One of the things that make DJs so thrilling and so boring is the slim distinction between easy charlatanism and mind-melting talent. A bad DJ is little more than a jukebox. A good DJ is a jukebox with a nice musical selection. And a great DJ reinvents the familiar and/or the obscure, imprinting her or his own personality via realtime improvisation using only fragments of other people’s music. A successful DJ can be a desegregationist, coaxing hidden harmonies out of unlikely voices. When hip hop started in the Bronx, DJs such as Afrika Bambaataa would mix in any record so long as it contained a funky beat: James Brown to Kraftwerk to the Monkees.
I’m fascinated by the frame-breaking possibilities of turntablism and sampling; but at the same time, I’m starting to view sampling as a very lazy gesture—innocent at best, creepily segregationist at worst. For example, if you’re sampling a sitar CD, it generally means that you can’t find—or can’t be bothered to look for—someone who actually plays the instrument. Sampling maintains cultural distance; collaborations require closeness. The difference is huge. It’s the difference between one-way cultural flow and the kind of dialogue that could lead to real community.
Proper collaborations offer much more than sampling, but even they aren’t untroubled. World music festivals love “fusion” groups whose members draw on diverse backgrounds to produce an anodyne sound seemingly intended to reassure the predominantly Western, middle-class festival audience: world music as foreign music with its distinctive features rubbed off, now suitable for mass consumption anywhere on the globe; difference with a jazzy backbeat you can groove to; the exotic but never the extreme.
Mainstream pop, reggae, and R&B offer an interesting solution: go synthetic. Star producers like Timbaland and The Neptunes have been inventing wildly creative pop songs for artists like Missy Elliott and Justin Timberlake with a decidedly eastward lean. Yet there is, refreshingly, zero reliance on a veneer of authenticity. These are the few producers who can afford to legally clear all their samples, yet more often than not they choose to fabricate a prosthetic North African beat, or to replay a quarter-tone violin harmony line on a cheap synthesizer. Brilliant or lazy or both? Does pop’s self-replicating, amoebic logic wipe out all others? Suffice to say that The Neptunes song I played in Dubai received the best crowd response.
A glance in the other direction reveals an incredible culture of bootlegging, versioning, and westward exoticism in Arabic pop. At any Moroccan music store you’ll find endless cassettes such as HipHop Ray 2002!: a bootleg compilation that alternates rai hits with misattributed mainstream American rap. Or, a recent favorite of mine, the bootleg rai CD Compil Santana: the cover and CD artwork sports images of seven Moroccan vocalists . . . and Victoria’s Secret supermodel Laetitia Casta. Glamour becomes a universal glue.
Musical influence spreads like wildfire, wafting across borders of nation, language, and religion. Yet, controlling notions of authenticity police virtually all genres. Leatherbound anarchists are quick to classify what is and isn’t punk rock; “keeping it real” is a constant refrain in hip hop; talk of “pure” flamenco abounds in Spain although Arabic influences are clearly audible in the vocal ululations and sinewy guitar style of Spain’s cherished “national” music. So how do we keep it real if our mission is to adapt multiple traditions into an idiosyncratic unity? All music springs from multiple roots, yet the history of the hybrid is no history at all, just an X on the map where the border-crosser left both lands.
This is an excerpt. Click here for the complete essay on the website of the New York Foundation of the Arts.
Jace Clayton is an artist based in Brooklyn, New York. His work is built around core concerns for how sound, technology use in low-income communities, and public space interact, with an emphasis on Latin America, Africa, and the Arab world. He also developed Sufi Plug Ins, a free suite of audio software tools based on non-western/poetic conceptions of sound and alternative interfaces.