On an anonymous day in the mid ‘90s, Antoine Roundtree (known as Skee-Lo in the Los Angeles freestyling scene) strode into the booth at Hollywood’s Sunshine Studios with illustrious producer Walter Kahn to lay the vocal tracks for his soon-to-be runaway success “I Wish,” the archetypal anthem of ‘90s aspirational male mediocrity if there ever were one. Skee-Lo claims to have workshopped the lyrics to “I Wish” during open-mic sessions at the Crenshaw hip-hop haven the Good Life Health Food Centre. I can only speculate in vain about when and why Roundtree decided to include the song’s one true non-sequitur earworm, “Hey, you, what’s that sound? Everybody look what’s going down.”
Suffice it to say that this “what’s that sound” line, which is lyrically and cadentially copied from the 1967 Buffalo Springfield lyric “Stop, children, what’s that sound…,” took on a new cultural life in “I Wish.” No longer were listeners asked to imagine looking around for a strange folk hippie ruckus. Now Skee-Lo just wanted his audience to have some fun thinking about his own funky grooves.
That day, Roundtree’s “Hey, you, what’s that sound?” line left his mouth like all other sounds do, affecting a unique growing, then fading, spherical ripple of inward-and-outward compression-decompression waves. Upon reaching the thin, suspended metal plate (the diaphragm) in the studio’s condenser microphone, the pressure waves pushed and pulled it against and away from a parallel metal plate (the backplate). The diaphragm and backplate’s separation formed a rupture in a simple electric circuit, and the in-and-out movements of the diaphragm by the vocal pressure waves created correspondingly strong-and-weak electric pulses as the magnetic field between the two plates was altered. These pulses, quantitative artifacts of Roundtree’s organic vibrations and subtle quirks of the booth’s tone, flew through metal wires at a speed commendably close to that of light, eventually reaching a cluster of magnets whose respective magnetic fields—altered by the electric pulses—caused a sprinkling of ferric particles suspended in the emulsion of a spooling tape to dance around and create a record of magnetic information which could later be reverse-processed into pulses and fed into an amplifier. So began the renewed life of a vocal line whose sonic essence has, to this day, been miraculously preserved despite a series of unending conversions between pulses, particles, sonic vibrations, radiation waves, magnetic fields and binary data.
“I Wish” was as successful in the U.K. as it was in the States, perhaps even more so. Its phat balloon synth-and-bass backbone—a series of morose but groovily descending chords from a Bernard Wright sample—resonated with the melancholic introversion of ‘90s British music tastes. It was probably somewhere in Reading or London, during the single’s big year of 1995, that its vibrations reached the inner ear of soon-to-be house musician Stuart Price, tickling a selection of his cochlea’s aquatic hair cells and changing their ionization, whereby a channel of electrochemical nerve impulses communicated with his auditory cortex at a speed far slower than that of light.
Years later Price, under his trendy faux-French pseudonym Les Rythmes Digitales, utilized a sped-up and pitch-shifted sample of Skee-Lo’s “Hey, you…” line as the basis for his 1998 single “(Hey You) What’s That Sound?”. Price’s answer to Skee-Lo’s recycled question lay in his own hot new retro house vibe.
Buffalo Springfield, Skee-Lo, Les Rythmes Digitales; a chain of “What’s that sound?” askers, each referring backwards while their vibrations, pulsations and stored information persist forward through time. An original folk ballad lyric committed to material record, played for future generations, retooled by Mr. Roundtree and retooled again by Mr. Price. A curious line that birthed another curious line that birthed another curious line, with each respective curiosity becoming more solipsistic and less interested in what that sound truly was, or is.
Although I have not conducted any sort of study, I suspect that if you queried the typical listeners of today’s music about the source(s) of the sounds comprising the music they hear you would receive a reply of confused babblings intermixed with choice words like “digital” and “computer clouds.” Yet there exists an echelon of heightened listeners whom the seemingly indeterminate nature of contemporary recorded music propels to become fetishists of gear and brands and composition processes and algorithms. It starts with simple, nagging questions, with the most quaintly-electrified music: “Did Stephen Stills use a Gretsch or a Gibson on Buffalo Springfield? Did he use a custom pickup? How did he toggle the toggle?” In many ways this is the same sort of tone-obsessed driving force that has sustained the stardom of artisan luthiers and organ builders for centuries, the drive that asks “how did they get that timbre on that doodad?”
