Wednesday, June 29, 2011

“Accidents Don’t Happen” in the Spectacle: El-P and Fantastic Damage

Although Eminem's emergence in the American mainstream led to a dialectical reversal in hip hop's racially defined discourse of black authenticity – or ”keeping it real” - the truth is that the game itself was still one of political economy, played out according to the rules of record sales determined by Nielsen SoundScan and hip hop's corporate gatekeepers. For all of the rebellious politics and anti-censorship messages found in his music, Eminem's well-mediated image of rebellion still functioned as a glorified sideshow, the main attraction to an economic Spectacle feeding into the post 9-11 era's hyper-consumption of goods and representations. Marshall Mathers was just one more distraction for the masses to keep them passive, in that “in its particular form of hegemony, the spectacle naturally produced not actors but spectators: modern men and women, the citizens of the most advanced societies on earth, who were thrilled to watch whatever it was they were given to watch.” (Marcus 99).

Eminem plays into his role as “the spectacle personified, the star of social life,” that everyone hates to love and loves to hate in the single “Without Me,” where in the chorus he sings “Now this looks like a job for me / So everybody, just follow me / Cause we need a little, controversy / Cause it feels so empty, without me.” (Eminem, “Without Me”). Regardless of how self-reflexive his lyrics, the fact stands that Eminem's retorts against his censors only provoked more controversy in the media over his ludicrous image, boosting his record sales amongst disaffected youth amidst the larger reactionary social mechanisms at work on “terror” at home and abroad. The Eminem Show, both as an album and marketing scheme, was a commodity designed for mass deliberation and consumption, a streamlined representation of rebellion which with it's blind spot towards the corporate structures it supports could not disseminate a more articulated form of dissent against the passivity of the Spectacle itself, the Pax Americana’s most subtle method of social control.

In contrast to Eminem, whose close affiliations with the corporate music industry place somewhat of a smudge on his project of rebellion, the subversive history of El-P, another seminal white artist in hip hop culture, has been one of relentlessly breaking the corporate monotony of the Spectacle through negating expectations with def-defying production and overbearingly dense lyricism. El-P, real name Jamie Meline, is best known for his role as a producer/MC for the groundbreaking rap group Company Flow. The group released the album Funcrusher Plus in 1996, an abstract hip hop classic, which set the precedent for the success of many other “underground” rappers on the Rawkus Records label, including an up-and-coming Eminem in 1999. El-P's relatively brief stint with Rawkus Records, whose management had trouble balancing its budget with its roster of highly talented artists, left a bad taste in his mouth for the business end of the hip hop industry: “Signed to Rawkus / I'd rather be mouth fucked by Nazis unconscious” (El-P, “Deep Space 9mm). In 1999, El-P went on to found his own internet-based label Definitive Jux, which has released some of the most acclaimed underground hip hop albums to date: “Rawkus was like, 'we're gonna take this label to another level' / (Fuck that) I'm gonna take this level to another label” (El-P, “Truancy”).

As “the hybrid founder of / a militant anti-mime faction [that] operates on the fringes of establishment,” as well as an independent “anti-pop composer sonically robbing the nation,” El-P has been able to articulate his “sicko malnutritionist” ideals against “the walls of new Roma” without the formulaic crutch of radio singles and gangsta rap tropes, or what he refers to as “Lucasarts graphics / rendered cuddly comic relief creatures or terrible child actors” (El-P, “Fantastic Damage”). Meline’s ”mongoloid melody” speaks for itself through old-school breakbeats and “syncopated fragments of vinyl splashed to looseleaf,” laced with détourned audio samples (such as snippets of narrative from George Orwell's 1984) and varying pulses of electronic noise channeled through “converted mic digital 8-bus-Mackie Avalon compression” (El-P, “Deep Space 9mm). The uncompromising density of his D.I.Y, sci-fi styled production makes for a striated dystopic space, in which El-P's “newspeak” lyricism (a term also lifted from 1984) paints a crylon-based Francis Bacon portrait of American empire and its mass Spectacle, where “Megaplex is stress caress” and the “tainted droids of dummy noise cancer get unhinged” (El-P, “Delorean”).

Fantastic Damage, El-P's debut solo album of 2002, encapsulates a kind of hip hop that is the antithesis to the “dummy noise cancer” of Dr. Dre's smooth space of undulating rhythms and Eminem's “stress caress” of carnivalesque personas, which more often than not results in a turn away from the historical Real of social oppression. If in 2002, listening to the Dr. Dre produced The Eminem Show was like looking into a fun house mirror refracting the image-event of 9/11 and the Invasion of Iraq, then listening to El-P was like swallowing the broken shards of that mirror whole, without so much as water to digest the contents. Fantastic Damage is hip hop at it's most uncompromising; not just a commodity made for the ears of teenage “newjacks” and “martyrs without causes,” but for a grown-up generation of b-boys as ignored in the era of the second George W. Bush as the first (El-P, “Tuned Mass Damper”).

