.com/2010/05/30/snapshot-kanye-west/kanye-west-i-told-you-so/

2. we are at war, "Biggie and Pac" May 18, 2009 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Post-Kanye Kanye: How He Learned to Stop Trolling & Love the Haters

My friend Ben at his blog Uninterpretative! wrote a recent lengthy response to my short commentary on Cher Lloyd’s hit UK single, “Swagger Jagger.” He states:

"I'm really interested in this song as an extension of the claim I was trying to make about a Post-Kanye aesthetic in rap, defined by a structural shift from the hater as antagonist to the hater as primary site of value production. This song seems to possess that shift as an already complete ideological imprint - it is, as it were, the 'common sense' of the song that the ephemeral 'hater' is a source of value. 
"These two points - that of the 'hater' as primary creator of value, and swagger as (might I go so far as to say fetishized?) labour - seem to me to be indispensable to an understanding of this song, and the milieu out of which it rises."

I wanted to do him the courtesy of writing an even lengthier response which further develops his theory of a Post-Kanye aesthetic in hip hop, and how that relates to our broader contemporary ideological paradigm.


In my view, the labor of the hater, and by extension the bourgeois of the "troll," translates into the libidinal economy of “schadenfreude,” a German word translated into English as “the pleasure derived from the misfortune of others.” 

It is an economy of desire whose basis of “production” is predicated on the perpetuation of negative externalities (the suffering of others) and speculative short-term value (doing it for the “lulz”.)

Cher Lloyd is merely the corporate manifestation of the bourgeois “troll,” who uses the labor of the hater to generate temporary fame and market value via notoriety. This is evidenced by the fact that “Swagger Jagger” reached #1 on the UK’s Singles Chart, despite the overwhelming amount of “dislikes” (121,837) compared to “likes” (63,616) on the song’s YouTube page.


"To feel envy is human, to savor schadenfreude is devilish." - Arthur Schopenhauer

When I think of a hater, a few essential characteristics come to mind.

The hater is powerless in everyday life; he is resentful due to his own lack of political efficacy; he is uncritical in his critique, and is a sophist as opposed to a philosopher; and he has ultimately been wronged in the past, and is eager to project his insecurities in the form of envy.

In an era where the majority of youth are jobless, socially disenfranchized, and politically powerless (see:  London rioters), it doesn't surprise me that the primary site of value production comes from haters.

Thus, in my perspective, the hater’s work is always-already proletarianized by the "swagger" trolls who condition their envy. Not only does the hater wield the instruments of hate, he himself becomes an instrument of hate---and in the case of Cher Lloyd, one that is used in the service of corporate marketing.

The hater does a type of "work" that does nothing to benefit himself or society, other than to function as a scapegoat and a producer of negative affection.  It is not a kind of work that produces “savoir-faire” (ways of knowing) and “savor-vivre” (ways of living)---in fact, it is just the opposite, in that it disinvests the one doing the hating of any work towards self-knowledge/self-improvement.

I should mention that by no means am I intending to "naturalize" the hater's work.  Haters often have a reason to hate, and a "troll" who baits them into their haterdom---precisely in order to generate value via short-term notoriety for a self-serving agenda which only further destroys the livelihood of the hater-laborer, perpetuating his hatred.

Just think of Republicans, FOX News, and the British conservatives condemning the London rioters as barbarians, and you'll know exactly what I'm talking about.

With that said, trolling haters is neither a craft, a skill, nor a trade. It does not create, it only destroys. It is the antithesis to art---it is death.



1. I would like to argue that the internet provides the perfect outlet for this libidinal economy of schadenfreude to thrive. This is in that the web, with its default recourse to anonymity, precludes personal responsibility for one’s actions, making it an abundant playground for trolls and their subsequent haters to thrive in. The hacker group “Anonymous” is one manifestation of this tendency, in that their primary motivation is not to benefit people or society, but to “do it for the lulz.” They are essentially trolls in hiding who “Profit!!!” from the suffering of others.  (Their move towards hacktivism and political protest, while commendable and valuable, appears only to be a secondary phenomenon to the trolling which they spawned from.)

2. The libidinal economy of schadenfreude---based on envy, anger, and general negativity---is the equivalent of trying to cash in on thousands of bad checks. Perhaps an even better analogy in light of recent events is to compare it to deficit spending, and the raising of a debt ceiling so that one can continue to invest with toxic assets.  Eventually that bullshit has to bounce. It is unsustainable, and destroys the social base on which all production is founded.

3. To illustrate how the libidinal economy of haterdom/trolling is unsustainable, think of those figures who benefit from the liquidation of a “real economy” of production, such as repo-men and pawn brokers. What happens when no one has stuff left to repossess or to pawn? When the bank and/or pawn shop owns all of the assets, what happens to the basis of the economy (exchange?). 

When envy and schadenfreude destroy the broader libidinal economy whose basis is the exchange of desires, what happens?---stratification into self-doubt, self-loathing, and paradoxical self-obsession, in which personal insecurities disinvest the social strata of their ability to "build" in a trans-individual manner.


Kanye and the Dharma

I believe what is needed now more than ever is a libidinal economy of “metta,” or loving-kindness---that is, of beatitude, OMs, blessings, good-will and understanding---essentially, the foundation for an economy of contribution “in which to economize means ‘to take care’” of both the world and the people in it (Bernard Stiegler).

Along with “karuna,” (compassion: “the hope that a person's sufferings will diminish”), “mudita” (empathetic joy: "the wholesome attitude of rejoicing in the happiness and virtues of all sentient beings."), and “upekkha” (equnamity: "not to distinguish between friend, enemy or stranger, but regard every sentient being as equal”)---these “Four Immeasurable Virtues” form the basis of a prefigurative politics, whose infinite objects of desire are capable of producing trans-individual “hopes for the future,” in the Husserlian sense of protentions. These are powerful and ancient ideational strctures that have the capability of restoring momentum to a libidinal economy on which “real” economies of (industrial, social, and psychic) production depend upon.

With that said, I am not a Buddhist.  But certainly, I believe there is something life-affirming and libidinally productive about the Four Immeasurables. Oddly enough, insight into these virtues is also the reason why I’m beginning to like Kanye more as both an artist and a person.

Despite Kanye’s lack of tact, moral deficiencies, and personal blunders, he has always made a point to publicly apologize for his actions and to take responsibility for his past indiscretions.

For example, in the song “New Day” on Watch the Throne, he describes the life of his unborn son via the trope of “the sins of the father” as a thinly veiled conceit for acknowledging his insecurities and admitting regret towards his unscrupulous deeds---in particular, declaring that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” on a national telethon:

And I’ll never let my son have an ego
He’ll be nice to everyone, wherever we go
I mean I might even make him be Republican
So everybody know he love white people
And I’ll never let him leave his college girlfriend
And get caught up with the groupies in the whirlwind
And I’ll never let him ever hit the telethon
I mean even if people dyin’ and the world ends
See, I just want him to have an easy life
Not like Yeezy life, just want him to be someone people like
Don’t want him to be hated all the time judged
Don’t be like your daddy that would never budge (“New Day,” Kanye West)

I admit, when Kanye says “I <3 Haters,” it can definitely be read as a method of trolling that utilizes the envy of haters to produce a kind of notoriety that he can profit from. But taken in another context, couldn’t it just as well be a sincere and almost Christ-like manner of speaking?