A few decades after the sixties, while the listener’s questioning may still be of the same flavor, the question becomes categorically different when one wonders what gear Skee-Lo used on “I Wish.” A partial answer is readily available: he used an Akai MPC60 combined sampler-and-drum-machine to assemble his samples into a backing track. Partial answers, however, birth new questions just as partial hydras sprout new heads, and we might then be compelled to ask if this MPC60 was merely plugged into the soundboard during the recording sessions, or was its output ‘remastered’, or were the samples completely reconstructed outside the MPC60 in a more audiophilic manner?
Beyond these pesky inquisitions lurks a far greater menace: the fact that stating someone used an Akai sampler to construct a hip-hop soundscape is akin to saying that I used a MacBook to write this article. Both statements tell us very little about the intimidatingly long list of potential uses for our machinery, and comparing them to statements about Stephen Stills’ brand preferences makes it sound like Skee-Lo borrowed the Cheap Trick guy’s five-neck guitar to play “Hot Cross Buns.”
While the reader might sense that I am moving in the direction of discussing the immense, historically-unprecedented power of our modern technologies, in actuality I have no patience for getting bogged down in the finer details of such a silly thing as ‘infinite possibility,’ and I have a similar amount of patience for producers of music who attempt to brand themselves and their creations with an aura of ‘infinite possibility’—the aleatory processes of Cage, the microtonal detunings of Ligeti and Partsch, the groundbreaking notational wonkiness of Xenakis and Crumb, all very good punkish maverick marketing to accompany music that was sometimes good enough to have done well without the marketing.
Not so long ago I was a smarter, more diligent person who knew much about math, and would sometimes venture into the writings of the early computer scientists. A certain rambunctious lecturer and theorist named Edsger Dijkstra was wont to write pages and pages in the ‘70s about what he referred to as the ‘radical novelty’ of computers, his idea that humanity will come up short when they try to compare any of the ways of yore to the new and unprecedented possibilities inherent in the computer.
We all see what the computer has done: like every un-novel technological upgrade in recent history it briefly made a few crafty people very rich before the technology spread and the market went back to a new sort of equilibrium. Also like every un-novel technological upgrade in recent history it greased the wheels of capitalist progress, which used computers and the internet to further exploit consumers and workers. It was a technological pill sold with the sugar-coating of marvelous research possibilities, societal interconnectedness and über-convenience, and to the extent that it may have delivered on any of these fronts—and it did do so—it absolutely crushed on the exploitation front.
It seems appropriate to the truly quotidian nature of computers that a cranky comedian like Marc Maron predicted so well the sad, myopic future of the internet in his 1995 HBO special when the proposed ‘radical novelty’ of the computer would lead one to believe in the future’s complete unprecedented unpredictability. (Of course, the computer and the internet are massively different, albeit entwined, phenomena, but it is hard to say if such distinctions belong in an essay about music.)
As a non-believer in ‘radical novelty’ I am also skeptical of any notions that advancements in music or music-adjacent technologies have ‘changed the game’ or ‘leveled the playing field’ or ‘pushed the envelope’ or ‘expanded the horizon’ or ‘added to the sonic alphabet.’ A bird in a hand is worth far more than any in a bush or a computer, and a piece of chance music with infinite possible incarnations is always limited to only one final product, a composer selecting from an infinite smörgåsbord of microtones will only ever be able to play zero percent of them, and any machine that can run through the entire spectrum of hearable sound will be welcomed to run itself to death until we all die of boredom.
What do the best Golden Age Hollywood producers and modern songwriters like Max Martin share in common? Comment below if you think of anything, but we could start with their attunedness to the slothful rate of mass cultural change, and to the public’s unceasing hunger for the same products fed to them over and over again in ever-so-slightly-tweaked forms. Over the course of, say, twenty years, the detritus of these incremental tweaks will build up and bring about noticeable changes in the pop public’s appetite, but even when these appetitive changes appear to happen all of a sudden, any veteran taste-watcher will tell you that they must always first happen gradually.