In “Truancy,” El-P details his history as a “vagrant of “Reaganomics” who “lived for the four-course artistry” during hip hop's genesis in “eighty-six” (El-P, “Truancy). He evokes through lyrical tales of his own personal experiences how the battle-ready aesthetic of the Brooklyn b-boy, first birthed in New York City's “juvenile-non-approval and loosely smoker's school cut abandonment,” functions as a political stance of dissent against the passive affect of the Spectacle and the American State's daily oppressions. Before the “eerie malevolence of commerce combined with backspins”of corporate hip hop, the Brooklyn b-boy's grimy but pristine way of life, saturated in breakbeats and graffiti writing, was “hardly a game” with “no marketing, just art in the train,” and a way to “get live” in the face of urban containment (El-P, “Dead Disnee” and “Tuned Mass Damper”). El-P raps In “Truancy” that as a wayward youth he “went with truancy and the bad apple” and how it “slowly formed [his] spirit”, so that “when [he] couldn't fit the scholastic structure of [his] peers [he] didn't fear it” (El-P, “Truancy”). Instead of conforming to the expectations of the dysfunctional social institutions which abandoned his generation (“figure they ate the kids homey / so fuck em save the adults”), El-P chose to “cipher in the subway without money my pocket,” coming to “recognize that this” – or hip hop - “[was] the new truth,” a new way of living in the modern world and the means by which he and a generation of b-boys “[refused] to suckle the empire's ruse” (El-P, “Truancy”).

The b-boy's creative appetition is not only what links El-P's aesthetic ethos to the beatific vision of Outkast and the revolutionary agenda of The Coup, but also to Guy Debord's “Critique of Separation.” in which “the artistic impulse,” or the “will to change the world” is linked to “alternative ways of living, to the demand for a new way of life” (Marcus 210). In “Tuned Mass Damper,” El-P frames the b-boy's artistic impulse/creative appetition as an primordial bid for life, in which aesthetics in itself give license to live:

Let’s rearrange the whole complaint

Who the fuck is down to steal me some paint?

We could get ancient with this shit

On some cavernous wall description, I'm lit

Trying to draw this figure eight with a twig

As if the symmetry alone is a prescription to live...

My generation is beautiful coma, REM hold the bliss

And the answer that just eluded you my friend don't exist

Unless we torch our own entrapment and exact our own scripts. (El-P, “Tuned Mass Damper”)

By evoking the energies of creative appetition inherent to the b-boy's way of life, El-P utilizes a “worlding” tactic inherent in hip hop's subversive mode of production for fighting back within and against the apathy/terror/sedation of the post-9/11 Spectacle. The chorus to“Deep Space 9mm” explains El-P's aesthetic ethos best, where he raps:

Existence on the fringes and such

My generation just sit like ducks

See the rubble glisten that what I trust

Thank god for the drugs and drums

Tell history that I'll be right here hiding from guns. (Deep Space 9mm).

As the self-proclaimed “leader” of the contemporary b-boy's “banality rally quest,” El-P's beatific mission is to awaken the “hypnotized herd” out of their complacent terror. He describes how contemporary “writers block [functions as] a prison camp where free press regress,” and how hip hop is the only “true form of com[munication] not tapped” and“trapped strong / in the cranium of future rebel infants whistling the song” (El-P, Deep Space 9mm). This turn towards hip-hop's creative appetition is placed in contrast to the post-industrial urban space of late capitalism. For example, the affect of terror and trigger happy paranoia floating in the streets of post-911 New York City is characterized in the video to “Deep Space 9mm” as the proverbial elephant in the room turned firearm, it's admonishing signifier made explicit through a coat of caution-orange neon.

To wake the listening masses up and do the work of “torch[ing] our own entrapments” and “exact[ing] our own scripts”, El-P uses the counter language of his “newspeak” style of hip hop as a form of détournement, defined by Greil Marcus as “the theft of aesthetic artifacts from their contexts and their diversion into contexts of one's own devise” (Marcus 141). Hip hop as détournement functions as a type of aesthetic terrorism, in which the “reversible connecting factor” inherent to modernity's Spectacle of representations can be turned upon its head through a “demolition of symbols,” which in Guy Debord's book “was the surest way to reveal the invisible terrain on which people actually lived” (Marcus 141).

In “Dead Disnee,” this aesthetic détournement takes on the form of the undead vocal chords of Mickey Mouse, made to speak the “vomiting rotted language” that will mean the cartoon character's own hegemonic demise. El-P takes the concept of soundbombing to the next level when he raps that he “Slayed Bambi / sprayed his whole family / tried to act cute, got his hoofs in my pantry”, which is as violent a metaphor as any demolition of symbols can be (El-P, “Dead Disnee”). The misappropriation of traditional Disney characters in this song reveals a dark underbelly to the Spectacle of the Magic Kingdom, where “Gepetto the lecherous” is the “manipulator of oak, the sick joke”, and “the design of modern culture is modeled after new Sodom / bottled and packaged with emotions for kiddies to get robotic” (El-P, “Dead Disnee”). El-P posits himself as an anti-hero, the “Lord of the island where Piggy got stuck” and a rebel “Born to make a thumper in the scorched earth,” who pulls the uninitiated through to the “the wrong side of the looking glass,” and whose ultimate mission is to “kill the paradigm” with “damage that's fantastically uncomfortable” (El-P, “Dead Disnee”).

In another song of symbolic détournement, El-P takes on the persona of a Vietnam War veteran on “The Nang, the Front, the Bush, and Shit,” a song made in light of the contemporary military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. El-P becomes “Little Billy Blunderbuss looking for more recruits” amongst “kids [that] are patriotic, robotic, operate catapults,” using the language spewed by army U.S. army recruiters to get the young and overeager to fight and die on behalf of their country:

Well you'll get power, respect,

An audience, a check,

A car, money for school,

Honey with uniform fetish on your tool

You'll have travel, form bonds, be a part of something

Have a structure, catch bullets...

“Catch bullets?”

I meant cash bonus.

(El-P, “The Nang, The Front, The Bush, and Shit”)

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