But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you. (Matthew 5:44, King James Bible)

To end, I quote from a friend of mine on Facebook, whose recent status update puts what I’m preaching into applicable practice, and which may help (us) proletarianized haters into reclaiming the means to (libidinal) production:

"So often we spend time acknowledging the presence of 'haters' and all the negativity they send our way but we don’t take the time to acknowledge and appreciate all the ones who love and support us and supply us with the positive energy we need to overcome."

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Watch the Throne Review, Part 1: Spectacle and Speculation

spectacle mid-14c.,
1. "specially prepared or arranged display," from O.Fr. spectacle,
2. from L. spectaculum "a show, spectacle,"
3. from spectare "to view, watch,"
4. frequentative form of specere "to look at,"
5. from PIE *spek- "to observe" (see scope (1)).


speculation late 14c.,
1. "contemplation, consideration," from O.Fr. speculation, 
2. from specere "to look at, view" (see scope (1)). 
3. Disparaging sense of "mere conjecture" is recorded from 1570s. 
a. Meaning "buying and selling in search of profit from rise and fall of market value" is recorded from 1774; short form spec is attested from 1794.


In a recent blog post reviewing Watch the Throne at MostlyJunkFood.com, the author "slenst" brings up two rich yet contentious points:  that the majority of what is marketed as hip hop today is conditioned by it’s relationship to “hype,” and that the cultural legitimacy of hip hop as a source of creative vitality is being devalued by its relation to economic utility.

What I want to do is push this argument further.

I propose that it is not only hip hop, but our entire ideological paradigm that is conditioned by “hype," including serious domains of human existence such as financial markets.  This is especially true in the sense of political economy, or rather, how the value of anything is regulated and determined in our society.

The nature of "hype" as it functions in both hip hop and financial markets is two-fold.  "Hype" consists of both spectacle and speculation---spectacle in the sense of anticipation that builds towards an artificial climactic event, such as a big box office movie release, and speculation in the sense of the future value assigned to such an event, such as it’s estimated box office market value.

I use movies as an example because American cinema in particular has a track record of producing multi-million dollar mindless blockbusters that exclude the existence of most films of substance making it into mainstream theaters.

Aside from movies and hip hop, we have entire economies of exchange who’s value is determined by spectacle and speculation---which is just another way of describing the short-term financialization and corporate marketing of everything in our contemporary lives, from the technology we use on a daily basis to the cultural identities we align ourselves with.  (For more on technological obsolescence and the marketing of identity, see my post on Cher Lloyd and Proletarianization.)

What "slenst" appears worried about is the reduction of the value and meaning of hip hop to this artificial and gimmicky economy of hype. For the most part I have to agree with him.  There is a real danger in falling pray to this logic of late capitalism, as evidenced by the 2008 financial crisis and the popping of the American housing bubble--a careless market that was essentially "hyped" up with no solid foundations on which to stand on.


‎"What you alter in the remembering has yet a reality, known or not." The Road, Cormac McCarthy

But in contrast to the liquidation of hip hop’s cultural legitimacy/longevity through short-term spectacle, speculaction, and marketing, an equally present danger lies in foreclosing hip hop’s dynamic of possibility by declaring that “hip hop is dead,” or by distinguishing between “good” and “bad” hip hop.

To nostalgize upon hip hop’s so-called golden era(s) is to ignore the fact that the foundation of the culture functions through it’s perpetual flux of influences, both high and low, and prematurely forecloses on the possibility of genuine exchange between social strata (i.e. Kanye's line in Otis: “sophisticated ignorance, write my verses in cursive.”).

Hip hop is problematic. Nothing about it is “given” or should be taken as such.  But the fact that it is problematic is also what makes it resilient, adaptable, and able to evolve.

Hip hop is no doubt different than it was in the 80’s, 90’s and even early 2000’s. But this is the inherent nature of music, and of all things in themselves.  Distinguishable forms arise and subside like tides in an ocean, but the momentum of the currents remain, shaping the environment and itself being shaped by the changing milieu.

If we were to extend this metaphor to hip hop as a cultural force, it can only really be seen as a wave of influence that conditions and is itself conditioned by larger forces---such as the political, economic, and social climate.

What is most important to keep note of is the overall momentum of the historical milieu as a whole, and to record the ways in which it builds upon itself like a tsunami that never quite reaches its destination.  Hip hop may never be as it once was, but that’s not to say that it’s effects can’t still be felt, seen, or touched.

What is at stake today is shaping hip hop into a culture of literacy and ideational production, as opposed to a culture of material consumption and spectacle.   

Hip hop fans, whether of the commercial or underground sway, more than ever need to “do the knowledge” and stop accepting what’s given to them as just being given.   To see hip hop for what it is and to anticipate where it’s going, we need a memory of where it came from.  On top of that, it is imperative to realize that this memory in itself is far from absolute and subject to change, both retroactively and during the context of it’s own time.

This is the reason I love websites such as rapgenius.com, where through an economy of contribution users analyze, interpret and give meaning to hip-hop lyricism through critiquing it as poetry.  The future of hip hop as a culture and a way of life depends on communities (as opposed to commodities) of exchange such as this.


Part 2 of this review offers an in-depth analysis of how Kanye West and Jay-Z's album Watch the Throne juggles the tension between speculation, spectacle, and expanding the "scope" of hip-hop through a return to it's roots in sampling.


Photo Credits

Père Ubu, "Society of the Spectacle" August 3, 2007 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution.

Katrina. Tuliao, "Philippine Stock Market Board" July 30, 2008 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution.

iammeltron, "Hip Hop Sucks" May 5, 2006 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Roc Marciano & The Return of the Repressed

Roc Marciano’s Marcberg is contemporary hip-hop’s equivalent to fine wine. If your ears were a nose, they’d be filled with the aroma of 90’s golden era rap upon popping the cork/tearing the shrink wrap. The bubbles would spout subtle hints of N.Y.C’s gritty street violence, and the tint would consist of blood, sweat, and tears. The album is a true labor of love, perfect in it’s imperfections, and the antithesis to corporate driven hip hop which has become fashionably disposable in its drive to technological flawlessness---a la autotune and 720p YouTube videos.

I do not mean to say that Marcberg is in any way poor in quality. What I mean to say is that with commercial hop hop, there is nothing left to the imagination. Every sound byte is calculated into dollar signs, and every second is designed to attract as wide a demographic as possible: young Caucasian males, adolescent girls, college-aged club hoppers, etc. The Hip-Hop & R&B Singles Charts is the equivalent of a national newspaper written in 5th grade vernacular. Except instead of information, what is offered is a broken mirror of disposable trends and off-the-rack “swagger” designed to disenfranchise youth of their intelligence and originality.

What we have with Roc Marciano, and similar artists such as MarQ Spekt, is fidelity; faithfulness to a D.I.Y. tradition in hip-hop long since lost, save for a few who still "pay homage, respect,” and push the conceptual envelope (see: Pusha T and Sean Price). In an era where unclever non-sequiturs reign supreme (see: Nicki Minaj and Lil Wayne), Marciano’s lyrical stream of consciousness paves the way for a novel stroll down what’s now considered cliched territory---the street hustler’s narrative---laid over minimalist sample-based tracks inherited from the MPC-2500, an artifact which itself is fading into technical obscurity via the rise of Macbooks and digital production.

Needless to say, Roc Marciano's mindset stems from another temporality altogether, denoted by the blaxploitation sound clips found in the aptly titled "Pimptro," as well as in the transitions between the album's otherwise seamless 15 tracks.  There's a raw hunger here that differs from the sense of entitlement that today's would-be rappers posit on their guest spots, the kind of hunger that gets you from "skinny to chubby / in the city that's gully."