Returning to Skee-Lo, who I abandoned in an unflattering light, being unfairly compared to a player of “Hot Cross Buns” on a novelty instrument, we find in 1995 a man whose self-expression through radio waves and jewel cases was well received by the teeming millions, a man whose next logical step was that of every budding persona: to lug his body across the country and world and dance for the crowds, to tour. We should be surprised then to find a man who, instead of extensively lugging, chose to officially retire from music a mere few weeks after the success of “I Wish.” Retire? But why?
To preserve the purity of this essay’s argument, I will defy that Skee-Lo attributes his speedy retirement to financial disputes with Sunshine Records, and instead suggest that just maybe his retirement was related to the sad futility of performing recorded hip-hop.
For Buffalo Springfield in 1967, performing across the country’s nightclubs, high school gyms, roller rinks, ballrooms, masonic temples, community theaters and, increasingly, arenas and coliseums was not a task hindered in the least by electrification and amplification. As the rock era moved steadily along, the ubiquity of electrification and amplification enabled musical groups to passably counteract the horrible acoustics of these hardly-musical spaces, though the sound-correction solution that most groups came up with (“Play loud!”) is also the reason that most you and I have suffered from tinnitus since we were wee.
When the rabid crowds of the sixties would gather to hear their favorite slabs of wax replayed by error-prone humans there were surely some experiences of disappointment, but I doubt that this was a problem that often dogged the virtuosic axmen of Buffalo Springfield, for they are what the annals of rock history would call a more-than-serviceable ‘live band.’ This concept, of the ‘live band,’ would soon meet its cultural archetype in the improvisational plunking of the Grateful Dead, whose ‘studio band’ foil, Steely Dan, was unduly dogged by derision in the reception of its more-than-serviceable performances, just as the Grateful Dead’s studio work was too often looked over. However, rock music would experience nothing like the live performance confusion that dogged hip-hop decades later, and this is precisely because mass culture had gradually metamorphosed to receive and expect the triumphs and limitations of the rock live show: a bit of album reproduction, a bit of pre-planned jazzy riffing, all done fortississimo.
Sure, Bob “Nobelist” Dylan may have garnered boos for his electrified performance at the Newport Folk Festival just two years earlier in 1965, and so it was not without controversy that folk bands chose to play thusly, but it is my personal belief that whatever slight quibbles this electrification controversy might have generated with certain fans pales next to the problems of performing, say, sans traditional instruments.
Perhaps, you object, that it is not for the sole reason of album reproduction that we drag ourselves to see live music, and you would be correct. Other reasons include basking in the evasive effluvium of artistic ‘presence,’ communing with other like-eared brethren and sistren, and participating in the person-to-person communication ritual of a live show. Yet any understanding of live performance that does not dispel the myth that these neo-troubadours—traveling meticulously from one metropolitan area to another to grace the locals with personalized soulful performances—is a misguided, if not completely backwards reading of a strenuous phenomenon that is a contractual obligation, or often a last resort for cash in a marketplace of thieves. Portraying live performance as an album reproduction problem is my best way of empathizing with the many bewildered musicians of our time.
Considering the linear process of ‘music composition –» recording –» performance’ as three successive stations in an imaginary factory assembly line, it is the traditional rock musician whose factory hums along most smoothly while the factories of hip-hop and electronica and other modern off-shoots are wont to stagger along in the most inefficient and Seussical of manners, that is, every which way except for the most orderly order of composition –» recording –» performance. Interviews with Skee-Lo reveal that he ‘composed’ the lyrics and perhaps even the beats to “I Wish” in the aftermath of live freestyle ‘performances’, the studio ‘recording’ being his last stepping stone of sorts, whereas the quintessential producer of electronica tends to ‘record’ while he improvises and then ‘compose’ through editing, with any potential ‘performance’ remaining optional.
This is all by design. Hip-hop and electronica both evolved out of strong traditions of local DJ performance. DJ-announcing emcees quickly turned into rapping sensations toward the end of the seventies, and at the same time adventurous disco-bored DJs like Larry Levan began to warm to the alien synth, drum and bass sound of Roland’s cheapo line of SH, TR and TB products. Hip-hop was born as a transient one-and-done in-between bit of dance party metadata while electronic dance music developed as an artist-eschewing, DJ-elevating parade of juicy 4/4 singles whose ultimate aspiration was to be performed at the most clubs and parties. It is absolutely no wonder that these traditions were maladaptive to a monolithic rock-run culture of composition –» recording –» performance.