Whichever way you slice it, Marcberg contains a plethora of quotables well-thought out in their verbal execution and visual coherence. Roc’s unique stylings bring poetic relavence back to hardcore hip hop, a now mostly buried art form, through image-laden lyrics such as found in the second verse to the title track:

"Prada on with the cashmere
Keep the gat near the cashier
We like deer versus black bear--
Rap clear, and let the wax tear off your back hair
I’m back in here, act sincere
I smash your ear
With a glass of beer like “yeah!”
The mad stare with the Shaft beard..." (Roc Marciano, "Marcberg") 

With all that said, Marcberg is hands down my favorite album of the year. Although admittedly not for everybody, that seems (to me at least) to be the beauty of it.  Like fine wine, this rare style of hip hop is an acquired taste, but is nevertheless distinguished from the fountain-soda pop rap made available anywhere, to anyone.  And that by itself makes it worthwhile.


Photo Credits

gfpeck, "Red Wine" November 7, 2009 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Cher Lloyd and the Proletarianization of a Generation

A friend of mine wanted my two cents on this video by Cher Lloyd called "Swagger Jagger."

 I'd never heard of the artist or the song before, but my immediate impression was that it functions as an extended commercial for solipsistic marketing---i.e, hip hop tropes and electronic noises slapped together to appeal to confused adolescents with attention deficit problems---nothing you haven't seen before.

Here's what I had to say:

"I find it interesting that the first thing object displayed is a cell phone, because it works as a good analogy for describing what "swagger" and identity means in the context of this video.  "Swagger" here has a quality of built-in obsolescence to it that reflects the broader ideological milieu we're living in. 
Like technology (i.e. cell phones), swagger's not built to be durable, or even to be understood---it's always something you buy into until the "next" thing comes along. It's short-term and disposable. 
Like technology, swagger's not something you want or even desire---it's something you need or you'll be left behind in society, like owning a 10 year old cell phone that can't text. 
Like technology, it's designed to manipulate your senses and direct your attention towards a screen, which acts as a soplisistic mirror for defining yourself. 
But since the (culture and technological) industries control the means to this access to yourself, they literally and figuratively own the means to your identity and sense of worth. 
So when Cher Lloyd commands us to "get on the floor," "count our money," and "let it go," she really means it. She wants us to be complacent knowledge-less workers with only enough purchasing power to buy our fleeting sense of identity back from the very companies that liquidate any working sense of identity."

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

“Frontier Province”: Super Chron Flight Brothers and the World Tour trilogy

The Super Chron Flight Brothers consists of soothsayers Billy Woods and Priviledge, as well as NYC producers Nasa, Marmaduke, BOND, and Willie Green. Together they form an impressive assemblage of aesthetic elements reminiscent of what made hip hop interesting, subversive, and inherently political in the first place – sample-based détournements, daring storytelling, dynamic lyricism, generational inside jokes, literary and pop culture references, and embedded articulations of current events – wrapped into three palatable concept albums that leave the initiated wanting for more.

The Flight Brothers utilize an arsenal of poetic techniques and linguistic flows unavailable to the majority of rappers today. Their song-long conceits are buttressed with sound internal rhymes, complex metaphors, off-the-wall puns, and linguistic streams of consciousness that leap off the conceptual deep end.

While Priviledge's language-bending tongue twisters often re-enact the higher mental processes of "your brain on purple haze," Billy Woods' slow-mo flow plays the pauses, delivering a heavy handed swath of sociocultural imagery matched only by the weight of his baritone delivery.


The Super Chron Flight Brothers' “World Tour” album trilogy encompasses a diverse sampling of subject matter, with everything from globalization to gentrification prompted for prodding and negation.

In Emergency Powers, the first volume of the World Tour series, the Flight Brothers undertake a critical examination of world events and trends between 2005-2007, incorporating issues from the War in Iraq to the War on Drugs under polysemous perspectives and personas. As per their group's moniker, “Super Chron,” the consumption of high-grade marijuana aids in their channeling of these transcendental viewpoints. Their flights of speculative critique, mixed with a sardonically tinged sense of stoner humor, give the Brothers license to speak as if they were actually present in various locations, with “half of the tracks co-titled 'Live from Somewhere'” (Nathaniel Long, Hip Hop Linguistics).

SCFB's intercontinental flights across time and space are meant to evoke a need to connect the dots between such seemingly disparate events as the 2007 financial crisis to Yosemite Sam cartoons, disillusioned stoners to child soldiers in Uganda,  and even Islamic fundamentalists to blue collar workers.  This calls for rhizomatic leaps in thought and intuition thats asks a lot from the listener, but which promises to give more food for thought in return.

(This “food for thought” metaphor is toyed with in the album art to SCFB's third album, Cape Verde, which features prominent SLR photographs of various exotic mouthwatering seafoods at the “Wo Hop” restaurant in New York City's Chinatown.)


Emergency Powers begins with “Drought,” a song which features a spaghetti western soundscape designed to engage sympathy for the small time hustler getting by. The Flight Brothers introduce themselves through tales of their lives as precarious middle-men moving pounds of marijuana in the midst of America's War on Drugs, where undercover “federalis” with cameras play "gotcha with the zoom.” Here the hyperbolic gestures of “bling bling” toted by coke rap acts like Clipse are altogether avoided, the reasoning that “if the weeds blue"--or high quality--"that you should “keep that to yourself / if you value your health."  (Billy Woods, “Drought”).

As another contrast to typical hustler narratives in hip hop, the logic behind the alternative economy of pushing drugs in “Drought” makes direct connections with issues of proletarianization, class mobility and the refusal to subscribe to dead end wage labor jobs. Here the hustler's lifestyle offers a kind of elusive independence from capitalist institutions that can't be found at McDonalds or Sears, but sans the glorified excess associated with the multi-million dollar drug trade:

Dodge City, August 1999, hot than a mug
AC broke sweatin the time
Waiting for these drugs, biting my nails
Daydreaming weights and scales
Big sales, fuck retail, yadda yadda
Type scheming that'll keep me out of jail, eatin' proper. (Billy Woods, “Drought”) 
Think about wage earners, and modern day slave labor
I'd rather brush my teeth, with a rusty razor
Then front and bullshit, with all you fakers
I'm a kind bud breaker - stay quiet, with noise makers. (Priviledge, “Drought”)
On “High Grade,” another track that references marijuana in the title, the Flight Brothers are at their most apathetic, but non-coincidentally at their polemical. Priviledge in the chorus states that he'd rather “Blaze 'til I touch mars and clutch jars / Filled with high grade then race with these cars and trucks."  Taken literally, his refusal to drive on highways functions as a protest to the oil-based economies of suburban sprawl in post-WWII America.  Figuratively, he takes an apolitical stance towards what he critiques as the pointless rat race of  21st century progress, saving his labor power solely for lighting blunts.

In addition, Billy Woods verses' in "High Grade" offer a scathing critique of the War in Iraq, hollowed/hallowed religious movements, and a negation of the ideological pretenses underlying American nationalism in terms of pro-black politics:

Signed up and now you're pretty much stuck
Fuck The Troops
And sorry if that applies to someone near you
But the day you start following orders
Is the day you become a tool, full court jester
Im not a professor, and this is more of an anecdote than a lecture
But walk with Caeser, you're gonna get burned
It's like niggas will never learn
White boys been hearing land of the free so long
They can't help but go along
But black people we know its just a song
We know how they speak right and do wrong
You'd be better off selling crack
Closest imma get to Iraq is the hash in this bong.
(Billy Woods, “High Grade”)


In "Guy Fawkes," co-titled "Live from Baidoa, Somalia,” Billy Woods posits the figure of “the foreigner – a non-descript character at first glance / who got everything from callahans to exotic plants” as a kind of corrupted Agamben “whatever singularity” inherent to the functioning of late-capitalism in it's individuated formations.  This is in that Woods is able to trace the role of the unassuming “invisible outside investor” present throughout the globalized world that “historically feeds off of, and often helps sustain, war torn areas in selfish quests to profit from death” through various historical instances (Nathaniel Long, Hip Hop Linguistics).  These include references to:
  • drug lords (“Billy Clint on 153rd and Bahrain”)
  • black marketers (“the Chinese counterfeiters”)
  • crime syndicates (“Wu Chang, aka the black bird”)
  • arms dealers (“once the check clears get you past Mogadishu / warheads for those missiles”)
  • African oligarchs (“'Mr. Africa' with perfect penmanship”)
  • European fascists (“who passed the poison to Hitler as Berlin was burning”)
  • pimps (“Hagar the Horrible got Blondie in the oldest profession”)
  • and human traffickers:
Colombian pilots thinking that they hauling bales of Jamaican
But the hull's full of undocumented Haitians
That's international relations, that's immigration and naturalization
He got aliens patiently waiting at 8-mile to body snatch your white Christ
And in the Congo he sold arms to loyalists and rebels alike
So there's little sympathy for the devil,
But it's never his head on the pike
A rolling stone gathers no moss
And not one of those arraigned could identify the boss. (Billy Woods, “Guy Fawkes”)

“A Million Little Pieces”, co-titled “Live from the Oprah Show,” puns on the best-selling memoir by James Frey, a semi-fictional novel which caused controversy over Oprah's credibility when Frey revealed he embellished and/or parts of his tale of drug addiction.

For the Flight Brothers, this embellishment of reality is essential to the experience of consumer-based subjectivity in the age of capitalist spectacle, in which there are an overwhelming amount “of fake scenarios for me to get 'round” with enough room to “get down on whichever one sounds the best” (Priviledge, “A Million Little Pieces”).

The brothers transmute this theme of vicarious subjectivity into well executed puns that reference books, television shows, and movies that develop into structured poetic conceits. For instance, Priviledge utilizes the names of television shows to embed a larger tale about growing up in a media-saturated culture:

Just chill for “60 Minutes” cause hindsight is “20/20”
Those were "Good Times" we were having, hmm,
What happened? (I dunno?)
What's happening? "What's Happening Now?"
I guess it's all in the "Family Ties"
At one point "All My Children" were "Young and Restless"
Momma said: “Well it's a fact for sure, you know -
You're about to have your “Worst Week Ever," turning “24”
"Welcome to the Real World," she said methinks
You could either be "Survivor" or diver like Michael Spinks. (Priviledge, “A Million Little Pieces”)


In “First Blood”, the stoner duo take to serious subject matter that most rappers (let alone most writers) wouldn't touch by putting themselves in the shoes of radical Islamic fundamentalists. Billy Woods delves into the cold-hearted psyche of a rogue sleeper cell plotting various terrorist attacks on first world nations, while Priviledge articulates the experience of a Palestinian turned extremist living on edge in Israeli-occupied territory.

The audio samples (and the song title) taken from Rambo: First Blood accentuate a deep historical sense of karma, in which America “[wants] to deny that we're dealing with an expert in guerrilla warfare,” with the counter point being that “NOTHING IS OVER!” and that “You just don't turn it off” (Rambo: First Blood). The conceptual parallel drawn between these two audio samples is that much like with Rambo, the Vietnam War veteran, it is the United States itself that has sometimes funded and given reason for anti-American extremists to become skilled killing machines in the first place.

An infamous example of this uncanny recursive process at work can be found in the blowback of the C.I.A. sponored Operation Cyclone that took place during 1979-1989, in which “the early foundations of Al-Qaida were built in part on relationships and weaponry that came from the billions of dollars in U.S. support for the Afghan mujaheddin during the war to expel Soviet forces from that country” (Tompaine.com).

The video for “First Blood” consists of a montage sliced together from news reports and live footage of terrorists in action, with the tit-for-tat imagery in the lyrics matching exactly that which is portrayed in the video:
It's the two piece of Tunis
Had to get back hand stamped son,
Curfews in effect in Baltic camp
We Guildenstern and Rosencrantz:
All the world's a stage and my props are
Highly flammable, combustible, materials
Tear gas is a snack
A shank is thanks on the West Bank
His fleeting ambition just sank
With the rest of 'em
Next of kin, had they shack bulldozed
A black flower grows in the sand
Don't pick it - that rose is just a ruse
P.L.O is my witness
Cross another name off the hit list
Kids shit, “My First Martyr” kit
Might hurt a little
But that surgeon in Calandia's
A motherfucking artist--
Sharp as a tack, hard to the point,
Ahead of the jeep
Now Jerusalem streets filled with screams (Priviledge, “First Blood”)
Gimme 4 walls and a ceiling
2 laptops, 11 believers with no feelings, Insha'Allah;
I'll have Rome reeling
Satellite phones for my dealings
Spotless prayer rugs
Ammonium nitrate in the bathtub
Don't slam 'em doors, four maytags on
Forty nights straight, a true labor of love
Applied Science, Chemistry double major
More pure than hate, colder than anger
Made a timer out a CD changer,
Allah's A-team in blacked out vans
Come together like Hannibal plans
Cannibal Ox is on planes
That won't fly like V8 rockets
Synchronize watches on Madrid's trains
'Fore I rock away payphones, mad change
Suspicious, long distance
Karachi, Pakistan operative assistance
“Demolition Man”: he's walking dead
Staring at the Queensboro strand
Thinking cap on his head... (Billy Woods, “First Blood”)

In “Slaughterhouse,” Billy Woods delivers a biopic deconstruction of the commercial rapper's life “back stage, behind the music,” where the political stakes of hip hop as a cultural commodity are worth “more than just words on a page.” He describes the commercial rap artists' thug life persona as a “bitter old masquerade,” with their existence doomed to being “dialectic slaves ever in the rack,” unable to overcome their sideshow act tied to the “mills in the briefcase” offered by the hip hop entertainment industry. He labels rappers as “the great pretenders” and their characteristic diamond engraved “ice grillz” as “new blackface,” with the sloganized couplet of “Live by the gun? / Trust me that Uzi weigh a ton” further signaling the theatricality of gangsta rap marketing.

The latter half of Woods' verse is reminiscent of the symbolic green light at the end of The Great Gatsby, in which “the American dream” is “written in stifling tenements by flicking florescent lights” (Billy Woods, “Slaughterhouse). In the case of the commercial gangsta rapper, “the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us” (Fitzgerald 143) is found in the selfishness of “B.M.W's sitting on the biggest kicks” that represent “every black man's wish personified” (Billy Woods, “Slaughterhouse). For Woods, these empty signifiers represent a distorted dream for the majority of the disenfranchised blacks in the United States, a group which he further as lost “in the dark, searching for that light switch” (Billy Woods, “Slaughterhouse”).


Throughout the Flight Brothers' World Tour catalogue, but especially in their dubstep infused sophomore album Indonesia, Woods draws several parallels between various parts of the African diaspora, ranging from “child soldiers” that are “African Robotics” in Uganda to “baby faced lookouts” in New York City's drug-ridden midnight streets (“Low Tide”). A general theme that Woods articulates in respect to the African diaspora is a lack of centralized leadership in black communities, an absence with is correlated with an overabundance of child soldiers and “youngings [that] cut class to pledge blood,” groomed to commit violence at a moments notice (Billy Woods, “Jumpstreet”).