A cursory glance at YouTube videos of Skee-Lo and Les Rythmes Digitales proves this point of maladaptation swimmingly: we can find an archival camcorder clip of a young, energetic pre-fame Skee-Lo freestyling goofily at the Good Life Health Food Centre; an additional clip of a more polished Skee-Lo and two unnamed rapping sidekicks performing “I Wish” live on Late Night with Conan O’Brien in 1995, giving an admirably similar line delivery to his studio self over a canned backing track and a meticulously constructed park-bench set; and lastly, the most depressing entry in the series, a 2012 clip of Skee-Lo performing “I Wish” at Belle Plaine, Minnesota’s Dunfore Day Trip festival on a dinky wedding tent of a stage for an audience of a mere dozen fans, the saddest part of it all being that Skee-Lo is merely rapping along to his album version of “I Wish” alongside the audible recorded vocals. (In the words of user Daniel B., “This is officially the most depressing thing I’ve ever seen on Youtube.”)
Stuart Price a.k.a. Les Rythmes Digitales proves to have come to the table a bit more prepared for self-marketing. The music video to his 1998 Skee-Lo-sampling hit “(Hey You) What’s that Sound?” features an entirely uncool ‘80s-retro, sunglass’ed Price sporting dyed-red hair and a keytar, an instrument that both plays his ‘sound’ and also seconds as a laser-blasting coolness zapper. This single came on the heels of Price’s first major hit, 1997’s “Jacques Your Body (Makes Me Sweat),” whose video features Price with the same garish dyed-red mop playing slap bass on the side of a street before being inexplicably transformed into a Bionicle-looking superhero. Additional videos of Les Rythmes Digitales playing live around these years show Price performing as a combined bassist-keyboardist alongside a hired drummer and a guitarist whose highly-processed tone emulates a crunchy synthesizer, all playing over a backing track of samples and who knows what other sounds. As admirably as this three-piece band approximates and accompanies Price’s original and recycled recordings, these videos carry all of the same anxious polish and Sisyphean struggling that is felt in the Skee-Lo Conan gig. Both artists know not how to make live performance a truly living thing for them, instead spending their first years of fame doing their best to approximate an impression of a canned ghostly artifact of their past selves.
It is reassuring that Stuart Price seems to have quickly reined in his exhausting electronica superstar ambitions toward a more seamless habit of performing occasional stripped-down DJ sets of his material, and it is refreshing to see that he has also carved out a profitable career for himself primarily as a behind-the-scenes producer and writer. Like fellow bass-playing British boy Tom Jenkinson before him, Price seemed initially excited at the possibility of reinventing the wheel of performance in the post-instrument age. Though when building an electro-rock band from the ground up proved unsatisfying, Price wisely turned away to the DJ origins of EDM, while Jenkinson a.k.a. Squarepusher has spent the better part of three decades going through a series of never-ending live performance reinventions: as a bassist accompanying a computer, as a Victor Wooten–style soloist, as a manufactured Daft Punk–sounding four-piece rock band, and as a solo dubstep LED helmet–wearing wizard. Jenkinson’s reinventions play as a sequence of public crises of artistic expression, though I cannot deny his bravery.
Squarepusher’s Warp Records label mates Richard David James (a.k.a. Aphex Twin) and the duo Autechre have spent the same three decades taking somewhat subtler stabs at live performance wheel-reinvention. As producers of post-dance music designed specifically for headphones and home speaker systems, IDM artists have often viewed live performance as afterthoughts with half-assed concerns about perceived audience’s expectations. “Should we make our music more danceable? Should we pretend to play instruments? Should we just pretend to be DJs who happen to play mostly our own tunes?” For Aphex Twin and Autechre, the answers are a resounding “Yes, no and yes.”