On Indonesia, Woods tropes on the figure of “the New Negro” who “got his swagger right watching Huey [Newton] hit that pipe” (Billy Woods, “Xanax”), and how the “Pepsi generation” of “Toys-R-Us kids / didn't grow up [but] did bids (Billy Woods, “Gatwick”).  Woods expresses similar sentiments in “Drought” about how kids “eyes numb” but how “that same PlayStation thumb can cock a gun,” with the logic being that “if we ain't getting out the slum / then why should you?” (Billy Woods, “Drought”). The most that Woods himself offers to a younger generation in terms of guidance and 'getting over' is found on “To Catch a Thief,” when he states:

My advice: stay in school, hit the books good
And marry that girl already
Option two: bake the pies, stay on the grass,
Tell Mom a few white lies, hit the ground running. (Billy Woods, “To Catch a Thief”)


The third album in the World Tour series, Cape Verde, offers an introspective view of American life and current events through the conceptual lens of “a day in front of the TV” circa 2010. In an interview with the Village Voice concerning the theme of Cape Verde, Billy Woods states that “if you want to know about America, what better way than TV--that's how most of the world absorbs the idea of America. When I was growing up in Zimbabwe we still had G.I. Joe, Cosby Show, all that...So American TV, to an extent, is universal” (Billy Woods, Village Voice).

This universalizing sentiment associated with American TV is channeled through the intro tracks of “Reggie Miller”, “Golden Grams” and “Strangers With Candy,” which function as contemporary bildungsroman for the 21st century adolescent growing up in a world saturated with pop culture and high-fructose corn syrup.

The title to “Reggie Miller” is a reference to both low-grade marijuana and the 1970's Indiana Pacers shooting guard, functioning in the song as a nostalgic throwback to an time where watching “The Wonder Years” was the norm. Willie Green's signature organ pipes create a sonic space in which the Flight Brothers “juxtapose youthful reflection with the jadedness of old age,” where “it's a fine line between schwag and midgrade / Jail cells and heydays / Classics and stuff that's just old” (Billy Woods, “Reggie Miller”).

What results from the juxtaposition between old and new, as well as memory and souvenir, is the characterization of what Bernard Stiegler might refer to as the opposition between anamnesis and hypomnesis, whereby "we discover that a part of ourselves (like our memory) is outside of us," left in traces of objects that haunt us as living spectres, whether canonized or obsolete.


“Golden Grams” has a similar thematic to the song “A Million Little Pieces” on Emergency Powers, where Priviledge re-appropriates the names of cereal brands to tell a larger tale of how “we savor these variety packs” in the first world spectacle of commodity fetishism. He elaborates in the chorus how “kids'll choose their own adventure” but be “minus the map,” only to “find their way right back” to the vicious circle underpinning late-capitalism's ideology of predatory greed and logic of endless accumulation, where you can end up “six feet under rocky roads over some cookie dough,” or cold hard cash.

 The Looney Toons samples at the beginning of “Golden Grams” détournés a seemingly innocent kind of neo-liberal ideology found in American animated cartoon characters, where Rocky and Bulwinkle dream of “[becoming] so rich that [they'll] have to hire people just to count [their] money.” Taken in the subversive context of the song, these samples of Saturday morning cartoons are deterritorialized from their childhood body of virtuosity, transformed and “re-membered” as a seditious form of capitalist propaganda.


The songs “Jumpstreet,” “Good Country People,” and “B More” come in where “Drought” in Emergency Powers takes off, concerning tales of precarious drug deals sans the hyperbolic glory of gangsta rap era troping.  In fact, these songs produce just the opposite effect, by offering an introspective look into the drug dealer's paranoid psychology.

For example, the music video for “B More” contains super-close up shots of Billy Woods hiding in a safe house, where juxtaposed scenes of empty Heineken bottles, platters of cocaine, and mixtapes littered on the floor project the claustrophobic affect of the drug dealer's self-imposed prison.

Billy Woods further tropes on the drug dealer's internalized delusions in “B-More” by utilizing allusions to Edgar Allen Poe, specifically with regard to his most famous poem, “The Raven”:
Once upon a midnight dreary
While I pondered, weak and weary
Through bingy curtains
The movement of serpents lurking
Pinch-faced merchants
They have the last thing you need and
All it costs is everything you have,
Only the slave is truly free
Put pen to pad, but the truth never comes
Empty out the bag but instead of a boost your numb
And the raven/raving ain't done,
Perched above my chamber door, having his fun
Wings black as a dead son/sun. (Billy Woods, “B More”)
In addition, "B-More" doubles as slang for the city of Baltimore, Maryland, where the HBO television drama “The Wire” is set. Throughout its 5 season run, “The Wire” reveals “class issues and the social order of contemporary life” in Baltimore through a kaleidoscopic view of the city's larger organizational frameworks, where individuals are forced to “contend with whatever institution they are committed to,” whether it be the illegal drug trade or the city government and bureaucracy (The Wire Wiki).  Thus, the song “B More” features prominent samples of audio clips from “The Wire” as a warning against the dangers of hustling drugs in a vicious systemic cycle designed to get you killed, and where the chances for success are slim to none:

Live the life, lead the life, ain't no big thing -
He used to talk that shit all that time and believed it,
You know what I mean?
See, the thing is, you only got to fuck up once.
Be a little slow, be a little late, just once.
And how you ain't never gonna be slow? Never be late?
(Avon Barksdale, “The Wire”)


In “No Spin Zone,” Priviledge takes a satirical saunter through the playland of cable TV's so-called political analysts. The producer BOND makes sure to accentuate “No Spin Zone's” satirical theme with embarrassing samples taken from the the O'Reilly Factor, one in particular which depicts the Culture Warrior “flipping out,” as per the YouTube video title, screaming “we'll do it live... WE'LL DO IT LIVE! FUCK IT! DO IT LIVE...Fucking thing SUCKS!” (Inside Edition). Priviledge openly mocks a swath of prominent right wing pundits “reading [off of the] teleprompters that spew lies” by depicting them in ridiculous situations, breaking through the fourth wall and toying with the hermetic seal of their feigned patriotism:

Now really I was giving it to Nancy Grace in the face,
Staring up at her picture frame, and inside,
Was Arianna Huffington with Ann Coulter
Posing like the chicks from that lesbian kiss poster.
(Priviledge, “No Spin Zone”)


“To Catch a Thief” from Emergency Powers, co-titled “live from Wall Street, NYC,” captures the ruthless affect of late-capitalism's worst offenders over electronic bleeps and bloops that evoke the rattle of New York Stock Exchange ticker tape. Direct samples taken from speeches by corporate C.E.Os and U.S. Presidents, including George Bush Sr. and Ronald Reagan, harp on neo-liberal propaganda and speculative finance capital in-between verses concerning the disenfranchised blue collar worker's slippery slope to drug deals and armed robberies, as well as stories about fleeting encounters between out-of-work romantics.

The most solemn subject matter found in Cape Verde picks up where “To Catch A Thief” in Emergency Powers left off. “Wheel of Fortune” and “Travallier” depict an apocalyptic caricature of neo-liberal ideology in the wake of the financial crisis of 2007-2010, where the topography American life has shifted in accordance with the shock waves felt from government bailouts, the failure of banking institutions, and the collapse of the American housing bubble, "where a lot of families got screwed out their nest egg” (Priviledge).