Aphex Twin has spent his career playing a small selection of orthodox DJ sets of his own and others’ music alongside provocative and strobing video projections, often using his rare concerts as an opportunity to drop a fresh unreleased track or to advertise an underground producer. I will not sweep under the rug that he sometimes goes out on awkward experimental tangents such as moonlighting as a remote control–wielding classical music conductor, but by sticking mainly to the beat-matching live mix origins of electronic music, James has mostly avoided wading into anything that resembles the often belaboring antics of Jenkinson, though at the same time the music which James plays in his sets is leftfield and frenetic in a way that most regular club audiences would never cotton to; the popularity of his strange vanguard sound has allowed him to further evolve the art of the DJ set to performances that border on the undanceable.
Autechre’s Sean Booth and Rob Brown have saved the traditional DJ mixes for their prized eclectic radio spots, whereas their live shows have consisted of DJ set–adjacent mosaics of song deconstruction that in their early years utilized an innovative blend of samplers and hardware and most recently have been achieved through customizable algorithmic logic circuits on the software program Max/MSP. Autechre has gradually morphed into the modern pop-experimental jamming analogue to the Grateful Dead, and concertgoers now return home ready to buy the soundboard recordings of their local shows directly from the Warp store. However, by inching closer and closer to perfect, danceable, customized, deconstructed tapestries of their own music, Booth and Brown have found themselves doing less and less behind their computers at performances. They claim now to merely turn on their laptop and let their meticulously-designed program run until it conks out, at which point they leave the stage. Essentially they have created a formidable cyborg to take care of all the ugly thorniness of live performance for them.
These stories all play out as if predestined by some ancient curse: those who fight their own performance traditions will be granted only a mere specter of liveness.
In his brilliant book Speaking into the Air, media theorist John Durham Peters opens with a prologue taken from Franz Kafka’s Letters to Milena, a diary excerpt that is quite relevant to this essay.
Writing letters is actually an intercourse with ghosts and by no means just with the ghost of the addressee but also with one’s own ghost, which secretly evolves inside the letter one is writing or even in a whole series of letters, where one letter corroborates another and can refer to it as a witness. How did people ever get the idea they could communicate with one another by letter! One can think about someone far away and one can hold on to someone nearby; everything else is beyond human power. Writing letters, on the other hand, means exposing oneself to the ghosts, who are greedily waiting precisely for that. Written kisses never arrive at their destination; the ghosts drink them up along the way. It is this ample nourishment which enables them to multiply so enormously. People sense this and struggle against it; in order to eliminate as much of the ghosts’ power as possible and to attain a natural intercourse, a tranquility of soul, they have invented trains, cars, aeroplanes—but nothing helps anymore: These are evidently inventions devised at the moment of crashing. The opposing side is so much calmer and stronger; after the postal system, the ghosts invented the telegraph, the telephone, the wireless. They will not starve, but we will perish.
Now let this trenchant and remarkable block quote sink in. In fact, I will aid you in this reflection by repeating some of the meatiest portions for you:
Written kisses never arrive at their destination…People sense this and struggle against it; in order to eliminate as much of the ghosts’ power as possible and to attain a natural intercourse, a tranquility of soul, they have invented trains, cars, aeroplanes—but nothing helps anymore…They will not starve, but we will perish.
If we replace Kafka’s ‘writing letters’ with ‘making music’, we come very close to the sentiment with which I will close this essay.
As we continue to record and perform music, we must be mindful of the ghosts birthed along the way—ghosts of us, of our audience—and we should pay especial mind to not allowing these ghosts to carry us away into a frenzied creation of any further ‘inventions devised at the moment of crashing.’ The ghosts, weightless and soulless, travel through wires at a speed commendably close to that of light; in a footrace they will lap us a millionfold and leave us wheezing.
To the extent that live concerts have become an exercise in futile machismo, a battle against the ghosts of recorded sound, to this extent they should be abolished. The ghosts have already won. It is precisely as a supplement to the ghosts, rather than a replica or substitute of them, that we should view the modern concert. We should be most mindful of the traditions from which we are borrowing our artistic communications, for in looking backward to where our sounds come from, truly asking “What’s that sound?,” we will consistently find encoded in these musical traditions many precious antidotes to the ghostliness of traditionless and ahistorical attempts at performance. I have really only dealt here with looking to DJ set history as a partial suggestion for certain genres, but other new or hybrid modes of music-making come with other performance traditions.
Essentially, I am fed up with showing up to watch humans chase their own ghosts. I just want to get to the dancing.
More from this issue