The off-kilter beat produced by Nasa for “Wheel of Fortune” frames the financial crisis through audio samples taken from hysterical game show contestants on “Deal or No Deal,” with the implication being that average wage earning Americans have gone crazy and are ready to take whatever they can get in this time of financial uncertainty. Priviledge articulates a lyrical jigsaw puzzle that juxtaposes Bernie Madoff's billion dollar ponzi scheme to government bailouts, as well as America's precarious ties to the World Bank, just one of many quasi-governmental organizations known for manipulating the financial institutions of entire countries:

Now watch the ticker tape as it falls so fast
Credit to false swap stashed in a burlap sack out back
With a card attached that read
"Thanks for being a friend –
Love, U.S dot gov”
Now send it to the world bank on the hush hush
No muster fuss with us, large with fiddles
You not working get a job, sparkling wiggles*
You know its pretty criminal to leverage a principal
Thirty times over in a ponzi scheme
I've seen it in once in a Fonzie dream sequence
On an old sitcom with a grown up Opie. (Priviledge, “Wheel of Fortune”)

In “Wheel of Fortune” and “Travallier,” Billy Woods takes on various personas that characterize the systematic underpinnings of white collar crime, the dark side to speculative financialization, and America's addiction to predatory late-capitalist logic, even in a time when it seems most prudent to abandon these ideals.

In “Travallier” Billy Woods describes the figure of the globe trotting speculative financier as a “clockwork diplomatic” and the proud owner of a “Howard School of B Georgetown associates degree.” His business is in “strip mining the margins for dollar signs,” and to him the sound of “stock ticker” tape is like “XXX porn,” with his involvement in the “free market” being akin to a “crack” addiction (Billy Woods, “Travallier”).  The allusion is fitting, considering that global markets have been spiraling into an addiction for speculative capital since the Bretton Woods system of monetary policy management for industrialized states was dismantled in the 1970's, which simultaneously led to the termination of the U.S. gold standard.

In “Wheel of Fortune,” Billy Woods becomes a mouthpiece for money-making schemes and infomercials that lure the unsuspectingly desperate and fiscally ignorant into further and further debt:

Face foreclosure, it's the eye of the beholder
You see a boarded up duplex I see a copper mine
That's the power of positive thinking
That's the genius from my work from home
Online free money system
The road to perdition is paid with debt consolidation forms:
Arm, leg, and your first born
Midnight marauders, robo-calls from my answering machine
Piña coladas at the Marriott in Wichita Falls for a seminar
Living the dream, crunching the credit
Learn how to make so much money you cant spend it
As seen in USA Today...
Piled up like flap jacks, flipped his house like loose crack
Nigga, Rich Boi just bought a Cadillac
Two bedroom, two baths and hacky sack, black
I'll definitely holler when the SMB* bounce back.
*SMB = Small to Medium Businesses
(Billy Woods, “Wheel of Fortune”)
The musical contrast drawn between "Wheel of Fortune" and "Travallier" is that of the manic-depressive state of late-capitalism, where brief spurts of economic growth only signal the spasmic death throes of a consumer-based system in jeopardy of total collapse.


Cape Verde ends with a self-referential audio sample alluding to the state of hip hop and the political potential of music in general, in which Pat Robertson, better known as right wing media mogul and owner of the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), preaches:

"You know, I can't stand some of these churches today and all these rock bands. Even Al Sharpton, the great black leader said, “We are fed up with the filthiness of these songs, and all the vile language they use.” Someone said, “Do you believe there'll be music in hell?” Well, if it is it'll be rock n' roll and rap, and I make no apologies for saying that. 
"We've done away with the old hymns of the faith, the old rugged cross, I'd rather have Jesus; what have I to fear, what have I to dread? Nothing, I'm leaning on the ever lasting arms – you cant even get a decent message out in most of today's 'music,' and I'm not afraid to say it.” (Marion Gordon "Pat" Robertson, The 700 Club.)
Thankfully for us, rap groups such as the Super Chron Flight Brothers are putting out quality music with a decent message--one which they aren't afraid to say (or sample) either.


Works Cited

Anonymous. "Super Chron Flight Brothers." Cooleh Magazine. 24 Aug. 2010. Web. 26 Nov. 2010. <http://www.coolehmag.com/frontEnd/booth.php>.

Anonymous. "Cannibal Ox | Definitive Jux Records."Definitive Jux Records. Web. 26 Nov. 2010. <http://www.definitivejux.net/jukies/cannibal-ox>.

Anonymous. "It's Been a Long Time Coming..." Backwoodz Studioz. 2002. Web. 26 Nov. 2010. <http://www.backwoodzstudioz.com/>.

Woods, Billy, Priviledge, Marq Spekt, and Hi-Coup. Emergency Powers: The World Tour. Super Chron Flight Brothers. BOND, 2007. CD.

Woods, Billy, and Priviledge. Indonesia. Super Chron Flight Brothers. Marmaduke, 2009. CD.

Woods, Billy, Priviledge, Marq Spekt, and Big Jus. Cape Verde. Super Chron Flight Brothers. BOND, Willie Green, 2010. CD.

Long, Nathaniel. "Super Chron Flight Brothers "Emergency Powers: The World Tour" Review." Hip hop Linguistic. 11 July 2007. Web. 26 Nov. 2010. <http://www.hiphoplinguistics.com/reviews/albums/2007/07/super-chron-flight-brothers-emergency-rations-the-world-tour>.

Kantor, Matthew. "Reviews: Super Chron Flight Brothers: Emergency Powers -The World Tour." Allhiphop. 4 June 2007. Web. 26 Nov. 2010. <http://allhiphop.com/stories/reviewsmusic/archive/2007/06/04/18136948.aspx>.

Ducker, Jesse. "Fifth Element Online :: Super Chron Flight Brothers-Cape Verde (2010) « Fifth Element Blog." Fifth Element Online :: Home Page. 28 July 2010. Web. 26 Nov. 2010. <http://fifthelementonline.com/blog/super-chron-flight-brothers-cape-verde-2010/>.

Weingarten, Christopher. "Download "Reggie Miller," Super Chron Flight Brothers' Wonder Years-Sampling Stroll Down Rap Nostalgia Lane - New York Music - Sound of the City." The Village Voice Blogs. 3 June 2010. Web. 26 Nov. 2010. <http://blogs.villagevoice.com/music/2010/06/download_reggie.php>.

Anonymous. "Super Chron Flight Brothers | Indonesia." Highsnobiety. 21 Apr. 2009. Web. 26 Nov. 2010. <http://highsnobiety.com/columns/timbrodhagen/2009/04/21/super-chron-flight-brothers-indonesia/>.

Pettman, Dominic. Love and Other Technologies: Retrofitting Eros for the Information Age. New York: Fordham UP, 2006. Print.

Bahn, Jimmy. "YouTube - First Blood Terrorist." YouTube - Broadcast Yourself. 6 Mar. 2008. Web. 26 Nov. 2010. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zIRIT3pWGo0>.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott, and Matthew J. Bruccoli. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner, 1996. Print.


Photo Credits

Lotte Grønkjær, “The World Tour” May 21, 2008 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution.

Tim Boyd, “Oprah Freaks Out Over A Category” January 26, 2006 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution.

Ukhomeoffice, “Cannabis plants in box” September 13, 2010 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution.

Jon Feinstein, “grillz” February 1, 2009 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution.

Hdptcar, “Demobilize child soldiers in the Central African Republic” June 20, 2007 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution.

Daniel Horacio Agostini, “Kicking TelevisionJanuary 19, 2006. via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution. 

DelScorchoSauce, “’That’s All, Folks!’” October 27, 2007 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution.

Theleetgeeks, “Bill O’reilly Goes Crazy on The Set of Inside Edition” May 13, 2008 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution.

Nationaal Archief, “Cleaner sweeping the floor after Wall Street crash, 1929” January 20, 2011 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution.

    “Representing That World Town”: M.I.A. and Kala / Arular

    With alternative forms of imaginative labor, economies of scale, and modes of distribution available to the post-industrial hip hop generation of the new millenium, the meaning of "underground" and "mainstream" in the American mediasphere are losing their once clear cut significance. Just a decade prior, the only way for an artist to get national exposure was to “sell out” and sign a deal with a major record label. In contrast, the contemporary relationship between popular music and the populous is no longer the one-way street managed by the music industry's corporate gatekeepers, as I have demonstrated in my analysis of the street driven "mixtape hustle" and its post-millennial relationship to internet file sharing; a shift which has largely democratized the consumption, production, and distribution of hip hop culture and music.

    Maya Arulpragasam, who goes by the moniker of "M.I.A." (for Missing In Action,) is a seminal example of a post-millennial hip hop artist that blurs the line between the underground and mainstream, and who stages provocative symbolic border crossings within her performance art. According to M.I.A., "It's not a war between the mainstream and underground... It's about polluting the mainstream, or hacking into it" (SPIN). As such, her particular form of "agitprop pop" is an eclectic mix of Madonna-esque sensibility, hip hop gangsta troping, and militant third world slogans serendipitously packaged as a first world pop commodity. M.I.A.'s mash up functions as the monstrous/chimeric return of the becoming-global Other into the first world's sterile signifying space of the Spectacle, in which nothing is supposed to "happen" until it is represented as such (Marcus 98). Her aesthetic functions as a symbolically disruptive crossing-over of genres and discursive genealogies which is appropriately reflective of contemporary events, in which the the decline of the United States as dominant economic hegemon are disrupting the taken-for-granted discursive ideologies of the neo-liberal/terror stricken "global" as such.

    Before becoming a musician, M.I.A. began her career as a graffiti based visual artist at London's Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, where she earned a degree in fine-arts and film production (SPIN, VIBE). While shooting a documentary of fellow graduate electroclash artist Peaches, Maya was introduced to the Roland MC-505 sequencer/drum machine. Out of boredom, she began producing demo recordings in her studio apartment, developing into the singles “M.I.A.” and “Galang” (SPIN Magazine).

    Her sample-heavy bricolage is a tribute to Public Enemy, whom Maya grew up listening to in the U.K. after she fled Sri Lanka with her family as a refugee during the intensification of the ethnic Civil War there in 1986. Public Enemy is a cornerstone in the political rap genre, known for their 300+ sample sonic collages (courtesy of Terminator X) and their consciously infused lyricism (via Chuck D), which champions black nationalism and an ideology of systemic justice for the disenfranchised (Chang 318). It is thus that M.I.A.'s Chuck D/Terminator X inspired music is one that champions resistance and solidarity on behalf of people at the global ‘margins,’ with the aim of causing ideological and aesthetic tension in the American mainstream through a concoction of provocative signifiers and styles.

    M.I.A.'s aesthetics, made up of catchy electronic pop beats infused with politically cryptic messages designed to "hack into the mainstream" and to "give war a chance," presents an ideological challenge to first world discourses on nationalism, particularly with how nations such as the United States define themselves against the generalized 'Other' of "terrorism.” In 2004-2005, M.I.A. created a "near hysterical buzz" on the blogosphere with the sardonically titled mixtape "Piracy Funds Terrorism," the title of which pokes fun at American policies on intellectual property theft, and specifically how the entertainment industry's lost profits from illegal peer-to-peer file sharing is in current reactionary discourse mutually linked to the destruction of American ideals and safety in a post-9/11 age. The tape contains sneak peek remixes of songs from her first full length album Arular, named after her father's code name in the Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students (EROS), a separatist movement in Sri Lanka that fought for an independent Tamil state from the ruling Sinhalese population in the 1980's. (SPIN Magazine).

    M.I.A. has received major flak from music critics and Sri Lankans alike regarding both her father's militant Tamil ties and references/images of tigers in her cover art and music. Some, including fellow Sri Lankan artist named DeLon, have accused her of proliferating support for the Tamil Tigers, "one of the top terrorists groups on the FBI's most wanted list":

    These people try to link me to the Tamil Tigers, then link them to Al Qaeda, which is ridiculous. It sounds small, but I'm pretty sure DeLon has made it so I can never go to Sri Lanka again. And If I can be called a terrorist for just saying what I say, I feel for the people in Sri Lanka who don't have a name or a lawyer or who aren't a British citizen. If you live in a village there and get called a terrorist, you're dead. (M.I.A., Interview with Papermag 29, Nov 2007)

    The song "Sunshowers" on Arular functions as a self-conscious rejoinder to M.I.A.'s critics who accuse her of being a terrorist, and is a larger critique of how "you can't separate the world into two parts like that, good and evil," particularly with reference to the Orientalist fashion in which "America has successfully tied all these pockets of independence struggles, revolutions and extremists into one big notion of terrorism" (web.archive.org). The song begins with the lines "To Congo / To Columbo / Can't stereotype my thing yo," which is self-referential in the sense that this song can't be stereotyped, either as a pop song or as advocating a stance "for" or "against" terrorism. Though there are references to terrorist tropes that play into her critics' expectations ("You wanna win a war? / Like P.L.O. I don't surrendo"), she also subverts these expectations by humanizing the narrative which turns the 'Other' into monsters, taking the perspective of a man who was killed for simply associating with people who fit terrorist profiles:

    He told them he didn't know them

    He wasn't there they didn't know him

    They showed him a picture then

    Ain't that you with the muslims? (M.I.A., “Sunshowers”)

    The chorus, sampled from a pop song by Dr Buzzard's Original Savannah Band, transforms the terrorist's enmity born from injustice into sugary disco-cliche, rendering it's searing malice present in it's seeming absence:

    The sunshowers that fall on my troubles

    Are over you my baby

    And some showers I'll be aiming at you

    'Cos I'm watching you my baby. (M.I.A., “Sunshowers”)

    To complicate the discourse of terror further, the man who was killed for looking like a terrorist is described as having "colgate on his teeth / and Reebok Classic on his feet,” who also works “at a factory” where “he does Nike / and then helps the family” (M.I.A., “Sunshowers”). These subversions and détournements of terrorist sentiments into and out of tropes signifying American capitalist production problematizes the ties between first world and third world discursive ideologies, bringing a sense of personal depth and historical complexity to political issues which have otherwise been "stereotyped," categorized, and "made into good and evil."

    The political potency of M.I.A.'s aesthetics is part and parcel to the multifaceted nature of her work, which borrows, remixes, and represents sounds and concepts from several global localities. Her sonic collage can best be described as world music with a vengeance, a kind of ambivalent pop toting hip hop's stylistic vigilance, resulting in a mix that invokes political integrity in the face of many seeming contradictions. In an interview with the website Papermag, M.I.A. defends herself against critics who say she’s “sold out” by framing her corporate-sponsored mash up music as social experiment:

    Every bit of music out there that’s making it into the mainstream is really about nothing. I wanted to see if I could write songs about something important and make it sound like nothing. And it kind of worked. It sounds like a pop song, but if you really listen to the lyrics, it’s about what I see on the telly and news and what’s going on. (M.I.A., Interview with Papermag 29, Nov 2007.).

    Over the years, M.I.A. has been branded as "world music" by various music critics. I want to go further and suggest that M.I.A.’s remixes represent a kind of "worlding" music which symbolically refracts how various subjects within the globalized world filter information, culture, and economics, re-defining themselves according to "the crossroads, the space of convergence and endless possibility; the place where we put down and discard the unnecessary in order to pick up that which is necessary" (Weems 180). The prime example of M.I.A.'s "worlded" music is found in her sophomore album, Kala. Though originally set to work on Kala in Virginia with hip hop super producer Timbaland in 2005, she was denied a U.S. working visa due to “immigration issues,” which some suspect have to do with her references to the P.L.O in “Sunshowers”.

    Fortunately, as a result of this denial of entry onto American soil, "the recording of Kala brought M.I.A. to Trinidad, Liberia, India, Jamaica, Australia, and Japan," the album’s multilayered composition reflecting M.I.A.'s pamimpcestual journey through these lands:

    "Every song has a layer of some other country on it. It’s like making a big old marble cake with lots of different countries and influences. Then you slice it up and call each slice a song." Kala thus samples and remixes musical and cultural influences from around the globe, with intricate urumee drums from Tamil culture patterned over Baltimore club hits (“Bird Flu”), Sri Lankan temple music mashed up with electronic hi-hats and breakbeats (“World Town”), and Australian didgeridoos (“Mango Pickle Down River”) dancing alongside revamped disco hits (“Jimmy”) and British warehouse rave throwbacks (“XR2”).

    To do the work of "crossing over" linguistically as well as sonically, M.I.A. takes the hip hop trickster figure of the "style chameleon," incorporating it's conceptual dynamism into the highly territorialized symbolic discourses of terrorism, pop music, gangsta rap, and the third world, so as to unmoor the ideological "point de capitons" that keeps these terms situated within their Americanized perspective of the global (Slavoj Zizek, “Key Ideas”). In the Americanized view of the global, economic and political disparity locate the globally marginalized as a voiceless "Other" to be exploited/"freed" through neo-liberal globalization, or dominated through force (the "with or against us" discourse that labels people as terrorists, via the image-event of 9/11). What is at stake in M.I.A.'s chimeric aesthetic is how the global "Other," which in its broad ideological solidarity encompasses a wide range of political and ethnic groups (aboriginal Australians, immigrant Africans, girls in the Amazon, "Boyz" from Jamaica,) functions and negotiates within and against the forces of first-world privatization, the Spectacle, commodity fetishism, and neo-colonial domination.

    For example, in the song "World Town," M.I.A. lyrics draw attention to the economic exploitation of third world countries by the first world's "corporate jackals," who exploit and privatize the third world's national assets under the guise of benevolent philanthropy (John Perkins, Speaking Freely). Over militant Indian drums and flat vocal affect, M.I.A. enters into the persona of a disenfranchised third world citizen "Dead from the waist down" and "Sick of all the shit that's keeping me down" (M.I.A., “World Town”). When she raps, "Look at what you did, you done it before / Every little dollar just keeps me down more," it is a reference to the economic disparity that is masqueraded over in "charitable donations" and "plans for building infrastructure" from the same first-world corporations that plunder and privatize national assets in the first place, causing widespread poverty in the name of quarterly profits. With sampled click-clacks of semi-automatic weapons being loaded, the song posits an ideological solidarity among child soldiers that "represent the World Town," with their "Hands up / Guns out," who as a product of first world abuse simply won't take it anymore. The song "Bucky Done Gun" has similar sentiments of armed resistance against the first world:

    Can I get control

    Do you like me vulnerable

    I 'm armed and I'm equal

    More fun for the people. (M.I.A., “Bucky Done Gun”)

    Coupled with lines like ""I'll hard drive your bit / I'm battered by your sumo grip,” and Lucky I like feeling shit / My stamina can take it,” as well as"Heavy weight wrestler / Fight me in your comforter / Let you be superior / I'm filthy with the fury ya," what makes “Bucky Done Gun” particularly complex is that these rebellious sentiments are framed in sexual tropes of rough sex, signifying the relationship between the first world and the third world as mutually complicit in the same system of domination, with both first-world dominators and third-world dissidents gaining a form of pleasure or fulfillment through it (the former through exploitation, the latter through unerring righteousness born in fire).

    In the song "Hussel," M.I.A. takes gangsta rap tropes that have been "shopworn, depleted, and theatricalized" in American media and reterritorializes these emptied signifiers into a worlded signified, where African immigrants as well as African Americans have to "Hussel" in order to live (Jonah Weiner, “Do Real Rappers Rap?”). Taken in an international context, the "Hussel" takes on various forms, ranging from professional dentistry (“We do it cheap, hide our money in a heap / Send it home and make 'em study fixing teeth”) to selling bootlegged media (“Buy one song, get one free / Maybe me, a bootleg CD, colour TV”) to human smuggling [“We got barrels in the sea / It's big enough to take a whole family”) [M.I.A., “Hussel”]. These polysemous forms of viable exchange are a testament to the liquidity of capitalism and it's ruthless desire/drive towards endless accumulation and distribution, with anything and everything caught in-between capital's global crossfire considered fair game for trade .

    M.I.A.’s most popular single “Paper Planes” serves as the primary example of how her politicized aesthetics intentionally muddles the binary discourses that categorizes the first and third worlds, particularly with regard to the way in which immigrants and refugees in America are seen as people that do not “contribute to culture in any way. That they're just leeches that suck from whatever.” Commenting further on “Paper Planes”, which samples abrasive gun shots and cash registers in the chorus (“All I want to do is BANG BANG BANG BANG! / And KA-CHING! /And take your money,”) Maya is quoted as saying that “It’s up to you how you want to interpret. America is so obsessed with money, I’m sure they’ll get it" (M.IA., Interview with The Fader, 7 September 2010).

    Although the revitalized gangsta rap troping in “Paper Planes” can easily be read as a satiric representation of stereotypes against third world refugees and immigrants, the lyrics are ambivalent enough to leave room open for the opposite interpretation, in that this song may really be about the neo-liberal discourse of late capitalism that comes from the first world. References to being “high like planes,” having “visas in my name”, and “sitting on trains” conditions the ambivalent prehension of this song as one of various border crossings, with actors from both first and third worlds included. In addition, there are some lines in the first verses about “pirate skulls and bones” and “lethal poison through their system” that are subversive enough to suggest that the song represents an ideological solidarity amongst the globally marginalized (M.I.A., “Paper Planes”). However, this solidarity is problematized in the next verse, which references the United States' ill-fated obsession over oil, lucrative drug deals and it's role as the globalized center of exchange for fetishized commodities :

    No one on the corner has swagger like us

    Hit me on my burner prepaid wireless

    We pack and deliver like UPS trucks

    Already going to hell just pumping that gas. (M.I.A. “Paper Planes”) 

    The ideological ambivalence behind “Paper Planes” seems to posit the suggestion that actors from both sides of the first/third world divide contribute to the perpetuation of globalization as a dysfunctional and exploitative system. Thus, when M.I.A. proclaims “Third World Democracy” in the middle of the song, it is not definite what she is signifying to: does she mean to represent the kind of third world democracy we know today as neo-liberal globalization, in which the marginalized are given a false democracy through capitalism? Or does she mean to posit a new kind of third world democracy, a militant one born from the bottom up, which genuinely represents the economic and political interests of the disenfranchised?